Deep Ice: Common bacteria stopped the aliens, but it didn’t kill them (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 12: Jack London)

Previously, on A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

Okay. Home stretch here. I didn’t really expect it to take this long when I started in on Global Dispatches.

I think I like Jack London. I’m not sure. Every time I try to summon up a memory of having read anything by him, it turns out I’m actually remembering My Side of the Mountain by Jean George. So, my dodgy memory notwithstanding, I’m pretty sure that Dave Wolverton manages to do a fair job of evoking London’s style with After a Lean Winter, a story which was nominated for the 1997 Nebula Award for best Novelette.

This is one of the few stories in this anthology where I really genuinely enjoyed the storytelling itself, not just the story or the premise or the twist or the historical insight. The story finds London anachronistically in the Yukon on January 13, 1900. The real-world London had left Alaska in 1898. The fictional version, along with his girlfriend Elizabeth “Bessie” Maddern (the two would marry in April in the real world, but divorce four years later), had returned months earlier, hoping to escape the Martian invasion. Most of the stories we’ve read so far date the invasion to 1900, which is kind of weird, since Wells dates the invasion to “Early in the twentieth century,” and technically, 1900 isn’t in the twentieth century. (And yes, that’s hugely popular layman mistake, but these are science fiction writers we’re talking about, a group known for loving that sort of pedantry). Wolverton sets the invasion a bit earlier, but, unusually, sets the story later.

Fleeing northward turns out to have been a bad move for London. He may have anticipated that the sparsely populated and inhospitable north might escaped attack, but the Martians were creatures native to an icy world. In a major departure from every other story, Martians in the arctic do not expire quickly from Earth disease: they survive and thrive many months later, more comfortable in weather which is outright balmy by Martian standards, and where the thinner atmosphere and greater UV radiation reduced the amount of airborne bacteria. Even the sluggish clumsiness of the Martians’ bodies, recounted by many of the authors (other than Mike Resnick), turns out to be more a matter of them being oppressed by the weather rather than the gravity, as those in the arctic have acclimatized, and some fear that the colony in Alaska will in time acclimatize themselves to Earth bacteria as well, allowing their invasion to be renewed.

Colony, yes. The cylinders which attacked the rest of the world were only an advanced force. A far larger ship landed near Juneau months after the initial invasion, cultivated a “jungle” of native Martian plants that rendered travel southward impossible.

Another oddity: this story is the only one I’ve ever read to mention and expand upon the humanoid creatures the Martians used as livestock on their homeworld. The creatures are mentioned only in a single sentence of the novel, none of them having survived the impacts of the cylinder-ships. The creatures were able to survive the much gentler landing of the colony ship, though, and serve as slaves for the Martians, hunting any humans who try to cross the “Great Northern Martian Jungle”.

Only the cover of a coming snowstorm allows London and the others in the area to meet up at a lodge by Tichen Creek on that January night. None of them are in a good way, but while the gold miners have been able to simply hole up in their mines and work through the invasion in relative safety, the trappers have been hit hardest, unable to ply their trade under the threat of attack. One such trapper is Pierre Jelenc, a man of “almost legendary repute,” now sorely embittered to have lost a year’s earnings, and down to only two dogs after losing five of them in an ill-advised prize fight. He arrives at Hidden Lodge with a large and foreshadowy bundle lashed to his sled, and brings news that the Martians have wiped out Anchorage.

He also brings news that the Martians are building a great walking city:

 “Twelve days now,” Pierre said. “Dere is a jungle growing around Anchorawge now—very thick—and de Marshawns live dere, smelting de ore day and night to build dere machine ceety. Dere ceety—how shall I say?—is magnificent, by gar! Eet stands five hundred feet tall, and can walk about on eets three legs like a walking stool. But is not a small stool—is huge, by gar, a mile across!
“On de top of de table is huge glass bowl, alive with shimmering work-lights, more varied and magnificent dan de lights of Paris! And under dis dome, de Marshawns building dere home.”

Once the storm is fully upon them, bringing cover from patrols of Martian flying machines (Another minor element of the book rarely retained in adaptation), Pierre reveals what’s brought him to the conclave for the first time in months: “By gar, your dogs weel fait mah beast tonait!”

He repeats it a few times, even as the others remind him that he’s down to his last two dogs, before he tires of toying with them and elaborates: the best trapper in the Yukon has captured a live Martian, and will let the assemblage pit their dogs against it. The crowd is immediately consumed by such bloodlust that the local doctor is cold-cocked when he dares suggest they let him study it instead of killing it. Even London himself, noted in the real-world for his animal activism, is drawn in:

 I found myself screaming to be heard, “How much? How much?” And though I have never been one to engage in the savage sport of dogfighting, I thought of my own sled dogs out in front of the lodge, and I considered how much I’d be willing to pay to watch them tear apart a Martian. The answer was simple:
I’d pay everything I owned.

Pierre lays out the details: for an entry fee of five thousand dollars each, he’ll allow eight dogs to take on the Martian. Three-fifths of the take would be shared among the winners. London reckons that selling everything he owns would give him enough to enter his own dog, but he sees something frightening in Pierre’s expression and backs off, sensing danger. Plenty of others are willing to take the bait, though; One-Eyed Kate enters her pit bull; Old Tom King, the miner, enters a veteran husky fighter and Klondike Pete enters two. Four others without cool old-timey prospector names sign up as well. We’re talking about something on the order of a hundred and twenty thousand dollars in today’s money per entrant, which sounds like a lot because it is a lot. But as London explains, “We all secretly believed that we would die before spring. Money meant almost nothing to us. Most of us had been unable to get adequately outfitted for winter and had hoped that a moose or a caribou would get us through the lean months. But Martians harvested the caribou and moose just as they harvested us. Many a man in that room knew that he’d be down to eating his sled dogs by spring. Money means nothing to those who wish only to survive.”

The pit outside is set up and the Martian placed in the cage used to lower bears into it. The physical description of the Martian is what we’re accustomed to: green-gray skin; large eyes; wet, leathery skin; v-shaped, lipless mouth. London repeatedly mentions that, “others have described,” those physical features, but he also adds that there is an indescribable element to the creature’s monstrosity that neither his nor any other report of the things has quite managed to capture.

Pierre promises the Martian its fill of the dogs’ blood, plus its freedom if it survives the fight, and the Martian indicates its understanding and acceptance of those terms. It quickly manages to restrain one of the dogs and feeds from it using a kind of proboscis that resembles a narwhal’s horn.

The fight itself takes up about three pages, and I don’t want to go into detail here, because it is a very well-written, lengthy, detailed description of seven dogs getting slaughtered by an alien monster. It is awesome and terrific in the archaic senses of those words rather than the modern ones: it inspires awe and terror. It does not revel in the spectacle; we are clearly not meant to be enjoying this. Only Old Tom King’s husky survives, too smart to engage the monster. Under the unusual circumstances, Tom is allowed to free his dog: “We would not be amused by the senseless death of this one last canine.”

As promised, Pierre grants the Martian its freedom, in a backhanded sort of way: “As Ah promis’, Ah weel let you go now. But mah companions here […] A no t’ink weel be so generous, by gar. Mah condolences to you!”

The trapper leaves the Martian to the mercy of the others, but something strange happens as Klondike Pete prepares to avenge his huskies. London, coming down from his adrenaline high, momentarily becomes acutely aware of the cold, and it prompts a moment of empathy for the Martian:

I wondered what it was like on Mars. I imagined the planet cooling over millennia, becoming a frozen hell like this land we had all exiled ourselves to. I imagined a warm house, a warm room, and I thought how I, like the Martian, would do anything for one hour of heated solace. I would plot, steal, kill. Just as the Martian had done.

He calls to the others to spare the alien’s life, give it the freedom it had won. Though his protest only stays the others for a moment, his mercy prompts the Martian to communicate with him telepathically:

For one brief moment, my thoughts seemed to expand and my intellect seemed to fill the universe, and I beheld a world with red blowing desert sands so strikingly cold that the sensation assaulted me like a physical blow, crumpling me so that I fell down into the snow, curling into a ball. And as I beheld this world, I looked through eyes that were not my own.

He witnesses the frigid wastes of red planet, feels the Martians’ plight and experiences their envy for the warmth of their neighboring planet. “You understand me. We are one,” the Martian tells him before it dies.

This turns out to be one of the last encounters between humans an Martians. During the storm, the Martian walking city near Anchorage is completed, and begins a northward trek, eventually falling into the arctic ocean. Humanity never learns whether the Martians had drowned in an ill-fated attempt to move to the north pole, or if this had been their intention all along, to set up an undersea colony where they could adapt to life on Earth.

The departure of the Martians, even if he had known at the time, is small comfort to London. He returns home to find that Bessie has died in his absence, drained of blood by the departing Martians. He falls into a long depression, exacerbated by the harsh conditions. He often wishes the Martians would return and take him as well, and by the end of the winter, has been forced to eat his dogs, and eventually even his leather snowshoes. But he does persist. “I lived,” he says, “And slowly, like the march of an enfeebled man, after the lean winter came a chill spring.”

We know that London survived his ordeal with the Martians in Alaska, and by implication, eventually recovered from his depression, but the future from this point is largely a mystery. We do not know whether the Martians ever arose from the depths, and on a personal level, we don’t know how London’s life and career unfolded. He ought to have been in San Francisco at this point, writing his early famous works. Marrying Bessie and fathering the first of his two daughters — Joan London would have been born almost exactly a year after these events. It seems likely London would have wanted to leave Alaska once it was possible to do so, but would he return to his literary career? Would his experience with the Martians recolor his famous tales of man against nature? Or would he, like Tolstoy, decide that the post-invasion world had no place for those kinds of story?

This has got to be the biggest downer in the collection. The only story that’s really thoroughly pessimistic throughout — even Conrad was upbeat. The only story that really comes close is Allen Steele’s St. Louis reporter, and even that is basically just a retelling of the original novel with the viewpoint character catching fewer breaks.

This story features human cruelty, much more than any other in the collection. The humans are cruel to the Martian, and they are cruel to each other, with Pierre’s conniving manipulation of the others, the assault on the doctor, and the berating London receives for his moment of mercy. They put up thousands of dollars to cheer on their sled dogs as they rip a sentient creature to pieces, and end up watching their companion animals butchered. This is, on an intimate scale, the story I said before was surprisingly absent from Global Dispatches: the one where existential terror does not bring mankind together, but makes them dig in, hole up, and recoil from each other, declaring that it’s every man for himself.

It’s probably relevant that this is also the only story to give the Martians an ambiguous fate. The idea that we need to maintain constant hypervigilence against an enemy that might reappear at any moment I think has to be closely linked to the sense of hopelessness and paranoia that permeates this story. I’m not especially happy about it, but this is the only story in the book that feels just as plausible to me now as it did when I first read it over a decade ago.

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

2 thoughts on “Deep Ice: Common bacteria stopped the aliens, but it didn’t kill them (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 12: Jack London)

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  2. Pingback: Deep Ice: Definitely a nutcase (War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches, Part 13: Emily Dickinson) | A Mind Occasionally Voyaging

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