Fabula Interruptus And Other Problems

July 5, 2015
This adorable little moppet has a secret friend named Drill.

This adorable little moppet has a secret friend named Drill.

When I read that ABC was planning to turn Ray Bradbury’s short story “Zero Hour” into a tv series, I rolled my eyes, as I’m sure would most others familiar with the piece. It had been one of those pin-pricking yarns that really got to me as a kid, probably because of the parent issues involved. I was creeped out by “The Veldt” and Ray’s mushroom-growing boy in the same way. That ol’ Bradbury could really get under your skin, as in “Fever Dream,” another super-squirmish tale. The disquieting thing they all share is that the parents aren’t really, really listening, and it is they who putatively control reality for their kids. As a youngster in THE WHISPERS, the resulting series, tells her mother, grownups don’t know what’s really happening. They only think they do.

But wow, a whole tv series? This story can’t be more than 5,000 words long. Look it up and go read it right now. “Zero Hour.” It’ll take you fifteen minutes, tops. Then we’ll continue. If you have to order a Bradbury story collection to read “Zero Hour,” then I’ll see you after it arrives, at which point I will accept your gratitude for steering you to a really good book. You’re welcome.

Now. After watching as many episodes as tv critics usually get in advance to evaluate a new series (three or four), I have to concede that I’m rather pleased with how the WHISPERS writers have been able to “open up” the story. Having just read it (or watched or heard it; the previous two links guide you to tv and radio adaptations for printophobes), you already know, sort of, who or what the children’s invisible friend “Drill” is, and that is still the undercurrent that informs the entire shebang. But non-Bradburian plot points are opening up like flower petals as the little teeny story inspires a big multipart saga. And THE WHISPERS is hardly alone. We’re living in a Golden Age of scripted television. Not some fabled long ago. Right this dadburn second. But this age has brought with it some huge problems.

The LOST cast asks,

The LOST cast asks, “WTF?”

Everybody thought scripted tv had gone to hell after SURVIVOR ushered in a new wave of “reality” shows (they have their own writers, but let’s set that aside for now) as the century turned, and for a depressing little while it really looked that way. But creativity, like water, will always try to find a way into your home, and in my opinion the important hinge for scripted tv was fall 2004, when this same ABC premiered both LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. It’s true that THE SOPRANOS had started carving its path through the jungle as early as 1999. But subscription cable like HBO has a built-in ceiling. Even today, the recent record-breaking Season Five finale of GAME OF THRONES could only attract 8 million and change, meaning non-thief viewers coming from the subscriber pool. Those earlier two ABC series, in contrast, were beamed out on a Big Four broadcast network, and they flipped out the folks en masse.

(N.B.: Every time the Writers Guild calls a strike, it puts more writers out of work in the long run. “Reality” began as a palsied defensive salvo from the networks, but damn if it didn’t catch on!)

Soap operas and their prime-time cousins (e.g., DALLAS) aside, most dramas in the history of television had been episodic, meaning you could watch them in any order and they’d still make sense. LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES broke that mold on network tv. They were each one long serial tale, a series of weekly cliffhangers that not only required ordered viewing, but also felt compelled to feed the audience enough backstory at the top each week to create a new catchphrase: “Previously on LOST.” Now damn near everybody else works that way too.

The good news: a come-hither format that, when artfully executed, can deliver a sprawling story that resembles an epic novel but also makes you pant for next week’s continuation (this format took hold long before the instant gratification of streaming and bingeing became possible; see below). The bad news: these days it’s almost impossible to earn anything from domestic syndication, even with the jumbled-up episodic sitcoms that are perfect time-fillers and once celebrated their 100th episodes (they’d made enough of them to deal to local stations) more than their original green-lights: now we’re gonna get rich!

Even without the syndication market, LOST and HOUSEWIVES were such monster hits, bolstering ABC’s other shows on their air nights, that the law of diminishing returns was invoked and we began to see dozens of crappy imitators. Their fates helped change viewing patterns and, I submit, the very willingness of audiences to try out new programs.

THE EVENT cast asks,

THE EVENT cast asks, “WTF?”

An important personal touchstone was THE EVENT, a series that NBC launched in fall 2010, after LOST had just finally ended its six-year tale. Like LOST, THE EVENT was a vaguely foreboding story whose secrets and surprises began just out of camera range and were filled in gradually. The production looked like a million bucks, the cast were all seasoned pros, NBC promoted it as hard as humanly possible, and I started watching the 22-episode first season, having found a new hour per week with the finale of my beloved LOST. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough colleagues in dens and media rooms across the country, and NBC cancelled the program after a single season — even though the drumrolled “event” of the title had not yet taken place!

I felt cheated, foolish, taken advantage of. NBC had utterly wasted my time, pulled a rug out from under me. (Of course ratings are ratings and tv is a business, I get it, but I was still one disappointed customer.) However, THE EVENT did teach me a lesson. Now I’m wary enough to really pick and choose with healthy skepticism among the time-sinks competing for my attention. And I’m not alone. Nor is THE EVENT. While I was writing this piece, NBC pulled the plug on AMERICAN ODYSSEY, whatever that is, after one lone season. If you were interested in its story, better get disinterested right away.

This LOST/EVENT template, a weekly serial which may or may not actually reach its payoff, is being replicated all over the dial. Ten or twenty scripted mega-stories launch every year now. The latest innovation is the “summer series,” like UNDER THE DOME or THE STRAIN, which brings the tv calendar full circle and makes “the new season” year-round. But also spiking is the threat of cancellation.

An entire little town asks,

An entire little town asks, “WTF?”

This attrition-in-disgust resentment is not news to those who fashion our programs, the suits and showrunners. So some clever people decided to cut losses and introduce something new: the non-serial series. AMERICAN HORROR STORY proved so creepy and visceral that its producers said, renew us and we’ll reboot for another unrelated ten-episode story; all we’ll promise is the same sensibility. FARGO made the identical move: we’re going to set our ten episodes within the world of the Coen brothers’ movie, then we’ll reset and try another story within the same milieu. (That’s how you can get, say, Billy Bob Thornton to star: the gig has an end date.) I read that WAYWARD PINES was always planned as ten episodes with a beginning and an end, but it’s been doing pretty well, so we’ll see if Fox can resist the temptation to plod on serially.

A single member of the WAYWARD PINES cast asks,

A single member of the WAYWARD PINES cast asks, “WTF?”

THE WHISPERS, the Bradbury-inspired series, begins with the story’s unsettling premise — single-digit children in an idyllic Bradburian suburban setting begin playing “a game” with their friend, whom older siblings and adults cannot perceive — and then opens into a dark conspiracy involving defense secrets, an unexplainable something found on the other side of the world, an amnesiac who seems to be oddly connected to it all, and two troubled marriages that help keep the proceedings at human level. Like Stephen King’s best novels, like LOST itself, THE WHISPERS is most effective when the audience is still digging through the initial mysteries. As the writers inevitably begin to explain themselves, the piece visibly loses power, like many second halves of King novels. That’s also happening with Fox’s isolated-town tale WAYWARD PINES, whose “reveal” (if indeed true; I haven’t read the source books so can’t be sure) is so preposterous that it induces a bit of recoil in the viewer. Its isolated-town cousin, UNDER THE DOME, which just began its third season on CBS, is suffering from the same problem: the story is getting away from itself through weirder and weirder complications (LOST devotees may empathize). I have read DOME’s source novel — by our pal Stephen King — and if the book’s ultimate reveal is preserved for tv, there are going to be some angry viewers, because it just doesn’t support the ever more elaborate buildup.

Everybody in THE WHISPERS except the adorable children ask,

Everybody in THE WHISPERS except the adorable children ask, “WTF?”

The fly in the ointment, of course, is streaming. HOUSE OF CARDS fans on Netflix are watching a serialized story too, but they can consume a whole season’s worth over a weekend, because the entire batch is released at once. Network tv uses a different business model, so they’re obliged to beg you to take a chance. In opposition, Netflix is teaching viewers that they can put off weekly gratification in favor of having the whole enchilada. (Back in the heyday of DVD, many people would buy whole seasons on disk and tear through them all at once. Binge-watching is nothing new.) If the networks worked that way, they’d have to “drop” a season for streaming and wait for the reaction before green-lighting the next one. Meanwhile more and more viewers will still call their bluff and fail to commit until they’re sure there will be a satisfying major-chord ending. The relationship between creator and consumer may be turning into a Leone/Tarantino Mexican standoff.

And that’s gonna make a great open-ended series.

7/27/15: WAYWARD PINES ended with a startling turnabout (evidently departing from the source books) that will encourage some to want a theoretical second season. They did explode the initial premise, but they are not leaving it alone.

8/31/15: I knew it. UNDER THE DOME is no more.

10/22/15: And today we learned that ABC is sending THE WHISPERS to the tv graveyard after one season. It started strongly, but then the writers slowly went nuts. By season’s end, the only thing left from Bradbury’s story was the name Drill.

6/2/16: WAYWARD PINES, now ensconced in its Season One-ending setting and minus most of its Season One cast, has devolved into the Rebels against the Empire. I quit watching forever after about :20. Everything that was fresh in S1 has been leached out. Ugh.


(Imagined) Revenge Of The Nerds

August 30, 2013

DiceBy the time DUNGEONS & DRAGONS exploded as a full-bore cultural phenomenon in the early Eighties, my friends and I were already past high school and college, the game’s demographic sweet spots. So we were spared the inevitable schoolmate scorn and taunting that follow “D&D” players wherever they go. (Well, almost spared. The local paper did a story on the new craze and talked to a few of us, and for a week or so I got, “You actually play that nerdy game?”)

David M. Ewalt wasn’t so lucky. He caught the D&D bug at age ten and fell for it harder than anyone I know personally. He even went GAFIA (that’s fannish for Getting Away From It All, also something only a nerd would know) for a few years, became a journalist (he writes for Forbes now), met and married a beautiful girl – and then was pulled back into his lifelong hobby. OF DICE AND MEN is the story of one of the most creative and innovative games ever invented, told in a breezy, cheerful style telegraphed by its title. Mr. Ewalt wants to fix D&D in its deserved cultural place of honor, and also introduce you to the kind of people who are attracted to it: “My people,” as he writes.

My group of friends picked up the game out of sheer curiosity. The snippets we heard from the outside just didn’t add up: this isn’t a “game” in the usual sense because there is no winner; the players don’t compete, they cooperate; they each play a character that’s completely imaginary, as does an actor; and though you can trick up the experience to ridiculous extremes, all you really need to play D&D is a pencil and paper and some funny-looking dice. We bought a couple of rule books and shoved off – and were immediately fascinated.

Mr. Ewalt traces the game’s origins all the way back to chess, that iconic bloodless simulation of battle, and watches its evolution through “wargaming,” in which military buffs recreate actual battles from history and introduce an element of chance, so that with sound leadership and good luck, the side which lost in reality might even come out on top. The most famous mass-produced military wargame is Avalon Hill’s GETTYSBURG – you can imagine the appeal to descendants of both sides – but wargaming’s true believers keep it as real as possible, using tiny lead figurines atop ping-pong-table-sized dioramas of the genuine terrain. It was a group of wargamers who had the inspiration to leap from history into fantasy, improving kludgy medieval-battle rules and turning a player’s attention from hundreds of infantrymen to – and here’s the genius part – one individual, recurring, personality-possessing character. The bird’s-eye view gave way to the mind’s-eye view, and by fits and starts, the “fantasy role-playing game” was created and refined.

Mr. Ewalt is particularly adept at explaining this concept; he assumes you know even less about D&D than we did when we started. A group of “player-characters,” their skills and attributes determined by rolls of those funny-shaped dice, go on a cooperative adventure under the direction of a Dungeon Master (DM), who creates the fictional setting and acts as referee. The characters have their own individual personalities, abilities and even moral leanings. As they work their way through a scenario that only the DM can see, the players search for treasure, fight monsters (“monster” is the term used for any opponent), and face whatever trials the DM can conjure. This group’s story (the “campaign”) is open-ended and can last for weeks, months, even years. Success in most everything, including fighting, is determined by die rolls, some of them cast by the DM out of the players’ view. Besides completing the specific quest or mission, the long-term goal is to stay alive – each character has a finite number of “hit points” – and accumulate experience to make oneself more powerful and harder to defeat. The setting of most of these games is medieval, though the same general concept has been adapted to Westerns, postapocalyptic cities, outer space – even the cinematic world of STAR WARS has its own role-playing game. But the daddy of them all, and still far and away the most popular, is DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (the origin of one of our most recognizable trademarks is a delightful little anecdote which I’ll leave for you to discover in the book), whose DNA comes straight from Tolkien, Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance.

If you’re following me here, you may have already observed that this game rewards creativity and improvisational skills. Unsurprisingly, its former players include improv geniuses like Stephen Colbert and Robin Williams, and an untold number of professional storytellers, including Neal Stephenson, Ray Feist, Mike Stackpole and dozens of others. Not to photo-bomb myself into that canon, but my own first pro fiction sales were to D&D paperback anthologies; it was a natural fit for me. I even used character names from our old group in homage – and I earned back every cent I’d spent on the game and then some, which made me feel great.

Mr. Ewalt doesn’t shy away from personal intrigue, such as the corporate politics that (depending on who you talk to) either victimized the game’s major creative force, E. Gary Gygax, or else finally gave him what had been coming to him all along. The other elephant in the room is addressed as well: the 80s “flap” (to use a UFO term, for that’s what it most resembled) over D&D’s supposed malefic influence on young people. If you still actually believe that D&D promotes either Satanism or teen suicide, you should probably stay away from this book and you should definitely stay away from me. As with the uproar against “death metal” that until recently contributed to the continued circumstantial incarceration of the West Memphis Three, these thinly sourced accusations proliferated, reaching as vaunted a megaphone as 60 MINUTES. CBS used a psychologist who was later stripped of his medical license, and ignored letters from two mothers of cited suicides who said the game had nothing to do with their children’s deaths. The low point was probably the terrible 1982 Tom Hanks TV movie MAZES & MONSTERS, based on a terrible novel by Rona Jaffe.

My only beef with this lighthearted, knowledgeable, authoritative work is something which veteran D&D players have long learned to shun: the “home-movie syndrome.” When you’ve all just gone through a harrowing adventure together, it can be fun to talk about it over a beer afterward. But the only thing more boring than hearing about another campaign waged by total strangers is your relatives’ home movies of their vacation trip. Unfortunately, Mr. Ewalt relies far too heavily on recounting a certain campaign of his Brooklyn-based gang: it’s useful at first for a real-time demonstration of how the game works in practice, but it soon becomes wearisome, and I’d imagine that goes double for anybody who doesn’t have any particular desire to play D&D.

He redeems himself, though, in a beautiful section reporting on a live-action role-playing (as opposed to D&D’s paper-and-dice role-playing) weekend called Overworld, held annually in Connecticut. It sounds at first like the Society for Creative Anachronism – a bunch of people in phony chain mail swinging padded broadswords – but the lovingly crafted, immersive experience turns out to be much more profound, inspiring Mr. Ewalt to create his own campaign setting for the very first time, and guess what: his invention sounds wonderful! He ends with a poignant, heartfelt coda in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, ancestral home of D&D, where he attends the annual convention held in Gygax’s memory and visits the old locations where the struggling little company got its start nearly forty years ago. Those structures are either gone or changed, but somehow their significance lingers – and, thanks to this lovely book, maybe that genuine cultural impact can now be made permanent.

How To Read The Lucasfilm Deal

November 6, 2012

In all the hullabaloo over the new Disney/LFL kissyface, who cares about something as mundane as books? I do, that’s who.

Yes, this is all speculation. Yes, I don’t know what I’m talking about. (Exactly how does that distinguish me from the rest of the blogosphere?) I don’t know what this deal will mean to jobs at either Disney or Lucasfilm, though as a survivor of a big publishing acquisition, I can assure you that the buyer holds all the cards. However, unlike most, I do speak as someone with a modicum of backstage knowledge anent the STAR WARS book-publishing program, b/c I was part of the team that revived it in the 1990s. This acquisition of Lucasfilm Ltd. – and Lucas Licensing, let’s make sure to underline – by Disney may actually disturb the “canon” that has long been established in the library universe. If that should happen, the movie arm will simply swat that literary stuff away – or maybe it’s all bigger than that! I wouldn’t imagine Disney has even considered the issues I’m about to raise, but future fans will. So adjust your propeller beanies, and let’s blast off!

When Bantam offered to extend the fictional lives of STAR WARS characters in the early 90s, everybody assumed there was nothing to lose. As I’ve already written, the property itself was only on simmer. Let Han and Leia marry, and even have kids. Where was the downside? As it happened, though, Bantam’s releases ignited a long-simmering powder keg among STAR WARS fans, and demonstrated a huge pent-up demand for more stories in this universe. These books set in action a sequence of events that directly led to the filmed “prequel trilogy.” Without book-length kindling, you’d have no new movies. (I’ve heard a cynic or two say, “Great!,” but I don’t share that view. I’m inspired by the fact that printed books, just words on paper, were still able to have such an impact on popular culture at the end of the twentieth century, and I enjoyed the prequel movies, especially Episode III, far more than their detractors seem willing to concede is even possible.)

However, nobody – in my view, not even George – reckoned on a potential continuation of the cinematic STAR WARS story beyond the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI. He’s always said it was a nine-film saga (and if you believe Disney’s gonna stop after STAR WARS Episode IX, I have a storm-weathered suspension bridge to Brooklyn on which you might care to bid), but I truly don’t believe he ever thought his bluff would actually be called. That’s why he gave Bantam the go-ahead to set its first novel five years later. STAR WARS author Tim Zahn has already weighed in on this issue, and maybe there is some wiggle room. But Disney announced that as part of the deal, George has already delivered treatments for the next three films.

If Disney/Lucasfilm declares with a feature film that the generation-ago literary tie-ins must have occurred in some parallel universe, what will happen to the stories, some elements of which have already crept into the filmed “canon”? You’ll wind up with a Moebius-strip narrative that’ll make the hugely episodic STAR TREK story look Dickensian by comparison, the same kind of jam in which DC Comics found itself when it finally decided to blow everything up in CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS. Some comics fans still aren’t sure what’s what, and that happened twenty-five years ago!

The STAR WARS book publishing program has long been bled very thin, and its subjects these days are mostly outliers in the universe, increasingly decipherable only by fanboys and girls. That’s why most of the books no longer make the New York Times bestseller list. (Although I have no doubt they’re still hugely profitable, and that Del Rey Books is delighted to have the program around.) It will be fascinating to watch what happens if the next three films intrude on what has already been published. I assure you that new movies will take precedence over old books – but how then will the Empire manage to preserve what it already holds?

4/25/14: Today, as I predicted in graf 2 up there, Lucasfilm announced that new STAR WARS material going forward will only consider the movies, animated series, and certain aspects of 80s-era role-playing games to be “history.” The books and stuff, I guess, officially didn’t happen. Here’s Variety’s report.

11/2/15: Today we learned that Lucasfilm has requested that Del Rey postpone the hardcover publication of its Alan Dean Foster novelization of the next movie, THE FORCE AWAKENS — and Del Rey has, duh, said ok. The e-publication can go on for mid-December and the release of the movie, but Disney was concerned that the long lead time necessary for print publication, what with presses and proofs and such, created an environment ripe for fan spoiling. (It’s way harder to get an advance copy of an e-book.) This means that Del Rey must cede the lucrative holiday season for what would undoubtedly have been a huge bestseller, the ultimate tie-in; they’ll pub in print in January. But the former LFL is the proverbial golden goose, so any prudent publisher does whatever the hell it says. (Remind me sometime to tell you about Bantam and the DICK TRACY movie.)


October 31, 2012

The news that The Walt Disney Company will buy the privately held Lucasfilm Ltd. for $4.05 billion in cash and stock is surprising but not unexpected. There is still a bit of George Lucas DNA within Pixar, whose hardware-oriented progenitor he founded in 1979, although there’s more of Steve Jobs’s in the company as it exists today. But you can bet they were watching in Marin and at the Presidio as Disney acquired Pixar in 2006 and integrated it into the larger company.

The Lucas people surely had one essential question: can Pixar retain its creative independence inside one of the world’s greatest marketing juggernauts? In other words, will the suits push Pixar around? They surely smiled as John Lasseter, Pixar’s human heartbeat, became Chief Creative Officer not only of Pixar but also of Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Principal Creative Advisor to Walt Disney Imagineering (i.e., theme-park attractions). Pixar’s Ed Catmull took over as President of the Disney animation unit. Far from stifling the Emeryville kids, Disney anointed Pixar as the future of its entire animation effort. Jobs – whom nobody pushed around – even negotiated hands-off exceptions in such mundane areas as human resources: for example, Pixar had no employment contracts before the acquisition, and it has none now.

The Disney guy who did the Pixar deal and agreed to all this stuff was Bob Iger, the chairman and CEO. He believes in two things: stewardship of Disney’s existing assets – mainly its iconic characters and franchises – and growth through acquisition of other iconic characters and franchises. Financial mavens thought he’d paid too much for Pixar, but their amazing string of blockbusters continues. They thought he’d paid too much for Marvel Entertainment in 2009, but its first movie for Disney, THE AVENGERS, blew past the billion-and-a-half mark worldwide and became the third biggest picture of all time. They’re going to give Iger a pass on Lucasfilm. Good call.

Disney gets ILM, Skywalker Sound, and other state-of-the-art outfits (it does not get Skywalker Ranch or any of George’s Marin real estate), but Iger really coveted just two words: Star and Wars. If George is to be believed, he originally planned STAR WARS as a nine-film saga, and as part of the deal he has delivered a “detailed treatment” for the next three films. Iger expects that Lucasfilm’s first production as a Disney subsidiary will be STAR WARS Episode VII in 2015 (the same year that the chairman will step down from hands-on control of the Disney empire), but you can also count on seeing new STAR WARS product on TV, in the parks, in the stores, everywhere. From Disney’s point of view, it’s a natural fit: one of the best-loved trademarks in the world, around the world. Indiana Jones is murkier, because the distribution deal is with rival Paramount; my guess is that Indy has permanently retired, but stranger things have happened. What this does is trade a sure thing (STAR WARS) for an iffy thing or two (JOHN CARTER) in the Disney schedule – and lets the studio take full financial advantage, rather than serving as distributor/marketer-for-hire, as Fox did with the prequel trilogy.

From George’s point of view, he never expected to be in this position. He was a USC Young Turk, a member of the “Dirty Dozen,” as they called themselves, talented indies who were going to change filmmaking in guerrilla style. But as fate would have it, he and another indie-centric filmmaker changed the business in ways which amazed even themselves. The unexpected success of both JAWS and STAR WARS ushered in the age of the summer blockbuster. And George – who formed Lucasfilm in 1971, just a few years after he was the toast of the town for his amazing student film ELECTRONIC LABYRINTH: THX 1138 4EB – was only transformed when he offered his services as the writer/director of STAR WARS for a modest fee in exchange for all sequel and merchandising rights, which at the time were viewed as worthless. Sequels? We’re in the George Lucas business, all right, especially after AMERICAN GRAFFITI, but this thing is so crazy, we might not even get the first one released; it’s science fiction, and that never makes money. Merchandising? It takes decades to sell Lone Ranger and Superman lunch boxes, my friend! Hindsight is 20/20, and today George Lucas is one of the two richest – and best known – filmmakers in the world. The other one is his old buddy Steven Spielberg. Definitely not what they signed up for.

You could hear George’s frustration when he went on Jon Stewart earlier this year to promote RED TAILS, a Lucasfilm production (i.e., George’s own money) about the WWII Tuskegee Airmen. He said there were two more potential movies on the subject, the backstory and the future, but no studio was interested. Neither, it turned out, was a big audience. You’re forgiven if while watching RED TAILS you think you’re just seeing the last reel of STAR WARS again, because Lucas and his editor and then-wife, Marcia, assembled WWII dogfight footage to guide and inspire the STAR WARS team. A circular progression. But still, it had to be a huge disappointment.

George understands that, however it happened, he’s created a multi-generational piece of fantasy that now belongs to the ages. Parents proudly show STAR WARS to their kids, and they love it in turn. The closest example I can think of is the 1939 film version of THE WIZARD OF OZ. It’s also a timeless perennial. But unlike STAR WARS, since the dawn of home video OZ has only been able to hitch a ride on each new bit of technology: VCR, Laserdisk, DVD, Blu-Ray, etc. They’re already prepping a 2013 re-issue in 3-D. (Wanna feel old? If a new STAR WARS film is actually released in 2015, then the time span between it and the movie that started it all will equal the span between that moment in 1977 and the original theatrical release of THE WIZARD OF OZ. It’s been that long, boys and girls.) In comparison, there’s so much more potential story in the STAR WARS saga. And it’s clear by now that this saga is going to survive George Lucas. His driving passion for the property may already be waning – after all, he was pretty much beaten up personally (and, in my view, too zealously) over the prequel trilogy. Why not hand it over to some people who will carry it forward – and judging from the Pixar track record, should be able to preserve the qualities that made it great?

George is only 68. Nobody believes this is “retirement” for him. I think he’s going to make smaller pictures and scratch that itch that brought him to film school in the first place, just like his mentor (and fellow blockbuster survivor) Francis Coppola is doing. With $4 billion more – and his new position as a major Disney shareholder – George will now have the time and treasure to think about other stuff besides his DIY empire. And woe be to the Disney exec who tries to release a STAR WARS film that George isn’t willing to publicly say he likes. But there’s an easy way to make people drool for tix to SW VII, and I’ll bet Lucasfilm’s new owner has already thought of it.

To direct, hire this kid on the Universal lot.

The name’s Spielberg.

11/1/12: Late yesterday afternoon, George announced that the bulk of the proceeds from the Disney sale would go to philanthropy, specifically to fund education programs.

3/13/13: And now we know that the director of Episode VII will be J. J. Abrams, the resuscitator of STAR TREK, who is Spielberg to a younger crowd.

12/25/15: And now we know that J. J. succeeded.

Ralph McQuarrie, 1929-2012

March 4, 2012

I knew Ralph McQuarrie’s name even before I began working on the STAR WARS property. This was the man who had helped George Lucas visualize what he was trying to do, back when the director’s eye was still earthbound. Here’s what George himself has to say.

By the time I finally “met” Ralph, I was editing a book called THE ILLUSTRATED STAR WARS UNIVERSE, which, with Kevin Anderson’s wonderful, in-character help, showed late-Nineties STAR WARS fans where it all came from. We printed, as accurately as we possibly could, some of Ralph’s concept paintings (he even did some especially for us), and Kevin’s beautiful, funny prose helped place them in context. We were focusing on places throughout the then-three-film canon, but also adding some locations that we book-people ourselves were concentrating on, such as Coruscant, the planet-spanning Imperial City.

I got to speak with Mr. McQuarrie during this project, and found him just as everyone else has: a soft-spoken, generous visionary who wanted his work reproduced as precisely as possible. I am so pleased that George continues to this day to acknowledge Ralph’s contribution to the STAR WARS universe. There was a great disturbance in the Force today.

A Jump On The Holidays, In 3-D

October 11, 2011

We were surprised when they handed us 3-D glasses for last night’s “Work in Progress” screening at the New York Film Festival, only the second time in its 49-year history that the Fest has sneaked a still-being-completed movie like this. (For the record, the other one was twenty years ago, for BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.)

Out walked Martin Scorsese to introduce his fall picture, HUGO.

Mr. Scorsese explained that our screening was indeed of something unfinished. The sound mix and score by Howard Shore were both temp tracks: Mr. Shore is recording the full orchestration in London right now. Some green screens were visible. The first long swooping, panning shot isn’t done yet; we saw a pre-viz. The press was warned: no reviews, this is just for your enjoyment. But I know exactly why NYFF and Scorsese went to all this trouble: (1) it delivers the goods, and (2) there could be no more appropriate venue for this movie than a film festival. So, not a review, but a report; you can judge for yourselves around Thanksgiving. (My first amazement was how little time before release — a date that may have been staked out long ago — they have to complete all this stuff on such an effects-heavy picture.)

It’s based on an illustrated novel for young readers by Brian Selznick (a relative of the moviemaking Selznick family) which I haven’t yet read, and I’m going to assume you haven’t either, so I’ll be careful not to spoil. A boy lives in the walls and the clock tower of a Paris train station in the early Thirties. His late dad, a clockmaker, taught him lots of secrets and the kid is a natural, but he makes do by stealing. A series of incidents turns the story into a love letter to the early days of movies.

It’s the best example of live-action 3-D I’ve ever seen, and that includes AVATAR: at last, even softly lit scenes are bright enough to discern. Certain setups are just breathtaking in the extra dimension: the light from a movie projector bursting toward us, a closeup on a staring Doberman (it’s just funny!), a security guard intimidating a boy by leaning closer, closer… The film is stuffed with British character actors, none of whom attempts a French accent: Jude Law, Richard Griffiths, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, Sacha Baron Cohen, Ray Winstone, on and on.

This one is for the whole family and will probably get a PG rating, maybe even an inappropriate -13 if the MPAA drops the ball (there are a couple of intense scenes, but any thoughtful kid will love this, trust me). Mr. Scorsese is justifiably proud, and I’m so glad I got to see it with enough film fans to fill up Alice Tully Hall. I’m gonna suggest it when a niece and nephew visit us around opening day.

11/1/11: Now I’ve read — and seen; the many illustrations work like a movie storyboard — the source novel, and what a wonderful job all concerned did to bring it to the screen, every fillip and tear with very few exceptions. (That light from the projector bursting toward us? It’s in the book.) Here’s one film to which the author can point proudly and say, “Yep, that’s my book up there, all right.”

11/11/11: It got the PG.

1/8/12: I saw the completed film, again in 3-D, at AMPAS’s New York screening room, to which they let a few FSLC folks in. Now the full bravura opening shot, realized at ILM at the last minute, was here, along with the full score, end credits, etc. Afterward, Mr. Scorsese and Sir Ben Kingsley did a beautiful q&a — both are extremely well-spoken gentlemen. I felt the event was an Oscar-voter attempt at keeping this picture top-of-mind, especially since Weekly Variety’s list of top 16 Best Pic contenders shamefully did not include HUGO! The film itself was just as spectacular on second viewing, and my wife, who missed the NYFF “work-in-progress” screening noted in the main post, was happily flabbergasted. Too bad for those AMPAS voters who have to depend on “screeners”: I’ve seen my share of them, and this picture will lose much of its well-designed ability to overpower. Still, the cast and crew have every right to say to themselves, job well done.

Adventures In Editing, Part III

April 18, 2011

saturnI walked into Lou Aronica’s office to show him something wonderful: one of my Western authors had dedicated his forthcoming book to me. That’s something you can never ask for; even an acknowledgment, assuming the author found your work notable, is something that has to come from hisser heart, so when it does it’s always gratifying. But a dedication: on the emotional scale, that goes all the way to thrilling! I’d been editing books for about a year now and was feeling comfortable in the position, getting to know my authors and the rest of the field, gradually earning credibility and, I hoped, a modicum of respect (the outside job), and making the trains run on time and the books come out on schedule (the inside job). So I was a little surprised when Lou said, “That’s great!” and suddenly bolted from his chair, leaving me standing there with the precious manuscript page.

Little did I know that Betsy Mitchell, the very talented science fiction editor, had given her notice: she’d been offered a wonderful opportunity to run the sf department at Warner Books (the same place where I’d worked when I first got to town). A light bulb, which I didn’t see since I didn’t yet know about Betsy’s upcoming move, had gone off above Lou’s head, and he was barrelling into the office of our publisher, Irwyn Applebaum, to float an idea. Because Lou knew something important about me: I was a lifelong science fiction fan.

Shortly after I arrived at Bantam as head writer in the cover copy department, I was introduced at the weekly editorial meeting – a nice touch, I thought, since I was way down on the totem pole; our department wasn’t even on the same floor as the editors. (Steve Rubin, who led the meeting, graciously said I was welcome to come back, and I did, whenever I had time.) A few of the friendlier editors made a point of coming up afterward to introduce themselves, and one of them was Lou. But before he could speak, I said, “I know who you are. You’re Lou Aronica, and you founded Spectra.” Surprised, but noticing the twinkle in my eye, he said, “We should have lunch.” “Great,” I said, “but let’s go to that Chinese restaurant where you hatched FULL SPECTRUM, the place with the terrific velvet corn soup.” Lou’s a guy who’s usually one step ahead of you, and he doesn’t believe in ESP. “You must be a fan.” He smiled, waiting for me to elaborate. Yup. I knew what Lou looked like and what he did at Bantam because even back in Mississippi, I subscribed to Locus, the monthly magazine of the science fiction field, full of book reviews and industry news, including photos. I’d read a Locus ad for Spectra, Bantam’s new sf and fantasy imprint, which mentioned the restaurant where Lou and Shawna McCarthy worked out the concept for an original anthology series: the ad even recommended its velvet corn soup. So Lou and I went to what I now discovered to be the Imperial Dragon on 55th Street, and I told him my story.

They say the golden age of science fiction is twelve, haw haw. I beat that by a few years, starting with “juvies” written by the likes of Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton (usually fresh from the Bookmobile; anybody remember them?). Before long I was reaching for paperbacks and magazines. I missed the great pulp-magazine era, but there was still fascinating short fiction in digest-sized mags like Amazing, Galaxy, and Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF and I are just about the very same age), and especially Analog, with its larger magazine-sized pages. My grandma gave me an Analog subscription for my thirteenth birthday which turned out to be self-perpetuating — the kind where you don’t have to worry about what to give next year — and I was delighted to have it. I read DUNE for the first time as an Analog serial: the cover of one of my first issues featured a giant sandworm painted by John Schoenherr, which became the classic DUNE look, one of the few things David Lynch’s film got right. Novels, and quality anthologies, came from the Science Fiction Book Club or from paperback publishers like Ace, Ballantine – and, of course, Bantam. I can still remember lounging on a hammock on a few summer days at my other grandma’s house, mesmerized by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. I lapped it up, all of it. As Sun Ra put it a few years later, I thought space was the place.

I was no snob, although I tended to read lots more sf (real fans don’t say “sci-fi”) than “epic fantasy,” usually meaning elves and dragons. I preferred social themes to the more technological work of writers who were often scientists themselves. My absolute hero was Ray Bradbury, who didn’t care how the rocket ship worked, only what happened when it got there. And I adored sf and horror movies, which were far less sophisticated back then, but it doesn’t take all that much to blow a ten-year-old mind. Even today I can see right through a distortion of cinematic cheese and really enjoy an old Fifties chestnut, and I’ll cut a contemporary imaginative movie far more slack than I will a realistic drama. But I still know a turkey when I see one. I’m from the Steven Spielberg / Stephen King school: fans aren’t slans, just clans. (If you don’t know what that meant, you might have some more reading to do.)

That day in his office, it struck Lou that I might be a credible choice to succeed Betsy. Working on Westerns, I’d figured out the nuts and bolts of the job well enough that somebody had actually dedicated a book to me. The learning curve would be far less severe this time, because I came packed with a fan’s knowledge of the field: you might say that in my case, batteries were included. I already had the appropriate title (Senior Editor), and, he surely also reasoned, salary; I would view the change of scenery itself as a promotion, without the necessity for any new dinero. Lou was right, too: when he offered me the job I could hardly believe my ears. I had the rest of Betsy’s notice period to get ready for the transition and prepare to inherit her authors. Plus, I needed to go to Atlanta right away to meet Locus’s editor and publisher, Charles N. Brown. But before I do that, let’s pause to consider what happens when an editor is replaced.

You may recall from Part II that my first taste of shaky author/editor relations was with Terry C. Johnston, who was none too happy with me (before he got to know me, that is). That’s because I was not the person who acquired his work – and an author’s relationship with hisser editor is part of the potential equation, probably second only to money (sometimes pluck even trumps the buck). But a book contract is an agreement with the publishing house, not the editor, so if the editor leaves, the books under contract stay. (Furthermore, most contracts feature an option on the author’s next work, usually meaning you have to show it to the current publisher first, and if you decline its offer, you can’t sell it elsewhere for an equal amount or less.) Same with movies, records, etc., even literary agency: if you decide to change agents, you can’t take with you the books he already represents. Absent any provable cheating, they’re hers for life. The very biggest of shots may have “key man” clauses that trigger reconsideration or outright renegotiation, but that’s just for superstars, if it exists at all.

To the incoming editor, the authors’ contracted titles are “inherited.” To some authors, they’ve been “orphaned.” (Even though a foster parent is standing right there, but let’s not stretch the metaphor too far.) Forget the titles: let’s consider the people. If you have a contract with a major publisher and do well enough to keep working with them for years, you will almost certainly experience a change of editorship. Your editor might leave for a better opportunity, as did Betsy and Greg Tobin, my Western predecessor. (And as I was doing right now from the perspective of most of my Western authors!) Or there might be a corporate belt-tightening, and your editor’s given a nice buyout package, or simply becomes the victim of downsizing; there are great editors who’ve lost their jobs during the current climate of uncertainty. Another publisher might even dangle a better deal at you. Mark my words, though: stick around long enough at a major house, and someday you will have a different editor.

If your editor is conscientious (almost all of them are; it kind of goes with the job), s/he will make a list of authors and their agents, including you, and go down it one by one with a phone call essentially saying, “I want you to hear it from me: I’m leaving for a new opportunity. I’ve loved working with you and maybe we’ll do so again some day. Meanwhile, Tom is going to take over for me. He’s a great guy, you’ll like him. He’s gonna call you in a day or so to say hi.” It’s better to alert the agents first so they can be ready for the client’s panicked call (agents go through this all the time and tend to be more sanguine about it – if they know me personally, they can really help), but the conversation is basically the same. Depending on the length of the list, it can take two or three days to finish. After a round or so of these calls, the outgoing editor hands the partial list to me and continues while I begin following up with a second call: “I’m Tom, I know you’re sad to lose Betsy, but I really respect you and your work/client, and I look forward to a great relationship.” On both Betsy’s and Greg’s transitions, some authors and agents told us they were glad, even impressed, to hear from the two of us on the same day. I had a better story to tell Betsy’s authors than I did Greg’s – remember, I was brand new to Westerns when I began – so his personal help was essential. His writers took him at his word that I was a good choice, and left the prove-it part up to me.

That’s how it goes if the transition is smooth. What if the parting is involuntary, and the company has shown the back of its hand? Even then, most editors with any experience have developed an emotional stake in their authors’ careers. But some who feel they’ve been treated unfairly may choose to retaliate. The initial phone call may be brusque or petulant, or fail to occur at all. I haven’t inherited the list of anybody like that (though I’ve heard stories), but on rare occasions the system can glitch (for example, an unheard “call me immediately” voice-mail message), and I wind up being the first call. Awk-ward! Sometimes the incoming editor can be a dick. A well-known author reported that an inheriting editor proclaimed to hisser face that s/he hadn’t acquired hisser book and didn’t give a damn about it. This editorial moron had no future with any serious publisher, s/he just didn’t know it yet.

The point is, being an “orphan” is no fun. (For a hilarious turn on this issue, read Dick Lupoff’s introduction to his brilliant but terribly-titled Dell paperback SPACE WAR BLUES.) But neither is being a “foster parent” to somebody who’s acting out. Nearly everybody I ever dealt with was at least willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, even if they were a tad trepidacious. The more you settle in and contribute, the more that background pressure dissipates, and eventually it’s gone. Then one day, you’re making the first call – like I had to do to most of my frontier authors at the same time I was making call #2 to Betsy’s people! Nobody understands the deep and peculiar relationship between author and editor better than an author – or an editor. So it’s wrenching to both when that relationship has to change. But listen: it’s gonna happen, and all either of you can hope for is that you’ll find a new partner who’s just as sympatico, maybe even more so. Because that happens too.

But I digress.

The first weekend after I learned I was joining Team Spectra, Charlie Brown was scheduled to present the annual Locus Awards, voted by the magazine’s readers, at a throwdown called Dragon*Con in Atlanta. I’d been to a couple of World Science Fiction Conventions (a fan, I tell ya!) and of course Western Writers of America. Both of these cons were primarily concerned with printed literature. Dragon*Con brought comics, gaming and filmed media into the mix, and their fans tended to overwhelm the sf bookworm types. (The San Diego Comic-Con was still in my future; it’s to Dragon*Con what the Hulk is to Bruce Banner.) To Dragon*eers, the guy who inked Ferret-Man #275 is a demigod, yet a legendary author like Robert Silverberg can walk down the hall unrecognized. Go figure.

To bolster its traditional sf cred, the convention offered to host the Locus Awards banquet, and for a few years, Charlie withstood the media mob. Lots of interesting authors were there, after all, and one of his jobs at conventions was to conduct one-on-one Locus interviews, which he expertly edited into monologues to focus unwaveringly on the author. I got my one-on-one too, only no tape recorder, just a delightful dinner and wide-ranging conversation. We talked about sf some, but also music, museums, New York versus Oakland (Locus World HQ – I’d never been there), the state of publishing, you name it. We got along fine. This guy was erudite, amazingly well-read, funny, a little curmudgeonly but in an oddly affecting way – and I think he satisfied himself that I cared, which is all he really wanted to know. We all miss him.

I met a few authors at Dragon*Con (the most fun was a long impromptu dinner with Gardner Dozois and Connie Willis, both smart, funny, warm people whose generosity of spirit made me feel right at home during my fairly stressful inauguration), but I couldn’t give you a complete list because I was always mentally pinching myself: don’t fawn. Act like this happens all the time. Geez, that’s Robert frickin Bloch! I’d finished calling all Betsy’s authors, so it was common knowledge that there was a new guy at Bantam, one nobody had ever heard of. With only a touch more reticence than the Western writers, people came up to me one by one to say hi, and over the weekend I’d met most of the Locus Award-winning writers who’d made the trip. But all too soon after my glittering sfnal debutante cotillion came the need to go back home and get to work.

Science fiction and fantasy make different demands on the author and reader. Most works of science fiction – especially “hard sf,” with its exacting technological verisimilitude — are allowed a “Big Lie,” such as, “we’ve learned how to travel backward through time,” or “we can handle a long manned interplanetary journey by employing suspended animation.” Now the author speculates on what the consequences might be were that Big Lie true. Fantasy is a different animal. The sf writer asks, “What if?” The fantasy writer says, “Magic just exists. Work with me on this.” (Sometimes the two fields are deliberately blurred – the dazzling THE DRAGON MASTERS by Jack Vance feels rather like a fantasy, but it’s sf all the way. Let’s just keep things simple for now.)

The main task of an editor in both cases (besides watching for poor usage, echoes of specific words, etc., which you would do for any author) is to make sure the writer consistently follows hisser own set of rules, and expresses them clearly enough so that the reader can understand. That’s lots harder than it sounds. Everybody has a favorite example of the dreaded “info dump,” most frequently seen in those Fifties movies I was talking about: “As you know, gentlemen, fifty years ago our space scientists developed an anti-gravity space gel called zabfrabmium. This is what powers our space rocket on its space mission. Hail space!” If you wrote fiction as a kid, I’ll bet you used this device too. It lets you hurry up and get on to the good stuff. Pros don’t have that dubious luxury. (Some people were annoyed by James Cameron’s “unobtanium” in AVATAR, but as Cameron well knows, it’s a genuine term used by physicists and engineers for something that’s prohibitively costly or would work only in theory.)

Editing sf and fantasy is more fun than a barrel of monkeys because every world, every author, has a different set of rules, and discovering them is a great part of the attraction for devotees. Plus, at the time I was working in the field (post-PC, pre-Internet-as-second-nature), the digital revolution was just beginning to open new vistas of possibility for great writers like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker. I was able to work on a couple of Bruce’s books: he has to be the single brightest guy I know personally, and the new world of instant communication fit him like a glove. (It’s interesting that the one thing all the futurists missed, from H.G. Wells on down, was the ubiquity of the personal computer. Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, you name it: nobody saw that coming but Bill Gates. A well-read sf devotee has suggested another candidate, and linked to his prescient story, in the Comments section below.) Some think the last great creative convulsion in the sf field was “cyberpunk,” the dingy-but-digital milieu prefigured in BLADE RUNNER but best exemplified by Bill Gibson’s kinetic style. All I know was that, for once, reality was outpacing even the most feverish imaginations. It was an especially exciting time to be working with forward-thinkers.

The authors frequently (okay, usually!) know the worlds they have built better than you do, but sometimes that intensity of detail can cloud over the ability to perceive specifics. Inconsistencies and implausibilities tend to be more evident to a stranger, and the lack of a needed piece of knowledge almost always is. You’re carrying it around in your head, so it’s easy to overlook the fact that you neglected to write it down. Your readers don’t want an info dump, but we do need for you to otherwise impart the info. That’s where the little tacks thumbed down by an attentive editor can really help.

I’ll never forget the day I sat down to write an editorial letter to Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I had never met her, but I knew her work, whoo boy, did I. Plus, she was in the middle of her Hugo-winning stint as editor of F&SF, which is still my favorite of all the mags. Now I’ve inherited a new fantasy series, THE FEY, and here’s the first novel. Ms. Rusch has probably forgotten more about editing than I will ever learn. A serious pro, she has turned in the script on time, and it’s frickin wonderful. I only have a few slight cosmetic problems, then some questions about the world she’s created — particularly important here, since we’re inaugurating it for readers who we hope will follow subsequent books — which if I were more of a fantasy reader, maybe I’d already understand. I took a breath, looked again at my notes, and started typing – being careful to begin with a compliment, as was my way, but in this case, duh – and laid it out as I would have for anyone else. Never was I more relieved than the day I heard back from Kris, thanking me for my suggestions. When I finally met her a few months later, she professed surprise at this backstory: “Why were you nervous? Your letter made sense!” That’s when I realized that even veterans simply want an ear that’s not too stern, not too fawning — nope, forget all that crap: they simply want you to make sense. That was the last time I was ever nervous about writing an editlet – and my subsequent authors had Kris Rusch to thank. (Or curse!)

I had a great many delicious experiences in sf, but one that stands out was the 1995 Worldcon in Glasgow, where it was my high honor to accept Isaac Asimov’s posthumous Hugo Award for Best Nonfiction Book: I. ASIMOV. I never thought I’d ever touch a Hugo, and here I was entrusted with bringing the sleek rocket-shaped award back to New York and presenting it to Isaac’s wife Janet on behalf of the Worldcon voters. (Charlie Brown chided me in Locus for failing to mention Isaac’s brother Stanley from the podium, but he was confusing this book with Stanley’s just-pubbed collection of Isaac’s letters, YOURS, ISAAC ASIMOV, and he graciously apologized by phone and in print.) My wife and I had already planned a leisurely driving trip through the Scottish Highlands for a week after the con, so we bundled up Isaac’s Hugo in our luggage and proceeded. But I, who was driving on the right side of the car and the left side of the road, never forgot it was there. Several times, especially as we were heading in and out of Glasgow (to return and rent, respectively), and I found myself stymied by a reverse roundabout, the screaming Locus headline passed through my mind: BANTAM IDIOT MANGLES ASIMOV’S HUGO IN CAR WRECK. In the meantime, though, we had a majestic trip through the sheep and heather, and one day I just couldn’t resist. I unwrapped the doggone thing and took this photo, way up in the Highlands:

Isaac’s Hugo and Scottish heather.

That Glasgow event was also where I met Norman Spinrad, with whom I’d been working for bloody months on a novel called HE WALKED AMONG US, just pubbed by Tor, and by just, I mean 2010! (It’s a long story, and I don’t mean the book.) Norman suggested the Ubiquitous Chip, a venerable spot frequented by performers of all kinds, the place where I was first able to stomach haggis. Stomach, get it? One of the characters in his novel was a crack addict, and Norman had described her downfall so vividly that I asked him on the trip to the Chip: “Have you ever smoked crack? You describe the effects so well.” Norman said, “Have you?” “Nope.” “Then how do you know? It’s called fiction, Tom.” I had fallen under his spell so utterly, even I hadn’t realized it, and I was editing the sumbitch page by page!

David Gerrold has always prided himself on Tuckerisms – that is, working real people’s names into his fiction. One day I was chugging along on one of his manuscripts and realized he’d nodded to all of my departed Bantam colleagues, but he’d forgotten about me! “Qwicherbichin,” replied David, and the relevant passage from his novel THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE now reads:

“Do I have to list for you all the ships we’ve lost? Just in the last three months, the Aronica, the Stout, the Mitchell – you can’t afford to give up the Star Wolf.”

“–And the Silverstein, and the McConnell. We’ve lost more than you know. At least the Dupree is still online. Unless you know something I don’t.”

I spent three delicious hours with Robert Silverberg in some little Bay Area diner, talking about sf nearly the whole time. We got into these fancy-bound Easton Press Masterpieces Of Science Fiction; I subscribed to the series, Bob was simply chosen (his Masterpiece was DYING INSIDE, I believe), and part of his payment was the complete set. *Sigh* I’m a THEY’D RATHER BE RIGHT hawk; I don’t think it deserved its very early Hugo Award for Best Novel, or its place in our semi-shared Masterpieces fancy-bound set. But Bob has the mind of a scientist, and he immediately sussed that I had to have been no more than four or five when the Hugo in question was bestowed, nor did this rather obvious fact diminish my critical zeal. Hmmm. Kid’s OK.

Dan Simmons, his agent Richard Curtis (remember him from Part II?) and I found ourselves in Minneapolis. I’d pre-booked a very nice dinner for our trio, but hadn’t realized how far outside the central city the convention hotel would actually be. So when we crawled into a taxi, as the Allmans might say, the road went on forever. Fortunately, I happened to mention to Dan that I was working with the writers of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. He went nuts: huge fan! If I’d known this previously, I might possibly have arranged for a tour of their Eden Prairie studio for one of the finest authors anybody has ever known. Too late: we had a wonderful dinner, then spent the whole cab ride back exchanging MST3K quips (the courtly Mr. Curtis remained above the fray). My reward was this, in the last phrase of the acknowledgments on THE RISE OF ENDYMION: “…and my editor, Tom Dupree, for his patience, enthusiasm, and shared good taste for loving Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Much earlier, I was sitting next to Dan when he won the World Fantasy Award for his gorgeous story “This Year’s Class Picture,” and even though I’d had nothing to do with it, the first thing he did when he heard his name was to turn and shake my hand. Such tiny things help make editing worthwhile.

I’ve got a million of ‘em, but I’ve gone on long enough, so I’m going to save a couple for a little tributary I floated down that helped change the Locus bestseller lists forever.

NEXT: Shared worlds – including one in a galaxy far, far away…

Other Adventures:
Part I   Part II   Part IV   Part V   Part VI

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