Yet another post about invisibility in fiction! So many stories I couldn’t mention in my upcoming book on the physics of invisibility, so you get to hear about the stories here.
Time to talk about a real classic of science fiction that also happens to be a classic story about invisibility: War with the Gizmos, by Murray Leinster, first published in 1958.
Murray Leinster (1896-1975) was a stunningly prolific author of science fiction. The bibliography of his work on Wikipedia, which I am sure is not complete, includes dozens of novels alone. War with the Gizmos is a compelling story of an attack on humanity by an utterly unfamiliar species of beings, who may or may not be intelligent and may or may not be from another world. It also features a rather distinct form of invisibility; let’s take a look!
The title is, in a sense, a little misleading: though there is a “war with the Gizmos” by the end of the novel, most of the book features the build-up to that war and the slow realization of humanity that there is an unseen threat among them. The book is written as a sort of history, referring to events in hindsight, and has a prologue highlighting early missed opportunities to detect the threat before it reached catastrophic levels.
The protagonist of the book is Dick Lane, a journalist who writes about sport hunting. His story begins as he trudges through the wilderness, looking for an explanation as to why so many animals have been found dead throughout the United States in recent weeks, showing signs of asphyxiation but no wounds on their body.
He soon gets his answer, as an invisible force covers his face and begins to choke the breath out of him. Only pure luck allows him to escape, and he hurries along to his original destination for shelter: the research outpost of Professor Warren, a female professor who is studying vulture in the area and might have some insight into what is going on. The description of Warren is very 1950s:
The woman professor in charge was not approved of by Lane’s informants. She wore pants all the time and hadn’t the build for it.
I feel like Leinster is being sneakily critical of society in this description, because Professor Warren — and her niece Carol, who is staying with her in the wilderness — become key players in the story of the Gizmos going forward.
Lane’s respite at Warren’s encampment is short-lived, as the Gizmos have followed him there and they soon attack in force. It appears that they realize that he must be silenced, else he warn the rest of the world about them and spoil their element of surprise. This question of their intelligence is raised throughout the novel, as the Gizmos seem to outmaneuver and surprise the humans at every turn. Are they sapient and coordinated, or are they simply acting on animal instinct?
Another insightful comment is made by Burke, driver that they later hitch a ride from. Burke has already figured out for himself that something malevolent and unseen is afoot, and he suspects that they are intelligent aliens waging war on Earth. He uses a particularly brutal analogy to explain the reasoning of why the Gizmos started cautiously in the forest, feeding on animals, and have slowly escalated:
Burke grinned. “You don’t get me,” he said. “If we landed on Mars or Jupiter, we’d be cagey. We’d kinda hide ourselves and do some scoutin’. We wouldn’t go around saying, ‘Take us to your leaders.’ We’d make ourselves a hide-out and study what we were up against. We’d try out our guns on the animals. We’d find out if they were good to eat. If we found there were Martians or Jupiterians that were civilized, we’d send back for more men. We’d build up an army. Bein’ a long way from home, we’d live off the animals in the forest where we landed, to save transportation so we could bring in more men. When we got pretty strong, we’d put out some outposts to keep an eye on the natives. We’d make a plan of campaign. We’d keep out of sight till we were ready to take over. Ain’t it so?”
“No,” said the professor indignantly. “If we landed on another planet and found civilized inhabitants there, we’d try to make friends!”
Burke said ironically: “Yeah? That’s what folks did with the Indians, near four hundred years ago? What they did in Africa? Australia? They had natives in those places. Us civilized folk made friends with them?”
But what are the Gizmos? First: the word “gizmo” today refers to a gadget of unknown purpose, but it was also used in the early days of radar to describe mysterious artifacts seen on a radar screen that were not really there. The Gizmos are living beings of gas, described mathematically as a “dynamical system” by Professor Warren. If gases can spontaneously organize into structures like hurricanes and tornados under the right circumstances, why could they not form into a living creature? The Gizmos are invisible by virtue of the fact that they are virtually intangible. They do, however, possess the ability to cover the face of living beings to smother them, and they feed off of the gases of decomposition of carcasses. Though individually, a Gizmo is a very weak, ethereal creature, they can become a fearsome and devastating force in large numbers, as Lane and his compatriots find out to their dismay.
The novel is largely focused on the efforts of Lane and Warren to get out of the rural areas and convince people in power of the imminent threat. This is no easy task, as the mysterious deaths of so many animals is more readily explained as a new plague sweeping through the land. Even when the Gizmos make an overt attack on Chicago, people still cannot come together to agree on anything, as this eerily topical passage shows:
This produced the greatest series of separate insanities in the history of human reactions. It was past all doubt that something existed which nobody had guessed at — invisible, lethal and purposeful. There was a body of vociferous persons who demanded that war be immediately declared upon Russia, because the Russians must have done it. There was a smaller, louder group which in a strangely exultant fashion insisted that flying saucers were now proven, that the cattle in Chicago had been killed by invaders from space, and that the air force pilots who denied seeing flying saucers on the way to Chicago should be court-martialed. Of course less indignant but firmly convinced individuals maintained that the cattle had been killed by spores of a disease which were carried upon a wind current. The fact that the radar cloud moved against the wind did not shake their conviction. They considered that the observations of the wind and its velocity must have been wrong.
The novel really feels most similar to H.G. Wells’ classic War of the Worlds, in which a narrator gives a personal perspective to the growing chaos. As we follow Lane and Warren’s efforts to survive and warn the public, we are also treated to anecdotal tales about the growing attacks of the Gizmos around the country and the effect on the populace.
Reading the book, I was struck by the similarity of this ‘plague of suffocation’ to the real-life events of Lake Nyos in Cameroon in 1986, when an underwater landslide caused a massive release of carbon dioxide from the lake that literally suffocated 1700 people and 3500 livestock. Lake Nyos has since been outfitted with degassers that draw the carbon dioxide from the depths of the lake to avoid another horrific tragedy. Of course, War with the Gizmos was written decades earlier than the Lake Nyos event, so the similar descriptions of people and animals lying where they suddenly died is an eerie coincidence.
As I said, the book is primarily the story of Lane and friends trying to get their knowledge to the authorities; once that is done, the resolution of the “war” is described in only a few pages. This is strikingly different from Eric Frank Russell’s 1943 novel Sinister Barrier, where the discovery of the creatures is just the beginning of the carnage!
War with the Gizmos is a short book — only 150 pages in a small paperback — but it is a fun page-turner filled with interesting ideas.