Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Category

Them, Robots

Morgan is a great airplane movie. I had no plans to see it when it came out. My expectations were set quite low on a flight last week. It jumped that low bar and gave me some things to think about. Before the thinking, the movie: things are going mighty wrong in the effort to create a fake human (synth, android, robot, pick your poison). Right at the beginning, synthetic human Morgan, looking about 15, but real age five (she’s a fast grower), stabs a caretaker in the eye.

Things are going to get worse. You can tell. Particularly once we figure out this is a movie trotting out the old trope (or cliche, you choose) about building fake humans (synths, robots) to be soldiers. More precisely, weapons. I won’t ruin the end, in case you’re on plane sometime soon.

My thinking:

  1. An entire category of movies and TV shows would disappear if the imaginary robot/android/synth/fake-life manufacturing industry followed Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. I mean, why would you not put in Law 1? “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” The Amazon series “Humans” nods at the law, then walks around it. A character talks about overriding the Asimov protocols in a synth. That. Should. Not. Be. Possible. For a safe society, at least, though boring robot movies.
  2. My next thought, as the movie ground toward its pretty inevitable conclusion, was about how indignant Isaac Asimov was when his laws were not programmed into Hal 9000, the computer aboard the ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. There was a great exchange between Asimov and 2001 author Arthur C. Clarke, but I can’t find it anywhere on my interwebs. Suffice it to say, Clarke felt he could do what he wanted in his universe. I’ve not read that Asimov protested the hundreds of TV shows and movies after that ignored his Three Laws of Robotics–probably realizing it would do little good. Thus was born a mighty industry making  filmed entertainment about deadly robot-android-synths.
  3. But really, why bother making the movie Morgan when the best film about synthetic human soldiers, Blade Runner, has been around for decades. The banal Morgan dialogue was replaced in my head by Rutger Hauer as Roy, speaking his dying words. “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”
  4. Credits rolled at the end Morgan, and I got an answer to No. 3.  The director of the film was Todd Scott. I start wondering. Up comes the executive producer, Ridley Scott. Interweb confirms Todd’s the son of the director of Blade Runner. Not only are deadly robot-android-synth movies and shows an industry, they’re a family business.

Ursula gets noticed

awizardofearthsea1stedWithin the past two weeks, The New Yorker and The Nation have published long features on Ursula K. Le Guin. They’re following the New York Times back in the summer. One wonders why the house organs of the chattering classes picked now. She’s 87, after all. She’s been published since the early sixties. It may be because the Library of America put out a collection of her work. That’s happened to extremely few living authors. Philip Roth is the only other one alive right now.

The magazines waited this long, I’m sure, because Le Guin’s body of work includes much imaginative fiction (or science fiction and fantasy, if you will). That may be, but The Left Hand of DarknessA Wizard of Earthsea and The Lathe of Heaven are stamped with greatness. They are NOT stamped “literary,” however. Rather they carry the taint of genre. You can even read in the New Yorker’s subhead—”The literary mainstream once relegated her work to the margins. Then she transformed the mainstream”—as an attempt to cover tracks. If she did transform the mainstream, she started doing it waaaaay back in 1968. In our present, I watch as literary fiction continues to swallow itself, searching for, if I understand the purpose of the exercise, the meaning of meaning becoming the meaning. Not the story. Not life lived.

Our grandest publications have finally noticed Ursula in her ninth decade. Her books will be here long after the sum total of all the novels reviewed by the Times and The New Yorker and The Nation this year.

An interview with William Gibson travels through time from 1994

Neuromancer_coverThis is a story of data traveling through time, which is appropriate, since it’s about William Gibson, the man who turned data into a place, a space—cyberspace.

In 1985, I was 25 years old and had given up what I thought childish things. Specifically, science fiction. I’d read SF from childhood through my teens and young adulthood, and I’d come to the conclusion that Heinlein, Bradbury, Asimov and the other giants had shown me the mountain tops. The new writers coming along wouldn’t take me anywhere really new. (This was presumptuous and false, but that’s where I was at.) I was also in the middle of my march to greatness as a reporter (another false assumption) and my reading time was filled with tons of journalism.

I worked in the New York bureau of The Hollywood Reporter, which was located on the 19th floor of the Paramount Building in Times Square. Our seedy offices could easily have doubled as the place of business of a $50-a-day-plus-expenses PI. One day in ’85, one of the co-founders of Cabana Boy Productions came into those offices to pitch a story. He was literally a cabana boy, or had been, to a rich Long Island dentist and his wife. The wife and the cabana boy had gone into the film business together with the dentist’s money and optioned Neuromancer by William Gibson. He gave me a copy of the book, which, having banned myself to ignorance, I didn’t know about. It had won all three of the top prizes in science fiction for first-time novelist Gibson. I decided maybe it was time to check out science fiction again. I was transported by the story in a way I hadn’t been since my teens. I gave up being snooty, bought each book Gibson put out and his and science fiction by other authors returned to my reading mix.

The impact of Neuromancer is hard to calculate. It changed science fiction. The movies. The cultural view of the digital world. As the book celebrated its 30th anniversary of publication last year, many have tried, some in essays better than I would be able to write. Gibson coined the term cyberspace, but more importantly defined the idea as a “consensual hallucination” where “console cowboys” (aka hackers) jack in and swoop through data arcologies, glowing, neon landscapes of information and power. He did this when the Internet was still nothing more than an email protocol used by the Defense Department. Many programmers admit they read the book and then spent all their time trying to make Gibson’s fiction a reality, ignoring the irony that his world is a dystopia, albeit a very cool, action-packed one. Hollywood got in on it too. “Matrix” owes everything to Gibson. It’s not the only film.

Fast forward nine years forward from 1985. I’m living in London. I score a magazine interview with Gibson, who’s promoting his latest novel, Virtual Light. I spend a great afternoon asking about the book that brought me back to science fiction. I turn the piece in. And the magazine spikes it. They’d decided to go in the dreaded a different direction that month.

Fast fast forward again—21 more years. I’m plowing through files on my computer. I’ll admit I’m obsessively organized, but I’m not a hoarder. When I get a new computer, I only move over the stuff I really need to keep. Over those 21 years, I’d moved the William Gibson feature from computer to computer so I now found a Microsoft Word icon so weirdly out of date and odd looking, it was like a fossil from, in Gibsonian terms, an earlier data arcology. I couldn’t even get Word to convert it until the most recent edition of the program came out.

I’m going to publish the feature here, not changing anything from that final 1994 version, so it might have the full impact of a story that traveled that far in time. Some things may be out of date. But none of Gibson’s observations are. Read as he invents Google Glass for Google before there was a Google.

In parting, a note if you need further proof of Gibson’s lasting contribution to the culture: the current issue of The New York Review of Books reviews Gibson’s newest book, The Peripheral. That publication reviews science fiction books about as often as I read any of the other books they cover.

My 1994 feature story:

William Gibson ushered us into the small mirrored elevator to go up to his room in the Franklin Hotel. The doors didn’t shut. After a few seconds, Gibson reached down and pushed one of the buttons on the control panel. The elevator’s doors stayed open. Gibson pushed the button again.

“Maybe there’s too much weight in here,” he said. There were three of us in the elevator, none of us that fat. And the doors still weren’t closing.

He pushed the button again. It was then that I realized I was going to have to tell one of science fiction’s reigning geniuses, the man who invented a future world of cyberspace cowboys and globe-spanning digital data nets, that the reason nothing was happening was because he was repeatedly pushing the wrong button. I pointed out the “door close” button was the other one, the one with the little sign — icon even — for two elevator doors coming together. The doors slid shut and we were on our way.

William Gibson defined the new wave in science fiction — nicknamed cyberpunk — with his first novel Neuromancer back in 1984. The nickname may have lost its edge now that its even being used by Billy Idol as the title for his newest album, but the ideas haven’t. In Neuromancer and the two novels that followed, data junkies “jack into the net,” a three-dimensional world where information is represented by glowing structures, shapes and pathways. Console cowboys hurdle through cyberspace, hacking their way in and out of corporate databases. If you watched the film “Lawnmower Man,” you saw a glimpse of the cyberspace Gibson writes about, even conceived. In his world, giant multinationals kill for the right bits of data, female assassins sport retractable razor claws and folks regularly stick chips into slots in the back of their heads to learn a language, or just get high. Gibson’s books are about social collapse, physical mutilation and techno overdrive.

He’s provided another look at that world with his new novel Virtual Light. It tells a story of the near future — nearer than the earlier three books — that is at once more human and more realistic than his earlier work. But the elevator episode should really come as no surprise to those who’ve followed his career: Gibson is concerned with the technology that may come, rather than the technology that is. He doesn’t use electronic mail or trawl the pathways of existing computer nets. He only started working on a computer when he was in the middle of his third novel — up until then he wrote on an ancient Swiss-made typewriter.

“I don’t know, I think I would get squashed by the incoming e-mail, or the time I’d spend just flipping through it to try to see if there was anything there, ” Gibson says. “I have to sit in front of this computer all day. The last thing I need is to be connected to this network.” But he likes what the networks represent. “Basically, people are kind of doing this cracker barrel routine. They are just sitting around chewing the fat. It’s incredible. These guys in Texas are chewing the fat with people in Helsinki and Moscow simultaneously. That’s very appealing. But I just think I don’t have the time. Maybe when I’m older, when I retire, and when the interface technology is infinitely more elegant.”

The author who first described much of what today’s virtual reality pioneers are still trying to invent has only used a VR rig once. For a half hour. But Gibson has strong views on where VR is headed. The helmet-and-gloves set-ups in use today are already antiques, he says. “My real hunch on VR is that all of those gloves and goggles — and all of that stuff the Sunday magazines all over the world have been telling us is the VR for so long — it’s started to look old-fashioned, started to look kinda quaint. That stuff is going to be like all of those wonderful Victorian gizmos that immediately preceded cinema. I think the drawings of pretty girls in goggles and gloves are going to go right into the kitsch classic category of sci-fi future imagery. And what we actually get as virtual reality is something much spacier.”

Something perhaps like the Dream Walls described in Virtual Light. These let people sculpt 3-D holographic images that they can see and others can look at from different angles, without the aid of helmets or goggles. Or if we do have to wear anything, it won’t be a helmet, but the pair of Ray Ban sunglasses that the characters in Virtual Light are killing each other to possess. In the novel, the glasses can pump “virtual light” directly into the brain via the optic nerve. One scientist Gibson’s read up on claims such a device would let us see the real world and things that aren’t real at all, side-by-side. Hallucinations would become reality. “So that everybody can walk around in the environment with the glasses on,” explains Gibson, “basically in Tune Town. You’d be walking around with Bugs Bunny and Jessica Rabbit and all these characters. We’d all be wearing the glasses, and we’d all see the characters from our perspective. And we’d all be seeing them do the same thing.”

Now that he’s written about it, someone will probably try to invent it. The odd — even scary — thing about Gibson’s writing is that his biggest fans want to create the dystopian worlds he describes — something akin to lovers of George Orwell forming a political party to get Big Brother elected.

“It baffles me,” Gibson says. “I spend a lot of time in interviews with people like that, trying to disabuse them of this tendency. It’s just baffling; I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of people who read — I don’t know if it’s people who read science fiction or people who just have a particular interest — are completely deaf to metaphors and irony. They just don’t know what that is!… There are lots of people in the United States who just don’t get irony; irony just doesn’t register.”

Or maybe Gibson made it hip to be square, and readers identify with that. Matt ffytche, writing in The Modern Review, said, “The real breakthrough of cyberpunk writers such as William Gibson was in meshing street talk with electronics jargon to produce an inconceivably hip image for computer buffs, In reality, the closest any of its readers get to inhabiting electronic space is a fractal T-shirt.”

Gibson laughs, calling the comment “cruel, cruel,” then adds, “There’s something there, yeah. I don’t necessarily agree that was the real achievement. It was a breakthrough to some of these guys to realize that, they too, could wear a leather jacket.” Then he points to Case, the drug-addicted console cowboy in Neuromancer. “I wouldn’t want to run into Case. He’s a sociopath. He’s so badly addicted that his pancreas is going to fall out in the next 15 minutes. I thought I’d made it abundantly clear that this guy’s relationship with cyberspace was pretty problematic.”

Addicted sociopaths don’t come to mind sitting in Gibson’s small hotel room in South Kensington. High tech it isn’t. He is silhouetted against the window, behind him Victorian red brick houses across the street and in the nearer-distance the hotel’s Union Jack hanging from a flag pole bolted to the outside wall below the room’s window. He looks the author in beige chinos, a dark Levis jacket and trademark small round glasses. He’s almost professorial in demeanor, spinning tales in his quiet Virginia accent.

The whole look seems out-of-place when the conversation turns to new-tech weapons of personal destruction. Like any Gibson novel, Virtual Light is a thriller as well as a glimpse into the future. The story is punctuated with high-impact gun battles whose realism is assured by Gibson’s diligent weapons research. His approach is take what is possible now, set in the future and then try to scare us with it.

Berry Rydell, the ex-cop and sometime security guard who is Virtual Light’s protagonist, drives a Hotspur Hussar, patrolling the Los Angeles neighborhoods that can afford private policing. The vehicle may seem incredible, advises Gibson, but it “is what the British troops in Northern Ireland toddle around in. It’s an exact model, with the electrified bumper. That’s just taken from a book on riot control technology, as is the Israeli gun that fires recycled cubes of rubber tyre.”

In the novel, the latter is aptly called a chunker. And the ultra deadly handguns in Virtual Light are simply the next generation of military small arms, again all researched by Gibson out of catalogs and magazines. “The bullets — some of them are square — they’re not even bullets. They look like wax, hard wax crayons, that project over the side of this solid piece of explosive — a thing like a nail, like a machine gun firing these huge nails. The projectiles just pour out of one of those things like a stream of water. You could cut cars in half just like — whoosh!” he finishes with emphasis.

Gibson’s crackling mix of weapons, weird tech, next-century street talk and computer warriors would seem ready-made for Hollywood moguls looking to make the next “Terminator II” or “Total Recall.” Yet so far, a Gibson story has yet to make it to the screen. That will all change soon because a British production company has shot a short film based on Gibson’s story “The Gernsback Continuum.” Channel 4 will broadcast it.

Gibson has just seen a screening of the short while on his visit to London, and he’s pleased with the film, pleased as a kid on Christmas morning. “It’s a hip thing. They did a wonderful adaptation for the story. It’s almost entirely my writing, which is an incredible kick, and I didn’t even have to write the screenplay. The other bits are dialogue which are taken straight from the story.”

The first Gibson story to hit cinema screens will probably be an adaptation of his short story Johnny Mnemonic. He has written the screenplay and one star has already been signed. It’s set in a world without guns. One guy — a gangster — has the last .357 magnum, and that’s locked away in a vault. “All the other combat sequences are executed with this variety of spring-loaded, compressed air weapons.”

The so-called Sprawl trilogy of books that made Gibson famous — Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive — are all optioned out to different Hollywood companies. None seems near getting in front of the cameras. Abel Ferrara, who directed The “Bad Lieutenant” and a new version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” is developing another Gibson story, “New Rose Hotel,” as a feature.

Gibson has had a mixed experience with the movie business so far. He took a year and a half off from novels to write screenplay adaptations of some of his own stories. He was also one of many to get a crack at the script for Alien3, a film whose development and production was more tortured than its hero Ripley. A dozen or so writers worked on the script before shooting started. In the end, Gibson was turned off by the Hollywood approach: five or six people telling him what to do, so he ends up writing something no one’s really happy with.

Gibson’s own tv viewing — he subscribes to cable in Canada — is an eclectic mix of Canadian broadcasts, the BBC World Service and a daily dose of news, Japanese-style. He catches a newscast from Tokyo, in English, every morning at 11 am. “You see what happened that day in Tokyo, all the crime stuff, and everything. You kinda get inside what’s going on.” The Canadian version of MTV, called Much Music, brings him videos, including the Québécois pop music of French Canada, a genre he heartily endorses.

“Have you seen Québécois videos?” he asks. “They really ought to show them here — maybe they could show them here with different music. They’re kind of like the tabloid girls gone to video. They’re ridiculously up-front, super-soft porno, set to often totally wacky Québécois music that sort of sounds like Eurovision song contest stuff in French.”

The show that’s most affected the new novel is Cops, the grit and edge reality program that video tapes the activities of American policemen. The show’s view of cops doing a tough job helped Gibson create the character of Berry Rydell. The book even contains a futuristic version of the show called Cops in Trouble.

“I got a sense that the show gives a different, a kind of funky, down-to-earth sense of police procedure,” Gibson says. “It’s these poor crazy guys having to go out — guys with a bad job. I can’t imagine that it’s entirely honest, because they are invariably presented in quite a positive light. But it’s very hard to watch without gaining some sort of image of people who are doing just an ugly job that has to be done.”

And in the future of William Gibson’s imagination, ugly is just the beginning.

Alternating history


I love alternate histories. They are the greatest of “what ifs.” The biggest trope in this genre: What if the Allies lost World War II? But before it was even a trope, Philip K. Dick wrote the novel The Man in the High Castle. The U.S. is divided by the Nazis in the east and the Empire of Japan in the west and some very mysterious stuff is going on (with Dick you are rarely allowed to figure all of it out).

Whether it’s the weirdness of Dick’s stories or their magnificence, Hollywood loves them. First came “Bladerunner,” based on the novel Do Androids Dream Electric Sheep? and ushering in cyberpunk before the cyberpunk authors knew what they were about to do. Dick was the proto-punk, the Lou Reed of science fiction.

Took a few more years for the rest of Hollywood to catch on, after which it seemed movies were being made of everything with Dick’s name on it. Makes and remakes and remakes again (see “Total Recall,” from the novel We Can Remember It For You Wholesale). I’m waiting for one of his prefaces to get turned into a film.

This is not to say I was disappointed when Amazon rolled out a pilot for “The Man in the High Castle.” With Amazon, you watch the pilot and then vote on whether they should make a series. (Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch mystery series became TV this way. It premieres on Amazon as “Bosch” this month.) “The Man in the High Castle” pilot was excellent. The mysteries layered on mysteries are there. Nazi New York and Japanese-controlled San Francisco are real in the way alternate history must make you believe what didn’t happened did. Check the pilot out and vote (so I can watch the series).

Update: “The Man in the High Castle” received a full-series order from Amazon, The Hollywood Reporter wrote Feb. 18. THR said Amazon Studios exec Roy Price called “High Castle” Amazon’s “most watched pilot ever.”

One old comic book turns into a time machine

519TGRT5JZLI flipped through one 40-year-old comic book the other day and was suddenly reminded of books I’d read and music I’d listened to way back then.

My time trip happened when I rummaged through the small collection of comic books from my youth to find the handful of “Guardians of the Galaxy” books I’d read in 1975. I was curious  to see how they compared with the film. They didn’t. Not at all.

I did find something  more interesting: reminders of other books I’d read, as well as the “lost” Spider-Man rock opera that really should have been the basis of a Broadway show, not that overwrought thing put together by Julie Tamor, Bono and The Edge.

I turned pages of bright four-color ink on yellowed newsprint. No. 3 in the series officially titled “Marvel Presents.” (The Guardians lasted about six issues in this run. They were never the heavy hitters of the Marvel Universe. Even Howard the Duck did better back then.)

First I came to an ad for the trade paperback “Son of Origins of Marvel Comics.” This was a follow-up to “Origins of Marvel” by Marvel editor-in-chief-of-everything-(still) Stan Lee. I’d devoured both books. I’d started reading Marvel Comics in 1972 or 1973, and felt most definitely late to a party that began in 1961 with “The Fantastic Four.” Stan’s books included anecdotes on how the first Marvel heroes were created, their origin story and another issue from Marvel’s great age of superhero creation. Reading the books then made me feel like I was inside the club rather than a late arrival. They’re still on my book shelf.

weirdheroes1Below the ad for “Son of Origins” was one for “The Mighty Marvel Bicentennial Calendar,” with Spider-Man, The Hulk and Captain America trooping with drum, fife and flag. This I did not buy. Here’s what I missed out on: “A glorious, full-color, 12-month trek through American history with the Marvel superheroes. Join The Hulk at Valley Force. Conan the Barbarian at the Battle of Lexington…” You get the point.

Near the back of the comic book was, as always, “Stan Lee’s Soapbox,” a must-read for teases on upcoming titles, crossovers and key collectible editions like “Giant Size Man-Thing” (that is, the comic book was giant size). In the column, Stan tub thumps for two Marvel writers, Archie Goodwin and Steve Englehart, who had contributed stories to a paperback anthology Weird Heroes. This really sent memory spinning. I don’t remember reading about Weird Heroes in Stan’s column. I’d discovered the first of the series in Book & Record in hometown Wappinger, N.Y. The cover, seen here, leapt off the shelf at me. In the books, editor Byron Preiss set out to create new American pulp heroes. What were the old American pulp heroes, you might ask? These crime fighters came before comic books or radio and were featured in magazines and books published on cheap pulpy newsprint. They included The Shadow, Doc Savage and The Avenger (pre-dating the Avengers of Marvel or British TV fame). Also the Bat, said to have been an inspiration for a certain Bat Dude. The Spider, said to have been an inspiration… Well you get the point.

Some of the new pulp heroes included Adam Stalker, Guts the Cosmic Greaser and Gypsy. Preiss put out eight volumes, though a renaissance of American pulp heroes never did happen (unless you count three-quarters of Hollywood’s output).

The highlight of this tour through my adolescent media consumption via one little comic was the full-page ad at the back for the record album, “Reflections of a Rock Super-Hero.” The banner at the top called it the “The Biggest Rock Event of the Year.” Don’t know about that, but the LP told Spidey’s tale better than the now defunct Broadway musical. Songs included “No One Has a Crush on Peter,” “Gwendolyn” and “A Soldier Starts to Bleed,” with narration between the tracks by Stan the Man himself. This I also still own a copy of.

One comic book pulled out because of a movie I saw in August, and I stumbled across all kinds of memories. It’s funny where the past finds you.

‘2001,’ ‘Interstellar’ and Howard Johnson

1968HowardJohnson2001-01Collisions that happen in my mind: “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Interstellar” and Howard Johnson. Okay, the first two are obvious for the way the first movie informed the second. (How many “2001” references did you count in “Interstellar”?)

But Howard Johnson?

Easily explained. I happen to be working on scenes in my work-in-progress set in the HoJo that once operated in the heart of Times Square. In researching colors and menus and other details, I came across a wonderful blog Dreams of Space —Books and Ephemera. That blog features what I’ve pictured here, a free comic book telling the story of “2001.” Given out by HoJo as the children’s menu! Howard Johnson received a brief product placement in the movie itself. Still, I’d love to meet the person who convinced perfectionist Stanley Kubrik to sign up for the HoJo comic book children’s menu. Here’s two other pages:










The Books of Nerd

978-0-7864-6682-5I first discovered McFarland & Co. Publishers many years ago when I bought the book Unsold Television Pilots 1955-1988 by Lee Goldberg. It was a delicious compendium of  TV shows pitched to the networks as scripts or actual pilot episodes that didn’t get made into series. It was nerdy joy. I could look up all the shows Star Trek creator Gene Roddenbury proposed but didn’t get on the air. Or find which favorite stars appeared in failed pilots. Or just laugh at the goofy ideas for TV shows Hollywood came up with. Let me tell you, there were some goofy ideas. (Not that goofy ideas don’t actually get on the air.)

Because I bought the book, I started receiving the catalog from McFarland. It is heaven for a nerd like me, or as I like to think of myself, a pop culture vulture. Admittedly, some of the titles can be a bit academic—esoteric even. Take It Happens at Comic Com: Ethnographic Essays on Pop Culture Phenomenon or The Ages of the X-Men: Essays on the Children of the Atom in Changing Times. Not to mention Myazaki’s Animism Abroad: The Reception of Japanese Religious Themes by American and German Audiences

Lest I scare you away, there are many books in the catalog that are accessible. McFarland’s authors cover a wide range of topics in the universe we call genre entertainment, including TV, film, old radio, music and pulp fiction.

Here are a few titles this pop culture vulture would love to add to his groaning physical and virtual to-read bookshelves:

  • Zane Gray’s Wild West: A Study of 31 Novels
  • Anti-Foreign Imagery in American Pulps and Comics
  • Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy: A Literary and Cultural Analysis
  • Columbia Noir: A Complete Filmography, 1940-62
  • Women of Game of Thrones: Power, Conformity and Resistance
  • Pulp Fiction to Film Noir: The Great Depression and the Development of a Genre
  • Route 66: Images of America’s Main Street
  • The Flash Gordon Serials: 1936-1940
  • Superheroes and Gods: A Comparative Study from Babylonia to Batman

I could go on. Probably would if I wasn’t agraid of losing, you, the reader. If you don’t see a genre you love, there’s a good chance  McFarland has a book on it anyway.

In fact, even if you never by one of their books, get on the mailing list for their catalog. Readers and writers of what’s termed genre fiction—sometimes derided, sometimes a boast—will love flipping through pages of titles written for the pop culture vulture in them.

Me, I’m about to order A History of the Doc Savage Adventures, about a pulp hero series from the 1930s I discovered in my teens during the 1970s and thought was my special literary secret for the longest time.

(Disclaimer: I have absolutely no connection financial, publishing or otherwise with McFarland Publishers or its authors. I just think the company is putting out cool little books on—to me—cool big topics.)

What pop culture are you a vulture for?

Sci fi on the low fi

220px-Angels_&_Airwaves_-_Love_film_posterI’ve been meaning to put a link up to a recent excellent article on low-fi sci-fi that ran in the Wall Street Journal. I know. Those aren’t really words you expect to read in the same sentence. But this long takeout on films in the $7,000 to $1.5 million range that deal with the same ideas as big budget flicks is worth the time.

What is the $500,000 answer to “Gravity,” or the $1.5 million film about A.I. that’s probably more worth your time than Johnny Depp’s “Transcendence?” Check out the article to find out.






Deal for Last Words, three more Taylor novels

I’ve been offered a four-book deal by Camel Press in Seattle for my mystery series, beginning with the completed novel Last Words. The other three will also be based on the protagonist Coleridge Taylor and will be part of what the publisher is calling The Taylor Chronicles. I don’t have a pub date for the first one, but it will be a long way off. Think November at least. The books will come out in trade paperback and e-book. Huge thanks to my agent Dawn Dowdle of Blue Ridge Literary. Also big thanks to the many MANY people who critiqued, edited, read, taught, encouraged, asked after or just didn’t suggest I was bonkers. There are many fingerprints on this little tale of murder.

In other news, I’ve just finished the first draft of Timers, the YA science fiction novel I started after sending off Last Words. I need to work on revisions before turning the manuscript over to Dawn, while writing the next book in The Taylor Chronicles, Drop Dead Punk. What is Timers about? I’m glad you asked. Fifteen-year-old Samuel Tripp fights a time war to save himself, his friends and the universe alongside Rip Van Winkle, the Connecticut Yankee and Ebenezer Scrooge.

More news on that project when I have it.

Stalking memories

castLet’s face it, before the DVD and Amazon, if you had fond yet hazy memories of a four-decade-old TV show, they would stay just that, particularly if the show only lasted a season. I just learned that can be a good thing.

One of my TV touchstone memories was of the 1974-75 series “Kolchak: The Nightstalker.” I can honestly say—though probably should do so with some embarrassment—that watching “Kolchak” was the event that made fourteen-year-old me want to be a newspaper reporter. Not the exploits of Woodward-Bernstein. No way. I wanted to be Karl Kolchak. This reporter in rumpled twill suit and straw hat didn’t pursue the President. Nope. He went after real stories: the vampires, mummies, zombies and aliens haunting Chicago.

Armed with a giant cassette recorder and Instamatic camera, Karl chased the stories believed by no one else, including his hard-bitten (naturally) editor at a third-rate wire service with offices next to the El tracks. (Journalistic footnote: Kolchak’s employer was likely modeled on the late lamented City News Service, though the real one never got near vamps or witches, covering only simple murders and robberies.) To my teenaged mind, here was newspaper reporting. Imagine my disappointment when my first zoning board meeting didn’t turn out to be the zombie board meeting. I wanted Karl’s suit. I wanted his hat. And I never reconciled any of this with the fact the show scared me behind our rec room couch every week. I’d always be the first one running screaming out of the haunted house.

Eager to return to those memories, I bought the series on DVD to watch with my 11 year old. It scared him. Some. Okay, a little. And me not at all. The stories were slow, the frights not frightening and the effects oh so cheesie. Watching the DVD erased my golden memories of the series. Damn the digital world!

But give credit where it’s due. Shows that scare us now, or did recently, owe a huge debt to one-season-wonder “Kolchak.” All the series set in a realistic world but actually about monsters and the paranormal—”The X-Files,” “Fringe,” the whole urban fantasy genre. The one thing I still enjoyed about the series was Daren McGavin’s sharp portrayal of Kolchak. He delivered the cynical reporter lines with real panache. And it was a sweet twist that though he was cynical, he believed in things that go bump in the night. He was Fox Mulder’s great uncle. And I still want that suit.