Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘P. Schuyler Miller

The dawn of man

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Note: To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which held its premiere on April 2, 1968, I’ll be spending the week looking at various aspects of what remains the greatest science fiction movie ever made.

Almost from the moment that critics began to write about 2001, it became fashionable to observe that the best performance in the movie was by an actor playing a computer. In his review in Analog, for example, P. Schuyler Miller wrote:

The actors, except for the gentle voice of HAL, are thoroughly wooden and uninteresting, and I can’t help wondering whether this isn’t Kubrick’s subtle way of suggesting that the computer is really more “human” than they and fully justified in trying to get rid of them before they louse up an important mission. Someday we may know whether the theme of this part is a Clarke or a Kubrick contribution. I suspect it was the latter…perhaps just because Stanley Kubrick is said to like gadgets.

This criticism is often used to denigrate the other performances or the film’s supposed lack of humanity, but I prefer to take it as a tribute to the work of actor Douglas Rain, Kubrick and Clarke’s script, and the brilliant design of HAL himself. The fact that a computer is the character we remember best isn’t a flaw in the movie, but a testament to its skill and imagination. And as I’ve noted elsewhere, the acting is excellent—it’s just so understated and naturalistic that it seems vaguely incongruous in such spectacular settings. (Compare it to the performances in Destination Moon, for instance, and you see how good Keir Dullea and William Sylvester really are here.)

But I also think that the best performance in 2001 isn’t by Douglas Rain at all, but by Vivian Kubrick, in her short appearance on the phone as Heywood Floyd’s daughter. It’s a curious scene that breaks many of the rules of good storytelling—it doesn’t lead anywhere, it’s evidently designed to do nothing but show off a piece of hardware, and it peters out even as we watch it. The funniest line in the movie may be Floyd’s important message:

Listen, sweetheart, I want you to tell mommy something for me. Will you remember? Well, tell mommy that I telephoned. Okay? And that I’ll try to telephone tomorrow. Now will you tell her that?

But that’s oddly true to life as well. And when I watch the scene today, with a five-year-old daughter of my own, it seems to me that there’s no more realistic little girl in all of movies. (Kubrick shot the scene himself, asking the questions from offscreen, and there’s a revealing moment when the camera rises to stay with Vivian as she stands. This is sometimes singled out as a goof, although there’s no reason why a sufficiently sophisticated video phone wouldn’t be able to track her automatically.) It’s a scene that few other films would have even thought to include, and now that video chat is something that we all take for granted, we can see through the screen to the touchingly sweet girl on the other side. On some level, Kubrick simply wanted his daughter to be in the movie, and you can’t blame him.

At the time, 2001 was criticized as a soulless hunk of technology, but now it seems deeply human, at least compared to many of its imitators. Yesterday in the New York Times, Bruce Handy shared a story from Keir Dullea, who explained why he breaks the glass in the hotel room at the end, just before he comes face to face with himself as an old man:

Originally, Stanley’s concept for the scene was that I’d just be eating and hear something and get up. But I said, “Stanley, let me find some slightly different way that’s kind of an action where I’m reaching—let me knock the glass off, and then in mid-gesture, when I’m bending over to pick it up, let me hear the breathing from that bent-over position.” That’s all. And he says, “Oh, fine. That sounds good.” I just wanted to find a different way to play the scene than blankly hearing something. I just thought it was more interesting.

I love this anecdote, not just because it’s an example of an evocative moment that arose from an actor’s pragmatic considerations, but because it feels like an emblem of the production of the movie as a whole. 2001 remains the most technically ambitious movie of all time, but it was also a project in which countless issues were being figured out on the fly. Every solution was a response to a specific problem, and it covered a dizzying range of challenges—from the makeup for the apes to the air hostess walking upside down—that might have come from different movies entirely.

2001, in short, was made by hand—and it’s revealing that many viewers assume that computers had to be involved, when they didn’t figure in the process at all. (All of the “digital” readouts on the spacecraft, for instance, were individually animated, shot on separate reels of film, and projected onto those tiny screens on set, which staggers me even to think about it. And even after all these years, I still can’t get my head around the techniques behind the Star Gate sequence.) It reminds me, in fact, of another movie that happens to be celebrating an anniversary this year. As a recent video essay pointed out, if the visual effects in Jurassic Park have held up so well, it’s because most of them aren’t digital at all. The majority consist of a combination of practical effects, stop motion, animatronics, raptor costumes, and a healthy amount of misdirection, with computers used only when absolutely necessary. Each solution is targeted at the specific problems presented by a snippet of film that might last just for a few seconds, and it moves so freely from one trick to another that we rarely have a chance to see through it. It’s here, not in A.I., that Spielberg got closest to Kubrick, and it hints at something important about the movies that push the technical aspects of the medium. They’re often criticized for an absence of humanity, but in retrospect, they seem achingly human, if only because of the total engagement and attention that was required for every frame. Most of their successors lack the same imaginative intensity, which is a greater culprit than the use of digital tools themselves. Today, computers are used to create effects that are perfect, but immediately forgettable. And one of the wonderful ironies of 2001 is that it used nothing but practical effects to create a computer that no viewer can ever forget.

The psychedelic nightmare

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Note: To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which held its premiere on April 2, 1968, I’ll be spending the week looking at various aspects of what remains the greatest science fiction movie ever made.

On June 24, 1968, Ron Hopkins, an officer of the Church of Scientology, issued a secret policy statement to all members under his jurisdiction in the United Kingdom. It read in full: “No staff or current students are to see the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. The film produces heavy and unnecessary restimulation.” A few months later, the author William S. Burroughs wrote to his friend Brion Gysin: “Incidentally I thoroughly enjoyed 2001. More fun than a roller coaster. I knew I wanted to see it when all Scientologists were told it was off limits.” To the best of my knowledge, we don’t know precisely why the movie troubled the church, although it isn’t hard to guess. In dianetics, “restimulation” refers to the awakening of traumatic memories, often from past lives, and even the experience of seeing this film in a theater might have seemed like an unnecessary risk. In a lecture on the story of Xenu, L. Ron Hubbard explained the sad fate of the thetans, the disembodied souls who have clung for millions of years to unsuspecting humans:

[The thetans] were brought down, packed up, and put in front of projection machines, which were sound and color pictures. First [it] gave them the implant which you know as “clearing course.” And then a whole track implanted which you know as OT II. After this however, about the remainder of the thirty-six days, which is the bulk of them, is taken up with a 3D super colossal motion picture, which has to do with God, the Devil, space opera, etc.

And the uneasiness that Scientologists felt toward 2001 was only an extreme version of the ambivalence of many fans toward a movie that represented the most ambitious incursion that the genre had ever made into the wider culture.

As far as I can determine, we don’t know what Robert A. Heinlein thought of the film, although he presumably saw it—it was screened one night on the S.S. Statendam, the ocean liner on which he sailed on the ill-fated Voyage Beyond Apollo cruise in 1972. And Isaac Asimov had a few surprising brushes with the production itself. Arthur C. Clarke called him to discuss a plot point about the evolution of vegetarians into omnivores, and a year and a half later, Asimov came close to actually being in the movie:

Arthur Clarke was working with Stanley Kubrick to put out a motion picture called 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Kubrick, who was investing millions in what might have seemed a very dubious venture…was searching for ways to promote it properly. One way was to get a group of high-prestige individuals to make the movie respectable by having them submit to movie-camera interviews in which they would speak on such subjects as the possibility of extraterrestrial life. I was one of those approached, and I spent hours on May 18, 1966 doing the interview in one of the rooms in the Anatomy Department [at Boston University]…Afterward I heard that Carl Sagan had been approached and had refused to cooperate since no money was involved. It made me uneasily aware that I had given myself away for nothing and had exposed myself as valueless by the only measure Hollywood valued—money. But it was for Arthur Clarke, I told myself, and you can’t let a pal down.

Ultimately, the idea of the talking heads was dropped, and none of his footage made it into the finished film. Asimov later wrote approvingly of the movie’s “realistic portrayal of space travel” and called it a “classic,” but although he praised its special effects, he never seems to have said much about its merits as entertainment.

As far as John W. Campbell is concerned, I haven’t been able to find any opinions that he expressed on it in public—an unusual omission for an editor who was seldom reluctant to speak his mind about anything. In 1968, however, Analog took the unusual step of running what amounted to two reviews of the film, one by G. Harry Stine, the other by book critic P. Schuyler Miller. Stine, an author and rocket scientist who was close to both Campbell and Heinlein, hated the movie:

We thought that here, perhaps, would be a suitable sequel to the fabulous Destination Moon made twenty years ago…When the final title credits were flashed across the Cinerama screen after the New York premiere, I sat there with the feeling that I’d been had. It’s too bad that the film is billed as science fiction, because it isn’t. It is ninety percent “gee whiz” science gadgetry and ten percent fantasy nonsense…[Audiences] will believe that it is a solid look at the technology of the future. They will instead see a film that is the most cleverly made, subtly done attack on science and technology that has ever been made…It disintegrates into an unexplainable, nonscientific, anti-intellectual psychedelic nightmare.

Stein criticized the HAL subplot “because Kubrick and Clarke did not use or recall Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics,” and he lamented the film’s lack of characterization and conflict, adding without irony that these were qualities “rarely lacking in [the] pages” of Analog. A month later, in a combined review of the book and the movie, which he called “tantalizing,” Miller was slightly more kind to the latter: “Technically, it is certainly the most advanced science fiction film we have ever had…The film will be remembered; the book won’t.”

None of these criticisms are necessarily wrong, although I’d argue that the performances, which Miller called “wooden,” have held up better than anybody could have expected. But much of the response feels like an attempt by lifelong fans to grapple with a major effort by an outsider. Three decades earlier, Campbell had reacted in a similar way to a surprise move into science fiction by Kubrick’s most noteworthy precursor. In 1938, after the airing of the Mercury Theatre’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, Campbell wrote to his friend Robert Swisher: “So far as sponsoring that War of [the] Worlds thing—I’m damn glad we didn’t! The thing is going to cost CBS money, what with suits, etc., and we’re better off without it.”  In Astounding, he said that the ensuing panic demonstrated the need for “wider appreciation” of science fiction, in order to educate the public about what was and wasn’t real:

I have long been an exponent of the belief that, should interplanetary visitors actually arrive, no one could possibly convince the public of the fact. These stories wherein the fact is suddenly announced and widespread panic immediately ensues have always seemed to me highly improbable, simply because the average man did not seem ready to visualize and believe such a statement. Undoubtedly, Mr. Orson Welles felt the same way.

Campbell, who was just a few years older than Welles, seems to have quickly tired of being asked about The War of the Worlds, which he evidently saw as an encroachment on his turf. 2001 felt much the same to many fans. Fifty years later, it’s easier to see it as an indispensable part of the main line of hard science fiction—and perhaps even as its culmination. But it didn’t seem that way at the time.

Astounding Stories #11: The Moon is Hell

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The Moon is Hell

Note: As I dive into the research process for my upcoming book Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I’ll be taking the opportunity to highlight works within the genre that deserve to be rediscovered, reappraised, or simply enjoyed by a wider audience. You can read the earlier installments here

On May 11, 1953, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote a long letter to his stepmother Helen. He never mailed it, but it was preserved among his papers, and it’s a document of immense biographical interest. Campbell, who was chafing under what he saw as his father’s lack of appreciation for what he had achieved in his career, spent a full page listing his professional accomplishments, and he concluded:

My current plans are long-range; when I took over Astounding seventeen years ago, my plans were long range, too…The next step which literature must take is to develop a novel-like story in which the story shows the development of a culture through various experiences…Science fiction is now trying to develop the presentation techniques whereby an individual can understand and appreciate the developmental processes affecting entire cultures. Naturally, we haven’t completed the development of these techniques yet, and we have, in consequence, a rather patchy, unsuccessful literature. It’s like the first automobiles; they were less reliable, rougher riding, noisier, and smellier than the horse and buggy.

But their developmental stage was well worth the effort; their inadequacies in the early days were properly forgiven, but also properly recognized as inadequacies.

When I read these lines, I found myself thinking of Campbell’s novel The Moon is Hell, which first appeared in book form in 1951. It’s best remembered now as one of the very few stories that Campbell published in the three decades after he became the editor of Astounding Science Fiction. By all indications, it’s an apprentice work that was first written sometime in the early thirties, but it appears to have been carefully revised by its author before publication—the writing is far smoother and more accomplished than anything else Campbell was putting out at that stage. And the timing of its release was significant in itself. Science fiction was in a transitional moment: the impact of dianetics was just beginning to be felt, ambitious new competitors were appearing on newsstands, and authors like Heinlein were making their big push into the mainstream. For Campbell, it must have seemed like a good time for a statement of purpose, which is what The Moon is Hell really is—the quintessential hard science fiction novel, built from the ground up from first principles. As the author P. Schuyler Miller wrote in his review in Astounding:

Surely everyone who has done any science fiction has dreamed of writing a realistic story of the first men on another world, worked out with an absolute minimum of hokum—no green princesses, no ruins of alien civilizations, no hostile high priests. The ultimate would be the story of the first men on the Moon—a world without air, without life, or the possibility of life.

John W. Campbell, Jr.

And that’s exactly what Campbell gives us here. The Moon is Hell is told in the form of a journal kept by Dr. Thomas Ridgley Duncan, a physicist and second in command of the first mission to the dark side of the Moon. After the expedition’s relief ship crashes on landing, the astronauts are left stranded with no way to contact Earth; a steadily diminishing supply of food, air, and water; and the knowledge that it will be months before anyone back home realizes that they need to be rescued. They set to work with admirable discipline to obtain the necessities of life from the rocks around them, extracting hydrogen and oxygen from gypsum, developing new techniques for synthesizing nutrients, building generators and engines, turning the starch in their clothes and books into bread, and finally digging out an entire settlement underground, complete with a library and swimming pool. (Much of the plot anticipates The Martian in its determination to science the shit out of the situation.) The diary format allows Campbell to deliver all of this material unencumbered by any interruptions: long sections of it read like a briefing or an extract from a textbook. It’s a novel written by a chemist for other chemists, posing a series of ingenious scientific problems and solutions, and it has enough good ideas to fuel a dozen hard science fiction stories. Reading it, I was reminded of the joke title of the book on which the three protagonists are working in Foucault’s Pendulum: The Wonderful Adventure of Metals. Because although there are no recognizable characters in sight, this is a calculated choice—the real hero is chemistry itself.

The result, to be honest, can be pretty hard going, and although it gets better toward the end, the pages don’t exactly fly by. I found myself admiring each paragraph while vaguely dreading the next: it’s a relatively short novel, but it seems very long. (In its original edition, it was published together with The Elder Gods, a story that Campbell wrote on assignment for Unknown—its original author, Arthur J. Burks, had failed to deliver a publishable manuscript—that provides a much more engaging display of his talents.) But it’s also exactly the novel that Campbell wanted to publish. It provides as perfect a summation as you could want of its author’s strengths and limitations, as well as those of hard science fiction as a whole. This isn’t a narrative about individuals, but about the scientific method itself, and it succeeds in some respects in his goal of telling a story about a culture: it’s implied that the stranded astronauts are laying the foundations for a permanent presence in space. And although it doesn’t work as a novel by any conventional standard, it’s indispensable as a sort of baseline. It’s as if Campbell decided to stake out the limits of hard science fiction as an example to his readers and writers: this is a novel that nobody ought to imitate, but which provides an essential reference point by which all efforts in that vein can be judged. And it’s no accident that it was published at a moment when Campbell was about to push into dianetics, psionics, and fringe science, as if he had already gone as far in the other direction as he possibly could. As Emerson said of Shakespeare, Campbell wanted to plant the standard of humanity “some furlongs forward into chaos,” but first, he had to give us an ideal of order, even if it was hell to read.

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