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Archive for the ‘Sci-Fi Books’ Category

Hoo-boy…  One might get the impression from reading “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (one of the greatest sci-fi books of all time) that even bad Walter Tevis would be just a shade short of wonderful.

Well, here we have a book that shows that no matter how talented one is, a stinker is always a distinct possibility.

This book goes nowhere and does nothing.  It’s still rather nicely written, and some of the ideas are quite good, but for the most part this is nothing more than an extended therapy session rewritten as science-fiction.

The story is about a man’s man named Ben Belson who is quite unbelievably rich, who acts like a zealous capitalist while spouting praise for Chairman Mao, who is egocentric and unlikeable, and who is impotent due to psychological issues.  He proceeds to go to space in search of ‘safe uranium’ as a replacement for Earth’s depleted fossil fuels and winds up on a planet made almost entirely of obsidian and which gives him (and him alone) exactly the things he needs.  That last sentence is, of course, the good bit; unfortunately, the book spends all its time dicking around with topics from the first sentence instead.

The planet has a wonderful womb-like atmosphere: the grass sings to him, says “I love you,” and heals his wounds, and upon the planet also grows the most perfect painkiller in existence, which he needs for his daughter’s crippling arthritis.  He names the planet Belson, after himself – another priceless little bit of psychological symbolism.

Unfortunately, this is all part of a larger psychoanalytic parable in which Ben goes out with a morphine habit and psychological issues, gets reborn (on the planet Belson), confronts his mother (via a computerized tele-therapist), and essentially becomes an adult anew by bringing back uranium to the dying earth and restarting his life as a successful and happy businessman.

I’ve just made the book sound twice as interesting as it actually is.  The entire thing is told in the first person, lending it the feel of a confessional (which is not the type of thing which makes for good reading – it makes only for good spewing), and the character of Ben is so self-absorbed at all times and so self-congratulatory, despite embodying traits that do not coincide with his stated beliefs, that the story leaves one praying for an interesting character to enter the fray.  No interesting character ever really does.

The whole thing is one long, morose trudge through the mid-life crisis of a junkie masculinist prick (who thinks that, deep down, he’s a really great guy).

It jumps to a start, slowly dies, and crawls to the finish line drenched in its own pointlessness.

In this book, Tevis takes everything that was iffy about “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (namely, his very questionable political position) and combines it with an unlikeable hero and the worst elements of confessional narratives.  Any interesting sci-fi elements are merely an overlay onto a book that never should have left the psychiatrist’s office.

Feel free not to read this.  Unless you’re desperate to read what must be an intentional metaphor for Tevis’s own recovered from being an asshole alcoholic, it’s really not worth your time.

————-

Another recap of the overall ranking/merit of the sci-fi books I’ve read since coming to Atlanta:

  1. “The Man Who Fell to Earth” – Walter Tevis
  2. “Slaughterhouse Five” – Kurt Vonnegut
  3. “The Sirens of Titan” – Kurt Vonnegut
  4. “The Watch Below” – James White
  5. “The Shrinking Man” – Richard Matheson
  6. “The Left Hand of Darkness” – Ursula K. Le Guin
  7. “Childhood’s End” – Arthur C. Clarke
  8. “The Steps of the Sun” – Walter Tevis
  9. “Frankenstein” – Mary Shelley
  10. “The Crystal World” – J.G. Ballard

Next up: either Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” or Alfred Bester’s “The Stars My Destination.”

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This is one of that subset of books that truly suffers from having been adapted into a film.  (Which isn’t overly surprising, as Matheson is also credited with the adaptation.)

Despite the many things that this book does that the film does not (i.e. more intricate and ‘expensive’ action sequences, less subdued references to sexuality, a clearer laying out of the idea of a man’s brain in a child’s body, the openly invoked American desire for exploration and conquest, and the telling of the story in two time streams – in the basement and sequential flashbacks), this book simply doesn’t have much lasting appeal when one already knows, and can more quickly re-experience the tale.

For me, it acted more like a compelling essay on the meanings behind the film, than a book in its own right.

In fact, despite being pleasantly (if unspectacularly) written, it actually suffers from inclusion of some of the things that the film adaptation left out – Matheson was terrible at romantic dialogue, which is apparent in the scene with the circus midget; Matheson’s ending is also much less elegant, trying to describe the sights of being zero-inches tall, rather than being an expressive spiritual ending like the film; and some of Matheson’s inclusions, like the ability to fall great distances without breaking bones, seem as absurd as true.  The film is simply more palatable.

The holes in the plot are also more apparent here, as one has more time to think about them – how does one eat and drink when water and food particles (at the point where they no longer can be shrunk) are larger than your system can digest; how does one shrink and maintain ‘human’ characteristics when fewer and fewer atoms would make up one’s body; how does one go through ‘inversion’ into other dimensions just from shrinking, does that not stand in contrast to the idea of atoms?  And on and on…

Though the book, ultimately, is deserving of being considered a landmark of science fiction, and it’s certainly entertaining to read, I don’t see myself ever coming back to it.  The film is quicker and easier to re-consume, and hits most of the salient points.  I do strongly miss the overt comparison between man and child, as that is one of my areas of study, but otherwise I’ll take the film any day over the book.

Happily put it third on my previously mentioned list of seven books (beneath “Slaughterhouse Five” but above “Watch Below”), but that’s more a mark of its quality as a book than my continuing interest in it…

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Just finished this book yesterday…color me unimpressed.

Perhaps Ballard was better when he got more bizarre.  “Crash” sounds interesting, as does “The Atrocity Exhibition.”  But this…this was just a waste of time.

The core idea was brilliant.  Spontaneous crystalization occuring in the forests in three locations on earth, which rendered useless the distinctions between life and death (because being encased in crystals was like a permanent living mummification) and light and dark (because things encased in crystals gave off light of their own).  In the early going, it really seemed like it was going to be a book of strong social commentary, and passages where the central character waxed poetic about how ‘light’ and ‘dark’ personalities were two sides of the same coin, about which he refused to make a moral judgment, were nice.

Unfortunately, the brilliant central concept was fleshed out with either poorly thought out characters or trite situations.  No one in the book, including the main character, had any personality whatsoever; they were just a list of names.  Normally, any time a character returned in the book, I’d have to pause and try to remember what their ‘job’ was or what they had done, because I was completely incapable of reading any motivation or attitude onto the name.  But equating characters with their jobs or previous experience didn’t really help at all, because these things were never creative either.  You’ve got your untrusted priest, your female reporter/love interest, your best friend and his wife who you’ve slept with, your ship captain, your military commander…  The only surprising inclusion was leprosy, and it was really just a means to an end – a disease to give people so that mummification in crystals seemed like a better future than death.

Virtually everything felt like a deus ex machina.  The crystalization, the fact that other crystals could ‘melt’ the new crystals, the extra-marital affair, the reporter who looked surprisingly like the woman in the affair…  None of it seemed like it was motivated.  These were just pinball paddles slapping our main character from one situation to the next.

I was bored to tears by this book.  My mind wandered on every single page.  The writing was nothing special, the story itself was nothing special, and the characters were non-existent.  The only thing that kept me going was the core idea, and even that wasn’t particularly satisfying, as most of the time people were just running away from it rather than discussing what it was or what it meant philosophically.

This was sort of like what happens when Michael Crichton tries to do sci-fi.  It just turns into lots of running and ‘action.’

Of the seven classic science fiction books I’ve read in the last five or six months, this one was clearly the worst (if one makes a special exemption for “Frankenstein,” which was atrociously written, but rather good as a story).  Walter Tevis’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth” is still the best written and the most compelling.

…although, last night I started Richard Matheson’s “The Incredible Shrinking Man.”  Matheson was clearly a deeply talented writer, and may be the first author I’ll have read who can contend with Tevis for pure skill.

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My list of books recently read from best to worst:

  1. “The Man Who Fell to Earth” – Walter Tevis
  2. “Slaughterhouse Five” – Kurt Vonnegut
  3. “The Watch Below” – James White
  4. “The Left Hand of Darkness” – Ursula K. Le Guin
  5. “Childhood’s End” – Arthur C. Clarke
  6. “Frankenstein” – Mary Shelley
  7. “The Crystal World” – J.G. Ballard

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Just finished reading the book, which was suggested to me by my immunization doctor a couple weeks ago as a book she’d like to see turned into a film.

I have mixed opinions about her verdict.The Watch Below

On the one hand, it is clearly a very intelligent little tale, with a great deal of merit when it comes to classic sci-fi stories.  It lays out a quite compelling comparison of a small human culture stranded underwater in the air pockets of a sunken ship, and a race of water breathing aliens traversing the stars in search of a new home.

The human beings creatively solve a number of issues in continuing their existence by using photosynthesis for oxygen, a manually powered energy source for a few hours per day of light (both for human use and for the photosynthesis), and the relief of endless boredom in their invention of “the Game,” which acts largely as a means of rediscovering the ability of human beings to have very accurate memories (something which is apparent in the way that wandering minstrels used to be able to sing epic poetry of hundreds of pages in length from memory, which is now an eroded skill in the era of the written word).  They propagate and live on for generations in the ship’s hull.

The aliens have a similar issue, in which their technology of Cold Sleep fails under the physics of space travel (as opposed to their home ocean, where the technology was developed), and they also must propagate for several generations in a contained space in order to survive.

Both undergo the equivalent process of internal fighting, the shifting policies of the election of leaders, and the conflicts inherent between young and old.  At the end, the aliens turn out to have been heading for earth as their new home, and these two sets of isolated cultures collide, allowing each group to see the similarities in their races that the individuals who were not included in their isolated states are blind to.  (For the aliens, these are the individuals newly woken from Cold Sleep, for the humans, they are the people who remained on the surface.)  This point of contact saves both from a disastrous war.

The story is constructed with fine parallels both of living conditions and of imagery.  The initial group of stranded humans is a group of five with no hope of survival whatsoever, and the final group that encounters the aliens is also a group of five who have lost all their means of survival through the continuing deterioration of the ship hull.  (I can imagine some wonderful paralleling of camera set-ups in these sequences, resulting in roughly Chinese ‘circle of life’ imagery; not to mention the powerful imagery of the initial five survivors sleeping in clusters, back to back in fetal position, under blankets and breathing into tubes, to keep warm.)  And the ‘action sequences’ late in the book (of the mad dash through the ship, closing doors to try to ward off the onrush of water in the case of the humans, and the initial landing, misinterpreted as invasion, through waves of missiles and debris in the case of the aliens) would also make for a good parallel.  I actually found myself hearing a potential soundtrack in my head while reading these sequences, and can already see styles of parallel construction there as well.

However, the book would have some problems in translation to a script which I’m not sure are possible to surmount.

For starters, much of the plotline treads dangerously in areas where ‘suspension of disbelief’ would be stretched thin.  The very concept of a group of human beings being able to survive for 150 years in a slowly rusting ship hull seems suspect, and would have to be handled with care in order to not alienate an audience.

Another issue is in the construction of “the Game.”  While the idea that humans could rather rapidly reclaim their ability to remember, in great detail, the events of their lives is reasonable, it is a difficult concept to get across in images without resorting to voice over narration of some sort (like diary entries), which I certainly would not want to do, as the endless stretches of silence inherent in the story would be the source of any film adaptation’s power.  The constant spectre of voice over would sour the mood.

There is also the issue of the breadth of the story compared to the shortness of the book (and the necessary shortness of a film).  By the time the initial generations start to die out, which occurs over halfway through the story, there isn’t enough time to really create additional characters with whom one is capable of identifying.  The story carries its own weight through sheer momentum, which could be difficult to translate into a film.  While reading, I thought, perhaps, of filming a large number of sequences of life carrying on for generations, and playing them onscreen in fast forward, so that the audience would get the sense of great blocks of time passing without constant cutting and re-establishing of date with intertitles like “five years later.”

Not to mention that many events in the book seem to happen awfully quickly, because he’s telling the story of several generations in the space of 190 pages.

But the biggest issue is in the fact of darkness.  Like many books that have been written after the ascendence of film (and this is probably a direct attempt by authors to maintain the legitimacy of the novel by treading in areas closed to film), huge sections of the story occur with total darkness as a necessary factor.  It is the very fact of darkness which causes much of the change in the human characters and the way they must live their lives.  This is a very difficult problem to address in adapting books to the screen (and is one of the reasons why I still have difficulty deciding how anyone could ever translate Lawrence Watt-Evans’ “Lure of the Basilisk” to film – which is a book, from a series of four, that I personally would love to turn into a film series given the opportunity).  I find myself wondering if one can’t branch out into film techniques that demand a level of ‘documentary intellect’ from the viewer without alienating them from the story; by this I mean, would it be plausible to film the actors as normal, having them act as though they could not see, and then tint the film in shades of green as though we, as an audience, were an invisible viewer looking through night-vision goggles?  Is such a thing even necessary?  Many films simply film in low-light and pretend like the conflict in what we see and what the characters see doesn’t exist.  I personally have always been turned off by this, but I’m not sure that constant ‘night-vision’ footage in dark scenes wouldn’t be just as off putting.

So, there are issues.

I do agree with the suggestion that this could make for a fabulous film if a way were found to circumvent the issues.  And I will certainly keep it in mind if I ever stumble into a situation where I have industry contacts and can pitch ideas to filmmakers, or am able to make modestly budgeted films myself.  But I have my doubts that this story is able to be filmed to any satisfaction.

And, it certainly wouldn’t be the cheap, easily filmable story that one could start an indie film career with on a few thousand dollars.  The scene with the alien fleet arriving would have to have a budget.  The rest could be thin, but there would have to be a budget for the ships.  So my hunt for a cheap indie script will have to continue.

But this one is promising.  I do wonder if anyone has attempted to adapt it to film before…

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