You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Thursday, September 30, 2010


Dear Mr. Sturgeon,

This letter is something of an apology. I confess I had never considered you a serious writer. It's not as though I had ever read one of your books, but to me you were just another writer with a dozen or more titles in the science fiction section. I could see that you had won both the Nebula and Hugo awards, and that other sf writers frequently blurbed your books using the word "genius," but let's face it. All you guys have won both the Hugo and Nebula awards and you are always calling one another geniuses. Also, you are named after a big ugly fish.

But now I have read one of your books -- More Than Human, to be precise. I may hold off on the genius bit until I read a little more, but I confess I was impressed. The book has an interesting structure that makes for unusual, episodic plotting that comes together nicely in the end.

Congratulations all around.
You new BFF (Best FAN Forever)

I ended up not sending the above letter. I thought the end was a bit cute, and Theodore Sturgeon died in 1985. But I have found much to admire about the man. He does command an enormous amount of respect among fellow writers, and he is the author of Sturgeon's Law:

"Ninety percent of SF is crud, but then ninety percent of everything is crud."

More Than Human is one of those "next step in human evolution" novels, but rather than taking the grand, cosmological vision of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, Sturgeon's novel has a much darker tone. The representatives of Homo Gestalt, those possibly destined to replace us mere homo sapiens, are a motley crew. There is the telekinetic girl from an abusive background, two young African American girls who transport themselves naked wherever they want to go, a baby that appears to have Downs syndrome but is actually the brains behind the whole thing, and an exceptional young boy who kills the woman who I think may have been his mother. These five form a single being who, lacking any social contract with others of its kind, also lacks any sense of morality.

But enough about More Than Human. Theodore Sturgeon shot to the top of my admired author list when I learned he was the author of Killdozer, the 1944 short story that is the basis for the 1974 film of the same name.

Over twenty years ago, I turned on the television one Saturday afternoon and caught all but the first few minutes of the movie that I later learned was called Killdozer. This event had, over the years, taken on a dreamlike quality for me. When I told friends that I had watched a movie that involved a piece of heavy earth-moving equipment possessed by an alien intelligence, I found no one inclined to believe me. When they asked who supposedly starred in this film, things only got worse. Killdozer stars Clint Walker, Carl Betz, and Robert Urich. That's right, an actor most people thought disappeared when they cancelled Cheyenne in 1962, the man who played the father on The Donna Reed Show, and the most uninteresting actor in the world, if you exclude his performance in Invitation to Hell, a made-for-tv movie from 1984 where Urich and Joanne Cassidy move into a suburb and are asked to join a country club that has on its premises an actual doorway to hell. Whereas over the years I have found others who have seen Killdozer, Invitation to Hell appears to have been a movie for my eyes only.

When I saw Killdozer I didn't even know its title until I could find that day's newspaper. And even then I knew only its title. If I stumbled across it now, I would have searched it out on Internet Movie Database by one of its star's names and known all about it within minutes. I would have learned that Theodore Sturgeon not only wrote the short story but was a coauthor of the teleplay. (It was a made-for-tv movie, probably hoping to cash in on the short heyday of mechanized horror prompted by Steven Spielberg's made-for-tv movie Duel. Jerry London, the director of Killdozer did not have a career that followed the same path as Spielberg's. His filmography includes 90 projects, all done for television, including such highlights as eight episodes of The Rockford Files, twenty episodes of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, and two episodes of JAG. )

Killdozer also has its own Wikipedia entry, has provided the name for a rock band, and was once mentioned by both Conan O'Brien and Bevis and Butthead. It is also the title story in volume three of The Complete Short Stories of Theodore Sturgeon.

So the wonders of technology have once again unwoven the rainbow, and Killdozer is no longer my closely held secret. At least it is not available on video. Amazon lists two out-of-print versions, an American VHS tape and a import DVD titled Killdozer le viol cosmique.

So answer this question, true or false:

Alan Rudolph's first film was titled Barn of the Naked Dead.

You should have the correct answer in about 30 seconds.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Ward Moore (1903 - 1978), one of the writers on the Pringle list, was new to me. And now it turns out that I have gone and read the wrong book.

I think I know how it happened. Since I was not familiar with Moore, I did in depth research on him. I read his entire entry on Wikipedia. His novel on the Pringle list is Bring the Jubilee (1953), an alternative history that imagines modern America if the South had won the Civil War. But while scanning sentence summaries of his other works on Wikipedia I noticed this brief entry:

Greener Than You Think , a novel about unstoppable Bermuda grass.

"Unstoppable Bermuda grass." I liked the sound of that. I honestly forgot the novel I was supposed to be looking for and checked Greener Than You Think out from the library. This is no ordinary Bermuda grass we are talking about.

The novel opens in Los Angeles with a down-on-his-luck salesman named Albert Weener answering, against his better judgment, a newspaper ad promising "$50 or more daily to top producers." It ends, decades later, with Weener, Josephine Spencer Francis, and a few others trying out a new formula of weed killer in a world that has already been consumed by mutant Bermuda grass, grass that grows 100 feet tall and can root not only in soil but in concrete, brick, wood, glass, and I suppose the decomposing humanity left in its wake.

This is a very funny book, with a cast of characters that includes Weener and Miss Francis --she's the kitchen scientist who creates the growth formula that mutates the grass-- along with stock characters such as a constantly fulminating newspaper editor, a drunken ex-Naval officer, and a battalion of inept politicians and scientists. Several reviewers on Good Reads have complained that the characters are unlikable. I can't remember who it was, but I know I recently read an established novelist wondering why Amazon reviewers so often make that complaint. Who says characters have to be likable? Especially in the rarified field of apocalyptic comedy. Miss Francis, at least, keeps working on a solution, right up to the very end. As she insists, these things take time. But Albert Weener is Moore's brilliant creation. He's a self-absorbed hustler who during the course of the novel stumbles into becoming one of the wealthiest men in the world. It is not until those final few days, as the grass consumes Europe and the British Isles, that he begins to think this situation might be getting really serious.

Ward Moore wrote very little. He worked in a bookstore in Chicago, was maybe briefly in the Communist party, moved to California, and wound up the book editor for Frontier, a West Coast magazine along the lines of The Nation. At times Greener Than You Thnk gets a bit long-winded, but it has the distinction, as far as I know, of being the most enjoyable end-of-the-world novel out there.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


...I think it does students of literature good, after hard and serious reading, to relax their minds and invigorate them further for future efforts. It would be suitable recreation for them to occupy themselves with the kind of reading that not only affords simple diversion derived from elegance and wit, but also supplies some intellectual food for thought -- just the qualities I think they will find in this work of mine...I too wanted to leave something for posterity, and didn't want to be the only one denied these flights of fancy, and since I had nothing true to report (having never experienced anything worth recording), I turned to lying. But I am much more honest in this than the others: at least in one respect I shall be truthful, in admitting that I am lying. Thus I think that by admitting that nothing I say is true I can avoid being accused of it by other people. So, I am writing about things I neither saw nor experienced nor heard from others, which moreover do not exist. and in any case could not exist. My readers must therefore entirely disbelieve them.

I started once from the Pillars of Hercules, and with a favourable wind I set sail for the Western Ocean....

Lucian, A True Story
Trans. by C.D. N. Costa
Oxford University Press

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


My two cats get canned food every Sunday, and I only buy them Fancy Feast. When I pick up a month or two supply, I always spend a mesmerized moment in the pet store, overwhelmed by the over fifty varieties on offer. On any single trip, I never buy two of the same kind. I go for a balance of fish, mammal, and poultry and make sure that I mix grilled, flaked, minced, and chunky varieties.

Some of the choices sound like either questionable or poorly translated items on a Chinese menu. Gravy Lovers Salmon Feast in Seared Salmon Flavored Gravy. Sliced Chicken Hears and Liver Feast in Gravy. Flaked Chicken and Tuna Feast. Flaked Tuna and Mackerel Feast.

I had a problem with that last one. The orange cat picked around the mackerel but fortunately the gray cat wolfed it down,

Actually that's not true. They eat any and all of it. They could care less about the ingredients. They like it because its meat and its soft. The only thing I notice that they really do prefer is the gravy. It must be fun to lick.

Those varieties are for me, not the animals. With that in mind, I have submitted some ideas for new, cat-centric entrees for the folks at Fancy Feast.

1) Sparrow Guts and Roach Bits Feast in Gravy.

2) Baby Gecko Feast, Grilled in Gravy

3) Duck Pate Meant for Dinner Guests But Left Unattended on the Counter Feast

4) Compressed Crane Flies with Envelope Glue Feast.

I could go on, but now it's time for you to make up your own. I'm off to collect more crane flies.

Thursday, September 9, 2010


This whole SF thing started because I spent most of last January reading J.G. Ballard novels. Even though I knew they would be science fiction and that I officially neither liked nor read science fiction. I had always made an exception of Ballard and Philp K. Dick. Everything else I had turned my nose up at since around 11th grade.

But when I read a book of Ballard's essays and reviews, I had to come to grips with how seriously he took the field. It was enough to make me take another look, especially once I stumbled across Jim Pringle's 100 Best Science Fiction Novels. Here was list covering the years 1949 - 1985, sprinkled with books I had read as a teenager, and with the added attraction of providing a limited set of titles that did not require my trying to make my way through the current field.

Hence, these to date seven blog posts on specific science fiction writers or novels, and a stack of used paperbacks on my desk that would not be out of place on the shelf of the worlds geekiest ninth grader, circa 1975. (I have had more than one friend, who for some unfathomable reason does not read my blog, take a look at this pile and ask, "What is this about?")

One of Ballard's particular enthusiasms was Brian W. Aldiss, some one I had never read although I knew that he was generally considered "good." I have always had a hard time dealing with the fact that he had written books with the titles Frankenstein Unbound and Dracula Unbound. Without ever having cracked one, I had written them off as quickie pastiche novels of the lowest order. But now I want to read them, because I want to read everything Mr. Aldiss has ever written.

Aldiss has three books on the Pringle list: Non-Stop (1958), Hothouse (1962), and, Greybeard (1964). I read them all and thoroughly enjoyed them. But what really knocked me out was a short book I read for extra credit, The Dark Light Years (1964). If there is anything I dislike more than having someone give me a book to read, it is the impulse I sometimes have to fight back to do the same. The Dark Light Years is that book. Really, you ought to read it. It's great.

The plot, such as it is, goes something like this. After centuries of zipping around the galaxies, humankind has found all manner of extra-terrestrial life, but never of such intelligence that we would hesitate either putting them in earth's new Exozoos or using them as target practice. But then we encounter the Utods, beings with several million years of racial memory, along with the ability to man spacecraft. The only problem is that they look like six-legged hippopotami, except for when they retract their legs and resemble giant, recumbent yams, and their vocal system is so complex we cannot possibly master it, although they have an irritating habit of repeating whatever we say. Oh, and they cover themselves with their own excrement. That's the deal breaker.

Man and Utod is is that trainwreck that has been waiting millennea to happen. . We transport a few specimen to earth, put them in a zoo, study them, puzzle over them, hold scientific debates about them, and since we are convinced, wrongly, that they feel no pain, we vivisect them. Occasionally we hose them down, although they clearly do not like it. They are touched if confused when one of the scientists observing them takes a crap in their cage. None of this really amounts to much since by the end of the novel a "Contained War" between Brazil and England has turned into a true intergalactic conflagration, and they are essentially wiped out, along with most of everything else.

One reviewer on Good Reads called this the most depressing book she had ever read. I don't think she appreciates just how dark comedy can be. In the other Aldiss books I read, people take journeys and learn things. The semi-savages living in "quarters" on the giant spaceship in Non-Stop, struggle their way to "Forward" and discover the mystery of their circumscribed lives. The three-foot-tall arboreal humanoids in Hothouse learn that fending for themselves will involve more than simply following the old ways. (Hothouse is actually pretty silly but fun, and you get to discover the surprising role of the morel mushroom in human evolution.) Greybeard inhabits an post-apocalytic England where he must confront the fact that his world will die out, and that what ever shows signs of surviving is beyond his help or comprehension.

In The Dark Light Years, nobody learns squat. Mankind, very much concerned with both the day-to-day problems of being such superior beings as well as concerned about our own future, continues to spread death through the universe as surely as those first Europeans spread small pox and flu to the New World. But all is not lost. London we learn has been destroyed, but there are plans to rebuild. On a limited scale, of course.