Tag Archives: aliens

Bowie the Freaky Spaceman

And you thought David Bowie looked weird in real life! In Nicolas Roeg’s psychedelic sci-fi landmark The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), he takes it all off, including his skin, hair, and irises. He’s a spaceman who’s supposed to be raising money so he can go deliver water to his home planet, but instead he gets distracted by TV, alcohol, and having sex with Candy Clark. He ends up as a fedora-wearing recluse while Candy Clark ends up married to rocket scientist Rip Torn; at least they got to experience plenty of bizarre imagery along the way. Like weird volcano bodies! And Bowie’s dying alien family! And Buck Henry with coke-bottle glasses!

The movie’s edited for maximum confusion, and it swallows its own narrative tail a few times. But hey, it’s from Nicolas Roeg, the visionary who brought us a Borgesian bullet hole through Mick Jagger’s head and a dwarf in a red raincoat stabbing Donald Sutherland. Would you expect anything less? If you want to learn more, I’ve got a review of The Man Who Fell to Earth up at 366 Weird Movies. Despite all the film’s missteps, you can’t deny that casting Bowie as an extraterrestrial was a major casting coup. I’ll conclude with one of my favorite images from the film, which proves that for all his pretension and self-indulgence, Roeg sure knew how to photograph the human body…

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Link Dump: #9

Dwain Esper’s exploitation film Maniac (1934) is not kind to cats. They get thrown into rooms, forced to fight with each other, and are the subject of much bizarre dialogue. Even though vaudevillian-turned-fake-scientist Don Maxwell (Bill Woods) insists that he won’t use cats in experiments, he nonetheless plucks out his cat Satan’s eye and eats it. Thankfully, it’s obvious that they’re switching between a black cat and an already one-eyed tabby, but it’s still disconcerting. The film manages to butcher Poe by making his story’s far, far weirder. Anyway, here’s some links!

  • Oh my God, plushies and embroidery can be cute sometimes! Behold: Mr X Stitch. My favorite is the Catwoman.
  • The dating site OkCupid has aggregated statistics from their gay and straight customers. Some of their astonishing revelations: all gay people aren’t actually promiscuous sexual predators hungering for converts. Also, not all straight OkCupid users are totally straight all the time. (Shocking, right?!)
  • Jessica Winter of Slate writes about “The film career of David Bowie.” This includes plenty of The Man Who Fell to Earth. “Get out of my head!” (And speaking of Bowie’s film career…)
  • Really, MPAA? “Male nudity“? (Apparently, yes.)
  • Good ol’ cuckoo puff Armond White took a shot at bloggers and Rotten Tomatoes a few weeks ago. Man, is his critique scathing! It cut me to the bone, emotionally speaking. I think my favorite part starts here:

“Attacks from bloggers—crude interlopers of a once august profession— are not about diversity of opinion. What’s at root is an undisguised rivalry. Every moviegoer with a laptop claims equal—vengeful—standing with so-called professionals. This anti-intellectual backlash defies the purpose of the Circle’s founding in 1935. Professional dignity is the last thing Internetters respect.”

  • Oh my, no! I’m such an anti-intellectual Internetter! You know, White’s persecution complex would be a much more valid argument against online film journalism if his writing weren’t nonsensical shit. (I really dropped the sarcasm there.)
  • Apparently we were supposed to have some visitors from the stars on Wednesday. A retired NORAD officer said so!
  • These outtakes give some cool insights into Humphrey Bogart’s acting process. (For example: when he missed a line, he’d say, “Goddammit!”)
  • Adam Zanzie and Ryan Kelly, of Icebox Movies and Medfly Quarantine respectively, have announced a Spielberg Blogathon for mid-December! You’ve got two whole months to prepare.

On the search term front, we had a few good ones this week. The people looking for pictures of animal genitalia are getting more specific; this time around we had not only “frog pussy,” but also “chinese frog vagina.” What, American frog vaginas aren’t good enough for you? In the “Deeply Unpleasant” department, we had the classic “most excruciating climactic screwing of.” I prefer my climactic screwings of to not be excruciating, if you please. To the person who searched for “sex war 1945 pussy,” I’m sorry to inform you that the war from 1939-45 was actually a World War, not a Sex War. And finally, I can only stare in befuddlement: “sexy wig for masturbation.” Yes. That says what it looks like. “Sexy wig for masturbation.” Thanks for reading, folks!

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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lovecraft

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.

Lately, a surprising amount of people have been finding Pussy Goes Grrr by searching for the word “Cthulhu,” so I figured it was time to write about H.P. Lovecraft‘s Cthulhu Mythos. (Even more hits have come from “lady gaga hot,” but that’s neither here nor there.) Although he picked up from where others like Poe and Lord Dunsany left off, Lovecraft blazed new trails in “cosmic horror,” and his impact has been felt in many corners of popular culture. Of course, he was also an unabashed racist who apparently didn’t believe that fictional characters should have sexual desires.

He’s such a divisive, mammoth figure in horror history, one who led respected authors to write glorified fanfiction, one whose complex legacy has reached its ungodly tentacles into the 21st century — and beyond?? Lovecraft’s influence, both good and gruesome, is spread like glowing ichor all across weird and scary stories. So here’s some musings on Lovecraft or: how I learned to stop worrying and love the Great Old Ones.

1. Knowledge

As the quote above (the first line of “The Call of Cthulhu“) indicates, Lovecraft’s stories are implicitly opposed to any form of scientific rationalism. In his fictional universe, the scientific method or any other attempt to unearth the truth will inevitably lead to tragedy, and probably insanity too. Lovecraft’s narrators constantly blur the lines between truth and falsehood, sanity and madness, and “the real and the unreal,” as Jervas Dudley says at the beginning of “The Tomb.” Basically, when we try to discern the laws by which our universe functions, we’re asking the wrong questions, because things don’t necessarily make sense.

Lovecraft’s life span (1890-1937) puts him squarely in the midst of one of modern history’s greatest ruptures. He came of age just after the turn of the century, and really started publishing short stories during World War I. So it’s easy to read his grim work in the context of the early 20th century’s massive technological and political flux – like the deformed twin brother of literary modernism. Along with this symptomatic fear of the impending future is a tension between the old and the new: his stories are replete with mentions of antiquated tomes (most notably, the Necronomicon) and with stilted Victorian jargon and racial epithets. His characters often have long (sometimes cursed) bloodlines, and of course the evils that emerge are the oldest of all.

Yet his stories, by and large, take place in the present he knew, namely the 1920s-’30s. And although the evils may have been ancient and buried away, the stories are often about archaeology, exploration, and vanishing frontiers. The scientist or adventurer of the modern day will dig up the secrets of history, and it’s this desire for knowledge that unleashes the irrational destruction. This was a time when science was, more than ever, intent on mapping out and naming everything – all the world’s places, peoples, animals, and phenomena. In Lovecraft, a wrench gets thrown in the works. Knowledge is not purely good; in fact, exactly the opposite. In many ways, then, although he died 8 years before the invention of the atomic bomb, Lovecraft anticipated the course that science fiction and horror would take in the 1950s. (Now think about John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 Thing from Another World from this perspective. Maybe a little Lovecraft was present in the story all along? “Keep watching the skies…”)

2. The Mythos

Lovecraft was one of those rare artists who constructed vast, terrifying worlds from the sheer force of his imagination. In the disturbed universe of the Cthulhu Mythos, he implemented the ideas above (fear of knowledge, the past erupting into the present) as the concrete material of his fiction. To the human characters of the Mythos, these aren’t just abstract intellectual crises; they’re perceptible (if indescribable) and usually life-threatening realities. Their universe has its own elaborate cosmology, built up through tiny details scattered here and there across dozens of stories, through subjective glimpses into its remote corners. At its core is a basic premise, tying together the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror aspects of Lovecraft’s work: mankind is not alone, and what’s out there doesn’t really care about us.

Going back to the connection between Lovecraft and modernism, the Mythos certainly engages in a very modernist project, namely displacing humanity from the center of consciousness and power. It’s a very cold, bleak project as well, since unlike most ancient myths or other sci-fi, Lovecraft’s alien gods are primarily nonanthropomorphic. They’re hard to communicate or fight with, and they’re totally unsympathetic to any of our desires or dislikes. Their physical natures inspire terror in human beings unlucky enough to perceive them. They’re also incredibly powerful, and when you add that to a lack of common ground with humans, that makes for horror. They preceded us and they will outlast us, so human pride and the importance of human affairs are suddenly reduced to the smallest of footnotes on the universe’s history.

So: Cthulhu. The most iconic, well-remembered character in all of Lovecraft. Somehow he (she? it?) was seized upon as a representative of everything Lovecraftian, but Cthulhu is an effective envoy of cosmic terror. (And easier to spell/pronounce than Yog-Sothoth or Nyarlathotep.) Introduced in “The Call of Cthulhu,” s/he’s relatively approachable as Great Old Ones go. Dwells in the sunken city of R’Lyeh, has cults spread across the world, and awaits the moment the stars are right so s/he can burst forth and start a new era of life on earth. Cthulhu is also a great demonstration of how Lovecraft is so effective: s/he is revealed through fragments, never seen for long, and never speaks. Yet through hints and suggestions, the reader receives a giant, terrifying impression. Despite being so distant and inscrutable, we still somehow feel like we know Cthulhu.

3. Lovecraftian

And now Lovecraft and Cthulhu are part of pop culture. And naturally, they’ve become subject to endless appropriation and parody. His stories are so delightfully morbid and well-realized, brimming with imaginative realms and creatures, yet also so unrelenting and self-serious. It makes perfect sense for an artist who admires Lovecraft to imitate him while deflating the grandiosity of his writing. So we have examples like the filk love song “Hey There Cthulhu” by Eben Brooks, or the musical “A Shoggoth on the Roof.” Or the 1980s resurgence of Cormanesque horror-comedies, where Lovecraftian tropes were used in over-the-top, gory classics like Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator.

And in literature? Suffice it to say that Lovecraft doesn’t just have a legacy; he has a subgenre. As a sample of the endless homages, I’d point you toward the anthology Shadows Over Baker Street, which introduces Sherlock Holmes to the eerie world of the Cthulhu Mythos. (I especially recommend Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” and Paul Finch’s “The Mystery of the Hanged Man’s Puzzle.”) With his huge collection of stories, Lovecraft provided a potential framework for the writers who followed him, between the fictional world he created, the dark angle from which he confronted his themes, and his mastery of ornate diction and tense pacing. These fantastic tools can also be used by authors from different backgrounds, thereby producing Lovecraftian fiction that isn’t so aristocratic, racist, and sex-phobic.

This is a pretty broad view of Lovecraft’s career and effect on horror fiction. Since his legacy is so colossal, he’s pretty much a one-man field of study, so far more specific and in-depth analyses are available all over the Internet. For the curious, I’d recommend the AV Club’s Gateway to Geekery for Lovecraft, or just going over to Wikisource’s collection and diving in. But if you dare to delve into these untold horrors, do not be surprised when you find yourself thrust head-first into a ghastly, unspeakable fate worse than death. I mean, it’s always possible.

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Avatar: the next generation of moneymaking

[This is a modified version of my review for Avatar, to be published next week in the Carl, Carleton’s biweekly arts & lit rag. Ashley wants it to be known that she hates James Cameron, and doesn’t want to hear about the movie anymore; also, she is temporarily without Internet. Finally, full disclosure: due to scheduling concerns, I was only able to see Avatar in 2D.]

Since it hit theaters in December, James Cameron’s Avatar has swept the nation, becoming the second (and counting) highest-grossing film in history, and inspiring lots and lots of tiresome, repetitive discussion. And in keeping with ‘s policy of weighing in on things, I’m here to add to that discussion.

In case, somehow, the behemoth that is Avatar‘s marketing budget hasn’t yet made a telepathic bond (or “Tsahaylu”) with you, the film’s plot is fairly easy to describe: in 2154, technologically advanced humans have colonized a planet called Pandora, which abounds with glowing natural wonders, and decided to plunder it in order to obtain its Unobtainium. However, a race of 10-foot-tall indigenous feline humanoids called the Na’vi already live there, right on top of one of the richest Unobtainium reserves on all of Pandora.

Don’t worry, though: I haven’t spoiled anything, because all of this is spelled out in clunky expositional dialogue and voiceover within the first 10 or so minutes. The only added twist is that several of the humans, including the disabled hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), are able to mingle with the natives by entering specially grown Na’vi bodies – avatars, if you will. Through his avatar, Jake is able to nimbly explore the diverse wildlife of Pandora, including rainforests full of lovingly rendered flora, and several large species of pachyderm that breathe through their front legs – I mean, why not, they’re aliens.

The story that follows, from Jake’s first encounter with Na’vi princess Neytiri, to his induction into their tribe, to the climactic war between the Na’vi and humans, is nothing if not predictable; if you’re able to follow the first act, you can probably guess with considerable accuracy how the villain, Colonel Quaritch, will die. Because, as so many reviews have already pointed out, the story is not the point.

The obligatory good vs. evil, technology vs. nature conflict simply serves as a framework for the real meat of the film: holy shit is that a detailed planet. Over a decade in the making, Avatar (by which I mean, Avatar‘s visuals) is being vaunted as the next generation of filmmaking, the next step in the history of film, and a lot of messianic-sounding phrases with the words “next” and “filmmaking” in them. Maybe it’s the cinematic Luddite in me talking, but I just don’t buy the hype.

The most pertinent point might be that I’ve seen better. Yes, Cameron’s engaging vision of Pandora is fun to explore, especially when the camera sits still long enough for us to check out the planet’s foliage and curious astronomical features. It’s admittedly a breakthrough of a sort, yet it’s hardly the most enrapturing world that’s ever been created on film. For example, British director Michael Powell helped construct exotic worlds of light and color in films like The Thief of Baghdad or The Tales of Hoffmann. Another apt example is Hayao Miyazaki, who’s more than matched Cameron’s artistry in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, while simultaneously developing similar themes more eloquently, and without resorting to obvious Manichaean struggles.

My other basis for dismissing Avatar as any kind of landmark film is the fact it relies so heavily on the shimmering beauty of its fictional world that virtually every other element suffers. Most of the dialogue is, frankly, inane; when characters aren’t speaking in Na’vi, they’re spouting action movie clichés like “Let’s dance!” or referring to a hammerheaded creature as a “punk-ass bitch.” As others have pointed out, this wouldn’t be such a problem if we were only dealing with a big, goofy action movie – like, say, Cameron’s earlier Aliens – but here we’re dealing with a big, goofy action movie that begs us to take its superficial allegory seriously while refusing to allow an ounce of genuine humor or self-deprecation into the material, lest that dilute its vital message or epic grandeur.

It’s also frustrating that such an expansive, spiritually interconnected world can’t be populated by anyone but easily identifiable stock characters. Jake is such a dull, hollow protagonist that it’s hard to see what everyone, from Neytiri to the rest of the Na’vi and even their earth goddess Eywa, sees in him. Upon their first encounter, Neytiri notes that he has a “strong heart”; the reasoning behind his tremendous success as a member, and later the leader (!), of the Na’vi is never again questioned. The Na’vi themselves, despite being the ostensible focal point of the film, are consistently ignored in favor of Jake, and outside of a few ritual chants (usually meant to help Jake) and plenty of sashaying before the camera in order to show off their shiny blue bodies, they don’t do or say a whole lot as individuals, at least nothing that Jake doesn’t tell them to first.

The humans, meanwhile, are mostly reduced to a set of militaristic stereotypes, with Colonel Quaritch as their pointedly evil, irrationally angry leader. (In fact, he’s so evil he can violate the film’s own ground rules and survive in Pandora’s atmosphere, simply for the purpose of being really, really evil.) The film’s only real saving grace so far as the performances are concerned is Sigourney Weaver as avatar supervisor Dr. Augustine, being her usual hard-headed, affable self; however, her character’s extensive experience with the Na’vi is immediately bypassed by the film in favor of Jake’s strong heart.

So in the end, my opinion on Avatar lines up with the sentiment I’ve noticed in most ambivalent reviews: it’s pretty to look at, but there’s not much going on underneath. It is a high-octane thrill ride, along with whatever else they’re calling it, and if that’s what you’re looking for, by all means go see it quick, before you’re subjected to the indignity of watching it on a TV or computer screen. But please don’t tell me it’s the next anything of cinema, unless that “anything” is “extremely profitable investment.” I have high hopes for the future of filmmaking technology. I just hope the next great pioneer has a more interesting story to tell than Avatar.

In case, somehow, the behemoth that is Avatar’s marketing budget hasn’t yet made a telepathic bond (or “Tsahaylu”) with you, the film’s plot is fairly easy to describe: in 2154, technologically advanced humans have colonized a planet called Pandora, which abounds with glowing natural wonders, and decided to plunder it in order to obtain its Unobtainium. However, a race of 10-foot-tall indigenous feline humanoids called the Na’vi already live there, right on top of one of the richest Unobtainium reserves on all of Pandora.

Don’t worry, though: I haven’t spoiled anything, because all of this is spelled out in clunky expositional dialogue and voiceover within the first 10 or so minutes. The only added twist is that several of the humans, including the disabled hero, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), are able to mingle with the natives by entering specially grown Na’vi bodies – avatars, if you will. Through his avatar, Jake is able to nimbly explore the diverse wildlife of Pandora, including rainforests full of lovingly rendered flora, and several large species of pachyderm that breathe through their front legs – I mean, why not, they’re aliens.

The story that follows, from Jake’s first encounter with Na’vi princess Neytiri, to his induction into their tribe, to the climactic war between the Na’vi and humans, is nothing if not predictable; if you’re able to follow the first act, you can probably guess with considerable accuracy how the villain, Colonel Quaritch, will die. Because, as so many reviews have already pointed out, the story is not the point.

The obligatory good vs. evil, technology vs. nature conflict simply serves as a framework for the real meat of the film: holy shit is that a detailed planet. Over a decade in the making, Avatar (by which I mean, Avatar’s visuals) is being vaunted as the next generation of filmmaking, the next step in the history of film, and a lot of messianic-sounding phrases with the words “next” and “filmmaking” in them. Maybe it’s the cinematic Luddite in me talking, but I just don’t buy the hype.

The most pertinent point might be that I’ve seen better. Yes, Cameron’s engaging vision of Pandora is fun to explore, especially when the camera sits still long enough for us to check out the planet’s foliage and curious astronomical features. It’s admittedly a breakthrough of a sort, yet it’s hardly the most enrapturing world that’s ever been created on film. As I discuss in the column above, Michael Powell helped construct exotic, self-contained worlds of light and color in films like The Thief of Baghdad or The Tales of Hoffmann. Another apt example is Hayao Miyazaki, who’s more than matched Cameron’s artistry in Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, while simultaneously developing similar themes more eloquently, and without resorting to obvious Manichaean struggles.

My other basis for dismissing Avatar as any kind of landmark film is the fact it relies so heavily on the shimmering beauty of its fictional world that virtually every other element suffers. Most of the dialogue is, frankly, inane; when characters aren’t speaking in Na’vi, they’re spouting action movie clichés like “Let’s dance!” or referring to a hammerheaded creature as a “punk-ass bitch.” As others have pointed out, this wouldn’t be such a problem if we were only dealing with a big, goofy action movie – like, say, Cameron’s earlier Aliens – but here we’re dealing with a big, goofy action movie that begs us to take its superficial allegory seriously while refusing to allow an ounce of genuine humor or self-deprecation into the material, lest that dilute its vital message or epic grandeur.

It’s also frustrating that such an expansive, spiritually interconnected world can’t be populated by anyone but easily identifiable stock characters. Jake is such a dull, hollow protagonist that it’s hard to see what everyone, from Neytiri to the rest of the Na’vi and even their earth goddess Eywa, sees in him. Upon their first encounter, Neytiri notes that he has a “strong heart”; the reasoning behind his tremendous success as a member, and later the leader (!), of the Na’vi is never again questioned. The Na’vi themselves, despite being the ostensible focal point of the film, are consistently ignored in favor of Jake, and outside of a few ritual chants (usually meant to help Jake) and plenty of sashaying before the camera in order to show off their shiny blue bodies, they don’t do or say a whole lot as individuals, at least nothing that Jake doesn’t tell them to first.

The humans, meanwhile, are mostly reduced to a set of militaristic stereotypes, with Colonel Quaritch as their pointedly evil, irrationally angry leader. (In fact, he’s so evil he can violate the film’s own ground rules and survive in Pandora’s atmosphere, simply for the purpose of being really, really evil.) The film’s only real saving grace so far as the performances are concerned is Sigourney Weaver as avatar supervisor Dr. Augustine, being her usual hard-headed, affable self; however, her character’s extensive experience with the Na’vi is immediately bypassed by the film in favor of Jake’s strong heart.

So in the end, my opinion on Avatar lines up with the sentiment I’ve noticed in most ambivalent reviews: it’s pretty to look at, but there’s not much going on underneath. It is a high-octane thrill ride, along with whatever else they’re calling it, and if that’s what you’re looking for, by all means go see it quick, before you’re subjected to the indignity of watching it on a TV or computer screen. But please don’t tell me it’s the next anything of cinema, unless that “anything” is “extremely profitable investment.” I have high hopes for the future of filmmaking technology. I just hope the next great pioneer has a more interesting story to tell than Avatar.

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Science fiction double feature, part 2

I just wanted to follow up on some of the ideas I was pondering earlier today, about the science fiction genre in general and some of my personal favorite themes in specific. Ashley was saying earlier that she for some reason never really got into sci-fi, for the most part, and so she’s glad there’s still time to learn and think about it. A few weeks ago I was thinking about horror and sci-fi everywhere I went. These are two genres that deal primarily with the unknown. Sometimes the supernatural, but sometimes plainly just “what we don’t know.” In horror, what we don’t know can and usually does hurt us. Science fiction is just fiction centered around the potentials of technology and human discoveries. Maybe the earth becomes a smoking crater as a result. Maybe Klaatu and Gort stop off to tell us where we stand. (Also note, I guess: the discoveries and technology need not be human.) Sci-fi works as a blanket category for all the reactions – fear, longing, desperation, curiosity – to the possibility of other life in the universe.

Here’s where I’ll admit that I’ve been fixated on aliens, UFOs, abductions, etc. for pretty much as long as I can remember. I wonder where this interest comes from. We had lots of books on the paranormal sitting around the house. We watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and one year during Thanksgiving my dad did, in fact, sculpt the mashed potatoes into the likeness of Devil’s Tower. I read voraciously about Betty and Barney Hill or Roswell or whatever caught my eye, checked out books from the library that delved into the ancient astronaut theories, and became terrified that while I lay sleeping, a UFO might hover outside my window and its passengers might levitate me into their craft to subject me to all kinds of experiments. Luckily, this fear has (mostly) subsided, but I’m still incredibly interested in all things alien. As I mentioned elsewhere, a few weeks ago I caught this show on the Discovery Channel called UFO Hunters. And it sucked; it was an insult to everything I’ve studied and loved. Instead of trying to actually build up evidence and apply the scientific method in order to glean some facts about whether ETs exist or not, they chose a different route: Believe anything and everything, forcing evidence to fit the assumptions you’ve already made! That, my friends, is bogus, worthless pseudoscience. Oh, I also remember seeing Independence Day when it came out in 1996. My friend Noah had an action figure of one of the aliens, too. In retrospect, the movie probably sucked, but I’m sure it encouraged me to keep studying ufology. Kecksburg, PA is pretty far west of Chambersburg, but nonetheless I hope to visit it with Ashley someday. It’s basically the Roswell of the north. As I recall, something landed in the woods; residents ran to check it out but the government interceded, carried the object away, and said it was a meteor. This was in 1965.

But getting back to my starting point, with science fiction we don’t learn nearly as much about science as we do about ourselves. For example: the Cold War was full of movies about nuclear war and its consequences. Did that mean we were going to have a nuclear war? Answers may vary, but the point is that we were terrified of it and wondering how we’d cope. Would society eventually rebuild from the ashes, as, say, 1960’s The Time Machine suggests? Would mankind recede in the wake of his hubristic demise and other species take over, as in Planet of the Apes (1968)? Or would we all succumb to the bleak hilarity of a masculinity-induced grave as in Dr. Strangelove (1964)? (Strangelove‘s flip side, however, was the equally bleak resignation and grimness of Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe, in which President Henry Fonda is forced to bomb New York as a sign of good will.) My sleepy, not entirely coherent point is that science fiction provides us with options and arguments. We shouldn’t have the Bomb, because. As Gene Roddenberry was fond of proving, science fiction can be a great arena for giving commentary on contemporary issues in a detached, metaphorical setting. H.G. Wells is making a socialist parable with the Eloi and the Morlocks, but who needs a dry political tract when it can be an action-packed love story of the year 802,701? As I remember not-so-eloquently arguing in a paper on Brave New World in 11th grade, sci-fi satire can show what’s wrong with an idea by taking it to extremes – applying it to the world at large. Soylent Green: think Malthusian catastrophes aren’t a problem? Hope you like eating people. So, social commentary is another possible task of science fiction. I think of (Nobel Prize-winning Minnesotan) Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, in which he rebuffs fascism by showing that yes, in fact, it can happen here. Or Jack London’s dystopian novel The Iron Heel, which as with Wells illustrates his early 20th century socialist views.

My point is that you can say a lot with science fiction, and sometimes it’s more effective than just saying it in terms of the ordinary world we already know. Racism may make sense to your normal American in the mid-’60s, but what about when we put it in terms of the classic Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”?

Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

That’s right: they’re the last survivors of their respective races, determined to hate each other because their black and white stripes are on different halves of their bodies. This is Fantastic Racism. But sci-fi doesn’t just have to deal with issues through metaphor. I mean, as I was discussing earlier, much of the appeal is direct discussion of very real issues that just haven’t become a physical reality yet. We don’t have sentient robots quite yet, but it’s still important to know if they’d be equal to human beings, and therefore what it means to be human, as well as whether or not they’d try to gang up on us and become unstoppable killing machines led by an evil, human-hating computer. I mean, it’s always possible. Ergo, Blade Runner: do androids dream of electric sheep? And if they do, does that mean human beings aren’t unique – does it mean we can be easily replicated, even replaced by Galateas produced by us who also dream? I had this crazy idea the other day, briefly imagining a world where golems form the earth’s main work force and are also the victims of racism. I still think it’d make a great story. But the point is that even in genuinely fantastical situations like a world heavily populated by androids, human nature still has a part. We are driven to create (and destroy) – we like creating in our own image. We’re driven to do that, too. Don’t believe me? Well, what did you play with as a kid? Odds are it was an anthromorphicized lump of plastic or fabric. And kids love dolls who can talk. Or move. You know, come to think of it, maybe I should watch the movie AI. Even if Kubrick died before he could start it, and passed it on to Spielberg, and apparently it sucks. Maybe the movie still has something to offer.

And on a similar note, time machines. We’ve never invented one; never even come close. But why not? Our great tragedy is that we can’t change the past. The past is full of suckiness and shit – our collective consciousness would do anything to go back and undo all the genocide, warfare, pain, destruction, and hatred. But since time’s a one-way street, we have no access to any moment before now. We’re also curious as hell about the future. Hey, what do you think sci-fi’s for in the first place? It acts as a cheap, low-qual substitute time machine. Not able to build some quantum mechanical doohickey in your spare time? Buy a paperback and find out what 1,000 years from now will more or less be like. Oh, the gratification, to imagine a future dominated by space captains transposed from 20th century America. To project ourselves into Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon or you name it, as he takes our values and appearances on into other galaxies.

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell

I’d like to suggest that there’s some measure of power in controlling the future, too. If you’re some fucking Klansman who writes about a future where White Pride comes out on top, there might be a small psychological victory – at least for your fellow racist fuckers – right there. “See? In the end, we win! It says so right here in this book!” Or like Charlie Manson’s batshit insane predictions about “Helter Skelter” and the coming race wars which would put the Family on top. Maybe that’s not strictly science fiction, but I think it’s worthy of the title. What can I say; I always love really weird, twisted visions of the future. Maybe I like to see how far the world can be warped by authorial vision. That could be why I love Henry Darger so much, with his outsider artist ideas of an alternate world where child slaves battle non-Catholics – seriously, Madeleine L’Engle should totally have borrowed a page from Henry Darger’s book (literally). Or there’s William S. Burroughs, who straddles the line between sci-fi and… Beat queer junkie transgressive fiction. (Then again, maybe I should read his Nova trilogy.) Last night, I was discussing Philip K. Dick with Ashley. He’s a man whose personal confusions, problems, and experiences heavily informed the sci-fi he chose to write, telling of worlds where subjective realities are always crumbling, leading to identity crisis pile-ups.

After all, as Paul Gauguin would ask (in maybe my favorite painting title ever): “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Science fiction may not be able to answer these questions, but it’s a unique and very useful tool in coming up with theories. You’re able to test the limits of the human experience even more when you can think back to the earth’s volcanic beginnings, and forward to the earth’s potential descent into cold, barren darkness. I suspect that perhaps, among some quarters, talking about “science fiction” as a topic leads conjures images of rocket ships and, yes, those same all-American white masculine space captains I was mentioning, serving as wet dreams for the gratification-seeking reader. And maybe these images lead sci-fi to be tossed aside as a pointless, fantasy-indulging genre entirely disconnected from real human emotions. This kind of dismissal has happened before; hell, no sci-fi movie has ever won Best Picture, though certainly a few have been nominated. (Neither has a horror movie – just goes to show how these genres are viewed by the Academy.) So, what’s my point with all this? I’m not really sure. I guess I want to try to elucidate some of the purposes science fiction in general serves. Maybe I should also mention a book I started reading, a work of utopian sci-fi from 1914 called Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. All about a South American paradise discovered by 3 American men, populated entirely by women who reproduce parthenogenically. I should really keep reading that. So, I’d better go to bed since it’s 3 am and I’m sleepy. But I plan to continue exploring these ideas in the future. For, as Criswell would say, that is where you and I will spend the rest of our lives!

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