She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness — more of why I love sf/f
He managed to get me to watch an episode or two with him that summer, because he had a lot of the season on video tape. I don’t remember hating it, but it also didn’t really grab me. Season two started that fall. I remember one particular evening when I got home for chorus rehearsal that Ray was telling me about the show and how much he was looking forward to next week’s episode, because there had been a cliffhanger.
Two nights later, Ray had a seizure and went into a coma. Then he died, and I fell apart.
Some time after he died, I was alone in the house doing something, and I heard a noise from another room. I went to see what was going on, and one of the VCRs was rewinding furiously, then popped its tape out. In 1997 DVRs didn’t exist. We owned three video cassette recorders, though, and Ray had a complicated schedule of pre-programmed recordings, and a pile of labeled tapes. He would swap out tapes at different times in the week, so that the different machines would record the next episode of whichever series was kept on that tape.
And I hadn’t been keeping up.
This was maybe two weeks after Ray had died. I was still deep in the shell-shocked stage of grieving. So the idea that I hadn’t kept Ray’s rotation going seized me as a terrible thing. I was letting him down! I had let the wrong shows get recorded on the wrong tapes! Who knows what else I had messed up? Never mind that Ray was beyond caring about these things. I wasn’t rational. When someone you love dies, even the most stoic and logical person has some moments of irrationality over take them.
So I tried to sort out what was going on with the tapes. And that’s how I ended up watching all of the season two episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, along with about half of the season one episodes out of order (because his labelling system wasn’t always discernible to anyone but him) in a very short time.
There’s a lot of things that happened to me in those first few months after Ray died that I don’t remember clearly. But one of the few crystal clear moments was one point when I was staring at the TV and I said aloud, “Dang it, Ray! You were right. This show is incredible!”
I was addicted.
Don’t get me wrong, the show has problems. I can rant for hours and hours about how monumentally awful were most of the decisions the writers made in season six, for instance. And the many ways that season seven doubled down on some of the failure. Even before the universally despised season six, there was the incredible frustration of how the first half of season four showed such brilliance and promise of taking things to a new level, then collapsed into a world of disappointment and lost opportunity. And oy! Trying to make sense of both the explicit and implicit contradictions about the nature of magic, demons, the biology of vampires…!But there were so many things the show got right. One of the things they got most right is casting James Marsters and Juliet Landau as Spike and Drusilla, the Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen of the undead set (and if you don’t know who they are, your life is sadly lacking in Sex Pistols, is all I’m saying). There was a point, after I had acquired the complete DVD set of season two of the series, where literally at least once a week I re-watched the episode that introduced Spike and Dru, “School Hard.” They were evil and cold and vicious and Dru is crazier than a coked out mutt in a hubcap factory. But they were also madly deeply in love. Spike rather proudly proclaimed himself love’s bitch in a later season, “at least I’m man enough to admit it!”
What made the show work was the relationships between the characters. Joss Whedon and his crew created a world in which a small, pretty girl regularly kicked the butts of evil creatures. A world where the real problems that teens try to deal with often made the monsters seem trivial by comparison. Some of the creatures of darkness were metaphors for the problems humans face coming of age, yep. And sometimes the parallel between the mundane story lines and the supernatural ones were a little on the nose.
But then there were the moments of brilliance, such as when everything had been taken from her: her first love turned evil, her best friend lying dying in a hospital, she’s been kicked out of her home, everything she cared about either broken, dying, or lost; the villain has fought her back into a corner and is berating her about all she has lost and all who have abandoned her. “What have you got?” he asks with a sneer, as he thrusts what we think is a killing blow with an enchanted sword. She catches the blade between her hands, looks him in the eye with the most amazing fuck-you glare of determination and says, “I’ve got me.” Then proceeds to kick his butt and save the world.
Those sorts of moments, where a simple refusal to give up in the face of impossible odds, and the many times that various characters in the story sacrificed for their loved ones and found a way out of a hopeless situation—they were what made the ups and downs of the show worth it. And I want to be clear: one of the things they did right more than once was not that the characters found that one last glimmer of hope in the midst of despair and defeat; rather, the characters made their own hope. Yes, Buffy was about empowerment. Buffy was about the damsel being able to rescue herself. Buffy was about turning notions of victims and saviors on their heads. Buffy was about seeing that the questions of good vs evil aren’t always black and white; that part of being a hero (and a big part of growing up) is about learning to make your way through all those shades of grey without losing yourself.
But mostly, Buffy was about love, chosen families, and not giving up.
And then fan art for a book that seemed to be about teen wizards (but not characters I recognized) started appearing on my tumblr dashboard for a series that I’d never heard of: the Simon Snow series. Except there is no Simon Snow series. One of the novels by Ms. Rowell that I’d put on my list was entitled, Fangirl, and the blurb was that the main character, Cath, is just starting college, and that for the last few years her life has been dominated by her love for a series of urban fantasy novels. And these novels star a young man named Simon Snow.
In order to write convincingly about a fan who is very active in writing fanfic and has a number of close friends within the fandom, Rowell had to plot out a fictitious fantasy series. At least enough for the characters to talk about it as if it were a real series. Fangirl was a success, and received a lot of praise, particularly in sf/f circles, despite not being a fantasy story itself, because the portrayal of fannish culture was considered spot on.
After finishing that book, Rowell wound up writing a Simon Snow book. She didn’t write the entire series, she wrote a book that can be looked on as the next book that was published after all the books that Cath and her friends had been fans of in 2013 (when Fangirl was published). So, Carry On is not a sequel to Fangirl. Carry On is a sequel to the fictitious series which is talked about in Fangirl.
The magical world of Carry On bears a strong resemblance to the Harry Potter series, though it isn’t a parody or a satire. It also bears certain parallels to other young adult fantasy series. The plot seems straightforward, at first. Simon Snow attends a wizarding school called Watford. He was not born in the wizarding world, but he has immense power and various prophetic signs indicate that he is the person who is destined to defeat the Insidious Humdrum. The Insidious Humdrum is a mysterious being which, when it attacks, drains all of the magic out of the area, leaving what appear to be permanent dead zones where wizards and other magical creatures become powerless. Simon doesn’t know how he is going to defeat this creature, and has so far failed to master his magical powers. His powers are massive, but out of his control, and things tend to get destroyed when he tries to use them. His roommate at the school, Baz (full name, Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch) is Simon’s nemesis at school, and is assumed by everyone to be the person destined to try to kill Simon when the big battle with the Humdrum finally happens.
But the story isn’t really about the conflict between Simon and the Humdrum. It’s really about the nature of prophecy, what does it mean to be a chosen one, and how people (whether mortal politicians or master mages) twist belief and hope to fit their own agendas. It’s about identity, not just what it means to be a hero or villain (or the fact that it is seldom either/or), but there are allegories for ethnic identity issues and class identity issues. Oh, and more than a bit about sexual and romantic identity (which aren’t always the same thing).
There is a ghost story. There are several mysteries. And there is even a love story. There are battles magical, political, and personal. And it all hangs together very well. I have to admit, I think the wizarding world portrayed in Carry On makes a lot more sense than the world of Harry Potter, or a number of other fantasies of similar ilk, even though the magic part of the story isn’t the main focus of the plot.
I’m not sure that those two observations are unrelated.
I enjoyed the book a lot. I didn’t find most of the plot developments surprises. As one reviewer put it, the revelations as the story moves along feel more like confirmations of your existing suspicions than plot twists. But again, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s part of why the story hangs together better than some other books we could name.
I enjoyed the book a lot. It didn’t end quite as I hoped it would, but it ended in a way that felt right and satisfying regardless. It did make me wish that some of the series and fantasy books had handled their characters as well as Rowell does. I hope that the next person who undertakes this sort of tale takes note.
By that time I was running three different groups of players on three different nights of every week.
I ran the last game using the system, and set in the same world and continuity, in the year 2000. I want you to think about that for a moment: I ran a roleplaying campaign, a single campaign setting, with a single history, et al, for 19 years. So when people find out that I’ve got a Victorian Steampunk roleplaying campaign that has been running (with the same core players, same core characters, and in the same continuity) for 16 years and they freak out, I have to point out that it isn’t the longest campaign I’ve run.
There was a point where I re-typed all of the rules for my superhero game into a word processor. And I made more updates and changes to the rules, refining things as we ran into situations that within the game. In the early 90s I was thinking that I might still try to publish the system, and I had changed the name to Crime Does Not Pay (but the hours are good)! The problem was that by then, there were several other superhero based role-playing games on the market, and while I still think there are aspects of mine that were superior to those others, there were also aspects that weren’t.
I should mention that I did get the rules well-defined enough that three of my friends who loved to run games set up their own campaigns. So I got to play in my own system and see how it worked from that point of view.
I’m writing about this now because this last weekend I went through some of the shelves in the computer room, and I emptied out all of the three ring binders, pulled out all the spiral notebooks, and so forth that were full of notes and characters and scenario descriptions and so forth, and put them all into recycle. The scary part as I was going emptying all of those binders was how many of the thousands and thousands of pages of material that was in there was handwritten. In my atrocious printing. But usually in pretty colors, because I love unusual ink colors and I had a tendency to color code my notes as I created villains and supporting characters and scenarios. Or wrote up the fictitious history of small countries or crime fighting organizations, and so on.
Several years ago I made a comment to some friends that, since I hadn’t run a game in the system in years, I should toss all those gaming notes. These friends had been players in the game for years. And one of them was horrified at the idea that I would toss all of that history. So I decided not to tell anyone other than my husband before I went through the shelves.
Usually my inner packrat balks at this sort of thing. I expected it to be more of an emotional trial than it was. But the fact that I haven’t actually run a game, nor seriously looked through any of those notes for this campaign, in more than a decade seems to have given me enough emotional distance to just be amused as I recognized some notes in passing.As you can see from the photo, there were a lot of binders. Several of those were 4-inch binders, which hold about 800 pages each, and at least two were 5-inch binders, which hold 1000 pages each, plus a bunch of 3-inchers, which since they usually have O-rings usually only hold about 570 pages each. When I said thousands and thousands of pages I wasn’t kidding. Keeping the notes organized in binders was always a bit of a challenge. Many years ago I got in the habit of making a title page for the binders, so I could remember that this binder was full of villains, while this one had notes on our never quite completed magic system, and another had notes for older games, while another had the notes for the most recent games and things I was planning.
And there were about a dozen spiral notebooks and several notepads all filled with even more notes. I generated a lot of material running that game for 19 years.
The notebook names were often based on Far Side comics. At least two were based on Calvin and Hobbes strips. As the pages of notes and characters and scenarios piled up, I’d have to make new binders, while older binders would become part of the archives, rather than something I’d get out all of the time.
It’s a little scary to think about how much fictional history we created during all of those games. I should add that when I said it was a single campaign, that’s slightly misleading. As I said I had at one point several groups playing at once, and I kept them separate mostly by basing their characters in different cities. But it was one fictional world, and we did cross-overs. Plus, since it is comic book superheroes, there were occasional adventures where the entire world was in danger. I also set some of the player groups in different time periods. at one point I had two side groups adventuring during the World War II time period, while original three sets had been playing in “the present” so basically the 80s and 90s. Then I had another side group playing in the 70s for. But all of the groups were set in the same world. And yeah, since I had player characters in different time periods occasionally involved in big global events and so forth, the continuity of my fictitious world got nearly as convoluted as that of the big comic book publishers.
Of the six friends who created characters for my first couple of weeks of playing, three have passed away. Of the others, I still have some contact with two on Facebook. I last ran into the sixth player at a science fiction convention around the year 2000, and he had an absolute melt down when he found out I was gay. My friend, Mark, moved to the town where I lived before moving to Seattle in 1983, I think it was, and joined the campaign. He played various characters for nearly 10 years, I think, with some interruptions since he moved to Seattle about a year before I did. And we’re still friends, now. Maybe I should make him a certificate, because I think he might hold the record of the longest player in that game.
I had a lot of fun, and as far as I know the players did, too.
My friend joined me just as I was setting it down, and asked if I’d ever read the book. So I explained about my previous encounters with Pratchett, and we went off on a long digressive conversation about books we loved, books we tried to get other people to love, books we realized were problematic but still liked, and so forth.
A couple months later, my first husband died. And not long after that I was preparing to head off to spend my Christmas vacation at my Mom’s (which was going to be interesting for many reasons). And a couple days before I left, the same friend stopped by. She was one of many of my friends who had taken to regularly checking on me following Ray’s death, so I thought she was just checking in. She had an additional mission. She had spent a lot of time thinking about what I had said about why I had disliked all of Pratchett’s Discworld novels I had tried to read, thus far, and she was bringing me one book to get me to try again. The book was Wyrd Sisters, which focuses on the witches of the tiny kingdom of Lancre. She explained why she thought I would like it (fairy tale themes given various twists, a lot of Shakespeare references, unconventional characters with deeply-rooted senses of ethics independent of religion), and asked me to give it a try. She cryptically said, “There’s one character in here who I think you’ll really love, but I don’t want to say who, because they need to grow on you.”
The second night of my vacation, I accidentally stayed up all night reading all the way to the end, and was so disappointed that I didn’t have any more Pratchett books to read next, that I started over at the beginning.
I finally understood. Pratchett wasn’t writing parodies, he was writing satire. Going by dictionary definitions of those two words, they may seem to be nearly the same thing. But they aren’t. A parody imitates a specific work or body of work, and makes use of deliberate exaggeration for comic effect. A satire, on the other hand, uses humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to critique and analyse human nature. It just so happened the Pratchett did this in many of the Discworld books through the lense of various tropes of fantasy literature.
Once I had found the book that spoke to me, and bonded with characters such as Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, suddenly, the rest of Pratchett’s work made sense. I saw now that the purpose of the jokes was not to poke fun at books and stories I loved, but to make me laugh in such a way that I got new insights into people (and incidentally why we tell some of the stories we tell)1.
Which brings me to Small Gods, one of my favorite books from the entire series2.
Small Gods is built around the notion that in a magical world such as Discworld, believe is what gives gods their power. The Great God Om has been worshipped for centuries in Omnia, because at intervals he returns to earth, manifests in some way, picks a new prophet, does a little smiting, and so forth. When our story begins in Omnia, people are waiting for the god to return and select his Eighth Prophet. Many think he’s overdue. Others are much more concerned with Omnia’s relations with neighboring countries, such as Ephebe. And then there is Brutha, a humble novice that everyone knows isn’t very bright because it’s been impossible to teach him to read, but he’s got a good memory and works hard and never complains as he’s tending garden in one corner of the Citadel in the capitol city. Brutha has a problem: he can hear a voice in his head, and the voice, he is convinced, is coming from a tortoise inexplicably in his garden, and the tortoise insists that he is the Great God Om.
We eventually learn that Om returned to the mortal world three years ago, quite surprised to find himself trapped in the body of a tortoise and almost completely lacking all divine powers. The problem is, you see, that over the last many years, belief—genuine faith in the existence of Om—has dwindled, having been replaced by fear of the Quisition. So now Om is in danger of losing the last of his power and becoming nothing more than a voice in the desert, along with all the small gods that have never had a believer. So he has to find a way, using only the abilities of a tortoise and his one last believer, to make a comeback.
Meanwhile, Deacon Vorbis, the head of the Quisition, is plotting to conquer Ephebe, while simultaneously root out a new underground heretic movement within Omnia. Brutha gets caught up in Vorbis’ plans when Vorbis realizes that Brutha’s memory isn’t just good, it is eidetic. Brutha has no idea why Vorbis has suddenly become interested him him, partially because Brutha has never really questioned anything his whole life. He was raised by a cruel and overzealous grandmother, and believed everything she told him. It isn’t until he meets his god face-to-face that he learns to start thinking for himself. Om, meanwhile, also has some learning to do before the story is over.
Pratchett has a lot of fun in this book with the idea of philosophers. Brutha meets philosophers in Ephebe, including Didactylos, the blind author of a scroll about the physical nature of the Discworld (a vast disc rotating on the back of four giant elephants standing on the back of a great turtle swimming through space), which has become the inspiration of the heretic movement back in Om. The holy books of Om teach that the world is a sphere floating in space on it’s one, revolving around a sun. So believing that the world isn’t flat is heretical.
Over the course of the story we see several aspects of faith and its misapplication. By the end of the story Brutha and Om have enduring various trials (Brutha nearly being burned to death as a heretic himself in the dramatic climax) before Om returns to power, and then finds himself forced to bargain with his new prophet and help transform his religion into one that is less violent. Before they can do that, they have to deal with the small matter of the war Vorbis has started. One of my favorite quotes from this book happens during this part, as Brutha is trying to stop everyone from fighting, and some of his would-be allies are proclaiming their willingness to die for the truth: “The truth is too precious to die for!”
It is easy to look at the book as an indictment of organized religion and blind faith. But I think the people who do that are making the same sort of mistake I did when I was trying to read the earlier books in the series the first time: they’re looking at this is a parody, rather than paying attention to Pratchett’s deeper commentary on human nature. The book skewers blind atheism at least as much as it does empty faith, because Pratchett turns his satirist’s eye on everyone. Characters you would expect to be allied heroes in the book have their flaws examined just as closely as the characters who are primarily villains.
There’s one other plot thread I should mention: The History Monks. Pratchett will use these guys a few more times, most interestingly in Thief of Time. They are a group of monks charged with keeping history on track, running around the world trying to make sure that things happen as they ought. Of course, who gets to decide “ought”?
I like to re-read Small Gods regularly, to remind myself where morals and ethics should come from. To remind myself that there are things worth having faith in (truth, yes, but also people, and compassion, and empathy). To remind myself that evil people are evil, yes, but they’re people, too—and that all of us have the potential to be evil, no matter how well-intentioned we may be. And most importantly to remind myself that forgiveness isn’t something you earn, it’s something you give.
1. One important note: another problem is that Pratchett himself didn’t find his voice in the series right away. In my opinion, Pratchett didn’t find the proper voice for this series until about the fifth book in the series. Some of his characters took a couple books on their own before they gelled, as well.
2. So many favorites. I read a lot of them out of order after finally having my breakthrough. As I mentioned, some of the earlier books are a lot weaker than the later ones. But they’re easier to enjoy once you know where the series is going.
Since 1995 I have written an original Christmas Ghost Story that I then read (or otherwise perform; one required ukulele, there have also been costumes) at the annual Holiday Party “sponsored” by the Tai-Pan Literary and Arts Project. Some years the ghost story is set in the Tai-Pan universe (which makes it fun, since that universe is a hard sci fi universe; I’ve had to be a bit creative about the definition of a ghost), some have been set in universes of my own creating.
I have a rather long document that I keep adding Christmas Ghost Story ideas to, so even though I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years, I’m not out of ideas. That’s actually the problem, I have so many ideas, that trying to get myself to focus on one and finish it is always a little bit of a struggle. Thus the many times I have posted a comment to social media in the wee small hours of the night before the party that I have finally finished this year’s…
Anyway, I’ve kind of narrowed it down to four that are speaking to me this year, and still trying to decide. So, I’m turning to the wilds of the internet and giving you a chance to weigh in. Read the titles and teasers below, and pick the one that you would most like to hear on a spooky winter’s night:
Some notes: in the past some friends have at first declined to vote because they didn’t feel that they were sufficiently familiar with the universe or stories. Please don’t let that stop you. People who are familiar with my work will have a really good guess who at least one of the protagonists above is, but don’t feel you have to be in the slightest familiar with me or my work to cast a vote.
I don’t guarantee that the winner is what I’ll work on. Some years I spend days nearly finishing one story, and then have a blast of inspiration that results in my writing a completely different tale. But I can’t decide, so maybe you can help!
And I was, as far as I could tell, one of the few kids in my class on the Monday morning after the movie had shown, who hadn’t seen it. If the film was shown on network television in the next couple of years, I didn’t manage to see it. After my folks divorced and my mom, one sister, and I moved 1200 miles away, one of my new friends mentioned that Young Frankenstein had been re-released to theaters and was playing downtown. Back in the days before ubiquitous cable, movies on tape or disc, or the internet, movies were often re-released into theaters.
When I mentioned that I’d never seen it, my friends were aghast. The next thing I knew, we were piling into someone’s car and driving to the theatre. I loved the movie. I loved it so much, that I couldn’t stop talking about it. I kept telling anyone who would listen to me about the grandson of Victor Frankenstein, Frederick, who insists that his last name is pronounced Frohnkensteen, and is ashamed of his crazy grandfather’s work; but upon finding said grandfather’s journal becomes obsessed with bringing a dead man back to life, and the zany misadventures that follow.
My mom thought it sounded fun. And so a night or two later, I found myself standing in line at the theatre once more, this time with my mom and little sister.
The movie has more than a few jokes based on sexual innuendoes, which it didn’t even occur to me might not be appropriate for my eleven-year-old sister, let alone what Mom might think of it. And both of them were laughing at all the same places I was, so everything was going fine. Until we reached the point where the Creature kidnaps Frederick’s fiancé, Elizabeth.
And then, panic started to set in. Because what happens next is that the Creature and Elizabeth have sex (in a scene that is a casebook example of pop culture’s long entanglement with rape culture). During which Elizabeth falls in love with the Creature because he has an enormous “schwanzstucker.”
Mom was a Bible-thumping Southern Baptist. Yes, she was also a science fiction fan, but her open-mindedness only went so far. And I had brought her and my little sister to a movie where a central turning point of one of the subplots is a woman falling in love with a stranger because of the size of his penis.
I was quite certain that I was going to wind up being grounded for life. Obviously Mom was going to be very upset. And I should have realized that she would be and mentioned the scene as soon as she suggested we go see the movie! I sunk down in my seat, bracing for an angry outburst.
The scene with the Creature began, and I just sank down lower in my seat. Then when the sex happens (the movie was rated PG, so you don’t even see either character get undressed, it’s only implied that the Creature unzipped his pants), and Madeline Kahn, who played Elizabeth starts singing in an exaggerated operatic style, “Oh! Sweet mystery of life at last I’ve found you!”
Mom started laughing. I looked over, and she wasn’t merely chuckling. She was guffawing loudly, covering her mouth to try not to disturb the rest of the audience (many of whom were laughing, but not that hard) and doubling over like she was going to fall out of her seat. A minute or two later her laughter subsided and she was wiping her eyes. She leaned over and whispered, “We probably shouldn’t have brought your little sister to see this!”
My sister asked mom what was so funny, and mom started laughing again.
A day or so later Mom had a slightly more serious talk with me about the importance of evaluating shows and books and such I might let my sister see as to whether they were appropriate, but she wasn’t angry. She said the only other thing she was disappointed in about the show was that we couldn’t immediately re-watch the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein right afterward.
Some time later a pair of the friends who took me to the film the first time re-enacted the “Need a hand?” “No, thanks! Have one,” scene when Mom was around, and she asked them to do it again. And they started to, but it morphed into a re-enactment of the scene in the blind man’s cottage instead. For the rest of the evening we were quoting funny lines from the film at each other. I think it was that evening that Mom explained her view of all the ways that the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein had alluded to love, romance, and even sex. Though we stayed away from any mention of the Creature’s schwanzstucker.
It should come as no surprise that two of the friends who were so aghast that I had never seen Young Frankenstein were the same pair who, a couple years later, dragged me to my first performance of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. All the sexual situations in Young Frankenstein are hetero and heteronormative, but there was still a strain of the transgressive running throughout. Young Frankenstein didn’t have the same effect on my own self awareness as Rocky Horror, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an important landmark in my understanding of the possibilities of science fiction and fantasy.
And I wasn’t the only nerd to think so. The year after it was released, Young Frankenstein won the Hugo Award for Dramatic Presentation. And the Science Fiction Writers of America awarded Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder a Nebula Award for the screenplay. The film also won four Saturn Awards. The film displays a great deal of fondness for the Universal Frankenstein films (there’s even a line of dialog about how the village elders have endured all of this five times before, though that’s a miscount since the Universal series actually have five: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and House of Frankenstein). Young Frankenstein was a humorous parody, yes, but it also served as both a deconstruction and homage at the same time.
And it’s a funny film! And that’s nothing to sneeze at.
I confess I was a bit freaked out once we got there. It was a neighborhood we hadn’t been to before, and they hadn’t warned me that almost everyone waiting in line for the show would be in costumes. Many of them oddly sexual costumes. They also hadn’t warned me that it was an R-rated show. It was only after we had sat down, and the lights dimmed that Jim handed me a newspaper and told me to hang onto it, “you’ll need it later.” So they also didn’t warn me about the audience participation that was about to go down.
The original Rocky Horror Picture Show was released on film in 1975. The show had started as a musical stage play written by London actor Richard O’Brien, who poured all of his love for schlocky 40s and 50s muscle-man movies, horror and sci fi films ranging from the 30s through 70s, and rock and roll into the show. It played first in a small 60-seat theatre, but well enough to quickly move to bigger venues, and then the play’s director, Jay Sharman, secured funding to make a movie.
O’Brien’s original script focused on the unintentional humor of the older sci fi and horror film, with only a sprinkling of references to the homoeroticism found in films such as Hercules Unchained and Duel of the Titans. But as they developed the play, and the actors (particularly a young Tim Curry) figured out how they wanted to play the characters, the pansexual and transsexual elements become much more important.
The film didn’t do very well, at all. Mainstream audiences just didn’t understand it. But a studio executive, noting that the movies Pink Flamingos and Reefer Madness were making money in midnight showings, had the idea to get some theaters to show it at midnight (the first showing on April Fool’s Day 1976). And then the show quickly gained a cult following, with people showing up in costume, and then fully costumed local casts re-enacting the show just in front of the screen as it was playing.
I was totally unprepared. People in the audience started chanting “Lips! Lips!” before the movie started. People were singing along and shouting things that I couldn’t quite understand. And then the cast started mimicking what was happening. The one time I asked my friends what was happening they just shushed me and said, “it’ll make sense eventually!”
I was very uncomfortable and confused and a little bit angry at my friends. I couldn’t always understand what was happening on screen because of the shouting from the audience.And then, with a big build up of rising music (and the audience clapping in time with the bass beat), suddenly Tim Curry was there, in the corset and fishnets belting out, “How’d’ya do I, see you’ve met my, faithful.. HANDY-man…”
It was like a punch right in my chest. And a rush of adrenaline (and other hormones) as he prowled and pranced while belting out “Sweet Transvestite.”
I was completely closeted. This was at least seven years before the first moment I would say aloud (very anxiously) the words “I think I might be gay.” I was still living in a small town attending a conservative evangelical church. I sang in an evangelical touring choir! At least 99% of the people I could categorize as friends were members of either the choir or very similar churches. I lived in a state of constant fear of someone not just calling me a fag (which happened all the time at school), but of deciding that it was actually true. I was constantly monitoring myself, trying to stop myself from saying things that didn’t conform to people’s expectations, trying to stop myself from doing things that didn’t conform, from admitting to liking things that people didn’t think a normal guy should like, and so forth.
And there, on the screen (not to mention sitting all around me) were people flaunting and reveling in nonconformity. Specifically sexual nonconformity!
It blew my mind.I was pulled into the movie. All the audience participation, the local cast, and everything that wasn’t happening on the screen just vanished for the rest of the movie. It didn’t matter. I just wanted to know what would happen next on screen.
I tried to talk about the plot of the movie with my friends during the drive home after. They were immensely amused that I actually followed the show for the plot. They insisted the movie was just an excuse for the audience to yell and leer. “It doesn’t really have a plot!”
I didn’t see it again for several years. But by then I could sing along to most of the songs, because I’d gotten hold of the soundtrack and listened to it about a million times. The audience participation bits had changed in those years. And when I saw it in a theatre one more time a few years later, they had changed further. I am a huge Rocky Horror fan who doesn’t know most of the audience participation stuff.
The movie is meant to be a parody of all those schlocky sci fi and horror films particularly of the 50s and 60s. The story isn’t meant to be literature. But the film isn’t, really about the story. It’s about taking what was subtext everywhere else—coded homosexual relationships, homoerotic tension (whether intentional or not), sexual relationships of all kinds—and making it manifest. Frank N Furter builds a man for the express purpose of being his sexual plaything, for goodness sake! Several of the characters are casually bisexual or pansexual, but the fact that traditional romances also involve sex (which films and stories before that virtually never acknowledged) is also shoved front and center.
The film doesn’t just poke fun at convention and conformity of all kinds, it dresses convention up in fishnet stockings and makes it sing and dance about why noncomfority is great.
Over the years I’ve watched the film many, many times at home, thanks to availability on VHS back in the day and later DVD. I’ve also attended a couple of live performances of the stage version, as well as really, really enjoying last year’s Rocky Horror Show LIVE by the BBC. I was thus really hopeful about the Fox remake of the film starring trans actress Laverne Cox… and I was sorely disappointed. They were both too timid and too slavishly committed to imitating the 1975 film. There were good moment. I’m happy to see that Tim Curry is able to work, despite the severe stroke he suffered a few years ago. And Adam Lambert rocked the Eddie role, but many of the other casting and design choices were… well, not good.
The BBC version of the live performance (with rotating actors playing the Criminologist–Anthony Stewart Head among them) is available in its entirely on YouTube. I quite enjoyed streaming it to my TV via the YouTube app on my Apple TV last week after watching the Fox version. And the original is available in many formats.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a parody of many sci fi and horror movies, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sci fi itself. Particularly if you define speculative fiction the way that my new favorite author, Nisi Shawl sometimes does: fiction that de-privileges the status quo. Rocky Horror does that, in spades, while celebrating the outsider, the misfits, and the freaks (and showing that there’s at least a little bit of a freak inside everyone). I wasn’t ready to come out after watching it the first time, but it was another step down the path of realizing that this queer sci fi geek was not alone in the world, and that it isn’t enough to just dream it, you have to let yourself be it.
S0, my hubby and I are attending our first GeekGirlCon, which is held at the Washington State Convention Center. It’s a sci fi con, dedicated to welcoming and celebrating girls, women, young women in geek/sci fi/fantasy culture.
And it’s fun!
First impression while we were in line to get our badges was that the crowd is much more like a pony con than a traditional sf/f convention. Fewer guys. A lot more kids. Not that there aren’t a lot of guys of all ages, here, but we’re in the minority. Which is the point, and not at all a bad thing.
There’s a Do It Yourself Science area that’s set up for kids to sit down and do science projects. Every time I’ve walked by today, it’s been pretty full. I first learned about it a couple months back when the GeekGirlCon mailing list sent out a link for people to donate to pay for the supplies and such in the area. You know I jumped on that. We need more science-literate people in future generations!
I’m writing this blog post in Introvert Alley, which is a room the set up for people to have a quiet, dark place to retreat to if you need it. It’s nice. I can still hear the con outside, but we’re clearly in another space. I had to adjust the brightness of my iPad screen several times before it felt right in here. Now I wish every con had someplace like this. When I feel the need for this sort of thing at some cons, I just head back to our hotel room. But since this place is about a fifteen minute drive from our house, and downtown hotels are never cheap, we don’t have that option.
The Exhibitor Hall (or dealer’s den) is huge. We did one long methodical sweep through it, only stopping at a couple of booths. I was pulled to one by a 1954 Hermes 3000 typewriter. The author whose table it was at, Eva L Elasigue, had typed some poetry on it. We geeked out about manual typewriters a bit, then I asked her about her book. She said it was mythic space opera, “think, Les Mis meets Cowboy Bebop.” No, I’m one of those queer boys who hates Les Mis. I know, sorry, it’s just too grim for me. But I understand the pathos and appeal it has for a lot of people. And I absolutely love Cowboy Bebop. And Cowboy Bebop’s noir-ish vibe certainly could go well with a Les Mis sensibility. So, as I told her, based on the pitch alone I had to buy the book: Bones of Starlight: Fire On All Sides.
We hadn’t walked far from her table when we hit one of those traffic jams that happen in crowed dealer’s rooms, so I opened the book, and read a few sentences. Yeah, I could totally hear a Cowboy Bebop soundtrack playing as I read. I got through the rest of the first page in starts and stops every time we had to wait while walking. I like it already and have high hopes for the rest of the book.
I’m seen several people I know, but other than Joi, it’s all been from a distance through the crowd, so haven’t talked to any of them, yet.
Michael reminded me that he hadn’t eaten before we left, so we tried to walk to a restaurant 600 feet away, but I managed to get turned around and go the wrong direction for at least that far before I figured out where we were. We’d exited the convention center from a side I’ve never been on before, and thanks to some construction projects happening outside (I think for the new light rail station), I couldn’t see any landmarks I recognized until we’d gone a block and a half the wrong way. We got to the place eventually, and the way we both inhaled our meals, clearly he wasn’t the only one who needed to eat.
I had trouble finding the room the next panel I wanted to see was in. By the time we did, the room was full with a guard at the door telling people the room was full. But the next panel I want to see is there, so I now know where it is and I can go get there early. I hope.
When I do check twitter, I’m trying to just skim over all the deplorable stuff. I much prefer the bright future I see on display here to the rationalization and rape apologetics that the Republicans are trying to pass off as political discourse this week.
I didn’t know that at the time. I just knew that whenever damaged books showed up at the used book store, they were sold for a lot cheaper than the others.
If my first copy of The Stainless Steel Rat was a stripped copy, it is highly appropriate, because the star of the book (and its many sequel), was Slippery Jim DiGriz, the slickest conman and thief of the 346th Century.
DiGriz lived in an interstellar society with very high technology that made it nearly impossible for petty criminals to escape prison and “psycho surgery” for long. It took a special kind of criminal to thrive in that society. As the blurb on most of the paperback versions said:
“We must be as stealthy as rats in the wainscoting of their society. It was easier in the old days, of course, and society had more rats when the rules were looser, just as old wooden buildings have more rats than concrete buildings. But there are rats in the building now as well. Now that society is all ferrocrete and stainless steel there are fewer gaps in the joints. It takes a very smart rat indeed to find these openings. Only a stainless steel rat can be at home in this environment.”
The book’s written from first person narrative, beginning while Jim is in the middle of yet another insanely daring robbery. Things start going wrong, of course, and it isn’t too many pages in before Jim realizes that the dreaded Special Corps is onto him. The Special Corps is a shadowy agency that was responsible for catching one of the greats, a thief DiGriz admired from affair, Inskipp the Uncatchable… so, of course, when Special Corps hauls DiGriz in to be interrogated by the head of operations, it turns out it’s Inskipp himself. And he has a deal for DiGriz, the same deal Inskipp was offered years ago when he was captured: join the Corps and help catch dangerous criminals, or have his brain altered…
DiGriz was chosen, just as Inskipp was, because DiGriz always planned his heists to very carefully avoid causing and physical harm to any people involved. A few of his previous operations he had even abandoned the heist when it became clear that complications had put people in danger. DiGiz’s first assignment (and the rest of the book) is to try to catch a serial killer.
But this isn’t like a gritty modern bloody serial killer story. The book is written as a light caper, with comedic bits. So the book was a romping adventure story, and far more concerned with the puzzle aspects. The character arcs and interaction are the focus, along with some humor.
It wasn’t just humor. The story explored issues of identity, free will, and what does it mean to be a member of a social species. Jim had always been careful not just to avoid hurting people, but he also always picked targets that were fully insured. He rationalized his existence as providing entertainment or spectacle. He kept security people and police on their toes and in practice. At least that’s what he told himself. Buried in that, along with his eventual confrontation with the killer, were also serious questions about privacy vs security, and control vs freedom.
So it made me think about many things. At different times in the narrative, I found myself agreeing with Jim more than I thought I would. And as I read the book again and again (because it was yet another one that I re-read many times), I found my sympathies seesawing back and forth as I considered the questions. The Special Corps protecting people from sometimes quite serious threats, but they operated in almost complete secrecy, and apparently answered only to themselves.
On the other hand, they had a number of agents like Slippery Jim, who broke ranks from time to time, and demonstrated a willingness to take down the agency if it went too far. Was that enough of to balance things out? In a real world, probably not. And it’s the kind of question still very relevant today.
In my later teens I found the sequels, and after I enthused about them to friends, someone bought me a shiny new copy of the first book for my birthday. The first few sequels cover the next several years in the life of Special Corps (occasionally rogue) Agent DiGriz… and his wife, and their eventual children. Then in 80s Harrison wrote some prequels, showing us events in the life of young Slippery Jim, how he learned his craft and became a legendary thief.
Harrison returned to the older DiGriz for the rest of the series, writing 12 Stainless Steel Rat books total before his death (the last one published posthumously). The Stainless Steel Rat wasn’t the only multibook series the Harrison wrote, but Slippery Jim was the first of his books that I remember reading, and the likable, extremely smart, and capably rogue is a character type that I became very fond of.
The book gave me another way to wrestle with the idea of my own identity. Harrison argued colorfully but persuasively for the idea that the law and customs aren’t always right. Morality and ethics have to come from a sense of empathy and a willingness to do right by people. And those were notions that gave me some more hope, as a closeted queer kid growing up among fundamentalists.
I was reading this blog post: Constantine or when the imitators eclipse the original about why an adaptation of a classic might be well done, but still seem derivative (and not of its source material). It reminded me of once when I read someone’s post about being disappointed about a Theodore Sturgeon book from the fifties, because it seemed to be a rip-off of the X-men. So I explained that it was the other way around: the original X-men comic book was created more than a decade after the Sturgeon works in question, and the same reason many people called Sturgeon’s stories classics, meant that lots of stories written since then have incorporated (and in many cased improved upon) his original ideas.
Once I noticed the phenomenon, I started seeing it everywhere. A story that had first introduced a particular concept or literary technique is hailed as a classic or breakthrough, but a decade of more later when hundreds of stories, movies, television episodes, et al have been influenced by it, the original pales by comparison.
I think Buhlert, the author of the above linked blog post, is correct that this phenomenon is a big part of why the recent television adaptation of the comic book character John Constantine flopped. But I also think there is more to it than that. I complained at the time that the showrunners had explicitly stated that this John Constantine, unlike the character in the comic books, was definitely not bisexual. And I don’t think the decision was a bad one because I think adaptations ought to slavishly follow the original. Nor do I think the decision was bad merely because as a queer person myself I take queer erasure personally.
It was a bad decision artistically because it was a symptom of a bigger problem. The people adapting the character and the character’s story failed to understand the essence of the character. Constantine isn’t merely a mystical version of a noir detective. While the character appears to dwell in that aesthetic, there is a significant difference. The archetypical noir protagonist is alienated and filled with existential bitterness, striving against random uncaring fate. Noir protagonists (and noir story lines) lack hope. Noir protagonists are frequently doomed because they are manipulated by others, traditionally a femme fatale.
The art style of Hellblazer, the comic series that starred Constantine, was very like a film noir. And Constantine’s cynicism looks an awful lot like the typical noir protagonist to the casual observer. But Constantine wasn’t alienated. Alan Moore, who created Constantine, once said that he was aiming for a character who knew everything and knew everyone; a character who was charismatic and never at a loss for what to do. That made Constantine, in several important aspects, the opposite of a noir protagonist. Constantine doesn’t struggle against random, uncaring fate—he often struggles against supernatural forces that are emphatically intentional in their disruption of mortal life—not at all random.
Constantine cares about people; he’s not alienated, he’s connected. And while manipulation happens in Constantine stories, it is usually Constantine doing the manipulation, rather than being the victim of manipulation. His cynicism comes from observing, again and again, that people he cares about always die. The noir protagonist’s cynicism, on the other hand, is usually the result of being betrayed or failed again and again by people they trust.
For example, in one issue of the comic, the King of the Vampires kills a man that Constantine had hooked up with the night before. When the King asks Constantine if the dead man was a friend, Constantine’s reply is, “He’s dead now, so he must have been.”
Sidenote: It has been said that noir’s roots are irrevocably American. I agree with Buhlert’s assessment that Constantine is quintessentially British, and that he works best in a British setting. And even when his stories don’t have a British setting, he is better when being writing by a British author (in my humble opinion). The showrunners’ decision to move Constantine to the U.S. certainly didn’t improve the chances they would catch the essence of the character.
To get back to my main point: You can have a straight character who has all of those characteristics, but the same sort of shallow misunderstanding of the character which leads someone to say, “we can drop his queerness” also led them to miss all the other things that made Constantine different from the noir archetype. When you combine that with the phenomenon that much of urban fantasy has adopted the aesthetic of the original Hellblazer comics, it just increased the likelihood that what they produced would come out as a bland copy of something we’ve seen a thousand times before.