Friday, August 29, 2008

One for the History Books, Pt. 2

It seems as though, regardless of the winner of the Presidential race, a "First" will be made. We shall have either our first black president, or our first woman VP. Moreover, if I remember correctly, this will be the first time the Republicans have nominated anyone but a white male for the presidential ticket.

Sen. McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate will shake up a number of people, in both parties. Moreover, it gives the analysts more to dwell on ad infinitum from now until election. Then, there will be the endless discussions after the election of whether this helped or hindered McCain, regardless of the results.

I wonder how many Republicans will be happy with his choice. The brief account of her record suggests that she might be far more of a Republican maverick than McCain, who, although he claims to be an independent Republican, spent much of the past eight years, and especially during the primaries, attempting to prove what a good, trustworthy, conservative, Christian Republican he really is.

I also wonder what the Democrats are going to make of all this. Will some of Hilary's supporters, now doubly disappointed, desert the Democratic ticket in order to put a woman a "heart beat" away from the presidency?

We do live in interesting times.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

One for the History Books


Regardless of what happens in November, the 2008 election in November will be an historic one, one that the experts will be talking about, writing about, and lecturing on for decades. For the first time in our history, a woman and a black man emerged as the two most serious contenders for the right to be the nominee for one of the major political parties. For the first time in our history, one of the two major candidates for president of the US will be a black man. And, it happened in the midst of a war, with worsening relations with much of Arab world and with Russia, and even with Europe, with an economy that is staggering along, with serious climate changes approaching, with housing prices plummeting, and with energy prices fluctuating almost daily.

What was that old saying about living in interesting times?

I doubt that I will live long enough to see it, but I would really like to read a book written some 20 or 30 years from now that discusses the events of this year-- perhaps one written in 2030 or 2040 when we have gotten far enough beyond the turmoil for a clearer glimpse at just what did happen and perhaps why it happened at this time.

I wonder if I will see a black president, or a woman president, or a Jewish or Hispanic or a Chinese or Korean or a Vietnamese or an Iraqi president one day, or the first openly homosexual president or the first Native American president?

We still have some distance to travel, I think.

Any thoughts?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Gaslight or Gaslight

The relationship between classic film and remake is clear. A classic film is one which for some inexplicable reason achieves greatness, whatever that may be. All explanations are post hoc and therefore useless for prediction. I've heard a number of discussions and read a number of essays discussing this, but there seems to be little agreement overall. What does seem to happen is that the right combination of director, actors, and story come together and results in something nobody expected.

In any case, people view the classic films for many decades after its first appearance, it is studied in film classes, and its stars frequently find their careers beginning or in some cases resurrected as a result of this film.

Several decades later, someone decides that doing it again might be a good way of making some money. Those who remember and liked the original version would be expected to be curious about what this version is like, thereby insuring at least a fair number of viewers. Doing a remake also insures free advertising since critics, scholars, and knowledgeable fans will, no doubt, debate the wisdom or necessity of "doing it again."

I no longer remember what inspired me, but I decided to view _Gaslight_, a classic that I had never seen. I did the usual online search and discovered there were two films with that title, one in 1940 and one from 1944. I saw two possibilities here: two entirely different films with the same title, or, a remote possibility that the classic already had a remake, some four years later, which made no sense.

I went to the 1940 film and it sounded like the _Gaslight_ I had heard of, a husband who attempts to drive his wife mad, with a murder and jewels all in the mix. But the stars were Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard, and it was directed by Thorold Dickinson. This definitely was not the _Gaslight_ I had heard so much about.

I then checked out the 1944 version, which had the same plot. But, the stars were Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotton, Angela Lansbury (who made her screen debut in this film), and it was directed by George Cukor. This was the film I was looking for, but it was the remake.

I don't know if this has ever happened before, (at least I've never heard of it), but the remake of a film became the classic, and the original has disappeared into the film history books. Perhaps those scholars, critics, and knowledgeable viewers knew about this, but they've kept it a secret.

I generally ignore remakes of classic films because I have found that the magic, whatever it was that made the original version a classic, doesn't carry over to the second version. But, since this was an unusual situation, I decided to see, if possible, both versions. In a local video rental store, I found a DVD that had both the 1940 and the 1944 versions.

Both are based on a play by Patrick Hamilton, _Gas Light_, which appeared on stage in 1938 and had a 3-4 year run.

As to be expected, the two films resemble each other, although some significant differences exist, mostly in tone and some involving the characters. The 1940 version focuses strongly on the process by which the husband is attempting to slowly drive his wife mad. In this version, the wife has married a sadist.

The 1944 version concentrates more on the relationship between the husband and wife and the way he uses her almost completely dependent love for him to drive her mad. In this version, the wife loves a sadist.

The plot takes control of the 1940 version, although characterization is adequate. In the 1944 version, characterization is more important, but the plot is still strongly present. I couldn't help but wonder why she loved him, after the way he had treated her.

The one major change in the characters in the story involves the detective who suspects something strange is taking place and investigates. In the 1940 version, the detective is a retired police officer who now owns a livery stable in the neighborhood. In the 1944 version, the detective is a much younger and handsomer man (Joseph Cotton) who is a police officer at Scotland Yard.

There are other changes concerning the major characters, but the basic elements of an unsolved crime in the past involving a murdered woman and jewels are in both.

See both. Which do you think is the classic?

One question has been nagging at me. Which is closest to the play? Hmmm....Another search?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Beam me up, Scotty!

Writers have long faced the obstacles of time and space in telling their stories. Fast horses and sailing vessels were the best the realistic writer had to offer, and that posed a problem--how to get a character or characters to travel long distances, which took a long time, without aging them too much or without frittering away the problem's urgency.

Writers of myths had a much easier time: winged shoes or winged horses or dolphins or even magic boats could get their characters a long way off in a relatively short time. Centuries later, we get reports of bilocation, or the possibility of being in two places at the same time. "Several Christian saints and monks are said to have exhibited bilocation. In one instance, in 1774, St. Alphonsus Liguori is said to have gone into a trance while preparing for Mass. When he came out of the trance he reported that he had visited the bedside of the dying Pope Clement XIV." (quoted from Wikipedia article on bilocation).

It wasn't until the 19th century that science began to help writers who set their stories in the everyday world. The train, the steamboat, and the car finally began to cut down travel time and also allow the characters to go long distances with a minimum of difficulty. Of course, the telegraph and the telephone cut down dramatically communication time, so that one could communicate instantly with another person hundreds or thousands of mile away, without having to wait days or weeks for a letter to arrive.

Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, aircraft arrived, and the world became much smaller, distances shrank, and a week's or a month's travel in the past now became a matter of hours or perhaps a day or so.

For some writers, however, this really didn't help. Their concern was not distances of hundreds or thousands of miles, but millions and billions of miles, of places that were light years apart. Space travel had arrived. Realistically speaking it would take us decades or even century or two, depending upon the speeds we could muster, to get to the nearest star, which is less than 5 light years away.

Rising to the challenge, writers created the faster-than-light (FTL) drive. Most postulated some sort of hyperdrive which took advantage of certain laws of the universe that weren't discovered until after Einstein had long since discovered whether or not God played dice with the universe. Going into another dimension was a favorite escape or more recently, taking advantage of wormholes which somehow cut across space (above? below?), thereby shortening the distance and therefore the travel time between two points.

Other writers came up with different solutions. The more technologically inclined writers employed matter transmission. The person or object enters a device which scans the item to be transmitted, breaks it down into its atomic or subatomic or electronic structure and sends the pattern to a distant point, whereupon the receiver reassembles the item into its original condition, either organic or non-organic. The transporter in the "Star Trek" series is probably the matter transmitter most familiar today. There are variations of course in size, reliability, type energy needed, and cost, but for the most part, matter transmitters are much alike.

On the other hand, some writers prefer to explore the powers of the mind, and these prefer to move their characters about by mental ability alone--teleportation. No machine is necessary, the adepts, who were either born with the power or learned how to teleport themselves, simply thought about going to another place and they were there.

If the story involved issues of human evolution, then only certain people would be born with this power--mutants--they were the next stage in the development of the human race. Other writers, more egalitarian in philosophy or simply in this story, would have it that all or most humans have this power but have never been trained to use it. A classic example of this type of story is Alfred Bester's _The Stars My Destination_, in which jaunting (named after its discoverer) or teleportation is something most people can learn, though they differ in their ability to teleport, much as is true of any human ability.

Regardless of whether it was by machine or by mind, the process seemed to involve three basic principles which hold true for all examples of teleportation, or at least all that I've read and remember.

1. The time to travel any given distance is null; it appears to be instantaneous for neither human nor animal nor object appear to be any older than when they began the trip.

2. The process had to have a predetermined destination. If it was matter transmission, then the destination was another matter transmission device. The pattern of the object had to be sent to a receiver. If it was by teleportation, then the destination had to be in the character's mind. I can't remember any story in which the character teleported at random and survived.

3. The original object moves from one place to another. It starts at Point A, is scanned, and then is transmitted to Point B. The object is no longer at Point A.

These, then, are the three major principles for either matter transmission or teleportation.

However, writers, being what they are, like to experiment. I have just finished reading a novel by Fred Pohl and Jack Williamson: _Farthest Star_, in which they vary the 3rd principle. A person, let's call him Ben, walks up to the matter transmitter, steps inside, is scanned, and the pattern (Ben2) is sent off to its destination. Ben then leaves the device, having lost only a few seconds or so while standing there and goes on to do whatever it was he wants to do. He undergoes no change whatsoever. It's the same as stepping into a photo booth and having a photo taken and then walking off. There are now two Bens in the universe, and the universe doesn't seem to mind.

Pohl and Williamson, unfortunately, do not explore this issue as it would occur in an ordinary situation--X has two appointments, one on Earth and one on Mars. X goes to a matter transmitter and X2 is sent to Mars to keep that appointment, and X on Earth keeps that appointment. After the appointments are over, what then? Does X2 stay on Mars, or does it return to Earth. If it returns to Earth, what is its status? Pohl and Williamson don't address that issue.

In the novels, the transmitter sends humans to places that will eventually kill the individual in a few months or possibly instantly in some cases or to places almost impossible to arrange a return. The "copies" in the story are used to explore this extremely dangerous environment, and in one case, three or four "copies" of one person have already died. Therefore, the issue of the real Ben does not become a real problem.

Keep in mind that the ones sent out are identical to the one who stays at Point A. Pohl and Williamson put us in the minds of several of the ones who were transmitted, and they are unhappy, for they feel they were the ones who lost the lottery.

In the brief discussion of the various forms of transportation, I could not see any moral issues being raised about any of those brought up. This, however, is not true, I believe, for the variation brought devised by Pohl and Williamson.

Is it moral to send someone off involuntarily to one's certain or almost certain death? One might argue that Ben agreed to the procedure, therefore he voluntarily placed himself in that situation--he volunteered. But, Ben also knew that "he" would walk away safely and go about his day. Did B2 have the same opportunity to make that decision?

Interesting question--but of no practical value I suppose. Yet, within the past year or so, I have read about experiments that suggest, at the quantum level anyway, that matter transmission is possible. Of course, in the same article, a scientist commented that while this may be possible at the quantum level, this certainly is impossible at our level. And this reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke's First Law:

"When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."
-- Arthur C. Clarke--

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Many moons ago, I watched a TV series called _Connections_. James Burke, the host, would trace out the link between something in the past and the present day. I think one depicted the linkage between medieval looms and computers. This was an intriguing idea, and occasionally I'd come up with a far-fetched connection of my own. One of my favorites is the linkage between Charles Darwin and _Star Trek_.

In 1831, a British warship was refitted for an exploratory mission. It's task was "to complete a survey of the South American coast and to carry out a chain of longitude measurements around the world." One of the crew was Charles Darwin, who had signed on as ship's naturalist. His task was "collecting, observing and noting anything worthy to be noted in natural history." The ship's name was the HMS Beagle.

What Darwin saw on this exploratory expedition led him to write _The Origin of the Species_ in 1858 and thereby bring the issue of evolution, which had been lurking in the background, out in the open and initiate the debate that still rages in some places today. In 1859, Darwin then published an account of his almost four years on board the ship. The title was _The Voyage of the Beagle.

Some 90 years after Darwin published The Voyage of the Beagle, the SF writer, A. E. van Vogt published a novel titled The Voyage of the Space Beagle in 1950. The novel depicted the adventures of a space ship whose mission was to explore uncharted areas of space--those places where no humans had gone before. The book includes four encounters with alien species, with internal linking created by a basic cast of about ten characters with one or two crew members who hadn't appeared before in each of the four encounters. The encounters were all published separately in various SF magazines, prior to the book publication.

The novel begins with what is probably van Vogt's most famous short story, "The Black Destroyer," the first line of which has remained with me for many decades--"On and on Coeurl prowled." There have been some rumors floating about that Coeurl and the creature from the third episode were influential in the design of the Alien in the film series with Sigourney Weaver. Unfortunately I can't document this story.

In 1956, Jack Vance published To Live Forever, a novel set in a society that had conquered death. In the novel, one of the characters is described as the navigator of the galaxy-exploring "ship, Star Enterprise." It's just a coincidence, I suspect.

In 1966, Gene Roddenberry presented an SF series which depicted the adventures of the crew of the Starship Enterprise on a ten year voyage of exploration--"to go where no man has gone before." Roddenberry has given credit for his idea to van Vogt's novel, The Voyage of the Space Beagle.  Some have thought that he got the idea from another TV series, Wagon Train. However, Roddenberry explained that he used the Wagon Train concept when he tried to sell his idea to network executives. He feared that they wouldn't understand what he was talking about, so he used a more familiar concept, one that they could grasp--a western.

Darwin and Star Trek by way of van Vogt. Significant? Not really. But, it's a break from the day's headlines.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Poets and fogs and cats

I had decided that I would finally get to the collection of poetry of T. S. Eliot this year. I had dipped into the text, _The Complete Poems and Plays: 1909 -1950_ a number of times for specific poems and plays, but there was still much in there that I hadn't read.

Being a rather simple sort, I started with the first poem--"The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I had read this one before, numerous times, so it was settling back for a conversation with a old friend.

"Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table:
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

He's on a quest, and the third line hints that his imagery might be not what one usually gets.

Of course, when I encountered the following stanza, I had to stop and think and smile. Eliot's use of cat imagery to describe the fog seems so apt. I know he's depicting the fog, but the cat comes through so strongly to me that I picture the narrator encountering a cat on his walk.

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

This of course brings up another poem, one by Carl Sandburg, which is shorter but just as potent in portraying a cat.


The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

I guess Sandburg's would qualify more as a short glimpse of one, rather than any lengthy observation, such as Eliot's would suggest. This is a different cat, one on the move, and not one that settles down as Eliot's cat did. I guess that would explain why Eliot goes into more detail than Sandburg did. Perhaps Chicago fogs move more quickly than London fogs.

"And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep."

and Sandburg's

"and then moves on."

I did eventually finish "The Love Song..." that evening, but it took longer than I expected. But, no problem, that's what poems are for, I think.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Poland and the US missle shield

The US and Poland have been negotiating for some time regarding the installation of a missile defense shield in Poland. Russia has objected strongly to it, insisting it would change the balance of power in Central Europe.

No progress was made until suddenly Poland agreed this week to sign on if the US would help strengthen Polish air defenses.

Do you think this has anything to do with Russia's decision to invade Georgia within the past week or is this just a coincidence?

The US insists the missile shield has nothing to do with Russia but is a defense against long-range missile attacks by "rogue states." (Supposedly Iran, I hear)

Alfred Bester, "Fondly Fahrenheit"

Alfred Bester's "Fondly Fahrenheit" is probably his best known short work. The title invariably brings up memories of another favorite short work, Ray Bradbury's longer short work, "Fahrenheit 451." While both feature "Fahrenheit" in the title, and high temperatures are associated with violence, those are the only significant similarities between them.

Bradbury's work satirizes a society that seeks to protect its citizens from unhappiness or suffering by banning all books that have the potential to confuse or sadden or make the reader question long-established beliefs and traditions. The banned books are burned by members of that era's fire department, and Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which books burn. In this story's time and place, firemen burn books not put fires out. The work was made into a film in 1966, directed by Francois Truffaut.

Bester's story isn't social satire, although I supposed an argument could be made by Marxists that the story recounts the horrors resulting from exploitation of the working class--the android. But, if one doesn't buy that, then one must also admit that the story is one that doesn't fit too well into genre pigeonholes--it could be SF or horror or even experimental mainstream lit, but clearly closer, I suppose, to an SF horror story than to social satire.

What interests me the most in this story is that it begins as a story about a serial killer android, and then slowly shifts into a tale that explores issues of identity, so much so that the reader, at least this reader, has difficulty in determining from whose point of view the story is being told. There are at least five points of view in this story. The first four are easy to determine, but it's not clear whom the fifth point of view belongs to.

The plot is simple: Vandaleur owns a multiple aptitude android, the most versatile type in existence. The android is his sole means of support. Without any skills or talents of his own, he would soon be penniless without it.

The story begins with a search party looking for a missing little girl, who eventually is found murdered. The reader soon learns that the android is responsible. (Wasn't Frankenstein's monster's first victim a small child?)

After the discovery, the reader listens in to a discussion among several men who were in the search party:

"What kind of blood doesn't clot?"
"Looks like she was killed by one."
"Vandaleur owns an android."
"She couldn't be killed by an android."
"But androids can't kill."
"Androids can't kill. They're made that way."

And later in the story, another character says, "I thought androids couldn't kill or destroy property. Prime Directives and Inhibitions set up for them when they're synthesized. Every company guarantees they can't ."

I wonder just how much Bester was influenced by Asimov's robot stories. "Fondly Fahrenheit" appeared in 1954. Asimov's robot stories began appearing in the early '40s, and his three laws of robotics were spelled out as early as 1942 in a short story, "Runaround." His first robot novel, _Caves of Steel_ was published in 1953. While a robot was accused of committing a murder in one or more of Asimov's works, I can't remember any in which one became a serial killer.

In Bester's story we find a brief discussion of the differences between a robot and an android--one is machinery and an android is organic-or at least chemically based synthetic tissues. Given that distinction being made, there are still several curious statements made by others throughout the story which seem to reflect Asimov's influence here. My guess is that Bester, along with many other SF writers, were/are influenced by Asimov's Three Laws, whether it is an android or a robot in question.

However, there is more to this story than just a malfunctioning murderous android. The true horror of the story is the idea that one can project a mental illness or malfunction to others. Vandaleur consults several experts about the problem, and all bring up the issue of projection as a significant problem.

However, the explanation by the psychologists that involves projection sounds very weak to me, primarily because the process they describe is not really projection. Projection is not contagion. Projection is the attribution of one's own attitudes onto others. If one is a habitual liar, then one calls others liars and believes that they are liars, for the most part. However, that does not make the second person a liar. Projection does not affect the other individual except in so far as how the projector acts towards the recipient of its projection.

That's projection, and that clearly is not what is happening here. We are seeing something quite different than one person attributing an attitude to another. The experts themselves don't understand what is taking place.

For example, we should look at the following paragraph from the text:

"Vandaleur rushed to Dallas Brady's workshop, stared once, vomited and fled. I had enough time to pack one bag and raise nine hundred dollars on portable assets. He took a third class cabin on the Megaster Queen which left that morning for Lyra Alpha. He took me with him. He wept and counted his money and I beat the android again."

The first sentence is third person POV, focused on Vandaleur. Someone tells us what happened to Vandaleur and what he did. The second sentence is now 1st person POV, with Vandaleur now telling us what he did. We now experience the story through Vandaleur's consciousness. The third sentence is a return to third person POV, just as in the first sentence. The fourth sentence suddenly is 1st person POV again, but the android is now talking to us and explaining what it did or what happened to it. We are now in the android's mind, experiencing the events as the android experiences it.

The last sentence is a mix--two POVs in one sentence. The first part is third person POV, about Vandaleur once again, but the second half--"I beat the android again"--is first person--Vandaleur is now talking to us once again.

The narrator changes from being an observer of the action, the third person POVs, to being the two actors in the story, both Vandaleur and the android. Also scattered throughout are parts in which the narrator is "we"; both Vandaleur and android are now one telling the story; and in other places, the narrator uses "they" and "them," which suggests that the narrator is now neither Vandaleur nor the android, but someone observing them. It is as if this blended consciousness has become independent of both Vandaleur and the android.

Throughout the story Bester's skillful use of five little words, pronouns to be exact--I, he, we, they, and us--blurs the boundary between Vandaleur and the android so profoundly at times, that they no longer seem to be separate individuals. I find it fascinating to read what a writer like Bester can do; he takes a common grammatical error--technically called a pronoun reference problem--and turns it into a horror story.

The ending is clear: there is no ending.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Alfred Bester, a brief look at two novels

Alfred Bester, is probably best known for two novels, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination.

While many SF writers are able to come up with ideas or concepts or technology that equal those of Bester, his strength, which is shared by very few, is his ability to take that idea and make it an integral part of the culture that it is embedded in and also an integral part of the story. Removing that SF element from a novel by Bester results in a culture with inexplicable elements and a story that makes little or no sense at all. Many stories that claim to be SF, yet, upon close examination are stories that could be set anywhere, anytime, anyplace. That's not to say that these are bad stories; it's just that they aren't true SF tales at their core but simply stories with a few SF trappings.

In Bester's stories, we find just the opposite. Many writers have employed telepathy or other ESP powers in tales, but for the most part, the telepathy/ESP aspects could be removed with little difficulty, and the tale would remain the same. However, in Bester's The Demolished Man, the telepathy is such an integral part of the work, that removing it leaves little that makes much sense.

A man plans the death of a business rival. Rather than risk blackmail, he decides to do it himself. In this culture, the potential murderer must not only take into consideration the usual problems of committing the crime at a time and place so that there are no witnesses nor leave any evidence that he was at the scene, but he must also come to grips with the situation that the police employ telepaths who would quickly be able to detect his guilt simply by reading his mind. Lacking any psychic powers of his own, he can not prevent this. Since most people have secrets they would not want to become general knowledge, those who are rich will hire their own telepaths to warn them when other telepaths are approaching and therefore take steps to protect themselves. Consequently, in addition to the police, the murderer now has to contend with the problem that other telepaths will be around who would be able to quickly detect his intentions even before he committed the murder. Much of the novel depicts his activities prior to the crime as he works to counter the problems caused by telepathy. The reader also is confronted by a variety of cultural responses to the awareness that now even one's thoughts are no longer safe.

In The Stars My Destination Bester plays again with ESP, but this time with the ability to teleport oneself from one place to another. Teleportation is simply the power to move oneself by power of mind itself. One does not have to get in a car to go across town; one simply imagines ones' destination and one is there. Considering the high price of gas today, this means of transportation looks better every time I think about it.

This is not a story in which teleportation or jaunting, as it is called, is simply tacked onto the society in which it was developed. Bester has gone to considerable lengths to work out the possible effects that this power, which can be taught and is possessed by the majority of people in that society, might have upon that society. One of the most significant effects of this power is the threat to privacy, anywhere and everywhere.

Fortunately juanting has its limitations. One of most significant is that one must be familiar with and be able form a picture of the destination that one wishes to jaunt to. This means that people can jaunt only to places that they have already visited. As the narrator points out, this gives new meaning to the Grand Tour. Moreover, those with superior ability to form an image of a destination can go more places and also farther at one jump than those with a lesser ability to form a mental image of their destination.

Because of jaunting's threat to privacy, the rich and powerful and famous take extraordinary precautions to protect their homes. Each mansion or estate now has a central core that no one but family members are able to enter. Women's bedrooms have no doors or windows; one must jaunt to enter and one can jaunt only to places one has been and therefore can visualize. Bodyguards are selected for their jaunting abilities as well as their ability to react quickly to immediate threats. Speed and flexibility are now all important: the strong but dumb bodyguard is gone.

As with any human ability, jaunting develops its own hierarchy At some levels of society, one's skill level can raise or lower one's status. However, at the upper levels of society, the reverse becomes true; it becomes a reverse status symbol. Prestign of Prestign, one of the wealthiest men on earth, if not the wealthiest, looks down with scorn on jaunting to such an extent that he hasn't jaunted in years. He hires people who jaunt for him.

Cultures have effects upon the elements which are a part of it, and those elements also influence the culture it is embedded within. The automobile in the US is a classic example of the interrelationship between a culture and the elements within that culture. What would our culture be like without the auto, and how has our culture, which believes in that bigger is better, that speed is all important, and that competition is a major part of life, influenced the auto? More recent examples would be the computer and probably today one would have to consider the mobile phone (cell phone). Ask yourself, as you read this text on the Internet, whether life would be different today without the computer or that little phone. Bester's novels show an awareness of this, and this awareness makes his novels what they are--some of the best SF novels ever written.

The next time you are reading an SF novel, ask yourself the following question: is the gizmo or the gadget or whatever the SF component consists of really embedded in the story and the culture so as to be an integral part of it, or is it simply a post-it note that's there temporarily and won't be missed if it is removed.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Norman Spinrad: The Void Captain's Tale

I found Norman Spinrad's The Void Captain's Tale in my TBR bookcase. It's been waiting patiently in there for some time, so I decided to dust it off and read it. I've read several novels by Spinrad, Bug Jack Barron and The Men in the Jungle, so I was somewhat familiar with his work, although it's been at least a decade or two, since I've read anything by him. As I expected, The Void Captain's Tale is a strange work.

The title and the space flight details have a Cordwainer Smith ring to it.
Where Smith tells us of Go-Pilots and Scanners, Spinrad gives us Void Captains and Void Pilots and Man Jacks. In both, FTL travel requires some sort of human interface in the propulsion system as the method requires a psychic component to function. In addition, Smith and Spinrad present the future in a rather quirky way that convinces me anyway that the future will be different in some very unexpected ways.

Spinrad has constructed a unique culture aboard his space liners. While there are three separate groups of people aboard, only two will play a role in this story. The crew, which usually totals seven, includes the Void Captain, two Man Jacks or junior officers, three medical personnel whose main function is to keep the Void Pilot alive, for it is the void pilot who interacts with the FTL drive in some mysterious fashion. Even though this interaction takes no time, as far as anyone else or any device can determine, the void pilot is so physically reduced that it is a day or two before she, all void pilots are female since males cannot interact with the FTL drive, can function again.

he Honored Passengers are the second group of interest aboard the space liner . There are fifty of them, and these people are not really going anywhere, or rather, they have no specific destination in mind. They are rich and can afford the cost of passage on a ship and are awake throughout the trip. Life for them on the ship is one grand party, and they insist on being entertained, as well as being part of the entertainment. It is this sense of being in one long fiesta that reminds me somewhat of works by Jack Vance, especially the brightly colored and elaborate costumes and makeup and masks.

In addition there is the sense of a psychological void, which must be covered up or disguised by the constant and frenetic activity that characterizes the Honored Passengers' behavior. This psychological void is matched by the void outside the ship that can't be directly experienced for it has a demoralizing effect on those who see it. The psychological void, or so it seems to me, derives from the Passengers' way of life that lacks goals, responsibilities, and obligations, much like the TB patients found in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain.

The third group aboard ship consists of the passengers who are in deep sleep. They are treated as cargo and won't be awakened until the ship reaches its destination.

Aboard this ship, The Dragon Zephyr, the Domo, or social leader of the Honored Passengers, is Lorenza. However, to call her the social leader is misleading. She is much more than that. She is as much in control of the Passengers as the Captain is in control of the ship.
Her relationship with the Captain is an important part of her role, which is to keep the Passengers satisfied and diverted from both the inner and outer voids. Failing that, she will lose her authority.

In addition to the above, an important part of the work is Spinrad's language. It is a first person narrative by the Void Captain, who speaks a language unique in SF. Rather than attempt to describe it, I will provide quotes from the first page of the novel:

"I am Genro Kane Gupta, Void Captain of the Dragon Zephyr, and mayhap this is my todtentale. Of necessity, it is also the tale of the Void Pilot Dominique Alia Wu, but she is gone into the Great and Only, and I lack both the art to present her point of view in the late 20th Century novelistic mode and the insight to say in what sense her tale goes on.

So this tale must not be presumed to mirror any consciousness but my own. Indeed, so acutely aware am I of my own imperfections as a subjective instrument that, were I a Sea Captain of Old rather than a Void Captain of the Second Starfaring Age, I would be sorely tempted to adopt the literary mode known as Ship's Log, in which Captains even less versed in the tale-teller's art than I scribed terse laconic descriptions of daily events, reporting everything from the ship's position to occurrences of tragic enormity in the same even, stylized, objective prose.


On the day that Void Captain Genro Kane Gupta assumed command of the Dragon Zephyr in orbit around Earth, he engaged in an unwholesome exchange of name tales on the sky ferry to the ship with the Void Pilot Dominique Alia Wu."

And several pages later, Gupta briefly discusses his parents' relationship

"My parents met on Arcady, of course, on one of his open-ended planetary sojourns. Though she was ten years his senior and their consciousness interface was mutually recognizable as ultimately unstable from the start, their pheromone profiles matched chemical objects and desires so mutually that amour was inevitable.
Since each was a person of caritas and both understood the transience of their passage together, a mutual agreement was conceived to commemorate it with a child, namely myself."

The story is of what follows from that "
unwholesome exchange of name tales" between Gupta and Dominique.

A romance? An obsession? If an obsession--then what kind of obsession?

Question asked in novel: Does a person have the right to engage in an action that endangers others even if that person knows that the action is the one that will break through the wall of illusion that traps us all and allow a direct perception of the reality beyond what we are deluded into thinking is reality?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

High Noon: Cooper and Who?

The classic western, High Noon, came out in 1952. A remake appeared some time ago, but I haven't seen it. Why see a copy when the original is available?

It's a simple story and told very simply; it's strange, but the best ones seem always to follow that pattern. Special effects may be necessary to develop an interest in many films, but the great ones don't need them and generally don't have them.

Plot: Kane, a town marshal, played by Gary Cooper, has just gotten married. His bride is played by Grace Kelly; I think this may be her first leading film role. He learns immediately afterward that Frank Miller, a man he put away for murder, has been released and is headed this way. He should arrive on the noon train. At the trial he promised to kill Kane. Kane's wife, a Quaker, wants him to leave town and tells him she is getting on the noon train, with or without him. The townspeople, not wanting trouble, also want him to leave and in spite of their avowed regard for him, refuse to help him in his showdown with Miller and his three cohorts, who are already at the train station, waiting for Miller.

Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly get top billing. Cooper deserves it, but sometimes I wonder about Kelly. While she had considerable exposure on TV, this was her first film role. There was another actress who played a major supporting role in the movie, and frankly I wonder that, if the film had come out today, rather than in 1952, the billing might have been Cooper and Jurado, instead of Cooper and Kelly.

Katy Jurado, who plays Mrs. Helen Ramirez, in the film has a unique role, considering it was made in 1952 and not half century later. I just watched the film a few nights ago, and my impression was that she dominated every scene she was in and shared the spotlight with Cooper the one time they appeared together. In the scenes with Kelly, I was focused on Jurado, not on Kelly. That holds true for her other scenes, all with male characters.

Her role is a very unusual one for that era of film-making. She is a widow and a Mexican woman; at one point she tells Kelly that she hates this town because of the treatment a Mexican woman here receives. She is educated and not depicted as the typical subservient Mexican peasant woman. She is the silent partner in at least one commercial establishment, the town general store, I think. She is highly regarded by her partner, who at one point said that he had never cheated her and had been completely honest in his dealings with her. I got the feeling that he was serious and wanted her to think well of him.

One of the anomalies in her role was her relationship with men. She had relationships with four different men over a period of years: her deceased husband, the film's villain Frank Miller, later with Kane who put Miller away, and at the time of the film with Kane's deputy Pell, played by Lloyd Bridges. One can't conceive of Kelly's character having that many relationships.

Helen Ramirez is a strong woman; she obviously dominates deputy Pell and suggests strongly why she had accepted him as a lover, when she tells Pell that while he has big shoulders, he isn't the man Kane is and dismisses his talk about handling Miller himself, suggesting he isn't the man Miller is either. When he asks her "who walked out on who"--her or Kane--she just looks at him and says nothing. She isn't embarrassed or ashamed to answer: it's just none of his business.

When, in their confrontation, Kelly asks her why she isn't staying to support Kane, Jurado simply shrugs and says that he is Kelly's man now, not hers. When asked by the man who works for her whether he should get involved in the Kane-Miller fight, she says he should stay out of it. She no longer plays a role in either man's life. She is a realist and decides that Miller and his three friends will probably kill Kane, which means the end of the town as a civilized place to live. She is leaving, also on the noon train, having made arrangements to sell her share in the general store.

In spite of her obviously "immoral" life, her affairs with three men, she is not punished at the end of the film, unless it is by losing Kane to Kelly's character. But, that happened before the film started. She leaves quietly with money in her purse, and the remainder of her share will follow shortly afterwards. She is a survivor: if Kane were killed, one would be concerned about his widow's future. I, anyway, would have no fear for Jurado's character, Mrs. Helen Ramirez.

The top billing was Cooper and Kelly, but I wonder if it shouldn't have been Cooper and Jurado.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Alexander Solzhenitsyn died today at age 89. He was probably the greatest Russian writer of the past century. Below is a link to a BBC news report about him.