Friday, September 26, 2014

Can-D and Other Matters

It's been some weeks since my last post. I've not been idle, for I've been drawing, writing, and taking part in various other weighty and time-consuming matters. But, as my humble blog is being plagued by referrer spam from the Ukraine, which creeps me out, and as the conventional wisdom seems to be that legitimate activity and real traffic drives these automated imposters out as the sound of church bells sends ghosts back to their troubled beds, I shall say...some things.

First topic. Science fiction has never caught my fancy much. I suppose it is the lack of affect. There are, of course, many exceptions, including Van Vogt, Bester, and Herbert. Heinlein and Asimov I read in my youth but outgrew. There are other big names I've sampled but found not much to my liking. Lately, though, the author I've grown most in appreciation for is Philip K. Dick.

I've written a bit about him before. You can see which of his books I've read recently on my sidebar. I think I enjoy them not chiefly for their genre qualities (which often are slight) but for their rather melancholy but intense human drama. His protagonists are always hapless losers and/or paranoid schizophrenics; they generally fall for beautiful, eccentric, unattainable young women and receive both tenderness and suffering at their hands. Wives are distant and cold or absent altogether. Much of this was autobiographical, I take it. His self-revelation in VALIS (which, for reasons I don't understand, is one of my favorites) makes this pretty clear.

One thing I appreciate about him is his willingness to grapple with religious issues in a serious way, asking questions and not doggedly pursuing some stale foregone conclusion. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, for instance, explores transubstantiation and communion, disconcertingly through the use of Can-D. VALIS, of course, is about a kind of religious quest, while Through a Scanner Darkly takes its title from I Corinthians 13. Flow My Tears is another good example, especially since he later believed it had been modeled on Acts, or something. Plenty of others abound. He was searching, searching and not finding, wandering into the desert like his friend Bishop Pike and perishing there, perhaps, but never settling for a glib or facile contentment with some received idea.

More than that, though, I read him for his humaneness. Characters to him are persons, evoking sympathy in the reader, and not lay figures moved about on a stage. And his handling of neurological or psychological anomaly is masterful. Nowhere else have I found such a true depiction of the fractured, warped perceptions of the disordered mind.

Next topic. My children and I have finished The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lewis' seeming disdain for what he considers ugly, homely, or affected in physical appearance continues to bug me. It reminds me of nothing I've come across in Tolkien. But I was already unkind to Lewis in my last post concerning his work, so here I will say, my God, how beautiful the ending of Voyage is. My kids were spellbound.

It's strange, reading Lewis again after so many years, to realize how I'd internalized his writing. Time and again I come across a word, a phrase, or an entire sentence, and realize that something I'd thought my own had actually been lifted from his work. For example, in my recent story, "At the Edge of the Sea," I referred in the first draft to "sea-people." I was advised to alter this, and changed it to "sea-folk," a felicitous choice, I think; but now I realize that my "sea-people" came from the last chapters of Voyage. Altogether quite a writer, and not to be dismissed as some people do.

Voyage, incidentally, is where I learned the names of all the parts of a ship and other nautical terms. It's a recurring dream of mine to find myself crossing the Atlantic on the Dawn Treader.

Third topic. Something that really annoys me in planet-hopping TVF sci-fi is what I call the small planet syndrome. The most egregious offender is The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke crash-lands in a swamp on an earth-sized planet, and expects Yoda to be living right around the corner somewhere. If I told you, "Go to the third planet of the system of Sol, where you will find a man named Buddy," and you crash-landed in Madagascar or something, you'd be crazy if you met some random person and believed that they could take you to him. Maybe it was the Force? I don't know. I don't think it's even mentioned. But I haven't seen Empire since it was so sadly defaced by its maker, and I'll not see it again until they sell the original version (with models!) on DVD. Anyway, Star Trek is just as great an offender.

Well, I guess that's all I have.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Best of BCS, Year Five

I would be remiss in not mentioning that Beneath Ceaseless Skies' fifth annual "best-of" anthology will be made available on September 10. From the release:
A woman climbs an ice-mountain, feeding her
companion her own blood to stave off Death.... 
A fisher discovers the sagas and songs sung
by centuries-dead barrow ghost women.... 
An asexual sun goddess sets impossible challenges
that fail to deter her incessant suitor.... 
A lover wends through city canals and told
tales in a living boat to woo a golden woman....
View full versionThese and other awe-inspiring fantasy stories await in The Best of Beneath Ceaseless Skies Online Magazine, Year Five, a new anthology of seventeen stories from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, the Hugo Award-finalist online magazine that Locus online credits with “revive(ing)... secondary-world fantasy as a respectable subgenre of short fiction, raising it from the midden of disdain into which it had been cast by most of the rest of the field.” 
The Best of BCS, Year Five features such authors as Richard Parks, Gemma Files, Seth Dickinson, Alex Dally MacFarlane, and Benjanun Sriduangkaew. 
It includes “Boat in Shadows, Crossing” by Tori Truslow, a finalist for the 2014 British Science Fiction Association Awards and the Parsec Award, and “The Telling” by Gregory Norman Bossert, winner of the 2013 World Fantasy Award.
It also includes "Misbegotten," my first pro-published piece, which made Locus' recommended reading list for 2013. Please take a look here for a complete table of contents and purchase information.

The anthology will be made available on September 10 for $3.99 from all the major ebook retailers. All proceeds from the anthology go toward paying authors and artists, including your humble servant, for their work. Please consider buying a copy to support one of the only professional venues for secondary-world fantasy!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Logan's Run

The most recent selection in my program of seventies sci-fi films was Logan's Run (1976). (Previous entries here and here.) I'd been putting it off, as the reviews seemed somewhat middling, but I actually thought it was a really cool movie. It's based on a book, which I haven't read, but I understand that the plot is quite different aside from the basic premise. (FYI, this post contains a number of spoilers, so beware if you haven't seen it yet.)

The premise is a hedonistic future society where everyone is euthanized at age thirty so that no shadow of degeneration or death can cloud the universal satisfaction. Those who wish can undergo the quasi-religious rite of the Carrousel, rising up in a column of light toward the ceiling of the arena, with screaming throngs cheering them on, in a bid for rebirth. The ones who don't make it explode in mid-air. (Guess what? No one makes it.) Those who seek to evade their fate illegally are called Runners. They're hunted down by agents known as Sandmen. The city sees to reproductive matters, and the people are classified into genetic breeds with color-coded clothing; delinquent youth are shut away in the Cathedral, where they go feral in darkness.

The city is enclosed by an opaque dome, so that no one is even really aware that there is an outside. It's like a huge combination shopping mall and resort apartment complex (a lot of the film was shot in shopping centers and other businesses around DFW). But it's all very futuristic in a retro way, with lots of glass and neon lights, kind of like that salon you still see in malls nowadays, the one with all the black and mirrors. (Is it called Regis? I think it's Regis.) I've always been both fascinated and repelled by malls; when I was a teenager I had this recurring nightmare about being lost in a busy mall by myself. They're gigantic indoor spaces that just go on and on into infinity, kind of like the Library of Babylon, but with everything screaming for your attention, urging you to forget everything but pleasure and comfort. It's interesting and appalling to imagine a culture living inside a giant mall.

Incidentally, the set design (and plot) reminded me a lot of Blade Runner, though bright and glittering where the latter was grimy and rainy. The effects are generally good.

The protagonist is Logan 5, a Sandman assigned a secret mission by the city computer to find the location of the legendary Sanctuary where all the Runners go. He's artificially made a Runner but slowly becomes one in truth. Eventually, after various bizarre adventures and narrow escapes, he and his love interest find their way though the interstices and out into the world, where rocks are hard and plants are prickly, and come upon a ruined, overgrown Washington, D.C., evoked by some nice matte paintings. (I wish movies still used matte paintings. Crazy, I know.) There, in the Capitol, they come upon the Old Man (Peter Ustinov!), the first old person they'd ever seen, living by himself with a large number of cats.

For me this is the heart of the movie. The Runners are like children in the lap of their grandfather as they ask about his white hair, ask to feel his wrinkles. The film gets quiet and still, and just lets him ramble on as they question him, quoting bits of T. S. Eliot, mumbling about this and that, making little jokes. It's quite a shift from the frenetic pace of the first half of the movie. Logan 5 and the girl are filled with wonder to realize that there's nothing fearful about growing old and dying, that these are natural and even beautiful things. They resolve to take the Old Man back to the city to show everyone how mistaken they've been, imagining that their word and his presence alone will convince everyone.

Here I had the delightful surprise of discovering that some of the final scenes were filmed at the Fort Worth Water Gardens, which I visited this summer. I'd stayed downtown about a block away and taken my kids all over them. The most famous one (shown here in a picture taken by Yours Truly) provides the Runners a point of entry to the city, while the Old Man waits outside. It was neat to discover that I'd walked down the same steps as Peter Ustinov, though I didn't know it at the time.

The message preached by Logan is received with jeers and incomprehension. But when the computer melts down upon receiving his intelligence, and the city starts to destroy itself, he escapes and leads the people outside. Here the film assumes almost mythic dimensions as Logan harrows the "underworld" of the city. The liberated young people discover the Old Man and gather around him in wonder.

The point here, which I think many reviewers misunderstand, is not so much that people can live so long, as that it's okay to get old. I was surprised to discover the film to be so warm and life-affirming at the end. It's not a message you hear much nowadays, with celebrities striving to remain about thirty in appearance while aging well into their seventies, disfiguring themselves at last with countless plastic surgeries until they all start to look the same.

There's nothing wrong with growing old. Don't fly from it. Embrace it.