Sunday, July 10, 2016

Venusians and Global Climate Change

Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Metamorphosis of the World” is a retelling of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898), though Smith adds a few interesting twists of his own.  The story was written in late 1929 but not published until 1951.  It appeared in Weird Tales just a few years before the original run of that venerable magazine ended.  Venusian colonists arrive on Earth for pretty much the same reasons the Martians do in Wells’ novel.  Their planet is overpopulated and long since stripped of the natural resources needed to support their civilization.  There are a number of other similarities between these two stories.    

Readers familiar with H.P. Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” (written in early 1931 but published about five years later) may also see some parallels in Smith’s story:  instead of Antarctica, the story opens with a scientific expedition to a remote site in Africa, where evidence of extraterrestrial activity has been uncovered.  Later on, the Venusian invaders are depicted as scientists with motives similar to ours, or as Lovecraft has his narrator put it:

Scientists to the last—what had they done that we would not have done in their place?  God what intelligence and persistence!...Radiates, vegetables, monstrosities, star spawn—whatever they had been, they were men! 

However, in “The Metamorphosis of the World”, earth scientists have not blundered into ancient ruins that conceal a still potent threat to the world.  They have instead detected the beginnings of an extraterrestrial invasion.  An enormous circular swath of Africa has been geologically and biologically altered in ways that are toxic to humans—it is the first of many Venusian outposts, part of an effort to reconfigure Earth’s terrain, biology and atmosphere to accommodate the needs of the invaders.

As in “At the Mountains of Madness”, a long-winded documentary style is employed, with the narrator essentially lecturing and explaining to the reader the significance of his observations.  Smith’s story in particular, for all its world-wide disasters and desperation seems oddly vacant save for its talking-head narrator.  It is essentially a thought experiment, typical of apocalyptic pulp science-fiction. Both Lovecraft’s and Smith’s stories provide some interesting adventure and conceptualization, but are for the most part devoid of characters, dialogue and plot.  (To be fair, Lovecraft’s novelette is the more sophisticated of the two.)  Yet both stories could make excellent movies with the addition of convincing dialogue, some interesting personalities, and special effects.  

Extraterrestrials seizing the Earth to replace their own dying planet is a familiar trope in science fiction.  It seems to be the primary motivation for alien invasions.  But the notion amounts to a form of psychological projection.  That is, an attempt to defend the ego by concealing unconscious tendencies and impulses, while at the same time attributing them to others.  In this case the ego is collective, barely containing our societal fears and aggressions.  Planetary conquest is what earthlings are going to do as our planet continues to fizzle out from exploitation and overpopulation:  we are going to seize another world somewhere in a nearby galaxy and destroy its indigenous population in the process.  Or try to.  Historically we have already had practice doing just this on various islands and continents.

Here is an ominous passage from the beginning of The War of the Worlds:

That night, too, there was another jetting out of gas from the distant planet.  I saw it.  A reddish flash at the edge, the slightest projection of the outline just as the chronometer struck midnight;  and at that I told Ogilvy and he took my place…[at the telescope]…That night another invisible missile started on its way to the earth from Mars, just a second or so under twenty-four hours after the first one…Hundreds of observers saw the flame that night and the night after about midnight, and again the night after, and so for ten nights, a flame each night.

Here is a similar passage from Smith’s “The Metamorphosis of the World”, about a quarter of the way through the story, as scientists have begun to connect the dots, or rather planets, with terrible geological cataclysms occurring in Africa and North America:

A little before the death of these hardy investigators, two singular astronomical discoveries were made.  Lapham’s theory that rays of an ultra-powerful type were being turned upon the earth from some ulterior source, had led to an intensive study of the neighboring planets, particularly of Mars and Venus…but little had been yet learned of Venus, on account of the cloudy envelope with which that world is surrounded.  Now, under the close continual scrutiny to which it was subjected, three flashes of white light, occurring at intervals of seventy minutes and lasting for about ninety seconds, were seen to pierce the cloudy envelope, in a region not far from the equator of Venus.

As many know, Martians are large, bulbous, brain-like creatures that glisten like wet leather in the sun.  They have tentacles and a recognizable face with two large, dark-colored eyes.  The narrator of The War of the Worlds speculates at one point that “…it is quite credible that the Martians may be descended from beings not unlike ourselves, by a gradual development of brain and hands (the latter giving rise to the two bunches of delicate tentacles at last) at the expense of the rest of the body.”  (See also Our Cerebral Future.)  

Smith’s Venusians are slightly more exotic.  They are spherical and tentacled, smaller than Martians—about four feet tall—and get about on three legs.  The odd number of appendages and perceptual organs often signals that an organism is of extraterrestrial origin, since advanced earth life forms tend to be symmetrical and even-numbered in limbs.  

Despite their differences, both Wells’ Martians and Smith’s Venusians are vulnerable to Earth’s bacteria, which vanquish the Martians in the end, but only sicken the Venusians and slow their invasion down.  (This is something we should keep in mind when we set out to conquer other inhabited planets—the effort will be more successful with some precautions in place.)   

Clark Ashton Smith was a very creative writer, so there are some interesting innovations with material already made familiar by Wells and other authors.  Smith develops the idea that alien invaders will need to alter earth’s environment in order to succeed here—a notion that is familiar now but may have been novel at the beginning of the 20th century.  Here is a fairly recent example: fans of the revived Outer Limits television series that aired from 1995 to 2002 may recall the episode entitled “Birthright”, in which extraterrestrials conspire to alter earth’s atmosphere by introducing a gasoline additive that will eventually render the air unbreathable by humans.  (The 80s of course were all about conspiracies, corporate and otherwise.)

Though not specifically about an alien invasion, the groundbreaking Russian science fiction novel Roadside Picnic (1972) also depicts extraterrestrial alterations of the landscape that have a profound impact on humanity.  Arkady and Boris Strugatsky express a Russian-inflected version of Lovecraft’s cosmicism—humans are left to deal with the implications and hazards of being merely incidental to powerful and incomprehensible entities that happen to be just passing through, leaving their hazardous artifacts behind.  Cosmicism is also an important theme in Smith’s work.  There are probably by now numerous examples of this in the literature.

Smith also develops Wells’ concept of earth’s microorganisms being a potent defense against the invaders.  But it goes both ways:  contact with the Venusians, their artifacts, and their ecology is almost always fatal for earthlings, resulting in symptoms resembling radiation poisoning or systemic infection.  This insight is seen more recently in numerous episodes of the X-Files, among other places.

The earth barely wins against the Martians in Wells' book, and perhaps only temporarily.  In Smith’s story the war between the earth and the Venusian invaders ends in a protracted struggle, with earth’s population clinging precariously to strongholds at the poles, the end of the conflict uncertain. There is some hope in the depredations of earth’s microbes on the aliens, and on growing technological sophistication—acquired from the Venusians—which allows humanity to persevere.

But “The Metamorphosis of the World” does not have a happy ending, and its inconclusiveness gives it a bleak, contemporary sensibility.  At one point early in his story Smith has his narrator speculate that

…the Saharan manifestations were part of a plan for world-dominion that was being put into practice by the United Oriental Federation, which then included China, Indo-China, Burma and Japan; and others were inclined to name Germany as the instigator.

Was “The Metamorphosis of the World” a premonition of the Second World War, just coming into view on the horizon?  To paraphrase Lovecraft’s comments about the Great Old Ones:  Aggressors to the last—what had they done that we would not have done in their place?”    

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