War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches

Subject: Re: Review: War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches
From: leeper@mtgbcs.mt.att.com
Newsgroups: alt.books.h-g-wells
Date: Mon, 3 Jun 1996 09:16:11 -0400

War of the Worlds:
Global Dispatches
edited by Kevin J. Anderson

Bantam Spectra, ISBN 0-553-10353-9,
1996, 288pp, US$22.95

A book review by Mark R. Leeper

When I was growing up I very much used to enjoy certain themed anthologies, particularly those edited by Groff Conklin. Ones that come particularly to mind are his SCIENCE FICTION ADVENTURES IN DIMENSION and INVADERS OF EARTH, and Clifton Fadiman's FANTASIA MATHEMATICA and THE MATHEMATICAL MAGPIE. These days I don't care so much for theme anthologies. Occasionally when I used to read anthologies I would find one or two stories would be ones I had read before, but often they were worth rereading or could be skipped. Then I started finding anthologies in which all the stories were original and that allowed me to avoid the minor problem of repeating of familiar stories. These days, however, things have swept in the other direction and I will rarely spend time and money on a themed anthology of original stories. I want stories that are reprinted from elsewhere, and for very good reason.

Theme anthologies aren't what they used to be. What I think is happening is that somebody gets an idea like that people would buy an anthology of alternate history Elvis Presley stories, goes out, and commissions a bunch of such stories. Once the editor has requested such a story he or she needs darn good cause to reject it. After all, if it does not make it to the anthology that author really cannot sell it any place else. First, there just was a whole anthology of stories written about alternate history Presley stories so the public who would be interested in the subject is probably glutted with them, and also it is relatively obvious that this story was commissioned for the anthology and rejected or why else was the author writing on the subject. So it would not pay authors to write for theme anthologies unless it is pretty darn sure the stories will be accepted regardless of quality.

In addition, it is a lot easier to write a story on an idea of your own choosing. An author may be full of interesting ideas but may have only the most mediocre and dull ideas on a concept as uninspiring as alternate histories of Elvis Presley. Nevertheless, that is where the money is and the story is unlikely to be rejected because it is just not very entertaining. So an Elvis Presley alternate history is what is written. The result is that we get a lot of what I find to be dull anthologies. I find when I read these anthologies, more often than not I have checked at some point what is the final page number of the story and increasingly I am aware how many pages off that is. When I get there what I feel is more relief that I got there than excitement about what was in the story. It is, in fact, very difficult for me to imagine what could be exciting about an Elvis Presley alternate history and reading such an anthology generally does not answer that question.

My wife can seemingly read no end of stories as long as they are on a certain set of topics that she finds exciting, such as alternate history, Sherlock Holmes, etc. I probably have a list of topics like that, but I find that I have a very narrow band of stories that I will unconditionally read based on subject matter. And certainly most of the theme anthologies that are coming out now are nowhere near my narrow band. Now if someone would do an anthology of interesting mathematical ideas, maybe something like the old FANTASIA MATHEMATICA, that would interest me. But I can't see that happening. The field of mathematical stories has been left to Rudy Rucker and an increasingly limited set of authors. I really like WAR OF THE WORLDS, so when I got an advanced reading copy of a set of stories set during the invasion from WAR OF THE WORLDS, I decided to give that a try.

In his original novel Wells himself only told about the invasion in England. There is no mention of whether the same events were happening in other countries or not. His original intent was to show Britons what it must be like when the British Navy pulls into some distant island and declares themselves its sovereign by virtue of British armaments. Wells wanted to explore how British society would react if the same thing happened to them. The story could not be told believably having the invader be any military power at the time so Wells introduced Martian Imperialism. As a result he left open the possibility that it was only England that was attacked and that other nations did not come to England's aid. But certainly the easiest explanation is that the invasion was an international event and many countries were invaded.

The stories themselves in this new anthology are in large part writing exercises that borrow a lot from the Wells. They try to throw in a little historical detail about each's chosen character and what that character was doing at the time of the invasion. The descriptions of the battles usually vary little from those in Wells. It is an obvious formula to use but the stories that stand out are the ones that provide some variation. The other common approach is to do a pastiche, describing the invasion but in another author's style.

Kevin Anderson begins the anthology with a preface claiming that this is certain famous people's versions of the invasion and if they contradict, well, different people see things differently. Apparently two of the stories contradicted so much that he has to give it special mention. In fact, there are more contradictions than that, but the claim does help to make the stories fit together better. The initial stories are minor with Michael Resnick suggesting that Teddy Roosevelt would react to the Martian invasion much as he reacted to anything else he encountered. Anderson's own story is more a profile of Percival Lowell and his excitement at meeting Martians. Both of these stories are not so much stories as scenes from days of the invasion.

Walter Jon Williams offers the first substantial story of the volume. His "Foreign Devils" is set in Imperial China and uses an alternate history approach. Having the story set in the Second Opium War allows there to be three warring parties, each fighting the other two. In such a situation there are unexpected and not to say ironic results of the Martian invasion. Daniel Marcus's "Blue Period" follows a much more expected course of not really telling a story that stands on its own but instead just describing Pablo Picasso, describing scenes of the Martian attack on Paris, and describing the artist's reaction. There is description but not a lot of plot beyond "Picasso sees the Martian attack on Paris." Henry James's account is much more complete and perhaps should have been first since it is by Silverberg, perhaps the best writer in the book, and also because it gives a fairly complete retelling of the Wells plot in somewhat shorter form.

Robert Silverberg's "The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James" by itself has not much new. It starts with James visiting Wells and expressing his admiration for Wells. What he says of Wells much echoes the feelings that Silverberg himself feels about Wells as he expressed on a panel at the 1995 World Science Fiction Convention. I am not sure that James had an admiration as strong as expressed here. The rest of the story chronicles the experiences of James and Wells during the invasion and is actually a shortened version of the events of the novel. Anyone who has not read the novel (shame on you) can learn the essentials by reading the Silverberg story. Just to keep in practice, Silverberg throws in an alternate history twist at the end. But it is only a half-hearted one, I am afraid.

Janet Berliner ties Winston Churchill and H. Rider Haggard's fictional Umslopogaas into one of the more ambitious entries combining a bit of Boer War African adventure with the Martian Invasion. Curiously there is little connection drawn between Wells's metaphor of European Imperialism and actual European imperialism in Africa at the time. There is something of what amounts to a pun on what Haggard called an alien invader and the Martians. The premise already starts to wear thin by the time we get to Howard Waldrop's "Night of the Cooters." That is ironic because this may well be the story that inspired the volume and is the only reprint of a story written before the creation of this book. This story matches Texas rangers against Martians. The approach what a lot of the writers in this book have adopted: taking scenes right out of Wells, but translating them to another setting and perhaps modifying the style to the appropriate person. The story follows Texas rangers going after some wayward schoolboys; then when the Martians land the game becomes more describing scenes in the Wells, but with a Texas accent. His rangers do fairly well fighting Martians and the Martians seem more vulnerable here than in other stories, but perhaps Waldrop has a certain pride in his state's heroes.

Doug Beeson gives us an account of Albert Einstein during the invasion and it is one of the better stories. It gives us new incidents not in the Wells, rather than just repeating scenes of the novel in other locations. The story also has the courage to try to invent a little about the Martian technology that Wells did not. His image of Einstein of constantly perceiving the world around him in terms of physics is not entirely convincing. We are not so successful in getting into Kipling's head. Barbara Shamble's story of Rudyard Kipling is well textured, but the plot is a bit of a disappointment. It has more dialect and less adventure than most stories in the volume, a bit of a disappointment considering that Kipling was the master of the adventure tale.

George Alec Effinger offers a delightful pastiche of Edgar Rice Burroughs with a John Carter story that gives a broader context to the whole Martian invasions. What Wells let us assume was the only intelligent race on Mars is just one more strange species that fits fairly nicely into the range of strange creatures Burroughs envisioned on Barsoom. This may well be the best story in the anthology, not for the writing style but because it tries to do something other than the obvious. More adhering to the formula, Allan Steele has a reporter seeing the devastation of the attack and recounting it to Joseph Pulitzer. Steele has some nice detail, but the story does little that others have not done. Much the same can be said of Mark W. Tiedemann's account of Tolstoy and its familiar device of the accompanying letter saying what a great find the account is. Tiedemann seems to be trying to work in geographic locations that have been in the news the last couple of years.

Gregory Benford and David Brin tell us of the ever-optimistic Jules Verne who is certain that the Martians can be defeated. For background material they have a bit about Verne's disagreement with H. G. Wells that really comes down to disagreement between the approaches of hard science fiction and of lighter science fantasy. The one thing that really is shocking from two major science fiction writers is that they believe that everything in the Martians comes in threes, three legs, three arms, three eyes. The one hitch is that this three-ness was the invention of the 1953 movie, not the novel. The book had the war machines be striding tripods, but nothing else was in threes about the Martians.

Don Webb's account of an eleven-year-old H. P. Lovecraft borrows some ideas from Nigel Kneale and the Quatermass stories. It does not have much of a story but there definitely are intriguing ideas. Curiously it turns out to be a better story than Daniel Keys Moran and Jodi Moran's story of an adult Mark Twain. Missing from their story is most of the wit we expect from Twain. What could have been one of the better stories fails to capture the essence of Twain. M. Shayne Bell does one of the few really serious pieces in this non-serious anthology, an account of Joseph Conrad in Africa at the time of the Invasion. Again it compares the Martian invaders with European invaders in a troubled Africa.

A more original and interesting approach is used by Dave Wolverton in his account of Jack London off in the frozen North meeting a French Canadian who uses a captured Martian in a most inhumane manner. This is one of the better adventure tales in the book. The final story is Connie Willis's piece about Emily Dickinson, a satire on college theses written in a form akin to literary slapstick. Some of the allusions are particularly clever though none struck me as actually being funny in the traditional sense of making me laugh, chuckle, or even smile. An afterword by Benford and Brin again in the voice of Verne tries to tie things up and suggest some differences in our world resulting from the Great Invasion.

There is a plot that has become popular in the last ten or fifteen years of asking what would happen if two famous people in history and/or literature met. What if H. G. Wells had met Jack the Ripper, what if Sherlock Holmes had met Sigmund Freud, etc. This anthology fits neatly into that mold but for the fact that the one constant character is not a single person but the Martian Invasion. As such the book is of some interest value, though the sameness of the stories is a bit wearing. Perhaps the stories would be best read at a rate of one a week.

Fans of the Wells novels may find this worth reading, but I am not sure that it was worth an entire anthology. But then a lot of anthologies are being published that do not seem to be very good subjects for whole anthologies and this is better than most. Waldrop's "The Night of the Cooters," which predated the anthology may have covered the idea as much as it needed to be covered.

%B      War of the Worlds: Global Dispatches
%E      Kevin J. Anderson
%C      New York
%D      May 1996
%I      Bantam Spectra
%O      hardback, US$22.95
%G      ISBN 0-553-10353-9
%P      228pp
%S      War of the Worlds
%V      2 (in the sense of being dependent only on 1)

Copyright 1996 by Mark Leeper

Mark R. Leeper <mleeper@lucent.com>, (908) 957-5619  Fax: (908) 957-5627
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Homepage (inside AT&T firewall only): http://www-gbcs.mt.att.com/~leeper
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