AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS AND THE VIETNAM WAR

galaxy_science_fiction_magazineAs a lad I read science fiction magazines: NEW WORLDS SF, plus imports of the American SF mags GALAXY and ANALOG. I vaguely remembered seeing a petition signed by numerous science fiction writers, back in the 1960s, either opposing or supporting the Viet Nam War. But truth to tell – though Bill, The Galactic Hero is infused with the outrage and the energy of those times – I had forgotten about the petition until I read this, in Isaac Asimov’s introduction to a Poul Anderson story in The Hugo Winners, Vol. 2.

“The Vietnam war has divided the microcosm of the science fiction writer as it has the United States as a whole. I, myself, for instance, am a liberal and, in connection with Vietnam, I am a dove. I always have been. Practically everyone thinks now [1971] that getting into an Asian land-war was a mistake, but I thought so even when we were in the process of getting into it, and said so loudly.

“Naturally, then, when a statement was handed around at a science fiction convention urging immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, I signed it at once. That statement with a number of names of science fiction personalities attached, was published in a science fiction magazine. But there are conservatives among us, too, and prominent on that list is Poul Anderson. When he heard of the dove statement, he prepared a hawk statement in which signers urged the government to remain in Vietnam until its aims were achieved. The competing statement was also published.

“Fears were expressed at the time that this would create storms and divisions among science fiction writers and would break up our camaraderie in a tempest of controversy. Well, if the statements have done so, I haven’t noticed it. Our mutual identification as fellow science fiction writers persists above and beyond lesser divisions.”

How nice for Asimov that he was able to remain collegial with fellow authors who supported the massacre of the Vietnamese peasantry and the environmental degradation of their country. I am less forgiving of fools who believe that war is a good thing, or that using violence solves problems. But like Asimov I jealously guard the distinction between “liberals” who initially supported massive war against Viet Nam / Serbia / Afghanistan / Iraq, and belatedly realised they were wrong, and those of us who oppose war on principle, whether the grounds are religious, intellectual, or environmental.

Feeling this way, I have come to the conclusion that those who advocate for wicked things are deficient in imagination. If you could conceive of what it feels like to be “carpet bombed”, or force-fed, or waterboarded, or to see your children and family members and the first responders who try to save them killed by drones, you might not be so keen to promote such things in the public sphere. Most would agree that Tony Blair is a money-hungry war criminal; yet he was given the finest education a young English person can receive, care of St. Johns College, Oxford, and his tutor tells me he received a decent degree. Since Blair cannot be considered stupid, and since greed alone surely cannot account for such monomaniacal wickedness, I can only assume he is a sociopath: entirely lacking in empathy for those who suffer from his follies, he is an individual without imagination.

Are not all science fiction writers imaginative souls – at least in theory? I sought out the statements about which Asimov wrote: the “petitions” I had seen. As you know, everything is on the internet. And there they were – courtesy of geophysician/composer/writer Nat Tilander. Tilander, who died recently, ran across the paid ad in Galaxy, June 1968, scanned it and posted it. His fascinating site is the only place I’ve found it.

72 science fiction writers wrote, “We the undersigned believe the United States must remain in Vietnam to fulfill its responsibilities to the people of that country.” Among those whose names I recognise are Anderson, Leigh Brackett, Fredric Brown, John W. Campbell, Hal Clement, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert A. Heinlein, Larry Niven, Jerry E. Pournelle, R.A. Lafferty, Fred Saberhagen, Jack Vance, and Jack Williamson.

On the anti-war side, 82 signers wrote, “We oppose the participation of the United States in the war in Vietnam.” Names I know are Forrest J. Ackerman, Asimov, James Blish, Ray Bradbury, Samuel R. Delaney, Lester del Rey, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Philip Jose Farmer, Daniel Keyes, Damon Knight, Ursula K. LeGuin, Fritz Leiber, Judith Merril, Gene Roddenberry, T.L. Sherred, Robert Silverberg, Kate Wilhelm, Donald A. Wollheim … and Harry Harrison.

It would be wrong, and pointless, to attempt some facile comparison of the two groups… So let’s do it!   Not all signers were contemporary science fiction authors: John W. Campbell and Donald A. Wollheim were editor/publishers; Gene Roddenberry was the creator of Star Trek; Forest J. Ackerman was the illustrious editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland. But they were all science fiction insiders – Campbell most of all. The distinction I would draw between the two groups is that while both contain very good storytellers, the focus of the “pro-war” group is technocratic. They wrote (not in every case, but often) about the tough mechanics of space exploration and colonization, and encounters with alien species tend to the apocalyptic. The “anti-war” group is – dare I say it – less technically-focused. Ray Bradbury’s and Philip K. Dick’s characters travel through space and time, but neither writer cares how the machinery works. They care what the result is.

The wording of the petitions tells us something about those who formulated them. The “anti-war” group has one message only: opposition to US participation in the war in Viet Nam. Its words are squiggly – as if the “war” could exist independently of the United States’ pursuit of it. But its meaning is clear. Whereas the “pro-war” group’s statement is simultaneously complex and incomplete. The authors believe “the United States” (presumably they mean the United States military) should remain in Viet Nam, with no specified time frame, in order to fulfill responsibilities (unspecified) to the (unspecified) people of that nation. Much is hinted at, but not addressed. It feels cobbled-together, as if “to defeat communism” has been papered over with a vaguer veneer of responsibilities, one day to be fulfilled.

Space exploration in science fiction is often treated like war. Men are loaded aboard giant spacecraft which blast with crushing G-forces through the atmosphere. There are casualties on takeoff and on landing; some of the ships don’t make it, breaking up in the thin atmosphere of Mars… A very good story in this vein is What’s It Like Out There? by Gordon R. Dickson, about a returning astronaut with PTS. (Dickson, a Canadian, didn’t sign either petition.) And a lot of science fiction stories of the Clement/Saberhagen school tend to dwell on the mechanics and technology which runs in the background of their stories. Campbell, the editor, encouraged this.  So it may be that the technocrat camp saw Viet Nam as McNamara did: a technocratic challenge, which could be mastered by logistics, money and technology, rather than a human one. Focused on fixes, they ignored the problem.

As far as talent goes… come on! Comparisons may be invidious, but the “anti-war” group is by far the better group of writers. Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin, Judith Merril, Harlan Ellison, Harry Harrison! What unites them? They do not believe that technology will save us. And they believe that we are all human (or aliens or replicants), and that that counts.

This doesn’t mean that the humanists can be bested in the horrors-of-space-exploration stakes, either. In this area, Ray Bradbury’s Mars is Heaven! – written in 1948 – is not to be missed.

(Speaking of the horrors of space, Bill, The Galactic Hero the film proceeds apace. Its world premiere will be at the International Film Series in Boulder, Colorado, on December 12.)

AGAINST BOKEH

In the new issue of Film Comment, Violet Lucca writes about the narrative fiction films at SXSW: “Over and over, the same tired visual aesthetics – endless two shots, extreme closeups, identical color palettes, soft focus, and bokeh effects — were competently deployed…”

The same week I read that a New York Times critic was complaining about the paper’s policy of reviewing every feature which plays theatrically in that city. Apparently – while there is comparatively little theatrical market for independent films – the appearance of a theatrical life is crucial in order to  differentiate one’s indy New-Yorkers-on-a-caper movie from all the other indy New-Yorkers-on-a-caper movies vying for … for …

Vying for what, exactly? A couple of decades ago I and other filmmakers would occasionally “four wall” a film in the cinema. I did it with DEATH & THE COMPASS. We didn’t make any money doing this: but – like screening the film in festivals – it raised the profile of the picture and counted towards better television and video or DVD sales. Since 2008 DVD and TV revenues have tanked (at least in this producer’s experience); meanwhile, who has seen substantial revenue, or any revenue, from streams or downloads?

One of the producers of SLACKER 2011 told me he didn’t think independent film should necessarily be “monetizable” any more. He felt that films would continue to be made for their own sake, as art, and – presumably – made available for free. With a crowd-funded budget, a filmmaker doesn’t have to worry about “the back end”, nor can she be judged by how much money her last picture made, so cutting the toxic bonds of owing money from the process should result in better, freer art.

But will it? Violet Lucca’s list of repetitive visual aesthetics is shocking. I plead guilty to the two-shot crime (I would always prefer to see two actors in the frame than be subjected to the more-tedious and predictable “exchange of close-ups”). But I agree with her about the rest. Leone and Peckinpah made high art from extreme closeups, but they were working with interesting faces (Lee Van Cleef! Gian Maria Volonte! Emilio Fernandez! Warren Oates!) rather than the current crop of fetus-pups. The problem of identical color palettes is serious and extends beyond indy movies. Consider the trailers for the superhero and action fare: all cool-blue office suites, followed by warm-orange diesel explosions. What weirdo market research / psy-op dictated these arbitrary color palettes to a generation of gaffers and art departments?

And thence to soft focus, a.k.a. bokeh. “Bokeh” is a word invented by the Japanese, I think, to describe the quality of an out-of-focus background. Somehow, a “film look” – meaning something shot on video which manages to look like film – has been conflated, by photography magazines and certain filmmakers, with “bokeh”. According to this theory, all you need do is open up the lens and throw the background out of focus, and your Red epic will look like it was shot on 35mm film!

This is wrong. Also, it is a courts martial offence, punishable by death. When we talk film, we are talking narrative storytelling. An out-of-focus background is an out-of-focus background, a technical matter of no concern to anyone but the cameraperson and her focus puller. It says something about their unique and detail-oriented culture that the Japanese could come up with the concept of “bokeh”, develop it, and rate lenses on the basis of it. But it has nothing to do with film per se. Here are two images, one with bokeh, one without.

Bokeh_Lizardfig. 1Al_Mulockfig.2

Both, I think, are good. Bokeh is inevitable when one’s subject is very tiny and some
distance away, as in fig. 1; but when working with an experienced actor like Al Mulock and a great set by Giancarlo Simi (fig. 2), the filmmaker can celebrate his visage and  the location simultaneously. One might argue that the latter – a wide-lens image with everything in focus – is more cinematic. I would argue that. Certainly it is harder to do.

CITIZEN KANE, still regarded by one or two old fuddy-duddies as the greatest motion picture of all time, is a triumph of wide-lens, everything-in-focus cinematography. Bokeh defenders will perhaps riposte, no, but, the out-of-focus background shows that character’s alienation from their environment, and… I get it. But it’s also possible to show their alienation, on location, through framing, or through acting, or afterwards, through editing or sound design.  But this is harder work, because you must deal with the environment, rather than throw it out of focus to hide the stuff that doesn’t look right.

Meanwhile, Mick LaSalle complains in the San Francisco Chronicle that it’s impossible to review GODZILLA or the bulk of the crop of visual effects films because the human element is so diminished: the actors are reduced to minor players who flee while dinosaurs fight and things explode. I know what he means, because in the ideal world  I too would rather see a movie in which Al Mulock got to act, rather than a CGI version of Stumpy in fig. 1 destroy Las Vegas. On the other hand, Mulock is dead (he died, sadly and bizarrely, before the above scene was complete) and only CGI can bring him back, as it’s done with Hepburn and McQueen. And on the other, other hand, I still enjoy seeing giant reptiles destroy cities.

Lucca and the Times critic and LaSalle are all addressing the problem that the current model isn’t working. “Indy” films are stuck in a rut as deep as that of the giant-monster, super-hero, talking-animal Hollywood model. Both are cautious and technology-dependent. Both are relying on formulae – the rom-com, humans versus giant monsters flee! flee! – which were out-dated in the 1950s.

This cinema must change. When good films get made, they stand out. For me, HOLY MOTORS and A FIELD IN ENGLAND are very encouraging signs. But there must be many more films and filmmakers willing to break with the conventions of their world, giant or small, and to escape the genre traps they’ve dug themselves into, like the hole-diggers of A FIELD IN ENGLAND.

If you’re going to go to all the trouble of filming an indy film, why the heck don’t you do something with it? Make something that amazes people, or f##ing well freaks them out? Show us something we haven’t seen before – not something that disgusts us necessarily, but certainly something that challenges our expectations and surprises us.

And if you’re in the business of throwing away hundreds of millions of corporate dollars on mindless entertainment, why not really go for it and dispense with actors and plot entirely? There is no dignity in running back and forth in front of a green screen pointing at where the giant monster will be, nor in writing scripts in which such scenes unfold. Get rid of the humans, the scientists, the soldiers, the love interest, the minority children, and the screenwriters, and give us ninety minutes of solid monsters fighting.

Phil Tippett is heading in an original direction with MAD GOD, an unconventional sf-horror tale without protagonist or traditional narrative. Right now it’s 20 crowdfunded minutes long, but why not 90? Or 120? He cannot be alone in this. King Harvest must surely come!

MOON STUDIOS

I’m pleased to report that my good friend Merritt Crocker has posted his film MOON STUDIOS online. I had the pleasure of playing a small role in it, along with some fine actors – Shayne Hearndon, Usama Alshaibi, and others – and I think it turned out pretty darn good. The black and white aesthetic reminds me of certain influential independent features from the early 1980s, but there’s no easy way to describe it, or its peculiar interest in EGGS…

You can watch MOON STUDIOS here.

And, if you so desire, you can download music from the picture here and here.

There’s also a facebook page, so if your viewing of MOON STUDIES becomes an obsessive quest for further information, a search for meaning, or at very least a ladder to the rooftop conservatory, you can try here to attempt to make sense of it all…

To Moon Studios Avaunt!

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