Ray Bradbury Takes His Place Among The Stars

The science fiction and fantasy world lost a true visionary today with the death of Ray Bradbury. The man was a true poet who penned some eloquently profound stories and novels. Among his greatest works are Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Martian Chronicles, I Sing The Body Electric, R Is For Rocket and The Illustrated Man. His short stories are well regarded by critics and readers and were adapted for comic books (notably EC Comics), TV shows like The Twilight Zone, plays and films. They include “the Flying Machine”, “There Will Come Soft Rains”, “The Fog Horn” (which inspired The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms), and “A Sound Of Thunder”. The latter of which popularized the time travel paradox concept of the Butterfly Effect.

Bradbury also wrote the screenplays for John Huston’s film adaptation of Moby Dick, the film adaptation for Something Wicked This Way Comes, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Ray Bradbury Theater (which he hosted), and more. Ray Bradbury won an Emmy award for his script The Halloween Tree, which was based on his book of the same name. He also won numerous awards and citations including a 2007 Pulitzer Prize Special Citation.

Born in Illinois in 1920, Ray Bradbury was a dreamer who inspired many to dream and look up to the stars and wonder at the beauty of our universe. Even at an early age, his writing gift was evident and he soon began publishing numerous short stories. While many of his works are lyrical and inspiring, he also didn’t shy away from exploring humanity’s darker side. Many stories served as warnings about ourselves, while offering a glimmer of hope.

This is probably best presented with his masterpiece Fahrenheit 451, which is a personal favorite, in the futuristic society of that novel, books and all literature are outlawed as the populace is deliberately kept ignorant by the government to better control them. Bradbury played with many ironies in his body of work, and Fahrenheit 451 wasn’t an exception. In the book, firemen aren’t used to put out fires, rather they create fires as they storm into the homes of suspected book owners and set libraries on fire. While the majority of the book is a bleak look at how shallow and empty we can be, Bradbury provided a main character (the fireman Guy Montag) who slowly comes to his senses about the horror of book burning. Montage redeems himself (and society at large) by becoming part of an underground movement to bring literature back to society in order to save it.

Bradbury’s contributions to the world of literature and science fiction and fantasy cannot be measured. While Ray Bradbury may no longer be with us, his spirit is now rightfully in the heavens above us and his works will continue to inspire many for as long as there are dreamers and visionaries.

José Soto

The Term “SCI-FI”

When I was a kid, growing up in the Amazon in South America, I was far away from Hollywood, USA , where great superhero and space adventures were chronicled in film and other media. I must say that as much as I missed the developed comforts that the U.S. can offer, I liked the weather and the people down there. The only thing that made me stand out in general conversation topics was that instead of talking the usual futbol , or politica , I tried to start the conversation with superheroes and space heroes. The usual reaction I got from the locals after tolerating my monologue for an hour is “mucha fantasia!” or “too much fantasy!” The mindset there is reality-oriented. I’m sure they love reality TV.

One of the movie magazines I brought with me to South America had articles with the termSci-Fi . As a little kid, it’s amazing how a little term boggled my elementary school attempts for pronunciation. “Skee-Fee?” “Sky-Fy?” Boy, lots of gray brain matter at work there. A helpful parenthesis in the article related the term sci-fi to science fiction. Oh! That’s what it was! Duh! I’m a true genius!

I began collecting more sci-fi magazines, books and comic books. Before long I had a sizable collection and was amassing a fair knowledge of sci-fi and superhero stories. I even had a few issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Back to that later.

Years afterward, and back in the good ol’ USA , I was working for a publishing company in New York City. One of their publications was a general science fiction magazine. Their science fiction editor always had a fit when we said “sci-fi.” We used to listened to his tantrums. The same one from last Tuesday LOL. A mental list of anger-management classes crossed my mind during his rants. He argued that it was incorrect to say “sci-fi” (surrounded by piles and piles of magazines paperbacks, statuettes and toys of that favorite genre of his — the sci-fi genre, thank you very much.) He said that was a term coined by Forrest Ackerman, but it’s not a real term. (Try telling that to the ‘not-a-real-term’ Channel; that was before it started to drift away from its roots and changed its name to Syfy). As much as we liked this fellow, he just needed to lighten up a bit! All joking aside, I have much respect for this editor friend of mine, and I wish him well.

Almost ten years later, I had moved to Los Angeles. I found out that Forrest Ackerman (who first coined the term sci-fi) , publisher of the cult favorite Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, was living here in L.A. I spoke to him by phone and he invited me to his Museum of Sci-Fi in Hollywood. He was in his late 80’s, but he was gracious to give me a tour of his museum for me.

We spoke about some of my genre-related projects.  I told him they were my own attempt at capturing the essence of sci-fi, which for me was a way to telling stories related to current events and the social commentary of our time, fueled by wild imagination. It’s too much fantasy indeed, but I like it!

After giving me a tour of his best collections (my favorite was the Metroplis robot Maria) we sat down to listen to his great career. He actually told me how he came up with the term  sci-fi. “In 1954” he explained, “that word was first heard in this world. I was riding around in my car with the radio on and some mention was made of ‘hi-fi.’ Since ‘science fiction’ had been on the tip of my tongue since Hugo Gernsback introduced it in 1929 (in his science fiction mag Science Wonder Stories), I looked in the rearview mirror, stuck out my tongue and there, tattooed on the end of it was . . . SCI-FI!”

What a great anecdote to cap off a pleasant visit; he was such a nice guy. Sadly, Forrest Ackerman passed away in December 2008, but I feel honored to have met him and we should all thank him for coming up with that wonderful term. So that’s how my sci-fi term comes full circle. Hope you enjoyed it. Too much fantasy, man!


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Star Trek: The Exhibition at the Kennedy Space Center

The traveling exhibit Star Trek: The Exhibition is currently running through this summer at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as part of the Center’s Sci-Fi Summer. Showcasing the world of Star Trek, the Sci-Fi Summer program presents how the science fiction world of Trek helped to influence the development of our technology. It’s a great place to go if you are a Star Trek or science fiction fan not just because of the Trek-themed exhibits and attractions but because it melds that sci-fi aspect to NASA’s real life world. You get to see where we’ve been and how far we have to go.

Star Trek: The Exhibition features a scale model of the Enterprise, and the actual props and costumes used in the Star Trek shows and films. At the KSC, the exhibit is broken up into two different buildings. One where IMAX films are shown (and is currently presenting Transformers: Dark of the Moon in 3D) has a room dedicated to the original Star Trek series, though props and costumes from the Kirk-era films can be seen. The highlight is a well-detailed replica of the original Enterprise bridge complete with dedication plaque, consoles and the captain’s chair that anyone can sit on for golden photo opportunities.

At another building near the tour bus terminal is a larger exhibit room dedicated to Star Trek: The Next Generation,  as well as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager. This exhibit displays a mock-up of the Reman Scorpion fighter craft seen in Star Trek: Nemesis and partial recreations of the Enterprise D’s sickbay and engine room. There are models,  numerous props and costumes worn and used by the actors and a Klingon chair that you can sit on (there are also captain chairs from the Enterprise B and D but those are roped off). Additionally one side of the exhibit’s wall has a mural with a detailed timeline of NASA and Trek history. The opposing wall displays the costumes. A nice touch to this exhibit were two actors dressed as Vulcans from the far future who stayed in character and interacted with visitors. The uniforms they wore were the ones worn by 29th century Starfleet officers as seen in the Voyager episode “Relativity.”

The KSC has Trek costumes and factoids peppered throughout the facility with several famous delta shield symbol on the grounds that act as arrows to guide visitors to Trek-related exhibits and attractions. For example one path lead sto the rocket garden where a floor painting shows how large the Enterprise ships are in comparison to the horizontally displayed Saturn 1B rocket. It’s staggering to consider how large the Trek ships are when you walk the length of the rocket. There was so much to see at the KSC that one could easily spend an entire day on the grounds. Continue reading

Falling Skies Ahead

Last month, TNT premiered Falling Skies,  the new Dreamworks sci-fi series executive produced by Steven Spielberg about survivors of a modern-day alien invasion.

Unlike what its teaser commercials suggested, Falling Skies’ pilot did not feature the typical initial alien arrival, contact and pyrotechnic invasion scenario. Rather it begins several months after the aliens (called “skitters”) have wiped out the world’s armies and have laid waste everywhere. This is clearly not Independence Day  or even Battlestar Galactica in terms of big budget effects scenes. This can be disappointing for some but it’s a different take and risky, while also being budget conscious. And it largely works.

Why? It’s a good hook for audiences who have to be able to catch up with what is going on. Here’s the skinny, the show takes place in and around Boston and focuses on the efforts of a ragtag group of civilians, soldiers and recruits who form a militia group called the Second Massachusetts to fight back against the aliens. Apparently the humans in the show are just as much in the dark as the viewer is when it comes to knowing who the aliens are or why they came to Earth. To its credit the show gives out adequate morsels of information about the situation and characters to keep you interested.

Jumping into the middle of the premise helped draw me into the characters’ storyline since everything wasn’t laid out. Unfortunately, this approach was used to a much greater effect in AMC’s excellent series The Walking Dead.  That show had more engaging and memorable characters. Also, at times Falling Skies gets a little too preachy or sentimental. Additionally, some of the military stuff seems far-fetched specifically when it comes to logistics (having soldiers sleep indoors but not civilians? Nice way to sow resentment, plus doesn’t that leave civilians more vulnerable to the aliens?).

As the main character of the show, it falls on Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), a widowed history professor and second in command of the militia group,  to be the reason why audiences tune in. He’s got an interesting story, his wife was killed recently by aliens and one of his three sons has been kidnapped and turned into a zombified slave for the aliens through a horrifying biomechanical device attached to his back (in the show, children are being taken by the aliens and turned into a labor force through these devices). So his driving focus is to rescue his son. Yet it can be a challenge to be invested in Mason. I think it’s because sometimes he comes off as too moral, too optimistic while everyone around him is all doom and gloom. He spouts off analogies about history showing that invading forces are always repelled by indigenous populations but no one seems to take him seriously when he does that, not even histwo other sons. This doesn’t quite gel with the survivor mentality that pervades many of the show’s characters.

But in Falling Skies’ defense the characters are already becoming more fleshed out. Mason has shown a grittier side, and it appears that he probably projects this image for his children’s sake (though being that his youngest son already wants to join him on missions makes me wonder how successful Mason is, but I get the feeling that will be explored). Also, some of the other characters are beginning to stand out. Chiefly Moon Bloodgood’s Anne Glass, a pediatrician who becomes the group’s chief doctor and moral compass, Will Patton’s Captain Weaver, the no-nonsense commanding officer of the group who struggles to keep his people (and especially Mason) focused on the larger goal of winning the war, and Colin Cunningham’s John Pope, an ex-convict and former gang leader who was captured in the pilot for kidnapping Mason and others in exchange for weapons. In lots of ways, Pope comes off as a loose but effective cannon in the same vein as was Michael Ironside’s Ham Tyler in V.

The production values are remarkably good, effectively conveying a destroyed landscape that just barely resembles towns and cities. I also like the attention to local detail in regards to Boston’s geography which adds authenticity. The special effects are top notch and a blessing considering how poor they were in some recent TV shows.

It’s really great that the skitters are shown to be non-bipedal creatures, a rarity for TV shows, and are an excellent special effect. However, the mechanical soldiers that the skitters use look more like obvious CGI. Many scenes are too dark and sometimes hard to follow. But it does add to the tension that’s sometimes felt in those scenes. Perhaps it’s to hide the budgetary constrictions but hopefully this will change in the future.

On the whole, I think Falling Skies is a good, entertaining show with potential. The growing pains are obvious.  It doesn’t hit the ball out of the ballpark like The Walking Dead did but it feels like a solid score. At this point early into the series, making a final judgment is premature however I’m devoting time to keep watching and see how it plays out, and that’s a good sign.

J.L. Soto

Images courtesy of TNT, cast photo by Frank Ockenfels