Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
August 2016

Title: The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years
Author: Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

If you're interested in the history of Star Trek, as recollected by just about every one of its major participants--directors, producers, writers, actors, composers, artists, convention organizers, fan-letter writers, you name it--you need to read this book.

This first 550-page volume of a projected two-volume set covers the first twenty-five years of the franchise. That encompasses Trek's inception and early missteps, the three seasons of what we now refer to as "the original series" (TOS), that series' afterlife through comics and conventions, its reincarnation in animated form, its eventual debut on the big screen with The Motion Picture (1979), the five film sequels that followed, including The Undiscovered Country (1991), and aborted projects like Phase II and Starfleet Academy.

Gross and Altman are to be commended for compiling a stupendous amount of information. Prepare yourself for a candid study in art vs. commerce, a behind-the-scenes look that reveals near-constant feuding, frayed nerves, bruised egos, unfulfilled ambitions--plenty of grievances aired--but ultimately provides a loving commemoration of a phenomenal pop culture achievement.

For a flavor of what you'll find, here are a few tidbits that struck me as interesting:

  • Christopher Knopf recalls that Gene Rodenberry's initial series concept was for a mixed-crew blimp that went around the world in the 1800s, stopping in exotic places;
  • George Clayton Johnson breaks down the influence of Captain Future on Star Trek, drawing the parallel between Simon Wright and Mr. Spock;
  • "The Doomsday Machine," written by Norman Spinrad, was partially based on an unpublished novella of his "which was a kind of variation on Moby-Dick;"
  • Harold Livingston claims that Rodenberry made a deal with Pocket Books to novelize Livingston's screenplay (for The Motion Picture, Rodenberry's only novelization) for $400,000;
  • During the making of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Robert Sallin tried to have the film's director, Nicholas Meyer, fired; Meyer's job was saved by Michael Eisner;
  • James Horner considered that his score for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock was "so much better" than his score for Star Trek II.

And so on. No question that its content makes this book indispensable. I do, however, have reservations about its presentation.

For one, I find the lack of attributions regarding each person's comments troublesome. A few weeks ago I read the second edition of The Making of the Trek Films, edited by Edward Gross, and found many of the interview quotes in that book reproduced verbatim in this one. The authors note that this book is not academic in nature, but readers should still be told what portions of the text are being reprinted, and where those texts originally appeared.

Even if many of the book's comments stem from personal interviews conducted by Gross and Altman, it would be helpful for an appendix to list when those interviews were conducted, because context is important. Since Gross and Altman provide only minimal linking material throughout the speaker's comments, the order of the comments has a significant effect on their interpretation and implied tone. As presented, each chapter gives the vague impression of a panel or group discussion transcript, in which the participants take turns expressing their views on the topic at hand. But the reality is that many of these comments, though lumped together, are separated by years or decades, and were made in radically different situations and in response to different questions; by stripping them of these contexts, the editors have repurposed their meanings. Dates would help to acknowledge and define the scope of this repurposing.

Also, the lack of an index is vexing. Two would be required: One, by name, listing the page numbers where that person's comments appear, and a second one listing the people, books, movies etc. being referenced by the speakers. Without these, locating specific quotes or allusions is a hassle. Alas, these are salient shortcomings in an otherwise splendid endeavor.

Title: A Natural History of Hell
Author: Jeffrey Ford
Publisher: Small Beer Press

I discovered Jeffrey Ford's short fiction with his magnificent third collection, The Drowned Life (2008), winner of the 2009 World Fantasy award, and whose title story struck me with such vigor that I had a t-shirt made of it. ("The Drowned Life" went on to be reprinted by Joyce Carol Oates in The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, so I can claim, a posteriori, that my enthusiasm wasn't hyperbolic. But even if it hadn't, I would remain unapologetic). Ford's stunning fourth collection, Crackpot Palace (2012), won the 2013 Shirley Jackson award. Four years later, right on schedule, A Natural History of Hell emerges from Ford's fiendish imagination-oven, and is surely destined for more awards.

This baker's dozen of assorted tales has an extraordinary range. "The Blameless," original to the collection, posits a new fad afflicting contemporary American suburbia: Spring Exorcisms for teens. In the superb "The Last Triangle," a down-and-out drug addict who crashes in an old woman's garage finds that even though he doesn't believe in magic, others out there "desperate for protection" do, and their belief may trump his lack thereof; his road to freedom from addiction is beautifully mirrored by someone else's struggle with incarceration in a metaphysical triangle.

In the dystopian alternate present of "Blood Drive," high-school seniors are required to carry weapons to school. The story's final line, beautifully ethereal, chillingly contrasts with the preceding bloodshed, which almost reaches Grand Guignol proportions. "Word Doll," more rural than urban, also unfolds in the present time, as the character Jeffrey Ford discovers a sign to a Word Doll Museum and learns of a ritualistic process whereby children were trained to escape into their imaginations while their physical bodies performed punishing physical labor sometime in the mid-1800s. Metaphors abound, but it is Ford's concreteness and attention to detail that capture our attention.

More overtly unreal--in some cases demonic--and outré in the exaltation of their premises are "The Angel Seems," "Mount Chary Galore," "A Natural History of Autumn," "Spirits of Salt," and "The Fairy Enterprise." "A Terror" is a brilliantly modulated expansion and reimagining of a poem by Emily Dickinson, featuring her as the main character. In the unforgettable and gory "The Prelate's Commission," one of my favorites, a young artist is tasked with finding the devil and painting his portrait.

Another of my favorite stories--though it reads more like a short novel, and unusually for Ford contains scene breaks--is "The Thyme Fiend." In 1915, in Hardin County, Ohio, during a particularly bad heat wave, Emmett Wallace experiences ghostly apparitions that can only be quelled through the ingestion of thyme tea. His apprehension of an otherworldly realm leads to the discovery of a real-life body, and the secrets related to its disposal. The seed of this story recalls Richard Matheson's A Stir of Echoes (1958), but Ford's pitch-perfect execution makes it all his own. I dread to think what, say, the Coen brothers could do with something like this.

If I've given you the impression that many of these stories deal in menace and the uncanny, that's true, but I should also point out that grimness is leavened with comic absurdity, tension expertly relieved with levity. "Humor is very helpful, especially writing horror stories," Ford is quoted as saying in a recent interview on Wired.com. These stories are a model in how to achieve that seamless blend.

The Drowned Life and Crackpot Palace were delirious, oneiric, at times flamboyantly imaginative, alternately delivering angst and wonder. A Natural History of Hell, though more often classically fantastical, is rawer and more brooding, more concerned with stripped-down essences, slow burns, bones and dirt. This greater emphasis on nature and naturalism comes across in Ford's imagery and the austere cadences of his descriptive prose. Many of the stories feature dogs of various types and ferocities; an emphasis on bodily functions; near-totemic descriptions of the moon, of breezes or droughts; even a weirdly recurring invocation of the color orange. Ford can be brutal and pulpy, no question. But he balances those qualities with humanism, tenderness, even the rare hint of romanticism.

John Cheever famously wrote that "Fiction is experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction." Throughout his bounteous career, Jeffrey Ford has fully figured out which experiments work, and in what direction; the miracle is that he has also figured out how to rewrite the rulebook with his own brand of magic.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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