The State of the Project

12 April 2010

I’ve failed in two ways, and then again, not at all. I have not read or watched as much as I had hoped – after a fertile January of reading marking ground me to a crawl – and I have written nothing of what I have done here. In part that is because of the Bastid Modem, which refuses to communicate with certain URLs, WordPress being several of them. As I am likely to be doing more work in libraries and a big evil multinational coffee shop that has free wifi, this may well change.

At the end of April, I have a study leave which I am going to dovetail into the Summer, and I will be reading and watching as if it has gone out of fashion. Dave’s bed in the middle room is acting as a library, with piles of 1970s papebracks in alphabetical order, and I’ve compiled a list of shortlisted novels based or the Hugos and Nebulas (BSFA Awards may yet be added). This is a long list – and what is shocking but not surprising is how much by women is not on this list. I am torn between the important (the short listed) and the significant (that by women), or possibly the other way round.

In part the head ache is caused by the notions of cultural history, which in new historicist terms would be based on accounts from the margins – which is arguably all of sf – or in terms of history from below is the marginalised voices of women, non-whites, gays, the working class etc. Obviously any account of 1970s sf that doesn’t include Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind is going to a be a little askew, and indeed not very useful. I can’t tell the story by simply looking at (what I consider to be) the subversive. The trick is working out where all the pieces fit.

Meanwhile, happenstance and luck plays its part along with skill. I remembered a story featuring Paddington Bear in one of the Blue Peter annuals, and this will be central to one of chapters I’ve plotted, for reasons which do not need exploring at this juncture. Of course, I had the first twenty of the Blue Peter annuals until it was patiently explained to me that I no longer needed these. A visit to a local secondhand book shop yielded a Paddington Bear Blue Peter Story Book, including said story, but the completist in me led me to seek out a copy of the actual annual. Successful at this hunt, I now need to look for several more to deal with Bleep and Booster, which I don’t actually recall seeing or reading, although I knew of their existence.

Today I’ve seen the last of the Planet of the Apes movies, Battle for the Planet of the Apes (J. Lee Thompson, 1974), a couple of episodes of Battlestar Galactica and read Tau Zero. More Anderson on the pile for tomorrow. I will write about some of the foregoing.

My current word count is 26,000 words, good news if my total is 100,000, even better if it's 80,000 (I must check).


Big Dumb Objects

24 January 2010

My latest plan was to try and work on a chapter at a time, and thereby tick them off and feel I was closer and closer to finishing. That went the way of all sensible plans – although I am nearly finished on the one I was working on, aside from the typing – so instead I’m working on word counts of the whole thing. I also wanted to ensure I’d read all the Hugo and Nebula novel winners, and that led me to the Big Dumb Object.

That’s a term coined by Roz Kaveney, possibly in her article on 1970s sf in Foundation (which I have obviously read years ago, and before I wrote the book outline, but I was avoiding a reread to try and keep my own ideas) distinct, and it refers to the vast structures that humans stumble upon, and try to investigate. It invokes the old sensawunda and the sense of the sublime, because it is so damn big and mysterious, and hardly speaks to the investigating parties.

There are three clear examples in the 1970s, and then various difficult cases, some of which I’ll gloss over. Larry Niven’s Ringworld is a cylindrical world, which our heroes crash into or onto. They appear to be straded there at first, and then travel across a small portion of the landscape. Every so often there are glimpses of something more – usually an attempt to explain the absurdities of how the environment is actually liveable – but scientific rationalism wins out, even as luck is explained away as genetic rather than narrative convenience.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama was his first novel after 2001, and again the ground need to be reclaimed for rationalism. The characters are eminently sensible, as they explore a vast cylindrical spaceship, and attempt to penetrate its mysteries. Again their are oddnesses – the characters’ sense of deja vu – but as Clute said in his review, it’s all about the c and the w and the gt.

The third example is Bob Shaw’s Orbitsville, an honest-to-goodness Dyson sphere, and the answer to Earth’s problem of where to ease the over crowding problems; yet at the same time the novel is aware of the politics of power, and especially of empire and colonialism. Somebody is already there in paradise.

So why these three in half a dozen years? On the one hand it feels like its some kind of response to the fag end of the New Wave revolutions – this science is hard, dammit, it’s not just surrealism. The ghost of 2001 is in the background – the monoliths are as big and dumb as can be imagined. It marks a sense of making the impossible verisimilitudinous – but now is avoiding the cod enlightenment of the stargate journey.

Curiously the most interesting examples – aside from Orbitsville – end up deconstructing the big and the dumb and the object. Priest’s Inverted World begins with a peculiar city travelling across an increasingly surreal landscape and ends up in distinctly psychological, and apparently scientific, terms. Priest had slated Rama and Ringworld in various articles, and it is certainly tempting to read Inverted World as a response to such novels. Meanwhile Terry Pratchett’s Dark Side of the Sun parodies the ‘pataphysics as much as the physics, in a novel which is a dry run for Strata, itself dry run for something rather better known. A big flat planet. Sf, eh. You gotta laugh.


12 August 2009

Back to the Sydney Jones Library for the first time in a decade and of course the mind goes blank having not yet done a research reading list. I have complete runs – more or less – of SFS and Foundation, and most Extrapolations back to 1969, so the usual sources are covered at home. I spent two days going through F&SF, skimming the book and film reviews, gleaning comments about key works and the times.

One for the Must Be Kicking Themselves Award:

“Women who cry out that modern sf does not recognze their sex as anything but bicthes and/or love objects will have to shut up where this story is concerned, properly chastised by the fact that few (if any) female sf authors have ever given women the prominence or depthful characterization that Tiptree gives here with little fuss and seeming ease. … the intricate play should make someof the readers if the Lib movement curl up in shame when they see that a man recognizes their ambitions better than they do themselves.”

I haven’t necessarily been noting first and last pages of reviews, and some of the film reviews have titles so no doubt I will be back at some point.

Recently read:
Octavia Butler, Kindred
Angela Carter, Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault
Joe Haldeman, The Forever War
Kate Wilhelm, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang

All good – and most of the way into The Passion of New Eve

Douglas Trumbull, Silent Running (1972)

17 June 2009

Douglas Trumbull had been the special effects guy on 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968), and focused in particular on the stargate sequence. He had also worked on filming Saturn – although sense or timing meant that Jupiter remained the planet used in the finished film. The technique left Trumbull with a setting for his film, in which a series of spaceships are sent out from a polluted Earth with ecosystems on board.

Trumbull had worked, meanwhile, on The Andromeda Strain, and was to work with Wise again on Star Trek, with Spielberg on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1997) and with Scott on Blade Runner his only other film was Brainstorm (1983).

Silent Running is somewhat sedate, if only because the main character is alone for much of the time. Earth decides to scrap the mission and destroys the ecosystems, but Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) kills his crew mates and tries to drop off radar. His only companions on screen are a number of cute robots – and it is tempting to blame him for the genre requirement for such in sf from then on. It is only a matter of time before Earth catches up with him and it can’t end well.

There is a distinct ecological message to the film – heavily underlined by a conservationist manifesto on Dern’s bunk wall and repeated songs on the soundtrack from Joan Baez. The emotions are a little broad brush.

Robert A Heinlein, I Will Fear No Evil (1970)

15 June 2009

Note: I didn’t mean to fall off the map – but I’ve done a conference, a keynote at a conference, an MA validation in Liverpool and a local validation, plus exam and essay marking. I’ve been reading and watching, but not as much as I’d have liked.

This is perhaps the first of Heinlein’s late novels, focusing in more and more on a pattern of patter and sex among a small cast across a page count of 400+ – this had been seen in Stranger in a Strange Land but now became the norm.

The billionaire and dirty old man Johann Sebastian Smith is aging and decides to try a brain transplant as soon as he can find a suitable body. He does – in the coincidental shape of his secretary Eunice Branca. Some of her soul or personality survives, as Johann has conversations with her as she teaches him to become a woman. At first his time is taken up with court cases proving he is Smith – although he keeps insisting he could start again – and then increasingly with sex: with his nurse, his doctor, his lawyer, his bodyguards, Eunice’s widower and his new wife. This runs a sexual spectrum, being by terms heterosexual, lesbian and gay – and everyone seems compatible and hardly weirded out at all. A fifty year age gap is no difference at all.

Written in the context of the explosion of women’s liberation – how well does Heinlein write women? It’s interesting that femininity is a performance – a masquerade to use Joan Riviere’s term from the thirties. Smith becomes a woman by putting on clothes and make up, she gets her way by letting others think they lead and plays endless games. Whilst Smith always stays in control – more or less – it always comes back to keeping men happy (even if that’s her being happy). Heinlein hardly plays fair, giving Smith the trump card more often than not. Far from giving women agency, the novel ends up with a sense of women having pleasure in men (apparently) having power.

The taboo-breaking incest of later novels is not here – although Smith gets Branca’s body impregnated with his own sperm, in a variation on “;All You Zombies'”. I don’t think this has aged well.

THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971)

14 April 2009

Lucas’s first feature, based on an idea by Matthew Robbins which became a story by Lucas and then a script by Lucas and sound editor Walter Murch – it remakes and extends his student film THX 1138 4EB (1967). It was produced under the umbrella of Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope and Warner Bros.

The film is a dystopia where peoeple have letters and numbers as names, little more than registration numbers. THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) works with radioactive materials, but his mandatory drugs are being replaced by placebos by his mate, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie). This allows his sexual desire to return and they have sex. Drug evasion and copulation are both illegal, and they are arrested. THX faces brain washing, and ends up in an all-white cell limbo with SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasence) – who ironically enough had been trying to become THX’s roommate (why, I’m not sure). The two escape and go on the run – SEN is recaptured, but THX reaches ground level and watches the sunset.

This is perhaps the most depressing Lucas material – the most deliberately depressing Lucas material, and the film was initially rejigged by the studio. The limited release saw a small but not significant profit, and a restored late-1970s re-release did little better. Naturally the DVD is a director’s cut, with added CGI crowd and world building, and the odd extra shot. Some of these make more links between THX and SEN. THX does escape, but SEN does not, and the pregnant LUH seems to be dead. There is a bird or two in shot at the end, but the sun is setting, suggesting the end of times.

The banning of sex and the imposition of sedatives are dystopian stand-bys, but the item that doesn’t convince is the insistence on consumption – aside from the consumption or ingestion of drugs. No one seems to own anything – the apartments are virtually bare aside from masturbation machines and holograms. But the satire of the cost of policing – which allows THX eventual escape – is still relevant today.

Blakes 7 (Series 2)

14 April 2009

This appears to have destroyed my DVD player.

Here the initial fellowship begins to breakdown – the Liberator faces its original owners, and then Blake starts a rather desultory story arc. He hears of a central Federation computers which would cripple the evil government if it were destroyed. However, the Earth-based computer is a trap for the freedom fighters and they face being killed. Shiney Happy Person, Gan, is killed by Travis (now wearing a new face) and Blake begins soul searching. This begins a new series of cats and mouse games – more attempts by Travis to entrap them, and moments where Avon can abandon Blake (like Jayne and Mal thirty years on). Travis has been put on trial by the Federation for genocide, and they aim to execute him, so for part of the time he appears to be against the Federation and out on his own. But Blake still has scruples. Toward the end of the series they find the location of the central computer, and risk their lives to destroy it.

Cally is still there largely as a counsellor, sometimes not saying what she knows, and Jen only gets off the ship when guest characters want to try to seduce someone. Vila, meanwhile, does very little lock picking, and much comic relief. I confess that the best bits are Avon bitching about Blake or Vila or being bitched at.

Moonbase 3 (1973)

10 April 2009

A curious realist sf series from Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks – produced as far as I can tell in the gap between the Doctor Who serials “The Green Death” and “The Time Warrior”. It’s partly curious in that it comes at the end of a season in which Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is released from exile on Earth and can travel the universe again – and this is set in one place: the European moonbase and its immediate surroundings, with the occasional near orbit travel. The initial idea had been to set it on a ship or sub; the isolation is striking.

The six episodes were produced by five writers:

  1. “Departures and Arrivals” (dir. Ken Hannam; w. Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts; tx 9 September 1973)
  2. “Behemoth” (dir. Ken Hannam; w. John Brason; tx 16 September 1973)
  3. “Achilles Heal” [Heel?] (dir. Christopher Barry; w. John Lucarotti; tx 23 September 1973)
  4. “Outsiders” (dir. Ken Hannam; w. John Brason; tx 30 September 1973)
  5. “Castor and Pollux” (dir. Christopher Barry; John Lucarotti, 7 October 1973)
  6. Views of a Dead Planet (dir: Christopher Barry; w. Arden Winch; tx 14 October 1973)

Note the lack of regular Doctor Who writers aside from the creators who acted as producer and script editor as usual; Lucarotti had written for the series in the 1960s, but only historical stories such as “Marco Polo” and “The Massacre”. Barry directed episodes from “The Dead Planet” to “The Creature from the Pit”, but at that point only “The Dæmons” and “The Mutants” for Letts and Dicks (he went on to direct their swansong, “Robot”).

The set up is a base, one of several run by the US, the USSR, Europe and China. Typically the European one is run on a shoestring and knee deep in bureaucracy, so when the base director is killed in a shuttle accident, the troubleshooting David Caulder (Donald Houston) is brought in to turn the venture around. In the context of the daily dangers of staying alive, Caulder has to start showing a profit. He is rivalled by Michel Lebrun (Ralph Bates), a French by-the-book jobsworth and his second in command, and helped by former astronaut turned sort-of chief engineer and dogsbody Tom Hill (Barry Lowe) and psychiatrist Helen Smith (Fiona Gaunt) whose job is to monitor the rather flowing staff morale.

Most of the stories derive out of the every day stresses of their mission – when thing get done on autopilot, when people’s weaknesses are played upon, when outsiders have to show solidarity. In the second episode there’s the suspicion of life of the Moon – but the explanation turns out to be selenological. The rationalism presumably derives from the input of science journalist James Burke (pre-Connections) as scientific advisor. The end result was this BBC-Twentieth Century Fox-ABC co-production stopped after six episodes; it was insufficiently fantastical, and I suspect they’d run out of story ideas.

The one foot wrong I felt was the final episode, in which a nuclear detonation above the pole was meant to melt ice caps to free up more farming land, and it is assumed that a chain reaction predicted by a maverick scientist (Michael Gough, playing 90-something) has destroyed life on Earth. As it is the north pole, I’m not sure how much arctic land would be freed – and the sea level rise is hand waved away.

The special effects have dated badly, and the acting, especially from the non-regulars, is a little wooden. It is stuffed full with casual racism – Helen is frequently disbelieved and sidelined, and her role is to be empathetic, without a story line of her one. Her superiors and equals are rather too tactile – although when she stands up to the scientist she is respected.

A fascinating experiment – but space opera comes back to dominate British sf on tv.

Barry N. Malzberg, Beyond Apollo (1972)

6 April 2009

One thing that is constantly striking me is how neglected many of the writers are that I’m looking at. I confess I’m a little behind on writing up my reading, and it may well stay that way – and in a sense writers such as Ballard and Delany don’t need the attention. Malzberg, on the other hand, what at his most active through the 1970s in sf terms, and there seems to be little written on him. Previously I’d only read The Sodom and Gomorrah Business – I shall reread this – and now I have three more of these short novels to go through.

First up, for little more reason than being the first out of a rucksack of secondhand books, is Beyond Apollo.

In essence it is the story of a 1981 two-man mission to Venus, during which the captain was killed and the other man – Harry Evans – has lost his mind. The story is narrated by Evans, as he writes a novel about his experiences, the viewpoint shifting at the end to that of his publishing. Even that is misleading – Evans talks about himself in both the first and third person, and nothing he says can be taken as stable. We don’t even know whether his captain was Jack Josephson or Joseph Jackson. It might be that Evans killed him – but it is not at all clear. Even the descriptions of the post-mission debriefings are inconsistent.

Bob Shaw reviewed the book in Foundation 7/8 and sees it as an example of all that’s wrong with the New Wave, in particular the assertion that travelling through space drives you mad. Something else to look out for.

Alternative 3 (Chris Miles, 1977)

31 March 2009

Spoof documentary fronted by former newscaster Tim Brinton (who died last week), which investigates a number of missing scientists. Initially it had been assumed to be part of the brain drain to America, but no trace is found of some of them, and others have died in accidents. The evidence points to something to do with global warming, and may be answered by a mysterious magnetic tape.

The third alternative to dealing with global warming – this at a point when the theory was clearly in its infancy – was to get a group of experts and the intelligentsia together and send them to Mars, a Mars not thought not only to be inhabitable, but inhabited. The documentary concludes with footage shot on Mars, supposedly in 1962.

The programme began as a commissioned play on a topic of his choice for David Ambrose, and he had an idea about missing scientists. It was Chris Miles who provided the notion of Mars, from his spouse’s copy of Paris Match which featured Viking lander pictures on the cover. The rest wrote itself – although Anglia tv were reluctant to let it be made. Initially it was to be shown on April 1 1977, but it was put bag to June 20. Some of the press let the cat out of the bag, the other played ball and then cranked up the outrage as people rang to complain.

This is in a direct line with Orson Welles’s The War of the Worlds and the Panorama segment on growing spaghetti. Ambrose clearly wanted to make a serious point about global warming, and the programme was shown around the world. It cleverly puts together acted and stock footage, doctoring documentary and degrading film stock.

A book followed, and apparently thirty years of speculation that they were onto the truth, which Anglia were covering up by printing a cast list at the end.