Xenogenesis

Xenogenesis (1969) By Miriam Allen deFord

Full of extraordinary range, relevancy and variety, this anthology of 16 unconnected thought-provoking, sci-fi stories are by turns tremendously exciting, engaging and amusing. Each is deftly told and though recognisably sci-fi, they encompass other genres such as horror, adventure, and mystery.

on a par with Asimov’s, I Robot

Originally published in magazines from 1950 to 1968, this tumultuous time span covers momentous moments in society such as the widespread legalisation and availability of divorce, contraception, and abortion. And all this tectonic social dynamic provides much fertile inspiration for the author.

The ears of Star Trek’s Captain Kirk will be burning as you read this as many of the stories can be read as critiques of contemporary future visions of brave interplanetary space captains romping across the cosmos and having consequence-free relations with alien species.

And elements of the stories would seem to be a forerunner to and a probable influence on the script for director Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi horror masterpiece, Alien, and possibly on authors such as John Wyndham and PD James.

robot soldiers, spaceships, and laser guns

All great sci-fi such as this uses the future as an analogy of the time it’s written in, and by beginning in the US colonial past and then blasting off to the space-bound future, allows deFord to stretch connective tissue across human history while firmly addressing the present.

Yes, deFord deploys sci-fi paraphernalia such as robot soldiers, suspended animation for interplanetary travel, spaceships, and laser guns in her always entertaining yarns of exploration.

insanity, crime and punishment

But she’s not exploring new worlds and civilisations, and boldly going where no man has gone before for the manly derring do of it, but to sail into the heart of darkness of contemporary issues surrounding gender, motherhood, insanity, crime and punishment.

In her stories, government agencies favour men over women for status, privilege, genetic tinkering and the potential evolution of humanity. Agency and autonomy are removed from or denied to women, often by male control of the reproductive process, while punishment is meted out to pregnant or promiscuous women by society and government.

And the destruction of indigenous peoples and culture by colonisation is a repeated theme as stories challenge our understanding of civilisation.

Despite this, the stories are always entertaining, often global in scope, and even have notes of optimism. In common with many female sci-fi writers, such as Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett, and Mary E. Bradley Lane, education is emphasised as the bedrock of equality and civilisation.

DeFord mocks contemporary capitalist US by making anarchy synonymous with socialism, and of course this lack of an ‘executive class’ appalls our all-American heroes of the patriarchy.

New worlds are an opportunity for men to indulge in sex, and men’s ego-driven, one-track mind and lust-driven exploration are mined for humour as deFord constantly toys with male attitudes to sex and fatherhood.

Male explorers are bemused when they’re not immediately attractive to the opposite sex

Male fragility is a running joke. The many thrusting Captain Kirk-a-likes littering the book like a virus are careless and callous about fatherhood, and suspicious and dismissive of women’s behaviour. Male explorers are puzzled by pacifism of aliens they meet, and are bemused when they’re not immediately attractive to the opposite sex.

Women reproduce without sex or male involvement and male protagonists are frequently unable to grasp their redundancy in the reproductive process. One male character is so alarmed at his sudden lack of sex drive he decides the only recourse is to commit suicide, rather than be shamed for being thought ‘queer’.

Despite or possibly because of this, many of the stories are underpinned with hope, though it must be noted those hoping for race and class intersectionality will find little, if any signs of it here,

Still, this is a huge amount of easily digestible fun, and Xenogenesis proves you can deliver challenging and overtly political narratives as long as the storytelling is sufficiently smart and gripping. And this is on a par with Asimov’s, I Robot, in the pantheon a crowd-pleasing and thought provoking sci-fi anthologies.

Here’s a synopsis of each story in turn.

1 The Daughter of the Tree

This opening story sets the tone and themes for all the stories to follow. A frontier fable set in the year 1880, it describes an encounter north of Seattle between a white 18 year old orphan, Lee, and an unnamed Native American* who introduces Lee to a mute young woman called, ‘the daughter of the tree’.

It’s an expert mystical mystery story of ancient tree spirits which touches on colonialism, racism and the liquidity of family bonds, as well as the frailty of life, the power of nature, eco-concerns and the scarcity of resources. A haunting introduction before

* in keeping with the date of publication, the term ‘Indian’ is used in my 1969 edition

2 The Superior Sex

Satirising the ridiculousness of inequality, this gender-flipping tale is full of humour and violence, and sees a pair of astronauts land on another planet where due to a surfeit of men, woman practise polyandry and men are pejoratively described as a ‘seed-bearers’.

The world is mixes advanced tech and feudal hierarchy with robot soldiers, brain-implanted language translators and medical experimentation to explore issues of legal rights governing consent over one’s own body.

3 The Ajeri Diary

Set in the year 2297, this story is written in the form of the diary of a Federation ‘exosociologist’ who travels to a distant planet, Algol IV, to study a humanoid alien race and their gender demarcated society.

While our male protagonist is made welcome by the males, he’s unable to meet or interact with any females of the species, and his innate prejudice leads him to draw the wrong conclusions as to why.

4 Quick to Haste

Four colonist astronauts are initially delighted when they land on an idyllic agriculture alien world populated by carefree humanoids, whose uninhibited young women offer sex, but not without consequence.

5 The Smiling Future

English speaking ‘Super-Dolphins’ with immense psychic power rise out of the polluted Pacific Ocean to take the politicians of a computerised over populated future earth to task for polluting the seas with atomic waste, and come with a eye-opening proposition to save at least part of humanity from extinction.

6 Gathi

A noirish fable of the social punishment of a promiscuous young woman, as seen from the perspective of an ancient tree, and explores how a woman’s life chances are dictated by procreation and exploitation.

7 The Children

Set in the the then future of 1982, a group of mostly male scientists conduct an experiment into the efficacy of time travel, and is a dizzying account of the fall and rise of humanity through a narrative which employs millennium-hopping and interstellar travel.

Wrestling with questions of the ownership of reproductive rights, prejudice and pride thrive before the story turns on itself and becomes a reflection on guilt and redemption. Marvellous!

8 Throwback

A bleak tale of betrayal exploring how insanity and criminology are defined and deployed by the 30th century state, which sees a non government-sanctioned pregnancy resulting in an artist having more than a brush with the authorities.

9 One-way Journey

A rumour-fuelled family story involving a state lottery and the Asteroid belt which ends on a nightmarish note.

10 The Season of the Babies

A planet’s desperate bid to be admitted to the prestigious Federation of planets is threatened by cultural breeding differences in this funny and savage satire with echoes of Jonathan Swift, which explores the connection between maternity, income, employment, and economics.

11 Featherbed on Chlyntha

Raising transgender and first published in 1957, a full 14 years before the publication of Kurt Vonnegut”s Slaughterhouse Five, this sees a human scientist kidnapped by aliens and exhibited in a zoo on their home world, where they conduct experiments to see if he’s reproductively compatible with their humanoid species.

12 The Transit of Venus

Nudity is a form of control and clothing is rebellion in this love story which uses a state scandal to explore social conformity, the evidence of insanity, and medical diagnosis an act of control by the state.

13 All In Good Time

A law professor teaches his class about a trial for a case of time-travelling bigamist from the year 2160. By some stretch the weakest story here but by no means a dud.

14 The Absolutely Perfect Murder

There’s a bleak view of heterosexual marriage in this noirish Manhattan murder mystery set in the year of 2146, which sees a disaffected husband plot to use time travel to kill his domineering wife. The pair’s life in a drug-upped hi-tech stupor speaks to monotony of their existence.

15 Operation Cassandra

Death cults, racism and artificial insemination feature in this tense post-apocalypse tale which mocks men’s ego, chivalry and sensibilities, while highlighting women are far more essential to the survival of the species the men are.

Amusingly it imagines a cult forming around George Orwell’s novel, 1984, and I’m not sure a less extreme version of this hasn’t happened, and this may easily be read as deFord considering Orwell’s seminal work to be over-praised.

14 The Last Generation?

A suitable conclusion for the anthology it draws all deFord’s preoccupations together in one tidy bundle, and is a compelling an argument for putting science at the centre of democracy and politics, and placing women and children at the centre of society.

Set in the then future of the 1970’s, a minor nuclear incident triggers a global infertility of all mammals with catastrophic eco-consequences.

A pointed reminder the power to shape the future is our hands, this final story is a cliff-hanging study about the hubris of playing god, and is possibly an influence on John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, and PD James’ The Children of Men.

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Exodus: Gods and Kings

Director: Ridley Scott (2014)

Striding into cinemas on a mission from God, Exodus is a handsome and monumental retelling of the Moses bible story.

Ridley Scott combines typically impressive design with spectacular action and even makes a couple of successful stabs at humour.

But he fails to broaden our understanding of events . Remaining true to the spirit of the story he fails to put an interesting spin on it. There is, of course, the parting of the Red Sea and the carving of the Ten Commandments.

Surprisingly for the director who gave cinema Ellen Ripley, G.I. Jane and Thelma and Louise, Scott provides no memorable female characters.

Although Indira Varma as a High Priestess makes an impression, Sigourney Weaver appears briefly and to no great effect as as Ramses’ mother Tuya. Love interest Zipporah (Maria Valverde) is forgettable. Even Scott’s recent and deservedly maligned Prometheus gave us two entertaining female roles.

In a nothing role Aaron Paul continues to cash in on his Breaking Bad kudos – but the likeable actor needs to start banking decent roles soon.

Egyptian general Moses (Christian Bale) is troubled when told he is the son of a Hebrew slave. His foster brother King Ramses II (Joel Edgerton) sees him as a threat and casts him into the wilderness

God appears to Moses in the controversial guise of a haughty and petulant youth – a confident and spine-tingling performance by Isaac Andrews.

He tells Moses to return to Egypt and free the chosen people but the prince-turned-prophet takes his time about it. So in the movie’s stand-out sequence, God lets loose a terrifying series of plagues including crocodiles, frogs, boils, flies and locusts.

All the children of Egypt are killed, including Ramses’ own son, and he orders the Hebrews to flee. But he chases them and they end up trapped between the sea and his bloodthirsty army.

Bale, with his usual intensity, successfully turns from sceptical young warrior to devout old leader – though his wildly changing circumstances barely phase him.

He’s not even surprised when he is unexpectedly introduced to his adult brother Aaron (Andrew Tarbet) for the first time.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut

Cert 15 117mins Stars 5

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982, 2007) 

Ridley ScottBlade Runner: The Final Cut is the definitive version of director Ridley Scott‘s 1982’s sci-fi noir masterpiece.

Uniquely it stands on a pedestal with 1927’s Metropolis, and 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, in the sci-fi canon, and alongside 1944’s Double Indemnity as a doom laden noir.

AndroidsDreamBased on the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner is a combination of extraordinary visuals, superlative sound, Blade Runner’s superb cast includes Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M. Emmet Walsh and Daryl Hannah.

With various cuts of the film existing and offering very different endings, Scott trims The Final Cut to its noir roots and in doing so unequivocally resolves a long running debate concerning the nature of the central character, the ‘Blade Runner’, Rick Deckard.

Digitally remastered in 2007 for the 25th anniversary of the original 1982 release, Scott removed Deckard’s voice-over and a happy ending which the studio imposed on the original theatrical release, as well as reinserting a unicorn dream sequence.

Blade Runner scroll

The film takes place in Los Angeles of the year 2019. Six genetically engineered humans called replicants have escaped from an off-world colony and made their way to Earth, where their presence is outlawed.

BR fordIn Los Angeles two replicants are killed after trying to break into the headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation. This prompts M. Emmet Walsh‘s seedy police captain to strong-arm Harrison Ford‘s reluctant former detective, Rick Deckard, back into harness.

Though insisting he is twice as quit as when he walked in, Deckard accepts the order to find the remaining four replicants and destroy them, and an origami-modelling cop called Gaff is assigned to monitor Deckard’s progress.

While on the case Deckard first interviews then starts an affair with Sean Young‘s Rachael. She’s the glamorous niece of the head of the Tyrell Corporation, Dr. Eldon Tyrell, the chess-playing creator of the replicants.

DeckardThe euphemistic use of the word ‘retire’, reminds us Dick’s paranoid fear of the inevitable decay of our mortal bodies, reinforced by Scott scattering his sets with mannequin parts.

The screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples is a loose adaption of the source novel but is faithful to Dick’s obsessions of decay, transformation, paranoia and identity, and in The Final Cut at least, is respectful of noir’s hard-boiled cynicism.

It can also be read as a twisted riff on John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, with the replicants representing fallen angels rejecting their godlike creator.

Incorporating tolling bells, the magnificent score by Greek composer Vangelis, announces key themes as the film opens and veers between the apocalyptic and the heavenly.

The Tyrell Corporation’s HQ is a pyramidal mausoleum, a suitable resting place for a god before an ascension to a higher level of existence. The replicants can be interpreted as angels or demons who have descended to Earth from the chaotic off-world to challenge the Earth’s divine order, and possibly raise humanity to a higher plane of existence.

Br sebastian

The subjugated and animal nature of Earthbound humanity is explored through the use of rats, those harbingers of disease, decay and death. Tyrell talks of deserting rats when discussing the altering of the replicant’s DNA. There are pet rats among J.F. Sebastian’s engineered toys. Deckard is herded like a lab rat through the decaying prison of a mansion block.

Filmed in the ironwork interior of LA’s Bradbury building, the dreamlike apartment of genetic engineer J.F. Sebastian is a repository of childhood toys which Deckard must escape before he can be enlightened as to his real identity.

Br BattyThe relationship between the replicants provides the emotional core of the film. Daryl Hannah wraps herself affectionately around Rutger Hauer, who plays her partner and the replicant’s leader, Roy Batty.

And though the a homicidal Batty is set up as the villain, Hauer’s poetic and physical performance aches with life, love and loss. His powerful closing monologue which always bring s me to tears is all the more astonishing for being self-penned.

BRrachaelFor those who think Scott is a stylist indifferent to his actors labours, they should consider the performance he elicits from Sean Young, who is perfectly in tune with the demands of the role.

In a brilliantly tense conclusion we see Rachael asleep in her apartment and Deckard approaching her, gun in hand. We don’t know whether he will kill her or kiss her.

There’s a declaration of love and a big sigh of relief from the audience. But as Deckard and Rachael leave his apartment, they find an origami unicorn left by Gaff. This changes the entire thrust of the story and our understanding of it.

UnicornGaff’s origami is evidence he knows Deckard’s dreams are memory implants, causing Deckard and the audience to belatedly realise he is also a replicant. His entire life is a lie and he has unwittingly killed his own replicant family members at the behest of the police, his enemies, who he realises he now has to escape from.

This bleak revelation is perfect film noir.

But the power of Blade Runner has been diluted by the studio edit prompting a discussion over Deckard’s replicant status. This drags our focus from a brilliant noir ending to a non-debate over the nature of Deckard’s humanity.

Instead of the audience being overwhelmed by the force of this drama, for nearly forty years everyone has chuntered over the ‘is he a replicant’ debate, a controversy this definitive version retires.

Harrison Ford was strategically picked to play Deckard in a casting masterstroke of cinematic deception. The audience is fooled by their own presumption the star is playing a hero.

A huge star from his swashbuckling roles in 1977’s Star Wars, and 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, as Han Solo, and Indiana Jones, the audience expected more of the same. Ford’s status as heroic Hollywood leading man leads us to believe Deckard is the hero until we and Deckard realise he isn’t. We don’t expect a character played by Ford to be the fall guy.

The Big SleepAs a hard drinking detective with a laconic delivery and ready attitude in the face of authority, Ford is presented as a futuristic Humphrey Bogart, rebooted, updated and teleported in from Hollywood’s Golden Age of noir.

Ford is happy to riff on Bogart’s goofy undercover book lover in  1946’s The Big Sleep to emphasise the connection. There’s even a reference to Sydney Greenstreet in Bogart’s classic wartime melodrama, Casablanca as Deckard interrogates a fez-wearing gangster, The Egyptian.

Plus the story is told through Deckard’s eyes. So Deckard’s the hero, right? He’s an updated and rebooted sci-fi Philip Marlowe, right? Wrong.

To watch The Final Cut is to realise, and this is despite what Bryant tells him, Deckard is not especially good at his job.

He’s beaten up in turn by each of the four replicants. While failing to dispatch either of the males, he shoots the unarmed females, and he only manages to kill one of them by shooting her in the back as she’s running away. And as Batty mockingly points out, Deckard is not very sporting. Ordered to retire Rachael, Deckard has sex with her instead.

indemnityFar from being Bogart 2.0, Deckard is far more of an upgrade of Fred MacMurray’s hapless insurance salesman Walter Neff from 1944 noir masterpiece. Double Indemnity. In classic noir fashion, Deckard is too dim to realise he’s always behind the game. it’s not until the end he understands how little he knows. He’s a prize chump.

Blade Runner is rightly celebrated for its superlative sci-fi styling, but I love The Final Cut for revelling in the noir at the heart of this rain-soaked LA story.

@ChrisHunneysett