I cursed the Territories in general and Arizona in particular

burning-mantisBy train and stage and horse and mule I went, and, when I had to, on foot. I cursed the Territories in general and Arizona in particular. I cursed Prescott and Phoenix and Maricopa; Sacaton on the Gila River Reservation and Snowflake on Silver Creek. At Brownell in the Quijotas I learned that William Howard Taft had signed the enabling act that would make a state of that hellish country, and thereafter I cursed him too.

Theodore Sturgeon, ‘Cactus Dance’ (1954)

Evolution (Lucille Hadzihalilovic 2015)

evolution-poster-lucile-hadzihalilovicDo not be fooled if your local arthouse tries to advertise it like this: ‘Featuring some of the most mesmerising underwater cinematography this side of Jacques Cousteau and containing undertones of the weird horror fiction of HP Lovecraft…’

They have to do it that way round cos they’re an arthouse cinema, and they figure their main audience is going to be the people who want to see Cousteau-like cinematography. And it is indeed mesmerising, rendering the world beneath the waves beautiful and alien all at once.

But the film is really for those who like their fiction weird. And who want to know where babies come from.

An oddly piscine-looking woman raises a ten-year-old boy, Nicolas, in a white-walled coastal village full of oddly piscine-looking women, each of whom is raising a ten-year-old boy. The landscape is vaguely volcanic, the beach and streets covered in cinders. They live on a diet of khaki mush filled with worms, and every day, Nicolas must take four drops of medicine that looks suspiciously like cephalopod ink. He claims to have seen a dead boy on the sea floor with a red starfish on his belly. His mother dives to retrieve the starfish, thus ‘proving’ there was no dead boy.

maxresdefaultThe camera is generally static. No one says very much.

But Nicolas senses something is not right. Where do the women go by lantern-light once their boys are asleep? What is going on at the medical facility along the cliffs? Why do all the boys eventually go there? What happens to them?

It is difficult to write more without giving too much away. Plus, the film tends to live and resonate in its obscurities, its half-glimpses and elliptical cutaways, its silences and incompletions, so writing much more would also pin down meanings in a way which counter the film’s affect. Suffice to say, there is not just Lovecraft here, but also a Lynchian suspension of meaning, the surgical/gynaecological horror of Cronenberg, a hint of del Toro’s El espinazo del diablo but without the boys adventure literalness of his ghost story, and of The Wicker Man‘s odd local customs, and even of Brian Yuzna’s Society but without the comical excesses. (There is nothing comical about this film.) Hadzihalilovic has also mentioned in interview the influence of Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels.

For a while near the end you start to think it does not know how to end, but then its final shot reframes all that has gone before as a document of the Anthropocene.

It is probably the creepiest, weirdest-on-first-viewing film I have seen since Tsukamoto Shinya’s A Snake of June, and easily the best thing I have seen in a cinema this year.

Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X

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 the last of them.

4624298147_dc53dc7d03First edition: New York: Pyramid, 1960
Edition used: New York: Pyramid, 1960

Charlie Johns, a contemporary American, mysteriously wakes up in a posthuman future, the apparently utopian society of Ledom (‘model’ backwards). It is home to homo sapiens’ replacements, an androgynous species possessing both male and female genitals. As devoted to the principles of process and change as they are to their children (who symbolise the future and thus change), they live lives of fulfilment and repose. They transported Charlie through time so he can learn about them and offer an ‘objective’ view on their culture and society. Or so he is led to believe…

Interpolated between the chapters charting Charlie’s adventure are shorter ones depicting the life of contemporary suburbanites Herb and Jeanette Raile, and their children, Davy and Karen. These contrapuntal chapters offer sharp satiric insights into gender roles, sexual politics and mores, consumerism, competition, materialistic Protestantism, social hierarchies and child-rearing. Although their tone is very different from that of the Ledom chapters, they offer an essential counterbalance to the more traditionally utopian method of Charlie’s story.

John Clute described Venus Plus X as the novel which

bravely came as close to a traditional utopia as any US genre-sf writer had approached before the efforts of Mack Reynolds.[1]

5896940782_43c4b2478e_bThis tension – between the utopian guided tour and genre sf’s predominantly action-adventure format – is perhaps most evident in the closing pages of the novel in which a cognitive breakthrough (of sorts) piles fresh revelation on fresh revelation, casting much of what has gone before in a fresh light. A similar tension is effectively balanced in the tonal differences between the Ledom and suburban chapters. Because the utopian form requires expository dialogue to interpose between the utopia and the visitor (including the reader), there is always overt commentary in place of the effect of direct perception. Consequently, in depicting suburban America, Sturgeon is faced with the option of an apparently realistic vision or an expository technique which would parallel (without replicating) the technique used to depict Ledom. Sturgeon’s turn to the satiric, which had become increasingly commonplace in 1950s US magazine sf, is in many ways the more satisfactory method of reconciling the traditional utopian with genre sf, not least of all because it keeps them in constant tension and balance. Venus Plus X, like Ledom, is about ‘passage’ (107) and ‘dynamic imbalance’ (108).

What, then, are the qualities of Ledom that make it utopian? Without biological differentiation in terms of sexual characteristics, and without the fetishisation of particular body parts, there is no basis upon which to construct an ideology of gender differentiation. Biological determinism is invalidated as a concept, replaced by a variety of cultural (including technological) determinism. The Ledom thus express themselves, rather than sexual or gender categories, through their modes of dress, labour and creative activity. Competition has been replaced by harmonious coexistence. Community has replaced suburb.

sturgeon_t_venusplusx_1970_1These utopian elements take on greater effect because of their contrast with the harried, frustrated, confused lives of the Raile family. Herb and his neighbour Smitty worry about what they perceive as women taking over in the guise of attaining equality. Where Smitty struggles to maintain masculinist bigotry, Herb struggles to compromise between traditional masculinity and an equal relationship with Jeanette. But Jeanette is not without her own neuroses about sexuality and power relationships. And in a number of comic asides – when Karen touches herself in the bath, when Davy hits her with a pillow for receiving different treatment from their father – it is clear that their children will be caught in similar dilemmas.

The major set of images Sturgeon uses to valorise this distinction between community and suburb is concerned with music. The inspirational, unrehearsed but nonetheless perfect group singing of the Ledom stands in stark contrast to the pop idol Herb and Smitty watch singing ‘Goozle Goozle’ on TV, a polysemic performer targeted at a whole array of market segments:

The words are something about Yee Ooo: I hold Yee Ooo, I kiss Yee Ooo, I love Yee Ooo, Ooo-Ooo. The camera dollies back and the singer is observed in a motion which one might explain by asserting that the singer, with infinite ambition, is attempting to grasp between his buttocks a small doorknob strapped to a metronome. (37)

venpxAt the core of the novel lie its least novelistic chapters, when Charlie receives a history lesson via the cerebrostyle. The Ledom – and arguably Sturgeon – locate the failure of Western civilisation in the suppression of pre-Christian ecstatic religion and sex and their distortion into instruments of social control:

So sex and religion, the real meaning of human existence, ceased to be meaning and became means. (130)

In the opening chapter, the dislocated Charlie devotes his energy to trying to remember:

He could not stop remembering; dared not, and did not want to stop. Because as long as he kept remembering, he knew he was Charlie Johns; and although he might be in a new place without knowing what time it was, he wasn’t lost, no one is ever lost, as long as he knows who he is. (8)

Continuity of identity here depends not upon name but upon recollection; and what applies to the individual applies to society as a whole. As long as ecstatic religion and sex are repressed, forgotten, Western so-called civilisation is alienated from its true identity.

Central to this repression is an overemphasis

on differences which [are] in themselves not drastic. (61)

venusAnticipating Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), the Ledom argue that differentiation is a product of looking for difference – which is then employed to construct ideologically naturalised hierarchies. Without the deconstruction of sexual differentiation – an act literalised in Ledom – sexual equality will continue to be one of Western literature’s ‘hallucinatory images’, along with

pigs with wings, human freedom, fire-breathing dragons, the wisdom of the majority, the basilisk, the golem. (84)

[1] John Clute and Peter Nicholls, eds, The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (London: Orbit, 1993), p.1176.

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+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More