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Aelita (1923)

aka Aelita, or The Decline of Mars
Written by Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoi

The Russian Revolution, at least the one that ended with the creation of the Soviet state, began in 1917. There was a lot that went into sparking it, and it’s beyond the purview of this book review to go into the details of it, but it is true that the conditions of industrial workers contributed to the dissatisfaction behind it. (As did the Russian defeats in WWI, which was still ongoing.) The center of the tsarist and then provisional government was Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), which is where Aleksei N. Tolstoi’s Aelita begins.

The year is 192_. We don’t know the last digit, but we know that the book was published in 1922 or 1923 (I’m finding conflicting dates on that…), and that the revolution “ended” in 1922. At most, the story starts only 7 years after the creation of the USSR. This proximity in setting (and writing) to the time and place of the revolution informs the narrative in several ways, from the characters to the events on Mars. (Additionally, although Tolstoi had no way to know this before publication, Petrograd would be renamed to Leningrad in 1924. Let’s just ignore that.)

Our human adventurers are Mstislav Sergeyevich Los and Alexei Ivanovich Gusev. Los is the designer of the spaceship the pair use. A recent widower, he takes no joy in anything. He now views the trip as a patriotic and hopefully suicidal gesture. Gusev is a soldier with no more war to fight. He is married, but he too finds little meaning in existence. For him the trip is an opportunity for adventure. Or death. Maybe both.

The Petrograd they are leaving is a city in ruins. Gusev and his wife live in one room of a decaying mansion, abandoned when the rich fled the city. This is where the revolt started, and a succession of upheavals in government have left it with broken infrastructure and shattered people. The crowd that gathers to watch Los and Gusev’s departure doesn’t expect to witness success, but it is a way to distract themselves from their daily struggles.

The trip to Mars starts on page 20 of the translation I read. It’s a fast read, with short chapters and only about 160 pages. Things happen quickly, even when not a lot is going on. There are a few sections on the history of Mars, but they pass quickly, skimming over thousands of years on two worlds. It’s a feel that I love, getting a sense of the expansiveness of the environment without slowing the pace.

The ruling class are descended from a Martian tribe that interbred with the Atlantean conquerors, who in turn— Look, it’s frankly silly and not a little racist here. Let’s just say that there’s a legend about the return of the Sons of the Sky. This causes two divergent reactions to the arrival of the cosmonauts. The worker class hails them as a sign of change, and the leader of the Supreme Council, Tuskub, fears they’re conquerors.

The situation on Mars is desperate. The planet is declining, and resources are dwindling. Tuskub believes that there is no salvation, and his plan is to destroy the masses so that he and the other rulers can live out the remaining days of the planet in luxury. In his mind, his legacy will be a glorious sunset for Martian civilization. It’s a pretty clear analogy for the recent events in and around Petrograd.

Who or what is the Aelita of the title? She’s the aristocratic daughter of Tuskub, a priestess who teaches the humans the Martian language and the history of the planet. She’s critical for exposition, but it honestly makes zero sense why Tuskub would expose her to the strangers from space. She gets a terrible plot arc, obliged to fall in love with the old widower. In the end, she’s just another woman for Los to lose.

By now, you’re wondering why I’m writing about this book. There are only a few animals on Mars that we’re introduced to. There are flying things and grazing things. And then there are the giant spiders.

Yes. I’m here for the spiders from Mars.

The first night that Los and Gusev are on Mars, they encounter the giant spiders along a dry riverbed. They discover dead spiders in abandoned buildings, and always in the dark places there are eyes.

Suddenly Los stopped. A chill of digust went down his spine. Three feet away, on the ground, large equine eyes, half-shut with reddish lids, stared at him through the thick leaves. They stared intently with vicious hostility.

“What’s the matter?” Gusev asked, and then saw the eyes. Without a thought, he shot at them. Dust flew up. The eyes disappeared. “What a disgusting thing!” Gusev turned and shot again at the brown-striped fat body running swiftly on long spider legs. It was a huge spider, the kind that are found only on the bottoms of deep seas on Earth. It disappeared in the underbrush.

pp. 36-7

Near the end of the book, as the Martian revolt is in shambles, Los and Gusev stumble through ancient underground passages in search of Aelita. They discover a crevasse from which an unsettling noise emerges. It’s the sound of breathing from countless spiders. Los realizes that after the last Martians die, the planet will belong to these creatures. There’s no future for the people of the planet.

Tuskub crushes the revolt and the city, and he recovers his errant daughter, leaving Los all but dead. Gusev takes Los back home. Their adventure has changed them. The failure of the Martian revolution seems to have cured Gusev’s restlessness, and he rejoins his wife. Los is driven by his desire to rejoin Aelita, and he works for others to produce another spacecraft.

It’s a curious story, clearly sympathetic to revolution and critical of those who let others starve while they live lavishly, but skeptical of the ability of a society to reform. The philosophy presented in the histories of Mars is that progress leads inevitably to violent collapse. The more knowledge that is accumulated, the faster we race to the brink. Certainly Tolstoi experienced enough turmoil, bloodshed, and iniquity in the decade prior to writing Aelita to warrant pessimism. Tolstoi left Russia for a time after the White Army lost to the Red, but he returned as a fierce nationalist.

It’s really no wonder that the Soviet movie made of the book in 1924 bears little resemblance to the text. Aelita may have been accepted because of Tolstoi’s very public return to the Soviet Union, but its themes were too complicated with pessimism and anti-war doubts to be a good fit for a film industry converting to Soviet themes. (In much the same way that big-budget Hollywood pictures avoid complicated motives and nuance.) But the movie is a story for another time. I may cover it despite the lack of spiders, just to provide a comparison with the book.

This review used the translation by Antonina W. Bouis published by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. © 1981

The Lost World (1960)

Directed by Irwin Allen
Based on The Lost World Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Written by Charles Bennett and Irwin Allen
Starring Michael Rennie, Jill St. John, David Hedison, Claude Rains, Richard Haydn, Ray Stricklyn, Fernando Lamas, and Vitina Marcus

The conceit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World is enthralling. Explorers discover a region that stands apart from the modern world, where evolution stood still; a place where tribes battled apes—sure, he was ripping off Jules Verne to some extent, but who didn’t? And it is Doyle’s title that we use to describe plots that involve isolated pockets of prehistoric life. It’s been filmed many times but only once was it done by the master of disaster, director and producer Irwin Allen.

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Monster Island (2004)

Directed by Jack Perez
Written by Adam Glass and Jack Perez
Starring Daniel Letterle, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Chelan Simmons, Carmen Electra, Adam West, C. Ernst Harth, Alana Husband, La La Anthony, and Nick Carter

The horror movies of the 1950s have a certain cachet, not as exemplary films but as enjoyably cheesy. It’s a nostalgia thing, and it’s no surprise that filmmakers like Larry Blamire have used that as inspiration for their own efforts. Capturing that feeling of how we think movies were is a delicate task, and what is intended as homage can come of as misinformed, disingenuous, and cynical. By way of example, I give you the MTV production, Monster Island.

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Fury of the Congo (1951)

Directed by William Berke
Written by Carroll Young
Starring Johnny Weissmuller, Sherry Moreland, William Henry, Lyle Talbot, Joel Friedkin, and George Eldredge

Odds are that if you know about Johnny Weissmuller at all, you know him as an actor who played Tarzan. Maybe you even know about his pockets full of Olympic gold and record-setting competitive swimming career. If you read my last review, you also know he faced a giant spider in Tarzan’s Desert Mystery. Well, my friends, today you’ll learn about his second encounter with a big damn spider, as Jungle Jim in Fury of the Congo.

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Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943)

Directed by Wilhelm Thiele
Written by Edward T. Lowe Jr. from a story by Carrol Young
Based on characters by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Starring Johnny Weissmuller, Nancy Kelly, Johnny Sheffield, Otto Kruger, Joe Sawyer, Lloyd Corrigan, and Robert Lowery

There are movie series that feature giant spiders in recurring roles. With heavy-continuity franchises like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, it can be tricky to figure out how to handle the review. It’s a lot easier with the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, which are largely unconnected apart from basic character facts. For the 8th installment, Tarzan’s Desert Mystery, all you need to know is that there’s a guy named Tarzan (Weissmuller) who wears a buttflap. He has a son named Boy (Johnny Sheffield), who is also averse to clothing. Forget about Jane. She’s in England, helping out by working as a nurse.

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World Without End (1956)

Written and Directed by Edward Bernds
Starring Hugh Marlowe, Nancy Gates, Nelson Leigh, Rod Taylor, Shirley Patterson, Lisa Montell, Christopher Dark, and Everett Glass

One of the most enduring science fiction stories is The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells. Apart from popularizing the notion of time travel, it influenced the way we think about the future in terms of what will become of the human race and its civilizations. Humanity splits in two, with the Eloi physically dwindling and living in shiny towers while the Morlock grow strong laboring underneath. While Wells’ work stressed the division between the working and ruling classes, others would use the premise to make their own statements. The film World Without End uses the threat of nuclear war to create a future where humans on the surface are enslaved by mutants while those who sheltered below ground are failing to thrive.

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Valley Of The Dragons (1961)

aka Prehistoric Valley
Directed by Edward Bernds
Written by Edward Bernds and Donald Zimbalist
Based on the novel Career of a Comet by Jules Verne
Starring Cesare Danova, Sean McClory, Joan Staley, and Danielle De Metz

valleydragons_title

Jules Verne is perhaps best remembered today for the novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The story of Nemo and his advanced submarine has been adapted to screen many times, as have his works Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days. So popular were movies of Verne’s adventure stories that it was tempting to produce anything that his name could be attached to. For instance, by using just the barest premise of Of On a Comet (here credited as the subtitle of the translation called Hector Servadac; or The Career of a Comet) the producers of Valley of the Dragons were able to promote a rambling Lost World ripoff as being a Jules Verne movie.

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