Category Archives: Science Fiction

Movie as Doggerel: “Plan 9 From Outer Space”


The entire glorious thing is available at the single link above

We’re following the science fiction thread begun with Solaris and followed by Fahrenheit 451 the week after that, but with a twist: Edward D. Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Frye in “Rhetorical Criticism: Theory of Genres,” Anatomy:

The characteristics of babble are again present in doggerel, which is also a creative process left unfinished through lack of skill or patience. . . . Doggerel is not necessarily stupid poetry; it is poetry that begins in the conscious mind and has never gone through the associative process.  It has a prose initiative, but tries to make itself associative by an act of will, and it reveals the same difficulties that great poetry has overcome at a subconscious level.  We can see in doggerel how words are dragged in because they rhyme or scan, how ideas are dragged in because the are suggested by a rhyme-word, and so on. (CW 22, 259)

From this description we can see that any verbal structure might be generically considered doggerel if it lacks skill and patience, is not associative, is self-consciously rather than subconsciously processed, and generally betrays itself as the undressed word salad it invariably turns out to be.

Plan 9 from Outer Space is known as “the worst movie ever made” — so bad that you can’t look away; so bad that its unintentional hilarity provides zen instruction to anyone who thinks funniness is a specialized form of spontaneous combustion. If you haven’t seen it, please do.  It rewards in ways that are unique to it.  If you can’t bear to watch all of it, then at least take in the brief “Criswell Predicts” sequence that opens the movie — which will likely make you want to get to Criswell’s closing remarks at the end, and, just like that, you’ll have watched it right through.

The entire thing, every miscast word of it, is pure doggerel: the tautologies and non-sequiturs, the Dadaist moments of found comedy, the jack-knifing problems with continuity, and the absurd randomness of the elements of “terror” promiscuously thrown into the mix with winning confidence. (“Ah, yes, Plan 9: The resurrection of the dead.”)

Here’s a sample from Criswell’s opening remarks:

Greetings, my friends, we are all interested in the future because that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friends, future events, such as these, will affect you in the future.

That’s got to leave you hungry for more because only people who can’t make ’em can make ’em like this.

Frye at the Movies: “Fahrenheit 451”


We know that Frye read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, met him and then corresponded with him at least once (see “A Little Chrestomathy of Frye on Sci-Fi” in the Denham Library).  We don’t know that he saw the film adaptation of Bradbury’s novel, but it does seem to be the sort of thing he might take the time to see. Despite the very limited special effects available at the time, it is an elegant little mainstream movie that we knew how to make in the 1960s, and then evidently forgot. It was directed by Francois Truffaut in his only English language film. Truffaut with minimal fuss creates a dystopian world characterized by compact but comfy suburban homes equipped with bigscreen TVs that provide unending interactive entertainment to fill otherwise empty lives; all of which rings true, as does his depiction of a familiar in-denial conformity that quickly morphs into furtive but willing collaboration.

The mass-produced codex we call the book has served us very well over the last five hundred years. This makes Truffaut’s rendering of the incineration of thousands of books a terrifying sight it is difficult to forget, especially one extended sequence in which we watch in close up the covers of familiar books peeled away by the flames. It’s like helplessly witnessing a mass slaughter, reminding us that books are to be loved and cherished, if only because they have, in some form or other, proven to be the surest way the dead communicate with the living, and the living with the unborn.

The film has an excellent cast. Julie Christie plays both of the women in the protagonist Montag’s life: his fully co-opted and prescription drug-addicted wife, as well as the tenacious school teacher who guides him to freedom. The end of the film is subdued and modest but very moving. It remains one of the most vivid movie experiences of my childhood: people quietly becoming the books they love.

The rest of the movie is after the jump.  It is in English with non-intrusive Chinese subtitles — which by itself suggests that dystopias like the one depicted here may remain probable, but they aren’t inevitable.

(The movie, unfortunately, is not embedded: click on the image above and hit the YouTube link.)

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Frye at the Movies: “Solaris”


The anniversary of Stanislaw Lem’s death just passed, so it seems like a good time to post the beautiful 1972 Russian film adaptation of Solaris, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. Frye read the novel and alluded to it often.

I’m posting this in the “Frye at the Movies” category because it will always be interesting to see film adaptations of literary works he liked and could well have seen, contemporary ones especially. It’s at times like this we wish that Frye had kept his often made and always broken promise to maintain a regular diary, an effort that, unfortunately, ended altogether in 1955.

Frye cites Lem’s novel in The Secular Scripture to expand upon the archetype of Narcissus, which is primal. Two recent and very popular movies, Inception and Black Swan, are directly derived from it:

. . . Adam, after his fall, changes his identity, and the later one may be said to be the shadow or dreaming counterpart of the one he had before. The Classical parallel to the Adam story, as several Renaissance mythographers have noted, is the story of Narcissus, where we also have a real man and a shadow. The mistress of Narcissus, Echo, reminds us of the parrot or echo bird that we have already met. What Narcissus really does is exchange his original self for the reflection he falls in love with, becoming, as Blake says, “idolatrous to his own shadow.” In Ovid’s story he simply drowns, but drowning could also be seen as passing into a lower or submarine world. The reflecting pool is a mirror, and disappearing into one’s own mirror image, or entering a world of reversed or reduced dimensions, is a central symbol of descent. A study of mirror worlds in romance might range from the Chinese novel best known in the West by the title The Dream of the Red Chamber to some remarkable treatments of the theme in science fiction, such as Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars and Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. (CW 18, 71-2)

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Stanislaw Lem


From Steven Soderburgh’s 2002 film adaptation of Solaris. This clip is especially beautiful; you’ll want to see it (although it is not, unfortunately, embedded; click on the image and hit the YouTube link)

Stanislaw Lem died on this date in 2006 (born 1921).

Frye read Lem and alluded to him regularly to illustrate the relationship between science fiction and romance:

The twofold focus on reality, inside and outside the mind at once, is particularly important when we are reading what is called fantasy. Stanislaw Lem’s story of a kingdom created from robots, The Seventh Sally, raises questions that have tormented us for centuries, about the relation of God or the gods to man, about the distinction between an organism and a mechanism, about the difference between what is created and what has come into existence by itself. (CW 18, 190)

“The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”


From the film adaptation: “the answer to life, the universe, everything”

On this date in 1979 Douglas Adams published The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which eventually became the first of a six-part “trilogy.”  This particular work will require two separate entries: one on science fiction and the other on satire.

Frye on science fiction in “The Bridge of Language”:

The same principle applies to science fiction, which is a form of romance, continuing the formulas of fantasy, Utopian vision, Utopian satire, philosophical fiction, adventure story, and myth that have been part of the structure of literature from the beginning.  What the hero of a science fiction story finds on a planet of Arcturus, however elaborate and plausible the hardware that got him there, is still essentially what heroes of earlier romances found in lost civilizations in Africa or Asia.  The conventions of literature have to take over at some point, and what we see, in science fiction no less than in Homer and Dante, is, in the title of a seventeenth-century satire set on the moon, mundus alter et adem, another world, but the same world. (CW 11, 320-1)

On “satire of the low norm” in Anatomy, which explains, among other things, why the Hitchhiker’s Guide itself is famously inscribed with the words “DON’T PANIC!”:

[The satire of the low norm] takes for granted a world which is full of anomalies, injustices, follies, and crimes, and yet is permanent and undisplaceable.  Its principle is that anyone who wishes to keep his balance in such a world must learn first to keep his eyes open and his mouth shut. . . The [hero] of the low norm takes an attitude of flexible pragmatism; he assumes that society will, if given any chance, behave more or less like Caliban’s Setebos in Browning’s poem, and he conducts himself accordingly.  On all doubtful points of behaviour convention is his deepest conviction.  (CW 22, 211)

“Dent.  Arthur Dent.”

Frye on Writing Fiction


An excerpt from the screenwriting seminar scene in the brilliant Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, a wonderfully convoluted meditation on the agonizing effort to write something that is somehow beyond formula. If you haven’t seen it, make a point of renting it.  Also, Kaufman’s much deeper and darker film about writing as soul-rending existential crisis, Synecdoche, New York.

Further to comments earlier today by Ed Lemond and Jonathan Allan, here are a couple of entries from the notebooks on writing fiction, culled once again from Denham’s Northrop Frye Unbuttoned.

On the possibility of “a new fiction formula”:

I have been struggling for some time to think of a new fiction formula, and all my ideas tend to revolve around Rilke’s idea of the poet’s perceiving simultaneously the visible & the invisible world.  In practice that means a new type of ghost or supernatural story, possibly approached by way of some science-fiction development.  The idea is a vision of another life or another world so powerfully plausible as to make conventionally religious & anti-religion people shake in their shoes.  I’ve begun notes on this many times, but threw away my best notebook, written in Seattle, in a London (Ont.) hotel.  By “shake in their shoes” I don’t mean threats, but the ecstactic frisson or giggle aroused by plausibility. (92)

On the possibility of writing a “philosphical romance”:

Since the popular success of Tokien and the rise in seriousness of what is called science-fiction, I’ve been attracted to the notion of the philosphical romance.  It would have to be entirely “software,” as I don’t know anything about hardware, and I notice most of the hardware is used to transpose the characters to a remote spot in some other galaxy that turns out to be a category of something on earth.  So why not stay on earth?  The taking off point is the relativity of what the sane waking consicousness sees to other perspectives.  These are, chiefly, those of (a) dream (b) madness (c) mythopoeic imagination (d) existence following physical death.  If I never write such a book, collecting notes for it could still be a valuable experience in loosening uup the imaginative faculties.  The idea is to write what I myself would be most interested in reading.  (93)

Prof. Mondo: More Thoughts On “Overrated Writers” — What Lasts?

The Huffington Post published the article on America’s most overrated writers that inspired the National Post’s article previously discussed here at TEI. Having read both articles, I was reminded of a conversation I had with detective fiction grand master Lawrence Block this past Winter.

Block has spent his virtually his entire career (more than sixty books) writing genre fiction, from lesbian porn in his college days to his award-winning series featuring recovering alcoholic PI Matt Scudder. He was the visiting writer here at Mondoville, and as the fan/stalker who did the most to get him here, I escorted him around town, and among other things, we talked about fiction, mainstream and otherwise. He noted that with very few exceptions, almost no one reads the “serious [read mainstream or literary] novelists” of fifty or more years ago. On the other hand, people are still reading and rediscovering the writers of genre fiction, especially science fiction, fantasy, and detective fiction (which was, after all, a favorite of Frye’s.) For that matter, people still read Verne and Doyle, long after such contemporary best sellers as E.D.E.N. Southworth have been consigned to the ash heap of doctoral dissertations.

Meanwhile, bestselling fantasist David Eddings observed that when a writer enters the area of the mythic (as distinct from the self-consciously mythologically allusive), he or she “may as well be peddling dope,” and he meant it as a good thing. These genre novels are highly conventionalized, of course; in the same conversation, Block mentioned that Robert B. Parker (who wrote a dissertation using Frye) described himself as  writing Westerns on a frontier that was paved over, and that the Western itself was a romance.

It’s worth noting that the writers both Posts beat up on are mainstream writers, the sort that Joan Hess described as “writing stuff where nothing much happens to people you didn’t like to begin with.” However, if Block’s observation holds up, it’s the Parkers and Blocks that will continue to engage readers decades from now, and perhaps even a century later, and it may well be because their works tapped into the archetypes and myths in a way that the “serious” writers (and the critics) found to be infra dignitatem. Frye would have understood.

Frye Alert: Sci Fi Frye


Frye appeared as a character (above) in Marvel Comics’ The New Defenders in a story called “The Pajusnaya Consignment.”

iO9, a science fiction blog (“We Come from the Future”), cites Frye in a post today: “How many definitions of science fiction are there?”

[Science fiction is] a mode of romance with a strong inherent tendency to myth.” — Northrop Frye.

Here’s Frye on “parallel world” science fiction:

I’ve been reading, more or less at random, in science fiction for varieties of the parallel-world conception which seems to me a possible exit from the present up-down mythical universal dilemma.  Reincarnation is now being trumpeted as practically established scientifically; it isn’t, and I still think there’s a fallacy buried in it somewhere, but there’s probably a pattern it fits.  I read the four volumes of Philip Jose Farmer’s “Riverrun” series, but they were a bust.  Now I’m reading Zelazny’s two-volume “Amber” series, which at least has better patter.  They seem to me a development of the Eddison series, where the ideal world is conceived as an archaic one, reminding me of Lawrence’s proposal that if men wanted to fight they should repudiate modern hardware, get into armor and have a good old heroic hack.  Eddison isn’t quite as silly as that sounds, but his fantasy world is simply the old chivalric-romance one back again.  We seem to be in an age of neo-Ariosto. (Northrop Frye Unbuttoned, 254)