It’s always good to have a way out. Even if you are lucky enough not to live in a war zone or a country where paranoid folks can walk the streets carrying concealed weapons, there comes a time for most of us when we wish we could just get out of Dodge.
For me, that time is now. It’s not just the headlines. There’s really no getting away from those anymore. It’s not even the weather. There’s no place without it.
I yearn for a vacation from the internal critic that mutters constantly inside me, noting with disdain how I could have done better, should have done more, and definitely should have known better.
Be that as it may, I need to recharge my aged batteries if I hope to finish strong in this human race. And while a trip to Paris or Tahiti is out of the question, a dive into my favorite authors’ works is nearly as refreshing, and certainly less expensive and exhausting.
So, Jane Austen it is. Also P.G. Wodehouse, Tom Holt, Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore. Such a list will not impress the heavy heads in the audience. But escape reading isn’t an ego contest. It’s a prescription to remove gloom, to reduce leaden anxiety.
Millions of people enjoy reading murder mysteries, and who am I to blame them? The accepted fantasy of the murder mystery genre is that murders get solved, that murderers get what’s coming to them. In reality, I suspect this is less often the case. To me here’s nothing “cozy” about murder.
However, that’s why we love fiction, right? Only in fiction can you be relatively certain that the good guys will triumph, even in the most noir pulp fiction. And if, for some annoying post-modern reason, they don’t, you can always throw the book across the room, or out the window “Silver Linings Playbook” style, and go do the crossword puzzle.
My advice is: take your time, enjoy a break when you can. Because reality will still be there, snarling and scratching, whenever you’re ready to return to the fray.
When you tell people you’re a writer the first thing they ask is, “Oh, what do you write?”
Then, after you tell them you write fiction, they tell you what kind of book they read, if they read at all. If you don’t write the sort of book they prefer, that pretty much ends the conversation. Occasionally you run into an omnivore—someone who reads anything and everything. This sort of reader will usually be kind enough to make an attempt to appear interested in whatever it is you write.
Generally speaking, I try to avoid talking about what I write beyond saying that it’s mostly fantasy. This isn’t strictly true, but it makes for a simpler interface with the non-reading public.
I’ve been a daydreamer all my life. As a child I did it to escape the casual cruelty and numbing boredom that fester in the savage wilds of public school. As an adult I’ve learned to channel my daydreaming into imaginary worlds which offer some respite from the daily horror stories that flood the news channels.
Apparently I’m not the only one looking to escape.
These days fantasy is big business. Books in the sword and sorcery genre abound, dragons are a growth industry, and butt-kicking heroines with paranormal powers have become a genre unto themselves. Yet still the fantasies that thrill me are the ones that lurk on the edges of the mainstream fantasy realms. There aren’t many writers like Tom Holt, Terry Pratchett and Christopher Moore, who write wildly imaginative fantasy replete with humor and philosophy.
I’m not a big fan of fantasy in which writers rely on the trappings of violence and creepy gore to make up for lack of imagination and humor.
I yearn for the Buffy factor. What made that landmark show so remarkable wasn’t simply the “girl kills monsters” theme, but the way humor was woven into every aspect of the show, from the romantic plotlines to the apocalypse scenarios. Joss Whedon understood that a good apocalypse needs more than a few laugh lines.
And this is where I draw my own personal line in the sand when it comes to fantasy. I will put up with a lot of gore and violence if I can trust the writer to punish villainy in the fullness of time and to make sure that everyone has a few laughs before the lights go out.
Many very intelligent and thoughtful readers have no interest in fantasy, or even fiction of any kind. They view reality as the whole picture. They consider history and science the only worthwhile detours from the serious business of Life. And, of course, such readers are essential to us all.
But I believe fantasy matters. And here’s the point of the sword: There’s no wall between fantasy and reality. Gravity may seem inescapable here on Earth, but if humans hadn’t imagined flight we’d never have walked on the moon.
It takes courage to be a dreamer in this rough and rude world. Not everyone will respect you for it. But you have to decide if you want to live your own life. You have the choice to be the hero or the villain or the comic relief in your own story. Whether you write it down or not is also up to you.
Be your own hero. You may never make your parents proud, but you can be proud of trying. Whether you walk through walls or into them, the important thing is to keep going. Even make believe wings can give you a lift.
Of all the genres in all the fictional universe there’s only one that has never persuaded me to cast my doubts aside and surrender. Stories about time travel leave me cold.
So when I heard the buzz about the 2012 indie film “Safety Not Guaranteed” I remained skeptical, in spite of my admiration for its star, Aubrey Plaza, a girl with a million dollar scowl.
Plaza, whose deadpan sarcasm keeps the sitcom “Parks and Recreation” from succumbing to lethal sweetness, brings just the right blend of cynicism and vulnerability to “Safety Not Guaranteed.” The plot begins with a lackluster Seattle reporter (Jake Johnson), who finagles a road trip with a couple of office interns, one of whom is Darius (Plaza), to investigate a curious classified ad seeking a willing participant in a time travel adventure “safety not guaranteed.”
I have to confess that one of the things that got under my skin about this film was the setting. It was shot in Ocean Shores, Washington, where the water is always too cold to swim, and the interface between reality and make-believe is a misty curtain easily shredded by the intrepid. The entire film has a kind of funky Seattle-esque vibe that reminded me of why I stayed there so long.
Through the actions of the three reporters, the film explores the uncertain terrain between belief and doubt. In other hands this kind of material could have devolved into slapstick or the kind of crude buddy routines that have become the substandard for directors aiming for blockbuster revenues, but director Colin Trevorrow keeps the film quick witted and light on its feet.
“Safety Not Guaranteed” is true to its title. This small budget film subverts expectations and draws you in. At least it drew me in. I still don’t give a damn about time travel—having drunk deeply from the Star Trek well, I know that no good can come from pulling at the loose threads of Time’s sweater. Yet no matter how we try to get on with our lives, we are all two-headed—always looking forward or looking back, and the tendency to wonder “what if?” is part of our DNA. It’s part of what makes us great, even while it has the potential destroy us.
As Kenneth, the seemingly crazy guy who placed the ad which sparks the story, Mark Duplass conveys that mesmerizing blend of genius and madness that is the hallmark of so many remarkable characters. Duplass has an off-beat style and edgy demeanor that come across as comic one minute and surprisingly affecting the next. The chemistry between him and Plaza is terrific.
Big Beach, the company which produced “Safety Not Guaranteed,” has been responsible for a number of exceptional independent films, including “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Sunshine Cleaning.” On the company’s website they describe their goal thusly: “Big Beach strives to create meaningful, life-affirming projects that inspire, engage and entertain.”
I still have reservations about time travel, but I’m ready to book a ticket for the next film from Big Beach.
Okay, so here’s my guilty secret. I like movies where things explode.
Not all movies where things explode. But when Bruce Willis, or someone of his stripe, sets off to save the planet with a quip and a smirk, I enjoy the payoff as much as any backyard commando. Maybe more, since I have no personal illusions about being able to pull off anything remotely qualified to feature in an action flick. When I take action these days it’s usually in the kitchen, or, if I’m lucky, in the garden.
Yet much as I like action movies where things explode and steely-eyed heroes step in and light the match, I recognize these stories as fiction.
Fiction is something I understand. Reality, not so much. Perhaps that’s why it simply blows my mind that there are actually people in the “real” world who think it’s a swell idea for the United States at this point in the progress of the civilized world to build a so-called “Death Star” to protect us from anticipated alien attacks.
And here I thought I was delusional.
Well, it’s possible, I suppose, that the paranoid legions will have the last laugh when the aliens start bombing and scorching us with their death rays, but I feel fairly confident that at the rate we’re killing each other off down here on Earth there won’t be much for aliens to conquer, when and if they ever arrive.
I was comforted to read in The Washington Post today that the Obama administration “does not support blowing up planets.” Good to know.
In the meantime, that estimated $850 quadrillion which the proposed “Death Star” would cost (and you know how it is with estimates – nothing comes in under the estimate) could come in handy as we try to pay down the national debt, solve the problems in our education, health care and aging infrastructure.
And after we end hunger, poverty and injustice, then we can get that Death Star project up and running. Sure we can.
It’s not as easy as it once was to get lost in this world.
In these technology infested times, the proliferation of gadgets that can tell you where you’re going, how to get there, and what it will cost you has taken some of the zest out of travel. Still, most of us would gladly trade the thrill of the unexpected for the assurance that we’ll get where we want to go without undue bother. And after hearing about the recent mid-air mental snaps of some airline staff, I find myself warming to the idea of a quiet book by the fire.
But, like it or not, sooner or later all of us have to get out of the chair and go places, even if it’s only to the dentist. This is why maps will never go out of style.
I love a good map. I can spend hours perusing Rand McNally, marveling at the curious names of tiny hamlets, the abundance of rivers and streams and mountains between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the sheer expanse of our nation.
Yet part of the magic of maps lies in all that you can’t see in them. The personal, political and social history played out in states and cities, to say nothing of the immense physical changes which take place at a pace too slow for our human eyes to fully appreciate. You can get a sense of it at the Grand Canyon, but if we were able to view the rest of the world through that same staggering perspective we might have a better understanding of how long history is, and how short our share of it.
Of course, we’d rather not think about that. We are the center of the universe, after all. The crown of creation, etc. Uneasy lies the head.
But maps – those flat, two-dimensional renderings of the world as we see it – allow us to feel some measure of control. We know where we’re going. We’ve got a map.
Would that it were so easy. The comforting illusion of control that maps provide allows us to function in a world of restless dark matter.
Much as I love maps, I never fully trust them. Everything changes. Roads close, new roads get built, shorelines change, lakes and rivers dry up. The physical landscape has a life of its own, and while our attempts to keep track of it have improved dramatically since the age of satellites and computers, there’s still a gap.
Perhaps that’s one reason why the maps I enjoy most are of imaginary places. As I child I delighted in the map of The Hundred Acre Wood drawn by E.H. Shepard for the Winnie-the-Pooh books. Since then I’ve always had a fondness for a good imaginary map. I love it when a writer takes the time to fully imagine a world, complete with place names that ring true. Most recently the maps in George R.R. Martin’s brilliant A Song of Fire and Ice have been especially satisfying, and very helpful to a reader embarking on the journey through the epic five-volume (and counting) fantasy.
Of course, in order to create a map of an imaginary place, it helps to have a vivid imagination. To believe in such a map can serve as a coping strategy: “when reality fails and negativity don’t pull you through” (thanks be to Bob) you can always retreat to someplace imaginary until the next election.
Camped out on the far northwest edge of the nation, Seattle sits on a faultline between the real and the imaginary worlds. It’s easy to cross that line here. That’s one reason I included a map of Seattle in my recent fantasy novel, The Goddess of Green Lake. A map of Seattle is a map of an imaginary place. Here people carve out curious niche lives that couldn’t find a toe hold in Kansas, or in New York City, for that matter.
But here, where the moss grows faster than the national debt, crazy ideas can relax and put down roots. There’s a fair amount of live and let loon attitude. As Mal Reynolds, the noble renegade captain in Joss Whedon’s space-western Serenity once put it: “We’re all out here on the edge. Don’t push me and I won’t pull you.”
While the political stew bubbles and spills with daily infusions of invective and innuendo, it’s helpful to step back, squint your eyes, and try to see the bigger picture. All of this has happened before. Apocalypses come and go. Sooner or later we all dance with the stars.
For those of us who enjoy spending a large portion of our lives reading fiction, the borderline between the world of the imagination and the so-called real world is sketched in erasable ink. We whose literary passports bear the stamps of dozens of favorite authors have no trouble packing our willingness to suspend disbelief. We welcome the chance to plunge into whole new worlds, to escape from our own daily anxieties while we visit inside the heads of other characters.
But when I first began to publish my writings I learned that all readers see things through the lens of their own imaginations, and what seems clear in my own head leads some readers only as far as a state of confusion. The first time this happened I was working at a newspaper in the small Virginia town where I lived, and I had written a column about my difficulty accepting the fact that one of the first things my oldest daughter did after she went off to college was to shave half her head.
I was upset by this. She has beautiful, thick, chestnut hair, and I felt the new look didn’t accentuate her best qualities. I wanted to be a supportive, easy-going, liberal mom, and I tried to go along with it. But I couldn’t mask the dismay in my eyes, and my daughter noticed. Words were said. For a time, there was a new awkwardness in our relationship.
The column I wrote about it made light of my maternal distress, the wacky things kids do, all those typical reference points that bind together those of us who raise children. A lot of regular readers responded to the column and seemed amused by it. But after reading that my daughter had shaved half her head, one woman who worked in my office took me aside and offered her sympathies and asked in a quiet undertone, “Which side?”
I had to stop and think. I had no idea. Did it matter? Apparently, this woman had been attempting to visualize my daughter’s new look and had been stymied right out of the gate by this all-important detail.
I’ll be honest. I still couldn’t tell you which side had hair and which didn’t. It wasn’t the hair that bothered me. It was the bare skull.
That was the first time I came face to face with the reality that no matter how well a writer sees his characters and their world in his own mind, unless readers can enter into it, they aren’t going to be able to care much about what happens there.
When I was first trying to get an agent or editor to take a chance on Alice and the Green Man, the rejections I got tended to be all the same. They all liked the idea, they thought it was original, they enjoyed my writing, but they balked at the basic concept of a woman fighting for a garden. That notion didn’t grab them. Not enough blockbuster potential. I was told by several agents that the market was hot for hotter stories – more sex, more violence, more dark creepiness. Well, for a thousand reasons I won’t go into, I am so not going to write that kind of stuff. It’s not what I want to read.
Eventually, on the advice of a successful published author I met by chance while waiting for a train, I entered Alice and The Green Man in a bunch of Romance Writers’ contests. Generally they request the first three chapters, and the preliminary judging is done by other aspiring romance writers, some of whom have been published. I got a lot of interesting feedback from those contests, and scored well in several, though none led to a contract. But one curious aspect of the comments made me question whether I should continue trying to pass myself off as a romance writer.
I am, of course, a romantic. I long for a world in which happy endings are the norm. That’s why I write fiction. But many of the women who judged these contests seemed troubled by their inability to see the world of my imagination. Actually, that isn’t entirely true. Some of them seemed to enjoy their visit to my garden. Others thought there was entirely too much floral description and not nearly enough bodily contact.
And there we come to the green heart of the matter. From the first moment he came into my mind, Fergus, the Green Man, was a vivid, sexy, intelligent, fascinating man who cared about plants. Wow! My dream man. But not, it seems, quite so enthralling to a lot of the women who read my contest entries. On one point in particular they were united. They wanted to know the exact shade of green he was. And was it just his thumb? Or, umm, all parts of him?
Well, of course, I thought I had spelled this out in the text – that his skin was a delicious olive tone, that it seemed to get greener after he sat in the sun for a while, that the leaves and vines were drawn to him by his aura of fertility. As is Alice. ‘Nuff said.
But not, apparently, for the judges. In the margins of my entries they wrote their concerns. They seemed to see my Green Man as some sort of amalgam of the Hulk, the Jolly Green Giant and Shrek.
Not even close to my vision.
The idea to take the ancient archetype of the Green Man, a figure so shrouded in mystery that no one knows who first produced an image of a man with leaves sprouting out of his head, and make him a hero in a modern setting appealed to me on many levels. While many of the early depictions of the Green Man carved in stone on medieval cathedrals in Europe show a monstrous untameable creature, these illustrations grew out of the earliest struggles of humankind, when nature itself was a thing to be feared, conquered and placated. Now, as modern civilization has reached the brink of nearly destroying the tree of nature on which our very existence depends, society has a different view of nature as something to be cherished, and a new passion for connecting with the natural world. In my interpretation of the mythic Green Man, I simply took this new passion to its logical extreme.
So, when in the course of time I finally decided to self-publish the book because I was, and still am, hopelessly in love with my Green Man and want to share him with anyone who might appreciate his charms, one of the most important parts of the process for me was making sure that the cover image gave readers an evocative suggestion of how to ‘see’ my Green Man.
Luckily, my artist friend Deborah Harris has been a longtime supporter of my work, and when I asked her if she would be willing to create a portrait of Fergus, she embraced the idea wholeheartedly. Deborah is a marvelous painter, but I wanted a woodcut, because for years I have admired her floral woodcut designs, and I felt sure that she could create an image that would straddle the border between the imaginary and the ordinary.
At first we had some discussions about what Fergus looked like. She sent me a few trial sketches that had elements I wanted – the twining leaves, the sensual eyes. But the cheeks were too cherubic, too innocent. I wrote her back and told her to take a look at some photos of the character of Spike, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At the time, I was at the height of my obsession with that show, when it was in its witty, genre-breaking prime. A few weeks later Deborah sent me an image and asked, “Will this do?”
“Yes,” I said, “yes, it will, yes.”
Since then, of course, the book has not exactly blazed a trail through the publishing world. But it has been read and enjoyed by a few people, and this brings me great satisfaction. I know I don’t personally have the strength or courage or vision to save the natural world from the forces of destruction bearing down upon it. But if enough men and women unite in not only seeing, but being green, maybe there’s hope for us all.
Not, of course, the real, bloodthirsty, unwashed, yellow-toothed criminals who robbed and raped their way around the high seas back in the day. No, the pirates we love are the cute and cuddly comedians whose sense of fashion is matched only by their quick way with a quip.
It wasn’t always thus. Those of us who grew up watching the great Robert Newton as Long John Silver, with his squinty eye and peg leg, snarling at young Jim Hawkins in the 1950 Disney version of Treasure Island, had an entirely different impression of pirates. Charm didn’t enter into it.
But all that changed in 2003 when Johnny Depp minced across the deck of the Black Pearl in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film. Pirates have been in vogue ever since.
Seattle was way ahead of this trend. The city’s love affair with pirates dates from 1949, when the first Seafair Pirates, an all-volunteer group of hearty swabs, splashed ashore during the city’s annual summer celebration of all things seaworthy. The Seafair Pirates have been around here long enough to have become a beloved institution. You have to apply to become one, and they don’t take just anyone, though one assumes that if Johnny Depp wanted to prance in, no questions would be asked. After all, Captain Jack Sparrow won the heart of many a discerning film critic. It’s hard not to love a guy who can make fun of himself while wearing eyeliner and wielding a cutlass. And don’t forget those boots. As if.
In Seattle pirate chic never goes out of style, but there’s no doubt that one of the highlights of the piratical calendar is today, September 19th, better known as Talk Like A Pirate Day. This fabulous idea began spreading like a YouTube hit before YouTube existed, thanks in part to a hilarious Dave Barry column which ran in the Miami Herald in 2002 and kicked off the concept, a brainchild of two very funny guys, Mark Summers, aka Cap’n Slappy, and John Baur, aka Ol’ Chumbucket.
Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket have since penned several books designed to help pirate wannabes set sail with style. Their first how-to book, Pirattitude, with an introduction by Dave Barry, is a must-have for those wishing to make a pirate statement. A more recent release, The Pirate Life: Unleashing Your Inner Buccaneer, could change your life. Or at least keep the neighbors guessing where you’ve buried the treasure.
Some readers don’t. Some prefer slender paperbacks, which tuck tidily into a suitcase, books which promise not to weigh the reader down with sorrow or reality, even when the plots involve serial murders or child molesters. In fiction, we can expect to enjoy the satisfactions of justice, or, failing that, at least the comfort of revenge.
I’m a fan of Dickens and Melville. I like sagas which go long, take detours, ramble through the wayside and offer disparate views of the action. But, in all my years of reading I’d never met a fantasy saga that got under my skin until I took a chance on George. That’s George R.R. Martin, for those of you who, like me, pay little attention to The New York Times bestseller lists. Had I been taking notice in the past decade I would have been aware of this colossus of invention.
But, wait, you may say, what about Tolkien? Yeah. About that. Back in the day (that would be the late 60s for those of you born too late to enjoy the peculiar blend of insanity and merriment that flourished under the reign of King Richard) the legions of Lord of the Ring worshippers were recruiting heavily, and I tried to like the books. But seriously, I could barely stomach The Hobbit, with its almost complete lack of female characters, its tiresome pacing, its creaky attempts at humor and its general tedium. For years I refused to even pick up the actual trilogy, until the looming film version inspired me to see what all the fuss was about. I dutifully plowed through all three books. And I repeat: almost complete lack of female characters, tiresome pacing, creaky humor, and OMG the tedium.
I realize there are those who hold LoTR as a sacred text, and I mean no disrespect to Tolkien, or the thousands of wannabes who have been trying to follow in his literary footsteps ever since. But really, I think literature grows through innovation that draws not only from the past, but from the gritty present and the vast and unknowable future. And, if that’s the criterion on which we judge the merits of fantasy epics, then the contest is over and George R.R. Martin is the clear winner.
I started A Game of Thrones after reading a funny piece in The New Yorker about Martin’s difficulties with his immense fan base, a vocal minority of whom were irritated because they thought he was taking too long writing the final book of the five-part epic fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire. Within the first hundred pages I was trapped. There was no way I could stop reading this thing.
Some critics have described the work as a blend of Lord of the Rings and The Sopranos, and I can see why they’d make that connection. The story contains some of the classic elements of fantasy – the sword fights, knights, castles, magic, etc., combined with the cold-blooded violence and misogynistic male bonding of the Mafioso genre. Fundamentally it’s about power struggles, and how they warp and wound everyone who gets in the way. But Martin’s epic offers much more in the way of characterization, plot development, and stunning action.
For me one of the most striking aspects is Martin’s credible use of children in central roles. Harking to the grim realities of our own medieval times, when children had to grow up quickly and education was only for the nobility, Martin tells much of the story through the eyes of the five Stark children, most of whom are under 10 years of age at the start of the saga. It’s a measure of his gifts as a writer that we soon forget about age entirely, the way children themselves do, living in the now, believing themselves capable of almost anything, and in many cases suffering terrible consequences.
Another strong point in Martin’s favor is that he has fitted out his saga with more than one strong female character, some of them noble and good, some of them not so much.
And then there’s Tyrion, the dwarf. Brave, cunning, far more decent and kind than he lets on, and supremely likable, for this character alone Martin deserves some sort of merit badge. He’s added to the literary lexicon of unforgettable characters. I don’t get HBO, but I’m already looking forward to seeing the new series based on the saga, especially after I learned that the estimable Peter Dinklage is playing Tyrion. And Jason Momoa is Khal Drogo. OMG.
I’m up to page 700 in Book Two, with miles to go before I’m through. Just how I like it. So that’s what I’m taking to the beach this summer.
I spent most of yesterday being someone I’m not. Sort of a vacation from myself. I wasn’t alone.
At the Seattle Convention Center, the Emerald City Comicon was swarming with thousands of devotees of fantasy, sci-fi and general all-purpose make-believe. My kind of people.
I had always wanted to attend one of these things, but, lacking willing companions, held back, not wanting to be the lone pathetic geezer in the mosh pit, so to speak. But when one of my daughters urged me to go with her group, I ended up playing a role with which I am all too familiar: the “ironic housewife” from a sort of interactive online comic called “Homestuck.”
I know almost nothing about computer games. I’m in awe of their complexity, the speed with which the younger generation masters them, and the level of artistry in their world building and character design. However, “Homestuck” isn’t quite like any of the usual shoot ’em up, find the talisman type games. It’s kind of an existential ironic riff on the limitations of human experience and computer programming. With monsters.
I played along because, really, my main motivation for attending this particular con was that Spike was going to be there. If you don’t know who Spike is, what can I say? There’s too much back-story to cover, but, in short, he was a character on the iconic television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, for my money, he was the most charismatic vampire ever. Bar none. Over the course of six seasons his character continually evolved. He went from your basic blood-sucking demon, to a kind of neutered comic relief bad guy, who gradually developed a crush on his worst enemy, and ultimately, through intense personal suffering, became a heroic figure who literally saved the world. Not bad for a bleached blond creature of the night.
So, when I learned that James Marsters, the actor who played Spike, would be at this year’s con I knew I wanted to go, even though I had reservations. It can be a rude awakening to encounter one’s heroes in the harsh light of reality. Sometimes they seem a lot shorter, shallower, less heroic.
As I waited in the dark auditorium with six or seven hundred fellow enthusiasts, I hoped James wouldn’t let me down. He didn’t. As part of a three-member panel of former Buffy actors, he shone with self-effacing wit, humor and intelligence. I didn’t even mind that he spoke in his normal voice, rather than the pseudo-Cockney accent which was part of Spike’s enduring charm. I left the auditorium feeling soothed and uplifted. Not only because James didn’t disappoint, but because the entire event reminded me of why I love my counter-culture.
There were representatives from all corners of the universe at this thing. They came in all ages, all sizes, all genders, and embracing a vastly diverse spectrum of belief systems. And the mood among the thousands of fans was one of mutual admiration, tolerance and respect. Sort of like the way we used to think democracy would turn out.
I realize that sci-fi fans and fantasy geeks are still in the minority in this country. But I think what they bring to the table has value far beyond the box-office. The idea that humans have room for improvement, the hope that other worlds might know a few things we could stand to learn, the hope that we can all someday just learn to get along with each other. Yeah. Maybe that’s too far-fetched. What can I say? I’ll believe anything.
And here’s why: life is confusing enough as it is.
Yet, obviously for some brainy writers it’s not enough for a novel to combine a plot, characterization and compelling narrative authority into a coherent whole. The challenge is to create a fictional world in which nothing is reliable – not the narrator, not the apparent setting, and certainly not what passes for a plot.
However, once you get used to the idea that you can’t trust anything to be what it seems, in this sort of novel – one which refuses to behave like a civilized, domesticated piece of fiction – it can be kind of thrilling to let go and see just how far out or in deep the author can go.
Charles Yu, in his brilliant, confounding, yet ultimately moving novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, provides an extraordinary journey outside the box of conventional narrative. His hero is not heroic. His quest may or may not be real. His experiences are simultaneously profound and mundane. The novel has moments of violence, tenderness and dry humor.
But Yu’s subject, ostensibly time travel, is explored with acute sensitivity to one of the great paradoxes of human life – our awareness of time and the effect this has on the way we live. Our attempts to beat the clock, to escape the consequences of being dependent on our ticking hearts, to somehow control time so that we can . . . live forever? Undo past mistakes? Fix the world, or at least our own small lives?
Yet make no mistake, while How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe does indeed include descriptions of time machine building, and a gauzy film of computer wizardry veils the suspension bridge of disbelief, Yu’s use of the concept of time travel has more in common with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot than Wells’s The Time Machine.
Yu is most lyrical when reflecting on the experience of being human in a world of constant change. Early in the novel the hero says: “Time isn’t an orderly stream. Time isn’t a placid lake recording each of our ripples. Time is viscous. Time is a massive flow. It is a self-healing substance, which is to say, almost everything will be lost. We’re too slight, too inconsequential, despite all of our thrashing and swimming and waving our arms about. Time is an ocean of inertia, drowning out the small vibrations, absorbing the slosh and churn, the foam and wash, and we’re up here, flapping and slapping and just generally spazzing out, and sure, there’s a little bit of splashing on the surface, but that doesn’t even register in the depths, in the powerful undercurrents miles below us, taking us wherever they are taking us.”