Archive for Harry Harrison

Star-Craving Mad

Posted in literature, MUSIC, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2020 by dcairns

I went down a rabbit hole investigating The Jet-Propelled Couch, a chapter of the book The Fifty-Minute Hour by Robert Mitchell Lindner, a celebrated collection of psychiatric case histories.

In The Jet-Propelled Couch, Lindner tells of successfully treating a “government scientist” seemingly involved in the atomic bomb project, who had gone partway off his rocker reading sci-fi novels in Polynesia as a child, and was spending increasingly long periods of mental estrangement when he believed himself to be away in the future, battling in distant galaxies. Lindner boldly combatted the obsession by going into it himself, identifying with his patient’s mania until he reckoned himself to be at some risk of getting lost in it. Fortunately, there wasn’t room in this particular constructed universe for two, and Lindner’s elbowing his way in helped “Kirk Allen” escape.

Lindner disguised his patient’s identity so carefully that we still can’t be sure who “Kirk Allen” really was. The best guess to date has been that he was science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith, real name Paul Linebarger. If this is so, it kind of suggests that “Allen” wasn’t wholly cured of his obsession, since Smith was to construct an entire future history spanning tens of thousands of years, lovingly piecing together whole civilisations that rose and fell, spawning new species (the underpeople! a very appealing character in A Planet Named Sheol has been assembled from bits of cow) and leading to “the Rediscovery of Mankind.” His stuff is absolutely nuts, and it’s easy to find yourself believing the author had mental issues. But maybe he was just really good?

Harry Harrison, sf scribe, on British TV was asked if you needed a special mind to write sci-fi. “No, just talent.”

Linebarger was remarkable in all kinds of ways. As a China expert, Linebarger’s proudest achievement was aiding in the surrender of thousands of Chinese troops in Korea. Cordwainer Smith expert John J. Pierce writes that the troops were averse to surrendering, considering it shameful. Linebarger had leaflets printed explaining that the men could come forward shouting the Chinese words for “love,” “duty,” “humanity” and “virtue.” Say these words in Chinese in that order, and you have phonetically said “I surrender in English.” Smith’s stories are pun-happy too.

I came across the Linebarger-Lindner story in Brian Aldiss’s critical history of science fiction, The Billion-Year Spree. He got his info from one Leon Stover, who was subsequently very cagey about how he’d supposedly heard it from Lindsay. The Linebarger-Lindner connection is tenuous at best, though we know Lindner knew other sf writers including Theodore Sturgeon, and we know Linebarger spent a lot of time in analysis. In Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch, Alan C. Elms, at work since forever on a Cordwainer Linebarger bio, examines the evidence in detail.

Since Linebarger was a cultural expert on China for the Pentagon, not a nuclear physicist working at Los Alamos, we can see that Lindner must have disguised him pretty thoroughly, but a lot of the biographical facts do add up, or find equivalents in Linebarger’s lonely and dislocated upbringing. (Loneliness has been remarked upon as a recurring theme in his fiction, from the astonishing Scanners Live in Vain — “I need to kranch!” — right through to his final published works at the end of his short life.)

Remarkably enough, Lindner’s chapter was televized as an episode of Playhouse 90 in the fities, under the direction or Burgess Meredith and James B. Clark (the combined talents behind THE YIN AND YANG OF MR. GO and A DOG OF FLANDERS. The show starred David Wayne as “Kirk Allen,” Donald O’Connor as “Dr. Robert Harrison” (so Lindner gets his own pseudonym), and featuring Peter Lorre and Maila Nurmi in her Vampira guise. I’d love to see it. It sounds dreadful and/or wonderful. A live broadcast, it doesn’t seem to have been preserved.

The TV play evidently interested Stephen Sondheim, who planned to make a musical out of it, but this never materialized. I would be interested! One can imagine a more serious WALTER MITTY affair, and it would be best if the sci-fi elements had some real clout and conviction, instead of the more usual Flash Gordon parody stuff. If one had access to Cordwainer Smith’s work and knew of the rumoured connection… it’s not too late! Paging Mr. Sondheim!

Other plausible candidates have been proposed as the real Kirk Allen. “Kiko” Harrison, a scientist who really was at Los Alamos, and who also had similarities in his personal history to the case file recounted by Lindner, could be the man. Nobody had managed to find a series of sci-fi stories starring a character called Paul Linebarger or even just “Paul” which would fit the description Lindner gives of his patient discovering a hero with his own name. Other investigators have looked for a physicist called John Carter, assuming that the most famous sci-fi hero in print at the time was Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martian adventurer. Aldiss suggests E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series as a likelier fit to K.A.’s intergalactic romps. Which would, with a bit of shoehorning, fit — the Lensman books don’t have heroes with usefully similar names to any of our protagonists, but Linebarger did later adopt the name Smith for his sf writing.

Saul-Paul Sirag, championing the “Kiko” Harrison hypothesis, does find a sci-fi hero called Harrison, star of two stories by Stanley G. Weinbaum which appeared in Wonder Stories, a 1930s pulp magazine. It’s not a long series of books, but at least there’s a name-match. I don’t know how likely it would be for “Kiko” to find a US pulp mag in England, France or Scotland, where he was living as a kid in 1934 (going by how impossible it was to find Famous Monsters of Filmland in Scotland in the seventies, I’d say not very likely), but per Lindner Kirk Allen discovered his namesake in a crate of imported literature on a Pacific island, so “Kiko” Harrison could have done the same thing when his family moved to the Philippines.

(I’ve read one of Weinbaum’s Captain Harrison stories, The Valley of Dreams, and it’s terrific. Hawksian sf adventure with alien ecology and plenty of mystery.)

It would be an exaggeration to say you could go mad thinking about this. But I’m getting a bit obsessed. I do think Cordwainer Smith/Paul Linebarger makes the most poetically beautiful candidate, because if it’s him, he OBVIOUSLY WASN’T CURED. Which is fine, because the tall tale Dr. Lindner span about “Kirk Allen” is wildly implausible and the techniques he describes would be highly unlikely to “cure” anyone suffering from a psychotic break. Still, schizophrenia, for instance, can come and go for no obvious reason, so maybe “Kirk” (the name suggests another, later space captain) just got better on his own? Or maybe he was never ill? He had a responsible position, but his bosses became concerned about his space fantasy obsession, his doodling on official documents using alien pictograms of his own devising, and sent him to a shrink? Lindner’s account of his therapy ends with K.A. saying that he’s realised for some time that all this futuristic stuff is “just nonsense,” but he didn’t want to admit it and disappoint Lindner, who seemed so into it. How much is Lindner distorting here? Obviously, he was duty bound to disguise his patient’s identity, falsifying details in the process. This of course means that we can’t fact check him.

Alan Elms points out that Linebarger/Smith’s working title for his only novel was Star-Craving Mad, which doesn’t work at all for the book that became Norstrilia (about a planet named after Northern Australia — Linebarger had an Australian friend so he got the vowels right), but would fit perfectly as an alternative title for The Jet-Propelled Couch.

Which ends with Lindner wondering about Kirk Allen and his apparently abandoned universe…

“How goes it with the Crystopeds? How are things in Seraneb?”

(Seraneb is Benares backwards. But that doesn’t seem to be a clue to anything.)

Pop. Boom

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2015 by dcairns

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The two main films about overpopulation — a much discussed subject in the seventies — are SOYLENT GREEN and Z.P.G.

I have been to one science fiction convention in my life, a thing called Ra Con (cartoon rabbit emblem) at the Grosvenor Hotel in Edinburgh, sometime in the eighties. I was fifteen or so. I didn’t know anyone, so I just wandered around amidst my fellow sensation-seekers, a bit alienated. I went to the film show and saw Svankmajer and Bunuel/Dali and Trnka shorts, which put me in quite an odd frame of mind.

Harry Harrison was a guest, and I believe I was already a fan of his Stainless Steel Rat novels about a master-criminal of the future who is recruited into a crime-busting outfit on the principle of “to catch a thief.”

SOYLENT GREEN was screened and Harrison, an irascible, twinkly, gnome-wizard hybrid, (in my memory a lot like Edward G Robinson in the movie) spoke about the differences between the film and his source novel, Make Room! make Room! He was genuinely exercised by the problem of the population explosion. “People say things like, ‘Oh, she’s been blessed with nine children.’ Blessed! She ought to have her fallopian tubes cut out!”

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HH liked the same bits of the film I liked — the opening montage, which he seemed to indicate had been added at the last minute to rescue the film and make the point clearer, although it could be that it was always part of the plan and they simply didn’t tell him — the scene where Chuck Heston brings some real food home and he and Edward G. Robinson enjoy an actual meal “and Heston does some actual acting,” — and Robinson’s euthanasia scene. He was genuinely honoured to have Robinson, making his last screen appearance, in a film based on his work. And he made a vaguely lecherous remark about Leigh Taylor-Young.

(A year or so ago, Fiona was forced to call up the NHS’s 24 hour help line to consult on what seemed like a health crisis [and was]. The music they played was “light classical” — the sounds Robinson dies to.)

What Harrison didn’t like is the thing everybody talks about (spoiler alert) — “Soylent Green is made of p*****e!” He felt that was an exploitative, gimmicky, icky and unnecessary twist. In a sense it was put in to punch up a movie which was by its nature not so much sensationalistic as steadily downbeat. What would have made it less so, in his opinion, was deleted dialogue between the old folks, where they were to have offered up a solution — not to their problems, which had reached an irretrievable crisis, but to ours. Birth control! The one thing that could stop us reaching the dead end displayed in the movie, where we’re killing healthy old people to make room, and eating “tasteless, odourless crud” from tubes, and shoveling people up with bulldozers. But, afraid of alienating the Catholic audience, the studio chickened out and wouldn’t allow contraception to be mentioned or supported. You can have cannibalism but not condoms.

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I tried to watch ZPG once before and it didn’t take — the movie seemed lifeless and joyless, even more depressive than SOYLENT GREEN (which has Robinson to at least rage against the dying of the light). It seemed quite humourless, though in fact it isn’t…

A more sympathetic viewing in fact showed quite a lot of dry wit, it’s just that the characters aren’t in on the joke. We’re in one of those strangely antiseptic future worlds of the kind SLEEPER makes fun of — everything is ultramodern and plastic and white. BLADE RUNNER really revolutionized that view by making the great leap and imagining that SOME of our stuff will still be around in forty years, it will just have more modern crap accrued on top of it. In ZPG, the future seems like a blank slate, even though the kind of skyscrapers we see are not too different from the kind we have now.

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The details of this dystopia do, as I say, have a slight satiric bite, like the deliberately terrifying child-subsititute dolls (Super-Toys!) and the museum with stuffed cats and couples re-enacting swinging dinner parties of the seventies. The movie twice stages these soirees only to reveal that they’re happening in front of an audience in the museum, and both times I fell for the gag. Delightful. What makes the film seem humourless is that the characters aren’t in on the joke. In this world where childbirth is a capital offence, the broody Geraldine Chaplin and the brooding Oliver Reed have little to smile about, it’s true, but people do have a way of laughing in adversity, and it helps to make fictional character credible if they can step outside the seriousness of their situation and indulge in a joke. This happens precisely once in this movie.

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In defiance of the edicts, Chaplin is up the duff, and canoodles with Reed while enumerating the months, weeks, days, hours minutes and seconds until her blessed event comes due. “Are you sure about the seconds?” he asks, whimsically. “Yes,” she replies, and adopts a robot voice: “A – computer – told – me.” Again, delightful, although maybe a bit Futurama. It feels like Chaplin is making a joke about the fact that she’s a character in a science fiction film. But it’s nevertheless a welcome break from the gloom. Reed would ask directors, “Do you want Moody 1, Moody 2 or Moody 3?” In this movie, he needn’t have asked. But there is something impressive about seeing all that bullish machismo wrapped up so tight in a civilized, repressed carapace. You fear he might burst at any moment, resulting in a dome-shaped explosion of testosterone impregnating everyone in its radius, like what happens in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.

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Yay, seventies reptiles!

These two films, SOYLENT GREEN and ZPG, mark two extreme reactions to the population problem. In one, we do nothing about it and suffer dire consequences. In the other, we suffer massive ecological damage and then have to take such draconian action that the cure is as bad as the disease. Of course, only in a true totalitarian state could a “no-child policy” be implemented, and it seems unlikely to me that the rulers of such a state would want to follow the same rules as everyone else. I suspect the human race would passively, in a state of denial, choose extinction rather than submit to such a regime, and our democratic leaders would prefer a popular choice with a high chance of causing extinction than an unpopular one offering a solution. But ZPG can be seen as an allegorical warning rather than a literal one — if we are in danger of heading towards a catastrophe where the only solution is one we would never accept, dramatizing that by showing the solution in action is fair enough.

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And then they end up in The Zone. Great.

Of course the other 70s film about population control is LOGAN’S RUN, another high concept that doesn’t make much sense. WILD IN THE STREETS and GAS-S-S-S! are more plausible, and more fun — maybe one of those explains how this future history without people over thirty came to be. LR works best as cheese, with a single moment of behavioral realism when Jenny Agutter, exposed to nature for the first time, cries “I hate Outside!” like a stroppy child on holiday. Like Geraldine Chaplin’s computer voice joke, it almost breaks the film by allowing a semblance of humanity in.

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Planet of the Andalusian Dog

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2011 by dcairns

“God damn you all to hell!”

Yes, I’ve inserted Chuckles Heston (and Linda Harrison as Nova and Henry the Horse) into UN CHIEN ANDALOU. It’s what he would have wanted. And what better fate for an axiom of cinema?

I first saw UN CHIEN ANDALOU at a science fiction convention. It was the first, and for all I know last, such event to be held in Edinburgh. It happened at the Grosvenor Hotel and it was called Ra-Con. The logo was a raccoon. Possibly holding a phaser. Does anybody besides me recall this?

They showed SOYLENT GREEN, with Harry Harrison, author of the original novel Make Room! Make Room! there in person to denounce it. So Charlton Heston and UN CHIEN ANDALOU have long been connected in my mind, I guess. They also showed THE GREEN SLIME, which made less of an impression, although it turned out to be my first Kinji Fukasaku experience, not repeated until I saw BATTLE ROYALE at the Edinburgh Film Festival (and scored a free umbrella like the one Beat Takeshi sports in the film).

UN CHIEN ANDALOU screened as parts of a mind-blowing shorts programme that also included Jiri Trnka’s haunting animated allegory THE HAND, Jan Svankmajer’s BYT (THE FLAT) and something called 23 SKIDOO, which I’ve never seen since.

Ahah, here it is, on the INTERNET —

And like so much of what disturbed my frame of mind as a child, it’s from the National Film Board of Canada. It all makes sense now.