It takes a fearless filmmaker indeed to adapt Dune. Atop its rich linguistic, political, philosophical, religious, and ecological foundations, Frank Herbert’s saga-launching 1965 novel also happens to have a plot “convoluted to the point of pain.” So writes David Foster Wallace in his essay on David Lynch, who directed the first cinematic version of Dune in 1984. That the result is remembered as a “huge, pretentious, incoherent flop” (with an accompanying glossary handout) owes to a variety of factors, not least studio meddling and the unsurprising incompatibility of the man who made Eraserhead with large-scale Hollywood sci-fi. The question lingered: could Dune be successfully adapted at all?
Well before Lynch took his crack, El Topo and The Holy Mountain director Alejandro Jodorowsky put together his own Dune adaptation. If all had gone well it would have come out as a ten-hour film featuring the art of H.R. Giger and Moebius as well as the performances of Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, David Carradine, Alain Delon, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dalí.
But all did not go well, and cinema was deprived of what would have been a singular spectacle no matter how it turned out. At least one element of Jodorowsky’s Dune has survived, however, in the latest attempt to bring Herbert’s complex bestseller to the screen: the music of Pink Floyd, heard in the just-released trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, starring Timothée Chalemet as the young hero Paul Atreides (as well as Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, and a host of other currently big names), scheduled for release in December.
If a credible Dune movie is possible, Villeneuve is the man to direct it. His previous two pictures, Blade Runner 2049 and the alien-visitation drama Arrival, demonstrate not just his capabilities with science fiction but his sense of the sublime. Beginning with its setting, the desert-wasteland planet of Arrakis, Dune demands to be envisioned with the kind of beauty that inspires something close to dread and fear. (The first director asked to adapt Dune was David Lean, perhaps due to his track record with majestic views of sand.) Villeneuve has also made the wise choice of refusing to compress the entire book into a single feature, presenting this as the first of a two-part adaptation. And as a lifelong Dune fan, he understands the attitude necessary to approaching this challenge: “Fear is the mind-killer,” as Paul famously puts it — so famously that the trailer couldn’t possibly exclude Chalamet’s delivery of the line.
Today, the world celebrates the 100th anniversary of Ray Bradbury’s birthday. And, to mark the occasion, Neil Gaiman, William Shatner, Susan Orlean & many others will host a reading of Bradbury’s classic book, Fahrenheit 451.
The online special, like the book, is separated into three parts, each introduced by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. The voices of librarians, notable authors, actors, scholars, and students are bookended by the opening and closing readings from Neil Gaiman and William Shatner. The special includes commentary by Ann Druyan, director and co-author of Cosmos, an afterword by Susan Orlean, author of The Library Book, and a special appearance and reading by former NASA astronaut and administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr.
You can watch the videos the reading the videos above and below. The videos should be available until September 5th.
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Yet popular canons of sci-fi, even “seemingly progressive books for their time,” Liz Lutgendorff writes, still contain a “pervasive sexism.” Campbell was hardly the only offender, but the charge certainly sticks to him. “The first science fiction anthologies were published during a backlash against first-wave feminism,” Wired explains. In response to growing women’s activism, “male editors such as John W. Campbell and Groff Conklin specifically excluded women from” the pages of Astounding Science Fiction‘s popular anthology series and Conklin’s many best-ofs.
Prior to these powerful editors, “women writers were relatively common throughout the pulp era, and the proportion of women readers was even higher.” Lisa Yaszek, Professor of Science Fiction Studies at Georgia Tech, found that “at least 15 percent of the science fiction community were women—producers—and reading polls suggest that 40 to 50 percent of the readers were women.” These figures surprised even her. Many of the writers whom Campbell excluded were hugely popular during 1920s, influencing their contemporaries and inspiring readers.
One such writer, Clare Winger Harris, published her first short story “The Runaway World,” in the July 1926 issue of Weird Tales (after writing an earlier historical novel in 1923). That same year, she won third place in a story contest run by legendary Amazing Stories editor Hugo Gernsback, from whom the Hugo Awards take their name. She would go on to publish ten more stories in popular science fiction pulps, most of them for Gernsback. Then she disappeared from writing in 1930, ostensibly to raise her three sons.
But she had more to say. In the August 1931 edition of Gernsback’s Wonder Stories, a letter from Harris appears in which she rallies the community to insist that Hollywood make sci-fi films. “Come on, science fiction fans, let’s go!” she writes, “Our united efforts might bring this country a few films in 1932 that are not wild west, sex drama or gangster stuff. I think we’re all strong for good comedies, but let’s have of our serious dramas a little less of the emotional and more of the intellectual.”
Harris goes on, in response to another reader letter, to correct the notion that “there are only five or six original plots.” (This number has varied over the ages from seven to thirty-seven). “That may be true as regards the technique of plot development,” writes Harris, “but I have made a table of sixteen general classifications into which it seems to me all science fiction stories written to date can be placed.” See it above.
Sci-fi author Doris V. Sutherland points to the redundancies and dated quaintness of much of the list. Giant insects have fallen out of fashion. “A number of the categories speak of the technological level of the day. The inclusion of ‘ray and vibration stores’ harks back to an era when the unseen effects of various electro-magnetic waves had only recently been grasped by researchers.” Moreover, the atomic age was yet to dawn. After it, “the idea of a man-made apocalypse would become rather more topical.”
The status of Harris’s letter as a “time capsule” that summarizes the “dominant themes in SF” at the time documents her keen appreciation for, as well as innovation on, those themes. She was valued for this talent by many in the field, Gernsback included. Upon learning she had won third prize in the 1926 Amazing Stories contest, he “gave praise,” Brad Ricca writes at LitHub, “couched in the cultural moment”—as well as indicative of his own biases.
That the third prize winner should prove to be a woman was one of the surprises of the contest, for, as a rule, women do not make good scientification writers, because their education and general tendencies on scientific matters are usually limited. But the exception, as usual, proves the rule, the exception in this case being extraordinarily impressive.
These insulting beliefs did not prevent Gernsback from continuing to publish Harris’s work, nor any of women whose writing he approved. (He also helped make Campbell’s career.) Some have found it remarkable that Harris published under her own name rather than a male pseudonym, but Yaszek argues this was fairly common at the time. In fact, several male authors published under female pseudonyms. (Gernsback himself once adopted the moniker “Grace G. Hucksnob.”)
As women writers were edged out of science fiction during Campbell’s reign in the 1930’s, Harris retreated. Her only published literary productions were the 1931 letter and a short story that again proves her status as a pioneer. Her last story original story “appeared in 1933 in the fifth and last issue of a stapled, mimeographed pamphlet called Science Fiction that had a print run of maybe—maybe—50 issues,” Ricca writes. The story had been solicited by the tiny magazine’s editors, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, major Harris fans who would, of course, “go on to create Superman, the most recognized science fiction character on the planet.”
Learn more about Harris’s fascinating life—including her father’s brief stint as a Gernsback-influenced sci-fi novelist and her status as an early American convert to Buddhism before her death in 1968—at Ricca’s excellent LitHub investigation. See her full letter above.
The Interim Executive Producer of The Second City joins your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to discuss the scope of black nerd-dom: what nerdy properties provide to those who feel “othered,” using sci-fi to talk about race, Black Panther and other heroes, afrofuturism, black anime fans, Star Trek, Key & Peele, Get Out vs. Us, and more.
Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt address the 4-season 2013 Adult Swim show, which currently has a 94% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What kind of humor is it, and how are we supposed to take its sci-fi and family drama elements? While its concepts start as parody, with an anything-goes style of animation, they’re creative and grounded enough to actually contribute to multiple genres. How smart is the show, exactly? And its fans? Is Rick a super hero, or maybe essentially Dr. Who? What might this very serialized sit-com look like in longevity?
We also touch on other adult cartoons like South Park, Solar Opposites, The Simpsons, Family Guy, plus Community, Scrubs, and more.
The point at which we date the birth of any genre is apt to shift depending on how we define it. When did science fiction begin? Many cite early masters of the form like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as its progenitors. Others reach back to Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein as the genesis of the form. Some few know The Blazing World, a 1666 work of fiction by Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, who called her book a “hermaphroditic text.” According to the judgment of such experts as Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, sci-fi began even earlier, with a novel called Somnium (“The Dream”), written by none other than German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler. Maria Popova explains at Brain Pickings:
In 1609, Johannes Kepler finished the first work of genuine science fiction — that is, imaginative storytelling in which sensical science is a major plot device. Somnium, or The Dream, is the fictional account of a young astronomer who voyages to the Moon. Rich in both scientific ingenuity and symbolic play, it is at once a masterwork of the literary imagination and an invaluable scientific document, all the more impressive for the fact that it was written before Galileo pointed the first spyglass at the sky and before Kepler himself had ever looked through a telescope.
The work was not published until 1634, four years after Kepler’s death, by his son Ludwig, though “it had been Kepler’s intent to personally supervise the publication of his manuscript,” writes Gale E. Christianson. His final, posthumous work began as a dissertation in 1593 that addressed the question Copernicus asked years earlier: “How would the phenomena occurring in the heavens appear to an observer stationed on the moon?” Kepler had first come “under the thrall of the heliocentric model,” Popova writes, “as a student at the Lutheran University of Tübingen half a century after Copernicus published his theory.”
Kepler’s thesis was “promptly vetoed” by his professors, but he continued to work on the ideas, and corresponded with Galileo 30 years before the Italian astronomer defended his own heliocentric theory. “Sixteen years later and far from Tübingen, he completed an expanded version,” says Andrew Boyd in the introduction to a radio program about the book. “Recast in a dreamlike framework, Kepler felt free to probe ideas about the moon that he otherwise couldn’t.” Not content with cold abstraction, Kepler imagined space travel, of a kind, and peopled his moon with aliens.
And what an imagination! Inhabitants weren’t mere recreations of terrestrial life, but entirely new forms of life adapted to lunar extremes. Large. Tough-skinned. They evoked visions of dinosaurs. Some used boats, implying not just life but intelligent, non-human life. Imagine how shocking that must have been at the time.
Even more shocking to authorities were the means Kepler used in his text to reveal knowledge about the heavens and travel to the moon: beings he called “daemons” (a Latin word for benign nature spirits before Christianity hijacked the term), who communicated first with the hero’s mother, a witch practiced in casting spells.
The similarities between Kepler’s protagonist, Duracotus, and Kepler himself (such as a period of study under Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe) led the church to suspect the book was thinly veiled autobiographical occultism. Rumors circulated, and Kepler’s mother was arrested for witchcraft and subjected to territio verbalis (detailed descriptions of the tortures that awaited her, along with presentations of the various devices). It took Kepler five years to free her and prevent her execution.
Kepler’s story is tragic in many ways, for the losses he suffered throughout his life, including his son and his first wife to smallpox. But his perseverance left behind one of the most fascinating works of early science fiction—published hundreds of years before the genre is supposed to have begun. Despite the fantastical nature of his work, “he really believed,” says Sagan in the short clip from Cosmos above, “that one day human beings would launch celestial ships with sails adapted to the breezes of heaven, filled with explorers who, he said, would not fear the vastness of space.”
Astronomy had little connection with the material world in the early 17th century. “With Kepler came the idea that a physical force moves the planets in their orbits,” as well as an imaginative way to explore scientific ideas no one would be able to verify for decades, or even centuries. Hear Somnium read at the top of the post and learn more about Kepler’s fascinating life and achievements at Brain Pickings.
Something’s strange… Is it a dream? If it’s a morality tale with a twist ending, you’re probably in the Twilight Zone. Your hosts Brian Hirt, Erica Spyres, and Mark Linsenmayer, plus guest Ken Gerber (Brian’s brother) are in it this week, discussing the thrice revived TV series. Does the 1959-1963 show hold up? What makes for a good TZ episode, and does Jordan Peele’s latest iteration capture the spirit? We talk about episodes new and old, the 1983 film, plus comparisons to Black Mirror and David Lynch.
The classic episodes we focus most on (and might spoil, so you should go watch them) are It’s a Good Life, Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?, What You Need, The Howling Man, Perchance to Dream, and Nick of Time. The others Ken recommended for us are The Obsolete Man and The Masks. Mark complains about Walking Distance.
In the new series, season 1, we do spoil Blurry Man and praise (but don’t spoil) Replay. We don’t spoil season two at all, but recommend Try, Try and Meet in the Middle and pan Ovation and 8.
Learn more at prettymuchpop.com. This episode includes bonus discussion that you can only hear by supporting the podcast at patreon.com/prettymuchpop. This week, we continue for more than half an hour, further discussing the Twilight Zone with Ken, which includes a look at the 1985-1989 series.
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