Monday, October 30, 2006

Medieval Confessions and Concessions

The discussions triggered by Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Asimov's piece, various responses, (including Charlie's fascinating technogeek thoughts) seem to have died down, though it's been fun, and I'm still reflecting on that aspect of the debate I find most relevant - how do you grow the ranks of our readers?

Recently, a friend suggest that, in an effort to attract new readers, it might be instructive to re-examine what brought us into the field as readers ourselves. So:

How did I get into SF?

When I was a very small child, I remember my father reading SF novels, though he soon got to busy and this (along with his weekly basketball game) was abandoned due to the pressure of work. But the idea of SF as something my dad did was impressed on me. Plus, the books had strange, sophisticated covers - some of them illustrated by Richard Powers -that reinforced my idea that SF was a serious, modern, adult genre. I remember when he brought home Alan Dean Foster's Splinter of the Mind's Eye - the very first Star Wars novel, written before even Empire Strikes Back came out (and only featuring Luke and Lea, since the idea was it could form the basis of a cheap sequel if one was commissioned and Harrison Ford wasn't yet signed). I didn't read it - it was over my head then, or at least out of my range of interests, but I remember being impressed that Star Wars had spawned an actual book - because books were sacred and important and thus leant authenticity to a subject matter.

My father read me The Chronicles of Narnia aloud several times, which were also read at my school (which was a fundamentalist church school), but there wasn't really a lot of other SF. However, I remember reading a Ben Bova novel I found in the school library, as well as several of James Blish's novelizations of Star Trek: TOS. And I read Batman comics through sixth grade, but when I was a preteen, sometime in 1978-1980, my father took me in a B.Daltons and handed me Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars, and said, "Here, read this." I was going through a phase where I didn't do anything my father said out of principal. And since he is a lawyer, and that meant we were allowed to argue with his judgments, I took a look at the Michael Whelan painting of Deja Thoris and said, "But it has a naked woman on the cover."

"I know it has a naked woman on the cover," he replied (we both pronounced it "nekked"), "But it's still a good book and you're going to read it."He forced me to, and I did so furious and reluctant, but I read all 11 books in the series over the next few months. I ended up reading everything by Burroughs then available - in those days, the SF section was almost solid with books by ERB, Michael Moorcock, and John Borman (who I never read, as my father informed me that this time the nekked woman on the cover was indication of a bad book). I worked my way through Burroughs entire Mars, Venus, Earth's Core and Tarzan series, and read the 20 or so stand-alone novels that were also out (The Eternal Savage, in which Lord Greystoke has a bit part but isn't revealed as Tarzan, is still a favorite). I also read a lot of Moorcock - the Elric, Corum and (some) Hawkmoon series, and I read Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar books and some of Robert E. Howard's Conan. I didn't read much SF - though I read my father's battered copy of Dune when I was 15, and I found the three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame anthologies in the basement of my grandmother' s house and read all of those. I also read several Isaac Asimov collections, an anthologies, but only read I, Robot from his novel works.

I was heavy into The Lord of the Rings thanks to the Ralph Bakshi film, though I stopped reading the actual book midway through The Two Towers, switched to The Silmarillion, and chunked it for The Tolkien Companion. So I painted hundreds of pewter orcs and memorized banner emblems and weapon types, but was more into the taxonomy of Middle Earth than the writing. AD&D hit me at just the right angle, too. I did read a lot of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, and even tried for a while to play TSR's unplayable Top Secret spy game.

I didn't read (or game) much after I got my driver's license, however, and though I did read Alan Dean Foster's entire SpellSinger series one summer in college, my favorite authors then were John Irving (especially The World According to Garp and Cider House Rules, one of which made me want to be a writer and the other changed my views on abortion) and Tom Robbins. But mostly college - and English 101 and 102 - made me hate books, and I didn't read much of anything for a while. I did return to comics with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, but I did theatre in my last years of college and was more into live performance than anything else (though, it should be said, that I hated realism - the genre - as I felt it failed to take advantage of theatre's potential for transformation and its roots in ritual and magic - there is a reason that the Church persecuted actors - they steal the stage from the priests!)

After college I studied theatre in London, then directed theatre in Chicago, which lead to Los Angeles, where I hung out on movie set. On the way there, I'd gotten interested in Doctor Who, but by way of the novels rather than the television show, which I'd always hated for giving my UK friends the opinion that SF television was kid stuff. But I was struck by Kate Orman's The Left Handed Hummingbird, which pulled me heavily into Who one summer, and I'd managed to establish email relationships with several Doctor Who authors - email being only a couple years old as a real phenomena that people did, btw. So when the production assistant work dried up in Hollywood - my last gig was dumping buckets of fake dollar bills on a rap band standing in an alley - and my dad said "I"ll send you money for a plane ticket home if you agree to go to law school," I took a 3 hour jog in which I wracked my brains for a way to stay in LA. I came back from the jog, went and bought 5 science ficiton media magazines, and wrote all five of them offering them an article on the Doctor Who authors I knew. Only one responded - Sci Fi Universe - one of the few non-porn magazines owned by Larry Flint. They said they could care less about Doctor Who, but there was a convention in Anaheim I could attend on their behalf if I wanted. I went, met Jean-Marc L'officier, then connected with the in-development Fox TV Doctor Who movie, and interviewed him for the magazine. He called me a week later, saying that Titan Magazines in the UK was looking for an LA journalist to be their point man on a new Star Trek magazine and he'd recommended me. So, with one interview under my belt that had yet to see print, I told Titan Magazine with a straight face, "You will never find a better Star Trek journalist in all of Los Angeles than me." At the time I said this, I did not watch the show and barely knew how to write an article. But they hired me, and over the next five years, I busted my ass to make it the truth, writing over 500 articles for their magazines, hanging out on the sets and offices of SF TV, primarily Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 (Look for me as an extra in the penultimate episode of the latter show).

I used to have to watch something like 6 hours of SF television a week to keep up, and I saw about two movies a week on average, but in 99, when B5 and Trek ended and everything was moving to Vancouver or New Zealand, I accepted a job to work for an old friend as the editor of an online publishing startup called Bookface.com. Operating on the assumption that SF people were early adapters, they sent me around to conventions to smooze SF&F writers into digitizing their stories and placing them online, which is how, when the bubble burst, I came to a great deal of good people in the publishing field and transitioned into literary SF. Somewhere in that process, I had become appalled at the disparity between the TV variety and the works I was being exposed to, though, of course, I'm a big proponent of the renaissance in television occurring now.

That's the long answer.

The short answer surprises me when I look back at what I've written - a school library, a parent's recommendation, cinema, and media tie-in work. Apparently, I wasn't born with a copy of Dhalgren in my hand after all. How about you?

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I started reading books tagged "SF" in the local library, as a kid.... AFTER I got hooked on SF through media (games, comics, TV, toys, etc.)

So perhaps Pyr should collaborate with videogame and toy producers? To create the products that would hook the kids on SF-related stuff... perhaps book tie-ins? Seriously.

Joel Shepherd said...

I think that's an excellent idea. I think one of the main reasons the literature has fallen behind the TV, film and video games is that they've all been colonising literature with tie-ins, while there's very little going back the other way.

Having said that, I was one of those that got into it purely through the books. My parents always read to me and my brother when we were little, and books were entertainment -- for a long time we actually had no TV, which I wasn't that happy about at the time, but in hindsight I don't think it hurt. When reading young adult and eventually adult books (when I was still nine or ten in many cases) SF and fantasy were always the ones that appealed most, and SF in particular. They were just more fun, and the preference stuck.

Paul Wargelin said...

Growing up, my brother and I were always encouraged to read regardless of genre by my parents and maternal grandparents.

The SF influences for my reading started in media with reruns of the original “Star Trek” and (forgive me) seeing “Star Wars” on the big screen when I was six in 1977. Disney's “The Black Hole” inspired me to read about actual black holes and science--an ambitious prospect for an eight year old.

In school, some classic children’s fantasies were read aloud to the students. “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe,” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” come to mind.

Comic books played a huge role in my reading habits in the mid- to late-1980s. Marvel and DC superheroes were dominant (Chris Claremont’s “X-Men,” John Ostrander’s “Suicide Squad,” and Mike Grell’s “Green Arrow” are particular favorites from that era), but I also read various mini-series titles published by DC that didn’t feature superheroes, but had SF elements such as Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy’s “Slash Maraud” and Alan Grant and John Wagner’s “Outcasts” (These were pre-Vertigo books).

My prose reading habits kicked into overdrive in my final high school years, and I’ve been trying to catch up on all those books I didn’t read as a kid ever since. As much as I am drawn towards the speculative and the fantastic, I still read a wide variety of genres and authors, as influenced by my upbringing. To list even a fraction of what appears on my bookshelves would require a lot more space.

Lou Anders said...

Hi Paul,
I remember the Black Hole - I think I even had a couple of the robot toys. Re: Suicide Squad - loved that comic. Was so glad to see Amanda Waller show up on the animated Justice League!

Paul Wargelin said...

Hi Lou,

Re: I never did get any Black Hole toys, but we did have posters featuring the robots and the ship, The Cygnus. I still have the two-issue comic book adaptation and the third issue "sequel" Beyond the Black Hole, which picks up the story once our heroes reached the other side. I still find the film visually striking.

Re: Amanda Waller's appearance on JLU was definitely a highlight, as was the Squad infiltrating the JL Satellite. Great charcterizations of Flag, Deadshot, and Boomerang.

Lou Anders said...

Oh you have to tell me what they find on the other side!

Paul Wargelin said...

It's pretty cheesy.

Holland, Pizer, Dr. Kate McCrae, and Vincent run into an alternate universe Cygnus. Once onboard, they confront Dr. Reinhardt who has no idea who they are. But Kate insists that her father (who served onboard the Cygnus in their universe) is alive in this alternate reality and Reinhardt knows where he is.

The doctor has Maximillian (who, unlike his doppelganger, is capable of speech) throw our heroes in the brig, where Old Bob is their jailer. Vincent updates Old Bob's memory chips on the events that transpired in the film and he helps them escape. Reinhardt's robot goons take off in pursuit. The issue ends with Kate insisting her father is alive and that they should find him.

If memory serves, two more issues completing this storyline supposedly exist somewhere, but I've never come across them...

Ted said...

I think one of the main reasons the literature has fallen behind the TV, film and video games is that they've all been colonising literature with tie-ins, while there's very little going back the other way.

I suspect that the difference in the economics of various media make "reverse colonization" a rarity. Movies, TV shows, and video games all cost millions of dollars to make; you'd have to find a novel that someone was confident enough in to spend that kind of money to promote, and that's hard.

(By contrast, a tie-in novel can be paid for out of the rounding errors of most movie budgets.)

Lou Anders said...

Paul - what a let down. Then again, I never bought the hole "hell is a black hole" idea either - but don't they see angels or somesuch as they pass through at the end of the film?

Ted - exactly. File under - let's spend a million to make a grand.

Paul Wargelin said...

Lou--The comic book publishers chose not to use the visions of heaven and hell featured at the film's end. Reinhardt ends up trapped in the hell of his own making (sealed up inside of Maximillian to watch over the souls of his braindead crew), while the crew of the Palomino do see angels and crystaline doorways during their trip through the black hole. But when their journey ends, they're in orbit above a planet, which gives creedence to the comic book's idea of an alternate universe.

The film did end rather ambigously in that aspect. Did they actually go through heaven and hell to reach this strange new world? It's almost like the filmmakers went for a 2001-inspired ending. I've read an interview with the director who comments on it. I'll have to dig it up and get back to you with the specifics.

And the imagery was pretty intense for a Disney film marketed to Star Wars audiences. Maximillian shredding up Anthony Perkins' Dr. Durant (although you don't really see anything), and the face of zombified crew member both creeped me out as a kid.

Anonymous said...

But could Pyr do a collaboration with toy or video-game producers? Is there any practical obstacle?

(Singularity toys???)