Sunday, November 27, 2011

Nightfall and Nightfall

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!

In 1941, Isaac Asimov published a What if? story inspired by John W. Campbell who, in turn, was inspired by the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote above. What if humanity had never seen stars? In both the short story and novel form, Nightfall proposes people would go crazy. Catastrophically crazy.

File:Nightfall cover.jpg

The Short Story

The short story takes place on a planet with six suns. At any given time, you can expect the six suns to light every inch of the surface. Which means the people who live there don't know what darkness is. It's an abstract concept to them. We learn early on that when these people are faced with darkness they go apeshit insane.

A group of scientists make a terrifying discovery: every two thousand years, the planet goes dark. What does this mean for a civilization who has never seen darkness? Widespread psychosis. A civilization that tears itself down. See, the darkness is scary enough, but the appearance of the stars make the people go absolutely mad. Gripped by the star-crazed madness, the people will do anything for light. They'll burn any and everything they can get their hands on.

The story scared the shit out of me. It doesn't play on the fear of darkness itself, but on the fear of "crazy" people. To be more exact, the horror element emerges from the taut suspense: you know people are going to start flipping out and you know there's nothing the main characters can do about it. The very last line of the story chilled me to the bone.

Asimov stated he was perplexed by the popularity of the story (along with Campbell's Who Goes There? and Orson Scott Card's original version of Ender's Game, it's often called the best short story in the SF genre). He had been reluctant to give the story credit, but finally did in a short stories collection. To date, the story has been anthologized almost 50 times.

The Novel

In the nineties, Asimov and Robert Silverberg co-wrote a novel version. The cover of my edition claims the short story was only part of the story. They weren't kidding.

The novel begins years before the events we witnessed in the short story. We get to know many of the characters and watch them piece together the facts: a psychologist who is treating psychotic patients who have been exposed to darkness, an archaeologist who accidentally discovers several previous civilizations, all of which were burned to the ground, and an astronomer who realizes a time will come when the planet is plunged in darkness.

The catastrophe itself takes place about midway through the book and it happens more or less exactly as it happened in the short story. The last third of the book is about the aftermath, in which most of the world's survivors are irreversibly insane. At one point, a main character observes a group of crazy men desperately trying to uproot a tree. It was one of those images that will stick with me. The men had no good reason—you don't have to when you're crazy—they just wanted to pull a tree out of the ground.

You could say these people are overreacting, sure, but even Earthlings who are accustomed with nightfall have this embedded fear of the dark, which is only ignored and never cured. It isn't really that hard to buy the catastrophic events that occur.

The original title of this post was Nightfall VS Nightfall, but it wasn't fair to compare them. They are two separate entities written at two very different times. The novel won't be considered a classic, and that's shame, just because it retreads some of the same material as the short story, which is considered a classic. I suggest reading them both, starting with the short story which you can listen to at Escape Pod.

Script Review: Django Unchained

Update: This is the review for the script. My review of the actual movie can be found here.

Quentin Tarantino's spaghetti western opens on a caravan of black men, shackled together, who are being marched through the darkness. It's freezing cold. The slavers, a couple of not-too-bright brothers, are dressed appropriately for the winter and ride high upon horses. Their slaves, on the other hand, aren't even allowed to wear shoes or shirts. On this remote road they encounter a German (Christoph Waltz, obviously) who inquires about one of their slaves, a man named Django (Jamie Foxx). The slavers don't like the German because of his use of "fancy words" and the fact he arranged this odd midnight meeting. The brothers don't want to sell Django to the German, so one of the brothers draws his weapon.

And the violence, as it often does in Tarantino movies, explodes, unraveling a tightly wound length of tension.

One of the brothers is left injured, not dead, but it's clear he's doomed to death, anyway. The good characters (and often the bad characters) in spaghetti westerns are bound by a sort of honor that makes for some interesting ironies. In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) has been paid to kill someone. When the man pays Angel Eyes to kill his own boss instead, Angel Eyes informs him he always does the job he was paid to do and kills the man. Then, when Angel Eyes returns to his boss, he says the same, "The pity is when I'm paid, I always follow my job through. You know that." (See that scene here.)

Likewise, Tarantino's German—Dr. King Schultz—has to pay this guy for Django, and even insists upon a bill of sale, even though he's going to leave the slaver to the mercy of the other slaves. QT is setting up yet another movie that's made by and for fans of genre cinema. Sure, casual moviegoers tend to like his movies, too, but they will never get as much out of them as those of us who have thousands of movies rated in our Netflix accounts. Whenever I see the usual criticisms of QT's style—"Why couldn't he make a normal WWII movie?!"—I have to wonder why anyone would want such a thing. Anyone can make a normal movie. QT makes movies that are ferociously entertaining as well as important. Other would-be critics are offended by his love of homage, calling him unoriginal. I say this: show me an artist who doesn't think he or she has and acts upon influences and I'll show you a wildly unoriginal artist. 

Django Unchained is brutal, it's violent, but above all, it's funny. It's funnier than anything else QT has ever written. Remember that opening scene in Inglourious Basterds when, despite extreme tension, The Jew Hunter manages to make us laugh by simply pulling out a tobacco pipe larger than the farmer he's interrogating? That sums up much of the humor in Unchained, but around page fifty there's a scene so hysterically funny I was reminded of Blazing Saddles. One second you're casting Slim Pickens as one of the characters, the next second you're reading descriptions of absolute pandemonium that has the body parts of both humans and horses flying through the air.

I didn't read all of the script. I don't want it all spoiled for me, but from what I can tell, Leonardo DiCaprio's character is the meanest sonuvabitch of 'em all, and that's in a story that's overflowing with mean sonsabitches. Before I checked the cast list on IMDB, I was casting the film in my head. I was thinking, "Man, Kurt Russell really ought to be in this." Turns out, he is. The cast list itself is an interesting read: Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx, Leo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sacha Baron Cohen, Tom Savini, and Don Johnson, just to name a few.

People are going to call this movie racist. Already, the IMDB forums are flooded by sensitive trolls who are calling QT racist for "calling black people 'nigger' in the narration for Christ's sake!" Yes, there are times when the narration uses that word, but every time I saw it, it was describing the feelings of one of the racist characters. I imagine the people flinging such allegations have A) rarely read a book, because QT's scripts are a strange hybrid between novel and screenplay, or B) don't know how to read a script. His signature moves and homages notwithstanding, Tarantino has written a story that's true to real life. The things that will offend people will only offend the people who are offended by real life.

The great thing about the way Tarantino writes a script is his disregard for any bullshit taught in screenwriting scams courses and books and his infectious passion. Reading the script's almost as fun as watching the movie. I even ate popcorn and M&M's while reading it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Caution: Weightless Condition (2001: ASO Production Stills)

My high school library had a book about the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I could only read it while I was in the library because I was severely overdue on a book... which just happened to be 2061: Odyssey Three. It had a lot of great photographs from the production of that film, but I'm not sure this one was one of them:

I am sure, however, that the book had a dead-on close-up of the zero gravity bathroom instructions seen here:

I can't find the same photo used in the book, but I did find this at in case you want to see them in detail, too.

Free Story Friday: Popular Mechanics by Raymond Carver

Is Popular Mechanics a good introduction to Raymond Carver? I don't know, but if you're around my age, you probably already read his story Neighbors, since a very common literature book used in high schools considers that a good intro to Carver, despite some fairly racy stuff (cross-dressing, masturbation, etc.). The fact of the matter is there aren't a whole lot of Raymond Carver stories that are "safe," whatever the fuck that is these days, so you might as well dive in anywhere.

Read Popular Mechanics here. No, you don't have to answer the questions at the end. The link takes you to some kind of academic site or something. (It's a useful education tool for students, which means SOPA would be more than willing to arrest the teacher who put it up.)

What I don't understand is the wide range of interpretations of this story's ending. I don't think the ending (especially when you consider the title) can be interpreted in any other way but one. Yes, my interpretation is bizarre (two people have told me such), but Carver wasn't exactly a square writer.

Discuss the ending in the comments if you want and I'll jump in.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Free Story Friday: The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model

Man. This is one easy, entertaining read: The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model by Charlie Jane Anders. When I was in bed the other night, I decided to give my ebook reader another try. When I powered it up, a collection of short stories published by Tor mysteriously showed up on my home screen. It was only a preview, but I started reading it anyway. I just hoped the preview would end sometime after the conclusion of the first story, not before.

Nope. Chuck Testa.

So I paid $2.99 (because, after all, nothing is more thrilling than buying things without even getting out of bed) to read the last few pages of the story. It was worth it. Then I discovered it was available for free on the Internet. It was still worth it.

As for me, I'm going to go play some more Skyrim. The game came out three hours ago. My girlfriend wanted me to come over tonight. See: my response, an image stolen from Reddit.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Best of John W. Campbell 1976

cover art H. R. Van Dongen


Introduction: The Three Careers of John W. Campbell by Lester del Rey
The Last Evolution
The Machine
The Invaders
Out of Night
Cloak of Aesir
Who Goes There?
Space for Industry
Afterward by Mrs. John W. Campbell

Edited by Lester del Rey, this collection contains Twilight, the short story Campbell originally published under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart. As del Rey says in the intro, Campbell wrote pulpy stories, like almost every other SF writer at the time, under his real name. It wasn't until later he developed the pseudonym Stuart, under which he wrote stories of a more serious vein. The first story in this collection isn't of much interest (other than historical) as it is one of his earlier, more pulpy efforts, but the rest, starting with Twilight and more or less concluding with Who Goes There? (the inspiration for The Thing From Another Planet, John Carpenter's The Thing, and the 2011 reboot/prequel), showcase his talents nicely.

As for Twilight, there's something that must be said about a story that takes you 7 billion years into the future, especially when it was written in 1934 and seems so modern today. Unfortunately for me (but fortunately for everyone else on the planet) someone already wrote about it: Ryan Harvey over at Black Gate, a fantastical fiction blog. Read the article here. Says Harvey:

And yes, as the heading of this post indicates, to me the title “Twilight” always means this story. It had too potent an effect on me to ever allow anything else, no matter how much popular culture it devours, to steal the word “twilight” for other use.

While most fans consider Who Goes There? John W. Campbell's masterpiece, I think Twilight deserves more recognition for being the first modern science fiction story by a man who's largely credited for inventing modern science fiction.

In his memoirs I, Asimov, Isaac Asimov talks favorably of Campbell for the most part, later expressing his dismay over the editor's decision to buy into L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics, the foundation of Scientology. Many writers who had been loyal to the man who once injected real science into science fiction began ignoring his publication, Asimov included. In his introduction to this collection, del Rey only briefly mentions Campbell's disappointing foray into pseudoscience, simply stating, "His eternal quest for undiscovered fields of knowledge led him into what I considered cultist beliefs, and I fought against those both privately and publicly."

I found the book in a used book store in Sand Springs, OK. I paid a dollar for it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Astounding Science Fiction June 1948

click to enlarge

Cover by William Timmins
Editor John W. Campbell, JR.

Dreadful Sanctuary by Eric Frank Russell
(Part One of Three Parts)

War of Intangibles by Erik Fennel

No Connection by Isaac Asimov
That Only A Mother by Judith Merril

Inverted Alchemy
The Electrical Robot Brain by E.L. Locke

In my crusade to write more short stories, I've been referring to my collection of old science fiction digests for inspiration. The ASF seen above caught my eye, which I originally purchased in a flea market in Tulsa. You have no idea how much junk I had to climb over in order to get to that shelf.

The scanned image looks better than my actual copy of the magazine. It wasn't until I had the 600 dpi image enlarged in the photo cropper that I noticed John Campbell's name in one of the puzzle pieces, which appears to represent top secret government documents. The piece reads

TO: John Campbell
FROM: William Timmins

which might be the only time Timmins sees his full name appear on an issue of ASF. (Artists typically got credited by surnames only in ASF and Analog around that time.)

The Electrical Robot Brain, the article by E.L. Locke is "Part II of an article discussing an automatic course-computer for robot missiles—the M-9 Fire Director, a device that has all the essentials of an automatic spaceship navigation computer!" It's as detailed as it sounds. Seriously, it's much more complicated than anything you would read in a modern Popular Science, complete with technical drawings and diagrams, and lots of math. I'm afraid my poor magazine would fall apart if I tried to scan that section, however, so here's a photograph I took of one of the drawings:

What sticks out in this issue is Judith Merril's story. Campbell attaches the following byline:

A new feminine science-fiction author gives a slightly different slant on one of the old themes—and a brilliantly bitter little story results.

This deserves special attention because several female writers then (and for many years after) were writing under pseudonyms that were either masculine or initialed in a way to disguise their true gender, especially in genre fiction. I think that goes to show that science fiction was open-minded when it came to equality; it's no secret that the genre was intertwined with the feminist movement from the beginning. Merril was initially involved with the project that eventually became Dangerous Visions, one of my favorite books of all time, which defined new wave SF, the subgenre of which Merril was considered a founder.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

7 Billion People On The Planet

Now that we've hit a seven billion headcount, I think it's time humans stop being so damn fruitful. Asimov on overpopulation: "The value of life not only declines, it disappears."