Tag Archive | fantasy

Timorous heroes and erratic phantoms—more of why I love sf/f

Movie poster for The Ghost and Mr Chicken.

A hauntingly hilarious cinematic experience!

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love The Ghost and Mr Chicken. I know, based on when it was released in theatres and then when it came to television, that I was probably 8 years old when I first saw the film, but it was a staple of local TV afternoon movie fare for the next decade or thereabouts, so I saw it at least once a year from sometime in elementary school until well into high school. I acquired a VHS copy of the film for myself as an adult and watched it around Halloween for a number of years, and since then I’ve re-acquired it on disc and now I can stream it from our media server whenever I want. So I’m really familiar with the film, in all of it’s lovely, gooey, genre-goodness!

So, the story concerns Luther Heggs (played by Don Knotts), a middle-aged man who has always dreamed of being a Famous Journalist or other sort of hero, but has never been able to rise above his job as a typesetter working in the basement of the Courier-Express, the weekly newspaper of the town of Rachel, Kansas. The opening scenes of the movie establish Luther at the butt of just about everyone’s joke in the town, and given his tendency to jump to conclusions and become almost hysterical over the slightest odd occurence, the audience is not supposed to be surprised.

Then comes news that the Old Simmons Mansion, the site of a notorious murder-suicide decades ago which has been a decaying housed rumored to be haunted all of those years, is going to be bulldozed down soon, as the only heir to the Simmons’ is coming back to town around the time of the anniversary of the murder-suicide. Luther is dared/assigned to spend a night in the house on the anniversary of the horrid events and write an exclusive, the first time he has been offered a by-line at the paper in his whole life.

Luther also has had a lifelong crush on Alma Parker (played by Joan Staley), who is also being wooed by Luther’s most frequent bully, the only official reporter for the local newspaper. Being teased as a coward by said bully in front of Alma, Luther declares he will undertake the assignment.

Luther lives in a boarding house whose other tenants are all played by a gaggle of famous character actors of the period. And who amp up the fear by telling Luther the versions of the murder-suicide that each of them has heard.

Luther goes to the house, has a few very comedic misadventures that show how over-excited and fearful he is… and then the real spookiness happens. The painting of the last Mrs Simmons transforms during a flash of lightning from a regular painting to one with a pair of garden shears sticking out of it, with blood dripping down the canvas. The organ in the tower starts playing, but no one is at the keys. A bookcase swings open to reveal a secret stair way to the staircase. Other spookiness happens until Luther finally faints in terror.

The next day, Luther tries to tell his story to the editor and the only other reporter, and they translate his tale into a compelling story that runs on the front page of the next edition of the Courier-Express. This leads to a number of unexpected actions. Many people in the community think of Luther as a hero. The wife of the manager of the local bank happens to be the head of the local seance society and since she essentially owns the bank, suddenly the Simmons heir is prevented from getting his clear title to the house.

I should pause at this point and confess that despite being listed as an uproarious comedy, this movie did give me nightmares as a kid. However, the nightmares were because of the scene where Luther is forced to give a speech at the local community Fourth of July Celebration. It’s a scene that is extremely painful for anyone who suffers from excess empathy and can’t watch embarrassing scenes.

Anyway, the heir to the Simmons mansion sues Luther for libel, and uses the trial to trot out all of the most embarrassing stories of Luther trying to impress his classmates and neighbors throughout his life. Finally, the judge approves a jury request to go spend the night in the haunted house to see once and for all whether what Luther recounted in his story really happened.

Of course, under the observation of the jurors, judge, and neighbors, nothing untoward happens. The cringe ramps up as Luther tries to make things happen as they did on the night. It becomes clear that her lawsuit if going to go against Luther, and everyone who has supported him up to this point rejects him.

…except for Alma.

As the rest of the community leaves, with Luther standing in front of the house pleading for someone to believe him, she goes back inside, and finds the lever that opens the secret bookcase. Soon, the spooky organ is playing itself, and Luther goes back inside, finds himself confronting a fiend threatening Alma’s life. Eventually, Luther is vindicated before the whole community, and the truth about that murder-suicide decades ago is revealed.

Many years ago I mentioned that this movie was one of my favorite fantasy/horror films, and a friend got really upset at me for that claim. The ghost within the story is explained away in the final act, the person pointed out. Also, the entire movie is framed as a comedy about how easily Knotts’ character is sent into flights of fancy. “It’s a comedy with a fake ghost, not a fantasy or horror story,” my friend insisted.

I have a number of quibbles with that. First, there are a lot of very spooky moments in the middle of the film that definitely qualify as horror. Second, if you can’t accept tales about people investigating claims of the paranormal as part of the genre of sf/f then I don’t want to know you. And third, in the final scene of the movie, after Luther and Alma exchange their wedding vows, we see the chapel’s Wurlizter organ playing itself! So, sorry, just because most of the happenings (but certainly not all—in most cuts of the movie the bleeding portrait is never explained!) have a mundane explanation, that doesn’t mean that one of the murdered people didn’t hang around as a ghost.

I know what I loved about the film is that Luther—the guy no one in town takes seriously and who is bullied for not being sufficiently manly—is the hero who gets the happy ending. And I like to think that he had a long career afterward solving haunted house mysteries with the help of Alma and their ghostly sidekick.


Part of the reason I decided it was time to write about this movie was this story (which was included in last week’s Friday Five): Joan Staley, Actress in ‘The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,’ Dies at 79 – She also slapped Elvis Presley in ‘Roustabout,’ sang to Audie Murphy in ‘Gunpoint’ and played Shame sidekick Okie Annie on ‘Batman’.

Undying fiancées, melodramatic lab assistants, and monsters in the closet—more of why I love sf/f


I don’t know exactly how old I was the first time I watched The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but since I’m pretty sure that it was on the Saturday afternoon Science Fiction Theatre on Channel 2 out of Denver (long the home of “Blinky the Clown”). Which means that I couldn’t have been more the 10 years old. I know the second time I saw it was a late Friday night Nightmare Theatre offering during a time I was allowed to stay up after midnight on Fridays, so that means I was between 12 and 14 years old. The third time was many, many years later as an Mystery Science Theatre 3000 episode… and it was one of the times I really wanted a means to mute the commenters. Because as campy and awful as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is, I’m actually very fond of it.

And it really is a poorly made film on so many levels. It was released with the title The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but yet when you get to the end of the film the credits appear under a title card reading The Head That Wouldn’t Die. The direction is clunky. A lot of the dialog is more than just clunky, it’s actually a wonder some of the actors could get the lines out! The car accident scene is so badly edited, it makes Plan 9 from Outer Space seem like a masterpiece.

And then there is the plot: Dr. Bill Cortner is a brilliant surgeon who has some unorthodox ideas—so unorthodox that his father (a more famous surgeon) urges him to take up a new profession. Dr. Cortner is taking his new fiancée, Jan Compton, to the family’s country home (I think to meet his mother), when they have a car accident. Cortner gets out with barely a scratch, but Jan is neatly decapitated. Somehow Cortner has the presence of mind to carry her head to his locked lab in the basement of the family country house, where Cortner’s creepy lab assistant, Kurt, helps him set Jan’s head into a pan of blood and attach various life sustaining equipment to the head.

There’s a monstrous Thing in the Closet of the lab that occasionally growls incoherently and bangs on the heavily locked door. We are told the Thing is the result of a previous failed experiment, but given no other details. Jan can mysteriously talk despite not having lungs nor any sort of breathing apparatus. And Kurt the assistant has a serious deformity on one arm.

Jan pleads with them to let her die, but Dr. Cortner has plan! He will find a body to transplant Jan’s head onto and they will be able to live happily ever after. He then drives into the city to search strip clubs, night clubs, and even a beauty contest to find a suitable body.

While Cotrner’s off doing that Jan and Kurt the Assistant have existential debates about the meaning of life and horror. It is also during the middle that we learn of Kurt’s sadistic streak, as he takes delight in teasing the Thing in the closet. Jan, meanwhile, realizes that somehow she had developed psychic powers, and she starts communicating with the Thing in the closet.

Eventually, Dr. Cortner settles on a suitably sexy body to steal of Jan: a model whose body is perfect, but she has a scar on her face which she is ashamed of. Lying that he can remove the scar, Cortner lures the model up to the family’s home where his lab is. Once there, he drugs her, and begins to prepare for the surgery.

Jan begs him not to do it, but Cortner is determined.

Jan eggs the Thing in the closet on, and in an extremely bloody finale it escapes and kills both Kurt and Corter. It’s egregiously gorey, and I remain a bit surprised that this movie was shown during the afternoon on a local TV station.

The Thing in the Closet, by the way, is played by Eddie Carmel, also known as “The Jewish Giant.” Eddie suffered from a form of gigantism and acromegaly because of an incurable tumor on his pituitary gland.

The fight has also started a fire, so the lab is burning down. Jan instructs the Thing from the closet to carry the unconscious woman to safety, but to leave Jan there to burn with the rest of the house.

Depending on which edit you see, the movie’s sleaze in the middle outweighs the extreme gore of the ending. The scenes of Cortner looking for a body include a lot of footage of the strippers stripping, at least one instance of models wrestling, and the women opening talking about how no one is interested in them other than for their bodies. Apparently full frontally nude scenes were filmed and intended for the international release of the film.

Despite everything wrong with it, the film still works. And mostly because of Virginia Leith’s performance as Jan. I mean, the film begins with a chillingly delivered line (over a totally black screen), “Please let me die.” The opening of the film is essentially a flashback from the moment that Jan realizes how her fiancé has revived her. Despite spending most the film sitting under the table with her head sticking out the pan, Leith makes you believe. Even the overwrought philosophizing during the debate with Kurt is loaded with pathos. She also gets some commentary in there about Cortner’s obsession with finding the perfect sex doll body for her, completely disregarding her wishes and opinions.

I don’t remember ever having nightmares because of this film. I’m not sure why that is. I certainly didn’t pick up on the gay subtext a lot of people seem to see in the film. The Thing in the Closet seems to be the component that everyone who claims there is gay subtext focuses on—but Cortner is so obviously the sort of narcissistic heterosexual man who only values women for the sex he can get from them, that I just don’t see it.

I do know that when I first saw the film I identified very strongly with both Jan and the Thing in the Closet. Jan refers to herself as the ultimate horror, but I think it would be more apt to describe her as the ultimate Person Without Agency. Which is why I really empathized with her. As a queer kid (technically closeted the first time I saw it, but I didn’t actually know yet that I was gay, so closeted isn’t quite accurate) with an abusive parent, I had almost as little control over my life as Jan. And of course, the way that Kurt bullied the Thing was also very familiar to me.

The ending of the story isn’t exactly a surprise: the mad scientist destroyed by his own creation is a very popular trope, after all. Though the level of gore in the ending was hardly normal when the movie was made. But again, Jan’s final comments, like the chilling opening line and her description of why death would be a kinder fate than what Cortner planned for her, elevates the film above the schlock.

And, honestly, schlock often makes for a great popcorn movie.


I linked to Virginia Leith’s obituary a couple of weeks ago, and it kicked off a trip down memory lane. One of the things I turned up was this fascinating story about the young man who played the monster in the closet: Eddie Carmel, The Jewish Giant.

Old authors yell at clouds again—or, I thought sf/f was supposed to be about progress

Old man yells are cloud, "I will not succumb to the cultural devolution you call progress!"

Since I’m doing NaNoWriMo this month, I don’t have a lot of time for blogging. But a particular kerfuffle has resurfaced in sf/f fandom and I had a lot of thoughts. I don’t want to go into all the details, other than it involves one older author writing both in a published column and then on his blog about how certain people (and oddly enough most examples he gives is sf/f written by women of color) are ruining things because they’re getting awards for writing stuff that isn’t good, proper, serious, hard science-filled science fiction.

Fortunately, other people have written things that are a bit more organized that I would likely be in a quick blog post.

First up, the following essay was actually written and sold to Uncanny Magazine some time before the old guy’s recent angry rant, but it just so happens to be a great take on the underlying topic: The Science, Fiction, and Fantasy of Genre. Just this metaphor alone is worth the read:

“It’s been said that whoever writes in the field of science fiction stands on the shoulders of giants, the towering titans of yesteryear. Their hard work built the playground; we just play in it.

“At the risk of thoroughly mixing those two metaphors, it occurs to me that even if we allow for the existence of giants, a playground in which we have to stand on top of each other can’t be very large, can it? And even the best playground could use some new equipment from time to time.”

But my favorite parts are in the middle—and too big to excerpt and still give justice—where she looks at famous works by Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clark, and Isaac Asimov and points out that none of them were about hard proper science, but actually about history, psychology, and sociology. It’s a really good read! You should check it out.

And then there is this incredibly wonderful bit of sarcastic artistry: Science Fiction vs. Fantasy: The Choice Is Clear.

“Science fiction provides its readers with iron-hard, fact-based possibility…

“Where but science fiction could we find stories like Pohl and Williamson’s Reefs of Space series, which explores the possibility that the Oort Cloud could be filled by an ecosystem powered by biological fusion and that a few lucky humans might someday enjoy mind-melds with intelligent stars? And where but in science fiction could we entertain the quite reasonable possibility that someday a young woman with whichever psionic powers the plot of the week requires might have to contend with invisible cats? Who but science fiction writers will remind us of the very real possibility that one day starships might be propelled at superluminal velocities by the power of women’s orgasms?”

That last sentence is particularly relevant. Because the old author yelling about how modern science fiction has been ruined by all this fantasy? He’s the one who wrote about starships powered by women’s orgasms. And it wasn’t a parody—he insisted that it was serious sci fi at the time. Also, that is unfortunately not the creepiest sexual non sequitur he ever shoehorned into a supposed science fiction tale.

So, yeah, the angry man who wrote that stuff? He doesn’t get to lecture other people on not being serious enough in their science fiction and fantasy.

Evasive geniuses, invisible monsters, and helpful (sassy gay) robots—more of why I love sf/f

Forbidden Planet!

I have written many times about my problematic relationship with scary movies. They give me nightmares, and I’m the kind of person who, while having a nightmare, climbs out of bed, running around waking up everyone I can find, frantically trying to explain the horrific danger we’re facing and how we have to come up with a plan to deal with the threat now. The very first movie that caused that reaction in me is a movie that many people don’t think of as a scary movie: the 1956 science fiction film, Forbidden Planet. Many people think of Forbidden Planet as the ultimate science fiction movie. Nearly every sci fi movie and series since its release has, whether consciously or not, copied its template. Which isn’t a bad thing, in my opinion. And most people don’t think of Forbidden Planet as a horror film, but…

So, in 1971 Forbidden Planet was shown on U.S. network television for the first time. I’ve mentioned many times before that my mom was a sci fi fan from way back. My dad was more of a spy and western fan, but he also liked some science fiction, so he didn’t object when Mom wanted to watch this show. The broadcast was a few months before my 11th birthday. The whole family watched the show together, though I think than my sister, who was 6 years old at the time, fell asleep before it was over.

I really liked the show while we were watching it.

But several hours later, I was standing in the hallway, very confused, because my mom had thrown a glass of water in my face because I had gone to sleep, and then got out of bed and found my parents and started jabbering about the monster that was trying to kill us. This was, as far as my family and I know, the first time I sleepwalked.

So, let’s get back to the movie…

The movie starts on the bridge of a spaceship where Commander John J. Adams is in charge. The movie is careful never to mention any nationality for the military organization in which the crew serves, though at a later point in the film they send a report back to Earth and await further instructions. They’ve been sent to a planet called Altair IV where a scientific expedition was sent many years before, but lost contact.

As Adam’s ship approached the planet, the make radio contact with one of the scientists from the expedition, Dr. Morbius. Morbius warns them not to land, saying he is the only survivor, that the planet is very dangerous, and he can’t guarantee their safety. Adams has his orders, and lands anyway.

They learn that there are two humans on the planet: Morbius and his daughter (named Altaira) who was born after the original expedition landed. Morbius explains that after the discovered the remains of an advanced civilization of aliens called the Krell, members of the original expedition had been killed off mysteriously by some planetary force, until the a small group tried to flee the planet to return to Earth, but the ship was vaporized. Morbius and his daughter have been living alone with their very helpful robot, Robbie, peacefully ever since.

As far as I have been able to tell, Robbie was the first robot in any film to be portrayed with an actual personality, rather than being a walking tin can that mindlessly followed his instructions. One of my favorite scenes with Robbie is when, later, Altaira wants Robbie to make her a dress covered with star sapphires, and Robbie explains that all of those sapphires will take many weeks to synthesize, whereas he could make her a dress covered with diamonds in a few hours.

Back to the main plot: Dr. Morbius is very evasive with the Commander and his crew. He does show them some of the remains of the Krell civilization, including thousands of underground nuclear reactors that are still generating unimaginable amounts of energy for no known purpose, an education machine, and other devices that Morbius still doesn’t understand. But because Morbius’s translation of the Krell records reveal that every last member of the race was destroyed by a mysterious force they couldn’t understand, and Morbius’s shipmates were destroyed by a similarly mysterious force, he keeps urging the commander and his crew to leave. And the first night the ship is on the planet, and invisible monster sneaks into the ship, kills a crewman, and disables the hyperspace communicator, making it impossible for the next several days for the ship to contact Earth.

And let me tell you, the way the showed impact of the invisible monster, who was so heavy his feet bent the metal of the stairway into the ship, was very, very creepy!

The plot continues, with one crewman flirting with (and clearly hoping to take advantage of) the very naive Altaira. The commander intervenes and sends the crewman back to the ship, but he also scolds Altaira for wearing revealing clothing around men. Which confuses her.

When Morbius is no help with explaining the monster, the commander orders his crew to take additional precautions. Each night the ship remains on the planet, the invisible monster attacks again, and each day the ship erects more elaborate defenses, including building a huge blaster. When the monster is trying to get through the force fields and being fired on my many weapons, we get a sort of aura-like outline of the creature, the only time it isn’t invisible. But all of the tech of the starship is unable to defeat the creature.

Eventually, the commander and his closest friend on the crew (who everyone calls “Doc” though it is never clear whether he is the medical officer or if the nickname is because of some other scientific expertise) have become convinced that the monster isn’t some ineffable planetary force. They decide that one of them needs to use the alien “education machine” which Morbius has warned them away from. Morbius has explained that several members of the original expedition has tried to use the machine, and all who had tried died, except Morbius. The commander winds up distracting Morbius while Doc get to the machine.

The machine does kill Doc, but as he is dying, he is able to tell the commander enough to solve the mystery.

There is a dramatic final confrontation, in which it appears that the mysterious force no longer thinks of Altaira, Robbie, or Morbius as beings to protect rather than destroy. And again, the way supposedly impenetrable Krell metal walls were being battered in by the monster was intensely scary! Commander Adams forces Morbius to face the truth. Which results in Morbius’ death. The ship is able to leave the planet, carrying Altaira and Robbie back to Earth, and the entire planet self-destructs after they leave.

Most modern analyses of the movie, if they acknowledge any problematic content at all will note the one and only woman in the cast is less than a full-fledged adult and the only agency she is granted in the plot is whether to remain loyal to her father or switch allegiance to her new romantic interest, Commander Adams. And this is problematic enough. However… all of the men in the story view Altaira as little more than an object that one of them will possess. It is precisely because Morbius perceives that he is “losing” his daughter to the commander that sets the final battle in motion. All of the other characters in the story are vying for the attention of the one and only woman.

I should say, all of the other characters except Robbie the Robot.

I’ve never seen any critic acknowledge that, in some ways, Robbie the Robot is Altaira’s Sassy Gay Friend. He’s clever, he is devoted to Altaira but not interested in her in a romantic way. He cleans the house, prepares meals, and takes care of all the domestic tasks in the Morbius household that would traditionally be fulfilled by a woman in a non-science fiction film of the era, right? One of the roles of the asexual or effeminate man who was the witty friend of the heroine in movies of the 40s and 50s was to have insight into the motives and character of other people that the protagonists did not. So it should be no surprise that in the climactic battle, Cammander Adams uses Robbie’ perceptions of the situation to convince Altaira and Morbius of the true nature of the invisible monster.

It was many, many years later before this queer geeky nerdy child realized that at least part of the reason my favorite character out of this classic sci-fi movie was Robbie the Robot was precisely because he was the only character who wasn’t vying for the attention of a woman. And while many other aspects of the story resonated with me, none of the other characters rose to the level of identification as the robot. So this queer child, who had nightmares because of the main plot, still found models for my possible futures among the supporting cast of this movie.

Yelling at clouds, pointless nostalgia, and blind spots

“Kids these days will never know the joys of oil lamps and chamber pots”A lot of people have linked to the comments by people like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and so forth denigrating the modern superhero movie as not being “real cinema”, not being narrative, having more in common with an amusement park ride than a “proper movie” and so forth. And many other people have posted counter arguments, but most of the counter arguments I was thinking were being a bit too timid in their defense. And then Cora Buhlert weighed in: Old Directors Yell at Clouds – Pardon, Superheroes. And she nailed it:

My initial reaction to Martin Scorsese’s remarks was, “I could say the exact same thing about his films. I tried to watch them, I really tried, and I’ll never get the hours I spent sitting through Taxi Driver or Gangs of New York back. But I’m sorry, I just cannot connect with the kind of white dude arseholes who are the protagonists of Scorsese’s movies.” I may never have been a superhero, but I find Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow and the rest of the gang much more relatable than anybody in Taxi Driver or The King of Comedy or Goodfellas or Casino.

I mean, really, it’s quite rich for a guy like Scorsese to accuse any other filmmaker of not being able to create a narrative. I had immediately gone to Gangs of New York myself as the perfect example of the kind of failed storytelling usually defended with “but that’s what happens in real life!” The difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense. That’s what narrative actually means: making sense out of events by tying them to a thread of meaning. Gangs of New York (and every other Scorsese film I’ve sat through) set up all sorts of narrative threads, places metaphorical guns on mantlepieces, that are simply ignored or forgotten in an ending that can be boiled down to: “Life is unfair and meaningless and you, the audience, are stupid for not realizing it.”

Buhlert makes some other points that I was thinking while reading the various screeds:

Because for all their flaws, today’s superhero movies are a lot more diverse in front and behind the camera, then the highly touted movies of the New Hollywood era, which were made by and for a very narrow slice of people. It’s no accident that directors, actors and characters of those movies are all white and male and either Italian-American or members of some other immigrant group (the characters in The Deer Hunter are all descendants of Russian immigrants). There are a lot of people who never saw themselves reflected in those movies – women, people of colour, LGBTQ people, people who are not American – and who likely never much cared for those movies either, because the big Scorsese or Coppola fanboys are mostly white dudes themselves.

Not all superhero movies are diverse. I mean, I was hardly the first person to point out that several of the franchises featured blond-haired, blue-eyed protagonists who were playing by and white actor named Chris, for goodness sake! But just as one example, the best Captain America comics (And the movie moments) have been the ones created by writers who never forget that inside that supersoldier body, deep down, Steve Rogers is still the not-able-bodied asthmatic kid who understands what it means to be powerless and to be bullied, and who has the empathy and hope necessary to fight for the powerless.

And…

Now I am a comic fan of old and like superhero movies. And so the current golden age of superhero movies is a dream come true for me, where I finally get to see plenty of characters on the big screen that I never expected to see there, in well made movies with excellent actors, great production values and stories that capture what made the comics so compelling. However, I also realise that not everybody likes superhero movies and I know the pain of cinemas being full of some genre of movies you don’t like. After all, I felt the same during the glut of westerns (and anybody who hates superhero movies should remember that the glut of westerns lasted from the silent era into the 1970s, i.e. almost fifty years), the glut of Vietnam war movies in the 1980s (and WWII movies in the 1960s), the glut of gangster movies in the 1970s/80s (and the 1930s) or the glut of romantic comedies in the 1990s. Oddly enough, however, I never hear the usual suspects complaining about too many westerns or war movies or gangster movies, though romantic comedies, Star Wars knock-off space operas and even the mini-trend of YA novel adpatations approx. ten years ago all got dinged. Gee, I wonder why that is.

It’s another example of that phenomenon that I called “applause from the wrong crowd.” Movies that are aimed at that narrow slice of cishet, white, male, able-bodied people are “proper cinema” and anyone in the audience who isn’t a member of that demographic is expected to watch with quiet admiration. We’re not supposed to expect to see our own stories on the screen. We’re not supposed to expect to see our issues addressed in the tales on screen. And if somehow something slips through that does include us, or tell our stories, we’re not supposed to cheer it loudly and enthusiastically.

If I keep going, I’m just going to devolve into ranting on my own. Buhlert makes a lot of other good points about the kinds of stories that superhero comics and films tackle well, the kinds of movies that are being squeezed out by the current focus on blockbusters, and other topics along the way. You should really go read the whole thing.

Astounding Stories of Super-Science, or name changes are nothing new in sf/f

The February, 1930 cover of Astounding Stories of Super-Scinece, cover art by  H. W. Wesso. In 1930 the magazine's editor was Harry Bates.

The February, 1930 cover of Astounding Stories of Super-Scinece, cover art by H. W. Wesso. In 1930 the magazine’s editor was Harry Bates.

Just last week I commented on the kerfuffle in sci fi fannish circles about how problematic some of us think it is to have one of our major awards named after an extremely racist (and misogynist, classist, xenophobic, anti-democracy advocating authoritarian) and long deceased editor. I only linked to a fraction of the commentaries and arguments posted online since the acceptance speech that kicked this off. And while the kerfuffle has raged on there has been a very significant development: A Statement from the Editor.

As we move into Analog’s 90th anniversary year, our goal is to keep the award as vital and distinguished as ever, so after much consideration, we have decided to change the award’s name to The Astounding Award for Best New Writer.

So, Dell Magazines has decided to rename the award. They pledge that the award recipients will continue to be selected in the same way as before, and pledge to work with WorldCon going forward to implement the change. This might seem like really swift action on the company’s part, but another article published just the day before this announcement, the current editor is quoted as saying that he has been having this conversation within the company since shortly after he read an early draft of Alec Nevala-Lee’s book about the Campbell era: Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

As many people have pointed out, there have been previous op-eds, letters, and even petitions suggesting changing the name of the award, so it is hardly a new idea.

This decision has been no less controversial than the aforementioned speech. And I find it particularly amusing that one of the arguments being put forward by people who don’t want to change the award’s name is that changing names is bad and it somehow erases history.

This argument is particularly amusing in light of both an award an an editor tied to the magazine formerly known as Astounding.

When the magazine just began publication in 1930, the full title was Astounding Stories of Super-Science, as you can see by the image of the ‘zine’s second issue included above. A few years later, the title was shortened to Astounding Stories. Then, shortly after Campbell took over as editor, he renamed the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, which is the name it operated under until 1960, when Campbell changed the name to Analog Science Fact & Science Fiction.

That last name change was handled in an interesting way, graphically. For a few months both the name Astounding and Analog could be seen, with Astounding fading more and more each month. There was also a lot of variation with the rest of title, sometimes appearing as Science Fact & Fiction, sometimes Science Fact/Fiction, and sometimes with the ampersand or slash replaced by a glyph that looked like an inverted U with a line through it which Campbell said meant “analogous to.”

Which gets us to another faulty argument being made against the new name: calling it the Astounding Award still makes the name honor Campbell, and why isn’t that problematic? First, Astounding was published for seven years before Campbell became editor, and the previous two editors weren’t quite as ideologically driven in their story choices as Campbell. Second, Campbell was the one who wanted to stop calling the magazine Astounding all along. And third, while Astounding is one of the names of the publication in question, it’s also an adjective which is a synonym for wonderful or amazing.

Based on a lot of comments I’ve seen from the irritated ones, most of them don’t actually know that much about Campbell. They certainly haven’t read any of his notorious editorials. I suspect that for most of them, they know that he published Heinlein and Asimov and the like—and I suspect they haven’t read many of those author’s works, either. Campbell’s sort of a Rorschach test in that way: they see what the want to see. And frankly, the main thing they know is that those darn Social Justice Warriors and uppity people of color and decadent queer fans are critical of Campbell, therefore he must be defended at all costs no matter how illogically.

I didn’t start regularly reading sci fi zines until shortly after Campbell’s death, and even then, the magazines I preferred were Galazy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Most of what I knew about Campbell in my early years came from the autobiographical bits that Isaac Asimov included in his anthologies (especially The Early Asimov) but even Asimov’s portrayal of him did not ignore some of Campbell’s eccentricities and flaws.

I recall Asimov seeming least happy about Campbell’s insistence that if aliens appear in a story, they absolutely must be shown to be inferior to humans in some way. It so bothered Isaac, and Isaac felt that he owed Campbell first shot at any of his stories, that Asimov simply stopped writing aliens at all. Asimov’s future history galaxy-spanning society was inhabited by humans and their robots and that was it.

Campbell had a lot of other rules about stories that pushed the field of science fiction into a specific idealogical corner. One in which rich, white, aggressive men were always on the top of the heap, and where the working class, poor, less educated, and women and people of color were always on the bottom—and always in need to the leadership of the folks on top.

For all that Campbell is often regarded as a proponent of keeping science in science fiction, one has to note that Campbell meant physics and chemistry. Sciences such as geology, paleontology, anthropology, linguistics, and sociology weren’t part of the Campbellian vision.

Society changes. Our understanding of the universe and our place in it changes. Science fiction as an art form and the fannish community of Campbell’s peak years wasn’t very welcoming to women, queer people, people of color. Yes, there were always fans and creators within the sci fi community who came from those other communities, but it was clear that we weren’t meant to be heroes. That our stories never mattered. That our role was always to be supporting characters or sit quietly and marvel at the competence of men like Campbell.

And that’s neither true of the real world, nor is it something an ethical person should aspire to.

So, yes, the name change is a good thing. Because one of the things I love about good science fiction, are those moments that astound me.

That has always been here, or politics aren’t a new thing in sf/f

The cover of the November, 1950 issue of Astounding Stories. Cover art by David E. Pattee. The cover illustration shares the same title as John W. Campbell's political editorial published in the same issue.

The cover of the November, 1950 issue of Astounding Stories. Cover art by David E. Pattee. The cover illustration shares the same title as John W. Campbell’s political editorial published in the same issue.

I’ve been a fan of Jeannette Ng since a friend recommended her novel, Under the Pendulum Sun a bit over a year ago, so I was overjoyed when at this last weekend’s WorldCon they read her name as the winner of this year’s John W. Campbell Award. And her acceptance speech began with the line: “John W. Campbell, for whom this award was named, was a fascist.” And she went on to talk about how the way he shaped the genre excluded many people but then, “But these bones, we have grown wonderful, ramshackle genre, wilder and stranger than his mind could imagine or allow.” And then she pivoted to talk about the current situation in Hong Kong, the city in which she was born. You can read the text version here. As you might guess, her speech has drawn some criticism from certain corners of the fandom.

I am not one of the people upset with her words. I was watching the livestream and when she spoke those opening words I literally exclaimed, “She went there! YES! Oh, you go grrrl!”

The reasons people have given for being upset at her words boil down to basically three claims:

  • It is inappropriate to make a political statement in a science fiction award acceptance speech,
  • Campbell was conservative, but not really a fascist,
  • It is extremely ungrateful to say such a thing about a man while accepting his award.

Let’s take on each of those assertions:

Are political statements inappropriate at sci fi award ceremony? During the approximately 33 years that Campbell was Editor of Astounding Science-Fiction he wrote an editorial for every monthly issue and almost none of those editorials were about science fiction. Most of those editorials were on various political topics. You can read a bunch of them here. He injected his opinions on race, democracy, the poor, and many other topics every month into that magazine. Many years after his death, Michael Moorcock (award-winning British sf/f author probably best known for the Elric series) observed that Astounding under Campbell was a crypto-fascist platform.

Campbell wasn’t the only one putting politics into science fiction.

  • Part of the plot of H.G. Wells’ classic novel, The Time Machine (published in 1895), is a commentary on the destructive nature of capitalism and the economic/social class system.
  • One of Jules Verne’s novels, Paris in the Twentieth Century, was such a scathing indictment of the dehumanizing power of industrialism, that no one would publish it until almost a hundred years after his death! In the original manuscript for Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (published in 1870) Nemo was a Polish scientist who was bent on revenge agains the Russian Empire because Russia had invaded his homeland and killed his family. It had a moving speech by Nemo condemning Russian Imperialism. Verne’s publisher, knowing that much of the income for Verne’s earlier scientific adventure stories had come from Russian reprints, asked him to remove that, and suggested that if Nemo needed to have a political cause, that perhaps the abolition of the slave trade would be a target that wouldn’t harm sales. Verne decided not to do either, and so there are some enigmatic scenes in the novel when Nemo destroys some ships flying a flag he finds offensive, but our viewpoint character never knows what flag it is, nor why Nemo hates it.
  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (published in 1818), among other things, explores the relationship between individual freedom and one’s obligations to society. Many of her short stories and books written after Frankenstein explore the role of women in society (and why they should have the right to vote and own property) and directly tackled various political institutions.

I could find many more examples throughout the history of science fiction. But the upshot is, politics have been in the fiction itself, and creators of science fiction have used both the stories and other associated platforms they gained access to as writers for making political statements the entire time.

Was Campbell a fascist? At least several of the people claiming he wasn’t a fascist admit that he was racist, but they insist that isn’t the same as being a fascist unless you are using a really loose and “modern” definition of the term.

Campbell advocated a lot of fascist ideas in addition to his racist policies, such as means-testing for voting rights (Constitution for Utopia {1961}). He argued many times against democracy (Keeperism {1965}) or the rule of law (Segregation {1963}) rather than the rule of wise men. He argued that many people (particularly black people) were better off enslaved (Breakthrough in Psychology {1965}, Colonialism {1961} and Keeperism {1965}) and they even wanted to be enslaved, and that the genocidal disasters caused by colonialism were the fault of the inferior culture of the victims (Constitution for Utopia {1961} and Colonialism {1961}), not the colonial powers. He also argued that the death of children in medical experiments was for the good of society (The Lesson of Thalidomide {1963}). He argued the poor people were poor because they deserved to be (Hyperinfracaniphilia {1965}) and that society was better off transferring wealth to the rich. He argued in favor of racial profiling and the persecution of anyone who did not conform to conservative societal norms (The Demeaned Viewpoint {1955}). And (because of course he did) he argued for sterilizing people with undesirable traits to prevent them having children (On The Selective Breeding of Human Beings {1961}).

That last one is right out of the Hitler-era Nazi playbook!

John W. Campbell espoused and promoted fascist policies. You don’t have to use a modern or loose definition of fascism to recognize that he was a fascist, you just need to read what he wrote there in the pages of Astounding Science-Fiction.

Those editorials are part of the reason that, for instance, Asimov said that Campbell’s views became so extreme that he sent fewer and fewer stories to Campbell.

Campbell liked to micro-manage authors he published, in some cases pressuring writers to revise stories to conform to his authoritarian, racist, and misogynist views.

Is it ungrateful to accept his award while critiquing him? I (almost) can’t believe people are making this argument. Campbell’s ghost is not giving out this award. Campbell’s estate is not giving out this award. This award is handed out by the World Science Fiction Society, after a nomination and voting process in which members of the World Science Fiction Society participate. The award is named after Campbell, but it isn’t his award nor is it coming from him in any way.

I am a member in good standing of the World Science Fiction Society, and it just so happens that on my Hugo Ballot this year I put Jeannette Ng in the number one spot for the John W. Campbell Award on my ballot. But even if I hadn’t placed her at #1, I would still insist that the award is coming from the 3097 World Science Fiction Society members who voted in this year’s contest. It is not coming from Mr. Campbell, who died 48 years ago, the award is coming from us.

In recent years we’ve had a misogynist, racist, and homophobic faction of the fandom organize to try to purge science fiction of the “wrong” kind of fan and the “wrong” kind of writer. That’s the bones of exclusion that Ng talked about in her speech coming back to haunt us. Part of their attempted purge was to slate-vote the Hugo awards, until we changed the rules to make it much harder for them to take over entire categories. That means that the Hugo award ceremony is not merely an appropriate place to deliver Ng’s critique, it’s the perfect place.

It is clearly time to discuss renaming the award. That doesn’t mean penalizing any past nominees or winners. It doesn’t mean exiling Campbell and the writers he cultivated from the canon of sf/f. It simply recognizes that just because a person had a profound effect on the genre, that impact doesn’t negate problematic aspects of his actions within the community. And as the sf/f community and field grows and changes over time—as our awareness of the diversity of people and ideas that have previously not been welcomed to the table expands—it is perfectly appropriate to make changes in how we recognize and honor excellence in the field.


Mike Glyer has an excellent round up of postings and comments from other people over at File 770: Storm Over Campbell Award.

Edited to Add: Elseweb I received some quibbles about the third part of my argument here. While the nominees for the award are chosen by the Hugo voters of the WSFS, and the winner is chosen by those same voters, the award is technically owned by Dell Magazines, the company that publishes the science fiction magazine Campbell was most associated with. That’s why the announcements and such always mention that the award is technically not a Hugo. I was aware of that at the time, but considered it only a distracting tidbit. Dell Magazines is not the Campbell Estate. Campbell’s estate doesn’t contribute any money to the making of the award pins that all nominees get, and of course, Campbell’s ghost does not hand out the award.

More news here: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, or name changes are nothing new in sf/f.

Fumble fingers again

I was still editing and accidentally click Publish in stead of Save.

But now the post is up: That has always been here, or politics aren’t a new thing in sf/f.

A Hugo of Our Own

A close up of the Hugo award won by Archive of Our Own this week.

A close up of the Hugo award won by Archive of Our Own this week.

I watched the livestream of the Hugo Awards ceremony broadcast from DublinCon yesterday. When the feed wasn’t glitching or having other problems, it was great. And I got to squee live on twitter about some of the wins. The ceremony flowed well, the setting was nice. The music choices were good, and the co-presenters Afua Richardson and Michael Scott did a lovely job. More than a couple of moments brought tears to my eyes. There was also a lot of laughter. So, good ceremony, and as I indicated when I talked about trying to finalize my ballot, we had so, so many excellent nominees in every category that no matter who won I was going to be happy.

Before I comment further (just in case you haven’t seen the list elsewhere), here are the winners.

2019 Hugo Award Winners:

Best Novel: The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

Best Novella: Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells

Best Novelette: “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho

Best Short Story: “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow

Best Series: Wayfarers, by Becky Chambers

Best Related Work: Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works

Best Graphic Story: Monstress, Volume 3: Haven, written by Marjorie Liu, art by Sana Takeda

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: The Good Place: “Janet(s)”

Best Professional Editor, Long Form: Navah Wolfe

Best Professional Editor, Short Form: Gardner Dozois

Best Professional Artist: Charles Vess

Best Art Book: The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, illustrated by Charles Vess, written by Ursula K. Le Guin

Best Semiprozine: Uncanny Magazine

Best Fanzine: Lady Business

Best Fancast: Our Opinions Are Correct

Best Fan Writer: Foz Meadows

Best Fan Artist: Likhain (Mia Sereno)

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer: Jeannette Ng

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book: Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

The full voting statistics have also been posted and can be read here.


In seven of the categories this year, the nominee I had at number one on my own ballot got the Hugo. So that was fun! In three of the categories my second choice won.

I’m particularly pleased the Archive of Our Own, which is an enormous fanfiction repository, won in the Related Works category. I do have one quibble with some of my fellow members of AO3 (as we call it): you are not a Hugo Award-winner author. No matter how many of thousands of words of your fiction is in the Archive. Just as authors whose work was published in Uncanny Magazine this last year aren’t Hugo winners by dent of Uncanny winning the award; they are authors who have been published in an award-winning zine. Another way to look at it: Camestros Felapton compared the AO3 entity to a library: “It’s the library that’s being nominated, which includes its contents but which is not the same as its contents.” (emphasis added).

Yes, all of us who support, use, and contribute to Archive of Our Own should take pride in this win. But don’t go slapping a Hugo logo on your fanfic, all right?

I haven’t yet seen anyone grousing about AO3 winning. I saw a bit of that “Ew! Fanfic! ICKY!” when it was nominated. I saw more people trying to disguise their fear of fanfic cooties with arguments about why the Archive itself is not a “Work” in the sense necessary for the award. I think a number of us have already shown that it meets the definition.

One thing that I thought was more than slightly amusing elseweb was that one of the same people I saw arguing that AO3 wasn’t a “related work” was also upset about the Fan Writer category including people who get paid for some of their writing. There seems to be some sort of cognitive dissonance going on there.

Anyway, not only did AO3 win, but it won by a huge margin! Which means that a heck of a lot of Hugo voters thought it deserved the award.

What the AO3 win means to me is that a lot of fans value fanfic and the fanfic community. Which probably oughtn’t to surprise is, since the Hugos are a fan-voted award and this is a category that frequently goes to fannish writing. But because people who dislike fanfic are so very vocal and persistent in their criticism, it’s easy to get the impression that fanfic isn’t popular. Just as the many critics of certain sci fi movies we could name makes us forget that millions of people had to buy tickets to said movie in order for it to make the amount of money it did.

It’s a variant of the True Fan Fallacy. The argument is that the wrong kind of fans like it. And to them I say, “Shove off!” The rest of us are here to talk about what we love and to, you know, actually love this stuff that we all claim to love. Because we’re fans—a noun derived from the word fanatic, because we are filled with sometimes excessive enthusiasm.

I am so happy for all the winners. I am even more happy that we had so many awesome stories to choose from this year. I really do wish we could give a rocket to all of them.

Pining for Commander WASP and his sidekick, Biff; or, your sf/f golden age not the only one

The May 14, 1921 cover of Argosy All-Story Weekly,  illustration by P. J. Monahan

The May 14, 1921 cover of Argosy All-Story Weekly, illustration by P. J. Monahan

Once again while I was merrily surfing to some of my favorite web sites (when I should have been writing), I came across a link to a ridiculous and judgmental comment on the state of science fiction. More specifically, it was intended as an indictment of the reading tastes of “fans these days” while nostalgically lamenting that the genre is no longer defined solely by Heinlein’s juvenile novels and Niven’s hard SF novels. This is a complaint that I’ve written about more than a few times, but these guys keep finding new ways to make their really bad arguments, and I just can’t sit idly by while the misrepresent both the genre that I love, and the people who love it. This particular person, unlike some of the folks who have inspired me to write on this topic before is not my age or older. He’s young enough that all of those Heinlein juveniles were written more than a decade before his birth, and the Niven books he thinks are definitive were written when he was in diapers and such.

I realize that this means he’s still old enough to look down his nose at fans in their 20s and dismiss them as clueless kids.

Anyway, I’m not linking to the diatribe for reasons. I do think that it is very telling that he cites Hidden Figures as an example of what’s wrong with modern sci fi (never mind that it is historical non-fiction). When I first saw the screen cap of what he said, I had to do some research to figure out who he was. I’d never heard of him. And in the course of doing that, I found that this is a topic he has ranted about many times. And in those longer rants, he asserts again and again not just that he thinks the writings of Heinlein and Niven are the best (which he is perfectly free to believe), but that they defined science fiction—and specifically that Heinlein is the origin of the genre.

Mary Shelly, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne (and others) may have a bone to pick with that assertion.

He also talks a lot about how the perfect protagonist for science fiction stories in Heinlein’s “competent man.”

I get it. I literally grew up on Heinlein. I’ve mentioned that my mom is one of the biggest fans of Heinlein’s stories from the 50s who as ever walked the earth. From the time I was an infant until I was old enough to read myself, Mom would read to me from whatever book she had checked out from the library or picked up at the used bookstore. I read every Heinlein book I could get my hands on during the late 60s, 70s, and into the 80s. And yeah, as a teen-ager in the 1970s, I started reading Larry Niven’s books—not as enthusiastically; I admit I was a bit more taken with Asimov, LeGuin, Pournelle, L’Engle, and Bradbury during those years. But I still liked Niven.

It’s true that Heinlein and Niven were very influential writers who inspired many fans to become writers themselves, and so on. But science fiction wasn’t just those two authors even at that time, and there was a lot of science fiction that existed before either of them wrote their first story.

Also, a lot of their stories haven’t aged particularly well. It happens. It’s called the passage of time. The text may be the same, but we, as people, change over time. Society changes. Our understanding of what certain things about society mean changes.

The image I included above is an illustration for a novel called The Blind Spot, written by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint. It was serialized in a number of issues of Argosy All-Story Weekly beginning in May of 1921. It was eventually published in book form in 1951 (it took so long because one of the authors died shortly after publication, and it just took a long time to sort out who had legal right to agree to a re-print), at which point the Forward was written by Forrest J Ackerman, who had been at one time the literary agent of such classic sci fi luminaries as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and A.E. Van Vogt. At the second ever Worldcon (Chicon I, 1940) at the very first Masquerade ever held at a Worldcon, the second place costume was a person dressed as one of the characters from The Blind Spot. As late as the 1950s, sci fi writers, editors, and reviewers were referring to The Blind Spot as one of the honored classics of science fiction.

By the 1990s, the opinion had changed considerably. The Blind Spot is available on Project Gutenberg. I gave it a whirl. I mean, all those famous sci fi writers of the 1940s and 50s said it was fabulous, right?

Writing styles have changed over the years, so part of why it is difficult to slog through it is just how slow the action is and how dense some parts of the prose are. But, first, it isn’t science fiction. The titular Blind Spot is a place where periodically a magic hole opens to another world. Now, a lot of science fiction does include portals or gateways that aren’t always explained, but the other side of the portal is a temple in this other world, and various people, some of them immortal, hang out in this temple because of prophecies about the opening of the temple and how people who go through it will ascend to god-like powers and so forth. The plot involves necromancy, spirit writing, an immortal queen, the transmutation of people into spirits, and a mystical intelligent flame that enforces the sacred law.

In the pulp era they didn’t have the same kind of rigid genre definitions we’re used to today, so a weird tale like this with elements of magic and psychic powers and a hint at Lovecraftian horror was common. But that’s the thing. This is a story that for several decades was held up as a defining example of the genre. Yet by the 1990s it was being described as a “beloved book devoid of all merit.”

Because we changed. What we are willing to suspend our disbelief for in 2019 is considerably different than the expectations of readers in 1921. Their are spots in the opening chapters of this book when many paragraphs are spent describing how a couple of characters take a train through San Francisco, cross the bay in a ferry, take another train in Oakland, then hire a cab. Modern readers expect if you’re spending that many paragraphs talking about transit that it will eventually figure into the plot, right?

I sincerely doubt that the guy who is upset that the sci fi field doesn’t look like the way he remembers those Heinlein juveniles would think that The Blind Spot is fabulous. Although, given some of his comments about what he perceives as being wrong in what modern fans like, he might like some of the casual racism.

Even in the 50s, science fiction protagonists weren’t confined solely to blond-haired, blue-eyed lantern-jawed Anglo-Saxon Protestant heroes who always beat the bad guys and got the girl. Certainly by the time Niven was writing his most famous books, the genre was more diverse than that.

It’s okay to have personal preferences, but science fiction is supposed to be about leaping into the future. You can’t do that if you have fossilized your brain in the past.

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