Monthly Archives: November 2007

Review of The Man from Earth

There’s a new direct-to-DVD SF film called The Man from Earth that’s currently in heavy rotation on the agency-supplied banner ads that run on Locus Online — e.g. on the Links Portal page. The DVD is only $17 or so from Amazon, so I ordered a copy and watched it the other night.

The script is reputedly the last written by Jerome Bixby, who’s most famous for the short story “It’s a Good Life” and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone adaptation thereof. Bixby also wrote or co-wrote several Star Trek TOS scripts, notably “Mirror, Mirror” and “Requiem for Methuselah”.

To quick-cut to my take on the film: it’s a decent little film, best seen as a play that happens to have been filmed — it’s a lot of talk, and mostly set inside a single room — and the SFnal premise is identical to the secret-immortal theme of that TOS episode “Requiem for Methuselah”.

That premise is revealed in the first few minutes of this film, so I hardly need spoiler warnings to give it away. The film opens as a college professor named John Oldman (!) is packing to leave his rural house (it’s filmed at a house on the backside of Vasquez Rocks, a distinctive formation in the hills north of L.A. that has been used for any number of western and skiffy films and TV shows over the years, among them Star Trek episodes “Arena” and “The Alternative Factor”), intending to “move on” from his 10-year stint at a local college, where it’s been noticed he’s hardly aged a day since he first arrived. As he packs, a carload of his friends from the college arrive to see him off. These include some familiar acting faces: John Billingsley, Dr. Phlox from the ST series Enterprise; an aged William Katt, from series The Greatest American Hero back in the early ’80s; and most effectively, Ellen Crawford, a familiar character actress from any number of TV shows over the decades.

His friends wonder exactly *why* he’s moving on, and so John, at first hypothetically, then seriously, outs himself as a Cro-Magnon who’s survived for 14,000 years, living various lives and moving on as time has required. His friends can hardly believe him, but as John relates details of his past lives in impressive detail, his friends become convinced enough to be personally affected — the anthropologist played by Tony Todd challenging his thesis; Biblical literalist Edith (Ellen Crawford) profoundly offended by his most startling claim of a role he played in history.

Their reaction to his claims plays out over the almost hour and a half of the film, with surprising developments about that startling claim, and a relationship John has to one of his challengers.

But it’s all talk — don’t come to this expecting a typical SF film with special effects. As a play, it’s talky in the way a Rod Serling script is talky, and mostly effective in exploring its theme, not that any experienced SF reader will be surprised by any of the talk here — just as with the characters who are friends of John, the theme is explored in an entirely naive way, as if encountered for the first time. Directorially, the actors play their characters distinctively but not always in a realistic manner; John Billingsley’s character burbles and Tony Todd’s utters profundities too quickly, as if the pace of the film is rushed to come in at a reasonable time. Of the lot, Ellen Crawford is most effective as a character whose world-view is profoundly challenged by John’s revelations.

The DVD includes several special features, about the making of the film and about Jerome Bixby, though oddly, the latter makes a point of the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” but doesn’t mention at all “Requiem for Methuselah”, the story whose theme prefigures the film’s. There are also not one but two commentaries, including one with executive producer Emerson Bixby and SF critic and Locus Online contributor Gary Westfahl. But to listen to them requires watching the entire film over again, with the film playing in the background and hearing the commentators in the foreground for an hour and a half, and I confess that there’s never been any film, no matter how much my favorite, that I’ve sat through to listen to a commentary. I would imagine that Westfahl, who’s pretty expert about Star Trek himself and whose Biographical Encyclopedia of SF Film has this entry for Jerome Bixby with a mention at the end about this film, must have acknowledged the similarity to that Star Trek episode, but I can’t say I’ve verified it.

In summary: An interesting, play-like film about a familiar SF idea, worth an hour and a half of your time especially if you’re familiar with Bixby’s work and don’t come to this expecting the razzle-dazzle of Hollywood sci-fi special effects.

What I Learned at WFC

That in the new Microsoft Office suite, which is obsessively security-conscious, you can avoid the extra click or three that’s required when opening Excel or Access files containing macros, asking you to confirm that you trust the contents of the file, by clicking on the “Open the Trust Center” link and designating the *directory* where the xls or mdb file is located is always to be trusted.

It may seem like a little thing, but any reduction of extra clicks while performing routine tasks is a valuable tip worth passing on. I won’t explain how this tidbit of knowledge came to me during the convention.

I should note that my earlier comment about the apparent limitation of WFC members to a single program item was apparently misinformation — something someone mentioned to me, and which seemed plausible, but which David Hartwell (see comment to earlier post) has corrected.

I also failed to mention another positive quality about the convention hotel: delivered every morning outside your door was The New York Times, even on Sunday! — rather than the mere USA Today (which has no weekend editions), as in virtually every other convention hotel I can remember…

The Movie List

John Douglas replied to an earlier post about my chatting with a guy at World Fantasy Con named Al Robertson about classic films that would change my life. I didn’t say what they were, but I’m happy to do so now — a list of films by co-directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger:

- I Know Where I’m Going
- The Life & Death of Colonel Blimp
- A Matter of Life & Death
- Black Narcissus
- The Red Shoes
- Peeping Tom (Powell only, the English ‘Psycho’ only *more disturbing*)

A couple of these titles are familiar, but I’ve never seen any of them…

WFC, Wrap-Up

A few final notes…

The convention outdid previous WFC’s with a heavy-duty blue duffel bag (more than a mere tote-bag), given away to members when checking in, containing the usual random selection of freebie books (this year including Margo Lanagan’s nominated Red Spikes and Michael Moorcock’s revised Wizardry & Wild Romance in some bags) — plus a box of cookies and a bottle of the local Saratoga Springs sparkling water. The bag was perfect for carrying home books, bought or freebied, though in retrospect I should have padded my own bag and checked it, rather than carrying it onto the flight…

The convention seemed very well-run, with no problems or complaints that I was aware of, and with programming that ran very efficiently. It was, though, commented that the programming was a bit thin — no more than two panels at any one time, and constrained by a WFC rule, which I’d been previously unaware of, that no member, no matter how famous, could appear on more than one program item during the course of the convention. Given the number of prominent writers and editors and fans in attendance, this meant that some program items omitted obvious participants, when those participants had already been booked for some other program item…

The hotel was nice enough, as discussed in previous posts, but had its shortcomings — no place to buy food or drink other than the pricey hotel restaurant; no gift shop. The rooms were furnished with tables that were too high, and chairs that at best were too low, for comfortable working on a laptop computer. (I actually asked the front desk for a better chair, that could be raised high enough to work at the table in the room, and was told nothing was available.) Guests wheeling their bags in from the parking lot were faced with dragging them up stair steps to reach the reception desk — there was a service ramp, but it was well-hidden.

The wifi was free — ! — but was flaky, occasionally dropping out for minutes or longer before reappearing. (Just like home, actually, but that’s another topic.)

Despite these quibbles, it was a big, successful convention, the largest World Fantasy Con ever, with over 1100 members, and, speaking personally, the combination of programming, art show and dealers room, external location providing nearby shops and restaurants, and personal interactions with other members, made it, actually, one of the best conventions I’ve ever attended. With intriguing opportunities to follow up.

WFC, Saratoga Springs, Day 4, Sunday

I was sipping coffee and eating an extravagent almond croissant this morning at Mrs. London’s down the street from the conference center when I realized we’d all gained an extra hour overnight with the shift back to standard time. So with my extra hour I fired up the rental car and drove around downtown and the area around the city center, sightseeing; past enormous mansions just north of downtown, through the campus of Skidmore College, then back around to Congress Park (site of several of the original ‘springs’), then east past the Saratoga Race Course, and further on around Saratoga Lake, which is quite sizeable, and back into downtown from the south.

The convention was still busy, but wrapping up. I walked through the dealers room one more time, picking up just one more item, then chatting with various people, including Eos editor Diana Gill, before returning to my room to change for the awards banquet. (As it happened, most people on the banquet ticket waiting list got in, due to no-shows, and Diana had invited me to sit at one of the two Eos tables. So I lucked out.)

The banquet food was better than average, and the ceremony one of the best I’ve ever attended, partly due to toastmaster Guy Gavriel Kay’s introductory speech, which began seriously with the recognition of the late Robert Jordan and the tension that exists between ‘serious’ fiction and popular ‘commercial’ fiction (both sides are right; we need both, Kay said), then turned humorous with an extended “world fantasy fairy tale” that punned on virtually every nominee name and title on this year’s ballot, capped by Gary Wolfe, standing up to read an apparently spontaneous critique of said fairy tale…

The awards were efficiently presented by Jo Fletcher and Rodger Turner (rather than David Hartwell and John Douglas, as in past years I’ve attended), and were well-received, with a general feeling that almost every category (for once) got it right — Gary Wolfe for his criticism, Ellen Asher for her work at the SF Book Club, Shaun Tan for his amazing art book The Arrival, M. Rickert twice over — Rickert revealed that until a couple years ago, she’d lived in Saratoga Springs, so returning here for the con to receive this affirmation of her work was especially meaningful — and so on. Life Achievement winner Betty Ballantine gave a rousing cry for attendees to help children learn to read (so we don’t end up with another Bush), and Sharyn November’s reading of the acceptance by Diana Wynne Jones (the only winner, along with anthology co-editor Terri Windling, not in attendance) was anything but anticlimactic — a long, funny letter detailing her history with various editors and agents and her plans for her future career.

As usual with the World Fantasy Con, many attendees check out on Sunday — indeed, have already checked out and are poised to leap for the airport as soon as, if not before, the awards are done. Those staying over hang out in the lobby and bar, form the usual loose groups for dinner, then reconvene in the bar until retreating to their rooms in exhaustion. I had dinner with Mark Rich, Martha Borchardt, David Levine, and Beth Gwinn; hung out in the bar talking with Charles Vess and Rome Quezada and Melissa Snodgrass and Ian Tregillis, then came back to my room to update the site and pack. I’m up first thing in the morning for the long flight (3 hour layover at Dulles) back to LA.

WFC, Saratoga Springs, Day 3, Saturday

Today was cool and overcast. I walked down the street to the same coffee shop as the other day for coffee, OJ, and scone, then headed further down to check out a notable used bookstore people at the con had been talking about, only to find it not yet open. I strolled further along the sidestreets, past various restaurants and clubs, the town library, the police station, a garden sculpture shop…

At noon I listened to a panel on the writer Robert Aickman, whose particular brand of ghost story is apparently quite distinctive and not to everyone’s taste. (I think I must have read an Aickman story or two long ago, but don’t remember them.) To Peter Straub and Lisa Tuttle, the lack of clear explanations in Aickman’s stories make them akin to dreams; in contrast, Kathryn Cramer offered theories more aligned with M.C. Escher’s paradoxical but carefully planned etchings, and the mathematics of someone named Lackoff (sp?). The panelists describes their favorite Aickman stories, and later cited other writers who exhibit some of his qualities: Kelly Link, W.G. Sebold, M. Rickert.

After that I joined Amelia Beamer and Gary Wolfe and Peter Straub and Rick Wilbur and three others whose names I didn’t catch (one of whom is a curator a nearby university special collections library), wandering the side streets for a place for lunch. We ended up at an Irish pub, Parting Glass, drinking Guiness and eating Veggie burgers and (mine) an O’Reilly sandwich.

Later I did some more shopping in the dealers room, then took a break in my room for an hour or two, reading the first 70 pages of Christopher Barzak’s novel.

At 4 p.m. was a “Year in Review” panel with Stephen Jones, Paula Guran, Ellen Datlow, Jonathan Strahan, and Charles N. Brown. They discussed trends, often from diametrically opposite perspectives; Jones detailed concerns about the shifting publisher scene, what with the firings at the SFBC and cancellation of imprints by the Perseus Group, while Charles Brown said none of that matters, it’s been like that for 50 years, and the good books still get published — more of them than any one has time to read. Then they named their own favorites of 2007 in various categories — novels, collections, etc. Frequently cited titles included Kay’s YSABEL, Hill’s HEART-SHAPED BOX, Chabon’s THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN’S UNION, Lake’s MAINSPRING, Elliott’s THE PILO FAMILY CIRCUS, and Datlow’s anthology INFERNO; I didn’t try to write down the complete list…

After that was a launch party for the new US version of Orbit Books, held at a nearby restaurant called Tiznow, with the publishers and editors of Orbit US present along with several of the authors of the debut books. Like such parties at other cons, it was nominally an invite-only affair, but after a while no one was checking names at the door, and anyone who knew anyone else who knew about the party managed to drift in. There were munchies and an open bar.

After that was the classic con experience of trying to gather a group to go to dinner. I had been chatting with Rome Quezada and Trevor Stafford; the latter had plans with a larger group so we all joined them; some nine of us then walked a couple blocks to a likely restaurant only to find the wait 45 minutes. OK, try this other one on the next block. Well, then, how about that one on the side street. Still a wait. Well, we could split up. Several in the group gave up and decided to check out the con suite. Eventually there were only four of us left — me, Rome, Trevor, and Ron Drummond (of Incunabula Books) — at the Sushi Thai Garden Restaurant.

Later were parties, including a big one hosted by Tor Books in the con suite, with munchies and drinks (soda, wine, beer). It wasn’t as crowded as the party there the other night, but was quite warm inside, so eventually I went down to the bar and hung out there for a while, before coming back to my room….

WFC, Saratoga Springs, Day 2, Friday

Today was a brisk, sunny day in Saratoga Springs. I dashed across the street first thing this morning to buy OJ at the gas station mini-mart before attending this year’s Locus Foundation board meeting, where Charles and Jonathan and Gary and Liza and Amelia and I discussed various matters pertaining to the future of Locus Magazine, including succession planning and new ways to market the magazine and attract subscribers… to a large extent, the same issues every year. That dragged on most of the morning, so that I caught only the end of an interesting-sounding panel, “The Author as Legend”, with George Scithers, Gary Wolfe, and others, about the extent to which an author’s persona dominates our view of their work, with Lovecraft and PKD as examples, and Joe Hill as a counter-example in the sense that he tried, with some success, to get his work reviewed for itself before the identity of his famous father was revealed.

I wandered around the dealers room a while, then hooked up with John O’Neill (of Black Gate) and Gordon Van Gelder for lunch; we walked down Broadway to a tiny sandwich shop, and talked about the future of magazines, how or if short fiction is changing, and Google search-word advertising. More things to think about, to check out.

I took a break in my room for a while, did some reading, then returned to the con floor for some book shopping and review copy gathering. The bar area of the hotel’s fancy restaurant has become, of course, the central gathering spot of the convention, and I moseyed around there a while before hooking up with Gary Wolfe for dinner; he’d discovered that Betty Ballantine had no dinner plans, and made reservations at said fancy restaurant, for a changing group that ended up including Jane Yolen, Mary Rickert, and me. I had the rabbit soup, which was not as interesting as I’d hoped, and of course we listened to Betty tell stories about the early days of paperback publishing and her own childhood in India.

Friday evenings at World Fantasy Con are traditionally dominated by the mass autographing session, and this was was more crowded than usual, given the unusually large membership of this year’s con. I actually brought books by four writers — or three writers and an artist, Shaun Tan — and though they weren’t all in the room to begin with, I managed to track them all down by the end of the evening.

There were parties on the upper floors, including one for the Pirate issue of Shimmer magazine, another for a forthcoming anthology of urban fantasy called Paper Cities, published by Senses Five Press and due next April. The con suite had lots of food — big trays of some sort of rice dish, something that looked like pot-stickers, etc. — and wine. I attended a reading by Christopher Barzak, whose first novel One for Sorrow is getting good notices (including Gary Wolfe’s in the new issue of Locus), and who’d been interviewed by Locus earlier in the day. Then more hanging out at the bar, with Amelia and Ted and someone named Al Robertson, who apparently has done a lot of work in the film industry and who is just now beginning to published stories; we talked about film writers and editors and Al recommended a bunch of films I’d never heard of but which he assured me would change my life. I had him write them down.

Then back to my room to write this up.

WFC, Saratoga Springs, Day 1

OK, so the hotel isn’t so bad; I was irritated the other night with the check-in confusion and the wifi difficulties. Still, the hotel emphasizes chic over practicality and usability; the designers must never have read Donald Norman… I could belabor examples, but I’ll spare you.

This year’s World Fantasy Con is sold out — for the first time I can remember, attending these cons almost every year for the past decade, there are no memberships available at the door. They filled up with 1140 some memberships and stopped selling new ones a month or so ago; I myself only got in by the skin of my teeth (though I’d reserved a room at the main hotel back in March, somehow I hadn’t finalized my membership) and the kindness of the con committee, and even so was unable to buy a banquet ticket — it too is sold out. It’s understandable why this has happened — the World SF Con was in Japan, so that many professionals and fans skipped that expense and came here instead; and the proximity to New York City allowed many publishers and editors to take the train to Saratoga Springs, who otherwise might not attend a WFC.

So– the hotel/conference center is pleasant enough, the function rooms and art show and dealers’ room all in close proximity. The conference center is at the end of the town’s main street, Broadway, which is lined with shops and restaurants and business offices, along wide sidewalks, the whole ambiance an iconic small East Coast city downtown, brick buildings on a tree-lined street, with hardly any chain stores or restaurants — the glaring exception being a Borders Bookstore about 3 blocks down.

The hotel/conference center has a 4-star restaurant, Chez Sophie, which looks very good but is pricey, not the place to drop in for a casual lunch or dinner. I had a $20 breakfast there yesterday. Unfortunately, there isn’t anywhere else in the center to buy food or drink, not even a Starbucks stand, though the convention’s Con Suite has reportedly set up food for con members. Stepping out onto Broadway, however, there are several restaurants and coffee shops within a short block or two; I found a Starbucks clone this morning for coffee, OJ, and blueberry muffin ($6), though the closest place for off-site coffee appears to be the gas station across the street…

The convention program got underway this afternoon at 3, with readings. I attended a panel at 4 about “collectable ephemera” with Greg Ketter, Irene Harrison, Bob Brown, and Rebekah Brown. They talked about the stuff that heirs are apt to overlook — stuff in drawers; postcards, letters, posters. By definition, ephemera refers to the stuff most likely to be thrown away — so their dictum was, whatever it is you’re most likely to discard is exactly the stuff most likely to become valuable. They gave copious examples — including one concerning TV Guides and eBay that made me take special note.

After that I hooked up with Beth Gwinn for dinner; she snagged Joe and Gay Haldeman, who were just checking in and who had no other dinner plans, and so the four of us walked across the street to Forno Bistro, a Tuscan Italian restaurant with excellent pasta and pizza and wine, where we talked about travling in Italy and teaching MIT students how to write.

At 8 p.m. was the official Opening Ceremony, with Master of Ceremonies Guy Gavriel Kay introducing the convention’s Guests of Honor — Carol Emshwiller, Kim Newman, Lisa Tuttle, Jean Giraud/Mobius, plus various special guests and con committee members — while 50 or so audience members stood (no chairs) watching. An ice-cream social was staged out in the concourse, with long lines.

After that I checked in on “The Evolution of a Drawing”, in which Shaun Tan, Bob Eggleton, and Donato Giancola stood in front creating original sketches while the audience watched; the artists commented on their techniques as audience members asked questions. Bob drew a dragon, Donato an elegant lady, Shaun an imaginary marsupial holding a one-eyed pup.

At 9 p.m. the next room over staged the announcement of the International Horror Guild Awards, hosted by Paula Guran and Master of Ceremonied by John Picacio, whose efficient style was somewhat undermined by a long acceptance letter from Glen Hirshberg (read by Barbara Roden) and a long, extemporaneous acceptance speech by Ramsey Campbell, which ranged from his visit to the Borders down the street where he asked if they had any books by Ramsey Campbell (“is he an author?” was the response) to his dramatic recitation of the opening of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, a formative reading experience of his childhood.

And then there were parties, especially the Australia-hosted party in the Con Suite, with copious bottles of wine, but which was so crowded and over-heated it could not be long endured.

More tomorrow.

Up and Down Vermont

First tonight, let me close off my travel diary; after staying at a charming bed & breakfast in southern Vermont on Monday night, my partner and I drove northward on Tuesday, several people having told us that Route 100 was the place to go for the best scenic views. And so Chester to Londonderry and then north, through Plymouth and then Killington, past hills — er, mountains — with ski resorts, alongside charming lakes, like the narrow ever-winding Echo Lake, lined with picturesque vacation homes and resorts. But alas, the further north we drove, the browner and barer the hillsides became. The fall colors were actually best further south. A few days or a week makes all the difference, but so does the latitude. We reached a charming town called Rochester, with a town square and shops with angled parking in front, had a light lunch, bought some maple syrup and other maple souvenirs, then crossed the mountains to US 7 along their western edge, and headed back south. Through Bennington with an amazing obelisk of some sort on a hill, across into New York State and to Albany, where Yeong was flying home; we circled downtown, which has some peculiar structure at its center, like a cross between a UFO and a football, then — as ever surrendering ourselves to the directions of the rental car’s ‘NeverLost’ GPS navigation system — headed out to the airport, where he had a 7 p.m. flight back to LA. From there I drove north 30 miles or so to Saratoga Springs, where my difficulties checking in and setting up were documented in the previous post…