Book Review: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year 2017 Edited by Jonathan Strahan

I’m only about halfway through this book but I’m starting the review. There’s precedent for it. Sometimes I begin reviews as thoughts occur to me. For instance, the last time I read Martin Eden by Jack London I wrote a review in three installments and published it as three separate blog posts. It just depends on how much there is to say. This anthology is a very long one, though, and I want to jot down some comments while stories are still fresh in my mind. It’s difficult to remember twenty-eight stories covering six hundred pages after the fact. Unless they’re unforgettable, of course. Some of these are, but so far not many.

That’s the thing with best of the year collections: the selection constitutes the opinion of one or two editors, and we all have our own criteria of how we select our favorites. This collection leans heavily on fantasy, which is not often my forte. (Although I have put out one collection of exclusively fantasy stories: Fear or Be Feared: Fantasies, and fantasies do make occasional appearances in some of my other collections.) Many of the stories I would consider readable but so-so. Some, however, stand out.

I often comment on individual stories in collections and anthologies in the order in which they appear in the book, but I’m going to break rank and give first place to a story that blew me away as few stories have in recent decades. I’m not exaggerating in saying that this story alone makes buying and reading the entire anthology worthwhile. (We’ll put aside for the moment that I couldn’t afford to buy it and had to borrow it from the library. That’s been an ongoing issue with me for awhile, the finances, so we won’t bring it up again.) The story – novelette, actually – is “You’ll Surely Drown Here If You Stay” by Alyssa Wong. It is pitch-perfect, not a word wasted. Wong won the Nebula Award last year for her short story “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” – which was a good read – but I think this story is even better. I’ve seldom felt so strongly about a story in recent decades. The visceral thrill I got while I was reading it and the gut-punch at the end reminded me of my reaction to Harlan Ellison’s stories in the late sixties and early seventies when he was turning out one brilliant masterpiece after another. Alyssa Wong is a major talent, and if she continues to improve, we are going to see some amazing work from her.

Another story that stood out for me, not because of its idea but because of its execution, is “Mika Model” by Paolo Bacigalupi. The plot has been done many times before, both in literature and in film: it’s about an android call girl who is well nigh irresistible to men, even men such as cops who should know better. What’s unique about this story is that Bacigalupi tells it in a sleek, lean, condensed style that rapidly leads up to its strong climax.

Fan fiction, which is the borrowing of other universes and character for story ideas, varies from poor or mediocre amateur efforts to award-winning stories from major writers such as “Lost Girls” and “Sister Emily’s Lightship” by Jane Yolen. Delia Sherman dives into a steampunk version of the world of Sherlock Holmes in the imaginative and entertaining novelette “The Great Detective.” It’s an origin story, in a sense, but a most unusual and innovative one.

*     *     *

From this point on, the review may become a bit disjointed, because I have begun research on a new writing project that may involve reading several books, and I am finishing up the reading of this book at the same time.

I mentioned that there are a number of so-so stories in this volume. There are also a number of pretty good stories.

But one story that stands out in the latter half of the book is “The Art of Space Travel” by Nina Allan. It’s a character-driven story about a woman who works at a hotel near an airport in London, and the hotel is about to briefly grab the attention of the world because two astronauts who are heading for Mars will soon stay in the hotel for one evening. The woman’s mother used to work in aeronautics, and she has been incapacitated and is in an advanced stage of early-onset dementia because of an accident concerning the previous Mars attempt. A beautiful story that quietly but deeply touches the heart.

The story “Red Dirt Witch” by N.K. Jemisin is so pure and powerful that I was weeping by the end of it. Few stories do that. And I realized that the strength in this one is born of a life lived in its deepest truths; that is, if the author had not lived through what’s in the heart of the story, she would never have been able to tell it with such clarity and heartfelt emotion.

Another story that strikes deep and true: “Red as Blood and White as Bone” by Theodora Goss. It’s a sort of fairy tale set in Eastern Europe. It immediately follows “Red Dirt Witch,” and the two stories have remarkable similarities in that they both seem to spring from the writers’ pasts and somehow link those pasts to the present in the conclusions. Beautiful tales, both of them.

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“The Lady of the Lost Valley” in Lost Worlds: Short Stories


Lost Worlds

Lost Worlds: Short Stories is part of the Gothic Fantasy short story series by Flame Tree Publishing. It’s a beautiful hardbound volume with an embossed cover that features works by classic and current authors on the subject of lost and hidden worlds. It includes well-known stories such as “The Country of the Blind” by H.G. Wells, “The Man Who Would Be King” by Rudyard Kipling, and “At the Mountains of Madness” by H.P. Lovecraft as well as excerpts from The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle, Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. Why do I make this announcement? Apart from the fact that the book is awesome and I can hardly wait to dive into it, amongst this august company is a little-known contemporary author named John Walters. Not only that, but because the editor placed the stories in alphabetical order, “The Lady of the Lost Valley” by John Walters is sandwiched in between works by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Maybe that has more significance to me than to anyone else, but I find it amazing to find myself in a table of contents surrounded by giants of literature such as these that I grew up reading and admiring.

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Book Review: The Fifty-Year Mission: The Next 25 Years: From the Next Generation to J.J. Abrams by Mark A. Altman and Edward Gross

The first book in this two-book series, which told about the original series of Star Trek and the movies based on the original series, was highly entertaining and difficult to put down, at least to a long-time Star Trek enthusiast like me. I hesitate to call myself a fan, a Trekkie, because I have never acted on my enthusiasm other than watching the shows. I don’t dress up like a Federation officer, I haven’t learned Klingon, and I wouldn’t go nuts if I encountered one of the star actors or writers of the series or movies. I have had indirect association with people who have written for Star Trek. Harlan Ellison, the writer of “The City on the Edge of Forever,” which many people consider the greatest Star Trek episode of all time, was one of my Clarion West teachers long, long ago, and the writer of the animated series episode that won an Emmy award was one of my classmates. And I do enjoy watching the various TV series and movies.

The first book, which I thought a rather weighty tome, was about 500 pages long. This follow-up book is 840 pages, and the print is smaller and more compact on the pages. There’s a lot of information in all those words. Similar to the previous volume, the history is told in spliced-together interviews of many of the people involved in production, and also similar to the first one, it is fascinating and full of strange but true stories of which I was unaware.

It kicks off with the history of the birth and seven-year run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and it is full of horror stories of misused and unappreciated personnel. The production of any series that involves shooting twenty-six episodes in a single season is bound to be problematic, but the problems with The Next Generation concerned ripping off the work of other writers and then not giving them sufficient pay or credit for it, arbitrarily imposing restrictions on what writers could write about, creative sabotage, and other nefarious deeds.

By the time The Next Generation was going into its final seasons and the Next Generation movies were being produced, Deep Space Nine began, and at the same time Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek and a powerful force behind what creative direction it was allowed to take, died. This set DS9 free to embark upon multi-episode story arcs, which previously were forbidden, and to take a darker approach to its material. Then, during the final years of DS9‘s run, came Star Trek: Voyager, and near the end of Voyager‘s run, the prequel series Enterprise premiered. After that, there was a Star Trek production void until 2009 when J.J. Abrams revived the franchise with his new movies.

The book goes into detail on the creation of each of these series and films. It begins with the initial ideas for each, how the creators planned for the new productions to fit into the overall Star Trek universe, the hiring of producers, writers, and cast, and how each series evolved in response to ratings, the visions of their writers, and reactions of fans and producers.

I doubt that these books find much readership among those who are not already Star Trek fans. There are too many details, too much trivia. It’s a shame, in a way, because they offer a lot of insight in how the creative process works, both in TV series and in feature films. I would recommend them to people interested in a career in television or film writing – and also, of course, to those who have grown up appreciating the cultural phenomenon that is the Star Trek universe.

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Book Review: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

This is a tough book to get through. It’s not entertaining reading. I almost put it down several times. Not that its prose is difficult to fathom; no, that’s not the problem at all. It’s that it is so unbearably bleak; it’s such a downer.

I picked it up because, as a science fiction writer, I am interested in projections about the future. From the beginning, though, the author dismisses the existence of a God or gods in a sentence or two, and soon afterwards he also dismisses the possibility of the existence of the human soul, free will, and individuality, instead positing that we are all nothing more than biochemical algorithms. His reasoning? Scientists cannot find or quantify God, souls, free will, or individuality, and if they haven’t yet been able to find these things, then they must not be there. All of his reasoning stems from these speculations, which are presented as facts. Having experienced spiritual realities myself, I found this hard to swallow. Still I persisted, because I was interested in where this reasoning might lead.

According to Harari, humanism has been the dominant religion on Earth for the last few centuries, and it is threatened by new scientific realities. Humankind has all but conquered the age-old ravages of war, plagues, and famine, and has now set its sights on immortality, bliss, and god-like attributes. However, this will either create a great gap between the elite haves and the masses of have-nots, or an even greater gap between non-human super algorithms and human biological lesser beings that cannot compete with overwhelming AI superiority. Shades of Elysium. Or The Matrix. Sure, we’ve heard it all before. But the most frightening thing is how Harari reduces humans down to algorithmic entities so that somehow what happens to us supposedly doesn’t matter so much anymore. And he backs it all up with a lot of salient facts and very erudite arguments.

He’s a good writer; there’s no doubt about it. The blurbs on the back cover for his previous book, Sapiens, are from such luminaries as Barack Obama and Bill Gates. Heady praise indeed. However, that doesn’t change the fact that this book is almost unbearably bleak. It’s almost like a death knoll or a dirge for the human race. It suggests that we are hell-bent for a horrible dehumanizing future and there’s nothing we can do about it. The only ray of hope, as I said, is for a small group of elite billionaires who can afford to enhance themselves sufficiently to ride out the quiet but deadly wave of destruction. Unless the machines take it all first and exterminate us.

But the main problem here is not even the dark vision of the future. It is the picturing of humanity as gray, flat, two-dimensional beings without spirituality, souls, creativity, individualism, or free will. That gives us nothing to fight with, nothing to use to escape from this future purgatory. Our primary weapons against a dead, angst-ridden future are creativity, spirituality, individuality, love, and free will. Take them away and what do you have left? Not much.

So yes, it’s a dark, negative book that offers little hope for the future. It might be useful for science fiction writing ideas – but then again, the dystopia it posits has been seen again and again in science fiction, as far back as the 1960s and even earlier. Would I recommend it? I don’t know. It’s a difficult read, but it does have a lot of brain fodder in it. Your call.

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Book Review: Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is an international literary superstar. Every book he writes quickly climbs bestseller lists and sells hundreds of thousands if not millions of copies. Since I’m not in the financial position of being able to afford to buy books these days, I had to wait on the local library reserve list for months before it was my turn to get one of the over forty copies of this book in the system. It turns out it’s a small, slim volume and I could read it in a couple of days, even while concurrently working full time researching and writing articles.

As the title suggests, the stories are all about various men and their broken relationships with women. There are seven of them all together. The first several are standard mainstream stories, but told in a peculiar three-act style. The first part consists of a sort of info-dump describing the main character, his personality, and his life. The second part, usually told as a conversation between a narrator and the main character or a secondary character, recounts the dramatic crux of the story in an indirect way, sometimes by simply talking about what happened to the main character in retrospect. The third part consists of the conclusion, which is either another info-dump or conversation, in which the narrator, alone or with the main or a secondary character, wraps things up. The stories have very little action and don’t come to definite resolutions. They are more like slices of life in which the reader glimpses the lives in question and then is left alone to figure out their significance.

For me, the stories get very interesting in the latter part of the book. The best, in my opinion, is called “Kino.” It’s about a man who gets divorced and decides to open a bar on a backstreet in a small town. It’s a quiet place and he’s content there for a time, but then some strange characters start showing up – in particular an enigmatic man who always orders the same drinks and reads books while he sips them. This story takes a decidedly dark turn when this man tells the bartender that something is wrong and he has to leave town and travel. The story ends with the bartender in a faraway city, alone in a hotel room, being stalked by some sort of spirit. Although the ending is inconclusive, there is a noir ambiance to it, a hint of magic realism, and a suggestion that something in the bartender’s psyche rather than real flesh and blood humans are haunting him.

Another well-told tale is a riff on the Franz Kafka classic “The Metamorphosis.” In Kafka’s tale, a man named Gregor Samsa wakes up in his room to discover he has been transformed into a giant insect. In Murakami’s story, “Samsa in Love,” Gregor Samsa wakes up to find out he has been transformed back into a human. He does not remember his life as an insect, but he has an inordinate fear of birds. He is all alone in the house and cannot remember who else lives there or anything else about his past except his name. When a locksmith, a hunchbacked woman, arrives to fix a lock, she explains that some tragedy has hit the town and people are fleeing. As she goes about repairing the door, Samsa falls for her and begs her to return. It’s a sweet, sweet story – a sort of fan fiction. Curiously enough, I have just been researching and writing about the literary phenomenon of fan fiction for a book review that I’ll publish in the future, and the Clarion West Science Fiction Writing Workshop is soon doing a one-day special workshop on the subject. It’s not always an amateur pursuit – some of the best writers have done it, as evidenced by Murakami, and even won awards for it.

One thing I notice when I read Murakami’s recent novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and also this book, is that his characters are very polite – far more polite than characters in American novels. Obviously that’s a cultural thing. I also think that inevitably his works lose some of their nuances in translation. I have mixed feelings about this collection. It starts slowly and only comes alive in the last third of the book. I also can’t help but think that an unknown writer would have a tough time marketing such stories to American magazines and anthologies. That’s not a reflection on their value, but rather on the condition of the U.S. literary scene. Editors and readers are impatient; they don’t want to wait for a story to gradually unfold but expect physical or emotional explosions on the first page. We could learn something from some of the classic short story writers who allowed their tales to unfold at their own natural paces, and from the readers who had the patience to go along on the journey.

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On the Self-Help Book I Couldn’t Bring Myself to Read

My son and I have been making frequent trips to the local library during these final weeks of summer. I browse through the new book shelves and he looks for DVDs and graphic novels. On my last visit I came across a supposedly inspirational book for writers and other artists. I don’t want to mention the name because it is never my intention to denigrate other authors in these essays and reviews. I write reviews to tie in my reading to the larger body of my fiction and memoirs, and I try not to read what I don’t like. If I start a book and it leaves a bad taste in the early stages, I usually put it down and go on to something else without mentioning it, with a few notable exceptions.

Anyway, I started paging through this book. It was a fairly short book and large print besides. I’ve started to read large print books sometimes for two reasons: first, my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be; and second, sometimes popular books that are unavailable in regular editions are often more easily available in large print.

I was feeling discouraged with my own progress as a writer that day, and some of the passages gave me a slight lift. To clarify, though: I am not discouraged with my own work, but only at the slowness of sales and lack of sufficient financial remuneration. I’m very satisfied with the work itself.

So I took the book home and set aside my current reading project and started into it, but it didn’t take me long to realize I’d made a mistake. It was like that large, fancy-looking sweet you see fresh in the bakery window. You feel you’ve just got to have it, but after a few bites you realize there’s nothing to it except sugar and flavor, nothing good for you at all, and you have to set it aside unfinished lest you become sluggish and bloated. I couldn’t read that book; it would have been an unconscionable waste of time. It would possibly be suitable for hobbyists – but not for anyone for whom their writing or other artistic pursuit is a consuming passion.

Why not? To find out, I read more about its author. It turns out she has written a very famous travel book that made her millions of dollars. Well, travel is something I can relate to, having done a considerable amount of it myself. However, to write the book she was given a two hundred thousand dollar advance by a major publisher. In other words, she could travel first class in a manner know to less than one percent of all travelers, cool and easy, with never a care or a danger or any sort of stress. That’s fantasy, not something that has anything to do with the real world. Not that I wouldn’t mind traveling that way myself as a sort of contrast experience. When I set off on the road to find my voice as a writer, I hitchhiked across the United States, bought a round-trip ticket from New York to Luxemburg on Icelandic Airlines for one hundred dollars, and arrived in Europe with less than two hundred dollars to my name. I ended up roaming all over Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent for a year. For me that was luxury mode. For my second trip, I bought a one-way ticket. When I crossed the English Channel from Great Britain to France, I had exactly one dollar and one English pound in my pockets. And this time I stayed gone for thirty-five years.

I just couldn’t get behind this advice from someone with such a large silver spoon in her mouth. Hell, I probably haven’t made two hundred thousand dollars in my entire life. Well, yeah, maybe.  I don’t know. The point is, I have been desperate in seeking the things that are important to me – so desperate that I have been willing to give up everything else, including my own security and safety, to achieve them. And I have been frustrated and disappointed and ground down into the dust and have had to pick myself up and try again countless times. It’s just not true that I can think of my writing as a light, fluffy, saccharine pursuit that I can take or leave, as nothing more than a pleasant-looking feather in my cap. That’s not the way it is, at least for me.

I was going to merely let this pass and return the book without a word, but last night I was uploading a couple of my novels to new sales channels. These novels are really good work, and I read a chapter or two from them as I was giving their formatting a final check, and I felt deeply disappointed that they were not selling better. I know that some of my former mentors would say that I should not let it bother me. Sales are not in my hands; they are not my choice; they are the choices of readers. My triumph is the writing itself. Well, sure, but I write to be read, damn it; I write what I feel is unique; I write the type of books that I would like to read but can’t find. I can’t help but be bummed out when they don’t receive the appreciation I feel they deserve. I know I’m not alone. I could give many examples of writers who composed masterpieces that remained unappreciated until long after they were dead.

Sigh. All that from a too-sweet self-help book. The moral of the story, artists, is this: don’t settle for the easy way out, the feel-good attitude that it’s all an effortless walk in the park. Sometimes it isn’t that easy. Sometimes you may have to walk your path alone, without anyone else to protect or encourage you, and with no other inspiration other than that you believe it’s the right thing to do, the thing you were made for, and you’re willing to go it alone straight out into the unknown and drag your insecurities and fears and issues of low self-esteem with you. Once you begin the journey regardless of the obstacles, the problems often slough away, at least temporarily, but they often come back to plague you like the many-headed hydra. That’s just the way it is. You gotta do what you gotta do. And if you really gotta do it, you will do it with or without sugar-sweet self-help books.

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Book Review: Literary Life: A Second Memoir by Larry McMurtry

I found this book during a random search of the biography/autobiography section of my local library. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that as much as I can remember I have never read anything before by McMurtry – not that it matters. There are many writers esteemed to be among the best that I haven’t read. I’d need a hell of a lot more time than the years allotted to me to read them all. McMurtry is renowned as the author of Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show, and other works mainly set in Texas. He also co-wrote the screenplay of the film Brokeback Mountain, for which he received an Academy Award.

Literary Life is part of a trilogy of memoirs by McMurtry about the important professional interests that have defined his career. The first is about his involvement in the buying and selling of books and setting up bookstores. The second is about his life as an author, and the third is about his efforts in Hollywood as a screenwriter.

This memoir is quite short, and is written in a fluid, easy to read style. It’s a relaxing read; there are few conflicts. McMurtry sold his first book, Horseman, Pass By, fairly easily and quickly when he was quite young, and it was soon after optioned and made into the film Hud. Book after book followed, and though none did outstanding financially until Lonesome Dove, they were all accepted and published and several became successful films. In a certain sense, this account of the writer’s life is unintentionally deceptive, as McMurtry makes it look too easy. Maybe he struggled too, but if he did, he doesn’t let on in this memoir.

What comes across, actually, is a style of reportage that makes you feel as if you are sitting in McMurtry’s living room in Texas, your boots up on the coffee table, a glass of whiskey in your hand, and he’s telling you stories from his life in a congenial, friendly, non-confrontational manner. No controversy, no stress. I don’t mean this as a disparagement of the book. I enjoyed it, actually, just as I enjoy hearing a portion of a life story at a gathering of writers. It’s fun to read what he has to say about major literary figures he has met, his relationships with his editors and agents, and his stint as president of the PEN American Center.

It’s not easy for me to identify with McMurtry. As I said, he has led a charmed professional life compared with most writers – at least that’s the feeling he gives as he recounts his experiences in the publishing world. Maybe his stint as a screenwriter was a rougher experience. I will probably check out memoir number three to find out, and to hear more interesting stories of how he managed to navigate his course through the morass that is the film writing world. All in all, I can recommend this as a decent, entertaining, though shallow, literary memoir, but I would not recommend that beginning writers take McMurtry’s experiences as any sort of standard by which to measure their own budding careers.

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Book Review: The New Voices of Fantasy Edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman

As I read this anthology, I thought of the Clarion West students I have been meeting each summer since I moved back to Seattle. Quite a few of the writers in this book recently attended Clarion or Clarion West, and this showcases some of their work. I look back at my own time at Clarion West wistfully, with regret, wishing I had been more mature at the time (I’d barely turned twenty) and had made better use of the privilege. These writers, in contrast, have matured quickly and have turned out some first-class work.

Another thing that struck me as I read the stories herein is an awareness of the many facets of fantasy. Not many deal with themes that would be called traditional. Sure, there’s the odd vampire, but most of the stories are exceedingly inventive. Some are told from a mainstream perspective, with only a slight bit of fantasy at the end. These I found refreshing; the realism only added to the sense of wonder. A few had no fantasy elements at all that I could find, but I don’t mind that either.

As usual, some stories impressed me more than others. The strongest stories are at the very beginning and the very end. I think it was Harlan Ellison (one of my teachers at Clarion West) who I first heard give these tips on anthology editing: you put your best stories at the beginning to draw them in and at the end to leave them with a good taste in their mouth.

The anthology starts off with an excruciatingly dark story called “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” that won both the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award. This tale by Alyssa Wong is about a creature in a human woman’s body who’s actually a type of vampire that feeds off emotions. It’s bleak and heartbreaking and very well told. Another story that impressed me is “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado. This has very little of fantasy in it until the last few paragraphs, but it is nonetheless intense and absorbing, and when the finale comes, it is easy to see the setup. Comedy is hard to do well, especially comedy in the genre of fantasy, but Adam Ehrlich Sachs pulls it off in the trilogy of humorous short-shorts called “The Philosophers.”

The best story in the book, though, is the last novella, which takes up almost a quarter of the anthology’s length. It’s a beautiful tale of a Pakistani grandson searching for the truth about his grandfather’s past called “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T. Malik. It takes place in a juxtaposition of the cultures of the United States and Pakistan, and weaves its fantasy flawlessly into a touching story of family, love, loss, and redemption. When I finished it, I felt that I had been privileged to encounter something truly special in literature, a feeling I have all too rarely nowadays.

The rest of the stories in the anthology are competent, and some are very good. As in most story collections, not all of them appealed to me, but that’s a near-universal situation with anthologies and collections – at least the ones that I have not put together myself. It’s a matter of taste, after all. I might have tweaked it a bit and subtracted or added this or that story. All in all, though, it’s a good collection with some real classics in it, and it’s well worth the read.

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Book Review: Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

This is an excellent memoir. If I have a complaint, it is that it is too short. I would have loved to have heard many more details and to have Martin not stop at the end of his stand-up comic days but continue the story onward into the next stages of his career. I hope he writes a sequel someday.

I appreciate the fact that Steve Martin, unlike many celebrities who choose to write their life stories, does not need a ghost writer. He is a writer, and he got his first big break as a writer for the splendid and infamous Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

As I mentioned, the book does not tell the story of his whole life. He does recount briefly a portion of his childhood, but it mainly starts when he gets his first real job working in the magician’s shop at Disneyland and ends when he decides to give up stand-up comedy altogether.

I took away two main insights as I read this book, and I can recount the main content as I share them.

First of all, this book reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. The main premise in Outliers, and what Gladwell emphasizes through example after example, is that people with true talent who have achieved extraordinary measures of success did it not because they were born with it and it was handed to them on a silver platter but because they worked on it. He illustrates this with high profile examples such as Bill Gates and the Beatles. Before Bill Gates founded Microsoft, he spent untold hours in his high school computer lab working on programs, so that when faced with the opportunity to excel in this new field, he had the background to be able to take advantage of it. The Beatles did not erupt fully developed into stardom. They paid their dues in shoddy nightclubs and other dives, working many hours a day seven days a week in Hamburg, Germany, and in England. By the time they had sufficiently developed their talent to be recognized, they had paid enough dues to be able to survive on their arduous concert tours.

Steve Martin worked incredibly hard for years in humiliating circumstances before reaching any measure of success. He started, as I mentioned, at the magic shop in the original Disneyland in Anaheim, which happened to be just a few miles from his house. His first shows were demonstrating magic tricks for the customers, and with his earnings he would buy some of the tricks for himself and spend countless hours at home practicing with them. At a certain point he decided he needed to move on, so he got a job irregularly performing magic and doing skits at Knott’s Berry Farm. From there he branched out to coffee houses and other places, blending more and more comedy into his magic act. He would take just about any show he could find, no matter how little it paid and sometimes for no pay. Even after getting his first big break writing for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and afterwards for other comedy and variety shows, he continued to take stand-up gigs all over the country. This gave him practice; he was able to hone his act in front of all sorts of live audiences. As a rising young comedian, he began to get interviews on daytime talk shows and eventually on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, but his big break came when he was asked to appear on the new cutting-edge comedy show Saturday Night Live. He became a true celebrity, so that instead of performing for fifty or a hundred people a gig, he was performing for thirty to forty-five thousand. It was, ironically, this incredible success that caused him to decide to stop doing stand-up comedy, as he became isolated and burned out in the midst of the fireball of fame.

The point, though, is that he kept working hard during those lean years when he was living broke and sometimes in debt and rushing from place to place to accept any gig he was offered. Once in a while he’d get a good paycheck, but much of the time he was just barely getting by. And he could never anticipate audience reaction. There were good nights and bad nights.

The second insight I had concerned the work he accepted during these years. He would take almost anything just to stay busy as an entertainer. It reminded me of myself and how I have often been forced to submit my stories to semi-professional markets that pay much less than professional markets just so they can get published somewhere so someone can read them. I could, of course, self-publish them right away after they make the rounds of the professional markets, but instead I am patient and keep sending them out, as I want them in those other venues first before I publish them through my own company. And the truth is, sometimes I desperately need those smaller paychecks when they come in. Martin’s story encouraged me to keep going, keep striving with the understanding that you do what you can, even if it’s not in the ideal situation, instead of sitting back and waiting for success to somehow bump into you by accident.

In conclusion, this is an excellent book, and well worth reading for anyone who is attempting to succeed at any endeavor. It’s a fairly short and easy read, so take the time to absorb it.

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Book Review: The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman

When the original series of Star Trek first appeared on network television in 1966, I was thirteen years old. I had already been exposed to science fiction on television in the form of Lost in Space a year earlier. I loved that show. It fed my burgeoning appetite for fantasy when I was a child, but it had nothing like the effect that Star Trek had during my teen years. In the beginning, I watched Star Trek – and everything else – in black and white. We didn’t have a color TV. My family didn’t get one, in fact, until after I had moved out for good. Be that as it may, I rarely missed an episode of Star Trek, and when it came out in syndication, I watched those episodes over and over and over again. There was something singular, something special about it. When I determined to become a writer and attended Clarion West science fiction writing workshop in 1973, Star Trek loomed even greater in importance. For the first time, in my classmates, I met people who appreciated it as much as I did. Additionally, the man who had written my favorite episode of all time, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Harlan Ellison, was one of my teachers.

Before someone gave me this new book on the beginnings of Star Trek, I had read a few books about the show. First was The Making of Star Trek, which its creator and producer, Gene Roddenberry, helped to write. Later I read a less complementary biography of Roddenberry.

And now this book.

It’s in an unusual format. It consists of numerous interviews with almost everyone who has ever had anything to do with the show that are edited together to form a coherent story. I can think of all sorts of reasons why this sort of style might not work – and even in this book it causes a lot of repetition – but for the most part it succeeds.

The book starts with the very first genesis of the series in the mind of its creator and follows it through the first three seasons of the original series and the six movies that came after. A sequel, which I haven’t read yet, continues the story from the inception of The Next Generation all the way up to J.J. Abrams’s films. Oddly enough, I was talking with my oldest son on Skype about this book and recommending he read it, and he said he was already reading it. There was a bit of confusion until we both realized that he was reading the sequel and I was reading the first book. Yes, we’re both Star Trek fans.

What can I say about the book? It’s not fair to attempt to summarize it, as the story is too convoluted; it has too many twists and turns and fascinating asides. If you like Star Trek – or if you’re interested in the complications of television production – read the book. Otherwise, you might not find it to your liking. As for myself, I already knew about a lot of the squabbles that accompanied the making of the series, but I had not heard many of the details. I find it an interesting and absorbing book, and I am sure that in time I will seek out and read the sequel. It offers fascinating insight not only into the Star Trek series, but also into how writers and producers and directors and actors work together – or perhaps more often at least attempt to work together. It gives you a crazy close-up look at network decision making, which no doubt continues to this day, even though the means of television production and viewing have changed so radically.

Interestingly enough, I had just finished re-watching the entire three seasons of the original series on Netflix from first show to last shortly before beginning this book. One thing that it helped me see is why there is such a difference in quality between the first season and a half and the rest of its run. It’s a miracle that the show survived as long as it did, and an even greater miracle that it ever became the unprecedented cultural phenomenon that it is now.

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