Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Fifteen

Robot Monster

One recurring theme in the original Star Trek is the machine or computer as the enemy of human beings. At least seventeen of the seventy-nine episodes play on some variation of that theme. Today's episode of This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow, called "Captain Kirk vs. the Internet," does as well, just in time for this article.

Machines and computers have been the enemy in lots of TV shows, movies, and science fiction stories. There were even machine-monsters on the cover of Weird Tales. I'm still on the trail of a monster for the twenty-first century, a monster I think could be a hybrid. Machines and computers may contribute some genetic material to that hybrid.

Metropolis (1927), one of the earliest science fiction movies, is many things, one of which is an industrial dystopia in which men are made parts of their machines. The inventor Rotwang creates a robot double for the heroine Maria. The double, called a Maschinenmensch (Machine-man), is sort of an evil twin. She is also the first robot in movies. Although there had been machine-men in popular culture before 1927, the word robot itself was then new, having been introduced to the world in Karel Čapek's 1921 play R.U.R. The title stands for Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The word robot refers to forced labor or serfdom and comes from the word rab or "slave." The robot is the first of two monsters that began as a slave but has since turned the tables on humanity. The other is the zombie, a monster for another posting.

There have been lots of robots, androids, cyborgs, machines, and computers to assume the role of the monster or the enemy of humanity. A short list:
  • Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks--Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966)
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  • Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
  • Westworld (1973)
  • The Stepford Wives (1975)
  • The Black Hole (1979)
  • Blade Runner (1982)
  • The Terminator (1984), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
  • The Matrix (1999), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), and The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
The title of this posting comes from the 1953 "classic," Robot Monster.

The machine-monster plays the same roles that flesh-and-blood monsters play: as the alien invader (Daleks), the psychotic killer (HAL 9000; the Gunslinger from Westworld), the totalitarian (Colossus), the seeming human that passes among us but is not one of us (the Stepford Wives; the androids from Blade Runner), the demon or devil (Maximillian from The Black Hole), and the ruler over a dystopian future (The Terminator movies and The Matrix movies). In Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), the crew of the Enterprise encounter the Borg, machine-monsters capable of recruiting new members to their collective. In that, the Borg aren't very much different from the vampires in I Am Legend, the Pod People in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or the zombies of today. What one of the Pod People says about his own alien and soulless people is just as true for the Borg or today's zombies: "Always more of us, fewer of you."

My sense is that machine-monsters can be effective villains, but that they're only a variation on flesh-and-blood monsters. I wonder if there has ever been a machine-monster that is truly machine-like, truly alien to us, like the planet Solaris is alien. I suspect it's impossible for a machine-monster to be truly alien, because all the things that make a monster monstrous are also within us as human beings. Put another way, a machine has never done anything to us that we have not done to ourselves or to each other.

Machines began as tools or as servants or slaves, like the original roboti. The threat represented by them has always been threefold: that they might rebel and murder us, that our machines might become the masters and we the slaves, and perhaps most significantly, that we might become more like them and less like ourselves. Captain Kirk always fought against the dehumanization and enslavement of human beings by machines and by the human enablers of machines. That's the subject of today's cartoon by Tom Tomorrow. But will Kirk fail this time? Are we not now in the process of dehumanizing and enslaving ourselves and each other with our machines? Are we not creating a dystopian world in which the individual counts for less and less, the Borg collective for more and more? And are we not becoming monsters, making monsters, and recruiting monsters against our own humanity?


Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Fourteen

A Dying Science Fiction

I feel like Michael Douglas' character in Wonder Boys. He types the page numbers 2-6-1, then adds another 1--his novel has grown into a monstrosity of 2,611 pages and there's no end in sight. I have been working on these two series--What Is the Monster of the Twenty-First Century? and A Survey of Monsters--for several months now. I can tell you, there is an end in sight. But first I have to bring in another series . . . 

A few months ago, I looked into this question: Is science fiction dying? I wasn't sure then, and I'm not sure now of the answer. If science fiction isn't dying, it may still be in pretty bad shape. Or maybe what's dying is a certain world of science fiction, that 1940s and 1950s world of a small and devoted (and maybe homogeneous) fandom, a world dominated by a few well-known names (Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Bradbury, etc.), a world in which science fiction magazines hung on the newsstand like ripe fruit from a fecund tree. Now, like everything else, science fiction is extremely varied, each facet has its own well-known names and fanatic devotées, and--while science fiction magazines might be hard to find--science fiction is everywhere and in everything, including our daily lives. As an example, I am writing to you now on a machine of science fiction, while you are reading my words on a machine that is perhaps even more science-fictional.

I'm working with the idea that fantasy (high fantasy, heroic fantasy, weird fiction, supernatural horror, etc.) is a genre of the past, while science fiction is a genre of the future. If fantasy is about the past, it might very easily slip into a chronicle of decadence. Also, if fantasy is about the past, then it might be partly about nostalgia and partly about fear. Science fiction on the other hand is more likely to be progressive, hopeful, and confident--unless of course it's dystopian. Science fiction, at least in its early days, believed that the future was going to be better than the present. It had to be. After all, what we think of as science fiction came out of the Great Depression and the war years, when all its writers came of age and most of its magazines were first established. Finally, in a large part, fantasy is escapist. I imagine that people read Tolkien or Robert E. Howard to escape their own mundane existence and to immerse themselves in a fully imagined world, right down to maps of Middle Earth and of the Hyborean Age. Science fiction on the other hand tends to be about the real world. There is space opera of course, but that amounts to outer space fantasy. (I would not call Star Wars a science fiction movie.) Hard science fiction--the real stuff--takes people of today and puts them into an imagined future to see how they will live. It's why, when you read a science fiction story from the 1950s but set in the future, people smoke cigarettes, talk on the telephone, read the paper, and hand each other written notes, typed files, and so on. Authors of the 1950s did not predict the world of today, but it's a kind of science-fiction illiteracy to believe that science fiction is supposed to be predictive. Prediction is not the point at all. The point is to say something about today, or about the people of today--in other words, the people of all time--by placing them into the future. So if you're looking for the spirit of an age, look at its science fiction (or fiction in general, or more general still, at all of art).

The spirit of an age . . . that's the phrase I have used in looking for the monster of the twenty-first century, for my idea is that the monster of any given age represents the spirit of that age. So what does the science fiction of after the 1950s say about the times in which it was made? The other day, I wrote about Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That's as good a place as any to start.

Released in 1956, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was based on the magazine serial The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney (1954). The serial--soon after a book--is a work of hope and confidence. In the end, humanity wins out and drives the Body Snatchers from Earth by a combination of strength, courage, and determination. The underlying theme is that there is a special humanity, that we possess something that sets us apart in this universe. That confidence and the assertion of a special humanity was still in science fiction as late as the 1960s in the television show Star Trek. More on that in a minute.

In the serial and book The Body Snatchers, there isn't any ambiguity. Instead, ambiguity set in with the screening of the movie, first with the original ending, in which the outcome is so much in question, then with the revised ending, which is more hopeful, but still not entirely happy. After all, Dana Wynter gets turned into a Pod Person. If you want something even less hopeful, watch the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, released in 1978. It's still a very good movie, but the ending is entirely without hope. So what happened between 1954 and 1978? And has very much changed since the 1970s? Those questions are not just about our society. They're also about science fiction, a reflection of every age in which science fiction is written.

You don't even have to stretch it out that far. For example, compare War of the Worlds, from 1953, with Soylent Green from just twenty years later. Both movies end in or in front of a church. War of the Worlds, a movie about strength, courage, and persistence, ends in hope. There is even mention of God and a kind of gratitude for His presence and His wisdom. The monsters in War of the Worlds come from the outside. Contrast that with Soylent Green (1971). Soylent Green is also about real virtues--friendship, a questing for truth and justice--but it is also cynical and dystopian. The monsters are more human than alien. As in the first ending of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you're not quite sure how things are going to turn out with Soylent Green. Gone is the certainty and the special humanity of the 1950s. Now we're merely food for each other.

The Thing from Another World (1951) was also remade, as The Thing, in 1982. The first movie is brimming with confidence in America and in humanity at large. The ending is unambiguous, full of hope and triumph. The ending of the grungy, cynical remake is none of those things. 

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was remade in 2008. The first movie is a sort of warning: we might still save ourselves. The remake reflects the spirit of our age in its hatred for humanity. In Keanu Reeves' version, we are already lost. Only the animals shall be saved.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) was essentially remade as Alien (1979). In the first movie, the monster is the monster. In the second, the monster is a monster but also a kind of red herring, for an earthbound corporation, seeking to retrieve the alien for its own purposes, is the real force behind all the mayhem. In other words, human beings, more specifically corporate  men, are now the enemy. (1, 2)

When Worlds Collide (1951) is full of positive human values. Although the Earth is destroyed (a kind of cruelty), humanity is saved and enters into a new Eden. The movie ends in glorious hope. Melancholia (2011), on the other hand, reflects the moviemaker's despair, his sense of doom, his nihilism, and his hatred for himself and for the rest of humanity. In Melancholia, humanity doesn't do a thing to save itself. We go passively to our destruction, believing we deserve it. It's worth noting here the words of Lars von Trier, the writer and director of Melancholia:
For a long time I thought I was a Jew and I was happy to be a Jew, then I met [Danish and Jewish director] Susanne Bier and I wasn’t so happy. But then I found out I was actually a Nazi. My family were German. And that also gave me some pleasure. What can I say? I understand Hitler . . . I sympathize with him a bit.
The totalitarian monster rears its ugly head.

In the original television show Star Trek (1966-1969), the crew of the Enterprise are confident, hopeful, bold, daring. They are very human, too. They love, they fight, they are warm- and sometimes even hot-blooded. They venture into the unknown galaxy, full of courage and strength. They solve problems. They don't doubt themselves or the rightness of their cause. The crew of the Enterprise under Captain Picard have some of those virtues, though a warm, loving, or emotional nature seems to have been expunged among them. More recently, in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), the crew of the original Enterprise, played by new actors and loose in a new universe, share a great deal with the originals. They're emotional for sure. Every one of them cries like Andrea Martin playing Marsha Mason. But they lack a certain something of the original. That lack reflects the spirit of our age, for the crew in Star Trek Into Darkness don't know how to solve their own problems. They lack confidence in themselves. They run to the old Spock like a child running to his mother. Moreover, they save Khan and his people for a future war because they themselves realize that these people from an earlier era have something that the people of Captain Kirk's time lack. In other words, the people of the Federation and the Federation itself have become decadent, as we in our own times have become decadent. They seem on the verge of giving up the cause of freedom and of embracing totalitarianism. Their Nazi-like uniforms are emblematic of that. Into darkness indeed.

After World War II, science fiction promised so much. It promised a better world, with limitless atomic energy, universal prosperity, distant horizons, a united humanity, an end to war, and because of all that, greater human happiness. In the seven decades since, science has achieved wonders, yet we have also had Chernobyl and Fukushima, intractable poverty, an end to American manned spaceflight (we now rely on the Russians, i.e., the Klingons, to get us into space), an evermore Balkanized humanity, and a continuation of our warring ways. I would hazard a guess that people are no happier now than they have ever been, and in some ways are probably a good deal less so. We are cynical, disillusioned, and in despair. We hate ourselves and each other. Science has proved a disappointment. It has failed to give us everything we thought it would give. We believe that the future will be worse than the past. It's no wonder that so much science fiction of today is dystopian or post-apocolyptic, and why people want to escape in fantasy to an imagined past. If science fiction is dying, it may be only because we have lost hope.

Without hope among humanity and without a vision of a better future through science, science fiction can hardly hope to survive. The props and the themes of science fiction permeate our society and culture. They aren't going away. The monster of the twenty-first century would reflect all that. For instance, the monster of our times might be explained in scientific or material terms rather than by some supernatural agency. But I don't think the monster of our times can be a purely science-ficitional monster. The cryptid monster is gone. The science fiction monster is still with us. But I think it's a hybrid, made for our decadent, cynical, and nihilistic age.

Notes
(1) The theme is repeated in Aliens (1986) and in Avatar (2009), otherwise known as Dances with Smurfs and Ferngully in Space. Both are from director James Cameron, who has enriched himself through the same kind of corporations he has demonized in his movies. He and Al Gore must be pals. But you have to understand, rules and policies are made for you, not for them. Or as the saying goes, some animals are more equal than others.
(2) To read more on the idea of corporate dystopia, see:
Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, September 8, 2014

Demon Barbers

I have wondered about the first psychopathic killer and the first totalitarian in literature. I have candidates for both now. First the killer.

A story has come out that the identity of Jack the Ripper is now revealed. The suspect was named Aaron Kosminski, and he was a Polish-Jewish émigré to London. (1) Forensic evidence unavailable at the time supposedly places him at the scene of the murder of Catherine Eddowes, on September 30, 1888. Kosminski was a prime suspect at the time, so today's allegations aren't new. I'm not a Ripperologist, so I can't say how sound the case against Kosminski might be. He was without a doubt mentally ill and died in an insane asylum on March 24, 1919. Whether he was in fact Jack the Ripper is another story.

Aaron Kosminski worked as a barber, but he wasn't the first tonsorial specialist to terrorize London. That honor is reserved for Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Sweeney Todd as we know him today is a fictional character, but he was supposedly based on a real person. According to Wikipedia, "Sweeney Todd first appeared in a story titled The String of Pearls: A Romance," a penny dreadful published in serialized form in eighteen issues of The People's Periodical and Family Library, from November 21, 1846, to March 20, 1847 (numbers 7 through 24). The murderer's modus operandi is to drop his victims through a trap door into the basement of his shop. If the fall doesn't kill them, Sweeney does so by slitting their throats with a razor. Once relieved of their valuables, victims are cut apart and baked into meat pies by Sweeney's associate, Mrs. Lovett. The story of a murderous barber and cannibal pie-making goes back before 1847, but Sweeney's story is the one everyone knows. It has been adapted to stage and to song, as well as to books, movies, radio, television, and comic books over the last 167 years.

Sweeney Todd has all the makings of a psychopathic serial killer. Although he appeared forty years before Jack the Ripper and forty-five before H.H. Holmes, he is still of the nineteenth century and still of the city. He is the earliest psychopath that I have found in literature. I can't rule out that there was an earlier example, but if there was, it could not have been very much earlier. For one, the psychopath is a character of popular fiction, and popular fiction isn't very much older than the nineteenth century. For another, the psychopath as we know him is an inhabitant of the modern city, which also isn't very much older than the nineteenth century.

***

It's worth noting that the barber was traditionally not only a person who cut hair and beards, but also a surgeon, a dentist, and--by our terms--a quack doctor. The barber pole, a seemingly innocuous symbol, represents a wrapping of a doctor's bloody bandages. (2) There are those who believe Jack the Ripper to have been a physician or surgeon. H.H. Holmes passed himself off as a doctor. Josef Mengele was in fact a medical doctor. In my posting of May 12, 2014, I quoted Ivan Turgenev and his book Fathers and Sons (1862):

"For what do you want frogs, barin?" asked one of the lads. 
"To make them useful," replied Bazarov. . . . "You see, I like to open them, and then to observe what their insides are doing. You and I are frogs too, except that we walk upon our hind legs. Thus the operation helps me to understand what is taking place in ourselves." 
"And what good will that do you?" 
"This. That if you should fall sick, and I should have to treat you, I might avoid some mistakes." 
"Then you are a doctor?" 
"I am." (3)

One way of thinking about the psychopath is that he is essentially a materialist, a person who sees human beings as machines and wishes to open us up to see what makes us tick. Every time, the ghost in the machine eludes him, and so he goes on killing. (4)

Notes
(1) If Kosminski was in fact the Ripper, he would have fit the role of the outsider, being a Pole--in other words, an Easterner--and a Jew at a time when both would have been suspect. We should remember that Dracula, from Bram Stoker's novel (1897), was also an Easterner and a killer who moved from the country to the city. In her book Blood Will Tell: Vampires as Political Metaphors (2011), Sara Libby Robinson links fears of vampires to fears of Jews, especially Eastern Jews. One of those links has to do with the accusation that Jews are bloodthirsty, the notorious blood libel that is as old as time and as new as the events of this summer. Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney Todd's associate, is not obviously Jewish; nonetheless, she bakes blood (and meat) into her wares, as Jews have been accused of doing throughout history. Like Mrs. Lovett, some psychopaths of the twentieth century also sold human flesh as meat to their customers. Others consumed that flesh themselves.
(2) The pattern on the barber pole is also a helix, like the caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius, but also like the double helix of the DNA molecule. The men who claim to have identified Aaron Kosminski as Jack the Ripper have used DNA evidence against him. So, live by the helix, die by the helix.
(3) Quoted in Lenin by Michael Morgan (1971), p. 12.
(4) People who believe that aliens are mutilating livestock point to the "surgical" precision of the wounds in question. Maybe aliens don't know what animates life on Earth, either, and are engaged in the same activity as earthly psychopaths.


Text and captions copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Thirteen

Vampires and Body Snatchers

On Friday I wrote about a few science fiction movies from the 1950s. I could hardly do justice to them all. For instance, I didn't mention Forbidden Planet, a 1956 extravaganza from MGM and a forerunner to Star Trek. Like other science fiction movies of the 1950s, Forbidden Planet includes a robot, a flying saucer, the attractive daughter of a widowed scientist, the exploration of another planet, a man-made monster (in the form of Morbius' embodied id), and of course out-of-control technology, which is really just shorthand for an out-of-control humanity. Forbidden Planet is in color, like the TV show Police Squad! from later in Leslie Nielsen's career. The special effects are very good and the monster truly frightening. It's also an intelligent and literate film--more or less The Tempest in outer space--and definitely worth a look.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), one of the best and most significant of 1950s science fiction films, is also conspicuously absent from my posting on Friday. That's for good reason. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a big enough topic for a book. I'm forced here to limit my discussion to a blog entry or two. But I have reached a point where, if I am going to suggest a monster for the twenty-first century, I'll have to talk about Pod People and the movie that made their name a household term. First another digression.

A couple of weeks ago, I read two books in two days, first I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, then The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney. Both stories were first published in 1954, Matheson's work as a paperback original, Finney's as a serial in Collier's magazine. I Am Legend has been adapted to film four times since then, as The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price in 1964, as The Omega Man with Charlton Heston in 1971, as I Am Legend with Will Smith in 2007, and as I Am Omega, a direct-to-video quickie, also in 2007. Richard Matheson was still in his twenties when I Am Legend was published. I haven't read enough of his early work to say, but even in 1954, he had hit upon a theme that would continue in his work for decades to come, that of providing a scientific explanation for what would previously have been in the realm of the supernatural. (1) The monsters in I Am Legend are like the supernatural monsters of the past--the narrator, Robert Neville, calls them vampires--but their condition is explained by bacterial spores carried upon the wind. Little by little, Neville uncovers the chain of events that has led to the current plague and recounts it in his narrative, concluding:
Process complete. 
And all without blood-eyed vampires hovering over the heroines' beds. All without bats fluttering against estate windows, all without the supernatural. (2)
Like Fritz Leiber, Jr. in his stories of the early forties, Richard Matheson had struck upon the problem of the weird tale, namely, how to keep it relevant in an age of science. His solution was to have human beings transformed into monsters by the actions of mere microbes. (3) 

The scientific explanation for a phenomenon previously thought supernatural was not necessarily an innovation. However, there was something new in I Am Legend--or at least I think it was new. In the movie It Came from Outer Space (1953), monsters from outer space disguise themselves as human. They pass among us, but they are unable to duplicate the human personality. They are without emotion; their voices are without inflection. They are also limited in that they don't readily increase in number. In other words, they can't recruit new members. In I Am Legend, the process is reversed. In that book, human beings have become monsters, leaving behind everything that makes them human. There is no love or emotion, only the desire to feed upon living things. What's worse, their numbers increase in the way that a rampant disease increases. In other words, the vampires in I Am Legend are capable of recruiting new members, potentially at an exponential rate. Their numbers are limited only by the number of living, breathing human beings who remain. Sound familiar?

Like I Am LegendThe Body Snatchers has been adapted to film four times, in 1956, 1978, 1993, and 2007. The first two adaptations came under the title Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The book is somewhat different from the first movie. At the end of the book (spoiler alert), the pod creatures leave "a fierce and inhospitable planet," i.e., Earth. That fierceness is in the human beings who have resisted them, those "who had fought, struggled, and simply refused to give up." The narrator, Miles Bennell continues:
. . . a fragment of a wartime speech moved through my mind: We shall fight them in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight them in the hills; we shall never surrender. True then for one race, it was always true for the whole human race, and I understood that nothing in the whole vast universe could ever defeat us. (4)
That is clearly an expression not only of fierceness, courage, and strength, but also of hope and confidence. It reminds me of so many episodes of Star Trek, which was made of course in an age of confidence and before science fiction began to give way to something else.

The movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not as clearly and unambiguously hopeful. For one, the heroine becomes a Pod Person. For another, the original ending has Miles (Kevin McCarthy) in the roadway, trying to warn humanity of the menace. I have never seen that version of the movie, but I presume that it ends with Miles looking directly into the camera, yelling, "You're next! You're next!" The more conventional ending is part of a framing device added after the main filming was completed. Though still somewhat ambiguous, it is far more hopeful.

Like I Am Legend, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a story of the great masses of humanity being turned into monsters--not bloodsucking, flesh-eating monsters, but monsters nonetheless. The movie emphasizes more the loss of humanity brought about by being podified versus the book. I think that was a good move on the part of the moviemakers. Also like I Am Legend, the Pod People are capable of increasing their numbers, again at an exponential rate. In short, both stories share certain themes:
  • In both books, there is the threat of a loss of humanity or of human identity, including a loss of emotion, personality, and most importantly a capacity for love.
  • In the novel The Body Snatchers, the Pod People also lose human drive and initiative. Their world begins to decay for lack of any effort to keep things going. Projects go unfinished; streets fall into disrepair; everything becomes seedy and run-down. I Am Legend is of course set in a rapidly decaying, post-apocolyptic world. In a word, there is decadence in both.
  • In both books, there is a struggle among those who remain to survive, to resist, to assert their humanity and their individual identities in the face of monsters that would subsume them.
  • Similarly, in both books, human beings must face the threat of becoming just one among the undifferentiated masses, all equally soulless, all equally without individuality or identity.
  • Finally, in both books, those masses are able to recruit new members at ever-increasing rates: "'. . . those who were changed recruited others, usually their own families . . . .'" and "'. . . it's an accelerating process, ever faster, always more of us, fewer of you . . . .'"  (5)
In short, in I Am Legend and The Body Snatchers, the fear is that the individual will lose his humanity and his individual identity, thereby becoming one among a mass of monsters that look like human beings but clearly are not.

Apologists for socialism, communism, and other forms of statism like to say that the book 1984 is a satire of a gray and economically austere postwar Britain. Likewise, they spout that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is about conformity and McCarthyism in 1950s America. I'll say this: it should be clear to any thinking person that 1984, first published in 1948, is a piercing description, critique, and warning of totalitarianism. (6) It's less clear to me that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is allegorical in any particular way. Rather, I think it's about something larger than conformity, McCarthyism, the 1950s "organization man," Cold War paranoia, Stalinism, or communism. In 1953, when the story was first serialized, World War II was only eight years past and the Cold War was on. Although nazism and fascism had been defeated, communism, in which the individual is reduced to a cipher, undifferentiated among the masses, was still a very real threat. It was expanding as well, into China, Eastern Europe, and other places, all at alarming rates. "Always more of us, fewer of you" would have been a very real fear among the free people of the world, those who had not yet been podified or zombified. In North Korea, perhaps for the first time, American soldiers encountered a mass enemy in the Chinese. I'm not sure that at any time before or since, we saw anything as much like masses of advancing zombies, vampires, or aliens as we saw in the Chinese offensive of 1951-1952. In 1951, Eric Hoffer described and diagnosed the problem of mass man and mass movements in The True Believer. To read it, and to read history and now contemporary events, you can't help but see that there is a desire among men to give up their identities, to lose themselves among the masses, and to recruit still more men to be their co-religionists. And when they do, as in Iraq and Syria today, they almost always make themselves into monsters.

Notes
(2) From the Berkeley Medallion edition (1971), p. 86.
(3) A far cry from The War of the Worlds (1953), in which bacteria save humanity from the invading Martians.
(4) From the Dell edition (1967), pp. 188-189.
(5) Pp. 159-160 and 163.
(6) Invasion of the Body Snatchers ends with a warning as well: "You're next! You're next!" The original role of the monster was to serve as a warning, to let us know that something has gone wrong, that the universe is out of order.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Twelve

Science Fiction Movies: Boom

Margaret Atwood famously (or infamously) said that science fiction is "talking squids from outer space." That's a strange construction considering that it comes from a writer of science fiction. Ms. Atwood would claim, of course, that she doesn't write science fiction, that she is instead a writer of "speculative fiction." In that, she may just be following the lead of Judith Merril and other postwar writers. Or maybe she has a kind of school-marmish distaste for the things boys like. After all, the popular view is that science fiction (in its early days at least) was a man's genre, or worse yet, something for twelve-year-old boys. Only after the war did it become more serious, hence more "significant." That's when Judith Merril got ahold of it anyway. (1)

In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the popular audience would probably have agreed with Ms. Atwood about science fiction, that it's about rocket ships, blasters, interplanetary travel, little green men, bug-eyed monsters, and other such things. There were science fiction movies before the war. Frankenstein (1931) is an obvious example, but Frankenstein is more horror than science fiction. Usually when we think of science fiction in the movies, we start after that, with Things to Come (1936) perhaps, more likely with movies of the postwar. Some of the common themes of those postwar movies are alien invasion, interplanetary (or interstellar) exploration, out-of-control science and technology (usually atomic power), and a loss of human identity. And among all that, there were lots of monsters.

If we can believe Wikipedia, the first Universal science fiction monster movie of the 1950s was It Came from Outer Space, from 1953. Though filmed in black and white, the film is--like Creature from the Black Lagoon--in 3-D. Both movies were directed by Jack Arnold. Despite the lurid title, It Came from Outer Space is an intelligent and well-done movie. It has touches of Ray Bradbury's poetic writing (the movie was based on his story) and some very creepy and frightening scenes. The scene in the alleyway is particularly memorable, as is the scene in the cave with the pencil laser that slices through rock as if it were whipped cream. But then, just when you're starting to build a case for seriousness or at least quality in science fiction, you get to the monster, which is more or less a talking squid from outer space. Margaret Atwood would say, "See, I told you so!" The monster doesn't matter, though. It Came from Outer Space is not some simplistic science fiction monster movie thriller. On the contrary, it's a serious and thought-provoking--though admittedly small--film. It also touches upon a theme that has become central to the question of a monster for the twenty-first century, namely, that of the monster who is disguised as a human being and who passes among us, but lacks emotion, a capacity for love, or a human identity.

***

It Came from Outer Space was not the first American science fiction movie of the postwar. I won't try to identify the holder of that honor. Instead I'll just list some films from that golden age of movie science fiction, and give some indication of where they might fall. And I'll disregard serials, stories of Lost Worlds, and movies about pulp-type heroes or superheroes.

First, it's interesting that two of the earliest postwar science fiction movies are about the exploration of space rather than alien invasion or the perils of atomic energy. These were Rocketship X-M and Destination Moon, both from 1950. Maybe ideas take awhile to percolate. Rockets of the V-2 type (1944) are older than atomic bombs (1945), which are in turn older than flying saucers (1947). In any case, in 1951, The Thing from Another World and The Day the Earth Stood Still came out. Both featured flying saucers from outer space, one flown by a monster (The Thing), the other by a Christ-like being (Klaatu). In The Thing, the threat is that we will become simply prey to a bloodsucking super-carrot. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, we are in fact the threat, not only to ourselves, but also to other planets should our technology (in other words, we ourselves) go out of control. And should that happen, a technological monster, Gort, the robot, will himself go out of control and destroy us all. Neither result is very encouraging for the frail human ego.

Five (1951) is supposedly the first movie about a world laid waste by atomic warfare. When Worlds Collide (1951) is also about disaster, but is far more hopeful. In it, salvation comes because of the indomitable human spirit and our use of technology. The War of the Worlds (1953), one of the best of the alien invasion movies, is also hopeful and closes with scenes in a church. Unlike When Worlds Collide, our technology is useless before the Martian menace. The Martians are instead defeated by microbes, placed here, the narrator tells us, by God "in His infinite wisdom," a message you would hardly hope to hear in a movie of today. This Island Earth (1955), another Jack Arnold film from Universal Pictures, also carries a message of hope. Although it includes flying saucers, super technology, bizarre aliens, spectacular interplanetary scenery, and a crab-clawed monster with a rugose cranium, This Island Earth is not a some simple science fiction adventure. It is instead--and not at first glance--a sort of rumination on what makes us human, and because we are human, what gives us strength, courage, and a kind of heroic quality.

There were still more science fiction movies in the 1950s, more each year as the decade wore on, more featuring monsters of a type I have already described as the science-fictional monster: the space alien, the manmade monster (i.e., robot, mutant, etc.), the degenerate human, the cryptozoological creature, and so on. Monsters awakened by atomic bomb blasts or generated by atomic radiation proliferated. Some of the movies in which they appeared, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) or Them! (1954) for example, have become classics. Some science fiction movies of the 1950s were serious and significant in one way or another. Others were mere entertainments. Most ended with a message of hope. That is to be expected in movies from the 1950s and before. But hope is also about the future, as is science fiction. The end of the Great Depression and the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II would have given the people of the postwar world hope. So, too, would advances in science and technology. They would also have enjoyed a renewed vigor, for America was alone as an advanced and prosperous technological nation. Those vitues--hope, strength, courage, vigor (or vigah, as John Kennedy would say)--put Americans on the moon and the U.S.S. Enterprise at the edge of the galaxy. But there was a worm in the apple, and science fiction--a reflection of our society--went into decline. Or, to use a adjective from earlier in this series, our society became--has become--more decadent. (2)

Notes
(1) I'm reminded of a quote from and about the newspaper cartoonist Lillian Weckner Meisner:
She [Meisner] is critical of editorial cartoonists who are amusing but fail to make a "real statement," and she has called such cartoonists "little boys" who like to draw funny pictures because they do not have to be realistic.
--from "Seven Cartoonists" by Lucy Caswell Shelton in
The 1989 Festival of Cartoon Art (1989)

The implication is that whatever form or genre it might be, it should be taken away from people who are having fun with it and given to the people who are "serious" about it, hence "speculative fiction" or "SF" instead of science fiction, "real statement[s]" instead of "funny pictures," and "graphic novels" instead of mere comic books.
(2) An example of decay in science fiction movies of the 1950s: the decade ended with the release of Plan 9 from Outer Space. Described as one of the worst movies ever made, Plan 9 has some enjoyable aspects--enjoyable in a terrible way, I guess. I'm not sure that it's worse than Battlefield Earth (2000), which I haven't seen, or A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (2005), a fascinatingly bad movie, so bad that you can't turn your eyes from it, like a horrible, gory trainwreck. By the way, Plan 9 from Outer Space was released ten years almost to the day before the first moon landing.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Eleven

Hope, Fear, and The Science Fiction Monster

According to Wikipedia, the last Universal monster movie of the 1940s was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, from 1948. That may have been the only Universal monster movie of the 1940s made entirely after the war. After a gap of three years, Bud and Lou returned in the first Universal monster movie of the 1950s, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, from 1951. After a couple of standard horror/thriller/mystery movies (1), Universal finally released its first science fiction monster movie, It Came from Outer Space, in 1953. Abbott and Costello would return for a couple of more movies, paired with the Universal monsters of old. Otherwise, all but two of the Universal monster movies of the 1950s were actually science fiction monster movies. (2)

You might say popular culture lives and dies by imitation. What is popular today is gone tomorrow. In the meantime, there are piles of money to be made by following fads and trends. But there is a difference between a trend or a fad and a cultural development of some significance. For example, science fiction monsters were extremely popular in the 1950s, almost to the exclusion of supernatural monsters. Faddishness and imitation were obviously at work, but I think there was something more to it than that. There is reason to believe that the science-fictional monster was in reality the monster of its time and represented the spirit of its age.

So what was that spirit? I wasn't alive then. I can't say for sure. But as the outcome of World War II became more and more certain, people began having hope again. They began talking about what they would do after the war. In other words, they began looking to the future.

There was reason for hope, too. Though most of the world lay in ruins, the United States was largely untouched (except for hundreds of thousands of missing and maimed men). After a decade and a half of economic privation, Americans were ready to get back to work, to marry and raise families, to live more normal lives. They could be excused for not wanting to look back. (3) The war years also brought on scientific and technological advances, every one of which had applications in civilian life. Not only would postwar life be better in economic terms, it would also be materially better, because of automation, because of improvements in electronics, transportation, energy, and so on. Two wartime developments were of special interest to storytellers and moviemakers. After the war, they helped boost science fiction out of the pulp jungle and into the mainstream. Those two developments were rockets and atomic power.

I have tried to make the point that supernatural horror is the fantasy of the past and of nostalgia (3), while science fiction is the fantasy of the future and of hope (or, on the other hand, dystopia). After World War II, Americans turned from the past and to the future. As a consequence, I think, science fiction took off, for it had become obvious that science fiction wasn't just a bunch of Buck Rogers stuff. It was real. Rockets falling on London and atomic bombs dropping on Japan proved that. Science had provided horrors in a world at war. The hope--and vision--was that after the war, it would provide equal wonders.

If you look at science fiction movies of the postwar period, from the late 1940s and into the 1950s, you're likely to notice a pattern, or maybe three patterns. The development of real-life rockets during that time suggested that we would soon put a man into space, and perhaps not long after that, on the moon or on other planets. What would we find there? Would the moon or other planets be inhabited? And if we could send a man into space, couldn't somebody from another planet come here? The flying saucer craze, which began sixty-seven years ago this summer, only fed that curiosity and those fears.

This summer marks another anniversary: sixty-nine years ago, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, and a new age was born. Controlled atomic power promised a world with virtually unlimited energy. Uncontrolled, it was likely to be the end of us. That, too, fed fears.

In 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first bomb. By then, a Cold War was on between the West and East, the latter a euphemism for the Soviet Union, its satellites, and--before the year was up--Red China. I have already written about communism as a type of totalitarianism. The threat represented by communism was (and is) not simply military or political. It was (and is) also intellectual and spiritual. In fact it goes to central questions of what it is to be a human being. People in the postwar era would have understood that, and even if they didn't at some conscious level, they could see it at the level of the unconscious. Whatever the case--and despite the decline of the supernatural monster--there were still fears, fears of the unknown outer reaches of space, of atomic energy gone out of control, of the dehumanization, regimentation, and soullessness of totalitarian society. Even after the defeat of fascism, nazism, and militarism, there were still fears, and because there were still fears, there would still be monsters.  

To be continued . . .

Notes
(1) The Strange Door (1951) and The Black Castle (1952).
(2) They were Cult of the Cobra (1955) and Curse of the Undead (1959). Again, this is by Wikipedia's list.
(3) I remember many years ago being at a buffet restaurant and hearing an older woman turn down macaroni and cheese. "That's Depression food," she said. It was something from the distant past and she didn't want any part of it.
(4) As are weird fiction, heroic fantasy, high fantasy (like Lord of the Rings), and related genres. Weird Tales dealt in those genres. In the 1940s and '50s, it was virtually alone among an ever-growing number of science fiction magazines in the United States.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Ten

The End of the Cryptid

I'm looking for the monster of the twenty-first century. By using the Cat in the Hat's process of calculatus eliminatus, I hope to strike one type of monster off the list.

The Gill-man from Creature from the Black Lagoon is a cryptozoological monster and one of the first new Universal monsters of the 1950s. By the time the movie was released in 1954, supernatural monsters were being displaced by scientific monsters. There are probably several reasons for that. I would chalk it up to the scientific and technological advances of World War II, the coming of the flying saucers, and the postwar popularity of science fiction, among other things. In any case, the Gill-man wasn't the first of his type. King Kong is also a cryptozoological monster, as is Godzilla. Like so many monsters of the 1950s, Godzilla's origins are tied up with the use of atomic weapons and atomic power. More on that in the future.

Originally, monsters were from the outside. They lived in the wilderness, in dark forests, deep caves, dank jungles, dusty ruins. They inhabited all the darkened, outer places and came no closer than the edge of the firelight or lamplight. Like the monsters of old, the cryptozoological monster is a monster from the outside. The problem for him is that civilization is pressing in upon him, and he has very little power to resist. There is very little left of the outer edge. There is no outside anymore. Some monsters have adapted by entering the city gates and by passing among us. The cryptozoological monster, by his very nature, can't do that. Like the dodo and the passenger pigeon, his days are numbered.

Cryptozoological monsters had a good run for awhile. Before the 1950s, Bigfoot was kind of just a foot. Only later did he became Big. Roger Patterson shot his famous footage (or should that be Bigfootage?) in 1967. Nine years later, Bigfoot appeared in The Six Million Dollar Man (featuring a character who, like Bob Heironimus, the guy in the ape suit in Patterson's film, had an artificial eye). In 1987, Bigfoot starred in his own movie, Harry and the Hendersons. Like E.T. (1982), he had become a child's friend rather than a menacing monster. By then we were beginning to recognize the limits of the monster's powers and to lament the loss of something vital or necessary in our lives. Lost Worlds are called that because they are hidden, secret, lost from the outside world. We might also call them lost because they are disappearing, a thing of the past, a subject for nostalgia.

There were other cryptid monsters in the 1970s. The outsized great white shark from Jaws (1975) is an obvious example. There were two sequels to Jaws, plus lots of other movies trying to cash in on its success. They included, from 1976: Eaten Alive (crocodile), Grizzly (an 18-foot-tall bear), Rattlers (rattlesnakes), and Squirm (worms); from 1977: Day of the Animals, Empire of the Ants, Kingdom of the Spiders, Orca: The Killer Whale, The Pack (feral dogs), and Tentacles (octopus); and, from 1978: Piranha, and, in a sign that the trend was coming to its end, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. You might say the animal-attack movies of the 1970s were related to environmentalism and a new ecological consciousness (again, a feeling that something was lost), but the fan of cryptozoology can claim them as well.

In the 1920s and '30s, Aldo Leopold began developing the concept of wilderness. Today we have areas designated as wildernesses in our national parks and forests. I like the idea of wilderness, but it seems strange to me that a wilderness has become a geographic unit rather than an actuality. After all, doesn't a true wilderness draw a line around you rather than the other way around? To put it another way, we exist at the pleasure of a true wilderness, not vice versa. If the cryptozoological monster is a creature of the wilderness, then it, too, has been circumscribed. Like Harry from Harry and the Hendersons, it can no longer be a threat and is no candidate for the monster of our times.

Copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley