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.

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