Archive for The Thing from Another World

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.



Things I read off the screen in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 8, 2017 by dcairns

I hadn’t watched Don Siegel’s original INVASION for years — no, decades! And I can’t think why — I always preferred the Philip Kaufman remake, it’s true — check out the Arrow Blu-Ray for my article on that — but had only seen the original in pan-and-scan, then got hold of the widescreen edition, then failed to watch it, like a fool.

Now I’ve watched it! How excellent it is, and how ahead of its time, even with the tacked-on bookends and VO. I was watching it and I could sort of see the original, bleaker version THROUGH the re-edit, and it damn well nearly moved me to tears. Apparently the original cut does exist, so it’s monstrous that nobody seems to have released a dual edition. Still, if you were watching this in 1956, seeing love blossom between divorcees Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter only for the latter to get pod-personned out of existence would be pretty tough and shocking. It still is. Being more sentimental than I was as a teen, it really got to me, and I could appreciate how well set-up we are for that moment.

(Though, come to think of it, Dana’s conversion in a cavern doesn’t follow the pattern elsewhere — no pod in sight, and her doppelganger has somehow got all her clothes. The VO even tries to bodge this by saying her body’s been taken over, but that’s not what happens. That’s INVADERS FROM MARS you’re thinking of, Mr. Anonymous V.O. Writer. Haven’t you been watching?)

FOR FIRE ONLY. Alien creatures like THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD are always vulnerable to fire. Later, Kevin will torch a couple of pods in the road.

ETAVIRP. The PRIVATE sign on Kevin’s door features A LOT, usually reversed. It symbolizes his individuality and his belief in personal freedom, also his all-important ability to lock himself in and the pod people out, which is critical later.

Save $1.25 FLINT-WARE. Dana Wynter’s character, who loves to cook, is positioned next to signs of domesticity. WIN A VALUABLE PRIZE! Kevin is in with a chance, or would be if this were a different kind of movie. But the advertising has a more sinister significance. Kevin McCarthy, in later interviews, says he saw the pod people as being like Madison Avenue men — harbingers of conformity, pushing a product. We see them arranging its distribution. Every home should have one! And they TALK like salesmen, stressing the necessity of their product. Once you have it, you won’t be able to imagine how you ever got along without it…

The prints on the wall may represent local author King Donovan’s book jackets, I’m not sure. CHAT BLANC (WHITE CAT). MIRROR NOIRE (BLACK MIRROR). FEMME FATALE. The black mirror is particularly apt here, as King looks at his own unformed reflection on the pool table. Femme fatale is of course what Dana will become. Not sure about the white cat, unless that’s what she presently is. In which case, reading from left to right we can chart her progress from innocent kitten (Alice’s cat, Dinah), through the looking glass black mirror, emerging as a fatal woman, possibly the Queen of Hearts.

LUBRICATION of the body-snatchers! Easing their penetration of society, I guess. Dunno what VEEDOL is, but we’re told it’s PREMIUM QUALITY 100% PENNSYLVANIA, which has a sinister ring to it.

UNION. My favourite! As the pod people gather to arrange their further dissemination. If you want to read them as communists, here’s your evidence.

RICHFIELD GUARANTEED BEST. More advertising hyperbole. The rich field calls to mind the seed pods, the agricultural nature of this evil. Pod people start out in the country, take over the small towns, then assail the cities. Which, as we’ve seen more recently, is true.

Contemporary audiences may also have been surprised by the partially-formed Wynter pod’s nipples (top). The censor’s rules are more complicated than I ever suspected. There’s the little-known Annabella doctrine dealing with small, French breasts, and now it turns out that the nipples of a pod person are acceptable as long as they’re not fully-formed and she hasn’t come to life yet. A loophole few other filmmakers were able to take advantage of.