Saturday, October 17, 2015

Something Wicked This Way Comes

When Ray Bradbury was a young boy, he went -- along with every other kid in his neighborhood -- to see the carnival that had just arrived in his small midwestern town. Among the acts that attracted his special attention was one "Mr. Electrico," a performer of an act that was quite popular back in the 1930's, that of an "electric man," or, in his case, a man in an "electric chair." The trick was based on a version of the "Tesla" coil: the eletricity that danced over Mr. Electrico's chair and body -- Bradbury even recalls it sparking among his teeth -- was high-voltage low-amerage high-frequency current. Such current has the curious ability to leap through space like lightning, but its low amperage and high frequency render it unable to penetrate the body. The performer, of course, must still be very "well-grounded" in his art, but so long as he is, there's no harm, despite the extraordinary spectacle (even today, the Australian performer Peter Terren -- a.k.a. "Dr. Electric" -- does a similar act).

But Mr. Electrico had a slight variation in his: equipped with a sword, he would reach out and touch members of the audience -- if they dared. Ray dared. He stepped forward, and Mr. Electrico touched him on his shoulder, like a monarch dubbing a knight, shouting forth "Live Forever!" as he did so. And the damned thing worked -- for, although Brabury died in 2012, his works, as surely as those of Shakespeare or the Brontës, will live forever among us.

Published in 1962, Something Wicked This Way Comes is, for this and many other reasons, Bradbury's most personal, most intense novel. It's set in the same sort of town he grew up in, and it too starts with a bolt of lightning. From that point onward, the citizens of this place would be well advised to be cautious -- and yet, for some reason they don't see the peril they face in this dark carnival of souls. It's up to two young boys, and their father -- the custodian at the town library -- to fight back. It's a story with resonances with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or The Circus of Dr. Lao, a novel written in 1935 and made into a Hollywood film in 1964, two years after Something Wicked appeared. But Bradbury's art, the art of this book, reaches before and ahead of any other such tales; it has an urgency that only someone who knew the stakes -- in both books and life -- would know.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Left Hand of Darkness

When it first appeared in 1969, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness boldly went where few other science fiction novels had gone before. For one, it opened the question of sexual identity, with a new race of humanoid creatures who only took on a specific gender when they went into a sort of sexualized state known as "kemmer." Thus, a single individual could be the mother of two and the father of three -- and, in the interim between, partake of a gender ambivalence that was deeply unsettling to some readers (and indeed to the book's own narrator, Genly Ai. Secondly, and perhaps as a consequence of this curious condition, the political prestige system of Le Guin's imagined planet was unusually subtle and stealthy; its very name -- shifgrethor -- seems to to echo its shiftiness.

In her later writings, LeGuin confessed that she'd thought about coming up with a new, gender-neutral pronoun -- after all, if someone could be he today and she tomorrow and he again the next day, any grammatical term that implied stasis would ring false to the novel's premise. Initially, she defended the use of "he" as the generic pronoun, but later rejected that view; in 1985, working on a screenplay for a film version of the novel, she experimented by using the pronouns a/un/a's to refer to Gethenians not in kemmer, something she thought worked well in speech but would have had a much harder time in print. Today, thirty years later, in the era of spectacularized transgender identities such as Caitlyn Jenner's, language again is troubled; while no set of non- or trans-gedered pronouns has come into general use, many are tried, and the prefix cis -- indicating someone who is culturally comfortable in their assigned gender -- does seem to be making some headway.

But in The Left Hand of Darkness, this aspect of Gethenian culture is but one of many differences; along with Genly Ai, we puzzle and stumble our way through this society, where, although war is unknown, the keystones of arches must be mortared with blood, politicians only invite you to dinner after they've ceased supporting you, and saying almost anything directly is probably a violation of protocol. It's a fully realized otherworld, whose strangeness never quite wears off -- and a long long way from either monks or space-guns!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Things to Come

Things to Come (1936) is an iconic film of the modern era in more ways than one. The screenplay, based directly on a treatment prepared by H.G.Wells, was remarkable for its blend of present-day anxieties (in 1936, Britain could already see World War II looming on the horizon) with futuristic hopes and dreams; from the opening montage of scary newspaper headlines to the closing cry "An End to Progress Now!" it seems to embody a peculiarly British view of the world. There is stoicism, yes, and a sort of national pride, but there is also a deep suspicion of technology that harks back at least to the Luddites at the start of the nineteenth century. Wells, for an author, enjoyed a remarkable degree of control and influence over the production, although he was not involved in post-production and many of his original scenes were cut or truncated.

One concept, however, which survived the process was Wells's prescient use of a "televisor" as a key instrument of social control. John Logie Baird, interestingly, was a huge fan of Wells and there exists a picture of the two of them meeting; by Baird's account, Wells was well-acquainted with Baird's work. Alas, the production designers for the film, though they gave us an early version of the loose tunics and saturnine rings of sci-fi films to come, did not understand how the televisor worked; what they show us is an odd combination of some sort of film apparatus, with a projection screen the size of a small building.