Thursday, July 16, 2009

Paint It Black

Continuing my sporadic series reviewing old laserdiscs found in my garage ...

The Black Room, staring Boris Karloff and Boris Karloff, is a marvelous film adaptation of one of the best Edgar Allen Poe tales that Poe never wrote.

It was an original screenplay by Henry Myers and Arthur Strawn, but (to me, at least,) it feels very much like an adaptation of a short story by Poe. It starts with twins being born to the de Berghmann family—heirs to the baronetcy of a nameless central European principality (Bavaria by way of Chatsworth) set in the early 1800’s. The younger (by a few minutes) is Anton, who, in addition to having lost the title of Baron, is also saddled with a paralyzed arm. Despite this, he’s not bitter, but rather as kind-hearted as his brother, Gregor, is coldly evil. Anton is called back from his travels abroad by Gregor, who wants his aid in restoring his popularity with the townsfolk (it seems that they don’t take kindly to his rapacious and homicidal nature). There is, of course, a complicating factor that drove Anton away initially: A family curse which says that the younger brother will kill the older in the Black Room, which is evidently some sort of hidden safe room lined with obsidian walls and containing a dry cistern.

Gregor steps down, abdicating in favor of Anton—then kills his brother and dumps his body down the well in the Black Room. He usurps Anton’s identity, but Lt. Hassel (Thurston Hall) has suspicions, which lead to Gregor’s eventual unmasking and a twist ending that fulfills the curse.

Although it isn’t horror per se, Karloff’s tour-de-force as the reptilian Gregor and his brotherly antithesis Anton elevates the story, making it much more than just a period melodrama. Backed up by Roy William Neil’s understated direction, which uses split-screen, rear-projection and various in-camera tricks to show the twins interacting, Karloff delivers three excellent performances. As Gregor, he’s utterly psychopathic, eating a pear and musing about its taste while his Gypsy mistress pleads for her life (“And when you’re through, you throw it away.”) As Anton, he’s gentle and trusting, though not blind to Gregor’s faults. And after Gregor kills his brother, Karloff creates a third persona: Gregor masquerading as Anton. He lets us see the cruelty behind the mask, but not so overtly as to arouse the other players’ suspicions.

The story isn’t perfect; it disintegrates into a free-wheeling chase at the end, featuring a dog that can keep pace with a carriage at full gallop. But the biggest contrivance is Anton’s arm; paralyzed since birth, it would be a withered and dessicated stick instead of being indistinguishable from his other appendage. Nevertheless, the film is well worth watching for Karloff’s performance.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ode To My Kindle

I’m a book snob.

Most writers I know are. As far as I’m concerned, a book is pretty much a perfect form of data dissemination—it’s compact, holographic, easily accessed, and it can be extremely striking from a design POV. I love books. It’s true that they can fill up a bookcase (or a house) pretty quick; still, for the enjoyment and information you get from them, the footprint isn’t that big.

(I used to have a lot more books than I do now; had a house with a garage converted into an office/library, and the walls lined with bookshelves. Probably over a thousand books, all told. Visitors would always exclaim over them: “You have more books than anyone I know!” Well, maybe, but I sure as hell don’t have more than anyone I know. I haven’t been to Harlan’s house in years, but the last time I saw it he had managed to pack a fair-sized Barnes & Noble into the place.)

So when I heard about electronic book readers my first reaction was to turn up my nose. Yet another piece of soulless technology attempting to replace art. How dehumanizing. I simply couldn’t see how something made of plastic and circuitry could ever trump paper and ink.

Then a friend showed me her Kindle. Demonstrated the way the screen looked, the options (variable print size, built-in dictionary, the virtual marketplace), the compact size of it ...

And I bought one the next day.

The great thing about it is it’s not an electronic book—it’s an electronic library. I’ve been reading a lot more lately, mostly non-fiction, and sometimes it’s positively dizzying to think about the thousands of books quite literally at my fingertips—most of them at less than half price. I have access to over a quarter of a million titles through

Granted, it’s not perfect. Like I said, a book is holographic—you can go back or skip ahead easily, whereas with the Kindle you have to go to the table of contents and from there proceed linearly, page by page. But that’s a fairly minor annoyance. And I’m very much hoping that the next upgrade has a built-in booklight for reading in bed.

I still buy books—only now I can limit them to books I want to keep and reread. But with the Kindle I finally have the answer to that old question: What book would I pick to take along were I stranded on a desert island?

Any of an entire virtual library ...

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Rocky Start ...

... to my occasional reviews of the box-o-laserdiscs recently dug out of the garage. This time it’s The Rock, (1996), directed by Michael Bay.

One thing I can say in its favor—it’s the only movie I can remember off the top of my head that spends quite a lengthy opening titles sequence setting up the bad guy. Actually, Ed Harris’ general is the classic definition of an antagonist—someone who’s not necessarily ee-vul, just in opposition to the protagonist. Granted that he has the exquisite lack of judgment to choose for his team some of the most obviously psychotic soldiers since Jim Brown and Telly Savalas were press-ganged into The Dirty Dozen, but hey, he has a lot on his mind. He’s masterminding a plot to hold the Bay Area hostage by taking over Alcatraz and aiming a whole buncha missiles containing a nasty nerve agent at San Francisco. (This concoction seems to combine the worst aspects of VX and mustard gas; i.e., it paralyzes and suffocates you by blocking synaptic action, then rots your skin just to show it means business). It’s stored in the form of large green beads, which definitely should have won some kind of design award for prettiest WMD.

(The missiles don’t have far to go—just from Alcatraz to the mainland—but they apparently do it by sheer force of will, since the missile’s entire midsection is taken up by the weapon payload, leaving no room for fuel. Pretty impressive.)

The movie’s big gag is simple and very pitchworthy: instead of escaping from Alcatraz, our team must break into it. To do this, they assemble a team of Navy SEALs, an expert in various nerve agents (Nicholas Cage) and James Bond (Sean Connery). Oh, sure, they call him “John Mason”, but he’s an ultra-suave British agent who could strangle you with the garrote woven into his Saville Row tie in less time than it takes you to say “Licence To Kill”. Trust me; he’s Bond.

So they enter Alcatraz via a storm drain (which, in movies, are always big enough to walk upright in), and Mason gets them past the first obstacle, which is some weird kind of furnace still running after 30 years (Alcatraz closed in the early Sixties). From there it gets ever more bizarre, culminating in a shootout taking place in a kind of underground steampunk dystopia that’s part Temple Of Doom, part Big Thunder Mountain and part Mordor.

Okay, enough. The movie rolls out pretty much as expected; all the SEALs are slaughtered, only Goodspeed (Cage) and Mason remain to discover mutual respect and bond (sorry). Near the movie’s end Cage has to self-inject a dose of atrophine into his heart to counteract the agent’s effects. Which can work as a last resort, although it’s a whole lot harder to push a needle (particularly a big-bore) through a chest wall than it looks. I wouldn’t leave the needle just hanging there, either—infection, tamponade, and other nastiness could ensue.

It’s certainly not as brutally stupid as Armageddon. And you have to give points to a movie that makes a throwaway reference to Roswell. But I’m not gonna be replacing this one on DVD anytime soon.

I'm rating these movies on a three-tier scale: (1) How Could I Live Without It; (2) Worth Keeping, But Not Replacing, and (3) What Was I Thinking?! The Rock gets a solid 2.

Friday, July 3, 2009

"Klaatu barada ... uh ..."

So I just got around to watching the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still on pay-per-view, and much to my surprise, it didn't suck. Too badly ...

Granted, it ain't a patch on the original with Michael Rennie. But I didn't expect it to be. I expected an FX bonanza (check); Keanu Reeves in a perfect role, that of an alien as wooden-faced as a cigar-store Indian (check); and a story that, if the gods were kind, wouldn't be too terribly preachy or condemning of the human race for making such a mess of things (check).

And I expected to be mindlessly entertained for 2 hours (check, more or less).

It didn't suck. Not exactly the most fulsome of praise, but then, we're all learning to live with lowered expectations these days.

And let's face it—it was worth the $4 for the scene with Keanu and John Cleese (in Sam Jaffe's role), playing dueling calculus on the blackboard. I mean, Keanu doing Minkowski equations? That was harder to swallow than the nanobots eating New York. (Oops; spoiler.)

The Good Old Days

I just wrote a short story.

Them as know me know that I do this about as often as the Earth flip-flops magnetic poles; not a whole lot, in other words. I have ideas for short stories all the time, but they rarely progress further. Every once in awhile, though ...

And, of course, there’s the age-old question of where ideas come from. Usually they come from some sort of experience that I’ve either had, or know of someone else having had. In this case, it was mine.

I’m not going to tell you the whole story here; I’d rather you wait until it’s published. But here are a few paragraphs from it that set it up:

It was spring, I remember, around the end of April or the beginning of May -- you’d think that, considering what happened, the date would be burned into my memory. It had to have been a Saturday, because school wasn’t out yet. I was playing with a couple of friends -- Tom Harper and Malcolm James. We’d gone up into the hills a few blocks from my house to play cowboys and Indians. We were armed and ready for trouble.

When I say “armed”, I mean something different than what the word might connote today. I was carrying my trusty McRepeater Rifle, which made a very satisfactory bang when the wheel atop the stock was turned. Tom had a deadly Daisy 1101 Thunderbird, and in addition was packing twin cap pistols. And Malcolm ... well, Malcolm was carrying his Johnny Eagle Magumba Big Game Rifle, which he’d insisted on bringing even though he had a perfectly good Fanner 50 cap gun back in his bedroom. Some people just won’t get with the program.

We were hunting Indians (the concept of political correctness -- even the term -- hadn’t been invented yet). It was the middle of the afternoon and, though it was early in the year, it was already hot enough to raise shimmers of heat waves from the dirt road.

(Suddenly) a voice shouted, “Hands up!”

Now, this is the point. It was fantasy. Make-believe. And we knew that. But unless you can remember, really remember, those Bradbury days of childhood, the unspoken social norms that we all lived by then, the secret lives and inviolate rules that bound us as fully and completely as office politics and the laws of church and state circumscribed our parents’ lives -- well, then I have no real hope of making you understand why we did what we did. It wasn’t even something we thought about -- we just did it. They had the drop on us, after all. They’d caught us, fair and square.

So, all three of us dropped our toy guns and reached for the sky.
The story after this point is considerably grimmer than what actually happened. In reality, it got to be dinnertime and we all went home. But that moment of complete and utter surrender to fantasy is something that’s always stayed with me. We didn’t know the boys who captured us. They were from another school across town, which meant they might as well have been from Outer Mongolia. (Is there an Inner Mongolia? If so, how come no one ever mentions it?) But we let them march us, before the muzzle of their toy guns, up into a ravine, where they held us prisoner. (There was talk of ransom.) On of us (not me) tried to escape, and was summarily shot—this led to considerable discussion as to whether he was actually dead, and if so, what to do with him. I made a contribution at this point which, if I do say so, was nothing short of genius. Plucking a flower, I announced that it was the fabled Mariphasa lupina lumina (I’d just seen Werewolf Of London on Channel 5 the previous night), which could heal whatever wounds had been sustained. This was immediately accepted to great acclaim. (One of our captors argued that the mariphasa was solely a cure for lycanthropy, and anyway grew only in Tibet, but he was outvoted. The Philistine.)

The whole point of it, however, was the unspoken agreement by which we all accepted -- to pretend that we were POWs. (They were acting out a WWII scenario.) I’ve mentioned in previous posts various experiences that helped point me towards a career in writing, and this was definitely one of them. (I once snagged a TV writing assignment just on the strength of telling the producer this story.) The sense of living on the cusp, between reality and fantasy, is something that I fear kids today only experience in the virtual world. Although it sounds very contradictory, I think that a child’s fantasy life should be much more real than World Of Warcraft.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Blasts (and Fizzles) From the Past

Sorry again. I can only provide so many entries to this ... as I've stated (and stated and stated ...) my typing ability has been reduced to the Columbus method (though if he'd been no better at finding a key and landing on it than I am, America would still belong to the Indians), and my voice is pretty much gone. I make entries when I can, but I've also got two books and a comic under contract, and paying work must take precedence.

So, for those days when I'm not terribly inspired with deathless prose and trenchant observations, here's something I can do that'll be (with luck) amusing:

My ex had a garage sale last week. It made the excavation of Troy look like a posthole. Among the many, many items uncovered were two large boxes of laserdiscs.

(I'm going to assume that you all know what these are. Or were ... if not, I'll just say that they are to DVDs what vinyl albums were to CDs. Ask your parents.)

I have a few laserdiscs in my collection already -- mostly stuff I can't find on DVD. Many of these "new" ones I'd forgotten I had -- which could say something about the perils of pack-ratting. So far, they all seem to be in reasonable shape, which is pretty impressive considering they've been sitting in an un-air-conditioned garage for at least ten years.

So I was thinking that, as I pull them out and watch them as whim dictates -- that I review them. I'm not going to apologize for any lapse of taste or judgment; but the last LD I bought (Cameron's Titanic -- like I said, no accounting for taste) was about 15 years ago, and it'll be interesting to see what surfaces in this cinematic Sargasso ...

Monday, June 15, 2009


So, I took Debbie to the airport today, so she can go to Boston for orientation on her new job. (I didn't mention her new job? She's director of a mental health unit called ACT. Fortunately the job isn't in Boston -- just the orientation.)

Actually, since her plane left LAX at 8 am, we decided to go yesterday and check into a hotel so we wouldn't have to get up at 5. Which brings me to the hugs part:

The hotel (the airport Radison) was literally swarming with people wearing white damask robes. The lobby was so packed with them it looked like a Pier One had exploded. So when we were checking in, I asked the clerk what was going on.

He told me they were all here to see an Indian guru woman named "Amma". He described her as "Mother Teresa, but with hugs."


The woman evidently gives great hugs. The clerk told me every hotel in a ten-block radius was booked. People come from all over the world. To get hugged.

I'm in the wrong line of work ...

Friday, June 12, 2009

Sorry ...

Been wrapped up in deadlines, plus a short story I'm working on. Gimme another week or so ...

Monday, May 25, 2009

How To Write Good

The question I get asked more than any other is: "How can I write a script for my favorite TV show?" So I thought I'd reprint something I wrote some time ago to address this:

Writing a script for your favorite TV show is easy. Just sit down at your word processor or typewriter or clay tablet and do it. Selling a script to your favorite TV show, however, is nearly impossible. But it can be done. Here's how:

First, research the show you're aiming for. Know it backwards and forwards, inside and out; be prepared to quote every single memorable moment from every single episode since it first went on the air. (Don't be silly; of course you can. We live in a world in which the Bible has been translated into Klingon. You don't have to go that far.) Know those characters as well or better than you know your own family. When you feel you've done that, come up with a story that illuminates them in a way you've never seen on the show. Important tip: Do not bring in a new character and tell his/her story, unless by doing it you bring to light a side or aspect of the main character(s) that we haven't seen before.

Now write the script. If you don't know how to write in production format, there are lots of books out there that will tell you, or you can download script examples from many places on the Web. But beware falling into the quagmire of obsessing over shot headings, transitions -- in short, the mechanics of it. It's the story that's important. There's really only one technical detail to remember: film is a visual medium. Therefore a script with more action description than dialogue is to be preferred over the other way round. Actors might love to declaim, but directors and producers hate it. If you can write something in which the characters have enormous depth and resonance, yet never say more than four lines at a time, they'll not only hire you, they'll canonize you.

When you've finished the script, polish it. Go over it and over it until it shines, until every comma, parenthetical, line of dialogue, etc., is absolutely the best you can do. That doesn't necessarily mean be a lapidary with every word. You're writing the blueprint here, not the finished product. Your script is only going to be read by a few dozen people, tops, and deathless prose isn't their primary concern. Strive for a balance between functional and evocative. Active voice ("he runs") is better than passive ("he's running"). Like that.

Take your time. You've only got one shot at that show with this script, so you have to make sure it's your best possible effort. I mean this. You're lucky if you get the staff to read it once -- they won't read it twice.

Next, get it to someone on the show who will read it and who can (ideally) buy it. If he's one of the many who can say "No" but can't say "Yes," find a way to get it to the showrunner, or one of the producers. This is the hard part. If you know someone on the show, ask them to read it. If you don't, use every means within the law to put yourself in the same room with one of those someones and get to know them. Yes, this probably means moving to LA -- you can't network long-distance, even in the Internet Age. How badly do you want this?

Most shows will not look at a script that's been sent in "over the transom" (i.e., not by an agent), for legal reasons. To find a reputable agent, call or write to the Writers Guild and ask them for a list of agents. Start calling them or writing to them, and keep doing it until you find one who will send your script to the show. In short, get the script to the people on the show and get them to read it, by any means short of stalking or otherwise alienating them. Remember: a producer's job is to get episodes produced and on the air. It's not to find new writers and guide them along, unless he/she is convinced that by doing so his/her job (getting episodes produced) will be made easier. If a producer does read it, and feels that there's potential in the script but that it's not quite there, he will do one of two things: Buy it for the story and assign it to be rewritten by one of the production staff, or ask you to do a rewrite. (Don't worry about having your idea ripped off -- it doesn't happen. Well, hardly ever ...) Obviously, you want the rewrite. Again, try by every means possible to convince them that you should be allowed to shepherd your work through to the end. If they're adamant that, due to time restraints or other contingencies, they want the rewrite done in-house, smile and take the cut-off money. Be nice about it, and in all probability they'll ask you to pitch (come up with more story ideas) again.

Yes, it does sound a lot like the old Steve Martin routine about how to be a tax-free millionaire ("First: get a million dollars ..."). But it can be done. It is done, by lots of people all the time. I did it. You can do it. The information on how to do it is out there. (In fact, what with webpages full of downloadable scripts and DVDs of damn near every show from The Honeymooners on, it's a helluva lot easier than it was when I was coming up.)

Speaking for myself, when I was a writer-producer, the thing I looked for in a writer boiled down to one thing: Could I use him/her more than once? A lot has changed in the business since then, but that hasn't. Nor is it likely to.

If the talent and the drive is in you, you can make it happen.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Magic of Radio

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1974, the first place I rented was a tiny studio unit in a court fourplex behind an engine parts shop. It was up in the Valley’s north end, almost into Sunland. The rent was $65 a month, and my neighbors were a hooker and a Hell’s Angel.


The Angel was a nice guy, actually. His name was Jim. He used to tell stories of huge convocations of Angels; so large, yea, that the very earth did tremble and the noonday sky blacken from the rumbling of their hogs, and the smoke that did issue from their tailpipes. These stories usually ended with the vengeance of the entire biker nation befalling some hapless simpleton, said vengeance being dispensed in the form of steel-toed boots -- many, many of them -- kicking the poor bastard into an unrecognizable pool of protoplasm.

Jim would tell stories like these with the same mild tone and genial smile that he used when saying that he was going to the Safeway across the street, and did I want him to pick up anything?

I came, gradually and somewhat reluctantly, to the conclusion that trips to the Safeway and unrecognizable pools of protoplasm were all pretty much the same to Jim. When I realized this, I felt sad -- not to mention somewhat in fear for my life. But he always stayed a solid 8 to 10 on the affability meter around me.

The same could not be said of the hooker. She was a bit on the meretricious side -- kids would flee, screaming, from her door on Halloween -- and she had a mouth on her that can only be described as having once been owned by a stevedore who’d just lost a winning lottery ticket. And was inflicted with Tourette’s. However, she did put her heart and soul into her work. (I hasten to assure Constant Reader that this knowledge was gained solely because she tended to leave the windows open, especially in the summer. She left the curtains open too. The first -- and last -- time I went outside during one of her marathon sessions, I lost many sanity points.)

As soul-blasting as that was, what really pissed me off was when, not having a phone of her own, she gave my phone number (I was in the book, for Chrissakes, get your minds out of the gutter, people) to her current boyfriend -- a swab, in every sense of the word. One night, around three am, I was awakened by the phone. I stumbled over to answer it, and was instructed in no uncertain terms to request that the lady betake herself immediately to my phone, so they could discourse.

Except he didn’t put it in quite those words.

So I said, “Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!” Except I didn’t put it in quite those words, either.

I slammed the phone down and went back to bed. About a half-hour later I was awakened by a knock on my door. A loud knock. Several of them, in fact. Sailor Boy was drunk, pounding on my door and screaming about how he intended me grievous bodily harm.

I was, not to put too fine a point on it, terrified. There was only one door to my pathetic little domicile, and Barnacle Bill was on the other side. Not for long, though, the way the door was starting to shake.

And now we come to the reason why I’ve put you through all this. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Magic Of Radio:

There’s a momentary lull in the pounding, and I hear Jim’s door open. I hear his feet going crunch-crunch-crunch through the gravel. They stop near my door. By now Popeye’s resumed his pounding.

Then I hear Jim say, “Hey.”

The pounding stops. There’s a pause, more pregnant than an 11-month elephant. Then I hear what sounds, more than anything else, like a cinderblock dropped onto a slab of raw meat. A second later there’s another impact -- that, no doubt, of my nemesis hitting the ground.

I open the door. Jim’s standing there, rubbing the knuckles of his right hand. He gives me a smile, looks over my shoulder and snorts in disgust.

I turn around, and see the strumpet pulling the extremely unconscious sailor, by his ankles, across the courtyard and into her place.

I look back at Jim. He shakes his head and says: “Love, I guess.” Then he walks back to his place.

I moved out the next day.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Writing With Parkinson's (#1 in a very occasional series)

You may have noticed a distinct lack of postings lately. That’s because I haven’t been doing any. The reason I haven’t been doing any is because, quite simply, I haven’t had time. And the reason I haven’t had time is because, where I used to be able to type 90 words per minute, now I’m lucky if I can do nine -- with as many mistakes.

And I can’t talk into my computer, because I can’t talk.

This isn’t whining. (Okay, maybe it is whining. So what? I happen to believe that whining releases healing hormones and endorphins. It’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it...)

I’ve been feeling guilty lately about not blogging. And about not working (fast enough) on writing stuff they’ll actually pay me to write. And about getting behind on letters. And ...

You get the idea.

I think this entry marks the start of an occasional (and I do mean ...) series on being a writer with Parkinson’s. I’ll call it ... Writing With Parkinson’s. (Hey, you don’t know how lucky you are. I was going to call this post Blog Of Flanders. Why? Why not?)

So, all you teeming (or, as the Santa Barbara zoo spells it -- three separate times, so you’ll know it wasn’t an honest mistake -- “teaming”) hordes out there, stay tuned ...

Saturday, May 9, 2009


Memo to J.J.: Put. The camera. Down.

“Not your father’s Star Trek”, indeed. In this long-awaited freewheeling hyperkinetic reboot of the series, J.J. Abrams, as director, does everything short of attach bungee cords to our POV and fling us headlong into the vacuum. That, along with enough lens flares to produce a galloping case of photo-sensitive epilepsy, had me begging for Dramamine before the opening battle sequence ended.

Maybe I’m getting cranky in my old age. (All right: crankier.) But I can’t help feeling that a story worth telling is worth telling coherently. And don’t get me wrong -- this is a story worth telling. It re-ignites the pilot light in a (sometimes overly) spectacular fashion, with humor and character favored over plot. And the casting is great. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban as (respectively) Kirk, Spock and McCoy pin down their characters like nail guns on stun, and the rest of the cast, though not given as much to do, do their best with what they have.

And the best, of course, is Leonard Nimoy as “Spock Prime”. The character fits him now so well, and he plays him so effortlessly, that it’s difficult to imagine him not wearing the ears to bed every night.

The movie’s not without problems and plotholes (for example, although we can suss out the contrivance that leads to Spock Prime and Kirk being both marooned on the ice world of Hoth -- er, Delta Vega, and even sorta kinda accept it, still, two people could wander around on an entire planet for some little time before running into each other). And the villain, a Romulan blue-collar named Nero (as in, “Hi, Chris, I’m Nero” -- one has visions of Cap’n Pike and him sitting down over a couple of still extant 23rd Century Buds to work it all out, instead of Pike winding up being tortured in a dingy basement on the enemy ship) is somewhat less than Khan-like in stature and menace. (You’d think that, being such a “dese dem ‘n’ dose” kinda guy, he’d at least get around to fixing that burst water pipe.) This is the biggest problem of the film, for my money -- even a young, still wet-behind-the-ears Kirk needs a more majestic villain. And do we really need an entire subplot referencing the Kobyashi Maru test again? (I know, I know. I wish I hadn’t mentioned it in the ST:NV episode, too.)

But never mind; Abrams keeps the pace skipping merrily along at about Warp 9, and the technobabble at a merciful minimum, so it flashes past like road signs barely glimpsed (“Transwarp beaming!” “Red matter!” “Gravitational sensors!”) And, when all is said and done, we come out at the end more than ready to see this group of cantankerous twenty-somethings take on the Klingon Empire. Just bring sunglasses next time.

Live long and prosper, gang.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


I don’t have too many VHS tapes left; nevertheless, I recently bought a new VCR. They are trés cheap these days, even with the de riguer DVD player in them. And the old one was making Suspicious Noises. So out it went, because, although I have very few tapes, the ones I have I want to keep. Same reason I bought a reconditioned laserdisc player -- because, as far as I can tell, a lot of movies never made it past tape or laserdisc. Like Hickey and Boggs. Or Bringing Up Baby. Or Island Of Lost Souls.

There’s an insidious attrition as we progress from medium to medium, have you noticed? When videotape was elbowed out by laserdisc, a lot of movies didn’t make the cut. Likewise when Laserdisc begat DVD. And now there’s a new format in town: Blu-ray. And once again, titles will fall by the wayside.

This sucks, because the eyestrain of watching an old videotape on a 50” plasma screen is like looking at Jackson Pollock’s Spring Period on acid. Laserdiscs are somewhat better, DVDs better still, and on Blu-ray you can count the nose hairs on 2nd Bad Guy in b.g. (If you are so inclined.) Still, each time we move up in quality we pay for it by losing a few classics. And it’s not like all that many were released to begin with ...

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Yeah, I know ...

... it's been awhile. I've been debating whether to post some of my feelings about the leaked memos from the Bush Administration on torture and the Obama administration's decision not to prosecute, but I've rather effectively muzzled myself by my decision not to use hardcore profanity on this blog.

All I know is, the way anyone -- or any nation -- moves forward with any hope of self-respect and honor, is not by pretending something like this didn't happen. Forgive me for trotting out Santayana's dusty quote, but it's never been more accurate: "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Obama fears that to prosecute is the first step onto a slippery slope. An understandible fear -- but better a few careful steps down a slippery slope than a plunge into the abyss.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Witherspoon's Biggest Role

I recently read a review of Monsters vs. Aliens that was the epitome of damnation with faint praise. Essentially, the reviewer was complaining that the movie wasn’t “about” anything more than what you saw on the screen; that the mise-en-scène was lacking a certain je ne sais quoi, that the voice talent was just trading on their star quality to phone it in, that ...

Dude. The flick is called Monsters vs. Aliens. You’re lucky you get that much.

The problem with movies whose title is the pitch is -- well, nothing, really, unless you’re expecting some long-lost classic by Abel Gance or something similar. If that’s what you were expecting, maybe you wandered into the wrong plex at your local multi. In which case, I can understand you being disappointed. The rest of us saw a perfectly acceptable animated 3-D movie. The CGI critters all hit their marks, nobody flubbed his or her lines, the 3-D was fun and only occasionally intrusive, and when it was over everyone knew enough to get the hell offstage.

True, it’s advisable to park your brain at the door. But, as B.O.B. (Seth Rogan, voicing a semi-sentient non-Newtonian fluid who resembles The Mad Scientist’s Glowing Glop™) says, “Turns out you don’t need one!”

And you don’t. The reviewer I quoted at the top also says something to the effect that 3-D was, is, and shall ever be, a gimmick. I could urge anyone who thinks so to hie thee hence and see Coraline, but there’s a broader point to be made here -- namely, that movies are a gimmick. Each and every one of them. Occasionally we get one that transcends the inherent limitations of the media, and for which we’re grateful. But the fact remains: movies are storytelling by artifice. And we’re lucky that they are, because most of ‘em are pretty good entertainment.

Like Monsters vs. Aliens. Pay the money (matinee, if you can; it isn't that good), trade in any semblance of intelligence you have for a pair of ill-fitting 3-D glasses, and for the next two hours be content that your fate is not your own. You’re in ... decent hands.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Why I Write This Stuff

The still I posted a few days ago of me as a werewolf and the Other Guy as a vampire reminds me of a Halloween story (which should rightly be told around Halloween, but that’s six months from now.) It’s as good a reason as any to show why I write horror.

Part of my misspent youth was misspent one autumn (1970) being a part of an ensemble group who put on a haunted house every fall. It was set in an abandoned Public Works building, no doubt reeking of asbestos, formaldehyde and other complex chemicals guaranteed to change your life, and not for the better. As a potential redress for a haunted house, though, it was perfect: lots of small rooms and corridors connecting them. We had a different monster for each room: as I recall, they were Frankenstein’s Monster (And yes, purists that we were, we drew the difference between the mad doctor and his creation); the Wolfman, Dracula, the Mummy, and the Ghoul. (The last was pretty much filler; we had six rooms, five of which had to have Something Nasty lurking in them.) The guide was a Mad Scientist, who had decided, for whatever obscure and twisted reason, to give guided tours of his castle/laboratory (which, judging from the monster menagerie, also contained an Egyptian tomb, a graveyard, an interior roofscape and a sizable chunk of Transylvania). Still, few complained about the set-up. (Not that they had a chance; in order to break even on the costs we had to move twelve people through there at least eight times. The overage, in case you wondered, went to charity. This was a labor of love for us, sometimes going until two or three a.m.)

We all took turns playing the monsters; everyone’s least favorite was, unsurprisingly, the Mummy, as it took nearly three roles of toilet paper to get the proper look. And after all that, all he could do was limp about pathetically. Don Glut was right: If you can’t outrun the Mummy, you deserve whatever happens to you.

My favorite was playing Dracula -- again, unsurprisingly. I got a great entrance, springing from a coffin (yes, it was a real coffin -- don’t ask.) and the biz with the cape and all. But best of all, I could act as Drac. My face wasn’t covered with a prosthetic doggy snout, or great whooping amounts of yak hair spirit-glued to my face; nor was it hidden by several dozen layers of toilet paper. I was free to suck the scenery dry. (We all, as I said, took turns as the various monsters; except for the Monster. Frankenstein’s creation was always played by a fellow named Rudy, who looked entirely too much like Glenn Strange's version of the Monster; glue a couple of electrodes to his neck and he was good to go. The only problem was that he was short. Seriously short. We wound up putting a pair of what one of the crew termed “express elevator boots” on him. The soles were over a foot thick. All he could do was break the cardboard straps that held him and step away from the inclined gurney, roar and wave his arms -- if he took another step he would fall flat on his face. Guaranteed.)

So. It’s the last tour of the Halloween show, and believe me, we’ve been doing a land-office business all night. We’ve collected large amounts of cash for the widows and orphans, and even though we’re young, we’re all pretty tired. Hurling open the lid of a coffin and leaping forth from it fifteen times in one night can take it out of you, even if you have the strength of the undead. We were all in agreement -- this was the last show for this year.

Outside, where the beetling cardboard battlements cast uneasy shadows and -- well, it was spooky, okay? Work with me -- the last tour group had gathered. Like the rest of them, they consisted mostly of pre-teens and early teens. Among them was a boy of around ten, who had begged and begged his parents to let him go on the Haunted House tour. His parents were initially against it, but finally his older brother (age fourteen) volunteered to take him. The reason for everyone’s initial hesitation? The kid had been in a wheelchair for the past year. Car accident.

I think we can all see where this is going.

And man, did it go there in style. I’m lying in my coffin (which is a phrase I’m not accustomed to typing), and my buddy who’s leading the tour (who’s also confusingly named Michael), gives me my cue. All carefully-orchestrated hell breaks loose: James Bernard’s soundtrack for Horror Of Dracula starts pounding the room; a strobe light (1970, remember?) goes off fast enough to give everyone there epilepsy, and I bound athletically out of the box, hitting my mark perfectly with my black wingtips. What with the strobe and all, I can’t see a bloody thing. Someone’s screaming, but then, someone’s always screaming. But these screams sound awful damn close -- and, more puzzling still, I don’t hear them dopplering away, accompanied by the pitter-patter of pounding feet. . .

Someone has the presence of mind to turn off the strobe, if not the music, and I realize that I’m literally looming over this poor kid, who’s out of his gourd now, screaming with abject terror (I can see his face as clearly now as I could then.) He can't even roll the wheelchair -- he's frozen. I’m standing there holding my cape spread wide, mouth open and my fangs (39¢ at Rexall Drugs) gleaming, looking like I’m about to devour this helpless kid. (Who’s all alone, by the way. His brother? Gone, babe. Little Warner Bros. puff of smoke dissipating behind him, and That's All, Folks.)

Someone finally remembers to turn off the music, I drop the character like a live grenade and ask him if he’s okay. He gradually comes back to Earth, his tachycardia at last dropping a bit south of Mach 1. His sheepish “¡No mas! ¡No mas!” brother is persuaded to come get him. By the time he does, the younger kid has rewritten the last half hour in his head -- in the new version, he was the only one with the balls to stay and face Dracula.

And -- I swear on a stack of The Origin of Species -- when he reaches the door, he twists around to look back at us, and says: “That was bitchin!” (Again: 1970.) “I want to go again!”

It very well could have been right then and there that I decided I wanted to scare people for a living.

Let’s Get Metaphysical

According to the “many worlds” theory of quantum mechanics (if I'm understanding it rightly), an alternate universe is spun off, in all its multitudinous glory, whenever a single electron changes its energy state. In other words, there is an entire separate universe created to embody every conceivable quantum state of this universe. And these universes go on to create separate world-lines for their fragmenting realities as well.

That’s the theory, anyway. Unfortunately it remains a theory, because to date we’ve no empirical proof. We don’t have a “timer” that lets us pop from one world-line to the next, a la Sliders. And one of the theory’s main postulates (as I understand it; correct me if I’m wrong), is that there’s no way the “walls” separating this world from the others can be breached.

But hang on -- aren’t the amount of decoherent histories thusly created infinite (or at least close enough for all intents and purposes)? And in an infinity of possibilities, aren’t all permutations by definition possible? And, if so, doesn’t that mean that a finite number (at least one, possibly n) of alternate world-lines have to be somehow connected?

Works for me. (And the reason I’m posting it is because it isn’t my idea. My twelve year-old son came up with it. Which definitely makes me feel a little chesty in the Daddy Department ...)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

No One Expects ...

I've just been thinking lately about the subterranean depths of irony that Spain, who gave us Torquemada, the auto-de-fe and Cardinal Fang, should be the first nation to take action against us over the issue of torture. I mean, maybe I missed something during intermission, but didn't we used to be the good guys? Aren't we supposed to be, still?

Talk about feeling that you've woken up in a parallel universe -- I keep looking up to see if the sky is purple or something. How did we come to be given lessons in international law by a nation that, just a few hundred years ago, was burning more people at the stake than Cecile B. DeMille burned crosses?

I'm not saying they're that way now. In fact, I salute them for getting the ball rolling on the indictments. But the fact remains: Nobody expected this particular Spanish Inquisition.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Darth Maul: Money Hunter

Just got a note from my publisher that Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter has gone back to print.

If this keeps up I might actually make some money in the next 30 years or so ...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Vampire Meets the Werewolf

All right, I admit it’s not the most exciting or original title the world of horror cinema has ever seen, but it has a certain purity of purpose. This picture is a still from an eight minute 8mm “Mirrion Dorror Monster Crassic,” as the Firesign Theater would term it, created by me and my good friend back in high school and college, Jim Bertges. (Jim was behind the camera, and I forget entirely who played the vampire. But the werewolf was yours truly.) We filmed mostly at the Mission Inn in Riverside; I think it was 1969 or ’70.

I may be the only werewolf in the history of lycanthropy to be a poster boy for fluoride. Just look at those pearlies!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Life In The Now

Those who know me reasonably well know that for the past ten months or so, I’ve been pretty much incapable of coherent speech. (Those who know me even better are saying, “Only ten months? Nyuk nyuk nyuk!” Well, not really. I added the Stooge sounds.) Due to the Parkinson’s, which pretty much destroyed my speech center, I can barely make sounds above a whisper, and on those rare occasions when I can whip up enough breath support to make a noise louder than a mouse fart in a hurricane, I sound like a Neanderthal on ‘ludes. (As if that weren’t bad enough, the real twist of the knife comes when I have a cold. Because then, instead of sounding even worse, I sound terrific. Due to laryngeal edema, I get to talk better than ever -- as long as my sinuses are stuffed like a turducken in a tutu and I feel like hammered crap. Ah, the irony ...)

There really isn’t a whole lot of positive spin can be put on having this disease. (Technically it isn’t really a disease, if we’re using the term to mean some sort of clinically-evident pathogenic process. It’s more of a syndrome.) But if one has to say something positive about it (and I’m not saying for a nanosecond that one does), I suppose it would be this:

It forces you to live in the moment.

When your brain barricades itself in the control room and starts smashing the VU meters, throwing knife switches and levers at random and in general carrying on real cranky -- well, then things tend to get real clear and immediate, and when decisions have to be made, they generally have to be made quickly -- such as picking which way to fall so as to do yourself the least damage in the split-second between the time your muscles freeze and you start to topple.

Or take chewing. A fairly mindless exercise -- how many of you are really aware of how your tongue moves your food around as your jaws masticate? Try biting said tongue nine or ten times during the course of a meal. You’ll get real aware of it real fast.

‘When you mention Parkinson’s, everyone immediately thinks of the shakes. Believe me, tremoring is the least of it, in many cases. Far worse is the freezing, the loss of balance, the ss-lll-oo-www-ing down of everything. And far worse than any physical problem is the uncomfortable looks people give you before quickly glancing away.

It doesn’t make the moment a very pleasant place to be, most of the time. Not that I have a lot of choice in the matter.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Oops ...

Well, my face is a light but noticeable shade of vermilion.

Yesterday, I gave Neil Gaiman a little joshing about appearing on Stephen Colbert's show wearing a suit instead of his de rigueur all black ensemble. Got a note back from him explaining the circumstances, and -- let's just say he had a good reason.

Thought momentarily of just taking the post down and metaphorically just strolling away, hands in pockets, whistling insousiantly. But I decided to leave it up, to remind me not to go for the laugh until I've checked the facts.

Sorry about that, Neil.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Gaiman Repor ...

I feel betrayed. Worse than betrayed -- my whole reality structure is shattered like a glass goblin. (Sorry -- wrong pretentious author reference.) I was stunned to see Neil on Stephen Colbert's show wearing -- a suit.

A suit?! What happened to the leather? The unrelieved darkness? The subtly-understated machismo? There can be only one answer: he's sold out. Neil Gaiman, one of the last bastions of the counter-culture, has gone corporate. That I should have lived to see this day.

Johnny Cash must be spinning like a lathe.

I’ll be okay. Just give me a moment to deal with the implications ...

Seriously: A very good interview. He held his own quite well, and it was obvious that Colbert enjoyed having someone with whom he could spar. (Extra props for being the first guest, I believe, to say “fuck”.)

Funny stuff. If you missed the broadcast, check it out on Colbert's webpage.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Surviving The Future, Part III

So, as discussed, we’ve got roughly the same chance of getting to Mars in halfway decent (read: alive) shape as a one-winged fruit fly has of making it from here to Calcutta. (In fact, my money’s on the fruit fly.) And once we’re there, our problems are just beginning. The moon is closer, but an even worse place as far as livability is concerned. And those are the only two worlds we can even think about reaching. As far as extra-solar Earths are concerned (if there even are any), unless some geek with coke-bottle glasses comes up with warp drive in his parents’ basement real soon, we’re stuck trying to cross the cosmos in first gear.

So, it appears that there’s no other world in practical reach -- certainly nothing in the next century or so, which everybody with a PhD is telling us is longer than we’ve got left here.

So what can we do?

We can make a world.

We can, in theory, make at least two, and possibly more.

Everyone (well, everyone who’s reading this, all three of you) knows the “rubber-sheet” model of gravity -- the four-dimensional equivalent of a rubber sheet stretched taut. Drop a bowling ball in the center and call it the sun, then send a BB rolling around it and call it Earth, and you got yourself a model of how gravity works.

Sort of. As with just about everything else we’ve been discussing, it’s a bit on the simplistic side. Gravity systems are a lot more fluid, and though the influence of mass decreases with distance, it never really fades completely. The upshot being that, like the currents and ripples of a river, gravitational forces from the sun, the moon, and the Earth create eddies and stable points at certain locations. They’re called LaGrange Points. There are five of them in the Earth-Moon system, and of them, L-4 and L-5 are so stable that large objects plunked down in the middle of them tend to stay there, to all extents and purposes, forever.

Gerard O’Neill, in his book The High Frontier, proposed building space habitats -- huge, orbital colonies -- within the stable loci of L-4 and L-5. We are talking big, here -- these things are to the International Space Station or Skylab what a luxury high-rise is to a refrigerator box under the bridge. We’re talking cylinders five miles by twenty miles; big enough to comfortably house anywhere from a thousand to five thousand or more people. With materials mined from the moon or from NEOs (Near-Earth Objects such as asteroids and meteoroids) and aggressive recycling and population control, the colonies could be self-sufficient, or very nearly so. Populations of 5,000 or more in orbital colonies at both L-4 and L-5 would provide a more than sufficient gene pool for the human race’s survival. It’s even conceivable to build “Ark Habitats” that would be dedicated botanical and zoological gardens. Sufficient shielding to guard against cosmic storms wouldn’t be a problem, since it doesn’t matter how massive the habitat would be; the only place it’s going is around and around its own little orbit.

Gravity’s not a problem either. If you’re living on the inside of a cylinder instead of the surface of a planet, it’s easy (well, easier) to create artificial gravity by simply spinning the cylinder. Centrifugal force pushes everything on the inside against the inner aspect of the torus, just like in those old Tilt-A-Whirl rides at the carnival. (And if the cylinder’s big enough, the inner-ear effect will be diluted, so you won’t constantly feel like throwing up everything you’ve eaten since you were five.)

What’s more, the LaGrange Points aren’t just confined to the Earth-Moon system -- there are points of stability everywhere planets and moons do their complex dances. Colonies built at these points are, it seems to me, the only viable way of leaving Earth behind. Controlled environments, with regulated day and night cycles and normal “gravity,” free from natural disasters and presenting a much smaller target for bolide impactors, make a helluva lot more sense to me than trying to hardscrabble a living on the moon or Mars.

For most of recorded history we’ve been searching for a way to get to Heaven. Now, finally, we have the tools; if we’ve got the will and the fortitude as well, we can build Heaven.

It’s that, or take our chances on a world that’s all too rapidly going to hell.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Surviving The Future, Part II

The answer is, of course, gravity. That’s the one thing we can’t increase or decrease without we do some serious messing about with planetary mass. Of the two worlds that offer even the slightest hospitality, the moon is one-sixth gee and Mars is one-third. And we won’t be changing either one anytime in the near future.

(A pause to savor the irony for a moment: of all the worlds in the solar system, the one with a mass, and therefore gravity, closest to Earth’s is Venus, which combines the worst features of just about every other planet. Man, the future really ain’t what it used to be ...)

The problem is that, no matter how much technological advances we make, genetically we’re still just a bunch of naked apes jabbing each other with pointed sticks back on the veldt. We evolved in a one gravity field, and when we spend prolonged periods out of it (such as a few months up in the space station), bad things happen.

How bad?

Real bad. Prolonged weightlessness will cause, among other things, dehydration, musculoskeletal atrophy, “space anemia,” mineral depletion, vertigo, and a whole host of other problems ranging from unpleasant to downright life-threatening. In the “Pulp Era” of science fiction, back when men wore hats and baggy pants and space flight was still just a dream, one of the common beliefs was that considerable time spent in zero-gee (or microgravity, to placate my astronomer friends), might actually be good for the body. No stress on the joints or the heart would logically mean no wear and tear on our moving parts. Hey, you could maybe outlive Methuselah, just by floating around the asteroid belt.

Unfortunately, like so many rose-colored visions of the future everyone had back then, it wasn’t that easy. In fact, pretty much the opposite holds true; long-term weightlessness resembles, in syndrome, nothing so much as accelerated aging. Spend a couple of years in space (the average time of a trip to Mars), and you wind up looking -- and feeling -- like your grandfather. Oh, sure, the process can be slowed somewhat -- by near-constant exercise. I don’t know about you, but riding an Exercycle all the way to Mars isn’t the future I was promised. Even with flying cars thrown in, the idea pretty much sucks the ol’ Saturn V.

And we haven’t even discussed the physical and psychological effects (which admittedly we don’t know yet, but the probabilities aren’t looking good) of carrying a child to term and raising him or her in a lighter gravity field.

Doesn’t look good, does it? The Earth’s on a fast track to disaster, the only other places we have even a faint chance of reaching aren’t even remotely pleasant, and just getting there can kill you. And even if the Keplerscope finds more New Earths out there, we’re not going to be reaching them anytime soon. A trip even no further than the Centauri System would take centuries. (Norman Spinrad described it best, as far as I’m concerned: Imagine a WorldCon on a submarine -- forever.)

It do make the blood run cold, don’t it?

Next: Spam in a can -- industrial-sized.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Die, Rebel Scum!

Well, not to be outdone by my collaborator, apparently I too have been inducted into the hallowed ranks of the 501st Stormtrooper Legion, AKA Vader’s Fist. My marksmanship has never been all that great to begin with, but already I can feel it falling faster than a killer asteroid.

Don’t know what my rank is yet. Just hope I get one of those spiffy trophies that go with it, ‘cause it’ll be swell fun trying to clear a place on the bookshelf for it.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

First We Take Manhattan ...

We interrupt this long-winded screed on how we’re all gonna die to bring you a review of Watchmen, seeing as how I caught a matinee of it on opening day.

I must check with my kids to see if I’m using the argot properly, but I believe the word is:


Two-and-a-half hours of sustained “life sucks”, followed by a cynical downbeat ending. There are them as say the graphic novel is inherently un-filmable. I’m not totally convinced of that, but I don’t think Zack Snyder was the one to do it justice.

Bluntly: There’s nothing in the movie that justifies its use of the graphic novel as a base. At its best, the film only marginally improves on the source material in fits and starts -- at its worst, its use of graphic cruelty and brutality goes considerably beyond the book’s setpieces, but not toward any further illumination of character -- rather, apparently, just to be nasty.

There are a few good things in the movie, most noticeably the performances. Jackie Earle Haley is outstanding as Rorschach. Dan Dreiberg is good as Nite Owl and, as Dr. Manhattan, Billy Crudup is kinda blue. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) The ending’s macguffin is something of an improvement on the book. The opening montage is well-done, too. It’s what’s between that’s tedious.

That’s really about it. Oh -- and I liked the way Rorschach kept losing his hat in fights. Sorta reminded me of the old Republic serials in which the good guy and the bad guy would whale the living tar out of one another in each installment, breaking furniture over each other, getting pitched through windows and off bridges -- and yet neither would ever lose his hat. There was, believe it or not, a production reason for that: since most of the fights were staged between stuntmen, keeping their hats on helped disguise their faces.

And that’s the problem with Watchmen, in a nutshell. When I’m watching a movie and I’m thinking about the reasons stuntmen kept their hats on in old cliffhangers, well ... you get the idea.

I’m afraid that the question “Who watches the Watchmen?” is not going to be answered very satisfactorily in the next few weeks.

And, speaking of “nutshells”, I can’t resist wondering -- although they didn’t have, as far as I could see in the credits, a listing for “Doctor Manhattan’s package wrangler”, you know there was at least one guy in charge of that bit of CGI. One has to wonder -- will he list it on his resume?

Everybody, now, all together: “What -- and leave show business?”

Friday, March 6, 2009

Surviving The Future, Part I

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. And there doesn’t seem to be much left.

From everything I’ve read (and I’ve read a fair amount), it seems that even if we stop all greenhouse emissions now, the complexity and sheer inertia of the planetary weather system will cause the average surface temperature of the planet to rise by 3-5 degrees C, according to the IPCC. Maybe that won’t be a tipping point, a watershed that’ll cause an irreversible runaway greenhouse effect capable of eventually turning Earth into a carbon (sorry) copy of Venus. Maybe not. But it’ll sure as hell cause rampant desertification, wholesale die-offs of sea life due to acidification, catastrophic rises in ocean levels -- and that’s not in some dim and murky distant future -- that’s in your lifetime, if you’re in your twenties. In other words, if you’re old enough to vote, you’re old enough to float.

That high-pitched whine you hear is Thomas Malthus spinning in his grave -- but not nearly fast enough, unfortunately, to provide the alternative energy we’ll need.

Accept for a few moments that global warming is a real, documented and imminent threat. That if we’re not past the point of no return already, we’re close enough to hear the death knells of most of the Third World. And that once the chaos begins, most of us will be too busy scavenging the ruins and fighting over canned goods bloated with botulism to give much thought to long term survival of the species.

And let’s say that some of us, at least, know when it’s time to scurry down the anchor chain and abandon a sinking ship.

"The earth is the cradle of humankind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever." -- Konstantin Tsiolkovsky
Heinlein said basically the same thing: “Earth is too small a basket for mankind to keep all its eggs in.” Even if we haven’t fouled our nest pretty much beyond saving, sooner or later we’re going to be pulverized by a killer asteroid, or fried up nice’n’crispy by the Yellowstone supervolcano, or ... well, pick any one of a hundred apocalypses, now or in the immediate future. And they don’t all have to be huge, epic, planetary scale disasters; lots of smaller ones will do just fine. Ever been in a major earthquake? I have. Ever been within spitting distance (not that it would have done much good) of a raging brushfire? I have. Ever been confronted by a roomful of brain-eating zombies? I have -- well, I’ve worked for network TV, which is pretty much the same thing. The point is, Tsiolkovsky's and Heinlein’s metaphors notwithstanding, the earth is a big, slow target. And one thing I learned in junior high school dodgeball is that it’s better to be small and light on your feet -- and, if you can manage it, in several places at once.

So let’s agree that the best way to survive is to diversify. To spread out. In short, to get some of us, at least, the hell out of Dodge.

The problem is, leaving the cradle is far easier said than done. We’ve got two obstacles that seem pretty much insurmountable.

The first is distance. The only world other than Earth that we’ve visited so far is the moon. And quite frankly, it’s the only one we’re likely to visit again in the near future. But, while it’s close enough to make round trips (semi) practical, it ain’t exactly a garden spot. Could we set up a permanent colony there? Frankly, I doubt it. We don’t even have people living full-time and raising families at the South Pole, which is Cancun compared to the moon. With temperature extremes that can go from -300 degrees F to 215 degrees F in a single step from sun to shade, an atmosphere less than one-trillionth that of Earth’s, and a comminuted layer of pulverized rock dust that, once through the airlock with you and inhaled, can give you a case of pneumoconiosis almost as fast as you can cough up blood ... the moon wouldn’t seem to be anybody’s first choice for extraterrestrial real estate.

Except that it is. Location, location, location, remember? The one thing we can count on is that the moon will always be about the same drive time. Which is a lot more than we can say about only other piece of prime location in the solar system -- Mars.

The problem is that, while the moon is tucked away, nice and snug, in orbit around the Earth, Mars and Earth both orbit the sun -- and Mars’ orbit is a lot more eccentric than ours. Bottom line is that Mars can be anywhere from 36 million miles to over 250 million miles from us. That’s a six-fold distance difference. In travel time it works out to anywhere from half a year to a year and a half, which makes booking rooms in advance a real bitch.

Trouble is, it’s the best alternative of all the planets. Mercury? Like the moon, only with a logarithmic sunblock scale. Venus? Like being at the bottom of a sea of molten lead; it makes Hell look hospitable. The outer worlds -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune? They’re not called “gas giants” out of misplaced sophomoric frat-house humor; there’s no “there” there, even if they were close enough to be practical, which they aren’t. Some of the moons -- Titan, Europa, Ganymede -- are interesting from a lab-rat POV, but I wouldn’t count on the Land Rush starting for them anytime soon, either. And let’s not even bother mentioning Pluto.

So it looks like, for all its considerable drawbacks -- a long and varied travel time, temperatures that only look good compared to the moon, the lack of a magnetosphere which makes a tan sudden death -- Mars is it, even though the trip itself is, at optimum, still about twice as long as sailing around Cape Horn, without nearly as much deck time.

Except ... remember I said two obstacles?

Space is big -- there’s no getting around that. But as staggering and as complex as merely getting to another world is, there’s a much greater problem to be overcome once we’re there. One that makes cosmic rays, temperature extremes and lack of atmosphere look easy, indeed almost pleasant, by comparison. We can, after all, overcome all those problems, at least in theory, with terraforming techniques. It would take centuries, and require engineering on a cosmic scale -- playing planetary billiards with comets to create oceans, for example, or putting vast orbital mirrors up to magnify sunlight -- but all that could, theoretically, be done. Given a few hundred years of global restructuring, Mars could be given a breathable atmosphere, a decent climate -- everything except one thing.

In my next post I’ll discuss what that thing is.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Time Keeps On Slipping ...

Egad. The last post I made was a month ago. (Of course, it’s February, the shortest month, but still ...)

It’s not that I have an aversion to posting, or a lack of things to say. It’s just that I look up one day and realize that weeks have fled screaming. Reason being, of course, that subjective time sneaks up on you. Time passes so much faster than it did when I was a kid. When I was ten years old, a year was 1/10th of my life -- a not-insubstantial chunk of time. Now that same year comprises almost a sixtieth of it. (One need only to look at this post's title to realize how desperately I cling to the past.)

Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Sniffles

I have a cold.

Apparently I’ve caught it from Debbie, which is hardly surprising, since we live together. Incubation period is two or three days, and she’s been sick for a week; sounds about right. Rhinitis is most contagious just after the prodrome stage, when one is sneezing and coughing, shedding virus like dandruff and generally feeling like hell.

I went web-surfing just to see if there was anything new in the noösphere re cures for the common cold. There is not, which is no surprise. Developing a vaccine for rhinovirus (the word always makes me imagine tiny little ungulates rampaging around in my bloodstream, goring and tossing corpuscles with ferocious abandon) isn’t exactly a high priority; the disease isn’t fatal in and of itself, or even terribly debilitating, and anyway there’s way too much money to be made from selling OTC remedies and various species of snake oil. Unless someone stumbles across one by accident, don’t look for a cure any time soon.

So the only thing left is symptomatic relief. Zinc gets a lot of good press, as does Echinacea, and the old standby Vitamin C. There’s some in the cabinet, somewhere. But before I do anything else, I’m going to have a nice therapeutic dose of chicken soup.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Wonderful ...

So, finally something upbeat to talk about:

Yesterday evening Debbie and I attended a screener of Coraline.

As you probably know, if you’re a fan of Neil Gaiman’s, Coraline is a movie based on his book. But to leave it at that is to do it a huge injustice. Because Coraline is much more than that.

Coraline is a work of wonder.

First off -- well, first off, there’s Neil’s book. Which I’m not going to comment on, for two reasons -- one, because you know it’s good, and two, because (I blush to admit) it’s one of the few ones of his I haven’t read. Which was good, in a way, because it allowed me to see the film without any preconceptions. And so should you. So -- onward.

Pardon me whilst I meander a bit -- after all, it's my blog ...

One of my earlier memories is seeing an Anaglyph showing of The Creature From the Black Lagoon. I remember putting on the glasses with the red and blue lenses, and I remember that petrified claw jutting out of the screen and seemingly right into my lap, accompanied by that DUH-DUH-DAHHH!! liet-motif. Scared the crap out of me.

Despite my initial reaction, however, I wasn’t all that impressed with the 3D process. I was around five or six, so my criticisms of it had little to do with the technology; I just remember that it gave me a bitch of a headache, and the glasses didn’t fit well over my own horn-rims and kept falling off. My feelings weren’t shared by the majority of the movie-going public, because 3D was initially a big hit. Even so, despite a few major releases such as The Robe and Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder, the 3D of the Fifties was largely a gimmick, used to shore up shaky stories and, as such, relegated mostly to cinematic fringes such as cheap westerns, Three Stooges shorts and sci-fi and horror debacles like Robot Monster and Cat Women Of the Moon. All in all, the Anaglyph process turned out to be the fad that most studios had predicted “Talkies” would be back in the Twenties.

There was a big revival of the format once IMAX hit it big (and I mean big) in the Eighties. Despite an improved digital process, the main thing lacking was (surprise!) a distinct lack of story and attempts to over-compensate by jabbing things wildly at the camera. Anyone who went to see Jaws 3D for the story over the sharks coming out of the screen was possessed of an optimism that made Pollyanna look jaded.

But now, finally, I’m a believer, because here is a film in which the 3D is both damn near flawless and, mirable dictu, is used in service of the story. Henry Selick (who, despite the producer’s possessory credit on Tim Burton’s the Nightmare Before Christmas, really directed that movie) has done a marvelous job of crafting a sense of steadily rising menace into the film (which isn’t as easy as it might seem, in a work which smacks so heavily of magical realism). But he also fills it, ultimately, with hope and redemption. And one of the things that impressed me the most is that he continually surprised me.

I’m not that easy to surprise. I have a good sense of story, and I can usually call a plot twist or a logic flaw a mile away. I’m not bragging here; it sorta came with the package. When you’ve written as much film as I have, it becomes instinct. I called the ending of The Sixth Sense about ten minutes in, for example. And my daughter still hasn’t forgiven me (it’s going on ten years, now) for pointing out that The Wizard Of Oz has an unhappy ending. (Go ahead. Guess.)

So when I say he surprised me, not once but several times, in the plot’s twists and turns, that’s not a trivial compliment.

If there’s one thing that makes me hesitant about over-praising the film’s extraordinary 3D effects, it’s that I fear it’ll take away from the even more extraordinary animation effects. The sad, sad thing is that some viewers will dismiss the look of the movie as CGI. While some computer work was used, mostly for clean-up, the film was created using a technique almost as old as film itself: model animation. That’s the art (and never was a mot more bon) of moving articulated miniatures on tabletop sets, frame by frame.

(NOTE: not to get overly-picayune here, but, although I’ve heard the technique used in Coraline referred to as stop-motion animation -- the method Willis O’Brien used to bring King Kong to life, and which Ray Harryhausen used to bring practically everything else to life -- I have my doubts. It looked much more to me like replacement animation -- a similar technique in which different parts and poses of the puppet are cycled through a scene. The same technique, essentially, but it results in quite a different and more life-like overall look. It was made famous by the producer George Pal with his Puppetoons series back in the Thirties. And before you ask -- no it’s not the same as claymation, which is the stuff Aardvark does so brilliantly in the Wallace and Gromit films. End of incredibly fanboy-esque divertissement.)

So: Coraline. See it. With the polarized glasses. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll at least have a cool pair of shades. I mean it. Go, sit in a theater in the dark, and marvel at a world in which, among many other wonders, vampire Scottie dogs kamikaze your head. This movie does what so many others try to do and fall short in the attempts -- it transports you.

A fine business, in my opinion.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Remember Those Fabulous Sixties?

First off, I’ve been accused of being a bit overly curmudgeonly lately. Let me say right now that I consider myself as passionate an Obama supporter as anyone out there. If I’ve come across as too cynical, that wasn’t my intent. So far, he’s done a terrific job, and I see no indication of it stopping anytime soon.

The only thing I worry about is complacency. We liberals are, on the whole, a lazy bunch. That’s because we tend to be a reasonable, rational, live-and-let-live bunch. We’re tolerant. That’s our biggest problem. We win a victory -- Roe v. Wade, for example -- and the tendency is to say, “Okay, that’s done.”

Except that it isn’t, of course. Because liberals have no lunatic fringe.

‘Twern’t always that way. Remember the Weather Underground? The Symbionese Liberation Army? The Chicago Seven?

I am by no means waxing nostalgic for those thrilling days of yesteryear, fashionable though it may be to do so. But let’s face it, folks -- civil disobedience does get noticed. The Far Right won’t stop demanding that abortion rights be denied women, won’t stop lobbying for creation mythology to be taught in schools, won’t stop verbally attacking the new President any way they can. We can’t afford complacency. We can’t sit back and say “Everything’s hunky-dory now.” Because it isn’t.

We have a minimum of four years.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The 1st Hundred hours

Okay, have we got the economy taken care of yet? How about those pesky wars? What’s that? We’re still doing confirmation hearings? C’mon, let’s get moving!

And so it goes ...

It’s truly a double-edged sword Obama has inherited -- on the one hand, it’s hard to see how anyone could be a worse president than Bush. He started two wars, helped trash the economy, let a city drown while partying, implemented torture ... it was like Ernest Goes To the White House. So he won’t be a hard act to follow. More like the guy just before you on Open Mike Night who wears a tutu and sets fire to a rubber chicken with an acetylene torch.

On the other hand, the American People aren’t known for their patience. Obama definitely killed (to continue the stand-up metaphor) yesterday. But a couple months down the line, when we’re facing energy cutbacks and conservation, when the housing market is still dropping faster than a dead bird, when we’re still putting out fires in the Middle East (because we will be) -- in short, when it’s obvious that hard work and a more Spartan way of life, and not easy fixes, are necessary, that’ll be the crucible.

Prove me wrong, people. Please.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Still Clueless After All These Years

So I watched W’s farewell address last night.

You’ve got to give him props for consistency, if nothing else. He went out, not so much defiant as utterly uncaring about the truth. It struck me that the only way it made any sense whatsoever was if my TV was somehow receiving a broadcast from that parallel universe in which Spock has a beard and the Enterprise is crewed by space pirates ...

I hope they nail his ass for war crimes. I really do.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Second Coming

I know I’m not the most optimistic guy on the planet. I tend to take a darker, more cynical view of things. It’s not a conscious decision -- it’s just the way I’m hardwired. Which is why, as we count the days to that magical moment on the 20th, I can’t help but wonder:

Can Obama fulfill our expectations?

Can anybody?

I’ve lived through ten presidential terms (starting with Truman, if you must know), and I, like most people, have watched the country sink ever deeper into an apparently bottomless Slough of Despond, once the Sixties were over. (Kennedy’s death seemed to galvanize us for a while, but unfortunately, we “grew up” and eagerly let ourselves be co-opted. A pity we all couldn’t have stayed eighteen for as long as it took.)

Carter, a Democrat, was ineffectual as a president. So the country scurried back to the right and elected a senile cowboy -- who did accomplish some things, such as helping end the Cold War. After Reagan we had H.W., and after him Clinton, who was, at least as far as I was concerned, a pretty decent president, with just one problem -- which got him impeached by a hostile Congress. And so we were back to the Republicans, specifically the Bush family, more specifically W.

I’m not all that astute a student of either politics or history, but I have no problem assigning Bush the Lesser the title of Worst. President. Ever. Which is pretty bad, considering it puts him up against the likes of James Buchanan, John Tyler and Richard Nixon. History, as they say, will judge.

But now -- Huzzah! We’ve been slouching toward Bethlehem for so long, it’s hard to believe that in a mere week the Second Coming will arrive. Never has the country been in such desperate straits, both financially and in terms of foreign policy. And not for a long time have we had the combination of a Democratic president and legislature. The Republicans weren’t just defeated -- they were tarred, feathered and given the next rail out of town.

Now it’s up to Obama. I’m as anxious to see him succeed as everyone else -- more than most, since I’m hoping stem cell research will be high on his list of restorations of sanity. But what worries me is that, no matter how much he accomplishes in his first day -- even his first week -- it won’t be enough. It can’t be.

We want miracles. We expect miracles. And we’re not going to get them. Because there are no quick and easy fixes to the monstrous legacy that Bush II has left us.

Of course, if Obama walks across the Reflecting Pool to get to the Lincoln Memorial next Tuesday, all bets are off.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A Forced Death March Down Memory Lane

So I’ve joined Facebook.

And now everybody wants to be my friend.

Or so it seems, anyway. I’m sure I qualify as the rankest parvenu when it come to such things. There are people I know who have links to enough people to qualify for virtual statehood. I, on the other hand, am barely into the double digits.

But, the way the requests are coming in...

I see the virtue, of course, in building a cyberspatial clan of like-minded people, especially if I don’t have to have them all over to the house at once. Obviously this is great for networking. On the other hand, it provides yet another reason for not going outside -- ever again. And it means I have to make some hard choices, because, being a PWP (Person With Parkinson’s, not Pathetic Writer Personified), there’s only so much typing I can do during the day until my fingers tie up into square knots. I would, of course, much rather spend my time swapping letters and IM-ing all day.

Unfortunately, that way lies life in a shopping cart.

It won’t take long for the attraction of the new to fade, if past obsessions are any criteria. And I am enjoying running into people I haven’t heard from in ages. (And will probably never hear from again; still, ships passing in the night are better than hitting an iceberg. Or something ...)

Saturday, January 3, 2009

R.I.P. Dortmunder

And another one of the good guys is gone ...

Donald Westlake and I only crossed paths a few times. The first time I met him was on the set of a TV series I was writing for in the early ’90s called Father Dowling Mysteries. (“He’s a priest; she’s a nun. Together they fight crime.” Hey, it was a paycheck.) The episode I'd written was called “The Hardboiled Mystery”, and it lurched back and forth between the contemporary plotline and one set in the ’30s, which gave us an excuse to shoot B&W period. (The idea was that the B&W segments were part of a roman à clef about Our Guys, written by a mystery writer who then winds up dead and ... you get the picture.) Since Don had written the series pilot, we thought it’d be a hoot to have him play the writer, so we flew him out for the part.

I was thrilled, as I’d been a Westlake fan since discovering the Dortmunder novels, a series of comic caper books featuring the quasi-ept titular character and his gang. Details about Westlake's productivity and writing habits I’ll leave to the many obits that can be found online (here’s the NYT one). Suffice to say that the man was simply incapable of writing a bad book (or movie). I notice that the Times obit mentions his predilection for using a manual typewriter, and I remember chatting with him about his fear of being caught without a working one. It had led him to buy up junked ones just so he’d be able to cannibalize parts if need be.

He needn’t have worried. Donald Westlake was a writer’s writer -- if there were no other way, he’d claw words on the walls with his fingernails. And you wouldn't be able to stop reading until you'd finished the room.

Rest In Peace, Don.