Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Kilgore Trout is better than Kurt Vonnegut

Some say you can only write a character as smart as yourself, but that's not true. Meet Webster: he's a forty-nine year old furniture builder who stuns his small, mountain community when he completes a sixty-three day winning streak on Jeopardy. See? I just made that character and I'm certainly not smart enough to be on Jeopardy. Yet there's Webster and, as far as I'm concerned, he exists now. So don't tell me a fictional writer can't be better at something than his creator.



In my last post I unwittingly referenced Vonnegut. When I realized this it got me thinking about him, even though I haven't done much of that in nearly a decade. I will concede that I'm a fan of Vonnegut's short fiction. The Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions deserve their praise for the most part. I loved Timequake, the novel that even his biggest fans tend to dislike. Maybe it's because the concept scared the shit out of me. Maybe it's because it's pure science fiction.

Science fiction writers tend to be bitter about Vonnegut. The guy wrote the stuff, denied what it was, and lived like Tom Wolfe and Gore Vidal. In Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Inferno, the main character wanders the circles of hell when he happens upon Vonnegut's final resting place, which is a tomb with a big neon sign that reads, "SO IT GOES." As if the writers' contention wasn't clear enough, they have their hero say, "I was writing better than he ever did before I left high school!"

And Vonnegut's most famous creation (other than himself) is Kilgore Trout, the failed science fiction writer who crafts weirder stuff than Vonnegut does. I have a fondness for Trout that goes deeper than most characters, especially characters who write. He writes a special breed of science fiction with no regard to how inaccessible it is for normal people. On the other hand there are consequences to writing that way. We sense Trout would be a happier person if he wrote mainstream stuff... or if he denied that it was science fiction and managed to gain entry into mainstream literature circles.

I know what you're thinking now. How could I compare Vonnegut's writing, which is in every library in the country, to the writing of Kilgore Trout which is more or less ethereal? But Trout's writing does exist. Let me explain.

While I'm hesitant to say I'm a fan of Vonnegut (although ten years ago I would have had no reservations) I revel in my fanaticism for Philip Jose Farmer. I'm pretty sure a girl broke up with me once because I told her about the plot of Riders of the Purple Sage Wage, which contains incest and pedophilia and about a million other taboos. I love the look of shock on "normal" people's faces when I tell them about Flesh, in which the main character grows horns and beds literally hundreds of strange women, or when I begin to describe To Your Scattered Bodies Go, which involves every human being who ever lived waking up on Riverworld, a kind of science fictional afterlife which trumps the aforementioned Inferno in every conceivable way.

PJF wrote the kind of fucked-up shit Trout wrote with no regard to how inaccessible it is to people who own SUVs, manicured lawns, and 401ks. Predictably, he was met with relatively little fanfare amongst the general public, although many writers in the genre thought he was brilliant including Harlan Ellison. Apparently Farmer felt a kinship with Vonnegut's fictional character. It isn't hard to see why.

Indeed, the story goes that Farmer called Vonnegut and professed his love for Trout. The lesser-known writer begged Trout's creator to let him write as Kilgore Trout. Vonnegut reluctantly agreed after initially refusing Farmer. The result was Venus on the Half-Shell, which reads a little bit like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but it's far more insane.

the original books make no references to Farmer or Vonnegut

What happened? Farmer himself reports that Vonnegut got sick of the letters that poured in saying it was the worst thing he had ever written since many people assumed it was actually written by Vonnegut. Perhaps a bigger factor: Vonnegut was pissed off by the amount of people who wrote in saying it was the best thing he had ever written.

I suppose I'm in the camp of people who think it's better than Vonnegut's fiction, but I must warn you I love weird SF from that time period. Farmer planned on writing additional novels as Trout, but Vonnegut wouldn't let it happen. For now, this is it, the only Kilgore Trout book we're ever going to get. So it goes.

Friday, August 2, 2013

A look back at Tim Burton's Batman

I sat down to work on my novel this morning, ended up watching Batman instead. So it goes.



I haven't seen Batman all the way through since I saw it in theaters almost three decades ago (holy shit, obligatory "time flies" comment, yatta-yatta-yatta). I thought it was merely okay, but didn't admit so much to my friends because hey, that's the kind of the thing that could get your ass kicked back then. Now that I'm older I think I can say how I really felt because I'm reasonably sure I could kick any first grader's ass.

Here's what's wrong with Tim Burton's Batman: Bruce Wayne is fucking boring. I like Michael Keaton, but his portrayal of Wayne doesn't make much sense. There's a scene early in the movie in which Vicki Vale (Kim Bassinger) goes on a "date" with Bruce Wayne. You'd think a guy who's worth a bazillion dollars could take a lady out on a proper date, preferably in a Lamborghini, but instead they stay home and eat an insufferably boring dinner at a mile-long table. I have a feeling Keaton thought this material was funny enough that he didn't want to yuck it up with cheapness, but it's not funny and nothing is more excruciating than a pointless dinner scene except for maybe bamboo torture.

Jack Nicholson is under-utilized, too, in the pre-transformation scenes. I love Nicholson to death, but I almost think Jack Palance would have been a better Joker. He's certainly the better villain in the earlier scenes and his expressive range is quite impressive to look at. One thing Burton gets right is the look of the film, at least when we're out and about in Gotham City (the interiors suck; they seem to belong to an entirely different movie). Gotham is justifiably dark yet complimentary to its fantastical elements, but when combined with the cartoonish good guys and villains it simply doesn't gel.

There are, on the other hand, a lot of memorable lines here. "Honey, you'll never believe what happened at the office today" is among the best. There's just something about the way he says it, and the circumstances, that makes that little throwaway one of the better, more subtle parts of the movie. I wish the whole movie was like that. I wish the whole thing was so fun and entertaining, but there's an awful lot of boring Bruce Wayne stuff you have to slog through.

Consider how big a star Keaton was back then, and yet he takes second billing to Nicholson in the opening credits. Imagine that: the bad guy getting his actor's name on the film before the hero. It's as if the filmmakers knew we would like the Joker better than Batman. And if they did, they should have known they failed.

Look, it's occasionally entertaining at times, but I just don't give a shit about Batman in this movie. That's like going to see an Indiana Jones or James Bond movie and everybody roots for the villain instead. Another problem is there just isn't enough time here to explore the unusual relationship between Joker and Batman (the final panel in Alan Moore's The Killing Joke may possibly be my favorite moment in comics ever). Even Nolan's Joker film somewhat failed to capture what the comics had.

The Batman/Joker material would be great for a long television series, a Batman version of Smallville or something. Just call it Gotham. Warner Brothers, just send the check in the mail.

I should probably admit I didn't finish the movie this time around. In the near future, perhaps I'll write about not finishing Batman Returns.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

I'm revising my science fiction novel

Revising sucks. Yet that's what I'm doing for the foreseeable future. That's why there (probably) won't be as many updates this week or next.


So there it is, the first draft of Sling (working title), which I wrote between November of 2012 and April of this year. This is uncharacteristic for me to say: I'm proud of this one.

In a nutshell Sling is one of those "galactic empire" war novels. I'm going to call it hard science fiction; although there is FTL travel it's too complicated and impractical for most people in my story universe to ever take advantage of it. So let's just say it's about as hard as Hyperion or Pandora's Star, just not as long as the latter.