There are some books whose visions will live in my head forever. Among
them are the post-apocalyptic urban ferocity of High Rise, the sex and metal eroticism of Crashand the surgically-precise insanity of The Atrocity
Exhibition -- all written by J.G Ballard, whose most famous novel, Empire of the Sun, was also his most sedate. His visions even come with their own culturally-penetrating soundtracks courtesy of musicians who found inspiration in his clinical post-mortems of our cold and alienating world.
Over at Ballardian, lots of friends and admirers bid a fond farewell to Ballard, who died this month after a long bout with cancer. I found Michael Moorcock's touching remembrance to be the most revealing portrait of Ballard, who valued and cultivated his privacy.
Here's a great quote from Ballard himself:
I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the
world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to
transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with
birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.
I believe in the non-existence of the past, in the death of the future, and the infinite possibilities of the present.
It doesn’t hurt anybody. It’s something I love to do, and it doesn’t
hurt anybody. And the world probably doesn’t need any more songs, but I
need more songs. It’s satisfying and lovely to do. I feel better, and
as a band—I think I can speak for everyone—we feel better making
something that wasn’t there ten minutes ago. Whatever spirit there is
in the universe, I think that puts you closer to it. The act of
creation, you know, it’s a very powerful thing, and very gratifying. I
wish it on everyone. I wish everyone could enjoy making something that
wasn’t there before.
Well, almost. There have been too many sad ones recently, the latest and most heartbreaking being Milan Stitt, one of the best writing teachers I ever had and a guy who should've had many more years ahead of him. There's a wake for Milan in LA this weekend, and if I have more to say about him it'll be there, not here.
There's the news that writer Millard Kaufman died this week. Kaufman penned one of my favorite movies, the 1955 thriller Bad Day at Black Rock directed by John Sturges. In it, Spencer Tracy plays a one-armed man who hops off a train at a tiny desert town. His presence is a mystery but it's nothing compared to what he uncovers among the town's denizens (which include Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine). Startling for its bold depiction of racism in post-war America, Black Rock is simultaneously simple and profoundly mythic.
That such a socially-conscious story attracted Kaufman's talents shouldn't come as a surprise. According to the obit, he was always a solid guy. During the infamous 1950s blacklist, Kaufman let Dalton Trumbo use his name so the banned writer could keep working in Hollywood. Kaufman created Mr. Magoo, one of the funniest TV characters from my childhood. More incredibly, Kaufman just published his first novel at the age of 90, and his second (and presumably last) is slated for shelves this year.
Millard's passing must be immensely sad for his family and friends, no doubt about it. But he lived a full life and kept on writing until the very end. In my book, that's exactly how you wanna go.
It's hard for me to admit this about my childhood, but the 1970s was a pretty crappy decade for sci-fi TV and movies. As much I like some of the stuff -- the good stuff -- I can't pretend that much of it was representative of the genre at its finest.
In the pivotal summer of 1977, I bounced straight from the pinball escapism of George Lucas' Star Wars to the dead-serious galactic combat of Joe Haldeman's Vietnam-influenced novel The Forever War. My imagination was stretched like saltwater taffy between those two aesthetic extremes and it was not always a pleasant feeling. I spent part of that summer on the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama, reading and writing and making Super 8mm home movies with spaceships on strings and thinking about these things until my head hurt as if from an ice cream headache. I was suddenly and painfully aware that some of the stuff I liked wasn't nearly as good as some of the other stuff I liked. But dang it, I still liked the crappy stuff!
This huge panorama by artist Dusty Abell captures some of that decade's biggest and silliest characters. You've got master thespian Reb Brown as Captain America, that awful original incarnation of Battlestar Galactica (and yes, it was downright awful, no matter what idiots like Dirk Benedict think), and Cathy Lee Crosby horribly miscast as Wonder Woman.
But you also got the perfectly cast Lynda Carter in the same role. You got Robin Williams at his manic best as the alien Mork. And you even saw veteran actors like Martin Landau wearing bright orange space suits.
Landau's show, Space:1999, was based on a ludicrous premise -- the moon is blasted out of Earth's orbit and its helpless moonbase pioneers careen through space at the speed of light to encounter aliens and black holes. As an avid subscriber to the magazine Starlog, which covered every TV show and movie no matter how terrible or laudable, I was exposed to essayists like Harlan Ellison and Isaac Asimov who, heads shaking, informed a nation of prepubescent young nerds that any explosion capable of blasting the moon out of orbit would certainly shatter said moon and probably send the remaining chunks raining down on a soon-to-perish Earth (and we won't even discuss the stupid light-speed thing). But that show did sport some incredible special effects courtesy of Brian Johnson, who would later work on Alien and The Empire Strikes Back. This show also had one of the coolest, most believable spaceships ever seen: the Eagle.
This workaholic short-range spaceship was the main reason I tuned in each week. Gritty and modular but also sleek and eye-catching, the Eagle had more compelling detail and built-in backstory than any of the show's wooden characters. Maybe it was a little too neat and tidy on the inside, but outside it was as grimy and utilitarian as a tow truck. It looked like a believable, near-future NASA vehicle that had seen some blue collar action. Yes, I had the model kit and yes, it hung above my bed in mid-flight, somewhere between the lame TV show and the better, more fantastic world of my dreams. Today I might roll my eyes at Space:1999, but I still love this damn ship.
All of this stuff -- The Man From Atlantis, Salvage One, Quark, Buck Rogers -- was formative in my appreciation of not just a genre but storytelling altogether. Some of it makes me wince and shake my head (but yes, we can learn from the bad stuff, too). Sometimes while channel surfing, I'll accidentally land on a rerun and watch, cringing and laughing. But deep inside, there's a young teenager totally bowled over by the gosh-wow sensa-wonder of it all. Yes, even the crappy stuff. Dusty Abell's wonderful artwork perfectly captures how perfect and shiny and fun it all seemed to me back then.
I feel sad keeping track of such things, but it's undeniable that with the passing of Arthur C. Clarke last year, Fred Pohl stands as one of the last surviving grandmasters of science-fiction. Maybe he was never a household name like Clarke (or Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein, two writers he knew as far back as the 1930s), but over the past seven decades Pohl has produced a body of award-winning work that includes classics like Man Plus, Gateway, the brilliant satire The Space Merchants (with Cyril Kornbluth), and many others.
Pohl was a founding member of the Futurians, one of the earliest sci-fi fandom organizations. He recalls those early days in a good chunk of his wonderful 1978 memoir, The Way the Future Was. He also served as an influential agent and book editor for many years, shepherding numerous classic SF novels and stories into print.
Pohl turns 90 this year. I am floored to learn that he just started a blog.
There's a lot wrong with this world. But when I think about this man's career and the fact that he's alive and blogging, it makes me hopeful for all the futures that await us.
“In the early days, we science fiction readers were like cellar Christians: they didn't talk to anybody else because everybody else laughed at them, but they kept running into each other. Mostly they were writing letters to each other, all over the country -- all over the world, actually. I had pen pals in France and England, although I had hardly ever been out of Brooklyn.”
My main-most Minnesota man Sean Doolittle has a new thriller, Safer, hitting bookshelves next month. And it's gonna hit 'em hard -- this is Doolittle's first mass-market hardcover and about damned time. Advance praise from folks like best-selling writer Harlan Coben say it's a doozy.
More on Sean when he hits town this spring for the big LA Times Festival of Books. Unless we get arrested again. Then you'll just have to read the local crime report and PayPal us some bail money.
Until Safer reaches your local bookshop, I loudly and brazenly endorse any and all of his other books, especially that last one, The Cleanup, which hit me like a sack of taters. This fella can flat-out write, people.
Over at Locus, prolific author Cory Doctorow gives us a peek into his daily writing habits:
Forget advice about finding the right atmosphere to coax your muse into
the room. Forget candles, music, silence, a good chair, a cigarette, or
putting the kids to sleep. It's nice to have all your physical needs
met before you write, but if you convince yourself that you can only
write in a perfect world, you compound the problem of finding 20 free
minutes with the problem of finding the right environment at the same
time. When the time is available, just put fingers to keyboard and
write. You can put up with noise/silence/kids/discomfort/hunger for 20
Through April, Orbit Books is offering ebook versions of selected fantasy and science fiction titles for just one dollar each.
I'm not big on fantasy but Iain M. Banks is fast becoming my favorite living science-fiction author. And Use of Weapons was already next on my list. I've never read an ebook before and I may hate it. There's just something about holding a bound book in my hands that feels so natural. But for a dollar, I'll give this one a try.
What do you do when you get laid off? Hit the pavement, keep your chin up, and remember to give the healing power of art its proper due.
I say this from experience. As a victim of this wretched George W. Bush economy, I know I'm not the first to be laid off and certainly far from the last. Just when you were beginning to feel a little bit of hope that Bush will soon be far from the reins of power he has so criminally abused, the incompetency of this man and his policies knows no bounds. I'm afraid Bush will find countless ways to keep fucking up the world even after he's out of office. If I have anything to do with it, this grinning chimp bastard will be ducking shoes until he dies.
The good news: I saw the writing on the wall and managed to prep myself as best I could. I'm smarter and more marketable than ever and I'm networking on a scale I couldn't have dreamed of just four years ago when I moved to LA.
Art can help us when we're feeling anxious and stressed. I haven't been able to keep up with all the movies, music and books from 2008, so in addition to the job hunt I'm going to spend some mental health time perusing all the Year's Best lists out there.
Here's my scattered and woefully incomplete of list of things I liked over this last year.
Favorite Movies:Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Iron Man, Let the Right One In, Tell No One, Transsiberian, The Dark Knight, In Bruges, The Wrestler.
Favorite TV Shows: New ones include Breaking Bad, Leverage and The Rachel Maddow Show. Old faves that continue to bring the goods: Battlestar Galactica, The Venture Bros., Lost, Mad Men, 30 Rock, Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report.
Best Big-Screen Pleasures (tie):
All That Jazz at the ArcLight: My first-time to see it in widescreen and it blew me away. I'm not a big fan of musicals but this one is right up my alley: dark and uncompromising and sexy as hell. Roy Scheider's performance in Bob Fosse's thinly-disguised autobio-pic is the best thing he ever did. Seeing it on the big screen just a few weeks after his death was a great way to remember him.
2001: A Space Odyssey at the Cinerama Dome. Finally, my fave sci-fi movie in its native format! I've waited a lifetime to experience this awe-inspiring masterpiece. Narratively and technically groundbreaking, 2001 is still centuries ahead of its time.
Portishead, Third: back after 10 years and better than ever.
Girl Talk, Feed the Animals: Redefining the fine art of sampling.
Black Mountain, In the Future: Channeling Led Zep loud and clear. And with them ...
Big Elf: Caught their raucous live set at Amoeba completely by chance and was charmed and transfixed. Fun heavy rock in a 70s-throwback style.
The Ting Tings, We Started Nothing: Infectious power-pop from a promising duo.
Long Blondes, Couples: Deliciously dark yet bubbly songscapes of love and death. Guitarist and songwriter Dorian Cox suffered a debilitating stroke last summer and the band has called it quits. Here's hoping he recovers and they regroup as soon as possible.
David Lee Roth, "Running With the Devil" (vocal track): DLR's isolated performance gets more stunning and hilarious with each listen. I found an MP3 months ago and now this site lets you mix and match from one of rock's most vaudevillian performers.