Friday, November 20, 2015

Book to Movie: The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

Book to Movie: The Adjustment Bureau (2011)
Based on the short story, The Adjustment Team by Philip K. Dick
Screenplay by George Nolfi
Directed by George Nolfi

In 2011, screenwriter George Nolfi made his directorial debut in a “reimagining” of a rather dull Philip K. Dick short story, The Adjustment Team. Nolfi took Dick’s basic premise and turned it into a romantic thriller.

In the short story, Dick’s main character is a businessman who needs to be delayed for just a couple minutes in his arrival at work so the rest of the team can complete a major adjustment at his place of employment. The adjuster misses his appointment and the man walks in on the team doing the adjustment.

In Nolfi’s version of the story, the main character is New York congressman David Norris (played by Matt Damon), who is running for the U.S. Senate in 2006. Unfortunately for Norris, a picture of him mooning his college reunion surfaces and causes him to lose. While in a men’s room on election night, going over his concession speech, he meets Elise Sellas (played by Emily Blunt), a professional dancer. He is immediately smitten with her. The problem is, they were never supposed to meet.

In comes the Adjustment Bureau. They are going to prevent another meeting. But, the adjuster assigned to Norris misses his appointment and Norris walks in on an adjustment underway in his office where time is frozen. He is taken aside by one of the adjusters and their mission of keeping the cosmos in order and on-plan is explained to him. He is also told that he is destined not to see Sellas ever again.

Norris is not deterred and continues to pursue Sellas even though he does not know her last name or anything else about her. After riding the same bus to work for three years, Norris finally finds her and they renew their budding relationship.

However, Norris is told that he will never realize his political dreams if he stays with Sellas. He is also told that her dreams of fame as a dancer will never be realized. Despite his love for her, Norris leaves her at a hospital where she is being treated for a sprained ankle.

Three years pass without Norris seeing her. He learns that she is about to be married to a man she doesn’t love and he decides to take fate and destiny into his own hands. He finds her at the courthouse where she is about to be married and professes his love for her. They run off together, aided by a magical hat (it’s not nearly as dumb as it sounds) provided by a sympathetic adjuster. The adjusters pursue them through the various doorways in New York City that the bureau uses to move around quickly.

Finally, the pair is cornered on the roof of the Adjustment Bureau’s building. They are about to be permanently adjusted to forget each other when the sympathetic adjustor shows up with a decree from the Chairman of the Adjustment Bureau – the man who makes the plans for the cosmos. He tells them the plan has been adjusted and Norris and Sellas can live together happily ever after.

Dick’s story was pure fantasy. Nolfi’s version was a love story. Granted, Dick’s story was a short story authored for a pulp science fiction magazine that mainly appealed to pre-teen and teen males. Still, there was not much to like in the story and it was dull. Although I’m not a fan of romance movies, I have to say I like Nolfi’s story much better.

Matt Damon (one of the great actors of our generation) again rises to the occasion and delivers a fantastic performance. He is believable as the politician who has lost interest and is mailing in his speeches. His chemistry with Blunt is superb. Nolfi’s script and directing gave us a story that was romantic, but not sticky sweet.

I would also give kudos to Nolfi for all but rejecting CGI effects. There were none detectable in this movie. It would have been easy to turn Norris and Sellas’ chase through New York City into CGI eye candy. Instead, Nolfi opted for simple foot chases. Nor were there any dramatic car chases that a ham-handed director could have inserted into this script. Nolfi shows he has an eye for what works on the big screen without cheapening his product.

When one looks at movies (and now television with the broadcast premiere of The Man in the High Castle on Amazon) based on Dick’s work, it would seem that Hollywood likes Dick’s premises, but not his stories. Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Paycheck, and The Adjustment Bureau all contain the basis of Dick’s story, but deviate far from Dick’s prose.

The result has been very good as opposed to someone like Stephen King and Ray Bradbury who have seen their work “reimagined” badly. Some very good sci-fi has been made using original concepts develop by Philip K. Dick decades ago. While The Adjustment Bureau is never going to rank with Blade Runner or Minority Report in the pantheon of great science fiction and/or fantasy, it is a worthwhile addition to Dick’s Hollywood credits.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Second Variety and Other Stories By Philip K. Dick

Second Variety and Other Stories
By Philip K. Dick
Copyright 1989

Introduction by Norman Spinrad
Science fiction novelist and screenwriter Norman Spinrad discusses the early short story work of Philip K. Dick published in this volume. He points out that, when Dick began writing, science fiction authors had to go through an apprenticeship that consisted of writing short stories for the pulps. Success in the pulps did not always translate into novel success, but Dick’s best medium was the novel. He discusses Dick’s use of multiple point of view characters and how he perfected this type of storytelling.

The Cookie Lady
Bernard “Bubber” Surle, a young boy, has taken to visiting Mrs. Drew on a regular basis. Mrs. Drew is an elderly lady who bakes cookies for young Bubber. Every time Bubber leaves Mrs. Drew’s house, he’s really tired. His parents, seeing his physical distress, forbid him from returning. But Bubber heads back for one last visit.

It’s a riff on the old “witch lures the kiddies with cookies” motif. What is different is the lack of evil or malice in the witch character. She simply notices that sitting close to the boy makes her younger. Both characters are devoid of emotion, which makes this story rather sterile.

Beyond the Door
Larry Thomas buys his wife, Doris, a magical cuckoo clock that talks to her. She develops a special relationship with the little bird in side while the bird comes to dislike Larry. One day, Larry comes home and finds his neighbor, Bob, with his wife. He tosses them both out, but keeps the clock. Larry doesn’t like the clock and the clock doesn’t like him. Things come to a head.

The story probably worked well in the 1950s and is not without its charm. But the ending was entirely predictable and not terribly exciting. But, we are seeing an author who is still learning the craft.

Second Variety
In a post-apocalyptic world where robots are the instruments of terror, a UN soldier receives a message from the Soviets that they want to talk truce. He travels to the Soviet base to find out it’s been wiped out by robots. He meets three people who remain from the Soviet base. They tell him that they’ve identified the first variety of robots and third variety of robots. But the dangerous second variety has not yet been identified.

This was a fantastic, hard science fiction story about war and conflict. It’s an often used trope, found in stories such as Who Goes There and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There’s really nothing new here. But it is good writing and a good story.

Jon’s World
Ryan is preparing to accompany a businessman in a time traveling ship to go into the past to find the man who developed the robots that fought the war and destroyed the earth. Ryan’s son, Jon, has frequent seizures where he has visions. He tells his father that his visions are of people walking in fields, talking about the problems of the universe. Ryan and his partner travel back in time to find their scientist. They steal his papers, but accidentally kill him. They return to their time to find out they changed history for the better.

This story was a sequel to Second Variety and was just as good. Second Variety was quite action oriented. Jon’s World is much more contemplative in its examination of the butterfly effect.

The Cosmic Poachers
A Terran ship encounters an alien freighter in a restricted system. The Terrans observe the insectile race leaving their ship and extracting something from the soil. The Terrans surprise the insect race and board their ship. There, they find beautiful, seemingly priceless jewels. But the insects, they are something else entirely.

This one was written at a more elementary level than most Philip K. Dick stories. The Cosmic Poachers was first published in Imagination in July 1953.

A man and a woman give up their son at birth so that he might be trained by emotionally detached robots to achieve his full potential. Eighteen years later, the father goes to meet his son for the first time and find out if there is any part of him left in his son.

There’s a tiny bit of poignancy in this story, but I wasn’t sure what it was trying to be. If it was trying for hard sci-fi, there wasn’t much there. If it was going for poignancy, it fell short of that mark as well.

Some Kinds of Life
Earth is at war with various planets and moons in the galaxy for natural resources. The government continues to expand the war and open new fronts, creating the need for new recruits to seize the materials they need to continue their comfortable way of life.

The allegory here was not subtle. The war for natural resources that power the devices of convenience in society might not be worth the war when nobody is left to enjoy those conveniences.

Martians Come in Clouds

A father is badly frightened when a he encounters a Martian stuck in a tree on his way home from work. But his son learns the real reason why Martians make their always ill-fated journey to Earth.

This one had the flavor of 1950s sci-fi. It reminded very much of the move FIDO with the father who had all of the phobias and the son discovering the real nature of zombies. Of course, Dick had a much deeper emotion than did the comedy movie.

The Commuter
A man walks into a train station and asks for a ticket to a destination that does not exist. After demanding the ticket insisting that the town does exist, the man disappears into thin air. After the ticket seller sees the phenomenon a second time, he goes in search of this mysterious town.

Perhaps a commentary on urban sprawl. If so, it missed its mark. Not a particularly interesting story.

The World She Wanted
A woman approaches a man at a bar and tells him he is for her in this world that is made just for her. The man starts to become convinced of her take on reality as more and more of what she commands from the cosmos comes to her.

I looked hard for some social commentary here, but did not find it. It was an intriguing and interesting story with a not unexpected ending. Stories like this served as inspiration for Twilight Zone episodes.

A Surface Raid
An advanced race has retreated underground to live in caverns under mountains while humans – or “saps” – have stayed on the surface following two world wars. The advanced creatures from below the earth come to the surface to take saps for their factories below.

This story is reminiscent – but not derivative – of The Time Machine. The post-humanism that would later be featured in stories like Planet of the Apes is on display here in magnificent splendor. This story is Dick at his finest.

Project: Earth
A young boy discovers that a man in a nearby apartment is raising tiny, humanoid beings that will eventually replace man on earth. The kid steals them and keeps them as playthings.

I loved this story and it is a great example of the kinds of soft sci-fi that one could find in the pulps of the 1950s.

Project: Earth
first appeared in Imagination Magazine in 1953

The Trouble with Bubbles
In a time distant in the future, man has found no other life forms in the galaxy. To meet the longing of humans to connect with other life forms, a company creates Worldcraft – a do it yourself world creation kit. While attending the judging of a Worldcraft contest, a lawmaker decides to write laws to ban the practice, fearing that man has become cruel in his new found god-like powers over the worlds they create. On his way home, he encounters the work of the God that controls catastrophes in our world.

Dick demonstrates again that pulp writer’s ability to craft well-honed plots that keep the reader guessing and the narrative moving at a satisfying pace. There was everything to like about this story.

The Trouble with Bubbles first appeared in IF Magazine in 1953.

Breakfast at Twilight

A family wakes up in the morning to find that they and their home have been transported forward in time to 1980 when the Earth is in ashes and troops scour the land in search of food, supplies, and humans to feed the war machine.

Obviously, this story reveals Dick’s hatred and fear of war. The most ominous and indicative line: “The war didn’t start. It grew.” It has, however, an optimistic ending which is not characteristic of a Philip K. Dick story.

A Present for Pat
Eric Blake brings home a god from Ganymede for his wife for a present. When the god starts employing his powers to smite those who annoy him, trouble ensues for Eric with his employer and with the law.

This one has the writing stylings of 1950s comedy. The wife is shrill and hysterical. Her husband meek, mild, but well meaning. His boss is a tyrant. His best friend is obnoxious. Dick makes it work to some degree. But an awful lot of clich├ęs are working here.

The Hood Maker
In a dystopian New York City, a man is beset by a mob because he is wearing a hood – a concealed device that screens his thoughts from scanning by telepaths known as “teeps” who make sure all of its citizens are loyal and without impure thought. Franklin escapes the mob with a young woman who asks him to use his influence with a Senator to stop a bill that would halt free thought and codify the legality of the teeps’ actions. The government pursues them to stop them.

This one had a great premise, but it was not well executed. The twist was not well written and did not have much surprise value. The end was more than a bit limp, leaving the reader to wonder, so what?

Of Withered Apples
A single apple tree leaf blows in the window of a young wife’s home and the withering tree beckons to her. She heads out into the night to find the abandoned farm where the dying tree stands to meet her destiny.

This tale succeeds at being atmospheric. This is something many pulp writers never strived for, preferring to keep their readers riveted with action. Dick shows he’s got the chops of a horror writer similar to Hawthorne and Poe here. A beautiful tale.

Human Is
A woman endures a loveless marriage to a driven, determined scientist who is cruel and uncaring. He travels to the ruins on Rexor IV and comes back a different man – caring, considerate and wanting to spend time with her in lieu of work. When the government finds out that his body has been taken over by a resident of Rexor IV, they need her testimony to exterminate him.

This story is nothing special except it has more feeling than the average Dick story. What is interesting about reading Philip K. Dick short stories versus his novels is that he conveys much more human emotion in his short stories than he does in his plot driven novels.

Human Is was originally published in Startling Stories, Winter 1955.

Adjustment Team
An “adjustment team” that keeps the cosmos in line for human existence to continue, misses an important deadline regarding a real estate salesman. The salesman goes to work, not knowing that he’s stumbling into reality put on hold for adjustment. He soon learns the nature of the adjustment team and their reason for adjustment.

I found this story unremarkable. Perhaps the premise was new in the 1950s, but by today’s standards, it was lackluster. The stated purpose of adjustment was pie in the sky, utopian nonsense.

The Adjustment Team first appeared in Orbit Science Fiction, Fall 1954. In 2011, it was made into a movie titled The Adjustment Bureau that starred Matt Damon.

The Impossible Planet
An ancient woman asks a ship’s captain for one final request before she dies, having ended her life extension treatments. She wants to see earth. The captain insists that the planet earth is nothing but a myth and does not exist. The lady’s robot servant locates earth and the captain takes her there to see the wellspring of humanity and learn its ultimate fate.

This story is full of fatalism that was outside the norm of 1950s sci-fi and more typical of late 1960s. Creepy and eerie, Dick makes this atmospheric tale work with just enough plot to keep it moving.

Impossible Planet was first published in Imagination in October 1953.

A man working as a weapons researcher is arrested as an outworld spy. Agents claim that a robot was sent by outworlders to kill him and take his place. Inside this robot was a bomb, triggered by a secret word or phrase. Desperate to prove his innocence, the man escapes and returns home to convince his friends and family he is who he says he is.

This might be the best story in the collection. Seldom has Dick composed prose that move a story at such a fast pace. When you’re reading Philip K. Dick, you know a twist is coming. I knew the twist was coming – there always is in stories involving replicants. I even had a suspicion as to what it was. But Dick’s writing made me want to get there fast.

James P. Crow
Many years after man wiped out his own society, he is a second class citizen to robots. Robots design their society to keep humans in their place. But one man has a plan to change all that and he is the stuff of legend among his own kind and a credit to his race.

The metaphor was entirely too in your face in this story, although perhaps it was more biting in the 1950s. But the story’s sci-fi angle does work and overcomes Dick’s ham-handed social activism.

Planet for Transients
Three hundred and fifty years ago, the Earth was ravaged by atomic war. Now, men live underground in mines. Trent, an explorer searching New York for other human settlements encounters the new sentient creatures that inhabit the surface, now covered in lush vegetation. He learns of a human settlement to the north. When he gets there, he learns a lesson about the nature of the cosmos.

There was no subtext or underlying message here. This story was just fun with a little bit of philosophy tacked on the end.

Planet for Transients first appeared in Fall issue of Fantastic Universe.

Small Town
An oppressed clerical worker becomes obsessed with his model train and the model town he has built up around it in his basement. He quits his job and begins to take out his wrath on those who spited him by remodeling his little town. Meanwhile, his doctor and his wife – who are having an affair – are horrified.

The trope here is so old it must have been worn out in 1953. The resolution was ambiguous and the characters lacked development. One of the weaker elements in this collection.

The legendary Williamson’s Planet is located. Founded by the first interstellar space traveler, terraformer, and pioneer, the planet was thought by many to be a myth. Upon arriving, Astronaut Rogers is disappointed to find a primitive, agrarian culture with a warlike disposition, communistic economy, and tribal government. He tries to convince them to join the interstellar government that promotes homogeneous cultural, social, and technological development.

This story was rather dull. The social commentary – such as it was – didn’t say much. The plot was boring and the characters drab.

Survey Team
Earth is a planet caught in the decay following atomic war. A survey team is dispatched to Mars to ascertain whether or not it is habitable. The survey team arrives to find a planet of crumbling cities and soil stripped of all that is valuable. The Martians’ records indicate that they found another planet they could inhabit – a virgin planet untouched by pollution or depletion. The earthmen decide to learn its location and head there and take it from the Martians if they have to.

This is the kind of sci-fi is the reason I read sci-fi. As I read this story, I could hear it as a Dimension X or X Minus 1 radio show. It had the drama and the properly timed plot twist that these shows incorporated.

Prominent Author
A bureaucrat at a research and development plant is given a prototype transporter that transports him between his home and work which is 160 miles away in New York City in just a matter of seconds. One day, while in the transporter, he encounters a group of tiny people who hold him in awe. They have questions and they want answers. He is only more than happy to oblige them. He is surprised when he finds out his tiny worshippers have published a book with his answers.

This wasn’t as clever as it sounds. It could have been. But Dick fumbled the climax and resolution.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

They Thirst by Robert. R. McCammon

They Thirst
By Robert R. McCammon
Copyright 1981

In his fourth book, McCammon takes all that he learned in writing his first three books to open up his writing horizons. They Thirst represents a giant leap forward in the scope of what McCammon was willing to take on as a writer. It’s also a pretty good book and, in 1981, was an original approach at the vampire trope.

The book opens in Hungary, many years ago, with a little boy forced to confront a father who has become a vampire. Years later, that little boy has immigrated to the United States and is Los Angeles Police detective Captain Andy Palatazin. Andy has a problem: a serial killer known in the media as “The Roach.”

While Andy is pursuing The Roach, Prince Vulkan – King of the Vampires – has also immigrated to Los Angeles. His plan: Take over the country’s largest city and make it his kingdom. He settles into an ancient Hollywood mansion that once belonged to Orion Kronsteen – a legendary horror actor and begins “recruiting.” Cemeteries are torn up and the caskets are stolen while remains are dumped on the ground. People begins disappearing all over the city.

As Andy pursues The Roach, he comes to face the unpleasant truth the monster who terrorized him and his village in Europe has come to the United States in search of a bigger realm. Only he knows the truth, but making others believe it, he knows, will only serve to make them think he has cracked under the pressure of the job.

As the vampire hoard grows, they descend upon the neighborhood of 10 year old Tommy Chandler. Tommy watches as the vampires slaughter his family and he barely escapes with his life. Alone in a city haunted by demons, Tommy swears revenge.

Wes Richer is a nationally famous stand-up comedian with a girlfriend gifted with second sight. She forewarns that evil is coming and they try to get out of the city while they still can. Trapped in their car in an unprecedented sandstorm, the vampires hunt them and take Wes’s beloved, leaving him to stagger aimlessly in the storm. He vows to find his girlfriend.

Father Silvera is a priest in one of the city’s Hispanic neighborhoods. He wars with drug dealers, preaches to gang members, and tends to his church – all while battling terminal cancer. As he comes to understand the evil that is gripping his neighborhood and his city, he decides that it is to be the exclamation point on his withering life to meet the King of the Vampires and end his reign. First, he tends to his parish and goes out into the storm to bring back groups of survivors to the sanctuary. While out on a run, he finds Wes wondering aimlessly. Together, they resolve to go to Kronsteen Castle and take on Prince Vulkan.

Father Silvera, paired with Wes and Andy Palatazin, paired with Tommy Chandler make their way toward Kronsteen Castle as the sandstorm paralyzes what’s left of the city. There, they confront the ancient Prince Vulkan and his human sidekick, The Roach in a classic battle of good and evil.

Today, the literary landscape is adrift in urban fantasy novels where heroes and heroines confront the classic monsters of the genre. When McCammon did it in 1981, it was an original take on the vampire. Stephen King had already hit with the vampire working in a New England village. But as much as ‘Salem’s Lot had intimacy in its setting, McCammon’s They Thirst had scope. And, while ‘Salem’s Lot is the superior of the two novels, They Thirst is a great deal of fun. That They Thirst and ‘Salem’s Lot be compared is inevitable because Stephen King and McCammon ploughed a lot of common ground in the 1980s.

What They Thirst has that ‘Salem’s Lot lacks is a claustrophobic feel of isolation. McCammon spends two thirds of the novel getting his characters where he needs them, then puts them in an unrelenting, deadly dust storm. McCammon wordsmiths it beautifully to develop that sense. It is on that level that They Thirst works best.

They Thirst
does suffer a major weakness and that is in character development. McCammon spends a lot of words developing characters and plot lines that peter out early in the novel. Tommy Chandler – central to the novel’s climax and resolution – does not make his first appearance until more than halfway in. Wes Richter and Andy Palatazin are well developed and the reader comes to care about them and their fate. Father Silvera and Tommy Chandler felt like late insertions necessary to make the resolution work.

Prince Vulkan is a rather foolish sounding name and brings to mind immediately Mr. Spock. McCammon writes the character well at the climax, but it’s not until we get there that the reader really feels pervasive evil. McCammon hints and feints at it through the text. But Vulkan needed much, much more to be really menacing.

“The Roach” however, was a fantastic creature. He was a bit stereotypical – having mommy issues. But the serial killer raising roaches to stuff into his victims’ mouths was really cool.

They Thirst was a major development in McCammon’s writing career. In Baal, he told a rather linear story that relied primarily on two points of view. He stepped it up a bit in The Night Boat, writing from a few different points of view. In Bethany’s Sin, we saw him undertake more points of view and develop a culture and undercurrent of evil. When he got to They Thirst, he was ready to use many points of view and take on writing destruction on a massive scale. Wiping out major population centers in a book is easy to do badly and brilliant when done effectively. McCammon doesn’t take on too much of the L.A. landscape and leaves to the imagination what he doesn’t write.

They Thirst is the fourth – and final – of McCammon’s “Condemned Novels” that he pulled from publication for a time. He felt they were not up to snuff and reflected a writer learning his craft rather than mastering it. I’ve said before, Mr. McCammon is way too modest. All four are good novels. They Thirst is the best of the four and can stand with anything written in the genre in the 1980s.

They Thirst pays homage and respect to the traditional vampire, sticking with the tropes that make this classic character work. Transplanting this ancient evil that is at the wellspring of horror writing into the modern American city was brilliant and has been copied many times before. Kudos, Mr. McCammon, on a novel well written.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Naked Sun By Isaac Asimov

The Naked Sun
By Isaac Asimov
Copyright 1957

Plainsclothesman Elijah Baley and his partner, R. Daneel Olivaw are together again to solve another murder – this time on the Spacer world of Solaria.

Elijah Baley is summoned to Washington, D.C. to meet with the federal government about undertaking an important mission. His services have been requested on Solaria to solve the murder of Rikaine Delmarre, the planet’s fetalogist. Joining him will be his partner in an earlier case, Daneel Olivaw.

There is another facet to their mission – one very much of interest to the federal government of the United States on Earth. While working the murder, they want Baley to observe and examine the inhabitants of Solaria and determine if the planet has any major weaknesses that might be exploited in the event of war.

Baley travels to Solaria and finds the culture there very different from earth. On Solaria, humans seldom contact each other. They live on isolated estates and are surrounded by robots that see to their every whim. People “view” each other with intricate viewing portals that provide the illusion of being in the same room. Elijah and Daneel are provided with their own estate and start their investigation by interviewing the widow of the late Dr. Delmarre.

Delmarre was murdered in his laboratory with apparently nobody but robots in his presence. It is impossible for a robot to have murdered him because of the first law of robotics that dictates that robots cannot allow or commit harm to a human. Delmarre was bludgeoned with a blunt object, but no object was located at the scene. His wife discovered his body, but no murder weapon was found. She emerges as the most logical suspect.

Baley isn’t convinced and undertakes the investigation. While he interviews the planet’s chief law enforcement agent, he nearly succumbs to a poisoning attempt. Again, only robots are in his presence. When interrogated, one robot shows signs of dementia, unable to speak clearly, indicating it had been tampered with or perhaps damaged.

He later travels to a natalogy center founded by Dr. Delmarre. He interviews his assistant who tells Elijah that Delmarre was working with a roboticist who was trying to alter the Three Laws of Robotics to allow robots to punish young children as they are being nurtured at the center.

Baley conducts his interview of the woman outside. This is because she only agrees to come within 20 feet of him, loathing human contact. Baley finds being outside disconcerting, coming from earth where humans live their entire lives in the caves of steel. While reeling from the effects of being outside, one of the playing children fires an arrow at Baley, nearly hitting him. He discovers the arrow is tipped with poison. Upon interviewing the child, Baley learns that a robot equipped the child with the arrow. The robot did not know that the arrow would harm Baley.

Baley then interviews the roboticist, Jothan Leebig. Leebig loathes human contact more than the average Solarian and can hardly stand to be in Elijah’s presence. Leebig confirms that he had a close relationship with Delmarre’s wife, Gladia. He also confirms that he was working on altering the positronic brain to allow robots to discipline children. He insists that he did not murder Dr. Delmarre out of jealousy or for any other reason.

After interviewing Gladia one more time and confirming the close relationship between Gladia and Jothan Leebig, Baley is ready to declare who the murderer is. He assembles all of the suspects via viewing, then starts the process of eliminating each one until he arrives at Jothan Leebig. He tells Leebig that his partner, Daneel Olivaw is there to arrest him and Leebig kills himself rather than have human contact.

What Baley does not reveal to the assembly is that Gladia had a hand in Delmarre’s death. While Leebig killed out of professional and personal jealousy, Gladia killed because her nature went very much against the social customs of Solaria. She liked the company of other people and could not stand the isolation anymore. Baley keeps this to himself and Gladia emigrates to the planet, Aurora where she can be free to associate with people.

Olivaw returns to his home planet of Aurora and Baley returns to Earth. Baley is a hero for returning with first hand knowledge of Solaria. Baley tells his fellow Earthers that Solaria is on its way to producing robots that can be made to indirectly harm humans as long as they don’t know they are harming humans. Baley predicts that this development may be a precursor for war.

The Naked Sun was as enjoyable as The Caves of Steel, but for different reasons. I enjoyed the whodunit aspect of The Caves of Steel more than The Naked Sun. However, Asimov dedicates nearly as much text to developing the culture of Solaria as he does to his murder mystery. It was learning about Solaria that I enjoyed about this novel.

As for the detective story, the murderer was not as identifiable early as he was in The Caves of Steel mostly because he was not introduced until later in the story. Once Leebig was introduced, it was easy to discern. Asimov did not provide any red herrings to throw off the reader. So, as a murder mystery, The Naked Sun was okay to the novice mystery reader, but would probably come across as amateurish to the connoisseur of mystery novels.

Being a writer who honed his craft writing for pulp magazines (The Naked Sun was serialized in Astounding Science Fiction and Fact magazine before publication as a book), Asimov writes with the leanest of prose. If you want beautiful descriptions of the scenery like you would find in a Tolkien book, you won’t find them here. Like a good pulp writer, Asimov focuses on plot.

Unlike many pulp writers, Asimov does take time to develop his characters. Baley was already fleshed out a great deal for us in The Caves of Steel. He delves into Baley’s fears as an earthman traveling to a Spacer planet, his fear of inferiority to the Spacers, and the fact that he really misses his wife and child. He has also come to accept Daneel as a partner, but not as a full partner. When one of the Three Laws of Robotics kicks in and Daneel gets in Baley’s way, Baley is perfectly willing to turn the tables on Daneel and make those laws work against him to get him out of the way.

Daneel is just a little more than a marginal player in The Naked Sun. His actions only serve to define Baley as an outsider on Solaria, trying to shield him from the discomfort of being exposed to the outdoors, despite the fact that Baley wants to acclimate himself. At one point, Asimov has Daneel removed from the story – albeit in a fairly clever way – because Daneel isn’t really needed. This was the chief weakness in this book. In The Caves of Steel, we come to see Daneel and Elijah as equal characters, even if they are not equal in society. Asimov moves away from this in The Naked Sun.

The Naked Sun is the third book in Asimov’s Robots series if you count the short story collection, I, Robot. Next up is The Robots of Dawn, written almost 30 years after The Naked Sun. We will see Elijah Baley and R. Daneel Olivaw team up once again as a crime solving duo.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Book to Movie: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Book to Movie: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Based on the novel The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson
Screenplay by Richard Matheson
Directed by Jack Arnold

Richard Matheson had published several short stories, a couple books, and written two teleplays for early television by 1957. His screenplay based on his short novel was his first venture into that medium and may stand as his best effort on the big screen.

Matheson did not venture far from his original story when adapting The Shrinking Man to the big screen. He adapted the fractured narrative into a linear one to make the story work better.

The movie opens very much as the book did with Scott Carey (Grant Williams) exposed to the strange mist while out on the boat. A few months later, he notices his clothes are getting bigger and finally he is given the diagnosis that he is shrinking due to exposure to radioactive insecticide.

Stricken from the narrative was the babysitter and Scott’s lust for her as well as his lust for the tiny woman at the freak show. Instead of satisfying his lust, as she did in the book, she serves as an affirmation that he is not a small man. However, having earlier been told that his shrinking had been arrested, it is pointed out by tiny Clarice (April Kent) that he is shrinking again.

The bitterness Scott has toward his wife, Louise (Randy Stuart) is present in both the book and the movie, but is much more subdued in the movie. He is not unfaithful to her and rues his sometimes cruel treatment of her.

The first half of the movie is Scott and Louise (no daughter in the movie) dealing with doctors and the public as Scott shrinks. The second half is Grant Williams putting on a one man show as Scott fights to survive in the cellar. In the novel, the spider was Scott’s arch enemy. The spider makes an appearance in the movie, but the scene with the cat figures much more prominently. The cat is featured in many early shots in the movie, foreshadowing the menace.

Willams’ provides voiceover through the entire picture to move along the story and it is well written and delivered, if perhaps a bit cheap. But, given that this was his first screenplay, one can cut Matheson a little slack. However, as Scott is going to meet his final reward, Matheson’s script and Williams’ delivery of the voiceover is beautiful and serves as great closure.

The Incredible Shrinking Man is a highly regarded film and rightfully so. It is a well written, well directed, and well acted film. But the special effects really make the film. Sets with giant furniture were built. Giant match boxes, giant needles, and giant crumbs all appear realistic. Grant Williams’ appearance in front of the blue screen and the rendering on film were superb for the time.

This film really launched Matheson as a Hollywood talent. In just a couple years, he would make a name for himself in the television genre with The Twilight Zone, working with Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, and other great screenwriters. He would go on to write screenplays for his own novel, I Am Legend (retitled The Last Man on Earth), and several others. His work with American International Pictures, adapting Poe tales for director Roger Corman and actor Vincent Price was a high point for the horror movie genre in the 1960s.

The Incredible Shrinking Man won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1958 and in 2009, was added to the National Film Registry for preservation as a historically significant film.

Some of The Incredible Shrinking Man’s special effects do not stand the test of time as well as Claymation and other effects of the time. But the script is strong and the movie is well made, making it a pleasure to watch today.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Shrinking Man By Richard Matheson

The Shrinking Man
By Richard Matheson
Copyright 1956

The Shrinking Man was Richard Matheson’s fourth novel, coming on the heels of his 1954 hit, I Am Legend. Like the protagonist from I Am Legend, the protagonist in The Shrinking Man is a bit of a anti-hero.

Scott Carey is out on his brother’s boat one afternoon when he is exposed to a cloud of radiated pesticide. Shortly thereafter, he notices he’s shrinking. He’s losing weight and, more alarmingly, he’s growing shorter by 1/7 of an inch every day.

At first, his shrinking size is an irritant, having to buy new clothes. But soon he becomes alarmed and goes for medical testing. After an intolerably long battery of inconclusive tests, Carey gives up and goes home.

He soon loses his job as he becomes shorter and shorter. He sells his story to a tabloid to make money, and soon finds himself the subject of unwanted attention. Eventually, he relocates to a new community with his wife and daughter to a new community and Scott stays out of sight.

He becomes smaller and smaller. One night, while he’s just 18 inches tall, he and his family stop by a carnival so his daughter can ride the rides. Scott agrees to stay in the car, but slips out after his wife and daughter head for the carnival. He goes to the carnival and finds a sideshow freak who is an 18 inch tall woman.

Scott is immediately taken with lust for the woman and she reciprocates. But she is to perform in just a few minutes. She leaves to perform and Scott returns to his car to find his wife. There, he begs her to be allowed to spend one night with the short lady to release his pent up sexual frustration. His wife agrees.

Things continue to go badly for Scott and as his stature shrinks, his bitterness grows. He is alienated from society. He’s alienated from his wife and child. He’s alienated from his employer. He has trouble managing even simple existence as he shrinks to become less than a foot tall.

One fateful afternoon, his six year old daughter treats him like a doll and injures him. His wife is forced to purchase a doll house for him to live in to protect him from his daughter. There, he lives in a house fitted with fake furniture and fake appliances, cutoff from the outside world.

One evening, Scott is outside his doll house and the cat notices him. Just a few inches tall, he looks like a fine toy or meal to the cat. He is standing off with the cat when his family opens the door to enter the house. Scott is swept outside by the wind and manages to get to the cellar where he finds new vistas of adventure.

The story is told in a fractured timeline. The story opens with Scott being exposed to the pesticide. In the next chapter, he is in the cellar doing battle with a black widow spider, using a needle to defend himself. The time in the cellar is present tense. As he moves about the cellar, trying to survive, he recalls his shrinking. This is past tense. These parts of the story are headed by his height at the time.

As I noted, Scott Carey is very much an anti-hero. He’s bitter, angry, and mean. He treats his wife horribly as he becomes distant to her. He misses intimate contact more than he misses any emotional bonding. He lusts after the teenage babysitter and devolves into a peeping Tom, sneaking peeks at her in the shower when he’s supposed to be out of sight in the cellar. He lusts after the carnival woman and even hurts his wife willingly to spend just one night with her.

The anti-hero works for this story and makes it much more interesting. The challenge of writing an anti-hero is to make the reader dislike him, yet root for him. Matheson accomplishes this. He disgusts the reader with his emotional shallowness, but the reader is rooting for him in his tribulations in the cellar.

The fractured narrative works as well. I enjoyed the interludes when Scott was recalling the events of his shrinking more than I did the action scenes where he’s overcoming the obstacles in the cellar. The big reveal isn’t as much Scott’s ultimate fate, but how he got into the cellar. The middle of the story comes near the end. When Scott’s final fate is reveals (and it is a really cool fate), two stories have ended at once.

It works, frankly, because the present tense story wasn’t nearly as interesting as the recollections. That’s probably not what Matheson was going for. But there’s a good chance I would have become bored with the second half of the story had he taken a more linear approach.

In his book, Danse Macabre, Stephen King recounts where Matheson got the idea for The Shrinking Man. He states that Matheson was watching a comedy film where a man was leaving a woman’s apartment in a huff. He grabs another man’s hat on the way out the door and it is entirely too large. Matheson thought to himself, what if that had been his own hat?

On the Wikipedia entry for the book, I saw an analysis sourced to a book titled, Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s. According to the analysis, the subtext of the book is the 1950s white male fear of loss of masculinity. Masculinity for the white male of the 1950s is linked to employment, fatherhood, domination over women, and sexual virility. As Scott shrunk, he lost these things. In the subtext, as he lost these things, he shrunk.

I don’t know if I buy that. Sometimes a story is just a story and this was a pretty good story.

Matheson adapted this novel into a screenplay. The Incredible Shrinking Man was the first Matheson novel to be adapted into a movie, adapted by Matheson himself. The script for the movie was Matheson’s first screenplay. He would go on to write many screenplays, many teleplays, and become one of the few authors who successfully crossed over and back and forth between books and visual media achieving excellence in both.

Matheson wrote better books than The Shrinking Man. But for an early work, Matheson shows the flashes of brilliance that would make him one of the most prolific and most recognized writers of our time.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Book to Movie: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

Book to Movie: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Based on the short story, The Foghorn by Ray Bradbury
Screenplay by Lou Moerheim and Fred Freiberger
Directed by Eugene Lourie

In 1953, Ray Bradbury was starting to become a hot commodity as a writer. He was a young and up and coming writer who spent several years writing for the pulps. The Foghorn was published in the Saturday Evening Post and was given the Hollywood treatment. It would be the second Bradbury story on the big screen after It Came from Outer Space which was released that same year.

Apparently, Bradbury learned that the two screenwriters were working on a creature feature and reminded them that he had written a tale very similar to what they were working on. The credits say that the movie was based on Bradbury’s story. What is interesting is the movie bears no resemblance to Bradbury’s story. Well, a lighthouse gets destroyed. But that’s the only thing close to The Foghorn.

The beast, a Rhedosaurus, is awakened by atomic bomb tests at the North Pole. A scientist witnesses the creature’s awakening and, when he’s shipped back to the states, tries to tell people there is a massive lizard on the loose in the Arctic.

After a series of boat sinkings and reports of creature sightings slowly progressing south, Professor Tom Nesbitt finally convinces a scientist to dive in a diving bell and look for the creature. The creature finds the professor and eats him.

It then comes ashore in New York City and wreaks havoc, crushing cars, buildings and people in Manhattan. The Army attacks it with a bazooka and wounds it. But doctors treating the wounded learn that the blood carries pathogens causing horrible illness. He tells the military that they cannot burn the creature or spill its blood. Dr. Nesbitt determines the only way to kill it is with a rocket equipped with a radioactive isotope.

The creature comes ashore again in an amusement park. It attacks a roller coaster while Professor Nesbitt and an army sharpshooter ascend to the highest peak to fire the rocket. The shot is fired and the creature collapses. End of movie.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms has a really pedestrian plot that has been used countless times in creature features and horror movies past. One guy sees the monster and tries to warn others. His warnings go unheeded until the creature arrives.

In these movies, it is always the scientists and the military who are the heroes. The movie Them! which is probably the most highly regarded of the giant creature films utilizes this formula as well as Beginning of the End which is one of the silliest movies ever made. This played to the zeitgeist of the 1950s when the military and science were America’s strong suit and both institutions were held in high regard.

As shallow and linear as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is, it does hold the distinction of spawning a whole generation of giant creature features. While the plot left a lot to be desired, Ray Harryhausen’s special effects were top notch for the day and still look striking to us who loathe today’s CGI effects. Creatures like Godzilla, Mothra, the giant ants of Them!, and the Japanese children’s hero, Gamera, all appeared in the wake of this movie.

It’s not a Bradbury movie and the plot may put you to sleep. But, if you want to spend an hour and 20 minutes looking at a genuine trailblazing movie, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is worth the time.