Science Fiction is a term that means a lot of different things to a lot of different fans. When I was kid I thought it kind of meant Star Trek and Lost in Space, Bradbury books and the Twilight Zone episodes that included aliens. Of course, it’s so much bigger than that. There are subgenres and all kinds of slivers of fandoms that are populated with bazillions of fans. And Star Wars, of course, has just about transcended the entire genre and become its own thing.
So it’s was all the more interesting that a local art exhibit chose to focus on the earliest incarnation of science fiction. It’s called “Fun in Space: An Homage to Pulp Science Fiction.”
Pulp Science Fiction is cheesy and brilliant all at the same time. Pulps often sported lurid and garish covers aimed at adolescent males. On the other hand, so many authors, like Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Heinlein started telling their endearing and enduring tales in the pulps.
Lurid and garish are two of my favorite adjectives, so it’s natural that I just love old pulp covers. They’re silly, naïve and needlessly sexualized. They are also lovely and skillfully rendered, all with an intense sense of urgency and excitement.
The show’s curator is Steve Nyland. He’s enthusiastic and focused, able to make something like this art show happen and able to convince all the powers that be that it should happen. Nyland told me about how he developed a love for pulp science fiction stories as a kid and it’s never left him.
One of my favorites pulps has been an old issue of Fantastic Adventures that showcases the story “Invasion from the Deep” by Paul W. Fairman. The cover shows a submarine crew astonished as a giant – and I mean giant – undersea princess is bursting through the waves riding an equally giant seahorse.
At the heart of it all – this “Fun in Space” exhibit channeled that frenetic energy. My favorite piece is a recreation of an old issue of Fantastic Adventures featuring the unforgettable story, the Justice of Tor. (Well, OK, that story is actually completely forgettable, but the cover is gorgeous.)
There is so much great artwork here that channels the charm of old science fiction, especially one evoking an Al Feldstein EC Comics cover and another with mash-up of iconic sci fi characters. I was nice to see Spock dancing with Princess Leia.
And cosplay is everywhere! Even at opening night for a Science Fiction art exhibit in downtown Syracuse. On hand were clever cosplayers, celebrating the many aspects of the genre.
The contributing artists stretched a bit too – with some cool sculptures and painted sneakers and furniture.
The gallery is part of a business incubator in downtown Syracuse New York called the Tech Garden. It makes all the sense in the world that a business building that attracts dreamers and non-traditionalists would host an art show that attracts dreamers and non-traditionalists.
I wish I could refrain from corny puns and not write that the opening was “out of this world,” but it was a fun, upbeat celebration by a passionate bunch of talented artists for like-minded geeks.
I read at other times, of course. But books, unlike humans, are always there for me. Books don’t move away, die, or vote for Trump.
I bring this up because it’s part of my New Year’s resolution.
All of us, no matter who we might be, occasionally feel like we don’t fit in. We aren’t cool enough, or we have a funny name. We might be too fat or too thin, too tall or too short, too rich or too poor. We could be too dark or too fair. We might speak differently than other people. We might be too butch or too femme, too queer or too straight, too old or too young. We might be too nerdy or too much of a jock. We might feel so different from everybody else that we don’t even have the words to describe all the ways in which we feel different.
There is no doubt in my mind that this has been true throughout recorded human history. However, modern technology makes it easier to track this phenomenon and quantify its dangers.
At the same time, there are ever newer and more technologically advanced ways to bully the kids who are most vulnerable.
When I was a girl, I often felt like the odd person out. I was too much in my head, worrying about how I appeared to other people, if they could see through me and knew what a sham I really was. At the same time, I felt like no one saw the real me, and I might go through life without ever being loved or accepted.
Naturally, I loved Supergirl.
The Supergirl of my youth was not the glamorous character you see on The CW every week. She was a girl with mousy brown braids (like mine!) who lived in an orphanage, with no one to confide in but her cat and her robot double hidden in a tree. When her cousin, Superman, finally revealed her existence to the world and she was applauded, I felt like that applause was a little bit for me.
Teaching children the value of reading is a wonderful thing. It’s a tool they can use to get them through their entire lives.
I don’t mean “value” in terms of money or career potential, although I am in favor of both cash and jobs. I mean that the entertainment, comfort and contentment that curling up with a book is even more valuable than dollars. Somewhere in the world, there is a novel or a series of personal essays that articulates how we feel. When we find that book, we feel understood.
I resolve to share my love of reading with kids who really need it.
So, how will I carry out this resolution? It would be lovely if each of us had the time and resources to reach out to as many young people as possible and teach them how much pleasure they can get from reading. Alas, that is not always true. Still, there are lots of other things we can do.
Do you have a few free hours? You could volunteer at your local library. What better way to share a love of reading than by directly modeling it in your own community.
Pressed for time and space? You can give your old books to charities that will distribute them to where they are most needed.
For better or worse, the books that are the most comforting to children and young adults are most likely to be the ones targeted by free speech antagonists. If I were the kind of person to believe in convoluted conspiracies, I might think that those in charge don’t want a citizenry that is self-confident, engaged and able to think for themselves. In any case, it is important for people all over the world to find those books that speak to them. Therefore, I’m going to continue to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. They’ve done good work for decades, but in the past few years, they’ve really upped their game in terms of making graphic novels available for schools.
In 2017, I resolve to do more of this. I urge you to consider doing the same.
Well, the fall television season has begun, which means I’ve been watching the return of my favorite series and the premiere of new shows that have tickled my interest. Here’s a rundown.
Timeless (Mondays, 10 P.M., NBC)
Everyone who reads this column regularly knows that I’m a nut for alternate history and time-travel stories, so of course I was going to check out Timeless, which premiered last week, October 3… and, of course, I missed it. So on Saturday I logged onto Hulu and caught up.
The premise is a familiar one to science fiction geeks like me – what happens to our present if someone goes back and either deliberately or accidentally changes the history we know? This is best illustrated, at least for me, by Ray Bradbury’s classic and beautifully written “A Sound of Thunder,” in which a big game hunter travels back to the Jurassic era to stalk a Tyrannosaurus Rex, accidentally kills a butterfly, and returns to his present to find the world he knew has changed, both in subtle and overt ways. Although the term was not coined by physicists and other scientists until the 1960s by chaos theory pioneer Edward Norton Lorenz – when he noted that small changes in the initial conditions of hurricane formation would change the outcome of that hurricane, i.e., time of formation, wind speed, path – this has become known as the butterfly effect, which essentially states that even an infinitesimal alteration in primary conditions will change the outcome. (This leads me to believe that Lorenz read “A Sound of Thunder” at some time in his life; if he hadn’t – one small change – the phenomenon might be called something else.)
When a secret government-funded time travel machine is stolen by a “bad guy,” a misaligned team is assigned to follow him and stop his nefarious plans to alter the time line: a historian, a Delta Force soldier, and a computer coder. But how can they follow him? Turns out that there is an earlier, less sophisticated time machine, an alpha model, that has been kept in mothballs “just in case” [a rescue was needed]. This more primitive device can take the team to the same time period, but can’t lock on to the exact coordinates of the newer version.
Yes, it’s a big “coincidence.” But what the hell – without this, uh, contrivance, there would be no show, right?
There is a lot in Timeless that we have seen before. The facility where the time machine is kept looks like every secret government facility ever seen on The X-Files; the machine itself sits isolated in front of a bank of monitors and computers manned by technicians as in Stargate (and Stargate-SG1); and the gears of the apparatus turn and spin around the command pod as it warms up for its leap, reminding me of the “worm-hole opener” in Contact. Oh, and speaking of leaps, I kept thinking of Quantum Leap, too. But by now, if you’re any sort of fan of science fiction, it’s not so much the ingredients. To misquote another time traveler by the name of Clara Osborne, the soufflé is the soufflé.
The first jump is to May 6, 1937, the day of the Hindenburg explosion. ‘Nuff said, for those of you who haven’t seen Timeless, yet; although I will add a little spice by saying that the “bad guy” may not be so bad after all.
Also, Timeless plays with butterflies.
All in all, I enjoyed it, but like I said, I’m an easy mark for time-travel stories.
Designated Survivor (Wednesdays, 10 P.M., ABC)
From Wikipedia: “In the United States, a designated survivor (or designated successor) is an individual in the presidential line of succession, usually a member of the United States Cabinet, who is arranged to be at a physically distant, secure, and undisclosed location when the President and the country’s other top leaders (e.g., Vice President and Cabinet members) are gathered at a single location, such as during State of the Union and presidential inaugurations. This is intended to guarantee continuity of government in the event of a catastrophic occurrence that kills the President and many officials in the presidential line of succession. If such an event occurred, killing both the President and Vice President, the surviving official highest in the line, possibly the designated survivor, would become the Acting President of the United States under the Presidential Succession Act.”
Tom Kirkland, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, is watching the President deliver the State of the Union on television when an explosion rips through the Capitol building, destroying it and killing everyone inside it. Tom Kirkland, the designated survivor, is now the President of the United States.
Designated Survivor star Kiefer Sutherland is no stranger to political thrillers; as Counter Terrorist Unit agent Jack Bauer on the seminal 24, he always knew what to do and when to do it; “squeamish” was most definitely not a word in Bauer’s dictionary. But this show isn’t about President Jack Bauer; Tom Kirkland is a not a natural-born hero – far from it. Instead of immediately “manning up” and taking charge, Kirkland is overwhelmed; in the White House, excusing himself from a rambunctious and loud meeting where everyone is yelling over each other, Kirkland excuses himself, ducks into a bathroom, and throws his guts up.
And it works. Jack Bauer, as mesmerizing as he was, was a toy soldier, an antidote to an American public still reeling in shock from 9/11 (although the show was already on Fox’s schedule before that horrible day) and in need of a G.I. Joe who would take our collective revenge upon the bad guys. Tom Kirkland is an ordinary government bureaucrat, perhaps a bit more idealistic, earnest and dedicated than most, who doesn’t really fit into the cut-throat world of Washington politics; in fact, early in the first hour we learn that he’s been “shifted” from the office of HUD – read “fired” – and offered a job as Ambassador to the Canadian Coast Guard (or something like that – Kirkland wants to know if there really is a Canadian Coast Guard.) Kirkland reacts the way most of us really would, as in “What the fuck?” and “Stop the world, I want to get off!” Simply put, Jack Bauer is the fantasy; Tom Kirkland is the real deal.
Kai Penn, late of House and the real West Wing – quit acting for a time to work for the Obama administration as Associate Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement – plays Seth Wright, a junior speechwriter for the late President whom Kirkland hires as chief speechwriter after their embarrassing meeting in the bathroom where Kirkland was puking in one stall while Wright opined on the inadequacies of the new President in another.
But Wright isn’t the only one wary of Kirkland’s aptitude for the office. Just about everyone is questioning his ability, to the point of ad nauesum, if you ask me. (Is there no one – except his family, of course – who wants to help Kirkland step up to the job?) But the biggest fly in the ointment – im-not-so-ho – of what could be an absolutely terrific series is the “General Angryman” (as Entertainment Weekly writer Ray Rahman calls him), who, at least right now, is the caricatured hawk to Kirkland’s (supposed) dove. “General Angryman” wants to display American certitude and force by bombing the shit out of anyone and everyone who has ever name-called America – specifically Iran, whose Navy is apparently making forays into the Strait of Hormuz, threatening the world’s oil supply.
Seriously, I am really hoping that the writers are throwing us for a loop, because this guy is beyond Dr. Strangelove.
I’ve seen all three episodes of Designated Survivor, and while I’m liking it, there are problems, the most important one being – again, im-not-so-ho – that there doesn’t really seem to be anyone interested in putting country before politics (well, except for Kai Penn’s character) in helping President Kirkland establish the “continuity of government” that the role of “designated survivor” is meant to do. But considering the way we were bamboozled into Iraq by a real administration that put politics before country, and the way the two current leaders of the Republican party are refusing to disavow their current Presidential candidate, again putting politics ahead of country – well, perhaps the fictional roadblocks facing the fictional President Kirkland aren’t all that, well, fictional.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (Wednesdays, 9 P.M., NBC)
SVU is now in its 18th season, and while some may say that the show has seen better days, I would argue that it has matured like fine wine. I can’t say exactly what it is about that show that makes me addicted to its current incarnation as well as all its reruns on USA network and other channels, but I am hooked on it like a patient with chronic back pain is hooked on Oycondone.
Supergirl (Mondays, 8 P.M., CW)
The Girl of Steel premieres tonight on its new network home, but who hasn’t seen the “sneak peek” on YouTube (or other web sites) featuring Kara and her cuz’?
Like so many others, I was surprised when Supergirl was announced as a CBS show; it was such an outlier for that network. Like so many others, I was, well, relieved when I heard that the CW had picked it up; not only because it wasn’t cancelled permanently from our screens, but because the CW has become a natural home for a show based on a comic book, and do I really need to specify that statement?
Here are some quotes from Entertainment Weekly’s interview with Executive Producer Andrew Kreisberg on the future of Supergirl, with my opinions thrown in for good measure:
“There is going to be a change in the show that I think is a natural progression in a show that’s growing up. We were really blessed withThe Flash – The Flash came out fully formed; that show knew what it was very early on. The experience ofSupergirlis more akin to the experience we had on Arrow, where we knew there was a great show in there, and every once in a while we made a great one, but it wasn’t until the back half of that first season – and certainly the beginning of season 2 – that we really felt like we had a handle of what that show was creatively. That’s how we feel aboutSupergirl, that towards the end of last year, the characters were really coming to life and we were really starting to tell the right stories.”
Me: No PR bullshit here, Kreisberg is absolutely right about the second half of the series.
“Now with season 2, we really feel like this show has gotten, I always say, bigger and smaller; it’s gotten bigger in terms of what we’re able to accomplish in terms of the scope of the show, but it’s also gotten smaller in terms of the characters. We are able to go to deeper places, richer places, and to some places that I think are unexpected.”
Me: Oh, boy, do I really hope that this is absolutely not PR bullshit!
“Because it was the first female superhero on TV in a long time, and then the first female superhero especially in the current explosion of comic book properties, the show had expectations to it and the show had preconceived notions, and the show had I don’t want to say limitations, but everybody had an opinion on what a female superhero should do and be and say. I think all of us collectively as a studio, as a network, as showrunners [sic], as cast, we all got locked into answering that question a lot at the early stages.“
Me: See my first column about the show. Oh, the girl was just so adorably perky. Gagged me with a spoon. If I hadn’t loved the character so much my whole life I would never had stuck with it.
“Kara will be traveling from her dimension to our dimension, ‘our’ being the world that The Flash, Arrow, and Legendslives in.”
Me: The Flash episode totally rocked!!!! Probably responsible for saving the series, and also probably responsible for the realization that Supergirl belonged on the CW. But it’s Supergirl. Not Supergirl and… Please remember that. Please don’t forget that. Please, please, please let Kara stand on her own two feet.
“…we come into season 2 and she feels like she’s got a handle on being Supergirl – it’s everybody else in her life that she feels like, ‘How can I be a girlfriend? What am I supposed to do with my career? How can I be there for my sister?’ So it’s all the Kara stuff that’s really the tough stuff early on, and that’s where Clark comes in. We say it’s like becoming a parent, where when you were a kid, your parents knew everything and then you become an adult and you’re like, ‘I’m lost, I don’t know what to do.’ You realize that neither did your parents; they were making it up as they went, they just presented themselves as knowingit all even if they were dying inside. That’s one of things that Kara says, like, ‘I know how to be Supergirl, but I don’t know how to do any of this other stuff. But Clark, he makes it look easy, he’s Superman, he’s a great reporter, he’s a great boyfriend. How does he do it?’ And Clark says, ‘I’m making it up as I go, too. It’s all about balancing it and it’s all a day-to-day thing. Just because I make it look easy, doesn’t mean that it is.’ So Kara is really growing up this season, that’s really her journey.
Me: Superman is cool. The trailer was cool. But, again, just remember that this is Supergirl. Not Supergirl and Her Cousin, Superman. There really is a lot there to explore, lots of great story possibilities. Don’t fuck this up.
“Alex is struggling with Clark being in town. It sets up this interesting dynamic where she has been everything to Kara; she’s her family, and she has a little bit of a chip on her shoulder about Clark. She loves him, he’s family and she knows he loves them, but he left Kara on their doorstep. Kara is so excited to see Clark and so excited to be with him, but it’s almost a little bit like Alex feels taken for granted, because she’s the family member who’s put in the time. It sets up an interesting conflict between her and Kara in the first couple of episodes.”
Me: This is great. But it sounds like it’s going to be resolved by the end of the second episode. No, no, no! Played right (like not focusing on it constantly, spreading it out over 22 episodes), it would make a great full-season arc.
“Really this year is about coming into one’s own and becoming who you are. In a way, all of the characters are dealing with that. Kara is certainly dealing with that at work; Winn is becoming who he is by working at the DEO; J’onn is stepping out and embracing more being the Manhunter, which is something that he spent 300 years hiding, but now he doesn’t have to hide that anymore.”
Me: But where’s Cat Grant? Oh, no! She’s been reduced to a recurring character! That totally sucks! (And I still think she knows that Kara Danvers is Supergirl.)
One story I would love to see – selfishly because it’s a favorite of mine – brought to the series is “Supergirl’s Secret Enemy,” by Jerry Siegel and Jim Mooney, and which ran from Action Comics #279, August 1961 to Action Comics #281, October 1961.
Lesla-Lar is a low-level scientist who lives in the bottle city of Kandor (Okay, we haven’t established Kandor on the show, but that could be worked around.) Already on the emotional edge, being forced to live in Kandor while watching Kara live a life not defined by the walls of a bottle drives her over the cliff; she figures out a way to switch places with her. (I forgot to mention that she looks exactly like Kara.) The process robs Kara of her memory; she believes she is Lesla-Lar while the real Lesla-Lar lives her life on Earth, assuming the role of Supergirl so successfully that everyone, including her cousin, is unaware of the old switcheroo. How will Kara escape?
The budget would probably be way too much for the show to handle, and I would hate for it to have the bare-bottom look of the adaptation of “For the Man Who Has Everything.” But it would still be a great story to run, especially during the “sweeps” ratings months.
The so-called Golden Age of Television, with its two and one-half channels of network programming, produced an astonishing number of great writers, directors and talent. To name but a very, very few: Barbara Bel Geddes, Paddy Chayefsky, George Roy Hill, Ron Howard, Ernest Kinoy, Jack Lemmon, Sidney Lumet, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Boris Sagal, Rod Serling, Rod Steiger, Gore Vidal, Joanne Woodward… my fingers won’t hold out long enough to type even a “best-of” list.
You’ll never guess which of the above pioneers is my favorite.
When Scottish engineer John Logie Baird first demonstrated television in January 1926 (six years before Philo Farnsworth demonstrated the first electronic television), Rod Serling was just a few days over one year old. Baby boomers think we grew up with television; Mr. Serling actually has that honor. And he did a lot more with the medium than we would.
His worldview was clearly progressive; his 1950s work was not the one for which the Conservative movement longed so desperately. His scripts reflected his philosophy and he was left-of-center, but somehow he avoided being blacklisted. To Serling, his great enemy was censorship. “I’ve found censorship always begins with the network. Then it spreads to the advertising agency. Then the sponsor. Among them, when they get through, there isn’t very much left.”
Rod Serling wrote about, and wrote to, the human condition. Most of us are familiar with his creation The Twilight Zone, a high-water mark in the history of the medium. But I urge you to seek out a few of his previous works, in particular Patterns and Requiem For A Heavyweight. Both were originally done on live television, and each was so successful that theatrical movies were produced later – and both movie versions were written – rewritten – by Serling. Patterns was so successful that the broadcast was restaged live with the original cast about a month later. Remember, Ampex didn’t start marketing video tape recorders until 1956, a year after Patterns was broadcast.
Both plays are about the human condition, sans science fiction and fantasy elements. Patterns is about the ousting of a long-time big business executive who fights being phased out due to his age. Requiem is about an aging boxer no longer fit for the ring and his fight to maintain some sense of dignity while trying to cover the rent. Jack Palance starts in the latter (Tony Quinn starred in the film version) and Everett Slone starred in both versions of Patterns. Slone is best known for his work with Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai and Journey Into Fear; he also was a regular on Welles’ The Shadow and his Mercury Theater radio productions.
I prefer the original video versions because they were initially written for that medium and because live television, particularly in the 1950s, had the ambiance of “holy crap; that guy just tripped over the microphone cable.” The original versions of both plays are available on DVD, or, better still, the three-disk version of Criterion’s The Golden Age of Television.
Many consider Serling’s The Twilight Zone to be the epitome of great television writing. I concur, but it must be noted Rod brought in a hell of a lot of first-class talent to help him turn out those 156 episodes. Serling wrote 80 and the rest were scripted by folks like Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury, Earl Hamner Jr., George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, and Reginald Rose. The shadow cast by Twilight Zone is so deep and rich that it tends to overwhelm Serling’s other achievements.
I know there’s more worthy programming on the boob tube these days than any non-shut-in can handle, but when you can arrange for a free second or two, check out the original versions of Patterns and Requiem For A Heavyweight.
“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” • Dorothy Parker
“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.” • George R. R. Martin
“Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done, they’re done.” • Kurt Vonnegut
“Are you typing?” • My mom, when she would call me up in the middle of the day when I was writing for DC and other comics companies.
Who are the people who tell us our stories?
And how do they do it?
Some like to plot everything out, down to the last word, using what I call the “shuffling cards” method in which important plot developments or character moments are written out on index cards, and then mixed and jumbled and rearranged until the writer holds a royal flush. Some writers start at the end of the story and then figure out how it got there. Others get a scene or situation in their head; it could be the middle, it could be the end, it could be the opening paragraph, or somewhere in between. Then that scene or situation plays over and over again, like a needle skipping on a vinyl record in the middle of a song, and. like that skip, doesn’t stop until the writer does something about it.
There are writers who get up in the morning and eat a proper breakfast and take a proper shower and get dressed as if they are going to the office or meeting up with friends and walk to their study or their den and work a proper eight-hour day, writing. There are other writers who get up and squeeze their story-telling in the hours between the time the kids go off to school and the spouse leaves the house to join the 9-to-5 rat race to when it’s time to pick the kids up to take them to their play dates or swim team practice or religious school – not to mention cleaning the house and going grocery shopping and doing the laundry and making dinner for the husband or wife who will soon be home.
Then there are the writers whose beds never get made, their carpet never gets vacuumed, and everyone is picking their clothes out of the laundry hamper because mom or dad is “in the zone.” Or, perhaps, the only time the beds get made and the carpets get vacuumed and the laundry gets done is when the writer is having a particularly bad day and everything that works so beautifully in the brain comes out on paper or the computer screen reads like it was written by some ignorant schmuck of a troll in a Twitter feed.
There are writers who live in their bathrobes and there are writers who can only work in the middle of the night when everyone else in the house is fast asleep. There are writers who live alone but have the TV on as “white noise” as they write. There are writers who play classical orchestral symphonies while they are “at it,” and writers who play specific music that matches rhythms of their words, their characters’ lives, their plot, their story. And there are writers who must shut out all the sounds of the outside world, who must listen only to the noise, the racket, the voice of their individual muse demanding to be heard.
There are other writers who demand feedback, who meet a trusted friend or editor and over lunch or long walks or over a beer or a Guinness or a Scotch, and work out the voices in his or her head, like a neurotic going to see his or her shrink.
There are writers who are incredibly prolific, churning out story after story after story, as if they are not individuals, but simply shells of flesh occupied by hundreds, if not thousands, of “others” who wait on a line that stretches out into infinity until at last they reach the front of the line and it is their turn to tell their yarn. There are writers who have but one tale to tell, and when “the end” is reached, they are no longer writers; they are finished, they are done.
There are writers who drink too much wine and smoke too much tobacco. There are writers who need a doobie or a blunt to get the juices roiling. There are writers who can only write on deadline and writers who are masters of procrastination.
There are writers who get to the gym every day; there are writers who think walking to the stoop to pick up the daily newspaper is exercise. There are writers who withdraw from the world, and there are writers who are at every A-list party and every movie premiere. There are writers who are constantly on the phone to their agents or their publishers’ marketing departments demanding more publicity, there are writers who let their words speak for themselves.
There are writers who would never option their story to Hollywood. There are writers who tell their agents that they won’t finish the story until it is optioned by Hollywood.
There are writers who are braggarts; there are writers who are shy. There are writers who are savvy with the Internet; there are writers who still use pencil and yellow legal pads.
There are writers who write instant classics, there are writers who never see success until long after their bodies have rotted away and the maggots have eaten what’s left.
Those are the people who tell us our stories.
And that’s how they do it.
Editor’s Note: The graphic atop this column is of Ray Bradbury and Snoopy. Yes, we know you knew that, but that person sitting over there did not. It was cribbed from The Atlantic from about three years ago, and it is damned brilliant.
“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” • Ray Bradbury’s opening words to his coda in the 1979 edition of Fahrenheit 451
Good friend and fellow columnist Martha Thomases’ latest column made me remember an incident from my childhood, back when I was in grammar school at P.S. 29 on Staten Island, NY. But more on that in a bit.
The autoignition point of paper – autoignition being that temperature at which a substance will spontaneously burst into flames – is anywhere from 424 to 475º F (218 to 246º C), dependent on the type of paper, i.e., thickness, density, composition, and atmospheric conditions. It is also the source of the title of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451, which takes place in a future American society in which books are not just banned, but outlawed. Those who are found to be harboring not only have their books taken and burned, but their homes, too, are set aflame by “firemen” whose job is to search out and destroy any type of literature.
In this bleak Tomorrowland, America is a land in which E Pluribus Unum has been replaced with Ask Me No Questions, I’ll Tell You NoLies; those who live in this world are not individuals, but automatons, walking through life, but not living it, with no thoughts of their own.
What is both ironically amusing and extremely aggravating to me is that Fahrenheit itself has been subject to expurgation, censoring and banning. That’s right, a novel about the dangerous suppression of individuality was itself earmarked for the bonfire. Yes, I know, it is the height of absurdity, but it is true.
In 1967, at the height of the ‘60s social revolution, its publisher – Ballantine Books – released an edition for its high school books program which censored the words “hell,” “abortion,” and “damn,” altered at least 75 paragraphs, and changed character situations that were felt to be detrimental to the fragile minds of teenagers – a drunk man became a sick man, the cleaning of a belly button became cleaning ears.
Both censored and uncensored versions were available until 1973, when Ballantine decided that the public should read only the expurgated version. This continued until 1979, when Bradbury found out about it. Understandably, he went berserk:
“Do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung-deflations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whisper with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.”
Lucky for Bradbury, noted and brilliant science fiction editor Judy-Lynn del Rey had recently been brought in to revitalize their science fiction line, and stepped in here as well. So the novel, in all its dystopian glory, has been back on the bookshelves, available to all discerning and thinking readers for 36 years. And no one has complained.
1987: Bay County School Board, Panama City, Florida. Superintendent Leonard Hall institutes a three-tier classification system. Fahrenheit 451 was assigned “third-tier” status, meaning that it was to be removed from the classroom for “a lot of vulgarity.”
1992: Venado Middle School, Irvine, California. Students were given Fahrenheit 451 to read. All the “bad” words were blacked out.
2006: Independent School District, Conroe, Montgomery County, Texas. A tenth grade student was assigned to read Fahrenheit 451 as part of Banned Books Week. She stopped reading it after only a few pages because of the “bad” words and the scene win which a Bible is burned. Her parents demanded to that the novel be banned – this duringBanned Books Week, get it? – because they said it was violent, portrayed Christians as yahoos, and insulted firemen.
All these attempts to censor, purge, and ban Bradbury’s tour de force ultimately failed. But stay tuned. The other major theme of Fahrenheit 451 is the manipulation of society through mass media and technology.
On the other hand, don’t stay tuned.
• • • • •
“Having the freedom to read and the freedom to choose is one of the best gifts my parents every gave me.” • Judy Blume
Although I didn’t consider myself to be so, apparently I was one of those super-bright, obnoxious kids who love to read and are reading waaaaaaay above their grade level that annoy the shit out of Marians the Librarians – well, at least we did in the olden days.
So, like I was saying, I was seven years old and attending P.S. 29 on Staten Island, New York. So one day I go to the school library to search the stacks for something to read. I discover The Black Stallion by Walter Farley. Being head-over-heels with anything that had to do with Equs caballus – or is that Equs caballi? – I wanted it. Only it was on the highest bookshelf. I took a chair from one of the tables, dragged it over, got up on the chair, stood on tiptoe, and clutched the book in my hot, greedy fingers. I got off the chair and walked over to the checkout desk.
Marian the Librarian wouldn’t let me have it.
I cried all the way home. I even cried when I got into my house.
My mom wanted to know what was wrong.
“Oh, yeah?” she said. “Don’t you worry, Mindy.”
The next day my mom walked me to school. Only she didn’t drop me off in the schoolyard, she walked into the school with me and right to Marian the Librarian’s office.
“I understand you wouldn’t let my daughter read the book she wanted,” she said.
“Well, you must understand, that book is for eighth-graders,” Marian said.
“Mindy is not in the eighth grade.”
“My daughter wants that book.”
“I’m afraid I can’t let her have it.”
“Don’t you ever tell my daughter she can’t read something. Ever.”
I was sent to class at that moment, so the rest of this is hearsay, but the way it’s been told at family dinners and gatherings over the years it seems that once I was out of the library my mother let Marian the Librarian have it. Stuff about Joe McCarthy and Nazis and book burnings and threats to go to court if she had to and a few choice “bad” words thrown in for good measure. Granted, the story has most likely been embellished since that day when Laura Newell, R.N. defended the Bill of Rights against one harried school librarian, but you get the idea – and of course I got the book…and any other book I wanted to read that was found in the library of P.S. 29 on Staten Island, New York.
My mother blew out a lit match that day.
Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Something Wicked This Way Comes, I Sing the Body Electric, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine, The Fog Horn, and Fahrenheit 451 – and so many other timeless classics – died on June 5, 2012 in Los Angeles.
Judy Blume is the author of the classic young adult novels Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Tales Of A Fourth Grade Nothing, Freckleface, It’s Not The End Of The World, Forever, and so many other. Her first adult novel, Wifey, was published in 1978. Ms. Blume’s latest book is the adult novel In The Unlikely Event.
Over the weekend, film critic A. O. Scott wrote a long essay in The New York Times Magazine that irked me, and I wanted to use my column to unpack some of my feelings about it. If you have opinions about the state of modern pop culture, you might want to join me.
(I’m now going to paraphrase and reduce his arguments to the bones. By all means, read the entire piece for more nuance.)
Scott seems to think that the modern American adult, by his and her refusal to grow up, has had a deleterious effect on the popular arts. He specifically mentions “bromance” movies, like those produced by Judd Apatow, superhero movies, and adults who read young adult (YA) books like the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games. In his opinion, the success of these genres means that we, as grown-ups, are rejecting our responsibilities.
As a tax-paying citizen who serves on jury duty, votes in every election, raised a productive citizen and volunteers in my community, I think I qualify as an adult in attitude as well as age. And I like all the things that Scott decries.
For the purposes of this column, I’m just going to talk about the books Scott talks about. You may assume I have parallel arguments about the other categories, and we can talk about this in the comments, if you like.
First of all, unless we are talking about marketing categories (as determined by publishers, booksellers and librarians), the YA category doesn’t make a lot of sense. When I was in middle school and high school, I read all kinds of books that were not considered to be YA. I read To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye and The Old Man and the Sea, books that are often read by people in those age groups. I also read Giles Goat Boy by John Barth. I read James Bond and Ray Bradbury and Philip Roth. We can argue about the varying qualities of these books, but none were racked on the children’s shelves.
Today, my reading includes some of these writers, and Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, J.K. Rowling and others who some may perceive to write for non-adults. I enjoy some genre fiction.
And I enjoy comic books. Lots of comic books.
Scott seems to think that graphic novels are not as intellectually demanding as prose novels. Like many, I think he confuses the medium of graphic storytelling with the genre of superhero comics. There are certainly books appropriate for the average young adult, such as March. And there are books that are not easily understood by those who haven’t had a certain amount of real-world experience, such as V for Vendetta or Promethea, which require at least some knowledge of history, linguistics, and adult relationships.
Please note: By adult relationships I mean actual relationships between adults, and not just sex. Thinking the word “adult” only refers to sex is actually kind of adolescent.
Now, I don’t really care what Scott thinks about my personal entertainment preferences. While we know some of the same people, I’m not likely to ever meet him, nor would I begin a conversation by attacking this particular essay.
And I don’t think he’s entirely wrong. Baby Boomers in general don’t like growing up, and we have clung to the remnants of our youth with a death-grip. We can be really obnoxious in our attempts to stay relevant, to the detriment of our popular culture.
Still, that is no reason to dismiss examples of popular culture because they come dressed in the costumes of youth and fantasy. After all, for nearly two centuries grown-ups have taught us that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
Is it a dirty word, especially when it comes to writing? Well, it depends. Simply put, there must be no embellishment when writing for a professional journal. The truth must be told.
There is a big difference between writing for a professional journal and writing fiction, or even this column. Writing for a professional journal must follow a proscribed style set by peer-reviewed organizations whose rules on grammatical usage, word choice, elimination of bias in language, the proper citation of quotes and references and the inclusion of charts and tables have become the authoritative source for all intellectual writing. This means that for me, as an RN, BSN, CNOR, I must adhere to the styles and standards set by the Publication Manual Of The American Psychologoical Assocociation (APA), which is “consulted not only by psychologists but also by students and researchers in education, social work, nursing, business, and many other behavioral and social sciences” (VanderBros, 2010) if I submit a paper or article to the Journal of the Association of Operating Room Nurses (AORN) for publication.
Does this mean that when I write fiction, or this column, I am allowed to freely embellish my stories? Does it mean that I am allowed to not to tell the truth?
Fiction writers do not really have one easily referenced professional publication in which the governance of grammar and punctuation are laid out in indisputable terms, in which the standards of style are set – though this does not mean I can sit down in front of my computer screen and write just one continuous sentence that goes on and on for pages and pages – well, perhaps I could if I was James Joyce. But all writers do need to start somewhere, and for anyone who has ever taken a creative writing course, or even tried to stay awake in their English high school class, the classic Elements Of Style, first written in 1918 by Professor William Strunk, Jr., is a good place to start. Strunk said something in that first edition that, 95 years later, has withstood the test of time and which, I believe, every writer, aspiring or published must integrate into his or her understanding of the art of writing:
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Elements was first revised in 1957 by New Yorker writer E. B. White (the author of the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web), and by 1979s third edition, listed 11 rules for grammar, 11 principles of writing, 11 standards for form, and 21 recommendations for style. (A search on Amazon revealed that Chris Hong updated The Elements Of Style for Kindle readers in 2011.) But there’s a lot more advice out there. A little while ago I entered “standards for fiction writing” on Google, and got 15,400,000 hits in 0.23 seconds.
On my bookshelf I have not only Elements of Style, but also Zen in the Art of Writing – Essays on Creativity by Ray Bradbury, Write for Yourself – The Book About The Seminar and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, both by Lawrence Block, Write in Style – Using Your Word Processor and Other Techniques to Improve Your Writing by Bobbie Christmas, How I Write – Secrets of a Bestselling Author by Janet Evanovich with Ina Yalof, Inventing the Truth – the Art and Craft of Memoir edited by William Zinsser and which includes essays by such notables as Russell Baker, Annie Dillard, Toni Morrison, and Frank McCourt, Is Life Like This? – A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months by John Dufresne, The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel by Robert J. Ray, Writing Fiction from the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, and Writers on Comics Scriptwriting which includes interviews with such illustrious authors as Peter David, Kurt Busiek, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Jeph Loeb and Grant Morrison.
I also have Eisner/Miller – Interview Conducted by Charles Brownstein, which is wonderful not only for its historical perspective, but for a peep into two great creative minds, and “Casablanca – Script and Legend” by Howard Koch,” which is incredibly instructive in detailing how magic sometimes happens despite ornery studio heads, battling co-writers, and an inability to decide how the story ends. I also have Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” on my to-buy list.
And to tell the truth, I sometimes think that all this advice is still not enough.
Reference: Vandehaus, Gary R. (2010). Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. (6th ed., pp. xiii – xiv). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Neil Gaiman and Michael Chabon have numerous things in common. They’re both fantastic writers; they’ve both written for (and about) comics; they’ve both won Hugos, Nebulas, and a slew of other impressive awards; they’ve both penned Sherlockian-style tales; they’ve both had novels adapted for the big screen; and they both have great hair.* Another thing they have in common is that last weekend they were both at George Mason University in Virginia, receiving awards at the annual Fall for the Book festival. I was fortunate enough to attend both ceremonies.
Both evenings started out with a nice VIP reception in which ticket-holders could mix and mingle and chat with the authors while having a drink and some hors d’oeuvres. Both authors signed books and made it a point to try to have a personal word or chat with as many attending fans as possible, and everyone had a great time.
On Friday, Neil Gaiman was on hand to accept The Mason Award, presented to authors who have made extraordinary contributions to bringing literature to a wide reading public. Joining the impressive ranks of past winners Dave Eggers, Jonathan Letham, Chinua Achebe, Sherman Alexie, Greg Mortenson, and Stephen King, Neil took the stage in front of 1,800 enthusiastic fans prior to the award presentation to read from a couple of his newest works and to answer questions.
His first reading was a selection from his just-now-this-very-second finished new adult novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which will be published “sometime next year” (possibly July-ish). The intriguing snippet of story we heard centered around a seven-year-old boy and began with an ominously sinister morning, in which said boy and his father have their ordinary breakfast routine interrupted by the discovery that the family car is mysteriously not in the driveway where it ought to be, but instead down at the end of a nearby lane. A death and the introduction of an odd family with three generations of women who clearly know things quickly follows…”and then it gets weird,” says Neil. From what I heard, I don’t doubt it, nor do I doubt his word when he says he didn’t start out to write a scary book, but now thinks this is the scariest thing he’s ever written. Despite my propensity for needing to hide under the covers while reading scary stories, I can’t wait to read more.
Neil followed the reading by answering a number of audience questions with his customary slightly mischievous sense of humor, including the question of “Why?” to which he answered, “Why not?” Why not, indeed. More substantive information we gleaned included that the books he enjoys writing the most are those with the “huge highs and terrible lows” in which he gets to “stomp around and phone my agent to go, ‘Why do you let me do this?? I could have been a gardener!’“ (To which she replies, “No you couldn’t. Just write the book.” It’s good to have a sensible agent.) In further discussing writing, Neil’s extremely complicated advice to those who want to be writers was to “Sit down. Start. Write. Keep writing.” However, he then admitted that if you truly want to become a real writer, you will receive a postcard in the mail, which you must then burn with a black match at midnight, and then there will be a knock on the door, and he and all of the other Mason Award winners will arrive wearing robes, and surround you, and then they will say: “Now you learn.” And then you will be a real writer.
I am expecting my postcard any day now.
In little known facts, Neil shared something he wasn’t sure he’d ever mentioned before, which is that in American Gods, the farm with an ash tree which is an hour south of Blackburg is based on an old decaying family farm belonging to Tori Amos, which he visited with her years ago and decided to adapt for the book. He also shared that his writing gazebo, which he’s mentioned several times on his journal, was built for him by some Renaissance Faire friends (and that writers should never be let near tools because they wouldn’t know what to do with them). Neil declared that the gazebo was perfect except for the mice – who nibbled on the drafts of The Doctor’s Wife script which he’d planned to send to the Library of Congress! I’m usually a big fan of small furry creatures, but in this case: for shame, tiny cute rodents!
Neil finished his talk by reading an unpublished spooky short story called “Click Clack, The Rattle Bag,” prefacing it by sharing his love of the spooky month we’ve entered. “We are getting into what Ray Bradbury called ‘The October Country,’” he said, “that one time of year when I can look around at all the shop windows and see the kinds of things I like, and go, ‘Oh gosh! Giant spiders and dead things! How cool is this??’” His love of scary things well noted, he then proceeded to scare the wits out of all of us with the new story. Thanks, Neil.
As always, it was a delight to listen to Neil, and I’m looking forward to his upcoming works, which include children’s’ books Chu’s Day and Fortunately, The Milk (which will feature art by comics artist Skottie Young ); the adult novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane; and his new Sandman story.
Moving on to Sunday, Michael Chabon was awarded The Fairfax Prize, which honors outstanding writers for their literary achievements and has previously been awarded to Tobias Wolff, Joyce Carol Oates, Norman Mailer, Mitch Albom, Michael Cunningham, E.L. Doctorow, Ann Patchett, and Amy Tan. Prior to accepting the award, Michael, an amazing wordsmith and storyteller in person as in his prose, took the stage to answer questions from a very tough interviewer: himself.
In discussing his writing, Michael asked Michael, “What’s up with all the similes?” …and then answered his own question using three similes; before admitting that really, it’s just “something in the wiring” that causes him to see likeness in two unlike things and include it in his works. He also gave several answers to the question of where he gets his ideas: 1) “I have no idea!” 2) “The book just appears in my brain, whole and inexplicable.” and 3) (the most truthful one) “Ideas are the easiest; swarming, ubiquitous, chronic. The hard part is sticking with the ideas when they start to lose their luster.”
In discussing his opinion of the value of MFA programs, Michael said that the MFA program he was a part of “made a man out of me,” by giving him a seriousness of purpose, inspired in part by observing all of the hard-working women in the program and their resolute determination to take advantage of the opportunity that feminism had brought with it. The MFA program taught Michael the discipline of actually sitting in his chair for long periods of time, typing and re-typing and editing and re-editing his work. It also taught him much about the craft of writing, including having to ask himself a hard question after a critique of his first, very character-intensive story by his advisor, i.e. “How could I have forgotten to tell a goddamned story??”
In telling a story, Michael recommended that even if pulling from personal experience, one can’t just record each thing that has happened, as real life tends to have pockets of tedium throughout. Instead, “you need to edit your life, and shape it; but most of all, you need to lie – to compress people, leave out events, and thus make things more interesting.” He also shared that his favorite characters to write are “the assholes – the ones who’d have ready comebacks and fun dialogue,” such as Inspector Dick of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.
Despite his enjoyment in writing the dickish characters in his novels, Michael is a very nice guy who looks at readers as friends to share with. And he does want to share with as many people as possible, stating his desire to “produce popular art, which is unreservedly and unmistakably both.” Being this year’s recipient of The Fairfax Prize speaks to his success in achieving this goal.
It was a real pleasure to hear Michael speak, and I am looking forward to reading his newest novel, Telegraph Avenue, which was published in July of this year and is now sitting on my bookshelf in hopeful anticipation of my having a free moment or two sometime soon.
That’s all the news from me this week, but I’m off to New York Comic Con tomorrow, so there’s sure to be more coming up!
Feel free to say hi if you see me in New York, and until next time, Servo Lectio!
When a literary giant dies, there’s a rush to rediscover the author’s works, delighting in old favorites or finally reading a work you have somehow missed. The passing of Ray Bradbury has prompted such a journey in print and in other media. Warner Archive, to their credit, has just released The Halloween Tree, the 1993 animated adaptation of his 1972 fantasy.
The 90-minute feature was adapted by Bradbury and directed by Mario Piluso, featuring the voices of Leonard Nimoy, Annie Barker, Darleen Carr, Lindsay Crouse, Alex Greenwald, and Bradbury himself as the narrator.
A small group of four children are out trick-or-treating one Halloween when one of them, Pip, goes missing. Checking his house, they learn he has been rushed off for an emergency appendectomy. Instead of making their rounds without him, they determine to visit him instead at the hospital. Instead, they wander off their intended path and get lost. They then encounter Mr. Moundshroud (Nimoy) who explains he’s after Pip’s ghost and refuses to help the children since they are woefully ignorant of the true meaning behind Halloween. If they can keep up with him and his giant kite, they can accompany him and suddenly, they are taken 4000 years into the past. The bulk of the tale explores the Egyptian Book of the Dead, stop by Notre Dame Cathedral and its gargoyles followed by a trip to Mexico and their Day of the Dead, which is also where they finally catch up to Pip.
The animation design is adequate if uninspired but it does convey a nice sense of atmosphere, aided by the vocal cast, which does a nice job. Overall, this is something that should be in regular rotation alongside the annual Peanuts special so people can delight in Bradbury’s work and learn a little something, too. Rather than hope it gets rerun on the Cartoon Network, you might want to get this for your home collection.
You should seek out the 2005 edition of the book which has the “author’s preferred text” along with the screen adaptation script.