Category: Opinion

Pink America: The United States as a Native American Nation


I have been doing research for several years on the influence of Native American culture and genetics on early frontier European culture. At some point I mean to write a book detailing my research into just how important this influence was on America and how it created a very unique culture from that of the European mainstream.

 

The most important thing rarely mentioned by historians when writing about American history has to be how deep the influence of Native Americans has been on American culture. Across the American landscape everywhere you look there are words in the local native languages. Parks, buildings, roads, cities, and even the states themselves bear the mark of our native history. It may surprise the modern reader when historian Jill Lepore concludes that, “most colonists considered the native language barbaric, even satanic.”[1] This seems antithetical to the notion that so much of the country is named  with native words. Even in New England the name of the state of Massachusetts comes directly from the native language. The state was named after the very people that the Puritans seemed to despise. How does the European colonist go from racial hatred and distrust of a people to venerating them on such a scale? This disconnect would suggest that the answer lies in a cultural cognitive dissonance. American society both embraced and rejected native culture and out of this mental aberration was born the duality of enshrining natives as both noble and savage. Could this veneration be the reason most American’s claim native ancestry, or is there something deeper?

In Lepore’s book, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origin of American Identity she attempts to find the answer to the question of what it means to be American through analysis of both sides of King Phillip’s War. While it is an interesting premise, there is some creative license taken with presenting the native side of a war in which very few written records exist. This means that the majority of the written records must come from the colonial viewpoint. Something that is interesting to note is the inability of the average colonist to write. Lepore suggests that while many could read a little that writing was beyond most of the colonists, “and as many as 40 percent of men and 70 percent of women could not even sign their name .”[2] This suggests that even the colonial side of the conflict is not adequately chronicled. We see a skewed view of American character, a view from the top down rather than across the board. So can we know what the average colonial really thought about their native neighbor or are we seeing in this history what the elite want us to see and what they wrote about their native neighbors? Theirs is a narrative that fits the expansionist governmental viewpoint rather than touching on the view of the common man and even the common native.

Another of the problems of looking at this from the perspective Lepore takes is that New England, while long held as the cultural epicenter of America, is only seen that way from within. While popular culture places the Puritans at the very heart of the founding of America as a nation, nothing really could be further from the truth. Their influence while pervasive in academia and as the progenitors of the American university system lacks the true character that makes America unique. The Puritan character is static and unforgiving a people who seem to revel in conformity. This is not the America of the frontier, which so influenced the works of historians such as Frederick Jackson Turner. While Lepore makes some valid points, her thesis is flawed. The American character is not to be discovered in names, in the Puritans, or in wars against the natives. The American character is found on the frontier and the people moving with the frontier. The American character is a product of constant change and evolution. A character that must embrace individuality and face adversity through action and flexibility not static conformity. Each step into new territory brings a new tribe, each different from the last, and each language confronted for the first time. The American people were forged from a union of native culture with European outcasts. The elite for all their words did not forge the American character. The American character was forged through cultural conflict on the most basic level and that character was often tempered by blood. Ship loads of men were coming from Europe into the newly opening frontier. Those same ships were not as packed with women. Yet most of these men end up married with families. Is it possible that the real forging of America was a union of blood as much as a conflict of shed blood?

Historian Ned Blackhawk is right in concluding that, “violence both predated and became intrinsic to American expansion.”[3] However, Blackhawk and to an even greater extent Lapore overlook some of the more culturally important narratives that were going on behind the scenes. While Lepore and Blackhawk both concentrate on the big picture of empire and war, these same Native Americans who would later succumb to war, by whatever name it would be called, had also been in contact with European colonists. Many of these natives especially on the East Coast had been in contact with settlers for centuries. The common colonist had no interest in war or conquest. These Europeans would often take native wives and learn native skills to deal with the frontier. In Sixteenth and Seventeenth century America it is the mother who does most of the early child rearing and it is quite possible that the number of native wives in the early colonial periods have been vastly under-counted. Current DNA data suggests that Native American ancestry among people of European descent in the United States is more common than had been previously thought (I myself have been tested and discovered I have Native American ancestry). It may be interesting to note that many of those men counted as European in early American society may have had grandmothers who were full blood natives. This would suggest that the culture that fought against the natives for conquest of the frontier was not fully European but a mélange of native and white. Does blood quantum make you a native or does culture? That is probably the most important question to ask. If most Americans whose ancestors have been on this continent for over a hundred years have one or more native ancestors (usually female) does that mean they have at least in some small part native cultural holdovers? What does this mean for American society and our view of how we came to be? It may suggest that the cognitive dissonance which plagued Americans in the first years of the Republic, seeing natives as savage and as noble, was not a conflict between competing ideas about Native Americans, but a cultural conflict in which we see ourselves embodied in those that went before.  Were we actually a nation of European colonists or a Native American Nation? Cotton Mather might not like the answer.

 

Bibliography

Blackhawk, Ned. Violence over the land: Indians and empires in the early American West.

Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2006.

 

Lepore, Jill. The name of war: King Philip’s War and the origins of American identity. New

York: Knopf, 1998.

     [1] Jill Lepore, The name of war: King Philip’s War and the origins of American identity (New York: Knopf, 1998), 222.

      [2] Jill Lepore, The name of war: King Philip’s War and the origins of American identity (New York: Knopf, 1998)

     [3] Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the land: Indians and empires in the early American West (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2006), 9.

We Can Still Learn From Vern

Vernon Ehlers – candidate photo

Former Michigan Congressman Vernon J. Ehlers, the first PhD physicist in the House of Representatives and the only one so far from the Republican party, died on August 15 at the age of eighty-three. His tenure in Congress (from 1993 to 2010) capped off a most impressive career as a scientist (specializing in studies of the nuclei of alkaline and post-transition metals), educator and science adviser to Gerald Ford while the future President held the same Congressional seat that Ehlers would later occupy. While in office, Ehlers continually brought his scientific expertise to bear on a variety of issues and functions: he wrote-up the most significant study and proclamation on the American scientific research program since Vannevar Bush, helped to wire Congress to the Internet, and was a reliable go-to information source for Republicans and Democrats alike on issues ranging from global warming to nuclear weapons control. He never forgot his constituency in Grand Rapids either, and was responsible for legislation that helped clean up the Great Lakes and control the influx of Asian carp and other invasive species into the ecosystem. Even when the partisan divide in Congress threatened to become a chasm, the soft-spoken Ehlers remained a role model for his colleagues, the epitome of civil dialogue and ethical speech. Someone who is at once both a gentleman and a gentle man is a rare creature indeed, and we need more politicians with both the professional attitude and professional expertise Ehlers embodied.

Initial reports of Ehlers’s passing did not list a cause of death, but later articles indicated he had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. That’s an especially tragic way to go for someone known for his great intellect, but even before then, I suspected he had died from a broken heart as a result of seeing what had happened to the Republican party. Not because the party had moved too far to the right. Nearly all the obituaries called him a moderate and true, he didn’t always vote along party lines, but that’s to be expected when one follows the scientific method in politics as well as at work. He was a deeply Midwestern brand of conservative that tends towards moderate views anyways and some of his more notable breaks with his party (such as his votes for the DREAM act and the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell) probably derived more from his committed Christian faith that encouraged tolerance and compassion. Nor was it the election of Donald Trump and the new incivility that he represents; after all, he was one of Newt Gingrich’s greatest allies while the then-Speaker of the House was being (unfairly) vilified as an incendiary bomb thrower by the media. I suspect instead that he was heartbroken from how the Republican party has seemingly lost its way on science.

It is not surprising that Ehlers worked so closely with Gingrich when one considers that Newt was one of science’s greatest champions in the House, and also frequently went against the supposed party line on environmental issues. Unfortunately since the retirement of both Ehlers and Gingrich from the House, the Republican party has not found someone to replace them, either a professional PhD scientist or someone demonstrably scientifically literate who will work to inform and educate both members of the party and those on the other side of the political aisle. It is a tragedy then that the Republican party has not only ceded science to the Left, but have permitted it to weaponize the rhetoric of science against them, as embodied in the so-called “March for Science”. Alas, the marchers had a valid point: too many Republicans (including the current Commander-in-Chief) have taken what can fairly be called anti-science positions, either in refusing to concede verified scientific facts and take expert advice seriously (the most obvious examples being the embrace of creationism and the knee-jerk rejection of the consensus view on global warming) or in efforts to slash basic scientific research from the budget despite the obvious benefits and payoffs (A recent article on The Federalist has tried to argue otherwise, but I did not find it persuasive. You are only able to read this on the Internet thanks to public investment in high-energy physics). It is a sad commentary on where we are now that someone can be sneeringly designated a “RINO” simply for acknowledging that both evolution and global warming are true and asserting that public policy needs to be based on scientific fact. Worse yet, our leading science popularizers seem intent on exacerbating this problem; instead of working to persuade and inform, they rely on personal attack and ridicule to further dissuade those they need to reach out to the most. How can they claim that “Science is for Everyone” when they aim to exclude at least a third of the public?

Is there a Republican scientist (more specifically, a Republican physicist) out there who will continue Ehlers’s legacy of both defending science as a public speaker and by serving in office with equal effectiveness? The most obvious heir to Ehler’s throne would be Illinois State Representative Mike Fortner. He is not only a first-rate physicist (as a member of the DZero team at Fermilab, he helped to discover the top quark and continued to be an important collaborator on major experiments even while in office) but has enjoyed a reputation as one of the most civil and congenial politicians in the state. Like Ehlers, he is known to have an overall conservative voting record but to also cross party lines occasionally (most significantly being one of a handful of Republicans to vote to override governor Bruce Rauner’s veto of an income tax increase), and is also a hawk on environmental issues, so much so that he has become the rare Republican to be endorsed by the Sierra Club. Furthermore, he has gained a degree of national attention for his work on fair redistricting, using his scientific knowledge and training to help solve complex political problems. Unfortunately, he has just announced his retirement from his State seat at the end of this term, and has not given any indication of plans to run for national office. Further out west, Arizona’s Ruth McClung very nearly became the first woman physicist in Congress (and a genuine rocket scientist, at that!) when she ran in 2010, but has similarly not yet made the decision to run again. That’s a genuine shame as McClung, a Tea Party activist who was just twenty-eight years old when she ran for office, would have not just brought considerable expertise to discussions of such issues as national defense and space research but served as an obvious role model on many different levels.

But it is in California that we see the remarkable phenomenon of not one but two scientists taking a prominent role in the Republican Party and in keeping the conservative movement alive in what has very nearly become a one-party state. Charles Munger Jr. is of course the son of the famous philanthropist but has also had a distinguished career as a physicist at Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory where he was part of the team that figured out how to produce the first lab-made antimatter atoms. He has also been one of the most visible figures in the state Republican party, funding campaigns for viable candidates and ballot propositions to stem the rapid tide of “progressive” legislation in the state. One of his closest allies is Sam Blakeslee, a former geophysicist and state senator who is now director of the Institute for Advanced Technology and Public Policy at California Polytechnic State University. However they have also remained dedicated to state and local-level politics instead of trying to engage with conservatives all across the country. Clearly, a national figure within the Republican party who will help to both defend science from ill-thought out attacks from misguided compatriots as well as to explain basic scientific facts to them has yet to emerge, yet is especially-desperately-needed at this time.

A week after Ehlers’s death, The Detroit News published a moving editorial on how voters and politicians of both parties can learn from Ehlers’s example if they really want to to “return civility and reasoned governing” to the political process. Republican politicians and conservative voters can especially learn from his example by making the effort to be as scientifically literate and informed as possible. In particular, conservative scientists need to speak up, and make their voices heard in political debate, not just to increase the diversity of voices but to specifically provide a voice that can reduce misconceptions and misrepresentations from all sides. Additionally, those who have taken up the task of communicating science can also learn from Ehlers on how to address and engage politically and socially conservative audiences, and to learn to listen to their concerns as much as they hope they will listen to their advice. If they are genuinely concerned about science in this country and actually want to see policies based on facts and evidence instead of mere rhetoric, then they will have to make a sincere effort to reach out to those on the other side of the aisle. All the same, it is up to the Republican party itself as well as unaffiliated conservatives and libertarians to learn to listen more carefully to scientists and be more receptive to the concerns of the scientific community. As Jon Huntsman has long maintained, the last thing they should do is let themselves be seen as the anti-science party.

Convergent Evolution: an Opinion

Convergent Evolution: an Opinion

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About a year ago I created this meme during a discussion on a Facebook group about alien life. The group consensus was that we would never meet an alien race with a humanoid posture or upright bipedal locomotion because it was highly unlikely that this arrangement would evolve independently again. Now I am at best a curmudgeon and at worst an asshole, so I got to thinking about that contention and the more I thought about it the less it struck me as a hard and fast rule.

Evolution is essentially conservative, there is a conservation of form and function in evolution because of the way natural law interacts with living beings. For instance a creature that swims in water on Earth or on a planet 20 light years from Earth is probably going to look roughly the same. Since life seems to favor an aquatic origin as that life emerges from the sea of an alien planet evolution of that terrestrial life may already be based on bilateral symmetry. Of course something like an octopus might be the first creature on land, but at least on our planet the race to the surface favored creatures with hard internal or external structures whose bodies were structurally streamlined. I believe these types would most likely emerge first elsewhere as well.

If my conjecture is correct, that bilateral symmetry is favored by aquatic environments leading to quicker more agile creatures, then that conservation of form will follow onto the land leading to creatures that mimic our own evolution. In the meme above the T-Rex and the Ankylosaurus predate the Terror Bird and the Glyptodon by 60 million years, but the body forms are essentially the same…in fact the T-Rex probably had feathers. What does this mean for future encounters with alien life? First, don’t discount the possibility that creatures with similar capacities to ourselves may have similar body structures. It is very possible that higher intelligence requires a bilateral body plan and whose ancestors went through an arboreal stage of development before developing true upright posture.  Second, don’t discount running into a nightmare like a Tyrannosaurus when exploring alien environments.

This is just my opinion.

Oscar Enters The Space Age

Oscar Enters The Space Age

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There were some surprising science fiction nods among the major Oscar nominations this year. Despite complaints about STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS not getting a nomination for Best Picture (and in my opinion, it didn’t really deserve one), both MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and THE MARTIAN managed to secure Best Picture nominations.   I only caught the last fifteen minutes of FURY ROAD on cable, so I can’t really judge it beyond that,  but THE MARTIAN while not perfect, was one of the better movies in a mediocre year, and so I have no problem with its nomination. Ridley Scott unfortunately didn’t get nominated for Best Director, which likely punctures (sorry) the film’s chances of winning the top prize, but Matt Damon received a well-earned Best Actor nomination, and Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andrew Weir’s novel was nominated in the Best Screenplay category. The best science fiction film of the year, EX MACHINA, didn’t get nominated for Best Picture but I was pleasantly surprised to see it nominated for Best Original Screenplay, along with Pixar’s fantasy INSIDE OUT. (My choice for the year’s best film, ME, EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, didn’t get any nominations at all, alas).

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Granted, the writing has been on the wall for over a decade now, and you could say the wall actually broke in 2003, when THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING won the Best Picture Award. Although genre films had been nominated in this category going all the way back to LOST HORIZON in 1937, this finally broke more than seventy-five years of aversion to giving the main trophy to films that (other than musicals) adhered to strict realism in content and approach. The following year, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND became the first science fiction film to win a Best Screenwriting Oscar. Then in 2009, when the Academy expanded its list of nominated films from five to ten (a return to lengthy nominee lists of the 1930s), two science fiction films popped up in the Best Picture nominations, AVATAR and DISTRICT 9. It was certainly not the first time a science fiction film had been nominated in this category, but it was the first time more than one film in the genre had made the final ballot, a remarkable event that just a decade or so earlier would have been unimaginable.

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I was as surprised as many fans were, but unlike many of them, I didn’t share the delight that the Oscars were “finally” recognizing science fiction films as Best Picture contenders. For one thing, I didn’t think that either film was good enough to be a contender for Best Picture. AVATAR probably would have nominated even if the Academy had still limited its selections to five films as it was a tremendous box office smash and critical hit, but as has been the case with all of James Cameron’s films, the script rarely, if ever, managed  to attain the same level of accomplishment as the direction and special effects, being extremely shallow, cliched and obvious. DISTRICT 9 is a better film, a more intelligent and original one and it certainly works better as good science fiction even if it is far less extravagant, but its intelligent touches are also unfortunately undermined by occasional illogicities, particularly those involving the same idiotic Big Evil Corporation cliches that undermined not just AVATAR but MOON, which had been the most acclaimed science fiction film of 2009 (and which I previously discussed at the bottom of this page). I would have expected MOON to be a more likely nominee for Best Picture; as it is, DISTRICT 9 is a good example of what I call a “Pink Snail,” after the the Academy’s “WTF?” moment when it nominated the gawdawful Rex Harrison-Richard Fleischer film version of DOCTOR DOOLITTLE for Best Picture in 1967, alongside the likes of BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GRADUATE and that year’s Best Picture Winner, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. If that wasn’t unbelievable enough, try wrapping your brains around this: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was not nominated for Best Picture the following year.

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Actually, if you read up on the history of the public reception of the film, it becomes more clear why it wasn’t nominated: as chronicled by Jerome Agel in his outstanding 1970 book The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, far from being universally acclaimed, reviews for 2001 were actually quite divided and although many viewers loved it, an equal number hated it and a still equal number seemed undecided on how to approach it. Even the science fiction community was split over it and down to this day, the movie will start arguments between those who consider it a masterpiece and those who think otherwise (for the record, I am one of those who consider it a masterpiece). The Academy didn’t neglect Stanley Kubrick in any case, as not only was he nominated for Best Director, but he won an Oscar for the Special Effects that he personally supervised (a reminder when the question of Kubrick ever winning an Academy Award ever turns up at a trivia contest). Three years later, Kubrick would be nominated for Best Director again for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and although this film proved even more controversial for its graphic sex and violence, it did manage to garner a Best Picture nomination, as would STAR WARS in 1977 and E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL in 1982. However, no science fiction film has won the Best Film trophy as of yet, a fact which has done nothing to calm the  knee-jerk accusations of elitism and snobbery within the Academy by certain corners of fandom.

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The truth of the matter is, however much credibility there is to accusations of impulsive nose-turning among certain Academy members over its nearly century-old history when it comes to science fiction, fantasy and horror, it is equally true that too many fans are guilty of close-mindedness to films outside their favorite genres.  Yes, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY  is one of the greatest films of all time, and I agree with those who consider it both the best science fiction film ever made and the best movie of 1968, but OLIVER! also happens to be one of the great screen musicals.  ANNIE HALL is a better film than STAR WARS, GANDHI is almost or at least as good as both E.T. and BLADE RUNNER, and so on. While saying so may anger cultural illiterates (such as your typical contributor to Cracked.com), this just happens to be the case.  I didn’t see 12 YEARS A SLAVE so I can’t judge whether or not it was better than GRAVITY, but just going by word of mouth, that does seem to be the case as well. INCEPTION very nearly came close to deserving the Best Picture Oscar in 2010…but it was only the second-best film that year, after the deserving Best Picture winner, THE KING’S SPEECH. We shouldn’t expect that a film should be nominated for, much less awarded Best Picture, simply because we think that the Academy has an obligation to honor and respect our own personal tastes and interests, or to try to fulfill-dare I say it?-a quota system in which a movie is honored simply for being the best film of the year in its particular genre.

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We don’t even have to look at the recent past for examples of this. Turning back the clock further, let’s look at the longest stretch of Oscar nominations, from August 1932 through all of 1933, after which the Academy Awards restricted its nominations to a single year. Of course, the most popular movie of 1933 remains KING KONG, and whether you consider it to be horror, fantasy or science fiction (and I do consider it to be science fiction), many film lovers, including myself, would certainly chose it over the fine but long-forgotten CAVALCADE as the Oscar winner for Best Picture that year, as did Danny Peary in his book Alternate Oscars. I hesitate to say majority-plurality, maybe-because, as Peary further notes, there were four other great films that went unnominated that year, DINNER AT EIGHT, DUCK SOUP (very likely the second-most popular film of the year), QUEEN CHRISTINA, and TROUBLE IN PARADISE. With the exception of the third film, which was probably left out because it premiered on New Year’s Eve of 1933 leaving in doubt whether or not it was eligible, all those other films were comedies, a genre that regularly gets snubbed to this day by the Academy, so it’s not just science fiction and fantasy that gets ignored. Those five are in addition to the classic films already nominated: 42nd STREET (probably the third most popular film of the year), A FAREWELL TO ARMS, LADY FOR A DAY, LITTLE WOMEN, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY THE VIII and I AM A FUGITIVE FROM THE CHAIN GANG (my choice for the best movie among the nominated films), marking this eighteen-month period as one of the greatest ever in Hollywood history. Even among horror fans, KING KONG encounters competition from such classics as ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (my favorite horror film of all time) THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE MUMMY, and another Merian C. Cooper-Ernest B. Schoedsack production, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME.

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I do hope a science fiction film wins a Best Picture Oscar someday. I do hope it wins because it is genuinely the very best movie of the year, that it is not merely a good film but a great one, that it is great science fiction as well as a great film, and that all its merits are decided on the basis of its artistic quality, not out of noise and pressure to finally hand the trophy over to a movie of its genre. It would be extremely dismaying if current trends and movements in both SF fandom and attempts to reform the Oscar voting process should converge at some point and make the first science fiction film to win Best Picture an illegitimate victory.

 

The (other) Conquest of Space

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

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

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

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

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

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: The Sixties and the Seventies

THE UNDERRATED AND UNDERAPPRECIATED: The Sixties and the Seventies

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

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

So what does that leave us? Well….

17. UNEARTHLY STRANGER

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

18. IKARIE XB-1

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

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

19. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES

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

20. ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS

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

21. THE MIND OF MR. SOAMES

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

22. I KILLED EINSTEIN, GENTLEMEN

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

23. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

7. THE MAN FROM PLANET X

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

 

8. THE MAGNETIC MONSTER

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

 

9. THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT

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

 

9. THIS ISLAND EARTH

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

 

11. THE WEREWOLF

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

 

12. THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD

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

 

13. THE INVISIBLE BOY

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

 

14. THE 27th DAY

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

 

15. THE 4-D MAN

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

 

16. BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE

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

UP NEXT: The Sixties and The Seventies…

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….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.

Gravity: The Science Fiction Film in Free Fall

Gravity: The Science Fiction Film in Free Fall

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Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity has received an exceptional amount of critical acclaim for a science fiction film, more so for any other I can remember since Peter Weir’s The Truman Show.   This may be because, as with Weir’s film, many don’t recognize it as belonging to the genre. Yes, it takes place in outer space, the most familiar setting for the science fiction film, but since it (like the 1969 film Marooned) deals with events that could conceivably and possibly happen in the immediate future, it’s probably not unanimously regarded as such by mainstream critics, who don’t realize that the depiction of possible futures is precisely one of the main goals of science fiction. That may be why I’ve found myself less enthusiastic about the film than so many others after viewing it. As was the case with the wildly overrated Moon (2009), over-familiarity with the genre seems to greatly diminish my ability appreciate what others find to be so novel; on a purely visual and cinematic level, it’s certainly a tremendous achievement on the part of Cuaron and his crew, but on a story level, Gravity is (no pun intended) somewhat of a letdown. Not only will it also be overly familiar to other fans of written science fiction, but those well-versed in its cinematic equivalent will also find themselves recognizing various visual and story motifs. In addition to the aforementioned Marooned, everything from the rescue-with-oxygen-tank scene from Destination Moon to the horrifying image of the burnt-up skull face of a freshly-killed astronaut peering out its helmet in Riders to the Stars (also the consequence of a collision with space debris) seems to echo throughout the film. Even the very premise of the film itself evokes a key scene from a guilty pleasure of mine, the 1954 movie Conquest of Space, which coincidentally featured an appearance from George Clooney’s aunt Rosemary but was considerably less acclaimed, with no less than Forry Ackerman calling it “The Bomb of The Decade”.  This story could just as easily been cut to an hour or half-hour format, and then presented as an episode of the early Sixties show Men Into Space.  To be certain, a quite gripping and involving film has been built from a standard storyline; however, the almost unanimous, at times hyperbolic acclaim the film has been receiving need to be tempered by informed criticism.

Some science fiction fans have compared Gravity‘s storyline to Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “Kaleidoscope,” but it actually bears a closer resemblance to some of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic short stories such as “Breaking Strain,” “Summertime on Icarus” and “Transit of Earth,” as well as the vignettes that make up The Other Side of the Sky. In these stories, Clarke tried to credibly and convincingly depict the sort of life-and-death situations future astronauts might encounter “out there,” and they more often than not involved problem-solving based on the application of scientific knowledge and practical engineering. A more important conceptual breakthrough was Clarke’s focus on the personal experience of space exploration: The thoughts and emotional states of astronauts as they work their way through technical crises is a primary concern of these stories, many of which are written in the first person, and the story and presentation of Gravity is very much in this vein. The film is not so much about outer space than it is about the lead character’s experience of it; nearly every directorial choice reminds us that this story is being told from the perspective of Sandra Bullock’s astronaut. Remarkably, the sort of premise most science fiction writers would restrict to the size of a short story or at best, a novelette, is effectively expanded to the length of a feature film, and one of the best aspects of Gravity is the efficiency of the plot, so that it still feels like a short story in terms of time expended. A lesser director than Cuaron would have dwelled endlessly on shots of the empty void or used a succession of quick cuts in a desperate attempt to keep the film moving, but since Cuaron rightfully views both visual effects and the 3-D Imax format as tools for telling his story instead of accessories to spectacle, he uses them to involve us so deeply in it that we don’t notice the passing of time. The opening sequence is especially bravura, as the camera, in a seemingly unbroken five-minute cut, moves across various characters working on the surface of the space station, fully establishing a credible setting and immersing us in such a manner that we fully embrace the illusion of being in a zero-gravity environment. Particularly important to a film where the characters spend nearly the entire duration in free fall, Cuaron is one of the few directors to recognize both the importance and usefulness of camera movement in the 3-D format, and there’s also a thematic significance to his doing do so, as a means of emphasizing their isolation in an environment where movement is free in all three dimensions.

Equally important as Cuaron’s direction in selling the story is the performance of Sandra Bullock in the lead. Some viewers may find the life-and-death situation she finds herself to be in this film to be not unlike that featured in her breakout film Speed, and her astronaut can be seen as a more mature version of her character from the earlier movie. While this time she may only be trying to save her own life instead of a busload of passengers, she faces even greater challenges, not just physical (in Speed, she merely had to pilot a bus linearly across a horizontal plane; this time, she must fully navigate her way through three-dimensional vector space!) but psychological and emotional as well, and she must prove that she has not just fulfilled the survival training expected of her, but what she expects of herself as well. It’s a remarkable, cerebral performance, and Bullock especially handles herself well in those long silent passages where we are only supposed to be able to understand her thoughts and emotions through the subtlest facial expressions or body movements.

It’s a shame then, that so much time is expended on the far less interesting and more poorly handled character played by George Clooney. It’s not entirely his fault, as he’s handed most of the film’s clunker lines and the character as written comes off as overbearing and patronizing, but his performance still comes off as overly smug and phoned-in. Another actor (maybe Gary Sinise or Clive Owen, the star of Cuaron’s Children of Men) might have been able to give the veneer of professionalism without pomposity, but better yet, the character could have been written out entirely, since he’s not really essential to the film. Not only would that have allowed the film to concentrate more fully on Bullock’s character, and charted her development, her survival strategies and inner conflicts,  but it would have eliminated the film’s absolute worst scene. I will not say anything more about it except that the audience I was with first laughed at the stupidity of it before they realized what was happening, and when they did realize it, they collectively groaned that the movie had stooped to not just one of the worst cliches in the business but one of the worst cheats in cinema, one that completely destroyed the illusion of real time the film had built up to that point.

Of course, without the Clooney character, the film would have run even shorter than its ninety-minute running time, and an already swift-moving film would have felt even briefer. Mainstream critics have so fallen over each other in praising the visual audacity and innovations in Cuaron’s film, that they haven’t taken the time to examine the story very closely. As science fiction, it’s very ordinary; it would have been sent into most editor’s slush piles years ago, although it would have certainly worked as a chapter in a larger novel or novella. Even though the film will undoubtedly lose much of its visual impact outside of the 3-D and Imax formats, it should probably be screened in film and science fiction literature classes just to illustrate the difficulties and challenges in making a movie in the genre, and the differences between the cinematic and the literary art forms. A key example of the difficulty can be seen in how the movie tries to compensate for the complete absence of sound in its “exterior” shots. While it is certainly admirable that Cuaron and his crew made this commitment to scientific realism,  composer Steven Price has seemingly tried to compensate for the lack of sound by creating one of the most annoying scores of recent years, punctuating every emotion and movement with overbearing intensity. It’s nonetheless certainly a relief to find a science fiction film that takes its science seriously. What a vast difference over the awful Mission to Mars, which opened with a scene where the illusory “Martian Face” was revealed as an actual sculpted visage and went downhill from there, accumulating a litany of errors and “artistic licenses” (including loud sounds in the empty vacuum of space), hurtling towards an idiotic ending that pandered to the Intelligent Design crowd!

Although Gravity may indicate that film techniques and technology have advanced to the point where cinematic science fiction can finally approximate its print equivalent, I would hesitate before taking it and the recent Europa Report as harbingers of a new dawn of hard science fiction movies. In the late Nineties, I had great expectations for things to come with the likes of The Arrival, Contact, Gattaca and Dark City, only to find the genre sink back into the morass of brain-dead action films. Even as film technology advances, the science fiction cinema’s future will be limited by the stories the filmmakers themselves choose to tell. Gravity is a superior example of filmed science fiction, but it is not the space film to end all space films some claim it is.