Vaya con David Warner.
Those of you who followed the gripping tale of my comical endeavours to pick up a cheap copy of the omnibus edition of Edmond Hamilton’s Star Kings novels will be delighted to hear that it was really not worth the effort.
Or, at least, it would not have been were it not for a single sentence on page 89 of Return to the Stars (1968).
In The Star Kings (1949), the protagonist, John, bored with life in contemporary New York is contacted telepathically from the future by ‘Zarth Arn, prince of the Mid-Galactic Empire’. Zarth wants to swap consciousnesses with John so he can study the Earth from 200,000 years in his past. Drowning in ennui, John agrees, and on waking in Zarth’s body finds himself propelled into the centre not only of a complex love triangle – with Zarth’s morganatic wife, Murn, and Princess Lianna, who he must marry to strengthen an interstellar alliance – but also of a Galactic civil war fomented by the treacherous Shorr Kan. Breakneck action – palace intrigues, space battles, perilous worlds – ensues in a peristaltic narrative made up of successive cliffhangers. But John wins the day, and the princess, before having to return to his own body and time.
In Return to the Stars, Zarth has found a way to transport bodies through time and invites John to join him in the future. John, desperate to return to Lianna, agrees, though without really thinking it through: she will look exactly the same to him, but she will not recognise him at all. Romantic complications ensue, and another peristaltic story, as aliens from beyond the galaxy foment another civil war. John finds himself teaming up with his former and it-turns-out-not-at-all-dead nemesis Shorr Kan to save the galaxy once more. There are palace intrigues, space battles, perilous worlds, and even though the novel was written in the 1960s it once again feels like a comic strip from the 1930s. A point Hamilton, unable to keep a straight face any longer, eventually acknowledges.
You see, John’s surname is Gordon. And on page 89 of Return to the Stars, Hamilton writes:
In a flash, Gordon knew.
(Now I suppose I should read Carol Rivers’ gripping East End Saga, Lizzie of Langley Street for whatever small crumb of pleasure can derived from it before it goes to the charity shop.)
You probably think getting hold of an old omnibus of Edmond Hamilton’s Star Kings books is not much of an accomplishment. Nothing to boast about.
But you are wrong.
Here, in full, is the epic story of an improbable quest. All it lacks are those certain elements you need to market a film successfully: suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex, happy endings, especially happy endings.
Call me Bibliophile. Some months ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would order a copy of Edmond Hamilton’s Chronicles of the Star Kings. Reading old space operas is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off – then, I account it high time to get me some Hamilton or Williamson or early Simak, some Brackett, perhaps, or some Moore, even some Dickson or early Brunner, as soon as I can.
Why Chronicles of the Star Kings? I was working on something tangentially related so it seemed an ideal opportunity to pick up the cheapest copy I could find of this omnibus volume that I repeatedly looked at on the shelf but never bought back in my teens (I was having too much fun devouring all the Philip E. High published in the same series). So I checked amazon marketplace sellers and abebooks. Amazon was way cheaper so I ordered a copy. Little did I suspect I was merely ordering my first copy.
The parcel arrived on 11 September. My eager little hands tore it open and found inside:
Now, I have nothing against East End Sagas, whether gripping – as it claims – or not. But it was not what I wanted. So I set the returns process in motion and requested they replace it with the book I ordered. They acted with unexpected promptness, dispatching a replacement the same day. Of course, instead of replacing it with a copy of Chronicles of the Star Kings, they replaced it with a copy of Carol Rivers’s gripping East End saga Lizzie of Langley Street.
So I set the returns process in motion again, advised them of the glitch in their inventory system, requested a refund and checked for the next cheapest copy. Which again was from amazon. I ordered it, and waited.
And waited; and waited.
Then a week or so later got an email telling me it had been damaged in the post and returned to the seller. They could not provide me with another copy so gave me a refund.
I checked for the next cheapest copy. Which again was from amazon. And this time was next day delivery. I ordered it, and waited.
But nothing happened.
I left it an extra day but still nothing happened.
I checked the online tracking. Apparently it had been delivered.
Only it hadn’t.
A trip to the local sorting office ensued. The guy there explained that he could not search for the parcel without the notification card I had been left by the postman. Only I hadn’t been left a notification card, which is so unlike Colin, my lovely postman, that I knew something was rotten in the state of Denmark. (Rottenness! thy name is Barry, the lazy substitute postman! But I’m getting ahead of myself.) The best the guy could offer to do was organise a redelivery, and hope that would magic my parcel into being.
The mention of Colin’s name, however, prompted the woman behind the desk to leap into action. Colin would not make that kind of mistake. She asked if I had the tracking number – I did – and after a couple of minutes on the computer was able to confirm that indeed my parcel was lost in some peculiar back-eddy of the postal system. She went to check out back to see if the parcel was there – it wasn’t, but even if it had been, she wouldn’t have been able to hand it over since I did not have a notification card. “I’ll have a word with Colin when he gets in,” she said. “He’ll know what happened.”
A brief aside on Colin. He has been my postman since I moved here fifteen years ago, and somehow he has survived the deliberate sabotaging of the post office by successive governments – running down its services, forcing them to deliver mail below cost for the private carriers competing with them for business, prioritising business deliveries over private mail, etc, etc – as they sought to privatise it, which they eventually achieved a few years ago, since when £500,000 per day has been paid out in dividends to hedge funds and city shareholders. Somehow, through all this, Colin has retained a sense of the role of the postman in the community, as part of the glue that holds a place and its people together. We are not just streets and doors and letterboxes to him. In this, he reminds me of my milkman grandad. Unlike lazy Barry.
Later that morning, Colin knocks on my door.
“Oh,” he says, ‘it was Wednesday. Barry did the route on Wednesday. He’s dead lazy. If it’s not at the sorting office, he’s left it with a neighbour. Won’t be any more than two houses away. I’ve got a couple of packages, so I’ll ask at those houses. If I have no luck, I’ll catch up with him later, and come back after my shift to tell you what he did with it.”
That’s Colin for you.
No way he needs to come back after his shift; he can let me know tomorrow. In the meantime, once I’ve finished my coffee, I’ll knock on some neighbours’ doors.
Colin was right. It was with a neighbour two doors down. I sought out Colin to let him know. Went home. Poured another cup of coffee and opened my parcel. To find within it a copy of:
So the glitch in the inventory was definitely an amazon problem, not an individual seller’s problem. I begin the returns process, ask for a refund, and this time inform amazon rather than merely the seller of the problem. And by good fortune, a couple of cheaper copies of Chronicles of the Star Kings have appeared on abebooks, so I order one.
And nothing happens.
Except the last amazon marketplace seller tells me to not bother returning Carol Rivers’s gripping East End saga Lizzie of Langley Street – and in addition to refunding me, they will try to locate a copy of Chronicles of the Star Kings in their warehouse for me, free of charge, for all the comical inconvenience to which I have been put. So for a moment there it looks like I might end up with three books in total, rather than the single one I first ordered back in the mists of time, around the dawn of man.
But phew! they can’t find a copy.
But I don’t fucking believe this! my parcel containing – at last, I hope – Chronicles of the Star Kings has been damaged in the post and returned to the abebooks seller, who arrange a refund as they do not have a replacement copy in stock.
Back to abebooks. A sixth attempt to buy this fucking book.
And today this arrives:
The only problem is, I no longer have any fucking clue what I wanted it for in the first place.
So, no, despite appearances, not even a happy ending.
Last week I was invited to introduce a screening of Contact – a film I had seen twice in twenty years and then saw twice in the same week – as part of this series at Bristol Cathedral. (The last film I saw there was The Medusa Touch (1978), which was partly filmed in the cathedral. They sat us in rows where, in the film, the ceiling collapses on people sat in rows.) This did not seem quite the right place to detail the film’s profound intellectual dishonesty, so this, more or less, is what I said:
When we think of science fiction, if we strip away all the space battles, alien monsters and big explosions, it might seem that we would be left with a genre that is profoundly secular and materialist, free from any concern with the supernatural or the spiritual. But sf is also part of our wider culture; it plays off it and builds on it in all kinds of ways.
Indeed, Adam Roberts, in his The History of Science Fiction (2006) argues that one of the sources – or perhaps an early manifesation – of sf is a sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theological debate, primarily Catholic but also taken up by Protestants, on the plurality of worlds. Could there be other worlds inhabited by other beings like us? Were they fallen races? Did Christ have to die again for each of them?
As Roberts writes, ‘unsupported by scriptural authority, the very notion of other inhabited worlds flirts with heresy, which lends the topic a dangerous flavour for more than 100 years’ (50). Both Johannes Kepler and Cyrano de Bergerac wrote fiction in which the Moon is inhabited – but chose not to have these tales publish while they were still alive. Palingenius – real name Pietro Angelo Manzoli – was less careful. As Roberts states, in his ‘speculative cosmology … Zodiacus Vitae (‘Living Zodiac’), originally published in Italy in 1537’, Palingenius pointed out that some people considered every bright star to be a world, and supposes that their inhabitants count our dark planet as the least among all the heavenly bodies. Despite his circumspection in attributing such ideas to others, he was ‘classified as a heretic of the highest class in the Papal Index’ (50).
Leap forward into 20th century sf, and the same sort of questions are explored in CS Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelendra (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945), books I find hateful – the more mean-spirited they become, the worse the quality of the writing (and thinking). American writers also explore such questions, as in James Blish’s A Case of Conscience (1958), Harry Harrison’s ‘The Streets of Ashkelon’ (1962) and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996) and Children of God (1998).
In a rather different vein – weirder and more horrific – HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu stories of the 1920s and 1930s create a thoroughly non-supernatural universe the age and immensity of which renders alien species as kinds of mad, diseased gods.
Perhaps more interesting as a backdrop for Carl Sagan’s work is a tradition of atheist but nonetheless religious sf. Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker (1937) is overwhelmed with awe at the unbelievably vast magnitudes – both space and time – of the universe, itself just one cosmos among many, that in the end novel it copes with the sublime by imagining a kind of prime creative energy or force. Stapledon’s his successor in this tradition is of course Arthur C Clarke, especially in Childhood’s End (1953) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), both of which are set in quite rigorously material universes, but in which the possibility of transcendence remains – albeit as an evolutionary experience cast in in quasi-spiritual terms. (Clarke’s 2001 provides Sagan with the notion of hyperspace or wormhole travel as a kind of massive interstellar railway system; in the later stages of the film, John Hurt’s character increasingly resembles Clarke.) Stanley Kubrick’s film version of 2001 (1968) is much more oblique and ambiguous, skipping exposition in favour of a kind of overwhelming sensory experience – which Robert Zemickis’s Contact (1997) also attempts – as did films such as The Black Hole (1979) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) before it. But all of them lack Kubrick’s cool, misanthropic tone – unsurprising with Zemeckis, who is kind of a Spielberg discovery.
Sagan’s own position seems to lie somewhere between Kubrick’s film and Robert Zemeckis’s adaptation of his novel. In 1995, in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan said that
Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.
He would describe himself not as an atheist but as an agnostic. In a 1981 interview collected in Conversations with Carl Sagan (2006), he said that
An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.
In his novel Contact (1985), protagonist Ellie Arroway makes the same point when questioned about her religious beliefs, or lack thereof.
In one of my favourite passages, as she is driving through the early morning desert, her headlights sweeping ahead of her, she notices rabbits gathering on either side of the road. As each one in turn is hit by the beam of light, it stands up on its hind legs and watches until the light has past. This has obvious resonances with her team of radio astronomers – and by extension, the whole human race – picking up the alien transmission. But but she also explicitly wonders if, in that moment, each rabbit is having a religious experience.
It is one of many moments in the novel where religion, spirituality and awe are probed from various directions.
And it is worth recalling that the novel itself expresses grave concern – omitted from the film – with the growing power of varieties of dispensationalist, prosperity-gospel Protestant fundamentalism, whose influence of American public life – and the practice of science – has only increased since then.
A few words about the film Contact.
In 1979, the production company Casablanca Pictures commissioned Sagan, who had recently won a non-fiction Pulitzer for The Dragons of Eden (1977) to develop a story for them to film. He was the most famous astronomer, possibly the most famous scientist, in America at that time, even though he had yet to make the PBS series Cosmos (1980). By the end of 1980, he and his co-author Anne Druyan had completed a 100 page story treatment. (Druyan was an author, who had also headed part of the NASA project about the golden discs of sound recordings that were attached to Voyager 1 and 2, in which Sagan was also involved, having previously designed the plaque for Pioneer. They married in 1981, his third and final wife, and she co-authored his later non-fiction books. She appears very briefly in the film on an episode of Crossfire debating Rob Lowe, who seems to be in the film for no reason other than to be pretty. Which is kind of his career.)
Casablanca took the project to Warner Bros, where it go stuck in development hell. So Sagan and Druyan wrote the novel (the extent of her involvement remains unclear; he alone is credited as the author). It attracted a $2 million dollar advance from Simon & Schuster, and became a best seller, selling 1.7 million copies in its first two years. This led to renewed interest in the film. Roland Joffe, fresh from Best Director Oscar nominations for The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986), was initially attached to direct. When he dropped out and it was offered to Robert Zemeckis, who turned it down, then to George Miller, who had just made Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and The Witches of Eastwick (1987). Miller was fired because he was taking so long, and it was offered to Zemeckis again, who this time accepted, having recently wrapped up the Back to the Future trilogy (1989, 1990) and Forrest Gump (1994), for which he’d won best director Oscar. Gump seems to have inspired the use of digitally altered footage of Bill Clinton (after Sidney Poitier turned down the role President) – footage which includes his serendipitous August 7 1996 press conference about the announcement that an Antarctic meteorite – almost certainly from Mars – seemed to contain microfossils of bacteria
Sagan died in December 1996, while Contact was still in production. Released the following June, it is dedicated to him.
Before we start, just a few words of warning. If there are any Matthew McConaughey fans here tonight, be aware you have to wait a full and seventeen and a half minutes for him to get his shirt off.
If it is any consolation, the first several of those endless, utterly unconscionable minutes contain what was in 1997 the longest continuous CGI sequence in film – a record it held for seven years.
It is, I know, no consolation (sotto voce: But such is the nature of the universe.)
and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is not that no one seems to have beaten me to calling it La La Landroid or calling Ryan Gosling’s beautiful and puppy-eyed state-sanctioned murderer Pigolo Joe (the film becomes oddly like Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence at times), nor is it the unbelievably audacious line of exposition given to Edward James Olmos, nor is that they saved money making the film by just setting some of it in pompous evil hipster Jared Leto’s own house where he does all that weird shit anyway, nor is it that the digits in the title indicate when the film is set rather than enumerating which of Sir Diddly Squat’s re-edits it is, though that is a relief, nor is it that Hampton Fancher trolls Sir Diddly’s endless tinkering by beginning the sequel with a variant on a sequence he wrote for the original film but that could not be restored because it was never actually filmed, no, the best thing about Blade Runner 2049 is that as sequels-to-cult-classics-with-dates-in-their-titles go, and despite everything, including its flaws, longueurs, idiocies, nipples and truly devastatingly funny effort to capture the horror of orphan child labour in its full Dickensian aspect, it is not really really embarrassingly bad, it is not Blues Brothers 2000…