Category: Letters of Marque

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…

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

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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

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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.

Movie Review: THE CONGRESS

Movie Review: THE CONGRESS

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At one point early in THE CONGRESS, the agent (Harvey Kietel) for the lead character tells a studio head “No science fiction films. They’re all stupid and my client doesn’t do stupid stuff.” We laugh knowingly because at its very best, science fiction is the most intelligent and provocative of genres, and THE CONGRESS is a noble attempt to make a science fiction film that appeals to art-house audiences, something that has become more popular as of late (see also UPSTREAM COLOR and I ORIGINS). There are, in fact, two potentially very good science fiction films lying at its heart, but it seems torn over deciding which one it should be.

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Written and directed by Ari Folman (WALTZ WITH BASHEAR), THE CONGRESS is ostensibly adapted from a novel by Stanislaw Lem, who notoriously disliked every film adaptation of his work for not being exactly like the original stories. It’s a safe bet he wouldn’t have approved of this one as well. Robin Wright, the talented and well-respected actress best known for such movies as FORREST GUMP and THE PRINCESS BRIDE but who has been less visible than she should be as of late, plays Robin Wright, a talented and well-respected actress best-known for such movies as FORREST GUMP and THE PRINCESS BRIDE, but who has been less visible than she should be as of late. To pay for the medical bills of her son, who is gradually losing both his sight and hearing, she agrees to a unique deal from Miramount Studios (gee, now there’s an original name!): they will digitally scan her likeness and voice into a computer-generated likeness that the studio will be able insert as they wish into any movie or advertisement of their choice. So far, so good. It’s a well-worn premise that has been used in such films as Michael Crichton’s LOOKER and Andrew Niccol’s S1M0NE, as well as Connie Willis’ novel Remake and the unproduced Rene Daalder-Rem Koolhass script HOLLYWOOD TOWER (intended for Russ Meyer!), but the film shows signs of going in a fresh new direction. Instead, it goes straight off the beaten path as we jump twenty years later, with Wright slated to attend The Futurist Congress of the title, and science fictional focus is itself redirected towards a new designer drug that can affect external as well as internal reality. That premise was used repeatedly by Philip K. Dick in such novels as Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, so it’s appropriate that the film shift to the rotoscoped animation that Richard Linklater also used in his adaptation of Dick’s A SCANNER DARKLY. Although striking, the animation is unfortunately also unimaginative and unappealing, resembling a garish cross between Max Fleischer and Peter Bagge, and the story during this segment is largely left to endless talk between Wright and another inhabitant of The Congress (boringly voiced by Jon Hamm) that tries to explain what is going on and pound away the film’s themes.

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Can I recommend THE CONGRESS? Not really, especially if I was to judge it on how the audience I attended with reacted: at least two people walked out and the woman behind me growled that she hated it as the lights went up. Most critics, on the other hand, seem to have enjoyed it while admitting confusion. From my own personal perspective, I admired what the film was trying to do, and that the two main science fiction “hooks” of the film are used in an attempt to do what the genre does best, examining how innovations in technology affect both societies and personal lives. On the other hand, it seems to me that writer-director Folman is juggling with too many balls in the air; good science fiction sticks with a premise and extrapolates it to the end, or tries to find a way to successfully make connections between them, and this hasn’t happened here. In the end, we are just left with familiar bromides about fantasy-vs.-reality, and how the media and celebrity culture sell illusions, none of which are particularly profound or original.

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One very good reason to watch THE CONGRESS is for the performance by Robin Wright, one of our most consummate professionals as well as an extremely fine actress. Some may wonder what the big deal is about an actress “playing herself,” but as with BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, the lead performer is not really playing herself, but a character in a world parallel to our own that happens to share some strong similarities, and it’s a much more challenging and difficult part than one might think. Wright, as always, is up to the task. We again laugh when the studio head berates Wright for her bad choices, as the real-life actress is well known for having made excellent decisions with both her parts and how she has played them. This time, it’s the movie that’s indecisive.

Interview: Godzilla Fan and Writer Armand Vaquer

Interview: Godzilla Fan and Writer Armand Vaquer

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With the new Godzilla film scorching up the box office and also proving to be a surprising critical hit as well, we thought this was a good time to consult an expert in the field. Armand Vaquer, author of The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide to Japan, has long been a fan of Godzilla and other Japanese giant monsters, and has been active in G-fandom for years. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his time in fandom and shed some light on an often-misunderstood genre and fan subculture.

 

1.Thanks for granting us this interview Armand! Tell us a little first about your own history with Godzilla and your involvement with Japanese fantastic film fandom.
Well, the first time I saw Godzilla was in 1962 when Los Angeles station KHJ-TV Channel 9 ran “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” one afternoon. I was playing outside on our front porch with a friend and his mother yelled from across the fence that Godzilla was coming on television. So he ran off. My mom was standing at the door and I asked her what Godzilla was and she told me that he’s a big dinosaur. That interested me, so I went in and watched it and was hooked. Then, a year later, several friends and I were taken by my parents to see “King Kong vs. Godzilla” at the theater. Funny thing, a few years before she died, my mom told me that they took me to the drive-in to see “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” when I was two years old (that would be 1956). I have no memory of that.
I wrote for G-Fan magazine for nine years, mainly about landmarks and locations used in the movies. I also worked on different projects such as “Godzilla Week” in 2000, wrote Rick Dee’s narrative for the Godzilla float at the 2004 Hollywood Christmas Parade and the History of Godzilla speech for Johnny Grant for the Walk of Fame Dedication. The last two were at the request of Toho. I also organized the “Godzilla, King of the Monsters!” plaque at the former location of the studio where Raymond Burr was filmed. It is now an elementary school and the plaque is at the main entrance.
2.The term kaiju (like “steampunk”) gets frequently misinterpreted by those who are aware of the genre but unfamiliar with it; it frequently gets stretched and distorted to refer to any sort of giant monster film regardless of country of origin or any live-action science fiction film or TV show from Japan. For the benefit of our readers, can you explain the kaiju genre to them and how it should be distinguished from the broader genre of tokusatsu?
Well, tokusatsu generally means live-action special effects films of different genres shown on television or theatrically, including kaiju and super-heroes originating from Japan. Kaiju means literally strange creature. Daikaiju just means big strange creature.
3.You’re also the author of The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide to Japan. Tell us a little about this book, and how readers should use it.
The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide To Japan is a travel guide tailored to fans of kaiju movies (Godzilla, Gamera, etc.) to provide information on the locations and landmarks used in the movies and where they are, how to get there and what other attractions are nearby of interest. There’s some Ultraman places of interest as well in the book. Where available, I also included some accommodation places. It can be used either as a reference book on what locations and landmarks were used and what movies they appeared in. It is available in print form or as an ebook at Amazon’s Kindle Store. I will be publishing a revised second edition sometime next year. Work has already begun on it.
Many people have written to me that they found it very useful when they were on vacation in Japan.

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4. Our readers will undoubtedly be very interested to read about your lifelong political work as well; you’ve had quite a fascinating career! Have there been any interesting moments where your political and fan work coincided?
I was on three California national convention delegations for Ronald Reagan (1976, 1980 and 1984) and an area chairman for the Reagan campaigns. My political work tapered off when I got married and when my daughter was born. But the political contacts I have came in handy in getting the “Godzilla Week” and “Godzilla Month” proclamations through the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors through. I’ve known Supervisor Michael Antonovich since the 1970s and worked with him on the proclamations. He’s a big fanboy himself, so it was easy to get his help.
I worked as a field representative to Assemblyman Paul T. Bannai, the first Japanese-American to be elected to the state legislature in California, back in the 1970s. Working with him and the Japanese community in the Gardena area was useful in learning how to work with Japanese people. I also learned press work while working for Bannai, which also came in handy in later years.

5. We’ll wrap up by asking you what are your future writing plans, and what sort of future do you see for Godzilla here in the Americas after the critical and commercial success of the new film? And thank you once again!
At present, I am just writing for my blog, Armand’s Rancho Del Cielo and contributing to Monster Island News and working on an updated The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide To Japan.

It appears that Godzilla is a hit and plans are in progress for a sequel. I am guessing that Godzilla as a franchise in America will last about 2-3 movies, provided they don’t muck it up. If they have engaging stories, interesting monster foes for Godzilla to fight and great special effects, the franchise should last several movies. Why not? This may also spur Toho to get back into the kaiju game again. But I think the days of suitmation may be over, or more limited in Japan. Toho demolished their Big Pool during the past ten years, so they will probably go the CGI route.
I think they should let Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. carry the “Godzilla ball” for now and concentrate on reviving their other monsters such as Rodan and Mothra with a combination of models, suits and CGI. Or come up with new monster characters.

Thanks Armand! You can check out Armand’s Rancho Del Cielo for informative updates on Godzilla fandom, California politics, and more, and order The Monster Movie Fan’s Guide to Japan from his website or at Amazon Kindle!

 

Movie Review: Mood Indigo

Movie Review: Mood Indigo

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Some movies bend the rules or try to break them. This movie stretches them, squeezes them, then shapes them until it has formed its own set of narrative and visual rules. It is a film that could only be made in France, and even then, only by Michel Gondry. Of course it has cinematic antecedents of its own, almost all Gallic in origin as well; it feels at times that we are watching a three-way collaboration between the great talents of Jean Cocteau, Rene Clair and Jacques Tati. All the same, it belongs to that unique cinematic niche Gondry occupies, one that fellow countryman Jean-Paul Jeunet, frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman and fellow acclaimed music video director and Kaufman cohort Spike Jonze inhabit as well, a distinctively modern cinema of the surreal. But Gondry bests all of them in his ability to take advantage of the full range of imaginative opportunities offered by contemporary cinema. He reminds me of the great Czech animator and director Karel Zeman in his ability and readiness to make use of as many available special effects techniques as possible, and to use them as imaginatively and creatively as he can. And Zeman himself was profoundly influenced by the pioneering work of George Melies, so once again, we return to France.

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Simply calling Mood Indigo a fantasy film is insufficient; whereas Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was seriocomic science fiction romance with fantasy trappings, Mood Indigo is a seriocomic romantic fantasy with science fiction trappings. Gondry’s film intersects genres and synthesizes them to the needs of its themes and storyline, creating a world of its own in the process. It exists in a universe with its own laws that seems to occupy the present day and obviously has a connection with the known historical past, but much of the imagery seems borrowed from the artwork of European science fiction magazines and comic books. Tiny robotic  doorbells scurry across floors, the police ride giant tank-like vehicles that resemble Imperial Snow Walkers designed by Robida, and lovers ride over the clouds in a Jetsons-like sky car manipulated by a crane. A TV chef personally crawls out of the screen to offer cooking lessons and the finished meals seem to be alive, the legs of dancers elongate like those of Reed Richards and they all float in the air in a crowded ballroom, and a mouse (actually an actor in a costume that seems to have been left over from a children’s TV show) that lives in a tiny simulacrum of the protagonist’s own home  behaves like a silent Greek chorus. These are but a few of the wonders that we witness in just the first half hour; the entire film is full of visual invention in every corner of each frame, and the effort put in by Gondry and his crew completely pays off. There is a tendency among modern viewers to grouse about the so-called lack of “realism” in special effects but what they really mean is that think that they should fulfill their expectations of what they consider to be realistic. Our expectations of realism are turned upside-down in Mood Indigo because we never know what to expect; it’s a universe where seemingly anything goes and there’s a new surprise in every scene.

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There is a plot, and I suppose I should discuss it as well. It is less in danger of being overwhelmed by the special effects than being overwhelmed by the sheer charisma of the exceptional cast Gondry has assembled. Romain Duris is Colin, a member of the discreetly charming bourgeoisie, living off a hefty inheritance in a spacious apartment that seems to have been rented from above Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. His best friend is the intellectual Chick (Gad Elmaleh), a disciple of pop philosopher Jean-Sol Partre, although his closest confidante is Nicholas (the marvelous Omar Sy, fresh off his triumphant turn in Les Intouchables), his lawyer and live-in chef. Colin spends his idle hours tinkering, his latest invention being a cross between a piano and an automated bartender that mixes drinks according to the notes you play. Colin’s life seems to be perfect, but he finally realizes something is missing in it when Chick announces he is engaged to the lovely Alise (Aissa Maiga); he also needs love in his life as well. He finds it when Nicholas introduces him to the equally lovely Chloe (Audrey Tautou, as beguiling as she was in Amelie, but this time more mature and a touch more sophisticated). They are soon married, but on their honeymoon, the petal of a water lily wafts through an open window. Chloe inhales it, and soon, the flower starts to grow within her lung, imperiling her. Colin is forced to actually go to work for the first time in his life as her health care costs escalate, and he takes a variety of very odd jobs. And as Chloe’s health breaks down, so do the relationships between the various characters.

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Many in the audience where I first saw the film (at the Windsor International Film Festival) were disappointed with the way the film changed direction from the bright, giddy opening act to a more serious, but no less visually audacious middle before reaching a somber conclusion. It did not proceed in the direction that they thought it should, and I assume they would have wished that if, it had at least not retained the cheery ambiance of the first half hour, to have at least tried to revive it towards the end. I’m reminded of the classic Black Orpheus (which despite being made on location in Brazil and having all its dialogue spoken in Portuguese, was made by a French director and production company), which opens with the dazzling and colorful images of the Carnival in Rio, and ends in tragedy for all amidst the squalor and desolation of the “real” city. But there is reason to Gondry’s rhythm. If Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was about our memories of love, Mood Indigo is about our actual experience of it, and Gondry is not using cinematic tricks and special effects simply as an excuse to show off, but to visualize the actual feelings and emotional states of his characters as they proceed through the entire arc of their relationships. It makes sense that the movie opens in vibrant color, only to have it fade gradually as the running time elapses, much as love itself, no matter how intense or genuine, abates over time. Mood Indigo may take place in a surreal world of fantastic imagery, but it deals with genuine emotions and situations that are part of most people’s real-world lives to begin with. It is a movie about genuine love and commitment, both romantic and platonic, the prices we pay and the risks we take for it, and tragedy, pain and loss are all very much a part of the entire experience. Under these circumstances, I cannot blame my fellow audience members for not liking the outcome of the film; how often do our own romances and relationships manage to completely meet our expectations as well?

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As I said earlier, this is a movie that could only be made in France, and beyond what it has to say about human emotions, it has also something profound to say about French society. Even amidst all the special effects and set decorations imposed on it, the real Paris is always visible and right beneath it, and the film aims to strip social illusions about real life in the city and nation even as it generates visual ones. The true turning point of the film is not when the water lily enters Chloe’s lungs but at the wedding ceremony, when the minister (a hilarious turn by Vincent Rottiers) pompously and solemnly declares at the end of the vows “let us hope they live a life free of work and ill health” (or words to that effect). It is at that point we learn that the real world and its concerns are a part of this universe as well, and the characters will have to deal with them. It is difficult for me, as an outsider, to say exactly what political and social messages the film might be trying to convey, although I’ll do my best at interpreting them. It is tempting for me to say that it is criticizing a French society that has become so dependent on a social safety net that its members are at a loss when they need to find work, but it is more likely that it is critical of a mixed-model health care system that fails to intervene for its most vulnerable citizens, and that there can be no freedom in wealth without security. The depiction of the relationship between the three male leads also has social relevance. Although Colin regards Chick as his best friend, he should really regard the loyal and dutiful Nicholas as being such, especially as the movie progresses and Chick starts to become so obsessed with his favorite philosopher that he forgets he even has friends to begin with. Nicholas, meanwhile, never wavers in his concerns for his friends even when he becomes helpless in aiding them, literally aging years in one day from all his efforts. While some of the movie’s social commentary is open to debate, it is indisputable that the film is critical of the lack of gratitude the upper and middle classes have towards working people and public servants. Considering their efforts on their behalf, the very least they deserve is their friendship.

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I have not read the original novel by Boris Vian upon which the film is based, so I cannot say if any social commentary in it has been carried over,  but Gondry has made the bold move of allowing the language of the novel to mold cinematic reality. It is an approach to cinema that very much recalls how French philosophes have approached the subject of language and social reality, and appropriately, both the French intelligentsia and the peculiar celebrity culture surrounding them also comes under critical examination. Although clearly the name “Jean-Sol Partre” is supposed to invoke Jean-Paul Sartre, as portrayed by Phillipe Torrenton, he more closely resembles a cyborg version of Michel Foucault, and his “philosophy” is little more than crackpot gibberish that nonetheless has a very hypnotic draw on his audiences, making him come off as a cross between Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Žižek. As Richard Weaver reminded us, ideas have consequences, even if they make no sense, and the consequences result in tragedy not just for the philosopher’s adherents but the philosopher himself.

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Mood Indigo was my third-favorite film among those I saw at the Windsor International Film Festival (after Gabrielle and The Great Beauty), and hopefully, it will soon get the wide North American release it deserves. It will also hopefully be more representative of what Gondry has in store for us in the future than The Green Hornet, which will instead be remembered as a mere aberration in his career, his own personal 1941 or Land of the Pharaohs. With Mood Indigo, Gondry definitively establishes himself as one of our best and most imaginative directors, someone who combines style and substance to create a cinema that is distinctly his own.

 

The Real Thing: An Intellectual Defense of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World

The Real Thing: An Intellectual Defense of Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby’s The Thing From Another World

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If you were to survey most of the reviews on the Internet, you probably wouldn’t realize that The Thing From Another World has not only long been considered to be a classic, but is one of the most important science fiction films ever made. And if you’re using the Internet exclusively as a resource, that’s part of the whole problem. Although even the very best science fiction films of the Fifties have had to struggle against unfair blanket criticisms and mischaracterizations, the case of The Thing from Another World is especially tragic, as not only is it a landmark film in the genre, it was one of the few science fiction films to attain a high degree of acclaim and respectability from mainstream critics and fans alike. Whereas it used to routinely be on the top of all-time best lists in the genre, it now rarely does so; instead it has become the object of sneering derision and contempt by genre snobs who are upset that it’s not exactly like the original novella and by amateur armchair critics who have an ignorant and uninformed bias against older films in general and older science fiction films in specific. A portent of this shift in perspective came when the film’s 50th anniversary rolled around in 2001, an occasion that should have merited a special edition DVD; instead, it received a bare-bones release, which is inexcusable considering the DVD was released by Warner Brothers (the film was originally released by RKO), which is well known for giving its classic films library the deluxe treatment. That this oversight was not rectified for the film’s 60th anniversary only further compounds the injustice being done to a film of such recognized historical and artistic importance, that it had previously been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

 

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Ironically, much of this decline in reputation stems from a tribute paid by some of the film’s greatest admirers. Like many other science fiction films of the era it was remade in the 1980s, and the reputation of John Carpenter’s The Thing has since gone from being merely gross to grossly overrated. Thanks to a combination of nostalgia, the baffling cult for director John Carpenter, and the contemporary attitude that views special effects and shock value as being more important than story and intellectual content, it may now be the most overrated science fiction film of all time. The attitude of fanboys across the Internet appears to be that this is one movie that is completely above criticism and is to be regarded as sacrosanct, and that one is obliged to share this opinion if one wishes to retain one’s credentials as either a science fiction or horror fan. Not satisfied with merely rescuing the reputation of “their” movie, they have also engaged in a spiteful campaign of denouncement against the 1951 film, waged on blogs, message boards, and review sites, not just aimed at diminishing its reputation but defaming its champions. When defending the original film, I have been personally attacked and told that I am not a “true” science fiction fan for preferring it, ostensibly because a “true” fan would only prefer that adaptation which hews more closely to the original premise in the source material for both films, John W. Campbell’s novella “Who Goes There?” Almost invariably, during these discussions, it becomes clear that either the Carpenter/Campbell adherent has obviously not seen the original movie at all or are basing their judgments on a single viewing many ages ago, riddled as they are with factual inaccuracies about the film and featuring the same tired, unsupported talking points, repeated over and over again without a single original thought provided.

  I will not, however, concentrate on comparing the two movies. For one thing, too much has already been written about the 1982 film; one of the most annoying habits of its cultists is the way they seemingly insist on making the movie the subject of every piece of film commentary on the Internet, and try to shoe in the most strained or ludicrous comparisons simply as an excuse to mention it. More importantly, I am far more interested in praising than burying, and so my primary focus will be in the defense of the original 1951 film, and in addressing the major criticisms that have been levelled at it over the years. As shall be seen, most of these are wrongheaded in nature, borne out of either misinterpretation or ignorance. The major controversy over the film, for many years, was over whether it was directed by the name on screen, Christian Nyby, or its producer Howard Hawks; it has now been well established that Hawks was not just the director of the film but supervised the entire creative process of the film closely to its completion. With the knowledge that one of the greatest American directors of all time is responsible for the film, it’s possible to provide a defense of the film based on its artistic merits in order to demolish other controversies swirling around it, which have to do with its qualities both as a film and as a work of science fiction.

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The most controversial change, one which science fiction fans have debated for years, is the elimination of the Protean, shape-changing nature of the alien in the original novella. Literary purists, of course, abound everywhere and tend to be extremely sensitive whenever a cinematic adaptation fails to be literally faithful to the letter of a particularly beloved or acclaimed literary work. In the realm of science fiction, The Thing from Another World is hardly alone in setting off purist hackles. To use two more examples, the film version of Starship Troopers is notorious for angering Heinlein fans by turning a thoughtful and profound social and psychological mediation on the role of military duty in society into a gory, cartoonish action film, and George Pal’s adaptation of Charles Finney’s The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao has been criticized for watering down the dark and sardonic portrait of humanity into a family-friendly fantasy film. But maintaining that a film adaptation must be completely faithful to its source material, and that it’s otherwise worthless if it fails to be so, is a thoroughly unrealistic assumption that belies a cultural and cinematic illiteracy. What a good adaptation should try to do is be at least as good as its source material, and I repeat, at the very least. Ideally, it should also improve upon it in the transition to a new format. On these grounds, The Thing From Another World ranks with Casablanca, The Godfather, Jaws and The Treasure of Sierra Madre as examples of film adaptations that are superior to their source material. Furthermore, along with Blade Runner, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Planet of the Apes and not least of all, 2001: a Space Odyssey, it demonstrates that an outstanding science fiction film can be made from a highly loose adaptation as well.

Those attacking the 1951 film for deviating too much from the original story are being not just hypercritical then,  but hypocritical; the same denunciation only gets launched against works such as Starship Troopers and Dune which were not only widely read by a mass audience but had massive cult followings surrounding them or their authors.  This hypocrisy is further evident by the way younger film buffs often list the remake of The Thing alongside those of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Fly (1986) as a trio of re-toolings of 1950s science fiction films that are allegedly superior to the original while repeating that fidelity to the original is one of the reasons to prefer the Carpenter film (why not call it John W. Campbell’s The Thing instead, then?). Yet not only are the original film versions of The Fly and Invasion of the Body Snatchers much closer to their original source material than their subsequent remakes, they’re arguably even more faithful than Carpenter’s film is to Campbell’s novella! Even more disingenuous is the way some of these same people will praise Paul Verhoeven specifically for being unfaithful to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers by choosing to “satirize” the material instead of filming a respectful adaptation! Regardless of genre, what ultimately matters is if an adaptation works as a movie, no matter how loose the treatment. The notorious 1995 film of The Scarlet Letter wasn’t a bad movie because of its ill-advised “modernization” of the film’s themes; it’s a bad movie because it was badly done on most levels. On the other hand, the 1939 film of Wuthering Heights (adapted by the team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who also wrote many of Howard Hawks’ greatest films is a great movie in spite of covering only the first half of the book and making significant alterations to both the plot and characters.

As it should be evident by now, when you translate a story from one medium to another, accommodations and modifications must be made, and this is something the more uninformed and obsessive members of the fan community never seem to learn. These criticisms of The Thing From Another World, which have dogged it since its original release, are among the first manifestations of the so-called “fanboy attitude” which has become all the more obvious in our Internet era, where comic book movies have become their own genre and regularly incite vitriol from fans who grow upset at the slightest deviation or artistic liberty taken with “their” books. A common thread with these discontents is the insistence that film adaptations must be made for the original audience or fanbase for a book instead of taking the broader public into account, a suicidal move for any film production.  The attacks on The Thing from Another World by certain members of the science fiction community are particularly revealing of their insularity and how out of touch they can sometimes be with outside concerns and realities (granted, this is true of the members of any fan movement that grows too obsessed and inward-looking).  The reverence accorded to John W. Campbell at the time, for his role as the editor of Astounding Science Fiction in which he discovered and mentored many of the great science fiction writers and helped push the genre towards literary maturity, was certainly a reason why hostility was so high; note that The Day the Earth Stood Still was itself a very loose adaptation of a story by Campbell’s predecessor at Astounding, Harry Bates, yet it has received almost none of the same criticism (except for dropping the story’s famous final line).

As for the changes made to nature of the alien, one must take into account that this was the first science fiction film to take the notion of extraterrestrial life seriously, and was being made not primarily for science fiction fans, but for the mass audience which was largely unfamiliar with written science fiction, much less the variations of alien biology that science fiction writers had already explored. Despite being derided for the abandonment of the shapeshifting motif, it was the right movie at precisely the right moment to introduce the wider public to what science fiction fans had been reading for the past twenty years. The alien not only did not need to retain its metamorphic nature, but to have done so would have been a distraction, too eccentric for an audience not yet familiar with the notion of extraterrestrial life. Subsequent films, beginning with Jack Arnold’s outstanding 1953 film It Came From Outer Space, would run with the idea, but nearly every science fiction film making use of the premise of alien possession or physical assimilation of human bodies, even those of such quality as both the 1956 and 1978 versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has run into narrative or logical roadblocks and loopholes that are more easily avoided in the prose fiction format.

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It is now known that at least one point early in production, Hawks did consider using the shape-changing aspect before discarding it, wisely so given the reasons given above, as well as the technical limits of the era and the budgetary limits afforded him. Those who claim it could have been done easily are frankly uninformed of the great difficulties involved in film production in any given period. The early drafts of the script also describe an alien very close to that featured in the novella, albeit taller, blue-skinned, with three red eyes, a sucker mouth, and a Medusa-like tangle of writhing tendrils for hair. Add a third eye to Star Trek‘s Salt Vampire, and you’ll have a good idea as to what the original script’s Thing looked like. Obviously, a much simpler creature was chosen; it turned out that in order to have it interact properly with actors, they needed to go with the man-in-suit-and-makeup route. This is a plain fact numerous later films would find out as well, much to the consternation of science fiction writers who point out the unlikelihood of humanoid beings evolving elsewhere. Ignorant and uninformed temporal snobs have condemned the film for featuring a humanoid “lumbering monster,” although curiously, the humanoid aliens of Star Trek, Babylon 5, Stargate SG-1, etc. don’t seem to provoke similar reactions from them, for the most part (nor do they seem to mind the “lumbering monsters” of all of today’s unimaginative and lookalike zombie movies, all of which owe at least a partial debt to The Thing From Another World, given that George Romero has credited the film as an influence on Night of the Living Dead ). Moreover, special effects technology had not advanced to the point where the sort of on-screen transformations demanded by the original story were possible, and even if they had been attempted, the multiple special effects and make-up jobs on different actors would have pushed the budget and schedule beyond the realm of economic viability. The sort of time-lapse effects that had transformed Lon Chaney into The Wolf Man, or the tricks with colored filters that turned Frederic March into Mr. Hyde were hardly up to the task, and even the late Ray Harryhausen, in his autobiography An Animated Life, claims he had offered them his services, although the obvious expenses involved in using stop-motion resulted in his getting brushed off early on in production.

One also wonders how many of those condemning the film for being an overly loose adaptation of its source material have actually bothered to read the original novella or indeed, to actually watch the original film. Although outwardly having seemingly little to do with “Who Goes There,” The Thing From Another World is more accurately described as an expansion of the first act of Campbell’s novella; nearly every aspect of the novella that reappears in the film is to be found in the first five chapters. It is during this act that the alien is retrieved, thawed, rampages through the Antarctic base, and is finally dispatched when it’s simultaneously torn apart by dogs and fried in an improvised electrical trap. Even such aspects of the film as the arguments over what to do with the frozen body of The Thing, the rapid clicking of the Geiger counter signaling its approach, and the suggestion that it can read minds are to be found in these first few chapters. What you won’t find is the shape-changing aspect that the fanboys hype as the whole raison d’etre for the entire story, and the absence of which supposedly makes the movie worthless. It is only during Chapter Six that we learn after the fact that the creature had been transforming itself during its fight with the dogs in the midst of a long-winded discourse on its physiology and biochemistry, making for some decidedly sloppy storytelling. The entire novella, in fact, suffers from severe deficiencies throughout: flimsy characterization, flat and unrealistic dialog, and the aforementioned sloppy story construction, as well as a simplistic three-act structure that results in a disjointed narrative where both the pedantic and the over-abbreviated mix uneasily. The 1982 film not only carried over many of those weaknesses, but wound up bungling the remaining strengths in the name of shock value and story expediency. Although parts are admittedly reasonably suspenseful, much of the lasting reputation of “Who Goes There” rests on that of Campbell’s as an editor (where he had no equal) and the central concept itself. Sad to say, but Campbell was much better at conceiving story ideas and assisting other writers than he was at writing himself; even his best works (this one and “Twilight”) are highly flawed, heavy on description and exposition, and dependent on the momentum of their ideas while being feather-light on characterization and narrative.

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Those same areas where “Who Goes There” is deficient in, The Thing From Another World excels at. Despite the criticisms leveled against it by purists, the screenplay of The Thing From Another World is considerably better written than its source material. Thanks to the formidable team of Ben Hecht and Charles Lederer, the characters are realistic and vividly drawn and their conflicts, motivations and personalities form the crux of the drama and the thrust of the narrative. The dialog, as one would expect of a Hawks film, is rich, snappy and if not exactly realistic, fulfills our expectations of how great dialog should sound like. The story keeps running non-stop with barely a moment’s breath, and while the film has its share of technical explanations, it never stoops to long-winded discourse. It’s surprising that seemingly no film scholar has made a study comparing Howard Hawks and Joss Whedon, because everything fans consider original to Whedon can be found in the Hawks canon, and nowhere is it more obvious than in this film: an emphasis on ensemble casts instead of leads; a running theme on the need for teamwork and cooperation in the face of adversity that results in a focus on group dynamics and conflict as a source of drama; strong female characters that wind up taking dominant positions in male-dominated organizations; swiftly choreographed action scenes, and of course, sparkling, witty dialogue delivered in a fast, overlapping style. Beyond the script and direction, the film also features marvelous performances by the entire cast (my personal favorites being those by Dewey Martin as the enthusiastic and ingenious crew chief, and John Dierkes as the physically and intellectually imposing Dr. Chapman), outstanding cinematography by Russell Harlan, and a chilling score by the versatile Dmitri Tiomkin. It’s no wonder then that the film has not only been beloved not just by a generation of science fiction fans, but revered by film critics and cinema buffs who are not necessarily themselves fans of the genre. Any film which is able to cross several different spheres of fandom and artistic interest to gain not just an avid following, but critical respectability must be doing something right.

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While The Thing From Another World is not just good but great film making, and on that level, an improvement on its source material, is it good science fiction? This is where the discussion gets particularly controversial, and even more interesting. Some have opined that the elimination of the shape-changing element also robbed the film of its credibility as science fiction, but such assertions belies not just a wrong-headed attitude toward assessing the genre but a profound ignorance of it as well. A novel premise is not enough to make something good science fiction; it’s the execution of the premise that counts. When someone sneers at the “intellectual carrot” of The Thing From Another World while pointing to the shape-changer in the novella as an example of what constitutes “good” science fiction, you can rest assured you’re dealing with the sort of attitude Kurt Vonnegut satirized with his character of Kilgore Trout, where a bad writer gains a fervent following amongst simple-minded and unsophisticated fans due to his wildly imaginative ideas. If they dislike the vegetable alien of The Thing, do they feel the same about those in Day of the Triffids and At the Mountains of Madness, to say nothing of Zhann from Farscape or Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy? In his collection Before the Golden Age, Isaac Asimov calls the film “financially successful but science-fictionally contemptible,” yet in the same volume, he rhapsodizes over how he was scared by the humanoid plant monsters conceived by Murray Leinster for his story “Proxima Centauri” and how they seemed like such an earth-shattering concept to him. So apparently, this snobbish attitude towards the film has little to do with its actual merits, and everything to do with its not being exactly like the original story (or not being the Carpenter film).

As indicated by its name, science fiction should deal in some way with science itself, but good science fiction is not about ideas per se, but science’s relationship with individuals and societies, and its speculations need a firm ground in scientific reality. On these grounds, the film version of the story more than passes the test. The Thing From Another World is the thinking person’s monster movie, the first film to seriously contemplate the nature of extraterrestrial life, and it remains one of the most intelligent and adult treatments of the subject matter. On the surface, the reduction of the original alien to an intelligent humanoid plant seems base and simplistic, but such a simplification made it more approachable to viewers in 1951, and further allowed the film makers to explain the possibilities of extraterrestrial life to members of the audience unfamiliar with the concept. The script uses the same elements of analogy and induction that Darwin used in The Origin of Species to make the idea of intelligent life evolving elsewhere in the universe seem credible and believable. It first draws an analogy from the biology of its titular alien to plant life found on Earth, making comparisons to carnivorous plants, as well as drawing on then-current speculation about the possibility of communication between plant life, and then extrapolates from this to create a scenario about another planet where intelligent life evolved from vegetation instead of from animals. One of my greatest annoyances regarding criticisms of The Thing From Another World come from those who literally consider the alien to be a giant carrot based on a single line that was not only obviously intended as a joke (had it been in a Joss Whedon film, they would have considered it the pinnacle of wit), but in a sequence that makes it clear that the alien is not literally to be regarded as a walking vegetable, but that it has its closest Earthly equivalent to terrestrial plant life. Hawks and his writers had been responsible for both some of the greatest comedies and some of the finest dramas Hollywood had produced up to that time; they not only knew what was funny and what wasn’t, but when it was appropriate to interject humor into a drama. They also understood that when writing science fiction for the screen, you can’t have characters go at length explaining the technical background for your story without sacrificing dramatic effectiveness in the process. The type of lengthy discourse on alien biology in Campbell’s story, if translated word for word on film, would stop the movie dead. Good science fiction writing tries to find a way to capture the “shop talk” of actual scientists, as it would of any class of working professional, as a means of almost invisibly making the science understandable, and keeping it firmly grounded in realism (the best example of this technique for the screen probably being Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain, scripted by Nelson Giddings).

 

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Another major annoyance comes from the other major controversy swirling around the film, that it is somehow “anti-science” on the basis of the Carrington character. According to some critics, the film posits an ideological dichotomy between science and the military, rather like that in Robert Wise’s The Day Earth Stood Still from the same year; more often than not, they negatively compare the Hawks-Nyby film, where the scientist Carrington stubbornly tries to protect the obviously dangerous alien from destruction, to the Wise film, where nationalism and militarism, particularly the American variety, are openly attacked and Michael Rennie’s benevolent visitor finds a kindred spirit in Sam Jaffee’s gentleman physicist. What they may really be objecting to is not an unrealistic portrayal of scientists in the film, but one that is too realistic. Carrington had his real-life counterparts in the likes of Linus Pauling, whose commitment to pacifism resulted in blindness to the very real dangers presented by communism and the atrocities it perpetrated, or even outright traitors such as physicist Klaus Fuchs who sold nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union out of ideological zeal. Additionally, critics always seem to conveniently forget the positive depiction of the other scientists in the film, particularly John Dierkes’ heroic Professor Chapman, who almost immediately allies himself with Hendry and his men once the facts are made obvious to him, and Professor Voorhees, who starts out apolitical on the issue but soon sides with Hendry and Chapman as well. They may be viewed as standing in for such patriotic scientists as Vannevar Bush, who re-oriented American science policy after the war by linking it with national defense, and Robert A. Millikan, the Nobel Prize-winning conservative Republican physicist who bucked much of his party by being a strong anti-isolationist and advocating early entry into World War II.

Furthermore, the scientists in The Thing From Another World are regarded as equals to the military, both by the film and the characters themselves; they are every bit as brave and resourceful as the soldiers themselves, who in turn are in awe of their knowledge and expertise and realize that they have an immense responsibility in protecting the nation’s most valuable citizens at this remote base.  Certainly, the scientists in The Thing From Another World fare much better in their depictions than not just the one-dimensional antisocial malcontents in Carpenter’s remake, but than the lone scientist character in Ridley Scott’s Alien, who turns out to not only be the film’s true villain (or rather, a proxy for the actual bad guys), but not even human! Both scientific and military cultures work closely side by side in Hawks’ film, and ultimately with each other once they reach common consensus among most of their members (even Carrington winds up siding with the military top brass, when it opposes Hendry’s actions), and demonstrate a respect for each other’s work and abilities. Lying between these two worlds is my personal favorite character in the movie, the crew chief played by Dewey Martin, who enthusiastically makes use of the latest technology (radar and Geiger counters) and plays a pivotal role in building the trap that destroys the monster. The supposed ideological dichotomy between the forces of science and reason and those entrusted with defending and protecting the country is shown to be a false one in the film, as much as it is in real life.

 

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The Thing From Another World is not only not anti-science in specific, it is not anti-intellectual in general, as its critics also claim. As Jacques Rivette has noted, a running motif through Hawks’s film oeuvre is the celebration of pragmatic intelligence, where educated professionals must use their intellectual skills in confrontation with the external world (like Frank Capra, Hawks had an engineering degree from the California Institute of Technology), and try to make sense of it. Some of his other films also featured intellectuals or academics as main characters, often times in a group or institutional setting: zoologist Cary Grant who works at a museum in Bringing Up Baby, Gary Cooper and his fellow encyclopedia researchers, who all live together in a single home in Ball of Fire, and chemist Cary Grant again, at the university in Monkey Business, Hawks’ only other foray into science fiction. Characters also reveal their own hidden intellectual talents underneath a veneer of seeming normality or simplicity, even vulgarity, as do Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire and Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Although Margaret Sheridan from The Thing From Another World may fall in this category as well, the male characters in The Thing From Another World also reveal a heretofore unrevealed intelligence, that becomes more apparent once they work in concert with other highly-trained and skilled specialists towards their common goal.

 What makes this film particularly pertinent to the Hawks canon is this emphasis on group intelligence and teamwork, the pooling of intellectual skills and abilities to finish a task or goal upon which their survival hinges. Although Kenneth Tobey’s Pat Hendry is the nominal hero, he finds himself reliant on the rest of his men, as well as the scientists on the base, to stop the menace before him. Carrington, meanwhile, symbolizes not the dangers of intelligence but those of hubris, not realizing that in a time of crisis, he must cooperate with those he considers “below” him. For all his extolling of pure reason, Carrington, like many other such real-life individuals (as well as fictional characters up to and including Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory), is incapable of being reasoned with by or cooperating with his fellow man, although he expects to be able to do so with the alien creature who has already killed his colleagues (again, the allegory of the “useful idiot” who despises his own country but thinks of the Soviet Union as a great utopia rears itself)! The failure to cooperate, or inability to reason, is regularly punished in the Hawksian universe. The criminal gang in Scarface: The Shame of a Nation falls apart because of the collective stupidity of its members, particularly titular gang boss Paul Muni, whereas in Red River, the stubbornness of John Wayne’s character and refusal to face facts threatens the survival of a cattle drive.

Another blind spot in criticisms of The Thing From Another World is that they focus exclusively on Carrington’s failures, and not those of the military, whose individual and collective errors are what results in the creature’s thaw and impedes its capture, and whose higher command actually instructs to preserve the alien when individual lives are at stake (an idea which would be revived in both Alien and its sequel Aliens). Nor is Carrington a completely unsympathetic figure; Andrew Sarris has described the prototypical Hawksian hero as a “learned man concerned with the quest for knowledge…subjected to the inhuman excesses of the modern world” and this makes Carrington the perfect definition of a tragic hero in the Hawks lexicon. He is someone who cannot grasp that in this particular situation and environment, he must adapt to and confront these “inhuman excesses” instead of working against those who fight them, and put aside his quest of knowledge, even temporarily, so that the battle must be won. In many ways, this is in itself reflective of the tragedy of the contemporary intelligentsia, resisting social and economic realities in the name of high-minded ideology, with often tragic results for themselves and the rest of the world.

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We have in The Thing From Another World perhaps the best example of this thematic motif of “pragmatic intelligence” that Rivette identifies as running throughout Hawks’s work, and it is a shame that he ventured only once again into science fiction (and this time, for purely comedic purposes), as it is a theme that particularly invites a science-fictional treatment. While it may be regrettable that Hawks only turned his talents twice to the cinema of the fantastic, it is perhaps not coincidental that when he did so, it was in the field of science fiction, a genre as dependent on story realism and logic as Hawks’ own brand of cinema. As Rivette himself notes, the Hawksian universe is one of rigid laws whose inhabitants must learn to navigate through rational means; logical thought in this universe, according to Rivette, “is not some cold intellectual activity but proof that the body is a coherent whole, harmoniously following the consequences of an action out of loyalty to itself.” But as Rivette further notes, The Thing From Another World turns this universe upside down: “the mask is finally off: in the confined grip of the universe, some men of science are at grips with a creature worse than inhuman…and their efforts are directed toward fitting it into the logical framework of human knowledge.”

The conclusion we can draw from Rivette’s assessment is provocative. Every character in The Thing From Another World, regardless of their occupation or level of education must ultimately learn how to think like a scientist in order to survive. Since this creature does exist in this universe, it must follow its laws, and it must be possible to place it in the aforementioned “framework of human knowledge.” To defeat it, one cannot rely on muscle, but on intellect, and the application of the scientific method, as the team finds out, investigating the nature of the enemy, finding out through trial and error what its strengths and weakness are, what can and cannot kill it, and ultimately applying scientific knowledge to a final feat of engineering (such as in the case of The Manhattan Project itself) that will allow for a decisive victory. Although the film is certainly right-of-center in its implicit politics (Hawks, Nyby, and co-writer Lederer were all prominent Hollywood Republicans), it ultimately defends science and reason, both as the weapons of defense and tools of survival needed to win this Cold War.

Despite its shoddy DVD presentation, the current owners of The Thing From Another World have nonetheless made it readily available through regular airings on Turner Classic Movies, seemingly the only channel with integrity, where it is the frequent favorite of guest programmers (including John Carpenter, of course) who rhapsodize over the impact it had on them as children. It has even more to offer for the intelligent adult viewer who demands that their science fiction be thought-provoking as well as entertaining; they will find a witty, exciting and frightening thriller awaiting for them, one that stands up not just to multiple viewings, but multiple readings as well. Hopefully, someday, one of the few truly great science fiction films will receive the deluxe home video presentation that it richly deserves.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

 

Di Fate, Vincent (2012). “It Crept Out of Bob’s Basement.” In Filmfax no.129.

 

 

Hardy, Phil (1984) The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction (1st edition).

 

 

Harryhausen, Ray and Dalton, Tony (2003). Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life.

 

 

McCarthy, Todd (2000). Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood.

 

 

Newsom, Ted (2000) “Retrospect: The Thing From Another World.” In SPFX no.9

 

 

Rivette, Jacques (1972) “The Genius of Howard Hawks.” In Focus on Howard Hawks, (Joseph McBride, Ed.), pp. 70-77.

 

 

Sarris, Andrew (1972). “The World of Howard Hawks.” In Focus on Howard Hawks, (Joseph McBride, Ed.), pp. 35-64