Monday, August 26, 2019

Craig Harrison (3): Days of Starlight (1988)

Craig Harrison: Days of Starlight (1988)

Antarctica. A small scientific base. A huge, unexpected discovery made in the ice: something which will alter not just our sense of the history of our planet, but the future of all mankind. Sound familiar?

Of course it does. John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) is, I suppose, the locus classicus for this particular plotline.

John Carpenter, dir.: The Thing (1982)

The special effects may look pretty hokey nowadays, but I can tell you that at the time they were quite horrifically compelling. Simply coming up with the idea of that severed head with legs scuttling around the base seemed like the kind of out-of-the-box thinking we simply hadn't encountered in horror films up to that point.

Of course there had to be a sequel - or rather a sequel / prequel - The Thing (2011), but it's interesting that they waited thirty years to make it.

Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., dir.: The Thing (2011)

And when it did come, it was immediately clear that many things had changed. The director is the star of the 1982 film. It's true that Kurt Russell got to run through his usual (slightly ironic) repertoire of heroics, but the film itself did not pander to the accepted conventions of how such things were supposed to run.

By 2011, the system had closed over and healed itself. There was a pretty girl starring - Mary Elizabeth Winstead - who got top billing, and whose oeuvre it tends to be linked to, rather than to that of its rather obscure journeyman director.

All in all, it's hard to see it as much more than a reversion to type. The first film version of the story, The Thing from Another World (1951), though set in the Arctic rather than the Antarctic, sets up its story by the playbook of the standard 1950s alien paranoia film.

Christian Nyby, dir.: The Thing from Another World (1951)

Of course it's no accident that essentially the same film should have to be remade every thirty years or so. The owners of the rights to a story know that the copyright on their property will expire unless it's renewed from time to time - hence the repeated Hollywood versions of franchises such as King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, The Mummy, The Wolfman, etc. etc.

John W. Campbell: Who Goes There (1938)

All three films are based - somewhat loosely, it must be admitted - on John W. Campbell's novella 'Who Goes There?', first published (under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart) in the August 1938 Astounding Science Fiction, of which he was then editor.

An earlier, longer text of the story, entitled Frozen Hell, found among Campbell's papers at Harvard, has recently (2019) been republished on kindle. It was, however, the original version which was voted in 1973 one of the most influential SF stories ever written - just as Campbell himself is (for better or worse) still considered one of the most influential editors of the so-called Golden Age of Science Fiction.

H. P. Lovecraft: At the Mountains of Madness (1931)

Of course, the actual premise of the story - the isolated base in the polar regions (North or South), the frozen aliens in the snow who revive unexpectedly, the desperate struggle for life against them - are all very reminiscent of H. P. Lovecraft's classic novella At the Mountains of Madness, written in 1931, then submitted to his usual outlet, Weird Tales, later that year. Farnsworth Wright, the editor, rejected it for reasons of length, and so, instead, it was eventually serialized in the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Astounding Stories.

Admittedly the story was actually accepted by Campbell's predecessor in the editorial chair, F. Orlin Tremaine. Campbell did not take over till the end of the following year, 1937, but clearly he must have read it, and presumably it influenced his own story.

Not that there's any great scandal in that. Lovecraft himself makes no secret of his indebtedness to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the closest thing to a novel Edgar Allan Poe ever wrote, and, quite honestly, one of the weirdest and most extreme pieces of fiction ever composed.

Lovecraft ends his own story, in fact, with a direct invocation of Arthur Gordon Pym, quoting the strange cry 'Tekeli-li, Tekeli-li': 'a cry associated with mysterious white-coloured birds and uttered by the natives of the Antarctic land of Tsalal whenever they encounter white objects.'

Jules Verne: Le Sphinx des glaces (1897)

The enigmatic ending of Poe's story, with the hero and his companion drifting towards an immense chasm in the (warm) Southern ocean, just as an immense spectral white figure appears before them, is directly addressed in Jules Verne's sequel Le Sphinx des glaces [The Sphinx of the Ice] (1897), translated into English with the rather more prosaic title An Antarctic Mystery.

Dominic Sena, dir.: Whiteout (2009)

Once you start looking, It's actually quite difficult to avoid these rather dreamy associations between ice, enigmatic femininity, and dangerous secrets hidden in the preserving cold.

Take, for instance, the 2009 film Whiteout, where Kate Beckinsale - as a rather improbable US Marshall - acts as the involuntary Lorelei drawing large numbers of men to death in their search for the treasure concealed in an old frozen Russian transport plane (it turns out to be diamonds, rather than the fissionable nuclear material she fears it to be for most of the film).

Curiously enough, the French title for this US / Canada / France co-production, Enfer Blanc, translates as 'White Hell' - not too far from Frozen Hell, the original title for Campbell's novel. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as the French say - or, in Winnie-the-Pooh's paraphrase: "The more it snows, the more it goes on snowing."

[SPOILER ALERT: reading this part of the post before you've finished Harrison's novel will definitely wreck your appreciation of its dénouement!]

So what contribution does the ostensible subject of this post, Craig Harrison, have to make to this set of various flavours of frozen hell?

Thomas Keneally: A Victim of the Aurora (1977)

Familiar, undoubtedly, with the John Carpenter film and its various antecedents - though possibly also influenced by some more literary excursions onto the ice, such as Thomas Keneally's 1977 heroic-age-of-antarctic-exploration detective novel A Victim of the Aurora - he takes a rather unexpected tangent.

When a team of research geologists at a remote American base in Antarctica discovers a two-metre-long silicon crystal, it becomes their most prized specimen. No one, however, anticipates the disruptive effect of the crystal - on the base's technical staff, nor on the silicon-chip technology sperating the base.
An attempt to investigate the powers of the crystal results in a startling discovery that appears to be of unparalleled significance.
But as the long winter darkness descends over the vast expanse of the earth's most alien continent, the research scientists at the base realise they must draw on all their resources to fight for their very survival.

DAYS OF STARLIGHT, set in the not-too-distant future, is a chillingly credible and timely tale, combining elements of the politico-psychological thriller and of speculative fiction.

There's no doubt that Harrison keeps up the claustrophobia and intensity associated with such narratives every bit as well as any of his predecessors. He keeps the sinister political overtones, too. The 'Delta Force' commandos sent by Washington to wipe out everyone with knowledge of this particular strange discovery in the ice are close cousins to the ruthless 'Blue Berets' in Broken October: sinister armed thugs whose idea of a good time is raping and murdering everyone they encounter.

Almost up to the last page, the story sounds like something which would make a heck of a good made-for-TV movie: clautrophobic (= fewer sets to build and maintain); cold (= bleached-out colours and backgrounds, easy to film); and with a very small cast (= great savings on extras, with more to spend on star power).

But then a basic weirdness, which has been growing throughout, only half-perceptibly, begins to manifest itself. What is the mysterious satellite to which the equally mysterious silicon crystal appears to be linked? It's a kind of transmitter, of course. In function, it's very like the moon monolith in Clarke & Kubrick's 2001, designed to send a message to some aliens a long way off just as soon as the inhabitants of this particular rock have reached a sufficient stage of development to warrant it.

I say 'warrant' rather than 'deserve' it because the whole book is about just what we deserve. And by 'we' I mean any and all beneficiaries of European hegemony. 'What if the aliens came and they were black?' is Harrison's basic question.

Roy Thomas: Avengers #102 (1972)

The crystal has been keeping an exact holographic of - everything, you see. The aliens will only need to look through it to see just what we've been up to, and it won't be a pretty sight. The book ends with Ben the protagonist's realisation that we have approximately 30 years to clean up our act - that's how long it will take them to get here, travelling at near light speed. 'What to do till the sentinels come,' to quote the title of a classic Marvel comic.

Is there a certain element of bathos in all this, after so much build-up, so much tension, so much spy-thriller intrigues? There certainly shouldn't be: it's a most ingenious solution to the narrative problem of how to find a new twist on the old Antarctic base story, but somehow there is. Turning it into yet another iteration of the conundrum black-white race relations seems just a little forced after Harrison's far more straightforward engagement with it in Broken October, and even the more effective, albeit fantastical and dreamlike extension of that in The Quiet Earth.

Fred Hoyle: The Black Cloud (1957)

But perhaps, in the end, that's the point. Days of Starlight may not work perfectly as a thriller (à la Whiteout or The Thing). Nor does it really succeed in emulating some of its more strictly Science Fictional influences: Fellow-Yorkshireman Fred Hoyle's classic The Black Cloud (1957), for instance, for the alien intelligence; or Stanisław Lem's His Master's Voice (1968) for the baffling artefact from another world (in Lem's case, a line of code in a book of random numbers which turns out to have been generated by the transmissions from a certain part of space).

Stanisław Lem: His Master's Voice (1968)

I suppose, in the end, that's what makes it - for me - an exemplary piece of New Zealand Speculative Fiction. Insofar as this can be seen as a genre at all, it tends to involve a certain rejection of cosmic solutions and speculations in favour of more nitty-gritty, number-eight wire, alternatives.

Sentient oceans and hyper-intelligent clouds are all very well, Harrison appears to be saying, but we've made a terrible mess of the place and the people who are actually here, all around us. Let's make a full acknowledgement of what it is we've done, as a first step in the process of repairing it. It falls almost naturally into the wording of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step programme.
  • Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves [Step 4]
  • Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all [Step 8]
  • Made direct amends to such people wherever possible [Step 9]
As such, I think Days of Starlight must be seen as a worthy culmination to the SF trilogy Harrison began with Broken October (1976) and continued in The Quiet Earth (1981).

Robert A. Heinlein: Starship Troopers (1959)

It falls in line more with the preoccupations of writer / critics such as Samuel R. Delany - who famously argued that the protagonist of Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers must be black - and Ursula K. Le Guin, the hero of whose Earthsea books, Ged, was always intended to be dark-skinned, though he's seldom been portrayed in that way in cover illustrations - than with more familiar SF tropes and themes.

Ursula K. Le Guin: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

But, once you start looking for it, the subject of racial prejudice intrudes everywhere: in Isaac Asimov's "robot" saga; in many other manifestations of the Android theme (such as Stanisław Lem's Solaris (1961), filmed so memorably by Andrei Tarkovsky (1972); or - for that matter - Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), the inspiration for the 1982 film Blade Runner).

Blade Runner (1982)

So what's the problem, then (if there is a problem)? I suppose, for me, it lies in the implications of Harrison's contention, throughout the novel, that black and white people's brains do indeed work differently, and are based on a different design. This manifests, for instance, in the greater amount of REM sleep required by the black, mostly service people on the base.

It turns out in context that this is a sign of superiority, not inferiority - and the racist assumptions to the contrary of the base's chief doctor, Kellner, are thoroughly satirised in context.

It's just that - even in the context of a quite far-fetched piece of speculative fiction, entertaining such ideas of a fundamental difference seems a dangerous one (Ben, the protagonist, turns out to be tuned in to the alien satellite's transmissions, communicated through dreams, thanks to the fact that his great-grandfather was in fact black - he therefore escapes the tone-deafness of the other honkies in the story).

It's not that Harrison is unaware of this peril. There's a passage early on where Ben and his love interest, Linda, talk about Dr. Kellner's research as follows:
'Well, if people like Kellner can prove that blacks have got inferior brains, then it means that they needn't worry too much about what the West has done in the last couple of hundred years. And goes on doing ...
'And this cerebrum makes us superior?'
'He reckons it's the centre of our rationality.'
'And the cerebellum's the opposite?'
'Yes: and much older. More primitive, he'd say. Controls all the magical, dreamtime, intuitive, visionary perceptions.'
'And the marvellous sense of rhythm.' [35]
Har-de-ha-ha. The trouble is, this isn't all that far from the actual underlying thesis of the novel. It's a little like the anthropologists who've postulated at various times independent lines of descent for Australian Aborigines and other native races from those which produced the Caucasian master race.

Carleton S. Coon (1904-1981)

The most notorious of these is undoubtedly the unfortunately named Carleton Coon, whose notorious book The Origin of Races (1962) argued:
that the human species divided into five races before it had evolved into Homo sapiens. Further, he suggested that the races evolved into Homo sapiens at different times.
Coon claimed that he had been prompted purely by a desire to follow the evidence where it led, but many of his contemporaries saw this idea as providing fuel for white segregationists and racists generally. Was Coon himself a racist? He, and most of his colleagues, have continued to deny the suggestion indignantly.

I did once see a documentary on the subject, though, where one of those colleagues summed up his feelings more or less as follows: he said that Coon had travelled to every corner of the globe, had met people of all races, worked and interacted with them, and lived among them. Many of them had become his close friends. And yet, he concluded, "I don't think for a moment that it ever occurred to Carleton S. Coon to regard any of them as his equals."

Craig Harrison - in his fiction and in his life - is a positive zealot for racial justice. This book of his is no exception. His fictional Dr. Kellner and the real-life Professor Coon would be seen by him as close intellectual cousins. But his book does have a tendency to encourage 'separate but equal' thinking about the various races of mankind.

It would be a real shame to dismiss his book unread on the strength of that, but I think that it does offer some explanation as to why so eminently filmable a story has remained untouched by directors ever since.

Pieter Bruegel: Hunters in the Snow (1656)
- a thematic reference in Tarkovsky's Solaris


Roger Allen said...

"Coon had travelled to every corner of the globe, had met people of all races, worked and interacted with them, and lived among them. Many of them had become his close friends. And yet, he concluded, "I don't think for a moment that it ever occurred to Carleton S. Coon to regard any of them as his equals.""

That sounds more like personal vanity or arrogance than racism, though. It may even be an occupational deformity of anthropologists to see all races or cultures as inferior because they lack some of the qualities of others.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yes, and that's certainly how I took the comment at the time. Reading about him further on his wikipedia page, though, I did find the following:

"In 2001, John P. Jackson, Jr. researched Coon's papers to review the controversy around the reception of The Origin of Races, stating in the article abstract:

Segregationists in the United States used Coon's work as proof that African Americans were "junior" to white Americans, and thus unfit for full participation in American society. The paper examines the interactions among Coon, segregationist Carleton Putnam, geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, and anthropologist Sherwood Washburn. The paper concludes that Coon actively aided the segregationist cause in violation of his own standards for scientific objectivity.[32]"

This claim, too, is controversial, but it seems that Coon was indeed sympathetic to the segregationist, anti-civil rights cause in the 1960s, and therefore his apologists cannot really continue to claim that it was science alone that inspired his conclusions.

I didn't want to get into all that too deeply in the blogpost, though.