Monday, March 28, 2005

Award News

There was a flurry of award and award-related announcements, Hugo and otherwise, this past weekend, and I'm thrilled with the results. A big congratulations to both Chris Roberson for his Campbell nomination, and John Picacio for his Best Artist. Meanwhile, I see that Mike Resnick is up for not one, but two, Hugo nominations in the short story category - "A Princess of Earth" and Travels with My Cats"- both of which we'll be collecting in New Dreams for Old, a book of Mike's short fiction slated for Pyr's third season that keeps getting fatter and fatter. And I couldn't be happier for Ian McDonald. Not only did River of Gods take a British Science Fiction Association award for Best Novel, but a Hugo nomination as well. Both are richly deserved. We'll be releasing a US edition in Pyr's third season. Meanwhile, here's a press release we put out earlier today:

Contact: Jill Maxick

March 28, 2005

Here, There & Everywhere Author and Illustrator
Honored With Award Nominations

Cover Designer John Picacio up for Best Professional Artist Hugo® and Author Chris Roberson nominated for John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award

Amherst, NY—The acclaimed new imprint Pyr™ is proud to share announcements that honor both the content and the cover of the novel Here, There & Everywhere (Pyr™, April 5, 2005.)

“John Picacio is one of the most exciting new illustrators working in the field today, and I’m overjoyed to see him receive more of the recognition he so richly deserves,” comments Pyr™ Editorial Director Lou Anders, “Meanwhile, I’ve known from the start that Chris Roberson was phenomenally talented, and it’s immensely gratifying to learn that others share my opinion.”

Cover illustrator and designer John Picacio has been nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Professional Artist. The Hugo Award® is the leading award for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy and he is truly thrilled at the honor of a nomination. In 2004, Picacio was a World Fantasy Award nominee, and in 2002 he received the International Horror Guild Award for Best Artist. This is his first Hugo nomination.

John Picacio and Pyr™ have quickly established a successful collaboration. The Pyr™ titles for which Picacio has designed or will be designing covers are:

  • Star of Gypsies by Robert Silverberg (March 2005)
  • Here, There & Everywhere by Chris Roberson (April 2005)
  • The Resurrected Man by Sean Williams (April 2005)
  • Silverheart by Michael Moorcock & Storm Constantine (September 2005)
  • Silver Screen by Justina Robson (October 2005)
  • Starship: Mutiny by Mike Resnick (December 2005)
  • Macrolife: A Mobile Utopia by George Zebrowski (January 2006)

Here, There & Everywhere is the debut novel of writer Chris Roberson, who has been nominated for the John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award. The John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award is given to the best new science fiction or fantasy writer whose first work of science fiction or fantasy appearing in a professional publication was published in the previous two years.

Previously, Roberson’s story “O One,” won the 2003 Sidewise Award for Best Short-Form Alternate History, was listed as an Honorable Mention in the 21st Annual Year's Best Science Fiction, and was short-listed for the 2004 World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction. Roberson and his business partner and spouse Allison Baker also run the independent press MonkeyBrain Books.

Roberson will sign copies of Here, There & Everywhere at the Prometheus Books booth at Book Expo America on June 4, 2005.

The Hugo Awards and The John W. Campbell Best New Writer Award will be presented at the 63rd World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) in Glasgow, Scotland, August 4-8, 2005.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

An SOS to the Word: The Writer as Myth

“If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”
I think the first time I heard that particular phrase said it was spoken by David Lee Roth, in response to a charge about the superficiality of his lyrics. Though I was a die-hard Van Halen fan in the early 80s, even I couldn’t argue with fellow high school classmate Landers Severe (what a cool name!) that his preferred rock’n’roll band Led Zeppelin, with their allusions to Celtic mythology and Lord of the Rings, was infinitely deeper.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, and so, my musical preferences—which now center on David Bowie, Bob Dylan, the Counting Crows, and Robyn Hitchcock—have matured quite a bit in the past twenty years.
Likewise, my opinion has changed somewhat about what I thought was a witty retort from the man who once bragged about his paternity insurance. That platitude now galls me like hot coals in my belly. Forgive me, but I really despise that line. To the point where, when I hear a writer utter it (as I did recently), it can turn me off to his/her work.
Now I know that propaganda isn’t art, and a lecture is not a narrative. I know that the author is often the last person who should be consulted when looking for the meaning of his work, and that themes can sometimes arise almost as if they are emergent properties of a story, rather than deliberately crafted elements. But when I hear this particular sentiment expressed, more often than not it is being offered as an excuse, a justification for a tale of pure escapism without higher thematic value. Even when it isn’t, it’s an inelegant cliché and I expect those who make their living as wordsmiths to express themselves with more sophistication.
Why? I am a slow and careful reader – I can easily spend two weeks to a month with a single novel – and when I devote that amount of precious time to a writer, I need something for it. I expect them to take me somewhere I haven’t been before and can’t get on my own. I expect them to show me worlds I can’t imagine for myself; present me with new ideas I’ve yet to encounter (or new takes on old ideas); teach me concepts that push the limits of my universe; help me to bring clarification to nebulous thoughts which may be bubbling unexpressed in my own subconscious. It’s very simple. I read to learn. I read to improve. I read to expand my world and worldview. Simply put, I demand that my writers be more intelligent than I am. Now, that intelligence can manifest in a particularly skillful and seductive prose style, or that intelligence can manifest in the presentation of an idea that enlightens my mind or expands my imagination. And yes, I read to be entertained. But entertainment for me is not a shallow pursuit.

Or, as Gene Wolfe puts it, "My definition of good literature is that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure. ... there is a level on which a lot of fiction these days is expected to give everything up first time to somebody, whether he knows something about the subject or not. You do not do that."
I grew up in the state of Alabama, attending an all-white elementary and high school, a school which was heavily associated with a fundamentalist church, amid children (and even adults) who told off-color jokes about race and gender. Thankfully, I had a father who forced a science fiction book into my hand when I was an adolescent and forced me to read it (despite my protests). I am not as I very easily could have been because I read. (In fact, it was John Irving’s The Cider House Rules which directly altered my position on the abortion debate, just as it was Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy that helped me codify my own problems with organized religion). Reading opened up my world and opened up my mind, and I think I approach the written word with a sense of awe as a result that others reserve for religion.

Recently, neuvo-gonzo journalist Eric Spitznagel ran an interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the pages of The Believer magazine (March 05 issue). Okay, it was a medium claiming to channel the famous creator of Sherlock Holmes, and I give him about a point oh oh oh one percent chance of having actually succeeded, but nonetheless I found the interview to have a few things of value above and beyond its obvious humor content.

Sir Arthur, speaking through the person of Hawaiian trance medium Arthur Pacheco, had quite a lot to say about writers and the afterlife. In fact, he had quite a lot to say about writers and the afterlife.
“I have only praise for anyone who takes on the role of writer or author. Did you know that writers are leaders as seen from our point of view? The writer is a leader indeed, in that he carries a torch of a particular type, and believing in his own topic, he dares to lead others down the lanes of what can eventually be their own enlightenment.”

Pretty insightful for a guy who dropped dead in 1930. I hope I am as elegant when I have shuffled off this mortal coil.
I recall recently reading a noted British author observing the way in which writers are revered in the UK but disregarded here, where our adulation is reserved for television stars. I think I still labor under the myth of the writer as an important social figure, a person with something of value to communicate, whose opinions and observations of the world matter. Who was it that said, "Books used to be written by writers and read by everyone. Now they are written by everyone and read by no one?"
So when I hear that aforementioned cliché, a warning bell goes off. That’s a teacher who’s just informed me they’ve nothing to teach. I might as well grab a bottle of beer and plunk Dumb and Dumber in the DVD, for all that I’ll get out of their work. Such is of no interest to me. My time is valuable—all time is—and when I read these days, I need the author to be a damn sight more erudite that good ol' Diamond Dave.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Silverberg Slows Down

This article, Silverberg Slows Down, recently posted on's Sci Fi Wire, makes a nice mention of Pyr's recent rerelease of Star of Gypsies, with quotes from Bob and Yours Truly both. Bear in mind, however, that the piece doesn't actually get all of its facts straight, but as Marilyn Monroe said, 'tis better to be looked over than over looked.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Under the Martian Moons: A Brief History of the Red Planet in Fiction

It’s a God awful small affair to the girl with the mousy hair.

So begins David Bowie’s classic “Life on Mars?,” a tune with surprisingly little to do with the red planet, except that it insightfully equates the question with a restless creative drive and a yearning towards flights of storytelling fancy. Insightful because the fourth planet from our sun has long held an important place in the human imagination. As early as 1877, when Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli began mapping its geography, Earth’s sister world was ripe as a source of stories about extraterrestrial life. Schiaparelli observed what he thought were channels across the Martian surface. Written as canali in the Italian, they were mistranslated as “canals” in English accounts of his work. This gave rise to a misconception that the lines were artificial in nature. This concept was picked up and expanded by the American astronomer Percival Lowell. In three books, Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906), and Mars as the Abode Of Life (1908), Lowell espoused the view that the canals were created by a race of intelligent Martians who were diverting water from their polar ice caps in an effort to irregate a dying world.

This notion of inhabited Mars came into its own with the classic H.G. Wells novel The War of the Wars (1898). Wells’ tale of an inhuman Martian race invading the earth was a thoughtful meditation on the fragile nature of life on this planet and the inevitable downfall of its would-be rulers, alien or terrestrial. Half a decade later, Louis Pope Gratacap’s The Certainty of a Future Life In Mars: Being the Posthumous Papers of Bradford Torrey Dodd (1903) depicted a very Schiaparellian Mars in the writings of a man reincarnated on the red planet and relaying messages back to his son.

One of the most entertaining and enduring accounts is the Martian series begun by Edgar Rice Burroughs with A Princess of Mars, which first appeared in serial form as “Under the Moons of Mars” in ALL-STORY magazine in 1912. This swashbuckling space opera was echoed in Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon (1953), while both it and the Burroughs were the inspiration for the loving pastiche that was Michael Moorcock’s Kane of Old Mars trilogy, The City of the Beast (1970), Lord of the Spiders (1971), and Masters of the Pit (1971).

Perhaps the most famous and most literate of all Martian fantasies was Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950). A “fix-up” collection of short stories originally published separately, this classic work depicts the slow colonization of the planet by earthmen with a story that interweaves nostalgia for a vanished Martian race with longing for our own notions of a simpler time.

Sadly, the Viking Probe’s landing on Mars of June 19, 1976 put the last nail in the coffin lid of this fanciful image of the red planet. As the previous Mariner satellite images had already hinted, Mars was a dead world with no water and no canals. After a deliberately nostalgic farewell in Roger Zelazny’s “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” Martian-themed science fiction shifted from Mars as a harbor of past life to Mars as a haven for future life. Works like Frederik Pohl’s Man Plus (1976) dealt with men bio-engineered to survive the harsh conditions of Mars as science revealed it to be. Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy of Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993), and Blue Mars (1996) took a different tact, depicting the centuries-long process of re-engineering a dead environment into a hospitable one suitable for normal humans. This excruciatingly scientifically-accurate trilogy has yet to be surpassed as a veritable blue print of the process of terraforming. Supposedly, the title of Larry Niven’s light-hearted Rainbow Mars (2000) was a deliberate attempt to lampoon the color scheme theme of Robinson’s work. Geoffrey A. Landis’ Mars Crossing (2000) was written with particular authority. A scientist with the NASA John Glen Research Center, Dr. Landis worked on both the Mars Pathfinder and Rover missions. Peter Crowther’s anthology Mars Probes (2002) chose to celebrate the entire history of Mars in fiction, with stories ranging from the cutting edge frontier of “hard” science fiction to retro tales of swashbuckling adventure ripped straight from the spirit of the old pulps.

More recently, Kage Baker’s The Empress of Mars (2003) seems to hearken back to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first work with its title, though its subject matter is about a frontier homesteader’s attempt to survive the exploitation that a big corporation’s terraforming effort brings. While on the real Mars, NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity rovers have beamed back tantalizing indications that the planet may not always have been as dead as once supposed and indeed possibly teamed with water sometime in its past. Once again, the search for life on Mars continues, though now the focus has shifted to finding microbial lifeforms, alive or fossilized, hiding in the Martian soil.

All of which means that while Percival Lowell may have been offbase when he claimed evidence for a Martian irrigation system, there is another sense in which the pioneer astronomer saw clearly indeed. Though his canals were optical illusions, Lowell gazed straight through the limitations of his instrument to that other Mars of the Imagination, the Mars that has inspired the human soul since Time Immemorial, and which will continue to do so for centuries to come.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Power of Cool: Arthur Fonzarelli as Archetypal Shaman

Happy Days began its run in January 15, 1974 and lasted until its final telecast on July 12, 1984 accumulating some two hundred and fifty-five episodes and giving rise to four spin-offs.[1] In that time, the characters of Richie, Potsie, and Ralph Malph became household names, genuine people as familiar to the millions of TV viewers as the members of their own family. “Nerd” entered the mainstream vocabulary and then the dictionary. Mr. and Mrs. C earned permanent positions as icons in the American popular consciousness. But no character was as idolized as the loveable rebel Arthur Fonzarelli – a.k.a. the Fonz - the man who would define “cool” for decades. But while he was melting young hearts with the flick of a comb and stretching the first letter of the alphabet so that it filled an entire sentence, Henry Winkler (and the writers that gave his character voice) had no idea that he was enacting a classic archetype – reinventing a myth older than history on 20th century celluloid. Apparently quite by accident, as if emerging straight from Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, the Fonz grew into nothing less than a modern representation of the classic magical shaman of early nomadic cultures. You don’t believe me? I’ll prove it.

A bit of background, if we may. The shaman is the medicine man, the healer, the familiar “witch-doctor” of tribal peoples. Frequently he is an outsider, a loner, often an orphan. He is someone who has undergone a traumatic experience – some near death encounter, some illness or epileptic fit, and come back to tell about it. This ordeal has marked him as somehow special, and it is his reenactment of the ordeal – the classic witchdoctor’s dance – that gives him the power to heal those around him.

The cosmology of the shamantic world is a three-layered universe. The realm we live in is suspended between an upper and a lower world – but it is a mistake to think of these in terms of our modern Western concepts of Heaven and Hell. The upper realm was not Heaven; it was the world of distant and impersonal gods, but while they might demand occasional sacrifices and chunk a thunderbolt or two, they weren’t really “in touch” with our middle world in any kind of useful way. You didn’t call on them if you had anything important you wanted to get done. By contrast, the spirits of the lower world were the ones with their elbows into it enough to know what to do – the ones with the street-level clout to do what needed doing.

But these lower-order spirits aren’t automatically evil. This isn’t Hell. In this world-view, the disease is neither good nor bad. The same spirits that cause the pain have the cure. The importance is to have a ‘right relationship’ with them, to speak their language and coerce or compel them to use their powers for help instead of harm. The lower-realm is your one-stop shop for taking care of everything that ails you.

Now the shaman, when he undergoes his death and resurrection experience, metaphorically (possibly literally?) descends into this underworld. There, he battles with the lower spirits, taming them and learning their secrets. Then he rises to the upper realm and encounters the spirits there, who fill him in on their less useful, but still necessary, higher level spells. His education complete, he returns to life and home. Thereafter, the shaman cures his tribe by repeatedly reenacting – through dance or ritual – his initial death and resurrection” – and the sick are made well by sharing in this experience.[2]

Which brings us back to the imagined 1950s of Milwaukee. When Happy Days first started in 1974, with the episode “All the Way”, the Fonz was not the cool guy he would later morph into. In fact, Arthur Fonzararelli was just a high school dropout, a mechanic working in a garage and lurking around Jefferson High School. He was thought of as a dangerous loser, and only the nerdie Richie Cunningham will hang out with him. He doesn’t even have his famous leather jacket, but wears a grey one instead. This is most assuredly not the Fonz we remember.

In fact, in episode # 35, “Fonzie Joins the Band”, Richie and his friends don’t even want him to play something as simply as the bongos with their band. The others gang up on Richie and force him to throw the unwanted Fonzie out. Can you imagine Ralph Malph throwing the later day Fonzie out of anything? Can you imagine a Fonz whose cool isn’t strong enough to stake him out a space in a band of nerds? Surely, this can’t be the Fonz we remember? Something big must happen to transform him into the personification of cool that looms so large in our consciousness.

Well, yes, something does happen, and it fits perfectly with our guidelines for shamantic initiation. In the episode “Fearless Fonzarelli, Parts 1 and 2”, a Fonzie afraid of “losing his cool” decides to jump fourteen garbage cans on his motorcycle for the TV show “You Wanted to See It.” The previous record is twelve cans, and we learn that there have been several motorcycle accidents with foolish folks trying to beat it.

Richie attempts to talk Fonzie out of this death-defying stunt, an act which transforms the apple-pie faced nerdling into the perfect “threshold guardian” as described by mythologist Joseph Campbell.[3]

Fonzie goes ahead with the jump – part one of the episode ending on a literal cliff-hanger – with Fonzie on cycle suspended between Heaven and Earth. Then, as part two picks up, Fonzie lands, crashes, and goes down in a pile of cans. For a moment, it seems dire, but he soon lifts up his head and asks “Am I dead?” These first words are particularly telling, as they symbolize his journey into that Undiscovered Country and back, setting up the cycle of Death (part one) and Rebirth (part two – where a crippled Fonzie must learn to walk again).[4]

Now, it is after this near-death encounter that Fonzie’s cool does indeed seem to grow. He swiftly transforms from a loner who planned to spend Christmas alone, to a man who can snap his fingers and cause any girl in the room to run to his attendance. Furthermore, his trademark ability to pound his fist on a jukebox to make it play a desired song grows too. And – far from being a guy who can’t even play bongos in a band – he is mobbed by women after performing “Heartbreak Hotel” at the school dance (Episode 58, “Fonzie the Superstar”). He emerges after the dance with his Elvis-costume torn to shreds by rabid females. This is indeed a markedly different Fonzie from the one of Happy Days' initial season, and one whose audience appear and marketing potential must be obvious to even Richie and his nerdy band mates.

But like any good Shaman, Fonzie must repeatedly return to the source of his power – playing out the Death and Resurrection game again and again. He repeats the motorcycle jump (this time without the crash). He drives fearlessly into a demolition derby. He stops the runaway stagecoach (this feat once again involving a motorcycle jump). He saves Pinkie Tuscadero, and – on a visit to Hollywood that sadly marked the decline in Happy Days' narrative quality – he jumps a shark pit on water-skis[5].

Every time Arthur Fonzarelli repeats this shamanic ritual, his power grows, until a good pounding from his fist not only starts the jukebox, but makes any broken mechanical device do whatever he wants. Now it dims lights, dispenses soda and candy from vending machines, operates payphones, repairs broken machinery. Though few viewers recognize the truth of it, when examined critically it becomes apparent that the Fonz is literally working magic here. Like any shaman, he has gained an affinity with the specific lower spirits– the gremlins – who can foul or fix the electronics of machinery. By the end of Happy Days' ten year run, his power of all things mechanical is positively godlike.

And his ability to snap his fingers for girls increases too. At first, this “power” only worked to mesmerize and summon the women in the room at the time. We’d see a girl in a booth at Arnold’s, seated off to the side but still visible in the frame of the camera shot. Fonzie would snap his fingers, and, as if jolted by lighting, she’d snap to attention and race to heel. But as his cool grew in magnitude, it was no longer necessary to show where the beautiful girls came from. They began arriving from off-camera, magically appearing whenever he gives the call, as if he was summoning them into existence. By the franchise’ later days, girls magically appear no matter where the Fonzie found himself. Fonzie could be in a deserted parking lot or an empty building – but if he snapped his finger – gorgeous women would appear and throw themselves at him. He could probably be in the middle of the desert or the Antarctic Circle and this power would still work, so great has he become.

But a shamantic journey is not complete without a battle with a spirit from the Upper Realm. And so here it is – and for any of you that don’t believe me, this then is my final proof – Mork from Orc made his debut on Happy Days. In Episode 110, “My Favorite Orkan,” the space alien (i.e. Higher Spirit) Mork comes to earth with plans to abduct Richie and take him back to his planet for experiments (the Orkans want to study someone “hum-drum”). Fonzie interferes, and Mork freezes the Fonze with his all-powerful finger.

Amazingly, however, Fonzie manages to unfreeze his thumb. Mork is astounded – no one has ever shown such resistance before – but Fonzie actually starts to reanimate and battles Mork for Richie’s life. The power of the alien’s finger wrestling with the “cool” magic of Fonzarelli’s thumb. Finally, Mork relents before the power of the thumb and lets Richie go. This is nothing short of the Shaman’s Journey to the Upper Realm to battle the Upper Spirits, where here the Upper realm is synonymous with Outer Space. Arthur Fonzarelli’s magical journey and rise to power finally reaches its shamanically appropriate conclusion when he battles with the Higher Spirit – Mork from Orc – besting the space alien to save a member of his tribe, his best friend Richie[6].

Now surely, no one at Paramount Pictures intended this James Dean knock-off to be a modern medicine man, healing his tribe (Richie, Ralph, Potsie et al.) with his magical abilities and ritual resurrection reenactments, but over ten years, and through the work of countless scriptwriters, that’s just what Arthur Fonzarelli became. By surviving a death and resurrection experience, and by repeatedly revisiting this source of power, an inconsequential auto mechanic and high school dropout rose to become a quintessential magical shaman – reaching out to repeatedly rescue the tribe around him, and capturing the focus of American television attention for decades. That his transformation into Archetypal Shamantic Healer was unconscious, arising organically out of the narrative, and not the deliberate product of any of the shows producers or writers, is only proof that the mythic form will always out in the modern fable. It’s all there. Grovin’ all week with you. Aaayyh!

[1] Laverne & Shirley, the forgotten Blansky’s Beauties, Mork & Mindy, and the ill-fated Joanie Loves Chachi. Note that Blanksy’s Beauties is sometimes discounted by Happy Days fans as a true spin-off, as the Scott Baio character has a different name. Pat Morita’s role as “Arnold” is seen as coincidence. However, this assertion ignores the fact that lead character Nancy Blansky was supposed to be the cousin of Happy Days' dad, Howard Cunningham.

[2] This is perhaps the earliest recognition of the transformative power of theatre and explains why live performances are often felt to have more powerful impacts on audiences than recorded ones.

[3] Joseph Campbell outlined the “Hero’s Journey” – his reduction of all narrative into a single heroic quest. According to Campbell, when the Hero receives the Call to Adventure, some other character – often a friend or relative who has been supportive up to this point – emerges to question the Hero’s drive, becoming his first obstacle towards reaching his destiny. Fonzie heroically ignores Richie and charges forward to adventure.

[4] For the purposes of family-friendly entertainment, Fonzie’s death is merely symbolic. He has torn a ligament, however, and fears he may not walk again. Only when Mrs. C calls his courage into question does the Fonz put aside his crutches and take his first unassisted steps.

[5] Happy Days went quickly south after this episode. The break was so noticeable that today the term “jump the shark” refers to the point at which any previously high quality television show begins noticeably to decline.

[6] The proof that this is a shamantic battle arrives in Mork’s second visit to Happy Days, whereupon we learn that he and the Fonz have a grudging respect. This grows into a friendship, culminating when Fonz gets Mork a date with Laverne in Part 2 of the Mork and Mindy Pilot. It is not enough for the Shaman to best the Upper Spirit; he must tame them as well, enlisting their power as his own.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Science Fiction Vs. "SciFi"

I have a theory that there is a fundamental thematic difference between cinematic and literary science fiction. It's a gross generalization, I'll admit, but nonetheless one that I often find useful. It has to do with the different mediums' response to what I call the "intrusion."

In (a large degree of) cinematic science fiction, there is the threat of some "intrusion" on the status quo - an imminent alien invasion, an asteroid on a collision course with earth, a man who has discovered invisibility and is now stalking his friends, an unstable person given access to dangerous knowledge or new weapons, etc... The narrative that follows will be about how our heroes prevent this intrusion and return us to the normal world of the status quo. How do they stop the comet? How do they catch the monster? How do they defeat the aliens? In other words, how do we get things back to normal. For the span of the movie, we've taken the toys out of the box, played with them for an hour or two, but when we finish, we're required to put them all back as close to how we found them as possible, and the audience can go home, reassured that the world is once again as it should be.

Whereas, in (a large portion of) science fiction literature, the "intrusion" has already happened and it is the consequences which must be dealt with. And in so doing, some aspect of humanity is examined through the lens of the extrapolation. So, a comet has hit the earth, wiped out 90% of the population and created a nuclear winter. It's now 100 years later and civilization is just now reemerging. What challenges do the survivors face? Aliens have invaded, it's 300 years later, and Earth is now a planet home to two species. How do they get along? Half the population has been turned invisible. What does this do for society as a whole? How must life adjust and function? Would you hire an employee you couldn't see? Would you mind if the invisible boy dated your teenage daughter? Would it bother you if their kids were only partially visible? Do you see what I'm getting at? In other words, the status quo has been irrevocably altered. Now what do our attempts to carry on reveal about our nature? What about humankind is eternal and what of that which we take for granted is actually ephemeral?

This fundamental difference in perspective is what relegates a lot of "scifi" cinema to the realm of "pure escapism," while making the best of the written genre what some have called "the literature of estrangement."

By way of example: I believe that this is one of the reasons The Matrix Trilogy so utterly failed. Granted, there were a lot of things wrong with Reloaded & Revolutions on many fronts, and to list them all here would take up quite a lot of space, but I believe we can identify one primary flaw out of which many of the others flowed.

The first film, The Matrix, is actually a very smart movie, indeed, a movie aware of the history of the science fiction genre, which borrows heavily and knowingly from the works of science fiction writers like William Gibson and Philip K Dick. To use our vocabulary, it is set up as the latter kind of story - the literary kind - but the narrative defaults in it's subsequent films to the first kind - the cinematic variety.

The first film sets up the world of 1999, the status quo, as that which must be overcome, and establishes that the action of the film will be about shattering this illusion. Neo's last words to the machines, spoken on the pay telephone, are that he is planning on revealing a world "without rules, without controls" to an unsuspecting populace. In other words, the heroes of the film - not the villains - are the intrusion. They are not trying to maintain the status quo of conventional reality. They are trying to destroy it, and the result will be a much altered world. Their victory will be achieved when they have radically altered consensus reality. Our reality.

I remember walking out of the Warner Bros. press screening in 1999 and glancing up at a slate gray sky made unusually artificial by my mood, driving back to West Hollywood and wondering if the world really was, as the Buddhists say, merely an illusion. For that evening at least, The Matrix made me question my realities, if only metaphorically. It made me wonder about the status quo.

However, the subsequent films lose all interest in this goal. We aren't shown the world of the Matrix itself as anything more than a playground for rebels and agents again, and we don't interact with anyone human still under the illusion of "reality." Instead, the focus shifts to Zion, a drab and rather boring cavern world under threat from the machines. Zion, the last human city, has endured for countless decades or even centuries in a stable tension of humans below, machines above. But now, we learn, a new crop of giant drilling machines are tunneling their way down, and suddenly Zion, which we've never cared about before, is threatened. For the next two films, the emphasis is on saving Zion, which is accomplished by forcing a truce with the invaders. In other words, a new status quo is established, and then two films are concerned with maintaining its equilibrium. So that when we end, we are right back where we started. The Matrix still exists, the machines still exist, Zion still exists, and while the war has come to what is largely implied as only a temporary halt, drab reality reigns over Neo's initial promise of a world "without controls." It's hardly the revolution that the third title promises.

The harder, more challenging trilogy to write would have been the one concerned with events inside the Matrix, where we saw the contemporary population rise up in Neo's wake, wake up to their potential, and begin to radically alter their realities according to their own desires. Where we saw the recognizable world of our own turn-of-the-century reality begin to alter. Where we saw a world without controls, where anyone could learn to fight like Bruce Lee, or leap tall buildings in a single bound, or even fly. The movie trilogy we were promised and never received was the triumph of the "intrusion" over the status quo, the movies of actual transcendence at the close of which nothing would ever be the same again. Ever. This would have kept the emotion of the first film on its upward arc, and provided a much, much more satisfying conclusion. A truly revolutionary one. That we were not given this trilogy is nothing short of a betrayal, one whose results may be, I fear, a return to Hollywood's status quo of unexceptional "scifi" films that owe little to their literary counterparts. Thanks to the Wachowski brothers, smart is the new dumb.

Oh look, is that another comet heading our way? Whatever are we going to do to stop it?