Two Good Movies (Four, Actually)

July 26, 2015

I saw two really good movies recently, but they’re both genre pictures and they might have slipped under your radar. Correct that if you care to: they’re both out on DVD.

th-1EX MACHINA is the latest and best in a mini-trend of thoughtful science fiction movies. (Even Tom Cruise’s recent EDGE OF TOMORROW has a tiny little brain under its light GROUNDHOG DAY veneer.) This one is about the essential Philip K. Dick concept, which has fascinated scientists for a century, readers for more than sixty years, and film honchos for maybe 35. It can be expressed in six short words: how do you know for sure?

You don’t have to be a techie to recognize the famous Turing Test. If a mechanical device can fool a human being into believing that it is human, does that not constitute intelligence? Alan Turing imagined a subject typing impromptu questions to a person and a computer and receiving their typed answers from the next room. If the interrogator can’t positively identify the human by session’s end, the contraption thus “passes” the Turing test. Should you find that laughably simple, consider the case of ELIZA, a program written at MIT in the mid-Sixties as (one would hope) a parody of Rogerian psychoanalysis. ELIZA simulates a responsive therapy session: “I’m troubled by bad dreams.” “Why do you think you have bad dreams?” “Because my father hates me.” “Who else in your family hates you?” The illusion of intelligence, which is actually only the ability to parse a few words, fooled many users, even after its amazed and delighted creator, Dr. Joseph Weizenbaum, patiently explained how ELIZA really worked. This blind tendency to map human emotions onto machines is today referred to as “the ELIZA effect.”

In EX MACHINA, we revisit the Turing test many, many, many iterations outward. In that proverbial Near Future, the young lad Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest staged by his employer’s brilliant, rich, eccentric founder, who became a modern Croesus by creating the greatest search engine in the history of the world. This Sergei-Musky figure, Nathan, is played by the mesmerizing Oscar Isaac, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite film actors. You can’t take your eyes off him, as you couldn’t in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS or A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, in which he will remind you of the young Michael Corleone a dozen times. (Isaac will get to have more colorful fun in Disney’s forthcoming STAR WARS and X-MEN flicks.) Nathan soon reveals that the grand prize wasn’t just to spend a week at his magnificent, sheltered, high-tech research facility and bachelor pad as advertised, but much more: to be the subject in the most awesome Turing test in history, d00d. Nathan has created the next best thing to a human being (he chose the form of the gorgeous Alicia Vikander, a dancer by training whose movements marry mechanics and grace in a pleasant new way), and it will be up to Caleb to get to know her and evaluate Nathan’s achievement. Then, the first time the two are outside the compound’s ubiquitous zone of security cameras, “Ava” whispers: “Don’t trust him. Don’t believe anything he says.”

Wow. We’ve already been led by the nose several times here by writer-director Alex Garland, and we’re not even at the halfway point. Caleb has our empathy as the dewy innocent youngster. Nathan has already proven himself more asshole than could possibly be imagined, and he keeps pouring it on. Ava is far from a blank slate. And there are reversals and revelations galore still to come, which I won’t dwell upon. This is the man who wrote 28 DAYS LATER…, SUNSHINE, the English NEVER LET ME GO, and DREDD, so he knows from screenplays. Knock yourselves out watching the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes Vikander appear to be mostly mechanical. What makes EX MACHINA work hearkens back to the Turing test. It’s all about the effect of technological achievement on human beings.

thIT FOLLOWS is both the title and a comprehensive two-word synopsis of a clever new horror movie that’s been getting a great critical reception since its release earlier this year. (THE BABADOOK is another recent modestly-budgeted terror triumph that I heartily recommend.) The premise of IT FOLLOWS is simple and diabolical: there is such a thing as a sexually transmitted demon. When you have sex with an afflicted person, the demon begins pursuing you instead. Object: brutal murder. It can inhabit the body of anyone, even somebody you know. There’s only one of it, but it can switch hosts at will. It doesn’t move fast, only plods with a rhythmic gait — but it will keep on following you, however long it takes, until it kills you. You can get rid of it by having sex with someone else, thus transmitting the curse, but if that person dies, the demon will work its way back down the carnal trail and come after you again. One more hitch: nobody else can see or hear it. Only you. (And the audience, of course.) It’s the paranoid’s worst nightmare: something actually is out to get you, and there’s no way to prove it to anyone else. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS time.

When I was a kid, I loved the classic Universal monster movies; I still do, after adjusting a bit for subsequent sophistication. To me, the most disturbing monster wasn’t Frankenstein’s experiment, or Dracula, or the Wolfman, or Mr. Hyde, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The one that really got under my skin was the Mummy. Because the Mummy was relentless. Classmates used to sneer: anybody can outrun the Mummy, man. True enough, but if ever you desecrated its tomb, even if you then flew in a plane to the U.S., it would walk across the ocean floor if it had to, step by step, and one day it would catch up with you. This thing requires no sleep or rest, unlike you. IT FOLLOWS brings the same creepy unending unease without traveling to Egypt.

The Babadook comes from a book book book.

The Babadook comes from a book book book.

No, we’re in suburban Detroit, a bombed-out shell of a city that’s virtually deserted; this is that kind of “chamber piece” that exists in its own little claustrophobic world. The teenagers at the heart of the story encounter very few adults, and most of them are incarnations of the demon. There’s a quick gruesome shot early on to help establish how high the stakes are, but in general IT FOLLOWS depends on sustained dread, not graphic gore or cheap jack-in-the-box “gotcha!” moments. It’s a cousin to THE BABADOOK in this regard, and the polar opposite of such fare as the CHUCKY or FINAL DESTINATION franchises.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis get the most out of their digital gear, making a normal day look menacing (most of the setups in this horror movie are exteriors). They repeat a little motif I love, a slow left-to-right pan to set the scene. It’s innocent at first, but as they repeat the move once we’ve gotten used to the demon’s slow, determined rhythm, they’ll show it coming from way off in the background during the pan without visual comment. (Once we’re “punk’d,” but still.) By now we can make it out a mile away, but where a lesser talent would probably stop the move and push in, we just go, holy moley, girl, look behind you! A similar shot was one of the best moments in THE DESCENT (my fourth recommendation, a little bloodier though), as we pan past the trapped spelunking girls and get our first look at one of the cave-dwelling creepy-crawlies behind them. Did we just see what I think we saw? You don’t need a loud noise and a musical sting to jolt the viewer, or a big visual effects budget to make an impact. All you need is some old-fashioned creativity. The low-budget, high-powered IT FOLLOWS is crammed full of it.

That pan in THE DESCENT that wants to pass by what's in the background, while you're screaming,

That pan in THE DESCENT that wants to pass by what’s in the background, while you’re screaming, “Did I just go crazy?”

P.S.: If you’re interested in ELIZA, she’s actually available as an app. I doubt Prof. Weizenbaum is involved.

8/24/15: Maika Monroe, the young scream queen who stars in IT FOLLOWS (and THE GUEST, a terrific psychological thriller, so make that five good movies), was named today to VARIETY’s Ten Actors To Watch list for 2015. She is already getting attention among casting directors: she’ll star in the new INDEPENDENCE DAY flick.

11/30/15: ELIZA is now available in audio format via Amazon Echo (similarly known as “Alexa”). Just enable the “skill” and talk away. Same deal.

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How Are You Julian?

October 22, 2014

Alex-Podulke-as-Julian-Barbara-Kingsley-as-Claire-in-Uncanny-Valley-by-Thomas-Gibbons-photo-by-Seth-Freeman.

UNCANNY VALLEY is a provocative piece of social science fiction in the form of a play. In a just world, this is the sort of thing that would be winning the Hugo Award (science fiction’s Oscar) for Best Dramatic Presentation instead of the latest fan favorite from tv or the multiplex. Despite its out-of-genre antecedent, it certainly deserves to be considered alongside other serious works in the field. After all, the very term “robot” is derived from a play: Karel Čapek’s R.U.R.

This play, by Thomas Gibbons, tackles serious moral and ethical questions about robotics and artificial intelligence, based on one Big Lie, the “What If?” proposition that underlies nearly all worthwhile sf. In other words, let’s pretend just for now that a particular bit of technological advancement is not only possible, but already achieved in the “not distant future” of the piece’s setting. What might happen then?

There are two actors. Only one of them plays a human being. She is a neuroscientist named Claire whose team created a state-of-the-art automaton known as Julian. The two of them converse in her office, and in the process we watch Julian progress from childhood to…but that would be telling.

The night I saw it, Claire was played to perfection by Barbara Kingsley, whose resume is long and distinguished. In the role of Julian was the amazing Alex Podulke, a name new to me, one of those actors who can utterly control his facial features, even refrain from blinking when necessary; he has also perfected that rigid head-turn and slight overshoot-and-correction that suggest his movements are being powered by servomotors. (Street mimes can do that too, but usually it’s all the act they have.) Thus can a talented and committed flesh-and-blood actor regress into the “Uncanny Valley.”

The term was coined in 1970 by Prof. Masahiro Mori, who hypothesized that we can easily feel empathy for stylized characters (like those in cartoons), but as a representation comes closer to actual human appearance and behavior, we approach an area that inspires revulsion, or at least creepy wariness, a phenomenon that climbs back into empathy once again as we move closer still. That empathetic dip is the Uncanny Valley. To experience this phenomenon and perhaps nod to Prof. Mori’s insight, I invite you to consider Tom Hanks’s animated avatar in THE POLAR EXPRESS, or any of the characters in the 2001 film FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN. There are many reasons that 2011’s MARS NEEDS MOMS was a colossal failure (lousy script, an ill-advised moms-in-peril story, etc.), but prominent among them, in my view, was that audience members were forced to stare into the Uncanny Valley for an hour and a half. Or, to save you some trouble, just look at this “actroid” from Japan, where very sophisticated work in robotic simulation continues, and imagine “her” moving and speaking.

th-1

We discover Julian as a disembodied head on a stand, crammed with raw information but lacking any emotional intelligence, which he learns from his mentor. He gains body parts in a series of time-lapse blackouts as the unseen engineers gradually construct him: first a torso, then right arm, then left arm, and finally legs that allow him to walk around and explore. This represents his early education at Claire’s hands, and when we first see Mr. Podulke, he is damn near drawing the Uncanny Valley all by himself. He and his mentor even talk about it. (This play swats away the storied Turing Test — can a machine fool a person into thinking it’s human? — within five minutes. Kid stuff. Our ethical journey is already far more nuanced than that.)

The blinking comes first, perhaps so the audience can be gently brought up to speed regarding the Uncanny Valley. Claire explains that humans blink an average of five times a minute. But Julian’s blinking — of course, he has no physiological reason, unlike we dry-eyed people — is programmed for random intervals rather than once every twelve seconds, to help him avoid acting like a machine. One of Julian’s first questions when he sees his face in a mirror is, “Why are my eyes blue?” It sounds charming and naive, but it is actually an important plot point and will in fact be answered later. The servo-like movements are most pronounced when we first meet Julian and gradually dissipate as he gains appendages and social experience. I won’t go any farther except to tell you there is another dimension to Mr. Podulke’s performance, and that’s when the proceedings really transcend. The intricacies of Mr. Gibbons’s story give each character plenty of room to roam, and enough conflict to let both actors summon every note on the histrionic scale.

The trite greeting “How are you, Julian?” actually becomes profound when the comma is removed; that tiny snip is the very crux of this smart, thought-provoking play. I don’t seriously think you’ll be able to catch it before it ends its New York run this coming Sunday, but I bring it up because its producer, the Contemporary American Theater Festival, is billing it as “A National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere.” I take “rolling” to mean that there may well be an engagement near you; check their website. If it gets close, buy a ticket, and let me hear from you. Me, I loved it.

P.S.: Don’t confuse this with a similarly titled play. I haven’t seen that one, so can’t comment.


Robinson Crusoe On Mars

July 27, 2014

MartianHere is my choice as the absolute best science fiction novel for people who don’t like science fiction. That’s because although Andy Weir’s beautiful book THE MARTIAN takes place almost exclusively on another planet, you won’t have to deal with any little green men, or time travel, or phantom dimensions, or anything you can’t heartily believe in. It’s a story of will and ingenuity, a fight for survival that’s shared not only by the poor schnook of the title, but also by a huge scientific apparatus that throws itself into his battle over the millions of kilometers that separate them. There’s even icing on the cake: it’s also funny as hell.

Mark Watney is a botanist, part of Ares 3, the third manned Mars mission, a planned 31-day exploration. But six days in, a powerful freak sandstorm forces an early scrub. During the fierce torrent, an antenna comes loose and pierces Watney’s EVA suit. He’s hurled face down into the sand and his vital signs read zero. Despite the mission commander’s frantic attempt to reach his (presumably dead) body, the escape vehicle starts to deteriorate, and she has no choice but to leave the (presumed) corpse behind to save the other crew members.

We learn all this in Watney’s own voice, via a mission log he keeps for posterity, and the first thing he tells us is, “I’m pretty much fucked.” (And don’t worry, pal, there’s plenty more bad luck still to come.) But Mars, and the reader, are about to learn two important things about Mark Watney: (1) he is as resourceful as human beings get, and (2) he is a world-class weisenheimer, opposing what might otherwise be paralyzing hopelessness with a self-effacing attitude that makes you just love him while he’s battling horrible odds. This post’s title may remind you of a fabled B-movie, but it’s a fairly accurate synopsis – only now we have to take the situation seriously.

CrusoeOK. We’re stuck on Mars alone. But we’re still alive, even if nobody else knows it. So. How to survive? How to get water? Food? Mark has the whole crew’s nutrient tablets for the rest of the month-long mission, but there’s no hope of rescue until much, much later – and that only if he can prove somehow that he’s still alive. So what he really needs right now are calories. Any suggestions, readers who have also thought about long space missions? (Hint: as the author has already told us, Mark’s a botanist.) Bit by bit, inch by inch, step by step, you are alongside this castaway as he figures out what he’s forced to figure out, and it’s all explained in a way that even non-scientists like me can grasp. Unmanned missions have already dropped certain key elements onto the Martian surface, making it possible for Mark to come up with a plan, but you have to hand it to him for putting the puzzle pieces together.

The admiration is joined by NASA back on Earth, once a sharp-eyed scientist surveying the scrub site realizes Mark’s still ticking. Mr. Weir also brings in the departed crew, aboard the return vehicle Hermes. This not only raises the stakes, but also provides some welcome shifts in point of view, breaks from Mark’s first-person narrative. I won’t go any farther except to say this piece has already been bought for the movies and, if done right, it’s going to be an APOLLO 13-like nailbiter.

I’ll add that THE MARTIAN is the poster child for self-publication. It was originally published as an e-book in 2011. People went nuts and trade publisher Crown swept in, publishing its edition only this year. I don’t think it’s perfect even now. If I’d had my grubby little editorial hands on it, I’d have asked Mr. Weir to pull out the third-person account of the sandstorm from where it is now (it interrupts the story and becomes a sore thumb) and get it closer to the top, when it actually happened – maybe at the very top so that Mark’s survival can be a mild surprise. I also felt the NASA characters and the Hermes crew were less well written than Mark himself: they were little more than stereotypes built to move the story forward (that won’t matter in a movie, believe me). But boy, am I impressed – because remember now, everything Mark Watney reasons was actually reasoned by the real-life author. Incredible tension, wonderful comic release, many points where all you can do is applaud – don’t you dare miss this one.

8/15/14: My friend Christian Waters pointed me to a press release that says the movie adaptation of THE MARTIAN will be released on Nov. 25, 2015, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon. One ticket sold!

11/21/14: And Jessica Chastain.

9/11/15: An early festival review that makes the movie look terrific. It’s opening wide earlier than originally planned.


Spaced In

October 13, 2013

GRAVITYGRAVITY is every bit as good as you’ve heard. It’s not just a nail-biting thriller, not just far and away the best cinematic depiction of what it’s like to be in space, not just the finest performance ever from Sandra Bullock. Even more important, it introduces new concepts to the language of film: swirling, swooping, gyroscopic curvatures that observe no earthbound rules, that can take you inside a space helmet and out again without cuts or dissolves; the opening shot alone lasts for nearly 13 minutes. They’ll have to invent a new term to describe this constantly malleable point of view. But the story doesn’t stop long enough to let you ponder “how’d they do that?”* For all I know, they built some rockets and shot two game movie stars into Earth orbit. You’ve never seen anything like this. Nobody has.

It’s a howling, crowd-pleasing, eye-popping triumph for director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron. His resume is already impressive: besides directing the best Harry Potter film (PRISONER OF AZKABAN), there’s also CHILDREN OF MEN (he tops the opening shot here) and the delightful Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN. His friend Guillermo del Toro, also a fan of the fantastique, must be bursting with pride. But Cuaron leads an army of technical wizards so state-of-the-art that I didn’t recognize several of the jobs listed in the end credits.

The story, by the director and his son Jonas, is simplicity itself. Two astronauts are on a space walk as the film begins. Something bad happens, and now it’s all about survival. Playing opposite Bullock is George Clooney, who knows more about this mission than her medical officer does, and delivers perfectly timed moments of lightness (he listens to Hank Williams in space and tells “Houston” – the unseen Ed Harris – “it’s not rocket science”). That’s your entire on-camera cast.

The space effects are beyond disbelief, and so is the sound design. You never hear “sync” sound unless it would be physically possible, and space is by and large silent, emphasized by an opening fanfare under the title card that gets louder and louder and louder…until we cut to space and utter silence for the beginning of that first magnificent, marathon, multigravitational, POV-shifting, “single shot.” But there’s a top-notch music score by Steven Price which ratchets up the tension almost unbearably.

GRAVITY set an October-opening box-office record here in the States, and continued its financial rampage in the second weekend, which is when I saw it, earlier today. I attended a regular-screen 3-D performance, and though the 3-D effects were leagues better than those in the trailer for THE HOBBIT 2 which preceded it, GRAVITY is probably just as enjoyable flat. But real thrill-seekers will go me one better and screen it in IMAX.

Do not miss this one. See it in a theater if you can. “Amazing” isn’t strong enough. Maybe the word we want is “GRAVITY-like.”

*3/1/14: On Oscar Eve (I doubt GRAVITY will win Best Picture, but any Best Director who beats Alfonso Cuaron will always, in his heart of hearts, wonder why), I recommend the just-released DVD version of this film, especially the backstage “special features.” These things are usually fluff, but here you really do get a good look at how the stunning effects were achieved. Another nice bonus is a lovely short by Jonas, showing you the Earthbound side of Bullock’s frustrating radio conversation near the end.

3/3/14: GRAVITY topped the 2014 Oscar list with seven awards, including a well-deserved Best Director statue for Sr. Cuaron.


Frederik Pohl, 1919-2013

September 3, 2013

PohlI didn’t know Frederik Pohl personally, but several of my authors did. I met him briefly at the 1987 Worldcon in Brighton, England, and he was kind and cordial while he listened to me gush for five minutes. (Those who did know him tell me this graciousness was typical.) I was grateful for his own work, particularly THE SPACE MERCHANTS – written with frequent collaborator C. M. Kornbluth and the most cutting satirical novel about advertising; Pohl himself spent a few desultory years in the business before leaving in bemusement and disgust – and GATEWAY and MAN PLUS, which still bestride the science fiction field like the colossae they are. But he really guided me through this thrilling genre by serving as editor of Galaxy and If magazines in the Sixties, when I was just graduating from Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton “juvies” into something more provocative. I couldn’t walk away without thanking him for that.

Great, award-winning author that he was (his admirers included no less than Kingsley Amis), Pohl’s most lasting effects on the genre were probably his achievements as an editor. Besides his terrific run at Galaxy Publications (he took over its flagship from the equally legendary H. L. Gold and immediately made it his own), his STAR SCIENCE FICTION series introduced the concept of book-length anthologies of original stories. He raised Bantam Books to prominence during his stint there, culminating with the purchase of Samuel R. Delany’s brilliant novel DHALGREN. Pohl insisted on attending the sales conference for that book (he muscled his way in; editors weren’t normally invited), and told the reps that this was Delany’s masterpiece, they should just get their accounts to stock it and get out of the way, and he was right. Bantam repeatedly went back to press on this long, challenging read, and it was a jewel of their backlist for many years.

Way before that, Pohl was one of the earliest science fiction fans to seek out other like souls; he was a founding member of the pioneering Futurians. In a sense, he helped lay the groundwork for organized science fiction fandom, and, along with a notable number of others, went from its glorious obsession – that’s how he could tolerate a gusher like me; he used to be one himself – all the way to the highest rank of professional. His splendid memoir THE WAY THE FUTURE WAS tells the story of that arc in American culture better than anyone else ever has.

One day he walked past my office at Bantam, probably on his way to see Ian Ballantine, his longtime publisher, who was a few doors down. I guess I should have jumped up and said something, but I was still very new, green enough so that my mind just timidly flashed, Oh my God, that was Frederik Pohl! I won’t ever have that chance again, because he passed away yesterday afternoon of respiratory failure at 93. Fan, author, agent, editor, critic, even blogger, one of our last remaining links to the birth of modern science fiction, he was a man who changed his own world – and thanks to his talent and influence, made it our world too.

12/5/13: The directors of SFWA, the sf/fantasy writers’ organization, announced that its Grand Master Award — the highest honor for a lifetime of work — will be bestowed on Samuel R. Delany at the next Nebula Awards ceremony. I wish Mr. Pohl could have lived long enough to see this, for DHALGREN is still considered by many to be Chip’s masterpiece.


Richard Matheson, 1926-2013

June 26, 2013

richard_mathesonRay Bradbury brought poetry to fantastic fiction and Rod Serling popularized it for the masses, but a third man was arguably the field’s most influential writer since H. P. Lovecraft. This was Richard Matheson, and if you don’t recognize his name as easily as those others, don’t worry: authors sure do. What Mr. Matheson did has since become commonplace, but in the mid-Twentieth century he hacked a path through weird fiction as if he were carrying a machete, and the writers who followed his trail are legion – and legend.

When Mr. Matheson’s first bylined professional short story, “Born of Man and Woman,” was published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1950, “horror” fiction was almost exclusively Gothic: set in dank catacombs or haunted mansions; told in an ornate, almost self-parodic style which might have been contemporary to, say, Edgar Allan Poe, but was growing tired in any lesser hands (and nearly all were lesser) than that odd antiquarian’s, the thirtysomething “Old Gentleman,” Lovecraft.

“Born of Man and Woman” is a “short-short.” It can’t be more than two thousand measly words. But crammed into those few pages is enough dread and otherness to fill a whole novel. It’s a tour de force, in both form and content, that jolts everyone who comes upon it. It’s set in a dungeon, but a far scarier one than those of puffy-shirt-era period pieces. There are modern touches: automobiles, a movie-star magazine. But the power issues from its point of view, and it’s a master class in the Lovecraft method of letting you fill in the details for yourself. Your imagination is more frightening than anything you can be told, as anyone knows who enters even a familiar room in pitch-blackness.

Mr. Matheson’s lasting contribution to fantasy fiction was to bring it into the present. It’s easy to shake off the events in an ancient Transylvanian castle, or to dismiss Colin Clive’s histrionic ravings at the dawn of the sound era in cinema, because we encounter them today at some remove. But when a pedophile abducts a child at the local McDonalds (Stephen King’s story “Popsy”), it’s suddenly a great deal closer to home. Mr. King is probably the most fervent Matheson acolyte: he’s certainly the very best at dropping strange events into the most mundane settings – turns out it’s far creepier that way. Without Richard Matheson, not only don’t you have Stephen King, but neither Dan Simmons, Rick McCammon, Joe Lansdale, Clive Barker, Peter Straub – all of them and many more are indebted to the guy who proved you can unnerve people even in full bright daylight.

Mssrs. Matheson and Serling crossed paths after the former had already turned to screenwriting; oddly enough, Mr. Matheson wrote most of those puffy-shirted Roger Corman “adaptations” of Poe stories. He was a frequent writer for the original TWILIGHT ZONE (I used to love it when Mr. Serling did a billboard for next week’s episode and used writers’ names; that’s also how I first heard of Charles Beaumont), including an adaptation of his own story “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” the one with William Shatner and the gremlin. Other Matheson stories auto-adapted for ZONE included “Third From the Sun,” “Death Ship,” “Little Girl Lost,” “Long Distance Call,” “Steel,” and “Mute.”

“Button, Button” became a big 2009 movie with Frank Langella called THE BOX. “Duel” inaugurated Steven Spielberg’s feature career. And Matheson novels are all over the screen: I AM LEGEND (filmed no fewer than three times), THE SHRINKING MAN (Universal added the word INCREDIBLE and changed it to WOMAN for Lily Tomlin), WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, BID TIME RETURN (you know it as SOMEWHERE IN TIME), HELL HOUSE, A STIR OF ECHOES.

If there’s a quickie narrative thread, it’s probably paranoia, but even more important is the same thing that continues to propel Mr. King’s career: these guys each draw recognizable characters that you might meet in the checkout line, and they can both spin, as the Brits say, a ripping yarn. Mr. Matheson didn’t even require spooks. I remember one of the happiest publishing days in my good friend Gary Goldstein’s life came in 1991, when he signed up a new Matheson Western(!) for Berkley Books. JOURNAL OF THE GUN YEARS was so sublime that it won the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award for Best Novel — and the author was a Western newbie.

I have a beautiful Matheson volume, COLLECTED STORIES (1988) from Jeff Conner’s Dream/Press. I hate to pull it out of the slipcase too often, because it’s signed by the author and I don’t want to mess it up from overuse. But it’s been out and open for the last few days, and I’ve been reading here and there. It is amazing how much of the short fiction holds up after as long as 63 years (“Born” hasn’t lost a drop of juice in that half century-plus). That’s the best thing about being – or reading – a great author: his work renders him immortal. Richard Matheson became immortal this past Sunday. And while we certainly grieve with R.C. and the rest of the family, at least we have his undying legacy to sustain us forever.


Just For Openers

May 12, 2013

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

That’s one of the greatest opening lines in literary history, for my money. It has stuck with me for nearly thirty years. In fact, I just quoted it by heart (double-checking only to make sure I got the comma right: I did). As everybody else who has encountered it also doubtless remembers, William Gibson’s brilliant novel NEUROMANCER begins with this sentence. I haven’t read the book since it was first published in 1984, but I still remember this line perfectly, because it smacked me like an open hand.

We know instinctively that a musical melody can get under our skins. Even a tune we had had quite enough of remains inside us, in some primal part of our brains that can whisk us back to the moment when it was contemporary and conjure long-forgotten emotions, both fond and regretful, whether we like it or not. Those of you who are old enough: start thinking of the melody of Kenny Loggins’s “Danny’s Song” – you know the one, “Even though we ain’t got money / I’m so in love with you honey…” Got it? Okay, now try to STOP thinking of it. Both my mother and grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease late in their lives, and even at the point where they could only speak in gibberish syllables (except very rarely, when a perfectly formed sentence would come out, chilling me to the bone and forcing me to wonder if they’d been making sense to themselves all along. Alzheimer’s is one king-hell bitch, friends), they could still remember musical notes and put them together into a recognizable melody. This strongly suggests that we experience and file musical tones in some other sector from wherever we store and retrieve language. I would guess visual cues are handled differently as well. I don’t have the medical background to be sure, but that’s what I’ve observed, and it makes common sense to me.

But what is it about a string of letters that creates a profundity or emotional tug? I can only explain my own reactions, and I’m not suggesting that I have the last word as an academician might. In the case of NEUROMANCER, part of the key is that date: 1984. It was the beginning of the personal computer revolution, still largely confined to hobbyists. The Apple Macintosh, which billed itself as “the computer for the rest of us,” had only just appeared. But with that bold sentence, Bill Gibson announced that he was speaking to a new generation of science fiction readers – heck, a new generation of readers, period. The original thundercrack of 20th century science fiction – Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and colleagues – had given way to a more socially conscious, taboo-smashing New Wave – Spinrad, Ellison, Disch, LeGuin, and so on – who were audacious enough to question the very existence of this or that genre. But that had happened twenty or so years before. Unlike the slow but miraculous race to the moon, when science-based writers could still kind of keep up, the pace of technological and societal change was increasing. It became folly to predict the future, because the future now arrived before your ink was even dry.

Bill Gibson was 35 when he wrote NEUROMANCER; he was born in the same year George Orwell published NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. He was on the leading edge of the first generation that grew up with television as a casual aspect of daily life. So when he described a sickly gray color that resembled a ”dead channel,” everybody his age and younger understood instantly, and they knew they were being addressed by a peer. These people had never gathered around a radio drama when they were kids, like elder writers had. They couldn’t really remember pulp magazines or movie serials, at least not in their heydays. But they were old enough to recall what it was like before tv channels blared around the clock, the days when your local station actually signed off the air at midnight or so…and became a dead channel until the following morning. In this instant, Gibson had announced the arrival of an emerging digital point of view. This attitude, combined with often breathless views of an over-teched future dystopia, came to be called “cyberpunk,” and lots of people, including me, got their very first taste in NEUROMANCER. Simply rotate the “C” ninety degrees to form a “U,” and you’ve changed everything. Maybe creativity is that simple. (Spoiler Alert: it is, but only for those who can manage to make that unnatural turn, which eliminates nearly all the rest of us.) One caveat: Bill himself may well have been inspired by the Doors’ “My Eyes Have Seen You,” which contains the line “gazing on the city under television skies,” but I always felt Jim Morrison was just casting out images. That one, from both Bill and Jim, is a dandy.

I wasn’t alone in my adoration. NEUROMANCER won every award the field was able to bestow, and William Gibson became something grander than a science fiction writer, the same thing that had happened to Kurt Vonnegut a generation earlier. Anybody who really likes spaceships and lasers can remember the frisson produced by the first shot of STAR WARS, the 1977 original, as the massive Imperial ship chases the smaller one, death-rays blazing. You thought, oh, wow, I think I’m gonna enjoy this. Well, that’s also what I thought upon reading that now-famous sentence – and in both cases, the creators delivered on the promise of their superlative curtain-raisers.

Call me Ishmael.

This opening sentence resonates because of the tremendous sense of foreshadowed drama it portends. Perhaps the NEUROMANCER opening will do the same, once we give it the requisite, say, fifty more years, as the world it describes falls inexorably into ancient history.

Every snot-nosed kid who dutifully tried Herman Melville’s titanic work MOBY-DICK back in grade school discovered that to get this far, you first have to wade through an abysmal, seemingly unending section of definition, etymology, etc. We get it, sir: whales are badasses. But, as with the satirical Onion item about the Titanic being struck by the world’s largest metaphor, so we understand from the first words that this is more than a story about a fishing expedition.

In the John Huston film, written by Ray Bradbury – who definitely loved him some metaphor – the Richard Basehart voiceover includes a pregnant pause. The actor says, “Call me…Ishmael,” as if he were trying to come up with some pseudonym on the spot. That pause isn’t written in Melville, but this subtext definitely is: call me whatever you want. I don’t care. I’m going to tell you something that’s almost beyond belief, but it happened, pal, I saw it with my own eyes, and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. That last bit is from the book of Job – which Melville’s readership had studied much closer in 1851 than we do today – so, to coin a phrase, we know dude be serious. Biblical scholars tell us the name “Ishmael” connotes an outcast, a wanderer. As we say in the enlightened new millennium, whatev.

By the way, kids, don’t give up on this great tale just because of all the lousy pre-show variety acts. Skip the front parts and go directly to “Chapter 1: LOOMINGS.” Trust me. Don’t wait for your teacher to “interpret”: this looming business is spelled out for you on page one, but I am not responsible for any blowback if you happen to point this out in class. (Yes, that is indeed experience speaking.)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Did you recognize that sentence? Bet you did. It opens George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. It’s so sly that it ruins our internal balance without even seeming to. After all, the military, and any European transportation hub, operate on a 24-hour clock, for understandable precision: “The cap’n said drop the nuke at 12: did he mean noon or midnight?” There does actually exist a concept known as thirteen o’clock. No, wait: the military and Eurail know 1:00 pm as “1300 hours.” So why are the clocks striking thirteen? Is it because we’re under martial law? (Spoiler Alert: in a way, yes.) Is it because all civilians have been forced to observe these same rules of precision for the good of the body politic? (You‘re getting warmer, unlike the bright April day – it really should be warm by now!)

Fourteen words, a comma and a period. That’s all it took to thrust us into a disturbing new paradigm, to shift reality. Orwell’s immortal story works not only because of its invention or prescience, but also because he was able to knock us off kilter within seconds. Now consider a longer lead-in.

It was a perfect 72 degrees the December morning the Marshalls’ home computer arrived, and the sky was set to a soaring azure, but it was flickering, which was the whole problem.

Recognize that? No? I’m not surprised. It’s the opening sentence – and paragraph – from the 2006 short story “Installation Day.” It appeared in an anthology called GOLDEN AGE SF, for which contemporary authors were invited to pretend they were working in science fiction’s “Golden Age” – that is, the 30s through the 50s – with no knowledge of what actually came later. Sort of retro-futurism. I’ve postponed it for a couple minutes, but I guess the time has come to reveal that the author is none other than me. (Judging only from this opening sentence, sharp eyes might suss that I’d long since consumed the Gibson and the Orwell.)

I did hobble myself by setting this sentence against three of the greatest openings ever, but I do have a kind of explanation. Still, you can see what happens when a child attempts to do a grown person’s job. (Not just me, either: most writers would probably try to get the setting out of the way: “At 1 pm on April 4th…”) My opening is by far the longest, clunkiest, most info-packed but nevertheless least interesting of the four you see. How one could/would “set” the sky and why it was “flickering” get explained in the story, as you assume they will, and a 72-degree December morning isn’t uncommon to those who live in the Sunbelt. But look at all I failed to do in twice, thrice, the words, compared to the greatest. In fairness, I must add that I deliberately wrote this story to read like an old pulp magazine piece, and bombastic opening sentences like mine were almost obligatory. I’m not beating myself up for your amusement; I’m actually quite pleased with how the story turned out anent the commission. (I think I might also be speaking for my editor, Eric T. Reynolds, who first improved my story and then bought it, as do many editors of short fiction, in that order.)

But these magical moments don’t happen by accident. Or maybe they do. The sliver of our minds that great literature manages to touch can fire in a split-second. But as William Gibson showed me, that blinding spark can last a lifetime.


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