Friday, September 26, 2008

Bigfoot vs. the Big Fools of the Political Arena

A new poll here in Canada indicates the myth of a monster in the woods is more believable than the myth of an honest politician.

As this country lurches towards its federal election next month, an article in yesterday’s Vancouver Sun highlighted a new poll done for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation that asked whether it was more likely that scientists would prove the existence of Bigfoot (the mythical creature said to inhabit the forests of BC) or that politicians would keep their election promises.

58% of those surveyed believe it’s more likely the Sasquatch will be proven to be real.

Just 27% of respondents bought into the notion of a politician keeping his word.

Not surprising given the state of political affairs right now with our choice between the tyrannical Tories, the lame-duck Liberals, the not-a-clue NDP, the get-a-grip Greens, and the gaggle of independents and fringe parties, never mind the b.s. Bloc in Quebec. The real myth is that any one of them could inspire voter confidence right about now. This isn’t a poll that shows Canadian voters are gullible or stupid – far from it, it shows that we see through to the heart of the matter, and that we see politicians to be insubstantial and thus of less value than an entertaining story to tell around a campfire. Culture over bluster.

But I think the real question with this poll is what did the other 15% of respondents believe? Were they simply undecided? (which still speaks volumes)

Or is that too simple? Maybe they believe that Bigfoot would keep his election promises if he were a politician! Imagine a Monster Party victory in Parliament! They could rename the Prime Minister’s official residence from "24 Sussex Drive" to “24 Sasquatch Drive”!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Why Geeks Are Great

In my last post, I got to ranting about some of the ways that SF fandom can go terribly wrong – misaligned priorities and unwillingness to deal with life’s realities to name couple. But after getting all of that off my chest, I thought it was just as important to argue, just as passionately, about the greatness of geeks – and not in a “we’re smarter than mainstreamers” petulant, little sort of way either. No, I’m talking about our humanity; our ability to care for and reach out to one another and our communities. For contrary to popular belief, we geeks do rise beyond our SF passions and eccentricities quite frequently and focus our considerable energies on making connections and being there for others. In so doing, we show, if only to ourselves, that geeks are great.

It’s always impressive when the geek community comes out in force to support a cause. Take the San Diego Comicon, for example. For about 30-odd years now, they’re held a big blood drive at the event. 30 years of geeks volunteering to get freshly squeezed like oranges adds up to a helluva lot of lives saved.

And this isn’t an isolated example either. Geeks all over the world do their part to help local and regional charities. One of the first examples I personally encountered was back in the mid 90’s when I was attending the University of Manitoba and working and volunteering with the United Way of Winnipeg. One of the UWW’s big annual fundraisers was an event called “the World’s Biggest Garage Sale” (no, I can’t verify whether it was, in fact, the biggest craphound fest the planet has ever seen, but it was pretty damn big), where, for weeks, people from around the city donated their cast-offs of all types. The UWW secured the city’s convention centre as a venue and filled its cavernous rooms with row upon row of tables covered in, well, pretty much everything you can possibly imagine. On the special Saturday when the event was held, people would come from all over the place to root through this immense trove of white elephants in hopes of finding their personal notion of treasure. The problem is, for a garage sale of this magnitude, you need a hell of a lot of volunteers to man the tables, haggle with the public and manage the sales. All kinds of service clubs, social groups and businesses sent groups to help out, but there was one corps that stood out above all the others, and that was the geeks. A very special group of geeks. Squeezed in between the Shriners and the Kinsmen and the contingent from the local Airforce base and a gaggle of car dealers and a host of who knows how many others, was a brigade of Star Trek fans – specifically, Klingons. Yep, the Klingons were there in full forehead makeup and battle garb, armed with boisterous good nature instead of bat’leths. What a sight to see! The hearty squad of warrior wannabes driving bargains a Ferengi would be proud of and sealing the deal with lusty cries of “Kaplah”, all in the name of charity. Chances are, Joe and Sally Sixpack straggling up and down the aisles with their 3 squalling kids would probably forget most of the faces they saw that day, but no-one forgets a black-maned Klingon warrior nickel-and-diming you over a chipped antique lamp shade. Now that’s geek pride for a good cause!

Then there’s VCon, the Vancouver Science Fiction, Fantasy and Gaming Convention I’ve been attending for the past couple of years. Something that caught my eye last year (which was probably there the year before, just something I failed to notice then) was the art room raffle. A genre artist had donated a painting (of a dragon, I seem to recall), and for a twonie you could enter the draw. The proceeds (if I remember correctly) went to the SHARE Society, out of Coquitlam, which among many worthy programs, operates a food bank and a crisis line. And you know, whether they actually wanted the painting or not, I saw a fair number of fanboys and fangirls dropping in a polar bear coin or two to help out.

And speaking of cons, many of these events collect money dedicated to bringing in fans from other parts of their respective countries, or even from around the world to come and join in the fun. These fan funds are a hugely important part of community-building, not just among geeks, but across regions.

Beyond the charity drives or big causes, geeks are exemplary on a personal level too.

We’ve probably all heard those stories from distant corners of the internet about a bunch of online buddies coming to the rescue of a fellow forum-dweller who suddenly goes offline due to a medical or emotional crisis – how they compare notes from personal conversations and backtrack through IP addresses, etc to figure out where the person lives and then call local emergency services.

And speaking of emergencies (of a different kind, mind you), it wasn’t too long ago that Hurricane Ike beat-up on the Texas coast. When the guys over at SF Signal announced that their site could experience infrequent content updates because all three of them were battening down for the storm, many of the regulars wasted no time in wishing the boys good luck. Watching coverage of the storm on the nightly news took on a whole new meaning when you thought about how a fellow geek might have to deal with that kind of situation.

And then there are the small, personal moments that you catch a hint of every now and again. Another VCon example for ya: A couple of years ago I was standing in line waiting to register at the con, when I overheard a conversation off to the side. A guy who looked like the stereotypical refugee from his mom’s basement (late 20’s/early 30’s, overweight, coke-bottle-lense glasses, unkempt hair and beard, ill-fitting and unwashed clothes, disputable hygiene and voice at a decided mumble) was shooting the breeze with a heavyset transvestite goth. Impressive that members from two seemingly different camps of geekdom would mix, but what was more impressive was what happened when their conversation concluded and the refugee-from-his-mom’s-basement ambled away. At that point, an average-looking woman came up to the transvestite goth and they began to talk about the fellow who’d just left. They enthused about how much he’d come out of his shell in the past couple of years, how he was now looking people in the eye and carrying on conversations. You see, a lot of people would look at this scene and wouldn’t be able to get past the stereotypes. But none of this was funny at all. I personally don’t give a shit about what any of these people look like or what their sub-culture leanings are. This was an important moment illustrating what geeks are really all about beyond the books and comics and TV shows and movies and games and collectables and costumes. It showed how geeks reach out to each other. It was inspiring and touching because it showed how much these people from seemingly diverse backgrounds cared for each other.

This is what makes geeks great.

And I bet you can think of a million other examples too. I’d love to hear about them. We need to be sharing our stories more often.

So after reading this piece from the soapbox today, you may ask, “Bloginhood, isn’t all of this rambling just belabouring the obvious?” Maybe. That’s certainly a fair comment. But I think it’s worth while, and in fact, necessary for geeks every now and again to stand up and remind ourselves what makes us great.

Too often mainstream culture mocks geeks for pursuits that it doesn’t care to give the time to try to understand. It’s too easy dismiss people who like science fiction or fantasy or whatever else you want to cram under the SF banner because they don’t get our shows, have never bothered to read our literature, don’t have the patience for a game, can’t simply enjoy a movie or, horror of horrors, don’t want to be made-fun-of by their mainstream buddies for admitting maybe they do like geeky stuff. It’s too easy for snide observers to point to the fringe elements that maybe do take their passions too far and display a warped sense of reality or distorted priorities (and granted, sometimes things do go horribly wrong, which makes us all the more human). It’s too simple to get distracted by the obvious and corny divides in our community like high fantasy vs. hard science fiction, Golden Age vs New Wave, or Enterprise vs Star Destroyer.

What’s important is that we, as geeks, come together to form communities that, for all our eccentricities, are generally supportive and caring. We must continue to support worthy charities and, most of all, support each other. We need to take pride in who we are. We need to remember why geeks are great.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Unwilling to Give Up the Ghost - or the Stargate, as the Case May Be

You know you’re truly a hardcore fanboy/fangirl when you stage a protest rally when your favourite SF TV show gets creamed by the network execs. Not sullenly mutter to yourself. Not bitch to your friends. Not piss and moan to your fellow blogoids online (as many geeks, yours truly most especially, are wont to do on occasion). Not even furiously put pen to paper in a retro-Trek campaign or lobbying of network sponsors. No, the ultimate uber-geeks are the ones to whom a cancellation is just so totally unacceptable that they’re willing to hit the streets, glasses pushed resolutely up the bridge of the nose, placard in hand, and, after some initial confusion caused by the sudden exposure to the outside world and the recovery from injuries sustained during the assembly of the afore-mentioned signage, stage a rally in front of the offending studio.

According to an article in today’s Vancouver Sun, that’s just what a group of Stargate Atlantis enthusiasts planned on doing today, with a protest scheduled to take place outside of the Bridge Studios in Burnaby, where the show has been filmed. Apparently, they’re steamed that “Stargate Atlantis” has been sunk and they’re insisting the Sci Fi Channel change its mind. Allegedly there are rumours of other, similar protests planned for LA and New York and possibly overseas.

I’m not sure whether Burnaby protest actually took place, and if so, how many people bothered to show.

Now some of you may be wondering why I wouldn’t know this, especially when my office is within spitting distance of the studio. Why, having read the story this morning about a planned SF-related protest that was going to take place nearby, why, with my background as a reporter, didn’t I nip over at lunch or spin by after work to check it out? Admittedly, my old journalistic spider senses were tingling – an SF-related news story unfolding and me with this geeky blog and all, but I didn’t indulge them. And there were a couple of reasons for that. Firstly, I’m not a fan of the Stargate franchise. I don’t dislike it; it merely doesn’t interest me. Then there’s the fact that the paper didn’t list the time of the planned protest – hard to convince the boss to let me duck out of work every hour just to check. Then there’s the fact that I was just too busy to pull myself away from the office, even at lunch, and after work I had to get home right away so my wife could use the car to get to her personal trainer. In short, there were other, more important things on the go. I have a life.

And therein lies the root of my puzzlement about this whole protest (assuming it went ahead).

How do these people find the time to stage a protest about a cancelled TV show during a weekday? How could they possibly get off work? What kind of boss would allow that? Would the conversation go something like:
Boss: “So you want the afternoon off to take part in a protest?”
Fanboy: “Yessir.”
Boss: “A protest over a TV show getting cancelled?”
Fanboy: “Yessir.”
Boss: “One of those nerdy sci-fi TV shows?”
Fanboy: “Yessir. ‘Stargate Atlantis’, sir. And, respectfully, sir, it’s not nerdy.”
Boss: “So this isn’t a ‘Star Trek’ thing?”
Fanboy: “Nossir. It’s a ‘Stargate Atlantis’ thing.”
Boss: “’Cause if it’s a Star Trek thing, I’d say ‘no’.”
Fanboy: “Nossir. I mean, yessir. I mean, nossir. Uh….”
Boss: “’Cause you remember what happened with the last Star Trek thing?...”
Fanboy: “Yessir. Won’t happen again, sir. Not the same thing at all, sir.”
Boss: “Good. ‘Cause if I hear about you betting any ‘kwatloos on the newcomer’ or anything…”
Fanboy: “Nossir.”
Boss: “Alrighty then. You can have the afternoon off.”

Not gonna happen, is it? Did these people stage a quicky over their lunch break? Did they cash-in some OT or holiday time or call in sick? Are they doing shift-work and just happened to not be on the schedule that day? Are they self-employed? Unemployed? Shouldn’t these people be earning a living? What about families or kids or friends? (okay, well, fine, their friends were probably picketing with them)

More to the point, WHY would you go to the effort (and expense – signs aren’t free and gas ain’t cheap) of staging a protest over a cancelled TV show?!? It’s just a TV show, people!!! I mean, as a fan, I’ve had feelings ranging from disappointment to being mighty pissed from time to time when a favourite show was cancelled – no one who’s passionate about a story is happy when it finally has to end (one way or the other) – but I sure wouldn’t stage a protest over it! A strongly-worded letter/email to the network might be in order, or a scathing online editorial, maybe even an online campaign to convince the network to change its mind – all of these can be cathartic if nothing else, and can let the network know how you feel without taking much of your time or effort. But protesting requires more time, expense and an actual physical effort. Too much effort, I say, when the network probably won’t pay attention - especially when MGM’s already announced it will continue the franchise with a new series. And it’s too much effort to expend fighting the end of a TV show. A TV show! If this was a hospital or a community school for disabled kids or an animal shelter or even a heritage building, I could understand how a protest could be worthwhile. If it was a rally for more money for cancer research or to put an end to bullying, you bet! But a TV show? Sure, everybody’s got their own priorities in life, but waving placards over a cancelled show indicates a fairly significant reality check is needed. I’m a fan of good SF, but there’s a point where you’ve gotta step back and ask what’s really important in life, and there are probably a lot of things in your community that rank a lot higher than some weekly flick on the boob tube. For starters, pick a charity you believe in and use your talents and energy helping it.

In addition to being a massive misalignment of priorities, this behaviour also points to something else wrong – it seems to be an inability to accept and deal with a fundamental part of storytelling and the story listening/reading/watching experience: one way or another, all stories come to an end. We, as readers/listeners/viewers have to accept that. We may not like it, we may not agree with it, but it happens. And when it happens, you do what someone who truly appreciates good SF does, you remember the old series fondly, rewatch it in reruns and on DVD on occasion, but most importantly you move on and find other quality SF shows to watch. To insist that one show continue to go on and on and on just because it’s your favourite is to risk condemning it to degrade in quality from sheer weariness until it becomes a mockery of itself, a shambling zombie of a show… a soap opera that keeps twisting its plot, not to better the story, but merely to keep adding another episode onto the pile. Case in point: “Gundam” What the hell is that show about after all these years? I don’t think the writers even know. The refusal to accept that a show is ending points to a denial of the fact that life is full of endings. It points to a desperate need to seize control of something and keep it going just to prove that one actually has the power to stave-off the inevitable. But that’s an artificial sense, it’s unrealistic, and it doesn’t allow a person to move on to new and possibly better things.

Now, you may argue that I’m a cynic. You may point out that an outcry by fans gave the original “Star Trek” a new lease on life, that it aided “Babylon 5” in reaching the end of its magnificent 5-year story arc, and that it enabled the wonderful “Firefly” to get another shot, this time on the big screen, with the immensely smart and entertaining “Serenity”. You may say that it’s not just fannish delusions of self-empowerment, that taking the networks to task actually works. But let’s face facts: Trek was limping in its last season and was eventually yanked well before it’s famous “5-year mission” could be fully presented; B5, for all of the fact that it did finish its story, saw its successor series Crusade and the various attempted successor series blown away; and Firefly, despite the movie, won’t be coming back to network television. Sooner or later, studios get their way and series end. It may be a crime that “Firefly” was never given a chance, or that B5 wasn’t given the budget or understanding to continue with new stories, but that’s the TV business. Series end. New ones come along. Parading around in front of the studio, especially in small numbers, isn’t going to make much, if any difference.

Let’s not forget either that SGA had a pretty good run. 5 years is very good for an SF show. There’s nothing wrong with it coming to a close after that kind of track record, especially when some of its elements might be preserved in the new addition to the franchise that’s currently in development or in other media formats like books and computer games.

I know some Stargate fans might read this editorial and dismiss me as a jaded son-of-a-bitch who doesn’t appreciate the power of the people and the effectiveness of a passionate and well-organized protest rally. I know there are some who will say I just don’t understand because I don’t follow the show and thus don’t appreciate what, in their view, is genius. That’s their opinion and that’s okay. But as an SF fan, I have seen favourite shows, like B5, Firefly, and soon Battlestar, fall by the wayside. And with each I’ve bought the DVD collection and learned to move on and look for the next worthwhile show to flicker across my screen. I haven’t hit the picket line. I don’t have the time.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A New Season Begins on the Boob Tube

Our track record’s been pretty poor this year in our household at the start of the new TV season. So far we’ve missed the new episodes of the new season of “Eureka” and Monday’s premier of season 2 of “The Sarah Connor Chronicles”.

It’s a pity because my wife’s become quite the fan of “Eureka” (I enjoy it myself, from time to time, but not consistently enough to follow it closely).

It’s also too bad we missed the season opener of TSCC because we both enjoy the Terminator show (sounds like the title of a 1950’s TV sketch comedy: “It’s The Terminator Show, starring some former vaudeville guy, brought to you by Big Oil – Big Oil’s always there for you!” But I digress…). Not only is the story half-decent, and not only does it have the raw entertainment value of watching little Summer Glau kick some serious butt, but we’ve also turned it into a game to try to guess whether Lena Headey will end every scene prior to a commercial break by pursing her lips and staring off into the middle distance with a combination of unease and self-conscious attempt to conceal a need to look sexy without trying to look like she’s trying to conceal her need to look sexy. And it’s not just before the commercial breaks either – she’ll bust that move in the middle of any given scene, apparently just ‘cause. I can just hear the director off camera: “Dammit, we need to create more pathos! Hmmmmmm. Okay, Lena, how about you just do that staring thing again while the other guy’s talking. That’ll help. Do you need someone to help purse those lips? No? Okay. Hold that pose for another couple of minutes while we change the lighting. Now somebody go get me a pretzel!” Trying to predict when she’ll roll out that melodramatic reaction/meditation look is almost teetering on the brink of becoming a drinking game around these parts. Except, of course, it happens so often you’d never make it to the end of an episode. Anyway, we’ll probably make a more concerted effort to watch this season.

What I have managed to catch is the premier of “Fringe”. Uh-huh. Is anyone else getting a “Torchwood” kind of a feeling? I mean, really, there aren’t any pterodactyls cruising around in the rafters (yet), so maybe they’ve taken a bit of a cue from the “X-Files” school of subdued conspiracy agency shows, but still, that whole scene in the lab where they found the cure for the dude with the disease? I half expected Captain Jack Harkness to come sauntering in grinning ear to ear and regaling the gang with some tale of his sexual exploits with the Triple-breasted Whore of Eroticon Six (no, wait, that’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide” now, but you get my drift). Maybe the bald recruiting guy is supposed to be this show’s Captain Jack – he wears a long coat anyway. Suffice to say, I’m waiting to be impressed. I’ll give it one more episode to prove its worth.

Now if only it was January so the last half-season of Battlestar could finally get under way!

Monday, September 01, 2008

Belated Happy Birthday to Bradbury

It’s been a little over a week since Ray Bradbury’s birthday, and since he’s one of my favourite authors (SF or otherwise), I figured I should do a little tip of the hat to the old Grandmaster here on the old soapbox.

I’ve raved many times before (in fact, he was the subject of my first posting on this blog back on a cold November night in 2005) about why I like Bradbury’s stories, so I won’t go into that again. Instead, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts on some of my favourites from his body of work.

My absolute favourite is “The Halloween Tree”. It’s not his most profound or most grown-up work, but this tale of a group of kids chasing through Hallowe’ens across time to save the soul of their friend has some truly beautiful descriptions that bring back a lot of memories from All Hallows Eve when I was a kid. That’s not, to say, that my friends and I spent the night in the company of a sinister old fellow named Moundshroud, rather, it’s his descriptions of the feeling of that evening, and what it’s like to be in a small town out in the middle of the woods and fields when the pumpkin carving season rolls around. Check this out:

“There wasn’t so much wilderness around you couldn’t see the town. But on the other hand, there wasn’t so much town you couldn’t see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness. The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here.”

That could have been the little subdivision I lived in, tucked way out in the woods in North Dumfries Township. And the night itself? This about sums it up:

“Anyone could see that the wind was a special wind this night, and the darkness took on a special feel because it was All Hallows’ Eve. Everything seemed cut from soft black velvet or gold or orange velvet. Smoke panted up out of a thousand chimneys like the plumes of funeral parades. From kitchen windows drifted two pumpkin smells: gourds being cut, pies being baked. …Shrieking, wailing, full of banshee mirth they ran, on everything except sidewalks, going up into the air over bushes and down almost upon yipping dogs.”
Ah, those were the days! And all I have to do is open “The Halloween Tree” and the sights and smells and tastes in my memory are that much closer.

Next is “There Will Come Soft Rains” – the second last tale in “The Martian Chronicles”. The Chronicles as a whole are a masterwork, Bradbury’s meditation on humanity set against the backdrop of a Mars that never was and an Earth in its last throes. It’s a book that throws many different thoughts and feelings at you as you trek through it. But among its stories, the most emotionally powerful, the one that haunts and scars the memory forever, in my opinion, is “There Will Come Soft Rains”. In and of itself, not much happens in this story: amidst a ruined nuclear wasteland on Earth, a family dog crawls home to die, the automated systems of the house clean up, and the house itself is destroyed by fire. If you’ve ever had a family pet, the death of the dog alone is enough to bring you to tears – it sure did for me. But aside from the scene being one of merely a single cruel, lonely and sad death, it is one that evokes an image of planet-wide suffering of innocent lives – of the price paid by every living thing for the thoughtless violence of mankind. Even the destruction of the house shows that our mighty technology is incapable of withstanding our lack of self control. In fact, the story is most pointed in not telling us directly about the deaths of the Earth’s human population – we don’t get to indulge in even this level of selfish ego. One tends to sympathize more with the innocent bystanders than those who cause an accident, and so humanity is dismissed. In leaving us out of this story, the lesson about the consequences of our actions is more powerful. And yet, having learned this lesson, there is a second chance, for after the devastation of the fires on Earth, we are told in “The Million-Year Picnic” that there is a seed of humanity left on Mars, a story ending with a different element – water - and thus a chance to wash clean and hopefully not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Finally, I’d have to round-out my list of absolute Bradbury favourites with “Last Rites”. Originally appearing in the December ’94 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I first encountered this story in Bradbury’s collection “Quicker than the Eye”. This is hands-down the most original time travel story ever. Most examples of this sub-genre see heroes traipsing across time to change the past or future, or prevent someone else from doing so. Not so with Bradbury’s character Harrison Cooper. Rather than attempt to rewrite history or explore ancient or far-future mysteries, Cooper launches himself across the sea of years to bring comfort to the giants of literature. As they lie alone facing death, Cooper appears with copies of their novels or poems or plays to reassure them that they will live on because their work had intellectual and emotional worth. He is a kind of polar opposite of Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Future, showing the men before him not visions of doom, but proof that the fruits of their creativity had meaning. For one with the seeming god-like power to travel through time and affect history and lives, Cooper takes a path that is so subdued it can’t be anything but intrinsically human. This is a gentle tale that in taking a totally sideways view of what one could do with this kind of power, asks us to rethink what we ought to do with our abilities and opportunities – it reminds us that human connections are what’s most important.

For me, these are the finest of Bradbury’s works. There are many others that I enjoy immensely, but these are the ones that spring to mind first when someone mentions him.

I’m always interested to hear what Bradbury stories grab other people the most. For my wife, it’s “Tete-a-Tete” from “One More for the Road”.

What’s your favourite Bradbury story?