Sunday, August 25, 2013

Having a Laugh (in Time and Space)

I shy away from top 10 lists normally. I'll indulge myself with a few as I did with my blog post on what I felt were the best TV westerns. And on my Take a Look/Have a Listen blog, when I listed what I considered the top five covers of Beatle songs. But generally I shy away from stating the best of anything when it comes to creativity cause it can be such a subjective thing. I can tell you that two + two equals four is an indisputable fact, but I can't tell you that "Ra One" is the greatest movie ever made in history, hands down, bar none. That's my little hangup and I have to respect those poor, deluded souls who rate it lower on the scale than I.

So knowing that "the best" is subjective and remembering the fact that in my DVD collection you'll find both "Citizen Kane" and "Sharktopus," I try not to least not too harshly. Rather than a "best of", I'd simply like to share some titles of novels and names of writers that I feel do an excellent job of mixing humor, and science fiction and fantasy.

Of course #1 would have to be Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. I know I said I wouldn't judge, but come on, this is a no-brainer. It is a classic fish-out-of-water (Arthur Dent) tale with a touch of social commentary and intergalactic travelogue to it. The writing was fantastical, yet light with just the right amount of sardonic edge that pointed out one consistency throughout the universe: Bureaucracy runs rampant no matter the galaxy you find yourself in. The books inspired a radio show, a television show and a movie. Two other, non-Hitchhiker's novels of note are Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and it's sequel, The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul. Adams also wrote, along with zoologist Mark Carwardine, the nonfiction book Last Chance to See (1990). Written with his typical sharp humor, it none the less highlights animals considered endangered species, hence the urgency of the title. In 2009, Stephen Fry joined Mark Carwardine in a BBC documentary to track down the animals featured in Last Chance to See to gauge their status. It was a bittersweet series. But of course, Adams will forever be best known for his Hitchikers and 34 years after its first publication, it remains a classic. You can be assured that at some convention, somewhere, someone is holding a towel and wearing a "Don't Panic" T-shirt.

Along with Adams, Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series helped me realize the possibilities of sprinkling science fiction with humor. I bought my first SSR collection, a three novel anthology, from the Science Fiction Book Club decades ago and it remains prized in my book collection. Jim Bolivar diGriz is The Stainless Steel Rat (he also goes by the alias "Slippery Jim"), interplanetary conman and thief extraordinaire. Slippery Jim debuted in a short story, "The Stainless Steel Rat," appearing in Astounding magazine in 1957. The story was expanded upon and featured as the plot of the first novel, also titled The Stainless Steel Rat published in 1961. Eleven novels followed including The Stainless Steel Rat for President (1982), The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted (1987) and The Stainless Steel Rat Returns (2010).
Throughout those novels the Rat uses his talents not only for larceny, both petty and otherwise, but very frequently martial arts to save the various worlds he finds himself on. He tangles with invading aliens, ruthless dictators and the authorities who, when they're not trying to incarcerate him, are trying to blackmail him into working for them. Along the way, he finds a wife, and has twin sons who are chips off the old block. An interesting thing to note about Harrison was his dedication to establishing as the official language of Earth, Esperanto, a language developed in the late 1870s and on by Dr. Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof. Harrison, much like the good doctor who invented it, believed that Esperanto could bring the people of the world together under a common language. The language is used liberally in the Stainless Steel Rat books.

Terry Pratchett's writing can probably be considered more fantasy than science fiction but he's high on many people's list when it comes to sprinkling his writing with humor. To be honest, I've never read much in the Discworld series. I have read Going Postal and found it a really fun read. Going Postal tells the tale of a Moist Von Lipwig who, in an attempt to avoid a threatened execution, agrees to turn around a rundown post office and to prove its worth by winning a contest to deliver a message before the semaphore tower or "clacks" of Reacher Gilt does. Gilt is willing to do anything to win and Moist must fight his own questionable nature to see his task through. It's a fun read and was turned into an enjoyable TV adaptation in 2010.

Another favorite in the fantasy genre is Piers Anthony's Xanth series of which, I think, there are 8,421. This was another author I met through the Science Fiction Book Club (somewhere I still have my tote from the club) and every time I bought a new book in the series it was like discovering a golden nugget. The series is imaginative and not just funny but punny (puns are used liberally in the titles, the names of the characters and places and in the plots), inventing an entire world for the reader to dig right into. Unfortunately, a time came when life got a hold of me and shook me into submission, so I fell behind and lost track of the series. If free time ever visits again, I would love to start from the beginning and work my way through.

I'm not sure how you'd classify Christopher Moore's work except to say it's often a mix of genres. His Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ''s Childhood Pal is an invented history of Jesus Christ (though one would be hard pressed to figure out what in the Bible isn't made up about Christ). It's obviously humor, but with a little bit of philosophy baked in. I'm sure it made some of the more fundamental heads spin. Moore's novel Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings is a novel about a marine biologist studying humpback whales and their songs and discovering something extraterrestrial in the mix.

And then there was The Stupidest Angel: A Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror. It's sort of an answer to those Maeve Binchy, Thomas Kinkaid, Christmas-swollen-with-pageantry-and-meaning novels that fly wildly off the shelves at the holidays. One could also argue that it's his answer to the zombie craze. That'st he genius of Moore. He's mashed two divergent crazes into one tasty morsel. He should win an award just for that. It involves a reanimated store-Santa, a truly stupid angel, and the town of Pine Cove under siege by the dead as they rise from the grave and converge upon the town's Christmas party in search of...well yeah, of course, brains. The novel won the 2005 Quill award for Science Fiction/ Fantasy/ Horror.

There are many more novels out there that have fun with the genres of science fiction and fantasy. These are some of my favorites.

 Goes back to what I've stated before: Don't over think it. It's supposed to be fun.

What are some of the fun science fiction and fantasy books that would make your list?

Monday, August 12, 2013

Everything Old is New Again

I'm not sure what led me to set Trouble in such an old-western-like locale. It just seemed the perfect setting for the two characters. They remind me of drifters, moving from one town to another, using whatever skills fit the situation. I enjoyed the anachronism of a guy traveling across the dessert on a chiitorah (sort of a cross between a horse and a camel) yet using a weapon that shoots laser charges and pretending to be a member of the Inter-Planetary Police.

Of course I'm hardly revolutionary in mixing the two genres. Steampunk, for example, is a popular sub genre of Sci Fi that often mixes futuristic technologies with old west (or often times Victorian) settings and sensibilities. And long before that, writers such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were known to dabble in it from time to time, dreaming up fantastic inventions at a time when the technology didn't even come close to existing.

Utilizing a setting like the old west gives you a well known structure for the story while adding the Sci Fi allows the writer's imagination to run wild.

Star Wars, for example, is every bit a western in space. All the elements are there. The grizzled retired lawman, the kid fresh off the farm, the handsome rogue and his faithful, albeit furry, friend, the lady in distress (at least in the first one). And of course the evil and powerful villain trying to take over their land (or worlds as the case may be). The cantina scene has been done in countless westerns (the customers just weren't quite as odd looking.

"Valley of Gwangi" released in 1969 comes to mind when it comes to mixing Sci Fi with westerns, though in this one, it isn't the future visiting the old west but the past. Like a hundred million years past. The Forbidden Valley is home to creatures which didn't get the memo that they'd gone extinct. Visiting this valley, a team of cowboys, headed by James Franciscus, decides that roping themselves a dinosaur to exhibit in the world would bring them fame and fortune. A T-Rex, however, is nobody's prancing pony and relays this in a rampaging climax through the town.

The creature effects are by Ray Harryhausen and features the T-Rex fighting a triceratops and later in the ring, an elephant. There are of course a myriad of other prehistorics for Harryhausen to work his magic on. So many times, when a dinosaur went on a movie rampage, it rammed through modern (well, modern by 50 and 60s standards) settings. It was an interesting change of pace to feature a T-Rex showdown in an old western town.

"The Adventures of Brisco Country Jr. starred everybody's favorite chin, Bruce Campbell as the title character. It's a show that should have had more of a shot than it did. With a nod toward "The Wild Wild West", "Brisco" incorporated a fantastical vibe that helped make it a rousing western. After his father, lawman Brisco County Sr., is killed by the prisoners he was transporting, Jr. makes it his mission to track everyone one of the escaped prisoners down and bring them to justice. He tracks them across the U.S. and toward the 20th Century. Set in 1893, the world is seven years shy of the turn of the century and unlike some of his contemporaries, Brisco is excited about what the future holds. He's also fascinated by the gadgets and contraptions being invented. There's even a touch of the alien in the show as time after he times he runs across a mysterious orb that seems to have a power all its own. The buddy element is present as well in the form of bounty hunter Lord Bowler (Julius Carey). Rivals at first often competing for the same bounties, they eventually grow to be a slightly "Odd Couple" fashion.


Another show dead before its time was the 2002 Joss Whedon show "Firefly". Where "The Adventures of Brisco County Jr." brought a touch of Sci Fi to the old west, Whedon flavors his space opera with a definite taste of old western sensibility. Even the war that Mal (Nathan Fillion) captain of the Firefly-class starship Serenity fought in had a sort of Civil War feel to it. And much like many of the soldiers coming back from that war, Mal and his crew find themselves drifting once the guns have silenced. There is a system recovering from that war and pockets of lawlessness that they must navigate (sometimes by being lawless themselves)just to survive. Even the costumes have the look of the old west to them.


Then of course there's "Back to the Future III". Well, they went back a few decades with I, moved forward several more with II, then decided to really dial up the "wayback" machine and headed straight for the old west with III. Eightteen-Eigthy-five to be exact. Trapped in 1955 due to a malfunctioning DeLorean during "BTF II", Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) discovers the tombstone of Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who had been trapped in 1885, and he discovers that Brown was killed by the great-grandfather of Biff Tannen. And if you thought Marty was a fish-out-of-water in 1955, he's a fish in the desert in 1885. As the producers of more and more movie franchises have been doing lately, the sequels to "Back to the Future" were shot concurrently over 11 months. "Back to the Future" was often lauded for its ability to handle the notion of time travel (which is harder than you may think), and was named by the American Film Institute as the 10th best film in the Science Fiction genre. All three movies have remained popular since the first one debuted in 1985.


 You can't go wrong when a steam-powered locomotive pushes you back to the future!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Head 'em Up; Move 'em Out!

The 1950s and '60s were the salad years for the television Western. The tube was ripe with shows that utilized both America's wild and woolly past for story ideas and the convenient use of studio back lots to film those stories. I was introduced to many of these shows via reruns on local television channels since the age of the TV Western was nearing its end by the time I came along and while it wasn't my favorite genre, I have a particular fondness for several shows. So, since I published Trouble, my humorous science fiction novel with western overtones, I thought I'd write up a list of my Top Five TV Westerns beginning with Number Five:

5) Bonanza

For most people, when they think Western, they think "Bonanza." Even the theme song is iconic. Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) owns the Ponderosa: The biggest spread in Nevada. On it, he's raised three sons, Adam (Pernell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker) and Little Joe (Michael Landon). The interesting thing about the boys was that they all had different mothers (all of Ben's wives died prematurely. The Cartwight boys never had good look when it came to wives), hence the reason they all seemed so different in looks and temperament. They all shared a few things however: Their love for their pa and their love for the Ponderosa, a ranch that spread out for about 600,000 acres (and it's curious how rarely the viewer saw anyone on the ranch except Ben and his three boys). 

"Bonanza" was a show about a family that had fought for what they had and were willing to fight to keep it. Often times neighboring farm-and-town-folk resented their power ("Darn Cartwights think they're better than everybody!") and this was a richly mined plot device for the show. Generally though, the Cartwrights were well respected in the area and were responsible for helping to settle that part of the Nevada territory. 

"Bonanza" was as big and brash as the Ponderosa itself. From the writing, to the acting to the music. The drama was melo-, the humor often slapstick. And yet somehow it all worked, perhaps thanks to the four leads. The show was on from 1959-73, which is a considerable amount of storytelling for one television show but they had four big characters to invent stories for. And for the show, the theme song says everything.

4) F-Troop
Yes, "F-Troop." I'm not sure if you could call this your typical Western, but it was set in the Old West where Indian fights are colorful sights and nobody takes a licking/where pale-face and red-skin both turn chicken. 

Okay, I lifted that from the theme song. But while the show may be at its heart a comedy, it is set in the Old West and has fun with the the trappings of that time, blending the two genres nicely. Captain Wilton Parmenter (Ken Berry), a well meaning but accident prone officer is sent to Fort Courage guarded by F-Troop, a truly rag tag bunch of recruits featuring Private First Class Hannibal Dobbs (James Hampton), the bugler who couldn't bugle, Private Vanderbilt (Joe Brooks), the near-and-far-sighted lookout, and Private Hoffenmueller (John Mitchum), the translator who could speak three languages, none of them English. Also at the fort were Sergeant O'Rourke (Forrest Tucker) and Corporal Agarn (Larry Storch), president and vice president, respectively, of O'Rourke Enterprises, the business the pair ran on the side with Chief Wild Eagle (Frank Dekova) and Crazy Cat (Don Diamond) of the local Hekawi tribe.

Some might find the local Indian tribe, the Hekawi, an insult to Native Americans. I think this is too simplistic. The show was never really insulting Native Americans. They set up from the beginning that the Hekawi, were the exception, not the norm. They were as much rejects among their people as the men of Fort Courage were among theirs (probably one reason they got into business with O'Rourke Enterprises). And unlike many portrayals of Native Americans at the time, Chief Wild Eagle and Crazy Cat had the savvy to deal with shifty "white-eyes" like O'Rourke and Agarn. So draw your own conclusions

At any rate, "F-Troop" ran from 1965-67 with respectable ratings but the new owners of Warner Brothers, the studio producing the show, decided that it was too expensive to keep a back lot open to film one half hour comedy, so they canceled the show. 

3) The Wild Wild West
This is another hybrid, this time Western and science fiction (a bit like my novel Trouble). It's also one of the cleverest shows that ran in either genre. "The Wild Wild West" starred Robert Conrad as James West and Ross Martin as Artemis Gordon, two secret service agents on special assignment for President Ulysses S. Grant. The concept was an attempt to tap into the "secret agent" genre that was becoming popular in the mid-to-late sixties. The two characters traveled the U.S. in a special (and very tricked out) private train car, solving crimes, saving the day and just being cool. 

Gordon, a master of disguise, was also an inventor of clever gadgets that often got West out of trouble. Like James Bond, West was equally adept at getting out of trouble using his brains or his fists. In fact the athletic Conrad (a Chicago native) did many of his own stunts, working closely with the stunt team on the show.

But it's the science fiction elements that gives "The Wild Wild West" its uniqueness. The writers tried to be respectful of the time (and what was possible technologically) when they dreamed up the gadgets used in diabolical plots to rule the world. This was, after all, the late 1800s. And it's possible that plots were aided by the show being set in a time when so much of the U.S. was still unsettled. Anything was possible, or so it seemed. 

As with "F-Troop," however, the fate of "The Wild Wild West" was cast not by ratings but by outside forces. It ran from 1965-69 with high ratings, but was canceled as a scapegoat in Congress' attempt to address television violence.

There were two reunion movies in 1979 and '80 and a remake with Will Smith and Kevin Klein was made in 1999. The less said about that movie the better except to say that it should have been better. 

2) The Rifleman
This is a 30 minute show that packed a lot of punch. Dramas can be tough to do well in 30 minutes but there was a great deal of 30 minute productions in the '50s and '60s. Of course, there were less commercials then too, giving plot more time to develop. The quality of the acting is what helps give "The Rifleman" its punch.

The show, which ran from 1958-63, starred Chuck Connors as Lucas McCain, a mild mannered sod-buster who could wield a pretty mean rifle when needed. In the days of the six-gun-shoot-'em-ups, a guy fast enough to win a showdown with a rifle was pretty impressive. Especially a guy as accurate with the shot as Lucas McCain.

Lucas, a widower, and his young son Mark (Johnny Crawford) lived on a ranch just outside of the town of North Fork. It's the relationship between father and son that makes "The Rifleman" so special. In fact, it was one of the first television shows that featured a man raising a young son after the loss of his wife. The bond between them is strong and often Lucas' actions in a crisis are decided by what is best for Mark's future. Lucas can swagger with the best of him, but his only interest is raising his son and working his land. The themes are complex, often centering on the idea of people being given second chances.

Connors had a sports career going before he went into acting. In fact he was one of only 12 athletes in sports history to play for both major league baseball (one of the teams he played on was the Chicago Cubs in 1951) AND professional basketball. When watching this show, it's easy to see that he chose the right career path. His acting is easy, yet sincere and the chemistry between him and Crawford (who was equally natural) is spot on. It's one of those shows I can watch over and over and not get bored with.


1) Rawhide
This is, for me, the penultimate western. Along with having the best theme song (sung by Frankie Laine), and co-starring Clint Eastwood as ramrod Rowdy Yates, the series, which ran from 1959-66, seemed to have the best grip on the sort of effort it took to make a life in the Old West. The premise was simple. Trail boss Gil Favor, played by Eric Fleming, and his crew of drovers (some regulars, some hired at the beginning of each drive), have to drive a herd of cattle from point A to point B at a time when doing so meant driving them across miles of rough, sometimes hostile country. Threats could come from a lack of watering holes and decent grazing, to unfriendly Native Americans or white settlers unwilling to let them cross their land. There were also rustlers, unreasonable townspeople and even members of the drive itself who, when times got tough, decided they weren't that interested in going through what they had to go through to be paid what they'd be paid. 

Along with quality writing and impressive location shooting, there was quality acting especially by the two leads. Gil Favor, as played by Fleming, was a no-nonsense guy simply trying to get the cattle through and earn a living. Always on his mind was what was best for the men and the cattle. When the needs of the two collided, he tried to deal with it as fairly as he could. Yates, as played by Eastwood, was a guy trying to live up to the standard of his trail boss, yet who was young and often impulsive. (Interestingly, Fleming was originally approached to play in "A Fist Full of Dollars," the Sergio Leone epic, but turned it down, so Eastwood took the chance and shot the film between seasons of Rawhide). They headed up an ensemble of characters, each adding different textures to the show.

Complicated characters, intricate storylines and changing locals helped make this show one of the more gritty and realistic Westerns on television. Which is why I consider "Rawhide" the best Western of all time.