An Ongoing Exploration into the Many Worlds of Early 20th-Century Escapist Literature

An Ongoing Exploration into the Many Worlds of Early 20th-Century Escapist Literature -- Crime and Adventure, Fantasy and Science-Fiction, Horror and Weird

Sunday, November 3, 2013

"The Sea Raiders" - H.G. Wells (WEEKLY SUN LITERARY SUPPLEMENT, December 6, 1896)

H.G. Wells has widely been considered the "Father of Science-Fiction," having invented the alien invasion genre with The War of the Worlds; the time-travel adventure with The Time Machine; and created iconic mad scientists with The Invisible Man and The Island of Dr. Moreau.  Wells was also a socialist and utopian idealist whose fiction existed largely to explore, often in a very veiled way, the social problems he saw in Victorian England -- for example, The War of the Worlds was a reaction to British imperialism at the time, with an invading race treating the English precisely as the English treated those they encountered throughout the globe.  Wells also wrote, in addition to the above-mentioned novels, a wide variety of short stories that often continued themes and ideas found in his novels, sprinkled throughout with ideas that have become absolutely prophetic; the 1903 story "The Land-Ironclads" predicts tank warfare while the 1914 novel The World Set Free features an atomic bomb that may have inspired physicist Leo Szilard.  Today we're looking at a short story, rarely anthologized (I think the only place I've seen it besides The Big Book of Adventure Stories is in a massive old hardcover volume collecting Wells' short fiction in the public library I visited frequently as a kid) but definitely worth a read.  You can check it out here.

"The Sea Raiders" tells of an unusual occurrence in which a shoal of large, aggressive cephalopods, Haploteuthis ferox  (translating as "singularly fierce squid") enter English waters and begin attacking boats and people.  The story concerns itself with a single incident during which the squid are encountered and human survivors escape to tell the tale; specifically, a retired tea-dealer named Fison, taking a holiday along the coast, spots a flock of gulls and jackdaws fighting over something pinkish in the surf, surrounded by several large, dark rocks.  Deciding to take a look, he soon discovers that the pinkish thing is a half-devoured human corpse, while the "rocks" are in fact swine-sized squid that regard him evilly and continue eating.  Deciding, in that wonderfully stolid middle-class Victorian English way, that the body should be given a proper burial, Fison throws a rock at the squid, hoping to drive them away.  This angers the shoal of ferox, which give chase, pursuing Fison up the beach right to the foot of a series of sea-cliffs, only retreating when a pair of workmen join Fison in throwing stones at them.

Emboldened, Fison and the workmen, along with a couple others, get into a boat to pursue the aggressive squid, and soon find themselves in way over their heads, hacking and slashing with oars and boathooks as the swarming cephalopods attempt to capsize the boat.  They eventually manage to drive the squid the cost of driving them straight towards a boat containing an excursion party of upper-class women and children.  Upon returning to shore, Fison looks back and sees the excursion boat, bobbing lifelessly upside down in the waves, with no survivors to be seen.

After this incident, the Haploteuthis return to whatever unknown depths spawned them, never to be seen again...right?

I think part of why I love "The Sea Raiders" so much is its utter timelessness and plausibility.  For a story that was written 117 years ago, it's held up remarkably well; much of Wells' fiction has become fairly dated by this point, but "The Sea Raiders" feels like it could take place tomorrow.  And given advances in marine biology, we're now much more aware of the speed, strength and intelligence of cephalopods then were scientists in Wells' time, making the notion of large, aggressive squid preying on humans more frightening then ever.

While Haploteuthis ferox is a fictional species, it bears similarities to both the Humboldt Squid (Dosidicus gigas, found in Pacific waters off California and northern Mexico), which can reach body lengths of close to five feet and has a reputation as aggressive pack-hunters, and the Giant Squid, Architeuthis dux, which frequently reaches mantle lengths of over six feet (their overall length being mostly tentacle).  I'm thinking Architeuthis is what Wells had in mind with his Sea Raiders; There had been numerous beachings of dead specimens in the twenty years preceding the publication of "The Sea Raiders," especially in Newfoundland and New Zealand, both of which were intimately tied to Great Britain at the time and as such incidents from those countries, such as finding giant squid washed up on the beach, would have found their way into London newspapers where Wells would have read about them.

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