Would The Twilight Zone Fly Today?

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I went on a Twilight Zone mini-binge the other day, inspired by this post at the Shadow and Substance blog. It got me to thinking: would The Twilight Zone have been a success if it had launched today?

Everything about it is counter to what’s popular in modern television. It has no recurring characters, no season-long, multi-episode story arc. It doesn’t really have a “theme”: the topics of the stories are all over the place. Despite the fact that it constantly flirts with both the supernatural and science fiction, it has almost no special effects, and what effects it does have probably looked cheesy even back then. It’s dialogue heavy — monologue heavy, even. It was more successful as a half-hour show than as an hour show.

And all these characteristics are why I love it; probably, it’s those features that make it attractive to many of the show’s fans. It’s the television show equivalent of a loosely-themed short story collection, or of dim sum or tapas. There’s always been a place for short stories and tapas; but the world at large seems to prefer novels and entrees.

The fun part of it is that Rod Serling and the other folks at TZ felt free to experiment. With no continuity worries, they could throw something on the screen to see what happened — if it worked, they could do it again, otherwise, move on. So we get the almost set-less Five Characters in Search of an Exit, the almost dialogue-less The Invaders, the episode shot half as a silent movie, Once Upon a Time (starring Buster Keaton!). TZ also managed to attract some really interesting actors, both acclaimed and soon-to-be-acclaimed. I’m sure the chance to experiment or to be the center of an episode had something to do with that.

It’s fashionable to say that the entertainment industry has become too bottom-line, less willing to take a chance. Perhaps Mr. Serling couldn’t have made this happen today. On the other hand, this is the age of YouTube and Vimeo; some web-series have garnered a large (if niche) following, and have fairly good production values, to boot. The Twilight Zone format could be perfect for a web-series.

So could Rod Serling have done it today? Luckily, we don’t have to find out.

Enjoy.


The image above is the title card from the opening segment of The Twilight Zone (from the later seasons, I think). Sourced from Wikipedia.

Schadenfreude is my Best Freude

Well, not really.

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It’s a cold wet day, and my back was starting to stiffen up from sitting at my computer too long. I took a little break with a mug of hot chocolate and my copy of Hitchcock and Bradbury Fistfight in Heaven (one of the subjects of my previous post). The story I read was Jack Ritchie’s “For all the Rude People”, originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 1961. A man is told he has four months to live. That same afternoon, he witnesses a gratuitous act of rudeness by a carnival barker to a father in front of his two young daughters. On the spur of the moment, he buys a gun (no 24 hour waiting period back then) and murders the barker. He leaves a note explaining why, fully expecting to get caught and arrested.

He doesn’t.

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What Makes a Good Read?

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The next moment, in stepped the most beautiful blonde bombshell that these old gumshoe eyes have ever seen — oozing of raw sex appeal. … She leaned back hard against the door, as if to prevent herself from fainting, and then said, so softly, venerably [sic]: “Help me, Mr. Spade. I’m in trouble. I’ll do anything you ask. It’s murder.”

That is from the first paragraph of Alan Zacher’s mystery novel I’m No P.I. The Very. First. Paragraph. Oh, this does not bode well, I thought, when I spotted that venerably.

You might be cringing at that hokey opening situation, too, but it’s the protagonist’s daydream, and the protagonist, Tom, is a single, permanently unemployed fifty-five-year-old man living in his mother’s basement. The daydream fits. The “venerably” is the only misspelling or incorrect word that I noticed in the book, but the writing does have other problems.

Creative writing classes teach us to be descriptive, to evoke the scene in the reader’s imagination by the use of telling detail. Telling and relevant detail, that is. In I’m No P.I., we get long, detailed descriptions of what our hero is wearing, for no reason other than that the writer decided a descriptive passage (any descriptive passage) was warranted. We also learn way too much about the layout of his Mom’s house. I think I could produce a blueprint from his description, and the book isn’t the kind of Agatha Christie style novel where it would matter.

The plot might not stand up to full cross-examination, if I were feeling cranky, and I’m not sure the arithmetic of everyone’s relative ages works out. Villain #1 was painfully obvious, though Villain #2 came as a surprise, to me, anyway.

But you know what? I finished the entire book in one evening, curled up in bed. And if you were to ask me if I liked it, I would have to say that I did.

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A Different Kind of Science Fiction

“Science Fiction”: what does that mean? Fiction based on science? About science? Speculative fiction about the implications of science? It’s all those things, or at least can be; but it seems to me that most of what we refer to as science fiction might better be called “technology fiction.”

Think about it; what comes to your mind when you think of science fiction? Space travel, probably. Spaceships, faster-than-light drive, phasers, encounters with alien civilizations. Hovercars. Perhaps you think of cyborgs and intelligent robots. If you read cyberpunk back in the day, then you might think of avatars, and the version of cyberspace and the internet that authors imagined back then. But it’s all technology, really, not science. Except for the alien civilizations, of course.

NewImageImage: Wikipedia

People do make a distinction between hard science fiction and soft science fiction; roughly, hard science fiction is about the hard (that is physical) sciences: physics, chemistry. It’s also about the engineering that comes from those sciences, engineering that produces spaceships, or cyborgs. Classic science fiction from the days of Analog or Astounding was by and large hard science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven wrote hard science fiction.

Soft science fiction (setting aside space operas and space fantasy) concerns itself with questions from the soft sciences: sociology, anthropology, psychology. I would say that Asimov’s I, Robot was soft science fiction. Ray Bradbury wrote soft science fiction. Soft science fiction speculates on the social, cultural, or psychological implications of technology. Or perhaps, even, on the way technology creates new expressions of old-as-history human psycho-pathologies and baser tendencies. I’m thinking of Bradbury’s uber-creepy “The Veldt” when I say that, and there’s also “The Jigsaw Man” by Larry Niven, about a society where criminals convicted of capital offenses are used as organ donors. But organs are in high demand — so eventually, traffic violations become a capital crime. Again, these stories are speculation about the implications of technology, so I would argue that even soft science fiction is generally another form of technology fiction.

But science doesn’t only concern itself with technology. What about the life sciences, the natural sciences? Science is also about understanding the world, purely for the sake of knowledge. Can we write a speculative fiction that is based on science conceived that way?

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Reprints from Galaxy

The Marching Morons

Let me admit right off that this post is a shameless crib from a recent post on Acid Free Pulp. I’ve been browsing the website for Rosetta Books, and I came across their Galaxy Series: selected reprints from the venerable GALAXY magazine.

I’m not a huge science fiction reader, but even I was intrigued: Bradbury, Vonnegut, Frederik Pohl… I think I’m going to pick up Kornbluth’s The Marching Morons, just to see if it’s as prescient as everyone claims.

Their Crimescape true crime series might interest some of you, too.

Happy Browsing!

Cranky Thoughts about Language

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Photo: Paul Zumel

Poger Rock: a “forgotten, moribund collection of buildings tucked into the base of wooded valley” in rural Washington State.

Next to a dumpster, a pair of mongrel dogs were locked in coitus, patiently facing opposite directions, Dr. Doolittle’s Pushmi-pullyu for the twenty-first century.

And about a paragraph later, the protagonist limps into a bar — excuse me, a tavern — where a stuffed black wolf “snarled atop a dias near the entrance.”

Hmmm, I think as I read this. The author is trying a bit too hard, isn’t he? Because this is a horror story, light reading. But I kept reading anyway, because certainly, I am often guilty of trying too hard, myself. I’ve learned the hard way that I have to throw away the first thing I write after having read Nabokov, because I fall so in love with his language — so beautiful, so luminous — that I try to emulate it. It doesn’t work, mostly because I’m not Nabokov, but also because, honestly, the subjects I tend to write about don’t lend themselves to his style. That’s how I felt about the use of language in this piece.

I read far enough to learn that the protagonist was fleeing from her abusive husband, to a remote hunting cabin where she was staying with her lover. I suffered through said lover discovering an old fur cloak in a hunting blind in the woods. Oh, and by the way, did you know the man who built this cabin was driven out of Scandinavia because of rumors that he was responsible for the gory unexplained murders in his village? And that Scandinavian legend says that to wear the skin of the beast is to become the beast? All this information was given to me in a fire hose of exposition, the kind that makes for awkward narrative and really clumsy dialog. I stopped reading and went to the next story.

Last, the bullet blooms agains steel. Still almost pristine until that moment, now its conical head flattens. Its copper jacket splinters into shrapnel needles, wire-fine, scattering. The core splashes, the force of impact so great that cold metal splatters like syrup, droplets blossoming in an elegant chrysanthemum. The butt of the casing flattens against the engine block for a split second before it peels away and falls.

But it’s already exited the girl, and the girl is falling.

That’s the opening of “The Romance”, by Elizabeth Bear. I had to read those lines a few times, because I was still in a bad mood from the last story, and my brain refused to work at parsing the “fancy language”. But in the end it was worth it. The narrative cuts back and forth between the slow-motion shooting above, and a middle-aged children’s librarian who is attending a fiftieth-birthday party that features a haunted carousel. Naturally, I was hyper-vigilant for clumsy exposition, but Ms. Bear managed to inform me of the carousel’s history, and the protagonist’s history, without irritating me. She even used the phrase “the ineffable,” and I didn’t hurl the book across the room. It’s all about having a light touch.

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Supernatural Noir

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Supernatural Noir
Edited by Ellen Datlow. 2012.

We’ve been moving all week, to a temporary apartment, while our house gets renovated. The extent of the work requires that we move everything out; we’ve at least managed to clear the two rooms that will be completely demolished next week, after the workmen finish digging back part of the hill that takes up most of our backyard. There is still way more to do, and I’m leaving for another business trip next week. Funny how things line up exactly the wrong way.

Most everything goes into storage, of course, including almost all of my books. I’m left with whatever reference books I absolutely need for work, whatever books were scattered around my bedside table (for once reading 50 hojillion books at the same time actually works in my favor), and what’s on my iPad and hard disk. I guess home renovations are another argument in favor of ebooks.

Today we took a break from moving and unpacking, and investigated a new comic book shop that opened up in our neighborhood. We are lucky enough to have several excellent comic book shops in San Francisco, and Two Cats looks like it will fit in just fine. I picked up a trade paperback of Steve Niles’s Cell Block 666. It’s from his series of stories about Cal McDonald, a private detective who specializes in supernatural cases. The supernatural detective genre has been around since at least the days of Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence stories, to varying degrees of quality, but I enjoy it. Niles’s work is up and down, in my opinion — he also wrote the 31 Days of Night comic, which I liked, though the franchise went on waaay too long. The Cal McDonald stories are among my favorites from his work, so it should be a pleasant read.

Supernatural Noir is a collection of prose short stories. It’s published by Dark Horse Press, which is primarily a comic book publisher, hence the book’s presence in the shop next to the Cal McDonald trade paperbacks. The most recognizable author (to me, at least) in the Table of Contents is Joe Lansdale, of Bubba Ho-Tep fame. I’ve read several of his mostly East Texas based short stories, and a couple of his novels (all in a box right now!), so his name on the list of authors struck me as a good sign. And the premise of the collection is promising, don’t you think?

Noir is an attitude, a stance, a way of looking at the world. Paul Duncan, in his concise book Noir Fiction, defines it as a term “used to describe any work, usually involving crime — that is notably dark, brooding, cynical, complex, and pessimistic.”

— Ellen Datlow, in the Introduction to Supernatural Noir

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