Monday, 22 June 2009

Sexy Sci-Fi

Back in the 1950s, Galaxy Science Fiction began a series of reprint paperback novels which they gave away with issues of the magazine. After 35 issues, the novel series was sold to Beacon Books, who were known for publishing mildly pornographic romance paperbacks. As a result, the Galaxy novels issued by Beacon were "edited" to add sexual content.

I first came across these books when I learnt of The Mating Cry, a variant of one of my favourite sf novels, AE van Vogt's The Undercover Aliens. So I tracked down a copy and read it. It made for a somewhat bizarre reading experience - I blogged about it here. I've subsequently picked up (most of) the others in the series at various conventions. I had the vague idea of reading them and the novels on which each one was based, and then comparing the two. To date, I've not really got started on it, for a couple of reasons: one, some of the original novels are difficult to find; and two, given the Beacon books' cover art, I've always felt they're a little too embarrassing to read during my daily commute.

The titles were:

Odd John, Olaf Stapledon (1959). This had already been published by Galaxy in 1952. As far as I'm aware, both editions were identical - i.e., the Beacon one was not "edited".

The Deviates, Raymond F Jones (1959). This was a spiced-up version of Jones's novel The Secret People. I have the Beacon one but not the original.

Troubled Star, George O Smith (1959), was originally published under the same title as a serial in Startling Stories in 1953, and later as a novel in 1957. The Beacon version had added sexual content. I've yet to find a copy of the original novel.

Pagan Passions, Laurence Janifer and Randall Garrett (1959), was, as far as I can determine, original to the Beacon series.

Virgin Planet, Poul Anderson (1960), was a spiced-up version of a novel of the same title published the year before.

Flesh, Philip José Farmer (1960), probably didn't need any sexual content adding. It was original to the Beacon series.

The Sex War, Sam Merwin, Jr (1960), was an expanded version of 'The White Widows', originally published in Startling Stories in 1953. A book version appeared the same year. I've not found a copy of the original novel yet.

A Woman a Day, Philip José Farmer (1960), was an expansion of 'Moth and Rust', originally published in Startling Stories in 1953. It has also been published as a novel with the titles The Day of Timestop and Timestop!. I have both versions, so I could do this one.

The Mating Cry, A.E. Van Vogt (1960), was a revised version of The House That Stood Still from 1950. It was later published as The Undercover Aliens. See here.

The Male Response, Brian Aldiss (1961), is another book which I think was original to the Beacon series.

Sin In Space, Cyril Judd (1961), is a spiced-up version of Outpost Mars. Although I've yet to read the Beacon edition, the original is a fairly ordinary tale of settlers on Mars, which might as well be set in any new town in the American Midwest. I really should get around to reading the Beacon version, so I can compare the two.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Reading Challenge #6 - Second Stage Lensman, EE 'Doc' Smith

I don't know who to be more embarrassed for: myself, for liking this book when I was young; or the genre, for continuing to revere the series and its author. Because, let's face it, Second Stage Lensman is not a novel we should be holding up as indicative of the genre. A person who has a low opinion of science fiction is only going to have it confirmed by this book.

Second Stage Lensman is the fifth book in EE 'Doc' Smith's well-known Lensman series. Which was shortlisted for the Hugo Award for Best all-Time Series in 1966 (it lost out to Asimov's Foundation series). Second Stage Lensman was originally published in Astounding Stories between November 1941 and February 1942. In book form, it was not published until 1953.

It hasn't aged well.

The hero of Second Stage Lensman is Kimball Kinnison. He is a member of the Earth-based Galactic Patrol, and the Lensman of the novel's title. (Incidentally, it's not "Earth" in these books, nor "Terra". For reasons best known to himself, Smith uses "Tellus".) A Lensman is someone who carries a Lens, a biological jewel created by the noble, but aloof, Arisians. A Lens gives its wearer great psionic powers, such as telepathy and "perception" (a form of clairvoyance). The corps of Lensmen are one of the weapons the Arisians have created in their ages-long war against the evil Eddorians.

Second Stage Lensman opens with a foreword, describing in broad strokes the events of the earlier four books. Since the story-arc of the series covers the Arisian vs Eddorian war, there's a lot to get through. The novel then dives straight into the story, following immediately on from the events of the preceding book, Grey Lensman. In fact, Second Stage Lensman opens with a vast space battle in the Solar system between the forces of Tellus and those of the Eddorian conspiracy. This conspiracy is called Boskone, and the Galactic Patrol had thought it destroyed. Second Stage Lensman follows Kinnison as he works his way up another branch to its leaders.

The books of the series are framed as historical documents written by Smith. He refers to himself throughout as "your historian", at one point writing "your historian is supremely proud that he was the first person other than a Lensman to be allowed to study a great deal of this priceless data". Despite this conceit, there's very little rigour to the narrative - the focus pulls in and out with dizzying speed, events not witnessed by the cast are dropped omnisciently into the story, and there are even assorted lecturettes: one chapter opens with, "This is perhaps as good a place as any to glance in passing at the fashion in which the planet Lonabar was brought under the aegis of Civilization." At one point, Smith writes "... the appallingly horrible sensations of inter-dimensional acceleration. For that sensation is, literally, indescribable." And then promptly goes on to describe it.

Far worse than this is the novel's outright sexism. All women - with the exception of Kinnison's fiancée Clarissa McDougall, the product of a millennia-long breeding programme - are beautiful and brainless. They frequently admit to being unable to "think". Certainly none, except McDougall of course, are capable of becoming Lensmen. She is given a Lens, despite her protestations that as a woman she has less brains and willpower than a man. Even the alien Lensmen are male. When Kinnison's investigations lead him to a planet with an entirely female population of humans, they are, of course, all beautiful. And all naked. And they despise men.

Then there's the dialogue.... The frequent "as you know" moments are perhaps forgivable. But since most of the speech is written in a cringingly-dated slang, it makes it difficult to take the story at all seriously. It's not just that Smith uses his invented "QX" in place of "okay", but lines such as, "Save it!" he ordered. "Jet back, angel-face, before you blow a fuse."

Of course, Kinnison is an absolute paragon. Not to mention a genius. And the most powerful Lensman in all the galaxies. His colleagues are no slouches either. One, Nadrek of Palain, a non-oxygen-breathing alien from a frigid world, often describes himself as "cowardly", but it's put forward as something admirable in his case.

There's very little invention displayed in the book. The various worlds chiefly resemble early Twentieth Century USA but for one or two futuristic details. There are spaceships, of course - ranging from tiny "speedsters" to huge "super-dreadnoughts". All use an "inertialess" space drive for interstellar, and inter-galactic, travel. However, Smith describes everything that is not inertialess as "inert", which is not what that word means. He also has a computer working for weeks on plotting courses for all the ships in a fleet, and a communications centre comprising a "million-plug board".

So why are these books still revered nearly seventy years after they were first published? They're badly written, the attitudes in them are offensive, they show very little rigour in voice or narrative or world-building, and they're wildly implausible. But people still read them. Why?

When they were first published in Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories, each new installment introduced a greater and more powerful threat. The story expanded as it progressed. I can understand the appeal of that. Not to mention opening a story with a space battle between fleets containing millions of ships each. It's the sheer ever-expanding scale of it all. But scale alone is not sense of wonder, and it's a mistake to confuse the two. In fact, scale can work against sense of wonder - make everything simply too big and it either loses its wonder or becomes implausible. There's a fine line to be walked between disbelief and wonder. Using planets as mobile fortresses is sense of wonder. A fleet comprising over a million ships is too much to be entirely plausible (where did all the people to crew the ships come from? how long did it take to build the ships?).

I can, sort of, understand why a cast of paragons battling pantomime villains might also appeal to an unsophisticated reader. But. The genre has moved on since then, it has progressed. And the likes of EE 'Doc' Smith's novels are now embarrassments. They are perhaps indicative of the genre at a particular point in time - the 1940s - but they're not science fiction classics and they are not typical of science fiction as it now is.

Some sf novels remain historical documents, of interest only to historians. Second Stage Lensman is one such sf novel.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Recent Reading & Watching Roundup

This is turning into a sort of irregular thing. And why not? This time it's more watching then reading, but never mind.

The Dorsai Companion (1986) and The Spirit of Dorsai (1979), Gordon R Dickson, I read in the, ah, spirit of completeness. I'd loved the original Dorsai trilogy when I'd read them as a kid, but I was less impressed when I reread them a couple of years ago - see here. But there is still something a little fascinating about Dickson's future history, and The Dorsai Companion gives more information on it than are contained in the various novels. It also contains several short stories set in that future history. And like a lot of sf of that period, the plot is carried via the dialogue. They're very talky. Which made for an odd experience after reading more contemporary sf. The Spirit of Dorsai shares much of its contents with The Dorsai Companion (or vice versa), so I only had to read a handful of additional pages to finish both books.

How to Build Your Own Spaceship, Piers Bizony (2008) was a review book sent to me by Portobello Books - well, I requested it, and they kindly sent me a copy. So, thank you very much. I reviewed it here on my Space Books blog. It's very good.

The Discovery of Heaven, Harry Mulisch (1992), I wanted to read after seeing and liking the film (which I reviewed for - see here). Having now read the book, I think the film adapted it very well indeed. The novel is richer, of course, and more happens in it, but nothing of real substance is missing from the movie - if anything, the book does have a tendency to ramble in places. I can also understand Mulisch's insistence that Stephen Fry be cast in the role of Onno Quist. I doubt it's a novel I'll be returning to, although it is very good. Bizarrely, it didn't strike me as being very Dutch, despite Mulisch being one of the "Great Three" of Dutch postwar writers and this his best-known and best-selling work.

First on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins (1970). I'm reading a bunch of books on Apollo 11 in order to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Moon Landing on my Space Books blog. So a review of this book will appear there some time around 20th July. For now, it's much, much, much better than Shepard & Slayton's Moon Shot (reviewed here).

Offworld, Robin Parrish (2009), was read for a review for Interzone.

A Law for the Stars, John Morressy (1976), is the first of two of Morressy's
Sternverein novels which were never published in the UK. I managed to pick up a Laser Books edition a while ago (which has an especially ugly cover). Unlike the other Sternverein novels, this one focuses on the Security Troops. Ryne is an orphan from a low-tech world who becomes the perfect Sternverein Security Trooper. From what I remember of the other books, this one isn't quite as well written, although it does have its moments.

The Duchess, dir. Saul Dibb (2008), is a dramatisation of the life of Georgiana Cavendish, the 18th century Duchess of Devonshire. It's clearly a star vehicle for Keira Knightley, so it's somewhat unfortunate that throughout the film she looked uncannily like a puppet from a Gerry Anderson television programme. Other than that, it's a British period drama. It probably takes liberties with history - I've not read the book on which it is based, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman, so I'm only guessing. Sumptuously shot, slow in places, and it provided a couple of hours of mild entertainment.

Star Wreck 6: In The Pirkinning, dir. Timo Vuorensola (2005), I watched and reviewed for See here. I also watched Star Wrecks 1 through 5 in order to write my review. I won't be doing that again in a hurry....

Valkyrie, dir. Bryan Singer (2008), I watched and reviewed for See here.

Tokyo Story, dir. Yasujiro Ozu (1953), is on the Time Out's 1995 Centenary Top 100 Films at No. 9. Much as I appreciate Tarkovsky's films and their glacial pace, at least his cinematography provides sufficient eye candy to hold your attention. Tokyo Story is a slow film, but its focus is on its characters. They're well-drawn but ultimately it wasn't enough for me and my eyes were starting to glaze before reaching the halfway mark. Perhaps I'll try it again some day, although I may need to down half a dozen cans of Red Bull first.

Sunrise, dir. FW Murnau (1927) is also on Time Out's 1995 Centenary Top 100 Films. At No. 84. And despite being only 95 minutes, it felt as long as Metropolis (153 mins) or Pandora's Box (133 mins). Perhaps that was because it was silent. Or perhaps German Expressionist films just seem to drag on and on. Ah well, at least I can cross it off the list.

Titan A.E., dir. Don Bluth (2000), is a strange beast. It's an animated sf film, which uses CGI backgrounds but traditional cell animation for the characters and foreground "sets". The two main characters are voiced by Matt Damon and Drew Barrymore, and her voice doesn't quite fit her character's appearance. The story has its moments, and some of the CGI set-pieces are quite impressive. Apparently, it's now a cult film. Maybe that's because it feels like anime, although it looks like a Hollywood animated film.

Juno, dir. Jason Reitman (2007), is a mildly-amusing comedy about a teenage mother, the title character. Unfortunately, she talks throughout like someone whose lines were written to be witty and precocious, so she never feels real.

Battle Beyond the Stars, dir. Jimmy T Murakami (1980), is a Roger Corman cash-in on Star Wars, with a plot shamelessly stolen from The Magnificent Seven (and Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai). Robert Vaughn even reprises his role from the western. There's a lot in it that will make you cringe - George Peppard especially, who appears to have spent the entire film pissed - but Richard Thomas plays a good part, and John Saxon as the villain gives the scenery a thorough chewing.

Code Unknown, dir. Michael Haneke (2000), is one of those films whose plot spirals out from a single seemingly unimportant event, showing the ramifications of it on a variety of peoples' lives. In this case, it's the casual mistreatment by a French teenager of a Romanian woman begging on the streets of Paris. A young man, the son of Malian immigrants, tells the teenager to apologise to the woman. He refuses... and this leads to a fight. The police turn up and the Malian is carted off. By the time the film finishes, we've seen how that one moment of thoughtlessness altered their lives, and yet nothing much seems to have changed. A film it is difficult to like.

Supernova, dir. Thomas Lee (2000) - Thomas Lee is actually Walter Hill, but he pulled his name from this, because apparently the studio were unhappy with his cut and brought in Jack Sholder to film additional scenes and Francis Ford Coppola to re-edit it. I can't say I think much of their "rescue" job because the film is rubbish. I wonder if Hill's original was any better.

Tales From Earthsea, dir. Goro Miyazaki (2006), is a charm-free adaptation of Le Guin's tetrology. Sort of. It's been a while since I read the books, But I seem to recall that Tehanu dealt a lot with Tenar's domestic life - and she lives on small farm in this film. Sparrowhawk is also in his thirties or forties - hard to tell, being animation. He's voiced by Timothy Dalton, and he's another example of an animated character whose voice doesn't fit their appearance.

My Darling Clementine, dir. John Ford (1946), is another film from Time Out's 1995 Centenary Top 100 Films. It's at No. 38. The film is also notable for its claim of accuracy - when a youth Ford had known Wyatt Earp, and the shoot-out at the OK Corral is staged as Earp described it to him. There's a horrible casualness to killing in the film, as if the first solution to every problem was to shoot the other person in the back. Makes you wonder why they ever bothered with marshals and sheriffs. I'm not a huge fan of westerns - well, except for Rio Bravo - but this is one of the good ones.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars, dir. Byron Haskin (1964), is a classic piece of sf cinema. A US spacecraft surveying Mars narrowly avoids a collision with a meteorite. Both crewmen ject, but only Commander Draper and the craft's pet monkey survive the landing. He is marooned on the red planet, where he discovers how to manufacture sufficient "air" for him to breathe, finds water, and even finds a native plant which proves edible. It's all wildly inaccurate - hardly surprising given when it was made. And gets even more fanciful when alien humans from a star in Orion's belt appear and mine ore using slaves. One of the slaves escapes and becomes Friday to Draper's Robinson Crusoe. The slave is played by Victor Lundin, and I kept on expecting him to break into an Elvis Presley impression.

Fahrenheit 451, dir. François Truffaut (1966), remains a favourite after this rewatch. It's complete nonsense of course, although it makes more sense than Bradbury's vastly overrated novel. Books are banned... but people can still read. How do they learn to read if there are no books? Never mind. There's something quintessentially English about the film - despite being directed by a Frenchman, starring an Austrian, and based on a novel by an American. It sort of exudes a late 1960s / early 1970s menacing UK charm, a cross between the quaint contemporary futurism of G-Plan-furnished A-plan houses in green suburban streets lined with silver birches and the reality of Brutalist high-rise sink estates.

5 X 2, dir. François Ozon (2004), is constructed from five incidents in the shared lives of a married couple, recounted backwards from their divorce to their first meeting. The husband, Gilles, is thoroughly unlikeable, and any explanation for his bad behaviour is only hinted at and never explained. It's clear where Ozon's sympathies lay. I like Ozon's films, but he never quite delivers what you expect, or quite lives up to what he's promised. Admittedly, I've not seen all his films. Yet.