The City in Fiction and Film, week 14

Farenheit451This week we continued our exploration of the US postwar suburbs (see week 13), reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and watching Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Siegel 1956). Both texts were framed in relation to the period’s culture of affluence and anxiety.

But first we began by placing Bradbury’s novel in relation to genre – specifically the interweaving traditions of utopia/anti-utopia, utopia/dystopia and US magazine sf.

Thomas More coined ‘Utopia’ 500 years ago this year. When spoken aloud, the first syllable is a Latin pun on ou which means no and eu which means good (and topos means place) – so utopia means ‘no place’ but also suggests ‘good place’. Utopia has come to be understood as a description of an imaginary world organised according to a better principle than our own, and to frequently involve not-always-gripping systematic descriptions of economic, social and technical arrangements. We discussed the efflorescence of utopian fiction in the wake of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888), and mentioned such key utopian authors as William Morris, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. We also noted the relative scarcity of utopian worlds in cinema – Just Imagine (Butler 1930), Things to Come (Menzies 1936) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise 1979) being potential examples, but all of them also demonstrating potentially negative elements and being susceptible to against-the-grain readings.

This led us to anti-utopias – texts that are in more or less explicit dialogue with someone else’s utopian vision, exposing its darker, oppressive elements. William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, which we read last semester, is a kind of compendium anti-utopia, while novels such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) are – among other things – direct responses to the utopian vision of HG Wells, drawing out its more totalitarian elements, as does Metropolis (Lang 1927).

During the 20th century, however, the explicit anti-utopia has given way to the proliferation of dystopias (dys + topia = bad place), dark, often satirical exaggerations of the worst aspects of our world. The dystopia emphasises bad aspects of our own world so as to make them more obvious (in this, they parallel the suburban world of All That Heaven Allows). The dystopia is not an explicit critique of the utopia, but a depiction of a world worse than our own – usually totalitarian, bureaucratic, brutal, dehumanising, and sometimes post-apocalyptic. Between us, we concocted a list of novels and films, including:

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (1952)
Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (1953)
John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955)
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962), filmed as Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971)
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) filmed as Blade Runner (Scott 1982)
Harry Harrison, Make Room! Make Room! (1966), filmed as Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973)
Punishment Park (Watkins 1971)
THX 1138 (Lucas 1971)
Rollerball (Jewison 1975)
Mad Max (Miller 1979)
William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
Brazil (Gilliam 1985)
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), film (Schlöndorff 1990)
Alan Moore and David Lloyd, V for Vendetta (1988–9), film: (McTeigue 2006)
Robocop (Verhoeven 1987)
PD James, The Children of Men (1992), filmed: (Cuarón 2006)
Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower (1993)
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (2005), filmed: (Romanek 2010)
Gamer (Neveldine+Taylor 2009)
Moon (Jones 2009)
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games novels (2008-2010), filmed: Ross and Lawrence 2012-15)
Dredd (Travis 2012), based on Judge Dredd strip (1979–)
Elysium (Blomkamp 2013)

The widespread usage of dystopia and the relative decline of the utopia/anti-utopia tradition has led to an increased use of the eutopia (a term which makes linguistic sense as the opposite of dystopia) to describe imagined worlds that in some ways are better than ours, if still far from perfect. The eutopia imagines a better world, using its differences to indicate the shortcomings of our own world.

Both eutopia and dystopia are, in different ways, about the possibility of change.

We then turned to consider Ray Bradbury in the context of American sf in the 1950s. From the late 1930s, American magazine sf had been dominated by Astounding, edited by John W. Campbell. It was not the best-paying venue, but thanks to the galvanising effect Campbell – and his key authors, such as Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov – had had on the field, it was the most respected and prestigious. That situation began to change after the war, particularly with the launch of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy, both of which could be characterised as being more literary, as being more interested such things as characterisation, atmosphere, slicker prose and satirical humour. Bradbury could not sell to Campbell, but published in wide range of sf magazines as well as in prestigious non-genre venues, such as Argosy and The Saturday Evening Post.

The reason for his failure with Campbell and success elsewhere has been attributed – by Brian Aldiss? – to him writing science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction (which we might more generously describe as writing non-Campbellian science fiction). Bradbury was championed by critics such as Robert Conquest and Kingsley Amis who, although they occasionally wrote and edited sf, were not sf writers per se. Within the genre community, such writers/editors/critics as James Blish and Damon Knight tended to be more ambivalent – caught between what they saw as Bradbury’ ‘poetic’ writing/ higher literary standards and his apparently blissful ignorance of science.

This ambivalence was mirrored by a number of the class, who found aspects of the novel quite compelling while also being frustrated by the ‘vagueness’ of its world-building. (I am not sure ‘vagueness’ is quite the right term, since it implies there is something that Bradbury should be doing rather than thinking about his preference for imagery over concrete images – and it might also indicate a relative lack of familiarity with sf’s specific reading protocols, which often require the reader to collaborate in building the world from the smallest of hints.)

In considering Fahrenheit 451 as an exaggerated dystopian version of the suburbs it is perhaps useful briefly to put aside its most obvious and striking feature – firemen now burn books – and instead think about the other features of its imagined world, all of which resonate strongly with the affluence and anxieties outlined last week:

  • the overwhelming impact of mass media, on everything from the design of houses  (no front porches, replace windows with TV screens, etc) to the fabric of domestic life, which is organised around consumption and pseudo-participation, and dominates social occasions
  • the alienation from other human beings, from nature, from meaningful labour
  • the reliance on tranquillisers, sleeping and other medication
  • the frequency of divorces and the virtual exile of children
  • women’s rejection of pregnancy and natural childbirth (cast as a negative, although Shulamith Firestone and others would see this as a positive)
  • juvenile delinquents racing cars around night-time streets, dying in crashes and aiming for pedestrians
  • how commonplace deliberate suicides and accidental overdoses have become
  • the absence of an urban centre (there is one, but the emphasis throughout is on seemingly endless suburbs)
  • really long billboards because everyone drives so fast
  • the degradation of language
  • the constant sound of military jets and the ultimate outbreak of the fourth nuclear war since the 1960s
  • the near-universal and – it is made clear – willing abandonment of books and reading
  • the only very occasional spectacle of state power when books are burned

We also thought about the ways in which Bradbury’s prose and imagery are ‘simple’ or ‘child-like’ – the way the novel seems to be the product of a pre-pubertal imagination. This led us in two directions.

First, there are the distinctly Oedipal elements of the novel. While its depiction of women is broadly misogynistic, this is especially focused on Mildred Montag. Cast as a simple-minded and anxious nag, she also comes across as a cold and distant mother figure to her husband, who often seems like a boy in quest of a father figure (Granger replacing Faber replacing Beatty). Mildred is early on associated with the kind of marble figure you might find on a mausoleum – remember the suburban fireplace in All that Heaven Allows – and when Montag turns the flamethrower on their twin beds (after all, there is no reason for mummy and daddy to share a bed, is there?), they ‘went up in a great simmering whisper, with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed them to contain’ (151).

There is also something just a little bit queer about Montag’s relationship with Faber, the older, educated man who first picked Montag up in a public park, slipping him his phone number even though he knew it would put him in the fireman’s power. Faber  maintains this role of mentor, and shares a strange intimacy with the Montag through the earbug the younger man wears so they can always be together.

The second direction in which this sense of Bradbury’s simplicity went was thinking about the imagery he uses. The opening page introduces, among other images, the series of oppositions between black and white: firemen are always associated with blackness, and sometimes Bradbury seems almost to recognise a racial dimension; readers and women are associated with whiteness, although sometimes this whiteness is sepulchral (Mildred) or diseased (Faber). There is also animal and other nature imagery. Sparks become fireflies, books become pigeons. Later, books will rain down around Montag like pigeons, and he will be infected, losing control over his impulses, his hands becoming like ferrets whose antics he can only observe (this sense of alienation from his self culminates in him watching his own pursuit on television, which ends with his capture being faked). As with the bizarre fantasy about the barn in the final section of the novel, there is a nostalgic current underpinning the animal imagery – making manifest the natural world that the suburban sprawl roots up, tears down, eradicates. The imagery haunts the denatured suburb, reminding us of what has been lost and is constantly being thrown away.

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers shares many of these concerns. While its mood of paranoia might lend credence to the commonplace notion that the film is somehow about fears of communist infiltration, there is in fact little in the film to support reading it that way (just a few years earlier the emotionless nature of the pods would have been projected onto Nazis rather than Commies, primarily as a denial of the profound conformism in American life and in a consumer culture). Similarly, it is not especially easy to read the film as being about fears of racial passing or queer passing, although they too might be argued – the film is certainly about ensuring difference does not intrude onto this white suburban small town. This difference takes the form of two childless, sexually active recent divorcees – former sweethearts and possibly lovers – finding themselves thrown together, and everyone around them assuming they will become involved with each other again (while elsewhere, Oedipal anxieties take the form of children thinking there parents are not their parents). It is a film obsessed with sex – Miles makes constant innuendoes and hits on women all the time; he races over to Becky’s house in his pyjamas (don’t ask what her house is doing in his pyjamas) in the middle of the night and sweeps her off to his house, where the next morning she is wearing some of his clothes and cooking him breakfast, and Jack Belicec seems to assume this is post-coital. There is Becky’s summer dress, which miraculously stays up while emphasising her breasts, and Miles’s ultimate declaration that he did not know the real meaning of fear until he kissed her. Against all this sex is cast not only the asexual reproduction of the pod people but also the mechanical reproduction of commodities and the replacement of culture (a live band) by its simulacrum (the juke box).

And, as that penultimate hurried paragraph suggests, we ran out of time. Next week, Alphaville (Godard 1965).

Week 15

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 9, “Exurban Postmodernity: Utopia, Simulacra and Hyper-reality.”
Biskind, Peter. Seeing is Believing How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. London: Pluto, 1983. 102–59.
Bould, Mark. “Burning Too: Consuming Fahrenheit 451.” Literature and the Visual Media. Ed. David Seed. Woodbridge: DS Brewer, 2005. 96–122.
Grant, Barry Keith. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. London: BFI, 2010.
McGiveron, Rafeeq O. “‘To build a mirror factory’: The Mirror and Self-Examination in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 39.3 (1998): 282–7.
Seed, David. American Science Fiction and the Cold War: Literature and Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
–. “The Flight from the Good Life: Fahrenheit 451 in the Context of Postwar American Dystopias.” Journal of American Studies 28.2 (1994): 22–40.
Whalen, Tom. “The Consequences of Passivity: Re-evaluating Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.” Literature/Film Quarterly 35.3 (2007): 181–90.

Recommended reading
E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909) anticipates surburban consumerist isolation.
Suburbia became a regular setting for postwar sf: Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950) and “The Pedestrian” (1951), Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth (1950), Frederik Pohl’s “The Midas Plague” (1954), Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959) and Pamela Zoline’s “Heat Death of the Universe” (1967).
Examples of suburban horror include Anne Rivers Siddons’s The House Next Door (1978) and M. John Harrison’s subtler “The Incalling” (1978) and The Course of the Heart (1991).

Recommended viewing
Bradbury’s novel was filmed by French New Wave director François Truffaut as Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Other sf and fantasy films depicting the dissatisfactions of suburban living include Invaders from Mars (Menzies 1953), Forbidden Planet (Wilcox 1956), The Stepford Wives (Forbes 1975), E.T. – The Extra-terrestrial (Spielberg 1982), Poltergeist (Hooper 1982), Parents (Balaban 1989), Edward Scissorhands (Burton 1990), Pleasantville (Ross 1998), The Truman Show (Weir 1998) and Donnie Darko (Kelly 2001).

 

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EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s, The Skylark of Space (co-written with Mrs Lee Hawkins Garby)

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

eeds_theskylaWritten: 1915–1920
First published: Amazing Stories, August-October 1928
First edition: Providence, Rhode Island: Buffalo Book Co., 1946
Edition used: London: Panther, 1974 (revised text of 1958)

Richard Seaton accidentally discovers the ability of ‘X’, a hitherto unknown metal,

to liberate and control the entire constituent energy of metallic copper. (17)

This

pure and total conversion of matter to controllable energy [with] no radiation, no residue, no by-products (17)

062provides the key to space travel. Seaton and his millionaire chum, M Reynolds Crane, set out to exploit this source of virtually free energy. An attempt by rival scientist, Marc ‘Blackie’ DuQuesne, to hold Seaton’s wealthy fiancée, Dorothy Vaneman, ransom in exchange for X goes awry. DuQuesne’s starship is flung across space at an incredible speed. Seaton and Crane pursue them in the eponymous starship. They rescue Dorothy, DuQuesne and another hostage, Margaret Spencer, from the grip of a dead star. On the low-gravity planet Osnome, they take sides in (and win) a genocidal war, before returning to Earth.

Smith was neither the first to write space opera (Robert W Cole’s 1900 The Struggle for Empire is a more likely contender), nor the first American author of space opera (that distinction probably belongs to Ray Cummings), nor indeed the best of the subgenre’s first flourishing in the American pulps (Edmond Hamilton, John W Campbell, Jr and Jack Williamson consistently wrote less infelicitous prose and demonstrated a better grasp of the potential of sf). But Smith’s work remains the best-remembered. Undoubtedly, this is partly a result of being the-skylark-of-space-fffamong the first pulp sf to be reissued in hardback editions in the late 1940s and 1950s, and of the 1960s and 1970s paperback editions finding a substantial following among the fantasy readership created/uncovered by the US paperback editions of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Although Smith’s space operas often seem excruciatingly naïve by the standards of more contemporary authors (Iain M Banks, Samuel R Delany, Colin Greenland, Ursula Le Guin, M John Harrison, Ken MacLeod, Alastair Reynolds), the continued popularity of the Star Wars movies indicates that juvenile sf of this sort is still attractive; and while it is tempting to read Smith’s sf as camp, this can only partly (if, presumably, increasingly) account for its appeal.

One of Smith’s central achievements is to capture something of the scale of the universe while also rendering it safe, conquerable, human-sized. Despite postulating new technologies and travelling thousands of light years from Earth, the characters and plotting of The Skylark of Space are firmly rooted in familiar romance conventions. Seaton is a working class boy made good, a scientist and athlete

over six feet in height, broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted. (12)

He can withstand higher acceleration than any of his crew, and exercises his super-strength to great effect in Osnome’s low gravity.

Crane,

the multi-millionaire explorer-archaeologist-sportsman’ (12)

is also a businessman, an engineer and

a rocket-instrument man second to none in the world. (13)

Seaton’s love for Dorothy and Crane’s for Margaret is pure, assured, eternal. DuQuesne is

utterly heartless and ruthless, so cold and scientific (90)

003yet strangely honourable in his villainy. And in a world dominated by global corporations, it falls to such individuals to discover, create, explore. Despite such unrealistic characterisations, the very familiarity of these types works to domesticate the universe in which they adventure.

Moreover, the vastness and strangeness of space is also contained by Smith’s repeated failure to depict it. As the crew whiz around the galaxy, they observe it almost entirely through instrument readings, and the few descriptions of what can be seen through the Skylark’s viewports possess a curious contradictory quality:

For the blackness of the black of the interstellar void is not the darkness of an earthly night but the absolute absence of light–a black besides which that of platinum dust is merely gray. Upon this indescribably black backdrop there glowed faint patches which were nebulae; there blazed hard, brilliant, multi-colored, dimensionless points of light which were stars. (88)

In addition to the clumsy simultaneous presence and absence of light in this view, there is blackness to be recognised through its dissimilarity to the blackness with which the reader is familiar.[1] A more telling failure to depict an external view of space comes in the passage in which Crane realises his love for Margaret. Staring out

into infinity, each felt as never before the pitiful smallness of the whole world they had known, and the insignificance of human beings and their works. (91)

As their ‘minds reached out to each other in understanding’, Crane considers Margaret:

He looked up quickly and again studied the stars; but now, in addition to the wonders of space, he saw a mass of wavy black hair, high-piled upon a queenly head; deep brown eyes veiled by long, black lashes; sweet, sensitive lips; a firmly rounded, dimpled chin; and a beautifully formed young body. (91 and 92)

This description[2] displaces that of the view that so enraptures Margaret and prompts her to say

‘How stupendous . . . how unbelievably great this is . . . […]. How vastly greater than any perception one could possibly get on Earth . . . and yet . . . […] doesn’t it seem to you, Mr. Crane, that there is something in man as great as even all this? That there must be, or Dorothy and I could not be sailing out here in such a wonderful things as this Skylark, which you and Dick Seaton have made?’ (92)

This bathetic descent contains and constrains the capacity of the sublime to disorientate and estrange.

Throughout the novel, Smith demonstrates little interest in the implications of his conceits. For example, when a mechanical educator accidentally gives Seaton and Dunark, Kofedix of Kondal, perfect knowledge

down to the finest detail […] of everything that the other had ever learned (117)

it is merely a convenient plot device, enabling Seaton to justify his collaboration with the fascistic social-Darwinist Kondalians against the treacherous Mardonalians (who ‘are the scum of the universe’ (120)).

ill-613Again and again, The Skylark of Space promises novelty but delivers mere novelties.

And herein must lie whatever appeal it has: there is no terrible abyss, just space waiting to be filled should anyone ever look out of the window.

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
de Maistre, Voyage Around My Chamber
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

Notes
[1]
This practice of describing the indescribability of a phenomenon rather than the phenomenon itself reaches its glorious nadir in the explosion of a charge of X:

There was a blare of sound that paralyzed their senses, even inside the vessel and in the thin air of that enormous elevation. There was a furiously-boiling, furiously expanding ball of . . . of what? The detonation of a Mark Ten load cannot be described. It must be seen; and even then, it cannot be understood. It can scarcely be believed. (105)

[2]
It is, of course, equally telling of Smith’s lack of interest in his female characters that not only should Margaret be so beautiful as to distract Crane but also so eminently reducible to a list of clichéd fragments. Elsewhere, she champs at the bit to be a secretary (92).