The future is nothing like I expected.
In 1969, watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin gambolling about on the surface of the moon, I honestly believed that before long there would be monthly shuttles to Mars and, for the super-rich, luxury holiday excursions to the outer planets and far reaches of our solar system…
That future never arrived.
Instead we have: cell phones, laptops and social media. Not quite the same thing as faster-than-light travel and flying cars, is it?
I wanted something grander, something worthy of a curious, ambitious species with big brains and clever hands. Fleets of silver, finned rockets, navigating between the nine planets as easily as my dad’s old Ford got us to town and back. Intelligent robots. Permanent colonies on the moon and Mars. What a letdown when I look around today and realize ordinary citizens are far more interested in cyberspace than outer space. Ambitious schemes to leave our safe cradle and challenge that “final frontier” have devolved into, let’s face it, a sparsely manned space station parked only a few hundred kilometers above the surface of the earth, serviced by a private, for-profit company because NASA can no longer afford to maintain a shuttle to supply it.
A human footprint on Mars? Unlikely, at least during my lifetime.
Which makes me feel cheated. That six-year-old boy, glued to a black-and-white TV, witnessing history, men on the freakin’ moon, wouldn’t have believed me if I told him that’s it, that’s the absolute high-water mark in terms of our presence in space. Sorry, kid, after this it’s robot probes and science on the cheap.
My younger self would be outraged to see his dreams dashed by the cowardice and stupidity of those who make policy and manipulate the levers of power.
A smart lad, he would have recognized a failure of nerve when he saw it. And he would have been the first to point out: a computer is not a robot.
Some might contend there’s no difference but, I assure you, there is.
Those who think otherwise are operating on an entirely different wavelength than me. They likely see nothing wrong with the way the world has turned out and wouldn’t change anything if they could.
I, on the other hand, am appalled by the reality that has been presented to me as a fait accompli and since childhood have made it my mission, my calling to reimagine the whole thing so it conforms to the better tomorrow we were all promised back in those heady, halcyon days when everything seemed possible, the universe ours to explore, the stars our destination.
I don’t intend to forsake those youthful fancies, surrender my dreams, lose my sensawunda because of other people’s temerity and lack of vision.
It’s a major reason why I started reading science fiction almost fifty years ago…and why (for better or worse) I’m the writer I am today.
“How do we change the world? By changing the story.”
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.
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.
A number of longtime readers have written to me, noting the recent updates and retooling on this blog.
It was time for a change. It always bothered me that I’d chosen a lunar motif as a background—it brought to mind Buzz Aldrin’s famous depiction of the moon as “magnificent desolation”. While that phrase may have been in the back of my mind, a subconscious influence when choosing a title for this blog, the allusion was not a deliberate one, I assure you.
I recall quite clearly when the name came to me. March, 2007. Sherron and I were standing in a school library and she was trying to interest me (for the umpteenth time) in giving the on-line universe another shot. She told me the technology had changed since I made the first, tentative foray into cyberspace—she showed me the WordPress site, a sample template…
I finally gave in. Why not? I was a fool to ignore the march of progress; miles behind the technological curve, trying desperately to play catch up (still am). But I knew one thing: wherever readers went, it behooved me to follow.
“What are you going to call your blog?”
Ah, now, that was a poser. Obviously the purpose of the site was to highlight my writing, but just calling it “Cliff Burns’ Blog” or what have you sounded rather self-centered and pompous to me. “Hmmmm…” Wracking my brain.
“You can always change it later.”
I think I might have been channeling Bob Dylan. “Beautiful desolation,” I blurted.
Sherron said it a few times, pronounced it acceptable.
And that’s what it’s been ever since.
Sorry, Buzz, but no homage intended.
Before I go, a tip of the hat to photographer Alain Derksen for allowing me the use of his eye-grabbing picture. I found a number of images relating to Mario Irrarrazabal’s amazing sculpture but Alain’s was the one that, to me, perfectly captured the piece’s remote, austere beauty. Sadly, the sculpture has been defaced by graffiti and messages left by stupid tourists with no respect for a cultural artifact.
There’s a special ring of hell waiting for them. Gibbering demons poised with blunt tattoo needles, hydrochloric acid instead of ink…
I know, it seems like I’ve had the moon on my mind since the beginning of the year. The whole 40th anniversary thingee really got to me for some reason. Made me ponder how much time has passed and (perhaps) how little time remains.
A busy, creative, exhausting summer and those 4 linked short stories grow ever nearer to completion. Stay tuned, I think this quartet of tales is going to make a definite impression on you.
But I decided to take this past weekend off, rest up, read a couple of books (both on Orson Welles, as it turned out) and build another plastic model.
And, sticking with the moon theme, the model I chose was the Heller Apollo 11 lunar lander. This is a none-too-detailed, cheapish reproduction of the fragile craft that took Neil and Buzz down to the surface of the moon…and back up again (to rendezvous with Michael Collins). Found it on eBay for a small stipend but it took me forever to set aside some time to put the bloody thing together. And I’ve got eight or ten other model kits in the basement, waiting their turn. Everything from an X-Wing fighter to a German zeppelin. Sheesh…
I set up on a table on our back deck–the weather for the past week has been perfect, clear and hot and not much in terms of a breeze. I got myself settled, arranged my parts and glue and paints and commenced work.
There were a few minor annoyances. First of all, none of the instructions were in English. Second, this model is quite small and that means small parts that resist and defy my clumsy, shaky fingers. I had…difficulties. Mainly with the struts. Oooo, those bleepin’ struts. I still break into a sweat when I think of them.
Sherron found me some terrific copper-tinted paint that went on thick, allowing me to apply a bit of texture, a convincing impression of the gold foil we see in pictures of the lander, a blaze of colour on the otherwise monotonously grey moon.
Finished the model and thought it needed a little diorama so I made one of some papier mache stuff Sherron had lying around. Spray-painted it while it was still wet, hoping to give a better illusion of the fine lunar regolith.
It’s not perfect but it ain’t half bad.
Have a look…and then sit down and tell me story about a model you built as a kid, a memory you treasure (or rue) to this day.
C’mon, don’t be shy…
Finally, I have some new work to share with you. Recently I’ve been moaning about this being a blog that’s supposed to prominently feature my fiction, drama and poetry and, meanwhile, I’ve been debuting very little new material on this site for some time.
But that’s about to change.
Expect a flurry of stuff in the coming days and weeks, the product of many months of labour and struggle on my part. Oh, I could be one of those hapless dolts who loads every snippet of juvenilia, first draft and/or literary belch & fart on their site, seeking as much scant praise they can garner from sympathetic fellow wannabes. But I’m afraid I veer in the opposite direction, sweating out short stories over weeks, months, revising and polishing until the very thought of the tale in question makes me want to upchuck. Which, as you can guess, is an approach to writing that tends to play hell with productivity.
But when I do release something, it’s ready. It’s been through the meat grinder, Sherron has signed off on it, the end result microscopically examined and painstakingly dissected; I know that story or poem or novel like I know the inside of my own skin.
And that’s what you’re getting whenever I offer new work.
“The Innocent Moon” is my best radio play. Bar none. I put all I learned about radio drama into this little beauty. It’s the one I submitted to the BBC competition. Kind of hurt my professional pride when I didn’t make the shortlist but c’est la guerre. It would have been difficult to produce; very complex in terms of mixing as it involves “samples” from dozens of movies and newsclips and songs. You’ll see what I mean.
This sonofabitch took forever to research and pull together (as documented in previous blog entries). The final result pleased me beyond measure. I love the the flow and ebb of voices, the way it fuses together and perfectly illustrates my fascination (obsession?) with all things relating to space.
Click here to download free PDF of “InnocentMoon“
“The Innocent Moon” is dedicated to my chum and fellow writer and moon nut, Ian Sales.
…and to all of us grown up children of the space age.
When the future seemed so bright.
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
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. *******************************************************************************************************
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?
Let’s set the Wayback Machine to last Friday, Sherman–the 13th, appropriately enough.
Seven or eight people were gathered in my living room, preparing for a readthrough of my radio play The Innocent Moon.
I think you could describe The Innocent Moon as a very personal homage to the Space Age–a a celebration of what was, an elegy for what might have been. There are six voices, each vying with the others to make their viewpoint known. Beyond that, I’ll say little. No spoilers or cryptic hints. Not my style. Although I do make reference to Werner Von Braun and “Rocketship X-M”–
Since around mid-January I’ve been doing a ridiculous amount of research. Most of it was purely background, boning up on my history, trying to stir up some strong visual images…and maybe there was a touch of nostalgia involved as well. I’ve been a space nut for forty years and looking through books like National Geographic’s Encyclopedia of Space gave me goosebumps. I made copious notes and then commenced arranging what I had into a coherent narrative.
Editing is a nerve-wracking process for me; the level of sustained focus that’s required, pure concentration. It’s very draining and at that point I am totally immersed in the world of the piece I’m working on. I lose track of the hours and days flit past.
For more than six weeks I bent to the task of making something worthwhile out of a hodgepodge of prose bits, poems, quotes, factoids and ephemera. Most of the time the work felt inspired and I liked how everything seemed to come together so seamlessly…
I felt quite confident and more than a touch self-satisfied as I watched people arranging themselves on the sofa and the chairs we’d provided. They quickly flipped through their scripts and then Sherron and I made some preliminary remarks, introducing the play, providing some information on the characters and framework.
I checked my watch and took note of the time as the reading commenced.
Sherron and I had agreed beforehand that neither of us would read. She would handle the direction: cue the actors, read the linking passages and indicate the sound effects. My role was to sit back and listen, stay alert for any minor glitches, a troublesome spot or two besmirching an otherwise masterful literary offering.
As the reading progressed I sank farther and farther back in my chair. Ours was an amateur cast, even my two sons assigned roles (we needed all the male voices we could get) but they acquitted themselves well.
No, the problem wasn’t with the acting.
For one thing The Innocent Moon was long. Wayyy overlong. As in close to twenty minutes past its due date. The BBC competition has a strict 60-minute time limit and I had blown that all to hell.
Okay, the length was one thing but the play was also listless, ponderous, meandering. Maybe even (choked sob) pompous?
I tried to hide my dismay from the readers, most of whom found the run through quite enjoyable and were happy to share their thoughts. It might have been all the wine we provided and Sherron’s tasty snacks. The atmosphere was downright festive.
And meanwhile I was thinking holy shit, I have got a massive amount of cutting to do and that fucking radio play has to be away by Wednesday at the latest. Whenever I could, I’d sneak away from the gathering, run up to my office and make notes about revisions.
The following morning, Saturday, I got to work.
I was fucking ruthless.
In the original draft, I used a lot of quotes and excerpts from various literary works. There was one big snag when it came to that: copyright. From early February I revised the script repeatedly and it wasn’t until around March 10th that I had a workable draft. The contest closed March 31st. Which didn’t give me a lot of time to secure necessary permissions.
But I did my best.
It’s a pain in the ass trying to find out who own the rights to poems fifty or sixty years old, the authors no longer among the living. I contacted publishers and sometimes I got replies and sometimes I didn’t. Ditto with agents.
But after enduring the readthrough redux, I decided to cut all but a few of the quotes, simplifying matters nicely. I was still going to have trouble explaining all the moon-related movie and music sound bites included in the text but I’d deal with that when the time came.
For five days, I went at the script with barely controlled ferocity. Anything that wasn’t fucking nailed down, was out. The script was pared, carved and whittled to the bone…and then the most beautiful thing happened. Without all the surrounding clutter, the characters’ voices emerged and for the first time I really heard them and developed a better understanding of what differentiated them, as well as their relationships to each other. As always, Sherron’s love of good, strong, distinctive characters came in handy and her advice really helped as I worked on the final draft.
Yesterday (Wednesday) afternoon, Sam and I walked downtown and mailed The Innocent Moon to the BBC Playwriting Competition.
It was an extraordinary process, yet another valuable learning experience. I debated whether or not I wanted to submit The Innocent Moon to a staged reading but, in the final analysis, it was the wisest possible choice. Without hearing it read out loud I would never have recognized the piece’s many flaws and shortcomings. I would have gone on believing it was the masterpiece it wasn’t. An important object lesson.
I’m sure there will be many fine entries to the Beeb’s contest and the chances of my even making the shortlist are mighty slim. But win, place or show, The Innocent Moon is a worthy contribution to the field of radio drama. And while it would be challenging to produce, my play has all the merits of a work that would appeal to those who are fans of “theatre of the mind”.
I hope you’ll get a chance to hear The Innocent Moon some day.
What started out as a lark, a chance to write something on the upcoming 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing, ended up an hour long radio drama.
And now you know a little about how that came to be…
Yes, I know, I have been less than diligent with my posts over the past while. Always a sign that I’ve got my nose to ye grindstone and am plugging away on a project.
Lately, it’s been a lengthy radio play that has been stealing my days and nights. Something I’m hoping to enter in the BBC Radio contest (deadline is the end of March). As regular readers of this blog know, I never, never, never submit my work elsewhere any more, this site is the sole venue where you’ll find new writing by yers truly. But, hell, this is the BBC we’re talking about and the Beeb is like Mecca for radio drama fans.
After the success of my last radio play, “The First Room”, I felt I wanted to stick with that format for the time being. I’m also aware that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing…so why not combine the two and–
Okay, no spoilers but I have written a very personal voice piece on the effect the lunar landing had on an impressionable kid and how that event influenced the rest of my life.
Later this week we’re going to have a live reading here at our home, so I can hear the play out loud. This will provide invaluable help as I approach the final round of edits (have to have it off to England by the beginning of next week in order to make that deadline).
After the radio play is done, no rest for the wicked. I want to do another quick revision of the long version of ‘The First Room” and post the text of that one here on Beautiful Desolation. The version that aired on CBC Radio’s “Out Front” program was greatly condensed from the original and while producer Kelley Jo Burke did a lovely job, I wanted to present you with an opportunity to read the play the way it was conceived.
After that revision, probably diving into another big project–but I’ll post about that at a later date.
Hope you’ll continue to pop in for the occasional update–there are some great things coming up for this blog in 2009. We’re now getting close to the second anniversary of Beautiful Desolation and I continue to be amazed and gratified by the number of folks who visit this site, read and download reams of stories, my two novels, my verse…and then take the time to drop a line to me here or via e-mail, telling me how much they’re enjoying what they’re seeing.
Bless you, folks, and as long as you keep coming, seeking out good writing, a point of view that veers from the herd mentality, I’ll be here.
Thanks, one and all…
“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.”
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.
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.