Friday, February 26, 2010

Michael Shea: Nifft the Lean, Pt. 2

See previous post for introduction and discussion of the First Adventure.

Warning: I will discuss significant events and endings.

Second Adventure:

"The Pearls of the Vampire Queen"

In his usual pedantic and fussy manner, Shag Margold tells us that this tale came to him from Ellen Errin (also known as Greymalkin Mary), Nifft's long time friend and lover. At the end of the introduction, Margold poses an ethical question that has long bothered him: is the rule of the Vulvula, the Vampire Queen worse than that of the Hipparch, the cruel ruler of Gelidor, whose main export is weapons of war, and who is also suspected of fomenting conflicts. Or, to put it Margold's words: "Who drinks more blood--the Hipparch or Queen Vulvula?"

Briefly, Nifft and Barnar are broke. They decide to improve their financial status by favoring the country of Fregor Ingens with a visit. Fregor Ingens is the only known source of the rare black pearls, much favored by the rich and powerful, and they decide to do a little free-lance pearl diving of their own. The pearl trade, of course, is strictly controlled by the government, so their first concern is to avoid being spotted. Diving for the pearls is usually handled by a team of three people. Two are needed to grab the tentacles of the plant (it's a flesh-eater, naturally), and third to grab pearls. However, two can do it if one is extremely strong (Barnar) and one extremely fast and nimble (Nifft). The thought of hiring on as legitimate pearl divers never occurs to Nifft and Barnar.

The work is hard and dangerous, and their hoard grows slowly. On learning of the festival that's being held in the capital city, Nifft decides that there's an easier way of becoming rich, although it's even more dangerous. The festival is the annual festival of renewal for the Queen. For one year, a young male is given all that he desired. Whatever he wanted, he was given. At the end of his year's "reign," the Queen would drain him of all of his blood. This will restore her strength and her youth and allow her to live another year, slowly aging, until the next festival.

This is reminiscent of certain spring festivals held many centuries ago here on Earth in which certain individuals were treated "royally" for a specified length of time, frequently a year, and then sacrificed to the gods to ensure a good harvest. It's also a reminder of the old tradition that the ruler was identified with the land and the land with the ruler. A healthy ruler insured a healthy land. In the Arthurian Quest for the Holy Grail, Percival encounters a wounded king whose affliction mirrors his kingdom, which has been described in some accounts as the Wasteland.

There was a condition though: she needed to drain every last drop of his blood, or the restoration would not be complete. At the next festival, therefore, she would again be restored, but she would have aged a bit that corresponded to the amount of his blood that she didn't consume. Nifft's plan was simple: steal a cup of blood and hold it for ransom.

It all works out as planned, except for one minor detail. They decide to make their escape on the back of a basilicus, a flying beast that is too stupid to be considered a true demon, but it is controllable. It was commonly thought to be the fastest flying critter on the planet, but Nifft and Barnar soon discovered "that there is something faster than a basilicus." They never learned its name, but its description sounded like a gigantic praying mantis to me. While it cost them part of the ransom, this turned out to be a highly successful trip.

Third Adventure:

"The Fishing of the Demon-Sea"

According to Shag Morgold, this tale is told by Nifft himself, in his own hand. Margold provides the reader with a brief history of Kairnheim, the location of this adventure.

Nifft and Barnar have arrived in Kine Gather, a city in Karnheim, with thoughts of improving their financial status. Before they get a chance to do much more than look over the town, they are arrested and found guilty of thievery when "evidence" is found that proves they have committed at least one theft. Seconds before they are to be executed, a herald bursts onto the scene ordering them to halt the execution. Nifft immediately recognizes the situation. They were set up in order to persuade them to undertake a perilous task, one so dangerous that only those facing imminent death would agree to it.

The son of one of the most powerful men in Kine Gather has been kidnapped by a demon. Actually it's his fault. He's a perfect example of the oft-quoted line--"a little learning is a dangerous thing"--especially when accompanied by stupidity and an irrational belief in one's superior powers and in one's immortality. Such is Wimfort, the son of Rod-Master Kamin. Unfortunately, he managed to correctly perform a summoning spell for demons, but, even more unfortunately, he didn't do as well with the spell of protection. Wimfort summoned the demon, who promptly grabbed him and returned home, to the Demon-Sea.

Nifft and Barnar's task is easy: go down to the Demon-Sea and rescue the Rod-Master's son. To prevent them from just taking off for parts unknown when given the chance, a magic spell is placed on them that causes pain even when only thinking of doing anything but rescuing the Rod-Master's pride and joy.

After numerous painful and bloody encounters they finally manage to rescue Kamin's P and J. Wimfort's gratitude is overwhelming:

" 'My father sent you . . .' echoed the boy. I [Nifft] was getting alarmed--his stare was so wide. 'Three months here!' he groaned. 'Three months. And my father sent you. He waited two months, and then sent a pair of baboons on foot who took another two months to get here!' His voice was rising to a howl as uncontrolled as his arithmetic was getting. "A good wizard could have had me out in a day! That dung-heap! That greedy, stingy dung-heap! THREE MONTHS!'"

The trip back was worse than the trip there. In addition to the other dangers, they now had to protect Wimfort who seemed determined to kill himself and his rescuers. It wasn't long before I decided that he should have been left there as he provides strong evidence in support of Robert A. Heinlein's theory of child raising. According to RAH, the child, after birth, should be placed in a barrel and fed through the bunghole. Once it reaches puberty, close the bunghole.

Fourth and Final Adventure:

"The Goddess in Glass"

This tale is quite different from the first three. Nifft appears to be a bystander, although he has worked himself into becoming a member of the priestess's inner circle of advisers. What he does behind the scenes, if anything, can only be guessed at.

Shag Margold had asked Nifft if he would stop at Anvil Pastures, a city whose main export is weaponry, to get some information about its chief religious cult. The divinity appears to be dead, but it is known to somehow transmit information to its priestess or oracle. Margold is doing a treatise on this cult and lacks certain information.

Nifft agrees and travels to Anvil Pastures, which he finds in turmoil. Months ago, the goddess/ alien? who may be dead or hibernating, asked, through the priestess/oracle, Dame Lybis, that the town gather up a herd of certain animals which had recently emerged from underground and bring them to the vicinity of the town. As Nifft soon learns, the town generally responds to such requests only if there's a profit to be made. As this would be expensive and unprofitable, the town's leaders ignored the request.

Shortly afterwards, the goddess provided information about a source of ore for weapons that was unknown to the town at this time. This time the leaders listened, and the ore was found to be a superior material for weapons. Prosperity was at hand. Months later, however, mining of the nearby mountain range had caused a shifting of large quantities of rock, much of which was now poised to come crashing down on the town. An appeal to the goddess produced a solution: bring the herd of animals from its present location to the town, as it had requested months ago.

The townspeople did and then went to the goddess. The oracle brought the following message: the goddess was pleased, but now a new problem had occurred, for which the goddess had a solution. The townspeople had no choice but to comply. This pattern repeats--as each problem is solved, a new one appears. At one point, the herd of animals that the goddess wanted brought to the vicinity became a threat to the town. They were lithovores--rock eaters--and were working their way towards town. The goddess suggested that all the gold in town be melted down into sheets and placed against a ridge that was between the lithovores and the town. Lithovores didn't eat gold. Hmmmm...

Frankly this sounds a lot like a scam to me, especially since Nifft is now one of Dame Lybis' advisors, or perhaps there's a closer, more intimate relationship?

The resolution soon becomes obvious: the townspeople are going to be punished for their sins. Of course, it isn't clear as to which sins in particular they are being punished for, but their punishment is inevitable.

I had read this book many years ago, so long ago I can't remember why, for I normally don't read this type. However, it stayed with me, and I decided to read it again. It was only during the second reading that I began to see just what Shea has worked into his stories. And, I suspect I've picked up
only a few of the echoes of literature and ancient traditions that are present.

Overall Rating: Highly recommended.

I forgot to mention that Michael Shea went on to write two novels featuring Nifft the Lean.

The second book in the series is The Mines of Behemoth, again with Barnar Hammer-Hand. The third is A'rak. Barnar isn't in this one.

I haven't read either of them, but I do have both in my long queue. I think I'll move them up a bit.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Michael Shea: Nifft the Lean

Michael Shea's Nifft the Lean is the type of work that I seldom read. It's fantasy with a strong tinge of the horror tale about it. Actually, I should say tales since it's not a novel, but four separate stories with a linking device. Each of the stories is told by Shag Margold, a historian, about the exploits of his friend Nifft, known as the Lean. Margold tends to be on the fussy side, a bit pedantic, but don't let Margold's "Eulogy" and prefaces discourage you. Once he gets beyond the academic blather, he turns into a very good story teller. He did not witness the events of the stories for as he tells us, most of the information comes from Nifft himself and from Nifft's friends.

The four stories are really separate tales, linked only by the presence of Nifft and his friend Barnar.
The work probably could be described as a "picaresque novel," even though not considered a novel in the traditional sense. According to the Wikipedia entry, picaresque comes from the Spanish picaro which translates into English as rogue or rascal. The novel is a series of stories, therefore, about a "hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society." The article also points out that "[s]ome science fiction and fantasy books also show a clear picaresque influence, transported to a variety of invented worlds—for example, 'The Dying Earth" series of Jack Vance [and] Fritz Leiber's 'Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.' " I think a number of role-playing games have adopted this format.

Warning: I will discuss some significant plot elements and events, and in some cases, the ending.

First Adventure: "Come then Mortal, We Will Seek Her Soul"

This tale has a more complicated frame structure than the other three. Presumably Shag Margold is presenting us with a tale that is "Nifft's own composition" but is obviously written by a professional scribe, implying that Nifft had someone else take dictation. Once into the tale, we find that the tale is actually a frame for another story.

Nifft and Barnar are on the road and make camp. That night, Nifft tells Barnar of an adventure that began years ago on this same campsite. It is about the time that Nifft and Haldar Dirkness, Nifft's companion before he met up with Barnar, went down to Hell. In fact, it is the tale of his last adventure with Haldar.

Nifft becomes part of a long and illustrious fellowship when he makes his journey into the underworld: Gilgamesh, Odin, Orpheus, Odysseus, Aeneas, and, of course, Dante, among others. Once there, his experiences do not differ greatly from the others. All have to cross water by boat, and all get the chance to talk to some of the inhabitants, and no doubt, come away wiser than before, probably. And
, as always, there is a price to be paid.

Nifft, though, has a slightly different reason for his trip. The others go down to hell either to bring back someone or at least to get information which would help them on their quest. Nifft has a different task: he is to bring a living person down to the underworld as the bequest of another already there.

The person making the request is Dalissem. She has come back to beg Nifft and Haldar to bring her lover Defalk down to join her where she resides, in the Place of the Raging Dead. She was destined to be a priestess and therefore had to remain a virgin. However, she and Defalk fell in love and, eventually, were caught. They swore a suicide pact. When she got the opportunity, she killed herself, but Defalk reneged when he got off with only a warning. That was seven years ago (the magic number seven pops up everywhere), and she was tired of waiting for him. She promises them the Wizard's Key, a device of great power, if they would capture Defalk and bring him down to Hell.

As is typical of other trips to the underworld, there is a toll to be paid. Nifft gives up his left ear (with all the blood spurting about, the demons don't notice that they didn't get the entire ear, just the lobe--that's why Nifft volunteered to do the cutting himself). Haldar sacrifices his index finger, while Defalk loses an eye. That Defalk gains some wisdom on this trip reminded me of Odin in Norse mythology who goes down to the underworld to gain wisdom and must lose an eye as payment.

There are strong resemblances to Dante's Inferno in this tale. They, like Dante, had a guide. And, on their journey through the underworld, the three see numerous examples of souls being tortured by demons. In Dante's underworld, these are sinners and we are told why these souls are being punished. In Shea's story, it's not clear why many of these are here or why they are punished. At times I wondered if this is the fate of all, not just the evil ones. But, this is not true for all. Some earn a special place in Hell. Dalissem, for one, is condemned to the Place of the Raging Dead.

The Place of the Raging Dead is "a dim cauldron of gales" where "the winds wrestled and surged and blew in constant contradictions." It is a place where those with strong emotions are condemned to be blown about by winds that surge first one way and then another, as these people are by their emotions.

In Dante's Inferno, the first circle of Hell itself is for the carnal sinners "who are blown about forever on stormy winds. . . "

from Canto V

I came into a place of all light dumb
That bellows like a storm in the sea-deep
When the thwart winds that strike it roar and hum.

The abysmal tempest that can never sleep
Snatches the spirits and headlong hurries them,
Beats and besets them with its whirling sweep.

. . .

I learnt that in such restless violence blown
This punishment the carnal sinners share
Whose reason by desire was overthrown."

In both works, the sinners, or those doomed to reside here for eternity, are those whose emotions are strong and contrary, sufficient to overthrow reason. Their fate is to be blown about forever, never to rest, a symbol of their life on earth which also found them uncontrollably tossed about by their emotions.

The fates of the three--Nifft, Haldar, and Defalk--differ, as befits their differing souls. Haldar, whose strong passions and high-minded principles, echo those of D
alissem, gains his chosen fate. Defalk learns too late what he has lost when he abandoned his Dalissem and the suicide pact and loses all therefore, but he accepts his fate with a courage and valor that were not evident when we first meet him. And Nifft, ever the pragmatic one--his only concern is getting out of hell, alive, as quickly as possible, and he, also, gets his wish.

To be continued in my next post.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Nikos Kazantzakis: Feb. 18, 1883--Oct. 26, 1957

I first discovered Nikos Kazantzakis, not through his writings but through a film. I was so fascinated by the film Zorba the Greek that I went out and found the novel. After that, I searched for everything I could find by him. I now have around ten novels and several prose works--travel writings and some of his philosophical and autobiographical works. My favorite is, though, Zorba the Greek.

Zorba: on freedom

The Englishman, who in a way has been adopted by Zorba, is getting ready to leave. The Englishman says:

" 'Perhaps I'll stay here with you . . . I'm free.'

Zorba shook his head.

'No, you're not free,' he said. 'The string you're tied to is perhaps no longer than other people's. That's all. You're on a long piece of string, boss; you come and go, and think you're free, but you never cut the string in two. And when people don't cut that string . . .'

'I'll cut it some day!' I said defiantly, because Zorba's words had touched an open wound in me and hurt.

'It's difficult, boss, very difficult. You need a touch of folly to do that; folly, d'you see? You have to risk everything! But you've got such a strong head, it'll always get the better of you. A man's head is like a grocer; it keeps accounts: I've paid so much and earned so much and that means a profit of this much or a loss of that much! The head's a careful little shopkeeper; it never risks all it has, always keeps something in reserve. It never breaks the string. Ah no! It hangs on tight to it, the bastard! If the string slips out of its grasp, the head, poor devil, is lost, finished! But if a man doesn't break the string, tell me, what flavor is left in life? The flavor of camomile, weak camomile tea! Nothing like rum--makes you see life inside and out.' "

Zorba's santuri (a stringed instrument)

"He placed the santuri on his lap, bent over it, lightly touched the strings--as if he were consulting it to see what tune they should sing, as if he were begging it to wake, as if he were trying to coax it into keeping company with his wandering spirit which was tired of solitude. He tried a song. It somehow would not come out right; he abandoned it and began another; the strings grated as if in pain, as if they did not want to sing. Zorba leaned against the wall, mopped his brow, which had suddenly started to perspire.

'It doesn't want to. . . .,' he muttered, looking with awe at the santuri, 'it doesn't want to!'

He wrapped it up again with care, as if it were a wild animal and he was afraid it might bite. He rose slowly and hung it on the wall.

'It doesn't want to. . . .' he muttered again, 'it doesn't' want to . . . we mustn't force it!'

He sat down once more on the ground, poked some chestnuts amongst the embers and filled the glasses with wine. He drank, drank again, shelled a chestnut and gave it to me.

'Can you make it out, Boss?' he asked me. 'It's beyond me. Everything seems to have a soul--wood, stones, the wine we drink and the earth we tread on. Everything, boss, absolutely everything!' '

Zorba on dance:

" 'Why don't you laugh? Why d'you look at me like that? That's how I am. There is a devil in me who shouts, and I do what he says. Whenever I feel I'm choking with some emotion, he says: 'Dance!' and I dance. And I feel better! Once, when my little Dimitraki died, in Chalcidice, I got up as I did a moment ago and I danced. The relations and friends who saw me dancing in front of the body rushed up to stop me. 'Zorba has gone mad!' But if at that moment I had not danced, I should really have gone mad--from grief. Because it was my first son and he was three years old and I could not bear to lose him. You understand what I'm saying, boss, don't you--or am I talking to myself?' "

Zorba on getting old:

" 'I'm white on top already, boss, and my teeth are getting loose. I've no time to lose. You're young, you can still afford to be patient. I can't. But I do declare, the older I get the wilder I become! Don't let anyone tell me old age steadies a man! Not that when he sees death coming he stretches out his neck and says: Cut off my head, please, so that I can go to heaven! The longer I live, the more I rebel. I'm not going to give in; I want to conquer the world!' "

Zorba: the past, present, and future--

" 'I've stopped thinking all the time of what happened yesterday. And stopped asking myself what's going to happen tomorrow. What's happening today, this minute, that's what I care about. I say: 'What are you doing at this moment, Zorba? 'I'm sleeping.' 'Well, sleep well.' 'What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?' 'I'm working.' 'Well, work well.' 'What are you doing at this moment, Zorba?' 'I'm kissing a woman.' 'Well, kiss her well, Zorba! And forget all the rest while you're doing it: there's nothing else on earth, only you and her! Get on with it!' "

If you haven't read anything by Nikos Kazantzakis, then I would strongly recommend doing so, and Zorba the Greek is a good place to start. Perhaps you might want to try the film first; it's what ensnared me.

A link to the Cretan Museum Web page on Nikos Kazantzakis.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Rubaiyat: Quatrain XXII

This is the second quatrain in what I see as a linked series of three quatrains.

First Edition: Quatrain XXII

And we, that now make merry in the Room
They left, and Summer dresses in new Bloom,
Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth
Descend, ourselves to make a Couch--for whom?

Second Edition: Quatrain XXIII

And we, that now make merry in the Room
They left, and Summer dresses in new bloom,
Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth
Descend--ourselves to make a Couch--for whom?

Fifth Edition: Quatrain XXIII

And we, that now make merry in the Room
They left, and Summer dresses in new bloom,
Ourselves must we beneath the Couch of Earth
Descend--ourselves to make a Couch--for whom?

The changes over the five versions are minor: "Bloom" which has a upper case "B" now has a lower case "b" for the second and the fifth editions. The comma in the first edition following "Descend" in the fourth line is changed to a dash for succeeding editions. In fact, the second and fifth versions are identical.

I think the linkage to the previous quatrain is quite clear. In the second line, the "They" who left refers back to Quatrain XXI: the "some we loved, the loveliest and the best . . . [who] crept silently to Rest." We have taken their place , but eventually we also must "Descend, ourselves to make a Couch . . ."

As we read in "Ecclesiastes"

"One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh:
but the earth abideth for ever."

One more point should be made, I think. Previous quatrains had referred to Spring, but this quatrain mentions Summer, which provides a subtle hint that time is passing. If it is now Summer, Autumn and Winter are rapidly approaching.

Quatrains XXI and XXII point out that even as the "loveliest and the best" must go on, so shall we ourselves one day make room for another, and that other will be unknown to us. But, this doesn't seem quite adequate, for something is missing from these two observations, perhaps some conclusion to be drawn here. This is why I think Quatrain XXIII is linked to XXI and XXII.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tobias Smollett: Humphry Clinker

Actually, the full title of the novel is The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, and it was published in 1771, the same year Smollett died. It is considered his best novel, quite different and far superior to his earlier works. Unfortunately, Smollett died before he had a chance to write another, so he was unable to increase his standing among 18th century writers.

Just why Smollett named the novel as he did is still not clear to me. This is an epistolary novel which consists of letters written by five characters on a journey to Scotland. Humphry Clinker is not one of the five letter-writers, and he doesn't even appear until the reader is at least 1/4 to 1/3 into the novel. Most copies of the work simply call it Humphry Clinker and forget the expeditionary part. A more apt title, I think, would be The Expedition of Squire Bramble.

Most of the novel takes place on a journey to Scotland undertaken by Squire Matthew Bramble and members of his family. First and foremost is, of course, the Squire, who is the moving force behind the journey. He suffers from gout and various digestive ailments and refers to himself as a valetudinarian. He usually is wise and kind and generous, except when bothered by his various ailments or by bad weather or by obnoxious people, or at least those he considers obnoxious.

A significant member of the traveling party is Tabitha Bramble, the Squire's spinster sister, whose main goal in life is getting a husband, and much of the fun of the novel is watching her set her traps for anything in pants who appears on the horizon and seems to be lacking a spouse. Also occupying a seat in the coach is Jery Melford, Squire Bramble's nephew and heir apparent, who is somewhat distant from his uncle as they are not in agreement on many issues. Lydia Melford, Jery's sister, is also present, as is a maid, Winifred Jenkins. The story is told by these five people in letters to their friends and confidants. Humphry Clinker joins them on their journey as a servant, mainly because of the Squire's generosity. When they first meet, Clinker is impoverished and barely covered by his rags.

Warning: From this point on, I will discuss significant plot elements as well as the ending to the novel.

Smollett has gone to some pains to include every possible cliche normally found in the 18th century novel. First are the young lovers. Lydia has fallen in love with a young man who doesn't appear to be at her social and economic level and is therefore forbidden to have any contact with him. He then tells her that he will leave temporarily and return with proof of his high social standing, the equal of her family, at least. She, of course, spends much of the trip pining away for her young man. Jery, her brother, is so incensed at the young man's suit to his sister that he challenges him to a duel when he sees him during the journey. At the site of the duel, Jery discovers that a mistake has been made and apologizes to the man, who coincidentally has the same name as Lydia's suitor.

As already mentioned above, we have Tabitha, a constant source of amusement as she goes charging madly off after every single male who appears. There is Winifred, the attractive young maid, who, according to her letters, wouldn't be better than she should, given the opportunity. There is an attack by highwaymen who have designs upon the Bramble finery and currency, as well as what appears to be a reformed highwayman, looking for an opportunity to get out of the business. Can he be trusted?

And, what's lacking so far is an unjust imprisonment, in which one of the characters is falsely accused of a crime, one whose penalty is hanging. It's Clinker's turn now, as he ends up in jail, accused of being part of a robber gang.

A common problem in 18th century novels is that of identity. The novels are filled with people traveling under false names, either deliberately or unknowingly. A number of the characters in this novel are not using either their right names or a name they have used in the past, which adds to the confusion. And, as should be expected, a natural (illegitimate) child appears who is joyfully reunited with his father at the end.

And, predictably, numerous coincidences occur. Near the end of the novel, the coach overturns while fording a rain-swollen stream, and Clinker rescues the Squire. They find they are near the home of the Dennison family who graciously takes them in, for Squire Bramble is in no shape to travel. In addition, the coach itself needs repairs. The Dennisons introduce themselves and tell them that they have a son, who happens to be visiting a friend and should be home the next day. I'll bet that nobody could ever guess just who their absent son is.

As befits the formal definition of a comedy, the work ends happily with three marriages. Jery and his uncle now are in harmony once again. Clinker is reunited with his father. Squire Bramble's gout and various digestive problems have disappeared, and the Squire decides that perhaps a little regular exercise and some care taken about his diet could be beneficial.

Along with the above, the reader is blessed with various rants and raves about parliament, the jury system, medical quackery, and religious preachers, primarily the Methodists. Smollett even throws in, at no extra cost, a sentimental happening that has nothing whatsoever to do with the story, except that it gives the characters and the readers an opportunity to demonstrate their sensitivity and sensibility by shedding tears of joy at a family reunion.

Overall Rating: I enjoyed the novel. It, however, is quite different from the modern novel, and those who believe that novels must be in the modern mode will not appreciate The Expedition of Humphry Clinker.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

District 9: a film

One of the most unusual, and perhaps unforgettable, SF films I've seen recently is District 9. I hadn't heard much about the film, but it was recommended to me as one I would enjoy. I checked with the public library and was surprised to discover that it had purchased 62 copies (that suggests someone thought it was going to be popular) and what was more surprising was that, in spite of the relatively large number of copies, the waiting list was over 100 when I signed on. I just checked a few minutes ago, and there are now 180 people on the waiting list. Apparently a large number of people had heard about the film.

I am surprised that it is so popular, for it doesn't strike me as being a film that would attract many people. It is a dark, gritty film; it is not pretty. It is shot, in part, in documentary style. Many of the scenes are shot as though it was a real-time documentary film. This gives it a sense of immediacy and suggests that this is really happening, right now--unbelievable as it may seem--you are seeing it as it happens.

The Plot: an alien space ship suddenly appears over Johannesburg, South Africa. After waiting for something to happen, the humans go up, cut their way into the ship, and find several thousand aliens in very bad shape: most are starving, and many are ill. The aliens are brought down to an area on the outskirts of Johannesburg and eventually allowed to stay. This area is designated District 9, and it becomes a restricted area--For Aliens Only--a ghetto actually. The aliens--later nicknamed Prawns--could leave the district but had to return. They could live nowhere else. This happens several decades before the events of the film.

Or, to put it in today's headlines, these are interstellar "boat people" who have been confined to a refugee camp for several decades now. Generally, "boat people" leave their homes in order to find a better place to live. If so, what has happened to induce these to leave their home planet.

Now, the powers-that-be decide that it is too dangerous and inflammatory to have many thousands of aliens living in such close proximity to a large human area, so they decide to set up another reservation several hundred miles away. Wikus Van De Merwe is appointed to head the relocation of the aliens. The film begins at this point.

Warning: I will discuss significant plot elements and the resolution of the film.

Van De Merwe, played superbly by Sharlto Copley, comes across as an eager, innocent executive who appears to have been handed a task beyond his capabilities. In fact, I wondered if he hadn't been selected because a scapegoat would be needed if and when the relocation of tens of thousands of aliens turned into a disaster.

Van De Merwe clearly shared the prejudices of the majority of people. He saw his job as moving the aliens, regardless of what they thought or wanted. Part of his job was to get the aliens to sign a form in which they agreed to the relocation. That would make it "legal" and satisfy various civil rights groups. At one point, he is seen explaining to those whose job it is to get the signatures that, even if an alien disagrees and pushes the form away, just touching the form constituted an agreement and any smudge left on the form was to be interpreted as a signature.

His attitude begins to change when he comes into contact with alien biotechnology that reacts with his genetic structure, and he begins to change into an alien. The aliens have a number of very powerful weapons that humans can't use because the weapons are tuned to the aliens' DNA. At the hospital, those studying Van De Merwe discover that his DNA has been affected and that he can now fire the alien weapons. He now is wanted by his corporate employers, various governments, and certain criminal elements who have large numbers of the alien weapons but can't use them.

He eventually escapes from the hospital and heads for District 9, with various interested parties in pursuit. At this point, he begins to interact with the aliens and eventually helps one of them recover a container of fuel for the ship which they had been laboriously manufacturing for decades. However, he only agrees to help when the alien says that it could restore Van De Merwe to his human form. At this point, the pace of the film has moved into high gear with lots of action, culminating in the final sequence when Van De Merwe climbs into a personal combat device and battles the groups interested in capturing him. The alien and its son escape and promise to return in three years for Van De Merwe.

As I watched the film, I was reminded of other SF films and books by some scenes or incidents. It isn't that they copied them, but there were echoes. For example, the sudden appearance of the ship over Johannesburg, followed by no further activity by the aliens, reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke's novel Childhood's End in which numerous alien ships appeared, one over each of the major cities on Earth. For six days, everybody watched and waited and wondered until finally the aliens made contact.

And, Van De Merwe's slow transformation into an alien certainly brings to mind a number of SF films from the 50s in which someone turns into an alien, usually beginning with a hand, just as in this film. We watch as his arm gradually alters into an alien limb while the "victim" desperately seeks a cure.

The vehicles used by Van De Merwe's employers are constructed of a white plastic material which looks exactly like the white armor worn by the Empire's troopers in Star Wars.

In the final scene of the movie, a completely transformed and monstrous Van De Merwe gazes at what appears to be a small flower, and I'm reminded of a similar scene (at least I think I remember this) from at least one film version of Frankenstein in which the monster, at one point, does something very similar--an echo of Beauty and the Beast.

I can only wonder about the choice of Johannesburg, South Africa, for the setting of this film, considering its past history of apartheid. Is Johannesburg's past significant here?

Overall Rating: probably one of the best SF films of the decade, if not one of the best films, regardless of genre, of the decade.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Langston Hughes: February 1, 1902--May 22, 1967

The following quotes are from the Wikipedia entry on Langston Hughes.

"James Mercer Langston Hughes
, (February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967) was an American poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, and columnist. He was one of the earliest innovators of the new literary art form jazz poetry. Hughes is best-known for his work during the Harlem Renaissance.

. . .

On May 22, 1967, Langston Hughes died from complications after abdominal surgery, related to prostate cancer, at the age of 65. His ashes are interred beneath a floor medallion in the middle of the foyer leading to the auditorium named for him within the Arthur Schomburg Center for Reasearch in Black Culture in Harlem. The design on the floor covering his cremated remains is an African cosmogram titled Rivers. The title is taken from the poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Hughes. Within the center of the cosmogram and precisely above the ashes of Hughes are the words My soul has grown deep like the rivers."

Since this poem has been singled out at his monument, I thought I would post it here.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers:
ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

-- Langston Hughes --

Below is a link to the Wikipedia entry about Langston Hughes.