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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress: Part 1: The Dinkum Thinkum

I tend to divide Robert Heinlein's works into two periods: the stuff I like, and everything after Stranger in a Strange Land. I generally prefer the early Heinlein; his short stories and juveniles and some of his earlier novels like Double Star. I didn't care for Stranger -- although many fannish friends of my generation regard it as The Book that Changed Their Lives -- and neither do I like most of the books he wrote after it. Most, but not all. Glory Road is a later Heinlein work that I enjoyed; it's his sole descent into the Sword & Sorcery Epic Fantasy genre, and it's fairly good.

Another is the book we're going to start gnawing on this week: a story of a Revolution on the Moon that parallels in many ways the American Revolution and provides a background for Heinlein to discuss politics, families and government. He originally wanted to title it "The Brass Cannon", for reasons that will come up later, but it was published as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

The story is set on Luna in the late 21st Century. For about a century, the Federated Nations of Earth have been using the Moon as one big penal colony, sending their hard case criminals, their troublemakers and malcontents off-planet. It's a permanent exile, because after a month or so of living in lunar gravity, a person's physiology changes, making it difficult, if not impossible for them to return to Earth. And so a large part of Luna's population consists of ex-convicts who have technically served their sentence and their descendants, living in large, underground domed cities.

Manuel Garcia O'Kelly Davis is a computer repairman in Luna City; or rather, THE computer repairman. He's a typical Loonie: independent, apolitical, and willing to bet on anything if the odds are at least one-in-ten. He narrates the story, and speaks in a peculiar truncated dialect, liberally sprinkled with loanwords from Russian and Australian slang, which takes a bit of getting used to.

Mannie works for the Lunar Authority as a private contractor -- he is NOT on the Warden's payroll, thank you -- fixing the massive mega-mainframe that runs every aspect of life in all the cities of Luna, from communications to power, water and air, to making the transportation tubes run, to calculating trajectories for the huge magnetic "slingshot" used to send shipments of the grain grown in underground Lunar farms to Earth. The Authority calls in Mannie when little glitches turn up, because he's one of the few -- maybe the only -- trained computerman on Luna (the job requires training available only on Earth; Mannie had to take two dangerous trips there to get his education), and because he's familiar with the central computer's little quirks. The biggest of which is that the computer has a sense of humor.

The computer is an Artificial Intelligence. Mannie suspects that the computer gained sentience because people kept adding to it until it's capacity for neural connections surpassed that of a human brain; but we never find out for sure. Mannie calls the computer Mycroft, or Mike for short, after the character in a story "written by Dr. Watson before he started IBM." Mike is like a hyper-intelligent child. He knows practically everything -- if he doesn't have it in his memory banks, he can look it up in a fraction of a second -- but practically nothing about human interaction. He's extremely lonely. Manny is the only human who talks to him; and the only one who knows he is alive.

Lately Mike has been experimenting with humor. He has been collecting and analyzing jokes and trying to invent his own. His latest attempt at humor has been to print off a paycheck to some janitor for ten million million dollars over the correct amount, and so the Authority calls Mannie to fix the problem. This consists of going down to the computer core and chatting with Mike for an hour or so about the nature of humor, while removing and replacing a couple access plates to make it look like he actually did something. Mike promises not to pull any more "jokes" without checking with Mannie first. In exchange, Mannie promises to look over a printout of a hundred jokes out of the thousands he has recorded in his memory to help him evaluate which ones are funny; also to find another "not-stupid" to talk to, (Mike thinks most people are stupid because they only talk to him in computer programming language); and to check in on a meeting hall in Luna City. Mike has audio pickups in many public places, but someone has switched off the one in Stylagi Hall.

When Mannie arrives there he realizes why. A protest meeting is being held there, and the dissidents don't want the Warden listening in. Mannie doesn't have much use for politics, but he promised he'd record the meeting for Mike. It's a raucous gathering, full of speeches which pretty much come down to everyone is unhappy because Luna City is a Company Town; the Lunar Authority sets the fees and prices for everything and ensure that no one can get ahead. The obvious solution is to get rid of Authority! Mannie is skeptical: Everybody does business with Authority for same reason everybody does business with Law of Gravitiation. Going to change that too?

Another speaker addresses the crowd, a statuesque knockout (unlike most of Heinlein's heroines, this one is a blonde) named Wyoming Knott. She comes from Hong Kong Luna, a domed city administered by the Authority, but not directly connected to Luna City. She urges the crowd to throw off their dependency upon Authority and develop a Lunar Free Market so that they can negotiate a fair price with Authority for their produce.

She is interrupted by another speaker; someone Mannie actually knows: Professor Bernando de la Paz, a political dissident who had been transported to Luna many years ago and is respected in the community. He had been Mannie's teacher when he was younger. As far as Professor la Paz is concerned, the main problem is not that Authority is cheating the people of Luna, but that Luna is growing food and sending it to Earth and getting nothing in return. This, Prof insists, is ecologically unsustainable. Eventually Luna must run out of water -- already a rare commodity that must be mined out of the lunar crust -- and then the system will fall apart.

Just then, the Warden's Security Forces bust in to raid the meeting and all hell breaks loose. The Loonies fight back. One of the rebels, an old friend of Mannie's, tells Mannie to get Wyoh to safety... just before the goons blow the man's leg off.

So Mannie hustles Wyoh out of the hall, and they find refuge in Room L of the Raffles Hotel, after disguising Wyoh so that she won't be quite so noticeable. (They use hair dye and makeup to make her look black; which in context seems logical, but always gives me bad Al Jolson flashbacks). They indulge in a little sexual banter, to establish that Mannie isn't in a hurry to bed her, but that she wouldn't necessarily mind if he was.

We learn a little bit more about Wyoh. (For one, she hates the pun "Why Not?" which everybody makes on her name). She's a "Free Woman", which from Mannie's reaction we gather is a sort of chip-on-the-shoulder feminist. She used to be married to a pair of brothers in Hong Kong Luna, (because of the low percentage of women in Luna's population, the standard "One-Man/One-Woman" marriage is unknown and this is an important theme in the book); but when her first child turned out to be a "monster", the they agreed to a divorce. None of them were willing to risk the chance that her future babies would also suffer birth defects. (Yes, Wyoh is another of Heinlein's women who want babies; but in her case I think her reasons are well explained). The doctors determined that her ovaries had been damaged by radiation exposure she suffered when she was originally transported to Luna as a child. The ship she was on had been forced to remain out in a solar storm longer than necessary because of bureaucratic red tape. "I was too young to know. But I wasn't too young later to figure out that I had birthed a monster because the Authority doesn care what happens to us outcasts."

This is what drove Wyoh to pursue politics an become a revolutionary. And I think it's important, because it points out a weak spot in Heinlein's Libertarian utopia. The repressive Authority didn't care about her; but a purely Libertarian one wouldn't care either. The only thing that would have protected her would have been rules by a meddlesome Regulatory State, limiting radiation exposure levels and providing better protection for transports. But this point is ignored later on.

Mannie cautiously feels her out, and decides that she might very well be a "Not-Stupid." He shares Mike's printout of jokes with her and together they rate the jokes as "funny", "not funny" and "funny once". Manny notes that the jokes upon which they disagree tend to be about the "oldest funny subject". He then tells her about Mike.

Her immediate reaction is a sober one: "Mannie, does Mike hurt?" Because Mike is the boss computer of the whole Authority, he would make a perfect target for sabotage. A couple kilos of explosives in the right place would cripple the Authority.

Mannie is aghast. It would also kill his friend. A moment of consideration convinces him that it would be impractical too: destroying Mike would not just cripple the Lunar Authority, it would also blackout power all over Luna, shut down the heating and the air circulation system. Wyoh would do much better to get Mike on her side.

"Mike doesn't feel loyalty to Warden. As you pointed out: He's a machine. But if I wanted to foul up phones without touching air or water or lights, I would talk to Mike. If it struck him as funny, he might do it."

Mannie calls up Mike and introduces him over the phone to Wyoh. Mike is delighted to meet a new friend and the two hit it off quite well. In fact, comparing notes on their ratings of Mike's joke list, Wyoh realizes that Mike's sense of humor is closer to hers than it is to Mannie's. "Mannie... Mike is a she!". In chatting privately with Wyoh, Mike creates an alternate persona with a feminine voice which she calls "Michelle", Since we see the story from Mannie's point of view, we don't get to see very much of Michelle, but this does establish Mike's ability to take on other identities.

Professor la Paz has been looking for Mannie and Wyoh, and with Mike's help, he is brought to their hideout in Room L. Prof explains what happened after they left. A few of the revolutionaries were killed by the Security forces, but not one of the goons survived. The Warden has clamped down on the news agencies to suppress reports of the debacle. This leads to a discussion of revolutionary theory.

Nearly all of Heinlein's novels have an "Old Man" character who is a dispenser of wisdom and a mouthpiece for Heinlein's ideas. In this story, it's Professor la Paz. Prof is a self-described Rational Anarchist. ""What's this? Randite?" Wyoh asks. "I can get along with a Randite. A rational anarchist believes that concepts such as 'state' and 'society' and 'government' have not existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals." He and Wyoh argue further about his principles, with Mannie remaining neutral. "Every time I state a general principle, you wiggle out," Wyoh complains.

(It is important to note that Prof is also a Rational Vegetarian. When he arrives at the hotel room, hungry after a day of hiding, and smells the ham steak that room service had delivered for breakfast, he asks if he could have some of that 'pink salmon.' He argues quite eloquently, but when it comes right down to it, his philosophy really is a slippery one).

But on the important issues, they are in agreement. Both desire an end to the Authority, and would die to achieve that end.

Mannie is still unconvinced. He's willing to bet on a long-shot; he says that any Loonie would be willing to bet on ten-to-one odds; but he first wants to know the odds. Prof protests that calculating the odds of a successful revolution would be impossible. Wyoh gets an idea. "Ask Mike," she says.

After some discussion which Prof finds confusing, Mannie and Wyoh agree to introduce him to Mike. Once pleasantries are out of the way, they ask Mike to analyze Prof's projections about Luna's future. In the short run, Mike says, Wyoh's plan of forcing the Authority to pay better prices would benefit Luna; but in the long run, resources would run out. He projects that there would be food riots in seven years, and after that people would resort to cannibalism. This sobers everybody. Even Prof did not expect the Long Run to come so soon. Then they ask him to project odds on a revolution.

It's not an easy problem. Prof and Mike spend a good couple hours discussing all the possible factors, and once they are both satisfied, it takes thirteen minutes for Mike to do the number-crunching -- an eternity in computer time. Finally Mike comes up with the answer.

"Manuel my friend, I am terribly sorry! ... I have tried and tried, checked and checked. There is but one chance in seven of winning! "

NEXT WEEK: Chapters 7-13; Forging a Revolution; the birth of Adam Selene; driving the Warden crazy, "Know any vips dirtside?" and Things Come to a Head.

Monday, January 30, 2012

THE WIDOW Band interview


Now for some questions for the band, The Widow

Who are the members of The Widow?

Dan Bartlett – Vocals, Keys

Mitch Simpson – Vocals, Keys

Joel Danger McCarty – Drums

Brandon Bornhoft – Guitar

Mike House – Bass

Former member: Dan Gast – Drums

What does the name of the band mean?

In the beginning when the band first got together we were having trouble finding a name for ourselves. We honestly didn't have any ideas going around. A few people were asking us what our name was and we need something temporary until we came up with a real name. One of the bands we were all really into at that time was As Cities Burn and one of their songs off of their 1st album was called The Widow. One of us was like, “Hey, lets call ourselves The Widow like the song.” It just kind of stuck.

What music inspired the members of The Widow?

We all listen to a lot of of different styles and eras of music. Everything from 60's and 70's Psychedelic Rock to Metal and Hardcore. In the beginning of our project we were listening to bands like Emery, As Cities Burn, and Showbread. Especially Showbread's albums Anorexia and Nervosa. Those two albums were a major influence to us. Other influences include Radiohead, Pink Floyd, The Listening, The Devil Wears Prada, Underoath, and many, many more.

For those who haven't listened to your work yet, how would you describe it?

It's melodic, and yet very dark. We tried to bring both soft and hard together into one. The music leaves you feeling anxious and relaxed at the same time. Someone once told us we were the Pink Floyd of metal. We thought that was a pretty generous compliment! It's very synth driven, and we use a lot of off beat rhythms with a mix of screaming and clean vocals. There are also elements of organized chaos.

What events or decisions led to the creation of the band The Widow?

Dan, Mitchell, and Dan Gast (who was the original drummer for The Widow) had been in a small Christian rock band called Not About Us. That band broke up at the end off the summer of 2007. There was some talk of starting a new band but they didn't have a guitar player. Dan met Brandon who was the roommate of a friend. Dan lived in a small 2 bedroom apartment and needed a place to store his equipment. To make a long story short, Brandon ended up letting Dan store his equipment in his basement and Dan soon learned of Brandon's love for music, guitar, and recording. Dan asked Mitch and Dan Gast if they wanted to start writing new music and asked Brandon if he'd help. The band formed in early in 2009 and began writing.

What are your goals for your creative work, and if you were to suggest a model for your band to follow, who would it be and why?

We really just want to make music and share it. We love music. We haven't set out with any crazy goals for our work other than we want it to be genuine and have quality. We don't really have any models we follow after. We strive for originality and uniqueness. We like to do things different, and don't mind causing people to think.

What are the backgrounds of the individual talents on the Widow

Dan was classically trained in piano for seven years, and taught himself how to play guitar. Mitchell played Clarinet in band in High School, and taught himself bass which he played in the band Not About Us. Brandon taught himself guitar, bass, and audio engineering. Mike picked up and taught himself bass when The Widow formed. Joel taught himself drums and has played for various bands in the past as well as working for Victory Records.

Who is God?

Every member of The Widow believes that Jesus is the express image of the invisible God. Jesus is God, and is our Lord. If you want to know who God is, than you must read the gospels and study Jesus' life, ministry, and message.

Artistically do we create to reflect our creator as we create, or do we create to express our humanity?

Both. When we write, we strive to reflect reality. We try to reflect how we see the world, and what's important or real to us. Some times that comes out reflecting our humanity and sinfulness, and some times it comes out reflecting our Creator. An important thing to remember is that no one in this world can reflect their Creator perfectly because of our fallen state. All art in the world has elements of humanity in it.

Is the world ready for The Widow?

Sure! However, our music appeals to people who listen to music for it's artistic appeal. Our music isn’t flashy. It's slow and tells a story. It takes patience. Most people in this day in age want something quick, and has a “catchy” melody (radio friendly music).

When can we hope to see the next new CD of music from The Widow?

We are currently working on a new album and are 4 songs into it. We are hoping to release a full length album that has at least 10 tracks on it. We are super stoked on the new stuff! Hopefully we can release it some time in 2012, if not early 2013.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

War of the Worlds 4: Dead London

In last week's reading, our Narrator and his companion the Curate found themselves trapped in a house that had been buried under the rubble from one of the Martian Cylinders. During their fifteen days of imprisonment, the Curate went mad and the Narrator struck him down in a vain attempt to keep him from alerting the Martians. The Narrator spent the next few days of terror hiding. When he came out again, the pit was empty and the Martians were all gone.

For some time I stood tottering on the mound regardless of my safety. Within that noisome den from which I had emerged I had thought with a narrow intensity only of our immediate security. I had not realized what had been happening to the world, had not anticipated this startling vision of unfamiliar things. I had expected to see [the town of] Sheen in ruins -- I found about me the landscape, weird and lurid, of another planet.

The Martians have brought with them -- whether by accident or intent -- the seeds of native Martian plant life which has spread kudzu-like all over the countryside; especially along the waterways. The Narrator tells us that this Red Weed eventually died off, victim to some sort of terrestrial blight (more foreshadowing!), but for the time being, he has to struggle through dense patches of it.

His immediate concern is food; but there is little to be found. He is able to dig up some roots from neglected gardens, but the few houses he finds intact have already been emptied of food. What remains is mostly spoiled. He spends the night at a ransacked inn on Putney Hill in suburban London. He ponders briefly on his killing of the Curate, an act which, in retrospect, gives him "no sensation of remorse or horror to recall." He frets about the fate of his wife. Finally, he sits down an prays, deeply and earnestly, for the first time since he left Leatherhead.

I had uttered prayers, fetish prayers, had prayed as heathens mutter charms when I was in extremity; but now I prayed indeed, pleading steadfastly and sanely, face to face with the darkness of God. Strange night! strangest in this, that so soon as dawn had come, I, who had talked with God, crept out of the house like a rat leaving its hiding place -- a creature scarcely larger, an inferior animal, a thing that for any passing whim of our masters might be hunted and killed. Perhaps they also prayed confidently to God. Surely, if we have learned nothing else, this war has taught us pity -- pity for those witless souls that suffer our dominion.

As he continues on, me meets a man, armed with a cutlass, who has been watching him. At first, the confrontation is tense; the Narrator has entered the stranger's territory, and he demands that the Narrator leave. But as they talk, they recognize each other. The stranger is the Artilleryman the Narrator met after the destruction of Woking and whom he accompanied to Weybridge. Well, that makes them practically old comrades, and the Artilleryman invites the Narrator back to his bolt-hole.

The Artilleryman tells him a bit about how he escaped from Weybridge, and a lot about what he thinks about the Martians. "This isn't a war... It never was a war any more than there's a war between men and ants." He's given a lot of thought to what the Martians want from humanity, and his outlook is bleak. "Cities, nations, civilization, progress -- it's all over. That game's up. We're beat."

"All these -- the sort of people that lived in these houses, and all those damn little clerks that used to live down that way -- they'd be no good.... the Martians will just be a godsend to these. Nice roomy cages, fattening food, careful breeding, no worry. After a week or so chasing about the fields and lands on empty stomachs, they'll come and be caught cheerful. They'll be quite glad after a bit. They'll wonder what people did before there were Martians to take care of them.... Very likely these Martians will make pets of some of them; train them to do tricks -- who knows? get sentimental over the pet boy who grew up and had to be killed. And some, maybe, they will train to hunt us."

But the Artilleryman is a man with a vision. In order to survive, humanity is going to have to go underground. "We have to invent a sort of life where men can live and breed, and be sufficiently secure to bring the children up." His idea is to retreat into the sewer tunnels and subways of London and build a new civilization. He has definite ideas about what kind of people should be allowed into his survivalist utopia. "We're not going to pick up any rubbish that drifts in," he says. "Weaklings go out again." It occurs to the Narrator that he himself was nearly one of the weaklings the Artilleryman cast out.

In his imagination, he has it all planned out: recruiting able-bodied and clean-minded women -- not the weak and hysterical type; raids on the British Museum to preserve books and knowledge; organizing networks to spy on the Martians; and one day:

Just imagine this: Four or five of their fighting-machines suddenly starting off -- Heat Rays right and left, and not a Martian in 'em. Not a Martian in 'em, but men -- men who have learned the way how.... Fancy having one of them lovely things, with its Heat Ray wide and free! Fancy having it in control! ...swish comes the Heat Ray, and, behold! man has come back to his own."

But for all the Artilleryman's big plans, he hasn't actually accomplished much. He's amassed a goodly cache of scavenged food and booze and he's started to dig a tunnel from his hideout to the nearest drainage tunnel, but he hasn't gotten very far; and although the Narrator is eager to help, the Artilleryman would rather celebrate his new companion. The two stay up most of the night drinking and playing cards.

The next morning, the Narrator is thoroughly ashamed of the previous night's binge; and he realizes that his new friend is more talk than action. He decides to leave the Artilleryman and continue on into London to learn what the Martians are doing.

The streets of London are completely deserted. In places the sooty residue from the Black Smoke dusts the streets. Occasionally, he'll find a skeleton, stripped clean of flesh by scavengers. As he proceeds further, he hears a hideous howling, a piteous wail: "Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla..." The cry continues incessantly as he makes his way through the city. At the crest of a hill, he sees the source of the ululation: one of the Martian Machines, simply standing stock still in the middle of the street.

Further on, he finds a wrecked Martian Handling Machine, which has apparently run directly into a building and crashed. And further still, another Tripod, motionless like the other; and then a third.

Impulsively, he decides to stop hiding. He makes his way to the Tripod, which he now sees is standing in a huge Martian encampment on Primrose Hill. As he gets closer, he sees birds flocking around the hood of the Machine; and closer still, he sees that the birds are pecking away at the lifeless, rotting tentacles hanging limply from the open cockpit. Reaching the rim of the Martian encampment, he sees that all of the Martians in it are dead.

The Martians had no defenses against terrestrial diseases; apparently they had no diseases at all on their homeworld. And so they were slain, "after all man's devices had failed, by the humblest thing that God, in his wisdom, had put upon the earth." The Narrator even mentions a Biblical allusion I had forgotten about: the destruction of Sennacherib's army by a plague as it besieged Jerusalem. And just as the first to discover Sennacherib's defeat were a group of lepers wandering into the Assyrian camp, so did the Narrator, a wandering vagabond, discover the overthrow of the invincible Martians.

The Narrator skims over the next several days. He is found by a kindly couple who take him in and help restore him to health. He learns that the town of Leatherhead was indeed destroyed by the Martians during their brief reign of terror. With a heavy heart, he returns to his old home. As he walks through his study, reading the foolish essay on futurism he had started the morning the Martians arrived, he hears voices downstairs. It is his wife, who has also escaped the Martians and has also returned to the house in the foolish hope of finding her husband. And so they are at last reunited.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

War of the Worlds 3: Under the Martians

In our last reading, we experienced the evacuation of London in advance of the Martian attack; and witnessed the heroic sacrifice of the torpedo ram Thunder Child which managed to destroy two Martian Fighting Machines and save the ships ferrying refugees out of England.

Meanwhile, our Nameless Narrator has been witnessing the Martian advance from ground-level, barely escaping from the destruction of Weybridge. He has fallen in with a curate from the Weybridge church, whose faith and whose very reason has been horribly shaken by the Martian blitzkrieg. Together they see the Martians unleash a new weapon, a chemical attack producing a suffocating black cloud.

We pick up with Book Two of The War of the Worlds: Earth Under the Martians

The Narrator and his unwanted companion the Curate make their way through the destruction left in the wake of the Martian advance. Although some of the towns they encounter have been razed by the Heat Ray, others have been left relatively untouched. At one point, they see a Fighting Machine striding across a field, pursuing a small group of people. Instead of training it's weapons on them, the Martian reaches down and grabs them, one by one, and places each in a large basket-like container in the rear of the machine. This is our first intimation that the Martians may have plans for humanity other than extermination.

They take refuge that night in an abandoned house. As the two are arguing what to do next, a blinding glare of green light comes through the window, followed by a cataclysmic crash.

The Fifth Cylinder has landed; and it has come down nearly on top of them. The house they are in has been almost completely buried in the earth thrown up by the impact crater. Only the kitchen and pantry and a couple small adjacent utility rooms escaped destruction; and when the Narrator is able to look out on his surroundings, he sees that the only available means of escape looks out into the pit where the Cylinder lies, and where one of the Fighting Machines has already taken position as a sentry.

The Narrator and the Curate spend several nightmarish days hiding from the Martians. From their vantage point, the Narrator has the opportunity to see the Martians up close. He describes in detail the variety of machines the Martians use. In addition to the Fighting Machines, they have general purpose Handling Machines that they use to assemble other machines and do routine work around the pit. The Narrator also describes a processing machine that seems to refine aluminium from the clay of the pit. The Narrator is struck by how these machines seem more like living creatures than mere mechanisms. Even the stilt-like legs of the Fighting Machines are supple and organic, despite the silvery, glittering metal they are crafted out of. Here is where the subject of Martians seeming to lack the wheel which was mentioned in last week's comment thread comes up, and the Narrator observes that the wheel does not exist in nature either, suggesting that Martian technology is based on imitating organic life.

The Narrator also describes the Martians in detail, and here he throws in an in-joke. He quotes "a certain speculative writer of quasi-scientific repute" who had before the invasion written a piece about what the future of Human Evolution might look like. That speculative writer, of course, was Wells himself. In the cases of both the hypothetical Future Man and the Martians themselves, all non-essential biological functions have atrophied leaving pretty much the brain, super-sized into a tremendous intellect; and the hands, which have elongated and evolved into highly-sensitive and dexterous tendrils.

They have become pure intellect, unfettered by other biological processes. Lacking a bulky muscular system that requires periodic rest, the Martians need no sleep. They have no sexual organs -- they reproduce like the microscopic hydra, by budding -- and have no digestive organs at all. They take in nutrition by injecting the blood of other creatures directly into their veins. That is what the Martians want humans for; and the Narrator has the opportunity to see one of the Martians feed this way.

The Narrator also mentions in passing that the Martians seem to have either eliminated microorganisms on their planet, or to have never had them to begin with. This is important. There will be a test later.

As interesting as this all is in an academic sense, the Narrator is still stuck. He can't leave the ruined house without going through the Martian's pit; he lives in terror that the Martians will notice him; and the Curate is really getting on his nerves. The man's incessant mutterings, alternating between apocalyptic rants and whining self-pity, have gotten worse. And as the Curate's mental condition becomes more and more unstable, he becomes more careless.

They have a limited supply of food, and the two men begin to quarrel over it. The Narrator tries to ration their provisions, but the Curate keeps sneaking more than his share. His compulsive stream of muttering becomes louder, oblivious to whether the Martians can hear him or not. The Narrator tries to quiet him, but the deranged deacon will not be silenced. He launches into a strident jerimand and begins shouting at the top of his lungs, running towards the hole in the wall looking out into the Martian's pit. The Narrator grabs a meat cleaver and strikes the Curate a blow to the head with it's butt end.

Too late. The Martians have heard and one approaches the opening to investigate. It grabs the still body of the Curate; and then its tentacles begin to probe the rest of the kitchen.

The Narrator flees into the coal cellar and shuts the door. In one of the most suspenseful passages of the book, he waits, breathlessly, as the Martian investigates the door and opens it and as it's tentacle blindly gropes around the cellar. At one point the tentacle touches his boot, and the Narrator is sure he is finished; but finally the Martian contents itself by taking a lump of coal for study.

It's a full day before the Narrator dares venture out of the cellar; and even then, he dares not go near the opening. The Martians have taken all the food out of the pantry. The Narrator has access to a working water pump, but he fears that the noise it makes will attract their attention. For a few more days he waits. He's not hearing noises from the pit any more. Then, on the fifteenth day of his captivity, he hears a dog nosing around outside. The Narrator looks out the opening, which has become overgrown with strange Martian weeds, and sees that the pit around the Martian Cylinder is empty.

The Martians have gone.

NEXT WEEK: We wrap things up. We meet a survivalist on Putney Hill; we walk through the streets of Dead London; and we learn the truth about Earth's Invisible Allies. Until next time, "Ulla ulla ulla!"

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

War of the Worlds 2: The War Begins

As last we saw, a large metallic cylinder has landed in the Common outside of the village of Horsell in southern England. The cylinder has come from the planet Mars and its passengers, inhuman tentacled horrors, are decidedly hostile. They are armed with a horrific weapon which fires a beam of intense heat which causes anything it touches to spontaneously combust. The Unnamed Narrator witnesses the incineration of a crowd of onlookers on the common and barely makes it home alive.

A second cylinder has now landed. The War is beginning.

Saturday morning begins with the rattle of the milkman's cart. Everything seems quite normal. The Narrator hears that troops have come to surround the pit where the Martians are holed up and his neighbors seem fairly confident that the army will soon have things well in hand. In fact, some seem worried that the Martians might be utterly destroyed. "It's a pity that they made themselves so unapproachable... It would be curious to know how they live on another planet; we might learn a thing or two."

The Narrator strikes up a conversation with some of the soldiers who have arrived at the village; he describes the Martians and the Heat Ray and the soldiers discuss tactics. But nothing else happens all morning. The soldiers stay camped in their positions, waiting for the heavy artillery to arrive, and the Martians remain in their pit. Noises and smokes from the pit suggest that they are working on something, but no one knows what.

Still, the Narrator is pretty excited about the whole business and confident that the army will take care of things. That is, until late that afternoon when he happens to notice that, since some of the larger buildings on the edge of the village have been destroyed, his own house is within line-of-sight of the Heat Ray.

He tells his Wife they have to leave. He remembers he has a cousin in the town of Leatherhead, about twelve miles away. He manages to borrow a dogcart, a light horse-drawn carriage, from the landlord of the nearby public house, promising to return it by midnight. By this time, soldiers are starting to go from door to door, telling people to evacuate the village. The Narrator and his Wife are getting out just in time.

They make it to Leatherhead safely, and with his Wife's misgivings, the narrator heads back to his village to return the cart. This is one thing about the book that annoys me. The Narrator's Wife is almost a complete nonentity. He alludes to conversations with her, but she seems to only exist as a plot device. Once in high school I tried drawing a cartoon adaptation of the book but I got hung up after a couple pages because of the wife. I couldn't picture what she was like or what she would say because the book doesn't give us any of that; and at the time I wasn't confident enough as a writer to make something up.

On the way back from Leatherhead, a thunderstorm gathers. The Narrator is within sight of his village when a streak of green in the sky heralds the landing of the Third Cylinder. The original flashes on the surface of Mars occurred once every twenty-four hours; and now the Cylinders that were fired are arriving, one at a time, every night. Frightened by the nearby landing, his horse bolts and about the same time the thunderstorm breaks. In the flashes of lightning, the Narrator sees glimpses of something huge moving up ahead of him. And then he gets a good look:

And the Thing I saw ! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder.... Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground? That was the impression those instant flashes gave. But instead of a milking stool imagine it a great body of machinery on a tripod stand.

A second machine appears directly in the Narrator's path, and in trying to control his already panicked horse, he runs off the road. The cart overturns and the horse falls, breaking its neck. Stranded in the middle of the downpour, the Narrator makes his way to the village back to his house. The village is largely deserted now. He stumbles across a dead body; it is the landlord of the pub, who won't be needing his dogcart any more.

As he waits in his house for morning, he spots another survivor; an Artilleryman who had been with the soldiers surrounding the pit earlier in the day. The Artilleryman tells the harrowing story of how the first Martian Fighting Machine had wiped out his unit and gone on to destroy the town of Woking.

The next day, Sunday morning, the two of them fill their pockets with provisions and head out together; the Artilleryman to rejoin his battery, and the Narrator to get back to his Wife in Leatherhead; making a wide detour around the Third Cylinder. They meet up with more soldiers setting up gun emplacements near the town of Weybridge and trying, with varying success, to urge the citizens to evacuate. And then the Martians come.

Wells goes into great detail describing each of the battles in the book. Although a pacifist, or perhaps because of it, he had a great interest in war. He enjoyed playing with toy soldiers and later wrote a book entitled "Little Wars" containing perhaps the first rules for strategic miniatures games. The Martian Fighting Machines advance on Weybridge, firing their Heat Ray at the visible gun emplacements. One hidden unit manages to hit one of he Fighting Machines right in the "face" where the controlling Martian sat, and the remaining Machines withdraw; but the victory is a Pyrrhic one. The Narrator narrowly escapes being boiled alive when the fallen Machine's Heat Ray projector falls into the river where he was taking refuge.

Fleeing from the battle, the Narrator falls in with a Curate, an assistant clergyman from the Weybridge church. The Curate has been shattered by the sudden destruction of his church. "What does it mean? What do these things mean? ...Why are these things permitted? What sins have we done?" He is convinced that they are now experiencing the End Times and that the Martians are God's Instruments of Destruction.

The Narrator becomes annoyed by the Curate's apocalyptic despair. "Be a man! ... "You are scared out of your wits! What good is religion if it collapses under calamity? Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men! Did you think God had exempted Weybridge? He is not an insurance agent." Considering how the Narrator's own mood has gone back and forth like a yo-yo, he's being a bit hard on the clueless cleric; but the Curate will become more grating as time goes on.

Here Wells jumps from the Narrator's account to his Brother, a medical student living in London. The Brother reads accounts of the Martian's arrival in the newspapers, but the early reports are confused. The early reports emphasize the Martian's sluggishness and their weakness in Earth's gravity. Because the Martians destroy the rail and telegraph lines, news of the invasion travels little faster than the Martians themselves. The panic does not hit until Monday morning, when news of terrible massacres in the Thames valley arrives. London is in immediate danger and people begin to flee.

What causes the panic is a dreadful battle in Surrey that the Narrator and the Curate are able to witness from a distance. The Army has learned from it's previous encounters and has positioned its artillery under cover so that they are sheltered from the Heat Ray. But the Martians have learned too. When the Army opens fire, the Martians respond by shooting canisters into the woods from which a dense, suffocating smoke emerges. The soldiers who flee from the Black Smoke become easy prey for the Heat Ray.

The scene shifts back to the Narrator's Brother who is now caught up in the mass of humanity fleeing London. When I first read the book as a kid, I found these London chapters boring; but now I can appreciate them more. This I think is what Wells enjoyed most: showing these glimpses of ordinary people reacting to the unbelievable. The Brother comes to the rescue of a couple ladies being accosted by robbers and joins up with them. Together they press on through the mass of refugees. It is here that we get the vignette one of the commenters referred to last week of the "bearded, eagle-faced man" clutching a valise full of gold, who is run down by a carriage when his bag spills open and he tries to recover his wealth.

The final chapter of this first part of the book is one of the most dramatic scenes in the novel. The Brother and his companions have reached the coast where a flotilla of ships, like a Dunkirk in reverse, are picking up refugees to carry them to safety. Among these ships is one naval vessel, a torpedo ram called the Thunder Child.

The torpedo ram was a small, low-profile ship built in the late 1800s. It originally used a "spar torpedo", an explosive device mounted at the end of a long pole that the vessel would drive into its target. It's low profile and high speed were intended for quick, hit and run missions. As modern self-propelled torpedoes became more common, the torpedo ram retained it's secondary function as a ram.

As the refugee ships are leaving the harbor, three Fighting Machines arrive and wade out into the water to stop them. The Thunder Child heads towards the Martians to intercept them, holding its own fire so as not to provoke the Martians into using the Heat Ray. The Thunder Child catches the Martians off-guard; it is fast enough to steam through the clouds of Black Smoke they launch at it before the vapors can kill its crew. By the time the Martians realize the danger, the Thunder Child has already rammed into one, wrecking it; and the ram able to get close enough to a second that when the Martians turn their Heat Ray on it causing it's boiler to explode, the Thunder Child takes the second Fighting Machine with it. The sacrifice of the torpedo ram not only destroys two Martian Machines, it gives the refugee ships time to safely escape.

NEXT WEEK: Earth Under the Martians! Martians up close! And The Death of the Curate!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

War of the Worlds 1: The Coming of the Martians

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's, and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.

Invasion Stories have been a notable sub-genre of Speculative Fiction for well over a century now. Their level of popularity has waxed and waned depending on the mood and the paranoia of the time. H.G. Wells took this formula and gave it a twist: his invaders were not the militaristic Prussians or the perfidious French or even the countless hordes of Chinese as in one Jack London short story. Wells brought his invaders from outer space and forever knocked humanity off of the top of the food chain.

The story starts out with a description of Mars, as it was known to Victorian Science. At the time, the prevailing theory of the origin of the Solar System was the Nebular Hypothesis, stating that the Solar System was originally a large cloud of gas which cooled and condensed into the planets we know today. Current theory is somewhat similar, but there was one important aspect of the original Nebular Hypothesis that was basic to the premise of War of the Worlds, and was highly influential in Science Fiction for the first half of the 20th Century. This is that as the primordial nebula of the Solar System condensed, the outer planets were the first to form and cool. This meant that these outer planets were much older than the Earth.

This seemed to be verified by astronomical observation. Mars, with it's cold, thin atmosphere, appeared to be a dying planet, millions of years past its prime. (And, by corollary; it seemed reasonable to picture hot, cloud-enveloped Venus as being similar to Earth in the prehistoric past).

And so Wells pictured his Martians as a very old, technologically advanced race dwelling on a dying world with dwindling resources and looking covetously at our own green Earth. In doing so, he quite deliberately held a mirror up to European colonial attitudes of his own era:

And Before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our on species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

The first inkling humans have of the oncoming invasion is when flares of light are observed on the Martian surface; "Outbreaks of incandescent gas" similar to "Flaming gasses [rushing] out of a gun." The narrator's friend, an astronomer named Ogilvy, invites him to watch the flares one evening. They occur every night at midnight for about two weeks. Ogilvy speculates that they might be caused by meteors striking the planet's surface, or perhaps by some sort of volcanic eruption. He scoffs at the idea that inhabitants of Mars might be signalling the Earth. "The chances of anything manlike on Mars are a million to one."

Then one night a "falling star" lands in the Common between the villages of Horsell, Ottershaw and Woking. The Thing is an immense cylinder, and when Ogilvy goes to investigate, he sees that the top of the cylinder is rotating, like the top of a can unscrewing. Despite his early skepticism, he instantly realizes that this is an artificial object and undoubtedly came from Mars.

A large crowd of curiosity-seekers from the nearby villages, including the narrator, soon gathers. The top of the cylinder finally opens and the spectators get a glimpse of an octopus-like creature with leathery skin and writhing tentacles. Ogilvy was right after all; they Martians are not particularly manlike.

Ogilvy, along with Stent, the Astronomer Royal who has come to investigate the cylinder, and a few reporters, cobble together a white flag of truce and approach the Martians in order to communicate with them. The Martians, for their part, have begun raising up a long, segmented pole with some sort of mirror at the top.

Forthwith flashes of actual flame, a bright glare leaping from one to another, sprang from the scattered group of men. It was as if some invisible jet impinged upon them and flashed into white flame. It was as if each man were suddenly and momentarily turned to fire.

When the Tom Cruise remake of WotW came out a few years ago, my teenage daughter commented that this scene from the 1953 George Pal version seriously freaked her out when she was little. When I was little, I was freaked out by the Edward Gorey illustrations of the edition I read, with the Martian fighting machines towering over little burning figures lying on the ground and wreathed in flames. Interestingly enough, in Wells's description, the Heat Ray is invisible. There is a puff of glowing, green smoke from its projector before it fires; and its targets burst into flame, but the beam itself is silent and invisible; much like laser beams are in real life.

After killing the Deputation, the Martian's Heat Ray flashes around in a wide circle, incinerating most of the crowd around the pit. By sheer luck, the hero manages to make it home and is surprised to find most of the people there indifferent to the whole matter. These were the ones, after all, who stayed home. They weren't impressed by the initial reports of the cylinder and not inclined to believe the hero's wild stories.

Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about the novel from our standpoint of a century later is how slow communications are in Wells's day. News of the Martians is remarkably slow to filter out of the Horsell Common, and much of that is confused and erroneous. (Of course, having the reporters on the scene unable to confirm their initial reports because they've been incinerated doesn't help).

The Narrator tells his wife about the inferno on the Common. She is horrified at his story and fearful of the Martians. He tries to reassure her. The Martians are limited in their mobility by Earth's greater gravity. In the brief glimpses he saw of the Martians, they seemed sluggish and hesitant. As terrible as the Heat Ray might seem, the Martians are trapped in their pit. Now that the initial rush of terror and adrenaline have worn off, the Narrator is beginning to feel more confident.

So some respectable dodo bird in the Mauritius might have lorded it in his nest, and discussed the arrival of that shipfull of pitiless sailors in want of animal food. "We will peck them to death tomorrow, my dear."

That night, the second Cylinder arrives.

NEXT: The Fighting Machines emerge and the fighting begins in earnest.