Monday, 7 November 2016

Sublime, improbable Martian engineering

 *Spoiler alert- if you've not already read H G Wells's The War of the Worlds, do so immediately, or read on at your own peril...*

I've just been re-reading the first alien invasion novel, H G Wells's The War of the Worlds, and I can see again why it created a genre all of its own and why it immediately grabbed me as a child. Mainly because it's such a cracking yarn - the alien visitation starts off as an intriguing curiosity, but escalates to being, ominous, threatening, awe-inspiring and terrifying at an unstoppable pace that mirrors the relentless advance of Well's iconic Martian tripods, seen here in  one of the novel's big reveals:
And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder. A flash, and it came out vividly, heeling over one way with two feet in the air, to vanish and reappear almost instantly as it seemed, with the next flash, a hundred yards nearer. Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground? That was the impression those instant flashes gave. But instead of a milking stool imagine it a great body of machinery on a tripod stand... Seen nearer, the Thing was incredibly strange, for it was no mere insensate machine driving on its way. Machine it was, with a ringing metallic pace, and long, flexible, glittering tentacles (one of which gripped a young pine tree) swinging and rattling about its strange body. 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.
That's a fantastic piece of writing and there are lots more like it. The book also has its expository digressions, where the action stops and Wells explains things rather than just showing you awesome stuff, but these aren't too long (at least by the standards of the time when Wells was writing) and by this stage he's already created enough momentum to keep you gripped and reading on. Compare and contrast with that other piece of proto-sci-fi, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which also starts with strange, ominous events, building up to an exciting reveal and some great set pieces, but is so weighted down with the ballast of endless pages of over-long explanation that Verne almost sinks the cracking yarn he created.*

If the The War of the Worlds looks forward to every alien invasion yarn that followed, it also looks back to an aesthetic trope that's probably been around for ever, but was largely formalised in the Eighteenth Century and peaked with early Nineteenth Century Romanticism - the sublime. That's the idea that humans don't just appreciate things which are beautiful in an ordered, harmonious way, but also dig stuff that's wild, inhuman in scale and frankly terrifying - as the Tate Britain put it, in the blurb to an exhibition dedicated to "Art and the Sublime":
The best-known theory published in Britain is Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Burke’s definition of the sublime focuses on such terms as darkness, obscurity, privation, vastness, magnificence, loudness and suddenness, and that our reaction is defined by a kind of pleasurable terror.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sublime was associated in particular with the immensity or turbulence of Nature and human responses to it. Consequently, in Western art, ‘sublime’ landscapes and seascapes, especially those from the Romantic period, often represent towering mountain ranges, deep chasms, violent storms and seas, volcanic eruptions or avalanches which, if actually experienced, would be life threatening.
Compare Wells's description of the towering Martian tripod with William Wordsworth describing his youthful memory of stealing a boat and rowing out onto Ullswater at night, in The Prelude. As young Wordsworth looks back guiltily at a peak overlooking the lake, the huge, shadowy, inhuman form seems, by an unsettling trick of perspective, to be pursuing his boat:
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon's bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me...
Wordsworth's looming peak only looked threatening, but extreme fans of the sublime had access to far more hardcore material than that. Wells's Martians may have wreaked terrible destruction on the South East of England, but even they would have had a hard time competing with acts of God. The Almighty's awesome destructive capacity was given the sublime treatment by popular Nineteenth Century painter John Martin, in a series of massive, full-frontal disaster porn canvasses like The Great Day of His Wrath:
It's the end of the World as we know it (and I feel fine).
Sublimely terrifying and imaginative though Well's Martian tripods are, it's probably best not to think too hard about how they work. According to Wells's description, the unearthly three-legged machines move like "a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground" and elsewhere he writes of their swiftness and "rolling" motion, which is vivid enough.

But if the whole machine is whirling around to pivot from one leg to the next, surely the Martian pilot within is also being whirled around, unable to stay facing the machine's direction of travel (or any other fixed direction) and getting horribly dizzy, (assuming that the Martian vestibular system can suffer from dizziness).

Maybe the tripod legs whirl around, but the cowl housing the Martian pilot doesn't. But that would imply that controlling part of the machine is mounted on some sort of axle or pivot, which, according to Wells, isn't the way the Martians, with their biomimetic technology, do things:
And of their appliances, perhaps nothing is more wonderful to a man than the curious fact that what is the dominant feature of almost all human devices in mechanism is absent--the wheel is absent; among all the things they brought to earth there is no trace or suggestion of their use of wheels. One would have at least expected it in locomotion...

 ...And not only did the Martians either not know of (which is incredible), or abstain from, the wheel, but in their apparatus singularly little use is made of the fixed pivot or relatively fixed pivot, with circular motions thereabout confined to one plane. Almost all the joints of the machinery present a complicated system of sliding parts moving over small but beautifully curved friction bearings. And while upon this matter of detail, it is remarkable that the long leverages of their machines are in most cases actuated by a sort of sham musculature of the disks in an elastic sheath; these disks become polarised and drawn closely and powerfully together when traversed by a current of electricity. In this way the curious parallelism to animal motions, which was so striking and disturbing to the human beholder, was attained.
Of course, this might just be one of the singularly rare occasions when the Martians did make use of the fixed pivot, but it definitely goes against the Martians' overriding design ethos. Or maybe the cowl isn't on a pivot, just hyper-mobile, like an owl's head:
But this would present difficulties of its own - if the tripod rolled around in only one direction, the head would eventually have to snap back round, even if it could stay pointing in one direction for a while. If the tripod alternated its direction of roll, a hyper-mobile head would work, but the change from whirling in one direction to another would would be inefficient, robbing the machine of momentum, just as it was getting onto a roll.

Movie versions of the novel have struggled (or not tried) to reproduce the motion of the Martian tripods, as described by Wells. In the 1953 film adaptation, the special effects people decided that they just wouldn't be able to create a convincing walking tripod and opted to redesign the Martian fighting machines as floating manta ray-shaped craft, topped with a heat ray on a flexible mounting that looked like a striking cobra. In a nod to the original novel, the film's hero scientist explains that the seemingly unsupported Martian craft are actually held up in mid air and moved by means of three invisible "electromagnetic legs."

With the advent of CGI, a later generation of special effects wizards were finally able to produce a plausible-looking version of the Wellsian tripods for Steven Spielberg's 2005 film adaptation - sort of. In some ways the CGI works well and the tripod machines have some of the Wellsian details right. For example, the limbs are flexible, just as Wells described, looking more like a supple living thing than a stiff, jointed mechanism

But the motion is distinctly un-Wellsian - Spielberg's tripods don't whirl forwards with an unstoppable rolling gait, but pick their three-legged way through the ruins like a dog with an injured paw, or a human walking with one good leg, a plaster cast and a crutch. I don't think this really catches the essence of Wells's vision, where the tripods signified two things. First, alienness - no creature on our planet has evolved to walk on three legs. Second, implacable swiftness - it's clear from the original novel that the Martian machines move fast and efficiently on their three legs, bearing down like express trains on the puny humans in their path, pursuing and outflanking them with ease.

To date, nobody (AFAIK) has been able to represent, or reproduce the sort of tripod locomotion Wells described so vividly. Whether this is a failure of imagination, technical skill, or just a reflection of the fact that it's impossible to translate Wells's vision into actual engineering, I don't know (although the fact that terrestrial biology has taken millions of years not to come up with a working three-legged creature might point to three legs just being an inefficient number for a walker).

An impossible form of locomotion, or just one nobody's figured out yet? You decide.

*To be fair, I've only read it in translation and it probably sounds better in French, but the endless pauses in the action when Verne just stops everything to list species of fish, or whatever, must be just as boring in any language.