Phase IV And Hellstrom’s Hive: Am I Bugging You?

You can’t possibly hate ants as much as I do. One time I remember my mother-in-law ordered enough mulch to cover her entire property on the hottest day of the summer, and she got me to agree to spread it for her (solo). Then she took off with my wife and kids to go shopping. I had plucked a clump of weeds and was still holding it as I said goodbye while they were driving away, and my arm lit up in pain like it was in flames. Looking down in a panic, my entire arm was swarming with black, pissed off ants. Not gonna lie, it hurt a little bit.

Anyway, there’s an excellent creepy and innovative movie from the 70’s you need to see, should this have escaped your attention till now. It’s called Phase IV. If you like weird ambience in your science fiction, a creepy foreboding, and a threat that’s a little different from your typical madman, alien, or undead beastie, this one’s for you. Here, we have a temporary research facility set up in the Arizona scrublands to investigate some intelligent ants. The guy in charge is a bit unstable, and that escalates quickly. The other guy is our everyman, who wants to apply game theory to try and communicate with the buggies. A girl joins the cast when her farm is toasted in the escalation.

So maybe I do hate ants, but this movie utterly fascinates me.

The bugs build towers, observing the observers. That’s how things really get started here. And that is just a bizarrely entrancing idea. You’ll get your fill of some memorable scenes: a nightmarish swollen arm, reflective towers slowly heating the research dome, and some spooky visual communication from the ants (a circle with a dot inside…what could THAT mean?). In fact, that visual communication was the only thing from the entire movie that I recalled from when I was a kid and it came on the television one Sunday afternoon. It’s that creepy.

You’re unlikely to guess the ending. I didn’t. It makes some sense after you think about it. I won’t spoil that, but you should absolutely give this movie a try should your personal aesthetic be able to cope with a slower pace and less gruesome violence.

What made me think of this flick is I recently finished reading Hellstrom’s Hive by Frank Herbert for the second time. You know Frank Herbert from the excellent Dune series. He wrote more than that though. People really should dig a little deeper into that dude. He was incredible. So let’s talk about Hellstrom’s Hive.

Herbert unleashed this odd little masterpiece in 1973 in Galaxy magazine under the title, “Project 40”. Here’s how it begins:

Words of the brood mother, Trova Hellstrom. I welcome the day when I will go into the vats and become one with all our people. (Dated October 26, 1896)

One thing I love about the Dune novels is the chapter-opening quotes from Paul or whoever that side-swipe you with these fascinating insights or inspiring ideas but are really just infusing flavor and context. I really look forward to those. Hellstrom’s Hive offers quite a bit of this, much of it from something called ‘The Hive Manual’ and also from the originator of this new organizing principle for social order, Trova…grandmother to Nils Hellstrom who currently runs the show.

Here’s part of the wikipedia description so you get the gist of what’s happening here:

Dr. Nils Hellstrom, an entomologist, is a successful film maker and influential scientific advisor with strong political ties. Living and working with a small staff on a farm in rural Oregon, he attracts the attention of an unnamed government organisation when documents are discovered that hint of cult-like activities and a secret weapon project.

It is revealed that the farm is situated above a vast system of tunnels and caves, hosting a hive-like subterranean society of nearly 50,000 specialized workers. Hellstrom, thanks to advanced bioengineering, has been the appointed hive leader for more than 100 years. He is completely convinced of the superiority of the hive and its abandonment of conventional morals and ethics: sexuality or violence, indeed, any individual action, is rated strictly whether it strengthens or weakens the hive as a whole.

You’re catching this, right? Fifty thousand people are living like ants underground, many of them mute and neutered, being bred for specialist skills like engineering or subterfuge or building. They operate in many ways on countless pheremones and are incredibly sensitive to mood and emotions. If the hive has a disruptive element in it, the disruption swells. And they can’t afford too much disruption, because the hive feels pressure already to swarm. I mean…is it not just fun and naughty and weird to even just discuss all this? Everybody’s naked and smelling each other. They keep stumps of people just for reproduction. They recycle bodies to lump in with the food supply. It’s really well thought-out and internally consistent.

Herbert was inspired by a super strange quasi-documentary about insects and survival called The Hellstrom Chronicle. I watched that one once, on Youtube or something. It amazes me what people will produce, and what I will sometimes watch. You probably shouldn’t spend your time on that one. Maybe just skip to the book Herbert wrote after watching it. He told Tim O’Reilly in an interview that his notion with this novel, in thinking about the worst type of civilization imaginable, that it would be a peculiar type of tension to twist things around and make outside civilization the villain. So here, we have the secret group named only The Agency and their shenanigans trying to spy on and ultimately invade Hellstrom’s hive.

So anyway, that’s what I wanted to toss your way today…a buggy grouping of interesting worthies to enlighten and amuse you. If you wind up partaking in either (or if you fondly recall one of them), let me know. I feel like my taste in entertainment sometimes drifts a bit into the esoteric. Just me?

Till next time, guys. Dreams are engines.

Be fuel.

Books To Avoid…And Why I Bailed On Them

Look, I try and keep it positive and optimistic around here. I do. Mostly, as anyone who stops by to visit any of the Grailrunner waystations on the internet or social media will tell you, I focus on things that inspire us. I especially (and incessantly) harp on inspirational engines within speculative fiction. It’s my jam.

But sometimes I need to vent. And I need to warn you away from some potentially very irritating literary experiences. Since this is all subjective, you probably love at least one of these books and think I’m a Neanderthal for feeling otherwise. That’s cool, man. That’s cool. But these suck. Really.

Let me tell you how the highlighted suck gallery went for me, in reverse order of my irritation level.

5. Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky.

I periodically dip into heavier literature (and outside of science fiction or fantasy, my usual haunts) to sharpen my writing, to expose myself to the towering figures of literature and scientifically dissect what makes those books tick. It’s a great exercise, as it has been with Moby Dick, with Hemingway (all of it, man…I’ve read all of it), Dickens and Faulkner. I picked Dostoevsky as an experiment because of how highly Harlan Ellison spoke of him. This one, I went with because it seemed to offer me some nuanced character studies, piledriving into a supposedly blowout climactic event (patricide by four brothers) that resulted from those character traits, and the fallout of that event. Now, it strikes me that this setup, should that be the case as I’ve outlined in the preceding description, then I could learn quite a bit about crafting plots driven by character flaws or quirks, and possibly about how to foreshadow and set ominous thundercloud mood to lead to the blowout.

That was the thought, at least. But what a cheese fart this one was! Sorry if you’re a professor who’s dedicated your life to it or whatever. But this book is super tedious, flat and uninspiring.

I admired the early chapters, with alternating introductions of the individuals and clear characterization. But it went on and on. It just went on and on and on, with nothing seeming to have any consequence. The big event wasn’t clearly foreshadowed (at least for me). There was no ominous mood as I’d expected. Not even the supposed angelic and innocent brother meant a thing in the world to me. I hated all of them. It was a chore to keep going, till I eventually wondered if they’d ever get around to knocking the old man off. So I bailed.

4. Lord Tyger by Philip Jose Farmer

If I told you there’s a book, written by the guy who dreamed up the masterwork Riverworld series, that conducts a thought experiment speculating what would actually happen should someone be raised by gorillas like Tarzan in the jungle….would you think that sounds awesome?

The idea is a British millionaire hires a couple of dwarves to raise a British aristocratic boy in the jungle like Tarzan, simulating some of the key events of Burroughs’ Tarzan books because of his love for them. And things go differently than he’d planned.

It struck me as a fascinating idea for a book, and I had some wild ideas of what might play out like the books and what would obviously go south. More curiosity than anything, I tried it. To be honest, I didn’t bail and actually finished the book. It was painful, but I made it through. What kept me going was the same curiosity of what would be done with the idea, and definitely NOT any skilled storytelling or characterization.

The lead character is overly obsessed with his penis, and it gets really monotonous and cartoon-like how many times we have to see that play out. I get it, monkeys touch themselves and maybe sleep around. I get it. But can’t we move on to something else?! It drives the plot sometimes. It’s entirely ridiculous sometimes. And it keeps coming up (no pun intended). Nobody is interesting, nothing makes sense, and I yawned through the climax. Avoid this one.

3. Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Not sure why, but I have a deep fascination with the psychology that led up to World War One, that kept it escalating and stagnating, and that resulted from its fallout in the couple of decades afterwards. It’s incredibly rich, picking all that apart – at large scales, understanding trends and behaviors of large groups, and also at small scales reading the biographies and journals of key figures that fought in the war. Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann struck me as a great option because it’s so highly praised, and supposedly was going to offer me a hotbed of the different moods and psychologies of people of that time, but in the setting of a health salon high in the mountains.

Reading this book feels very much like talking to a sickly aunt who won’t stop going on about the parts of her that hurt. And her cough, do I think that’s serious. And her swollen toe, should she get that looked at. And she’s so tired…

The lead figure isn’t sickly, but visits his cousin who is recuperating at a sanitarium in the Alps. And he meets people and stays, and he has breakfast and he has lunch. And he has dinner. And he tells you in detail what he ate. And no one is interesting, at least in the first fourth of the book I managed to read. You can see how little patience I have for stories that lead nowhere, for characterizations without some sizzle, and for aimlessness. This book seemed to go absolutely nowhere, and at the very point I threw it physically to the floor was at least the fifth time he was explaining what they were serving for the next meal. Avoid this one.

2. Settling The World by M. John Harrison

Nobody loves Harrison’s Viriconium series like I do! His mother wouldn’t love it like I do. It’s genius. Read that one. Please, God, read that one instead of Settling The World. In Viriconium, you get a true masterwork of mood-setting, of fascinating ideas to inspire, of interesting people, of a world you’d care to visit, and of the most maddeningly genius wording and phrasing you’ll encounter. Anybody who writes should treat Viriconium like nitroglycerine. A true brilliant white-hot piece of literature.

Much of everything else he’s written comes off as comparatively weak and confusing to me. Light is an exception, but its sequels are muddled streams of consciousness. Settling The World is a set of speculative fiction short stories. I don’t even know how to summarize it, because I can’t tell at all what’s happening in some of these tales. It’s seriously bad. Pages in, I had to ask myself if there was anything at all that was clear to me. I read a summary of a story I’d finished on the internet to see what it was about. Isn’t that funny? There are people in this world that can read jumbles of words like some of the tales in this collection and tell you what happened, even though you read the same story and saw none of that. And I saw none of the brilliant word-slinging which draws me so much to Viriconium and Light. With those books, there are moments when I’ve had to set the book down and just marvel and ponder at what I’d just read…descriptions and phrasing that pop with a life of their own and send your mind reeling.

I honestly have enough grief in my life than to read stories that I have to research afterwards to understand what happened and come off as bland as these. I set it as number two because I know what Harrison can accomplish and he fell short here.

1. War In Heaven by Charles Williams

This one made the top of the list because it presented itself as a story about the Holy Grail. I’m literally ALWAYS in for a story about the grail. I mean, this is “grailrunner”. That’s kind of…for a reason, you know? Here, we have the description from Amazon:

“Williams gives a contemporary setting to the traditional story of the Search for the Holy Grail. Examining the distinction between magic and religion, War in Heaven is an eerily disturbing book, one that graphically portrays a metaphysical journey through the shadowy crevices of the human mind.”

Williams was one of the Inklings, that little Oxford literary club that gave us J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord Of The Rings) and C.S. Lewis (Chronicles Of Narnia). If this guy hung around with those two, who could produce towering mythic works such as those, then he would potentially speak and think along the same mythic lines. I’ve written here about the power of mythic storytelling. That can change your life! And here, I’m told he’s going to potentially apply such mythic storytelling techniques to the eternal grail myth, in a contemporary setting. What on earth is NOT to like about that?!

Unfortunately, this reads like a boring, slice-of-life trip to the general store to buy a pound of flour. Even a dead body found in the opening pages is portrayed with the weight and significance of a paperweight. I got possibly a fourth of the way in before bailing. Where was my updating of mythic figures like Arthur or Merlin? Where was my ominous doomsaying warning of consequences? Where was that curious, inspirational sense of questing and seeking perfection in body and spirit that I get from classic Eschenbach or De Troyes? Where was the mystery from those original grail tales, that leave you breathlessly marveling over what the bleeding lance means, and who the maidens are in the processional carrying the mystical platter?

Nope. Just nope. Maybe it got better. I’ll never know. Pass on this one.

*

And that’s the roundup for this little venting session. I hope it wasn’t overly negative. I finished Gene Wolfe’s Book Of The New Sun, all four parts, for those who’d asked what I thought. Definitely worth the experience, though not one of my favorites. There’s a distinct sense of importance as you read those books, like the early seasons of Game Of Thrones, wherein every word people speak seems to have weight and grant some vague insights. Events here make far more sense after the fact, in reflection, and often what you thought happened actually played out differently than you’d thought. Yeah, there’s a place to spend your money.

Anyway, let me know what you think. And if I poo-poo’ed on one of your faves, maybe drop me a note on what you liked about these books I consider stinkers. Maybe I could feel differently and try again if you make sense.

Take care, guys. Till next time.

Dreams are engines. Be fuel.