Out of the Unknown: ‘The Counterfeit Man’ (BBC2 11 October 1965)

Alan E Nourse
Alan E Nourse

The second episode broadcast was actually producer/story-editor Irene Shubik’s preferred series opener, but she was overruled by Sydney Newman, the Head of Drama. Presumably, Shubik encountered Alan E. Nourse’s story, first published as ‘Counterfeit’ in Thrilling Wonder Stories (August 1952), when Brian Aldiss included it in the More Penguin Science Fiction Stories (1963) anthology. Only Nourse’s third story (he debuted in 1951), it is a rather clunky knock-off of John W. Campbell’s ‘Who Goes There?’ (1938),1 without any of the humour or incipient paranoia of Philip K. Dick’s similar-ish ‘Beyond Lies the Wub’, published in Planet Stories (July 1952).2

Nourse is one of those generally competent writers with whose work, some of which is available for free on Project Gutenberg, I am not overly familiar. I remember in my early teens encountering ‘Brightside Crossing’ (1956) in at least one general anthology of stories for schools, and my PhD reading did include his The Bladerunner (1974) and its adaptation by William S. Burroughs as Blade Runner (A Movie) (1979), neither of which have any connection to Ridley Scott’s film other than he acknowledged them both in the credits for the use of their title.

OOTU The Counterfeit Man ArticleThe expedition to Ganymede, the first to explore a moon of Jupiter, has been a bust. As Captain Jaffe moans to Doctor Crawford:

Nothing. A big black heap of boulders. No atmosphere. No life forms. No valuable minerals. Nothing. For three months we explore, take pictures, write reports, and it all adds up to a big fat zero. (15)

counterfeit-03But something is afoot. Crawford’s routine medical examination of the crew reveals that one of the eighty men on board has no blood sugar, and a follow up test shows he has one hundred and thirty-five milligrams of creatinine per hundred ccs of blood (ten would mean massive kidney failure, and twenty-five would mean the subject was dying of uremia). It is a nice and relatively underplayed point – this is not an anomaly, it is literally impossible for a human with these characteristics to live. Crawford ran the tests again, and found the subject now had normal human blood. While the doctor is explaining this to Jaffe, navigator Donnie Shaver keels over and dies. Jaffe assumes that whatever the test results meant, the matter is resolved, but Crawford is quick to correct him – the results were those of another crewman, Roger Westcott, and since there is no way Shaver could have been exposed to contamination on Ganymede, this must mean that was is loose on the ship is not a disease but a shapeshifting alien.

So let’s also suppose that these life forms had no particular rigid anatomy … Perhaps they were just some sort of jelly-like protoplasm, capable of changing to fit whatever conditions they might meet. Perhaps they could copy anything they wanted to copy, and sat watching us right under our noses, looking like rocks, looking like sand, like ammonia snow – maybe even looking like men. … Maybe one of them killed Roger Westcott, out there in the rocks somewhere, and came aboard this ship, looking like him, copying his appearance, copying his reactions … Maybe he couldn’t know, at first, just how the blood chemistry of a human being was supposed to balance. Maybe it took time for him to change and copy, so he came aboard with a nice, convincing outer shell all completed but with the inside still mixed up and uncertain … It could be a flawless copy. It would look like the man, act as he would, react just as he would react, down to the last cell. The creature would be that man except for a fragment of alien mind persisting, thinking, holding fast to an alien identity, moving with alien motives. (17-18)

Crawford’s breakneck page and a half of hypothesising – in which he also suggests this alien killed Shaver as a distraction, a way of tricking them into wasting the journey back to Earth searching for a non-existent extraterrestrial disease – is a strangely liminal, and very science-fictional, piece of text. Building such an edifice on a single piece of ambiguous evidence is hugely implausible, and yet for the experienced sf reader rendered plausible, or at least undisbeliavable, by three things: the fact that that those test results are impossible, combined with the pleasures of the extrapolative process and the memory of/resonance with Campbell’s story. In any case, Captain Jaffe is convinced:

A creature like that would have to be evil, wouldn’t it? To do something like this, treacherous, and sly, and evil. (18)

His leap into morality – and his blindness to terrestrial colonial endeavours in the face of a potential alien invasion of Earth – is stunning in its typicality. (The obvious reworking of Campbell reminded me of Ivan Yefremov’s ‘Cor Serpentis’ (1958), which reworks Murray Leinster’s ‘First Contact’ (1945), but sadly, unlike Yefremov’s spaceship crew, at no point do Nourse’s characters get a copy of the earlier story from the ship’s library and subject it to much-needed ideology critique.)3

Crawford comes up with a plan to confirm his (frankly wild) speculations before they reach Earth. He does not explain it, but it involves semi-framing Westcott for stealing the money the crew collected for Shaver’s widow, creating an atmosphere of escalating tension for the remainder of the journey home.

And it is just as well he does not explain it until near the end of the story.

Because it is really really silly.

Even more silly than the moment when the alien-Westcott, tricked into a pressure chamber by being ordered to clean it, sets about

scrubbing down the metal deck with a brush and soapy water. (29)

Surely that there is his not-human tell. Swabbing the decks. Why draw out all the air to kill him? Why not just make him walk the space-plank? (This is the kind of rapidly produced commercial sf that has no room for cultural speculation, so social structures merely imitate existing ones and sometimes unthinking cliché just plain takes over.)

Extrapolating from the alien’s earlier physiological error, Crawford concludes that although it

copied Westcott’s neural circuits … and [thus] assumed the proper conscious reactions to whatever situations arose [,] he couldn’t possibly follow unconscious human reactions and get them right. … There was one thing the alien missed that no human nervous system would have missed. The monster tripped himself up because he didn’t know enough about the function of the model he was copying. The counterfeit man didn’t have one thing that every other man on the whole ship had before this thievery business had run its course. … He didn’t have indigestion. (31)

Fortunately, Nourse has already set a secondary plot in motion.

Crawford suspects there is more than one alien on board, something Nourse has already confirmed for the reader, so before anyone can question the doctor’s decision to kill a man because he doesn’t have wind, he is busy disabling the shuttles and zooming off to Earth to ensure the ship and its crew are placed in quarantine.

There are two or three ways the story can go from here. Either Crawford is the alien and does not realise it, which is what PKD would have likely done, or when he heads back on board the deserted ship to collect his notes he will run into the alien and either kill it or be replaced by it.

Nourse opts for the latter, and I suspect this is one of the things that attracted Shubik to the story, because although Nourse kind of fluffs it, Crawford turning around and finding himself face-to-face with himself is a promisingly visual moment.

Sadly, the adaptation kind of fluffs it, too. The build up – canted Dutch angles, a roaming alien eye point-of-view shot that recalls the 2D version of the 3D alien povs in Jack Arnold’s It Came from Outer Space (1953) – is one of several visually and aurally striking sequences in the episode. But Crawford’s (Alexander Davion) hysterical screaming is prolonged and overdone. And the waters are a little muddied by the make-up effects on his charred corpse after he is shot, which too closely resemble the first stage of the make-up effects when Westcott (baby David Hemmings!) dies – effects that remain pretty effective, as his skin cakes and crumbles and his dessicated corpse melts and oozes.

The adaptation by Philip Broadley – who among other original scripts and adaptations, wrote episodes of Danger Man, The Champions, Department S and Jason King, so I am predisposed to liking his work – makes some very sensible decisions. It retains but downplays the guff about the alien’s inevitable evilness. It drops some useful hints about Crawford’s plan involving the unconscious mind and an increasing human need to dream when under stress. It has Westcott checking electronic equipment rather than scrubbing the floor. And it avoids any mention of indigestion – though this also presents a genuine problem, in that it remains a little unclear how Crawford’s strategy of tension actually reveals anything.

A nice early touch is to have Shaver’s (Peter Fraser) collapse preceded by him uttering lyrical and oddly broken memories of the greenness of Earth. Language collapses, he says something about the ‘egg of orang’ just before his words become disconnected, nonsensical. Is he possessed by an alien, too? Nourse himself is unclear on this point, as is Broadley’s script. But it is a well-written, disorientating, creepy moment.

counterfeit-04The acting throughout is also pretty good – less theatrical and portentous, more naturalistic, than in ‘No Place Like Home’, with overlapping dialogue4 suitable to a self-consciously modern ‘quality’ television drama with an extremely mobile camera and a dynamic use of close-ups. This sense of modernity is emphasised in a couple of wordless montage sequences, combining superimposed images and a camera that roams the ship’s deserted bridge, accompanied by a strident score that combines percussive noises and strings with electronic sounds, as alien-Westcott lies in his bunk, unsleeping, compulsively squeezes a stress ball/rag until a strange goo leaks out of his hand. It helps that, even when young and pretty, David Hemmings never looked convincingly human.

In part, the mobility of the camera is related to the design of the spaceship’s bridge – a large open space dotted with equipment and consoles, but also clearly a studio space, if not on the scale of the one in Mario Bava’s Terrore nello spazio/Planet of the Vampires (1965).4 There are some nice bits of futuristic design, too. It is intriguing to see a representation of an expedition disavowing its own colonialism crewed entirely by white men with brushed forward blond hair, as if they have sprung fully formed from the loins of Midwich or UFO’s Commander Straker (Ed Bishop). Their uniforms look like some kind of space pyjamas, fastening down one side of the chest, with a Nehru-ish collars on each of which there is a two or three digit counterfeit mannumber – presumably indicating rank. Palm plates open silent sliding doors – no Star Trek whoosh, here. Oversize playing cards no longer have any images on them; the nine of hearts, for example, is just a paperbacks-ized card with 9H written on it in an old-fashioned futuristic font.

Overall, I think Shubik was right. This would have been a much better series opener than ‘No Place Like Home’. Sure, Nourse would not have been the draw Wyndham was, but ‘The Counterfeit Man’ actually often feels like cutting edge television drama. Less stagey. Pacier.

Broderick Crawford, who isn't in this
Broderick Crawford, who isn’t in this

And the adaptation genuinely transforms – and improves upon – the original story. Though I wish it would have changed some character names. When I read the story I was

Sam Jaffe, who also isn't in this
Sam Jaffe, who also isn’t in this

distracted by what I assume was an instance of Nourse reaching for character names and, consciously or not, coming up with traces of Hollywood character actors when it came to the captain and the doctor

Other things to watch out for
— Alexander Davion’s tendency, when shot from a low angle, to look like James Mason
— Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell as Captain Jaffe. He seems to have been in an episode of everything ever made, so it took me a while to work out that it was not Breaker Morant (1980) I most recognised him from but Neighbours, Home and Away, A Country Practice, The Flying Doctors and Prisoner Cell Block H (of which he also directed some episodes).
— The rubber outfitted security guards right at the end, one of whom is Derek Martin – Alex from Eldorado and EastEnders’ Charlie Slater.

Last episode, ‘No Place Like Earth’
Next episode, ‘Stranger in the Family’

Notes

1
Already adapted as The Thing (from another world) (1951), it had at that point, as far as I can tell, only been reprinted in J. Francis McComas and Raymond Healy’s Adventures in Time and Space (1946), so Shubik may well have been unfamiliar with it. On the other hand, she was evacuated to Canada in 1939, and later, after gaining an MA at University College London, settled for a while in the US, living first with a brother in Princeton, and then with another brother in Chicago, so she might have encountered the Campbell story in the US but settled for the variant at hand. It would probably have been cheaper and easier to get the rights, too. But this is all speculation.

2
Dick’s story was not reprinted until his The Preserving Machine (1969).

3
There are three excellent ideology critiques of Campbell’s story: John Rieder’s ‘Embracing the Alien: Science Fiction in Mass Culture’, Science-Fiction Studies 26 (March 1982): 26–37 ; Wendy Pearson’s ‘Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer’, Science Fiction Studies 77 (March 1999): 1–22; and Sherryl Vint’s ‘Who Goes There? “Real” Men, Only’, Extrapolation 46.4 (Winter 2005): 421–438.

4
out-of-the-unknown-counterfeit-man-3There is, however, a mismatch between this space and the design of the spaceship. The opening effects shot shows the craft to be a donut-ring design, with a giant central array, but it is the array, not the torus, that revolves. The implication is that the bridge is in the torus since the starry backdrop visible through its windows – a blackened studio wall with some lights on it representing stars – remains motionless. But where, then, does its artificial gravity come from? And why does the array revolve if not to produce artificial gravity?

Sources
Alan E. Nourse, ‘The Counterfeit Man’, in The Counterfeit Man. London: Corgi, 1965.
Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI 2014.

Best books of the millennium so far

The BBC asked a bunch of US critics, what is the greatest novel of the millennium so far? Such an obviously completely bullshit question, you can imagine my eagerness to see the results. I was really looking forward to the pleasure of being outraged and/or bemused by their idiocy and poor taste. That’s the kind of thing that gets me through the day.

What can I say? I was robbed.

Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao topped the poll. And, leaving aside for one moment the obvious and complete bullshitness of the question, I had no problem with that. I like the novel an awful lot. And Junot very generously blurbed the Africa SF collection and contributed an extraordinary long interview to the SF Now collection, extracted here, so I’m very happy for him personally. But none of that helps when I’m jonesing for affront.

The situation was redeemed a little by one of the judges comparing Oscar Wao to Philip Roth’s Portnoy and John Updike’s Rabbit. What the fuck? At last some provocation! Such pedestrian taste! How benevolent of white literary culture to elevate Díaz to such company! The unsavoury reek of appropriation, not only of Dominican/Latino culture, but of geekdom, too! Who dared to say such a thing?

I clicked on the link, and was once more robbed. The journalist is paraphrasing Greg Barrios’ interview with Díaz in the Los Angeles Review of Books, in which the comparison – which also mentions  James T Farrell’s Studs Lonigan – is really just an attempt to explain the structure of the series of Oscar Wao stories Díaz once contemplated writing.

Maybe the other 19 titles in the poll’s top twenty would offer some enormity, some better shots at genuine WTF moments.

Of the other books, I have read only three.

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (number 6) has been sitting on the shelf for years. I finally overcame the potential embarrassment of being seen not to have read it yet, and got through it in one long sitting on two trains and two planes (serially, not simultaneously) en route to the US. A thoroughly enjoyable romp, full of geek-stroking moments, and I get why people like it so much. But all the way through I was troubled by how comfortable it was. How comforting to imagine twentieth-century American history so utterly free from any anti-Semitism whatsoever. It just seemed dishonest. Good, but a long way short of great. On the whole, I probably rate Jonathan Lethem’s vaguely comparable Fortress of Solitude more highly. (By coincidence, my partner, sat next to me on one of the trains and both of the planes, read Hilary Mantell’s Wolf Hall (number 3), and had a kind of mehhh response. Neither book made the return journey.)

A professional obligation recently required me to read Zadie Smith’s NW (number 18). It took me completely by surprise. A genuinely compelling page-turner, if ultimately also just a bit too comfortable in its rather bourgeois worldview. I promptly bought White Teeth (number 11), but have not had chance to read it yet.

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (number 17) utterly mystifies me. It is flimsy and trite and I really cannot see what anyone sees in it. But people damn well keep on seeing something in it.

Three others are in the to-read pile or, rather, one of the to-read piles, ‘cos this place is becoming unmanageable again. There is a looming happy convergence of personal interest and work which will hopefully get me to Edward P Jones’s The Known World (number 2) and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah (numbers 10 and 13) within the next year.

Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex (number 12) has been flickering in and out of a similar indeterminate space for a few years now, but every time I decide this time I really do need to read it I realise I don’t actually have a copy.

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (number 19) would be in a to-read pile but I am determined to read one of these shorter books of his I have lying around before committing to such a sizeable tome. I mean, over there in the corner, there’s a small mountain range comprised of the evergrowing proportion of William Vollmann that remains unread. Surely I should do something about that first?

I confess to finding the whole idea of Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections, number 5) baffling. At least he only provokes indifference.

But Ian McEwan? (Atonement at number 9). Genuine ire.

I have not managed to get past the first chapter of anything McEwan has written since, I dunno, Black Dogs or possibly Enduring Love, though I can recall nothing about either of them. (I remember quite liking The Cement Garden and The Comfort of Strangers, and the two early story collections, which is why I stuck with him as long as I did, but I was fifteen or sixteen when I read them, so I doubt it is worth going back.)

At least, I suppose, we are spared Martin Amis. I agreed wholeheartedly with Beulah Maud Devaney’s statement this week that ‘life is too short for Martin Amis’, though found myself repeatedly moving her words and their meanings around a little. Martin Amis is too short to live! Let’s shorten the life of Martin Amis!

Nothing on the rest of the list provoked a thing. Least of all interest.

I don’t know which are the greatest novels of the millennium so far. Not least because is it such an obviously and completely bullshit idea. But here is my list of the books published so far this millennium that I rate most highly. My criteria boil down to this: I could not wait to finish them so I could force my copies on other people to read. Which is unusual for me since, despite my enthusiasms, I am not by nature enthusiastic.

In date order:

2002
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt 
2003

Ahmadou Kourouma, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote (this is cheating a little, since it was published in France in 1998)
Nalo Hopkinson, The Salt Roads
2003-4
Neal Stephenson, The Baroque Cycle
2004
Gwyneth Jones, Life – I also rate her Rock and Roll Reich series (2001-14) very highly; it is becoming increasingly prescient.
2005
Geoff Ryman, Air: Or, Have Not Have
2006
Shelley Jackson, Half Life
Anthony Joseph, The African Origins of UFOs
Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Wizard of the Crow
2007
Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Hari Kunzru, My Revolutions
2009
China Mieville, The City & the City – or perhaps Iron Council (2004), actually, the whole Bas Lag trilogy (Perdido Street StationThe Scar)
2010
Nnedi Okorofor, Who Fears Death
Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel
2011
Andrea Hairston, Redwood and Wildfire
John Sayles, A Moment in the Sun
2012
Zadie Smith, NW

The Valid-For-One-Day-Only* Perfect Hard SF Story, with a Hint of Transcendence

9.-2001-A-Space-Odyssey-Stanley-Kubrick-1968Writing a hard-sf story is not easy. I should know – I tried it once.

After careful study, I ripped not one but two ideas from that week’s top science stories and combined them for extra unpitying induracy. For a little dazzle, I  structured the whole thing around an allusion to a canonical story. Then one of the two science stories at the core of the endeavour promptly fell apart.

But here it is anyway:

As the arsenic-based lifeform’s computer printed out the nine-billionth name of god, it adjusted its telescope to observe the other end of the optical spectrum and, overhead, without any fuss, the small red stars were going on.

*Actually 2 December 2010. Then this happened.

2/12/2010

Z is for Zombies

Zombies are to us as we are to what we could be.

Zombie narratives try to make us side with the worst of us against the most of us. (Accumulation by) dispossession shall be the whole of the law.

Zombies are the twenty-first century’s bomb-throwing anarchists, its beardy dirigibilists raining incendiary terror from the air. Destroy destroy destroy so a new world will rise from the ashes. But, as always, the destruction is welcomed by the architects of perpetual immiseration. Ultimately, the zombies work for them.

Zombies who struggle to retain or regain their humanity lack ambition. When zoe is all you are, why settle for the same old bios?

Zombies are metaphors, and zombie metaphors hang around long after they should have been shot in the head. Beat ’em or burn ’em, they go up pretty easy.

Out of the Unknown: ‘No Place Like Earth’ (BBC2 4 October 1965)

OOTU_Logo‘No Place Like Earth’ was not producer Irene Shubik’s choice for Out of the Unknown’s opener. She was concerned about its languid pace and, following the recent Mariner 4 flyby of Mars, about its old-fashioned representation of the red planet (and it was apparently taken to task over this when reviewed on the BBC’s discussion programme, Late Night Line Up (1964-72)).

Irene Shubik
Irene Shubik

Shubik would have preferred the adaptation of Alan E. Nourse’s ‘The Counterfeit Man’ (1952),1 and David Campton’s original teleplay ‘Stranger in the Family’ was also ready to air. But Sydney Newman,2 the Head of Drama, selected the episode based on a story by John Wyndham, by far the most famous of these authors…

Although as far as I have been able to determine, the story had still not appeared in print anywhere under Wyndham’s name.3

John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris
John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris

Wyndham’s story follows Bert, one of a small number of humans on Mars after the complete destruction of the Earth fourteen years earlier. Unlike the others, who have settled into a life of hopeless dissolution, Bert is an itinerant tinker, travelling the Martian canals from place to place, fixing pots and pans and basic mechanical devices for the indigenous population, who are unskilled at such things. They live lives of quiet contentment, without regret or strife, long after the decline of the ancient Great Ones, whose ruins dot the landscape. The gentle Martians offer Bert a home among them, even a wife, Zaylo, but he cannot bring himself to abandon his memories of Earth, his sense of difference, of human ambition. He is incapable of embracing a world he knows is dying.

Abruptly, a ship from Venus arrives. There, other human survivors are racing to transform their precarious colony into a new Earth before the Slav settlement, at the other Venusian pole, expands to threaten them. Venus, however, turns out not to be what he’d been led to expect. Behind the façade, there is a strict hierarchy of privilege, and he is put to work as an overseer of indigenous slave labour. He revolts, escapes to Mars and, after ensuring there can be no future contact between the two worlds, returns to join his new Martian family.

Such a mixture of introspection and exposition, with only a little violent action, must have seemed quite manageable for a more-or-less studio-bound production, but for the need to represent two very different alien worlds – the declining Mars and the jungle Venus of pulp sf. But the staging is quite ingenious, involving maybe half a dozen sets. The ruins of a Martian building, vaguely resembling a classical temple, appear differently dressed as the two key Martian settings. Venus is represented by a pair of enclosed spaces, a kind of train station and a small train carriage; there is also a quarry set, and two other sites which might actually be part of the same set. And there are a couple of rooms in the spaceship. OutOfTheUnknown1A brief location shoot at Loch Lomond provided images of the canals, with Martian mountains matted into the top half of the frame; a single shot of what appears to be a quarry was presumably filmed somewhere nearby. There is also a briefly glimpsed effects shot of a spaceship blowing up in the distance, and a stock shot of quarry blasting. And when Bert (Terence Morgan) first hears of the Venus settlement and fantasises about the new and ultramodern human society being built there, an image of the Martian ruins fades into a view of a skyscraper at a sharp angle that emphasises its height, and shots of the moderne arched vaults beneath – I think it is Centre Point, constructed in 1961-66, and at the time one of the tallest buildings in London.

One of the most interesting aspects of Wyndham’s story is the way in which it thinks about colonialism, drawing on and overlapping British and American traditions, stereotypes, clichés and expressions, while also offering a gentle, if deeply compromised, critique.

Bert recalls the first human encounters with the Martians:

They were a gentle, sympathetic people, and sincere. It was a tragedy, one of a string of similar tragedies that the first Earthman to ground on Mars had seen them as a weak, effete race; the ‘natives’, inferiors, to be kicked about, and exploited when convenient. … Their quietness, their lack of hurry and their calm philosophic ways were a soothing antidote to [Bert’s] sense of drive and thrust. He found out quite soon that what his companions had called their laziness and effeteness was a misunderstanding of minds that worked differently in some ways, and certainly saw life differently; whose conception of the virtues was altogether alien, and he found out how his abilities could help their deficiencies in exchange for the foods they knew how to grow. (12, 15-16)

Despite his profound sympathy for the Martians, Bert still sees humans as the norm – he does not see his mechanical orientation or his lack of agricultural knowledge as deficiencies. And British colonial idioms recur:

The Martian grapevine wasn’t any more reliable than other bush-telegraphs. (24)

Some of the other humans

had taken Martian girls and tried to go native (13)

because almost all the humans working in space were men, and therefore the survivor settlement on Mars is all male – although briefly, and in the story’s most overtly misogynist passage, Wyndham seems to have imagined it more as a wild west town:

There had also been two women, hostesses or stewardesses. Good enough girls, and amiable at first, though no great beauties. But circumstances were against them, and the pressure was great. They had gone quickly to the astonishing depths of badness good women can reach once they start. It was reckoned they had caused a score of murders each before they were found to be susceptible to the same method of disposal. Things were quieter after that, with drinking the main amusement.

Later, as Bert contemplates leaving Mars for Venus, he hears men singing, not

drunken bawling … but men singing lustily, cheerily, with hope in their hearts … (30)

And what do they sing? A song about prospecting for gold on the banks of the Sacramento river.4

Shades of the forty-niners, ghost of covered wagon trains crawling, crawling across prairies and deserts, over mountains, forging on against hardships and hunger. With not much gold at the end, perhaps – only an arid land. But a land which their sons would make to bloom like a garden there beside the Pacific. . . . (30-1)

bbc-out-of-the-unknown-1965-no-place-like-annike-and-zeylaThe episode presents the Martian women and children as somehow Mediterranean-ish. Their faces and exposed skin are in swarthy but not too dark blackface; their hair, make-up and jewellery recall stereotypical images of ancient Greece (or maybe Rome or Egypt). Their simple dresses are suited to labour rather than elegantly draped robes, and this semiotic confusion is extended by their clearly unskilled pounding with large mortars on maize- or corn-filled pestles. (They noplace02also seem to have white mouthguards in place, smoothing out their teeth, but it is quite a subtle alien effect.) I don’t think we ever see an adult Martian male, which is one of the ways in which the episode develops the differences between the two worlds. On Venus, no-one wears natural fabrics, and the setting is all male. There are said to be women – fewer in number than the men and protected from the vicissitudes of life on the planet in the compound reserved for officers and the government – but we never see them. The Venusian settlers are promised wives in the future, once they prove themselves, but somehow that day never seems to come.

Soon after Wyndham’s evocation of manifest destiny, and now on Venus, British orientalism and idiom reassert themselves:

long leaves rippled in the Wind, writhing like Medusa’s hair. Crowning the central rise of the Settlement stood the massive palisades of the seraglio. (31)

which an unnamed settler labels

Jam tomorrow (31)

(The expression, from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), had gained fresh currency as a term for politician’s promises following John Maynard Keynes’s 1930 essay ‘Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren’.)

This unnamed character, out of favour with the Venusian ruling class, explains how the system works, in terms that resonate with immigrant experience (in 1948, Empire Windrush had brought the first group of post-war West Indian immigrants to London). Bert will be given full citizenship if his work proves satisfactory, but reasons will always be found to test him just one more time. If and when he does become a citizen, he will discover there are no women available for him to marry, but he will be put on the waiting list. If he makes a fuss, his citizenship will be revoked. If he becomes a problem for the regime, he will just disappear.

Visually, the episode’s vision of the Venus settlement owes more to the 1954 Nigel Kneale/Rudolph Cartier adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). The walls of the futuristic waiting room at the railway station are adorned with slogans:

VENUS IS THE FUTURE

WORK OBEDIENCE PROGRESS

STRICTER CONTROL GREATER OUTPUT

Bert’s interlocutor, named Freeman (Joseph O’Conor), drapes a coat over a surveillance camera, adding something like ‘they can watch us through these, too’, even though it is clearly not a telescreen.

In both story and episode, their ensuing conversation about the ways in which humans are failing to build the best possible world on Venus draws upon the Gettysburg Address, citing the line about ‘a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’. Obviously intended by Wyndham as part of the Americanisation of his mid-Atlantic voice, it has an acute resonance, given that Venusian civilisation, such as it is, is built upon slave labour (in the episode it stands out as implying a US pulp vision of a future populated by inevitable and endless Americans, but is contradicted by the cast’s obviously British accents). The name ‘Freeman’ also evokes the immediate post-bellum context, though it does not appear in the story, only the episode. And although the episode does include two actors of colour,5 neither is cast as Freeman; intriguingly, though, he is played by an Irishman.

Of the slaves with whom Bert is charged, he thinks:

They were intelligent little creatures, but the general opinion was that they were dead lazy. … that just showed narrow thinking. Laziness is a relative term to be measured against work. Nobody called a flower or a tree lazy. The point was that a wild griffa never had any conception of work. When it was caught and shown work, it didn’t like it. Why should it? The captives netted by a drive in the forest came in as sad-eyed, bewildered little figures, of whom a number promptly went into decline and allowed themselves to die. The rest had no great will to survive. Life in captivity was very little better to them than no life at all. The only thing that made them work at all was the desire to avoid pain. They were intelligent enough to be taught quite complicated duties, but what no one had been able to instil into them was the sacred idea of duty itself. They could not be brought to the idea that it was something they owed to these human invaders of their planet. … There was also the uneasy feeling that his position in Venusian society was not all that different from theirs. . . . (37-8).

Despite the common deployment of stereotypes about laziness, this seems to reflect British colonial thinking rather than American slavery and Jim Crow discourses.

noplaceThe episode does not convey much about the Venusian griffas. Slighter than the humans, they are vaguely simian in their demeanour, but in a neat bit of cost-cutting they are invisible beneath synthetic overalls and head-encompassing helmets. Instead, it focuses on Bert’s immediate and utter revulsion at slavery while also evoking the Holocaust labour camps (remember those slogans, remember ARBEIT MACHT FREI). Bert is under the command of Khan, played by the Cypriot actor George Pastell, who was regularly cast as Egyptians, Indians, Arabs, Latin Americans, Russians, Italians, Spanish, and so on.6 Here, his Mitteleuropan accent wavers in and out of sounding German, and his costume is clearly intended to invoke some kind of Venusian fascist. Later, when Bert is called upon to explain his presence on the spaceship back to Mars, he deadpans that he is ‘just obeying orders’. However, the image of the Middle Passage is perhaps evoked when, having lied about a mission to round up Martians as slaves, an Officer – played by Geoffrey Palmer! – points out that the difference in gravity between the two worlds would make them useless.7 Bert shrugs off this ‘wastage’.

Ultimately, my dissatisfaction with the episode is the same as with the story. Both versions hinge on Bert’s recognition that his memories of Earth are actually of the better world humans imagined, not of Earth as it actually ever existed. But in both, like some Candide-lite, he opts to let Venus (and the remaining humans on Mars) go to hell and settles for tending his own garden (and beautiful indigenous bride). Grrrrrrrrrrrr.

Other things to watch out for
— Hannah Gordon as Zaylo, the Martian hottie
— disgruntled Jack Russels in furs as Martian bannikuks
— brief glimpses of Bill Treacher – Arfur from Eastenders
— the human salute, which comes across as kind of premature, extremely white and rather awkwardly constrained black power fist

Next episode: ‘The Counterfeit Man’

Notes
1
Originally published as ‘Counterfeit’ in Thrilling Wonder Stories (August 1952), it was anthologised in the UK in Brian Aldiss’ More Penguin Science Fiction Stories (1963).

2
He had been poached by the BBC in 1962 from the commercial channel ABC, where his major successes included Armchair Theatre (1956-74) and The Avengers (1961-9), and where he had also produced the series of sf serials, Target Luna (1960), Pathfinders in Space (1960), Pathfinders to Mars (1960-1) and Pathfinders to Venus (1961). Shubik worked with him as a story editor on Armchair Theatre and on an sf anthology drama series Out of this World (1962). At the BBC, Newman soon initiated The Wednesday Play (1964-70) and Doctor Who (1963-89). Shubik joined him, becoming story editor on the contemporary drama anthology series Story Parade (1964-5) before proposing Out of the Unknown as a science-fictional companion; later she would oversee the transformation of The Wednesday Play into Play for Today (1974-80).

3
Wyndham published under a variety of monikers (John Beynon Harris, John Beynon, Wyndham Parkes, Lucas Parkes and Johnson Harris), all derived from his own rather lengthy name, John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris. The publishing history of ‘No Place Like Earth’ begins with a short story, ‘Time to Rest’, which constitutes roughly its opening third. ‘Time to Rest’ was published in two magazines: in the US, as by John Beynon Harris, in The Arkham Sampler (winter 1949), edited by August Derleth; in the UK, as by John Beynon, in New Worlds 5 (August 1949), edited by John Carnell. Derleth reprinted it in a US anthology, Far Boundaries (1951), and in the UK it was included in the Wyndham collection Seeds of Time (1956), published in hardback by Michael Joseph and paperback by Penguin. Beynon’s direct continuation of ‘Time to Rest’, the longer and rather less elegiac ‘No Place Like Earth’, appeared in Carnell’s New Worlds 9 (Spring 1951) and in the US, under the misleading title ‘Tyrant and Slave-Girl on Planet Venus’, in Donald A. Wollheim’s 10 Story Fantasy (Spring 1951). In October 1952, Carnell joined the two stories together as ‘No Place Like Earth’ as the lead story in an anthology of British sf, No Place Like Earth (Boardman), still as by Beynon, which enabled him also to include a John Wyndham story, ‘Survival’ (1952); the anthology was reissued by the Science Fiction t949Book Club in January 1954, and published in paperback by Panther in August 1961. (Joined together as a single story in this way, ‘No Place Like Earth’ also appeared under Beynon’s name in the first of an annual anthology series, Out of this World (Blackie), edited by Amabel Williams-Ellis and Mably Owen; it reversed the order of the two opening stories in Carnell’s anthology, beginning instead with Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Breaking Strain’ (1949), but otherwise the contents do not overlap.) At least, this is the publication history I have been able to cobble together from internet sources. Shubik was, by all accounts, well-versed in sf, so it is hard to tell when she might first have read the story. However, the Panther paperback would have gone on sale around the time she was starting to look for stories to adapt for ABC’s Out of this World.

4
There is no direct equivalent in the episode, although Bert does sing snatches of the very British ‘A-Hunting We Will Go’ and, if I recall, the ‘Eton Boating Song’.

5
One of them, uncredited and apparently Asian, is seated among the group of humans on Mars; the other is the Jamaican Roy Stewart who, as a Venusian security guard, actually gets to speak a line of dialogue (badly). A stalwart of British film and TV throughout the 1960s and 1970s, he is perhaps best remembered as Toberman in the 1967 Doctor Who serial, Tomb of the Cybermen.

6
Pastell also appeared in Tomb of the Cybermen, as Eric Kleig.

7
In the story, Bert merely hopes that no one will raise this objection – maybe this addition is evidence of Shubik’s anxiety about the story’s badly dated planetary science.

Sources
Beynon, John, ‘No Place Like Earth’, in John Carnell, ed., No Place Like Earth. London: Panther, 1961. 9-42.
Out of the Unknown boxset.BFI, 2014.

Wrapping Up Hellboy’s Penis: del Toro, disability, The Devil’s Backbone and Blade

Guillermo del Toro, by Carlos Chavira
Guillermo del Toro, by Carlos Chavira

This is the promised follow-up post to  ‘On Hellboy’s Penis’ and ‘On the Back of Hellboy’s Penis: Pacific Rim‘ . Once it is out there, I will stop using the words ‘Hellboy’ and ‘Penis’ in close conjunction to clickbait y’all.

One of the curious features of Guillermo del Toro’s films thus far is that they all contain characters with disabilities or who become disabled through injury in some way during the course of the action – most often people with legs that are damaged or only partially functional. This ranges from De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), the billionaire villain seeking immortality through the eponymous device in Cronos (1993), who lives in a sterile environment and spiders around on a pair of crutches to signify his waning powers as a form of castration (but also because at least since Shakespeare’s Richard III ‘being crippled’ signifies villainy), to the  Republican guerrilla who, injured by fascists, has his leg amputated in El laberinto del fauna/Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).

Although such characters are usually not particularly well thought through, what makes them interesting is that they are often situated among monsters, which by their very nature raise questions about what are considered normal or normative bodies and abilities.

devilsbackbonethe_640x360Far and away the most interesting of these characters is Carmen (Marisa Paredes) in El espinazo del diablo/The Devil’s Backbone (2001), who runs a remote boarding school/orphanage, sheltering the children of those fighting for the Spanish Republic or whose parents have been killed by the fascists. A woman in her mid-fifties, she regularly has sex with Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), a handyman half her age. She has no feelings for him – it is just a matter of her sexual pleasure – and he goes along with it in order to gain access to her set of keys, one of which will unlock the hidden safe in which she stores gold to fund the Republican cause. She also has lost one of her legs at the knee, and we several times see her remove or replace her prosthetic lower limb.

Jacinto finally blows up the safe, only to find it empty. Later, Carmen’s body is found among the rubble, the gold concealed within her artificial leg. It is a fascinating image, this gold among the rubble, this hidden fold within which treasure is found, this older sexual woman who is not at all an object of repulsion or criticism.

***

Blade (Wesley Snipes) can be understood in terms of disability (he is part vampire and thirsts for blood because of this condition, for which he self-medicates) and of extra ability (he is a vampire, with all the powers that implies, but he is unaffected by sunlight). In the Blade (Norrington 1998), a film in which del Toro was not involved, a potential genetic cure for Blade’s vampirism is extrapolated from experimental treatments for sickle-cell anaemia. Blade ultimately refuses it, in a heavily coded moment that is also all about staying black. In Blade II (del Toro Blade-Wesley-Snipes12002), the vampires conduct genetic experiments to ‘cure’ themselves of their inability to go out in daylight.

Blade’s peculiar situation – a person with a disability, a person with superpowers – is really useful for beginning to think through superhero narratives, which, whatever else they might do, profoundly relativise ability. As Scott Bukatman wrote, in an essay on Superman and Spider-Man (among others), ‘Through the superhero, we gain a freedom of movement not constrained by the ground-level order imposed by the urban grid’ (188). That is, only the superhero is adequate to the environments we build for ourselves; the merely human – regardless of ‘ability’ – is not.

References
Scott Bukatman, Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 21st Century. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

This post and the related ones, ‘On Hellboy’s Penis’ and ‘On the Back of Hellboy’s Penis: Pacific Rim’  are extracted from ‘Disability, Monsters, Utopia: Some Lessons from Guillermo del Toro’, delivered at Disability Studies/Science Fiction, Universität zu Köln, 28–29 November 2014. Thanks to Olga Tarapata and Hanjo Berressem for the invitation to participate, to Ria Cheyne and Margrit Shildrick for their supportive comments, and to the captive audience of grad students for asking so many questions.

Some version of it might appear in a book on monsters I am thinking about writing (cos, you know, they love to fund research leave for stuff like that).

‘Hoodie’, from Jason Wyngarde, The Second Battle of Britain (London: Verso, 2033)

In 2011, the British Con-Dem coalition government imposed massive cuts to public spending, ostensibly to reduce the national deficit. The funding shortfalls produced by this austerity programme were to be met by opening up public services – schools, hospitals, universities, hospitals, libraries, and so on – to corporate investment and, where the profitability was likely too be too small or too distant in time, voluntary work within the affected communities. This latter option, known as the Big Society initiative, met with little success and was quietly dropped from political and news agendas. Not, however, before introducing the country to an array of costumed crimefighters and, eventually, a handful of genuine heroes.

Memos and recordings of secret high level meetings leaked to the press in 2015 show that, in an attempt to reduce the cuts to the police service, senior officers conspired to provoke the wave of protests sweeping the UK into violence. They reasoned that the greater the threat to property – one tape reveals officers agreeing to use ‘public order’ as a euphemism – the more likely corporate bosses were to pressurise politicians into maintaining, perhaps even expanding, the police budget.

This strategy proved disastrous.

Many aspects of police work were suddenly opened up to competitive tender, with tax-payers’ money diverted into the coffers of multinational security consultant companies. The size of the police force was massively reduced. Many former officers found themselves employed by these new ‘security providers’ as freelancers or on short-term, zero-hour contracts, doing the same work for minimum wage or less. Only the least profitable of police work – crimes against people, particularly in the poorest sectors of society – were left to the barely funded police force.

Meanwhile, the tail-end of Big Society state initiatives encouraged neighbourhood watch schemes and other community groups to police their own streets. And while many people were concerned about the violence and injustices this introduced, the media lapped it up.

Steven Seagal presented four seasons of the reality TV series Have-A-Go Heroes, a ratings hit that inspired numerous imitators, including Ross Kemp’s Britain’s Hardest Heroes and Danny Dyer’s Village Vigilantes.

Richard Branson, Simon Cowell, Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Alan Sugar joined forces to produce Britain’s Got Talents, a show which uncovered the nation’s would-be superheroes, and The X-Factory, which followed each season’s finalists through superhero boot camp. For a while, their names were on the lips of school-children everywhere. Wicca Man. EastEnder. White Van Man. CiderMan, the west country cyborg.

General Dodd, the former head of Britain’s top-secret Meta-Human programme, came out of retirement and once more summoned his Diddy Men – a veritable army of forgotten bullies in long underwear – from the obscurity of their seniors’ villages and sheltered accommodation. Colonel Bogey, Boy’s Own, the Dandy, the Minx, Brown Owl, Victor, Hotspur, Warlord, Bullet, Starlord, the Space Hopper…

But things were already going badly wrong.

Austerity measures intensified, driving the country ever deeper into poverty and despair. Workhouses returned, called Job Centres now, and in the Brutal Parishes peonage too root. Private police forces, security contractors and criminal gangs – the differences between increasingly nominal – carved up cities. No-go zones and exclusion zones proliferated. Emergency powers were declared. Black-shirted militias were formed. Labour camps opened. Cities burned. People died. And so did civil liberties.

At first, only a handful dared to raise their voices in opposition.

Banned once more, and once too often, from a Liverpool mall because she refused to uncover her face for security cameras, a sixteen-year-old girl decided enough was enough. She burned down a militia R&R centre in a former library. She called herself Hoodie.

This first act of heroic resistance attracted others, and soon she was joined by Bradford’s The Muslamist. Then Wolverhampton’s ASBOy. Glasgow’s Northern Emergency Defence System. Billericay’s Counter-Hegemonists Against the Violent State.

And Citizen Media was everywhere, breaking the corporate stranglehold on information. ‘We are not the heroes,’ his broadcasts would conclude. ‘The people are the heroes, and it is time to get heroic.’

In the North, the Angel stirred.

Clegatron quailed.

The Insurgency had begun.

28/5/11

On the Back of Hellboy’s Penis: Pacific Rim

bg_0This is the promised follow-up to my recent post on the Hellboy movies; there is one more after this.

Complex images of emergent intersubjectivity such as those I identified in ‘On Hellboy’s Penis’ can also be found in Pacific Rim (del Toro 2012).

In 2013, creatures from another dimension open a portal in the gap between tectonic plates in the Pacific, and from this Breach giant monsters – kaiju – emerge. Humanity responds by building giant mecha – piloted robots known as Jaegers – with which to fight them.

Piloting a Jaeger requires a direct link between the human brain and the mecha body, but a single human mind cannot cope with the neural load. So pairs of ‘drift-compatible’ humans undergo a technologically-enabled mind-meld with each other in order to control the machine. This is initiated by a process known as a ‘neural handshake’, but obviously reaches far deeper than such a formal-sounding gesture implies.

Each pilot shares the memories of the other, their feelings and thoughts, without, it appears, exception. It is extremely intimate. It can be profoundly traumatic.

The process leaves us with a single consciousness, albeit one that is comprised of two parts, both of which seem to retain some level of distinction from the other even though they become as one. And it leaves us with two separate bodies over which each of them seems to retain individual control, and a third body, that of the Jaeger, which they jointly control.

500px-Crimson_Typhoon_PilotsWhile the compatibility of the pilots tends to rely on some kind of family or intimate relationship – brothers, father and son, lovers – sadly we are given no insight into how this works with the Wei Tang triplets (the pilots of the three-armed Jaeger Crimson Typhoon) played by the Luu brothers, themselves identical triplets. If identical twins represent an uncanny doubling of the selfsame (Shildrick 56), the further ‘excess’ of identical triplets surely extends this, undermining even further any sense of the security of selfhood by implying not just doubling but seriality.

Furthermore, when they pilot Crimson Typhoon, they become conjoined, concorporeal, even though they can in some ways be told apart.

The kaiju also trouble the notion of a singular identity. To begin with, each creature is so massive that it requires two brains: the main brain in the head and, located somewhere towards the other end of its spine, a secondary brain. The arse brain. This hierarchisation of SSD-15157.DNGcorporeal control echoes, perhaps unintentionally, that of the pilots of the Jaeger Gipsy Danger: Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), the experienced white male brought out of retirement for one last mission; and the novice, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a small Asian woman at whom – despite their mind-meld – Raleigh still feels the need to shout orders. (Though if there is an arsebrain among the Jaeger pilots, he is well in the running.)

When Dr Geiszler (Charlie Day) mind-melds with a fragment of a kaiju brain, he discovers some other things about them.

First, they have been here before. In a throwaway line, it is revealed that the dinosaurs were kaiju from this other dimension. But they could not survive in a terrestrial environment until the Anthropocene era rendered the world habitable for them. Of course, this is nonsense. Dinosaurs existed quite happily for about 165 million years and were the dominant vertebrates for 135 million of them; humans have only been around for about 200,000 years, about one 825th as long. But this absurdity at least suggests the extent of the ongoing devastation for which we humans are responsible, the mass extinction event and global climatological transformations over which we blithely preside.1

Second, although each kaiju is physically unique – each one looks like it is from a separate species – they all have identical DNA. So what appears to us as speciation is actually individuation within a single species.2

Third, they are all actually clones of each other. The film implies that they are a particular kind of soldier species created and deployed by some other, as yet unrevealed, monsters intent on colonising the Earth.

Fourth, despite all this variety or instability of form, the kaiju share a hive-mind, which implies that despite their many bodies they are effectively a single individual.

Sadly, Pacific Rim does not explore these potentially troubling seams of gold but, as one might expect of a film with a budget of $190 million, buries them in rubble. They are worth excavating, however, and transvaluating, turning into something positive.

For example, they speak to the politics of the contemporary moment which needs urgently to move beyond neoliberalism’s competitive individualism as the model of how humans are and how we interact, that treats ‘all creative agency and potential rationality as properties of individuals rather than of groups’ (Gilbert viii), that everywhere undermines democracy by treating collectives as irrational mobs or dupes under the sway of demagogues, that treats the social realm as a space of antagonism rather than an intersubjective field from which we all arise and through which we all mutually form each other.3

***

The habitation of monsters is utopia.

Those who tell us how horrible utopia would be, and all that we would have to give up, ignore that the majority world lack so much that utopia, even if it is a place of monsters, is better than what we have.4

And if we do indeed turn to such monsters as these – human, alien, animal, machine – as figures of utopia, we again find that Derrida has done some of the groundwork for us.

In the same interview I quoted in ‘On Hellboy’s Penis’, he says;

the future is necessarily monstrous: the figure of the future, that is, that which can only be surprising, that for which are not prepared … is heralded by species of monsters. A future that would not be monstrous would not be a future; it would already be a predictable, calculable, and programmable tomorrow. All experience open to the future is prepared or prepares itself to welcome the monstrous arrivant, … to accord hospitality to that which is absolutely foreign or strange. (386-7)5

With this in mind, I will conclude with a monster not of del Toro’s making.

In H.G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), the deranged vivisectionist is on one occasion diverted from his attempts to surgically uplift beasts to human status, to move them from zöe to bios, by trying to create life itself, a pure beast – what appears to be the quintessence of zöe:

[a] writhing Footless Thing … a limbless thing, with a horrible face, that writhed along the ground… immensely strong, and in infuriating pain. (77)

This creature suggests that the monstrous other is always also the utopian trace, the barely glimpsed signifier of a radically alternative space and time struggling to emerge into the text.

It is a place where such a creature could be at home, and so could we.

Notes
1 The original context for which this paper was written was a symposium on disability and sf, a context not present in these blog extracts. However, I did argue at this point that this history of the kaiju offers us a way to think about the Jaegers. They function as prosthetic ‘cures’ for the ways in which the kaiju presence relativises human ‘ability’ by abruptly rendering our world rather less habitable. This indicates the extent to which ‘ability’ and ‘disability’ can be understood as being constructed by the environments – here primarily physical, but also clearly social, cultural, political, economic – in which we attempt to live. Rather than let this note get any longer, I will post a final few comments on del Toro and disability in a couple of days.
2 This could be read as implying that each kaiju represents a stage within a life cycle which includes multiple, radical morphological changes, and that we are seeing a single species at different stages of its development. Though the film does not seem to mean this.
3 One might point to political philosophies building on the work of Alfred North Whitehead, Deleuze and Guattari, such as the vital materialism of Jane Bennett (see Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010)) or William Connolly (A World of Becoming (2011)).
4 Or perhaps the habitation of monsters is merely the threshold of utopia, something through which we must pass in order to achieve full-on communism. Not merely the full-communism for which so many of my friends on the left call, often ironically, but a communism that is full-on: radically decentred and radically democratic, as green as it is red, as queer as it is feminist, as beyond racism as it is beyond ableism; just and libidinal and joyous.
5 Observing how culture tends to work, he notes that it will also be domesticated, but at least sees that as a negotiated process, in which it learns our habits and we learn new habits.

Previous post; follow-up post.

References
Jeremy Gilbert, Common Ground: Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism. London: Pluto, 2013.
Jacques Derrida, Points…Interviews, 1976-1994. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Margrit Shildrick, Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. London: Sage, 2002.

This and its associated posts are extracted from a paper, ‘Disability, Monsters, Utopia: Some Lessons from Guillermo del Toro’, delivered at Disability Studies/Science Fiction, Universität zu Köln, 28–29 November 2014. Thanks to Olga Tarapata and Hanjo Berressem for the invitation to participate, to Ria Cheyne and Margrit Shildrick for their supportive comments, and to the captive audience of grad students for asking so many questions.

Some version of it might appear in a book on monsters I am thinking about writing (cos, you know, they love to fund research leave for stuff like that).

On Hellboy’s penis

look at the size of that whammer!
look at the size of that whammer!

(See follow-up posts here and here.)

It is October 9th 1944.

The 28 year old Professor Trevor ‘Broom’ Bruttenholm (Kevin Trainor), paranormal advisor to the US President, is on a classified mission to an island off the Scottish coast. There, in a derelict Abbey built on the intersection of leylines – ‘boundaries between this world and the others’ – Nazis are opening a portal to another dimension. They are assisted by Grigori Efimovich Rasputin, occult adviser to the Romanovs who somehow survived that night in 1916 when he was ‘poisoned, shot, stabbed, clubbed, castrated and drowned’. Their shared goal (although Rasputin clearly has a different agenda) is to free from their crystal prison the ‘monstrous entities’ known as the ‘Ogdru Jahad – the Seven Gods of Chaos’, who are destined to ‘reclaim the Earth … and burn the heavens’.

Hellboy (del Toro 2004) then gives us a brief glimpse of this infernal otherwhere and, within it, of a monstrous eye becoming aware of the portal, of the Earth. Then the Americans attack, and Rasputin is dragged into the portal by energies beyond his control. Broom manages to close it, but not before something comes through.

There then follows a peculiar sequence which reworks an old gag I first saw on 27 December 1973 at the end of ‘The Baby Arrives’, an episode of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em; others may recognise it from the 1995 Simpsons episode, ‘And Maggie Makes Three’. It goes something like this: A proud father holds up his newborn infant, glimpses beneath the blanket in which it is wrapped, and proudly boasts that this well-endowed child is indeed his son. ‘No,’ the doctor steps in to explain, ‘it’s a girl – that’s the umbilical cord’.

The US soldiers comb the ruins. Broom and his escort, Cpl. Matlin (Jim Howick), find themselves in a damp, dark crypt. It is decorated with ancient relief sculptures that depict entities – they look as much like monkeys as demons – fanning the flames beneath a hellish cauldron. There is a scuttling noise. Something is in there with them. Matlin glimpses it in the beam of his torch and fires wildly. Broom tells him to lower the torch. The light is scaring it.

It is something small and strange. Like a red ape.

More soldiers rush into the crypt.

It has a big stone in its hand, says Matlin.

No, Broom corrects him, that is its hand.

Look at the size of that whammer!, exclaims Sgt Whitman (Angus MacInnes). (The shape of the creature’s giant hand recalls that of the massive device Rasputin wore on his forearm to open the portal, though no-one notices or comments on this.)

The soldiers raise their weapons, but Broom intercedes. With a couple of Babe Ruth candy bars, he lures the creature down into a blanket, into his arms. He turns to the soldiers, like a new father.

It’s a boy, he explains.

It’s just a baby boy, says Matlin.

Some time later that morning, once the sun is up, the soldiers stand in a group around the creature so Matlin can take their photograph. Broom’s voiceover – spoken by John Hurt, who plays the older Broom through the rest of the film – says: An unready father for an unwanted child. The boys gave him a name that very night – in retrospect, perhaps not the most fortunate. But nevertheless a name we all came to use. We called him Hellboy. The picture is taken. The image freezes, turns to black and white, and blows away into the movie’s title sequence.

No intersex or other sex here, just plain old biological dimorphism and the hysterical overdetermination of masculine identity. A masculine identity confirmed not so much by those phallic appendages – the horns, the stone fist – but by an urgent insistence on placing this creature in a patriarchal order as, effectively, Broom’s son in an effort to overcome the unease that might arise from its vivid alterity. Like rights legislation and other measures around disability, this naming and adoption seems ‘designed to minimize or cover over’ corporeal differences and their effects instead of fully acknowledging them (Shildrick 53).

Margrit Shildrick, glossing Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (87), writes:

the initial response to the unknown stranger may be no less than murderous; we would kill what seems to threaten us. Such a reaction chimes with the encounter with the monstrous, but the point Levinas wants to make is that the threat is apparent only, the violence is all mine. Though the other infinitely exceeds my power, it arises not through the exercise of force, but by the overflowing of every idea I can have of him. (91)

Broom’s persuasive defence of the monstrous infant is a remarkable sleight of hand, situated as it is between the massively overdetermined evil of comic book Nazi occultists and a white – and whitewashed – US military.1

In biopolitical terms, Broom’s apparent refusal of violence towards this other draws the monster from the realm of zöe (the mere biological life shared by humans and other species) into the realm of bios (the life of the citizen, of those judged to be properly human). It is precisely the opposite of the gesture which climaxes Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Reeves 2014), in which Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the apes, reaffirms the importance of ape society’s foundational rule, ‘ape not kill ape’, before telling the rebellious ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell), ‘you are not ape’. This declaration of a state of exception ‘justifies’ Caesar’s decision to execute Koba, letting him fall to his death, without jeopardising his own position within the lawful community of apes.

Broom’s generous hospitality towards the red demon monkey infant exceeds that extended to many of Jim Crow America’s own citizens of colour, and to others whose embodiment ‘failed’ tests of normativity. But although his welcome and saving of the stranger seems like a refusal of the violence within himself, it is ultimately only an apparent refusal. This other is too capacious and heterogenous, too large, too excessive for the ideas with which Broom would constrain it; and yet, that is what Broom does. It is a boy, he declares, transforming it into his son, asserting and assuring masculine and patrilineal privilege. The poor thing is no sooner in the human world than it is interpellated, has a subject position foisted upon it.

This is, in part, what Donna Haraway means when she writes that

Organisms emerge from a discursive process. (298)

Later in the same essay, she teases human beings for using

names to point to themselves and other[s] (313)

and for so

easily … mistak[ing] the names for the things. … But the things … do not pre-exist as … fully pre-packaged … referents for the names. … Boundaries take provisional, never-finished shape in articulatory practices. (313)

Jacques Derrida describes this process in a similar way. He describes the monster as

a composite figure of heterogeneous organisms that are grafted onto each other. This graft, this hybridization, this composition that puts heterogeneous bodies together may be called a monster. (385)

And the monster cannot help but make

one aware of what normality is

and of the history and contingency of that normality:

But a monster is not just that, it is not just this chimerical figure in some way that grafts one animal onto another, one living being onto another. A monster is always alive … The monster is also that which appears for the first time and, consequently, is not yet recognized. A monster is a species for which we do not yet have a name, which does not mean that the species is abnormal, namely the composition or hybridization of already known species. Simply, it shows itself … But as soon as one perceives a monster in a monster, one begins to domesticate it, one begins … to compare it to the norm, to analyze it, consequently to master whatever could be terrifying in this figure of the monster. (386)

***

We can see another version of this naming/interpellating scene in Hellboy II: The Golden Army (del Toro 2008).

After a running battle in the troll market hidden away beneath New York, lexi-baby-tumorHellboy stops to pet an infant held at its troll mother’s breast, patting it and saying, ‘Nice baby’. The baby turns to him and responds, ‘I’m not a baby, I’m a tumour’.

It is a curious moment, as this being evades the identity imposed on it not just by Hellboy but also by our perceptions, only to speak another identity – a pathologising one from medical discourse, which it also clearly exceeds: tumours are not sentient, do not speak.

A more unnerving version of this process can be observed in the Pale Man from El laberinto del fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).Pale_Man This creature has no eyes in his head; instead, they are located in the palms of his hands. Yet at key moment he raises his hands to his face so as to position his eyes where they would be, approximately, if he were a human. This uncanny semblance of humanity signifies the sheer potency of normativity, how it domesticates and distorts the other.

***

Donna Haraway points out that

the world has always been in the middle of things, in unruly and practical conversation, full of action and structured by a startling array of actants and of networking and unequal collectives (304).

So we should not assume that the imposition of identity is a singular or ever-complete occurrence; it is an always-ongoing negotiation between multiple agents on a never-level playing field.

We see the open-ended negotiation of identity as the Hellboy movies unfold.

Hellboy, coming from Hell, is fireproof. One of the other agents in the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), is a pyrokinetic – able to generate fire, and shape and control it, except when emotion (the silly woman!) causes her to lose control. Then, fires rage.

These complementary abilities make their heterosexual union seem natural, normal, preordained. Which, as much as Hellboy’s tendency to be a jackass, might be the reason Liz resists being in a relationship with him.

Liz is visually coded as a lesbian (although the only other person we see her consider dating is a man), and depicted as a self-harming neurotic suffering from depression. Until, that is, she fulfils her destiny, and is fully domesticated as the mother of Hellboy’s child – just as Hellboy himself is recovering from the death of Broom, his surrogate father, and taking on the mantle of paternity implied by Broom’s initial recognition of the red monkey demon as ‘a boy’.

Actually, though, Liz is pregnant with twins. Which returns us to that troubling, but potentially utopian, excessiveness of the other, which throughout western history has been strongly associated with women’s bodies. For the twins to survive the womb, and for Liz to survive the pregnancy, they must presumably share a complementarity – akin to that between Liz and Hellboy – so that none of them destroys the others. They are (or, perhaps, it is) a becoming, chaotically organised around multiplicity. This emergent cluster of bodies, and at some stage subjects, mutually developing in relation to each other exceeds the rigidly demarcated monadic subject – as with any pregnancy.2

When the twins – whether male, female, one of each or two of something else, or just one being distributed across two or maybe even more bodies – are born, how will they (or it) emerge into the world?

How will these new others be greeted?

And will their inherited powers and complementarity be such that the only partners they can find who are capable of surviving sex with them are – as with Hellboy and Liz – each other?

If they do take male and female form, how will the heteronormative sense of being a preordained couple because of their complementarity work if, in their case, it breaks incest taboos (just as Hellboy and Liz break taboos about interspecies sex)?

As long as Hellboy 3 remains a vague plan, these problems and possibilities remain open-ended – like the world, in the middle of things.

Notes
1 President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 desegregating the US military was not issued until 26 July 1948, and other major civil rights legislation overturning Jim Crow in the US is still a decade or more in the future of when the film is set.
2 Remember the troll baby who is really a tumour? Jackie Stacey, among others, has noted that the cancer cell, like the fetus, is ‘produced by the body’, is ‘Neither self nor other’ but ‘both the same as and different from its host’ (77).

Follow-up posts: here and here.

References
Jacques Derrida, Points…Interviews, 1976-1994. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Donna Haraway ‘The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’. In Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula A. Treichler, eds, Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1992. 295–337.
Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority. Pittsburgh” Duquesne University Press, 1969.
Margrit Shildrick, Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. London: Sage, 2002.
Jackie Stacey, Teratologies: A Cultural Study of Cancer. London: Routledge, 1997.

This post is extracted from a paper, ‘Disability, Monsters, Utopia: Some Lessons from Guillermo del Toro’, delivered at Disability Studies/Science Fiction, Universität zu Köln, 28–29 November 2014. Thanks to Olga Tarapata and Hanjo Berressem for the invitation to participate, to Ria Cheyne and Margrit Shildrick for their supportive comments, and to the captive audience of grad students for asking so many smart and useful questions.

Some version of it might appear in a book on monsters I am thinking about writing (cos, you know, they love to fund research leave for stuff like that).

I will post another extract – about Pacific Rim – when I have time to write it up a bit.