March 18, 2017

Tales from /lost+found 104: The Twin Planet

1×09 December 20, 1996
THE TWIN PLANET (Serial 7, Episode 1)

Setting: Kennedy Space Center, Florida, 2003
Regular Cast: Hugh Laurie (The Doctor), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Lizzie Thompson)
Guest Starring: Ed Begley, Jr. (Director Slate), Don S. Davis (General Cutler), Peter Cullen (voice of the Cyb Leader)

Plot: The Doctor brings Lizzie to the Kennedy Space Center, several years in the future, to watch the first VentureStar launch. He gets the date and place slightly wrong, and materializes a day late and in the middle of the launch pad. They are apprehended by security and brought to the director, but their interrogation is interrupted when the orbiting spaceplane reports detecting a large body approaching Earth. The space center detects nothing, but when the Doctor points out a glitch in their video feed, Lizzie is able to reprogram their computers to reveal that a new planet has appeared in orbit near Earth. The Doctor points out that the planet’s arrival must have been intelligently controlled since it exploited advanced knowledge of Earth’s technology to hide in the “blind spots” of NASA’s space telescopes. Director Slate admits that conspiracy theorists have been making wild claims about sighting a phantom planet for months, but he believes it to be some kind of technological hoax, especially when space telescopes show the planet’s continents as a mirror-image of Earth’s. The spaceplane Constitution is pulled out of orbit by the gravitational effect and NASA loses contact due to a global telecommunications blackout. While they scramble to prepare the second spaceplane for a rescue mission, the Constitution reappears without explanation and lands on its own. Ignoring the Doctor’s warnings, NASA officials approach the craft and are killed by armored cyborgs which emerge. They identify themselves as Cybs, short for “Cybermen”, and quickly take over mission control. Their planet, Mondas, had once been like Earth, but had been pushed out of orbit during the Time War, forcing the once-human inhabitants to adapt using their technology. The military attempts to liberate the space center, but their technology fails. The Cybs explain that, to save their dying planet, they are siphoning off Earth’s electromagnetic and geothermal energy and Earth will soon become a dead planet. The Cybs round up NASA experts, including Director Slate, to be taken to Mondas and converted into Cybs themselves. The Doctor demonstrates his advanced intelligence and is also selected, but he prompts Lizzie to pretend to be a secretary so that the Cybs ignore her, claiming that she “Doesn’t even appreciate the gravity of the situation.” More Cybs arrive across the world via Verne gun and begin transporting more selected humans to Florida. The Doctor and Slate are forced aboard the spaceplane Constellation and taken to Mondas.

March 15, 2017

Deep Ice: Definitely a nutcase (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 13: Emily Dickinson)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Kudos to anyone who actually understands this reference.

Well, despite it having been kinda the thing I said I was looking for, I think I need a little bit of a pick-me-up after that last one. Now, this anthology has had a few memoirs, and a few epistolary stories, and a few traditional narratives. It’s had stories that are grim, and stories that are hopeful, and a couple that have turned on a punchline. But what it hasn’t had, yet, is a story that just goes full-on balls-to-the-wall outright bonkers. So here, right at the end, let’s go mad.

Enter Connie Willis. She’s one of the most decorated authors in this anthology, with seven Nebulas, four Locuses (Loci?), the impressively-titled Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award for lifetime achievement, and eleven Hugo awards, including the 1997 award for best short story, for this piece, the also impressively-titled The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson’s Poems: A Wellsian Perspective. And it is full-on balls-to-the-wall outright bonkers. Whee.

The first thing about this story that sets it apart from the others is that— no, wait. The other first thing about this story that sets it apart— Okay, the three first things about this story which… I’ll come in again.

The first thing about this story which sets it apart from the others is its style. Namely, it’s not presented as a traditional narrative, or indeed a narrative of any sort. There’s no per se story here. Rather, it’s written in the form of a journal article by a young academic, presenting a controversial new theory about the provenance of two recently discovered Emily Dickinson poems, despite the fact that the poems are heavily implied to be counterfeit by a reference to a fictitious Desperation and Discovery: The Unusual Number of Lost Manuscripts Located by Doctoral Candidates in a footnote.
The first thing about this story which sets it apart from the others is its subject, which is Emily Dickinson. If you’re not overly familiar with the biographies of influential female poets of the nineteenth century, the reason this is an unusual choice for this anthology is that, like most of the writers in the anthology, Willis dates the Martian invasion to 1900 (A footnote refers to Wells’s 1898 novel as the definitive account of the matter, giving you some idea what we’re in for). And that’s all well and good, except that Emily Dickinson died in 1886. So the protagonist of this story, if this were a story and had a protagonist, is not merely Emily Dickinson, but zombie Emily Dickinson.
The first thing about this story which sets it apart from the others, the thing you notice by just looking at the first page of it without even getting as far as reading the words, is the unusual number of footnotes. I mentioned that A Letter From St. Louis contained about a third of the book’s footnotes. Almost all of the rest are in this one, as befits its style as an academic paper. These footnotes often include citations to other fictional research works, such as a reference to Emily Dickinson’s Effect on the Palmer Method on the matter of Dickinson’s famously bad penmanship, Emily Dickinson: The Billabong Connection, which suggests that Dickinson had a crush on Mel Gibson, or Halfwits and Imbeciles: Poetic Evidence of Emily Dickinson’s Opinion of Her Neighbors. *

*Others are simply comic asides, including a footnote referencing the inability of the public to tell the difference between HG Wells and Orson Welles, and how this confirmed Dickinson’s opinion of her neighbors, or, slightly later, a reference to readers missing parts of Wells’s book because they’d turned off their radios and fled into the streets screaming “The Martians are coming!”. Or a note when something is described as “cigar-shaped” reading only, “See Freud”.

The setup for the article is the premise that two previously unknown Emily Dickinson poems were discovered under a hedge in Amherst by a desperate doctoral candidate a few years earlier. And though the poems are obvious forgeries, apparently written with a felt-tipped pen on 1990s paper stock and artificially aged by dipping them in tea and sticking them in the oven the way we did to make imitation parchment paper for a class project when I was in grade school, the author, who was herself also a desperate doctoral student at the time, takes them at face value, but reinterprets their historical context.

She recognizes the word-fragment “ulla” on a damaged part of the page, and immediately recognizes it as the death-cries of Wells’s Martians (She notes other landings, in Texas, Paris (Where Jules Verne, coincidentally, “had been working on his dissertation” at the time) and Missouri), and concludes that Dickinson had herself met the Martians. She admits that this is an “improbable scenario”, due to Dickinson’s infamous reclusiveness (Due possibly, say scholars, to an unhappy love affair, eye problems, bad skin, or the fact that her neighbors were morons) and also that she had been dead for a decade and a half by then.

Further, the author admits that history holds no record of the aliens visiting Amherst, though are references to “unusually loud thunderstorms” in diaries of the time, including this snippet from Louisa May Alcott, in nearby Concord:

Wakened suddenly last night by a loud noise to the west. Couldn’t get back to sleep for worrying. Should have had Jo marry Laurie. To Do: Write sequel in which Amy dies. Serve her right for burning manuscript.

The author further justifies her assertion of an alien landing in Amherst by suggesting that Orson Welles’s 1938 radio play had been set in New Jersey due to the common conflation of Amherst with Lakehurst. The “newly discovered” poem describes the event thus: “I scarce was settled in the grave— When came—unwelcome guests— Who pounded on my coffin lid— Intruders—in the dust—” (The excessive use of dashes is taken by the author as evidence of the poem’s authenticity).

While Wells assumed the Martians, having evolved away their base desires and feelings along with most of their bodies, “Would become ‘selfish and cruel’ and take up mathematics,” the author believes that their enlarged neocortexes would instead lead them to take up poetry.

Like the notion of the Martians having literally woke the dead, she recognizes that there might be some objections to this theory, such as the fact that trying to wipe out humanity with heat rays and black smoke doesn’t sound like a very poety thing to do. But on the other hand, some poets are assholes:

Take Shelley, for instance, who went off and left his first wife to drown herself in the Serpentine so he could marry a woman who wrote monster movies. Or Byron. The only people who had a kind word to say about him were his dogs. Take Robert Frost*.

*(Yes, I know that isn’t what Mending Wall is about, and that “Good fences make good neighbors,” is actually the opposite of the sentiment he was trying to express. And I’m guessing Willis knows this too, just as she probably knows that Mary Shelley didn’t write monster movies and that Byron’s Don Juan is not actually a paean to his dog.)

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March 11, 2017

Tales From /lost+found 103: Ghost in the Machine

1×02 November 1, 1996
Ghost in the Machine (Serial 2, Episode 2)

Setting: Seattle, WA, Present
Regular Cast: Hugh Laurie (The Doctor), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Lizzie Thompson)
Guest Starring: Allan Royal (Professor Talman), Eric Balfour (Bryce), Jeffrey Combs (Vardan Commander)

Plot: To the surprise of Professor Talman, the Doctor manages to reassert control of himself after infecting Lizzie. His Time Lord mind can contain the Vardans temporarily. Assuming Lizzie will soon be under Vardan control, Talman retreats from the server room. The Doctor determines that the Vardans have spread far enough that Lizzie’s virus would need to destroy Earth’s entire technological base to eradicate them, and even this would not stop the Vardans who have transferred into human minds. Already, the number of infected humans is growing across campus. Lizzie offers to remain behind because of the Vardan in her mind. Remembering how the Vardan-controlled robot had reacted to the ultrasonic test chamber, the Doctor reasons that Vardans can be rendered dormant with certain frequencies, and programs his sonic screwdriver to act as a Vardan-repellant to buy Lizzie time. The Doctor and Lizzie avoid the infected and make their way back to the lab, hoping to refine the virus so that it can destroy Vardans but leave the internet intact. They find Talman already there, in the process of connecting the Chair to the internet so that the rest of the Vardans can transfer into human bodies. Lizzie pushes him into the chair and the Doctor uses the virus disk on it, causing the virus to be uploaded to Talman’s mind, which frees him of the Vardans but also erases his memory, leaving him in a child-like state. Lizzie hacks into the campus PA-system allowing the Doctor to broadcast an ultrasonic pulse that puts all the Vardans on campus into hibernation. They are found by Bryce, who has also been taken over by a Vardan. His cochlear implants protected him from the hibernation signal. Threatening to reactivate Lizzie’s Vardan, he forces the Doctor back to the lab and into the Chair.  Bryce and Lizzie watch on the screen while the Doctor, in his own mindscape, faces off against the Vardan Commander in his true form. The Doctor brags that his mind is too powerful for a single Vardan to control. The commander responds by using the Chair’s internet link to summon all the Vardans from the internet to colonize the Doctor’s mind and steal his Time Lord knowledge. The Doctor uses his mental defenses to confine the Vardans to the parts of his mind containing his encyclopedic knowledge of the universe, leaving his personality and free will unoccupied. While arguing with the commander, he makes a strange reference to his coat pocket, which Lizzie understands as a message to her. In the Doctor’s coat pocket, she finds a note explaining that she is not really infected; the Doctor tricked the Vardans by infecting the mental copy of herself created when they had used the Chair together earlier. Since Bryce now holds no power over her, she punches him. The Doctor had manipulated the Vardans into concentrating their entire invasion force into several specific areas of his brain, and on his signal, Lizzie uses the virus on the Chair to erase those regions, wiping out the Vardans. The commander promises to start again with the remaining Vardans in the Mindscape, but the Doctor explains that the mindscape itself is part of the Chair, rather than part of his mind. Lizzie pulls the memory circuits out of the chair, trapping the remaining Vardans in inert silicon. The Doctor modifies Bryce’s implant to make it vulnerable to the hibernation pulse, and declares that, without any conscious Vardans to send the reactivation signal, the infected humans can live out their lives as harmless carriers of the inert Vardans. The Doctor has sacrificed most of his knowledge of the universe to defeat the Vardans, but he doesn’t mind, as he’d gotten bored with knowing everything already and looks forward to learning it anew. Lizzie finds that she intuitively knows where his TARDIS is and what it is, because of her experiences in the Doctor’s mindscape, so he offers to take her with him. Lizzie asks the Doctor his name, and he evades the question, but his reaction hints that he may have forgotten it himself.

March 8, 2017

Deep Ice: Common bacteria stopped the aliens, but it didn’t kill them (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 12: Jack London)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Okay. Home stretch here. I didn’t really expect it to take this long when I started in on Global Dispatches.

I think I like Jack London. I’m not sure. Every time I try to summon up a memory of having read anything by him, it turns out I’m actually remembering My Side of the Mountain by Jean George. So, my dodgy memory notwithstanding, I’m pretty sure that Dave Wolverton manages to do a fair job of evoking London’s style with After a Lean Winter, a story which was nominated for the 1997 Nebula Award for best Novelette.

This is one of the few stories in this anthology where I really genuinely enjoyed the storytelling itself, not just the story or the premise or the twist or the historical insight. The story finds London anachronistically in the Yukon on January 13, 1900. The real-world London had left Alaska in 1898. The fictional version, along with his girlfriend Elizabeth “Bessie” Maddern (the two would marry in April in the real world, but divorce four years later), had returned months earlier, hoping to escape the Martian invasion. Most of the stories we’ve read so far date the invasion to 1900, which is kind of weird, since Wells dates the invasion to “Early in the twentieth century,” and technically, 1900 isn’t in the twentieth century. (And yes, that’s hugely popular layman mistake, but these are science fiction writers we’re talking about, a group known for loving that sort of pedantry). Wolverton sets the invasion a bit earlier, but, unusually, sets the story later.

Fleeing northward turns out to have been a bad move for London. He may have anticipated that the sparsely populated and inhospitable north might escaped attack, but the Martians were creatures native to an icy world. In a major departure from every other story, Martians in the arctic do not expire quickly from Earth disease: they survive and thrive many months later, more comfortable in weather which is outright balmy by Martian standards, and where the thinner atmosphere and greater UV radiation reduced the amount of airborne bacteria. Even the sluggish clumsiness of the Martians’ bodies, recounted by many of the authors (other than Mike Resnick), turns out to be more a matter of them being oppressed by the weather rather than the gravity, as those in the arctic have acclimatized, and some fear that the colony in Alaska will in time acclimatize themselves to Earth bacteria as well, allowing their invasion to be renewed.

Colony, yes. The cylinders which attacked the rest of the world were only an advanced force. A far larger ship landed near Juneau months after the initial invasion, cultivated a “jungle” of native Martian plants that rendered travel southward impossible.

Another oddity: this story is the only one I’ve ever read to mention and expand upon the humanoid creatures the Martians used as livestock on their homeworld. The creatures are mentioned only in a single sentence of the novel, none of them having survived the impacts of the cylinder-ships. The creatures were able to survive the much gentler landing of the colony ship, though, and serve as slaves for the Martians, hunting any humans who try to cross the “Great Northern Martian Jungle”.

Only the cover of a coming snowstorm allows London and the others in the area to meet up at a lodge by Tichen Creek on that January night. None of them are in a good way, but while the gold miners have been able to simply hole up in their mines and work through the invasion in relative safety, the trappers have been hit hardest, unable to ply their trade under the threat of attack. One such trapper is Pierre Jelenc, a man of “almost legendary repute,” now sorely embittered to have lost a year’s earnings, and down to only two dogs after losing five of them in an ill-advised prize fight. He arrives at Hidden Lodge with a large and foreshadowy bundle lashed to his sled, and brings news that the Martians have wiped out Anchorage.

He also brings news that the Martians are building a great walking city:

 “Twelve days now,” Pierre said. “Dere is a jungle growing around Anchorawge now—very thick—and de Marshawns live dere, smelting de ore day and night to build dere machine ceety. Dere ceety—how shall I say?—is magnificent, by gar! Eet stands five hundred feet tall, and can walk about on eets three legs like a walking stool. But is not a small stool—is huge, by gar, a mile across!
“On de top of de table is huge glass bowl, alive with shimmering work-lights, more varied and magnificent dan de lights of Paris! And under dis dome, de Marshawns building dere home.”

Once the storm is fully upon them, bringing cover from patrols of Martian flying machines (Another minor element of the book rarely retained in adaptation), Pierre reveals what’s brought him to the conclave for the first time in months: “By gar, your dogs weel fait mah beast tonait!”

He repeats it a few times, even as the others remind him that he’s down to his last two dogs, before he tires of toying with them and elaborates: the best trapper in the Yukon has captured a live Martian, and will let the assemblage pit their dogs against it. The crowd is immediately consumed by such bloodlust that the local doctor is cold-cocked when he dares suggest they let him study it instead of killing it. Even London himself, noted in the real-world for his animal activism, is drawn in:

 I found myself screaming to be heard, “How much? How much?” And though I have never been one to engage in the savage sport of dogfighting, I thought of my own sled dogs out in front of the lodge, and I considered how much I’d be willing to pay to watch them tear apart a Martian. The answer was simple:
I’d pay everything I owned.

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March 4, 2017

Tales From /lost+found 102: A Time to Reap

Of course, I missed this one when it aired originally. I was otherwise occupied that night…

4×11 December 3, 1999
A TIME TO REAP (Serial 48)

Setting: Seattle, WA, UNIT-time
Regular Cast: Hugh Laurie (The Doctor), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Lizzie Thompson)
Guest Starring: Denis Forest (Malcolm), Jonathan Frakes (Agent Blackwood), Paula Devicq (Agent Sarah Hatcher), Peter Mark Richman (Craig Toynbee)

Plot: While leaving his office for the night, a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is cornered by a Morthrai agent and interrogated about a recent article on the reclusive scientist Craig Toynbee. The reporter is turned by the Morthrai when he won’t reveal the location of the professor’s lab. At UNIT, Agent Blackwood thinks recent thefts of high-tech equipment might be related to the Morthrai, but the Doctor isn’t interested. The Doctor reads the article about Toynbee and becomes concerned when he learns that a human scientist is experimenting in time travel. Agent Blackwood suggests that the Doctor could help him complete his experiments safely and agrees to set up a meeting, hopeful that the Doctor will finally share Time Lord technology. Toynbee is initially suspicious of the Doctor, but opens up with the Doctor displays his profound knowledge of time. Studying the professor’s work, he confides to Lizzie that while Toynbee is advanced for his time, he is not close to making any key breakthrough. Losing interest, he returns to UNIT, thus failing to discover that Toynbee has been approached by the Morthrai, who have presented themselves as friendly aliens hoping to guide humanity toward “enlightenment”. Blackwood thinks that the Doctor’s interest in Toynbee was just about hoping to find a way off Earth, and tries to convince the Doctor to reveal some of his Time Lord secrets. As soon as Blackwood leaves, a time distortion occurs causing the argument to repeat. Only the Doctor, Lizzie, and Agent Hatcher are aware of the distortion because they have traveled in time. To Blackwood’s befuddlement, the Doctor quickly agrees to investigate Toynbee further. To his horror, Toynbee has solved one of the key equations necessary to manipulate time. Because Toynbee did not perceive the time distortion himself, he does not believe the Doctor’s warnings about the dangers of his work. Agent Hatcher is convinced by the Doctor’s concerns, but UNIT has no authority to intervene. On her own initiative, Lizzie sneaks back into Toynbee’s lab and sees him meeting with Malcolm. She is captured, but escapes thanks to another time distortion. Back at UNIT, the Doctor appeals to Blackwood, who is more interested in the continuing high-tech thefts. When the Doctor hears that the thefts have included a large number of beryllium clocks and ultra-high-precision mirrors, he deduces that the thieves are doing time manipulation experiments, which is enough to convince Agent Blackwood that the Morthrai are involved in Toynbee’s work. This is confirmed by Lizzie when she makes it back to UNIT. Agent Blackwood authorizes a team to secure Toynbee and his work. They fight their way to the laboratory to find Toynbee has completed his time machine under duress, having realized the Mothrai deception when Lizzie seemed to vanish earlier. Agent Hatcher is killed, but the Doctor uses the Toynbee Engine to create another distortion to undo her death, but Toynbee reveals that he rigged the engine to explode. But this turns out to be exactly what the Morthrai planned: they mean to send the engine back one hundred years, where the explosion will decimate the west coast, slowing human technological progress. The Doctor tries to deactivate the engine, causing more distortions, which leaves everyone but the Doctor, Lizzie, and Agent Hatcher frozen in time. The Doctor can prevent the explosion by redirecting the energy, but resolving the time distortions will restore time to the point where Hatcher died. She starts the redirection herself, sacrificing her life. The engine sends out a wave of time energy, and when it fades, the Doctor and Lizzie find themselves in the wilderness. The Doctor explains to a horrified Lizzie that redirecting the overload has sent them back in time two thousand years.

March 1, 2017

Deep Ice: Imagine being here with poor gloomy tormented Conrad (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 11: Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad)

Mark TwainOkay, we’ve got Verne out of the way, we’ve got Lovecraft out of the way, and we’ve got Burroughs out of the way. Who else would you like to see take on the Martians? We’re closing on on the last few stories here, and I think one might feel a little cheated when one got to the end of an anthology like this if Daniel Keys Morgan and his sister Jodi hadn’t gifted us with a piece from the point of view of Mark Twain.

Roughing It During The Martian Invasion finds Samuel Clemens and his family on the steamship Minnehaha, bound for New York out of London when the Martians arrive. Twain himself misses their first appearance, but they’re spotted by his wife, and also by fellow traveler Francois Maitroit, a Cajun dwarf cardsharp who’d been passing himself off as French to better con the British. I had, through much of the long ocean journey, suspected that the small man was some kind of con man—but by God, what was wrong with being an American con man?
“It’s the British.” The dwarf shrugged. ‘One makes far more money, dealing with the British, presenting oneself as a gentleman of noble French extraction, than one makes as a banjo-playing Louisianian dwarf—I’ve tried both routes.”

The Minnehaha arrives at New York just in time to witness the rout of the US Navy by Martian “Walkers”, and is able to retreat back to safe water. Captain Davis ironically laments that they ought to have remained in the safety of England. At this stage, of course, they don’t know the nature of their attackers: Captain Davis imagines they might be Spanish, the Spanish-American war still being a recent memory at this point (Twain’s age and the weather suggest this story is set in the summer of 1900), while Francois suspects, like many others before him at this point, the Germans. Twain accuses the French, though I’m not sure whether he really means it, or if it’s just the Morgans’ interesting choice to keep playing up Twain’s curmudgeonly hate-boner for the French in general (He noticeably warms to Francois when he learns he’s actually Cajun, though continues to rib him for his French descent). On seeing a Walker up-close, though, he later concedes that Francois has the better theory, “Not that the French would be above this; this is precisely the sort of crime those malignant little soldiers delight in; but the science behind this — the skill — it reeks of German engineering.”

The Minnehaha makes its way down the coast, looking for a safe place to put to port, but keep getting chased back to sea until they reach New Orleans. “The French Quarter stank. It always stinks, to give it its due justice, but this was a new stink, a different stink and highly improved; of decay and death, rather than the stench of perfume and rotting food.” The city has been partially demolished, abandoned, and is choked by red weed, but isn’t under active siege by the Martians at the moment, so, with the ship low on food and fuel, they decide to risk it. The first mate goes ashore, along with Twain, who’d flouted his celebrity to be allowed to basically do whatever he liked, and Francois, who conned his way in.

They soon encounter a Walker, which bisects the first officer, while Twain and Francois are pulled into a cellar by a small, motley group of adorably diverse survivors. Twain reflects on how lucky he is that his wife didn’t come with them, since she’d have surely taken a liking to them. It’s from this survivor group that Twain learns the nature of the attackers. A Gypsy girl also relates that the invasion had been predicted by a “psychic pinhead” five years earlier, though, “Metallic monsters won’t really take over for another few decades. And they’ll come from Detroit, not Mars.”

The cellar turns out to be a “hotbed of resistance,” as explained by an Irish man with a “fierce mustache”, between complaints about how much he hates the English. They’ve managed to bring down three Walkers, using pit traps and buried explosives.

While they wait for night to fall before returning to the ship, Francois and Twain discus the nature of the invaders. Francois reckons, after “adjusting” for the presumed exaggerations of their hosts, that the creatures inside the tripods are, “more frightening than a Christian Scientist,” and, “Uglier than a Capitalist.” The first of these, Twain dismisses as plainly impossible, while the second seems just at the very edge of plausibility. Francois proposes that they catch a breeding pair to exploit for profit, and Twain is instantly sold on the idea.

I couldn’t help thinking that it sounded like the setup for a joke, probably a poor one—what do you get when a Negro, two Irish, a Gypsy, a dwarf, and a world-famous writer go out for a nighttime stroll?

Twain, Francois, and the gang of survivors return to the Minnehaha to find the captain drunk and the crew fled for Alabama in the lifeboats. Twain correctly concludes that they will eventually discover that being in Alabama is not preferable to death at the hands of the Martians. They return the next day.

As it becomes increasingly apparent that the Martians are getting sick — the Walkers have started stumbling about erratically — everyone is easily persuaded to sign on to Francois’s plan to capture some for revenge and profit.

While they’re unable to settle on a plan — Twain favors digging a pit trap, while everyone else prefers the idea of snaring a Walker with an anchor-chain, Battle of Hoth-style — it turns out not to be a big deal as the Martians are by now too sick to keep their Walkers upright, and the Minnehaha crew is able to capture eight surviving Martians from fallen tripods around the French Quarter.

It was my first sight of the Martians themselves—a thing no human who saw them, while they were still alive, is likely to forget. They were as ugly as their reputations—ugly as a Capitalist, and a sight uglier than Jo-Jo the Horse-Faced Boy had ever been. They have been described frequently enough since then, by a variety of word scribblers; I shall not waste time on it here, except in brief; grayish-green, with two sets of tentacles beneath the mouth; each of them was somewhat larger than a man.
I will mention their eyes at somewhat greater length. They were large and expressive; they seemed somehow both mournful and calculating, as though figuring the statistics on their situation. They were not human eyes, but there was no doubt in me that they were the eyes of sapient creatures, of creatures as intelligent as any man, including perhaps myself. When I met the eyes of the first of our captured Martians, I had the sense that I was meeting the gaze of a being wiser, and older, and colder, than any bishop who had ever lived.

The captured Martians die over the course of the next couple of days, but one party of sailors brings news that some apparently healthy Martians have escaped up the Mississippi in some sort of alien watercraft, possibly a submarine. Watching the aliens succumb to disease, Twain and Francois realize that their plan to breed Martians in captivity isn’t going to pan out, not least of all because they don’t actually know whether any combination of their captives constitutes a Martian breeding pair.

“Man is the Reasoning Animal,” I said. “Such is the claim—I find it open to dispute, though. Any cursory reading of history will show that he is the Unreasoning Animal. It seems plain to me that whatever Man is he is not a reasoning animal. His record is the fantastic record of a maniac. These poor monsters had no chance—if the gravity and heat and disease had not killed them, we would have done it ourselves, I think.”

Francois has heard reports of an abandoned riverboat a few miles upriver with only minor battle damage. He wants to arm the boat with the guns from the Minnehaha and follow the Martians upriver. Twain, still nostalgic after all these years for the life of a riverboat pilot, agrees to join him.

It isn’t, I hope you understand by now, the ambition of all the writers in this anthology to try to recreate the literary style of their various viewpoint characters. But some of them, quite obviously, are, and this story in particular does just about the best job of it I can think of. What’s really surprising, as a Mark Twain pastiche, is how subdued it is. Most of the time, when a modern writer decides to include Twain as a character, they go way over the top. They try to compress a whole lifetime of wit into their running length, sometimes making him speak almost entirely by quoting himself, the way Christian writers sometimes make biblical characters speak only in bible quotes to avoid accidentally committing blasphemy. I’ve often felt this treatment made Twain seem like a bit of a boor. Well, a bit more of one, anyway, repeating the same once-clever quotes over and over to show off his wit. There’s none of that here. Not even that “Rumors of my death” line which I think is actually Hal Holbrook. It takes a lot of dedication to not find an excuse to have Samuel Clemens tell someone that the rumors of his death have been greatly exaggerated in a story where he has to literally flee from his life from aliens with heat rays. Way to not go for the low-hanging fruit, Morgans.

There is still a lot of humor in the dialogue, but it’s decidedly low-key, and much more in keeping with the humor-density of Twain’s actual writing than the condensed Greatest Hits-versions we usually see when Twain is borrowed as a character. There’s a digression during the first conference on the boat about the Martian threat where Twain and Francois argue about the cheapness of the captain’s cigars, for example.

The story doesn’t really go anywhere in particular. It seems for a time like there’s going to be a daring attack on the Walkers, like the collaboration between British and native forces in India back in Hambly’s story, but instead the aliens all keel over while the crew of the Minnehaha is still arguing over a plan. Clemens and Francois muse over breeding Martians for profit, but it doesn’t go anywhere, and the end of the story, with them setting out to salvage a riverboat to chase the Martians up the Mississippi doesn’t feel like it’s going to come to much either: Twain certainly seems to be on board less out of faith they’ll accomplish their goals and more because, having just watched civilization collapse, he likes the idea of being a riverboat pilot and wants to do something fun. But not going anywhere in particular is classically Twain in its own way. And if it’s a little troubling that Twain’s wife and daughters go below deck once they leave New York and the story never bothers to mention them again, well, persons attempting to find continuity will be heat-rayed. Continue reading

February 25, 2017

Tales From /lost+found 101: He Jests at Scars that Never Felt a Wound

4×20 March 3, 2000
HE JESTS AT SCARS THAT NEVER FELT A WOUND (Serial 56, Episode 2)

Setting: Washington, DC, 210X (UNIT-era +100)
Regular Cast: Hugh Laurie (The Doctor), Sarah Michelle Gellar (Lizzie Thompson)
Guest Starring: Denis Forest (Malcolm), Jonathan Frakes (Agent Blackwood), Armin Shimerman (Steve Whitman), John Lithgow (President Arnold Tannen)

Story: The broken, wheelchair-bound man Lizzie discovers is a version of the Doctor who led humanity to victory over the Morthrai in the year 2000. He gave humanity Time Lord technology after his version of Lizzie was killed by the Morthrai, and was subsequently mutilated and imprisoned when he tried to stop them from abusing the technology to become a totalitarian police state.  Whitman claims that if the people saw what the regime had done to its greatest hero, they would rise up and overthrow Tannen’s regime. President Tannen tells the younger Doctor that he wants to reform the Alliance to make humanity “great again”, and claims that his “law and order” image is a necessary deception because the citizens are so accustomed to populist strongmen that they wouldn’t trust a genuine reformer. The Doctor says he agrees, but secretly realizes that the stress of micro-managing the entire world has left Tannen unbalanced. Tannen promises to release the Doctor and Lizzie in return for performing at the Centennial celebration – by executing Malcolm. Such a show would cement Tannen’s power, giving him the leverage to enact his reforms. In Cell 2, Lizzie tries to help the older Doctor escape, but he refuses to believe she is anything but a figment of his imagination. Whitman motivates him instead by threatening to kill Lizzie. The younger Doctor is horrified by the prospect of killing Malcolm and refuses, but Tannen also threatens to have Lizzie killed. At the Centennial broadcast, the Doctor is introduced with much fanfare and presented with an energy weapon of Time Lord design, while Lizzie is held under guard by Whitman, out of view of the cameras. Malcolm is brought out in chains, and Tannen orders the Doctor to kill him, but he shoots Malcolm’s chains instead. When Whitman turns to aim at Malcolm instead of Lizzie, she surprises him with a kick and disarms him. Tannen again orders the Doctor to kill Malcolm, but the Doctor hands the gun back to him, telling him to do it himself. Tannen has ordered the deaths of many, but finds he can’t do it himself. The Doctor challenges him on his “reforms”, but Tannen can only speak in meaningless platitudes about “huge changes”: all his ideas have come from Whitman. Tannen is a vapid narcissist whose “reformer” posturing is merely a messiah complex, while Whitman is a scheming sociopath who engineered Tannen’s rise so he could seize power. Whitman’s henchmen overpower Lizzie and bring out the old Doctor. With Tannen exposed as a puppet, Whitman simply shoots him once he has his gun back, and declares himself the new President of Earth. He can’t kill the Doctor on live television, but he can cement his power by performing the execution of Malcolm. As he shoots, though, the old Doctor throws himself forward out of his chair, taking the shot. Whitman desperately orders his guards to kill everyone, but finds they no longer respect his authority. Malcolm, who has been watching in silence the entire time, dispassionately takes Tannen’s fallen weapon, kills Whitman, and then himself. The Doctor asks his dying counterpart why he “didn’t” (regenerate), and he tells him to “save Lizzie instead,” and gives him his TARDIS key as he dies. Touching the two identical TARDIS keys together creates a “temporal short circuit” which summons the TARDIS, now regenerated from the geode he had buried in Syria. The TARDIS reacts violently when Lizzie enters it, and the Doctor has to disable the safety features to make it dematerialize. They arrive one hundred years earlier at UNIT, where Agent Blackwood informs them that the main Morthrai fleet has been detected in orbit.

February 24, 2017
February 22, 2017

Deep Ice: A perfect example of the alien logic systems (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 10: H.P. Lovecraft)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

From Three Panel Soul by Matthew Boyd and Ian McConville

I think it’s remiss to talk about H.P. Lovecraft without dealing with the incredibly racist elephant in the room right from the get-go. Howard Lovecraft was an incredibly racist elephant. And not in the “Oh, you’ve got to understand, it was a different time back then… ” sort of way: he was pretty damned racist even for a turn-of-the-century New England WASP, and he got only a very little bit less racist as the culture around him evolved. And this doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t enjoy his stories anyway, but you’ve really got to take into account, when you’re enjoying his depictions of the madness-inducing experience of the uncanny from encountering eldritch beings from beyond the stars whose nature is so utterly alien as to inflict permanent damage on the minds of men, that the reaction his characters have to squid-faced aliens is basically the same reaction that Howard himself had to the notion of interracial marriage. Or ladyparts. I’ve always kinda wanted to see a modern take on Cthulhu mythos where modern people encounter elder gods and are expecting to be driven mad by the revelation, but turn out to be totally fine, because they’re modern, progressive people, and it turns out that the eldritch horrors were only so scary to traditional Lovecraftian heroes because they were backward racists with body-anxiety issues.

Don Webb addresses the elephant right up front in To Mars and Providence. At least, I hope that’s what he’s doing. I live in 2017 so I’m not sure any more when I see someone present over-the-top racism in an asshole character whether the author is trying to mock their racist views or celebrate them. Also, speaking, as we recently were, of “The French Disease”, that first paragraph also dates these events to, “Exactly twenty-nine days after his father had died of general paresis—that is to say, syphilis.” If you’re keeping score, that sets the story in 1898, when The War of the Worlds was published, rather than the 1900 date most often used for the setting. The very first paragraph of this outing posits that young Howard was drawn to make a personal investigation of the Martian cylinder that lands on Federal Hill in Providence, Rhode Island because the eight-year-old was, “A gentleman of pure Yankee stock, and the true chalk-white Nordic type.” Webb’s young Lovecraft is kind of an asshole. You know who he reminds me of? Artemis Fowl, in the first book of the series. Only, a version of Artemis who isn’t really as intelligent and hypercompetent as he thinks he is.

Young Howard sneaks off on his bicycle to see the Martians in person, and witnesses the opening of their cylinder from the bell-tower of the adjacent church. He sees a Martian, “whose terrible three-lobed pupils spoke of the being’s nonTerran evolution,” and promptly faints when the Martian pulls out a “lightning” weapon to subdue the crowd.

He wakes up three days later in his own bed, tended to by his mother, who seems to have gone a bit peculiar in the face of the invasion. “There was something in his mother’s eyes that wasn’t right. Perhaps the ‘Martian’ invasion had unhinged her highly strung nervous system.” She explains that after killing the rest of the onlookers, the Martians had taken the unconscious Lovecraft into their ship, and then left him there when they set out to join up with the occupants of a second cylinder. “I suppose it thought you were one of their own,” his mother speculates, “You are a very ugly child, Howard, people cannot bear to look upon your awful face.” I feel like maybe if he hadn’t gone into writing, Howard would have ended up running the Bates Motel.

By the time Howard is awake, Providence is largely abandoned, with only himself and his mother remaining behind, “Until Grandfather Whipple comes for us.” Howard recognizes that his mother’s hopes are unjustified (and catches the implication that his aunts are dead), as the Martians would surely have destroyed rail, road and telecommunications infrastructure. Through his telescope, he sees a tripod (the only glimpse we get of them in this story) place a small golden box in the bell-tower, and feels himself drawn to return to the landing site.

Continue reading

February 18, 2017