Dale Lucas

author and screenwriter

Month: June, 2012

The Introvert Salesman, Part I

I knew I wanted to be a writer from a fairly young age—sixish or so. From that time to the present, I’ve done my best to hone the skills I thought important to my pursuit: to love words; to craft muscular, evocative prose; to form flighty, fickle ideas into vast and imposing architectures of character, plot and theme that, in the balance, create the strange beast we call a story. What no one ever told me—perhaps, what changed as I marched through the wilderness of apprenticeship on my way to journeyman status—was that there was another set of skills that I should have been honing at the same time—another set of tools that I should have been adding, piece by piece, to my scribe’s toolbox.

Come to find out, I should have learned to be a salesman.

It may sound silly, but I never thought of selling a book to a publisher as ‘being a salesman.’ Experience has taught me that I hate salesmen (sorry, feminists, salespersons) and I hate being a salesman. Granted, this has a lot to do with what I’ve come to define a salesperson as. While a clerk, a sales rep, or a customer service technician (pick the bland euphemism of your choice) might make themselves available to answer your questions and facilitate check-out, the salesman sells to you: endlessly, forcefully, relentlessly. That distinction is, perhaps, what makes me appreciate helpful customer service reps but makes me loath salesmen (sorry, feminists—this particular pronoun insists on a masculine gender—I tried): when I’ve been the former, I simply felt I was helping people; when forced to play the role of the latter, I feel that my job description suddenly shifts to bilking my customers in a desperate bid for every bit of loose change in their pocket.

I’ve done my time in the retail trenches, and let me be perfectly clear on this: except for the short time that I spent selling books at Borders (alas, poor Borders, I knew her, Horatio…), I hate selling anything. Experience has taught me that, in our feverishly consumerist culture, being a ‘salesman’ means you manipulate strangers to get them to buy things they probably don’t want and certainly don’t need. Being the sort of consumer who simply decides he needs something, researches it, then goes and acquires it, I’ve often found myself profoundly uneasy being approached by a salesman, or having to play the part of one. Usually, approaching me on a sales floor and chatting me up is the fastest way to get me to leave the store. Because I know what those ‘salesmen’ want: to always be closing.

But here I am, a struggling writer in a new world where selling stories to magazines or selling books to publishers is no longer as simple as writing something worthwhile and getting it in front of potential buyers (maybe it was never that simple, but I swear, that’s how simple most of the writers I grew up reading made it seem). In the present climate, where magazine slots for fiction are scarce, publishers want out-of-the-gate blockbusters and waste no time grooming a promising author in the midlist, and the internet offers all sorts of opportunities for both the sublime and pernicious to sound their barbaric yawps over the roofs of the world, an author is expected to sell themselves—to ‘brand’ themselves—even though they may never have sold a book. They are expected to have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, a website and/or a blog, an email list, and an army of devoted followers just itching to pay good money for their literary produce even if nothing said writer has produced has been purchased or traditionally published. When not ‘building their platform’ or ‘managing their online persona’, they are expected to go to conferences and press the flesh, to ‘network’ (which amounts to chatting up people you don’t know, and may not like, in the hopes that they may decide to now buy the same manuscript they turned down last week, simply because now, they ‘know you,’ which apparently makes your writing better than it was just a few days ago). Today’s writers are expected to keep as many stories in rotation as possible, seeking homes with magazines; to research markets, publishers and agents in order to better focus their marketing efforts; oh yeah, and somewhere in there, they are supposed to actually write something worth selling. Meanwhile, since they are probably making no money as a writer, they’ve got to have a day job that pays the bills. And maybe some quality time with their spouse. Or their kids. Or their goldfish.

That sounds suspiciously like being a salesman to me.

Thus, my quandary: finding the time for all these administrative literary duties is hard enough… but ‘branding’ myself, ‘selling’ myself, ‘networking’ (dear God, I hate that word!) comes about as naturally to me as humility and honesty do to career politicians. I’m a writer, fer cryin’ out loud! My brand is Awkward Introvert; my product, angst; my network largely digital, and even then, usually kept at arm’s length. I was the outcast egghead who developed his one useful skill because he never got picked for the pickup baseball team, didn’t like to go outside and get dirty, and found himself tongue-tied, sweaty, and deliriously incoherent when trying to chat up a cheerleader or model/actress at a buddy’s barbecue. I write precisely because I’m trying to crash the service entrance of the Confidence Club and avoid direct engagement, the need to ‘sell’ (and thereby justify) my existence to those who are already inside enjoying their mojitos and mint juleps. Even if I had the time to devote to all these duties, why would I want to do them? The work should be the thing, shouldn’t it? The words on the page? The finished story? The polished novel?

Well, yeah. They should be. Heck, they are. But, the simple fact is, we live in a world where we are expected to sell ourselves—to make our persona as well as our product part of our ‘platform’ so that we ‘add value’ to our ‘brand’, thereby sweetening the deal for any publisher willing to take a chance on us and put our books out there as collections of bound pages at the local Barnes & Noble.

Put another way: in these financially uncertain times, publishers want to see that they’re buying a product with some legs; something that promises to immediately connect with some audience, somewhere. The internet and your social network (be it digital, analog, or a bit of both), are your labs, your audition spaces. Like troubadours trying out new material in smoky coffee houses or stand-up comics testing new jokes on the two-drink minimum patrons at the local Improv, our networks are the places where we—the writer—test our marketplace mettle.

True, there is the sad fact that marketing, branding and networking—even when done skillfully and with gusto—do not equal selling. The very precious time we spend trying to do this side stuff could probably be used for better purposes, like actually writing, or catching a nap because the newborn woke us up at two a.m. We may Facebook to empty air. We may blog into an abyss. We may Tweet, but no one may woof in reply. Do we then consider that time and effort—that hard work and dedication to branding and building our platforms—wasted time? And how on earth do we gain any comfort with it, when we naturally have none?

Reticent as I am to admit it, I suspect that all these snipe-hunts serve a useful purpose. Like eating vegetables or going to the gym, they may not be easy, and they may not come naturally, but they can, potentially, force us to see that our work as writers is more than just our writing: it’s us. Though the novels, the stories, the words are the ultimate aim of all our efforts, our product is the sum of all those parts: our product is us. Our persona, our brand, our sense of pride, accomplishment, purpose and professionalism as human beings. So, in the end, I suppose there is only one way to confront this bugbear: you have to meet it head on. As a wise therapist once said to me: if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re probably not growing.

I always hated it when she was right.

Still, the question remains: if I must sell, how should I go about it? How does the introvert grow comfortable ‘putting himself out there’? How does a social network grow to encompass a professional one?

We will explore the answers to those questions (and others) next time…


Embracing Your Oh S#!t Moment

On this Father’s Day—my first as a father—I’d like to reflect on something that I call the Oh Shit Moment.  These indelible instances come in all shapes and sizes, in all colors and contexts.  Despite their myriad manifestations, however, they can usually be recognized because they produce a consistent reaction.

Oh shit!  Why me?  What now?

I had my own OSM (TLA—three-letter acronym—courtesy of the IT department) when I found out I was about to become a father, and realized that becoming a father would require me to make some major personal and professional sacrifices that I didn’t feel ready to—or capable of—making.  Likewise, there was the feeling of being ill-prepared for such an unexpected (because it was most unexpected) transformation of life as I knew it.  I was a failure (I told myself) for being caught so unaware… for not having a plan… for not having done all that I wanted to do before that new little person arrived and changed everything, demanding an absolute engagement and dedication that almost nothing in my life had ever before required.

Must I do it?

Could I do it?

Oh shit!  Why me?  What now?

Well, the baby’s been here for a few months now.  While the echoes of my initial Oh Shit! have faded, I’m still trying to answer those last two questions—Why Me? and What Now?  Luckily, I found some encouragement when I saw that on June 15, 1775, the Father of our Country, George Washington, probably had his own OSM when the Continental Congress offered him command of the Continental Army—a newly-created collection of rag-tag colonial militiamen—pursuant to the aim of fighting one of the world’s greatest military and naval powers so that the purely theoretical United States of America could become a concrete geopolitical reality.  While it’s true that Washington lobbied for his position as the leader of the Continental Army, it could be argued that his confidence in his abilities—his assurance that he was the right man for that Herculean task—arose directly from a long line of OSMs stretching all the way back to the start his military career.

That military career began in the French and Indian War, when the 22 year-old George Washington was granted a commission as major in Virginia’s Provincial militia.  Tasked with building a fort on the site of present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Washington—along with a small force of Indian allies and militiamen—ambushed a French scouting party.  The young officer probably thought he was showing some initiative—surprising French interlopers, proving himself as a combat commander, hopefully gaining some vital intelligence from his honorably-acquired prisoners that he could present to his superiors, thereby cementing his still-forming reputation.

But then one of Washington’s Indian allies—bearing the commander of the French scouting party (and the French in general) some ancient grudge—laid tomahawk to skull, cleaving the poor Frenchman’s pate, and proceeded to wash his hands in the unlucky fellow’s blood and brain-matter.  The rest of the Indian scouts in the party proceeded to murder the remaining Frenchmen.  A horrified Washington bore witness, helpless to stop them until their butchery was done.  In the blink of an eye, the bold young officer had gone from patting himself on the back to wondering just what the massacre would mean for international relations and his own military career.

Quite the OSM, nay?  All the young George Washington had ever wanted was to be a man of honor and to earn an officer’s commission in the British army.  Now, at the outset of his career, he had the blood of military prisoners on his hands, not to mention the lingering question of just what the unprovoked massacre of those French scouts would mean to the two great powers—France and England—currently vying for control of North America.  As fate would have it, the slaughter of those French prisoners was a spark in the kindling of hostilities that became the French and Indian War—arguably, the first ‘world war’ ever fought.

And, from a certain point of view, it was all George Washington’s fault.

George’s OSM proved to have very far-reaching implications.

But George Washington, humbled and humiliated, fought on.  Although he never gained his much-coveted commission in the British army, he always distinguished himself, even under disastrous circumstances.  He led successful retreats and maintained the discipline of his troops during mortifying routs; he listened more than he spoke, gaining a thorough and rounded education in British military operations; and although he was in no position to influence the movements of the British army or the outcome of the war, he nonetheless processed all that he learned and started to build for himself a very clear idea of what did and did not work, both on the battlefield, and in the labyrinthine corridors of political power.

Although faced with a humbling reminder at the very outset of his military career of just how disastrous the smallest operational misstep could be, George Washington managed to embrace his OSM—to be humbled and educated by it, rather than allowing it to define him, ruin him, or paralyze him.  A man of lesser constitution might have figuratively (or literally) thrown himself on his sword and retired from military endeavors… but not so young Washington, who simply resolved to carry on, learning from his mistakes and awaiting the next opportunity to distinguish himself.

That opportunity came on June 15, 1775, when high command of the newly-created Continental Army was offered to the 43 year-old George Washington, a man whose first military endeavors were disasters and whose last distinguishing military campaigns were twenty years behind him.  Because George Washington did not give up on his imagined destiny, his destiny did not give up on him.  Despite failures and set-backs that derailed his sought-after career in the British military, Washington knew that he still had more to do—that ‘Gentleman Planter’ should not be defining title on his epitaph.  He was determined to make the losses, sacrifices and abortive dead-ends of his early career meaningful by learning from them and applying them in his dreamt-of arena: war.  Therefore, he seized a terrifying opportunity, and proved a spectacular success.  By the end of the American Revolution, Washington had finally achieved all that he imagined he could as a young man, yet in a way that his young self scarcely could have imagined: he turned a rag-tag army of scruffy colonial militiamen into a disciplined fighting force; he distinguished himself as a cagey and flexible tactician, a model of military discipline, and as an inspirational leader; and, by virtue of his unique set of skills and experiences, guided by the costly lessons that his successes and his failures had taught him, he won the independence of an infant nation and paved the way for a sea-change in the history of the world.

George Washington took a licking from his OSM but kept on ticking.

Oh Shit Moments can threaten to overwhelm us, to humiliate us, to terrify us and paralyze us.  They arrive unbidden and unexpected, and they often demand hasty decisions, even though they often have far-reaching consequences and very high stakes.  It is easy to try and duck an OSM, or to disown it, or to let the weight of it crush you and excuse further despondency or inaction.

But that’s not how we profit from an OSM, is it?  Those unpleasant forks in the road only pay dividends if we own them—however painful that might be—and resolve to learn from them.

So, dear readers, let me offer this resolution to you, while encouraging you to do the same: Oh Shit Moments may be unpleasant, unexpected, and thoroughly unwanted, but no less a reticent father (to a country) than George Washington noted that ‘useful lessons’ and ‘dearly bought experience’ cannot be gained without them.  If Washington could own his considerable OSMs and not be crushed or discouraged by them, I, with my far more humble aims and desires, can do no less.

Why me?  What now?

Because the moment is mine, anything is possible.

I invite you to share some of your own OSMs in the comment section below.   

Prometheus, Part 2: Mapping the Genome

Sir Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is schizoid cinema that seems to frustrate as many viewers as it wows.  Some gripe at the weak script, others simply hoped for a straight-up prequel to Scott’s Alien, but instead got a tangential rim-shot.  Me?  I’ve said my piece on Prometheus as a film.  What I’d like to do now is to explore some of the film’s key concepts in an effort to reverse-engineer my way to an explanation of just what the heck is going on in the movie, and why it’s worthy of our appreciation despite its considerable flaws.

First: What the hell is a Prometheus?

A hundred years ago, no one would need this explained to them, because Greek mythology was still a standard component of western education, art and culture.  Nowadays, the only people likely to know who or what a Prometheus is are old-school myth-hounds and Dungeons & Dragons geeks (like me) or kids who own Xboxes and play God of War.

For the uninitiated: Prometheus was a titan in Greek myth who stole fire from the gods of Olympus (you know, those guys in shiny armor from Clash of the Titans) and gave that fire to primitive mankind, bestowing upon mankind the great gifts of light, heat, barbecue, s’mores, candlelit dinners and slash-and-burn agriculture.  Because Zeus (who might resemble Sir Laurence Olivier or Liam Neeson, depending on which version of Clash of the Titans you’re watching) didn’t really want mankind possessing fire, Prometheus was punished for his crime by being chained to the peak of a mountain for eternity, while an eagle swooped down every day to peck out his liver (before said liver grew back over night to be ready for pecking the next day).

So, given that Sir Ridley has given us a film titled Prometheus, that deals with mankind encountering aliens that may or may not be our creators, we can draw some inferences: some figure in our tale has behaved in a Promethean manner, giving humanity something that its overlords (the alien ‘Engineers’ of the film) felt it did not deserve.  Not only can we assume that mankind is despised for being given this unnamed deific gift out of turn (or perhaps, for proving ungrateful), we might also assume that someone among the overlordling population probably got spanked and spanked hard for giving us the gift in question.

This could illuminate the film’s much-discussed prologue, in which one of the Engineers seems to commit suicide beside a roiling waterfall on a primordial planet that may or may not be Earth while a hovering saucer-craft rises into the clouds above (I say it’s Earth, but it’s never explicitly stated).  The Engineer’s suicide results in his body dissolving in the rushing waters, and his DNA being sown into the biosphere.  Did our Engineer just create mankind through his suicide, his punishable sin being our very existence?

It’s a reasonable explanation, but evidence in the film suggests otherwise.  After all, the pictograms cited by Dr.’s Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (the film’s erstwhile ‘heroes’) span a number of centuries from  6,000 to about 300 BC.  Clearly, the Engineers didn’t start out hating us, otherwise they wouldn’t have continued visiting and leaving behind stellae and pyramids for us to play on.  Which brings us to our next thematic element—

Ancient Astonauts

For those of you not in the know, there is an entire semi-academic subculture of people who believe that mankind has been visited by aliens in the past, usually in our developmental stages.  If you don’t believe me, just catch an episode of Ancient Aliens on The History Channel and marvel at the gravity-defying alien architecture that is Giorgio Tzoukalos’s hair.  Ancient astronaut theorists suggest that any number of allegedly ‘human’ achievements—from the Moai of Easter Island to the pyramids of Egypt—were in fact the achievements of these advanced visitors, using humans as servants and slave laborers (or, perhaps, that humanity used alien-derived science and technology to achieve said architectural wonders).  Proponents of such theories (two of the most important being Erick von Däniken and Zecharia Sitchen) point to all sorts of evidence, from the anachronistic sophistication of Egyptian or Mesoamerican pyramid structures, to enormous geo-grams like the Nazca lines of Peru, to Mayan and Japanese sculpture that seemingly depicts spacesuits and starships, to citations in the Bible (Ezekiel, Chapter 1) or the Ramayana (Book VI) describing what seem to be flying machines.

Scott and and his writers—Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof–seem well aware of ancient astronaut mythology, invoking it throughout Prometheus in everything from the cryptic pictograms that point man toward the stars to the use of pyramids to the Engineers’ bulky, fly-eyed space helmets, vaguely reminiscent of Mayan, Japanese and Sumerian art that ancient astronaut apologists insist are portraits of men in space suits.

Clearly, we are meant to assume that—in the universe of the film—ancient astronauts visited mankind, on multiple occasions, and that a message of some sort (the pictogram with the six-star figure) was left behind for future generations to discover.  (Consider: that pictogram could just as easily be a warning as an invitation, much like the beacon that led the doomed starship Nostromo to LV 426 in Alien.)  What is never fully disclosed is our exact relationship to the Engineers, and the source of their apparent hostility toward us.

Where their hostility stems from could be revealed by another prominent theme in the film: that of parents, children, and the enmities they often share.

“All children wish their parents dead.”

Throughout the film’s second act, the evermore prominent story motif of parents and their offspring rears its ugly head.  The android David, for instance (played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender), seems more than a little rankled at having been created by, and serving, beings whom he obviously views as inferior to himself, at one point uttering the telling line, “All children wish their parents dead.”  The parent-and-child theme is given its most overt expression when we’re served the twin revelations that the believed-dead Charles Weyland (the ‘father’ of the expedition) is actually on board the ship; and that Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), his cold-blooded, economy-minded on-board representative is actually Weyland’s own daughter.  Note, also, that when Elizabeth Shaw is informed by David that she is pregnant (something she previously thought to be impossible), Dr. Shaw’s first instinct is not joy in response to an apparent miracle, or wonder at her erstwhile annunciation, but a visceral horror that drives her to submit herself to remote surgery to remove her ‘offspring’ before it hatches and kills her.

Interesting, isn’t it?  Time and again, Scott and his writers present us with parent-child relationships in which each party proves hostile, suspicious, or indifferent to the other.  Small wonder, then, that the Engineers—who Elizabeth and Charlie believe to be our cosmic parents—turn out to be just as hostile to humans when they encounter them.

“Ask them why they hate us,” Elizabeth demands of her intermediary, David.

(David never gets to answer that question because the Engineer tears his head off… which, when you think about it, is its own sort of answer.)

My inclination is to assume that Scott, Spaihts, and Lindelof have sewn this glowing thread into their big, dark tapestry as a suggestive explanation for why the Engineers seem so hostile to humankind: perhaps they once regarded us as their offspring, but at some point, they either grew wary of our ambition, or simply felt that we had fallen far short of their expectations.  The pictograms indicate continual contact between Engineers and humans, so they clearly didn’t hate us right from the start.  Instead, there seems to have come a breaking point, when the Engineers said, “Enough is enough,” and decided to wash their hands of us.

Hence, the stockpile of terrifying, weaponized black goo in the pyramid on LV 223: the Engineers had genocide on their minds.

Do we know what we did to make them hate us?

Perhaps chronology can help us make a deduction or two: the dead Engineers discovered inside the pyramid by the Prometheus expedition are said to be approximately 2,000 years old.  If the story takes place in 2093, that places the time of their deaths—the time of the weapons stockpiling in preparation for genocide—as some time in the first century of our common era.

Funny, but the primary event that I can think of in the first century A.D. that had a long-lasting impact on mankind is the birth, ministry, and death of a carpenter from Nazareth, to whom many attributed miracles, and who some said was the son of God.

And after (allegedly) rising from the dead, didn’t the scriptures say that the Nazarene was lifted, bodily, up into the Heavens?


In Summary

In summary, what do we have here?  A story bearing the name of a mythological figure who earned a terrible punishment for putting man on equal footing with the gods; a story about humanity owing its civilization—and possibly its existence—to ancient astronauts who seem to bear us some terrible grudge; a story in which parents and their offspring are often set against one another in bloody generational rivalry, a hostility derived from one’s perceived usurpation of the other’s domain.

It’s true that the characters in Prometheus are poorly developed and often behave in nonsensical fashion because story propulsion is required and can’t wait for them to find a logical motivation for the requisite behavior.  But, despite those complaints, I can’t remember the last time I saw a big, loud, handsomely-mounted summer blockbuster that left me asking heavy questions about big, cosmic concepts and trying to follow the frayed ends of its story threads back to their knotted source.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what real sci fi is all about—the Big Question, the Big Idea—and we simply do not get it often enough at the movies to warrant dismissing the enigmatic delights that Prometheus offers.

Prometheus, Part 1: Future Imperfect

I find myself grading on a curve when I go the movies these days. Maybe Hollywood really doesn’t ‘make ‘em like they used to,’ or perhaps I’ve just grown a little too familiar with my favorite popular art form, and that familiarity has bred some contempt. Either way, it’s very rare for me to see anything of late that truly excites or moves me, that exceeds my very experienced expectations.

Despite hopes to the contrary, I’m forced to report that Sir Ridley Scott’s new sci fi opus, Prometheus, must be graded on a curve. It is not a great film, nor a perfect one, but its best qualities outweigh its worst and help it stand out from its middling Hollywood Summer of 2012 classmates.

The story: in the late 21st century, archeologists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discover a 35,000 year-old cave painting on a Scottish isle depicting a humanoid figure pointing to a cluster of six stars. Our intrepid explorers interpret this (along with a number of other, similar pictograms from ruins around the world) as proof that human life was engineered by an alien race (henceforth known as—shocking—The Engineers). An expedition to the world believed to be the target of the six-figure star map is bank-rolled by industrial magnate Charles Weyland (Guy Pearce, in heavy old age makeup), and our story begins in earnest. When Shaw, Holloway, and their fellow explorers touch down on the unnamed LV 226, they discover a complex of ancient pyramids—and, of course, something terrible and frightening inside.

What unfolds from there is pretty standard sci fi and horror fare: chambers are uncovered housing materials that the explorers cannot identify and do not understand; the corpses of long-dead aliens abound, filling our explorers with dread at the thought of what might have killed them all; and ultimately, the expedition’s clumsy poking about awakens two or three terrible things that threaten their lives, and even the well-being of good old planet Earth, trillions of miles away.

You can see what’s happening here: we’re being served a fairly by-the-numbers what-have-we-stumbled-upon horror film, in the tradition of everything from The Mummy to John Carpenter’s The Thing to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Disappointingly, Scott’s cast of characters are drawn in the broadest of strokes, and are provided very little opportunity to interact in simple, everyday ways before the strangeness is unleashed and survival instincts kick into high gear. We learn that Dr. Shaw is a woman of faith and religious belief; that her archeologist boyfriend isn’t; that corporate representative Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) is a profit-hungry, control-obsessed shark; and that David, the resident android (played with chilly intensity by Michael Fassbender), is fussy, polite, and more than a little passive-aggressive in relation to the humans he serves, whom he obviously considers inferior to himself. My primary gripe with Prometheus resides here, among the garden of un-exploited possibilities that encircles these fine actors and the interesting characters they might have created, given the right material and sufficient opportunity. Because sufficient human interest is never established, the surrogate terror that could have infected the audience once the true purpose of the pyramid is revealed is never achieved. Consequently, we’re left with a film that is not unenjoyable, but that feels blunted in affect, like a normally-compelling person plied with heavy mood meds.

That, however, is where my complaints with Prometheus end.

(There be spoilers ahead, mateys. Abandon ship if ye wish to know nothing more.)

What Prometheus does well, and why I’ll praise it to the skies, lies not in its characters or their reaction to their situation, but in the situation itself; the staggering visions offered by Scott and his crew; and the big, crazy, cosmic questions that the situation raises, both for those locked inside the narrative, and those merely bearing witness to it. This is a skillful, visionary film full of big ideas despite the narrative balls that it occasionally drops, and Hollywood is so woefully short on skillful, visionary films full of big ideas that the arrival of this one—warts and all—strikes me as reason enough for celebration, and a mitigation of our disappointment that the film doesn’t feel more satisfying.

From the opening scene—a puzzling, wordless passion play in which a humanoid alien on a planet that may or may not be a primordial Earth seeds said planet with his own DNA by his apparent suicide—to its closing scenes—when the faithful Shaw demands to know why the alien Engineer she has discovered hates mankind and seeks nothing less than its complete extinction—Prometheus dares the audience to wrap its head around some daffy but delirious notions about the origins of our species, the value of faith, the pitfalls of exo-planetary discovery and exploration, and the implications of encounters with an alien species. All of these big questions arrive wrapped in the handsome, awe-inspiring visuals that Scott and his crew have borne out of powerful CG processors and their own boundless imaginations, and the questions raised linger long after the end credits have rolled. Where did we come from? What if we were created by another race? What would we say to them if we could meet them face to face? And how would we react if we met our makers and learned (oh dear!) that they regard us as little more than an unwanted byproduct of their cosmic meanderings? Pestilential vermin, to be isolated and eradicated?

Could we face the grim reality of such a revelation?

Would we be equal to standing firm against out makers, and preserving our life and liberty by force?

Granted, these questions are never fully answered in the course of the film: they are merely raised, and they remain, after the viewer has left the theater, to haunt, taunt, move, reprove and puzzle the curious, imaginative viewed all the way home. Considering that most modern sci fi films churned out by major studios involve ridiculous alien invasion scenarios or endless scenes of giant robots destroying skyscrapers (or both), I found Prometheus’s heady existential ponderings and vertigo-inducing cosmic shock to be a welcome relief from standard sci fi cinema idiocy. Though hobbled by listless characters and some odd story turns, this is, nonetheless, a science fiction film more akin to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. The arrival of such a film, however imperfect, should please anyone tired of leaving the movies with no questions to ponder, no mysteries to penetrate, no deeper resonances to absorb.

Bradbury and the Autumn People: An Appreciation and an Epitaph

I already addressed the loss of Ray Bradbury on both my personal and professional Facebook pages.  But, since I decided to get this blog started and I needed something to comment upon, I’ve taken this opportunity to offer a final, personal appreciation for Mr. Bradbury and my favorite book of his: Something Wicked This Way Comes…

Ray Bradbury, like the picturesque old libraries or city halls found in many a marginalized American small town, was so ubiquitous that I often felt he was taken for granted. He was such a fixture of the literary landscape for so long, lauded as one of our great prose stylists and narrative dreamers so often, that it was easy to forget he was there (indeed, I saw a number of crass talk-backers responding to news of his death yesterday with statements like, “I thought he died ten years ago”).  Comfy old chair-like ubiquity aside, Mr. Bradbury’s work remained moving, vital, and fresh right until the very end.

I’ve loved Mr. Bradbury’s fiction—especially his short stories—since high school, but Something Wicked This Way Comes has been a favorite novel of mine since my early twenties, when I finally got around to reading it. On the surface, Bradbury’s nostalgiac Middle American nightmare is simply a dark and evocative fable of childhood; a precursor to every evil-threatens-a-small-town novel written by Stephen King or Dean Koontz or anyone who followed in their footsteps. It is the story of two boys—Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade—twelve years old, on the cusp of adulthood, suddenly faced with temptation and damnation when a devilish autumn carnival invades their picturesque little Midwest town. Little by little, Will and Jim discover that the delights promised by the carnival (led by the sinister Mr. Dark, covered in moving tattoos representing the many souls he’s dragged to perdition) are thorny roses to say the least, wishes granted with terrible fine print folded into their infernal contracts.  I used to love it because it reminded me to stay young; I now love it because it gives me hope and courage in the face of growing old (or, older at least; I suppose thirty-seven isn’t exactly old).

In deft, evocative, poetic prose, Bradbury paints a vivid and memorable portrait of a serene if static world invaded by a malign and alien influence, insidious precisely because it uses the all-too-human frailties of the townsfolk against them. Perhaps most impressive is the master’s ability to entice the reader with nostalgia, then use those very objects of nostalgia to instill pity and terror equal to any Greek tragedy. For a man renowned for his love of autumn, carnivals, and Halloween with all its funhouse trappings, Bradbury succeeds magnificently in turning the objects of his affection (and ours) into vessels of fear. This is, perhaps, a central aspect of Something Wicked’s success: by turning the objects of nostalgia and affection into devil’s snares for our fragile, aging souls, Bradbury reminds us that what we love can damn us as well as redeem us. The difference between one and the other often balances on a knife’s edge between ecstatic self-destruction and ascetic, self-punishing virtuousness.

Once upon a time—even in my twenties—I read this wonderful little chiller and identified with the boys at its heart. I understood the bonds of friendship between them (“That’s friendship,” Bradbury muses, “each playing the potter to see what shapes we can make of the other.”); the ways in which their seemingly opposite personalities draw them together, rather than forcing them apart (Will, described time and again as wholly good, for its own sake, is offset by the melancholy Jim, who “looked at the world and could not look away”); and the terrible realizations they face when threatened by the dark minions of Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show—not simply physical threat, but a threat to their very conceptions of reality. The carnival forces each boy to recognize his own mortality, as well as the moral fragility of the grown-ups they are subject to. Those simultaneous realizations—that you, yourself, will age and die, and that grown-ups are not, and never were, perfect–seldom leave a young heart unscathed.

But on my recent re-visitation of Something Wicked, I found myself identifying instead with Charles Halloway, Will’s 53 year-old father. Here is a small-town librarian, more than halfway through his life, who has seemingly accomplished little and ventured less. His greatest joy and deepest pain both live in the person of his son: nothing gives Charles greater pleasure than to bask in Will’s youth, goodness, and zest for life… and yet, nothing pains him more deeply than the sneaking suspicion that he, Charles, is somehow less of a father than Will deserves.  “No man’s a hero to himself,” Charles tells his son. “I’ve lived with me a lifetime, Will. I know everything worth knowing about myself…”  Charles fears that he is too old to be a good father to such a young and lively boy; he fears that he is too sad and compromised; he fears that he has nothing to give his son but good wishes. Throughout the book, Charles Halloway looks at his son (and his friend, Jim Nightshade) with envy and sadness, because he can’t figure out where that young and hopeful part of himself went, or how to recover it.

Being thirty-seven now, with a new son of my own (my first and only), I see myself in Charles Halloway. Someday, when my boy is twelve, I’ll be pushing fifty. And as a writer who has yet to find any worldly, material success in his chosen vocation, I, too, often ask myself if my child doesn’t deserve a better father than the one he’s getting. One with less fear; one with more daring; one with fewer unrealized dreams and more palpable, material successes.  In just a few short years between readings, I’ve moved from one side of Bradbury’s looking glass to the other, and find the view from both sides equally moving.  I, too, remember the joys of boyhood, and I, too, often wonder where those joys went, and struggle with how to muddle on with nothing but the memory of them.

Folded into Bradbury’s meditation on childhood fears and adult regrets, one also finds a simple, elegant consideration of how goodness and happiness rarely walk hand in hand. Telling his father that he considers him a good man, and learning that Charles sees himself that way as well, Will is forced to ask, “Then, Dad, why aren’t you happy?”

Charles’s response: “Since when did you think being good meant being happy?”

Seeing that his son doesn’t understand, Charles tries to elaborate on just what trying to be good has cost him. “I was so busy wrestling myself two falls out of three,” Charles says, “I figured I couldn’t marry until I had licked myself good and forever… Too late, I found you can’t wait to become perfect, you got to go out and fall down and get up with everybody else… [but] you take a man half-bad and a woman half-bad and put their two good halves together and you got one human all good to share between. That’s you, Will…”

If anyone’s ever written a better paen to marriage and child-rearing, I don’t know what it is. Will’s conversation with his father, and the revelations both share, struck me on this reading as beautiful and true.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Ray Bradbury was a national treasure.  Although he created a vast and beautiful body of work, in this simple, lovely, spooky little novel, made up of barely 80,000 words, he not only encapsulated the terrible moments that portend adulthood—the realization that grown-ups are fragile and flawed; the reality of one’s own, eventual death—but also their obverse: the moment in our adulthood when we finally realize just how far behind us childhood, safety, and dreams without regrets lie. Two boys realize that a world of compromise and moral hazard awaits them, followed by death; an old man realizes that death is nearer than ever before, and that the compromises and moral hazards left in his wake make its approach all the more tragic.

And yet, in the midst of all this darkness, hope endures. That it never comes across as a cloying, false, or flashy hope is further evidence of the late master’s genius. The silver lining to Bradbury’s thunderclouds is simple laughter; a willful outpouring of joy and delight, to light the darkness and defy the doldrums of inexorable time and lurking mortality. “Everything that happens before Death is what counts” Bradbury tells us, and we can only believe him. From the realization that we’re all in the same boat—that we all suffer the same doubts, the same regrets, the same self-deceptions—we draw some small measure of strength, and find some small measure of hope, even in the face of oblivion. As the book’s Moby Dick-derived epigraph proclaims: “I know not what lies ahead, but whatever it is, I’ll go to it laughing.”

Good night, Mr. Bradbury, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest…