harlan ellison

harlan ellisonHarlan Ellison died last week at the age of 84. He was a genuine legend in science fiction, by all accounts larger than life and twice as abrasive. I never met the man, but he has still been a part of my life for decades.

When I was around eleven years old I found a paperback copy of Again, Dangerous Visions stuck on the basement shelf where unwanted paperbacks ended up. It was the sequel to his transgressive 1967 anthology–and it was enough to suck me in and show me how sharp science fiction could be. Later, I read the man himself–the glorious I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and Deathbird Stories.  I watched the supremely 70’s film version of A Boy and His Dog on VHS. I learned the empowering mantra “Pay the writer”.

Over the course of his long career Ellison published more than 1700 works, ranging from short stories to screenplays to essays, from comic books to literary criticisms. He was recognized with multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Edgar awards for works that changed the face of science fiction on page and on screen. He earned the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award, was named Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers Association and by the World Horror Convention, and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

But none of that matters if you don’t read him.

Unfortunately, it often takes the passing of a major author to inspire people to discover, or rediscover, their work. So it is with Harlan Ellison. Even though he continued to write prolifically, his heyday was the sixties and seventies when he was at the forefront of New Wave science fiction with his dangerous anthologies and subversive short stories.

These are a few of his works that I consider essential:

dangerous visionsStories
“A Boy and His Dog”
“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”
“”Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman”
“Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”
“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”
“Soft Monkey”
“Jeffty Is Five”

Collections

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World
Deathbird Stories
Shatterday
Angry Candy
The Essential Ellison: a 50-Year Retrospective Revised & Expanded

Nonfiction
The Glass Teat

Television episodes
The Outer Limits   “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand”
Star Trek   “The City on the Edge of Forever”
The Starlost “Voyage of Discovery”
Masters of Science Fiction “The Discarded”

As editor
Dangerous Visions
Again, Dangerous Visions

Graphic novels
Phoenix Without Ashes

There’s plenty to say of Harlan Ellison as a person, good and bad–and it’s all out there for the googling. But as I mentioned earlier, I never had the opportunity to meet him. I had only his vast body of work to judge him by. And by those lights, he was a star.

Last night saw the premieres of two shows I’ve been waiting for: Westworld on HBO and Ash vs Evil Dead’s second season on Starz. The results were a mixed bag, but hope springs eternal.

***

HBO's Westworld
HBO’s Westworld

I have been looking forward to HBO’s take on Westworld for a long time. I have fond memories of being scared silly by Yul Brenner in the 1973 version of it. This Westworld was worth the wait. It unfolds in a sprawling, utterly realistic Wild West theme park where android ‘hosts’ provide a full immersion experience for their paying guests—‘newcomers’, as their programming dubs the human visitors. In the original film, the hosts were more traditionally robotic. The current approach gives us a truer AI, and with an ideological slant towards Battlestar Galactica rather than Ex Machina.

The new Westworld begins brilliantly, with the barest bones of the original film’s concept. The cast is top-notch, the writing superb, and the convolutions of the plot promise deep and strange directions to come. The pacing is precise, with loops and repetitions that become the story’s wheels within wheels.

There is much to think about, here, about the line between the real and the artificial. In what was possibly my favorite scene, a robot host visibly, visceraly adapts its programming to both follow its embedded script and incorporate discordant (and, what should have been unreadable) new information. And while Ed Harris is cold and creepy as the primary villain, he’s not nearly as terrifying as Yul Brenner was. But then again, I don’t think we’ve seen even a fraction of what his character is capable of. Next week can’t come soon enough.

***

Ash vs Evil Dead, back in action
Ash vs Evil Dead, back in action

On the other side of the spectrum, the return of Ash vs Evil Dead was disappointing. Season one successfully incorporated a semi-serious subplot. But as Ash vs Evil Dead starts season two, it seems to have given up too much of its crazy humor to retain its original charm. While the gore is still cheesy and exuberantly over the top, the show actually feels more like the original Evil Dead film, now—more threatening, less loopy fun. But there’s more missing than just silliness.

Part of the episode’s problem is that it felt very rushed, as if plot and character development had been purposefully sacrificed for incessant action. The end of last season saw Ash and company taking a truce and heading to Jacksonville, Florida. Season two starts with the immediate reversal of the road trip. By the first commercial they are back in Ash’s home town, where lots of random events happen—some campy, some supernatural, some just padding. But none of it is consistent. The episode is a mash up of too many ideas with not enough time allowed for them to gel into a reason to keep watching.

I’m hoping that episode two takes a deep breath and slows it down a little. There are more than enough plot elements to work with, and Ruby is still riding the line between nemesis and ally. The qualities that made the Evil Dead franchise so endearing are still there, if the show’s writers and producers are willing to pick out the strongest ones and run with them. Again.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

 

 

Roadside Picnic
Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky is a strange and affective science fiction novel—classic, understated, and far deeper than it initially seems. First published in Russia in 1972, its most recent translation (by Olena Bormashenko) was put out in 2012 with a foreword by Ursula K. LeGuin. The story is often prosaic, its events inexplicable, its conclusion tantalizingly inconclusive. The prose is direct, with little decoration. Yet it works. Memorably. Roadside Picnic forces the reader to consider humanity’s self-defined place in the cosmos, and in its own quiet way taps into the primal well of weird fiction by making that place very small, and very insignificant. But in the midst of that brush with nothingness it also presents us with a glimpse into the inner workings of human faith.

***

Roadside Picnic happens in a world where undescribed aliens landed, stayed for a while, and left again–all without making actual contact with humanity. The event is known as The Visit, the areas where they touched down are known as Zones, and the remnants the aliens left behind are deadly.  “At night when you crawl by, you can see the glow inside, as if alcohol were burning in bluish tongues. That’s the hell slime radiating from the basement. But mostly it looks like an ordinary neighborhood, with ordinary houses, nothing special about it except that there are no people around” (21).

But men still go into the Zones, and most of them come back out intact. Whatever can be brought out is studied for possible use. The perverse wonder of the alien artifacts so many people die to acquire is that no one really has any idea what they are or how they work. There is speculation, much of it wrong, and occasional, accidentally found functionality. But no human understands this extraterrestrial stuff. It is all beyond them, as much as they want to believe that their scientific inquiry will lead them somewhere.

And still, the government studies it and the black market profits from it. Both sides believe, whether they realize it or not, that the aliens left these things behind for a reason—and if they just keep studying what they can drag out of the Zone, they will eventually discover something wonderful. Both sides of the law make plans of how to find their alien treasures, they develop strategies, they draw hopeful maps–but more than anything their survival and success in the Zone is only instinct and blind luck.

The Zone
The Zone

The Strugatsky brothers don’t try to disguise this perceptual fallacy lurking inside Roadside Picnic, and in fact explicitly state why the alien cast-offs remain inexplicable: “Xenology is an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. At its core is a flawed assumption—that an alien race would be psychologically human…biologists have already been burned attempting to apply human psychology to animals. Earth animals” (86). If we cannot ever hope to understand the aliens, we can never hope to understand what they create. It is as incomprehensible to us as an iphone is to an anteater.

***

In order to humanize the novel’s blunt philosophy, Roadside Picnic follows the life and career of one Redrick Schuhart. The plot is more of a slice of Red’s life than any traditional, hero’s journey-style narrative. When he is introduced at the age of 18, he works for the International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures by day, and as a stalker—a Zone scavenger–by night. His night work is illegal, and breathtakingly dangerous. He knows what’s at risk, but it still draws him in.

Redrick is an offbeat everyman. The character’s blend of cynicism and idealism, fatalism and vast hope, is realistic and attractive. Roadside Picnic follows him until he is 31, using his experiences as illustration. He may be a stalker, but he is an essentially decent person. He is a solid husband and father. He is a loyal friend. He is a disaffected employee, whichever side of the law he is working on. He has no grand plan. And yet, it is human nature to impose order on such planlessness—and where there is order, there is room for hope. And Red, believing in a stalkers’ legend and in his own personal goodness, still hopes for a higher meaning to come from what the aliens left behind.

***

And yet whether Redrick finds what he seeks remains open to multiple interpretations. In the end, Roadside Picnic is a disturbing and challenging novel. It’s observations about humanity’s ability to interact with the world, if accepted as true, are deeply uncomfortable to own. For the Strugatskys, the hope and faith they let their characters nurture is protection from a weirder truth–because when the Strugatskys look into the void at the heart of Roadside Picnic, nothing at all looks back.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Midnight Special's star child
Midnight Special’s star child

Midnight Special is one of those movies I wanted so much to love. I liked it—a great deal, actually—and I recommend it highly for its emotional depth, but I feel the holes and unevenness of the story-line derailed its shot at greatness. There is genuine warmth alongside its danger, and real humanity with its science fiction. There are also too many opportunities to question the how and why of it that pulled me out of what was otherwise a thoughtful and well-made film.

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special has a similar feel to Spielberg’s work in many ways, with sincere sentiment, strong family connections, and a warm glow. In addition to that influence Midnight Special is also obviously a labor of love, which is perhaps why Nichols has difficulty drawing the line between the mystical and the concrete as the story progresses.

Midnight Special begins with great promise in a setting rich with potential—a heady mix of supernatural powers, other dimensions, fundamentalist cults, and the feds—but after a strong start the plot loses its initial focus and the action sags. A great revelations comes midway into the movie and the momentum is hard to regain. At one point, three characters are simply standing around in a parking lot for what feels like an eternity of screen time. Missteps like that trip up the storytelling and weaken its power.

And this is a powerful story.

In brief, Midnight Special is about an extraordinary child born to members of an apocalyptic cult in rural Texas. The boy’s father and the fathers’ best friend escape with him on the cusp of his triggering a possibly devastating, possibly transcendent supernatural occurrence. The cult wants him back and is in hot pursuit. So is the federal government.

In a way, Nichols gives us too much and not enough all at once. The mysteries felt a little too explained, to me, as if he were trying to make them plausible or at least narratively consistent, and stopped in medias res. He wants to convince the audience that there is a spiritual logic behind the ranch group’s worship with evidence that doesn’t tie together. He offers revelations from the federal investigation that reveal nothing. He offers reasons for keeping Alton in the dark that, even when described, don’t fit anything we have seen. I feel Nichols’s script would have been stronger if he had actually left out more details—let the faith be blind, let the phenomena be inexplicable, to preserve the sense of wonder he works so hard to evoke.

It's about friends and family in Midnight Special
It’s about friends and family in Midnight Special

A large part of that wonder can be attributed to the actors. The cast is strong, the acting natural, and the characters are all realistic despite the events all around them. As the supernatural boy, Alton, Jaeden Leiberher is perfect with his small, serious face and matter-of-fact intelligence. Michael Shannon and Kirsten Dunst as Roy and Sarah, Alton’s parents, are convincing in their pain, belief and intensity. Joel Edgerton’s Lucas, Roy’s best friend, is forceful and solid as a now-rogue state trooper who has come to believe in Alton’s potential divinity. And as the NSA agent Paul Sevier, Adam Driver brings quiet competence and a clear-eyed willingness to his character as Paul is also drawn in to Alton’s supernatural world.

All the characters move under great weight, but they are not crushed by it. They endure, and they believe. Alton’s vulnerability, his parents’ love and faith, Lucas’s friendship and dawning belief, Paul’s openness to something more in the world, all form the core strength of the movie. Alton’s power may drive the plot, but human connection makes it work.

Alton
Too much power for a little boy

The visual imagery used to show Alton’s power is spectacular and shocking—even to someone steeped in blockbusters–and still so very convincing in its context. At points Alton suffers from the abilities he cannot control, and the audience can’t help but feel his pain with him. But it isn’t clear how a boy with seemingly so little control over his own abilities can be a solace as well as a threat. He is made out to be part radio, part laser, and part warhead. The risk of being close to that seems overwhelming, and Alton’s magic loses some of its transcendence when Nichols begins trying to explain it piecemeal.

Flaws and all this is still a beautiful film, surprising, sweet, and moving, but I think it lacks the power to rise any farther than that. It is still worth seeing, even more than once, for the fine acting and the striking cinematography. It plays like an affectionate amalgam of Close Encounters, Firestarter, and Starman, and despite some startling effects and spare but jarring violence, Midnight Special is at heart a gentle film. It does not bear too much analysis. But even with its imperfections and inconsistencies it is worth seeking out.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Wool, the publishing sensation
Wool, the publishing sensation

In my experience, the bigger the hype, the bigger the disappointment. And so it is with Hugh Howey’s Wool, the first of his Silo saga. Wool began its climb to fame as a self-published series of short stories. Then those various pieces were collected into a novel when Simon & Schuster picked up the property. But despite the attention of a mainstream publishing house, its amateur origins show. While the novel gained considerable word of mouth buzz (including rumors that a film version might be directed by Ridley Scott), I think its literary shortcomings dim the luster and make the glowing cover blurbs seem completely overblown. Wool is reasonably entertaining, and may be in the vanguard of the new way of publishing, but it is a long way from great.

The basic idea is intriguing—a society contained entirely inside a deep, underground silo, the descendants of the last human survivors of a world-killing war. And the plot itself is plain and solid, with secrets, factions, civil war, and plenty of action. But the execution is blunt and unpolished, with several main narrative components suffering from it.

The first issue I have is with Howey’s character development. Wool presents as a typical teen dystopia—except it has a cast of adult characters who do not seem to have grown emotionally since their adolescence. The stubborn behaviors, the angst, the absolutism, the weepiness, would all make more sense if the characters weren’t mostly in their thirties. Overall, Howey’s silo inhabitants are not particularly well-drawn or differentiated, with even the main protagonists being plot-driven rather than drivers. The few who do stand out, though, demonstrate a profound lack of realism.

As a surprise survivor in another underground silo, Solo (Solo? Really?) is written like a mentally challenged child, not as a fifty-ish man who has spent most of his life in isolation. He jumps around like a preadolescent, although he was supposed to have been sixteen when he was left alone.

And as the chief antagonist, IT head Bernard is an almost comically hackneyed villain with his mustache, pot belly, and Napoleonesque habit of putting his hand inside the front of his overalls. He is grandiose and megalomaniacal and every bit the cartoon tyrant.

At intervals, Howey tries to add some flavor to his cast. “I just don’t figure he was happy up there. That weren’t his home” (184) is his repeated attempt at differentiating characters—the ones he would have us identify as older, good men. Unfortunately, inserting a few random country twangs into a limited, otherwise homogeneous (if stratified) population doesn’t ring true and does nothing to make those characters into individuals.

Inside a silo
Inside a silo

Howey seems to have done only cursory research on the physical aspects of the novel’s world, relying instead on his imagination to flesh it out. This makes many of his constructions come across as unlikely and conceptually flawed. Too many details are seemingly thrown in only to make the situation seem futuristic, and they do not bear much scrutiny before they fall apart—the giant spiral staircase as a highway for the entire population, the inefficient reliance on human porters, the ubiquitous, color-coded overalls, pig’s milk as a beverage, corn growing in underground farms, mining and oil drilling directly below the silo, rotten soup and intact bodies still existing after thirty four years. It all goes back to the old saw of “write what you know”—which doesn’t mean write what you have experienced, but what you have studied and understood. Howey didn’t.

In addition to the awkward and unlikely details, there are some really excruciating descriptions to be found here: “His husband eyes swam behind tears while he allowed his dutiful sheriff-self to intervene” (24); “The clouds…loomed like worried parents over these smaller darting eddies of windswept soil, which tumbled like laughing children, twirling and spilling, following the dips and valleys as they flowed toward a great crease where two hills collided to become one” (44); “Here was where silicon chips released their tangy scent as they heated under the strain of crunching data” (204). The messy attempts to build atmosphere only serve to show how rough this Wool really is.

Wool's backyard
Wool’s backyard

As an extension of the weak characterization and the bad prose, Wool is riddled with pervasive fifties-style sexism and gender-roles that seem an odd social trait to retain, post-apocalypse. For example: “The deputy possessed that distinctly male quality of pretending to know where he was, even when he didn’t” (90); “There’s this ritual, a man asks a girl’s father for permission” (152); in reference to a twenty-seven year old man, “She smoothed the front of her red overalls and allowed Lukas to help her to her feet. She puckered her lips, and he presented his cheek. “My little boy,” she said, kissing him noisily and squeezing his arm” (410); and the hyper-traditional “Young children lumbered reluctantly off to school; husbands and wives kissed in doorways while toddlers tugged at their overalls and dropped toys and plastic cups” (146). Howey evokes a social structure that harkens back to an idealized mid-century rather than putting the energy into something organic. I found it off-putting and a little weird, unless Wool’s world ended in 1960.

The story picks up considerable momentum in the last hundred pages and becomes a reasonably compelling read, but the damage is already done. The improvements in the home stretch can’t disguise that Wool is overall rather artless, and the weak characterization, ungainly descriptions, and ill-conceived mechanics all combine to make this novel a prime example of the pitfalls of big hype. It’s an interesting story idea, passably told, and an amusing enough read. Not much more.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

When it comes to adaptations, I am normally a stickler for the purity of the source material (I’m looking at you, Peter Jackson). I realize there will always be exceptions like The Princess Bride, when a book’s narrative structure makes it difficult to film but it still has a viable story to be told, or adaptations which tell the core story in a way that is distinctly their own—inspired, rather than adapted, different yet equal—like Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. And last there are those adaptations where the movie is far better than the book ever was, tapping into the story’s potential in a way the words on the page have failed to do. That, I think, is the case with P.D. James’s The Children of Men and the film made of it.

The Children of Men--the end of the world according to P.D. James
The Children of Men–the end of the world according to P.D. James

Since I thought the movie version of P.D. James’s foray into bleak speculative fiction was excellent, I figured I would check out the source novel. I was intrigued by the idea of James writing dystopian fiction, since she was well known for her literary mysteries and not for her near-future world’s ends. But dystopia is not something strictly relegated to multivolume science fiction epics. Dystopia is a concept that rears its head among the literary set with some regularity. Think 1984. Think Brave New World. James is respected. What could go wrong?

A lot, actually. While the novel was undeniably well-written, I expected much more than I got. The Children of Men is a fairly dry story about not particularly nice middle-aged to elderly people, many of whom are Oxford University professors, all of whom are jockeying (openly or in secret) for control in a dying world. It is a slow-moving work, spending more than half its pages in setting the stage before anything actually happens. Told alternately as first-person diary entries and third-person narrative, the plotting is solid and polite and the characters’ evolutions not truly believable.

The end of the world has already happened when the story begins, and the novel unfolds in the long, slow decline that comes in its wake. Human fertility petered out twenty five years before. Society is crumbling at the edges, but the aging population can still go about a fairly normal routine that becomes more limited as the days pass. Their suicide is encouraged by the newly-totalitarian government as a means to preserve resources as long as possible.

The last-born generation, the Omegas, have become dangerous and uncivilized as their elders come to grips with the end of the world. James dwells on the collapse of society, and the re-embrace of the brutal pagan past: “that even the frozen sperm stored for experiment and artificial insemination had lost its potency was a peculiar horror casting over Omega the pall of superstitious awe, of witchcraft, of divine intervention. The old gods reappeared, terrible in their power” (8). She imagines a different kind of lost generation, one that has gone feral because they no longer represent hope for the future.

But James’s characters seem brittle and not especially likeable. Theo, the keeper of the diary, is a middle-aged professor of history whose conversion to the rebel cause is less than convincing. His falling in love with the blank slate of Julian, the first pregnant woman in a generation, seems built on nothing in particular, as does her mutual attachment to him. Theo’s main value seems to lie in his family connection to the head of the ruling council, a man so entrenched in his power that he can throw out grim philosophies like, “We plan for the sake of planning, pretending that man has a future” (102). There is little warmth to be found in the novel, and even with an eventual birth James leaves her readers with very little to hope for. But she does leave us with an intriguingly sharp observation about the lure of power.

And yet something more passionate came from it.

Police-state brutality in Children of Men
Police-state brutality in the film version of Children of Men

Despite its emotionally chilly source, Children of Men was a well-received 2006 movie that took a large number of action-oriented liberties with the plot, transforming The Children of Men from a mannered, upper-class dystopian novel into a deeply touching film about the fight to preserve human worth in the face of societal collapse, whatever the personal cost. The film shows the effect of the gradual loss of hope much more vividly than the book does, through younger eyes and by more violent means. But it also shows that while hope exists, there will always be people willing to sacrifice themselves to make it bloom. Resilience, kindness, and an unquenchable willingness to help underlie the grim, dehumanizing world of this Children of Men.

The story begins with the same triggering event as the novel. But it also begins in a crowded London with the populace soaked in government-sponsored nationalism and fear of illegal immigrants. The characters have considerably more emotional depth than in the book, and the actors have a lot to do with the humanity of the tale. Clive Owen especially brings a nonacademic fullness to Theo that is lacking on the page. And the script sees fit to give them all more realistic motives, with some tie to either current or past radicalism and a deep well of sympathy to draw from.

In this version, the British government’s Homeland Security rounds up its immigrants for transport to a city converted to a brutal internment camp. Everyone is armed and willing to kill, with rebel groups fighting a guerrilla war against the government repression. Julian is reimagined as a radical involved with a terrorist gang to protect a young, miraculously pregnant immigrant woman from government interference. Trading on old relationships, she draws Theo into their plot. Theo’s ties to power, so vital in the book, are no longer central—they exist, but he becomes truly valuable because of his own qualities and his commitment to saving the pregnant woman.

Hope exists in Children of Men
Hope exists in the film of Children of Men

While I normally enjoy a film less than its inspiration, this is a case where the original material left me cold. I found The Children of Men to be beautifully written but so full of unpleasant people that I can’t honestly say I cared what happened to them. The movie, though…if you are looking for an adult dystopia, Children of Men will serve well. Despite the terrible imagery that fills it, this Children of Men still ends with fragile optimism. Same characters as the book has. Same events. In some cases scenes transcribed verbatim. But by shifting the perspective from the machinations of power to the power of hope, the effect on film is something wholly different than the original material can produce.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

Once, he thought, I would have seen the stars. But now it’s only the dust; no one has seen a star in years, at least not from Earth –Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Familiar to many as the film Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is another classic of science fiction. Published in 1968, it dresses the traditional tropes of nuclear apocalypse, religion, and artificial intelligence in a brittle dystopic modernity. But its real subject is the eternal puzzle of our own humanity.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? describes one very long day for bounty hunter Rick Deckard, who is charged with “retiring” six  androids who killed their human masters on Mars and escaped to Earth to try to live as human beings. The novel considers the issue of artificial intelligence obliquely—it is assumed that the androids of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’s  dwindling Earth have their own desires and motivations, and are all but impossible to tell from natural humans without highly specialized empathy tests. In this world, it is not the androids’ ability to be self-aware that defines the difference, but their inability to feel for anyone but themselves. Or so the humans believe, in order to justify how androids are treated. Decker “had wondered… precisely why an android bounced helplessly about when confronted with an empathy-measuring test” (30). This question, and the assumptions it carries, twist beneath the plot in a way that never quite reaches an answer.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is full of quiet desperation laced with dry humor. Every smile, every scrap of joy in this dusty world seems to be poisoned with sadness and disappointment. The apocalypse has come and gone, and the world still straggles on: “The legacy of World War Terminus had diminished in potency; those who could not survive the dust had passed into oblivion years ago, and the dust, weaker now and confronting the strong survivors, only deranged minds and genetic properties” (8).

Normal, Special, Other

Do Androids Dream of Electric Cities?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Cities?

Radiation-damaged humans are kept separated and dispossessed: “Once pegged as special, a citizen, even if accepting sterilization, dropped out of history. He ceased, in effect, to be part of mankind” (16). But even a special can instinctively grasp what the normal human characters often overlook: “You have to be with other people, he thought. In order to live at all” (204). On an Earth where the damaged are not considered truly human, it is the androids who can become the “other people,” who enable even a special man to fully live.

Human and android characters intersect frequently, both openly and in disguise. But they are all still dogged by loneliness, isolation, and the long slow drag of dehumanization. Decker’s wife explains that, “although I heard the emptiness intellectually, I didn’t feel it… then I realized how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life, not just in this building but everywhere, and not reacting—do you see? I guess you don’t. But that used to be considered a sign of mental illness; they called it ‘absence of appropriate affect.'” (5). The absence of appropriate affect is attributed to androids by their human masters, but the androids, enslaved on Mars, feel the emptiness, too: “‘nobody should have to live there. It wasn’t conceived for habitation, at least not within the last billion years. It’s so old. You feel it in the stones, the terrible old age'” (150). Distinctions are not so clear as the humans would have them.

Over the course of the novel Decker passes through stages of doubt, belief, and renewed doubt in android empathy. There are many descriptions of the range of emotions in the androids. “He did not like the idea of being stalked; he had seen the effect on androids. It brought about certain notable changes, even in them” (57); and “The androids,” she said,” are lonely, too” (150). But Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  leaves such references only partially explored by unreliable narrators, making them hard to evaluate. Even as the androids express needs and desires of their own, their reactions are presented as distinctly not human—at least not as humanity is defined by the human characters. When threatened with death, “The classic resignation. Mechanical, intellectual acceptance of that which a genuine organism—with two billion years of the pressure to live and evolve hagriding it—could never have reconciled itself to” (200); when using facts against faith, “They will have trouble understanding why nothing has changed” (214); when asked to react to a rare-to-vanishing living wasp, “‘I’d kill it.'” (49). But the differences described are vague and subjective. Decker’s inconsistency is understandable.

Empathy, Sympathy, Compassion

An Android Owl
An Android Owl

It is not only Decker. Many of the human characters are themselves adrift, searching for a way to connect. Post-war society has warped into something that enforces separations. Yet faith still endures. “At the black empathy box his wife crouched, her face rapt. He stood beside her for a time, his hand resting on her breast; he felt it rise and fall, the life in her, the activity. Iran did not notice him; the experience with Mercer had, as always, become complete” (177-8). Mercer, a Christ-figure, is the means through which believers experience community. But they do it in their own separate cells, using their own individual machines. They commune in solitude.

Empathy boxes are not the only mechanical attempt to connect with another being. With most animals dead, humanity has created artificial ones like the title’s electric sheep, robotic pets to fill the void left by extinction. But the nostalgia these imitations beasts produce is palpable:

“For a long time he stood gazing at the owl, who dozed on its perch. A thousand thoughts came to his mind, thoughts about the war, about the days when owls had fallen from the sky; he remembered how in his childhood it had been discovered that species upon species had become extinct and how the ‘papes had reported it each day–foxes one morning, badgers the next, until people had stopped reading the perpetual animal obits” (42)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? purposely muddies the distinctions between human and android, electric animal and living beast. It is never cleanly established what makes the androids truly different from humans. Aside from a short lifespan and a slower emotional response time to human-centric questions, they resemble their makers in all essential ways. What Decker believes about the androids is not always supported by what he observes, yet he clings to his version of the truth even as it seems less and less true. He has to. In a world where humans fill a void by embracing clockwork substitutes for real, living creatures, he cannot afford to embrace a substitute for himself.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

H.P. Lovecraft’s output has been thoroughly mined and mulled over, anthologized and, as I’ve mentioned before, annotated. But the popular focus has long been on his Cthulhu Mythos. While “In the Walls of Eryx” has always been one of my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories, it stands apart from that particularly haunted universe. Instead, its universe is a bit closer to home.

The Backstory

In addition to his own distinctive output, H.P. Lovecraft was a frequent collaborator. He lent his particular, disturbing expertise to at least thirty-three collaborative works during his lifetime. Some of his co-authors were famous in their own right, like Harry Houdini, C.L. Moore, and Robert E. Howard. Most of the others had more modest writing careers. And some, like Lovecraft’s co-author for the short story “In the Walls of Eryx”, barely made another ripple in the literary world.

Kenneth J. Sterling was a Providence high school student when he approached Lovecraft for assistance in writing “In the Walls of Eryx”. Of course, as with many of his other collaborations, Lovecraft made it his own by writing the vast bulk of the finished story. And as was Lovecraft’s habit, even though the seeds of the story belonged to someone else, he inserted his insidious themes and colored the entire piece. What started as a straightforward, if juvenile, derivative misadventure became complicated with Lovecraft’s hallmark hints of cosmic doom: “I believe we have violated some obscure and mysterious law—some law buried deep in the arcana of the cosmos…”. “Eryx” may not be part of Lovecraft’s sprawling mythos, but it still manages to evoke the same haunting dread.

The Details

Lovecraft’s ventures into science fiction are much like Ray Bradbury’s or Fritz Leiber’s; the tales are science fiction only in setting, not detail, because their authors are fantasists, not scientists. This in no way diminishes the stories, but one should not approach them looking for solidly grounded scientific or technological ideas. Although it is set on Venus and throws about superficially impressive terminology such as flame-pistols, oxygen masks with sponge resevoirs, crystal detectors, N-force, and an alternate Venusian dating system, “In the Walls of Eryx” still hangs entirely on pure human fear, and brings Lovecraft’s beloved tentacles into the mix within the first page. It is a horror story masquerading as science fiction, not a syllable of it contingent on technology.

Scenes from a swamp
Scenes from a swamp

Lovecraft’s conception of Venus in “In the Walls of Eryx” is in keeping with how the planet was often imagined in the early twentieth century. Venus was pictured as a soggy place, swampy and hot and overgrown, and the jungles of Venus were a popular setting for a number of early fantasy and science fiction authors. Edgar Rice Burroughs, C.S. Lewis, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury all painted Venus as wet and steamy—Lovecraft was in very good company.

In addition to his take on the swamps of Venus, Lovecraft also provides some vivid if not particularly active aliens for us to revile. The natives are described throughout the story as damnable, skulking, slinking, detestable, scaly wretches; man-lizards with “green, slimy, frog-like skin”, and an “accidental physical resemblance to terrestrial man.” The human narrator is disgusted by them but sees them as more nuisance than threat since they are so clearly lesser beings. I can only wonder if Kenneth Sterling had any say in them at all, since the creatures seem as much Innsmouth as Venus.

Tentacles
And some tentacles

In Lovecraft’s hands, the imaginary technology, grossly inferior aliens and gloomy Venusian swamps still produce an undeniably eldritch effect. This story is scary in the creeping, unclean way that all Lovecraft’s stories are scary. The marvelous, sticky dread Lovecraft weaves through all his work is in full bloom, here. He builds his mood with carefully chosen imagery rather that evokes huge off-page events, and the end result is his hallmark bleak despair.

The inherent uncleanness of “In the Walls of Eryx” does not lie in the farnoth flies or the slimy mud, the random dead body or the spongy vines. It is instead generated by the absolute hopelessness of the narrator’s situation. He has wandered into an invisible maze with twenty foot high walls, and he cannot find his way out. There is paranoia to be found here, and enforced helplessness. Like so much other work that Lovecraft left his fingerprints on, the end can only be grim for our protagonist.

Some Possibilities?

Part of Lovecraft’s appeal here is in how he builds up the creep-factor through repetitions of the character’s experiences, ratcheting up the intensity as he deals with a recurring yet progressively worsening scenario. “In the Walls of Eryx” is twelve thousand words of a man trying and failing, repeatedly, to escape from an invisible maze. That is the summary of both plot and action—but it still manages to leave the reader with a grim tension not quite dispelled at the end.

That lingering tension is why I think this story could easily be expanded into a nerve-wracking film. While it doesn’t have the somewhat more action-driven plot as the famous, cult-movie inspiring Herbert West, Re-Animator (see our Mort Delciver’s reviews of Re-Animator and Beyond Re-Animator for details), “In the Walls of Eryx” has potential. Its claustrophobia is a familiar horror trope.  The lurking aliens, the unsee-able maze, the utter aloneness of the narrator, all point to a creepy little film, should anyone wish to make it.

maze_wikimedia_commons
What maze?

It also provides an excellent gaming scenario. “In the Walls of Eryx” did inspire a very simple browser video game a few years ago, but the premise can be exploited for so much more. Most Lovecraftian video games focus on the mythos. The tabletop games as well, dominated by Call of Cthulhu, do not stray very far afield. Certainly not as far as Venus.

Unfortunately, since the story isn’t part of Lovecraft’s main mythos, it tends to get shunted to the side (and I may certainly have missed something). But from the swampy landscape thick with carnivorous plants to the tentacled lizard-men, from the potential conflicts of a human commercial outpost on Venus to the starkly simple threat of an alien invisible maze, there is an entire extended narrative to be built from this. August Derleth had his shot. This one is ours.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!

A Canticle for Leibowitz
A Canticle for Leibowitz

One cannot simply review a work with the enduring impact of Walter M. Miller, Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. It would be a waste of everyone’s time to deconstruct the characterization, or the imagery, or the phrasing, plotting, and pacing. Those components all took a back seat to Miller’s philosophical observations about faith, hope, and human frailty, and the result is a novel that left me contemplating its nuances long after closing its cover. The following is what I took away with me.

In broad outline, A Canticle for Leibowitz tracks the progress of humanity over the eighteen centuries following a worldwide nuclear apocalypse. Miller breaks his loose narrative into three sections at six hundred year intervals, each set at the Abbey of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz in what was once the Utah desert. His characters are the monks who persist there across the centuries, and the few visitors who seek them out. Despite the amount of time it covers, A Canticle for Leibowitz is not an especially long book. Neither its plot nor its scale is particularly elaborate. But its relative simplicity has surprising depths.

Miller gives only a brief, poetic summary of how the world ended, and what happened then:

“So it was that, after the Deluge, the Fallout, the plagues, the madness, the confusion of tongues, the rage, there began the bloodletting of the Simplification, when remnants of mankind had torn other remnants limb from limb, killing rulers, scientists, leaders, technicians, teachers, and whatever persons the leaders of the maddened mobs said deserved death for having helped to make the Earth what it had become.” (61)

He chooses not to dwell on the mechanics of a world collapsing upon itself. It happened, and it was terrible. Not much more needs to be said.

Apocalypse by Albert Goodwin
Apocalypse by Albert Goodwin

In the new Dark Ages of Miller’s post-apocalypse world, the Church and its rituals still endure in its ancient role as keeper of otherwise-lost knowledge. Beyond this anchor, Miller does not trouble himself with creating a realistic, fully-developed future; we need only a quick sketch of the world to understand Canticle’s allegory. The science, accepted by the monks as true even when they cannot understand it, takes a back seat to issues of genuine faith. It is absolute faith that preserves the fragmented information it cannot explain or employ, knowing that once lost it may never be recovered. And in a way the monks cannot admit, though they eventually come to suspect, this faithful preservation of ancient science allows man to re-sow the seeds of his own destruction. But the faith still endures.

Miller’s tone is both unsentimental and slightly wry, as if the long struggle of post-apocalypse recovery is merely a curiosity to be observed with detachment from an appropriate distance. Yet over the course of each section he swings seamlessly between amusement and pathos and pulls us along in his wake. Most characters are presented with a light hand, even as vaguely comedic archetypes rather than as specific people, and yet we can still feel for them as circumstances catch and overwhelm them.

But the novel is not really driven by its characters, either. They preserve, and they prepare, and they react, and the world moves on despite them. Canticle remains at its heart a musing about the folly of man and the repetition of history, dressed up as a novel to work its will upon us. Because this is allegory rather than narrative science fiction adventure, Miller employs his lay characters as symbolic devices to make his points instead of moving along his plot. The Wanderer, possibly immortal, drifts through the ages and gives the monks reason to question their assumptions about the world. The Poet—painted as cynical, slovenly, and a freeloader—sacrifices himself freely to balance an unbearable injustice. And at last, when the inevitable nuclear war erupts again, the uneducated, faithful, mutant Mrs. Gales is the one found worthy to carry a soul born without original sin.

Many of Miller’s attitudes are dated, and the story is littered with the detritus of atomic age technological dreams (not just the radioactive fallout), like space ships, translation machines and driverless cars. Miller also conserves a social order full of the racism and sexism of the 1950s, with savage tribes descended from the Plains Indians, an all-male priesthood beholden to New Rome, sly Asian aggressors, and women (nearly all merely mentioned but not met) consigned to mostly non-participant roles as Sisters, wives and mothers.

But within those limitations, Miller is still certain that man is clever enough to understand his past, and immature enough not to actually learn from it. He begins his story with the ignorance of the early survivors who carved a shrine from the desert: “He had never seen a ‘Fallout,’ and he hoped he’d never see one. A consistent description of the monster had not survived” (17). In some ways it reads as the innocence of a cultural childhood. And like childhood, it does not last. Next Miller follows their descendants through the rediscovery of nuclear technology, and finally into the morass of a terrible, seemingly inescapable cycle: “Generation, regeneration, again, again, as in a ritual…forever building Edens—and kicking them apart in berserk fury because somehow it isn’t the same” (232).

Miller seems to give humanity a pass for the first apocalypse they brought upon themselves: “Back then, in Saint Leibowitz’ time, maybe they didn’t know what would happen… They had not yet seen a billion corpses” (261). But after having seen those corpses, the second apocalypse, much like the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan, is far more difficult to excuse.

A Canticle for Leibowitz--Another Apocalypse
A Canticle for Leibowitz–Another Apocalypse

Miller was a veteran of World War II, and the scars of his experience show clearly in his work. Published in 1959, A Canticle for Leibowitz is one of a spate of similar late-fifties post-apocalypse novels ( like On the Beach, 1957; Level 7, 1959; and Alas, Babylon, 1959) generated by the then-recent memory of Japan’s nuclear devastation and the immediate pressure of the burgeoning Cold War. Humanity had finally achieved the means to destroy itself completely. Literature was one of the easier ways of dealing with it.

Even though A Canticle for Leibowitz is about humanity’s double-edged efforts to survive and rebuild itself after nuclear annihilation, the novel is constructed almost entirely of the internal struggles of a few essentially honest and well-intentioned men wrestling their own consciences. The background circumstances shape them, but they must still find ways to live with their own moral and practical decisions in the larger political world. They argue with and among themselves, reach occasional understandings, and frequently disagree. But they mean well. They want better, for themselves and their brethren. Miller does not offer any real villains. The antagonist against which his good men struggle is rather man as a collective—bringing to mind the old warning that humans as individuals can be very smart, and as groups can be very, very stupid.

Although Miller begins A Canticle for Leibowitz in the wake of one nuclear apocalypse and ends it at the beginning of another, his story arc is still fueled by a shaky but enduring hope. Despite the fear and ignorance and destruction that humanity hauls around on its back, despite the marked inability of man to get off that terrible wheel he has built for himself, Miller still leaves room for us to be capable of better, and to try again, and again, and again to achieve it. Even as he mourns the repetition of the end of the world, he allows that the faith in something better may actually, finally create one. He believes in second chances, and thirds. Maybe one of these times, we’ll get it right.

E.A. Ruppert contributes book and media reviews for NerdGoblin.com.  Thanks for checking this out. To keep up with the latest NerdGoblin developments, please like us on Facebook , follow us on Twitter and Pinterest, and sign up for the NerdGoblin Newsletter.

And as always, please share your thoughts and opinions in the comments section!