Archive for March, 2015

Ten Thousand Light Years From Home

Seeing Anne McCaffrey weep during a reading of The Ship Who Sang was a formative part of my appreciation of female Sci-Fi writers. Amazingly the BBC 2 TV programme has made its way onto the internet, and in it you can still see the power of her delivery, as well as her personal analysis of grief at her father’s death. Her reading, and the words of other female authors that were so influential, came to mind after stumbling across He For She – a short film in which male writers within the genre give testimony in resistance to gender inequality.

Any regular visitor to this site – and a massive, heartfelt thank you for your continued interest – will know of the ongoing appreciation for Ursula Le Guin hereabouts. Across her work she has generated a formidable legacy. From her short stories, compiled in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, to her legendary tale The Lathe of Heaven, she cuts a powerful figure within female literature, let alone ‘science fiction’. And, as highlighted here just a few months ago, age hasn’t dulled her razor sharp perception.

Julian (Clare) May was another seismic presence among an early consumption of paperback Sci-Fi. Partly because of the sizable word count that came with her Pliocene Exile series, but mostly for her ability to interlace pre-historic Earth with alien intervention and high fantasy.

However, while it would seem churlish to play favourites in an article about equality, Alice Sheldon (AKA James Tiptree Junior) remains this site’s choice for best female writer of the fantastical. Even if you can turn a blind eye to her amazing life and concentrate only on her work, you still find a powerful and determined voice forging a unique path into the New Wave. Her subjects were wild, her imagination unrestrained and flexible, and her choice of pseudonym more a challenge to the accepted order of The Golden Age than a fear of dismissal or rejection. The epitome then of the ongoing struggle female writers still have within this, the supposedly most open and expansive of all genres.

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The Final Programme

None of the films I’m about to refer to have had any great critical success. Watching them is more an exercise in decryption than entertainment, and yet they still cut a distinctive and jittery thread through the more approachable presentations of the fantastical.

Taking a historical approach, The Lost Continent (1968) provides the wellspring of a personal journey into the outlandish. Starting as a typical adventure story, it suddenly dives into a lost continent/anachronistic monster movie after its opening scenes. While not pure sci-fi, unlike some of the other offerings here, its surreal approach to Dennis Wheatley’s orginal book definitely foreshadows some of the experimentation ushered in during the 1970s.

Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornellius novel, The Final Programme (1973), encounters a similar treatment at the hands of director Robert Fuest. Dealing with a small group of scientists trying to avert the end of the world, the film ricochets through scene after psychedelic scene to a wonderfully comic, and oddly optimistic, climax. The same year also saw the release of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. His work has recently been reappraised among sciffy fans as a result of the documentary on the director’s abortive version of Frank Herbert’s Dune. But here he’s in full controversial and visual overdrive. Does the film warrant an inclusion in a list of unhinged sci-fi? Well, considering the proto Wez from Mad Max 2 in the character Axon, and the fact it includes a robot that requires human sexual stimulation for reproduction… Yes, yes it does.

Big shoulder pads and bigger hair are both oddly absent from our 1980 presentation. Altered States sees William Hurt struggling with the meaning of existence while under the influence of psychotropic drugs. Directed by Ken Russell, there’s plenty of his characteristic, overt symbolism throughout, but the underlying message that love is the only unifying force in the face of cosmic uncertainty does temper the collective weirdness.

The turn of the 21st century and Richard Kelly enters the story fresh from his left-field success with Donnie Darko (2001). His second film, Southland Tales (2006) presents a near future LA populated with beach snipers, extra-terrestrials, surveillance culture senators, energy crisis oligarchs, quantum teleportation theorists… It’s an absolute mess, but one that refuses to sit easily in any given sci-fi structure – which, by its very nature as a genre, is already unconventional. To give Kelly credit, he doesn’t turn his back on the bizarre with The Box (2009). However, unlike the other titles above, there’s a bias of substance over style as he reigns in his imagination. It’s a consideration that also explains David Cronenberg’s omission from this list. Even at the looser end of the director’s narrative spectrum – think eXistenZ and Cosmopolis – there’s never a sense of the imagery getting the better of the story.

With that in mind, do these filmic moments of oddity serve any purpose? Michael Faber, director of Under the Skin, recently defended The Final Programme and talked about its influence on him while growing up in Australia. As far as cinematography goes, each film has more than its fair share of stunning visual moments and, yet, beyond the sights, they also evidence the director at play. The final scene of Jodorwsky’s The Holy Mountain completely breaks the fourth wall. “Is this life reality?” Say’s the actor/director to camera. “No, it is a film. Zoom back camera. We are images. Dreams. Photographs. We must not stay here. Prisoners. We shall break the illusion. This is magic.” Experiment, play and influence. Equally at home in both sci-fi and surrealist cinema.

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Elegy for a Dead World

Words, words are all I have. True for Elvis, and pretty true for yours truly back in the day. Sci-Fi paperback covers, the occasional art book – if you were lucky enough to have a relative who could afford Spacecraft 2000 to 2100 AD – films, fanzines and that was pretty much it for nerdcore visual stimulus.

As with radio, the best images in the early days of video games were inside your own head. Companies like Level 9 Computing cleaned up in a world of block colours and basic gameplay, their clever, witty and descriptive text-based adventures generating a much greater sense of otherworldliness. Among the company’s catalogue was a title called Snowball. It was an exceptionally obtuse game, starting as it did with your character confined in a multi-tiered ice pack being hauled behind a guiding colonial starship. Once you’d navigated the initial maze and entered the gargantuan tow line, the game opened up into something exceptional.

Then came improved graphics and the slew of fighting fantasy novels that allowed you to take the text-based adventure anywhere you wanted. And so the genre languished. Until recently, that is. It seems as if narratives in the second person are on the rise once again. With that in mind… Indulge me.

You are reading a blog that you regularly visit. Its informative pages talk about many interesting things but, in the current article, you’re encouraged to consider the Internet itself as one massive text-based adventure. Drozbot is just the launching station. An enclave of words and technology that has many exits out to other, more exotic locations.

To the west lies Inkle, a mysterious land of articifers who have built such genre related experiences as Frankenstein and 80 Days. An open and generous people, they allow anyone to participate in their creative endeavours via their Inklewriter software.

Eastwards lies the multifarious population of Textadventures. It’s a bustling hive of restless activity. What it sometimes lacks in etiquette, it more than makes up for in sheer industrious output. They too freely share the chance for you to create within the boundaries of their realm via their Quest software.

South lies a commutative folk who have gathered under the banner of House Twine. Their principality is one of cork boards and cutting mats, but they too offer access to all the esoteric secrets of their word craft.

You tap a ponderous finger to your lips and wonder which direction to take. The option of rolling up your creative sleeves and carving your own world out of the ether seems a little daunting at first. Perhaps, you consider, it might be an idea to experience where the text-based adventure has progressed to before committing yourself. A friend once told you about an Elegy for a Dead World. Maybe that might serve to re-acclimatise you. You raise a finger, steel yourself for the jump into hypertext and… ::click::

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