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!"

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