Authors: Geoff Ryman
Small Beer Press
This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed
in this book are either fictitious or used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2011 by Geoff Ryman. All rights reserved.
Small Beer Press
150 Pleasant Street #306
Easthampton, MA 01027
Distributed to the trade by Consortium.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Paradise tales / Geoff Ryman. -- 1st ed.
isbn 978-1-931520-64-5 (alk. paper)
ISBN 978-1-931520-64-5 (alk. paper)
First edition 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Set in Centaur MT.
Cover photo by Giovis Dimitrios.
The paper edition of this book was printed on recycled paper in the USA.
The Film-makers of Mars1
The Last Ten Years in the Life of Hero Kai
The Future of Science Fiction
No Bad Thing
Talk Is Cheap
Days of Wonder
K is for Kosovo (or, Massimo’s Career)
Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter
To the communality of science fiction
for continually making new kinds of people.
The films just started showing up, everywhere, old forgotten silent movies turning to jelly in warehouses all over SoCal: Anaheim, Burbank, Tarzana.
I got a call from Al at Hannibal Restoration. “They’re mindblowing!” The old hippie.
Eight reels of a film about Santa Claus from 1909. Filmed in Lapland. And
reels of a film it says was produced by Edgar Rice Burroughs. In 1911?
sponsored a program at the LA Film Festival. They invited me, of course; Hannibal invited me as well. I gave the second invitation to my friend Amy.
I don’t know what I was expecting. L. Frank Baum went bust producing Oz movies. They’re terrible and have very silly special effects, but you couldn’t film them now, or even fake them. They just look like they’re from their era, or even maybe from Oz itself, if Oz were poverty-stricken.
We all sat down. Al’s partner Tony came on and mumbled something through his beard about provenance and how grateful he was to the sponsors, then Hannibal screened the first film about Santa Claus. For all his work, Al only had one reel to show.
Hannibal had done a beautiful job. The team had remade each frame of film digitally, filling in scratches, covering up dirt, enhancing contrast—sharp, clear, monochrome images. It was like going back in time to see the premiere.
They had Santa Claus bronco-busting reindeer. Santa was pretty damn robust, a tall rangy guy in a fur-trimmed suit. The reindeer were not studio dummies but huge, rangy, antlered beasts. Santa wrestled them to the ground, pulled reins over their heads and then broke them in bareback like it was a rodeo.
Think Santa Claus western—snow drifts between evergreen trees. Santa chewed tobacco and spat, and hitched up his new team behind a sleigh pulled by even more reindeer.
The next shot, he’s pulling the team up in front of Santa’s palace, and the only thing it could possibly be is a real multistorey building made entirely from blocks of ice.
So far, I was saying to myself, OK, they went to Lapland and filmed it almost like a documentary.
Then he goes inside, and it’s not a painted set, the ice blocks glow like candle wax. Santa finds that the elves have been eating the toys.
Remember the first time you saw
, and the vampire looked like a crossbreed between a human and a rat? Well Santa’s Elves looked like little Nosferatus, only they were three feet high and deranged. One of them was licking a child’s doll between her legs. You could hear the whole audience go
Rat teeth stuck out; fingernails curled in lumps like fungus. One of them snarled at Santa, and the old guy cuffed it pretty smartly about its pointed ears, then knocked it to the ground and gave it two smart kicks to the groin.
Then the reel ended.
Amy looked at me, her face seesawing between wonder and disgust. “That was a children’s film?”
The festival director bounced up to a lectern, trying to look spry. He joked about the movie. “It was called
The Secret Life of Santa Claus,
and I think that must be the first X-rated Santa feature.”
He introduced a representative of the Burroughs family, and a fresh-faced college student hopped up onto the stage. He was, the director said, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s great-grandnephew. He couldn’t have been older than twenty—sun-streaked hair and baggy trousers that sagged just sufficiently below his underwear line to be cool. He had that Californian polish of sun, wealth, opportunity, and honed parenting.
Appropriate. I knew that everything this guy did would be appropriate. His name was the perfectly appropriate John Doe Burroughs, and he made a perfect and predictable speech about how much he admired his famous forebear and how the film had been found inside a family safe.
“It really had been shut for about ninety years. It was recorded in the ERB estate inventory with a request not to try to open it, so we didn’t. Then strangely, the safe appeared to open itself.”
Oh yeah, sure.
“And inside were about forty reels of film, in other words about three hours’ worth.”
In 1911? That would make it an epic on the scale of
was made in 1916.
Then my friend Al came up on stage. Soft-spoken, sincere, a fan of old radio shows, a native Angeleno who remembers the Brown Derby restaurant, Al had been my mentor. For a while. Where do nice guys finish?
He talked for thirty minutes about the restoration. I know, restoring old films is an art, but an art that’s best when it shuts its mouth. It’s like all those DVD extras about costume design.
Al gave us film history. The producer was Burroughs himself, and the director was called Nemo Artrides … unknown and probably a pseudonym. The actor, however, was known. He was Herman Blix, who stared in one Tarzan film in 1927 and then married Edgar Rice Burroughs’s daughter.
So what was he doing in 1911? “More questions than answers, but the biggest mystery is the technical achievement of the film itself.” Al, sweet Al, smiled with pleasure.
From the three hours of film, so far he had twenty minutes to show us.
The lights went down. Up came the first frame. A black-and-white panel, hand-painted with about ten pieces of information in one screen … title, Edison company logo, all in that art nouveau lettering.
Directed by Nemo Artrides from the histories by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Filmed by permission of the incomparable Jahde Isthor.
No cast list.
The first scene looks like what you’d see through a spyglass. There’s a cotton gin, plants and black slaves. The spyglass opens out and we see on opposite sides of a cotton field rows of troops, one side in gray, one in the dark uniform of the Union army.
“So,” I whispered to Amy. “It
D. W. Griffith.”
She chuckled. “Shh.”
Herman Blix in Confederate uniform rides into shot. He manages to swagger while on horseback. Like old photographs of General Beaufort, he looks crazed, with huge whiskers and a mad stare, and thick, dirty, plastered-down hair. From amid the rows of cotton, a slave stares up at him.
That’s when I first sat up. There was something in that face. You couldn’t paint it on with makeup; you couldn’t buy it from Hollywood.
The slave looked as old as the Bible, starved and gnarled. His neck was thin in strands, his chin had no flesh on it; and the skin around his eyes, his cheeks, and even on his nose was crisscrossed with lines of repeated stress cut as deeply as whiplashes. His eyes swam with misery, outrage, a lifetime of abuse.
In the book, Burroughs bangs on about race. His history of Mars is a history of racial triumph and decline; race explains culture. His hero is a warrior for slavery and an Indian fighter; the opening of the book swiftly combines all of America’s racial catastrophes.
Our supposed hero raises his sword and strikes the old black man down.
I sat back in shock. What the hell was that supposed to be? A racist assault? An apology for it?
There’s a gap, a break I guess, where the film was unsalvageable. Somehow we jump to Mars.
We see a huge thing with six legs and swivel-eyes hauling Blix by a chain around his neck.
The brain processes at high speed. Mine said,
. This is never 1911, this is CGI, now. The glassy frog-eyes turn on stalks; the thing has six perfectly functioning limbs with hands for feet. A Thark, in the books. As I watch, it drops down onto its middle set of legs and starts walking on those as well. The motion is perfect, the design totally disorientating. The thing’s scrawny and bloated at the same time; it moves as tensely as an erect cobra.
The ground all the way to a near horizon is carpeted with spongy fungus. Herman Blix doesn’t walk across it; he bounces blearily, like he’s on a trampoline.
He’s stark, bollock naked. Unswervingly naked. You can see he’s circumcised, and even weirder for 1911 Hollywood, his pubes are shaved smooth.
The audience rustled.
The title panel said:
No water on a Mars that suffers from climate change.
In the low Martian gravity, he does not know his own strength.
Blix stumbles, fights to regain his balance and springs up into the air, out to the end of his chain, like a guy in weightless simulation. The Thark jerks him back, and he slams down into the moss. He lands badly, rolls, and nurses his knee.
Distance shot. A caravan lumbers and sways and ripples with a myriad of limbs. It looks like one living thing, a giant centipede. I’d say a hundred extras at least.
Back to close-up. A Thark rides something that at first is difficult even to see, shapeless and wrinkled. An eyeless, featureless wormlike head splits open, its mouth lipless, like a cut. It seethes forward on what look like thousands of grappling hooks.
One of the Dead Cities of Mars
, says a title.
The city looks like a chain of deliberately dynamited municipal parking lots, only with statues in the corners and mosques attached.
“No, no. No, no,” I said aloud.
This wasn’t a matte painting held in front of an unmoving camera. This wasn’t a miniature. The actors did not troop past some dim rear projection of models. No silvered, masked, stuffed lizards stood in for monsters like in
The Thief of Baghdad
. No well-designed full-size dragons moved stiff puppet jaws like in
An accidentally good set of swivel-eyes I could take. Maybe, like Babylon in
, they just built the Martian city for real. Maybe they found the young Willis O’Brien to animate the Tharks.
But not all of it, all at once.
“This is a fake,” I said deliberately loudly. “No way is this 1911!”
But the thing was, the film didn’t look like Now, either.
First off, the star really was Herman Blix.
Herman Blix was twenty-seven in 1927, so he could only have been eleven in 1911. OK, so they got the date of the film wrong. More like 1928 maybe, when he’d already married the boss’s daughter. But Blix didn’t look twenty-eight either. His hair was brushed back, which made him look craggier and older. Older and somehow mummified. Maybe it was all the dry desert air. But in close-ups, there were thousands of tiny wrinkles all over his face. The eyes looked fierce, almost evil, the mouth a thin, downward-turning line. And the eyes. The old film made his eyes, probably blue, look like ice. You could imagine them glowing slightly as if sunlight shone into them.
And the audience couldn’t stop giggling at his willy. It was a very nice willy, even retracted. But it made the film feel like a silent, slow-motion Flesh Gorden.