Sunday, November 29, 2009

Science Fiction Roundup: Eando Binder's Adam Link Stories

Asimov has the bad luck of two works that have titles similar to others: John W. Campbell wrote his story "Nightfall" years before Asimov, and the title for Asimov's anthology of robot stories was chosen by a publisher in 1950, unaware that a work had already been written with that title back in 1939 by the Binder brothers, Earl and Otto. The name they used together was the essence of compromise: a solution that leaves no one happy that results in an extremely fake-sounding name.

"I. ROBOT" is an illustration of two things:

1) Yes, there were differences between the "scientifiction" pulps, which were not all a giant undifferentiated mass of robots and rayguns as people unaware of science fiction seem to think;

2) In every brother writing team, there was always one with the disproportionate part of the talent, that carried their collaborations.

The three short stories that make up the I, ROBOT collections were written just before the 1939 cutoff point of the collaboration between the brothers, where Otto took over writing full time and Earl became his literary agent.

The story is extraordinary for its time as it has a robot as a main character as opposed to just a monster or wisecracking sidekick.The titular character Adam Link is a robot built by a scientist and like van Vogt's Slan, the theme of the stories is prejudice. Adam Link terrifies his creator's housekeeper the instant she got sight of him, and after his creator is killed by accident by a falling object, she assumes Adam Link is responsible. Adam flees for his life, a murder rap on his head and armed gunmen on his trail. When they see the "monster," they shoot to kill. They murder Dr. Link's dog, which provokes Adam and makes him use his great strength. Adam starts to discover the hysterical prejudice against him when he finds the scientist's copy of Frankenstein, which was hidden away from him.

Of course, it doesn't end there: Adam gets his day in court, naturally, where in shades of Data in "Measure of a Man," argues for his sentience and status as a living being. (This short story, "The Trial of Adam Link" was incidentally, modified to be an episode of the Outer Limits.)

Like the Slans or perhaps the X-Men, Adam Link is strange but special, an angry, misunderstood outsider. What I think is especially interesting about the Adam Link stories was that Adam Link was in fact, very frightening. Every time the story makes you get on Adam Link's side and tut-tut the people in Binder's stories for being hysterically afraid of a robot, Adam Link does something shockingly savage and with incredible strength that shows just how frightening a machine with his physical power would be. There is nothing similar in the Binder brothers' stories to the Three Laws of Robotics, and Adam Link is capable of murder, something he debated many times to preserve his liberty. In short, even though you were on Adam's side you were never really comfortable around him.

It's easy to blame Otto Binder becoming the sole writer for the subsequent post-1940 decline of the Adam Link stories...and I will! Just take a look at these b-movie titles:

Adam Link, Champion Athlete
Adam Link, Robot Detective
Adam Link Saves the World

...and it just gets worse from there. I never thought I'd get nostalgic for Breastica, Amazon from the Naked Future.

The younger Binder brother, Otto, when working alone, gave Adam Link a wife and family. Adam's wife's name was - and prepare to be totally blindsided here - Eve. The absolute worst was Adam Link Goes to War, which features Adam against the Sirius Confederation. It's a commonality of writers hacking out material that they turn what ought to be a great premise into a dull one. Just like ERB turned the unbelievably cool-sounding Tarzan and the Leopard Men into a stale story involving the antics of a funny monkey mistaken for a god, Adam Link Goes to War was a concept that was unfuckupable: just have Adam Link flip tanks over, baby! And what's more, there's some juicy potential inner conflict there with Adam as well: Adam is a pacifist, but are there circumstances where it is moral to wage war and take life?

The defining angst and alienation of Adam Link was replaced by goofy gimmickry, robot kids, and a robot dog (which makes as much sense as it sounds like it does), and it's no coincidence that this creaky, sitcom means of creating "zany" plots ("Who ever heard of a robot playing soccer?" Oh, Otto, you nut, you) began as soon as Earl left to become Otto's literary agent, which is like George Harrison and John Lennon leaving the Beatles to design the band's posters. Incidentally, Otto Binder would, two decades later, export this hideous model of a superhero family over to Superman and ruin him for an entire generation, before Julie Schwartz came on and his stable of competent writers treated the humiliating Weisenger Era as an aberrant hallucination.

The first work I ever read by Binder were several fill-in stories during the exemplary Jim Shooter and Curt Swan run on Adventure Comics. More than anything else, the younger Binder brother struck me as...well, sad. The contrast could not have been greater between Jim Shooter's rebellious, characterization-centered stories with huge stakes and the often trivial, irrelevant stories Binder told. The shocking part is that Binder was just doing what he always was doing - there's little difference between "The Eight Legged Legionnaire" and the stuff he did in the forties, when he had a top-selling comic. It was comics that changed, not Binder.

God, must it have been tough to have been utterly overshadowed by a fourteen year old kid like Jim Shooter! For this reason any feeling I have toward Otto's lesser Adam Link stories are tempered by pity and sympathy: Otto Binder was, towards the end, a sad old man that time passed by.

As easy as it is to blame Otto Binder for the terribleness of the later Adam Link stories, it has to be remembered he had an editor to satisfy who may partially bear the blame for them.

Amazing Stories, where all the Adam Link pulps were published, was the first scientifiction pulp magazine, created by Hugo Gernsback all the way back in 1926. However, by 1938 it had been bought by the Ziff Davis publishing company, who put Raymond Palmer, a diminutive hunchback, in the editor's chair.

Whereas John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction explored the human stories behind science and ushered in one of its peak periods, for the majority of SF's "golden age," Amazing Stories was downright peripheral, a holdover from a time when science fiction was about "sex and shooting," with lurid, naked covers. Few of the stories originally in Amazing Stories are reprinted today.

It's often forgotten, but Space Opera was originally a derogatory label, meant to distinguish the Campbell type science fiction from the Palmer type.

It was in this magazine that the Adam Link stories were originally published. So maybe it's editorial tinkering that led to the shark-jump.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Piltdown Man

A while back, I said that the magical view of the process of reason and investigation in Sherlock Holmes stories, were intimately connected to Sir Arthur’s own personal irrationality and incredulity, which led him to be suckered by one spiritualist after another.

Perhaps it comes from growing up in the photoshop generation, but I find it hard to believe anyone was ever convinced by something as silly as the Fairy pictures.

But if a few scientists and historians are right, Sir Arthur’s crimes against rationality may go a lot deeper than even I suspected. There is a hypothesis that Sir Arthur played a role in, and perhaps even masterminded one of the greatest scientific frauds in history!

The case of Piltdown Man is a great example of the self-correcting nature of science, in that a cunning fraud was eventually exposed. It’s also comforting proof that even experts can be bamboozled by a con-game. The reason Piltdown Man was as successful as it was, was because it gave paleoanthropologists exactly what they wanted (a humanlike skull with an apelike lower face) so they were all the more likely to fall for it because they wanted it to be true. Boule, for instance, theorized that a large braincase came before the loss of apelike dentition and jaws, so Piltdown Man met expectations perfectly.

In short, “Piltdown Man” was a skull of a prehuman discovered in 1916 at the Piltdown quarry that pushed a lot of smug self-congratulatory buttons because of the idea that the missing link might have been English (take that, France!). The fossil was everything scientists expected and then some: a human brain and noble brow with an apelike jaw. As the picture of human evolutionary history became more complete with the 1924 discovery of Australiopithecus Afarensis by Raymond Dart and more fragments of “Java Man” (Homo erectus) were found, Piltdown Man was pushed to one side, ignored, and thought by most reputable scientists to be a forgery after only a few years of its discovery. Eventually, Potassium-Argon dating resolved the matter for good and found that Piltdown was the skull of a normal human with the altered, filed jaw of an Orangutan, both of which were only a few decades old.

Boy, it must really have stuck in the English’s craw during those heady nationalist days: all the prehuman fossil remains were found in places like France, the Pyrenees, Austria, and Germany.

It also helped to sell the hoax that, at least in the 1920s, the picture of human evolution was woefully incomplete. As Creationists (another group of professional bullshit peddlers) would later discover, the secret to selling your weak scam is to lunge on an area that science knows very little about and make outrageous claims about it, like the idea the Cambrian fossil explosion was miraculous and happened overnight. Likewise, Piltdown Man is another example of two other all-too-familiar bane to science: a sensationalist-seeking and scientifically illiterate press that overhypes and misrepresents a discovery, which results in an end-run around the traditional system of peer review.

A few scientists (like a John Winslow article in Science magazine) have floated the hypothesis that Sir Arthur played a role in the Piltdown Man fraud. He certainly had a motive: he was extremely bitter about science debunking his favorite psychic, and he often railed about how the scientific establishment didn’t know as much as they think they did, and pretty soon someone would show them up.

It helps that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the next door neighbor of Charles Dawson, the discoverer of Piltdown Man. And the very year that Piltdown Man was discovered, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Lost World, which contains a scene of scientists leaving a prank faked fossil for others to find. What’s more, Doyle was one of the few people in Britain that could have obtained a 500-600 year old Orangutan jawbone, and a few months prior to the discovery, Doyle’s personal museum had received an extensive gift of fossils from Malaysia.

Personally, I always found the idea Doyle pulled Piltdown Man to be an interesting idea, but the thought that anyone other than Charles Dawson did it was something of a stretch. It's hard to imagine even a single other suspect. In real life, as opposed to Sherlock Holmes stories, the person that did it is usually the MOST likely to have done so in almost all cases.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Star Trek: A Second Look

It occurs to me that the praise I heaped on the most recent Star Trek film was a little lavish, and that was due to my enthusiasm and excitement at seeing Star Trek on the big screen again. Likewise, I tend to like almost every movie the first time I see it. Like little kids, I’m just so darn thrilled to be at the movies that I like everything the first time I see it.

Because it was Star Trek, and because it was J.J. Abrams, who did incredible work with Lost and Cloverfield, I am a little embarrassed to say that, prior to ever seeing the film, I wanted to like it. At some level, I had an emotional investment in liking the film.

Now that the hoopla and excitement surrounding the film has gone away, and it seems Star Trek is back and here to stay, my personal enthusiasm has dimmed and I can look at the film a lot more objectively. First, let me be as clear as possible: the Star Trek movie wasn’t bad at all. It wasn’t a terrible film outright the way, say, Star Trek V was. I would not, however, call Star Trek one of the best of the Trek movies, and I’d put it in the same category as the “middle” Star Trek movies, like Star Trek III.

Incidentally, this is pretty similar to my reaction on seeing The Incredibles for the first time. I went into the theater wanting to like it. In fact, a few months after the movie came out, there was a list I wrote of all-time great superhero movies, and I very comfortably posted The Incredibles at the top of that list. Nowadays, of course, I’m a lot harder on the Incredibles and the flaws of that film are apparent to me. For example, I don’t find the main character, Mr. Incredible sympathetic because almost all of his problems are his own fault, of his own making. Consequently, moments based around sympathy for the character ring very, very hollow, like when Mr. Incredible believes his family was destroyed on a plane. And who’s fault was that, you ass? You lied to them for months and placed them in a lethal situation for a reason as selfish and childish as the desire to continue playing “Cowboys and Indians.”

As for Star Trek, there were some flaws, some of which were very, very large.

The biggest is the lack of an internal conflict. I remember when I saw Star Trek: First Contact, and as enjoyable a film as that was at times, it didn’t feel like a Next Generation film. The sight of Data and Picard packing giant laser rifles to blast Borg felt very wrong and out of character. All that movie needed to feel more wrong would be Picard strutting away in slow motion from an explosion. First Contact was all external and the internal conflict was something of an afterthought.

Regrettably, the newest film is very much like that. Watching Star Trek again, I realized I kept on waiting and waiting to learn what this movie was really about. A villain shows up and blows up planets and the crew must stop them. Is that it? Really?

The most troubling manifestation of this bigger problem, the lack of an inner conflict or character development, is shown with Captain Kirk. Kirk is the exact same character at the beginning of the film as he is at the end. He doesn’t grow, change or assume responsibility. When I first saw the film, the scene with Kirk stealing a car made him look like a rebel and a thrillseeker. I thought the reason this scene was included was because later on in the film we would see Kirk change into the person of responsibility that we know him to be. But alas, the movie didn’t go there.

The movie’s emphasis on action resulted in gratuitous scenes that just made no sense. For instance, the scene where they had to parachute to the mining drill. I understand the drill jams transporters, but why attack it with an away team at all? Couldn’t the Enterprise have just blasted the drill, as it ultimately ended up doing in the film’s last act?

Also, watching the Kobiyashi Maru was not as interesting as hearing about it. You never got the feeling this was a matter of pride for Kirk. In fact, he was just eating an apple casually.

The biggest, most major flaw was the villain, Nero. When I heard about him, I thought it was an exciting idea. Usually when we encounter Romulan villains, as in TNG, they are members of the secret police or military (the distinction between the two is vague, which tells you something about the Romulans right there) and Romulan stories tend to be games of chess, with move and countermove against a subtle, cryptic enemy that very seldom show their face (as seen in the three definitive Romulan episodes, “The Mind’s Eye,” “The Enemy,” and “The Defector”). The idea of a “working class” Romulan is just something we’ve never seen before.

But Nero’s motives are unclear and confusing. He destroys Vulcan and tries to destroy Earth for no good reason that I can detect. The destruction of Romulus was an accident, and Spock was trying to HELP the Romulans, so I don’t understand the bitterness toward the Federation, who weren’t even involved. The idea of Nero just waiting around for 25 years for Spock to show up from the time hole doesn’t ring true to me either. For one thing, what reason would they even have to think that Spock survived?

My mentor, novelist John Dufresne, often urged me to improve with this criticism: “Son, where’s the characterization? Is it out the window? Where? Cause it sure ain’t here!” I ask that of Nero. Where’s the characterization? Is it in the window? As I said, his motives don’t make any sense and he’s such a flimsy character.

(And this is such a minor fan complaint, but if Nero had a mining ship, why is it there were no Remans, the master miners of the Romulan Empire, on board? In fact, after seeing the deliberately dark interiors, I expected to see at least one or two.)

Finally, Simon Pegg’s Scotty got on my nerves. The standout member of the cast was Karl Urban as McCoy, who was just about perfect. But Simon Pegg’s Scotty was so different from the original, so obviously “movie comic relief” that he felt like a totally different character. Uhura was given a meatier role, but at least she was still recognizably Uhura.

I don’t like to go after techie scientific errors, but this one is a such a biggie I can’t wrap my head around it: Red Matter. I don’t understand how it works. Sometimes it destroys planets, but other times it creates portals to allow time travel, and it’s not clear when it does one, or when it does the other.

All in all, I hope this article, together with my previous one, give a more balanced view of a movie that was overall, not bad. It could have been a heck of a lot better, and hopefully all the errors that I have with this film will be fixed in the inevitable sequel.