Saturday, January 31, 2009

Saturday Matinee: Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, Chapter Two

And now, Chapter Two (of twelve) of the 1940 Universal serial, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. The process of putting the files together was unexpectedly time-consuming and tedious, so that's all I have the energy left to say.

The conclusion of Undersea Kingdom is coming sometime later today (Saturday).

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Thursday Preview: Palladium

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Okay, I know it's unlikely we'll find many—if any—planets where we can open the door of our spaceship and breathe the air.  And the chances are practically zero that we'll find such planets with intelligent life within a few thousand years of our technological level, who think and live pretty much the way that we do.

You can explain it away if you like—that it's not normal Earth air, it's just converted with nanowhatsits and technoblaaah—but it doesn't matter that much to me. Sometimes, I just love me some old-fashioned space adventure with strange—but not too strange—people in different—but not too different—lands.

And here we have a member of that particular species, Diane Duane's novelet "Palladium." Our heroes are a two-man... uh, two-person... uh, two-intelligent-life-form team from an interstellar confederation including Earth.  Their mission is to make contact with a pre-industrial world torn by the continual war of two major powers.  They find a way to, well, gently help the development process along.

As you may have read here a few dozen times by now, all thirteen of the tales in Thrilling Wonder Stories, Volume 2, are by writers associated with televised Star Trek in its various incarnations. "Palladium" author Diane Duane co-wrote the early Next Generation episode "Where No One Has Gone Before" (so early, if I remember correctly, that its working title, "Where None Have Gone Before," was from an early draft of the opening narration).

However, she's better known in the Star Trek franchise as a novelist, having written nine so far and co-written another. (In fact, "Where No One Has Gone Before" used elements of her novel The Wounded Sky.) Her 1984 book My Enemy, My Ally and its sequels revolutionized our view of the Romulans... or as she taught us to think of them, Rihannsu. She also wrote for the first volume of DC's Star Trek comics series, and for DC's Next Generation comic.

Outside the Franchise, she's written novels based on Spider-Man, the X-Men, and SeaQuest DSV, and a story for a Doctor Who anthology. She has a novel franchise of her own with the Young Wizards series, and its spinoffs Adult Wizards, Feline Wizards, and Alternate Universes. And she's written for many, many animated series.

So we're as pleased that she found the time to write this story for us, as you will be to read it.

Don Anderson, who illustrated Isaac Asimov's "The Portable Star" for Volume 1, created the exciting full-page illustration. Really full-page; he asked we push it all the way to the edges of the page, and who are we to argue with printing something this good as big as possible?  In fact, if you saw last week's Thursday Preview, we felt it was so nice, we used it twice—here, and on the back cover.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

YouTube Tuesday: Lego Star Wars

Yes, it's four comedy fan videos combining two of the passions of my childhood: Star Wars and Legos. We didn't actually have Star Wars Legos when I was a child, but by George (Lucas), if they'da had 'em, I'da bought 'em.

Darth Vader on an elevator. Try to say that ten times fast.

Darth Vader takes a personal day.

Vader's intervention.

And for a rousing finale, let's escape the Death Star. I love Luke's "taken aback" reaction at the three Storm Troopers.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Monday Game: Alien Annihilator

This game is a bit like Asteroids, except that destroying asteroids isn't the main point; destroying the enemy ship is. If you shoot asteroids, you get extra health points. If they hit you, you lose some. There are also helpful power-ups. But your enemy can use them, too, so get to them as quickly as possible.

One odd thing: when you lose a level, text appears that says, "Having trouble beating a level? Try replaying the level you just beat to gain more points so you can buy upgrades." The trouble? Once you're on a new level, you can't go back. You can only replay the level you're already on—the one you're having trouble beating. So if you're having trouble beating a level, you're outta luck, short of starting over.

Apart from that, it's a pretty enjoyable game.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Saturday Matinee: Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, Chapter One

Because I took two weeks off, I'm going to make it up to you by doubling up for two weeks.

Say hello to Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, the third and final installment in Universal's series. This one sees Flash return to Mongo after visiting Mars in the second serial.

That serial was based on the "Big Little Book" Flash Gordon and the Witch Queen of Mongo. But according to Jim Harmon and Donald Glut's The Great Movie Serials, the producers changed the locale when Orson Welles' terror-inducing radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds made the red planet the more valuable pop culture real estate. And so it became Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars.

But two years later, I guess, Mars had jumped the shark, so it was back to Mongo for the third go-around. Ming was back, too, despite having been disintegrated at the end of the last serial. You just can't keep a good villain down. Or apart.

This time, I'm presenting it complete. For one thing, it moves along a lot quicker than Undersea Kingdom. For another, as much as I enjoy editing, it was taking too much time for the number of viewers I was getting. So running-time-wise, I'm actually tripling up this week, as Chapter One runs a bit over twenty minutes.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Friday Radio: Honeymoon in Hell (X Minus One)

Based on the story by Fredric Brown, published in Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1950.

Originally broadcast on NBC, December 26, 1956.

(Another story by Fredric Brown, "Arena," the basis for the Star Trek episode, appears in Thrilling Wonder Stories, Volume 2.)

I told you I might repay your patience for sticking around while I forsook regular website updates for actually getting Volume 2 finished and uploaded to the printers. Today, I start to make good, catching up with Friday Radio with two installments.

Sometimes, my fellow members of Generation X like to believe they invented irony and self-referential humor. Well, check out this episode at about 14:20. Being the Gen-Xer I am, I anticipated the gag, and yet was surprised that they actually did it. At least, I think it was a joke.

The radio version of "Honeymoon in Hell" kind of shortchanges us on the hell... in two ways. First, cutting for the timeslot left the story pretty much all setup and resolution, with very little left to our heroes' adventure on the Moon. Second, it leaves out the explanation of the title. Their landing is in Hell Crater, a real place really named, as the story states, after the astronomer Father Maximilian Hell.

The radio version also cuts the information that the disparity between female and male births is quickly getting greater, thus leaving listeners to have to deduce it for themselves, based on the statement that at this rate, the human race has a generation and a half left.

And in a really bizarre change, the justice of the peace who marries our heroes in the story becomes the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who I don't think is empowered to perform weddings.

The notion that there would have been several manned missions to the Moon by 1962 must have seemed like wishful thinking when the story was originally published in 1950. (Most estimates in science fiction of the era proved instead to be on the far side of the actual date.) By late 1956, it must have seemed ludicrously so. And yet, that, the show kept just as it was.

Friday Radio: Pebble in the Sky (Dimension X)

Based on the novel by Isaac Asimov, published by Doubleday in 1950.

Originally broadcast on NBC, June 17, 1951.

(A story by Isaac Asimov, "The Portable Star," appears in Thrilling Wonder Stories, Volume 1, its first-ever publication in a book.)

Yes, based on the novel. We saw with "Mr. Costello, Hero," how a novelette lost some of its power in being cut to fit the radio timeslot. I have to wonder what made the producers of Dimension X even attempt to adapt an entire novel into a 24-minute radio episode. In the actual event, though, it turned out pretty well.

An amusing result of boiling down the plot to its absolute essentials is that the main character of the novel went by the wayside. That character was a 62-year-old retired tailor from the 20th century whom a nuclear laboratory accident sends into the far future. Needless to say, his presence makes "the Sixty" more of a pressing issue than it is in the radio version.

Pebble in the Sky started out as a short novel called "Grow Old with Me!" which was rejected by Thrilling Wonder Stories' sister magazine Startling Stories. This version was rediscovered in Asimov's papers in the 1980's, and was finally published as part of The Alternate Asimovs.  I haven't read it, but I'm guessing that the tailor's story is even more important there. In Pebble, it starts out as the central element, only to be pushed further and further to the sidelines... to the point that, when I read it, I wondered what the point had been of starting with the tailor at all. Whatever the reason for that is, Dimension X essentially did the job that Asimov's editor at Doubleday should have had him do.

Incidentally, another major change in the radio version is the ending. I don't want to give anything away, so I'll just say that the title doesn't get a chance to gain that meaning at the end of the novel.

I wonder what the origin is of this particular recording. There's a laugh at the beginning, a sneeze part way through, and a small coughing fit near the end, all far too clear compared to the main audio to have been part of it. It sounds like someone with a cold recorded it off the radio with a microphone.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Thursday Preview: The Cover!

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Monday night, I uploaded the files for Thrilling Wonder Stories, Volume 2 to the printers. So with luck, I should have a proof soon, and be ready to put the thing up for sale in a few weeks. But since I never have luck, your guess is as good as mine.

Anyway, to celebrate reaching the next stage at which things will inexplicably and irreparably go wrong, we present as this week's Thursday Preview... the cover!

The front cover painting is by the Chesley and Hugo Award-winning artist Bob Eggleton. When I looked at images on his website, this one absolutely screamed "Thrilling Wonder" to me.

It also brought to mind a gag from Mystery Science Theater 3000. The movie of the week was the 1961 film The Phantom Planet, and the protagonist thereof, the pilot of a U.S. rocket operating from a base on the Moon, reads the date into his log: March 16, 1980. "Oh," says Crow, "our old future."

So here we have it, an image from "our old future," showing a Moon rocket as it ought to have been.

The drawing on the back cover is by Don Anderson, who illustrated Isaac Asimov's "The Portable Star" in Volume 1. As he'll be surprised to find out if he reads this, he has two illustrations in the new issue. (On account of some late-stage contents shuffling, the story accompanying his third illustration won't appear until Volume 3—coming, I hope, later this year.) This one is for Diane Duane's novelet of space adventure, "Palladium."

As you can see from the back cover blurb, there are enough stories and articles yet to take Thursday Preview through the actual publication of the volume. Knock on laminated particleboard.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Living in the Future

If, ten years ago, I'd read a science fiction story set in the year 2009, featuring, as President, a black man named Barack Hussein Obama, I'd have rolled my eyes, and gone, "Oh, yeah, right."

(Here's a This Modern World comic expressing a similar view.)

However, after his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, I had Obama pegged as the party's 2008 nominee... for vice president.  Beside whatever role race might play, I couldn't picture a freshman senator being nominated for president (never mind elected).  I thought even my vice presidential prediction was sort of putting this rising star on the political fast track.

Not that I'm at all upset that I turned out to be wrong.

YouTube Tuesday: The Prisonbear

As you may know from sites with a higher proportion of SF news-related content, Patrick McGoohan, probably best known as the star, creator, executive producer, and occasional writer and director of The Prisoner, died last Tuesday.

I just read his Wikipedia entry. I have to say I was surprised to learn he was married only once, from age 23 until his death. But I was probably more surprised to learn he returned to the role of Number Six in an episode of The Simpsons. I kind of pictured him as a humorless loner who was difficult to get along with... but then, it's just possible I was conflating him with the character.

Anyway, this being YouTube Tuesday, the important thing is, here's a little parody of/homage to The Prisoner, enacted by stuffed animals. Well, animals and... things.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Monday Game: Space Escape

If you're better than I am at video games that require fast reflexes, quick decisions, and accurate apprehension of speed and direction (hint: you are), you may enjoy this game. You pilot a ship with semi-Newtonian motion in a vacuum (e.g., you keep moving at the same speed in a given direction until you accelerate, and never mind the effects that turning would have). You pick up bonuses, avoid, uh, anti-bonuses, and generally avoid hitting the walls.

Things may get really hairy and exciting as you go along. I only made it to Level 2, so I wouldn't know.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Friday Radio: The Rocket (NBC Short Story)

Based on the story by Ray Bradbury, published in Super Science Stories, March 1950.

Guess which network it was originally broadcast on, January 4, 1952.

A story by Ray Bradbury called "The Irritated People," not found in any other collection, appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories, Volume 1. Hint, hint.

Is it my imagination, or is the introduction to this episode basically saying, "Sure, we all know science fiction sucks. But Ray Bradbury is such a fine writer, he actually redeems this crap!"?

It's a real, real commonplace observation that in a time when most science fiction writers wrote about the intellectual puzzles faced by Campbellian engineers and other members of the professional class, Ray Bradbury found his voice and his power in writing about "common" people, and their deep emotions that run closer to the surface. Certainly, it's difficult picturing an Asimov or Heinlein hero feeling the almost primal need of Bradbury's protagonist here to go into space. And it's appropriate that the characters are almost entirely recent-generation immigrants, since no doubt it takes a need something like that to leave everything you know, and cross the Atlantic to start over again with nothing in a country where you probably can't speak the language.

For my own part, I think that had I been around in one of the times and places of the great European emigrations that helped build the America we know... I would have been that spineless guy you never hear about, who considered it, thought about the hardships, and stayed home.

Or maybe I'm just assuming the Italian-named characters are recent-generation immigrants. Only the lead actor seems to make a serious attempt at an accent. And the story does, after all, take place somewhere in the neighborhood of 2035. But it's probably missing the point to get all literalist with a Bradbury story, which are often what you could call magic unrealism: they're real life in a metaphorical setting... the way that The Martian Chronicles was more about Manifest Destiny than it was about Mars.

Anyway, "The Rocket" is a very simple story, but it generated probably more tension in me than any of the other shows I've posted, and that's because, for a change, I really felt for the hero of this story.

It was probably a good adaptation choice for a series that apparently found the regular run of science fiction a bit juvenile.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

YouTube Tuesday: About the Authors

Here are some YouTube videos related to contributors to Thrilling Wonder Stories, Volume 2.

Michael Reaves (co-writer of "Manifest Destiny") gives some interesting insights into what it's like working with "real heavy-hitters" like Steven Spielberg and Gene Roddenberry.

The trailer for the recent documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, all about your friend and mine, Harlan Ellison. His first published story, "Life Hutch" from 1956, appears in TWS2.

And finally, the trailer for "Blood and Fire," the two-part Star Trek: Phase II episode directed by David Gerrold and adapted from his unused script for The Next Generation. Gerrold's "Enterprise Fish," an excerpt from the sixth volume of his War Against the Chtorr series, appears you-know-where.

Part I of "Blood and Fire" is now available for watching on YouTube. No doubt we'll have it embedded here next Tuesday, once I've had the chance to watch it myself (this week, I'm busy making the honest-to-gosh last push to get TWS2 out the digital door). You can go watch it on YouTube now, if you really don't care about boosting my time-spent-on-site-by-user average (*snif*).

Monday, January 5, 2009

Monday Game: Rigelian Hotshots

Apparently, this has something to do with the British comics magazine 2000 A.D. I know Judge Dredd comes from there, but I've never read it myself. Fortunately, it's not necessary in understanding the game.

What we have here is a vertical scroller. So you can pretty much have missed every game since River Raid and still pick it up quickly. Move your fireball to kill Thrillsuckers and earn points. Walls and other barriers sap your energy. Various bonus types enhance your score.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Global Warming: Time for Plan B?

The Independent has an interesting article about how many leading scientists feel that more proactive solutions to the increasing CO2 levels are, or may become, necessary. They cite both the failure so far to cut emissions, and a decreasing capacity of the Earth to absorb CO2 on its own.

Their "geoengineering" notions include putting sunlight-reflecting particles into the atmosphere in emulation of natural volcanic processes, pumping water vapor into the air above the ocean to form reflecting clouds, boosting the population of CO2-consuming phytoplankton by seeding the ocean with iron filings, circulating the water of the oceans to sink CO2 out of the normal carbon cycle, and deflecting sunlight with huge mirrors in space. 

Friday Radio: Mr. Costello, Hero (X Minus One)

Based on the story by Theodore Sturgeon, published in Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1953.

Originally broadcast on NBC, July 3, 1956.

Another story by Theodore Sturgeon, "The Golden Helix," appears in Thrilling Wonder Stories, Volume 2.

(For some reason, this file won't work with the usual embedded player. So just click here to download the file.)

You may remember from a couple of weeks ago that the adaptation of Fredric Brown's "The Last Martian" had some filler that announced itself as such to me by being a bit wrong.

Well, with this episode, the adapter, George Lefferts, had the opposite problem: "Mr. Costello, Hero" was a bit too long of a story for a half hour. As a result, the radio version is missing some of the creepiness of the story. Here's a little bit from the story about the making of Costello's "perfect" society:

"What happened to the ones who wouldn't come to Centrals?"

"People made fun of them. They lost their jobs, the schools wouldn't take their children, the stores wouldn't honor their ration cards. Then the police started to pick up soloists—like they did you." She looked around again, a sort of contented familiarity in her gaze. "It didn't take long."

The adaptation, by contrast, makes it seem like it was just the quoting out of context that did it, and missed the point that it was a sort of social snowball effect. In the story, these quotes are spread via 3-D TV by "the Lucilles," a commentator replicated into four images (presumably to make her/their statements seem more authoritative). Pretty soon...

"Believe it? Well, it's true, isn't it? Can't you see it's true? Everybody knows it's true."

Just like "everyone knows" that Al Gore said he invented the Internet, or Sarah Palin said she can see Russia from her house. Because pundits who knew better—but, being pundits, had an investment in a cause, and no compunction about lying to further it—said so, alone and in chorus, over and over until people who didn't know better never heard it any other way. And voilá, "everybody knows it's true."

You know you're dealing with a good science fiction story when it seems more timely 55 years after it was first published.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Thursday Preview: Arena

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Okay, I've mentioned it often enough; it's about time I posted a preview of Fredric Brown's "Arena."

As you may know by now, and certainly will after you read this, all the fiction in Thrilling Wonder Stories, Volume 2, old and new, is from writers who plied their trade both in print and in the televised incarnations of Star Trek.

Well, pretty much. Fredric Brown never wrote a script for Star Trek, but he sort of became a Trek writer at one remove. This story, originally published in 1944, was the only one to be adapted into an episode. And that happened inadvertently. It was only after routine clearance by Desilu's research department that scriptwriter/producer Gene L. Coon realized he'd unconsciously used the plot of Brown's story. Star Trek quickly purchased the appropriate rights... making sure not to tell Brown that the script had already been written.

Fredric Brown (1906-72) was not a prolific science fiction writer. NESFA reprinted all of his short fiction in one volume in 2001 and his three novels in another volume in 2002. However, he is widely considered a master of the short story (2,000 to 7,500 words), and especially the short-short. His short story "Knock" begins with a two-sentence short-short of its own.

Fortunately for his income, he didn't need to live on his science fiction output, producing many mystery novels. Mickey Spillane called Brown "my favorite writer of all time." Still, Brown claimed he wrote mysteries for the money, but science fiction for fun.

The Science Fiction Writers of America voted "Arena" one of the twenty best science fiction stories written before 1965. The story appears in Thrilling Wonder Stories, Volume 2 with a dramatic illustration by Kevin Farrell, showing a couple of ways in which Brown's original differs from the Star Trek episode it inspired. For one, we luckily did not have to see Captain Kirk fight in the nude.

Why did I wait this long to post a Thursday Preview of "Arena"? I really don't know, but it gives me another chance to reach for holiday relevance. On New Year's Eve, we watch the ball drop. In "Arena," we read about someone trying to keep a ball from getting the drop on him. (Suddenly I feel like the Yakov Smirnoff of science fiction.)

Sources: (to learn how to spell "Yakov Smirnoff")