One of the projects I began working on last summer was a science fiction novel about an artist who works on stories in a Western genre. This framing device surrounds a sub plot which is an American Western retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh. The novel is in a rough an unedited state, but the following lyrics are from that sub-story. The character of Tomahawk Sal is a version of Innana, the Sumerian goddess of erotic love and death, cum Calamity Jane of Deadwood fame. She is also something of a witch. Sal’s lovelorn complaint for the attentions of the main character echo a similar episode from the Gilgamesh epic, and is voiced as a campfire song after being transmitted into the speech of the Enkidu character, known as Hard Luck. Tomahawk Sal is also a mélange of other mythic and liminal figures, including Baba Yaga, Hecate, and Olive Oatman, a frontier woman from Illinois, who was captured and raised by Apache Indians in the 1850s.
Love me in the haylofts Above the cattle lowing, Or love me off in golden fields Before the reaper starts a-mowing.
Your love is like a winter wind, Slinking in through gaping chinks. Your hearth is cold and ashen, A chain of broken links.
Will you not love me in the corn? No, the corn is green and sour. Will you love me in the barley, then? Alas ’tis poor man’s flour
Will you love me where the wild goose flies? The cliff is perilous and steep. Then love me where the jackdaw nests? Her voice is harsh and cheap.
Love me in the bell tower While the pious mime their praying, Or under mourning willow With leaves so gently swaying.
Your love is like a lightning fire, Running o’er droughted grass. Your love is hard and stinging, Like the drover’s flashing lash.
My love is true, my hair is silky, My ankles white and dainty.
My arm is strong my wisdom keen My spirit one third saintly.
My love is true, my fingers fine, My plaints entreat thee “ruth.”
Your hair is grey your face is lined I spurn your love for sooth.
Then curses I’ll heap upon you Upon your sons and daughters: May your lands be barren wastes And brackish be your waters;
May your fence posts fall to splinters Your bullets fall meek and harmless; May your herds incline to wander And your horses flee the harness;
May dogs snap at your heel spurs And fortune always spurn you; While ravens mock your daily toils And haints be bound beside you.
I am just starting with William L. Gresham‘s Nightmare Alley as I continue to read film adapted novels. After only the introduction I am pretty sure that this will darkly outshine even the most recent movie adaptation by Guillermo del Toro, which, by the way, I loved. This appears to be the real deal as far as the author is concerned, and it turns out that Gresham was a student of Ouspensky as well. He is talking the talk, in other words, and this looks to be an insightful read. The grim stars are all aligned on this one, so, let’s cut the cards and see what the future holds.
They say the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist. I don’t know about the Devil, but it seems it might be just as applicable to the surveillance state, once abhorred by the radical left. It is just this sort of creeping and relentless paranoia, so prevalent in the Cold War era, that Jack Finney co-opts for the premise of his sci-fi masterpiece, The Body Snatchers.
McCarthyism was in full swing during the first half of the 1950s, a prime example of what Richard Hofstadter was referring to when he wrote his influential article ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ for Harper’s a decade later. Hofstadter freely admits both the pejorative use of the term paranoid in his article as well as his appropriation of the term from the clinical desk references of psychology. One key feature of the psychological basis of paranoia is that it can be interpreted as both a defensive structure and a compensatory response to an identity in jeopardy. According to Jung, mass societies can react to threats and stimuli in a manner similar to that of the individual, lashing out in the political arena in ways that are analogous to the functions of the subconscious.
The Body Snatchers, by Jack Finney, is often considered an expression of Cold War paranoia, interpreted by critics as a symptom of a broader societal malaise. Hofstadter attributes other science fiction tropes to this category as well, such as fantastic fears about brainwashing and flying saucers. This latter, of course, spread beyond the domain of the fictional to become a subject of popular fascination, developing its own sub-cultures of believers and theorists, creating its own literature and inspiring evidence gatherers and researchers from across the globe.
Yet something is distinctly different about Finney’s work as well, there is an ambiguity towards identity that links it to another tradition, that of the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft and the later dystopian musings of Phillip K. Dick, and even the psychedelic personality disintegrations of Robert Anton Wilson.
At the same time, such mass produced Leave-it-to-Beaver notions of what families were and who people were supposed to be, left out whole ranges of others who existed on the margins of that suburban paradise, and who crept about like pod people threatening to invade from without and corrupt the work ethic of those who cared more about keeping the sidewalks swept than the did about nightmare visions at the edge of their optical range. In this sense the book has seemed very much of its time, both with respect to the dialogue, which seems short and snappy to the point of abruptness, like an old film noir picture, as well as the attitudes of the characters, paternalistic to the point of benign authoritarianism. It is telling, however, that both the main character and his love interest, Becky, no matter how facile their flirtations seem, are at the same time dominated by the shadow of divorce, from which both are emotionally recovering. This is as far as Finney goes in giving his characters a sense of greater depth, and it may well be the wellspring of anxiety from which the whole of the paranoia derives. Again and again the main character fends off the attraction he has for Becky by making crude or flippant remarks and takes time to note that he would like to avoid ‘the trap’ of marriage. It seems at times that the whole need to avoid attraction is just another aspect of the main character trying to subvert his unconscious needs, a denial of the physical in preference to the purely conscious and hence ideological. This need for emotional distance is undermined through the story, however, by the dangers they face together fighting off the menace from space. This sub plot, which I found to be annoying and unnecessary at first, gradually came to seem a countrapunal thread to the whole wider narrative.
Body Snatchers is as much about potential dangers of identity loss as it is about 5th columns of subversives, even if it manages to skirt some of the more terrifying aspects of the idea by projecting such losses outwards towards society as opposed to the internalization of the conflict sometimes expressed by those others just mentioned. This exteriorizing feature might well be an example of how deeply ingrained the identity consciousnesses of mainstream Americans were during the postwar era, typified by the need to latch onto and protect those notions of self so extreme as to border on the pathological. Finney seems to be lifting freely from the desk references as well.
There are other overtly psychological aspects to the story as well. The body doubles always are found forming and growing in the dark cellars and coal bins belonging to the main characters. This might seem to make sense from a rationalized narrative point of view, but one wonders how the alien pods would work their magic if faced with apartment dwellers or the homeless. These are not the subjects of the disintegrating influence of the space weeds, however, it is small town America which is explicitly endangered, and it is the town itself, more so than the individuals who seem to be suffering. Again and again the eye of the narrator, Dr. Miles Bennell, is drawn to weeds, and trash, and decrepitude which seems to be creeping into the town, a symptom brought on by the apathy exhibited by the replacement people once they have taken hold.
One of the most frightening sequences is early on, when the first replacement is found and examined in detail. A friend of the protagonist has discovered an unfinished blank of his own doppelganger forming in his basement storage nook and has tossed it up on a pool table for an impromptu examination. The description of the basement rumpus room is minimal but the swinging overhead light, focused on the body-laden pool felt, creating a strobe of illumination and shadow on the protean corpse, is a genius of macabre juxtaposition, laying the grotesque homunculus atop the casual mid century mundane. Eventually the new allies will recruit a psychologist friend to aid them in their attempt to understand the growing threat to their idealized lives, but when they return to exhibit the corpse it has vanished into a pile of gray fluff, like so many dust bunnies. This is another little trick that Finney seems to want to play on us, as this too seems to be the outcome of the absorbed. Dust to dust, indeed – and yet we fetishize the form of our own being.
That the whole thing might be an irruption of the shadow from the unconscious into the light is a possibility that is given again and again in little hints throughout. I already mentioned the predilection for basements, but another theme is the need for sleep. Consciousness is an absolute requirement to defend against the depredations of the aliens, they can only replace you in your sleep. In one instance Dr. Miles must rescue Becky from her own family house where she has returned to see her now replacement family one last time. He invades her house by breaking in and discovers her double hidden away in the basement of her house. When he goes upstairs he accidentally walks in on her sleeping father, also a replacement (one wonders why the aliens need to sleep at all) before finding her and carrying her out of the house. She needed saving from her hidden self, obviously, she was a woman, but furthermore, she is so deep into the transformation that she can barely wake up and literally has to be carried as dead weight away from the house. The psychological interpretations are obvious.
There are other examples of how the author uses psychology to inform his narrative. In one case, after the main resistors have become temporarily convinced that they are all imagining things, they rejoice in a too vivacious celebratory breakfast, even though in reality there is little about their situation that has changed. In another case they drive off into the night to flee the town that they now know has been overrun. But once they escape they more or less throw up their hands and, realizing there is nowhere else to go, they decide to just return to the place from which they had fled. It buys the narrative time, but also is a testament to the tendency of people to adopt and maintain persistent patterns of behavior, even when those patterns are dangerous or unhealthy.
Eventually the whole town is consumed by the vegitative. Apparently identical, what had once been a source of comfort now posed a threat. Finney writes:
The men, women, and children in the street and stores below me were something else now, every last one of them. They were each our enemies, including those with the eyes, faces, gestures, and walks of old friends. There was no help for us here, except from each other, and even now the communities around us were being invaded.
The Body Snatchers, Jack Finney
Ultimately everything is reduced to function. Aliens consume planets just because that is what they do. Humans propagate for the same reasons. Love is a chemical response and we follow the dictates of our nature. It turns out that the author considers the will to life as part of that nature, and that is the one thing that the aliens can’t tolerate. When the protagonists burn a number of budding pods in the field the body invaders just give up, finding that they cannot resist the human instinct for self preservation. How loaded is that phrase, self preservation, something that cannot exist in a collective. And so the aliens just leave and float off into space, leaving our heroes behind to inherit the earth. Of course, we can easily imagine other more likely endings to the story but this one is Finney’s and I’m going to allow it.
Just curious if anybody has had any luck (good or bad) with trying to keep a common place book? I keep starting them and then forgetting them when I need them, even though I am always reading on a large variety of topics that could certainly benefit from some note taking and organization. How do I make it a part of my system? When do I create a special subject notebook or file and when a common place book entry instead?
January The Alchemist / Paulo Coelho Snow Crash / Neil Stephenson Chimpanzee politics: Power and sex among apes / Frans de Waal The mechanics of Ancient Egyptian magic / Robert K. Ritner, Religions of the Hellenistic-Roman Age / Antonía Tripolitis
February The Sumerians: Their history, culture, and character / Samuel Noah Kramer
March Isaac Newton / James Gleick Galactic pot-healer / Philip K. Dick Gods and robots: Myths, machines, and ancient dreams of technology / Adrienne Mayor Synchronicity / C. G. Jung Altered states / Paddy Chayefsky
April The divine invasion / Philip K. Dick On writing / Stephen King Wise blood / Flannery O’Connor Kim / Rudyard Kipling Two Essays on Analytical Psychology / C. G. Jung The transmigration of Timothy Archer / Phillip K. Dick
May Big Sur / Jack Kerouac The dead / James Joyce Fanfarlo / Charles Baudelaire The island of Doctor Moreau / H. G. Wells To walk the night / William Sloane The edge of running water / William Sloane The alteration / Kingsley Amis Bob Dylan: An intimate biography / Anthony Scaduto
June The king of elfland’s daughter / Lord Dunsany The archetypes and the collective unconscious (vol. 9.1) / C. G. Jung
July The essence of Tsongkhapa’s teachings. Three aspects of the Path / TsongKhaPa & His Holiness the Dalai Lama Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke Cosmic puppets – Phillip K. Dick
August Rama II / Arthur C. Clarke & Gentry Lee Dogs in Antiquity: Anubis to Cerberus, the origins of the domestic dog / Douglas Brewer, et al. Dark entries / Robert Aickman True Grit / Charles Portis The treasure of the Sierra Madre / B. Traven Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A practitioner’s guide / Ben Connelly
September Rosemary’s baby / Ira Levin The family / Ed Sanders Masters of Atlantis / Charles Portis Fuzz : When nature breaks the law / Mary Roach The ultimate evil : the search for the sons of Sam / Maury Terry Soul catcher / Frank Herbert
October Fear : Trump in the White House / Bob Woodward Bad blood : Secrets and lies in a Silicon Valley startup / John Carryrou Warlock / Oakley Hall Hell house / Richard Matheson Erebus : The story of a ship / Michael Palin Rage / Bob Woodward Peril / Bob Woodward and Robert Costa
November The Ministry for the Future / Kim Stanley Robinson Artemis / Andy Weir Against the grain ; a deep history of the earliest states / John C. Scott The last duel ; A true story of crime, scandal, and trial by combat / Eric Jager
December Annihilation / Jeff Vandermeer Authority / Jeff Vandermeer Acceptance / Jeff Vandermeer Rebirth of a nation : The making of modern America, 1877 – 1920 / Jackson Lear 1898 : The birth of the American century / David Traxel Vril :The power of the coming race / Edward Bulwer-Lytton The dawn of everything: A new history of humanity / David Graeber and David Wengrow
From whence the dream that the siren’s song contains all the knowledge of the world encoded in it’s subtle and sublime melodies? It comes from the sea itself and is the very lure of its own singing. But it is the limit of that knowledge that eventually assumes the stark guise of madness, for knowledge exists on but a human scale, and has not truth in’t.
Incarnate things speak only to themselves, no matter how grandiloquent, no matter how great and all encompassing. But in the final fading of the ultimate string, which after all must have a bound in time, truth remains unspoken and unrevealed and always shall be, and therein lies the crushing melancholy of knowing – for knowing is as empty as the sound of surf within the vacant shell.
“All human choices lead ultimately to disaster. There is nothing to be done and nothing to be saved, so let the sea come in and wash it clean.” This is their song, and it is knowledge of the fate of the world.
We stopper our ears to such knowledge because we cannot live and function in the face of its stark revelation. We must abandon worldliness then, unless we dare to wear the cloak and mantle of the hero, which burns us up like acid in its deadly apotheosis.
Spoilers for both book and film adaptations below.
Despite the popularity and resilience of the franchise, I suspect that the number of fans who have actually read the 1963 book by Pierre Boulle is relatively modest compared with those who have seen the movies. That is a shame, because, despite some significant differences between the source material and the films, the book offers us a new window into the cultural idiom of the 1960s. It also provides us with a satire of culture and technology that is timeless, if idiosyncratic.
This book has two characteristics that will likely be surprising to fans of the movies. For one thing this book is far more satirical, without becoming a farce, than is the movie. It is really only a science fiction novel in the broadest sense. Speculative fiction is perhaps a more appropriate term. Yes, it involves rockets and relativity and evolution and astrophysics, but the scientific rigmarole merely serves as a backdrop to the narrative. The truth is that the science is at best a pasteboard set in the novel. It is secondary to the social commentary, and the tale actually could have benefited from some research by the author in this regard. Not that the science in the movie is all that accurate either, but this is less distracting in a film, where the problem can be dissolved by hand waving, effects, and suspension of disbelief. This is harder to accomplish in a novel, especially when one has already been exposed to hard science authors like Arthur C. Clarke or, more recently, Andy Weir. It is perhaps a function of its era that the technical aspects of the story are less worked out than we might wish, coming from an age where science realism dominates the scene.
Perhaps this criticism is a little unfair given the state of science fiction in the early 1960s, as opposed to now, but I can’t imagine that calling apes ‘monkeys’ was likely never good practice from a scientific perspective, and I object to this careless use of language, unless it can be attributed an artifact of a poor translation or a French idiom of which I am unaware. In the latter case the fault is with the editor, but still, it is a fault.
A second difference between the book and the movie that will likely strike the reader is that the ape society presented in the book is not as backwards as is that in the movie. They are not a primitive culture so much as an imitative one. This actually turns out to be one the primary themes of the novel, and one that is hardly developed in the movies. Ape culture in the book is presented as being fully modern and contemporary to the time, but at the same time stuck, due to failure of innovation and original thinking on the part of the apes. This is a critique of culture and the humanities, as much as it is a meditation on technology and societal advancement. There is even a long passage where the author meditates upon the appropriation of literature from one generation to the next, and one gets the sense that the author is acutely critical of the derivative nature of much artistic production. It makes one wonder what the author might be appropriating, himself. The comments are wry and self deprecating in a way that almost breaks the fourth wall of the narrative.
There were some other themes in the novel that intrigued me as well. The animality of the humans was an interesting aspect of the book, and the way in which they fought against the trappings of society instead of resisting the apes themselves was an aspect that intrigued me. It reminded me very much of another recent read of mine, The Dawn of Everything, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. A complicated book that covers a wide swath of modern anthropology. I was reminded of one of the books theses, that so-called primitive societies might not actually be primitive by fate or failure of the imagination but by conscious choice. The connection did not go much deeper than this faint resonance, but it did open my eyes to the possibility that the dichotomy presented by the novel, that between animal and human, civilization and savagery, was not at all clear cut. After all, we may think of apes as dumb animals, but in fact they are accomplished at tool use, strategic thinking, political thinking, and levels of communication that we normally attribute to humans alone.
Ultimately there are some significant changes in plotting that were made by the movie franchise. Most important of these is that the astronauts are not on Earth when they encounter the ape planet, only after going home does the protagonist discover that, after many centuries, his home planet too, has given in to the urge to abandon creativity for the sake of comfort and allowed the ape servants to take over there as well. It doesn’t quite have the shock value of Charlton Heston discovering the Statue of Liberty buried in a radioactive desert, but it does better highlight the author’s point that at some level we are victims of our own drive towards status, luxury, and comfort. It really is a tale as old as time, and one that the ancient Romans dealt with in their literature. When does society become decadent and begin to undermine the very necessity that caused it to evolve in the first place?
Anthropology and societal development aside, however, the author seems more interested in how people can, in some circumstances, overlook their physical differences, as well as how, in other circumstances, they can become ingrained in established modes of behavior. One feature that the book shares with the movies is the stratification of ape society into different casts that fail to think outside of their particular ethnic box. This is directly adapted into the films and is a key feature of the social commentary. Less evident in the movie is how the protagonist is able to move between worlds. He has empathy for his human friends based on their physical form, this is true, but he is able to more or less enter ape society as the tale progresses and to abandon his old connections, and his human mistress, based on cultural cues. Social hierarchy triumphs over physicality, at least for a while, and this is telling. Only when the mute and animalistic Nova is learned to be pregnant, does the protagonist deign to return to her and vow to protect her from her ape captors and tormenters.
This blaming of the social system harkens back to the original reaction of the feral humans to the trappings of society, physically fighting against the clothes and technology, as opposed to the strange humans that have come to exist among them. It is the trappings of culture, the clothes, the machines, the houses, the guns, that transform our thinking as much as the social connections that we make or the empathetic response we have due to natural biological similitude. This is the reason that the apes refuse to clothe the protagonist throughout much of the book, continually remarking upon its absurdity. To do so would be to make him tacitly one of them and undermine their own stratification based on physical appearance and caste. In the end it turns out to be the clothes that make (and unmake) the man, or the ape, as the case may be.
To the northeast the beach continued along as straight as a razor until its sandy edge eventually merged into the slate grey of the sea and sky in a triple vanishing point of morning drizzle, only just beginning to show the pink and golden flecks of a still uncertain sunrise, lurking just below the horizon line of Neptune’s watery realm.
In the opposite direction, the strand continued along for about a mile of open shore, bounded on the landward side by a wide and up-built concrete promenade overlooked by a seemingly endless line of dreary and desolate hotel high-rises, now all but abandoned, their black gaping windows like empty sockets in a mirthless jester’s grin.
The slightly arcing line of sand and sea terminated abruptly to the south, truncated by the great pier, demarked dimly by the haze smeared warning lights, which kept its linear bulk distinct from the yawning chasm of the night shadowed sea.
The twinkling halogen line extended perpendicularly out into the susurrating breakers before abruptly vanishing into an abyssal gloom, a limit beyond which all was shrouded in the impenetrable mists and fog choked atmosphere of the still-not-yet-dawn.
Except for one winking golden globe at the farthest edge of visibility, a trawler’s searching beam, perhaps, floating on an indistinct boundary of dark on dark, which vaguely separated the under deep from that greater depth of space above, which sheltered, beetling over. And this distant lamp so bewitched and beckoned the eye, that it was like some maritime willow-the-wisp of ancient fancy, steering the drowsy beachcomber’s weaving walk, ever so slightly towards its numinous pull, so that pant cuffs, incautiously unrolled, became suddenly salt sodden in the foaming thrusts of shushing surf, pouncing abruptly at the stillness of the shore.