In ‘The Twilight Zone’

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition …

So The Twilight Zone opens, solemnly making it clear that you, the viewer, are not in Kansas anymore. Debuting on CBS in 1959, The Twilight Zone was not the first sci-fi TV show, but it was, perhaps, the first fully respectable one. In its own day, it worked. Perhaps more surprisingly, it works in our day, too.

The very conception of The Twilight Zone brings with it a disability. Twilight Zone is that rare bird, an anthology show. It is, essentially, Astounding Stories translated into the medium of television – an amalgam of short stories with no connective tissue between them. The stories share little, not even necessarily a universe; they share only the somber tones of Rod Serling’s narration. A new cast of characters is presented on the stage and then ushered off every episode, and this tends to a chilling effect. Attachment between viewers and characters can’t be developed to any real power when the characters are so ephemeral. You can’t begin any TZ episode with a sense of who the characters are, or any particular affection for them; they’re all strangers to you, after all.

The Twilight Zone‘s reliance on the short-story form leads it into other hazards. Like so many of the short stories published in science fiction magazines, Twilight Zone often depends on the twist at the end. The savvy viewer knows this and frequently spends the episode looking for the trick. Whether this decreases enjoyment by detaching one from the story or increases enjoyment by turning it into a game hinges on the individual viewer. The more serious effect is that when the story is about the twist, the twist is not always enough to sustain the story. In some Twilight Zone episodes, the story is stretched thin over the required twenty-five minutes, going in circles because it’s too soon to go to the end. And though it is only natural for victims of the Twilight Zone to wander around confused, you sometimes wish they were quicker in the uptake. (“Face it,” you want to say to the man who jumped in front of a truck before the scene cut and now wonders why nobody seems able to see him. “You’re dead.”)

And for all this, The Twilight Zone works. With all its limitations it has a liberty that it fully, skillfully exploits. When all characters are one-shot characters, anything can happen to them, and it often does. The fatality rate among Twilight Zone protagonists is high. Because the show doesn’t have to resume next week where it leaves off this week, it is free to go in directions and to extents that would prove impossible for more conventional shows. It indulges ideas that could not fit into a universe less fluid and shadowy than the Twilight Zone. The show shuffles among subgenres: science fiction, folk lore, moral fables, horror – anything that might be called the fifth dimension.

The Twilight Zone is a serious show: often philosophical, moralistic to its core. Some episodes are written around morals; others have their lessons attached in the closing narration. Religion is unusually present in The Twilight Zone. A handful of episodes traffic in ideas of devils, angels, and hell, but far more notable is the repeated, reverent invocation of God’s name. (God’s name, in this era of television, was not abused, but it was generally ignored.) The Twilight Zone wants to tell you stories, but it is also quite conscious, sometimes, of the desire to tell you an idea, and maybe even a life lesson.

There is good reason why The Twilight Zone is a rare bird. It sacrifices the history and emotional connection of the well-done serial, and that is no small loss. At times it’s a little bleak, or a little overwrought, or a little stretched. But it holds a persistent fascination, fueled by a serious and sprawling creativity. It is good to venture into the Twilight Zone, where the normal rules are always suspended, and let the ride take where it will.

 

In Praise of Short Stories

There was a time when the world abounded with short stories. Great authors wrote brief masterpieces, securing their places in literary history and in English courses throughout North America; great books were introduced to the world as serialized novels. The mediocre and the obscure – overlapping but not homogeneous groups – found their footing in pulp magazines, making their appeal to niche markets.

But the short story faded. The magazines were mostly shut down, the new great authors wrote long masterpieces, and novels were published all at once. Established authors might get their short stories published in anthologies or – especially if the story was about Christmas – in little hardbacks with trite Hallmark illustrations meant to justify charging readers fifteen bucks for a crummy twenty thousand words. (They didn’t.) But the days when writers could make their fame or living by short stories were over.

Now novels are, more and more frequently, simply one part of a book series, as movies are one part of a franchise. So while stories grow longer and longer, I want to speak a word in praise of short stories. For years I’ve been making my way through the sci-fi short story collections on Librivox. I didn’t begin with any real appreciation of short stories, but I learned it. I learned to see what advantages short stories uniquely possess.

Ideas and styles that aren’t suited to long works find expression in short stories. Such ideas and styles aren’t inherently worse, but they are different. “Ask a Foolish Question” tells a sci-fi story in a fairy-tale form and it is entrancing, but it would grow awfully thin stretched out to three hundred pages. This story is devoted to a single thought, profound though melancholy, that our trouble isn’t that we don’t know the answer; it’s that we don’t know the question. No novel can be built on a single thought, because one thought just doesn’t go far enough. But short stories can be, and that is one of their noblest functions: to catch those stray ideas or images that would otherwise just drift away.

Short stories are also the playground of an old game in science fiction: trick the readers with their own assumptions. Here is how it is played: First, center the story around a classic conflict but hide one basic, vital fact; trust that the audience will automatically complete the picture with some natural assumption, and it will be wrong; write the story in a way that supports the readers’ misperception without truly affirming it; at the end, reveal the truth. This game, difficult to sustain for very long, is really only suited to the format of short stories, and even there writers commonly lose. Readers learn to play, too. “Rough Beast” and “Runaway” attempt the game, if you want to see it done. (“Runaway” sort of devastated me; I mean this as a warning, but I know it just makes you want to read it more.)

Finally, short stories require only a minor investment of time. They don’t take the commitment that novels do, or incur an equal cost when they’re not worth it. That frees you to be less selective and more adventurous in your reading. You may even discover stories of poor quality that have, among all the chaff, a valuable kernel of wheat. I have read short stories that, for all their deficiencies, had an image or an idea that stayed with me.

Short stories have to know their end and pursue it with devotion; where they don’t have time for depth they must compensate with color. The difference between short stories and novels is not only length; short stories are not simply less. They are their own art form, and I say – bring them back.

A St. Valentine’s Poll

So I was thinking about what might be a good or at least passable topic and suddenly I realized: this post will go live on St. Valentine’s Day. It seemed appropriate, then, to write a post themed on this great holiday of love, and anyway I was having trouble scraping up passable topics. Whether this post will be pro- or anti-Valentine’s Day will be up to you.

First of all, we should consider how ironic it is that the holiday of romantic love is named after a Catholic priest, a class of people who are ideally preoccupied with other concerns. Second, we should consider the intersection between romance and speculative fiction. As a fan of SF among other fans, I’ve seen a fair share of hostility directed toward the romance genre. Christian fans, at least, seem sometimes to regard it as the (regretfully ascendant) rival of Christian SF. But romance looming so large in human nature and human experience, it inevitably finds its own place in speculative fiction.

Yet a place shaped by the contours of the genre, and not always a proud one. Science fiction, in its young days, was a man’s genre, and the woman of the old stories was inevitably young and inevitably beautiful and inevitably belonged to the hero; she was also the daughter of the sage old man, and the sage old man and the strong young hero spent all kinds of time explaining things to her. In another vein, not a very deep one but at least bright, girls were tossed in along with all the other things a healthy-minded boy could desire: a quest, an adventure, a cool weapon, a fast ship, a righteous cause.

Fantasy, molded by the ancient traditions of fairy tales, has been less male-centric but not necessarily more sensible. Even moving away from the eternal puzzles of the archetypal fairy tales (could the prince really not identify Cinderella except by her shoe size?), certain ideas have thrown long shadows over the genre – true love that is instant and unmistakable, fated love that can’t be thwarted or resisted. Being rescued from a tower or a dragon or an evil wizard may seem like a clear sign, but on sober reflection, it may not be the soundest basis for a lifelong relationship.

When it comes to balanced and realistic portraitures of romantic love, speculative fiction has not, as a genre, clothed itself with glory. Neither has romance, but that is not our topic, just an aside I couldn’t resist. Over the years, science fiction and fantasy have made progress away from the old tropes and stereotypes. I’ll offer no predictions on where the genre is going. But on this Valentine’s Day, I wonder – where do you want it to go? What, in your ideal book, is the intersection between romance and speculative fiction?

So on this St. Valentine’s Day, cast a vote for or against romance in speculative fiction.

Do you want romance in sci-fi/fantasy?

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CSFF Blog Tour: Numb

Crusader is the best assassin the Church has, carrying out all his missions with heartless thoroughness. He is intelligent and methodical in his work, his skills well-honed. And he’s numb. No pain can stop him, no emotions can get in his way.

Until he is assigned a new victim and, for reasons he doesn’t understand, he can’t kill her.

Numb is a science fiction novel written by John Otte and published by Marcher Lord Press. The various technological trappings of the story give it a feel of classic blaster-and-spaceships sci-fi. I loved the idea of the space stations and of the Ceres colonizers. The abandoned Waystation was particularly evocative, giving me a feeling of how vast space is and how very easy for even large things to get lost.

The world-building showed some very nice touches; the cube-shaped New Jerusalem Station is one of them, but my favorite is this comment, delivered by one of the novel’s protagonists: “Tell me, did the earliest Christians arm themselves when the Emperor Nero trundled them off to the Vatican hippodrome as arsonists?”

This is a clever blending of fact (Nero’s scapegoating of Christians for the burning of Rome) with error (“the Vatican hippodrome”?). Time blurs history, and I enjoyed seeing that acted out in Numb. I appreciated that Otte in no way pointed out the confusion of facts, trusting his readers to catch it on their own.

The oblique reference to the Catholic Church was also interesting. The True Church is essentially a speculative version of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, transplanted from the Middle Ages to outer space. You could list the discrepancies between the True Church and even the medieval Catholic Church, but it still mirrors the Roman church in its political intrigue, persecution of heretics, and attempted subjugation of infidels. Alongside this, names like Inquisitor and Crusader and the Cathedral of Light are only superficial similarities.

If I had to name one fault of this book, it would be that characters’ actions didn’t always logically follow their motivations. It happened rarely, and even then was usually minor. One character, for example, showed himself wary of certain visitors to his installation but then casually shared vital information about the place.

In one place, however, it wasn’t minor. Reason would caution against helping, and then falling for, a bloody-handed assassin, especially one who had been assigned to kill you. But that’s what Isolda did. I think her decisions could have been justified, but she made them too quickly and with too little explanation.

Numb is a fast-paced story that takes surprising turns and, in it all, leaves space to the characters, through whom the novel gains emotional power. Add an intriguing framework built from the history of our past and theories of our future, and Numb establishes itself as a winning piece of sci-fi.


In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

CSFF Blog Tour: Sci-fi and MLP

And so the CSFF blog tour begins again. This month’s book is Numb, written by John Otte and published by Marcher Lord Press.

Numb is science fiction, a distinction in Christian speculative fiction these days. At some point fantasy became the dominant subgenre, trailed by apocalyptic fiction, dystopians, the angel/demon stories, “supernatural thrillers” (basically horror, people), and, yes, science fiction.

With an abundance of fantasy to enjoy, I am always happy to come across Christian sci-fi. I like well-done sci-fi as much as well-done fantasy, and I don’t often find it in my wanderings through Christian fiction. I was glad to receive Numb for review, and I will be glad to write about it these next two days.

Numb is, as far as I know, the first book released by Marcher Lord Press to be toured by the CSFF. But then, my knowledge of CSFF tours is not exactly exhaustive, so you probably don’t want to quote me on that. I won’t even mention any speculation that this month’s tour of Numb is somehow resultant of MLP changing hands at the beginning of the year. So you shouldn’t quote me on that, either, unless of course we learn someday that it’s true, in which case you can tell everyone you heard it here first.

But enough rumor-mongering. On to the links:

Numb on Amazon;

John Otte’s website;

and the blog tour, so that you may see what our tourers made of this sci-fi offering:

Julie Bihn
Jennifer Bogart
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
Pauline Creeden
Vicky DealSharingAunt
Carol Gehringer
Victor Gentile
Rebekah Gyger
Nikole Hahn
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Emileigh Latham
Rebekah Loper
Jennette Mbewe
Amber McCallister
Shannon McNear
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Nissa
Faye Oygard
Writer Rani
Nathan Reimer
Jojo Sutis
Rachel Starr Thomson
Steve Trower
Shane Werlinger
Phyllis Wheeler
Nicole White


Firebird – Annotated, This Time

Marcher Lord Press is putting out a new edition of the Firebird Trilogy, all three books in one volume. This edition has new maps and annotations by the author. It also has new cover art. More on that later.

I know how popular it is to include maps in speculative novels, especially of the fantasy kind. Personally, I have never found a novel’s maps more interesting than its acknowledgments. The new maps for Firebird are no draw for me.

The annotations, on the other hand, certainly draw my interest, and perhaps someday my money. I looked at the sample MLP gives, and the notes are fascinating.

And here’s the more I promised on the covert art: It’s a step down from the earlier covers. Much of it is good, but it is unfortunately dominated by the models. I find the model staring soulfully from the cover too generic. How many movies, how many books – from action thrillers to romance – could that be pasted onto? The grumpy model is even worse. (Question: Why do models ever pose sullen? Does someone imagine this is attractive? Intriguing?)