Intro

This is the blog and homepage of Mark R. Kelly, the founder of Locus Online in 1997 (for which I won a Hugo Award in 2002 — see the icon at right) and of an index to science fiction awards in 2000 that became sfadb.com in 2012. I’m retired from my day job of 30 years, from 1982 to 2012, as an aerospace software engineer, supporting the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Posts here are mostly about my reading, of science fiction and of books about science, history, philosophy, and religion; and comments to articles in newspapers that I link to. Movie reviews and pics from travels are posted on Facebook.

More on my About page, including a photo of the Hugo Winners the year I was among them, and links to an index of my columns and other writings, and to my earliest homepage with links to some of my work.

June 2019: Currently in the process of revising pages for bibliographies and links to posts about SF and NF, as seen above…

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Links and Comments: Trump vs California; Rural America vs the big cities

Here’s another. Paul Krugman, Sept. 20th: Trump Declares War on California. Subtitled: “It’s a liberal state, so it must be punished.”

I’m on a number of right-wing mailing lists, and I try to at least skim what they’re going on about in any given week; this often gives me advance warning about the next wave of manufactured outrage. Lately I’ve been seeing dire warnings that if Democrats win next year they’ll try to turn America into (cue scary background music) California, which the writers portray as a socialist hellhole.

Examples about auto emission regulations, and making San Francisco’s homeless population some kind of environmental hazzard. Yes, the latter is a problem.

But in many other dimensions California does very well. It has a booming economy, which has been creating jobs at a much faster pace than the nation as a whole.

The nation’s second-highest life-expectancy; drops in the uninsured via accepting Obamacare; and crime near historical lows. The point:

[I]t’s a reality the right refuses to accept, because it wasn’t what was supposed to happen.

You see, modern California — once a hotbed of conservatism — has become a very liberal, very Democratic state, in part thanks to rapidly rising Hispanic and Asian populations. And since the early years of this decade, when Democrats won first the governorship, then a supermajority in the State Legislature, liberals have been in a position to pursue their agenda, raising taxes on high incomes and increasing social spending.


The striking thing about the right’s new focus on homelessness, however, is that it’s hard to detect any concern about the plight of the homeless themselves. Instead, it’s all about the discomfort and alleged threat the homeless create for the affluent.

Bottom line:

[I]t’s yet another illustration of the intellectual imperviousness of the modern right, which never, ever lets awkward facts disturb its preconceptions.

\\\\

One more, also from about a month ago. An op-ed by Sarah Smarsh, writing from Wichita, Kan. Something Special Is Happening in Rural America. Subtitled: “There is a ‘brain gain’ afoot that suggests a national homecoming to less bustling spaces.”

I find this interesting because most prognosticators feel that the only hope for the expanding population, and the reduction of humanity’s impact on the planet’s environment, is greater density in big cities, and that small rural populations will gradually evaporate. But let’s see what she says.

First, the issue of unaffordability [inequality]:

The nation’s most populous cities, the bicoastal pillars of aspiration — New York City and Los Angeles — are experiencing population declines, most likely driven by unaffordability.

But the bottom line perhaps is:

Last year, Gallup found that while roughly 80 percent of us live in urban areas, rural life was the most wished for.

People are happier in small towns, perhaps.

The writer concludes,

We need policymakers who understand this (and care about it). Good news: Progressive Democratic presidential candidates have unveiled a spate of rural policy plans more robust than any in recent political memory. They suggest actions for which rural advocates have argued — investing in rural people and economies to lead a Green New Deal, cutting out oppressive middlemen in moving food from producers to eaters and much more.

What I see here is the attraction of most people to relatively small, tightly knit communities. And that this reflects humanity’s evolutionary heritage, in which most people, until less than 10,000 years ago, lived in small tribes of a few dozen or a few hundred. The modern cosmopolis is strange. But small communities tend to be insular and tribal, hostile to people who follow different traditions and rituals. And so there’s a tension between this innate preference in most people, and the growing population of the planet, in humanity’s future.

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Status mid-October 2019

I’ve been light posting here for months now. Here’s the arc of where I’ve been this year, and where I’m going.

It’s now just about 7 years since I was laid off from my 30-year career at Rocketdyne. It’s nearly 5 years since Yeong, also laid off, got a new job in the Bay Area and we moved to our house here in Oakland. It’s two years since Locus took over the website I’d run for 20 years. It’s over a year and a half since my surrogacy plans were derailed, despite my having spent $70,000. It’s nearly as long since we adopted two cats, and a year since we took in a third feral cat, which we named Pixel, that disappeared three weeks ago.

At the beginning of the year I had goals in three general areas: 1, ‘finish’ my sfadb.com website, in the sense of completing the rankings of novels and short fiction, and displaying the results on a timeline; 2, ‘finish’ to some extent scanning personal and family photos, and posting sets of them on this site; and 3, pursue my ambitious agenda to read and reread classic science fiction, in support of my pipe dream of writing a book.

As a couple months passed at the beginning of the year, an outline of the coming months appeared. Yeong had been hankering for a trip to London for some time, and so I planned the trip, which we took at the end of April. Also, his older son James announced wedding plans early in the year for the end of August.

Thus the year seemed to be dividing into thirds.

In the first third, I spent much time reading, mostly classic SF novels, and also some substantial nonfiction. I took notes on everything, but only transferred those notes to blog posts in a few cases. I need to improve on this. I have the sense that reading books by myself is an indulgence, but if I present my thoughts about them to the world, it’s a kind of service.

Returning from London, I decided to focus on sfadb, and I have in fact made a great deal of progress in the five months since: I’ve refined the scoring algorithm and the timeline, and compiled many more anthology contents in support of ranking short fiction. And, intermittently, I’ve scanned more personal and family photos, and posted some of them on this site.

The second third I thought would end with Jimmy’s wedding, but in fact the demarcation dragged on for an entire month; two of Yeong’s sisters and one brother-in-law made the long trip from China to attend the wedding, and stayed with us for an entire five weeks. They were away on side-trips three times, for several days at a time, but even so, there was little normalcy over that entire time. Thus my retreat to watching DVDs of old TV shows and movies. (And their on and off presence over that time is what drove Pixel to escape; he was freaked out by so many strange people in the house.)

So, as of right now. The sfadb project entailed compiling contents of many hundreds of anthologies. That’s an open-ended task; one can portray the entire history of science fiction (and fantasy and horror) through trends in anthologies. But I think, as of today, I’m cutting that off; I have enough data to move on and do the short fiction rankings, and perhaps compile more anthology pages later. So I will do that next, and compile the timeline. I would say I would do that by the end of the year, but all of these projects keep expanding: over the summer my plan for the rankings is to provide paragraph-length descriptions, or assessments, of the top ranking novels and stories in the three short fiction categories. But this requires some amount of rereading, or research, and that will take a while. So we’ll see.

Will anyone care? It’s hard to know. One never knows, perhaps.

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Links and Comments: Fear and Playing Dirty

Two items from about a month ago, both from The New York Times.

Why Republicans Play Dirty. Subtitled: “They fear that if they stick to the rules, they will lose everything. Their behavior is a threat to democratic stability.”

The writers are Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, political scientists and the authors of “How Democracies Die.”

“The greatest threat to our democracy today is a Republican Party that plays dirty to win.” They give examples, such as the refusal to hear Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia. And gerrymandering. And Republican state legislators passing laws to limit the powers of incoming Democratic governors. And Trump’s shenanigans.

Why is the Republican Party playing dirty? Republican leaders are not driven by an intrinsic or ideological contempt for democracy. They are driven by fear.

They review historical counterparts.

Republicans appear to be in the grip of a similar panic today. Their medium-term electoral prospects are dim. For one, they remain an overwhelmingly white Christian party in an increasingly diverse society. As a share of the American electorate, white Christians declined from 73 percent in 1992 to 57 percent in 2012 and may be below 50 percent by 2024. Republicans also face a generational challenge: Younger voters are deserting them. In 2018, 18- to 29-year-olds voted for Democrats by more than 2 to 1, and 30-somethings voted nearly 60 percent for Democrats.

Demography is not destiny, but as California Republicans have discovered, it often punishes parties that fail to adapt to changing societies. The growing diversity of the American electorate is making it harder for the Republican Party to win national majorities. Republicans have won the popular vote in presidential elections just once in the last 30 years.

Much of the Republican base views defeat as catastrophic. White Christians are losing more than an electoral majority; their once-dominant status in American society is eroding. Half a century ago, white Protestant men occupied nearly all our country’s high-status positions: They made up nearly all the elected officials, business leaders and media figures. Those days are over, but the loss of a group’s social status can feel deeply threatening. Many rank-and-file Republicans believe that the country they grew up in is being taken away from them. Slogans like “take our country back” and “make America great again” reflect this sense of peril.

Similarly, Paul Krugman: Republicans Don’t Believe in Democracy

Many examples.

What the stories have in common, however, is that they illustrate contempt for democracy and constitutional government. Elections are supposed to have consequences, conveying power to the winners. But when Democrats win an election, the modern G.O.P. does its best to negate the results, flouting norms and, if necessary, the law to carry on as if the voters hadn’t spoken.

What can Democrats do about this situation? They need to win elections, but all too often that won’t be sufficient, because they confront a Republican Party that at a basic level doesn’t accept their right to govern, never mind what the voters say. So winning isn’t enough; they also have to be prepared for that confrontation.

These issues remind me of the ways religious conservatives cut corners that would seem to undermine their supposed high morals, to get their way. (E.g., manufacturing fake or misleading tapes to undermine Planned Parenthood.) My impression there, and perhaps this applies to Republicans too, is that they have a sense of a ‘higher cause’ that must be served, and ordinary rules and standards don’t matter, at least when dealing with heathens. The continued support by evangelicals for Donald Trump is the most glaring example of this, and which completely discredits the religious right’s claim to any kind of moral standards. To me, all of this means, if you have to lie and cheat to get your way, your positions must be indefensible on their grounds.

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Horror Flix: The Mummy

The Mummy was released in 1932, though the copyright, curiously, is 1933, right there in the credits, in roman numerals. It was released in December 1932, according to Wikipedia, just over a year after Frankenstein’s release in November 1931. Familiar faces return: Boris Karloff is now the mummy, Imhotep; Edward Van Sloan is the local expert, Dr. Muller. Observations:

  • As in both Dracula and Frankenstein, we get repeated full face-on shots of the title monster, looking menacing. Karloff now has make-up like wrinkled paper covering his entire face.
  • This film is set in Egypt, mostly in Cairo, in contrast to the European settings of the earlier films.
  • Still, there are numerous scenes of high society here as in the earlier two, of dinner parties and receptions at the Cairo Museum.
  • Plot:
    • The film begins portentously – again using Swan Lake over the opening credits – with titles about the Scroll of Toth and how death is a doorway to new life.
    • In 1921 a Field Expedition from the British Museum digs up a mummy and a gold box with a message inside: eternal death for anyone who opens the inner casket. Local expert Dr Muller warns them not to touch the casket. He steps outside, and the junior archaeologist, of course, opens the casket. Behind him, the mummy (whose face is already visible) steps forward to claim the scroll. The junior scientist, seeing this, goes crazy, laughing maniacally.
    • Ten years later, we see a later British expedition, led by the son of the leader of the first. He is visited by a Saturnine Egyptian man, Ardeth Bey, who offers to point out a sensational find. Soon the archaeologists uncover the tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, behind seals that are 3700 years old.
    • Flash forward, through whirling newspaper headlines, to how this important discovery now resides at the Cairo Museum.
    • We see elegant people at some kind of reception; we see Ardeth-Bey lurking in the museum. We meet Helen Grosvenor, a young woman who is Dr. Muller’s patient, or ward, who is half Egyptian.
    • Ardeth Bey, the resurrected mummy, thinks Helen is the reincarnation of his ancient bride Anck-es-en-Amon, and so he kidnaps her and intends to mummify and resurrect her to be his bride. His plans are foiled and Imhotep crumbles to dust.
  • The scenes of the 2nd expedition are filmed at Red Rock Canyon, a familiar sight along route 395 in California north of Mojave on the way to the Owens Valley – those familiar hills of angled sedimentary layers, used for many film locations.
  • According to Imdb, another filming location was Rocky Buttes, a spot near Saddleback Butte in the Mojave Desert between Lancaster and Victorville, an area I’ve driven, and bicycled through, numerous times over the years. I didn’t spot in the movie where the site might have been used.
  • I think I’d only seen the first part of the movie before; most was unfamiliar.
  • The impressive set piece comes late, as Helen, somehow hypnotized by Ardeth Bey, comes to his house and is let in to see a pool of water, in which appear visions: love and crime and death; Imhotep kneeling by his bride; a funeral expedition; slaves carrying the coffin into the ground. Imhotep attempting to resurrect her; his father condemning him to death. Imhotep bound by cloths while still alive, and buried in a coffin. All the slaves are killed so no one would know; and the soldiers who killed the slaves are killed themselves.
    • Even if all the actors look like white guys in various shades of skin makeup.
  • And there is a later scene as Helen seems to revert to her role as the ancient princess, Imhotep ready to sacrifice her. Her guardians arrive to rescue her, but it is her plea to Isis, apparently, that saves her—the statue of Isis strikes Ardeth Bey and turns him to dust.
  • The film was inspired by the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 and the supposed “Curse of the pharaohs,” says Wikipedia.
  • The primary take-away, perhaps, is that Westerners should respect ancient eastern religions, and that those religions are real. Similar to Dracula, perhaps, where the Van Sloan character is familiar with the lore of Transylvania and confirms to skeptics that the legends about vampires are real. In that film the character used that lore to defeat the monster. In this one Van Sloan’s character is insistent about destroying the scroll in the first place, taking the Egyptian religion at its word.
  • Curious note from Wikipedia: “Filming was scheduled for three weeks.” They made them fast in the old days.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mummy_(1932_film)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Rock_Canyon_State_Park_(California)
https://www.rockybuttes.com/

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Skiffy Flix: Bride of Frankenstein

So Dracula begat Frankenstein, and Frankenstein begat Bride of Frankenstein (no ‘the’ in the title, note). Though actually it took nearly 3 ½ years, and there were intermediaries: Boris Karloff did The Mummy next after Frankenstein, and James Whale next directed The Invisible Man. More on those when I get to them.

Comments, more in the context of a plot summary than previous posts.

  • The structure of Bride roughly parallels the first Frankenstein film, with a further experiment to create life bringing on tragic and unexpected consequences. And again, the main character(s) die, apparently, at the end of the film.
  • Boris Karloff is back again as Frankenstein, and Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, but not Edward Van Sloan, whose character Dr. Waldman was killed in the first film. James Whale follows up with his direction, and the result is regarded as an improvement on the first film, and one of the best sequels of all time.
  • The credits now show “Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,” not “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley.” Maybe someone realized that wasn’t quite properly respectful to the author. Music is by Franz Waxman. And the monster is credited simply to “Karloff,” as if no first name was necessary.
  • The film begins with yet another castle amidst a stormy night. Inside are three elegantly dressed people in a drawing room with a fire. But, in a clever introductory device, these aren’t characters in our story, but rather an historical flashback showing Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, three of the very people who, in reality, inspired Mary to write her novel Frankenstein. We see them discussing the savagery of nature (that storm outside), introduce each other for the sake of the audience, and hear that Mary has already written her tale, though not yet published it. She repeats the moral lesson of the first film: it’s about the punishment for a moral man who dared to emulate god. As flashbacks of the first film remind us of its story, Mary is ready to tell what happened after that…
  • And so we return to the mill fire from the end of the first film. The mill collapses; the crowds move out. A cackling woman – this is Minnie, later seen as a servant – talks as if there have been lots and lots of murders and drownings — though we only saw one murder and one drowning, in the first film, IIRC; or were some of the torch-bearing villagers at the end also killed? But this establishes the monster as a killer. Sure enough: Hans, the drowned girl’s father, lingers, anxious for proof the monster is dead. It’s not dead! Down in the stream beneath the mill, the monster lurks, and kills first Hans, and then his wife. Minnie sees the monster, and shrieks, and runs.
    • Back at the mansion, Henry, thought dead, is brought in on a stretcher. When he moves his hand, Minnie (now in her servant garb) shrieks “He’s alive! He’s alive!”, echoing the first film’s signature lines. Humor!
  • Henry recovers and the new story gets underway, after some conversation between Henry and Elizabeth about how “we’re not meant to know those things” about the power to create life. She worries about a dangerous apparition—
    • And sure enough, someone new shows up. We lost Dr. Waldman last film, so in this film we have a Dr. Pretorius to serve as a foil for Henry Frankenstein. Pretorius is an apparently disgraced professor of philosophy who urges Henry to resume his work.
  • Pretorius takes Henry by coach to his lab, serving him gin and toasting him “To a new world of gods and monsters.” He displays a row of glass cylinders containing tiny homunculi – tiny little people, fully dressed as a queen, a king, an archbishop, a devil, a ballerina.
    • These are remarkable special effects for the time! We see the tiny people moving around and talking, in tiny insect voices, in the same shots as the full-sized Pretorius in the background.
    • (At the same time, how does Pretorius keep these creatures fed and clean and clothed? One wonders.)
    • Henry is appalled; this isn’t science, it’s black magic. Pretorius explains that he grew these creatures from cultures, like nature does, from seed.
    • –and so here is creation of new life in a way Dr. Frankenstein in the first film did not, by merely reanimating patched up corpses.
    • (More comedy, as the king climbs out of his cylinder and pursues and queen and has to be returned to his jar by tweezers.)
    • Pretorius wants to collaborate with Henry, citing Biblical tales about being fruitful and multiplying: they must create a mate for the monster. A woman. (And, implying that Henry is indirectly responsible for the earlier deaths.)
  • Then follows a series of scenes in which the monster roams the hills, frightening people. Men from town pursue and capture him, but the monster easily pulls out his chains and escapes. It encounters a camp of gypsies.
    • In film’s most poignant scenes, the monster encounters a blind man in cottage playing Ave Maria on a violin. The man hears someone outside and invites him inside, giving him food, realizing he cannot speak. The man welcomes the visitor as a friend he thought he would never have. Later he teaches the monster words, and explains good and bad: cigar good, music good. But monster, once burned, considers fire bad.
    • But then two lost hunters come by, see the monster and shoot it, and set the cottage on fire.
    • Monster escapes, scares a group of children, rages through a graveyard, and takes refuge in an underground crypt… just as Pretorius and his assistants come through, looking for an appropriate brain for the creation of that bride. Pretorius explains to the monster what he is doing…
  • We return to the mansion, where Pretorius pressures Henry to cooperate by having the monster kidnap Elizabeth and carry her into a cave.
  • Final scenes, as in the first film, are in a hilltop tower, the tower experiment room, where a wrapped body lies on a pallet. The heart fails and Karl, the assistant, abducts a girl on the street to provide another.
    • The storm rises. Kites are sent up. (No mention of ray beyond the ultraviolet.) The body on the table is lifted up through the ceiling, as in the first film. They talk about the ‘cosmic diffuser.’
    • The table lowers, and the eyes move. “She’s alive! Alive!”
    • Unwrapped, the bride for Frankenstein – played by Elsa Lancaster, who played Mary Shelley in the intro scenes – has a huge mound of frizzy hair. (Where did that come from? A few moments ago she was wrapped in cloth.)
    • And then, in a tragic irony, the original monster enters, approaching his bride. Friend? Bride screams, screams again, runs. She’s just as terrified of the original monster as all the humans are.
  • And so the monster, telling Henry and Elizabeth to flee, but Pretorius to stay – they deserve to die — pulls a lever that causes the entire castle to explode and collapse. The end.

Summary comments:

  • The bride’s image is the most striking of the film.
  • The great irony is that she finds the original monster just as horrifying as everyone else did.
  • The center section with the blind man is the most poignant, and shows, again, that the monster is not inherently evil, but responds to kindness, and is able to learn.
  • Again, did the monster and wife actually survive? What’s the setup for the next film?
  • Note the trailer for this film confuses the monster with its creator: “Frankenstein returns…. In search of a bride!” Popular culture has always confused the name Frankenstein with both the monster with its creator.
  • The Wikipedia entry on this film is extensive, with much detail about the film’s production, issues of censorship, and interpretations of Christian imagery and Queer reading.
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Monster Flix: Dracula

Having realized that Dracula actually preceded Frankenstein – both from Universal Studios, and together the founding pair of the entire genre of horror films in the 1930s and ‘40s, even though Frankenstein might be taken as science fiction, not horror – I rewatched Dracula a couple days ago to see to what extent there was any resemblance between the two.

Dracula was released in February 1931, Frankenstein in November. A long enough interval, I’m guessing, that the success of the first inspired the studio to find another property to adapt into film and get into theaters.

No detailed plot summary; just general reactions and observations.

  • Both films were adapted from plays that had been inspired by the respective novels. The books were published in 1818 and 1897, so in both cases decades had passed before the advent of talking motion pictures and for, in both cases, earlier stage plays and silent films to have been produced based on the novels.
  • The structures of the two films are similar. Both involve remote castles and native villagers; both involve relatively wealthy aristocratic or professional families, and an impending wedding; both involve a monster on the loose and a cavalier disregard, but the female leads, for closing their bedroom doors and windows.
  • On the other hand, Dracula ends with the monster killed through the efforts of one man (Van Helsing); Frankenstein ends with an angry mob storming a mountain-top windmill and apparently killing the monster – though, as we see in the sequel, they didn’t.
  • Dracula is noticeably more primitive in terms of production and directing. All these pointed close-ups of Dracula with only his eyes illuminated (and too much lipstick). The way the bats fly like the crudest of toys hung on strings. The lead roles are almost hilariously overplayed; Bela Lugosi as Dracula is lugubriously campy, and Dwight Frye as Renfield is comically maniacal. Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing is soothingly effective as the voice of reason, while except for these actors, the other players speak in the same flat American accents as did the cast of Frankenstein.
  • Further, Dracula is very stylized in a rather amateur way. Is the direction, and Lugosi’s acting, deliberate and exaggerated in order to be creepy, or because everyone involved is incompetent? It’s almost as if the film is parodying some previous film we haven’t had a chance to see.
  • On the other hand, the film lacks a soundtrack (the opening credits are shown to a brief excerpt of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”), and this rather enhances some of the suspense. Those repeated shots of Dracula lurking in the background, with those illuminated eyes, are all the more effective without the musical cues another director might have supplied; as such they emphasize how the other characters are unaware of this lurking threat.
  • The very opening shot of the stagecoach rushing through the hills, according to a book I have, was shot at Vasquez Rocks in southern California. Everything else was shot on sets at the Universal lot in what’s now Universal City.
  • After the opening in Transylvania, and the tragic passage at sea, most of the story takes place in London, where Dracula has leased an abbey next door to the Seward Sanitarium, where the mad Renfield has been taken. Almost every scene is set at night, and even those that aren’t are dark.
    • It takes an awful long time for Van Helsing to figure out where Dracula could possibly have hidden the box of native soil he must have brought with him. Where else by the abbey’s cellar?
    • And why does Renfield, an inmate, keep wandering into the drawing room where the owner’s family and guests reside?
  • I assume the details about vampires and werewolves and Nosferatu were either original to Bram Stoker, or adapted by him from folklore – that is, not original to this film – but I find the blend of such folklore with Christian iconography – that a crucifix, like a mirror, should frighten a vampire – curious.
  • I also noticed that the terrified lady characters almost always scream off-camera; I wonder why.
  • Finally, and the very end of the film, after Van Helsing has driven the stake into Dracula and Mina has come to her senses, she and her fiancé embrace and exit that cellar up those long stone steps. But Van Helsing says he has to stay behind a moment. The End. Wait, what? Why did he have to stay behind?

A couple fun facts:

  • There was in fact a score composed for the film, years later, by Philip Glass, and released in 1999. The DVD of Dracula I have actually offers the Glass score as one of the audio options, but I left it off this time.
  • There was a simultaneously filmed Spanish language version of Dracula, using the same sets and script but a different cast. It’s also on the DVD that I have. Curiously, it runs half an hour longer than the Bela Lugosi English-language version.

SFE correction: the line in Frankenstein is “It’s alive!” not “He lives!”

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Skiffy Flix: Metropolis

I mentioned this on Facebook a couple weeks ago: I finally watched, all the way through, Metropolis.

Tonight I watched the 1927 silent film Metropolis, for the first time all the way through. (I watched the first 45 minutes or so a couple times before.) A fascinating film, of course, for its futuristic dystopia, its vision of an enormous city ruled by elites and powered by underground workers — but also because, in its last half hour or, it’s an action-adventure disaster film! The first, long before movies about the Titanic or earthquakes or burning skyscrapers?

And in a comment to comments about that post:

I never saw the Moroder version. What I just watched was a restored version using footage found in Argentina, of all places, in 2008, grainy bits edited back to recreate the original release. Somehow they smoothed out the music (re-recorded it? not sure) so everything fits. The music is pretty good, very expressive in a Wagner/Strauss sort of way.

Here are some specific notes.

  • First: years ago I had a very old DVD of this film which didn’t play on my current DVD/Blu-Ray players, so I ordered a newer version. The one I got was a ‘restored’ version that includes footage that was cut after the film’s premiere – rather as Kubrick cut 20 minutes from 2001 after initial showings – footage that was found, in all places, in Argentina, in 2008. (Perhaps they didn’t get the memo about cutting too long a film.)
  • It’s a silent movie, with lots of music – pretty good music, as mentioned above – but otherwise we only see actors speaking without hearing them; in the convention of the day, we see occasional title cards displaying lines of dialogue, when it’s really important for us to know what the characters are saying. But most of the time, the film – as did most silent films – assume you can deduce, from context, what the characters are saying to each other, from context.

The film begins.

  • We see credits for director and screenplay, etc.; and the cast. And then an epigram: “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart!”
  • And then we see a huge city, an imaginary, futuristic version of New York City. Then: images of huge pumps going up and down; a clock, with a 1 to 10 scale reaches zero and whistles blow; and the shift changes, with side-by-side lifts, one row of workers marching to leave, another to enter, all very robotic, all in black dungarees. “Deep below,” the title card reads, “the earth’s surface…lay the workers’ city.” The city is an underground cavern, with squared building rising several floors toward the ceiling. The workers march off the elevator, literally looking downward. Very stylized.
  • And then we see the land above, the “Club of the Sons,” we are told, “with lecture halls and libraries, stadiums and theaters.”
    • We see an open-air track field, with many rather skimpy white men [not physically fit by any modern standard] racing around it, in white shorts.
    • And then we see the “Eternal Gardens,” a place with huge plant-like structures, and a man dressed like a foppish orchestra conductor trying to corral a number of young women in outlandish garb. He is, we gather, choosing a companion for Master Freder, Joh Frederson’s son. The ladies curtsy and turn. Freder runs in, quickly chooses one woman to chase around the fountains and pheasants. Freder wears all white, shirt and tie and odd pants that billow at the top, as if dressed like a boy; he’s not an adult. He grabs one the women and they speak—
  • But then a door opens, and a plainly dressed women enters leading a group of children, all poorly dressed. They look around tentatively; the music is plaintive. “Look, These are your brothers” she tells the children. Freder stares at her. She stares back, as other men arrive to guide them back into the elevators. Freder asks the ‘conductor’. “Who—was that?” and he rushes out to follow her. Title card: “But this is what happened to Freder – son of Joh Fredersen, master of Metropolis – when he went to search of the girl:”
    • [Oddly, the son here is named Freder, while the father is named Fredersen; generally, it’s the other way around.]
  • We then see Freder down among the huge machines, where men work at banks of dials and levers. The direction is very stylized: the workers bend back, and forth, in unison. There’s a huge machine with central stairs. Then there’s an accident: steam erupts. The worker there can’t reach the lever; he struggles, fails. The temperature rises; steam hisses—men collapse, Freder falls back.
    • Freder has a vision: the machine is a monster, Moloch, a huge head with an open mouth, the stairs leading up the mouth, where priests lead slaves up the stairs to throw them into the fire.
    • The illusion fades; Freder sees injured or dead workers being taken away on stretchers.
  • Freder runs outside and commands a taxi to take him “To the new Tower of Babel – to my father–!”
  • Now we see the grand city shot with bridges of motorways and trains among the skyscrapers, and biplanes (!) flying between [banking oddly in tight turns]; a shot of three highways full of cars; then the grand building in middle distances, traffic in front and below. Also dirigibles.
  • And then we are inside a huge office, on a high floor in one of those skyscrapers, with enormous windows giving a view of the city. Fredersen, a distinguished older man, walks back and forth giving orders to minions. On a wall creep numbers, like stock tickers. Nervous underlings write everything down.
    • His son, Freder, rushes in, crying expressively to another man, and then his father [about the accident in the underground, we understand]. The father responds by turning to this other man: “Why is it, Josaphat, that I learn of the explosion from my son, and not from you–?” “The details—”
    • The son pleads with his father, worried about those “in the depths” who might rise up against him.
    • Another crisis: the chief foreman of the Heart Machine arrives with two more plans, diagrams of some kind, found on the men involved in today’s accident. Didn’t Josaphat know about this?
    • Father fires Josaphat.
    • Freder follows Josaphat out, offering assistance.
  • Freder returns to the factory, offering to trade lives with one of the workers, to tend the machine.
  • Frederson, the father, visits a “strange house” in the middle of Metropolis, where lives Rotwang, an inventor. Rotwang shows Frederson a female robot. It stands, walks, to delicate music. Rotwang promises that soon no one will be able to tell it’s a robot.
    • Frederson asks Rotwang for advice—what to do about these secret plans that the workers have?
  • M/w Freder finishes his shift and follows other men down into the catacombs, where a woman, Maria – the same woman he saw earlier, with the children – stands before several tall crosses and speaks to the crowd, to tell them the legend of “THE TOWER OF BABEL.”
    • We see the story told, the tower rising, then collapsing; the men could not understand one another.
    • “Head and hands need a mediator… the heart.” Who could the mediator be? She looks at Freder. He offers himself. They kiss.
    • But Fredersen and Grot, the foreman of the Machine, are spying on them; Frederson tells Grot to make the machine into an image of Maria.

And that’s just the end of the ‘prelude,’ about a third of the way in.

The ‘intermezzo’ and ‘furioso’ show the transformation of the robot into Maria, and the infiltration of this robot into the workers’ underground to foment, or quell, revolution. Workers panic, attack the machines, and the city begins to crumble. In particular, flood water pours into the underground city. This becomes a disaster film, as actors, including many children, are washed away, and miniature building sets crumble.

Eventually the mobs catch up to Maria, who they think is a witch, and burn her on a pillar of fire… only to see she is really a robot.

The real Maria survives. The film ends with workers meeting with Fredersen, Freder, and Maria, and the offering of a handshake. And the epigram: “The mediator between brain and hands must be the heart.”

Comments:

  • The takeaways from this film are the visuals: of the vast cityscape, with enormous buildings and levels of different modes of transportation; of the stylized humanoid robot Maria; of the monstrous underground machine and the robotic human workers; of the aerie-like office of Fredersen, the Master of Metropolis.
  • The plot is both simplistic, in its contrast between the elites above and the workers below, and muddled, with a confusing subplot about Fredersen and the scientist Rotwang and their past – the original reason for the robot, you see, was to recreate the daughter lost by something something. Soap opera. The central theme is pure science fiction in its dystopian depiction of the dangerous of industrialization and the way mass production would dehumanize workers, but the film doesn’t offer any solution to this problem except for the shaking of hands.
  • As noted I was surprised that the last quarter or so of the film was an extended, disaster movie-like action sequence, with riots and cascading waters and collapsing buildings.
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Skiffy Flix: Frankenstein

Have been busy the past few weeks with 1) family visits and 2) work on sfadb – the end is in sight. Very little reading in the past two months. But I have taken the occasional couple hours to watch old classic movies.

Today: the 1931 Frankenstein, which I’ve seen a couple times before, but not in decades. I’ll just post a few bulletized notes.

Sunday 29Sep19: some additional comments, and the bottom of the post.

  • The film is directed by James Whale, about whom a much later movie, Gods and Monsters, was made, with Ian McKellan as Whale.
  • The opening credits credit the source material to both a play and to the original novel by “Mrs. Percy B. Shelley,” because Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley had been married to Percy Shelley. That’s how women were regarded, nearly 90 years ago, as attachments to their husbands.
  • The opening shot has a man — Edward van Sloan, who’d just starred in Dracula and stars here as Dr. Waldman — come onto the stage, as if in a theater, to address the audience, and advise them that the film might be disturbing, because, it is about a scientist “who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God” — immediately setting the conflict in homey terms, appealing to religious prejudices about scientific investigation and the supposed risks of “playing God.” I very much doubt these sentiments were in the original Shelley novel; but the film was made in 1931 Hollywood, and so appealed to American prejudices. Indeed, Wikipedia documents several examples of censorship or banning of the film.
  • Yet the central theme is not what it’s fear-mongeringly advertised to be: Frankenstein doesn’t “create” life in the sense of making something living from a petri dish of chemicals; he is reviving dead people. Or more precisely, reviving a collage of dead people parts.
  • I haven’t seen yet why the character names were changed from the novel, where it was Victor Frankenstein; in this film it’s Henry Frankenstein, and another character is given the name Victor. And Frankenstein’s assistant here is Fritz (not Igor as in Young Frankenstein).
  • The critical theme, it seems to me, is about the monster itself: innocently created, why does the film portray it as evil and violent? Well, because the crucial element of horror and thriller movies (and many stories) is that anything new and strange must be evil and dangerous. (Rather the opposite of science fiction’s presumptions.) The excuse here is that the brain used was a criminal brain. That’s doesn’t explain the monster’s physical power.
  • To the film’s credit the monster’s essential innocence is fully evident in several scenes, notably his encounter with a young girl at the lake. The monster’s innocence — it doesn’t understand the difference between tossing flowers into the water, and tossing in the girl — is tragic, but not evil. (And yet, the girl drowned from being thrown in a couple feet of water?)
  • This is the film in which the seemingly mad scientist cackles “It’s alive! It’s alive!”. This is the film in which the townspeople rise up with torches and chase the monster into a hilltop windmill and then burn it down.
  • It’s also about the scientist’s wealthy father, Baron Frankenstein, a dotty old man who’s only worried about his son’s marriage. The house they live in is lavish, with enormous drawing rooms and high ceilings and a large staff, lying at the edge, apparently, of a small village otherwise occupied by peasants. But lavish lifestyles depicted in films were one thing that drew people to the movies, in those days.
  • They key scientific premise, by the way, is that Dr. Frankenstein has discovered some new ‘ray’ beyond the ‘ultraviolet ray’, and this new ray is what brought life into the world, which he proceeds to prove through demonstration. He hoists the monster’s body up into the thunderstorm (it’s quite a grand set, actually) so that the electricity will activate the ray, apparently, not because electricity will directly bring the stitched-together corpse (back) to life.
  • The actors all speak in very flat American, almost New Yawk, accents, even when speaking German words (Herr as “hair”).
  • There’s virtually no music in the film, save at beginning and over the end credits.
  • The film is shot mostly on sound-stages, on those forced perspective sets you see in films of this era, where the stage rises and curves away at the back as if to suggest the other side of the hill is where a stage backdrop actually is. There’s one scene in which the cornered monster keeps turning as if to leap over a cliff, but he can’t because the stage doesn’t go back any farther.
  • The lake scenes were filmed at Lake Sherwood, just south of Thousand Oaks, northwest of LA.
  • Whale’s direction is occasionally very expressive, some of the closeup shots of the monster downright poignant, even if the editing there is abrupt.
  • The film ends with a wedding — as so many pulp SF stories of the day did — and a toast to the house of Frankenstein.

Later comments:

The Frankenstein story is famous, part of popular culture and known far beyond the field of science fiction, where it is regarded by some as the first actual science fiction novel (long before the idea of the genre of science fiction existed). Because it is about the idea of scientifically experimenting to see what the results are.

But I suspect the Frankenstein story endures because it confirms the fear many people have about what scientists do – the popular conception of the singular ‘mad’ scientist working alone in his lab – even if that was not the point of Shelley’s novel. This plot never seems to get old: scientist, not properly humble before the will and domain of god, creates something that gets out of hand, and then destroys him before the threat can become a danger to everyone else. Michael Crichton wrote this sort of story over and over, the story that fears discovery and change and whose resolution means defeating the change and returning everything to normalcy. There will always be conservatives and reactionaries for whom this story resonates.

At the same time, while I haven’t read Mary Shelley’s original novel in decades, I suspect that was not the simplistic message of her original novel, but that playwrights, and Hollywood, have simplified her book in a way to appeal mass audience prejudices. Just as, to take another example at hand, the idealistic themes of the original Star Trek series have become degraded and forgotten into the basis for standard Hollywood action/special-effects films.

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The Invaders — In Color!

The past few evenings I’ve watched and rewatched several episodes of the mid-1960s TV series The Invaders. The show began in January 1967 – a mid-season replacement for some other show, presumably, in the same season as Star Trek’s first year – for 17 episodes, then ran a full season of 26 episodes from Fall 1967 to March 1968. It wasn’t a show I watched closely at the time, but I did see enough episodes for the show to make an impression on me, and to lead me to buy the DVD set of the show’s first season a while back.

The Invaders was a show about a Santa Barbara architect, played by Roy Thinnes — a fine actor, who apparently had a substantial career (see Imdb), but who never became any kind of star, past this brief 2-year TV series — who witnesses, late one night, the landing of an alien spacecraft. He becomes convinced that aliens our invading our world, and the series is about him trying to convince others, and always failing. The show is a descendant of 1950s movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders from Mars, and books like Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, that imagined various ways aliens would try to infiltrate human society and take over our planet. All of these, of course, can be understood as analogs for the American fears in the 1950s and 60s about communists taking over American society.

Be that as it may. The show is also a prototypical story, common in both SF and fantasy, about a person who witnesses an extraordinary event and then tries to convince others, and fails, again and again. (Until, in some of these stories, the person is validated at the end, sometimes indirectly, incidentally, after the characters have left the stage.)

So in the past few evenings I’ve watched several first season episodes at random, including the premiere episode, “Beachhead,” and several later ones, including one guest-starring Michael Rennie, famous for his roles in The Day the Earth Stood Still and the two-part Lost in Space episode “The Keeper.”

A couple comments about the series in general. It was produced by Quinn Martin, whose name was even more prominent in the opening credits than Gene Roddenberry’s was in Star Trek’s. “A Quinn Martin Production” it would be announced by the narrator. Quinn Martin also produced the more successful and long-running series “The F.B.I.,” starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., that began in 1965 and ran for 9 years. Both that series and “The Invaders” had similar structures: each show opened with a pre-credits bit (a prolog, or teaser) before the show credits. Those credits had a narrator announcing the show’s principal guest stars (always four, it seems), and then announcing the title: “Tonight’s episode: ‘The Interrogator'” or whatever. And then as the show resumed after each commercial break, there was a title: “Act I,” then “Act II,” and so on. Finishing with an “Epilog.” (Most shows in the 1960s, including Star Trek, had similar structures, though Trek didn’t have a separate epilog following a commercial.)

I appreciate these opening credits, because they identified the guest actor names with their faces. In virtually all TV shows and movies over these past decades, the credits list actor names and somehow presume you the viewer will know what role they play in the show. Hollywood insiders do, but most of us casual watchers don’t. (Did you really keep track of which actors played which characters on Game of Thrones? Maybe the top three or four.)

So: The Invaders begins with the episode “Beachhead,” that depicts architect David Vincent, who lives in Santa Barbara, driving home from some conference, and trying to take a short cut through the mountains, late at night. He stops for sleep at a deserted diner, but is later awakened by the sound and eerie glow of… a spaceship landing in front of him. (A round flying saucer, of course, widest and flat at the bottom, as in the photo above.)

This initial episode has him driving immediately to the Santa Barbara sheriff’s office to report the incident. His architectural partner Alan Landers, played by James Daley (who would a couple years later star in a Star Trek episode), shows up. When they return to the scene of his sighting, the sign has changed — no longer “Bud’s Diner” but now “Kelly’s Diner”. (Why did the aliens bother with such small a detail? Presumably simply to discredit the witness.) Vincent meets a man and woman camping nearby, who say they are hunters, but react violently, leading to a fist-fight, and in this scene Vincent notices two key ways of identifying aliens posing as humans: their pinky fingers stick straight out, and when badly injured or dead, they glow red – and when killed, disappear leaving only a bit of ash.

Vincent’s investigations take him to a small town, Kinney, deserted except for this episode’s female guest star, Diane Baker, whose husband, he learns, died after seeing something… in a nearby hydro-electric plant, where Vincent finds an alien control room and vertical glass tubes the aliens use to regenerate their human bodies. Vincent’s partner shows up but is captured, put in one of those tubes, and dies. When police finally show up, all evidence has vanished, and Vincent simply leaves town. The ominously-toned narrator, Twilight Zone-style, provides concluding remarks.

Some general points apply to all these episodes.

  • The opening credits emphasize that the show is IN COLOR! This was 1967, when broadcast shows were just transitioning from black and white to color. Star Trek debuted in color in 1966, but Lost in Space, beginning a year earlier in 1965, had one season of black and white before switching to color in the second season. Both Trek and especially LIS in that 2nd season use vivid colors the show the advantage of having a color TV; thus the bright red, blue, and tan shirts in Trek.
  • Smoking is common and routine. Presumably to be an actor in those days, you had to have learned to smoke.
  • Every episode (it seems) features at least one fist fight, generally between David Vincent and some bad guy. I’ve noted that the original Star Trek also featured routine physical violence, in a way that Next Generation did not; and in general, my impression is that kind of violence, routine in Westerns and Detective shows in the 1950s and ’60s, faded over the following couple decades. (These days I gather cop shows include lots of gun violence, but not milquetoast fist fights.) Again, to be an actor in a certain type of show in the ’60s meant you had to be able to handle yourself in a fight, even if a stunt double stepped in for the difficult shots. Recall also that NBC bought Star Trek when the second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” ended with a big fistfight, according to sources. (See my comments about the episode here, along with a reference to Steven Pinker about declining violence.)
  • All, or almost all, the cars seen are Fords, or Ford-related: Mercurys and Lincolns. The same was true in “The F.B.I.”; apparently Quinn Martin had a marketing deal with the company. (A few exceptions include the hearse at the end of “Beachhead,” which is a Cadillac.)
  • Each episode has a prominent female costar, sometimes an actual or potential love-interest for David Vincent, other times the wife or girlfriend of one of the male guest stars.
  • As in all ‘60s TV shows, each episode is independent and cannot depend on any others; there is not any kind of story arc. Thus David’s brother in “Wall of Crystal” or Peter Graves in “Moonshot,” though each convinced of Vincent’s cause, cannot join the fight. The episodes were written to be shown in any order.
  • The music is by Dominic Frontiere, famous at the time for The Outer Limits a couple years before. While having no way to study individual tracks in each episode (as I’ve done with Trek), my impression from these few episodes is that Frontiere composed one set of themes for the show that were used over and over again in every episode. There seem to be no individual episode scores. The music consisted of an ominous trio of descending two-notes and a repeating set of rising three-notes (at 4:00). A compilation is here on YouTube.
  • As with most TV shows in the 1960s, it was shot at various locations in Southern California, in rural areas north and west of Los Angeles, with actual locations standing in for fictitious towns in the stories. Yet while set in Santa Barbara, some of the location shooting does seem to have been in Santa Barbara, judging from the ridge of mountains seen in some scenes, e.g. when David Vincent meets Burgess Meredith’s character at the bank parking lot.

Other episodes just watched:

In “Wall of Crystal” a carousing newly-wed couple – the bride played by the late Peggy Lipton, of Mod Squad fame—accidentally runs a truck off the road, whose cargo is a bunch of crystals that suffocate them. David Vincent, following news stories for any strange incidents that might indicate alien presence, shows up to collect a sample of the crystals. [How is David Vincent making a living while obviously not attending to his job as an architect? How can he afford to jet across the country following these leads?] The story involves David’s brother Bob and his wife Grace, and a TV commentator played by Burgess Meredith who becomes convinced of Vincent’s claims when the scientist testing the sample is mysteriously killed. In this episode we learn that the aliens actually can’t live in Earth’s oxygen atmosphere, and plan to replace it, via the crystals. The story has this episode’s alien baddy, played by Edward Asner (pre-Mary Tyler Moore Show), kidnapping Bob to force Vincent and the TV commentator to renounce their stories. The final confrontation occurs at a deserted winery, where the Asner and Meredith characters, and an entire building of the winery, vanish in alien glow before the police can arrive.

In “The Innocent” Vincent follows a lead to a coastal Maine village where a fisherman has encountered the aliens and has captured one of their disc weapons. But Vincent is captured by the aliens, led here by the imposing Michael Rennie, who claims the aliens have decided on a peaceful approach. He invites Vincent onto an alien ship, which seems to take off and quickly lands in the valley of Santa Margaretta, where Vincent’s architectural dreams have been realized, and where his old girlfriend Helen is there to drive him around. This turns out to have been an illusion; Vincent is forcefully made drunk and forced to drive a car on a mountain road [obviously above Malibu, despite the story’s Maine setting], which of course he survives.

In “The Ivy Curtain” a charter pilot, played by Jack Warden, is forced to land his plane in a storm. He notices that one of his passengers, despite severe injuries, doesn’t bleed. The pilot is taken to his passengers’ destination, Midlands Academy, where he’s paid off (by the administrator, played by Murray Matheson) to forget what he’s seen. Meanwhile David Vincent has learned of this place and investigates: he finds classrooms of aliens being instructed on how to act plausibly human. The female lead here is Susan Oliver (of Trek fame), who plays the pilot’s wife, and who betrays him. Vincent’s attempts to summon authorities results in the usual vanishing of evidence.

And in “Moonshot” David Vincent comes to the Florida Keys, where two of the astronauts scheduled for the first Moon landing have been killed by a helicopter dropping red fog over their fishing boat. Vincent meets the head of security, played by Peter Graves (who would become the star of Mission: Impossible later in 1967), and one of the replacement astronauts, Hardy Smith, whom Vincent suspects is an alien imposter. The story involves Hardy Smith’s wife, played by this episode’s female lead Joanne Linville (seen a year and half later in Trek’s “The Enterprise Incident”), who eventually is forced to admit her husband is an imposter, and the Moon mission’s secret agenda to investigate structures on the Moon that might be alien artifacts. The story ends as the alien Hardy Smith imposter launches the rocket and explodes it.

I’ve ordered a newer DVD set that includes the series’ entire run. I’m curious if the concept advanced in the second season.

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Asimov, I, ROBOT

(The photo shows a 1969-era Science Fiction Book Club edition of a Doubleday hardcover, with the jacket copy claiming the book is “Long out of print and in great demand”; a 1984 mass market paperback from Del Rey; and the currently available 2008 trade paperback edition, also from Del Rey.)

I, ROBOT, published in 1950, is a collection of nine earlier-published stories gathered into a collection in an arrangement that has an historical progression, and with added interludes that expand the significance of a key character, Susan Calvin, a chief roboticist who develops the robots and explains their occasionally aberrant behavior. A key theme is that robots are constrained by the “Three Laws of Robotics” — summarized here at Wikipedia (briefly: robots can’t harm humans; must obey orders; must protect themselves, but each law overridden by any previous). And the background historical progression includes social and technological changes, among them the development of a hyperlight drive that enables what Asimov, in other stories, imagines as an interstellar and then galactic empire. The progression of stories ranges from the homespun to the grandiose, from the concerns of a young girl’s nursemaid, to the concerns of a species that suspects it’s being manipulated or controlled for its own good.

Asimov wrote these stories in the 1940s, in parallel with his “Foundation” stories, and apparently presumed the two series had nothing to do with each other. The book I, ROBOT collected these nine stories, with some revisions and some connecting material added as framing: so the book begins with a first-person reporter arriving to interview Susan Calvin, now 75, and listens to her stories about their development, and her belief that robots are “a cleaner and better breed than we are” p17 (page references – no check this – to the 2008 Del Rey trade paperback edition).

The first story, “Robbie,” first published as “Strange Playfellow” – the magazine editor changed it, and Asimov changed it back for the book) was Asimov’s 9th published story. It’s about a young girl, Gloria, whose parents have bought her a robot nursemaid, which she adores. [The original version of this story, which lacks references to the three laws and the cameo appearance by the unnamed Susan Calvin that we see in the book, is in the anthology THE GREAT SF STORIES Vol. 2.] But Mrs. Weston distrusts it, and the neighbors gossip about it, and so Mr. Weston reluctantly returns it. A visit to New York City (this is set in 1998) includes a trip to a robot museum, where the discarded Robbie now works on the line, and a fortuitous accident redeems Robbie and his position in Gloria’s life.

The story is notable for not being a puzzle story, as most of the later ones are. But it establishes a recurrent theme of these stories and others by Asimov (such as his first-published story, “Trends”) – the social resistance, often religiously inspired, to new technology and attempts at exploration.

The second story, “Runaround,” presents a classic puzzle scenario: a robot is behaving inexplicably, and can be understood only by a deep, situational, understanding of the Three Laws of Robotics. The story introduces a pair of wiseacre engineers, Powell and Donovan, who appear in several of these stories. We meet them here on Mercury, where a robot named Speedy, sent out to gather selenium from an open pool on the surface, hasn’t returned. In fact it’s circling the selenium pool as if in confusion or indecision. The solution involves an understanding of the relative priorities of the three laws; the orders given it, its need to protect itself, and its need to protect human beings.

The third story, “Reason,” originally published earlier than “Runaround,” is about a robot assembled on a space station far from Earth, who becomes aware, looks around, and refuses to believe the stories that Powell and Donovan tell about the Earth and the stars. Basically, he’s a creationist robot! He only believes the evidence of his immediate senses. I blogged about this in some detail several years ago — http://www.markrkelly.com/Blog/2015/09/21/rereading-isaac-asimov-part-3-reason-a-creationist-robot/. This and the last story are the most profound in the book.

The next few stories include a couple involving complex situations in which robot behavior seems inexplicable. In “Catch That Rabbit” a set of linked “multiple robots” on an asteroid work only when being watched by humans, and otherwise act crazily, going through wild gyrations of dance. In “Little Lost Robot” a special robot with a relaxed first law hides itself among ordinary robots after being told, by an angry engineer on a space station, to ‘get lost’. This latter story has the unfortunate, to contemporary ears, use of the words ‘boy’ to address the robot and ‘master’ for a robot to address a human. And in “Escape” a grand ‘thinking machine,’ built to assist the construction of a hyperdrive engine, confounds the engineers since the experience of hyperdrive causes human to too closely experience death…an effect presumably overcome in Asimov’s later galactic empire, when spaceship jumps of thousands of parsecs was routine.

“Liar!” on the other hand, the third written of all these stories after “Robbie” and “Reason,” has a heavy emotional component, and it’s all about Susan Calvin. (It’s worth noting that, looked at in order of publication, Asimov wrote his first robot story about a little girl’s nursemaid, then wrote the one about the creationist robot, and this one about the lying robot, the next year; and later he wrote the more intellectual puzzle stories about detailed conflicts among the laws.)

In “Liar!” the US Robots factory discovers they have accidentally built a mind-reading robot, RB or Herbie. They have to keep it a secret, lest they trigger more anti-robot resistance among the public. Susan Calvin interviews it, of course; US Robots need to understand how this happened. But then background soap opera situations overtake the story. Calvin has a crush on a younger roboticist, Ashe; a US Robots official, Bogert, desires to become director. And so—spoiler!—the robot Herbie tells them what they want to hear, that the things they desire will come true. Angry and embarrassing recriminations occur, until Susan realizes what is happening. Again, the three laws: the robot decided it couldn’t harm humans by distressing them with the truth. Of course, this is a quandary; surely telling people lies leads to more harm? Susan confronts the robot with this paradox—in a back and forth banter that the robot is unable to answer, until it *screams* and goes insane, never to speak again. It’s exactly like those situations in Star Trek where Kirk would argue a computer or robot into catatonia or destruction.

And the story relies on a sexist depiction of Susan Calvin as, being a professional woman, a homely biddy who can never hope to marry. It’s 1941.

The final two stories raise the stakes, or expand the scope, as the impact of robots is felt on the broad human society.

Before “Evidence” we have an interlude with the interviewer and Susan Calvin about how nationalism has come to an end and the world is divided into ‘Regions’ with a ‘Golden Age’ brought about by robots. The story concerns a politician, Stephen Byerley, who is accused of being a robot – he never eats in public, or sleeps. A rival politician wants to expose him; can he do so by forcing him to break one of the three laws? Not breaking the laws proves nothing; “the Rules of Robotics are the essential guiding principles of a good many of the world’s ethical systems” and so a human operating along these principles is simply a very good human.

It is Byerley who arranges a situation to prove himself not a robot. He stages a public speech, and a man from the crowd challenges Byerley to hit him, something a robot could never do, to harm a human. Byerley does. Slug him.

Of course there is another explanation, which Susan Calvin perceives.

It’s notable how often Asimov invokes ‘fundamentalists’ as the enemies of progress and exploration. Back in the 1940s! Perhaps some things never change. P186t:

It was what the Fundamentalists were waiting for. They were not a political party; they made pretense to no formal religion. Essentially they were those who had not adapted themselves to what had once been called the Atomic Age, in the days when atoms were a novelty. Actually, they were the Simple-Lifers, hungering after a life, which to those who lived it had probably appeared not so Simple, and who had not been, therefore, Simple-Lifers themselves.

Quite prescient!

In the interlude before the final story, we’re told that Byerley became Regional Co-ordinator, and then the first World Co-ordinator in 2044. By that time the Machines were running the world—standing devices the equivalent of robots, bound by the same laws. (It’s curious that Asimov imagined vast computers, ‘Machines,’ as being the successors to the individually built robots that we’ve seen in the earlier stories.)

The final story is “The Evitable Conflict,” first published in 1950, the same year the book I, Robot was published – presumably as the book was proposed, Asimov sat down to write a grand concluding story about how robots would affect human society.

Stephen Byerley, World Coordinator, meets with the now 70-year-old Susan Calvin to discuss why various economic inefficiencies are creeping into the system. The world has stabilized, because it’s run by robots and Machines, who have the first law built into them. There is no overproduction, no shortages, no more war. And yet, there are inefficiencies. Have the Machines been given the wrong data?

Byerley recounts his visits to each of the four ‘Regions’ on Earth.

  • The Eastern Region, run by Ching Hso-lin in Tientsin, which has a problem of unemployment. (Note the emphasis on yeast; cf. the Lucky Starr Venus novel)
  • The Tropic, in ‘Capitol City’; a shortage of labor
  • The European, capital Geneva, where Madame Szegeczowska discusses the falling of production from the Almaden mercury mines
  • And the Northern (a combination of North America and the former Soviet Union), capital Ottawa, with a Scots Vice-Co-ordinator, who says they can’t be fed false data
  • And finally the entire Earth’s capital, New York. [of course]

There are several references to the Society for Humanity (p201, 208, 201) as being opposed to progress; p213.7 “They would be against mathematics or against the art of writing if they had lived at the appropriate time.”

Then on p215.3 it’s suggested that there are men in this society who are *ignoring* the dictates of the Machines. All the inefficiencies can be tied to them. “Men who feel themselves strong enough to decide for themselves what is best for themselves, and not just to be told what is best for others” p215.4

So what is the solution? Outlaw the Society? No. Calvin explains that the Machines will compensate, because their overriding drive is the first law…which becomes a law of humanity, not just an individual human.

And to do that, the machines must preserve themselves. Thus they take care of, ignore, the human elements that threaten them. They cannot reveal this to humanity, lest they ‘hurt our pride’ p218t.

So, what is best for humanity? Perhaps the style of earlier civilizations would make people happier. The machines will figure it out, without telling us. Agrarian, urbanization? Yes, humanity has lost control of its destiny; perhaps horrible, perhaps wonderful.

This is certainly the most profound of the robot stories, because it addresses big issues about human happiness and progress, and why those things are not necessarily best determined by the aggregate of individual humans.

Maybe humans don’t know what’s good for themselves. P223b

Stephen, how do we know what the ultimate good of humanity will entail? We haven’t at our disposal the infinite factors that the Machine has at its! Perhaps, to give you a not unfamiliar example, our entire technical civilization has created more unhappiness and misery than it has removed. Perhaps an agrarian or pastoral civilization, with less culture and less people would be better. If so, the Machines must move in that direction, preferably without telling us, since in our ignorant prejudices we only know that what we are used to, is good—and we would then fight change. Or perhaps a complete urbanization, or a completely caste-ridden society, or complete anarchy, is the answer. We don’t know. Only the Machines know, and they are going there and taking us with them.

This a brilliant set of insights, some 70 years ago, about the evolution of the human race, echoed by others, e.g. Harari, about how agriculture was a huge mistake, how we might have been happier living in other ways.

On the other hand– this premise assumes the notion that the machines are somehow infallible and wiser than actual human beings. This premise has not played out. As it’s turned out, it’s naïve to presume that all you have to do is feed computers a bunch of raw data and voila, they will answer any question you have.

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I’ve yet to reread Asimov’s two later robot novels, THE CAVES OF STEEL and THE NAKED SUN, so now I’m curious to see if in those books he followed up on these implications. Further out—he wrote several novels in the 1980s that managed to reconcile the robot series with the galactic empire series. Did these themes come up there? Beyond even those – Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, and David Brin wrote three follow-up Foundation novels, in the 1990s, to wrestle with Asimov’s themes. I’ll try to get to them too.

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Asimov’s conclusion reflects one of my provisional conclusions: that humans are happiest living in a community with a common set of beliefs, no matter how rational evaluation would show those beliefs to be in error or delusional. That to recognize reality, and humanity’s tiny place in it, can at best be an individual project.

Posted in Book Notes, Isaac Asimov, science fiction | Comments Off on Asimov, I, ROBOT