The Gold at the Starbow's End: by Frederik Pohl

It was perhaps inevitable that it fell to an old-timer like Pohl to chart the decline of America following the assassinations of the 1960s and the supreme folly of Vietnam. No other sf story so effectively captures the death of hope at that time, or the subsequent exploitation of conspiracies to fragment and dispel opposition. The latter is a phenomenon which Noam Chomsky has commented upon repeatedly, viewing conspiracy theory as the most ineffective form of political dissent. But where does that leave Pohl, whose story quite perfectly poses a generational conflict which is suddenly thrown into context by a space mission made futile by conspiracy.

In an America wracked by riots and social unrest, the President and his scientific adviser, Dr Knefhausen, announce a mission to Planet Aleph in Alpha Centauri, crewed by the very bravest and best, the cream of the nation's youth. Besides the announced objectives of the mission, they hope the country will rally to the cause, as it did briefly for the moon landings, and that a shared sense of purpose and hope might renew the social contract, or at least consolidate the status quo. The young are duly dispatched into space, and the President collects his kudos. Mission accomplished. Except perhaps for the astronauts. At first they send back regular mission reports which contain personal messages as well as data relating to onboard experiments. They make a number of startling scientific breakthroughs, for which the President is delighted to accept credit. Later the messages become bitter as the astronauts realise the mission is a dupe - they will never reach Alpha Centauri and were never intended to; in disgust they turn to the I Ching and the Tarot and various exotic philosophies for comfort. They practice tantric sex. They start families. One of them dies and is somehow brought back to life. They invent a faster than light drive, but refuse to share the secret because it would be irresponsible. And it is now that the astronauts have turned into space-faring hippies that the President quickly passes blame for the mission onto Knefhausen, who laments the conspiracy of hippies above and hippies below. His execution is not enough to save the President, or even to save the country from civil war. And at any rate it does not matter - nothing matters, because the astronauts are now returning home, armed by their mission rather than for it, and their revenge threatens more than a smoking gun.

There are a lot of rather clever blanks in Starbow's End. Like many a conspiracy we are left to fill in these blanks from imagination; Pohl's only stipulation is that our imaginings must be the most cynical for the story to proceed. The rule of thumb is to assume the worst and then watch the astronauts evolve beyond opposable thumbs. And then assume another worst and watch them evolve beyond that, etc, until evolution is complete, which, ironically enough, may have been Knefhausen's purpose - he was, after all, an ex-Nazi. And this I think is the point - we suspect; we suspect everything, but we can prove nothing.

Pohl later expanded Starbow's End into the novel Lifeburst, a process sometimes known as a fixup.

Shades of Darkness: by Richard Cowper

Richard Cowper's post-colonial ghost story Shades of Darkness was something of a departure for a science fiction author who spent much of his working life labouring under the shadow of his more famous father, the critic, John Middleton Murry. By all accounts the father was not much taken with the son's choice of genre, a point of view easily dismissed by casting an eye over Cowper's achievements; over a dozen books in twenty years, amongst them three undoubted classics (one novel, two collections). Thankfully Cowper Senior is entirely forgotten, whereas his son remains a solid presence in British sf, despite the fact that he is long dead and largely out of print.

Cowper's best novel is perhaps The Twilight of Briareus. This strange fusion of The Midwich Cuckoos and the Nativity is easily his most accessible novel and certainly the best he produced for Gollancz; sadly Cowper's other novels for that publisher largely failed to match his early work at Dobson, where two striking books, Breakthrough and Phoenix, established him as an outstanding mainstream interpreter of the New Wave. The only fault of these early novels is a certain flippancy in tone, as though Cowper were determined to be deprecating about his subject matter. Gollancz excised this fault, but the author's work became variable, ranging mostly between interesting (Profundis) and absurd (Worlds Apart). Where Cowper really excelled was in the field of novellas and long short stories. During the 70s and 80s he issued three splendid collections - The Custodians, The Web of the Magi, and The Tithonian Factor. These last two collections are among the best ever assembled by a British author. The title story The Web of the Magi is a winning combination of H. Rider Haggard's She and James Hilton's Lost Horizon, wherein a 19th century British engineer scouting a remote area of Tibet discovers a forgotten civilisation which dupes him into engineering time itself. Aside from its beautiful title story, The Tithonian Factor contains the environmental apocalypse story, A Message to the King of Brobdingnag, and the very English science fantasy of What Did the Deazies Do? These two volumes were never issued in paperback so far as I'm aware, but some of the stories were reprinted in a US marketed collection, Out Where the Big Ships Go. Sadly the best stories are missed from that volume. I should say that Cowper's White Bird of Kinship trilogy of books has been much praised, but I found that it didn't do much for me.

Shades of Darkness appears to have been Cowper's final novel. It was issued in 1986 by Kerosino books in a limited print run of 1000 copies. A further collector's edition ran to several hundred signed copies and contained a supplementary pamphlet of short stories. It is a ghost story with an African twist. Journalist Jim Fuller is deported from Uganda while uncovering a story of genocide there. Upon return to England he is sacked by his newspaper, which is now undergoing radical change as a Murdoch vehicle. He is persuaded by friends to turn his material into a crusading novel and rents a cottage called "Myrtles" on the coast near Colchester for the purpose of writing a first draft. He soon finds that the cottage is more haunted by Africa than he is - specifically by the conscience of a previous owner who had been very publicly caught up in the Mau-Mau horrors of the 1950s. Cowper makes use of a number of old tropes to move this story along at a fair pace - the remote cottage, the ancient, folded dress found hidden inside a trunk in the attic, the convenient cache of newspaper clippings, mysterious messages on the typewriter, and so on. But he inserts these so deftly that they do not feel like devices; rather they feel like secondary characters - we know them, we know their ways, and it is a surprise when they do not behave as anticipated. The cottage becomes an African bungalow; the dress is never worn by the plot; the newspaper clippings are reduced to ephemera, and the typewriter messages are neither threats nor gibberish but are rather an inspiration for Fuller to complete his book. He finds ultimately that he himself may be the tool of exorcism, under the guidance of a local witch, but he is so convinced by his African experience that he allows one more horror to complete his inspiration. It becomes a question of whether his imagination can survive its encounters with source material.

Shades of Darkness is a personably written novel. It features Cowper's trademark relaxed prose which tenses unexpectedly before slowly unraveling into anti-climax.  For the reader these multiple shocks are turned into a vivid, page-turning experience, and the book dictates a read of one or two sittings. Recommended.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

If you're a certain age you'll remember The Flight of the Phoenix as one of those TV staples which would screen regularly on BBC2 at six o'clock on weeknights, along with Viva Max and Five Fingers and any number of other films which are classics by wistful association. In some alternate universe FOTP might have inspired me to become an engineer, but in the universe that was a secondary modern in West Belfast, such trades were reserved for those who routinely failed at all academic subjects. Sadly I was one of those schoolboys who made a habit of scraping a pass and so was deemed academically inclined and therefore doomed to an arts degree (Politics & English) and a lifetime of penury. This was not my choice. I can't watch the film now without a compelling sense of regret.

Flight of the Phoenix was adapted from a novel by Elleston Trevor. I came to the novel after seeing the film, and it proved to be a disappointing and trying read. I think this is one instance where the film is a marked improvement over the original source material. The plot is almost the same: Almost. Having crashed their plane in the middle of the Sahara desert, pilot, navigator and passengers are driven to build a new plane from the wreckage of the old by a German engineer, who it turns out knows nothing very much about real aeroplanes. Along the way their party is whittled down by tragedy and violence to as many as their fledgling craft will carry. The cast is an international one - a mixed bag of American stars at the tail-end of their careers (James Stewart, Dan Duryea and Ernest Borgnine), British stalwarts (Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Ronald Fraser), and Hardy Kruger as the German. The difference between book and film is that Kruger's character is missing from the book; there is no officious German winning the war after the event; no German economic miracle in the desert. So the book does not have the ironies which make the film work so well in the hands of Hardy Kruger, who is something of a revelation in the role of Dorfmann. As thirst overtakes the party his reflective spectacles and jerky, mechanical gait seem to be redolent of a determinism not to be found on a film set but rather in a school-room. Which is no doubt why I found his performance so winning. I was duped too - and the final reveal of his qualifications did not have me laugh maniacally like Attenborough, but frown gently into the past at what might not have been.

The film still screens on British TV to this day, most recently on Film Four. This should be neither here nor there as I have long since bought the DVD, but there is something about a broadcast version of Flight of the Phoenix (no matter how badly edited) that makes me sit down to watch it again and again: it's one of those real-time events which is always for the first time. And I admit to having fallen for the love theme from the film, a mid-60s song that returns me to the mid-80s, which is perhaps typical of a plane that goes down in the desert. I never did get to where I was going.

Kill! aka Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! (1971)

Of all the crazy fucked-up Euro potboilers of the 70s, Kill! aka Kill! Kill! Kill Kill!! is surely the only one that approaches a high art of jerk-off instruction. It's a sick, nasty film with a stellar cast - Stephen Boyd, Jean Seberg and James Mason - who give it their all. Directed by Romain Gary, it is ostensibly a drugs bust thriller with a good deal of violence and nudity thrown in; in fact it is Gary's treatise on just how short and brutal human life can be. Gary was a Holocaust survivor: the title of his book of horror stories Hissing Tales refers allegedly to the dialogue of gases which escapes from piles of human cadavers.

Stephen Boyd, wearing his death-mask ahead of time, storms through the film as Brad Killian, psychopathic rogue cop committed to the extermination of drug dealers - not the little guys, but major narcotics producers and distributors. To make his point he single-handedly invades Af-Pak leaving a trail of corpses that infuriates local law enforcement, and in the process embarrassing his police bosses. James Mason, Interpol's best agent according to Curd Jurgens, is despatched to confront the cartels in a more conventional fashion, and to lure Boyd back into the fold; his beautiful and unhappy wife Jean Seberg proves to be the bait. She follows Mason to Pakistan, gets promptly lost, and falls over some corpses left lying around by Boyd. They embark on a violent affair, based mostly around interrogation techniques. However, Boyd's bad guy costume is a little too convincing, and as Seberg begins to deconstruct him it becomes apparent that he is a much straighter man than her husband, who has in fact gone over to the other side. Wounded and exhausted, Mason is presented with a very straight choice by Boyd - die killing or be killed - Mason opts for the former, resulting in climactic scenes which must surely be among the most unique in the annals of Franco-Spanish-Wherever co-productions. The only possible reason to sit through Kill! is to put these scenes in context - to see how many bullets can be pumped into a human body before it falls down; or to find out how slow-motion may actually be an anti-gravity device. But this fails the start-up imagination - I suspect one must go back to the director's wartime experiences for a true context. Or forward to his death - because, unsurprisingly, Romain Gary shot himself in 1980. And yet again, even this fails - because Romain Gary, whose real name was Roman Kacew, existed inside a myriad of pseudonyms and lives and marriages. It is perhaps only possible to say that Kill! is the product of a refugee turned diplomat, a pilot turned author, a husband turned agent, love turned sex, despair turned human, human turned inhuman. As he wrote of himself - Since I knew I was fictional, I thought I might have a talent for fiction.

Whoever he was, Gary is well-served by the cast and crew assembled for Kill! Boyd allows himself to be made up as a jungle beast and his middle age is suitably wild. Oddly, his original Northern Ireland accent is on display, and its sibilance is used to good effect. Seberg overcomes her usual problems with diction to present a pleasing incomprehension at the events overtaking her. James Mason adopts a cod transatlantic accent and delivers a perplexed and perplexing performance - for once he does not seem to be attuned to the material. This film is often cited as one of the low points in his career; but this was during the wandering period of the actor's life, when he was apt to accept any job that offered him a decent pay-cheque and an opportunity to travel. I suspect he was along for the ride. There are some problems with the film's continuity - the editing could be sharper. And, of course, the dubbed supporting roles are always grating on the ear. But they give the film much of its period charm. Lastly, a good deal of praise must be reserved for an often striking soundtrack by Berto Pisano and Jacques Beaumont.

All of this is of course bunkum compared to the film's final scenes, which can be watched as a stand-alone fantasia.

Raise the Titanic (1980)

Lew Grade's much denigrated adaptation of Clive Cussler's novel is that most satisfying of movie beasts - an experience that turns a bad read into a cinematic guilty pleasure. The film has rather a lot going for it now, though it's easy to see why it was panned on release - the plotting is poor, some of the model work is underwhelming, and the film has a curious atmosphere of reverence towards a ship "that never learned to do anything except sink."

American scientists attempting to build an anti-nuclear shield require copious amounts of a little-known mineral called Byzanium. After discovering a large quantity of said mineral had been transported in the hold of the Titanic, the US Navy makes arrangements to raise the infamous liner - but the Soviets have other ideas. That's it really.

Though the novel is not written in the manner of a Saturday morning serial (and Cussler would have been the first to object were it reviewed as such) the author allegedly cited "Dirk Pitt" as an Indiana Jones style character, an opinion he appears to have formed only after he had watched Raiders of the Lost Ark. If it is a matter of casting - Harrison Ford v Richard Jordan - there's no doubt Ford wins hands down. Not on acting plaudits - Jordan and Ford are equally matched there - but because Ford was carrying the dash of Han Solo with him into Spielberg's film, as well as significant box office clout; whereas Jordan was simply too ambivalent an actor to care about stardom or box office. In fact Jordan is perfect casting for the film's continued afterlife as a guilty pleasure - an acclaimed stage actor, his persistent, almost perverse, appearances in such car crashes as Solarbabies (Hello, is this your ball?) and Timebomb, guarantee the film a cult infamy; after all, this was a man who spent his evenings away from the movie set doing Havel and Shakespeare off-Broadway. The truth is that "Dirk Pitt" is one of those generic macho creations so beloved of hack authors, and Jordan excises every trace of this from the character, much to Cussler's chagrin no doubt, and to my own delight. No, the casting is fine, superb even, from Jordan to Robards and Alec Guinness.

Another problem with the Indiana Jones flannel is that Mr Cussler's unobtainium doesn't have the same religious or mystical properties as the Ark of the Covenant, nor the ability to burn up Soviets the way the Ark burns up Nazis. Unobtainium is fissionable material and its destructive potential is placed at the theoretical remove of Mutually Assured Destruction rather than the more dramatic immediacy of lightning bolts from God. Which is a pity because, while the plot of Raise the Titanic is botched, the idea of writing a cold war scenario into Titanic lore is an interesting one, and a clever acknowledgement that the only way to meet the expense of raising something like the Titanic is through defence expenditure. Indiana Jones doesn't have these resources - Dirt Pitt does. I think we can safely set aside any ideas of Raise the Titanic as a missed opportunity for an action romp as delusion. Instead we have a fairly serious film which relies on the historical and novelty value of the Titanic to do justice to an incredible plot. The fact that the Titanic story is incredible in itself goes some way towards making it work.

As director Jerry Jameson is a quirky choice - he helmed several interesting television movies during the 70s - The Deadly Tower and A Fire in the Sky among them, and Raise the Titanic appears to have been his one shot at a big-budget film. He doesn't fail, but it is obvious that he locates the heart of the film on the ship, rather than with the accompanying cold war thriller. It's a deliberate choice that he devotes almost as much time to allowing Jordan to poignantly wander the Titanic's wrecked ballroom as he does to the inevitable confrontation with the Soviets. The Soviets, sadly, are portrayed as one-dimensional characters whose apparent obsession with unobtainium closes their eyes and ears even to the alleged majesty of John Barry's score.

And therein lies the point - the real unobtainium of Raise the Titanic is the ship; not the model, not its cargo or its physical aspect, but the wistful real world ship, which is already raised daily by the imagination.

Transition: by Algernon Blackwood

A few short years ago a certain film took a hoary old twist ending and gave it a new lease of life by selling it to a generation of illiterates as something new. The writer/director, one M Night Shyamalan, was then given a blank cheque to inflict on us a series of twists so predictable as to reveal that his first film was more fluke than assimilated reading. The dead-all-the-while gambit was a staple of pulp shockers for many years, and so badly abused that it fell out of use for generations. My first encounter with it is even more unfortunate for Mr Shyamalan - it was in a short, short story by the masterful Algernon Blackwood, published about 1916.

In Transition a clerk is knocked down by a trolley-bus while carrying home Christmas presents for his wife and children. He completes the journey as a ghost, but of course no-one can see him, or his gifts. Except, that is, for his youngest child, whose much-anticipated desire for the shiny, wrapped parcels under his arms allows her to see him. So much so, in fact, that his parcels drop at her feet, while he is escorted elsewhere by Minturn, who had gone down with the Titanic.

The difference between Shyamalan and Blackwood is that the latter attempts no deception. He doesn't litter his narrative with misdirection and false clues to distract from the single idea by which his story may succeed or fail - he invites the reader to share a dead man's poignant desire to play Father Christmas from beyond the grave so that he might personally deliver the tempting fortitude of consolation to his children.

Blackwood is perhaps my favourite writer of supernatural and weird fiction, and I tend to revisit his work at Christmas, a habit most probably programmed into me by the BBC. Transition is not even one of his better stories, but it is a useful example of an almost lost art of ghosts who cannot be auto-written by the living.

Harrison Bergeron (1995)

You haven't made everybody equal, you've made them all the same...

A flawed but interesting adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's short, short story, made for television in the 1990s, scripted by Arthur Crimm, directed by Bruce Pittman, and starring Christopher Plummer and a miscast Sean Astin in the title role.

After the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War comes the great recession - called great because it is never-ending. The loss of defence expenditure to keep the world economy afloat, and ever increasing mechanisation in the workplace, leads to a second American revolution. The outcome of this revolution is the imposition of a curiously American form of "socialism" - or what they think or fear is socialism, which is something else altogether.

The film expands greatly on the original story and in doing so loses some of its satirical elements, though the fact that 2053 is presented as a nostalgia-driven 1950s, complete with retro-style cathode ray TVs and Oldsmobiles, goes some way towards amelioration if you retain the context of McCarthyism in mind: because this dystopia has much to do with America's perverse misunderstanding of socialism. In fact, Harrison Bergeron demonstrates that the US would do socialism in the same way it does capitalism - in a form so twisted as to be recognisable only by its omissions. To demonstrate: there are no free markets in America - there are only captive markets made available to corporations by government and regulated, or not, by same. Similarly, a socialist America would seek to entrench equality as a form of mediocrity which requires exceptions and exemptions to work, hence the ever present corporate elite. It quickly becomes apparent that if you choose intelligence to measure equality then eventually the society you create is only as smart as its biggest idiot: to this end the population is forced to wear electronic headbands which limit intelligence to the pre-determined average. But who determines the average?

The servicing of ideology requires a Commissar class and it is this class into which Harrison is recruited. He takes a job with the shadow government as a television executive, wherein he observes the true workings of the end of history. He is witness to the committees which decide the level at which the general run of life is to be pitched at the populace. But as he is gradually drawn into the elite's time and motion studies of eye-wash, a personal tragedy overtakes his training and he resolves to share his pain, and to show people how they are being duped and controlled at every turn. To go beyond this would be to spoil it, so I won't, except to say the film pulls none of its punches, none whatsoever - it even ends on a note of false optimism.

Harrison Bergeron came as a considerable surprise to me - I had long believed there were no 90s sf classics, as that particular decade was captured early by the awful X-Files. There is an excellent performance by Christopher Plummer as a sort of benevolent Big Brother, and much of the dialogue is witty and inventive. The film has a horribly corporate atmosphere which suits its subject matter very well. Lastly I'm reminded of L.P. Hartley's fantastic novel Facial Justice, the lost link between Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It's just a great pity that Harrison Bergeron remains so obscure - it deserves a much wider audience and greater reputation. It was apparently remade as 2081, a short film which I haven't seen, but I doubt very much it can better the original.