SF: Old Gems and Older Duds

I’ve been reading Spacehounds of IPC (1947), by E.E. “Doc” Smith, and… it hasn’t aged well. For a long time I’ve been thinking it would be fun to read Smith’s Lensmen series again, but given that I’m having a hard time finishing Spacehounds, maybe that train left the station some time ago (especially with so much other stuff to read).

It’s a pity because I sure liked those books when I was (much) younger. Smith wrote action-filled space opera that was very imaginative and which also reeked of technology and science. I’ve never been that much into the space battles, but I’ve always been a sucker for hard SF. Fictionalized tech manuals work okay for me.

But these aren’t the gems mentioned in the post’s title.

Those — science fiction masterpieces from the 1990s (that most people have probably never seen) — come from a ScreenRant article.

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Now let me pause to rant about ScreenRant for a moment.

I first encountered them quite some time ago as the ScreenRant YouTube channel. (Their YouTube About page says they joined in 2008.) Their content is about movies, which I like, so I subscribed.

But I never really got much from their videos. They were okay. Just okay. They rarely engaged me, few (if any) generated a Like click, and certainly none of them ever made it to any playlist of mine (let alone my Favorites playlist).

Once in a while they’d come up with one I really enjoyed, which kept me subscribed, but most of them seemed a bit on the lame side.

A lot of what they do is lists. For instance, “25 Things You Missed In [some movie]!” or “10 Moments Actors Wish They Could Forget!”

I’m not that into lists, especially ones with “Best” or “Worst” in the title, because I can usually think of lots of entries that belong on the list but weren’t mentioned. (Or ones that don’t belong on the list.)

I unsubscribed from their YouTube channel years ago, but they apparently also have a website. Their content sometimes shows up in my newsreader due to my interest in SF and movies.

As with their videos, I usually find that content unengaging. Sometimes because it’s so shallow or lame; sometimes because I just don’t agree with their lists.

I’ve considered filtering them out of my feed, but every once in a while they do come up with something I don’t mind spending a few moments of my life reading. (Honestly, usually I click into an article and regret it. “Damn! Another silly-ass waste of time.”)

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Which brings me to: 10 90s Sci-Fi Masterpieces You’ve Probably Never Seen.

I used to be fairly conversant with science fiction, but that ended by the turn of the century due to the explosion of SF created Anno Stella Bella.

It used to be true that most people couldn’t name an SF work (book, movie, or TV series) I wasn’t familiar with — possibly owned.

I say “most” because even then SF was vaster than I knew — there are vast swaths I’ve still never explored. But compared to the average SF readers, I was a life-long expert.

[Reading James Nicoll’s reviews of books from those days is both enlightening and humbling. Vast swaths, indeed.]

Anyway, I clicked into the article, and here’s their countdown list:

  1. Event Horizon (1997)
  2. The Faculty (1998)
  3. Strange Days (1995)
  4. Cube (1997)
  5. Dark City (1998)
  6. Gattaca (1997)
  7. Contact (1997)
  8. The Iron Giant (1999)
  9. Pi (1998)
  10. 12 Monkeys (1995)

Now most of those might qualify as “1990s underrated masterpieces” but I’m not too sure about the “probably never seen” description — some of them were pretty popular.

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I strongly agree all ten are good films — must-see for SF fans.

I’m not sure I think Event Horizon was a “masterpiece” or “best” anything (in fact I disliked it a lot the first time I saw it), but it was very creative, even unique.

So I suppose it depends on what you consider a masterpiece.

Definitely some of these were, and are, underrated — none of them deserve disdain.

Strange Days, for one, seems to get a lot of negativity. I’m not sure why; it’s a pretty good film. It’s directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break, The Hurt Locker) with a story by James Cameron (who also worked on the script and co-produced).

Anyway, I like well enough to own: Event Horizon, Strange Days, Cube, Dark City, Contact, and 12 Monkeys. (I also own the Carl Sagan book, Contact, for whatever that’s worth.)

Obviously those are favorites, but I also have a real soft spot for The Faculty, which is sheer good fun (with a great cast). I never bought it because it was aired so frequently (and can now be easily streamed).

If I were to name what I thought were the masterpieces: Strange Days, Dark City, Gattaca, The Iron Giant, Pi, 12 Monkeys. Possibly also Cube.

As for underrated, if that includes unseen or unappreciated, then I think most of them fit that bill, except Contact and The Iron Giant. Both of those got a lot of mainstream recognition.

Six own-worthy, six (maybe seven) masterpieces, all ten well worth seeing (and must-see for SF fans), and at least eight could be said to be underrated in some sense.

Not a bad list, all told.

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In light of its current popularity, The Handmaid’s Tale (1990) might have made the list. I actually owned that film (on VHS, no less).

A lot of people think The Lawnmower Man (1992) is an underrated classic. I’m surprised The Fifth Element (1997), a personal favorite, didn’t make the list; maybe it wasn’t seen as underrated?

Sphere (1998) could be on the list, although maybe it’s not considered good enough to be a masterpiece? It’s amazingly faithful to the book and quite watchable (great cast).

I personally absolutely love Demolition Man (1993) as well as Johnny Mnemonic (1995) and Judge Dredd (1995) — I think all three are underrated for what they are (and all three get a lot of disdain).

And speaking of disdain: Waterworld (1995) — I love that movie even though (as with Johnny Mnemonic) everyone else seems to hate it.

The list might also have included eXistenZ (1999) or The Thirteenth Floor (1999). Both are quite watchable SF films. Supernova (2000) might have made the list, but it just missed the 1990s.

All of the movies here are worth seeing for science fiction fans!

(And you can see why lists like this are subject to quibbles.)

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Getting back to “Doc” Smith and Spacehounds

It stars the brilliant, knowledgeable, manly Dr. Percival “Steve” Stevens who boards the Inter-Planetary Corporation’s space liner, Arcturus, for its flight to Mars. He’ll be acting as the ship’s Computer — the story is from the days when a “computer” was a human profession.

He’s mainly there to check the accuracy of various way stations along the route. It seems many of them have drifted from their coordinates which has forced ship traffic to make inefficient course corrections.

Steve is giving the lovely young athletic (tennis star) Nadia Newton a tour of the ship when a strange ship attacks, using force beams to slice the Arcturus into several pieces.

Bulkhead doors shut automatically preserving most lives, but Steve and Nadia are stranded in the unpopulated engineering section of the ship, cut off from the passenger section.

With Nadia’s help, Steve is able to use a life boat to create an escape vessel that allows them to get away and land… on Ganymede.

Which has an atmosphere, water, and life, just like any planet.

(In fact the whole Solar system contains more-or-less Earth-like worlds that have all evolved life, some of it approximately “human.” There are, for example, Venusians and Martians, roughly “human” (but described as horrific), and Earthlings are involved with commerce with them.)

The Arcturus, it turns out, was attacked by Jovian hexpods  who have an inimical hatred of humans. (The Arcturus ended up near Jupiter because the Jovians were towing it back.)

Steven and Nadia end up meeting some “humans” from Titan, who are in the Jupiter neighborhood attacking the hexapods, and they all go back to Titan and do stuff for a while.

Including going down to the surface of Saturn to repair the giant power plants the people from Titan built at a great expense of lives. On Titan, water is a kind of rock, so these “humans” are ultra-low temperature beings for whom heat is deadly. (Their blood contains volatiles, so they can potentially explode if they encounter sparks.)

The surface of Saturn, it seems, is too hot for them. (Saturn supposedly doesn’t look hot to us from space because the atmosphere shields all the heat. 🙂 ) But Steve and Nadia are able to survive just fine — they can even breath the air (like they could on Ganymede)!

Now they’ve gone back to Jupiter to contact friends, get help, and do something about the Jovians.

I’ll probably keep reading, but I think I might put it down for a while and read other things. Between the ancient science and the sexist sensibilities, it’s pretty thick going.

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It’s not that Nadia is a weak, stupid, simpering female. She does stand in as the one who needs things explained so Smith can have Steve do info dumps.

But she’s presented as a strong woman with her own mind, a decent education (including some science, but, ew, no math), physically capable, and an all around great helpmate.

It’s those strong roles — manly man, womanly woman — that seem so outdated. It makes me shake my head while reading, which kinda ruins things.

It isn’t just that it’s a product of the times. Lately, I’ve also been enjoying Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Dorothy L. Sayers, all of whom published in the first half of the 1900s.

While I often stumble over uses (often racist uses) that reflect those unwoke times, it doesn’t get to me like it does with Spacehounds. I quite enjoy all their work.

There’s something about that space opera science fiction from that era that can be particularly awkward that way.

Given all the other stuff on my reading list (like Neal Stephenson’s Fall), it might be a while before I get back to Nadia and Steve.

Stay underrated, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

11 responses to “SF: Old Gems and Older Duds

  • Wyrd Smythe

    What I realized is that Smith sees the Solar system as a kind of giant Earth where people just sprang up everywhere along with local fauna and flora. Mars and Venus are a little like Europe and China, with Mars being less alien (like Europe).

    The villains here are essentially the crazed natives that need to be wiped out to allow decent civilized men to do their thing.

    I think it may not be the reek of sexism (because Nadia’s no slouch) so much as the stench of colonialism that puts me off so much.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I haven’t read Spacehounds, but I did try to read some of Smith’s stuff, notably The Skylark of Space and Triplanetary. Both had a lot of the same issues you identify with Spacehounds. Although extremely imaginative, particularly for the time, Smith’s writing is very much a product of that time, definitely told from the white male perspective.

    Although I would say that Triplanetary’s depiction of aliens is more even handed than most of the period. Smith actually describes humans from their perspective, pointing out that we’re as alien to them as they are to us, something common in later periods, but not in the early 1930s.

    But aside from that, I came to Smith too late. His writing is simply too cartoonish for me now. I suspect I’d have the same opinion of Burroughs and many others if I tried to read them today.

    It is interesting that, prior to the space age, a lot of sci-fi saw the solar system as filled with habitable worlds, each with their own set of aliens. Once we found out what the other planets are actually like, that milieu shifted to interstellar settings. The dragons are always just on or beyond the edge of the map.

    There are a lot of those 90s movies I haven’t seen. I only saw Dark City a couple of years ago. Many of the others I’ve avoided, such as Cube of The Faculty, because I’m not a horror fan. I agree that Contact seems like a strange item on this list. 12 Monkeys also seems widely well known, particularly after a TV series was made off of it.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “I haven’t read Spacehounds, but I did try to read some of Smith’s stuff, notably The Skylark of Space and Triplanetary.”

      Oh, you never got into the Lensmen series. I think that’s the cream of Smith’s crop, but as you say…

      “I came to Smith too late.”

      And that really matters. If you haven’t explored “the Doc” by a young age, the ship has sailed. (It probably also helps to read them in the 1960s.) I realized reading Spacehounds that Lensmen is firmly in my past (unless I live a really long time and get really bored).

      “Smith actually describes humans from their perspective, pointing out that we’re as alien to them as they are to us, something common in later periods, but not in the early 1930s.”

      That’s a good point. Steve says that sort of thing to Nadia several times when she’s exclaiming about how terrible the other “humans” (let alone various creatures) look.

      At the same time, it’s usually implicit that Earth humans are the best humans. (Sometimes it even gets a bit explicit.)

      “I suspect I’d have the same opinion of Burroughs and many others if I tried to read them today.”

      It seems to vary. Some writers seem to age fairly well. I mentioned some mystery writers I’ve been reading, and their work seems to translate a lot better. There are bumps, but nothing like the constant low-level hum of badly aged bug-eyed monster stories.

      I read some Bradbury recently (The Martian Chronicles), and despite some very weird ideas about Mars and space travel, it was an enjoyable (albeit slightly weird) read.

      “The dragons are always just on or beyond the edge of the map.”

      Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. Stories are often about frontiers and exploration of one kind or another.

      “There are a lot of those 90s movies I haven’t seen.”

      The ten listed I do think are worth seeing. I’m not a big fan of horror, either, but I’m more open to good SF horror (Alien, etc), and Cube is certainly unique. (As a former film student, I may place a higher value on seeing “unique” films than many might.)

      The Faculty is worth seeing for the cast (for me, Jordana Brewster!) — it’s kind of a dark comedy with alien invasion body snatching in a high school. Seriously, it’s a hoot.

      Event Horizon is also SF horror, and if haven’t seen it and don’t like horror, it’s the one you could skip. Interesting idea: FTL drive opens a portal into an evil dimension. SF horror with major religious overtones (including a cross-shaped ship).

      It sort of depends on how you feel about movies in general, SF movies in particular, and the better SF movies from the past, especially. That’s all gravy to me, so I’m way into it.

      “I agree that Contact seems like a strange item on this list.”

      It was pretty popular, based on a Sagan book, and had Jodie Foster, so yeah. That said, I’ve heard a fair amount of faint praise for it over the years. I’ve meant to blog about Contact for years. I really like the movie and the book and think the movie is a very decent adaptation.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “Oh, you never got into the Lensmen series.”

        Smith actually retconned Triplanetary into Lensmen, but I knew Triplanetary predated Lensmen and made a conscious decision to ignore the Lensmen add ins, although some, such as making the villain a member of the evil alien race in disguise, were hard to ignore.

        “Some writers seem to age fairly well.”

        Definitely. I think the issue is that prior to around 1938, SF was mostly pretty low quality pulp material. John W. Campbell had a lot of loathsome qualities, but he arguably improved the quality of stories in the genre substantially. The Golden Age of SF is usually considered to have started with his editorship of Astounding SF. He discovered and developed Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, among others, which all (mostly) seemed to age better.

        On The Martian Chronicles, that’s one I think I read too early to fully appreciate. I read it as a boy and found it far too weird. I was disappointed enough in it that I never really read any other Bradbury.

        I did see Event Horizon, or at least the early parts of it, not knowing ahead of time what I was getting into.

        I enjoyed Contact too, although I’ve read a lot of grousing over the years due to the pro-religious changes it made to Sagan’s original story, which I haven’t read.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Smith actually retconned Triplanetary into Lensmen,…”

        FWIW, the original version, from Amazing Stories, is available on Gutenberg.

        “John W. Campbell had a lot of loathsome qualities, but he arguably improved the quality of stories in the genre substantially.”

        Heh. I just read yesterday that the John W. Campbell award has been renamed to the Amazing Stories award. 😉

        “He discovered and developed Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, among others, which all (mostly) seemed to age better.”

        The first two better than the third, IMO.

        I really like Heinlein’s early stuff, but he lost me around Stranger in a Strange Land (a book I’m afraid to re-read for fear of really disliking it). Everything after that is just the same mush reheated.

        “I read [The Martian Chronicles] as a boy and found it far too weird…”

        I can see that. Bradbury is very literate and has a different take on SF. You might find a greater appreciation for it now (or not — taste matters).

        I have a few like that. Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun… been hearing about how awesome that is for decades. Tried to read the first book. Couldn’t fathom it at all. Gave it up. I’ve been thinking I should give it a try again.

        I’ve run into other authors I found opaque or above my head when I was younger, but now they make a lot more sense. But there are still authors where I feel I’m missing something. C.J. Cherryh can do that to me… she can pack so much into a thought that I’m sure stuff is zipping right past me. I find I re-read a lot of her paragraphs trying to squeeze out all the meaning she packs in them.

        “I’ve read a lot of grousing over the years due to the pro-religious changes it made to Sagan’s original story, which I haven’t read.”

        I wonder if those grousers actually read Sagan’s story? As I recall, it’s all in there.

        They may have expected Sagan to be more rabidly atheist, even anti-religion. But he wasn’t at all. Lots of older scientists had some form of spiritual underpinning.

        An Einstein quote I love is: “Speaking of the spirit that informs modern scientific investigations, I am of the opinion that all the finer speculations in the realm of science spring from a deep religious feeling, and that without such a feeling they would not be fruitful. I also believe that, this kind of religiousness, which makes itself felt today in scientific investigations, is the only creative religious activity of our time.”

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “I just read yesterday that the John W. Campbell award has been renamed to the Amazing Stories award.”

        It’s actually the Astounding Award now. But there’s also another John W. Campbell award (there were two) that’s still has its name, at least as far as I know.

        On Heinlein, I mostly agree. I grew up reading his juveniles and enjoyed them immensely. But from Starship Troopers forward, I found him far too allegorical. Incidentally, I also found that true for his pre-juvenile stuff, although it was more tempered then. Heinlein seems like a case where the constraints that editors put on him were beneficial. Once he became famous enough to ignore those constraints, in other words once he became unfiltered, his message became far more political and, I think, less entertaining.

        Asimov and Clarke on the other hand, mostly shined as they became famous enough to do their own thing. All of them settled into their ruts, but Asimov’s and Clarke’s were more entertaining.

        Sagan’s book, ‘The Varieties of Scientific Experience’, which is a transcript of his Gifford lectures, gives a pretty good idea of where he stood. God as a big white dude floating above the clouds? No. God as the sum total of physical laws? Sure. In that sense, his views seemed similar to Einstein’s. (In fact he cites Einstein for that view Spinoza like view.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “It’s actually the Astounding Award now.”

        Ah, okay. I knew it was something like that. 🙂

        (As I may have mentioned recently, I have no real interest in awards. I tend to ignore all that stuff. (I think I mentioned it when we were talking about that Hugos nonsense?))

        “Asimov and Clarke on the other hand, mostly shined as they became famous enough to do their own thing.”

        They were more science-oriented, too, I think (especially Asimov, obviously).

        Asimov definitely was always my favorite, perhaps because of the hard science. The other two wrote hard SF, but Asimov lived it.

        “God as a big white dude floating above the clouds? No.”

        Yeah. No. 😉

        It’s such a small conception of God. It creates God in our image!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I’m with you on the awards. My interests are largely orthogonal to them. The stuff I like rarely get any of the major ones. Maybe if there was an award for hard space opera.

        I actually think Clarke’s stories were harder from a science perspective. Asimov was looser with his fiction (in contrast with his non-fiction), being more wiling than Clarke to have things like FTL, although some of that might have been due to the fact that in his later fiction period, he was mostly extending his old Robot and Foundation series.

        An argument can be made that all the old gods are created in our image. Not only in our image, but in a culture’s particular ideal version of that image. It makes sense that gods get bigger as societies get bigger and more cosmopolitan.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I actually think Clarke’s stories were harder from a science perspective.”

        I’m not sure how we could even compare them. We’d need a yardstick for hard SF, and then we’d need to go over their whole body of work. If I were a much younger blogger…

        (All I meant by Asimov living it was that he was a working scientist. I don’t really regard one as harder than the other. Both were pretty damn hard SF!)

        As far as FTL, that’s an interesting one. I tend to see it as such a gimme in science fiction that having it is never points off, but I do award bonus points to authors who write good stories without it. I’m not sure I see any other tech magic in that same gimme light… I’ll have to think about that.

        I like Asimov more than Clarke because I really love the Foundation and Robots series. Clarke never wrote anything I see as equally foundational in my SF reality. (For some reason I discount 2001 despite it being foundational on several counts. I think I credit it more to Kubrick than Clarke for some reason despite having read all four books. Weird!) I own lots of Asimov; I own very little Clarke. (Or Heinlein, although I probably own more Heinlein than Clarke. Heinlein has so many SF classics.)

        “An argument can be made that all the old gods are created in our image.”

        Or even just all gods, period, sure, and they absolutely represent our cultural views.

        That’s kind of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is all about — new gods replacing old gods because humans have changed. The old gods have grown weak due to lack of worship while the new gods (technology, commerce, TV) have flourished from the adulation of millions.

        Gaiman and Terry Pratchett share a fantasy device that humans (literally) create gods through belief — a kind of idealism. The more believers, the more powerful the god. Who naturally has whatever powers the believers ascribe.

        Gods with no living believers never die (because ideas never die), but they do fade to almost nothing — a powerless flea-speck. This figures into the plots of several Discworld books being more a Pratchett thing than a Gaiman thing (Gaiman tends to present the supernatural as more real, as aspect of reality; American Gods kind of straddles the divide).

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        The relative hardness of Clarke in comparison to Asimov is definitely my impression as a reader of both, but I’ll admit I read more Asimov than Clarke. I remember his stories just being more fun.

        FTL is definitely viewed as a gimme, but some writers do avoid it. Clarke mostly did. He had it in the first Odyssey book, but retconned it out in the others.

        Asimov also included telepathy in his books. Clarke did too in his earliest stuff (Childhood’s End), but not in any of the later books. Asimov originally had it forced on him by Campbell, but kept it in afterward despite knowing it was nonsense. (He could have later retconned it as a technology of some sort.)

        On old gods never dying, you have to wonder about all the old prehistoric ones, like the ones worshiped at Gobekli Tepe. Although I guess you could take the view that a god of fertility is a god of fertility and view them as different descriptions of the same deity. I’m reminded of an old description from a Roman on German tribes. He describes them as holding Vulcan as their chief god, obviously equating Odin and Vulcan.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “On old gods never dying, you have to wonder about all the old prehistoric ones, like the ones worshiped at Gobekli Tepe.”

        You’ve just demonstrated the god is still remembered, which is enough. That no one takes it seriously, or any such gods seriously, strips its power, but memory keeps it alive. Only when all records of its existence are gone can a god truly die. (Per Pratchett’s conception.)

        (I just realized that an interesting way to put it is that Pratchett’s gods are not Platonic.)

        One thing about Pratchett is that he (fancifully) sees narrative as having serious causal power. His characters sometimes recognize narrative imperatives. For instance, that he only hope the heroes have of a long shot paying off is if it’s literally a million-to-one chance. Smaller odds, and there’s just no way.

        “Although I guess you could take the view that a god of fertility is a god of fertility and view them as different descriptions of the same deity.”

        My sense of Pratchett is that he would have been more literal. His god of fertility would (of course) have lots of children conceived (perhaps literally) by different groups of people. So specific gods of fertility would be subordinate to the general idea.

        Pratchett isn’t just literal about narrative. He tends to reify ideas. One of his novels is about the Idea of cities…

        It’s hysterical. Snow globes begin spontaneously appearing — the sort of thing you might buy as a souvenir of a visit to a distant city. (But looked at closely, the writing is crude.) Those eggs spawn shopping carts (which Pratchett’s Medieval Discworld folks don’t recognize as such, although they immediately cotton to their usefulness). The shopping carts self-wheel out of the city to a nearby field where they spawn a shopping mall. That would consume people and eventually grow into a city.

        Anyway. 😀 Pratchett likes to turn ideas into things, especially narrative.

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