PABLO KJOLSETH ON SOYLENT GREEN

Just want to draw your attention to a very good piece by Pablo Kjolseth, who runs the International Film Series in Boulder, Colorado, about SOYLENT GREEN — the studio movie based on Harry Harrison’s detective novel Make Room! Make Room! Pablo is very kind in crediting the execrable Richard Fleischer as a director of any worth – if you look at his filmography you will probably conclude that Fleischer made no good films at all – but he did wear one of those safari jackets and behaved at all times as a loyal studio hack, much to the regret of Akira Kurosawa. Pablo’s analysis is very intelligent, and includes a splendid ‘product shot’ of the Soylent Green packaging. Beware peanuts!

BILL UPDATE … AND THE MINISTRY OF DEFENCE REBRANDS WAR!

Just to relate, for those not receiving backers’ updates, that BILL THE GALACTIC HERO has been in preproduction for five weeks now. We have five spacesuits and five more on the way, plus various space vehicles and a robot band. We’re still waiting for the return of our camera tests to determine whether we shoot on Kodak or Orwo black and white stock.

The floods in Boulder caused the closure of the CU campus and our auditions were postponed to the coming weekend. Otherwise we’re still on track, I think.

But the main point of this post is to share with you an article which appeared in yesterday’s Guardian reporting that the British Ministry of Defence is concerned that the English aren’t keen enough on war. In order better to promote war, the unnamed military mandarins propose a five point plan: 1. to ensure that the public is exposed to a “positive campaign narrative” in time to drum up support for the next war; 2. “reduce the profile of the repatriation ceremonies” (till recently dead British solders were given a short parade out of the airfield to which they were returned, draped with the Union Jack. This is to end); 3. “discredit the notion that serving in the armed forces is just another job” (Not just a job! It’s an adventure!); 4. “reduce public sensitivity to the penalties inherent in military operations”; and 5. “indicate an attitude that the service may involve sacrifice and that such acts are knowingly and willingly undertaken” (translation: the damned squaddies are getting paid — they shouldn’t bitch if they get their guts blown out).

You can read the eight-page public schoolboy control fantasy here (the link to download a text version is currently broken).

It’s depressing to see public servants whose salaries are paid by the British public trying to drive their country into further financial ruin, to say nothing of the deaths, torture, and environmental devastation. It’s outrageous to observe their utter disdain for the young men killed by their pernicious tomfoolery. And it’s both salutory and frightening to contemplate points 1. and 4. Just how exactly will the “positive campaign narrative” and the “reduced public sensitivity” be achieved? Via the media. There is no other way. The Army could put up billboards alongside the motorway, I suppose — “Don’t Worry! They’re only Ragheads!” Droney the Drone could visit primary schools and boy scout camps. More likely, the wreck of the British film industry will produce a patriotic flick or two, extolling British military virtues while reminding us that soldiers are little better than mercenaries, and that we shouldn’t worry all that much when they get killed – nor concern ourselves about who they kill in the process.

A corking plan, what? It was devised last year, and just made public via a FOIA request. Can we expect  even less coverage of the war in Afghanistan on the BBC and the other TV stations; no visuals whatsoever of victims of war, on either side; some cute documentaries showing the humanitarian benefits of Predator Drones (identifying sources of water for the refugee camp! Saving FIFA World Cup slaves lost in the Arabian Desert); and maybe even a rolicking miniseries (with a guest American director, ideally), about the S.A.S. or a private mercenary company?

 

 

THE JUPITER PLAGUE

Since Gerry Donaghy was nice enough to send me not one but two books (I just received a copy of The Collaboration from him) I’ll spend Labor Day following through on my promise to compare The Jupiter Plague with Harry Harrison’s earlier version of the same story, Plague From Space.

Both are substantially similar: the earlier one is shorter (the Bantam copy Gerry sent me has 154 pages of story; while the Tor edition of the second book runs to 280 pages — though this is mainly caused by a bigger typeface and fewer words per page), and better. So, for Harrison enthusiasts, two questions arise: why did Harry rewrite his original novel, and what changes did he make? Let me attempt to answer these.

The Plague books are part of a sub-set of science fiction which I would guess is called Medical SF (just as The Forever War and Ender’s Game and Bill The Galactic Hero are apparently termed Military SF). The earliest examples of this that I can think of are C.M. Kornbluth’s Little Black Bag and Rick Raphael’s Code Three. Harry was a prolific writer and dealt with many SF sub-genres; space travel, time travel, alternate histories and universes, and in this case a First Contact story which is also a medical drama. Here the Jupiter probe returns to Earth with a devastating disease on board – prescient as always, Harry chose the plague to be a super-deadly form of avian flu!

Harry wrote quickly, and liked to consult experts on the subject matter of his books. Whatever it was – disease, or overpopulation, or dinosaurs – he would acquire pretty deep info from scientists and include a lot of it in the resulting book. Whether this is a good thing I am not sure: “hard” science fiction often gets bogged down with technical information of interest only to specialists in the field, and Bill is great precisely because Harry didn’t need to consult any experts — he had all the info he needed, first hand. Also, Bill took him several years to complete, whereas most of his books were written in a matter of months. The Galactic swear-word “bowb” appears once in both versions of Plague.

But, why did Harry write the same book twice? Therein lies the tale. In 1969, the up-and-coming author Michael Crichton published his first SF novel, The Andromeda Strain. This is the story of a probe which, having visited Mars, returns to earth bringing with it a deadly virus against which scientists and the military must join forces to fight. If this sounds almost exactly like the set-up of Plague From Space, well, it is. Harry certainly felt it was, and when Crichton’s book made the New York Times bestseller list and was turned into a big-budget, not-very-good Hollywood science fiction movie, Harry also felt that he lost out on a substantial revenue stream. So, realizing that times had changed and that “popular” books were bought on the basis of bulk rather than brevity, he decided to expand Plague From Space.

Harry was always technologically ahead of most people’s game, and I’m sure that when he embarked on the rewrite in 1981, he had both a computer and some form of writing/editing software. Did the original draft exist in some electronic form? Almost certainly not: computers in the 1960s were like HAL in 2001: half a city block long and buried in the basements of high-tech enterprises. So someone transcribed the original book to disk, and Harry, working in DOS or some even more arcane OS, set to work expanding it.

The book begins with the hero, Dr. Sam Bertoli, playing chess against a computer. in the revised version the computer speaks; the Bobby Fischer move Bertoli makes is updated, from 1973 to 1987 – and Fischer’s opponent’s name is changed from Botvinnik to Smyslov. I don’t see the need for any of these changes (except the date, to keep it in the future) but assume they meant something to Harry! The scene where the doctors arrive at JFK airport – where the returning Pericles has crash-landed, is expanded, yet – as in the original book – quite devoid of excitement. This is strange and I can’t understand why Harry – a writer of fluid and exciting action – didn’t beef up the airport disaster. In chapter 3 Harry adds a bit of back story, explaining that our hero became a medic thanks to the example of a Tamil army doctor (the military in this book is the UN Army, which may partially explain why the Esperanto-speaking author is so admiring of its officers and actions, as opposed to his view of the Troopers in Bill.) In chapter 5, the ambulance driver, Killer, goes into detail about a Safeway sacking on the East Side: Harry is never one to romanticize The Mob.

Near the end of chapter 6, Harry adds some dialogue for Dr. Nita, Dr. Bertoli’s squeeze, in which she speculates humankind may go extinct like the dinosaurs. In chapter 8, a “nightmare scene” occurs beneath the Koch Bridge on 23rd Street (previously the Wagner Bridge). And a few words are added to the start of chapter 10, where Nita and Bertoli discover she has contracted the plague. When Bertoli ducks into a bar to get a drink, in the rewrite we’re told he hands over “a five dollar bill.” In the original it as just “a bill”. Presumably this is to allow for inflation. Then, in the rewrite, Harry has Bertoli enter another bar, where he is menaced by junkies eager for the contents of his doctor’s bag. A scene of violent drug addicts being overcome in physical combat by an upright hero was probably de rigeur in New York tales, post Death Wish, and I imagine Harry was thinking of the movie rights when he wrote it.

A scene where Bertoli and a young UN Lieutenant share a pack of cigarettes is gone in the re-write. The flashback, where we learn what took place on the doomed Jupiter mission, is expanded into its own chapter, with scenes aboard the orbiting spacecraft.

The scenes aboard the Pericles on Earth are unchanged. This is a good thing, since their description of the hidden technological changes aboard the craft, and the revelation of what resides within, are splendid. The reader may not be surprised when the Plague books turn out to be a First Contact story; that aspect of the tale is handled very well indeed.

There’s a small addition as Bertoli returns to Bellvue Hospital, in which he beats his fist against the armrest and worries about his beloved (the love story is the least-good part of the tale, the infected heroine being out of action on a hospital bed for more than half of it). And there are interesting changes at the very end — one apparently in error (it seems that the software has got some dialogue in the wrong order, so that Killer is still conversing with Bertoli after he has bowed out) and one in anticipation of a return mission to Jupiter – to be undertaken by robot landers.

Were the changes worth it? Presumably, since the  book sold copies and added to a working writer’s revenue. On the other hand, none of the changes makes any real difference. As a big fan and a friend of Harry, I of course wish that he had concentrated more on writing original material rather than revisiting earlier books for sequels and re-works. But he knew what he was doing, and we are all guilty of this.

A couple of notes about the two volumes: Plague From Space, like all Bantam paperbacks from the 1960s, has a great cover which depicts exactly what the book is about — a plague-sore-raddled, dying spaceman against a field of red. No illustrator is credited, but I’d guess it was Jim Bama, who did the great covers for their Doc Savage series. This volume is also dedicated, to Hubert Prichard, “in memory of the many fine days since 117.” The Tor edition of The Jupiter Plague, on the other hand, has an indifferent cover, featuring a rocket-launching pad, and a huge red Jupiter in the sky, with a skull superimposed on it. The back cover gives the game away — it’s a continuation of the front, and the barcode is superimposed over a reclining figure, whose left leg emerges from it. in other words, it’s probably the cover of another book, recycled for this one! The Tor edition omits the dedication to Hubert Prichard; but above the title the cover reads “Jim Baen Presents: Harry Harrison.” I don’t know who Hubert was, but Baen was a SF publisher who apparently took the Lawrence Lessig approach to electronic publishing, when that came along – refusing to saddle books with DRM, and giving away .rtfs to promote hard copy sales.

Plague_Covers

CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT

Andy Sawyer, the Science Fiction Librarian at Liverpool University, has provided an answer to my puzzlement as to who wrote “Children of the Night” – a wonderful, terrifying science fiction short story about a PR man who has to broker a peace agreement between Earth and aliens who have done some truly terrible things (at least, by our standards). The author was Frederic Pohl, and you can read the story in his book, The Best of Frederic Pohl.

I should have known! Pohl and his pal K.M. Kornbluth wrote The Space Merchants, and Children of the Night is a natural (though much grimmer and more terrible) sequel to that great novel. I identify with its protagonist more strongly than with any other literary character (with the possible exception of Alice). If you read it, I wonder if you’ll see why.

And I must add two more tales to my list of recommended SF shorts: A Sound of Thunder, by Ray Bradbury. Perhaps the best time travel story of them all – though Herbert George Wells’ Time Machine ain’t too shabby, either. I re-read it recently and not only does it predict global warming, it also anticipates the intellectual breach we’re seeing right now, between those who use tablets and type with their thumbs (Eloi) and those who hunker down over keyboards and know how machines work (Morlocks).

And Brian Aldiss’ great short story, Poor Little Warrior, which visits the same territory as Ray Bradbury’s, with similar yet uniquely different results. Who would have thought that dinosaurs had ticks?

HOLLYWOOD AND HITLER

The Guardian reports on a new book by Harvard professor Ben Urwand detailing active collaboration between the Hollywood studios and Hitler’s Nazis. Alarmed by the Nazi reaction to ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (perhaps the only anti-war movie a Hollywood studio ever made), and worried about profits from screenings in Germany, American studio heads - many of them recent eastern European Jewish refugees – enthusiastically worked with Hitler’s censors to alter films or even cancel productions entirely in order to protect access to the German film market. All the studios were guilty, though MGM was the worst, using its tied-up Deutschmarks to invest in the German arms industry.

It’s a disgusting story which I can’t wait to read in full: entirely credible if you’ve had any dealing with the Hollywood studios or their London branch offices, where censorship, appeasement and collaboration have always been the order of the day. The story is also suitably ironic in that it follows another Guardian article – published only a month ago – entitled Be Nice To China, which details the Hollywood studios’ current grovelling to the Beijing regime: self-censorship, re-editing films to remove offensive references to China, and including shots of the glittering skyline of Shanghai. Among recent (and upcoming) studio films re-edited to please the Chinese government are DJANGO UNCHAINED, RED DAWN, IRON MAN 3, WORLD WAR Z, and TRANSFORMERS 4.

I don’t mean to suggest an offensive parallel between the Chinese government and Hitler’s Nazis. But both regimes were/are anti-democratic, and opposed to the freedoms we supposedly fight and die for (especially the freedom not to watch another TRANSFORMERS or Tarantino movie). It’s entertaining to read how the Chinese pay no attention whatsoever to our most important freedom of all – “free trade” – and limit the screening of foreign films in China to 34 films a year. The only way to circumvent the trade restraint (long ago abolished in “free” countries like Britain and Mexico, which are as a result swamped with American film and TV garbage) is to make your film a co-production with Chinese producers: censorship requirements apply in either case.

So it goes, when big corporate money is the only thing that matters and film is no longer treated as a personal statement, or an art.

Many thanks to Jerry Donaghy for the copy of Harry Harrison’s original Plague From Space. I’ve read it and am preparing a comparative essay on this and the subsequent Jupiter Plague, for your and his entertainment. One immediate observation: paperback books in the 1960s had much better cover art than in the 1980s. Why?

Meanwhile, modesty forbids me from sharing this review with you. It’s of a little book I wrote about the parallel lives of President Kennedy and his alleged assassin. It comes out next week in the US, courtesy of Feral House, and in the UK in November. The title is The President and The Provocateur.

THE PLAGUE FROM SPACE…

Within the same twelve month period (1965-66) Harry Harrison finished three science fiction novels. MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! was his serious take on overpopulation, the only one of his books (so far) to have been filmed. BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO was something he’d been working on for several years — probably since he read STARSHIP TROOPERS and was so pissed off by it. And there was a third book, too: a short novel called THE PLAGUE FROM SPACE. A few years after PLAGUE was published, Michael Crighton published his own novel about a plague from space, which got made into a tedious major motion picture. This annoyed Harry since he felt that Crighton borrowed much of his plot and all of his research (it’s one of his books, like WEST OF EDEN, which came from a process of research and collaboration with gen-u-ine scientists — the way science fiction used to be). So Harry re-worked the book and republished it as THE JUPITER PLAGUE.

Last week, the used bookstores of Oregon yielded up two of Harry’s works – another copy of BILL (can’t have too many of them!) and THE JUPITER PLAGUE, which I had never read before. I haven’t yet found a copy of THE PLAGUE FROM SPACE so can’t comment on how different the two books are. What impresses me is the sheer hard work of which H.H. was capable: three novels in a year, at least one of them a masterpiece.

Yet it’s a puzzling book, as well — hard to believe it’s from the pen of the man who wrote BILL, since it’s heroes are hard-charging medics and army generals (in other words, the people who cause all the problems and stupidity in Harry’s anti-war tract). Thinking about it, all three books — written the same year — seem to contradict each other: BILL is entirely cynical and shows no respect for any authority, of any kind; the hero of MAKE ROOM! is an honest, if ineffectual, police detective; the protagonists of PLAGUE are all authority figures: doctors, cops, the military. All are good, entertaining reads. PLAGUE is the weakest of the three, though it comes back to life splendidly in its final pages when the presence of an incomprehensible alien being aboard the plague ship, managing the viral attacks, is revealed.

But what did Harry think? Are MAKE ROOM! and PLAGUE just “work novels” while BILL reveals the author’s true feelings? Or were there no true feelings — just books? Like most of his contemporaries, Harry wrote fast, aiming for first publication in science fiction magazines, and wrote for a living: that was how he and the family survived. And the market in the mid-sixties was still for “hard”, science-based science fiction (the fashion for imps and elves and dragons and Star Trek/Wars which has devastated the modern medium had not yet occurred) so books like MAKE ROOM! and PLAGUE were more likely to find a publisher. Remember that BILL was rejected by Harry’s regular publisher and it was only the enthusiasm of his dear wife Joan, who found it hilarious, that kept him working on it.

BILL is also unusual in that there is no hard science in it. The Bloater Drive, the dehydrator ray, the robot humans with lizards instead of brains, all is entertaining and full of meaning, but not the kind of meaning a DUNE fan would understand. I love Harry’s writing, but feel that in some books – like the EDEN trilogy and PLAGUE – he was shackled by his science fiction writer’s respect for hard science. He was an intelligent man and he wanted the science to be right – but often that stuff just gets in the way of the story, slowing the narrative pace as the author gets into the nitty-gritty of viruses or reptilian warm-bloodedness. Whereas in BILL, his own experiences were the story. Despite the insanity of it all, nothing was made up or needed to be “researched”. Everything that happens in BILL had happened, one way or another, to Harry Harrison. Many of those things have happened to you and me, too. There is truth in BILL of a greater depth than mere scientific accuracy or historical veracity. Which is why it will endure, I think. (Better make a good film of it, then!)

Revisiting these sixties science fiction books has led me to compile a short list of science fiction stories which may encourage us as we begin work on the film. I really compiled it for my students, but I’ll share it here, and add to it as I remember the titles which are currently eluding me… In no particular order, if you’re interested in reading some outstanding “hard” science fiction, I recommend:

Who Can Replace a Man?, by Brian Aldiss

Lot, by Ward Moore

The Only Thing We Can Learn, by C.M. Kornbluth

The Tunnel Under The World, by Frederic Pohl

Children of the Night, also by Frederic Pohl

Hell is the Absence of God, by Ted Chaing

Sound of Thunder, by Ray Bradbury

Poor Little Warrior, also by Brian Aldiss

(Oh, and here’s a plug for a written offering of my own. Please buy it at your local independent bookstore, or from the publishers!)