Archaic Scope of Future Thrills: How SF Used To Be

Posted: 28 July 2014

 

A bold and dynamic feminine image (which, alas, was all-too-rare during the pulp era)
A bold and dynamic feminine image (which, alas, was all-too-rare during the pulp era)

“There were often strong elements of adventure and romance in… very early SF works… many of which are now considered classics of fiction” – Alex Davis.

Many moons ago, beyond the realms of credible science, and at the far reaches of the publishing world, the phenomenon of science fiction pulp magazines emerged. Briefly curtailed by World War II and the crippling paper shortages that came with it, a new wave of pulp SF titles hit newsstands during the late 1940s, and flourished throughout the 1950s.

While engrossed in the short stories of the 80s and space art of the 70s, my formative SF years were enriched by these magazines of the 50s. Initially captivated by their fabulous cover art, there was something quite charming about the colourful depictions of these space adventurers (both guys and gals) in what looked like goldfish bowls over their heads!

The first, most notable, American writer to contribute to SF magazines was Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose outlandish adventures of John Carter of Mars, became the first to introduce the concept of aliens as characters in their own right, although its legacy has been somewhat diminished lately in modern reviews which complain that “his powers of invention desert him when it comes to plots, which are of a roughneck variety.” 

One of the first vintage SF covers in my collection
One of the first vintage SF covers in my collection

“Magazine SF provided intense pleasure for those who were insensitive to its literary shortcomings. It was hastily written for the most part… it was the emphasis on plot at the expense of character and scene” – Brian W. Aldiss.

For all its detractors, who insisted that pulp science fiction seemed too hackneyed, poorly plotted and devoid of characterisation (did the iconic cover artwork serve to detract from these supposed inadequacies?), there is a strong argument to suggest that the pulp era helped launch the careers of some of the most revered names synonymous with Classic SF. To give just brief examples, 1952 saw the first publications of work by Philip K. Dick and Frank Herbert, Kurt Vonnegut in 1953, and Brian Aldiss and Roger Zelazny in 1954.

One typical edition of these crudely manufactured magazines could contain one or two novelettes,  and (at least) half a dozen short stories, and it was up to the overworked and underpaid cover artist to devise a single irresistible image to sell the whole package. They were produced at minimal production and distribution rates and printed on the cheapest medium available: pulp-wood paper – hence the term: “Pulp Fiction.”

The garish style of those scintillating spaceships and bug-eyed beasties were very much of their time, matched in certain instances by the archaic scope of weird and wonderful writing spawled across its flimsy pages.

Galaxy-February-1951-large1953-golden_apples_of_the_sun

^ A couple of pulp magazines featuring the work of Ray Bradbury.

 

“When I was seven or eight years old, I began to read the science-fiction magazines… Hugo Gernsback was publishing ‘Amazing Stories,’ with vivid, appallingly imaginative cover paintings that fed my hungry imagination” – Ray Bradbury.

Fortunately for the benefit of 1950s SF, the late, great Ray Bradbury had been heavily influenced – not surprisingly – by obtaining copies of pulp magazines from guests who stayed at his grandparents’ boarding house in Illinois. One of my cultural pursuits involved trying to track down copies of these magazines, but the poor quality which bedevilled this charming sub-genre meant that most issues have long since perished.

When one of the market leaders: Astounding Magazine changed its name to Analog in October 1960, it seemed like one classic period gave way to another – a fitting point at which to end this Post.

It seems a bitter irony that in order to preserve the memory of these ancient mags, we have to resort to uploading them onto the internet, the vanguard of ubiquitous modern technology. Emerging from my “virtual cocoon” (enjoying endless reams of long-forgotten works of SF art online,) it is disheartening to see that the wretched likes of Transformers are still playing to unbelievably packed multiplexes.

The way in which SF is enjoyed has dramatically shifted from books and magazines to movies and video games. While some may say that a more sophisticated, character-driven breed of fiction has emerged, others would argue that the traditional and cerebral literary form of the genre has been replaced by less imaginative visual representations produced with banal digital animation.

What do you think?

 

 

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Killdozer!: The Real Rage Against the Machines

Posted: 22 July 2014

Such cool art - how could the movie be so awful?!
Such cool art – how could the movie be so awful?!

“Why go to a machine when you could go to a human being?” – Ray Bradbury.

Amazingly, when the Review of 2014 comes around, it seems that one of my top accomplishments would actually have been refraining from sitting through the latest incomprehensible and interminably daft Transformers movie. Judging from some utterly horrendous reviews of Michael Bay’s latest epic-drivel, it must stand as a truly wretched experience. Increasing the volume and the running time does not a better movie make, Mr Bay; even when the feeble likes of Shit Lebeef jump ship, then you should know you’ll be going down with a real stinker…   

So, why has it turned out to be such a dud?

As an admirer of traditional SF artwork, the digital conceptual art for this movie looks impressive enough (particularly the cool illo above) but what really makes my blood boil is that yet again, a colossal Summer movie has been unleashed completely devoid of a plot…

…of any kind. Just what blocks are we supposed to be busting here, hmmm?

With special fx at their most sophisticated level available, and an encouraging array of SF writers itching for the chance to produce a box office bonanza (myself included) there is simply no excuse as to why such tosh is still produced.

Maybe it was written and produced by machines…

Isaac-Azimov-Robot-Dreamsundersea kgd

“Film-makers are always going to be… making movies that plug into society around them… after all, it would be sad if we only made films about alien robots” – Mark Boal.

Ever since Karel Capek coined the term: “robot” in R. U. R. (1922), a satire in which artificial men are upgraded to the point that they rebel and replace mankind. Menacing machines and dehumanized societies became all the rage, most notably in Killdozer! 91944) by Theodore Sturgeon and Player Piano (1952) by Kurt Vonnegut. Thus, a concept which gained prevalence in post-war SF happened to be the hybrid of humanand mechanical attributes i.e. the intelligent machine.

The machine-man – or android, if you will – has become a regular staple of popular SF. This theme was further enhanced through Isaac Asimov’s Robot series: I, Robot (1950) and The Rest of the Robots (1964), wherein he introduced the three laws of robotics. Naturally, this review would not be complete without mentioning that seminal classic: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) by Philip K Dick, which questioned what differences were there between humans and androids; it concluded that the differences between flesh and metal were superseded by the moral judgments which separated benevolent and malevolent beings.   

And yet we shudder to think how Capek, Asimov et al would have reacted to this abysmal mega-bucks toy franchise. Not too favourably, most likely...

So, no intelligent machines here – obviously, this concept does not apply to those big noisy trucks which can turn into best-selling toys. Or whatever.

machine-mansleeper

“The relationship between man and machine is, necessarily, one of the main preoccupations of SF. It is through our machines that we expect to remake tomorrow so that it will be different from today” – Brian Stableford.  

For someone who has glumly fought a losing battle with most-things-technical, the steadfast optimism oozing out of the above quote is slightly off-putting. Honestly, the prospect of coping (in our own lifetimes) with an anthropomorphic machine seems too dire to contemplate. With any luck, it should carry the groceries and fix that strange sound in the pipes, and not have to contend with any Instant Puddings

Is there any good to be gleaned from this rubbish of a movie? Is there any way to keep Michael Bay at bay?

There is no way this Post can end on such negative, pessimistic musings, so will endeavour instead to note that, in the meantime, there is some hope to be found amongst the Summer Blockbuster schedules. The latest instalment of the Planet of the Apes franchise is gaining some promising feedback. Early indications show that our local cineplex IS showing it with the English soundtrack. With any luck, the next Post will cover the Apes franchise, and give me the belated opportunity to marvel at Charlton Heston’s performance from the 1968 original. Now THERE was a star who would NEVER have stooped so low to appear in a movie based on a range of toys!

Outstayed their welcome...
Outstayed their welcome…

at the end of it all

 

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel: At Last!

 

 

Posted: 16 July 2014 

the Grand Budapest is an institution, and Gustave H is the best there is
The Grand Budapest is an institution, and M Gustave is the best there is

“There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity… He was one of them. What more is there to say?” – Zero Moustafa.

At last, dear friends!

Finally managed to catch THE movie all of you were raving about months ago: The Grand Budapest Hotel, that intelligent, whimsical and gloriously off-kilter comedy by one of the true auteurs of modern cinema: Wes Anderson.

Earlier this year, it seemed like only other Bloggers would get to enjoy this instant classic, and my only enjoyment would be limited to reading all your favourable reviews as they relentlessly rolled in. You see, living just two minutes from a sandy beach on the Gulf of Thailand may seem like paradise, but being three hours drive away from civilization i.e. crowded malls with state-of-the-art multiplex cinemas, was only going to be exceedingly difficult. Even the local mall (barely ten years old) just screens the latest mainstream blockbusters DUBBED into Thai (yes folks, you read that correctly) so catching this movie’s impeccable script in its original English soundtrack seemed almost-impossible.

Moreover, bereft of car chases, endless explosions, superheroes and/or Tom Cruise, its chances of obtaining General Release in this part of the world were just like Mr Moustafa’s forename i.e. ‘zero.’  

The accompanying poster – depicting the Hotel’s deightful and pink facade – stared out from every movie website as an almost cruel reminder of how so near – and yet so far – my deprivation had reached…

"And you think I did it!"
“And you think I did it!”

“I can’t think of any other film-maker who brings such overwhelming control to his films… Watching this is like taking the waters in Zubrowka. A deeply pleasurable immersion” – Peter Bradshaw.

The UK is blessed with a wide variety of arthouse cinemas; hopefully, my Summer sojourn in the UK would provide the opportunity to catch up with this classic…

…but alas no, the Grand Budapest had come… and gone already. Curses! Honestly, there was nothing for itbutbreathe a deep sigh of resignation and muster wearily on towards that eventual DVD release date…

Fast forward to this past Monday evening; returning to my Eastern base, taking a flight to Abu Dhabi (of all things) a scan of the programme to see what inflight entertainment was on offer, drew a most pleasant surprise – on the first page, my sore eyes lit up upon catching that poster.

EUREKA!

After many months (and miles) my quest to find the Best Film of 2014 ended at 35,000 feet above Europe, (not exactly over Budapest, alas!) As regular readers will know, most of my viewing of the latest releases has occurred during long-distance flights; it just never occurred to me that this how it would be revealed to me! Having drafted the first notes for this Post in a cafe @ Abu Dhabi International, on the connecting flight to Bangkok a second viewing proved irresistible!  

The range of rich cameos on offer is an absolute treat
The range of rich cameos on offer is an absolute treat

“…I could hear him saying the most ridiculous lines ever. I mean, he’s Ralph Fiennes – you wouldn’t believe he could say such things. It was hilarious and so hard to keep a straight face” –  Tony Revolori.

Grand Budapest is being cited as Wes Anderson’s Most Outstanding Movie (to date). Although an admirer of The Royal Tenenbaums, and absolutely infatuated with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, it could well be a strong contender for that title, for it is not weighed down with the melancholia of those two previous films, but is, instead, imbued with period detail – always a bonus in my book!

A crowning glory of this Eastern European exercise is the range of top quality performances on offer: loved Willem Dafoe in Life Aquatic, so it is good to see him here, even if he does play a despicable cat-flinging bounder! Ed Norton, F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody and Jeff Goldblum (looking decidedly Freudian) are particularly good.

Worship Bill Murray, whose career has gained a healthy resurgence through Anderson’s work; his presence here (albeit all-too-brief) as Monsieur Ivan, head of the mysterious Society of the Crossed Keys, is particularly well-appreciated. It’s always fun to watch Owen Wilson in any Wes Anderson film, and it’s amazing how he got included in this – as “Monsieur Chuck” indeed! And to top it all, there is M Gustave, played by “a splendidly rancid and randy” Ralph Fiennes.

The hotel itself is at once both an enchanting and eerie edifice – “a superb cathedral of eccentricity” – with its large and deserted halls, the exquisite matte-painting backdrops and – let’s face it – would it be complete without its lovingly animated wickety funicular?

Even the balalaika-laden soundtrack is delightful.

While we wait for Mr. Anderson to regale us with his next, exquisitely-crafted visual feast, yours truly will endeavour to trawl through the darkest confines of indie movie-making, hoping to track down some other noteworthy underground hits.

Ausfahren!

THAT poster...
THAT poster…