The literary roots of Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986)

July 18, 2016 by · Leave a Comment
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Black Destroyer by A.E. van Vogt - Astounding Science Fiction, July 1939

“‘It was history, honorable Mr. Smith, our knowledge of history that defeated him,’ said the Japanese archaeologist, reverting to the ancient politeness of his race.”
-A.E. van Vogt’s Black Destroyer (Astounding Science Fiction, July 1939)

Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) takes inspiration from a number of sources. The oldest direct literary allusion is to Joseph Conrad’s 1904 novel Nostromo. Nostromo, beside being the book’s title, is also the name of the novel’s protagonist and the name of the ship in Alien. Conrad’s novel is set in a fictional South American nation of Costaguana and in it’s seaport town of Sulaco, the name of the ship in Aliens.

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

In the novel Nostromo is an Italian seaman, a trusty capataz de los cargadores, a hyper-competent, but resentful, head longshoreman, and an employee of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company (perhaps hence forth to be named either “the company” or Weyland-Yutani). Having settled in the seaside town “Sulaco” he has established himself as an the indispensable man.

The crew of the Nostromo, in Alien, act much more like longshoremen than they do sailors – though I note that they are more commonly referred to as long haul trucker types*. But, given all the union shop talk, the bonuses, and all the loading and unloading equipment all over their ship (all those chains hanging down, remember?) and also Ripley’s later work with power loaders in the sequel, Aliens, the comparison to longshoremen is more apt. Moreover, the ship in Alien is named “Nostromo” and is a commercial mining ship.

Starship Solider by Robert A. Heinlein
Starship Solider by Robert A. Heinlein

James Cameron’s Aliens (1986) is mostly inspired by Alien (1979), having approximately the same recipe and relationship that Terminator 2 (1991) has to The Terminator (1984), yet Cameron still acknowledges the inspiration of Robert A. Heinlein’s novel, Starship Troopers (firrst published as “Starship Solider“). And, you can totally see it – what with the “combat drops” and the “bug hunts” and the power armor (powered exoskeletons).

Finally, and I posted about this back in 2012, there is a massive inspiration for the alien of Alien coming from a 1939 novelette by A.E. van Vogt, Black Destroyer. That story is told from the perspective of the intelligent alien animal. Here’s the art for it from the original publication:

A.E. van Vogt’s Black Destroyer - Astounding Science Fiction, July 1939
A.E. van Vogt’s Black Destroyer - Astounding Science Fiction, July 1939
A.E. van Vogt’s Black Destroyer - Astounding Science Fiction, July 1939

More on Black Destroyer can be found here:

Newest to me, and perhaps least known [thanks to Chris for the pointer], is the fact that A.E. van Vogt’s second story in Astounding (December 1939), also influenced Alien. The story is entitled, Discord In Scarlet.

Astounding Science Fiction, December 1939

Again the cover story, Discord In Scarlet featured another alien horror attacking a crew of humans, but this one doesn’t so much look like the alien from Aliens as it does act like it – specifically it has the ability to plant its eggs in men for reproductive purposes. I’ve highlighted a gruesome passage here:

Discord In Scarlet by A.E. van Vogt

Also evocative, is the interior art for the story, two of the illustrations use some colour (rather rare for Astounding):

Discord In Scarlet by A.E. van Vogt
Discord In Scarlet by A.E. van Vogt
Discord In Scarlet by A.E. van Vogt

Both Black Destroyer and Discord In Scarlet were incorporated, with some revisions, into van Vogt’s fix-up novel The Voyage Of The Space Beagle.

Posted by Jesse Willis

*there is a D-grade movie called Space Truckers

Commentary: Copyright laws are increasingly for the protection of monopolies, not for the protection of artists

December 10, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
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In a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert Sylvester Stallone recounted how he would, to help him learn the craft of writing, record the audio from movies in movie theaters.

Here’s the clip (the confession begins at 6 minutes 16 seconds):

Today, under Canadian Law (section 432 of the Criminal Code) this action would see Stallone sentenced to “a term of not more than two years” in prison.

Now you have to understand, this is not for the purposes of sale – that would get Stallone “not more than five years” in prison.

Learning the craft of writing scripts, like Stallone did, from the soundtracks of movies would make him a criminal today.

Artists who go to museums in Canada to sketch great works of art are still safe. It is only scriptwriters who go to films and record dialogue that are criminals.

The copyright laws that have been creeping into Canada from the USA are for the protection of existing copyright monopolies, and not for the protection of artists.

[Canadian Criminal code section 432]

Posted by Jesse Willis

The WEIRD FICTION roots of TRUE DETECTIVE, season 2, Frank’s story

August 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
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True Detective

Frank Semyon, the criminal businessman from season 2 of True Detective, has a fantastic character arc.

And, like season 1 of True Detective, season 2 is also connected to a weird fiction story by Ambrose Bierce.

For season 1 it was An Inhabitant Of Carcosa (read my post on it HERE).

In season 2 it was An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge (we’ve done a podcast about this one).

So, do you remember the story that Frank (played by Vince Vaughn) tells his wife, Jordan, at the beginning of season 2’s second episode?

Here’s the scene:

Frank and Jordan are lying next to each other in bed.

FRANK: How’d a water stain get there?

Camera cuts up to two brown stains on the ceiling above Frank.

FRANK: It rained maybe twice this last year. It’s like everything’s papier-mache.

JORDAN: Stop thinking.

FRANK: I don’t like being on a ledge.

FRANK: My old man back in Chicago, when I was a kid… (laughs) he used to lock me in the basement when he’d go on a bender. Usually last the night. Let me out the next day. Thought he was keeping me safe, I guess. This one time, I was six – he puts me down there. I wake up and it’s locked. It had happened before. Anyways, so I guess he ended up arrested, I guess.

JORDAN: God, baby.

FRANK: Well, by the second morning I was out of food. The third day the light bulb burnt out. Pitch black in there. That’s when the rats started coming out. I dozed off and I felt a thing nibbling my finger. I woke up, it was, you know, chewing my finger.

JORDAN: What did you do?

FRANK: I grabbed it in the dark with my hands, I started smashing. And I just kept smashing it until it was nothing but goo in my hands. Two more days I was in there. In the dark. ‘Til my dad comes home.

JORDAN: Sometimes I wonder how many things you have like that. That I don’t know about.

FRANK: Ever since, I wondered: what if he never comes home? What if I’m still in that basement in the dark? What if I died there? That’s what that reminds me of.


FRANK: The water stain. Something’s trying to tell me that it’s all papier-mache. Something’s telling me to wake up, like… like I’m not real. Like I’m only dreaming.

True Detective - Season 2, Episode2

Then in the final episode of season 2, episode 8, in his last scene, Frank hears Jordan’s voice, then sees her standing there, in that white dress – the one he had her promise she would wear – and him, standing before her, wearing a white shirt soaked in blood (like the “red rose” he had promised her that he would wear).

And the lines:


JORDAN: Hey there handsome.

FRANK: You made it! You okay?

JORDAN: Did. Fine. I’m safe.

FRANK: I’m coming, hold up.

JORDAN: Whats a guy like you doing in a place like this?

FRANK: [WALKING EASIER NOW] Just making my way baby. I told ya, Id make it.

FRANK: You did. You made it. You can rest now.

FRANK: No rest. Never stop moving.

JORDAN: Babe, oh babe – you stopped moving way back there.

True Detective - Season 2, Episode 8

Earlier in episode eight, do you remember where Frank said he’d meet Jordan?

Yeah. And though we never see them meet there Frank was very specific, saying they’d meet in a park called “Obelisco” in “Barquisimeto” (Venezuela).

Here’s what “Obelisco” in Barquisimeto looks like:

Obelisco de Barquisimeto

Frank’s story is the story of An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge!

Posted by Jesse Willis

“Spoilers” spoil my life

August 15, 2015 by · 5 Comments
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Spoilers…. this post will point out how fucking stupid spoilers are.

See that yellow line at the end? That’s the spoilers I’m talking about. That’s the one I don’t give a shit about – and that’s the one that seems to have infected the minds of practically every conversation about books in the last 10 years. It’s pretty fucking sad to me that the only place one can really go to find out anything about a book is Wikipedia. Wikipedia, the one place that has a rule about not allowing argument about a book, the only place I can seemingly go to find out whether I’ll want to read a book.


So this is a pretty hard topic to research. Those colours, on the “use over time” above, are mine. I’m guessing with them, going with my sense of the predominate usage of “spoiler” – I think I once read that Spider Robinson coined the modern genre usage back in the late 1970s, in a column or something. Roger Ebert seems to be attributed it for movies. But what I’m certainly not talking about third party political candidate phenomenon (the idea is that they ruin elections), nor am I talking about the wings mounted on the backs of sports cars (which reduce aerodynamic lift) – I’m talking about the “spoilers” that dominate and limit book talk today – the ‘who dies at the end’ of a movie or TV show kind of “spoiler!” [said with glee], the ‘who’s whose secret sister to whom’ – or some such inane detail that someone thinks is crucial to appreciate something.

That person, actually, its you – its you – you are the person who uses the term “spoilers” – you’re well, you’re just really really wrong.

I understand, these trendy terms and turns-of-phrase are inevitable, unstoppable. One may as well fight against the tide as fight against them.

If you look to the past, as I am always doing, you will see how oblivious to the stupidity people are – check out this list of ridiculous 1980s phrases and euphemisms and you’ll see just how stupid people were in the 1980s were.

I know it is pointless to fight but I’m going to anyway, I’ve staked my claim on the beach, anchored myself to the bedrock beneath the shifting sand, and I’m beating against the endless wash of “spoilers” as hard as I can – my lone and lonely voice against “spoilers” is a valiant fight, and it is a fight I’ve long been losing – but that’s the point I’m trying to make – we all lose, whenever a conversation about any book somebody is discussing is truncated because they think some fact could “spoil” a book.

Even the word is stupid. “Spoilers” even if they have an effect won’t utterly ruin anything that is truly good” – but I understand, hyperbole is effective, the words “enjoyment lessener” or “surprise reducer” and thus would be unsurprisingly less enjoyable to use.

I really think it all just boils down to one point. I know it is doomed to failure, but I just have to say it – if you could just grasp it – if you could only grok it, deep down in your bones, in your genes – you’d stop having that word come out of your mouth when it comes to books.

I can almost understand it when it comes to a very narrow subset of movies, like The Crying Game, or Chinatown, or The Sixth Sense (the only thing The Sixth Sense has is the twist/surprise/point of the whole 1 hour and 47 minute exercise).

But books aren’t like that. And honestly, if you think about it, TV shows aren’t either.

Spartacus dies, I knew that going in, the fact enhanced my pleasure.

Whether Walter White gets away with his crimes or not isn’t the point of me watching Breaking Bad. I enjoyed the journey (except for that one episode where nothing happens).

In terms of TV shows it all comes down to this, do the people who make the show know where they‘re going? Do they know how it ends? If they do, great. If not, you’re fucking LOST.

Now books are a completely different deal, and here’s why. Books are long, and they are many. Being long and being many means we can’t read all of them, not even all the ones we want. And ultimately I think this explains why the term “spoiler” crops up in practically every conversation about book these days. If you don’t understand this one point, a small matter you think you know (but don’t really accept) if you just could accept this concept, really take it on board, namely that we are all going to fucking die, your saying “spoilers!” would rapidly diminish.

You who say “spoilers” act as if we had an infinite amount of time to read all the books.

This is stupid.

There are now more books published every year than we could read in all our lifetimes. So if you tell me that some point or other “spoils” a book then what you’re essentially saying is that you think I’d be less inclined to read the book if I knew some fact about the book. But this misses the point, I’M NOT GOING TO READ THAT FUCKING BOOK.

So, to sum up, please stop the self-censoring. I’m not going to read that book you don’t want to spoil for me, not unless you tell me something about it, something interesting.

Posted by Jesse Willis

Update: here’s a Google N-gram for the phrase “spoiler alert”

3 Philip K. Dick stories that could have inspired THE TERMINATOR

July 30, 2015 by · 1 Comment
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I think The Terminator may be the best Science Fiction film ever made. And I think that no one person, credited or uncredited, can take all the credit for it.

In the video below, edited from an episode of Prisoners Of Gravity, Harlan Ellison explains how he got his screen credit in The Terminator:

Soldier is the first episode of Season 2 of The Outer Limits (the original series). It’s plot features a futuristic time traveling soldier who, after a thunder crack, appears in a then modern urban alley. The soldier is nearly indestructible, and is incredibly strong. Later, he breaks into a gun shop. In the ultimate scene he confronts his (also) futuristic enemy and they are both destroyed. Those are the basic plot commonalities between Soldier and The Terminator. There are many, many differences. Visually though, there are some striking similarities. These are nicely documented here and here.

That all said, Soldier‘s story plays out very differently from The Terminator, you can see a lot more connections, if you squint really hard.

For example, the solider is scarred like Kyle Reese and is sometimes unintelligible like Schwarzenegger’s T-800 – but ultimately the two, the TV episode and the feature film, are radically different in both scale and scope.

Interestingly, Demon With A Glass Hand the fifth episode of the second season of the original The Outer Limits television series, also written by Ellison, has similarities to both The Terminator and another film.

Like Soldier and The Terminator, Demon With A Glass Hand features a protagonist sent from the future into the past. But in this case, unlike in the title character in Soldier, the time travel was done quite deliberately – and done by humans in order to save mankind – more like The Terminator right?

Also similar, our hero in Demon With A Glass Hand, is nearly indestructible, can survive being shot over and over, feels no need to sleep, is being hunted by enemies also sent from the future, and he is programmed! Those are the basic plot commonalities between Soldier and The Terminator. More on that other movie a little later.

In the Starlog article (December 1984) there is no mention of The Outer Limits or Ellison. But, in it James Cameron does say: “I read all the classics, all the old Ace paperback novels.”

Starlog, December 1984

I do not expect that Cameron read all of the following stories. In fact I don’t think it is even necessary to know, and it isn’t crucial to my argument. Indeed, only one of the following stories was actually published in an “old Ace paperback”, (Second Variety was published in The Variable Man and Other Stories, Ace D-261).

My argument is that the story ideas and story points, even more than visuals, from the The Terminator, came very much out of 1950s science fiction.

Now before we get to the meat of my argument I’ll do a little sidestep towards another film, just to make it all the more confusing… its actually laying the groundwork for something, trust me.

Look at these images:

Kyben from Demon With A Glass Hand and Pris from Blade Runner

Demon With A Glass Hand and Blade Runner in the Bradbury

As you can see Demon With A Glass Hand shares something in common with Blade Runner, as much Id say as Soldier does with The Terminator.

The baddies in Demon With A Glass Hand, seen above, have racoon style eye makeup, like Blade Runner‘s Pris. Our hero in Demon With A Glass Hand, as it turns out, is an android that didn’t know he was one, just like in Blade Runner (and Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?). Blade Runner was also shot in the same stylish office building in Los Angeles (the Bradbury Building*). And, the final fight of both stories ends in the same way, out the window and onto the roof of the Bradbury!

The “cybernetic organism” of The Terminator is in essence an android, a robot that looks like a human being, specifically a male human being if you want to get all technical.

Now even more than Ellison, who does have an android in Trent, the hero of Demon In A Glass Hand it is Philip K. Dick who is best known for his androids. Though robots that look like, think they are, or can pass for human aren’t unique or original to Dick, they are something he kind of specialized in. Stories like Imposter and The Electric Ant have androids and of course there is Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?.

Now practically everyone knows that Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? was adapted into a 1982 film called Blade Runner.

But do these folks know that the title of the Blade Runner was licensed from a book by a different author and entirely unrelated to Dick’s?

It was!

Ridley Scott acquired the rights to the title of a script based on an unrelated 1974 Science Fiction novel entitled The Bladerunner.

Why did he do this?

He didn’t have to, nobody has the legal right to claim exclusivity on book and movie titles – but as a matter of smart practice, when millions and millions of dollars are at stake, they often do such crazy things.

Now back to Philip K. Dick. He could, had he been alive in 1984, argued that his stories could have inspired The Terminator or even Demon With A Glass Hand!

Ellisons 1958 script for Demon With A Glass Hand has a “time mirror” – a device related to time travel – and so does a Philip K. Dick story.

For example, Dick uses what he calls a “time scoop” and a “time mirror” in a story called Paycheck (Imagination, June 1953). A time “Dip” turns up in a story named Meddler and in his novel Dr. Futurity (itself an expansion of a novella, Time Pawn) has a time “dredge.”

Here’s a snippet from Paycheck:

“It’s developed a time scoop.”


“A time scoop. It’s been theoretically possible for several years. But it’s illegal to experiment with time scoops and mirrors. It’s a felony, and if you’re caught, all your equipment and data becomes the property of the Government.” Jennings smiled crookedly. “No wonder the Government’s interested. If they can catch Rethrick with the goods –”

“A time scoop. It’s hard to believe.”

But Dick didn’t invent the idea either, a story from Amazing Stories, December 1942, has the same tech, its actually in the title!

The Time Mirror by Dwight V. Swain

Another story that could have inspired The Terminator is The Skull. This 1952 story was published in If: Worlds Of Science Fiction. In it the protagonist is sent back in time in order to kill a man who can’t be allowed to live. He doesn’t know the man’s identity, but the clue lies within his own head, kind of like The Terminator.

The Skull by Philip K. Dick

Now to get out of time travel, let me ask you, where is Skynet, the evil A.I. in either of those Ellison stories? They are absent. But, he has evil computers, ones that want to destroy humanity even, for example there’s AM, the evil A.I. from I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. But that story is from 1967, and is not Skynet, exactly…

Well, let me tell you about The Great C, first published in Cosmos Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine, September 1953. This story is set in a Fallout-style post apocalyptic wasteland. Straight away we learn that a band of humans have survived underground after a global nuclear war. The plot consists of following:

One of their number as he sets off with three questions to visit what the reader infers to be a great oracle. The oracle is the titular “Great C” with “C” being short for “Computer”. But unlike the Colossus supercomputer (from Colossus: The Forbin Project) that merely threatens nuclear war, this supercomputer pulled a full-Skynet and actually used the offensive nuclear capability on it’s creators, man.


The Great C by Philip K. Dick

Now Second Variety, first appeared in Space Science Fiction, May 1953. And it was later adapted to film as Screamers. It is set in a post-WWIII world where killer robots, known as “Claws”, are developing newer and newer models of killer robot for human infiltration.

Check out these two illustrations from the story:

Second Variety by Philip K. Dick - illustration by Ebel

Second Variety by Philip K. Dick - illustrated by Ebel

So, why did Cameron’s The Terminator have to give credit to Harlan Ellison if Scott didn’t have to give it to Blade Runner?

I suspect it all happened pretty much as Ellison said it did. That in the unpublished interview notes for that Starlog interview Cameron actually said that he “ripped-off a couple of Outer Limits segments” and perhaps even “a couple of Harlan Ellison stories.”

But it doesn’t matter to me. Credits or dollars, the only thing I really care at all about the story, and I think that The Terminator builds on great SF stories by the likes of Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison and Isaac Asimov and H.G. Wells, and some Outer Limits TV episodes, and maybe some other movies too.

Humans do this and it is a good thing. I’m glad so many humans had a hand in making it.

By listening to stories, and by retelling them we continue the process of story refinement. The Terminator wasn’t a “rip-off” it was a tribute, it stands alone, and it stands tall and proud next to the great SF stories that came before it, in 1950s TV, 1950s books and 1950s magazines and probably to the decades before it too.

As for the James Cameron Harlan Ellison dispute, well, Cameron may have had a “huge ego”, as Harlan Ellison put it, or maybe he didn’t – who knows – Ellison had “never met the man” – it may just have been a self-deprecating statement. We can all use a little of that, and a lot more Philip K. Dick.

Posted by Jesse Willis

*The “Bradbury” in the Bradbury Building is no relation to Ray Bradbury … or is it?

Providence by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows

May 28, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
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Providence 01 - Dreamscape Wrap

Yesterday I read the first publication of the first issue of a planned twelve issue comic book series entitled Providence.

Written by Alan Moore, and with art by Jacen Burrows, this is capital L literature in comic book form.

This is the Shakespeare of comics – with depths of horror and pathos virtually unparalleled, and exquisitely rendered.

Unlike great prose or even the magic of great poetry, comics allow for visual symbols, that, like the iconic images of film, can wordlessly move you, haunt you.

You will die soon. Your being is fragile. You have a very tenuous grip on this mote of dust, itself in orbit around a very dim candle, in an abandoned cathedral of stars spinning meaninglessly meaninglessly alone, and yet amongst all these billions of others alone in a vast universe of darkness, and though our ever-weakening grip on an existence that we, deep down, know will not last, there is a certain pleasure in seeing that doomed life reflected in great fiction.

I count myself lucky to live in a time when the great works of literature are as accessible as they are. And despite all the grey dross we must wade through to find that which we seek, there is something wonderful that happens when a work of such depth of quality is published within one’s own lifetime.

I urge you – do not miss the opportunity to experience Providence for yourself.

Below you will see that I have compiled a series of images from the first issue of Providence. In so doing I am picking up just one visual pairings that, when I noticed it, multiplied my depth of appreciation for this work of art.

There are many many others.

From PROVIDENCE, Issue 1, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows

Posted by Jesse Willis

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