Tag Archive | ThrowbackThursday

She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness — more of why I love sf/f

Anthony Head, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Brandon Nicholas, Allison Hannagan and James Marsters from a BtVS publicity shot.

Anthony Head, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Brandon Nicholas, Allison Hannagan and James Marsters from a BtVS publicity shot.

I am one of the biggest, craziest Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans you will ever meet. But I wasn’t always one. I saw the original movie when it came out, and thought it was very funny. There were some things I didn’t like about it, but it was a good laugh and a fun inversion of the typical teen horror film. Then a few years later I heard they were making a television series out of it, and I was certain it would be very bad. My late husband, Ray, watched it from the beginning when it started airing as a midseason replacement in March of 1997 and told me it was awesome. At the time, it aired on a night when I frequently had board meetings or committee meetings for the chorus, so I wasn’t home while he was watching it.

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…!

Dru and Spike!

Dru and Spike!

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.

“The human race might have one more chance…” – more of why I love sf/f

(l to r) Richard Hatch as Captain Apollo, Lorne Greene as Commander Adama, and Dirk Benedict as Starbuck. Promotional image from the original series. © 1978 Glen A. Larson Productions & Universal Television.

(l to r) Richard Hatch as Captain Apollo, Lorne Greene as Commander Adama, and Dirk Benedict as Starbuck. Promotional image from the original series. © 1978 Glen A. Larson Productions &
Universal Television.

Almost everything I thought I remembered about the original Battlestar Galactica television series was wrong. I started working on this post after Richard Hatch, the original Apollo passed away. I’d written some thoughts on my memories of the show, and was doing some research to put dates and context to my memories and discovered that my brain had apparently retconned lots of things. Since part of that post had involved recounting discussions that my old friend, Doug, and I had had about the show, and I had recently re-told the story of Doug and the Train Crossing to a friend, I decided to set the Galactica post aside for a while and write about my friend, instead.

Now, the things I misremembered about the series had almost nothing to do with the episodes or the storylines. And I’m at least a little bit curious as to why my brain made the changes in recollection that it did. The gist is: my recollection was that the series premiered shortly before my mom, sister, and I moved out to the west coast following my parents’ divorce (when I was 15 years old), that I initially liked the series but became dissatisfied with it as the seasons went on, and was slightly curious years later when the follow-up series Galactica 1980 was released, but was even more disappointed in how poorly the show had aged.

Which is all very, very wrong. And some of it was wrong in ways that are kind of flabbergasting. The original series premiered the same month as my 18th birthday and a little over a year after the worldwide premiere of the original Star Wars. It was only on the air for one season (24 episodes). And the gap between the ending of the original series and the premiere of the follow up was only 8 months.

Glen A. Larson originally conceived the series in the mid-sixties as a group of about three television movies called Adam’s Ark. It was a synthesis of space opera themes with Mormon theology (Larson having been raised in the Church of the Latter Day Saints). Larson had been unable to sell the idea to anyone. Even when a couple years later Star Trek became briefly a minor hit series. (Star Trek, of course, wouldn’t become a sci fi behemoth until later, after reruns had been running in syndication for several years).

Then, in 1977, the movie Star Wars was a worldwide blockbuster hit, and suddenly every network, movie studio, and anyone else in the entertainment/media/publishing world was looking to cash in on its incredible success. Larson’s pilot script looked very attractive.

They filmed the pilot, ABC bought it, put the series on the air with an incredible budget that wouldn’t be exceeded by any other TV show for many years, and we were off. The show did incredibly well in the ratings for the first month or so, until CBS shifted its schedule to put the very popular All In the Family and Alice up against it, causing Galactica’s ratings to slip a lot. Of course, the series might have slipped anyway. The initial spectacle of billions of people killed in the opening battle (not to mention the show’s willingness to cast more famous actors in roles that died within the first several episodes) really seized the imagination. Whereas a lot of the filler episodes were, well, pretty bad. And some things, like the robotic dog pieced together from parts to replace the real dog (killed in the pilot) that had once , were very cheesy.

And while those special effects were lightyears beyond anything seen on television before, they were very expensive. So the network expected not just good ratings, but unbelievably good ratings.

Still, the show had a lot going for it. It didn’t hurt that I had a big crush on Starbuck, of course. But I also had a different kind of crush on Apollo. It wasn’t until some years later, when I got to rewatch some of the original series after I had actually admitted to myself that I was gay that I realize I had the hots for Starbuck, but Apollo was who I wanted to fall in love with and settle down.

Hatch’s character was different than the typical leading man at the time. Unlike the reboot series, Apollo had a warm relationship of mutual respect with his father, Commander Adama. In the pilot he met and practically adopted Boxy (the young boy whose dog had died) helped reunite the boy with his mother, prompted fell in love with said mother, married her, and even though she is killed shortly after the wedding in a Cylon attack, remains a good father. Heroes had been family men before, of course, but unlike some previous fictional fathers, Hatch made you believe that he loved his stepson.

There was a lot to like about the original Galactica. Cool space battle, for one. The Cylon Centurions were a bit cheesy–their chrome colored bodies were always so shiny and unscuffed, even after tramping through a sandstorm on yet another planet that looked like a Universal blacklot generic Western landscape with inexplicable lights added to make it look spacey(?), for instance. But both individual Cylons and the fleet were appropriately menacing. The show did a good job of making it feel like the stakes were real. And the notion that even after the mass murder of billions of people, a group of survivors would claw hope out of disaster and look for a new home was more than just heartwarming.

The show had some problems, as well. Some of them are typical problems of producing a weekly science fiction television series with 1970s technology and practices. Others were more thematic. The fundamental premise from the beginning was that contemplating disarmament as a step toward peaceful co-existence was the most foolish thing people could do. Given the nuclear stand-off between the U.S. and our NATO allies on one side, and the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies on the other, and the very active policy and treaty debates going on at the time, the show was staking a blatant political position. Related, throughout the original series, the military leaders were shown time and time again to always be right, while civilians (particularly any who advocated non-violent philosophies) were always wrong–and not merely wrong, but naively and disasterously wrong again and again.

Remember that the next time someone claims that sci fi has only become political recently.

While caught up in an individual episode it was easy to ignore those problematic elements. Besides, I loved Commander Adama, he was a hero and a great leader! And his son, Apollo, respected him, and we saw a lot more of Apollo in action on screen and he was clearly a good man, brave, loyal, and so forth. Even the sort-of-rebellious Starbuck respected Adama! Therefore our affection for Adama was not misplaced, right? Except, of course, that the examples of civilians who had a different opinion than the military command tended to be one-dimensional or transparently designed to either be unlikeable or pitiably naive.

So Galactica was hardly nuanced.

I liked it. The idea of fighting on against impossible odds is almost always appealing. People who snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with nothing more than hope, courage, and a bit of cleverness are fun to root for. And Galactica gave us that aplenty.

And you can hardly fault a story for that.

Remembering Doug

A mutual friend once said, “The best way to describe Doug is he epitomizes oops-ishness.” And half the reason that stuck with me (besides being true) is that I simply love the coined word, “oopsishness!” I met Doug back in 1976, shortly after moving to southwest Washington from Colorado. I met him shortly after joining an interdenominational (fundamentalist evangelical) teen touring choir, as we were both placed in the same section. Doug two years younger than I was. He was one of the first guys I had ever met who was nerdier than me–and that’s saying something!

Now, his oopsishness wasn’t just a matter of clumsiness. No, Doug took things to a much higher level. Doug wasn’t dumb, by any means, but sometimes he would be extremely oblivious. He would get himself into strange (and usually hilarious) predicaments without being able to explain afterward exactly how it happened. Which meant people who knew him wound up laughing, rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, or picking their own jaws up from the floor after some of his mishaps. You know that old silent movie scene where a character steps into what appears to be an ordinary puddle of water on a street, but plummets completely out of sight? That actually happened to Doug. It was a flooded basement at his workplace rather than a street, but it happened.

Twice in a single evening. The second time at a different basement nearby.

That hardly scratches the surface, though. No, to really understand how oopsish Doug could be, you have to hear about the Train Crossing Incident.

We’d been out gaming with friends, and Doug was giving me a ride home. I was attending community college part-time and working multiple jobs at the time, and living at my grandparents’ house. I was trying to get the funds together to transfer to a university. Anyway, my grandparents lived in a part of town that was between several mills and the port, so there were a number of train tracks that crossed roads. None of the crossings had gates, but all of them had lights and those clanging bell signals. And because none of the crossings had gates, the trains were required to sound their whistles a lot. Living in that neighborhood, by the way, is where I developed my ability to sleep through just about any noise.

We were driving along a dark road and Doug was enthusiastically telling me a story about some horrible thing that had happened to him recently. Ahead of us was a crossing, there was a train off a ways to our right, sounding its whistle, and the lights and bells of the crossing signal ahead of us were going full blast.

And I realized, suddenly, that Doug wasn’t slowing down. So I said, “Doug! There’s a train coming.”

Doug kept talking, and he’s not slowing down.

I repeated, slightly louder, “Doug! There’s a train! Stop!”

Doug kept talking. We are now close enough that I don’t know if we can stop in time, and the train is awfully close. I exclaimed, “Train! Train! Train! Stop the f–ing car!”

We crossed the tracks. The train was so close to us that as I shouting obscenities and looking out of the passenger window, I couldn’t see the headlight because it was blocked by the roof of the car, but I can count the smashed bugs on the front of the engine.

I was holding on for dear life, absolutely certain the train was going to hit us before we were past.

And then we’re on the otherside and I’m still shouting, and honestly, I don’t know how Doug could hear me over the deafining whistle, but he says, “What are you so upset about?”

“WE NEARLY DIED! DIDN’T YOU SEE THE TRAIN!?!”

I looked at him, and he’s peering at the rearview mirror, his mouth dropped open in a shocked expression, because all he can see is freight cars rushing past fairly close behind us. And then he said, “Wow, where did that train come from?”

Given the physics of the situation and how long Doug’s big ol’ four-door Oldsmobile was, I think the train couldn’t have missed the back bumper by more than an inch.

Doug stopped the car. He sat there, gripping the steering wheel and almost hyperventilating. “I didn’t hear anything. Was the signal working?”

“Yes. Bells clanging, lights flashing, train whistle blow, and me shouting at you to stop!” I replied.

After about a half a minute he says, “Wow,” and he starts laughing as he takes his foot off the brake and we start moving again. “I don’t know how I missed that!”

I was still trying to calm down. Doug seemed sincerely shocked and insisted he hadn’t seen or heard the train or the signals, nor my first several warnings. And I believed him. It fit perfectly with many things I’d seen before. He could recall miniscule details from a movie he had just watched, or a book he had read, but swear he didn’t notice that a door which had been open a few minutes prior was now closed and walk right into it.

I used to love telling this story to both people who had never met Doug, and to folks who knew him. And the thing is, Doug loved telling these kinds of stories about himself, and did so all the time.

As funny as they are in retrospect, the experiences were often painful and terrifying to live through. And then, years later, we got an explanation.

Doug and I hadn’t lived in the same town for some years when I heard that he had become seriously sick and was trying to get on disability. I had last visited him and his wife about eight years previously, but we kept in touch via email. I pinged him to see how things were going, and soon we were on the phone. We laughed a lot, despite the subject matter being so serious.

Originally he had been diagnosed with generic peripheral artery disease, which is most commonly the result of the gradual build up of fatty materials inside the arteries. But they eventually discovered that the underlying cause was a more rare condition, one in which a person has fewer capillaries per volume of tissue to begin with. It was a congental problem he’d had his entire life, it was just getting noticeable as a medical issue as the ordinary build up of fat inside the vessels restricted things further.

In effect, his entire life every organ in his body had struggled with less than optimal levels of oxygen and nutrients because there were literally fewer tiny blood vessels, everywhere. It’s probably the reason that he always caught every virus or sniffle that went around. It also contributed to his longer than usual recovery times when he got injured. And it also meant that under lots of circumstances, his brain would be left with inadequate oxygen. And we think that one of the ways that the brain defends itself from damage in those cases, is to essentially shut down some functions temporarily, until oxygen levels return to normal.

I was getting depressed listening to him describe it, and starting to feel guilty for all the times we had shared those “Doug does something unbelievable weird or dumb” stories.

But Doug didn’t look at it that way at all. “It’s a relief, actually,” he said. “I mean, for years I kept wondering if something was wrong with me, mentally. But finding out that yeah, something is wrong, but it’s medical is a lot easier to accept. It’s not that I’ve got an intellectual deficiency, it’s that my body was dealing with this weird problem we didn’t know about. Literally, part of my brain would be starved of oxygen and shut off!”

Sadly, by the time of this diagnosis, there wasn’t much they could do. He had already suffered a lot of tissue loss not just in the muscles of his extremities, but also throughout his organs. They could slow the progression of the tissue necrosis by keeping him on oxygen, for instance, but the usual techniques for treating arterial disease such as bypass and so forth couldn’t address the underlying issue. The blocked arteries made it worse, but the capillary deficiency would still be there.

We stayed in touch mostly through the magic of the internet until his death just over six years ago. He remained his usual cheerful self throughout the last few years of his life. He always made a joke no matter how bad the news that he was sharing about the latest development was. As he said just about every time he told a story about one of his mishaps, “If you can’t laugh about it, what’s the point?”

Crime Does Not Pay (but the hours are good)!

This is one of the covers I made for the gaming binders to help me remember what was in which binder.

This is one of the covers I made for the gaming binders to help me remember what was in which binder.

Back in 1981 I decided that what the world needed was a superhero roleplaying game. At the time, there wasn’t much on the market, and the few games that existed barely qualified as a full-fledged gaming system. But I’d been playing in various roleplaying games for a few years, and had been a superhero comic fan for as long as I could remember (my mom was a comics as well as sci fi/fantasy fan before I was born, so I’m a second generation fan). Since the few games I could find weren’t adequate to my needs for playing at superhero, I invented my own game. I originally called in, unimaginatively, Superheroes. And after about a week of writing up some tables and power descriptions, I talked several members of my gaming group into putting together characters. It wasn’t long before I had enough people playing it, that they started recruiting acquaintances. I made changes and improvements to the rules. Over the course of a few months, I typed a couple hundred pages of rules.

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.

The collection of empty three-ring binders left over after I recycled the gaming notes. Please notice that several of more the 4-inch thick binders.

The collection of empty three-ring binders left over after I recycled the gaming notes. Please notice that several of more the 4-inch thick binders.

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.

One person’s fave is another’s wtf – more of why I love sf/f

5thI don’t remember the first time I found a copy of an anthology that proclaimed itself to contain the best science fiction of a particular year. I am also not sure how many of them I had seen and read before I realized that there were multiple publishing houses putting out those annual collections. It was difficult to tell because they had such similar names: “[YEAR]: the World’s Best SF,” or “[YEAR]: the Annual World’s Best Science Fiction,” or “The World’s Best Science Fiction the Year: [YEAR]” or “The Annual [NUMBER] Edition Year’s Best S-F” and so on. And let’s not even get into the fact that 90-some percent of the stories included were written by authors in the U.S., with only a small number of authors from the UK, Canada, Australia, or another English-speaking country getting in.

I was 18 when I went on a buying binge picking up as many editions of the series edited by Donald Wolheim as I could, as I had read a few of his previous collections and found they more often contained several stories I liked than some of the others. Wolheim’s taste was close enough to mine that I could count on several good ones in each collection. And it was good to know an editor I could count on to find good ones. I’d been a little shocked at just how many stories I had disliked in some of the other similarly named collections. When I was younger, I assumed that if the name of the book included “The Best…” that it ought to be true, and thus had a few unpleasant surprises.

picture056_15jul06Of course now it seems obvious that any list of The Best of anything is going to be subjective. When you also understand that in order for a story to be included in one of these collections, the editors have to contact the author or representative and get permission to include their story. For a few decades, every publisher that had a science fiction/fantasy imprint seemed to be publishing one of these annual collections, so they were competing against each other. So if, say 12 stories wound up in one editor’s collection, that doesn’t necessarily mean they were the top (in the editor’s opinion) 12 stories published that year, but rather were the 12 out of a longer list which the editor was able to negotiate a deal.

One upside was that the various annual Best of anthologies usually didn’t have any overlap.

I love them, even though there were always at least a few stories that I didn’t like. There was always a story that I did like written by and author whose name I didn’t recognize, giving me someone knew to look for. Another nice thing was the variety of type of story. Even though they were all picked by the same editor, the stories seldom had anything in common. Themed anthologies can be cool, but sometimes they’re a bit hard to get through because when the stories all fall into a single theme and are all picked by the same editor, some can feel a bit repititious.

Another thing I love about all of those competing Best Of book series is that there are thousands and thousands of copies of the books in hardcover and paperback out there in used book stores. So if, like me, you love to browse all the bookseller booths or tables at sci fi cons, or can easily spend hours wondering in a used book store, you are likely to run across some of these little treasure troves at a reasonable price.

The last few years I’ve read lots of blog posts—and listened to some spirited discussions—about the idea of a science fiction/fantasy canon. Books that every fan or every aspiring right should have read. Unfortunately a lot of books from days gone by that were important to the development of the genre, and/or were beloved by many fans over a span many years, don’t hold up so well for younger readers. Heck, sometimes they don’t old up for us old fogies! I still remember the utter horror I felt when I found a copy of a fantasy book that I had absolutely loved when I was 10 or so, only to find some really blatant anti-semitism and problematic treatment of native peoples when I found a copy again as an adult. As a kid, that stuff had sailed right over my head, but I can’t in good conscience recommend that book now without at least a warning.

So I don’t think it’s right to insist that someone isn’t a true fan or doesn’t understand the genre if they haven’t read specific books. But I do think that we benefit from being familiar with the roots of our favorite genres. And I think that all writers benefit from reading broadly and occasionally reading things outside their comfort zones. Which brings us to another thing I like about these old Best Of collections. Select any one at random and you will get a number of short stories written by a bunch of different people. It’s a lot easier to get through a short story that challenges you in one way or another, than to get all the way through a novel. It’s one way to get samples of some of the roots of the genre without amassing a pile of old books many of which not only will you never be interested in reading again, but that you won’t force yourself to get all the way through.

And odds are, you will find at least one story you like a lot. Which may send you looking for more stories by an author you’d never heard of before. That’s always fun.

Not to mention the possibility that a bad story can serve a good purpose, even if it is only an example of the kind of writing you never want to do yourself.

There wolf! There castle! why sf/f doesn’t have to be serious

Peter Boyle as the monster, choking Gene Wilder while Marty Feldman and Teri Garr partake in an impromptu game of Charades. (© 20th Century Fox)

Peter Boyle as the monster, choking Gene Wilder while Marty Feldman and Teri Garr partake in an impromptu game of Charades. (© 20th Century Fox)

I was fourteen years old when the movie Young Frankenstein was released. The small town where I lived had only one theatre, and it showed two movies each week. One played Monday through Thursday, I believe, and the other would play Friday through Sunday, sometimes with a matinee Saturday afternoon (but not always). No matter how sold out any show was, it didn’t stay past its scheduled three or four day run.

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.

Stay Sane Inside Insanity – more of why I love sf/f

Frank, Riff -Raff, Magenta and Columbia from the original Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Frank, Riff -Raff, Magenta and Columbia from the original Rocky Horror Picture Show.

I was 17 or 18 years old when two friends took me on a drive down to Portland, Oregon to see a “funny movie” that I might like. It wasn’t the first time that Jim and Bob had taken me to Portland to shop for comics and then catch a movie, but it was the first time that we left so late in the evening. The movie was only shown at midnight, they said.

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.

Tim Curry during the Sweet Transvestite show-stopper.

Tim Curry during the Sweet Transvestite show-stopper.

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.

Dr. Frank N. Furter made a man explicitly to be his sexual plaything.

Dr. Frank N. Furter made a man explicitly to be his sexual plaything.

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.

Longing, Loathing, and Locution — how you love in sf/f isn’t the only way

Cora Buhlert argued very convincingly this week that there are Three Fractions of Speculative Fiction. She identifies them as the Traditionalists, the Anti-Nostalgics, and the Character Driven1.

Traditionalist fans want sci fi that is heavy on the engineering and explosions and light on the characterization. Rightwing politics in space is all right, but they’d prefer the stories not focus on issues that matter to women, people of colour, or LGBT people. Literary fiction is right out.

Anti-Nostalgic fans want speculative fiction that is sophisticated, literary, and eschews old paradigms. They vehemently reject anything nostalgic. They think the only worthwhile stories are the ones which break new ground and redefine the genre. Many of them give lip service to wanting diversity, but they heap condescension on all non-white, non-male, non-straight writers except one or two favored tokens.

Character Driven fans want sf/f that is heavy on characterization. They aren’t opposed to Big Ideas, but emotional arcs, moral dilemmas, and the effects of technology on human lives should drive the plot, to the point that sci fi tropes can exist as mere set dressing. They are especially fond of protagonists and settings which have previously been neglected in classic sf (women, characters of color, LGBT characters, disabled characters, non-western european settings, non-Anglo cultures).

I think these are fairly good definitions of three of the big categories of science fiction and fantasy enthusiasts. Though there will be some overlap, and of course no classification system is going to neatly encompass everyone. For instance, I have emphatically argued that Babylon Five (which I loved) is not science fiction at all, but rather techno-fantasy. It is an epic fantasy which wraps itself in all of the trappings of space opera, but gets some extremely basic science that is fundamental to its main plot laughably and embarrassingly wrong. When I was in the heat of such an argument, I’m sure that I looked to all outside observers like a pure Traditionalist there. Whereas anyone who has read my fiction would likely place me in the Character Driven group.

I also agree with Buhlert that the struggle between the Traditionalist and Anti-Nostalgics has been raging in various incarnations since at least the 1930s. Her examples are: the Campbellian SF versus Pulp Adventure SF, the exclusion of the Futurians from the ’39 WorldCon, the New Wave versus the Campbellians (which had become the old guard by then), the rise of and resistance to Cyberpunk. With each wave, elements that had been new and different and championed by the Anti-Nostalgics were co-opted by the Traditionalist (along with some of their fans), until some other upstarts came along.

There are at least two other fan wars that were primarily Traditionalist vs Anti-Nostalgics that I’d like to throw into the mix. In the early 70s fans who had subscribed to (and later contributed to) magazines for years looked with disdain on fans who never read the monthly ‘zines, and only read novels and anthologies (which were reprints of selected works from the ‘zines). In the later 70s, when comic book fans started coming to sci fi conventions, there was another backlash against these newbies and their “picture books.”2

But not all of the upstarts have been Anti-Nostalgics. When Star Trek fandom blossomed spontaneously, rather than from within existing sf/f fandom, there was a strong backlash, with elements of both the Traditionalist and Anti-Nostalgics looking down on these Trekkies, who weren’t just newbies unfamiliar with classic sf and traditional fandom, but were far more likely to be women! Trek was just the first of many waves of Media Fans (new fans brought into the fold primarily by movies and television)—Doctor Who, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica3, anime, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight—that have each faced resistance and rejection from established fandom.

A lot of these Media Fans fall into the Character Driven category. And just like the Anti-Nostalgic waves before them, most of them have, after being resisted by Traditionalists, been at least been partially assimilated. To the point that the stereotypical attacker of a Fake Geek Girl is a guy who speaks Klingon, has a collection of Star Wars figurines, and will attempt to exclude the girl by asking super obscure comic book questions.

But even more than that, each new wave of the Media Fans tends to have more women, particularly young women and girls, more people of color, more queers, and other marginalized groups than the existing fandom as a whole. I believe the reasons for that is that movies, television, and hit young adult books4 are readily available to all demographic segments of society, and find enthusiasts from all of those walks of life. Established fandom isn’t very welcoming of the newbies, especially non-male, non-white, non-straight newbies. The subsets of the previous waves that have assimilated into existing fandom winds up skewing male, straight, and white. Which perpetuates the problem.

The queers, women, and people of color continue to be fans of sf/f, but more and more they find welcoming communities on the web and outside the established fandom, some times creating their own conventions and meet-ups.

And it’s not just because the existing fandom is all actively racist, misogynist, and homophobic. It’s a combination of lots of subtle things. When the vast majority of the staff of a convention is white, and you’re not, you don’t feel welcome. When the vast majority of existing fans keep telling you that you must read certain classics, which are full of straight white male protagonists, with plots that are full of misogynist and colonial subtext, you don’t feel that this fandom is for you. Heck, when the existing fans won’t talk about anything published less than thirty years ago, and you’re younger than the books they keep talking about, you don’t feel invited7.

The most recent fannish dust-up, the Affair of the Melancholy Canines, is mostly a subset of the Traditionalist reacting to the kind of fiction the Character Driven fans like starting to get more than token representation in certain awards short lists, as well as the inclusion of non-white, non-male, non-straight writers and editors on those lists in more than small token numbers. The Melancholy Canines also claim that they’re pushing back against the sort of literary fiction the Anti-Nostalgics want, but the funny thing is that the Anti-Nostalgics hate all the same books and authors as the Canines. And if you read some of the posts that Buhlert links to, you’ll notice that they heap rather a lot of condescension on the writers who happen to be women or people of color.

I’m hopeful that this time, maybe, the section of fandom that welcomes (and is eager to both create and consume) sf/f that’s inclusive of all genders, gender identities, races, abilities, et cetera continues to grow and make inroads throughout fandom. It isn’t guaranteed. Previous waves haven’t been successful in changing the complexion of established fandom, after all.

But I’m not giving up. This queer fan is staying right here. I’m going to keep writing the kinds of characters and stories I like. I’m going to keep reading the good stuff I can find. I’m going to try to start doing a better job of promoting all of the interesting newer stuff I’m reading, as well.

“I want to write about people I love, and put them into a fictional world spun out of my own mind, not the world we actually have, because the world we actually have does not meet my standards. In my writing I even question the universe; I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real.”
― Philip K. Dick


Footnotes:

1. I am attempting to paraphrase Buhlert here, but my own perceptions may be skewing her point. If you don’t like anything I say here, blame me.

2. The current incarnation of the Anti-Nostalgics is very snobbish and literary, whereas the primary argument against both the non-magazine subscribers and the comic book fans were that they weren’t perceived as reading as broadly nor as seriously as the Traditional fans. Both sides have been snobbish in various ways. The comic fans argued that graphic stories (even though comics had been around for decades) were a new and more experimental art form than the unillustrated word on paper, for instance.

3. Original series. By the time the reboot series had happened, enough fans of the old series had been incorporated into the fandom community that the new series was embraced by many, and their fans tolerated by the rest.

4. It seems to me that Young Adult series have become the new gateway books. Back in the 50s and even still ins the 60s5, the Heinlein juveniles were the introduction to sf for many. Though certain older fogies6 still insisted on panels at conventions that Heinlein’s works are great gateways, the truth is most of his work (the juveniles in particular) have not aged well.

5. Which is when was a child finding Heinlein books in school libraries.

6. By which I mean, older than me.

7. I’ve published on this blog a series of “why I love sf/f” posts that focus on books, short stories, shows, writers, and magazines I read as a kid and teen-ager and how they influenced me as a fan (and a writer). So I’m not saying that nothing printed more then a decade ago is worth anyone’s time. I haven’t written about everything I read back then, because not all of it was good. Even for the works I really loved, sometimes had problems I didn’t recognize back then, which I’ve commented on (the children’s book that had two antisemitic scenes which flew right over my head as a child, and shocked the heck out of me when I rediscovered the book in my thirties, for instance). The issue is that when established members of the community tell you (explicitly or not) that only people who can love those particular books can be part of the community, well, when the young fan finds themselves cringing at the blatant homophobia, the racism, the misogyny (or at least total lack of any portrayal of many types of people who live in the real world), the message seems clear that we aren’t welcome in the community.

Metallic Rodents and Secret Agencies: more of why I love sf/f

The 1961 paperback edition of The Stainless Steel Rat, cover art by John Schoenherr

The 1961 paperback edition of The Stainless Steel Rat, cover art by John Schoenherr (click to embiggen)

I was in middle school when I found a copy of Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat in a pile of cheap used books for sale. It was missing the front cover, which I didn’t know at the time probably meant it had been stripped. When a bookstore decides that a book has been sitting on the shelf too long and isn’t going to sell, their distribution contract usually allows them to destroy the book without selling it and get a refund from the publisher. To prove that they’ve destroyed the unsold copies, the store is required to send back the covers from each book destroyed. Shipping back just the cover was cheaper than shipping entire books. This is why many books carry a warning on one of the opening pages that if the book is sold without a cover, it is considered stolen property. (Hardbacks usually are not destroyed, as they will be remaindered, specifically sold at super cheap prices at certain chain stores.)

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.

Skillful Men of the Medical and Chirurgical Profession – more of why I love sf/f

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850.

Occasionally I find myself in the position of having to defend labeling some books or movies or television shows as being part of the science fiction/fantasy genre. For instance, a few years ago, during the early seasons of Person of Interest, someone said I shouldn’t call it sf because it was just an action adventure with a computer. But the Machine (which is the only name they ever give it) isn’t a computer, it is an artificial intelligent program that runs on many machines and is able to correlation data from many feeds and accurately predict people who are going to be victims or perpetrators of serious crime. That’s science fiction. Particularly when it is discovered the Machine has found ways to bypass some limits imposed on it by it’s designers, and even arranges to have a new cluster of computers set up in a new location and transmits itself there, and then has its old location dismantled so that people who know about it can’t destroy it—well that’s exhibiting freewill and more! (Things get really interesting in later seasons when a second, less benevolent AI is introduced)

Similarly, I’ve seen people argue that The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages isn’t really science fiction because it’s a historical novel set in 1943 telling a coming-of-age story of an 11-year-old girl growing up in Los Alamos where her father works on the secret project to build an atomic bomb. Whereas I think the nerdiness of a girl in the 1940s who is building her own radio from parts salvaged at the junk yard, combined with the way the novel explores how the government’s pursuit of this new technological advantage uproots children and disrupts their lives (exploring how new technologies impact society and people in nonmaterial ways has long been a significant part of sf), more than qualifies it.

But the granddaddy of all sf/f novels that people don’t realize is science fiction has got to be Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

I can hear you protesting, “But the Scarlet Letter is a Gothic morality tale about Puritan scandal and consequences and forgiveness set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony that they made us read in school. It can’t possibly be science fiction!” That just means you aren’t looking at it from the perspective on 1850, when it was written. Your argument that it isn’t sci fi is similar to someone saying, “Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea isn’t sci fi because supermarines are real!” Submarines didn’t exist when Verne wrote his story of Captain Nemo and his fantastic undersea ship powered by a mysterious electric force.

Similarly, in the Scarlet Letter the character of Chillingsworth (who is secretly the long lost husband of poor Hester Prynne who is saddled with the shame of having had a baby born too long after the presumed death of her husband to be legitimate) is a great example of a science fictional mad scientist. His methods of subtle torture as he secretly experiments on Reverent Dimmesdale (while pretending to be trying to cure his illness) was very science fictional. There are no herbs known that will “corrupt the soul” as the text colorfully describes it. Certainly nothing that would force a man’s greatest fears and secrets to manifest as physical scars that spell out his greatest sins on his flesh!

When described that way, people think of Chillingsworth’s “dark medicine” as some kind of magic, like B-movie depictions of voodoo or the like (complete with colonial cultural misappropriation, but I’ll get to that). But when Hawthorne wrote it, he meant it as what we would today call science fiction. He and many other educated people at the time believed that the sorts of effects he described could be accomplished by the proper application of chemistry and biology, we just didn’t know how, yet!

Just as many scholars refer to Mary Shelley as the either the mother or grandmother of science fiction (never forget: the author of Frankenstein was a teen-age girl who wrote a story which invented sci fi on a dare in 1818), they also sometimes refer to Hawthorne as the grandfather of sci fi. Hawthorne’s more obviously sci fi type stories, such as “Rappacinni’s Daughter,” “The Artist of the Beautiful,” or “Dr Heidegger’s Experiment” usually featured a mad scientist type character, rushing in to the dark corners of the universe where angels and sensible people hesitate to tread. But his more famous bits of gothic tragedy also have these elements. The House of Seven Gables has a hypnotist and posits a notion of inherited sin—that committing particularly heinous acts will warp you in ways that will somehow be passed on to your children. If science had known of the mechanism of DNA at the time when Hawthorne wrote, he surely would have had some learnéd person in the narrative talk about the theory of corrupted chromosomes, for instance.

Which brings us back to The Scarlet Letter, and the medical experiments that Chillingsworth secretly subjects Dimmesdale to as part of a plan to exact revenge on the man.

The Scarlet Letter was unusual in Hawthorne’s time for feature a female protagonist. And even more, for portraying the fallen woman as a sympathetic character, more worthy of the reader’s love and respect than any of those who stand judgment over her (and her child). Especially more worthy that her long missing husband, who instead of proclaiming his identity upon returning, forgiving his wife Hester for doing what she had to do to survive while he was off studying herbs and potions with vaguely described Native Americans, and raising Pearl as his own child, embarked on a truly mad plan to exact revenge on the father of Hester’s child.

I saw movie adaptations of The Scarlet Letter before I read the book. A copy of the book was part of a set of classics that a relative had given me for a Christmas present, but I didn’t try to read it until after watching one of the movies on TV. When I did, I found a lot of the contents had been glossed over in the movie. The movie made Chillingsworth’s actions seem more like just some slow acting poison, whereas the book made it clear Chillingsworth was doing something far more subtle and medically revolutionary.

Meanwhile, Hester refused to give in to the public shaming, but to sew her own scarlet letter A on her clothing and support herself by sewing. She also tends to the sick and destitute in the community, so much so that many begin to say that the A she wears doesn’t stand for Adulterer, but Angel and Able. That was a revolutionary idea: that a woman could take her destiny in her own hands and assert her independence. It was radical in 1850 when Hawthorne wrote it, and it would have been even more revolutionary in the mid-seventeenth century when the action of the novel is set.

The Scarlet Letter painted a portrait of how someone shunned and ostracized by their community–even someone condemned by the religious leaders–could be a noble and good person, contributing to society and ultimately rising above the false morality of that community. That was an important lesson for this queer kid growing up among Baptists and rednecks.

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