Friday, May 31, 2013

Mermaids and Aquatic Apes

Image from Souvenir Press
     The recent hoopla over the cable channel Animal Planet's pseudo-documentaries Mermaids: The Body Found and Mermaids: The New Evidence reminded me of The Aquatic Ape.
     Both Mermaids mockumentaries proclaim that mermaids are real and pretend to show evidence and actual film of the semi-fishy creatures. Although they have captured the public's fancy, the filmmakers don't really believe the claims made in the films.
     That doesn't seem to be the case with the author of The Aquatic Ape
     In 1982, while listening to National Public Radio's All Things Considered, I heard a story about Elaine Morgan's book The Aquatic Ape. Morgan was best known at the time for her debut book, The Descent of Woman (1972), a feminist rebuttal to the Savannah Theory of human evolution, but in it Morgan first broached the subject of the Aquatic Ape, which Morgan learned of from Desmond Morris' The Naked Ape, who in turn attributed it to Alister Hardy. 
Souvenir Press
     Morgan, enamored of the idea, decided to write her own book explicitly about the hypothesis or theory after Hardy failed to write one himself. 
     In The Aquatic Ape, Morgan didn't proclaim that mermaids were real but rather that man has some peculiar physiological similarities with aquatic mammals, such as dolphins and whales, and even with aquatic birds such as penguins -- and corresponding dissimilarities with apes -- that suggest that the branch of primitive man from whom we evolved must have spent some time in a semi-aquatic environment. No, she doesn't claim that they grew fish tails or breathed underwater, but maybe their land became surrounded by water at some point so that they needed to begin adapting for an aquatic existence. They would have to spend more time in the water, losing hair, developing body fat and even walking upright on two legs.
     I was predisposed to like the idea of there being some connection between man and aquatic mammals. Around the time this book came out, dolphin intelligence was being touted by both researchers -- notably John C. Lilly -- and science fiction authors. In the Mike Nichols' film The Day of the Dolphin (1977) (based on a 1969 French novel), dolphins are taught to speak and understand English. In David Brin's Sundiver (1980) and its sequels, mankind has begun raising dolphins to human-level intelligence. Less seriously, in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1978), dolphins are said to be already more intelligent than man.
     I bought the book, read and liked it, but still suspected it was hooey. As I said, I would have liked for it to be true. Once in awhile, when I encountered evolutionary biologists for stories, I asked what they thought of this "theory," but never encountered anyone who even admitted to having heard of it.
     So, when I heard about Animal Planet's first Mermaids film, I assumed it was an exploration of this "theory," and was dismayed to find it was more akin to Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster, or perhaps the Piltdown Man and the Cardiff Giant. (I think there was a film about the Aquatic Ape on Discovery Channel years ago.)
     Then this morning (May 31, 2013), I saw a news report about the staggering success of the second Mermaids program, and I got curious about The Aquatic Ape again, did a web search and discovered that Elaine Morgan has written four more books about the Aquatic Ape: The Scars of Evolution (1990), The Descent of the Child (1995), The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (1997) -- all currently published by Souvenir Press -- and the out-of-print The Naked Darwinist (2008), which can be downloaded for free from the author's website.
     Many critics say that flaws in the theory and errors in her science have been pointed out to Morgan over and over, but she just ignores them and blames the lack of acceptance of the theory as a conspiracy by the scientific establishment.
     I admire her persistence, I guess, but the number of books she's written about the same topic make her seem more like a kook to me. Is she a true believer, obsessed with this subject? Is she a con artist, milking a subject to take advantage of a gullible public (like Erich von Daniken and his space alien gods)? Or is she a maverick, fighting an obstinate and conservative scientific old guard?
     Whatever the truth, I have more respect for her than I do for the programmers at Animal Planet.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Author Jack Vance dies

Image from Subterranean Press
     I've reached an age when authors I've read in my youth die on a regular basis. The latest is Jack Vance, a science fiction author who never (to my knowledge) made the New York Times Bestseller List, but was popular among his fellow SF writers, among them George R.R. Martin (A Game of Thrones). He won three Hugo Awards (science fiction prose's Oscar), most recently for his memoir This is Me, Jack Vance! (2009), now out of print.
     He's best known for his "Dying Earth" stories; a tribute volume of stories by other authors, Songs of the Dying Earth,  came out in 2010, and will arrive in paperback later this year, and the prestigious specialty publisher Subterranean Press has an ongoing series of collections of his early stories, most recently Magic Highways (2013). 
     The Associated Press obituary can be read here.

Image from Subterranean Press

Monday, May 20, 2013

'Brain Movies': Annoying New Releases from Harlan Ellison

Brain Movies III & Vol. 4
By Harlan Ellison
(Cafe Press/

     Harlan Ellison, once considered the enfant terrible of science fiction (although he rejects the genre label and prefers speculative fiction or just writer) is turning 79. To celebrate, his Harlan Ellison imprint of Cafe Press is releasing two more overpriced volumes of obscurica for diehard fans, available only through the dedicated website.

     Brain Movies III features the unproduced pilot teleplay for Cutter's World, another unproduced teleplay for a series called The Manhunter, an episode of Burke's Law that was produced, and a short story, novel excerpt and related material connected with Demon with a Glass Hand (the teleplay of which appeared in Brain Movies I. The purported reason it's included here is that the bad guys from Demon are also the bad guys in Cutter).

     Brain Movies: The Original Teleplays of Harlan Ellison, Vol. 4 features Brillo, the pilot for a series about a cop with a robot partner (which was never filmed but became a lawsuit when the network which rejected it produced another show about a cop with a robot partner), another Burke's Law script and a teleplay for the TV series The Sixth Sense.

     Why do I say overpriced? Each is $39.95 for about 465 pages, paperbound, 7.5-by-9.25 inches. By comparison, the last Ellison book I bought was White Wolf Publishing's Edgeworks 4, which was $21.99 for more than 625 pages, hardcover, 6.5-by-9.25 inches in 1997. Too old for a comparison? Then take the Library of America, hardcover editions on acid-free paper, between 800 and 1,000 pages each, for $35, 8-by-5 inches, including recent collections of Philip K. Dick and American Science Fiction of the 1950s and 1960s. Even Subterranean Press' recent reissues of Ellison's Gentleman Junkie and The Deadly Streets, while $45 each for fewer than 300 pages, are fine, collectible hardcovers, 6.5-by-9 inches, and reproduce the original paperback covers by Leo and Diane Dillon.

     Now, as I noted in a previous post, maybe Cafe Press is too small a publisher or the titles are too limited in appeal to produce in sufficient quantity to make them less expensive. Then Ellison could make more of an effort to make them more attractive. Hardcover editions might be a nice option. How about putting all of the material related to his Outer Limits script Demon with a Glass Hand in one volume instead of spread out over two? All of his Burke's Law scripts in one volume instead of three or four? To spread them out over multiple volumes suggests Ellison is trying to coerce fans to buy all of the books whether they want to or not. In that case he should just sell subscriptions to the Harlan Ellison Collection like Time-Life used to do with its series.
     It's not the first time Ellison seems to have cynically or poorly packaged books.

     In the 1990s, when White Wolf began repackaging older Ellison titles in attractive hardcovers, pairing two books in one volume, I thought that was a nice way of allowing Ellison fans new and old to get his work in hardcover for a reasonable price. The project ended after four volumes, though at least 11 were planned. I bought only one of them because Ellison insisted on grouping the books not by when they were written, genre, subject or form (novel, essay, screenplay) but rather by seemingly cynical whimsy. Indeed, Ellison seemed to take perverse pleasure in pairing disparate works.

     Take the first volume, Edgeworks 1, released in 1996. The titles were selected based on a word in their titles: a 1970 short story collection, Over the Edge, and a 1985 collection of essays, An Edge in My Voice. The latter was so recent that anyone who was interested in it probably already had it. If they only wanted the earlier short story collection, which hadn't been available in decades, they would have to double-buy the essay collection. Then there are people who don't like his essays. Must they buy both books? The essay collection was the larger part of the collection, too.

     The second volume collected his 1961 rock novel Spider Kiss -- a title that is among the first titles in every Ellison reprint project -- with a 1982 collection of mostly science fiction and fantasy stories, Stalking the Nightmare. Again, it is not a very simpatico pairing.

     Volume three was really just one book, the 1990 essay collection The Harlan Ellison Hornbook that was the long-delayed publication of the 1970s column of the same name. The "second" book was another unproduced movie script -- modestly titled Harlan Ellison's Movie -- that originally appeared as installments of the Hornbook column (yes, he was recycling "found" material even then) but was published separately by a small press and sold as a set with the first book. (Ellison apparently forgot that the small press had the hardcover rights to the collection, and gave them the screenplay as an exclusive in compensation.) Why reprint such a recently published title? His television criticism column The Glass Teat was a natural, as it was published in two volumes, was older and had never had a hardcover edition. 

     That brings us to volume 4, collecting 1965's Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled, mostly mainstream tales, and 1969's The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, an early science fiction collection. Finally, two books that kind of belonged together. They were both short stories, and not far apart chronologically in terms of creation. The latter hadn't been in print for awhile, and I thought it would look good on my shelf in hardcover, so I bought it.

     The series then stopped, why I don't know. It was at least the third time that an attempt to reprint all or most of of Ellison's work in uniform volumes had ended before completion. 

     Ellison is in apparent poor health and has said he thinks he will die soon. Making his monthly bill payments sometimes takes fancy footwork or selling some of the memorabilia and objets d'art he has collected. I suppose he is trying to leave his wife a legacy. I think he could do a better job if it didn't seem like he was trying to rip off his remaining fans, who are aging almost as fast as he is. White Wolf, for all its faults, was a labor of love by fans of Ellison. Harlan Ellison Books seems like a cynical ploy by someone who can't produce new work, who's going through his drawers and publishing whatever dross he can find there and charging for it like it's gold. Most of these books are "found," requiring only repackaging or typesetting, but the price is higher than he ever charged for new work.

     In one of Ellison's short stories, a man disappears into his own belly button. I'm afraid Harlan Ellison's life and work are imitating that art.