The Ghost’s Walk (El paseo del fantasma)


Bleak House es una novela larga con varias subtramas y con partes muy diferentes por su ambiente y sus personajes. Tanto es así que, aunque en conjunto tiene los rasgos de la novela realista decimonónica, con sus preocupaciones sociales y su detallada representación del mundo, dentro de ella podemos encontrar un relato policiaco y una historia de fantasmas. La primera, con Mr Bucket como detective, se distingue muy claramente, con un principio y un final definidos. Por cierto, qué estupendo trabajo hace Dickens al crear un detective tan memorable que no es ni más ni menos que un notable personaje secundario. La historia de fantasmas, al revés que la indagación policiaca, está diluida en la trama principal y se sugiere intermitentemente en ella, insinuando, subrayando, anunciando ciertos acontecimientos. Es ella misma como una aparición recurrente.
No me refiero al relato de Mrs. Rouncewell: este es una leyenda familiar de los Dedlock, un cuento dentro del cuento, y establece el origen mítico de los pasos fantasmales que se escuchan en el fantasmal paseo de Chesney Wold. Me refiero a que, partiendo de ese cuento que Mrs. Rouncewel transmite a los visitantes (principalmente a Mr. Guppy), el papel que juega el Paseo del fantasma (The Ghost’s Walk) se puede leer como un relato de género, aunque su presencia en la novela esté justificada dentro del marco realista como una proyección metafórica y lírica de la angustia de los personajes y una expresión de sus presentimientos. Eso no lo invalida como relato de este tipo; solamente lo clasificaría dentro del subtipo en el que los acontecimientos que caracterizan el misterio propio del género tienen una doble explicación sobrenatural y natural, sin que una llegue a anular por completo a la otra.
En la novela abundan los elementos folletinescos: el suspense y el misterio son empleados a discreción. También están presente lo siniestro, el horror, lo macabro, y casi todas las cosas siniestras, horribles y ominosas tienen lugar en la proximidad de Lincoln’s Inn. El gusto de la época por el espiritismo, su presencia en la sociedad y en la cultura del tiempo, hacen que el tema del anuncio sobrenatural germine con naturalidad entre los ingredientes de la trama. Con algunos de estos ingredientes, autores de menos calidad hacían (y hacen) guisos indigeribles. Pero Dickens añadía a la mezcla otros materiales (la compasión, la burla, la ironía, la crítica social, la poesía, la ingenuidad de sus personajes más queridos) y todo lo fundía en un arte narrativo de muchos recursos, desplegado con un estilo superior. Lo horripilante se ve cuestionado por la ironía, atemperado por la descripción burlona de ambientes y caracteres. El cuento de fantasmas que un autor de menos talento emplearía como una concesió fácil se convierte a lo largo de Bleak House en un recurso narrativo y estilístico que va marcando la aproximación de cierto desenlace. A veces es solo una mención para recordarnos su existencia, un contrapunto, un componente arquitectónico destacado en la última luz (o por ella), una forma de melancolía, una amenaza que crece y se va concretando a medida que el lector sabe más de las relaciones entre los personajes y de la progresión del argumento.

Nuestro cuento de fantasmas se puede extraer sin mucha dificultad del cuerpo de la novela. Y su título sería, por supuesto, el mismo del capítulo VII: The Ghost’s Walk. Pero las referencias a este no constituyen un relato por sí mismo. El que cuenta Mrs Rouncewell sí lo es. Pero el otro relato está escondido en la estructura actual de la novela y solo lo podemos ver reorganizando en nuestra imaginación algunas partes y algunos hilos, centrándonos en la historia de Lady Dedlock y su punto de vista, con el sonido del Paseo del fantasma avisando, insistiendo, reapareciendo sin que ella lo escuche. Lo esuchan otros personajes acaso más crédulos, que no pueden ni necesitan avisar de ningún peligro, pues, al fin y al cabo, ella lo conoce mejor que nadie.

TODAS LAS APARICIONES DEL PASEO DEL FANTASMA EN BLEAK HOUSE
ALL APPARITIONS OF THE GHOST’S WALK IN CHARLES DICKENS’ BLEAK HOUSE

The Ghost Walk by “Phiz” (Hablot K. Browne)

1. The view from my Lady Dedlock’s own windows is alternately a lead-coloured view and a view in Indian ink. The vases on the stone terrace in the foreground catch the rain all day; and the heavy drops fall — drip, drip, drip — upon the broad flagged pavement, called from old time the Ghost’s Walk, all night.

2… while Esther wakes, it is still wet weather down at the place in Lincolnshire. The rain is ever falling — drip, drip, drip — by day and night upon the broad flagged terrace-pavement, the Ghost’s Walk.

3. All things have an end, even houses that people take infinite pains to see and are tired of before they begin to see them. He has come to the end of the sight, and the fresh village beauty to the end of her description; which is always this: “The terrace below is much admired. It is called, from an old story in the family, the Ghost’s Walk.” “No?” says Mr. Guppy, greedily curious. “What’s the story, miss? Is it anything about a picture?” “Pray tell us the story,” says Watt in a half whisper. “I don’t know it, sir.” Rosa is shyer than ever. “It is not related to visitors; it is almost forgotten,” says the housekeeper, advancing. “It has never been more than a family anecdote.”

4. It is now dusk. Mrs. Rouncewell can trust to the discretion of her two young hearers and may tell THEM how the terrace came to have that ghostly name. She seats herself in a large chair by the fast-darkening window and tells them: “In the wicked days, my dears, of King Charles the First — I mean, of course, in the wicked days of the rebels who leagued themselves against that excellent king — Sir Morbury Dedlock was the owner of Chesney Wold. Whether there was any account of a ghost in the family before those days, I can’t say. I should think it very likely indeed.” Mrs. Rouncewell holds this opinion because she considers that a family of such antiquity and importance has a right to a ghost. She regards a ghost as one of the privileges of the upper classes, a genteel distinction to which the common people have no claim. “Sir Morbury Dedlock,” says Mrs. Rouncewell, “was, I have no occasion to say, on the side of the blessed martyr. But it IS supposed that his Lady, who had none of the family blood in her veins, favoured the bad cause. It is said that she had relations among King Charles’s enemies, that she was in correspondence with them, and that she gave them information. When any of the country gentlemen who followed his Majesty’s cause met here, it is said that my Lady was always nearer to the door of their council-room than they supposed. Do you hear a sound like a footstep passing along the terrace, Watt?” Rosa draws nearer to the housekeeper. “I hear the rain-drip on the stones,” replies the young man, “and I hear a curious echo — I suppose an echo — which is very like a halting step.” The housekeeper gravely nods and continues: “Partly on account of this division between them, and partly on other accounts, Sir Morbury and his Lady led a troubled life. She was a lady of a haughty temper. They were not well suited to each other in age or character, and they had no children to moderate between them. After her favourite brother, a young gentleman, was killed in the civil wars (by Sir Morbury’s near kinsman), her feeling was so violent that she hated the race into which she had married. When the Dedlocks were about to ride out from Wold in the king’s cause, she is supposed to have more than once stolen down into the stables in the dead of night and lamed their horses; and the story is that once at such an hour, her husband saw her gliding down the stairs and followed her into the stall where his own favourite horse stood. There he seized her by the wrist, and in a struggle or in a fall or through the horse being frightened and lashing out, she was lamed in the hip and from that hour began to pine away.” The housekeeper has dropped her voice to a little more than a whisper. “She had been a lady of a handsome figure and a noble carriage. She never complained of the change; she never spoke to any one of being crippled or of being in pain, but day by day she tried to walk upon the terrace, and with the help of the stone balustrade, went up and down, up and down, up and down, in sun and shadow, with greater difficulty every day. At last, one afternoon her husband (to whom she had never, on any persuasion, opened her lips since that night), standing at the great south window, saw her drop upon the pavement. He hastened down to raise her, but she repulsed him as he bent over her, and looking at him fixedly and coldly, said, ‘I will die here where I have walked. And I will walk here, though I am in my grave. I will walk here until the pride of this house is humbled. And when calamity or when disgrace is coming to it, let the Dedlocks listen for my step!’” Watt looks at Rosa. Rosa in the deepening gloom looks down upon the ground, half frightened and half shy. “There and then she died. And from those days,” says Mrs. Rouncewell, “the name has come down — the Ghost’s Walk. If the tread is an echo, it is an echo that is only heard after dark, and is often unheard for a long while together. But it comes back from time to time; and so sure as there is sickness or death in the family, it will be heard then.” “And disgrace, grandmother—” says Watt. “Disgrace never comes to Chesney Wold,” returns the housekeeper.

5. Through the same cold sunlight, colder as the day declines, and through the same sharp wind, sharper as the separate shadows of bare trees gloom together in the woods, and as the Ghost’s Walk, touched at the western corner by a pile of fire in the sky, resigns itself to coming night, they drive into the park. The rooks, swinging in their lofty houses in the elm-tree avenue, seem to discuss the question of the occupancy of the carriage as it passes underneath, some agreeing that Sir Leicester and my Lady are come down, some arguing with malcontents who won’t admit it, now all consenting to consider the question disposed of, now all breaking out again in violent debate, incited by one obstinate and drowsy bird who will persist in putting in a last contradictory croak. Leaving them to swing and caw, the travelling chariot rolls on to the house, where fires gleam warmly through some of the windows, though not through so many as to give an inhabited expression to the darkening mass of front. But the brilliant and distinguished circle will soon do that.

6. At length, one afternoon a little before sunset, when the bright groups of figures which have for the last hour or two enlivened the Ghost’s Walk are all dispersed and only Sir Leicester and my Lady remain upon the terrace, Mr. Tulkinghorn appears. He comes towards them at his usual methodical pace, which is never quickened, never slackened. He wears his usual expressionless mask — if it be a mask — and carries family secrets in every limb of his body and every crease of his dress. Whether his whole soul is devoted to the great or whether he yields them nothing beyond the services he sells is his personal secret. He keeps it, as he keeps the secrets of his clients; he is his own client in that matter, and will never betray himself.

7. She drops a piece of money in his hand without touching it, and shuddering as their hands approach. “Now,” she adds, “show me the spot again!”

Jo thrusts the handle of his broom between the bars of the gate, and with his utmost power of elaboration, points it out. At length, looking aside to see if he has made himself intelligible, he finds that he is alone. His first proceeding is to hold the piece of money to the gas-light and to be overpowered at finding that it is yellow — gold. His next is to give it a one-sided bite at the edge as a test of its quality. His next, to put it in his mouth for safety and to sweep the step and passage with great care. His job done, he sets off for Tom-all-Alone’s, stopping in the light of innumerable gas-lamps to produce the piece of gold and give it another one-sided bite as a reassurance of its being genuine.

(…)

The Mercury in powder is in no want of society to-night, for my Lady goes to a grand dinner and three or four balls. Sir Leicester is fidgety down at Chesney Wold, with no better company than the gout; he complains to Mrs. Rouncewell that the rain makes such a monotonous pattering on the terrace that he can’t read the paper even by the fireside in his own snug dressing-room. “Sir Leicester would have done better to try the other side of the house, my dear,” says Mrs. Rouncewell to Rosa. “His dressing-room is on my Lady’s side. And in all these years I never heard the step upon the Ghost’s Walk more distinct than it is to-night!”

8. Such the guests in the long drawing-room at Chesney Wold this dismal night when the step on the Ghost’s Walk (inaudible here, however) might be the step of a deceased cousin shut out in the cold. It is near bed-time. Bedroom fires blaze brightly all over the house, raising ghosts of grim furniture on wall and ceiling.

9. When my Lady goes to her boudoir, she sits down thoughtfully by the fire, and inattentive to the Ghost’s Walk, looks at Rosa, writing in an inner room. Presently my Lady calls her.

10. Rosa softly withdraws; but still my Lady’s eyes are on the fire. In search of what? Of any hand that is no more, of any hand that never was, of any touch that might have magically changed her life? Or does she listen to the Ghost’s Walk and think what step does it most resemble? A man’s? A woman’s? The pattering of a little child’s feet, ever coming on — on — on? Some melancholy influence is upon her, or why should so proud a lady close the doors and sit alone upon the hearth so desolate?

11. I was resting at my favourite point after a long ramble, and Charley was gathering violets at a little distance from me. I had been looking at the Ghost’s Walk lying in a deep shade of masonry afar off and picturing to myself the female shape that was said to haunt it when I became aware of a figure approaching through the wood. The perspective was so long and so darkened by leaves, and the shadows of the branches on the ground made it so much more intricate to the eye, that at first I could not discern what figure it was. By little and little it revealed itself to be a woman’s — a lady’s — Lady Dedlock’s. She was alone and coming to where I sat with a much quicker step, I observed to my surprise, than was usual with her.

12. Thence the path wound underneath a gateway, and through a court-yard where the principal entrance was (I hurried quickly on), and by the stables where none but deep voices seemed to be, whether in the murmuring of the wind through the strong mass of ivy holding to a high red wall, or in the low complaining of the weathercock, or in the barking of the dogs, or in the slow striking of a clock. So, encountering presently a sweet smell of limes, whose rustling I could hear, I turned with the turning of the path to the south front, and there above me were the balustrades of the Ghost’s Walk and one lighted window that might be my mother’s.

13. The way was paved here, like the terrace overhead, and my footsteps from being noiseless made an echoing sound upon the flags. Stopping to look at nothing, but seeing all I did see as I went, I was passing quickly on, and in a few moments should have passed the lighted window, when my echoing footsteps brought it suddenly into my mind that there was a dreadful truth in the legend of the Ghost’s Walk, that it was I who was to bring calamity upon the stately house and that my warning feet were haunting it even then. Seized with an augmented terror of myself which turned me cold, I ran from myself and everything, retraced the way by which I had come, and never paused until I had gained the lodge-gate, and the park lay sullen and black behind me.

14. He would know it all the better if he saw the woman pacing her own rooms with her hair wildly thrown from her flung-back face, her hands clasped behind her head, her figure twisted as if by pain. He would think so all the more if he saw the woman thus hurrying up and down for hours, without fatigue, without intermission, followed by the faithful step upon the Ghost’s Walk. But he shuts out the now chilled air, draws the window-curtain, goes to bed, and falls asleep. And truly when the stars go out and the wan day peeps into the turret-chamber, finding him at his oldest, he looks as if the digger and the spade were both commissioned and would soon be digging.

15. What delusion can this be? What power does she suppose is in the person she petitions to avert this unjust suspicion, if it be unjust? Her Lady’s handsome eyes regard her with astonishment, almost with fear. “My Lady, I came away last night from Chesney Wold to find my son in my old age, and the step upon the Ghost’s Walk was so constant and so solemn that I never heard the like in all these years. Night after night, as it has fallen dark, the sound has echoed through your rooms, but last night it was awfullest. And as it fell dark last night, my Lady, I got this letter.” “What letter is it?”

16. “For I dread, George,” the old lady says to her son, who waits below to keep her company when she has a little leisure, “I dread, my dear, that my Lady will never more set foot within these walls.” “That’s a bad presentiment, mother.” “Nor yet within the walls of Chesney Wold, my dear.” “That’s worse. But why, mother?” “When I saw my Lady yesterday, George, she looked to me — and I may say at me too — as if the step on the Ghost’s Walk had almost walked her down.” “Come, come! You alarm yourself with old-story fears, mother.” “No I don’t, my dear. No I don’t. It’s going on for sixty year that I have been in this family, and I never had any fears for it before. But it’s breaking up, my dear; the great old Dedlock family is breaking up.” “I hope not, mother.” “I am thankful I have lived long enough to be with Sir Leicester in this illness and trouble, for I know I am not too old nor too useless to be a welcomer sight to him than anybody else in my place would be. But the step on the Ghost’s Walk will walk my Lady down, George; it has been many a day behind her, and now it will pass her and go on.” “Well, mother dear, I say again, I hope not.” “Ah, so do I, George,” the old lady returns, shaking her head and parting her folded hands. “But if my fears come true, and he has to know it, who will tell him!”

17. There is no improvement in the weather. From the portico, from the eaves, from the parapet, from every ledge and post and pillar, drips the thawed snow. It has crept, as if for shelter, into the lintels of the great door — under it, into the corners of the windows, into every chink and crevice of retreat, and there wastes and dies. It is falling still; upon the roof, upon the skylight, even through the skylight, and drip, drip, drip, with the regularity of the Ghost’s Walk, on the stone floor below.

Charles Dickens. Complete Works of Charles Dickens. Delphi Classics.

Read only if you don’t mind a spoiler

Haunting, Guilt and Destiny in Bleak House (LitCharts)

Fog

To go into Bleak House (the novel) you must go into the fog, the thick fog at the begining of the book. First you see it wetting and clogging streets, rooms, windows, boats, river banks, the whole sky and the whole city of London. Then it turns into a metaphorical fog inside Chancery Lane. And it’s not only the fog, but the mud, mud and mire, a sticky, churning substance that clings onto people and carriages, dogs, horses and dresses, reason, justice and good will, soiling them, wearing them off.
So I opened the book and entered the fog, it’s visions. I listened to the voice of the omniscient narrator (which is, more or less, Dickens’ own voice). It had the power to summon all kinds of things while it kept the fog going, moving slowly, forcing the world to move slowly in its wake.

The fog hinders our ability to see, but it also makes it possible. The narrator seems to be giving an account of every thing touched by the fog. Maybe because of it we are short sighted, we have to get near to discern people and objects, but the voice guides us, lighting the darkness and sharpening the blurry apparitions.
In this way, the reader (that was me) got entangled in those tentacles of pale, dirty clouds, and moved ahead with difficulty. (It happened that my head was also a bit foggy those days.)
I hadn’t read a XIXth century novel for a while and I came from much quicker roads, so I also had to adjust to the new pace. It took some time and I took my time, just as the author had took his to write the novel (too many pages, indeed, for an evening’s read).
Besides, I love the fog.
I didn’t mind retracing my steps and staying there for a while.
Modern novels are films. Old ones are a mix of tragedy and comedy represented on the stage of the reader’s mind.
Everything took more time in those days when novels were written along large, minute chapters and published in long awaited installments.
One of their pleasures is the slow time they invite us to.
In Bleak House the parts that flow from the voice of the omniscient narrator are the slowest, with wonderful descriptions that bring to life characters and places. Long sentences full of connections frequently display humorous tones and different forms of irony, which is a peculiar way of putting things in connection. The narrative undertaken by Esther Summerson is more vivacious, written in a plainer English, but also representative of her wit and her whole personality. And the different narratives and chapters stretch minutely across encounters and scenes of social life, dialogues, roads, fields and houses.
So let yourseIf drift in the fog and you’ll be starting a delightful journey. A hot, dreary summer is waiting pages ahead, and a cruel winter, and lots of sad, cheerful, intriguing or comical situations. Bleak House and Chesney Wold, Tom’s All Alone and the Deadlocks’ house in London… A whole world of scenes and characters that act their parts in the living fog of the reader’s imagination.


One thousand and six hundred pages

I’ve been busy (and enormously happy) reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, though I must say I finished the book in a surprisingly short amount of time, considering it has eight hundred pages. This means my happiness lasted less than expected.

The book is a wonderful structure balanced in such a way that joy and amusement are it’s natural byproducts. Though it has been said that it is something like a Harry Potter novel for adults I definitely wouldn’t put it that way. Such a formula is too simple to picture the original mix of ingredients Susanna Clarke poured into her magic cauldron. Historical knowledge; classical, efficient narrative techniques; a thorough acquaintance with XIXth century authors such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen; imagination, fantasy, folklore, fake scholarship thrown into the lot for the sake of a most pleasurable sense of humour (the real scholarship, the science and the knowledge, lies behind and beyond)… No wonder I went through all those pages so quickly. Clarke’s novel has sold 4 million copies since it was published in 2004 but her work certainly delivers a higher level of quality than the typical bestseller. The figures she brings to life before the reader are not stock characters. They have entity, nuances contradictions, defined personalities, they certainly evolve and interact in many subtle ways. The author’s love for Italian painting and architecture plays an important part supplying backgrounds, motifs, atmospheres and sceneries. Many other cultural elements are set into this delightful construction. The rhythm of the narration fluctuates constantly so it doesn’t overwhelm the reader with a continual flow of action and miracles. A novel can always be likened to a river even not being a roman-fleuve. Like a river that runs swiftly and then broadens and calms down before making a display of its most spectacular rapids, this great narrative takes a course most convenient to it’s length, allowing the reader to rest and watch the calm banks, then to be swallowed by novelty and emotion, then to set foot on new territories, some of them provided with some sort of supernatural beauty. These elements the author masters and combines to produce a unique construction which has enthralled me as a reader and kept me going without pause till the end.

Now I’m reading another book of about eight hundred pages: Bleak House, by Charles Dickens. And it’s taking me much longer to read it, and Iv’e even paused between chapters to enjoy a couple of short books. Is it because I dislike it? Not at all. We’ll tackle this point soon.

In the meantime, please read this great article to know more about Clarke and her novel:
The New Yorker, Laura Miller: Susanna Clarke’s Fantasy World of Interiors

Encuentro con Rama

Lecturas en los tiempos del coronavirus

Leí Encuentro con Rama, de Arthur C. Clarke, gracias a Los Morlocks: no a los Morlocks de H.G. Wells ni a los Morlocks de Marvel Comics, sino a
¡¡¡¡LOS MORLOCKS!!!! Reseñas e ilustraciones sobre subcultura y cómics
Leí su reseña y decidí que tenía que leer el libro, que éste era uno de esos clásicos de la ciencia ficción con los que iba a disfrutar enormemente.
Y así fue.
Con todo el encanto, los defectos y los prejuicios de la época en que se escribió, es un libro para amantes del género. Y dentro de este, se puede decir que pertenece al subgénero de “descubrimiento de mundos”.
Porque Rama es un mundo cerrado y el peso de la novela recae en la exploración de ese mundo, exploración que el lector comparte con los personajes.
Maravilloso.
La reseña de Carles Llonch Molina en Los Morlocks podéis leerla en el enlace de arriba, al principio de la página.
Voy a destacar dos conceptos de la misma:
Ciencia ficción dura y voluntad pedagógica.
La primera es la especialidad de Arthur C. Clarke. Era un científico. La segunda fue, según nos dice Carles Llonch, el motivo de que Clarke se metiera a escritor de novelas. Además, digo yo, esa intención de enseñar, puesta en práctica dentro del argumento, es un ingrediente imprescindible en las obras de ciencia ficción de este tipo (o en los tecno-thrillers). Una parte de los descubrimientos que el lector debe hacer están ahí, y son la base para que pueda descubrir y entender el resto del panorama que el autor le va presentando.
Adentrarse en un mundo desconocido muy especial, un mundo cerrado y enigmático, ir descubriendo sus extrañas leyes o contemplando sus enigmas irresolubles: eso es Cita con Rama.
El autor no tiene tiempo de dedicarse a personajes muy complejos que evolucionan, aunque los traza bastante bien dentro de las necesidades de la obra. Tampoco se entretiene en desarrollar conflictos entre ellos, y gracias a Dios o a la Fuerza no suple estos conflictos con la presencia de un malo malísimo que, dominado por los celos, el afán de venganza o de poder, la mezquindad, el egoísmo y otras pulsiones similares, se dedique a minar la misión desde dentro, traicionar y engañar bajo la capa de la más convincente hipocresía y esas cosas. No hay tiempo para tonterías. Y el objetivo principal de la novela está claro.
Así que el placer, la emoción del descubrimiento, del hallazgo, del conocimiento, del territorio virgen que se recorre por vez primera, es todo (o casi todo) lo que nos ofrece. ¡Ni más ni menos!
Ni siquiera se detuvo el autor a solventar el problema de los microrganismos que pudieran haber enfermado al equipo de exploración, odescribir las precauciones que éste debería haber tomado para evitar la contaminación del mundo extraño en el que se adentran.
Hay apenas en el libro un par de menciones a posibles micorganismos y a un sistema de defensa contra posibles contaminaciones… Por parte del mundo que visitan, no por parte del equipo de exploración ni de su nave.
Hoy nos parece raro ¿verdad?

Los cultivadores de gérmenes

Lecturas en los tiempos del coronavirus

¿Te interesa leer un libro publicado en 1892 del que se ha dicho que es la primera novela en la que se describe una invasión alienígena de la Tierra, libro publicado seis años antes de La guerra de los mundos de H.G. Wells? Pues, primeramente, debes estar dispuest@ a hacerlo en inglés. Luego, debes ir a gutenberg.org, descargarlo, leer y sólo después regresar aquí, ya que estoy a punto de estropear las principales sorpresas del relato. No tengo más remedio, pues voy a explicar por qué NO ES LA PRIMERA NOVELA DE INVASIONES ALIENÍGENAS. Así que, a la inversa, si no quieres leer el libro, puedes seguir con este artículo y, muy rápidamente, informarte sobre los principales elementos de la trama. O sea, de qué va.

En mi opinión, H. G. Wells es el indiscutible creador del subgénero de invasiones alienígenas, a pesar de que en Wikipedia se afirma que “en 1892 Robert Potter, un clérigo australiano, publicó en Londres Los cultivadores de gérmenes. Ahí se describe una invasión encubierta en la que los alienígenas toman forma humana e intentan desarrollar una virulenta enfermedad en la que apoyar sus planes de conquista global. El libro no fue muy leído y, en consecuencia, la novela de Wells, que obtuvo un gran éxito, se considera generalmente el origen de todas las historias de invasiones extraterrestres que vinieron después” (He traducido libremente un fragmento de la entrada en inglés dedicada a La Guerra de los mundos).
Del mismo modo, en la Science Fiction Encyclopedia encontramos el siguiente resumen de la trama: “Una raza de seres desencarnados, habitantes del “ether” interplanetario y capaces de asumir forma humana, controlar mentalmente a los humanos y con habilidades de teletransportación, invaden la Tierra y establecen cabezas de puente donde cultivan gérmenes infecciosos para usarlo contra la humanidad”. A pesar de esto, el redactor de la entrada nos advierte de que “el elemento de alegoría cristiana (ángeles caídos a los que se enfrenta un ángel bueno) impide que se realice completamente el potencial de ciencia ficción del libro”

Vale, si pedís mi opinión (lo cual supongo que no teníais intención de hacer, lo que no impedirá que os la dé) no hay ninguna alegoría en la narración de Potter. Nada. Ni un ápice. Los alienígenas son de hecho criaturas espirituales, buenos o malos, es decir, lo que la Biblia llama ángeles, y el libro es un intento de armonizar una explicación científica del universo con la cosmovisión (o visión del mundo) cristiana donde la noción clásica de éter (no confundir con el éter que sirve para dormir a la gente en la viejas novelas de misterio) o ether o aether ya había encontrado un sitio en relación con el cielo, el espacio exterior, seres angélicos y otras cosas parecidas. Esta idea situada en el centro mismo de la trama es claramente mucho más original que cualquier alegoría. En realidad el mundo del que vienen los invasores de la novela es nuestro mismo mundo. Hoy diríamos que se trata de “otra dimensión” o algo así.

Potter recurre a la noción de “aether” (tal como escribe él la palabra) no como “el quinto elemento” de la antigua Grecia, sino como concepto científico todavía muy importante en su época, y lo hace converger con las cualidades “etéreas” de los ángeles y los espíritus y la materia sutil (¿o quizá deberíamos llamarla energía?) en donde estos viven. Esta materia sutil que está en todas partes y lo atraviesa todo, que está en el origen de cualquier otra sustancia contenida en el Universo es de lo que está hecho el espíritu y el “lugar” de donde vienen los”aliens” del argumento. Para entrar en nuestro mundo de objetos groseros estos ángeles deben “materializarse”, cosa que hacen sin problema, pero una vez que se han convertido en seres humanos están sujetos a todas las leyes de la naturaleza que gobiernan la nuestra. Aquí es donde la parte de ciencia ficción se vuelve real, destacable. Pues, gracias a su elevada inteligencia y conocimiento, las legiones rebeldes que llegan a la Tierra a sembrar la enfermedad en cuerpos y almas usan máquinas que, cuando son vistas por los protagonistas, aparecen a sus ojos como el producto de una tecnología muy avanzada y de una civilización basada en ese tipo de tecnología. Emplean también su profundo conocimiento de la biología para cultivar gérmenes en plantaciones secretas, gérmenes que son mutaciones mortales obtenidas a partir de especímenes inocuos a través de extensos experimentos. Luego difunden estos gérmenes con ayuda de sus “coches voladores” para probarlos y para empujar a la humanidad a la desesperación y la rebeldía.

La “teletransportación” de que habla la Enciclopedia de Sci Fi es tan solo lo que pasa cuando uno de los ángeles encarnados muere, o cuando deciden por propia voluntad volver al éter de donde proceden y luego regresar, tomando nuevamente la materia y la forma del cuerpo humano. La verdad es que las meditaciones y ensueños del Sr. Potter me han parecido muy entretenidas, a pesar de que emplea tanto tiempo en describir algunos de los ingeniosos ingenios usados por las malélovas criaturas que se ocultan en un remoto y escondido valle australiano. Estos ingenios y artilugios nos pueden hacer gracia hoy en día. Debemos tener en cuenta el tiempo en que se escribió la novela. Esto también es esencial para entender los defectos y prejuicios del narrador, muy característicos de su siglo.

Ciertamente debo decir que el título de la novela llamó mi atención especialmente porque estos días hay un virus que nos tiene a raya a los seres humanos. En la primera parte del libro, antes de contar la historia de sus aventuras australianas, al narrador recuerda algunas cosas que le sucedieron en su juventud, entre ellas una epidemia y algunos otros hechos que cree que puedan estar conectados aunque no lo parezca. Tras saber todo lo que hay que saber sobre sus andanzas y descubrimientos australianos, vemos claramente que tenía razón: los acontecimientos que tuvieron lugar en Gales cuando el narrador era un muchacho estaban, en efecto, conectados entre sí. Esta primera parte del libro es mi favorita aún después de haber obtenido todos los indicios concluyentes que nos proporciona el relato principal. Con esos acontecimientos aparentemente sueltos, atados entre sí solo por el misterio y las sugestiones que unas cuantas creencias y relatos folclóricos, esta primera parte me recuerda el aura sobrenatural que crece alrededor de hechos y lugares normales en las obras de Arthur Machen.

La amenaza invisible

Lecturas en los tiempos del coronavirus

Ahora que la humanidad ha tenido que acostumbrarse a vivir en medio de una amenaza invisible, resulta fascinante que Michael Crichton, allá en 1969, escribiera una novela de ciencia ficción en la que el “invasor alienígena” es igualmente invisible, igualmente diminuto, igualmente mortífero (bueno, un poco más el de la novela, aunque el virus real tampoco es manco).
El libro de Crichton, publicado en español con el título La amenaza de Andrómeda, se escribió con un estilo objetivo, eficaz y bajo un enfoque tan realista que muchos creyeron que no se trataba de un relato ficticio. De hecho, el autor trabaja como un experto falsificador. Crea informes, una bibliografía, toda clase de documentos. Dibuja los diagramas que salen de la computadora de Wildfire y justifica el cuerpo de la narración como el relato de una crisis real que va precedido de los correspondientes reconocimientos… a personajes de ficción que aparecen luego en el relato. La estructura de la obra es como una bella máquina donde la forma se supedita a la función, al propósito. Los hechos y los datos suministrados al lector le conducen por un laberinto de hallazgos y enigmas (la trama) hasta el desenlace, seguramente la pieza más débil del conjunto, quizás porque es la menos importante (en el guión de la película de 1971, éste aparece modificado). Lo que importa es el viaje a través del laberinto, la carretera con sus descubrimientos y sus curvas. Es posible que, formalmente, la película de Robert Wise sea superior. En ella, el estilo de Crichton tiene su correlato en una narrativa cinematográfica sobria, eficacísima, y todas las posibilidades visuales de WILDFIRE, el laboratorio subterráneo donde cada planta es de un color, se realizan en las imágenes bajo la estética futurista de aquellos años, un futuro de una vieja cosecha que ya no volverá. Es posible que las novelas de Chricton no estén ni pretendan estar en la cúspide del arte literario, pero, en su género, algunas son piezas maestras, y La Amenaza de Andrómeda, además, inauguró un género, el llamado techno-thriller, que es lo que surge cuando el laberinto de enigmas se arma con problemas de tipo técnico y científico. Lo cual no impide que esta obra en concreto sea también un relato de ciencia ficción. Los géneros son clasificaciones arbitrarias que resaltan determinadas características de un libro para que, a la vista de una etiqueta reconocible, el potencial lector sepa qué puede esperar. En La Amenaza de Andrómeda hay claros elementos de ciencia ficción y, a la vez, unas características que Crichton combinó con maestría dando pie a una nueva etiqueta.

Los libros de mero entretenimiento tienden a ser aburridos por su excesiva liviandad, que los vuelve insípidos. Pero Crichton incluye en la receta de su techno thriller una serie de conocimientos que debemos aprender mientras avanzamos de sorpresa en sorpresa. Y eso es un valor añadido. Gracias a lo que aprendemos en el libro estamos en situación de comprender que, muy probablemente, la amenaza de Andrómeda proceda indirectamente de la misma Tierra. Que algún microorganismo puesto en órbita ha podido evolucionar fuera de su ecosistema natural para convertirse en otra cosa. Que, una vez más, la humanidad es la causa del peligro que la amenaza.
En estos días en que vivimos asediados por un enemigo invisible, la misteriosa amenaza del primer libro que Crichton firmó con su propio nombre resulta desazonantemente familiar, inquietante y atractiva. La lectura de la novela sirve como evasión mientras dura y como reflexión cuando la cerramos. Entonces nos damos cuenta de que plantea unas cuantas cuestiones, de tipo científico y de tipo moral, a las que podemos dar muchas vueltas.

En octubre de 2019, la Red de Vigilancia Espacial de los EE.UU. informó de que había unos 20.000 objetos artificiales en órbita sobre la Tierra, incluyendo 2.218 satélites operativos. Si embargo, estos son solamente los objetos con el suficiente tamaño como para poder ser sometidos a seguimiento. En enero de 2019, se calculó que más de 128 de pedazos de residuos menores de 1 cm, unas 900.000 entre 1-10 com y unas 34.000 mayores de 10 cm. estaban en órbita. Cuando los objetos más pequeños de basura espacial de origen humano (raspaduras de pintura, partícula sólidas procedentes de la combustión de los cohetes etc. se agrupan con micrometeoros, las agencias espaciales se refieran con frecuencia a ellos como MMOD (Micrometeoroid and Orbital Debris:) La colisión con este tipo de restos se ha convertido en un riesgo para las naves espaciales. [Wikipedia; artículo en inglés. La traducción es mía].

The Germ Growers

Are you in interested in reading a book published in 1892 which is said to be the first novel portraying an alien invasion of Earth, released six years before H. G. Well’s The War of the Worlds? Then download it from gutenberg.org and come back after reading. Why? Because I am about to spoil the main surprises contained in the story by explaining WHY IT IS NOT THE FIRST ALIEN INVASION NOVEL. So, in my opinion, if it is the only candidate to challenge Well’s book, this will remain as the absolute and uncontested pioneer in a groundbreaking territory (a very appropriate expression to use here, if we take into account the Martians destructive operations).

The next paragraph comes from Wikipedia (I have always loved cyclopedias, and an online one under permanent construction and revision is a treasure I sometimes contribute to by giving a little money or even writing an article):

“In 1892 Robert Potter, an Australian clergyman, published The Germ Growers in London. It describes a covert invasion by aliens who take on the appearance of human beings and attempt to develop a virulent disease to assist in their plans for global conquest. It was not widely read, and consequently Wells’s vastly more successful novel is generally credited as the seminal alien invasion story.”


Likewise, the Science Fiction Encyclopedia summarises the plot this way:

“A race of discarnate beings, denizens of the interplanetary “ether” capable of assuming human form, mind-controlling humans, and able to Teleport, invades Earth and sets up beachheads where they cultivate plague germs to be used on humanity”. Nevertheless, at the end of the entry we are warned that “the element of Christian allegory (fallen angels confronted by a good angel) leaves its sf potential not fully realized.”

Well, if you ask me (which probably you will not, but I will tell you anyway) there is no allegory in Potter’s story. The aliens are actual spiritual creatures, good or bad, that is, what the Bible calls angels, and the book is an attempt to harmonise a scientific explanation of the universe with the Christian worldview where the classic notion of ether or aether had already found its way in relation to heaven, outer space, angelic beings and so on. This idea at the core of the plot is plainly more original than any allegory. The “world” where these “invaders” come from is actually in the same place as ours. Today we would call it “other dimension” or something of the like.

Robert Potter resorts to the notion of aether, not as “the fifth element” of ancient Greece, but as a scientific concept still prevalent in his time, making it converge with the “ethereal” qualities of angels and souls and the subtle matter (should we call it energy?) where they abide. This subtle matter that pervades everything and is the origin of every other kind of substance in the Universe is what the spirit is made of and where the “aliens” of the story come from. To pass into our world of coarse objects the angels of the book must “materialise”, and they can do it without any problem, but once they turn into human beings, they are subject to all the laws of Nature that govern ours. Here is where the science fiction part is most prominent. For, being extremely wise and learned, the rebel legions that come to Earth to sow disease in bodies and souls use machines that, when seen by the protagonists, seem to them the product of a very advanced technology and a highly technological civilisation. They also use their deep knowledge of biology to grow germs in secret plantations, germs which are deadly mutations obtained from harmless ones through extensive experiments. These they spread by means of their invisible “flying cars” to push humankind into despair and rebellion.

The “teleportation” the Sci Fi Encyclopedia mentions is only what happens when one of the incarnate angels gets killed, or when they decide of their own accord to go back to the aether where they came from in the first place, and then they come back, taking again the matter and form of the human body.
I have found Mr. Potter’s musings very amusing, even though he spends too much time describing some of the contraptions used by the malevolent creatures that hide in a remote and concealed valley in Australia. These contraptions we may find a little funny today. We must, of course, consider the time when the novel was written. Also this is essential to understand the narrator’s flaws and prejudices, which are very characteristic of the century he lived in.

Of course, the title of the novel caught my eye in these days when a virus is keeping us humans at bay. In the first part of the book, before telling the story of his Australian adventures, the narrator recalls part of his youth memories, which include an epidemic and some other facts that he believes are connected though apparently it is not the case. After knowing everything about his Australian discoveries, we do see clearly that he was right: invisible connections certainly linked the events that took place in Wales when he was a boy. This first part of the book is still my favourite after getting the conclusive hints. With those loose events apparently glued together only by mystery and the suggestions that folkloric tales throw into the bargain, it reminds me of the supernatural aura that grows around common facts and places in the works of Arthur Machen.

The Invisible Threat

READING IN THE TIME OF CORONAVIRUS

Now that Humankind is unwillingly getting used to live surrounded by an invisible threat, a novel written back in 1969 where the “invader from outer space” is equally invisible, equally tiny and not less deadly has the quality of being disturbing and also alluring. The Andromeda Strain was written in an objective, effectual style and developed under such a realistic point of view that many people actually believed the book not to be a fictional account. As a matter of fact, Michael Crichton worked on this novel like an expert forger of documents, reports and tests. He even created a bibliography and made the main narrative look like an account of a real crisis, placing at the forefront a bunch of acknowledgements addressed to some of the characters in the story. The facts and data which the author provides through this mechanism lead across a labyrinth of mysteries and discoveries (the plot) till we get to the ending, which is probably the weakest piece of the whole construction, maybe because it is the least important. What really counts is the way with all its wingdings and the journey with all its stages and inventions.

While the author’s device feeds our curiosity, the scientists inside the Wildfire premises feed data to the computer with the method used at the time: punctured pieces of paper. The novel has the aroma of an old vintage, just like the film directed by Robert Wise and released in 1971. All the visual potential of the book spreads (like a virus) through the images, especially the interior architecture of Wildfire which benefits from the futuristic style of the sixties, that wonderful view of a future that will never be again. Both the film and the novel are beautiful machines were form is subject to function and purpose. Maybe the film is a little superior in this aspect. Maybe Chricton is not on top of literary art, maybe he did not even pretend to make art of any sort; still he was skillful as a writer and some of his works are masterpieces in their own genre. But what genre does The Andromeda Strain belong to?  It is well known that he was the inventor of the so-called techno-thriller, where the usual puzzles found in thrillers are of a technical and scientific sort. So the labyrinth of mysteries and findings is a very special one and has the power of teaching us an interesting thing or two on its way to the next discovery within the plot. This is an added value and dispels the risk of the general artifact (the novel) being too light, too directed to pure entertainment (which would actually be a little boring). But genres are arbitrary classifications that highlight qualities present in books so that by producing a quick tag potential readers can know what they may expect. The Andromeda Strain is a thriller and also a sci-fi narrative which brings into view auto destructive forces lying behind certain lines of investigation, the ambition of the powers of this world working to achieve even greater power by setting aside moral considerations. It is Humankind messing with risks it should avoid, like when we force our way into the last largely intact ecosystems and hunt species we had not had contact with, raising the possibility of being infected with lethal viruses. At the time when The Andromeda Strain was written it was quite original to highlight a threat of a biological origin instead of the nuclear doom everybody feared. In the novel, the scientists in the Wildfire crew learn that the interest towards their project which secured funds and resources was not of an innocent kind. And we, readers, learn that maybe the microorganism they have to deal with has its origin on Earth, and, being transported into space, has evolved as a totally different thing (one that should be feared). The author does not give only one explanation to the existence of the Andromeda Strain, but several. These are hypothesis which the scientists in the novel do not have time to prove or dismiss. The reader can choose the one that fits him best. After all, this is a work of fiction, one that is useful not only for escaping our everyday life but also to set our eyes on some questions that we can think over afterwards.

As of October 2019, the US Space Surveillance Network reported nearly 20,000 artificial objects in orbit above the Earth,[7] including 2,218 operational satellites.[8] However, these are just the objects large enough to be tracked. As of January 2019, more than 128 million pieces of debris smaller than 1 cm (0.4 in), about 900,000 pieces of debris 1–10 cm, and around 34,000 of pieces larger than 10 cm were estimated to be in orbit around the Earth.[9] When the smallest objects of human-made space debris (paint flecks, solid rocket exhaust particles, etc.) are grouped with micrometeoroids, they are together sometimes referred to by space agencies as MMOD (Micrometeoroid and Orbital Debris). Collisions with debris have become a hazard to spacecraft. [Wikipedia]

Bacteria and Martians

“God is not an insurance agent!”

exclaims the Narrator addressing the curate in H.G. Wells’ Novel The War of the Worlds. The curate’s sanity is compromised by this situation he cannot understand, he cannot endure. The Narrator gets truly annoyed at his shivering impulsiveness. But we must admit that, at least, his ravings are consistent with the beliefs that have lent sense to his past life.

To him the martians are Angels of Death, envoys from the Other World, the shear wrath of God. What he cannot concede is their being a species superior to humans. What he cannot understand is Man being abandoned by God (that is, white, western Man, especially British and especially those who are part of a religious institution).
In Wells’ days there was a continuous talk of superior species and inferior races. The novel shows the hunter hunted, the king of creation dethroned: beings from other planet come to take the crown.
The idea that something similar to the facts narrated in the book could come to happen was inconceivable not only to the curate, but also to the reader of the  XIXth Century, in both senses: an invasion from Mars, of course, was seen as merely fictional, but Wells’ reader regarded the possibility of a civilization and a power superior to the British Empire as merely fictional too. A century and a half later (more or less) the British Empire is a memory (there is another one in it’s place) and we have been subject to so many fictional alien invasions that we could believe there has been an actual invasion at some moment of our lives (something we do not remember very well, maybe because it was too traumatic).
It has been Wells’ merit (or maybe his fault) that all visitors from outer space were Martians for a long while since his book came out in 1897. Today we know  there is no life on Mars’ surface. We know it is very improbable that ours is the sole species endowed with language, technology and civilization among all the existing creatures and worlds. We know it is almost impossible to contact an intelligent alien species, intelligent in the way we call ourselves intelligent, because, though surely it must exist somewhere and sometime, the universe is too vast and things in it are too scattered across its immense distances. But the same characteristics that make so difficult for us to find alien life or even habitable planets makes it impossible for the universe not to shelter life: it is huge, maybe endless, its components and features are repeated along those colossal ranges containing hundreds of billions of galaxies. Back in 2013, analyzing data from the Kepler Space mission astronomers were able to calculate the existence of about 40 billion earth sized planets orbiting inside the habitable  orbits of stars… Only in the Milky Way! So there is got to be someone out there but we are not going to see them. Too many light years keep us apart.
Anyway, the contact hypothesis has probably  been raised in all possible ways. In Wells’ novel it is a conquest war. All human means of defense and attack prove to be worthless before the invaders’ superiority. And then, the most unexpected thing happens: the poor Martians die of sepsis. They lack an  immune system. Be aware, Wells is telling his readers, for the humblest of all creatures has a place in God’s plan. Bacteria are the immune system of Earth.
But what if the Martians (or maybe I should say the “extraterrestrial beings”) were bacteria? Well, then we would have something like Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.
In this novel written by the famous best-selling author in 1969, the bacteria  are the aliens or, more exactly, the aliens are bacteria or, to be even more accurate, they are some kind of microorganism. It does not became clear if the form of life which is given the code name “Andromeda” can be called a bacteria, a virus or is something totally different.
When it comes to the relationship between the fictional and the real world, the hypothesis displayed by the plot of The Andromeda Strain is quite plausible. If one day we get in touch (be it for good or bad) with some kind of extraterrestrial life,  it will be some sort of microorganism, something small and simple, for, if the laws we can observe on our planet are also valid out of it, simple, small living things the like of bacteria and viruses are far more abundant than complex, big organisms. All this, by the way, is well explained in the book. In The War of the Worlds the relations between the real world and the one depicted in it are of a different kind, more philosophical.
All alien invasion novels describe a relation among three elements: the  planet Earth, humans and what we could call “the invasive species”. In The day the Earth Stood Still the defense of the planet comes from other planet, the ” intelligent” indigenous form of life is the menace to it, and once more the fictional and real worlds are connected, this time by an element which is partly an hypothesis, partly a process we can test every day just by keeping our eyes open: auto destruction.
The film is based upon Harry Bates’ story “Farewell to the Master” (1940) where the pending menace is a nuclear war. This has not been dispelled in our time but largely enriched with a variety of means for the progressive destruction of our environment and climate balance. Such means  provide a thorough and at the same time general effectiveness. This more complex auto destructive scenario appears in the 2008 film also titled The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Scott Derrikson and featuring Keanu Reeves as Klatu.

For the moment, to interpret the global pandemic that keeps us shut at home as a defense mechanism of the planet is irresistible though probably inappropriate. Bacteria are Earth’s mechanism of defense in Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Ideas about immunity and ecology were not so popular at the time so as to make Wells’ readers think of the Martian invaders as an infection against which the planet reacted by using it’s antibodies. War provided a much a more common pattern of thought.
Today it is not very difficult for us to regard the spread of different pandemics (the last of which is not
just hurting the health of human population but also the world economy) as a response of the immune system of Earth against the infection that we, humans, represent. We are not from Mars but indeed we are the main risk for life in this planet.