The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells

Jul. 26th, 2017 03:06 pm
rushthatspeaks: (vriska: consider your question)
[personal profile] rushthatspeaks
I haven't reviewed anything here in far, far too long, and I certainly didn't think this book would be the thing to push me into wanting to write something. However. At Readercon, I picked up the new collection of Ursula K. Le Guin essays, Words Are My Matter, of which this is not a review because I am nowhere near finishing it, and I noticed that there are three separate essays on H. G. Wells. Three! This is not unique, in the structure of the book-- there are also three separate essays on José Saramago-- but that makes more sense to me, because Saramago, you know, Nobel laureate, relatively recent death, work in an interesting position vis-à-vis speculative fiction as a genre, there are some conversations to be had there that seem very much in Le Guin's chosen critical milieu. But H. G. Wells! Hasn't everything been said already?

Then it occurred to me that I, personally, had not read any Wells since the age of eight or nine, when I'd read The Time Machine and found it pretty and confusing, and then hit The War of the Worlds and found it extremely upsetting and went away again. So I went back. The Time Machine is indeed very pretty, though far less confusing to an older person. The Island of Dr. Moreau turned out to be the most vicious piece of theological criticism I have encountered in years, and an actual novel with things like character dimensionality to boot, as well as such an obvious influence on Lovecraft that I was shocked I hadn't heard that mentioned before. And then I got to The War of the Worlds.

It turns out the reason I found it very upsetting at eight or nine was because it is very upsetting, and at that age I had no context for or capacity to handle the ways in which it is upsetting.

We all know the basic plot: Martians invade, humans are technologically overpowered and defeated, Martians eventually drop dead because of Earth's microbiota. The novel came out in 1898, after having been serialized the year before, and has been dramatized and redramatized and ripped off and remade so often and so thoroughly that it has entered the collective unconscious.

The original novel, however, is notable in intellectual history not just for the archetype of the merciless and advanced alien invaders, but because it is an ice-cold prevision of the nightmares of the twentieth century. The phrase 'concentration camp' had already been coined, c. late 1860s by the Spanish in Cuba, though it would not become widely known by the English-speaking public until the Boer War, which Wells' novel just predates; that phrase is the only part of the vocabulary of future war to which Wells could have had access, and the phrase does not appear in the novel. Here are some of the concepts that do, without, as yet, any names: Genocide. Total war. Gas attack. Blitzkrieg. Extermination camp. Shellshock/PTSD. (Also, on a slightly different note, airplane.)

Wells' vision of war was ruthless, efficiently technological, distanced from the reader of the time only by the fact that the perpetrators were incomprehensible aliens. But he does not let you rely on the comforting myth that it would take an alien to perpetrate these atrocities, as perhaps the book's worst scene, in terms of sheer grueling terror and pain, is the sequence in which six million people attempt to evacuate London on no notice, with no overall organization, no plans, and the train as the most modern form of transportation. The Martians are miles away from that, literally. The only thing Wells spares you is the actual numbers of the death toll... but you can get an informed idea.

And, just in case you happen to believe that people (as opposed to aliens) are too good at heart for this sort of warfare, this novel is also a savage theological takedown*, in which the idea of humanity as the center of a cosmos created by a benevolent God is repeatedly stomped on by the sheer plausibility of the nightmare, the cold hard logistics of enemy approach + insanely destructive new bombing technology = frantic evacuation and a military rout. The priests and churchmen in War of the Worlds generally go insane**; their philosophical framework has left them ill-equipped to handle the new reality. Wells is displaying humanity as a species of animal, no more nor less privileged existentially than other sorts of animal, who may be treated by a sufficiently technological other animal in the way that humans often treat ants. He explicitly uses ants as the comparison.

This is where I noticed something fascinating. War of the Worlds has the most peculiar version of protagonist-centered morality that I have ever encountered: only the protagonist and his nearest and dearest are allowed to perform moral actions that are not shown in aggregate.

Everyone else either does good as a faceless mass, or neutral-to-evil at close proximity. The military, as a force, is allowed to act against the Martians, which is seen by definition as moral, but they are at a distance from the novel's viewpoint such that they don't emerge as people while they are fighting-- we meet an occasional refugee from a destroyed division, but we don't see people giving orders, taking orders, firing weapons. When the ramship Thunder Child attacks two Martians at close range in order to save shipping in the Channel evacuation-- a sequence distressingly like Dunkirk, only in the opposite direction and sixty years early-- it's one of the few acts of heroism and selflessness in the novel that actually works, and it's the ship personified who takes the action. Here's the middle of the fight:

"She was alive still; the steering gear, it seems, was intact and her engines working. She headed straight for a second Martian, and was within a hundred yards of him when the Heat-Ray came to bear. Then with a violent thud, a blinding flash, her decks, her funnels, leaped upward. The Martian staggered with the violence of her explosion, and in another moment the flaming wreckage, still driving forward with the impetus of its pace, had struck him and crumpled him up like a thing of cardboard."***

Notice how there are no humans, individual or otherwise, even mentioned here. And this is the high point of the book as far as moral action taken, a direct self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. Individual people range from the curate who hears the narrator calling for water "for hours" and doesn't bring him any to the men whom the narrator's brother finds in the process of robbing two ladies and has to fight off at gunpoint. Even most mob action is inimical, including things like the looting of shops and the literal trampling underfoot of the weak.

The narrator and his brother, however, mostly behave as one would hope to behave in a catastrophe. They are constantly picking up strays, helping total strangers pack to evacuate, fighting off muggers, attempting to assist the trampled, sharing their provisions with others, etc.. They are the only people in the book who do this sort of thing-- every other individual (except a couple of the strays, who are there to be rescued and get in the way) is out for themselves and can, at very best, be bought with cash on the barrel at a high price.

Now, it's not that the narrator and his brother are saints. They're fully developed, three-dimensional, relatively decent people. The brother participates in the looting of a bike shop, refuses water to a dying man for fear of putting his own people in danger, and fails to rescue anyone from the relentless trample. The narrator may well kill a man to save his own life, and certainly aids and abets the murder if he does not strike the final blow (it's impossible to find out exactly when the man dies or what specifically killed him).

The odd thing is that nobody else has any of their virtues. No one else is picking up strays; no one who isn't under military orders to do it is knocking on doors to begin the evacuation; no one is giving away food and water; no one except the military is attempting to place themselves between those they love and danger. In short, there is none of the kind of everyday, tiny, sometimes futile heroism that the twentieth century has shown us is almost impossible to beat out of humans entirely.

Now, I think this is intentional, as part of Wells's argument: the Martians have broken the human social order as if it were an anthill, and none of the ants has any idea what to do anymore. It's part of the demystification of humanity's place in the cosmos and the insistence on our nature as intelligent animals.

However, I think it skews the thought experiment in two ways: firstly, the narrator (and the only other POV character, the brother) have to be decent enough that we as readers are willing to read a book from their perspectives, and in 1898 that was harder than it is now. "Probably murdered somebody who wasn't a villain or an enemy combatant, and is never punished for it in any way except by vague remorse" is a pretty radical stance for a first-person narrator in an English novel of that period, and Wells has to talk us round into considering this a sympathetic or at least justifiable stance by having the narrator be in most other ways a flat-out hero. I don't think this does too much damage to his argument, as the resemblance of the narrator to other hero-types of the period makes Wells's more radical premises easier to communicate than they would otherwise be. It's not the presence of altruism in the narrator that is the major way the experiment is skewed.

It's the absence of altruism in others, as shown by the work of Rebecca Solnit, the memoirs of Primo Levi, the oral histories of the camp survivors of several cultures: one reason The War of the Worlds is so very upsetting is that its events are more unmitigatedly depressing than the same circumstances would be in real life. One of the wisest men of the twentieth century, Fred Rogers, said that in tough situations you should look for the helpers (and somewhere elsenet I saw the corollary, which I think Mr. Rogers considered implicit but which could use unpacking anyway, that if you cannot find them, the helpers had better be you). In The War of the Worlds there are no helpers at all, except what little the narrator and his brother can manage. We have actual science now about the way people form communities in catastrophe; we have innumerable anecdotes from the worst places and times in the world about those who in small ways, quietly, do what they can for others with what they have. It's not that Wells was wrong about us being animals, about trying to knock us off the pedestal that insists that everything was made for humanity and we are the only important beings. It's that while we are a social animal, we are a social animal on the micro-level as well as on the macro, and we have now seen that the micro-level does not have to be limited to immediate biological family, because the bonds of catastrophe can cause, and in fact seem to produce, some amount, tiny though it may be, of genuinely altruistic behavior.

When I happened to say to [personal profile] nineweaving that I was in the middle of a Wells re/read, she promptly replied with a couplet from a comic verse she had memorized as a child: "H. G. Wells / Creates new hells."

Which is true. His Martian invasion, the twentieth century through a glass darkly, is right up there on the list of the most nihilistic things I've ever read, not because of the Martians, but because none of the humans are outright villains. Some of them are insane, and some are annoying, and many are behaving in ways unconducive to long-term survival, and all of them are terrified; but you believe in them not only as individuals but as a plausible set of people for the narrator to run into in the middle of a war. It's only after thinking about it for quite a while afterwards that I noticed how neatly Wells had removed the capacity for altruism from his secondary characters. The Martians are frightening and cool and interesting (and clearly described as being drawn by H. R. Giger, which has not made it into any of the adaptations I've seen), but I think one reason this particular nightmare has lasted so long and clung so thoroughly in the back of our heads is that it would take recreating these terrible catastrophes in almost every particular to prove him wrong about the essentials of human nature and the ways people would behave in these circumstances. That's part of the book's appalling genius.

The thing is, though-- we did.

And he is.



* albeit not as much of one as Moreau, which is saying something

** that classical nineteenth-century insanity in which they rant and rave and chew the furniture, i.e. nothing you can find in the DSM, and therefore I just use 'insane' as I am not sure there is a less aggravating descriptor for this particular literary trope

*** Via Project Gutenberg's HTML copy

Wooden O redux

Jul. 26th, 2017 12:35 am
nineweaving: (Default)
[personal profile] nineweaving
              Screen shot 2016-06-21 at 5.04.59 AM.pngScreen shot 2016-06-21 at 5.05.16 AM.png


Jamie Parker, who sat on the panel that chose Michelle Terry to lead Shakespeare's Globe, describes her as a "genuine collaborator, who at the same time won't sacrifice the courage of her artistic convictions. ... No one can possibly accuse Michelle of being a regressive traditionalist, or backwards-looking. Her work speaks for itself. That said, she is also in-tune with the building as a theatrical instrument and she has her own understanding of the imaginative contract between the actors and the audience. That is the bedrock of everything that happens on Bankside."

"Theatrical instrument" is well said. If you've been in the Globe, it resonates like a drum: its players speak high and clear, like pipe and tabor, sackbut and shawm. And hearing a play in the Wanamaker is like sitting inside a lute.

It's sad that that commentators keep apologizing, as if a love of Shakespeare were reactionary.

Michelle Terry says: "The work of Shakespeare is for me timeless, mythic, mysterious, vital, profoundly human and unapologetically theatrical. There are no other theatres more perfectly suited to house these plays than the pure and uniquely democratic spaces of The Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I am so proud and excited that I will be in the privileged position where I can offer artists the opportunity to come together to reclaim and rediscover not only Shakespeare, but the work of his contemporaries, alongside new work from our current writers. For us to then share those stories with an audience that demands an unparalleled honesty, clarity and bravery, is all a dream come true."

Amen.

Nine

The lady of situations

Jul. 25th, 2017 01:01 am
nineweaving: (Default)
[personal profile] nineweaving
And as long as I'm musing on British actresses, my stars, Fiona Shaw!   An interviewer asked her. "Richard II.  What about playing a man?"  "I didn't really approach it as playing a man.  I approached it as playing a god."

Her Waste Land is a masterclass in speaking poetry.

 Nine

Britannia ad modum tubae

Jul. 24th, 2017 03:49 pm
nineweaving: (Default)
[personal profile] nineweaving

With thanks to the falcon-eyed Catherine Rockwood, who spotted this glorious map by Sasha Trubetskoy.

Nine

nineweaving: (Default)
[personal profile] nineweaving
(Wooden) O thank heavens.

I can go back to the Globe!  They've announced Michelle Terry (a brilliant Shakespearean actor) as the new artistic director of the Globe.  It's back in the hands of the players, where it began, where it belongs.

I trust her taste.  I've seen her (only on DVD, alas), as Rosalind, Beatrice, Titania/Hippolyta, Rosaline, and the Princess of France.  All terrific.  I wish I'd seen her as Henry V.  What I remember most vividly is a moment from the Dream.  The play had begun with masked figures of Titania and Oberon, seducing and inspiriting Hippolyta and Theseus; then a battle of Athenians and Amazons, bow-women all, with sigils on their brows.  After Hermia's stormy declaration of love and the pronouncement of her patriarchal doom, the silent queen came up to her, looked long, and traced a sigil on her brow.  Perhaps she meant, There are other sisterhoods.

Before it was invaded by meaningless noise, the old Globe did Shakespeare very well indeed, thank you.

Nine

rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
[personal profile] rachelmanija
Illness memoirs, like child abuse memoirs, have a number of pitfalls. They’re about depressing topics and so are hard not to depress the reader, they’re often by people who don’t write professionally and so are not well-written, and as the subject is inherently self-focused, they can very easily come across as self-absorbed. Even if they manage to avoid those problems, many are valuable works of self-help, self-revelation, community-building, comfort, and calls to action… but are not interesting to someone who mostly wants to read a good book.

This one is a good book.

Julie Rehmeyer, a mathematician and science writer, chronicles how chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalopathy (CFS/ME) crept up on her until her entire life had vanished and she was frequently completely paralyzed. While she desperately tried to find a treatment, she instead encountered an array of quacks, snake oil salesmen, nice but useless therapists, nice but useless doctors, a patients’ community full of apparent crackpots, and medical literature claiming that it was a mental illness caused by, essentially, being lazy and whiny.

In desperation, Rehmeyer finally starts listening to some of the apparent crackpots… and when she applies her scientific training to their ideas, she finds that stripped of the bizarre terminology and excessive exclamation points, they sound surprisingly plausible. With her entire life at a dead end and nothing left to lose, she reluctantly decides to try a treatment which is both radical and distinctly woo-woo sounding.

And it works.

But unlike every other “How I cured/treated my illness by some weird method” memoir, the story doesn’t end there. Instead, she not only researches and theorizes about how and why it might have worked, she interviews scientists and doctors, and even arranges to do a double-blind experiment on herself to see if it’s a real cause of her symptoms or the placebo effect. I cannot applaud this too much. (I was unsurprised to find that every article I read on her book had a comment section claiming that her results were due to the placebo effect.)

Lots of people have suggested that I write about my own horrendous illness, crowd-sourced treatment, and jaw-dropping parade of asshole doctors who told me I was lying, a hypochondriac, or crazy. While you’re waiting… read this book instead. Though it’s not the same disease and she was treated WAY better by doctors, a lot of her experience with being beaten over the head with bad science and diagnoses based purely on sexism was very similar. As is much of her righteous rage. I am way more ragey and less accepting than she is. But still. It’s similar.

Overall, this is a well-written and honest memoir that shines a welcome light on a poorly-understood illness. Rehmeyer's perspective as a science writer provides for clarity, justifiable anger, and humor as she takes apart the morass of bad science, victim-blaming, and snake oil that surrounds chronic fatigue syndrome. It's informative without being dry, easy to read and hard to put down.

Through the Shadowlands: A Science Writer's Odyssey into an Illness Science Doesn't Understand

Button, button...

Jul. 22nd, 2017 02:22 am
nineweaving: (Default)
[personal profile] nineweaving
My twenty-seventh! (of 28) Readercons went rather nicely.

How I love listening to intelligent people!  And it’s exhilarating (if scary) to try to make sense on panels.

Only three mishaps, one on the way over.  The highway traffic was appalling, bumper-to-bumper, and my lift, distracted by Siri’s countermands, slid gently into the car ahead, out of which burst an irate and vengeful Chinese couple, dancing like furies round and round both cars, heedless of the six-lane traffic, shouting, “You pay cash!  You pay cash!”  But on the sight of a cellphone, they vanished like spirits at cockcrow.

Next, I discovered that I’d left my carefully curated selection of chocolate and tea—all carefully matched to my program—on a chair at home.  Ah well, there were M&Ms in the green room.  And Taylor’s of Harrogate tea, not at all shabby.

After my reading, I found I’d lost an especially pretty and unmatchable hand-painted bead-button from a favorite dress, and was disconsolate.  It could have fallen off anywhere in the hotel.  But I searched what I could search—my room—before checking out, and discovered the button in the darkest corner of the closet, glinting back at my Light app like a mouse’s eye.  I felt (as one does) disproportionately elated.  I swear it hadn't been there the first six times I looked.  Don’t you love happy endings?

I heard four remarkable readings.  Sonya Taaffe gave us intense shards of poetry and a short story about the post-punk tutelary spirit of a Birmingham canal; Lila Garrott read from their astonishing misfits-in-Utopia novel-in-progress, which is stranger than you can imagine, and utterly lucid; Kathleen Jennings read part of an Australian Gothic novella about an outback town invaded, all but strangled, by alien intrusive flowers, and a tale of a wandering exile oneirically entangled in a Briar-Rose-like labyrinth.  And the peerless John Crowley read from his essential mythic tale of an immortal crow, Ka : Dar Oakley in the ruin of Ymr.  It will be out at last in September!  He gave me an ARC!  Calloo!

For all the brilliance, all the wisdom, wit, and passion lavished on the dizzying array of panels, the hour I remember most vividly was the hilarious Terrible But Great, on irresistibly awful books.  What a hoot!

Of my own panels, Good Influences and Sororal Fantasies were simply a joy; and I plume myself on getting through the Deaths of Gods with James Morrow and Max Gladstone without being cut to ribbons intellectually.  It was like jumping into Double Dutch with lasers.  But I sideslipped the Tetragrammaton:  I went pagan, and talked about the voice from the island crying, “The great Pan is dead,” and about walking down through San Clemente in Rome, from Baroque exultation, down through mediaeval austerity, the abyssal ἰχθύς of the catacombs, the rock-hewn and bull-blooded temple of Mithras, down to the ever-welling spring.

And my reading—always the locus of hope and anxiety—went quite well.  There were more than a handful in the audience:  they listened intently, laughed at the right places, and asked impassioned questions.  They loved the scene I hadn’t read before, about John Donne’s wife and daughter and the compasses.  And wonder of wonders, I have a recording!  As many of you know, Readercon has been recording its panels and readings for decades, way back to wax cylinders (for all I know), and squirreling them away in a vault somewhere.  Possibly in catacombs.  After the apocalypse, I imagine they’ll be used to recreate civilization from scratch.  Gods help us all.   I’ve been asking forever and ever where the archived recordings go.  Some of us would love to revisit fondly remembered hours.  (There was that panel on language when Crowley recited the first page of Lolita...)  This time, the sound guy (there's only one, racing about like an electron) said, Sure.  Got a USB stick?  I had, and he just popped the files onto it.  Golly.

The bookroom is simply paradise.

Over the four days, I had lively and engaging conversations with (among others) [personal profile] ashnistrike , [personal profile] sovay , [personal profile] rushthatspeaks , [personal profile] gaudior , [personal profile] yhlee , [personal profile] negothick , Crowley, Michael Swanwick and Marianne Porter, Glenn Grant, Michael Damian Thomas, and too little time with John Clute and Liz Hand, Chip Delany, and Suzy McKee Charnas.  Long may they all continue!  Oh, and the little Fox came on Sunday and charmed everyone.  He's just learned to wave bye-bye, and has acquired an enchanting deep chortle when you fly him overhead.

Then I tottered home and slept eleven hours...

Nine

Hamilkitties!

Jul. 20th, 2017 03:09 pm
rachelmanija: (It was a monkey!)
[personal profile] rachelmanija


Curious Alex.





Erin, waiting for it.

rachelmanija: (Book Fix)
[personal profile] rachelmanija
I have obtained this from a free library (one of those little birdhouse things in my neighborhood.) It's a collection of short stories.

I love Stephen King but not his propensity for grossouts or body horror. In fact, I shied off his short stories after reading two Ultimate Body Horror Grossout stories, "The Cat From Hell" and that goddamn story about the surgeon stranded on a desert island UGH UGH UGH.

Given that, which of these should I read, and which should I avoid? I'm OK with scary and with violence that isn't revoltingly graphic.

Dolan's cadillac
The end of the whole mess
Suffer the little children
The night flier
Popsy
It grows on you
Chattery teeth
Dedication
The moving finger
Sneakers
You know they got a hell of a band
Home delivery
Rainy season
My pretty pony
Sorry, right number
The ten o'clock people
Crouch end
The house on Maple Street
The fifth quarter
The doctor's case
Umney's last chance
Head down
Brooklyn August.
Page generated Jul. 27th, 2017 12:31 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios