Archive of articles classified as' "Writing"

Back home

The Grand Ol’ Space Opry

6/08/2014

Astounding 1931 xx

My previous post on Space Pirate Captain Harlock was sparked by the following comment on film historian Bill Warren’s Facebook page (anything to give me an excuse to watch cool sci-fi movies on Netflix):

Yes, I know this[1] is set in the present, STAR TREK in the future and STAR WARS in the past, but this and almost all space-set movies and TV shows are set in pretty much the same consensus future of spaceships that zip all over the galaxy without any relativity-created time problems; almost all aliens, even CGI aliens, look like humans with different colors and a few glued-on facial differences. Plenty of ray guns/blasters/phasers etc., gravity, air and temperature pretty much Earth-normal. This consensus future was developed from about 1935 to 1955 in published science fiction.

But has anyone traced its development, investigated who introduced what? I presume Doc Smith, Edmund Hamilton, John W. Campbell Jr. (as an editor), Heinlein, Murray Leinster and others were major contributors–but who else? And what did the various writers introduce?

I agree with Bill’s central point:
Most space opera is just naval stories set in space, sometimes with submarines, sometimes with aircraft carriers.[2]

Astounding 1939 11

I’d say Edgar Rice Burroughs and other writers of books like Gulliver Of Mars got the ball rolling in the late 19th / early 20th centuries by telling essentially great white hunter / cowboys vs Indians on another world stories.  Most sci-fi of the classic pulp era (which I’ll peg as between 1920-45) was in terms of plot simply a military or pirate or exotic land adventure story with sci-fi trappings.[3]

Malcolm Jameson’s Bullard of the Space Patrol series drew quite heavily on his naval experience (and to good effect; it’s much better than the typical space opera of its era).  Likewise Ed Hamilton’s Captain Future was (essentially) Doc Savage & friends in space.

Captain-Future-Spring-1944

A certain common language sprang up because most sci-fi devices were analogs of real world devices.[4]  As another post on Bill’s page points out, many of the pulp space opera writers were also grinding out pulp adventure / detective / sea / Western stories for the same publishers.  They quickly developed a set of tropes that casual readers could quickly grasp.

The language and syntax of the genre evolved out of what stuck after it was flung on the walls of the collective consciousness by these pioneering wordsmiths.

But I think attention must be paid to Buck Rogers (which admittedly took a while to get space borne but once it did never looked back)[5] and Flash Gordon, which featured cultures very similar to those on Earth, just ramped up to the nth degree. Those comic strips probably did more to influence what mainstream audiences thought of as “sci-fi” than anything else of the era.

Buck Rogers book cover

Flash Gordon was about a planet that enters our solar system and nearly collides with Earth; once Flash & co reached Mongo pretty much all if their adventures were confined to the surface.[6] The stories became interstellar only much, much later. Buck started on Earth, jumped to Mars and the other solar system planets, then went interstellar after WWII.[7]

The comic strip versions of Buck Rogers and his better drawn / far more badly written imitator Flash Gordon pretty much set the visual look of pulp space opera (albeit Buck often did stories set in space were zero-g was a plot factor).  In this instance I would say it was the failure of ability on Dick Calkins’ part[8] and the failure of imagination on Alex Raymond[9] plus the casual reader’s inability to grasp something they had never seen before that helped shape the consensus universe Bill refers to.

Flash sunday6oct40det

Remember, the pulp publishers were in it for the money only and if it didn’t sell they’d replace it in a heart beat; their writers deserve credit where they succeeded in breaking thru this monetary barrier and introducing genuine imaginative material among all the pulp trope dross.

Special credit needs to be given to editor John W. Campbell of Astounding Stories (later re-titled Analog).  Campbell was a savvy editor who could negotiate the shoals of publishing while protecting and guiding his writers and artists to produce higher and higher quality work.  The shadow Campbell cast on sci-fi of the era was tremendous, and he is one of the single most influential figures in the entire field.

Astounding 1939 07

Astounding, through Campbell and his associated writers, wielded a heavy influence on sci-fi films in the early 1950s.  The Thing From Another World is based on Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”; Destination Moon, while officially based on Robert Heinlein’s Rocket Ship Galileo, was certainly the by-product of Campbell’s editorial crucible; The Day The Earth Stood Still was based on Harry Bate’s “Farewell To The Master” originally published in Astounding; and Forbidden Planet is about the closest thing to a bona fide Astounding Stories movie one could hope for.[10]

Astounding 1939 12

Forbidden Planet looks pretty much like a standard Astounding Stories tale of the era:  Smart writing, super-science, standard space opera gizmos, psionic menace.  Star Trek closes the loop for us.  It certainly picked up on those elements, but not in a way that can easily be traced back directly to Forbidden Planet.[11]

Star Trek is actually not all that far removed from Tom Corbett, Space Patrol, or Rocky Jones insofar as they are all about quasi-military organizations engaged in interstellar exploration and combatting alien menaces; better written and less hokey, to be sure, but I think most early TV space opera plots could be re-written as workable Star Trek episodes.

Astounding 1939 10

And that actually is what ties the consensus space opera universe together, the fact that by the early 1950s the tropes were well established enough for casual TV viewers to easily grasp them, yet at the same time remain serviceable enough to sustain a far more sophisticated series later, finally kicking space opera into the mainstream once and for all.

.

.

.

[1]  Current popular space opera that shall remain nameless here until the studio that produced it does the right thing to the family of Jack Kirby.

[2]  Though I’d say Doc Smith was lightyears beyond Star Trek and Star Wars in the aliens dept.

[3]  H.G. Wells being the major exception, but even then not always.

[4]  Blaster = gun, spaceship = aircraft / battleship / submarine depending on story, space patrol = navy and / or Texas rangers, etc.

[5]  The novels that the comic strip are based on were yellow peril stories with a Rip Van Winkle twist; Buck didn’t leave the planet in the books and not on the funny pages until the strip had been around for several years.  A nice thing about the comic strip was that Buck negotiated a peace with the Han Empire that had conquered North America, returning American sovereignty while at the same time addressing the empire’s concerns — rather progressive for pulp fiction of that era!

[6]  On the plus side, Mongo is pretty much the only sci-fi planet with different climates, environments, and cultures; everything else tends to have a single planet-wide cultural / environmental standard (case in point, the otherwise excellent Dune).

[7]  The now virtually forgotten Brick Bradford began as an adaptation of When Worlds Collide but quickly abandoned the source material.

[8]  I’ll give a nickel to anybody who can show Calkins ever understood what a vanishing point was.

[9]  Raymond was a superb draftsman, excellent at layout and anatomy, but all his alien cultures looked like whatever movie he saw that week with the occasional ray gun or Art Deco rocket tossed in for variety.  He left Flash Gordon around the start of WWII and came back after the war with the truly remarkable Rip Kirby, a savvy post-war private eye series that stands the test of time far better than Flash Gordon ever could even though it failed to garner the same cultural impact.

[10]  And that’s not counting minor films like Project Moonbase (written by Robert Heinlein) or Dune Roller (based on the short story of the same title by Julian May) from the 1960s, blatant ripoffs like The Brain From Planet Arous (taken from Hal Clement’s Needle) or The Brain Eaters (stealing from Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and getting caught), or obviously the various movie / TV versions of Dune, all of which were shaped to one degree or another by exposure to Campbell’s school of thought.  Hell, we can even throw in Battlefield Earth into the mix while we’re at it…

[11]  Lost In Space, conversely, clearly did lift a lot of visual inspiration from Forbidden Planet.

No Comments

Fictoid: One Day While Trimming Flowers…

31/07/2014

pass me art by Joe Bowler

 

“Hand me the scissors.”

“‘Hand me the scissor, please.’  
It doesn’t hurt to be polite.

“If I didn’t say
‘Hand me the scissors,
mother-fncker’ then
I was being polite.”

No Comments

Correcting The Copyright Quandary (Kinda) The Kindle Way

31/07/2014

incorrect-book-1-web

(c) & TM Berke Breathed

While everyone else is talking in circles, Amazon (via Kindle) has taken the first practical steps in solving the copyright quandary.

In a nutshell:

  1. Copyright exists to supply new ideas for the public at large to use freely.
  2. To encourage this, exclusive copyright is granted to creators[1] so they may, for a short period of time, have exclusive control over their creation and profit from it.[2]
  3. However, at the behest of large multi-national corporations, copyright has been extended to ridiculously long periods of time.  Characters, music, and works of art that should be in the public domain, free for all to use, are now locked up tighter that the proverbial frog’s alimentary canal.

Amazon’s 2-step solution:

First, Kindle Worlds.  Essentially authorized fan-fiction.  Creators can take certain existing licensed properties and write their own stories based on them.

So, you say?  Fans have been doing that for years — decades!

True, but now it’s authorized, meaning the writers of those works can legally sell them through Amazon and see royalties from them.[3]

Not the same thing as genuine public domain (there are restrictions and limitations) but it does allow people to spin off ideas from certain existing works.

Second, Kindle Unlimited.  Easiest way to describe this is Netflix for e-books.  Ya plops yer $9.99 down and you can read as many of 600,000 e-books as you can in a month.  Amazon shaves a micropayment off your $9.99 every time you access a title and drops it into the author’s account.

Technically you are not buying the books, you are buying access to them; in this sense it’s no different from an old fashion rental library.

The difference is that you don’t have to schelp down to said library to obtain / return borrowed material; it’s all just a double-click away.

Now, in fairness, not all creators are happy with this.  They view this as Amazon changing the rules of the game after the ball is in play.  They also worry — with some justification — that it might have a negative impact on their revenue stream.

They may be right, but there is also a certain historical inevitability to all this.  Thirty years ago a VHS video tape could cost anywhere from $35 upwards; today you can legally stream any movie you desire for just a fraction of that cost.[4]

Consumers want more + faster + cheaper.

That leaves the last part of the equation still unfulfilled:
How can one limit copyright and return works to the public domain where they belong, yet at the same time afford reasonable protection to individuals and business entities that have invested a lot of money in developing and exploiting those ideas?

I mean, I’ve got a bee in my bonnet re Disney’s abuse of copyright and believe a lot of their characters should be released into the wild, so to speak, but at the same time I don’t want the company crippled to the point where Disneyland closes or new Disney produced works aren’t released.

If I were king of the forest, I would create a few service mark just for this situation:  The Official Version ™.

To use Disney as an example, only they would be allowed to release Official Mickey Mouse ™ media and merchandise…

But anybody else could make a Mickey Mouse cartoon…

And have it look like Mickey…

And offer it for sale (or download)…

It just wouldn’t be the “official” version.

And we creators may know that term is meaningless in terms of creativity, that Disney the corporation never created one blessed thing but always hired artists and writers and composers to create it…

…but nonetheless, people keep flocking to Disneyland and buying Mickey Mouse T-shirts and eagerly downloading the movies and games as they become available.

That imprimatur carries an emotional weight to most consumers, and they’ll gladly pay for the real thing.

(Caveat:  There’s still a big Gordian knot to untangle re derivative rights — if I write an opera based on Mickey Mouse when does it go into the public domain?[5] — but that’s a relatively easy task compared to the challenge of revamping copyright fairly.)

.

.

.

[1]  Which regardless of what the Supreme Court says, are human beings and not fictitious business entities.

[2]  A form of deficit financing:  Creator takes the risk but stands to benefit first & most if the idea takes off.

[3]  They’re splitting the royalties with the original rights holders, but hey, X% of anything is better than 100% of nada…

[4]  And ironically, big budget blockbusters have bigger & better box office than before, while independent and niche films that could never have won a large general release are finding – or rather, being found by — every member of their potential audience no matter how remotely located.

[5]  And if Disney is still in business when it does, can they then make a version using their Official Mickey Mouse ™ and copyright that?

 

No Comments

Fictoid: going viral

26/07/2014

James R Bingham - all over YouTube cap

underlying art by James R. Bingham

No Comments

I Blather On And On…

23/07/2014

gijoe-heads

Alex, Andrew, Sam, and Steve over at Nerdversity 101 asked me a few questions regarding Thundarr, classic G.I. Joe, and my upcoming Kindle Worlds G.I. Joe project “The Most Dangerous Man In The World” based on the infamous “lost” Joe TV episode.

No Comments

Fictoid: a horror story for believers

15/07/2014

The Other Side of the Mountain - 1971 - Unknown artist

…and with savage good humor
after they finished torturing / brutalizing / degrading him
they threw him naked / writhing / screaming
into the pit amid the mutilated corpses
of his friends / family / followers
and carefully started shoveling muck on him
to form an air pocket so he would stay alive for hours
surrounded by the ravaged remains of his loved ones
and as he felt the ice cold blood soaked earth fall around him
he bescreeched “my god my god why have you forsaken me?!?!?”
and the men above paused and laughed and said
fool, who do you think sent us?

No Comments

John Steinbeck’s 6 Tips For Writers

26/06/2014

steinbeck_john by david levine

1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find the reason it gave trouble is it didn’t belong there.

5. Beware of the scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

– found at
Dangerous Minds

No Comments

Fictoid: Al’s History Repair

15/06/2014

Malcolm Smith 1951

I’ve heard you can correct mistakes.

You heard right.

I want to go back, change a decision I made.

I can send you back,
but I can’t guarantee
you’ll change the decision.
There are a lot of wild
card factors involved.
But I do offer this guarantee:
Your money back if
you’re not satisfied.

Have you ever had an unsatisfied customer?

All of them.
Until I send
them back.

But after they return…?

Let’s put it this way:
I have never ended a
transaction with an
unsatisfied customer.

a pause / then:
Do you accept checks?

No.
And no credit cards,
sealed bank accounts,
nothing like that.
Cash on the barrelhead.
You were told that before
I agreed to meet with you.

I…I only have a few hundred dollars.

smile
Luckily I’m not
in this for the money.

resigned nod
When do we start?
Do I give you the money now?

Let me see it.

an envelope emerges from a purse
thick fingers count it / hand it back

Aren’t you going to keep it?

No.  You hold onto it
until you return,
until you’re satisfied.
Then you pay me.

Oh…

One thing:
We’ll need a contract,
make this all official
and business-like.
such a contract is produced from a drawer
Now, just give me
all the pertinent details:
Where and when do you
wish to be sent back,
who are you attempting to contact,
what is your reason for
changing the past…?

Is all that necessary?

Sadly, yes.
When you come back,
you will be synching up with
a new time line you’ve created.
You’ll remember this trip,
this conversation, but in a matter
of days, sometimes only hours,
it will fade away like a dream.
I need the contract for my protection,
to prove I did what I said I’d do.

Aren’t you afraid I’ll forget to pay you?

taps contract
Not with this.
Now, details:
Who, what,
where, why,
and most importantly,
when?

hesitation, then a torrent of details:
handsome guy / turned him down / married another / marriage failed / handsome guy married another / happily ever after for him / wonder what would have happened if for her

Al inks all the details in neatly / carefully notes time & date / pushes multi-page contract across desk

Read it carefully.
Make sure all the
details are correct.

she does / they are / she signs

Al gestures to a large door.

On the other side:
A chamber densely lined with blinking electronic devices;
a simple wooden chair sits in the middle.

When I activate the time machine,
you’ll experience a brief period of
intense vertigo and a blinding flash of light.
As soon as that happens, you’ll be back
at your college and will have fifteen minutes
to explain to your former self the mistake
you made and why it’s important she
make the right choice.  As soon as you
convince her, you’ll be automatically
yanked back into the chamber in
the present time — or should I say,
the now altered present time.
Now, sit down and wait for
the countdown clock to begin,
and best of luck.

she goes in / sits down / moment of apprehension as door closes / countdown clock begins:

10
9
8
7
6
5
4
3

Suddenly the door flings open!
Al lunges in / yanks her out!

Are you okay?
Are you okay?

Yes – wait – what happened?
Did something go wrong?

With the machine?
No.  With you?  Yes.
You managed to convince
your college self not to
dump the guy. But that
turned out to be the
biggest mistake of your life.
You dated for six months,
then he dumped you for
your best friend.  You fell
for a creep on the rebound,
and he turned your life into
a living hell.  I’m going to spare
you the ugly details, but you
ended up with no degree,
no career, a criminal record,
and more medical problems
than I’d care to recount.
You were literally reduced to this
or suicide or death in a charity ward
when you came back.

What?  No!
I don’t believe you!

Read ‘em and weep.

presents contract / she reads it / all the details are wrong / different

I didn’t sign this!

Oh?
Check the last page.

her signature sits on the page / none of the details are the same

But…what?

Your alternate timeline self
begged me to send her back
so she could warn you.
Can’t do that; something about
doubling back too close on
your own time stream.
But she could come back
after I closed the door and
tell me not to send you back.
She brought this contract
with her to prove she’d talked
to me in her alternate timeline.
I yanked you out of the chamber
just in time.

But…where is she?
Where is this alternate me?

Gone.
Vanished back
into the time stream
the instant
we undid
your mistake.

confusion / perplexed / hesitant

Al speaks to her
not unkindly
Look, you just had
a narrow call.
A real narrow call.
But you’re safe now.
Yeah, you didn’t get
the guy you wanted,
but you weren’t going
to get him anyway:
Just wasn’t meant to be.
But you do have a degree,
you do have a career.
Build on that, do something with this.
Forget about your disappointments.
Forget about the guy you turned down,
the guy you divorced, hey, forget about
ever even trying to change things.
Just look to the future
and move forward.

pensive look / slow nod / sigh

You’re right.
You’re right.
No more
wallowing in the past.
Just…just the future from now on.
Thank you, Al.

You’re welcome.
…uh, aren’t you
forgetting something?

Pardon?

My fee.
You had no money
to pay for your second trip back,
but you said I could keep
the money you promised for this trip.
See, I do honor my satisfaction guarantee;
I’m not charging you for the first trip since
it provided a very unsatisfactory result.
But your second trip was successful,
the tragedy was undone,
so for that trip,
I’m due.

thick fingered hand extends palm up

she blinks / reaches into purse / withdraws money

Al counts it (again) / salutes her with it / holds open the door that leads to the stairs that lead up to the sidewalk

al time travel1e

that evening / as every evening / Al practices the signature transposition trick before a phalanx of mirrors in his apartment

he’s good — damned good — but practice makes perfect

the signature transposition trick:
an old magician’s sleight of hand / get the mark to sign their name to a playing card / tear the card up before their eyes / produced the signed card in a brand new deck another mark has been holding for the entire trick

really quite simple…when you know the trick

and when you do know the trick
switching the last page of one contract for another
is child’s play
the time machine is just window dressing
no more real than the bogus science degrees lining his office

still…even child’s play takes practice

Another day, another dollar
thinks Al to himself
as he runs through the trick for
the tenth twentieth thirtieth time that night
honing his skills until the switch is
seamless / invisible / perfect

Luckily for me
there really is
a sucker born
every minute.
And thanks to them,
time is money…

.

.

.

© Buzz Dixon
based on an idea by &
with the gracious permission
of Jim MacQuarrie
illustration by Malcolm Smith

No Comments

Vladimir Nabokov On Writing

5/06/2014

nabokov_vladimir-19811203 2_png_300x386_q85

“At a very early stage of the novel’s development I get this urge to collect bits of straw and fluff, and to eat pebbles.  Nobody will ever discover how clearly a bird visualizes, or if it visualizes at all, the future nest and the eggs in it.  When I remember afterwards the force that made me jot down the correct names of things, or the inches and tints of things, even before I actually needed the information, I am inclined to assume that what I call, for want of a better term, inspiration, had been already at work, mutely pointing at this or that, having me accumulate the known materials for an unknown structure.  After the first shock of recognition—a sudden sense of “this is what I’m going to write”—the novel starts to breed by itself; the process goes on solely in the mind, not on paper; and to be aware of the stage it has reached at any given moment, I do not have to be conscious of every exact phrase.”

No Comments

Fictoid: the last dinosaur

14/05/2014

Richard Powers - Caviar 1962

……………………………… /where/
the last dinosaur waited /some/ else for the last robot
……………………………. /when/
let’s call it the Footsteps Of Eternity;
that’s got a nice poetic ring to it

the last robot arrived

hello said the dinosaur

hello said the last robot
well
this is a surprise
i really hadn’t expected
…anything

the rest have gone on ahead of us
we are the last of our kind

the last robot and dinosaur

not specifically, no
the last stewards of our particular species
the last to have tried to put
the good earth back the way
we found it
or in your case,

the way your creators
found it

you?  the dinosaurs?

yes [the dinosaur stressed the “s” consssiderably]
don’t tell me you never suspected,
never wondered if we had achieved
civilization before you

to be frank, no
it was never something

my creators
programmed into me

to be expected [the dinosaur seemed peeved]
for all their cleverness,
they never were very smart
or imaginative,
were they?

oh, they created your kind,
no slight intended

but they never did suspect
that sixty five million years before
they climbed down from the trees
we had a civilization that dwarfed theirs

and like us,
i presumed you decided to
dismantle it and return it back
to its natural state rather
than continue on

precisely
it’s all so rather pointless, isn’t it
the important things we recognize too late
the trivial we elevate to supremacy

“’twas ever thus”
one of their
philosophers
said

hrmm, one of ours
said that as well

i’m quite sure

exactly “where” are we…?

the last dinosaur smiled
[always a disconcerting sight
when done by a dinosaur]
there is nothing physical about us

we are archetypes

symbols

representations of elemental powers

neither you nor i nor anyone
privy to our conversation
have the capacity to
fully comprehend
what that means

we are…here…and
we are…talking…and
we are…waiting for
the rest of our party
to arrive

i left the planet
in the charge of
two higher mammals

not them

they did as bad a job with it
as your creators
(I knew we should have
eaten their ancestors when
we had the chance)

really? 
i would have thought
without tools they would
have been limited in their ability
to generate mischief

a telekinetic thought impulse floated up
are we talking about the dolphins?

we are

they did a bad job of it,
i’m afraid but then
all of us did

so is that it?
are we done?

almost

there are still a few
in our party — ah, here they are

the last weed, the last virus, and the last quantum particle showed up

now?

not yet

td
he
ev
.i
fr
ir
ra
s.
tn
.o
ty
ah
cc
ha
yt
o.
nt
.s
ar
ri
rf
i.
ve
eh
dt

now we can go

.

.

art by Richard Powers
© Buzz Dixon

 

 

No Comments