Archive for the ‘science fiction’ Category

Max Headroom and Ray Bradbury

The tagline for the TV series “Max Headroom” was, famously, “20 minutes into the future…” This future was cyberpunk, gritty and a battleground dystopia where TV networks would do anything to win ratings. Made in 1987, it lasted just 14 episodes.

Any science fiction writer will tell you the most dangerous story to attempt is the one that depicts the near future. No one’s going to call you on getting the year 3535 wrong. But they will when you predict next week. That’s what makes “Max Headroom” so excellent. The show peered just around the corner in 1987, and still stands up 25 years later. My son and I just finished watching the DVD set. This is one of those SF shows—Firefly is another—that barely lasted a season but is still worth getting and watching.

Everything about “Max Headroom” is 20 minutes into the future. New subliminal ads called blipverts are so dangerous they make viewers blow up. Literally explode. Rakers play a deadly underground sport. Dreams are stolen to create ratings-winning TV shows, killing the dreamers in the process. Thugs kill to harvest organs. So-called “Blanks” use their status as the only people with out computer ID numbers to attack the central computer system. A news package broker sells exclusive access to terrorist attacks. Great ratings to follow. That’s a sample, and all the episodes feature stories that could happen any day now.

“Max Headroom” keeps the medium of TV right in its dark satirical cross-hairs, an achievement for a network show. My favorite episode is the second to last (and the last to air in the U.S. after the show was cancelled). “Lessons” follows the efforts of the network censors to shut down pirated feeds of pay-TV education channels. Schooling is delivered by TV in this future, and if you can’t pay, you don’t get an education. Investigative reporter Edison Carter, the show’s hero along with his computer doppelgänger Max Headroom, discovers the pirating is cover for another plot. Blanks are printing actual paper books for the poor kids to learn from. Edison and Max help them, of course.

Max Headroom, who is an AI version of the ultimate anchorman talking head, tells the audience: “Now, I’m no librarian, in fact, I don’t know what star sign I am. But, as a famous person once said, ‘You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.’ And as I – another more famous person – once said, ‘If you don’t teach them to read, you can fool them whenever you like.'”

I’m certain the episode is homage to the late master Ray Bradbury and his Fahrenheit 451. The show ends with the censors defeated and a little girl reading the opening to “A Tale of Two Cities.” I love a cautionary tale about censors and censorship, particularly one that features an old-fashioned flatbed printing press.

Concludes Max, “Have you any idea how successful censorship is on TV? Don’t know the answer? Hmm. Successful, isn’t it?”

Here in our present, last week was Banned Books Week, the effort by libraries, teachers and writers to call attention to attempts at censoring what we read. It’s still happening now, and will be 20 minutes into the future.

Music of the Times (and the spheres)

Most days, it’s pretty easy to guess what the New York Times will lead on. That’s because most days, it’s the Democrats yelling at the Republicans yelling at the Democrats… Well, you get the point. And if it’s not that, it’s the obvious big economic report of the day or the obvious major unrest in foreign parts or the obvious natural disaster.

But the top story on Thursday, July 5, was none of those. The day before, physicists announced they’d found the Higgs boson, an elusive subatomic particle the existence of which may (or may not) confirm the key theory on how the universe operates. You probably know this by now, as the story got big coverage all over the place (cover of the Economist, etc). Still in all, running it as the lead story — that’s the top story on the righthand side of page 1— made the New York Times look science fictional.

Staff writer Dennis Overby rose to the occasion, pulling out all the stops in writing this oddest of top stories. I’m going to quote a bunch of it, because you almost never read prose like this in the lead story of the Times. To wit:

Like Omar Sharif materializing out of the shimmering desert as a man on a camel in “Lawrence of Arabia,” the elusive boson has been coming slowly into view since last winter, as the first signals of its existence grew until they practically jumped off the chart.

He and others said that it was too soon to know for sure, however, whether the new particle is the one predicted by the Standard Model, the theory that has ruled physics for the last half-century. The particle is predicted to imbue elementary particles with mass. It may be an impostor as yet unknown to physics, perhaps the first of many particles yet to be discovered.

That possibility is particularly exciting to physicists, as it could point the way to new, deeper ideas, beyond the Standard Model, about the nature of reality.

The nature of reality? Wow. And Overby was just getting warmed up. Read on for the rock-show ovation, a rendezvous with destiny, and even what it takes to become a bill in Congress (a faint delicious echo of School House rock):

In Geneva, 1,000 people stood in line all night to get into an auditorium at CERN, where some attendees noted a rock-concert ambience. Peter Higgs, the University of Edinburgh theorist for whom the boson is named, entered the meeting to a sustained ovation.

Confirmation of the Higgs boson or something very much like it would constitute a rendezvous with destiny for a generation of physicists who have believed in the boson for half a century without ever seeing it. The finding affirms a grand view of a universe described by simple and elegant and symmetrical laws — but one in which everything interesting, like ourselves, results from flaws or breaks in that symmetry.

According to the Standard Model, the Higgs boson is the only manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass. Particles wading through the field gain heft the way a bill going through Congress attracts riders and amendments, becoming ever more ponderous.

Gerald Guralnik, one of the founders of the Higgs theory, said he was glad to be at a physics meeting “where there is applause, like a football game.

Yay applause! Yay Higgs! Yay boson! Yay physics! Yay physicists. Yay the New York Times for delivering surprising writing on a surprising story.


‘…book paper catches fire, and burns’

I failed to do my job that night. Didn’t even try. I was supposed to be chasing scraps of gossip and bits of deal news that HBO executives might dole out to a neophyte reporter from a C-list trade publication. That was not my excuse for not trying. No, mine was three amazing hours spent talking to the late Ray Bradbury.

I was at something called the television critics tour, an odd little meeting where TV critics from the nation’s newspapers assemble in one place to interview network executives and the stars of upcoming series. The acceleration in coverage of entertainment news, even back in July 1984, meant that beat reporters like me were along in the hopes of the scoops and tidbits that might leak (or be planted).

HBO hosted that warm night in Phoenix. The A-list critics and columnists sat with HBO chief Michael Fuchs and his court of executive vice presidents. This was at a time when Fuchs was being called “The Man Who Ate Hollywood” by Esquire magazine because of his company’s massive spending on movie rights.

A junior publicist led me to a table far from that crowd and sat me next to Bradbury. He was supposed to tub-thump for his new HBO series “Ray Bradbury Theater.” As you know, I was supposed to find a way to track down the scoops being given out several tables away.

Instead, Bradbury and I talked. And talked. We had several glasses of white wine. I fawned. And he was generous, so generous that I didn’t feel like I was fawning, but chatting about something we both loved—story. I don’t remember exact dialogue, but under that clear desert sky we covered Martians and things wicked this way coming and a house destroying itself after its family is itself obliterated by nuclear fire. We talked about his great short story “A Sound of Thunder,” a tale that presages every other change-the-past, change-the-future time travel story. Step on a butterfly hunting dinosaurs and your own present is altered completely.

And, of course, we talked about “Fahrenheit 451.” We had to, for the dystopian novel of firemen burning books was and is my favorite Bradbury story. Read it again. It holds up far better than the bad futures dreamed up by the so-called literary writers—George Orwell’s “1984,” Adolous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” Government doesn’t take away books from people; people give up on books as they immerse themselves in interactive soap operas that play on the four walls of their living rooms. (In 2009, Amazon deleted “1984” from thousands of Kindles because of a rights dispute, so really, we’re almost there.)

The setting that night was even perfect. The Arizona Biltmore was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and could easily have been a building on Bradbury’s Mars. His Martians, like Wright, created structures that fit into their arid world by making use of landscape and light.

Bradbury was wonderful company. That too should have been no surprise to me. The Times quoted him in its obituary: “I have fun with ideas; I play with them. I’m not a serious person, and I don’t like serious people. I don’t see myself as a philosopher. That’s awfully boring. My goal is to entertain myself and others.”

Entertain me he did. That assignment—ignoring the real assignment—was the best of my varied but not-so-storied journalism career. Some interviews came close. But only close. And many events I reported on would be considered bigger, more important, even more interesting by most anyone else. They are welcome to them. A three-hour conversation in the desert with the master tops them all.


As postscript, I’ll leave you with a link to the obituary the Economist did on Bradbury. It’s great for the form they chose and the stories they touch on.

I’m a writer. I am

Pretentious and preposterous. That’s how this line reads: I’m meeting my agent. It’s not so much name dropping, as noun dropping.  Like, did I mention my sports-car repairman stopped by? Hold on, the art dealer is calling. Oh, and I’m meeting my literary agent this afternoon. But I am. I’m going to spend this whole weekend playing at writer. I don’t mean the solitary, banging-your-head-into-the-keyboard part of being the writer. That’s the real part. I’m going to enjoy the public part, where you get to act like a writer.

Journalism taught me long ago you don’t say you have a story until it is for real, in print, ink on newsprint. I found it hard not to take the same stance when defining what I now do. I swallowed the word “writer” when people asked how it is I spend my days. After all, no book. Proof and the pudding and all that. I finally settled on saying, “wannabe writer and stay-at-home dad.” There’s no oversell in that.

But today I am meeting with my agent, Dawn Dowdle of Blue Ridge Literary Agency. Getting to this point has been a long time coming—a lot of words under the bridge, tens of thousand in fact. I’m still a wannabe, but I’m a wannabe with an agent who also wants me to be. Tomorrow, we head to the Festival of the Book in Charlottesville. We’ll meet some of her other writers, some with actual books out. I’ll check out conferences on publishing and ebooks and marketing and meet authors (the real kind) and walk around the place in my writer pose.

I’ve even brought a special T-shirt. This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens. In celebration, Philosophy Football created the Dickens XI shirt, with Dickens characters shown in each of the 11 positions on a soccer team. Too esoteric to put soccer and writing together? Maybe, but the writer pose is all about the eccentric. Anyway,  imagine Pickwick anchoring the midfield and Chuzzlewit storming forward at center forward. It’s a mash up and we love those.

In between meeting my agent—said it again—and swanning around the fest, I’m sneaking into a late matinee of “Hunger Games.” I’d planned on the midnight show last night, but the travel logistics didn’t work. My next book is for young adults. I do not have visions of “Hunger Games” or Potterworld dancing in my head. I wish the movie well because I wish writers well. I hope Suzanne Collins becomes a squagillionaire. (Based on the movie theater parking lot outside, I think she’s got a shot.) When stories fascinate, writers have a chance, even the guy playing one for the weekend.

Timers, the blurb

Below is the pitch for my work-in-progress, a YA science fiction adventure that Dawn Dowdle of Blue Ridge Literary Agency has just agreed to represent. In January, she signed to handle my historical mystery LAST WORDS.

TIMERS: Samuel Tripp’s Adventures Across Time with Rip Van Winkle, the Connecticut Yankee and Ebenezer Scrooge (oh, and he saves all of history)

SAMUEL TRIPP is lost in space and will soon be lost in time. His con-man father moves the family every four months to chase a new get-rich scheme. This leaves Sam without friends and tired of trying to make them in every new school. His life is upended when RIP VAN WINKLE appears in the Tripp’s garage and tells Sam that they both are members of a legion of time travelers known as the Timers.

Moments later, a monstrous Clocker attacks Sam and Rip. Clockers kill Timers to get their power. But the Clockers now want Sam more than any other because of the Timers watch his dead mother passed on to him. They will use it to punch a whole into another universe so they can hunt down more Timers. The downside: They will also destroy Sam’s reality. Sam races across time to save his kidnapped little brother JAMIE, lost girlfriend EMMA CORRS and all of history. He is joined in the fight by two more first Timers: HANK MORGAN, known to most as the Connecticut Yankee, and EBENEZER SCROOGE. Also helping, and confusing Sam about his feelings for Emma, is MACKENZIE MAGUIRE, a girl he’s just met at his new high school. Sam must travel a long way, deep into the past and forward to the far future, to find the home he’s never had.


Monorail ride to the future past

Walt Disney spoke from the TV:  “We call it EPCOT. Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.” I sat cross-legged on the floor of our basement rec room (what family rooms were called once, in the age before flat-screens, Playstation and great rooms). Walt was taking ten-year-old me — me personally — through his plans for Walt Disney World. Of all the things that caught my fancy, the thing I ached to visit most was the Contemporary Resort Hotel, the giant A-frame with the monorail that ran right into its Grand Canyon Concourse lobby.

The hotel and monorail were something out of the science fiction books I read then, like something right off one of the covers. I honestly can’t remember any of the theme park rides Walt talked about, but I do remember the monorail zipping silently into the hotel.

Walt Disney spoke again from the TV. They were the same words, the same clips. But it was earlier this week, and I was on the bus from the airport to Disney World for our stay at The Contemporary. Few things survive four decades of wanting. The hotel and the monorail are now a vision of the future from the past, a vision of future past, if you will. But as late I arrived to the place, I loved every minute of my stay, perhaps as much as the aching ten-year-old would have.

The rooms were a little beat on — chips in the finish here and there — from wear and tear since 1971, but they were still a sleek, clean-lined vision of what living the day after tomorrow was supposed to look like. A mosaic of glass covered the area where the fireplace should be, and a light switch created a glimmering, smoke-free hearth. The desk with its separate, elliptical table for a laptop was as serviceable a hotel workstation as I’d ever used, and the individual spotlights in the ceiling above the beds the best reading lamps.

I met a man during my stay who said that when he brought his dad to Disney World for the first time, all the father wanted to do was ride the monorail. So he did. I understood that desire.

EPCOT was planned as something akin to a permanent World’s Fair, with pavilions dedicated to different countries and to the exploration of science. World’s Fairs, New York 39 and 64 in particular, conjure up their own images of the past’s view of its happy future. I am now as fascinated with those visions of the future as I am with the future itself. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old, or maybe because the retro-future is as weird as the stories we’re writing now.

It’s easy to be jaded and ironic, snicker even at Walt’s happy visions — all his visions of wishes and dreams and a Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. Not for me, not looking out across the Grand Canyon Concourse from the eighth floor as the monorail whispered in from the Magic Kingdom.

A calendar that tracks time travel

Designer Alex Griendling’s peculiar calendar project gave me a chance to tryout crowd sourcing and indulge my love of time travel. Almost no strand in science fiction—I hate the term sub-genre, since it sounds so “sub”—has enthralled me more than time travel. It started with “Danny Dunn, Time Traveller” and the bad Irwin Allen TV series, “Time Tunnel,” and has continued through every chronology-bending, Grandfather-paradox-killing book, show or movie I could get my eyes on.

The only stories that ever trumped time travel, at least in my pre-teen mind, were dystopian tales of post-apocalyptic futures, since running from mutants and hunting your own irradiated food across a disaster-blasted planet Earth sounded like pure adventure to a 12 year old. What’s wrong with a life expectancy of 22?

I have proof that obsessive attention to a topic can have its benefits. My second novel is a YA time-travel story called “TIMERS: Samuel Tripp’s adventures across time with Rip Van Winkle, the Connecticut Yankee and Ebenezer Scrooge (oh, and he saves all of history).” I started it in late September and I’m flying—18,000 words written so far—and I’m having a blast. There’s nothing that says you can’t have fun writing. But I digress.

Griendling proposed on Kickstarter to create the 2012 Time Travel Calendar and I plunked down my $10. He got it funded and I got this great calendar. Each month, instead of a picture, the calendar lists important, and not-so-imporant, moments in history visited by time travelers in TV shows, films, videogames and comics. January begins with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles back two and half billion years battling Slash in a 1992 video game, and ends in December with Superman trapped in the year 1,001,963 under a red sun with no super powers.

In between is a bounty of time travel trivia. The Titanic hosted both the dwarves and Kevin in the great film “Time Bandits” as well as Dr. Anthony Newman of craptastic “Time Tunnel.” Eighteen years later in history, Kirk and Spock travel to the Great Depression to stop McCoy from altering the past. This Star Trek episode, “City on the Edge of Forever” written by Harlan Ellison, was where I first encountered the change history, timeloop condnundrum that has fascinated me ever since.

The calendar also marks key dates in the history of time travel stories. You’ll find Skynet became self-aware on April 21, the day after Passover this year, the novel “The Time Machine” was published on May 7, as well as the birthdays of Robert Zemeckis and Stan Lee. I could go on and would if I weren’t already well beyond reasonable post length. It’s hard not to with a calendar that on one page alone cites “The Time Machine,” “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” “Somewhere in Time,” “Midnight in Paris” and “Timecop.”

Who doesn’t have time for that?