Codename Icarus

Another kids’ TV drama that has lingered in my memory, Codename Icarus (1981) is a quite different beast from Break in the Sun, which I wrote about a couple of years ago, though the two share a structural similarity. Written by Richard Cooper, and directed by Marilyn Fox (who, among her other credits, directed the 1988 BBC adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as well as working on over a hundred episodes of Jackanory), is a Cold War thriller, mixing defence-of-the-realm espionage, government corruption, and the development of a new “ultimate weapon”, with a story about the exploitation of exceptionally intelligent youngsters.

It starts with 4th-year student Martin Smith (Barry Angel) being berated by his maths teacher in front of the class for his stupidity, only for Martin to solve a difficult problem effortlessly on the blackboard. Refusing to believe it, the teacher accuses him of cheating and has his parents brought in to see the head teacher. Martin, meanwhile, sneaks into the school’s computer room to tap in some complex equations he’s been working on, and is surprised to have the computer talk back, challenging him to solve a problem of its own. Which he does, easily.

Barry Angel as Martin Smith

His well-meaning working-class parents can’t understand why they’ve been called in. The head teacher says Martin is disruptive and a poor student, but they know him to be very clever and well-behaved. Asked what’s going on, Martin later tells his father he hates his maths teacher because “He never once said that maths was beautiful.” The next time he sneaks into the computer room, Martin is confronted by John Doll (Philip Locke), the man responsible for sending through that problem the computer challenged him with. Doll is head of Falconleigh, a school for exceptionally gifted children, and he tells Martin that’s where he should be.

Philip Locke as John Doll

Meanwhile in the grown-up world, British weapons tests have been going awry when missiles have been exploding way before they hit their target. Commander Andy Rutherford (Jack Galloway), part scientist, part spy-catcher, is put on the trail of finding out why. Consulting with his scientific advisor friend Frank Broadhurst (a.k.a. “the Fat Man”, though he’s hardly overweight by modern standards; played by ’Alo ’Alo’s Gorden Kaye), Andy is told there isn’t any technology that could be used to remotely set off a missile from any practicable distance, but he latches onto the idea that someone, somewhere, is pushing the bounds of science, and when he hears about the Icarus Foundation, an international charitable trust that runs schools for the most scientifically gifted young minds, he decides to investigate. (And this is the structural similarity with Break in the Sun I mentioned above: we have a kids’/teen story running in parallel with an adult story, with the two coming together at the end.)

Commander Andy Rutherford (Jack Galloway) and Sir Hugh Francis (Peter Cellier)

Martin starts at Falconleigh, where he learns that pupils are addressed as “sir” or “ma’am” by their teachers (who they in turn call by their surnames, with no “Mr” or “Miss”), and there aren’t lessons, but “challenges” which they’re allowed to work on as they like. (Though, if they don’t work on them obsessively, teachers tend to turn up and prompt them to do so.) Martin meets a fellow pupil, Susan Kleiner (Debbie Farrington), whose speciality is biology, and whose initial response to being asked her name is, “We don’t have particular chums in this place.” The next day, after at first ignoring him, she finally says, “We don’t have to talk to people, you know. Not at breakfast.”

(I’m pretty sure, if Codename Icarus were made today, something would be made of the fact that many of these socially-awkward gifted Falconleigh children probably have Asperger’s.)

Martin and Susan (Debbie Farrington)

After being set a few challenges in his area of interest (subatomic physics, worryingly), Martin is told to attend “the Game” at the school’s otherwise unused squash court. Here, Falconleigh’s usual balance of power between teacher and pupil is reversed. Now, the teacher — not calling their pupil “sir” — probes, tests and mocks their charge, trying to find their psychological weak points. If that’s not enough, a few brainwashing techniques are thrown in. To ensure loyalty to the Icarus Foundation, pupils have their fears of the outside world exaggerated and their own confidence (in anything other than the abilities that got them into Falconleigh in the first place) undermined.

Martin plays “the Game”, with Peter Farley (Geoffrey Collins). These scenes in particular stuck with me.

The Icarus children’s “challenges” are being set by a man whose aim is to use their answers to create the “ultimate weapon”, though not for the purposes of world-domination, more because of some confused motives about how his own scientific gifts were misused by his country’s government during the Second World War, resulting in him losing his erstwhile genius. And, ultimately, this is what Codename Icarus is about: the gifted children’s talents are being exploited while they’re still fresh (the “Fat Man” puts forward the idea that most genius-level scientists do their best work when young, and many gifted minds “burn out” before too long), and also while they’re vulnerable enough to be exploited. Martin comes across as having a substantial teenage chip on his shoulder, seeming to despise anyone who doesn’t understand maths as he does, while being spikily defensive about the idea that the beauty of maths should ever be misused, and feeling that any attempt to merely use his gift might take it away from him. “All I want is to release that which is in you,” John Doll says, and goes on to underline the mythical Icarus metaphor: “To free your spirit and mind, so they can climb. Fly.”

To further underline it, Martin’s one and only hobby is birdwatching, and we get to see him scream a (thankfully silent) “No!” when he sees a pigeon drop dead mid-flight after it passes over one of Falconleigh’s mysterious out-buildings.

I don’t know, might this man be a villain? John Malcolm as Edward Froelich

Although the adult storyline, about the international arms race, gives Codename Icarus its heft, it’s the teen angst element that gives it its real meaning. I have to admit I (nowadays, anyway) find Martin Smith a little annoying, but that is, I suppose, part of his character. (I also find the dialogue written for him a bit mannered. It’s very cut back, in places, as though he was meant to play it surly and uncommunicative, but Barry Angel plays him with a bit more passion, and his dialogue can just end up sounding artificial. But only in places.)

Nevertheless, it has stuck with me from when it was first shown. (I’m assuming I saw it on its initial run in December 1981. It was repeated in April to May of 1984, but I have a vague memory of being pleased to find it being repeated, so maybe I saw both 5-episode runs.) I remember loving the idea of being taken away to some special school, sequestered from the rest of the world, where your genius is allowed full reign. Surely a little nuclear-level world-endangerment wasn’t too much of a price to pay? Sigh. If only I’d actually been some sort of genius…

The House on the Borderland by William Hope Hodgson

Sphere PB, art by Terry Oakes

The title alone is enough to earn Hodgson’s 1908 novel a place at the heart of any weird fiction canon. And the book’s first quarter, with its nameless narrator (known as “the Recluse” to this found-manuscript’s editor) holing himself up in a remote country house and fending off nightly attacks from noxious swine-things like a classic Doctor Who base-under-siege story, feels like the perfect set up for a weird adventure story. But then things take a ninety-degree swerve into the cosmic, visionary, and psychedelic, with a long trip through accelerated time. We see the death of our Earth and the Sun, then follow a slow, abstract path to the heart of the universe, to glimpse the truth behind “the scheme of material creation”: a pair of massive central suns, one a giant, weird green (“the abode of some vast Intelligence?”), the other utterly dark. Then back to the present and the house under siege, though not, now, by a host of fleshy-white swine-things, but one giant green glowing one, whose touch leaves a fungous infection that recalls, to my mind, the bleak and inexplicable creeping death in Lovecraft’s most coldly cosmic tale, “The Colour Out of Space”.

Ian Miller art for Panther PB

To be wrenched out of what seems like such a brilliant set up for a weird adventure novel into that rather abstract, visionary journey to the heart of the cosmos always leaves me wondering if The House on the Borderland has a single, unifying idea behind its various, brilliantly weird episodes, or is just a collection of Hodgson’s wilder imaginings. As well as the swine-things and the time journey, there’s a curtailed afterlife love story, as the Recluse has a perhaps visionary, perhaps extra-dimensional, meeting with his lost, dead love — and this is another jarring moment, because at this point it’s revealed that most of this section of the manuscript is missing. It’s almost modernistic in effect, as we experience the Recluse’s feelings of loss through having the relevant portion of the story itself missing, apart from hints and echoes.

Lovecraft loved the book (though he couldn’t help squirming at its “few touches of commonplace sentimentality”), but came to it too late for it to really be an influence. And I feel that Hodgson is far more of a gut writer than one like Lovecraft, who had a definite outlook and philosophy. (I almost wonder if the book didn’t kick off after a fevered reading of Wells’s The Time Machine, which has the same mix of beast-men (the Morlocks) and a trip to the end of time. Only, Hodgson takes things to far weirder extremes.) Still, it seems, from his author’s note at the start, that The House on the Borderland has some unifying meaning:

“The inner story must be uncovered, personally, by each reader, according to ability and desire. And even should any fail to see, as now I see, the shadowed picture and conception of that to which one may well give the accepted titles of Heaven and Hell; yet can I promise certain thrills, merely taking the story as a story.”

The start of the novel, with its nightly assaults by semi-human swine-things, is chock full of classic Gothic imagery of the dark subconscious: a bottomless Pit, an unexplored cellar, a trapdoor opening onto unimaginable depths, an overpowering rush of water, the swine-things themselves, and the fact that they don’t seem to be seen by the Recluse’s sister, the one person with whom he lives. Plus there’s the lure of the shadow-self, and that need to stare into one’s personal Nietzschean Abyss:

“Sometimes, I have an inexplicable desire to go down to the great cellar, open the trap, and gaze into the impenetrable, spray-damp darkness. At times, the desire becomes almost overpowering, in its intensity.”

The novel feels like a wholesale reaction to all the nineteenth century’s upendings of religious certainties: Darwin’s linking of man to the animals (the swine-things), the realisation that the sun must one day die, even the germ theory of disease (in the way the dog’s eerily glowing wound infects a cut on the Recluse’s arm), plus the gradual replacement of a Christian Heaven by an astronomical cosmos of suns, planets, and nebulae.

Ace Books (1962) edition, art by Ed Emshwiller

But I think the thing that unifies Hodgson’s novel is clear in its title. This house stands on a borderland, and so it is the house, by being where it is, that unites the various weird realities it touches. Living in it, the Recluse is living between the bestial (attacks by the swine-things) and the spiritual (his visions of his dead love in her seashore afterlife); also between life and death (the gods that surround the house’s visionary twin in the Arena seem to represent “a state of life-in-death”); and between Heaven and Hell (the house has “Little curved towers and pinnacles, with outlines suggestive of leaping flames”), or hope and despair, in the way the narrator’s connection with his lost love at the Sea of Sleep, and his apprehension of the Green Sun as some sort of ultimate intelligence, are set against the swine-things, the beast-headed gods of the Plain of Silence, the Dark Sun that twins the Green Sun, and the Dark Nebula (“a very hell-fog”), which seems to contain souls trapped in agony (“A face, human in its outline; but so tortured with woe, that I stared, aghast. I had not thought there was such sorrow, as I saw there.”)

These extremes of Heaven and Hell, hope and despair, are part of a package. You can’t have one without at least risking the other. Or so the Recluse’s dead love tells him, at one point:

“Strangely, she warned me; warned me passionately against this house; begged me to leave it; but admitted, when I questioned her, that she could not have come to me, had I been elsewhere.”

William Hope Hodgson

And if it’s the house that unifies the various elements in Hodgson’s weird novel, then it’s not much of a leap to taking that house as a metaphor for the human condition. Its cellars are the outermost regions of the unconscious, whose key the narrator keeps with him at all times (though he only, at first, goes down there to store and retrieve wine, inebriation being one way into the realms of the unconscious). Below these are far vaster, perhaps limitless depths. The Recluse spends most of his time, though, in his study, a room which symbolises the intellect. It’s this room that has the weakest external door, and where the swine-things get closest to breaking in. As a final indicator that the house and the man who lives in it are one, it’s only when the Recluse’s body is invaded by the giant green swine-beast’s infection that the swine-thing(s) manage to get inside the house.

It seems to me that, though The House on the Borderland’s depiction of humankind as standing on the edge of all sorts of weird realms is undoubtedly cosmic, it’s not as despairing as Lovecraft’s cosmicism. Hodgson isn’t saying, as Lovecraft did, that humankind is utterly insignificant compared to the vastness of the cosmos, but he is saying that it’s possible, in such enormous and strange spaces, to be infinitely lonely:

“…I realised, despairingly, that the world might wander forever, through that enormous night. For a while, the unwholesome idea filled me, with a sensation of overbearing desolation; so that I could have cried like a child.”

But this could just be a depiction of the Recluse’s own particular type of Hell. He seems to have become locked in loss since the death of his loved one. He still, for instance, lives with a woman (his sister), but appears to have absolutely no emotional or intellectual connection with her (“I have made a rule never to speak to her about the strange things that happen in this great, old house”). Similarly, after his dog dies, he acquires another one, but can’t bring himself to take it into the house, even when it’s being attacked at night by the massive green swine-thing. His one physical contact with it results in his own infection.

The House on the Borderland is undoubtedly a classic of weird fiction. I still find the central time-travel section too slow-moving and abstract, and the Doctor Who fan in me would love to read a version that was only about the swine-things assailing the house at night, but perhaps it’s the unforgiving strangeness of the book’s jarring shifts in narrative direction that really encapsulate its meaning and power: we’re all of us living in houses on many strange and disquieting borderlands, and had better watch out.

The House on the Borderland is available at Project Gutenberg. The William Hope Hodgson blog contains a lot of information about the writer and his works.

Blade Runner 2049

One of the things that really impressed me about Blade Runner 2049 was its soundtrack. I love the score to the 1982 original, and was pleased that, though 2049’s soundtrack quotes it at moments, it doesn’t try to imitate Vangelis’s lush romanticism. It even sometimes seems to be doing the opposite, feeling, at times, like an oppressive aural assault, particularly when it brings in that alarming, motorcycle-like roar. The different ways the soundtracks work says a lot about the two films.

Vangelis’s soundtrack provides a necessary counterpoint of emotional texturing to the 1982 film’s noir-ish future: it conjures the suppressed, battered emotional lives behind the characters’ cynical facades in an otherwise dehumanising world. Although electronic, it isn’t bleakly electronic; it’s awash with melody and (oddly, for something so technological and futuristic) with nostalgia, too. That nostalgia is for a long-gone romanticism, the sort of thing to be found in the likes of Casablanca or The Big Sleep, as if Blade Runner’s world is so dystopian, it looks back on even the dark, psychologically twisted worlds of film noir with longing.

In a way, then, the 1982 film’s use of an electronic score could be seen as highlighting how its future is a debased imitation of a more authentic-feeling past. But at the same time, Vangelis’s score used its electronic instruments to point out how human emotion could still come through an electronic device, be it a Yamaha CS-80 synthesiser or a replicant called Rachael.

Vangelis’s soundtrack being electronic was unusual for the time — particularly after Star Wars set the rule that what science fiction needed was the warmth and familiarity of an orchestra to ground it in a recognisable human reality. But nowadays we’re used to technology; what we need is to be jolted with a reminder of how dehumanising it can be. This seems to be the purpose of Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score to Blade Runner 2049, which doesn’t attempt to mimic or outdo the Vangelis soundtrack, but quotes it, as though it were “quoting” moments of humanity amidst what is otherwise a wash of very dark and jarring electronic whooshes, roars, jangles, groans, screeches and rattles.

The 2049 soundtrack’s first task, perhaps, is to make sure there’s no chance the viewer is going to watch the film thinking something like, “Oh, how nice, a sequel to that lovely film Blade Runner.” It’s there to remind you of the danger of the future. Just as Vangelis’s score worked to humanise its film’s technology, this score is there to remind you that this is an oppressive, dehumanising world, and that technology is part of that oppression. We’re too used to seeing modishly dystopian futures in movies, and need to be reminded how closely linked this future is to our present, and just how bleak a thing it would be to live in.

There’s still a longing to the score, but its longing is that much more distant. It longs for something human, something real, in a world where it’s difficult to tell what is human, what is real. As Police Lt. Joshi (a human) says to our replicant protagonist K: “We’re all just looking out for something real.”

Voight-Kampff in the 1982 Blade Runner

So how do you tell what’s real? Both films have sequences where non-human characters are put through a procedure to test their humanity. In Blade Runner, it’s the Voight-Kampff test, which measures levels of empathic response to determine whether the subject is a human (empathic) or a replicant (not). In Blade Runner 2049, it’s the far more brutal “baseline” test, a rapid-fire verbal assault designed to ensure a replicant’s emotional responses remain within acceptable (i.e., tightly controlled, and far below human) limits. In 2049, passing the test is not about proving empathy, but lack of it.

The baseline test in Blade Runner 2049

But is this the definition of “humanity”, and therefore “reality”, we should be using? After all, our replicant hero K fails the baseline test, which means he’s starting to become insufficiently inseparable from his human masters. How else, then, do we determine what’s real, in a world of replicants and 3D holographic AIs?

Joi and Joe

At the heart of it is K, a replicant, and Joi, his holographic AI home-companion, and the question of whether what they feel for each other could be described as love. Neither is “real” (i.e., human). The advertising slogan used to market the Joi AI is “Everything you want to hear. Everything you want to see.” So, she’s designed around the idea of self-gratification and imitation. When she decides K is “real” and ought to have a name, she chooses “Joe”, the same name a giant, billboard version of her uses later as part of its advertising spiel, so is “Joe” a term of Joi’s affection, or a result of her programming? And what about when she says “I love you” — programming or genuine? How can we tell?

Perhaps it’s Jared Leto’s Niander Wallace who provides the answer, in amongst all his other tiresome verbiage: “Pain reminds you the joy you felt was real.” So, the thing you don’t want to hear, don’t want to see, and don’t want to have to feel; the opposite of self-gratification.

Prismatic Marilyn Monroes — now, there’s a Ballardian image

Blade Runner 2049 seems to be saying what’s real can still be found even in the midst of the unreal, like genuine human emotion coming through Vangelis’s synth sounds in the 1982 film. After all, Deckard, grizzled and battered by love and loss, is clearly (replicant or not) “real”, but where is he found? In the home of unreality, Las Vegas, whose lack of reality is heightened by the presence of a jittery 3D holographic Elvis. But Deckard likes the song. And he has his own test for what’s real. When asked if his dog is real, he says, “Ask him.” And I feel the same applies to K as he wanders the streets of 2049 LA near the end of the film, bereft. Was the love between him and Joi real? Ask him. That does seem to be real pain he’s feeling.

And I think this reality-unreality comes through in the score, too. It’s in the moments where Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s music quotes the Vangelis original, harking back to that film in the same way that film harked back to the days of black & white Hollywood romance — days of unreality, yes, as they’re films, but within their reality, perhaps, something human, something real, can be found, however artificial it might appear to be.