Author: A.A. Kidd

The (other) Conquest of Space

Robert Conquest, one of the greatest and most important historians of the 20th Century, died earlier this week at the age of ninety-nine. His most lasting legacy, of course, was his exposing the fraud of communism to the intelligentsia and the public, although sadly many still remain in denial of his findings regarding Stalin’s body count. I am reasonably certain most readers of this journal are not among those that need to have Conquest’s evidence presented to them; I am in fact quite certain that most of them know his name, and even if they have not had the chance to read his monumental works The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow, have read other credible sources that have cited them as impeccable sources on the topic.

But how many of you are also aware that he was a science fiction fan?

As mentioned near the end of his obituary in the Daily Telegraph, Conquest was an early member of the British Interplanetary Society, persuaded to join by his friend Arthur C. Clarke.  Another close friend was Kingsley Amis, with whom Conquest edited the five-book Spectrum anthology series for Gollancz Publishing; in addition to collecting some of the best science fiction written up to then for British readers, Conquest provided some essays published in the anthologies and elsewhere in which he provided some of the earliest-and strongest-arguments for the already-existing literary merit of the genre. And like Amis, he ventured into SF writing himself, publishing at least one genuine science fiction novel, A World of Difference, in which he “Tuckerized” Clarke as “Sir Arthur, President of the Interplanetary Society.” Perhaps his most lasting legacy to the field was this charming ditty, included in the second volume of Spectrum:

Sf’s no good,”
They bellow till we’re deaf.
“But this looks good.”
“Well then, it’s not sf.”

As revealing as it may be of the attitude towards science fiction by much of the intellectual and literary elites (and is still held by many to this day; try explaining to some people how Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go are full-fledged science fiction, and you’ll get lots of pushback), it is also revealing of the nature of Conquest himself.  Like so many other words and terms, “speaking truth to power” has been badly distorted and stretched so that it has nothing to do with its original meaning; nowadays, it simply means giving people what they want to hear, a complete inversion of its original intent. No matter what the subject he addressed, he was never afraid to speak the actual truth, reveal the actual facts, and use them to form a cogent, fully reasoned argument. We can best carry on his legacy not just by ensuring his books are read and remembered, but by continuing his methods and approach to both the real world and imagined ones alike.

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, Part IV. The Eighties To The Present

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, Part IV. The Eighties To The Present

And now, we complete our list! There are two reasons why I’ve decided to include the Eighties and Nineties together with the 21st century in this compilation of overlooked science fiction films. First of all, it takes time to decide whether or not a film is truly underrated, and the older they are, the greater the danger they have of sinking into completely undeserving obscurity. On the other hand, not only are more recent films still fresh in the memory and more readily available, they also get discussed more, and as a result, it becomes much more difficult to judge whether a film is truly underrated or not; if anything, a recent movie is more likely to be overpraised by audiences. It annoys me when current movies that get plenty of on-line buzz and widespread critical praise are called underrated simply because they were box office disappointments (as with Edge of Tomorrow, a movie I genuinely enjoyed) or the label is applied to under-the-radar releases that primarily played the festival and independent theater circuit to great acclaim and relative financial success (such as Snowpiercer, which I haven’t seen yet).  The films I’ve chosen to spotlight may have cult followings or have been critically lauded, but not to a large or excessive degree. I prefer to label such films as Attack the Block, Upstream Color and Europa Report  as “sleepers,” as I expect they will gain sizable cult followings in the future, at the very least. The two youngest films on my list seems unlikely to do so any time soon, which is why I decided to include them; both are well-made and intelligent enough, however, that they deserve better than obscurity, and there are probably plenty of other movies like them out there.

Secondly, despite all the improvements in effects technology, the science fiction film has not changed much fundamentally since the 1980s. Action films still make up the bulk of the science fiction movies made, and most contemporary major releases do little more than retread old ground. However, one notable change is that over the past two decades, more science fiction films are being made with the intention of being shown to art-house audiences, and ironically, these films which are not made for or marketed to what is now viewed as “typical” science fiction fans bear more resemblance to “real” literary science fiction in terms of basic concepts and ideas. There are also more “independent” science fiction films being made overall, thanks to the new affordability of digital film techniques, and although Sturgeon’s law still applies (many of them lamentably seem to draw their main inspiration from video games), one can find many thoughtful and intelligent science fiction features and shorts legally on YouTube and elsewhere. When it comes to modern SF film, I prefer that which approaches written science fiction in its ideas, themes and treatment of science (I’m particularly fond of the emerging subgenre of “lab-lit” science fiction epitomized by Shane Carruth’s PRIMER and Mike Cahill’s I ORIGINS), and that’s certainly true of most of the films I’ve selected for this list. If you think science fiction movies are synonymous with action scenes or special effects, you’ll likely be disappointed. But if you’re on the lookout for intelligent and thoughtful as well entertaining cinema, you’ll probably enjoy these titles as much as I have.

 

24. ELECTRIC DREAMS

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Thirty years before Spike Jonez made HER, another director best known for his innovative rock videos made a thoroughly beguiling story of the possibilities of love between personal computers and their human users. Directed by Steve Barron, best known at the time for such videos as Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and a-ha’s “Take On Me,” ELECTRIC DREAMS works well enough as a sharp romantic comedy, but it’s equally interesting for its seemingly inadvertent predictions about how home computers would later affect our lives and relationships. Lenny Van Dohlen (later a part of the TWIN PEAKS ensemble cast) is a shy and lonely architect who pines for his lovely new neighbor, professional cellist Virginia Madsen (who wouldn’t get a part nearly this good until SIDEWAYS twenty years later) who lives upstairs from him. At first, Van Dohlen simply uses his computer to play the role of Cyrano de Bergerac to Madsen’s Roxanne, but when the computer gains sentience, an unlikely and very strange love triangle emerges. Beyond the film’s obvious charms (I’m particularly impressed that Barron is able to maintain a light touch even when the story takes dark turns), there’s also some pointed commentary about how we are becoming over-reliant on technology as a means of developing and maintaining our interpersonal relationships, and although I hate the term “even more relevant now” to describe how a story of years past speaks to later audiences (does that mean it wasn’t relevant before?), it has an even greater impact in an era of Internet dating and chatting where texting has replaced casual conversation. Indeed, the film appears to be addressing how the Emerging Computer Age will soon integrate itself into our entire culture and everyday lives, something that’s evident from the opening airport montage of people speaking into headsets, fiddling with wristwatch calculators, playing with remote-control toys, etc. Van Dohlen at first purchases his computer to help him with his conceptual design for a living space, an earthquake-proof building based on the work of M.C. Escher, but it soon connects itself to every appliance in the house in order to exert control over his life. Even the fine arts are not immune to technological change, as demonstrated when the computer courts Madsen through music (a duet between Madsen and the computer is wonderfully photographed and edited, as well as beautifully performed by Madsen). Plus, I have to love any movie that features a clip from THE GIANT CLAW.

 

25. THE QUIET EARTH

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In compiling this list, I’ve tried to avoid movies that pop up repeatedly on other “underrated” lists; can a film really be considered as such if it gets continually held up for praise and attention? However, I’ve made an exception for this movie which seems to be everyone’s favorite “overlooked” science fiction movie, since my reasons for liking it are different from others. The consensus viewpoint seems to be that the film’s first half, in which physicist Bruno Lawrence suddenly wakes up to find himself seemingly the last person left on Earth, is stronger than the second act when he discovers he isn’t as alone as he thought it was. However, I am of the opposite opinion: I found the film’s first act, where Lawrence engages in a series of “one-man shows” in an attempt to hold on to his sanity, to be too obvious and self-conscious but that the movie gets much more interesting when more characters show up and it tries to explain their situation. I find those scenes where Lawrence’s character puts his scientific knowledge and training towards investigating how the world changed particularly engrossing; watching him go through his former workplace and record a monograph on how his research team’s experiments may have altered the constants and parameters of the universe is much more thought-provoking and satisfying than his heavy-handed political theater near the beginning.

 

26. BIG MEAT EATER

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What would happen if you hired They Might Be Giants to make a PG-rated remake of LIQUID SKY? It might look something like this thoroughly charming low-budget Canadian release, which has much of the same sensibility as other homegrown Canadian comedies as THE RED GREEN SHOW and CORNER GAS. Trying to describe the “plot” is pointless, but involves a cheerful butcher store owner who has invented a new universal language; his new employee, a murderous 300-pound jazz vocalist; his friend, a genius amateur scientist who has invented a new rocket fuel and flying car; and wind-up toy aliens who take up residence in the shop. Oh yeah, it’s also a musical with some weird but fun songs that perfectly compliment the overall quirkiness of the project. My favorite is a tribute to chemistry that would make Tom Lehrer proud. One of the cast members, Andrew Gillies, has continued to be visible in Canadian TV and movies, many of them genre-related; most recently, he has been a semi-regular on both ORPHAN BLACK and the TV adaptation of TWELVE MONKEYS.

 

27. NIGHT OF THE COMET

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After the Earth passes through the tail of Hailey’s Comet, mass apocalypse ensues, and the survivors try their best to patch things together. Sure Abel Gance did the same sort of thing in the silent era, but this being the Eighties, the focus is almost entirely on two  suburban California girls, and it’s done with tongue somewhat in cheek. This charming movie has a small and affectionate cult, but I’m surprised it isn’t much bigger and fervent. After all, it’s post-apocalyptic science fiction, it has zombies, it positively drips Eighties all over itself , and it has a strong, Uzi-toting female lead played by Catherine Mary Stewart, in an absolutely terrific performance. You actually wind up caring a lot for the film’s two heroines. I can’t really say I’m part of the film’s cult, as it runs out of gas two-thirds of the way through when it becomes much more conventional with a routine and rather dull government conspiracy subplot taking over and much of the humor being lost. Until then, it’s a very enjoyable, nostalgic product of its time that is both a homage to earlier films and an ahead-of-its time foreshadowing of the directions the genre would take.

 

28. UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD

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Wim Wenders’ “science fiction road movie” disappointed most critics and audiences at the time of its release, as apparently they were expecting another WINGS OF DESIRE (the following year, Wenders gave them exactly that with FAR AWAY…SO CLOSE!…and no one liked that movie much either). Although they admired the ambition of a nearly three-hour long movie filmed on four continents, many found that its extreme length and range of locales worked against it, as it required viewers to try to sort out the story at the same time they were trying to figure out what Wenders was trying to say, and they weren’t willing to watch such a long movie multiple times to do so (similar criticisms have been leveled against Andrei Tarkovsky’s science fiction classics SOLARIS and STALKER).  Worse yet, they found it difficult to penetrate the motivations of the main characters, even though they were played by such first-rate talents as William Hurt, Max von Sydow, and the late Solveig Dommartin.  Since then, we’ve had our fill of so many “globetrotting” movies that try to span so many different locales and periods while juggling multiple themes and storylines (including science fiction films such as CLOUD ATLAS and THE FOUNTAIN), that Wenders’ film no longer comes off as difficult as it once seemed to be. Instead, rewatching the film reveals that it is quite coherent both thematically and storywise; I’m particularly impressed by how the two major science fiction plot devices, that of a nuclear satellite that has fallen out of orbit and threatens environmental disaster and the von Sydow character’s experiments in trying to restore vision and record dreams electronically, both wind up being relevant to each other and eventually come together by the end. The worldwide nature of Wenders’ film also no longer seems like a gimmick, but essential to film’s major themes of how to facilitate human communication and understanding in an era of global social and technological change. The often-controversial but always-thoughtful Kyle Smith has recently written an excellent appraisal and appreciation of the film. It should finally be noted that this has one of the best soundtracks ever for a science fiction film and U2, then at their creative peak, provided a great theme song.

 

29. THE ARRIVAL

Airdate: Saturday, December 12 on NBC (8-11 p.m. ET) THE ARRIVAL -- NBC Theatrical -- Pictured: Charlie Sheen as Zane Zaminski -- Photo: Live Entertainment/Orion

The feature directorial debut of screenwriter David Twohy received highly variable reviews and was a box-office washout upon its initial release in 1996. I saw it in theaters in its first week, loved it, and fully expected it to at least become a cult classic, but that hasn’t happened, at least not yet. Although there is is the usual awkward moment here and there that usually accompanies a sophomore directorial venture (Twohy had already directed a TV movie, DISASTER IN TIME, adapted from C.L. Moore’s classic novella “Vintage Season”) and Charlie Sheen does his eye-bugging routine a little too often, it’s still an excellent film, much better than the same year’s more expensive and financially lucrative INDEPENDENCE DAY, and definitely a more intelligent one. Made when the X-FILES was at the peak of its popularity, Twohy’s film actually owes more to classic alien invasion films of the Fifties and Nigel Kneale’s QUATERMASS series of TV serials and their film remakes (especially QUATERMASS II). What I particularly enjoy about the film is how it juggles a wide variety of science fiction concepts to advance the plot, while maintaining a firm and credible use of actual science to keep the story rooted in reality. One of my favorite moments is when the frustrated Sheen (who to be fair is excellent in much of the film) is on the phone trying to explain the differences between sidereal time and geosynchronous orbit to his boss (the late, great Ron Silver) only to get cut off.  It’s just a brief moment that demonstrates that Twohy really knows his science and doesn’t need to go into tiresome exposition to impress us with this fact. Unfortunately, Twohy’s subsequent directorial career has been disappointing (I had high hopes that PITCH BLACK would be a similar hard SF thriller, with its premise reminiscent of Hal Clement’s CYCLE OF FIRE and Poul Anderson’s FIRE TIME, but halfway through, it became just another ALIENS clone), but hopefully, he will fulfill his promise yet someday.

30. THE WILD BLUE YONDER

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Werner Herzog came late to making a science fiction film, long after genre entries by fellow “West German New Wave” directors Wim Wenders and Rainer Fassbinder (the TV serial WORLD ON A WIRE), and when he did, he made one that was uniquely his. An intense, pony-tailed Brad Dourif plays an alien originally from a “blue planet” orbiting Alpha Centurai (or so he says) who tells the story of how his people came to Earth in a failed attempt to make a new home, and then how he had to watch helplessly as the natives of Earth mirrored them in trying to leave their polluted planet for the world he himself abandoned, a mission that according to him will only prove to be as quixotic as those of the protagonists of Herzog’s masterpieces, AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD and FITZCARALDO. As with Herzog’s other films, the lines between fiction and the real (natural) world are blurred. Dourif’s tale is visualized through some brilliant editing of NASA archival footage, some breathtaking original documentary film of the ocean depths beneath the Antarctic ice shelf to depict the alien planet that Dourif supposedly comes from, and even some interviews with scientists on the subject of space exploration. Although some of the footage (especially that aboard the space shuttle) goes on for too long, it remains involving throughout, thanks both to Herzog’s direction and the captivating performance by Dourif. The main message of the film is one that some science fiction fans will nonetheless object to, that this planet must be taken care of and understood before we can be called responsible enough to venture further into space (there is the implication that Herzog is also calling out non-manned missions as well), but there is a less questionable underlying secondary theme, which is that The Alien is Where You Find It. It’s a theme that recurs in much of the best science fiction as well as throughout Herzog’s oeuvre.

 

31. FLATLAND

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Most science fiction movies have difficulty fulfilling their promise, but this one fulfills several of them  beautifully: it’s the successful adaptation of a classic story in the genre; uses CGI to tell a story and create a new world instead of simply trying to awe its audience; and tries to use the genre as a vehicle for discussing and dealing with ideas in a thoughtful and original way. Hewing quite closely to the original story by Edwin Abbott for the most part, writer-director Ladd Ehlinger manages to create a fully-realized visualization of both the titular two-dimensional world and its three-dimensional counterpart on a budget that wouldn’t buy a spare microchip at Pixar. The film is not only great-looking but fascinating to listen to, as the characters discuss philosophy, epistemology and ontology, and after it’s done, you’ll find yourself actively thinking about subjects you usually wouldn’t expect from watching a movie, such as, say, the role of axiomatic argument in both geometry and legislation. An added plus is that the updates and modifications to the original story by Ehlinger build upon and elaborate upon themes and social commentary in the original Abbott book, while adding a new pro-science twist (reminiscent in some ways of Hal Clement’s MISSION OF GRAVITY, which itself has been called a variation on FLATLAND).  In the two-dimensional Flatland, quasi-religious or theological dogma has placed limits on scientific progress, as has historically been the case; on the other hand, the 3-D world exists on a higher plane, where the anti-science movement is the result of government bureaucracy and anti-capitalist hysteria, reflecting modern social movements and trends. A well-known conservative-libertarian activist in real life, Ehlinger provides a trenchant critique of how ignorance and arrogance from all across the political spectrum limits scientific and independent thought, and impedes the conceptual breakthroughs that keep a civilization vibrant and dynamic. Ehlinger’s follow-up film HIVEMIND was even more overtly political, and unfortunately, as a result did not get a proper release (as well as a predictably vicious review in VARIETY that was utterly appalled at the audacity of a right-of-center film maker expressing his views). Once again, I’m hoping that an extremely talented and intelligent director gets his shot at making a movie worthy of his abilities someday.

 

 

32. ASTRONAUT: THE LAST PUSH

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If you loved INTERSTELLAR, EUROPA REPORT, GRAVITY and other entries in the current trend of “hard science fiction” films about space, then this one is a must-see,  even though it was made at only a fraction of their cost. It  features top-notch effects work, and not only does it succeed at conveying scientific detail and technical realism, but is also suffused with a genuine Sense of Wonder, despite concentrating on a single character on one set. Made partially in the pseudo-documentary style of EUROPA REPORT by director and screenwriter Eric Hayden, and similarly dealing with the first manned mission to that particular Jovian moon, it focuses on one astronaut’s attempt to both survive and hold on to his sanity in his confined quarters when the mission goes wrong.  Lead actor and story co-writer Khary Payton (a voice actor some of you will immediately recognize as Cyborg from the TEEN TITANS animated series, and who has since become a regular cast member on THE WALKING DEAD) is excellent as the titular astronaut, who starts out already weary from global attention, builds in frustration as he struggles to survive both mentally and physically, and learns to embrace his role not just as a pioneer but as an ambassador for humanity worldwide. Best of all, it gives the great Lance Henriksen one of his best roles in years, as the philanthropist who funds the mission; his character owes more to Fred Kavli than Richard Branson or Elon Musk, and is played totally sympathetically and compassionately. In fact, the film, much like DESTINATION MOON, also raises important questions about private vs. public financing of space travel (“It takes NASA at least a year to pass gas” snorts Henriksen early on).  If you’re looking for a film that approaches the best written SF in respecting both the science involved and the audience’s intelligence, then this labor of love is worth watching out for while you’re waiting for THE MARTIAN.

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: The Sixties and the Seventies

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: The Sixties and the Seventies

As we move into the Sixties and Seventies, you’ll notice that we’ve dropped in the number of films selected, from ten to seven. Unfortunately, the science fiction boom of the Fifties crested by the early Sixties, and the number of films being made by American studios plummeted; it’s not a coincidence that the bulk of the movies selected for this article came from outside the United States. 1968 then saw the release of two landmark films: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and PLANET OF THE APES. Not only did they help to revive adult-oriented science fiction as a viable genre, but they demonstrated for the studios that they could make back their investment in a big-budget science fiction film. A big-budget boom did not truly begin until STAR WARS was released in 1977. On the positive side, in demonstrating that they could make back their investment not once but many times over, it convinced the studios to produce far more SF films than any time since the late Fifties. On the downside, history repeated itself as they wound up orienting their output towards principally juvenile audiences, and became more concerned with the exploitable and profitable aspects than with artistic quality. Consequently, a very narrow conception of the genre emerged, one that unfortunately persists to this day.

It must also be said that as we enter the Seventies and beyond, it becomes increasingly difficult to think of genuinely underrated science fiction movies. As Danny Peary explained in the introductions to his legendary Cult Movies books on why he limited the number of science fiction and horror films in each volume: nearly every science fiction film has a cult or at least a coterie of admirers of some sort, and that’s especially true of those made in the past forty or thirty years. Yeah, ZARDOZ and THE BLACK HOLE have fans, but there is no way that they can be considered “underrated” by any yardstick. I also left off THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, two of my very favorite science fiction films. They may seem underrated because they don’t get discussed as much as they should, but are still well known and extremely well-respected by most fans.

So what does that leave us? Well….

17. UNEARTHLY STRANGER

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Although Great Britain had made science fiction films since the beginning of the 1950s it wasn’t until Hammer released the feature film version of Nigel Kneale’s THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT that the UK experienced a science fiction boom of their own. At their best, they followed in the tradition of the Quatermass serials in creating thoughtful stories with novel plot devices unlike anything found in American films of the era. UNEARTHLY STRANGER is a unique, haunting movie totally unlike any other made in either country at the time. John Neville, an Anglo-Canadian stage legend forever immortalized as Baron Munchhausen in Terry Gilliam’s film, is a scientist working on a research project involving space travel through astral projection (don’t worry, it’s essential to the plot), and several of his colleagues have mysteriously died from massive brain aneurysms. Could Neville’s “Swiss” wife be linked to them? Well, if you’ve ever read Richard Matheson’s short story “First Anniversary” you may figure it out early on, but the fine performances and intriguing ideas will keep you watching anyways, and there are some startling camera angles and editing effects that help to create the intended feeling of unease, that something from beyond has intruded into our reality. The most startling sequences feature the wife (Gabriela Licudi) who not only sleeps with her eyes open and can touch a hot stove without flinching, but whose very presence has a strange effect on children.

18. IKARIE XB-1

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Science fiction also proved to be a popular genre behind the Iron Curtain, with Eastern Europe being a prolific purveyor of the genre for many years. The former Soviet Union, East Germany and Poland made the most science fiction films (often co-productions between two or three countries), but nearly every former Communist Bloc country-Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, even Bulgaria- produced at least one science fiction film. Yet one country stood out not just as a prolific source of SF cinema but for the sheer quality of its output: the former Czechoslovakia turned out some of the best science fiction films of the Sixties and Seventies, even if most of them went unseen outside the borders of the Warsaw Pact countries. A few managed to escape, and Karel Zeman’s great fantastic films, which combined live-action with every conceivable form of animation have enchanted audiences worldwide since the mid-Fifties. However, since Zeman’s films are not only well-acclaimed here (mostly by animation aficionados) and are as much genre hybrids of science fiction and fantasy as they are of technique, I have chosen instead to spotlight a “harder” science fiction film that deserves more attention. IKARIE XB-1 is one of the best space movies ever made, and while it may not be as acclaimed as either 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or SOLARIS, it still deserves priority as a “thinking person’s” science fiction film that used its space setting for the purposes of drama and thematic relevance, not just for audience thrills.

Curiously enough, although it has the distinct look of a European film (the cinematography reminds me of Sven Nykvist’s work for Ingmar Bergman films of the period) and an episodic story structure that is at odds with conventional Western notions of narrative, it nonetheless has a premise more redolent of American pulp science fiction than that associated with Eastern Bloc science fiction (even though it was adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel THE MAGELLANIC CLOUD).  Set on a giant spaceship destined for colonization of a planet in Alpha Centurai, the storyline has no real plot beyond focusing on the personal conflicts and crises of those involved, making it seem even like a literal adaption of an American “paste-up” novel.  It’s quite reminiscent of Robert A. Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, itself a paste-up of two novellas originally serialized in Astounding Science Fiction. The comparison to the pulps should be viewed as a compliment as it evokes a similar Sense of Wonder in its best scenes: the spaceship circling an abandoned vessel in space; the shots of the “Black Sun” (a Karel Capek reference?), a star that spews lethal radiation that threatens the hundred or so voyagers; a lonely robot, calling out for its owner as it rolls through empty hallways; and the great final scene, which alas was cut out by AIP, the film’s American distributors. In its place, they substituted a stock cliche ending (think the Twilight Zone episode “Third from the Sun” or one-fourth of the endings of EC’s science fiction comics) that makes you want to kick in the screen. Fortunately, Sinister Cinema has issued a special edition double DVD set containing both the original Czech film and the American edit (entitled VOYAGE TO THE END OF THE UNIVERSE).

19. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES

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Mario Bava is deservedly acclaimed as one of the finest horror directors of all time, but he worked in other genres as well, giving them his own unique stylistic touch. Hercules in the Haunted World is easily the best “sword and sandal” film I have ever seen, and Diabolik is one of the better “Swinging Super-Spy” movies of the late Sixties. To top it all off, Bava’s Planet of the Vampires is probably the best Italian science fiction film ever made. Although I admit that Antonio Margheritti’s Battle of the Worlds and Wild Wild Planet are probably my favorite SF films to come out of the country, they probably count as “guilty pleasures” more than anything else, given that I’m quite alone in my affection for them. On the other hand, I’m surprised Bava’s science fiction film has a mixed reputation. There’s a great divide among American science fiction fans (most of whom dislike Italian science fiction films of the Sixties, although they’ll readily concede that they’re better than the innumerable Star Wars and Road Warrior rip-offs that would come out of the country in subsequent decades) regarding the film’s merits, many admiring Bava’s characteristic style and visual invention, while others find it ponderous and dull. I personally find the film fascinating. Yes, it’s deliberately paced, but I find that works in the its favor as it takes its time to reveal itself without relying on long passages of expository dialogue. That the movie manages to do so speaks volumes about Bava’s skill at telling his story as much as his ability as dressing it up. It’s one of the the most visually evocative and haunting science fiction films until Alien was released, and while the story similarities are likely a coincidence, the fact that Carlo Rambaldi worked on both films helps to explain some of the visual likenesses.  If you’ve only seen it on TV before, pick up the DVD or Blu-Ray for a rich visual and aural experience.

20. ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS

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Jess Franco is a horror director I place several (OK, many) notches below Bava on the quality scale. Still, I must be fair and concede that while he made too many awful films (with a resume as vast as his, you’re bound to miss your aim more often than not), and I’m repelled by the content in many of them (particularly his later oeuvre) he doesn’t deserve the “Worst Director of All Time” monicker some have attached to him. He certainly isn’t the worst horror director, not as long as prints of H.G. Lewis and Andy Milligan films still exist, and he isn’t even the worst prolific director, a dubious title that Joe D’Amato deserves far more. And at his best, he’s genuinely good. ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS is a an entertaining hybrid of the spy film and science fiction, and while most of the innumerable James Bond rip-offs of the Sixties had some science fiction content (particularly as they became more prominent in the Bond films themselves), they usually pushed it to the margins.  Not this film, which owes as much to the German Dr. Mabuse films of the Sixties as it does to Bond; the “robots” of the title (really people placed under artificial mind control) are central to the plot. It also helps that it stars the always-engaging Eddie Constatine, who became a superstar in Europe as a result of movies like this one, and a genuinely witty script by Jean-Claude Carriere, shortly to gain worldwide acclaim for his Luis Bunuel scripts and is still actively working today…and a recent winner of an Lifetime Achievement Oscar! Although hardly representative of most of Franco’s oeuvre, fans of his will recognize similarities to some of his earlier films, specifically THE DIABOLICAL DR. Z and DR.ORLOFF’S MONSTER and if you’re not a fan of Franco but still want to see one of his films in the name of completion, I recommend this one.

21. THE MIND OF MR. SOAMES

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Charles Eric Maine was a surprising choice for a science fiction writer to have so many of his books adapted to the movies, but no less than three were made in the Fifties: SPACEWAYS, THE ATOMIC MAN and THE ELECTRONIC MONSTER, none of which live up to their compelling titles. The film version of his novel THE MIND OF MR. SOAMES was made much later in 1970 and is by far the best adaptation of his work. A problem with the other movies based on Maine’s work is that if they fall into any subgenre, it’s so-called “mundane science fiction”-both literally and figuratively. Although the premise of MR.SOAMES is the least far-fetched of the four, dealing as it does with a man (the always-exceptional Terence Stamp) who has been revived from a coma he has been in since birth thanks to an advanced operation, it develops it in a most intriguing fashion. Stamp is superb in a difficult part (unlike some performances by actors in similar roles, there is no attempt ever by Stamp to overplay or exaggerate his character’s mental state or to play for sympathy), and he’s complimented by almost-as-good turns by Nigel Davenport and a bearded Robert Vaughn as his doctors. Incidentally, this is also probably the best movie ever produced by horror specialists Amicus Productions.

22. I KILLED EINSTEIN, GENTLEMEN

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Once again we return to Czechoslovakia but for a very different type of science fiction film, a time-travel comedy that’s as enjoyable as the BACK TO THE FUTURE series and also plays wittily with time paradoxes, but is much more biting and political in its satire. By the late Sixties, a Czech New Wave had emerged in the nation’s cinema, that offered some of the most stinging rebukes to communism and socialism in the film world. Many delightful and wonderfully entertaining SF comedies came out of the country during this period: MISTER YOU ARE A WIDOWER, DINNER FOR ADELE and possibly the best of them all, WHO KILLED JESSE? All of them are pretty great, but I’m singling out I KILLED EINSTEIN because it has received the least attention; certainly a title that suggests the murder of not just one of the greatest scientists who ever lived but also one of history’s great humanitarians may make many apprehensive about watching it.  The Overlook Science Fiction Encyclopedia in fact outright panned the film, being aghast at the idea of blaming Einstein for the atomic bomb, although they were missing the whole point. The precise target of the film are those who blame science and technology as well as scientists themselves for disasters that are the result of poorly-thought out political decisions. The political satire is very much in the Czech tradition of Karel Capek’s science fiction work as well as the anti-authoritarian films of Milos Forman and Vera Chytilova, taking on both the anti-intellectualism of totalitarian societies (numerous communist governments had banned the teaching of relativity and quantum physics for going against Marxist principles), and the absurdity of government solutions. It also features one of the best and most accurate depictions of Albert Einstein (wonderfully played by Petr Cepek) in the movies, and is one of the few to acknowledge that he accomplished his greatest work while still a young man. Movies like this one make me understand why the Czechs loved Frank Zappa.

23. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE

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I’m as surprised as you are to see this one listed here. For once thing, not only am I definitely not a Star Trek fan, but for many years, annoyance with the show’s obsessive cult kept me from fully enjoying it. I actually quit reading STARLOG magazine in the early Nineties when their overwhelming coverage of the franchise at the expense of all other facets of fandom just grew too ridiculous for me to handle. However, over the past few years, I’ve started to warm ever-so-slightly to the original series. While its cult certainly hasn’t died down, both the lack of a new TV series for a now quite-long period of time as well as reruns of the earlier series becoming less ubiquitous in a changing TV landscape has helped make it seem less in-your-face obnoxious. I can understand now why science fiction fans who weren’t necessarily fans of SF films or television nonetheless loved the show. Normally, it annoys me when TV or movies recycle ideas that have been used umpteen times by science fiction writers, but I don’t mind it all with this particular franchise, since they not only seem essential in building the setting and developing the plots, but there is no attempt to sell them as daring or original. It just accepts them as a necessary component of the architecture.

I’ve also manage to warm-up somewhat to the film franchise as well, and this movie in particular. Yes it was critically lambasted upon initial release, but I think Roger Ebert (who liked the film with reservations) was correct when he said that over-familiarity with the main characters helped work against its acceptance by the public at the time, as it initially seemed incongruous seeing them transplanted to a big-budget setting. Ironically, the biggest complaint by fans at the time was that it was too familiar, with a plot redolent of too many episodes of the TV show…so make up your minds, dammit! Had it been made without them, it may have been recognized as a noble attempt to make a genuine actual-to-goodness science fiction film instead of yet another action flick or feature-length special effects reel made in a crass attempt to cash in on the success of STAR WARS. All the same, it probably wouldn’t have worked as well if the film didn’t have such beloved characters that had been well-developed over the course of the series; seen today, it’s easier to embrace the film’s fantastic events since we are experiencing them through individuals who have been developed even further in the cinematic universe, so we can easier relate to their feelings of awe and danger. Of course, the director’s cut is a massive improvement over not only the original theatrical edit, but the television one as well, which featured what may very well be the worst print transfer of any big-budget movie.

As we conclude our look at the Sixties and Seventies, it’s probably best to quote from Dick DeBartolo and Mort Drucker’s MAD MAGAZINE parody of ST:TMP:

KIRK: Spock, did we just witness the beginning of a new life form?

SPOCK: No Captain, we witnessed the beginning of a new motion picture form where the special effects are ten times more interesting than the people, the plot and the dialogue!

Just a simple of way saying…we wrap up with the Eighties and Afterwards next week!

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, PART II-The Fifties

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, PART II-The Fifties

When coming up with a list of favorite or best science fiction films of the 1950s, a half-dozen indisputable classics almost always show up: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL , THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD,  FORBIDDEN PLANET, THEM, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. The decade also saw the release of several second-tier classics: THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, WAR OF THE WORLDS, GODZILLA: KING OF MONSTERS, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE,  INVADERS FROM MARS, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE, THE FLY, DESTINATION MOON,  2,000 LEAGUES BENEATH THE SEA, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE,  and the first two QUATERMASS films. While not necessarily great films like the first six, they nonetheless range in quality from excellent to very good, and are worthy of their reputations. However, there are other movies made from the decade that are just as good but often overlooked, not just by general audiences, but by avowed science fiction fans as well. It is usually only the most devoted and well-read fan who is aware of them and actively seeks them out, and unfortunately, they tend to be an older demographic whose numbers are dwindling.

Fortunately, both DVD and channels such as Turner Classic Movies have helped keep many of these movies alive and available for younger viewers to discover and enjoy. All the films listed are available on DVD (and in some instances, Blu-Ray as well), and the curious viewer will be well rewarded if he or she seeks them out. Continuing from where we left off from the last post, here are my Top Ten underrated science fiction films from the Fifties:

 

7. THE MAN FROM PLANET X

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1951 was a landmark year for the science fiction film with the release of both THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, two genuine classics that not only influenced the genre output of the rest of the decade but continue to do so to this day. It can be plausibly argued that any subsequent treatment of the topic of extraterrestrial life in the American cinema has merely been a variation of either film.   Made and released in the same year, THE MAN FROM PLANET X is not quite on their high level, but it’s nonetheless a fine movie that’s worthy of further study in its own right. For once thing, the film’s treatment of the “First Contact” scenario between humans and alien is quite intriguing, with an aura of mystery and ambivalence that makes for an interesting comparison with the other two movies. It’s also one of the best movies by the legendary director Edgar Ulmer, and I actually like it more than his more acclaimed DETOUR and BLUEBEARD.  If you’ve ever wondered why Ulmer has such a cult, this movie goes a long way to help one understand why, as it’s wonderfully atmospheric and very stylized in its photography and set design, much like Ulmer’s THE BLACK CAT. It can actually be viewed as a intermediate species between the horror films of the Thirties and Forties and the science fiction films that would in turn dominate the Fifties. For that reason, I especially recommend it to fans of classic horror who aren’t necessarily science fiction fans as well.

 

8. THE MAGNETIC MONSTER

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If 1951 was the year the SF cinema broke, 1953 was the year it exploded. That year saw the release of such classics as WAR OF THE WORLDS, INVADERS FROM MARS, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, DONOVAN’S BRAIN and THE BEAST FROM 2,000 FATHOMS. My personal favorite from this year is one of the few genuine “hard science fiction films,” the Ivan Tors production THE MAGNETIC MONSTER, a movie that does for physics what THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN did for biology. The monster of the title is actually a new form of matter (a magnetic monopole, as it turns out) created in a cyclotron that threatens to destroy the world through a chain reaction when it is found that it periodically “feeds” on nearby matter, converting it into energy, and that this process increases by the inverse cube. Yes, it’s fanciful, but no more so than the conspiracy scenario (I refuse to misuse the word “theory) continually thrown-up by today’s scientific illiterates of particle accelerators destroying the world by creating an artificial black-hole or “strange matter” (which the hungry isotope in the movie actually resembles in its hypothetical properties). The story is made believable through the use of credible science to provide a technical background for its fantastic elements and a documentary-style realism to the proceedings, not unlike that of the similarly- plotted PANIC IN THE STREETS. It also helps that the hero is played by Richard Carlson, the second-best (after Kenneth Tobey) recurring lead actor in Fifties science fiction films. Carlson was especially good in challenging roles as scientists and other experts, always coming across that he both knew what he was doing and knew what he was talking about.   Watch it as part of a double bill with either X THE UNKNOWN or THE MONOLITH MONSTERS to see how a similar premise can be handled differently but no less effectively.

 

9. THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT

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This is a certified classic, one of the finest of the marvelous Ealing Studios comedies of the era that starred Alec Guinness, so why is it on this list? While it’s been hailed as a comic masterpiece and a stinging satire on both management and labor alike, it’s less widely recognized as a great science fiction film, even though it most certainly is one. No less an SF luminary than Ben Bova has named it his favorite science fiction movie of all time, and it’s easy to understand why: it takes on all the challenges that good science fiction tries to do, and does a superlative job at each of them. The film credibly portrays a possible scientific or technological advance (in this case, an indestructible fabric that repels all dirt and stains), plausibly portrays the possible social consequences of such an invention (which involves the attempts of rival businesses and manufacturing unions to suppress it because of their fears such an innovation will destroy them) and most importantly yet not as often discussed, the effects such a discovery has on the characters involved. Guinness plays a chemist and inventor who in many ways is very much like Tony Stark, Marvel’s Iron Man. He wraps himself with his own invention because he is defined by his science, and does not fully consider the ethical or social consequences of his work, or the dangers to himself from not doing so. It’s not just one of the funniest comedies of the era, but one of the most intelligent as well.

 

9. THIS ISLAND EARTH

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There was once a time when this would be ranked among the classics or near-classics but thanks to MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 THE MOVIE, its reputation has dropped precipitously and unfairly so. Now don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoy MST3K myself, but if you’ve only seen this movie through it, then you haven’t really seen it all. Not only do the jokes run non-stop over the dialogue, but at least a third of the original film has been cut out! Unfortunately, many have indeed decided to judge the film this way, and consider it to be a bad film just because a couple of puppets told them so (mind you, these are the same people who uncritically obsess over genuinely awful contemporary movies and TV shows). This is in spite of the fact that it has one of the most sophisticated plots for an American science fiction film of the era, is one of the best adapted from written source material (in this case, Raymond F. Jones’s novella  “The Alien Machine”), and along with FORBIDDEN PLANET is the film that comes closest to the actual literary science fiction of the period (the original story had been published in Astounding Science Fiction). It’s also been more influential than you might think: the fondly-remembered THE LAST STARFIGHTER obviously borrowed its main premise from it,  Weird Al Yankovic has featured an Interocitor in UHF and at least one of his videos, and a clip from the movie even played on the TV in ET: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL.  Alas, not only has its reputation suffered from studio-sanctioned heckling, but the official DVD doesn’t even do this intelligent and imaginative movie justice (how many other films know what a Rydberg atom is, much less incorporate them in its set design?), as the picture has been panned-and-scanned and some scenes show more dirt and damage than they should. This is really inexcusable, especially since it’s been shown letterboxed whenever I’ve seen it played on TV. Adding even further insult to injury, there are no extras on the disc…but the Blu-Ray of MST3K THE MOVIE does feature a half-hour documentary on the making of THIS ISLAND EARTH! In spite of this, I still recommend the DVD of THIS ISLAND EARTH, just to watch it un-riffed; it’s a thoughtful and thematically rich film that even manages to be touching in its final moments. I also recommend buying the MST3K disc for the documentary…that and “Ladies and gentlemen, A Flock of Seagulls!”

 

11. THE WEREWOLF

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I’ve always found werewolf movies to be particularly scary, probably because they so perfectly integrate the main components of both types of horror: the breakdown of the laws of nature that lies at the heart of dark fantasy and the disintegration of the human psyche that is at the core of psychological horror. Watching someone turn into a monster is terrifying enough but their mental reversion into a feral state just adds further chills. THE WEREWOLF (1957) is a particularly interesting example of this subgenre by providing a scientific basis for lycanthropy, as did Jack Williamson’s novel DARKER THAN YOU THINK. The titular lycanthrope has been the unwitting victim of experiments by a pair of well-meaning but ethically challenged doctors with the goal of improving the human survival instinct (an almost identical premise to the following year’s I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF) resulting in his periodic transformation into a murderous beast. As noted in Phil Hardy’s OVERLOOK ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION, it’s historically significant in that it marks the moment that horror began to reassert itself after SF’s domination throughout the decade, but the science fiction elements still predominate: not only are the normally supernatural plot elements explained through quasi-scientific means, but so is the theme of psychological descent into madness as well. The movie was directed by Fred Sears, who also made THE GIANT CLAW, and while that movie is my favorite of his, THE WEREWOLF is probably his best. They’re both available together on a DVD set with two other Sam Katzman productions, the watchable but unremarkable CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN and the deadly dull ZOMBIES OF MORA-TU.

 

12. THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD

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Of all the giant monster movies released during the decade, this one is my personal favorite. It’s one of the few that seemed to really learn the lessons provided by THEM! on how to make an effective film in the genre, and while watching it, you may be reminded of some later scenes in JAWS as well. Director Arnold Laven had already made a name for himself as a director of hard-hitting crime dramas and thrillers and he put his skills at maintaining realism and building suspense to good use for this genre turn. Fine performances are provided by the entire cast, headlined by Tim Holt as the Colonel and Hans Conreid as The Scientist, both of whom play fully-rounded human beings instead of the stereotypes you’re probably expecting. The monster itself, (it’s called a mollusk but it’s really more like a giant predatory sea louse) is an extremely effective and mostly convincing animatronic creation. Finally, the excellent script by Pat Fielder turns most of the then-established cliches of the genre upside-down and makes us care about all the characters. It’s surprising that this particularly well-written entry into the Fifties Monster Rally has seemingly received little to  no feminist attention, as not only is it one of the few such movies of the decade to be written by a woman, but it provides a strong central female character played by Audrey Dalton. Dalton plays a secretary and single mother who is believably strong, smart and capable,  and she winds up being the character most of us, regardless of age or gender, wind up identifying with the most. A Korean War widow who as had to juggle being both a mother to her daughter and working a full-time job (a situation many women of the time were in, but a fact that popular culture rarely acknowledged), she winds up having to provide emotional support to all the other characters in their moments of crisis. In fact, a fascinating “mother motif” runs throughout the entire movie. In addition to Dalton, the female characters also include her daughter, who has a maternal attitude towards animals (when she looks for her lost ladybug, we instantly think of the old schoolyard chant), the mother of a victim, who had been very strict and possessive towards her daughter; the pregnant wife of one of Conried’s co-workers, and a switchboard operator who is constantly being badgered by her mother. Even the titular monster can be viewed as just an overprotective parent instictively attacking those who would harm its offspring. It’s available on DVD as part of a double feature with another surprisingly effective sleeper from the era, IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE.

 

13. THE INVISIBLE BOY

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Ever finish watching a movie and then find yourself saying “damn, why isn’t this better known?” That was my reaction after watching this charming and engaging follow-up to FORBIDDEN PLANET which moves Robbie the Robot front-and center, co-starring with the very likeable Richard Eyer (best remembered for playing the Genie in THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD) who plays the titular transparent lad. In addition to robots and invisibility, a whole host of other SF conventions (I also refuse to misuse the word “trope”) come into play: a mad supercomputer, artificially-accelerated intelligence, time travel, space travel and mind-control cybernetics. Although it’s more obviously made for children than its progenitor, there’s also a layer of social commentary underneath that helps make it watchable for adults as well. It’s available as an extra on the  FORBIDDEN PLANET 50th Anniversary Special Edition DVD.

 

14. THE 27th DAY

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Political biases can also play big role in why a movie gets underappreciated, especially as they change over time. THE 27TH DAY has received some exceptionally hostile, even savage attacks that don’t reflect on the actual quality of the film. Its critics are appalled by the portrayal of communist leaders as brutal dictators and the suggestion that things would be improved if communism not only went into the ash heap of history, but was rendered one itself. Because we all know that communism was a simply a noble idea that never had a real chance, and its adherents were all just good people who tried to make a better world, right? Never mind the one hundred million dead bodies….Anyways, this story of five individuals from five different countries who are literally given the power of life and death by an alien visitor and are challenged to use it is a very thoughtful and sober work, not at all “paranoid,” “hysterical” or “extremist” as its detractors claim. It takes its “What If-?” scenario and convincingly demonstrates how it would affect all sorts of relationships, both interpersonal and international. Although the ending is a little too pat and convenient, watching the characters wrestle with the ethical dilemmas handed to them makes for fascinating viewing. It’s the science fiction equivalent of TWELVE ANGRY MEN.

 

15. THE 4-D MAN

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Here’s another one that has slipped through the cracks, so to speak. One of the most offbeat and unique science fiction films of the decade, it was the second by Irwin Yeaworth, who had previously helmed THE BLOB. While that film is a certified cult classic, I consider THE 4-D MAN to be even better, a more accomplished and assured work as well as a decidedly more mature one. What really helps to make this a solid (pun intended) piece of work is the superb performance in the title role by Robert Lansing, one of the decade’s best for a science fiction film. Lansing is completely sympathetic and believable as a dedicated physicist who is coming apart over the stresses of both his workplace and personal life but then accidentally gains the ability to walk through walls and whatnot. At first he revels in this ability, only to be horrified by its side effects on both himself and others. Although the premise itself is highly unlikely to say the least, and the explanation for it largely nonsense, the film nonetheless manages to be quite involving, not just through the excellent performances by the entire cast (which in addition to Lansing include Lee Meriwether,  Robert Strauss, Edgar Stehli and a very young Patty Duke) but by its realistic depiction of scientists at work. The scientists are presented as people like anyone else, and their profession is shown to involve a tremendous amount of hard work that takes not days but months or years to complete. Experiments don’t always work the first time and must be repeated and replicated before they are accepted, and there is much internal conflict over who gets credit and who gets funding and workspace. The interesting depiction of both science and scientists is something it shares with many of the other films selected for this list. I also love Ralph Carmichael’s jazzy score; some dislike it and consider it inappropriate, but I think it perfectly suits such an offbeat and unique entry in the genre. I particularly like the tune that plays while Lansing strolls down the street at night, testing his new-found abilities, as well as the theme used for the nifty Norman McLaren-style animated opening credits.

 

16. BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE

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Ishiro Honda was Japan’s most prolific director of science fiction films and certainly the best known in the West, almost entirely on the basis of GODZILLA and subsequent entries in Toho Studio’s dakaiju films. However he directed a wide variety of films in the genre featuring a diverse array of plots and themes that reveal Honda to be an extremely versatile as well as talented helmer of SF subject matter: THE MYSTERIANS, ATRAGON, THE H-MAN, THE HUMAN VAPOR, MATANGO, GORATH and the entry on this list, BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE. I have chosen this film specifically because it seems to be the most neglected of Honda’s science fiction films, in spite of being one of his finest genre contributions. Possibly, the lack of a monster has something to do with this: THE MYSTERIANS, ATRAGON and (in the Japanese print) GORATH all feature brief appearances by giant monsters while this one goes kaiju-less.. However, that only makes it seem all the more interesting and mature. Like THIS ISLAND EARTH, it’s not just extremely eye-catching and visually imaginative but an amazingly ambitious film for the period, with action taking place all over the world and on the Moon, as well as the titular space battles between Earthlings and alien invaders. Honda’s earlier experience directing war films, not just depicting scenes of mass battle but those of the human tragedy and sacrifice that inevitably arises from large-scale conflict certainly helps a lot here. Some may be reminded of INDEPENDENCE DAY, especially in scenes of mass destruction and a montage where the world’s nations unite to fight the invaders. Other, more historically informed fans will also be reminded of plot points from CAPTAIN SCARLET AND THE MYSTERIONS and the model work and effects are at least as good as those in Gerry Anderson’s classic series. Granted it has some flaws: the first third tends to drag and with all the constant cross-cutting, we don’t get to know the characters long enough to really feel for them, but it’s still a worthy would-be epic. It’s available on a DVD set with two other great films from Honda, MOTHRA and THE H-MAN.

UP NEXT: The Sixties and The Seventies…

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, PART I  The Twenties Through The Forties

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: A Personal List, PART I The Twenties Through The Forties

Lists. Every site creates them; why should this one be any different? Well, for one thing, this site was created specifically to provide an outlet for thoughtful writing on science fiction, not click-bait for advertising revenue, but given that I’ve enjoyed reading lists since I came upon my dad’s copy of THE BOOK OF LISTS by Irving Wallace back when I was eight or nine, and the rest of the Internet seemingly does as well (except when they have to keep plowing through one page after another because money-hungry designers couldn’t put them all on one page), I figured, why not? (Is there a “List of Longest Introductory Sentences on the Internet?” No? There should be.) More importantly, as explained further below, some excellent articles from other sources made me want to write on some of my favorite science fiction films, specifically those which are underrated either by audiences in general or fandom in specific. I quickly realized that there were so many genuinely good science fiction films that are either unknown to many or unfairly maligned for one reason or another, that it was necessary to split this article in several parts.

It must first be established that an underrated film is one that is genuinely good at the very least, and underappreciated by most audience members. It doesn’t have to be a great film, but it helps if it reaches a certain standard of excellence.  For the purposes of this list, we should be specific about movies that not just the mass audience but the science fiction audience tends to overlook or unfairly downgrade. All too often, a list of “underrated” films is just a “list of movies I like that I think everyone else should,” and lazily consist of films that are already widely known and respected. Such films as GATTACA and PRIMER (two of my favorite science fiction films of recent decades) that have enjoyed widespread critical acclaim and audience appreciation, clearly do not qualify, and it is ludicrous to label them as “underrated”. Nor is a film underrated just because it wasn’t a box office success. DARK CITY might have been a financial failure in its initial theatrical run, but thanks to largely to the late Roger Ebert (a science fiction fan in real life) who first gave it a laudatory review and then later named it the best film of 1998, its reputation grew and it now has a fervent cult following. Additionally, a movie may be underrated for many years but either slowly or suddenly gain the attention it deserves, as with the case of John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS.  Difficult to see for many years, it is now properly regarded as a masterpiece, one of Frankenheimer’s best films as well as one of the best science fiction films of the 1960s. Similarly, Roger Corman’s finest contributions to the 50s science fiction cycle (NOT OF THIS EARTH, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS), although long beloved by a select group of fans, are much more appreciated now than they used to be, celebrated even, for being intelligent, entertaining and efficiently-made films that rise above extreme low budgets (think of Corman as the Sam Fuller of science fiction films). I’ve tried to span across space as well as time as much as I could, bringing attention to movies made from the rest of the world; the list includes movies from France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia, Canada, the former Czechoslovakia, and New Zealand. Finally, the list reflects a diversity of themes and subjects as well; those who think older science fiction films were all the same will be pleasantly surprised to find out just how wide-ranging and even daring they were in the topics they handled, anticipating many of today’s well-worn premises.

Finally, before we proceed any further, I must thank Brian Saur, whose excellent Underrated Horror Film series on his great blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks helped to inspire this article in the first place! I also recommend, as an alternative list and for more recommendations, this excellent list from Pierre Comtois which was an inspiration as well. Additional thanks need to go to Gerry Carpenter, Dave Sindelar, Tim Lucas and Steve Joyce, from whom I learned about some of these movies in the first place! Thanks to each and every one of you!

 

BEFORE THE GOLDEN AGE

 

Before the Fifties, most people can only cite THINGS TO COME and METROPOLIS, sometimes A TRIP TO THE MOON by Melies and KING KONG (which they more often than not don’t realize is science fiction), as important science fiction films made during the first half of the century (excluding serials such as FLASH GORDON) . It is therefore necessary to spotlight some of those feature-length SF movies made from the silent era through the 1940s deserving of greater critical attention and wider viewing from present-day audiences, even if there  re less of them to discuss.

My main criteria, beyond personal preference, in the composing of this list to was to select films that tend to be underrated or overlooked by both classic film buffs and science fiction fans alike. Unless one is specifically a fan of older science fiction film, it is unlikely that they will have heard of, much less seen, most of the movies listed below. While it’s discouraging enough to see that many science fiction fans nowadays have no interest in older movies (or books) it’s just as disheartening to find out that many fans of classic  cinema continue to turn their noses down on  science fiction and horror films, except for a small select handful of exceptional films. Hopefully, lists such as these will encourage a broadening of horizons on the part of both groups of fans. Certainly, I am not alone in my affection or outright love for many of these films, but in general, they have not received sufficient attention, and deserve more, for being well-made and entertaining films, and in many cases, genuinely intelligent and thought provoking ones that have a lot more going underneath the surface than one would normally surmise.

I hope this list encourages you to seek out some of these hidden gems of the science fiction cinema. And I do hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

1. THE CRAZY RAY

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Rene Clair was one of France’s great cinema pioneers, and one of my favorite directors. I first encountered him when I caught his delightful musical Le Million late night on Canadian TV and shortly afterwards saw both Sous Les Toits De Paris and his abstract film Entr’acte in film class. It would be many years until I finally saw his masterpiece A Nous La Liberte, but when I finally did, it didn’t disappoint; what a truly wonderful, life-affirming film! It is also borderline science fiction, but his first film, Paris Qui Dort (English title: The Crazy Ray), is a full-fledged entry in the genre, about a scientist who makes time stand still in France’s largest city. Although it combines elements of both Clair’s later experimental shorts and social comedies, it also anticipates the delightful fantasy films he made as an exile in the English-speaking world during the Occupation: The Ghost Goes West, I Married a Witch and It Happened Tomorrow.

2. THE WOMAN IN THE MOON

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Fritz Lang’s other major contribution to the science fiction film isn’t usually viewed as highly as Metropolis, even though Lang himself thought otherwise; he considered the introduction of the rocket countdown in this movie as one of his greatest accomplishments. Granted, it’s slow-going at the beginning, and the depiction of a Moon with a breathable atmosphere (Irish physicist G.J. Stoney had already demonstrated that the Moon couldn’t possibly have any sort of atmosphere in 1870) and diamond-studded surface may be risible today, but it’s nonetheless well worth one’s time. Although the aforementioned lapses in scientific accuracy can be attributed to artistic license along the lines of The Martian Chronicles, the film does offer a credible depiction of rocketry engineering, thanks to technical advisers Werner von Braun and Hermann Oberth. It’s well worth a look, and I recommend the Kino DVD

3.THE ROBOTS OF RIPLEY

Robots of Ripley poster

This 1935 Soviet film (originally titled Gibel Sensatsii, literally, Loss of Feeling) has only recently received a good, subtitled release in North America thanks to Sinister Cinema, the most indispensable of companies in preserving public domain science fiction and horror cinema. Often incorrectly referred to as an adaptation of Karel Capek’s classic play R.U.R, it’s an original story set in a fictional “capitalist land” where an attempt to replace the proletariat with massive automatons leads to unintended consequences for the bourgeoisie. As you may have already surmised,it’s burdened with the same regrettable propaganda that infected the entire cinema of the Stalinist era…but it’s so well made and visually brilliant that this is easily forgiven. A scene of the robots’ inventor controlling his massive creations with the use of a discordant saxophone number is not easily forgotten, and neither is the rest of the film.

4. THE WALKING DEAD

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I had considered including one of Boris Karloff’s “Mad Doctor” films that he made for Columbia in the 1940s for this list, but I decided to include this Warner Brothers film, as it contains one of his finest yet least appreciated performances. It’s also both one of the most underrated movies directed by the legendary Michael Curtiz. Karloff is a man unjustly convicted of murder and executed, only to be brought back from the dead by scientist Edmund Gwenn. As always, Karloff is superb,  providing a performance that is both sympathetic and frightening, cerebral as well as physical. This is the only time I found that an actor was able to successfully convey to me what it would feel like to have actually died and then come back to life, and Karloff managed to do it through the most subtle use of facial expression and body language. Curtiz’s legendarily masterful use of shadows works particularly well here, better even than in Mystery of the Wax Museum or Doctor X since it was filmed in black-and-white, making them all the more effective. Part of the reason for it being underrated is that it was unavailable in any home video format for a long time; it was finally released to DVD a few years ago.

5. NON-STOP NEW YORK

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Imagine a cross between one of Hitchcock’s British thrillers of the 1930s and an issue of AIR WONDER STORIES from the same era, and you get this delightful and engaging movie, the best of a number of Thirties science fiction films that dealt with extravagant feats of engineering. The massive luxury aircraft that serves as the film’s science fiction element is relatively modest compared to technological artifacts of Transatlantic Tunnel or FP.1. Doesn’t Answer, and for that matter, it’s not introduced until midway through the film. It’s really a 39 Steps-style chase film about an English actress who is the only witness that can save an innocent American man from being executed (and this time, Edmund Gwenn won’t be able to revive him), and the aircraft exists mainly to provide an appropriate setting where the bad guys are able to chase her while en route to States. But that scarcely matters when you have a script as witty as this one, with performances that find the right balance between seriousness and humor and the smooth, well-paced direction of Robert Stevenson, later to become the Disney Company’s best live-action director. It’s in the public domain, so you can find it easily on-line or on DVD, sometimes in boxed sets.

6. DR. RENAULT’S SECRET

220px-Dr._Renault's_Secret_FilmPoster

Science fiction film was largely a dormant genre in the 1940s, if one excludes movie serials from the list of feature films. When it did turn up, it was usually under the guise of horror films, as in the aforementioned cycle of mad scientist films Boris Karloff made for Columbia Studios, with the SF devices ranging from bionic organ transplants (in The Man They Could Not Hang) to cryogenics (in The Man With Nine Lives).  During this period, 20th Century Fox produced its own short-lived but memorable series of horror films  to compete with the innovative horror and suspense films being made by Val Lewton at RKO. Although the most popular of them are those fine films directed by John Brahm (Hangover Square, The Lodger and to a lesser degree, The Undying Monster), my personal favorite among them is Dr. Renault’s Secret, directed by Claude Lachmann, better known as a painter. George Zucco is Dr. Renault and his secret is his servant played by J. Carroll Naish, who it turns out…well, I’m not going to spoil it for you, but if you’ve seen Island of Lost Souls, you’ll probably figure it out, and it would make a good companion to two other science fiction-horror films Fox would make much later on, The Fly and The Alligator People. It’s like a much classier version of the sort of horror film Zucco and Naish were making for “Poverty Row” studios Monogram and PRC at the time, and is really more of a mystery film with a science fiction twist. It’s available as part of a “Fox Horror Classics” box set along with the Gothic melodrama Dragonwyck and the fantasy adventure (also with science fiction trappings) Chandu the Magician. Although neither of its companion films really qualify as horror films either, all three are nonetheless highly recommended!

Next week, we look at the underrated gems of the first Golden Age of Science Fiction Film, the 1950s…

 

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction…1…Charles Sheffield

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction…1…Charles Sheffield

Sheffield-OneMan

The first few years of the Millennium were dark ones for fans of hard science fiction. In 2001, Poul Anderson died, followed a few months later by his frequent collaborator Gordon Dickson. Then in 2003, Hal Clement, who did more than any other writer to develop hard science fiction as an identifiable sub-genre by introducing a new degree of scientific rigor in writing and helped make world-building an art form, also passed away. Between these two massive losses came possibly the most tragic of them all, as physicist and writer Charles Sheffield lost a brief but brave battle with an aggressive brain tumor in 2002. Although he had begun writing quite late in life, Sheffield had nonetheless quickly developed a reputation as one of hard science fiction’s finest practitioners, a prolific and versatile writer whose diverse stories and series combined, as Spider Robinson (who would name the spaceship in his Heinlein paste-up Variable Star after his late colleague and friend) said, “the scientific grounding of Clarke, the storytelling skills of a Heinlein, the dry wit of a Pohl or Kornbluth, and the universe-building prowess of a Niven.” I would also add that he possessed Gregory Benford’s skill at realistic and believable depictions of scientists and science at work…even as practiced many centuries from now. As wondrous and exciting as his many novels and short stories were, there was still the feeling that the best was yet to come; alas, as had been the case with Stanley Weinbaum three quarters of a century earlier, the cruelties of cancer once again stole us of a promise yet to be fulfilled, and we can only surmise as to what might have been.

Although one would surmise based on the main topic of this series of essays that I would analyze Sheffield’s novel Godspeed, I have decided instead to look at the stories that make up the shared-universe collection One Man’s Universe. For obvious reasons, I am quite fond of the book’s hero, Scottish scientific genius of the far future Arthur Morton McAndrew, described as the greatest physicist since Newton and Einstein, and the first in many a century to be both a brilliant experimenter and theorist alike. A comparison of Sheffield’s depiction of scientists and their work in these stories with those by Gregory Benford demonstrates the wide variety of approaches a hard science fiction writer can take with their material. Whereas Benford is primarily an experimental physicist by profession who does theoretical work as well as fiction writing on the side, * Sheffield was a theoretical physicist whose day job as a Chief Scientist for the Earth Satellite Corporation put him in the position of adviser on a variety of experimental work. There is a profound difference in the worlds of the theoretician and experimentalist in physics, although they both require each other in order to succeed, a fact that is reflected in the science fiction of both authors. Benford’s science fiction is based primarily in speculations and extrapolations on the nature of the universe derived from discoveries made through experimental work and observation; Sheffield, on the other hand, specialized in literal “thought experiments” that dealt with how we might credibly test our more extravagant theories and speculations and what applications might be derived from them. The scientific method continues to hold strong in Sheffield’s universe as his scientists continue to push and explore its boundaries, following Clarke’s Second Law to the letter.

Sheffield was frequently compared to Arthur C. Clarke as a master of hard science fiction that was also exciting and accessible, and the comparison I think is particularly apt, since Sheffield’s literary voice was also the most American-sounding for a British SF writer since that of Clarke himself, or maybe Eric Frank Russell. He was a writer for whom the New Wave that originated in his home country had  seemingly totally passed by, favoring instead to hark back to the American pulps and paperbacks of yore. Even as hard SF itself was given a distinct British voice in the Eighties and Nineties by such writers as Stephen Baxter, Peter Hamilton and Alistair Reynolds who owed more to an earlier generation of British SF writers that included Brian Aldiss and Ian Watson than American scribes, Sheffield, already a longtime resident of the United States by the time he began writing, worked firmly in the Analog tradition, demonstrating the strong influence of Asimov and Heinlein as well as Clarke in his prose style and plots. Interestingly enough, Sheffield himself stated, in his contribution to Yojo Kondo’s Requiem, that he had always thought of Heinlein as an archetypical British writer. Science fiction, like science itself, speaks a lingua franca understood and appreciated all over the world.

The warp-drive ship featured in the McAndrew Chronicles (also the original published title of One Man’s Universe), is very different from the ramjet in Anderson’s Tau Zero or Benford’s “Relativistic Effects,” but is no less based in solid science. The McAndrew Balanced Drive, as it is called, consists of a simple disc of curved, super-dense matter in front providing gravitational acceleration according to the rules of the equivalence principle in general relativity, propelled by an engine that taps the energy of the quantum fluctuations of the vacuum. Of course, as Sheffield takes care to point out in his explanatory notes, despite the actual science involved, it is still fiction, and there are problems that would arise with such a mechanism in the real world. Besides the fact that we still cannot produce stable masses sufficiently dense for the purposes of such a drive, there would still be the matter of tidal effects upon its passengers and cargo, and the energies of the vacuum, despite being a very real consequence of quantum electrodynamics, not only remain untapped, but may very well be forever inaccessible for any useful purpose. Nonetheless, hard science fiction does not need to restrict itself to only that which is probable; the improbable but possible according to physical laws is very much part of the genre as well. There may never be a McAndrew Balanced Drive in the real world, but it still works as science fiction because Sheffield went through the effort to demonstrate how such a device could conceivably work according to known physical laws. As if that were not enough, he provides some more detailed but no less elegantly-written explanations at the end of the book on the scientific basis for each individual story. Hard science fiction is as much a form of rhetoric as it is narrative, an attempt at argument as well as entertainment, one that tries to persuade the reader that its speculations are within the scope of both possibility and probability through appeals to scientific fact.

Although each Chronicle can be read and enjoyed in any order, I still recommend reading them in sequence, as not only do the stories build upon one another, but the science in each Chronicle builds upon that featured in the one that immediately precedes it. The McAndrew Drive may not be introduced until the Second Chronicle entitled “Moment of Inertia”, but not only is it featured in each successive one, but the scientific basis is already laid down in the First Chronicle, “Killing Vector” with the discussion of Kerr-Newman black holes, which McAndrew has figured out how to artificially create and contain in miniature forms called “Kernels” (not unlike the quantum black holes in Larry Niven’s “The Hole Man,” itself another exceptional portrayal of future scientists at work). The Drive leads to the topic of vacuum-point energy that figures in the third chronicle, “All the Colors of the Vacuum,” and its ability to travel great distances permits the exploration of the Oort Cloud in “Manna Hunt”. As the ship ventures beyond the gravitational halo of our own Solar System, this results in dark matter and the Big Bang Theory being the scientific focus of “Shadow World,” a culmination of the exposition on relativity and cosmology in the all the preceding Chronicles. Discussing the origins and unsolved mysteries of the universe necessitates a broader discussion of how science understands the laws governing its known workings, which is what “The Invariants of Nature” is all about, and “Rogueworld” brings all the key scientific themes together in its highly speculative ring of black holes and rogue planets, wandering through the universe. A key theme in the book is that not only is the scientific method the best means of learning and problem-solving we have, but that knowledge itself is not created within a vacuum but builds upon that which is previously known, (the principle of “radical conservatism” put forth by the great physicist John A. Wheeler), gradually culminating until an endpoint arrives where we can properly assume that we have a theory that explains it all. If Sheffield the Experimenter used the individual Chronicles to test speculations about the universe, Sheffield the Theorist puts them all together to demonstrate for his readers how science actually works. It is often mistakenly assumed that the purpose of science fiction is to make predictions, but that is actually the function of scientific theories themselves; science fiction just takes those predictions and makes them accessible to the layperson. And just as in science, a theory only emerges after individual predictions have been tested and found to be themselves invariant in all frames of reference, it is only after reading the book in its entirety that one can truly discern the themes across each individual story.

As I write this, scientists everywhere are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Einstein’s papers that laid out the Theory of General Relativity, and science fiction writers should be celebrating it as well; more than any other scientific discovery it has permitted the genre to go beyond Wells and Verne and expand its speculative horizons. Sheffield, Anderson and Benford are just three of the writers who have been able to use it to craft works of literature as well as entertainment, and even if the field is currently mired in literary faddishness (a polite way of saying bad writing) and under the yoke of far-left identity politics, the advances in scientific knowledge will continue enrich the possibilities for writers as surely they enrich our own lives as well.

*As Dr. Benford has politely corrected us below, he is actually primarily a theorist although he has done moonlighting as an experimenter on the side. However, we have left the paragraph unchanged as not only as the points about the differences between his work and Sheffield’s remains valid, but it helps illustrate how theory and experiment influence the writing of SF.

On Our Responsibility to Futures Past

I moved homes recently, and the most painful part of the process was, as it would be for any other bibliopath, deciding which books to keep and which to sell. I had built up a substantial collection over the years, maybe not as extensive as some collectors but still impressive, and I had to decide which books had the most merit, the most re-readability value, and the ones I had the greatest personal attachment with in order to makethese difficult decisions. Like many others, I have strong memories related to my first reading of a particular book-Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales From Planet Earth while on the shores of a beach in North Carolina, Ben Bova’s Mars while atop the massive red boulders of Ontario’s Killarney National Park-that makes me treasure the joys of returning to them even more.  Ultimately, after making my decisions, about 75% of the books in my collection-a large number of them duplicate copies-were sent to a charity book sale while those nearest and dearest to me remained on my shelves. A difficult task, as unfair as asking a parent to choose between their children (OK, I exaggerate a little), but a necessary one.

Even as I gave up part of my collection, I did not dispose of it; I made sure those books would be given a home elsewhere, so someone else could share in the joys of reading and re-reading them. My greatest hope is that those books continue to be passed on and be enjoyed by future readers, but surveying where fandom is headed, I am cautiously pessimistic. I am not speaking of the unwillingness to read books unless they appear on a Tablet or a similar electronic device; I am speaking of the lack of interest in and outright lack of respect for writers and books of eras past by the current generation of so-called science fiction fans. A particularly infuriating piece on The Daily Dot (found courtesy of Gregory Benford) sums up this at-once contemptuous and contemptible attitude quite well, providing a telling look at how a combination of cultural illiteracy, youthful arrogance and political correctness is poisoning the science fiction community. The author drips with sneering condescension towards the “old-timers” making up the guests and attendants at WorldCon, the leading literary science fiction convention (where the Hugos are awarded each year), attacking them for unspecified “offensive” comments they made at panels (none are actually given) and generally being “out of touch” with not just current fandom  but for their “exclusionary” behaviour and attitudes. Since the author further doesn’t name any targets of her derision other than Robert Silverberg, whose progressive and liberal bonafides are impeccable, I seriously doubt the accuracy of her reporting, something borne out by the article comments refuting her version of events.

From this wholesale trashing of Worldcon, the author then proceeds to a rose-eyed, insufferably gooey praise of the Nine Worlds convention, which she squees over for its allegedly “inclusionary” policies where people can freely discuss sexism and racism (as long as, obviously, you have the right opinion on such matters), and attendants can wear colour-coded lapel clips to signal whether or not they want to socialize (“Green means yes,  Red means go away”). The author obviously regards this as a Great Leap Forward (Maoist reference made without irony), but for anyone who has ever seen conventions as an excuse to socialize and meet people with similar interests in the first place, it’s a depressing regression, reminiscent of dystopian science fiction stories where social interactions are controlled and regulated by government fiat out of a misguided benevolence. I hope neither the author nor any of the other people at Nine Worlds ever reads Silverberg’s The World Inside, lest they suffer massive emotional and psychological trauma.

Most annoying of all is the way the author thinks she and fellow fans of the media branches of science fiction-TV, movies, games, anime, even comic books to an extent- are somehow being “oppressed” and “marginalized” by the old guard at WorldCon. How dare a convention originally founded to honor the best and brightest in print science fiction continue to give primacy to the written word! Indeed, why shouldn’t it, when the majority of conventions now cater not to science fiction readers but consumers of media instead? Why can’t there be even one convention left that remains dedicated to the literary faction of fandom, is focused specifically on science fiction instead of fantasy, and reminds attendants of the rich history of the genre instead of catering to the trendy and faddish and reinforcing for younger attendants what they already know and are continually exposed to? If the author wants to know what exclusion what really is, try being a fan of written science fiction other than Neal Stephenson or Tolkien (authors she name-drops who, along with Douglas Adams, happen to be the favorite writers of readers who don’t like science fiction), or a fan of classic movies (meaning: before Star Wars) and TV at the type of allegedly “inclusive” convention she drools over.

Her attitudes are not anomalous, I regret to say. Much as classic film lovers find themselves frustrated in trying to persuade a younger generation to appreciate the cinema of years past, so to do those of us who grew up reading science fiction find themselves vexed by the current fracturing of the genre, and trying to make the case for the primacy of books and the importance of retaining its literary heritage.  Instead, younger audiences seem to think that the science fiction of years past is only good for mockery at best, outright contempt at worst.  The importance of the so-called “Sad Puppies” campaign to get fans to nominate the Hugos on the basis of literary merit and entertainment value rather than political dogma or author identity lies not just in its push back against the toxic leftism that has infected the field, but in its attempt to reclaim the past. At the very core of the campaign is a revival of the classical values of the science fiction community, where science and fiction alike were equally important and respected, which embraced the free discussion of ideas and where not only was literary merit more important than politics, so was the cohesiveness and friendship that existed within the community. That Harlan Ellison and Jerry Pournelle, two writers so diametrically opposed in politics and well known for their great intellects and short tempers, could remain friends for so long even during the most divisive and turbulent of times, is a testament to this and an example for the rest of us to follow.  Beyond trying to rehabilitate the current state of the field, I also urge the Sad Puppies to do the same for the past as well. Keep alive not just the values of old-time science fiction, but the old-time science fiction stories themselves. Defend them against those who would censor them for not complying with contemporary progressive dogma and mores, and encourage them to be read. If science fiction is to have a bright tomorrow, it cannot extinguish the lights of its past.

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….2….Gregory Benford

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….2….Gregory Benford

Gregory Benford and Relativistic Effects

 

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I once attended a talk given by renowned mathematical physicist Roger Penrose where he described binary pulsars as the most beautiful objects in the universe, as they fulfill every prediction made by the Theory of Relativity. Similarly, the stories of Gregory Benford are among the most beautifully written in science fiction, not just because of their prose but how they illuminate the laws and hidden facets of the universe. As a physicist himself, much of Benford’s science fiction is distinguished by both his keen observations of the lives of scientists and his finely detailed depictions of them at work, and his ability to vividly convey the sort of cognitive and sensory impressions that are part of their experiences. He is able to chart vast vistas across space and time, as with his Galactic Center series, but even when he stays Earthbound, as with Timescape and Cosm, which are probably the genre’s best depictions of actual science at work, the entire fabric of the cosmos becomes essential to the story as it is revealed to both the protagonists and the reader. If there is a single passage that best sums up Benford’s fiction, it probably comes late in Against Infinity, when the now-grown up protagonist contemplates the fragment of the Aleph (the mysterious alien object that has wrecked havoc on humanity’s Ganymede colonies) as another character explains what the object means to their understanding of the basic laws and forces of nature.

What’s even more remarkable is that even Benford’s short stories are able to encompass the totality of the universe, its laws and languages, its mechanisms and mysteries, with the same simple beauty and elegance that a scientific equation manages to perfectly express in mathematical form. Following Hemingway’s dictum that you write what you know about, much of Benford’s  fiction derives from his own work as a scientist in the fields of experimental astrophysics and plasma physics, and his short story “Relativistic Effects” (reprinted in the collection In Alien Flesh) is one of the best examples of this. Inspired by a paper he had read on plasma jets in stars, he set about imagining what it would like to perceive such phenomena from the outside looking in; the finished story, as he admitted, wound up being an unconscious homage to Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero (which we just discussed; you did read it, right?). Although there are certainly similarities between the writing styles of Benford and Anderson, there are also crucial differences. Most notably, Anderson, despite a poetic writing style that transcended the genre’s pulp origins, was firmly a member of science fiction’s “Old Guard” standing in defense of its literary traditions. Benford, on the other hand, belonged to a younger generation of fans who grew up first with Heinlein’s juveniles, and whose adult entry into the genre was not with Astounding but with Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction, magazines which emphasized social commentary and high literary standards as opposed to scientific rigor. Moreover, Benford was also influenced, although not unduly so, by the New Wave when he started writing, in particular by the American writer Roger Zelzany, who fended off comparisons with the largely British writers who spearheaded the movement by insisting that what he wrote was “style with substance” instead of style at the expense of substance (as cited by Jack Chalker in his introduction to his collection Dance Band on the Titanic). Consequently, Benford has also been inspired by major American storytellers from William Faulkner to John Cheever in his writing, finding ways to experiment with literary devices to strengthen instead of subvert basic storytelling. “Relativistic Effects” also reminds me of Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos in its stylistic use of “accelerated” collage to create the impression of events occurring rapidly juxtaposed with those occurring in “real time.” In Benford’s case, there is an obvious reason for using such a literary device in a hard-science fiction story: it helps to convey the relativistic effects of the title without resorting to higher mathematics or technical jargon inaccessible to non-specialists. It is this use of mainstream literary technique to convey not just scientific facts  but the lives of the scientist and the process of how science works, something that might be called literary scientific realism, that has put Benford at the forefront of modern hard science fiction writers.

Also like Dos Passos (and unlike Anderson), Benford focuses on the role of the working classes in his story, and here there is a curious similarity between them as well. Dos Passos was one of the original “neo-conservatives,” a Trotskyite and democratic socialist in 1920s and 1930s who like many others, turned sharply to the Political Right, and became a libertarian-leaning conservative for the rest of his life. Although Benford maintains that he still considers himself “an honorary member of the Left,” albeit one of the “anarcho-syndicalist variety” (in the Afterword for Worlds Vast and Various) he has nonetheless been a registered Libertarian for many years. His actual political views, however, with a heavy emphasis on both free markets and environmental protection coupled with a strong support of both the public and private sector in scientific advancement and a truly rational and pragmatic approach to policy decisions (as opposed to others on the Left who use the rhetoric of rationality and pragmatism to sell irrational and ideological proposals), seem closer to those of the Modern Whig Party than any other. Whereas Poul Anderson had an automated control center monitoring and maintaining the faster-than light vessel in Tau Zero,  the ship in Benford’s story (which also uses a “ram-scoop” mechanism to achieve relativistic velocities) requires the use of human “servos” to guide it; those who elect to this dangerous job not only put themselves in harm’s way with each journey, continually colliding with particles and radiation at relativistic speeds, but the long-term effects of these exposures critically shortens their life expectancy. They are not unlike those sailors in naval vessels who had continually exposed themselves to asbestos while working in the engine rooms. Already knowingly reducing their lifespans for other crew members, they are further asked to sacrifice even more as part of a plan to save two galaxies on the verge of collision…

“Relativistic Effects” shares much of its scientific basis with the Galactic Center series, drawing heavily from then-cutting edge work in astronomy and astrophysics, particularly Benford’s specialty of plasma jets. Although acclaimed for their complex, solidly-scientific depictions of AI lifeforms, it is less recognized for its formidable feats of world-building as well, which involve not just planets but whole stars, nebula clusters and black holes.  As Benford explained in the preface to the 2004 reissue of the first book in the series, In the Ocean of Night (0riginally published in 1977),  this task  strongly corresponded with his ongoing research in electrodynamic models in astrophysics (the paper that came out of that research can be read here) . The passages of “Relativistic Effects” describing the process of acceleration feel not so much like condensations of such a paper but a re-interpretation, in which the equations have not only been translated into words but transformed through a process of synesthesia, much like the effect the Aleph of Against Infinity has on those who observe it. The reader experiences the sensation of being at the heart of a plasma jet at relativistic speeds, aware of every force-gravitational, nuclear and electromagnetic-and every state of matter, from the huge billowing clouds of gas down the smallest particle, and the interactions between them.  Relativity is essential not just to the study of vast expanses of space and time, but tiny ones as well, a fact that Benford illustrates in this story and in others, such as “High Abyss” and “Mozart and Morphine,” which go even further, by making the connection between both cosmic strings and the birth of the cosmos (in the former) and the everyday life of the physicist (in the latter).

One of the ongoing quests of physics has been to try to reconcile General Relativity, which explains gravity, with Quantum Field Theory, which explains the other three fundamental forces, a so far daunting task due to language differences, one speaking geometry, the other algebra. Gregory Benford, who has also written frequently on another ongoing effort at reconciliation, between C.P. Snow’s competing Two Cultures of the Sciences and the Humanities, has found his own way to reconcile the Two Theories by bringing together the Two Cultures through the lingua franca of science fiction. When reading a story or book by Benford, the Nature of the Universe reveals itself, through a subtle use of the scientific method, and we come to realize how it is all connected, from the forces at the heart of a massive black hole to the more subtle shifts of electrons and photons. Even more importantly, we come to recognize how wonderful it is that we are able, as sentient and thinking organisms, to understand these phenomena and unities, an understanding that forms the basis of scientific theories.  Such an Epiphany Of Reason seems like a contradiction in terms, yet it probably best describes the experience of the Sense of Wonder while reading science fiction-especially hard science fiction intended to illuminate the nature of the physical universe.

We Love You, Spider

We Love You, Spider

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Fans and friends of Hugo-winning science fiction writer Spider Robinson were saddened by the news that his daughter Terri died earlier this week after a brave fight with breast cancer. The tragedy is all the greater coming four years after the death of Spider’s beloved wife and frequent co-author Jeanne from a rare form of biliary duct cancer. Robinson has long been one of SF’s most beloved figures, not just for his terrific novels and short stories but for being a delightful presence as a speaker and filk singer at conventions, and even among those of us who have also gone through the tremendous loss of loved ones, it is hard for us to conceive what it must be like to lose the two most important people in your life so soon and so close together.

Spider was one of numerous science fiction and fantasy writers who I first learned about through Canada’s legendary interview program Prisoners of Gravity, a beloved and very much ahead-of-its-time show that helped expose viewers to both up-and-coming and veteran authors, and handled issues and subjects with a mixture of sophisticated intelligence and flip humor (er, humour, we’re talking Canada here). Among the other authors I was introduced to through the show were Robert Sawyer, Neal Gaiman and George R.R. Martin, but Spider always stood out, not just for his striking appearance (think a tall, long-haired Steve Buscemi in a straw hat), but his folksy demeanor and storytelling ability, and-this has always been important to his fans-a sense of humour that was ribald yet intelligent, biting yet gentle. This guy, I thought to myself, is an author to seek out. In short order I bought or took out and read many of his books: Stardance, written in collaboration with his Jeanne, Time Pressure, Mindkiller, Telempath, the collections Melancholy Elephants and User Friendly and of course, the Callahan’s Cross-Time Saloon Series. Oh, my cup runneth over!

But before all of those, I read “Rah, Rah R.A.H!” This was Robinson’s full-throated defense of Robert A. Heinlein, originally delivered as a speech at the 1980 Boston Science Fiction Convention and reprinted in 1992 in the Heinlein tribute book Requiem, edited by Yoji Kondo (along with “Robert,” his more personal reminiscence of his friendship with the man who made him a science fiction fan and inspired him to be a writer). Despite being a self-professed liberal lamb, Robinson enthusiastically  set aflame every straw man argument and criticism made against Heinlein with the cackling glee of Margaret Hamilton, and it’s even more satisfying to read them today in this era of self-righteous Social Justice Carrie Nations decrying Heinlein (often without even bothering to read a single one of his books) for not meeting their Production Code regarding political and social correctness.

Now here’s where the story gets personal. I had read Robinson’s essay during a break from summer school English class, when my teacher told us that for bonus marks, we could write a letter to an author of our choice (living or dead; you could write to Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams if you liked). I was one of two students to do so (the other student chose William S. Burroughs) and decided to write a letter to Robinson, specifically, a reply to “Rah, Rah R.A.H!” I forget exactly what I wrote about, but it was good enough to get an A+ and after sitting down and looking at it for a while, I said to myself “You know what? This is also good enough to send.” So I did. Two months or so later…there came a letter with the return address of Tottering-on-the-Brink, British Columbia. Never heard of that place, who sent this? Well, it turns out Spider Robinson had also thought the letter was good enough…for a reply! And what impressed me the most is that, as my father told me, “he wrote to you as an adult” not a teenager, much less a student. It was an act of kindness and respect I will never forget, as well as a learning moment in how to approach people.

What can us, Spider’s fans, provide other than heartfelt messages of consolation during this tragic time? In “Rah, Rah R.A.H!” Spider said that if you truly want to honor Heinlein’s memory, you should give blood, as much as you can, and that’s what you should do as well. Cancer patients are always need of transfusions due to the side effects of chemotherapy, and some need them more than others due to the type of cancer and how it affects the body and the production of blood cells. If you haven’t signed up to be a bone marrow donor, do so; if you aren’t eligible to be one, get as many people as you know who are to sign up for the registry. If you plan to have kids, also plan to have the umbilical cord donated for stem cell therapy. Donate to local cancer charities, and participate in walks, runs, and other sporting events to raise funds or sponsor those who are participating. Do everything you can to be a friend and a helping hand…even to people who have no clue you exist. Be the sort of good man Spider Robinson was to me more than twenty years ago.

And never lose your sense of humour.

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….3….Poul Anderson

Countdown to Interstellar: The Warp Drive in Hard Science Fiction….3….Poul Anderson

tauzero

Writers of hard science fiction, that most rigorously realistic of the genre’s subdivisions, pride themselves on their unwavering commitment to scientific accuracy and adherence to the known laws and facts of the physical universe in their stories, yet they find themselves making a necessary exception for one of the most significant of all its invariants. Since the Theory of Special Relativity has established that nothing can move faster than the speed of light, which has only been further buttressed by experiment and observation, the practitioners of hard science are forced to bend their own principles slightly whenever their stories go beyond our own Solar System. Fortunately, the Great Einstein giveth as much as he taketh away, and the many fascinating predictions and outcomes of both Special and General Relativity have provided the “loopholes” many writers are looking for in trying to explain how their characters can traverse such great distances. In some instances, the stories are specifically about faster-than-light travel itself; the brand-new Christopher Nolan film INTERSTELLAR follows a well-worn path to the stars that science fiction writers have traveled many times before, attempting to explain how FTL or the “warp drive” in terms that are consistent with current scientific knowledge, and using it as a platform for both the stories and themes. The movie has its own pedigree in real-world science as well, being based on a story idea by noted cosmologist Kip Thorne, whose textbook Gravitation, written in collaboration with John Archibald Weaver and Charles Meisner, is cited by friends of mine in the know as the definitive book on the subject . Hopefully, the movie will also pique interest in the written word, getting curious viewers to search out the classic science fiction stories that already grappled with the premise of faster-than-light travel from as solidly scientific and rigorously rational a perspective as possible. With that, we will begin a three-part look at some of the finest works of dealing with the premise in hard science fiction, and what they have to say about the treatment of science and the physical universe in science fiction: Poul Anderson‘s novel Tau Zero, Gregory Benford‘s short story “Relativistic Effects,” and the selected short stories that make up Charles Sheffield’s collection One Man’s Universe.

POUL ANDERSON AND TAU ZERO

It is rather unfortunate that there is only one legitimate film adaptation of Poul Anderson’s novels, and it is a terrible one at that: a truly awful “comedic” German adaptation of his exciting novel The High Crusade. Even so, Anderson, who wrote prolifically at what were usually very high levels of literary quality in as wide a variety of science fiction and fantasy as is possible, has seemingly made his own small mark on science fiction film: when James Cameron’s blockbuster AVATAR was released, many noticed its similarities to Anderson’s celebrated novella “Call Me Joe” (but not his novel The Avatar), something I had myself noticed a few years earlier when Cameron’s project was still in Development Hell and a draft of the screenplay was floating around the Internet. Cameron is not the only filmmaker who seems to have borrowed from Anderson: David Twohy’s PITCH BLACK is quite reminiscent of Anderson’s Fire Time, and the aliens of GALAXY QUEST who take every statement literally seem descended from the Hoka! Anderson created with Gordon Dickson. Fans of both BABYLON 5 and STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE should read the stories in Anderson’s Technic History series, to see where the writers for those shows may have learned how to depict the politics of a spacefaring mercantile culture (for that matter, G’Kar is exactly how I imagined Anderson’s Merseians as resembling). Finally, Christopher Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR owes a considerable debt to Anderson’s Tau Zero, possibly the Grand Master’s finest book. The cover of my Gollancz copy features a blurb by James Blish hailing it as “the ultimate hard science fiction novel.” While there are other legitimate contenders to that title (Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama and Gregory Benford’s Timescape among them), I can’t think of another novel that from a purely thematic perspective best exemplifies this particular subgenre. Poul Anderson is usually not thought of as being primarily a hard science fiction writer because he wrote in so many other different genres and sub-genres, but he was one of science fiction’s premiere “world-builders,” writing some of the key essays on how to create scientifically credible alien worlds and planets, and was a master of the “puzzle story,” a variant of the mystery or detective story (which Anderson also wrote prolifically) in which the solution lies in the scientific method. Anderson’s proficiency in these areas as well as in prose writing in general helped produce one of the most masterful works in the genre. Even if one is to argue over whether it is the “definitive” hard science fiction novel, it is the one I would try to introduce to a novice reader to get them interested in the subgenre, and appreciate it as one of literary merit.

The initial premise of the novel is not unlike that of the excellent, underrated Czech science fiction film Ikarie Xb-1 (released in an edited form in North America as Voyage to the End of the Universe), depicting the human drama between members of a space journey to settle the planet located in the star system Beta Virginis. Anderson’s world-building skills are not used this time in the construction of the planet of destination but the vessel of voyage, and this is as much a feat of physics as it is of engineering. As with Thomas Godwin’s “The Cold Equations,” (which is itself frequently cited as the definitive hard science fiction short story), the action may take in the confines of a single spaceship but the actual drama takes place against the backdrop of the entire universe, whose laws and limits help define both the outcome of the story and the actions of the characters. The setting is the spaceship Leonora Christina, another tip of the hat to Anderson’s Danish ancestry that recurs throughout his fiction. The real Leonora Christina was a 17th-Century countess, the daughter of the King of Denmark, who spent two decades in solitary confinement as punishment by the royal family for the supposed crimes of her Dutch husband (who was executed), during which time she wrote a celebrated autobiography and became a Danish folk hero, a symbol of stoicism and endurance in the face of long-lasting hardship. Time, and history, seemingly stood still for the real Leonora Christina in the walls of her dungeon cell during her imprisonment, who gave up her freedom for love, just as those who voluntarily sign up for the space journey will find that time will slow down and they will lose touch with hundreds of years of human history once they have completed their journey. Under the leadership of Constable Charles Reymont, a crew of 50, of equal numbers men and women from all races and nationalities, and consisting of highly trained scientists, engineers and other experts, tries to deal with both technical and interpersonal crises when the ship accidentally collides with a nebula on its way out. This unexpected change of course forces the crew to adapt to a new change in its mission as well, and it turns out that there is something even more profound than just the survival of the ship’s crew at stake.

To be excessively pedantic, the Leonora Christina is not really a warp drive, as it does not go faster than light, just 99% of it. The ship is a Brussard Ramjet, a popular spacefaring vessel in science fiction of the period, that continually scoops interstellar hydrogen and other free atoms to fuel the ion engines that propel it outwards through the void. According to the mass-energy equivalence principle that everyone knows by its mathematical shorthand, as the ship continues to gather mass to accelerate itself, it nears the tau zero of the title, where its velocity will finally equal the speed of light. Now, it goes without saying that the Brussard Ramjet itself will likely remain an improbability, if not outright impossibility; as Larry Niven explains in his essay “Bigger Than Worlds” (published in his collection Playgrounds of the Mind) it involves certain absolutes, such as an infinite fuel supply in all directions and 100% efficiency to work properly. But its importance in Tau Zero is as an illustration of the process of how the universe functions, and the evolution of our perception of its workings. We move upward from the classical Newtonian-Maxwellian model to the Einsteinian, first through the Lorentz-Fitzgerald Contraction that bridged classical mechanics with special relativity, and as both the ship and the storyline accelerate in momentum, the wider notions of general relativity (which Einstein formulated by applying his ideas in special relativity to accelerated frames of reference) enter the narrative as well.

In addition to his Scandinavian background, the Pennsylvania-born, Texas-raised, University of Minnesota-educated Anderson also draws proudly and profoundly from his American heritage as well. If you are wondering how you can successfully write a so-called “Space Western” that successfully works as science fiction, then Tau Zero is the book to read. The vivid prose seems to owe much to the classic Western novels of Louis L’Amour, Jack Schaefer and Zane Grey, and story itself is not like those of such films as STAGECOACH and RED RIVER, about the travails and conflicts of those settling The Open Frontier, and the hero Reymont (not an American but a native of Earth’s Antarctic colonies, strengthening at once that he is a Citizen of the World and a Child of Pioneers) could very well have been played by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood or Joel McCrea. The publication of Tau Zero was regarded by many, according to David Pringle in The 100 Best Science Fiction Novels, as a repudiation of the “New Wave” movement in science fiction, and the “First Salvo” by science fiction’s “Old Guard” in maintaining its traditional literary values. By staying firm to the crisp, straightforward writing style that the genre had long been known for and providing a storyline that is a heir to the pioneering tradition in American literature, Anderson offers an effective counter to the excesses of the New Wave, although this does not mean he avoids literary flourishes. The passages used to explain the novel’s science not only avoid the dryness usually (and more often than not, incorrectly) associated with the hard science sub-genre but sometimes rise to the level of poetic vividness, approaching the language used by Ray Bradbury in The Martian Chronicles and other stories to impress the reader with that elementary Sense of Wonder regarding both the majesty of the cosmos. A frequent error made even by those who consider themselves fans of the genre is that hard science fiction is defined by the amount of scientific detail accumulated in the plot, and the degree to which the author explains the science behind it. A good hard SF story may do so but it can also be a fatal mistake, if the writer forgets to provide a compelling story or characters, or if the detail is ruined by one or more errors. Hard science fiction instead focuses on scientific realism, and finds a way to integrate the details and explanation in a non-obtrusive way, without letting them interfere with the essential elements of any good story. Truly great hard science fiction goes beyond escapist entertainment and makes science itself a theme for further thought and discussion. Possibly because of his right-of-center politics or his old-fashioned writing style, likely both, the masterful thematic profundity of Tau Zero and other Anderson works when it comes to the relationship between science and both societies and individuals has remained unexplored.

A friend has cited Tau Zero as having inspired him to become a physicist, with his motto being “the universe is what it is and not what we wish it to be.” This adage not only summarizes the prevailing world-view of hard SF, but Anderson’s own personal and political beliefs as well. Anderson considered himself to be a Libertarian politically, but much of his fiction and essays also display a deep and abiding cultural conservatism, in the sense that he was concerned with the preservation of both historical memory and those institutions and values key to the healthy development of civilization: science, reason, free enterprise and a sense of duty and chivalry. One of the first generation of science fiction writers to have grown up with the original printing of Campbell’s Astounding and its stable of authors, he was also one of those most directly influenced by the writing of Robert A. Heinlein. Like Heinlein, Anderson started out on the Centre-Left, (his early stories “Un-Man and “Sam Hall” are deft satires of McCarthyism and the John Birch mentality), but started moving rightward as the Fifties themselves moved onwards. Tau Zero, like many of Anderson’s later novels (from Orion Will Rise to A Harvest of Stars as well as the novella “Goat Song”) is not only pro-science but pro-civilization, standing directly against the leftist politics and deep cultural pessimism of the New Wave as well as the irrationalism and anti-science attitudes of New Age thinking, which had also lamentably infiltrated the SF community (Anderson was NATIONAL REVIEW’s science fiction critic during this time and he wrote a particularly damning critique of Erich Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods for the magazine the same year Tau Zero was published). Just as the laws of science are the same regardless of their frame of reference, so are the laws of human nature; certain rules of political economy and social decorum must continued to be maintained in this Brave New World, in contrast to the “revolutionary” sexual and social attitudes that were supposedly sweeping the country and whose depiction had become commonplace in the genre. Despite the fact that his multinational dramatis personae lives under a world government dominated by Sweden, American-style liberal democracy and free-market economics have ultimately won out (a possibly satirical touch, given the way so much of the American intelligentsia was infatuated with Swedish-style socialism and pacifism at the time), and it is strongly suggested that this is a positive means of maintaining a balance of power in this brave new world, just as the spaceship tries to maintain physical balance itself through the journey. The New Wave movement in science fiction was deeply rooted in revolutionary political and social movements of the time, that sought to “break down barriers” and reform the culture along the lines of Utopian thinking. Early on in Tau Zero, there is the suggestion that the crew of the Leonora Christina will attempt a new community based on free love but the circumstances of their journey as well as of human nature itself prevents it from emerging. At the end, the ship survives the end of this universe and enters a new one through a second Big Bang, but it is strongly implied that the laws of this new universe will be no different than those of the last, just as the the ship’s crew will not only re-perpetuate the human race in this Brave New Universe, but re-establish civilization and the laws that keep it stable and functioning. The universe is what it is and not what we wish it to be. And it will continue to be so, onwards, to the end of time.