Sunday 25 October 2020

Hugo Cinema Club: The "No Award" of 1959

This blog post is the second in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

At the 1959 Hugo Awards, three movies that are still well-remembered today vied for the title of “Best
(Image via IMDB)

Hollywood Movie.” There was The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, in which Ray Harryhausen crafted the first of his mythology-inspired adventure movies; the influential off-kilter science fiction horror in The Fly (directed by Kurt Neumann); and Christopher Lee redefined the modern vampire in the Hammer Studios version of Dracula. It was an excellent shortlist.

In a decision that looks more and more curious in retrospect, none of these films were honoured, as Hugo voters chose to present no award.

At the time, this was not a controversial choice. In the fanzine Science Fiction Times, Belle C. Dietz describes that the vote to do so was overwhelming. Writing in Fanac, Dick Eney describes people cheering as they learned that no movie would be honoured that year. The long-standing beef that many fans had with how filmmakers outside of fandom had adapted their genre to the screen seems to have been in full force that year.

It’s a shame because each of these movies has a lot of strengths, and each show differing ways in which science fiction and fantasy cinema continued to evolve.

Of the three, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is the most visually compelling, but it’s also clearly the weakest in terms of storytelling and acting. The movie follows Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) as he goes to Colossa Island, fights monsters, and gets involved in a magician’s subterfuge. The plot seems to exist mostly to take the viewer from one special effects sequence to the next, but those sequences are compelling enough to warrant a viewing.

In many ways, it is not a movie that has aged well: There are significant issues of cultural appropriation, of casting lilly-white actors to play Middle-Eastern protagonists, and the reinforcement of unfortunate
As visually impressive as any
movie made in the 1950s,
7th Voyage of Sinbad is
basically still just a kids movie.
 (Image via Classic Film)

cultural stereotypes. But the creature effects and the skeleton fight scene are epic. It pushed special effects forward so much that it was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry.

Modern viewers are probably more familiar with David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake, but the original The Fly also holds up remarkably well. Much like the remake, the 1958 original is a body horror about a man who becomes merged with a fly during an experiment in teleportation.

The narrative framing of having the story told as an extended flashback as police interrogate Hélène does a disservice to the plot. Because of this framing, viewers go into the horror knowing how the story will end, who will survive, and who will not. This unfortunately leeches some of the tension out of an otherwise first-rate science fiction horror.

The pacing of The Fly is terrific, the acting and directing are more naturalistic than was common for films of the era, and the horror of a man slowly losing himself is extremely effective. This would have been a worthy Hugo winner, and was the top pick for at least one of our viewers.
He may not have a clue and he may not have style
But everything he lacks, well, he makes up in denial.
(Image via Avalon Theatre)

But for most of our viewing group, the clear stand-out on the ballot was Dracula. From top-to-bottom, the 1958 version of Dracula has an extraordinary cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, and Melissa Stribling are all note perfect.

Despite making significant changes to the novel, it was still clearly made with care and respect for the original source material. The story may be more confined to a smaller stage, but the broad strokes are all there. And unlike previous almost-chaste adaptations of the novel, the Hammer Horror version oozes with a dark lust. This is the definitive movie version of Dracula, and should have not only won the Hugo Award, but deserved recognition from the Oscars.

All three of these movies received significant praise and commercial success outside of fandom. The 7th
Christopher Lee is the all-time
 definitive movie Dracula.
(Image via

Voyage of Sinbad
earned $6 million at the box office — more than ten times its budget. A contemporaneous review in the London Spectator praised The Fly as ‘serious,’ ‘respectable,’ and ‘ingenious.’ While Motion Picture Daily listed Dracula as one of the all-time best horror films.

Interestingly and likely relevant, 1959 was the first Hugo Awards in which “No Award” was an option, and voters chose to snub all the movies in this category. In explaining why they offered voters that choice, Worldcon publications editor George Young wrote “It was very apparent from the nominations ballots that in some categories there was no particularly outstanding selection. Because of this we have included a choice called “No award in this category.” The option was offered in three categories: Short Story, Best New Author, and Best Movie.

It is an intense shame that voters felt the need to insult these films by declaring that none of them deserved recognition. It is sometimes easier to assess the enduring merit of works with the benefit of hindsight. It seems likely that if there were Retro Hugos for 1959, modern audiences would not select “No Award.”

Thursday 8 October 2020

Interview with Gautam Bhatia, author of The Wall

Lawyer, academic, and author Gautam Bhatia has been editing non-fiction articles at Strange
Gautam Bhatias debut novel
The Wall is the sort of book that
you keep pondering weeks after
you finish reading it. 
(Image via Amazon) 

Horizons magazine for more than five years. The Rhodes Scholar has written two non-fiction books about constitutional law, and in August saw his fiction debut The Wall released by HarperColins. The book, which is set in a city that has been trapped within an impenetrable wall for 2,000 years mixes insights into sociology, law, and the nature of rebellion. Bhatia, who is completing his PhD at Oxford, spoke via Skype with blog contributor Olav Rokne in September.   

The Wall is a powerful metaphor. Never more so than in the current political context, in which world leaders have used walls as a totemic symbol of their own xenophobia. Was this book in any way shaped by that political environment?

The idea of the wall was part of the story from the beginning. It was there when I started writing the book in 2008, long before walls … you know … really became such an unwanted part of our daily imagination. 

 But many people have always lived with walls.

I mean, the India-Bangladesh border has always inspired rhetoric about infiltration, so-called illegal migration, fences and walls. So there have been people who always suffered because of walls.

It strikes me that The Wall is actually an almost exact mirror image of what Iain M. Banks did; The Culture was entirely post-scarcity and the world of The Wall is one in which scarcity is turned up to the Nth degree.

There’s one little line where someone says that “you can vote for many things, but you can’t really vote against the wall.”

That line actually is a little sly tip of the hat to a statement made by one of the European Union commissioners when there was a popular protest movement in Italy against austerity, and he said that “look you can’t vote against the treaties.” There’s a sense that for the European Union, when a country wants to rebel against austerity, it’s treated as if they’re rebelling against the natural law of the world. How can you possibly vote against a natural law? 
And so I thought about what would happen if something like neoliberalism took a physical form in the shape of a wall; you literally can’t vote against The Wall.

In the world in which we live, scarcity is a rhetorical device that is used to suppress popular aspiration. What would happen if scarcity wasn’t just rhetorical, but actually physically there in front of you? 

Author Gautam Bhatia's
keen legal mind informs
his rich and nuanced 
(Image via The Times of India)

What other writers influenced your writing?

[Ursula K.] Le Guin was a massive influence.

When I was seven or eight years old, my parents got for me a copy of the Wizard of Earthsea. There were three books I read when I was very young. One was the Hobbit, the second was the first Harry Potter (a Canadian colleague of my dad’s actually brought it from Canada when he came visiting and it hadn’t become a cult phenomenon yet), and the third was Earthsea.

At that time, I really loved Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter both. I kind of passed by them after a point, but Le Guin has been a continuing and formative influence.

Dispossessed, as you can see is a huge framing influence on this book in many ways, not just in the shape of the political conflict, but also what Le Guin kept telling us all: that we should imagine alternatives to capitalism, and that it was possible to imagine those alternatives even in constrained spaces.

There’s a scene early in your book that reminded me of The Dispossessed, how our words constrain our language, and how our languages can constrain our worlds. It’s the scene with Methila learning about the word “horizon.” I wondered if you were deliberately setting this up as a metaphor for the ways that our imagination can be constrained by a hegemonic set of ideas.

You’re right that it is a metaphor, but also I wanted to explore in literal terms what impact that kind of constrained life would have upon your language and what impact the inability to frame certain words would have upon how you could visualize certain things.

One thing that's fascinated me has been the interplay between language and the way we perceive the world. Samuel Delaney’s work was in that sense very interesting for me and more recently China Miéville’s Embassytown.

Can you tell me a little bit about the legal system, and what ideas were you trying to explore with it?

The exploration of the legal system in The Wall obviously stems from my other life as a lawyer — as a constitutional lawyer specifically.  

I realized over the years that legal structures — in a certain sense — form the hidden plumbing of the world. Many of the things that you don’t think have anything to do with the law are still very much undergirded by what the legal system allows or doesn’t allow.

[For example], the so-called free market itself is entirely a construction of a series of legal rules involving property contracts. So law is kind of the unarticulated basis of many things we do in our daily lives. It’s relatively unexplored in speculative fiction.

Law is so connected to the material realities of any society. If you were to change something as basic as having a wall that ensured a literal scarcity of resources, and created actual restraints on mobility, then the way the laws would be framed to express that material reality would also be very different. I thought it would be very interesting to explore.

Are you working on any books after these two?

Right now mentally and emotionally completely consumed by Book Two and finishing the story. I have some vague vague ideas for another series that continues to play with Ursula LeGuin’s whole idea that the task of speculative fiction writers is to imagine alternatives to capitalism. That’s just something that I’m obsessed with. I’m just thinking about how to work with that within a space opera framework.

It’s something a bit like what Iain M. Banks did, but he didn’t really explore how The Culture worked. He often focused more on the conflicts The Culture had with other non-Culture societies, and I’m more interested in how a post-capitalist space-faring society would work — how the mechanics of it might work from the inside. I just have some very very vague ideas which are completely unformed right now.

But for the moment, I’m investing my energy on Book Two and finishing that now.