And now, the conclusion…
Before we begin, I just want to point out that in certain parts of the US, large, herbivorous freshwater river turtles of the genus Pseudemys are referred to as “cooters”. This is just a fact of life and not funny at all. Cooter.
Let us for a moment hop back a little. It is December 8, 1983. Space Shuttle Mission Columbia-6 lands at Edwards Airforce Base. Two jets crashed into each other on the runway at Madrid Airport, killing 93. France tested a nuclear bomb at Muruora Island yesterday; the US will test one in Nevada tomorrow. Also tomorrow, Ed Meese, basically Ronald Reagan’s Steve Bannon, claims that people go to soup kitchens because, “Food is free and that’s easier than paying,” showing the trademark compassion that made the Reagan era so egalitarian. Or, as we’ll soon be thinking of it, “Back when our leaders were really compassionate toward the poor.” Saturday, Raul Alfonsin will become Argentina’s first civilian president. Lech Walesa, who we’ve run into before thanks to his role in Poland’s evolution during the Cold War, won the Nobel Peace Prize back in October. Fearing he wouldn’t be allowed back in the country if he left, his wife receives it on his behalf Saturday. William Golding picks his Literature prize up in person.
In video gaming news, Nintendo releases Donkey Kong Jr. Math for the Famicom. and Namco releases Pole Position II in the arcade this month. Hudson Soft will also release Bomberman for the Famicom in a week or so. Silly Japanese, thinking that home video games will ever catch on. Everyone knows that home video games are dead dead dead and will never return. On Yugoslavian newsstands, the January 1984 edition of popular science magazine Galaksija includes instructions for a personal computer which could be built entirely from off-the-shelf parts.
This week’s Knight Rider is “Ring of Fire”, in which Michael and KITT rescue a Cajun woman from her husband, a dangerous escaped criminal. KITT’s one-off new technological feature which is coincidentally introduced in this episode right before it becomes useful is “pyroclastic lamination”, which allows KITT and Michael to drive through a swamp fire unscathed. It will never be seen again, and roughly the same feature will be “newly” added two seasons later to let them drive through lava in “Knight Flight to Freedom”, which I was like this close to confusing with this episode. Shows are new this week, including such well-known series as One Day at a Time (The show whose running gag is “The landlord keeps perving on his tenant and her teenage daughters”), Newhart, Happy Days, The A-Team, Remmington Steele, Three’s Company, St. Elsewhere, Cheers, and The Dukes of Hazzard. Benson and Webster are repeats this week for some reason. We’re also into Christmas Special season, though it’s all repeats this week: Filmation’s A Snow White Christmas; Ziggy’s Gift; Christmas Comes to Pac-Land, The Smurfs’ Christmas Special and A Chipmunk Christmas. Tom and Dick Smothers hosted Saturday Night Live last week with musical guest Big Country. Flip Wilson and Stevie Nicks are on this coming Saturday.
Lionel Ritchie’s “All Night Long” cedes the top spot on the charts to “Say Say Say”, a collaboration between Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson — who, for what it’s worth, has his historic music video for “Thriller” aired on prime-time TV aired in the coming week. Also charting this week are Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”, Hall and Oates’s “Say it isn’t So”, and Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel The Noize”.
Opening in theaters tomorrow are Scarface, Christine and Sudden Impact. And the film world loses classic western actor Slim Pickens. Which is why we’ve hopped back here: it is to his memory that Howard Waldrop dedicated a short-story first published in the April 1987 issue of Omni. That story, reprinted here in Global Dispatches, pits the Texas Ranger Division against Martians. And it’s called, ahem, “Night of the Cooters”. Cooters.
Actually, that’s not quite right; the Texas Rangers don’t exactly show up. The story is really just pitting the local police in a small Texas town against the Martians; though summoned, the Rangers don’t show up before the story ends. Stylistically, it’s a bit of a Wild West Theme Park thing. It’s funny. Not over-the-top laugh-out-loud funny in the style of modern parody, but more of a broadly-affectionate stylistic caricature of the down-homey western lawman genre. If you compare Gunsmoke to Danger Man, imagine Wild Wild West as Get Smart, then Night of the Cooters would be somewhere around The Man From UNCLE. Sorry. That made more sense in my head.
For maximum down-home folksiness, we meet our main character, Sheriff Lindley, as he’s having a cool dream about being a teenage Aztec sports star. While asleep on the toilet at work. He’s interrupted when the local asshole rich guy demands that he come arrest a couple of local poor children for stealing peaches, because this is just about the most adorably folksy western lawman pastiche I have ever read. “I seem to remember that most of the fellers who wrote the Constitution were pretty well off, but some of the other rich people thought they had funny ideas. But they were really pretty smart. One of the things they were smart about was the Bill of Rights. You know, Mr. De Spain, the reason they put in the Bill of Rights wasn’t to give all the little people without jobs or money a lot of breaks with the law. Why they put that in there was for if the people without jobs or money ever got upset and turned on them, they could ask for the same justice everybody else got.”He responds to the rich asshole’s blustering about property rights with a pretty pitch-perfect Marshall Dillon speech about equality under the law which is maybe just a hair Marxist for a former Confederate. Then he adorably threatens the kids with forcing them to attend school until age twelve if they don’t straighten up and fly right.
The invasion proper occurs around dinner time, and Sheriff Lindley at first mistakes impact of the cylinder for the crazy old local prospector screwing around with dynamite again, which isn’t just down-home folksiness but foreshadowing. News of the explosions on Mars had already reached the local paper, but he quite reasonably doesn’t connect the two even when a local boy (with a twin brother, I gather, since there’s a running gag about the Sheriff confusing him for his brother) shows up with frantic news about a tree and some cows having been crushed by a meteor.
The Martians emerge while Lindley is on his way back to take a second look at the cylinder the next morning, attacking many of the gathered onlookers and vaporizing the Sheriff’s horse. By now, you’re probably tired of me reminding you that there’s a heavy implication in the original novel that the rapidity of the Martian’s success was in part due to a lack of preparation and slowness to appreciate the scale of the problem by the locals. It’s a big theme here, to the point that it’s called out explicitly. The local fancy-college-boy contacts the university, which “Thinks it’s wonderful,” and even Percival Lowell gets namechecked as having sent inquiries from his observatory. But the down-home folksy Sheriff Lindley will have none of it: “This won’t do. These things done attacked citizens in my jurisdiction, and they killed my horse.” So he gets another old-timer, a former sniper from the “War for Southern Independence,” to take a few shots at the Martians in their pit with his sniper rifle, possibly killing one. He dies “off-screen” when the Martians assemble their first tripod. The description of the tripod is the only place where I think the folksiness pushes a little too far. It’s described as looking like a water tower, which is a perfectly good description, and really spot-on if you’re working from the 1906 Corréa illustrations. But it continues: “It had a thing like a teacher’s desk bell on top of it, and something that looked like a Kodak roll-film camera in front of that,” and it sort of becomes a mess.
Lindley conscripts Elmer, the aforementioned crazy old prospector and his load of unstable, sweaty dynamite, and blows the hell out of the Martians in the pit before they can assemble a second tripod. The action takes place annoyingly off-screen, but Lindley relates the details later. “We threw in the dynamite and blew most of them up. One was in a machine like a steam tractor. We shot up what was left while they was hootin’ and a-hollerin’. There was some other things in there, live things maybe, but they was too blowed up to put back together to be sure what they was, all bleached out and pale. We fed everything there a diet of buckshot till there wasn’t nothin’ left. Then we hightailed it back here on horses, left the wagon sitting.”
The assembled tripod is able to disrupt the train service, knock down the telegraph lines, and set fire to much of the town. But it’s brought down by a single (massively overpowered, as Lindley’s goofy deputy uses five times too much powder) shot from the town’s courthouse cannon. It had been introduced early in the story, a mostly-ceremonial piece fired off on three times a year to mark their most important civic holidays: July 4, March 2 and January 19. Lindley is forced to sacrifice his beloved Stetson to use as wadding. The tripod remains comical even in death.
All six of the tentacles of the machine shot straight up into the air, and it took off like a man running with his arms above his head. It staggered, as fast as a freight train could go, through one side of a house and out the other, and ran partway up Park Street. One of its three legs went higher than its top. It hopped around like a crazy man on crutches before its feet got tangled in a horse-pasture fence, and it went over backward with a shudder. A great cloud of steam came out of it and hung in the air.
Two more cylinders fall near Pachuco City, and are dispatched by the heavily-armed townsfolk before they can unpack their heat rays. The third cylinder has a rough landing and the Martians emerge in obvious distress, suggesting their eventual fate in England. This does not give Lindley and company any pause before shooting them. The college boy deduces that the third cylinder is liable to be the last, based on news reports from England and local observatories — ten launches on Mars, and seven daily landings in England. It’s against his protests that Lindley orders the rest of Elmer’s dynamite be used to destroy the remaining Martian machinery while the Sheriff takes a well-earned nap.
Postscript to come…
Silverberg’s story is based on the strangely complicated narrative frame of not being “Henry James’s War of the Worlds“, but rather the backstory to James’s War of the Worlds. There’s all manner of interesting metafictional contradiction going on in that notion: we first grant that it’s Henry James, rather than H. G. Wells, who writes The War of the Worlds. But rather than tell that story, we instead grant the second notion, that The War of the Worlds is not speculative fiction, but rather a fictionalized version of then-current true-life events. It’s a 1901 novel about an alien invasion that was published in a world where writing about aliens is no more speculative than writing about — just to pull a random example out of my hat — the Second Boer War. So what we’ve got is something different from just “What if Henry James wrote it?”, because Wells wasn’t writing a true-life war novel. In fact, that’s the basic justification for Wells giving James his blessing to do it: true-life war novels aren’t Wells’s thing. So the implied text is rather “What if Henry James wrote it and also it really happened.” And yet, the bookending editor’s notes force us to grant a third part of this metafiction. Because those editor’s notes don’t, especially, seem to be from a world where alien invasions are a fact of life that humanity has had a century to contemplate. James’s novel is referred to as the definitive book on the subject, when James himself namechecks a half-dozen other authors who surely would have written about the war themselves (several of them will even turn up later in this anthology).
Not that a brief note by a Henry James scholar ninety years later should be expected to digress at any particular length to let us know how their world is different from ours, of course. But the presence of that implied external frame heightens our awareness of the fact that all of these stories start from the same two conceits: that the Martian Invasion of Wells’s novel was real, and that these various historical persons had some intimate connection to the events. Yet not one of the stories has so far touched at all on how the world would be changed by such events. The strongest thing we get is an implication that the Qing dynasty will survive longer. James’s final journal entry mirrors the worries of Wells’s narrator in the epilogue, that perhaps Earth has received only a reprieve and that the Martians or some other extraterrestrial foe will attack again in the future. The existence of the contemporary editor suggests the answer is either “no” or at least, “not successfully”. There’s an obvious missed opportunity here for the editor to at the least comment that James’s fears proved baseless. Or heck, instead of the vague mention that Wells’s style was influenced by his experiences, say that he did go on to write a book about the second invasion in the 1930s.
This is hardly a unique omission to Global Dispatches (and it is not universal even in Global Dispatches, but we’ll get to that later). In fact, it’s been one of the strange recurring themes as we’ve been wading through the deep ice: even when telling the story of the War as a historical event, the “present” shown or implied is curiously unchanged from our own. The Great Martian War showed us many glimpses of a modern world whose pan-European war of the early 20th century was fought against aliens, and it looks much like our own. Even when mentioning the extent to which captured Martian technology had been integrated into our society, they don’t show us any concrete examples. The television series holds that aliens invaded twice in the twentieth century, yet there’s no discernible impact to it in the modern day, and most people have literally forgotten it (The second season is, of course, different, but the connection between the societal collapse and the invasion 35 years previous is tenuous).
It’s a very Watsonian instinct, to recast a work of fiction as a kind of secret history. But for whatever reason, The War of the Worlds consistently lacks the scholarly rigor of what Sherlockians call “The Great Game”: the systematic attempt to explain how it could simultaneously be true that the greatest detective the world has ever known worked on dozens of high-profile cases in the late nineteenth century, and yet the only direct references to him and his work come from a single literary agent publishing his sidekick’s journals. All we get is “And the aliens were defeated and I guess that’s the end of it.”
In “The True Tale of the Final Battle of Umslopogaas the Zulu”, Janet Berliner takes a similar approach to Silverberg, but adds yet another metafictional layer, which is starting to make me wonder how we avoided an Italo Calvino story in this collection. Her story uses the same basic conceits as “The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James”: it is told as a memoir giving the backstory for a hypothetical version of The War of the Worlds which is based on true events, by a different author, in her case, H. Rider Haggard. But she diverges from Silverberg in that the narrator of the memoir is not Haggard, but rather, of all people, Winston Churchill.
Like Silverberg, Berliner frames the memoir with an editor’s note, though hers is more personal. She (I will assume the editor is intended to be based on Berliner herself) tells how she’d become a fan of Haggard during her youth in South Africa. Researching a novel (not, it appears, one Berliner would go on to write in reality), she’d planned to visit one of the real tribes that had inspired Haggard’s She. Participating in a traditional exchange of gifts in preparation for the trip, she received a manuscript addressed to H. Rider Haggard by a young Winston Churchill.
The story Churchill tells is a secret alternate history set during the time that history records him as having been taken prisoner during the Boer war. While Churchill maintains the accuracy of his account, he presumes that the official history would consider his story a delusion brought on by his injuries from the Boer assault.
Prior to the assault, Churchill, a war correspondent at this point in his life, had hoped to seek out the Zu-Vendi tribe described in Haggard’s Alan Quartermain, in hope of learning the true story of Quartermain’s companion, Umslopogaas. Umslopogaas is fictional in the real world, but there’s some anecdotal evidence that he might have had a real-world inspiration. In Alan Quartermain, the old warrior, mortally wounded, had, as his last act, destroyed the sacred stone of the Zu-Vendis. This act, according to prophesy, would lead to an “alien” king reigning over the land, which is fulfilled when one of Quartermain’s English companions marries the queen.
‘One more stroke, only one! A good stroke! a straight stroke! a strong stroke!’ and, drawing himself to his full height, with a wild heart-shaking shout, he with both hands began to whirl the axe round his head till it looked like a circle of flaming steel. Then, suddenly, with awful force he brought it down straight on to the crown of the mass of sacred stone. A shower of sparks flew up, and such was the almost superhuman strength of the blow, that the massive marble split with a rending sound into a score of pieces, whilst of Inkosi-kaas there remained but some fragments of steel and a fibrous rope of shattered horn that had been the handle. Down with a crash on to the pavement fell the fragments of the holy stone, and down with a crash on to them, still grasping the knob of Inkosi-kaas, fell the brave old Zulu—dead.
Churchill explains that, rereading the book as an adult, he found it dissatisfying that a noble warrior’s dying act would be to desecrate the holiest artifact of his allies. And positioning it as a justification for Sir Henry’s ascension to power by marrying the queen was a blatant deus ex machina. So he writes a letter to Haggard one night, unable to sleep after the excitement of seeing the green fireball of a meteor that we in the audience should damned well recognize the significance of by now.
Churchill is captured by the Boers and imprisoned, says history, at the Pretoria High School for Girls. According to the memoir, his capture is occasioned when his train derails due to the impact of a Martian cylinder. It’s then that he encounters, “A mechanical being […] looking as if it had been constructed out of the combined nightmares of Messrs Wells and Verne. He survives the tripod, thanks to having dropped his gun and therefore not being overwhelmed by the desire to mount a futile counterattack, but is captured shortly thereafter by Louis Botha himself.
Berliner’s Churchill gives a highly abbreviated account of his escape and subsequent rejoining of the army which is true to history as far as it goes, and Churchill promises to publish a fuller account if he survives the war. But the punch-line of the story comes some time later when Winston has another encounter with a Martian tripod and is saved by Umslopogaas himself.
Sadly, though, we don’t actually get the climax of the story in Churchill’s words. He finishes his letter before the actual reveal. He realizes, as I’m sure you have as well, that the coming of the Martians is the true fulfillment of the prophecy. Umslopogaas, or perhaps his ghost, it’s not quite clear, brings Churchill to the Zu-Vendis temple where he means to make amends for his dying act by slaying the alien king.
This hastily scribbled note, written in the semi-darkness of the cavity beneath the Temple’s white marble stairs, will doubtless be my final entry in this chronicle. There is no coffer here containing the embalmed body of Umslopogaas. Above me, he stands with battle-axe raised, facing an enemy such as he nor anyone else can know how to vanquish.
The story ends with a second author’s note. She summarizes a correspondence from a minister of the queen that explains the provenance of the Churchill memoir. Umslopogaas had indeed slain the alien, his axe cutting through the alien’s armor even as the Zulu was incinerated by heat-ray. The dying alien gave off noxious fumes which overcame Winston, and he was returned to his own people by the Zu-Vendis. We can conclude for ourselves that Winston either decided the entire incident was indeed a hallucination or at least decided it was better to keep it to himself.
This story is a pleasant read. There’s a section that I think gets a little slow in the middle, but it’s generally pretty solid. There’s a particularly cute bit where, offering up his narrative to Haggard as the basis for a future book, he notes that the story is more up Wells’s alley, but the two aren’t on good terms since Churchill had panned Russia in the Shadows. I am a sucker for people slagging off Wells.
It’s a different take on the War from any we’ve seen before, possibly excepting the Roosevelt piece. Despite being as formidable as ever, it appears that the Martians don’t manage to make any sort of impression on the global stage. Perhaps the idea here is that the invasion was limited to South Africa, just as Wells’s invasion was limited to England. And with the confusion of the war that was already going on, it seems like they were entirely overlooked. Which is a hard pill to swallow, but this is also a story which features an undead fictional Zulu.
And to top it off, there’s a lovely and subtle bit of irony buried in here that I’m sure Berliner did on purpose, but was clever enough not to call attention to it. Because what else was The War of the Worlds but an analogy for Great Britain’s colonial interests. So there’s a hidden meaning in relocating the Martian invasion to a British colony. And another hidden meaning in relocating it to a British colony during one of the biggest colonial wars of the period. And yet another when a story which predicted the horrors of mechanized warfare is relocated to a war that in many ways presaged the new technologies and tactics that would feature in World War I. And we’re not even done with layers of meaning, because who do they choose for the point-of-view character? The British Bulldog, a man who, to anyone whose knowledge of the man extends beyond the fact that he was one of the good guys in World War II, is pretty well known for being one of the last staunch defenders of Britain’s exploitative imperial ambitions. And then — and then. What defeats the Martians? Not the overwhelming might of the British Empire. Not the tactical brilliance of the British Bulldog. Not even the littlest thing that God in his wisdom put upon the Earth. The aliens are defeated by Umslopogaas the Zulu, one of those “noble savages” that the British liked to tell themselves they were uplifting through benign conquest, chopping their leader in half with an axe despite being dead at the time.
There is some intentionally sloppy logic here too, which is weird. Churchill himself points out that, while these events do provide a different resolution to that prophecy from Allan Quartermain, it still doesn’t actually explain the plot hole that was Churchill’s initial motivation. We still never find out why, seemingly on impulse, Umslopogaas decides with his dying act to destroy the black stone. We also, of course, never find out what he’s doing being alive, if indeed he is. The story has a strong sense of the cliche “It was all just a dream… Or was it?” structure, set up with an implied ending where Churchill wakes up back in civilization with a head wound and no proof. But the structure of the story doesn’t allow for that, and the result is a story that exists in a liminal space, with many of its best ideas implied rather than stated outright.
That liminal quality makes it a more interesting concept than the preceding stories in the anthology— I don’t think it’s outright better than “The Martian Invasion Journal of Henry James”, but it’s more interesting at a conceptual level. I mean, look at the attribution: this is Winston Churchill and H. Rider Haggard’s War of the Worlds allegedly. But is it? Where the Henry James story gives the backstory to a hypothetical War of the Worlds written by James, this story is framed as the backstory to a hypothetical War of the Worlds written by Haggard. Only Haggard doesn’t end up writing War of the Worlds: Churchill never manages to deliver his memoir to him. Haggard doesn’t actually appear in the story. It’s only H. Rider Haggard’s War of the Worlds insofar as it presumes that Allan Quartermain had a stronger basis in fact (though interestingly, not that it is entirely nonfictional; Winston himself takes for granted that Haggard’s version does not give an accurate account of the death of Umslopogaas, and the opening author’s note says only that the tribe inspired Haggard’s). The story only slightly incorporates Haggard itself; rather, it attempts to incorporate The War of the Worlds into the “mythos” of Haggard’s Quartermain novels. It may be, in fact, an attempt not to bring Haggard to the War, but rather to drag the War of the Worlds into the Wold Newton family, which makes it just a little sad that Philip Jose Farmer isn’t going to turn up in this anthology. That idea of dragging War of the Worlds into someone else’s mythos is going to crop up again, but not really with the same panache.
To Be Continued…
- War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is available from amazon.
New Year’s Special? It’s happened before.
“I went too far. I thought I could get away with it. I’m so stupid. I assumed that the rift and the paradox were the same thing. They’re not. Palandor didn’t create the rift. I did.”
It’s September, 2003, five to seven days after the 17th. I’d recently finished up grad school (or washed out, depending on your point of view. I finished my Masters and just sort of petered out instead of finding an advisor to move on to a Doctoral program) and was looking for a job. Some time around now, I’d get one for two days as a temp at a car dealership, but it turned out that the requirements weren’t a match for my skills, and to this day still don’t know what exactly they wanted me to do. Something to do with their website, but not actually making or running it. The staffing agency would place me with a real estate company in January and I’d work there regularly for a year and then do some contract work for one of their agents a year later.
I’m in the waning days of what ought to be a major romantic relationship. We’ve rarely seen each other in person for several months, though we talk on the phone every night, except for when she disappears for a week at a time. She’d like me to propose, or maybe buy her a car, but she’d dissatisfied by my lack of employment. I am dissatisfied by the fact that we seem to be in a long-distance relationship despite living about ten miles apart. I have a strong feeling that I am being played, but I can’t figure out the angle exactly. I’ve basically checked out of the relationship by now, just sort of waiting for it to fizzle out. The fizzling will happen in December, kinda by accident.
None of this is directly relevant to me buying a copy of War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, I just thought you’d like some background. I read the book in the library of my two-bedroom rowhouse in Hampden, sipping white wine and sitting in the tan wing chair I’d bought from the Salvation Army for thirty bucks. Turns out that if you spill white wine on a keyboard, it stops working. I drink like two bottles of wine in six years, but I remember this one because in December, I sprain my back and am rendered so immobile that I am forced to use the empty bottle as an emergency latrine.
That abandoned NaNoWriMo I mentioned last week was a crime thriller about a teenage girl who suffers from severe cataplexy following a traumatic brain injury, with the gimmick that chapters alternated between the present-day with the heroine learning to cope with her condition and the past, showing the events leading up to it. I manage about ten thousand words and then get hit with a case of writer’s block that renders me unable to produce anything but Power Rangers fanfic for the next three years months.
By now, I feel like there’s a pattern emerging of there being pretty much two very different interpretations that the various contributors took for the prompt of this collection. Marcus, and Williams, and Anderson himself all approached the concept as the fairly straightforward, “Write a story about a historically significant person from the turn of the century getting involved in the events of The War of the Worlds.” And then there’s contributors like Resnick, or like our next author, Robert Silverberg. Rather than simply providing a narrative in which a historical person is a character, they took the tack of trying to tell the story of The War of the Worlds as though their viewpoint character were the one writing it.
Both approaches are fine, of course, but — and you may have guessed this if you’ve noticed that I’ve spent a year and a half doing more-or-less that on Saturdays — the second approach is somewhat more relevant to my interests. This, of course, limits what kind of historical figure you can interject: neither the Dowager Empress nor Pablo Picasso really work for that sort of thing. Heck, Teddy Roosevelt is a bit of a stretch for it. But this next one is more like it.
“The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James” begins with a lengthy editor’s note giving the provenance of the following journals and explaining why they’ve never been published before (They’d gotten filed with the papers of James’s sister, and were nearly illegible due to James’s severe writer’s cramp at the time), namechecking the actual real-world definitive collections of James’s personal writings. It’s a touch that makes me think of the long tradition among “old school purists” that speculative fiction must always be framed in a way that grants plausible deniability to its fantastic elements so that we can, like a good Watsonian, engage in the great game of pretending that the events really happened despite the fact that it’s the sort of thing that really ought to have made the papers if it had. This is an especially odd conceit, though, for a writer to uphold while he’s about to deliberately rewrite history, not once, but twice.
The basic premise of the narrative, told as a series of excerpts from James’s diary, is that while, in the summer of 1900, Henry James was visiting his friend Herbert Wells (With cameos by Samuel Clemens, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, and references to the recent passing of Stephen Crane), when Martians landed in Woking and started invading England. Wells, cutely, admits to having outlined a novel along those lines, which he’d now have to abandon. On seeing the Martians themselves, there’s a really wonderful juxtaposition that you could predict from the differences in style between the writers. For a refresher, here’s how Wells described the alien:
Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly. The mass that framed them, the head of the thing, was rounded, and had, one might say, a face. There was a mouth under the eyes, the lipless brim of which quivered and panted, and dropped saliva. The whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively […] Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon group of tentacles […] THere was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.
Even though I usually find Henry James’s prose overly dry and dense (I will cop to it: I seem not to like turn-of-the-century writers very much), but one thing I always did like is his romantic view toward strangeness. Here’s how Silverberg has James describes that same first look at the Martian:
What we see is a bulky ungainly thing; two huge eyes, great as saucers; tentacles of some sort; a strange quivering mouth — yes, yesm and alien being senza dubbio, preturnaturally other.
Wells, unexpectedly, is disgusted […] For my part I am altogether fasciated. I tell him that I see rare beauty in the Martian’s strangeness, not the beauty of a Greek vase or of a ceiling by Tiepolo, of course, but beauty of a distinct kind all the same. In this, I think, my perceptions are the superior of Wells’s. There is beauty in the squirming octopus dangling from the hand of some grinning fisherman at the shore of Capri; there is beauty in the terrifant bas-reliefs of winged bulls from the palaces of Nineveh; and there is beauty of a sort, I maintain, in this Martian also.
Even when the killing begins, James is reluctant to believe it, insisting that it must be some sort of misunderstanding, that the Martians were frightened and mistook their victims for a threat.
And there’s a very James moment when his reaction is contrasted with that of Wells, who immediately recognizes this as a, “War between worlds”:
Wells gives me a condescending glance. That one withering look places our relationship, otherwise so cordial, in its proper context. He is the hardheaded man of realities who has clawed his way up from poverty and ignorance; I am the moneyed and comfortable and overly gentle literary artist, the connoisseur of the life of the leisured classes.
The passage rings very true to James’s class- and culture-consciousness. I had initially planned to say that it seemed like a bad choice to frame this story as journal excerpts rather than as a James-authored narrative, but I won’t do it now, because this framing, as an unpolished, personal reflection not intended for publication feels very true to what Henry James was about in his writing, but carries an intimacy and casual air that I always struggled to find in James’s actual published work. It’s kinda like I’m reading a “secret” Henry James who isn’t constrained by the literary conventions and trends that keep me from being a fan of this period in literary history.
Also, I like that James quickly becomes bored with Wells’s endless and unprompted lectures about Mars and speculations on the comparative biology of its inhabitants. And just as James alternates between admiration and frustration with the cool and analytical Wells (He will eventually count himself lucky to be stuck with Wells rather than, say, Conrad), he also alternates between terror and exhilaration at their precarious circumstances. Having for the first time in his life been really tested in a life-or-death struggle for survival, he is surprised at the extent to which he rises to the challenge. “At last I am fully living! My heart weeps for the destruction I see all about me, but yet—I will not deny it—I am invigorated far beyond my considerable years by the constant peril, by the demands placed upon my formerly coddled body, above all, by the sheer strangeness of everything within my ken.”
The climax of the story comes in an entry with a guessed date of June 23 (James had lost track of the exact date a week into the invasion). Having found and appropriated a motorcar, Wells and James are heading for London. I’ve mentioned in some of my comments on other adaptations that the narrator’s reasons for going to London in the original text are unsatisfying vague. Silverberg has Wells, in his typical expository style, justify the choice: of the places they can reach without crossing the battle lines, it’s the only one liable to have been abandoned with ample food and supplies left behind for scavenging. They are stopped by the sight of a motionless tripod, apparently unoccupied. Abandoning their vehicle, they approach on foot to find the Martian pilot has climbed down, for reasons of its own, to study a small stream, “Peering reflectively toward the water for all the world as though it were considering passing the next hour with a bit of angling.”
They watch the Martian dip its tentacles into the water, “In evident satisfaction, as though it were a Frenchman and this was a river of the finest claret.” James and Wells are transfixed by this “encounter with the other“, until the Martian looks up and notices them:
Yet it simply studied us, dispassionately, as one might stufy a badger or a mole that has wandered out of the woods. It was a magical moment, of a sort: beings of two disparate worlds face-to-face (so to speak) and eye-to-eye, and no hostile action taken on either side.
They flee when the Martian returns to its machine, fearing for their lives, but the Martian simple walks on. “Perhaps it too had felt the magic of our little encounter; or it may be that we were deemed to insignificant to be worth slaughtering.”
A cute moment ensues when the pair reach dead London. Wells, in a cute and humanizing scene, wants to visit the abandoned British Museum, where he belts out Ozymandias in the Egyptian hall, “in what I suppose he thinks is a mighty and terrible voice.” The first London entry does make a stylistic concession in the name of narrative by burying the lede about their discovery of a dead Martian until after anecdotes about their adventures in the dead city, including a tense moment when James lost track of his companion.
The next day, the rest of the Martians are dead as well. Wells crows about having predicted it, though James notes that he hadn’t previously mentioned it. The last entry, written in July upon his homecoming, has James reflect on man’s new place in the universe, saved from the Martians, but now aware that of the possibility of invasion either from “fortified” Martians, or indeed from aliens of other sorts. The entry ends by relating one final conversation with Wells before they parted company. As a tale of alien invasion would now be “reportage”, rather than Wells’s “usual kind of fantastic fiction,” James receives his blessing to author a novel about the invasion, Wells graciously ceding the claim implicit in his earlier reference to having an outline.
The story ends with a second editor’s note, revealing that Henry James wrote The War of the Worlds between July 28 and November 17, 1900, and that it (rather than The Ambassadors, whose writing, in this history, he puts off until later) becomes his most successful and well-received work. The fictional publication history draws on elements of the real-world publication of both War of the Worlds and The Ambassadors: it’s printed first as a serial in The Atlantic (Pearsons, perhaps, had not finished rebuilding after the invasion), finishing in December 1901, then published as a novel in the UK and US in March and April of the following year. Macmillan is given as the UK publisher, which is kind of interesting because near as I can tell, none of James’s works of that period were published by them. Pan Macmillan’s current headquarters is in Basingstoke, so maybe their business recovered faster than the London-based Methuen. The editor notes that three film adaptations were made, which is, of course, more than the real-world produced until 2005. There is no mention whether it inspired a short-lived TV series or a prog rock concept album. Wells did not write his own account in this history, though the events are said to have had a profound effect on his later work.
Profound, but unspecified. This is three artists (four, if we romantically assume Carlos Castegemas survives) in two stories now whose style is implied to be heavily altered by an encounter with aliens, and, frustratingly, we never really get to see what that change is. I’d have loved to see that final editor’s note give just a hint more detail about James’s future. Though his last entry mentions his now-delayed plans to write The Ambassadors, you’ve got to imagine that a book about Americans being charmed by Europe would turn out differently, written in a world where extraterrestrial invasion is a fact of life. Perhaps the footnote might mention, offhandedly, that James never did get around to writing the book in this timeline.
But beyond that small disappointment, this story is great. Close though its plot stays to the raw outline of Wells’s novel, it’s completely different, and it’s different in all the ways that I find Wells frustrating. The ceaseless exposition is mostly omitted, and it’s a far more interior story. And James’s tendency to find beauty in the experience of otherness gives a soul to the story. I even like Silverberg’s version of Henry James’s version of Wells a lot better as a character than the nameless authorial self-insert of the original novel. I would totally read Henry James’s The War of the Worlds, and while this isn’t quite that, it’s close enough.
To Be Continued…
- War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is available from amazon.
Because this is short, here is an additional Christmas Miracle:
I have generally maintained that my private parallel universe is not any better than the one in which the rest of us live. But after the way 2016 has gone, I took a closer look. And here is a thing I found. In 2004, Republican Jack Ryan ran to replace the retiring Peter Fitzgerald as US Senator from the state of Illinois. He was forced to withdraw from that race due to a scandal stemming from revelations about his sex life that had come out during his 1999 divorce from actress Jeri Ryan. That divorce was likely precipitated in part by the strain on their marriage when Jeri Ryan started spending large parts of the year in Los Angeles while starring in Star Trek: Voyager.
Of course, one universe away, there was no Star Trek in the 1990s. We can’t necessarily draw any conclusions from that, but it’s reasonable to guess that the circumstances of the Ryans’ divorce would have been altered. Now, obviously, that doesn’t necessarily change the outcome in 2004; Ryan was trailing in the polls when he withdrew anyway. But it certainly would have been a closer race without the eleventh-hour switch in the ticket to the intensely unlikeable suspected carpetbagger Alan Keyes.
And who was the beneficiary of this shakeup in the Senate race? A charismatic up-and-comer whose election marked his entry to the national stage. Barrack Obama. So there’s a very real chance that in the next universe over, Barrack Obama’s political rise would have been delayed. Without Senator Obama, Hillary Clinton would almost certainly have been the Democratic nominee in 2008. Would she have beaten Senator McCain and his running mate, Tina Fey? Who can say. Would she have beaten Willard Mittens Romnworthy, the 2012 candidate from the state of R’lyeh? Who knows. But in such a world, she certainly would not have been running for election in 2016. Under the administration of Clinton, or even of Romney, there would have been no birther controversy (Probably not under McCain either, let’s be honest, but his legitimacy is questionable in much the same way Obama’s was. Which is to say, “Not at all questionable, but you could still make a dishonest argument that seemed superficially coherent”) to launch a particular reality show host into politics. No awful “She’s just as bad as him so why bother?” from the arrogantly clueless. No perfect storm breakdown in the rust belt.
I don’t really need to say it, do I? Yeah, I’m moving to that reality too.
Incidentally, a happy Christmas to you at home…
3×12: The Christmas Present: Sammy Lake never existed. Or did she? When Sammy sacrificed herself to destroy the Paradox Machine, her timeline should have been deleted from history. But a person whose entire life is tied up in paradox is not so easy to erase. The Doctor has one chance to resolve the timeline and save her companion. What will she risk, and what will it cost?
Check back tomorrow. I hear it’s a special occasion…
I do not remember the circumstances that led to me knowing this anthology existed. But I do remember buying my copy. It was September 17, 2003, and the book was out of print, so I was excited to see a used copy on Amazon for a reasonable price. I also bought two books about crime writing in preparation for my first failed attempt at NaNoWriMo. Also bought a copy of The Vagina Monologues and a couple of memoirs by some bohemians. This is the period where Amazon became convinced I was a drug-addicted lesbian spy.
Estonia decided to join the EU last Sunday, and Latvia will do the same on Saturday. Today is also the day that President George W. Bush publicly concedes that Saddam Hussein wasn’t involved in the 9/11 attacks. Good thing we didn’t go invading that c— oh. Right. We’re still mourning Johnny Cash, who died last Friday, and John Ritter, who passed a day before. Warren Zevon (You you probably know as “The Werewolves of London Guy”) died a few days earlier, and it’s weird how quaint it seems for a mere three beloved celebrities to die within a few days of each other now.
Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy is out for your Windows-based PCs. Steam just released its first stable version. The big movie out this week is Lost in Translation. Beyonce holds two spots on the top ten, though “Shake Ya Tailfeather”, a collaboration between Nelly, P. Diddy and Murphy Lee holds the top spot. Matchbox Twenty is in the tenth spot, which makes me feel like I clicked on the wrong link and flipped back three years.
Jon’s guest on The Daily Show is Charlie Sheen. Enterprise tonight is “Anomaly”. Part of season three’s Xindi Superweapon arc, the Enterprise is crippled by the unusual properties of the Expanse, then attacked by pirates, but end up acquiring a crucial Xindi database and discovering the first of a network of alien spheres connected to the interdimensional aliens who are manipulating the Xindi. Next week, the series will give up on this whole “It’s not really Star Trek yet; it’s something new and exciting,” and switch to calling itself Star Trek: Enterprise. Most everything else is in repeats this week, but Saturday’s Power Rangers Ninja Storm is new. “The Wild Wipeout” sends blue ranger Tori to an evil mirror universe where she has to team up with the series big bad to defeat the counterparts of her teammates.
One week from today, the BBC will announce that a revival of Doctor Who is in development. The Telegraph notes that “purists” might be worried by the choice of Russell T. Davies to head the project, on account of he’s gay, and in 2003 you could still say things like “Are we sure we’re comfortable with letter a gay man run a television show?”, especially if you forget that Doctor Who had already been helmed by a gay man for all of the 1980s. (Yes, okay, it turned out he was a sexual predator. Shut up.)
I know basically nothing about the political history of China in the late 1800s. I can’t really speak to the historical parity of Walter Jon Williams’s “Foreign Devils”, the next story in the anthology, told from the perspective of Empress Dowager Cixi. Even if I were more familiar with the facts, the style of the story is heavily inflected with a kind of mystical air with heavy reliance on figurative language and euphemism, which adds an extra layer of unreality. I’m not even familiar enough to know whether the style is influenced more by the conventions of nineteenth-century court manners in the Forbidden City or by a western author’s romanticized notions of what things are supposed to “feel” like in the Mystical Land of China.
What I do know is that “Foreign Devils” is primarily a political intrigue. Set around the time of the Boxer Rebellion, the Guangxu Emperor (Referred to here using the archaic Wade-Giles Romanization “Kuang-hsu”) has been reduced to puppet status, under de facto house arrest following the Hundred Days’ Reforms. His aunt, the Dowager Empress had sided against the Emperor during the reforms, and history generally characterizes her as despotic and reactionary, the real power behind the throne. Williams is kinder in his take, depicting the Dowager Empress largely as a pawn of her own circumstances, regretful over the betrayal, and motivated by a sometimes-misguided desire to protect the young Emperor. (Williams wouldn’t have known that in 2008, forensic tests would suggest that the Dowager Empress probably murdered the Guangxu Emperor. She herself died the next day and some theorize her goal was specifically to outlive him). The Emperor himself is weak, frail, and prone to, ahem, spontaneous orgasms. This is not mentioned in his Wikipedia article.
The real power lies in Prince Tuan (Duan), leader of the Boxers, whose private army is “protecting” the Emperor. The Emperor isn’t quite powerless at first, but he’s too weak to mount an effective defense against Tuan’s machinations. With China basically being steamrolled by Europe and Japan, Tuan wants to expel or execute the “Foreign Devils” and crack down on the “Secondary Foreign Devils” — Chinese Christians and other locals who’ve been heavily influenced by European culture.
The Emperor and Dowager Empress can do little other than play for time, and even that breaks down with the coming of the “meteors” from Mars. Tuan interprets these as a sign from Heaven, and strongarms the Emperor into granting permission for him to raise an army to drive out the “white ghosts” from Europe and “dwarf-theives” from Japan. When the meteors disgorge “Falling Star Giants” that attack foreign-controlled cities across China, Tuan is sufficiently emboldened to seize power outright, issuing his own edicts under the Emperor’s seal.
But things go south as it becomes increasingly clear that the Falling Star Giants are not agents of heaven, but just a new kind of Foreign Devil, attacking Chinese and European populations alike. The Emperor, despite his precarious position, proves more capable than he’d seemed, and is able to take advantage of the invasion to decimate his enemies both foreign and domestic: Tuan might be able to issue orders in the Emperor’s name, and laugh off the Emperor’s own orders to kill himself, but actually leaving the divinely-appointed Emperor to die at the hands of the aliens is out of the question. Tuan is compelled therefore to commit his own forces to defend against the approaching Falling Star Giants, and weaken his own position by evacuating the imperial family from the Forbidden City, leaving behind the all the power structures of the court and the princes and the eunuchs (I feel like there’s a couple of words in this story that get used a lot which carry additional connotations in context I am not strictly familiar with). The impression I get of the imperial court during this period is that they basically existed to obstruct the Emperor: by interposing themselves as intermediaries, they could make sure that if the Emperor ever tried to give an order they didn’t like, it wouldn’t make it far enough to be acted upon.
Prince Tuan is obvious relieved when the news comes that the invaders have died of unknown causes, and lets his guard down despite the decimation of the Righteous Harmony Fists (Boxers) and his Tiger-Hunt Marksmen. At the celebration of their victory, under the pretext of teaching Tuan’s son — currently the heir to the throne — an advanced sword technique, the Emperor kills Tuan, his son, and several of their allies. Leaderless, the forces loyal to Tuan are quickly overcome by those loyal to the Emperor. With the Dowager Empress at his side, the Emperor pledges to continue the reforms of the Hundred Days, and, with Europe occupied by its own rebuilding efforts, bring China into the twentieth century as a world power, free of foreign domination.
This is the first story in the anthology to really seriously fit the mold of “alternate history”, and it’s an interesting take. There’s broad similarities to the outcome of the real-world Boxer Rebellion. The idea of Empress Dowager Cixi becoming a reformer despite having been a reactionary a few years earlier is consistent with what actually happened in the wake of the rebellion. Even the flight of the Emperor from Beijing mirrors the similar evacuation to Xi’an during the Battle of Beijing. The major difference, of course, is that unlike the Eight-Nation Alliance, the Martians conveniently all die off at the end, meaning that the conflict can go mostly the same way straight up to the last minute, but the fallout is completely different, with China coming out of it far stronger and more stable. The story does not reveal whether the Guangxu Emperor is successful in his plans, but the implication is that the Qing Dynasty doesn’t go on to collapse in 1911, and China becomes a major player on the world stage decades early.