Robin Pen's
CRITICAL
EMBUGGERANCE


Any Excuse to Talk About . . .

There are certain choice snippets of recent science fiction which, when bathed in the curiously impenetrating half-light of our post-modern consciousnesses, can seem pretty damn cool. These rad little segments of sexy-textual prose snap up and regurgitate all those wild, cute, hip-to-the-max newscience knowbytes that appear exclusively in the Black-label, subscription-only edition of New Scientist. You name it, it's been done; demi-sentient nanotech bucky-balls packed with bio-digital, self-replicating AI mem-viruses, colonising gorgeous lesbian mulatto cyber-librarians in charmingly anachronistic mirrored pince-nez and silk-kevlar kaftans patterned with mandelbrot-arrangements of gaudy hibiscus, set against backgrounds which segue between idyllic English countryside and the giga-tech interior of a pan-national mega-corp penthouse on a hot august night. Hey, I mean it's all just tres cool.

And you'll find all this and more in gems like Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, Simon Ings' Hot Head, Tom Maddox's Halo, Paul J McAuley's Red Dust and Ernest Hogan's High Aztech (notice the kind of titles used? Absolutely essential in this proto-post-neo-cult-sub-genre). All these works seem to support the fashionable image of culture as viral infection, and if you fuck society as often as this fiction seems to, you're bound to pick something up. Still, who cares man? Who really cares? They make it all look so good. Boy, I'd risk credibility to live in one of their worlds, to move in their imaginary social circles. In the "real world" I have to content myself with picking the best cafes to be seen in. I have two: a grotty dive for the day (when I'm the tortured writer starving for my sincere art) and a yuppie, beige-and-jade-green, 24-hour, hey-I'm-in place for the night (when I'm pretending I'm living off immodest royalties from that Delillo/Heller/Turow/Irving-type book I knocked off the other month - you know, the kind of book everybody buys but no one seems to ever actually finish). But now I've found somewhere else I really want to be seen, and that's between the covers of Richard Calder's first novel, Dead Girls.

Dead Girls; oh how I love thee! Let me count the ways.

I have often felt that the best format for written science fiction is the novella or the short novel, probably because many of my favourite works have been of moderate length. Richard Calder's Dead Girls helps maintain that opinion; at 206 pages this is truly an admirable piece of work. Rather than laying all his cards on the table, Calder has built them into an interlaced tower revealing glimpses of story only where he deems it appropriate; no more, no less - story within story, world within world, perception within perception. The book's compact structure, attitude and aesthetics seem to be just as important as the characters, the cyberpunkish ideas and the neon-Victorian settings; its rich, poetic prose and complex ideas are wrapped tight in a techno-gothic black cloak of style.

Dead Girls is a rich pill of contradiction, juxtaposition and iconoclasm; hard to swallow but surprisingly easy to keep down. Calder occasionally tweaks (breaks) the guidelines (rules) of proper English usage in his struggle to portray the feel of a place of insanity and hind-brain totalitarianism. Calder's Hell is decorated with high-tech wonders, toys of illusory quality and uncertain purpose. It's a future that is the height of both couture and barbarism, a place filled with living porcelain dolls and androgynous bio-mechanoids designed to fulfil the fantasies of those who can afford it; to take them back to an elegant time of clockwork machines and shrouded intentions.

Some of this stuff may not be particularly original - the central device concerns a plague of artificial DNA converting adolescent girls to half-living, blood-consuming machines that arouse men's hidden fears and passions - but it's the style that counts here. With a craftsman's skill, Calder has integrated baroque renderings of elegance, decadence and decay with a heavy technoconsciousness to create a world where Miss Haversham's crumbling mansion would seem as much at home as megacorps and high-tech street culture. This book revitalises virtually every cliche I can think of. Dead Girls is a rich Victorian-punk pastiche of hard physics, AIs, terminal realities and dark, romantic dreams, of nanotech vampirism, cybernetics and clockwork dolls; a Parlour story of glamour, deprivation, animal passion, social, political and personal betrayal. It's about love, lust and loathing; of the relationship between pain and pleasure; of the sins of human and inhuman desire for the flesh, the soul and the machine; of sex and death, crime and punishment. It's down and dirty, but smooth and sharp as ground glass; a dark and twisted parody in leather and lace with the silken edge of a cold razor blade - and this blade will sink deep under your skin by the end of just one sitting with this remarkable book. I quite liked it.

I'll be hanging out for Calder's next book - another novel, or a collection of his superb short fiction. And I'll wait with eager anticipation for any new stuff by all the above-mentioned dudes. And I'll certainly keep an eye out for new works by Richard Kadrey, Bruce Sterling (oh chairman, my chairman), Daniel Keys Moran, Chris Hinz, Richard Paul Russo, Jack Womack, and Bill Gibson (that's William Gibson to you). I'll be hanging out because these guys (and gals like Pat Cadigan) are cool. You see, they're making SF wild and crazy for me again.

Remember the days when SF was wild and crazy?

The answer to that simple yet stirring question is probably dependant on when you were last twelve. I think the last time I was twelve was way back in '84, when I picked up Neuromancer as an Ace Special. I remember it blew me away and began my long entrenchment in the hip-hype nitro-neutrino-fuelled, carbon-cooled, lit-shittin' SF'nomics that I spew and dribble about down the back of specialty bookshops.

Prior to that I was twelve a couple of years earlier in 1982. I entered a cinema, sat down, and . . . boom! With the sound of the first vangelic rumble I was entranced in the red neon haze of tech-noir and Ridley's Blade Runner. I've never left that cinema; I've only occasionally put up an itty-bitty book light for a reality check and to take a peek at those neat new sci-fi books.

And before that I was twelve in 1977. In fact, I was twelve: the perfect age to go through the experience I did - seeing Star Wars. People of the sixties remember where they were when Kennedy was shot. People of the seventies, like myself, remember where they were when they first saw Star Wars (well . . . it was usually in a cinema, but you get my meaning). When you're twelve, that opening shot is the most powerful image in the movie, if not the year, if not the decade. Well, as long as you're twelve, I guess.

Regardless, to describe what I felt when I first encountered Star Wars would inadequately express what I'm fairly certain many of you reading this article experienced for yourselves. Save it to say, at twelve, Star Wars struck a deep chord in me (to use an overused, extremely tired and entirely appropriate cliche). Part of me has been twelve ever since (some would say this explains a great deal), and most of my enthusiasm for science fiction has, to one degree or another, been an attempt to re-manifest that raw sense of intellectual and emotional wonder I felt at my first Star Wars. I'm an SFer from out of the film experience, and I imagine that few of you can safely say you're entirely otherwise.

Film and SF are probably more closely aligned than any other media-genre pair. After all, they virtually grew up together - one a little more mature, the other a little more endearing. In fact, when it comes to influence and inspiration, they are inseparable. From '40s Flash Gordon, '50s reality paranoia, '60s psychedelic Sci-fi, '70s post-Nam depressing, retentionist, nihilistic SF, Star Wars and its financially-inspired brethren have gone on into the merchandised '80s and mega-merchandised '90s. Then there are the writers who have, one way or another, involved themselves within this parasitic/symbiotic relationship; Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Van Vogt, Herbert, Bradbury, John W Campbell, PK Dick, Greg Bear, Joe Haldeman, Theodore Sturgeon, John Varley, John Shirley, Norman Spinrad, Michael Crichton, AD Foster, Ian Flemming, Michael Moorcock, Martin Caidin, Piers Anthony, William F Nolan, Anthony Burgess, DF Jones, John Wyndham, William Harrison, Leigh Brackett, Fay Weldon, Nigel Kneale, John Brosnan, George Clayton Johnson, Raymond F Jones, Barry B Longyear, Richard Condon, Stephen King, Roger Zelazny, Harry Harrison, Fritz Lieber, Doris Lessing, Jack Finney, Pierre Boulle, Rod Serling, Arkady and Boris Sturgatsky, Daniel Keyes, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., John Christopher, Robert Sheckley, Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, Timothy Zahn, David Gerrold, Robin Cook, Stanislaw Lem and Bill Gibson (that's William . . . ) to name but a few. And we can't ignore the importance of SF TV. As cinema was abandoning SF as a source of ideas, TV was taking up the slack, and doing so with reasonable success. We have '50s and '60s television like Quatermass, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Lost in Space, Dr Who, The Thunderbirds and Star Trek (to mention but a few) to thank for much of today's SF and Horror. And we can thank SF writers of the time for a lot of that excellent visual SF. Thus, although I might be a follower of science fiction from out of the visual experience, I am very much a product of fifties and sixties literary SF. Thanks guys, I owe you one! (Please note that "guys" is a gender-neutral attribution.)

Of course, it's largely the ideas that I have these writers to thank for. Now, there may not have been many ideas in the scripts of SF film history that have advanced human thought and startled a generation, but there certainly have been some pretty neat ones - ideas that make science fiction relevant to movies; ideas like the ones in It Came From Outer Space, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Altered States, Planet of the Apes, Slaughterhouse Five, Fahrenheit 451, Colossus: The Forbin Project, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, Solaris, Stalker, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. Yet I still owe a debt of gratitude to the other half of the pair: the film-makers. On occasion they've come up with some reasonably neat ideas of their own, but on the whole their contribution is overwhelmingly towards the look of science fiction film. It's been this look, these images, that have made movies relevant to science fiction; the look of worlds like those portrayed in Metropolis, Forbidden Planet, Mad Max 2, THX-1138, Barbarella, Conquest of Space, Alien, Godzilla, Rollerball, Planet of the Vampires, War of the Worlds, Dune, The Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek movies, Akira and an entire library of Japanese animation, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010, Star Wars and Blade Runner.

Often, when the ideas and the looks come together effectively either in film or literature, the work takes on a special power. That power is the thing that can make the hair go up on the back your neck, the stuff that can literally change the course of your life. More likely though, it's the stuff that can alter your attitudes, make you approach things in a way that's a little different, a little wild and crazy maybe.

But back to Blade Runner and Star Wars. Why? Well, because not only are they the two most significant events in my SF experience (and therefore worth devoting at least ten or twelve pages to raving about), but both movies are currently going through revivals at significant times in their histories - it was recently the 10th anniversary of Blade Runner and the 15th anniversary of Star Wars (as well as the 20th of Lucasfilm). Both are creating waves through the pop-culture, and the attention these two movies are receiving is not without reason.

Blade Runner seems to have been going through a reassessment process regarding its contribution to cinema, SF and SF cinema. This fresh look seems due to the recent critical attention given to its director, Ridley Scott. Since Thelma and Louise it has become trendy to retro his work, and that exercise is revealing Blade Runner as one of the most original and exquisite looking pieces of feature-length mainstream cinema of the '80s. As science fiction Blade Runner doesn't have much of a story, but nothing has come close to it cinema-wise from '82 to now. After all, what did we have? Return of the Jedi, Outland, Terminator, Aliens, Robocop and Total Recall. It may not have seemed such a big deal at the time, but Blade Runner is now receiving acknowledgment for doing more to preserve an SF film consciousness than anything since.

And of course, with the ideas preached by the '80s cyberpunk movement now coming into the fringe-mainstream, Blade Runner is a natural focal point for the visual side of the manifesto - the film certainly didn't forge any movements, but it still stimulated a lot of imagination and discussion about potential futures.

Over the ten years since Blade Runner first played to a disappointed audience, it has become a major money-spinner for Warner Bros. Continual screenings in art houses and festivals as well as massive success on sell-through and rental video, and on laser-disc, are proving it has a very long shelf-life indeed. And this phenomenon is being perpetuated with the release of the so-called Director's Cut. (If I ever talk about this version, I'll do it at another time.)

Like Blade Runner, Star Wars is going through a revival of its own, but in a different manifestation. Though articles on Star Wars may not be appearing in all the trendy lifestyle magazines as with Blade Runner: The Director's Cut, it is being returned to the public eye, re-promoted and re-merchandised, in a widespread and apparently calculated manner. It's a clear attempt to reaffirm Star Wars as part of the pop-myth consciousness - and just maybe make some really big bucks, but we won't get into that.

Over time, Star Wars has developed a sense of nostalgia towards itself. This lovely, warm feeling of remembrance springs from the memories and memorabilia of a movie over fifteen years old, and is largely created by the dated sensibilities of the characters; Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Governor Tarkin, Obi-wan Kenobi - even C3PO and Darth Vader. As time passes, these people slip further and further into "the '70s thing", but the universe in which these characters reside is not so subject to nostalgiafication, and Lucasfilm and Lucasarts have recently been bringing the Star Wars universe back to prominence and giving it a fresh lease of life for the '90s. This carefully planned re-launching of Star Wars targets hearts and minds long gone nostalgic and, more importantly, aims to highlight the attractiveness of the Star Wars universe to those too young to remember the original experience.

This joint invasion is being led, not by the physical toys of the initial merchandising, but by playthings of the visual and intellectual receptors. George Lucas is expanding the culture of Star Wars into original novels, anthologies, comics, magazines, posters, art books, roleplaying manuals and reference texts. He's making this imaginary universe a multi-media reality. And it's not just paper; indeed not. A major front of his new rebel assault is into the rapidly growing electronic media. There are Nintendo Star Wars games, a graphically impressive CD-ROM game (actually called Rebel Assault) as well as a wide range of personal computer-based Star Wars games in the planning stages, including TIE Fighter and a Chess variant. But a special mention has to be made of one particular PC game currently selling big in the home market; X-Wing.

X-Wing: it's not a game, it's a way of life.

Now this might look like a very strong claim for what is seemingly just a space-battle computer game . . . Well, actually, that's all it is - but who cares; it's so awesome! Yet X-Wing's primary importance is not as a good piece of entertainment you can chuck on your PC and while away valuable hours of potential creativity by taxing your brain with a strategy-orientated shoot-em-up with great sound-effects, music and graphics. It's really worthy of note because it must be considered one of the best pieces of Star Wars memorabilia money can buy. The whole X-Wing package, from box cover to pilot manual to the software itself is designed to encapsulate a particular aspect of the Star Wars universe, namely the rebel pilots fighting against the Empire. When playing X-Wing, you are a rebel pilot. You sign up, you train, you go to battle. You can be injured and put in a rejuve tank to recover. You can be taken prisoner and personally tortured by Darth Vader for the whereabouts of the rebel base. You participate in missions directly related to events in the Star Wars history. You become part of the Star Wars mythos, simply by the act of participating in a computer game.

This well-presented and well-thought-out piece of interactive entertainment software exists for the express purpose of recreating the Star Wars experience for those who want to really get into it. When I was twelve, I wanted to pilot an X-Wing fighter. It's quite amusing that, fifteen years later, I find myself trying to work out how to defend a shuttle on a mercy mission while TIE Interceptors are closing in fast from a Star Destroyer that has just dropped into the quadrant. It impresses me that I am enjoying the attempt to find a solution to my dilemma. X-Wing has that attraction for me; it's an involvement beyond just suspension-of-disbelief - it's actually interactive. Take that you Imperial TIE-fighting scumdog! It may indeed be "only a computer game", but X-Wing encompasses a large part of the spirit of the Star Wars experience and should be considered a notable contribution to the realm of SF film, and indeed to SF in all its media.

X-Wing: it's a game; it's a hobby; it's a way of life. It's cool and it's hip. It's wild and it's crazy.

But it's wild and crazy stuff like Dead Girls, Red Dust, Snow Crash and Hot Head - novels by a generation of writers who were yet to find their styles in the seventies and early eighties, writers who were then just readers and watchers looking for their own wild and crazy, searching for the wonder of things in the SF film and writing of their day, when Star Wars and Blade Runner came out - that will really ensure that the cycle of inspiration will be maintained, even when the literary side of SF has been as fully integrated into the mainstream as SF film has always been. And so, as Neuromancer becomes a permanent selection for mandatory reading in Late Twentieth Century Literature and Popular Culture studies, as the legacy of Star Wars is preserved for generations to come - not to mention to help build the hype in preparation for the next trilogy, due later this decade - and as Blade Runner slowly but inevitably becomes a Classic that CEL will release as a nostalgia pick in 2019, people like myself, and possibly like you, get on with life. Some of this getting on will doubtless occur by "developing an open mind", "sharing in the Secrets of the Universe" and "coming to understand one's mystic Inner Being", but occasionally significant progress can be achieved simply by being twelve again and getting into a bit of that good ol' sci-fi stuff.

Of course, "the stuff" is remarkably different from year to year, decade to decade - different in look, different in conception. In fact, that's what makes it hot and fresh: it's radically different from what has gone before. The stuff, in fact, seems to share no common factors at all - except, of course, the effect it has. The causal link is hard to pin down and describe, but then you shouldn't look at the works themselves to see the links - you look at the experience. And for me, that experience is the same Star Wars shared with Blade Runner, shared with Neuromancer, shared with Dead Girls, and even, to a lesser degree, shared with X-Wing. What this stuff imparts is an entirely intuitive, wholly subjective experience of goodness, worthwhileness and relevance. And for me, that's when the stuff becomes wild and crazy - even if that only matters to the part of me which will remain entirely subjective, totally wide-eyed, forever twelve. But hey, so what? Who really cares about this stuff? It's only a movie, or a book, or a silly computer game we're talking about here. It's only science fiction. Don't kid yourself it's anything important. Now is it? Come on, is it?





Originally appeared pp. 56-61, Eidolon 13, July 1993.
Copyright © 1993 Robin Pen.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author.


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