“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.”
“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…
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.
Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…
Tantalizing enough that it’s got me kind of interested in what would happen if you tried this experiment another way around. What if you didn’t try to match up a new story with Wells’s style, but rather tried to match up the same story with a different style. I wonder…
It is May 1, 1996. More or less. Australia is reeling from a shooting spree in Port Arthur two days ago. The deaths of thirty-five people will, inexplicably, shortly lead to heavy restrictions of private ownership of firearms in Australia. Of course, as we all know, banning guns has never succeeded in reducing shooting deaths, which means it must be a coincidence that in the following 20 years, there been no mass shootings in Australia. Maybe it’s because they ban violent video games. Former CIA Director William Colby will be found dead in a marshy riverbank in Maryland, victim of a boating accident, or maybe that’s just what they want you to think. The Keck II telescope in Hawaii is getting ready for its grand opening Saturday. Gerald Williams gets six hits in a single game, the first Yankee to do so since 1934.
New in theaters this week are Barb Wire and The Craft. Twister, Mission: Impossible, Spy Hard and Dragonheart will be out later this month. Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband” is revived on Broadway. I think I actually see the touring company of this in Baltimore the next year. Howard Stern’s radio show will be premiering within a week. Nickelodeon spins off their “Nick-at-Nite” TV block in the form of the TVLand network. This week will see the finales of Nick Jr. series Allegra’s Window, NBC’s Sisters and Captain Planet and the Planeteers, whose cast will go on to great things, especially Hoggish Greedly, who will eventually be elected President of the United States of America. Later this month, we’ll see the end of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Nowhere Man, and seaQuest DSV. The Daily Show with Craig Killborn premiers in July.
TV is new this week. Roseanne. Coach. Frasier. The Drew Carey Show. Home Improvement. NYPD Blue. Wings. The Nanny. Murphy Brown. Grace Under Fire. Friends. Seinfeld. ER. Chicago Hope. This is like peak TV for me, but nothing really stands out. Star Trek: Voyager airs “The Thaw”, which I do not remember at all. It’s about VR and sounds pretty close to the plot of an episode of Stargate SG-1. Deep Space Nine airs “The Muse”, in which Sisko’s son Jake is preyed upon by a sort of muse-succubus, who inspires him to start the novel they’ve been foreshadowing him writing, but nearly kills him by sucking out his life force or whatever. Also, Majel Barrett Roddenberry makes her last appearance as Lwaxana Troi.
NBC’s got a miniseries of Peter Benchley’s The Beast, which I think is a sea monster movie, and I think next week one of the other networks does another sea monster miniseries. Fox will make jokes about this in their commercials, which is petty of them given that The X-Files this week, “Quagmire”, is also about a sea monster. I don’t get into Homicide: Life on the Street until years later, but my dad watched it whenever he managed to stay up that late. This week’s is “The Damage Done”, which introduces Luther Mahoney, a Baltimore drug dealer who becomes the closest the series ever has to a “big bad”. Sliders is “Post-Traumatic Slide Syndrome”, an episode which sets up the possibility that John Rhys-Davies’s character has been replaced by an unscrupulous doppleganger. This will never come up again. Power Rangers Zeo today is “The Puppet Blaster”. It’s about a brainwashing robotic children’s entertainer.
I’m a junior in high school. This is the year I take a ridiculous number of AP tests. US History, Calculus AB, and both sections of Physics C. I’m also the Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper, a position I’ll hold for one more semester by convincing the school to invent a “Journalism IV” for me to take next year. My stamped, official high school transcript has a hand-written correction on it. This was fun to explain on college interviews. I also appear on television this spring, in the high school quiz bowl show It’s Academic. On our previous appearance, we’d killed it, utterly crushing our competitors, but this time, luck isn’t with us. Or at least, timing isn’t with us, because we get a perfect score on the timed round, but only managed to buzz in once in the other two rounds. It was weird. Also, Mac McGarry is the first person I ever met who tried to pronounce my last name the traditional Polish way. And that amazing, deep, imperial voice he had on the show? That was his real, normal, everyday voice.
I remember being very upset this week, because the cable kept going out. I realize that is a petty thing to be upset about, but when you’re a sixteen year old boy with no romantic prospects (I’ll get there eventually), it’s kind of a big deal that the cable comes back on literally like 5 minutes before a big event epsiode of Roseanne. Yeah, in two weeks ABC airs the episode of Roseanne where Dan has a heart attack and dies. I mean, he dies during the cliffhanger at the end of the episode, but we don’t find out about it until the series finale a year later, because it turns out that from the second season onward, the series has been an increasingly fictionalized version of the family portrayed in the early seasons drawn from Roseanne Connor’s short stories. Also, Fox’s Tuesday Night Movie, which “doesn’t star a giant Octopus”, is a US-made revival of Doctor Who, starring
Hugh Laurie, Marcia Gay Harden and Peter O’Toole. It doesn’t win its time slot thanks to Roseanne, but it does well enough to go to series in the fall and run for eight years Paul McGann, Daphne Ashbrook and Eric Roberts. It has some nice set pieces, but little in the way of a plot, and its middle-of-the-road ratings persuade Fox to go with the cheaper option of making a second season of Sliders instead of picking it up. Doctor Who does not return to television until 2005.
The top ten is full of things I don’t recognize. I mean, Mariah Carey is at the top with “Always Be My Baby”, Celine Dion is behind her with “Because You Loved Me”, and Alanis Morissette is hanging out at number 4 with “Ironic”, but there’s a whole lot of stuff I don’t remember at all. The top 20 is more my speed, featuring Everything But The Girl, Tracy Chapman, The Bodeans, and Jann Arden.
Popular books of 1996 include A Game of Thrones, The Notebook, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Fight Club, and Angela’s Ashes. Doing okay for itself, but not quite to that level, is this.
It is rare for adaptations and remakes and even discussion of the original novel The War of the Worlds to bring up a strange matter of geography. I mean, except when it’s me doing the discussion, because I’ve personally said it a bunch of times. Wells all but states outright that the Martian invasion was limited to England. Most people ignore this, for reasons such as: 1. It’s pretty stupid. Delightfully English, to proceed from the assumption that an advanced alien race would decide that invading just specifically England was the right way to conquer the Earth (“Naturally. The rest were all foreigners,” Doctor Who), but intensely stupid.
Come 1996, prolific science fiction author Kevin J. Anderson decided to ignore this delightful stupidity when he had (according to the acknowledgements page, while hiking in the redwood forests of California) the idea to compile an anthology of short stories about the Martian invasion across the globe. But not just across the globe, really. Because every story in War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is told from the point-of-view of a literary or historical figure belonging to the time and place where the story is set (more or less. I’ll explain later). That, I think, elevates this anthology above being just a globalized retelling of the original story. We don’t just have “Basically Wells’s story but set in New Jersey,” or “Basically Wells’s story but set in San Francisco”. We’ve got “Jack London’s War of the Worlds in Alaska” and “Mark Twain’s War of the Worlds in New Orleans”.
This isn’t just wonderful in its own right, too. The addition of these big personalities helps smooth out the fact that there is absolutely no thematic, structural, or story continuity between the various writers. They contradict Wells. They contradict each other. They contradict the backstories of their own characters. And that’s fine, because it’s not like you were expecting Teddy Roosevelt to provide an account of fighting the Martians in Cuba and not make it all about himself. Anderson gives it a wink and a nod in his forward, as told by Wells, noting that Picasso and Verne aren’t on speaking terms over the differences in their accounts of the sack of Paris, and sniping that he doesn’t recall Henry James taking notes at the time. Anderson dedicates the book to Wells, and also to George Pal and Jeff Wayne. Sam and Greg Strangis get no love.
I’d stayed up too late making a shepherd’s pie for dinner that night. And bolting the DVD cabinets to the wall in the basement. I don’t know what I was thinking. Leah had been sleeping in the guest bedroom — she’d been growing progressively more and more dissatisfied with the queen-sized bed she’d bought years ago not long after she moved to Maryland, but it would be a few more years until we replaced it — or trying to sleep, or whatever, and she came in and said, in a one-in-the-morning sort of noncommittal way that it was possible that her water had broken, but she wasn’t sure. Though she’d be pretty confident about it when talking to anyone else. She called the OBGYN once they opened, and they said we should come in, so we did. The nurse midwife was surprised that we’d come in, despite having been told to, because she reckoned it was pretty straightforward at this point that what we ought to do was to go to the hospital and, y’know, have a baby. So we did that. Fortunately, the hospital was right next door. So about twelve hours later, we had a baby.
And then one thousand eight hundred twenty-seven days passed. A bunch of stuff happened in the mean time. Back in the days before I almost always had a camera in arm’s reach, there was this one afternoon where he looked up at me from playing on his activity mat and then flopped forward onto his hands in a pose so cute I really wished I’d gotten a picture so I could post it to the internet with a black matte around it bearing the caption “Baby Facepalm: He doesn’t even have object permanence, yet he knows what you just did was dumb”. A couple of years passed. Leah went up to take a shower, and he started hopping on the spot, explaining, “Mommy jump in shower. Didi jump in kitchen.” That’s what he called himself back then, until he mastered L-sounds. One Easter, he found a chocolate egg intended for the hunt early and when asked where he found it, he held up the flattened foil wrapper. “It was inside this.”
I had to hold him one night as he cried over a friend I’d never heard of before who just moved away. And another when we explained that in the event of a fire, no, he had to get out of the house right away and not stop to gather his favorite toys, even the magnet-handed shark that came with his bicycle helmet which he loved more than life itself. He lost the shark about a month later. He asked me easy questions, like “What’s your favorite color?” and “Can two men get married?” He asked hard questions like, “If the president does bad things, why don’t the police arrest him?” and “Which of your children do you love most?”
Yesterday, we went swimming and ate pizza with his friends, and then we came home and he opened presents, shouting “I always wanted one of those!” as he revealed things he’d never seen or heard of before in his life. And he went to bed. And a few hours later, I opened the door to his room, and for the one thousand eight hundred and twenty-sixth time (modulo about a month’s worth of overnight visits to grandma), I listened to make sure he was breathing, and whispered, “I love you, son.”
Happy Birthday, Dylan.
You’re probably wondering why, at this point, I haven’t referenced the hole in the internet that your time disappears down before. Obviously, it’s because I couldn’t afford the time to go fall down it.
Previously on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging…
The dead are entirely absent from chapter eight. It goes entirely unremarked that the Martians themselves, having proved vulnerable to “putrefactive and disease bacteria” turn out to be unaffected by the reanimation fungus. There are only a handful of stories I can think of where a zombie plague isn’t specific to humans, but you’d think it would at least merit a mention. It isn’t explicit whether terrestrial animals are affected, but doesn’t seem to be the case, and the absence of any comment on this feels at odds with the thoroughness of Wells’s exposition.
For the most part, Brown doesn’t fall into the common trap of having his characters intuitively know what kind of story they’re in — that’s a common enough foible for zombie horror writers, not so much with characters intuiting the “rules”, but more often with characters intuiting the “boundaries” of their world. Most zombie stories have a scene where the characters learn of the efficacy of head-wounds or the infectious nature of bites (curiously never established in The War of the Worlds Plus Blood Guts and Zombies), but it’s rare for characters to “learn” that animals don’t reanimate, that humans don’t turn directly into zombies without dying first (In the rare stories where they do, that also doesn’t come as a surprise), or that plants can’t be zombies (Has anyone ever done a zombie plant story? Like, not “plants turn into carnivorous monsters”, but just “Dead plants reanimate and are evil, but still constrained by the basic biology of plants. So you’d have to be careful you didn’t accidentally eat a zombie apple and get infected).
The lack of curiosity about the mechanics of the zombie plague is the one area where Brown gives in to this tendency. We already know that the narrator, for reasons he never explains, doesn’t share his inside knowledge about the origins of the plague to the scientific community, and as a result, they never work out its cause. But there’s not even any mention of scientists studying the dead in the epilogue, trying to work out, if not the cause, the mechanism. No mention of anyone trying to develop an inoculation, no mention of anyone rounding up zombies for study. It would be very Wellsian to insert a paragraph about scientists discovering the presence of some element or energy that acts upon the pineal gland or something to stimulate movement in the absence of whatever, and that it only works on humans because of the unique something of the whatsit. But no. The dead only come up at the very end to mention that they’re still around, a persistent threat to all humanity, but kept at bay by sensible precautions.
But the dead do put in one meaningful appearance near the end of the book, and it’s the one place where Brown meaningfully diverges from Wells’s plot. It’s the only place where Brown deletes significantly from the original text rather than appending. Chapter nine ends, in the original, with the narrator returning home, depressed to find no sign of his wife, until:
…A strange thing occurred. “It is no use,” said a voice. “The house is deserted. No one has been here these ten days. Do not stay here to torment yourself. No one escaped but you.”
I was startled. Had I spoken my thought aloud?
In the original text, he turns to discover his wife and cousin just outside, leading to tearful reunion in the novel’s one moment of genuine human tenderness. But this is a zombie story now, and will brook no such happy ending. In Brown’s version, the narrator did indeed speak his thought aloud without realizing it. For he turns to find not a pair of survivors, but the reanimated corpses of his wife and cousin, drawn home by, “Some lingering aspect of their lives before death,” after dying at Leatherhead (Brown mistakenly says “Leatherwood” here). Despite his horror, the narrator manages the grisly task of dispatching his late wife with a kitchen knife and flees the house. His cousin is granted, “Peace I knew I would never find again in this life,” thanks to a pair of patrolling soldiers who happen conveniently by.
It is an odd segue, even in the original, to jump from the reunion into several pages of exposition, mostly about how many mysteries remained about the Martians: though the previous chapter noted that examination of the Martian machines were quickly yielding scientific wonders, such as powered flight, the epilogue notes that the principles of the black smoke and heat ray remain impenetrable (and research on the latter seems to have fizzled out after an obliquely referenced disaster that sounds like a research lab blowing itself up), that indeed the Martians’ cause of death is only broad speculation. The jump is even stranger in Brown’s version, given the gruesomeness of the preceding scene.