Favorite Films: The Thing from Another World (1951)

The Scene That Scared Me Most as a Kid

My favorite science fiction film of the 1950s was The Thing from Another World, an RKO cheapie that was superbly written and, for me as a boy who grew up in that strange era, utterly frightening. The whole film takes place in a research camp in the remote arctic north of Alaska. An army officer (Captain Hendry) receives orders to investigate the landing of an unknown object weighing some 20,000 tons (18 million kilograms)—far above the weight of known aircraft of the period. Also, it could not be a giant meteor because it went up before ultimately landing.

He flies up to the research station and, the next day, scouts out the landing site, in which the entire craft with the exception of a protruding fin is under ice. Hendry’s men line up above the visible edges of the vessel to determine its shape (it is circular, of course) and test the fin for its composition (an unknown alloy of some sort). To study the vessel more carefully, Tobey employs thermite bombs to melt the ice around it. Unfortunately, it also blows up the space ship. In doing so, a large (8 feet or 2.5 meters) figure is thrown from the ship. Still encased in ice, the figure is flown back to the research station.

Tobey orders the windows of the supply room in which it is stored to be broken to keep the figure frozen in ice. One of the guards on a later shift puts an electric blanket over the space alien—for such it turns out to be. The ice melt, the creature awakens, and it immediately goes on the attack.

Flying Saucer Fin Sticking Up Through the Ice

The scientists at the station, led by the venerable Nobelist Dr. Carrington, immediately deduce that the priority must be to communicate with the “obviously” superior creature, even if it turns out to be suicidal in the end. Captain Hendry, on the other hand, is more concerned for the safety of the military and scientific staff. During the beast’s rampages, there is an almost total radio silence with the civilized world because of severe storms.

This 87-minute black and white film was produced in the same year that saw The Day the Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide, and it was more successful than either film. My only reaction to that is, to use an expression from the film, “Holy Cat!” By the way, the beast was played by James Arness in his first role.

The film was signed by Christian Nyby as director, though it clearly shows signs of having been heavily influenced by producer Howard Hawks.

 

The Father of Modern Space Art

View of Saturn Seen from Titan

As I was growing up in Cleveland, I was deeply influenced by what I call space art. And by space, I mean outer space. For instance, the backgrounds in Forbidden Planet (1956) were a major influence on me. I was also influenced by the work of Father of Modern Space Art, Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986), who was born before the flight and Kitty Hawk and lived to see American astronauts walk on the surface of the moon. The paintings shown here are all by Bonestell.

According to the article on him in Wikipedia:

His paintings are prized by collectors and institutions such as the National Air and Space Museum and the National Collection of Fine Arts. One of his classic paintings, an ethereally beautiful image of Saturn seen from its giant moon Titan [see above illustration], has been called “the painting that launched a thousand careers.” Wernher von Braun wrote that he had “learned to respect, nay fear, this wonderful artist’s obsession with perfection. My file cabinet is filled with sketches of rocket ships I had prepared to help in his artwork—only to have them returned to me with…blistering criticism.”

Exploring Mars

In some cases, such as in the above painting, the image is contradicted by actual space photography, in this case from the Mars Rovers. Still, Bonestell’s painting is so gorgeous that maybe there is someplace else in the universe that looks like this.

Image of Chicago With a Dry Lake Michigan

Perhaps the work of Bonestell doesn’t do much for many art critics, but it showed me that there were more things on heaven and earth than were dreamt of in my philosophy. And in most cases, they were starkly beautiful.

 

The Danger of Denying the Existence of Dragons

Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018)

Here is the complete quote: “People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.”

Ursula K. Le Guin died in January of this year, leaving me bereft of her elfin wisdom. Not entirely, because there are all those books and stories of hers, which I am still plodding my way through. Today, I finished A Fisherman of the Inland Sea (1994), which contained three short stories that are to my mind the best stories ever written about space travel. They include “The Shobies’ Story,” “Dancing to Ganam,” and “Another Story, or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea.”

That middle initial in her name, the “K,” comes from her father, Anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber. What elevates Ursula from the technoid school of science fiction is her interest in exotic, invented cultures. These are best seen in her Hainish stories, which are my favorites among her works.  There is no end to the writing of fantasy stories, but somehow Ursula’s were special. They might be set in the distant future and on distant planets, but they involve real feelings among real beings. As she once said ,“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel … is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”  Well, she wrote those kind of books. In spades.

The Edition of A Fisherman of the Inland Sea That I Read

In the three stories I have mentioned from A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, there are two methods of space travel:

  • NAFAL, short for Nearly As Fast As Light. To the space travelers, the time expended in travel does not seem so long, but for those who have been left behind, years or even centuries pass.
  • Churten Theory, in which the travel is instantaneous. One could travel to Antares and be back for lunch. Travel via a Churten drive can be highly problematical, however, especially if the people traveling don’t get their stories straight or are incompatible in odd ways. “Wrinkles” in Churten travel can lead to strange results.

I look forward to reading (and maybe re-reading) several more of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work this year.

 

Massaraksh!

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky with the Soviet Union in the Background

The expression means “World Inside Out!” It is the most frequently used expression in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s great novel of the Noonday Universe, Prisoners of Power (Обитаемый остров, 1969). Over the years, I have read twelve of their works, most of which were excellent or better. The best by far, though, is Roadside Picnic (Пикник на обочине, 1972), which was made into an equally great movie by Andrei Tarkovsky called Stalker (1979).

Both are dead now (Arkady in 1991 and Boris in 2012), and only slowly is the world beginning to realize what it has lost. It is not easy to find their works in print (except for Roadside Picnic); it is only on the top floor of the Los Angeles Central Library that I am finding a treasure trove of their work. And I will read them all, making my way through their collection like a Beetle in the Anthill (Жук в муравейнике, 1980) —itself the title of another Strugatsky work.

In the first paragraph, I referred to the Noonday Universe, which is a theme of about half the Strugatsky novels I have read. According to Wikipedia:

The victory of communism and the advance of technological progress on the Earth of the Noon Universe resulted in an over-abundance of resources and eliminated the need for most types of manual labor.

Mankind is capable of near-instantaneous interstellar travel. Earth social organization is presumably communist, and can be described as a highly technologically advanced anarchistic meritocracy. There is no state structure, no institutionalized coercion (no police etc.), yet functioning of the society is safeguarded by raising everyone as responsible individuals, with guidance of a set of High Councils accepted by everyone in each particular field of activity.

One of the controversial occupations is progressor. They are agents embedded in less advanced humanoid civilizations in order to accelerate their development or resolve their problems. Progressors’ methods range from rescuing local scientists and artists to overthrowing local governments.

The main governing body is the World Council, composed of the brightest scientists, historians, doctors and teachers. The local matters are handled by the regional versions of the council. Planetary councils are present on each Earth colony (e.g. [Far] Rainbow), as well, although “colony” in this context refers to a planet that wasn’t home to any sentient life before the arrival of Terran settlers. In the Noon Universe, Earth has never attempted to seize permanent control over any other civilization.

The universe is populated by a number of sentient races. Some of them are humanoid, while others are so alien that humanity didn’t realize that they were sentient for decades. Several sentient races maintain diplomatic relations with Earth’s society. Many planets in Noon Universe are inhabited by races identical to humans in all but minor genetic differences. It has been speculated that they were humans who wound up on other worlds due to the Wanderers’ manipulations (as Beetle in the Anthill shows, that is hardly unprecedented).

The Wanderers are the most mysterious race in the Noon Universe. Technologically advanced and highly secretive, the Wanderers are suspected to manipulate sentient beings throughout Noon Universe for their own purposes. While those purposes were never clarified, it was hinted that they try to “progress” various sentient beings.

The Noonday Universe is a kind of allegorical device used by the Strugatsky Brothers to subtly disguise a critique of the Soviet system in a fashion that has been described as Aesopic. For instance, the world in Prisoners of Power is crippled by a stupid bureaucracy. The Earthman Maxim Kammerer, whose spaceship is stranded on the nameless planet, is immune to many of the methods used by the “Creators” to keep their people under their control, and even survives several bullets which he simply “passes.” Eventually, he allies himself to the society’s underground and dedicates himself to toppling the control mechanisms that keep the people prisoners of power.

I have read the following Strugatsky titles over the years:

  • Space Apprentice (Стажеры, 1962)
  • Escape Attempt (Попытка к бегству, 1962) *
  • Far Rainbow (Далёкая Радуга, 1963), the first one I read and still one of my favorites *
  • Hard to Be a God (Трудно быть богом, 1964) *
  • The Final Circle of Paradise (Хищные вещи века, 1965)
  • The Second Invasion from Mars (Второе нашествие марсиан, 1967)
  • Prisoners of Power (Обитаемый остров, 1969) *
  • The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (Отель «У Погибшего Альпиниста», 1970)
  • Roadside Picnic (Пикник на обочине, 1972), definitely the best of the bunch
  • Definitely Maybe (За миллиард лет до конца света, 1977)
  • Beetle in the Anthill (Жук в муравейнике, 1980) *
  • The Time Wanderers (Волны гасят ветер, 1986) *

The titles above appearing with asterisks are considered to be part of the Noon Universe series. Of the Strugatsky Brothers’ twenty-seven novels, only some four have not appeared in English translations.

The Great American Novel

Maybe the Great American Novel Will Be a Mystery …

Up until fifty or sixty years ago, the great American Novel would have been by someone like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or William Faulkner. Then something happened. Specifically what happened were writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, followed by scores of other excellent mystery writers such as Ross Macdonald, James Ellroy, David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, and Elmore Leonard.

I just finished reading Leonard’s Get Shorty, primarily because I loved the 1995 movie directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and starring John Travolta as Chili Palmer, the loan shark from Miami suddenly turned movie producer.

Renee Russo and John Travolta in Get Shorty

Recently, I just finished re-reading most of Raymond Chandler’s novels (except for Playback, which I’ll get to shortly). And I’ve been reading other mysteries and noir novels and enjoying them immensely. I am beginning to think that, years into the future, this will be looked at as a golden age of genre novels.

America’s contribution is mostly in the mystery genre, but there have been great science fiction classics, especially from Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Kurt Vonnegut, to name just a few. I will have to beg off on romance classics because, jeez, I’m a guy and the genre makes me alternatively giggle and puke.

If we eliminated genre novels from consideration, I would probably say that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was the Great American Novel. But I don’t think we really should cut off the 20th Century American genre novel from a shot at the title.

 

Unutterably Alien

Arkady (1925-1991) and Boris (1933-2012) Strugatsky, the World’s Greatest Sci-Fi Writers

There is something about these two Russian brothers: They wrote the simply most incredible science fiction novels. I am thinking particularly of Roadside Picnic (Пикник на обочине), writen in 1972. At some time in the past, parts of Earth were visited by one or more bands of interstellar travelers. They left their mark on the places they have stayed—in strange, unaccountable ways. Nowhere is there a description of the visitors: no one alive has ever seen them. But the laws of matter and energy don’t seem to work there any more.

The novel was turned into a film by fellow Russian Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979. The film was called Stalker, and it was one of the greatest films produced anywhere in that decade. The film so influenced Geoff Dyer that he wrote a book in 2012 called Zona about his memories of the movie.

Scene from Tarkovsky’s Stalker

This is some powerful stuff. Those two brothers had some freaky visions that could so influence so many follow-on works. I am currently reading one of their earlier works, Space Apprentice (Стажеры) (1962). It’s not quite the level of Roadside Picnic, but it is fascinating.

While we’re on the subject of Eastern European sci-fi writers, I thought I’d put in a word for Poland’s Stanisław Lem , author of Eden (1959). In that novel, the earthling explorers go to a strange new world, where they are ignored. The protagonists can make nothing whatsoever of the local inhabitants.

The Middle Ground Between Light and Shadow

Rod Serling at Work

Rod Serling at Work

“There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition.” It is this middle ground that television writer Rod Serling ruled in he years between 1955 and 1975, when he died at the age of 50 of a heart attack.

After the Second World War, Americans were delighted they had won, but frightened by the devil’s bargain we had made with the atomic bomb. And once the Russians were able to not only produce their own super weapons but match us megaton for megaton, there was a sick feeling in the pit of our stomachs. I remember that period vividly, especially around the time the Berlin Wall was erected. Between then and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, I was convinced that the world would end in mutual nuclear destruction.

Apparently Hollywood thought so, too. There were films like Them (1954) about giant ants affected by nuclear radiation; The Giant Gila Monster (1959); and the many films of Bert I. Gordon such as The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Village of the Giants (1965). The uncertainty spread to visitors from outer space who may or may not have been drawn to us by our discovery of nuclear power. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Thing (1951) are classical examples.

It was into this world that Rod Serling came with his great television series, The Twilight Zone. He scripted many of the episodes himself, and it quickly became evident that he was a master of the genre. Today alone, I saw four episodes at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills. The best of the stories was “And When the Sky Was Opened” (1959) starring Rod Taylor about three spacemen who crash land back on earth after their ship temporarily disappeared from radar screens. The three not only start disappearing one by one, but all memory of each one is wiped clean as if he never existed, both from the minds of the people who knew them and from the documentary record of their existence.

In my opinion. The Twilight Zone is one of the best five shows ever to appear on TV. Some day, I hope to buy all the episodes on DVD (which costs a pretty penny) because I know that the stories are great and will always affect me every time I see them.