By Alan Dean Foster
[From the Bookzone editorial note “Alan Dean Foster, author of 90 science fiction, fantasy and nonfiction books including Alien, Cyber Way and The End of the Matter, filled some big shoes when he stepped in to deliver the keynote speech at the Society of Southwestern Authors’ 30th Annual Wrangling With Writing conference on January 19. Ray Bradbury, who was scheduled to speak, fell and was unable to attend, but Foster more than held his own, speaking authoritatively about the intersections and futures of science fiction, publishing and the film industry. With a sharp wit and some decidedly pointed remarks, Foster made observations that all players may wisely heed.”]
Good evening. As all of you must know by now, Ray Bradbury can’t be with us tonight because he hurt his back, as I understand it, while stargazing on the back porch of his home — in Los Angeles. Now, I was raised in Los Angeles, and I can tell you that while the City of the Angeles is famous for a great many outdoor activities, sky-watching is not generally considered to be one of them. Stargazing, yes, but of a different kind — one that more commonly involves aligning one’s sight parallel to the ground, preferably in that compact and unique outpost of alien life that is bounded on the north by Ventura Boulevard, on the east by Highland Avenue, on the south by the Santa Monica freeway, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean.
People searching for stars in Los Angeles are not often seen looking up; at least, not for any length of time. If they are, they tend to arouse suspicion and find themselves hauled in for questioning. I need to add that there is no truth to the rumor that the night-time skies of Los Angeles served as the inspiration for Isaac Asimov’s famous science fiction story Nightfall, wherein the stars appear only once every thousand years.
Still, it seems an appropriate if ironic injury for one of science fiction’s leading lights to have suffered. I’m sorry it happened. In lieu of Ray being here, I’ve brought along a copy of one of his books. Since it’s one of his earlier books, it has an earlier picture of Ray on the back cover. This immediately tells you that it’s an earlier book because it harkens from the days when publishers frequently put pictures of the author on the back cover, instead of reams of PR department copy, blurbs from other sources who usually didn’t bother to read the book but wanted to trade off blurbing with other writers and friends, ads for everything from other books to videos touting the latest fad diet, and pithy excerpts from the book itself specifically designed to appeal to semi-literate barely post-adolescent studio executives who have difficulty reading anything that can’t fit on the screens of their palm pilots
You may have heard of this particular book. The title is Something Wicked This Way Comes. It’s a very good book. Ray was kind enough to inscribe it to me. The really interesting thing about this inscription is not that it has its origins in that ancient near-Mesozoic era known as the ’70s, as depicted on the pseudo-anthropological television show of the same name, but that it shows a tiny bit of Ray’s painterly side. In writing the inscription Ray perfectly mimicked the unique, flaming lettering style that was employed on the cover. I’ll bet many of you didn’t know that Ray Bradbury is quite a good painter with paint as well as with words.
So, in Ray’s absence, I hold up this book as homage not only to his abilities as one of the foremost writers of fantasy of the twentieth century, but also as a fine painter and human being even though his hair is now somewhat whiter than it was in the picture that graces the first edition of Something Wicked This Way Comes.
I am sorry that I’m not Ray Bradbury. That is, I’m sorry Ray’s not here. I’m perfectly happy being me, and that wouldn’t be possible if I were Ray. Not to mention how Ray might feel about it. There’s far too much as it is in the news these days about identity theft. Which sounds very much like the premise for an insightful, taut, typically paranoid-flavored science fiction story. The kind Philip K. Dick might write. I’m not Phil Dick, either, although Phil, unlike Ray, would understand if I claimed that I was.
In fact, Phil would probably applaud my claiming to be him, since then he’d actually be able to enjoy some compensation from all the big, expensive, largely successful movies that have been made subsequent to his death: Blade Runner, Total Recall, and most recently, Imposter, starring Gary Sinese. Tens of millions of dollars were lavished on the cinematic retelling of painfully worked-out stories for which Phil received pennies per word. And not many pennies, at that. Another piece of writing history Ray could speak to, if he were here.
What has happened to speculative fiction over the past third of a century is astonishing. The century caught up to it, and in some ways passed it. But only in some ways. None of us are prophets, we who write this stuff. Certainly Ray never claimed to be one. Nor has any one of my fellow scribes who have chosen to labor in the field of the oft-dismissed and churlishly reviewed genre known as science fiction. We just try to be “creative.”
Here’s an example of creativity in science fiction. In the March 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction magazine, editor John W. Campbell published a short war story by Cleve Cartmill called Deadline. Mr. Cartmill wasn’t trying to make a prediction for the future. He was simply trying to write a good, entertaining, competently researched, creative story. Because creativity is at the heart of what science fiction is all about. Here’s an excerpt from that story describing the “imaginary” super-weapon one side in the war is planning to use against the other.
Two cast-iron hemispheres, clamped over…segments of cadmium alloy…Cadmium stops neutrons, and it’s cheap and effective. So you separate the radium and U-235 by thin cadmium walls, brittle so [a] light explosion will shatter them, yet strong enough to be handled with reasonable care…And the fuse…is in a tiny can of cadmium alloy containing a speck of radium in a beryllium holder and a small explosive powerful enough to shatter the cadmium walls. Then…the powdered uranium oxide runs together in a central cavity. The radium shoots neutrons into this mass–and the U-235 takes over from there….
What you have, in that description, is a reasonably close depiction of the first atomic bombs. But — it’s just in a science fiction story. That’s what editor Campbell and author Cartmill told the very curious representatives of the FBI and military intelligence who came inconspicuously calling at Campbell’s office subsequent to the story’s publication. It was finally decided to keep their visit as quiet as possible and essentially, to do nothing. This proved to be the correct strategy, since as became clear after the war, the spies and agents of Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan, who regularly scoured U.S. publications for any information of possible military value, neglected to read the magazine of Astounding Science Fiction and its sister publications in the field.
Robert Heinlein was just writing good story when he invented the waterbed in the story “The Roads Must Roll”. And certainly Murray Leinster had no inkling that he was predicting the internet when he sold the story “A Logic Named Joe” to Campbell back in 1945. Here’s an excerpt from that almost forgotten exercise in “creativity,” that first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1946, more than half a century ago. For the term “Logic” substitute “personal computer.” And for “Tank” substitute “internet.
You know the Logic’s setup. You have a Logic in your house. It looks like a vision-receiver used to, only it has keys and you punch the keys for what you want to get. It’s hooked into the Tank. Say you punch “Station SNAFU” on your Logic. Relays in the Tank take over and whatever program SNAFU is telecasting comes on your Logic’s screen. Or you punch “Sally Hancock’s phone,” and the screen blinks and sputters and you’re hooked up to the connection. But besides that, if you punch for the weather forecast or who won today’s race at Hialeah or who was the mistress of the White House during Garfield’s administration or what is PDQ and R selling for today, that comes on the screen, too. The relays in the Tank do it.
The Tank is a big building full of all the facts in creation and all the recorded telecasts that ever was made, and it’s hooked in with all the other tanks all over the country. And everything you want to know or see or hear, you punch for it and you get it. Very convenient. Also it does math for you, and keeps books, and acts as a consulting chemist, physicist, astronomer and tealeaf reader, with “Advice to the Lovelorn” thrown in. The only thing it won’t do is tell you exactly what your wife meant when she said, “Oh, you think so, do you?” in that peculiar kind of voice. Logics are all right, though. They changed civilization, the highbrows tell us.
Not bad for a tale scribed toward the end of World War II, when the computer itself, much less the home computer, was little more than a gleam in the mind’s eyes of a few far-seeing thinkers at IBM. Nor was Arthur C. Clarke predicting, when in Rendezvous With Rama he chose September 11 as the date for a great modern catastrophe.
Those of us who write science fiction don’t predict. We just try to do our homework — and be creative. Because we care deeply about what we’re writing. I’m convinced science fiction writers care more deeply about what they’re writing than any other group of writers, because the amount of research and study and sheer inventiveness required to produce a really good work of science fiction is often inversely proportionally to the income it generates. Unless you put all your hopes on 13 black on the roulette wheel of life and Stanley Kubrick comes knocking with an offer to make a film of your story.
So then — why write the stuff?
As has been said all too many times about matters otherwise — it must be love. I know it is in my case. I’ve written other fiction. Mystery, contemporary, western, historical. But I keep coming back to science fiction. I even spend time — and I know this is difficult for many of you to believe — writing short stories. With the exception of a very, very few markets, short science fiction today earns about the same rates it did in the 1930s and 1940s. Less, if adjusted for inflation. There are markets deemed “professional” — and I have no choice but to use the word loosely — that still pay a penny a word. Many more pay two or three cents, or — be still thou Gods on Olympus — the munificent sum of five cents per word! I know, because I write for some of them. Regularly.
Clearly, the only reason for a sane, logical, competent author to invest time and effort and pain for such penurious remuneration it is for love. You do it because you come up with ideas — often much against your will — that can’t be properly expressed in any other way, in any other medium. Writing short fiction, and particularly short science fiction, is like belonging to a great secret club. Call it the “un-Illuminati”. You know it’s not practical to attend. The dues, both mental as well as practical, are far too high, and you really should get out of it and do something sensible with your precious time. All too often, writing science fiction, especially short stories, is anything but practical. But once inducted, you really no longer have any choice in the matter. Because the club is so damn much fun. Writing a short science fiction story that works is the closest thing I know to setting off fireworks in your brain.
I believe Ray feels that way. I know Arthur Clarke does. There’s something about belonging to a secret society. For years, for decades, that was about all writing science fiction professionally gave you: that sense of belonging to, of participating in, something special. For decades, brilliant writers like Heinlein and Clarke, Asimov and Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison, Phil Dick and Hal Clement and Eric Frank Russell churned out paragons of creativity one after another for the most minimal imaginable recognition and recompense. All they did was inspire generations of astronomers and astronauts, engineers and scientists — and a few to follow in their footsteps. Myself, I’m still kicking and struggling to climb out of some of those footsteps, so deeply are they trodden.
Then something happened to change all that. An iconoclastic English filmmaker named Kubrick teamed up with a legendary science fiction writer named Clarke and together they sprang on an unsuspecting world and movie-going public a film called 2001: A Space Odyssey. The critics savaged it, calling it, among other things, aimless and indulgent. Now, today, even some of those same critics, writing in retrospect, applaud it as a cinematic masterpiece. The work of the truly creative often exceeds the cognitive capabilities of those who are not. Always a useful homily to bear in mind when perusing your next set of reviews.
A few years later, along came something on television called Star Trek. Meanwhile, the young Steven Spielberg was making Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, while a science fiction fan named George Lucas struggled to finish a little film he could barely get financed. Why couldn’t he secure proper backing? Because, according to the mavens of the movie industry, science fiction was a source for cheap fodder to feed the drive-ins, nothing more. For a long time in Hollywood, science fiction meant bugs, and the bigger bugs, the better. Giant mantids, giant ants, giant spiders, giant scorpions, and taxonomy be damned. If it crawled, it belonged on the screen, preferably in black and white. One might say the same about certain individuals in the film industry, but I digress.
But starting in the ’50s, something had happened to written science fiction. Stories became as concerned with character as with the clashes of cosmic civilizations. Writers focused on improving dialogue and personnel more than machinery. Skills improved and as they did so, so did the stories that were wrought with them. Not even the movies were immune. A couple of guys from MGM got smart and decided to base a big-budget SF film, in color, on a half-decent writer name of Will Shakespeare. That film was the 1956 release Forbidden Planet, which is based on a little play called The Tempest. Sadly, Will doesn’t receive story credit. No royalties, either. Such is the movie business. All you trivia buffs should know that Forbidden Planet, which starred Leslie Nielsen in a decidedly unfunny role, was the first film to have an all-electronic music score.
Now it seems like a science fiction film is released at least once a month. And yet the perception still persists in much of the film industry that science fiction and fantasy are for kids only, or at best for teens. A recent release like K-PAX, with Kevin Spacey and Jeff Bridges, can’t possible be science fiction because it compels the audience to think. This, of course, is what the best science fiction does. It’s a distinction that escapes many of the power brokers in the movie business because they’ve never bothered to read any science fiction. Reading actual books, of course, is a time-consuming business and takes time away from far more important endeavors such as doing lunch, throwing parties and being seen.
One can only pity them, these itinerant anti-troglodytes who think figuring out the controls to the latest offerings at the Sharper Image represents the height of intellectual accomplishment. They know science fiction films can make scads of money because STAR WARS and Terminator and Star Trek keep doing it. They just don’t know how to do it themselves. It’s like trying to show someone with no sense of balance how to ride a bike. They keep trying, and they keep falling off. They’ll option a great science fiction story — I know, I’ve talked to people whose offices are on or just off Santa Monica Boulevard who’ve done it — and they won’t have a clue how to make it into a viable film. And it’s not even because they don’t understand what they’ve paid thousands of dollars to control. It’s because they have no respect for the genre. That, to me, is the key to turning any piece of prose — not just science fiction and fantasy — into a successful film or into good television.
It doesn’t even take a great deal of money. Years ago, back when something called “The movie of the week” was a fixture on prime time, a little film called The People came along. It was based on a series of well-known interconnected short stories by a writer named Zenna Henderson. It was done cheaply, but it was respectful — and it worked beautifully. How many of you remember the PBS (yes, Public Television) production of Ursula K. leGuin’s The Lathe Of Heaven? You don’t need tens of millions of dollars to do science fiction well on film. What you do need to bring to such an enterprise (no pun intended) is respect for the genre. That’s true for adapting any work of fiction to the screen, but it’s especially critical where science fiction and fantasy are concerned.
When it is done by people who understand as well as respect what they’re doing, then you get a film like The Fellowship Of The Ring. Meanwhile, those of us who love these classic tales can only sit and wait for adaptations of other famous stories that are just begging to be filmed. Arthur Clarke’s Childhood’s End, quite possibly the seminal work of modern science fiction, has been under option for filming since it was published in 1956. Or at least it was until recently, as Arthur informs me that the rights are, yet again, available.
By the way, I dislike name-dropping. So does Arthur, as he told me he was telling the Queen just last week.
When stories are adapted by people who don’t respect their source material, you end up with something like Starship Troopers. It seems that in the movie industry, some things never change. Here we go again — science fiction as glorified drive-in fodder. Only, in Robert Heinlein’s book, the alien bugs were intelligent, and had a good case for we humans being the aggressors. Obviously, this would never do for a big-budget Hollywood science fiction film. Where the usual Hollywood sf production is concerned, it seems it must always be homo sapiens uber alles. We can never be the bad guys. That’s as inaccurate a portrayal of humankind as Starship Troopers was of nominally intelligent alien insects.
I tell you, it’s hard staying creatively ahead of technology, those occasional preternaturally accurate guesses (not predictions) notwithstanding. Those of you who primarily write mysteries, or romances, or historicals or westerns or non-fiction, you don’t get up in the morning (those of you who get up in the morning) terrified that some off-hand article in section two of the paper sandwiched in between a moose-killing in Maine and the latest book-burning in New Mexico may just possibly render utterly invalid your last six months of hard labor. As Arthur said, when information came in from the first Jupiter flyby, it forced him to completely rewrite the last third of 2010. As for Ray, well, his Martian Chronicles still stand as great stories, as landmarks in the field, but now they have to be read with the knowledge that Mars isn’t really as Ray portrayed it back in the ’50s. More’s the pity. Zane Grey didn’t have that problem when he was writing a story set in Arizona.
This is one reason I particularly enjoy writing stories set far in the future, on or between worlds circling other suns. It’s because they’re not likely to be contradicted by inconvenient fact until I’m long gone and no longer concerned with such minutiae as the blatant inaccuracies in my last royalty statement. Though I’d be delighted to be proven wrong on both accounts.
Sometimes someone in the film business tries, really tries, and you have a film like Contact. Personally, I’m frankly surprised Contact did as well commercially as it did. As I mentioned before, in the film business, intelligence as a critical ingredient within a film can be a hard sell. Thank you, Jodie Foster (no relation — once again, more’s the pity) for giving us a scientist who wasn’t “mad.”
Respect for the genre. That’s all we ask. Arthur Clarke gets it, now. Excuse me — Sir Arthur. It’ll be interesting to see how Morgan Freeman does adapting Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama. Ray gets respect. Even the chaotic era of mittel-Disney, between Walt and Michael, couldn’t completely mess up a screen version of Something Wicked This Way Comes. But then, it had Jason Robards, who commanded respect even while reading menus. Of course, that now extinct Disney also gave us the abomination called The Black Hole. You all know what a black hole is: A gravitational lens from which nothing, including comprehensible dialogue, common sense, and a coherent plot, can escape.
As for the state of science fiction on television today, well, the Sci-fi channel’s version of Frank Herbert’s Dune wasn’t bad, especially considering its budget when compared to major motion pictures, and the mini-series garnered tremendous ratings. But I have to confess I can’t watch Star Trek anymore, or any of its spin-offs. A whole generation of Star Trek followers has grown up convinced that when we finally do make contact with another intelligent species, they’ll all hail from the planet Latex and look exactly like us, except for being forced to stumble around twenty-four seven in bad Halloween masks. Give me H.R. Giger’s Alien any day — just give it to me at a distance.
Respect for the genre. It’s out there, but you have to hunt for it. Those of us who write science fiction, that’s all we’re asking for. That’s all any group of writers can ask for. That, plus decent advances and higher royalties, of course. Talk about your fantasy epics. And as for respect from Hollywood, anyone who thinks trolls and orcs exist only in Middle-Earth has never had any dealings with the film business. Truly, my friends and colleagues, “Mordor lies to the west.”
Learn more about author Alan Dean Foster at http://www.alandeanfoster.com.
© 2002 BookZone, Inc. reprinted by permission of the author.