Adapting Philip K. Dick

This week on the Kirkus Reviews Blog, I jump ahead from some of the older stories to a very modern author: Philip K. Dick and the adaptations of his works.

This was an interesting article to write, because I wanted to tie it in with the upcoming movie release of Total Recall. Prior to writing it, I was able to find a number of the films and watch through them over the course of a weekend, to get a sense of how they were adapted. Some were a pleasant surprise: Total Recall and Screamers were two that I particularly liked. Others, like Paycheck and Next, I didn’t like very much.

Dick’s works have translated interestingly into film, I suspect because the premise that he’s really known for – this world is not correct – is something that’s easy for a film to capture and challenge its characters with in ways that audiences can easily understand.

Here’s the sources that I used for this piece:

The Library of America Series (Four Novels of the 1960s, Five Novels of the 1960s & 70s, and Valis & Later Novels): This series examines notable works from American authors, seldomly looks at Science Fiction. These books are fantastic examples of the author’s works, but are also excellent for their in-depth chronological look at Dick’s life.

Minority Report Special Features: This is something that I watched way back, when Minority Report was the first DVD that I ever owned. It’s an excellent collection of special features, not the least of which the one that talks about the adaptation of the story and how it came to be.

Prophets of Science Fiction: Philip K. Dick: This was a really neat one to watch, even as it glosses over much of Dick’s life and dramatizes some of it. The most interesting thing was Ridley Scott’s impressions of the man, whom he met at a screening. There’s also some interesting points about how Minority Report was going to become a sequel to Total Recall.

Internet Speculative Fiction Database: This large archive was useful for tracking down the original publications of each of the stories, which allowed me to string them out in publication order.

The films: I was able to track down almost all of the films, with the exception of A Scanner Darkly and Radio Free Albemuth. Watching each (and reading most of the stories that they were based on) really helped to see what exactly was adapted.

Usual Suspects: The Stuff Dreams are Made Of, History of Science Fiction and Trillion Year Spree each have sections about Philip K. Dick and his works, which provide good background material on the life of the author and his contributions to the genre.

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Brave New Worlds

John Joseph Adams has distinguished himself in the past with outstanding speculative fiction anthologies, from Wastelands to The Living Dead and others. His latest volume, Brave New Worlds, is perhaps one of the finest sets of short fiction that I’ve ever read, with a stunning table of contents and authors to tell their stories of oppression.

Brave New Worlds is a complete turnaround from Wastelands, an anthology that looks at humanity after the demise of civilization. Here, the focus is on societies where government has not only remained, but strengthened to the point where the people themselves become the enemies of the state. It’s an incredibly frightening future, and one that feels far more relevant to today’s world than most works. The argument between Republicanism and Federalism is a familiar one to anybody who has tuned into the news over the past couple of years.

Indeed, this anthology came to me at a time of personal political crisis. The past couple of years have been ones of discussion, learning and thinking about the differences in political parties, and what these sorts of things mean at the end of day and down the road. The idea of an overly strong state that impinges upon the rights of its citizens is something that is undesirable to me, and what our country represents. Numerous actions taken by the government have had a speculative-fiction feel to it, such as the detainees in Guantanamo Bay and the kill order against a radical cleric overseas, to the authority of the Transportation Security Administration following some terrorist attacks. It is a frightening future, but one that also needs to be balanced against the idea of a libertarian world where little order or government control exists to keep people from killing or harming one another. As such, Brave New Worlds is scary much in the same way that Wastelands (of what I’ve read and heard of it) was scary: it exists at the other extreme end of the political spectrum.

There are a good number of fantastic stories here. The anthology starts off with Shirley Jackson’s classic story The Lottery and continues to tell a great number of tales such as S.K. Gilbow’s Red Card, where people are assigned by their state randomly to kill lawbreakers, Ten With A Flag by Joseph Paul Haines that sees citizens given rankings based on their potential and Geriatric Ward by Orson Scott Card, which sees people who have vastly accelerated life spans. One of my absolute favorites is Jordan’s Waterhammer by Joe Mastroianni, a tale of miners valued only as tools. Many of the stories here were fairly new to me: I’d either heard of them by reputation or read them once long ago, while there were also a fair number of stories that I have read before, such as Carrie Vaughn’s Amaryllis (published on Adam’s online science fiction magazine Lightspeed), Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report and Paolo Bacigalupi’s disturbing Pop Squad. There are few of the stories that I didn’t get into, such as The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula K. Le Guin and O Happy Day! by Geoff Ryman, simply not suiting my own tastes for any number of reasons, but these were few and far between.

What impressed me even more than the excellent lineup of stories and authors was that the anthology didn’t feel repetitive. There are plenty of short stories and novellas that fall into the dystopian category, but one could have easily told story after story of an intrepid citizen standing up and fighting the power, so to speak. That certainly happens, in their own ways, but there’s a broad spectrum of stories to be told. Jordan’s Waterhammer is a story that I expected to see more often in the anthology, but stories such as Amaryllis, The Things that Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away (Cory Doctorow) and the funny Civilization by Vylar Kaftan (a choose your own adventure style story) shows a diversity in the story types, but also the morals and themes behind the stories. While Brave New Worlds is scary, it goes out of its way to demonstrate the numerous ways in which fascism can manifest itself in society, in any location.

One of my favorite stories here was Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, which I first read in the theater waiting for the movie to begin. Of all the dystopian stories that I can think of, the story and the film both demonstrate the core themes for any type of dystopian story: which is the greater evil, protecting the people from themselves, or allowing them to come to greater harm?

One particularly striking story that helped define the anthology was Tobias Buckell’s story, Resistance, on an asteroid colony that adopted techno-democracy, where everybody can vote on every decision. When the time required to vote becomes to much, their voting habits are taken over by a computer, which in turn creates a leader for them, based on their desires. The story demonstrated to me that in all cases, governance is the product of we the people. Society can certainly back the wrong people, as history has seen from time to time, with figures such as Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini, but rather than a universal evil, supporters remain, for whatever reason: fear, threads, naïveté or blind obedience. Despite the uproar online over the TSA screening procedures enacted around the holiday period, a majority of Americans supported them.

Brave New Worlds isn’t a book that’s appealing because I see some imminent threat of a governmental implosion or change (although some might view it that way), it is appealing because it recognizes and points out that fascism is a continual threat to society from a particular political philosophy of a strong state, while the opposite philosophy spells danger in much the same way – presumably what Wastelands will tell a reader. The threat is present within us all, through our overreactions and our indifference to the world around us, and for that, I think Brave New Worlds presents us with a stunning cautionary group of stories that shows the limits of what people will tolerate. As it stands, it remains an exceedingly relevant and poignant book that should be an essential addition to any speculative fiction fan’s personal library.

My Top SF/F Films of the Decade

I did a list for my favorite books of the past decade, along with all the other cool sites around the internet, but not one for films. Thus, here’s my list for the absolute best films for the past ten years:
Children of Men
Children of Men is a fantastic example of the genre and storytelling. Based off of a book by P.D. James, director, Alfonso Cuarón took a couple of liberties with the story by conceptualizing what would the world be like if the Iraq War had spread to a global level, while also examining the issue of immigration in the United Kingdom sometime in the future. The result is spectacular: humanity has lost its ability to reproduce, and chaos seems to have set in around the world. There is a measure of hope when a girl is found who is pregnant, and has to be escorted out of England to a scientific body outside of the country. The film is grim, grounded, dark and expertly shot – one of the highlights is a 10 minute, single take running gun battle at the film’s climax.
District 9
District 9 was one of my favorite films of 2009, and as I’ve noted a couple of times, its story, combined with a reasonably low budget, demonstrates that not all successful movies are blockbusters. Based off of a short film by the same director, Neill Blomkamp, the movie takes an interesting twist on alien visitation on Earth. A massive alien ship appears over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, and its contingent of worker-insectoids, known as the Prawns, coexist roughly with their surrounding humans nearby. Things get problematic when MNU Bureaucrat Wikkus is infected with a substance that puts him between criminal and corporate factions, and he is forced out on the run. The film is expertly shot with handheld footage, interviews and CCTV footage, and is different enough to really stand out. Like Children of Men, it has an interesting message on immigration and partition within society.
The Fountain
Not a lot of people liked Darren Aronofsky‘s film The Fountain, when it came out, but I suspect that it will be regarded as a classic in the years to come. Combining three stories of a Conquistador, a neurosurgeon and a space man, this movie explores two main themes: the hubris of mankind by trying to cheat death and love that crosses all manners of time. The film itself is wonderfully shot and utilizes visuals as much as story and characters to tie everything together, with shared elements between the three times represented in the movie.
Minority Report
Steven Spielberg is a master storyteller when it comes to the Science Fiction genre, and Minority Report is possibly one of his finest films to date. Set in 2054, Washington DC is the home to an experiment where murder is stopped before the crime is carried out. Problems occur when the lead detective on the case, John Anderton, is accused of a murder, and is pursued by his own men as he tries to escape and clear his name. What happens next is an interesting exploration of ethics, not to mention an incredible and largely accurate (thus far) view of how the future will run technologically.
Moon
Moon is easily my favorite film of 2009, and is Duncan Jones‘ first movie out thus far (although he’s apparently got two more to come in the same universe). Following Sam Rockwell‘s character Sam Bell, a miner on the moon, who is involved in an accident, then wakes up to find a clone of himself. The film is perfectly conceived, expertly shot, and like District 9, filmed on a low budget, with models. But what really steals the show is Rockwell and his acting abilities – it’s hard for an actor to carry a film, but it’s even harder for an actor to carry the film by himself and as two different people. This one’s going to be a classic.
Pan’s Labyrinth
Guillermo Del Toro‘s Pan’s Labyrinth is brutal, dark and absolutely gorgeous. Set in 1945, under Franco’s Spain, a girl and her mother go out to a remote outpost of a ruthless army captain who is intent on destroying a local pocket of resistance. The girl, Ofelia, is preoccupied with her fairy tales, and discovers a lost and fantastic world of creatures, who tell her that she is a lost princess to an underworld realm. To return, she has to complete a set of tasks. You’re never really sure if the fantasy world is real or just imagined, which adds to the discussion after the film. The movie is wonderfully shot, acted and conceived, and is one of my all time favorites.
Pitch Black
Vin Diesel is at his best here as the dark anti-hero Riddick in David Twohy’s film Pitch Black. Pitch Black is easily the stronger film of the small franchise (Chronicles of Riddick was fun, but not as good) and sees a transport ship between planets crashing on a deserted planet with a ravenous native life form that comes out after dark. The survivors of the wreck are forced to work together to survive, travelling from their crashed ship to an outpost, aided by the criminal Riddick. The film is wonderfully shot, and is another example of low-budget filmmaking being superior to some of the larger blockbusters. Twohy sets up a fantastic universe in which to play, and while Chronicles didn’t quite live up to expectations, I do hope that the remaining two films are made.
The Prestige
This is absolutely my favorite Christopher Nolan film out thus far, even more so than the The Dark Knight, by a long shot. The first half of the 20th Century isn’t necessarily the first place to think about a science fiction film, but The Prestige pulls it off in grant fashion. Set between England and the United States at the time, we see two stage magicians try to out maneuver one another in a rivalry that escalates to bloodshed over the death of Robert Angier’s wife during a stage accident. The drive for revenge brings Angier to scientist Nikola Tesla (wonderfully played by David Bowie) and a device that his both disturbing and fantastic. The visuals here are just jaw dropping, with some of the most beautiful scenes that I’ve ever seen, along with a twisted and interesting plot that really makes this worth watching many times.
Serenity
Serenity was the little film that could, based off of the little TV show, Firefly, that refused to die. Bolstered by a vocal fan base, Joss Whedon‘s universe was brought back in grant style that helped to tie up some of the remaining loose ends to the show, but was also armed with a fantastic plot that sets the film apart from other continuations and spinoffs. The movie was designed to continue the story, but brings the story back in grant style fit for the big screen, picking up with the Alliance sending an assassin after River, with the crew uncovering a massive plot that undermines the entire basis for the system-wide government of allied planets. Wonderfully shot, excellently acted and a whole lot of fun, Serenity was a great conclusion to the series.
Solaris
Solaris was another film that received lukewarm reviews from critics and viewers, but this film shows some of the most beautiful imagery of any Science Fiction film out there, along with a story that explores the extents of love. Steven Soderbergh is easily one of my favorite directors, and he does an interesting job with the conception and direction of this movie, which follows psychologist Chris Kelvin as he is dispatched to an ailing space station orbiting a distant star, Solaris. When Kelvin’s dead wife appears, the story turns to exploring second changes, reconciliation and alien intelligences that are beyond comprehension.
Stranger Than Fiction
Normally, Will Ferrell isn’t really an actor that I’d look to for a somewhat serious comedy film, but he pulls off what is probably his best acting in Stranger Than Fiction. This film falls somewhat under the fantasy genre, where Ferrell’s character Harold Krick begins to hear a narrator in his head. The film nicely weaves together subtle references to the Beatles throughout, while director Marc Forester utilizes a wonderful minimalist style. Combined with fantastic performances from Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah and Emma Thompson, Ferrell is in good company for a truely brilliant movie.
Sunshine
Danny Boyle’s first (and likely last) entry into the genre, Sunshine‘s plot sounds no better than that of The Core – the sun has begun to go dim, and a crew is dispatched to restart it, using all of the fissionable materials on the Earth and the Moon. What is special about Sunshine, isn’t so much the plot, but what the characters go through. The film is heady, trippy and exciting throughout. Boyle has a unique visual style, and Cillian Murphy does an excellent job throughout the movie with its large cast as they go through all sorts of problems on their journey. It’s an emotional ride, one that is captivating.
Wall-E
Wall-E is my second favorite film from Pixar, after Toy Story, and is a fantastic and dark vision of the far future, when humanity has abandoned Earth while massive cleanup operations are conducted, then abandoned. All that is left is a small cleanup robot, Wall-E, who’s been alone for hundreds of years, and who falls in love with a probe that returns to see if the planet is safe to return to. Despite director Andrew Stanton‘s protests that there was no environmentalist message, it’s hard to ignore that there is one, accidental or otherwise. The film is an interesting look at superficial consumerist culture, but also a cute love story between robots.
The films that have made up this list are all tied together by a couple of common elements: story, characters, conception and excellent direction behind the camera. For me, all of these elements help to tell the element that should be central to all films: the story. As such, while there have been a number of films out there in the genre that I’ve greatly enjoyed, such as Star Wars or Avatar, they really don’t make the list because there, it’s the special effects that really take the front stage. This is all well and good as far as technology goes, and I’m sure that once I come across a film that uses these technologies to support a story, I’ll be very, very happy. But, a good lesson should be learned, I think, that special effects, while cool, and a good reason to see a film, aren’t the only reason to see a film. There’s been a bit of a resurgence in the past couple of years towards strong genre films with great acting, visuals and story, and it is a trend that I really hope will continue into the next ten years.