Thursday, 26 May 2011

The Guardian Science Fiction List - part two


Walter M Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), the choice of Ken Macleod in the Guardian science fiction writers’ list of favourite novels or writers, brings us into the 1960s, although in a slightly misleading way, since it is in fact a product of the 1950s, both in terms of original publication and in its outlook and concerns. Its three constituent parts first saw the light of day in short story form in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (which was generally thought, under the editorship of Horace Gold, to favour fiction from the more literary or soft science end of the speculative spectrum) in that decade, and the whole is certainly haunted by the fears of nuclear destruction which underlay the era. It is significant in its explicit use of religious themes and language; the novel’s three sections are entitled Fiat Homo, Fiat Lux and Fiat Voluntas Tua – let there be man, let there be light and let thy will be done. The monastic order of St Leibowitz (he is canonised during the course of the book) acts as a repository and protector of what remains of human knowledge during the periods in which the cycle of history takes a decadent turn towards chaos and collapse. The eternal verities of religion provide a stable sense of continuity within the violent flux of historical progress and decline, Miller suggests. Science fiction has often approached the condition of a religious literature for the post-Enlightenment, rationalist age, usually in a less direct and unreconstructed fashion than A Canticle for Leibowitz. It shares many of the same concerns as religions, exploring the question of what it is to be human (the nature of the soul, in theological terms), attempting to describe transcendent states (communion), depicting moments of conceptual breakthrough (revelation), encompassing vast swathes of time and cosmological perspectives, displaying an apocalyptic turn of mind which looks ahead to the end of all things, and evincing a strong sense of mysticism in its testing of the boundaries of perception. It has to be said that JG Ballard, during the New Worlds period, took violent opposition to this viewpoint, as he made perfectly clear in a review in a 1971 edition of Books and Bookmen (included in the collection A User’s Guide to the Millenium under the title Fictions of Every Kind). ‘Science fiction is totally atheistic’, he asserts. ‘Those critics in the past who have found any mystical strains at work have been blinded by the camouflage. Science fiction is much more concerned with the significance of the gleam on an automobile instrument panel than on the deity’s posterior’. I suspect that this was more of a provocation, a broadside in his ongoing manifesto for his own personal variant of the genre, than a genuine attempt to reduce it to such narrow material concerns. Otherwise we may as well jettison pretty much the entirety of Philip K. Dick’s oeuvre.

Thomas M Disch tells it like it is
Science fiction has, indeed, shown a regrettable tendency to engender its own cults and crank beliefs, stemming from a combination of need (exhibiting varying degrees of desperation), a shared sense of group identity (with common symbology and ‘secret’ knowledge), and a collapse or folding in of the distinction between invented and actual reality. UFOs, visitors from the stars and enhanced sensory perceptions form the latterday matter of religious iconography, with alien abduction experiences the modern martyrs way. SF now has its own religions (craven cowardice prevents me from mentioning the most obvious, and successful) which develop their own pseudo-scientific ontology. Thomas M Disch has commented upon this tendency in his 1975 essay The Embarrassments of SF, identifying the comforts of cult beliefs and the sense of being special which they infer, making a virtue of apartness. ‘Deny outright the wisdom of the world and be initiated to a secret wisdom’, he writes of the cultist’s choice. ‘Become a true believer – it matters not the faith, so long as it is at variance with theirs. All millennialist religions have their origins in this need for creating a counter-culture. As religion loses its unique authority, almost any bizarre set of beliefs can become the focus of a sense of Election. Whatever the belief, the rationale for it is the same: The so-called authorities are a pack of fools and frauds with minds closed to any but their own ideas. Just because they’ve published books doesn’t mean a thing. There are other books that are in complete opposition. Beginning with such arguments, and armed with the right book, one may find one’s way to almost any conclusion one might take a fancy to: hollow earths, Dean drives, the descent of mankind from interstellar visitors’.

Walter Miller was a Catholic, a highly organised and deterministic belief system which would seem to be incompatible with the speculative nature of science fiction, and indeed of science, particularly given the Church’s historical antipathy towards the furtherance of human knowledge through empirical means. But the novel manages to reconcile the two worlds in salutary fashion. The appearance of the wandering Jew introduces an interesting intersection of storytelling modes – the character from biblical fable intruding into the science fictional future. The ambiguous frisson which this incongruous clash sparks is left unresolved. Thankfully, Miller doesn’t offer any shaggy dog explanations for his seeming immortality: he is a time traveller/mutant/alien/clone descendent etc. There is nothing here analogous to the old chestnut in which the sole survivors of a nuclear war discover each other and introduce themselves as Adam and Eve.

A Canticle For Leibowitz is overt in its religiosity in a way that few SF novels are, CS Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet trilogy being one (or three) other example(s). A later sequence, The Book of the New Sun, written by another Catholic writer, Gene Wolfe, is filled with religious imagery and symbolism, but it is left implicit, embedded within the nature of the world depicted and in the narrative stations arrived during the anti-hero’s picaresque progress. It is up to the reader to unearth these signs and make of them what they will. The world of The Book of the New Sun bears some resemblance to the opening of A Canticle for Leibowitz in that it is set in a period long after the decline and fall of our civilisation, the technological relics and ephemera from which are present in transfigured form, unrecognised and absorbed into the landscape and incorporated into everyday furnishings. Gene Wolfe is acclaimed as a literary hero elsewhere in the Guardian by Neil Gaiman, for whom he wrote an introduction to a volume of the Sandman collections (as did several of Neil’s other literary heroes, such as Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delany and Roger Zelazny). A Canticle for Leibowitz is an interestingly idiosyncratic choice for Ken Macleod to make, given that he is known for he left-leaning SF, which draws on an entirely different stream, wholly disconnected from the genre’s spiritual aspect; the utopian/dystopian mode, which is more explicitly concerned with the material world and the alternate social and political models which can be cast from its component parts.

JG Ballard’s The Voices of Time (1960) and Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse (1961), the choices of Christopher Priest and Stephen Baxter respectively, are more appropriate entry points into the 60s, a decade during which SF changed in decisive ways, subjected to one of the transforming waves which swept through many aspects of culture in this time. Ballard and Aldiss would go on to become centrally involved in Michael Moorcock’s reconfiguration of New Worlds magazine into a laboratory for formal and stylistic expereiment. Both The Voices of Time and Hothouse are, in their own individual ways, genre elegies. The Voices of Time is an early short story (he had begun publishing in 1956 with the stories Escapement and Prima Belladonna) which lent its title to Ballard’s first collection. It is like a template for his future fictions, containing many of the elements to which he would obsessively return throughout the 60s and 70s: the drained and cracked swimming pools; the medical reports from neurological wards, and x-ray photos of spinal sections; the mentally unstable astronauts who refuse to fulfil their official mission, devising their own private one instead; the depersonalised characters, known only by their surname (a very English upper middle class touch); the invocations of Pacific H-bomb sites, as if they are sacred names, and the use of the phrase ‘goodbye Eniwetok’; the intuitively driven pursuit of ‘mad’ artistic creations (sculptures, collage and bricolage) and the idea of psychopathology as a breakthrough to a different order of perception, or of being in an evolving world; the identification, collusion and collaboration of the main character with the ongoing disaster; the flat, dessicated planes upon which objects of suggestive power and psychological resonance are placed – radio telescopes, concrete military bunkers, targets and blast shields, modern architecture, and road systems (all of which is an expression of Ballard’s love of the surrealist landscape, with its idiosyncratic juxtaposition of forms); the merging of consciousness with geological time; and above all, the deliberate disconnection from the outer world in favour of the exploration of inner space. The final lines of The Voices of Time seem like an eulogy for the kind of outwardly directed SF which Ballard was turning his back on, a farewell to the grandiose dreams of conquering the universe. Kaldren, the one character who is not (thanks to radical surgery) succumbing to increased periods of sleep leading to an eventual state of permanent narcoma, ends up ‘thinking to himself, as he would do through the coming months, of Powers and his strange mandala (the mad art), and of the seven and their journey to the white gardens of the moon (the astronauts), and the blue people who had come from Orion and spoken in poetry to them of ancient beautiful worlds beneath the golden suns in the island galaxies, vanished for ever now in the myriad deaths of the cosmos’.

Alien Landscapes - in French
Brian Aldiss’ Houthouse (1961) is also an endpoint book, a decadent scientific romance which takes the form to the point of lush, overripe stasis. I first encountered its vision of a far future world via the illustrations in Alien Landscapes, a book written and edited by Robert Holdstock and Malcolm Edwards which featured artists interpreting various worlds from science fiction literature. The Time Machine and Dune were also included, but the scenes from Hothouse were by far the strangest. Whereas many scientific romances, from Wells’ The Time Machine, through David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus and Sydney Fowler Wright’s The World Below, to CS Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet feature contemporary characters who bring a modern perspective to bear upon the worlds of situations into which they journey or are cast, Hothouse is set in a far future world in which Aldiss’ protagonists are part of a devolved human species, which is now much diminished and bereft of civilisation or any great, distinguishing intelligence to differentiate them from their engulfing environment. Aldiss’ book, unlike the typical scientific romance, is characterised by much humour and playful inventiveness, a joy in the exercise of the imagination for its own sake. The aftershocks of Darwin’s theories had died away by this point in the twentieth century, and man’s relative insignificance in the mysterious and largely opaque cosmic schema was widely taken as a given. As such, it could be the source of amused contemplation and philosophical reflection rather than overwhelming anxiety. Aldiss’ characters live in the canopy of a planet-spanning tree, and have slipped significantly down the branches of the great chain of being. Now part of the flora and fauna, they are pre-occupied, in common with all creatures subject to predation, with the arduous daily business of staying alive. Such instinctive and unvarying purpose would perhaps become rather dull for the reader after a short while, but the main character, Gren, is possessed for a significant portion of the book by a symbiotic fungus, the Morel, which directs him with a controlling intelligence. This creature is like a sort of external extension of the brain – consciousness and higher mental processes as parasitic infection. Aldiss would explore ideas about the development of consciousness and the human in speculative but non-fictional fashion in his 1973 book of reflections, The Shape of Further Things.

The earth and moon in Hothouse have ceased their revolutions, and hang static in the sky, which is filled with a bloated sun well on its way to going nova. It is a permanently sunlit evening of the world, akin to that witnessed by the time traveller at the end of Wells’ short novel. But here, instead of crab like creatures inhabiting a terminal beach, humanity persists in a recognisable form. Aldiss has absorbed the humbling perspectives of the British scientific romance tradition, but he retains a sense of optimism in the stubborn continuity of life. Ballard would go on to be the central figurehead for the New Worlds writers, setting a stylistic and thematic example which others followed. Whilst Aldiss also participated fully in the magazine’s programme of genre de- and reconstruction, producing works which were as uncompromisingly experimental as any (Barefoot in the Head and Report on Probability A), he remained at a certain remove from its more fervent core of young turks. His role was as much as an enabler, an ambassadorial middleman who could forge links with the literary establishment, as it was an iconoclast, and he always maintained an affection for and connection with the tradition. Hothouse in some ways anticipated the concerns of the new wave in its lush decadance, its interest in human consciousness and psychology, its undermining of the triumphalist tone of some American magazine SF, and its openness about sex. But Aldiss eschews the defining metaphor of New Worlds, that of entropy. The world of Hothouse may be a terminal one, but it is anti-entropic, ripe and crawling with fecund and devouring life.

The other two novels from the 60s, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Ursula le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (chosen by Adam Roberts and Kim Stanley Robinson, who are both SF critics as well as authors), offer the pleasures of planet building: the creation of new landscapes with their own flora and fauna, climate and geology, with culture, religions and social structures overlaid. The planet Arrakis in Dune is a desert world, whereas The Left Hand of Darkness’ Gethen is a wintry place, locked in the middle of an ice age. Landscape has always played a central role in SF, connecting it with the nineteenth century tradition of the romantic sublime. SF magazine cover art, when not depicting spaceships, futuristic cityscapes or bizarre aliens would often depict planetary landscapes with details that made their unearthly aspect apparent: green oceans washing upon vermillion sands beneath violet skies, with a spiral galaxy setting below the horizon. Such landscapes, in common with those of the nineteenth century Romantics, might or might not feature small figures or distant cities, which function as indicators of scale, highlighting the awesome nature of the spectacle. Ursula le Guin, in her essay Science Fiction and Mrs Brown, talks about how the original imaginative kernel of her books often forms as an image of a character in a particular landscape. Of The Left Hand of Darkness, she writes ‘once…I saw two of them. As my vision is not ironic, but romantic, they were small figures, remote, in a tremendous waste landscape of ice and snow. They were pulling a sledge or something over the ice, hauling together. That is all I saw…but that is how the novel The Left Hand of Darkness began, and when I think of the book, it is still that vision I see’. Imaginary landscapes and strange geographies can sound a particular emotional or psychological resonance themselves, as well as reflecting the inner state of the characters who pass across or though them. The lack of depth in characterisation is one criticism frequently levelled at SF, but that character can reside just as much in ‘emotional landscapes’, as Bjork once put it.

The nature of the arid world of Arrakis in Dune, and the way in which the lives and culture and religion (and religion is very important here) of its inhabitants are affected by the harsh environment are certainly what remains with me from my early teen reading of the book. I remember virtually nothing of the plot, and seem to recall that it rather washed over me at the time. The books were ubiquitous at the time, with their distinctive and relatively text free covers by Bruce Pennington proving attractively eye-catching on the shelves or revolving wire racks. His painting for the cover of Children of Dune, with its large moon hanging pendulant in a green sky, was particularly memorable. On all three of the original books, he avoided the temptation of depicting the novels’ memorable alien creatures, the giant sandworms, which would have been the obvious visual choice. I refer to novels here because Dune also illustrates SF’s tendency to mine its richest planets or imagined futures, sequel following sequel, until they are completely stripped of their last resources. At this point some great transforming event might be introduced (a terraforming, say), which allows things to proceed, the plot contrivances tending to become evermore strained. I was never tempted to venture beyond the original novel, even though the following two sat upon my shelves for some time (those covers, you see), but Herbert continued to produce until his death, at which point his son Brian took over. So now you can follow the machinations of the various warring factions through Dune Messiah, Children of Dune, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, Chapter House Dune and if you still want more, some 12 further novels written by Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson.

It’s in many ways an odd choice by Adam Roberts (and one which is again accompanied by reminiscences of a childhood reading) – a bestseller which has failed to find a permanent place in the hearts of many SF readers. David Pringle begrudgingly included it in his 1985 survey of Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels; it’s impact was such that it could hardly be left out. But he does nothing to disguise his personal dislike for it, highlighting its stylistic awkwardness and observing how ‘blood-and-thunder clichés jostle with ingenious speculations’. Of the narrative, driven by factional plotting and hierarchical struggles, he writes ‘personally, I detest all the courtly-intrigue stuff – it is as though Herbert wants his readers to live in an eternal Middle Ages of the mind’. It’s true to say that if the genre trappings were subtly altered – sandworms turned into dragons, say, and technologies replaced by a system of sorcery – then this would become a standard epic fantasy, with all the particular concerns of that genre. Sometimes the devices of SF are just props, with no intrinsic importance to the narrative, which could proceed quite happily without them, and are therefore interchangeable. Spaceships for horses, aliens for orcs.

Dune was a cult book for the 60s counter-culture, which is no doubt in large part because of Herbert’s depiction of drug use leading to transcendent states and higher knowledge. Similarly, Robert A Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land was a big hippie favourite due to its advocacy of free love and its invention of a new fictional religion (inevitably, a real version now exists in California). The fact that they also swallowed its libertarian aspects throws an interesting light on the contradictory nature of hippiedom, demonstrating its disconnection from liberal and left wing traditions. Both Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land centre on the rise of strong characters who become cult leaders, attracting a large and fanatically loyal following through the espousal of libertarian views. As David Pringle points out in his overview of Dune, ‘with its emphasis on hierarchy, messianic leadership and militaristic virtues it gives off a faint musk of fascism – an aroma which, I regret to say, does make for popularity’. Cultishness, with its shared language of difference (and SF is very good at neologising), can focus feelings of disillusionment – of not belonging – and create a new view of the world which becomes all encompassing, fanatically adhered to. As Thomas M Disch elaborates in his essay The Embarassments of SF, ‘resentment may be universal, but it is also universally dangerous, for the political programmes of the resentful inevitably savours of totalitarianism and a spirit of revenge. Once they attain to political power the know-nothings can have a sweet triumph over the tell-it-alls by declaring that the Earth is flat or Einstein is a heretic. The books of one’s enemies can be burned or re-edited’. The world can be continually remodelled, rewritten.

The Left Hand of Darkness looks forward to the countercultural preoccupations of the 70s, with its focus on the nature of gender, and how it is culturally as well as biologically determined. Le Guin’s sexually indeterminate Gethenians, who can become either male or female during rare periods of fertility, are a fine example of the way in which the invention of alien species can be used to delineate difference, and in doing so reflect back upon the givens of human behaviour and custom from a conceptual remove (something akin to the ‘cognitive estrangement’ famously posited by Darko Suvin, the SF critic with a SF name). Le Guin’s Taoist outlook is evident in the very title of the novel – the left hand of darkness being light Her idea of the constantly shifting balance of the universe and the way in which small human gestures can play their part in affecting its course evinces a far less forceful and violent notion of change and evolution than that envisioned by Frank Herbert in Dune. Le Guin’s novel looks forward to the more humanist strands of SF written from the 70s onwards by the likes of Kim Stanley Robinson and Michael Bishop (which could certainly be seen as living up to the hopes for a more character based SF expressed in her essay Science Fiction and Mrs Brown) rather than the radically engaged feminist SF of the 70s, although her fiction has never lacked a political side. Her lengthy short story The Word for World is Forest, published in Harlan Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions anthology, was unmistakeably a parable of America’s engagement in the Vietnam war. Her coolly balanced philosophical outlook militates against angry didacticism or salutary satire. Even when she wrote an utopia/dystopia (The Dispossessed), it admitted of ambiguity on both sides of the divide, the light containing seeds of darkness, and the dark of light.

Entering the 1970s, Audrey Niffenegger chooses Jack Finney’s Time and Again, a novel which uses its borderline SF narrative machinery to turn its gaze backwards with nostalgic longing to the New York of 1882. Already the future was looking less like an exciting location of gleaming possibility. Finney was best known for his 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, the direct basis for three direct film adaptations (which, Abel Ferrara’s 90s model aside, added the prefaratory ‘Invasion of’) and the inspiration for many more indirect variants on the theme. Time and Again is almost completely forgotten, and this is obviously a very personal choice on Niffenegger’s part, perhaps influencing her own illustrated fantasies (one of which, The Night Bookmobile, was serialised in The Guardian a few years back, and is one of the best things she's done).

Roadside Picnic (1972), by the Russian brothers Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, is the only non-English language selection included in this selection, and is chosen by Hari Kunzru, who has already revealed his early love of SF in The Guardian in the introduction to his recent interview with Michael Moorcock. It is an illustrative example of the popularity of SF within totalitarian societies. The genre offers a means by which forbidden subjects can be tangentially touched upon, using SF’s apparatus of dissociation, distancing and indirection – its material embodiment of metaphor and simile. The novel is a story of alien visitation in which the miraculous event goes unwitnessed (or at least unreported) and is now little more than a fable, a story heard at second-hand, its truthfulness never more than a matter of vague conjecture. The echoes of this visitation, the vibrations from arcane technologies which are sealed off within a forbidden ‘zone’, become the objects of latterday grail quests. This despite the fact that whatever the visitors deposited is likened to the rubbish left behind by careless people who had stopped by for a brief picnic. These echoes are like the fallout from historical events, their real nature distorted and made obscure by official obfuscation, and the recurrent editing and retelling of the past. The book was used as the source material for Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, as previously mentioned.Tarkovsky de-emphasised the science fictional elements in favour of a meditative spiritual quality, chipping away at the chrome gilding of the spaceship to find an altarpiece beneath. It’s interesting to not that elsewhere in The Guardian Review’s SF special mention is made of Han Song, the most popular author of SF in China, and of the increasing popularity of the genre in the country. Naturally, this has led to a government crackdown. Most of Song’s books have been banned at one time or another, and SF has been subject to the increasingly hardline controls being exerted by the government over the arts in general. SF allows for the positing of alternatives to the current dominant ideology and social hierarchy, for the possibility of change, and the totalitarian mindset polices such imaginative freedom ruthlessly, insisting upon one monolithic reality which they own, control and dream. All of which has been outlined with pitiless clarity in a science fiction novel, of course – George Orwell’s 1984 (and yes, it is SF).

William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), the choice of Scarlett Thomas, is another work essential to the history of the genre, although not one I have any great personal fondness for. It’s always seemed a little too self-consciously cool for its own good, constantly checking itself in the mirrored windows of corporate high-rises, something which could be said for the cyberpunk movement as a whole, for which it stands as the exemplary work. A fiction of gleaming surfaces consumer sheen, and filled with a violent, unreflective energy, it marked a point in time when the divide between science fiction and the increasingly technologised present from which its futures were extrapolated looked to grow ever narrower. The movement echoed Ballard and the new wave’s call to turn from outer towards inner space, but diverted the locus of that space from the human mind to digitally fashioned virtual worlds. The reliance of such fiction on an imagination defined by current and ever-changing technologies and the corporations which control and produce them, extended into a future magnifies them so that they are even more dominant and powerful, makes it both hugely influential and swiftly dated, in need of constant re-invention. Cyberpunk’s sub-generic branch was in some ways a victim of its own success, or more specifically that of Neuromancer. It defined and encompassed the different elements of the cyberpunk worldview so thoroughly and comprehensively that it left you with a sense that you didn’t need to read anymore. The point had been made. Samuel Delany described cyberpunk in a roughly contemporaneous interview from 1986 (reprinted under the title Toto, We’re Back in the collection Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction and Some Comics, in which he talks about…well, that) using terms which retrospectively highlights this dated quality: ‘To the extent that the cyberpunks can be characterised at all’, he prefaces his characterisation, ‘they seem to be very interested in the appurtenances of contemporary technology, that technology that combines computers, walkmen, and compact discs with artificial hearts, solar energy, designer drugs, and social control. Cyberpunk is the fiction of the microtechnologies that fall out of high-tech pockets to get swept up into life on the street. Their motto might be a line taken from Gibson…”The street finds its own use for things.”’

Octavia E Butler, the choice of Tricia Sullivan, was a protégé of Delany and Harlan Ellison, and her fiction continues the post modern trajectory of cyberpunk in its confident use of varying generic elements. I’ve not read any of her work (it seems to be rather difficult to get hold of in this country) so can’t really add much to what Sullivan writes. The fact that she is an African American woman is perhaps inevitably one which is deemed worthy of prominent mention. Issues of race do indeed occur in her work, in particular in the time travel novel Kindred, which finds a modern day African American woman travelling into the past and directly experiencing the suffering of her ancestors. But she seems to use the genre in a fairly straightforward way, and her explorations of power, generation and determinism don’t have the direct and occasionally simplistic thrust of the feminist writers of the 70s – a simplicity in the service of clarity and forthright partisanship. Writers such as Joanna Russ, who sadly passed away earlier this month, and whose The Female Man was the absolute peak of such uncompromisingly engaged fiction. Michael Moorcock, in his introduction to David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, observes that ‘Brian Aldiss once said that SF could never claim to be a mature form until as many women as men read it. I would agree, and add that the form overall (as opposed to many individual exceptions) will have come into its own when as many good women writers find it suitable for their needs. It would be a good sign, I think, if the next list of 100 Best SF Novels (from 1985) contained a predominance of books by women, and by black people…as the present list contains (for understandable reasons) a majority by white middle-class men. The potential is there. I continue to believe that it has a good chance of being realized’. Perhaps Butler’s example, and the fact that she wrote as a genre author (and someone who had always loved the genre herself) rather than someone identified (at least, not exclusively) as a black female writer holds out some hope. She was, in the end, simply a good science fiction writer.

The final two choices bring us more nearly up to date, although it is noticeable that the list essentially peters out in the early 80s with Neuromancer. SF has continued to be all-pervasive in popular culture, but there are fewer distinctly identifiable literary strands. Steampunk, which has spread beyond the world of fiction into those of fashion and design (not that these aren’t in themselves fictions) has produced some wonderful books, including novels by two of my favourite authors, James Blaylock and Tim Powers – Homonculus and The Anubis Gates. But is really just an example of the genre beginning to swallow its own tail (or tale). SF was prescient in its retromaniacal cannibalising of its futures past. Many have commented that we now live in a SF world, the birth of which (as modelled in Tokyo) was reflected in the cyberpunk fiction of Gibson and others. Neal Stephenson came out of the movement, producing late but imaginatively expansive and witty versions of the form with his novels Snowcrash (1992) and The Diamond Age (1995). Quicksilver (2003) is the first part of his Baroque Cycle of three huge novels, which eventually amount to a work amassing some 3,000 pages, making War and Peace seem like a brief pamphlet. Its vast, sprawling narrative is an expression of SF’s all-encompassing, encyclopaedic ambitions. As the title of the concluding volume would have it, this is an attempt to map the system of the world in all its combinatory aspects – political, military, cultural, spiritual and above all economic. And driving it all, the human motivations of love, hate, desire, revenge, greed and idealism, which are all the elements which make for a great story, of course. The whole sequence also indicates the diverse and hybrid nature of the forms which SF now adopts. Ostensibly, there is nothing science fictional about these books. They are historical fiction, set in a richly detailed (and we’re sometimes talking about the real minutiae of period detail here) and colourfully imagined late 17th century world. But you will always find them on the science fiction shelves in the bookshop. Anyway, Quicksilver won the 2004 Arthur C Clarke Award, so it must be SF. Perhaps its genre nature is as much to do with style as content. There are arch or anachronistic references scattered throughout which make it clear that we are reading this from a modern perspective, and which deliberately pull us back from total immersion in the period. Stephenson is describing the coalescence of the modern scientific worldview and the development of the nascent forms of the global technologised systems which contemporary SF reflects upon. He finds a mirror of our own world not in an imagined future or parallel reality, but in the matter of our own history. By the way, if you are studying this fascinating period at school or university, then read these books. They are incredibly well researched and detailed, and there can be no more enjoyable or more comprehensive a way of learning about late 17th century world history. They are simply great tales, full of heroism and humanity, and illuminate both past, present and future.

The final author is Diana Wynne Jones, chosen by Kelly Link. I’ve written about her recently, as occasioned by the sad news of her passing. Again, her books are not readily identifiable as science fiction. A Tale of Time City and Archer’s Goon were probably the closest she came to singularly generic SF works. But there are SF elements interwoven into many of her novels, co-existing with components from fantasy, supernatural and naturalistic forms. She is a further representative of the hybrid nature of modern genre fiction. The elements of SF are now so familiar that they can be by and large taken as read, and cheerfully used in a knowing fashion, blended with other ingredients to produce interesting and enjoyable new fusions. So she blended space operatic galactic empires with the Arthurian mythos in Hexwood, parallel worlds with feudal fantasy in The Merlin Conspiracy, and the bureaucratisation of a rationalised systerm of magic in the Chrestomanci series. Of course, familiarity can breed contempt, and the casual and dismissive use of SF devices for which no real feeling or understanding is apparent results in stale and clichéd fiction (some recent Doctor Who episodes have suffered in this respect). But Jones knew her generic material (as she demonstrated in her wickedly spot-on dissection of heroic fantasy clichés The Tough Guide to Fantasyland) and was able to use to create worlds which were both familiar and strange – the new arising from judicious combinations of the old. Which seems like a good place to conclude.
So, here’s an overview of that timeline, drawn from the Guardian contributor’s choices, which casts an arbitrary but not unilluminating light on science fiction’s wayward history.
1870 – The Brick Moon by Edward Everett Hale
1896 – The Island of Doctor Moreau by HG Wells
1920s – Virginia Woolf
1920s-30s – HP Lovecraft
1937 – Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon
1951 – The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
1952 – City by Clifford D Simak
1953 – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
1956/7 – The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger!Tiger!)
1956 – The City and the Stars by Arthur C Clarke
1960 – A Canticle for Leibowitz
1960 – The Voices of Time by JG Ballard
1961 – Hothouse by Brian Aldiss
1965 – Dune by Frank Herbert
1969 – The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin
1970 – Time and Again: An Illustrated Novel by Jack Finney
1972 – Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
1984 – Neuromancer by William Gibson
1980s-2000s – Octavia E Butler
1970s-2000s – Diana Wynne Jones
2003 – Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The Guardian Science Fiction List - part one


The Guardian Review section on Saturday 14th May was a special science fiction edition, designed to mark the opening of the British Library exhibition Out of this World, presumptuously subheaded SF But Not As You Know It. The lead article was a selection by ‘leading SF writers’ of their favourite novel or author in the genre. It may be news to Margaret Atwood, Hari Kunzru, Andrew Crumey or Liz Jensen that they are SF writers, but so be it. Genre boundaries are increasingly permeable these days. And the definition ‘writers who have written SF or have at some time used certain of its familiar devices’ would be more accurate but a little unwieldy. The temporal span of the selection is interesting, and rearranging it chronologically says something about the origins, development and future direction of the form. There are two nineteenth century novels, one American and one British, and already the philosophical between the perspectives of the two nations is evident. American author Edward Everett Hale’s The Brick Moon (1870), the choice of Andrew Crumey, foreshadows the technocratic spacefaring futures of the American magazines in the first half of the twentieth century, which would give SF its lasting popular iconography. Here, though, the purposeful working out of man’s manifest destiny through scientific progress and innate ingenuity which is characteristic of some (but by no means all) of that particular genre stream is humorously undermined by allowing for the possibility of embarrassing cock-up, the marvellous jerry-built spacecraft being accidentally launched too soon.

HG Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), on the other hand, is a twisted creation fable in which science is a tool of power and oppression rather than a producer of miracles. You can see why China Mieville has chosen it. It is a novel from the genre’s infancy which blends elements of outright horror with harsh political and religious satire, and uses scientific extrapolation and speculation as a metaphoric means to examine human and social concerns. The generic hybridity of the story, natural for a time in which the elements of the SF form had yet to be codified and made familiar through repeated use and variation, reflects the kind of late period SF hybrids more deliberately created by Mieville and his contemporaries. Moreau’s beast-men, the animals which he has experimented on to raise them to a level of semi-human sentience, are echoed in the ‘remade’ men and women of Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels (beginning with Perdido Street Station), who are genetically and surgically reshaped in accordance with their crimes or dissident activities, or simply to make their form better fit their function. The scientific romances of Wells and his successors were haunted by the spectres of Darwin and the expanded horizons of geological time which became increasingly clear in the Victorian and Edwardian eras thanks to the work of the likes of Charles Lyell and Ernest Rutherford, and were bathed in the baleful gloaming of imperial twilight. They tended, as a result, to feature essentially powerless protagonists whose insignificance in the face of cosmic grandeur was made all too apparent.

Moving into the twentieth century, and the decades of the 20s and 30s, Russell Hoban’s choice of HP Lovecraft can be seen as a continuation of this tradition, his New England sensibility directing its attention back to the Old World, indeed to worlds older than Europe. He eschewed the optimism of the New World, and wallowed in the same decadent outlook that Poe had adopted. His Cthulhu stories take the worldview of scientific romance a few steps further towards the abyss, positing a universe which is not merely indifferent to an enfeebled mankind, but actively hostile. The clammy sense of revulsion which permeates his fiction places it in the dank depths of the horror genre, and indicates the strong connections between the two forms. Brian Aldiss’ definition of SF, advanced in his history of the genre Billion (later Trillion) Year Spree takes this into account: ‘Science fiction is the search for a definition of mankind and his status in the universe which will stand in our advanced but confused state of knowledge (science), and is characteristically cast in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode’. The expansion of horizons and the exposure to newness which SF offers can lead to, or express, a state of shock and inculcate feelings of fear and dread – a sense of terror at the very nature of the universe ably embodied by monstrous alien forms.

Ursula le Guin provocatively chooses Virginia Woolf as her favourite SF writer, citing her 1928 novel Orlando, a time travel story of sorts. Le Guin’s well-known essay Science Fiction and Mrs Brown, delivered as a lecture at the ICA in London I 1975 and later included in the critical anthology Explorations of the Marvellous (edited by Peter Nicholls) is based around Woolf’s essay Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown. In this essay, she describes a train journey during which she sat opposite an old lady of orderly and perfectly ordinary appearance, who suddenly asked an extraordinary question of her travelling companion, and responded to the answer with mysterious display of deep emotion. Woolf declares that the complex character, the rich inner worlds of the likes of the unknown woman whom she names Mrs Brown should be at the heart of any novel, and le Guin questions why such people shouldn’t be allowed in SF as well. She identifies the narrator of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, who only has a number and code for a name, and Mr Tagomi from Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle as being two such characters. ‘It’s funny, the idea of Mrs Brown in a spaceship’, she goes on to muse. ‘She’s much too small to visit a Galactic empire or to orbit a neutron star…or is that quite it? Could it be that Mrs Brown is actually, in some way, too large for the spaceship?’ This notion, of the vast complexity and variety of human nature, was beautifully expressed in Neil Gaiman’s recent Dr Who episode, in which the spaceship itself becomes human. The soul of the Tardis, of the machine, finds itself contained within a woman’s body and comments ‘it’s so much bigger on the inside’. The inner space of the most unremarkable-seeming person encompasses planets, galaxies, universes.

As Kim Stanley Robinson pointed out in the 16th September 2009 SF issue of New Scientist which he edited, Virginia Woolf appreciated the speculative fiction of her time, writing a letter to Olaf Stapledon to express her admiration for his novel Star Maker, a copy of which he had sent her following encouraging comments about his previous work. ‘I don't suppose that I have understood more than a small part’, she wrote. ‘All the same I have understood enough to be greatly interested, and elated too, since sometimes it seems to me that you are grasping ideas that I have tried to express, much more fumblingly, in fiction. But you have gone much further and I can't help envying you - as one does those who reach what one has aimed at’. Stapledon’s novel about a dog with enhanced intelligence, Sirius, also connects with Woolf, whose short story Flush, which tries to get inside the mind of a dog, is cited by le Guin. Star Maker (1937) is the choice of Brian Aldiss, and a work which he has always claimed as a formative influence (although, as Mark Wilson amusingly points out in the comments section below the post over yonder, he has tended to waver over his definitive Stapledon favourite). Immense in scale, it is the culminating moment of the British scientific romance tradition. The creator of worlds is ultimately revealed (for this is SF which shows a profound concern for the spiritual dimension) but, in keeping with the pessimistic (or realistic, if you will) tenor of scientific romance’s post-Darwinian perspective, it is utterly indifferent to the community of sentient beings which has approached. This reflected mind of the cosmos barely manages to impinge on its consciousness, and there is no ecstatic communion or culminating moment of blinding revelation. Stapledon himself is charmingly modest about his life and achievements in the self-penned author biography on the back flap of the 1938 Pelican Books paperback edition of his earlier novel Last and First Men (which merely covered the few thousand million years of mankind’s future history, up until its eventual extinction). He describes himself as ‘a born muddler, protected (or ruined?) by the capitalistic system’ who has ‘barely, after half a century, begun to find my feet’. He goes on to explain how, ‘as a married adolescent of thirty-five, I woke. My mind painfully emerged from a larval into a kind of retarded and deformed imago state. Two experiences now dominated me: philosophy, and the tragic disorder of our whole terrestrial hive. After a belated attack on academic philosophy, I wrote this mad book, then others. And now, having at last set one foot near the threshold of mental maturity, I perceive with humour that the other is already advancing over the brink of the grave’. A wryly mordant and very scientific romantic outlook on life.

The 40s is seemingly excluded from this selection, bypassing the dubiously garlanded ‘golden age’ of American magazine SF, for which John W Campbell’s Astounding SF was the standard bearer. Short stories were still the dominant form at this time, and so stand out novels are difficult to identify. The flowering of SF novels in the 50s which ran in parallel with the development of the mass market paperback is plentifully represented, however. Liz Jensen chooses John Wyndham’s perennial favourite The Day of the Triffids (1951), which is still recognisably in the British scientific romance tradition, and which falls into the sub-category christened (rather unfairly, in some cases) the ‘cosy catastrophe’ by Brian Aldiss. Its imaginative charting of depopulated cities and adventures through rural home counties landscapes remained popular in the UK well into the 70s (where it chimed with the post 60s ‘back to the garden’ mood), during which decade some pointedly more brutal examples were produced by the likes of M.John Harrison (The Committed Men) and Christopher Priest (Fugue for a Darkening Island). The first novel in the list which might be described as ‘classic’ SF arising from the American magazines is Clifford Simak’s City (1952), chosen by the pre-eminent genre critic John Clute, no doubt with a conscious eye on the novel’s locus at the point on the generic timeline at which the form began to find a definite identity, and to connect with the wider popular imagination. He also probably had a shrewd idea that few others were likely to choose works from this particular period and area of the genre. Like many of the American SF novels of the time, it is actually a ‘fix-up’ of short stories which had originally appeared in the magazines. Simak’s stories had been published in Campbell’s Astounding over the previous decade, so the 40s ‘golden age’ is represented after all. Clute recalls the impact that the novel had on him as a youngster, and this memory of the intensity of imaginative discovery and exploration experienced in adolescence informs the choices of several of the writers in The Guardian.

The sense of excitement, identification and revelation is never as powerfully felt as it is in the teenage years, when your worldview is being formed, and the fact that many people start reading SF at this age has led to it being seen as an inherently juvenile literature by many observers, even amongst writers within the genre. Thomas Disch, in his 1975 essay The Embarassments of Science Fiction, writes, with deliberately provocative intent, that SF is a species of children’s literature. ‘In my own case’, he says, ‘and in that of almost all my contemporaries who admit to a taste for it, that taste was acquired at around the age of thirteen. Often earlier; seldom much later that fifteen…the taste may persist throughout life, but it seldom again exercises the addictive force it possesses in early adolescence, except among science fiction fans’. It is a criticism which comes from someone who himself showed a lifelong adherence to the form, and who, towards the end of his life, published his own ascerbically insightful history of the genre, whose title characteristically played with ambiguous meaning. It suggested both his contentment to be finally identified with the genre, and its expression of the ideals of a technocratic, consumer society - ‘The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World’. Perhaps the key here is that this is a literature which young people discover for themselves and read avidly and willingly. It’s not something that they ‘do’ at school, college and later, maybe, university. Reading tastes acquired when young will, like the genre itself, mature and blossom, branching off along many fascinating and eccentric byways (areas sometimes defined in SF bookshops as ‘slipstream’). JG Ballard, in part of an interview published elsewhere in the paper, says ‘I think of science fiction as being part of the great river of imaginative fiction that has flowed through English literature, probably for 400 or 500 years, well pre-dating modern science’. An early taste for SF can later guide the reader towards those riches, as well as continuing to offer plenty of its own. It’s literature for the autodidact, who likes to chart her or his own eccentric literary path. This has certainly been my experience, and that of many other readers whose love of the genre began in childhood, if this list is anything to go by.

The Stalker's guardian - more dogs in SF
City is another SF story, like Stapledon’s Sirius and (if you allow for its inclusion within the genre walls) Woolf’s Flush, which features intelligent dogs. The close companion of Prendick, the protagonist of HG Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, in the latter part of the story is a creature ‘risen’ from the form of a dog. Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog is a novella featuring a telepathic canine sidekick, with a ready line in coarse wisecracks. Ellison also includes a heartbreaking autobiographical aside about the death of his faithful hound Abhu in his fabulous short story The Deathbird. An alsation mysteriously becomes manifest in the alien ‘zone’ in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, an adaptation of Boris and Arkady Strugatski’s novel Roadside Picnic (which features as a later choice), acting as a kind of guardian avatar of divine watchfulness. SF is often accused of lacking humanity, but such qualities are often to be found in transfigured forms, in a literalistic representation of the way in which people project human characteristics and features onto other creatures and even onto objects and places (a revival of early animist beliefs for the modern technological age). Perhaps dogs are the favoured animals of SF writers, just as cats tend to be more associated with fantasy and supernatural fiction (they’ve always been the familiars of witches, after all). You could even, at a stretch, extend this train of thought to characterise these related but distinct genres as being particularly male and female divisions of the broader stream of imaginative literature, if this didn’t tend to reduce gender to oversimplified and rigidly traditional patterns.

Margaret Atwood chooses Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), which again is an isolated novel from this period when he was producing some of his finest short stories. The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man are both fix-up collections of stories linked together by a loosely connected sense of continuity. Bradbury’s schematic and somewhat contrived single-issue dystopia is designed to illustrate just one point, and thus fails to convince as an authentically realised society. Bradbury was always a bit awkward when trying to delineate a more traditional generic SF scenario. He was more comfortable with the small town setting in which Weird Tales unfolded. Urban locales didn’t suit him, and tended to bring out his reactionary side. His slight remove from the technocratic end of the field in the 40s and 50s is amusingly acknowledged in The Simpsons: school swot Martin intends to set up a science fiction club, where the likes of Asimov and Heinlein will be read. Someone asks ‘what about Bradbury?’, and he airily dismisses him with a disdainful ‘I’m aware of his work’. His dystopia is in keeping with Attwood’s own efforts in the genre. It would seem to fall outside of her shifting definitions of what constitutes ‘proper’ SF, which tend to come off the top of her head at any given moment that she’s asked. But she allows it to fall within generic boundaries here. The novel’s wholesale rejection of mass tv culture in favour of the more reflective pleasures of the book could be seen as a lofty brand of snobbery, the likes of which the literary world has frequently directed towards science fiction. This is one reason, perhaps, why it has always been seen as one of the more ‘acceptable’ examples of the genre in such circles. David Pringle, in his 1985 critical selection of Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, describes its dislikes as being ‘the litany of an old-fashioned, puritanical moralist’, and goes on to observe that it is ‘small wonder that the message of this novel has fallen sweetly on the ears of schoolteachers and other Guardians of Culture the world over. Wrapped up as it is in an exciting story with poetic overtones, that message has proved to be a very popular one’.

Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars (1956) , the choice of Alastair Reynolds, a contemporary proponent of the traditional pleasures of space opera, is one of the classic sense of wonder tales; a story of conceptual breakthrough in which the protagonist escapes from artificially confining boundaries to discover the true immensity of the universe beyond. Clarke’s storytelling evinces definite echoes of the scientific romance tradition, mixed in with the optimism and pragmatic positivity of the American magazine SF. There is also an elegiac, rather melancholy undertow (also to be found in his other classic novel from this period, Childhood’s End) which it holds in common with Clifford Simak’s City. The widened perspectives, the huge expanses of time and space, lend a heightened awareness of mortality, of the passing of individual lives and civilisations.

Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1956/7), from the same year is a very different beast (a Blakean tiger), a novel which revels in the sensations of the moment, and whose savage protagonist has no grandiose vision or yearning beyond his own self-gratification. It’s a book which is chosen here both by Michael Moorcock and William Gibson, which demonstrates the range and persistence of its appeal and influence. Its impact was felt both by the New Wave writers published in New Worlds magazine under Michael Moorcock’s editorship in the 1960s, and by the cyberpunk writers of the 80s, for whom Gibson was the figurehead after the success of his first sub-genre defining novel Neuromancer. Its synaesthetic play with the graphic layout of the text anticipated similar experiments in New Worlds, and the pop cultural landscape and definitively anti-heroic protagonist are also characteristic of the stories which were printed in its pages. Neil Gaiman, in his introduction to the SF Masterworks edition of the novel, comments on its similarities to the archetypal works of cyberpunk which would arrive some thirty years later: ‘It contains such cheerfully protocyber elements as multinational corporate intrigue; a dangerous, mysterious, hyperscientific McGuffin (PyrE); an amoral hero; a supercool thief-woman…’ The differing publication dates aren’t a Guardian misprint, by the way. The 1956 edition was published in England under the Blakean title Tiger!Tiger!, emphasising the wild, protean nature of its main character. The slightly revised US edition of 1957 was given the misleadingly optimistic and romantically resolute title The Stars My Destination, which is the name by which it is published to this day. Reductive though it would certainly be, it is tempting to see in this variance an encapsulation of the differing attitudes to SF observed on the opposite shores of the Atlantic at this time.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The Films of Val Lewton Part Thirty Seven

Bedlam - part Seven

The mob awakens - Night of the Living Dead visuals
Sims enters with ‘good news’ for Nell of a new hearing, a sign that Wilkes has been as good as his word. He is back in his wig, observing an official formality for this announcement, and giving his subsequent demands the weight of authority. To ensure its success he orders his ‘most beneficial remedy’. It is a phrase which causes everybody to stop what they are doing and look fearfully on. He reveals that it is a cure of his own invention which has been tried out on the tiger man, and which, by implication, has caused the clouding of his mind. Nell’s insistence that ‘I need no cure’ is of no avail. Sims has failed to break her strength of spirit through psychological means, so now he will do it physically, a bludgeoning approach attacking the physiological matter of mind. He becomes insistent in the face of her intransigence and threatens to use force, confident in his power. But the inmates are beginning to stir, rising up and shuffling forward, shadows looming larger on the walls. It is like a scene from Night of the Living Dead, the Bedlamites milling somnambulently towards something which has attracted their attention. As with the zombies of Romero’s film, they are a representative cross-section of the powerless strata of society, the confused masses beginning to awaken.

The dog has its day - Dan restrains Sims
Nell points to the gathering crowd, who are beginning to sense the strength in unity given by their sheer weight of numbers. ‘Do you think your friends will help you?’, Sims scoffs. ‘I have helped them’, she replies. This is when it becomes evident that Nell’s efforts have been recognised, her character and example of positive action having made a definite, transformative impression. There is a reciprocity which is not instantaneously made evident, but which finds its expression when the appropriate circumstances present themselves. ‘You expect them to band together and overwhelm me?’ Sims asks with scornful disbelief. ‘If they could reason so they would not be here’, he states, still testing her beliefs. But revolution and insurrection area as much a matter of instinct and reflexive reaction as they are of reason. Again, inside mirrors outside, something which Sims, complacent with power, fails to recognise. The commonality, sufficiently aroused, agglomerate to form the street mob, a nigh on unstoppable force. They would gather in London to defend Wilkes, perceived as their champion, during his trials. Peter Ackroyd, in his book London: The Biography, quotes a German visitor to the capital who remarked ‘now I know what an English mob is’ when he witnessed it celebrating Wilkes’ release from prison in 1770. he characterised its components as comprising ‘half-naked men and women, children, chimney sweeps, tinkers, Moors and men of letters, fish-wives and elegant ladies, each creature intoxicated by his own whims and wild with joy, shouting and laughing’. A major factor in Wilkes’ own decline in popularity was his decision, when in a position of authority, to order the army to fire on the mob during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, killing several people. Nell is the equivalent figure to Wilkes in Bedlam, and is sufficiently aware of her status to feel that she can issue a warning to Sims. Her influence has been gained through kindness and compassion (‘Quaker nonsense’, Sims spits) but this can be turned indirectly into violence. Sims is grabbed from behind and restrained by many arms. He cries out, but she tells him that the warders will ignore him. They are used to such cries in here, particularly when Sims himself is present. Sims cruelty and violence are revisited upon him just as Nell’s kindness creates a co-operative environment whose inhabitants come to her aid. Nell plucks the keys from Sims’ person with an undisguised gesture of triumph.

The dumb speak - Todd and Nell
Todd runs over and speaks to her. His dumbness turns out to be a matter of choice, a way of filtering out the distracting noise of language. He directs her to the window exit which Colby had used, ‘and others before him I dare say’. He explains his own circumstances. ‘I’m not mad, Mistress Bowen. I have been placed here by my family to keep me from drink so that I may write to support them’. Here is the other side to the story, the important detail withheld which completely alters one’s perspective. It is not only wives who are incarcerated when they become a domestic inconvenience. Alcoholism and other addictions represent another route to madness, one which blends psychological and physiological elements. There almost seems to be an element of personal choice to Todd’s incarceration, as if he is using its strictures to escape the imprisoning power of his compulsions. The dangers of drink, and specifically of cheap and plentifully available gin, are dramatically displayed in one of Hogarth’s best-known prints, Gin Lane, a portrayal of social and personal dissolution in which only the pawnbroker thrives. Knowing the dangers of the escape route to which he is directing her, Todd suggests that Tom could lift her. Thus we learn from this supposedly voiceless writer the name of the man who has so long been caged as a brute beast. Tom is a name long associated with Bedlam. A Tom o’Bedlam was the name for a harmless street fool, a beggar with an antic manner (sometimes genuine, sometimes affected for professional purposes). There is also a well-known anonymous ballad called Tom o’ Bedlam’, dating from the early 17th century, which indicates the antiquity of the association of place and name. It includes the lines ‘come dame or maid, be not afraid/poor Tom will injure nothing’, which serve to describe the Tom of Bedlam whom Nell has befriended. The Steeleye Span song Boys of Bedlam, included on their Please to See the King LP, is also taken from a ballad from this time, and includes the line ‘for to see mad Tom of Bedlam/ten thousand miles I’d travel’. And, of course, the protagonist of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress series, who ends up in Bedlam, is a Tom – Tom Rakewell. Generic name it may be, but in regaining it, the ‘tiger’ also reclaims his humanity, his sense of self.

Triumphal exit - Nell leaves Sims to his fate
Sims is now held by Dan the dog and another Bedlamite. The dog has turned upon its master, Dan casting aside the subservient bestial character which has been imposed upon him, rediscovering his human strength. Sims appeals to the ‘reason’ of Sidney, turning to the authority of the apparent head of ‘the people of the pillar’, what amounts to the establishment in the main hall of Bedlam. He holds out the threat of reprisal and plays up the angle of class solidarity, attempting to separate Sidney from the mob. ‘They’re lunatics’, he points out, as if Sidney himself is not. ‘They’ve been tried and found incompetent by fair trial’. This is nonsense, of course. We have witnessed the ‘fairness’ of these trials. Trial is a trigger word for Sidney, however, prompting him to issue forth a stream of Latin verbiage of dubious meaning. Sims placatingly presents a respectful front, saying ‘I’d forgotten you were a lawyer’. ‘A lawyer, sir’, Sidney replies, affronted. ‘I was a judge. I, the most skilled of them all’. The re-iteration of his catchphrase marks a swing in the delicate balance of his mind from reason to madness. He points with dramatic theatricality and adds ‘and you shall be judged’. The world is turned upside down, the insane and rejected become the establishment, and the judged and condemned the magistrate and jury. Nell sweeps by, putting on her cloak in preparation for her departure, and laughs at Sims’ appeals, sarcastically instructing the mob to ‘give Master Sims a fair trial’, as if it is within the power of anyone to control it. And with that, she makes her exit, leaving him to his fate.

Halfway between the gutter and the stars
The next scene offers one of the most resonantly poetic images in all of Lewton’s oeuvre. Nell looks out of the small window to the ground far below, and upwards towards the roof whose eaves she must reach. Tom climbs up and reaches down, grasps her hand and begins to pull her up. But he hesitates and looks up at the night sky, full of bright stars ,and is lost in wonder. It is a still moment of transcendence, of conceptual and spiritual breakthrough, a universe opening up after an age of confinement in obscure darkness. Tom, having regained his name, seems to be reaching out for what he has forgotten, a universal truth which perhaps stands in a wider sense for a fundamental understanding which mankind has misplaced. Meanwhile, however, Nell is left dangling between the gutter and the stars, a precarious position symbolic of the human condition. She could go either way; a precipitous descent onto the streets below or an ascension to the heavens. The key lies, as ever in Lewton’s films, in human connection. Nell calls out to Tom, and he returns for the time being from his reverie. Spiritual pursuits must always take into account more immediate earthly necessities. He pulls her up and they move across the rooftops. But the image of the man, newly raised from guttural brutishness, gazing at the stars, and the woman seeming to float between sky and earth, her cloak billowing around her, remains in the memory as a beautiful pictorial composition. It reminds me of the woodcut engraving known as the Flammarion Engraving, an anonymous work first used as the cover illustration for the popular scientist and early science fiction author Camille Flammarion’s L’Atmosphere: Meteorologie Populaire. This depicts a man kneeling upon the earth but thrusting his head through the skein of stars to gaze at the secret machinery of the cosmos beyond. It is often used as an image to represent the numinous, quasi-religious pleasures of science fiction, a depiction of conceptual breakthrough which is the modern-day analogue of divine revelation. Indeed, it is on the cover of the latest British Library programme, which looks forward to the Out of this World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It exhibition.

Breaking beyond the boundaries - The Flammarion Engraving
Back in the hall of Bedlam, the trial has been set up. One of the inmates has dressed himself as a mock judge, a dirty sheepskin over his head for a wig. The roles which the Bedlamites take on in their madness, and which are depicted in Hogarth’s print, now gain temporary legitimacy through force. If this man declares himself judge, then judge he is. Another stands behind, affectlessly declaring ‘I’m Solomon the Wise – split him in two’; an alarmingly literal interpretation of part of the Biblical morality tale which focuses on the promise of bloodshed without adopting the wisdom which ensures it won’t be realised. It’s somewhat akin to Vincent Price’s vengeful Shakespearean actor Edward Lionheart in the film Theatre of Blood revising The Merchant of Venice so that a pound of flesh actually is extracted. These two members of the impromptu judiciary promise lunatic justice premised on an unpredictable internal logic. Fortunately for Sims, Sidney, lucid once more, asserts his authority and takes over proceedings. He is in his element, taking on the role he’s longed to play. He delineates Sims’ abuses before concluding ‘for all these crimes, I ask justice’. ‘Kill him’ comes the reply, the voice of mob justice. Sims now looks terrified as his status as the accused is given this formal statement. He will now have to defend himself. ‘Let me speak’, he pleads. He is overwhelmed by the mob, and sounds pitiful and afraid, all authority and strength gone, a diminishment emphasised by the snatching away of his wig.

At the mercy of the mob
We cut to Nell in the Quaker meeting house telling Hannay that ‘the loonies’ have Sims and ‘are trying him in mockery’. ‘They will kill him’, she predicts, as if this will be a satisfactory conclusion. Hannay tells her that she must save him by speaking to the ‘poor afflicted ones’. Sims is now almost seen as an inmate himself as Hannay counsels kindness to him as well, ‘to those whose sickness forces them to hurt their fellow men’. The distinctions between the world inside and that outside the asylum walls are not clearly drawn. ‘Has not Sims a madness that thee can pity?’ he asks. He is counted amongst the wretched and downcast, and as such even he deserves compassion. She thinks, her vengeful delight at his downfall tempered through reflection in this contemplative setting. They both leave to fetch Wilkes and go back to Bedlam.

Lunatic justice - the Bedlam assizes
Back at the trial, Sims defends himself. After initially weakly asserting that ‘I did not want to hurt you’, he threatens reprisal, through which they ‘shall really know what cruelty can be’. Todd now speaks, providing the calm voice of reason, one lettered and learned man talking to another. The trial now essentially becomes a dialogue between these two, with Todd asking questions with a writer’s curiosity for the psychological motivations behind behaviour and character, and also a writer’s distance from the object of scrutiny. Todd’s name echoes that of the doctor in The Body Snatcher, and there is a similarity in the following exchange to the scene in which Karloff’s character in that film, Gray, is confronted by him and bares his bitter soul. The Bedlam Todd notes ‘your vengeance isn’t our present concern’, with an equanimity which blocks off such an attacking approach, and he directs the trial in a different direction, away from Sims’ attempts to control it. ‘What you have done concerns us’, he prompts, ‘why you did it’. Sims begins with an argument based on determinism, an inherent propensity towards certain behaviours which effectively reduces, or at least lessens the individual’s culpability. ‘Because I had to’ he says, ‘even as you drink’. In religious terms, this could be seen as an advocacy of a Calvinist idea of predestination, of a world in which all proceeds according to God’s predetermined plan. It’s an inherently conservative theology which encourages an acceptance of the status quo, and is thus the opposite of the Quakers’ active engagement with the idea of social change in order to realise an ideal vision of universal brotherhood. In the harsher, more unforgiving philosophy of the Calvinists, mankind is still indelibly stained by the shame of original sin, his nature essentially debased and morally tainted.

Courtroom drama - Sidney inhabits the role
Sims, by comparing his compulsion towards violence and cruelty to Todd’s addictions, is ascribing a different kind of madness to himself. This is a reactive madness, motivated by constant fear, as he explains by adding ‘I was frightened’ to his plea of inherently rooted behaviour. It is the fear which put the glint of wild-eyed insanity into Nell’s regard when she was first admitted to Bedlam. But Todd presents him with his own terrorising actions, seemingly born out of contempt and revulsion for those in his care rather than out of fear. He has used fear as his tool to instil obedience and keep people in their lowly state. ‘Did you beat us out of fright?’ Todd asks. ‘Did you starve us out of fear?’ ‘Split him in two’ repeats the mad Solomon, and the mob has to be held back from doing just that. ‘Is that why you still threaten us?’ Todd asks, a rhetorical question which points to the change in his position. His threats may at this moment be motivated by fear, given that he is now in the power of the Bedlamites. But that his motivations were the same when they were so completely powerless and subject to his total control is more difficult to justify. Todd now asks him to do so, saying ‘you speak of fear. Fear of what?’

The thin line of civilisation - holding back the forces of chaos and violence
This gives Sims his chance for a great self-revelatory speech, in which he makes clear his place in the hierarchy of society, and the way in which his brutal actions are the price he pays for his position, and the means by which the wider social order enforces its stability. He is one of the operators of the grim subterraenean Piranesi mechanisms which underlie and maintain the glittering pageantry of the enchanted world above. His fear is of ‘the great world of this age that gave me my place. The comforts and the authority. What little I have of riches. What I know means nothing. I’ve had to fawn and toady and make a mock of myself till all I could hear was the world laughing at me’. There is genuine anger in this speech. He is talking of an anti-meritocratic age in which wit and intelligence is of no avail without the right parentage, or the requisite charms, neither of which he was blessed with. There is a close up of his face as he adds ‘but once I had what I wanted, this my place here’. This is his protected domain, and like petty autocrats throughout the ages he enjoys exercising every little bit of power it affords him. ‘You were afraid to lose it’, Todd concludes for him, with a degree of understanding.

Sims is now eager to explain himself, to reveal his inner workings to this sympathetic listener, and perhaps to articulate previously unexamined feelings. ‘I had to please those to whose favour I owed everything. I was afraid.’ In the Body Snatcher, Gray explains why he torments Dr McFarlane (Todd), his social superior. It gives him ‘pride to know that I can force you to my will. I’m a small man, a humble man, and being poor, I’ve had to do much that I didn’t want to do. But so long as the great Dr McFarlane jumps at my whistle, that long am I a man. And if I have not that, I have nothing’. Gray and Sims’ power is exercised in different directions, Gray’s upwards in the social spectrum, and Sims’ downwards. But when pushed, they are both honest about what drives them, and display an unsparing sense of self-awareness. There is a whiff of the ‘I was only following orders’ excuse to Sims’ soul-baring, his confession of doing terrible things in order to maintain his position in society. His whole speech would have been particularly resonant for a time in which the world had just emerged from a global conflict, and in which those many citizens who had occupied the lower positions in the hierarchy which had kept fascist political systems operating were having to come up with their own excuses. Ironically, relics and memorials of that conflict are to be found in the old site of Bedlam (the one built after the time in which the film is set) which now houses the Imperial War Museum. ‘You had to strike us’, Todd suggests, again elucidating Sims’ unspoken point. We have been shown the true nature of the beast, the heart of the monster. This is the third of Karloff’s three portraits of monstrous characters for Lewton; first General Pherides in Isle of the Dead, then Gray in The Body Snatcher, and now Sims. Each proves to be, if not sympathetic, then understandable, and each has been granted their justificatory speech in which they lay bare their soul, the fear and hatred which drives them to terrible acts; the monstrous anatomised.

Murderous Madonna - divine retribution
‘Let me go and there will be no punishment’, Sims promises, rather optimistically calling on them to trust him. Todd, who now appears to have become the primary legal and moral authority, declares ‘he is sane.’ He goes on to explain that ‘there is a fear within him. A fear that strikes out, that claws and tears at the world like a singed cat.’ Thus Sims gets his own animalistic attribution. He has, in effect, been found ‘guilty’ of sanity, in accordance with the topsy-turvy perspective of this court. His behaviour is sane in the context of a wider world which is itself filled with a violent insanity, and in which he struggles to gain and maintain his own place. The pocket society of Bedlam and the society which lies beyond it walls become inverted. As Sidney holds back the mob and insists ‘you cannot harm him’, lunatic justice is revealed as being more sane and compassionate than the establishment model. Sidney declares that ‘it is the order of the court that he is sane and that he shall be free’. Just as the ‘tiger’ man was tamed with kindness and restored to his humanity, perhaps there is hope for Sims, too. Maybe, in being shown judicial mercy, even from those whom he has maltreated for so long, he will change, transformed in a moment of scorching self-revelation forged in the extremity of terror. Sims is released and backs slowly away, still wary of turning his back on the unpredictable beast which is the mob. He comes within the orbit of the catatonic Madonna, who slowly and deliberately raises the trowel and plunges its sharp apex into his back. There are other forms of justice, amongst which is revenge. Sims would never have been held to account for the abuse which he has visited upon her, so she takes it upon herself to administer this summary execution. It is a sign that, despite her blank, affectless façade, which maintains even in the act of committing murder, there is a spirit flickering within which has borne an unbearable weight of suffering in complete silence. Her religious bearing, with its serene Marian radiance, along with Sims’ giving her the animal designation of the dove, also hints at the working out of divine justice; the weighing up, balancing and executing power of a higher and more unforgiving moral authority.

Living foundations - Poe endings
The use of the trowel is another instance in Lewton’s work of a tool becoming a weapon, a reversal of the notion of turning swords into ploughshares. The trowel has come to the Madonna from Hannay via Nell. The murderous ends to which it is put are an indirect expression of the violent impulses which both have chosen to suppress. They are both indirectly culpable for the killing of Sims, however. The rage of the Bedlamite mob is suddenly calmed. They gather round, and Sidney soberly observes ‘they will punish us for this’. The declaration is made that ‘the Apothecary General is dead’, an announcement which is akin to crying ‘the king is dead’. And so he is carried through the corridor of arms, and the trowel is once more put to use. He is placed behind the half built wall whose stones Hannay helped to carry in, and the Bedlamites complete the job. Just before the final level of bricks is about to be put in place, we see Sims’ eyes flicker open, registering a moment of silent terror as he becomes aware of the Poe-like fate to which he is being consigned. He is to become the living foundation for the new Bedlam, and for the new society, which will be built upon his bones. Such dreams of a new society, of an end to exploitation, insanity and violence, reflected the contemporary vision of a post war world to which the film’s 1946 audience were looking hopefully. Sims becomes an inadvertent sacrifice, an offering to propitiate the spirit of the future.

Official visitations - the conservative and reforming establishment
We now cut to a scene of official visitation, the chaos having been quelled and a studious semblance of normality restored. Nell and Hannay are present, along with Wilkes and the Commissioner, who has a glowering look of disapproval. Wilkes puts forward a narrative of recent events in which Sims, having been tried for his violent abuses, found sane and released, has been driven by his own guilt to flee, probably for good. It’s a conveniently exculpatory explanation which serves to obscure the continuum between Sims’ behaviour and outlook and that of the social hierarchy in which he had tried to attain and maintain his position. He takes the sole blame for the condition of Bedlam, and by extension, of the social conditions of which it is the symbolic representation. He thus becomes a kind of anonymous martyr in this whole inverted schema. He is the sacrificial offering, his body the foundation upon which a new edifice can be built – the necessary monster who can be displayed and vilified, taking on the sins of others so that they might remain unblemished. Hannay, with his builder’s eye, notices the fresh mortar between the bricks and immediately realises what has happened, and where Sims will really be found, and Nell notices his significant glance and draws the same conclusion. The Commissioner, meanwhile, is taking a more retributory stance, bringing the solemn voice of the establishment to bear in opposition to Wilkes’ reforming outlook. He suggest of the Bedlamites that ‘they killed him and hid his body somewhere’. He takes a similar view to Sims, regarding them as little more than dangerous animals. He is right in his suspicions, of course, but it is the least animalistic, the most passive of the inhabitants who has struck the fatal blow – the ‘dove’, as Sims had designated her, who has rejected peace and forgiveness where others had, reluctantly or not, accepted it. He threatens severe punishment if and when the body is found. Nell pleads with her eyes for Hannay not to reveal the hidden grave and provide him with that opportunity. Wilkes is delivering a speech about the need for reform, stating that ‘what you need here is a better man to fill the post that Sims has fled from’, someone who will provide ‘all the kindness and care for these poor, sick people’. Someone like Hannay, perhaps? Once more, Sims provides the singular counter-example motivating reform, the dictatorial figure-head whose demonisation excuses the functionaries who have kept the system running alongside him, and those who have sustained his power and accepted or turned a blind eye to his abuse of it.

Happy/sad - alternative endings
Hannay makes to speak, to reveal what he has perceived, but Nell holds him back, asking ‘is it not worth a little silence to save them suffering’. But Hannay insists upon observing his principles, asserting ‘I must tell the truth’. Nell still has her quick verbal agility at the ready, however, and deflects Hannay’s high-minded inflexibility by pointing out ‘but no one’s asked you’. A destructive truth can be left unspoken. She flirts with him, using her practised charms to deflect him from his purpose, and adds a biblical reference to further tailor her appeal to his particular beliefs. ‘Silence can win you a lost lamb, Master Hannay’, she says, presenting herself as an offering in a mildly blasphemous analogy. She is also announcing, in a lateral fashion which also suits her present machinations, her adoption of his worldview, and maybe even his religion, a conversion marked by her sudden shift into his Quaker mode of address. ‘I should never have thought that of thee’, she says, with a half-amused, half-besotted upward gaze. ‘I should have known that thy hand would not add to the weight that they must bear. Thee has too much heart for that’. This change in nature is mutual however. Hannay has modified his own strict principles of truthfulness in order to make accommodation with the ways of the world, ways demonstrated to him by Nell, who has taught him that means must be sometimes be adjusted slightly beyond the boundaries of the acceptable in order to allow beneficent ends to blossom. Together, they achieve a balance between worldliness and idealism, a fruitful marriage of different qualities which creates a whole transcending, whilst not eliminating, its separate parts. It is the emblematic Lewton relationship, both on a personal and social level, banishing the spectres of loneliness, isolation and madness which haunt so many of his characters. Hannay offers Nell’s words back to her, the hint of a smile lightening his sober features. ‘Are we lovers that you thee and thou me?’ he asks. It’s a recognition of their connection, of the fact that they now share something of each other’s natures. It also shows his appreciation of her independent spirit, her bright and combative wit, which is one of the main things which attracted him to her in the first place. This is to be a partnership of equals. Nell laughs at his novice attempt at wit, and we fade out for one last time on Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress plate of Bedlam, which offers a contrast to the smiling faces with which it is temporarily combined in double exposure. Hogarth’s conclusion offers a bleak dead end for its foolish and luckless protagonist, but a paragraph of forward looking historical context is overlaid upon it here, telling us of the improvements made in the treatment of the inhabitants of Bedlam and the building of a new hospital. Happy endings are general across the personal, social and political spectrum, an unusual outcome for a Lewton picture.

Well, that’s all for now folks. My survey of the RKO horror films of Val Lewton is finally at an end. Now it only remains for me to get a hold of copies of his Guy de Maupassant adaptation Mademoiselle Fifi (with Cat People’s Simone Simon in the title role) and his ‘social problem’ film Youth Runs Wild…