Monday, May 28, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Quite some time ago on this blog, I wrote a “Something Old” essay called “The Slings and Arrows of Outrageous Fantasy” (look it up on the index at right). In that, I glanced at the fact that magic-based Fantasy has, in the last half-century, supplanted science-and-technology-based Science Fiction as a preferred mode of escapism.

There are some obvious reasons for this. One of them is the quotidian nature of advanced technology now. We are so used to modern marvels that they no longer give us an imaginative buzz. Even if (as I did last night) we see on television a woman controlling a robot arm by brain power, via a gizmo wired into her brain, we simply shrug and say it’s just another marvel coming out of the laboratories. Yawn. This is arrogant of us when we consider rationally how much the ingenuity of scientists should be respected. But you cannot command the popular imagination on how to react.

So out with techno-based Science Fiction and in with “Chronicles of…” this and “Saga of…” that and Gandalf throwing magic curses about as our chosen form of mind-rot.

There was still the odd hard-core Science Fiction writer holding out into the 1970s and 1980s. (I think of Arthur C.Clarke’s 1972 opus Rendezvous with Rama as the archetypal hard-core SF. It’s essentially a detailed description of a huge machine.) But they were fighting a losing battle.

There was also the argument – more popular in the Cold War than now – that after two world wars and with the nuclear stand-off, people had come to see the malign side of technology and were no longer so beguiled by Verne-ian or Wellsian visions of technology providing an endlessly blissful future. Flawed human nature and Original Sin had reared their heads, as they always do, even in the age of advanced technology. So we retreated to hippiedom, the New Age, magic, and fat, pompously-titled volumes about dragons and wizards.

I don’t resile from any of these arguments and I also make the obvious point that the genres of SF and Fantasy are not mutually-exclusive and sometimes interpenetrate. Fantastic bug-eyed monsters sometimes co-exist with spaceships.

But I would not like to appear too simplistic in the historical judgement I’m making here. After reflecting on Jules Verne this week, it occurs to me that a particular line of Fantasy was in full swing at the movies even in the days – the 1950s and early 1960s – when Science Fiction still seemed to rule the literary roost as it had since the 1920s.

And it came from a most paradoxical quarter.

This chap Jules Verne. He’s often called “the father of science fiction” (despite feminist literary critics claiming that Mary Shelley really created the genre in Frankenstein). Verne’s best-known work is based on what was, in his age, deemed the latest technology. In his study of Science Fiction New Maps of Hell (published in 1960), Kingsley Amis credited Verne as being SF’s founder, but rightly noted how unreadable so much of Verne’s interpolated “scientific” information is. In a later essay on Verne, “Founding Father” (published in his collection What Became of Jane Austen, 1970), Amis also noted that Verne’s general conceptions were more interesting than his actual writing. True enough. But none of this alters the fact that Verne’s adventure stories were generally based on technological and scientific ideas which (no matter how much detail Verne got wrong) were generally considered to be realisable. They were Science Fiction rather than Fantasy.

But  - to at last get to my point after all this throat-clearing – once Hollywood got hold of Verne, the passage of time had turned Verne’s works into Fantasy.

Consider this. While there had been earlier filmed versions of Verne’s works, the golden heyday of Hollywood’s encounter with Verne was in the 1950s and early 1960s. In the space of eight years, the following titles came out:

            * The Disney production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), with James Mason as Captain Nemo, Kirk Douglas as Ned Land and Peter Lorre as Obligatory Comic Relief.
            * Mike Todd’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), a three-hour-long and (sorry) boring all-star extravaganza, whose main purpose was to show off as many Hollywood actors as possible in cameo roles. David Niven as Impeccable English Gentleman and Cantinflas as Obligatory Comic Relief.
            * Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1959), with James Mason as Sober
Swedish Scientist and pop-singer Pat Boone as Marquee Name to Attract Teenagers.
            * The Disney production In Search of the Castaways (1961) (based on Verne’s novel Captain Grant’s Children) with Maurice Chevalier as Old Singing Frenchman To Amuse Parents and child-star Hayley Mills as Person To Amuse The Kids.
            * A cheapskate Master of the World (1961) (a mash-up of Verne’s Robur the Conqueror and its sequel) with Vincent Price as Outrageous Ham.
            * Mysterious Island (1961), made in Britain but with American and British  actors, and entirely within the Hollywood orbit.
            * And finally Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962) with Cedric Hardwicke as Tediously Expository Scientist, Peter Lorre once again as Obligatory Comic Relief and pop-singer Fabian, with anachronistic bouffant hair-style,  as Marquee Name to Attract Teenagers.

Thereafter, Verne-derived films weren’t made as often and the series flickered out with lame and dull efforts like Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969).

Now as it happens, nearly all these films were made when I was a child and in the habit of imbibing them on Saturday afternoons at the local flea-pit (just a few years before television put it out of business).

I made my own peculiar Kiwi judgments on them.

Far and away the most entertaining was Journey to the Centre of the Earth, though years later, when I showed it to my kids on video, they refused to be moved and outraged by the sequence when Villain kills Harmless Supporting Character’s pet goose. Insensitive little brats.

The two that tickled me most at the time were Mysterious Island and In Search of the Castaways, but for reasons their producers never intended. Mysterious Island has a sequence where its heroes, having been swept in their balloon (by a mighty wind) across the Pacific, come to land on the strange island, filled with fantastic volcanoes and oversized vegitation. Before they encounter the elephant-sized crabs and bees, they speculate on where they might be. “It could be Noo Zealand”, says one American character. That caused gales of laughter in the bug-house.

Though filmed entirely in a London studio, In Search of the Castaways has a sequence which really is supposed to be set in New Zealand and which features real New Zealanders – Inia Te Wiata and a Maori concert party, doing a savage war-dance to the consternation of Maurice Chevalier, Hayley Mills et al. The New Zealand depicted, however (pasteboard backdrops and endless high Fuji-shaped active volcanoes, spitting fire) had the bug house howling with mirth.

So much for my kiddie reaction. The big thing to note here, however, is that when Hollywood was plundering Verne, his scientific and technological marvels had become old hat and quaint, as had his speculations on what might lie in undiscovered corners of the Earth.

When we watched Journey to the Centre of the Earth, we already knew there wasn’t a colony of dinosaurs down there. Indeed we already knew there wasn’t any way human beings could withstand the pressure just a few kilometres below the Earth’s surface, let alone at its core. When we watched 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, we no longer thought submarines per se were marvels, even if the places where some of them went were still pretty amazing to us. (It was just four years after the Disney film that the US sub Nautilus, its name taken from Captain Nemo’s vessel, was the first to travel under the ice of the North Pole). Statesmen were threatening one another with weapons far more lethal than the ones Robur persuades warring states to lay aside in Master of the World. As for balloons, they were funny old things in the same category as buggies and whale-bone corsets.

Verne had always appealed most to the little boy in everyone, but now he was a source of harmless, beguiling family entertainment, without any sense of real speculation (or the real – if ham-fisted – social criticism that Verne sometimes plonked into his books). Note how some of these movies were Disney productions – and how most of the ones that weren’t aspired to be. Note the use of child-stars and pop-singers to get the family audience. Note the recurrence of certain actors (James Mason, Peter Lorre), creating the impression of a cosy, reliable family.

So here is the curious fate of the creator of Science Fiction. He had become the retailer of harmless Fantasy.

Verne was not the only one to suffer this fate. Updated movie versions of H.G.Wells’ The War of the Worlds  and The Time Machine still managed to be authentic – and horrific – science fiction. But the delightful 1964 British production of Wells’ First Men in the Moon was exactly like the Verne films, revelling in the quaintness of its Victorian technology and playing up the quirky humour, especially in the scene where Lionel Jeffries tries to explain to the “Selenites” (moon people) why human beings are stupid enough to wage war.

Perhaps this fate was inevitable. What is quainter than yesterday’s conception of tomorrow, once time has moved on? And what more rapidly becomes a back number than the latest technology?

Bah Humbug to your memory stick carrying 30,000 movies. I will continue to watch my DVD discs until you can give me a memory stick that carries 1,000,000 movies. I am confident in the knowledge that in less than a century, your memory stick will be one with the quill pen.


  1. There's a great book from the late 70's called The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which explores what by then was a rich heritage of science fiction writing, and bases the wealth of stories around recurring themes - such as cities and cultures, biologies and environments, future and alternative histories, Utopias and Dystopias, time and nth dimensions, computers, space exploration, robots, etc.
    That whole era was remarkably free of fat 'magic-fantasy' volumes, and is instead full of genuinely speculative writing, at a time when science was promising so much over such a wide range.
    Of course Jules Verne is mentioned. In his From the Earth to the Moon, the comment is made that his space capsule was the first to be scientifically conceived, but the padded walls and hydraulic shock absorbers would hardly have saved his crew from a violent death in the take-off explosion of 400,000 tons of gun-cotton.

  2. Quite so, Hugh. This point was made by Kingsley Amis among other commentators on Verne. If Verne's primitive astronauts were fired at the speed of a bullet, there is no way that they would survive being pushed back, and squished against, a wall of steel travelling at many thousand ks. p.h. However, Verne was scornful when H.G.Wells' "The First Men in the Moon" was published, as Wells had to imagine an anti-gravity substance to get his travellers to the moon - and Verne said that that was even less scientific than his (Verne's) version. What really interests me here is that many years later, when a film version was made of Wells' "Things to Come" (in 1936 - with the script approved by Wells), Wells had moved bacvk to Verne's concept of a "space gun" to get his astronauts going. [I have seen the film many times.]Ther fact is, neither Verne nor Wells really got it right, and neither of them thought of the liquid fuel solution that Tsiolkovsky and others had already realised was the only practicable form of space locomotion.