In which I track down intelligent life

Hawkwind’s 1999 album In Your Area is a bit of a hodgepodge, being half live, half studio, and with most of the original material consisting of instrumentals rather than original songs. As a result it never really creates that unique identity, that particular atmosphere an album needs to bring you back to it again and again. But after buying it I had it on pretty much constant play for a couple of weeks, largely because of a 44-second track halfway through, called “The Nazca”. A typical Hawkwind weirdie, it consists of the usual electronic synth wooshiness and what I thought, at first, must be a sample from some classic sci-fi film:

“Intelligent life is so very rare. The rarest thing in creation, but the most precious. It is the only thing that gives meaning to the universe. Without it, nothing begins, nothing ends…”

Something about that quote grabbed me. It seemed cosmic, tragic, and hopeful all at once. I really wanted to know where it came from, but for once a Google search turned up absolutely no results, and despite having seen a good many classic SF films (and having read about a good few more) I couldn’t imagine which one it might come from. (The title was no help. It refers to the Nazca lines in Peru — those large-scale ground-doodles made, about one and a half thousand years ago, for the amusement of the gods, or any other sky-flying entity that happens to be passing.)

Things got even more intriguing when the same voice (and therefore, I assumed, an extract from the same quote) appeared in a few more Hawkwind tracks, speaking some different lines. One version of Tim Blake’s solo piece, “Lighthouse”, for instance, has:

“We are a very old people, from a very old planet compared to yours. If we are to survive we must colonise…”

Finally, a couple of months ago, I got the answer. The quote wasn’t from an old SF film, it’s from John Wyndham’s 1968 novel Chocky.

Assuming it was from the 1984 TV adaptation (which I missed at the time it was first shown, probably because it was on ITV, and I tended to watch BBC), I put it on my LoveFILM rental list. But that turned out only to feature a very shortened version of the “Intelligent Life” speech, and in a totally different voice. (It had good theme music, though. A little reminiscent of Brian Eno’s “Sparrowfall (2)” from Music For Films (1978), but excusably so, because I suspect the melody was designed to echo the word “Chocky”, and it’s the melody that makes it sound similar to the Eno track.) There’s also a 1967 BBC radio adaptation (which can be found at Archive.org), but there the “Intelligent Life” speech is equally short.

I’m going to keep searching, but I suspect it must have been recorded by Mr Brock and co. themselves. Either way, here’s some more of the quote from the novel (all the dot-dot-dots are present in the original):

“But intelligent life is rare… very rare indeed… the rarest thing in creation…

“But the most precious…

“For intelligent life is the only thing that gives meaning to the universe. It is a holy thing, to be fostered and treasured.

“Without it nothing begins, nothings ends, there can be nothing through all eternity but the mindless babbling of chaos…

“Therefore, the nurture of all intelligent forms is a sacred duty. Even the merest spark of reason must be fanned in the hope of a flame.”

Which I absolutely agree with.

It’s a nice little novel, mildly satirical of the comfortable middle-classes it is also so obviously addressed to. Although ostensibly about a little boy who is contacted telepathically by a far advanced alien being, Chocky could equally be taken as a tale about the emergence of a creative talent, and about the way the conventionalities, and even the kindnesses, of a civilised society do their best to stifle, embarrass, disapprove of, and generally shut it up.

Spock

Captain’s log, supplemental.

I’ve now worked my way through the whole of Star Trek‘s first season, and have watched the first episode of the second season. The thing I like most about the show — the first time around and this — has to be Spock. He is, aside from the obvious technological trappings (the Enterprise, phasers, “warp factor eight”, “beam me up”) the most science-fictional aspect of the show, being its only regular alien. The alien as unemotional, wholly logical entity was surely a bit of cliché even by the mid-sixties, but the fact that Spock was a main character meant it was something that could be explored in a bit more depth, and so you quickly go beyond the cliché. (Thanks in great part, of course, to Leonard Nimoy’s acting, which lends Spock a great deal of dignity, even managing to withstand the increasingly regular habit of Kirk & co. to end each episode with a joke at Spock’s expense. If it’s not his relentless logic, it’s his pointy ears.)

But Spock gets some of the best jokes. His way of distracting a guard prior to giving him the Vulcan nerve-grip, for instance: “Sir, you have a multi-legged creature crawling on your shoulder.” I remembered that from the first time I saw the series, and it was a little joy to rediscover. Also, when McCoy breaks off an argument with Spock to ask, “Shouldn’t you be working on your calculations?” and Spock says, coolly, “I am.” (One more Spock joke for the road. “You never told me if you had another name, Mr Spock.” “You couldn’t pronounce it.”)

The interesting thing about Spock, as a character, is how he is basically characterised in relation to the people around him. You could imagine a show featuring only Kirk — in fact we get several episodes where Kirk is isolated and has to work on his own — but it’s impossible to imagine a show with only Spock in it. Spock, on his own, would be dull. It would be just him looking into his readout device, occasionally nodding to himself, occasionally raising an eyebrow. He only comes to life, as a character, when his unemotional, logical nature is brought into contrast with the emotional, irrational nature of humans. This is an extreme example of what story guru Robert McKee calls “cast design” — where aspects of a character are brought out only by having other (usually minor) characters act as contrasts to them.

Even Spock having one of his emotional episodes — this being the main surprise his character is capable of, and so is, as a result, something that happens quite regularly — only makes sense when he has something to feel about, which means other characters. The archetypal episode in this sense is “Amok Time”, the opener of the second season. This has to be my favourite episode so far (and a better one, in my opinion, than the episode usually slated as the best Star Trek ever, Harlan Ellison’s “City on the Edge of Forever“). Here, we get Spock as a teenager, moodily refusing to explain what’s making him so miserable, then retreating to his cabin to pluck disconsolately on his Vulcanian harp. “Amok Time” was written by Theodore Sturgeon, one of my favourite writers (it is, in fact, the second of two episodes he wrote for Star Trek, the first being “Shore Leave”, a much less characteristic episode). “Amok Time” is, it seems to me (unversed in Star Trek fandom as I am) something of an equivalent to Doctor Who‘s “Deadly Assassin“, where we finally get to see the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey, and as a result the mythology of the whole programme moves up a gear. In fact, I’d say “Amok Time” had an effect not only on the way subsequent Star Treks built their universe of alien races, but how other (mostly US) TV SF programmes define their alien cultures, too. “Amok Time” gives us not only Spock’s famous split-fingered salute (“Live long and prosper”), but hints at the existence of an entire, ancient culture through one of its key rites of passage. This is something you see time and time again in subsequent SF TV — the Taurons’ gangsterish tattooing and coming-of-age get-togethers in the recent Battlestar Galactica spin-off Caprica, for instance. I have to admit, this approach usually irritates me, as it seems a bit superficial. In Caprica, the Taurons’ invented rituals just seemed to have been lifted from other, existing cultures — Yakuza tattooing, Jewish bar mitzvahs — and modified a bit to make them alien, but in “Amok Time”, the ritual is linked to a specific aspect of Vulcan biology. It has a reason; it’s not merely striving for an effect. As a result, it works.

The most character-defining moment in “Amok Time”, though, is not the rite of passage, or Spock’s adolescent moodiness beforehand, it’s the moment his realises he hasn’t killed Kirk at all, and is, for a second, genuinely happy. He quickly collects himself, but from then on you know that, beneath all the illogicality and decorum, Spock is, really, just one of us. And no doubt part of his personality is down to the role he sees himself as playing as part of the Enterprise’s family — he consciously defines himself as “the one who’s not human”, and does his best to act that way. Cast design, then, is a two-way process.

But I bet he enjoys those jokes at the expense of his ears as much as the rest of the crew.

Flashman, and other reprobates

I really enjoyed the recent two-week stint of My Life in Books that led up to World Book Day. Hearing Anne Robinson’s guests talk about their favourite books didn’t make me want to rush out and buy them, though, but tended to make me want to re-read my own favourites. The one exception was George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman. I’d heard a bit about it before, and its mention on the programme re-piqued my curiosity, so I decided to give it a go.

Flashman was published in 1969, but the character Harry Paget Flashman dates back to 1857, when he was the bully in Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes. In the Flashman Papers (as the series is called), George MacDonald Fraser has that same school bully narrate the events of his subsequent life — a life in which this self-confessed coward, cad and reprobate becomes embroiled in many of the major historical events of the Victorian Age. (The first book, for instance, sees him slap-bang in the midst of the first Anglo-Afghan War.) The Flashman books are so gleefully un-PC, they can’t be taken as anything but satire — satire on the Empire itself, and on the essential emptiness of the myth of the Gentleman Hero it used to whitewash all the mingled racism, sexism and classism that drove it. As such, Flashman is a paragon — a gentleman to the last, he womanises, he beats his servants, he treats the lower classes with utter contempt, but nevertheless manages to come out seeming, in the eyes of the all-too-ready-to-believe Victorian public, a hero, despite the facts. (Though not entirely without his private comeuppances. The one woman he loves turns out to have just as cavalier an attitude to men as he does towards women.)

I didn’t quite enjoy the book enough to want to read the rest of the series, though. The trouble was, Flashman, as an anti-hero, doesn’t really go far enough. Yes, he’s a reprobate, a coward and a cad, but he never came across as having sufficient relish for his misdeeds, and as a result just seems rather mean-spirited. (Exactly like a bully, I suppose, but that’s not enough to sustain a series.) He was too matter-of-fact about the whole thing, and seemed to have no real motivation apart from escaping with his hide intact. If he’d just been that much more of an connoisseur of his own wickedness, it would have given him that much more vivacity, that much more life, that much more character.

This becomes obvious if you compare him with similar roguish types. Shakespeare’s Falstaff, for instance, who is such a larger-than-life reprobate his very cowardice becomes a sort of heroism. Falstaff is a poet of self-justification. He has such a way with words that, at the very moment he’s talking his way out of being caught lying, he turns it into something that is both wonderfully comic and humanly tragic at the same time. Accused of being a thief, he says: “Why, Hal, ’tis my vocation, Hal; ’tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation.” Explaining his running away when the disguised Hal robs him so easily, he talks his very cowardice into a proof that he is in fact a “valiant lion”. His lies are so boldfaced, so brazen and bombastic, but he wins us over by being so very human, so full of life.

Or, to take another historical cad: Edmund Blackadder. Just as much a coward, a cad and a reprobate as Harry Flashman, Blackadder lives for the cunning plan, for the witty reversal of his ill-fortunes, so that while we can laugh at him for his downfalls, we can also feel for him when he comes out on top. What makes you want to feel for him is the joy he takes in his own rascallous actions.

A third example comes from another book I read for the first time recently, Treasure Island. Although it is narrated by the young Jim Hawkins, the character that lingers in the mind once the book is finished is Long John Silver. When Silver speaks, it’s like he’s snatching the pen from Robert Louis Stevenson’s hand. He commands the page. Silver is, of course, a pirate — the very source of all one-legged, grog-swilling, blue-tongued, be-parrotted pirates ever since — but he’s no pantomime villain. He is gloriously, impeccably self-interested. As soon as the pirates are losing, he’s ready to switch sides. He vows his life and loyalty to young Jim, but as soon as there’s a whiff of treasure to be had, he’s ready to switch back again. There’s a wonderful moment when a mere look from Silver reveals his true inner character in a flash of betrayal:

Silver hobbled, grunting, on his crutch; his nostrils stood out and quivered; he cursed like a madman when the flies settled on his hot and shiny countenance; he plucked furiously at the line that held me to him and from time to time turned his eyes upon me with a deadly look. Certainly he took no pains to hide his thoughts, and certainly I read them like print. In the immediate nearness of the gold, all else had been forgotten: his promise and the doctor’s warning were both things of the past, and I could not doubt that he hoped to seize upon the treasure, find and board the HISPANIOLA under cover of night, cut every honest throat about that island, and sail away as he had at first intended, laden with crimes and riches.

Alone of all the pirates, Silver escapes with his life at the end — and, in a sense, escapes the confines of the book, too, for he’s the one character with life enough to become so much more than the words he was made out of.

Compared to Falstaff, Blackadder and Long John Silver, Flashman seems a bit pallid. Perhaps this is just because, in the first book, he’s young, and the above examples are all of people with a bit more experience behind them. Does the series get better? Does Flashman get more caddish, more full of life? If I knew, I’d venture to read some of the rest.

What books do best

I love films. I love music. I love games, comics, paintings, the lot. But most of all I love books, stories told in words. I’m not going to argue that my chosen favourite form of art/entertainment (if only there was one word that meant both and didn’t sound either pretentious or disparaging) is better than the others, because it’s not. They’re all means of telling stories, or saying interesting things, and they all work in different ways. The ones that work best are the ones that use the strengths of their form to the best advantage. In Watchmen, for instance, Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore deliberately used one of the advantages of comics to do something which can’t be translated into film — the fact that you can pack a lot of detail into each panel, and the reader can linger, and flip back and forth, to really absorb that detail. That’s why, when watching the recent film of Watchmen, I kept thinking, “But they’ve missed out… And what about… And where’s..?” All the way through.

But what do books do best? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

The weaknesses are obvious. Unlike all the other art-forms I listed above, they can only say one thing at a time — worse, they can only build up what they want to say one word at a time, which means you have to put a lot of work in just to get to the first thing they want to say. Music can be instantly impressive; the first shot of a film can just grab you; a splash page opening a comic takes you right into its story; but even “Call me Ishmael” has to be read one word at a time.

What are books’ strengths? I’ll take my answer not from a book, but a song:

Book after book
I get hooked
Every time the writer
Talks to me like a friend

— “Spaceball Ricochet“, Marc Bolan

Books talk to you, just like people do. Alright, you don’t see them waving their hands and pulling faces while they’re talking (books are more like telephone conversations, in that way), and they don’t allow you to talk back (or they don’t listen if you do), but although books are the least like our sensory experience of the world (mostly pictures and sounds), they are, I think, the most like our experience of people.

Some books (like some people) talk at you, and expect you to believe what they say because it’s they who say it. Such books are written by Authors, and their Authorship comes from them regarding themselves as Authorities — and that’s a little too close to regarding themselves as what Philip Pullman called The Authority in His Dark Materials, i.e., God. (Books written by Adults for children all too easily fall into this trap. Don’t they, my dearie wittle ones?)

The best books, though, are written by human beings, not Authors. They talk to you as an equal, as another human being, and don’t try to be clever or sophisticated or loud, or to put on airs:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson.

Idle reader: without my swearing to it, you can believe that I would like this book, the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and the most discreet that anyone could imagine. But I have not been able to contravene the natural order; in it, like begets like.

Don Quixote, Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful of spaghetti and whistling along to an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami

Ever since people started reading books silently (Saint Ambrose is recorded as the first to engage in this peculiar practice), when books speak, they do so inside your head. In this way, they can seem not so much to be speaking to you, as to be the result of your eavesdropping on someone else’s thoughts, their own interior monologue raised to the clarity of complete and artistically ordered sentences.

What goes on in other people’s heads is, of course, one of the great mysteries of life. We can be reasonably sure that if I see a red penguin and you see a red penguin then the sensory impression received by our eyes is roughly the same thing, but the thoughts that go through our separate heads (“A red penguin? Am I insane?!” and “Ah, the Red Penguin returns…”) can be as different as, well, two books on a shelf.

But it’s in books that we have the solution to this mystery. Books allow the most intimate contact with the inside of another person’s head, because the writer doesn’t have to talk to us like a friend, they can go one better, and talk to us as they would to themselves, either about themselves, or (if they’re pure narrator) about the story, situation or picture they see:

The Piano Teacher, Erika Kohut, bursts like a whirlwind into the apartment she shares with her mother. Mama likes calling Erika her little whirlwind, for the child can be an absolute speed demon. She is trying to escape her mother. Erika is in her late thirties. Her mother is old enough to be her grandmother.

The Piano Teacher, Elfriede Jelinek, translated by Joachim Neugroschel

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.

Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

A-hind of hill, ways off to sun-set-down, is sky come like as fire, and walk I up in way of this, all hard of breath, where is grass colding on I’s feet and wetting they.

Voice of the Fire, Alan Moore.

A good book opens up a world and surrounds you in it. Because it starts inside your head, if read right, it replaces your senses and becomes your world, while you read it. One word at a time you go into all the strangeness, wonder, fear and peculiarity of being another human being. Which, you of course find, is just like being yourself. Only, with the furniture moved about a bit.