Contact (Robert Zemeckis 1997)

A70-9170Last 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.)

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Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage autour de ma chambre and Expédition nocturne autour de ma chambre

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.

51FWUCxEkvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Originally published: 1795 and 1825 respectively
Edition used: Xavier de Maistre, A Journey Around My Room and A Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room, translated by Andrew Brown (London: Hesperus 2004)

Confined to his room for 42 days, the narrator undertakes an expedition around it.[i] His closely observed account of its content and disposition wanders off into recollections, fancies, speculations and other digressions. Thirty years later, and without the company of his valet or his dog, he undertakes a similar journey around a different room over the course of a single night.

These two humorous short tales gently mock the conventions of sentimental fiction in a way not dissimilar to Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768). At the same time, de Maistre’s digressive manner owes something to Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67) – Voyage not only alludes explicitly to the hobby horse of Tristram’s Uncle Toby, but also has a distinctly Sterne-ian chapter twelve, consisting of a lengthy ellipsis in the middle of which appear the words ‘the mound’ (17).

But what makes de Maistre’s diptych interesting to the scholar of fantasy lies elsewhere.

In Voyage, the narrator offers a pseudo-Cartesian metaphysics in which

man is composed of a soul and a beast. – These two beings are absolutely distinct, but so closely fitted together, or one on top of the other, that the soul must have a certain superiority over the beast to be in a position to draw a distinction between them. (9)

350px-Guillaume_pour_MaistreAs evidence for this dualism, the narrator offers an example that seems to equate the beast with an autonomic, almost machinic, material substratum, and the soul with the imagination (while also offering a provocation to the reader of a book which seems incapable of fastening its attention on anything for very long):

 When you read a book, sir, and a more agreeable idea suddenly strikes on your imagination, your soul straight away pounces on it and forgets the book, while your eyes mechanically follow the words and the lines; you come to the end of the page without understanding it, and without remembering what you have read. – This comes from the fact that your soul, having ordered its companion to read to it, did not warn it of the brief absence on which it was about to embark; as a result, the other continued to read even though your soul was no longer listening. (10)

Why would the explorer and adventurer need to leave his room, if the mere act of being handed a wet sponge with which to wipe clean the portrait of a lover can make his

soul sweep across a hundred million leagues in a single instant. (21)

Or if one can find in fictional worlds a spur to the imagination (51)?

From the expedition of the Argonauts to the Assembly of Notables, from the lowest depths of hell to the last fixed star beyond the Milky Way, to the confines of the universe, to the gates of chaos – this is the vast terrain which I wander across in every direction at leisure; for I do not lack time any more than I lack space. It is here that I transport my existence, on the trail of Homer, Milton, Virgil, Ossian, etc.
All the events that occur between these two eras, all the countries, all the world and all the beings who have lived between these two limits – it is all mine, it all belongs to me just as much and just as legitimately as the vessels that entered the Piraeus belonged to a certain Athenian. (53)

What is refreshing about this advocacy of imaginative indulgence is its absolute lack of moralism. The narrator is clearly something of an amorous adventurer when unconfined, and so when (in chapter 39) his soul berates his beast

‘What!’ said my soul, ‘so that’s how it is: during my absence, instead of restoring your strength by having a peaceful sleep, and thereby making yourself more able to execute my orders, you have insolently decided’ (the term was a bit strong) ‘to succumb to transports of delight that my will had not sanctioned?’ (57)

131215101517673575it is singularly unconvincing, not least because his soul, before waking, had clearly been engaged in an erotic dream about Mme de Hautcastel. The narrator’s disavowal of his wet-dream and its physiological consequences follows precisely the same logic as that which underlies cyberpunk’s spurning of the flesh in favour of disembodied cyberspatial elation two centuries later – as does the narrator’s solipsism.

The narrator’s reveries turn to matters cosmological in two key passages in the sequel story, in which he sits astride his window sill and contemplates the night sky. While the combination of confinement and flights of fantasy is common enough – see, for example, Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), Jack London’s The Star Rover (1915) and those Gothic fictions in which a socially-entrapped heroine misinterprets mundane events as supernatural – these moments in Journey seem to hint at something specifically science-fictional: not so much the cognitive breakthrough conclusions of stories like Robert Heinlein’s ‘Universe’ (1941) or Isaac Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’ (1941), which convert the profound ontological revelation of humanity’s cosmic insignificance into a plot twist, but something closer to Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker (1937), in which the night sky observed from a hillside is subsumed into an escalating spiral of immensity. The response of Journey’s narrator to immensity is to proffer a thesis whose paradoxical nature acknowledges its own inadequacy. Chapter 16 reads:

The system of the world

I believe, then, that as space is finite, creation is also finite, and that God has created in his eternity an infinity of worlds in the immensity of space. (95)

And should one be tempted to misread this as something profound, the following chapter commences with the narrator admitting that he does not himself understand it

any better than all the other systems that have hitherto been hatched […]; but mine has the precious advantage of being contained within a couple of lines. (96)

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

Notes
[i]
This period of confinement coincides with the punishment meted out to de Maistre for a duelling incident.

Out of the Unknown: ‘Stranger in the Family’ (BBC2 18 October 1965)

By all accounts, although ‘Stranger in the Family’ was one of the three episodes already completed when the Irene Shubik and Sydney Newman were deciding upon the series opener, neither of them seems really to have considered David Campton’s original drama as a serious contender. Newman wanted the big name appeal of John Wyndham; Shubik, who would have preferred the Alan E. Nourse adaptation despite the relative littleness of his name, seems to have been more concerned with establishing Out of the Unknown as incontrovertibly science-fictional. Which is a shame, as whatever the merits of its competitors, ‘Stranger in the Family’ is easily the strongest drama of the three, its quiet menace well suited to the intimacy of television viewing. This should come as no surprise.

OOTU Stranger in the Family ArticleSome of this can be attributed to Alan Bridges, probably the most experienced of the first three directors to work on the series.1 He makes effective use of possibilities for location shooting provided by the story’s contemporary London setting – opening shots overlooking the flight exhibition at the Science Museum, sequences in the streets of (I think) Hammersmith and Fulham and along the south bank of the Thames by Southwark, the potent juxtaposition of a Victorian pub with a new tower block. Although lacking the overtly science-fictional images of the first two episodes, Bridges’ location shooting is a far more effective way to open up a drama than could be provided by their studio-bound extraterrestrial settings. Bridges also offers us several striking (really) high- and low-angle shots, but in the studio, especially, his careful direction works to let the story flow and a sense of threat to build.

But the real reason for the episode’s success is David Campton’s script. One of the first British practitioners of the Theatre of the Absurd, his The Lunatic View (1958) is often considered – alongside Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1957) – as the foundational example of the ‘comedies of menace’, a term taken from its subtitle. He was primarily a playwright – he ‘discovered’ Alan Ayckbourn – but he was active for about five years as a television writer. When Shubik commissioned ‘Stranger in the Family’, the first original piece for the series, Campton already had a couple of genre pieces to his credit. In 1966, he adapted Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839) for Mystery and Imagination (1966-70), starring Denholm Elliott and Susannah York as Roderick and Madeleine. In 1968, he adapted H. Russell Wakefield’s ‘The Triumph of Death’ (1949) for Late Night Horror, directed by Rudolph Cartier and starring Claire Bloom. Shubik would later commission him, in 1966 and 1969 respectively, to adapt Frederik Pohl’s ‘Tunnel under the World’ (1955) and Isaac Asimov’s ‘Liar!’ (1941) for Out of the Unknown. ‘Stranger in the Family’ was remade in 1969 as an episode of Journey into the Unknown (1968-69), with an entirely different cast including Janice Rule, Gerald Sim and Glynn Edwards.

strangerThe eighteen-year-old Boy (Richard O’Callaghan) flees from the Science Museum, tailed by the purposeful Hall (Joby Blanshard). Boy eventually confronts him, ordering his stalker to get away from him. Hall steps into the road and is killed by a van. But by the time Boy gets back to the flats where he lives with his ageing parents, Charles (Peter Copley) and Margaret (Daphne Slater) Wilson, another anonymous figure has him back under surveillance. The next-door flat has a new occupant, too, a man called Brown (John Paul) who makes no real effort to conceal his interest in Boy. The troubled family contemplate the need to move on – yet again – to evade their pursuers. They have clearly done this many times before and at some personal cost – Charles once worked at Harvard, but is now a lab assistant at a secondary modern school.

OutOfTheUnknown3Boy does not want to leave, though. He has fallen for an actress/model, Paula (Justine Lord), and believes she is genuinely interested in him.

More deaths follow. And they are not the first in which Boy has played a part.

For he is a mutant. His sensorium perceives the world differently, something he struggles to express in words. He is telepathic. And he is able to force others to do his will.

‘Stranger in the Family’ is a worthy addition to those British tales of an emerging posthumanity, exemplified by JD Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911) and Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1935). It recalls Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) and its adaptation, Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla 1960), and its quiet delineation of state surveillance and hinted-at machinations adds something of the underrated Children of the Damned (Anton M. Leader 1963) and the remarkable The Damned (Joseph Losey 1963) into the mix. Despite the melodramatic incidents around which the story is articulated, it remains ominously understated. Agendas compete, shift according to circumstance. Some motives are obvious, others remain ambiguous. When the boss of the surveillance team finally talks to Boy’s parents, he speaks reassuringly of the state intervening merely to keep such exceptional individuals safe and to observe their further development. He speaks of a new species that will end war and supplant homo sapiens entirely, and he seems pleased with the former and unfazed by the latter. But he is an agent of the state, and there is absolutely no reason to believe anything he says.

Other things to look out for
girl_06One of the pleasures of these shows is recognising the actors, many of whom were never stars but had long careers on British television, appearing in an episode here and there of pretty much everything. The reason Justine Lord looks familiar is that she is Sonia, the Out of the Unknown - S01.E03 - Stranger in the Family joby blanshardgirl who was death, in the Prisoner episode ‘The Girl Who was Death’ (1968). Hall, in the opening sequence .. . is it? … yes, it’s Colin from Doomwatch. Hold on, I recognise that voice, that’s John Hall, Spencer Quist from stranger-02Doomwatch! (Peter Copley and Bay White also each did a Doomwatch.) Copley was also Dr Warlock in Doctor Who’s ‘The Pyramids of Mars’ (1975), and other cast members appeared in ‘The Sea Devils’ (1972), ‘The Invasion’ (1968) and ‘The Space Pirates’ (1969). Jack May, who was in the last of these, was also in A for Andromeda (1961) and was the protagonist’s butler in Adam Adamant Lives! (1968-69). And so on. Other genre shows crop up in more than one cast member’s credits: The Avengers, The Champions, Department S – as well as less fantastical dramas and soaps. Oh, and if Richard O’Callaghan looks familiar, he is the son of Patricia Hayes – and the actor who was brought in when Jim Dale quit the Carry On… series (see him in …Loving and …at Your Convenience).

Last episode, ‘The Counterfeit Man’
Next episode, ‘The Dead Past’

Notes
1
In 1966, Bridges would direct the Robert Holmes-scripted sf movie, Invasion, and although he continued to work primarily in television, his other films include The Hireling (1973), Age of Innocence (1977), The Return of the Soldier (1982), The Shooting Party (1985) and Apt Pupil (1987).

Sources
Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI, 2014.