Monday, January 31, 2005

Fleeing My Youthful Desires, At A Languid And Unconvincing Pace - Starting With Fame

When I was 11 I had big plans to become a world-famous Science Fiction writer. I worked out all the details: I'd write a series of books about the adventures of a crew aboard a galactic cruiser.

This cruiser belonged to a sort of interplanetary alliance, which had dispatched a fleet of said cruisers to enforce the peace and discover other life-forms and civilizations. The series' chief protagonist would, of course, be the captain. I envisioned him as an athletic chap, something of a swashbuckler - a bit impetuous at times - while his first mate was half-alien, half-human and provided a draught of cool reason to balance some of the captain's more impulsive behavior. I can't recall what I'd christened this ship, but it might as well have been the USS Shmenterprise.

Still, I had no desire to write Star Trek novels - of which there were, at the time, exactly 0. The thought never occurred to me, for two reasons: 1) every kid knows novel writing is grown-up work; 2) what's the appeal of working with something already there? No hackwork for me - I was going to be original.

At the grand old age of 40, I'm starting to think the appeal of "originality" is a cunning trap set by the devil to bring aspiring writers to despair and ruin. I'll comment on that in my next posting, but for now I want to return to the then-still-virgin territory of Star Trek novels and "fan fic" - work written by passionate Trekkers (I don't know why we object to "Trekkies", but apparently we do. Some of us clearly think we look less lamentable if we're "Trekkers"). In the martini-pickled brains of the mid-70s publishing industry, ST spin-off fiction did in fact amount to a frontier "where no man (had) gone before."

As a result, James Blish gained his singular toehold on literary immortality by typing slapdash shorts based on faulty scripts from the series. These were collected in straight-to-paperback editions, and that was the extent of it - until the publishers saw the sales figures of this slapdashery and did a quick re-think. A few ST-based novels were printed in the wake of Star Wars' unprecedented box office success, but the publishers in question chiefly mined material from the original series, going to press with such dubiously energetic efforts as blueprints, technical manuals, and "Fotonovels" (comic books made from cut-and-pasted episode footage).

I have no idea what the profit-margin of such labor-intensive publications as blueprints and Fotonovels was, in contrast to, say, an atrocious spin-off novel like Vulcan! From my current perspective (standing in front of the ST shelves at the local book superstore) one-off novels would appear to be the better marketing risk. In hindsight, I wonder if I shouldn't have attempted a mailroom entry into this genre - after perusing a few ST novels, I'm convinced a 12-year-old with a reasonable grasp of the elements of fiction (and a parent willing to proof-read) could do as well as any of the adults currently writing to spec.

As it was, I cheerfully filled a few notebooks with the adventures of my Shmenterprise crew. I enjoyed what I was doing, but never thought for a minute that any of it was print-worthy. This activity was akin to practicing the piano – an exercise I was told could, if I was diligent, assist my aspirations to fame. I wanted to see my name on the cover of a book, just two shelves down from James Blish, at our local Coles bookstore, so I wrote.

I'm not sure I'd enjoy writing ST novels at this point in my life. I'm told the franchise is remarkably tough on their writers, strictly enforcing a host of limitations that dwarfs those of other spec-fic genres, including romance and Role Playing Game novels. And that's once you gain access to the stable - never mind the hoops galore to be jumped through en route.

But I must admit I felt a stirring of embers in my belly when I read this "Mad Max Perkins" interview with Paperback Writer Lynn Viehl. When Ms. Viehl says she only wanted to see her name on the cover of a book, and now has a yearly income in the six figures, I start to think all sorts of titillating thoughts. Might there be a future for the USS Shmenterprise?


blueskybrightson said...

Having just watched two movies, Captain Sky and the World of Tomorrow and I, Robot, my fascination with the sc-fi world has been rekindled. It is a little spooky how both of these flicks are dealing with similar terrain- humans screwing up the world and robots saving it to restore the innocence (there is an interesting Canadian connection on the animated side of both movies-a Canadian has signed up with the Pixar Liberation Front out of LA, who provided some visual candy for both flicks- he actually gets credit in Captain Sky). And Captain Sky even borrows from that ancient unoriginal story of Noah's Ark. But I digress. On the originality issue, I am sure it has prevented many musicians from plying their skill as well. However, it has never daunted our current opera/classical music singers, who are making six figures singing nothing original (making the old "sound" original).

Whisky Prajer said...

I suspect, in the case of your friend with The Pixar Liberation Front, his visual contributions to SF cinema are fun. Opera singers, in their candid moments, would probably admit as much re: their profession.