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Archive for the ‘heroes’ Category

Humanity is on the receiving end of a good deal of vitriol and abuse these days.

Fundamentalists of all stripes yearn for Armageddon, a “great cleansing”, a final accounting that will separate the sinners from the righteous, the forsaken from the saved. Whacked out environmentalists and New Agers look forward with gleeful anticipation to the upheaval and destruction that, according to the Mayan calendar, are due to wreak havoc on great tracts of the planet on or about December 21st, 2012. Weird. Please note: these folks are usually separated by huge, yawning gulfs in terms of their philosophy/ideology and yet here they are pining for the same thing: the wholescale destruction of vast populations of their fellow human beings.

It will start in the Middle East. Ancient scores settled with modern day technology. The Holy Land rendered uninhabitable, reprisals that envelop the world.

Or maybe a dirty bomb in Manhattan.

A meteor from outer space.

Alien invasion…

Everyone in agreement that mankind is doomed…and deserving of every rotten thing about to happen to us. A pox on our heads!

I find this kind of thinking hateful, a self-loathing pathological in its pure virulence. Both sides are also seemingly allied by their belief in “original sin”—homo sapiens are vile and depraved from birth (and maybe before). We are beyond redemption (most of us) and should pay the ultimate price for rejecting the presence of a higher power (God or Gaia; it amounts to the same thing, right?).

Our crimes against the environment condemn us, no question. We have stripped and burnt and undermined and defaced a substantial segment of our natural world. Our voracious appetites, rampant consumerism and selfishness have also directly contributed to a disproportionate amount of suffering inflicted on the majority of our planetary brothers and sisters. We possess every creature comfort and it is entirely at their expense. There’s a First World because there’s a Third World.

Hey, I get all that.

But I also know that we walked on the moon. Sent down a paper-thin craft, guided by a computer that was little more than a glorified pocket calculator. Got Armstrong and Aldrin to the surface, then brought them back alive.  And we’ve dispatched robot probes to just about every planet, even have a vessel on the verge of entering interstellar space

Think of the books, theater, dance performances, movies, the artwork and architecture we’ve created; the way we’ve related to our environment in positive ways.

Now try to conceive of the complexity of the minds capable of imagining such things. Men and women imbued with gifts and insights which allow them to alter the way the rest of us perceive the universe.

We know of nothing more astonishing or inexplicable than the human brain. It makes the fanciest, state of the art super-computer look like a, well, a soul-less calculating machine. Which is what it is. Sorry, all you geeks out there.

The brain is capable of extraordinary mental leaps and bounds, possessing a muscularity and agility belied by its rather mundane appearance. Two pounds of inanimate tissue containing trillions of nerve endings. Every millimeter interlocked through ever-changing networks of electro-chemical connections. A magnificent feat of engineering. Clever beyond its designer’s wildest dreams.

Maker of horror and holocaust.

Jesus Christ and Buddha.

Of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

…penicillin and Groucho Marx.

Keep screaming and waving your pictures of Kigali and Katyn…meanwhile, I’ll continue my stream of conscious rant/monolog about the Salk Vaccine and the eradication of smallpox.

I will concede there’s strong evidence we’re killers, born and bred.

But we also come equipped with a conscience, a little voice that insists we atone for our wrongs. It allows us to acknowledge the darkness but prohibits us, by specific commandment, from despairing, even in the complete absence of light.

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As previously mentioned, I’ve been asked quite a few times why I decided to write a western.  Even old pals were left scratching their heads. Not only a western, a traditional western, featuring a gunslinger who might have been played by Gary Cooper or Randolph Scott.

Well…

As some of you know, I also keep a film blog. I spent most of the last couple of days composing a lengthy personal essay on my love of western movies. I think the piece perfectly sums up my attraction for the genre and I hope you’ll click on this link, pop over and give it a read. I don’t often write non-fiction of this length but I’m really pleased by how this piece came out.

Don’t be shy about contributing your thoughts, opinions and reminiscences, perhaps offer your own roster of all time faves.

Always looking for tips on great films…

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What are your goals as a writer, as a creative person?

This question has been much on my mind for the past while.  I’ve been accused of being an “elitist” and what have you because I insist that if you write for the purpose of making money, seeking fame and fortune, you are little more than a whore.  I have also been pretty clear that I have no interest in pursuing some big, fat publishing contract, nor do I give a tinker’s damn whether you’ve won a Hugo, an Edgar or the fucking Nobel Prize for that matter.  Baubles and trinkets.  Bullion and bullshit.

Kids, I’ve been offered the chance to write franchise novels (“Star Wars” or “Star Trek”) and told the agent involved to shove it.  As far as I’m concerned, you do something like that, “sharecrop” someone else’s universe, you are off the artistic roll call.  (Thanks, Bill, couldn’t have said it better myself.)

I don’t go to conventions, suck up to editors, try to flog my work to them like a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman.

I don’t shill myself by teaching writing workshops—such ventures help spread the abhorrent lie that good writers can be stamped out like fucking cookies.  I’ve written about that in more detail here (the more delicate among you may have to avert your eyes at certain points in the essay).

Okay, so that’s what I don’t want…but what is my greatest aspiration as a writer?

To be the best.  To push myself to the limit and produce work that breaks new ground, written in language so finely wrought it’s like reading through a score by one of the great classical musicians.  Note perfect.  I want to be held up there with the finest authors in the world and not be found wanting.

I have no interest in being average.  A “decent” writer.  Ugh.  Better to be forgotten than instantly forgettable, which pretty much sums up most of the books being released these days.

Because I have chosen to go the indie route, I have automatically rendered my writing suspect in many people’s eyes.  If I’m acting as my own publisher and printer that must mean my stuff is no good, rejected by mainstream places because it fails to meet their exalted standards.  Which automatically begs the question:  have you been in a book store recently, seen the kind of shit the traditional publishers are spewing out like a drunk’s partially digested lunch?

I expend an incredible amount of time and effort revising and polishing my work—my novel So Dark the Night took over three years to write (not including the research that preceded it).  And I’m a full time writer.  Imagine that.  Day in and day out for 3+ years.  (Shudder)  But I knew I had a wonderful book, was confident that once it was finished and released, people would love it.  And I was right.

But, again, because I’m not a self-promoter, I think I’ve hurt sales of both my novels.  I even resisted sending out review copies, partially because I knew that no matter how good the books were, how professionally executed and bound, there would still be the stigma of the indie/self-published label.  This despite a professional writing career spanning over 25 years, many publication credits, anthology appearances, critical raves.  I haven’t sent copies to some of the famous authors I’m acquainted with, seeking their praise and approbation.  There’s just something within me that balks at the notion.  I want my books discovered, not read because of some kind of viral ad campaign.

So Dark the Night and Of the Night are superb literary efforts.  They are sprinkled with genre elements (mystery, horror/dark fantasy) but they are intended for an intelligent, discerning mainstream audience.  They have enormous cross-over appeal thanks to winning characters, snappy dialogue and homages to film noir, pulp fiction, and cult cinema and TV.  Fans of Paul Auster, Jonathan Carroll, Nicholas Christopher, David Mitchell, Philip K. Dick and Jorge Luis Borges will find a lot to like in both novels.

What they won’t find is the kind of incompetent, derivative, semi-literate drivel that is prevalent both in the self-published world and, as I’ve just related, on the traditional publishing scene as well.  You wanna read the next Stephanie Meyer or Dan Brown or J.A. Konrath?  I’m sorry, you’ve come to the wrong place.  I’m a real writer, boys and girls, I seek to create ART.  I want to destroy your preconceptions and offer you prose that is exciting, intoxicating and pitch perfect, right down to the placement of commas.

I want to be the best writer in the world.

There.  I’ve said it.

It’s a pipe dream, of course, there’s no such thing.  But for me, the bar is raised to the highest possible peg and I won’t lower my expectations for any market niche, slot on the bestseller list or dollar figure you can name.  My literary heroes are men and women who slaved away tirelessly, selflessly, stubbornly, refusing to conform to the whims of agents, editors or readers.  Iconoclasts and artisans, defending their work, their legacies, with the ferocity of pit bulls.  Facing penury, enduring lives of desperation, anonymity, pain and hopelessness, yet never forsaking their vision or abandoning their ideals.

With role models like that, it’s impossible to even entertain the possibility of selling out.

My idols would never forgive me.

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Montana fading in the rearview mirror and I’m looking at fairly substantial revisions to my western, The Last Hunt.

My meetings and the research I conducted while in the Livingston and Yellowstone area proved invaluable; I’ve found numerous inaccuracies that have to be addressed, many details that can be woven into the narrative to give the novel far more authenticity and impact.  There’s a small box of books to go through, a mountain of notes and photocopies, and I’m about to dive in, head first—

Instead, my Muse decides to bushwhack me and, like the worst blindside hits, I never even sensed this one coming.

I’ve had the notion for a science fiction story for a couple of years.  I’m a huge fan of the genre, grew up devouring everything space-related I could lay my hands on.  Three early efforts that had a big effect on me were “A Walk in the Dark”, a tale by Arthur C. Clarke, and two short story collections, Ray Bradbury’s The Golden Apples of the Sun and a youth-oriented anthology titled Tales of Time and Space (edited by Ross Robert Olney).   The latter included “Birds of a Feather” by Robert Silverberg, which is still a fave.  I spotted an edition of Tales of Time and Space at a library book sale a number of years ago.  Immediately recognized it (even after an interval of thirty some odd years) and snapped it up.  I treasure that book; both my sons have read it as well.

My tale, I’ve known from the start, would have a “retro SF” feel to it:  like it could have been written back in the late 50’s or early 60’s by someone like Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, A.E. van Vogt or, yup, Robert Silverberg.  Nothing state of the art or high tech.  A small story about a lonely, little man.  Some alternative history thrown in, a universe with some important differences from our own…

All very nice.  But eight days ago I’m cleaning up my desk, sorting through papers and I come across a contest for novelettes and novellas, fiction between 7500-15,000 words, and all at once I’m overcome by this notion that my SF idea would be perfect for that length and I could use the contest, which has a decent payday, as my motivation.  Poking a finger at the prize money:  that would just about pay off your Montana trip, laddie.

Going after my conscience, my on-going worries over finances here at Casa Burns.  My Muse has no sense of propriety or shame.

One things leads to another and, heh heh, eight days later I’m done, presented with a 37-page, 10,000 word tale called “Eyes in the Sky”.  It came in a rush and would not be resisted.  Any gal who’s given birth knows exactly what I’m talking about.  The piece arrived just about fully-formed and its creation was so effortless, it made me suspicious that the bloody thing was no good.  But Sherron has reassured me.  She read a printed draft last night and gave “Eyes in the Sky” high grades. So I’m relieved.

But still perturbed to get yanked away from my western novel with no warning, no explanation.  I guess it’s an object lesson.  Something this control freak had better get through his thick head:  I am not in charge.  I am merely an agent, not the Source.  I am servant to a difficult, mercurial taskmaster.  I may grumble and groan but am compelled to obey; no rest for the weary and, as I should know by now, there’s always another story, waiting to be told…

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This is what’s taped over my office door.

This is what I believe, in twenty words or less.

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The show was called “Robot Boy” and I’m hoping at least some of you remember it.

Each episode was six or eight minutes long—it was really just filler so you never knew what time it would run.  Anywhere from 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning until the “Star Trek” theme music cut in at 10:00 sharp.  It’s possible the show was produced out of the nearest TV station, which was in Yorkton, about seventy miles away (the only channel that came in clear).  “Robot Boy” had that really home made look, the production values pretty shabby.  But I didn’t care.  I was an avid fan.  Hated it when I missed an episode, just about inconsolable for the rest of the weekend.  Yeah, even then I was a bit of a diva.

The premise was stupefyingly simple:  Robot Boy (really just a cheap, windup toy) is insatiably curious and one day wanders away from the safety of the toy box to seek adventure in the great, wide world.  But unfortunately he soon gets lost and embroiled in various unfamiliar situations, trying to logically decipher what’s happening with his tiny robot brain.  Some of the conclusions he reaches are hilarious, way off the mark.  He’s totally naive when it comes to things that go on in real life.

There are shots of Robot Boy shuffling slowly down the sidewalk, going about 50 feet an hour, gigantic human shoes stepping over him, nearly knocking him into the gutter, legs moving past in the background, everyone oblivious to the lost little robot creeping through their midst.

My favorite episodes, the two I have the clearest memories of:   Robot Boy is menaced by a ferocious dog…but interprets its behavior as a warning and thanks it profusely while the dog strains to reach the tin figure, just an inch or two out of reach.  And there’s the episode where Robot Boy gets accidentally locked in a supermarket overnight and wanders up and down the aisles, admiring all the “exhibits” in the “museum”.

I Googled “Robot Boy” and found a few bloggers who reference the show.  There’s even a loose association of people who post on forums, swapping old news and rumors.  The main problem is there were only ten or twelve episodes of “Robot Boy” that were ever aired and no copies in any form seem to exist.  Which gives even more weight to my conjecture that the show was locally produced.  Maybe at one time it was even shot on videotape.  But those tapes are long gone or erased and reused.  There are still photos, grainy, not entirely convincing, their provenance unclear.  Forum members are divided, the rhetoric sometimes heated.  People are touchy when it comes to nostalgia.  Some have gone to all the effort of building scale models of Robot Boy, their attention to detail bordering on the obsessive.

I made mine out of cardboard boxes I found in the garage.  I was seven years old and the ugly duckling of the family…but when I slipped inside my cardboard costume I became Robot Boy.  My other life forgotten, my human existence shed like an itchy, constricting skin suit, too tight in the crotch.  The boxes smelled of apples and old newspapers.  I hung my arms out holes I cut in the sides.  Hands instead of pincers and an aluminum pie plate taped to the front, the dial sketched in with black marker.

I kept it in the basement, away from prying eyes.  In a cubbyhole by the furnace, where my sisters would never look.  My alter ego and guardian angel.  Big and blocky and comforting.  Made of indestructible metal.  Powered by atomic cells.  An obedient, loyal friend, willing to endure anything for me, even long hours in the dark.  I loved him and he loved me.   We understood each other.  And when “Robot Boy” was canceled, I grieved and felt a genuine sense of loss and betrayal.  I went down and I kicked the hell out out those boxes, kicked them to pieces.  They never showed re-runs and I wouldn’t have watched them anyway.  Robot Boy was dead to me.  That part of my life was over…

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This is blog posting #150 and, well, I wanted to make it something special.

I trust you enjoyed this trip down memory lane.

Feel free to share your thoughts, on “Robot Boy” or other relevant matters.  Here’s hoping for a great year ahead in 2011 for one and all.

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We’re fast approaching the 40th anniversary of the first landing on the moon.  My recollections of that day are very clear;  it made a deep and long-lasting psychic impression on me.  I’ve tried to express something of that magical time in this short film, titled “July 20, 1969″.  My wife Sherron helped me put this snippet together (using the wonders of this here new iMac).  The pictures are from the public domain, the music plucked from Garageband…the text derived from a short prose work I completed years ago.

This anniversary (Apollo 11) seems to be affecting me more than this sort of thing usually does.  I firmly believe watching those fuzzy pictures from 250,000 miles away was an absolutely seminal moment from my childhood, those few days igniting my fascination with science fiction, other worlds, distant spaces, journeys into darkness, etc.  I’m pleased to be able to pay tribute to the exploits and achievements of the Apollo program and I hope our little film gives some small hint of the sense of wonder and excitement I felt back then…emotions I retain today when I look at the pictures, see their faces, and have a clearer understanding of the daunting obstacles they faced, the sacrifices they made and the grandness of vision our forays into space represent.

This film is dedicated to the lads of Apollo 11:  Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins

And the crew of Apollo 1:  Roger Chaffee, Edward White, Virgil I. Grissom

Thank you.

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images

Iconic

The First Man must be humble
yet self-possessed in times of crisis
confident, as one who's been sorely tried.

Drop him, spin him, shake him
race his heart,
see if he dies.

Undaunted by fame,
puzzled by all the fuss,
natural in the glare.

Stick him in a close compartment,
sling it into the girding dark;
crown him with hero's laurels
should he return.

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images-2Real space nuts know that July 20th, 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon.

As that date draws near, I’m filled with equal parts nostalgia and melancholy.  In July, 1969 I was five and 2/3 years old and still believed anything was possible.  I recall being absolutely entranced by the thought of a man, a human being just like me, walking around up there on the moon.

Not sure why I’ve been so hung up on the moon this year–there’s the radio play I wrote, “Innocent Moon”, for the BBC contest…and later on in July we’ll be posting a special treat Sherron helped me put together, a short but sweet homage to Neil and the lads, using some of the fancy gear that came with this iMac.  I’ll say no more.  Watch for it in a couple of weeks.

And I came across this fantastic site real Apollo aficionados will love:  you sign in and you can relive every moment of that four-day mission in real time.  Take a trip to the moon with Neil, Buzz and Mike Collins.  Only recommended for those with strong bladders and 96 hours to kill.

If anyone knows of other interesting sites celebrating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, use the Comments form below and give us a head’s up (be sure to include a link).

Personal reminiscences are also welcome:  where we you forty years ago and how did that one small step affect you, your life and your outlook on the universe?

Do tell

images-1

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“I think continually of those who were truly great–
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.”

-Stephen Spender

I don’t have heroes any more. Not really. When I was growing up there were certain sports stars I revered and as a six year old I looked on in wonder as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin gamboled about on the pitted, ancient surface of the moon.

Now I’m a man in my mid-forties and my views on the subject of heroes have been jaundiced by decades of lies and evasions from leaders of all political persuasions. Athletes these days are remote, rich and juiced on any performance enhancing drug they can get their hands on. And it turns out that Neil Armstrong is a rather cold, undemonstrative man and Buzz Aldrin spent the entire Apollo mission sulking because he wasn’t going to be the first one out the hatch once they set down in the Sea of Tranquility.

Heroes nowadays are at a disadvantage—Caesar and Alexander and Boadicea never had to put up with celebrity biographers (just malicious gossip), the Andrew Mortons and Kitty Kelleys of the world peeping in keyholes and tracking down anyone with a bit of tittle to tattle. It’s hard to rally the citizenry and inspire high minded ideals while trying to cover up or defend some transgression or moral lapse. The optics are really awful.

When I’m looking for a bit of inspiration, a true tale to remind me of the strength and resilience of the human spirit, I look to the past, often the very distant past. Seeking those individuals who seized control of their own fates, who were determined, regardless of the cost “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (Tennyson). These men and women didn’t employ spin doctors or commission polls before determining policies and tactics.

We don’t find leaders of the quality of Leonidas, Xenophon or Marcus Aurelius in the halls of power these days. No figures of unimpeachable authority and strength to admire and emulate.

Take a look at the head of state of your country. Would you follow that person to the ends of the earth, serve them without question, suffer extreme deprivation, enter the very depths of Hell itself at their behest?

I rest my case.

Do the soldiers serving in Afghanistan and Iraq feel heroic, like latter-day versions of Achilles and Agamemnon, laying siege to the fortresses of terrorism? Or are they just guys and gals who have a job to do, a family to support, hoping and praying each and every night before they bed down that they’ll survive their tours of duty?

We’ve become a smaller people, soft and pliant; hedonistic narcissists, indifferent to the world around us. We don’t dare dream and rarely does our gaze stray to the horizon line (for the most part we keep our heads down and try not to meet anyone’s eyes).

Historical narratives presented by the likes of Stephen Pressfield, Conn Iggulden, Robert Graves and Michael Curtis Ford evoke past ages with thrilling vigor and elan. These authors devote incredible time and energy researching the great and near great, presenting us with gorgeous, vibrant, utterly convincing portrayals that are documentary-like in their realism, provoking a constant sense of you are there. In the process, we are reminded of what frail and timid things we are in comparison, how addicted to creature comforts, how far removed from suffering and strife. We were a much sturdier, hardier breed in days of yore.

In America, it was the pioneers who came closest to the kind of heroic courage that is the making of myths and legends. Unfortunately, they soon gave way to the lawyers and bankers, mercantilism replacing true grit. From Kit Carson and Jim Bridger, Lewis & Clark and Davey Crockett to being a “nation of shopkeepers”.

I grieve for what has been lost—the price of “progress”, which seems to instill a desire for stability, comfort…and mediocrity. I crave heroes, the visions and dreams they inspire. We’re poorer as a species without such men and women. They show us what might be possible if we exert ourselves for a higher purpose and deny or withhold from us the bright attractions of commonplace things.

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