Archive for March, 2009

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.


Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson, 1976)

31 March 2009

According to the trailer, this film begins where imaginations ends. That doesn’t sell it, does it?

It’s based on a novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, although in the source people are terminated at 21 rather than 30. There’s been some sort of war, and everyone lives in domes, devoting their lives to pleasure, but to maintain a stable population everyone is invited to join the Carrousel (Carousel?) at 29 and 364 days. Allegedly some people will be reborn, others are killed. It’s pretty clear that none are reborn.

Some people elect to run, and are pursued by Sandmen. Logan 5 (Michael York) has the bad luck to fall in love with Jessica 6 (Jenny Agutter) who has something to do with a revolutionary movement, and then he is handed an assignment to track down Sanctuary, the place where surviving runners hide outside the city. With growing disillusionment with the city, he sets off, with his Sandman friend Francis 7 (Richard Jordan) in pursuit.

After facing a robot, Box, which keeps runners in cold storage as food, they find their way to a ruined and overgrown Washington DC, inhabited only by a T.S. Eliot quoting Old Man (Peter Ustinov) who they bring back to the city.

I guess this needs to be read as reactionary – it’s responding to the youth culture of the late 1960s and the summer of love, and no doubt the student risings which were confronted by the National Guard (Kent State, etc). The liberation from the dead hand of old people (as it were) is not exactly celebrated – daddy’s dead so we all get to stay up late, do drugs and have sex. Jessica’s just saying no is clearly just a ploy to play hard to get. The situating of a killer cop as the main character – shades of Rick Deckard – is not necessarily guaranteed to get the youth audience on board, although there is the generic requirement for someone to be converted from support for dystopia to become its destroyer. And the world is clearly meant to be dystopia.

Logan is on a mission (although he never seems to explain that to Francis), so his opposition to the system only seems to be stirred by meeting an old man with lots of cats. Bringing down the system is presented as a happy ending, although there is no sense of what the replacement will be. Work will have to start, but fortunately the world outside the city seems green and pleasant.

Inside the city this is the future as shopping mall – the modelling is less than convincing of the outside of the city, and the scale inside doesn’t quite come off. The Sandmen seem to be remarkably bad shots as the runners survive the cat and mouse tactics for quite a long time. Post-apocalyptic Washington is rather more convincing, even if it’s not clear how the cats survived (or indeed the old man).

A tv series followed, riffing off the concept, and a remake has been promised for over a decade. I’m not holding my breath.

The State of the Project

22 March 2009

I see this blog as a thinking aloud space, whilst I research and complete a book on 1970s sf. as such there is always going to be a bit of a trade off – if I include everything then why read the book, but I might want feedback on a key idea or two that shapes the book. Equally, it won’t go in, simply because it’s here.

I note this because of two thoughts I had yesterday. The first is the sausage to fortune, and the role that Doctor Who: The Invisible Enemy is likely to play in the introduction – both as a text in Paul Magrs’s Strange Boy, a coming of age novel set in the north east, and as I something I watched in my grandparents’ maisonette. I think that if I acknowledge that I am uncovering my own childhood I might be able to avoid the sense that somehow I am travelling into myself as I conduct the work. Especially as it is very much a text about interior travel.

(We pause and consider how little work I conducted today on the article about queer YA sff I need to write, in which Strange Boy has a central role.)

Secondly – and Invisible Enemy could almost become a subtitle to Solar Flares right now – I was reading the start of a book yesterday that has helped the theme of the book really come into focus. The book, incidentally, is Stephen Paul Miller’s The Seventies Now: Culture as Surveillance, and one sentence in particular leapt out and unfolded into bloom. Certainly it gives me a frame for a good half of the chapters. For now I will pass over the sentence in silence.

But I have for the first time the glimpse of the figures that Michelangelo was to free from the marble blocks.

Meanwhile, here are two things I wrote in my general blog, Mock Mocha Mocker (although it was called something different back then), which was the state of my thinking in April 2007.

‘SF has not been much fun of late. All forms of pop culture go through doldrums; they catch cold when society sneezes. If SF in the late Seventies was confused, self-involved, and stale, it was scarcely a cause for wonder’ [Bruce Sterling]

And yet, and yet – I’ve been thinking about seventies sf for a number of years now, and I’ve written articles on three neglected figures of the period: Coney, Cowper and Compton. I’ve always felt that there was a book in it somewhere but whether anyone is interested enough to read it remains to be seen.

But I’m being drawn to the decade again, and I’m looking at this large block of marble, prepared to make the first chip. I’m sure there’s a statue there somewhere, but where?

I’m thinking that the seventies was the period when sf first truly escaped from being the property of white, bourgeois boys – after civil rights, after women’s rights, after gay rights, Something Changed. Sf became a venue for new political visions. The New Wave(s) had refreshed its voice, but now it had something to talk about. After all, it could hardly be about going to the moon.

The last thing I want to write about is the death of sf. (‘It may not be the worst thing that ever happened to sf that it died.’) But certainly the dinosaurs of First Sf were sorry relics who had been out evolved. And with four or five blockbuster films (Star Wars, Star Trek, Close Encounters, Alien) there was sf around, even if it wasn’t the kind we were looking for or (and this is just me thinking aloud here) some of it was all too much like the First SF we told ourselves we’d outgrown. Sf writers weren’t competing for our beer money any more, but for the money we spent on lunchboxes.

What would a history of seventies sf look like, if these are indeed the parts of the statue in the marble? I don’t want to just write about exceptions. The mainstream stuff needs examining too. (‘Obviously the stuff I’m interested in is the radical subversive marginal stuff, because I’m a radical subversive margin.’ And so forth. Special cases don’t make a history, they make a special pleading.)

Is this sf as a postcolonial literature before the neo cons/roms returned in the 1980s?

So sf is dead, right, it’s in the doldrums by the seventies – after all, we’ve put a man (two men) on the Moon. (That’s where Aldiss and Wingrove begin their account, in Trillion Year Spree, with responses to the moon landing.) Agenda sf, if you will, is dead. But there are those writers of the Gernback-Campbell Continuum who are still writing (Campbell dies in the early 1970s – 1971): Heinlein gets flabby and oversexed, Asimov returns with a singleton before lapsing into silence until the late trilogies, Herbert adds to the Dune mythos, Clarke writes about Rama, one of many Big Dumb Objects of the period, and so on. Business as usual, just less frequently. Even Dick has slowed down.

The British New Wave crowd, faced with the entropy extending even to New Worlds’s circulation, have diversified into novels, which sometimes look less and less like sf as they deal with car crashes and traffic islands, and the alien planet is Earth. Even Doctor Who is Earthbound and paralysed. Meanwhile, a bandwagon is creaking into life: as Tolkien dies so the industry takes off, fueled by the growing role playing game craze and the first of many publications of material Tolkien himself would never have published. There is a fantasy boom – the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, Thomas Covenant, a book about rabbits and another about seagulls. Sf is dead, right?

Well, hardly. It’s not showing the hard sf concerns it once did to the same extent, but instead it takes on a political edge [Okay, yes: sf dealt with McCarthyism and the Cold War in the 1950s, and was hardly ignoring politics in the 1960s, but it takes on a more vital role post-1969 I’d argue.] as a barometer of the times. So, let’s see: the fag end of the Vietnam War, which lurches into genocide in Cambodia. The fall of Nixon. The oil crisis. Carter’s single term in the White House and the hostage crisis. In the UK, growing trouble in Northern Ireland and bombing campaign in England. The three day week. The winter of discontent. The election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister – which is followed by Reagan becoming president and a new twist in the Cold War. (I think I’m going to have to limit it to Anglophone sf – so Australia, Canada and New Zealand need a broadstroke history, too.)

The sf of the age will presumably have reflected these issues – somewhere along the line – and other concerns of the age, such as ecology and environmentalism. Also key to the period is the ongoing fight for equality for women, blacks and gays, with Tiptree, Butler and Delany being vital exemplars. Le Guin really comes of age, although Left Hand of Darkness is outside of the period proper, it only just is, and its ruminations on gender signal the confusions of the age. As do Heinlein’s genderbendings of I Will Fear No Evil and “The Number of the Breast”, for that matter.

At the same time, the iconography of Agenda Sf was being recycled (very green) in the imagery associated with various branches of popular music and, most visibly, the high concept, blockbuster movie of which Star Wars is the most prominent example, and The Empire Strikes Back forms a convenient bookend for the end of the decade (and a contrast with 2001: A Space Odyssey). The pessimism of the second film in the trilogy perhaps finds other echoes in Blake’s 7 and Battlestar Galactica. Meanwhile there were a whole raft of respected (and not so respected) raft of mainstream writers who were using sf tropes in their novels – Pynchon, Hoban, Burgess and so forth – leaving a sense that sf was going far beyond its fannish base.

Altered States (Ken Russell 1980)

11 March 2009

First let us note the ending, which is eucatastrophic, and which thus fits my gut sense of the decade in film. (Stalker is an exception, I suspect…). I’ll quote J.R.R. Tolkien, from On Fairy-Tales, and thus blame him for the barbarism of the Greek:
The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy […] is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.
What we have in most narratives is a situation which is threatened, and characters who therefore experience a reversal of fortune, or peripeteia which is then resolved. In tragedy, which Tolkien seems to be placing fairy-stories in opposition to, there is clearly a (dys)catastrophe, a death, but which leads to catharsis in the viewer/reader. For the eucatastrophe, it seems as if a second peripeteia is required, producing not quite catharsis, but the notion of grace and the potential of salvation. My notion of the amphicatastrophe is that there is no second reversal – and no salvation – and if there is catastrophe, it is not accompanied by catharsis. The amphicatastrophe resists any notion of being consolatory.

Altered States is not amphicatastrophic.

It is the tale of a doctor, Eddy Jessup (William Hurt in his first film), who discovers a sensory deprivation tank in the basement of the hospital he is training in. With the aid of his mate, Arthur (Bob Balaban), he attempts to measure his brain waves whilst in meditation. He does have some odd visions, but eventually he graduates and marries and a few years pass. He hears about a drug in Mexico that he want to try – a magic mushroom – and he has some odd experiences on it. This, he decides, need to be combined with a sensory deprivation tank, and he starts to experience a sense of going back in time to something more primal. A sceptical superior intervenes – Mason Parrish (Charles Haid) – and finds it hard to believe the evidence that Jessup is regressing to some kind of hominid. Then Jessup escapes from the tank, whilst still transformed.

In Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Dr Jekyll takes a potion which projects all of his dark side into Mr Hyde – or perhaps represses any notion of conscience and produces a Mr Hyde. After a couple of transformations, Jekyll is at risk of metamorphosis with or without potions. Here the same seems to be true – Jessup becomes more and more like a primitive man, and less and less bound by propriety. The twist is that he can also infect people – which is pushing things a little too far.

A couple of years later – 1983 – we have Videodrome and a (Todorovian?) fantasy as we’re not clear where Max’s hallucinations begin and end. We might want to have that real/hallucination hesitation here only the trips are distinct different from real life. But clearly Jessup has the sort of voyage into the Underworld that cyberpunk is also to engage with. When he becomes little more than a glowing mass of desires he does look like a cross between the characters in Tron and the eponymous Lawnmower Man. But he is redeemed and brought back to the real world – by his wife.

He has been with his wife since college, and I noted early on his lack of response at the moments she said she loved him – he cannot say it back, and deflects the question. From more than one speech it is clear that he is aware of the power of the love:
You saved me. You redeemed me from the pit. I was in it, Emily. I was in that ultimate moment of terror that is the beginning of life. It is nothing. Simple, hideous nothing. The final truth of all things is that there is no final Truth. Truth is what’s transitory. It’s human life that is real. I don’t want to frighten you, Emily, but what I’m trying to tell you is that moment of terror is a real and living horror, living and growing within me now, and the only thing that keeps it from devouring me is you.
He rescues her, and himself, at the moment that he is able to say, “I love you.”

That was the moment I reached for the sick bag.

This is definitely the good catastrophe, the moment of joy the walls of the world.