Saturday, December 29, 2012

Getting into a Bad Hobbit

As I write this, Peter Jackson's movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (1937) - or rather, the first part of it – is a runaway hit.
That bodes well for Jackson, who has taken a gamble by turning a short children's novel into a trilogy on the model of The Lord of the Rings. But it doesn't bode well for the art of cinema. What could have been a charming movie is turning into a bloated monstrosity. I had been afraid of that from the outset, but some people I respect had praised the first installment, so I decided to give it a chance, but...
The best parts are those that are true to the book – the arrival of Gandalf and a dozen dwarves at Bilbo's home, and the riddle game with Gollum. Bilbo's reluctance to go adventuring, the comedy of his playing host to the dwarves and his being won over against his better instincts come right off the pages. So does Bilbo's duel of wits with Gollum – not the original 1937 version, but Tolkien's revision from 1951, when he was working on LOTR and making Gollum's ring the center of the quest in that epic rather than the handy invisibility gimmick it had seemed before. Only the scene is marred by a technical glitch that muffles some of the words.
Jackson, who took over as director (He had already been producer.) from Guillermo Del Toro after Del Toro left on account of lengthy delays occasioned by legal wrangling and other problems, was dead set on tying The Hobbit even more closely to LOTR as an epic of mythic import. But there simply isn't enough of that in the novel, so he had to pump it up by padding the canonical scenes unmercifully and adding new scenes that weren't in the story to begin with but allude to LOTR. There will be even more new material from the LOTR appendices in the second and third Hobbit movies.
Of course, an epic requires an epic hero, and that may be why Jackson made Thorin Oakenshield, described as only "enormously important" by Tolkien into a heroic-looking figure like Aragorn in LOTR, nothing like typical dwarves in appearance. Oddly enough, however, Thorin doesn't act the part as much as you might expect. Neither does Gandalf act much like a great and powerful wizard.
This begins with the scene where the dwarves are captured by the trolls. Thorin is helpless and Gandalf is nowhere to be seen. Yet in the novel, it is not Bilbo but rather Gandalf in hiding nearby who, using ventroloquism, gets the trolls to arguing among themselves until the rising sun turns them to stone. When the heroes are attacked by goblins in the troll cave, Gandalf kills several of them with magical pyrotechnics, and later frees the dwarves and Bilbo by the same means – Thorin then makes short work of the goblin king with one of the swords he had recovered in the troll cave.
In the movie, the struggle with the goblins (orcs) goes on and on and on, and their cavern looks like a theme park set or something out of a cartoon – Bilbo and the dwarves fall into it through a chute, and thereafter it seems to consist mostly of catwalks across which they must scramble to escape. Twice most of our heroes fall what must be a hundred feet, but aren't even scratched. “Well, that could have been worse,” Thorin says, as if it were some sort of a joke. As sf-fantasy critic Darrell Schweitzer put it on Facebook, they're like toons; nothing can hurt them. Except that they presumably aren't fireproof; they're trapped in a blaze in a pine forest after Gandalf (his first act of magic in the movie as opposed to the novel) ignites pine cones to toss at pursuing goblins. In the book, it was only their allies, the giant wolves called wargs – the goblins came along later to set fire to the tree where the dwarves, Bilbo and Gandalf had taken refuge. And the tree was never hanging over a precipice, either – nobody has to fall or jump through the air onto the eagles.
Other examples of pumping up abound. In the novel, the battling stone giants are seen only in the distance; our heroes aren't actually on one of them and thus in dire peril. They only stop overnight at Elrond's house; Galadriel is never seen, and Gandalf doesn't have a skull session with Saruman and Radagast. That skull session in the movie isn't in itself intrusive, but Jackson insists on turning Radagast, a minor character even in LOTR, into a player. Only his "powers" include psychically healing a hedgehog. And in what has to be the most idiotic sequence in the whole movie, we must endure watching him race across the rough and snowless countryside, pursued by goblins, in a sleigh pulled by giant bunny rabbits. It's as if the director were thumbing his nose at the whole mythology of Middle Earth.
Well, Jackson has already turned Middle Earth, at least the Hobbiton part of it, into a theme park back in New Zealand. Three movies may bring in more tourists and well as tripling box office and later DVD sales.  And we can also imagine all sorts of spin-offs – dragon toys, elf toys, maybe even Radagast bunny sleigh toys. There's nothing subtle about movie tie-in merchandising. But art can be very subtle, and the first installment of The Hobbit is so unsubtle that I've seen some online comments that Jackson simply isn't capable of subtlety, or that he doesn't have any respect for Tolkien's material. And yet he is, and has – or at least he once did.
The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was true to the vision of its source. There wasn't a false note in the portrayals of Frodo and the other hobbits, of Gandalf and Saruman, Aragorn and Arwen, dwarves and the elves, the riders of Rohan, even the ents. And the story not only moved, but was moving from start to finish. The quest itself is shown as the stuff of tragedy as well as triumph, for it leaves Frodo as a stranger in a familiar land where he can find no peace. And who can forget Jackson’s faithful renderings of such iconic scenes as Aragorn raising a ghostly army of oath-breakers, the madness and despair of Denethor, or the heroism of the warrior woman Eowyn?
It was also visually stunning, not only in its use of landscapes that had a sense of place, and in the designs of Moria, Gondor and the other locales, but in such brief yet telling scenes as the heroes passing the Sentinels of Númenor on the Great River. That is one of the scenes put up on YouTube, and there are a number of others. But perhaps the best is one that doesn't come from the letter of Tolkien and yet is true to the spirit of Tolkien. In The Return of the King, Frodo and Samwise are seated on thrones and praised with great praise. Not very cinematic, but Jackson knew how to create a scene that is truly cinematic – as the hobbits (including Merry and Pippin, who have fought heroically in the defense of Gondor) begin to pay homage to Aragorn (now King Elessar) and his bride Arwen on the ramparts of Gondor:
There have been a lot of movies about the nobility, or the supposed nobility, of olden times. There was little of any true nobility in the lords and knights of those times; nobility, it seems, is something we can believe only in fairy tales. But it that one scene, Jackson showed what it should have been, and might be in some better world than ours. Would that he had remained as true as that vision…

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thoughts on Abraham Lincoln, Inspired by the Movie

Warning: this may be only wishful thinking on my part. But it turns out that Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay for Lincoln, shares that wishful thinking, if only wishful it be. My wife and I saw the movie Sunday, and we both thought it was terrific. I have a few quibbles about it, but not with its historical accuracy in the literal sense – Kushner really did his homework, as he explained in an interview Nov. 15 with Dave Davies of WBRU radio in Boston. It was in that same interview that I found he shared my wishful thinking.

We know the history of Reconstruction after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Andrew Johnson followed Lincoln’s policy of malice towards none and charity towards all; by the end of 1865, he had approved new governments in the former Confederate states, nine of which showed apparent  good faith  by ratifying the 13th amendment. As far as Johnson was concerned, they were back in the Union. But the Radical Republicans won a two thirds majority in Congress in 1866, and quickly moved to impose Radical Reconstruction: only the most extreme measures, they believed, could bring political and social justice to the South and eradicate the legacy of slavery. And they had grounds for suspicion of white Southerners; a number of states had adopted “black codes” to restrict the rights of freedmen.

Under Radical Reconstruction, the white governments of ten Southern states were replaced by military governments, which created voter rolls that enfranchised blacks and disfranchised any whites who had supported the Confederacy. The new state governments elected in 1867 were controlled by Republicans, and enacted progressive measures like universal public education and public works. But they were also soon mired in blatant corruption, as in appropriating millions for railroads that were never built, with the funds ending up in sticky fingers. Taxes skyrocketed, and some states went bankrupt in all but name. The old planter class resented property taxes based on the actual value of their land; before the Civil War, they were hardly taxed at all, because they could declare the value of their land and nobody would dispute them. But working people and the poor also suffered. While a number of blacks held office, they were largely pawns of the carpetbaggers and scalawags who waxed fat from Reconstruction. Only, it was the blacks who were blamed by white conservatives for all their real and imagined sufferings, and were singled out for brutal vengeance by the White League and the Ku Klux Klan.

Out of all this came the legend of the Lost Cause and the Redemption, which led to draconian Jim Crow laws, disfranchisement of blacks, decades of lynchings, and all the rest. That legend was the subtext of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation (1916), which was based on a 1905 Thomas Dixon novel called The Clansman, and led to a revival of the Klan; and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) – her celebration of the Klan was cut from the 1939 movie version, but the Legend of the South as some sort of idyllic paradise before the War remained. The white conservative view of Reconstruction was accepted almost universally in the North as well as the South; one the few dissenters (among whites, at least) was Howard Fast, whose Freedom Road (1944) was made into a movie in 1979. But as a Communist  – he won a Stalin Peace Prize in 1953 – Fast had to hew to the absurd Marxist premise that the freedmen and poor whites, who together made up the overwhelming majority of the Southern population, were proletarian brothers in arms – and thus inexplicably done in by a handful of vengeful planters. Perhaps the only 20th Century novelist to write honestly about Reconstruction was Frank Yerby (himself black, although most of his readers may not have known it) in works like The Vixens (1947), which portrayed the carpetbaggers as crooks and the Redeemers as callous murderers.

Would things have been any different had Lincoln lived? And just what did Lincoln have in mind? That has become a matter of some controversy among historians, given that in 1862 he had seriously proposed that freed blacks be sent to Latin America. There had already been a movement to return blacks to Africa; that was the origin of Liberia, and Lincoln had supported that before the war. During the war, there had even been an attempted settlement in Belize. Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became a black leader, regarded the colonization plan a betrayal, and some revisionist historians seem to think it was Lincoln’s Final Solution to the problem of what to do with freed slaves  – although noting that perhaps it was only because he feared Southern whites would never accept free blacks. But his secretary John Hay wrote that he had “sloughed off” that idea in 1864, and there is no mention of it in his final public address, delivered in front of the White House April 11, 1865, just after Lee surrendered; rather, he held out hope that whites and blacks could live together, although it would take time to achieve political equality.  He gave the example of Louisiana, where the whites had embraced the Union and accepted emancipation – clearly criticizing Radical Republicans who opposed recognition of the new government:

Some twelve thousand voters in the heretofore slave-state of Louisiana have sworn allegiance to the Union, assumed to be the rightful political power of the State, held elections, organized a State government, adopted a free-state constitution, giving the benefit of public schools equally to black and white, and empowering the Legislature to confer the elective franchise upon the colored man. Their Legislature has already voted to ratify the constitutional amendment recently passed by Congress, abolishing slavery throughout the nation. These twelve thousand persons are thus fully committed to the Union, and to perpetual freedom in the state--committed to the very things, and nearly all the things the nation wants--and they ask the nation’s recognition and its assistance to make good their committal. Now, if we reject, and spurn them, we do our utmost to disorganize and disperse them. We in effect say to the white men "You are worthless, or worse--we will neither help you, nor be helped by you." To the blacks we say "This cup of liberty which these, your old masters, hold to your lips, we will dash from you, and leave you to the chances of gathering the spilled and scattered contents in some vague and undefined when, where, and how." If this course, discouraging and paralyzing both white and black, has any tendency to bring Louisiana into proper practical relations with the Union, I have, so far, been unable to perceive it. If, on the contrary, we recognize, and sustain the new government of Louisiana the converse of all this is made true. We encourage the hearts, and nerve the arms of the twelve thousand to adhere to their work, and argue for it, and proselyte for it, and fight for it, and feed it, and grow it, and ripen it to a complete success. The colored man too, in seeing all united for him, is inspired with vigilance, and energy, and daring, to the same end. Grant that he desires the elective franchise, will he not attain it sooner by saving the already advanced steps toward it, than by running backward over them? Concede that the new government of Louisiana is only to what it should be as the egg is to the fowl, we shall sooner have the fowl by hatching the egg than by smashing it.

There is scant reference to this address in Lincoln, which mentions only that he wanted to limit the black franchise, at least initially, to the most intelligent – and those who had served in the Union Army. But to advocate voting rights for any blacks at all was revolutionary in 1865. But the film portrays our 16th president as both a man of principle and a man of what would later be called realpolitik. He wanted the 13th Amendment passed as a matter of principle, but didn’t shrink at arm-twisting and backroom deals to get the votes he needed in the House. The Hampton Roads Conference, where he met with Confederate leaders to talk “peace,” was the price of getting Preston Blair, a prominent Democrat, to lean on other Democrats – by fair means or foul. Chances are that Lincoln considered it just a ploy; the movie seems to suggest that the outcome of the war was still uncertain at the time, but in fact the Confederacy was clearly on the verge of military collapse. If its leaders seriously expected any concessions from Lincoln, they were delusional. In any case, here is how Kushner summed up the situation in his interview with Davies:

I think that what Lincoln was doing at the end of the war was a very, very smart thing, and it is maybe one of the great tragedies of American history that people didn't take him literally after he was murdered, the inability to forgive and to reconcile with the South in a really decent and humane way without any question was one of the causes of a kind of resentment and the perpetuation of alienation and bitterness that led to the quote/unquote "noble cause" and the rise of the Klan and Southern self protection societies and so on. The abuse of the South after they were defeated was a catastrophe and led - helped lead to just unimaginable, untellable human suffering. So had Lincoln not been murdered and had he really been able to guide Reconstruction, I think there's good reason to believe that he would have acted on those principles because he meant them.

Maybe I’m delusional. Maybe Kushner is delusional. Maybe things would have turned out just as badly if Lincoln had lived and his policies been pursued. In our history, we know how long it took for blacks to regain the “scattered contents” of the cup of liberty dashed from their lips. It surely could have been no worse in that other history that never happened.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Patterns, and Authenticity

Another birthday, and I’m stuck away from home on account of Hurricane Sandy. Not that Marcia’s folks in Virginia aren’t great hosts, but I miss our own home and hearth (even if the latter hasn’t seen a fire for 15 years!) in New Jersey (Not to worry; the house came through fine, it was just dark and chilly after the power went down Monday night.). As I was working on this post, we got word that power is back up at home, at least in our neighborhood. We’ll heading back tomorrow, but that’s a day after my birthday.

So here’s my 71st birthday post. I have a subject that’s been bugging me for years. It has to do with knowing things without knowing how we know them. Like, I’m sure you can tell the difference between a waltz and a tango, but if you aren’t musically trained, as I am not, you can’t explain just what that is. You’d be even harder put to try to explain the difference between a traditional Strauss waltz like “An Artist’s Life” (which I first heard as a child, when it was the theme of a TV show where Jon Gnagy gave art lessons):

And a post-Strauss era variation like Aram Khachaturian’s “Masquerade” waltz:

There’s an element of irony or nostalgia for a more innocent time, I think, in the latter, but how is that expressed in musical terms? There seems to be a similar contrast between a classic tango, Gerardo Matos Rodríguez’ “La Cumparsita:”

And Angelo Badalamenti’s “Kiss All Around It” for Jane Campion’s film Holy Smoke:

It’s a matter of pattern recognition; we can sense the musical patterns of the waltz and the tango, and variations of them. But it becomes more subtle with some patterns. Consider Miklos Rozsa, who scored a number of movies like The Thief of Bagdad, Spellbound and Quo Vadis. From his name, if you know anything about ethnic names, you know he was Hungarian. That didn’t show up in his movie music, but it is obvious (to me, at least) in his concert music, like his Violin Concerto, composed for Jascha Heifetz (Link here doesn't work ditectly, but you can copy the URL to Google and it should play):

I hadn’t even known about his classical music until a couple of years ago. But the thing is, if I’d heard this piece without knowing its composer, I would have recognized it as Hungarian immediately. That’s because I had known the music of Zoltan Kodaly and Bela Bartok for decades. Can you sense the kinship Rozsa’s piece has to Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3?

Somebody with musical training could explain it all very easily. It’s only my ignorance that prevents me from doing so. But in other contexts, there are terms we understand, or seem to understand, without reference to standard definitions. Take words like “stylish,” “heart” and “class” as applied to the arts – including film, some examples of which I want to look at here.

Someone of my acquaintance, just who I can’t remember for sure, once described one of the short films in a series called The Hire as “stylish.” The Hire was produced by BMW as a showcase for its cars, and starred Clive Owen as the Driver, a free-lance agent who took on (usually) dangerous missions. The films were not advertorials or infomercials; they were intense short stories. They’re still available on YouTube, and below I offer links to four of the best (the directors’ names are in parentheses) – “Ambush” (John Frankenheimer), “The Follow” (Wong Kar-wai), “Ticker” (Joe Carnahan), “Hostage” (John Woo):

But what’s “stylish” about these films? Online dictionaries aren’t much help. Merriam Webster defines the word as “conforming to the current fashion; modish.” Google has two definitions: “1. Having or displaying a good sense of style: ‘these are elegant and stylish performances.’ 2. Fashionably elegant.” These come closer to the meaning my acquaintance had in mind, and what has long been my own sense of the term. When we admire a woman’s choice of dress as “stylish,” we surely don’t mean that she is a mere fashion slave. I find most popular fashions silly, even ugly; and yet once in a while in a department store I’ll see a gown that has that elusive sense of style – simple but elegant. And that’s what the BMW films have: a sense of style, or rather senses of style – you can see how each of the directors has put his own stamps on his work, even working within the limitations of what seems at first a pure action format. That’s “stylish” in the best sense.

Chances are that few of you have heard of Ted Kotcheff, although he is executive producer of the Law and Order franchise. Fewer still are likely to be familiar with The   Winter People, his 1989 romantic drama. And the official trailer, while accurate in the narrow sense, is misleading in a broader sense.

The Wikipedia entry offers a few more details:

Wayland Jackson, a widower with a young daughter, moves to a small, impoverished mountain village in North Carolina, circa 1934. They are taken in by Collie Wright, a single mother, and she and Wayland soon fall in love.

Wayland is a clockmaker whose ambition is to build one for the center of town. His life and Collie's, however, are threatened by family members from the evil Campbell clan, one of whom is the father of Collie's baby and intent on getting his child back in any way, even if it means murdering the couple. Cole Campbell is found dead, and his relatives demand that Wayland and Collie be held responsible and give up the child.

A review by at puts more stress on the dual nature of the story:

With his clock making skill, Russell's character is able to bring hope to the town by restoring the clock in the church steeple. The restoration of the clock, like the relationship that develops between the Russell and Mc Gillis characters, bring light to an otherwise dark world with little hope.

Exactly. The Winter People is a movie with heart. But what is “heart?” It isn’t the kind of sloppy sentimentality some might mean by it. I think it has to do with the hearts of the characters being true, and their true hearts guiding their actions. Wayland has a sense of mission, and a true sense of decency. Collie is no stereotypical “fallen woman,” but one of the most truly decent women you’ll ever see on screen. As for other inhabitants of the Appalachian community, another review by Connie of Albany, Georgia, disputes those who might think their characterization is over the top:

Perhaps when some see the performances as cheesy or over acted they've never actually met any mountain folk, and thusly are insistent that the histrionics are over played. If you have been to the mountains and can feel the spirit of them then I think you will love this picture. It is about the give and take, the act of forgiveness and of course true love.

Some of Kotcheff’s other work shares that kind of heart. Although he may still be best known for First Blood, which unleashed Rambo on the world, he had nothing to do with Sylvester Stallone’s sequel. Instead, he made Uncommon Valor, which starts with the very same premise of Americans having been left behind in Vietnam – but instead makes an intelligent and even moving story out of it. Perhaps even more surprising is “Weekend Pass,” an episode he did for Red Shoe Diaries – a short-lived series devoted to soft-core erotica aimed at women’s tastes, or at least what the producers thought were women’s tastes. Kotcheff’s episode, involving a military woman who finds love on leave, was the only one I ever saw that was about heart rather than tease.

What was 1965 important for? One thing was Diana Rigg’s first appearance as Emma Peel on The Avengers. She changed the way millions of men thought about women, and she did it with class (copying and pasting the link into Google Search still works despite the YouTube ban):

Class? No, we’re not talking Marxism here. And by “class,” we surely don’t mean the kind of class consciousness the British aristocracy once prided itself on. Jane Austen wrote a lot about people of that class, and made it clear that she thought a lot of them didn’t have any.

“Showing stylish excellence” is one of Google’s definitions of “class” as an adjective; one of Merriam Webster’s definitions of the noun is “the best of its kind,” but when we use “class” in reference to a phenomenon like Emma Peel, it’s more like the state of showing stylish excellence. And it can show itself in unexpected places. We’ve had a spate of superhero movies in the last few years, and some have been good, like The Dark Knight. But superheroine movies have generally been duds – for that very lack of class. One exception is only a partial one: Scarlett Johansson’s brief turns as The Black Widow, as in this montage from Iron Man 2:

It’s like Emma Peel reborn. Sure, she’s sexy as all get-out, but she’s no bimbo, not even a Bond girl. She can kick ass, but she isn’t just an ass-kicker. She has self-confidence and a sense of her own worth, but she is never vain or boastful. She’s got class.

It occurs to me that “stylish,” “heart” and “class” as used here, and as I believe they are understood by a number of you reading this, are all aspects of authenticity. That’s a word which has been much abused by cultural critics, or at least counter-cultural critics, who seem to believe that only anti-social behavior is “authentic.” We have cults devoted to everything from gangsta rap to writers like William S. Burroughs. But we have a crying need for genuine authenticity, an expression of authentic human values, and I think we can find that in some, if far from all (Jersey Shore? Keeping up with the Kardashians? Blecch!) popular culture.

One recent example: The Hunger Games, the book and the movie. It’s a story with style and class and heart. I wish I could find a link to one of the most emotional scenes in Gary Ross’ film adaptation, faithful to Suzanne Collins’ novel, in which the heroine Katniss honors a fallen opponent by laying flowers on her body. That has as much to say as any of the more overt scenes about Katniss’ attitude towards the inhuman games in which she has been forced to fight by a cynical autocracy that relies on them as “entertainment” in much the same way that the Roman emperors used bread and circuses to maintain their power.  Collins and Ross know what authentic humanity is about. We need more of that kind of authenticity in our culture.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Close Encounters of a Heretical Kind

What can you say about a classic science fiction movie, one that’s so classic it’s become practically iconic.

Turner Classic Movies featured Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) last night. I’d seen it a few times before, when it first came out, when Spielberg issued the special edition three years later, and when it was on TV before. My wife Marcia had never seen it, although she had seen Spielberg’s E.T. (1982).

Film historian and TCM host Robert Osborne and Drew (“Alligators in the sewer” in E.T.) Barrymore were there to introduce the movie and comment on it afterwards, and they made some obvious points: that it told an intimately human story which wasn’t overwhelmed by the special effects (spectacular as they were), and that it showed the aliens as benevolent – nothing like the death-ray armed invaders of The War of the Worlds. True, sort of, as far as it goes, but how far does it really go?

From Wikipedia, we get this basic background:

Close Encounters was a long-cherished project for Spielberg. In late 1973, he developed a deal with Columbia Pictures for a science fiction film. Though Spielberg receives sole credit for the script, he was assisted by Paul Schrader, John Hill, David Giler, Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins, and Jerry Belson, all of whom contributed to the screenplay in varying degrees. The title is derived from ufologist J. Allen Hynek's classification of close encounters with aliens, in which the third kind denotes human observations of actual aliens or "animate beings." Douglas Trumbull served as the visual effects supervisor, while Carlo Rambaldi designed the aliens.

Spielberg had actually been obsessed with the idea since childhood; Wikipedia relates that he had made a film called Firelight as a teenager in 1964, and incorporated some of its scenes shot-for-shot into Close Encounters. He was clearly enchanted with UFO mythology, even though he was never a Believer, and that mythology is at the heart of his big screen version, which made it into the National Film Registry 30 years after it was a blockbuster hit.

You all know the basic story. Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) works for the power company in Muncie, Indiana, when there’s a mysterious blackout associated with UFOs. He and other locals see them; the cops even give chase to them. Not only that, but the aliens terrorize a single mother, Jillian Guller, in her home – and make off with her four-year old son Barry. Meanwhile, we have already learned that a French scientist, Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) has been investigating mysteries like the return of World War II-era planes that had vanished with their pilots, and a musical phrase shouted from the sky to a crowd in India. Lacombe persuades the U.S. government to broadcast those notes into space, and the aliens respond with the latitude and longitude for the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Roy and others in Muncie become obsessed with drawing or modeling the Devil’s Tower, and when the government orders the area around the landmark cleared on the basis of an imaginary nerve gas link, Roy and a few others see the Devil’s Tower on TV and realize that they have been Summoned. Roy and Jillian make it to the site (though Roy seems to get there in record time by car and we never learn how Jillian manages it) where the alien Mother Ship is scheduled to touch down. The aliens return Barry, and all those missing pilots from decades-past abductions, who haven’t aged at all. And Roy gets to join the pilgrims the government has recruited for a journey to the alien homeworld.

None of this hangs together.

In the first place, those “benevolent” aliens start by playing what can be called, in the most charitable terms, a series of malicious practical jokes. They don’t make an open landing and open appeal to humanity, as Klaatu did when he landed his flying saucer in Washington, D.C., in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1950). While Klaatu was a nice guy, his basic message was, “Support peace or we’ll kill you.” But what’s the basic message of the aliens in Close Encounters – “We want to get acquainted?” How does throwing  scares into people and even abducting them square with that? Yeah, Jillian does get her son back (miraculously not traumatized by his abduction) – but what about all those pilots, who were torn from their loved ones, from the world they held dear and everyone they knew there? And just what’s the aliens’ game now – they’re dealing officially with the government, but first they were planting dreams about the Devil’s Tower in people who have encountered their scout craft, disrupting the lives of those people without giving them any help in reaching the landing site in Wyoming.

Osborne and Barrymore conceded that Roy’s wife Veronica and their children disappear from the screen after they leave the Neary home to live with Ronnie’s sister (Roy is really crazy now, modeling a huge Devil’s Tower in their living room.). They just aren’t part of the “human” story any more. We aren’t supposed to care what happens to them. Roy’s already lost his job, and Ronnie doesn’t have one – not likely to get one, either; this is 1977, and she was a stay-at-home mom. Well, she’s got excellent grounds for divorce (desertion), but are the aliens going to have Roy send alimony and child support? Does Roy even give a shit about that? He’s involved in what may be a budding romance with Jillian, but at the end he doesn’t give a shit about that, either. And there’s no rational reason for adding Roy, who’s had no preparation or special qualifications, to the group of pilgrims at the very last minute.

There are all sorts of other anomalies. Like, the first full communication with the aliens involves the Mother Ship at the end – there wasn’t any conversation before that about the logistics of the meeting, or protocol for choosing the pilgrims? And what was that religious rigmarole for the pilgrims at the end? Is the tall thin alien an adult and the rest children, or are they really different species? When they interfere with electricity and electrical appliances in Muncie, they also get non-electric things like mailboxes to jump about – how does that compute? And what purpose does the little red dot that follows the scout craft serve, besides just looking cute? Was there any reason to cast Truffaut, other than to look cool by having a famous French film director on board? Translation in his scenes slows up the story. And is he really running things in Wyoming, as he leads Roy to believe? If not, who is? And after all the effort to keep them away, nobody even appears to be startled when he and Jillian join the crowd awaiting the mother ship.

Spielberg was doubtless trying to be true to UFO mythology, and to childhood fantasies of alien contact. One could defend Close Encounters as being metaphorical or as an exercise in surrealism – two popular dodges in cultural criticism. Wikipedia also cites heavy Judeo-Christian symbolism. But symbolism alone can’t carry what is put before the public as a realistic but fantastic story. Science fiction writers do this kind of thing all the time, but they know something Spielberg doesn’t get, or at least didn’t in 1977: when you set up a fantastic situation, you have to think things through, you have to give your sf scenario an internal logic.

While Close Encounters may still be a classic as purely a visual spectacle and an exercise in suspense, and for a stellar performance by Dreyfus, it isn’t any better as an sf film than klutzy efforts like J.J. Abrams’ reboot of Star Trek. In a more pretentiously blatant example James Cameron, whose name is almost as big as Spielberg’s, showed in Avatar that he simply doesn’t understand that terrific special effects and an Uplifting Message should be part of a story that actually makes sense. 

Thanks to Marcia for raising new points and commenting on others for this post!

Comment: (For some reason, I can’t figure out, the system won’t let people comment here.)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Passion for Science Fiction

Some thoughts about a novel that may not be well known but has a lot to tell us about the art of writing and the art of reading….

There is a wonderful point in many stories which comes after the characters and general lines of action are set, when things begin to move by themselves. This is where the unconscious takes over. All the writer's submerged beliefs and fears and hopes come surging joyfully to the surface to take full charge, and the writer's only function is to type fast enough to keep up. This happy state unfortunately isn't common. But when it does come, there are few greater pleasures in life.
The reason, of course, is that (besides the necessary money) such stories bring their writers that glorious free-fall sensation which is a kind of catharsis of the unconscious. Characters personifying one's deeply felt beliefs and values test them out in a fictional world. You don't know at the time what's happened. You just know you feel wonderful. Long afterward, rereading the work, you can see what lies just under the surface.
There’s an obvious passion for writing in those words, and yet you won’t find them in a manual about writing, or in the autobiography of some world-famous writer. They’re in the introduction to a 1972 Lancer Books paperback edition of Fury, a classic sf novel that was first serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1947 under the pseudonym Lawrence O’Donnell, came out as a hardcover book three years later as by Henry Kuttner, and had been retitled Destination: Infinity for a previous 1958 paperback.
Fury’s publishing history makes the novel seem purely a matter of commerce rather than art. And yet it is a work of art, as we can tell from the work itself as well as that introduction by Kuttner’s widow C. L. Moore – who therein reveals that she wrote some of the scenes, and could still recognize her part in their collaboration 25 years later. Henry and Catherine Kuttner, who frequently wrote together in relays as “Lawrence O’Donnell” and under other pen names, shared a love for sf that transcended the seemingly cynical imperatives of what was often regarded by outsiders as nothing but pulp fiction.
Moore related that she and Kuttner were driven by thematic imperatives that went beyond sf itself. “Hank’s basic statement was something like, ‘Authority is dangerous, and I will never submit to it.’ Mine was, ‘The most treacherous thing in life is love.’” These worked their way into Fury, set on a Venus to which the human race has fled after destroying Earth in a nuclear holocaust. But mankind on Venus has abandoned any effort to tame a savage planet, instead retiring into a “luxurious Eden” of undersea Keeps – and, “with no challenges left, would slowly strangle in its own inertia if, out of nowhere, a deliverer did not come with a flaming sword to drive them back to life.”
That deliverer is Sam Harker/Reed, a monstrous freak unknowingly robbed of his heritage as one of the elite of Immortals who rule Venus. Reed is driven only by hatred and a lust for vengeance. He was Kuttner’s creation, and Moore couldn’t identify with him at the time. But on re-reading the novel, she came to understand that to make the premise work – to make the story work – “he had to be what he was—utterly ruthless, terribly intelligent, terribly vulnerable, fighting every hour of his life by every savage form of trickery, betrayal and murder, to reach a goal he was never truly aware of.”
The story of Sam Reed is headed with a quotation from Shakespeare’s MacBeth, the scene where MacBeth learns that Macduff, his nemesis, “was from his mother’s womb Untimely ripp’d.” Reed himself is “untimely ripp’d,” cruelly mutilated and abandoned at the behest of his enraged father after his mother dies in the Caesarian, thus setting the stage for a life out of a Shakespearian tragedy. But the reference to a classic of English literature tells us something else.
“You can't write science fiction well if you haven't read it, though not all who try to write it know this. But nor can you write it well if you haven't read anything else,” Ursula K. Le Guin remarked on the occasion of a British Library sf exhibition, regarding what she had learned from reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) at age 17. “Genre is a rich dialect, in which you can say certain things in a particularly satisfying way, but if it gives up connection with the general literary language it becomes a jargon, meaningful only to an ingroup. Useful models may be found quite outside the genre.”
It is often assumed, perhaps even by Le Guin, that genre sf writers generally don’t read anything but sf, let alone find any “useful models” outside the field. But that isn’t true of leading writers today, and it wasn’t true of Kuttner and Moore back in the 1940’s. Ray Bradbury, in his introduction to The Best of Henry Kuttner (1975), sets things straight, recalling his elder’s role as a mentor – and not just by helping him put out a fanzine:
Along the way, he also sneaked me the names of people who might influence my life. Try Katherine Ann Porter, he said; she’s great. Have you read Eudora Welty? he suggested, and if not, why not? Have you re-read Thorne Smith? Get to it. How about the short stories of Faulkner, or—here’s one you never heard of—John Collier.
In Fury, then, allusions to the classics are intertwined with science fictional concerns about the fate of humanity:
Blaze and Bessi – it was a Romeo and Juliet story with a happy ending, up to the time Sam was conceived. They were casual, purposeless hedonists. In the Keeps you had to choose. You could either find a drive, an incentive – be one of the technicians or artists – or you could drift.
For lesser drifters, there are escapes like dream dust and happy cloaks – the latter, derived from a native life form, slowly consume their addicts. But Sam Reed, born Harker, isn’t a drifter; he is a driven man, as driven as any of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, hating himself and hating the Immortals – never knowing until the end that he is one. Only, there’s no coven of witches or a Greek chorus to set the plot in motion or comment on its import. Instead we have the Logician, an Immortal unknown to the other Immortals – a man born on Earth who understands what happened there (“It wasn’t atomic power that destroyed Earth. It was a pattern of thought.”). He can foresee the future on Venus, but he is powerless to intervene – except in the subtlest ways.
Fury is actually a sequel to “Clash by Night” (1943; the title is an allusion to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”), set centuries earlier, when rival Keeps fight proxy wars on the surface through the Free Companies: bands of mercenaries bound by a strict code of honor. The Keeps themselves are never attacked, and should any ship of any warrior band break the taboo on atomic weapons, the others will turn on it and destroy it without mercy.
Scott commands one unit in a war for economic advantage between the Montana and Virginia Keeps. But his loyalty to the Doones comes to seem a foolish one; the romantic ideals of the Free Companies are delusions: “Blind, stupid folly!” He longs for the hedonistic comforts of the Keeps. In the end, however, he cannot abandon his company, for it helps serve an objectively necessary end: preserving the Keeps from the danger of war, until the Keeps themselves tire of war and make the mercenaries objectively unnecessary:
The Doones meant nothing. Their ideal was a false one. Yet, because men were faithful to that ideal, civilization would rise again from the guarded Keeps. A civilization that would forget its doomed guardians, the waters of the seas of Venus, the Free Companions yelling their mad, futile battle cry as they drove on – as this ship was driving – into a night that would have no dawn.
In Fury, the season has changed: rot rather than fire is the greatest threat to mankind. The Keeps have turned inward, refusing the challenge of conquering the land; in their decadent hedonism, they have surrendered to a cultural entropy that can lead only to extinction – ”it wasn’t the individual who paid. It was the race that was paying.” And so Sam Reed is just what the race needs.
Motivated only by envy and rage, he turns to crime, at which he succeeds so well that the Immortals themselves seek him out for a murder contract against Robin Hale, a veteran of the Doones whose crusade for colonization of the land is upsetting the social equilibrium. Their mistake: Reed almost instinctively sides with Hale and therefore with Hale’s cause. A ruthless cunning that once served him in the underworld now serves him in the struggle to defeat a savage environment and thus win the survival of mankind.
Only, that is never his motivation; he never thinks of anything but his own survival and vengeance against the Immortals. His crimes range from blackmail to murder; when his false promise of Immortality for colonists is exposed, he sabotages the Keeps, forcing millions to abandon them or die. He has saved mankind, but now the Logician, following an allusion to Moses – who was suffered to see the Promised Land but never to go over thither – delivers his judgment:
Men like you are mighty rare, Sam. When they get to the right position, at the right time, they’re the salvation of the race of man. But it’s got to be the right time – a time of disaster. The drive never stops, in a man like you... If you can’t conquer an enemy, you’ll conquer your friends. Up to now, the enemy was Venus, and you licked it. But what have you got to fight now? ….
If you hadn’t been born, if Blaze hadn’t done what he did, mankind would be in the Keeps yet. And in a few years, or a thousand, say, the race would have died out. I could see that ahead, clear as could be. But now we’ve come landside. We’ll finish colonizing Venus. And then we’ll go out and colonize the whole universe, I expect.
You’re the one who did it, Sam. We owe you a lot. In your day you were a great man. But your day’s over. You got your power by force, and, you’re like most dictators, son, who reach the top that way. All you could think of was repeating the things that made you a success – more fighting, more force. There wasn’t any way but down for you, once you’d reached the top, because of the man you are. You had the same drive that made the first life-form leave water for land, but we can’t use your kind any more for a while, Sam.
And so, Sam must be put to sleep, at the very moment of his triumph, lest he endanger mankind. Yet Kuttner thought he might be needed again, although he never told Catherine what he might have had in mind when he wrote the two-word epilogue: “Sam woke—”
We feel for Sam because Kuttner felt for him when he created the character. We are caught up in the story of Fury because Kuttner and Moore themselves were caught up in it. In telling that story, they put everything of themselves, of their reading of the classics and science fiction alike, of their experience of life and knowledge of history and evolution and much else, into their work. And somehow, everything they put into their novel, the reader can get out of it. That’s what true reading is all about.
In An Experiment in Criticism (1961), C.S. Lewis argued that books should be judged by how they are read, rather than readers being judged by what they read. “Literary” readers, he proposed, simply don’t approach reading in the same manner as the “unliterary.” First, Lewis wrote, the unliterary never read a book more than once, whereas the literary return to great works repeatedly. Secondly, even if they read a lot, the unliterary don’t set much store by reading, whereas the literary feel impoverished if they don’t have a chance to read for even a few days.
Thirdly, the first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before. But there is no sign of anything like this among the other sort of readers. When they have finished the story or the novel, nothing much, or nothing at all, seems to have happened to them.
Finally, and as a natural result of their different behaviour in reading, what they have read is constantly and prominently present to the mind of the few, but not to that of the many. The former mouth over their favorite lines and stanzas in solitude. Scenes and characters from books provide them with a sort of iconography by which they interpret or sum up their own experience. They talk to one another about books, often and at length. The latter seldom think or talk of their reading.
Victor Nell, in Lost in a Book (1988) makes a similar distinction between what he calls Type A and Type B reading, Type B readers seek “entrancement” in great works whereas Type A readers are after only momentary distraction. Nell cites a number of theories in trying to explain the nature of what he also calls the “ludic reading” experience of Type B readers, and his own studies in which readers evaluated how they responded to various kinds of fiction and non-fiction. He even conducted experiments to monitor the physiological effects of ludic as opposed to non-ludic reading, and out of all this concludes:
The consequences of the interplay of reader needs and book selection criteria is that Type B readers will read fewer books but will experience some deep involvement in all or nearly all of them while Type A’s will read many books and find involvement in only a few of them. We have, however, repeatedly emphasized that although the distinctions between Type A and Type B readers are real, the boundary between the two types is permeable.
Nell cites W. Somerset Maugham’s confessed addiction on reading indiscriminately, flying to books “as the opium-smoker to his pipe.” Just as paradoxically, Nell reveals, responses to his Reading Mood Questionnaire revealed that nearly half the reading matter of his ludic readers consisted of what they themselves believed would be dismissed as “trash” by English teachers. How are we to account for this?
At the outset of Lost in a Book, Nell comments at length on the long-standing prejudice against reading for pleasure that goes with the Puritan ethic. Perhaps the ludic readers who find guilty pleasures in “trash” have simply internalized the judgments of authorities motivated by that Puritan ethic. It’s hard to be certain, for, among other things, Nell’s subjects were white readers and librarians in apartheid South Africa, where the culture was not necessarily representative of Western culture generally.
What may actually be the case is that while Nell’s ludic readers, like Lewis’ literary readers, do indeed find entrancement in great literature that can be found nowhere else, they can also find pleasure in popular fiction for what it is – they can enjoy both Shakespeare and, say, Agatha Christie on their own terms. And they don’t read popular fiction indiscriminately without any sense of taste or judgment. They can tell good mysteries from bad mysteries, good romances from bad romances and… good science fiction from bad science fiction. They can point to works that are classics of their genres, even if they don’t appeal to the kind of critics who set themselves up as gatekeepers to the Heavenly Kingdom of literature. They are the kind of readers we need most.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

North to Alaska!

Been more than two months since I’ve posted here. First, it was a heavy load of work at the office that took up my time. But that was to give me a window of vacation time for….

I’d never been to Alaska before, and I’d never been on a cruise ship, either. Maybe I never would have, except that the cruise through the Inside Passage in mid-August included a program organized by Reason magazine, a libertarian publication Marcia and I have subscribed to for several years now. I knew about Reason a long time before that, having written an sf column for the magazine in the early 1970’s, and I’ve long been sympathetic to libertarian ideas although I’ve never been an activist.

Here’s the thing: I’d never had the slightest interest in cruise ships like the Holland America Westerdam, the one we took from Seattle. I imagined that being aboard one would be about as much fun as sitting in a football stadium, surrounded by 50,000 people you don’t know, watching a game between two teams you don’t give a shit about. But Marcia had been on two cruises, one to Alaska – it helped that the latter included a contingent of alumni of Carnegie Mellon University, her alma mater. In the present instance, I figured it would help to travel among people I knew about even if I didn’t know them personally.

That indeed turned out to be the case, and I met some wonderful people. One, John Tooby, an evolutionary psychology theorist who teaches at UC Santa Barbara, turned out to share a love for one of my own favorite sf stories, Cordwainer Smith’s “No, No, Not Rogov.” But I’m interested in evolutionary psychology anyway as a layman, because it touches on the origins of art, music and literature (oral at first, only later written). Several others seemed to be intrigued about sf, once they knew I was on board, among them Reason editor Nick Gillespie, Columbia economics professor Eli Noam and his wife Nadine Strossen – past president of the American Civil Liberties Union. Among the most intriguing speakers (to me, at least) were Richard and Jane Stroup on free market approaches to environmental issues and Thaddeus Russell (author of A Renegade History of the United States) on the positive influence of “slackers, rebels and outlaws” as opposed to respectable people (including supposed progressives) on American culture. I’m not going to list all participants here, but I want to make it clear that these libertarians are not Tea Party conservatives – they’re opposed to endless wars, condemn crony capitalism as well as socialism, and support women’s rights (including abortion). Strossen was really tough on the abuses of government surveillance of anyone and everyone in the name of national security, and the arbitrary powers granted to the president (supported by both parties) to declare anyone a terrorist and imprison them without trial.

On a more pleasant note than the growing threat of Caesarism to our liberties was the Inside Passage voyage itself. To begin with, of course, it was all new to me. But there was also our luck with the weather: usually, it’s dank and even rainy in the Alaska panhandle, but for us it was bright and sunny most days, and if it was overcast in the morning the clouds would usually part later in the day. That meant we could get a much better view of the mountains, islands and glaciers. Closer up, we could watch the dolphins “escorting” the cruise ship and, later, a small boat we took to the site of an old salmon cannery in Ketchikan.

Our first stop in Alaska itself was Juneau, the state capital, and our tour guide on shore was eager to tell us where the red light district had once been, and that the state capitol building had been voted the ugliest in the country. But we also had a boat ride to go whale watching. Marcia hadn’t seen a single whale on her previous visit, but this time there were about 20 – 14 of them hunting together in one group, which is really unusual. Another stop by bus on the way back to the ship was the Mendenhall Glacier. We got to see a lot more glaciers the next day; the weather was so good that the Westerdam decided to add an extra stop to its cruise up Glacier Bay. I can’t say for sure, but since a previous announcement had mentioned the Johns Hopkins glacier at the end of one inlet, the extra stop might have been the Margerie glacier up another inlet, and that was the best of them – a ship photographer took a shot of us against that, and it was the only ship-taken picture we decided to buy.

At Sitka, we got to see a Russian Orthodox church built back in 1844. It burned down in 1969, in a fire that had started across the street, but the architectural design had been preserved by the Library of Congress, so it was rebuilt almost exactly like before. Not only that, but the faithful had managed to rescue all the icons, so those you see today all go back to the original church. Other stops included the Visitor Center, where a group of amateur dancers (all women; the men just weren’t interested when the troupe was formed decades ago) performed traditional Russian dances.

There was also a salmon stream 600 feet into the rain forest (In the shade of the trees, it really gave me the sense of a rain forest), and the salmon were running. Well, trying to run: none I saw seemed to be making any headway, and the spawning area was seven miles upstream. Somebody told me the next day at a historic salmon cannery that it was late in the season, and that the salmon strong enough to make it already had – those left behind were out of luck. Survival of the fittest…

Lots of totem poles, of course, including some indoors at the local museum. Totem poles often honored prominent Tlingit Indians, and a number of them are shown wearing what appear to be stovepipe hats. But a guide at the museum said the resemblance is purely coincidental; those hats (and others with sloping as opposed to flat brims) are potlatch hats (potlatches are gift-giving ceremonies) and the stovepipes are actually series of rings indicating how many potlatches the person honored had given. On the other hand, the next day at Ketchikan, we saw a totem pole with Abraham Lincoln and his stovepipe hat – this had been erected in 1867 after an American gunship called the Lincoln had come to the aid of local Tlingits who had been attacked by a rival tribe.

That cannery in Ketchikan had closed in 1957, after the salmon had been trapped out. One of the first things Alaska did after it became a state was to ban salmon traps, and the salmon industry has since been revived with hatcheries and sustainable catch policies. But that was too late for the George Inlet cannery, which had been operated by a subsidiary of Libby – others based in the town itself, rather than at the remote inlet, were more efficient, and could handle all the catch. But the abandoned plant has been fitted out with duplicates of the original equipment – including a machine unfortunately called the Iron Chink because it handled a part of the processing previously done by Chinese laborers. By the way, if you’re wondering why canned salmon has bones and canned tuna doesn’t, it’s because tuna is canned only after being cooked and deboned. But why tuna is treated that way and salmon isn’t, even the tour guide didn’t know.

As is often the case, there were little things that fascinated me. In Glacier Bay, it was the frozen brooks you could see snaking down the mountainsides, something not mentioned in tour books. In Sitka, it was the slanted bars on Russian orthodox crosses (I learned that had to do with the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus; one of them had reproved the other and been promised a place in Paradise; the upslanting end of the bar represents him; he was canonized as St. Dismas.). In George Inlet, there was orange seaweed on one side where sheer rock rises from the water, and on which starfish feed – popweed is what they call it, our guide told me, because it has little air sacs like bubble wrap. There’s something like Spanish moss that hangs from some of the tree branches it has various names, including Methuselah’s Beard and Witch’s Hair.

We had a fine stateroom aboard ship, with a picture window, and all the amenities. The food was great, except that the scrambled eggs were sometimes mushy. I was able to get in some laps on the Promenade deck – really needed the exercise. One terrific extra was the option to have our luggage taken right from outside our stateroom to the plane after we docked in Seattle. The only really annoying thing on the ship was the cruise director being required to interrupt the Reason seminars with announcements over the PA system, mostly to promote onboard lotteries, bingo and casino gambling. Ashore, it often seemed as if there were nothing downtown except jewelry stores, most not even selling locally-made jewelry. The ship urged the passengers to shop at these stores and didn’t bother to tell us where we could buy genuine Alaskan made souvenirs, but Marcia found one where they had a native-carved whale fluke, made from whale bone, a great reminder of our excellent whale sightings.

At the outset, there had been the hotel the cruise people had recommended for our stay in Seattle for a couple of nights before the voyage itself. Our room turned out to be cramped, and the place had falsely advertised on its website that it had a dining room – it didn’t even offer a Continental breakfast. (The website described it as a “boutique hotel” and we wondered what that meant – we found out that it meant small and overpriced.) Well, we found other places to eat, and having an extra day in Seattle with a rental car gave me a chance to take Marcia in a scenic drive through Snoqualmie Pass (one of my favorite places in the world) and on to Roslyn – the picturesque town once used as the setting for Northern Exposure.

There was always something wonderful to see, or do, or hear, from first day to last.

Monday, June 18, 2012

In The New Yorker? Oh no, The New Yorker!

In case you haven't noticed it, the June 4-11 edition of The New Yorker was a special science fiction issue. Science fiction used to be virtually taboo at that magazine, which now seems to be trying to make up for lost time.

What with the press of other business, I haven’t gotten around to more than glancing at most of the contents, but there isn't actually much fiction in it. The contributors to a "Sci Fi" section include well-known genre sf writers Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, China Miéville and William Gibson, and Margaret Atwood also rings in there; but this section is devoted entirely to memoirs and commentaries. Jonathan Lethem, prophet of the slipstream movement, is the only recognizable name among the fiction contributors. But Jennifer Egan, whose story is a series of tweets, is the one that the magazine gave a pre-publication build-up.

Would Atwood like the cover, which shows  a cocktail party interrupted by a spaceman with a ray gun, a robot and an octopus apparently erupting from another dimension? The author of The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake had elsewhere dismissed genre sf as all about "talking squids in outer space," and the only genre story she discusses here is about a world of sexy spider women that lay their eggs in the bodies of beguiled male visitors who learn the Awful Truth about them too late. But Laura Miller, who contributes a think piece about aliens in sf called “The Cosmic Menagerie,” ends up sounding a similarly sour note. Like a number of outsiders who write about the genre, she seems to fancy herself an instant expert. Here are her credentials from her own website (

Laura Miller helped to co-found in 1995 and is currently a staff writer at that publication. She is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the Last Word column for two years. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and many other publications. She is the editor of The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors (Penguin, 2000). She lives in New York.

The thing is, she really tries to be fair at the start. She writes about the portrayal of aliens by French astronomer-mystic Camille Flammarion and his fellow countryman J.H. Rosny ainé, having come across a recent collection of three of his stories (“Les Xipéhuz,” “Another World” and “The Death of the Earth”) in translation, and devotes nearly a page to him – relying on editor-translators Danièle Chatelain and George Slosser, it would appear, for details about another of Rosny’s works, “Navigators of Infinity” (She is evidently unaware that it too has been translated by Brian Stableford as part of a series for Black Coat Press.).

But when it comes to English language sf, she thinks its history begins with H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds as far as the treatment of aliens is concerned – and virtually ends with it. Except for a few works like Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, which treat issues of religion and gender, we are given to believe that genre sf is a vast wasteland of xenophobia – “For every kindly E.T., there must be a dozen fiendish Body Snatchers.”

Like many mainstream critics, she evidently considers movies the only important expression of science fiction. But even in the movies there are counter-examples like Avatar. And in the most successful movie franchise, Star Wars, the bad guys are all human – the aliens are usually good guys. They may be insufferable, like Jar Jar Binks, but that’s a different issue. Only, if Miller assumes that literary sf treats aliens primarily as monsters and body snatchers, it is out of near total ignorance of the genre.

Chances are that she’s never even heard of Stanley G. Weinbaum, who created a sympathetic alien way back in 1934 with “A Martian Odyssey,” which was a seminal influence on the treatment of aliens, including in space opera. Neither is she likely to have heard of Raymond Z. Gallun, who took a different approach to aliens in “Old Faithful” (also 1934) but an equally sympathetic one and one that has also been a seminal influence. Nor can she be familiar with British philosopher Olaf Stapledon, whose Star Maker (1937) imagined aliens (including even symbiotic species) that were nothing like humans, but had their own believable evolutionary histories.

As any genre sf reader knows, these works were far more influential on portrayals of aliens in modern science fiction than The War of the Worlds. One need only cite only a few classics such as Eric Frank Russell’s “Dear Devil,” Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, James White’s Hospital Station series, Larry Niven’s Known Space tales, Clifford D. Simak’s Way Station, Poul Anderson’s The People of the Wind and Robert L. Forward’s Dragon’s Egg. There are oft-cited counter-examples like Heinlein's Starship Troopers, but that was controversial even within the genre, and has drawn fictional rejoinders from the likes of Joe Haldeman and John Scalzi -- moreover, Heinlein himself didn't write only about war with aliens.

In recent decades there have also been a number of works about aliens that are so alien as to make contact with them, or at least understanding, impossible – best known is Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, but other examples include Michael Bishop’s “Death and Designation among the Asadi.” And in C.J. Cherryh’s long-running Foreigner series, humans who have founded a colony on an alien world have to learn how to get along with the natives – who don’t look that alien, but have an entirely alien social mind-set based on a hierarchy of loyalties. “Friendship” and “love” as we understand them are alien to the Atevi. Miéville's Embassytown deals with a similarly difficult exercise in communication.

Only, you won’t learn about any of this in The New Yorker. You won't even get a hint of it. That’s a shame.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Cosmic Voyages

It was about a year ago that I came across a Russian movie called Kosmichesky Reis (Cosmic Voyage) on YouTube. Somebody had posted the whole thing, reportedly with the blessings of Mosfilm. I had read about this 1936 space travel movie, but had never expected to see it. Good thing I did when I had the chance, because when I checked the link again last week, it had been taken down for copyright infringement. If I hadn’t seen it last year, I wouldn’t have been able to give an accurate or insightful account of it in a chapter of Foundations of Science Fiction, which follows the link below to a video with just  a few excerpts:

“I remember well how the thought struck me of making calculations for rockets,” wrote Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, whose theoretical work on multistage liquid-fuel rockets laid the foundation for space travel. “I think the first seeds were sown by the imaginative tales of Jules Verne, which assailed my mind. I was assailed by a sense of longing, and this set me to thinking in a specific way.”
Tsiolkovsky was not the only pioneer of astronautics to credit Verne as his inspiration; Hermann Oberth was one of the others. Long before Neil Armstrong finally set foot on the moon in 1969, it had been conquered countless times in imagination – and the influence of Verne can be seen in an entire school of astronautical science fiction which helped prepare the way for that “giant leap for mankind.”
Verne himself brought the Baltimore Gun Club astronauts back home in Around the Moon (1869) with a splashdown, appropriately, in the same part of the Pacific used for Apollo missions a century later. Yet only in Hector Servadec (1877), also known as Off on a Comet, did he return to the subject of interplanetary travel – and that was one of his worst books. Servadec is fighting a duel in Algeria when a passing comet sweeps up the part of the Earth he and his companions are standing on, without harming them in the least. A Cook’s tour of the solar system follow, from near the Sun to the frigid regions of Saturn and back – after which the travelers are returned unharmed to Earth in a manner as violent as their departure,
Other dreamers, however, soon took up where Verne left off. Numerous interplanetary adventures appeared in the decades before and after World War I, in France and elsewhere. Most are long forgotten, but a number are described in Nikolai A. Rynin’s Interplanetary Flight and Communication (1927-32), a Russian encyclopedia of astronautics, or in other sources like Pierre Versins’ Encyclopédie de l’utopie, des voyages extraordinaires et de la science-fiction (1972) and Jean-Marc Officier and Randy Lofficier’s French Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Pulp Fiction (2000).
Among these now obscure works are Boris Krasnogorsky’s On the Waves of the Ether (1913), which involves a trip to Venus in a ship using light pressure ship lofted into the upper atmosphere of Earth by balloons in order to catch solar radiation. Rynin devotes considerable attention to the technical details of this novel, which like most of those he surveys has since been forgotten.
One that hasn’t been forgotten, and has recently been translated by British sf writer and historian Brian Stableford, is The Extraordinary Adventures of a Russian Scientist Across the Solar System. A collaboration between adventure writer Georges LeFaure (1858-1953) and physicist Henri de Graffigny (1863-1942), it ran to some 1,800 pages over four volumes: The Moon (1889), The Sun and the Minor Planets (1889), The Major Planets and the Comets (1891), and The Stellar Desert (1896). For translation, the first two and last two volumes are combined.
Mikhail Ossipoff, the Russian scientist, jealously guards two great treasures: his daughter Selena and a super-explosive he has invented – selenite, powerful enough to blow up the world or to send men to the moon. When his arch-rival Fedor Sharp has him exiled to Siberia on trumped-up charges of anarchism in order to steal his invention, Selena’s suitor Gontran de Flammermont comes to the rescue, with a steam-powered airplane invented by Alcide Fricoulet, a French engineer.
By that time, Sharp is already off to the moon, having fraudulently obtained American backing for a space gun. But Ossipoff is soon in literally hot pursuit, with a spacecraft launched from an active volcano to carry himself, his daughter and her fiancé, Fricoulet and Jonathan Farenheit, a former confederate of Sharp’s. They land on the far side, where there is enough air and water to support native life (De Graffigny exploits the idea, dubious even then, that the Moon is egg-shaped, with the narrow end facing Earth.).
There they are discovered by the Selenites, 12-foot tall beings with huge heads and frail bodies. Through their technological assistance, the Earthmen soon master the local language, and the Selenites are eager to help them journey by rocket-propelled aircraft to the near side in search of fuel to continue their interplanetary journey. What they also find is Sharp’s spacecraft, in which Sharp himself has barely clung to life by killing and feeding on another confederate.
Hardly have they revived Sharp than he kidnaps Selena and heads for the inner planets. Thus begins a long pursuit carrying the rivals to Venus and Mercury, where the heroes get shut of Sharp. But Ossipoff is eager to push on to Mars, and even the outer planets. A Cook’s Tour of the solar system employs every means then imaginable – light-pressure craft, a passing comet, even an interplanetary ramjet fueled by comet dust. Plot complications – other than the hazards encountered in space – center on Farenheit’s homesickness and the Flammermont’s impatience over the years-long delay of his marriage.
LeFaure and Graffigny were perhaps the first to think of a now obvious necessity for space travel: space suits. They also anticipated something akin to lasers for interplanetary communication: light beams picked up and modulated by selenium photocells. But, beyond technology, their imaginations often fail them: the Venusians they encounter speak Greek, and the bird-like Martians fight wars on a regular schedule – a borrowing from the satirical travel tale, but justified here as a population control measure.
In keeping with astronomer Camille Flammarion’s mystical theory of the plurality of worlds, even Mercury and the moons of Mars harbor life, but none of the life forms are terribly interesting. It actually comes as a relief when Jupiter turns out to be a hellish world of violent storms and volcanic eruptions. But by this time, most of the narrative is a huge information dump – including a collective hallucination in which the ramjet Éclair explores the Galaxy at many times the speed of light. Occasionally, there are passages that evoke a sense of wonder:
The profound blackness of space was packed with multicolored stars. Here were entirely white globes that radiated milky tints of extraordinary delicacy into space; there were mysterious worlds brightening the depths of space with a glow that passed through all the shades of red, from scarlet to the finest orange-yellow; a little further on there was an assemblage of stars of different hues, resembling the colors of an extraordinary palette. Some of these worlds seemed blurred by a luminous mist, like Venetian lanterns whose flames flicker as the festivals they illuminate come to an end, ready to go out.
But nearly all the narrative is a dull catalogue of dull facts. Another chronic problem with the whole series is that the story chronology, and even the “scientific” explanations, are incredibly sloppy. Perhaps the finest moment is the unexpectedly ironic conclusion, when the heroes finally reach home back on Earth after their ship crashes, but find their dreams of glory dashed in a last ploy by Sharp.
Garrett P. Serviss (1851-1929), a leading Vernean sf writer in the United States, shows similar limitations in A Columbus of Space (1909). His hero harnesses atomic energy and, with hardly any preliminaries, builds a spaceship and invites his friends aboard for its maiden flight. After a journey fraught with such perils as meteors, they reach Venus. But, once Serviss gets them there, he doesn’t know what to do with them. There is a brief encounter with Stone Age telepaths, then a longer one in a Ruritanian kingdom, complete with a princess. Only in a religious mythology based on the rare appearances of the sun, through breaks in the cloud cover, is there any real cultural invention.
More imaginative is Andre Mas’ “The Germans on Venus” (1913), published as a booklet in France on the eve of World War I. From secondary sources, it might seem to be an exercise in jingoism – especially since in an epilogue the Great Powers divide the planets among them, just as they had recently divided Africa. But in fact the story is a Vernean adventure, with a bit of H.G. Wells. The German ship Sirius is launched by a flywheel catapult, but powered by rockets thereafter. Two of the crewmen are German, but one is French, and Mas’ Venus is far more believable than previous versions of our sister planet, with its freakish climate and pseudo-saurian life forms. Mas’ heroes have to fight to survive, and they can’t return to Earth – so they can send radio messages that attract a wave of colony ships, an expression of humanity’s manifest destiny to spread beyond its homeworld.
But it was Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) who first used science fiction to fully explore concepts that have since become reality in the conquest of space. “Earth is the cradle of mankind,” he is said to have remarked. “But you cannot live in a cradle forever.” Beyond the Planet Earth (1918) is a testament to his belief in not just the conquest, but also the actual colonization of space.
An international colony of reclusive scientists in the Himalayas, looking tor new worlds to conquer, is startled when one of their number. Ivanov, announces he has solved the problem of space travel. The others are skeptical: “The Russian’s probably thought up a gigantic gun,” huffs Franklin, in an obvious allusion to Verne. But the solution, of course, is actually the liquid-fuel rocket. Beyond the Planet Earth goes on to offer equally ingenious solutions to other problems of space flight: Tanks of water cushion the astronauts against acceleration, greenhouses replenish air and (using human wastes as fertilizer) food, and rocket pistols are used for space walks.
Tsiolkovsky pays attention to such mundane details as how to take a bath in a weightless environment, and he provides his crewmen with food in squeeze tubes. The antics of his heroes foreshadow those of actual Skylab and Salyut crews:
One after another our travellers flew into the large cabin, some sideways, some upside down; it seemed to each man that he was the right way up, while the others were not... it [was] difficult to prevent themselves from moving about. It was an odd state to be in, and provoked endless witticisms, jokes and laughter.
Although there is a visit to the moon in a rocket-powered rover, even a flyby of Mars, the real stress is on creating new habitats for mankind in space itself, as Gerard O’Neill later proposed – even to the use of lunar material for construction. By the end of the novel, thousands of ships are being launched to found space colonies, which are envisioned as the scene of Utopian social experiments.
True, as Newton remarks, space lacks the familiar mountains, oceans, and storms that have inspired earthly poets. “But is there really no poetry here?” he asks. “Surely we still have science, matter, worlds – and mankind, which will come and surround us and occupy this boundless expanse! Is not Man himself the highest poetry of all?’”
 When Hermann Oberth independently developed modern rocketry theory in Germany, Otto Willi Gail (1896-1956) was quick to push the cause of space exploration with The Shot into Infinity (1925).
August Korf, a German scientist who has dedicated his life to the conquest of space, is too proud to appeal to the world for funds. Less scrupulous is his Russian rival Suchinoff, who uses stolen plans for a solid-fuel rocket to launch his own mission to the moon (The same year Gail’s novel appeared, Karl August Laffert’s Beacon in the Sky had its World Peace League using solid-fuel rockets.).
Korf himself had abandoned the solid-fuel design as insufficient, and he is proven right when Suchinov’s astronaut is stranded in lunar orbit – doomed to slow death. Putting aside all else, Korf works against time to complete his multistage liquid-hydrogen rocket, which is launched from a ramp, to attempt a rescue. Only after a rendezvous with the Suchinoff craft does he learn that the dying pilot is Natalka – Suchinoff’s daughter, and his own former lover.
   As dedicated to the cause of space flight as Korf himself, she had become impatient with his caution and had stolen the solid-fuel design for her father in order to carry out the “great liberating deed” herself. “It was a crime against mankind that national honor and trifling pride as a citizen meant more to you than this noble work,” she tells him. After more than eighty years the novel, for all its Wagnerianism, remains prophetically realistic. Illustrations of stage separation and a space walk for the cover of the 1929 English translation in Science Wonder Quarterly look almost like NASA publicity stills.
 Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Moon (1929), which enlisted Oberth as its technical advisor, owes as much to Gail as to the Thea von Harbou script. The early scenes, in which excited crowds watch as a two-stage rocket is moved on tracks from a huge assembly building to the launch site, the countdown and the launch itself seem like a preview of those at Cape Canaveral forty years later – there’s even a Walter Cronkite-type excitedly broadcasting the news to the world.

But the film was not a success – in those days, the conquest of space was the obsession of a few, the kind of men who founded the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt and the American Rocket Society and the British Interplanetary Society, working in scorn or, at best, in obscurity.
Dedication meant something in those days. When Soviet enthusiasts founded GIRD (Grupa po Izuceniyu Reaktivno Dvizheniya, or Group for the Study of Reactive Motion), cynics dubbed the enterprise Grupa Inzhenerov, Rabotayushchikh Darom – Group of Engineers, Working for Nothing. But those engineers found a champion in Aleksandr Belyayev (1884-1942), who evidently sought to outdo Gail with A Leap into Nothingness (1933).
More than Gail, Belyayev understood the logistics of organizing a space program; an entire industrial center and launch complex has to be built in the Andes. And A Leap into Nothingness was the first sf novel to deal seriously with space medicine and astronaut training. Belyayev’s future spacemen work out in centrifuges and use a free-fall elevator to simulate weightlessness – an idea Robert A. Heinlein reinvented in Space Cadet (1948).
Of course, by 1933, Belyayev had to make his novel politically acceptable: instead of pure Vernean adventure, there is propaganda. The New Ark is financed by frightened billionaires seeking to escape from world Communist revolution. Having arrived on a Carboniferous Age Venus, the refugees revert to savagery for lack of anyone to exploit, and Leo Tsander (named for GIRD pioneer Fridrikh Tsander) and his crew return to a Communist Earth in triumph.
Gail and Belyayev both followed up with pioneering works involving manned space stations. But Gail’s The Stone from the Moon (1926),  offers only a brief visit to Astropol before descending into occultist rubbish about lost Atlantis and the world ice theory. Belyayev’s KETStar (1936), by contrast, further develops Tsiolkovsky’s theme of colonizing space – its very title (in Russian. Zvyezda KETS) honors his initials.
Leonid Artemiev, the hero, is a young biologist specializing in fruit who happens to make friends with Tonya Gerasimova, an assistant at an institute of mechanical physics. Together with Paley, an engineer, Tonya has worked out secret designs and made a series of calculations for a flight to the moon. Suddenly Paley disappears, Tonya asks Artemiev to fly with her to the Pamirs, where she hopes to find Paley. Only it turns out that there is already a secret (!) space program based there – and Artemiev is soon drafted into it.
KETStar, still under construction when he arrives, is both a space laboratory and a launching platform for missions to the moon and planets – the station itself and the interplanetary craft are built from meteoric material. Earth receives such practical benefits as the warming of the Arctic by giant mirrors, but space is seen as a new home for mankind. In the end, Artemiev, after an exciting trip to the Moon (in a ship guided by radio from the station) and his work at the space laboratory, decides to stay on and raise his family there.
Soviet film offered Vasili Zhuravlyov’s Cosmic Voyage (1936), with Tsiolkovsky himself as technical advisor. Pavel Ivanovich Sedikh, academician at the All-Union Institute for Interplanetary Communication, is his obvious avatar: a white-bearded physicist who wants to go to the Moon in the worst way. Professor Karin, head of the space program in 1946, doesn’t think an “old man” has any business in space, but Sedikh contrives to make the journey – accompanied only by a young woman, Marina, and a boy, Andryusha – kid brother of Victor Orlov, who had been slated to make trip himself.
For a film shot during Stalin’s reign, Cosmic Voyage seems remarkably apolitical aside from the “USSR” on the rocket ships. It’s all about the excitement of space travel. “Where are you going?” Andryusha’s friends ask him. “To the Moon!” Like Gail’s A Shot into Infinity, the movie features a launching ramp and scenes of stage separation and weightlessness. But one novelty is immersing the astronauts (not cosmonauts) in tanks of water to cushion them against acceleration during liftoff. On the Moon itself, they leap and frolic about in the low gravity. Sedikh is trapped under a rockslide at one point, but the others rescue him – and even a cat from an unmanned craft that had coincidentally landed at the same location. Naturally, they are all mobbed on their triumphal return.  
Ironically, there had at that time been little realistic astronautical science fiction in the United States, where Robert Goddard shunned publicity and pulp sf was dominated by fanciful neo-Victorian concepts of space travel. One exception, little remembered today, was The Moon Maker (1916) by novelist Arthur Train (1875-1945) and physicist Robert Wood (1868-1955). Four years before Goddard published his calculations, they had envisioned an atomic-powered rocket in The Man Who Rocked the Earth (1915). There, it was used by a mad scientist trying to force an end to the world war.
In The Moon Maker, the Flying Ring is sent on a desperate mission to try to divert an asteroid on a collision course with earth. The short novel is notable for its realistic treatment of acceleration and weightlessness and for a prophetic scene in which the astronauts are jockeying to a landing on the moon, kicking up dust with their exhaust as the Apollo LEMs did decades later. Later, they use a death ray to divert the asteroid.
The Moon Maker wasn’t entirely ignored; Stanley G. Weinbaum clearly modeled his peculiar flying triangle in “The Red Peri” (1935) after the Flying Ring. But it was the German influence that was decisive, both in fiction and in technical works like Hermann Noordung’s “The Problems of Space Flying” (translated 1929). Willy Ley, a colleague of Oberth’s who fled Nazi Germany, spread the gospel in stories like “At the Perihelion” (1937), in which the escape of the hero and heroine from a Soviet colony on Mars depends on a precise understanding of celestial mechanics.
With Murray Leinster’s “The Power Planet” (1931), a melodrama about the struggle for control of a solar power station, serious speculation about potential uses of space had already entered American sf. Within a few years, realistic concepts of space exploration were taken almost for granted as a background for science fiction centered on broader themes.
Following World War II, a wider public began to awaken to the idea of space travel. Heinlein did his missionary work with Destination Moon (1950), a soberly realistic film for its time, and tried to communicate the spirit of space visionaries in “The Man Who Sold the Moon” (1950). Delos David Harriman doesn’t want to go down in history; he just wants to go. His struggle with indifferent business partners and an apathetic public to realize his dream is personal and tragic. Like Ley, who died a month before Apollo 11, he wins his battle – but not for himself. As a friend observes, “He looks as Moses must have looked, when he gazed out over the promised land.”
After that, it was time for the pseudo-documentaries; Arthur C. Clarke’s Prelude to Space (1951) and Islands in the Sky (1952). Lester del Rey’s Step to the Stars (1954), Leinster’s Space Tug (1953) – realistic but soon dated accounts of the first manned flights and the first space stations. Following Sputnik, “tomorrow” faded into “today” with novels like Martin Caidin’s Marooned (1964), and. finally, it was history with James Michener’s Space (1982).