Monday, January 15, 2018

Materi-Chlorians-Part Two

So we have two--actually three--explanations of the Force. According to Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977), "It's an energy field created by all living things." The Force "surrounds us and penetrates us," he says. "[I]t binds the galaxy together." In The Phantom Menace (1999), Qui-Gon Jinn is more vague, implying that the Force exists independently of living things and that we can come in contact with it or experience it only through an intermediary, the midi-chlorians that "reside within all living cells," without which "life could not exist," and without which "we would have no knowledge of the Force." (1) As you would expect, Han Solo's description in Star Wars is simplest and most direct of all: he calls the Force a "mystical energy field."

These three explanations have in common the idea that the Force may be partly mystical and partly material (or maybe, ultimately, wholly material). By Obi-Wan's explanation, the Force emanates from all living things. If it exists outside of us, it does so only by being created by all of us together, from bacteria to  banthas, from butterflies to Boba Fett. That's a comforting idea, and it still allows for something greater than the Force to exist in or outside of the universe. Keep in mind that in Star Wars and its two immediate sequels, there is love, caring, and kindness among the main characters, while the Empire is demonstrably evil, in no greater way than when it destroys the planet Alderaan. The difference is stark. We know who is good and who is bad. Keep in mind, too, that only in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) does anyone say "I love you" with any deep or genuine feeling. Those facts may be significant, so keep them someplace close at hand.

Qui-Gon Jinn's explanation of the Force is far more vague than Obi-Wan's. If I had to guess, I would say that it's because George Lucas wasn't able to formulate a complete and satisfying system of belief for his second trilogy. I doubt that any person could formulate such a system, regardless of time and circumstance. Just look at the quotes by Joseph Campbell from my previous article. His ideas are fuzzy, imprecise, not well thought out, almost incomprehensible. Beyond that, there isn't any sound evidence in favor of them. We have seen this before, in every kind of cult and every crackpot religion or system of belief formulated by a single person or small group of people, in Theosophy, I AM Activity, the Shaver Mystery, Dianetics and Scientology, and the cult of flying saucers to name a few. (2) In contrast, well-established and enduring religions are worked out over the centuries, with the input and by the experience of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people. Belief systems like the Force in either Joseph Campbell's or George Lucas' formulation are by comparison weak, short-lived, confused, even empty.

Ordinarily that might not be a problem, but in his second trilogy, George Lucas made the Force and all of its penumbrae central to his story. And so you get this nonsense about Anakin Skywalker's having a higher midi-chlorian count than anyone ever. Even worse, we know what that count is. Here is an exchange from The Phantom Menace:
Qui-Gon Jinn: I need a midi-chlorian count.
Obi-Wan Kenobi (after running the count): The reading is off the chart. Over 20,000. Even Master Yoda doesn't have a midi-chlorian count that high.
Qui-Gon Jinn: No Jedi has.
Obi-Wan: What does that mean?
Qui-Gon Jinn: I'm not sure.
Yeah, join the club.

The foregoing is actual dialogue from an actual movie. It may not be the worst dialogue ever written, but in the second trilogy, Anakin Skywalker's midi-chlorian count is a very important piece of information, and we as the audience are supposed to care about it. And not only care but be amazed at such a high reading--amazed at this person who is like no one who has ever before existed--amazed at a character played first by Adam Rich or Robbie Rist or whatever his name was, then by Hayden Christensen, neither of whom inspires anything at all except disgust and indifference. (3) In 1977, we could go along with the Force and feel a sense of wonder that such a thing might exist in this great universe. In 1999, we found out that the power of the Force is measurable by way of a blood test, like checking your insulin in the morning. Knowing Anakin Skywalker's midi-chlorian count is about exciting as knowing his credit score.

There is another way in which Anakin is different from anyone ever, for according to Wookiepedia, the Star Wars Wiki, he is "[b]elieved to have been conceived by the Force." In other words, his was a virgin birth, just like that other guy--what's his name? Oh, yeah, Jesus Christ. And like Christ, Anakin is a savior. In the Star Wars universe, he is the chosen one who will save the galaxy by restoring balance to the Force. (4) So if Anakin Skywalker is the Christ figure and the Force is his father, then is the Force simply a substitute for the Christian God? And if the Force is God, then what are the midi-chlorians? Are they the Holy Spirit? If so, then we have a trinity. Or do midi-chlorians instead take the place of the human soul in the theology of Star Wars? Whatever the case, if being in contact with and experiencing the Force is the only spiritual experience available to people in this universe, then only those with a sufficiently high midi-chlorian count will ever have such an experience. That leaves the vast majority bereft of spiritual experience and spiritual lives. It's no wonder, then, that human society in the Star Wars universe is essentially pre-Christian or stoic in nature. It's no wonder that people lead such grim lives.

To go further, if the Force is the highest force in the universe--in other words, if there is an impersonal and scattered Force but no personal God--then its people must lack souls, unless midi-chlorians act as their souls. But if midi-chlorians act as souls, then only those people who have sufficiently high midi-chlorian counts in their blood (or hemolymph or protoplasm or ichor or whatever fluid fills them) have anything like a soul. Even then, the Force is seemingly not a force for good but something else. Even if you're in contact with the Force, you are still cut off from any moral action. You can be bad or good and nobody cares, least of all the midi-chlorians. All human efforts, then, must lack a moral dimension. The conflict in which people in the Star Wars universe are engaged is reduced not to one of good versus evil but to a simple vying for power. Yes, the Empire blows up planets, but the Jedi, and by extension the Republic, countenances human slavery.

It's clear that in Star Wars (1977) the conflict is between good and evil. It's clear also that the main characters love and care about each other and that they're capable of joy, excitement, grief, and other very real human emotions. By the time the second trilogy begins, things aren't as clear. Again, there is the issue of slavery. More than that, though, the Jedi are shown to be more nearly political animals than some high religious order guided by a sense of morality. Love, joy, pleasure, humor--all seem to have been banished from the universe. By the time of The Phantom Menace (1999), it has become a grim and faintly unpleasant place. Princess Leia, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Chewbacca have way more fun in Star Wars, even when they're running around on the Death Star. They're like the Dukes of Hazzard in outer space.

In the original movie, one side of the Force is exemplified in Luke--Luke as in light or light-giving--the other in Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and practitioner of the Dark Side of the Force. One wears white (or off-white). The other of course is garbed in black. (5) Again, the conflict is clearly between good and evil, whereas in the second trilogy, there doesn't seem to be a clear distinction between the two. In fact, there may not be any such things as good and evil, precisely because the Force has been reduced to a material phenomenon by the introduction of midi-chlorians. In any case, in the real world we have seen a battle between the powers of light and darkness before, in a dualistic religion called Manichaeism, founded by a Persian guy named Mani. (Not Ani, Mani.) Manichaeism took ideas and beliefs from various religions and thrived for centuries in the Middle East and Far East. It didn't last, though, presumably because it was inadequate as a belief system. Are you paying attention, George Lucas? (6)

Anyway, if there is no God, then slavery cannot be morally wrong, hence there can be no moral objection to it, by the Jedi or anyone else. And if slavery isn't morally wrong, what is? What can be? The enslaved lack souls, just like everyone else. They have no claim to any rights or freedom, for those are granted by a creative and loving God, not by the Force, not by midi-chlorians, least of all by the State, whether it be a Republic or an Empire. Slaves also have the misfortune of lacking a sufficient number of midi-chlorians in their blood, all, that is, but young, already obnoxious Anakin Skywalker, the moppet of Tatooine. His gazillions of midi-chlorians earn him a ticket out of slavery and off the backwater planet he calls home. Never mind the mother who gave him birth. We'll just take her son from her and throw her to the wolves, good Jedi that we are.

Here's my real point, though. A few paragraphs back, I mentioned love in the Star Wars universe. This should make for a short discussion for the reason that there isn't any, or very little anyway. How can there be when everyone lives a life devoid of spiritual experience and no one possesses a soul? In the original Star Wars, there is love, caring, and kindness among the main characters. In The Empire Strikes Back (1980), love between a man and a woman blossoms. Princess Leia even says to Han Solo, "I love you" (to a famously funny reply). They are presumably still in love in Return of the Jedi (1983). But those are the most human of the Star Wars movies, especially the original from 1977. As far as I remember, overt acts of love don't reappear until The Last Jedi (2017), when Rose grieves at the death of her sister, moreover when she saves Finn from sacrificing himself in the last battle on the salt planet and subsequently confesses her love for him. In the meantime, midi-chlorians appear and the Star Wars universe suffers through a lack of love. In the second trilogy, it is a grim, loveless, and humorless place. Significantly, midi-chlorians are not mentioned in The Last Jedi, and I don't think they're mentioned in The Force Awakens. Maybe the series is finally emerging from its materialist fog.

But what about the relationship between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala? Isn't that love? You tell me. Look at them together and tell me they love each other. The scenes they share are too excruciating to watch. There isn't any chemistry--no feeling, no life, no soul, no humanity in any of it. The words George Lucas (a champion of bad dialogue) puts into their mouths are embarrassing and ridiculous. I think it more accurate to say that the relationship between Anakin and Padmé is a plot device expanded for purposes of driving not only the second trilogy but the entire Star Wars saga, for who else is at its center than Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader? His whole story has to be told. And because of that, George Lucas was faced with a serious problem when he began writing the second trilogy, a problem that dates to The Empire Strikes Back, when Darth Vader became Anakin Skywalker. Mr. Lucas had to ask himself, How do I make Anakin Skywalker turn? He has to become Darth Vader. How can that be done? His simplistic solution was not for Anakin to arrive at Darth Vader by being naturally inclined towards ruthlessness and cruelty, or to become that way by being brutalized as a child (like Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein, for example), or by turning because of some great existential or philosophical struggle within, or by acting simply as a kind of mercenary and suppressing any moral objections he might have to performing his duties. It wasn't even by being seduced by the power of the Dark Side. Instead it was for love and the fear of the loss of love, the one crisis that everyone in the audience has experienced and with which everyone might sympathize. That might have worked under different circumstances. We have seen great love and great loss on the big screen before. Unfortunately, George Lucas wasn't able to pull it off. And so we have a failed attempt to depict love in the second trilogy, an attempt not for the sake of telling a great love story but for getting cute, revolting little Ani into the dark guise of Darth Vader. And in that, George Lucas failed, too. I for one was never convinced that Anikan Skywalker as portrayed in the second trilogy was the same person as the Darth Vader of the original Star Wars. The larger problem of course is that if people don't have souls, are incapable of having any spiritual experience, and have as their god "a mystical energy field," how can there be love? We might ask ourselves the same question about the real world in which we live. (7)

To be continued . . 

Notes
(1) If all living cells have midi-chlorians within them, and midi-chlorians are living cells, then are there midi-chlorians within midi-chlorians within midi-chlorians, ad infinitum?
(2) These, along with a belief in the Force, are among the religions of either pseudoscience or pseudoscientific fiction, aka science fiction. Be aware that there is now a real-world belief called Jediism. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, once people stop believing in God, they'll believe in anything.
(3) Note the irony in his surname, Christensen. There is irony also in Luke Skywalker's Christian name--oops, given name--which he shares with the author of one of the Gospels of Jesus Christ and which means light or light-givingLuke is of course a nickname for Lucas, as in George Lucas. And while we're on names, consider that Qui-Gon Jinn's surname is another word for a demon or spirit.
(4) Is it any wonder that in 2008 Americans would choose as our president a man whom some called a "lightworker" and "the one" or "the chosen one"? They must have been primed for such a thing by watching the second Star Wars trilogy in the years 1999-2005.
(5) Not yet Luke's sister, Princess Leia also wears white--pure, immaculate white--at least until she falls into the depths of the Death Star, where her garments are stained and tainted.
(6) I'm not the first to link Star Wars to Manichaeism. See "Manichaeism: A Dualistic Cosmology" by Jenny Northrup at the following URL:


(7) I read not long ago that the current moviemakers are planning to introduce homosexuality into the Star Wars universe. My initial question on reading this was Shouldn't there be heterosexuality first? The people in this universe are pretty rambunctious, yet hardly anybody is interested in the opposite sex. Where do they all come from? Currently, the series appears to be aimed at children who are in the latent stages of their development. The story can be told without any kind of sexuality at all. Why bother with homosexuality? Better yet for the bottom line (no pun intended): If you think hardcore (no pun intended) fans hated The Last Jedi for all of its perceived transgressions, just wait until you show Poe holding hands with one of his buddies.

In the Manichaean struggle between darkness and light, Darth Vader easily fills the role of the powers of darkness. Given his name, Luke Skywalker would seem to exemplify the powers of light. But who else wears the pure, white vestments of those same powers but Princess Leia?

I wrote the other day about the roles women now play in movies, roles in which physical beauty is discounted and may even be considered undesirable. Now women only have to be as tough, as strong, and as in control as men. That wasn't the case in 1977 when Star Wars was released. Carrie Fisher was beautiful and played the traditional role of the damsel in distress. She was the princess who had to be rescued from the dungeon of a great castle called the Death Star. But when it came down to it, she was tough and strong. She could handle herself and a weapon. Hers was slender and dainty, though, the Virginia Slims of blasters. It's just too bad that moviemakers and audiences have decided that actresses and the women they portray should no longer be beautiful--that masculinity in a woman is a far more desirable trait. You haven't come a long way, baby.

By the way, the term blaster, originally spelled blastor, first appeared in the magazine Weird Tales, in Nictzin Dyalhis' story "When the Green Star Waned" from April 1925. I will soon have more to say about Weird Tales and Star Wars. When? Soon. How soon? Very soon.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Materi-Chlorians-Part One

Since writing a very long entry the other day, I have been thinking about midi-chlorians in the Star Wars universe. According to Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace (1999):
Midi-chlorians are a microscopic life-form that reside within all living cells. [. . .] And we are symbionts with them. [. . .] Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force. When you learn to quiet your mind, you'll hear them speaking to you.
It's clear that George Lucas based his concept of midi-chlorians on the very real organelles called mitochondria. One hypothesis as to the origins of mitochondria is that they were once separate organisms that became symbionts in the cells of eukaryotes. In fact, mitochondria have their own DNA, just as all organisms do (or most do, depending on your opinion of viruses). The existence of mitochondrial DNA allows geneticists to trace maternal lineage into the distant past.

Qui-Gon Jinn's explanation of the Force to the moppet version of Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace differs from that provided by Obi-Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars (1977):
Well, the Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.
Note that Obi-Wan says that the Force is "created by all living things" (emphasis added), the implication being that it does not exist independently of them. Qui-Gon Jinn, on the other hand, describes a Force that would seemingly exist even if there were no life in the universe. Additionally, Obi-Wan's Force has nothing to do with "a microscopic life-form that reside within all living cells." His Force is within us, all of us. A second implication is that anyone who believes in the Force and trains properly can learn to use it. Contrast that with the more exclusive Force in The Phantom Menace and its sequels, a Force that can be used only by a select few who have sufficiently high midi-chlorian counts in their blood. That problem of exclusivity seems to have been corrected only with The Last Jedi, released last month.

Note also that Qui-Gon Jinn says that the Force has "will," while Obi-Wan Kenobi calls it "an energy field." I take that to mean that the Force in the original, unadulterated Star Wars is inanimate, thus incapable of possessing or exercising will. In The Phantom Menace and its sequels, on the other hand, the Force would seem a kind of material, though scattered, god or god-like force, with midi-chlorians seemingly functioning as intermediaries between it and human beings. Are midi-chlorians, then, roughly equivalent to the Holy Spirit? (Or to saints and angels?) Remember, Qui-Gon Jinn says, "When you learn to quiet your mind, you'll hear them speaking to you." Is that the voice of the god called the Force, whispering in a person's ear through its intermediaries? Do the Jedi (and the Sith for that matter) hear voices in the way that Joan of Arc and other Christian devotees throughout history have? And might the activated light saber of the Jedi (and the Sith) be something like the tongue of flame that symbolizes the presence of the Holy Spirit? Or, alternatively, is the light saber a sword of flame wielded by agents of the Force as in this verse from Genesis:
After he [Yahweh] drove the man out, he placed on the east side [or in front] of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (3:24)
Following this new thread of the tree of life leads to the online Encyclopedia Britannica and its entry on the term World tree (here):
Two main forms [of the world tree] are known and both employ the notion of the world tree as centre. In the one, the tree is the vertical centre binding together heaven and earth; in the other, the tree is the source of life at the horizontal centre of the earth. Adopting biblical terminology, the former may be called the tree of knowledge; the latter, the tree of life. [Emphasis added.]
And further:
In the horizontal, tree-of-life tradition, the tree is planted at the centre of the world and is protected by supernatural guardians. It is the source of terrestrial fertility and life. Human life is descended from it; its fruit confers everlasting life; and if it were cut down, all fecundity would cease. The tree of life occurs most commonly in quest romances in which the hero seeks the tree and must overcome a variety of obstacles on his way. [Again, emphasis added.]
There are echoes of Obi-Wan Kenobi's and Qui-Gon Jinn's words in these two quotes. First, both Obi-Wan and the Encyclopedia Britannica use the verb to bind to describe the modes, respectively, of the Force and the tree of knowledge. Both allow people on earth (or Tatooine) to come in contact with the transcendent or immanent. In the second quote, the Encyclopedia Britannica approximates Qui-Gon Jinn's idea that life would not be possible without the midi-chlorians coursing through our veins. I have added the emphasis in the last sentence of the second quote because it begs a question, for what else are Luke Skywalker's adventures in Star Wars but a quest romance in which he seeks mastery of the Force (perhaps roughly equivalent to the tree of life) while overcoming "a variety of obstacles on his way"?

It seems to me that the Force in its original formulation in Star Wars (1977) is a life force, or, in terms of psychology, perhaps a life energy or eros. (Or, in the words of the Encyclopedia Britannica, "
the source of terrestrial fertility and life.") It is created (not generated or produced) by all living things, permeates all living things, and binds all things in the galaxy together. By Obi-Wan Kenobi's explanation, the Force also seems to be a mystical or quasi-religious concept. Qui-Gon Jinn is more vague. The Force he describes has will and would seem to exist independently of life or humanity, yet it expresses itself and makes itself known only through a biological, i.e., material, intermediary. The midi-chlorians may be intelligent, but they appear to be like idiot-savants: knowing in the ways of the Force, yet ignorant of any moral or spiritual implications of the fact that this great, god-like thing exists above them and acts through the men who live below them, men who are unable on their own to come in contact with or experience the Force. Are midi-chlorians, then, George Lucas' idea of the soul or spirit (rather than the Holy Spirit, saints, or angels, as I suggested above)? If so, does that mean that the people in the Star Wars universe lack souls of their own? And if the midi-chlorians are merely biological vectors through which the Force makes its will known, then don't they, the midi-chlorians, also lack a spiritual existence?

The difference between these two concepts--Obi-Wan Kenobi's mystic or quasi-religious Force versus Qui-Gon Jinn's biological or materialist version--might be explained by the times, for the first movie was made in the 1970s, a New or Aquarian Age, while the second came along in the much more jaded and cynical 1990s. On the other hand, George Lucas supposedly developed the idea of the midi-chlorians in 1977. He was at the time an admirer of Joseph Campbell and revised his screenplay to align more closely with Campbell's interpretation of the hero in literature and myth. Coincidentally or not, Campbell was not religious in any conventional sense. Some people consider him to have been an atheist or materialist, even though he seems to have believed in something non-material, even if it was only some vague idea of transcendence or immanence, a thing so vague that he seems never to have explained it very well. (Does that sound familiar?) Here are two quotes by Campbell, though, from the television program The Power of Myth (1988). These are from the website Answers in Action and an article called "Myth Perceptions, Joseph Campbell's Power of Deceit" by Dr. Tom Snyder (here), an admittedly unfriendly critic, as you can tell by the title. The ellipses and the words in brackets are in Dr. Snyder's article:
I have a feeling that consciousness and energy are the same thing somehow. Where you really see life energy, there's consciousness.
And:
There's a transcendent energy source . . . . That energy is the informing energy of all things. Mythic worship is addressed to that. That old man up there has been blown away. You've got to find the Force inside you. [Your life comes] from the ultimate energy that is the life of the universe. And then do you say, "Well, there must be somebody generating that energy?" Why do you have to say that? Why can't the ultimate mystery be impersonal?
Note the phrase--and the capitalization--"the Force." Remember, this was in 1988, more than a decade after Star Wars was released. I have to ask myself, when Campbell gave this interview in 1988, who was the master and who was the student (or padawan)? Were they Campbell and Lucas? Or were their roles reversed? Either way, a personal God is here swept away in favor of an impersonal and scattered energy, consciousness, or Force which may or may not be merely material. The idea doesn't seem to be very well developed, and I doubt that any one person on his own could well develop a complete and satisfying system of belief, yet Joseph Campbell seems to have tried it for himself, while George Lucas seems to have followed his lead in creating the Star Wars saga. Maybe that's why the Force and all of its penumbrae are so vague, inconsistent, and ill-defined. Maybe Mr. Lucas should have done what other creators of fantasy have done by leaving his system of belief on the periphery of his creation instead of placing it at its center.

In any case, C.S. Lewis will now make his entrance, speaking in the voice of the demon Screwtape, who is advising his nephew Wormwood on how to win human souls. From The Screwtape Letters (1942):
I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their [humanity's] science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy [God]. [. . .] If once we can produce our perfect work--the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls "Forces" while denying the existence of "spirits"--then the end of the war will be in sight. [Ch. VII]
So is that what the Jedi (and the Sith) are? Are they just Materialist Magicians? Is their very vaguely defined "Force" a way for George Lucas and his fans and followers to duck belief in God or to deny the existence of the human soul or spirit? If so, were they always that way? From a scene in Star Wars, on board the Millennium Falcon:
Obi-Wan: Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.
Luke: You mean it controls your actions?
Obi-Wan: Partially, but it also obeys your commands.
[Luke is zapped by the practice drone.]
Han Solo: (Laughs.) Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.
Luke: You don't believe in the Force, do you?
Han Solo: Kid, I've flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I've seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen anything to make me believe that there's one all-powerful force controlling everything. There's no mystical energy field controls my destiny. It's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.
So is Han Solo a materialist? Or is he merely a skeptic or a cynic? The best explanation might be that he is practical-minded and not a deep thinker. He gets to a point, though, one that I'll address in my closing. Before that, though, I should say that it's clear we're supposed to sympathize with Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi when it comes to a belief in the Force. Han Solo is their very mild antagonist. But if Star Wars is the story of Luke's quest and coming of age, it's also the story of Han Solo's conversion from hard, cynical, ruthless rogue to true and selfless hero. Near the end of the movie, he says to Luke, "May the Force be with you." And in the end, he saves Luke from the wrath of Darth Vader . . .

But that doesn't mean everything is nicely-nicely when it comes to Obi-Wan Kenobi's version of the Force, for if Han Solo's phrase "mystical energy field" is accurate--and there is reason to think that he has gotten to the heart of the matter--then the Force in the original Star Wars is still only vaguely mystical, more nearly concrete and materialist, in other words not very much different from Qui-Gon Jinn's even more vague, even more materialist interpretation expressed in The Phantom Menace.

To be continued . . .

The Angel with the Flaming Sword (1893) by the American artist Edwin Howland Blashfield (1848-1936).

Saying Grace (1951) by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). The figures at the table are, from left to right, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Luke Skywalker, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Note the light saber on the floor.

Text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Last Jedi at the First of the Year

Star Wars: The Last Jedi opened on Thursday, December 14, 2017, and so far has made a big bucket of money, as you would expect. It has also earned plenty of controversy. Some people--especially non-hardcore fans--really like it. Some--especially hardcore fans--really hate it. Four of us saw it on opening night in a small town in Indiana. The theater was pretty well full. We had to split up, two by two, because there weren't four adjoining seats left. There was expectancy, though, and when the main title came up and the opening blast of the fanfare sounded, people whooped and cheered. They laughed and cheered during the movie, too. And at the end, they clapped, as people used to do when they went to the movies. Many stayed all the way through the very long closing credits. If anyone at the theater that night didn't like The Last Jedi, we didn't know about it. It seemed that most everyone there was happy to have seen it.

There are, of course, serious problems with The Last Jedi, but then I don't know that anyone these days is capable of making a movie--or at least a big-budget movie--without serious problems creeping in, or actually built in to the thing. I have written before about the seeming contempt moviemakers have for their audiences. They must think that no one will notice when a plot hole the size of a space slug's maw opens up in the middle of their masterpiece. On the other hand, maybe the moviemakers themselves don't realize when these holes open up. So who here is stupid exactly? Anyway, I was going to leave the controversy alone, but I have decided to write on The Last Jedi to begin the new year. We will return to our regularly scheduled programming after this not-so-brief interruption.

One of the complaints against The Last Jedi is that it is too politically correct, meaning, there are too many women and minorities in positions of power and prominence, while men, especially white men, are relegated to minor roles or roles as villains. The complainers might have a point. You could make the same complaint about The Force Awakens and especially about Rogue One. Political correctness might be one explanation--Star Wars is owned by Disney after all--but there could be a simpler reason for the preponderance of women and minorities in these new Star Wars movies, namely, that the series is playing to a different audience than it did in 1977 or even in 1999. The original movie was made in Britain employing British and American actors and crew, and it was intended for an American audience. (Star Wars wasn't released in Britain until seven months after its American premiere.) Today the series plays to audiences worldwide, where the potential viewership may be ten to twenty times greater than it is here. You might as well put in some characters who look like the people who will see the movie in Turkey, Pakistan, India, and China. Maybe that will win new fans and help boost box office receipts.

That's just speculation on my part. More to the point, moviemakers seek more and more to appeal to girls and women by casting females in strong, leading roles. Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, is a case in point. She is, more or less, a female version of Luke Skywalker. The Force Awakens makes that obvious. The story so far is mostly her story, but at least in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, there are male characters who act independently of her. In Rogue One, the lead character, Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones, ends up calling all the shots. The men in the movie, minorities or not (including the all-male crew of the eponymous spacecraft) are merely her helpers. Cassian (Diego Luna), who is so active in the first part of Rogue One, is reduced to a supporting role, just as Max (Tom Hardy) in Mad Max: Fury Road is merely a helper to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). This is what movies--or popular culture in general--are now. Male roles are passing to women, and movies are made more and more to appeal to a distaff audience, perhaps, too, to weak or feminized men. It's no wonder that boys and young men stay home to play video games in which they can act out traditional male roles. This is the beginning of a negative feedback loop.

Related to all of that, I heard a complaint about The Force Awakens when it came out, specifically about Daisy Ridley. The complaint had to do with her physical appearance. The word ugly was used. I don't think Daisy Ridley is ugly, but I'm not sure I would describe her as beautiful, either. But physical beauty is not the point now among actresses and the characters they play, and it's precisely for the reason that female characters no longer play traditional female roles. They are not meant to be beautiful. They are meant to be strong, in command, in control, in charge. In short, they are meant to be men. To be beautiful might actually be an undesirable trait among actresses and the characters they play these days. It's more important for them to be able to throw a punch or effectively wield a weapon the size of a table saw.

Another complaint against The Last Jedi has to do with its use of humor. Maybe the complainers have forgotten how funny Star Wars is, but this is something I have noticed among fans not only of Star Wars but also of science fiction and comic books. You're messing with their fantasy world here. They take their fantasies very seriously, and they don't like it when you make light of them. I understand the feeling, but is it really that important that everyone in Star Wars be so stoic and humorless? Can't there be some humor somewhere? Can't anyone in this universe enjoy anything or take any pleasure in their lives? Or is everything always supposed to be heavy and grim?

A related complaint comes from people who hate The Last Jedi so much that they want it to be withdrawn, even remade, and struck from "the canon" of Star Wars movies. "The canon," they say. Not the Biblical canon or the canon of the Catholic Mass or some religious belief, but the canon of a popular entertainment. This overly serious way of looking not just at Star Wars but at other bits of popular culture is, I think, a real problem with fans, for if you think there is or should be a "canon" of Star Wars, Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes stories, or any other franchise, you really should get a life. All are simply fantasies or entertainments. Yes, they're fun, and escaping into fantasy may help you get through the rough patches in your life, but there is nothing sacred or untouchable about them. Nobody's mortal or spiritual life depends upon whether one spacecraft can or cannot track another through hyperspace. And if you're so worried about "the canon," what about the hundreds of Star Wars comic books, novels, short stories, children's books, and installments of television shows and daily comic strips that have come out? Have you placed your imprimatur on those things yet?

A chief complaint about The Last Jedi and about the other new Star Wars movies has to do with the expectation among moviegoers that they are going to experience what they experienced when they first saw Star Wars as children (in whatever form that might have been). I was there in 1977, just like many of you were. We remember what it was like to see Star Wars--the real, unadulterated Star Wars--for the first time, when it was fresh and new, like nothing we had ever seen before. It was exciting, exhilarating, even life-changing. But those days are gone, and they will never be brought back, no matter how hard anyone tries. We live in a different world now. We will never have that experience again, and it is unreasonable for anyone to expect, let alone demand, that we will.

But there is still a chance for Star Wars to be new and exciting. There is still a chance for children--real, chronological children--to enjoy Star Wars, and we should let them. My nephew is twelve. When we saw the preview for The Last Jedi in November, he told us that he felt goosebumps. After we saw the movie, he said it was awesome and put it in his top three of Star Wars movies. He wanted to talk about it for hours and days afterwards--What was your favorite part? Who are your favorite characters? And on and on, just like we did at that age. This movie and its predecessor were made for kids like him, kids who don't notice plot holes or illogical behavior on the part of the movie's characters or that certain things, like gravity bombs in space or spaceships that slow down and go adrift when they run out fuel, defy the laws of physics. They notice other things, like thrilling chases, well-staged fight scenes, and young characters experiencing emotions that they, the children watching, can understand. The children watching know what they like, and they like the new Star Wars movies. Rey and Finn are to them what Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia were to us. We should let them have that pleasure and that experience.

Related to that is the idea that the current trilogy appears to be geared to a younger audience than the one that saw Star Wars in 1977. To be sure, the original Star Wars appealed to kids, but the prime audience seems to have been teenagers and young adults. It's worth remembering that those born in the peak year of the baby boom--1957--were twenty years old when Star Wars was released, the same age, by the way, as Carrie Fisher. (Although she was born in 1956, Carrie was still twenty in May 1977 when Star Wars came out.) There was no larger cohort born in the United States until 2007--and those children were ten years old when The Last Jedi was released last month, the same age, by the way, as Temirlan Blaev, the young actor who played the boy who uses the Force to gather a broom into his hands at the end of the movie.

Notice the name: Temirlan Blaev is not American or British but Russian by nationality and perhaps non-Russian by ethnicity. (He is, however, Caucasian--literally.) So he serves two--actually three--purposes in the movie: First, he is a child of ten, perhaps close to the median age for the target audience of The Last Jedi. Second, he is an ethnic minority and hails from central Asia, thus he covers two additional parts of the potential target audience. And third, he acts as a surrogate for the children watching the movie, for he is like them, and if he is like them, then maybe they can be like him. Maybe they can imagine themselves into the Star Wars universe in his place. From there, they can imagine a limitless future in store for them. Moreover, if he, a mere servant and stable boy in some dirty, remote place--a "nobody" as Kylo Ren describes Rey's parents--possesses the Force, then it shows that a person doesn't have to be a Skywalker, a Darth, a Count, or an Emperor to so possess it. In short, anyone can be a hero. Anyone can have great adventures and even save the galaxy, just as Luke Skywalker, a nobody who hails from a backwater planet called Tatooine, does in the original movie.

Still the complaints keep coming. Next is that Luke Skywalker's character is misused somehow, that his self-imposed exile doesn't follow logically from preceding events, and that there is violence done to the idea of the Jedi themselves. First, I would say that reducing Luke Skywalker to a crabby or curmudgeonly hermit doesn't work especially well in The Last Jedi, but remember, he redeems himself and saves the Resistance by doing something no Jedi has ever done before. And after so doing, he joins Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda as Force-ghosts. (Let's not talk about the Anakin Skywalker Force-ghost.) And maybe his situation doesn't follow logically from preceding events, but I for one thought that Anakin Skywalker's turn to the Dark Side as depicted in the second trilogy was also not very convincing--that he could not have been sufficiently motivated by the depicted events to make the turn. In other words, the turning of characters in the Star Wars universe is often not very convincing or logical, but that might be a built-in problem with the Star Wars universe anyway. (More on that in a minute.) Finally, the idea that the Jedi are basically kicked to the curb in the current movie is a moot point, for if The Phantom Menace is part of the Star Wars "canon," then it's already too late for the Jedi to acquit themselves well at all. The reason is this, and it's something that really bothered me when I saw The Phantom Menace at the theater: Qui-Gon Jinn, a Master Jedi, an exemplar of the order, walks right by the slavery on Tatooine without a word of objection and without taking any action against it. I'll say it again: If the Jedi can countenance slavery, then it's too late for them to make any claims to being a force for good in the galaxy.

That brings me to a point, again regarding the original Star Wars versus all of the movies released since The Phantom Menace in 1998. In Star Wars, the Force is explained in mystical or quasi-religious terms. In 1977, we accepted, even embraced and marveled at, that explanation. Then, for whatever reason, the Force became a merely material force. Mysticism and quasi-religion were banished from the Star Wars universe, and with them, seemingly any moral objection to slavery. This, then, is a kind of stoic or Roman society, in other words, a pre-Christian society. The galaxy is a harsh and unforgiving place. People die. Others suffer. Some are enslaved. There is nothing to be done about these things. Life is indeed grim. Further still, in this universe, those things that are judged necessary or expedient in attaining the objectives of either side are also judged to be good and proper by that side. The opposite is improper. Both the Empire and the Rebellion, the Sith and the Jedi, have their own versions of what is good and proper. The other is merely the opposition which must be fought or pursued, oppressed or resisted. And so the conflict goes on, not between good and evil but between the two possessors of a materialist Force, a force separated from any moral or spiritual possibilities that might entail. And there is one of my complaints--not that the Star Wars universe needs Christianity but that it needs some positive moral order, some absolute conception of good and evil. Anakin Skywalker's turn to the Dark Side is not convincing because there is no real evil in the Dark Side, nor is there any real good or positive moral force on the side of the Jedi. Anakin's motivations in turning are inadequate because no great moral question is at stake. He flips like a pancake from one side to the other. He does it again (or for the first time) as Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. Yes, his son's life is at stake in that movie, but there isn't any run-up to Vader's conversion. Nothing that we have seen has happened between Darth Vader's first appearance in Star Wars--a movie in which he is shown to be hard, cruel, unfeeling, implacable--and the final scenes of Return of the Jedi, yet he turns after only a moment of silent thought, consideration, or indecision.

Nor is Luke Skywalker's conversion from a Jedi to a non-practicing hermit especially convincing because there is no great precipitating struggle within him, or at least no struggle that is adequately depicted in the movie. Luke's decision to kill should have been a central event in the Star Wars saga, like Abraham's decision to sacrifice his son before Yahweh, or even Meursault's actions in shooting the Arab on the beach in The Stranger. There could have been a whole movie built around Luke's struggle and decision, yet it's all disposed of in two short flashback sequences. What are we left to think about a man who would kill, in cold blood, his own nephew and the last of his line, without his first having gone through any great torment? Why did he not try to correct his mistake? Why has he fled from all responsibility? And what are we to think of a moral order, the order of the Force, in which a man like Anakin Skywalker or Kylo Ren might just as easily and justifiably choose one path as another, in which there is no battle between good and evil because there appears to be in the Star Wars universe no such things as good and evil? If the Force is what binds together all things in the universe and yet is ultimately a mere material phenomenon, how can there be? What do Midi-Chlorians care about the moral and spiritual state of men?

But here's the thing: As far as I can remember, Midi-Chlorians are not mentioned in The Last Jedi. But the word God is, for the first time in the entire series, again, as far as I can remember. (The word is actually godspeed, but close enough. How can you say godspeed without invoking God to speed you in your journey?) So Midi-Chlorians are out, but God is in (though only by the skin of His teeth). That leads to yet another point about the movie. Rian Johnson, the screenwriter and director, is a creator, but it's also clear that he is a destroyer, and he did a lot of destroying in The Last Jedi. Like so many creators in popular culture, he seems to have been shooting (to mix metaphors) for a reboot. He seems to have decided that there are certain things in The Force Awakens and previous movies that he just wasn't going to put up with, and he decided to get rid of them in spectacular and devastating fashion. Snoke? Sliced and diced. (I say, good, the story is more interesting with a more mature Kylo Ren on top.) Captain Phasma? Dropped into a flaming pit. (Is she all dead or just mostly dead?) Any budding romance between Finn and Rey? Flattened. The Jedi? Extirpated. Midi-chlorians? Not even mentioned. Mr. Johnson goes further still in his laying waste to the past. (Remember that Kylo Ren keeps telling Rey to forget the past.) Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill, who I think is the most watchable of the original three in this new series) is first a nutcase, in no way noble or stately or good, and though he saves the day in the end, he is now a Force-ghost, fated to reappear in future movies--if he appears at all--only as a faint, blue haze. Admiral Akbar dies offscreen and is soon forgotten, like Lieutenant Cable in South Pacific. Even the Rebel fleet from The Empire Strikes Back is utterly destroyed. (A good move, I think, as now future moviemakers are free to come up with new designs instead of using those from nearly forty years ago.) Finally, in an unexpected development, the death of Carrie Fisher, hence of Princess Leia, will have to be dealt with in the next installment. I'm not sure how they'll do it. Can it possibly happen in the opening crawl?

(By the way, I'm not happy that Carrie Fisher died, but her performance in this movie is odd, awkward, and uncomfortable to watch. She was no longer a very good actress, she looked at least ten years older than she was, and she talked like she was wearing dentures. I only hope she doesn't show up in CGI next time, and this is coming from one of her fans. RIP, Carrie, but you should have laid off the drugs.)

It's clear from all of this that there isn't a senior story editor in the new Star Wars series, no one to make the big decisions about where it's going, what's going to happen, and which characters get to live and which ones have to die. J.J. Abrams, who is set to direct the next installment, likely stands ready to destroy everything he doesn't like about The Last Jedi, and there will be no one to stop him. So look for another reboot, and if Mr. Abrams' previous movies are any indication, look also for plenty of holes in the plot, swipes from previous movies, and things that don't make any sense at all. In any case, complain or no, we should all realize that, again, the next movie and all of the movies after it will be made for new generations of children and not for us. Like I said before, 1977 is gone forever and there isn't anything anyone can do to bring it back. As the saying goes, that was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Barker and Bender on the Case-Part Three

The founding of Clark Publishing Company in late 1947 and the publication of the first issue of Fate in the spring of 1948 weren't just by happenstance. They were a result of the events of the first summer of flying saucers, which had its beginning on June 24, 1947, when Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot flying out of Chehalis, Washington, saw over Mount Rainier a flight of nine unidentified objects that "flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water." (1) Within a few days--in some places within a few hours--of Arnold's story getting out over the newswire, flying saucer fever seized Americans of all stripes, and people began seeing these unexplained aerial objects everywhere.

Kenneth Arnold was an average joe and not a crackpot of any kind. Observers found credence in his story. Around the middle of July, he received a letter from an outfit called The Venture Press, presumably based in the Chicago area. The sender asked him to investigate a supposed sighting of flying saucers over Maury Island, located about three miles north of Tacoma, Washington. And not just a sighting but a crashdown--a partial crashdown to be sure, one of debris that had supposedly fallen from a damaged craft, but one that nonetheless might yield physical evidence of the existence of flying saucers. What's more, the sighting and crashdown of debris were supposed to have taken place on June 21, 1947, three days before Arnold's sighting over Mount Rainier and about two weeks before Mac Brazel is supposed to have found evidence of a crashdown near Roswell, New Mexico. In other words, the incident--now known as the Maury Island Incident--if found to be based in fact would establish precedence for its two witnesses. Keep that thought--precedence--in the back of your mind for a while. It will come up again before too long.

The man who wrote to Kenneth Arnold from The Venture Press was Raymond A. Palmer, at the time the editor of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures, published by Ziff-Davis of Chicago. If there ever was a Venture Press, it didn't last under that name. More than likely, the name was a front for a new venture planned by Palmer and his business partner, Curtis G. Fuller, editor of Flying magazine. According to Palmer's biographer, Fred Nadis,
[F]or nearly two years, beginning in 1947, Palmer had been leaving the Ziff-Davis offices (on North Wabash Avenue as of the mid-1940s) in Chicago's loop for long lunch breaks, during which he would head three blocks west to a drab office on Clark Street. There, using the pseudonym Robert N. Webster, he edited and prepared Fate magazine designed for an audience with a taste for the paranormal and unexplained. (2)
So, fake name and fake company. In any case, whether Fate was in the works before the first flying saucer sighting or not, Palmer and Curtis--Palmer especially, I think--must have seen a potential gold mine in the subject. And when Kenneth Arnold agreed to investigate the Maury Island Incident, Palmer uncovered another rich vein, for the incident introduced into the flying saucer story sensations of fear, paranoia, and conspiracy that have never really been shaken off in the seventy years since. The incident also brought on one of the first investigations of flying saucers by the U.S. government and resulted, tragically, in the first deaths associated with the phenomenon.

Fred Nadis goes into more detail on the origins of Fate:
Decades later, Curt Fuller said he started Fate after the first wave of flying saucer sightings in 1947. As editor of Ziff-Davis's Flying magazine, he had numerous contacts in the aviation and military worlds. He began to ask questions and concluded military officials were lying to him. [. . .] In this same period, Palmer was developing an "all flying saucer" issue of Amazing [Stories, of which he was editor until December 1949]. According to Palmer, Ziff-Davis [publisher of Amazing Stories] rejected the proposed issue after receiving a visit from a government official. Sharing notes, Fuller and Palmer decided to start a magazine that would question standard assumptions. (3)
Here again is the theme of fear, paranoia, and conspiracy, especially conspiracy supposedly carried out by the U.S. government and against believers in flying saucers.

The cover of the first issue of Fate capitalized on the flying saucer craze as it approached the beginning of its second year. The cover story is "The Truth About Flying Saucers" by Kenneth Arnold, while the cover illustration, captioned "The Flying Disks," shows Arnold's bright red Call Air A-2 in flight above Mount Rainer and overshadowed by three large, otherworldly craft. The magazine was a hit among those caught up in the phenomenon. John Keel reported that at the first flying saucer convention, held in New York City in the fall of 1948, most of the attendees (there were only about thirty) clutched copies of Fate as they shouted and argued their positions. (4) In case you're wondering, Fate is still in existence and is closing in on its seventieth-anniversary year.

* * *

Year after year beginning in 1947, flying saucers fascinated the American public, and year after year, flying saucer fans kept up on the latest news in Ray Palmer's several titles, including Fate, Mystic Magazine, The Hidden World, Search, Ray Palmer's News Letter,  and ForumBy John Keel's estimation, Palmer was the man who invented flying saucers. What has largely been forgotten, however, is that he was also the prime promoter of a mystery that served more or less as the forerunner to flying saucers. This was the so-called Shaver Mystery, which excited, perplexed, and angered readers of science fiction from its beginnings in the mid 1940s until it was overtaken by spacecraft from another world. 

To be continued . . . 

Notes
(1) From The Coming of the Saucers by Kenneth Arnold and Ray Palmer (Boise, ID, and Amherst, WI: Authors, 1952), p. 11.
(2) From The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer's Amazing Pulp Journey by Fred Nadis (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2013), p. 116.
(3) From Nadis, p. 117.
(4) See Nadis, p. 116.

Kenneth Arnold (1915-1984), who made his fame by seeing and reporting the first flying saucers. From The Coming of the Saucers by Kenneth Arnold and Ray Palmer (Boise, ID, and Amherst, WI: Authors, 1952), p. 161.

Raymond A. Palmer (1910-1977), the man who invented flying saucers and kept them in the public eye for almost thirty years. As with Gray Barker, his name is suggestive: a palmer was a Christian pilgrim of the Middle Ages, in other words, a devout believer. On the other hand, someone who palms cards is a cheat or a grifter. On the other, other hand, Ray, as in ray of light, suggests something pure, warm, illuminating, heavenly, or in the science-fiction sense, a deadly force. From The Coming of the Saucers by Kenneth Arnold and Ray Palmer (Boise, ID, and Amherst, WI: Authors, 1952), p. 163.

From left to right: Curtis Fuller (1912-1991), his wife Mary Fuller (dates unknown), and Jerome Clark (b. 1946), all on the staff of Fate magazine in 1982 when this AP photo was published. Fuller and his wife bought out Ray Palmer in 1955 and ran Fate for decades afterwards.

Fate, Spring 1948, the first issue of a magazine that continues to this day, nearly seven decades later.

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Barker and Bender on the Case-Part Two

On Friday evening, September 12, 1952, a visitor from another world came to West Virginia. Soon after dubbed the Flatwoods Monster, the Phantom of Flatwoods, the Green Monster, and the Braxton County Monster, the visitor put a scare into residents of Flatwoods. Within days, journalists and other investigators were roaming over town and country in search of witnesses, evidence, and clues. Gray Barker, a Braxton County native then living in Clarksburg, was among them. He arrived in Flatwoods after work on Friday, September 19, only a week after the sighting of the monster. He had in hand an assignment from Fate magazine: 3,000 word and a few pictures with a Monday deadline. That weekend, Barker interviewed some of the witnesses of the event. He also ran into Ivan T. Sanderson, another investigator of strange and unexplained phenomena. The two men collaborated in their investigations in that last weekend of the summer of 1952, the closing of what in journalistic circles is sometimes called "the silly season." Both got their stories. It was likely the first time they had met.

Gray Barker's story of the encounter with the Flatwoods Monster, entitled "The Monster and the Saucer," was published in Fate in January 1953. By then, Barker was already in touch with still another investigator, Albert K. Bender, Jr., of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Barker first wrote to Bender on November 20, 1952, after having read a letter by Bender that was published in the December 1952 issue of Other Worlds Science Stories. Bender's missive to Other Worlds announced the formation of the International Flying Saucer Bureau and invited interested parties to join. In writing, Bender also offered an honorary membership to the editor of Other Worlds. Although the wording of his response is ambiguous, the editor seems to have accepted the honor. His name, by the way, was Raymond A. Palmer, also known by his initials, Rap.

Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 1, 1910, Palmer was a writer, editor, and publisher of fact, fiction, and things from the twilight zone between them. Palmer was badly injured as a child. In search of solace and escape, he read science fiction and fantasy, then created with Walter Dennis the first science fiction fanzine, The Comet, published in May 1930, when he was only nineteen. With the June 1930 issue of Wonder Stories, Palmer became a professional author of science fiction. He also managed to slip his first name into the title of his first published story, "The Time Ray of Jandra."

Palmer was not quite thirty when he landed a plum assignment as editor of Amazing Stories. The June issue of 1938 was his first. Eleven months later, in May 1939, he took on additional duties as editor of the new Fantastic Adventures, also published by Ziff-Davis of Chicago. He remained as editor through the December 1949 issues of the two magazines and was succeeded in the following month's issues by Howard Browne. Palmer wasn't out of of work, though, for he had already started as editor of Other World Science Stories in its inaugural issue of November 1949. More commonly known as Other Worlds, the new publication was digest-sized in keeping with a growing trend in the pulp-fiction market. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction also began as a digest-sized publication in the fall of 1949. (1) Astounding Science-Fiction had started the trend in November 1943. Weird Tales didn't follow suit until September 1953.

Other Worlds was published by Clark Publishing Company of Evanston, Illinois. Although the magazine was new in late 1949, its publisher was not, for Clark Publishing Company had been formed about two years before, in late 1947, by Raymond A. Palmer and Curtis Fuller. Their purpose was to publish a new kind of magazine, a magazine to look into the strange and unexplained facts on the fringes of science. They called it Fate

To be continued . . . 

Note
(1) The first issue was called The Magazine of Fantasy.


A clipping from the Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette from Tuesday, September 23, 1952, page 3, eleven days after the sighting of the Flatwoods Monster in Braxton County. Kathleen May and Gene Lemon were the only two adults to see the monster. All of the other witnesses were children. A week after the sighting, Mrs. May, Gene Lemon, and A. Lee Stewart, Jr., co-editor of the Braxton Democrat, appeared on the NBC television show We the People in New York City to talk about the incident. Note that the photograph above was taken at the Charleston bus station. Presumably, that was on the trip to or from New York. I don't know who drew the picture the two eyewitnesses are holding here, but I believe it was also shown on We the People. It may have been drawn by an artist for the show or by a newspaper artist.

A photo-montage of the Flatwoods Monster, ostensibly created by Gray Barker. However, Barker admitted in another context that he was not an artist. If he in fact created this image, he seems to have superimposed the artist's drawing from above onto a photograph of a woodland scene, with a large white oak tree on the right. I don't whether the photograph of the oak tree was shot at the original location of the sighting of the Flatwoods Monster or not. In any case, in the sixty-five years since the monster came to Earth, the tree has died and rotted. There may be little left of it.

Barker wrote his account of the encounter with the Flatwoods Monster for Fate magazine. It was published in January 1953. I like the drawing of the monster shown here. Unfortunately, I don't know the identity of the artist. 

Asa Lee Stewart, Jr., known as A. Lee Stewart (1930-1998), was co-editor of the Braxton County Democrat and the first reporter on the scene after the encounter with the Flatwoods Monster. According to Gray Barker in Barker's book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers (1956), "He arrived about half an hour after the incident." (p. 28) A few weeks later, Barker stopped in at Stewart's office. "Stewart chuckled as he held up an 8 x 10 photo, attached to a publicity release from Collier's magazine. The issue of October 18 was to contain the story of how a moon rocket would be constructed in the future, and the photo was [of] the art work which was to appear on the cover." (p. 30) Stewart, then, would seem to have been the first to notice a similarity between the eyewitness descriptions of the Flatwoods Monster and the cover art for Collier's, October 18, 1952. (Rev. S.L. Daw of Washington, D.C., an associate of Albert K. Bender, Jr., would write about the similarity in the January 1953 issue of Bender's Space Review.) Again, I don't know the identity of the artist. I also don't know whether the October 18 issue would have been on the newsstand as early as September 12. It doesn't seem likely to me, given that Collier's was a weekly rather than a monthly. On the evening of the incident in Flatwoods, the issue whose cover is shown above would have been still five weeks--and five issues--out.

Not long ago, I was watching the 1950 science fiction film Rocketship X-M when I saw this scene: actor John Emery as physicist and rocketship designer Dr. Karl Eckstrom at the chalkboard as he explains his creation to the astronauts who are about to be shot into outer space. I was struck by the resemblance of the drawing to the Flatwoods Monster, especially to later mechanistic interpretations of the monster's appearance. According to Wikipedia, the design of Rocketship X-M was based on drawings that had appeared in the January 17, 1949, issue of Life magazine. So in this wondrous age of the Internet, what do you do but look for just those drawings?

Five years ago--even a year ago--you might not have found what you were looking for. Now it's another story. And so I found these two images (above and below), illustrations for the article "Rocket to the Moon," predicting a trip within the next twenty-five years. (It actually took twenty.) The artist was Michael Ramus (1917-2005). 

Although they don't offer the best view of Ramus' rocketship design, these images show a craft similar to the one in Rocketship X-M, a movie released a little more than a year later, on May 26, 1950.  

In any case, as this advertisement from the Beckley, West Virginia, Post Herald from May 9, 1953, shows, Rocketship X-M was still playing at theaters three years after its debut. In other words, it might still have been fresh in the minds of moviegoers. By the way, Gray Barker worked as a movie theater booker. His business was the largest of its kind in West Virginia at the time. So did he book Rocketship X-M at the Pine theater in Beckley less than a year after the Flatwoods Monster incident? 

A baby Flatwoods Monster? No, just a barn owl with its heart-shaped face turned upside down to form instead a spade-shape. Some people believe that the witnesses in Flatwoods actually saw an animal, possibly a barn owl, and in their excitement, fear, and hysteria, mistook it for a monster. After all, they went up on the hill expecting to see a Martian, so they saw one. Photograph by Lisa Kee. By the way, the tapetum lucidum of barn owls is orange, the same color reported by the eyewitnesses at Flatwoods as to the monster's eyes.(Actually, they said the Flatwoods Monster's eyes were "greenish-orange," an obvious impossibility, unless there were distinct and separate areas of green and of orange in or around the monster's eyes.)

Gray Barker (1925-1984), in the overused "talking on the phone" portrait of the 1940s and after. I don't know when this picture was taken nor the identity of the photographer, but in looking at it, you might get an idea of Barker's great height: he was six feet, four or five inches tall. You might also have noticed by now that Barker shared his first name with the most common type of alien (unlike him, a diminutive creature), while his last name suggests an association with a carnival barker. "Step right up, folks," he says, "and see the gray alien from another world." Half sincere, half huckster and hoaxer, Gray Barker had one of the most appropriate names of anyone I know of. (A forestland owner I knew by the name of Forrest Akers might have had him beat.)

Finally, Albert K. Bender's letter in Other Worlds Science Stories, December 1952, page 156. This is almost certainly the letter that prompted Gray Barker to write to Bender on November 20, 1952. (I don't have access to the October 1952 issue of Other Worlds, but I doubt there was a letter prior to this one.) Barker's letter was his introduction to Bender and to the whole mystery that would soon surround him, including the Mystery of the Three Men in Black.

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley