Archive for Connie Willis

Everything Else

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2018 by dcairns

“When you think about it, the entire history of literature is nothing more than people coming in and out of doors. Whereas science fiction is about EVERYTHING ELSE.” I went looking for this Ken Campbell quote to see which science fiction author he was quoting in turn, but all I found was John Briggs’ Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century, which attributes it directly to Campbell. I don’t think that’s right. John Brunner? Brian Aldiss?

My pulpy proclivities saw me reading almost exclusively science fiction as a teenager, but I got off that and onto crime later. Better prose. And into Wodehouse, a genre in himself. But I still have sympathy for the view that science fiction is the true literature of ideas. Lately I’ve been delving into SF anthologies and into David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, in search of mind-bending story ideas in concentrated form, with the idea of later pursuing leads, hunting down the novels of the scribes who impress me most in short form.

I mentioned Connie Willis before, in passing. She’s great – the ideas are certainly there (lots of time travel stuff) but she doesn’t shirk from the human, the emotional. The short story Chance, in The Legend Book of Science Fiction (ed. Gardner Dozois) moved me to tears. I’m not sure it’s really science fiction — more like a Kafkaesque extrusion of fantasy into a realistically-drawn story-world — but it’s just so damn sad. Even the amazingly happy ending is desperately bleak.

As part of my crime reading, I’d tried an Ellery Queen paperback found in a charity shop, The Player on the Other Side, which turned out to be actually written by Theodore Sturgeon, more usually a sci-fi guy. I’d read his excellent More Than Human decades back. He’s one of the best prose writers in genre fiction, so he not only comes up with arresting ideas, but he has the descriptive powers to do them justice. The Other Celia is anthologised a lot  I believe it turned up in one of the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine anthologies I acquired recently. Sturgeon also wrote two Star Trek episodes, which I mention merely because it seems remarkable now that a sci-fi TV show would seek out practitioners in the field as writers. God knows, the movies didn’t do so very often.

I think Sturgeon defined SF as, “A story with a scientific problem and a human solution.”

Another Star Trek writer, in a way, was my man Fredric Brown, whose story Arena was adapted so we could all enjoy the spectacle of Shatner wrestling with a lizard man. Brown does have a weakness for Federation-like interstellar hegemonies, though in his fiction these are as likely to be militaristic and evil as they are good. I slightly prefer Brown’s crime writing, where the wild ideas stand out as more exceptional, more out-of-place, but the story Come and Go Mad, ending with the line “Nothing matters!” delivered in a kind of lunatic shriek, is just extraordinary. Like Philip K. Dick or Cornell Woolrich, Brown strikes me as a writer continually on the verge of breakdown, which always makes things interesting.

I thought I read some Samuel R. Delany years ago, but it was actually some Clifford Simak — I have no idea why I confused the two, Delany is the better writer, though both are good. Driftglass, in the Dozois anthology again, sets up a fascinating future with surgically altered amphibious humans, only to play out a story that’s kind of Hawksian, only bleaker. “I’m a clumsy cripple, I step all over everybody’s emotions.” The great news is there’s LOTS more Delany for me to catch up on. Another one who writes great sentences.

I read two by Cordwainer Smith (the pseudonym of psychological warfare expert Dr. Paul M.A. Linebarger — his nom de plume encompasses two varieties of shoemaker), Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons — a story you just HAVE to read, in order to find out what the hell that title is about — but the answer disappointed me — and Scanners Live in Vain, which is rip-roaring space opera with a hellish dystopian angle. Probably an anti-commie tract, but mind-blowing, grim, ridiculous, epic. Most all of Smith’s fiction takes place in a far-future space empire called The Instrumentality, so as world-building it’s of great interest — I admire the obsessiveness.

Robert Silverberg’s The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol 1, 1929-1964 is full of goodies. I was really impressed by the early entries, such as Stanley G. Weinbaum’s A Martian Odyssey, which effortlessly combines Hawksian manly adventure on the red planet with a curiosity and sense of mystery about alien intelligence and culture.  The astronauts we meet are of various nations, but all male — the genre of thinking forward wasn’t always forward-thinking. But they’re such affable fellows! And it was 1929. The patriarchal view seems less defensible in the fifties stuff, but I found I liked the one John W. Campbell story I read better than I expected to. Campbell, of course, wrote Who Goes There?, the one SF story to actually attract Howard Hawks as co-adaptor, resulting in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Twilight has poetry to it, as well as an epic space-time scale, as well as a tall-tale/urban legend framing structure, with the yarn related by a mysterious hitch-hiker, that adds a strange resonance.

“Jim claims he doesn’t believe the yarn, you know. But he does; that’s why he always acts so determined about it when he says the stranger wasn’t an ordinary man. No, he wasn’t, I guess. I think he lived and died, too, probably sometime in the thirty-first century. And I think he saw the twilight of the race, too.”

The best character in Anthony Boucher’s The Quest for Saint Aquin is a talking robot ass. This one is a kind of post-atomic pastorale, a popular sub-genre, with the church driven underground by a fascist technocracy. Religious science fiction is a distinct sub-genre too, I guess: this has certain traits in common with John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (a favourite) and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I relate more to Wyndham, where the faith is an oppressive force.

Damon Knight’s The Country of the Kind — I had read this before, or maybe only part of it? (Who the hell gives up on a short story?) It’s excellent, if unlikely. I seem to confuse Damon Knight with Thomas Disch, whose Camp Concentration is a piece of terrific. The finale of Knight’s tale of a shunned psychopath somehow makes a call to random violence seem both inspirational and touching — it’s not seductive, it doesn’t make you want to be violent or suggest that the author is in favour of such things — it just shows you how, from a different perspective, such emotions could attach themselves where you wouldn’t think they belonged. Paradigms explode. Your mind is expanded, the way it ought to be by good SF.

Knight also wrote To Serve Man, famously adapted by Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. The head-spinning paradigm shift in its purest form.

I have too many authors to choose from now, but nevertheless, hit my with your recommendations.




Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2017 by dcairns

Up at Edinburgh to York train at 6.55.

As a lecturer, I’m encouraged to do what is called “research” — but as I teach on a practical filmmaking course, nothing that would constitute research for me — stuff I could use in my practice — qualifies as academic research. But when Neil Sinyard notified me that there was a symposium on British cinema in the sixties, and that Richard Lester was taking part, I naturally wanted to go, so I offered a paper, and to my surprise it got accepted.

Richard Lester is appearing at the London bit of the programme next week, my paper was in the York section. So, two trips. Then I found out that, as a “teaching fellow,” I’m not actually required to do any research at all. Nobody had told me. This is possibly good news, except it leaves me in the dark as to whether I can claim expenses back. Too late now.

Sunny day. York is lovely. I haven’t been since I was a kid, and all I remember is the Cathedral, which stays out of sight this time. Taxi to campus because I don’t want to worry about getting lost. All the way there I see nothing later than the Victorian era, except the cars. And then the campus is completely brand new, and of course deserted (summer holidays).

I’m giving a paper on screenwriter Charles Wood (CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, top image), which I’ll doubtless post here later. Right away I meet someone I know, my editor from Electric Sheep magazine, who’s presenting a paper on Michael Reeves using her secret identity. I’m slightly worried because I don’t really know what a symposium looks like. Will we be in a theatre with a podium or some kind of boardroom? Apparently it’s both — I can choose which bit to attend, as there are parallel talks going on at once, Reluctantly I pass up Michael Reeves to hear about Joseph Losey.

We get coffee and lunch and beer/wine, which makes it a pretty nice gathering, even though I don’t know what a symposium is. I get to talking to two men both called Martin Hall. “You’ve lost your identity,” says a Martin Hall, and I agree, but he points at the floor, where my name card has fallen out of my badge. I’m now wearing a translucent panel on my chest, the kind of ID the invisible man might wear.

The second strange coincidence, following on from meeting someone I know under a different name, is learning that the continuity girl on Losey’s FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE was called Connie Willis. On the train down, I’d started reading To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis. A different Connie Willis. Time-travel comedy inspired by Jerome K. Jerome. Very hard to make anything of this synchronicity, except that time travel books are always about continuity, aren’t they?

I had been concerned that my presentation — I’d written as essay, probably too long, and was going to read it out — might not fit with what was expected, but it seemed to be roughly along the right lines. Some people had been poking about in archives — fascinatingly, all the correspondence from Film Finances, Britain’s biggest completion bond guarantor, is now available for research, but others had been talking to survivors of the era. One fascinating talk dealt with Peter Whitehead’s muses, one of whom was into trepanning, that ancient Egyptian practice whereby you bore a hole in yourself and let the sap run out. Some bloody images were shown. Whitehead had attempted to film his partner aerating her skull, but fainted, according to one account.

I shared the stage with a paper on widescreen style in THE IPCRESS FILE, which amounted to a strong defense of flamboyant style in British filmmaking.

My paper seemed to be well received! It was seen as odd that I was delivering this paper at the home of the Charles Wood Archive, but had not been to see it. I think that’s odd too — just didn’t have time. Hopefully I’ll find out I can claim expenses on it and can come back soon. At any rate, gratification was expressed that someone was paying attention to this important, criminally neglected artist.

The sun set all the way home ~


On the bus from the railway station to the chip shop, I sat behind a man with a livid X-shaped cut right on the apex of his cranium, in the centre of his bald spot, stitches visible. Had he been trepanned? It looked exactly like the bloody images I’d just seen. Strange coincidence No. 3.

Next week — London, Lester, Tushingham, Sandy Lieberson, PETULIA at the BFI Southbank!