Fanorama by Walt Willis

WALTER WILLIS writes for you

Many of you, I know, are in the habit of going to see a science fiction film every time you're down in the dumps (convenient, because that's where they're usually playing these days) and you may have noticed that often there are other films in the programme. These are sneaked on by the management in a feeble attempt to discourage you from waiting for the sf film to come up for the third time, and the result of this unethical practice is that acknowledged masterpieces of the cinematographic art like I WAS A TEENAGE THING and THE EARWIGS FROM OUTER SPACE are flanked by fillers with queer names like SHANE and HIGH NOON. As a result of a lifetime's study of the cinema as an art form (my mother used a lot of jam) I am in a position to explain some of the oddities of these supporting films to you fellow science fiction fans, so that you may be able to gain some slight interest from them as you sit there patiently munching your potato crisps and waiting for the real programme to start. (A member of the younger generation reading over my shoulder queries that reference to getting into cinemas for jamjars. Apparently nowadays they have to surrender other articles—razors, bicycle chains. . . .)

In the first place perhaps I had better warn you that these "westerns", as they are called, are pretty fantastic. Far-fetched, I would call them, and you'll have to exercise your credulity pretty hard. Unlike science fiction, which takes place in the infinitude of the future where everything is possible—even likely—they are set in an era of the past which is not only imaginary but frankly impossible. However, many of the plots are obvious adaptations of the plots of some of our lesser science fiction writers and with a little imagination you should be able to visualise them as a sort of half-baked science fiction. It helps that the scenery is vaguely reminiscent of that of Mars or the Moon. The local inhabitants are made up of two races living in a symbiotic relationship, one biped and humanoid, the other quadruped. It is obvious that the quadrupeds are the ruling race because none of them is ever hurt in the frequent ray-gun battles in which the humanoids fall like flies. Obviously they are protected by force-fields. They transport the humanoids about in cages called "wagons", obviously much against their will because they're always trying from inside to turn the wheels backwards and go in the opposite direction.

The humanoids are of two kinds, the normal ones and the evil mutants. The latter are unable to face solar radiation and spend their time in banks and offices further protected by black clothes and moustaches. The normal humanoids are protected from them by an ability to move their own guns and deflect the bullets of their enemies by telekinesis. Further evidence of this telekinetic ability is shown by the recurring episode of the small town newspaper. This scene has always been a favourite of mine as an amateur publisher and I have studied the details very carefully. Briefly, what happens is that the villain holds up the newspaper editor at ray-gun point and forces him to run off, there and then, a special edition containing false news. I have studied this newspaper office very carefully and the only equipment seems to be a flat-bed proofing press and an old man with a rusty composing stick. It would, I calculate, take him approximately three days to set up one page of the newspaper, letter by letter, and another half day to run it off on that old press, by which time the old man would have collapsed from exhaustion and the Mon-Tues-Wed audience would have gone home and left the Thurs-Fri-Sat audience wondering what it was all about. Obviously what happens is that the stress of the situation awakes the old man's supernormal faculties. This is just one of the unsuspected facets of westerns which can be appreciated by the science fiction fan.

Being held up at gun point isn't a thing that happens to science fiction magazine editors much these days, presumably because most of our villains live on Mars or even further afield, but the stress of the job must be pretty tough all the same. Just think, for example, the time it must take my boss Peter Hamilton to re-arrange the words of all the stories so that all the lines end neatly together! I hear the turnover in some magazines has been so rapid the publishers were thinking of asking De Gaulle to take over. One of the most interesting new appointments has been that of Damon Knight as the new editor of the American magazine, IF. Knight, an old time science fiction fan, an efficient critic and one of the best writers in the field, had a previous brief spell as a professional editor of a magazine called WORLDS BEYOND. Unfortunately the magazine was sunk in the backwash from the collapse of the last boom in science fiction, but its three issues are still remembered with keen nostalgia.

from Nebula No. 33, August 1958

Last revised: 1 October, 2006

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