I Am Become Death

I discovered a Danish/Norwegian/British six-episode TV series entitled “The Heavy Water War” (Kampen om tungtvannet) while scanning the Netflix stream. The program, in Danish, Norwegian, German and English depending on the location, the “mise-en-scène,” is worth watching. The scene portraying the plight of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg as they met in Copenhagen in 1941 drew me in. Another production, “Copenhagen,” both a stage play and a movie, enacts the encounter of the two physicists. Bohr was in touch with the Allies, Heisenberg under the thumb of the Nazi war machine. Not much is known of the day, and nothing is answered by either drama. Why did Heisenberg request the meeting? Why did Heisenberg spend his time developing a nuclear reactor rather than working on the calculations to prove the atomic bomb would work?

Watching the episodes of “The Heavy Water War” reminded of “The Dam Busters.” The meticulous process of inventing, preparing and delivering “bouncing bombs” designed to flood the industrial Ruhr Valley by destroying the dams upstream from the Ruhr river. The movie  George Lucas used as a basis for Luke’s “impossible” shot on the Death Star. I also thought of the various films depicting the development of the V2 (Vergeltungswaffe 2) guided missile. It was “rocket science” with a devastating effect on London. It was the rocket science the world dreamed would take us to interplanetary space. A science and a technology explored by Goddard and Tsiolkovsky and Oberth.

Oppenheimer

I have a fascination with the story of the “Big Science” that developed during the years of World War II. A history revealed by a myriad of books, pictures, and films. Summed up in the photo of J. Robert Oppenheimer, mouth fallen open, pipe hanging down, at the sight of the first atomic explosion on a portion of what became the White Sands missile range. “I remembered,” says the physicist, “the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu… says, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Magnificent intellect applied to discover a solution forced in the face of great conflagration. An indicator of the change in science fiction in the ensuing years. From the most vapid, and wonderful, of the creature features haunting our late Saturday nights to a gnawing batch of disturbing visions sounding the death knell of our optimism and the promise of a glorious future.

The Best SF Movie I Never Saw

Dream of the Stars Space Platfrom

Nothing produced the delicious frisson of excitement more than a good ‘Bug” movie of the 1950’s. “Them!” “Tarantula.” “The Deadly Mantis.” Nothing thrilled me as a kid, smell of popcorn and butter in my nostrils, sticky unnamable blob-like substance clinging to the soles of my shoes, than Bradbury’s infamous Rhedosaurus, “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” snacking on a cop in two short bites. “Reptilicus” taking down the Danish parliament. “The Giant Behemoth” battling Big Ben. Nothing frightened me to the roots more than the swelling brass crescendo and the water obscured first view of “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

But nothing inspired me more than the very few “serious” space travel movies of the same era. Especially the one I never saw. First a word about the ones shown in our universe.

“Destination Moon” scripted by Robert A Heinlein and “Rip” Van Ronkel, art by Chesley Bonestell, cartoon by Walter Lantz, musical score by Leith Stevens, a George Pal full color spectacular, is considered by most to be as boring as the television coverage of the Apollo Space Program. I considered it to be one of the highlights of my early movie viewing. I, to this day, make that trip to the moon so frequently that my bright, orange spacesuit chrome neck brace is becoming pitted from space dust.

“The Conquest of Space,” although more exciting than “Destination Moon” has a complication about the first religious militant in extraterrestrial space which exhibits a lack of characterization. Seems a mere plot reason for the strife on the first Red Plant expedition.

“Rocketship XM has some laughable science. “When Worlds Collide” barely escapes the planet earth and makes me long for the sequel, “After Worlds Collide,” ripe with Nazi collision. “Riders to the Stars” with William Lundigan, at least, spawned a forgotten but quite good TV series, “Men Into Space.” There are more, “The First Man in Space”, but there is a deep decline into monster blood letting with each mention.

My father had a back office in the basement of our house. I took it over. Set quite a library on the back ledge of the steel desk. Among the volumes was a copy of a paperback digest  put out by Fawcett with the wonky title “The Complete Book of Outer Space.” It was a bible to me. Articles by Willy Ley, Wernher von Braun, Heinz Haber, Hugo Gernsback,  Donald H Menzel and others. On one of the pages, mid-book was the image that you see above. With the blurb announcing a new movie about outer space. An odyssey through the solar system. I scanned the periodicals and newspapers of the day and waited for the trailer to appear in movie houses. Zilch!

One day, some thirty years ago, I was browsing at The Tucker’s bookstore in Squirrel Hill and came across a hardback copy of “The Complete Book of Outer Space.”  I quickly purchased my find. Several pages later over a coffee and a crust, my desire to find “Dream of the Stars” was rekindled. Never to be satisfied.

Until an article I came across this early morning as I write, on the website io9 by penned by Ron Miller. (http://io9.gizmodo.com/5985238/the-incredible-1950s-space-movie-that-no-one-saw)

I have long admired Ron Miller for his book “The Dream Machines” and a collection of books he assembled published by Baen Digital chronicling the idea space travel throughout science fiction history. I like him even more now I know he had the same passion for discovering the fate of the movie.

Turns out there never was a movie. There was nothing more than a dream of a movie. No script, no money, no green light, It was a series of photos of tabletop dioramas created by Morris Scott Dollens (http://www.roger-russell.com/dollens/dollens.htm and http://black-cat-studios.com/dollens.html).

I know, in some bubble, one or two parallels over, I watched, enjoyed and was influenced by “Dream of the Stars” as much as I was “Destination Moon.” Sic Iter Ad Astra.

Sad-eyed Thia of the Drylands

artpag32

I sketch with all the skill of a five-year-old drawing a box house with two crooked windows cross braced into four panes, a door only a cubist could love, and stick mommy, stick daddy, and the stick children behind a skewed picket fence in the front yard. And, oh yeah, a big ball of the sun high in the upper right corner. If I could only get the clouds not to look like alien objects in an otherwise sufficient sky, I would be happy as a clam. If I knew, how happy a clam was.

Poor as I am at this sketching ability, I persist. I recently purchased an iPadPro just to get my hands on the new Apple pencil and the two or so magical apps that allow me to waste paper no more and more importantly delete, so I am not tempted to revisit my works of art. Alas, the pencil and the pad and the apps do not contain enough magic to further my efforts. Lucky for the world and me, others who are talented pack museums with emotion filled dabs of paint and simple lines that somehow manage to reveal the inner workings of mind and the universe.

And there are magazine covers.

I learned some time ago the proper way to appreciate a painting is to live with it. I cannot afford the view of the Bridge at Arles painted by Van Gogh, but prints are available. One of which was on my wall for years. Not framed. Unrolled and pinned. My appreciation grew each day as I worked, slept and gazed at the scene. New discoveries, new visions, new depth.

When I first saw the Leo Morey cover, Amazing Stories Volume Seven Number Four March 1932, it was a city I wanted not only to live in but to explore. Since no large prints were available, I decided to, with one grande sized piece of pulpy paper, paint my interpretation. I know what you are thinking. The result was not nearly so devastating. I did hang in on the wall. Not with Van Gogh, but in the basement next to the table I fashioned as my work desk.

I learned in my re-creation, exploration was possible. I became intimate with the folks in those marvelous egg shaped suspended vehicles. I lived for a time in the big shadowy building off to the left. For a reason only known in the depth of my soul, I did not create one written story. Was content to let them stream through my consciousness.

There are a wealth of covers of science fiction pulp magazines available on the internet. Just a short search away. Available for your wonder and your appreciation. And your dreaming.

Do Martian Bouncers Dream with REM Sleep?

Back in the days when I was knee-high to a Martian bouncer, I moved out of the incubator of elementary school and into the wide world of Junior High School. The year Maz slammed the World Series winning walk-off home run over the left field wall of Forbes Field. I was out of my element, discomforted by the poorly lit tan locker-lined halls with floors waxed to the squeak of my shoes. Challenged by my first real taste of fashion consciousness. White pressed shirt, black pants, white socks, black shoes. Much as my mother plied me with shirts that sparkled with pastel hues, I stayed true to my cool.

I hid in the school library. It was a trend that lasted well through high school until …well, now. I discovered the excellent taste and wisdom of public school librarians. I praise them to this day.

Spotted in the fiction shelves was the recently completed series of juvenile novels by Robert A Heinlein. I gulped them down, re-read them. Thought about them. Dreamed about them. You could also find a series some thirty-seven strong of science fiction novels published by the John C Winston Company. Contained authors the likes of Arthur C.Clarke, Lester DelRay, Donald A Wollheim, Raymond F Jones, Robert W Lowndes, and even Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) writing under yet another pen name, Richard Marsten. Covers adorned the books that begged you to open them. Best of all was the inside front endpaper two-panel illustration by Alex Schomburg.

Schomburg Winsotn end papers

Through these stories, I was able to move far beyond my sweet suburban neighborhood. Walk out of the confines of the echo of school hallways. Fly off the planet earth. Leave the solar system. Travel beyond the gasp of our galactic group. Join the end, or the beginning, of the universe. Soar outside even those bounds. Imagination unfettered. Life far better realized. A real appreciation of the intellect provided by science and literature. A space that was no longer a place to hide, but a place to live.

Those books are on the shelves behind me as I sit here ticking on my computer keyboard. I re-read them with some frequency. Even though my tastes have matured, those publications never fail to thrill me. Dream along with me, I’m on my way to the stars.

Voulez-vous lire avec moi, ce soir?

Voulez-vous lire avec moi, ce soir?
(With apology to Patti Labelle and Lady Marmalade.)
Joe Languagesm
I like to think I am a polyglot. Sophisticated. Suave. Don’t lick the bottom of the martini glass.
Alas, I am not even a semi polyglot.

Sure, I know enough French to find my way around a children’s primer.

With my index finger and a slobbering English twist of tongue, I traveled around Denmark for a couple years. “Jeg vil gerne have en af de der,” pointing in the direction of a puff pastry or a sack of tobacco under the plate glass of the display case. Breathing through my lips, “I would like to have one of those.”  I can, however, say “røde grøde med fløde på” like a true Dane. My greatest accomplishment.

I was raised around enough Italian to understand all the earthy swear words. What little Italian I use sounds like Anna Magnani looks. I can successfully translate the dirty parts of “c’e’ la luna mezzo mare” enough to enjoy the wedding scene in the Godfather. Oi, what the mother explains to her daughter! “Oh, Mama, pisce fritte bacala!”

Same with Yiddish. Goy to the world.

So, it is with some joy I discovered many works of early French Science Fiction have been adequately translated into English. Thanks to the likes of Arthur B. Evans, Brain Stableford and others. In theory, I do have trouble with reading translations. I know when I am reading English there is care and nuance that a translator will find hard to express. In practice, the thought I would be required to master, pretty much in idiom, as well as formal construct, another language, settles me right down to a soft boil.

These new translations include revisiting all the works of Jules Verne, who has been downgraded to an unscientific hack writer of children’s SF at the hands of his early English translators. Now, the works of Albert Robida, J.-H. Rosny aîné , Gustave Le Rouge, Paul D’Ivoi are available for a good night’s read. Either in a fresh smelling non-acid inked book or on a digital device, which can emulate the flip of the pages, or with a spritz of Eau d’old Book  duplicate the smell of a tome in your basement, if you are a fan of skeuomorphism. Myself, I prefer to keep a simulacrum of four horses at the front of my Chevy stagecoach.

I recommend Arthur B. Evans’ translation of Jules Verne’s first work “Five Weeks in a Balloon” to you. I have not yet read the many of Brian Stableford’s translations of the author’s mentioned above, but I am looking forward to a Gallic experience.

SF is a world wide inclusive entertainment. I plan to spend a lifetime exploring the wealth.

Id id id id id id

“Id Id Id Id id Id!” says Dr. Edward Morbius in the face of “Doc” Ostrow’s death-bed revelation of the “horror” in the movie Forbidden Planet. A movie often challenged by film spectacle, but never surpassed. It is, after all, based on Shakespeare’s  “The Tempest, hence a glowing example of the intertextuality done so well and so important to SF.

Morbius copy

I don’t know enough about psychiatry or psychology to understand why Freud’s theories are shuffled to the shadow. I always figured it was a matter of praxis in treatment and not one of structure. I do understand why they are challenging. A dive into depth psychology and the unconscious, at the least as metaphor, is of interest and value to me.

The scene following Ostrow’s death, Commander Adams as he confronts a anguished Doctor Morbius, is one that stays with me. The full shock of recognition on Morbius’ face, as he realizes what he could not understand by himself; the reason he told United Planets Cruiser C-57D not to make planetfall; the reason his wife and fellow crewmates were mashed to pulp; the reason his magnificent Krell fell in one night of unreasoning terror. Monsters from the Id. Monsters created by his self.

In the heat of the denouement Morris cries, “Guilty, guilty, my evil self is at that door, and I have no power to stop it!” Monsters offered up by Freudian theory in a complex of archaic conflict.

Oh, haven’t we all been there on some dark night of our soul. The terrible moment when we begin to get a glimmering of how twisted and destructive we can be. The concept is challenging and often not very appealing. It is at the root of all our demons. Like the face of the Medusa something we cannot endure viewing without a mediating mirror intervening. The horror is that thing in the basement of our psyche, multi-tendrilled, oozing slime, and eldritch. The doubt by which we set out to destroy ourselves. Mucking up the fine established image we have taken a lifetime to build. Takes us right out of our comfort zone.

Many a horror film dissolves when you get a glimpse of the made-up creature that haunts the storyline. There is the reason the music has to swell to a thrumming pitch, and the “thing” has to jump out to shock you, because exposed to the light, the filmmaker’s vision of horror unravels. Fades to the ludicrous.  Cannot have the power of our confrontation with our own atavism. For the same reason many a creature that resides within the pages of a book, described in a tale around the campfire, or listened to on the tribal tom-tom of the radio, is not so easily dispelled. They ride in the dark and snarl when they are uncovered. Your imagination leaves you naked to confront them.

Id id id id id it is.

I wanted an iNterocitor and what I got was an iPadPro

I wanted an iNterocitor and what I got was an iPadPro

interossiter-iPadPro

Seasons greetings a couple days after Christmas AM. Still irregular slices of colored paper more various than the stars in the overlit night sky adorning the living room floor, and more cookies than my diabetic heart can stand on the dining room table. Not to mention, more food in the fridge than in all Cathay. Yes, mom, I intend to send the whole refrigerated box full of ravioli and meatballs; and breaded shrimp and chicken; and mixed salad kissed by balsamic vinegar and olive oil; and thin spaghetti drenched in shrimp sauce to the starving kids in…wait… not if I clean my plate. Those were your rules, not mine.

So from the three languages, that haunt me. Glædelig Jul, Buon Natale, Joyeux Noël and Godt NytÅr, Felice Anno Nuovo, Bonne année, to boot.

I’m not too impressed by the argument that science fiction is a predictive art. I’ve read and seen a lot of SF. Other than the time traveling couple ( I know it was one of you!) in the second episode “Time Is Just A Place” of the 1955 season of Science Fiction Theater who bring a small round domed device that rushes around  vacuuming the floor awfully like a Roomba to a mid-fifties suburban neighborhood, (and, well, maybe the Star Trek flip phone) the idea of future prediction has not been as meaningful to me as much as the other elements which make up SF.

However, I, full of joy, send you to the internet site www.technovelgy.com. Please return after a day or two of perusal and rejoin me. A visit to this URL (I discovered it after an urging by Arthur C Clarke in an article) is enough to make me review and revise my opinion. A whole lot of invention and social interaction was predicted by science fiction. Technovelgy points the chapter and verse of the prediction and the result manifest in our jaded modern consumer driven society.

Me? I just received a ping from Exeter and although I am anxious to take the pilotless DC3 he will send for me tomorrow morning, I would hate it if he exploded my iPadPro when he ends our iMessage session.

Christmas week reverie

I had a dream last night.

I was in a recording studio of vast and unlimited proportions. Not at all sure why I was there. Damn dream logic. But it was a pleasant enough time listening to the announcer on a mic at the far end of the room deliver the prologue to some drama. When his deep, resonant voice came to the end of the copy, he pointed his finger and cued me. I delivered my lines. I pitched my voice one treble click higher than normal with slight intimate breathiness. Hey, go figure, the dialogue seemed to call for it. I did okay and all of us, because now there was a cast of “all of us” milling around the expanding room, took a break.

We talked, drank coffee, ambled over to a table full of lunch meat and condiments. The writers brought in a new script. The announcer came over and asked if I could play a Martian speaking French. “Why not.’ I thought, ‘isn’t that the reason I’m here?’ I stood in front of the microphone, a couple thousand dollar condenser mic with a magnificent steel scrolled holder and pop shield that I knew outside this dream I could never afford, and began. Speaking French. Like a Martian.

We dream, we talk, we invent, we write. An important part of my dream occurred. I wrote it down immediately when I awoke. An important part of that dream I made up as I wrote it down. Doesn’t matter which is which or what is what.

We can choose to lead our lives rooted in the rutted reality that makes up our daily travail. Many do. Some with the good result that we call success. Others with a less happy outcome.

Or we can follow our dreams. Take a ride with our imagination. Or hitch a ride with the imagination of others. Reading is writing and writing is reading. And reading science fiction and writing fantasy and exploring the dark horror that resides in us all are far more important than the world at large gives credit.

Go have a dream.

SWS 1 3

An experiment in reading

In 1966, I attended a school called “New Experimental College” in Denmark, just north of the Limfjord.

One evening, bored, empty, with nothing better to do, I looked over the school library. Did I mention the school was a remodeled farmhouse surrounded by like working structures that dotted the bucolic northern landscape? Neighboring barns, unlike the renovated one where I was standing, housed animals more likely to regurgitate meals to multiple stomachs, while in our’s we retched and digested ideas. Nightlife and escape were not a temptation, because they were not a possibility. The library consisted of some very nice wooden shelves along a portion of a whitewashed wall. In the lower left corner, I noticed two or three books of SF.
There was a Frank Herbert – I believe it was “The Dragon in the Sea.” Ubiquitous and lovely Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles” and several other minor titles. It is probable the books were left on the shelves by other students or visitors who frequently found themselves at the school for several days of the experiment. Despite the fact I had been reading science fiction for most of my life, I had forsaken SF for a time for the literature of Modern Europe. Joyce, Mann and Proust won out over Verne and Wells. The last book on the sparse shelf caught my eye. E.E. “Doc” Smith’s “The Gray Lensman”

a_04_graylensman_pyramid_x1245_1965_gaughan_cv
I started reading. The Gray Lensman is either the third or the fourth novel of the series. (Depends your acceptance of the prequel Triplanetary as the first.) I was dropped dead middle in the strife between Arisians and Eddorians, familiar enough territory. Acknowledge it or not “Doc” Smith influenced many SF writers who followed. Part of his literary imagination remains today in a renewed longing for “space opera.” I was both charmed and disturbed by the paper thin characterizations of the Samms and the Kinnisons. But, oh my, the scope of the imagined cosmos. My feelings about the clumsy application of the words on the page were insignificant compared to the vast vision laid before me.

When I returned home to America, I read, in order, the whole of the Lensman Series. Continued on to the Skylark Series. Some would label the two sequences “primitive” SF and ask me to call my enjoyment of them a guilty pleasure. I try not to feel “guilty” about my pleasures, however they become manifest. I am aware of every fault you can point out in the work of “Doc” Smith. Throw every epithet about “purile entertainment” or “low-brow even for pop culture” or “non-existent literary quality.” I’ve heard and thought them all myself. In the end, I think the criticisms are wrong-headed. Show a lack of empathy and a lack of historical context. The truth is the novels of “Doc” Smith are reborn and reimagined every time they are read.

SF?

Well, as is often the case, nothing went wrong. Zeitgeist wavers, changes, is overcome by some thread or other that was in evidence all the time. Thoughts of science and the endless optimistic view of wonder filled technology, began to wane when sober and realistic “cold equations” concerning the price paid for our energy, our wavering theories, and the seeming march of progress showed a darker vision. A bleaker perception was always a part of SF. No one of you would call “The War of the Worlds” a joy-filled tale. Humanity is saved “…after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom had put on this earth.” An adaption scared the hell out of a bunch of folks awaiting an invasion by Hitler, one evening deep in an economic depression on the Halloween evening of 1938. The growth of super science and super weapons in reality and imagination in the ensuing years, does not give resistance to bacteria much of a chance at our salvation. In our times that have come, SF and newspaper headlines point to those proposed Martian killers as the very real agents of our doom.

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The science fiction of the sixties turned literary and experimental with the decade. Turned political and social. Fiction of the so-called “soft sciences” were created along with stories emphasizng “hard” science fiction. Somehow, like C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” the differences seemed irreconcilable. Culture clashed. “Let’s put science fiction back in the gutter where it belongs.” say rabid enthusiasts. “Science Fiction is an effort to understand our ineffable selves and universe in a manner as meaningful as the language of poetry.” say rabid enthusasts of another milieu.
Is SF a literature of adventure and wonder? Is SF a literature poetry and philosophy? Is SF a literature of optimism and technological progess? Is SF a literature of pessimism and apocalyptic insight? Is SF a literature of change?
The answer is in front of you. It doesn’t matter what your preference proscribes or prescribes. Whether or not you turn on steampunk or scream pulp. The answer is, “Yes.” SF is all of those tropes, movements, ideals, cosmologies. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of, or are important, in our philosophy.