Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A Look Into the Future from the Past, Part I. Or The Mostly Philip K. Dick Hour

The Reel Stuff
Edited by Brian Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg

The book is always better than the movie, isn’t it? That’s what we’re supposed to say, anyway, when our English teachers are listening, but secretly, just sometimes, we like watching the movie more; secretly, we might even believe the movie is better than the fiction it’s based on. That’s OK, say Brian Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg, co-editors of The Reel Stuff. In fact, you’re allowed to like both the film and the literature; you’re even allowed to like them for completely different reasons.

To encourage such discussions and musings Greenberg and Thomsen have compiled a collection of thirteen stories and novellas upon which contemporary science fiction movies have been "based.: Here are collected the texts which inspired Mimic, Screamers, Amanda and the Alien, The Outer Limits: Sandkings, Total Recall, Millenium, Candyman, Johnny Mnemonic, Enemy Mine, Nightflyers, Reanimator, The Thing, and The Minority Report.

Not all of these were great movies, and not all of them are great stories either. In fact, some of the fun of reading The Reel Stuff is discovering mismatches between the film and the literature, how a marginally good story (like Minority Report) can become a great movie or how a killer story like Johnny Mnemonic can get translated into a pretty sorry film.

In many ways the comparison isn’t fair at all. Movies cost millions of dollars to make and involve dozens if not hundreds of people all with schedules and careers on the line. Nearly every commercial movie has to fall within a prescribed length. To make back the money put into it, a movie has to have broad appeal, or what the directors and producers think is broad appeal, anyway. A sci-fi movie, thus, will tend to have fight scenes, chase scenes, a love interest, some snappy one-liners and an unambiguous (usually happy) ending.

A story, on the other hand, largely composed by a single person, requiring only time and some way of recording words (many of the stories in this volume predate personal computers and were probably drafted with pen and paper or clunky typewriters), can be more flexible. In fact, it almost has to be. A story can be short and taut, or expansive and rambling. It can enter a characters’ head in a way a film cannot. It can create dazzling visual images, but it doesn’t have to. It can end surprisingly. It needs, in short, to compromise a lot less. To Thomsen and Greenberg’s credit, none of the stories in The Reel Stuff are laden with Hollywood clichés. None of the writers of these works seems to have been worried at all about their stories becoming movies.

There science fiction here is both classic and edgy, from contemporary masters William Gibson (Johnny Mnemonic) and Clive Barker ("Forbidden" which was made into the film Candyman) back to the profoundly influential H.P. Lovecraft ("Herbert West—Reanimator" which inspired Reanimator ). Anchoring the collection are no less than three short stories ("Second Variety" – Screamers, "We Will Remember it for You Wholesale" – Total Recall, and Minority Report) by the prolific and enigmatic Philip K. Dick whose novels also inspired the films Bladerunner and A Scanner Darkly. Although in the introduction Thomsen makes mention of Asimov and Clarke, you won’t find their stories here. The Reel Stuff leans toward a darker, more subversive kind of fiction. Most of the writing here, in fact, is so surprising, even startling, that you just might find yourself agreeing with your English teacher.

Still, movies can do all kinds of things stories can’t. Movies are communal experiences, shared like buckets of popcorn, often the center of evenings out, dates, parties, and family nights. You can talk with your friends about a book, but you can’t share the experience since so much of it occurs in your own head (at least not until we can open up our minds with the technologies imagined in Total Recall or Johnny Mnemonic). To be wowed by a film is to grow closer to the people you’ve seen it with.

Because of this, film and literature are linked. Many, maybe most, movies take works of fiction as their inspiration. Screenwriters and directors are driven to share their individual experience of a great work of fiction. So it’s probably best, in the end, to take in both. See the movie, read the story. Or read the story and then see the movie. It doesn’t really matter. Let them be distinct and separate indulgences that nonetheless inform and enrich each other. The Reel Stuff is a good place to start.

Nick and the Glimmung
by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick began publishing fiction in the 50s and continued until he died in 1982. But his first and only YA novel is being published this year for the first time in the US by Subterranean Press.

Dick is a favorite of movie directors these days, but Nick and the Glimmung is unlikely to ever become a blockbuster sci-fi flick. This isn’t because it lacks spectacle or adventure, but because its vision is far too bleak for Hollywood sci-fi, especially Hollywood sci-fi that features a young protagonist, and his cat.

The future earth which Nick Graham inhabits is dystopic, to say the least. The planet is so overpopulated by humans that they all must live in massive apartment buildings that also extend high into the sky and deep into the earth. Employment is scarce. Many of the "jobs" that people are expected to be grateful for are mere busy work. Nick’s father, Peter Graham, for instance, must check forms to insure that the man sitting next to him has signed the form. Not once has a form gone unsigned. Feeling that he contributes little to society, Nick’s father has grown deeply restless and depressed.

On this future Earth, pets of any kind are illegal on the grounds that they use resources much needed by humans. Nick has an illegal cat named Horace. When Horace is discovered and reported to the authorities, the Graham family chooses to emigrate from Earth and settle with Horace on a new and distant world, Plowman’s Planet. The family is full of hope as they set off, but their new planet is at least as bleak as the old, though far more strange and dangerous. Besides humans, Plowman’s Planet is populated by a range of beings, including "wubs" who speak only through pre-printed cards, "father-things" which produce a kind of clone of those they grow near, chatty "spiddles," wise and productive "printers," devious "werjes," and an evil entity known as the Glimmung.

Nearly all the humans on both Earth and Plowman’s Planet seem fully resigned to a desperate fate--on Earth to their crammed and bureaucratic society, and on Plowman’s Planet to a futile attempt at settlement that has degraded to base survival. When the Grahams arrive on Plowman’s Planet they get immediately lost. After they find their home they are faced with an almost total shortage of water and the self-protective behavior of those around them. They cannot go out at night because of nightmares lurking in the darkness. Their neighbors reveal that no one has been successful farming anything at all.

Finally, even Nick’s hopeful father is affected. When Horace runs away, and when the family first obtains and then loses a book that could help defeat the Glimmung, Nick’s father can do little more than shrug. But there is hope in youth. Nick alone draws on stores of courage and perseverance, setting off to recover Horace and to aid in the planet’s struggle against darkness. Whether Nick succeeds is ambiguous (another reason Hollywood would flee from this story), but out of all this bleakness, Nick’s adventure ultimately invites a belief that the future might be brighter.

Much of Dick’s work might be described as experimental, relying on alienating shifts in point-of-view. Reality blurs for his characters through a haze of drug use, or the confusion of precognition and time travel. Still Nick and the Glimmung may be his most experimental book. Its style recalls absurdist and expressionist writers like Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka. Here Dick adopts a formal language that is often both distancing and comic as in the anti-pet man’s dialogue when Horace tries to escape:

From his belt the anti-pet man brought out a metal tube which he pointed towards the kitchen. "I will put him to sleep," he said, "and that will end his illegal activity, his illegal walking backwards into the kitchen."

There is also a deep meta-fictional element that tempts comparisons to Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. Central to Nick’s adventure is a book which comes into his possession. The book both records and predicts everything that occurs on the planet. When the Graham family look themselves up the book, they discover a synopsis of the story in which they are involved:

"They cannot find their farm. The map has been eaten. The creature which smells of fish misleads them until it is too late. They are undone by their love."

More than any of his other novels, Dick’s subject here is not really the future or technology or alien worlds but the human soul in all its facets from its hungry greed to its fearful resignation to its hopeful perseverance to its restorative love. Nick and the Glimmung is a fable that will leave readers puzzled and disturbed but also with a renewed belief in the power and resilience of humanity and especially of humanity’s youth.

You can preorder Nick and the Glimmung from Subterranean Press.

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