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.
I love this story to pieces just for the style and tone. A lot of the “action” is related second-hand, which seems like an odd choice, but I think it makes a good deal of sense when you look at “Night of the Cooters” as being something of an homage to Gunsmoke. Framing some of the key scenes through dialogue, rather than narration, gives them something of a radio drama quality.
It’s also goofy as heck, of course. There’s enough framing of Sheriff Lindley’s world that you can see where the running gags all fit. The characters are fleshed out, but they’re also recognizable archetypes. The rich man who dislikes Lindley because he thinks the purpose of lawmen is strictly to protect the interests of the rich against the poor. The crazy old prospector always getting into trouble in his ill-conceived plans to find the motherlode. The goofy deputy who’s always screwing things up. The young miscreants who keep getting threatened with public education. The tired old Sheriff who dreams of past lives in ancient civilizations. All that’s missing is Lindley’s girlfriend who runs the town brothel.
The only thing that really bugs me is the extent to which the down-home folksiness extends into the realm of Confederate apologia. The sharpshooter’s cute, folksy anecdote about decapitating a Yankee general; the celebration of the birthday of the traitor Robert E. Lee as a town holiday; Lindley’s grumpiness about his old war-wound, the reference to the war of treason in defense of slavery as “The War for Southern Independence”. It’s all very polite and sugar coated. Lindley dreams of being an Aztec, and he’s far more respectful and polite to the rich asshole’s black servant than the rich asshole himself is, but this is still a guy who committed treason against the US to defend the right of white people to own black people, and I don’t like that he’s the hero. I know I should get over this, because apparently the South eventually did win the war and racism is cool again, but I choose not to.
This is an oddball for the anthology, lacking a connection to a specific historic person — and being set in a fictional pastiche setting, it lacks even a historical connection to a specific place. The attribution of the story to “The Texas Rangers” when they don’t even appear in the story almost suggests that Anderson included it without actually reading it. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine he’d include a story like this for any reason other than that he’d read it and was, like me, charmed as all get-out by the cute down-home folksiness.
Next up is Doug Beason’s Determinism and the Martian War, With Relativistic Corrections. As you can probably guess from that delightfully verbose title, this one involves a young Albert Einstein. It’s fine. Doesn’t outstay its welcome. Not impressive the way the past few have been, but a pleasant little story. It starts out with Einstein on his way to Milan from school in Zurich, contemplating accelerated reference frames and inertia, which is when the train crashes. While that might sound like half of a Burns and Allen sketch, the story is and remains pretty nerdy. Albert calculates the force that would break his arm if he tried to brace himself for the impact, and curls up into a ball instead, and contemplates the difference between his unaccelerated reference frame, moving at a constant one hundred kilometers per hour, and the reference frame of the wall of his compartment, which had undergone a negative acceleration. And then he hits his head and blacks out.
Einstein’s friend, Marcel Grossmann, had been traveling with him. In real life, Grossmann taught Einstein about Reimann Geometry. In the story, he pulls him from the crashed train, then crows about the triumph of theory over experiment (Grossmann was a mathematician). Grossmann quickly attributes the train crash to Martians, which they’d heard about in the news, but hadn’t believed. Einstein is more skeptical, but finally concedes the point when a structure he at first takes for a water tower starts shooting at them with a heat ray. Or rather, an infrared wand, as Albert declares it.
While Grossmann and the other survivors favor hiding in the woods, Einstein reckons that they’ll be hunted down unless they do something about the tripod. He notices that the tripod is reluctant to fire through smoke, and coaxes the others into a plan. Dumping out barrels from an overturned oil and petrol car, they create enough of a smokescreen that Albert can approach the tripod with rope, and he basically reenacts that scene with the snowspeeder and the AT-AT from The Empire Strikes Back.
Everyone else wants to leg it, but Albert insists on investigating the fallen tripod. He’s not motivated purely by abstract scientific curiosity, either; his family was living near Milan at the time, and presumably under attack by similar war machines. He gains access to the cockpit while the Martian pilot, killed in the crash, tumbles out. But as Albert marvels over display panels, “like tiny windows, showing different views; but some of them were focused on scenes far away from the metallic head,” he bumps a control and sets the tripod into some sort of siege mode.
Sealed inside the machine, he’s surprised to see the images on the display panels shift into fast-motion and take on a blue tint. Tellingly, the tripod seems to sink into the ground, as though it’s grown heavier. As he watches, and reflects on his earlier, ahem, impactful, observation about accelerated reference frames, he sees a day pass in the outside world, witnesses the attack on Milan, sees a tripod destroyed by human artillery, then finally watches as the displays from other tripods go dark. The time dilation (Never referred to by name, but that’s obviously what it is) switches off — exactly how Albert does this is a point of vagueness — and Albert works out which button opens the cockpit. He emerges to the delight of Marcel Grossmann, who explains that he’d been waiting there for two weeks and a half weeks in the hope that Albert would escape. As Einstein learns about the fate of the other Martians, there’s a cameo by Dr. Hendrick Lorentz, who’s been commissioned to investigate Martian technology. Einstein’s tripod is the only one they’ve found so far that wasn’t disabled by the dying occupant. From the outside, the tripod had “seemed to become more massive” and had been protected by a force field. Einstein works out that what he had tripped was some kind of emergency “lifeboat” feature, intended to protect a Martian until help arrived.
The story ends with Albert putting the pieces together in his mind, and drawing close to a conclusion based on his Gedanken about reference frames, and we close on exactly the sentence we basically all knew this story was going to end on: “I’m not sure where this is heading, my friend, but I’m starting to think it’s all relative.”
Cute story. Inoffensive. Probably would have gotten tedious had it been much longer. There’s nothing really new or exciting here; “Einstein has a fantastic encounter which inspires his theory of relativity,” is such an obvious sci-fi plot that I’m pretty sure Doctor Who did it twice. Heck, I think there was a terrible 3-D adaptation of the Nutcracker that did it. This version doesn’t quite work as a “secret history” because it’s not like the Martian invasion is a secret in this world, nor does it quite work as an alternative history, because Einstein coming up with the theory of relativity is, in fact, historical fact. As a “famous person bumps against science fiction” story, the most notable thing is that Beason did enough homework to namecheck some of Einstein’s colleagues, friends, teachers, and his future first wife, Mileva Maric. In other terms, the idea of a relativistic lifeboat-mode is a clever idea, but one that’s featured purely for its own sake, to be showcased as a clever idea, rather than in service to a larger story.
- War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is available from amazon.