Sunday, August 26, 2012

Retro Review of "The Sea Raiders" (1896) by H. G. Wells


"Retro Review of

'The Sea Raiders'

(1896)

by

H. G. Wells"


(c) 2012
by
Jordan S. Bassior


Synopsis: 

The narrator introduces the story by stating::
Until the extraordinary affair at Sidmouth, the peculiar species Haploteuthis ferox was known to science only generically, on the strength of a half-digested tentacle obtained near the Azores, and a decaying body pecked by birds and nibbled by fish, found early in 1896 by Mr. Jennings, near Land's End.
and
The first human being to set eyes upon a living Haploteuthis—the first human being to survive, that is, for there can be little doubt now that the wave of bathing fatalities and boating accidents that travelled along the coast of Cornwall and Devon in early May was due to this cause—was a retired tea-dealer of the name of Fison, who was stopping at a Sidmouth boarding-house.
thus rather neatly setting-up the reader to expect that something very nasty indeed is about to be discovered.  There is a Bilingual Bonus here for anyone familiar with Classical Greek and Latin (any educated man in 1896) in that the name of the species means "Fierce Singular Squid," which is a fair description of the beast.

Fison is walking along the cliffs between Sidmouth and Ladram Bay on the coasts of Cornwall and Devon when he sights a human corpse lying in the tidal zone.  Coming down to investigate, he finds that it is being devoured by a number of large, unusual-looking cephalopods.

He attempts to drive them off the corpse but instead the cephalopods attack him, pursuing him all the way back to the foot of the cliffs, and backing off only when three workmen on the ladder stone them.

Then, Fison leads the workmen and a boatman in a rowboat back to the site of the corpse to attempt to recover it for burial.  The beasts oppose their efforts, and while they are struggling with the cephalopods a larger boat with ten people including three women and a child comes into the area.  Hill -- the boatman with Fison's party -- is dragged overboard and devoured.  Fison's party flees in fear and confusion, and when they reach the shore they find that the larger boat of excursionists has capsized, with the six on board her nowhere to be seen.

The narrator wraps up the story by mentioning other fatal attacks
Mr. Fison's account, taken together with the wave of boating and bathing casualties to which I have already alluded, and the absence of fish from the Cornish coasts that year, points clearly to a shoal of these voracious deep-sea monsters prowling slowly along the sub-tidal coast-line. which ceased after the end of June.  The shoal of Haploteuthis disappears into the ocean depths as mysteriously as it came.

 Analysis:

This is fundamentally a story about the mysteries of Nature:  the unexplored depths of the seas and what may come out of them to vex Mankind.  It subtly emphasizes that Man, for all his pretensions to lordship over the Earth, is ultimately still just an animal in the greater Universe and that there may be things out there, dangerous things, of which we presently know nothing and which may at any moment, even when we consider ourselves to be at safety, come forth to do us harm.

The story does this, and very effectively, by deliberately violating Victorian weird-fictional conventions in several ways.

(1) - Everyman in Danger

Normally, the hero of a story like this would have some special qualifications for survival or understanding of his situation.  Mr. Fison has neither.  A "retired tea-dealer" is not a very adventurous fellow (though in 1896 he may have been more adventurous than today, since he may have traveled to the Orient in times when that was a bit more difficult and dangerous than simply hopping a jetliner to Mumbai).  Nor is he a marine biologist, able to explain the nature of the threat to his less-knowledgable companions (and thus the audience).  (That role is instead filled by the unnamed narrator, who is clearly a scientist).

No, Mr. Fison is just an ordinary man, a normal fellow who sees a human corpse being torn at by animals and wants to do the decent thing and ensure it a proper burial.  We know that he's reasonably brave -- he comes back after already discovering that the cephalopods are aggressive -- but this does not take extreme bravery, since he's yet to realize that the squid are willing to attack a group of humans in a boat (most sea life, or for that matter predators in general, would not be so willing).  Note that he does not participate in any further hunts for the squid -- he's had enough, thank you!

(2) - Death of the Innocents

When those whom the Victorians considered "innocents" -- women, to some extent, and especially children -- died in Victorian fiction it was seen as a horrible thing and the occasion for considerable bathos.  The death of Hill would not have been viewed in this light -- he's not only a full-grown man but working-class to boot -- but the deaths of the excursion-party would be.  Not only does the party contain women and at least one child, but as an "excursion-party" they have to be at least lower middle-class, and probably of higher status at that.  They are exactly the sort of people whose death would be a dramatic event to be mourned, in most stories by most authors.

But Wells writes this scene in a realistically confused and matter-of-fact fashion.  Fison and his body-retrieval party are, at this point, fleeing the squids, who have just slain Hill and thus demonstrated that they are dangerous even to a group of aware and ready full-grown men in a boat.  Their main focus is on making it to shore, and they thus have little attention to spare for the excursion party, whom they have already tried to warn off (little good though it would do in any case were the squid determined, since squid can siphon-jet through water much faster than men can row -- though I'm not sure if Late-Victorian scientists knew this about them).

Here's how Fison comes to the realization of what has happened:
Mr. Fison's heart was beating violently; he was throbbing to the finger-tips, and his breath came deep.

There was something missing. For some seconds he could not think clearly enough what this might be. Sun, sky, sea, rocks—what was it? Then he remembered the boatload of excursionists. It had vanished. He wondered whether he had imagined it. He turned, and saw the two workmen standing side by side under the projecting masses of the tall pink cliffs. He hesitated whether he should make one last attempt to save the man Hill. His physical excitement seemed to desert him suddenly, and leave him aimless and helpless. He turned shoreward, stumbling and wading towards his two companions.

He looked back again, and there were now two boats floating, and the one farthest out at sea pitched clumsily, bottom upward.
This is drama, but it is quiet drama.  There is no description here of the angry shouts from the men, turning to terror as they realize the strength and seriousness of the attack, of the shrieks of the women and cries of the children, of their agonized gurgle as they are simultaneously torn apart and drowned.  But you know that this is what must have happened.  And what's more, your imagination can conjure up a tragedy far worse from your own point of view than anything that Wells could have put to paper.  Finally, it has the added benefit of being superficially in "good taste" (an explicitly gory scene of women and children being slain would probably have precluded its publication in 1896).

What Wells thinks of all this is made plain by the black humor of this statement by the narrator:
It would seem that the appetites of the shoal were satisfied by the catch of eleven people—for so far as can be ascertained, there were ten people in the second boat, and certainly these creatures gave no further signs of their presence off Sidmouth that day.
Note the use of the word "catch."  This is a term what one would normally employ in reference to humans trawling for squid, not to squid trawling for humans.  This one word essentially states that, from the perspective of Nature Herself, there is nothing special about human life, and just as humans may eat squid, squid may eat humans, without this being any sort of monstrous transgression of the natural order.  This may seem obvious now, but it was a far more shocking thing to state in 1896.

Not that the Late-Victorians didn't know this, of course.  They just didn't like to talk about it.

(3) - Lack of Resolution

The final unusual thing about this story is its lack of resolution, in the sense that -- while the sea-raid has ended, we never learn why it started, why it stopped, or whether or not it might happen AGAIN. 
Hunger migration has, I know, been suggested as the force that drove them hither; but, for my own part, I prefer to believe the alternative theory of Hemsley. Hemsley holds that a pack or shoal of these creatures may have become enamoured of human flesh by the accident of a foundered ship sinking among them, and have wandered in search of it out of their accustomed zone; first waylaying and following ships, and so coming to our shores in the wake of the Atlantic traffic.
In other words, just a random fluctuation of Nature, resulting in over a dozen human deaths, and ending in no decisive consequence, neither for Man nor Squid.

Now, normally a lack of resolution would be utterly fatal to the drama of a tale.  Wells gets away with it here because the story is told by framing device:  the scientifically-detached narrator talking about the larger context and relating the anecdote of Fison's encounter with the ferox.

For Fison's tale has a climax and denounment, thus satisfying our sense of dramatic requirements.  Fison finds the ferox, survives his initial brush with them, is motivated to face them again, and is forced to flee them in a more dangerous and decisive encounter with them.  The climax is the fight on the boat and the flight to the shore; the denounement is the discovery that the excursion-party was not so fortunate.

The framing story, however, has no real resolution.  The Sea-Raid was just a skirmish betwen Man and Nature, of a sort which happens again and again in the Universe, no matter how many times we try to deny that we, too, are just particularly large and smart examples of the animals to be found on Earth.

Recurrent Themes in Wells:

This story is also of interest in that it displays several themes which Wells was to use in his longer and better-known work.

Most obviously, the concept of cephalopod horrors preying upon humans is seen in The War of the Worlds (1898).  The Martians are cephalopod-like aliens who suck the blood and body fluids out of living human victims whom they apparently regard as lower animals.  Wells was there largely responsible for the traditional 20th-century concept of the very nonhuman alien as multitentacular, which did not begin to change until the appearance of Gigeresque nonhuman aliens in Alien (1979)

A strong theme of  War of the Worlds is Man's actual vulnerability in a large and strange Universe.  This is stated explicitly in the famous first paragraph:
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; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.
The double irony in that novel is that not only does vaunted human superiority fail to prevent humans from being treated like prey by the Martians (the Martians launch an organized military invasion of the capital of the most powerful nation on Earth), but the Martians themselves, despite their vaunted intellectual superiority, are then preyed upon and destroyed by micro-organisms, which are entirely lacking in intellect.  Wells is saying, both in "The Sea Raiders" and in The War of the Worlds, that we live in a dangerous Universe, and it can be fatal to be lulled by a false sense of safety.

Wells also used the theme of Man-as-animal in many of his other works, including The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) in which a mad scientist blurs human boundaries by surgically Uplifting animals; and The Time Machine (1895) in which the descendants of Mankind have degenerated into at least two subhuman species, the beautiful but mindless Eloi and the cunning but bestial Morlocks (incidentally, a lot of casual readers miss the point that the Eloi are every bit as subhuman as the Morlocks:  they're just more pleasant company).  In his last great work, the film Things to Come (1936), he essentially argues that the only way to elevate ourselves above the dangers of the Universe, to the extent that we can, is through continual growth and progress -- in the words of Head Councilor Cabal:
"And if we’re no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness, and live, and suffer, and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. It is this, or that. All the universe or nothing. Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?"
There is no safety in blindness.

Conclusion:

 "The Sea Raiders" is an excellent short science-fiction horror story, telling a plain tale in a plain fashion while having something important to say about the relationship between Man and Nature.  It's also highly plausible -- nothing happens in it which would violate the understanding of either the marine biologists of 1896 or of today (though we've explored the seas some in the last 116 years, there's atill a lot we don't know, and if anything, we now know cephalopods to be even more capable than we imagined back when Wells penned this tale).  It's semi-obscure -- I've seen it anthologized but not often -- and I'm glad to be able to bring it to the attention of my readers.

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