October 15, 2004

It's the end of the world as we know it . . .

Somewhere, quite early in my career as an avid reader of science fiction, I somehow stumbled across The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. Even at the age of 12 or 13, and with relatively little contemporary "hard" science fiction under my belt (I think at this stage I had probably read The Naked Sun and one or two more of Asimov's robot stories, and perhaps Clarke's 2001, but little more), I recognized its sheer implausibility, and by this I don't necessarily mean the "men from Mars" scenario. Nonetheless, for primitive SF written in 1898, it was a gripping little story and actually touched off my interest in the science fantasy of that era - Wells and Jules Verne in particular - as well as later fiction obviously inspired by them, such as C. S. Lewis and John Wyndham, of whom I shall have more to say shortly.

The War of the Worlds is set in the village of Woking, England, apparently in the early 20th century (making it a bona fide "futuristic" novel). One evening a meteor lands near the village. This spectacle turns out to be artificial: it is a large metal cylinder thirty yards in diameter. Presently the top screws off, and the giant-headed, tentacled Martians emerge, intent on destruction: they immediately begin incinerating the curious onlookers with a devastating "Heat-Ray." Soon other cylinders descend on England as well, carrying more Martians as well as their massive, three-legged War Machines, with which they quickly devastate the English landscape.

The story is told from the first-person perspective of an anonymous moral philosopher living in Woking, with a brief excursus into the experiences of his brother with the Martians in another part of the country. Wells' talent for description is virtually unmatched; his description of the War Machines in particular is especially good, though he doesn't convey too clearly how a three-legged machine is supposed to walk. Of course, the very premise is completely implausible, but interestingly in Wells' day it would have passed for hard SF, since the best photographs of Mars at the time suggested long channels of open water - or, as some thought, artificial canals. In fact it was almost half a century before this idea was completely debunked. Only in the space age, thanks to rocket probes, did pictures of Mars reveal that its surface is dry, pockmarked with craters and volcanoes, and incapable of supporting life (at least as we know it - some hard SF authors such as Larry Niven still use Martians as a plot device, though they are a radically different form of life than we are).

My edition included an essay by Isaac Asimov in which he argues that The War of the Worlds was an allegory for British imperialism. Just as European troops with their artillery would appear invincible to the natives of India or Africa, so too do the Martians with their War Machines, Heat-Ray, and poison gas appear to nineteenth-century Brits. Though I tend to shy away from interpretations of literature that scream "Imperialism!" or "Phallocentrism!" or various other pet -isms of the postmodern set, given both the prophetic nature of much of Wells' writing and what little I know of his politics, the good doctor probably has a point.

A very good movie of The War of the Worlds was released in 1953, albeit one which was set in a contemporary period and in which the Martian War Machines hovered rather than strode on legs. Obviously, the hit 1984 miniseries V and 1996 blockbuster Independence Day obviously owe a great deal to Wells. Apparently Stephen Spielberg is working on a movie due to be released next year. Now that Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow has proven the viability of retro SF, here's hoping.

. . . and I feel fine

I followed up War of the Worlds with another doomsday scenario written 50 years later: The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham. This is a book I discovered for the first time in high school, sitting on the bookshelves in my grade 11 English class. While we in the advanced class were suffering through dreck like The Catcher in the Rye, the general class got something actually readable. (Grad students take note: Why the Modern Language Association worships drivel might make a decent thesis.)

Triffids are eight-foot-tall, flesh-eating, mobile plants. No one knows exactly where they came from; they can only speculate that they are the product of Soviet genetic engineering accidentally set loose. However, they are a good source of cattle fodder, oil, and other beneficial by-products - so what if they have a ten-foot whiplash that delivers a dose of venom that can instantly kill a man, or that they seem preternaturally clever?

The Day of the Triffids is told from the first-person perspective of Bill Masen, a biologist who cultivates industrial triffids. The story opens with him in hospital with his eyes bandaged, rendered temporarily blind thanks to a triffid sting. But Masen is one of the fortunate few. The previous night, an unusual meteor shower left everybody who watched it blind. Permanently. With most of humanity unable to see, society breaks down literally overnight into roving gangs of anarchists concerned only with their own survival. Meanwhile, the triffids have gotten loose from their paddocks and find humanity an easy target . . .

This is a great story that hasn't aged a bit. Wyndham's prose is straightforward, vivid, and literary. Like Wells, Wyndham is prophetic. The Day of the Triffids is a warning against unchecked technological progress and "playing God" - he hints that not only the triffids, but the blinding celestial display, were the unfortunate result of human meddling. With civilization in shambles, Masen wanders from one attempt to another to reconstruct it upon different lines: roaming gangs who use captured sighted people as seeing-eye dogs; academics who use want to repopulate through eugenics and "professional motherhood"; "Christian" communal living; extended families working the land; and military power imposing collectivism. All of them have their weaknesses which Masen finds unacceptable, though in the end he chooses the academic option as the best of a bad lot.

The Day of the Triffids has been filmed twice: as a feature film in 1962, and as a TV series by the BBC in 1981. I have seen neither in its entirety, only a few minutes of the latter on television. Fans of classic Doctor Who should appreciate its low-budget effects (and also that one of the principal characters was played by Maurice Colbourne, who played the mercenary Lytton in the stories "Resurrection of the Daleks" and "Revenge of the Cybermen"). Like The War of the Worlds, this story is worthy of a big-budget remake Real Soon Now.

British horror author Simon Clark wrote a sequel to Day of the Triffids in 2000, titled Night of the Triffids. Like its predecessor, it is a well-written, engaging story. Bill Masen's son David wakes up one morning in complete darkness. Only this time it isn't blindness, but a strange cloud that completely obscures the sun. However, Clark completely ditches Wyndham's prophetic insights for an escapist, Mad-Max-like adventure story. And as much as I was hoping that the book's garish cover art, a gigantic rampaging triffid clutching a man in its tentacles, had nothing to do with the story . . . well, you don't always get what you hope for.