After some early casualties, there are a dozen students in the class, though at least one blinks in and out of view like the words in Jeffrey Ford’s “The Weight of Words.” A most congenial group. We meet in a ginormous classroom with seating for a hundred. It’s like an AA group meeting in the corner of a church basement. The fluorescents could brown toast. The AV equipment is state-of-the-art and temperamental as hell. All part of the adventure. Today, the power was out completely in the building for a scheduled electrical overhaul. Nobody told me. Fortunately the film, Donnie Darko, is one most have seen before. The ending of that film is one of my all-time favorite endings. I was sad to hear there’s a sequel coming out that Richard Kelly has nothing to do with, called S Darko, about Samantha, the younger sister some years later. The same actress, of Sparkle Motion fame, reprises her role. She couldn’t say no? Some sequels just shouldn’t be made. Take Terminator 3, for example.
At the conclusion of every course, I take a poll to determine what students liked and didn’t. Eleven students remain standing, and they were all present to vote. Interestingly enough this time, each book on the reading list was someone’s favorite, though Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven got only one vote as favorite and four least favorite. Like last year Murakami split favorite/unfavorite down the middle with three votes for each. Dick and Bester also got 3 each as favorites and no least favorite. The Road was the least favorite of three and the favorite of one. Part of the problem with Le Guin may have been my lackluster teaching. The book is getting stale to me, and I need to give it a rest anyway. Hard-Boiled Wonderland etc. may also need to sit on the sidelines for different reasons. I’ve read it a half-dozen times now, but my students come to it fresh and confused. It’s hard to get on the same page. As for the films, the voting was lopsided in both categories. Starman was trounced with eight negative votes. Alien was the clear winner with six favorite votes. Children of Men did well also with four favorite votes. So once again, the books and films from the 80’s are problematic. Maybe I should just skip that decade… Actually, I’m considering reinventing the course as a topical survey, with a book and movie for each of five sf tropesâ€”aliens, time travel, end of the world, etc. Any suggestions for topics and books and films are always welcome. There are anthologies out there I could use, but I dearly hate lugging the damn things and prefer teaching novels or single-author collections.
I like to end the sf course with recent work that’s gotten a lot of positive attention. The book can’t be too long, however, and that’s been a problem lately. No Neal Stephenson, for example. This year, however, the short science fiction novel, The Road, was blessed by Oprah and Pulitzer. The film Children of Men was widely admired and seemed to be a natural companion. Both are beautifully done. Neither one is exactly a day at the beach. I’ll be curious what my students make of them. I hope they don’t want to lock me in a basement.
Total immersion in the planet’s demise takes a toll, so I wanted to get away from the darkness for a while and catch up on email but found myself reading about peak oil. I could’ve clicked on a video. I’m not sure what of. A big strawâ€”a sucking sound? I resisted the temptation and walked over to a bike shop in Carytown and bought a new bike to replace my stolen one, after a decent period of mourning. This proved to be just the thing, followed by a brisk ride through the park, the air redolent with smoke from North Carolina fires. Here’s hoping I never have to pedal it down McCarthy’s Road. The tires would melt, cannibals would eat me. Okay? Okay.
Children of Men gets to me in some new way every time I watch it, but it’s always exhausting. It’s like living through the Bush years on fast forward. In both book and film redemption is frail, perhaps an illusion.
Maybe I should rent Sullivan’s Travels. Maybe it’s time for a remake.
It’s school time again for me, with a new science fiction class starting last Monday. That means getting to reread old friends, The Stars My Destination and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? They keep getting better. Students are generally amazed how much they like Bester. I’m always amazed how much I like DADOES? I see new things, subtle nuances every time. I’m even starting to like his wacky adverbs. Scary thoughtâ€”maybe I’m turning into Phil Dick. But God, thank God, hasn’t talked to me. Yet.
In reading about Dick on imdb, I came across these Dickisms:
Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.
The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.
You would have to kill me and prop me up in the seat of my car with a smile painted on my face to get me to go near Hollywood.
I’m an obsessive writer and if I don’t get writer’s block I’d overload, short circuit and blow my brain out right away.
I’m once again teaching two courses at Virginia Commonwealth University this summer. They are both literature courses open to anyone who has successfully completed freshman English requirements. The first, Science Fiction, begins May 19th and runs through June 19th. Class meets 10:30 amâ€”12:45 pm Monday through Thursday. We will read Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven, Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Films will be The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Dr. Strangelove, Alien, Starman, and The Children of Men.
The second class, Urban Fantasy, begins June 23rd and runs through July 24th. Class meets 10:30 amâ€”12:45 pm Monday through Thursday. We will read Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, Sean Stewart’s Perfect Circle, Jeffrey Ford’s The Empire of Ice Cream, Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners, and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Films will be Edward Scissorhands, The Sixth Sense, Being John Malkovich, Donnie Darko, and Pan’s Labyrinth.
There’s plenty of room in both classes. I would love to have you!
Since I’ve taught a course titled Urban Fantasy for the last few years, I’ve had to answer that question a lot. It’s not easy. What I mean by the term is fantasy grounded in a modern world. The terms “modern fantasy” and “contemporary fantasy” are hopelessly ambiguous as course titles. Contemporary American Novel, for example, would denote when the novels were written, not the settings or time periods therein. A course called Contemporary Fantasy could include T. H. White’s Once and Future King or Le Guin’s Earthsea books, even Tolkien for that matter.
To further complicate the issue are the various ways folks perceive the word “urban.” If you grew up in one of the “real cities” like New York or Chicago, like most Americans haven’t, urban doesn’t include suburbia or even, let’s say, Sean Stewart’s Houston in Perfect Circle. Sarah, an urban planner, uses the term urban in a variety of ways. People live in cities in a variety of ways, but most people live in cities. It all depends, I suppose, which axis, time or space, is being emphasized. American Gods is urban fantasy to me, though if cityscape is the requisite factor, clearly it’s not. It’s not urban enough, which I suspect is a term, like “black enough,” that is fraught with peril.
As for my own work, no matter what I myself label it, editors tell me I’m wrong. All this matters to me this morning because a story I felt embodied my own notion of urban fantasy was rejected for not being urban fantasy by a wonderful editor whose work I consistently admire. Urban fantasy? Don’t ask me, obviously. If anybody says “interstitial,” I’ll slug them. Anyway, if you come to the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, you can decide for yourself. I’ll be reading the story, whatever it is, Friday, November 2nd at 5:30 pm.
My tiny Urban Fantasy class comes to a close today. The favorite book turned out to be Kafka on the Shore. They suggested that two short story collections was one too many, though they were divided as to which one should go. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed teaching this summer, but I’m definitely ready to get back to writing.
I have a new novel underway (in 1st chapter territory) called The Best Lucifer Ever. I’m rereading Paradise Lost and some of the more obscure passages of the Bible as part of the process and having a wonderful time.
A Richmond magazine called Boomer Life, a slick freebie for people my age, has a flattering profile of me by local writer Carrie Belt. She persuaded several nice people to lie about me. It’s available at CVS, Kroger’s, Ukrops, etc.
Link’s stories were not a huge success with my class. They liked the most accessible stories, “The Faery Handbag” and “Stone Animals.” I love the truly weird stories in the collection that manage to be at their weirdest with barely a drop of magicâ€””Magic for Beginners,” “Some Zombie Contingency Plans,” and “Lull.” We take up Murakami tomorrow. This was my fourth time reading Kafka on the Shore, and I’m still in love with it.
As summer school sprints to a close, I’ve been too busy to post, eyeball deep in Kelly Link and Jeff Ford storiesâ€”that’ll alter your realityâ€”and poring over Donnie Darko. I can’t believe I actually get paid to do this. The most popular Jeff Ford story hands down was “The Weight of Words,” probably mine too. They beat up on “Coffins on the River.” The young, the young, I say, shaking my old head. I love that story. Most popular movie was equally divided between Being John Malkovich and Donnie Darko. Edward Scissorhands was voted off. They liked it, but there wasn’t that much to talk about. Gotta go read Murakami. There’s a guy in the next block who’s been catching cats. I wonder if he’s read Kafka on the Shore. What an incredible book. We start Link’s Magic for Beginner’s today.
In my Urban Fantasy class today we discussed the following question about The Sixth Sense but could never reach consensus. (I’ll pose the question to be relatively spoiler free in case there’s anyone out there who hasn’t seen the flick). Both Cole (the kid) and Malcolm (the shrink) have secrets. We know when Malcolm learns Cole’s secret. When does Cole know Malcolm’s secret? The class was split down the middle with half, including myself, maintaining that Cole knows from the beginning, when they meet in the church. Others maintain that he only comes to realize it. Everyone pretty much agreed that he definitely knows by the end of the filmâ€”and before first time viewers do. So the question is when does Cole know?
I’m always surprised how much I like this movie, how it mostly holds up as a terrific plot stunt that actually strengthens the movie. The story you think you’re seeing and the story you’re actually watching inform each other quite movingly. If any of my fictional moms ever find themselves on film, I want Toni Colette to play the part. She does great moms. Course, she may be sick to death of moms. Hell, she can play any part she wants.
The red dress at the funeral party didn’t work for me, but mostly the details are wonderful. I keep trying to enjoy his later films as much, if at all, but so far it’s not happening. I haven’t seen Lady in the Water, but I did recently screen The Village. The village idiot did it is not much of a plot. The monster’s still wearing a red dress, but nobody’s dancing. How could a group of professional counsellors come up with something as dopey as the Village? With Shyalaman’s lame ideas. I suspected after Signs that he’d become afflicted with profundity. But The Village just seemed lifeless. I liked the blind girl, however, no matter how implausible her mission.