Saturday, November 28, 2015

First Contacts with Things from Other Worlds

I have watched several movies in the past few days, most old, one new. The first and the last are of special interest here.

Star Trek: First Contact (1996)--I never cared much for Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I liked Star Trek: First Contact, the second movie with the new crew. I don't remember much about the Borg episodes from the TV show, so I wasn't sure about the setup. After a while, though, the movie began to hold up on its own. One of the themes of First Contact is a theme I have gone back to again and again. It involves totalitarianism, utopianism, and the loss of individual identity and autonomy. It also involves the meaning and significance in our culture of zombies. Interestingly, Alfre Woodard's character in Star Trek: First Contact refers to the Borg as zombies. I take that as evidence that these two ideas--zombies and totalitarianism or utopianism--are connected.

The Borg are a mass who have become mechanized and dehumanized. They are undifferentiated and totally conformist units of a hive-like society. The Borg queen, who has her own personality and individual identity, is an exception. I'm not sure that her individuality is satisfactorily explained in the movie. In the real world, the explanation is simple enough: the totalitarian ruler always exempts himself from his own system. Anyway, the Borg queen says more than once that the goal of the Borg is perfection, thus identifying herself and her minions with all the leftist causes that have created so much misery for us in the real world since 1789, and especially since 1917. The irony is that members of the Federation are in pursuit of their own brand of perfection, as Captain Picard makes clear in the movie. So what exactly separates them from the Borg? Is it a separation only by degree and not by kind? I'm not sure, but I am reminded of a realization that came to me a few years ago.

When I was in high school, I read and liked Randall Jarrell's poem, "Death of a Ball Turret Gunner":

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters. 
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Although I liked the poem, the first line always bothered me, specifically the part about falling "into the State." I think of the Western Allies as being the good guys in World War II. The statist regimes of Germany, Italy, and Japan were the enemy. Statist regimes, in the form of the U.S.S.R., Communist China, and their satellites, would continue to be the enemy after the war. Only later did I realize that World War II was one fought among statist regimes. On all sides, there were planned and centrally-controlled economies, total mobilization, total commitment of national resources to the war effort, total war of State against State (and the concomitant death and destruction that entails), curtailment of rights and freedoms, and so on. We even had in this country concentration camps to which American citizens were sent against their will. Yes, we were the good guys, but the United States was also a statist power. The statist tide has never really receded here.

So in getting back to Star Trek, I guess the question is one that others before me and besides me have asked: Is Star Trek fascist? The implied accusation--that Star Trek is in fact fascist--is a little off the mark, as fascism resides under the overarching ideas of socialism and statism, as do nazism and communism. The proper questionIs Star Trek statist? That question eliminates the ideological angle and gets to the heart of the matter. If you have watched Star Trek: First Contact and have realized that the Federation is utopian in its aims just as the Borg Collective is utopian, then you may have your answer. And if you have seen Star Trek Into Darkness, you're likely to reply to the question with an unequivocal Yes.

The Thing (1982)--The Thing is a combination remake/sequel of the original movie from 1951. It looks like science fiction, but it's really a horror movie designed for maximum gross-out effect. Still, it's intriguing, suspenseful, scary, and engrossing (no pun intended). I can see influences of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, and even And Then There Were None. I can also see the influence of At the Mountains of Madness, a novella by H.P. Lovecraft published in Astounding Stories as a serial in February, March, and April 1936. John W. Campbell, Jr., later editor of Astounding, famously disliked the Weird Tales-style story. However, it seems extremely unlikely to me that he was unaware of At the Mountains of Madness, or that he was unaffected by it when he wrote his own novella of Antarctica, Who Goes There?, upon which The Thing was based. Incidentally, Who Goes There? was published in Astounding in August 1938, a little more than two years after Lovecraft's story had appeared in the magazine's pages.

Finally, my two friends are nervous about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I don't understand why exactly. I'm not at all nervous, and the reason is simple: The worst Star Wars movie has already been made. I would say to everyone: Let your minds be at ease.

Nineteen days to go.

Text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Happy Birthday, General Relativity!

The modern world began on 29 May 1919 when photographs of a solar eclipse, taken on the island of Principe off West Africa and at Sobral in Brazil, confirmed the truth of a new theory of the universe.
--from Modern Times by Paul Johnson (Harper, 1983)

One hundred years ago today, on November 25, 1915, Albert Einstein presented a paper to the Prussian Academy of Sciences, a paper that set forth a theory that radically remade the world. The theory was General Relativity, and it was confirmed, as Paul Johnson wrote, four years after its presentation, when the light of a distant star was shown to have bent around the sun. People would go on talking about the interstellar ether and other outmoded concepts for years afterwards, but to those who were paying attention to such things, relativity presented new possibilities.

Paul Johnson's thesis is that relativity passed from science into other fields of thought:
At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism. (p. 4)
Coupled to Freudianism, Darwinism, Marxism, and other nineteenth-century isms, relativism helped make the horrors of the twentieth (and twenty-first) century possible. None of that can be laid at Einstein's feet, of course, but the confusion of relativism with relativity is an example of how "[t]he scientific genius impinges on humanity, for good or ill, far more than any statesman or warlord." (p. 5) I might add that the words "scientific moron" or "pseudoscientific genius" might easily be substituted for "scientific genius" in Paul Johnson's formulation.

Relativity opened doors of imagination for writers and artists as well as for scientists and dictators. In January 1919, before the British expedition to the southern hemisphere to take pictures of the solar eclipse, the first magazine devoted to fantasy fiction, Der Orchideengarten, went to press in Einstein's home country of Germany. The Thrill Book, an American magazine, followed in March of that year. Four years later, in March 1923, Weird Tales began. That magazine, "The Unique Magazine," was the first American magazine of its kind. By the time it went into publication, writers, just like the general public, were at least aware of Einstein and his theories, even if they didn't quite understand them. H.P. Lovecraft, an amateur astronomer and a man of great learning, famously mentioned Einstein in his work. So did his followers. "The Whisperer in Darkness" by Lovecraft (Weird Tales, Aug. 1931) and "The Hounds of Tindalos" by Frank Belknap Long, Jr. (Weird Tales, Mar. 1929) are among the stories touching upon Einstein and relativity. Both stories invoke the possibilities of time travel by relativistic physics.

I don't know who was first among Weird Tales writers to mention Einstein and relativity, but future editor Farnsworth Wright is a candidate, for in October 1923, Weird Tales published his story "An Adventure in the Fourth Dimension." It's a humorous story and not one likely to appeal to Lovecraft fans. I won't spoil the ending any more than it's already spoiled. "An Adventure in the Fourth Dimension" was reprinted in The Moon Terror (1927) and The Best of Weird Tales: 1923 (1997).

Since it was first propounded, relativity has made more than horrors possible. It has also helped us make things of elegance and beauty, including works of art. Without it, science fiction would still live in the age of the ether, which was fine in its time, but limited. Now the only limit is c, and even that is no great obstacle to the science fiction imagination. So Happy Birthday to General Relativity!

Further Reading
"H.P. Lovecraft and Albert Einstein," a four-part article on the blog Lovecraftian Science: Scientific Investigations into the Cthulhu Mythos, beginning February 23, 2014, here.

Intellectuals--scientists, writers, college professor types--like to believe that their ideas are important and influential. Too often, they try to make their ideas important by forcing them on to others. Few things enrage them more than being ignored. Einstein was different: people paid attention. But maybe not as much as what he and others thought. Leave it to the cartoonist to puncture intellectual self-importance. That's what Rea Irvin did with this drawing for The New Yorker, reprinted in The Second New Yorker Album (1929).

The first Weird Tales anthology was The Moon Terror by A.G. Birch and Stories by Anthony M. Rud, Vincent Starrett and Farnsworth Wright, published in 1927 by Popular Fiction Publishing of Indianapolis. Among the four stories in the book is "An Adventure in the Fourth Dimension" by Wright, future editor of "The Unique Magazine." The cover artist is unknown. It could very well have been William F. Heitman. 

Wright's story was reprinted seventy years later in The Best of Weird Tales: 1923 (1997). This is the only volume in what looked like it was going to be a series. Someone ought to continue it, but that doesn't seem likely to happen. The cover artist is Stephen Fabian.

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Before Star Trek and Star Wars . . .

. . . there was Weird Tales.

Star Trek and Star Wars are in the news. Earlier this month, CBS Television Studios announced that a new Star Trek television show will begin in January 2017, missing the fiftieth-anniversary year by only a month. That's news enough for Star Trek fans. I'm not sure they care when the show is set or in what universe. (1) Having a new Star Trek television show is probably enough.

I say Star Wars is in the news, but that may not be entirely accurate. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is more like the context in which all other news takes place. Everything on the Internet, on YouTube, on television, and in the stores is Star Wars. I even saw Star Wars Cover Girl makeup on display. I suspect that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will have the biggest opening of any movie ever and that it may very well be the highest grossing movie ever. (We can hope for that if only to knock that excremental film Avatar out of first place.) I needn't remind anyone that Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens on December 18, 2015, thirty-three days from now.

There is nothing new under the sun of course. That is as true of science fiction and fantasy as anything. And so, before there was Star Trek or Star Wars, there was Weird Tales. In April 1925, "The Unique Magazine" published an early entry in the sub-genre of interplanetary adventure, "When the Green Star Waned" by Nictzin Dyalhis. The story concerns a crew of spacefarers who go to the rescue of a planet that has been invaded by creatures from another world. That sounds like a plot from Star Trek, but in this case, the spacefarers are from Venus, the people they rescue are earthlings, and the creatures are from the far side of the moon.

Opinions differ on the quality of "When the Green Star Waned." Readers of Weird Tales loved it, voting it the most popular story of April 1925 and of the year 1925, and the fifth most popular published in the years 1923 to 1940. Everett Bleiler, on the other hand, called it "[d]istasteful and negligible as fiction" while recognizing it as "a seminal work in the history of pulp [science fiction]." (2) The similarities between Dyalhis' story and other genre works are manifest. First, it's a variation on the theme of H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds (1897), though instead of being saved by bacteria, the people of earth are saved by Venerians. Second, according to an always anonymous contributor to Wikipedia, "When the Green Star Waned" was an influence upon Jerry Siegel and his co-creation of Superman. There isn't any substantiation of or citation for that claim. Third, the similarity of the story to the whole concept of Star Trek is unmistakable. Whether Gene Roddenberry read "When the Green Star Waned" is another matter. I doubt that he did. It seems more likely that he worked in the context of 1950s and '60s science fiction in which Dyalhis' ideas had become subsumed and, consequently, anonymous. By the way, Nictzin Dyalhis is credited with coining the word blastor, in Star Trek parlance, phaser.

Or in Star Wars parlance, blaster. Han Solo carried one. He used it to shoot Greedo. And he shot first. (3) The reason Han Solo shot first and did so many other of the things he did is that he is a rogue and an outlaw, a cynical and morally ambiguous anti-hero. In the end, he saves himself and his friends by shucking off some of his cynicism and moral ambiguity. He becomes a straight hero, in the process winning glory, honor, and the heart of the beautiful princess. Star Wars (1977) might be his story as much as it is anyone's. Anyway, there is precedent in science fiction and fantasy for a character like Han Solo. If you're looking for origins, you should probably begin with a character who first appeared in Weird Tales, C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith.

Northwest Smith, like Han Solo, is a spaceship pilot and a smuggler. Also like Han Solo, he has an alien sidekick, in his case, the Venerian Yarol. He gets in and out of scrapes over the course of his career. In his debut appearance, in the short story "Shambleau" in Weird Tales for November 1933, he nearly perishes, wrapped in the tresses of the beautiful, irresistible, and addictive title character. What a way to go. In all, Northwest Smith was in thirteen stories, mostly in Weird Tales. He also got into the imaginations of other writers, including C.L. Moore's friend Leigh Brackett, who created her own interplanetary adventurer in Eric John Stark. Leigh Brackett is also credited as co-screenwriter for The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and so we come full circle, as any traveler of the universe eventually must do.

* * *

Speaking of Star Trek, Star Wars, and precedents: before the Death Star, there was the planet-destroying machine in the Star Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine." Science fiction author Norman Spinrad wrote the episode.

* * *

I like Star Trek. I also like Brazilian music, so I was happy to learn of a connection: the great Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida played guitar on the song "Beyond Antares," sung by Nichelle Nichols on the episode "The Conscience of the King." Almeida's performance was uncredited. The lyrics are by Gene L. Coon:

Beyond Antares
The skies are green and glowing

Where my heart is!

Where my heart is,

Where the scented lunar flower is blooming:

Somewhere, beyond the stars,

Beyond Antares.

I'll be back, though it takes forever:

Forever is just a day!

Forever is just another journey,

Tomorrow a stop along the way.

And let the years go fading

Where my heart is,

Where my heart is!

Where my love eternally is waiting:

Somewhere, beyond the stars,

Beyond Antares . . .

Those words were written of course when men and women still loved each other.

* * *

Here are partial lyrics to another science fiction song:

My heart turns home in longing
Across the voids between,
To know beyond the spaceways
The hills of Earth are green.

They come from the song "The Green Hills of Earth," hummed by Northwest Smith in "Shambleau." C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner put words to the song in their story "Quest of the Starstone" (Weird Tales, Nov. 1937). Robert A. Heinlein later used the title and composed his own lyrics for use in his own stories.

* * *

Finally, in an unrelated matter, mass man--alternatively, the member of a mass movement or the adherent to a mass belief--that potent monster of our times, struck again in Paris last night. Our thoughts are with the people of Paris and of France. In a larger sense, though, we should think of our entire civilization and the threats posed to it, perhaps less by those on the outside than by those on the inside. We should remember two figures from French history, Charles Martel and Marshal P├ętain, and choose which we would prefer to emulate.

(1) Now that J.J. Abrams has spun off a new universe in which stories no longer have to be thoughtful, original, make sense, or cover up planet-sized holes in their plots.
(2) Science-Fiction, The Early Years: A Full Description of More Than 3,000 Science-Fiction Stories from Earliest Times to the Appearance of the Genre Magazines in 1930, with Author, Title, and Motif Indexes (1990), p. 214.
(3) At the Mothman Festival in September, I talked to a couple of men about Splinter of the Mind's Eye by Alan Dean Foster (1978). One had read the book, and though he enjoyed it, he said it isn't "canon." Star Trek fans talk like that, too. I am of the opinion that people who use the word canon in reference to Star Trek or Star Wars ought to be slapped at the very least. Or maybe they ought to be shot out of--or by--a cannon. Jar Jar Binks and Lwaxana Troi, two of the worst characters in the history of literature, are part of the "canon" of their respective universes. According to the "canon" of Star Wars, Greedo shot first. Only George Lucas, who seems to have smoked too much weed in his life, believes that.
Weird Tales, April 1925, with a cover story, "When the Green Star Waned," by Nictzin Dyalhis and cover art by Andrew Brosnatch.
C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith, in a sanitized version on the cover of Northwest of Earth (1954). The cover art is by Ric Binkley.

Text copyright 2015, 2022 Terence E. Hanley