Tag Archives: rosemary benton

[March 25, 1962] A Double Hit (A. Bertram Chandler’s The Rim of Space and John Brunner’s Secret Agent of Terra)


by Rosemary Benton

I love the bookstore in my town. Not only do they have a newsstand in front that provides me with the latest world events and developments in the US space program, but they have a very comprehensive science fiction section, front and center, as you walk in. I’ll occasionally look at the stand’s selection of comic books when I hear that there is a new series from Marvel Comics, but every trip to the bookstore must come with at least thirty minutes spent in the science fiction section.

This month part of my book budget went to Ace Double Novel F-133 containing the third publication of A. Bertram Chandler’s The Rim of Space as well as the first edition of John Brunner’s Secret Agent of Terra. Reading these stories back to back was a real treat, and one that I desperately needed this month. After the national tension created by the USSR pledging millions of dollars in military aid to Cuba on February 8th, coupled with the rapidly deteriorating health of one of my family members, my mind had been adrift on dark thoughts. I needed distractions of the science fiction variety, my favorite form of escapism. These stories supplied it in spades.

The first book I read was Chandler’s The Rim of Space. This novella centers around a rag tag team of wash-ups turned merchants aboard the dilapidated, but reliable, ship Lorn Lady. Stationed on the fringe of the Galactic Rim, this is a territory so remote from Earth that the central Terran government, the Federated Worlds, has little influence. Rebellion is building in order to mount a push for the Rim Worlds to become their own government. Caught in this wave of frontier space nationalism is Derek Calver, a man who used to work for a respectable company but has since left to pursue a drifting life in deep space. Through episodic adventures loosely tied to the exchange of merchandise, the crew of Lorn Lady meet intelligent alien lifeforms and experience strange space anomalies.

After finishing The Rim of Space I turned to Brunner’s Secret Agent of Terra. I couldn’t help but feel as if I was reading a novella that pitted the characters of H. Beam Piper’s Paratime series against the American agents of The Time Traders. In almost exact contrast to the universe of Chandler’s piece, Brunner’s protagonists are agents of the Corps Galactica – a economic and security force powerhouse for Earth’s galaxy-wide territories. When a remote and technologically backward world called Planet 14 is penetrated by off-worlders looking to take advantage of the natural resources of the isolated human society, it is up to agents of the Corps to infiltrate the population without notice and take down the exploitative evil doers.

Of the two novellas I found Brunner’s tale of espionage and infiltration to be the more complete of the stories. Like H. Beam Piper, Brunner goes to great lengths to build up an unEarthly society complete with religion, social casts, lore and legend. When I first began reading Secret Agent I had no idea what an unexpected turn the plot would take. The society of Carrig, the central city on the planet, is first introduced in such minutia through the eyes of a merchant trader that one would think he would be the main character. In no way would one guess he was from another planet. In no way would the reader assume he was, in the grand design of the plot, such a minor character. Brunner has a way of making each citizen who appears in his book an indispensable part of the story, even if they play a minor roll. Within the entirety of the book I don’t believe I read about a single character that was superfluous to the overarching story. Every player had a part to play, and it was clear that Brunner knew where he was going with his story from start to finish.

The Rim of Space, on the other hand, focused nearly entirely on building up only three characters out of the entire cast – Derek Calver, the purser Jane Arlen, and strangely enough, the aged Captain Engels. To Chandler’s credit these are three very interesting characters. Calver and Jane are both deeply flawed people with questionable morals, rocky relationship histories, and physically rough around the edges. The relationship that develops between them is entirely fitting for their damaged pasts, and their snappish and jeering squabbles seem to come naturally even as they grow closer. Captain Engels, while nearly absent from the first half of the story, comes to be a constant reminder of the impending conflict that will arise between the Rim Worlds and the Federation. He’s grandfatherly and wise, but frail.

This was a great purchase, and one which I happily give four stars to as a whole. I would love to read the full novel of The Rim of Space at some point. Apparently chapters four and five had to be removed for printing purposes in the Ace Double Novel edition. My hope is that these missing chapters will more closely tie in the impending revolt of the Rim Worlds with the rest of the episodic adventures. As it stands though, individually I think that The Rim of Space is a solid three and a half stars for choosing to develop only three characters and not tying up the adventures of the Lorn Lady’s crew more closely to the hints of a larger overarching plot. Secret Agent of Terra deserves a full five stars. Great twists, incredible setting, fully rounded characters and impeccable world-building put it on the very top.

[February 17, 1962] Time and Culture at Odds (Andre Norton’s The Defiant Agents)


by Rosemary Benton

It’s an interesting premise: what would a meeting between Apaches and Tartars be like in a “wild west-esque” science fiction setting? And what if the Apaches were American explorers while the Tartars were from the Soviet Union? Andre Norton sets out to explore this idea in The Defiant Agents, her third installment in the Time Traders series.

This time it’s not agents of the future who are being sent physically into the past, but rather the minds of a select group of volunteer Apache explorers who are on a rushed mission to reclaim the alien planet Topaz from the Communists. In a deep sleep they remember the past lives of their ancestral people to prepare them for the frontier world, while their bodies traverse space to the planet. After a crash landing the crew wake up with little memory of their former lives in the present and even less recollection of their mission. Battling the dual lives crammed into their heads as their memories slowly return, archeologist and animal-talker Travis Fox tries to help his group survive against the Tartar peoples under mind-control by the Reds.

Since reading Catseye I have become a firm fan of Andre Norton’s characters and storytelling. So much is my appreciation of her skill as a writer that I took the liberty of familiarizing myself with the rest of the Time Traders series before diving into The Defiant Agents. In 1958 Andre Norton hit the science fiction community with the first book of what would become her enduring series, simply titled The Time Traders

It was a critical and commercial success with an enthralling plot about the search for ancient long-lost knowledge. To uncover this treasure trove of information, social misfit and petty criminal Ross Murdock is selected to travel back to the time of the Beaker culture of Bronze-Age Europe. Without significantly changing the timeline, he and his partner, archeologist Dr. Gordon Ashe, must blend seamlessly into the people of that time to find the knowledge source before their competition does.

Though still largely unfamiliar with Andre Norton at the time, I recall reading Galaxy in 1959 and noticing that The Time Traders appeared on Floyd C. Gale’s “Galaxy’s 5 Star Star Shelf”. Looking back through my own collection of Galaxy I was able to pull up his exact words. His review of the book stated that on page 140 that, “Traders gets Miss Norton back solidly and admirably on her track of excellence.”

With a quick trip to the campus library I was able to find another reviewer in Kirkus Reviews that declared The Time Traders, “An interesting idea, well handled by Andre Norton, science fiction expert, who projects his [sic] reader deftly both backwards and forwards in time and injects his [sic] narrative with considerable and interesting historical information”.

The next book in the series is Galactic Derelict. It came in quick succession, being published in October 1959. I have unfortunately not been able to lay my hands on a copy yet, but reviews gave enough background information for me to be able to read The Defiant Agents without interruption. Again, reviews seem to be overall positive. The October 1959 Kirkus Reviews description of the book even goes so far as to say that, “Andre Norton has no peer in his [sic…again] chosen field of science fiction for teen agers.”

Which brings us to The Defiant Agents. After reading The Time Traders and reading up on Galactic Derelict, I was very excited to begin the third installment of the Time Traders series. Norton had left off Galactic Derelict with a daring trip through hyperspace and to several worlds, all covered in the ruins and decaying machinery of a long gone civilization. Our three protagonists, the Apache archeologist Travis Fox, and the project agents Ross Murdock and Dr. Gordon Ashe all return in The Defiant Agents. The story mainly focuses on Travis Fox however, with only brief appearances of Ross and Dr. Ashe in the beginning chapters to provide exposition.

I was initially (though not lastingly) underwhelmed by the pace of the plot in The Defiant Agents. With such a steady stream of action and changing scenery in The Time Traders, reading The Defiant Agents felt more like a drama than the action story preceding it. This mainly stems from the time Norton dedicates to show the dueling emotions of Travis and his fellow explorers.

In short order Travis and his group of other Apache volunteers find themselves marooned on the contested planet Topaz, groggy from their trip made under the influence of the “Redax” machine, and with no memory of what their original mission was. Their very identities are contestable. The Redax machine allowed them to relive the lives of their ancestors to better prepare them for the frontier of Topaz, but with such a rushed voyage to reclaim the territory from the Reds there was little time to work out all of the flaws in the experimental technology. The resulting story is an interesting one, to be certain, but a much more slower paced one than Norton’s previous novels.

The most important and noteworthy aspect of The Defiant Agents is how Norton respectfully writes her Native American characters and encapsulates their experience with strong tinges of their cultural memory. Norton writers her Apache characters in a humanizing and personable way, far from any stereotypes of savage and animalistic barbarians (as are common on television, for instance). She repeatedly uses the analogy of the Native Americans on a road between present and past, and relates that condition to their present plight on Topaz, stranded as they are without many supplies and no way of contacting Earth – modern-day Native Americans trapped in a simulacrum of the past.

An evolving theme throughout the Time Traders series is the growing appreciation that our three main characters have for the power of the ancient aliens whose technology and information the US and the USSR so covet. Travis is the culmination of this appreciation. Travis and his people are resourceful and brave, but not so daring as to try to possess the destructive alien power they find on Topaz.  Although he finds a gun that can vaporize immense objects, and he uses it to free the Tartars from their Red held mind-control slavery, it’s Travis who argues that such a thing is the equivalent to the atom bomb and is best left taboo. They take what will benefit them – star tapes, supplies, etc. – and leave behind what could overwhelm them. It’s almost as if Norton is saying that to best survive in our present, looking back on history and culture can provide the best path forward.

Despite the slow pace I wouldn’t say that the book is boring or uninteresting; it was simply not what I was expecting. That being said, I feel confident in giving The Defiant Agents four out of five stars. It contains a resonating message about the dangers of power, a cross cultural exchange between modern people and their ancestral heritage, and a message of peace between like-minded but geographically distant cultures. Inspiring and refreshing, although slow at times, The Defiant Agents is a must read.

[And by the way, Happy 50th birthday, Andre Norton!]

[January 23, 1962] A Methodical Approach to Writing (H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy)


by Rosemary Benton

Science fiction is a wonderful genre in that it allows an author the opportunity to pick a discipline – religion, economics, etc. – and create scenarios that are free to play out completely beyond any current restrictions or known facts of nature. Consider James Blish’s The Star Dwellers with its sentient energy creatures or Andre Norton’s Catseye with its telepathic animals.

But then there are the science fiction authors who try to ground their scenarios as close as possible to the discipline they are examining. For H. Beam Piper, it seems as if he wrote his most recent novel with a mission to accurately play out the issues and triumphs of an anthropologist. The results is the well written (if slightly dry) young adult novel, Little Fuzzy, the story of one interstellar prospector’s journey to protect the small, furry family he has adopted, cared for, and believes to be as intelligent as any group of humans.

H. Beam Piper is a prolific author within the science fiction genre. He’s been a published writer since 1947 with his short story Time and Time Again, and since then has averaged two short stories a year with the occasional novel blooming out from these stories.

But if you were to ask me how to best describe the flavor of his writing, I would be hard pressed to place Piper into an exact style. He lacks the poetic flow of words that embody Zenna Henderson’s work, and his ability to balance world-building and exposition is not as smooth as James Blish’s recent work. The pace of his stories is not as intense as Andre Norton, preferring instead to take things minute-by-minute. And yet I enjoyed Little Fuzzy and would recommend it as an intelligent, well written story. But how would I describe the writings of Piper? The best word I can use to describe H. Beam Piper’s writing is methodical. 

Piper goes to great length to construct his fictional environments, but he does not achieve this by the use of colorful adjectives. Piper’s world-building is more bureaucratic in nature. In his 1951 short story Temple Trouble, Piper spends a great length of time describing the way that time and dimension traveling beings calling themselves the Paratime Police use a fabricated religion to allow privatized corporations to mine uranium and other commodities right under the noses of the low-tech societies they have converted. Exposition goes into the minute details of how temples are set up in new cities, even in depth on how low level priests are selected to serve the god without being made aware of the advanced technology that creates the god’s “miracles.”

Via conversation between the main characters we are also privy to the internal struggles of the mining company. Is this onslaught of information necessarily vital to the plot? No. Does it help set up the cast of characters? In a way, yes. Does it build a relatable and recognizable setting for the story? Absolutely. So why does H. Beam Piper go into such minutia in all of his stories, not least of which includes Little Fuzzy?

Where other authors employ a liberal use of descriptive adjectives to set a scene, or will go into the extensive details of a character’s emotional state, Piper builds his environments by describing at length how a world or society functions as a whole. Take Graveyard of Dreams for instance. When the main character, Conn Maxwell, returns to his home world after leaving to further his education he sees the people he has left all those years ago and can’t help but think about how their clothing is from salvaged fabric, how their town is in disrepair from the lack of Terran Federation interest in the region, and how that situation has come to be. By and large, Piper will spend relatively little wordage in detailing the facial expressions or internal feelings of his character. He instead reserves his vocabulary for historical accounts, political ramblings, and anthropological observations. 

Which brings us to Little Fuzzy. In true Piper fashion the story is set to the tone of a conversation between upper management and underling in which we begin to understand what concerns will drive the plot – a colonized planet’s climate change, its resources, and the rights people have to inhabit and collect its resources. We are also made aware of the divide between corporations and conservationists.

In Little Fuzzy the privatized corporations that own the land rights to territories under Terran Federation jurisdiction must first and foremost consider the natives and whether or not they warrant sapient categorization. If the inhabitants are sapient, the planet will be granted certain protections which severely limit any corporation’s profit margin. If a sentient species were discovered on Zarathustra, the planet on which Little Fuzzy centers, the company would need to renegotiate its charter, conservationists would have fodder for their fight against the industrialists, and corporate heads would roll.

Again, is this onslaught of information necessarily vital to the plot? To an extent, yes, as it sets the stage for people’s loyalties. Does it help set up the cast of characters? In a way, yes, although many more are introduced later. Does it build a relatable and recognizable setting for the story? All too much so.

Knowing how the universe of Little Fuzzy operates is crucial, the same way that a working knowledge of any society plays into all of Piper’s works. From there he weaves in common themes such as self reliance, humble beginnings, exploration, and the ever present military. As I have said before, Little Fuzzy is a little dry since the debates that center around the fuzzies and their levels of sapience unfold in a minute-to-minute fashion, but they are thoughtful and well crafted arguments that give each character a distinct voice. H. Beam Piper is a unique writer, but one worth following. His newest novel only proves this. Three stars.

[January 2, 1962] Hope, Free Thought, and Character Arcs (James Blish’s The Star Dwellers)

I’ve reserved a special prize for my first guest author, Rosemary Benton.  Today is January 2, and not only will her piece be the first of 1962, but it will be published concurrently with an important astronomical event.  Every year, the Earth passes closest to the sun on the second day of the year, its “perihelion.”  If you’re wondering why it’s still so cold in January, it’s because the seasons are controlled mostly by the planet’s tilt, and only secondarily by its distance from the sun.  On the other hand, this annual proximity does mean that, in general, Southern hemisphere summers are hotter, and Northern hemisphere winters are milder.

Anyway, today is also Isaac Asimov’s birthday.  He once wrote that perihelion occurs on the day that it does because it is the day the Good Doctor was born.  Well, my nephew, David, took umbrage upon reading this bit.  As it turns out, his birthday (and that of his mother) is also January 2.  David wrote a letter to Dr. Asimov to set him straight: “January 2 is perihelion because it is my birthday and my mother’s!

Asimov sent my nephew a postcard posthaste.  It said, “By God, you’re right!”

Now, without further ado, what you actually tuned in for:


by Rosemary Benton

Fate has been very kind to me throughout 1961. I was able to find a niche for myself as a university archivist, and I came across many people who shared my interest in all things science fiction. I have had the pleasure of publishing my thoughts on such amazing creators as Zenna Henderson and Andre Norton, and have even taken daring adventures to the shadier side of the science fiction entertainment industry. Finishing out the year with James Blish’s The Star Dwellers was the cherry on top of a very delicious ice cream sundae.

The Star Dwellers is an exceptional science fiction achievement that both suscribes to the futurist tendencies of the genre, yet breaks with them at critical moments to create both stirring characters and plot. In the year 2050, scientific innovation and philosophy has allowed humans not only to leave Earth, but to discover and categorize other intelligent life. Even more shocking than finding other protoplasmic lifeforms (cell based creatures) is the discovery of alien lifeforms that take the “negative entropy” theory of life (explained in concise wording in the book’s forward) to an entirely unexpected level.

Dubbed “Angels” by the popular imagination, these are beings of pure energy; some of which have existed since the first 20 minutes of the universe’s conception. Desiring to learn from and about them, a small three man team is assembled to covertly venture into their home at the center of the Coal Sack nebula. Bearing the weight of the future of the whole Earth, this team’s mission is simple: to determine what the agenda of this mysterious race is and, ideally, to reach an accord that is equally beneficial between the two races so unequal in power.

89 years from 1961, James Blish imagines a world that is solidly entrenched in classic Blish style, yet populated by a cast that showcases his maturity as a writer. Since writing The Thing in the Attic (1954), and even his story from earlier this year, Titan’s Daughter, Blish seems to have hit upon a winning combination of his three common writing themes – hope, challenges to conformity, and character growth.

Blish inserts hope into his writing through several means. First and foremost is the characters’ determination to survive. In The Thing in the Attic a deep belief in the strength of teamwork inspires a hope that is of paramount importance to the main characters as they struggle to survive for one thousand days on the ground of their savage jungle homeworld.

In The Star Dwellers hope is what drives the main character, a diplomat cadet named Jack Loftus, in nearly all aspects of his desire to return to Earth alive. Hope that his teammates, the brilliant scientist Dr. Langer and his understudy “Sandbag” Stevens, can be saved when their part of the mission goes awry. Hope that Jack’s diplomatic skills will not enrage the ancient Angels’ sensibilities. Hope that he has made a beneficial treaty with the Angels to ensure the Earth’s prosperity. And hope that the human race will be able to hold their end of the bargain or risk losing everything to the will of these higher-reality beings. 

Blish’s vision of the year 2050 is filled with his own hopes. In Blish’s world, the United Nations is a powerful organization which has successfully mitigated the rivalries and disputes of all nations since its creation. Meeting in a fair and equal arena, even the United States and the Soviet Union have ceased to be active adversaries thanks to the technological competition we are experiencing today. In Dr. Langer’s words it was, “very good for both sides.” (19)

In Blish’s imagination, war and nationalism have given way to a higher purpose of unity through privatized space exploration and free trade. Though his characters endure realistic hardships brought upon them by their environments and their fellows, Blish nonetheless seems to hold onto a hope that harsh times may yet still yield to the self driven evolution of humankind.

By far my favorite Blish theme is the challenge to conformity. As you may recall in my review of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, one of my chief complaints was that the characters all seem to fall in line to create a conflict-less world. There didn’t seem to be any natural character arcs since all who came into direct contact with Mike (Stranger’s protagonist) would eventually come to the same conclusion: that Mike knew best and had all the answers.

Blish, on the other hand, seems to have a better grasp of character arcs. Individual peculiarities mean that those who hold the light of modern culture unflaggingly will not be infallible. Rather, those who are most willing to challenge norms while learning their own paths will become the heroes.

Probably the best example of this in The Star Dwellers is the exchange between Dr. Langer and the two cadets, Sandbag and Jack.  As they travel to their last stop before diving into deep space in search of the Coal Sack nebula, Blish takes the time to world-build a bit through a lecture delivered by Dr. Langer. In this lecture Dr. Langer tells the two teenagers about life in the 19th century, and how far the Earth has come as a unified culture. The dangers of popular culture and music, the need to educate youngsters in advanced learning programs that are not coed, and other “props of chain infatuation” (37).

Rather then ooh and ahh over the wisdom of their teacher, both boys come to their own conclusions about the veracity of this cultural change. Indeed, Sandbag is said to have been, “not as impressed by Langer’s reasoning as the trouble shooter obviously had intended that he should be” (38). Jack later comes to his own appreciation of poetry. In the world of The Star Dwellers this is against the culture’s theory of avoiding “chain infatuation.” But then again, these are not one dimensional characters we are reading about.

It would have been so much easier for Blish to have written Dr. Langer preaching to a ready and absorbent audience. But he didn’t. Life doesn’t work that way, and I believe Blish understands that. People, and especially young people, can’t and won’t take everything at face value. Varying degrees of belief and conformity is found in all of Blish’s writing. For Blish, independent thought amongst his cast is essential to making his characters relatable. This is turn greatly increases the quality of his books.

All in all, The Star Dwellers is a fine book with which to close out 1961 and ring in 1962. It renewes my confidence in this genre I love so much — for every Beast of Yucca Flats there will be a Star Dwellers. The Star Dwellers was a very well written book, and I look forward to finding more of its ilk in the coming year.  Five stars.

[November 21, 1961] Jules Verne on a Budget (Valley of the Dragons)


by Rosemary Benton

Very little deters me from seeking out science fiction films. Even if the venue is a little disreputable I will still venture in. Even when a film is being trashed by critics I’ll still give it a chance. But in the case of Valley of the Dragons I wish I had turned around at the entrance to the seedy theater I found it in. I wish I had heeded the warnings of fellow film reviewers. Valley of the Dragons is this month’s science fiction B-movie and 1961’s third Jules Verne inspired motion picture. It has everything including a story slower than my Greek tortoise, well known bit-role actors and of course copious use of stock footage. But is it still watchable? No.

Set in 1881 Algiers, the motion picture begins with two men facing off in a duel when a comet swipes past Earth, and pulls them to its surface and off into space. Suddenly finding themselves in a new and hostile world, the duelists must put aside their differences in order to outmaneuver a herd of mammoths, roaming giant lizards and bloodthirsty cavemen. Eventually they learn to adapt to their new home and are each adopted by a rival tribe of prehistoric humans. The second half of the film focuses on the emerging romances each man sparks with a cavewoman from his tribe. The script concludes with the tribes learning to come together to better fight for survival on the unforgiving comet. 

The poster for Valley of the Dragons touted several interesting aspects that I was hoping would be delivered. First and foremost, in bold red lettering the poster said that the film was photographed in “Monstascope.” Would this mean that the movie was in an aspect ratio other than 1.37:1? Yes, the film was definitely not 1.37:1, but neither was it CinemaScope with it’s glorious 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Herein lay the first let down of Valley of the Dragons. If I had to hazard a guess I would say it was closer to a 1.85:1 ratio.

Next, the poster advertises the involvement of director and writer Edward Bernds. Bernds is best known for Return of the Fly (1959) and World Without End (1956), although he has made his mark in exploitative films like High School Hellcats (1958) and even comedies like the Blondie Bumstead franchise. Being well versed in such a wide expanse of genres, I was interested to see what Bernds could cook up with subject material as potent as a Jules Verne novel. But despite my initial interest in the setting and the two protagonists, the plot quickly dissolves into painfully cliché storytelling with little in terms of originality. The former being especially true with the ridiculous amount of footage from other movies that Bernds stuffs in. Bernds relies so heavily on repurposed footage of monster fights and special effects that I felt like I was watching a fan-made reimagining of One Million B.C. rather than an original movie that happened to borrow some of its more memorable scenes.

But I can’t say that Valley of the Dragons is completely without charm. Hector Servadac, the only character retained from the original 1877 Verne novel Off On a Comet, fits well into the role of the more logical and methodical of the two protagonists. His monologue theorizing how they came to their current situation is also characteristically in keeping with Jules Verne’s fantastical science.

“There’s only one explanation that fits all the facts as we know them… A heavenly body, a small planet, or a comet perhaps, collided with the Earth and bore us into space carrying an envelope of the Earth’s atmosphere with us.”

It was also fun, as with almost all B-movies, to see how many different films they used stock footage from. At least I found it fun recognizing the various 40s and 50s films meshed together with original footage. But then again, I’ve seen too many movies. I was able to instantly recognize the alligator and monitor lizard fight, not to mention the woolly mammoths and giant iguana, from the 1940 film One Million B.C. It seems strange to me to use widely recognizable footage from a classic like One Million B.C., a movie that is played repeatedly on television, but not knowing the mind of Edward Bernds I can only assume he thought it looked interesting and would shave precious money from the production budget. In the last half hour of the film there is even some Rodan (1956) and Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) footage.

On the subject of saving money, Valley of the Dragons did include one prop that I was surprised and frankly impressed that Bernds employed. After our protagonists begin exploring the strange comet they find themselves on, they stumble into a cave to escape some roaming giant lizards. In this cave exist giant spiders. Very familiar giant spiders in fact. Since having them built for World Without End, Bernds has said that the mechanics nearly never worked and were a constant source of frustration for himself as well as the actors. Despite this, he has continued to employ these props in nearly every one of his science fiction films. It has become nearly a trademark to see these Labrador-sized furry spiders jumping on scientists, adventurers and heroines in an Edward Bernds movie. 

Ultimately Valley of the Dragons has not won me or the critics with either its Jules Verne appeal or its a giant spiders. This might a passable movie for anyone who has not seen a science fiction film over the last twenty years. Or anyone who doesn’t owns a television set and hasn’t seen over half of this movie via reruns of Rodan, One Million B.C. or Cat-Women of the Moon. But for those who are looking for a competent science fiction movie with fun special effects and originality, I would strongly advise looking elsewhere. Valley of the Dragons has its moments, but I can’t say it was worth the price of admission. Edward Bernds may be a competent enough director and writer, but Valley of the Dragons will not go down as a shining moment in his filmography.

[October 28, 1961] Heavy Lifting (Saturn C-1 SA-1)


by Rosemary Benton

It’s a great leap forward for the United States.  This morning, October 28th 1961, one can open the newspaper and learn about yesterday’s launch of the Saturn C-1.  Some of us even saw the live coverage of the launch on television, watching as the giant rocket blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida and flew 95 miles into the air before plunging into the Atlantic Ocean.  A rocket this powerful has never been launched before, and I can only imagine that the scientific community must be trembling like the ground beneath Saturn C-1’s S-1 first-stage cluster of nine tanks and eight engines. 

It was, quite simply, the biggest rocket ever launched.  By far.

As the world reaches farther and farther past the stratosphere, I wanted to take a look into the recent past in order to better appreciate where we are today.  The development of this impressive rocket was a potent combination of money, ambition, and potential, beginning in December 1957 when renowned rocket scientist Dr.  Wernher von Braun and his team proposed the creation of a booster with one million five hundred thousand pounds of thrust – that’s five times that of the Atlas (the rocket that will take an American astronaut into orbit).  The Department of Defense listened, and by August 15, 1958 the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) began work at the Redstone Arsenal to create the vehicle that would culminate in the tower of flame that lifted slowly, inexorably, from its Florida launchpad yesterday.

The initial design of the booster was something of a lash-up, fusing the liquid oxygen and fuel tanks from the Redstone and Jupiter missiles with the tried and true S-3D engine from the Thor and Jupiter missiles.  After significant retooling, the upgraded S-3D engine was clearly a new beast.  So it got a new name: H-1.  As the development of the H-1 continued through 1958, ARPA began to take a more ambitious approach to the aims of the project.  It would not be enough to develop a booster capable of propelling enormous payloads.  Instead they set their sights on creating a multistage carrier vehicle for a long term manned expedition to space.  The result was the October 1958 project tentatively called Juno V, the name indicating the booster’s kinship with its predecessor Juno rockets) based on the Jupiter missile.  The project quickly outgrew any resemblance to the Jupiter family.  On February 3, 1959 that the ARPA renamed the project after the next planet out from the Sun: Saturn. 

Saturn’s development has been nothing less than breakneck.  Dr.  Von Braun’s group at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) delivered the first production H-1 engine on April 28, 1959 and successfully tested it on May 26.  The Department of Defense prioritized the civilian Saturn.  July of that year was a particularly productive month.  At Cape Canaveral there began construction on a blockhouse for the project’s Launch Complex 34, and the Redstone Arsenal shops shifted their focus away from Jupiter rockets in favor of the Saturn project.  By the end of July, the Army Ordnance Missile Command (AOMC) was ordered to cease work on the Titan second stage boosters in favor of the Saturn project. 

NASA stepped in to assume direction of the Saturn Project from ARPA on March 16, 1960.  From the start NASA saw the three stage Saturn C-1 as a starting point in the creation of more powerful, larger vehicles.  Through April and March of 1960, success after success met the Saturn project.  As is tradition, private companies were brought on board to design and construct components of the vehicle.  Contracts between NASA, Douglas Aircraft Company, and Pratt & Whitney, were drawn up in July and August of 1960 respectively.  Douglas Aircraft Company would be responsible for the conceptualization and production of the four-engine S-IV stage of Saturn C-1.  Pratt and Whitney would produce the LR-119 engines to be used in the S-IV and S-V stages. 

As forward thinking as he is driven, Dr. von Braun had bigger plans for the Saturn C-1.  In January 1960, shortly after Convair Astronautics submitted a proposal for an S-V upper stage for the Saturn vehicle, Dr. von Braun floated the idea past NASA administration that the developing lunar project “Apollo” did not need a three-stage C-1; two would be sufficient for the early orbital missions planned for the spacecraft.  His proposal was approved, and NASA removed the S-V stage.  But the S-V stage was not completely scrapped.  In May 1961 the S-1 stage of the vehicle was modified to allow the Saturn C-1 to be a two or three-stage vehicle, increasing its versatility. 

Even before its launch on October 27th, the Saturn C-1 design was already being improved upon in the form of the bigger C-2 and C-3 plans.  In March 1961, considerations were well under way to make use of the Centaur’s LR-115 engines in Saturn C-2 rather than the more expensive LR-119 engines developed for Saturn C-1.  Fins were added to the C-2 design in order to make it more structurally sound, and the thrust capacities of the S-1 stage were reviewed for improvement.  Work continued to accelerate on the Saturn C-2 design until recently on June 23, 1961, when Dr. von Braun announced that the C-3 would hold priority over the C-2 due to the preferable use of the C-3 for the later stages of the Apollo project.

Even as the first of its family, the Saturn C-1 launch is a milestone of astronautics.  First and foremost it represents a great leap into the future of propulsion.  Developed under the guiding hand of Dr. von Braun, the The Saturn C-1 rocket itself is one hundred sixty two feet tall, four hundred sixty tons in weight, and packs one point three million pounds of thrust.  The payload of this particular rocket is 10 tons — far outstripping that of any previously launched rocket. 

More than anything, however, is the fact that the Saturn C-1 was a success on its first flight (albeit with a dummy 2nd stage — that will get tested next year).  This bodes well for future Saturn projects.  In terms of the evolution of rocket science, the C-1 has broken new ground in all aspects of rocket design, execution and function. 

The Saturn project has brought us one step closer to manned expeditions beyond orbital space. 

[Sept. 26, 1961] Sense of Adventure (Andre Norton’s Catseye)


by Rosemary Benton

Catseye is the short, but very well written, science fiction novel from the pen of the legendary Andre Norton.  I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t experienced much of Norton’s writing myself, although her fans sing her praise joyfully and have repeatedly recommended her titles to me.  Reading the back cover of Catseye while in my town’s book store, I had to berate myself for not looking into her before.  If half of what her book promised was true, then here was an author that I could fully invest in.  I was not disappointed.

In this new installment of Norton’s ever growing bibliography we meet Troy Horan, a young man who, like many of his generation, was displaced from his homeworld because of The War of the Two Sectors.  Bitterly fought until a stalemate was realized, the War rewrote galactic geography and national boundaries, forcing many to live in semi permanent statelessness.  On the planet Korwar, people like Troy live in slums called the Dipple.  Norton ascribes a bleak and uncertain future to those of the Dipple.  They can contract to be shipped off-world to some unknown fate, acquire a work permit that will allow them to find short term meager employment in northern Tikil, or they can buy their way into the booming underground Thieves Guild organization.  Luckily for Troy, his legacy as a former colonist of Norden allows him to snatch a temp position at a pet shop that caters to the upper echelons of the planet. 

Being from the well known herding society of Norden, Troy has an uncanny affinity to animals.  The levels of his skill with beasts surprises even himself after he learns that he can communicate telepathically with a select few of the animals at his employer’s establishment.  The small menagerie of highly intelligent animals, including the foxes Sargon and Sheba, the cats Sahiba and Simba, and Shang the kinkajou, draw Troy into a maelstrom of conspiracies and death.  Troy must decide whether to do what is right or what will best help him survive. 

Catseye is most impressive in three ways.  First and foremost, the quality of the narrative can not be overlooked.  In perfect harmony with the otherworldly environment, Norton peppers original sayings, phrases and honorifics into her writing.  The end result is a narrative that makes the reader feel like they are experiencing events within the actual mind of our protagonist. 

This is not an easy task for writers.  I can’t impress how often I’ve read science fiction and fantasy only to see this common issue of inconsistency with language.  For example, in Catseye a “flitter” is a ship and “patroller” refers to the police.  This unique dialect creates a flow in the story that makes the reader feel like they are really experiencing a story from another time and place.  Take this paragraph from chapter 2:

“There were pedestrians, a crowd of them, gathering.  But until they knew that this was not some private challenge-fight, none would call a patroller.  By drawing his belt-knife instead of trying for a stunner, Zul had labeled this a meeting-of-honor, unorthodox as its setting may be”.

With only the barest of context Norton has created a scene that is understandable, yet distinctly foreign.  It’s a truly gifted writer who can fabricate dialects and weave them so well into their narrative.

The second way in which Norton goes above and beyond is in her tight story structure.  Again, writing a good novel is an art, and being able to sufficiently sum up important plot points without becoming side tracked is an essential element of good craftsmanship.  In the first chapter Norton establishes the history of the world she has created, introduces our protagonist and sets him on the path to his new employer.  The first half of the book is a steady build toward the chase, capture and escape of Troy and the animals back into the wilds.  The book concludes with room for a sequel or at least tie in novels.  Personally, I hope to see Norton build the world of Catseye into something more.  With her succinct ability to set up environments, plot and characters I would love to learn more about the events that led to and occurred during The War of the Two Sectors, clearly modeled after the events of The Great War. 

Third, and most importantly, the deeply resonating themes of Catseye make it a must read work of science fiction.  This is a book that not only questions the ethics of moral rightness versus survival, but the lives of displaced people.  Last month when I reviewed Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land I bemoaned the fact that Heinlein did not try out his proposed social and moral constructs outside of largely intellectual conversations between characters.  Norton, on the other hand, accompanies words with actions.  While her prose are not as poetic as Zenna Henderson, she has a knack for incorporating astute observations at just the right moments.  Take this instance in chapter 4:

“He had early learned in the hard school of the Dipple that knowledge could be both a weapon and a defense, and something as nebulous and beyond reason as his odd mental meeting with two different species of Terran life he preferred to keep to himself”.

In chapter 6 the world building continues with Norton’s point about the necessity of keeping the ugly business surrounding the psychic animals away from the pleasurable aspects of high and comfortable society:

“As long as we can keep Korwar as a pleasant haven for the overlords of other worlds, some of them the greed-wrecked ones, we can hold this one inviolate.  One does not want such desolation in one’s own back yard.  So far those of the villas have the power, the wealth, to retain Korwar as their unspoiled play place.”

For a first introduction to Andre Norton’s works, Catseye is an exceptional read.  It has heart, it has style, and it has philosophy backing it up at just the right moments.  I really hope that I can find more from Norton regarding Troy and his journey as a new, free man.  The concept is fresh, and let’s face it — as kids and even adults, wouldn’t we love to have Troy’s power and know what’s going on in the minds of our pets?

[August 23, 1961] Lost in translation (Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land)


by Rosemary Benton

I enjoy my science fiction in the evenings, when I can open the windows and let my tortoise, Mabel, out of her cage to meander around my condominium.  Both of us love these night time relaxations as a way to expunge stress and enjoy new environments.  For me, I get the opportunity to stretch my mind with speculative fiction, while Mabel enjoys the more humble tortoise pleasure of exploring nooks and crannies. 

On one such recent evening I looked at Mabel and felt a coincidental connection between our activities. For whatever reason, she was choosing to repeatedly walk in a wobbly circle from the couch to the table, to the wall, to the bookshelf, and then back to the couch.  This wouldn’t have struck me so powerfully except for the fact that I was reading Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein.  Like Mabel, I was not only willingly subjecting myself to drudgery, but I was engaged in a circular story that felt like it was going nowhere.

The premise of Stranger is interesting enough.  Conceived on Mars and raised by the Old Ones (the elders and collective holders of all Martian knowledge), Valentine Michael “Mike” Smith is the sole survivor of a scientific expedition sent from Earth to study the Red Planet.  Approximately 25 years and one world war later, mankind again makes a trip to Mars where they find Michael alive and well under the care of the Martians.  Mike makes the voyage back to Earth under the strict order of his surrogate parents, whereupon he is first taken to a hospital for observation by a purposefully all male staff. With his legal status up in the air, Smith is stuck between the odd position of being the Sovereign of Mars or a citizen of Earth’s World Federation of Free Nations.  Eventually smuggled out of the hospital, Mike begins his life on Earth under the tutelage of his liberator, his lawyer, and his other “water-brothers”.  Stranger is the story of a man flung into an odd world of concepts, theories and rules, and the journey he takes to “grok” humanity and heal mankind of its self-inflicted wounds.

This is the story of the creation of a culture that is an amalgamation of human nature and Martian ideas.  It makes sense that on an Earth such as Heinlein creates, where religion is a powerful entity politically and socially, the journey of the main character would be one of a religious awakening.  A religious story of a naive boy growing into an enlightened man is virtually a cliche, but in the hands of the right author it can be given fresh life.  Was Heinlein the right author for this? Sort of. 

Despite my initial expectations about a story that promised to be part “coming of age” and part “survival in an alien culture”, Stranger in a Strange Land is a tedious read.  The first 200 pages are an almost moment-by-moment recount of The Man from Mars being brought to Earth, escaping the hospital with the help of a nurse named Gillian “Jill” Boardman, meeting her associate Jubal Harshaw, coming to trust Jubal and having lengthy and repetitive conversations with him as a burgeoning father figure/lawyer/interpreter/guide to human nature.

Often a conversation between characters will read like a transcript of a classrom group discussion set in wherein one person is the primary speaker and the rest of the group contributes small insights or asks for clarification.  Then the whole topic will be reintroduced, but from a different angle. It is immensely dry to read.

Heinlein takes great care to describe Mike’s inner voice and his difficulty “grokking” or grasping human logic and concepts.  Slowly he teases out the special powers of perception and control over physics that Mike learned from the Martians.  At first, sections written from the perspective of Mike’s mind were the most anticipated parts of the novel, but as Mike adapted and became more “human” in his thinking, the intrigue of his mind’s workings likewise faded. 

Stranger contains a sizable cast of side characters including, but not limited to, the founder of the highly influential Church of the New Revelation (Fosterite), the Muslim semanticist Dr. “Stinky” Mahmoud, and Jubal Harshaw’s three secretaries, Anne, Dorcas, and Miriam.  Numerous, yes, but not well-developed.  Very little is given as to the pasts of these or any of Heinlein’s characters.

Indeed, aside from the snake handler and tattoo aficionado Patricia “Patty” Paiwonski, they are all shadows compared to the protagonist: Mike is the most rounded character given the necessity of explaining portions of his Martian upbringing.  Everyone else begins their arcs in the immediate present, and continues on from there.  I found this to be the most frustrating part of Stranger in a Strange Land (aside from the circular nature of many of the characters’ interactions) for the simple fact that it doesn’t give you much to grasp.  If the concept of a science fiction Mowgli-turned-philosopher type main character isn’t enough to hold your interest for over 400 pages, you are somewhat out of luck, I’m afraid.

That being said, Stranger in a Strange Land‘s readability does significantly improve in the second half of the book.  As I mentioned earlier, Patty Paiwonski is introduced during the journeying stage of Mike’s self-realization.  Not only does she grow to become an important member of Mike’s Church of All Worlds but she is nearly 50 years old, covered in religious tattoos and artwork from the neck down, and described as, “associat[ing] with grifters and sinners unharmed” (271).

It is also at this point that the book really begins to dig into the complexities and issues of church-founding, culture versus religion, and the practice of Mike’s teachings. Sex, God, the differences between men and women, all of this and more is played out in a far more digestible pace than in the early half of the book.

Jill Boardman’s character really comes into her own as she finds liberation from social constraints with Mike’s help.  Working as a showgirl while Mike is out amongst the population of America, she learns to enjoy her own body, feels the shame of voyeuristic tendencies fall away, and even takes on the role of teacher to Mike.  Through her he groks how to achieve the one thing he hasn’t been able to feel – laughter.  Despite how interesting her transformation is from jealously guarding Mike to happily sharing him, her lessons at times can rub the reader in the wrong way.

For me it was hard to read about Mike’s understanding of homosexuality. “ Mike would grok a “wrongness” in the poor in-betweeners anyhow – they would never be offered water” (303).  The fact that Heinlein acknowledges homosexuality is heartening.  There is very little mainstream fiction that addresses homosexuality with anything other than fear and contempt, but despite offering a kind of understanding and sympathy, it’s piteous and exclusionary. T o never be offered water in the realm of Stranger means to never be offered the closeness and community that leads to ultimate happiness and physical well being.

The role of women in Mike’s grokking of Earth is another point which unfolds in an intriguing but ultimately controversial way.  Jill’s understanding of rape is highly repugnant.  I, for one, do not believe Jill’s explanation that, “Nine times out of 10, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault” (304).

The strengthening of female minds and bodies is likewise seen by the handyman, Sam, as something that will cause problems for society.  “When a female conceives only as an act of volition, when she is immune to disease…and has her orientation so changed that she desires intercourse with a whole-heartedness that Cleopatra never dreamed of – but any male who tried to rape her would die so quickly, if she so grokked, that he wouldn’t know what hit him?  When women are free of guilt and fear – but invulnerable?  Hell, the pharmaceutical industry will be a minor casualty – what other industries, laws, institutions, attitudes, prejudices, and nonsense must give way?” (401).

Jill’s view on rape is never tested in a real case.  The societal outcome of women heartening their minds and bodies is not explored on a large scale.  In fact, precious little is.  While Stranger proposes a (somewhat) better society, it doesn’t explore what such a society would look like in action outside of a small commune.

This is not to say that Stranger in a Strange Land isn’t worth a read.  Though painful, dense and not altogether enjoyable, Stranger does have is noteworthy points.  The eroticism and communal living present titillating ideas.  Nevertheless, it feels claustrophobic with Heinlein’s view of a conflict-less world.  In this is Heinlein’s ultimate failing – there is just too little conflict in Stranger.  Society just effortlessly adapts and molds itself to Mike’s teachings which, at the end of the day, all come from the philosophies of wealthy and well off people. 

To bring everything back to my earlier question of whether Heinlein was the right author to breathe new life into the story of religious awakening – Stranger in a Strange Land had the ideas, but is too verbose and simple.  Frankly, I’ll stick with Heinlein for his Starship Troopers material.  He does far better when he allows himself to couch his moralizing in action adventure than when he presents unadorned explorations into the origins of cultural identity or the dissection of human nature.

Two and a half stars.  Five for originality.  One for execution.

[July 17, 1961] Bridging two worlds (The animation, Alakazam the Great)

And here is Ms. Rosemary Benton with her monthly report, this time on a subject near and dear to my heart: Japan…

July 14th was a red letter day for me.  Not only did I receive word that my uncle was marrying his long time Japanese girlfriend, Mika, but Alakazam The Great was released in theaters across America.  This film is a beautiful piece of animation from Toei Animation Company Ltd. 

Released in Japan in August last year under the title Journey to the West, the story of Alakazam the Great is actually a retelling of a very old and popular tale from China known as Saiyuuki.  Scholars of this 16th century morality epic will recognize Sun Wukong in our protagonist, Alakazam, as well as his dealings with the Buddha, named King Amo in the film.  There are far fewer acts in the film than there are in the original story of Sun Wukong, but the writers did do an impressive job of compacting the four main arcs of the epic into an 88 minute movie. 

Our story begins shortly after Alakazam has earned the title of king of the animal kingdom.  But as our narrator descibes, Alakazam is a conceited ruler obsessed with becoming more powerful than any human magician.  After tricking Merlin (yes, that Merlin; more on this later) into teaching him his craft, Alakazam believes that he can take on anything, even the entire magical population of the heavenly land of Majutsu.  Following a humiliating defeat, the king of Majutsu, King Amo, sends him on a pilgrimage to learn wisdom, humility and mercy so that he may once again rule the animals as a wise and compassionate leader.  Meeting many interesting companions along the way, Alakazam eventually learns to utilize his magic for good and justice.  He saves the prince of heaven, returns to his love, and lives happily ever after. 

I was very excited to see this film for two major reasons, as well as many many lesser reasons.  First and foremost the credited director of the film is Osamu Tezuka, one of modern Japan’s most prolific “manga” (Japanese comics) creators.  I am an appreciator of the comic book medium, so Tezuka is hardly an unknown name to me.  Thanks to my soon-to-be-aunt I’ve been able to obtain translations of numerous works of his, all of which are exceptional with whimsical storytelling ferrying intense characters into entrancing conflicts.  To date he has created numerous adaptations of western classics like Faust (1950) and Crime and Punishment (1953), and has created hugely popular works for Japanese young adults including the science fiction action story Astro Boy and the coming of age title Jungle Emperor.  Upon looking into the production of the film, however, it is unclear how much direct involvement he had.  Still, I like to think that he had a part in not only the style, but the script — both of which bear a striking similarity to Tezuka’s situational humor and Disney-inspired art style. 

Second, and perhaps most importantly, this is a film that beautifully showcases the changing relationship that America has with Japan and her citizens.  The very fact that this film made it to our shores at all suggests that there are English speaking audiences out there who are interested in the much larger world of Japanese cinema rather than the limited diet of Japanese culture (samurai, bonsai trees, tea…and Godzilla) normally encountered in America.  I would like to believe that there are even those high up in the entertainment industry who see this film not only a way to make money, but to introduce Americans to other noteworthy Japanese cinema besides the thrilling giant radioactive monsters we’ve seen so far. 

As avid consumers of film, Americans both young and old, literate or illiterate, have been exposed to Japan and her citizens for many years.  Until recently, these depictions were one-sided affairs, universally from the White perspective.  Observing film history chronologically, one can see a positive and dramatic change since World War II regarding the portrayal of Japan and the Japanese in American cinema. 

Live action documentary propaganda films created by the United States government in the 1940s were, predictably, focused on explaining the relocation of Japanese-American citizens to internment camps.  These 20-30 minute shorts were stark in their description of the camps, but also tried to show that civility and nationalism could work hand in hand during this time of crisis.  In 1942 a film from the U.S.  Office of War Information titled Japanese Relocation depicted Japanese-Americans as being humanely and voluntarily evacuated to orderly camps.  The reason being that there was a possibility that the West Coast of the U.S.  could become the site of a Japanese invasion, and in order to avoid conflict over who was loyal to Japan versus the U.S., precautionary relocation needed to occur.  The 1944 film A Challenge to Democracy, produced by the War Relocation Authority, also characterized the relocation as a voluntary choice made by patriotic Japanese-American citizens who could be released if they displayed unquestionable loyalty to the war effort.  In both of these movies the Japanese are shown as compliant, obedient and content with their situation.  These notions were partly reinforced in the silent film Topaz, a 1945 amateur film by internee Dave Tatsuno.  In the film one can see smiling faces despite the sorrow Tatsuno said they experienced.  Regardless, those who were shown in the camp were still experiencing play, family, community and civil responsibility.

As the war progressed, animated shorts emerged with far more harsh portrayals of the Japanese.  Stereotypical depictions of “Tojo” were common such as in Paramount Pictures’ Private Snafu, UPA studios’ Commando Duck (1944).  In each of these examples the supposed evil nature of the Japanese took precedence over the portrayal of any moral grey areas.  The Japanese were dehumanized and shown as cowardly; animated films played to the wider fear and anxiety of Japan generated by the grueling brutality of the war. 

In the 1950s, our view of the Japanese began to shift.  An early anomaly during the time when Japanese-Americans were still largely ignored in film (if not outright demonized), Go for Broke! (1951), featured not only Japanese-American actors, but told the story of Japanese-Americans fighting for America in Italy and France while their families waited for them at internment camps.  Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) continued the portrayal of Japanese-Americans along a similar vein – honorable and possessing good attributes.  By 1957 the Japanese were beginning to regain some of their humanity in American cinema despite still being the common villains.  Bridge on the River Kwai depicts the brutality of the Japanese POW camps, its prisoners forced to construct bridges for the Japanese army, yet there are laudable aspects to the enemy.  The Japanese are not all portrayed as irredeemable monsters.  And then, in 1958, there was Geisha Boy – a romantic comedy that stressed the importance of the United States’ alliance with Japan against communism and even explored the possibility of a blossoming romance between the protagonist, Jerry Lewis, and his character’s Japanese interpreter. 

Enter Alakazam, one of the first real glimpses of Japan as seen by Japan.  Well, not quite.  According to Mika, who’d happened to see the original film in Japan but was still willing to rewatch it with me in America, the original Japanese and the English language scripts are significantly different from one another on the surface.  In translating the script to better suit a Western audience, iconic figures from both West and East mythologies exist along side one another. 

In the original Chinese story, and in the film, the concept of the supreme heaven is ruled by Taoist deities.  No one would expect Hercules and Merlin to be classified as sages and to reside in this version of heaven, and yet they appear as such in the English story.  Merlin is a mountain hermit who teaches Alakazam all he knows of magic.  Hercules challenges Alakazam when he attempts to infiltrate Majutsu Land (The Heavens).  Western concepts are also substituted for more Japanese ones.  Such is the case when Alakazam first meets King Amo.  In the Japanese version the scene sets up a contest of strength between the two.  Alakazam claims that he can transform into any creature and leap, “108,000 li”, in a single bound.  His hubris is his overestimation of his abilities and his conviction that his skill is greater than anyone’s. 

In the English version Alakazam says that he has come to challenge heaven because, “You old guys should make room for the younger generation”.  His hubris is that he can challenge those more experienced than himself and still retain superiority.  Despite what is lost in the translation of people and places, little appears to be lacking from the message of the film be it in English or in Japanese.  The moral still rings consistently true – Alakazam must learn how to rule for his people rather than for himself. 

Paralleling the relationship between the U.S.  and Japan, little is different between us despite our superficial cultural differences.  We both see ourselves as Alakazam did, but like him we must both grow to be better leaders.  I believe that we will continue to find our common goal as more and more films make their way from Japan to our shores.  It’s too early to tell what the reception of American audiences will be to Alakazam the Great, but one can hope that it will not only herald more cross-cultural exchange, but more understanding between our peoples. 

[June 20, 1961] The bright side of the Moon (Nude on the Moon)

Rosemary Benton, as you know, is one of our regular columnists.  Imagine my surprise when she suggested the following subject for her article this month.  I’m just glad I didn’t have to propose it to her

Nude on the Moon is a surprising piece of science fiction cinema directed by Raymond Phelan and Doris Wishman under the pseudonym Anthony Brooks.  Like so many adult oriented films this one was a passion project.  Phelan and Wishman co-directed, produced and wrote the script and made excellent use of their surrounding area – southern Florida. Residents of Homestead, Florida will immediately recognize the set of the moon colony as the famous Coral Castle.  Although the production budget is obviously small, Phelan and Wishman managed to make a rather intriguing movie. 

[WARNING: Those planning to watch Nude might wish to skip the following paragraph!]

The film follows the exploits of two rocket scientists, Professor Nichols (William Mayer) and Dr. Jeff Huntley (Lester Brown), who fund and execute a scientific mission to the moon.  The premise beyond that is pretty predictable.  They make it to the moon, but to their disbelief it’s not the volcanic wasteland that they and the rest of the world expected.  Instead they find a peaceful kingdom of nudists ruled by a benevolent black haired beauty who is played by an actress simply credited as “Marietta”. Before they run out of oxygen Professor Nichols and Dr. Huntley must gather evidence of their discovery in order to fund further trips.  Tragically, Dr. Huntley and the Moon Queen fall in love but are forced to part so that the two men can return to Earth.  In a somewhat romantic turn Dr. Huntley finally notices the duo’s long time secretary, Cathy (also played by “Marietta”), when he realizes that she bears a striking resemblance to the Moon Queen.  The film ends with them gazing into each other’s eyes as they dissolve into the same moon landscape painting used for the beginning of the film.

The effort that is made to sound scientific, combined with the fantastical image of the moon, results in a rather simple but charming movie.  The first half of the film is dedicated to Dr. Huntley and Professor Nichols planning how they will use Dr. Huntley’s inheritance of 3 million dollars to fund the expedition, extended shots of them tinkering in their labs, the two of them discussing the issues of metal contraction and expansion, and pondering how their trip will go.  We see Dr. Huntley and Professor Nichols develop as characters, and even get a surprise reference to Doris Wishman’s 1960 nudist colony film Hideout in the Sun.  The science part of this piece of fiction melts away pretty quickly once they leave the Earth’s atmosphere.  After their ship separates and they land we enter the Buck Rogers realm of hockey space suits, gold nuggets just lying around on the ground, and of course a moon’s surface that looks strangely like a popular roadside attraction.

It’s surprising how fleshed out the two main characters of Nude on the Moon really are.  Dr. Huntley is portrayed as a man obsessed with his career and intellectual pursuits, but is naive and almost blindingly optimistic.  He’s consistently shortsighted too, which is showcased in how quickly he falls in love with the Moon Queen. Not to mention his logic of rejecting government funding in favor of using his own money because, “Money is only good when you’re doing something good with it.”  Professor Nichols is the guiding influence in Dr. Huntley’s world.  He’s the realist and far more money conscious than his partner. Scientific pursuit is extremely important, but not to the exclusion of ladies and film as we see when he flirts with Cathy and expresses his appreciation for Hideout in the Sun.

For a film that’s basically an excuse to show topless women there’s a lot of setup.  The plot even circles around to explain why this mission to the moon isn’t known all over the world.  By not telling the press, not accepting funding from the US government, and forgetting their camera and samples on the moon they have no proof that their mission even happened.  They themselves aren’t even sure that they went to the moon since they were passed out during the landing, and even by their own admission what happened to them went far beyond any current conception of the moon’s surface.

Given that I could only find this film playing at a grindhouse theater two towns over, plus the clarity of the title, that Nude on the Moon bears the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) label of “Suggested for Mature Audiences” is unsurprising.  Roughly half of the running time for Nude on the Moon is dedicated to the tropical paradise nudist kingdom on the moon.  Topless perky ladies (and two gentlemen) all lounging, dancing, frolicking before the scientific gaze of the visiting Earth research team.  It’s purely voyeuristic eye candy, but is still arguably part of a major shift in cinema.  Last year the Hays Code (also known as the Production Code) was significantly overhauled to better suite current trends in America’s disposition with cinema.  Prohibitions on portrayals of drug use, abortion, miscegenation, prostitution, abortion and nudity were all reframed. At the same time blasphemy and ridiculing of the clergy were expressly prohibited.  Nude on the Moon still has run into trouble with the censors.  New York state banned the film because of its portrayal of nudity outside of an “official” nudist colony context.  Phelan and Wishman’s explanation that it was a moon nudist colony did not sway their decision.

Nude on the Moon is, and it feels weird to say this, but a rather cute, charming movie.  It also can’t be overstated how refreshing it was to see a woman director taking to the science fiction genre in film.  I am probably not the audience that Doris Wishman or Raymond Phelan expected, but I have to commend them on producing a decently made and written schlock film.  It’s not often I wander into a grindhouse theater in the pursuit of science fiction, and since The Beast of Yucca Flats was the last grindhouse production I saw I wasn’t sure what to expect.  It certainly wasn’t something of quality.  The miniatures used to show the rocket’s launch, travel through space, and the landing on the moon were decently done, and the music plays well with the hokeyness of the premise.  The plot nicely ties itself up at the end, and most importantly it didn’t seem to bore the audience.  They are not just at a nudist camp sunbathing, lounging and having a generally relaxing day, they are aliens too!  It succeeds very well at what it sets out to do, which is to be a rather adorable twist on the nudist camp genre of films.