Category: Classic Science Fiction

An analysis of “At the End of the Mechanical Age” by Donald Barthelme

An analysis of “At the End of the Mechanical Age” by Donald Barthelme

wallpaper-weird-fantasy-world

The story is at its heart a lament for the end of the mechanical age and a critical examination of the superficiality and commercialism that typified that period of history. The story is broken into four parts the first two each contain a separate song. The first song is sung by the protagonist and the second by his companion Mrs. Davis. The second two parts concern the marriage of the protagonist (Tom) and his companion and the last part their eventual divorce. The characters both celebrate the passing of the age but at the same time fear the unknown age coming. Mrs. Davis states that, “I feel in my bones that it will be an age inimical to personal well-being and comfort” (Barthelme).

It is important to note that God makes several appearances throughout the story. Fist he is a meter reader who checks on how much electrify is being used then again he appears to enjoy the destruction he is causing in the wake of a global flood. The story can be seen as an elaborate lament of the death of spirituality. Electricity has been discovered to be spiritual Grace. Man has rendered through science the control over the spiritual. The fact that God is destroying the world once again by flooding it could represent the falseness of God’s promise to man.  These religious metaphors continue into the songs. Our protagonist sings a song about Ralph. Ralph is a beautiful character perfect yet tragically flawed. He is most certainly the embodiment of the Anti-Christ the perfect salesman. He is even described as having hoofed feet and he is “coming” for us all.

Mrs. Davis’ song is no less religious in nature. She sings about a character named Maude. Maude is certainly a stand in for the biblical character of Eve. She is described as being under a church dome and yearning the first “yearn”. Obviously this is an allusion to the temptation of Eve by Lucifer in the Garden of Eden. Maude also named all the tools in the world while I could probably make a sexual reference here it certainly seems she was around at the beginning if she was the one who had the job of naming things much as God gave Adam the job of naming the animals. In the end they both decide they must move on into the new age even if it will be uncomfortable. This seems to place the story into the context of Adam and Eve. Here are two characters who are forced out of their comfortable existence into one of uncertainty and possible strife.

In the second half of the story God is now seen as hiding. First behind a tree (the Tree of Knowledge perhaps) then behind a table (shades of the last supper).  God is more separate from Tom and Mrs. Davis further from them than he had been in the first two sections of the story. Tom tries to speak with God and his thoughts are very prayer like, but God disappears and Tom assumes it is to read the meters again. Here again is an absent God who does not hear our prayers. The story ends with the divorce of Tom and Mrs. Davis. They have a child and then go their own way each following Ralph (commercialism) or Maude (knowledge) but not God. God is manning the generators and ensuring light and grace at the end of the age.

The story illustrates the death of religion in the mechanical age and the rise of commercialism and scientific progress. Man follows that which is rational to him and wrestles the irrational such as the supernatural into rational concepts. Even though we do these things we still seem to need to see the world in terms of irrational belief. The marriage is certainly a study in irrationality. The rules make little sense but we engage in marriage because we still have a sense of magic and spirituality that even the mechanical age has not taken from us.
 

 

Barthelme, Donald. Sixty Stories. New York: Putnam, 1981. Print.

Futurism and Modernism in Conflict: How Science Fiction Saved the Future

(Quick note: These examples of futurism are provided to give a brief overview of the types of works which reached across from literature to film and are not meant to represent a full accounting of the hundreds of authors and stories that informed the futurist movement between the two wars)

  

     In his seminal work Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, Modris Eksteins develops a thesis that World War I is responsible for any number of the modern world ills; from the coarsening of public artistic performance to the emergence of Fascism and in particular the horrors of Nazism. This paper will seek to counter some of Eksteins’s contentions and present a secondary analysis of the cultural climate that grew out of the First World War. Alongside the modernist movement there was a second cultural trend that grew out of the First World War. This trend transcended the modernist penchant for nihilism and sought to put a positive and progressive face on the future. Out of this cultural movement grew much of our modern world, our technology, and our modern idea of human equality. The most important thing this cultural trend brought about is how Western society looks at the future. This was a futurist movement; one in which depictions of the future, while not always perfect, were certainly wreathed with hope. This hopeful and powerful message was almost universally accompanied by an open-minded and progressive social and political message. One in which mankind transcends its childhood and the petty bickering that brought about the Great War. This movement predicted man would inherit the stars if only he embraced his fellow man.

      Eksteins laments the rise of the Nazis and the modernist movement believing the ideas of the modernists “in striving for freedoms… have acquired the power of ultimate destruction”[1]. Eksteins’s view of the world is based on a pessimistic belief that modernism had infected all aspects of society’s cultural and social life blood. This modernism would be the foundation for the changes brought about by the war and lead ultimately to the extremes of fascism. The modernist movement was art meant to challenge traditional morals and free man from the constraints of the prior age. This movement sought to replace the old conservative beliefs utterly even if it meant revolution or even war. The rise to power of Hitler brought about a new wave of modernist thought; one that sought to murder tradition and reform society in his image.  It was a movement that lacked a moral compass and those who embraced it saw themselves above the morals of any age.  Hitler would ride this wave of modernism from the Rites of Spring into the Reichstag and bring with him artistic as well as cultural nihilism. “Nazism was a headlong plunge into the future.”[2] Hitler sought to create a new world and a man of the future. A human being divorced from morals owing allegiance only to the nation. This was the culmination of the modernist idea, a man of tomorrow- the nihilistic superman.

      Where modernism invaded the elite levels of society turning the art world upside down and creating spectacle out of art, and monsters out of men, the futurist movement invaded the more pedestrian levels of society.  The penny dreadful gave way to the pulp novel and anthology industry of the early 1920’s. The futurists were just finding their footing after the war. They found a home in the lurid covers of the pulp magazines displacing the aging Gothic horror stories with tales of ray guns and heroes like Buck Rogers.  These new pulp writers rejected both the conservative ethos of the past and the nihilistic ethos of modernism. Instead they embraced a new moral philosophy. This futurist philosophy envisions a different kind of superman than the modernists. The futurist Overman was a moral paragon. He believed in equality not just between men and women, but between the races. He would assert that there was only one race and that was the human race. These new writers wrote about overcoming the short falls of mankind through the application of his intellect. The futurist movement was even embedding itself in the old guard of science fiction writers. H.G Wells’ tone of writing changed dramatically after the war. Moving away from tales that depicted the morose and dark end of the human race or an island full of subhuman monsters that hinted at the base animal nature of man himself, Wells moved into more upbeat and dramatic stories like The Shape of Things to Come in which the future while at times bleak still holds hope for mankind. This different type of science fiction begins to see the light of day at the movies as well. A host of movies with futurist themes begin to crop up targeted at the middle and lower classes. These movies captured the imagination of the people who viewed them and often changed the way the average person thought about how the future would unfold. The culmination of the futurist movement would be a hope and optimism about man’s future.

     Wells lays out an outline for the futurist movement in the introduction of The Shape of Things to Come. Here he discusses the fact that the world must come to grips with its own power and that the time has come for the world to look at itself as one community of men rather than separate countries. “Steam power, oil power, electric power, the railway, the steamship, the aeroplane, transmission by wire and aerial transmission followed each other very rapidly. They knit together the human species as it had never been knit before.”[3] The very essence of futurism is the idea that the human race is an innovative and technologically advanced people who must stand together and stride forward together into the future. Of course this is a very Utopian idea and even Wells realized it would be an idea that could only be accomplished through an application of force which as a pacifist he abhorred. Thus The Shape of Things to Come becomes a treatise on the application of kindly force. This idea of the force for good that protected civilization against the enemies of tolerance and fellowship became almost ubiquitous in futurist literature and informs such modern genre staples as Star Trek’s Federation.

 

     Even before Wells had a chance to write The Shape of Things to Come the ideas of futurism were infecting the pulp literary scene. Anthony “Buck” Rogers (as he was called in the novel) premiered in 1928 in a pulp publication called Armageddon 2419 AD.  This novel by Francis Phillip Nowlan would be an unwitting blue print for the ideas of futurism. It contains all the tropes associated with the movement. It not only had rayguns, flying packs, and rockets, but it also included social commentary. Social commentary would be the staple that bound together the entire futurist movement. Anthony Rogers was also a new type of man. The character had been a soldier in the Great War. He had become an engineer upon coming home and had been thrust into the future because of an accident in a mine. He was a fish out of water. A character who was used to examine and comment on the social and political customs of the future with little or no reason given for why he was doing this. From his perspective we learn about the future and how that future was different from our own time. This is an important part of the futurist model in the early years and this trope would recur time and again as a descriptive methodology.

 

  The women in Nowlan’s novel particularly Wilma Derring are the equals of any man[4]. This was not just a rehash of the “New Woman” feminist from the Victorian period. Wilma Derring and women in the pulps often not only broke stereotypes they were in fact the heroes. Looking at the pulp novel covers one may think these women are little more than damsels who were in need of saving. That was advertising what the reader discovered inside was often an entirely different story.  In his book Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965, Eric Leif Davin contends that in the 1920s and 1930s women writers in particularly feminists often wrote for the pulp science fiction market and brought in very active and powerful female characters. “In their stories we find women as social reformers, abolishing war, and transforming government and society.”[5] This speaks to both the influence of women in the early futurist movement and the power of their ideology which is a polar opposite of that of modernism. While the contributions of these early female authors would be forgotten and even written out of the history of science fiction during the more conservative 1950s their contribution and humanizing of the genre early on gave the futurist movement a more socially conscious foundation. Strong female characters would persist in the literature of the movement even if they were not translated into visual depictions on the pulp covers or in the movies. 

 

      Besides the feminist overtones these novels also introduced the common science fiction trope of the authoritarian and fascist government that had to be overthrown by the heroes. This could be viewed as a direct assault against the nihilism of the modernist movement. Hitler could have easily fit into the role of any of the dictator type characters that had become a common pulp science fiction trope by the 1930s.  Ming the Merciless who was Flash Gordon’s nemesis was particularly prophetic. While Ming could be seen as a very direct allusion to the “Yellow Menace” his appearance and attitude is much more in keeping with Hitler and Nazism. These villains began to take on even more Nazi like traits in the science fiction serials as the run up to the Second World War began. Wells’s novel The Shape of Things to Come would be translated into film in 1936. It too would prophetically predict the atrocities of men like Hitler, warning the viewer that “If we don’t end war, war will end us.”[6]. 

   Besides the social aspects of the futurist movement, which are important, the main thrust of the movement is the attempt to envision the future. Technological advancements and how these achievements would revolutionize the future is the main aspect which sets it apart from the other social and cultural movements. We know that the plups made everything from rockets to ray guns popular, but it was often the small things that made the most impact on the audiences. Small innovations first visualized from reading about them or seeing them in movies would entrance the public. If in a year or two after seeing or reading about these innovations they were suddenly part of real life the audience became more willing to suspend their disbelief and believe that futurism really did hold the key to the future. Little known today the movie Transatlantic Tunnel featured a host of time saving and entertaining futuristic devices that were merely background props, but would soon become reality. Released in 1935 the movie depicts the building of a railway tunnel under the Atlantic between Great Britain and the United States. The movie features innovation that was unheard of in 1935. Video phones, pocket sized radio phones, live feed global television etc are all seen in the film as a common and unremarkable part of the future[7].  The movie is grounded in such a way that it plays out not as some futuristic epic, but as a time just a few years into the future. The clothing and the sets are familiar to the viewer. These inventions are treated as inevitable eventualities not fantastic creations of an unreachable and unknowable distant future. This is the allure of futurism and this is how it took hold in the minds of average people. They expected the world to conform to this new model. This model allowed the creation of today’s world a world in which progress is inevitable. Futurism provided the modern world with that expectation of the newer better model of ever invention just around the corner.

  
       The futurist movement was not a movement that attracted as much attention as the modernist movement. It was a movement outside of the society elites and spoke directly to the middle class. It crept along quietly infecting the masses with ideas of ray guns, rockets, cell phones, and computers. It was a movement that spoke to the future and offered to people ways to look at society in new and innovative ways. Here was a secret almost furtive movement that became an avalanche. The Futurist movement slowly fulfilled its promises with one technological innovation after another. A man transported in time from 1880 to 1940, a mere 60 years, would barely have been able to fathom the technological changes. These changes were heralded not by the modernists, but by the futurists.  Middle class kids who grew up on Buck Rogers’s pulps and H.G. Wells novels in the 1920s and 1930s became engineers and scientists who made their childhood dreams into reality. The same kids who went to the movies to watch Metropolis and The Transatlantic Tunnel would create technological wonders that rivaled anything they watched on the movie screen. 

These same kids would grow up and face off with the modernist ideology of Hitler and Nazis. World War Two would be the climax in a struggle not just for territory or political power it would be ultimately a struggle between two competing philosophies. These philosophies could not exist in harmony. They were natural enemies in a struggle to tame the future. Modernism rejected the past, but sought to remake the future in a cacophony of violence and disruption. Futurism also sought to throw off the conservative past, but sought a future of progress both technologically and socially. Futurism did not wish to throw away morality it sought a new morality one more humane than what had gone before. This did not mean that the futurist idealist would not fight to protect the future they envisioned. Wells had laid the ground work in The Shape of Things to Come. The future was worth fighting for and it was the futurist movement, born out of the conflict of the First World War, that provided the inspiration for the machines that would eventually end the Second World War, and begin the modern age.

  

End Notes

 

 

1. Modris Eksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000),14.

2 . ibid, 303.

3.  H.G. Wells, The Shape of Things to Come (London: Gollancz, 2011), 22.

4. Philip Francis Nowlan, Armageddon–2419 A.D. (Project Gutenburg.Urbana:University of Illinios, 2010), http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/32530/pg32530.txt (accessed November 30, 2013).

5.Eric Leif Davin, Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction, 1926-1965 (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2006), 234.

6.  Things to Come, Directed by William Cameron Menzies, 1936 (Chatsworth, CA: Image Entertainment, 2001), DVD.

7.  Transatlantic Tunnel, Directed by Maurice Elvey, 1935 (Hollywood, Calif: PRS Productions. 2009), DVD.

 

The Girl Adventurer Comes of Age: Heinlein, Feminism, and the Juvenile Novel

The Girl Adventurer Comes of Age: Heinlein, Feminism, and the Juvenile Novel

 

In the early days of science fiction the genre was almost entirely the domain of male heroes. While female characters existed in science fiction they were generally the love interest of the hero, his mother, or a convenient damsel in distress. There are a few notable exceptions. Wilma Deering in Philip Francis Nowlan‘s 1929 novel Armageddon 2419 A.D is a capable and commanding female character. To a lesser extent, the same can be said of Dale Arden in Alex Raymond‘s Flash Gordon. These women were momentary aberrations in science fiction and even they were soon to be relegated to the damsel in distress and love interest roles in later publications. A handful of other female characters exist that would challenge the traditional roles, but no science fiction author wrote consistently strong females into his work until Robert Heinlein. This is especially true of the juvenile market. One would be hard pressed to find a science fiction novel marketed for teens produced before the middle 1960s with a strong female character…..except for those of Heinlein.

Heinlein began writing his juvenile novels in 1947 for Scribner. In all he wrote twelve of these novels most all of them centering on a precocious young boy at odds with an often violent but fascinating universe. In that time Heinlein changed the juvenile adventure novel forever and in many ways he changed the face of science fiction as well.

Heinlein added a new dimension to science fiction stories. Before him the female character had a very specific and submissive role. That would not be the case with Heinlein. Heinlein’s female characters were equal to any male character. In a scene from the Heinlein juvenile novel Tunnel in the Sky, Rod Walker a young boy about to embark on his adventure is given advice from his older sister. The advice is about survival on an alien planet and she gifts him her favorite knife  “Lady Macbeth” and tells him not to be overconfident or it could get him killed. Not only is her advice sound, it comes from authority. She is a soldier and the equal of any man who may be giving this type of advice. Further into the book we find Rod teaming up with girls from his survival class. Not only do they not need saving, they are more prepared than Rod or any of the boys who have been sent to survival training. This is a revolution in story telling for young boys. Here is a novel aimed at the tween/teen demographic that not only shows that some girls are better and smarter than boys  it also includes veiled sexual situations with powerful females that are more than the traditional platonic friendships. This book was published in 1955 in the same year Tom Swift had still never held hands with his love interest, the Hardy boys barely spoke more than a sentence in each novel to theirs, and Biggles the main British juvenile hero was left wondering if he even liked girls. Love interest or not Heinlein had grabbed the juvenile market and injected females and feminism into the mix.

Heinlein not only introduces us to interesting and engaging female characters he goes deep into sociological explorations of female centric cultures. These are not the sex crazed Martian women of so many 1950’s science fiction movies but examination of living cultures. According to C.W. Sullivan in his article Heinlein’s Juveniles: Still Contemporary After All These Years he states,  Space Cadet is important because it contains the first of Heinlein’s interesting aliens, the Venerian natives. All of the Venerians with whom Matt and his friends come in contact are females. The group is headed by a female, the “mother,” and the others are her “daughters.” Matt finds himself being referred to as a “daughter” and his superior, Lt. Thurlow, referred to as his “mother.” (Sullivan 65)  here Heinlein is at his best as the anthropological storyteller leading his youthful charges in a National Geographic tour of the solar system. Introducing young boys to concepts that they would have never experienced until they were in college in 1950’s America. Heinlein had leaped light years ahead of the other children’s literature that was being published at the time. According to Marrietta Frank, “Although the females portrayed in Heinlein’s juveniles break the stereotypical roles most females were assigned in science fiction stories, especially stories of the late 1940s to the early 1960s, Heinlein is all but ignored by feminist science fiction critics.” (Frank 119)

There was one thing Heinlein had yet to do and it was not until 1963 that he published what would be one of the most important pieces of science fiction in feminism. With the publication of Podkayne of Mars Heinlein accomplished something that no one had done before, he gave juvenile science fiction it’s first girl centered adventure novel. Podkayne is written in the boy adventure novel vein but instead of the typical teen boy here we have a typical teen girl as hero. This should be a landmark in feminism and in children’s literature. Frank suggests that feminists dismiss Podkayne and all Heinlein’s juvenile work because in the novels  some of the female characters disregard feminism and seek very traditional gender roles. Podkayne for instance has trouble deciding whether to be a space pilot or a mother. “In Heinlein’s juveniles, readers will find examples of female characters in traditional females roles. Heinlein also peoples his juveniles with strong female characters, often in untraditional female roles. Because Heinlein chose to show females in both types of roles, Heinlein’s juveniles reflect today’s society, even though he began writing them more than fifty years ago” (Frank 130). Regardless of the dismissal by feminists themselves, Heinlein’s work is the culmination of feminism in juvenile fiction.

You would be hard pressed today to find a juvenile adventure novel without a strong female character. You may be hard pressed to find a boy adventure novel marketed solely to the male audience. The genre has begun to fade as juvenile fiction begins to blend male and female characters together. This is legacy of Heinlein. His novels began the integration of the strong male and female protagonists and led to the combination of male and female gender roles in boy and girl adventure fiction. Would a Hermione Granger exist without the influence of the genius girl child Podkayne? Would Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials have as it’s protagonist the plucky little girl that went up against the religious establishment of her entire world without the confident and intelligent female colonists in Tunnel in the Sky? It is hard to say, but the Heinlein juveniles did change how people looked at females in  male dominated adventure literature. Children who grew up reading those books did take away something from them.  That something has helped create our current literary world. From the sailing ships of the Victorian period and the boys who jumped a ship, were shanghaied, and were washed onto deserted islands to massive starships of the future cruising through the solar system the male/female dynamic continues to be illustrated through the literature of our youth.  Over the past hundred years in boy adventure fiction women have slowly climbed out of their traditional roles from mother and love interest all the way to equal partners. Sometimes they are even more than equal in the adventures that boys read and take to heart. While the prejudices of the past are never gone completely the time of the women who knows “her place” is over… Long live the strong, intelligent, adventurer.

 

Heinlein wrote something in his novel Tunnel in the Sky that sums up his belief in the power of the feminine…

“I’ve said this nineteen dozen times but you still don’t believe it. Man is the one animal that can’t be tamed. He goes along for years, peaceful as a cow, when it suits him. Then when it suits him not to be, he makes a leopard look like a tabby cat. Which goes double for the female of the species.”(Heinlein 6)

 

Works Cited:

 

C. W. Sullivan III, Heinlein’s Juveniles: Still Contemporary After All These Year.
Children’s Literature Association Quarterly – Volume 10, Number 2, Summer 1985, pp. 64-66 Web 25 Nov. 2011

 

Frank, Marietta, Women in Heinlein’s Juveniles. Young Adult Science Fiction. Ed. C. W. Sullivan, III. Greenwood Press, 1999. p119-130. Web 28 Nov. 2011

 

Heinlein Robert A., Tunnel in the Sky. NewYork: Simon and Schuster, 2005 Print.

Wagon Train to the Stars*: How the American Frontier Experience Created Modern Science Fiction

Wagon Train to the Stars*: How the American Frontier Experience Created Modern Science Fiction

Frederick Jackson Turner changed the face of American history when he introduced his thesis on the importance of the American Frontier experience in 1893. While not initially embraced his work is seminal in understanding how historians and even the public viewed the frontier for almost a hundred years. In Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner we find a succinct series of essays on the American frontier and how it shaped the United States. This powerful collection of essays encompasses Turner’s frontier thesis. No single American Historian has had such an effect on our culture. His ideas are so poignant that they stretch well outside academia. His revolutionary rethinking of the American frontier reached out from the classroom into boardrooms and even colored public policy decisions. So pervasive were his ideas we can now see how these ideas became the basis for segments of American pop-culture.  The introduction to Turner’s book suggests that his thesis of the frontier as the lifeblood of the American character resonated with academia and the public alike. Turner’s readers believed that his work gave reason to the economic downturn that accompanied what they saw as the closing of the West in 1890. To them the end of the frontier meant that America was in the doldrums and new frontiers needed to be opened for America to prosper. They believed they had been shaped by the frontier experience into a people who thrived on the cusp of the unknown and needed frontiers to bolster their individualist spirit.

The rise of science fiction in the early part of the twentieth century can be directly traced to the closing of the Western frontier. Frontier themes permeate early American science fiction. These are tales of high adventure featuring exploration of unknown lands, meeting the natives, and often blasting them with ray-guns. The meshing of Science Fiction and the frontier experience begins in 1898 with the first piece of “fan fiction” Edison’s Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss . This novel which is an unofficial sequel to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds sets the stage for all modern space opera.  It introduces the audience to almost every aspect of American science fiction. These ideas would dominate the Science Fiction genre until the 1960s.  It is in Serviss’ novel that we see the first hint of the American Frontier in Science Fiction. Where the original story by Wells is a tale of survival against all odds, Serviss’ story is an all American tale of frontier individualism conquering against an unknown and implacable foe. It ties directly into the popular ideas of the American West being promoted in the dime novels of the late 1800s. Later writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs would again revisit these same frontier themes in his Martian stories. Time and again American fiction would probe the new frontier of space carrying with it a cowboy mentality only now dressed up in a spacesuit instead of a stetson and carrying his trusty ray-gun instead of a colt. Native Americans transformed into Aliens ready to play both bad-guy and guide in the new frontier. Is it any wonder that science fiction and American frontier mythology share many of the same genre tropes. Both share in the exploration and conquering of the unknown. Science fiction in America was fiction powered by a cultural belief in “Manifest Destiny”.

This returns us to Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis. It had and still to some extent has reverberations throughout American society. American History according to Turner is the history of the frontier. Our entire culture revolves around our unique origin.  Every society needs its myths and legends and this is especially true of America with it’s population composed of such disparate origins and background. The frontier provides us with a collective myth on which to base our shared experience as Americans. We are all cowboys, we are all mountain men, we are all astronauts, and we are all seeking the next frontier.

 

Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, By Frederick Jackson Turner with commentary by John Mack Faragher. New York, NY: H Holt & Company, 1994. 255 pages

*Gene Roddenberry used this phrase to sell Star Trek to TV executives

Tribute to a Stainless Steel Rat

Tribute to a Stainless Steel Rat

I just found out that Harry Harrison passed away this morning at the age of 87. I want to express my condolences to his family. Harry Harrison touched many lives including my own. I can’t express the joy I had reading the adventures of slippery Jim DiGriz over the years. I normally hate stories about criminals but Jim was just the right kind of criminal. Not a villain in any sense of the word but a man who was bored by a society that was too artificial, too controlled, and just to damn uptight. The “Rat” was not Harrison’s only creation by a long shot and his other work stands just as exulted in the annals of science fiction. Who doesn’t know what soylent green is made of? We owe at least the inspiration for Soylent Green if not the product itself (cannibalism was added by the filmmakers) to Harrison’s novel Make Room, Make Room.  He was also an Illustrator for EC comics and an anthology editor. He is credited with raising the standards of science fiction as literature by creating strict guidelines for the anthologies he was involved with.

Harrison was a visionary. He understood something about the human condition and how to make people laugh. That is something most writers today miss. We all have a little bit of Slippery Jim in us and that’s why Harrison’s writings will stay fresh forever.

Please take a moment today to remember one of science fiction’s great story tellers.

In Honor of the Olympics…I present The Year of the Sex Olympics (Video NSFW)

(note there are some scenes of female frontal nudity)

This year as most of us know the Olympics are being held in The United Kingdom. In honor of that I present a movie made for the BBC back in 1968. The Year of the Sex Olympics has very little to do with the “Sex Olympics” and everything to do with exploring a future Utopia/Distopia where citizens of a world government are placated and made apathetic by a constant stream of television designed specifically to remove any ambition to act and to relieve all tension in society. How do they carry out this feat? By constant and total immersion into a world of reality TV.

This movie is well worth watching and the entire thing is available for streaming over You Tube at the link above. Allow me to direct your attention to some aspects of the movie you may want to ponder.

1. The actors constantly avoid the use of the word “is” or “to be”. In the late 1960’s one of the ideas that had been generated out of a study of General Semantics was called E-Prime. E-prime promoted the idea that the English language should abolish all use of the verb “to-be”.  The belief was that the verb “to be” created a rational imbalance. Objects either are something or they are not and the idea of being was not needed in speech. Removing the word removes all judgement and all that remains is experience. Without judgement there can not be prejudice and people will be less likely to act on incomplete information (at least this was the theory). This is an important aspect of the movie.  People in that society are encouraged to feel and not to think. To experience vicariously through others and not to judge anything for themselves. This lack of judgement creates a lack of action and a lack of creativity.

2. When one of the characters who is an “Artist” begins to create art that has actual meaning, rather than the abstract art which he has been employed to create for the Television show “Art Sex”,  his art creates tension and makes the audience feel negative emotions. I find this particularly interesting looking at the current movement in the arts which stress abstract art in which the viewer creates the meaning and not concrete art in which the artist seeks to elicit a particular emotion in the viewer.

3. The importance placed on the idea that the viewers can be relieved of tension and negative emotion by viewing the mishaps and misfortunes of others on the TV. This idea is at the heart of this movie and it examines the idea that we feel better about ourselves when we consider the failings of others.

4. Take a good look at the chess playing machine. The characters do not play chess against the machine. It plays chess against itself. Again we see that this society favors voyeurism over action. Do not think, do not create, let the machine think for you. Let others do while you watch, Be Apathetic.

Really think about this movie and compare it with our own society. Look at how segments of the population are encouraged to not think, not act, but they are encouraged to harmlessly emote. This is an indictment of our own society where we see the beginnings of all things being derived from the charity of the state. The same state which seeks to placate the masses with bread and circuses. Do we live at the beginning of the Year of the Sex Olympics and not even realize it?