Tag Archives: robert silverberg

An amusing note about Robert Silverberg’s The Alien Years

Back in December I read Robert Silverberg’s novella, “Beauty in the Night” and absolutely adored it. The novella was first published in the September 1997 issue of Science Fiction Age, and I may have read it then, too, but it seemed new to me when I read it in December. I knew it was part of Silverberg’s novel The Alien Years, which I’d never read but suddenly wanted to. Alas, the book was not available in e-book format, so I put it off for a while. Eventually, the desire to read it was too great and I ordered a paper copy which arrived last week.

I started reading the book over the weekend and made an amusing discovery. The first part of the novel takes place mostly in the skies above the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. Specifically, important scenes take place in Porter Ranch. And the main character of that part is a pilot who is flying airplanes out of Van Nuys airport. Why is this amusing?

Well, I lived for many years in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles. In fact, for several of those years I lived in Porter Ranch and indeed, I worked at a local pharmacy not far from some of the events in the novel. Then, too, in late 1999, I started working on getting my private pilot’s license, which I eventually obtained in April 2000. And where did I fly out of? Van Nuys airport, just like Silverberg’s protagonist.

Naturally, this has made the book even more fun for me than I expected, especially since Silverberg seems to have taken great care to get the details of the San Fernando Valley just right. In one scene, he describes the pilot flying out toward Santa Susanna Pass, looking at all the houses below with the little blue swimming pools–a scenes so familiar to me back when I was flying that all I needed from Silverberg were those rough phrases and I found myself in the cockpit of a Cessna 172 heading northwest over Chatsworth with the plane jostling around in light turbulence as I came over the foothills of the pass. It was really very cool to see it in print and to see what a good job Silverberg did on those scenes.

Best books of 2010

I read 19 books in 2010 which is a far cry from those early days in the mid-late-90s when I was reading 40 books a year. I know there are people out there who read a lot more and all I can say is: I’m jealous.

The year started out with the fascinating biography of C. M. Kornbluth by Mark Rich and ended (just 20 minutes ago) with the absolutely stunning All Clear by Connie Willis.

Here are my picks for the year’s best reads:

Blackout/All Clear is the finest time travel novel I’ve ever read, and I’ve read plenty of them. I’ll have more to say about the novel (and it is one novel, despite being split into two books) in a subsequent post. Suffice it to say for now that I was absolutely blown away by the scope of the novel, the historical details, and the wonderfully brilliant writing.

Robert Silverberg said he would never write an autobiography but Other Spaces, Other Times is awfully autobiographical–and brilliant. I enjoyed every minute of that read.

Caesar and Christ is the third volume of Will Durant’s “Story of Civilization” and it’s richly detailed picture of life in ancient Rome made for a wonderful summer read for me.

Doomsday Book blew me away and I could barely put it down. The ending was unforgettable and proved to me just how remarkable a writer Connie Willis is.

A few honorable mentions:

There was some pretty good short fiction this year, too, but I’ll write about that in a subsequent post.

I have no desire to see Tron Legacy (and other sci-fi films)

Because many of my friends and coworkers know me to be a science fiction writer, I am often asked if I have seen the latest sci-fi blockbuster and what did I think of it. The truth, I’m afraid, tends to disappoint them.

I generally hate sci-fi movies.

There are some exceptions–very rare ones–but the truth of the matter is that I get bored almost instantly and if I stick it out too long, I can find myself growing angry over things in the film that probably mean little to anyone else.

But as a science fiction writer, how can I hate science fiction films?

I think there are a couple of reasons for this:

  1. Science fiction films are often based on source material originally found in science fiction literature, and in these cases, they are almost always far worse than the books. In fact, I can think of only one science fiction film that measured up to the book upon which it was based, and that is Carl Sagan’s Contact. Most people I know who like sci-fi movies, hated Contact. Go figure.
  2. The sole purpose of many science fiction films is to demonstrate how far we’ve come in terms of special effects. But when I read a book like Foundation or Rendezvous with Rama, I get all of the special effects I need by combining the words on the page with my imagination. So far, Hollywood as not been able to outdo my imagination when it comes to special effects.
  3. Science fiction films tend lean much more toward fiction and much less toward science. They tend to be fantasies more than anything else (take the entire Star Wars saga as an example).
  4. Science fiction films have taken audiences away from written science fiction. People are generally lazy. When Star Wars came out with its dazzling special effects, anyone who wanted to see spaceships battling it out among the stars could drop by their local movie house–which was much easier to do than to pick up a book like The Forever War and actually sit an read. Reading requires active participation. Watching a film is almost entirely passive.

This is nothing new for me; I’ve always been this way, and I admit, I am somewhat of an anomaly, I think, even among science fiction writers. I can’t recall ever seeing the original Tron, and I have no desire whatsoever to see the sequel.

A month or two ago, I finally got around to seeing Avatar because it showed up on HBO. I hated it. Absolutely despised it. The special effects were stunning, but the story was terrible, the characters were cardboard cutouts and the plot was recycled from a dozen or more science fiction classics. Even the dialog was terrible and made what I considered to be amateur mistakes in speaking to the audience as opposed to the characters in the story.  One example: the bad-guy colonel says, at one point, that if your not careful, “They’d suck your eyes out like Jujubes.” This is a story that is supposed to take place at least several hundred years in the future. I doubt that anyone in that time would know what the hell the Colonel was referring to, even if he himself knew it was a type of jelly candy.

I did like the movie based on Carl Sagan’s novel Contact. It was simplified a bit, and there were some things left out of it, but the thrust of the novel came across clearly and it was a well-done, well-acted film. Most people I know didn’t like it.  The same is true for the The Bicentennial Man, which was based on Robert Silverberg’s expansion of Isaac Asimov’s Hugo and Nebula-award-winning story of the same name. The film starred Robin Williams and even Williams later made fun of it in one of his standup routines. But I think the film captured the essence of the original story, which happens to be one of my favorite all-time pieces of short science fiction.

It is ironic that bad science fiction films are gold at the box office, while outstanding science fiction novels rarely made the bestseller lists, and I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that this played into my frustration with science fiction films. But the fact it that I love the literature of science fiction so much that I have no need for a visual medium in which to imagine my favorite stories. What goes on inside my head is good enough, and seeing it on the big screen might ruin for me an otherwise cherished image.

There will be some movies that I would go see out of sheer curiosity. If they end up making a movie for The Forever War, I’ll check it out. Ditto for Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels. But I have no high hopes for them. Perhaps they will surprise me, but I doubt it. (The truth it, I’ll be surprised if they get made at all.)

Many years ago, when I lived in L.A., I attended a private screening of The Puppet Masters starring Donald Sutherland. We had to rate the film afterward and discuss it with a panel of people who were getting our opinions before release. I think I was the only one there who’d read (and enjoyed) the Heinlein novel upon which it was based. The movie was so terrible that I absolutely refused to see Starship Troopers when it was released. To this day, I haven’t seen that film.

I liked 2001: A Space Odyssey, but generally liked the first half better than the second half. I didn’t like the sequel, 2010 at all.

This is why I have no desire to see Tron: Legacy. Special effects don’t impress me. 3D doesn’t impress me. What impresses me most is a compelling story that fits neatly together with rich characters that come to life and for whom I want to love or hate. That’s pretty rare in science fiction in general, but it’s almost a recipe for disaster for a science fiction film.