Sunday, August 28, 2016

Book Markers



“And we note our place with book markers
That measure what we’ve lost.”
(The Dangling Conversation, Paul Simon)

     Allow me a small digression. Today I will not be writing about Skylark, or even The Odyssey (I’ll get back to them in my next posting), but rather about something a bit more personal.


     A little more than two years ago, I had an overpowering urge to watch once again, after a span of more than half a century, the absolute favorite TV show from my childhood – James A. Michener’s Adventures in Paradise. It originally aired from 1959 to 1962, and it was the first show I can recall actually setting aside the hour it was on in order to watch it. I was absolutely enthralled by its faux exotica and cheesy plotlines. Basically, Adventures in Paradise was about the affairs (in all the meanings of that term) of Adam Troy, skipper of the schooner Tiki, based out of Tahiti in the South Pacific. Week after week, Captain Troy would foil criminals, expose murderers, battle the elements, and play matchmaker to confused young couples while sailing about the enchanted islands of Polynesia. (The show was filmed in California with liberal usage of stock footage taken in the South Pacific.) Somehow, despite never once seeing it in reruns, the passage of time hadn't seemed to dim its magic. I could even still remember the theme music - note for note!


Gardner McKay as Captain Adam Troy 

     So when I found online where I could buy a 17-DVD set of 65 episodes (out of the original 91), I snatched it up. The picture quality was terrible, some episodes were missing scenes, and the soundtrack ranged from barely acceptable to grating on the ears. There was often a static override that on occasion would overpower and drown out the dialog. But I didn’t care! The show turned out to be as good as I remembered it to be – maybe even better, and I fell in love with it all over again. I paced myself watching them, but last night, two years later, I came to the inevitable final episode (“One Way Ticket”) on the last DVD. There are now none left to look forward to, and the words of Paul Simon (quoted above) hit home like a ton of bricks.

     Can it be that when we experience something, that in a way… we lose it? Is the knowledge that there is something more to look forward to more dear to us than the memory of its occurrence?


Shukichi Somiya (Chishû Ryû) peeling an apple in Ozu's Late Spring

     Or perhaps it’s just the approach of Old Age that’s affecting me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always kept a list in my mind of “Books I will never read for the Last Time”. Works of such power and beauty, of such richness and depth of meaning that one could never fully plumb the depths, no matter how many times you returned to the well. On that list were many of the Classics (e.g., The Divine Comedy, Canterbury Tales, Moby Dick) as well as more personal, if not idiosyncratic, titles such as Simak’s Time is the Simplest Thing, Jack Vance’s Alastor novels, or even The Skylark of Space. I just couldn't conceive of myself ever saying “I’ll never pick this book up again with the intention of reading it through.”

     But now I am painfully aware of the fact that, if I ever do get around to once more going through, for example, Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, it’ll almost certainly be for that once unthinkable Last Time. That is... (dare I say it?)... if I have not already done so.

“That day we first
Beheld the summit of Mount Blanc, and grieved
To have a soulless image on the eye
Which had usurped upon a living thought
That never more could be.”
(Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book Sixth, lines 524-528)



This posting is dedicated to the memory of my brother Richard, who died suddenly (from a heart attack) a handful of hours after I wrote it. We shared a love for Adventures in Paradise. In our very last conversation together a few months ago (we lived on opposite sides of the continent), 
we both agreed that it was possibly our all-time favorite TV show.

Goodbye, my brother. Your real "Adventures in Paradise" are just beginning...

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Monsters




     Now what would The Odyssey be without its monsters? The Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens – all have been solace to generations of school children who otherwise might have been bored silly by the prospect of having been forced to study some dull old Greek myth... for who doesn’t love reading about Odysseus’s battles with them?


     Having escaped the clutches of the dead sun, Seaton and his fellow travelers find their spacecraft’s fuel sadly depleted after the titanic struggle against the star’s massive gravitational field. They have no hope of returning to Earth without first procuring a new supply. And so begins a planet-hopping search for more copper. What follows is a delightful series of stand-alone vignettes – independent adventures presented in serial fashion.

     The first world our travelers encounter is home to a deceptively pretty landscape of lush green meadows and dense forest, with no animal life in sight as they touch down. The significance of this, Mankind’s first landing on an alien planet, is not lost on Seaton. “A strange world,” he murmurs in awe. Margaret (the other kidnapping victim, of whom we are beginning to see more and more) breathes out “Columbus at San Salvador.” The entire party sets out to explore.


     But they don’t get far before they must rush back to the safety of the Skylark. “The scene, so quiet a few moments before, was instantly changed. The trees, the swamp, and the air seemed filled with monsters so hideous as to stagger the imagination. Winged lizards of prodigious size hurtled through the air … Indescribable flying monsters, with feathers like birds, but with the fangs of tigers, attacked viciously … a scorpion-like thing with a body ten feet in length … a huge spider – if an eight legged creature, with spines instead of hair, many-faceted eyes, and a bloated, globular body weighing hundreds of pounds, may be called a spider … several twelve foot cockroaches … an indescribable monstrosity of that reptilian age which apparently combined the nature and disposition of Tyrannosaurus Rex with the physical shape of the saber-tooth tiger…” and so forth.

     (Digression: Smith often lapses into using terms as we see in the above paragraph, such as “to stagger the imagination” or “indescribable” (used twice!). One might be tempted to dismiss this as merely evidence of Smith’s undeniably great flaws as a writer, but I think there is something more significant here. Smith is taking us into a realm outside of all human experience, and quite literally lacks the vocabulary to express himself adequately. It could well be that the most effective way of portraying this to the reader is to simply label what we are encountering as “indescribable”.)

     Fortunately, unlike Odysseus’s experience with the monster Scylla, Seaton does not lose a tithe of his fellow travelers to this fantastical bestiary. Foiled by the armored hull of the Skylark, the monsters are ultimately content to devour each other before our heroes’ horrified gaze.

     The next world they come to is dispatched in two brief sentences (“Soon they were approaching another planet, which was surrounded by a dense fog. Descending slowly, they found it to be a mass of boiling-hot steam and rank vapors, under enormous pressure.”), and the third almost as casually (“The next planet they found to have a clear atmosphere, but the earth had a peculiar, barren look; and analysis of the gaseous envelope proved it to be composed almost entirely of chlorine. No life of an earthly type could be possible on such a world, and a search for copper, even with the suits and helmets, would probably be fruitless if not impossible.”)


     Now at first I was a bit disappointed at Smith’s apparent short changing of these two all-too-briefly described yet nevertheless intriguing worlds. I felt he could have fleshed them out to great effect. But upon further thought I realized that we have here one of the many, many instances where Smith proves to be a far better writer than his natural talents can account for. For this practically tossing off of strange planets fulfills exactly the same function as the middle three movements to Gustav Mahler’s titanic Seventh Symphony. That is, they provide space for and accentuate the gravitas of the two massive bookends to that symphony, the first and last movements. For we now come to the next, and climactic, planet in our heroes’ search for enough fuel to return home.


     Like the first, monster-filled world, our travelers’ initial impression is one of tranquil beauty. But instead of the Sylvan seeming paradise of lawn and forest, they find themselves descending over “a large and imposing city in the middle of a vast, level, beautifully-planted plain.” However, it quickly proves itself to be an illusion conjured up by an entity of pure thought and tremendous power, a being capable of manipulating matter in ways undreamed of by creatures of mere flesh and blood. Seaton and his companions are in short order in a danger far, far greater than that posed by the dead sun. For that was a simple matter of applying sufficient force to overcome a deterministic threat. Now they are up against a will – one determined to “dematerialize” his unwelcome visitors. It takes all of Seaton’s ingenuity and skill to get them out of this mess (no spoilers here – I’ll let the reader discover how for himself).


A "Monster from the Id" in Forbidden Planet

     Together, the first and final planets are a perfect contrast. The first is mindless brutality – animal against animal (the very meaning of the word "brutality"). The fourth is something far more menacing – the combination of physical power with an active and hostile will. (Interesting how Smith uses the vision of a City to introduce us to this latter theme.) Smith will return to this idea in a context of far greater significance and astonishing (for Smith, that is) applicability to our own lives, in the third novel of the series, Skylark of Valeron.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Charybdis



     “In hideous fashion, fiendish Charybdis sucked the salt water in. When she spewed it forth, she seethed and swirled through all her depths like a cauldron set on a great fire, and overhead the spray fell down on the tops of the two rocks. But when she sucked the sea-water in, one might look right down through the swirling eddy while the rock roared hideously around her and the sea-floor came to view, dark and sandy. Ashy terror seized on the crew. We had looked her way with the fear of death upon us.”


     As in some cheesy silent movie, with the heroine tied to the railroad tracks while a train is roaring down at full speed, to be rescued only at the last possible second by her lover, Dorothy Vaneman is saved from the clutches for “Blackie” DuQuesne just minutes before plunging to her doom, caught in the inexorable clutches of a black hole.


     Now Smith didn’t use the terminology “black hole” – such things were yet to become part of the astronomer’s lexicon. He called it a dead sun. Having come to their senses after their wildly accelerating flight due to Perkin’s fall onto the control panel, DuQuesne turns his ship around and starts to head back toward Earth. But unseen in his path lies a monster, a dead sun with a tremendous gravitational field – so great that his spacecraft’s engines lack the strength to escape its pull. Were not Seaton and Crane hot on his tail in a far larger and more powerful ship, they would surely have been doomed. In yet another cosmic coincidence, the rescuers arrive in the nick of time, saving not only Dorothy, but her kidnapper and another young woman who had been a prisoner of the by now dead Perkins.

     This entire episode is a good example of how serious Smith was about the “science” in his story. It was well thought out, fully integral to and integrated into the plot, and stretched the imaginations of his 1928 audience. This was truly cutting edge stuff, and Smith was just getting started!