Friday, August 21, 2020

No one would ever write these about Britney Spears.

Scholars of pop culture know that celebrity culture is hardly a recent creation. You can read the newspapers of the 19th century (and earlier) and get the same obsession with celebrities, the same celebration of people who are famous for being famous, and the same fixation on appearance and style over achievement and substance. But modern American celebrity culture really began at the end of the 19th century, with the appearance of Buffalo Bill. (For more on this I recommend Larry McMurtry's The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America and Joy Kasson's Buffalo Bill's Wild West: Celebrity, Memory and Popular Culture). By the early 20th century American celebrity culture was in a form recognizable to modern couch potatoes, and by 1920 it was just hitting its peak. Everything that modern celebrity culture has now was present then. There were witless, self-important demi-mondaines and courtesans lauded in the popular press. There were actors and actresses hyped too soon and then destroyed through hubris, a poisonous press, or the machinations of studio heads. There was even a Trial of the Century, in the form of poor Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's trial for the murder of poor Virginia Rappe. (As always when the subject of Arbuckle comes up, I can't help first reminding people that he was never convicted of murder--two hung juries and an innocent verdict--and then quoting David Thomson, from his magisterial Biographical Dictionary of Film:
...the combined forces of scandalmongery and puritanism would not be dissuaded. Arbuckle was made a scapegoat, as though after calling a man "Fatty" for years and rejoicing at his humiliation on film the public could only move in on him with trained hostility...the moral realities of Hollywood life were something the public hardly dreamed of; even so, one hit was enough to furnish it with nightmares that demanded cleansing action. Arbuckle's own exaggerated ugliness drew upon him all the public's hypocritical loathing of depravity.

Do enough research into popular culture of the 1910s and 1920s, and you're left with a feeling that, modern distributed media and 24-hour demand for information be damned, celebrity culture before the Great Depression was more prevalent, and uglier, than what we've got today. Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons may have had more power, but the gossipmongers of the 1910s and 1920s had more venom. Modern celebrity culture is bad; what was present before the Depression was far worse, just as necrotizing fasciitis is worse than local tetanus.

But in one respect celebrity culture of the 1920s is to be preferred to what we have now, and that's in the area of fanfiction.

Fanfiction is of course not a 20th century invention--magazines in the 19th century had Mary Sue stories written by teenage girls about famous Native Americans--but it reached its apex in the 1920s and 1930s, in the form of Celebrity Pulps. Celebrity Pulps--and I'll have much more on them in my Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes (MonkeyBrain, 2008, get your advance orders in now)--were pulp magazines in which stories were written about celebrities, usually but not always actors and actresses. (I realize that, because the stories were published, they don't meet the current definition of fanfiction, but, honestly, what else can we call them but fanfiction?) In these stories the celebrities were shown (if they were actors/actresses) to lead lives typical of their film characters or (if they weren't actors/actresses) exaggerated versions of their real lives. Imagine a series of pulps in which Sylvester Stallone--not "Rocky," but Stallone the actor--is shown winning boxing matches. Celebrity Pulps (and I'm using the label "pulp" loosely) were a European creation, and appeared from Portugal to the Soviet Union.

Harold Lloyd

You know Harold Lloyd, of course--one of the greats of silent film, a peer of Chaplin and Keaton. In 1924 he appeared as the hero of Harold Lloyd #1-5. Written by Paul Hain, one of the more successful authors of the heldromans (German pulps), Harold Lloyd portrayed Lloyd as fighting crime, romancing women, and finding adventure across the United States and Europe, in stories with titles like "The Cavalier in His Homeland" and "His Highness, the Prince of Film." (I've been unable to find an image of Harold Lloyd, so enjoy this one instead).

Eddy Polo

Eddy Polo you might not know, which says a lot about how short-lived fame is. Polo (1875-1961) was in his time a giant. Polo's IMDB page gives you a hint about the kind of career he had, but doesn't really give you a sense about just how widely known he was; suffice it to say that "The Hercules of the Screen" was the equivalent of Stallone or Schwarzenegger in their heydays. Polo appeared as the hero of two Celebrity Pulps, Der Zirkuskönig, Eddy Polo #1-6 (1922), and Eddy Polo Serie #1-58 (1923-1924). The fictional Polo is a circus owner and wandering adventurer who travels around the world, alone or accompanied by his circus, and helps innocents, fights crime, and pulls of stunts like...well, remember the opening to the first Matrix--you know, this one--(God bless Youtube)--with the parkour chase? The fictional Eddy Polo laughs at jumping over only one building--the fictional Eddy Polo would have jumped from the building to that passing subway. And made it. He appeared in stories with titles like "The Rancho El Dorado War" and "The Female Vampire." (I've been unable to find an image of any of Polo's Celebrity Pulps, so there's this uninspired one instead).

Al Capone

Yes, that's right. Al Capone Celebrity Pulps. Al Capone der König der Gangster #1-50 (1932-1933), Al Ripper. El Terror de Chicago #1-12 (1932), and undoubtedly more I haven't been able to find. (Look, if you want to spend your time going through the Országos Széchényi Könyvtár, looking for oddly-spelled variations of "Al Capone," be my guest. Reading Hungarian makes my eyes bleed). The fictional Capone is shown to be a bad man, but he often ends up fighting men even worse, such as Yellow Perils and the Ku Klux Klan.

Lee Parry

Lee Parry was never popular in the United States, but in Europe in the 1920s she was huge. And in Paul Rosenhayn and Paul Hain's Lee Parry--Die Tollkühne Abenteuerin #1-35 (1924) she was a crime-fighting adventuress, traveling around the world (Montmartre, Upsala, the Rif desert, Whitechapel), making friends (the Gypsy Princess, the White Knight), and fighting interesting opponents (the Lady in Black, the Smiling Muslim, and the Death Club). (It must be said that the Pola Negri Celebrity Pulp which appeared in Poland in 1924, though considerably shorter-lived, is the most interesting of the Celebrity Pulps with women in it. Why? Three words: Rudolph. Valentino. Slash).

Harry Hill

Valy Arnheim, like Lee Parry, was popular only in Europe, but also like Parry Arnheim was very popular in Europe. Arnheim wasn't known by that name, but instead by the name "Harry Hill," which was the name of his character in a number of his early films. In 1921 Arnheim/Hill appeared in Harry Hill, der Weltmeister der Sensationen #1-27 (1921-1922). Harry Hill began by recycling the plots of Arnheim's movies before moving on to new adventures, using Arnheim's image for illustrations of Hill (as above), and portraying the fictional Hill in the way that the movies characterized him, as an adventurer and explorer active around the world and in the land, sea and air. He appears in stories with titles like “Mask Number 74,” “A Detective Duel,” and “The Chinese Diamond.”

Harry Piel

No one mentioned here has been treated worse by posterity than Harry Piel. Just look at his Wikipedia entry and his IMDB entry. The man directed over 100 films and appeared in over 60 of them--and yet he only gets 24,000 hits on a Google search, and many of those not worth looking at. (On the other hand, he stayed in Germany under the Nazis rather than taking the honorable route chosen by Conrad Veidt and Peter Lorre, among others, so swive Piel sideways). In the 1920s Piel was the protagonist of four Celebrity Pulps: Harry Piel – der Abenteuerer König und Verächter des Todes Innen #1-18 (1920-1921), Harry Piel - der Tollkühne Detektiv #1-92 (1920-1923), Harry Piel Abenteuer #19-150 (1922-1926), and Heinz Barkhoff’s Harry Piel, Abenteuer #1 (1928). The fictional Harry Piel is a crystallization of his film persona, with many of the stories being retellings of his film plots. The fictional Piel is a "gentleman of the world," a detective-adventurer at ease in the abysses of the wilds and in the big city, fighting for good, helping the poor and downtrodden, rescuing imperilled maidens, and so on. He is occasionally Watsoned by Murphy, a newspaper reporter. Piel appears in stories with titles like “The Sky Pirate,” “The Great Unknown,” and “A Night of Terror in Paris.”

Hans Stosch-Sarrasani

Hans Stosch-Sarrasani (1883-1934) was famous in Europe as a circus clown, and later became the owner and operator of the Circus Sarrasani. The history of circuses in Europe would make a fine book for someone to write; circuses go back in Europe much farther than Americans might think, and the evolution of the circus in Europe is more interesting than you'd guess. Prominent circus performers were celebrities on par with actors and actresses, and Hans Stosch-Sarrasani was at the top, enough so that when he was fictionalized, his adventures sold quite well. He appeared in two Celebrity Pulps, Hans Stosch-Sarrasani #1-80 (1923-1924) and Hans Stosch-Sarrasani #1-100 (1925-1926). (That's 180 issues; Doc Savage only had 181). The fictional Stosch-Sarrasani is a circus owner but is also a cowboy and has adventures around the world, sometimes teaming up with his real-life employee Billy Jenkins. Stosch-Sarrasani encounters Apaches, visits tea-houses in Japan, goes on hunting parties in the Indian state of Baradhot, and fights Cossacks in the Caucasus. He appears in stories with titles like “The Opium Den of Tung-Sui-Men,” “The Wizard of Martinez,” and “His Last Trick.”

Billy Jenkins

You won't have heard of Billy Jenkins, most likely. Jenkins (1885-1954), née Erich Rosenthal, was only a circus performer, and a German circus performer at that. But, and I say this with no hyperbole, you could put him in the ring with prime-of-life Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Master Chandgiram, and Jenkins would have made cowboy sauce out of the lot of them. Let's just say that the number of Stasi agents the 65-year-old Jenkins is supposed to have quietly killed for the BND might never be known, but it's double figures at least, and probably with his bare hands. Don't be fooled by his sweet smile in the photo above; Jenkins was a bad man. (Jenkins was no Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., of course). After college Jenkins went to the American West and worked as a cowboy--keep in mind this in 1910, when there were still real cowboys in the American West. He spent several years in America and then returned to Germany and went to work as a rider and animal trainer for various circuses, including Hans Stosch-Sarrasani's Circus Sarrasani. Jenkins achieved international fame--not just European, but international fame--in the 1920s as a circus performer, and appeared in a number of Celebrity Pulps, including Billy Jenkins #1-4 (1930), Die Abenteuer Des Billy Jenkins #1-264 (1934-1939) and Die Abenteuer Des Billy Jenkins #1-370 (1949-1963). (By comparison The Shadow only appeared in 325 issues). The fictional Jenkins is alternatively a cowboy and a secret agent for the U.S. government, active in the American West, in Alaska, and in Central and South America. He has his very own arch-enemy and is wanted by the law in Arizona for a crime he did not commit. Jenkins has a Cheyenne sidekick, Hunting Wolf, and a companion wolf named Husky. Jenkins’ stories have very Gothic settings--decayed graveyards, abandoned mines, and the like–and involve things like car hijackers, gold thieves, killer plagues and zombies.

Cliff Aeroes

And, finally, my favorite of all the Celebrity Pulps. (Except perhaps for the aforementioned Pola Negri Celebrity Pulp, or maybe the Lillian Gish Celebrity Pulp, in which Gish is shown to be a conscienceless playa). Julius Jäger (1889-1952) was a circus performer who gained fame in Europe under the name of "Cliff Aeros." In 1942 he founded the Zirkus Aeros, which remained active in East Germany until 1990. In 1955 he appeared in the East German Celebrity Pulp Cliff Aeros - Die Menschliche Sternschnuppe #1-16. (Yes, there were East German pulps. Gloriously demented pulps. But you'll have to read my Encyclopedia to find out more). Cliff Aeros described the adventures that Cliff Aeros had as he traveled the world with his circus, bringing proper communist justice to the masses oppressed by capitalist wickedness. Some of the story titles of Cliff Aeros were “A Dying Man Flies to Heaven,” “The Trip with Crocodiles,” “A Leap Through the Bayonet Tire,” and “Aeros at the Bullfight.”

There's certainly a lot more fanfiction now than there was in previous decades--there are literally hundreds of thousands of fanfiction stories over at, and that's just one fanfiction site of many. (Harry Potter alone has almost 290,000 stories on But given the choice, I'll take the Celebrity Pulps. After all, there are a lot of stories in which Hermione and Snape fall in love, but there's only one issue (Tom Mix, Król Cowboyów #23) in which Tom Mix fights the Mafia the Old West, or in which Pancho Villa fights Japanese spies in Mexico (General Villa, der Mexikanische Rebellenführer #3).

Friday, June 29, 2018

Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

"I almost died and it's all your fault!"

Harlan Ellison's phone calls are legendary. For a brief period, I received them on a regular basis. Some went well, some, like the one the quote above came from, went not-so-well. But they were always interesting. Harlan died yesterday at the age of 84. There will never be another Harlan phone call.

I never knew him well enough to call him a friend, but I think he might allow me to claim acquaintanceship. There are a lot of strong opinions about the man held by many. I experienced a bit of his cantankerous side. I never witnessed the boorish behavior he could be accused of. I did witness a masterful amount of self-control on his part when attendees at a convention one time went out of their way to attempt to provoke him. I once saw him instantly become gentlemanly and deferential when Ardath Mayhar walked into the room. That was nice. I'll never forget the respect he showed Ardath.

I first fell into Harlan's orbit in 1997. I'd published my first story or two, and casting about for a way to keep my name in print as the rejection slips continued to pile up, I hit upon the idea of conducting interviews. Worldcon was coming up in San Antonio that year, so I went down the list of author guests and fired off letters asking if Writer X might find an hour of their time to sit down with me for a conversation. A week later, my phone rang.

"Jayme? Harlan Ellison here..."

That was the first of many times I'd hear that phrase. The Wife heard it quite a bit, too. Turns out, Harlan wouldn't be in San Antonio. He'd had a falling out with the convention.

"Tell ya what, kiddo," he said. "Think up some questions I haven't been asked a million times before, and call me back in a week. I'll talk to you then."

It had not been my intention that Harlan be my first professional interview. I was terrified. Intimidated would be a huge understatement. But in the interim I read every interview of his I could get my hands on, and vowed not to ask any of those questions. Which meant no "Last Dangerous Visions" questions, of course. I called him back a week later, and we started slowly, with... maybe not questions he'd never been asked before, but variations on certain themes, coming at them from different angles. Then I hit him with the following, which stopped him dead in his tracks. The pause doesn't come through in print, but he hadn't been asked this before, and it made him think:

What's the worst thing you've ever done?

There are things that I have done that would stun a police dog if I spoke of them, so obviously I'm not going to speak of them. My friends know, and my wife knows, and they seem to forgive me. That's the interesting thing. The things that I would pillory myself for having done, where I would say "Shit, I never really should have done that," they will all say "But you had to do that because blah blah blah..."
Yes, I put him on the spot. Made him uncomfortable, for just a little bit. But it made for a distinctive interview. Still, he'd challenged me, hadn't he? Put me on the spot? So I played dirty. That question, good as it was, still fell within Harlan's wheelhouse. My follow-up, he outright stumbled over: Let's balance the karma: What's the best thing you've ever done?

By then, I knew I had control of the interview. It wasn't going south, it was going where I wanted. I had Harlan's buy-in. He wasn't bored. This was huge for me--I'd interviewed hundreds of people as a journalist for newspaper stories, but this was different. It gave me a shot of much-needed confidence that resulted in 40-plus additional interviews over the ensuing decade. By the time we approached the end of the interview, I was ready with the question that, I believe, encapsulates the interview overall:

When did Harlan Ellison the writer become Harlan Ellison the event?

I don't know. I've studied the lives of a number of different writers -- Emile Zola, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway. These were people who wrote important things, but when you talk about them, people know that Scott Fitzgerald sort of was the king of the Roaring 20s and danced his way through that whole period of bootleg gin and his wife wound up in a madhouse. People know Hemingway was a great adventurer who lived at the peak of his macho ability and then finally blew his brains out with an over-and-under shotgun in Wyoming. And Zola is only known for the Dreyfuss case. But and I think there are some writers, as there are some politicians there are some adventurers there are some scientists whose lives apart from their achievements, their lives themselves are eventful. They live life more fully, they live life with a greater commitment. Now I am not extending that to me. Please be careful when you write this. I do not want people to think I am demonstrating that kind of hubris. I'm trying to answer your question as honestly as I can, and I don't think I can get any closer to it than that.

Harlan Ellison was very much like a singularity in our field. His presence and influence was undeniable. Even people who'd never met him, or didn't like him, still felt his pull. He was massive. And now he's gone, just like that. A sudden void that was once so intensely, ferociously occupied. The universe is a little smaller today.

My complete interview with Harlan Ellison may be read at

Monday, August 24, 2015

On the spaying and neutering of puppies, sad, rabid and otherwise

The 2015 Hugo Awards have come and gone, resulting in a record five (5) categories where "No Award" was given in response to the Sad Puppy/Rabid Puppy attempts to game the system and ensure the treasured rocket ship trophy went to those deemed appropriate by their particular clique. Log rolling's happened with the Hugo Awards before, as well as the Nebula Awards, but this is the first instance I am aware of where said efforts were fueled primarily by ideology as opposed to friendship and/or personal desire.

To put this in context, there have only been five total "No Awards" in the entire history of the Hugos up to this point. Here are the results (detailed breakdowns may be found here):

BEST NOVEL The Three Body Problem, Cixin Liu, Ken Liu translator (Tor Books)
BEST NOVELETTE “The Day the World Turned Upside Down”, Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Lia Belt translator (Lightspeed, 04-2014)
BEST GRAPHIC STORY Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal, written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona and Jake Wyatt, (Marvel Comics)
BEST DRAMATIC PRESENTATION, LONG FORM Guardians of the Galaxy, written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, directed by James Gunn (Marvel Studios, Moving Picture Company)
BEST DRAMATIC PRESENTATION, SHORT FORM Orphan Black: “By Means Which Have Never Yet Been Tried,” written by Graham Manson, directed by John Fawcett (Temple Street Productions, Space/BBC America)
BEST SEMIPROZINE Lightspeed Magazine, edited by John Joseph Adams, Stefan Rudnicki, Rich Horton, Wendy N. Wagner, and Christie Yant
BEST FANZINE Journey Planet, edited by James Bacon, Christopher J Garcia, Colin Harris, Alissa McKersie, and Helen J. Montgomery
BEST FANCAST Galactic Suburbia Podcast, Alisa Krasnostein, Alexandra Pierce, Tansy Rayner Roberts (Presenters) and Andrew Finch (Producer)
BEST FAN ARTIST Elizabeth Leggett
By any measure, the Puppies' efforts have been a spectacular failure on their part, but they've been crowing loudly online that blocking otherwise worthy works from making the ballot, hijacking the awards and forcing no award in several categories if victory in their eyes. Essentially, they're gloating at others' misfortune. The whole mess is a blemish on the genre and just makes me sad more than anything else. There have been both Hugo and Nebula winners in the past that I did not agree with--heck, there have been some that incensed me (generally cases where a brilliant central concept or wish-fulfillment element pandered to the SF reader, masking excruciatingly clunky writing)--but never did it occur to me to organize a group to 1) ensure my genius prose was nominated and 2) ensure those other, lesser works rewere not nominated. Awards voting is driven in large part by tastes, and tastes change. Don't believe me? Check out the past winners of the Hugo Awards. Changes in readership tastes are reflected in the winners throughout the decades. If the Sad Puppies are upset by recent Hugo winners, I can only shudder at the thought of their outrage when the New Wave overtook SF in the 60s and started winning awards, or when Cyberpunk went nova in the 80s. Truly, I thought the Puppies' premise fatally flawed and their response misguided at best. I was acquainted with a few involved, but when I tried to broach the subject, it quickly became apparent there were very different worldviews at work. I'm not talking apples and oranges, I'm talking apples and polyester leisure suits. So rather than tilting at this particular windmill, I relegated myself to the sidelines, as I had little hope of changing any minds, not to mention the fact I had no works nominated nor was I voting on the awards this year. My biggest involvement came via reposting some of George R.R. Martin's clear-eyed analyses of the so-called "Puppygate" via my Facebook page. File770 also has an extensive round-up on Puppygate-related links, if that's a particular rabbit hole you choose to fall down.

Apparently, that was enough to earn membership in PC Parasites of the SFWA, an elite group of 20 writers defined as "Humanity replaced by PCness. Immoral, vicious, insane monsters feeding on society." I've never considered myself to be "Politically Correct," but then I don't go around intentionally being an asshole women and minorities or people with different ideas than my own to prove I'm not PC, so your mileage may vary. Maybe common courtesy and civility are passe now--I can never keep up with these things. In any event, fellow Parasites include George R.R. Martin, Jim C. Hines, Laura Resnick, Steven Brust, John Scalzi and Stephen Gould, among others. So the company I'm keeping is pretty damn impressive. Naturally, I'm going to add this to my official biography and resume. I'm just afraid someone will eventually realized I've allowed my SFWA membership to lapse and kick me out.

Alas, even though the Puppies lost in spectacular fashion, I doubt this means the end of Puppygate. The fact that they pooped in the punch bowl and gave unending amounts headache and heartache to many, many people is a badge of honor for them. They consider this heroic. Most rational observers consider it psychopathic. Even the authors only associated with the group on the fringes have shown a remarkable tone-deafness to the entire scope of the problem, refusing to see the forest for the trees (if I may badly mix metaphors). The bad blood and ill will engendered by this controversy will not dissipate any time soon, and I have to wonder about long-term consequences to careers and friendships.

I would hope that lessons have been learned, and that cooler heads will prevail in the future, but I fear the only lessons learned are bad ones and there's a big future in kerosene and matches.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Armadillocon 2015 in the rear view mirror

Armadillocon has come and gone for another year. The 2015 edition was a very good one, indeed. Attendance seemed significantly up from last year, panels were well-attended and an energy permeated the con that had been absent in recent years. Most everyone I talked with seemed to feel the same. The guest lineup--GoH Ken Liu, Special GoH James Morrow, Editor GoH L. Timmel Duchamp, Fan GoH John DeNardo, Toastmaster Stina Leicht and Artist GoH Rocky Kelley--was very active and accessible, interacting with attendees and panelists all weekend. There was an impressive number of new panelists as well, the concom going out of their way to seek out and invite regional pros who haven't attended before. That injected a good amount of new blood to the regular panelists, and the panels themselves were stimulating and thought-provoking. Again, it was clear the concom didn't just recycle the programming items from past conventions, coming up with new topics, or clever variations on older topics, instead.

My panels were well-attended and boasted some very intelligent people who all had insightful commentary. For "Researching Your Book," I brought along a huge stack of Venus science books I'm using as reference for Sailing Venus just to scare people a little bit. J. Kathleen Cheney, Jaime Lee Moyer, Cary Osborne, Lee Thomas and Ernie Wood kept things lively and as you might suspect, each writer had different approaches to the question of how much research is necessary. I was then drafted to sit in on the "New Twists in Urban Fantasy" panel, as some of the panelists hadn't made it to the con that Friday. I kind of prattled on about the overlap between urban fantasy and contemporary fantasy, and how they're not necessarily the same. As I hadn't written any urban fantasy in quite a few years, I didn't have much to offer, but thankfully John Moore, Carrie Clevenger and Mari Mancusi knew their stuff. A lot of discussion was devoted to how publishers are declaring certain sub-genres like urban fantasy, dystopia, etc. "dead" and refuse to consider new work in these areas, but such work is still being published under different branding by an array of publishers, and quality work will always make it into print regardless of publishing trends.

On Saturday, my fellow panelists for "The Hobbit Movies" were Lillian Stewart Carl, Aaron de Orive, Paige Ewing, Shanna Swendson and Troyce Wilson, and while everyone agreed Peter Jackson had gone off the deep end with silly video game computer effects that went on far, far, far too long in the films, we disagreed a surprising amount on what the worst transgressions were and which additions actually improved the story. That doesn't change the fact that Jackson would've been better off sticking to his original plan for two films rather than three. "Writing a Strong Teen Protagonist" was the first of two panels I moderated, and Peni Griffin, P. J. Hoover, Jake Kerr, Mari Mancusi and Trakena Prevost all had far more experience writing YA than I, which made my moderating job so much easier. And interesting discussion of the differences between YA and Middle Readers ensued, along with some thoughts on the emerging "New Adult" category. Writing teens is hard, simply because teenagers are still figuring out who they are at that age, and their moods are inherently volatile. Writing teens as small adults is a no-go, and writing parents as incompetent boobs is just as bad a cliche. The absent parent--either through death, divorce or indifference--is another recurring trope that's difficult to stomach, but sometimes unavoidable as so many YA books are coming of age stories where the teens acquire their own agency, so to speak.

My other panel to moderate, "Speculative Fiction as a Mirror to Religion," went by fast. I mean fast. We started out and the next time I checked my watch, we'd run five minutes long and could've continued another two hours at least. James Morrow was the 800 pound gorilla on the panel, for obvious reasons, and he was wonderfully challenging in the best way possible. But he didn't hog the panel. On the contrary, Matt Cardin, Katharine Kimbriel, Ari Marmell and Shanna Swendson all jumped in with enthusiastic, thoughtful comments, having particular fun with the influence that the superstitious King James had on the translation of his eponymous version of the Bible. I used my story, "The Makeover Men," as an example of a exploration of misogyny that could not exist without both science fiction and religious fanaticism, but the story is currently not available online, unfortunately. This panel was probably the highlight of the con for me. So many ideas were flying back and forth that I cannot even begin to remember them all.

Other highlights include the Space Squid 10th anniversary shindig/flash fiction contest, Stina Leicht hitting no. 6 on the BookPeople best seller list, engrossing conversations with Don Webb, Sean Patrick Kelly, Joe Lansdale, Rhonda Eudaly, Bill Crider, Lawrence Person, Scott Cupp, Lillian and Paul Carl, lunch with Lou Antonelli, moving tables with John Picacio and drinking some of the magnificent Fin du Monde (a Belgian triple) at the Montreal Worldcon bid party. Oh, and I discussed with Chris Brown the possibility of reviving a misbegotten collaboration we threatened to write way back when, so feel free to be afraid. Good stuff all around, and I can't wait until next year.

Feel free to share the photos below, just be sure to include appropriate credit.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015)

Sir Terry Pratchett died yesterday after a battle with early-onset Alzheimers. People far more eloquent than I have eulogized him elsewhere, and the hundreds of obituaries provide far more detail and understanding of the man and his life than I could hope to compete with. So I will just stick to what I know.

I didn't enjoy Pratchett's books. This disappointed me greatly. I remember getting The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic via the Science Fiction Book Club not all that long after they became available in the U.S. and being distressingly unmoved by them. I'm not sure I laughed even once. It's not that I couldn't see what he was doing or the tropes he gleefully lampooned--that should've been catnip for me, and indeed, was what caused me to seek them out in the first place--but the prose lay lifeless upon the page for me. Over the years, as I grew more widely read and Pratchett's Discworld satires grew progressively more sophisticated and cast an ever-expanding net, I revisited his work. Strata, Interesting Times, a handful of others I can't quite recall (Mort? The Fifth Elephant?) remained stubbornly closed to me. I could see the jokes. I could see the biting commentary. I understood what he was accomplishing, and saddened by the fact I could not participate no matter how many of his books I read.

I have exactly one Terry Pratchett story.

Back in 2000, at Aggiecon 31, Pratchett was guest of honor and I was a regional guest. I hadn't been able to get close to him because of the swarms of fans that followed him everywhere, but we had one panel together. Fate conspired to seat me right next to the man. As we introduced ourselves, I said, "I'm Jayme Lynn Blaschke, and I write short fiction because I don't have the discipline to write novels."

Without blinking an eye, Pratchett said, "I'm Terry Pratchett, and I write novels because I don't have the discipline to write short fiction."

He was a witty, friendly and effortlessly funny man in person. I could not help but like him immediately, and count myself fortunate I had the opportunity--however brief--to make his acquaintance.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Babylon 5: The War Prayer

I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series. I had not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along and find out.

In Valen's Name: Old friends and relatives dominate this episode, "The War Prayer." Delenn is meeting with an old friend, Shaal Mayan, a famed Minbari poet on her way to Earth for a major artistic tour/performance. She is to give a poetry recital on Babylon 5 later, before she departs for Earth. A Centauri ship arrives with detainees--young-adult Centauri lovers, Kiron and Aria, who are fleeing arranged marriages. They demand to see their cousin, Ambassador (!) Vir Cotto. Finally, Malcolm Biggs, Commander Susan Ivanova's old lover, whom she broke up with years before in order to accept a career-advancing post far away from him, choosing duty over romance.

After Mayan leaves Delenn's quarters, she's attacked by the Home Guard--xenophobic humans (think futuristic KKK)--beaten and branded on the forehead. This sets the station into an uproar, with the alien ambassadors outraged. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of suspects, as hatred of the alien races is high amongst the lower-rung humans aboard station, and some of the more powerfully-influential as well. As for the Centauri lovers, it turns out that Vir exaggerated his position just a little bit. Londo is unsympathetic to their pleas, arguing that love is overrated and that he despises all three of his wives, whom he calls "Pestilence, Disease and Famine." Marriages are for political and financial gain, nothing more. Vir grows a little bit of a backbone and argues with Londo, but to no avail. Londo is to weary and bitter about life to care. Kiron and Aria sneak off to the hydroponic gardens to be alone and feel sorry for themselves, and are attacked by the Home Guard. Kiron's shot with a blaster and Aria is stunned with a taser/club. Ivanova has a romantic dinner with Malcolm, who tells her he plans to set up permanent residence on the station so they can be together. Ivanova's surprised, and her stand-offish facade begins to crumble. They head back to her quarters, but before anything lustful happens, Ivanova's summoned back to duty because G'Kar has whipped the aliens up into a riot. Reviewing security video, Garibaldi finds that Malcolm had met with a prime Home Guard suspect--and recruited the suspect into the Home Guard. Ivanova is stunned. Commander Sinclair asks her to introduce him to Malcolm. Sinclair begins treating the alien ambassadors brusquely, to win over Malcolm's confidence. Sinclair rants that victory in the Earth-Minbari War tasted like ashes because the Minbari let Earth win. Malcolm is downright giddy at the prospect of reeling in Sinclair as an ally, but still wary. Sinclair and Ivanova rendezvous with Malcolm at a secret meeting, and many Home Guard appear, having been disguised by Earth Force "black light camouflage" devices. Malcolm tells Sinclair of a plot to orchestrate a mass assassination of the alien ambassadors on Babylon 5, for which they'll need Sinclair to grant them access to secure areas. As a test of Sinclair's loyalty, they bring forth a terrified alien delegate for the commander to execute. Garibaldi's security forces swoop in, and Ivanova captures Malcolm. Malcolm insults her for siding with "them," but man, Ivanova is stone cold, no regrets. She despises Malcolm something fierce at this point. As for the Centauri lovers, Kiron recovers, and Londo informs them they'll be sent back to Centauri Prime where they will enter into "fosterage" with his powerful, ancient family. Fosterage is a rare practice in modern Centauri society, but still prestigious. The fosterage will last until the lovers come of age, at which point they will be free to decide for themselves who to marry.

What Jayme Says: The main plot is no great shakes. The symbolism of racist vigilantes terrorizing those who are different from them is obvious and heavy-handed. Part of this stems from the fact the Home Guard springs forth fully-formed and active. It is too much all at once. Gradual escalation over several episodes would've served much better, but of course, Babylon 5 is still firmly in the episodic series mode right now. And I repeat myself by saying the introduction of the Home Guard will pay off more in the future, but it's the truth. The best parts of this episode are the glimpses into the alien cultures viewers are afforded. Characters as well. During their argument, Londo tells Vir, "'My shoes are too tight.' Something my father said. He was old, very old at the time. I went into his room, and he was sitting alone in the dark, crying. So I asked him what was wrong, and he said, 'My shoes are too tight, but it doesn't matter, because I have forgotten how to dance.' I never understood what that meant until now. My shoes are too tight, and I have forgotten how to dance." This is incredibly sad and poignant, showing Londo as a thoroughly defeated person, bereft of hope. Londo, of course, is symbolic of the Centauri Republic as a whole--hopeless, in decline and hidebound by ritual and tradition. In contrast, G'Kar's brief appearance casts him as the rabble-rousing agitator, provoking conflict for conflict's sake, likewise reenforcing our perceptions of the Narn species as a whole. The other attention-grabbing moment comes when Sinclair visits the Vorlon Ambassador, Kosh, to warn him about the Home Guard attacks. Kosh is uninterested, and instead studies a screen showing scenes from Earth's pass. When Sinclair presses him, Kosh cuts him off abruptly. Afterward, Sinclair reflects back on the events of "The Gathering". Dr. Kyle and telepath Lyta Alexander--the only two humans to ever see a Vorlon outside of its encounter suit--had both been transferred off Babylon 5 shortly after that incident. But if Vorlons always wore encounter suits, then how could the Minbari assassin from that incident have applied poison directly onto Kosh's hand? Curious indeed. The bread crumbs and back story are starting to build up, but thus far for the viewer they look like so much window dressing, clever little throw-away bits with no greater long-term significance. Amazing how much you pick up on the second run-through.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Babylon 5: Mind War

I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series. I had not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along and find out.

In Valen's Name: Talia Winters' telepath mentor, Jason Ironheart, shows up on Babylon 5, running from the Psi Corps. He had volunteered for Psi Corps research into creating stronger telepaths. It turned out that the experimental treatment was intended to create stable telekinetics, and succeeded in spectacular fashion. Not only could Ironheart manipulate matter and energy with his mind, he could see into the mind of any telepath, no matter how powerful. That's when he discovered his telekinesis was intended to be weaponized, used for covert assassinations and the like, so he killed the program head and fled. Hot on his heels is Alfred Bester, a tough, ruthless Psi Cop intent on taking him down. As Bester rampages through the station (relatively speaking) breaking telepath rules right and left, Talia brings Ironheart to Sinclair. Ironheart explains his discoveries to Sinclair and warns that the Psi Corps is growing too powerful to trust. Ironheart himself is growing more and more powerful, losing control of his abilities as they outstrip his mastery of them. He is becoming a danger to the station. Bester and his team catch up with Ironheart, there's a fight (Bester loses) and Ironheart transforms into a being of pure consciousness or somesuch, infinitely more powerful than before. Then he waves "Bye" and goes off to wherever supremely powerful entities go. Bester intends to bring Sinclair up on charges for harboring a fugitive, but Sinclair threatens to do the same with Bester for all the Psi Corps and telepath laws he violated, so their pissing match ends in a draw.

Meanwhile, Sinclair's lady friend Catherine is about to launch a lucrative scouting mission to the abandoned world of Sigma 957 to search for Quantium 40 deposits, a very valuable material used in the manufacture of jump gates. G'Kar warns her not to go, indicating strange things happen around that system. Catherine ignores him, and once there encounters a massive, mysterious ship that vanishes leaving her without power in a decaying orbit. This is the first appearance of one of the elder races of the B5 universe, outside of the Vorlons, of course. At the last moment, Narn fighters sent by G'Kar arrive and rescue Catherine. It's one of the first time G'Kar is shown making a gesture that isn't wholly self-centered.

What Jayme Says: I remember first seeing this episode, and being surprised to see Walter Koening guest-starring. I also geeked a little when they revealed his name as "Bester," which of course is a reference to Alfred Bester, author of The Demolished Man which has some influence on this episode. I was a little disappointed when they revealed the character's full name as "Alfred Bester," which pushed the homage into elbow-in-the-ribs territory. This episode is our first real introduction to the active menace of the Psi Corps, Ivanova's hatred of them because of her mother being a bit too removed to drive the point home that the Corps is a menace to everyone, not just unwilling telepaths. Bester is bad news, all the way down to his black, fascist uniform. That said, the teeth are pulled from this episode pretty quickly. Despite warnings of dire consequences to come if she helps Ironheart, Talia helps him repeatedly with no real consequences. Yes, she's mind probed, a painful process clearly analogous to rape, but that comes early in the episode to show how ruthless Bester is, and Talia passes anyway. There are no consequences for Sinclair, who openly defied and obstructed Psi Corps business, and there are no consequences for Bester, who disregarded and broke countless regulations and laws in his pursuit of Ironheart. Realistically speaking, this sorry incident should've ruined all three parties rather than preserve the status quo because of the blackmail fodder each party has on the other. It also has one of the most Star Trek endings in all of Babylon 5, in which a character inflicted with god-like powers evolves into a higher form of being and is never seen again, thus resolving the moral choice the regular characters would otherwise have to make. And while I like Andrea Thompson/Talia far more than Lyta Alexander/Patricia Tallman, her acting is undeniably stiff and stilted here. False notes like this, coupled with the abysmal performances in "The Gathering, gave rise to that long-running and (in my opinion) misguided claim that Babylon 5 is rife with bad acting.

Ultimately, "Mind War" isn't among the series' best episodes, but is notable for what it sets up for the future.