Even though JerseyDevilCon is held less than thirty minutes from our house, we didn't get to the first two. (Things like my mother's 85th birthday got priority, and contrary to someone's suggestion, bringing her to the convention was not a viable alternative!)
JerseyDevilCon is smaller than most conventions we've gone to lately--the membership was about 350, or a quarter the size of Boskone. Because it's smaller--and also because it's newer--a lot of things were different than what I was used to.
For example, there were no name tents to identify program participants. There were no microphones, and though the rooms were small, one for the Guest of Honor speeches would have been helpful. There was no Green Room, and no selection of moderator before the panelists were all sitting at the table. (This was odd, since the mail with the participants' panel assignments asked if they would be willing to moderate. Either Programming got back very little response or this just slipped through the cracks.) There was some on-the-fly rescheduling when the convention lost one room for Saturday night, which in turn resulted in at least one person having a reading opposite a panel she was on.
There was a distressing tendency toward cute panel names, and the descriptions were not on the schedule, so it wasn't until I was working on this report after the convention that I realized that "Return of the King" was not about Tolkien, but about Godzilla! ("No, not that King, or THAT King either. The 'King of All Monsters,' Godzilla!") I might have gone to this had I known, though it was opposite one of Mark's panels.
There was also a truly obnoxious smoke machine Saturday afternoon that I was suprised (and distressed) to find did *not* set off any smoke alarms. It did pour smoke out into the hallway in front of the meeting rooms, however.
There were two rooms, but they were right across the hall from each other, so it wasn't too inconvenient. There was also a "Dealers' Row": a series of rooms available to dealers who wanted to be open outside normal dealers room hours, or who couldn't get it for some reason. These were all non-book, non-video items, so we didn't drop in. In the Dealers Rooms we bought three VCDs of Japanese films not otherwise available here, and a DVD of the 1954 film "The Snow Creature".
Programming was very good--I found at least as many panels to go to as I do at Boskone, and these were new topics with different people. (Although by the end of the convention, the people didn't seem so different--in some cases I saw the same person on at least half a dozen panels.)
Description: "Why can't we make movies about something original for once? How many thousands of really good SF stories have NEVER been made into a movie? What SHOULD be made that hasn't been, now that technology will allow for pretty much anything, and what stands so solidly on its own that it should never be made into a film?"
[Warning: contains spoilers for "Soylent Green"]
Engler is the manager of both the magazine and the web site of the SciFi Channel. Harrison was the Guest of Honor and is well-known enough that I will not list his credentials here, except to note that his novel "Make Room! Make Room!" was made into the film "Soylent Green". Lievin is a Canadian writer and fan. Skir, pronounced "skeer", was one of the ubiquitous panelists I mentioned earlier. He was the script writer and/or story editor for many animated television series.
Skir started by turning to Harrison and demanding (humorously), "Where is 'Bill the Galactic Hero'? Where is 'The Stainless Steel Rat'?" Harrison said that "The Stainless Steel Rat" has been optioned for the last seventeen years, first for $5000 a year, and then later it was raised to $10,000 a year. At this point, he joked, he's not sure if he wants them to make it, because he's getting a nice income from it already. But he then said that they say it is not going into production because they have no script. This he found odd, because RKO had had six screenplays written, but I gather the current director-to-be, Jan de Bont, didn't like any of them. Mel Gibson has optioned "The Technicolor Time Machine" and commissioned a screenplay from Marshall Brickman.
Harrison asked about the people who made the series "Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World", since they had approached him about "Deathworld" (I think), and a long discussion of just how bad "Arthur Conan Doyle's Lost World" was followed. (How about this howler: the explorers are on a plateau, looking for a way off, and they come upon an ocean shore, at which point someone suggests there might be a sea route off the Plateau.)
Harrison was not happy with "Soylent Green". First of all, someone decided that a story about overpopulation wasn't exciting enough, so they added cannibalism to liven things up. And no one bothered to tell Edward G. Robinson anything about his character to the point when Robinson asked Harrison to try to explain it. After Harrison told him that Saul (Robinson's character) was the only person in the film who could remember what real food was like, or nature, or anything else before it all fell apart, Robinson was able to deliver a magnificent performance.
Skir said that regarding "The Stainless Steel Rat", he would much rather see it made into a series than a single movie.
Lievin claimed that they can now make anything with CGI capabilities, so there should be no restrictions on what was filmable. I would disagree--stories with long internal dialogues or other non-visual structures aren't any easier to film with CGI than with normal filming. For that matter, stories are generally not written with the screen in mind, so wouldn't it be better to create new works for the screen instead of trying to adapt works from another medium?
And when I asked this question, Skir agreed with me. He too would rather see people creating new works *for* a medium rather than "borrowing" from books, comics, etc. He gave the example of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas", which he said was a great book but a bad movie, in part because what it described did not belong blown up on a giant screen. As he put it, "This thing wanted to be a book. This thing did not want to be [a movie]."
Englar said he understood this objection, but on the other hand, the SciFi Channel could much more easily find existing great stories than commission people to write them. In addition, producers like projects with "auspices": things that come with it that are benefits in selling it. Arnold Schwarzenegger attached to a movie is an auspice. A very topical subject is an auspice. And a great novel that people have heard of is an auspice. (At ConJose, it was discussed how Philip K. Dick's name is an auspice to the extent that the posters for movies based on his works *feature* his name.)
Of course, the first question that then arises about a great story is "how adaptable is it?" And this doesn't mean just how technically filmable it is. One basic question is whether the rights are available, and sometimes they can get tied up for years. (See Harrison, above.)
Engler talked about "Taken", one of the few *new* works done by the SciFi Channel. Steven Spielberg's name was a giant auspice (much as Tom Hanks's (and Steven Spielberg's) was for HBO's "Band of Brothers"). But doing a twenty-hour mini-series--basically an entire season of regular series--in a two-week period was quite a gamble. Luckily for the SciFi Channel, it paid off, and their ratings, which had been around 1.0, suddenly jumped to 4.0--and stayed there for the whole series rather than dropping off as was expected. While for some science fiction fans, it may have seemed simplistic, Engler said that the reaction of a lot of viewers to a story about aliens on the moon is, "There can be aliens and there's a moon?"
Regarding what can and can't be done with CGI, Harrison said that it might not be possible to film "West of Eden". The CGI would work, but you have (as he put it) "'Planet of the Apes' with dinosaurs" and he thought that might be tough sell to an audience. (Someone thought that high-concept description would almost sell the film on the spot, however.)
Engler said that a work like Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s "A Canticle for Leibowitz", if filmed, would be just a shell of the book. (I would say the same for Olaf Stapledon's "Last and First Men".) However, both Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Left Hand of Darkness" and Kim Stanley Robinson's "Mars" trilogy are being done.
Lieven thought that Steven Baxter's "Voyage" might be possible as a mini-series. Harrison said he was surprised no one had asked him about "A Rebel in Time".
Skir said that he had read a book recently that made "the single worst idea into one of the best novels" that he had read: Steven Baxter's "The Time Ships". But he can't see it as a movie--and I think I agree.
Engler said that he thought that anything by China Mieville was unfilmable because the background was just too rich and the characters too strange. He also mentioned George R. R. Martin's "Song of Fire and Ice" series as having the same "problem."
Lieven said that filming "idea-rich" novels was difficult, because, as he put it, "How do you show ideas without showing actions, effects, etc.?" It can be done by having the characters talk about them, but on the whole people don't look for this sort of thing in a science fiction movie. Skir thought that "2001: A Space Odyssey" was an idea-rich film that worked. Englar chose "Solaris" as an idea-rich novel and said, "I'm not sure it was wise to adapt 'Solaris' into a movie twice," to which Skir added, "Or even once?"
(As an aside, Engler said that authors try to avoid mistakes, but they inevitably make some. Baxter apparently keeps a diary or log of all the scientific mistakes he has made that readers have caught and told him about.)
Description: "Readers and viewers of the classic monsters don't just fear the monsters, they identify with them. Why do Baron Frankenstein's creature, Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolfman have such continuing appeal? How do these famous monsters define our humanity, and what do they teach us about ourselves?"
The panel started out with the obvious question: what is your favorite monster. For Skir, it was the Wolf Man, whom he found "incredibly Shakespearean." For Watkins, it was Dracula, but as conceived in the book by Bram Stoker rather than from any film version. Stoker, she said, set the expectations very high, and the films couldn't live up to them. Fooden agreed on Dracula, whom he described as having a "cool, seductive charm" while at the same time being a "bloodthirsty fiend." Engler preferred Frankenstein, again from the book, whom he described as a "super-intelligent but tragically flawed creature," but he seems to have meant the creation rather than the doctor, although Skir noted that "the 'monster' in the novel 'Frankenstein' is Dr. Frankenstein." He said that he identifies more with the creation in "Bride of Frankenstein". He also said that the original script for "Son of Frankenstein" was not what was shot, and suggested getting a copy of the filmscript in the series of Universal filmscripts published a few years ago. (Of course, most of these seem to go for well over $100--when you can find them!)
Skir said that since "monsters are objects of terror or at best they're anti-heroes," why do we love them so much? Watkins disagreed with this characterization, saying there was also an "outcast" aspect that all people identify with, the state of being misunderstood. Most are not the "masters of their fate" and most are unhappy. The one exception among the classic monsters would seem to be Dracula. An audience member phrased this another way by saying they were also victims.
Returning to "Bride of Frankenstein", Skir said that the person in greatest crisis is Dr. Frankenstein: he wants to lead a normal life but Dr. Pretorius won't let him.
Englar re-iterated that Dracula is not a tragic figure, but said that other monsters not yet mentioned were, including King Kong and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. He said he wasn't familiar enough with the Mummy to judge, but I think most people would agree that he was tragic as well. Indeed, one audience member described the Mummy as a "tortured being looking for the look he has lost." (To which Englar replied, "It happens to all of us.")
Fooden said that in many of the films, Dracula was kept offstage but was talked about a lot, "sort of like Keyser Sose." (This is a reference to "The Usual Suspects", in case you're unfamiliar with that film.)
Skir noted that both Dan Curtis and Francis Ford Coppola infused Dracula with the Mummy myth of this lost love, saying, "Funky things have happened to Dracula." And a lot of what we have come to expect in the films was never in the novel. The use of sunlight to kill Dracula, Skir pointed out, came from "Nosferatu", while the cloak and high collar came from the exigencies of stage magic.
Moving on to more modern monsters, Skir declared, "Gamera's the man!" Gamera was made for a younger audience than any of these other films, he said, and in the new Gamera films, Gamera is specifically the protector of children. Englar said that one problem of sorts is that "when Gamera is down, he's really down"--he's flipped over on his back, waving his flippers, and helpless until someone comes along to flip him over again.
Skir had no use for the Godzilla in the American film: "They gave us a mutated iguana when we wanted a T-Rex!" (The Japanese seem to feel the same way. In "Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: All Monsters Attack" someone asks, "Wasn't Godzilla sighted in America?" and the answer is, "No, they thought they saw him, but they were wrong.") Skir also says that either the American Godzilla was a "chick" or a hermaphrodite, since it laid all those eggs. But they never really explained where Minya (the son of Godzilla) came from in the first Toho series either, so this is a bit nit-picky.
Returning to the notion of the outcast, Skir asked what the first supernatural monster was in American film. Most people would think of Lon Chaney's characters, but he played misfits and outcasts, not supernatural monsters. (In "London After Midnight" the supernatural monster turns out to be not supernatural after all.)
Other monsters were mentioned: the Phantom, the Hunchback, various giant insects, animals, and plants, etc.
Another category of monster was the psychological category, such as the Id from "Forbidden Planet", or the pods in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Skir pointed out that the Wolf Man is just Jekyll and Hyde with an even more animalistic Hyde, and the "Alien" movies are really just the Dracula myth. From the audience, Mark Leeper observed that "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is really just an inversion of "The Wolf Man". In "The Wolf Man", all intellect is removed and only raw emotion remains. In "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" all emotion is removed and only intellect remains. (Only might claim that even "Metropolis" uses this sort of dichotomy, though there it is "the heart" and "the hands" rather than intellect and emotion.) Skir agreed, saying one saw this in "Star Trek" as well, with Spock the pure intellect and McCoy the pure emotion.
Recalling another classic, Englar declared, "The Fly is a *great* monster." Skir agreed, saying, "'The Fly' is a great science fiction story--twice." (I might say three times, since Skir was referring to the two film versions and not counting the original story.)
There was a long discussion of "Jurassic Park" which didn't quite stick to the topic, covering instead how the film changed the basic character of the scientist, making him much more caring in the movie.
Watkins closed by saying that the one thing about monsters is that they never get stale--there are always new insights and new variations.
(A side complaint was that marketing often gives away the surprise in monster films, such as showing the ants on the poster for "Them!" when you don't find out until a third of the way through what the menace is, or letting you know that Arnold Schwarzenegger is the good guy in "Terminator 2".)
Description: "Many writers, upon gaining popularity, use their works to tout (or justify) a cause. Does this affect their story positively, negatively, or not at all? Can a story continually bang a drum and still be a good read?"
[My standard disclaimer: my notes and hence my write-up is skimpy because I can't participate and take thorough notes simultaneously.]
I felt that the description immediately led to several questions. What do you mean by "tout a cause"? Don't a lot of great works "tout a cause"? What's the difference between a cause and an agenda?
The examples I gave were that Shakespeare's histories tout the cause of the Tudors, and most of Mark Twain's work have some agenda, yet they remain great. On the other hand, a cause is not enough; No one reads "Uncle Tom's Cabin" these days *except* as an example of a book with a cause. (More people watch "Birth of a Nation" in spite of its cause than read "Uncle Tom's Cabin", I suspect.)
Sklar said that he used to believe that politics and art shouldn't mix, but eventually changed his mind. Mamatas said that often when people say they dislike a book with an agenda, it's because they disagree with the agenda. Or as he put it, "People don't like causes they don't like."
Brian Burley (in the audience) mentioned L. Neil Smith as a current writer with a very specific political cause (Libertarianism) who was not very good even though his earlier, less political works showed promise. I agreed, though it's true that the same could be said of Robert A. Heinlein--and has, often. Mamatas said that Ken MacLeod, on the other hand, was a writer with a political cause ("Trotskyite turned Libertarian") who is good.
The notion that everything comes down to politics was popular with panelists and audience. Mamatas also gave Steven V. Brust as an example, saying that Brust's characters don't know how their world works, and that this too is a political view. Englar said that Bruce Sterling's portrayals of technology and society are political. And I expanded this to include all authors who see science and technology as either savior or demon.
The general consensus, not surprising, is that a good author can write with an agenda or tout a cause and still produce a good story or novel, while a poor author probably can't. And good writers shouldn't shy away from including politics or a cause. As the very political Socialist author China Mieville said, "If the only people who like my book are the people who agree with me, I've failed."
Description: "Much of the recent work of our guests does not exactly conform to the marketing standards of the fantasy/horror genre. Does it require a proven track record of publishability to work on the fringe, or has the market shifted in such a way that a new author stands a chance?"
I would have liked to attend this, but dinner called, and I suspect it might have been similar to the slipstream panel at Boskone.
This was run differently than I have ever seen it done before. All the Guests of Honor (and there were about a dozen) were in a large room. A line formed outside and people were let in only a few at a time, but irrespective of which Guest or Guests they wanted signatures from. There was a maximum of six books--not per author or artist, but total each pass. So if you have four books by Harry Harrison and four by Clifford Pickover that you wanted signed, you had to go through the line twice. This might almost have made sense, except that Pickover (at least) was also selling books and would sign what you bought, so one could get more than six signatures on a single trip. Also, the transaction part slowed things down, so people buying books from Pickover meant that people further back in line who wanted other Guests' signatures had to wait longer. On the other hand, not having to stand in separate lines for each Guest was nice.
This session was for pre-registered members only. There were also individual sessions over the next two days open to all.
Description: "19th, 20th, and 21st century folklore. Why are these tales an integral part of society? What are some classics? Some new ones? Have any of them turned out to be true?"
I caught only the tail end of this. When I came in, Schweitzer was talking about Sawney Beane, a legendary cannibal of England. However, if one started checking the written documents about him, the closer in time one got to when he supposedly lived, the less and less there was, until when one got within about twenty years, there were *no* contemporary references, in spite of the fact that the King himself supposedly rode out to capture him. (Mark said the story of Sawney Beane seems to have been the inspiration of the film "The Hills Have Eyes".)
However, there is contemporary evidence for some stories you would swear were false. Schweitzer said that there was once a "fartist" who went by the name of "La Petomaine" who could perform tunes, and there are in fact handbills and advertisements in the newspapers of his time to prove it. (His real name was Louis Pujol and there is a web page about him at http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/~lofty/ pujol.htm.)
There were also never any razor blades in apples. Or LSD temporary tattoos. Or Kentucky Fried Rat. For the last, one of the panelists said that you could always tell who started the story. If the rat had "fallen into the machinery," it was an outsider, because insiders know that all the breading, etc., is done by hand. Insiders, on the other hand, will say the rat was intended for an unpopular boss, but given to a customer by mistake.
Someone asked about the Darwin Awards. These were not carefully checked at first, so while "Lawnchair Larry" was real, the story about the man attached jet fuel packs to his car was not.
Inspirational stories, the panelists said, are almost always urban legends. (The most widespread of these seems to be the "yellow ribbon" one.)
Urban legends are not new--Pliny the Elder and Herodotus have many stories that would seem to qualify.
Description: "A thin line, perhaps, but this winged horsey gent has appeared in more than just folklore. Here is a presentation on the appearances of the Jersey Devil in print, film, and history."
DiGerolamo began with the basic background of the legend. In 1735, Mrs. Leeds (or Mother Leeds), who was herself a thirteenth child, had her thirteenth child, which was not a human child but rather the Jersey Devil. Of course, almost every fact in that sentence is disputed, including the date, the number of children (sometimes it's the sixth child of a sixth child of a sixth child), or the people involved, though I think the name Leeds always appears. Early sightings described the creature as looking very much like the traditional portrayal of the Devil, but in the late 1800s, it became more horse-like, and then in the 1900s more dragon-like,
In 1909 Norman Jeffries decided it was a useful (i.e., profitable) legend. Jeffries ran a carnival and also for a time owned the Dime Museum in Philadelphia. He wrote a phony letter to a Philadelphia newspaper purporting to be from a New Jersey farmwife who had see the Jersey Devil. The letter was published, and suddenly everyone started seeing it. DiGerolamo said that part of its popularity was due to its convenience as an alibi for husbands returning home late and rather than worse for drink--they would blame it all on a run-in with the Jersey Devil.
Jeffries then rented a kangaroo, disguised it, and arranged it capture. He displayed it in his museum where he would display it by opening a curtain in front of it, at which instant it would roar and leap at the audience. It turned out this was because he arranged to have someone behind the cage stab it with a nail just as the curtain was opened. (Jeffries would do anything for publicity. He had a midget working in his museum and arranged for an heiress to fall in love with him and marry him. Except, of course, the heiress was no heiress, but an actress, and the marriage was fake as well.)
The two basic books on the Jersey Devil are "The Jersey Devil: 13th Child" by James F. McCloy and Ray Miller, and its sequel "Phantom of the Pines: More Tales of the Jersey Devil". These cover all sightings from 1730 through 1996. There is also a historical novel "Brigid's Charge" by Cynthia Lamb, who claims to be a descendent of Mother Leeds.
Most of these sightings have taken place in the Pine Barrens, a unique geologic area in southern New Jersey. There was a recent article about them in the May 2003 issue of the magazine "Natural History". On a more science-fictional (and less accurate) note, there was a "Johnny Quest" episode that put snow-capped mountains in the Pine Barrens! It has also been featured in an episode of "The Sopranos", which got the scenery correct even if they did make the mistake of having the driver pump his own gas.
The Jersey Devil shows up on the Internet, though that was described as "more of an 'X-Files' Jersey Devil." There was also a 1998 film, "The Last Broadcast", involving a search for the Jersey Devil, which pre-dated the very similar "Blair Witch Project". And someone mentioned a 2002 movie, "13th Child", with Christopher Atkins, Robert Guillaume, and Cliff Robertson, which apparently has gotten only limited release. But the Jersey Devil seems never to have had a decent movie or television show. (There was an "X-Files" episode about it, and an episode of "Extreme Ghostbusters". I'm surprised Kolchak didn't meet it at some point, but I guess the series ended too soon.)
In addition to the basic works mentioned above, the Jersey Devil is also talked about (not surprisingly) in the magazine "Weird New Jersey". An audience member said there was a book by folklorist Benjamin Albert Botkin which discusses it. (There was also an article in the "New York Folklore Quarterly for Spring, 1958.) The first major write-up seems to have been in the "Atlantic Monthly" in 1859, when Hannah Butler claimed to have seen it, although since the article ("In the Pines") makes fun of "pine rats" (as it calls the residents of the Pine Barrens"), it may not be the most objective journalism.
There is a Leeds Point in New Jersey, and the house where the Jersey Devil was supposedly born is there on the way to Oyster. (I think DiGerolamo said you start at the Creek Restaurant and then it's off Route 9 near Smithville, but don't take that as gospel.)
DiGerolamo said that the origins of the legend are not hard to guess. The Leeds family basically owned all of New Jersey at the time, and so would undoubtedly have generated resentment among everyone poorer than them (which was everyone), and what better revenge than to spread the story that the family had produced a monster?
DiGerolamo closed by pointing out that the Jersey Devil is the official New Jersey State Demon. (Are there *any* other states that have an official State Demon?)
(I know I'm always asking for earlier programming at conventions. I'm just wondering why the convention that actually provides it has to be the one convention we commute to from home!)
Pickover began by introducing himself, saying he had written thirty books since 1990 and while most were science books, even those often has a storyline. (He has also written four science fiction novels in his thematically-connected "Neoreality" series.) Most of these, he said, dealt with "the fourth dimension, strange realities, and God."
Pickover began by saying that the term "hyperspace" was coined by John W. Campbell in 1934 in "The Mightiest Machine", and went on to talk about the various literary works dealing with visitations from higher-dimensional creatures, beginning with Edwin Abbott's classic, "Flatland". (Abbott later followed up "Flatland" with "The Spirit of the Waters", in which he concluded that the fourth dimension does not bring us closer to God.)
Relating this to God, Pickover quoted Karl Heim's "Christian Faith and Natural Science", in which Heim said, "Scientific progress impels us to conceive of a fourth dimension."
Pickover mentioned the movie "4-D Man", even though its explanation of why the eponymous character can pass through walls has nothing to do with the fourth dimension. (The explanation involves the non-solidity of apparently solid objects.)
Pickover then spoke of degrees of freedom of movement as a measure of the dimensionality of a set of points (a line, a plane, etc.) and of intrinsic (on the surface) and extrinsic (in a higher dimension) geometry. For example, given a sphere, the intrinsic geometry of the surface says that triangles have angles totaling more than 180 degrees and the shortest distance between two points is along a Great Circle, while extrinsic geometry lets one travel into the sphere, where triangles would have 180 degrees and the shortest distance is a straight line cutting through the sphere.
String theory, which says that the universe has the three normal spatial dimensions, one time dimensions, and six other spatial dimensions, obviously depends on higher dimensions. Particles are actually vibrating strings, and the six other spatial dimensions are compactified (very tiny). I have no idea what that means.
Literature often focuses on what Pickover calls the "Gods of Hyperspace". The ability to move in a higher dimension would allow bloodless surgery, but would also mean the end of privacy and unlimited opportunity for theft. (If you don't see why, read "Flatland".)
Someone in the audience noted that while the inhabitants of "Flatland" often say that they see a circle, they are really seeing a line with shading. Similarly, when we say that we see a sphere, we are really only seeing a circle with shading. In both cases, this is due to the retina being of necessity one dimension less than the world itself.
Henry Moore apparently said that souls were unobservable because they correspond to a thickness in a hyperdimension that goes away at death. (My note here says "17th Century", which seems hard to believe.)
Pickover briefly explained the "Many Worlds" interpretation of quantum physics, and talked about wormholes to other universes. (Robert Sawyer's current series, "Hominids", "Humans", and "Hybrids", has this as a premise.) He also talked about the "shower curtain model of multiples branes", by which I *think* he meant that though the curtain is a continuous plane, a drop of water follows a straight line formed by curve of that plane in three-space (a "brane").
Showing a picture of an unfolded hypercube (that is, a representation in three-space of a four-dimensional hypercube), Pickover said that this image shows up in modern art, most notably in Salvador Dali's "Christus Hypercubus".
Knots in three-space are particularly interesting in four-space. Someone named Slade apparently claimed he could untie knots even when the ends of the rope were attached to something by untying them in hyperspace. And knots are among the many objects that have "handedness", or are part of an enantiomorphic pair. Non-orientable spaces, such as Moebius strips and Klein bottles can change handedness. (A recent article in http://www.sciencenews.org talked about how the recycling symbol of three arrows actually appears in two different forms, both of which are non-orientable spaces.)
Pickover finished by talking about parallel realities, such as one finds in Robert A. Heinlein's "Job: A Comedy" and "The Number of the Beast", most of Philip K. Dick, and some of Fredric Brown's work.
As Albert Einstein said, "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." (And as Douglas Adams said, "Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so.")
Malzberg introduced Harrison, and said that with the exceptions of Poul Anderson, Gordon R. Dickson, and possibly A. E. Van Vogt, Harrison had sold more words to John W. Campbell than any other author. And it was a tribute to Harrison's social skills that he could be a good friend of both Campbell and Michael Moorcock, of Horace Gold and Frederik Pohl.
Harrison responded that he never though about being a premier "Astounding" author at the time, and only gave to this idea in retrospect. He said of his "friendship" with Campbell that there was no such thing as a conversation with Campbell. You'd walk into Campbell's office, and he would bark at you, "You're a medieval peasant and you're allergic to white bread," and expect you to then fill in the details to make a story. (In this case, it was apparently that since the only time medieval peasnts had white bread was in the Host at Communion, an allergy to it would make it seem as though they were possessed by the Devil or some such.) Talking to Campbell, Harrison said, was "like throwing manhole covers at each other." And because of Campbell's editorial style, all serials that appeared in "Astounding" were really collaborations (according to Harrison). Harrison also said that the title for "The Stainless Steel Rat" came from a Katherine MacLean comment about "stainless steel rats," so I guess that's a collaboration of sorts.
Later Harrison went so far as to state, "John Campbell invented modern science fiction." Certainly, "Astounding" (later "Analog") had some specific guidelines that formed the structure of science fiction. For example, an "Analog" serial was three installments of 20,000 words each. This didn't change until "Dune" came along and was serialized as *five* 20,000-word installments. (I notice that Robert Sawyer's "Hominids" was four installments, which I assume are still 20,000 words each.)
Malzberg asked, "Why did you write 'Bill the Galactic Hero'?" I don't think Harrison actually answered this, but said he didn't submit it to Campbell, knowing Campbell wouldn't like it, and was surprised after it came out to find that Campbell had bought and read it, mostly because he was surprised that Campbell--who read the entire "Astounding" slushpile--would actually buy science fiction to read for pleasure. Harrison did sell "The Technicolor Time Machine" to "Analog", but that was to Ben Bova, and was Harrison's first sale to "Analog" after Campbell died.
Commenting on how the discussion seemed to be more about Campbell than about Harrison, Malzberg said, "Nothing better on a Saturday morning than to talk about John W. Campbell. Saturday night, I don't know."
Harrison said that he could have edited "Analog" after Campbell died, but wanted to write instead. He also liked the idea that he could write anywhere, and ended up living first in Mexico, then in London (he went there for the 1957 Worldcon and just stayed), then Italy, then Denmark, and finally Ireland. In discussing one of his books optioned for movies, "Variety" described him as the "reclusive Harry Harrison," which makes sense only if by "reclusive" they meant "not living in Hollywood."
When he wrote "Deathworld", he submitted it and a thin envelope came back which he assumed was a form letter rejection, until he opened it and discovered that it was a check for $2100.
Harrison talked more about the movie "Soylent Green". He had the freedom of the set, which was a real eye-opener. At one point he saw them doing a scene where the butcher is putting meat in plastic bags. "Plastic bags in a world without oil?!" They changed it to something more like Europe, where one brings one's own bag. (Well, they do wrap the meat in clean paper first.) When the film opened, one theater in San Diego decided to feature a "Soylent Green Slushie". They sold some to people going it, but on the way out, they got some very queasy looks at the dispenser.
Harrison also talked about how he hasn't seen his share of the profits from "Soylent Green", because there supposedly aren't any profits yet. Malzberg said that all Robert Bloch got for the script of "Pyscho" was $5000. (But I read recently that someone who got very little for writing the script of a famous movie, then sold his original script for several hundred thousand dollars. I can't remember if it was Bloch and "Psycho", though.)
Harrison said that you can make a living in publishing, but Hollywood is too unpredictable to try to make a living there. "You have to be very tough and nasty like Harlan [Ellison] to survive there," he explained.
Someone asked him about his "atheist hero." This was in a story called "The Streets of Ashkelon" which he said he didn't submit to "Astounding" because Kay Tarrant (Campbell's editorial assistant and "guardian of the magazine's morality") wouldn't have even let it through the door. But it turned out to be his most anthologized story--eighty-five times, including a Jesuit monthly!
Talking about atheists and God, Harrison said there were three truly famous quotes in science fiction:
"God? Up there? In a dirty bathrobe?" (the last line of L. Ron Hubbard's "Typewriter in the Sky")
"Day followed night like the flapping of a great black wing." (the Time Traveler in H. G. Wells's "The Time Machine")
"Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out." (the last line of Arthur C. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God")
Harrison closed by telling the story of how a tough Vietnam veteran came up to him and asked if he had written "Bill, the Galactic Hero". Somewhat nervously, Harrison admitted he had, to which the vet responded, "That's the only book that's true about the military."
Description: "A discussion of films with a fantastic premise, but were carried out in a disappointing manner."
Fooden began by saying that he thought of this as describing films that built up expectations and then failed to deliver on them, rather than films for which one never had any expectations anyway. Rogers said that usually it seems to be the other way around--"usually the idea stinks but the execution carries it." He also echoed a common sentiment when he added, "Usually what's wrong with movies is the writing."
Leeper said, "All films fall short of what I would want them to be." He said "The Core" (for example) had interesting ideas but lost something in the execution. And the 1959 "Journey to the Center of the Earth" is "solid stupid ideas" but still his "favorite going-to-the-center-of-the-earth film."
Rogers endeared himself to Leeper (unintentionally) by saying that "Five Million Years to Earth" was the best science fiction film ever made, something Leeper has been saying for years. However, he added that the special effects at the ending and for the "race purge" were just terrible, and that the earlier BBC serial television version was better. He also said that Alex Proyas (who made "Dark City") is looking at doing a remake. (Proyas is currently filming "I, Robot". This is *not* from the Harlan Ellison screenplay, but from one by Akiva Goldsman.) Rogers named some other great science fiction movies such as "Enemy from Space" and others, and noted that "lots of great movies turn out to be Nigel Kneale." He highly recommended the BBC version of "The Stone Tape".
Leeper pointed out the "Five Million Years to Earth" was the first instance he knew of dealing with the concept of "uplift" as elaborated more recently by David Brin. Someone suggested that "The Island of Dr. Moreau" might be an earlier occurrence, but that was more surgical alterations than uplift per se. In "Five Million Years to Earth", Leeper said, Kneale looked at superstition as misunderstood scientific phenomenon. Other Kneale-like films are "Prince of Darkness" and "Lifeforce". (Leeper pointed out that the former had explicit references to Kneale and Quatermass in it.)
Rogers said that "Lifeforce" doesn't hang together because of what he described as its "schizophrenic style." Fooden said a similar film was "Strange Days", which was a great concept, with lots of layers, but a big cop-out at the end.
Regarding films that cop out at the end, Leeper said that the first two-thirds of "Brainstorm" was great, but the last third was a real disappointment. (He admitted that this was probably due in part to Natalie Wood dying during production and the film having to work around this, but the result was not good.)
The requirements placed on theatrical releases, particularly regarding length, often damage a film. Rogers said that some films which don't play well in the theaters are improved by additional footage, and gave as examples "Terminator 2" and "The Abyss". Fooden and Leeper talked about the American versus European releases of "Highlander" in this regard. Leeper said that the European had about equal parts of fantasy, fighting, and rock music, but they wanted to cut it for its American release, so they left in all the fighting and rock music and cut the fantasy parts.
Regarding "The Abyss", Fooden said that James Cameron's problem is that he just goes too far and films to much on all his movies.
Rogers said that he thought John Carpenter's "Vampires" failed for similar reasons to "Lifeforce"--the production company (Largo Enterprises) went belly-up halfway through filming. But he added, "What you mostly get are things that are stupid from the get-go."
Leeper said that another example of "great idea, bad execution" would be "Star Trek 5". The good idea was examining the function of religion, and certainly the question "Why does God need a starship?" is a good one, but the stunts with jet boots, the pratfalls, the singing around the campfire, and other such "business" killed the film.
Fooden said the problem with this panel's topic was that there were so many films to choose from. McCabe (who arrived late due to wretched traffic on the Turnpike), said it was hard to choose because "the 1990s were so chock full of disappointments." The summer films from 1977 through 1985 were great films, and then came a real let-down. He also felt that "every CGI film has this potential [to be great]." (Again, I think this is emphasized the effects more than the script content.) Leeper pointed out that "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" had great effects and was still disappointing.
The panelists also said that another category might be adaptations that are good as films, but disappointing as adaptations. Fooden found "The Shining" disappointing (didn't we all?). McCabe said that the problem seemed to be that Kubrick decided to make it psychological rather than supernatural. And Leeper said that because Kubrick was unfamiliar with horror films, he repeated all the errors and cliches that had come before. (In "Bright Darkness", however, Jeremy Dyson feels that "The Shining" is tied with "The Haunting" as the best haunted house film ever made, just because it introduces the ambiguity of whether the goings-on are supernatural in nature, or just the mental states of the characters.)
Someone in the audience said that they were disappointed by "Daredevil", which led someone to ask how they could have had high expectations for it in the first place. Leeper said that in the film Daredevil asks himself the question, "Can one man make a difference?" And then the film answers it with, "Yes, one man with radioactive mutant super-powers can make a difference."
Someone in the audience thought that "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" was disappointing. Leeper said that what he really liked about it was that it looked at the situation from an ethical point of view. As he wrote in his review, "Permanence is a major theme of A.I. I am told a glass bottle takes a million years to biodegrade. The purpose of that existence may end after a month--essentially its first moments of life, but the bottle goes on. Its whole reason for existence is just the barest beginning of its journey. This is bad for the environment, but not really for the bottle because it has no feelings. But what if a machine could be given feelings and told to love one person? What happens to a machine that has emotions, but also longevity far greater than that of its reason for existence? And can a machine really have feelings? If not, why not since an accumulation of biological cells, what a human is, can have feelings? These questions are the heart of A.I."
The panelists briefly looked at the flip side--films that they had had low expectations for that turned out better than they expected. Fooden named "Frank Herbert's Dune" (the SciFi Channel miniseries) and Peter Jackson's "The Frighteners". McCabe recommended "Donnie Darko", and Leeper said that even though the idea of H. G. Wells using his time machine to chase Jack the Ripper though time sounded silly, "Time After Time" turned out to be a very good film.
(Regarding the earlier film "Dune", Rogers said that David Lynch was just the wrong person to direct it, and that it should have been more like "Lawrence of Arabia". Leeper said, however, that the effects captured the Schoenherr illustrations, especially the sandworms.)
Description: "What elements of the characters in character-driven series fiction makes them remain successful? What are the advantages of following a single character vs. a larger cast of regulars?"
The panelists began with their "series credentials." Flynn has written what is called the "Firestar" series. Skir has worked on for many television series. Passarella is known for the "Wither" series, as well as "Buffy" and "Angel" tie-ins.
Wilson said he had avoided series for twenty-five years, but then ended up writing a series of novels featuring "Repairman Jack". (He doesn't count "The Keep" and "Reborn" as being a series.) One reason he genre-hops is that he found medical thrillers too limiting, and so didn't want to get locked into something repetitious. Skir wondered about whether his "Reapirman Jack" books were even science fiction or fantasy, asking, "How is Repairman Jack different from me?" to which Wilson replied, "He really kicks ass." (I haven't read the books, so I don't know.) Wilson said that the books have been optioned, and that he would like to see Hugh Jackman as Repairman Jack, but with a budget of $80M, Disney wants someone with a bigger name who can "open a movie."
Passarella said that the big problem with series in general is that after the first book, people want the second book to be just like it. Wilson said that his genre-hopping definitely flew in the face of that desire, and led to the marketing department lament, "What the hell's Wilson writing now?"
Wilson asked Skir, "Are you allowed to make characters progress [on a television series]?" Skir replied that it depended on the series. Series such as "Buffy" do have characters that change over time, while shows such as "Star Trek: Whatever" pretty much dictate that the characters remain basically unchanged. Skir said that when new characters are introduced in television shows, "these characters instantly breed devotion" and getting rid of them is a problem.
Wilson said that in some series--he gave private eye series as an example--publishers don't want a progression from book to book. It's important that new readers can pick up any volume and understand what is happening and who's who. (This is pretty much how the Sherlock Holmes stories worked.) This basically is the distinction between a series with an arc and a series of stand-alone books. Flynn says that his "Firestar" series has an arc because it was originally conceived as a single novel, and only became a series when it got too long. (It seems to be about the same length as Mary Gentle's "Book of Ash", which was published as one novel in Britain and as a four-book series in the United States.)
Returning to the "character-driven" part, Skir gave "Looking for Rachel Wallace" by Robert Parker. He liked the character of Spenser, but would not call the book character-driven. On the other hand, he gave Willow in "Buffy" as someone who was the identical person as she was at the beginning, but an entirely different character. (I'm not sure if he means she hasn't died and been resurrected like others in the series, or what.)
Skir said one reason authors like series is that it is hard to create a new universe for each book, and that this is a problem peculiar to science fiction and fantasy. Authors of novels of realism have a universe already created for them. Wilson pointed out that Robert A. Heinlein had his "Future History", even if it wasn't a series in the usual sense. Skir said that Isaac Asimov may have carried this a bit far, at the end shoe-horning all his works into a single future history. Piers Anthony and Terry Pratchett are other authors who have many works in the same universe without necssarily having them in a series in the traditional sense. Skir complained about Stephen King, saying that the occasional reference to other works was okay, but his "Dark Tower" seems to be "suturing this sh*t together into this Frankenstein monster."
Skir said that Stephen King always made you want to keep turning the pages, and that John Grisham also makes you want to turn the pages fast. Flynn said that there was a difference between story-telling and novel-writing, and that you can't read a novel fast. This led to a long argument over what is a novel, with someone in the audience claiming the "Don Quixote" was not a novel. (At some point someone asked what the first novel was, and when I said it was "Tale of Genji" by Lady Murasaki, all I got were stares.)
Anyway, returning to character-driven series, someone observed that George R. R. Martin does kill off characters in his novels. Other authors who kill off (or do nasty stuff to) their characters include Jack Chalker, C. J. Cherryh, and Stephen R. Donaldson.
(Looking back, I have to say that the topic itself wasn't really covered, though a lot of it presaged the later panel "Killing Your Darlings".)
Description: "Some authors spend as much time researching as they do writing to get things right, others are already in the field, while others throw caution to the wind. How much is enough, and how much bogs the book down in things the average reader doesn't care about?"
Bloom thought he had been chosen for this panel because he had written fictional ethnography for gaming, Wilson is a doctor, and Harrison has written books based on both subjects. But Wright is a lawyer and didn't seem at first to have any professional connection with the subjects--which was fine, of course--but later the connection was made clear. I was a bit curious why these two subjects were lumped together, sort of like Helene Hanff asking what John Donne and William Blake had in common, other than "they were both English, and they both wrote."
Harrison said one should even distinguish between physical and cultural anthropology. He said that another author who used anthropology a lot was Poul Anderson, but that he disagreed with Anderson's belief that our culture would be linear. (I suppose this is in conflict with Otto Spengler's theory of cycles of civilization.)
Wright said that his connection was that laws really just codify existing traditions, and so merely reflect the culture in which they arise. He talked about the flaw of "Xenaism" (referring to the television series, I assume), saying that people everywhere (and everywhen) are not like us, and don't think like us. He also criticized the tendency of science fiction set in space to have every place else be a monocultural planet. (I suppose a very old planet with no disjoint land masses might become monocultural eventually.)
Bloom said that his suggestion was to "take an existing Earth culture and file off the serial numbers." This, he claimed, puts you a little ahead of Xena, which is so clearly Southern California culture. But unless you pick an obscure enough culture, people will spot it.
Ackley-McPhail said that using an oral culture was easier, because there were so many gaps in them. She gave the Celtic culture as an example, and this may help explain its popularity.
I asked if there were any other authors besides Chad Oliver and Ursula K. LeGuin who were trained anthropologists. No one seemed to know of any, but Wright said that Jack Vance succeeded in making his characters alien in a way that was true to anthropological knowledge. Other people suggested C. J. Cherryh, P. C. Hodgell, and Mary Doria Russell.
Someone mentioned Avram Davidson as well, whom Harrison said was "a wonderful man and a wonderful author."
Wright said that if an author wants to get sympathy or empathy from a reader for someone in an alien culture, making them an orphan usually works. Wilson voiced the standard problem--if the aliens are alien enough, they are too different for us to understand. Harrison agreed, saying that Hal Clement's aliens are really just "tiny humans," and Wright said that Robert L. Forward's aliens are all Europeans. Wilson said that because both the author and the reader are in fact human, there really was an underlying need to anthropomorphize.
Wright gave an example of how laws derive from anthropology and culture. Because we get our energy from food grown on land, our laws are based on land ownership. But intelligent aliens swimming in oceans would not formulate laws based on land ownership, though Wright didn't say what basis they might use.
In some context or other, Harrison mentioned that when Sam Moskowitz was writing about the "Negro" in science fiction (that being the then-accepted term), he concluded by completely unconsciously beginning a sentence, "To call a spade a spade. . . ." (Someone else, writing about how something was smuggled into China, said something about there being "a chink in the Great Wall.")
Asked about research, Wright answered, "I make the whole thing up; I'm a science fiction writer."
Talking about how other culture's customs seem strange, Harrison described how the Dalai Lama is chosen. After the old Dalai Lama dies, a few years pass, and then a search is made for boys (why only boys, I wonder?) of the right age to be reincarnations of him. The ones judged possible candidates are shown a group of items from which they must pick those which had belonged to the previous Dalai Lama. Harrison said this sounded bizarre, but was "a cut above how we chose our last President."
(I am reminded of an interview the Dalai Lama gave to Bob Abernathy of "Religion & Ethics News Weekly". At the end of the interview, Abernathy asked the Dalai Lama what he thought would happen to him after he died, if he believed in an afterlife, and if so, what he thought it was like. The Dalai Lama responded that he didn't believe in an afterlife because he expected to be reincarnated as the *next* Dalai Lama. This at least was more consistent than a survey that showed that about a quarter of people who identified themselves as Christian also said that they believed in reincarnation.)
Wilson said that regarding biology it is tough to stay accurate. He is busy updating his next novels, "Sims", for all the new discoveries in genetics. But he said it's not as bad as some categories. It's apparently the car and gun errors that really attract letters. "I put a safety on a Glock and the mail just poured in," he recalled.
Someone asked what the worst biology bloopers were that the panelists could remember (not necessarily theirs). Bloom (in a strange echo of the urban legends panel) said that cannibalism as an exclusive food source for a group doesn't work. Wright finds interbreeding with aliens the most flagrant violation of biology he sees, and talked about how John Carter interbreeding with an egg-laying Martian long before "Star Trek" came along. (I had this sudden epiphany: As a Virginian, John Carter couldn't marry a black human woman in his own state, but apparently going to Mars and marrying a green Martian there was acceptable. Think about it. I bet no one in Virginia ever got upset and tried to ban Edgar Rice Burroughs's "Mars" books.)
Someone in the audience said that it is harder to get away with errors in chemistry and physics, but that in regards to biology, things seem a bit more lax. Wright agreed for now, but said that this was changing. (I suspect the recent massive work in genetics and disease has something to do with this.)
Wilson said that, while he didn't want to encourage sloppiness, "there was a certain charm to those old books. I'll forgive a lot [if the story is good]." Harrison said that a lot of the older stories didn't hold up very well. They were "cleaner than clean, whiter than white, and goyisher than goy." The only people who liked E. E. Smith, for example, were those who read him when they were prepubescent boys.
Harrison also said that Theodore Sturgeon would provide the "infodumps" that John W. Campbell wanted in Sturgeon's stories by copying chunks out of encyclopedias.
Wright said that Wright's First Rule of Anthropology is, "Everything has factions."
Harrison said that Heinlein's technology wasn't often as bad as his anthropology. In "The Roads Must Roll", for example, Harrison said the rolling roads were impossible: "One cigarette butt and boom!--'2000 Dead'" (gesturing to indicate a newspaper headline). As far as the anthropology in "Starship Troopers" and elsewhere, Harrison said that he was in the army and would hate for the country to be run entirely by ex-military ("bunch of alcoholics..."). It's true that Heinlein tried to get around this by having universal service, but the problem is that those who can succeed/survive in a military environment are not necessarily a cross-section of all those who would be good at governing a country. It worked in Sparta for a while, but frankly, I don't think it was the sort of society anyone would choose to live in, and it eventually came apart. Harrison said that Heinlein had basically a Manichaean attitude towards the world, and saw it as good versus evil.
Bloom said a common error of authors who are constructing an alien society is to overload their readers with too many new words.
There was some time left, so Harrison treated us to a couple of limericks:
A pious old Jew from Salonika, Said, "For Christmas I'd like an harmonica." His wife, to annoy him, Said, "Feh, That's for Goyim!" And gave him a jews-harp for Hanukkah.
An old archeologist, Throstle, Discovered a marvelous fossil He knew from its bend And the knob on the end 'Twas the peter of Paul the Apostle.
Description: "Can you kill off a long-running and beloved character in a series without killing the series itself? How do you justify it? What are the benefits and the drawbacks?"
Harrison introduced himself by saying, "If you don't know me by now, the hell with you." Hunt described his latest book (which has a pile of corpses) by saying, "It's a Baen book published by Tor." Levinson said, "I do think it helps move a plot along to have a dead body."
No one seemed to quote Oscar Wilde ("Each man kills the thing he loves.").
Harrison said that in his work, a lot of people died, but not the protagonist. Hunt felt it was important to have characters die to make sure readers know who the villains are. (I'm not sure the latter necessarily applies. Lots of characters die in Greek or Shakespearean tragedy without their deaths helping to identify a villain.)
Skir felt that "Star Wars" suffered as a film because Lucas had our side win with no casualties, or rather with only unimportant minor characters as casualties.
When Levinson suggested that people do die at random without their deaths pointing to some villain or purpose, Skir responded, "Art is never random. That's why we read art instead of the newspapers." He talked about the death of Spock in "Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan" as a death given meaning and purpose.
Throughout this, Flynn had been silent, mostly because everyone else was busy talking. So when Levinson asked him, "Mike do you want to say something?", Flynn replied, "The thought had crossed my mind." A discussion of Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" followed. Apparently Godwin wanted to have a "happy" ending for it that Campbell resisted. Since then, several sequels, or rather responses, have been published: Deborah Wessell's "The Cool Equations", Don Sakers's "The Cold Solution", and possibly someone's "The Warm Equations" come to mind.
Skir later talked about "Flowers for Algernon" and said, "I would have been so much happier if he had retained his intelligence at the end, and I would have felt so . . . cheated."
Someone claimed that if the story is told in the first person, the reader knows the character will survive, but this doesn't allow for the character having recounted it all right before dying, or even after death (as in "Sunset Boulevard"). Someone said that in "Psycho", the main character is killed off early, but Skir said that is really misdirection--in spite of her star billing, Janet Leigh was not the main character.
Levinson said that in general on television, characters don't die mid-season. (But what about "The Sopranos"? And Kenny gets killed every week in "South Park".)
Someone said that "downbeat" versus "upbeat" endings depends on the genre. Skir noted that Charles Dickens's earlier works had downbeat endings, his later ones upbeat, but they're all still being published.
Hunt asked the other panelists, "Are we more callous about killing off characters?" to which Harrison responded, "Only at Baen Books." Some authors have tried to kill off their main (or major) characters but without success: Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Edgar Rice Burroughs with Jane, Ian Fleming with James Bond (at the end of the novel "From Russia with Love").
There was a long argument about whether events in history have meaning or are ultimately negated. While an interesting question, there seemed to be more heat than light and the topic was definitely not what the panel was about.
Flynn summarized by saying that people who complain when characters are killed off seem to feel that "we have a Constitutional right not to feel bad."
Description: "How monster culture--monster movies, monster toys, monster collecting, monster magazines--has changed your life, or influenced your work."
Carpathian is an actor in a troupe that performs "family ghost stories." She was dressed in a costume and mask that was halfway between a ghost and Death, even through the panel, which was a bit unusual.
Leeper said his earliest recollection of monster culture was the film "War of the Worlds", which he saw when he was three, and then remembered only bits and pieces of, including a scene with something like a shower head (actually the Martian machine looking into the cabin). Biedeman said that he was inspired by "Victor Frankenstein, Man of Science!", although he later found resonances in Satan's line from Milton: "Did I ask you from the dust to create me?" (Note: I can't seem to verify this line.) In high school he slipped an extract from Victor Frankenstein's notebooks into his advance placement biology class notes for an experiment (something like, "On the fourth day I brought the Creature to life" or some such), and his teacher wrote on them, "You're going to a bad end." "Herbert West, another great man of science," he added late.
SanGiovanni said her influence was Freddy Krueger, and liked the idea in "Nightbreed" that the monsters are the good guys. These re-analyzed what a monster is.
Carpathian, staying in character, said, "We're your dreams, not your nightmares." She added, "I'm saddened that today we don't seem to be able to create really good memorable monsters." Only a couple of truly great monsters were original with Hollywood: the Wolf Man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. (And one can argue that they have their origins from legends and folklore.) The last truly good monster, she said, was the alien in "Alien".
"We seem to grind our monsters down [these days]," Carpathian lamented. Freddy Krueger, at least in the sequels, is "as familiar as a relative that drops by, and just as annoying."
SanGiovanni said she preferred monsters that present you with something you wouldn't have expected. He cited Hannibal Lecter, saying that he gets scarier in each succeeding movie. (But Leeper has claimed before that there really isn't much new about Hannibal Lecter in the latest film than Anthony Hopkins didn't do three years ago in "Titus".)
Leeper said that one problem was that we devaluate the old monsters. Shows like "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" are self-congratulatory, saying that the new generation is better than their parents, and can dispose of monsters that terrorized their parents with a single well-placed karate kick. Someone in the audience added that in addition, it's now just a cool special effect instead of a real character.
Carpathian agreed with that, pointing out that the new "Hulk" movie has no Hulk. At least Lou Ferrigno was a real person, she noted, and monsters were played by actors, not stunt men. This may explain another of Leeper's observations, that today's monsters (such as in "Queen of the Damned" or "Species") simply don't have the gravitas of those of yesteryear.
Biedeman said that the obvious next step--eliminating actors entirely--had already been explored in last year's movie, "S1m0ne". Carpathian said that filmmakers needed to be reminded that "before the special effects enter the picture, you have to have the humanity." An audience member said that one of the best fantasy films, "Dragonslayer", never gave you an extended view of the dragon. (Similarly, "Curse of the Demon" gave you very little of the demon--and even that was more than the director wanted to.) Biedeman said that "Signs" also hid a lot, but that CGI tempts you to show rather than to hide.
Leeper claimed that Hammer started the trend to show more (or everything), but my recent reading about horror films indicates that this was a complaint made about the classic Universal films as well. "The Haunting" got by with showing very little. Carpathian said that Val Lewton's film also had some truly eerie moments by showing very little. (It's worth noting that though they are called Lewton's films, he was actually just the producer. The director, who arguably shapes the film at least as much, was Jacques Tourneur for "Cat People", "Leopard Man", and "I Walked with a Zombie", and Mark Robson for "The Seventh Victim".)
Leeper said that in spite of the emphasis placed on film and television, the best medium for horror was probably the spoken word (radio or audio productions).
Someone in the audience said that films such as "The Sixth Sense" and "The Mothman Prophecies" use things at the edge of the viewer's vision to create an atmosphere. SanGiovanni said another film that didn't show everything was "The Others", and Carpathian noted that "The Blair Witch Project" pretty much didn't show anything.
"The Blair Witch Project" was an example that Leeper used of how "cruder is more effective" (cruder here meaning less polished filmmaking, not cruder in the sense of more graphic). Three classic examples of this that he gave were "Night of the Living Dead", "Carnival of Souls", and "Night Tide".
Biedeman said that "The X-Files" has had interesting monsters.
DeVito arrived late, and said that as far as formative influences, he finds that giant monsters recur in his dreams, such as the Cyclops from "The 7th Voyage of Sinbad" or King Kong. Carpathian added to the list with the Ymir from "Twenty Million Miles to Earth", the giant crabs from "Mysterious Island", Gwangi (from the valley thereof), and Talos from "Jason and the Argonauts"--and they were all Ray Harryhausen creations. Biedeman mentioned the ants in "Them!" which Carpathian said had "a wonderful sense of atmosphere" with its desert setting.
Mention was made of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "The Thing from Another World". From the audience, Phil DeParto suggested "Invaders from Mars" as a film that generated a lot of childhood nightmares for his generation.
DeVito said that many of these drew their power from the starkness of black and white, and SanGiovanni said that we now use color to promote feelings where the older films used script, lighting, etc. Carpathian said that from a technical standpoint black and white films give a "true black" while color films do not. Leeper thought that *muted* color could be very effective, as in the John Hurt "1984" and "Marat Sade".
Description: "A discussion of often unnoticed genre fiction that really does deserve more merit than it has been given."
[Thanks to Mark for taking notes for this.]
I began by asking, "What do we mean by overlooked?" Schweitzer replied, "Our field is losing its memory. Overlooked now means out of print for the last three weeks." James Blish was a Worldcon Guest of Honor in 1960, but twenty years later was forgotten. Science fiction fans today haven't heard of Murray Leinster. (I have this feeling many of them haven't heard of John W. Campbell either.) I said that some authors were overlooked even at their peak. For example, no one in the audience seemed to recognize the name Chad Oliver.
Schweitzer and I agreed, however, that the NESFA books were doing their best to rescue many of these authors from obscurity. A major cause of obscurity seems to be having been best known for short fiction, which may show up hit-or-miss in anthologies but doesn't keep your name in front of people the way novels do. One reason NESFA can produce them at a reasonable price is that NESFA is a volunteer operation.
Schweitzer said that a whole panel could be devoted to "death as a career move." Look at L. Ron Hubbard. But poorly managed estates will have the opposite effect, and Schweitzer claimed this is the biggest cause of obscurity. If no one can figure out who holds the rights, the novels and stories will not be reprinted. I added that sometimes the estate has an inflated idea of what the rights are worth, and keeps an author's works out of print hoping for a windfall that never materializes. Instead, people get tired of asking and move on to other projects.
I asked, "How do we make sure that we don't become obscure?" Schweitzer said the first step was to preserve our literary legacy by finding a literary agency that is more than just one individual. If possible, go to a big one.
Ackley-McPhail said that we were talking a lot about the dead, but plenty of living writers are overlooked. "I like P. C. Hodgell," she said, leading me to suggest that being published only by a small press can be a problem. Schweitzer said that another problem was that her books were published as juveniles (young adult, if you prefer), and it is hard to break out of that as well. (He did note that Patricia McKillip managed to do so.)
Schweitzer also said that small press is not good for novels. Print-on-demand technology was still a bit iffy, and he mentioned "The Crow Maiden" by Sara Singleton published by Wildside Press that might have gotten more notice had it been from a "traditional" publisher. (For Wildside's extensive catalogue of books on demand, see http://www.wildsidepress.com)
Lieven noted that there are exceptions. Tom Clancy's first novel, "The Hunt for Red October", was published by a small press (Naval Institute Press). Ackley-McPhail said it had been turned down by Random House, which then had to convince Clancy to come back to them. Lamplighter said that almost every first novel that became a blockbuster had a similar history of rejection by major publishers. Lieven pointed out that Stephen Coonts's first novel, "Flight of the Intruder", was also published by Naval Institute Press.
Another path to obscurity is short books. Schweitzer said that people want big books for their money. There was a time when long books were break-throughs, but now they're standard. One reason, according to Schweitzer, that Frank Herbert's "Dune" was published by Chilton was that Chilton knew how to bind thick books. (Chilton was primarily known for publishing automotive manuals, and it was jokingly suggested that the book be called "Chevrolets of Dune".) Thus began the age of the "bug-crusher."
I suggested another method of being overlooked, at least by science fiction fans, was to publish something as mainstream rather than science fiction. (I'm sure this is why my friend at the library, who's a science fiction fan, didn't realize the second "Thursday Next" book had come out yet--it was categorized as "fiction" rather than as "science fiction.) I named several books that most audience members hadn't heard of: "The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" by Michael Chabon (at least somewhat known due to its Pulitzer Prize), "The Children's War" by J. N. Stroyar (an alternate history, apparently written as a trilogy of 500-page books, but published as a single 1500-page work), and Frances Sherwood's "Book of Splendor" (the Golem of Prague) and "Vindication" (the Frankenstein monster). (Among science fiction readers, Lisa Goldstein's recent book about the Golem, "The Alchemist's Door", is likely to be better known than the Sherwood, because the former was published within the genre.) These books aren't necessarily overlooked in the grand scheme of things, but they are often overlooked by us.
Lieven mentioned David Downing's "The Moscow Option", another alternate history published as mainstream. Lamplighter felt that these days alternate history could be published as mainstream because the average reader would understand the idea of a book based on the premise that Germany won World War II. (Len Deighton's book "SS-GB" may have been the break-out book here.) But they're probably still not ready for a space alien invasion during World War II.
Schweitzer said that some of the best fantasy was being published as mainstream, such as "Freddy's Book" by John Gardner. There's also a lot of John Crowley, and the various books I mentioned earlier. Some of the best mainstream fantasy can be found in "The Year's Best Horror and Fantasy" collections edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling.
One thing that keeps a lot of these from being completely overlooked by science fiction fans is that they are often reviewed in magazines such as "Locus" or "The New York Review of Science Fiction".
Schweitzer said that our field has a continuity that many modern readers don't understand. Works such as Robert Graves's "Watch the North Wind Rise", William Sloane's "To Walk the Night" and "The Edge of Running Water", and Friz Leiber's "Conjure Wife" are remembered and known by scholars of the field, but not to most current readers. "Conjure Wife" is an interesting case--it has resurfaced many times, each time marketed in a different genre: fantasy, horor, Gothic romance, etc. Another book that seems to have fallen by the wayside is E. R. Eddison's "The Worm Ourobouros", although the person recommending it admitted it took her a month to get through. Other authors named as (unfairly) overlooked were Alan Garner and David Palmer (who is apparently hoping to retire from his day job and write more).
Schweitzer also said that there was a lull in the 1930s in science fiction and related genres that he called "The Great Retarded Period."
I noted that authors at not working at being obscure, but this does not mean that they want their works scanned in and offered for free on the Internet. Ackley-McPhail said that authors also sometimes choose a small press over a large publishing house because they think the small press has more ethical practices. Lieven pointed out that there were small presses whose practices were as bad as, or worse than, those of the large houses. (Gnome and Shasta were cited as examples.)
I asked whatever happened to Jules DeGrandin, a great psychic detective series by Seabury Quinn which seems a natural these days. Schweitzer said they were all reprinted but are still expensive even though the copyrights have lapsed. A discussion of copyright searches followed, which was off-topic.
I noted that some items are "overlooked" in the United States because they are published only in Britain or Australia. The British books do sometimes show up in Canada, and ordering on-line from Canada is a lot cheaper than ordering from the UK. Someone talked about the various title changes that occur when British books are published in the United States: we get "Harry Potter and Sorcerer's Stone" instead of "Harry Potter and Philosopher's Stone", and "The Madness of King George" instead of "The Madness of King George IV". (The latter was because the publisher was afraid people would think they had missed the first three in the series.)
Schweitzer said that Ian Watson's "Chekhov's Journey" had a similar problem, with the fear that readers would think it was "Chekov's Journey" and was a "Star Trek" novel. But Robert Silverberg used to sell books to a publisher who *always* changed the title, so he started giving them working titles (which appeared in the contracts) such as "Moby Dick" and "Crime and Punishment". And Roger Zelazny once wrote a story titled "No Award", which (alas) did not make the Hugo ballot.
In films, the James Bond filmmakers spend a lot of time picking a title, but people just talk about "the latest Bond flick."
One cannot generally copyright titles, so Lamplighter said that she gave a novel a title, and then another book came out with that title. Schweitzer said there is even another "Against the Fall of Night". Of course, since the phrase is from a poem ("What can I do, what can I write/Against the fall of night?" by A. E. Housman) is not really surprising).
Another road to obscurity is to be published in items that nobody saves. In the 19th century, that would be "penny dreadfuls," now it might be something like airline magazines or mail-order catalogs. Schweitzer said that "Varney the Vampire" was an endless vampire novel from 1830s which was published as a throwaway. I pointed out that for a long time it was available from Dover Books, along with "Wagner, the Were-wolf".
Non-science-fiction (or fantasy) authors who write a one-off science fiction (or fantasy) novel often find that gets ignored or forgotten by science fiction (or fantasy) fans. For example, Schweitzer said that Rex Stout wrote a "lost race" novel ("Under the Andes"), but no one remembers it.
I talked about how reprinting some very old works may mean destroying the original--it would have to have the binding removed to be photocopied or scanned. For example, the National Yiddish Book Center has had many cases where they have only one copy of a Yiddish book and have to decide whether to preserve the artifact or the content. They almost always decide to preserve the content. I suppose this could be described as "they had to destroy the book in order to save it."
Ackley-McPhail said that commercial publishers no longer care if a book will last, and so don't use acid-free paper. I said that the Science Fiction Book Club did, and had been for decades. Schweitzer pointed out the irony here--collectors look down on book club editions, but they will last longer than the trade editions.
Of course, a lot of older material out of copyright is available through Project Gutenberg and others. (Though Project Gutenberg tends to pick material that is not actually obscure or even hard to find.) The best source for all this that I've found is the "On-Line Books Page" at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/books/ . The Rex Stout book mentioned above is available at http://eserver.org/fiction/stout/under- the-andes.html.
Description: "Why do we love so many bad films, elevating many of them to cult status?"
Skir, finishing up a marathon weekend of "panelism," described himself as "a lover and purveyor of bad movies." Morris said that he likes good movies, but sometimes you just "want to curl up with a really good bad movie." Or as Skir said, "My name is Bob S. and I love bad movies."
Skir distinguished among three kinds of bad movies. There are movies that are just plain bad, such as "The Avengers" and "Armageddon". There are movies that one heckles, such as are found on "Mystery Science Theater 3000". And then there are "comfort food" bad movies, such as "The Amazing Colossal Man".
Morris said that there are also films that are "unexpectedly bad." His example was "Blade 2", after which he said he went back and rewatched the original and "felt cleansed." Skir observed, "When 'Blade' makes you feel cleansed, you have a problem." (This category would seem to be what was discussed in "Good Idea, Bad Execution".)
Black said that a bad movie he liked was "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" (the first one), which he said was just campy. He also listed "Buckaroo Banzai" and "I'm Gonna Get You, Sucka". Morris said his bad movie was "Battlefield Earth", and later added "Clash of the Titans."
Skir said a bad movie he enjoyed because of the experience of seeing it was "Showgirls", which he saw twice. The first time there was no audience, but the second time it was screened for the screenwriters guild, and it turned into a sort of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" participatory experience.
Skir insisted that one should see even bad movies in a theater, saying that one should be willing to step up to the ticket counter and be seen going into these movies. (I countered that there was not enough time to see all the good movies in the theaters and I wasn't about to waste my time there on movies I knew were bad.)
Talking about "Mystery Science Theater 3000", Skir was critical of it, saying, "I'm smarter than these guys" (meaning the on-screen hecklers). "Call me pretentious, but I like the films in the original," he added, without the additional heckling. I agree, particularly since the sound for the original is often so low you can't hear it. DVDs are the perfect solution--treat the heckling as a commentary track. (I think the "Ghostbusters" DVD actually did something like that.)
Skir thought that many of Dan O'Bannon's movies would qualify as bad movies, saying, "I think he makes good movies by mistake."
I observed that they seemed to be missing some of the truly bad movies, such as "The Giant Claw", "Creeping Terror", or "Pulgasari". Or even films like "Giant Spider Invasion" or "The Deadly Eyes" (which used daschunds in rat masks to stand in for giant rats).
Skir said that he wanted to mention "Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger", which he said had "the crappiest creatures and the lamest adventures" of any of the Sinbad films. And casting John Wayne's son and Tyrone Power's daughter, instead of real actors, didn't help.
Skir also named all the 1970s "Godzilla" movies, and "The Perils of Gwendolynne in the Land of the Yik Yak". Black suggested "Battle Beyond the Stars". Audience members added "Night of the Lepus" and the 1980 "Flash Gordon".
Black said that bad movies that we will all see once are the new "Star Wars" movies.
As I said, I enjoyed seeing new people and new topics. The convention needs to work on some of the organizational details, and they may want to stop working their Guests of Honor so hard. Bob Skir, for example, was on three panels on Friday, two on Saturday, and one on Sunday--and those were just the ones I attended!
Next year's JerseyDevilCon is scheduled for April 16-18, 2004. I have no idea where, or who the Guests are, but assuming it's still near us, I plan on attending.