Chick Tract: In the Beginning

I first heard about these things called “Chick tracts” about ten years ago. I thought they were amusing. Comically bad little fundamentalist comics to proselytise with! Isn’t America quaint? Then one day I was sitting at a bus stop and I noticed someone was trying to convince a young woman to read some little comic he had. “It is about Jesus” was the summary of the contents. I glanced at the booklet from my safe position. Or more to the point, I stared in shock. Chick tracts being used in New Zealand!

I know what they look like because I made a point of reading a few online when I heard about Dark Dungeons, the notoriously ridiculous little booklet about the evils of Dungeons & Dragons. They’re all pretty bad: Poor writing, bad characterisation, and the art is a little shaky. But that particular one is easy to laugh at since the satanic panic died out long ago and can no longer impact my ability to pretend to be a level 12 Warlock sacrificing people to her dark mistress (no, really, it was a laugh for everyone).

I always felt that Chick tracts are ridiculous, but New Zealand is pretty much safe from them. New Zealand is a largely religion-free society. That’s not to say it is the atheist paradise some people overseas believe, it’s just that people keep their religion to themselves. It’s quite nice, really. So I always thought these fundie comics were a non-issue because they are an American phenomenon and the only people who might try to utilise them are really just trying to find a crazy fundie excuse to chat up women.

Yesterday I found one in my letter box.

I’m amused, but also a little annoyed. I live in low-income housing, which is pretty much target one for religions. If a particular group swings by on Easter and gives people hot cross buns, that’s on some level okay – they’re giving food to poor people (and they never actually bring up their zombie celebration when they do this so it’s pretty much a non-issue to me). But mail dropping Chick tracts is not all right. There’s no benefit to anyone. This is why.

Cover

The title says In The Beginning and to the left is a picture. It is of dinosaurs! In the fine tradition of lumping together all our extinct reptilian friends with little regard to history or whether a picture is sensible, there’s a Stegosaurus, and a Brachiosaurus munching on a tree, and a two-legged carnivore which is probably a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and in the sky is a poorly-drawn Pterosaur. Also, poking its head into the frame from the side is a giraffe.

One of these things is not like the others.

Not only is it patent nonsense that giraffes would naturally be in a scene with dinosaurs, what with the whole not existing back then thing, it’s also entirely ridiculous because if giraffes were able to stumble on a portal to the past they would all be eaten within a day by carnivorous dinosaurs. I have seen Jurassic Park: Humans, top of the food chain, do not stand a chance. Giraffes have trouble just drinking from a pond (fundamentalist Christians call this intelligent design).

1 – 2

“Hey computer man…” – Who the hell talks like this? Well in this case it is some guy with a dinosaur toy. It is a Brachiosaurus, which explains why the rest of the comic will go the way it will – no-one fucks with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Not even a toy version. You can just shove it in someone’s face and say “RAAAAAAAAR” every time they try and spout nonsense and they run away in fear.

“Evolution is the religion of scientists who laugh at god.” – They got the laughing at god part right. The fundamentalists in these things are so damn smug no-one would take them seriously in reality. This one thinks that dating the particular dinosaur in question to 145 million years is a guess, and apparently knows better – down to the exact day!

Spoiler: It will be a Saturday.

3 – 4

Apparently “so many scientists contradict each other” so the only reliable source is a book with no title on the cover. That book could be any book! It hasn’t even got some kind of universally recognised symbol on it. I find this to be entirely unrealistic, since I’ve never seen a copy of the Big Book of God is a Bastard without one or both.

I wonder if any other editions of that book contradict each other? That would be a problem considering the previous implication that any contradiction is bad. No, that couldn’t be right. There would never be any hypocrisy here.

“There was no Big Bang” – How did we get on to this? I am just here for fucking dinosaurs. I mean, emphasis dinosaurs. Dinosaur sex is not really that interesting. Well… okay I do wonder why we never see any of that in dinosaur media. It’s always dinosaurs stomping around, calling out, attacking each other, and eating each other. Why is there no dinosaur sex?

Besides, everyone knows “Big Bang” is a simplification… For the jettisoned Terminus fuel pod exploding. See? Doctor Who would make much cooler tiny comics to leave in people’s letter boxes.

5 – 6

So apparently God built a Dyson sphere out of water. This is probably not a very efficient Dyson sphere. The diagram of this is a welcome break from the increasingly poor drawings of the main characters. It is like the artist was getting excited by something. It’s almost like… Oh… Oh no… It’s evangelical slash fiction.

Ew.

“The waters brought forth fish in abundance and every winged foul after its kind” – Foul what, exactly? I am also reminded that some people consider squid, turtles, and whales to be fish. There is a suspicious lack of immortal jellyfish in this picture. Maybe that wouldn’t go well with the whole Faith In Jesus Is Your Path To Eternal Life thing. Like many people, I’d prefer to put my faith in a jellyfish.

7 – 8

Important things to learn: Elephants are smaller than gorillas.

Look, I get that they’re so used to people just blindly accepting what they’re told without checking – see: every single time a fundie says the bible condemns something there was not even a word for back then – but you’d think they’d be more careful about this sort of thing. I can just go to the zoo and verify this one.

9 – 10

“…there are photos of men’s footprints walking next to dinosaur footprints.” – No there aren’t, since footprints do not walk. I’m fairly certain anyone reading this will understand that the presence of one footprint next to another doesn’t mean there were two creatures present at the same time. This wouldn’t pass for a difficult piece of obfuscation in an Agatha Christie novel. But the reason they like to make up this sort of thing is that it is hard for most people to catch the trick. Which is why dumping these in letterboxes is problematic.

A feature of this comic is that as the story continues, the poor dinosaur fan being harassed becomes more and more deformed, as though he is melting under the withering onslaught of creationism. Or maybe the artist was too excited by the hot, hot evangelism.

“Adam was our first relative and you’re going to hate what he did to you.” – What could that mean?

11 – 12

I’m assuming the last line in the previous spread was in reference to Adam making every single human being on the planet be the descendant of a goatfucker.

So here’s this little condensed flashback sequence where Adam is dropped in Eden, and told to leave that magical tree alone. Then, Adam stands there and appears aroused by a gazelle. I’m not kidding, he’s running his hand over that poor creature with an expression of lust on his face. This is disgusting. Maybe the idiotic deity should have said “Hey punk, don’t fuck my ungulates,” instead of getting all worked up about the tree of knowledge.

“…God saw that he was lonely.” – A euphemism for “God was tired of seeing his creations abused.” Naturally, he’s going to create a person to be abused instead.

“So God created Eve to help him… And now the drama begins

Well, isn’t that a positive message about women?

Also, there is a rabbit the size of a wallaby.

13 – 14

“Eve was beautiful…” – But because the artist is not that good, she’s just average looking. But with an expression of “What the fuck is this shit?” when she meets the zoophile she’s expected to spend the rest of eternity with.

The serpent has hands, which is taking literalism a bit far. I’m guessing it is going to turn out to be a dinosaur. It also speaks in fakey medieval English.

In this version of the tale of how women ruin everything, Eve doesn’t just want to know stuff. No, in this one she wants to be a god. Paranoid, much?

15 – 16

The tiny silhouette of the serpent as God rages is definitely a dinosaur. So, there you have it: This comic is about implying that dinosaurs were evil. I think that sending the message that dinosaurs are tools of the devil is pretty much a lost cause. Is there a person alive who isn’t captivated by dinosaurs? Or at the least, cheers them on whenever they turn up in a film and start eating people.

…a new creature called Death.” – I’m starting to think there’s a degree of literal thinking going on here that would make small children look askance. But Death does look cool in his first appearance.

17 – 18

So, flashback over, the fundie informs the dinosaur fan that everyone alive is a sinner. Apparently because some hypothetical person ate some hypothetical magic fruit that there is absolutely no evidence of. But for some reason the dinosaur fan accepts this and is convinced he’s going to hell. Because all you have to do is Absolutely nothing.

To which I say: COMPLETE LACK OF AMBITION. Some of us are working damn hard to go to hell, and will be sure to work harder. Because I don’t want to go to loser hell, where people who sat on their arses being boring go. I want to go to the hell where the people who know how to have a good time are.

19 – 20

Naturally there’s a get out of eternal damnation free card, and that card is called Jesus. Because as we all know, it’s perfectly appropriate to claim that some alleged guy being allegedly nailed to an alleged bit of wood absolves everyone else who will ever live of all the bad things they do.

As many have noted, this means that there’s no incentive to be good, since you always get out of hell if you just believe it’s possible for someone to come back to life after being stabbed with a spear and going three days without water.

21 – 22

The fundie is now up close. It is too late, no escape for the dinosaur fan. The crazy look in the fundie’s eyes suggests he’s going to flay the poor guy who just wanted to show off a new dinosaur model and dance around wearing his skin. It’s okay if the fundie does that, because he believes in Jesus and is going to heaven.

The last page provides four handy steps to be saved from the pits of hell. The fourth involves praying and they conveniently tell people what to pray. I am not sure if this is all right. I was sent to a Catholic school for a couple of years before my aura of hideous, perverted evil caused an almighty earthquake to rend the ground and the buildings to be swallowed up by the earth. But they never actually told anyone what to pray.

Then they want people to buy a book, conveniently published by the same company that produces this propaganda comic.

Shocking twist ending! Religion is about making money.

Conclusion

So, how does it measure up as a comic?

Plot: The plot was a bit weak. The crazier Chick tracts have children selling out their parents to a satanic global government to be tortured for being Christians (“I used microchips to make it more painful!” – like the metric system, computers are the tool of the devil). Compared to that, a creationist lecture is just plain boring.

Characterisation: Not much, since they’re all just mouthpieces for the author. There’s no motivation for anyone, apart from the fundamentalist Computer Man who is clearly out to skin as many people as possible. Oh and maybe Eve, who is clearly wanting to find a way to get out of the Garden of Bestiality.

Art: There’s a philosophical question: What is art? I’m not here to answer that, only to point out that the only well-conveyed expression in the whole thing was Adam wanting to give it to a gazelle. The other important point about the art is that there’s so many lopsided, poorly proportioned faces it’s not funny.

Writing: The best written parts of this are the quotes from a (not the since there’s multiple different versions) bible, which thus do not count since anyone can quote things and also biblical text is actually rather poor. Only three people get lines, and one is Serpentosaurus. I suppose that was funny, but it wasn’t meant to be.

Overall: Why the hell was this in my letterbox? Sadly there’s no way to find out where these are coming from. There’s a space on the back headed with “compliments of” but naturally fundies are never going to fill that out when they’re mail dropping. Especially not if they use some of the more problematic ones – at which point I’d be asking the police to go have a chat to the fuckers, like they do whenever people drop hate speech in letterboxes. But like so many fundamentalists, they’re cowards.

No One Can Stop the Bobsled

The No One Can Stop the Bobsled franchise is a series of computer games by SledSoft which began with the release of the first No One Can Stop the Bobsled game in 1981.

The original game was a simple affair which involved positioning badly drawn, blocky objects representing the common outsider’s view of Switzerland in the path of a careening bobsled intent on destroying a town. After the twenty seconds to position the initial obstacles (blocky cows, blocky milkmaids, blocky chalets, etc.), the bobsled starts its run. The player can only slightly reduce the bobsled’s speed by putting more and more obstacles down. Points are awarded for every reduction in bobsled speed. Like all early games, the player cannot ever win. The bobsled’s acceleration exceeds the speed at which the player can pick up yodelling goatherds with the crosshairs and deposit them on the side of the mountain. Eventually the maniacal sled reaches maximum speed, at which point an animation of the town being destroyed plays.

The animation is quite bad. The bobsled hits one of the buildings with a digital crunching noise, the screen shakes, and then, one at a time, the top half of the houses shear off unrealistically. This goes on for a torturous three or four minutes.

It sold well though. A simple game with a clear objective and an easy play method meant it was going to be popular with people who found Space Invaders to be too violent (attempting to save a town from reckless bobsleds by throwing crudely drawn milkmaids and cows in front of the careening sled is apparently non-violent), and early interactive fiction to be too intellectual (let’s face it, some people are never going to consider typing an intellectual exercise). As with any successful computer game, there were going to be sequels.

No One Can Stop the Bobsled 2: Bobsled Rampage was a lot better. That wasn’t difficult. All SledSoft had to do was simply change the game to allow people to score more points based on the order that the now randomly generated obstacles were destroyed by the bobsled. By switching the game around to make the focus on swiftly sacrificing stereotypical Swiss stuff to the speeding sled, the game became even more popular. An ongoing series was the natural result.

Now, it’s important to note here that SledSoft consisted of – and still is – just one person. This meant that to supply the demand for further relentless bobsled action it was far easier to slightly tweak things with each iteration. The graphical quality didn’t so much steadily improve as stagger onwards drunkenly, and then reach a new level of quality by tripping over the last step. From there it was constant graphical changes, which due to their rushed nature were clearly just re-done images over the same old badly-animated obstacles. Bobsled enthusiasts insist these are unique games, and not merely graphical remakes.

The line petered out and died in the early 90’s because frankly, there’s only so many times the same game can be remade with slightly improved graphics quality, slightly improved sound quality, and a new and even more ridiculous setting. Dwindling sales indicated that more and more people were reaching the limit of their interest in unstoppable bobsleds. However, in the late 90’s the fan community started making their own versions of No One Can Stop the Bobsled. Despite the fact they looked suspiciously like SkiFree clones, the sad truth is that even No One Can Stop the Bobsled has more depth than SkiFree. Not to mention less yeti.

After seeing this outpouring of affection for this seminal series of games, the president and sole employee of SledSoft realised that their games were actually popular and that there was real demand for a new No One Can Stop the Bobsled game. So, come 2006, a new entry in the Bobsled series was released, timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the original game.

Let’s make one thing clear: No One Can Stop the Bobsled 25th Anniversary Edition is not really up to the standard a connoisseur would expect of modern games. Of course, this may be unfair: modern games are at a stage where things like plot are important. The plot to this game is a bit light: There’s a bobsled no one can stop, but you have to try anyway. Characterisation consists largely of the fact that the bobsled is unstoppable. Drama? Well, while an unstoppable, city crushing, albeit normal sized, bobsled might be dramatic to some (rumours of a film thankfully proved to be false), it’s not really up to the standard people expect today. As for suspense… there is no suspense. Everyone who buys it knows the titular bobsled is unstoppable.

Of course, some people still complained that it was impossible to stop the bobsled and demanded a refund. Apparently SledSoft’s lawyers simply pointed out the frequent statements in the marketing campaign to the effect that it was not possible to stop the bobsled. There are hacks for the modern game which make the bobsled stoppable, but this is frowned on by the No One Can Stop the Bobsled community.

The game has nice graphics. The player can witness the bobsled destroying obstacles in spit-screen while they place victims in the other half of the display. The action replay feature is quite well done, as is the ability to re-edit the bobsled run into a video. The sound effects are what one would expect. The music is surprisingly good for a game about a bobsled that smashes things to bits. Oh, and there’s plenty of gore and debris flying everywhere. This is probably the key selling point. The stand out feature is that people can add extra objects through the obstacle creator. It’s like someone took the core elements of modern gaming and said “I think people just want to see stuff get destroyed” and made a game that does exactly that. Naturally it sold well to the lowest common denominator, and there are rumoured plans for a new series of No One Can Stop the Bobsled games.

Unfortunately they’re going to be remakes of the old games. While there will be no remake of No One Can Stop the Bobsled 3: Duckpond Deathrace (known as “Duckpond Disaster” in the No One Can Stop the Bobsled fan community – due to a bug the only obstacles the player can place are duckponds), the other games are set to return. This includes the ludicrous seventh game in the series, subtitled Bobsleds Ahoy! (being set in the Caribbean during the age of piracy makes slightly more sense if one knows the original version of Sid Meier’s Pirates! was released six months before Bobsleds Ahoy!).

Currently, other proposed remakes from the SledSoft back catalogue are: Bobsled Takes Manhattan, Sled by Dawn, Bobsled Through Time (the most ambitious of the original games, which featured Egypitan, Aztec, Medieval and Feudal Japan themed stages)

Deary me.

The No One Can Stop the Bobsled Series
1981 – No One Can Stop the Bobsled
1982 – No One Can Stop the Bobsled 2: Bobsled Rampage
1983 – No One Can Stop the Bobsled 3: Duckpond Deathrace
1983 – No One Can Stop the Bobsled 4: Bobsled Takes Manhattan
1984 – Bobsled Head-to-Head
1986 – No One Can Stop the Bobsled 6: Back to the Bobsled
1987 – No One Can Stop the Bobsled 7: Bobsleds Ahoy!
1988 – No One Can Stop the Bobsled VIII: Sled by Dawn
1989 – The Bobsled is Back!
1990 – No One Can Stop the Bobsled 10
1991 – No One Can Stop the Bobsled 11: Tenth Anniversary Edition
1992 – No One Can Stop the Bobsled: Christmas Edition
1993 – No One Can Stop the Bobsled 8: Bobsled Through Time (misnumbered)
1993 – No One Can Stop the Bobsled Deluxe Collector’s Edition (contains all 13 original No One Can Stop the Bobsled games)

Unreleased
1994 – Bobsled Forever

No One Can Stop the Bobsled: The Next Generation
2006 – No One Can Stop the Bobsled 25th Anniversary Edition

The War of the Worlds

“No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own…”

As a little girl, I loved Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds (yes, that is the full title). I listened to the album and marvelled at the colour plates included with it. I also obsessed about how the tripods would walk, because they made no sense at all. This was my entire knowledge of the plot of The War of the Worlds. Of course, the album is really the edited highlights of the tale. So, this last week I finally read the book. Thirty years or so late.

It’s a very good book, but it’s tricky to get into since the various re-interpretations of the story down the decades have changed so much of it. Thus, it felt like I was reading another retelling, and had to remind myself more than once that I was reading the original work. Such is the nature of our perpetual reuse of media.

So, with that in mind, what’s the book really like? Well, it’s a bit frustrating to find that most of the looming horror and shocking twists (which aren’t shocking at all these days) are foreshadowed by the narrator hinting that his first impressions were wrong. This is because it’s supposed to be an authentic account of a war that everyone knows about due to being there, but it was disappointing. It was clearly not intended to be a legendary novel starting off a whole genre, which would be read over a hundred years later.

There’s no subtext about the meaning of the novel. The tale is clearly set out in the first chapter as an allegory about colonialism, blatantly pointing out that humans do all the Martians do and worse, particularly noting the destruction of the Tasmanian people. In fact, the book continues to criticise the society it was written in all through the book. The clergyman’s raving highlighting the futility of religion, the blasé attitudes of people before the Martians begin their campaign in earnest showing up the complacency of a privileged existence, the panicked mobs putting forward the idea that no-one gives a damn about each other, the artilleryman’s plan for survival hints at the attitude that women were only useful for breeding and raising children.

One odd thing was that I was eager to read one of the first real attempts at describing alien technology, but I was reminded that I don’t have such a good idea of what our own technology was like in the 19th century as I thought. There’s mention of “road skates” – which are pretty much what they sound like. Yes, that’s right, roller skates as a mode of transport. Thankfully I have an annotated copy of the book to explain what this alien form of locomotion was.

“There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty.”

I was really in it for the original accounts of the Martians and their machinery, and it’s got to be said that Wells made as concerted an effort to depict truly alien creatures as we see in the film Alien (which borrows the idea of a terrible race of killing machines that nonetheless need humans). But in some ways they’re also not nearly as terrible as other adaptations portray them – they’re much more fallible. Their first appearance is actually comical, as the narrator witnesses the first one to emerge fall out of the cylinder and thud to the bottom of the crater.

The Martians are basically huge heads (either “the size of a bear” or four feet across, depending on the point in the book), who feed intravenously, don’t even speak, only use their mouths to breathe or wail when distressed, and have sixteen tentacles. It’s implied that on Mars they can stand and walk on some of their tentacles – they are about three times the weight on Earth that they are on Mars. They are tireless, supposedly due to the oxygen-rich air, and are phenomenally intelligent – their only real weakness seems to be a colossal arrogance leading them to think that humans are nothing but cattle. It is implied they communicate telepathically, and have a vestigial ear. Except the Martians make cries of distress and the tripods can make a thunderous noise. The final weirdness is that Martians reproduce by budding off new Martians, which is probably one of the more surprising bits in the book.

All of this is put across in scientific terms, at least as well as one could in the 1890’s. Evolution was still cutting-edge stuff back then, after all. Some of Wells’ explanations for how the Martians might come to be as they are were drawn from his own The Man of the Year Million, where humans continue to adapt to their own technological environment. It’s a theme Wells had already applied in The Time Machine, which describes the evolution of the Eloi and Morlocks out of the stratified industrial society.

Without their machines, the Martians are so pathetic that the whole war could have been dealt with in a few minutes by simply lobbing a few shells into each cylinder when it opens. The blind optimism of the humans, even in the face of utterly repulsive creatures, is what dooms the human race – and is probably the most fantastical thing in the book. I think in reality they’d have killed even the other Martians right away for looking a bit ugly. Other Martians? Yes, these:

These creatures, to judge from the shrivelled remains that have fallen into human hands, were bipeds with flimsy, silicious skeletons (almost like those of the silicious sponges) and feeble musculature, standing about six feet high and having round, erect heads, and large eyes in flinty sockets. Two or three of these seem to have been brought in each cylinder, and all were killed before earth was reached. It was just as well for them, for the mere attempt to stand upright on our planet would have broken every bone in their bodies.

Hence why the Martians (I’ll call the dominant lifeform by the name of their planet. We are, after all, called in so many works Earthlings) see the humans as cattle. The Martians feed on human blood, injecting it into themselves. While the similarity between the human and Martian biology might be a stretch as they evolved on different planets, it’s necessary for the eventual end to the story, which I probably don’t need to tell anyone about.

“It picked its road as it went striding along, and the brazen hood that surmounted it moved to and fro with the inevitable suggestion of a head looking about.”

The Martian technology is strange and bizarre. Unlike practically every depiction ever made, the tripods don’t actually have rigid legs – they just walk about on tentacles. The Tripods have other tentacles, which beyond picking up people and storing them in the baskets on the back, are for using the Martian weapons. The heat ray is not part of the tripod, but a device it carries and then unhitches to wave about incinerating everything in its path. The heat ray is not meant to make sense, in fact the two attempts to divine their workings after the invasion result in otherwise undescribed disasters. Likewise, there’s little attempt to explain the black smoke – delivered by rockets, fired from carried launchers – which the Martians resort to after the humans find a tactic that works against the heat ray armed tripods.

The tripods, then, are Martian mecha. It sounds obvious now, but back when the book was published they were supposed to be a vision of completely alien vehicles – the Martians have no idea what a wheel is (rotating parts exist, but only when something is spinning around parallel with the ground), and don’t use any pivoting joints if they can avoid it. The reason they ended up being easy to compare to vehicles is that other depictions of the Martians and their tripods are not really making it clear that the tripods don’t just resemble the Martians in a few superficial ways, they copy them as exactly as possible.

The handling machine (a smaller five-legged machine with “an extraordinary number” of tools and limbs) is more in line with our ideas of a vehicle. It’s from that that the controls are apparent – levers. The Martians have fairly boring machinery for a psychic race. I’m surprised Wells didn’t make the leap to them controlling the tripods via thought after he compared the Martian within the tripod to the brain within the body.

It’s not long before the narrator refers to the tripods as the Martians, which puts them in the same category as the Daleks – helpless creatures who rely on their machines to move and function and are subsequently not clearly distinguished from the machine they depend on. The parallel only grows in the new series where the Daleks – the things living inside the travel machine – are tentacled blobs instead of their original depiction as stricken humanoids. One of the most iconic aliens ever is a progressive adaptation of the ones in The War of the Worlds.

In both cases the mobility of the machines is one of the main points that distinguishes them. The tripods, however, are free to roam at will. The description of their movement is, at first, ”a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground” – it does this by spinning about with two legs off the ground, moving a hundred yards in one step. Presumably they can walk in a variety of ways. The ill-defined height of the tripods ranged from 100 feet, to just tall enough to keep the machinery out of the sea just outside Blackwater Estuary. Which is rubbish, since the Thunder Child could barely stay afloat there, which would make the tripods too small to knock over the church tower in Shepperton.

If you’re thinking this is an insane amount of worry over the height of a fictional alien walking machine, I should explain: The constant comparisons to real objects combined with the references to the height of the tripods made me want to know how tall they are. The best I can get is roughly 100 metres. I say roughly because the tripods can probably vary their height. After all, how else to the Martians get in? Wells was more interested in the emotions of the narrator, and all that ever comes up with the tripods is the horror at their size and power rather than a simple description.

The iconic scene in the book is the battle between the Thunder Child and the tripods, which is barely two pages in length. The Martians have no idea what an ironclad is, and try to hit it with the black smoke (which is useless at sea). At this point the fighting machines are almost in the water, their legs just long enough to keep the body above the surface (in reality, the water there seems to be ten metres deep at best, so maybe they splay the tentacles they stand on out for support. Or maybe Wells simply didn’t bother finding out how deep the water was). Since the Martians have no idea what a ship is, the closest tripod just idly hits it with the heat ray and fails to disable it. The Thunder Child guns down that tripod, and wheels about and charges the next Martian – which destroys the ship too late to prevent the wreckage smashing it into pieces.

This is the end of the first book, with the Martians in control of London, and hemmed into Britain by the sea. The possibility that they might be contained is later dashed when the narrator – who missed the sea battle due to being buried in a house after another cylinder hits – learns to his utter horror that the Martians have machines that can fly. This is, as you might have guessed, a book that was published before powered flight was developed in the real world. It’s the flying machine that leads the narrator to briefly consider the artilleryman’s idea of living underground to be feasible – which is a germ of Wells’ idea about the Morlocks being worked into this novel. Eventually the narrator realises this is insanely foolish and leaves, shortly hoping to be killed by the Martians.

“Already when I watched them they were irrevocably doomed, dying and rotting even as they went to and fro. It was inevitable.”

After the Martians die out the humans theorise that the Martians had eradicated disease so long ago that they had forgotten that bacteria even existed. This sounds ridiculous. In fact, I can’t imagine a scenario where a race that is effectively all brain and represents incredible scientific genius with a head start of thousands of years… somehow doesn’t imagine that they might be affected by Earth bacteria. No matter how you try to conceptualise it, it doesn’t work. This does not sound like a hyper-intelligent race of conquerors.

The resolution to the book is supposed to be a humbling ending, as the smallest of God’s creations saves the human race. It really does feel like a deus ex machina resolution to the invasion, even if that structure was just invoked to me by the use in the book of that figure of speech. That the Martians are beaten is a foregone conclusion laid out at the start, but ultimately it’s a hollow one because it’s clear that the Martians couldn’t possibly have no clue about the very thing that will destroy them.

The ultimate irony of the book is that by the end the humans have gone from being open minded about alien visitors, to planning the extermination of any future arrivals; and considering their future, where they might leave their own cooling and dying world to colonise another planet. Venus seems likely, since clearly the Martians have been able to move there… the ultimate end is seen as becoming the sort of monsters the human race narrowly survived.

I enjoyed this book to a ridiculous degree. I suppose I might not have been so gleeful if I hadn’t put it off for thirty years. That much anticipation is going to make me forgive a lot. Particularly the structure: It takes a while before the shit really hits the fan, with the description of everyday life, no-one taking the threat seriously, and then the whole thing becomes a helter-skelter array of disaster and mayhem, which pulls the reader onward to see what the next act of destruction will be. Sound familiar? It should do: it’s the template of the disaster film. I’m not a huge fan of them, precisely because of the way the disaster film narrative usually runs. But here, it was easy to ignore that.

It’s still fantastic to read, even when it’s completely spoiled by the effect of the plot being reworked and reinterpreted for over a century. In fact, it’s better for it. I felt that sense of glee at the impending doom that comes from knowing how things are going to go. For a 21st century reader, it’s a tale of two alien races; the utterly alien Martians, and the alien world of the humans of the 19th century. The sea battle brings a tear to my eye in print the same way it did when I listened to the album as a child. The whole thing is splendid, and was worth the wait.

Learning From Experience

I posted this here a while ago and only today noticed I’d left out the first HALF of the story. So now I’ve put the rest in. – 10/7/2011

Once upon a time I was making a doorway out of a sheet of A3 paper. You have to cut countless lines into the paper to form a continuous zigzag loop that when stretched out will make a vast, cyclopean portal (of paper). I learned that when using a very sharp knife to cut paper, there are two rules:

RULE ONE: Cut vertically, not horizontally, or you might cut yourself.

RULE TWO: If you see the knife bite into the very tip of your finger, do not pull your hands apart reflexively to prevent the injury. If you do, you will cut your fingertip off.

You will be frozen in horror for a few seconds.
In this moment, blood will go everywhere.
It will hurt.

Of course this is not a major injury, it only involves bandages and nothing has to be sewn back on, but it is still scary the first time you do it. It’s also a tiny bit embarrassing: The emergency doctor will laugh at you, everyone you know will laugh at you, and your mother will laugh at you. If you are at art school your life will be very difficult (probably even more so if you hack off a piece of your good hand). You will look extremely silly if you have a tube bandage over your finger for three weeks – even more so than you think, because you will have to keep it elevated.

In the course of my finger healing I learned just how much contact my fingertip makes with the world: Too much. I’d injured my middle finger, and so I learned that it touches every door I open as I reach for the handle. It’s the first digit to curl around a pen or pencil lying on a table, and so it comes into contact with the surface. It’s also very hard to eat when you cannot grip a knife properly.

Anyway, the bandage came off after it was all healed, and naturally I returned to my mad project and promptly halfway hacked off the same piece of the same finger again – this time managing to keep calm in the face of accidental self injury and not complete the job in a panic.

I was, as you can imagine, not a very happy girl.

Why have I waited this long to share this amusing story of personal injury with you all? Because I had forgotten for thirteen long years – but something just happened while I was cooking dinner tonight to remind me. Can you guess what it was?

Go on, have a guess. Did you say “You sliced the tip of your index finger off while cutting garlic”? Well done if you did!

If you are laughing, then you are a bad person and I do not like you.

On the upside: I did not get blood and bits of my flesh all through my food: It’s not a vegan dish if you cook bits of yourself. However, typing this is causing me discomfort (stop laughing) even though I can type without using my injured finger – the movement is irritating my poor, abused finger. I hope you all appreciate thi- Stop laughing!

After years of experimentation I have reached the following startling conclusion: Cutting off the tip of your finger is very stupid. Do not do it.

Volcano Full of Starving Bears

Disaster movies have traditionally come in three types: The “plague of rogue creatures” movie (e.g. The Birds), the “hubris of the humans” film (e.g. The Towering Inferno), and the disaster porn epic (2012 is probably the stand out example).

Unfortunately, these genres have been tapped and drained by the insatiable appetite of cinema audiences for scenes of swarms of maddened animals fighting back against the human race for undisclosed crimes against nature; buildings, ocean liners, and science experiments going wrong in ways that involve killing lots of people; and natural disasters turned up to fifteen. Sometimes human hubris results in genetically engineered animals running amok, or causes a huge disaster. The wells have run dry.

Or have they?

I have noticed there is one distinctly lacking angle in disaster movies. There seems to be no film where a natural disaster is crossed over with the swarm of animals genre to provide just the right mix of gory scenes of people being devoured alive liberally distributed between epic shots of cities being brought low by the wrath of the special effects department.

Well, the answer is clear to me. What is needed is simple: A film about a volcano. Filled with starving bears.

The movie can open with a plucky young geologist doing research on some strange earth tremors in a major US city. She will have a wild theory that this is a sign that a volcanic eruption is imminent. Meanwhile, a gung-ho bear wrangler is in town to deliver a rare specimen to the zoo. Someone will be mauled by the savage beast, and only expert bear-wrangling can subdue it.

Suddenly a huge earthquake will knock over several buildings in slow motion, and a huge cone will rise from the ground. Somebody exclaims: “It’s a volcano!” – But the volcano is not erupting yet, and our plucky geologist must descend into its gaping maw to assess the danger. Inside she finds… Bears! Starving bears! From the dawn of time! What’s needed here is a bear specialist.

The renegade bear scientist we saw earlier is called in to deal with the ursine menace in the crater. The terrifying nature of the starving bears is revealed when some of the science team are eaten, but the bears are quickly herded into a side passage and contained there, allowing time for the plucky geologist to determine that the volcano is going to erupt soon!

Suddenly, foolish environmentalists try to free the bears! Their misguided hippie ways are their undoing, as the starving bears devour them and escape into the city, wreaking havoc. Only the bear expert can save the innocent people from a gristly death. But mere minutes into the anti-bear initiative, the volcano also erupts! Chaos, rampaging bears, and fiery doom ensue for the final two hours of the film (total running time: 135 minutes).

Most of the remainder of the film consists of people trying to flee the seemingly endless horde of starving bears as the city burns. People will fall from helicopters into lava. Bears will spring out of nowhere to attack people the audience either hate or care about, in roughly equal numbers. At some point a dog leaps to safety, barely escaping both a blazing inferno and flaming boulders plummeting from the sky – doing so by jumping between two starving bears which miss clawing the brave, loyal family pet by inches. Then the bears start fighting.

The bears are destroyed in the inferno, and the city is levelled. As the film closes the plucky geologist and maverick bear expert, brought together by their ordeal, stare across the vista of smouldering rubble and wonder… could it happen again?

Of course it can. That’s why I’m already plotting out Volcano Full of Starving Bears 2: Hurricane Season.

Life in Munchkinland

Do you know what really sucks? Living in Munchkinland. It’s a pain if you’re over six feet tall, to be cracking your head on the fittings, to sit in chairs that are too short at tables that are somewhere around your ankles when you stand up. A lifetime of furniture built for the pygmy throwbacks that make Dwarves look like basketball players has left me with a permanent stoop.

Thanks to this stoop, I frequently get the cheerful advice to “Stand up straight, stop being all hunched up!” This usually makes me feel like punting the little bugger who says so across the room. Some of them have then nerve to accuse me of trying to hide my height. I like being tall! The problem is, no one else wants me to be tall. They say I should stand up, be tall, but talk is cheap – the entire world is built to make me suffer. Physical pain is apparently not supposed to be part of people’s lives, yet its part of mine. I’m starting to think the midgets secretly enjoy it.

Once I was in a library, and went upstairs to the mezzanine floor to get a book. I realized that the railing was so low that I could trip over it, yet because the Munchkins are morons, the second floor was high enough to kill me if I fell over the side. What kind of midgets build things like this? Idiot midgets, that’s who.

These same idiot midgets have the nerve to ask me why I don’t wear clothes that fit. My sleeves stop an inch or two short of my wrists despite the rest of the top fitting, and so I look like some kind of senile, hopeless crone who can’t pick the right sized things out in the store (criticism of my preference for a monochrome wardrobe from a population who dress like circus clowns is something else I do not appreciate, but it is a minor annoyance compared to living in a land where I smack my head into the roof of the bus when I rise from the too-small seat at my stop). I will not go into details about the problems with shoes, lest my wrath spill over and I instigate a reign of terror.

Munchkinland is full of trees lining the footpaths, and the people who prune these trees like to have the branches hanging low to make a leafy awning – an awning so low that I have my hair pulled out when it gets caught in the clawlike branches as I crouch down to pass underneath. Clearly I need a proper hat to deflect the spindly tree-talons. I saw a stylish, wide-brimmed pointy one that looks like it will do the job nicely the other day. I think I’ll buy it.

The Best Thing Ever

I remember being three years old and my parents brought home… an odd beige box that looked like a typewriter, but with strange keys and a nifty hatch on the top. It plugged into the television, and you turned it on and got a blue screen. Oh, that’s neat mum! We didn’t have the blue screen channel before!

The clever part was that you could plug a beige tape recorder into the beige typewriter with “Atari 400” written on it, and then type some words which came up on the blue screen and… if you waited a long time… you got to play Space Invaders!

This was the absolute epitome of amazing entertainment – Space Invaders was so thrilling! There were invaders. They were from space! You could tell, because they came out of a space ship. They were attacking the moon, so technically they were also invading something that was in space and so the title was an intricate maze of multiple meanings!

Look, I was three years old, okay?

So I learned to play Space Invaders, something involving a chicken catching falling eggs, and Pyramid of Doom. You play Pyramid of Doom by repeatedly dying in the first ten moves and starting over, until you get bored and decide text adventures are not as much fun as people claim. You then come back to it the next day to try and get into the damn pyramid.

Then I found out how to make the computer go! You just type:


10 PRINT "SARAH"
20 GOTO 10

This was the most tremendous fun, and could consume whole hours. I really enjoyed this. I wanted to do more!

So I moved on to typing short programs out of books… and then I tried typing in long programs out of magazines. I had a great time just getting things to work and debugging my typos. I was ecstatic when I got a several-hundred line Dungeons and Dragons character generator working. I didn’t care that I had no idea what the rules for the game were, I just had a program that did things, and I’d made it go!

At this point, I’d like to just take a moment to express my hatred of editors who decide to split a program over two issues but don’t think to mention this until after the last line of code: You bastards. I’d also like to express my hatred of magazine distributors in the early 80’s, who didn’t actually bother to order runs of computer magazines, and just got random samplings of whatever took their fancy: You utter bastards.

So, by the age of five I knew exactly what I wanted to do for a job. Unfortunately, no adults actually thought this was ever going to be a viable career.

The idiots.

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