content by

Hector DeJean

The Flash Gordon Serials of the 1930s Changed the Face of Sci-Fi

One of the first things I watched when I signed up for Netflix was a suspense serial from the silent film era called Phantomas, and while it was very enlightening to see this first step in the evolution of recorded crime dramas, ultimately it… wasn’t very good. Maybe that’s not fair—it had its moments, but I would have a hard time recommending it to anyone but the most curious film archivists.

Thanks to the growth of streaming services, a vast archive of antique entertainment is now easily accessible to the public, though whether it should be or not is a matter of personal opinion. In the case of the Flash Gordon serials that Universal created from 1936 to 1940, the debate over such material’s worth is a significant matter to science fiction fans. The serials, starring Larry “Buster” Crabbe as Flash (a character who had first appeared in newspaper comic strips a few years prior) made a powerful impression which is evident in much of the sci-fi films and shows that followed. You can see a clear impact on EC comics like Weird Science, on the original Star Trek, and of course the 1980 Flash Gordon film. George Lucas acknowledged the influence of the serials on Star Wars—a film he made when he was unable to acquire the Flash Gordon film rights.

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Culture or Madness? How Jack Vance’s Worldbuilding Redefined “Adventure”

Author Jack Vance was such a driven world-creator that I’m beginning to suspect it was less of a talent and more of a compulsion. For a timely example of Vance’s relentless societal construction, take the Planet of Adventure quartet of novels, the middle two books of which are celebrating their fiftieth anniversary this year. The books have already been summarized quite well on this site, but I’ll give you the quick version: Space explorer Adam Reith arrives on the planet Tschai, and discovers that four alien races already call it home. The reptilian Chasch arrived thousands of years ago, followed by their enemies, the pantherlike Dirdir and the hulking amphibious Wankh. There’s also a mysterious race called the Pnume who are indigenous to Tschai. And there are humans—lots of them.

The Dirdir, it turns out, gathered up some neolithic humans when they visited earth tens of thousands of years ago, and have been breeding their descendants into a servant race. The Chasch and the Wankh have joined in, as have the Pnume, creating another quartet of exotic races: the Chaschmen, the Dirdirmen, the Wankhmen, and the Pnumekin. Then there are the various humans who live in the towns and wildernesses of Tsachi who have no alien affiliation, and who have created their own cultures in the shadows of the aliens’ cities.

If you’re keeping score, that’s over half a dozen distinct cultures; when you start reading the books, you soon find even more, as Reith encounters wildly varying societies of humans struggling to survive on the strange planet, some with elaborate customs and cities, others still operating at a caveman level.

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A Lean, Mean, Writing Machine: Jack Vance Was Science Fiction’s Tightest Worldbuilder

I’m a big fan of concise stories. If a writer fills a three-volume science fiction epic with 2000 pages of detailed worldbuilding, intriguing speculative concepts, and captivating character arcs, that’s all well and good, but if that writer can get that down to 300 pages, that’s better. And if a writer goes further and nails it in 150 pages—well then, that writer can only be Jack Vance.

Vance produced well over 70 novels, novellas, and short story collections over the course of his writing career, creating fantasy stories and mysteries as well as science fiction, and even producing a substantial number of doorstoppers that would have impressed George R. R. Martin with their girth. Vance’s extensive oeuvre has its imperfections—especially glaring today is his near-complete lack of interesting female characters—but at their best the books set an excellent standard for the construction of strange new worlds. Three tales in particular, The Languages of Pao (1958), the Hugo Award-winning The Dragon Masters (1962), and The Last Castle (1966), squeeze artfully assembled civilizations into focused, tight paragraphs. Other authors might have used these worlds as settings for bloated trilogies, but Vance quickly builds each society, establishes his characters, delivers the action, and then is off to create something new. I can’t think of any other author who put together so many varied worlds with such efficiency.

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7 Times Pop Singers Played Aliens or Robots (For Better or Worse)

The second episode of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams presents one of Dick’s signature visions of a future gone terribly wrong in an episode called “Autofac.” The standout performance is Janelle Monae’s turn as Alice—who, like many of Dick’s characters, is a robot designed to appear human. Even off-screen, on a typical day, Monae is a performer who looks, sounds, and moves like someone from a higher plane of existence. Her voice and motions on Electric Dreams are those of a being noticeably different from humanity—and probably superior. It’s a wonderful bit of casting that follows a long tradition of rock and hip-hop superstars who have played robots and aliens in television and film; perhaps there’s an argument to be made that the best school for learning how to depict fascinating, otherworldly beings is the concert stage.

When you consider these various performances together, the question becomes: Who did it best? Which stars gave us a compelling vision of otherworldly, futuristic existence, and which couldn’t even give a convincing depiction of being from next week? The following is by no means an exhaustive list of singers whose forays into acting led them to sci-fi’s frontiers, but it does cover some memorable highs and lows…

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