Jameson, serendipity and the Anthropocene unconscious of Joseph Conrad

lord_jim-leadSo there I was rereading Jameson’s The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act for the first time in twenty-odd years to help me firm up my theorisation of the Anthropocene unconscious, and Fred only blooming goes and quotes, albeit for different reasons, this passage from Conrad’s Lord Jim, which I have not read in thirty years:

Above the mass of sleepers, a faint and patient sigh at times floated, the exhalation of a troubled dream; and short metallic clangs bursting out suddenly in the depths of the ship, the harsh scrape of a shovel, the violent slam of a furnace-door, exploded brutally, as if the men handling the mysterious things below had their breasts full of fierce anger: while the slim high hull of the steamer went on evenly ahead, without a sway of her bare masts, cleaving continuously the great calm of the waters under the inaccessible serenity of the sky.

Next up, if I can sort out the clips, the Anthropocene unconscious of Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe. (No, I am not joking.)

http-a-amz-mshcdn-com-wp-content-uploads-2016-04-flashgordon-12

 

 

I cursed the Territories in general and Arizona in particular

burning-mantisBy train and stage and horse and mule I went, and, when I had to, on foot. I cursed the Territories in general and Arizona in particular. I cursed Prescott and Phoenix and Maricopa; Sacaton on the Gila River Reservation and Snowflake on Silver Creek. At Brownell in the Quijotas I learned that William Howard Taft had signed the enabling act that would make a state of that hellish country, and thereafter I cursed him too.

Theodore Sturgeon, ‘Cactus Dance’ (1954)

Amir Tag Elsir, Telepathy: A Novel (2015)

telepathyThe narrator of Sudanese Amir Tag Elsir’s Telepathy (2015), a moderately successful author, returns from a trip to Kuala Lumpur, where he has been gathering impressions, incidents, ideas, character traits and even potential characters for his next novel. However, back in Khartoum, he finds himself living in the peculiar fall-out of his previous novel, Hunger’s Hope, when he runs into a man with the same name as its improbably-named protagonist, Nishan Hamza Nishan.

At first the narrator thinks it is some kind of stunt. Or perhaps an overzealous fan has, in misguided tribute, changed his name.

But the ‘real’ Nishan only found out about the ‘fictional’ Nishan when a neighbour – Shu‘ayb Zuhr, an unemployed graduate of the college of Public Relations and, it turns out, aspiring but uninspiring poet – brought Hunger’s Hope to his attention.

And, anyway, the ‘real’ Nishan has only read the first 120 pages. He does not know that in the second half of the novel the ‘fictional’ Nishan – whose biography up to that point is uncannily similar to his own – dies an untimely death.

The narrator recalls that writing Hunger’s Hope came to him much too easily – as if the ‘real’ Nishan had dictated it to him telepathically. Indeed, he concludes, telepathy is the only way the near identity of the ‘fictional’ and the ‘real’ Nishans can be explained; the divergences between their ‘real’ and ‘fictional’ lives are surely the result of the ‘real’ Nishan’s broadcasting telepathically but unconsciously. (The narrator’s mentor, the octagenerian playwright Abd al-Qawl, is little help; he merely recalls that one of his most controversial early plays was dictated to him through 26 dreams on 26 consecutive night.)

What is the narrator to do? What does he owe to the ‘real’ Nishan? Has he – by giving the novel that ending – condemned the ‘real’ Nishan to an early grave? And where has the ‘real’ Nishan suddenly disappeared to? And what should the narrator do when former communist Asim Ajib, once known as Asim Revolution, and now founder of the Nonaligned Publishing house invents a jacket blurb by him for a collection of Shu‘ayb Zuhr’s poems? Are there plots and conspiracies, however absurd, afoot? And what exactly is the role of Najma, wannabe writer, not-exactly-fan/not-exactly-friend in all of this? And why has she chosen him as the father of the child she want to have?

Amir Tag Elsir’s short comic novel is full of curious incident and odd, often rather sad, characters, such as Murtaja, a young man who ‘was studying at the university and went mad. Now he declares confidently that he is Wikipedia … and that in his head are a billion pages on which the entire world is written’; he roams ‘around in torn shorts, staring at the ground while reciting odd stories from the version of the Wikipedia that lived in his head’. The narrators life and Khartoum itself are slightly out-of-focus jumbles of layered histories, of migrations and separations, of differences of wealth, custom, tradition and rank.

A quick and easy read, Telepathy piles up rather more questions than it answers. Its conclusion is deliberately abrupt. A final sentence screeches the novel to a halt, reframing (but not explaining) everything that has happened (or not happened) before.

 

Tag Elsir, born in Sudan and now resident in Qatar, is the nephew of Tayeb Salih, author of Season of Migration to the North (1966) which was one of my top reads of 2016; it is much too soon to decide whether Telepathy will make this years list.

 

 

My top 20 books of 2016

152992In 2016, I read 243 books – there were a lot of short ones this year, and more comics than usual, plus I wrote a couple of synoptic chapters that required a lot of very fast reading or re-reading.

Portnoy compliance figures
All of the world except…122 (61 by women)
…straight white men writing in English 103
Don’t quite fit 18

 

My top 20 (which does not include books I’ve read before)

A Igoni Barrett, Blackass (2015)
Aphra Behn, Oroonoko (1688)
Karen Blixen, Out of Africa (1937)

Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of This World (1949)
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle (2008)

Warren Ellis and Jason Howard, Trees, volume one (2014)
–. Trees, volume two (2015)

Muriel Jaeger, The Man with Six Senses (1927)
Marlon James, John Crow’s Devil (2005)
Storm Jameson (as William Lamb), The World Ends (1937)

China Miéville, Last Days of New Paris (2016)
Jason W Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital (2015)

Laurie Penny, Everything Belongs to the Future (2016)

Maurice Renard, The Master of Light (1933)
Nina Revoyr, Southland (2003)
Raymond Roussel, Impressions of Africa (1910)

Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North (1966)
Nisi Shawl, Everfair (2016)
Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000)

Tade Thompon, Rosewater (2016)

The full list
Leila Aboulela, Minaret
Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon
Juice Aleem, Afrofutures and Astro Black Travel: A Passport to a Melanated Future
David Annan, Ape: The Kingdom of Kong
Jake Arnott, The House of Rumour
Mike Ashley, ed., The Feminine Future: Early Science Fiction by Women Writers

JG Ballard, HighRise
Steven Barnes, Gorgon Child
–. Firedance 
Jim Barratt, Bad Taste
A Igoni Barrett, Blackass
Barroux, Hannah Berry, Kate Charlesworth, Dan McDaid, Pat Mills, Denise Mina, Will Morris, Adam Murphy, Mary Talbot and Irvine Welsh, IDP: 2043
William Beckford, Vathek
Aphra Behn, Oroonoko
–. Oroonoko
Neil Bell (as Miles), The Seventh Bowl
Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos, Jessica Jones: Alias, volume one
Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things
Lauren Beukes, Moxyland
–. Broken Monsters
Karen Blixen, Ehrengard
–. Out of Africa
–. Shadows on the Grass
Karin Boye, Kallocain
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Kamau Brathwaite, Middle Passages
Poppy Z Brite, His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood, and Other Stories
Douglas and Shea T Brode, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Original Cast Adventures
Anthony Browne, King Kong
Ed Bunker, Dog Eat Dog
Katherine Burdekin, Swastika Night
David Butler, Fantasy Cinema: Impossible Worlds on Screen
Octavia Butler, Clay’s Ark
–. Mind of My Mind
–. Patternmaster
–. Wild Seed

John W Campbell, Islands of Space
–. Invaders from the Infinite
Ramsey Campbell, Ancient Images
Karel Čapek, War with the Newts
Alejo Carpentier, The Kingdom of This World
Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber
Willa Cather, My Ántonia
–. O Pioneers!
Aimé Césaire, A Tempest
M.E. Chamberlain, The Scramble for Africa
Bruce Chatwin, The Viceroy of Ouidah
John Cheng, Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America
George Clinton and Ben Greenman, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle
JM Coetzee, Foe
John Collier, Tom’s A-Cold
Christopher Columbus, Journal of the First Voyage
Joseph Conrad, Almayer’s Folly
–. The Secret Agent
John Corbett, ed., The Wisdom of Sun Ra: Sun Ra’s Polemical Broadsheets and Streetcorner Leaflets
John Corbett, Anthony Elms and Terri Kapsalis, eds, Pathways to Unknown Worlds: Sun Ra, El Saturn and Chicago’s Afrofuturist Underground, 1954–68
–. Traveling the Spaceways: Sun Ra, the Astro Black and Other Solar Myths
André Couvrer, The Androgyne
Alex Cox, Chris Bone and Justin Randall, Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday
David Cronenberg, Consumed
JA Cuddon, ed., The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories
Lincoln Cushing, ¡Revolución!: Cuban Poster Art

Rjurik Davidson, The Library of Forgotten Dreams
Claire De Duras, Ourika
Françoise de Graffigny, Letters of a Peruvian Woman
Samuel R Delany, Babel-17
–. The Ballad of Beta-2
–. City of a Thousand Suns
–. Driftglass
–. The Einstein Intersection
–. Empire Star
–. The Jewels of Aptor
–. Nova
–. Out of the Dead City
–. The Tides of Lust
–. The Towers of Toron
Samuel R. Delany and Howard V. Chaykin, Empire: A Visual Novel
Guy Dent, Emperor of the If
Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater
Virginie Despentes, King Kong Theory
Thomas Disch and John Sladek, Black Alice

George Alec Effinger, Budayeen Nights
–. A Fire in the Sun
–. The Exile Kiss
Warren Ellis and Jason Howard, Trees, volume one
–. Trees, volume two

Fadia Faqir, The Cry of the Dove
John M Faucette, The Age of Ruin
–. Crown of Infinity
–. Siege of Earth
–. The Warriors of Terra
Jennifer L. Feeley and Sarah Ann Wells, eds, Simultaneous Worlds: Global Science Fiction Cinema
Peter Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain

Otto Willi Gail, The Shot into Infinity
– The Stone from the Moon
Stuart Galbraith IV, Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films
Steven Gil, Science Wars through the Stargate: Explorations of Science and Society in Stargate SG-1
Beryl Gilroy, Boy-Sandwich
John Gloag, To-Morrow’s Yesterday
Solon L. Goode, The Winged Ship
P Anderson Graham, The Collapse of Homo Sapiens
SL Grey, Under Ground
Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Pashazade
Ken Grimwood, Replay

Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines
Peter Haining, The Classic Era of American Pulp Magazines
Cicely Hamilton, Theodore Savage
Edmond Hamilton, Crashing Suns
–. Outside the Universe
Lynsey Hanley, Estates: An Intimate History
Otfrid von Hanstein, Between Earth and Moon
Milo Hastings, City of Endless Night
Margrét Helgadóttir, The Stars Seem So Far Away
Margrét Helgadóttir and Jo Thomas, eds, African Monsters
–. Asian Monsters
Cat Hellisen, Beastkeeper
Matt Hills, Blade Runner
Steve Holland, The Mushroom Jungle: A History of Postwar Paperback Publishing
Robert Horton, Frankenstein
Reginald Hudlin, John Romita, Jr and Dean White, Who Is The Black Panther?

Tony Isabella, Dennis O’Neill, Trevor Von Eeden, Michael Netzer, Frank Springer and Vince Colletta, Black Lightning
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
–. The Haunting of Hill House
Muriel Jaeger, The Man with Six Senses
Marlon James, John Crow’s Devil
Gwyneth Jones, The Grasshoppers’ Child
Bertène Juminer, Bozambo’s Revenge

Billy Kahora, Imagine Africa 500
Ann Kaplan, Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction
Frigyes Karinthy, Capillaria
David Katz, People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry
Richard Kelly and Brett Weldele, Southland Tales: Two Roads Diverge
–. Southland Tales: Fingerprints
–. Southland Tales: The Mechanicals
Geoff King, Donnie Darko
Jack Kirby, Black Panther, volume one
–. Black Panther, volume two
Natsuo Kirino, Out
Teruhisa Kitahara and Yukio Shimizu, Robots, Spaceships and Other Tin Toys
Dale Knickerbocker, ed., Lingua Cosmica: Science Fiction from Beyond the Anglophone Universe

Larissa Lai, Automaton Biographies
William Lamb (Storm Jameson), The World Ends
Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice
–. Ancillary Sword
Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea
–. Tombs of Atuan
Gaston LeRoux, The Man with the Black Feather
Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Monstress, volume one: Awakening

Don McGregor and mostly Billy Graham, The Essential Black Panther, volume one
Don McGregor et al, The Essential Luke Cage, Power Man
Marc McLaurin, Dwayne Turner, Rurik Tyler, Gordon Purcell and Sal Velluto, Luke Cage: Second Chances, volume one
Marc McLaurin, DG Chichester, Gregory Wright, Scott Benefiet, Paris Cullins, Brian Pelletier, Richard Pace, Kirk Van Wormer and Steven Butler, Luke Cage: Second Chances, volume two
Zaiba Malik, We Are A Muslim, Please
Nick Mamatas, Cthulhu Senryu
Linda Medley, Castle Waiting
Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James, A Short History of Fantasy
Abram Merritt, The Moon Pool
China Miéville, Last Days of New Paris
–. London’s Overthrow
G.R. Mitchison, The First Workers’ Government, or New Times for Henry Dubb
Jason W Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital
Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World
José Moselli, Illa’s End
Sam Moskowitz, ed., When Women Rule

E Nesbit, The Story of the Amulet
Henry Neville, The Isle of Pines

Nnedi Okorafor, Binti
–. The Book of Phoenix
Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, Superman vs. Muhammad Ali
Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization

Jussi Parikka, The Anthrobscene
Laurie Penny, Everything Belongs to the Future
Andrey Platonov, The Foundation Pit
Charles Portis, Norwood
Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself
–. The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself
Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene

Sun Ra, The Immeasurable Equation: The Collected Poetry and Prose
Hannu Rajaniemi, The Quantum Thief
–. The Fractal Prince
–. The Causal Angel
Sir Walter Ralegh, The Discoverie of the Large, Rich and Bewtiful Empyre of Guiana
Rudolph Raspe, The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Maurice Renard, The Master of Light
Nina Revoyr, Southland
Chris Roberson and Robert Adler, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheeep?: Dust to Dust, volume one
Chris Roberson and Robert Adler, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheeep?: Dust to Dust, volume two
Kim Stanley Robinson, Sixty Days and Counting
Randall Robinson, The Emancipation of Wakefield Clay
Roy Rockwood (Howard R Garis), Through Space to Mars; or, The Longest Journey on Record
Raymond Roussel, Impressions of Africa
Mary Rowlandson, A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs Mary Rowlandson
Salman Rushdie, East, West

Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North
James Sallis, Bluebottle
Andrew Sarris, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film: History and Memory 1927–1949
Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm
Max Sexton and Malcolm Cook, Adapting Science Fiction to Television: Small Screen, Expanded Universe
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
–. The Tempest
Edward Shanks, The People of the Ruins
Nisi Shawl, Everfair
Lao She, Cat Country
MP Shiel, The Young Men Are Coming!
Robert Silverberg, The World Inside
John Sinclair, ed. Sun Ra: Interviews and Essays
Zadie Smith, White Teeth
–. NW
Mickey Spillane, Kiss Me, Deadly
Nick Srnick and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work
Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men
Francis Stevens (Gertrude Barrows), The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy
–. The Heads of Cerberus

Greg Tate, Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America
–. Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience
JP Telotte and Gerald Duchovany, eds, Science Fiction Double Feature: The Science Fiction Film as Cult Text
Andrew Teverson, Fairy Tale
Roy Thomas et al. The Essential Luke Cage, Power Man, volume 1
Tade Thompon, Making Wolf
–. Rosewater
JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit
Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle, Cartographies of the Absolute

Max Valier, A Daring Trip to Mars
Jen Van Meter, Cully Hamner and Laura Martin, Black Lightning Year One
Théo Varlet and André Blandin, Timeslip Troopers
Gerald Vizenor, The Heirs of Columbus

McKenzie Wark, Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene
Andy Weir, The Martian
HG Wells, All Aboard for Ararat
–. The Anatomy of Frustration
–. The Holy Terror
–. The Shape of Things to Come
Alex Wheatle, Brixton Rock
Jack Williamson, The Legion of Space
–. The Cometeers
Mark JP Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation
Nick Wood, Azanian Bridges
Barbara Wootton, London’s Burning

Gene Luen Yang, Saints
Paul Youngquist, A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism

Rachel Zadok, Gem Squash Tokoloshe
Chen Zo, Sorceror to the Crown

From Beyond (Stuart Gordon 1986), adapted from H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘From Beyond’ (1934)

frombeyondposter4[The last of the pieces written for that book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Written in 1920, ‘From Beyond’ is an early, minor Lovecraft story. Crawford Tillinghast’s new invention stimulates the ‘unrecognized sense-organs that exist in us as atrophied or rudimentary vestiges’, enabling him to perceive the ‘strange, inaccessible worlds … at our very elbows’ (90). The narrator, summoned by Tillinghast, finds his previously stout, clean-shaven friend a dishevelled, muttering, yellow-skinned shadow of his former self. After switching on the machine, Tillinghast warns the narrator not to move, because the rays that enable them to see beyond also make them visible to whatever exists there. As the narrator’s ‘augmented sight’ (95) develops, he perceives roiling clouds, a temple, the cosmos, ‘huge animate things brushing past … and occasionally walking or drifting through my supposedly solid body’ (94–95), another realm ‘superimposed upon the terrestrial scene much as a cinema view may be thrown upon the painted curtain of a theatre’ (95). The laboratory fills with ‘indescribable shapes both alive and otherwise’, with ‘inky, jellyfish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony’ with the machine’s vibrations (95). The ecstatic Tillinghast has ‘seen beyond the bounds of infinity’, ‘drawn down daemons from the stars’, and ‘harnessed the shadows that stride from world to world to sow death and madness’ (96). The things pursuing Tillinghast come for the narrator, who shoots the machine. He passes out and Tillinghast suffers a fatal apoplexy. The narrator can never forget the teeming, invisible world around him, or shake the feeling that something hunts him still.

Following the success of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985), adapted from Lovecraft’s ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ (1922), Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, its US distributor, offered Gordon a three-film deal. Gordon pitched an adaptation of Lovecraft’s ‘Dagon’ (1919) but Band preferred one of his alternative suggestions, ‘From Beyond’ (Gordon would eventually make Dagon in 2001). Since Lovecraft’s story is little more than a single scene – and one that would be prohibitively expensive to film – Gordon, screenwriter Dennis Paoli and producer Brian Yuzna adapted it as the opening sequence: Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) switches on the Resonator for the first time, and a piscine creature, swimming through the air, attaches to his face like some monstrous leech, tearing open his cheek; when his boss, Dr Pretorius (Ted Sorel) – named after Ernest Thesiger’s wonderfully queer mad scientist in Bride of Frankenstein (Whale 1935) – activates the Resonator, something tears his head off. We are not shown Pretorius’s demise. It is the last time the film will show such restraint.

Lovecraft’s unseen realm, populated by fragmentary teratalogical wonders, can be interpreted as figuring all that is excluded from what Jacques Lacan calls the symbolic order; and weird intrusions from there can be understood in terms of what Julia Kristeva describes as the abject – things that are neither subject nor object, neither living nor dead, and which are often associated with female bodies and queer sexualities. Although From Beyond now seems quite innocent, twenty-five years ago its escalating and increasingly elaborate special effects sequences looked like a handbook of post-structuralist psychoanalytic theory.

Tillinghast is committed to an asylum run by the draconian Dr Bloch (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), named after Lovecraft’s friend and protégé, Robert Bloch. The police hire ‘girl from-beyond2wonder’ psychiatrist, Dr Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton), to determine whether Tillinghast can stand trial. Along with the cop Buford ‘Bubba’ Brownlee (Ken Foree), she takes him back to the house, where she discovers evidence of Pretorius’s BDSM predilections and reconstructs the experiment that, according to Tillinghast, released whatever killed his mentor. A toothed, tentacled creature attacks Bubba, and Pretorius returns, monstrously transformed, before Tillinghast can switch off the machine. McMichaels, sexually aroused by the Resonator’s stimulation of her pineal gland, is compelled to turn it back on. Pretorius returns in even more hideous form. The enormous slug-like creature that sucked his head from his shoulders fastens on to Tillinghast, tearing of his hair before the Resonator is again switched off. McMichaels, fascinated by the BDSM clothes and equipment in Pretorius’s room, dresses up in dominatrix gear and attempts to have sex with the unconscious Tillinghast and with Bubba. Her sexual energy reactivates the Resonator, unleashing locusts that strip Bubba’s flesh to the bone. Returned to the asylum, the mutating Tillinghast becomes hungry for human brains. He sucks out one of Bloch’s eyes and eats her brain through the socket. McMichaels and Tillinghast return to Pretorius’s house for another extravagant display of sexual apparatuses and gloopy special effects before the Resonator is destroyed.

From Beyond never quite achieves the gleeful excesses of Re-animator, although that did not prevent the MPAA refusing it an R certificate three times before finally approving a cut. Nor did it enjoy the same critical and financial success or cult afterlife. Its prosthetic and make-up effects were soon surpassed – not least by Screaming Mad George’s work on Yuzna’s Society (1989) three years later – and its use of lurid purples and greens whenever the Resonator is switched on now seems like some archaic VHS aesthetic.

Although the original story lacks the adjectival proliferation associated with Lovecraft’s relentlessly failing specificity of otherness, the film’s comic tone detracts from the special effects’ ability to convey the gross materiality that Lovecraft strove to catalogue. Gordon is not concerned to replicate the critical seriousness of Videodrome (Cronenberg 1983), but his slapstick humour is not as well developed or focused as that of the young Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. From Beyond’s more salacious content lacks the shock-value of Re-animator’s notorious cunnilingus scene, while its elaboration of Lovecraft’s sexual undercurrents pales in comparison to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). But it is still worth watching, if only for Combs’ remarkable performance. He is adept at conveying with just his eyes the eagerness, hope, anxiety and inarticulate regret of a young man a long way out of his depth. The intensity he brings to the role contrasts with the blandness of everyone else in the cast. It is as if he really has seen beyond and knows more than he should.

References
H.P. Lovecraft, ‘From Beyond’, in H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. London: HarperCollins, 1994. 89-97.

 

Creator (Ivan Passer 1985), adapted from Jeremy Leven’s Creator (1980)

6a0mv5bmtqxmzm5ota0ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwnzq0mzqxmde-_v1_uy1200_cr7706301200_al_[the penultimate piece written for that book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Leven’s novel is presented as the notebooks of Harry Wolper, written during 1969 to record his ongoing efforts to produce a clone of his wife, Lucy, who died in 1936 – efforts he deludes himself are altruistic, since he believes that the human race is about to become infertile. The notebooks include recollections of his courtship and marriage, the experiments that led to his Nobel Prize, his discoveries that enabled the development of the contraceptive pill, and his illicit career as an abortionist before the pill became available. During 1969, Harry’s son, Arnold, schemes to have him committed; his friend, Paul, has a nervous breakdown; and Maury Halpern gets closer and closer to identifying the town’s secret abortionist, who he is determined to see prosecuted. While searching for a woman to carry Lucy’s clone to term, Harry becomes involved with Meli, a nineteen-year-old self-declared nymphomaniac, who wants to marry him.

6a0
This is the edition I had. The egg shape is a cut-out, with image within it actually a frontispiece. Classy. All the way down.

The notebooks also chart Harry’s relationship with Boris Lafkin, a fictional character in the novel he is writing, increasingly lengthy extracts of which appear in the notebooks. Boris demands control over his own narrative – hitherto, a series of cruelly comical misadventures – and his life radically improves as he meets, fall in love with and proposes to Barbara. But then she suffers an aneurysm and slips into a coma. Boris finally agrees to turn off her life-support. The autopsy reveals that, with a little more time, she would have recovered from the seemingly irreversible brain damage.

Harry, who suffers from Mazel’s Syndrome, dies within a month of marrying Meli. The final journal entry is by Boris, who wonders why he ever needed to invent Harry in the first place. Just as his story has taken over the journal, so now he becomes the author of Harry – at least until Harry tries to have the final word.

Leven’s novel is an awkward patchwork of tones, ranging from pseudoscientific patter to cod-philosophising, from the clumsily lascivious (a feature also of his second novel, Satan, His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr Kassler, JSPS (1982)) to the tediously prolonged sentimental (Leven’s screenplays include The Legend of Bagger Vance (Redford 2000), The Notebook (Cassavetes 2004) and a draft of The Time Traveler’s Wife (Schwentke 2009)). The novel’s metaleptic play between ontological levels, hardly groundbreaking in 1980, is a victim of the increasing familiarity of such postmodern fictional techniques (which Leven was even able to deploy in his romantic comedy screenplay, Alex & Emma (Reiner 2003)). Its bawdiness repeatedly runs aground on the characters’ unlikeability, and its attempts at profundity keep running into the problem of not actually having anything profound to say.

MSDCREA EC001Ivan Passer’s film, scripted by Leven, jettisons vast swathes of material. It retains Harry’s (Peter O’Toole) private cloning experiment and relationship with Meli (Mariel Hemingway), and relocates Boris’ (Vincent Spano) story to the primary diegesis, where he is a graduate student Harry poaches from a rival scientist, Sid Kullenbeck (David Ogden Stiers). By locating both narratives on the same ontic level, it loses any self-reflexive edge; 6a0creator1rather than competing with and commenting upon each other, they become nothing more than strands in a poorly focused (rather than multi-centred) story. Just as the complexly layered and multi-accented novel is transformed into a mildly comic sentimental drama, so Harry is recast as a genial eccentric, given to impish misbehaviour and flouting authority. O’Toole’s beautiful laziness lends the character an otherworldly air, as if he were a saint or a fool, but Hemingway is merely annoying as Meli – a character one is supposed, presumably, to find kooky and charming, if only to allay any distaste at the substantial age gap between her and her lover. Similarly, as Boris and Barbara Spano and Virginia Madsen (and their director) struggle with a script that seems incapable of them as anything more than characters in a poorly conceived novel. It is difficult to tell whether a tear-jerking ending in which Barbara died would have been any more disastrous than the one Leven actually opted for, in which Harry uses his authority to buy Boris sufficient time to talk her – successfully and without lasting health problems – out of a coma. No trace of the camp cruelty with which the novel’s adolescent ironies break Boris survives.

A new subplot involves Harry’s rivalry with Sid Kullenbeck, who schemes to get Harry relocated to Northfield, an unfunded research centre, where elderly scientists are put out to pasture, so that he can gain control of the funding Harry commands. Kullenbeck does not realise that the money follows the recipient, rather than staying with the institution, so when Harry’s masterful presentation to representatives of a research-funding organisation attracts even more money, everyone relocates with him to Northfield. It is unclear, however, what this adds to the film, other than some gentle humour at the expense of Stiers’s familiar pompous persona.

6aocreator-year-1985-director-ivan-passer-peter-o-toole-based-upon-jeremy-a1apnk

Ivan Passer, whose Intimni osvetleni/Intimate Lightning (1965) remains an important film of the Czech New Wave, has never seemed comfortable making films in America, despite emigrating there in the late 1960s. Indeed, his cult hit Cutter’s Way (1981) mostly succeeds as a character-driven crime thriller because of the piquancy of its angular failures. While Passer’s direction of Creator is never less than competent, it is rarely more than that. His attempts to make the film freewheeling and quirky repeatedly stall in the face of a screenplay that is incapable of imagining people or human emotion.

Timescape (David Twohy 1992), adapted from ‘Vintage Season’ (1946) by Lawrence O’Donnell (CL Moore and Henry Kuttner)

1eaffiche[yet another of those pieces I wrote for the book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Lawrence O’Donnell is one of the many pseudonyms under which C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, both already established sf authors, published collaborative fiction after their 1940 marriage until Kuttner’s death in 1958. The extent and nature of their co-authorship in any individual story is never clear. ‘Vintage Season’ is generally considered to be ‘probably a full collaboration’, drawing out both author’s ‘concerns’ in a ‘perfect blend of Kuttner’s logic, Moore’s emotional depth, and their combined irony and stylistic sophistication’ (Attebery 175).

In the final days of a glorious May, Oliver Wilson, who owns a run-down mansion overlooking a small-town, faces a dilemma. Omerie, Kleph and Klia Sancisco have rented rooms until the end of the month, but his fiancée, Sue, wants him to accept a mysterious, lucrative offer to buy the house.

There is something peculiar about the Sansiscos: ‘the beautiful clothing they wore so confidently was not clothing they were accustomed to’ and they speak ‘as trained singers sing, with perfect breath control and voice placement’ (O’Donnell 264, 265). Their queerness – they are often described as effeminate, flamboyant and decadent – intrigues him; and others like them begin to appear in town. There is sadness in Kleph’s eyes when she looks at Oliver. She shows him marvels he does not quite comprehend, intoxicates him with euphoriac tea and seduces him. She is enraptured by a recording of an uncompleted three-dimensional, audio-visual symphonia about human suffering in the face of catastrophe, but it sickens Oliver ‘to the depths of his mind’ (286). He tricks her into revealing the truth: the tourists are time-travellers from an idyllic future, but there is more to their trip than merely visiting perfect seasons – they have come to watch a meteorite destroy the town.

1emoore_kuttner
Lawrence O’Donnell

Oliver wakes up several days later. The tourists have gone, replaced by Cenbe, who is observing the aftermath to help him complete his symphonia. He lets slip that the time-travellers were inoculated to prevent a virulent disease accidentally being taken back to their own time. Oliver, already infected by the meteorite-borne disease, leaves an account of all that he has learned so that time-travellers can be identified and thus future disasters averted. But his house is dynamited in ‘the futile attempt to halt the relentless spread of the Blue Death’ (306). Cenbe’s symphonia is a ‘crowning triumph’ (306).

David Twohy’s directorial debut, intended for theatrical release as The Grand Tour, was instead released to US cable as Disaster in Time and straight to video as Timescape (it is also sometimes called The Grand Tour: Disaster in Time). It rather effectively reworks ‘Vintage Season’ as a tightly budgeted Frank Capra picture channelled through Steven Spielberg, but maintains a sufficiently dark edge to keep it from falling into the kind of sentimentalism typical of cable movies that combine problematic family relationships with fantastical elements.

1ec0414f592bfafc5c7c4df01daaeWidower Ben Wilson (Jeff Daniels) is converting a mansion into a guesthouse. He has a young teenage daughter, Hillary (Ariana Richards), a drink problem and recurring nightmares about the death of his wife Carolyn (Mimi Craven) in a car crash – he was seen fleeing the scene, but insists he was running for help. When the mysterious Madame Iovine (Marilyn Lightstone), a reworking of the pushy Hollia into Omerie’s role, arrives with half a dozen tourists, including the striking Reeve (Emilia Crow), as Kleph is renamed, Ben agrees to let them stay for a few days, despite the renovations being incomplete.

Whereas O’Donnell introduced the tourists’ strangeness by comparing them to foreigners and to people too wealthy to understand the ways of ordinary folk, Twohy depicts them as aloof, restricts their screen time, and reveals their unfamiliarity with everyday things through subtle touches, such as the bumbling Quish (David Wells) not understanding shoe laces. They claim to be from ‘south California’ and come across as European yuppies adrift in the American mid-west. Twohy also reduces the interaction between Ben and Reeve, sidestepping the demands that Kleph’s extravagant décor and advanced technology would have made on the budget; but his depiction of the initial attraction between them – Ben peers at the nearly-naked Reeve through the plastic sheeting over her doorway – looks like something from a straight-to-cable erotic thriller of the period. When Ben works out from Quish’s hints that the tourists are time-travelling ‘disaster groupies’ and moves to a hotel in town, Reeve seduces and intoxicates him to keep him from interfering in their plans.

Twohy focuses on Ben’s relationship with his daughter, and the bitterness of his dead wife’s father, Judge Caldwell (George Murdock), who obtains a writ of temporary custody over Hillary. When the meteor hits, destroying the west end of town, Ben’s concern is entirely for her. Once she is safe, he joins the search for survivors. The tourists – Quish insists he is not a sightseer but a ‘retropologist’ – are busy taking it all in. Next day, while Hillary helps out at the emergency centre established in the school, Ben discovers that the tourists have relocated to a new vantage point from which to observe a gas explosion destroying the school.

1evlcsnap-2011-04-24-22h37m40s174Ben wakes up to find a new time traveller, the Undersecretary (Robert Colbert), investigating Quish’s death while saving Ben from the explosion. Before leaving, an apologetic Reeve slips Quish’s passport, which contains a time-travelling device, to Ben. He travels back to before the meteor impact, but is caught trying to sneak Hillary out of the judge’s house. Nobody will listen to his warnings, and he has to phone his pre-disaster self to break him out of jail. Two minor plot points – the reverend’s (Time Winters) attempts to get Ben to mend the church bells, which have not rung for eighteen years, and repeated references to Für Elise, which Carolyn used to play – come together as the two Bens bash out Beethoven’s familiar bagatelle with sledgehammers on the bells. People pour in from the west end of town to find out what is going on, and are thus saved. Ben convinces them not to use the school as an emergency centre. The Undersecretary returns the time-travelling Ben to where he belongs.

In a brief coda, Ben looks at photos of Carolyn. Hillary finds his chair empty and Quish’s passport on the table beside it. From the next room comes the sound of Für Elise, played perfectly on the piano. ‘Mom?’, she asks.

1ehqdefault

It is not uncommon to use a short story as a film’s opening act or sequence, deriving name recognition or kudos from the pre-sold property before finding ways to elaborate upon material that is too scanty to sustain an entire film. Timescape does not quite fit this pattern. Based on a substantial novella, which provides almost half of the film, it makes nothing of its source or authorship, which are probably too little known to be particularly marketable anyway. Twohy discards the O’Donnell’s selfish, bullying Sue, freeing Oliver to become less of a dupe as he is transformed – thanks to Jeff Daniels’ typically precise performance – into the loving and vulnerable Ben. While the film eschews O’Donnell’s sweetly detached, apocalyptic ironies, preferring to reassert the nuclear family and a safe domestic sphere, Twohy’s simple time-loop narrative results in a more persuasive vision of a man learning the error of his ways than the better-known Groundhog Day (Ramis 1993). The key scene comes after the prison breakout as the two Bens drive to the judge’s house to grab Hillary and flee the town. The pre-disaster Ben, on learning of the imminent catastrophes, accuses the post-disaster Ben of cowardice, just like when he – they – fled the car-crash rather than saving Carolyn. In this moment of heightened anxiety, Ben voices what he has known all along, and earns redemption by drawing on this self-knowledge to save others. It is not the kind of thing one finds in the fiction of Moore and Kuttner, individually or collaboratively, but in moving away from the substance and tone of their story, Twohy creates an affecting and genuinely science-fictional moment. It is unsurprising that his subsequent career as a writer and director of sf films has been pretty successful: while accommodating the demands of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, he continues to display kinds of sf thinking more typically associated with the literary tradition.

References
Brian Attebery. ‘C[atherine] L[ucille] Moore (1911–87)’. Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint. London: Routledge, 2009. 171–76.

Lawrence O’Donnell. ‘Vintage Season’. The Astounding-Analog Reader, Book Two. Ed. Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss. London: Sphere, 1973. 263–30.