George Jetson’s Neighborhood

If any writer alive today has a handle on the future—what it is likely to be—that writer is William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer and the inventor of the term cyberspace. I have just finished reading his book of essays, entitled Distrust That Particular Flavor. In a talk delivered o the Book Expo America in 2010, he wrote:

But I really think [that pundits are] talking about the capital-F Future, which in my lifetime has been a cult, if not a religion. People my age are products of the capital-F Future. The younger you are, the less you are a product of that, If you’re fifteen or so, today, I suspect you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient prosthetic memory. I also suspect that you don’t know it, because, as anthropologists tell us, one cannot know one’s own culture.

The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on a hill or radioactive postnuclear wasteland, is gone. Ahead of us, there is merely … more stuff. Events. Some tending to the crystalline, some to the wasteland-y. Stuff: the mixed bag of the quotidia.

I think of Gibson’s capital-F Future as being more along the line of the old The Jetsons animated television program or the novels of H. G. Wells or Isaac Asimov. The future presented in those works is more a reflection of their creators’ times, and not our own.

William Gibson

I think that, because of his belief regarding the future, Gibson’s more recent novels have been less science fiction-y. Books such as Zero History are set in what appears, on one hand, to be the present—but instead are set in some not-too-distant future with multiple hooks to our present.

In a number of essays, Gibson examines our strange atemporal present, with fascinating essays on Tokyo (“My Own Private Tokyo”) and Singapore (“Disneyland with the Death Penalty”).

Chain of Chance

The following is adapted from a post I made on the late unlamented Blog.Com on August 14, 2009.

I had not read one of Stanislaw Lem’s (1921-2006) novels for a number of years, remembering only that I always enjoyed them for their quirkiness and imagination. A few days ago, I picked up one of his books at random: It was Chain of Chance (1975).

Picture to yourself a series of murders or suicides of a seemingly random group of people. What they have in common is all are males in their fifties who were athletic in build, and all were visiting a spa in Naples, Italy. The victims consisted of both Americans and Europeans. Sent to investigate what happened in a washed-out American astronaut who calls himself Adams after one of the victims. He attempts to set himself up as a guinea pig doing what the average victim did and trying to see what happens. There were some strange occurrences, such as the collapse of a woman in a large shop where there are no visible employees on the Naples-Rome highway.

At the Rome airport, “Adams” survives a terrorist bomb blast and saves a young French girl’s life. Suspected as being in with the terrorists, he calls in his embassy; and matters get straightened out allowing him to proceed to Paris.

There he meets with Dr. Philippe Barth, a French computer scientist who served as a consultant for the Sûreté, the national security service. The story then suddenly sags as “Adams” describes in exhaustive detail what the victims had in common, what they did, and so on. I thought to myself at this point that perhaps I had picked up the first loser by Lem, but it took only a few pages for the author to recover and pose an ingenious demonstration.

At the Paris Orly airport, “Adams” begins feeling strangely demented and suicidal. In the nick of time, he handcuffs himself to some solid furniture and begins to take notes of what appears to be a series of attacks, culminating in unconsciousness.

I will not divulge Lem’s brilliant ending, except to drop one hint: There is a close tie-in with the subject of The Futurological Congress (1971), which remains my favorite of his books. One more clue. Here is the thinking of one of the people attending the security meeting with Barth, a mathematician named Saussure whom I think is a stand-in for the author:

Man wanted everything to be simple, even if mysterious: one God—in the singular, of course; one form of natural law; one principle of reason in the universe, and so on. Astronomy, for example, held that the totality of existence was made up of stars—past, present, and future—and their debris in the form of planets. But gradually astronomy had to concede that a number of cosmic phenomena couldn’t be contained within its scheme of things. Man’s hunger for simplicity paved the way for Ockham’s razor, the principle stating that no entity, no category can be multiplied unnecessarily. But the complexity that we refused to acknowledge finally overcame our prejudices. Modern physics has turned Ockham’s maxim upside down by positing that everything is possible. Everything in physics, that is; the complexity of civilizations is far greater than that of physics.

In the world of speculative fiction—and I regard him as more properly a writer of this rather than science fiction—few could approach the Pole in his inventive mind, humor, and psychological acuteness. Among his works that I have enjoyed are the following, all of which are still available in good English translations:

  • The Investigation (1959)
  • Return from the Stars (1961)
  • Solaris (1961), which was made into a great Russian film by Andrei Tarkovsky
  • Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1961)
  • The Futurological Congress (1971)—my favorite among his works
  • Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1973) and More Tales of Pirx the Pilot (1973), published in Poland as a single work
  • One Human Minute (1986)

I see that I have read quite a few of Lem’s work—and at the same time, not nearly enough.


The World of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy

For the last few days, I have been re-reading the last two novels of William Gibson’s sci-fi Sprawl trilogy. The Sprawl is Gibson’s take on how the Boston to Washington DC corridor will develop in time to be the largest urban area in the world. The trilogy consists of:

  • Neuromancer (1984), in which the term cyberspace was first introduced
  • Count Zero (1986)
  • Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988)

The 1980s was a time when the United States was awed by the growth of the Japanese economy. Throughout the trilogy, the yakuza, or Japanese underworld, has a presence—along with Haitian Voodoo gods such as Baron Samedi and Papa Legba, who seem to have taken up residence in cyberspace.

I do not think it is possible to reprise the plot of any of these novels in a coherent way, and I am sure I will forget most of the details within a week or two. What I will not forget, however, is the wild imagination that Gibson displays in his work. For instance, many scenes in Mona Lisa Overdrive take place in a barren New Jersey rust belt area known as Dog Solitude.

One of the difficulties of summarizing any of these novels is that, typically, the action takes place in numerous locales with numerous characters, many of whom have numerous aliases.

For some reason, I have not read any Gibson for a number of years. Now I am hooked again.

(Non) Motion Picture

Scene from Chris Marker’s La Jetée

One of the greatest of all science fiction films is a short consisting of nothing but black and white stills accompanied by a voice-over narration. I am referring to Chris Marker’s La Jetée, which is all of 28 minutes long. And yet for all its uniqueness, the film holds the viewer in its grasp until the last shot (shown above). Following is the film’s plot summary from Wikipedia:

A man (Davos Hanich) is a prisoner in the aftermath of World War III in post-apocalyptic Paris, where survivors live underground in the Palais de Chaillot galleries. Scientists research time travel, hoping to send test subjects to different time periods “to call past and future to the rescue of the present”…. They eventually settle upon the protagonist; his key to the past is a vague but obsessive memory from his pre-war childhood of a woman (Hélène Châtelain) he had seen on the observation platform (“the jetty”) at Orly Airport shortly before witnessing a startling incident there. He did not understand exactly what happened but knew he had seen a man die.

Apparently, motion is not necessary for a successful motion picture. As long as the images grab you, and as long as the story is well crafted, the result can be more than good. It can even be great.

See for yourself. The film is available in its full length on YouTube in French with English subtitles:

Return to Arrakis

This afternoon, I went to the movies to see the new Dune: Part One directed by Denis Villeneuve. I went expecting not to like it, but ended up liking it a lot—but not quite so much as David Lynch’s magnificent 1984 Dune, as fragmentary as it was. What threw me off were all the stills of Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides. I kept saying to myself, “Why, he looks like a whiny little bitch!” In the actual film, he was quite good, at least as good if not better than the wooden Kyle MacLachlan in the David Lynch film.

Where the 1984 Dune came across as fragmentary, Villeneuve’s version plugged many of the gaps, such as the death of Duncan Idaho and the role played by Liet-Kynes, who seems to have changed both gender and race in the new film. (No matter, Sharon Duncan-Brewster was not only stunning: She could act!)

Frank Herbert’s original book is probably the closest the science fiction genre will ever come to a true epic. And as such, it is pretty much unfilmable. The new film does not tell the whole story: It stops just as Paul Atreides and Jessica are accepted by the Fremen, but does not show how Paul and the Fremen defeat the brutal Harkonnens and the whole empire. That was the weakest part of Lynch’s masterpiece, and I suspect that it would take a bit of doing to make it as interesting as Part One.

Whichever version you choose to see, I highly recommend you read the novel first. It is incredibly dense, but it manages to carry you along. To be confronted by the likes of the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, CHOAM, and Tleilaxu Face Dancers without having encountered them in the novel might be a bit much for most viewers. I’ve read the novel three times in the last half century, and I love it—despite its many flaws. As I said, it is probably the closest to an epic that you will ever see in the sci-fi genre.

Space Aliens

Space Aliens at the Roswell, NM, UFO Museum

Let’s face it: Real space aliens—if they exist and they probably do—are probably nothing like this. We have gotten used to these skinny attenuated bipedal creatures who look vaguely humanoid. Life can take many possible forms, especially on planets that are significantly different from Earth.

I have just finished reading a book by Stanisław Lem called The Invincible. I have long thought that the best sci-fi comes from Eastern Europe, particularly Poland and Russia. In the West, we tend to think too much along the same lines; but novels from writers like Lem and the Strugatsky brothers give us a whiff of the alien that is not necessarily tied down to traditional forms.

My Edition of Lem’s The Invincible

For another look at what might be out there, I strongly recommend you read Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic, and see the great film that was based on it: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1982).

Sci-fi that tries to imagine the really alien can be a little frightening, but it can be great!

Radar Men from the Moon

Not a Moon Monster: It’s the Hero, Commando Cody

Thanks to the ’rona quarantine, I have been seeing a lot of movies on television and on my computer. Today, I tipped the scales toward schmaltz by viewing all twelve episodes of a 1952 Republic Studios serial entitled Radar Men from the Moon. It starred George Wallace as the hero, Commando Cody. (It appears that Commando is his first name, not his title, as he is addressed by characters several times as “Commando.”) For me, however, the most interesting character is Clayton Moore, who both before, during, and after the serial played the Lone Ranger on TV with Jay Silverheels as Tonto.

Like the last film I recommended here (Carnival of Souls), Radar Men from the Moon is now in the public domain, so you can find it cheap or free.

Re-Release Poster for Radar Men from the Moon

The funny thing about the serial is that just about everything the would-be moon invaders try is nipped in the bud by Commando Cody. The two failed villains are Clayton Moore as Graber and Bob Stevenson as Daly. None of the Luna-tics seem to be directly involved in anything but giving Graber and Daly new orders, which they invariably fail at.

The moon forces have some spiffy ray guns made with a better-than-uranium element called lunarium (of course) which they use to blow up trains and cause general havoc, mostly in the first episode.

If you watch this serial, you might not want to watch all twelve episodes at once, unless you are very high on something. Better to break it up into multiple sessions as it was originally intended to be seen.

Born in Cleveland

Sci-Fi Writer Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

The city of my birth—Cleveland, Ohio—has given birth to few celebrities. Among actresses, there were the meltingly lovely Halle Berry and Dorothy Dandridge. Among literary figures, there was only one: Science Fiction author Harlan Ellison. During his career, Ellison has won eight Hugo Awards, four Nebula Awards, five Bram Stoker Awards, and two Edgar Awards.

More to the point, he has written some of the most striking and memorable stories in the sci-fi, horror, and mystery genres. These include “’Repent, Harlequin!“ Said the Tick-Tock Man” (1965) and “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1968). He edited two famous sci-fi collections of stories in Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972). And he wrote what was probably the most remembered episode of the original “Star Trek” series entitled “The City on the Edge of Forever” (1967).

Most of his oeuvre consists of short stories which are as eye-popping today as when they first came out. I am slowly working my way through these stories.

This afternoon, I saw a 2007 film by Erik Nelson about the writer entitled Harlan Ellison: Dreams with Sharp Teeth, which includes multiple instances of the author’s abrasive style. During his heyday, that abrasiveness won him many enemies. In the end, however, what will be remembered are his stories.

It’s good to know that at least one great writer came from my home town.



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.