Thursday, July 22, 2021

Return to Utopia

Forrest J Ackerman (1916-2008) is in The Faces of Science Fiction (1984). His statement covers almost an entire page. I'll quote some of it:

I was a secular humanist before I knew the term. I have not believed in God since childhood's end. I believe a belief in any deity is adolescent, shameful and dangerous. [. . .] I am embarrassed to live in a world retaining any faith in church, prayer or a celestial creator. [. . .] My hope for humanity--and I think sensible science fiction has a beneficial influence in that direction--is that one day everyone born will be whole in body and brain, will live a long life free from physical and emotional pain, will participate in a fulfilling way in their contribution to existence, will enjoy true love and friendship [. . . .] I have devoted my life to amassing over a quarter million pieces of sf and fantasy as a present to posterity and I hope to be remembered as an altruist who would have been an acceptable citizen in Utopia. (Emphasis in the original.)

There is a lot to say about the things in that quote and in Ackerman's larger statement. First, there is his seeming sense of superiority, a sense that exists not only in science fiction but also in the world at large, especially among intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals. The Superior Man seems to have been a recurring character in science fiction during the 1930s and '40s, especially in Astounding Science-FictionKarl Marx, another atheist and materialist, believed himself above ordinary men. Curiously, both he and Ackerman died.

Ackerman was a materialist in more ways than one. In his lifetime, he collected a lot of things. The final count may have been a third of a million. Yes, he may have saved those things, but I believe them today to be scattered: Nothing made by man endures. I am reminded of Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias," a poem to which I will soon return:

["]My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!["]
Nothing beside remains.  [. . .]

Nothing that we make, mighty or low, shall remain. That includes big bunches of sci-fi memorabilia.

Ackerman had his hopes for humanity. They are admirable. But why are those hopes only for the future, or more precisely, in the future? Why aren't they now? Why haven't they been in the past? What keeps them from happening? A progressive-minded person--a Marxist for instance--would say that society or the system hasn't and won't allow them. Thus the system must be overthrown and society remade. History--that Irresistible Force--will guarantee a better future.  There is a fierce urgency now, but it will still take some time before we have perfection. And in that time, by the Marxist and socialist formulation and ambition, countless millions will die by deprivation, war, and murder. These things are of course historical necessities.

In his statement, Ackerman claimed wisdom, or at least a hope that he had gained some wisdom in his then sixty-eight years on this earth. But he placed his hopes in a process that is almost certainly illusory. There is no wisdom in believing in it. That process? History, of course, a Force or Forces that are, incidentally, always imprecisely described, always undetectable, always unmeasurable. Progress is another name for it. I'm reminded here of Sidney Harris' cartoon in which a miracle inserted in the right place guarantees that your equation comes out right:

That's the hope and plan of the hard-nosed materialist: that a miracle will occur, human nature will be altered, and we will have a better world as a result. What he, the materialist--Ackerman included--fails to understand is that we will never be whole, we will never be free of pain, we will not always be fulfilled, we will not always have love and friendship, for the world can never be made perfect. Our only chance for having any of these things is to reject atheism and materialism and to seek something greater to fill the hole in our hearts, a hole that always and everywhere has the same shape.

So Ackerman was a utopian. Ironically, he posed for photographer Patti Perret in front of some of his memorabilia for the utopian/dystopian picture Metropolis (1927). I doubt that he was aware of the irony. After all, the Progressive lacks a sense of irony and self-awareness. But as we know, every Utopia is a Dystopia, the reason being that in order for a society to be made perfect, people themselves must be harried into perfection. Only an overarching State can accomplish that--or believes that it can accomplish that--and so the State must be made supreme over the lives of men. So, Metropolis may depict Dystopia, but in its way, it also depicts Utopia: Utopia for the powerful is Dystopia for the rest of us.

Socialists of one stripe might quibble with those of another over the meaning of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Workers in revolt? They are the Proletariat. They are oppressed. Their situation is intolerable and they will have an end to it. This is History in action. . . . Or maybe not. Here is Joseph Goebbels, propagandist for the Nazi party, writing in 1928:

The political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history. In its place advance the oppressed producers of the head and hand, the forces of Labor (Arbeitertum), to begin their historical mission. This is not a matter of wages and hours--though we must not fail to realize that these demands are essential, perhaps the most important single manifestation of the socialist will. More important is the incorporation of a potent, responsible estate (Stand) in the affairs of state, perhaps indeed in the dominant role in the future politics of our fatherland. (Quoted in Hitler's Social Revolution by David Schoenbaum, 2012.)

Note the sophomoric patois of the socialist revolutionary: bourgeoisie, history, oppressed, Labor, historical mission, the socialist will, the future. Always: the Glorious Future. Here is more of Goebbels:

We are not a charitable institution but a Party of revolutionary socialists. (Emphasis added. Also quoted in Mr. Shoenbaum's book, from 1929.)

Before I go on, I must emphasize: Nazis were socialists. They said it themselves. They inserted that word into their own name for themselves. As people would say nowadays, they self-identified as socialists. They were anti-liberal, anti-democracy, anti-capitalist. They wished to create a perfect State and a perfect society, set, of course, in the future. This would be their Thousand-Year Reich. In other words, National Socialists, like their International cousins, were and are essentially utopian in their aims. So enough with the slander that American conservatives have anything to do with Nazis. If anything, it is the American Socialist or Progressive--the anti-liberal, anti-capitalist Progressive--who finds in the Nazi past his or her ideological bedfellow, or at the very least shares in the techniques of Nazism.

A last quote, from Siegfried Kracauer in his book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947, 1971):

In the case of Metropolis, Goebbels's own words bear out the conclusions drawn from this film. Lang relates that immediately after Hitler's rise to power Goebbels sent for him: ". . . he told me that, many years before, he and the Führer had seen my picture Metropolis in a small town, and Hitler had said at that time that he wanted me to make the Nazi pictures." (p. 164; Lang quoted from the New York World Telegram, June 11, 1941.)

Fritz Lang decided instead to flee Utopia, first for France, then for the United States. My hope is that our country will forever be an enemy of socialism in all its forms and consequently of Utopia.

I'm not sure that there is a strong or unequivocal connection to be made between utopianism and Esperanto, but Forrest J Ackerman was both a utopian and an Esperantist. He was fluent in that made-up language and knew its theme song by heart. Here is a pertinent passage:

On a neutral language basis,
understanding one another,
the people will make in agreement
one great family circle.

Wow, what a catchy lyric that is. I sometimes find myself singing it when I'm in the shower or walking down the street or when I'm hanging out with the Lion King on the endless plains of Africa. Anyway, one of the aims of the socialist/statist/progressive/utopian program is the creation of the One State. (That's what Yevgeny Zamyatin called it in We.) All the better if the One State is really just a big, happy family, living together in a great circle of happy happiness. On top of course is a Benefactor or Father Figure (or in our current case, a creepy, befuddled, hair-sniffing Uncle Figure), one who bestows upon us, his children, every material--and therapeutic--blessing and frees us all from our own freedoms.

Like so many pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-historical, pseudo-scientific, pseudo-religious, and otherwise just plain crackpot ideas, Esperanto was invented in the nineteenth century. (The whole idea of it reminds me of Richard Shaver's Mantong.) It caught on during the 1920s and '30s, I think, around the same time as communism, fascism, Taylorism, technocracy, and other cult-like and/or totalitarian belief systems. It seems to have been custom-made for the person who had ceased believing in God but, being human, needed to believe in something larger than himself anyway, in this case a happy circle of humanity. It was perfect, too, for science fiction fans, for here was a language for the future. Perfect for the atheist, perfect for the materialist, perfect for the science fiction fan: perfect for Forrest J Ackerman. Beyond that, made-up stuff, as opposed to things that grow organically and through tradition, is one of the hallmarks of progressivism, for the Progressive despises the past and lives for a better future. That means everything for the future has to be made up because we will destroy everything from the past. Ackerman said it himself in so many words: he was a progressive and believed in a better future.

Guess who else is or was an Esperantist? George Soros. Funny.

I was at a secondhand store on Wednesday this week, July 21. (The birthday of both Ernest Hemingway and a girl I knew in high school.) Strangely enough, I found an Apollo 11 drinking glass, fifty-two years and a day after men first set foot on the moon. The day before, the Bezillionaire blasted off into space in a Tower of Babel built on the flames of a rocketship.* I'm not sure whether that was an homage, a tribute, or something else. Anyway, he's not the worst of the Big Tech moguls, at least I don't think so. In going into space, he seems to be living a lifelong dream. I think we should all be happy with people who do these things. Dreams are made to be lived. Too few are. And after all, it's his money. He gets to do what he wants with it. And before you object to that idea, recall that about forty-five seconds ago you bought something from his company, thereby putting some of your money into his pocket in a voluntary exchange. What was yours is now his, and vice versa. Anyway, if you think that his money isn't his, and that it's rightfully yours, or "the people's," you might join with Joseph Goebbels, who wrote that his party:

was not against capital but against its misuse . . . , against capitalism in every form, that is, misuse of the people's property (Volksgut). Whoever is responsible for such misuse is a capitalist. . . . For us, too, property is holy. (Quoted, again, in Mr. Shoenbaum's book.)

Property is, after all, material, and the socialist is also, by necessity, a materialist. Property is holy to him. It's just that he wants to make yours, his. The transfer ain't voluntary and there ain't no exchange.

Like I said, I think there are worse people in Big Tech than the Bezillionaire, the reason being that they have utopian aims. They are thoroughgoing progressives. They believe, I think, that they can create and are creating a better world. They have even admitted these things, boasted of them. I used to think, naïvely, that they want our money. But I don't think they want our money so much as they want our data. Their hope, I think, is to gather enough data by which they might write an equation (or nine billion lines of code) describing human behavior, no miracle needed. And with that equation and the knowledge they believe will come from it, they hope to understand and predict everything. The future, the universe, all of human existence will be to them an open book. What they don't realize is that such a thing cannot be done, for we have infinite and irreducible variety within us. No man was the author of that variety and no man can duplicate it. In their ambitions towards godhood, these men (and a few women) are making a go at the infinite. What they don't realize is that only one Being is capable of anything infinite, absolute, or eternal. He has already written the equation and his terms are beyond our understanding. They can't do it. They aren't capable of anything that is rightly his. But then, like Forrest J Ackerman, they don't believe in such things. They are materialists. To them, human beings are merely material. For them, property is holy. The equation can and will be written. But first they need the data.

Supposedly Tamerlane spoke the word impossible only once in his life, and that was as death came for him. Like him, these people believe they cannot die, and they are working towards immortality for themselves by attempting to place their own ghosts--ours, too, I guess--into their own machines. They believe themselves to be gods or soon to be gods and cannot countenance that they and all of their fine ideas and wondrous works will in the end surely die. But they will. These men and women will find that the impossible--death--is indeed possible, and not just possible but inevitable. And not just inevitable but necessary. (They may never learn that part.) Like Tamerlane they seek to conquer the world and thereby make themselves immortal. Instead, they will become like yet another prideful figure from history, the aforementioned Ozymandias, who was himself silenced and conquered by time and death, by the lone and level sands of the bare and boundless desert that lies over his ruined works and will surely lie over all of our own.

* * *

That's an awful lot to read, I know, but I'll be gone for a while. I'll pick up again on this topic when I get back. So:

To be continued . . .


*An addition, August 7, 2021: It occurs to me now that Esperanto is a human attempt, necessarily frail, ultimately doomed, to undo the outcomes at the Tower of Babel, to make once again a world and a people "of one language, and of one speech." (Genesis 11:1) It is in itself a kind of arrogance, a belief that we can be godlike in our wisdom and in our powers, that we are in fact wiser and more powerful than God. We should consider another verse from the Bible, Mark 10:9, here inverted: What God has put asunder, let no man join together. Esperanto is merely a hobby. It is not a serious endeavor.

Now an aside: The Bible says that the builders of the Tower used slime for their mortar. Some interpret "slime" to mean asphalt. Jack Parsons (1914-1952) was inspired to use asphalt as a solid-rocket fuel. Although the Bezillionaire rode to space on top of a rocketship, his was liquid-fueled rather than solid-fueled. Nonetheless, it's hard to pass up commenting on these nexuses within the worlds of culture and ideas.

Text copyright 2021, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Los Angeles Science Fiction League, Circa 1939

I have begun swinging back around to my series on Utopia and Dystopia in Weird Tales. Step One: Show group photograph of Los Angeles Science Fiction League, circa 1939.

Last week I stopped by Half-Price Books, one of my favorite stores and one of few commercial establishments that I will mention by name in this blog. (I have a policy against advertisements.) I planned mostly on selling books and buying only a little. The store I went to had a different idea, though, because it put out for sale a book called The Ray Bradbury Companion, written and compiled by William F. Nolan (b. 1928) and published in 1975. How was I supposed to pass that up? It may have some writing in it, but it's a book I have never seen before and may never again.

As you might expect, there are all kinds of things included in The Ray Bradbury Companion. One is a group photograph, shown below. Before getting to that, I'll tell you about the man who wrote in my new copy of this book.

I don't like it when people write in books. We think we own these things, but aren't we really just caretakers? Shouldn't we do the best that we can to ensure that every book makes it into the next generation with as little damage and wear as possible? And shouldn't we all want to avoid any comparison at all to Carlos Allende and his little personalities? Anyway, inside the front cover of my new book, a previous owner wrote his name, Max Westbrook, and the date, September 1975. Like Allende's Mr. A, Westbrook used green ink for his inscription, underlining, and marginalia. I sensed that he could have had some connection to Ray Bradbury, but after looking into it, I'm not sure that he did. I found out about Max Westbrook, though, and he was a literary critic and teacher of some note. So:

Max Roger Westbrook was born on April 6, 1927, in Malvern, Arkansas. He attended Pine Bluff High School in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and served in the U.S. Navy in the World War II era and again in the Korean War era. Dr. Westbrook received his bachelor's degree from Baylor University, his master's at the University of Oklahoma, and his doctorate at the University of Texas. He taught at the universities of Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Texas. His books included The Modern American Novel: Essays in Criticism (1966), Walter Van Tilburg Clark (1969), Country Boy (verse, 1979), and Oregon or Bust (1985). He was a longtime member of the Western Literature Association and won the association's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1988. His headstone reads like the title of one of his books: "Country Boy." Dr. Westbrook died on July 25, 2002, nineteen years ago next week.

Knowing that Max Westbrook owned my copy of The Ray Bradbury Companion before I did takes away some of the bad feelings I have about writing in books. Anyway, here is the photo, just as it appears on page 28:

And here is the caption, ditto:

The first thing I noticed about this picture is that it shows Leslyn MacDonald (1904-1981), the diminutive wife of Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988). The second is that she is sitting far away from her husband and next to an always-smiling Ray Bradbury (1920-2012). Others labeled in the photo include Forrest J Ackerman (1916-2008), Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013), Jack Williamson (1908-2006), Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977), and Heinlein himself. I have a feeling other well-known people are in there somewhere (Morojo and Hannes Bok are candidates), but I don't recognize any of them. Maybe you do. Maybe you recognize the art on display, too.

Ray Bradbury was friends with Forrest J Ackerman. Ackerman is in the book The Faces of Science Fiction (1984), about which I wrote not long ago. A discussion of that entry is Step Two in my return to Utopia and Dystopia.

To be continued . . .

Original text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, July 13, 2021


This morning, shortly after sunup, I had the one-millionth visit to my blog. I suspect that a lot of those have been Russian hackers, Ukrainian spammers, and Chinese robots, but even so, that's a lot of visits. I would like to say thank you to all of my readers. I still have a series to finish for you. I hope you'll come back for it and all of the things that come after it.

Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, July 9, 2021

Lady Eleanor Smith & The Ballerina's Last Dance

I have written before about Lady Eleanor Smith (1902-1945), a British aristocrat of the first half of the twentieth century. She was also of course an author who had one story, "Satan's Circus," in Weird Tales (Oct. 1931). Lady Eleanor wrote more than a dozen books, mostly about dancers, circuses, and Gypsies. As with so many highborn or elite kind of people, she seems to have been attracted to the low life. I'm sure that in the opinion of some, there isn't much in culture lower than pulp magazines. If there is, comic books are probably it. So imagine coming across Lady Eleanor Smith's name in that lowly form:

The story shown above is from Ripley's Believe It or Not! True Ghost Stories #11, published by Gold Key (Western Publishing Company) in November 1968. I found my copy of this comic book at a mini comic con in Nitro, West Virginia, in May of this year. It was the first comic con I have gone to this year. After more than a year of the not normal, things are getting back to the way they used to be, or as much as is possible in our current situation. Here's to more comic conventions, get-togethers, parties, celebrations, and on and on, and no return at all to the coronavirus regime established the world over in 2020-2021.

Update (Feb. 1, 2022): I have found another account of the scene described by the anonymous author in Ripley's Believe It or Not! True Ghost Stories. This one is from the book Impossible Yet It Happened! by R. DeWitt Miller (Ace Books, n.d., pp. 48-49). And Miller gave an original source, Lady Eleanor Smith's own book, Life's a Circus (1939). I wonder if there could be other weird tales hiding in the pages of that book.

Original text copyright 2021, 2022 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

From Solstice to Equinox

Frank Bonner (1942-2021) has died. Most people remember him as Herb Tarlek from the TV show WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-1982), but he got his start on screen more than a decade earlier in a completely different kind of role and in a completely different kind of film.

You may have seen Equinox (1970). If you haven't, you should. It's not a great movie, but it's a fun and interesting one. Originally filmed in 1967 as a short subject called The Equinox: Journey into the Supernatural, Equinox was expanded and reworked for theatrical release in 1970. (That explains the anachronistic clothing worn by the young people in the film.) Billed as Frank Boers, Jr., the late Mr. Bonner was one of the two male leads in a group that included two young actresses as well. It occurs to me now that the plot device of two young couples encountering the supernatural in a remote location has some similarities to the first Mothman sighting, which took place in November 1966, only a few short months before the original version of Equinox was made.

Equinox became a cult classic. It played at the drive-in and in cheap theaters and was on late-night television. That's where we saw it when we were kids, all as a family, including my dad, who didn't like fantasy or science fiction movies at all. According to the Internet Movie Database, "The story combines numerous elements of various novellas by H.P. Lovecraft." That may be true, but a thing isn't true just because a source on the Internet says that it's true. If you're going to make an assertion, you have to back it up with evidence. Let's have the evidence.

There may have been an influence of H.P. Lovecraft on the making of Equinox. Any researcher looking into that question could extend his or her work into the influence of both Lovecraft and Equinox on Sam Raimi's film The Evil Dead (1981). Mr. Raimi is said not to have seen Equinox before making his film, but the similarities are apparent. It seems to me, though, that both he and the makers of Equinox were working from the same general idea, one that nobody really invented but that is useful when you're creating a horror film. The idea begins with the intended audience: young people, more specifically young couples, who are out at night, in their cars, in the dark, away from home and the safety of home. Once you get a bunch of young people into an isolated place, cut off from everything safe and familiar, the horror-story ball starts rolling. See The Blair Witch Project (1999) for another example, one more overtly influenced by Lovecraft and his creations. See also The Blob (1958), which was based on a story by Joseph Payne Brennan (1918-1990), "Slime," from from Weird Tales, March 1953. (Click here and here for images.) Both Equinox and The Blob were produced by Jack H. Harris (1918-2017).

You might search here and there and come up empty, but there are in fact easy connections to be made between Equinox and the Lovecraftian oeuvre of old. One of the actors in the film is Fritz Leiber, Jr. (1910-1992), who was of course a teller of weird tales and a Lovecraft associate. Leiber had acted in movies from time to time since his young adulthood. His father, Fritz Leiber (1882-1949), was also an actor and a famous one at that. Leiber the elder was in movies from 1916 to his death, including the genre films Cry of the Werewolf and Cobra Woman, both from 1944. Forrest J Ackerman (1916-2008) was also in Equinox, but only his voice. Always the performer, Ackerman had appeared in movies as early as 1944 and would continue to appear as late as 2017, after his death. He and Leiber the younger shared billing in the 1957 short subject The Genie. Oddly enough, writer, artist, and future Star Trek savior Bjo Trimble (b. 1933) was also in The Genie.

We offer our condolences to the family and friends of Frank Bonner, who died on June 16, 2021, at age seventy-nine.

Text copyright 2021 Terence E. Hanley