Saturday, June 27, 2015

Theodore Sturgeon (author)

Wikipedia Page
Science Fiction Encyclopedia
Internet SF Database

Theodore SturgeonI’ve been watching Sense8 on Netflix and have been following the commentary on it.  Some have compared it to Philip K. Dick, but the clearest precedent is one of the great writers of the genre:  Theodore Sturgeon.

Sturgeon was born as Edward Hamilton Waldo but changed his name at age 11 when his mother remarried.,  He started publishing in 1937 – mainstream stuff, it seems – but switched to science fiction,  where his first genre story, “Ether Breather,” appeared in Astounding in 1939.

Sturgeon was a prolific short story writer, and he quickly became noted as one of the top names in the genre.  His first truly original story – and most influential -- was “It,” in 1941.  “It” established the concept of a vegetation-based monster like Swamp Thing, The Heap, and Man-Thing.  It’s also a masterpiece of horror, with a scare in it that has rarely been duplicated.  Sturgeon’s monster is scary because it’s not evil, which means its actions cannot be predicted.

“Shottle Bop” from the next year is one of the first in the mysterious shop subgenre of fiction and “Microcosmic God” – about a man who creates a whole civilization of people – is still considered one of the greatest sf short stories of all time.  Some of my other favorites include

  • “Two Percent Inspiration,” a slight story, but one Sturgeon loved for pulling off three plot twists at the end.
  • “Killdozer!” about a sentient killer machine; it’s been dramatized a couple of time.
  • Baby is Three,”  the introduction of the concept used in Sense8.
  • “Mr. Costello, Hero,” a devastating attack on Joseph McCarthy and the modern culture of surveillance.*
  • “The World Well Lost” – Aliens have (for the time) a terrible secret.  Maybe the first sympathetic treatment of homosexuality in the genre.
  • “The Man Who Lost the Sea
  • “When You Care, When You Love” – mostly the story of a loving relationship, with a twist at the end.
  • “If All Men Are Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?”  Not only a great title, but probably the most dangerous of the Dangerous Visions.
  • “It Was Nothing, Really” – a lighter piece about force fields and toilet paper.
  • “Slow Sculpture” where a woman and a scientist heal each other by their presence.
  • “Not an Affair” about a seduction and a disease that has surprising consequences for the human race.

There are many more.

Sturgeon’s best known influence is from two TV scripts her wrote for the original Star Trek: “Shore Leave” and “Amok Time.”  In the latter, he created the concept of pon farr, wrote the line “Live Long and Prosper,” and suggested the Vulcan salute.**  And, of course, he’s known most widely for Sturgeon’s Law:  “90% of everything is crap.”***  He’s also known in science fiction for his credo, “Ask the next question.”

He only had a handful of novels published.  Sturgeon both preferred the short story and also seemed to go through periods of writers block, which may have caused him to stay away from longer work.  One of his best novels overall wasn’t even under his own name:  The Player on the Other Side was an Ellery Queen novel that Sturgeon wrote with advice from Queen.

It was a cliché of the time that Sturgeon wrote about love.  It’s basically true, but his stories were not just simple romances.  They explored the possibilities of relationships of all types.

Sturgeon was anthologized all over the place during his lifetime; anyone who read SF anthologies would come across his name.  He also had several collections published.****  And, like most short story writers of his era, he’s slowly fading away.  His complete short works are available for completists, and anything republishing stories from his time frame will include something of his.  But reprint anthologies are more for the long-time fan than anyone new.

But he deserves to be listed as one of the true greats of the field.

*It was made into a radio play and I was surprised to learn the name of the characters was pronounced COS-tuh-lo.

**Though Nimoy determined what exactly it would be.

***This was in reply to someone saying that 90% of science fiction was crap.  Note that there are various other words used instead of “crap.”

****One was probably the cleverest title ever given to an anthology:  Caviar.  Think about it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015


Directed by
Sidney Lumet
Written by Jay Presson Allen, from a play by Ira Levin
Starring Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve, Dyan Cannon, Irene Worth
IMDB Entry

Plot twists are a mainstay of classic mystery fiction.  And occasionally, there’s a work that’s nothing but plot twists.  One of the best examples of this is Deathtrap.

Sidney Bruhl (Michael Caine) is a playwright fighting off a string of Broadway flops.  Desperate for success, he gets a manuscript titled Deathtrap, from a former student, Clifford Anderson (Christopher Reeve).  It’s brilliant and Sidney thinks on stealing the manuscript and taking credit for it* and invited Clifford to their house.  Sidney’s wife Myra (Dyan Cannon) is uncomfortable with the idea, stressing her already weak constitution.  And a mysterious psychic, Helga ten Dorp (Irene Worth) shows up at the house, and complicates matters.

I can’t really discuss much of the plot; the fun is watching it unfold.  It has more twists than a mountain road, and most of the fun of the film is to follow them.

The movie was based on a play by Ira Levin** and directed by Sidney Lumet, who is best know for more serious work.  It’s often compared to Sleuth,*** though it’s different in many ways, lacking the cat and mouse games that made Sleuth successful. 

Caine gives his usual excellent performance, while Reeve, trying to shed his association with the Man of Steel, shows that he’s more than just a superhero actor.

The movie was a moderate success.  One thing that hurt it was something that occurred that was very notable in film history, but which gave away one of the twists, and also kept audiences away.****

Still, if you’re looking for a light thriller with plenty of surprises, Deathtrap is a good choice.

*A very annoying cliché about writers.  It’s acceptable here because of what happens afterwards, but there are so many times when that is the basis of a mystery that I’m tired of seeing it.

**Author of Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and many other successful thrillers. 

***Caine starred in the movie version of that (twice).

****Highlight text below to display
A passionate kiss between Sidney and Clifford.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Aaron Williams (comedy)

Wikipedia Page

The cliché of a ventriloquist is that his dummy starts taking on a life of its own.  Though that sort of split personality doesn’t happen in real life, there is one ventriloquist who worked that sort of vibe into his act:  Aaron Williams.

I saw Aaron and Freddie on a family vacation to Miami Beach one Christmas in the early 70s.  He was the opening act for Wilson Pickett* and I immediately loved the act.

Most ventriloquists project a bond with their dummies.  They might be mischievous, but the ventriloquist would gently chide the dummy or treat their comments as joke.  Aaron was different.  He stood on the stage and seemed embarrassed to be sharing it with Freddie.  He sometimes got so tired of it that he’s stuff Freddie into a suitcase.

Of course, by the time Williams came to the stage, ventriloquism was passe.  There were no TV shows, just guest appearances and one shots. But he worked regularly as an opening act for people like Pickett and Ray Charles.  He also did work for the Los Angeles Police Department by doing anticrime demonstrations.

Williams time in the national spotlight was short, and his act was hurt by ventriloquism no longer an interesting novelty.  But he was a fine and effective comedian who broke new ground.

*Pickett appealed to a younger audience than one would find at a Miami Beach hotel.  Most people didn’t understand the music and thought it was too loud.  I loved it.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Shari Lewis (TV)

Wikipedia Entry

As my past few posts have shown, the 1950s was a great time for ventriloquism.*  Shari Lewis was another of the greats of the time and the art, and ultimately continued her act into the 1990s, becoming an honored name in children’s programming.

Lewis was born Sonya Hurwitz in New York city, daughter of a former professional magician who encouraged her career in show business.  She also picked up ventriloquism, and won a first prize on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, launching her career.  In 1960, she was given her own children’s show by NBC.

Lewis was different in that she used puppets instead of dummies.**  The most famous one was Lamb Chop, a sock puppet lamb who was utterly charming.  Others of her characters included the shy Hush Puppy, the slow-on-the-uptake Charlie Horse, and Wing Ding, a crow.***

The show ran until 1963, and Lewis moved on to other projects.  The 60s was not a good time for ventriloquists.

But Lamb Chop made a comeback in 1992 with Lamb Chop’s Play-Along on PBS in 1992.  It introduced here (and Shari) to a whole new generation of children, and won several daytime Emmys.  And you can now start singing the song that doesn’t end…..
*And puppets in general.
**I notice now that one advantage of hand puppets is that they can be held in front of you to block the view of your mouth, so it was harder to see your lips.  Lewis didn’t need this particular trick – her technique was fine – but it was interesting to notice.
***She later dropped Wing Ding from the act; the idea of a black crow probably was at least borderline offensive, though Wing Ding was never used for racial laughs.