Category: Uncategorized

The Last Jedi Fixes The Force Awakens

The Last Jedi fixes the problems with The Force Awakens and returns it to the hero’s journey. While there are parts of The Last Jedi that could and should have been cut out of the movie. The Poe Dameron comedy hour along with the entire Finn and Rose adventure did nothing to advance the plot and needed to be expunged. The movie was also too long. Other than these two problems the movie is not only worthy of the name Star Wars it returns us to the original vision which was the hero’s journey. Joseph Campbell wrote his seminal work on that journey in 1949 with the publication of his book Hero with a Thousand Faces. George Lucas has stated many times he used this as the template for Star Wars.
Heroesjourney.svgRian Johnson has fixed the scattered mess that had broken the journey in The Force Awakens and has firmly placed Rey back on the path. One of the criticisms of the movie is that Rey is a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is a character that can’t fail. The Mary Sue possesses knowledge and power that is unbeatable. This may have been true of the previous movie but Johnson has given us a character with flaws and fallibility. Rey constantly fails. She is not able to persuade Luke to return and lead the rebellion. She is unable to defeat Snoke, who treats her like an ineffectual rag doll (no Mary Sue would stand for that).  Her greatest failure was her inability to bring Ben back from the darkside or at least from the middle ground where he seems to thrive. It seems the complaint is really that Rey is a natural at fighting with the light saber and at using the force. The problem is that a hero is necessarily heroic and gifted with skills. Like all heroes who have taken the journey they must be special in some way. Gilgamesh has the strength of the gods, Odysseus was unnaturally cunning, Arthur had a magical connection with the land that made him King. Rey has the ability to become one with the force. It is all the same on the journey.

If we look at the hero’s journey Johnson has reset Rey and placed her back on the correct path to adventure. Rey answered the call to adventure in The Force Awakens and then sought out training from a Jedi Master (mentor). Luke has rendered his supernatural aid. The movie has her firmly facing the “threshold guardians”.  Snoke and Kylo Ren represent the guardians of power and knowledge. Defeating them and learning her heritage becomes a transforming event.  The movie ends with the rebellion shattered and the new Empire rising. Rey has shown she has become confident with the force, she has been changed by the events, will Rey complete the hero’s journey?

This next part is speculative

Here is how I believe the Hero’s journey will play out in the next movie(s)

I suspect Rey represents Gilgamesh and Ben represents Enkidu (Enkidu was the companion of Gilgamesh) in Johnson’s overall story. If so it is very likely Rey and Ben will come to respect each other for the yin and yang they represent in the next installment (or they will be forced to work together) and go on to fight some great evil that threatens the balance (or both the rebels and the Empire). Most likely this great evil they need to overcome will be a relative or a person Ben is emotionally attached to. This is because Enkidu’s fatal flaw is uncontrollable emotion. I believe this evil may be a clone of Anakin masked as the new Vader.

Ben will die or be mortally wounded in defending Rey from the evil which she will defeat. In the end his spirit will ascend to become a force ghost but this will be after Rey journeys to discover some cure for his condition but ultimately failing. I would guess his ghost will be a different color representing his not evil but not good nature.

Rey will then return to the rebels and the empire to heal the divide between them, becoming the first empress and titular head of the New Imperial Republic. this is how I would script it if they are following the hero’s journey. 

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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.

When Genres Collide (Part One)

When Genres Collide (Part One)

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I was apparently one of the very few science fiction fans who wasn’t blown away by Guardians of the Galaxy, certainly being less impressed than those who voted it Best Dramatic Presentation for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2015.  I wasn’t bored when I saw it in a theater, but it went in one eye and out the other, and at the time, I figured it was because it all too obviously followed the same story structure as The Avengers:  a gang of ragtag but super-powerful and/or talented misfits are gathered together to keep a super-powerful MacGuffin from falling into the hands of a super-powerful would-be conqueror, but must learn to get along with each other and overcome their differences after a crushing defeat so they can achieve a final victory.  When I saw it again on television, I unfortunately was bored, and not just because of the feeling that Marvel was merely putting its characters through a series of repetitive mechanical motions had been further reinforced by the mediocre Age of Ultron. It became clear on this second viewing that Guardians of the Galaxy was a fake science fiction film. Although some hardcore science fiction fans don’t consider the comic book movie as properly belonging to the genre in the first place, what I mean by this is that it is a movie that didn’t need to be told as science fiction, since so much of it is obviously lifted from other genres. Like too many other supposed science fiction movies and TV shows of the past forty or thirty years, GotG shamelessly borrows characters and plot elements from Westerns and war movies alike, and also pilfers the crime genre as well, specifically the heist and prison film subgenres.  You can take the same basic plot, characters and devices (minus their alien attributes, of course), and transplant them to 1930s New York City, or 1870s Texas with little difficulty or change.

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The notion of the “fake science fiction film” is one  I first encountered in the critiques of Eighties science fiction film made by Harlan Ellison and Ben Bova, among others, attacking Hollywood’s tendency to take hoary old cliches and devices from outside genres, and thinking that simply placing them in outer space or the future they could sell them as science fiction to an ignorant public.  Specifically, they both attacked Star Wars as a prime example of a fake science fiction film (today’s fanboys would no doubt be aghast at them and verbally tar and feather them the same way they do Neil DeGrasse Tyson). However, as far as I know, it was given its proper name by the late SF film historian John Brosnan in his excellent book The Primal Screen, and who provided a very simple way to determine whether something was “fake” or “real” science fiction: can the story still support itself after you remove of the science fiction aspects? If yes, it’s fake; if the answer is no, that removal of the science fiction elements also removes crucial parts of the storyline, then it is genuine science fiction. As an example, Brosnan compared Alien Nation (1988) and The Hidden (1987), which are outwardly similar as “cop buddy” films where one of the police officers happens to be an alien, but actually very different in that one is fake science fiction whereas the other is real science fiction. Alien Nation didn’t need to have one of its officers be an alien since the movie proves to be no different than Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, Red Heat or any of the other “buddy” films that glutted the box office in the Eighties. Mandy Pantikin’s cauliflower-headed alien could just as well come from any real-life country, and the storyline would not need to be altered a bit. The Hidden, on the other hand, is completely dependent on its central science fiction premise for it to work as not just a movie but as a thriller, being very similar to Hal Clement’s Needle in its basic plot about an alien criminal able to insinuate itself into and take control of host bodies. Another example of a fake science fiction film cited by Brosnan is Predator (1987), which is normally thought of as being a blatant attempt to combine Aliens (1986) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) with some of The Terminator (1984) thrown in for good measure. However, it’s really just another iteration of Richard Connell’s classic short story The Most Dangerous Game, which was itself made into a superb motion picture in 1932 and copied many times since. When you get down to it, the alien predator is really no different from Spider-Man villain Kraven the Hunter or any other variation of Count Zaroff that has come down the pike in nearly a century of homages and rip-offs.

Obviously, a good genre hybrid needs to satisfy the requirements and criteria of a good story in both of the genres it derives from in order to be considered successful, but it also needs to go beyond this, and find a way to get these separate and often disparate generic criteria to work together and play off one another without compromising either. Too many attempts at genre hybridization unfortunately merely try to mash together cliches or re-stage familiar storylines but when done properly, it can result in not just a satisfying story, but one that illuminates the relationships between its parent genres. Let’s now look at some examples to see how it can be done right; we’ll begin with hybrids of the Western genre this week, since as unlikely as it sounds, they’ve been among the most common, or at the very least, the most visible.

The Western

 

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This is probably the most familiar of all genres to be fused with science fiction, namely because it has long been the most contentious. From almost the very beginning, serious science fiction fans and writers have exasperatedly tried to explain to novice writers  that you simply can’t take the conventions of the Western, transplant them to outer space or the far future, and call the results science fiction. In fact, the very term “space opera” was originally a term of derision, comparing the more juvenile pulps to “horse operas,” itself  a derisive description for the formulaic “B” Westerns that were a major part of the film industry from the Twenties through the Forties and was later applied to “dime store” Western novels as well. When Galaxy magazine was launched in 1950 with the intent of providing a consistent source of high-quality socially relevant SF, it made it clear in a back-page editorial that it would not allow hack writers to lazily attempt to quasi-plagiarize stories by Zane Grey or Louis L’Amour and then pretend they could be published alongside Jack Williamson and Clifford Simak. As a result, “Bat Durston” has become a pejorative term among SF fans to describe stories and books (especially poorly-written ones) and sometimes even authors that demonstrate a complete lack of awareness of this very basic fact.

 

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Although the Bat Durston story is now extremely rare in written SF, and the term itself has become much less commonly used, it has ironically done more to increase the public’s awareness of the genre’s existence than anything else. Both Star Trek and Star Wars qualify as Bat Durstons, as they were pitched specifically as “Space Westerns,” with Star Trek even going by the working title of “Wagon Train to the Stars.” One reason it’s no longer considered an insult for a story to be called a “Space Western” is that so many beloved media franchises (as opposed to literary ones) have embraced the term wholeheartedly. Of course, I am speaking specifically here of not just Star Wars and Star Trek, but Firefly, possibly the most blatant attempt to disguise a Western as science fiction since the 1981 movie Outland or possibly even 1969’s Moon Zero Two. Whereas forty or thirty years earlier it would have been rejected by many in mainstream fandom as a typical Hollywood misunderstanding of what science fiction really is, it is now used as a litmus test in some quarters to determine one’s credentials as a “hardcore geek,” an attitude I decidedly do not embrace myself. Long before Joss Whedon started making a fool of himself on Twitter, he didn’t impress me with the way he paraded his ignorance of the science fiction genre when hyping Firefly in interviews at the time of its premiere. That the show managed to succeed at all as science fiction is due likely to showrunner Tim Minear, the Gene L. Coon to Whedon’s Roddenberry. Minear has demonstrated a considerable knowledge of science fiction in both its written and filmed formats, and was most likely responsible for such concessions to scientific realism as the lack of sound in space scenes, or having all planets visited being products of terraforming to explain why no life support gear was necessary. He was also likely responsible for the show’s libertarian slant; although Whedon has since gone guano de murcielago crazy with far-left politics, Minear is an admitted moderate conservative with libertarian leanings. For this reason, I’m especially disappointed that his planned adaptation of Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress has never gotten off the ground.

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An even more overt libertarian message is laid out in the 1957 novel A Planet for Texans by H. Beam Piper and John J. McGuire, which would belatedly win a Prometheus Award forty-two years later, but more importantly to the subject of this essay, it’s one of the best examples of how to merge to conventions of the Western genre into a science fiction storyline while remaining good science fiction. In fact, it’s not a Western at all: despite taking place on the planet “New Texas” where gigantic cattle-like beasts roam, characters dress in stereotypical cowboy garb, and the type of frontier lawlessness depicted in the likes of Shane and My Darling Clementine runs rampant (this is a world where citizens have the right to assassinate politicians if they feel their freedoms are being infringed), it’s pure science fiction, albeit nowhere near being hard science fiction. If anything, it can be read as a satiric inversion of the Bat Durston story, where six-shooters and Stetsons replace ray guns and bubble helmets instead of the other way around. It is also a serious attempt at trying to depict what a pure libertarian society would look like, making it approachable to the reader by drawing a direct analogy to the most lawless era in American history, before antitrust laws put an end to “robber-baron” industrial monopolies, and despite being sympathetic to such a society also questions the practicality and morality of such a system, ultimately concluding that a civilizing influence is necessary to achieve justice and order in a truly free society.

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Both Michael Crichton’s film Westworld and the current series based on it are also similarly not actual Westerns but straight-up science fiction using one genre to comment on another. The movie specifically adopted certain Western cliches and conventions (not tropes, dammit!) to comment on the distorted and sanitized view of American history that winds up getting commodified and sold as entertainment (also a theme that recurs in Crichton’s similarly-plotted novel Jurassic Park, only instead it comments on how entertainment franchises sell romantic vision of nature and wildlife in the name of profit), using science fiction conceits as rhetorical vehicle to get this message across. The artificial landscapes in both the movie and TV show don’t just replicate a distorted view of history, but serve as mirrors for our own selves and ask us to reflect about the role we play in this distortion. In the movie, we identify very closely with the characters played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin, who like us movie audience members, willingly partake in a fantasy of the American past sold not just as entertainment but as the “real” West (the presence of similar theme park sections devoted to Ancient Rome and Medieval England also strongly suggest that Crichton is commenting on the misguided romanticizing and commodification of world history as a whole). The new series has seemingly reversed this scenario by making the robots the main characters and the human guests the antagonists, but it shares the same concerns and makes an even deeper critique on not just our compliance but complicity with the misrepresentation of history in the name of entertainment. This time, the robots serve as stand-ins for those who lived in the actual past and are helpless to have their true stories told properly. Whereas Westworld the movie comes out of the revisionist Western movement in the American cinema at the time that attacked romantic notions of the Old West, Westworld the TV series comes out of the television tradition of Deadwood, which aimed to provide as gritty and raw depiction of the past as possible (a goal which hasn’t been limited to Westerns, as Boardwalk Empire is also very much part of this agenda of new realism and deglamorization in televised historical drama as well).

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So far, all the examples we have discussed aren’t really hybrids; they’re just science fiction stories with Western trappings. The reasons why they don’t qualify as true Westerns is quite simple: whereas science fiction is among the most wide-ranging of genres across  time and space, the Western is the among the most limited.  Like a number of other types of historical fiction from around the world-the Chinese wuxia story,  the German Heimat story, the Italian peplum, the Japanese jideigeki – it is a genre limited to a certain country or region during a specific period of time. Its closest relative is the very similar gaucho literature of South America, and like it and the other nationally-specific literatures mentioned would probably be considered a subgenre of historical fiction had it not become such a prolific and popular genre, not just in North America but all around the world.  It’s not surprising then that it is difficult to write a story that’s a genuine hybrid of both science fiction and Western that satisfies the demands of both genres, making use of the idioms, themes and premises that can be shared in a mutually satisfactory manner. But as Lisa Joy, one of the showrunners of the recent Westworld series has noted, the Western and science fiction share one major thing in common, a mutual preoccupation with the notion of frontiers. Writer Andrew Liptak has noted that many of the great early practitioners of Space Opera-Smith, Burroughs and especially Jack Williamson-grew up in or worked for a time in the American West when it was still an open frontier and that the pioneer mentality thoroughly permeates their stories. One of the papers I wrote in film class in fact centered on this similarity, specifically through an analysis of the first Toy Story film (stay with me, here), arguing that Buzz and Woody were stand-ins for respectively, the science fiction and Western genres. Not only do the two genres (competing for the attention of a young audience) share a frontier mythology, but both genres have been criticized for it, one for extolling a mythic, overly-romanticized view of the past, the other for a simplistic and one-dimensional vision of the future. Crichton’s Westworld is in fact a critique of not only the Western’s approach to the frontier theme, presenting it as downright dangerous when conflated with the complexities of the real world, but with its pessimistic attitude towards human and technological failure, critiques science fiction’s approach to the same frontier theme as well, and the TV series continues with this double-sided, Janus-faced critique of our tendency to overly romanticize the past and future alike.

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So is a successful hybrid of the Western and science fiction genres really possible? Why yes, of course!  In fact, one of the best-ever TV shows made in either genre was such a hybrid. No, not Star Trek or Firefly, but The Wild Wild West, which was not only a clever variation on the TV horse operas of the period, but worked brilliantly as science fiction as well. Featuring both fantastic science fiction gadgetry (time machines, robots, and the other infernal machinery employed by the show’s rogue gallery) as well as plausible devices that were nonetheless decidedly out-of-place (any of the spy gadgetry used by Robert Conrad and Ross Martin) in a period Western setting, the show slyly commented on how the hi-tech spy thrillers that were all the rage at the time were just descendants of the Western adventures of years past. It thus commented on our fascination with technology the way only science fiction can, exaggerating it to reflect on contemporary trends and obsessions, as well as more subversively commenting on how all television Westerns are in fact also imaginative fictions that are just as fanciful as it was. In fact, along with Blade Runner and Tron, it’s one of the few instances where a media offshoot has directly influenced SF literature, as it had a marked impact on the later Steampunk subgenre and fandom. Such Steampunk novels as Joe R. Lansdale’s Zeppelins West and Michael Resnick’s The Buntline Special are direct descendants of the show, with the type of technology and storylines imagined by Jules Verne placed in the American West imagined by Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour. Of course, the show had its own antecedents, going all the way back to 1868 with proto-science fiction dime novels such as The Steam Man of the Prairies, and the very infrequent instances where a B Western included science fiction elements, such as Tim McCoy’s The Ghost Patrol in which the bad guys use a death ray to down mail planes and most famously Gene Autry’s serial The Phantom Empire in which a futuristic city lies beneath the Earth’s surface, just under the hero’s ranch.

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What these early films had in common is that they were usually marketed not as SF at all but as typical “oaters,” no different from the usual, more mundane stories and movies (scroll up yonder for The Phantom Empire lobby card). As fantastic as the SF gadgetry was, it was usually subordinate to the Western elements, and easier to swallow than the aliens and space journeys of the SF pulps and serials.  One can be a fan of both genres, but one’s expectations are different from when one picks up a Western and one picks up an SF book. An alternate history story featuring advanced technology for the period such as Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South can be sold in either genre, as while it depicts a past that never was, it is nonetheless one that is plausible and conceivably could have been possible. When aliens or other examples of sheer speculation are introduced, that’s when the story is necessarily sold as science fiction, as we have completely exited the realm of the conceivably possible. Writing a good story about an alien encounter in the Old West comes with its own set of difficulties due to the need to balance the fantastic premise with the gritty and solidly realistic setting and treatment expected of a Western. The results are usually awkward when the approach is heavy-handed, as the 2011 movie Cowboys and Aliens demonstrated, but when treated lightly, as with Howard Waldrop’s delightful novelette Night of the Cooters or the bizarre but lovable Mexican musical comedy film Ship of Monsters, they can also be highly entertaining. At least one great Golden Age author, Theodore Sturgeon, turned to the American West (old and modern) so often, that an anthology of his SF stories in this setting, Sturgeon’s West, was published in 1973. Considering that not just the premise of aliens but the theme of alienation itself were ever-present in Sturgeon’s work, it seems only natural that he would choose it as a setting; with its sparse populace and foreboding landscape, it was an appropriate locale for the stories of loss, loneliness and escape that he was famous for.

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Finally, I cannot end this discussion without mentioning my favorite product of this particular hybridization, the “Cowboy and Dinosaurs” story. It’s rather a natural outgrowth, considering that the American and Canadian West have provided some of the richest Mesozoic fossil troves in the world. The history of paleontology is in fact intertwined with the history of both country’s regions, as the fossil hunts of the mid-late 19th Century helped to drive their economic growth and cultural development and contributed to the mythology of the region, as demonstrated by the enduring interest in the infamous Cope-Marsh rivalry. It’s quite appropriate then that when W.J.T. Mitchell wrote The Last Dinosaur Book, a study of the iconicity of dinosaurs in American culture, the cover illustration depicted an Alamosaurus fighting off a pack of dino-rustlers that originally had been made for Sharon Farber’s “The Last Thunder Horse West of the Mississippi” when it was first published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine.  Of course, other science fiction writers have been unable to resist the idea, including two of the authors we’ve already mentioned, Harry Turtledove with “The Green Buffalo” and Howard Waldrop with “Green Brother,” as well as Brett Davis’s novels Bone Wars and its sequel Two Tiny Claws. But the premise has perhaps been made most familiar through such movies as The Valley of Gwangi and The Beast of Hollow Mountain, both based on stories originally written by Willis O’Brien.

And what of other genres, you ask? Well, in our next installment we’ll look at how science fiction has been combined with genre closest to it…and it’s probably not the genre you were expecting.

 

In Memoriam: David A. Kyle and First Fandom

In Memoriam: David A. Kyle and First Fandom

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First Fandom closed its doors for good last week with the passing of David A. Kyle at the age of ninety-six.  Kyle had been a part of science fiction fandom from the very beginning, as a member of New York’s Futurians, and was one of its ablest historians for half a century. In particular, Kyle’s 1976 book A Pictorial History of Science Fiction had a massive influence on my own development as a science fiction fan. Purchasing the generously-sized book for just three dollars at a used bookstore with the money given to me for my thirteenth birthday, it helped to encourage me to not just read even more of the genre, but to read as much about it as well. Through Kyle’s chronicling of the history of science fiction and the people involved in its development, I learned to respect the writers, artists and fans alike who helped to build it up, and became more determined than ever to know more about what had come before me. Clearly, there was more to this field than just the few prominent authors I had read or movies I had seen, and it had a rich legacy that deserved to not just be preserved, but explored and enjoyed. It also helped make me a fan of science fiction art as well. As the title inferred, Kyle’s book was richly illustrated with artwork in the genre from its ancestral beginnings to the then-present, from  Édouard Riou’s woodcuts for the original Jules Verne books, to Frank R. Paul and other great artists of the pulp magazine to then-modern masters such as Frank Kelly Freas and Ed Emshwiller.  My younger self would spend hours poring over these marvelous pictures; I was particularly entranced by Paul’s futuristic cities and technological wonders for the Gernsback magazines (Amazing Stories, Science Wonder Stories, etc.) and Emshwiller’s humorous depictions of alien life for Galaxy.

Of course, Kyle’s book wasn’t perfect; for one thing, like many other fans of his generation, he was rather contemptuous of most science fiction movies made up to that time, to the point of not considering them “actual” science fiction but corruptions of the genre, and gave less space to discussing them than a truly thorough history should have done. He also perhaps overstated the importance of Hugo Gernsback to the growth of the field; although he was an important figure in not just naming science fiction but in defining the genre and establishing a publishing outlet for it through Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted entirely to SF, he was less important as a creative force, not just in comparison to John W. Campbell (Astounding)  but Harold Gold (Galaxy) and Anthony Boucher (Fantasy and Science Fiction) as well. Still, you have to remember the context that Kyle was writing in: at the time, there was a new guard emerging that sought to not just redefine science fiction but the social culture built around it (sound familiar?), and First Fandom’s interests and tastes were considered anathema to it. In particular, Gernsback came under savage attack as not just as an inferior writer, but was declared the absolute worst thing to have ever happened to science fiction, as Brian Aldiss did in his popular book Billion Year Spree, at the time erroneously considered by many to be the definitive critical history of the genre. It would only be expected to have Kyle and others of his generation to try to provide a sensible counterweight to such overwrought attacks on not just Gernsback but all those others who helped build up the genre and whose legacy and reputations were in danger of being torn down or ignored. Further to his credit, he also refused to submit to the snobbishness of many other fans of the era towards comic books, recognizing their importance and singling out Marvel Comics and its editor-in-chief, “the remarkable Stan Lee” (Kyle’s words) for praise. As Kyle noted, not only was comics fandom an outgrowth of SF fandom, but so were superhero comics themselves:  Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had met through Midwestern fandom, and two other members of New York’s First Fandom, Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz, would inaugurate the Silver Age of Comics when they revitalized DC’s superhero line with a heavy emphasis on SF-inspired treatments and storylines. For that matter, some of the earliest science fiction fans had been introduced to the genre through Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.  Kyle reprinted some of their strips for the book, as well as Britain’s Dan Dare and even one of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo strips as well, to demonstrate the parallel evolution and convergence of science fiction with the comics. The main criteria that Kyle established for judging whether something was good science fiction or not was both knowledge of science and knowledge of science fiction itself, its history and tradition. This historical and formalist approach to the aesthetic evaluation of the genre is one that has stuck with me, and one that I continue to use as an adult nearly thirty years later.

It is telling how much fandom has evolved and transformed in the forty years since Kyle’s book was written. At the time of its initial publication, there was a strong tripartite division between fans of written science fiction, fans of science fiction film and television, and comic book fans. It was more usual for someone to be a fan of one, but not the others, occasionally a fan of two, very rarely all three. It was generally acknowledged, however, that a “true fan” was someone who embraced the written word, illustrated or not. Moreover, there was strong distinction between science fiction and fantasy, and the boundary between them was rigidly enforced; one could be a fan of both, but it was understood that SF was SF and fantasy was fantasy, and never the twain shall meet. Flash-forward ten or twenty years later, the points of demarcation between science fiction and fantasy fandom were starting to weaken, as evidenced when the SFWA renamed itself the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, although not without some protest from purists. By this time, a significant number of science fiction readers and writers had emerged who had first become fans through movies and television, and it was becoming increasingly rare to find someone who was exclusively a fan of written science fiction. First came those who had grown up with science fiction movies and TV shows of the Fifties as well as Famous Monsters of Filmland, the pet project of Forrest J. Ackerman (to whom Kyle had dedicated The Pictorial History of Science Fiction). Among these fans were such major writers as Dan Simmons, Greg Bear and Howard Waldrop as well as artists such as Vincent Di Fate and Bob Eggleton, and they helped to re-evaluate the reputation of the science fiction films of the era that had been underrated by Kyle and others. Later came those who became fans through Star Trek and Star Wars, but it was more common for someone that had become a fan through them to be primarily or even only interested in movies and television, and this trend continued as the genre grew in mass popularity. Comic book fandom had massively expanded as well, but it was still very much separate from SF fandom. Moreover, a fourth fandom, dedicated to games and gaming, had emerged as well. Now, in the present day, the situation has almost completely reversed itself with TV and movies overwhelmingly dominating SF fandom to an almost suffocating degree. One is expected, even obliged, to be a fan of them to be considered a “true” fan in some circles, but it is no longer considered necessary to be a science fiction reader to be a fan, a circumstance which would have been inconceivable a generation ago. Furthermore, not only are science fiction and fantasy fandom now completely intertwined with most conventions and publications not making a distinction between either genre, but so are science fiction and comic book fandom, and there are probably now more self-declared science fiction fans who read comic books than they do prose science fiction. The gaming subculture has also become even more important to fandom thanks to personal computing and the Internet; ironically, one can probably find more real, hard science fiction being written for such games than in most recent books published and sold under the science fiction banner.

Throughout all this time, Kyle remained a stalwart defender of science fiction’s original values, attending and speaking at conventions to the very end, even starting his own Facebook page where he kept his memories of First Fandom alive. As I have stated before, we have a responsibility to continue the legacy of David Kyle and and all the others who built the foundations of both science fiction and its associated fandom. We must never forget that it is the written word that comes first, that the genre has a rich history that long precedes us and that current favorites, no matter how fervent their followings, owe a heavy debt to the originators of the field.

Trop de Trompes de Tropes (or, say “trope” one more time….)

Trop de Trompes de Tropes (or, say “trope” one more time….)

thestupiditburns

 

Every time someone misuses the word trope (which is approximately 99.999 percent of the time when it’s used on the Internet), I get ….really upset. Call it blind rage, call it a flash of insanity, but even though Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes” immediately starts playing in my head, what I really want to do is subject said person to the same mutilations Al wants to subject to himself in his song “One More Minute.” I want to slam their laptops down on their knuckles so hard that their fingers start twitching like spastic hog-nose snakes, and then repeatedly whack them over their head with it while yelling “IDIOT! IDIOT!” in my best Norwegian death-metal voice.

 

In other words, I really don’t like it when it happens.

 

Settle down. It’s only a word.

 

Tell that to a biologist whenever someone mixes up genus and species, to an astronomer when someone confuses galaxy and solar system, or to a chemist when someone says atom when what they meant to say is molecule. For that matter, ask any scientist in any field not to get worked up when laypeople demonstrate they don’t know the difference between theory and hypothesis. To get excessively recursive, definitions are by definition an attempt  to provide an exact meaning for a word, term or phrase that will eliminate confusion in speech. The word trope has been very useful to people studying literature, language and rhetoric because until recently, it did stand for something very precise. You see, a trope isn’t just any recurring cliche, idiom, or motif; it’s one that helps turn a literal representation into a figurative one (hence its derivation from the Latin word meaning “to turn”), particularly (as outlined by Kenneth Burke) metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony. It’s not a coincidence that the same people who have decided to make the word “trope” stand for any frequently recurring cultural object are those who continually confuse the words literally and figuratively, or who don’t care that Alanis Morissette popularized the misuse of the word ironic, because if it has a good beat and you can sing along with it so screechingly that you annoy everyone else in the coffee shop, who cares?

 

That’s right, I don’t care. The meaning of words always changes, and besides, the new definition is in the dictionary…

 

So what? The dictionary routinely includes the incorrect and improper definitions of words, or rather, the vulgar definition of a word.  Many dictionaries now regularly include a definition for “ain’t,” but that doesn’t make its usage acceptable either. And here’s something you don’t seem to realize: the continual incorrect use of the word trope popularized by a silly pop-culture website has not only sanctioned a new incorrect definition, but it has been stretched so far that it now almost means anything the speaker wants it to be. For instance, because the original use of the word meme by Richard Dawkins now has been co-opted to describe pictures of cats wielding machine guns and videos of people water-skiing into lifebuoys, people now use “trope” instead as a substitute.  I hate to say it, but Anita Sarkeesian seems to be one of the few people left who actually knows what the word “trope” means and how to use it, because her research is based on how certain imagery and characterizations in computer games allegedly carry with them a loaded, figurative meaning beyond their literal representation. (There, you forced me to say something nice about Anita Sarkeesian. Are you happy now?)

 

No. Tell us how to properly use the word, wise guy.

 

I will. First, to illustrate what a trope truly is, here’s a classic picture by Matisse.

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As the writing says this is not a pipe; it is a picture of a pipe. Likewise, this picture is not a trope, even though you’ve seen it repeatedly, and read countless references to it. But when does a pipe, or rather, the representation of a pipe become more than just a pipe, but an honest-to-goodness trope? Well, take a look at these photographs here:

 

pipeeinsteinpiperussellpipejungpipeoppie

 

I presume you already know who the first person is, but the other three are also renowned intellectual figures of the Twentieth Century. Yet even if you didn’t recognize their faces, , you probably said to yourself “hey, all those guys must be really smart because they’re smoking pipes.” That’s because the pipe itself has become a trope, an actual honest-to goodness trope, as it serves as a form of  visual metonymy, a defining characteristic establishing that someone is highly educated and/or who pursues intellectual inquiry, as well as a metaphor for intelligence itself. Most of the tobacco-addicted academics I know prefer cigarettes, and Sigmund Freud himself preferred cigars; it was in fact his response to the misuse of psychoanalysis “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” that inspired Matisse’s painting in the first place. Yet we still have in our mind the notion that academics prefer pipes, or the image in our head of Sigmund Freud smoking a pipe instead of a cigar, because a pipe has been rendered this particular figurative force. In two science fiction spoofs with cult followings, the big-budget Mars Attacks! and the lesser-known indie film Top of the Food Chain, the characters played respectively by Pierce Bronsnan and Campbell Scott are supposed to be parodies of the “Richard Carlson role” in the science fiction films of the Fifties. Even audience members who have never seen a movie of the era will instantly recognize that the characters are satirizing a certain antiquated image of the intellectual because they continually have oversized pipes in their mouths. The aforementioned Richard Carlson role is a just a cliche but the use of the pipe itself to identify the character as a cliche is a trope. See the difference?

But a pipe can be more than just one kind of trope. Who’s the first person who pops into your head when you hear the word “pipe?” Chances are, it’s Sherlock Holmes, because one of English literature’s most famous characters is associated with a number of a particular visual cues: a spyglass, an English deerstalker’s hat and of course, a corncob pipe. The pipe, the hat and the spyglass are all tropes, being examples of synecdoche, since they are all parts representing a whole, specific figure in our mind. It doesn’t matter that in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories, Holmes neither wore a deerstalker nor carried a spyglass, and that he not only usually smoked cigars or cigarettes, but when he did smoke from a pipe, they were cheap clay or cherrywood ones. All an actor has to do just stick a corncob pipe in his mouth along with one or more of the other accoutrements and presto!  We instantly recognize him as Sherlock Holmes.

holmesrathboneholmeswotnerholmesbrett

holmescushingholmesleeholmesnimoy

 

Now lets move on to the proper use of the word trope in science fiction itself. H.G. Wells introduced in his novel War of the Worlds the new trope of the alien invasion story. Not the notion of an alien invasion itself; that’s a premise which over time has become a convention. What makes it a trope is that under Wells, the alien invasion became a metaphor, specifically an allegory for British imperialism. The trope of irony comes into play as well, since it’s Britain getting invaded by aliens instead of being the alien invaders themselves this time around, and it’s the the would-be colonists that wind up being felled by disease instead of the native peoples of Earth. We can now see how the notion of tropes, when used properly, are powerful objects because of how they work together to get a writer’s point across; in this case the use of irony helps to support the use of metaphor or allegory. Since then, there have been many variations of this particular alien invasion trope, most famously in the way alien invaders in Fifties science fiction films stood in for communism, but also consider how such works as Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow and Ursula K. LeGuin’s novella “The Word for World is Forest” invert them by making us humans the malign invaders but retaining the allegory for Western colonialism (and you thought Avatar was so original). In the example of Fifties science fiction movies, the trope is modified while retaining the basic conventions of the alien invasion story originated by Wells, whereas in the Russell and LeGuin stories the premise is inverted (again, the use of irony as a trope)  while retaining the Wellsian trope of alien invasion as a stand-in for imperialism and colonialism. There are other cliches and motifs associated with the alien-invasion premise, but not all of them are tropes as well, since not all of them stand for anything else beyond their literal depiction.

Hold it. You said that the “Richard Carlson role” is just a cliche, but isn’t it a trope as well?

See, you are learning! As my own rhetoric professor, Bernard L. Brock (who introduced me to Burkean theory and the notion of tropes in the first place) was fond of saying, “yes and no.” The role itself is just a cliche or stereotype, but it’s the term “Richard Carlson role” that’s the trope, specifically yet another form of metonymy.  You simply need to say that “Hugh Marlowe (or Arthur Franz or Jeff Morrow or John Agar) has the Richard Carlson role” and fans of Fifties science fiction films will instantly know that the actor is not just playing the lead, but is playing the role of a heroic scientist. You can also say “Gloria Talbott in the Beverly Garland role,” “Marshall Thompson in the Kenneth Tobey role,” “Mara Corday in the Joan Weldon role,” “Whit Bissell in the Morris Ankrum role,” and so on, and this same community of fans will again instantly know what you’re talking about because a particular actor or actress is cast in a certain role that another performer has become associated with. It’s much the same way Trekkies used the term “Red Shirt” to define a walk-on role whose character doesn’t survive past the halfway mark in their first and only appearance on the show, and that term has since been used to denote other expendable bit parts, regardless of the color of their garments or regardless of the show they’re on. So if someone were to say that “the cast of Game of Thrones is made up entirely of Red Shirts,” you’d immediately grasp that they meant that every character on the show is expendable. It’s not the role that’s the trope, but the use of words to describe it, as they have moved beyond a character literally having a red shirt to figuratively having one (and they may be literally covered in red by the time the show is over, but that’s another matter altogether). Beyond the obvious, what additionally annoys me about the  TV Tropes website (yeah, I had to mention it by name eventually) is that the people who originated it may have indeed had at least an inkling of what the word “trope” really meant, and possibly had intended for people realize that the tropes were not the various recurring elements in popular culture themselves, but the usages of language to create an identifiable shorthand at recognizing them.

(And another pet peeve of mine I need to address. You may have scratched the side of your head when I mentioned the Richard Carlson role, but when I explained that it’s the role of the heroic scientist in Fifties science fiction film, you probably then slapped it in recognition and said “Oh! You meant the Russell Johnson role!” If you did, you really should punch yourself twice on both sides of your skull, because no, it is not what I meant at all. Russell Johnson was indeed a regular in the genre films of the decade, but he rarely played a scientist, and never played a lead! Instead, the “Russell Johnson role” denotes supporting parts as telephone linesmen, radio operators, and the like. Somehow, people got his movie roles mixed up with the character of The Professor he played on Gilligan’s Island).

OK, I think I get it now. But what do you expect us to say in place of “trope” instead?

There’s already an umbrella word for motifs, conventions and recurring themes and premises in fiction and rhetoric that don’t necessarily have a figurative meaning: it’s topos or in plural form, topoi.  What’s even more annoying about the misuse of the word “trope” is that there was an already-existing perfect term used to describe and classify literary and rhetorical devices, but now that word has also become practically useless in common conversation as the result of another word’s exaptation  to cover what it used to define.  So you see, when you misuse one word, there’s a domino effect on the rest of the vocabulary. Sure, topos and topoi are awkward-sounding words and it’s easy to forget which one is plural and which one is singular, but if you can master the English language with all its messiness, contradictions and already too many words as is, I’m certain you can get used to it.  Better yet, use the specific words to describe particular topoi, the ones you are undoubtedly all already familiar with: cliche, stereotype, archetype, convention, motif, idiom and even just plain old theme and premise.

There has to be more to this than just the misuse of the English language. Really now, why is it such a big deal?

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, my degrees are in communication studies with a concentration in rhetoric, so I get very frustrated at poorly thought-out and uninformed attempts at armchair criticism. It’s gotten to the point that the continual overuse and misuse of the word “trope” means that outside of academic papers by people in the field, it’s a good indicator that the person using the word knows next to nothing about what they’re talking about. They apparently think if they just say the word “trope” repeatedly it will somehow make them look smarter and seem knowledgeable about the topic at hand. It doesn’t; it only drives home that you haven’t taken the time to properly research it and need to rely on buzzwords in order to puff yourself up.  In other words, it becomes just another form of sophistry. This particular misuse of the word has also encouraged a lazy and simple-minded approach to observing and studying culture. Just pointing at something and shouting “Trope!” does not constitute valid cultural criticism, yet that is what now passes for it nowadays on the Internet. Worse yet, it has started to infect professional criticism as well, although in doing so, it helps one distinguish the good critics from the hacks. And that’s a shame, because the notion of tropes and topoi have been useful tools for many years in the study of literature and rhetoric, as well as in film and media studies. They help us to understand how genres originate and evolve, and how words and language serve as a means of persuasion and identification.

OK, I get it now. I won’t say something is a trope again unless I’m absolutely sure it actually is one.

Good. Don’t let me down.

Are you sure “The Russell Johnson Role” doesn’t constitute a true tro-

DIE

 

machinegunkitty

 

 

 

 

 

THE OVERPRAISED AND OVERHYPED: A STRICTLY PERSONAL LISTING OF THE MOST OVERRATED SCIENCE FICTION FILMS OF ALL TIME

THE OVERPRAISED AND OVERHYPED: A STRICTLY PERSONAL LISTING OF THE MOST OVERRATED SCIENCE FICTION FILMS OF ALL TIME

Originally, I didn’t plan to follow up my list of Underrated Science Fiction Films with a list of those I consider the most overrated. First of all, such a list would frankly come off as self-trolling if not done right, an attempt to gain page hits by tempting potential visitors with a subtle “come see how much this will enrage you, and if it doesn’t, share it with friends who will be.” Secondly, there’s a not so subtle implication in such essays that there’s something wrong with those who already enjoy these movies (or books or shows or whatnot), instead of simply chalking up any disagreements to mere differences in taste.

But then I thought about how much fun I’d have writing it…

I have nonetheless decided to play fair in compiling this list. Roughly one-third of the movies are ones that I myself have personally overrated as both a viewer and fan. The others are not necessarily movies I have personally disliked, but ones which I have found myself in conflict with the “consensus” view of critics andfandom, and my personal relationship with their champions has as much shaped my decision to include them on this list as my opinion of the films themselves has as well. My favorite film criticism has usually followed the lead of Pauline Kael in explaining how the writer’s personal relationship with the movies in general has influenced their attitude towards a specific film and whose writings also display their larger kinship with the community of film audiences. Similarly, when writing about science fiction or any other genre, I feel that your own relationship with it and its community of fans and practitioners be integrated into your writings as well.

Finally, if you’re wondering why STARSHIP TROOPERS isn’t listed….why beat a dead horse? Let’s move on…

 

1. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL

Day_the_Earth_Stood_Still_1951

The first lesson to be learned is that not only can a good movie be overrated, so can a genuinely great one. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is a certified classic, one of the “Big Six” of Fifties science fiction, and the one that usually makes all-time greatest film lists. In fact, of late it has become the only science fiction film of the decade to regularly appear on them. Yet it’s the one I’m least likely to watch when I’m in the mood for a science fiction film; I not only find the other films more satisfying, but find that they hold up more to repeat viewings. So why is it so much more popular than the other Fifties classics? Politics no doubt plays a part; better than any movie other than GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE, it best epitomizes the attitude of liberal fascism that so many progressives sincerely adhere to with unwitting and unquestioning fervor (they don’t seem to notice that the heavy-handed Christian symbolism means that it can just as easily be interpreted as a religious fundamentalist fantasy as well, in which the people of Earth, in denying the word of the allegorical Son of God, are forced to live under the threat of a robotic Archangel of Death). Then there is the fact that unlike THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, both of which were considered its superior for many years, it did not receive a remake until recently, and it’s unlikely that film will replace it in the fan consciousness, at least for the time being. But the biggest reason seems to be that it is more likely to be shown in film classes than any other Fifties science fiction film; as a result, it is more widely seen by younger viewers than than the rest of the decade’s genre output and also winds up being treated more seriously than others.

 

2. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH

20_MILLION_MILES_TO_EARTH_30x40_British_Quad

Like most fans of classic science fiction film, I adore the brilliant animated artistry of Ray Harryhausen; unfortunately, that doesn’t take away from the sad fact that as entertaining as most of his feature films are, the quality of the scripts rarely were on the same level as Harryhausen’s special effects. His color and widescreen films, most of them in the fantasy genre, are his most successful in this regard. Unfortunately, with the exception of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, none of his black-and-white science fiction films of the 1950s really had a good screenplay. EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS has a truly awful script and that for IT CAME BENEATH THE SEA is pretty boring, but the screenplay for 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH is simply mediocre. I nonetheless include it in this list because out of all of Harryhausen’s movies, it’s the one that I personally have tended to overrate the most. Harryhausen’s terrific special effects and animation of the Ymir as well as the generally effective direction by Nathan Juran have often lead me to overlook and forget all the glaring flaws: the clunky dialogue, the by-then cliched and stock characters who are a lot less animated than Harryhausen’s creations, a storyline over-reliant on coincidence and contrivance, and worst of all, the presence of an annoying and obnoxious child added simply to pander to the juveniles who by then constituted the majority of the audience for science fiction movies. The best I can say about this miserable brat (who, like the equally annoying tyke in THE BLACK SCORPION, is an offensive ethnic stereotype that winds up being responsible for people dying as a result of his selfishness) is that he disappears early in the film, although if there were any real justice, he would become Ymir chow.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that while the story borrows heavily from KING KONG and THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, with the Ymir even resembling a cross between those two iconic movie monsters, it fails at the very basic task at generating pathos for its own creation, something that those other movies succeeded so well at. Sure Kong and the Gill Man killed people and committed other horrible acts, but we came to sympathize and even identify with them, because they came off as living creatures with their own reasons for existing, and their actions could be understood as similar to that of any wild beast that is mistreated and abused. With the Ymir, we’re in awe of the special effects, yet it never gets developed as a character beyond that. Consequently, we have no sympathy for it or any real feeling at all by the film’s end.

 

3. PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE

plan-9-from-outer-space-1959

Yes, you heard me, the alleged “Worst Movie of All Time” is overrated. How can a film with such a reputation possibly be over-praised by any measure? First of all, it’s not really the worst movie of all time, not by a long shot. Although any given movie by Andy Milligan (my choice for the worst director of all time), H.G. Lewis or Jerry Warren is far worse than anything by Ed Wood, knowledgeable film buffs and scholars have stated the true worst films of all time are to be found among the roadshow and exploitation films of the Thirties and Forties. It’s not the worst movie Wood made (that would be JAIL BAIT), the worst movie starring Bela Lugosi (as anyone who has seen the appropriately-titled MURDER BY TELEVISION will attest) or the worst collaboration between the two (the way ahead of its time transgenderism plea GLEN OR GLENDA is even worse, although I don’t know if the Social Justice Police will allow anyone to discuss how bad it is anymore). It’s not even the worst Tor Johnson movie; that “honor” goes to THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS, which some consider to be the worst science fiction film of all time. Personally, I think it’s a three-way tie between MONSTER A GO-GO, THE CREEPING TERROR and ESCAPE FROM GALAXY THREE in the worst science fiction film sweepstakes.

As should be made clear by now, PLAN 9’s reputation, like those of TROLL 2 and THE ROOM, is really based on its being the most entertainingly bad movie, one that is so ineptly made, written and acted that it becomes a fascinating viewing experience, yet is never so boring or unpleasant that it becomes unwatchable (which can’t be said about, say, any given Italian cannibal film). Yet even when considered as a “good-bad” movie, PLAN 9 falls flat. Unlike its camp followers, I don’t find it particularly amusing or even funny (except for one scene where all these arms pop out of a bus to point up at the flying saucers supposedly flying overhead), and I instead just watch it with a vague and muted disinterest. If any lesson is to be learned here, it’s that if you’re going to call a movie one of the worst of all time, you need to be sincere about it and not simply follow the wisdom of crowds.

 

4. ALPHAVILLE

Alphaville_1965

Not too long ago, an Internet poll was taken of the best science fiction and fantasy novels, and the top science fiction title (second overall) was THE HITCH-HIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY. It seems inconceivable that so many serious science fiction fans would have rated such a slight satire above the likes of DUNE, THE TIME MACHINE or CHILDHOOD’S END…until you saw that the poll was sponsored by National Public Radio. It should only be expected that the typical NPR listener would select a title reflective of a mentality that sees itself as being “above” the genre yet also thinks it knows it better than its readers and is entitled to tell them what is really good for them. A similar attitude also explains the popularity of Jean-Luc Godard’s ALPHAVILLE among the same political and cultural mindset. Like the Douglas Adams book, it’s a favorite among those who not only don’t really like the genre, but look down on it as “low” culture. Needless to say, this wrongheaded attitude has only helped to inflate the reputation of a movie that is mostly dull and didactic, and also happens to be poor science fiction, doing little with the “mad computer takes over the city” cliche other than use it as an excuse for Godard’s usual soapboxing. It is, in fact, anti-science fiction, not just an attempt to subvert a genre its director evidently thinks he can handle better than its American practitioners, but is outright hostile to science itself, and on that level, it is deplorable. Unlike many other science fiction fans, I have no problems with art-house cinema; I feel that one’s cultural life is all the poorer if one doesn’t take in a wide range of movies as well as books. However, I don’t think just because a movie has pretensions to higher art that it necessarily qualifies as such, and I certainly feel that way about much of Godard’s oeuvre. At least it was made before he started boring us with tiresome Marxist polemics, and became the cinematic equivalent of the Facebook friend you have no choice to put on ignore because he keeps cluttering your timeline with idiotic political memes.

 

5. SILENT RUNNING

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Basically, this is the Al Gore of science fiction movies: if you’re already down with its environmental message you’ll think it’s brilliant, but if you actually know something about the topics it addresses, you’ll be unable to ignore all its factual errors and lapses in logic as well as its overall extremism, and be all too aware of just how profoundly stupid it really is. It has provoked great divisions and disputes among fans and critics over its actual quality, and I admit to having been torn over the film myself. On the one hand, it’s certainly sincerely made, I greatly admire the superb performance by Bruce Dern, and it’s well directed by special effects master Douglas Trumbull who of course provides some beautiful visuals. On the other hand, nearly all its virtues are sunken by the utter idiocy of the script, which is a textbook example of bad science fiction writing at work. It is as scientifically preposterous as ARMAGEDDON or THE CORE, and worse yet, much of the plot is driven by the need for its lead character to not just be obsessed beyond the point of reason but to be a complete scientific illiterate. No matter how well made the movie is, or how sincere the message or how many people agree with it, it ultimately doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t work as science fiction, it doesn’t work as anything. Not only does it wind up trivializing a serious issue that deserves a more scientifically  serious and well-informed treatment, it unintentionally sabotages any goodwill for its message as well as its lead character through its own sense of self-righteousness. As was the case with 2004’s THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, the film’s supporters seem to think all the bad science is acceptable as long as it’s done in favor of “educating” the public on environmental issues, and it’s pretty scary that they’re willing to excuse Dern’s character committing murder and theft in order to preserve the world’s last remaining forests. Most disheartening of all is that some people will dismiss out of hand the importance of environmental conservation and preservation specifically because of the extreme rhetoric embodied by the film.

Incidentally, if you were hoping AVATAR or WALL-E would make the list, you can easily substitute either of them for this film, as many of the same arguments apply.

 

6. FLASH GORDON

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If you know who Sam Jones is but not who Buster Crabbe is, I kind of want to slap your grandparents. And if you were one of those people whining “stop ruining my childhood!” when they announced yet another film reboot of Alex Raymond’s classic science fiction comic strip, I really want to slap you. Yeah, I’m a Queen fan, but come on now! Dino De Laurentiis may have had sincere intentions in trying to produce a feature-length version of the comic strip, given that it is regarded as high art in much of Europe, and interest in it had revived with George Lucas admitting it was one of the main inspirations for STAR WARS. Unfortunately, he had to once again hire Lorenzo Semple, who was known to actively hate science fiction and fantasy, especially when he was assigned to write them. The “camp” attitude worked well enough when Semple wrote the BATMAN TV series , but was completely inappropriate to the big-budget film adaptation of FLASH GORDON. Not only were the comic strips played straight, so were the original serials, and George Lucas to his credit recognized that what made them work was that they took not just themselves but their audiences seriously as well. Not so with Semple’s script; as with his KING KONG screenplay, it drips with contempt not just for its original source material and the genre as a whole, but for the very audience it plays for. Yet like so many other awful films from the Eighties, it has somehow gained a massive cult following among supposed grown-ups who still remember watching it as children and are still uncritically enamored of it. There’s some kind of progressive devolution of cultural literacy here: The original comic strips inspired Ray Bradbury and other great science fiction writers, and the serials inspired George Lucas and Steven Spielberg to direct their own science fiction and adventure films that as planned, would be both great entertainment and lasting art. The 1980 FLASH GORDON film seems to have primarily influenced today’s makers of “blockbuster” entertainment who regard pre-existing stories as “products” and “properties” whose value is based on their net worth and who think catchy visuals can indeed compensate for bad writing, direction and acting.

 

7. JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING

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You saw this one coming, didn’t you? I’ve already made the claim that this is the most overrated science fiction film of all time, and I see no reason to revise that judgment. As I have said before, this is a strictly personal list, and given that the original THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is one of my very favorite films of any genre, I of course resent the way the over-hyped popularity of the 1982 rehash has diminished the original classic’s status as one of the great science fiction films. But even if I weren’t such a fan of the original, it wouldn’t change the fact that the later film’s rabid fans are are not just among the most uncritically-minded but the most obnoxious and annoying in cinemadom. They are so absolutely and ridiculously obsessed with “their” movie that they insist that all commentary on the Internet be reduced to to mindless praise of it, and will make the most inane attempt to squeeze in even a mention of the film. “This movie is set in a remote, cold snowy area-it’s just like John Carpenter’s THE THING!” “Those Twilight Zone episodes aren’t as good as John Carpenter’s THE THING.” “So ZELIG is Woody Allen’s version of THE THING?” Enough already! Worse yet, they will not tolerate even the mildest criticism of the movie, regarding it as something sacred that is not to be blasphemed. Prepare yourself for a barrage of personal attacks if you find the slightest fault with it, or don’t consider it to be a masterpiece, or state that you prefer another movie over it for whatever reason…especially if you dare assert that you prefer the original 1951 film.

As for my opinion of the movie itself: three times I let all the hyperbolic praise and gushing convince me my initial assessment might have been wrong and to give it another try, and each time my opinion of it only worsened. The film starts off well enough, but soon degenerates, like its creature, into an implausible and inconsistent mess. My biggest problem is that none of the characters are remotely interesting or likable, and neither the dialogue nor the performances (with the exception of Wilford Brimley, who hated the film and the experience of working on it) do anything to elevate them beyond two-dimensional stereotypes. Kurt Russell may physically look like the hero of the novella but they made a big mistake in turning him into an asshole helicopter pilot instead of someone intelligent and identifiable. The character and performance are clearly based on Cary Grant’s in another Howard Hawks classic, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, but Grant’s pilot was stationed in South America, so it made sense for him to wear a sombrero. What’s the excuse for Russell’s to wear one in the Antarctic, except to make himself seem like an even bigger douchebag than he already is? While the novella and the 1951 film followed the rules of good science fiction, this one starts playing Calvinball with the science fiction aspects midway through. It’s especially annoying that some characters seem to know that they have become the creature and others don’t, and that the alien’s behavior and transformations depend more on shock effect than on whether or not they make sense. This refusal to follow proper story logic especially hurts the blood test scene; in the original story, a blood serum test on rabbits establishes that the test may work, but in the movie, the suggestion of one of the scientists is all they go by. In the novella it’s well established that MacReady is a meteorologist with some medical training, giving him sufficient knowledge of both the human body and the scientific method in order to undertake the task, but how does the film’s MacReady know enough to be sure? He’s just an asshole helicopter pilot! It is not surprising really that the film has such extreme popularity, because it appeals to the most uncritical attitudes among the fan bases for both genres. The film sadly represents the most obvious downward trends in both science fiction and horror where story has been compromised, in the name of special-effects spectacle with the former and gory gross-out scenes with the latter.

 

8. JURASSIC PARK

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Believe me, it pains me as much as you to see this listed here. I’ve loved dinosaurs since I’ve been able to read, and so I naturally got totally caught up in the hype surrounding the movie before its premiere. When I first saw it in a full theater, I was naturally wowed by the incredible special effects, and thoroughly entertained…yet even then, I noticed something was missing. At the time, my major disappointment was that the massive Mesozoic menagerie of the novel had been drastically cut down to just six different types of dinosaur, but watching it again in its IMAX 3-D re-release two years ago (the very same theater, only this time I was the only person there) I realized that the film’s problems went deeper than that. What really hurts the film is that dinosaurs are for the most part not used well at all. Michael Crichton’s original novel had a subtle message to go along with the thrills, critiquing the way we transform wildlife into entertainment in the form of zoos, safaris and the like, and the film adaptation winds up ironically confirming this thesis. Crichton’s dinosaurs were depicted as the real animals they actually were, behaving the way they did because their instincts were still ingrained in them even after they were revived millions of years later. The dinosaurs produced by Spielberg and his film crew are convincing and formidable, yet their realism is compromised by the need to turn the predatory ones into the same sort of monsters dinosaurs have been portrayed as before in popular culture.  The tyrannosaurus behaves no differently than any other in earlier films even if it is better executed, and the velociraptors meanwhile are made to be more intelligent than they actually were; they may have been as smart as living crocodilians or some species of bird but ascribing to them a level of intelligence equivalent to that of crows or ravens is too much of an exaggeration. Worst of all is the dilophosaurus; having it spit venom is one thing, but the frill only makes it look silly. Not only is there no evidence for them ever having one, it doesn’t even make evolutionary sense when they already had display crests. On top of that, its appearance is redundant; they should have removed it and made its scene the one that introduced the velociraptors, or better yet, deleted Wayne Knight’s character altogether, given that he’s the worst part of the entire movie.

Which brings me to my second problem, the flimsy characters. In some ways, the movie improves upon the book by switching the ages of the two children (the girl in the book is even more annoying than the kid from 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH), and both the characters of Hammond and more importantly Ian Malcolm (my favorite in the entire book, although I think it would have been more interesting if Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neil had switched roles) are allowed to live to the end, but it also reduces all the adult characters by at least one dimension. None of the characters compare to those in such other Spielberg films as JAWS, ET, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND or RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, or for that matter, the characters played by Richard Benjamin and James Brolin in Crichton’s very similar film WESTWORLD. As a thought experiment, try taking some of the characters in the movies I’ve mentioned and imagine them in JURASSIC PARK, and you’ll agree that it could have been even better, and more deserving of the appellation of “classic.”

 

9. INDEPENDENCE DAY

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The very fact that a movie this stupid and crassly commercial is now considered a “classic” by some is a sad comment on the erosion of aesthetic standards in both fandom and the general public. I’m hesitant to even call it a movie; I remember very clearly the ridiculously huge advertising campaign for the film, and and am more inclined to call it a scam, the cinematic equivalent of a “Cash for Gold” store. It’s a rip-off in every sense of the word; not only does it steal shamelessly from the science fiction films of the Fifties (making it even more frustrating when you consider that the same people who drool over movies like this are the same who sneer at older science fiction films), but it also borrows from one of the worst-ever trends in big-budget film making, the “disaster” film made in the 1970s by Irwin Allen and others, painful reminders that such vulgar wastes of money are not a recent development but have always been a part of the film industry. And yes, I have a more personal reason for disliking it. In addition to being a derivative copy of other, much better movies, it also shamelessly exploited one of the most embarrassing fads of the 1990s, the revival of the UFO obsession and interest in alien sightings spurred by the success of THE X-FILES. That show never pretended to be anything other than well-written entertainment, but Roland Emmerich has made a career out of exploiting pseudoscience in the name of cynical moneymaking. In addition to this film’s use of the Roswell craze, Emmerich’s earlier STARGATE was based in the idiotic “Chariots of the Gods” and “Alien Astronauts” tomfoolery that now dominates so-called “reality” networks, and THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW was based on a novel by Whitley Streiber, a name that alone turns the BS detector up to eleven. Worst of all was 2012 which not only exploited the “Mayan Calendar” and other doomsday stupidity but featured the absolute worst misuse of science of any big-budget film in recent memory; yes neutrinos undergo oscillations and flavor-changing, but no, they do not “mutate”. Emmerich’s entire oeuvre is a pox on the genre, based on an appeal to the lowest common denominator and in complete contempt of the public’s intelligence.

 

10. MOON

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By now, you’ve probably figured out that I’m something of a contrarian curmudgeon, who is more critical of some of the most popular films in the genre than most other fans. It’s not so much that I dislike something just because it’s popular; it’s more the case that if there’s tremendous critical or fan hype surrounding a film, I’m more likely to be skeptical and keep my expectations low. When I finally get around to watching it, I’m more inclined to view it with a more critical eye than I normally would, so that I can form my own independent opinion of it. It’s rare that the hype itself actually actively annoys me, but that was the case with this movie. Every critic raving over MOON seemed not just to hail it as “the smartest sci-fi movie ever” which was hyperbolic enough itself, but then they would proceed to demonstrate their profound ignorance of the genre when they seemed to think that this was the exception rather than the rule for science fiction, or that it was somehow breaking new ground with its storyline. Clearly, most of them were not actual readers of science fiction and allowed their perceptions of the genre to be totally based on all the action films using its trappings. It also didn’t help that director Duncan Jones came off as less than humble in interviews, acting as if he thought he knew the genre better than all its other fans and practitioners, when he actually demonstrated a shallow understanding of the genre and its history. The low point in my expectations came when Jones provided a list of his five “must-see” science fiction films to Empire magazine, and listed the awful OUTLAND among them. Worse yet, he took a cheap shot at FORBIDDEN PLANET (and Fifties science fiction films as a whole) in the article, and the fact that he would dismiss one of the most cerebral and intelligent of all science fiction films while recommending one of the worst ever big-budget films in the genre did not sit well with me.

I nonetheless tried to put these feelings aside when I finally got around to watching the film when it appeared on cable TV. I found the movie to be merely good, not great and certainly not the masterpiece people were falling over for. In particular, it seemed that people mistook Sam Rockwell giving two good performances in a technically demanding role as being equivalent to a great one; his performance came nowhere near Jeremy Irons’ superb dual performance in DEAD RINGERS or even Boris Karloff’s in THE BLACK ROOM. I could understand nonetheless how someone who has never actually picked up a science fiction book or seen a movie made before STAR WARS might think it a revolutionary achievement, but for this lifelong reader and viewer of science fiction, it was a letdown. The political subtext in the film that some regarded as a sign of its intelligence is not just simplistic, but has been hammered over and over again in science fiction literature and film alike; the movie isn’t saying anything original about the ethics of biotechnology or the way Big Evil Corporations treat individual consciences that wasn’t already said more effectively in BLADE RUNNER, only with clones replacing androids.  It is in fact a highly derivative film, and I found myself distracted early on by Jones’ insistence on pushing his homages so unsubtly, particularly when Rockwell started doting on his plants like Bruce Dern in SILENT RUNNING. Before I had seen the film I thought maybe Jones had read the Algis Budrys novel Rogue Moon (something I also felt after watching his follow-up film, SOURCE CODE), but I realized when I finally watched that it was actually Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth done in reverse. In that novel, the protagonist (named Duncan!) departs from his family-owned hydrogen extraction base on Titan and arrives on Earth to be cloned in order to continue his mining operations; it is revealed later that his “family” consists of a succession of clones of which he is merely the next generation. Clarke was pilloried by science fiction critics and fans for misunderstanding the nature of cloning, and MOON repeats these very same errors, but this time, the critics didn’t notice or care. It seems a shame that Jones would make such a big deal over how he tried to get the engineering details of mining Helium-3 from the moon correct, when he couldn’t make a similar effort to get the science of cloning right as well, even though it’s far more important to the storyline. For that matter, the ever-annoying sound-in-a-vacuum also helped to negate the film’s pretensions to being hard science fiction. In the final judgement, it’s a movie I wish I could like more, but I instead found myself somewhat let down by, something that happens all too often.

 

Liberty Con Day-1

Liberty Con Day-1

Technically today is day two for me at Liberty Con since I was here last night and met several people at  Lupi’s Pizza and inadvertently missed the wedding that I had planned on crashing.  Oh well, that is the cost of meeting new people. This morning I went to breakfast and saw Doug Dandridge, who I had met the night before, eating alone so I invited myself over and had a very pleasant conversation with him. I have enjoyed his work and I utilized his non-fiction work How I sold 100,000 Books On Amazon in setting up my last anthology.

At 3:00 I am going to be at Author’s Alley signing and selling my own books. If you are at Liberty Con today please come out and see me.

I believe Mark Wandrey’s book launch party for Etude to War is tonight at 7pm and I plan on attending.

I will update here at Nuke Mars throughout the weekend as to how things are going,