Book Review: The Best American Noir of the Century – Edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler

I checked this hefty volume of short stories out of the library because I had been so impressed by the collection The Best Mystery Stories of the Century.  What is noir and what makes it different from mystery?  Well, it’s a subgenre of mystery that’s particularly gruesome.  It’s often told from the perspective of the criminals and involves foul deeds such as murder.  Several of the stories in this volume, in fact, also appeared in the Best Mystery Stories anthology, which I thought was redundant because one of the editors is the same and it comes across as a sort of companion volume.

This anthology has a lot of fine stories, but it is not as uniformly excellent as the other.  For one thing, it’s depressing reading when all of the stories are dark.  For another, several of the stories, especially the early ones (they are arranged in chronological order of first publication) come across as dated – little more than pulp fiction whose whole purpose is the lead up to the twist ending.  Some of these older stories are more silly than scary.  In fact, I almost stopped reading the book because of the lack of quality of the early stories, but I’m glad I persevered, because the quality dramatically improves about a quarter of the way in.

Among the outstanding stories in this volume is “Texas City, 1947” by James Lee Burke.  It’s a bleak tale about three children in the hands of an abusive stepmother, but its poetic descriptions and vivid characterizations make it leap out of the pages and draw the reader in.  Similar excellence is found in “Faithless” by Joyce Carol Oates.  It’s another story, curiously, of the reactions of children to tragedy.  As I mentioned, there are a number of other fine stories as well.

One story that particularly caught my interest is “Midnight Emissions” by F.X. Toole.  The story is about the world of professional boxing, and Toole was the pseudonym for a boxing trainer.  The book of short stories that “Midnight Emissions” appears in was the basis for Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award-winning movie Million Dollar Baby.  The most fascinating fact, though, appears in the editor’s introduction of the author.  Toole received nothing but rejections for forty years before he managed to get a short story published in a literary magazine at the age of 69.  Talk about persistence!  Then his collection was published, and he died soon after when he was 72.  His only novel was published posthumously to great critical acclaim.  This anecdote reminded me that fame is illusory, and desire alone is not enough for writers.  Imagine forty years of rejections.  You sure got to have a thick skin.

Anyway, as I said, this book is readable, and some stories leap out at you and grab you like great stories should, but it is not as consistently excellent as The Best Mystery Stories of the Century.  So if you have time to read just one thick book of mystery stories, read that one.

*     *     *

I came back to this collection to finish it off after a trip to New York and back.  I couldn’t take the book with me because it’s too heavy.  Something else bothers me about it.  It’s full of dark, bleak, twisted characters who allow themselves to perform ghastly deeds with sometimes very little motivation.  Some of the stories have decent character development, although not all; but even the ones that do leave you with the feeling that life is impure, gross, and illicit – not something that can bring you joy, but rather something like a minefield that can easily explode and destroy you.  Going through over seven hundred pages of stories like this left me disquieted and uneasy.  I really don’t have such a cynical, negative view of life.  To be honest, I have written some very dark stories too, but then I turn around and write something else to restore balance.  There is no balance in this collection – only darkness.  So beware.  I’m going to have to change my focus for awhile and concentrate on more positive things.  Too much negative drags down the soul.

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Life Is Entertaining

This essay came about because of a terrible commercial I’ve been seeing lately on various TV and internet sites.  In it, a certain A-list Hollywood actor walks around a city, and as he does, scenes such as those that appear in various types of films erupt around him.  He explains that if you get so-and-so brand of subscription television service, you will never have to be without something to watch because you can access it on your TV, computer, smart phone, or whatever else you have that picks up an internet signal.  And whenever I watch this ridiculous commercial, I’m thinking: What the hell?  Is this what modern life has come to – that the goal of our endeavors is to anesthetize ourselves against reality 24/7?  Is that really what we want?

Hell no.

I’m not a purist; I watch films and television too.  But I watch them in a balanced way.  I usually watch an episode of an old TV show off Netflix or Amazon Prime while I’m eating lunch and again when I’m eating dinner.  That’s it with the TV watching during the week.  On the weekends, I usually watch movies with my teen son on Friday and Saturday evenings.  Sometimes on Sundays as well.  That’s it.  I can’t imagine a constant barrage of so-called entertainment hitting me all the time wherever I go.  It would be a nightmare, not a benediction.  It would leave me no time to think.

I’m a writer.  I write for a living.  Sometimes it’s a struggle financially, but that’s the way it goes.  The point is: I work at my desk at home, and so every day, seven days a week, I force myself, whether I feel like it or not, to get outside and take a walk of at least a mile and a half or two miles.  That’s besides the thrice-weekly exercise routine that I do in the house.  Sometimes I’m tired or I think I don’t have time for that walk but I do it anyway.  As I walk, I don’t listen to music with headphones or watch things on my smart phone (actually, I don’t own a smart phone – just a rudimentary one that receives and sends calls and text).  I walk through the neighborhood alert to the sights and sounds around me.  Fortunately we live in a fairly quiet residential area, and so the input is positive: soft rain falling or warm sun shining, birds chirping, the wind rustling in the bushes and trees, green lawns, flamboyant sprays of flowers, towering evergreens.  As I walk, I drink in these stimuli with my senses.  These walks feed my spirit.  I can’t imagine voluntarily cutting myself off from experiencing what’s happening around me.

For a more extreme example, I think back to the time I spent on the road traveling through Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent back in the 1970s.  There was no internet, let alone smart phones.  The only way I had to keep in touch with friends and relatives back in the States was those little folding pieces of paper called aerograms.  They only had room for a short note – no photos, no videos.  For entertainment, I carried a book.  Can you imagine if I had had a smart phone and kept my nose in it instead of paying attention to the exotic landscapes and cultures around me?  What would have been the point of going?

People need time to think, to observe, to contemplate, to absorb.  They shouldn’t be sucking in canned entertainment all the time or they’re going to grow warped and distorted, some sort of parody of the phony image that all these programs attempt to imbue.

That’s why I object to this commercial.  It summarizes one of the worst aspects of American culture.  When people eat too much food, they have all sorts of health problems.  Similarly, when they consume too much popular entertainment, they have problems of the mind and spirit.  They are less able to think for themselves and make important life decisions.

You don’t have to have so-called entertainment with you wherever you go, just as you don’t always have to carry snacks when you go out.  Sometimes, yes.  Not always.  It reminds me of the passage from Ecclesiastes that Pete Seeger adapted as a song in the late 1950s and the rock group the Byrds made into a hit in the mid-60s: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…

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Book Review: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

The first book by Malcolm Gladwell that I read was Outliers, and I thought it was terrific.  Its premise, in brief, is that genius comes through practice, and Gladwell gives examples such as Bill Gates and the Beatles to prove his point.  The book was intensely inspirational because it left you with the feeling that if they could do it, so could you.  Although circumstance and luck are integral components in the equation, if you try hard enough and long enough and keep at it, you will continue to get better and better.

Gladwell specializes in giving interesting examples to broad generalities.  He doesn’t really deal with the nuances and exceptions.  That’s true of Outliers and even truer of The Tipping Point, which was actually published before Outliers.  In The Tipping Point, Gladwell goes into a theory of what makes epidemics, and he defines epidemics very broadly to include hit television shows, bestselling novels, rampant smoking, excessive suicide statistics, overwhelming outbreaks of violent crime, and other phenomena that fulfill certain conditions that cause them to reach a certain point and then grow exponentially.

According to Gladwell, the three rules that create tipping points that lead to epidemics are The Law of the Few, The Stickiness Factor, and the Power of Context.  By the Few, Gladwell means highly influential people he calls connectors and mavens who know a lot of other people and therefore spread ideas and products. Stickiness refers to how contagious something is and what makes it irresistible.  Context is, of course, situations and circumstances that must be present to allow the epidemic to spread.

All of this is fascinating, and yet despite the unique and sometimes bizarre examples Gladwell describes to illustrate his theories, it all remains highly abstract.  Strange truths, yes, but nothing you can really use.  The problem is, all of the examples are anomalies that happen through very specific combinations of all these factors.  I have to admit that I was hoping for something a bit more practical: perhaps some thoughts on how one could create tipping points to inspire advertising campaigns, dissemination of ideas, and sales of books.  Alas, this appears to have been far from Gladwell’s intent.  Don’t come to this book looking for any sort of practical pointers.  You won’t find them.  The examples are too specific, too isolated in circumstance.  It’s like a tour of volcano sites in which you marvel at the natural wonders, and the guide explains in general terms what causes such phenomena but wouldn’t have a clue as to how you would artificially initiate or stop one.

Just as in so many instances in the past, the problem may lie with my expectations for the book, and not in the book itself.  Obviously The Tipping Point is not meant to provide any guidelines or practical tips on how to bring about or control epidemics; it’s an explanation, a guide describing what they are and some of their key attributes.  On the plus side, Gladwell writes in clear uncomplicated prose, and the examples he gives are always interesting.  If you’re approaching Gladwell for the first time, go with Outliers first, as it’s better organized and more practical and coherent.  But The Tipping Point is also well worth reading.

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Book Review: The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century – Edited by Tony Hillerman and Otto Penzler

This is a monster of a book: eight hundred pages of stories.  It’s also an excellent book, and probably the best value for the money of any book I’ve ever bought.  I came across it at the annual Seattle Friends of the Library book sale.  It was a like-new hardcover, jacket intact, and it cost me two bucks.  I wish money could always be that well spent.

When I grabbed it off the piles of books for sale, I had the vague idea that it might be a good idea to tackle a few mystery stories.  Sometimes I have a tough time coming up with story ideas, and I supposed that working in a new genre might stir up the creative juices, so to speak.  It has worked, by the way.  I recently finished a dark mystery story that I started around the same time I started this book.

I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading this heavy tome.  Usually when I read an anthology, I like some stories, feel so-so about others, and dislike yet others.  This anthology, though, rose well above the norm.  I found myself enjoying story after story.  The level of excellence remained high throughout.  Sure, I liked some more than others, but I didn’t dislike any, and there are very few that I would classify as mediocre.

The editors have the stories arranged chronologically, with the oldest stories first.  The older stories, though, did not feel dated.  I suppose the mystery genre is not time-specific.  Many of its situations can happen anywhere, to anyone.  I thought that “mystery” involved some sort of sleuthing or detective work, and that was true for some of the stories, but not all – not even a majority of them.  It seems that in the estimation of the editors, any story that involves a crime, particularly a murder, can be called a mystery.  Fair enough.

There are too many stories to appraise them all, but one that I was especially pleased to see here is “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” by Harlan Ellison.  This story has a history with me.  When I was nineteen and had recently realized that I wanted to be a writer, I heard that Ellison was giving a reading on the University of Washington campus in Seattle.  He was a great showman – telling anecdotes and answering questions – but when it got down to the reading, he had all the lights in the auditorium turned off except for a single small lamp at the podium, and he read this creepy, terrifying story about the new murderous god of New York and the people that worshipped it.  The experience was awesome.  I learned that he was in Seattle teaching at a science fiction workshop called Clarion West, and I enrolled for the following year – 1973 – and Harlan Ellison himself became one of my early writing teachers.

Many great writers have dabbled in mysteries from time to time, and the table of contents in this volume is full of literary luminaries.  There are names you would expect such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen, John D. MacDonald, Stephen King, Lawrence Block, and Donald E. Westlake.  But there are also stories by so-called literary authors such as John Steinbeck, Pearl S. Buck, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Joyce Carol Oates.

All in all, it’s an excellent book, and a great choice for writers who want to learn by example how to put together gripping, well told tales.

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Book Review: Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living – Edited by Manjula Martin

Let’s get one thing clear from the outset: this book is not about what the title says it’s about, what the back blurb says it’s about, or what I thought it was going to be about.  Finally, I thought: A book about how to make a living as a writer.  Only it’s not.

The essays in it are about writing – at least most of them, but they are not about how to survive financially as a writer.  To the opposite.  Most of them are about how impossible it is to make it as a writer.  They are stories of traumas and failures, not triumphs, with few exceptions. The book is filled with horror stories of despair and inexplicable behavior.  The prize, in my opinion, goes to the author who went $50,000 in credit card debt while writing her first book, and $85,000 in credit card debt writing her second book.  That’s inspirational?  That’s supposed to provide guidance to struggling writers?  That’s any sort of example for anyone to follow?

The book is readable and even entertaining, for the most part, although there was one essay I just couldn’t get through and had to skip over.  However, its vision is very narrow.  Its premise is that if you want to create, whether it be through writing or any other form of art, unless you are one of a few notable exceptions, you can’t make a living at it.  This is not what I need to hear, and also it’s not true.  I personally know a number of people who make a living at it, and I have read about many, many more in books, magazines, and online forums.  It can be done.  This book was like almost three dozen voices whispering or sometimes screaming in my head how hard it is and why I shouldn’t even try.  And it’s fine if the editor meant to collect essays on the angst and disappointment and discouragement inherent in the writing experience – if that was the intent then it succeeded admirably.  In that case, though, the problem is with the title, cover copy, and marketing.  It just doesn’t deliver what it implies that it will.

There are some good essays in this book, and the best ones are those in which the writers do not attempt to be ostentatious and literary, but instead simply and honestly tell their stories.  Even if a story is grim, I appreciate it if it is written from the heart without accompanying bells and whistles and other adornment.

One major problem, and perhaps the reason the book is full of gloom and doom instead of hope, is that it focuses almost entirely on the traditional publishing scene and ignores the modern phenomenon of self-publishing.  Many of the full-time writers I know or have heard of make comfortable livings through self-publishing, not through major New York publishing houses.  Some of the writers in this book decry the lack of diversity in publishing – and that is true of traditional publishing.  But self-publishing is a whole new game, and anyone can play it.  The field is open for writers to upload their books into online literary marketplaces where they are on display along with those of traditional publishing houses.

Yes, this book has numerous flaws and gaps, and I’m not sure I can recommend it as a result.  I don’t mind so much that it deals mostly with traditional publishing.  My biggest objection is the overall negative tone and the lack of hope it offers idealistic would-be writers.

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Evolving Experiences at Norwescon

Less than a week ago I returned from Norwescon 40, which is the third Norwescon in a row that I have attended.  Norwescon is one of the largest science fiction conventions in the Northwest United States.  It focuses mainly on science fiction and fantasy literature, as opposed to other conventions that highlight comics or movies or TV shows.

Norwescon is not the first convention, or con for short, that I have ever attended.  That was ConDor in San Diego.  Then, after I moved to Seattle, I attended Potlatch, a small con primarily connected with the Clarion workshops.  Norwescon, though, has seemed ideal for me and my teen son, as it’s not far from where we live and has just the right balance of activities to keep us busy and happy.

I’m somewhat of an anomaly in the science fiction universe.  Most writers and fans I meet have attended cons almost all their lives.  Cons are a natural part of their existence.  However, I lived overseas for thirty-five years and had no access to such events.  By the time I moved back to the States I was eager to see what they were like.  Many of my writer colleagues don’t come for recreation at all.  They come to meet up with friends, sure, but they also come to “work” the con.  They see a con like Norwescon as an opportunity for marketing – which is a valid perspective, of course.  For me, though, the experience is too new to see it merely from a business perspective.  Perhaps in a few years, I will approach it differently.

Each of my three years at Norwescon have been markedly different.  At the first one I had been living in Seattle for less than a year.  I had met a few local writers at Potlatch, but otherwise I went in not knowing anyone.  I attended panels, perused items in the dealer’s room, and marveled at the flamboyant costumes of many of the guests.  The con was very heavily attended, as George R.R. Martin was the guest.  My son was flipped out to meet him and get his autograph.  We even stayed at the hotel for Saturday night.

The next year we expanded our stay to Friday and Saturday nights.  I attended a Clarion West party on Thursday, but I had to return to the city on public transport late at night, as my son had school and I had to pick him up to bring him on Friday.  I had gone to local writer’s gatherings throughout the year and so I met several people I knew in the hallways; it was very different from the year before when I had gone in relatively incognito.

This past year I ran into a lot of people I knew. I was also a panelist for the first time, on a special panel about Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.  We stayed two nights again, and the weather was good so my son went swimming every day in the hotel pool.  This was sort of a pivotal point; I was coming in both as a fan and as a professional.

Next year, who knows?  I am ambivalent about whether I want to apply to participate in more panels, thus making that the main focus of the experience, or remain laid back and spend most of the time with my son.  I will decide over the coming weeks.  For now, I am basking in the pleasant memories of the con that has just passed.  I don’t want the business of marketing to spoil the fun.  On the other hand, participating in the panel was fun.  We’ll see.  There’s time to decide on the next step.  For those of you writers and readers who enjoy science fiction and fantasy, I recommend Norwescon as a bright interlude and escape from the usual day to day grind.

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Book Review: The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck

I’ve wanted to read this book for months – actually for over a year now.  I first spotted the hardcover at the physical Amazon bookstore in the University Village here in Seattle, but it was too pricey for my budget, so I reserved it at the library.  It was taking so long to work its way through the reserve list that I gave up on it.  Then I found and bought a used copy at the annual Friends of the Library book sale.

When I first started reading it, several things reminded me of the travel memoir A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.  First of all, both books deal with long journeys along historic trails. Bryson attempts to hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine, and Buck decides to retrace the Oregon Trail that the pioneers used to settle the west from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Baker City, Oregon, using a team of three mules and a covered wagon.  Secondly, both authors have sidekicks that add comic relief to their adventures.  Bryson has his friend Stephen Katz, an overweight recovering alcoholic who “looks like Orson Wells on a bad day.” Buck has his brother Nick, a boisterous, foul-mouthed recovering alcoholic who is nevertheless congenial and endearing.  Both books intersperse the modern exploits of their characters with extended researched sections describing the places they are going through and their history.  Finally, both books chronicle multiple misadventures as the authors find out that their travels don’t exactly work out how they thought they would in the planning stages.

Admittedly, Buck’s journey is much more ambitious than Bryson’s.  Bryson merely had to pick up some camping equipment and food and set out hiking.  He was out of shape and had to adapt to the rigors of the trail, sure, but it’s a fairly simple process to continue to put one foot in front of the other.  Bryson, in fact, eventually is forced to compromise; he does not walk the entire trail, but at a certain point abandons his vision and merely drives in and walks the trail at various spots.  Buck, on the other hand, puts together an elaborate setup of three mules, a covered wagon, and a pup-wagon he has custom-made to follow behind and carry extra supplies.  He has to constantly study multiple maps and adjust his course, as the modern Oregon Trail is beset with obstacles such as fences across private land and interstate highways.  Despite all of the difficulties and problems they encounter, Buck and his brother persevere and make it all the way to Oregon – an extraordinary feat.

The book is very entertaining; it kept my interest throughout.  It’s full of fascinating information and anecdotes.  The descriptions of the arguments and reconciliations between Buck and his brother Nick, as well as Buck’s reminiscences about his wagon travels as a child with his father, add depth to the narrative.

As I read, I found myself recalling my own travels around the world that I recount in my memoir World Without Pain: The Story of a Search.  I also took off on the road to fulfill a personal vision.  However, the comparison breaks down early.  I left almost broke, hitchhiking and taking odd jobs along the way for pocket money. Buck, on the other hand, invested a great deal of money in his rig and the mules before he ever started, and had an endless supply of finances to make repairs and buy supplies as they went along.  That’s one thing that occurred to me: the original pioneers may have been poor struggling farmers seeking opportunities in the west, but following the Oregon Trail in modern times is a rich man’s game.  You have to have a lot of disposable income to make it work.

Still, I’m thankful that Rinker and Nick Buck made the trip so that I can follow along vicariously.  It’s not the sort of trip that I would make, at least not by covered wagon.  I can imagine myself following the route in a camper, perhaps, but that’s a completely different sort of journey.  Back in my hippy traveling days, I was young and strong and I could endure almost anything.  Now, I move more slowly and have to pace myself.  Books like this allow me to accompany others on exciting adventures that I would otherwise be unable to undertake.

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“He/She/They” in Enter the Apocalypse

Enter_the_Apocalypse-FrontCoverThe anthology Enter the Apocalypse, edited by Thomas Gondolfi and published by TANSTAAFL Press, has just been released, and it includes my story “He/She/They.”  All the stories in the anthology concern catastrophic events that threaten the human race, including zombies, deadly viruses, and nuclear holocaust. My own story is about invisible alien tourists benignly observing our society; when humans become aware of them and react negatively, the aliens push back. You can find the collection in print or electronic editions at Amazon and other online bookstores.

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Book Review: The City on the Edge of Forever by Harlan Ellison

Some readers may wonder: What’s he talking about?  The City on the Edge of Forever isn’t a book; it’s a Star Trek episode.  It’s both, in fact.  The City on the Edge of Forever was the twenty-eighth episode of the original series of Star Trek; it first aired on August 6, 1967.  It is widely regarded as the best episode of the original series and even one of the all-time best episodes of all the various Star Trek television incarnations.

This book contains an eighty-five page introduction by Harlan Ellison, the award-winning author of the original teleplay, detailing the battles he had with the studio, and Gene Roddenberry the producer in particular, as he tried to keep the integrity of his original teleplay intact in the face of an incredible amount of studio-mandated changes, and the further problems he had in the ensuing decades with Roddenberry recounting a distorted version of the events during his numerous public speaking events.  Ellison then presents the original teleplay as he first wrote it, before any of the studio changes, in its entirety.  Then follows an example of a partial rewrite of the prologue and first act, and a series of essays about the episode by some of the actors and writers involved in the original Star Trek series.

I was fourteen years old when The City on the Edge of Forever first aired.  I was already hooked on the series; I had never seen anything like it on network television.  I watched it in black and white; my family never acquired a color set until I was grown and gone.  It didn’t matter: the heart of any teleplay is the script.  I remember being deeply touched, even at that young age, by the love story in The City on the Edge of Forever and its heartbreaking conclusion.  Even way back then, on first viewing, that episode became one of my favorites.

Later, I came across one of Harlan Ellison’s short stories, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” while taking a university science fiction literature course, and I came to the realization that I had to be a writer – that being a writer was my calling in life.  And when I had just turned twenty, in the summer of 1973, I attended the Clarion West science fiction writing workshop, and Harlan Ellison was one of my teachers.

But back to Star Trek and the teleplay – at least in a roundabout way.  In the evenings around eight or eight-thirty or so I usually watch a TV episode from Netflix or Hulu or Amazon while I’m eating dinner.  (We follow the Greek habit of the larger meal at midday and something lighter like a sandwich later on.)  In this manner I’ve watched several seasons of Star Trek Voyager, the full seven seasons of Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and numerous other series.  (One of my favorite series was The West Wing, especially the first four seasons when Aaron Sorkin was still writing for it.)

Recently I decided to revisit the original series of Star Trek.  I hadn’t watched most of the episodes for several decades.  I opted to go through all three seasons in order, without skipping any of the shows no matter how bad I knew they were.  And some of them are bad – no, terrible.  There’s a fairly decent amount of good scripts throughout the first season and partway through the second season.  That’s when Roddenberry hired accomplished science fiction writers to pen the teleplays.  However, by the third season, the writing is very bad, and so is the production design.  The sets are almost non-existent – painted cardboard cutouts here and there and not much more.  Shows like Voyager and Deep Space Nine went far beyond the original series in terms of special effects, makeup, and the sophistication of their long, multiple-episode story arcs.  However, there are a few original series episodes that shine brightly despite the ravages of time, and one of them is The City on the Edge of Forever.

I don’t really want to get involved in the controversy surrounding the original teleplay and the final script that actually got shot.  In fact, both incarnations received honors.  The episode that appeared on television won the Hugo Award, and the unedited original teleplay won the Writer’s Guild of America Award.  To me, watching the old Star Trek episode and reading Ellison’s excellent teleplay in book form are completely different experiences.  Since this is a book review, that’s what I’ll focus on: the book.  The teleplay that never got produced, that was judged too radical and not Star Trek enough, is absolutely brilliant.  Ellison writes it with as much intensity and as careful word selection as is manifest in his short stories.  I would love to have seen it produced, but even in this form, as a work of literature, it is well worth reading.  As for the introduction, I recommend it to anyone who wants to work in film or television as a counter to any fantasyland delusions they may have that all is sweetness and light in the city of stars.

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On Rereading Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

While reading the encyclopedic collection of descriptions of worlds created by science fiction and fantasy authors called Literary Wonderlands I encountered a synopsis of a book I’d never read but I thought might be interesting.  It was famous and popular and critically well regarded, at least within a certain genre, so I thought I might give it a try.  When I acquired a library copy of the thick tome, I plunged in: ten pages, then twenty pages, and then more…  The problem was, so little happened that I began to get frustrated.  The descriptions were ornate and dripping with accomplished prose, sure, but there was no story.  I thought: Am I going to be able to keep this up for so many hundreds of pages?  The answer was no.  Life is too short.

I can’t be without something to read, though.  Casting about for a substitute to help get the bad taste of the last volume out of my literary mouth, I settled on rereading a novel by Zelazny.  His prose is as amazingly descriptive and ornate as the best of them, but he also knew how to keep a story moving at a decent clip.  At first I thought I might reread This Immortal, his first novel, but I had read it fairly recently, at least within the past few years.  Instead, I remembered I had a copy of Lord of Light, which I hadn’t read for at least a decade.

Lord of Light is Zelazny’s longest and most ambitious single novel.  Well, I can’t say that for a fact because I haven’t read all of his books, but I have heard it said.  I think I prefer This Immortal, which is about half the length and is much tighter and reads almost like an extended novella.  Zelazny excelled at shorter lengths.  His masterpieces are novelettes that he wrote early in his career such as “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” and “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth.”  That’s not to say his novels aren’t great – they are.  It’s just that his shorter works go beyond great into sheer brilliance.

Lord of Light posits a world in which the original colonists from Earth have set themselves up as gods from the Hindu pantheon so that they might exploit and oppress later generations of the planet’s inhabitants.  The god’s powers and attributes and other relevant concepts such as reincarnation are all explained scientifically, elaborate deceptions to foster and continue the first generation’s claims of godhood.  Accelerationism, which is the granting of scientific knowledge to the mass of humanity that lives in subjugation to the gods, is ruthlessly crushed, as are any teachings that promote the theory that the gods are anything less than what they claim to be.  The novel is about a rebellion by one of the first colonists, who wants to expose the gods, throw down their celestial city and its oppression, and teach scientific knowledge to humankind.  He has various names such as Siddhartha, Buddha, Tathagatha, the Binder, Lord of Light, and Mahasamatman.  However, he prefers to call himself Sam.

Many of Zelazny’s primary heroes have similar attributes: they are physically strong; they are knowledgeable and clever; they are skilled in martial arts; and they smoke cigarettes and drink significant amounts of alcohol.  Sam is no exception.  Zelazny’s heroes are also typically tall, but because Sam has multiple bodies throughout the story, he escapes this attribute, at least in some of his incarnations.  I mean this in no way to detract from Zelazny’s abilities as a writer.  He was one of the greatest of the so-called New Wave writers of the late 1960s through early 1970s.  Tragically, he died of cancer in 1995 when he was only 58.

As I said, Lord of Light does not have as consistently strong narrative voice as some of Zelazny’s best shorter works.  It starts fast, slows down a bit in the middle, and then zooms to a smashing finish.  Overall, though, it is one of the best novels of the 1960s, a great read, and well deserving of the designation of classic.

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