Tuesday, 30 April 2013

To Boldly Go: The Curious Musical Career of William Shatner

1968: “The times they are a-changin’” (if they haven’t in fact changed already); the world of popular music is certainly in flux. A transformation – from pop to rock, from single to album, from entertainment to art, from the frivolous and disposable to the deadly serious – is well underway. The White Album by the Beatles; Beggars Banquet by the Rolling Stones; Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience; Astral Weeks by Van Morrison; Scott 2 by Scott Walker. All released in 1968, all frequently, and rightly, cited as testament to seismic changes in the western cultural – let alone the musical – landscape, and now part of the canon, featuring in countless ‘best of’ lists. Less well-documented (and certainly less celebrated) is a debut LP from that same epochal year, aptly titled The Transformed Man, by one William Shatner.

His journey from jobbing actor to international recognition as Captain Kirk is a transformation in itself, before even considering his irregular detours into literature (though the University of Leeds SF collection is curiously lacking in his written works – namely the Tek War series, once referenced in an episode of Father Ted) and especially his alternative career as a recording artist.

Capitalising on the Kirk connection, he shamelessly appeared in full Star Trek regalia on the sleeve of The Transformed Man – but the contents are not the cosmic journey into alien worlds and parallel universes that the casual record-buyer may have been deceived into imagining lay within. It is something very different that awaits the listener… strange and yet familiar. The album stands as Shatner’s attempt to capture the heady, experimental spirit of the times, before the decade went into meltdown; though ostensibly a spoken-word album, his unique delivery defied such narrow categorisation. In a nod to his roots in theatre, he included Shakespearean soliloquy (‘Hamlet’, ‘Romeo & Juliet’) alongside re-workings of contemporary hits (‘Mr Tambourine Man’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’), all set to an easy listening backdrop. If questions had been raised about the wooden qualities of Shatner’s acting, this album, regarded by most as a novelty cash-in at the peak of Star Trek’s popularity, was savaged by reviewers: describing his “reading of Hamlet as a hammy doped-up cabaret turn” was unkind, and “his Romeo sounds like a child molester” possibly libellous, but “the worst record in the history of music” was surely excessive.

A re-interpretation of the re-interpretation of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’

After such brutal treatment, he retreated from music to concentrate on other projects, only surfacing during the 1970s for such occasions as this rendition of ‘Rocket Man’ at the 1978 Science Fiction Film Awards. Though some of these live performances were captured for dubious posterity, he remained silent over the following decades; during this exile Leeds-based band the Wedding Present paid tribute (of sorts) with 1987’s ‘Shatner’, whilst the man himself spent long years in the musical wilderness. Therefore his eventual return to the recording studio in 2005, with Has Been, was as unexpected as it was startling. Other than an opening deconstruction of Pulp’s ‘Common People’, it contained original Shatner compositions, the title track in particular reading as a cutting riposte to his critics. In collaboration with credible artists such as Ben Folds, Joe Jackson, and Henry Rollins, Has Been showcased Shatner’s remarkable ability to re-invent himself. This success was consolidated by his next album, Seeking Major Tom, his most recent to date, a return to cover versions, science fiction and space themes, with his strange career – in many respects a uniquely (post-)modern one – having come full circle.

Friday, 19 April 2013

A Very British Apocalypse

Post-apocalyptic narratives form a significant part of British science fiction, particularly following the end of the Second World War. The legacy of bombed-out cities, rationing, and the mass-mobilisation of a whole nation for war provided a fertile environment for the sci-fi writer: the utopian ideas of much inter-war science fiction being replaced by a more disillusioned and hardened nihilism.

In post-war British science fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction seems to be broadly divided into two distinct types; the so-called ‘cosy catastrophe’ fiction, in which pockets of humanity survive some destructive event and are able to pull together and survive relatively unchanged, while the other type of post-apocalyptic fiction takes a much more nihilistic strain, in which the psychology of humanity is transformed, and which raises questions about the malleability of the human psyche. 

In his novel, The Drowned World, J.G.Ballard explores the effects of a world transformed due to the melting of the solar ice caps upon the surviving members of humanity. The novel’s central characters find that their whole psychology is transformed through their interaction with the changed landscape of the world; a landscape in which the risen sea levels have ‘drowned’ the cities of Europe and North America, turning them into tropical lagoons. The central characters are part of a scientific survey team, sent to study these new lagoons. When the other members of the survey team leave, three of the characters remain behind, content in the isolation of their new environment. The central character of Dr Kerans becomes obsessed with the psychoanalytic relationship he feels to the environment, seeing its regression mirrored in the regression of his own humanity: ‘Just as psychoanalysis reconstructs the original traumatic situation in order to release the repressed material, so we are now being plunged back into the archaeopsychic past, uncovering the ancient taboos and drives that have been dormant for epochs.’

Ballard seems to suggest that the apocalypse acts as a kind of release for humanity’s subconscious desires: the apocalyptic event reverses the relationship of man to his environment, so that the environment is no longer shaped by him but rather he is shaped by the environment. Thus freed from this state, man is able to pursue his subconscious desires without fear or care of social ostracism. Throughout the novel, and much of Ballard’s work, there is a tension regarding this ‘liberation’ of the human psyche from social norms: while his environment acts on the one hand as a means of disengaging man from society, on the other hand it reduces him to a near-bestial condition, which suggests that man's conception of humanity may be less a social construct and more a reaction to his environment.

The Drowned World
Special Collections (Uni of Leeds)

Similarly, in The Death of Grass, John Christopher presents a terrifying portrait of a future humanity that, through a desperate desire to survive, has abandoned much of the morality that defined it prior to the apocalyptic ‘event’. In this instance, the event is a virus that has wiped out nearly all the crops in Asia and Europe, causing widespread famine. The novel follows the struggles of two friends, John Custance and Roger Buckley, and their families, as they make their way north from London to Custance’s brother’s farm in the Lake District. Their journey takes them through an England rapidly descending into anarchy and chaos, as the population grows increasingly desperate for food.
Throughout the novel, the central characters are forced to confront the reality of the need for survival that their changed environment has forced upon them. Much of the tension derives from whether the characters can continue to maintain a sense of civility and humanity, or whether they will succumb to the survival-of-the-fittest laws of nature that they witness around them. Christopher’s post-apocalyptic landscape is one in which barbarism quickly replaces civility, suggesting that, for Christopher, the instinct for survival is stronger in man than the impulse to act morally. Indeed, a turning point in the novel occurs when the protagonists, having run out of food, kill a family just for their bread. In crossing this line the protagonists leave behind any semblance of their previous morality; their need to survive changes their psychology from the civilised and human to the instinctive and animal. In this respect the apocalypse, as with The Drowned World, becomes a psychological event, in which humanity is placed in a cycle of de-evolution.

In contrast to this bleak post-apocalyptic view of humanity, John Wyndham presents a more hopeful vision of the ravaged future in his novel The Day of the Triffids. The cataclysmic event that begins the novel is the rendering of the vast majority of the Earth’s population blind, due to a meteor shower that nearly everyone witnesses due its beautiful display of colours in the atmosphere. The novel’s central protagonist, Bill Masen, was unable to see the meteor shower as he was convalescing in hospital due to a triffid attack that necessitated his eyes being bandaged. As he wakes and wanders around London, he finds the city descending into anarchy, as people desperately clamour blindly for help and food. In these scenes, The Day of the Triffids does closely resemble the panic-driven anarchy witnessed in The Death of Grass. However, whereas the latter novel depicts humanity in a state of regression, The Day of the Triffids suggests that this regression is not necessarily universal, and that by holding on to vestiges of civilisation, humanity could find a way to survive and rebuild. 

The Day of the Triffids
Special Collections (Uni of Leeds)

The group of sighted-survivors that Masen encounters at a London university show a determination to rebuild civilisation by establishing a colony in the countryside, with the long-term aim of rebuilding the population by having sighted men take more than one ‘wife’. Although this idea initially appals Masen and his partner, – indeed, it causes another group to split off and form their own colony – he begins to realise that in order for humanity to survive, personal sacrifices have to be made. It is this rationalistic response to the apocalypse that suggests that, rather than instinctively de-evolving, by working together to maintain an idea of ‘society’, mankind could survive. However, this is not to say that everyone’s vision of society is necessarily a desirable one. At the end of the novel, Masen, his partner, and some other survivors, find their peaceful existence on an isolated farm disrupted by the arrival of a group of soldiers who represent a despotic new form of government that is trying to establish itself throughout the country. This group, which seeks to forcibly split up the survivors at the farm to put them in charge of blind survivors, represents the reactionary aspect of humanity; the rush to socio-political extremes in times of panic.

Wyndham’s novel ends on a note of defiant optimism: the characters escape from the soldiers and head to a colony on the Isle of Wight, where we learn that humans have begun to rebuild and plan for the future. Indeed, the novel ends with Masen declaring there will come a day when ‘[we] will cross the narrow straits on the great crusade to drive the triffids back and back… until we have wiped the last one of them from the face of the land that they have usurped.’ Wyndham’s defiant challenge to the apocalypse finds its origins in the siege-mentality of Second World War Britain, where a population facing daily bombing raids, food shortages, and the threat of invasion refused to be broken. In this respect, The Day of the Triffids perhaps presents a more realistic portrait of the British response to crisis, as under the strain of war the population remained united and civilised.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Unlocking the Uncanny in the Rue Morgue

In The Uncanny, Sigmund Freud suggests that the literary qualities of ‘uncanny tales’ give rise to new forms of ‘uncanniness’, noting that this type of fiction ‘is a much more fertile province than the uncanny in real life, for it contains the whole of the latter and something more besides, something that cannot be found in real life’.

In his story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Edgar Allen Poe presents the reader with a mystery that seems to defy any rational explanation: the murder of Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter in a room locked from the inside and on the apparently inaccessible fourth floor of their building. The circumstances of the murders render the crime itself an uncanny act, and the nature of the mystery is further compounded by the inability of the witnesses to make sense of the overheard language used by the killer, as they argue about his nationality. What this seems to highlight is the association of foreign-ness with the uncanny: the fear of the unknown is also extended to the fear of the foreign. All the witnesses claim to know which language the killer was speaking, despite none of them being able to speak the languages they claim to have heard: ‘The shrill voice was that of an Englishman’, and ‘Spoke quick and unevenly […] it is the voice of a Russian’. At the time of the story’s publication France was engaged in various rivalries with Great Britain and Russia, and so this association of foreign-ness with criminal activity is suggestive of the fear of invasion from within by something alien and therefore uncanny.

The notion of invasion from within is crystallised in the idea of the locked room. The locked room symbolises both sanctuary and prison. Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter live apart from the rest of the neighbourhood, rarely conversing with anyone else and are said to be rich; ‘The two lived an exceedingly retired life – were reputed to have money’. Their ‘retirement’ from society is reflected in the sanctuary of the locked apartment: ‘The shutters of the front windows were seldom opened. Those in the rear were always closed, with the exception of the large back room, fourth floor’. However, this disengagement proves to be their undoing, as the locked room fails to provide Madame L'Espanaye and her daughter with an escape route from the killer. Poe thus deprives his characters of the sanctuary they have attempted to create by introducing the uncanny element – the killer.

The revelation that the killer is in fact an escaped orang-utan, who climbed to the fourth floor, and was trying to imitate its owner shaving when it cut the throat of Madame L’Espanaye is arrived at by a process of logical deduction. The central protagonist C. Auguste Dupin works out that the grip of the killer is too broad to be human. In Dupin, Poe applies a methodical, almost scientific, approach to deduction that would prove to have a significant impact on the development of the detective story, particularly influencing Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes series. Dupin’s method of deduction is described by Poe as ‘the extent of information obtained; [lying] not so much in the validity of the inference as in the quality of the observation’.
Indeed, this is borne out in Holmes’ famous quote that, ‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth’. In the case of The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dupin arrives at his deduction through a combination of observation (when questioning the orang-utan’s owner about the murders he notes that his face ‘flushed up as if he were struggling with suffocation’) and prior knowledge of orang-utans’ behaviour, gained from studying a written account by a zoologist.

The Murders in the Rue Morgue laid the foundation for the modern detective story, in which the emphasis is placed squarely upon analysis and deductive reasoning. The element of excitement derives not from what is unknown, but what is gradually revealed through close analysis. In this respect, the detective functions much like the psychoanalyst: his role is to unravel the mystery – the uncanny element – through a process of reasoning. It is, perhaps, no surprise that the ‘locked room mystery’, which finds its origin in Poe, became so popular with writers of crime fiction: the locked room serving as the ideal tool for the unpicking of the psyche.

In the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Speckled Band, a young woman is found dead in her locked room, her dying words, ‘it was the band, the speckled band’ offering an intriguing mystery. The ‘speckled band’ is revealed to be a deadly snake, which the young woman’s stepfather placed in her room through a vent connected to his room, with the intention of claiming her late mother’s inheritance for himself. The symbolism of the snake is obvious – the forced intrusion into the safety of the daughter’s room by a threatening masculinity providing the uncanny element.

The legacy of the ‘locked room mystery’ can be seen in such diverse works as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and perhaps most famously in The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr. Other variations including H. P. Lovecraft’s Dreams in the Witch-House have SF elements, which is a testament to Poe's wider influence on genre fiction prior to the introduction of labels like crime fiction, science fiction and horror.

N.B. ‘Murder in the Library: An A-Z of Crime Fiction’ (18 January-12 May 2013) at the British Library provided the inspiration for this post in its recognition of the significance of Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue and the subsequent popularity of the ‘locked room mystery’.