Friday, December 29, 2006

A Personal Perspective on ISAAC ASIMOV'S UTOPIAS and others

Part Three

In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien threatens Smith with Room 101, “the worst thing in the world” (p.228), which, as he admits, “varies from individual.” Creating situations that are generally accepted as unpleasant or even horrific situations is easy enough for most writers, but even Dante might have hesitated at the idea of creating a one-size-fits-all ‘worst thing in the world’. Similarly, the harder a writer tries to describe a society in which he or she would be happiest, his or her personal best thing in the world, the greater the risk of creating a ‘utopia’ from which many people would find boring or unpleasant: personally, I’d much rather live in Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World than Rand’s Galt’s Gulch.

Not that Galt would be likely to raise the forcefield that protects his pocket Utopia and let me in. A rather worrying feature of many fictional utopias is that they rely on excluding or even eradicating disruptive elements, including new ideas. Plato’s Republic, which ruled that artists would be unnecessary once the perfect society had been achieved, is probably the earliest of these. In both of the George Turner stories above, the guardians of the earthly utopias prohibit space travellers from returning to Earth. In ‘I Still Call Australia Home’, Libary tells the crew of the Starfarer:

“you are conditioned against serenity. You would only be an eruptive force in a world seeking a middle way. You would debate our beliefs, corrupt our young men by offering toys they do not need, tempt the foolish by offering domination over space and time - and in a few years destroy what has taken six centuries to build.” (Turner 1997; p.216)

When the contact officer, Nugan, asks for a “small piece of land, isolated, where we could live on our own terms” (p.215) in which they can settle, Libary replies,

“You will live sequestered? Without travelling for curiosity’s sake, without plundering resources for your machines, without prying into our world and arguing with it?… Set your colony on a hill, and we will surround it with bushfires, a weapon your armoury is not equipped to counter.” (pp.215-217).

Like Huxley’s Brave New World, where ninety percent of the population is mentally subnormal, or Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country, where men from outside Women’s Country have to be kept ignorant of the women’s eugenics program (an ignorance enforced, when necessary, with summary execution), Turner’s Utopia is founded on the majority having an unquestioning faith in the system and only a very small minority, akin to Huxley’s Mustapha Mond, knowing the truth. Heinlein’s Luna, while more tolerant of outsiders (the protagonist even intercedes to prevent the lynching of a tourist, settling for fining him for ‘not having common sense to learn local customs’, p. 121), is secretly a cybercratic dictatorship with only a façade of democracy, in which the computer who ‘counts’ the votes is also the winning candidate. (It may be argued that this is not very different from elections in some countries in our own world, but few people would describe those as utopian.)

Does this matter? If everyone is happy, would it matter if they are also ignorant, or even stupid? Huxley certainly thought so when he wrote Brave New World; why else would the Savage “claim the right to be unhappy”? The creators of Star Trek also thought so, when they had Captain Kirk destroy communities where people were happier than he was, in ‘This Side of Paradise’ and ‘The Apple’. And most science fiction readers and academics would certainly think so: after all, how could a society be perfect without good libraries and intelligent conversation with informed people? We could never possibly be happy there, and therefore -

And there’s the rub. The problem with most science fiction utopias is that writers try to design worlds in which they would be perfectly happy, which is making an unreasonable demand on the future. And the fault does not lie in the future, but in ourselves. As Alfred Bester said in ‘Hobson’s Choice’:

Through the vistas of the years every age but our own seems glamorous and golden. We yearn for the yesterdays and tomorrows, never realising that we are faced with Hobson’s Choice… that today, bitter or sweet, anxious or calm, is the only day for us. (p.144)

Or as Gully Foyle, the protagonist of Bester’s Tiger! Tiger!, asks “Who are we, any of us, to make a decision for the world?” (p. 242).

Perhaps fortunately, that power is rarely if ever given to science fiction writers. The future will make its decisions: all science fiction writers can hope to do is to suggest to our descendents some possible roads they can choose between. They may choose none of them - or, in time and in different communities, they may try many or even all. They have time. And worlds enough.

The Tick-Tock of the Doomsday Clock, part 2

When I was four years old, I asked my mother if the atomic bomb would fall on us. At the time we lived with my grandmother on a small farm in Alabama, and Mom answered, "It won't happen here because we're out in the country." But a year later we moved to Columbus, Georgia, which was adjacent to Ft. Benning, the largest infantry training center in the free world and definitely a target if the Soviet Union ever lobbed nuclear weapons at the United States!

Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock has registered a graphic guess at the risk of nuclear war. The minute hand of the clock flicks back and forth in response to world events. It stood at three minutes to midnight in 1984 when I happened onto a replica of the clock at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. The Bulletin was worried about the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Peace activists in Berkeley were worried too, and they staged protest actions at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where nuclear weapons were being designed. The Doomsday Clock backed up to 11:43 when the Cold War ended. It presently shows 11:53, and the Bulletin's Board of Directors is keeping a wary eye on North Korea.

Cosmologist Martin Rees discusses the Doomsday Clock in his book Our Final Hour (Basic Books, 2003.) Rees believes we now have Doomsday Clocks, plural. Terrorists or rogue states might explode a nuclear weapon somewhere, but "bioterror and bioerror" top Rees' extensive inventory of plausible dooms.

For a question about whether to fear the future, "It won't happen here because we're out in the country" felt like the wrong answer when I was four. Now I can count the ways it's wrong. First, some doomsday scenarios imperil the whole Earth. Second, there can be local midnights: the world goes on, but with a mushroom cloud or a toxic flood where a city used to be. Given Doomsday Clocks, plural, who can say where is safe? Third, finding yourself in a safe place does nothing to alleviate the anxiety of living in a world where Doomsday can happen to someone, somewhere. And fourth: asking whether to fear the future or not is too blunt a way to approach it. The future – which is already here: the 21st Century – is more nuanced than that. Technological terror and scientific wonder are mixed and welded together at every scale from lumps down to the fine grains – like breccia, which is rock that consists of sharp fragments cemented together.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is still in the business of designing nuclear weapons. LLNL also collaborates with NASA to peer into the dawn of creation with state-of-the-art instruments analyzing extraterrestrial material samples. I hear that the LLNL campus looks drably institutional, except for flocks of yellow free-range bicycles. There are enough bikes for any employee to grab one and ride to any other building as desired. If a bike needs repair, it gets parked belly-up as a signal to the maintenance department. Inventing new hells on Earth, doing dawn-of-creation science, and having free-range yellow bicycles. A man-made breccia with bright yellow flecks.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Noriega Playlist

A Christmas story of how Billy Idol defeated Manuel Noriega and ended the 1980s.

Fifteen years ago, on Christmas Day 1989, Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega sought refuge inside the Papal Nunciatura (the Vatican equivalent of an embassy) in Panama City. American troops quickly formed a perimeter outside. While the idea of the 75th Rangers going commando on the Vatican has a certain alt history elan, cooler heads prevailed and negotiations for Noriega's surrender commenced.

President George H.W. Bush had initiated the invasion, styled Operation Just Cause, five days earlier. (Originally, the code name was "Operation Blue Spoon," incorporating elements of "Operation Nifty Package" and "Operation Acid Gambit," all derived from earlier Panama invasion plans maintained in the "Prayer Book," including "Operation Purple Storm" and "Operation Bushmaster." For an obsessively detailed studied of the peculiar etymology of Pentagon code names and what information is encrypted within them, check out William Arkin's Code Names or his killer blog Early Warning at The Washington Post.)

(As dramatic as the invasion sounds, it had a lot of competition for 1989 holiday viewers' attention. The Iron Curtain was dramatically crumbling, and the preceding week had also carried dramatic coverage of the revolution in Romania, which included amazing footage I vividly remember of a bunch of armed civilians taking over the live studio broadcast of the Romanian national television network, picked up real-time by CNN. Bush and Gorbachev declared the end of the Cold War, free elections were held in Mongolia, and the Simpsons premiered.)

On Christmas morning, U.S. Army General Maxwell "Mad Max" Thurman (a/k/a "The Maxatollah") talked mano a mano with Monsignor Jose Sebastian Laboa at the gate of the Nunciatura. The compound was near several high-rise hotels. As Thurman turned to leave, a reporter hollered from an upper floor window of the Holiday Inn: "Hey, General Thurman, how 'ya doin'? Merry Christmas!"

Fearing reporters could eavesdrop on his negotiations using parabolic microphones, Thurman ordered a music barrier be erected around the embassy. The 4th PSYOP Group rolled in a fleet of Hummers mounted with loudspeaker arrays. Conveniently, this being Panama, there was already an Armed Forces Radio station in the city under American command.

The first day, December 25, it was all Christmas music. By December 27, the PSYOP troops had taken over the Armed Forces Radio playlist, and they unleashed a barrage of the same tools of psychological warfare they deployed back home from the windows of their Chevy Novas: classic rock.

Noriega loved opera. He got Styx.

The station had been playing requests for the troops since the invasion began, as reported in a post-op memorandum:

"When the troops started coming in from the field, the requests became quite imaginative. Canine handlers called asking for Billy Idol, 'Flesh for Fantasy,' the Marine Corps Combat Security Company called saying they were going on a mission and needed a song to pump them up. The song was 'Welcome to the Jungle' by Guns and Roses, a song which had been requested many times already. The Special Forces Combat Divers Team asked for several songs by The Doors, 'Strange Days,' 'People Are Strange,' 'The End'...We played a lot of songs with the word 'jungle' in it as well as such songs as 'God Bless the U.S.A.' by Lee Greenwood, and 'We're Not Going to Take It' by Twisted Sister."

Unsurprisingly, the whole thing took on its own manic momentum, the reporters delighting in the Col. Kilgore meme as the Zeitgeist injected itself into this minor historical moment, speaking volumes to the imminent spirit of the age.

The complete playlist is available at George Washington University's National Security Archive. Among the highlights:

(You've Got) Another Thing Coming - Judas Priest
Blue Collar Man - Styx
Danger Zone - Kenny Loggins
Dead Man's Party - Oingo Boingo
Don't Look Back - Boston
Electric Spanking of War Babies - Funkadelic
Heaven's On Fire - Kiss
If I Had A Rocket Launcher - Bruce Cockburn
In My Time of Dying - Led Zeppelin
Iron Man - Black Sabbath
Judgment Day - Whitesnake
Jungle Love - Steve Miller
No More Mister Nice Guy - Alice Cooper
Paradise City - Guns & Roses
Panama - Van Halen
Paranoid - Black Sabbath
Refugee - Tom Petty
Renegade - Styx
Run Like Hell - Pink Floyd
The Party's Over - Journey
This Means War - Joan Jett
Wanted Dead or Alive - Bon Jovi
Wanted Man - Ratt
War Pigs - Black Sabbath
We're Not Gonna Take It - Twisted Sister
You Shook Me All Night Long - AC/DC
Your Time is Gonna Come - Led Zeppelin

Noriega surrendered on January 3. He is currently imprisoned in a federal correctional facility in Miami, scheduled for release next September. (Check out This American Life's story of the 10-year-old girl from a small town in Michigan who became Noriega's pen pal.)

The use of rock music as instrument of psychological warfare has evolved since then, as evidenced by the confirmed reports of enemy combatants being tortured with Metallica and the "Barney" theme in a shipping container on the Syrian border (as brilliantly explored by Jon Ronson in his excellent Men Who Stare at Goats). Though revolutionary at the time, and considered excessive by President Bush 41 and General Colin Powell, The Noriega Playlist now seems a kinder and gentler riff from a time when our geopolitical nihilism was young.

I have created an iMix at the iTunes store with the bulk of The Noriega Playlist for your holiday listening enjoyment. We are open for comments as to what might be a likely playlist for Tehran or Pyongyang.

(I will be headed to primeval territory not far from the Nunciatura for the next 10 days, so don't count on another post from me until January 5 or so. Happy New Year!)

Monday, December 25, 2006

Season's Shelf Cloud

Christmas can be so wrong. Commercialism starting in October or earlier, consumerism covering the nation like sticky red and green paint, all leading up to a misbegotten Christian Saturnalia. In the end, store shelves are emptied of merchandise while residential cabinet, closet and garage shelves are full of new clutter and nothing has really changed.

But a few days ago a grand shelf cloud manifested itself over my part of Houston. It loomed to the south, a massive dark bank of cloud with an upper edge like a seam across the sky. Behind it slightly less gray clouds seethed with lightning. Christmas shoppers took one look, said "yipe!" and ran either into the store or out of the store to the car. Minutes later the storm behind the shelf cloud arrived, pouring out wind and ice water.

Shelf clouds are the visible gust front of a thunderstorm. Not the kind of weather you want to encounter while walking across a parking lot or driving your car, and deadly dangerous if you're in a small airplane. As meteorologist Jack Williams states in the December 2006 issue of the magazine Flight Training, "A shelf cloud is as good a sign as you can imagine for not even thinking of taking off or landing it it's within sight of the airport. The gust front will quickly change the speed and maybe the direction of the wind, and it's the last thing you want to encounter close to the ground."

What a wonderful thing to see on the brink of Christmas. Visible, electric change written across the sky. A reminder that discomfort and danger are more real than the artificial Christmas bubble. A storm in your personal life at Christmas doesn't mean coal in your existential stocking; it just means that your membership in life is paid in full and extended for another year. All plans and hopes are subject to forcible change in the winds of reality. Yet there are moments of sanctuary. I watched the shelf-cloud storm from a cheerily bustling Whole Foods store with my friend Eileen. We had a comfortable seat in a booth right by the window, two sacks of groceries (i.e., shopping mission accomplished), and cups of hot coffee. It was a good vantage point from which to contemplate the storm and Christmas.

Friday, December 22, 2006

What's Under the Anorak?

When I was a kid, Christmas shopping involved trips to Chicago. After hanging with the in-store magician at Marshall Field's, Dad would usually drag us down to the Abercrombie & Fitch store on Wabash.

This did not involve waxed abs on billboards. It was a time portal into a now lost prewar world of the great white hunter. A gentlemen's excursion outfitter, the kind of place where a 1930s pulp hero would get his gear for an expedition to find a lost city in the Amazon or hunt the killer Yeti on the road to Shangri-La. Guns, mackinaws, and old school snowshoes. A Gore Tex-free zone of leather, fur and cordite. The place where young Hemingway stopped before heading up to Michigan and Teddy Roosevelt shopped for his African hunts. (There was another one on Madison Avenue in New York across from the original Brooks Brothers, enabling one-stop shopping — it even had a shooting range in the basement.)

We all know what the brand is now — half-naked twenty year olds displaying their shellacked, machined Apollonian bodies across every bus stand and billboard in urban America, the ultimate commodification of American teen sexuality. The taciturn WASPs of Ralph Lauren's 1980s appropriation of prep after they take off the ties and more: stoned, liberated and vacant. A consumer culture meme so powerful that its product placement rates its own review by Times TV critic Virginia Heffernan.

"No catalog models were harmed in the making of this film."

The Economist just scratches the surface of what's going on here when it argues Madison Avenue has coopted Continental crit and mixed it in a cocktail with a little von Hayek — "Post-Modernism is the new black." Consider how pop semiotics interrelates with the longstanding American insistence on each individual's freedom to reinvent himself (the founding motive force driving Benjamin Franklin's autobiography), and it starts to make more sense.

How does a place for fat middle-aged white businessmen to buy itchy anoraks morph into an existentially vampiric project to enslave their great grandchildren in a subconscious servitude of hypersexualized consumerism? By selling compelling new identities for all-American weekend hedonists.

There's a self-evident family tree at work here. The original early '80s Banana Republic, where, for a period of time, you could buy an honest to god pith helmet to transform trips to the grocery store into an adventure worthy of Haggard. At the same time, Ralph Lauren sexualized the buttoned down attire of bond traders and their children, conquering Middle America with an invasion of magazine models recruited from an anachronistic Fairfield County of the imagination. And then J. Crew appeared, each catalog a visual narrative of the fantasy weekend chino orgies those kids invented while their dads were away at the Bohemian Grove and their moms at the spa with Martha. Through to today, where we see the complete triumph of surface over substance.

One wonders what the Chinese slaves who make these pre-distressed garments think of it all.

What do you do with a generation of overgrown mall kids weaned on hormonal chicken and Diet Coke, their brains wrapped in stonewashed denim and clogged up with dreams of body wax?

Might they make the perfect troops for our new 21st century wars, next generation ambassadors of our way of life, reinvigorating their frontier hunter heritage with vintage gunmetal? Envision the shirtless wonder boys with night vision goggles and assault rifles, gleefully spelunking the dark corridors of Sadr City and the wintry Stalinist tombs of Pyongyang, collecting each other's beautiful body parts from the battlezone, their post-Teutonic female counterparts interrogating enemy combatants in pink and green Abu Ghraibs, playing pick up soccer with severed heads in the base camp. Imagine the recruiting posters looming over your freeway commute.

If suburban kids dressed in Baudrillard's latest designs can succeed in making it real by starting their own fight clubs, isn't parachuting them in to take it to the Mooj a natural evolution of things? We await the platoons of photogenic special forces in elegantly ragged camo cargo pants, accompanied by their embedded fashion photographers and funded by next generation military-industrial-consumer product placement, bringing a new order to the world: Pax Abercrombie.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


"Joy to the world," the balding man in the houndstooth jacket warbled, "Goodwill to men." Behind him, a holovid of the Chiba-Disneyland boy's choir moved their lips out of synch while neon subtitles in English and Hiragana ran across their robes. I tried not to shudder, and turned to watch Kinnison, the manager, toying with his teriyaki chicken. "Thank Christ for Christmas," he said. "Without it, I'd probably have gone under years ago."


"Suicide rate goes through the roof, you know? Especially when it's winter, too. Shortest days of the year, no sunshine..." He shrugged. "I hate it myself; I catch the same plane back home every January first and play golf 'til Easter."

"Where's home? Hawaii?"

"Queensland. Australia. Lots of Japanese tourists, and you'd be amazed how much more you can charge for fish and chips if you call it tempura - but don't quote me on that."

The man in the jacket - I can't call him a singer - put down the microphone, bowed, and picked up a knife and napkin. I glanced around. We were only a few blocks from Little Tokyo, but I couldn't see anyone who looked Asian apart from the waitresses and the tattooed swordsman. "Tourists," repeated Kinnison. "Where would we be without 'em, ay?"

I shrugged. I'd been a travel writer for about seven years, and if I had a dollar for every tourist trap I'd seen, I could buy the Sphinx and use it as a piggy-bank. The man on stage dropped to his knees and thrust the knife into his abdomen.

"Where did you get the idea for this place?" I asked, as the swordsman raised his katana.

"Chushingura? One of the cooks suggested it; it's a Japanese movie about forty-seven students who commit suicide because they can't get into a university, or something." The man in the jacket was grimacing horribly, but he was mercifully silent; the katana seemed to disappear for an instant, and then something was rolling across the stage. "It's supposed to be a true story, so I've never had any copyright problems - never seen it myself; don't get me wrong, I have a great respect for the Japs, but I can't sit through one of their films."

The swordsman wiped the blade clean, while one waitress picked up the head gingerly with a knife and two figures in black ninja suits carried away the body. "I meant the idea of hara-karaoke."

Kinnison grimaced. "Karaoke seppuku, if you don't mind. Well, I was running a karaoke restaurant in Queensland - probably the only one that served blowfish sashimi. Very ritzy, very popular with tourists and yuppies; we used to get lots of office parties. Anyway, someone got a piece of blowfish that hadn't been cooked quite right, and died. Coroner said it was fugu poisoning.

"Anyway, it seems there's this tradition among Japanese cooks that if your client dies of fugu poisoning, you're supposed to commit seppuku - and he did. Turned up to work the next night, came out onto stage in his whites, put a disc of 'Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word' on the karaoke machine and stabbed himself. Didn't even have a second to cut his head off. I thought I was ruined. Well, I was wrong. People started turning up just to see if anybody was going to die.

"For a few weeks, of course, nobody did; the new chef was being extra-careful about the blowfish, which was more popular than ever. Then one young guy turns up with his girlfriend; wanted to propose to her, even ordered blowfish to impress her. Anyway, he didn't even get sick. He pulled this ring out of his pocket and proposed to her, and she said no. So he asked the DJ to put on a disc, I can't even remember the song, and then he gets up there and sings. Second verse, he sees she's getting up and walking out." Kinnison shrugged. "There's no easy way to save face after making that big a fool of yourself in public, so he pulls out a Swiss Army knife and tries to commit seppuku. Made a horrible mess of it, but we managed to get him to hospital okay..."

"And people started coming back."

"Right. They knew they could make total idiots of themselves in front of their friends and not have to worry about it in the morning. I made sure there was always a sharp knife near the microphone - didn't want a repeat of that catastrophe - and put more TV screens in and started playing lots of anime and Japanese TV game shows for the quiet nights. Eventually, the Health Department found an excuse to close us down, but by that time, I'd bought this place and registered it as a Church of Ninja Buddhism. Haven't had any trouble since, as long as we don't play any heavy metal... except the place isn't doing as well as I'd like, of course." He glanced over his shoulder, where a middle-aged man was tapping the mike and waiting for his cue. "I hope your magazine sells well; there's no such thing as bad publicity, ay?"

"I'll send you a copy," I promised, as the man began wailing 'Only the Lonely'.

Kinnison nodded, and dropped his voice slightly. "I hate to do it, but if things don't pick up soon, I'll have to try some sort of gimmick. Do you think topless waitresses would help?"

First published in Space and Time #87

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Here is the cover of my new story suit. It's titled "Amarcord" ("I Remember") after the famous Federico Fellini film. The cover art is Philip Wilson Steer's Young Woman on the Beach, Walberswick (1886/88).


The book should appear in my own first English language "Polaris" edition by the end of January 2007.

(As always, it is not meant for sale, but to provide interested foreign publishers with reading copies.)

Here is the table of contents of "Amarcord":

Part One: Amarcord

1. Crime and Punishment
2. Vanity Fair
3. Great Expectations
4. Sentimental Education
5. Dead Souls
6. Lost Illusions
7. Les Miserables
8. The Magic Mountain
9. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
10. Fahrenheit 451

Part Two: The Square

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Tick-Tock of the Doomsday Clock

Alexis Glynn Latner here. Due to events in my life right now, I’m going to be blogging about our topic – no fear of the future – and how it hits home for me.

In the early 1980’s, in the lobby of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California, I happened upon a physical replica of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock. That was (and still is) the emblem of that journal’s editorial board’s opinion about the world’s nuclear danger. When I saw the replica, the hands of the clock stood at several minutes before midnight. It was scary. The sliver of the analog clock face looked way too thin for comfort.

That was a fear of the future moment in my life.

Another such moment was several days ago, when I sat with my mother in a medical clinic while she had an MRI. The MRI machine ticked, tocked, clicked and thrummed as it imaged her brain. The results aren’t in yet, but it’s likely that the final diagnosis will be senile dementia. Someone famously said that being human means knowing that you are a being who will die. I might add that if you’re unclear on the concept, just have a parent who's dying by unpredictable degrees – memory, coordination, judgment and sanity guttering like a candle flame. If that won't make you fear the future, nothing will.

Of course there might be a treatable medical condition – diabetes, transient strokes – causing my mother’s mental and physical symptoms. Modern medicine may do a low save on her wellbeing and give her a few more good years. I hope so. Her friends hope so. Medicine and biomedical science are very good. Especially when they go up against a well-defined illness with a specific cause and effective cure. Senile dementias, unfortunately, are none of the above. Not easy to define, no specific cause, no cure. I am not a happy camper about this happening to my mother. In other words, I am afraid of the future.

Yet the MRI machine was really cool. With its clicking, ticking, and bursts of loud thrumming – loud enough that the technician gave my mother earplugs, and handed me a pair too, even though I was in chair in the far corner of the room! – it was doing something marvelous: imaging a living human brain. The MRI machine is an extremely cool tool in modern medicine's tool bag for seeing and sometimes healing the biological stuff of which we're made.

Why not fear the future? Sometimes, I don’t know why not, and right now is one of those times. Yet... there is wonder in the world, including the revelations of science and the wonderful as well as terrible fruits of engineering. There’s age, death, and a Doomsday Clock. But there is also wonder. That's far from a complete answer as to why not fear the future. But it’s a start.

Separated at Birth? (Life During Wartime edition)

Mingolla's Sikorsky pilot homey from the 1987 cyber-magic realist classic.

"The American Pilot," off-Broadway, 2006.

(Evidencing the persistence since the Vietnam War of the image of the visor-helmeted pilot as the archetypal American cyborg soldier of techno-empire. It's a mirrorshades thing.)

Monday, December 18, 2006

Invaders from Mars?

Theories of panspermia have literally been floating around (ha!) for millennia, from the (very) early musings of the ancient Greek philosopher Anaxagoras to the earnest yet wonky hypothesis of Fred Hoyle to the downright loopy advocacy of "directed panspermia" by Richard Hoagland. While the very base idea at the heart of the theory (and note that I use "theory" in the colloquial sense here, rather than the strict scientific sense), actual falsifiable experiments have been hard to come by--the expense, logistics and timeframes involved are prohibitive for any meaningful direct observation.

But there's been some baby steps forward in recent years. Texas State biologist Robert McLean inadvertently found himself in possession of a panspermia experiment following the tragic destruction of the space shuttle Columbia. McLean's results aren't perfect by any means--salvage work of this nature rarely is--but it was significant enough to warrant publication in Icarus earlier this year.

Now comes a report in Mars Today regarding a new paper published in the journal Astrobiology arguing that terrestrial radiation-resistant bacteria are actually transplanted samples of Martian organisms (the full paper downloadable in PDF format here). The paper is fascinating reading--if you have any interest in astrobiology--and the authors present a compelling case. Consider:
Where in our solar system do the radiation doses indicated in the laboratory “training” cycling experiments occur naturally? The challenge is that high radiation dosages necessary for radioresistance training must accumulate during a bacterial lifetime. At present, if radioresistant bacteria are in the active metabolic state, they can survive any observed radiation level on any object of the solar system (including radiation exposure to the unshielded cosmic rays in space) and repair the resultant DNA damage. The only way bacteria could accumulate sublethal doses of radiation exposure is during dormancy. Natural radioresistance training cycles are, therefore, likely to occur in environments where high levels of ionizing radiation are the norm and bacteria experience long periods of dormancy in cold, dry, or cold and dry conditions followed by periods of population re-growth in favorable warm, wet, or warm and wet conditions. Warm periods could be very short because even a couple of days would be enough to re-grow the bacterial population. Based on our laboratory experiments (Fig. 1), we calculated that a minimum of 100 training cycles would be required to increase the radioresistance of ordinary bacteria to the levels observed in radioresistant bacteria.

Earth’s low background radiation makes such “natural” experiments practically impossible. For example, to accumulate a 10–20 kGy radiation dosage, the duration of each dormancy period would need to be several million years, and the total duration of the training process would take more than several hundred million years.

As discovered during the Mars Odyssey mission, environments shared by present-day Earth and Mars include permafrost regions or polar terrains where ground ice accumulates. Though some bacteria are known to fall into a state of dormancy in permafrost, neither ground ice nor permafrost would be stable for long enough periods of time on Earth for dormant populations to accumulate high radiation dosage. Furthermore, some permafrost biota on Earth do not cease metabolic activity even under 20°C (Rivkina et al., 2000), and such biota cannot accumulate any substantial irradiation dosage while metabolically active.

The long and short of it is, Earth's natural background radiation isn't sufficient to generate the evolutionary pressure necessary to generate this level of radiation resistance. That is one of the lynch pins of the argument in favor of Martian origins of these organisms. If you're like me, however, the Oklo natural nuclear reactors immediately come to mind. Almost two billion years ago, heavy deposits of uranium in Africa underwent a series of natural reactions over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. This process would result in Proterozoic populations of bacteria and eukaryotic cells being repeatedly exposed to high levels of radiation, followed by a "recovery" period. Isaac Asimov himself references a variation on this idea somewhat in Robots and Empire. If, over the course of several hundred thousand years distinct populations of microbes developed high levels of radioactive resistance at Oklo, might the resistance we see today be a vestigial legacy? But the paper's authors have already taken this into account.
For example, if one considers the 1.7-billion year old Oklo uranium deposits near Gabon, the radiation level could not exceed 1 Gy/h  100 rad/h (Nagy et al., 1991), while D. radiodurans bacteria are able to grow continuously even at 60 Gy/h  6,000 rad/h. Furthermore, to be exposed to any significant radiation level in any active zone of “natural” nuclear reactors, microorganisms had to withstand the extreme heat generated from the nuclear fusion reactions (up to 360°C). Therefore even the dosage of 1 Gy/h was most likely unreachable for any living bacteria in Oklo. This example underscores the fact that, on Earth, there is no hypothetical place where terrestrial biota would need to withstand high radiation levels.

Being the enthusiastic lay person that I am, however, I remain unconvinced. I want to believe, but I have suspicions that force me to remain skeptical. The authors are dismissive of the "side effect" phenomenon as a potential explanation for the radiation resistance--a trait that evolutionary pressures select for turns out to have a benefit unrelated to the original purpose of said trait. A good example are insect wings. Intelligent design advocates and creationists argue wings could not have evolved, because what good is half a wing? But it's been well-established that insect wings developed from external gills, and that flight was a happy afterthought.

It's with points like that where I get an itchy feeling in the deep nether regions of my brain--some of the arguments these researchers are using to bolster their position strike me as suspiciously similar to those espoused by the Intelligent Design crowd. The paper discusses how radiation-resistant populations of microbes were easily and rapidly developed in laboratory conditions, and since these conditions never existed on Earth and may, in fact, exist on Mars, this shows that radiation-resistant microbes must originate on Mars (I am grossly simplifying this, mind you). But IDers and creationists use much the same logic when discussing, say, the diversity of canine breeds. Since dog breeds didn't diversify into the various types we have today until humans began selectively breeding them, the argument goes that this "proves" the Hand of God is necessary for any speciation to take place. The whole thing brings to mind the old "watchmaker" argument for design from William Paley:
Since watches are the products of intelligent design, and living things are like watches in having complicated mechanisms which serve a purpose (e.g., having eyeballs to enable sight), living things are probably the products of intelligent design as well.

The scientific authors in Astrobiology--Anatoly K. Pavlov, Vitaly L. Kalinin, Alexei N. Konstatinov, Vladimir N. Shelegedin and Alexander A. Pavlov--obviously aren't IDers, and have done some fascinating work here. But from my admittedly unscientific vantage point, the vast majority of their evidence is indirect and circumstantial. The fact that they were able to create radiation-resistant microbes so easily in the lab suggest to me that all cellular life (or single-celled organisms, at least) boasts this adaptability to some degree, rather than the opposite stance that a Martian origin is necessary. In any event, I suspect molecular biologist and biochemists will have more to say on this issue than I, as it should be a fairly straightforward task to break down the genetic ancestry of these supposed Martian transplants to determine if they vary from expected microbiological parameters enough to either suggest or dismiss extraterrestrial origins.

Don't you just love the unknown?

Friday, December 15, 2006

Invisible Literature for the Age of Celebrity

The Assassination Inquest of Diana, Princess of Wales Considered as an Unintentionally Ballardian Remix of the Warren Commission Report

In 1966, J.G. Ballard authored one of his most famous experimental works, "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" (itself a remix of Alfred Jarry's "The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race").

"Oswald was the starter."

Ballard has frequently described the Warren Commission Report as one of the great avant-garde works of the century, an iconic masterpiece of "invisible literature" unintentionally transforming chapters on bullet trajectories and custody chains of cardboard boxes into simultaneously rich and minimalist prose poetry that charted the cartographic nodes of mass consciousness at the dawn of the 1960s. The text was clearly a primary source not only for the aforementioned short, but for the entirety of his masterful exploration of the intersection of sex, violence, technology and media in The Atrocity Exhibition.

''The latent sexual content of the automobile crash. Numerous studies have been conducted to assess the latent sexual appeal of public figures who have achieved subsequent notoriety as auto-crash fatalities, e.g. James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Albert Camus. Simulated newsreels of politicians, film stars and TV celebrities were shown to panels of (a) suburban housewives, (b) terminal paretics, (c) filling station personnel. Sequences showing auto-crash victims brought about a marked acceleration of pulse and respiratory rates. Many volunteers became convinced that the fatalities were still living, and later used one or another of the crash victims as a private focus of arousal during intercourse with the domestic partner.''

So, one can't help but imagine the smiles in Shepperton reading this week's sequel, "The Report of the Operation Paget inquiry into the allegation of conspiracy to murder Diana, Princess of Wales and Emad El-Din Mohamed Abdel Moneim Fayed." Eight-hundred-plus pages of pure clinical Ballardian detail remixed with Spectacular Baudrillardian celebrity media fireworks. If reading the Iraq Study Group's recipe book for imminent apocalypse has got you down, download this puppy, pull up a chair by the crackling fire, drop the needle on Herb Alpert's Mexican Road Race, turn to page 143, and consider this program book for the ultimate Formula One of the Zeitgeist:

"The following paparazzi or press agents were identified as being present at the Ritz Hotel at the time that the Princess of Wales and Dodi Al Fayed left via rue Cambon:

Present in rue Cambon (rear entrance)

• Jacques Langevin (grey Volkswagen Golf)

• Alain Guizard (grey/blue Peugeot 205)

• David Odekerken (Mitsubishi Pajero)

• Fabrice Chassery (black Peugeot 205)

• Serge Benhamou (green Honda scooter)

Present in Place Vendôme (front entrance)

• Laslo Veres (black Piaggio Scooter)

• Serge Arnal and Christian Martinez (black Fiat Uno)

• Romuald Rat and Stéphane Darmon (blue Honda 650 motorcycle)

• Nikola Arsov (white BMW R100 GS motorcycle)

• Pierre Suu and Jerko Tomic (red BMW 750 motorcycle)

• Pierre Hounsfield (black Volkswagen Golf)

• Stéphane Cardinale (white Citroen AX)

• Dominique Dieppois (white Renault Super 5)

• Colm Pierce (no vehicle)"

Not enough? How about this:

- The testimony of Madame Myriah, the holistic healer that traveled with the Dark Dauphin on his yacht "Jonikal" and examined the Princess.

- Earnest consideration by Lord Stevens of Kirkwhelpington and his fellow inquisitioners of the potential that HRH Prince Philip is a looming gangster mastermind, his Upper Class Twit public persona masking a sinister Machiavelli ordering hits from his green country sanctum.

- The inquest's sophisticated computer sims of the crash (if that isn't the ultimate Grand Theft Auto add-on module, I don't know what is).

- Henri Paul's previously unnoted life as an aviator, his failed career as a private eye, comprehensive inventories of his apartment, and a novel length anatomical exposition on the forensic toxicology of his post-mortem anatomy.

- Deadpan evaluations of conspiracy theories involving MI5, MI6, Mossad, CIA, NSA, the Freemasons, the Scientologists and the Royal Mafia.

- Voyeuristic views from every surveillance camera in Paris.

- Unintentionally fetishistic dissections of the black Mercedes.

- Oliver Stone film clip glimpses of the Princess's contorted post-crash body position and cryptic last words.

In sum, a perfect pathology report on the end of the twentieth century.

In Los Angeles, they learned the lessons of Diana's death long ago, the Peugeots having paved the way for a new extreme paparazzi of the privacy-free 21st century. Last year, the NY Times reported on the increasing trend of celebrity photographers literally chasing down movie stars in cars in an effort to get more intense, emotional, real-life action shots:

***Routinely now, law enforcement officials said, paparazzi use several vehicles to ''box in'' a celebrity's car; try to force stars off the road; chase them at high speed as they do nothing more than run errands, often with their children in tow; and recklessly put pedestrians, other drivers and even themselves at risk.

... The photographers have long been a fixture in Los Angeles, on red carpets and outside fashionable restaurants and nightclubs, and there has always been a kind of symbiosis between them and celebrities, and particularly celebrity publicists. But veteran stars, publicists and entertainment lawyers say that certain photographers, and the publications they sell to, began increasing the pressure several years ago and seem to have changed the rules of the game -- transforming Los Angeles, even more than New York or other hot spots, from a somewhat safe haven into a hostile environment.

''They weren't always as invasive,'' [Halle] Berry said. ''There was some healthy respect about it -- they kept a certain distance from you. You weren't chased at high speeds through the streets where you endangered other lives and other innocent people who really don't know what the heck is going on.''

[Cameron] Diaz said screeching tires and honking horns had become a kind of personal soundtrack for her whenever she ran errands -- typically with three or more paparazzi cars in pursuit. ''People used to ask me how I could live in Los Angeles, and I'd say it's the best place, everybody's so jaded,'' said Ms. Diaz, who appeared in her first movie in 1994.

''That's how it used to be: I could go to the dry cleaners or to grocery stores. In the last few years, it's gotten to the point where you literally cannot walk outside your front gate without being literally attacked.''

Ms. Diaz recalled walking in the street with Mr. Timberlake and a friend and his dog about two years ago, when a photographer in a Toyota 4Runner roared up from behind them, knocking the friend to the ground, then shot pictures of her and Mr. Timberlake coming to the friend's aid. ''We're so used to not having any rights, we didn't think we should call 911,'' she said.

Photographs of the incident wound up in the next US Weekly with a caption saying, ''Cameron and Justin race to help a friend'' after the friend's dog was nearly hit by a car.

Janice Min, the editor of Us Weekly...acknowledged that the market for photos of stars' unguarded moments might have eroded Los Angeles's status as a safe haven. ''But anyone who's a celebrity in this day and age knows this is part of what being a celebrity is, for better or worse,'' she said. ''Its a 24-7 job.''

Still, stars say the risky behavior is becoming untenable. The actress Reese Witherspoon said in an interview that her car was sideswiped a few weeks ago when she tried to leave her gym and was hemmed in by photographers. ''After last month, I feel the boundaries are slipping,'' she said. ''One tried to ram the back left of my car. That had never happened before.''***

These predatory photographers, and the magazine editors they feed, didn't need the researchers at Cal Tech to tell them that human beings have single neurons dedicated to each celebrity. The stars are our cathode ray Olympians, arrayed in neurological constellations across the drive-in movie screen on the back of our foreheads.

If the celebrities and their masters are the airhead tyrants of our collective consciousness, the paparazzi may be unwittingly evolving into a vanguard of culture jamming guerillas, telephoto Nikons as postmodern Kalashnikovs in an amped-up L.A. cell of the Billboard Liberation Front. Imagine if they acted with deliberate revolutionary intent, seeking to capture the most hideous possible images of movie stars, the pampered skin of their faces pulled back into horrifying contortions by disused tendons provoked out of their Botox slumber. Surely that would hack the Spectacle, at least for the fifteen minutes before it morphed into the new sexy commoditized cool.

In the meantime, we wait for the secret boxes of evidence collected by Operation Paget to trickle out into the Internet-of-Things via eBay.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A Personal Perspective on ISAAC ASIMOV'S UTOPIAS and others

Part Two

Though attempts at true, unambiguous Utopias, perfect or ideal societies, are rare in science fiction, they do exist. In most, a threat to the utopian status quo is central to the plot, or the utopia is not yet founded and must be built in the face of opposition, or both. Examples include Robert A. Heinlein’s Beyond this Horizon and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Marge Piercy’s Woman at the Edge of Time, Theodore Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X, and ‘If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?’, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Pat Murphy’s The City, Not Long After, George Turner’s ‘Shut the Door When You Go Out’ and ‘I Still Call Australia Home’, and Spider and Jeanne Robinson’s Stardance trilogy.

All of these stories have, at their core, simple solutions to problems that the authors suggest prevent this world being perfect. The Heinlein novels propose heavily armed anarchy with a tax-free user-pays economy. Rand’s ‘Galt’s Gulch’ abolished altruism and sanctified financial reward as the only worthwhile reason for doing anything. Piercy’s future enabled sexual equality by removing the burden of pregnancy from women. Sturgeon’s ‘Ledom’, even more radically, was populated exclusively by fashion-conscious hermaphrodites with little or no testosterone, while his Vexvelt becomes paradise because of the abolition of incest taboos. Clarke’s ‘Golden Age’ is founded on realistic technological advances and the abolition of nationalism, and funded by the abolition of military spending. Murphy’s San Francisco is an artists’ commune trying to non-violently resist armed invaders. Turner’s Gaia has humans perfectly attuned to the living planet, while his world in ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ has stabilised the population and created a sustainable society by creating a feminist religious state that resembles that of Tepper’s ‘Women’s Country’ without the warriors. The Robinsons’ trilogy ultimately sets humanity free by allowing them to survive unprotected in space, making them telepathic, and - ultimately - abolishing gravity altogether, which may not be the least practical of the solutions suggested but is certainly the most difficult to try as a small-scale experiment.

Debating how well any of these societies might function would take many volumes, but all serve to demonstrate one of the problems with creating a fictional utopia: how many readers will think it’s a dystopia instead? I would even suggest that the more perfect the match between a fictional utopia and the writer’s personal vision of paradise, the fewer people would actually want to live there.

(To be concluded)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Fear of the past.

I watch my master, even—-especially—-when he’s ignoring me. Sometimes, when he doesn’t think I’m watching, he takes down the twig from the shelf, and looks at it.

It’s the only thing he’s got left from the old days. It was given to him by his master, who said it was all that was left of the tree of gold, and that it was bound in fire unceasing, to burn always and yet never be consumed. That was their way of paying back the enemy, so that they’d know one of their two precious trees was forever being tormented.

Usually the master just plays with it. He threatens to plant it in someone’s chest, or uses it to ignite the long blond hair of a prisoner. Occasionally he shouts at it in the old tongue—-he knows the enemy will hear what he says.

But sometimes, late at night, he’ll just stare it. He burns like fire, so touching the twig isn’t a problem for him. He’ll hold it in his hand and look out the tower window toward the west, or peer at it, touching the leaves, and sometimes sniffing it. Occasionally he’ll whisper a name, although never loud enough for me to hear it.

His eyes burn like fire, too, so whatever tears come out instantly turn to steam.

Sometimes his entire head is wreathed in steam.

But I’m just the Mouth, and I never speak of that.

(The preceding was intended to be Tolkien by way of Jonathan Carroll).

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Internet-of-Things meets Literature-of-Ideas

The January 2007 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction features a wonderful new novella by Professor Doktor Sterling, "Kiosk," concerning the revolutionary implications of fabrication technology, set entirely on a mid-21st century Slavic street-corner in the aftermath of the coming crises. One is reminded of Fredric Jameson's comments about a recent anthology of Sterling's short fiction: "Authentic artifacts of postmodernity and little masterpieces in their own right"..."Hunter Thompsonian global tourism [with] real epistemological value." Fun, trenchant, and bursting with future-altering brain bombs.

Here, entrepreneurial kiosk vendor Borislav confers with his gangster pal.

"The market for misery is always huge." Borislav knocked back another drink. "I'm talking too much tonight."

"Boots, I need you to talk to me. I just made more money for less work than I have in a long time. Now I'm even on salary inside a foreign embassy. This situation's getting serious. I need to know the philosophy — how an invisible hand makes real things. I gotta figure that out before the Europeans do."

"It's a market search engine for an Internet-of-Things."

Ace lifted and splayed his fingers. "Look, tell me something I can get my hands on. You know. Something that a man can steal."

"Say you type two words at random: any two words. Type those two words into an Internet search engine. What happens?"

Ace twirled his shot glass. "Well, a search engine always hits on something, that's for sure. Something stupid, maybe, but always something."

"That's right. Now imagine you put two *products* into a search engine for things. So let's say it tries to sort and mix together...a parachute and a pair of shoes. What do you get from that kind of search?"

Ace thought it over. "I get it. You get a shoe that blows up a plane."

Borislav shook his head. "No, no. See, that is your problem right there. You're in the racket, you're a fixer. So you just don't think commercially."

"How can I outthink a machine like that?"

"You're doing it right now, Ace. Search engines have no ideas, no philosophy. They never think at all. Only people think and create ideas. Search engines are just programmed to search through what people want. Then they just mix, match, and spit up some results. Endless results. Those results don't matter, though, unless the people want them. And here, the people want them!"

The waitress brought a bottle, peppered sauerkraut, and a leathery loaf of bread. Ace watched her hips sway as she left. "Well, as for me, I could go for some of *that*. Those Iraqi chicks have got it going on."


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Monday, December 11, 2006

Havin' a ball... with lightning

Battle on MercuryIf you're like me (and who isn't?) then you find ball lightning a fascinating phenomenon. Maybe it's because the first science fiction novel I read as a kid was Battle on Mercury, a truly fun young adult novel from the old school Winston Science Fiction line. It had all the key elements needed for a crackin' good SF yarn--grizzled space prospector, snazzy space suits, rocket ships, a robot (indispensable, that) and a life-or-death crisis driving the plot. But what really put it over the top was the presence of not one, but two species of intelligent ball lightning living on Mercury's singularly inhospitable surface. Wispies (from Will o' the Wisp) and Demons they were called, and I'll never forget them--certainly not the main wispie, cleverly named "Johnny Quicksilver." Sounds like a Golden Age DC Comics super-hero, doesn't it?

But the terrestrial ball lightning phenomenon is poorly understood at best, with conflicting and competing hypotheses on its origins and manifestation. Fortunately, one of the good things about working at a university is hearing about cool research going on in obscure areas. Case in point: Karl Stephan, who's developed a method to create captive ball lightning in a laboratory setting.
LightningSequenceTexas State University-San Marcos engineering professor Karl Stephan conducted an experiment designed to help decipher the enigmatic nature of ball lightning, research that yielded a publication in the journal Physical Review E.

Stephan's interest in crafting this experiment sparked when he read about researchers in Tel Aviv University who were able to create objects with the same characteristics as ball lightning. He worked in conjunction with University of Texas at Austin professor John A. Pearce, who also directs the Process Energetics Laboratory at UT's Pickle Research Campus.

Ball lightning differs from ordinary lightning in that it takes the form of a glowing ball that ranges in size from a softball to a beach ball and it lasts several seconds or more. This phenomenon of nature is often sighted with thunderstorms and has the ability to hover, float down chimneys, pass through closed windows and either disappear in silence or in a sudden explosion.

Stephan found that he could produce the "fireballs" by touching two tungsten welding rods together and drawing them apart with microwave power applied to the system. When the rods are moved apart, the effect produces a fireball that persists as long as the microwave power is applied and disappears when the energy source is shut off. The importance of this experiment is that it can explore the conditions needed for a ball-lightning object to exist in the air, thus contributing to the understanding of this mysterious phenomenon.

Stephan's paper from the November issue of Physical Review E is available online here, but unfortunately one needs either to buy the individual article to read it in its entirety, or have a pre-existing subscription to the journal (which I fortunately have via Texas State). That's the bad news. The good news (and very good news it is, indeed) is that videos of the lab work mentioned in Reference 11 of the paper are available online without a subscription and can be accessed at the links below. Enjoy!

Friday, December 8, 2006

A True Story

(Whatever happened to the world's greatest naturally occurring Situationist guerilla?)

William Tager was born on a parallel Earth in the year 2265. A convicted felon, Tager was selected by the world government as the first human test pilot of the government’s experimental inter-dimensional portal, which had been under development for 149 years. Tager agreed to volunteer in exchange for the promise of a full pardon upon his safe return.

At the end of an unduly brief training regimen, Tager prepared for his journey in the anteroom to the travel chamber. Shortly before the portal time, Tager received a lone visitor. Vice President Kenneth Burrows, a dark-haired, authoritative Texan known for his short temper and alien simile, considered by many the most powerful man on the planet.

Burrows warned Tager that a transmitter had been implanted in his brain. If Tager chose to remain in the alternate space/time, Burrows would use the transmitter to summon him home. It was essential that Tager complete both legs of the trip and provide a full report. Following debriefing, the transmitter would be removed and Tager granted his pardon.

Tager landed in this Earth’s Manhattan on September 1, 1986. His exploration of the local culture proceeded without impediment until, one cool morning, he was mistakenly arrested for putting coins in expired parking meters. The court sentenced him to 30 days, and ordered psychiatric evaluation when Tager protested that would prevent his timely return to Earth.

Upon his release fourteen days after the deadline, Tager began receiving messages from Vice President Burrows ordering his immediate return. The transmissions were hostile, sometimes obscene. It would be a week before another return window, but Tager had no way to communicate back. Unable to sleep, his mind constantly bombarded with the leader’s vitriol, Tager began to lose his mind. If only he could ascertain the precise frequency on which the messages were broadcast, he might be able to override the transmissions and rest until the time for departure.

Walking the streets of Midtown late on the evening of October 4, 1986, Tager saw Vice President Burrows. Or more likely his double on this Earth, Tager considered, since a man with Burrows’ power would surely never undertake the risk of a trip across time and space with no assurance of return. But perhaps it was a trick – Burrows could have come from the future to eliminate his guinea pig.

“Kenneth! Kenneth Burrows!” yelled Tager as he approached Burrows, known on this Earth as Dan Rather.

Rather/Burrows turned to see who was yelling. Tager knocked him to the ground.

“What’s the frequency, Kenneth!?” demanded Tager, shaking his stunned nemesis.

Tager persisted for a few minutes, slapping the man twice before concluding this was not Vice President Burrows, but his double. As people gathered, Tager ran into the night.

Three long days later, lost in the delirium of sleep deprivation, Tager missed his second and final opportunity to return home. Stranded, penniless, and driven beyond the brink of sanity by the interminable rants of Burrows, he was forced to sleep on the streets and steal every meal. Tager roamed the alien Earth for a seeming eternity, searching for an alternate route home, cycling in and out of incarceration in prisons and sanitariums.

In his moments of lucidity, Tager realized over time that the messages must have been carried through the massive relays of the primitive local broadcasters. He inhabited the public library, trying to maintain enough concentration to comprehend the technology destroying his mind, and lurked outside the studios in the hope of finding a messenger.

Years later, in an effort to contact someone who could identify the frequency, Tager killed an NBC technician outside the Today Show studios.

Though the shooting occurred through the window as Bryant Gumbel chatted with Deborah Norville about his weekend, all tape of the assassination has been suppressed. Tager currently serves his exile in a prison hospital upstate. The voices, now a recorded message automatically replayed every 20 minutes, continue.

This month, Tager is scheduled for his parole hearing [enter name into linked dB to see for yourself].

A Personal Perspective on ISAAC ASIMOV'S UTOPIAS and others

Part One

Being a science fiction writer by trade, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that my favourite utopian story is not science fiction at all, but the movie Local Hero (1983), in which a rootless Houston oil executive falls in love with a small Scottish seaside town that he’s been instructed to buy. While he becomes increasingly reluctant to do his bit to turn the town into a refinery and destroy its beauty, the townspeople envy his life as much as he envies theirs, and are eager to close the deal… and as much as I love the movie, I wouldn’t choose to live in the town, either (for one thing, it has no library). Unlike too many science fiction utopias, Local Hero acknowledges that paradise is personal; one size does not fit all. While science fiction writers have often succeeded in imagining worlds that are better in some ways than the present - more comfortable, more exciting, more just, and so on - I suspect that no-one will ever envision one that will be widely accepted as ‘ideal’ or ‘perfect’, a true utopia.

As an example of this difficulty; in 1999, I received a cheque from the publishers of Asimov’s Science Fiction with a rather cryptic note that this was payment for a story of mine that they wished to reprint in the anthology Isaac Asimov’s Utopias. One detail not mentioned was the title of the story. I was, of course, pleased to receive the cheque, but I was still curious. There were two stories I’d had published in Asimov’s which I thought might qualify as taking place in Utopian settings, and I wondered which they might have chosen… so I e-mailed the editors to ask. They couldn’t remember the title, but they were sure it belonged in the anthology.

Utopia, it seemed, was in the eye of the editor.

Later that year, editor Gardner Dozois invited me, and four of the other authors with works in the anthology - Brian Stableford, Tom Purdom, Kage Baker, and David Marusek - to join in an on-line chat titled “Find Utopia”. In it, he offered the following explanation of his choice of some of the stories:

One thing I realized when putting this UTOPIA anthology together, is that there are very few stories that are about good-functioning Utopias. That's because a well-functioning Utopia is BORING. Where's your plotline?

MOST Utopian SF stories, and most of them in the book, are about Utopias where something has gone WRONG, or they've come up against some major problem. OR from the perspective of somebody in the society for whom the Utopia ISN'T a Utopia.

The story of mine the editors chose was ‘Transit’, set in a future where humanity has settled many planets with the help of a more technologically advanced alien race, where material comfort is assured by robotic factories, and where ‘monosex’ humans - males and females as we know them - are outnumbered by human hermaphrodites such as the narrator. It was an interesting choice, because I had not set out to create a utopian society in this story, which is essentially a teen romance between a hermaphrodite and a young Muslim woman, both of whom must contend with their respective fathers’ xenophobia. If I had intended to create a truly utopian society, such prejudices would be extinct and the Romeo and Juliet-inspired plot would have had to go… and as a writer, I’ll give precedence to plot over setting any time. As Tom Purdom remarked in the chat: SF is supposed to offer stories, not just ideas about the future… I think in SF we still think of the future as a time when things can be better. But better. Not ideal. Not perfect.”

True to this formula, the other stories in Asimov’s Utopias describe worlds that are in some ways better than the present, but do not seem to aspire to perfection: all are stories, with conflict and at least the possibility of unhappiness. Though the book’s blurb states that “science fiction writers present their own provocative visions of what an ideal world is really like”, the individual stories belie this. Ursula LeGuin’s ‘Mountain Ways’ “reveals the price you must pay when you give up on all you are supposed to believe in.” Bruce Sterling’s ‘Bicycle Repairman’ concerns a “struggle to remain independent in a dangerous and uncertain future”. The protagonist in Brian Stableford’s ‘Out of Touch’ does little but complain; David Marusek’s ‘Getting to Know You’ is set in a crowded subterranean hospice for the dying; Kage Baker’s ‘Smart Alec’ must contend with a world which is safe but where “nobody gets to have any fun”.

(To be continued)

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Practically terrifying in every way.

In the spirit of Lou Anders’ disquisition on Fonzie the Shaman (see the March 12 entry) let us consider the film version of P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins. I don’t mean the novel—that’s something quite different, and unsettling in its own way, as Neil Gaiman noted in his blog (see the Tuesday Dec. 5 entry). I mean the film.

Traditionally, horror fiction has operated on one of three dynamics, and some theories of horror have it that these are the only three axes along which horror fiction can run.

There’s what might be called Invasion, the intrusion of the horrible and terrifying into our world, the sudden appearance of the serial killer or werewolf or vampire in an otherwise normal village or town or city. I’m sure you can think of examples; from Dracula to Salem’s Lot to any number of slasher flicks, the horror genre is full of Invasions. Traditionally, Invasion horror fiction ends with the defeat of the monster and the reinstatement of the status quo.

There’s Revelation, in which the characters in the horror story (meaning any text, from film to poetry, rather than just prose) discover that the world is not what they knew, but is innately horrible, and the characters who thought otherwise had been deluded. Cosmic horror works on this principle, but so does religious horror, which is why Revelation is not a 20th century invention. We think of Lovecraft first with this sort of horror, but the Victorians were conscious of the Revelation dynamic, and as far back as the sadly misunderstood Varney the Vampire (a grossly underrated work) there are nods toward Revelation as a source of horror. Indeed, there’s even a school of thought that has the Bible as the first Revelation horror fiction.

(To those who say that Invasion and Revelation are merely ends of a dynamic continuum, and that the knowledge of Invasion has to lead a character to the Revelation of the world’s horror, I say a) hush and b) you’re underestimating the power of human denial—characters in horror fiction always go on to assume that the world is basically peaceful and playful-kitten-nice, even if the characters have encountered the undead. In Invasion, the effects of the horror fade or are so mitigated as to be meaningless. In Revelation, the effects of the horror are permanent).

And then there’s what might be called the Trip To Faerie, in which the character(s) leave the world they know, either voluntarily or kidnapped by the Good Folk, and travel to another world, one which is full of monsters and terror. Lots of folktales have this, and even Walks Into The Wood do, and things like Peter Pan and Pinocchio and the stories of Oz and so forth. (Not to mention Hostel and every other tourists/travelers-in-danger film). The important thing is that the other world isn’t ours or in ours, and isn’t easy to get to, and isn’t a good place to be.

Writers don’t generally write programmatically, I think. They might decide to write a book using the plot of "Prometheus Bound" or to endorse or rebuke the tenets of the Mundane SF or New Weird, or even to replicate the premise of Gilligan’s Island, but, from what I can tell, most writers don’t decide to warp their plots to fit schools of fictional theory. Theory follows plot, and not vice-versa. So most horror fiction generally follows (however unconsciously on the part of its writer(s)) only one of these three theories.

But every now and again you get a work like the film version of Mary Poppins, which deftly manages to use of all three of these dynamics, as if the writers meant to demonstrate each. More: to provide a survey of horror tropes and methods, and to anticipate a few.

"Ho ho ho," you say. "Silly Jess--Mary Poppins is a magical work, something kids love! It has no horror content whatsoever."

Ha, I croak. Have you seen the movie recently? I don’ t mean in that funny video mashup that’s floating around. I mean, as an adult, watching it with an adult’s eyes and not through the gauzy, saccharine filter of childhood memories?

It’s horror. Deeply sinister horror.

I saw Mary Poppins recently, thinking that the Mary Poppins singalong would be as charming as the Sound of Music singalong. Instead, it was revelatory, and not in the way that the Sound of Music was. (Honestly, until I saw Sound of Music as an adult I didn’t realize that Uncle Max was supposed to be gay. But that’s how he’s coded, without a doubt).

The preferred inscribed narrative of the film—that is, the story that the filmmakers intended to tell—is essentially a conservative one. The suffragette activist mother (and implicitly her cause) is made to look both foolish and a bad mother. The working classes are shown cheerfully going about their demeaning, life-shortening jobs and are quite content with their oppressed lot in life.

However, as the formidable Ken Hite has noted, there isn’t necessarily anything contradictory about conservatism and horror. And consider the following:

--the film has a sequence of the nanny applicants being blown into the air so that Mary Poppins can take the job. Could be funny. But the scene becomes surreal, filled with images that would not be out of place in Bunuel. No sliced eyeball, naturally, but as filmed the wind-tossed nannies are disturbing, and not in a good way.

--Mary Poppins’ mirror image moves and acts on its own. It smiles now—but what is it doing when the children are asleep? Is it still there, looking at them? Does it—can it—affect the children’s reality? Heroes nods at this, with Mirror Jessica haunting Niki, but the show doesn’t make full use of this. Neither does Mary Poppins, but in context Mirror Mary Poppins is actually more disturbing than Mirror Jessica.

--Mary Poppins, Bert (Dick van Dyke’s character), and the children travel into the world of Bert’s street drawing--a classic Trip To Faerie. And while the world of the drawing seems to be some sort of Edwardian idyll, there are many hints that it’s actually Pinocchio’s Funland, and that Mary Poppins is Virgil to Bert and the kids’ Dante, the guide who is the only protection from harm that the children have. The world is intended to be cute, and indeed most of us found it so as children, but as adults…? Ye gods. Never mind the animated, flying and apparently sentient calliope horses (not an image conducive to kind dreams)—there’s a fox hunt going on in which, and this must be stressed, the fox has a personality and can speak. Fox hunting is loathsome enough in reality, but the deliberate and conscious hunting of a sentient being? What kind of monsters live in this world? And while the children appear to be unharmed by their trip into the drawing world, and feel that it’s just Big Rock Candy Mountain, anyone who’s read Machen’s sublime "The White People" knows what happens to children who are subjected to too many Trips To Faerie. (And did the children eat while in the drawing world? If they did…well, anyone who’s read Lud-in-the-Mist knows what a mistake that would be).

--During the trip into the drawing world Mary Poppins looks at the camera and speaks. This takes place during a conversation with Bert, but it’s quite clear that she’s breaking the Fourth Wall and speaking to the audience. I realize metafictional horror is by now past its sell-by date as a genre, and no one will ever do it as well as Grant Morrison did it in his run on Animal Man (the high point in metafictional horror fiction), but as with so much else, context is everything, and the momentary appearance of metafictional horror in what is ostensibly children’s fiction is almost shocking. (And, no, I’m not too proud to admit that I may have shrieked "DON’T LOOK AT ME!" when Mary Poppins broke the Fourth Wall). It’s especially unnerving when the breaking of the Fourth Wall doesn’t create terror in the fictional characters, but rather results in an implicit threat to the viewer—and that’s what Mary Poppins’ eyes hold, when they look at us and speak in this scene.

--Cannily, the film does not restrict itself to just the tropes of supernatural horror. Consider Bert. A good man. Hard-working—he’s a street artist, a chimney-sweep, and who knows how many other jobs. (We can talk all we want about the good old days of Victorian and Edwardian London, but the truth is that they were brutal places for the working poor, and while Mary Poppins might intend to sanitize the kind of life poor Bert is forced to lead, the filmmakers were honest enough to at least nudge the viewer toward a contemplation of what Bert’s life must be like. I doubt he works so many jobs because he wants to, and he may even be sleeping rough). Bert acts kindly toward the children, and uncomplainingly puts up with the not-so-veiled class condescension of the father, Mr. Banks. And Bert draws his world in colored chalk, and accompanies Mary Poppins and the children into it, and walks and dances with Mary Poppins. His behavior is obviously that of a man in love with Mary Poppins—you have only to observe the way he acts toward her to recognize that. What is her reaction to his courting of her, for that’s what he’s doing in the trip to the drawing world? She dismisses his feelings with a patronizing and amused "just good friends" demurral. (Not in those words, but in context its very clear what she means). Worse, her words are a kind of emasculation of him; she not only turns him down, she reduces his feelings to being only sexual, and then slams the door on him. (It’s hard to interpret her "wouldn’t take advantage of a lady" comment in any other light).

(I’m tempted to make a comment here about Dick Van Dyke’s "Cockney" accent as another, different kind of horror, but I’ll let it pass).

--The trip to the drawing world comes to an end when the rain hits the drawing, causing it to melt and the world inside it to melt into a psychedelic smear of colors. Mary Poppins et al. survive the transition just fine, but what of the beings inside the world? Do they survive the rain, or are they, too, destroyed by it? Bert’s not surprised by the effect the rain has on his drawing and on his world—if anything, he rather blithely accepts it. Doesn’t the demi-urge have a moral, if not familial, responsibility to his or her or its creations? Isn’t the overriding lesson of Frankenstein not that there are "things man is not meant to know," but that those who create shun their responsibilities to their creations at their own peril?

WTF is Bert doing? He brought the world into being, and then accepts its destruction with a shrug? At the least he could have painted this world, then set the painting aside so that it might survive. But he does not, and instead lets it be destroyed—an act Mary Poppins acquiesces in. "Callous" doesn’t begin to describe that. "Sociopathic," perhaps? Or simply the old-fashioned "monstrous"?

--A further way to regard the transition is to look at its visual depiction. A swirl of bright (too-bright) colors, the drawing world washing away and being replaced by mundane reality. It’s a given of metafictional horror that sooner or later the characters realize that they are just that, characters (see: the stories in Metahorror, Morrison’s Animal Man, The Thirteenth Floor, etc etc etc), and genre critics sometimes make the mistake of thinking that metafiction in which characters don’t realize they are fictional constructs is thereby flawed. (Yes, Gary Westfahl, I’m looking at you). Nonetheless, in a work of horror, like Mary Poppins, it’s almost required that the characters have their negative ontological revelation. It’s an efficient way to jolt the reader and provide a new and different kind of horripilation. (Or, rather, it was an efficient way to provide a new and different kind of horripilation about, oh, 15 years ago. Now, it’s so tired it’s asleep).

Naturally, this doesn’t happen in Mary Poppins. Except for one or two hints later on (see below) none of the characters betray the slightest hint of self-awareness. So is Mary Poppins not horror, then? Did its creators deliberately shirk their responsibility to complete the terror, and instead leave us with metus interruptus?

Not at all. The key is to look at the visual depiction of the transition, the swirl of colors. They are brighter than bright, more real than real.

One definition of cosmic horror is that reality--true reality--is so terrifying that the human brain can’t deal with it, and that what humans perceive as reality is a delusion and/or our mental defense mechanisms at work.

What defense mechanism is at work in Mary Poppins? For one, the swirl of colors. We’re not actually seeing that. Our minds are only telling us that we’re seeing colors. What is actually visible in the background is too horrible for us to glimpse, a reflection of our faces in the waters of Lake Hali. The filmmakers of Mary Poppins anticipated Theodore Roszak’s work in Flicker and put Wrongness on film, perhaps in the interstices between frames. Our pitiful monkey brains just can’t handle it, and so we see pretty, pretty colors.

No wonder the children act as if nothing’s wrong, after they return. They’re in denial.

Alternatively, and this may be a better explanation, the swirl of colors is a post-production addition, by censors or by a thinking-the-better-of-it director or producer, to replace what had been a terrifying sequence. As we’ll see, we have some reason to believe that they are capable of this.

--And what is Mary Poppins’ reaction, when asked by the children about the trip, after they return? She denies that the trip took place. Now, I’m all in favor of an unreliable narrator--Detour is one of the greatest films noir ever made, and only heathens think otherwise—but this is not a situation where that is appropriate. So why would she say that? To mess with the kids’ minds, and cement their denial about the trip, so that the wretched truth might worm through their ids and produce something wicked? Or is it to mess with our minds, and make us doubt what we’ve seen? Mary Poppins, to this point in the film, does not appear to be a liar. It’s out of character for her. So why lie now?

Not for a good reason, that’s for sure. No, she has some dire ulterior motive.

--Consider "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." Memorable word. Refrain of a catchy tune. Everyone in the film hears it once and remembers it ever after.

So what do we call the song or phrase which lodges itself in our consciousness and won’t leave?

A meme—that’s what we call it. An idea which acts like a living organism, replicating itself.

So what does our little meme do? Infects everyone in the movie, even the possibly senile bank chairman, and then imprints itself on the soundtrack, and then exits fiction and spreads itself through our culture, until it finally has such a grip that even a kludge like MSWord’s spellcheck lets it pass. "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" is now immortal. Thanks to that damned song, it’s imprinted itself in the part of our brain that appreciates music, a much more primal part than the part of our brain that understands words. It can be heard around the world, and non-English translations of the movie and song retain the word. It’s as recognizable as any visual icon, and if I were to stand up right this moment, in the train station at King’s Cross where I’m writing this, and begin singing the song, I guarantee you that well over 75% of those who heard me would recognize and perhaps even sing along. We were warned in the movie itself—the very song tells us that it’s "really quite infectious"—and yet we didn’t listen, and know we’ve got an idea parasite which will survive half the world being nuked, because the other half of the world will still be carriers and vectors for it.

What, you don’t find that horrible?

--Strangely, some people find the scene with Uncle Albert to be charming. You remember him—he’s the one who seems to laugh compulsively, and when he does he floats up the ceiling of his flat. And when others are in his presence, such as Bert and the kids, they float up the ceiling when he laughs. Oddly, this is taken to be a light-hearted moment of comedy. What’s clearly going on here is a form of infectious possession--because we all know, don’t we, what sort of person floats to a ceiling, later to crawl in it: those ridden by demons.

--The way in which Mary Poppins veers between the supernatural and the memetic in its survey of horror is quite effective. Rather than moments of ordinary, family-based terror being out of place in the film, those moments drive home the horror that the children must endure. There truly is no hope for them, or for the father. (The mother in Mary Poppins is so devoted to the suffragette cause that she is essentially absent from the children’s lives, and not treated by the father as an important part of his life or of the children’s. The mother doesn’t count in Mary Poppins except as a figure of mockery).

These ordinary horrors?

The children are stuck in a household run by an absentee mother and a father so wrapped up in his self-defined (or perhaps societally-defined) roles that he has no love or kindness in his heart for his children, something they understand, whether consciously or subconsciously, and react to by tormenting successive nannies. For a brief time the children get a great new mother figure in the form of their new nanny, only to find themselves betrayed by Mary Poppins, who lies to their parents about the trip to the drawing world—-and the parents believe Mary Poppins, rather than the children. The lesson they learn here is that their parents don’t trust them and don’t believe them, and that Mary Poppins herself is not to be relied upon. In this moment the children lose not just their wonderful new nanny, but their parents as adults who can be depended upon and who will shield them from the evils of life. This is not something that only happens in fiction, and is devastating when it takes place in real life.

For his part, the father is displaced from his role as head of the family by Mary Poppins, and Mary does this to him in front of the children, so that the children are aware of who the new Alpha Male is in the household, and the father is aware that the children know this. The film has stressed how vital to the father’s self-image is his role as banker and father, and how important to him order and control is. Mary Poppins, in short order, displaces him as head of the household, and takes away control of the family from him. And all he can do is watch it happen.

Emasculation in this fashion is, when done to the right person, great fun to watch—who among us would not enjoy watching Donald Trump being reduced to a homeless eunuch?—but the father is not the right person. He is not a deserving victim in this case.

It may be instructive to consider the father as an analogue to Annabella Sciorra’s character, a mother, in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. It passed unnoticed by men at the time, but The Hand that Rocks the Cradle was a big hit among women, who properly saw it as an unusual domestic horror film. The high point of the movie, and the scene which provoked a unique frisson of both terror and outrage among many women viewers, was when Sciorra saw Rebecca de Mornay’s nanny breastfeeding Sciorra’s children. For men, this moment passed unremarked-upon, for the most part, but many women reacted strongly to this scene, as the filmmakers undoubtedly planned. To have another woman breastfeed your child, as many female viewers of The Hand that Rocks the Cradle said, would be to suffer a unique form of violation.

This is not something that most men are going to react to with their emotions, simply because it’s sufficiently alien to our experience as men that while we can appreciate it intellectually we likely will not react to it emotionally. But to be emasculated in the eyes of our children, in the way that Mary Poppins does, and to have the children see that an outsider is the real head of the family…that is something many men will react emotionally to.

(I should note that Farah Mendlesohn has pointed out that, in Edwardian households, the nanny was the head of the household, as far as the children were concerned, and had a unique position among household servants, and that it was understood that father would not watch over their children the way the father in Mary Poppins did.)

--Nor does the film scant on economic horrors, the sorts of terror which are quite possible in what passes for real life. The run on the bank, caused by nothing, and the loss of the job due to the foolishness or maliciousness of a boss—-these are easily realized outcomes for many, and consequently even more terrifying than the memetic threat of "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

--The filmmakers have enough intellectual honesty to bring the children away from the false idyll of their home life and expose them to the grimy reality of London, which in turn leads to the urban horror of the film. The children, and the viewer, see the pigeon lady (the hopelessness and despair of lonely old age in the city) and the chimney sweeps (men forced to work the filthiest jobs in the city)—-and, of course, the children are forced to run through a frightening section of the city, out to the docks.

--The filmmakers also manipulate the film’s conservative ideology to create further frights. The essentials of the Banks’ life are, it must be admitted, attractive: a financially and socially secure middle-class existence in a cozy borough of London. The film then threatens to take it all away. Job- and class horror—economic horror--the threat of financial calamity and the resulting social and economic disruption and disaster, must not be understated as a source of fright. It’s not something that most of us would have felt or even thought much about as teenagers or in our twenties, when most horror readers do the majority of their horror reading. But on the wrong side of forty the prospect of abruptly losing your job, and thereby your house, and starting over, is frightening.

The film makes this worse by the method in which the father loses his job. Most people have had a job in which their superior was unreasonable on one subject or another. But to be forced to work in a job in which we must toady to a group of unreasonable and hidebound men, led by a possibly senile figure? That’s frightening. And then to lose the job because of the superiors’ complete unreasonableness? (And to be symbolically castrated in the process-—witness what they do to his precious hat). Scary—and far too realistic.

-Mary Poppins is securely within the continuum of economic horror films, although naturally it’s not thought of as such. Consider the scene in which Mr. Banks confronts the bank board, fully aware that he’s going to be humiliated and have his job taken away. Compare the way that scene is initially filmed to the sequence in Network when Peter Finch’s Howard Beale is called to heel by Ned Beatty’s Arthur Jensen.

Similarly, compare the way Dick van Dyke’s Mr. Dawes, Sr., is filmed with the way that Lionel Barrymore’s Mr. Potter is filmed, in It’s a Wonderful Life, another film of economic horror. Coincidence? Obviously not.

--The last third of the film is where Mary Poppins ventures into really scary waters. The bank chairman is possessed first by the "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" meme and then by the demon of laughter—-a scene, note, that ends with a flash of demonic red light. (Don’t believe me? See the movie and pay close attention to that scene and how it ends. Demonic freaking red light, I tell you).

The father, post-job loss, returns home with a completely different personality. It’s either been rewritten due to the "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" meme—-or what steps through the door is not the father, but a doppelgänger. The children recognize this: their reaction to his arrival is that he is "something that only sounds like him." (Yes, one of them says that). They allow denial to convince them otherwise, but for a brief moment they see the truth. (The greater attractiveness of the doppelgänger of Mr. Banks to the real thing is a clear hint that the filmmakers were choosing Poe’s "William Wilson", with its morally superior doppelgänger, rather than stories like Bulwer-Lytton’s "Monos and Daimonos", in which the doppelgänger is evil.)

Returning to the scene in which Mr. Banks loses his job, there’s still another metafictional moment. Mr. Banks tells the bank chairman, Mr. Dawes Sr., that "There’s no such thing as you!" Indeed there isn’t--nor is there such a thing as Mr. Banks. He’s a fictional character. It’s just that in this scene, for a brief moment, he becomes aware that he’s surrounded by unreal characters-—and in all likelihood his own status as a fictional construct. Given that we’re meant to identify with him, we might consider the horror of that dawning knowledge.

Finally, consider the film’s true ending. Mr. Banks has been either driven insane or replaced by a doppelgänger. Mrs. Banks is now the wife of a man who is out of work and has bad references, and Mrs. Banks is clearly unfit to hold the sorts of jobs available to women in London at this time. The children have been through multiple trips to Faerie, and come through the worse for it, their minds likely in torment because of the conflict between what they know and what they wish they didn’t know. The bank has been ruined, and the Banks’ saving may well be gone. Personalities, social positions, and lives have been ruined, and all because of the arrival of Mary Poppins.

What does this remind us of? The influence of Robert W. Chambers’ King in Yellow. The narrator of the novel describes the play this way:

"I pray God will curse the writer, as the writer has cursed the world with this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth a world which now trembles before the King in Yellow. When the French Government seized the translated copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager to read it. It is well-known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists. No definite principles had been violated in those wicked pages, no doctrine promulgated, no convictions outraged. It could not be judged by any known standard, yet, although it was acknowledged that the supreme note of art had been struck in The King in Yellow, all felt that human nature could not bear the strain, nor thrive on words in which the essence of purest poison lurked. The very banality and innocence of the first act only allowed the blow to fall afterward with more awful effect."

Is that not a fair assessment of Mary Poppins, both figure and movie? And isn't Mary Poppins' background unknown and mysterious, just like the King's?

Naturally, the filmmakers or producers could not allow a movie meant for children to end on quite so dire a note, so a wholly-unconvincing happy ending was tacked on to Mary Poppins. The film is in good company in suffering this fate; the forces of the Tsarist government did that to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. But readers and critics see through the ending of Crime and Punishment and ignore it, considering only what Dostoevsky really wanted to include in the novel. So, too, will readers and critics eventually treat the ending of Mary Poppins.

--Finally, no consideration of horror in Mary Poppins would be complete without a contemplation of Mary Poppins herself. Set aside for the moment what she does to the children: exposing them to magic and possessed toys, taking them to Faerie, and so on. Ignore her obvious lie that she is "practically perfect in every way." Simply look at her: the jacket which obscure her curves; the high collar; the long skirts; the hard, high boots; the phallic umbrella. All of her female signifiers are suppressed, and she rarely smiles, so that the children receive no affection from her at all. At the end of the movie, she leaves the children (who despite all reason have become attached to her) without saying goodbye, adding more scars to the children’s psyche, and undoubtedly leaving them

Who is Mary Poppins? Harry Harlow’s wire mother, that’s who.

So beware of terror and fright, my friends, on behalf of you and your children. Keep watching the screens—KEEP WATCHING THE SCREENS!

(I should add that I’ve rarely angered my wife, who loves Mary Poppins, more than when I ran the preceding by her. She actually punched me—hard—on the arm, which is quite out of character for her).