100 sf

Thursday, September 27, 2007

#25: Non-Stop (1958) by Brian Aldiss

“The Teaching warned him that his mind was a foul place. The holy trinity, Froyd, Yung, and Bassit, had gone alone through the terrible barriers of sleep, death’s brother; there they found--not nothing, as man had formerly believed--but grottoes and subterranean labyrinths full of ghouls and evil treasure, leeches, and the lusts that burn like acid. Man stood revealed to himself: a creature of infinite complexity and horror. It was the aim of the Teaching to let as much of this miasmic stuff out to the surface as possible.”

Brian Aldiss (b. 1925) can be a little crotchety at times. As a critic, he coined the term “cosy catastrophe,” a derogatory epithet for the writing of fellow Brits like John Wyndham. As a novelist, Aldiss’ characters are often grey morally and his view of society is unpleasant. His narratives don’t end wrapped up with a pretty bow. That's why one of the great travesties of contemporary sf filmmaking for me is the mess Stephen Spielberg made of Aldiss’ short story “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long.” For instance, one of the minor bits from the story that didn’t make the film was Aldiss’ description of the consuming habits of the rich. In the future, through the help of nanotechnology, the rich consume vast quantities of food without losing perfect form. Expensive microparasites make sure of it. So while the developing world unravels because of food shortages and the poor of all nations go hungry, the rich eat more than any human being should and previously could. Ah, the decadent West. Non-Stop came out before “Super-Toys.” In fact, it’s one of Aldiss’ first novels. But like STLASL, it doesn’t let society off the hook.

The narrative follows hunter Roy Complain of the Greene Tribe--a group that is decidedly fearful of the outside world. When he becomes ostracized within the tribe, Complain is convinced by religious leader Father Marapper to go exploring with a motley crew of thugs and misfits to see what’s out beyond the land of the Greene Tribe. Actually, Marapper has a pretty radical idea. He’s convinced that all the known tribes live in an enclosed world called a ship and that this ship is not the natural habitat of humans. He even has a map to prove it.

Marapper’s group works its way through the “ponics,” a thick vegetative growth that encompasses many areas of the…well hell, I’m just going to tell you…the spaceship that they live in. See, all the tribes are the descendants of the original crew of a generational starship. But something went wrong. They’ve been traveling for too many generations and are thought by those in the know to have passed by or gone in the completely wrong direction of their destination planet. While adrift, the inhabitants have forgotten their origins and civilization has devolved into primitivism. And the reason they haven’t reached their destination is the real shocker of the novel, not the fact that the place is a starship (which is revealed on page 28). I mention this only because folks blew a gasket when the novel was retitled Starship in its first US printing. Too much is given away about the plot in the title, they said.

Anyway, Marapper’s group ventures through the ponic-filled “Sternstairs,” “Quarters,” and “Deadways” to the “Forwards” area of the ship. The pieces really start coming together there. They find out about the “Giants” who built the ship and who seem to have returned. They learn the secret of the control room. And they find a lost captain’s log that details the beginnings of “The Teaching”--the religion of the ship--, which is a distorted, mythologized version of psychoanalytic theory. (All praise to its prophets Froyd and Yung.) Complain, Marapper, and the boys also find lots and lots of rats. Super-smart mutant rats that live in rat cities and lord over creatures of lesser intelligence. Creepy.

Aldiss’ big shock ending doesn’t make one feel comfortable. And his characters certainly aren’t heroes. Marapper is a megalomaniac, Complain's morality comes from his crotch, and the Giants are, among other things, patronizing. He also makes the idea of generational space travel downright sick and twisted. It’s just my kind of sf story!

In print: a blessing because Aldiss is not as revered in the States as he is in the UK.

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

HipHopKetBall II: The Rejazzabration Remix '06

Labels: ,

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


I haven’t ventured much into the world of online gaming, though I did play a furious session of Star Wars Galaxies while visiting a friend in DC once. For the most part, the closest I’ve come to that sort of thing is tooling around in Second Life. But there’s no question that some interesting things are going on in the gaming world. I recently discovered, for instance, that there is a talk show called This Spartan Life that happens within the game space of Halo 2, and the folks who run it were profiled on Studio 360 this weekend (Kurt Andersen even entered the game space). What a weird/crazy/fascinating idea. Chris Burke, who hosts the show through his avatar Damion Lacedaemion, is actually a guy who games with his kids. It’s pretty amazing that while he’s interviewing folks like Malcolm McLaren, the world is going to hell around them and other players are shooting at them. I guess it’s some sort of statement on art after 9/11, eh?

While putting together a MySpace page for my current place of employment, Subterranean Books, I decided to set up a page for myself--just to give the store another friend (ha!). What a total time suck it is. Goodness. But I’m always looking for new friends, so here’s the page if you’re interested.

Labels: ,

Friday, September 14, 2007

Run through the Lathe

I like Ursula K. Le Guin. She’s smart and thoughtful. She challenges western ideology, gender politics, and the role of the hero in her novels. To her great credit, she also made it okay for women to read, write, and enjoy science fiction. She’s a bigwig on the sf literary landscape with an interesting pedigree. Her father was the anthropologist who wrote the book on Ishi that probably inspired George Stewart to write his book about Ish. David Pringle includes two of her most influential novels on the 100 list (The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed), but he left off The Lathe of Heaven, which is just as good as those two.

Le Guin sees TLOH as a Taoist novel. The main character, George Orr, has the power to control reality through his dreams, but he is beholden to his unconscious to control that control, so to speak. He ends up being forced into “voluntary” therapy with Dr. William Haber, a dream specialist. Haber wants to be a de facto benevolent fascist. He tries to manipulate Orr’s power for the better: an end to war, racism, overpopulation, and environmental degradation. Along the way, he throws in some personal perks too--like a sweet dream institute with a swank office. But Papa Haber deserves the best for all his hard work, no? Anyway, Orr is a Taoist hero to Le Guin. He lets purpose unfold and accepts what he cannot change. Haber, on the other hand, is the Taoist antagonist: aggressive, manipulative, impatient.

In the late 70s, PBS wanted to adapt one of Le Guin’s novels for television. She was shocked when they chose TLOH for their source material because in the novel “nothing happens.” With a miniscule $250,000 budget (this is post-Star Wars remember), the end result is generally considered one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. Shown on various PBS stations until 1988, when the broadcast rights expired, the film was shelved in limbo. No one could afford the rights because of a costly licensing issue with the film’s use of the Beatles song “With A Little Help from My Friends.” PBS, in particular, gave up hope and lost track of/destroyed/dropped into a black hole the original copies of the print in their archives. But, as often happens, enter fandom.

According to WNET, the original producer of the film, The Lathe of Heaven became the most requested PBS production for viewing in PBS history. (Too bad they couldn’t show it or give it out, eh?) Well, the overwhelming call for the film caused someone to come up with a brilliant idea: switch a cover version of the Beatles’ song out with the original. But wait. There still wasn’t a copy of the film around. Luckily, some loving fan had kept a VHS copy taped from television. Now here we are in 2007 and the film is available again, and on DVD no less. The quality is actually pretty good for a VHS transfer, but the cover version of the song is only so-so. Like many great sf films, it’s flawed. But it is also recommended viewing.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Epilogue: Circuitous Cuckoo

The Midwich Cuckoos came out in 1957 and was quickly adapted to film. In 1960, Village of the Damned was released. The film’s eerie, sinister blond children reappeared in two more films and have influenced everything from the Simpsons to pop music and comic books. The X-Men series, for instance, features the Stepford Cuckoos, created by Grant Morrison (the occult-loving crazy man who breaks new ground with every comic he writes). The SC is a group of (originally) five mutant sisters who mirror both The Stepford Wives and the creepy children from Village of the Damned.

Labels: , ,

#24 The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) by John Wyndham

“No other evidence has been produced to suggest that on that Monday, until late in the evening, Midwich was anything but normal.”

“Naturally, in America [alien invasions are] all rather bigger and better. Something descends and something comes out of it. Within ten minutes, owing no doubt to the excellent communications in that country, there is a coast-to-coast panic and all highways out of all cities are crammed by the fleeing populace--except in Washington. There, by contrast, enormous crowds stretching as far as the eye can reach stand grave and silent, white-faced but trusting, with their eyes upon the White House, while somewhere in the Catskills a hitherto ignored professor and his daughter with their rugged young assistant strive like demented midwives to assist the birth of the dea ex laboratoria which will save the world at the last moment, minus one”
--Gordon Zellaby

“If you wish to keep alive in the jungle, you must live as the jungle does…”
--Gordon Zellaby

I saw my first cuckoo (a Yellow-billed Cuckoo to be exact) at Magee Marsh several years back during a birding trip my wife and I took to northwestern Ohio. It was beautiful, and I have objective proof--the Mennonite family behind me said so. Now cuckoos are normally known for two things: brood parasitism and clocks. The two don’t really have a lot to do with one another, except that the cuckoo sound of a cuckoo clock mimics the voice of a European Cuckoo, and it’s the European Cuckoo that is the notorious parasite that inspired John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos. These common cuckoos of the old world lay their eggs in nests of other birds. Usually, the cuckoo eggs hatch first, the young birds develop quickly, and they kick the other, more proper eggs out of the nest. My beautiful cuckoo of North America isn’t much for parasitism though. Well, okay, it does drop her eggs off in another nest occasionally, but it’s usually just a Black-billed Cuckoo’s nest, and they’re kind of like family, right?

Wyndham’s cuckoo novel begins much like a “cosy catastrophe,” such as his other book on David Pringle’s list of the 100 best science fiction novels, while also being very much a Fortean event. One evening, everyone in the small English town of Midwich just collapses, and anyone or anything that comes within a certain range of the town does the same--an event Midwichers come to refer to as the “Dayout.” In the midst of all this passing out is a large, shiny object that one may confidently assume is an alien spacecraft, though that’s never explicitly said. However, before you know it, the object is gone and everyone wakes up. They’re all okay. Hurrah! What was the big fuss?

Nine months later sixty big fusses arrive. All the women of childbearing age--including singles, widows, and the virginal--mysteriously became pregnant during the Dayout and they all have their children at the same time. Now, as you could probably guess, these children aren’t normal. Thirty boys and thirty girls that are almost identical: golden, piercing eyes; pensive dispositions; and matching kerchiefs. (I made the last one up.) Wyndham knew children were terrors, like a lot of other sf writers from the time did. Ray Bradbury, in particular, wrote some of the best children-as-pure-evil tales I’ve ever read (try “The Veldt” if you don’t believe me). But I digress. So Wyndham’s children possess strange powers that no terrible child I know has. First, they are emergent. All the boys form, from their smaller, individual intelligences, one great intelligence, and the girls the same--like an ant colony or a computer system. Teach any one of the boys something, and they all know it. They also physically age more quickly than normal humans. Nine years after birth, they look like teenagers. Teenagers with golden eyes and matching kerchiefs no less! And they appear to have strong telepathic abilities.

After two suspicious murders happen in the town, the Children (referred to in the capital “C” sense throughout much of the novel) quickly run into trouble. Most of the men in town were secretly emasculated by the whole situation of the Children to begin with. They knew they couldn’t have all gotten the ladies knocked up on the same day, and these kids certainly don’t look anything like them. They’re not stupid enough to think they are the Children’s **real** fathers. Now the kids are murdering…that’s the last straw. But not so fast, says Wyndham. What right is there to wipe out a new species? Well, apparently, a lot. See there were other groups like the Midwich cuckoo bunch. One in Australia, one in Siberia, and one in an Inuit community. They all knew what the Midwichers are only starting to find out: these children represent an evolutionary leap; they signal the end of the species. Or do they? Read the freakin’ book to find out.

There’s a lot going on in the novel. On the one hand, it’s the story of the generation gap--a serious growing pain in the west during the 1950s. But it’s also a cold war story: paranoia about a mass of conformists (communists) corroding individuality and civilization from within. It’s also a novel about evolution and its ill effects. Is it survival of the fittest or survival of the ruthlessly violent

Easy to get used or at a library. The only edition currently in print in the US is an illustrated abridged version for children, however.

Labels: ,