Mr Skeffington (Vincent Sherman 1944)

mr-skeffington-movie-poster-1944-1020418969and so anyway it turns out the best thing about Mr Skeffingon (1944) is not tittering at the name of the conceited beauty and all-round awful Fanny (Bette Davis), but the sequence right at the end, after she has been brought low (through ageing, a medically dubious bout of dyptheria and some grotesque Perc Westmore makeup) and to the point of accepting the truth of her estranged husband’s words (‘a woman is beautiful when she’s loved, and only then’) just as he, Job (Claude Rains), returns from a Nazi concentration camp – a worn out broken man – and they are able to reunite because he stills loves her and, more importantly, as him tripping over a footstool reveals, he is now blind and cannot see that she is no longer beautiful and so she does not have to learn any kind of moral lesson whatsoever…

The Household Gods and the Darth Vader Corkscrew

Queen Kong. Goddess of utopian desire. Will work for peanuts.
Queen Kong. Goddess of utopian desire. Will work for peanuts.
Mr Atomic. Powerful, if unconvincingly so to look at.
Clockbot. Battery flat. Nonetheless, unlike other gods, he is right about something every day. Twice.
Clockbot. Battery flat. Nonetheless, unlike other gods, he is right about something every day. Twice.
Shrine. Evidence of ancestor worship. And wishful thinking.
Shrine. Evidence of ancestor worship. And wishful thinking.
Luke Cage. Guaranteeing sweet Christmases since 1972. Also, sticking it to the man.
Luke Cage. Guaranteeing sweet Christmases since 1972. Cf. the Man, god of sticking it to.
Wile E. Coyote. Spirt animal.
Wile E. Coyote. Spirit animal.
The Darth Vader corkscrew. Not a household god or deity of any kind. Just a Darth Vader corkscrew. Photographic evidence thereof, because no one believes me. A Christmas present, a nice try, a miss is as good as a mile...
The Darth Vader corkscrew. Not a household god or deity of any kind. Just a Darth Vader corkscrew. Photographic evidence thereof, because no one believes me. A Christmas present. A nice try. A miss that is every bit as good as a mile.

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

Carrie (Kimberly Peirce 2013)

Carrie_Domestic_One-sheetand so anyway it turns out the best thing about Carrie (2013) is the moment when you remember that back in 1988 the Royal Shakespeare Company decided it would be a good idea to blow the best part of $10 million on a flop Broadway musical version, but it turns out the very worst thing about it comes a moment later when you realise you would much rather be in the stalls, singing along and soaked in pig’s blood…

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