Zen in the Art of Writing: ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’

Maybe I’ve been working too much too lately or am just getting old (I’m 37), but I thought I’d posted this chapter commentary already. I haven’t, so here it goes…

Much of this chapter has to do with what was once a taboo genre of literature. Once dubbed inferior and not worthy of being read by those who desired to read fiction, science fiction has over the years slowly gained an acceptance. Currently, the top grossing movie of all time, Avatar, is science fiction.

Mr. Bradbury starts off this chapter with a reference to a poem of his about a boy in a semi-animatronic museum in the future. The boy stumbles upon Plato, Euripedes and Socrates.

Kids, Mr. B asserts, became teachers early on in this first time in history as they moved art and teaching “back in the form of pure illustration.” Sci-fi gives us a chance to ask “what if” and be creative.

When I think of some of my favorite sci-fi movies and books, I think of the “What if?” questions they answered…

What if man could design a pressurized space craft to enter into Jupiter and explore its oceans? (Ben Bova’s Jupiter)

What if artificial intelligence took over the world, lost a critical battle to humans and then invented time travel to try to kill the human resistant’s leader’s mother before he was ever born? (The Terminator)

What would it be like for humans in deep outer space with nothing to do but do scientific research? (Frederick Pohl’s Starburst)

What would happen if a corporation’s greed for profits almost allows a hostile lifeform to take over a ship and destroy the crew? (Alien)

What happens when robots do the unthinkable and start thinking for themselves? (Philip K. Dick’s Bladerunner, Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot and Ray Bradbury’s Marionettes, Inc.)

I wasn’t born until 1973, so I was pretty surprised to learn that in the 1920s and 1930s, there was no science fiction in school curriculum and few in any libraries. Even up to 1962 it was difficult, according to Mr. B, to find anything written by Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Alfred van Vogt or Bradbury.

Why was this? I defer to Mr. B, since he was an adult and aware back then. He believes the perception then was that facts and not fiction were worth reading. Fantasy literature was considered escapist and a waste of time.

But inevitably, kids grew more and more curious and wanted to read these books. This led to an explosion. Sci-fi flooded the market. Instead of being confined to pulp fiction magazines or paperbacks in dime stores, sci-fi graduated to hard cover and was soon in libraries and first-hand book stores.

More importantly, according to Mr. B, sci-fi brought with it new ideas that then turned into advances in technology. People read these books and get ideas. Perhaps someone long ago read Jules Verne’s book about traveling to the moon and thought, “Why can’t we travel to the moon?”

This is one reason why I’ve grown to love the fantasy science fiction rather than the “hard” science fiction. Hard bores me. I’ve tried to read a few of these books and am amazed: unless you have an advanced science degree in physics or engineering, you’re often lost. Too often far too much time is devoted to technical information while the story line is left to wither. I like the stories that ask “What if?” and let the imagination take them where they will.

Richard Zowie is a professional writer who likes reading science fiction. Post comments here or e-mail him at richardzowie@gmail.com.

Telling stories versus recycling old ideas

One of my great pleasures in life is to use e-mail to pick the brains of people who’ve spent decades in industries of interest to me and learn what I can from them.

One example in the movie industry is Gary Kent, a gentleman who’s had quite a long-ranging acting career. He’s been an actor, writer, producer, director, worked in stunts and many other facets of filmmaking. In his movies, I’ve seen Gary in one movie in particular, the 1973 film Let’s Play Dead. The title Let’s Play Dead and the cover showing an unseen man taking a hatchet to a playhouse seemed very creepy.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the film that I remember from watching it years ago: A woman suffers a car breakdown and looks for help. She encounters two brothers (Gary played the older brother and his friend John Parker played the younger brother), and before long they kidnap her and put her into a room with two other women. One of them’s been there for months. The two men terrorize the women, and we learn the men have a major mother issue straight out of a Sigmund Freud session.

The police finally start investigating, find the two women (the other died) and come to the house where “Mom” is. In an oddly-strained voice, she tries to tell them nothing’s awry. Well, they don’t buy that and enter the house. The movie ends with Gary’s character dead by suicide and John crying.

Where’s “Mom”? She’s a corpse in the master bedroom and apparently has been dead for years.

This movie sticks out in my mind even today, when you consider how many cookie-cutter suspense/thriller/horror films are out there. You know the basic formula: deranged killer escapes from custody and goes on a horror rampage. And, yes, something at the end will strongly suggest a sequel. It’s a formula that’s been done again and again and again and again. Sometimes it gets so cheesy that what was supposed to be a horror film (Jack Frost–the serial killer who becomes a murdering snowman–not the Michael Keaton movie) evolves more into an unintentional comedy. The human imagination is a wonderful, powerful thing, but yet it seems too much like it’s limited.

A few weeks ago, I e-mailed Gary and asked him how Let’s Play Dead came about. He confirmed that what was said on Internet Movie Database was true: the film’s writer, Don Jones (who also directed) was intrigued by a news report out of Los Angeles where a car was found abandoned on the shoulder of Interstate-5 (which runs from the U.S./Mexican border to the U.S./Canadian border). The female driver was never found. They wondered what may have happened to that driver and took the story from there.

Gary added that he and John based their brother characters loosely on people they’ve known or read about.. This reminds me of Edwin Neal, who played the Hitchhiker in Texas Chainsaw Massacre and said in an interview that when he read the script, the hitchhiker reminded him of a crazy relative; he performed his audition like the relative and was cast.

Asking “what if?” and creating a movie is a formula used for dark works of fiction also:

What if a Catholic school was run by a secret society of its male students? (The Chocolate War)

What if a cocky adolescent kid discovered a paper route customer was a fugitive Nazi and decided to blackmail him–only to have the Nazi turn the tables on him? (Apt Pupil)

What if a couple having marital problems ends up in a deserted Nebraska town run by a dangerous religious cult? (Children of the Corn)

And from one of my all-time favorite films:

What if a crew of space explorers are tricked by their employer into picking up a hostile alien lifeform that starts killing them one by one? (Alien)

I’ve never written by a screenplay, but I have to think great movies–especially suspenseful ones–come when we ask “what if” and let our imaginations take over.