Last month on The Cultural Gutter, I wrote about Nalo Hopikinson’s Brown Girl in the Ring the importance of diverse voices and experiences in science fiction. Following that thread, this month I’m looking at one of the grand ladies of science fiction, Octavia Butler, and the first book in her “Xenogenesis” series, Dawn. Understanding the Aliens explores Butler’s ability to tap into a truly visceral body horror and create a believably frightening, awkward “first contact” situation between humans and aliens. Special guest appearances by The Mote in God’s Eye and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.
Over on the Cultural Gutter, I’m writing about the musical science fiction spectacle Just Imagine. Vaudeville on Mars is a look at the similarities between the lavish 1930 Fox Studios production and the 1928 Soviet film Aelita, Queen of Mars; as well as a celebration of the outrageous costume and set design. All of which is really just a way of making myself feel better as I try to come to grips with the fact that human society at one time thought a movie this extravagant should be headlined by vaudeville funny man El Brendel.
Other than the long wait since the end of season one, there was little in “The Metamorph,” the first episode of Space: 1999’s second season to clue you into just how much had gone wrong with the series, and how much more wrong was waiting on the horizon. Certainly, some things had changed. For starters, there’s a new theme song and someone must have found a box of colorful orange and blue jackets in a closet somewhere, because everyone has started wearing jackets. But you know how fashion trends are, and the sudden appearance of jackets is of no real concern (and I like to think inspired Jean-Luc Picard, who took five seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation before he found a jacket). Alphans have also started wearing ID badges with their name and photo on them because…in a confined space for years with three-hundred or people or so, I am sure it was awkward for Koenig to still not know “that one guy’s name.” So he issued the command for “Hello My Name Is” tags to save everyone discomfort at parties.
Over on The Cultural Gutter, I’m taking a look at one of my favorite sci-fi book series from my youth. Return of the Tripods chronicles my revisit as a man grown to John Christopher’s Tripods trilogy: The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire, which I first discovered when they were serialized as a comic strip in Boys’ Life magazine.
When I was young still and open of mind, my parents set me loose in the University of Kentucky bookstore with the understanding that I was allowed to choose for myself from the racks of tapes and books some manner of entertainment. As I perused the offerings with a diligent focus that can be mustered only by a seven-year-old with a serious decision to make, I contemplated my options. Not a book, I decided, even though there were several promising ones. But I wanted something in which I could indulge on the long car ride back to Centerfield, and I was not prone to car sickness except when I tried to read. So a cassette…but which one? I flipped through the racks, past recordings of old radio dramas. The Shadow? Maybe. Lights Out Theater? Even better. And then I found it. With nary a doubt in my mind as to the correctness of my decision, I took from the rack and presented triumphantly to my mother my choice of prize: a recording of Orson Welles’ legendary broadcast of The War of the Worlds on Halloween eve, 1938.
It’s a blue moon month for me over at The Cultural Gutter, and I get the honor of ushering in All Hallow’s Eve, scary sci-fi style. Something Kinda Funky looks at the time Buck Rogers, Wilma, and Twiki faced off against a nefarious Space Count Orlok in the classic Buck Rogers in the 25th Century episode, “Space Vampire.”
Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy was Russia’s less internationally known Tolstoy. While the one was writing thousand-page tomes about sad people losing things (pretty sure that’s the plot of most Leo Tolstoy books) that would be forced upon generation after generation, the other Tolstoy was writing slick science fiction adventures like Aelita (1923, adapted into a movie a year later), Engineer Garin (1924), and Count Cagliostro, which American high school students did not get to read, since there was no time left after plodding through Anna Karenina — in which absolutely no one travels to Mars, builds a death ray, or practices alchemy. To be fair to Leo Tolstoy though, it’s been twenty-six years since I read Anna Karenina, and all I really remember is a chapter where two rivals for the love of the title character retire to a nearby barn to try and outdo one another in feats of gymnastic prowess, and I may even be getting that wrong. In fact, I think much of what I remember of Anna Karenina is actually Great Expectations. I am, however, quite certain there was no death ray.
When British television production company ITC commissioned then changed their mind about a second season of producer Gerry Anderson’s science fiction adventure series UFO, Anderson wasn’t one to let all the hard work that went into pre-production design go to waste. He tweaked the scenario a little and gave the proposed series a new name: Menace in Space. This new take on the concept would feature the inhabitants of a moon base being hurtled out into space after a cataclysmic accident on Earth blows the moon out of orbit. Unfortunately, Anderson’s sleight of hand with his idea for UFO 2 didn’t fool ITC president Lew Grade, who remained unconvinced after the mediocre performance of UFO that a new Anderson science fiction series would be any more successful.
My latest article for The Cultural Gutter is now up. In keeping with the season, it’s science fiction with the heart of a horror film. Gothic Galactic takes a look at Mario Bava’s brief forays into the cosmos, specifically the influential Planet of the Vampires, with special guest appearances by Caltiki and Hercules int he Haunted World.
When the only country in the world that has had atomic bombs dropped on it puts a mushroom cloud in one of its movies, it tends to have more resonance than when, say, the Italians do it. When the Italians set off an atomic bomb, it almost always heralds the arrival of post-apocalyptic, dune buggy-driving leather-and-shoulderpad aficionados. When Japan does it, however, it is something altogether heavier. It can also usher in not the solemn thoughtfulness one might expect, but at least in the movies I watch, instead signifies something supremely weird is about to happen, as if the sheer destructive capability is so difficult to wrap one’s head around — even when it’s been used on you — that there is no way to deal with it other than through the application of sheer strangeness.