Okay, 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