Monday, June 29, 2009

Norman Spinrad's "The Iron Dream"

I've always loved science fiction and adventure stories, and I like them enough to take them seriously, to think about them, and occasionally, to be alarmed by some of the more disturbing assumptions built into them: the veneration at force, for instance, and the Totally Evil Alien Race, where we cheer the hero on when he kills them, often to the point of extermination.

This brings me to Norman Spinrad's "The Iron Dream," a book by counterculture "New Wave" author Norman Spinrad, who wrote one of my all time favorite science fiction stories, "A True Drug Culture," about an entire society that is under the influence of drugs near-constantly, tackling a taboo topic that receives blanket condemnation by censors, a subject it's hard to imagine John W. Campbell and his stable even considering. Norman Spinrad has always been one of my favorite science fiction writers, edgy and controversial the way people in the sixties and seventies often were, a real contrast to our play-it-safe culture. Another of my favorites was the politically loaded "Bug Jack Barron," which was about an American media pundit, sort of like a morally principled version of Bill O'Reilly, that encouraged political debate on his show.

In short, Norman Spinrad was the guy that best personified what was happening in science fiction in the 1970s: its ability to be experimental and edgy, defying the traditional science fiction stories that were penned by the hundreds in the 1940s and 1950s featuring cigar chomping, wisecracking badasses that use dubious engineering to solve their problems.

Norman Spinrad was one of the chief writers of Moorcock's "New Worlds" anthology, and it's interesting to compare Spinrad to Moorcock, not the least of which because in the late period of their career they started to write historicals as opposed to straight up science fiction: Moorcock with "Mother London" and Spinrad with things like "Mexica."

Spinrad's "The Iron Dream" is a novel with a twist: it is a book supposedly written by Adolf Hitler, who in an alternate history didn't go into politics and never became Furher of Germany, and instead moved to the United States where he was involved in early science fiction fandom first as a cover artist, and finally as a writer. In addition to the pulpy, intentionally bad novel "Lord of the Swastika" written by Hitler, the book also sports a parody of science fiction academic reviewers, and fake blurbs from other writers, like "Hitler, in his debut novel is electric!" There's even a fake ad for buying other books by science fiction novelist Adolf Hitler, all with malevolent sounding titles like "Tomorrow the World" and "The Master Race."

Here's the rub, the big joke, the giant irony behind Spinrad's book: it isn't different at all from any other adventure, pre-1960 science fiction or Sword & Sorcery novel! It has the same steely-eyed hero with big muscles, a magnificent and unwavering sense of destiny and purpose, with enemies that are vile, subhuman monsters.

As Ursula K. Le Guin put it: "The prose style is prudish and stiff. There are no women at all, no dirty words, no sex of any kind: the book is a flawless example of clean obscenity. It will pass any censor, except the one that sits within the soul." The book isn't so much a parody of Hitler and Nazism, but of the entire escapist adventure genre, which loudly claims to be without realism or political content but is nonetheless loaded with ideology, such as the role of the innately superior man, the superiority of militarism and muscular, authoritative action over careful intellectual consideration and diplomacy.

I'm sure the prudish Robert E. Heinlein fans and Alpha Male worshippers will find much to admire in "Hitler's" novel, as lots of people just don't get the joke, especially those prone to fooling themselves about how certain escapist and cynically produced adventure books have no political content or statement. There was one fanzine reviewer in the 1970s that talked about how "Lord of the Swastika" was a rousing adventure yarn, but spoiled by all this stuff afterwards about Hitler. The hero of "Lord of the Swastika," Feric Jagger, is a laughably invincible superman. That's the whole spirit of the book: Ferric Jaggar is an idealized "Mary Sue" wish-fulfillment character for Adolph friggin' Hitler, and yet, he is really no different than any other Sword & Sorcery or Sci-Fi alpha dog hero. That sort of discomfort is the most thought-producing aspect of the book.

Norman Spinrad really lays it on thick: at once point it describes the hero in such loving detail it was laughably homoerotic, talking about his large muscles and sexual presence. Here's the weird part: his intentionally homoerotic description is actually no different than the many times that Edgar Rice Burroughs lovingly describes Tarzan's "nut brown body with the curves of a Greek god."

It goes without saying that Hitler's book is intentionally awful. The violence is so lurid and over the top it's a type of war-porn. The book is filled with creatures like pinheaded mutants, malevolent, mind controllers and giant ameobas with hundreds of jibbering mouths and thrashing tentacles.

In the end, the book is interesting because it places moral demands on the reader, which many Westerns and other books don't: villains are villains and Must Be Killed. It also lampoons a mentality among fans of genre fiction that I just don't get. One of my ex-girlfriends that loved Romance novels but despised generic, formulaic bodice-rippers and stupid virgin female heroines, talked about how annoyed she was by other romance novel readers, how they always say something like "oh, I don't care much for realism, it's all supposed to be a fantasy anyway."

In the end, the political statement of "The Iron Dream" is intertwined with its parody/critique of genre fiction that goes beyond S&S and science fiction pulp. In the end, truly formulaic science fiction and adventure stories don't have any value. The greatest function of crap is to inure the reader to more crap...something I was just thinking about when I saw reviews for Transformers 2 where apologist critics knuckle under to the proles and teens that made that film a box-office hit and say it was a good example of formulaic genre fiction, and so forth.

Finally, I think it's worth noting that science fiction has really cast out the idea of the idealized, fifties style alpha male Heinlein father figure. I recently reread S.M. Stirling's recent novel, Island in the Sea of Time, about how the island of Nantucket finds itself transported back to the Bronze Age, and what struck me as extraordinary was the main villain of the novel, if it was written back in the 1960s, would have been its hero: he was a clear-eyed idealist, handsome and muscular, that never questioned his own actions or explained himself, and the very qualities that would have made him heroic in fifties fiction make him malevolent and frustratingly intransigent in modern times.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Legend of Julian

I don't like to use this blog to talk about myself, an activity I always thought was self-absorbed, however, this time it's important and significant enough to mention.

First, you might have noticed there are more updates than normal, as the school year has wrapped up.

Second, the Peace Corps responded to my application. The good news is, I've been nominated to a program in Eastern Europe to teach the English language. Right now I'm in the process of doing my health, dental and psychological forms. Their background checks did turn up a few little gremlins, but nothing I'm terribly worried about as entirely significant. The good news is, I will probably be shipping out thereabouts the end of summer. After that, I'll promise to spend part of this blog with updates and photographs from my new location.

Monday, June 22, 2009

David Gerrold and the Birth of "The Next Generation"

Here's a great promotional clip from 1987 where Entertainment Tonight interviews David Gerrold, who was, in almost every sense the co-creator of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Almost every idea that, from the outset, defined TNG as distinct from its predecessor was Gerrold's idea, not Roddenberry's:

  • Families living aboard a starship;

  • The First Officer should lead landing parties, so as not to place the Captain in any danger;

  • The office of a ship's therapist or counselor;

  • The idea of a Klingon on the bridge.

There are probably a few more I'm forgetting. That last one was an idea that Roddenberry resisted for an extremely long time; Worf was actually the last member of the bridge crew to be cast. Indeed, there are some early promotional materials that don't include Worf at all.

In fairness, there were a few ideas that Gerrold wrote that didn't make it to the series. One of them (years before SeaQuest!) was that the Galaxy-class Enterprise would have giant tanks to hold dolphins and whales, for both research, and to allow the cetaceans to work as navigators, made easier by their natural ability to think in three dimensions. Apparently, TNG held Cetacean intelligence very highly, if they were actual parts of the crew. I'm actually kind of glad this ideas wasn't used, as it would have dated the series terribly. The faddish American love of all things dolphin reached a crazy feverishness in the late 1980s.

In some ways, what happened in the first series of TNG was understandable. Gene Roddenberry had the Star Trek movies taken away from him after the cost overruns of The Motion Picture, where he had to acept the humiliating credit, "Creative Consultant." In fact, I remember hearing the idea for what Gene's version of Star Trek II would have been like: it would have involved Klingons going through the Guardian of Forever to assassinate JFK, which sounds as goofy as some of the silliest episodes of the original series, where Kirk battled evil alongside Abe Lincoln.

One of the biggest not-so-secret secrets of Star Trek (along with Wesley being Picard's son and Shatner wearing a rug) was that Gene Roddenberry was responsible for the plot leaks during production of Star Trek II, which he did to whip up fan outrage over the death of Spock. Nichelle Nichols, Gene Roddenberry's mistress during his first marriage, explained and defended Gene's actions on this point. Still, Gene vowed that if he got the chance, he would do HIS Trek, and the Great Bird of the Galaxy controlled his series with paranoid zeal that alienated a lot of the people that worked there, who claim Roddenberry took sole credit.

This is why it is so surprising to see a TV spot with David Gerrold. Writers have described First-Season TNG as an armed camp, with Roddenberry against the writers’ room. People that have worked on Star Trek for decades, including Dorothy Fontana and David Gerrold (arguably TNG’s co-creator) left Trek at this time. There was one very moving scene, remembered by Gerrold, where he once found Roddenberry face-down on his desk, weeping, and said “all of my friends have abandoned me.”

It’s obvious this atmosphere didn’t affect TNG for the better. The First Season of Next Generation was mostly unwatchable and boring. Everything the critics said about TNG was mostly true: it wasn’t a worthy sequel to the original series. The gigantic, unreal popularity of TNG was at least a season or two away.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Chelo Alonso, the Cuban H-Bomb

One person I was always fascinated by was Cuban burlesque dancer turned movie star Chelo Alonso. Che Guevara personally tried to convince her to return to Cuba after the Revolution, without success; she acted in films with directors Sergio Leone and Mario Bava, and starred alongside Steve Reeves.

Chelo Alonso, in the fifties and sixties left Cuba for Paris, where she performed at the famous Burlesque club, the Folies-Bergères. She was billed as "the Cuban H-Bomb," Josephine Baker for a new generation, who combined the traditional bump n'grind of the revue with Afro-Cuban rhythms. I've often been intrigued by a lot of the Cuban performers that took residence in Europe. The most famous of course was Jazz pianist Bebo Valdés, who moved to Stockholm and spent several decades performing Cuban Jazz piano concerts there.

Chelo Alonso later went to Italy for film parts and most people know her for THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, where she was mute and delivered no dialogue. Chelo spent a career playing the exotic evil queen, particularly during the Peplum boom. In fact, Chelo Alonso even acted alongside Steve Reeves himself in GOLIATH AND THE BARBARIANS. One of my personal faves was MACISTE IN THE VALLEY OF THE KINGS, where she played a seductive, evil Cleopatra-like dark villainess.

The Marx Brothers movies always had an interlude where where the rowdy comedy family would pause the screwball stunts and Harpo would sit down to play a harp as beautifully as an angel. Likewise, there was always a scene where they'd let Chelo Alonso dance.

Take a look:

Chelo's looks come from her mixed parentage, equal parts Mexican and Cuban. It's interesting to note that in Cuba of the 1950s, Mexican movies were shown and played as often as American ones, and being Mexican was associated with glamour and exoticism. This is in very real contrast to the United States, where people of Mexican background are often exploited for labor. In fact, I remember that my Grandpa and Grandma used to tell people they were Mexican! One of the best existing photographs of my grandmother has her with her hair done-up Princess Leia-style in elaborate braids, in imitation of the Mexican peasant woman style.

Chelo Alonso is a reminder of the glory of Old Havana: a sinful and vice-filled society that no longer exists, done away by the austere and fun-hating Revolution. I've often thought there are fundamentally two types of government, and labels like "right" and "left" are a poor way to make this distinction. It's a great irony that the Christian Right would, if given absolute power, create a society indistinguishable from the atheistic, Marxist Cuban Revolutionaries.

Rather, the distinction should be between dirty, vice-filled societies that believe in live-and-let-live, and the ironically more crooked ones created by nosy, sanctimonious busybodies, hypocrites, puritans and moralists.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Julian Perez Goes to the Movies: Star Trek

As this is a pop culture and adventure fiction blog, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the biggest pop culture and adventure fiction event of summer 2009, the STAR TREK movie.

The long and the short of it was that it was pretty darn good. For J.J. Abrams and his writing staff to devote time and effort to setting this movie up as an "alternate timeline" with an actual relationship to traditional Star Trek (as opposed to just a cold reset-button pushing) was a pretty classy decision that respected Trek. I didn't realize this at the time, obviously, but I later read that they even put an effort to keep the stardates in this film consistent with the stardates in the original series. What's more, the movie had a sense of humor and the characters were recognizably themselves...everyone felt "on."

My favorite character from the series, Dr. McCoy, was played with a snap and teeth by Karl Urban, who plays him as a cynical, sarcastic guy and easily the most entertaining member of the crew. Chris Pine does a bang-up job as a Captain Kirk, though I always thought Shatner was a campy, hammy actor, sort of like Adam West only without the comic timing, so he had pretty small shoes to fill there.

In the wake of all the branched-off Trek series like Enterprise and Voyager that just exhausted everyone, it was easy to forget exactly what it was that made Star Trek so great in the first place: the characters. People like the characters and root for them. I've often wondered why Star Trek had such a downright unreally huge set of fans, when other shows from its era (even science fiction shows) have mostly been forgotten (for instance, who today watches, or even remembers, the Ron Ely Tarzan, which premiered the same evening that Trek did?). I think part of it had to have been the great chemistry the actors had, the friendship and warmth and sense of cameraderie. Experiencing this sort of feeling, even vicariously, can be very, very powerful to lots of young people. As Fry put it in FUTURAMA, "Growing up, I didn't have any friends, but STAR TREK made me feel like I did."

Roger Ebert wrote a great review of Star Trek Nemesis where he wrote about how just plain tired all this stuff had gotten. One example he used was the damn forcefield around the Enterprise, where every battle seemed to involve someone counting down the percentage ("shields at 30%!") and how they had to reroute power from the sides to the forward deflector shields or whatever the hell. In this movie, Star Trek is actually exciting: space battles cause explosions and fireball death, and instead of just shaking the camera, cracks form in the metal of the ship itself. Even Warp Speed feels new: the jump effect, in addition to the "thump" sound, actually made the standard jump visually intriguing for the first time. One of my personal favorite effects, and a deliberate throwback to the original series, was the scale-placement of a tiny USS Enterprise near huge, monstrous spaceships and other objects to emphasize the Enterprise's comparative smallness.

The movie was obviously written by a fan. They remembered Sulu was a skilled fencer with a love of swashbuckling, and give him a great sword to boot. They remember that Christopher Pike was the first Enterprise Captain, or Uhura's little silver earring that she wore as a part of her communications duties. A red-shirted crewman gets vaporized as a part of the landing party. They even have a few gags based on Kirk's middle name being Tiberius (a gift given by the Animated Series, incidentally, but more on that later).

It was great they had Uhura as a competent, smart character that actually plays a role in the story as opposed to being a glorified secretary.

The one casting choice that disappointed me was the one I was the most excited about in the beginning, namely Zachary Quinto (Sylar!) as Spock. I didn't realize it until Leonard Nimoy himself showed up, but Quinto lacks Spock's deep voice that lent gravitas to the character, as well as Nimoy's oddball creepiness that made him a natural for unsolved mystery show host duties. Instead of the contained rage that made Nimoy so successful, Quinto more openly expressed emotion to the point where Spock felt more uptight than self-controlled. Worse, except for one great scene at the beginning, Spock just didn't feel all that alienated and lonely: whereas he often stood apart from the Enterprise's mostly human crew if not actively resented (have a look at at "The Galileo Seven"), here Spock is a mostly respected mentor-figure.

The other actor I didn't much care for was Simon Pegg. While the very skilled Karl Urban made a real attempt to duplicate McCoy faithfully, and all the other characters from Pine to Quinto made an attempt to play their characters consistently with their previous characterizations, Simon Pegg went off in a totally different direction that was so "movie comic relief" that he didn't feel like Scotty at all.

The narrative conceit of time travel creating a new timeline felt hoary and overdone, but at least it energized the series with a real sense anything could happen. The movie was truly unpredictable. The one character I fingered as a dead man walking was Christopher Pike...and astonishingly, he actually lives to the end. Christopher Pike lived and Vulcan was destroyed, which is the exact reverse of what I expected would happen.

(I usually try to keep these spoiler-free, but I'm doing this review late so everybody that has an interest in seeing it has probably seen it by now.)

One of the great rules of writing tie-in novels was that you couldn't actually destroy anything important. The decision to blow up Vulcan midway through the film was shocking, because I thought the planet wasn't in danger.

All in all, STAR TREK reminded me of why I like this stuff in the first place. It actually got me scrambling to watch DVDs and list my favorite Trek moments.


1. "Haven"

Part of the reason the Troi-Riker relationship never went anywhere was because how little chemistry there was between Marina Sirtis and John Frakes. Don't get me wrong, both of them are skilled actors, but chemistry requires something unpredictable that those two just didn't have.

The reason I liked Haven was not because of the one thing about it that everyone remembers, namely the introduction of Lwaxana Troi. Lots of people found her annoying. I feel the same way, but that actually works for the character: she reminds me of some of my own relatives. The element of Haven I thought that worked the most was the story involving Wyatt teleporting over to the ship containing the last of the Tarellians, who were all dying of an infectious plague, in the hopes of curing them. I thought it was an extremely powerful ending, but more than that, has greater than normal potential for sequels. What happened to Wyatt and the Tarellians? Did he cure them? Did he die with them? What?

2. The Animated Series

What I always found surprising was that the Animated Series wasn't considered canon over at Paramount. Downright shocking, even, because it was a denial of reality: the animated series introduced valuable pieces of information that have been gospel as it gets ever since, from Spock's childhood (the city he grew up in has been mentioned frequently, as has Spock's pet giant teddy bear) to Robert T. April, to the idea that Tiberius was James Kirk's middle name.

The lack of canonicity of the Animated Series was in general, part of the overall shabby treatment that incarnation of Trek received. It was totally ignored and not even mentioned once, even in passing, in the 25th Anniversary Special and the 30th Anniversary celebration. Leonard Nimoy doesn't even mention it in I AM SPOCK. I have yet to read a single Trek behind-the-scenes book that had the decency to talk to Lou Scheimer about his contributions to the Star Trek legend. In general, the overall narrative among Star Trek fans is that the seventies was a "lost decade" where Trek only had syndicated reruns, conventions and no new material to slake their thirst for things Trek. An astonishing attitude, considering an entire series was produced in that era.

This view of Trek history, nothing more than chauvanism to a "mere cartoon," becomes even more startling when you consider the original cast played their original roles, the series was made under Gene Roddenberry's watch, and many scripts were written by original series writers like David Gerrold and D.C. Fontana (and even science fiction great Larry Niven). All of them were writing and working at the best of their ability and produced brassy, thick science fiction of a kind not seen since the show's second season. What's more, the animated series featured Trek standbys like Harry Mudd, Cyrano Jones, and the Guardian of Forever. The animated series obsessively duplicated the details of the bridge and the look of the ship, and created something near-identical to its visual look. For heaven's sake, this show was even set during the original 5-year mission. If this stuff isn't canon, then nothing is.

In some ways, this series is something of an improvement over the original Trek. For one thing, animation has an infinite special effects budget, and this series showed it: with monsters like the slug creatures that thought the Enterprise crew were pets, to the winged snake-god Kukulkan who looks like an airbrushed van design mixed with a peyote-hallucination (only in the seventies!) and other winged, fanged things that fly and slither on all-water planets and hostile volcanic ones. The episode set on the living, corpuscle-filled organic spaceship made the wobbly sand-filled sets of the original even more embarassing. I have no idea why the series is ignored: animation has a real ability to bring Star Trek to life in a way even live action can't.

3. My brother IRL-Trolls Wil Wheaton

According to the way he tells the story, around the early to mid nineties back when the family still lived in New York, my brother was taking a cab down Lexington Avenue. Because the traffic was intense, the car stopped frequently, and once stopped beside a couple movie theaters. Out of one of them, my brother saw Wil Wheaton, Wesley Crusher, the most hated character in the history of Star Trek, emerge from a movie theater with his date.

My brother unrolled the windows and cried, "Hey, Wil Wheaton!"

The little dweeb turned around and grinned, thrilled to be recognized, especially in front of a date.

To which my brother shortly after shouted " fucking putz!"

4. Maurishka Taliaferro

Maurishka Taliaferro, credited on-screen as Maurishka, may be one of the most historically significant guest-stars in Trek history. Maurishka was an exotic and successful model that was a huge fan of the series, who used her clout to get herself a role on the show itself, the relatively unmemorable Yeoman Zahra. What was even more amazing is, this was all the way back in Operation: Annihilate, the last episode of the very first season!

Maurishka was the first celebrity to use their clout to get a cameo role on Star Trek, a category that would later include Mick Fleetwood, Whoopi Goldberg, the Rock, and Tyler Perry.

5. Della van Hise's KILLING TIME

It's no secret that lots of the writers of the first wave of Star Trek novels got their start as writers of homoerotic slashfic. In fact, it's actually pretty amazing, since the writers of the series were overwhelmingly female. In fact, the term "Trekkie" originally started with writers of slash, a variation on "groupie." This, incidentally, is why many male fans prefer the more masculine "Trekker."

What was even most astonishing is that the first draft of Della van Hiise's manuscript was accidentally published, which was not only unintentionally, hilariously amateur in craft, but also sported tons of slash elements in an actual, mainstream novel: the warmth of Kirk and Spock's fingers as they mind-meld, and the stated idea that Kirk was Spock's true love. Creepy and hilarious, it is definitely one of the top Trek moments.

6. "Who Watches the Watchers?"

One theme of Trek that I always responded to was the idea that religion and superstition was pretty much flim-flam holding mankind's potential back. Trek operated under the humanistic view: mankind isn't perfect but it's the best we've got and we have nearly limitless potential. This view was articulated over and over, but never so explicitly as in "Who Watches the Watchers," a TNG episode that was, in its way, far more shocking than even the "queer" episode with the genderless aliens.

This is the one where a Starfleet observation post is discovered by Bronze-Age aliens who believe Picard is an omnipotent god and turn to worship him. Picard shows them the error of their ways. There was even a moment where an anthropologist encouraged Picard to abandon the Mintakans to their rediscovery of religion. Picard's eloquent response?

"Horrifying... Dr. Barron, your report describes how rational these people are. Millennia ago, they abandoned their belief in the supernatural. Now you are asking me to sabotage that achievement, to send them back into the dark ages of superstition and ignorance and fear? No!"