science fiction

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: On Failing Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren

 Dhalgren cover

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Dhalgren is a 1975 novel by Samuel R. Delany, arguably his most successful critically and most likely his most successful commercially, with over one million copies sold. It took me a while, even devouring SF like I do, to find Delany. This is a shame, as the man really knows his way around a sentence. He’s also fucking insane, or at least wrote a fucking insane novel. To give you an idea of the strangeness inherent in the book, one of the very first events is a guy (the main character) walking down a highway, seeing a naked woman running across a field, going to her, having sex with her, then later approaching her in a meadow as she metamorphoses into a tree. Freaked out by this, he sprints back out to the highway to hitch a ride and talks with a long-haul trucker about artichokes. The trucker drops him off at his destination, Bellona, and it does not get less strange.

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Yup.

Bellona is a midwestern U.S. city that has undergone a vague cataclysm. No one really understands what happened, but a lot of the city burned down, and a lot of people moved away. What’s left is an anarchic-in-the-bad-way-unless-you-are-kind-of-an-asshole type social structure where people are just trying to get by and don’t really understand the place in which they live, but are powerfully drawn to it. Weird things keep happening. Our amnesic protagonist, who ends up taking the name Kidd, sleeps on a rooftop a few blocks away from the river the first night, then wakes up and cannot see the river. He enters a building by one door and leaves by the same door, only it exits in a different place. The city is constantly encased in a roiling dome of ash, smoke, and cloud. The one time this really clears away, there are two moons in the sky. The place is just weird, and the evocation of this strangeness is what this novel does best: it is huge on atmosphere. Reading it, you are as wandering and confused as the main character. The grimness and foreboding of the place flows underneath every word, like dark water through the sewers underneath a city. Also, strangeness never stops.

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Bellona is kind of like this, with less sunlight.

Our fearless protagonist finds a notebook in the city, one in which all the right-hand pages are filled in as someone’s journal. Paper is at a premium, so he uses the left-hand pages to write poems as he moves through the city, but he also glances at what has been written, and these pages sometimes reveal a written version of thoughts Kidd has already had. For example, one of the narrator’s thoughts (assumed to be the internal thoughts of Kidd, but who knows) is him reflecting upon his amnesia:

It is not that I have no past. Rather, it continually fragments on the terrible and vivid ephemera of now.

First off, look at that writing. Secondly, when he starts reading the journal, he finds this written in it:

It is not that I have no future. Rather it continually fragments on the insubstantial and indistinct ephemera of now.

He is amnesic, so he knows even less than the reader if he is the original writer of the journal, and other than tenuous speculation, there is nothing to indicate a final answer. This novel builds mystery and leaves it there, strong and swirling in mist. William Gibson referred to the novel as “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.” Good, because I am nowhere close. (While we’re talking about SF author reactions to Dhalgren, Philip K. Dick called it trash, and Harlan Ellison threw it across the room, never to return, at page 361. I am on page 349. Because it is so weird, it is very divisive in the community – some think it is incomprehensible pap, others think it is the best thing science fiction has ever done).

While we’re quoting, below is the first dozen or so lines of the book, to give you an idea if the style is something that appeals to you or not:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out for the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know: careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you’ve held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

So, I quit. Well, not really. This book is too much of a landmark, and there is way too much exciting stuff going on in it for me never to finish. It is really good, I just need some time. In the words of Led Zeppelin, “I can’t quit you babe, so I’m gonna put you down for a while.”

There’s a reason 73% of American high-school males go through a Led Zeppelin phase. Led Zeppelin is fucking great.

The problem is not that it’s a bad book. It is amazing. The problem is, it’s fudge. Fudge is good. Fudge is an impressive and rewarding concoction. Eating fudge is better than eating, say, a ham sandwich. But if you eat nothing but fudge, it becomes hard to chew, sensorially overwhelming, and the culprit behind severe digestive problems. I need to eat a few ham sandwiches before returning to my 879-page platter of fudge. Delany crafted a highly experimental novel with a lot of innovative features, but digestibility was not one of his goals.

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The worst/best dinner you’ll ever have.

Quitting a book is the sovereign right of any reader. As I get older, I do it more and more. As a youth, it always seemed like it was my failure if I put down a book. This attitude had me finishing a lot of really terrible, highly acclaimed stuff. Now, it’s clearer that it is more the author’s failure than mine. If the author is not delivering, you owe them nothing, and buckling to the social pressure of what a “good” book is and reading it even when you don’t like it gives you misery you don’t need and wastes time you don’t have. I love reading the Big Books, the ones in The Canon, and it’s fine to have social opinion be one of the determining factors of whether you finish a book, but it cannot serve as the sole support of a bad book (Obligatory: The Corrections was super terrible. “I am a well-educated, white, heterosexual, cisgender male, my life is so hard, won’t you follow me as I explain my psychological hangups? Also, I’m a giant asshole and made all my problems for myself.”). So my hatred of The Corrections is sloshing over the rim of parenthetical address. In it, the main character’s life is messed up because, as a tenure-track professor, he had sex with one of his students and got fired. He broke the rules and regulations of his workplace and got canned. He’s super bitter about it, but what the hell did he expect? Can you imagine reading Crime and Punishment if, instead of going through the psychological anguish of nihilism versus meaning, despair versus hope, and anxiety versus acceptance, all Raskolnikov did was bitch about how that dumb old lady he murdered ruined his life and how unfair it all was? That’s The Corrections.

Okay, back on track. Yes, I am taking a break, but Dhalgren is amazing. Hopefully, I will read the remaining 530 pages, and there will be a companion piece up here in a few months titled “On Finishing Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren,” but there doesn’t have to be. Read good books, don’t read bad ones, regardless of the opinions of others. When people read books based solely on reputation, bad writers profit and good readers suffer.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Alternate histories are a strong subgenre within SF. They have been around forever. If you really want to stretch it, technically Livy wrote a hypothetical consideration of what would have happened if Alexander the Great had moved West towards Rome instead of conquering the East. He says Rome would have won, but I mean, his name was Titus Livius Patavinus, so. In 1490, the chivalric novel Tirant lo Blanch postulated a history in which the Turks never took Constantinople. 1953’s Bring the Jubilee told a story in which the Confederacy won the Civil War. There is an absurd amount of alt-history books out there, but few are as famous as The Man in the High Castle.

This type of fiction starts out by finding a historical pressure point one, two, ten decades ago, flipping what happened, then exploring the ramifications of the strange new world thus created. Here, the pressure point is Giussepe Zangara’s attempt to assassinate President-elect FDR. In The Man in the High Castle, he is successful. His VP takes over, does a bad job, and is replaced by a Republican president who fails to surmount the Great Depression and maintains the USA’s isolationist policies. The end result of all this is that Russia is conquered in ’41, England cannot stand alone against Germany and falls, and then the complete destruction of the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor makes America easy pickings. At the start of the novel, Germany controls the east of the United States, Japan controls the west, and the mountain and southwestern states form an autonomous American buffer zone between the two.

Touching a pressure point in history, like touching a pressure point in the body, sets off reactions far from the initial point of contact. The Nazis, their ideology unchecked by defeat, continue in their insane belief in a master race. This obscene self-confidence coupled with German technological prowess leads to the colonization of other planets. It also leads to Nazis hunting Jewish people all over the world and shipping them back to Berlin, and Nazi scientists spearheading a vaguely-referenced experiment in Africa that leads to the extermination of most of its populace. Again – the center of SF is extrapolation, and PKD extrapolates the Nazi dynamic of world-changing scientific progress built on human misery and their inhumanity to their fellow man. Same pattern, wider oscillation. As a brief aside on German technological prowess, NASA probably would not be what it is today without Wernher von Braun, who created the rocket booster system that put Neil and Buzz on the moon. He did the same kind of rocketry work for the Nazis, only it was weaponized as the V-2 rocket. Von Braun has always maintained he just wanted to work on rockets and had to join the Nazis to do so, and is reported as saying, upon hearing the news of the first successful V-2 bombing of London, “The rocket worked perfectly except for landing on the wrong planet.” This self-serving attitude and the avoidance of responsibility by wrapping himself in idealism (these rockets were built with slave labor) is beautifully satirized by Mort Sahl, the first modern stand-up comedian. The following joke is pretty much the whole reason for this aside, as it is one of the best I’ve ever heard: “I aim at the stars, but sometimes I hit London.”

Out west, the Japanese are comparatively benevolent colonizers. Throughout the Pacific states, the Japanese run things, but tend to be more lenient than their Nazi counterparts. Western Americans absorb much of the culture of their colonizers, including using the I Ching and adapting to Japanese systems of social advancement and behavior.

The first major plot concerns an intrigue between German and Japanese representatives to one-up each other. The Germans want to be the sole superpower in the world, and are covertly maneuvering against Japan. The Japanese are covertly maneuvering against Germany to defend themselves. The second major plot thread is that an author who lives in a fortress in the Rocky Mountain States (the High Castle) has written a book titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which is a piece of alternate history fiction that explores what might have happened if America had entered the war and the Nazis had been crushed. This book is very popular underground, and a couple of the characters decide to take a road trip to meet the man behind it.

Speaking of characters, most of these are cardboard-flat. In many of his books, PKD puts just enough in his characters to make them move around realistically, then lets them go. I still can’t decide if this means PKD is a master of simplicity, or if characterization is just not his strong suit.

There is a reason this is arguably PKD’s most acclaimed book. Sure, the characters might be stick figures, but the world they move around in is unsettlingly plausible and well-built. Americans grow up with “we are the greatest/we’re number one” hammered into their heads. Our President is regularly referred to (by us, anyway) as the leader of the free world. Even if you take Eddie Izzard’s joke about there being a lot of countries, none of whose mottos are “We’re #2!”, to heart, the USA still has an unparalleled level of power and influence in the modern world. Therefore, reading a book in which America is weak, colonized, subjugated by and dependent upon foreign powers creates a deeply personal sense of horror in the American psyche. The adeptness with which PKD constructs and directs this sense of horror makes this book well worth your time.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer

 Snowpiercer-Movie-Poster-Chris-Evans

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Snowpiercer is a delightful sci-fi concept film. The concept is that, amid concerns of climate change, humanity released a relatively untested “cooling” chemical into the upper atmosphere – an anthropogenic solution for an anthropogenic problem. By the way, if you are a person who still denies that something is happening to the climate and that humanity is largely responsible for it, please leave. Even offering a counterargument to deniers is creating a semblance of rational disagreement and debate, which only serves to allow major actors to continue down a path that, unmitigated, will quite literally end the world as we know it. Many scientists are worried that there is a point of no return, and that, once we pass it, there might be a runaway greenhouse gas effect that will radically alter the makeup of the only known body in the solar system that can support human life. Current governmental response to it is insane. Not only are they not freaking out, a full 58% of Republican lawmakers – over half of one major political party – doubt that it exists. The people responsible for legislating measures that might save us aren’t doing anything because a quarter of them are idiots. As a brief aside – a lot of climate change deniers are also evolution deniers. Evolution denial is similar to climate change denial, if the consequences of denying evolution made the whole human race lose their neocortex. That’s the thing – you can deny evolution all you want, and it will change nothing. Dismissing sound climate science, or even just fostering the appearance of any debate on the issue, weakens our ability to respond, in a measured and timely fashion, to a set of circumstances that could lead to mass famine, destruction, and loss of life. I don’t get it. During the Cold War, everyone was terrified of the world ending in a nuclear holocaust. There’s an outside chance the world might end if we don’t stop freely burning fossil fuels, and about a quarter of us are responding with  “Eh, fuck it.” (25% being the rough number of people that actually deny it. Probably a lot more don’t give a shit).

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, around 2128, Mars and its citizens stood as an oppressed colony of Terran corporate interests. Martians get a fighting chance when a major humanitarian crisis strikes Earth and diverts resources from harvesting efforts on Mars to relief efforts on the homeworld – the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapses, dooming all Terran coastal areas with slow but inexorable inundation. Robinson, writing a far-future novel in 1996, trying to think of a semi-plausible disaster for purposes of his plot, came up with that. It happened eighteen years later. If that isn’t enough to terrify you, a science-fiction author’s future apocalypse scenario coming true less than two decades after his book was published, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, they release this quick-fix chemical into the upper atmosphere, and the immediate consequence is that they cool the Earth to far below the threshold for sustaining an ecosystem. All life on Earth is flash-frozen, save for a small enclave on a constantly-moving train run by a perpetual motion engine. Snowpiercer is a great example of the type of science fiction that takes a real science problem from the world, extrapolates it, and then uses it as a backdrop to have Captain America beat the crap out of people. Chris Evans, of Captain America fame, plays the rebellion leader Curtis Everett. Don’t come here for that though – other than hitting people with blunt (or sharp) objects, he’s not very Captainy. This film is way too grim for that.

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He also starred in this movie. We do not speak its name.

The grimness comes from the fact that on the train housing the last remnant of humanity, you have your first-class passengers, your coach passengers, and your oh-my-god-the-world-is-ending-let-me-on passengers. This last category is kept in constant poverty and misery, beaten by guards, and despoiled by the rich. They eat protein gelatin while first-classers eat steak and fish. They pile in squalid bunks while the rich lounge in private cars. The whole drive of the movie is Chris Evans’ character fomenting a rebellion, the stated purpose of which is to reach the front of the train and gain control of the engine, thus gaining control of the entire train. There is a lot of ingrained hierarchy and a lot of guards in place to keep them from doing just that. There is also a lot of propaganda, whereby the owner of the train is cast in a numinous aura of near-godliness. The lead propagandist is probably my favorite character in the film, and she is played marvelously by a ridiculous Tilda Swinton.

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Oh, Tilda.

The most remarkable achievement of the film is its transformation of the vertical, metaphorical rich on top/poor on bottom dynamic into a horizontal, literal rich in front/poor in back dynamic. The protagonist and his band struggle through car after car, moving from industrial-revolution level squalor, to clean and economical, to absurdly elegant and polished. This results in visual cues signaling Curtis’ progress – the further up he gets, the nicer everything is. It is a physical diorama of oppression. Another thing the film does nicely is the action – there is plenty of gritty, bloody scuffling as they inch forward to the engine. Much of the killing is done with improvised weaponry, as the oppressed poor are of course not permitted firearms. Some of the scenes, while not nearly as cool, reminded me of the transcendental hammer hallway fight scene from Oldboy. If you have not seen Oldboy, it is on Netflix. You should probably see Oldboy. Here’s the scene I’m talking about:

This is pretty much what happens as they move through the train cars.

The movie is well worth seeing. Its idea-driven plot, its ambition, its worldbuilding, and its unique sets more than win it the right to your time. However, it does fall apart in some areas. First off, the majority of the characters are pretty simply sketched out. There’s no real change or development throughout the film. Also, the ending is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen. It’s fine, it’s fine – I still like the movie. But watch out for that ending. Overall, it’s nice to see small concept-driven sci-fi being produced as opposed to ginormous explosion-driven sci-fi (cough Transformers cough). Take an afternoon for yourself and check it out.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions

DangerousVisions(1stEd)

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

The title of this article is Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions, but the book is actually the work of 32 different authors. Harlan Ellison serves as both contributor and editor. At the time, and in many ways still now, this was a New and Important book. Ellison put out a call for new, experimental, push-the-boundaries-of-the-genre type fiction, fiction that, due either to editorial opinion or censorship, could not get published in the contemporary market. What he collected is 33 stories, most of which are very good, a third of which are truly impressive, and a handful of which are kinda crappy. It is the distillation of a lot of ideas floating about in the heads of new SF writers at the time. In the 60s environment of general rebellion, experimentation, and radicalization, many SF writers wanted to push the limits of the form, aspire to the quality of general literature, and break with the aliens-and-robots standards of the past. While the ideas behind the movement had been circulating for a few years, Harlan Ellison gave them all a place to roost.

Harlan himself is a very interesting character. He is an important, genre-influencing author, with short stories like I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, which you can read here, and which is one of the most terrifying stories I’ve ever found. He also spent a lot of time writing SF for television, and his “City on the Edge of Forever” is one of the most highly acclaimed Star Trek: TOS episodes ever. His accomplishments as an author have been slightly overshadowed by his accomplishments as an editor and SF personality, but that is only because he edited such an important anthology and he has such a unique personality. One word to describe that personality would be abrasive, and I probably don’t have to tell you any more than that he has a section in his Wikipedia article entitled “Controversies and disputes,” and that it takes up nearly half his entry, for you to get an idea of just how abrasive. This is the man behind one of the most important science fiction books ever written.

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Harlan Ellison in the 80s. Possibly my favorite picture on Wikipedia. Why is there a pipe?

So what’s so great about this book he put together? It largely lives up to its ambitions, presenting stories that are highly experimental, that break social taboos, and that aspire to literary quality. “Evensong” explores a future where God is on the run from his chosen people, who have transcended his guidance, which would be controversial if published today, 47 years on. Larry Niven’s “The Jigsaw Man” is a horrifying portrait of a time when the incarcerated are cut into bits for their organs and body parts, thus conferring immortality on the unimprisoned. Philip K. Dick’s “Faith of our Fathers” explores a totalitarian world where the protagonist is dosed with anti-hallucinogens, and when he looks at the benevolent leader when sober, it isn’t human. In “Shall the Dust Praise Thee?” God shows up with his angels, all raring to blow their horns and start the Apocalypse, but all they see is dust and ashes. The angel responsible for turning the seas to blood can’t find the seas. Eventually, they find inscribed on the wall of a bunker, “We were here. Where were You?” In the amazingly named “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” the happiest and most productive planet in the galaxy is so healthy because it actively practices incest, which, even as a thought experiment, is highly uncomfortable to read. I could keep on listing and describing the great stories in this book. I made a list of about twelve of them, but it would be better for you to just read it for yourself.

As groundbreaking as this book is, it is not without problems. It is open-minded about sex, taboo, and stylistic experimentation, but it strongly maintains some taboos while transgressing others. One example of this is when, in a story about gambling, the protagonist Joe finds himself playing craps with someone sinister. Fine, games of chance against the devil that don’t go so well for the other player are ingrained in our storytelling tradition. The problem is, when Joe starts getting worried about it, he “[finds] himself wondering if he’d got into a game with a [racial slur], maybe a witchcraft-drenched Voodoo man whose white make-up was wearing off.” What? In addition to the slur being a problem, the author decided to use blackness as shorthand for the hidden, threatening Other. Before, it was a game between compatriots, and as it turns sinister, the main character wonders if maybe he’s not playing against someone of his own race. That’s fucked up. Another example of backwards thinking is in a story called “Ersatz,” which is a pretty standard future-war post-atomic apocalypse story. A soldier finds his way to a care station and starts eating and drinking a bunch of ersatz stuff, because with the world basically over, they can’t get the real thing. He eats a steak made of bark, smokes tobacco made of not tobacco. The post-apocalyptic world is not a nice place, and so far this story is pretty standard. The ending of the story is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever read. It turns out that, in addition to the other ersatz comforts, the woman that works at the care station and who had attracted the attention of the soldier (there were descriptions of curves) turns out to be wearing a wig and a stuffed bra, and surprise, she wasn’t born a woman. The reason this is the stupidest ending I’ve ever read is that the soldier’s response to this is hitting Eleanora (that’s her name) and running back out into the wasteland, without armor or weapons, to certain death. First off, really? A hardened soldier is so terrified of a penis that he runs in terror to certain death? Secondly, this is a really disgusting portrayal of trans women. This is a story about how everything humanity used to enjoy is fake. The big reveal was supposed to be, oh no! even sexytimes with women are now fake! What it really communicates is the author’s ignorance, and what it states is that trans women are fake women, which is actively reactionary, not ground-breaking. Let me quote part of the ending for you: “He struck the creature with all the strength in his fist, and it fell to the floor, weeping bitterly, its skirt hoisted high on the muscular, hairy legs.” So if you are surprised by a trans woman, who is a fake woman, the correct response is physical violence towards “the creature.” That is the moral of this disgusting little polyp of a story.

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A nice picture of a sea polyp, as you probably don’t want to see a picture of the type of polyp I have in mind.

The editor of this anthology also has problematic attitudes towards homosexuality. In one introduction to a story, he communicates that families with weak fathers often end up raising homosexual children. In another intro, he discusses the old aphorism that you should never meet the person behind the art you love, which, yes, but one of the examples he uses is “the writer of swashbuckling adventures [turns out to be] a pathetic little homosexual who still lives with his invalid mother.” What? Is Ellison implying that he is pathetic because he is gay? Is there something wrong with living with and caring for your sick mom? It’s just weird, and it’s an indication that, however progressive they were then (Ellison participated in the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery), you knock one piece of backwards, reactionary thought garbage down, and there’s more bullshit to take its place. There’s also a story, “Riders of the Purple Wage,” wherein a man’s girlfriend says yes, let’s have unprotected sex to have a baby. She changes her mind afterwards and goes to her bathroom to use spermicide. This future contraceptive method is a bottle of some sort that you can insert into the relevant orifice, push the relevant button, and spray the relevant area with spermicide. Since this is the future, one bottle is good for 40,000 sprays. The boyfriend (the fucking protagonist) becomes so enraged at this that he superglues the contraceptive bottle inside of his girlfriend and makes the button stuck, thus continuously and painfully injecting spermicide into her. I’m not sure if this was supposed to be comical or what, but it comes off as horrifying. Hi, you don’t want to do with your body what I want you to do with your body, I will therefore practice violence upon you and cause you great and humiliating physical harm.

Aside from the repugnant stance on some social issues, some of the stories are just not that great. There’s one that is told from the POV of a three-year-old as he thinks about how square his parents are. There’s another, “The Man Who Went to the Moon Twice,” wherein a kid in a small town lies about going to the moon and becomes a local sensation because everyone is too bored to check facts, and then he does it again as an old man because he is sad that no one cares about him (big twist: it’s noteworthy that he’s been to the moon as an old man because at that time, Mars is the main colony). The whole story is just really boring and saccharine. Also, one of the most celebrated stories in the anthology, “Riders of the Purple Wage,” of violence-against-women fame, gets credit all the time for being “Joycean.” Man, there are about two pages at the beginning of this story that are lyrically inventive and that require some exertion to figure out, and then it falls back into pretty standard narrative technique. Ulysses is “Joycean” because it is inexhaustibly inventive, and nearly every single chapter showcases a new, different, and innovative style. This guy writes confusingly for two pages and gets credited as “Joycean?” No.

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This man’s work was Joycean. Not sure anyone else’s ever was.

This book is rife with problems. Let me restate that. This book is not rife with problems, but whenever a problem rears its head, it’s a huge one. As a book that purports to be on the cutting-edge of social advancement and fearless in its striking down of taboos, the reactionary attitudes of some of these authors towards many aspects of social justice are highly incongruous. It might have been impressively open-minded for 1967, but not so much for 2014. You should still read it, though. One reason is that it is a monolith in the field of SF’s past and helped set the stylistic tone for a generation of writers. Another is that, as truly repugnant as some of these stories are, the grand majority of them are not, and the anthologized nature of it means that even if Henry Slesar writes like an asshole, you can still enjoy the weird, mind-bending visions of Lester del Rey or Philip K. Dick contained in the same book. In addition, it is important to read and understand even the repugnant stories, as their presence in a book lauded as taboo-breaking in the 1960s underline the nature of social progress – there is no finish line, and we must always move forward.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

TheThreeStigmataOfPalmerEldritch(1stEd)

Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.

Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article mentioned that Philip K. Dick took a lot of LSD and wrote solely genre fiction. They’re both only partially true, and the article has been updated as a result.

Philip K. Dick is the ultimate psychedelic writer. His explorations of the mutability of reality and the fragility of the human psyche are vivid, incisive, and hallucinogenic. Roberto Bolaño described him as “a kind of Kafka steeped in LSD and rage.” However much altered states influenced his writing, PKD did not actually do that much LSD – it gave him unpleasant experiences. Yup, he was just your run-of-the-mill, square, SoCal writer, ingesting massive quantities of amphetamines as he wrote feverishly, and as he wrote this book, he hadn’t even tried LSD for the first time. As I explain the concept of this book, it is very important to remember that Dick had not yet ingested lysergic acid. He was this crazy beforehand. I’m assuming every single novel PKD ever wrote deals with the nature of reality, its uncertainty and unknowability. I can definitely declare that each one I’ve read by him has always had someone losing their goddamn mind. In this 1965 novel, Dick explores the ramifications of self-medication when the medicine you use is powerful enough to make the universe drunk.

This book starts out in the far future, with many of the trappings of futuristic societies. Due to climate change, it is now too hot to be safely outside, and people have to wear special AC suits to prevent combusting while walking to work. The rich and powerful of the world vacation in Antarctica, which is nice and balmy. Most of the moons and planets of the solar system are colonized, but not happily. The UN runs the world, and in order to preserve humanity from the crumbling, condemned planet Earth, they instituted a draft for emigration. A certain percentage of Earthlings have to be induced to go to space colonies. They have to be induced because colonization sucks. On Mars, there’s nothing to do but tend your dying farm and hang out in your subterranean bunker. Well, that and taking powerful psychoactive drugs. Most of the action of the novel centers around the use of Can-D, a “translation” drug. Can-D is useless without Perky Pat Layouts, a company that makes miniature versions of all the stuff that can be found on Earth (this company also illicitly manufactures the drug). Think Polly Pocket, but extremely realistic.

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Your new backyard, colonist!

It is so realistic because Can-D “translates” its users into the world of the layout. Therefore, if you take Can-D, some type of fungal hallucinogen, while sitting in front of a layout with a beach and a convertible, you get to spend a set amount of time living the life of either Pat, the woman, or Walt, her boyfriend, as they enjoy a seaside holiday. For some reason, the hallucination is dependent upon the layout – if you want to take a beach vacation, you better buy miniaturized beach towels and sun umbrellas. A feature that further complicates this already strange experience is that there are only two possible surrogates for the drug-user’s consciousness: either mini-Pat or mini-Walt. Women become Pat, and men become Walt. This means that if three male/female couples trip together in front of the same layout, all three women will be in Pat, and all three men will be in Walt, directing each as one member of a group conscious. Supremely weird, but honestly, if you were exiled to a barren sandscape where, if you’re lucky and terraforming is advanced enough, you might be able to go outside, wouldn’t you indulge in powerful psychotropics? Everyone in this book does, and that is the most plausible part of it – the human reaction to complete loss and mental stultification is to take stimulation wherever it can be found.

The conflict in the book starts when Palmer Eldritch, a kind of insane, spacefaring Richard Branson, returns from a ten-year voyage to Proxima Centauri with another fungus – Chew-Z. He begins marketing it immediately, and the Perky Pat people react with professional terror, because Chew-Z is a reality-altering drug that requires no layout, which means it is perfectly poised to put them out of business. Chew-Z is similar to Can-D in that it creates an alternate mode of existence for whoever takes it. However, it is much more powerful than Can-D. It can translate you into whichever existence you most want to be in – it is chewable wish-fulfillment. The problem is that, whatever new universe you make for yourself, Palmer Eldritch is there, and he exerts some type of control over your personal reality. If that sounds creepy, wait till you hear what his stigmata are: giant metal teeth, robotic eyes, and a metal arm. These are the three indicating marks you see on the people in your hallucination if Eldritch is taking control of them. Worst. Trip. Ever.

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If I could hallucinate my very own universe, it would be the one in which the Nic Cage Superman movie happened.

A lot of the framework of this novel is pretty generic SF – spaceships that move fast and zip between planets, strange genetic therapies, and space colonization, but the social analysis and the ontological questions raised by drug use in this book make it interesting. First off, it is absolutely believable that the disaffected and depressed legions of press-ganged colonists would escape their bleak existence through whatever means necessary. The implications of their method of escape is also terrifying – if this creates a vivid surrogate reality, how do you tell when the high is over? Do you ever get out? Is this reality any less real than the one you experienced pre-dosing? Does it matter if it is or isn’t? These questions are hammered home again and again, and their lack of resolution strengthens the sense of loss and uncertainty and creepiness that permeate the book.

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I love this man.

Philip K. Dick is fast carving out a very special place in my brain. I went on an expedition through his work after rewatching Blade Runner a couple of weeks ago. I have moved through three of his novels in the past couple of weeks, and each one is extraordinary. He went through a lot of his life very poor because, despite his prodigious output, he had trouble making money because critics relegated him to the genre fiction backwater. His catalog is overwhelmingly genre fiction, undoubtedly and unapologetically. What is important though is that this man always, always swung for the fences. It’s like he couldn’t help it. The characters might be lopsided, the plot might have pacing issues, and the setting might be overly lurid or unbalanced, but every one of his novels ends with you questioning existence, reality, and your conception of yourself. I have been a committed atheist for half my life, and one of his books had me (briefly) seriously considering the benefits of Gnostic Christianity. His writing is that powerful – while other books might explore what the problem is, his has you worrying over what “what” even signifies. I will take a sloppy book that asks what existence is any day over a perfectly-balanced artifact of a book that explores the problems of one neurotic family whose daddy didn’t give out enough love (I will never stop hating you, The Corrections).

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Images: Lit Reactor and IGN

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

This one is a bit of a stretch. There are no spaceships, no wars over nascent technology, no deadly viruses, and no door-opening dinosaurs. There are a whole bunch of drunks, smog, and Oldsmobile convertibles. Yessir, this book takes place in 1950s L.A., the world of doctor-endorsed cigarettes, movie stars, mansions, and extensive highway systems. It still fits here because this book and almost everything after it owes its existence to the pulps, a medium that infused SF with the life it needed to become the powerhouse it is today, where it seems half of all new TV shows and movies have at least some type of speculative element.

Pulps were magazines published on cheap, rough-looking wood pulp paper. They were about half the price of the more prestigious magazines, and they published detective stories, horror fiction, adventure fiction, and science fiction. It was something cheap to read on the train and then throw away. A lot of writers who went on to publish their own novels ate on the checks they won from these magazines. Raymond Chandler wrote for Black Mask, which specialized in mysteries. Chandler has a weird story, as far as writing goes. He was a top oil executive pre-Depression, but lost his job and decided to try his hand at writing. His first short story was accepted at 45, his first novel published at 51. It is an impressively late start for someone who created such an enduring legacy in American fiction. He took what James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett started and forged it into one of the most recognizable subgenres out there: the hard-boiled detective story. Their protagonists are hard-fighting, hard-drinking men with a cynical outlook on life and a questionable relationship with the rest of the human race. Their style is one of spare, densely descriptive prose. The atmosphere of the books (at least The Long Goodbye) is more oppressive and fully-built than most other novels – this type of fiction lives on style. A lot of that style is created by the cynical, fast-talking wisecracking of the main character, Philip Marlowe. Basically, Raymond Chandler and Humphrey Bogart together created the American cultural memory of how men spoke in the 40s and 50s. In fact, Bogart delivered the defining film interpretation of Philip Marlowe in the movie version of Chandler’s first book, The Big Sleep.

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If you have not seen Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart acting together, you do not know what American cinema is.

The words and delivery of the main character form so much of the atmosphere of this book that the analysis of the few choice quotes that follow is necessary for an understanding of the book.

I. Intro

The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.

This is the first paragraph of the novel. It introduces the principal mystery-driving character of a mystery story, so it is pretty important. This uses really simple language to convey a lot of information. First, the description of the character: young face, white hair, drunk as hell. A lot of descriptions work this way – Marlowe’s inner monologue always gives details about every new person in the story, and it is always a handful of key details that then leave you with more than enough to construct a full character. Hard-boiled detective fiction is the spiritual successor of of Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing. Also, the stylistic flourishes like “as if he had forgotten he had one” and “plastered to the hairline” are beautiful examples of Bogart talk, which, again, Chandler played a key role in inventing.

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The Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith. There’s a line in the book saying that this is more attractive than women, so… different times, I guess?

II. Bogart Talk (BT henceforward)

These quotations are collected from all over the book, and the BT is strong in all of them.

And the next time I saw a polite character drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, I would depart rapidly in several directions. There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.

Notice the information-dense recall of Terry Lennox (who has since caused Marlowe a heap of trouble): the “polite character drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith,” followed by the darkly, impossibly humorous “depart rapidly in several directions,” capped off by the cynical and truthful commentary: “there is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.”

They put as much muscular activity into a telephone conversation as I would put into carrying a fat man up four flights of stairs.

This second quotation is less complex, but still a great distillation of BT. Cynical, removed, semi-humorous view of the world tinged by disgust at what is being observed, summed up by a weird simile. The jarring quality of the strange simile stretches it almost to tearing, but it doesn’t tear, and the result is stronger than a more measured comparison would be.

The fellow who decorated that room was not a man to let colors scare him.

Not much to say here, just perfect dismissiveness and darkly humorous cynicism

I kissed her some more. It was light, pleasant work.

Again, cynicism and humorous dismissal, the humor arising in large part from the extent of the dismissiveness. Sure, Marlowe’s pretty excited, he’s kissing a beautiful woman, but all he reports is the hilariously understated “It was light, pleasant work.”

III. Social Commentary

Sheriff Petersen just went right on getting re-elected, a living testimonial to the fact that you can hold an important public office forever in our country with no qualifications for it but a clean nose, a photogenic face, and a closed mouth. If on top of that you look good on a horse, you are unbeatable.

So, The Long Goodbye gets a lot of credit for being a vehicle for social commentary. Here is just the barest snippet, a beautiful dismemberment of the political process. Winning elections is all, all appearance, and no content. If you think Chandler or Marlowe is excessively cynical, just know that handsomeness has had a ridiculous influence on election results ever since Nixon and Kennedy. As a more recent example, I voted for Obama both times (it’s turned out kind of meh, but his stated platform was not explicitly evil, so). I remember being a lot more worried about Romney v. Obama than I was about McCain v. Obama. What created this dynamic? Obama is energetic and attractive, and McCain came off as an angry, wrinkled old man. Romney, on the other hand, was in roughly the same spot as Obama on the attractiveness spectrum. Policies aside, the man’s face is so chiselled it looks like he is currently on Mt. Rushmore. He ended up losing, but especially after that first debate, I was concerned he wouldn’t. Against an incumbent president. Because he was so pretty. Chandler knew and dismantled this failing of the American political system more than half a century ago, and it is only one of the smallest pieces of social commentary he weaves into this book.

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Walter Mondale didn’t stand a fucking chance.

IV. Philip Marlowe is a badass

A basic requirement of a hard-boiled protagonist is that he know his way with his gun, with his fists, with a chair, or with whatever blunt objects happen to be within reach. The assumed badassery of the character is key. That being said, Marlowe is not some two-bit punk. He does actually try to avoid violence as much as possible, and he shows quite a bit of sentimentality whenever events break through his wisecracking exterior. Anyway, observe:

I started to get up. I was still off balance when he hit me. He hooked me with a neat left and crossed it. Bells rang, but not for dinner. I sat down hard and shook my head.

So, this is describing when Marlowe was being questioned by police and made one angry on purpose to get him to hit him so he could gauge his threat level. The data gathered from this experiment indicated that this cop was more a boxer than a fighter, and that Marlowe would be able to take him to pieces if he hit him again. First off, inciting a punch to the face as a fact-finding mission is amazing. Secondly, the BT involved in “Bells rang, but not for dinner” to indicate that it was a hard hit, but only hard enough to make him shake his head, is a perfect incarnation of the form.

You’re a piker, Marlowe. You’re a peanut grifter. You’re so little it takes a magnifying glass to see you. I didn’t say anything at all.

Marlowe is being directly insulted here, but is cool and collected enough to take no offense, let the man keep talking, and say nothing at all. A key feature of the hard-boiled hero is self-control and a certain superiority to emotion-driven idiots. He controls his emotions. Until the man is done talking, that is.  At the end of the conversation, this guy who has been flaunting his wealth and calling Marlowe a nobody left his valuable cigarette case behind. Marlowe moves to return it, and then:

“I got a half dozen of them,” [the rich asshole] sneered.

When I was near enough to him I held it out. His hand reached for it casually. “How about half a dozen of these?” I asked him and hit him as hard as I could in the middle of his belly.

A lot happened here. Saying nothing, taking it with equanimity at first. After the exchange has taken place, being taken over the edge by a final snide comment. Then, Marlowe accomplishes two things: flooring a man who has been shitting all over him and inserting a wonderful piece of BT as he does it, “How about a half a dozen of these?” Someone has been served here, and it ain’t Marlowe.

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I don’t always smoke, but when I do, it’s after watching a Humphrey Bogart movie.

Chandler has been called a hack by some and a thief by others (he has a lot in common with earlier crime writer Dashiell Hammett). Those calling him a hack are hacks themselves, and those calling him a thief should realize that he did not steal a style, he polished and perfected it. He gave to American crime fiction a literary element it didn’t quite have before. His densely-packed, evocative prose created a legion of admirers, from Paul Auster to Joyce Carol Oates. Again, he almost single-handedly invented an entire style of dialogue.

The overarching plot of the book is a little crazy. Marlowe happens to meet a drunk at a club and finds out he has a beautiful wife. About ten pages later, the beautiful wife is dead and the drunk is at Marlowe’s house with a gun asking for a ride to Mexico. The drunk is a bit nervous, so Marlowe pours him a big shot of Old Grand-Dad (which I have been drinking steadily while writing this article). He takes him out of the country, returns, and spends the rest of the book navigating a world of shit as he attempts to find out what happened. By the denouement, there are so many twists and turns and moving parts that the whole thing almost comes crashing down. Almost. That being said, I hit the last 200 pages of this book and could not stop, meaning that I read until five a.m. and went in to work on just under three hours of sleep. Sometimes crazy is good. In addition, the solid, vivid atmosphere put together by Chandler alongside the snappy dialogue means that if it had been a story about the night shift at Pizza Hut, I still would have read it.

American crime fiction started its life in the literary backwater of pulp fiction, and a lot like SF, has since migrated into the mainstream. Raymond Chandler’s cynical style, sparse prose, and satisfying plotting laid a lot of the groundwork for that. He considered The Long Goodbye his greatest work, and you should too. Read it right now.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Images: IMDB, Amazon, and Litreactor

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: BBC America’s Orphan Black

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

Science fiction on television is usually a hit-or-miss proposition. Sure, you’ve got your Battlestar Galacticas, your Losts, and your Fringes, but you’ve also got your Sanctuarys, your Revolutions, and your whatever the hell Syfy thinks it’s doing with endless Ghost Hunter marathons. TV is the birthplace of a lot of great SF, but it can also be a graveyard. Orphan Black was born, screaming and healthy, on the airwaves of BBC America. It just finished out its second season, which means it already has more episodes than Firefly will ever have, which is a tragedy. Stretching the baby metaphor way too far, what happened with FOX and Firefly is this: Joss Whedon gave birth to the baby that would cure cancer, and FOX smothered it in the cradle with a pillow because FOX does not like anyone to have nice things (poor poor Arrested Development was smothered by the same villain).

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These are bad people, and they do bad things.

BBC America started out as a vehicle to get Doctor Who stateside (along with other British shows), but it is branching out into original programming with Orphan Black. The series is spearheaded by a Canadian development team, which, before you think “Canadian SF?” please realize that Stargate: SG-1, arguably the most successful straight-up SF show ever, was filmed out of Vancouver. Orphan Black takes place mostly in Toronto, the lead actress is Tatiana Maslany, and she is amazing.

Following is a brief discussion of the plot, and there are some spoilers. I do not think I spoil anything past episode three or four, but it is impossible to give a précis of the show without spoiling something. At the very start of the show, we meet Sarah Manning, a woman who grew up in London, moved to Toronto, and is generally just in some deep shit. She is trying to flee an abusive boyfriend, scrape together enough cash to get out of her situation, and retrieve her daughter (whom she abandoned) from her foster mother. She makes a phone call on a train platform which hints at some of these problems, then right after she hangs up she sees someone who looks exactly like her, crying, walk up to the edge of the platform and throw herself in front of a train. Without thinking too much, Sarah grabs her purse and runs, planning to steal her identity and clean out her bank account. She is successful with this, but it is a definite frying pan/fire situation, as she discovers that she is one of an unknown number of clones and that someone is assassinating them one by one. To solve this problem, she bands together with the other known clones (again, no idea how many there are total), and attempts to uncover their pasts and the ultimate goal of the organization that created them. There, done, and I didn’t even mention anything that happened past episode three.

One of the main features that makes this show so great is the virtuosity of its lead actress, Tatiana Maslany. There end up being about four main clones that engage in solving the mystery of their existence, and Maslany plays all of them. They are all completely different, fully realized human beings. A lot of this is due to the writing and the costume departments, but most of it is pulled off by Maslany’s talent. She can, through very subtle modifications in body language and vocal inflection, create completely different people. This would be impressive if it was just “oh hey, I filmed a scene as this clone, but now I am filming a scene as this one,” but she plays different people all talking together in the same room at the exact same time, and she also plays different clones pretending to be other clones. If that last one is confusing phrasing, keep in mind that Sarah Manning, the main clone, is a grifter, and that she is really good at deception. The whole show starts out with her stealing the suicidal Beth Childs’ identity. She pulls this trick multiple times with multiple clones, and watching her play Sarah Manning playing another clone badly, messing up the accent ever so slightly here and there, is really entertaining. If you don’t quite get why I’m so impressed, please watch this:

They don’t even rely on goatees!

What-the-fuck-is-happening English con artist Sarah, uptight Canadian housewife Alison, and laid-back stoner American grad student Cosima all meet in episode three, and they all are differentiated by preoccupations, responses to stress, body language, and voice. Not only that, they are all filmed together, which means that Maslany is exhaustively filming each scene multiple times, at least once for each clone. Again, she is amazing. Bravo.

Aside from the great character trickery, this show is really strong in a lot of other areas. Its plotting is tight and suspenseful, perfectly balancing the line between suspense and payoff (unlike Lost, which held payoff until the final episode and fucked up royally). I started this series on Monday, and I finished in the early morning hours of Wednesday (as in 3 a.m.). I did not stop watching until it was done. There are only twenty episodes at this point, so it is still at the level where you could make it a fun marathon, one that would end before feelings of self-loathing set in. It also does right by its SF roots. It does not use SF for cheap one-off episode ideas or plot spackle. Like the Deist’s clockmaker God, the showrunners set up an internally consistent universe, then walk away and let it play out according to the rules set up in the first few episodes. The SF elements of the show are also really powerful. The whole plot hinges on bioengineering, which if you’ve eaten corn, you have probably already interacted with a transgenic organism. This is the really exciting, tension-filled area of SF where all the issues involved could be problems we are dealing with in reality in the next twenty years. The show uses cloning to explore the concepts of identity and self-determination, but it also keeps character, suspense, and humanity at the center of each episode.

Battlestar Galactica and Lost are gone, Stargate SG-1 packed it in, and Firefly was brutally murdered before its time. In the year since Fringe wrapped, we’ve been in a dry spell for strong, original, appealing SF programming. Orphan Black is the monsoon that breaks the drought, and in a TV landscape where terrible SF is produced and cancelled all the time, and intelligent SF is also produced and cancelled all the time, while crapfests like Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory will seemingly just not die no matter how many anathemata I perform over pictures of Chuck Lorre, it is nice to see a powerful start and promising future from a show like this.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Image from here.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

There are four possible responses to the question “What do you think of Blade Runner?” One is “I enjoyed it,” to which the correct response is “Yeah, me too.” The second is “I haven’t seen it,” to which the correct response is “You have a finite span of time on this Earth, and you are using it poorly.” The third is “I do not know what that is,” which, honestly, why do you know this person? The fourth is “I did not like it,” which, good Lord, what is wrong with humanity?

Blade Runner is without a doubt one of the most polished science fiction films of all time. It made kind of a weak showing at the domestic box office, but its influence spans decades and it makes appearances on most “Best Movie” lists, from Time to AFI. Its initial cult status and later critical success spring from Ridley Scott’s genius worldbuilding. In and around a satisfying film noir shoot-em-up, Scott weaves a vivid world dripping with the ominous tones of the film at large.

Before getting more into that, I want to talk about the weirdness of the other mind involved in the project, Philip K. Dick. Blade Runner is based on PKD’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Both the film and the book deal with the question of what constitutes humanity, and what happens to those who do not make the cut. These concepts are pretty vanilla compared to PKD’s other work, in which protagonists regularly consider not the authenticity and substantiveness of their fellow humans, but of reality itself. In Ubik, the protagonist jumps multiple realities and has no way of knowing which one is “real.” In “The Adjustment Team,” (released in theaters as The Adjustment Bureau) the way reality and the world are is under the control of an unseen organization that completely, and completely behind the scenes, manipulates events. This sounds insane, right? That might be because Philip K. Dick was a little crazy himself. He spent the last years of his life convinced that an entity called VALIS was communicating with him via a pink, information-rich beam of light, and that he was leading a dual life: in one, he was an author in the 20th century, and in the other, he was a persecuted Christian living in 1st century Rome. Yup. Whatever – his perception of the world led to a lot of inimitable SF.

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Hollywood has made so much money off of this man’s insanity

The story of PKD’s life is so appealing in an ironic tragedy way because he spent most of his life poor as dirt, even while writing like a fiend. The stories and novels that were being accepted by publishers were not making him a lot of money, partially because they were genre publishers, which did not pay nearly as much as mainstream. After going through a fairly rough life in which he experienced five broken marriages, anxiety and other mental problems, and a disheartening lack of commercial success, he died right before Blade Runner was released. The irony is that while living, his art won him little money, but posthumously his estate has overseen the transformation of eleven of his books and short stories into major motion pictures. For comparison, Stanley Kubrick only has sixteen directing credits. The gap between PKD’s level of success while alive and while dead is absurd.

Blade Runner initiated this posthumous stream of cash from Hollywood to PKD’s descendants. It is a very well-put-together tech-noir film, in which one taciturn guy, Harrison Ford, is pulled back into the police force he has retired from to hunt down androids escaped from offworld colonies. Androids do not have the same emotional responses as humans, so “blade runners” (those tasked with hunting androids) administer a special test that measures iris contraction, breathing patterns, the blush response, et cetera. If you pass the test, you are human. If you do not, you get shot. Sure, this movie is exciting or appealing every second of playtime. Sure, Harrison Ford playing a cynical ex-cop is perfect. Yes, the reflections on what life means and the internal struggles of a constructed entity are important. What gives the film most of its power, however, is Scott’s painstaking, industry-changing construction of LA in 2019 (ha).

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This is what LA is supposed to look like in five years.
Scott’s future LA has people swarming in the streets, monolithic, light-blocking buildings, heavy Asian cultural influences (multiple times the protagonist stops to get noodles for fast food, and English is not necessarily the most common spoken language). Genetic engineers have become so talented that they can create human eyes, bodies, and brains. Flying cars are happening, which, why does everyone think flying cars will be a thing? The differences in technology and culture are only part of what Scott accomplishes. His set design is astounding. In all the exterior shots, we see an LA swarming with people, close packed in the alleys, standing in the rain. Sunlight never makes an appearance in this film. Buildings are monolithically, absurdly huge, plastered with massive moving billboards advertising common products. All of this is so well-done and so threatening the environment itself is almost another character in the film. The strange appeal of the environment is part of what established this movie’s initial cult reception, and I think part of that appeal comes from the plausibility of the imagined future. Urbanization exploded in the mid 20th century, and a few years ago we just crossed the line where now more than half the people on Earth live in cities. As this trend continues, it is absolutely believable that future cities will be dark, dank, crowded, and menacing. Here’s hoping we are headed to a future with the flying cars and without the dense mass of desperate humanity swarming through a bleak cityscape.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

There are two main classes of SF author: those who have broken into mainstream success, and those who have, while creating a vibrant and diverse body of work, remained largely unknown outside of the hallowed halls of SF fandom. In the first category, you have your Ursula K. Le Guins (who is actually in a category all by herself because dear God is she amazing), your Neal Stephensons, and your Robert Heinleins. In the second category, you have your Roger Zelaznys, your Vonda McIntyres, and your Poul Andersons. The work of those in the second category is not necessarily worse than those in the first. Indeed, many of the ideas explored are right on par or better than those from the first-category authors. Their work simply tends to be less geared towards wider audiences, so it does not have the wider appeal of the first-category authors.

One way to make SF appeal less to wider audiences is to construct a hard SF tale. Hard and soft SF are terms which denote an overwhelming focus on technology and innovation for the one and a focus more on the social developments and psychological effects of technology for the other. In hard SF, you’ll get an explanation of how the propulsion system of the spacecraft works, the main character will be an engineer, and the main conflict will be his struggle to repair the craft before everyone dies. In soft SF, everyone will be on the same spaceship, but it’ll just fly because that’s what spaceships do, and the narrative focus will be more on character development and social concerns. These two directions are not mutually exclusive – you can have good explanation of tech in soft SF, and you can have strong character development in hard SF – it’s just a question of focus. Tau Zero is considered a perfect example of hard SF.

First off, the name itself is a scientific term. Tau is the symbol which denotes proper time in physics. Proper time is time as measured by a moving observer, meaning that at relativistic speeds, proper time for someone in a ship is very different than proper time for someone outside the ship. Time dilation is a central concept of this book, and tau is a central measure in time dilation. According to Anderson (Wikipedia says he fudged this a bit), as tau approaches zero, the gap between experienced and objective time becomes more and more significant. This is the main conflict of the book.

A team of scientists boards the Leonora Christine, a new ship with a Bussard ramjet propulsion system. Bussard ramjets are theoretical engines that use massive magnetic fields to collect hydrogen from space as they travel interstellar distances. The faster the ship goes, the faster the hydrogen is collected. The magnetic fields and the acceleration combine to compress the hydrogen to the point where it fuses and creates a massive amount of energy, which is then directed by those magnetic fields out the back of the engine, creating thrust. This proposed propulsion system solves the problem of holding onto fuel for interstellar travel – no ship would be able to lug around all the crap it would need to burn to get from one star to another – the prohibitively high weight would render it infeasible.

Anyway, they got themselves a ramjet, and they’re using it to go on a twenty-year exploratory mission. The way the trip works is that the ship spends half of its time accelerating and half of its time decelerating, so at the midpoint it turns its engines around and reverses thrust. The astronauts are prepared for time dilation to make twenty years go by on Earth, but there’s a hitch. Right before the midpoint, the ship passes through a nebula. All that dust collides with the deceleration system and renders it nonfunctional. The astronauts cannot slow down, so they sit and try to solve the problem while everyone they have ever known dies on Earth. They decide to accelerate even more and go to an entirely new galaxy, so they kiss human civilization goodbye and ramp up their speed. The main struggle of the book is fixing the decelerator and finding a place to live now that all of human civilization has been gone for millions of years.

The character development of the book is severely lacking. It exists, and it is passable, but it was clearly not a priority. They were so paper-thin that they had less substance than the gangsters from that fake mob movie that Kevin McCallister watches in Home Alone. A grizzled war veteran holds the entire crew together as they bounce from crisis to crisis, never giving up hope because he’s just got too much damned grit. That in itself is a pretty slipshod job of character building, and he’s really the only character I remember from the book. That and the fact that I spent more than half of this article talking about spaceships and about five percent of it talking about characters should indicate the severity of this book’s character problem.

Despite all that, I enjoyed it. The overarching direction of the book is humanity boldly going where no one has gone before, which I’m a sucker for. A very simple, clear, and horrifying problem arises when their propulsion system goes on the fritz, and the hard work of a handful of dedicated individuals solves the problem in a very interesting way. It has a very interesting and clear central idea, but the surrounding elements do not quite come together. It is a novel expanded from a short story, and maybe it should have stayed a short story. Problems aside, you should give this one a shot.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.

Image from here.

Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe: René Barjavel’s La nuit des temps (The Ice People)

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Andrew Findlay

In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going. 

French SF is relatively unknown in the United States. Discounting La planète des singes (Planet of the Apes) and Jules Verne, it has not carved out a strong presence in America. It might be that high-quality domestic product is glutting the market, as the only nation ever to put human beings anywhere other than Earth is also kind of a world leader in producing fiction about space and science. Most everyone who cares at all about books knows the names Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Philip K. Dick. Let’s repeat that list with some big French SF authors: Jean-Marc Ligny, Xavier Mauméjean, and Pierre Bordage. If the final question at bar trivia had asked about anyone on that second list, would your team have been anywhere close to winning a free pitcher? I understand this imbalance to a certain extent. Having a strong French presence in the American SF market would make about as much sense as California merlot being the best-selling wine in Paris. The weird thing is, there’s almost no French presence in the market. Its profile is so minor that it’s the equivalent of people in Paris not knowing that California exists. It’s not because of lack of quality. La nuit des temps is among the best 1960s SF I’ve read. It’s certainly the best French SF I’ve read since Vingt-mille lieues sous les mers. Its quality derives from a combination of technical inventiveness, delightful early-SF pulpiness, and haunting social commentary.

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America: being amazing since 1776

The opening paragraph of La nuit des temps (translated literally as The Night of Time, sold in Anglophone countries as The Ice People) signals a Big Problem from the get-go:

My beloved one, my abandoned one, my lost one, I left you there at the bottom of the world, I returned to my city apartment with its familiar furniture over which I’ve so often run my hands, the hands that love them, with its books that nourished me, with its old cherry bed where my childhood slept, and where, tonight, I sought in vain to sleep. All of this decor which witnessed me grow up, grow bigger, become me, today seemed to me strange and impossible. This world which is not yours has become a false world, in which I have never had a place.

Already, on page one, the narrator is reflecting upon the loss of his beloved. The reader knows from the start that this story does not end well, and this creates a tension that builds higher the closer the ending gets. The general background of the story is that, during the Cold War, a team of French scientists discover the ruins of an ancient civilization deep under the ice of Antarctica. When carbon dating places the ruins at 900,000 years old, hundreds of thousands of years older than human civilization, it incites international interest and passion. Pretty soon, an international team of scientists and a new research station are assembled at the location. They dig, and they find a buried city filled with wonders. Unfortunately, all of these wonders melt with the ice that held their molecules in place. All except one – the contents of a special Egg. Within the Egg, there is a strange generator and two human forms, male and female, encased in solid helium, preserved in a state of suspended animation at near absolute zero. The scientists decide to revive the female first. She wakes up, and the main narrative takes off. The main storyline is twofold. The first is concerned with international reaction to scientific developments at the station, the interrogation and assistance of Eléa, and the general tensions of the modern world. The second concerns the story of Eléa’s life in her ancient world, which the reader also knows will not end happily because her civilization has been annihilated.

The inventiveness of Bajarvel is a pleasure, and the book is filled with little pieces of technology either invented by the scientists or recovered from the ruins. One of the first that he introduces is the “eating machine,” which supplies Eléa with nourishment. It is a squat dome with buttons. She presses those buttons in a certain order, and the device produces colored spheres. These spheres are perfectly-balanced nutrition, and when the scientific team dismantles the device, they cannot find any raw materials. Eléa says the food is created from universal energy, the use of which her society had mastered through Zoran’s equation (the prospect of plucking limitless energy and materials out of thin air gets everyone on Earth’s attention). Unfortunately, Eléa is not a scientist and does not know the equation.

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This is Zoran’s equation. Yea, the Antarctic scientists didn’t know either.

Another invention is the “serums” of her society, one of which increases the hardiness of the human organism, so much so that the word “fatigue” all but fell out of Eléa’s language. An experimental one that she took in order to survive the freezing process of suspended animation confers biological immortality. Biological immortality means that if you get hit by a truck, you still die, but you’ll never die from old age. Sadly, most futurists predict that, were humans biologically immortal, the average life expectancy would still be only about 200, because shit happens. Anyway, attractive tech. I love the next two examples of technology because they are so blatantly story-enabling. First off, there is a giant computer, the Translator, whose basic function is to provide translation between the many different languages of the international scientific team. Everyone wears an earbud connected to the computer, and the computer takes in whatever is said to the person, converts it to their language, and pipes it back into their ear. The blatantly story-enabling part of this machine is that they feed all the data they have on Eléa’s language into it, and after not really that long, her 900,000-year-old language is one the computer fully understands, enabling communication.

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Did someone say implausible but plot-essential translation skills?

The other piece of tech that’s more narrative trickery than a machine is a brainwave reader. This is a device that, when put on the head, transmits thoughts. Its intended use is to pair it with another such device, thus allowing two people to communicate directly by thought. The scientists modify it so that it broadcasts to a television, meaning that, instead of Eléa having to talk about her life, she just puts on the circles, and up it pops on the Jumbotron. After they recover her, communicate with her, and turn the inside of her brain into quality TV programming, the narrative switches directly to describing what happens on the screen as the scientists watch. It explores the ancient civilization, which leads to a lot of the delightful pulpiness of the book.

First off, Eléa’s country is called Gondawa. It existed on Earth during a time when there was really only it and one other country, Enisor, on the same technological level with a few weaker nations scattered here and there (sound familiar?). The majority of their country was leveled by nuclear bombardment from Enisor, so they lived in extensive and beautiful underground cities, filled with plants and animals bioengineered to subterranean life. There are factories on the lowest levels of each city, factories which use Zoran’s equation to manufacture tools, structures, and implements from nothing. A central computer calculates the GDP of the country each year, and disburses an allowance equally to each citizen, to be used to purchase clothing, transport, and housing, and whatever other luxuries they might need. Very few people spend through their entire allowance, and it disappears at the end of every year to prevent the accrual of wealth. All of the machines and services are activated by a special ring worn by all citizens after their Designation ceremony. The Designation is a rite of passage from child to adult, at which citizens receive their numerical identification (Eléa’s is 3-19-07-91), their rings, and their partners. Yup, there is no dating in Gondawa. The central computer matches personality profiles of children to each other, finds ideal pairings, and designates them. This is probably the most utopian dream of the book, as the pairings result mostly in great happiness and sometimes in ineffable joy. Even bad matches are amiable and peaceful. Eléa had one of the second kind of matches, the perfect, soul-shatteringly intense level of love. The tragedy and pain Eléa feels from the second she regains consciousness is that as far as she knows, the love of her life, Paikan, has been dead for nine thousand centuries. The modern narrative circles around her inability to recover from this, and the ancient narrative circles on the development of her relationship with Paikan. The pulpiest parts of the book come from this relationship, which is high-octane, high-emotion, crowd-pleasing idealism. It is Romeo and Juliet, except the two people involved are not separated by a misunderstanding, but by the death of a civilization. The personal tragedy of two lovers is just one casualty of worldwide destruction, which forms the basis of this novel’s social commentary.

Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in ROMEO AND JULIET

Their match.com profiles were 95% compatible!

There’s the standard advanced-civilization-versus-ours dynamic at play here, in which our society seems barbaric by comparison to the society of the visitor, but little things like Eléa not understanding why nudity is such a big deal (1960s male SF writer, folks) are not the main punch of the commentary. The frightening social commentary of La nuit des temps, doubly frightening when it was published at the height of the Cold War and when the collective insanity of Mutually Assured Destruction was in vogue, centers around the fact that an ancient humanity existed on a world with two superpowers and that there is now almost no trace left of that civilization. I will not get into specifics, but the Gondawans, in an attempt to avoid another war, built “l’Arme Solaire,” the Sun Weapon, as a deterrent. The function of the Sun Weapon is to concentrate the Sun’s rays on Enisor and basically melt the entire country. It backfired, both as a deterrent and as a weapon. The civilization that gave birth to it was wiped from the face of the Earth. Terrifying stuff to read, in 1968 especially.

You should give French SF a chance. Sure, if you search “Best French SF” on Google, the entire first page of results consists of the highest quality French restaurants in San Francisco, but you can always go to the French science fiction wikipedia page to look for good stuff. It is a vibrant and inventive branch of the genre. It produced La nuit des temps, which is a great novel filled with a heart-wrenching love story, fear-inducing social commentary, and a rewarding exploration of an extremely advanced society.

Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at afindlay.recess@gmail.com.