Has a writer ever inspired as many adaptations and references as William Shakespeare? In the four hundred years since his death, his work has patterned much of the fabric of world literature and seen countless permutations on stage and screen.
Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky is an eerie, unsettling, and haunting work. I first read it in the Eighties when a friend turned me on to it, and to this day I can still say I've never read anything quite like it. To those who are about to read it for the first time, I say, "Abandon all preconceptions, ye who enter here."
This new post is occasioned by the publication of a new translation that I just found reviewed at the popular io9 sci-fi site. The forward is written byUrsula K. LeGuin, who was one of the first to review it on this side of the Iron Curtain many years ago.
The original, published while the Soviet Union existed, was heavily censored. It was made into a very strange Tartovsky film, "Stalker," which you can find and view free online. Stalker, in turn, led to a book length essay on every scene in the film. I'm not sure I could watch it that often.
Dystopian sci-fi is not necessarily just about technology. Often, it's about a different political world - ala 1984. or Hunger Games. But we doubt people will stop writing it in any event. It's too much fun.
We think in stories. More than 100 years of multi-disciplinary research shows that narrative is our primary mode of thought and we turn to other methods (scientific, a blueprint, etc.) for specific purposes.
The great Russian science fiction author Boris Strugatsky died today in Saint Petersburg at 79. He and his brother Arkady (who died in 1991) wrote some of the most iconic works of Soviet science fiction.
Roadside Picnic was made into the film "Stalker," which in turn, inspired a recent book length essay. This translation restores cuts made by Soviet era censors. How come we see so little SF coming out of Russia now?
Writing is a worthy calling -- one that can, at times, achieve great heights taht ennoblet he human race. Actually, I believe writing was the first truly verifiable and effective form of magic. Think of how it must have impressed people in ancient times! Author David Brin offers suggestions to set new authors on the path toward writing...
although it might be called a form of lying, most societies have highly valued storytelling. In my role as a novelist, I join this tradition by stringing together lengthy chains of coded squiggles—in the Roman alphabet—that highly skilled readers later deconvolute and transform into stirring mental images, rollicking action, empathy with imagined characters, and even (possibly) an insight or two. Motion pictures shortcut and amplify this process with a firehose stream of visual images, cues and crutches that cater to the same human genius—a knack for picturing things, people and events that never (objectively) existed. If “magic” is the creation of subjective realities in the minds of other peoples, then we moderns have learned how to perform magical incantations on a vast, industrial scale.
I’ve never really been interested in predicting the future in science fiction, and haven’t found a compelling need for it in future-based SF; taking this approach, I nevertheless found myself feeling nervous when I wrote my second novel because of this very issue regarding prediction. Throughout, I never thought that the novel was about prediction, but I thought that there would be readers who would want it to be … and worse, be in accordance with their ideas about plausible futures in order for them to suspend disbelief and allow themselves to arrive at and have a chance of accepting the actual narrative themes explored.
I read an interview with William Gibson in an article on Wired recently, in which he mentioned this problem:
"There’s really a lot of that in the futurology game, and everybody who markets any kind of futurological product — be it some kind of corporate advising or a given science fiction writer, has a real vested interest in making their product seem prescient. If I were a total cynical bullshitter, I’d go around trying to make everybody think that I knew what the future was going to be too. But I’ve never really seen the predictive part as being what I really do."
May the Fourth! Tomorrow's the day we celebrate all things Star Wars — which makes it the perfect day to recognize one of the great unsung contributors to the galaxy far, far away: Leigh Brackett wrote the first script draft of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes back, and her contributions helped make the saga epic.
But before Brackett had a major hand in creating the best Star Warsmovie, she was a science fiction novelist in the 1940s, writing a slew of space adventure novelswith titles like The Starmen and Alpha Centauri or Die!. People called her the Queen of Space Opera — and it was not always a compliment.
At that time, space opera (like Star Wars) was looked down upon as less worthy of appreciation than other types of pulp fiction, including other types of science fiction. Brackett also wrote a lot of pulp crime fiction, and had co-written the screenplay for The Big Sleep with William Faulkner. But she chose to spend a lot of her time writing these despised novels. As her friend Michael Moorcock explains in an essay:
Like so many of her heroes, Leigh preferred the outlaw life. She always said her first love was science fantasy. She said it defiantly, when it paid less than other pulp fiction. When it paid less, indeed, than other kinds of science fiction. If she had chosen, in her fiction, to hang out with the scum of the L.A. streets instead of the dregs of the spacelanes, she could have made a lot more money... Her keen sense of freedom made her, like many other fine writers of her generation, choose the more precarious life of writing science fantasy.... There was a time when the kind of science fantasy Brackett made her own was looked down upon as a kind of bastard progeny of science fiction (which was about scientific speculation) and fantasy (which was about magic).
As Andrew Liptak quotes in his great piece on Brackett's planetary romances in Kirkus:
An aunt once asked her: “Why don’t you write nice stories for the Ladies’ Home Journal?”, to which Brackett replied: “I wish I could, because they pay very well, but I can’t read the Ladies’ Home Journal, and I’m sure I couldn’t write for it.”
Of course, Brackett was a respected member of the L.A. science fiction writer community — and she was a mentor to Ray Bradbury, with whom she traded critiques and collaborated on some stories. But at the same time, her choice to write "science fantasy" or "space opera" wound up tarring her as a representative of a pulpy subgenre that many science fiction writers were embarrassed by, especially as science fiction tried to become more "mature" and sophisticated in the 1950s.
This 1976 interview with Brackett (and Edmond Hamilton) is a must-read, including the parts where she talks about the early hostility she received from some readers as a woman writing SF. She also says that many women became interested in SF after Sputnik was launched, because suddenly all of this stuff seemed real. Also in that interview, she talks about her love for Edgar Rice Burroughs and confesses, " I suppose most of my stuff would be called escape fiction. This is the type of stuff I love to read."
I'm interested mainly in never trying to mold [science fiction] into one particular thing. I think it should be free to have every type of thinking, every type of story. I think you should have the ecological stories, the political stories, the Big Think type of story. I mean, what anybody wants to write. What I hate to see are the occasional attempts that are made, periodically, none of them ever last very long, to mold the field into one particular thing, and say science fiction has to be such and such and so. In other words, just what I happen to think science fiction should be.
Also, in her introduction to The Best of Planet Stories #1 in 1976, Brackett describes "space opera" as "a pejorative term often applied to a story that has an element of adventure." And she offers a defense of space opera as "the folk-tale, the hero-tale, of our particular niche in history." Sputnik, she writes, startled the wits out of all the high-minded, important people who hadn't wanted to talk about space. But she adds:
But the space opera has been telling us tales of spaceflight, of journeys to other worlds in this solar system... These stories served to stretch our little minds, to draw us out beyond our narrow skies into the vast glooms of interstellar space, where the great suns ride in splendor and the bright nebulae fling their veils of fire parsecs-long across the universe; where the Coal-Sack and the Horsehead make patterns of black mystery; where the Cepheid variables blink their evil eyes and a billion nameless planets may harbor life-forms infinitely numerous and strange. Escape fiction? Yes, indeed! But in its own ironic way, as we see now, it was an escape into a reality which some people are even now trying to fight off.
(Also quoted in Kramer and Hartwell, Space Opera Renaissance.)
The irony is that, according to Michael Moorcock, Brackett's well-written stories, despite having larger-than-life heroes, actually helped to launch the movement to make the genre more adult, sophisticated and literary. Moorcock has called Brackett "one of the godmothers of the New Wave." She also stretched out in her later work, including one of the great post-apocalyptic novels, The Long Tomorrow.
(By the way, there's a great Leigh Brackett tribute site, run by Blue Tyson, over here.)
But if Brackett was feeling defensive about her contributions to space opera in 1976 (as the Planet Stories introduction shows she was), then she received some amazing vindication — even if some of it arrived after her death. Not only did Star Wars make the genre of space opera suddenly mainstream and huge, but Brackett was hired to write the screenplay for the sequel.
According to John Baxter's book Mythmaker(quoted here), a friend handed Lucas a copy of one of Brackett's books, and told Lucas: "Here is someone who did the Cantina scene better than you did." Baxter describes the phone conversation between Lucas and Brackett thusly:
Lucas: Have you ever written for the movies?
Brackett: Yes, I have. Rio Bravo, El Dorado, The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye...
Lucas: Are you that Leigh Brackett?
Brackett: Yes. Isn't that why you called me in?
Lucas: No, I called you in because you were a pulp science fiction writer!
After that, Lucas started out by having a week-long story conference with Brackett, according to The Secret History of Star Wars. During this time, he hashed out a lot of the story points that wound up in the final film, including the character of Yoda — and the notion that Luke has a twin sister, which isn't brought up until Return of the Jedi. After a Thanksgiving break, they resumed the story conference, which led to a 55-page transcript in which a lot of stuff was hashed out, according to J.W. Rinzler's The Making of The Empire Strikes Back.
What Did The Original Script For The Empire Strikes Back Look Like?Word is the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back has been making the rounds on the web...without… Read…
It's fashionable to disparage Brackett's contributions toEmpire — Lucas himself says that her script wasn't what he wanted at all, and she died of cancer before she could do any rewrites. Lucas is quoted in The Annotated Screenplays as saying, "During the story conferences I had with Leigh, my thought weren't fully formed and I felt that her script went in a completely different direction." (You can read the entire script draft here, and a list of differences from the final film here.)
But it's not true that none of Brackett's storyline winds up in the final movie — the basic story beats are the same. And there is at least one aspect of Brackett's draft that's way better than what Lucas eventually ended up with: the character of Luke's twin sister, named Nellis in Brackett's screenplay. From The Annotated Screenplays:
This concept of Luke's sister was discussed during story conference: The idea was that Luke's father had twin children and took one of them to an uncle and the second one to the other side of the universe so that if one was killed, another would survive. It was suggested that Luke's twin sister would be going through training at the same time that he was and become a Jedi master as well. Eventually, in another episode the story could deal with both Luke and his sister as Jedi Knights.
It's probably true, as Lawrence Kasdan says in Rinzler's book, that Brackett's screenplay doesn't quite get the feel of what George Lucas was going for, and that her work represents the sensibilities of an earlier era. Lucas was in the middle of revolutionizing space opera, for better or worse, and Brackett represented an earlier era, that was closer to the Burroughs planetary romances.
And yet, a lot of what makes Empire great is still traceable to those early story conferences that she and Lucas had together. And in a lot of ways, her credit as screenwriter for one of the greatest space adventures of all time is vindication for someone who chose to write space opera at a time when that term was considered a put-down.
The best space opera novels are set in the big universe. The authors of the top space opera sci- fi books normally write more then one novel in the same universe. Authors like Frank Herbert with his space opera sage Dune and Alistair Reynolds with his Reve...
Allan Dale Maurer's insight:
For a while, "The New Space Opera," was the latest new old thing in scifi. Most people think of space opera (such as Star Wars and Star Trek) as the core of scifi, even though literary sf transcends it.
Terry Bisson is one of my favorite sci-fi short story writers. He also completed Walter MIller, Jr.'s last novel (Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman) and penned such short gems as Hugo-winning "Macs," and "Bears Discover Fire."
On the whole, SF is at least as wrong about any given future as it is right about others. SF stories are thought-experiments as well as fiction - at least the kind I like best are. But's it's main job is not prediction.
It can be a revelation to see an author in the place where he or she invented your favorite fantasy worlds. Out of these humble machines and cluttered studies come alternate realities.
Allan Dale Maurer's insight:
Asimov hated natural light and closed the blinds in his office when working. He did use word processors though, unlike Harlan Ellison, who swears by his trusty typewriter (or at least did for the longest time).
A lot of art –– including storytelling –– is about making up stuff! In other words, lying. Beautiful lies, stirring lies. Magnificent lies. But lies nonetheless. Where, I wondered, was anyone trying to figure out what was true?
Overall, 21st Century SF is heavily warped and crushed under a burden of nostalgia for the past...and anomie toward the future. In "Cowardice, Laziness and Irony: How Science Fiction Lost the Future," Jonathan McCalmont says -- and I agree -- that this dismally destructive and demoralizing trend controls most of the top magazines and most of the Best of the Year anthologies... oh and the awards. McCalmont illuminates how this is not only manifest in the omphaloskeptic (navel-contemplating) short story community of SF but in sub-genres that proclaim themselves to be bold, like Steam Punk and the surge of Skew Cultural science fictional novels (many of which I find admirable) by non-male, non-western or interestingly-origined authors.
Plainly stated: science fiction retains the bold, reality-breaking element of ancient myth-telling, far better than any other genre. But it also rebels against venerable tradition, by portraying change as a protean fluid, sometimes malleable or even good! Violating a core tenet of Aristotle's Poetics, sci fi contemplates the possibility of successfully defying Fate.
Speculative fiction is always experimenting with new writing styles and creating new sub-genres. Some of the newish ones deal with shiny vampires, the inevitbale response to that, and steampunk. But there may be other areas speculative fiction hasn’t explored yet.
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