Book Review: Red Planet (Russ Winterbotham, 1962)

Red Planet, by Russ Winterbotham, is in many ways typical of science fiction in the decade leading up to the Moon landing, but its theme of humans in space being little more than beasts and its charmingly goofy aliens have earned it a place in my jaded little heart.

The Martians would be less goofy if they actually looked like this.

The Martians would be less goofy if they actually looked like this.

The events of the novel are narrated by Bill Drake, who is one of five astronauts already selected for the historic mission to Mars. He begins the tale as the final candidate for the sixth position completes his final test. All he has to do is land, and he’ll have earned his way onto the crew of the Jehad (the rather unfortunate name of the ship designed for the mission).

To everyone’s dismay, the test goes horribly wrong. The candidate sustains a serious injury and, as the Jehad is to launch within days, cannot join the crew. Although the mission could be accomplished by a crew of five, the commander (Dr. Spartan) insists that they need a full complement. There is, however, no time to fully train another astronaut for the mission. Unless…

There is one other person who is fully qualified, who has taken every test and worked closely with Dr. Spartan on the project. The only hitch is that this astronaut is… A WOMAN! Public sentiment would be very much against sending an unmarried woman on a two-year mission with five men, we’re told, and the space program can’t afford to lose popular support.

The solution is gloriously absurd. If she marries a member of the crew, then somehow everything is copacetic. With her limited selection of grooms, Gail Loring chooses Bill Drake. She makes it clear that this is a marriage only for creating the illusion of respectability, which does nothing to dim Drake’s hopes of making the union real.

The rest of the story largely concerns the struggle for “ownership” of Gail Loring. There’s no other way to put it. The men of the Jehad are incapable of sharing space with a woman without fighting over her.

Actually, that’s not completely true. Of the five men, only three join the contest to try to “win” Loring — one is too perfect and noble to do anything untoward and another too craven. Drake, of course, tells us that he’s only trying to protect her from the others.

There are a lot of ways to die in space, and life requires vigilance and discipline. Some of the best speculative fiction from the mid-1900s used this struggle against the extreme environment as their central plots. Teamwork and ingenuity are emphasized as the key to survival. Where this book works best is in reversing this formula. One of the “suitors” begins to use the perils of the journey to eliminate his rivals. The dangers of the expedition are amplified by the division and mounting paranoia of the crew.

Then they land on Mars, and the plot takes a detour to crazy town.

Astonishingly, this is a fairly accurate description of the events in the book.

Astonishingly, this is a fairly accurate description of the events in the book.

Like many since H. G. Wells wrote War of the Worlds, Winterbotham portrays Mars as a world past its prime. Life can be sustained only at the bottom of deep channels, and it is deadly to outsiders; ruined cities silently crumble amid the wastelands of the surface; and the fallen descendents of the builders of Martian culture are as aggressive as they are incredibly silly.

Picture a green ball, about the size of the bottom tier of a snowman. Add spindly limbs and a growth on top that resembles a beanie with a radar dish. Picture rows of them holding hands, sharing their generated electricity to produce a lightning bolt. Try to take the threat seriously.

With this story, Winterbotham managed to combine all of the best and worst of the science fiction of the time. The admission of female accomplishment while maintaining repressive sexual politics is all too common for the era. The exceptional woman can be equal, but she really just wants to make house. Racial equality is mentioned, but the scope of it is limited to white Europeans. It’s a frustrating mix of nascent ideas and recycled plot points — a weird specimen of pulp adventure that fascinates me with its contradictions.

I can’t say I recommend Red Planet, but if you happen to stumble on a copy, have a taste for the less conventionally good, and can put up with a work so rooted in its time, you could pass a lazy afternoon with it.

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And Then We Ate Cheeseburgers and Sat in the Cold to Watch Movies

I watched 7 movies at Riverside Drive-In over the two days of April Ghouls “Drive-In” Monster-Rama”. (8 scheduled, but …well, I’ll get to that.) It would be entirely unlike me to not at least comment on them. Here, then, is my account of seeing horror films in their natural habitat — the drive-in!

NIGHT ONE – FRIDAY, APRIL 5

It was absurdly cold, and it only got worse as the night wore on. Jessica brought cookies, Tim brought cake, and I kept getting cheeseburgers and hot chocolate to warm up. I also got an ice cream bar before the show started, which made me hardcore according to Mike.

Friday the 13th

Say what you will about the sequels, “Friday the 13th” is still a pretty neat movie. Coming before the establishment of the slasher genre in American horror, it drew heavily from the giallo films of Italy. These were largely spree/serial murder movies in which typically only the gloved hands of the killer were seen by audience until the final reveal (much as in the old Killer in the Mansion flicks). The focus was on gory death scenes and detection.

Similarly, Sean Cunningham’s killer remained largely hidden, with the camera aimed at the victims. The reveal is a bit clumsy, but I always preferred this identification of the audience with the killer to the spectacle of indestructible ghouls on a rampage.

It was a good solid movie with which to start the event, and it prepared us for the camper killing to come.

The Burning

Released around the same time as “Friday the 13th”, “The Burning” is (I found out later) based on a camp story from the New York area. In it, a maintenance man named Cropsey is accidentally burned by campers who were trying to play a trick on him in revenge for his being a bit mean.

The movie starts with this incident, then fast forwards about a decade to Cropsey killing the shit out of a bunch of campers. It’s an interesting early slasher, as the victims actually behave pretty sensibly once they notice the killings. It’s also strange because the “final girl” is an asthmatic dweeb who seems to be a budding sexual predator.

A flawed movie in a lot of respects, it was still well worth seeing. I enjoy watching the formation of genres, while the rules are still malleable and the edges are rough.

Return of the Living Dead

When gratuitous nudity is not the highlight in your zombie movie, you’ve done something very right. Dan O’Bannon’s “Return of the Living Dead” is a masterpiece of dark comedy, with all the social commentary and inevitability of breakdown of George Romero’s work.

In the legal kerfuffle over the rights to Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”, co-writer John Russo wound up with the rights to use the “Living Dead” name. Having lost all rights to the original movie, Romero continued make sequels, dropping out the word “Living”. Russo’s script was finally attached to O’Bannon (co-writer of “Alien”), who worked it over and directed it.

The result was spectacular. The zombie designs (by artist William Stout) are gruesome, the peril escalates every time our heroes act, and the dialog is eminently quotable. The acting is sporadic, but anchored by experienced pros Clu Gulager, James Karen, and Don Kalfa.

This is one of my favorite movies, and it was a treat to see it with an appreciative audience — even if by then we were beginning to feel like the cadaver in the warehouse freezer.

Day of the Dead

The lesser entry in Romero’s first three Living Dead movie, I’m still quite fond of “Day of the Dead”. Bub is a joy, and his very existence raises serious questions about just how dead the zombies really are. I had been looking forward to seeing this again.

However, by this last movie of the night (morning?) there was frost forming on my boots. The very fact that I had seen it before made it easier to decide to crawl into a warm bed and save my strength for the following night.

Vampires, zombies, depravity, and a slumming Oscar winner!

Vampires, zombies, depravity, and a slumming Oscar winner!

NIGHT TWO – SATURDAY, APRIL 6

It was still cold this night, but never so much as the night before. We sat quite comfortably and let the images play over us.

Scream, Blacula, Scream

I think that the success of  “Blacula” had surprised everyone. What could have been a forgettable (and regrettable) exploitation film had been granted unexpected gravitas by the performance of William Marshall as the diplomatic prince, cursed by Dracula himself.

This sequel is a brazen attempt to recapture the magic (and box office) of the original. What saves it is the inclusion of Pam Grier as the voodoo priestess attempting to restore Blacula’s soul before his “children” get out of control. There are problems, to be sure, but the combination of Marshall and Grier is killer.

I just wish the projectionist had fixed the framing earlier. There was a lot of ceiling for a reel there.

Sugar Hill

There was a lot to love in this line-up, but “Sugar Hill” is what made me decide that I had to attend April Ghouls. It’s not that I hadn’t seen it before — I had, several times — but that I had to support anybody who was showing such a remarkable film.

On the surface, it’s a movie attempting to cash in on the brief fad for blaxpo horror. The astonishing thing  about the film is it’s constantly empowering plot. Strength always comes through weakness in this story. Sugar herself continues to use her nickname, although it could be seen as diminishing. Dead slaves, dumped in the swamps of New Orleans, provide the muscle. Baron Samedi, master of the dead, often assumes guises of service (taxi driver, gardener, etc.) to get close to the targets. Plus, it’s just a fun movie!

The highlight of the entire trip, for me, was hearing first-time viewers exclaim their enjoyment of this gem.

Blood and Lace

I can’t say that “Blood and Lace” failed to deliver shocks. In actuality, there’s an escalation of outrageousness throughout the runtime that leads to an inevitable and hilariously depraved revelation in the final seconds. It was as though every few minutes the filmmakers asked “How can we make this more twisted?” I can readily think of at least three friends who should probably see this (if they haven’t already).

My problem with the movie is two-fold: there’s nothing to the movie outside of the efforts to shock, and the time between shocks feels interminable. A movie this packed with strangeness shouldn’t be so dull. Coming directly after “Sugar Hill”, this did not fare well with us.

Still, I’m glad to have seen it. I’d never even heard of the thing, and now I can make jokes about pulling corpses out of the freezer for head counts.

The Thing with Two Heads

Speaking of heads…

I’m a big fan of Ray Milland and of cheesy movies, and “The Thing with Two Heads” is a big part of why. It wasn’t the first Ray Milland movie I ever saw (that was probably “Escape to Witch Mountain”), and it wasn’t the first movie I loved for not being any good (“Caveman”, maybe?), but it was one of the first bad movies I loved to talk about and the first movie in which I consciously noticed Milland.

It’s hard to miss him in this; he’s the cranky, white-dude head on Rosey Grier’s shoulder.

That’s about it, really. There isn’t much else to it, except for a two-headed ape (that disappears after a brief escape), a motorcycle race, and… nope, that’s pretty much it.

Cranky, white head on Rosey Grier’s shoulder. Probably muttering about his Oscar between takes.

Revisiting that turkey made a perfect end to two nights of drive-in movies.

They’re talking about adding a fifth movie each night for the fall show, specifically so the first night can be all of the original Planet of the Apes series. It may just be more awesomeness than I can handle!

Review: Girls

A stretch of sick days, coinciding with my having finally gotten HBO GO running on my iPad, found me watching the first season of “Girls”. The show was created by and stars Lena Dunham, who has been criticized online for everything from not being progressive enough to not being thin enough. Having heard zero about the actual content of the show, I looked it up in the HBO app and pressed play.

I have to say, I hadn’t expected to like it as much as I do. Not to say it’s without problems, but I enjoyed it and will likely catch up with season two.

The premise is simple; four young women in New York are struggling with the transition into adulthood. Dunham’s character, Hannah, has just been financially cut off by her parents. Nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, as has been pointed out extensively, we’ve seen plenty of privileged white youth supposedly struggling in the big city.

While I join the chorus of voices pleading for more diversity, this isn’t the show to complain about. Not that it isn’t absurdly pale for a show set in a major metropolitan area. The show can and should do better at reflecting the richness and variety of culture that surrounds its main characters. I just don’t think it’s a valid example of business-as-usual television.

Although most episodes of the 10 episode season are half an hour in length, it is not a sit-com. It’s often funny, but there are no catch-phrases, the situations change, and everything doesn’t get resolved. In a sit-com the discovery of a diary leads to hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and finally heartfelt apologies. In “Girls” relationships are strained and destroyed. It’s a subversion of story cliché of the sort that the show tends to do well.

There are exceptions. Shoshanna (played by Zosia Mamet) is treated poorly in this season. She is the least defined of the four friends, and she tends to surface only to serve as butt of jokes. In her longest appearance, she manages to accidentally smoke crack and leads her guardian on a chase through oddly empty streets. This is a time where the show descends back into formulas, and while amusing moments like this feel like a let-down.

The movie “Pleasantville” deconstructed the world of mid-century sit-coms by allowing disruptive change. This kind of change can introduce advancements while at the same time undermining business models or established ways. In one memorable scene the family patriarch returns to an empty house. No one is there to greet him or ask about his day. Suddenly his world has been overturned, his privilege stripped away, and not everything about him any longer. There is nothing he can do but wander through the dark rooms asking the emptiness where his dinner is.

At it’s best “Girls” reminds me of that moment, where someone who doesn’t even understand his or her own privilege is confronted by its absence. These characters have had the rug pulled out from under them, and they have to decide whether to regain their balance or behave as though they never lost it. It remains to be seen which way they’ll go.

A Night At The Theatre

In her opening number last night Amanda Palmer sang “I would kill to make you feel”, and that’s what she and The Grand Theft Orchestra did. They killed, and we felt it.

The song list covered Palmer material from many phases of her career in music but understandably emphasized songs from her album with the GTO, “Theatre is Evil”. When the full band (and occasional extra help from locals) played, my insides felt like they were on a vibration belt set to maximum carnage, which was exhilarating and worrisome simultaneously.

Palmer performed “The Bed Song” on her own, providing a quieter moment only slightly marred by (presumably drunken) Philistines carrying on at the main bar. It’s a melancholic tune from the “Theatre is Evil” album that chronicles a lifetime of mutual longing, and while it’s rather obvious it is touching and effective.

A surprise came when she asked for requests. While most called out new songs or classic Dresden Dolls hits, one person requested “Map of Tasmania”, Palmer’s pro-pube anthem. Declaring it to be timely due to PETA’s new body-shaming ad equating fur to having a hairy crotch, she grabbed a uke and tore through a stirring rendition of the song before returning to the matter of requests again.

It’s worth noting that Palmer was very ill and fighting a fever. She came out before the show to inform us and beg forgiveness in advance for her lack of energy but also to assure us that the show would not be cancelled. She looked and sounded like death left forgotten in the microwave. But once she came out to perform, there was very little sign of her condition. She sang, danced, crowd-surfed, and generally gave a hell of a performance. She’s a pro, and I really hope she feels better soon. That could not have been as easy as she made it look.

She closed with the Dresden Dolls hit “Girl Anachronism”, which seemed appropriate. Nothing from Evelyn Evelyn or the Radiohead album, but you can’t have everything. We did get a stunning rendition of “Leeds United”, which may be my favorite song from “Who Killed Amanda Palmer”. It’s hard to tell; there are a lot of great songs to choose from there.

I had a lot of fun, and I’m glad I went. I just stood stiffly the entire time, so I probably creeped out a few people. Sorry about that. It was all I could do not to hide in a corner. It’s a testament to the quality of the show that I could stand in that crowd for the whole evening.

Review: Brick and Mortar Book Recommendation

I told you about that book I got at Aunt Agatha’s. You know, the one that Jamie recommended when I went in to sell a book. It was A Cold Day in Paradise by Steve Hamilton. I’ve got an embarrassing amount of unread books, so at the time I put it on a nearby stack with a mental note to get to it soon. Since I had mentioned it in a blog entry, I thought I’d like to read it fairly soon and follow up with a review.

Not of the book — a review of the Jamie recommendation system.

Now that I’ve finally had the chance to read it, I am happy to report that the recommendation did well in all categories. Let’s break it down.

Customer data

Here’s what Jamie knew. I’d come in to sell back a mystery novel that I hadn’t liked. It had grabbed my attention with its setting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. My stated objections centered on the lack of action and of general threat.

Additionally, he knew that I am a big fan of the Hard Case Crime line of new and reprinted noir. These include works by authors like Donald Westlake, Lester Dent, and Mickey Spillane. They tend to be violent, pile up the corpses, and involve a bit of enthusiastic back stabbing.

Alignment of book content

The first correlation of the book’s content to known user data is that the action of A Cold Day in Paradise centers in the Upper Peninsula. Specifically, the murders happen in and near Sault St. Marie, and the protagonist lives just a short drive away. Since the setting was what had attracted me to the book I’d returned, this is a strongly relevant component of the recommendation.

As for addressing my objections to the other book, Hamilton’s novel has a gun fight, a couple of brawls, a murderous stalker, and an extremely suspicious sheriff. This certainly addresses my desire for more action and danger. Here again the recommendation scores well.

Moreover, the book has a great pulp feel to it. The hero is fallible, a cop who retired because he froze and carries a bullet near his chest like a badge of shame. He’s afraid of guns and still has nightmares about the incident that ended his career and his partner’s life.

As a reader I wanted him to succeed, to conquer his fear and start living again. This is important to me. A plot is a series of events, but a character interacts with those events and struggles to gain even the smallest bit of control over them. That’s a story, and that’s what I’d returned the other book for lacking.

Conclusion

Jamie took my statements about the book I’d sold back, mixed them with knowledge of my purchase history, and made an accurate and effective recommendation of a book I would like.

“Well,” a convenient paper tiger may reply. “So what? Amazon does as much.”

Here is the difference.

While Amazon knows my book purchase history (and my item ratings, if I used that feature) it doesn’t know why I’ve bought them. Was it the writer? Genre? Appearance of a big damn spider? The word zombie in the title? When Amazon recommends something to me it’s based on algorithms comparing my recent purchases with the purchase histories of other users, playing the odds that people who buy enough similar items will have the same general taste.

It’s a good attempt, and honestly I find a lot of cool stuff based on these recs, but the price is having to sift through a lot of things that I don’t want at all. Sometimes it takes a few pages of recommendations to find something in which I’m vaguely interested.

Jamie got it in one try. I recommend his recommendations.