That’ll Be The Day

I was never much of a science fiction fan when I was a kid. I think the first science fiction I actually read was Dune (the original trilogy) when I was in high school; the first book was on my English class reading list. I loved Dune; still think of it fondly to this day, although it’s a bit dense and whenever I return to it kind of think the writing is a bit stiff…but it remains a treasured read of mine. Even Star Wars (I will die on the hill of refusing to call Episode IV A New Hope; when I saw it, it was called Star Wars and they didn’t add this abomination of a title until Return of the Jedi was released years later–I still remember my confusion when viewing The Empire Strikes Back and EPISODE V scrawled across the screen…”What the fuck do they mean, EPISODE V?”) didn’t really turn me into much of a science fiction fan; but as more Dune books were released, I would buy them and read them voraciously. I also read the novelizations of the Star Wars movies, but refused to read anything new and not in the films–the bitterness of being burned by Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (in which Luke and Leia were romantic interests….ewwwwww) still stings to this day; and of course when the sequel trilogy started being released all those books stopped being canon, so it was a wise decision on my part.

But Return of the Jedi did inspire me to try to write science fiction. I wrote a short story in which I created an entire universe–the science undoubtedly didn’t make sense–but it was fun to write, and I realized I needed to be better versed in science fiction if I wanted to write it.

So, I went to the bookstore, asked the clerk “if I wanted to start reading science fiction, where would I start?” She smiled, and retrieved Foundation for me from the science fiction shelves. When she handed it to me, she said, “This book is aptly titled, because it’s basically the foundation for everything published in science fiction ever since.”

And she wasn’t wrong.

His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country who had never seen Trantor before. That is, not in real life. He had seen it many times on the hyper-video, and occasionally in tremendous three-dimensional newscasts covering an Imperial Coronation or the opening of a Galactic Council. Even though he had lived all his life on the world of Synnax, which circles a star at the edges of the Blue Drift, he was not cut off from civilization, you see. At that time, no place in the Galaxy was.

There were nearly twenty-five million inhabited planets in the Galaxy then, and not one but owed allegiance to the Empire whose seat was on Trantor. It was the last half-century in which that could be said.

To Gaal, this trip was the undoubted climax of his young, scholarly life. He had been in space before so that the trip, as a voyage and nothing more, meant little to him. To be sure, he had traveled previously only as far as Synnax’s only satellite in order to get the data on the mechanics of meteor driftage which he needed for his dissertation, but space-travel was all one whether one travelled half a million miles, or as many light years.

Having read almost all of the Foundation novels (I didn’t read the prequels that came later; ending with Foundation and Earth), I was very excited to see the Apple TV adaptation–while knowing it would be dramatically different (no doubt) from the books. But it was so different I thought it would be wise to go back and reread (or listen) to the original novel again. (It’s also been a very hot minute since I read them all, and I don’t remember everything I’ve read the way I used to…)

(Side note: I had actually read an Azimov novel in the 1970’s–Murder at the ABA–and still have my original paperback copy, purchased at the News Depot on Commercial Street in Emporia, Kansas. I’ve always wanted to revisit it–because it was very insider-y about the American Booksellers Association annual event–now Book Expo America and in decline–as well as about publishing itself, and I wanted to see how spot-on Azimov was with the book. I remember it fondly, and am also curious as to whether or not it still holds up as a mystery novel.)

There are differences; there are characters in the show that don’t exist in the book, there was no Thespin in the book (Anacreon does, however, play an important part in the book), there’s no Genetic Dynasty running the Empire (in fact, little to nothing in the book about the Empire once the Encyclopedists take off for Terminus), and of course, Azimov wrote about white men–the show is much more diverse as well as gender flips both Gaal and Salvor Hardin. If you’re an Azimov purist, you’ll probably dislike the show, I think; I enjoyed it even as I noticed the significant differences. But listening to the audiobook, I also realized that some of those changes were necessary–what worked in the book and was exceptionally clever probably wouldn’t translate well into a visual medium, but listening and getting refreshed in my memory of what the original work actually was made me appreciate the book all the more. I’d remembered it was incredibly smart and clever, particularly in how everything worked out to solve what came to be called “Seldon crises”–a situation where the Foundation was endangered, both from within and without, but the forces working against it eventually led to a point where only one possible action could be taken, and it was inevitably the right one; which meant they had to have an almost religious-like belief in Seldon and his mathematics (and how much did I love that math was the savior of the galaxy?) and trust that taking no action was the proper course of action. I also loved how the Foundation changed and adapted from its original mission (its true purpose was hidden from them to begin with, because foreknowledge would change things and alter outcomes), and how it even developed a religion around its technology to control inhabitants on other planets.

And, as that bookstore clerk all those years ago at the bookstore in Manchester Center Mall told me, the book–and Azimov, really–influenced every science fiction writer and novel that came in his wake. It truly was a foundational text for science fiction. And it’s also not difficult to see where his own influences came from–his Galactic Empire was very similar to the Roman Empire in decline, and the parallels to the decline of the American empire are almost impossible to miss.

I did enjoy the show–the production values are amazing, and it’s a great story as well, if it does get off to a bit of a slow start (but it picks up)–but I am even more glad that the show drove me to revisit the original novel again. It truly is a superb work.

I Want to Know What Love Is

It’s been raining pretty much most of the weekend, which is fine. I went to get groceries, pick up a prescription, and get the mail before getting home and starting to work on the mess that is my home; I also finished writing a chapter of one manuscript and started writing another–which was my writing goal for yesterday. Today’s is to do second drafts of two short stories to prepare them for submission. I also have to go to the gym and finish the cleaning of the apartment and organizing my office. I started reading the big y/a best seller One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus yesterday; I can see why it’s a bestseller and I can also see why it’s being developed into a television series a la Thirteen Reasons Why; it’s a deceptively simple yet surprisingly complex story, and likewise–well, I’ll talk some more about it once I’ve finished.

I’m enjoying writing again for the first time in years, which is a good thing, and I am actually putting a lot of thought and planning into what I’m writing, which is a really good thing. What I’ve written over the last six or seven years has been a lot more organic, coming to me as I wrote it from a basic premise and perhaps knowing what the end was; without putting near as much thought into theme and what I am trying to say, what I am trying to explore with the story, than I used to–I mean, it worked, but it also made the work a lot harder than it needed to be. I think this is particularly true of short stories; I think that’s primarily what I’ve been doing wrong in writing them–my entire approach to short stories has been wrong, and I’ve been, as I said, making it a lot harder on myself than it necessarily needs to be.

Which is, sadly, what I always tend to do for myself: make things harder than they need to be.

Heavy heaving sigh.

In addition to cleaning and everything else I did yesterday, I also managed to start watching Season 2 of Black Sails, which continues to enthrall. I am still liking the idea of finally writing my pirate novel (Cutlass), but not as much as before; it remains one of those dreams that I hold on to for when I am making a living as a writer again and able to not have a day job any longer. (There are several of those; they also require not only making a living but making enough money to travel and do research.)

Some day. I never give up on the dream.

The Short Story Project also continues; yesterday I read a story by Ross MacDonald from The Archer Files and one by Karl Edward Wagner from the gorgeous two volume collection The Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner, produced by Centipede Press maybe seven or eight years ago.

MacDonald’s story, “The Bearded Lady,” was quite good, as everything written by MacDonald is.

The unlatched door swung inward when I knocked. I walked into the studio, which was high and dim as a hayloft. The big north window in the opposite wall was hung with monkscloth draperies that shut out the morning light. I found the switch beside the door and snapped it on. Several fluorescent tubes suspended from the naked rafters flickered and burned blue-white.

A strange woman faced me under the cruel light. She was only a  charcoal sketch on an easel, but she gave me a chill. Her nude body, posed casually on a chair, was slim and round and pleasant to look at. Her face wasn’t pleasant at all. Bushy black eyebrows almost hid her eyes. A walrus mustache bracketed her mouth, and a thick beard fanned down over her torso.

The door creaked behind me. The girl who appeared in the doorway wore a starched white uniform. Her face had a little starch in it, too, though not enough to spoil her good looks entirely. Her black hair was drawn back severely from her forehead.

Lew Archer, on his way from Los Angeles to San Francisco, decided to stop in the small town of San Marcos and look up an old army buddy, inadvertently stumbling into a murder case. The story is interesting, the writing whipcrack smart, with MacDonald’s trademark, cynical short paragraphs immediately getting to the essence of a character. Don’t we, as readers, already have a strong impression of who that young woman is as a person after those three sentences? I’ve often wondered how one solves a murder in a short story–or writes a detective short story. I’ve tried and failed often enough. But the great thing about the Short Story Project is I am starting to understand how to write them, how they work, and how to make them work; which is a lovely thing. I have several ideas for Chanse short stories that I’ve never written because I didn’t know how; now I rather do, or at least have an idea, thanks to The Archer Files and Kinsey and Me (Sue Grafton). Both books are great learning tools for people who want to write detective stories, and MacDonald’s influence on Grafton is clear. (Although I’d still love to see someone do an essay, or book of criticism, comparing and contrasting MacDonald’s work with that of his wife: The Murderous Millars would be a great title.) MacDonald’s stories usually have to do with damaged and dysfunctional families; “The Bearded Lady” is another one of those, and is very well done. I highly recommend it.

The Wagner story I read was from the second volume of he Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner, which was titled Walk on the Wild Side, and was titled “The Last Wolf.”

The last writer sat alone in his study.

There was a knock at his door.

But it was only his agent. A tired, weathered old man like himself. It seemed not long ago that he had thought the man quite young.

“I phoned you I was coming,” explained his agent, as if to apologize for the writer’s surprised greeting.

Of course…he had forgotten. He concealed the vague annoyance he felt at being interrupted at his work.

Nervously the agent entered his study. He gripped his attache case firmly before him, thrusting it into the room as if it were a shield against the perilously stacked shelves and shelves of musty books. Clearing a drift of worn volumes from the cracked leather couch, he seated himself amidst a puff of dust from the ancient cushions.

I received both volumes of Wagner when I was judging the Bram Stoker Award for Best Single Author Collection, or whatever it is called; it was so long ago that I don’t even recall who the finalists were or who actually won. My memory is perforated like Swiss cheese nowadays, with holes and gaps; it also works like a sieve as new knowledge, and new books I’ve read, tend to pass through it without catching hold (I used to be able to name every book I’ve read, the plot, the main characters–and even some of the minor; over the years that ability has been sadly lost to time). I don’t, for example, remember the titles or the contents of the Wagner stories I read; but the books are beautiful volumes and I remember being impressed by his writing, so I kept them on my shelves. It was only a week or so ago that I realized, that I remembered, them; and that they might make a good addition to my year-long study of short fiction.

I’ve often said that writing about writers, about the business of writing and publishing, sometimes (often) feels masturbatory to me; only other writers would be interested in such a story. And yet writers pop up in my work all the time; Paige is a journalist and wannabe novelist in the Chanse series (and now that I’ve retired that series she’s migrated, apparently, over to the Scotty); another writer character I’ve created has appeared in several novels of mine–one Scotty, The Orion Mask, and one pseudonymous; he also appears to be the voice I used in several first-person short stories, including “An Arrow for Sebastian.” I have another such short story in process; I’ve not quite worked out how to make the story work, but there you have it. I was tempted to write an entire series about a writer, but as I started to develop my gay male writer character more I soon realized I had turned him into a hybrid of Scotty and Chanse; there was nothing new or original about him other than he was a writer and not a private eye. (I really do want to reread Azimov’s Murder at the ABA, though, and Elizabeth Peter’s brilliant Die for Love and Naked Once More.)

“The Last Wolf” is also about a writer, a writer who firmly believes in himself and his work, and that his work is art, and art should never be compromised for commerce. The world in which he lives is one where he is the last (apparently) person attempting to still write fiction; novels have fallen by the wayside and short stories are no longer published; the world has completely changed and his agent wants him to try to write for television shows–which, as described, sound horrifically awful. The writer refuses, the agent leaves, and he goes back to his typewriter. This story could easily be seen as angry, or even whiny; in the hands of a lesser author, the story would be precisely that. But Wagner paints a picture with his words, and maybe it resonated with me more because I am an author myself, but the sympathy rests entirely with the author. (Although I am one of those whose eyes roll so hard that  they almost unscrew when I hear another author speak of their ‘art’; but that’s a topic for another day.) I am looking forward to digging back into Wagner’s work again this year.

And now, I need to file and organize, perhaps vacuum, before I head to the gum. I want to get some things written today, and I need to revise those stories.

Hello, spice mines.

Sigh.

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