100 sf

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

#29: Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank

“They will stand far off, in fear of her torment, and say, ‘Alas! alas! thou great city, thou mighty city, Babylon! In one hour has thy judgment come.’”--Revelation 18:10

“Thus the lights went out, and in that moment civilization in Fort Repose retreated a hundred years.”

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” ---Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Catalog

Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon rubs shoulders with the British “cosy catastrophes” that have littered the David Pringle list so far, yet it is distinct from them in its examination of Soviet/nuclear war paranoia in the US during the 50s and 60s. So yes, the book is dated. Nonetheless, it is an entertaining journey through Cold War fears. And heck, I’m a sucker for survivalist, tear-it-down-and-build-it-back-up narratives. Aren’t you?

Pat Frank (1907-1964) is the pen name of Harry Hart Frank, a man who spent much of his life as a journalist and critic of the US government and its role in nuclear proliferation. Though AB is his best-known work, it was Frank’s third trip down the nukes-are-going-to-mess-us-up road. Previously he had written Mr. Adam, a tale about mass sterilization in the US caused by a radiation leak, and another US-Soviet knockdown like AB called Forbidden Area. But it’s Alas, Babylon that he’s known for, and it’s Alas, Babylon that made David Pringle’s cut.

The protagonist of the novel is Randy Bragg, a kind of 1950s-style slacker who lives the bachelor life on his family's estate in Fort Repose, Florida (modeled after the real town of Mount Dora). Randy is a Korean War vet, but the real military man in the family is his brother Mark, who lives in Omaha with his wife Helen and their two kids. Mark is an intelligence officer for SAC (Strategic Air Command). One day, Randy receives a telegram from Mark that reads, “Alas, Babylon.” It’s code from their childhood. Mark and Randy used to listen to their next-door neighbor “Preacher,” patriarch of the Henry family, punctuate his impassioned sermons with these two words. And Randy immediately knows what Mark is trying to tell him...nuclear war is imminent.

Mark’s family rushes to live with Randy at the family home while Mark goes “into the hole” to plan the US’ military strategy. Randy gathers goods and tells trusted friends about Mark’s warning, including his girlfriend and the Henrys next door. Almost immediately after Helen Bragg and the kids arrive, “The Day” (as it is referred to by the characters thereafter) takes place and civilization falls apart. In particular, the strategic bombing of Orlando by the Russians cuts off Fort Repose from the rest of the United States--what’s left of it--and the town quickly slips into a more primitive state. Bartering becomes the norm, governance comes at the end of a gun, and goods become extremely scarce. Luckily, Randy builds a small community of good people around himself. The Henrys grow citrus crop and raise hogs, there’s fishing from the stream just outside his home, and the group receives periodic updates from the shortwave operated by the retired admiral who lives just down the road. Add to this clan a librarian, Randy’s girlfriend and her father, the local telegram operator, and a doctor, and you’ve got a group of about fifteen that can fend for themselves...until they run out of fuel, salt, and eyeglasses. Oh, and throw in a little radioactivity and ruthless highwaymen, just to make things interesting for them.

But all of this has got me thinking, is David Pringle obsessed with catastrophe and social rebuilding? Because there’s been an awful lot of it on this list so far.

HarperCollins keeps this Cold War classic in print.

PS One of my favorite things about YouTube (really?) are all these high school kids making films about books they've read for class. Alas, Babylon is no exception...

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Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes

TV writer and essayist Jon Ronson was given quite an opportunity after Stanley Kubrick’s death; he was allowed to go through the renowned American director’s “boxes”---decades worth of intense research material Kubrick collected (and never got rid of) for all his projects, kept meticulously organized at his English estate. The boxes contain everything from photo stills of doors, architecture, and possible droog hats to fan mail, both praising and cranky, organized by city of origin (!). Ronson has now made a fifty-minute documentary musing about the four five years he spent going through the boxes. The end result both illuminates and enhances the enigma that was Stanley Kubrick. Enjoy.

PS I recommend reading Ronson's The Men Who Stare at Goats, which is a romp through the history of the American military's obsession with the paranormal.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Klaatu, say it ain’t barada nikto!

For the most part, Hollywood does what Hollywood does and I just shrug. Other than avoid their rehashed hash as much as possible, what can I do? It has gotten to the point where Hollywood produces close to zero original screenplays. Instead, it mines old movies, tv shows, even Disney amusement park rides for source material. It seems to me, coming from the perspective of a soon-to-be-no-more bookseller, that a lot of novelists are even writing their books as first drafts of screenplays. I’m sure Chuck Palahniuk is already exercising his vocal chords for his eventual commentary track on the special edition DVD release of Choke---a film that hasn’t even hit the theaters yet. Anyway, enter The Day the Earth Stood Still, starring **shudder** the Keanu. Keanu is fine and all in certain roles, such as Neo, but as Klaatu? Really?

The original TDESS is with no doubt one of the greatest science fiction films ever made. The story of space traveler Klaatu arriving on Earth to warn us that our flirtation with insanity (i.e., nuclear armament and war paranoia) had consequences that the rest of the universe could not ignore was a paradigm shift for sf filmmaking. No tentacled, Earth-women-lusting, monstrously strong aliens here. Klaatu is a messenger of peace; the villains are us. This point is tragically made in one of the very first scenes of the movie. Klaatu holds a small metallic device in his hand as he first steps out of his spaceship. A young solider assumes it is a weapon and fires on Klaatu, and the device is destroyed. Klaatu sadly explains that it was a gift for the president and was a machine that could help humans study life on other planets. As the movie continues, Klaatu refuses to negotiate only with the US (or the USSR for that matter) just because of its military might and economic superiority. Rather, he demands conference with humanity as a whole. In the end, the only way he is able to achieve this is by addressing a collection of the world’s leading scientists---and not only ones with white faces (this was 1951 mind you). It's a truly moving film that came out at just the beginning of H-bomb paranoia.

Granted, the 1951 Robert Wise film itself was an adapted screenplay, based on the short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates, but the film stands on its own and is significantly different from the original story in many ways (including nixing the twist ending). I’m sure this new version will also be significantly different from the previous film. For instance, the Keanu-as-Klaatu version will be dreadful. We’ll see if I’m wrong.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Colbert Green Screen Winner

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Thomas Michael Disch, 1940-2008

Tom Disch committed suicide on July 4.

I haven’t been able to get that sentence out of my head the last few days. I didn’t know the man personally and I can’t even begin to understand what pain he must have been going through to take that action, but I respected the hell out of his writing and the whole thing makes me really, really sad. One of the strongest, most thoughtful voices of the New Wave is gone.

Disch didn’t only wear an sf hat, he was also a poet, essayist, and children’s book author. He wore an image of a tough-as-nails New Yorker, though he was born and raised in the Midwest. He’s probably best known for Camp Concentration and 334 (both of which appear on Pringle’s list, along with On Wings of Song), two pieces of literature I’d gladly put in the hands of any reader. But my favorite book by him is his first novel, The Genocides. On the face of it, it’s just a simple horror fantasy about giant plants taking over the Earth. Underneath that, a brilliant study of human nature and our relationship to the environment lurks--Disch was always a cogent critic of society and culture. He even took sf as a whole to task in Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, one of the best social histories/critiques of the genre I’ve ever read, if rather angry and presumptuous at times.

In the last years, Disch was a moody, darkly insightful writer on his web journal Endzone. And friends have suggested that he was particularly so because of the death of his longtime partner Charles Naylor in 2005. He was apparently living a meager life in a rent-controlled apartment in New York when he took his life. I don’t know what else to say. The whole thing just sucks.

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