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Arthur C. Clarke is one of those guys that can spin the most fantastic tales in vibrant detail and searing energy – but good God does it take a long time to get there. Before we reach the ending segment that blazes with imaginative poetry, we must slog through the travels of one Dr. Heywood Floyd, and before that the hardships of ape-men, and after that, the day to day operations of the iconic spaceship, the Discovery. Forever. After only two novels I can say that Clarke has really turned me off from the hard science-fiction subgenre (cyberpunk was more my jam anyway), but – he hasn’t turned me off from Clarke. As long as we find reality-blasting scifi at the end, the first two-thirds of the novel will always have a grand payoff.

Anyone new to the 2001: A Space Odyssey novel in this day and age may already be familiar with the movie, whose ending dazzles and confuses – “can somebody tell me what the hell’s going on here?” or whatever that guy said – and be expecting the mindwarp through Jupiter, the bright white hotel suite, and the transformation into the Star Child. It hung over the narrative for… well, the narrative, and knowing it was coming did slow the less exciting moments of the book: I know this crazy shit’s going downs, but fuck me it’s taking forever. By God – Bowman and Poole’s segments before (and often during) HAL’s breakdown are very tedious. Technical details of the ship are abound, and they do seem convincing (hell, I’m no optometrist), but they’re no substitution for storytelling, or even plain exposition.

The frustrating nature of this story is inherent to its premise, and is very, very Arthur C. Clarke. Halfway through the novel we’re introduced to the Discovery mission, a manned voyage to Saturn – unprecedented even ten years after this odyssey was slated to occur. This outreach to the stars is going to take time, and if you’ve ever read a manual on science-fiction writing theory (er, this is purely speculation on my part), you’d know that those authors take to hard science-fiction like nothing else – here’s an excerpt from an essay by Poul Anderson, and note that the essay is titled, “The Creation of Imaginary Worlds”: “Remember, though, that this bit of arithmetic has taken no account of atmosphere or hydrosphere. I think they would smooth things out considerably. On the one hand, they do trap heat; on the other hand, clouds reflect a great deal of light, which thus never has a chance to reach the surface; and both gases and liquids blot up, or redistribute, what does get through.”

While I have yet to read Anderson, I acknowledge his high place in the science-fiction world. But Arthur C. Clarke was an early champion of the form, right up there with Asimov and Campbell, who balked at the sword-and-sandal-and-space stories of the television and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Clarke details his ship with a dedicated attention to detail – what the hell else is there to do on a spaceship to Saturn but walk about and muse over it? We learn so much about this damn ship that adds nothing to not just the story but the themes it’s like what people talk about when they talk about Michael Bay’s latest – he’s masturbating all over the screen with those fucking explosions. This is what Clarke does to get hard… science-fiction (boy that was… I’m sorry).

Doesn’t help that his two characters in this segment are astronauts – and let me tell you something: he loves the astronaut. In preparation for the collaborative 2001 project, a movie and novel in one go, Clarke visited the folks at NASA and I’m sure did extensive research (or just knew this stuff after years of reading), and his admiration and respect for the now-in-limbo space program shows through. Honestly, this is kind of a bad thing. Bowman and Poole aren’t really characters, but I didn’t expect them to be particularly stirring. That’s not it – they’re gods. Indeed astronauts need to be prime specimens in terms of physical ability and mental capacity but good lord from broad descriptions of these two to minor asides, it is pounded into our heads that these guys are the best at what they do and they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t and goddamn it they never screw up and wouldn’t even think about screwing up because it’d be a waste of that aforementioned mental capacity–

The application of this characterization actually does exist in the text, as once things start to fall apart for these guys, you know they’re in deep shit, because Christ – they don’t screw up. And boy do things go to shit… Pretty soon they grow suspicious of their shipboard AI, the famous HAL “Open the Pod Bay Doors HAL” 9000, that mild-mannered red eye that keeps the rig floating. Seems he sent Poole out on a maintenance mission, which requires dangerous and risky travel outside the ship. There was nothing to be fixed, and they get that uncomfortable feeling, that creeping suspicion like any minute now I’m getting knocked into space by my own runaway space-pod. Pretty soon Dave Bowman finds himself all alone on the ship (there were the scientists, but the cryo-pods were tampered with*, pretty much ensuring that the mission was a one-way ticket) with an A for asshole AI. His conflict with HAL is definitely a highlight of the novel.

The thought of wording every sentence carefully so as to not tip off the enemy in a battle with this all-powerful intelligence is a terrifying situation, one that isn’t nearly as effective in the film. Because of the narrative style employed in Kubrick’s movie, there are limits on its storytelling range; certain things must be explored less than others so as to not draw attention away from what’s most important. In the movie, the malfunction of HAL serves a specific narrative purpose in the discussion of humanity – here we have the bit about technology, a mirror intelligence that could pose a bevy of problems, namely murder. The main point of the movie is the ending, where Dave Bowman becomes the Star Child, his transcendent intelligence spelling out humanity’s future in space. To do this we must overcome our dependence on technology: A to B to C. In the novel, more attention can be paid to each scene, where such is not the case in a film of this classically minimalist style.

Bowman is eventually victorious, but the toll is almost too much to bear, especially when considering he’s got a few months left before Saturn. Seems like Jupiter, the planet he had to slingshot around** for speed, is still in the rear-view. Now we’re just waiting for something to happen, and only then does Bowman happen upon a gigantic monolith on the moon Japetus, delivering the famous line that I was waiting for the whole book, “My God – it’s full of stars!” From there, you know what happens.

He turns into a big ol’ baby, an astounding, mind-bending transformation. It’s the The Last Generation of 2001, and it’s just as incredible as it was in the movie, if not more so. It does also however, present a major issue I have. The romance of man’s vertical manifest destiny, as willed along by his best and brightest (descriptions of Poole and Bowman are like hero worship) is contradicted by the aliens’ predestination. Just as in Childhood’s End, these godliens watch over us and are described as farmers of the stars, where the crop is the mind, the dawning of intelligence. So what is being said here?

The movie on the whole makes a much stronger point, where the novel is somewhat muddled. Ambiguity is the name of the game for the film, where in the book we’re treated to one of the strangest chapters in the book, “Concerning ET’s,” which states definitively that the monolith was the work of super intelligence space ghost gods. Creatures so evolved they take to monitoring the development of intelligence in other worlds as a pastime, and eventually reach a stage where they no longer require their massive, synthetic spaceship bodies (wonder if Casey Hudson and co. ever read this one) to become part of the cosmos, something like what happened to the dude in Phoenix Vol. 2. This chapter is the perfectly analogous to the greater work; a survey of a textbook transplanted into a narrative, and here we delve into at first interesting territory, but soon declines and worships scientists again. By the time we get back to the cool stuff, he’s lost me again. Most stories take a break in the action to have character moments. 2001 breaks to engage in thoughtful and polite discourse on a range of science topics. Indeed, we go from aliens to space travel to Childhood’s End to Ghost in the Shell to God in a span of five or so pages.

So indeed there are alien gods out there, and they’ve set the monolith up on first the Earth and then under the Moon’s surface for us to find – a Sentinel, if you will – just waiting for the day when we reach Saturn and turn into space-babies. In the movie, it’s sort of ambiguous. Perhaps the monolith isn’t meant to be taken as reality, it’s just a cinematic manifestation of Intelligence, or maybe it’s just something left behind by a better civilization. I never got the idea that we were playing into a greater plan by doing these things. At the end of the day, getting to Saturn is great and all, but fuck – it was just a matter of time, according to these aliens.

2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t a perfect novel, and the film isn’t a perfect movie. They’re both highly enjoyable though, and offer brief moments of jaw-dropping science-fiction in between all the molasses.*** It’ll be awhile before I pick up another Clarke; I really got to psyche myself out because it can be quite the endurance test, like what David Bowman went through to reach that wonderful endgame. So watch out, Earthlight – you’d better have some fucking world-ending shit going on in you…

 

*This scene is so obnoxious in the movie. Those fucking alarm noises go on for way too long – so long that my father actually went into the room I was watching the thing in to see what was going on: “Oh, it’s the movie. … Yeah…”

**The visual reality of putting Saturn with its many, gloriously described rings on the silver screen was too much for even pros like Kubrick and Douglas Trumbull. Rather than slingshot around Jupiter, Bowman ended up there, but that slingshot idea would find its way into 2010: The Year We Make Contact, a surprisingly touching scene in a surprisingly touching movie.

***Molasses seems like a broken metaphor; sure, it means slow, but molasses is also sweet, correct? I wouldn’t know – I’m not from a hundred years ago, lol. See? I said lol.

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This is an exceptional piece of science-fiction. It is at once contained within a broader serialized, narrative structure, and a story that escalates from the personal to the grandiose on a cosmic level in a brisk but dense 260 pages. It mixes humor and tragedy, cartoon buffoonery and provocative SF what-ifs?, all while telling a rich and engaging story. The final half recalled to me one of the most startling moments in science-fiction I’d experienced recently – “The Last Generation” segment of Childhood’s End. Its turbulent story kept getting larger and larger and more exciting, similar to how “The Last Generation” seemed to encapsulate Children of Men and Akira as it discussed the end and transcendence of humankind. Plotwise, Phoenix isn’t too far off, telling a story about the death and rebirth of mankind as its hero Masato is granted immortality, a terrible burden he can’t handle, and illustrates that point by shooting himself in the head – to no avail.

You’re probably wondering why I’m only talking about Volume 2, and the answer is simple and sad: the first volume is hella lot of money, and as much as I’d like to read it, just can’t. I don’t think Volume 3 is even in my price range either, so I’ll have to shoot right on to 4 from here on out. I don’t the answer for this price-kerfuffle, but I assume it’s some company/international/licensing fuckups. One of those words. From what I read of the back cover of this particular volume, each story is self-contained, so I suppose it shouldn’t be that much of a problem. Indeed, I can’t imagine what a “Phoenix, Vol. 3” would even look like – if I were a writer I would scratch my head bloody on where to go from here.

In the future, people have destroyed the planet. Or perhaps, in the near future, we’ve destroyed the planet, and this has forced our children and grand-children underground in massive subterranean cities. These cities are governed by supercomputers, think HAL 9000 but switch out the ‘homicidal’ for ‘genocidal.’ Eventually the computers, whose orders must be carried out unquestioned, want to wage nuclear war. Meanwhile, our hero Yamanobe Masato escapes the city into the dangerous surface-world where he eventually meets up with old Dr. Saruta and his robot friend Robita. Masato was on the run for harboring an illegal alien creature, and fellow space-patrolman Roc was after him. Masato made the mistake of falling in love with a shape-shifting “moopie,” whose dreams transport people to virtual worlds of wonder and romance. In Dr. Saruta’s terrestrial dome fortress, the moopie Tamami and Masato run into a magical bird of fire that transcends space and time and can speak telepathically…

Despite the comparison to works of Arthur C. Clarke, Phoenix is far from hard science-fiction. In fact, it would have the more conservative SF nerdlets among us pissing their pants in frustration (I don’t suppose people actually do that) for its seemingly freewheeling mixing of genre tropes from both science-fiction and fantasy. Nobody likes the term space-fantasy, or science-fantasy – so let’s just discard subgenres for a moment. Indeed, there are magical birds that can shrink to smaller than an atom co-existing in a future of robots and spaceships, and my jaw dropped with each revelation of something fantastic. We go from futuristic city to shape-shifting aliens to magic birds to God in two-hundred pages, and it sounds clumsy when I say it, but it all gels so well, and you never doubt its confidence, as this is afterall the masterwork of the godfather of the medium.

This is my introduction to Osamu Tezuka, who’s perhaps best known as the creator of Astro Boy. I was attracted more to Phoenix than his iconic boy android for what little I’d hear about on podcasts and blogs; in my head I concluded that this was The Fountain in comic form before we had The Fountain in comic form. Themes of immortality and combating death were things I enjoyed from that particular movie, and wanted to see again. Tezuka does deal with these things, but never hacks at your soul and makes you depressed like Arrenofsky did so skillfully and so underratedly in 2006. He interweaves humorous touches that are sometimes deftly performed and sometimes not so much, but are always in keeping with the tone.

What tone is that? I hardly know, but Phoenix comes off as a pulpy science-fiction story with a tremendous amount of pathos and a heart-breaking, literary story. As much as it blows your mind with moments like Masato lamenting his eternal life span and contemplating how he’ll live the next billion years, it’ll keep things light with its visuals and characters who aren’t always as serious as the situations they occupy. In this way, Phoenix did for me what Rin Taro’s Metropolis from 2001 did for others. Metropolis, and I could see this, juxtaposed rough – albeit PG-13 rated – violence with cute Tezuka designs, in doing so heightening the impact of that robot being shot, probably by Roc. He does that.

Another thing I greatly enjoyed about Phoenix is that every character was at least memorable. At best they were downright compelling in their metaphyical journeys, and at the least they were good for a gag or two. Even the villain in the piece, Roc, isn’t a total bastard, though he does kill Robita, which was uncalled for. I went into this with a bias against Roc from Metropolis, where, if I remember correctly (probably not), he was a plain dick-o. In this story he does terrible things, but there are moments where genuine humanity flashes through those immovable sunglasses. His relationship with Masato is interesting; it’s clear they were once friends, but the job ate Roc up and turned him into a monster. He is humbled by his doom at the hands of radiation, and goes out reflecting and appreciating the environment around him, something he probably never did as a space-patrolman.

Phoenix’s haughtier themes never seem preachy because there is an underlying innocence that should really, in the end, read: earnestness. This is a passionate work of art with a social conscience, and like Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, which outlines the evils of drugs by showing what measures we must go to end them, provides a very human story amidst the fantastic, never losing its inspiring sense of wonder and tragedy.

Spoiler Alert, seriously. You should make the effort to read Ubik if you haven’t already, and then come back and skim this, the usual stuff. It’s actually a pretty quick read, and this is coming from somebody who rarely meanders onto the printed page. It must have taken me three months to read Childhood’s End, but Ubik was only a matter of three days.

Ubik is the most maddening, perplexing, fascinating, and mind-blowing novel I’ve yet to read. It feels, essentially, like a funny PKD short story like “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” but blown up to 200 pages. That’s not a bad thing, but it does present one crucial problem. There’s a punchline to the novel, and it feels like a giant joke, in some way, that Philip K. Dick is dictating to us with his usual wit and entertaining prose. That’s fine, except that I didn’t feel nearly as much sympathy for the hero of the aforementioned short story as I did with Joe Chip or Glen Runciter – or even Pat Conley, who’s involvement in the narrative took me the most. When the characters are victims of some massive farce by the end of a phildickian short story, it’s the story itself that sticks with us; the characters are just vessels by which the story’s punchline gets through. In the longform medium, the paradigm shifts, and the length and complexity of the journey undertaken by the characters engages us on a higher level with those characters.

And yet, Ubik ends with the short story kick, which, by the time I reached the About the Author section and gazed upon it with wild eyes, caused me to emit a sound not unlike a groan, but more like a yelp. I was shocked, but this feeling was both amplified and frustrated by emotions gathered in the immediately preceeding chapter: disgust, mostly. When Jory was revealed I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough to reveal how hero Joe Chip would resolve this larger-than-life conflict in the last twenty or so pages, meanwhile ticking away in my mind about how the scenario depicted is like The Matrix (or Inception, if you’d rather) but so much more fucked up, unbelievably so.

In the novel’s final moments, I was constantly reminded of how close to death Joe Chip was, how horrible this death would be, how irreversibly screwed he was, and how no matter what satirical 1992 future he lived in where life and death operate on a strange new level – he could never escape it. My mind was churning with these dark, intense thoughts, and after I put the book down one last time I experienced something very rare.

Usually in science-fiction I really fall in love with, I find myself thinking about the themes and ideas explored long after the title has expired, and usually I relate them here on this website. After Ubik, I was literally thoughtless. My mind was actually blown, taken up to a height unprecedented by an author with golden wings and dropped at the turn of the final page onto hard pavement. The disturbing nature of half-life and of Jory shook me, carrying me with jolting unease through the rest of the novel, where my mental discomfort paralleled hero Joe Chip’s frantic and shattering struggle to regain control of his body – inside his mind.

Based on what Wikipedia has to offer, and the scrawling I’ve found on the inside covers as penned by the book’s previous owner, the eponymous Ubik has been interpreted as God, something that heals us and is everywhere. The argument is that Ubik restores our faith in ourselves, makes Joe Chip believe that he can win the unwinnable fight against Jory. But in the end, he cannot. Eventually things run out – everything ends, and in the Ubik universe, things seem to end with Jory. So is Dick in this way criticizing God and our faith in him? The ending makes me think so, which essentially says that we can’t be sure of anything, not even God or his healing powers, but death is a constant for everyone, no matter how far we get into the future.

I don’t know. Philip K. Dick would go on to write more blatantly theological novels, yet Ubik isn’t considered one of them. It is however, very phildickian, and one clear tell is the inclusion of the dark-haired girl. This time it’s a character named Pat Conley, who indeed is malevolent and a force of destruction. For me, she’s also a force of more discomfort – I really didn’t take to the idea that she was eaten by Jory, that just didn’t sit well with me. Otherwise she was an interesting character among a cast of interesting characters, and I can’t help but wonder how Philip K. Dick manages to balance so many well-rounded elements in one novel, considering how fast he put these and the short stories out.

There’s a lot to be said about Ubik, but I don’t have the capacity to say it. I’ll leave this one up to you, dear reader, because I think what we have here is something of a personal journey to be undertaken, and I can only point you in the Dickiest direction.

 

 

I am not a reader of fiction. Non-fiction I can handle, so long as it’s a subject matter I can appreciate, like blog-writing theory. But fictional novels take me hella long time, which has discouraged me from getting into them unless they’re the absolute correct titles. One such title in the canon of science-fiction literature was Childhood’s End – and yes, it took me a long time.

That’s actually one of the reasons why I liked it, and why reading longform SF narratives is such a great experience. Because it is such a commitment for me to dive into a book of wow 200 pages, it’s something of a journey where I’m consciously pushing the story forward or putting it down. Not like watching a movie, which is by nature a passive experience and has to really reach out to be great. The novel already has that leg up, so when it reaches out, it can reach fantastic potentials.

It’s similar to watching the credits roll after a real single-player campaign in a video-game, for example Mass Effect. You’ve been everywhere with that character, done cool things and met neat people. You were taken on a journey that you had a level of control over. It’s more likely that I’m satasfied at the end of that game because of solid design than its length, but whatever. Of course, Childhood’s End, and by extension many science-fiction novels, details a better story than Mass Effect, though there are similarities. One can’t help but think that Reapers are just a malevolent Overmind, and that the twist revealing the Overlords’ true fate is akin to a twist that occurs in Mass Effect.

The relationship between man and alien is described uniquely in either title, unique to each other and other alien invasion stories. In The War of the Worlds we have a military invasion, but we never get the feeling that these are all-powerful beings or anything out of our tactical range. By populating galaxies, the scope of Mass Effect and Childhood’s End is enlarged – and none of this is to say that the two titles are anomalies in the landscape of science-fiction; rather that it’s interesting to trace roots of inspiration, if that’s truly what the novel was for the video-game.

Childhood’s End, despite a first 130 pages that left me scratching my head, is by the end one of the novels that reaches the aforementioned fantastic height. Watching way too many lukewarm to good science-fiction movies as I do, I forget just how powerful and moving a title in the genre can actually be, despite its lack of conventional human drama, though that was present at times. The ideas presented in the story by the last chapter, “The Last Generation,” shook me. It presented a situation that was so larger than life and so devastating that I couldn’t help but fall into something of a light depression. It was bizarre.

It’s a story about the end of humanity, and how it’s told is, as everyone has already said in the 60 years since its reception, imbalanced. The narrative is told episodically, and we have four major characters relating the story through the expanse of a hundred years. I don’t know how this decision was reached, but throughout the course of the first and second chapters (out of three) I was getting Dollars Trilogy syndrome – no clear plotline equals no sense of development. There were characters and situations detailed that didn’t seem pertinent to what I was interested in, but there was a reason for it, by the end.

I just wish it didn’t take so long. Indeed, there is a lot about how puny humans cannot understand the Overlords and how the Overlords are so secret, and these themes run throughout the first and second chapters. The payoff is in the third act, and it is so grand I would be sinning to spoil it. I understood why there was so much discussion of x, y, and z, and perhaps if I read more often it wouldn’t have taken so long to get that payoff so I wouldn’t be upset, but when I look at the book, it’s divided into thirds where it could be divided in half.

Or the first two thirds could be telling as fascinating a story as the last. Regardless, there are still wonderful revelations to be found in the first two chapters; this was not a slog like other science-fiction novels I’ve experienced, namely Atlas Shrugged. It always held my attention, and if that’s not enough of a recommendation – the last chapter basically blew my mind.

Perhaps later I’ll try to do a more in-depth study, but I wanted to keep this spoiler free.

Here’s a title that will be referenced frequently in the coming weeks with the start of the Blade Runner post series proper; Philip K. Dick had a lot of interesting things to say about the one film based on his material produced during his lifetime. He also had a lot to say about The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, the final book, and The Owl in Daylight, those segments of which are fascinatingly maddening.

The editors Gwen Lee and Doris Elaine Sauter were good friends of Philip K. Dick, and Lee had taped several conversations with the man between January 10 and January 15, 1982, just months before his death. This book is a collection of those interviews, and we get insight not only on the various concerns of the writer, but the way he talks, which when translated on the page is cumbersome and near-scatterbrained. It’s clear by the things he says and the ideas he tackled (and was going to tackle with The Owl in Daylight) that he’s got a hell of a lot going on up there, and so truncated thoughts, contradictions and the like can be excused.

It is afterall, a fascinating read.

The title of the book, What If Our World Is Their Heaven? represents a bit of a tragedy, as it alludes to an idea Dick was working with for his new book, The Owl in Daylight. There’s a long segment where he and Gwen Lee are actually working out the premise behind the book, and it’s a compelling if dangerous method of pre-writing. He doesn’t start with narrative, he doesn’t start with the personal philosophy he’s written many of his stories under – it’s almost indescribable, and I don’t want to spoil it, if such a thing were possible.

Easily the most intriguing bit in the book was Philip K. Dick’s discussion of the connection he often has with his fictional characters, in particular Angel Archer, who he fell in love with. He claims that The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, the one non-science-fiction novel (the only ‘literary’ one, as he says) he wrote, nearly killed him, that it was the hardest and least rewarding book he wrote. Upon inquiry, he responds with, “I don’t have very much to show for it. I mean, I could have written five science-fiction novels.” He may believe that it was perhaps a wasted effort, augmented by the fact that he did fall sick during or after writing it, but something very important happened.

After he finished the book and had to part ways with it, he felt that he was losing someone – he realized that he was parting ways with the main character Angel Archer, a dark-haired girl that he had spent so much time with. As he says, the writing of Angel was an unprecedented event, as he had actually created a character who was better, smarter, and cooler than he. He found that he was writing about things that she knew of, and he had to research later to understand.

Sounds odd, but that’s only because it is. And that’s Philip K. Dick for you. None of the stories you’ll hear about him make sense, but it doesn’t matter if you believe it or not, because he did, and that’s what translated into some awesome fiction, and an extraordinary life, the latter of which is captured briefly here in this book.

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