Saturday, August 29, 2015

Ain't Like No Workings of the Lord

Like so many enterprises, science fiction and fantasy have given big rewards to a few of their practitioners and a pittance, or worse, to many more. Longtime fans will recall stories of Philip K. Dick living on pet food, or H. Beam Piper choosing a quick death over slow starvation. Howard Waldrop numbers among the numerous SF writers who earn far less than they deserve. In Waldrop's case this results, in part, from his preference for short fiction, no longer a very marketable product, over novels and series, which pay better but don't match his talents or inclinations. This is a great pity, for Waldrop combines a well-honed talent for story-telling with erudition, a nicely-perverse folksiness, and fearless speculation. His story “The Ugly Chickens” speculates on the survival into the present-day, in a Faulknerian backwater, of the most famous extinct species of all, and includes one of the most vivid dream sequences it has been my pleasure to read. “Custer's Last Jump,” co-written with Steven Utley, featured nineteenth-century paratroopers, Lakota fighter pilots, and a massive bibliography of sources, all invented by the authors. In “The Effects of Alienation” Waldrop staged a “Hitler Victorious” alternate history scenario for the sole purpose of testing its impact on Peter Lorre. “Night of the Cooters” pitted a small-town Texas sheriff (a thinly-disguised Slim Pickens) against H.G. Wells's Martians. One could go on and on.

A critic aptly called Waldrop's work “brilliant and berserk.” One could also describe it as labor-intensive and uncompromising. The author never hinges a story on one idea when half a dozen will do, and he never tells the same story twice. This makes it impossible for him to churn out the serials and hackwork that provide other SF authors with their path to fame and, if not wealth, at least self-sufficiency. Indeed, Waldrop apparently finds it hard to write novels: his humor, intellectual games, Classical references, and cultural ephemera work much better in the confined space of a short story or novella. He has, however, left us one solo novel, Them Bones, and it shows that, whatever the cause of Waldrop's aversion to novels, it isn't lack of talent. It is a multi-plot book of time travel, alternate history, and apocalypse, involving baffled archaeologists, Mound-Builder Indians, mammoths, lost G.I.s, Aztec priests, and a heady evocation of the lower Mississippi Valley, a place more alien to SF writers than Alpha Centauri. I read it at just the right time: in grad school, just as I began my study of Native American history. I reread it when I took my first trip down the Natchez Trace Parkway, a journey that showed me the dense interlayering of pre-Columbian Indian culture and early American history in the Deep South. “The past...isn't even past,” one Mississippi writer famously wrote, and Waldrop, born in Mississippi himself, show that this applies just as readily to Coles-Creek Indians as Faulkner's peasants and nabobs. Lying at the intersection of my hobby and my vocation, Them Bones remains one of my favorite books, and over the next year or so I plan to spend some time on this blog revisiting it and its many charms. I hope my readers will enjoy the trip.


(Above image, of Waldrop in 2007, courtesy of The Jeff and Wikimedia Commons.)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Accursed Leng

Despite his other defects as a writer (and ample enough they were), H.P. Lovecraft had one gift that helped him surpass the limits of the pulp-fiction ghetto and endure to the present day: his power to describe the uncanny, horrifying worlds that lay just beyond the edges of our own. Who among his readers can forget the crumbling houses and fishy residents of Innsmouth, the distant shrieking of shoggoths on a wind-blasted Antarctic plateau, the locked library cabinets wherein potent grimoires waited for victims, the terrifying inscriptions one narrator found in a long-buried Australian ruin, the fungus-encrusted kingdom of the damned festering beneath Exham Priory? Poe could certainly craft better prose than HPL's, but he rarely matched his successor in crafting such evocative settings, such sublimely hostile and inhuman places perched on the very edges of our more comforting reality.

Lovecraft's influence on modern horror remains incalculable. His creations even bleed over into other genres, like techno-spy fiction and detective stories. Take, for example, one of his chillier minor references, to the Plateau of Leng. This deeply isolated land, situated in some mountain fastness on this world or near it, sheltered a race of barbaric near-humans who worshiped the demon god Nyarlathotep and ate human flesh. HPL first mentioned Leng and its “corpse-eating cult” in his story “The Hound” (1922). Later, he called it the “roof of a bloated and tenantless world” (“The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”), noted the yellow-masked, nameless high priest who dwelt at the plateau's center, and suggested (“At the Mountains of Madness”) that Leng and its “temples of horror” might actually lie within Antarctica. Part of Leng's mystery came from its uncertain location, suggesting it was an archetype rather than a fixed domain. “Dream Quest” situated Leng within the otherworldly Dream Lands, while “The Hound” placed it in Central Asia, and a 1935 letter from HPL to Robert Bloch suggested it was in Tibet, identifying Leng's inhabitants as the demihuman “Tcho-tchos” invented by Lovecraft's protege August Derleth. In all these tales, the devotion of Leng's inhabitants to evil remained a constant.

Later in the twentieth century, accursed Leng made its way into a number of stories written by HPL's admirers, like Neil Gaiman, Charles Stross, and Marc Laidlaw, as well as novels by Brian Lumley and Stephen King and one or two mentions in the game Magic: The Gathering. As a concept, if not a name, Lovecraft's demonic mountain kingdom seems to have spread still further. In his novel Flood (2008), the physicist and sci-fi writer Stephen Baxter posited the catastrophic upwelling of a vast subterranean sea, more capacious than all the oceans of the present day. Over the course of four decades the floodwaters drown every city and inundate every forest and plain on the planet's surface. As the end approaches, a handful of wealthy or sufficiently desperate refugees made their way to Tibet. No longer the icy mountain kingdom of our own era, Tibet has become the last substantial piece of dry land on Earth. There, however, the travelers learn that murderous warlords had conquered the province, and would only allow in those they wanted to take as slaves or “harvest” as food. The human skulls adorning the gates to this hellish new realm told strangers what they could expect within.

I have no idea if Baxter was a Lovecraft fan, but the similarities between his future Tibet, a land of cannibalism and murder, and HPL's Leng, a mountain kingdom of flesh-eaters at the roof of a seemingly empty earth, appear greater than coincidence can explain. Perhaps Lovecraft was so adept at evoking geo-cultural archetypes that even a hard SF writer, not known for his flights of fancy, could not help describing the same dreamscape when his narrative called for it. As with Carcosa, Leng has a real substance to it that transcends the imagination of a single genre author.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Pop Goes the Space Miner: Outland Still Entertains

On its release in 1981, Outland received poor reviews from critics like Roger Ebert, who dismissed it as “High Noon in space,” and sci-fi critics who pointed out its technical and scientific flaws (such as the spacesuit helmet lights that would actually have blinded the wearers). In the longer term, the film became lost in the glare of other contemporary SF classics, like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Blade Runner (1982). Yet the film repays careful viewing, and watching it again recently I was struck by Outland's high technical quality and super-competent acting.

The movie's plot is nothing fancy. Space marshal William O'Niel (Sean Connery) wonders why workers on a distant mining colony are going crazy; when he uncovers the reason, mining company officials target him for assassination. As in many other sci-fi pictures, the plot of Outland takes a backseat to the setting, into which writer-director Peter Hyams and his crew clearly infused most of their creative energy. They present the mining station as a tense, dirty, fully realized world. Battered scaffolds cling to vertiginous mining faces. Grimy white corridors distinguished only by stenciled numbers remind us that the station's builders had no concern for individuality. Stacked sleeping cubicles, where miners sit or lay exhausted, evoke a giant insect hive. Inside, fluorescent lights glare and, outside, welding arcs paint sharp-edged shadows on the dangerous landscape. Even the walls of station manager Mark Sheppard's (Peter Boyle) subdued, well-appointed office seem to press in on him, as he tries to push back against them with rounds of virtual golf. Station 27 is, in short, a tightly-sealed world barely containing itself against the hellish environment outside, a world on the edge of exploding – as O'Niel explodes with anger on the station's squash courts, as miners explode with violence when they go buggo, as bodies explode (with, admittedly, unrealistic velocity) when exposed to the near-vacuum outside.

Hyams clearly drew some of the inspiration for Station 27 and its denizens from Ridley Scott's Alien, whose grimy, cavernous spaceship and mundane freight handlers contrasted sharply with H.R. Giger's baroque, sleekly-deadly monster. Outland, however, has no alien monsters. Here man's enemies are the deadly environment and the people it warps and torments.

Outland also stands in sharp contrast to earlier sci-fi films in the age and disposition of its characters. Movies like Star Wars, Logan's Run, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture assumed the denizens of the future (or of a space empire) would be young, athletic, and forward-looking. Alien challenged this convention by featuring a predominantly older cast, but ensured that the two youngest actresses, Veronica Cartwright and Sigourney Weaver, would number among the final survivors. Outland has no place for youth or optimism. Its miners are uniformly grim and surly, its cops depressed time-servers, its only cheerful character Mark Sheppard, whose bonhomie masks his exploitative and murderous designs. O'Niel, after his wife and son leave for Earth, spends much of the film wondering if a washed-up mediocrity like himself can make a difference, or if he should just serve his tour and keep his mouth shut. Ultimately, Hyams reveals that one old marshal probably can't make a difference, but two has-beens probably can: the station doctor, Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), who describes herself as an old “wreck” and who spends her free time kvetching and drinking, not only helps O'Niel solve the mystery of the exploding miners but helps save his life in the film's closing scenes.

That aging losers can make a difference, that they still have a place in a forbidding future, was a clever message to send to sci-fi fans, many of whom were Baby Boomers approaching “the Big Four-Oh” and real or imagined midlife crises. Certainly it became a central feature of many of the Star Trek films, to the point of ridiculousness in the case of Generations*, and more recently of John Scalzi's Old Man's War series. The young, of course, will always dominate the other SF and fantasy franchises, if only because they are more desirable to advertisers.

* The climactic scene of which one of my friends characterized as “three old white guys fighting on a rock.”