Thursday, January 12, 2012


I had a Bug-Eyed Monster film festival last weekend because I got out of sync with Netflix and the Valier library had a lot of donated movies. I checked out "Solaris" and "Alien," then discovered "Predator" was packaged with "Alien." When Sigourney Weaver stopped being their narrative thread, the Alien producers tried a few collaborations with the Predator producers, sort of like Godzilla meets King Kong.

Solaris” was interesting, a love story reminiscent of the first sci-fi love story I ever read, which was an H.G. Wells tale about an EXTREME shrinking man, who became so small that the gold ring on the tabletop where he was standing became a universe and a gold atom became a solar system with a planet on which lived (remarkably) a woman with whom the man fell in love. Which was all fine, but he didn’t stay shrunk. Well, life is like that, and he had the pain/pleasure of grieving for her the rest of his life. The “gimmick” of Solaris was fabulous casting and the slow realization that a planet can be a creature -- the Gaea principle -- which is a mixed sort of phenomenon.

“Predator” had both Arnold Schwartzenegger and Jesse Ventura (political monsters) in it, plus a few other bulgy fellows who en masse required the re-casting of their monster, because the first stunt man was dwarfed. Actually the monster is pretty ingenious, personifying a bit of forest in an eye-dazzling trick. Arnold left for two weeks in the middle of shooting in order to marry Maria Shriver. Everyone is incredibly young-looking. It was 1987.

“Alien” was the one I wanted to watch because of Ridley Scott, who has a hard-headed Scot attitude towards special effects. He is interested in the consciousness of the viewer, not the expertise and expense of the set. The precursor here is “The Thing,” filmed in Cut Bank which was expected to be like the Antarctic for script purposes but turned out to be having a winter just like this one, so that snow had to be trucked in. Aficionados know that the Thing itself was James Arness in one of those suits that let you be set on fire. My father believed kids should see horror movies, so he went with us though my mother stayed home. He fell asleep. His snoring sort of interfered.

Most people have a sci-fi period in their lives, roughly about junior high school age when everything seems like sci-fi anyway. Mine coincided with the earliest Heinlein books. Now that genre books are what sell and “predator” is the name of an armed drone and “alien” is simply an immigrant, I’ve doubled back to see what I can understand.

On the last expedition to Great Falls, I bought a couple of mags: Asimov’s Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Most of the action I was aware of these days is girl-fantasy: werewolves and vampires, but there is also an offshoot in graphic books and mags like Heavy Metal which follow up on the exaggerated body theme of Predator. My friend, Tom Foral, and is an artist I’ve known since undergrad days at the end of the Fifties. His work is in several streams of subject matter, one of which is “beefcake,” the bodies of weight-lifters, beyond ripped.

At first he was just admiring the development possible, but over the years drugs came into the picture, steroids and then addiction, as men became more and more impossibly, mindlessly, ultra-muscled to the point of parody, even mockery. We don’t usually think of this as science fiction, but steroids can be a jungle-drug, not meant to make one hallucinate but to go beyond Charles Atlas to an inhuman level of incarnation. The great irony is that the same drugs shrivel their reproductiveness. "Predator" is monomaniacal, destructive of the actors, basically plotless, and gruesome in its awareness that humans are flesh.

"Alien" features Tom Skerrit, who is non-stereotypically Native American, as a thinking, protective leader, and ironically shows the destruction of an imitation human. The official monster is a French surrealist lizard in a cat suit that drips KY jelly. (So did the Predator, but it was KY mixed with whatever is inside glo-sticks.) Over the years of Alien series the monster is gradually seen as a “mother” and a second android becomes “human,” not of flesh but of emotion and attachment.

All these stories are attempts to understand how it is that human beings are self-aware, what lives are worth, and what it means in terms of the universe. (Not just “Mr. Universe.”) Vital stuff. Even theological.

I haven’t read much in my sci-fi mags but in Asimov’s Sci-Fi, I found “The People of Pele” by Ken Liu, self-described as “a liminal provincial in America, the New Rome. He lives near Boston. The story picks up a crew, something like the Alien crew, and deals with the time element, since these people can only sensibly travel to planets that are light-years away by staying in suspended animation. By the time they get to their destination, everyone they knew on earth is “a bag of bones in a box,” but they get periodic messages from home in the proper time sequence, just impossibly out of date.

We hear about the geology of this planet: it is smooth and flat with shallow lakes, the wind blows all the time, there are two moons -- one big and one little. Far away on the horizon is a constant moving twinkling and when the explorers go to see what’s there, they find crystals with odd striations and bumps on them. They are all round and the wind is rolling them along. The explanation is so beautifully and gradually given that I’m reluctant to paraphrase it, but we’re not talking Bug-Eyed Monsters here. We’re not talking steroidal or interspecies humanoids or a planet with plans. This is a kind of poetry, what one might call Daoist ecology. A little like east-of-the-Rockies prairie pothole country. Liu's wife, Lisa, , a photographer, is into cowboys. I think maybe she’s been here.

If I see glittering bits on the wind, I will greet them. Maybe I should carry a mirror. Somehow the least humanoid creatures are the most appealing to this human.

1 comment:

mscriver said...

Ken Liu confirms that he and his wife traveled through this area a while back and that it did have some influence on the way he envisioned the planet called "Pele."

Prairie Mary