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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Yesterday's Tomorrows: A. E. van Vogt

by Graham Sleight

Every time I write this column I try to answer, for a series of authors now considered canonical in science fiction, two questions. Firstly, are they worth reading today for pleasure? Secondly, were they of historical importance in the development of science fiction? No author I’ve discussed so far, and I suspect no author I ever will discuss, gets more different answers to those two questions than A.E. van Vogt. His work has been generously reissued lately, so it’s relatively easy for the contemporary reader to explore. There are a couple of especially important pieces of work: the sequence begun by The World of Null-A (1945/1948), the singleton Slan (1941/1946), the sequence beginning with The Weapon Shops of Isher (1951), and the stories subsequently fixed up into The Voyage of the Space Beagle (1950). The NESFA retrospective Transfinite collects a generous and thoughtfully chosen selection of stories. Van Vogt had a long career, stretching into the 1970s, and since his death in 2000 there have also been "posthumous collaborations" with Kevin J. Anderson and John C. Wright. But the early work shows you most clearly what was unique about him.

The obvious place to start is "Black Destroyer", van Vogt’s first published story — it appeared in Astounding in 1939 — and, Gary K. Wolfe has argued, as good a marker as any for the beginning of the Golden Age of science fiction. It’s also the first of the Space Beagle stories. It begins like this:

On and on Coeurl prowled! The black, moonless, almost-starless night yielded reluctantly before a grim reddish dawn that crept up from his left. A vague, dull light it was, that gave no sense of approaching warmth, no comfort, nothing but a cold, diffuse lightness, slowly revealing a nightmare landscape.

Black, jagged rock and black, unliving plain took form around him, as a pale-red sun peered at last above the grotesque horizon. It was then Coeurl recognized suddenly that he was on familiar ground.

He stopped short. Tenseness flamed along his nerves. His muscles pressed with sudden, unrelenting strength against his bones. His great forelegs — twice as long as his hindlegs — twitched with a shuddering movement that arched every razor-sharp claw. The thick tentacles that sprouted from his shoulders ceased their weaving undulation, and grew taut with anxious alertness.

It’s not that there’s any one thing wrong with that passage, but lots of little things that throw you off. That exclamation mark at the start: isn’t that just artificially amping up the tension? Does tenseness flame along nerves? Do muscles press against bones or work with them? And so on. What you recognise, though, is that everything in that passage is designed to make you as a reader more excited. Nothing is done by half-measures. Every adjective intensifies the extremity of the situation: the nightmare landscape, the razor-sharp claw, the grim dawn. That’s the first thing to register about van Vogt: he’s a writer who will not calm down. His stories have lulls or quiet stretches, to be sure, but even then they’re always telling you about how urgent and important they are.

"Black Destroyer" is, characteristically, a story that sounds saner to paraphrase than to read. In the first pages, Coeurl watches a spherical rocket-ship touch down; humans step out of it. This is the Space Beagle, on a mission to discover new life-forms. Coeurl tricks its way on board by pretending to be a dumb animal rather than the savage predator he is. (He feeds on "Id energy," and it’s stated early on that he wants "to kill everything in the ship, and take the machine back to their world in search of unlimited id.") Coeurl does succeed in killing several crew-members, but ends up being tricked into launching himself from the ship in an escape rocket, realising that he’s doomed himself, and committing suicide. The paraphrase doesn’t, however, come close to the experience of reading the story. It alternates between the viewpoint of Coeurl and the human crew, each escalating in urgency as the narrative goes on. There is some tension — the reader is clear on the danger from Coeurl far earlier than the crew — but the main impact of the story is that van Vogt keeps throwing in new ideas. There are super-senses for Coeurl, a whole range of new sciences used by the humans, an "anti-acceleration" drive that propels the Space Beagle, and so on. Whatever the actual process of writing, it certainly looks as if van Vogt just created whatever occurred to him to keep the excitement going.

One way of understanding van Vogt is by contrast with the early Heinlein, who was coming into prominence at the same time. Heinlein was all rationalism and hardheadedness; van Vogt was transcendence and excitement at the expense of realism. As soon as you start questioning the logical bases of a van Vogt story, it very often falls apart, but that’s not the point. What exactly is the "id" that Coeurl feeds on? How do the Space Beagle’s "anti-acceleration" drives work? You are not supposed to ask these questions: the ideal effect is of surfing the wave, not asking about fluid dynamics.

There are several other Space Beagle stories in Transfinite, including "Discord in Scarlet", an acknowledged ancestor of Alien. Another sign of his influence can be seen in a crew member’s speech in this story:

"Just a minute!" Von Grossen, the plump but hard-boiled physicist, spoke. "Let’s get this straight. The Beagle is going to another galaxy on an exploration voyage — the first trip of the kind. Our business is to study life in this new system..."

You don’t have to go many steps from there to "to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." And once that realisation clicks into place, it’s obvious how much the original series of Star Trek owed to van Vogt. There’s a sparring but generally friendly crew, an episodic format, a frequent resort to previously unheard-of ideas to resolve a story.

One such unheard-of idea, present throughout the Space Beagle stories, is "nexialism," a supposedly synthesising meta-science advocated by one of the crew-members, Grosvenor. Although it’s very difficult to fathom what the content of nexialism actually is, what it does in the stories is give Grosvenor a shortcut to the right answers. However, unlike similar plot-signalling devices such as the Force, nexialism is a supposedly rational creed. One winds up feeling that the stories are rigged to favour those who believe in the wildest of van Vogt’s ideas. (So the reader is encouraged to believe, as well.) And if there’s a single root problem with van Vogt, I’d identify it as an unreasoning faith in the power of abstract nouns. Again and again there’s the idea that a word that sounds right, that seems sufficiently encompassing, can describe the world, a civilisation, or a problem, fully. Other things, such as characterisation or internal logic, take second place. Nexialism is just one such encompassing idea, and so is Coeurl’s "Id": the problem is also visible in The World of Null-A, perhaps van Vogt’s most famous novel. The Tor reissue carries on its cover a line from the New Yorker, "Fine for addicts of science fiction," as backhanded a not-really compliment as I’ve ever seen actually printed on a book.

The World of Null-A is set in a future where, supposedly, the dictates of Aristotelean logic have been surpassed. (Hence "Null-A," taken from Alfred Korzybski’s real-world doctrine of General Semantics.) With this step away from two-valued, yes/no logic, the world is now governed by computers, with seemingly idyllic results. The story follows the protagonist, Gilbert Gosseyn, through a series of adventures that slowly reveal to him the true nature of the world and, relatedly, his true story. (And so he’s also a prototype for that typical sf figure, the amnesiac superman.) As in the stories, van Vogt still keeps opening trap-doors under the reader each time they think they have a hold on the shape of the narrative. In the Space Beagle stories, though, that was a relatively contained problem: each tale (or episode) returned you to the frame-story of the ship. At novel-length, there’s a problem of revelation compounding revelation. So in The World of Null-A we get multiple identities, implausible captures and escapes, escalating jeopardy, all piled on top of each other so that by the end parsing what’s happened in the story is nigh-on impossible.

I try to steer clear of secondary criticism in these columns, and to present an unmediated view of each author, but with van Vogt I think that’s impossible. For a start, Damon Knight’s "Cosmic Jerrybuilder", a demolition job on The World of Null-A in In Search of Wonder, remains one of the great classics of invective in the field. Its charges are that van Vogt was wildly inconsistent, a poor characteriser, a flat stylist, and so on. I don’t go quite as far down the same road as Knight; van Vogt’s style seems to me now efficiently pulpy rather than actively bad. But a lot of his charges seem to me irrefutable. (It’s worth noting, also, that in the wake of Knight’s 1945 essay, van Vogt revised a number of works to try to address his criticisms. Most of the available van Vogt texts — and most of those considered here — are the revised ones.) On the other hand, the critic Leslie Fiedler (in a 1981 Eaton conference talk called "The Criticism of Science Fiction") argued that any account of the virtues of science fiction had to provide an account of what made Van Vogt good:

Any bright high school sophomore can identify all the things that are wrong about Van Vogt, whose clumsiness is equaled only by his stupidity. But the challenge to criticism which pretends to do justice to science fiction is to say what is right about him: to identify his mythopoeic power, his ability to evoke primordial images, his gift for redeeming the marvelous in a world in which technology has preempted the province of magic and God is dead.

The problem is that you can no more extract just the mythopoesis from van Vogt than you can extract just the strawberries from a milkshake. Van Vogt has, as Fiedler hints, been hugely influential on writers like Philip José Farmer, and Philip K. Dick; but I’d argue that what they took from him is what’s least interesting and characteristic about their work. That’s not to deny, though, that van Vogt does quite often find his way to the sort of mythic story-structure Fiedler was describing. Case in point: Slan.

The setting for Slan is a future Earth where human evolution has produced a tiny minority of "Slans" with abilities beyond the norm. Some Slans are visible as such because their heads have tendrils in their hair; others, with lesser abilities, do not. Slans of the first kind have telepathic abilities, and both kinds have greater than normal strength and intelligence. The book opens with its protagonist, the Slan Jommy Cross, walking with his mother through Centropolis. Even this basic activity reveals how much Slans are persecuted. Jommy’s mother is killed, and he has to shelter with a malicious old woman named "Granny." As he does, he grows more knowledgeable about the Slan condition, and the crusade against his kind led by a man named Keir Gray.

Of all the van Vogt books I’ve discussed, I suspect Slan will be the one that’s most accessible to readers now. It exemplifies what I often end up calling the Hollywood epistemology, that things are only real to the extent that they affect the protagonist: you have very little sense of a felt world present when Jommy (or a subplot protagonist called Kathleen) is not there. This reinforces the idea that only the Slan-world matters. One outgrowth of the idea that you’re the only real thing in the universe is paranoia, and it’s for its dramatisation of that state of mind that I think Slan may be of interest. We live, after all, in paranoid surveillance-state times. Even if the idea that "Fans are Slans" now seems pretty far-fetched, the idea that ordinary citizens might be persecuted by all-seeing "security forces" does not. The book is very good, also, on what it feels like to identify as an outcast. Here’s Jommy describing his family history to Granny:

"My mother and father were the finest people alive," he said softly, "And they were terribly unhappy. They met on the street one day, and saw in each other’s minds that they were Slans. Until then they’d lived the loneliest of lives, they’d never harmed anyone. It’s the human beings who are the criminals. Dad didn’t fight as hard as he could when they cornered him and shot him in the back. He could have fought. He should have! Because he had the most terrible weapon the world has ever seen — so terrible he wouldn’t even carry it with him for fear he might use it. When I’m fifteen I’m supposed to — "

He stopped, appalled at his indiscretion. For an instant he felt so sick, so weary, that his mind refused to hold the burden of his thought. He knew only that he had given away the greatest secret in Slan history, and if this grasping old wretch turned him over to the police in his present condition, all was lost.

I have no idea whether it was an accident or a strategy on van Vogt’s part that a creed of outsiderdom like that should chime so well with the way many SF readers evidently felt — both about the relationship of their genre and, perhaps, their lives, to the outside world. These days, perhaps, we understand that far more people live in the overt world but feel themselves not belonging to it, and so required to pass for normal. (Or, alternatively, not to pass for normal and say to the world that it’ll have to deal with the way they are.) But in Slan, this myth of a secret cabal of outsiders, reviled by but better than normal humans, feels as if it’s put into definitive form. The story itself is as roller-coasterish as ever with van Vogt, and the final revelations manage to be both extensively foreshadowed and pretty unconvincing. But you do feel he’s found the motherlode here, putting into fictional form a potent dream of childhood. I suspect, though, that most readers in 2009 will feel they’ve put away these childish things.

That’s not to say, though, that van Vogt shouldn’t be read by those wanting to discover how sf got to where it is currently, and Transfinite is probabably the most useful volume from this point of view. I reviewed it, at some length, in the New York Review of Science Fiction (10/03) and will try not to repeat myself too much here. Perhaps the first thing to say is that the book shows van Vogt to have far greater range than the books I’ve already discussed would suggest.

As an example, take "Film Library", from Astounding in 1946. The audience at a contemporary electronics convention is baffled by a film showing "an automatic electric stove that merely had to be supplied with the appropriate ingredients, and it would mix them and serve up the finished meal piping hot." A curious attendee asks the man who showed the film if he had any similar ones, and it turns out that he does: footage of a Venusian squid haunting the warm seas of that planet. Other examples are shown. Slowly, a partial explanation for these films becomes clear to the characters. They all originate from the same library of stock footage, whose films have been substituted with these mysterious ones, seemingly from the future. Only in the last page or two, though, does van Vogt provide a full account of what has happened. A film projector in 2011 somehow became synchronised with one in 1946 and "for one second of eternity two motion-picture projectors in two separate space-time periods lost some of their aspects of separateness, and there was a limited liaison." Exactly how this happened is not really explained, except through some flummery about time being "the great invariant." Again, the instructive contrast is with Heinlein, who even in his first story "Life-line" was treating ideas of space and time with more rigour than this. But van Vogt is trying for different effects. In the last scene of the story, the original film exhibitor is packing up his equipment, bemused and disappointed by the response to what he thinks of as a "novelty film": "Blue was that sky above, alive with the mystery of the immense universe. Corteya scarcely noticed."

That idea, of the wonders of the universe only being fully revealed to those who read van Vogt stories, is also present in "Recruiting Station" (1942), the longest of the stories here. It’s another time-travel story. The initial hook, a young woman being recruited into "the Calonian cause" is soon bypassed. Indeed, "Recruiting Station" is probably the clearest example of a van Vogt story that’s just a series of trap-doors, every so often letting the reader know that what they’ve thought is the frame of the story isn’t really. The trap-dooring is often done crudely:

He braced himself. Where the devil was this all-knowing machine?

The corridor opened abruptly into a plain, black door, exactly like all the other doors, that held not the faintest promised of anything important beyond.

Amazingly, it opened onto a street!

A street of the city of the future!

Garson stiffened. His brain soared beyond contemplation of his own danger in a burning anticipation; and then, almost instantly, began to sag.

There’s no question that the contemporary reader will have problems taking a passage like that seriously, and that the cross-temporal exposition that ends the story will also seem pretty crude. In fact, that’s a general problem for van Vogt: having started off, especially in his longer stories, so many potentially contradictory accounts of what might be going on, he has to spend their conclusions frantically knotting them together. So several other stories here have, in their last few pages, similar huge blocks of exposition as the author invokes previously unknown sciences to justify what has gone before.

Transfinite also contains a fair number of what might be thought of as "gimmick stories." Because these are often of shorter length, van Vogt doesn’t get too burdened by the need to keep shifting perspective every few pages. In "A Can of Paint" (1944), for instance, an Earth expedition touches down on Venus and discovers a crystal cube containing Venusian paint made from "liquid light." This has been left by the Venusians as an intelligence test to see whether Earth-creatures are worthy of their attention. The astronaut who discovers the cube fails the test, and is unable to get the paint off him, but does manage to pass on the news to the next landing-party. "The Rulers" (1944) is also a gimmick story, the twin premises here being a consciousness-altering drug and a history-altering conspiracy. It’s the sort of work where one can see the seeds of Philip K. Dick’s writings, but only faintly; and there’s a huge gap between van Vogt and Dick in how intensely felt distortions of reality are.

Perhaps the best story to finish with is "The Rull" (1948), which like the Space Beagle stories also became part of a longer sequence. Van Vogt’s strengths and weaknesses are clearly on display here. The story follows a human protagonist, Jamieson, at a point where our species has been involved in an interstellar war with the alien Rull for centuries. All sorts of devices that we now take for granted in such stories - "defensive screens" for spaceships, for instance, are introduced and used almost offhand. The telepathic Rull are an interesting creation. But the story itself, wherein Jamieson captures a Rull and discovers things about its nature that explain the way the war has been fought, makes the usual kinds of not-sense. Van Vogt takes a real-world notion (in this case Pavlovian response to stimuli) and extrapolates them into a set of ideas about how the Rull perceive the world that’s barely coherent, and seemingly made up on the spot. With this knowledge in hand, Jamieson can return home: "the Rull-human war was over". But, you keep wanting to say, it’s not that simple in the real world. And so it becomes very difficult to believe in these idea-packed but incoherent stories. Van Vogt may have created much of the language of science fiction, but not its grammar.

This is one of many reviews from the August 2009 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

The Voyage of the Space Beagle, A.E. van Vogt (Simon and Schuster, 241pp, hc) 1950.

The World of A, A.E. van Vogt (Simon & Schuster, 247pp, hc) 1948.

Slan, A.E. van Vogt (Arkham House, 216pp, hc) 1946.

Transfinite: The Essential A.E. van Vogt, A.E. van Vogt (NESFA 1-886778-34-5, $29.00, 573pp, hc) 2002.

This review was first published in the August 2009 issue of Locus Magazine.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Yesterday's Tomorrows: Hal Clement

by Graham Sleight

Hal Clement's work represents, in remarkably pure form, a particular tradition of writing SF. So to write about him is really to write about the strengths and weaknesses of that whole tradition. Thankfully, these three NESFA volumes collect much of Clement's most essential work into permanent form and allow the reader to get an overview of his whole body of work. Volume 1 contains three novels: Needle (Astounding, 1949), Iceworld (Astounding, 1951), and Close to Critical (Astounding, 1958). Volume 2 collects short stories from across his career. And Volume 3 contains his most famous novel, Mission of Gravity (1953) together with its sibling Star Light (1970) and associated shorter fiction and non-fiction.

Perhaps the place to start is the story "Uncommon Sense" (1945) from Volume 2, retrospectively given the Hugo Award. It starts in the middle of a crisis. Laird Cunningham, an explorer of star systems, is sheltering in a cave on a planet orbiting the star Deneb. His rocket has crashed there following sabotage by two of his assistants. They are now attempting to repair the ship and get it back to serviceable shape while Cunningham hides from them. But because the light on this planet is so bright, and the ship's hull gleams so brilliantly,

[Cunningham] was forced to keep his eyes elsewhere most of the time, and look only in brief glimpses at the dazzling metal; and in consequence, he paid more attention to the details of his environment than he might otherwise have done. At the time, this circumstance annoyed him; he has since been heard to bless it fervently and frequently.

The point is clear: paying attention to the details of your environment is never a mistake in a Clement story. In this case, what Cunningham discovers is the local lifeforms. They are small and crablike, and are seemingly preyed on by other, centipede-like creatures. He is curious as to how the crab-creatures can survive in this airless environment (he and the other humans are wearing spacesuits), and so investigates: the crab-creatures appear to have a kind of liquid metal for blood. As the blood cools to the planet's natural temperature, it solidifies, and Cunningham hatches a plan. At night, when his two former assistants aren't watching, he takes a couple of solidified rods of this metal and applies it to the hull of the ship where they had been welding. In the morning, when they begin welding again, they inadvertently melt the metal blood. As Cunningham had gambled, the smell of the blood attracts the centipede-creatures, who attack in a kind of frenzy. In the confusion, he is able to get into the ship himself, lock the other two out, and call for help.

However simple the central conceit, "Uncommon Sense" nicely demonstrates the central idea of Clement's fiction: investigating the world will enable you to make sense of it and, very often, benefit in the process. Cunningham may look, superficially, like a Heinleinesque Competent Man, but he differs in having the kind of detailed curiosity I've described. Heinlein's heroes tend to win out because of the strength of their belief, because they're right but the world doesn't know it (quite) yet. Clement's heroes tend to win out because their faith in empiricism is ultimately rewarded. (The unspoken axiom there, of course, is that empiricisim is sufficient to solve any problems that may come along. It's no surprise, then, that Clement's stories tend to be arranged so that this indeed is the case. The question of how often a situation like the one in "Uncommon Sense" might arise in everyday life is not addressed.) There are a couple more arguments that might be made against Clement's worldview. First is that empiricism tends to trump all other values — contemporary readers might balk a little at the scene in "Uncommon Sense" where he kills the crab-creatures just on the off-chance that he might find out things about them. The second is that he's not particularly interested in character. Characters have traits, to be sure — Cunningham is determined, the two men who have highjacked his ship are "villains." But any idea of a more rounded selfhood is very rare in Clement.

Many of the central ideas in Clement's work are taken from chemistry and (pre-Einstein) physics — he took a degree in astronomy and subsequently worked as a high-school chemistry teacher. This gives his work a peculiarly grounded feel, especially when a lot of hard SF today tends to make use of the wilder shores of physics. (Or, more exactly, it often takes the cool and wacky bits from contemporary physics, and then just makes up whatever new ideas it needs to enable the story.) Both the chemistry and physics are on show in Mission of Gravity.

The premise, famously, is that of a super-large planet, Mesklin. Because of its mass, it is oblate, very much flattened at the poles and bulging out at the equator. Gravity at the equator is about three times that of Earth; at the poles, 700 times. The plot itself is the barest McGuffin hunt. Barlennan, an insect-like Mesklinite, is employed by a group of humans to travel from the equator to the pole to recover data from a crashed scientific probe. So the novel travels through progressively more extreme environments. What the reader discovers very quickly is two things. Firstly, that Clement has the perfect expository voice: clear, lucid, answering all the questions you might have. Second, so do all his characters. So a lot of information is imparted in dialogue like this:

"It seems as though it should work, though," [Rosten] admitted grudgingly. "Just what sort of sled are we supposed to build for this ocean liner of your friend's? How big is it, again?"

"The Bree is about forty or fifty feet long and fifteen across; I suppose it draws five or six inches. It's made of lots of rafts about three feet long and half as wide, roped together so they can move freely — I can guess why, on this world."

"Hmph. So can I. If a ship that long had its two ends supported by waves while the middle hung free up near the pole, it would be in pieces before long whether it started that way or not. How is it driven?"

"Sails; there are masts on twenty or thirty of the rafts. I suspect there may be centerboards on some of them too, retractable so the ship can be beached; but I never asked Barlennan."

And so on. You're given all the information you need to visualise this ship, and more importantly to understand why it's shaped as it is. But the thing that makes this passage unconvincing is right there in the first paragraph: Rosten's "How big is it, again?" — so that the reply is, almost literally, an "As you know, Bob..." The elements of this dialogue that are supposedly inflections of character — Rosten being grudging, or making clear that he can work out the reasons for the boat's construction — feel pasted on to the infodump.

The positive side of this, though, is the thoroughness of Clement's worldbuilding. You realise that he has a peculiar talent for thinking through the second- and third-order consequences of his ideas. One of the fundamental ideas here is that because of its huge mass, Mesklin has a very high speed of rotation, and so a short day. Clement then goes on to the next logical consequence, that because of the high Coriolis force, a thrown object will always tend to swerve to the left. To take another example, because of Mesklin's low temperature, the seas are made of methane rather than water, and so because of the higher density of methane, hurricanes at sea tend to blow themselves out much more quickly than on Earth.

In his introduction to this volume, David Langford refers — I think absolutely rightly — to Clement's "staunch faith in universal principles and underlying reasonableness." To me, this explains two central things about Clement's writing. It accounts for the extent to which the world is always perceived as something that can be understood through the application of empiricism and science rather than, say, understanding of character or motivation. And it also addresses, as Langford notes, the criticism that Barlennan and other aliens in Clement aren't alien enough, that they behave and reason as humans do. (This isn't quite the case, and Clement is very good at making the Mesklinite culture reflect their high-gravity environment; but their phobia of, say, heights is again somewhat pasted on to the rest of their character.) Clement's most central axiom is that empiricism will always work, and that it will always trump whatever else might get in the way of understanding. You'll enjoy his fiction to the extent that you can share that axiom. It may be that, in these clouded and postmodern times, his positivistic clarity is more difficult to accept than it once was.

Mission of Gravity is accompanied in the NESFA volume by a number of associated pieces. Perhaps the one to start with is Clement's 1953 essay "Whirligig World", written for Astounding, which serialised the novel. Here Clement sets out the process by which he arrived at the orbit, size, and composition of Mesklin. This exercise of showing his working is fascinating in itself, of course, and also something of a contrast to a lot of hard SF these days is worked out. A lot of times in contemporary works, you feel that handwaving has gone on (especially handwaving using speculative quantum physics) to engineer the outcome the author wants. Clement makes no bones about shaping Mesklin so that it was a venue that could house a story. But he does so without any shortcuts in his logic or use of science.

The other novels collected in Volume 1 of the NESFA edition share the same worldview. Close to Critical, for instance, is set on Tenebra, a world where gravity, temperature and pressure are contrived so that water is close to its triple point — it may be solid, liquid, or gas. So oceans rise vastly at night, and much of their water boils away in the day. Needle is more involved with ideas of biology than Clement's other books. It's the story of two jellyfish-like aliens, crash-landed on Earth, with one ("the Hunter") a police-officer-equivalent seeking the other, a criminal. Both end up residing in human bodies in a kind of symbiosis in order to get around. The core of the book (and its main viewpoint) is the relationship between the Hunter and Bob, the teenage boy in whose body he comes to reside. From the moment when the Hunter first reveals himself to Bob, the boy has a kind of open-eyed curiosity and wonder at the situation that, you sense, was what Clement wanted his readers to feel about the world in general. Iceworld was the one of this trio that I felt was a little routine. The premise, as ever in Clement, is just an excuse to explore a particular scientific concept. Like Needle, the specific idea here is a cops-and-criminals one, with alien police trying to track an evil drug made on Earth — tobacco. The twist is that they come from a very much hotter environment than humans, so our planet is freezing and inhospitable for them.

It may be that Clement's particular interests, even more than most SF writers, were best expressed at shorter lengths. The stories collected in Volume 2 of the NESFA edition certainly fulfil the classic pattern of the SF story: a single idea gets set out, explored, and made sense of. "Proof" (1942), Clement's first story, is actually more speculative than most of his work — and also, in a sense, reverses the premise of Iceworld. It's based around a race that lives in the solar photosphere, and that has based its civilisation on the ultra-heavy element neutronium, which periodically needs to be harvested from the sun's core. Because of the temperature, their bodies are "simply constructed: a mass of close-packed electrons — really an unimaginably dense electrostatic field, possessing quasi-solid properties — surrounded a core of neutrons, compacted to the ultimate degree." One of the characters puts forward the theory that "matter — ordinary substances like iron and calcium — might actually take on solid properties, like neutronium, under the proper conditions." In the end, a sort of proof-from-observation for this is advanced, but the story works on two levels. Firstly, it's an exercise in irony: we humans know perfectly well that iron and calcium exist in solid forms. Secondly, as ever with Clement, it's a demonstration of method: you get to the right answer by applying logic to what you see.

Other stories collected in the second volume are more grounded in known science. For instance, "Raindrop" (1965) covers some of the same territory as James Blish's "Surface Tension" (1956) in its working-out of what the ecosystem of a water-filled environment would be. "Sun Spot" (1960) has one of the more kinetic ideas in Clement's work. It follows a group of scientists slingshotting themselves round a star while buried in the depths of a 30-billion-ton ice comet. Of course, the amount of ice that will boil off has been carefully calculated, and nothing happens in their journey that's not somehow explicable in terms of physics. And "The Logical Life" (1974) is another story in which a human (Laird Cunningham from "Uncommon Sense") has to figure out the nature of an alien world with the help of an alien. Hypotheses are tried out and rejected — at one point, Cunningham says to himself, "The geyser idea was good, but left out some facts that needed explaining." A good scientist, or Clement character, would never do that. At the end, Cunningham proposes an ambitious expedition to investigate the final hypothesis further; his alien friend replies, "I will be quite willing to listen to reason." In Hal Clement's world, there is no higher value.

This is one of many reviews from the October issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

The Essential Hal Clement, Volume 1: Trio for Slide Rule and Typewriter

Hal Clement

(NESFA 1-886788-06-X, , $25.00, 518pp, hc) 1999. Cover by George Richard.

The Essential Hal Clement, Volume 2: Music of Many Spheres

Hal Clement

(NESFA 1-886788-07 -8, $25.00, 506pp, hc) 2000. Cover by George Richard.

The Essential Hal Clement, Volume 3: Variations on a Theme by Sir Isaac Newton

Hal Clement

(NESFA 1-886778-08-6, $25.00, 465pp, hc) 2000. Cover by Richard McKenna.

This review was first published in the October 2009 issue of Locus Magazine.

october cover

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Friday, October 2, 2009

In the Midst of Pandemonium, Profundity?: A Review of Pandorum

by Gary Westfahl

If I were posting film reviews on Twitter, instead of Locus Online, I might limit my review of Pandorum to "It's I Am Legend Meets Alien!" and stay comfortably within the 140-character limit. All director Christian Alvart and writer Travis Milloy have done, one can easily argue on the basis of their final product, is to take the basic story line of I Am Legend (2007) (review here) — a few genuine humans struggle to stay alive while battling hordes of mindlessly homicidal, pale-skinned mutants — and transplanted it from the streets of a deserted New York City to the dark, dimly-lit corridors of a large spaceship — making their film suitable entertainment for filmgoers in search of another cinematic thrill ride, but a disappointment to those who would prefer a thought-provoking idea to an adrenalin rush. And it's all sort of a shame, since it transpires that lurking underneath this seemingly unending humans-versus-monsters slugfest is a reasonably interesting future history of the human race, and one suspects that Alvart and Milloy originally envisioned a film that would be slightly more cerebral — more like Sunshine (2007) or Moon (20090 (reviews here and here), perhaps, than an action-packed Will Smith spectacular. Fortunately, despite the hypothesized revisions in the screenplay to boost the body count in hopes of maximizing ticket sales, the fossilized remains of a different film remain visible.

That much of this film is a homage to — or ripoff of — I Am Legend seems indisputable, given that its mutants are virtually identical to their predecessors in their appearance and behavior; indeed, if they haven't already been paid off, the producers of I Am Legend could plausibly sue the makers of Pandorum — even the way the mutants set booby traps to ensnare humans and make them hang upside down seems transparently stolen from Smith's epic. As for other influences on this film, many will think of Event Horizon (1997), another horror film set in a spaceship which was uncoincidentally directed by the producer of Pandorum, Paul W. S. Anderson, but since he was also responsible for the lame Alien vs. Predator (2004), I suspect that Ridley Scott's masterpiece was more on his mind while supervising this particular project.

In defense of the notion that this film departed from its original design, one can readily detect the outlines of a film that omitted those derivative mutants (officially named the "Hunters" in the closing credits) and instead generated drama exclusively from the interpersonal conflicts of interstellar crewmates and the dangers of madness induced by space travel. After all, the title of the film is another of science fiction's made-up terms for the condition of "space madness" — hurriedly explained as some sort of bureaucratic acronym — and the screenplay retains dialogue suggesting that such insanity, not mutated monsters, represents the major menace awaiting long-distance space voyagers.

And Pandorum involves a truly long journey through space, featuring what science fiction readers would term a "generation starship." Some two centuries in the future, Earth is threatened by massive overpopulation and a deteriorating environment — one flashback reveals that humans at the time had to wear plastic facemasks in order to survive outdoors — so people are heartened by the discovery of an earthlike planet, Tanis, in another solar system. A huge ship, the Elysium, is constructed to take 16,000 people on a 223-year voyage to colonize Tanis (clearly, this future world has not mastered faster-than-light travel), though passengers spend most of their time in suspended animation — "extended hypersleep" — leaving only a small number of crewmates to be awake during rotating shifts (presumably, so that they can avoid succumbing to Pandorum). One problem is that reawakening crewpeople take a long time to regain their memories — so that when Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) and Colonel Payton (Dennis Quaid) wake up at the beginning of the film, it takes them a while to remember the information they need to figure out exactly why the ship isn't running the way it is supposed to; another problem is that a few crewmen have been violating protocol and staying awake too long, causing them to go insane. On the face of it, these seem like reasonably sensible premises that could lead to a generally palatable film in which Bower and Payton explore the ship, gradually learn why it appears to be out of control and running out of power, and finally succeed in restoring the ship to normal functioning and allowing everyone on board to complete their important mission.

But then there are those constantly attacking mutants, which simply don't make any sense at all. The official explanation is that the colonists were given some sort of special gene or treatment which would allow their bodies to adapt to the different conditions on Tanis, but in some people it somehow malfunctioned and instead made them adapt to the different conditions on the Elysium. However, to say the very least, it seems extraordinarily unclear why losing one's intelligence and becoming a feral cannibal would represent the ideal biological adaptation to life on board a starship. In any event, we have been told repeatedly that Tanis is an earthlike planet, meaning that no sort of special adaptation would be needed, and without saying too much about the movie's final twists, you have probably already deduced that its happy ending involves the main characters reaching the surface of Tanis and finding it a habitable home, with absolutely no physiological changes required. This serves as yet another indication that the mutants represent an inorganic, forced addition to the original story — recalling the egregiously incongruous "Mutant" belatedly inserted into This Island Earth (1954) — but at least that creature only appeared in a few scenes. In this case, the egregiously incongruous additions virtually dominate the entire film, reducing all other events to the status of subplots.

In order to appreciate Pandorum, then, one must ignore those silly mutants and instead focus solely on the shorter, better film they are viciously struggling to conceal. The film, of course, is yet another meditation on the folly of damaging the delicate environment of our home planet, and the potential need for human beings to seek salvation by traveling into outer space — points also made in worthwhile films with similar back stories like Titan A.E. (2000) and Wall·E (2008) (review here). Believe it or not, the film also shares a theme with the works of Octavia E. Butler — that humans do what they must do in order to survive, and one should not judge them for what they might do — and there are trite homilies about the importance of people learning to work together, such as Bower's eloquent "A little fucking solidarity goes a long way."

What is most provocative about this film, though, is what appears to be its curiously old-fashioned argument about the human habitation of outer space. In Pandorum, as in its cinematic precursors, space is portrayed as a dangerous and evil place, a realm of monsters and madness; space travel, while sometimes necessary, is therefore something to endure rather than something to enjoy. The designers of the Elysium saw fit to ensure that the vast majority of its passengers would spend the vast majority of their time asleep, while the only people awake would be small rotating crews of military personnel who are presumably hardy enough to actually stand living in space.

But there are two objections to make to the way this film seems to characterize space travel. In the first place, the Elysium is not a tiny spacecraft with a handful of crewmembers, as was the case in Alien and Event Horizon, but an immense space ark filled with 16,000 people. Science fiction writers have long realized that when we construct such vast habitations, it would be both possible, and desirable, to make the interiors of the vehicle resemble a park more than a prison. Why did the builders of Elysium make absolutely no effort to fashion a vessel with more pleasant environments, instead of a Nostromo writ large consisting of nothing but unadorned metallic walls, sterile corridors, and visible machinery? Did anyone ever theorize that space travelers regularly go insane in part because their quarters are so relentlessly and unnecessarily grim? Apparently, it never occurred to anyone in this future world that a large spaceship, properly equipped, might serve as a reasonably attractive second home for a human race facing the crisis of a dying planet — which was precisely the rescue plan carried out in Wall·E; instead, they believe the only answer is to transport humans to the only other earthlike planet available, even though it is many light-years away.

Mentioning Wall·E brings up another curious omission in the thinking of the people who planned this mission: recognizing the complexities and innumerable perils of space travel, both science fiction writers and NASA personnel have understood that astronauts will require constant assistance from advanced computers, typically envisioned in future spaceships as ambulatory robots or ubiquitous voices with traces of a human personality. In Pandorum, while characters are observed punching buttons and staring at screens that are presumably connected to computers of some sort, there are no signs of an advanced computer intelligence continually monitoring the entire ship, either because none was installed in the ship or because it has been completely disabled due to the ship's various issues — but both scenarios suggest a design flaw. Granted, Wall·E and other films point out that it is dangerous to become overly reliant on such computerized colleagues, but Pandorum seems to illustrate the opposite problem of underutilizing computers, as the human astronauts here are forced to overcome their problems entirely on their own.

Thus, even overlooking those nasty mutants, one can maintain that the makers of Pandorum are falsely portraying outer space as an horrific experience by failing to acknowledge two relatively recent conclusions about space travel: that the environments within spaceships will not have to be drab and confining, and that the difficulties of surviving in space will always be mitigated by helpful computer companions. Instead, either because they found it made for better entertainment or because they really didn't know any better, they have returned to the earlier, naïve vision of space travel observed in films of the 1950s like, say, It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), arguably the granddaddy of all space horror films.

But there is another explanation for these apparent lapses, one which may be giving Alvart and Milloy much more credit than they deserve, but it remains a possibility: the filmmakers may be deliberately presenting an inaccurate picture of space travel in order to provide commentary on people's stubbornly enduring misconceptions about what life in space will actually be like. Yes, some will immediately say that I am wildly overanalyzing one of this week's popcorn films, and I generally agree that critics should not attempt to excuse flaws in a work by arguing that the wise author was being ironic by intentionally making flaws. Still, in this case there is one aspect of the film which provides powerful support for this seemingly outlandish theory. Unfortunately, if I am to follow the implicit code of reviewing and avoid "spoilers" (which I have been endeavoring to do of late), I am unable to discuss it.

Perhaps, though, I can complete the thought and avoid an outright violation of protocol by discussing a hypothetical case. Suppose that, in a film about space travelers, it turned out that they were not really in outer space at all. Suppose that it transpired that, at any time during that film, the characters could have solved all their grievous problems simply by pressing a few buttons. Such a film, then, would not really be about the dangers of space travel; rather, it would be a film about the dangers of succumbing to your own unexamined preconceptions. As one possibility, such a film might turn out to be a reversal of the scenario of Robert A. Heinlein's "Universe" (1941) and other similar stories — not people in space who falsely believe they are inhabiting a world, but people living on a world who falsely believe they are in outer space.

Such a film might turn out to be much more interesting than a film about people who need to kill a bunch of mutants before the mutants kill them. And it would be a tragedy — hypothetically — if film producers, given the opportunity to oversee such a film, instead insisted that the screenplay had to be reshaped in order to foreground a much less interesting story.

Gary Westfahl's works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His most recent books are two collections of essays — Science Fiction and the Two Cultures, co-edited with George Slusser, by various hands, and The Science of Fiction and the Fiction of Science, by the late Frank McConnell — and the second edition of Islands in the Sky: The Space Station Theme in Science Fiction Literature.

Directed by Christian Alvart

Written by Travis Milloy and Christian Albart (story), Travis Milloy (screenplay)

Starring Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster, Cam Gigandet, Antje Traue, Cung Le, Eddie Rouse, Norman Reedus, and André Hennicke

Official Website: PANDORUM - Now In Theaters


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