It’s Nineteen Seventy-Nine, Okay

Artistic rendering of a double black hole, 2015. ESA/Hubble. Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CCO 4.0. It has been more than ten years since I wrote these words for this magazine’s website: “At last I had begun writing my long-planned book about Captain Ahab’s doomed enterprise in Moby-Dick—about Robur’s doomed enterprise in Verne’s Maître du Monde—about the doomed enterprise of Doctor Hans Reinhardt from the 1979 science-fiction film The Black Hole.” And now maybe we can approach the same topic from a different angle, as the contortionist said on prom night. Refuse to accept that it is your fate to refuse to accept your fate. The only way not to be driven insane by it is to be insane from the outset. The Black Hole, 1979. It amazes me that a group of people could make a movie about being afraid of a hole, being attracted to a hole, feeling excited and curious about going into a hole, feeling concerned that, while on the one hand it might not be such a good idea to go into the hole, on the other hand maybe all the best things in life will become possible only after you have gone into the hole, and so on. It’s not the feelings that amaze me; I feel them all myself. It’s the idea that $20 million and a crew of more than a hundred crew members should have been devoted to dramatizing, over ninety minutes, an idea that any healthy child could express in a single simple sentence. Go ahead, smart guy, write that sentence. Briefly: The USS Palomino, in deep space, approaches a black hole into which a nearby and apparently derelict ship, the Cygnus, mysteriously does not fall. While the crew is examining this ghost ship, the Palomino incurs structural damage and is about to be drawn into the black hole itself when the Cygnus comes alive and tractor-beams her aboard. Robots escort the crew of the Palomino to the bridge of the Cygnus, where they find the mad genius Dr. Hans Reinhardt, an Ahab with a black hole for his white whale. While the Palomino awaits repairs, it becomes clear that many of the “robots” who work on the Cygnus are in fact undead human beings, cyborgs built from its former crew. Reinhardt’s plan is revealed: to drive the Cygnus into and through the black hole. The survivors of the Palomino’s crew seize a probe ship and escape from the Cygnus, but both ships are drawn into the black hole. We see a scene of Reinhardt in torment, imprisoned in a robot body in the fires of hell. But the probe ship passes through cinematic psychedelic turbulence into a realm of heavenly light. My paperback copy of Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of The Black Hole has a perfectly timed error in its final lines. They blended, flowed together, thought itself strained beyond its normal borders under the unimaginable force of the collapsar. […] They were themselves … and yet something strange and new, a galactic sea change that produced all the above and a new unified mindthing that was KateCharlieDanVincent also. Dimly they/it perceived the final annihilation of a minuscule agglutination of refined masses—the Palomino. It was gone, lost in an infinite brightness. They/it remained, content and infinite now as the white hole itself. […] An atom of Charlie to a nine-world system, a molecule of Kate to a local cluster of stars, a tiny diffuse section of Holland spread thin over a dozen galaxies. Yet they could still think, for thought does not respect the trifling limitations of time and space. They were still them and this new thing they had become spread substance, and they now had an eternity in Their thoughts spanned infinity, as did their finely [sic] which to contemplate the universe they had become … We see shades here of the bleshing (blending/meshing) of Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 novel More Than Human that so inspired the Grateful Dead.. What we have in The Black Hole is a fundamental mythological or religious question—Should I eat the forbidden fruit?—disguised as a sexual-combinative question, the urge to merge. It’s a primally captivating issue. You can’t tear your eyes away. And yet the story is not complicated enough to be interesting. An array of cutesy robots, ready to be sold as toys to the viewing demographic, and I had them all. A bunch of dopey, obvious, hard-sell talk about “Right out of Dante’s Inferno. […] Every time I see one of those things [a black hole], I expect to spot some guy in red with horns and a pitchfork.” If you can’t tolerate the dopey or the obvious, then you won’t have much fun with big-screen science fiction made in 1979. In 1977’s Star Wars, we were attacked by the father: Darth Vader. In 1979’s Alien, we are attacked by the mother: the spaceship Nostromo’s computer, called “Mother” by the crew, as well as (in the form of the pregnancy-evoking chest-burster) childbirth itself. No one can deny that these movies are full of thrilling feelings, but they aren’t any fun to think about. Mommy and Daddy and me: I’ve heard of it. But maybe once you cross the event horizon of your birth, there’s

It’s Nineteen Seventy-Nine, Okay

Artistic rendering of a double black hole, 2015. ESA/Hubble. Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CCO 4.0.

It has been more than ten years since I wrote these words for this magazine’s website: “At last I had begun writing my long-planned book about Captain Ahab’s doomed enterprise in Moby-Dick—about Robur’s doomed enterprise in Verne’s Maître du Monde—about the doomed enterprise of Doctor Hans Reinhardt from the 1979 science-fiction film The Black Hole.”

And now maybe we can approach the same topic from a different angle, as the contortionist said on prom night. Refuse to accept that it is your fate to refuse to accept your fate. The only way not to be driven insane by it is to be insane from the outset.

The Black Hole, 1979. It amazes me that a group of people could make a movie about being afraid of a hole, being attracted to a hole, feeling excited and curious about going into a hole, feeling concerned that, while on the one hand it might not be such a good idea to go into the hole, on the other hand maybe all the best things in life will become possible only after you have gone into the hole, and so on. It’s not the feelings that amaze me; I feel them all myself. It’s the idea that $20 million and a crew of more than a hundred crew members should have been devoted to dramatizing, over ninety minutes, an idea that any healthy child could express in a single simple sentence. Go ahead, smart guy, write that sentence.

Briefly: The USS Palomino, in deep space, approaches a black hole into which a nearby and apparently derelict ship, the Cygnus, mysteriously does not fall. While the crew is examining this ghost ship, the Palomino incurs structural damage and is about to be drawn into the black hole itself when the Cygnus comes alive and tractor-beams her aboard. Robots escort the crew of the Palomino to the bridge of the Cygnus, where they find the mad genius Dr. Hans Reinhardt, an Ahab with a black hole for his white whale. While the Palomino awaits repairs, it becomes clear that many of the “robots” who work on the Cygnus are in fact undead human beings, cyborgs built from its former crew. Reinhardt’s plan is revealed: to drive the Cygnus into and through the black hole. The survivors of the Palomino’s crew seize a probe ship and escape from the Cygnus, but both ships are drawn into the black hole. We see a scene of Reinhardt in torment, imprisoned in a robot body in the fires of hell. But the probe ship passes through cinematic psychedelic turbulence into a realm of heavenly light.

My paperback copy of Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of The Black Hole has a perfectly timed error in its final lines.

They blended, flowed together, thought itself strained beyond its normal borders under the unimaginable force of the collapsar. […] They were themselves … and yet something strange and new, a galactic sea change that produced all the above and a new unified mindthing that was KateCharlieDanVincent also.

Dimly they/it perceived the final annihilation of a minuscule agglutination of refined masses—the Palomino. It was gone, lost in an infinite brightness. They/it remained, content and infinite now as the white hole itself. […] An atom of Charlie to a nine-world system, a molecule of Kate to a local cluster of stars, a tiny diffuse section of Holland spread thin over a dozen galaxies. Yet they could still think, for thought does not respect the trifling limitations of time and space. They were still them and this new thing they had become spread substance, and they now had an eternity in Their thoughts spanned infinity, as did their finely [sic] which to contemplate the universe they had become …

We see shades here of the bleshing (blending/meshing) of Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 novel More Than Human that so inspired the Grateful Dead..

What we have in The Black Hole is a fundamental mythological or religious question—Should I eat the forbidden fruit?—disguised as a sexual-combinative question, the urge to merge. It’s a primally captivating issue. You can’t tear your eyes away. And yet the story is not complicated enough to be interesting. An array of cutesy robots, ready to be sold as toys to the viewing demographic, and I had them all. A bunch of dopey, obvious, hard-sell talk about “Right out of Dante’s Inferno. […] Every time I see one of those things [a black hole], I expect to spot some guy in red with horns and a pitchfork.”

If you can’t tolerate the dopey or the obvious, then you won’t have much fun with big-screen science fiction made in 1979. In 1977’s Star Wars, we were attacked by the father: Darth Vader. In 1979’s Alien, we are attacked by the mother: the spaceship Nostromo’s computer, called “Mother” by the crew, as well as (in the form of the pregnancy-evoking chest-burster) childbirth itself. No one can deny that these movies are full of thrilling feelings, but they aren’t any fun to think about. Mommy and Daddy and me: I’ve heard of it.

But maybe once you cross the event horizon of your birth, there’s no way to escape the gravity well of your family. Here he is again, some guy in red with horns and a pitchfork: your father was just a man, and sometimes Dad was bad.

“It does indeed sound strange that the Devil should be chosen as a substitute for a loved father,” writes Freud in “A Seventeenth-Century Demonological Neurosis,” his 1923 account of the Christoph Haitzmann case. “But we should expect religions to bear ineffaceable marks of the fact that the primitive primal father was a being of unlimited evil—being less like God than the Devil.”

That’s what The Black Hole is about: the search for God the Father. Dr. Kate McCrae’s father was an original crew member of the Cygnus. Some dialogue:

“USS Cygnus–Doctor Kate, isn’t that the ship your father was on?”

“Doctor Reinhardt—my father, where is he?”

“My dear child, I’m sorry to dash your hopes, but your father’s not with us any more. He’s dead. A man to be proud of. A grave personal loss to me. He was a trusted and loyal friend.”

“That Reinhardt sure loves to play God, doesn’t he?”

We all know that the ability to perceive similarities is related to the inability to perceive differences, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to compare the twinkling readouts of the Cygnus’s bridge to the stained-glass windows of a church. This is not merely the belated, insistent hallucination of a God-haunted five-year-old boy in Kentucky: my inner child becoming my outer child, at last.

Doctor Reinhardt, dying, says or thinks, “More light,” the famous last words of Goethe. And we will see a ghostly Reinhardt-like figure fly into white light ahead of the escaping probe ship, rhyming (if it is Reinhardt) with Goethe’s last-minute angelic rescue of Faust from Mephisto: “A peerless treasure, stolen shamefully: / The noble soul that pledged itself to me / They snatched from me,” in Walter Kaufmann’s 1961 translation.

Meanwhile, as she enters the black hole, we hear Doctor Kate’s final individual thoughts: “Reinhardt murdered my father, my father, father. Where is he?”

And, as the crew is merging or bleshing (see above), we can faintly hear one or all of them thinking: “Christmas morning, Christmas morning.”

It’s a bit like William Friedkin’s 1973 film, The Exorcist. You went looking for God, and you found Satan—Well, okay, it’s not what you wanted, but how much did you miss by?

***

Donald A. Wollheim attempts to address the dopey/obvious issue in his anthology The 1979 Annual World’s Best SF. “Science fiction’s boom year,” he announces. “Never before has science fiction reached as wide an audience nor been as popular […] Much of this boom must be attributed to the film Star Wars, which has now been followed by equally expensive productions such as Battlestar Galactica, Superman, and a host of more due to appear in the next months, including such as Buck Rogers, a new Star Trek, and more major and minor imitators.” He assures us, though: “For the thousands who think that science fiction is all Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica and similar cinematic comic strips, it is good news to know that the authentic sf, the stories that perk your imagination and feed your brain, are still being turned out by fine writers.”

I am delighted to hear it, and not a bit surprised, as Octavia Butler’s Kindred, J. G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company, and Doris Lessing’s Shikasta were all published in 1979. May I examine some specimens of this 1979 science fiction that feeds my brain?

Confused, Alex sat back on his protumous, automatically shielding his rear fighting limbs. He realized he didn’t know where he was. Thinking back, he retracted and extruded his lower eyes. He’d been at the Party; he knew that much. Singing and glorching with the best of them.

That’s a post-Dune Frank Herbert, glorching with his cowriter F. M. Busby in the lead story of Wollheim’s 1979 anthology.

Ballard’s novel The Unlimited Dream Company, 1979: Blake crashes his airplane into the Thames, and becomes a priapic, Dionysian god as jungle vegetation fills the streets of Shepperton—the sky god, descending to combine with the wet earth, makes the plants grow. A true story. It’s not science, and it’s not fiction, and it never was.

Brian Stableford’s novel The Walking Shadow: A Promethean Scientific Romance, 1979: Paul Heisenberg accidentally discovers time travel, and, leap by leap, arrives at a far-flung future in which “third-phase life” has absorbed, subsumed, digested, and assimilated all distinction, all difference, all individuality.

In the old biocosm there had been individuals, and thus competition between individuals, and thus complex behavioral strategies, and thus—ultimately—intelligence. In the new biocosm there were no individuals, but only life. […] There was no behavioral strategy, save for that of the system as a whole, which was simply to survive and to grow, not to reproduce. There was no conceivable need for the evolution of intelligence.

The way the future used to be. If William Friedkin’s masterpiece Sorcerer, about four men driving dynamite trucks through the jungle, had been the big hit movie of 1977 rather than Star Wars, not only would The Black Hole never have been made, but now, forty-six years later, we would be living in a different world. What is life like? Does your life feel like having magic powers and saving the galaxy? My life feels like driving a truck full of dynamite over a mountain.

J. D. Daniels is the winner of a 2016 Whiting Award and The Paris Review’s 2013 Terry Southern Prize. His collection The Correspondence was published in 2017. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Esquire, n+1, and elsewhere, including The Best American Essays and The Best American Travel Writing.