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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t think I have seen Apocalypse Now since before I was old enough to appreciate it. I did read Heart of Darkness, though, and I found it really moving. Which is strange, because I find I don’t actually remember very much of it now, aside from a few isolated quotes. Most particularly, “We live as we dream— alone.”

Right from the beginning, it’s been clear that Global Dispatches wasn’t going to be a hugely cohesive anthology. Its stories are linked only by the broad strokes of their common underlying premise, without any serious attempt to harmonize them into a single continuity; they disagree about the nature of the attackers, the date of the attack, the duration of the invasion, even the exact fate of the Eiffel Tower. But even while there’s a lack of plot or timeline or backstory coherence among the entries in Global Dispatches, there’s been a surprising amount of thematic coherence.

The most commonly recurring theme across the stories in this anthology is the notion that the massive destruction of global militaries and infrastructure at the beginning of the twentieth century, means the end of European imperialism, and the rapid, peaceful democratization and independence of the less-developed nations of the world to emerge from colonial and imperial oppression as equal partners on the world stage.

It is an exceedingly optimistic notion, one that basically screams, “I WAS WRITTEN BEFORE 9/11!” from the rooftops, and one that sits very ill with me in these last few months especially. It certainly isn’t something you’d expect to fit in with a writer like Conrad, noted for his skepticism about human nature, his pessimism, and his general melancholy. And yet, here it is again, in perhaps its most profound and striking version. While we might have been informed didactically that Wells or Picasso or Henry James had their style significantly changed by touching the alien, M. Shayne Bell puts his money where his mouth is and actually shows us what a game-changer the invasion is by taking us along with Joseph Conrad as he goes through his sea-change.

One of the most interesting decisions about To See the World End is that more than half the story doesn’t involve the Martian war at all. The first part of the story is set ten years prior, in 1890. This is a period in Conrad’s life when he’d eventually spend some time hospitalized for a series of illnesses including recurring malaria attacks. The story finds him in Kinchassa, near death from (according to Wikipedia; the story doesn’t specify) dysentery.

If someone were looking for the worst abuses of the rest of the world by the greed of imperial Europe, frankly, it’d be hard to narrow it down. But I imagine that the Congo Free State would probably be on the short-list. From 1885 to 1908, King Leopold II of Belgium basically used what would eventually become the modern-day Democratic Republic of the Congo as his own personal backyard, tax haven, and forced labor camp. By some estimates, as much as a fifth of the population died from Leopold’s abuses as his appointees and employees extracted wealth from the region as quickly as possible with a disregard for human life that’s breathtaking even when compared to the excesses of the twentieth century. I mean, not to get ahead of myself, but Heart of Darkness is basically all about just what monumental shits the Europeans were in the Congo.

Conrad had come to the Congo for work; he’d been a steamer pilot. Unable to work, the Belgians had no use for him, and effectively abandon him to die. He’s nursed back to health by an African woman, who claims to have spoken to his long-dead mother in dreams. She gives her name as Sililo, which Conrad recognizes as a Lenje word meaning, “Born during a relative’s funeral.” She explains that the name refers not to a literal relative’s funeral. Rather, she was named after the local wise woman foretold that she would live “to see the world end.”

At first, Conrad assumes this refers to the coming of the Europeans to the Congo, and the atrocities they unleashed in their greed. But Sililo predicts another ending to come, an end to, “This world where people do not live as they believe,” citing the hypocrisy of the Belgians, who hid their oppression behind a shallow facade of wishing to uplift and “civilize” the natives, and comparing it to the hardships Conrad himself had faced when his family had been sent into exile in Siberia.

Sililo nurses him back to health, bringing him food and water, but also performing blessings to ward off an evil associated with the number four. The symbolism resonates with Conrad, who dreams of his parents and reflects on the death of his mother, four months after returning to exile from leave granted due to her tuberculosis, and on his father’s death four years later.

“I did not know what was happening here in your country when I took this work. I will not stay another day in it.” Partially recovered, Conrad learns that he will have to remain in Kinchassa for a year before he has the opportunity to finish out his contract as a steamer captain and earn his pay, so instead he buys a canoe to make the dangerous trip back to Matadi on his own. Sililo asks him to take her to the coast to find her grandsons, press-ganged into service by the Belgians — her husband and son have already been mutilated by the Belgians for trivial offenses during such forced labor, her son losing two fingers for stealing food to avoid starvation. He agrees to help her rescue them, and she promises he will, “escape the coming judgment.”

Ten years later, he returns to the Congo, four weeks into the invasion from the fourth planet, aboard a steamer out of Dover with his wife, son, and a pack of survivors and refugees from England. They find Matadi dark and dead, victim of a black smoke attack. Conrad had led them here, recalling Sililo’s claims that the forest would provide safety after reports of Martians all across Europe and in the more cosmopolitan parts of Africa.

While they anchor in a secluded area, hiding from the Martians, Sililo herself appears, telling Conrad to, “Bring your people […] And bring your writings. Come with me to see the world end.” Even the invasion, it turns out, is not the end of the world her name predicted. Sililo, her grandsons, and her son (who by now has lost all the fingers on one hand) lead the party back to Kinchassa. A crashed tripod demonstrates the reason for the forest’s safety: the tripods can’t navigate the undergrowth without becoming entangled, and the plant life is too dense to burn through in a timely fashion.

Sililo leads the refugees back to Kinchassa, where armed groups of Africans have effectively turned the city, now cut off from Belgian reinforcement, into a quarantine zone for Europeans. Sililo is less magnanimous in victory than Padmini in India. “You have been like Martians to us,” she tells the Belgians, “When they have gone, you must go.”

Fearing a bloodbath if the Belgians will not leave peacefully, Conrad and his band of refugees appeal to their sense of shame. They tell their stories as victims of the empires of Europe, as Jews victimized by pogroms, as Poles in Russian-occupied Poland, as French Alsatians during the German Annexation. And they pass around the manuscripts of Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim.

This, then, is how the world ends: not from the Martian invasion itself, but with the destruction of all the arguments and propaganda and lies that the imperial powers of the world told themselves to justify their campaigns of inhumanity. With the realization that, hey, they’re the bad guys in this story.

We knew the Martians, after all. We knew them well. They did no new thing among us, and to them all the great nations meant nothing more than Poles, Jews, Moors, or Africans had meant: the Belgians, English, Chinese, and Russians were now peoples to be swept aside. I began to hope that the shock of what the Martians had done to us was so great that, if we somehow survived, we could no longer treat each other that way. The world would truly have ended then, for the Earth would be a new place.

Four weeks later, the Martians have died. The Europeans in Kinchassa allow themselves to be peacefully expelled from the Congo. “Some followed Sililo and me to the coast because they were ashamed of what men had done to each other and knew it must stop. Others came because the Africans surrounded them by the thousands, but they all came.”

Before Conrad and his family depart, taking the first boatload of Belgians back home, Sililo prophesies that, as the world rebuilds, first the Belgians, then the English, and before long all the rest of the world will learn the lesson of the war, ending the old world and building a new one.

The coda skips ahead another eight years to give us a glimpse of this “Great Change”. We are given few details, but a great deal of reason for optimism. Placed in the context of the Martian War, Conrad’s stories, “and the stories of all the oppressed,” play a role in awakening the rest of humanity into, “Living according to our highest ideals.” There is a “Council of Earth”, to which Conrad serves as the delegate from an independent Poland, where he now lives part of the year, healing his violent childhood separation from his homeland.

The story ends with Conrad dreaming, as he had years earlier in Africa, of his mother. In his dream, they walk together, along with his young son, to a turning in the road, leading to an Elysian afterlife, represented by a “beautiful valley,” where Conrad sees those he’d loved and lost – his father, grandfather, uncle, and even Sililo. Though he longs to stay with his mother, she sends him back to his own, new world, along with his son. When he turns away from her valley, back toward the real world, he finds the path ahead has become just as beautiful as the one behind.

Nice pick-me-up at a time when quite a few of us really needed something optimistic. It may not have the pith or the excitement or the cleverness of some of the others, but I really like the way this story handles its themes and handles the general concept of the anthology. The other stories we’ve read, there’s a deliberate parity between the historical personality and the unfolding of events. The stories about people who end up creating a better world are, by and large, about people who already were trying to build a better world, like the Guangxu Emperor and Tolstoy. And even those stories which don’t dwell on the way the war impacts the future history of the world still present events that are generally harmonious with the character of their subjects. Einstein approaches the Martians scientifically and begins to discover the principles of relativity. Roosevelt approaches the Martian invasion like a big game hunt. Twain sets out for a folksy adventure on the Mississippi. When Henry James writes The War of the Worlds, the implication is that he writes it as a Henry James novel.

There’s a certain element of pastiche here: to answer the question “What would it be like if <HISTORICAL PERSON> lived through the War of the Worlds?” most of the authors threw bits and pieces of what those historical people really had done, tossed them in the blender, and arranged what came out into a shape that fit the outline of Wells’s alien invasion story. Fair dinkum, but it leaves something out. By and large, whatever we are told, the viewpoint characters in these stories are not changed by their experiences. Their circumstances change, but they do not. Sure, Tolstoy burns his manuscript and dedicates himself to building a Global Cooperative, but it’s not because he believes anything he didn’t before; what’s changed is that he’s been given an opportunity to put his lifelong beliefs in practice in a different way. And on the one hand, what else are you going to do? Watching historical characters behave the way we are used to seeing them behave but in a new circumstance is what we’re here for, after all. But on the other hand, after two hundred and twenty-eight pages of this, it starts to seem weird that we haven’t seen anyone actually get properly shaken to their core to the point that they completely reevaluate their place in the universe in a non-abstract way in the face of the sort of thing that ought to do that.

And that’s where Bell’s story diverges from the others. Because Bell’s Conrad doesn’t really sound that much like Joseph Conrad. And at the same time, he’s very much a recognizable Conrad. The things Conrad is known for, his imagery when describing the natural word; the grim fates of his characters; his scenes of destruction and abomination; these are largely absent from the narrative itself. We barely get one abbreviated account of an encounter with attacking Martians, but even this is greatly abbreviated. Yet these elements are, even in their absence, intimately woven into the narrative: the whole point to which the story leads is the idea that experiencing a Martian invasion and then reading Heart of Darkness is the formula for getting woke about late nineteenth century social justice.

In To See the World End, Joseph Conrad’s historical literary character is absolutely linchpin. But that character is not identical to the character who actually narrates the story. It is a story about a tragedian (Though Conrad himself objected to such identification), but it is not itself at all tragic — it is a profoundly un-sad eschaton, with an almost shocking lack of any trace of lament for how much has been lost — We are told the story by a Conrad who has himself been changed by the events of the war just as the world has. A man who considered himself stateless, who now calls two states home. A man whose stark and pessimistic view of the human condition has been both vindicated and overcome. Back in the Henry James story, James goes as far as to count himself lucky he wasn’t stuck with Conrad moping through the invasion instead of Wells, yet here we’ve got one of the most upbeat stories in the collection.

That’s what makes this story work so well for me. We don’t get a lot of exposition of what the change in the world looks like in a practical sense, but it turns out that we do learn a lot about it in a very deep sense, a sense that’s foreshadowed through the entire narrative. We learn that the new world they build after the old one ends is the sort of world where Joseph Conrad would write an optimistic, uplifting story about humanity learning to live up to its ideals.

  • War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches is available from amazon.

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

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