On a Wednesday in 1977 a phenomenon began. That phenomenon was Star Wars.
Released in only 32 cinemas in the US on 25 May of that year the sci-fi space opera broke all box-office records and changed the movie making business. Star Wars was one of the first films to generate “round the block queues” for screenings (the literal definition of a “blockbuster”).
George Lucas famously popped out for lunch with his wife on opening day, saw lines of people queuing outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, and only then realised he had a hit on his hands. He’d expected a flop. So much so that he had a bet with friend Steven Spielberg that Close Encounters of the Third Kind would beat Star Wars at the box office. And that’s why Spielberg still receives 2.5% of profits on the film.
At least some of Star Wars’ initial success was as a result of the canny work of marketing director Charles Lippincoat who, ahead of the film’s release, shopped the novelisation (ghost written by sci-fi author Alan Dean Foster) and Marvel tie-in comics at events like San Diego Comic-Con. This generated a buzz amongst sci-fi fans who were already primed by release date. This is now standard practice with genre films and franchises who put a lot of effort into creating hype ahead of release, but back in 1977 it was a “thinking outside the box” strategy.
Star Wars also invented movie merchandising. As you walk the aisles of your local toy store, the proliferation of movie tie-in toys and action figures is down to the phenomenal success of Star Wars in this area.
Merchandising was such a small part of the movie industry prior to Star Wars that, in 1973, before the film was made George Lucas exchanged $350,000 worth of directing salary for the merchandising rights and the rights to the sequels. Conventional wisdom at the time was that this was a good deal for 20th Century Fox. It eventually cost them billions.
And of the movie itself? Well, I’m a fan and have been for as long as I can remember. I cannot recall the first time I saw the film. In the late 70s and early 80s you simply absorbed Star Wars from the atmosphere. You fenced with lightsabers of rolled up Christmas gift wrap, you hummed the theme music, you played with your cousin’s X-wing fighter toy.
I love the film, even despite its many flaws – a not exactly diverse cast, sometimes creaky acting, the occasional alien proboscis that looked like it was made out of cardboard, plot holes that you could fly a Corellian freighter through – but to me it’s still a vastly enjoyable tale.
George Lucas was inspired by the Flash Gordon type serials of his youth, the films of Akira Kurosawa, the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the “heroes journey” mythology of Frazer’s The golden bough. Star Wars is a cinematic melting pot of references and homages that distills them down to a classic “good vs evil” story. The kind that’s timeless in its appeal. Or at least I hope it is… because I’m planning on watching it for another 40 years.
Adams is the inspired writer of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, first broadcast by the BBC Radio in 1978. A cult following was inspired by the series and its characters, Ford Prefect, Arthur Dent, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian, Marvin the paranoid Android and Slartibartfast.
Adams’ inventive use of language, his imagination and humour have immortalised his writing. Using fantasy as a vehicle, Adams explores very human issues such as shyness, meeting women, rain, politics and the demolishing of houses to build motorways – or hyperspace byways.
Douglas Adams also penned three episodes of Dr Who (The Pirate Planet (1978), Destiny of the Daleks (1979) and City of Death (with Graham Williams, 1979); The Salmon of Doubt, the Dirk Gently series, and created the game Starship Titanic, based on a book he wrote with Terry Jones (Monty Python).
I love English wit. Its as stinging as English rain…or indeed Christchurch rain.
The author of numerous books of a scientific bent is careful with his words and keen not to ruffle any feathers. It’s speculation on my part, but I wonder if his experience is that, on the topic of Time Travel, passions might sometimes become inflamed?
A curious full house gather at the Piano for this WORD Christchurch session featuring Gleick and fellow New Yorker Daniel Bernardi (erskine fellow, film and media studies scholar, science fiction expert and documentary filmmaker). They discuss the ins and outs, twists, turns and paradoxes of Time Travel. Before long there is, as is the new tradition when two educated Americans speak in the presence of non-Americans… a jocular swipe at the current US president.
Fortunately this science-loving audience is not in the least offended by the joke.
Gleick’s book Time Travel: A history is an exploration of the literature, science and zeitgeist of Time Travel. It’s far-ranging, smart and brain-expanding.
But what made him want to write on that topic in the first place?
I discovered this weird fact – that Time Travel is a new idea. That didn’t make any sense to me.
Why did it take until H. G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine for people to explore that as an idea? It seems a few things came together: photography and cinema were showing people a slice of the past in the present; instantaneous communication was suddenly possible making the lack of temporal alignment in different places more obvious; and time standards became a thing for the first time. As Gleick puts it, “the way people thought about Time was up for grabs”.
Then Einstein came along and things got really interesting.
Though Einstein’s theories allowed for the possibility of a sort of Time Travel, Gleick is quick to point out that it’s not the punching-a-date-on-a-machine or opening-a-portal-to-another-era kind. It’s really just the acknowledgement that there is no universal time. Everyone’s experience of time is personal and given the right set of circumstances (speedlight travel, for instance) your version of time can slow down relative to everyone else’s. This means that the Time Travel stories of the “Rip Van Winkle” (or Futurama) kind become technically possible. But Gleick doesn’t believe the imaginary, sci-fi type Time Travel that continues to excite our imaginations exists, or that it will. Though he seems apologetic about it, as if he’s mindful of deflating the aspirations of wannabe Time Travellers in the audience.
On the enduring appeal of Time Travel in literature and popular culture, Gleick feels that it lets people explore many things about families and relationships – it gives you the ability for “a do-over”. Like the movie Groundhog Day. He points out that a lot of Time Travel stories are about fathers and mothers, families and parents.
Take Back to the Future – isn’t this really just a movie about looking at your parents and realising they were once young like me, and wondering “what was that like?”
This is far from the only reference to Time Travel in popular culture, and many in the audience probably come away from this talk with a reading/watching list that includes:
A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – indicative of pessimism about the future of “our benighted country”.
Doomsday book – H. G. Wells never wrote about going into the past but Connie Willis does.
Looper – Movie that nicely skirts over the paradoxical plot difficulties by having Bruce Willis tell his younger self “If we’re going to talk about Time Travel sh*t we’re gonna be sitting here making diagrams with straws all day”.
Interstellar – Bernardi’s pick as the film that best visualises the science of Time Travel.
Arrival – A film that Gleick feels works very well in performing a “subtle trick” on the audience. All Time Travel stories have to do this but in this film you barely notice it happening.
Twelve Monkeys – Another Bruce Willis film that deals with a Time Travel loop and deals with a death.
“Blink” – Gleick’s favourite episode of Doctor Who, in particular a scene set in a spooky old house, “old houses are great time travel machines”. It’s also the first episode in which the phrase “timey-wimey” is used.
Gleick is at great pains to try and describe these stories in a way that does not reveal any important plot twists. In the case of Planet of the Apes this is… is adorable the right word? The movie came out in 1968. But no spoilers!
Another appealing aspect to Time Travel is that it’s a way of escaping death. After all, (spoiler alert!) Time will kill us all in the end.
When we hear Time’s winged chariot it’s not delivering good news.
But what is Time (other than universally deadly)? Scientists may tell you that Time is the 4th dimension and that it’s similar to the other physical dimensions in that we inhabit one spot and the rest stretches out away from us, both backward and forward. This rather flies in the face of what Gleick says we know “in our guts” about Time i.e. that the past has happened and the future hasn’t.
It seems an oddly obvious statement to have to make, and Gleick says it’s not a scientific one but a religious one.
Some of the audience questions delve into this idea of religious thought versus Time Travel and at this point I get lost, draw a spiral in my notebook and label it “loop of confusion”. Questions like “is God in Time with us?” and “doesn’t an interventionist God imply that the future isn’t set?” do somewhat “screw my noodle”. Given the heady topic, it seems inevitable that I lose the thread of the discussion at some point in proceedings. Perhaps it always has, and always did happen?
Other questions posed include one from my colleague Fee (who wrote her own post about James Gleick) and wonders if the future is set, then what about premonition? Which Gleick says (gently) that he does not believe in, though it’s a powerful idea.
Another question asks how it is that Gleick can explain such scientifically complex stuff in ways that non-scientist folk can understand. He says simply that he’s a journalist so he asks lots of questions and that a big part of it is just getting scientists to talk you as they sometimes “live in their own abstruse world”.
I am lucky enough to get the last mic grab of the night and ask my own question (which if I could have a Time Travel do-over for, I would make slightly less waffley). It’s with reference to the way we think about Time in terms of spatial metaphor. In the Western world we conceive of the past as being behind us and the future in front of us but in Māori culture this is flipped around – the past is known and therefore visible before you and it’s the future that approaches you from behind. In the course of researching had he found any other cultures that view Time this way? Gleick replies that the language we use, the words that we use to describe Time really shape how we think about it and that in some Asian languages Time travels on an “up and down” axis or “right to left”.
And if I thought my noodle was screwed before it definitely is now. As I exit the theatre along with the rest of the audience I concentrate on travelling forward through space and backwards/forwards/vertically through time.
Time: The real history of science fiction – BBC programme that discusses several of the films discussed in this session as well as the Grandfather paradox and other Time Travel tropes. (log in with your library card number and PIN to watch online)
I’m so excited. I’ve always wanted to find out how to Time Travel. I could get so much more done.
My first memory of a Time Travel story would have to be the Time Tunnel. Yet as I look back it’s an element in so many stories – the Pevensies always came back to the same moment they left (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), The guys in Land of the Lost travelled, and then I read The Time Machine.
H.G. Wells is arguably the master, although he was no Newton. Yet he raises a theory (mirrored by Ben Elton in Time and Time Again) that Time exists only in the memory: “There is no difference between Time and any of the three dimensions of Space except that our consciousness moves along it.” (p.8).
Susan’s student, Penelope, in Terry Pratchett’s The Thief of Time, asserts that “Its always now everywhere, Miss.”
Gleick, a Harvard graduate, explores not just story in his book, but scientific theory also, from the concept of Time to the idea of travelling at will through it. He has also written a book on Isaac Newton.
Time Travel: A history, has a formidable index, and an indispensable book list of stories, anthologies and scientific works on the nature of time and travel.
After a small survey of colleagues and friends I’ve come up with some questions for Mr Gleick. Feel free to ask one at the event. (They won’t let me ask them all!)
Can you meet yourself in Time and not cause a temporal reaction?
“Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”H. G. Wells (1898), The War of the Worlds.
The year is 1921. Britain has recovered from the Martian Attacks of 1907. Yet it is a Britain much changed.
Immortalised in Wells’ narrative (1898), Orson Welles’ radio show (1938), Jeff Wayne’s stage show (1978) and several movies, these are big boots to fill with high expectations from purists of the genre. Easy when you’re the next Arthur C. Clarke?
I think Stephen Baxter does an incredible job. He switches things up using a several personal accounts; all minor characters from the original. His text reflects Wells’ Victorian idiom and his story of a second invasion connects seamlessly with the original narrative.
Baxter has fun messing with history in this story. He credibly suggests how the Martian incident could have changed Britain forever. In Baxter’s world Lloyd George and Churchill play second fiddle to a Martian War hero named Marvin. England has discomfortingly aligned itself with Germany and adapted Martian technology to protect itself from the possibility of a second attack.
Has Britain learned enough to repel a second invasion? Or have the Martians learned enough to succeed this time?
This is so good that at times I could hear the voice of the narrator from the Jeff Wayne version while reading it.
Weeooo weeooo wee ooooh….
“We seem to be young, in a very old Galaxy. We’re like kids tiptoeing through a ruined mansion.” Stephen Baxter
Everyone knows you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, right? But we do, of course. I mean, when you’re browsing the library shelves, it’s the cover that attracts you to a book, isn’t it? I’ve heard that you’re supposed to read to page 90 (!) of a book before you decide if you should read it, but I sure don’t have time for that!
So anyway, when I saw Resistance is Futile the other day, I was sure this was just the book for me. Anyone who’s read my blog posts before will know that I’m a bit of a Star Trek nerd (just a wee bit!) so I was really excited to read this geeky love story with a Trek reference in the title. It looked like it was going to be the perfect read.
But I was wrong. It wasn’t that the story wasn’t any good–I enjoyed it well enough–it just wasn’t what the cover had lead me to believe. I was expecting a kind of Rosie Project-ish story, but with a geek-girl protagonist and a few Star Trek references thrown in. But what I got, was an X-Files-ish murder-mystery-come-alien-romance story. There was not so much as a single “Beam me up, Scotty” or “Live long and prosper” to be had. I think there might have been a vague reference to the Prime Directive on page 265. Maybe. Or maybe I’m just clutching at straws.
Of course, sometimes it’s the other way around.
When I read the blurb of The Round House by Louise Erdrich (“A mother is brutally raped by a man on the North Dakota reservation where she lives… Traumatized and afraid, she takes to her bed and refuses to talk to anyone – including the police…”) I groaned inwardly. “Who chooses these books anyway?” I grumbled. But it was for book club, so I had to at least attempt to read it. Grudgingly I began…
…and instead of the abhorrent, disturbing tale I was expecting, I discovered an arresting, thought provoking story of a young man’s search for justice for his mother. Although the story was often upsetting, it was not gratuitous. I learnt fascinating and shocking things about life on a Native American reservation. I was amazed that Erdrich, a (then) 57 year old woman, could create a teenage-boy-character so utterly believable and real as Joe. I laughed at the oddball characters of his extended family. And I cried as the conclusion approached, knowing, without knowing, what was about to happen.
And… I reveled in Joe’s love of Star Trek! Both for its own sake, and because it was so unexpected! Joe and his friends idolised the super-strong, fully-functional android Data; they wanted to be Worf, the Klingon warrior* (they were also Star Wars fans, of course–but I forgave them). A few chapters in, I suddenly realised that each chapter shared its title with an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation (yes, I am that much of a Trekkie that I know the titles of the episodes, and I only had to check the synopsis of a couple of them to be sure what they were about). I then had a sudden desire to watch all those episodes, and analyse the connections with each chapter. In fact, I found myself wanting to write whole essays on this book. Back in the dim reaches of history, I actually did a degree in English. I was even invited to do Honours (though I didn’t, for reasons which I’ve now forgotten). I loved studying, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a book since that I so wanted to write academic essays about. The more I think about it, the more I think this book deserves the “Missbeecrafty Best Book” award. I’m sure that’s almost as prestigious as the American National Book Award for Fiction which it actually won in 2012.
Literary prize winning books aren’t for everyone, I know, but don’t judge this book on its prize-winning-ness. And don’t judge it on it’s Trekkie-ness! If you’re not a Star Trek fan, don’t worry, I’ve read a bunch of reviews, and hardly anyone else seems to have even noticed it, and they still loved it. And don’t judge it by its cover, either!
I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump for several months, but it’s starting to pick up again. Mostly I seem to be into Adventures in space! books at the moment (to be fair when am I not into Adventures in space! books?), possibly a result of the Star Wars renaissance. It’s a good time to be a science fiction fan.
Recent recommended reads:
The Ancillary trilogy by Ann Leckie, beginning with Ancillary Justice – an approximation of the British Empire in space! AI ships with human bodies who love singing! Lots of tea! It can take a few chapters to get into but rewards persistence. Leckie is definitely one of my favourite new sci fi authors.
Behind the Throne by K. G. Wagers – Often described as: What if Princess Leia and Han Solo were the same person? Foul-mouthed gunrunner Hailimi Bristol is forced to return to her home planet to take up the crown after most of the royal family are assassinated. Chaos ensues. I doubt I’d be able to cope with Hailimi in person (so much shouting, calm down) but I enjoyed the first book. Possibly not enough to check out the second, After the Crown, but I know others enjoyed it.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers – Similar to Firefly in that it’s an ensemble cast in space who all love each other even when they hate each other, episodic plot, and occasional encounters with nasty aliens (lots of nice ones too). There’s a sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit, which explores what happens when the ship’s AI gets a body and learns to be an engineer. I think I liked that one even more and it’s a standalone so feel free to pick it up without having read the first. Readers who prefer a fast paced plot should steer clear but if you’re into character-driven feel-good science fiction, this is the author for you.
Other science fiction I’m looking forward to reading:
Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. First of a trilogy. To win an impossible war Captain Kel Cheris is given the “help” of a dead, insane but tactically brilliant traitor general.
The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. Aliens prepare to invade. Humans are divided in their response to the threat. What happens next will surprise you!
Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty. Murder mystery in spaaaaaace!
I have been a fan of Star Wars for as long as I can remember and a large part of that reason was Princess Leia. Growing up in the 70s and 80s she was, along with Charlies’ Angels, the kind of cute but fearless hero that I longed to be like.
Later in life I came to appreciate Carrie Fisher for her other roles in films like When Harry met Sally, and more recently her brilliantly comic turn as the mother-in-law from Hell in sitcom Catastrophe, but most especially for her writing.
Having been equal parts amused and horrified by her earlier memoir Wishful Drinking*, late last year I placed a hold on her most recent effort, The Princess Diarist. I couldn’t possibly have imagined that by the time the book became available that she would be dead. How could I have? And even worse, that her family would suffer a double tragedy when her mother, Debbie Reynolds, would follow just a couple of days later. I wept unapologetically and over the Christmas period I watched song and dance numbers from Singin’ in the rain on YouTube and moped.
So it was with a somewhat heavy heart that I finally picked up The Princess Diarist and, after steeling myself and making sure a box of tissues was handy, started to read it.
But I barely needed them because, and this is the magic of writing and the author’s voice, Carrie Fisher was alive again on every page. Dripping with acerbic, self-deprecating wit and wordplay, The Princess Diarist was this amazingly comforting fan experience for me.
In case you didn’t know, the book is based on Fisher’s diaries from 1976 during the making of the first Star Wars film. The book is a mix of explanatory set-up of how she came to even been in the movie (or showbiz for that matter) and her observations on that time from a distance of some 40 years, as well as some really fascinating musings on the nature of fame, or at least her very specific version of it. And throughout runs her brutally honest humour and no BS attitude. The main revelation of the book is her on set affair, at the age of nineteen, with her married-with-kids co-star Harrison Ford. She dedicates a whole chapter to it which is, rather delightfully, titled “Carrison”.
You have the eyes of a doe and the balls of a samurai.
(Harrison Ford “breaking character” by saying something heartfelt to Fisher, as they parted company)
The book also includes a section of verbatim entries from the aforementioned diary. In some ways this was my least favourite part, only because it’s written by a rather tortured teenager about her less than satisfying love life and I have unfond memories of writing similarly tortured diary entries when I was the same age. I can immediately understand why it took her 40 years to publish any of it (There is poetry. About Harrison Ford being distant. It’s wonderful/terrible).
Having said that, Fisher’s diaries are much better written than those of the average teenager. She admits to having been rather precocious and the sly humour and clever use of language would read as being written but someone much older… if not for the This Is So Very Important And Deep style of diarying that teenagers of a certain sort are prone to.
So skim through that section, casting grains of salt as you go, would be my advice. But the rest of it is great – an absolute must-read for Princess Leia fans, or just fans of Fisher’s signature snappy rejoinders.
Having got through pretty much the whole book with nary more than a slight moistening of eye, I admit to some small amount of tearfulness upon reading the acknowledgments, primarily due to this passage –
For my mother – for being too stubborn and thoughtful to die. I love you, but that whole emergency, almost dying thing, wasn’t funny. Don’t even THINK about doing it again in any form.
Yet another (amazing) book about a broken family. This sad story about a young girl who lives in rags is definitely a must-read for Jacqueline Wilson fans. I loved the connection with Hetty Feather! The beginning of the story is all rather upsetting, with almost no chance of getting any better. But at the end things turn out just fine! Clover is a sweet girl who loves to look after children, she doesn’t tend to get along well with kids her age however Clover is brighter than most of them! She uses her intelligence to find her place at The Girls’ Institute and finally a more permanent home. I would love another book about Clover to see what she gets up to!
I absolutely love this two-part series about telepathy! Jam-packed with an amazing plot and heaps and heaps of love triangles. Before reading this book, I warn you that the ending contains a massive plot twist; that requires a little knowledge about chemical elements. Some of my favourite things about these books, besides the unique use of telepathy, was probably the range of personalities. Each character was different and all of them went on different journeys, experiencing their ESP (telepathy) in different ways.
Who’d have thought the popular award-winning Canadian novelist, poet and short story writer would put out a comic book. I’m amazed.
And Angel Catbird is amazing! Harking back to early comics of the 1940s, this entertaining story has all the elements of the genre. Surviving a near fatal collision with a car, his beloved cat Ding, an owl and a DNA changing serum, our Hero Strig Feleedus is transformed into Angel Catbird. The once-quiet scientist now has a six-pack, owl wings and a cat’s tail and must come to terms with his new abilities. There are some funny scenes as he learns to supress his baser instincts.
Evil villain Dr Muroid; part human, part rat, commands an army of rats he intends to humanise, feminise (eewww), and take over the World! If only he can get his clawed little hands on the formula. Meanwhile, down at Club Catastrophe, Cate Leone prepares for war … Part Femme Fatale and half cat, Margaret wanted Catbird’s a love interest drawn sexy but not gratuitously, as befits a feminist author.
In her introduction Atwood explains that even though she is “a nice literary old lady”, she drew comic book characters as a child and has never stopped; influenced by early comics such as Little Lulu, Mickey Mouse, Rip Kirby, Mary Worth, Marvel and Dick Tracy, and the later political satire of Walt Kelly’s Pogo.
Nature Canada, a cause close to Margaret’s heart, has added the odd footnote to the story – suggestions on how to protect both cats and the environment. The statistics are interesting without lecturing.
I’m hooked and can’t wait for Volume 2 – due out in February 2017.