Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ender Wiggin Will Save Us All

I am having some complicated feelings.

When some of my gay friends decided to keep eating Chik-Fil-A, I was outraged. "But it's so good," they said, and I rolled my eyes. They are giving money to a corporation who actively supports anti-gay hate groups. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s just chicken.

Now here comes the Ender’s Game movie. I won’t deny it: I went through an Orson Scott Card phase so intense that it rivaled my love of Stephen King for a few years. Ender’s Game was the start of all that. The first four books of the Ender series shifted my way of thinking about what heroism means, and how people are sometimes at the mercy of their compulsions, and how it was important to tolerate the parts of other cultures that seem weird to me. Yeah: Speaker for the Dead, the second book in the series, is specifically about being tolerant and accepting of other societies you don’t understand.

I read a lot of it. Lost Boys, Card’s only real horror novel at the time, gave me a glimpse into the world of Mormonism, and his depictions made it seem interesting and supportive (a view which grew when I read Ken Jennings’ Brainiac years later). I read Lovelock, the intermittently fantastic Homecoming saga, and the balls-out mindblowing Alvin Maker books. I read criticism about him. I formed opinions of his work. I loved him.

Then I read something in an obscure magazine that talked about his time in the theater. He said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I’m fine if my theater friends want to be gay. I don’t hate them, I just hate that they do that. Being gay and acting on it are different things.”

I was outraged. At the time, I was probably twenty. I went to Pride every year, and I told my friends who didn’t that they were betraying the community. Ellen had recently come out on TV. I’d been out since I was sixteen and I was still fired up about it. The early 1990s were a historically significant time to be gay. Things were shifting, and I was disappointed that one of my favorite writers wasn’t shifting with them. Of course, the accusation of homophobia had been labeled against my favorite human in the world, Stephen King, but there had been enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that King didn’t hate gay people at all. This was solidified when he moved the production of The Stand miniseries out of Colorado when they banned gay marriage; his daughter coming out likely had something to do with it.

Back on Card: from that point on, I was determined that I had to separate the art from the artist. I bought his books used. I had people dub me his audiobooks. Then came a book called Legends, which was comprised of novellas set in the worlds created by famous fantasy writers. There was a Pern story by Anne McCaffrey, a George R. R. Martin Game of Thrones story, a Stephen King Dark Tower story (which is why I bought it), and an Alvin Maker story, by Card. I read it … and was profoundly sad.

I could separate art from artist, but apparently Card couldn’t. In the middle of this fun story about Paul Bunyan, Alvin Maker literally makes a speech about why male/male sexuality is wrong. A speech. It’s out of context with the story and the character, and clearly feels like the author stopping the fiction to espouse his rhetoric. Shawn, my guy, later read further than I did in the Ender series, and told me the speeches didn’t stop there. He actually got so disgusted by one of them that he stopped reading Card, forever.

And so did I. I’ve tried to separate art from artist. I know there’s a more direct sequel to Ender’s Game out there, and as badly as I want to read it, I don’t want to suddenly find out that Ender Wiggin, who was a hero to me in my twenties, is behaving erratically because his author is fucking with him. Making things worse is that Card became something of a poster child for anti-gay marriage, speaking out about it publicly and vehemently. And when DOMA got shut down, he was a super sore loser about it.

There’s a lot of stuff at play here. I find that I’m able, in general, to continue to love a singular work of art, no matter what happens later. Sequels, prequels, adaptations, shifting perceptions, an author’s later output – none of it matters to me if I like the original work. You don’t retroactively hate Pulp Fiction because Death Proof wasn’t A+ work. No matter what happens in Doctor Sleep, I’m still going to think The Shining is one of the best books ever written.

But this is different. Right? Or, better: it has the potential to be different. Because it’s not just crappy work that hinges itself to better work. It’s the author discovering a political/sexual agenda, and then forcing his characters to support and voice that agenda. His nonfiction has mixed into the fiction, and that’s the problem I have. And when he goes back to writes stuff in the world of the fiction I love with this new agenda, that’s an even bigger problem. An awful movie adaptation can’t ruin the book on which it’s based. It can color your perceptions, but it can’t ruin the work. What Card started doing can ruin the work. And that sucks, because it’s still amazing work.

So. The movie. The movie I wanted to see more than anything else in my bleak year of 1994, when I was hungry a lot and lived in a rooming house where junkies and the elderly died. The Ender’s Game books buoyed me up during that time and made me happy at a time I desperately needed happiness. And I wanted to see that spectacle on the big screen. So bad.

The film’s distributors, Lionsgate, are doing everything to distance Card from the movie. They released a statement saying that they do not share Card’s views on gay marriage (or, as my friends refer to it, “marriage.”) Lionsgate touted recent movies they released that focused on gay-positive messages, and they’re doing a benefit premiere for the LGBT community. I know it’s all about marketing and saving face, but I still think it’s the right move. Some people have called what they’re doing “pandering,” but if they didn’t do anything, those same people would say they were supporting Card implicitly. I suppose the only way to “win” an argument like this is to just not have made the movie … but I’m glad they did.

Look, I’m going to the movie. I will try to sneak in or see it for free, but that’s going to be the extent of my political involvement. What I find weird and disturbing is that a lot of my friends who still frequent Chik-Fil-A are all up in arms over this film and telling me that my wanting to see it is a violation of my basic rights. What they’re saying is that directly handing money over to people who support hate groups is less offensive than seeing a movie that will eventually partially benefit a koo-koo writer who doesn’t like that I like dudes, and that the company making said movie is going out of their way to make sure they love the gays. It’s homophobia in both cases, and none of it’s good, but it’s also bad math.

I’m going to the movie because the book was a bright spot in a really bad time of my life. I’m going because the author betrayed me, but the book didn’t. I’m going because I want to see Harrison Ford be cool on screen again.

I’m going because it’s not chicken.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Don't Panic!

If there’s anything in your life that makes you fondly recall hauling redolent, rank bales of trash into huge subterranean dumpsters, scoop up that something and carry it in a bushel basket. During my second iteration as a B. Dalton employee – the one where I was an actual, contributing member of the staff and not just the guy who lazed around all day and paid fealty to the Stephen King section in the guise of organization – I was Trash Guy. Well, one of them. At least twice a week, it would be my duty to gather up all the trash and the recycling in the store and stack it in big canvas bins on wheels, and drag it down to the mall’s basement. Our dumpsters were near the ones for the food court, so my trips, especially in the summer, were accompanied by the mephitic aroma of bourbon chicken and tacos and sub meat all tossed together and rotting in the heat.

My saving grace was audiobooks. I’d discovered them on my first go-round working at the mall, where I held down three separate jobs because it was better than going home to the rooming house, what with all the junkies and old men dying and such. I had a Dashiell Hammett young adulthood, but instead of making the mistake of sleeping with incongruously hot dames, I made the mistake of sleeping with one of my stalkers. He had webbed toes and seven cats. I did a lot of living in my late teens.

Anyhow, my audiobook thing started because this was before I discovered Bruce Springsteen, and I needed something to occupy me on the bus to and from work. The bus ride was always long and always horrible and never came at opportune times, so I did my best to maximize my fun. I spent a lot of my time at the Quincy Public Library, and at some point I realized that there was an all new way to love Stephen King. So of course I jumped. I had a Walkman and with it, I could do anything. Except listen to CDs, but that was ok because they’d probably never make a portable CD player I could afford, right? Right? (1993, people. There wasn’t even an Internet yet.)

I went through my Stephen King trove pretty quickly, and then I went foraging. I know I listened to some Robert Parker. Then one afternoon, under the concerned gaze of the librarians who worried about how much time I spent there, I went alphabetical, and that’s where I found it. Adams. Douglas Adams. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Interestingly enough, this was not my first encounter with Hitchhiker’s Guide. Indeed, when I was young and disastrously poor, occasionally my Mom or my Dad would take us to visit their rich friends. Rich friends were those who could afford more than twenty videocassettes. (One of my aunts had laserdiscs. That was a level of rich I couldn’t even comprehend, like Margot on Punky Brewster.) One of the rich friends had a computer, and let me play with it. One of his games was Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and at the time (was I seven? Eight?) I couldn’t wrap my mind around text-based adventure games. A few years later, when Mulcahey Middle school introduced a computer class (!), I got reacquainted with my old nemesis. Amidst all the learning games like Odell Lake and Oregon Trail, I did my best to master Hitchhiker’s Guide. I generally got as far as learning the word “analgesic.”

Still, it was one of the first instances of recurrence in my life. I’m not sure if this happens to everyone, but occasionally, there are things in my life that seem to want to be noticed and appreciated. Stuff that seems interesting, but hangs out in the background until I’m ready to “discover” it. I went through several minor phases with comics until I met Shawn and he made me a convert. I liked a lot of Springsteen songs before I realized they were all by one guy. Stuff like that. In hindsight, patterns emerge. When I found that audiobook, my first thought was, “Wow, there’s a book, too?” I was young, guys.

I blasted through The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and Life, the Universe, and Everything in days. They were read by Douglas Adams himself, and I thought that was so cool. I tell people I’m not into British comedy, but this was evidence against that. I loved Adams’ wry way of reading, and I found myself laughing out loud at stuff about towels and whales and fjords. (Speaking of recurrence: I had a preschool teacher who was obsessed with sci-fi and fantasy; after I graduated to kindergarten, she and my Mom remained friends and she would come over sometimes and read the Narnia books to me. Sometimes, we’d go to her house, and I remember she had a stack of to-read books, and on the top was So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish. Patterns, seriously.)

In the days before Wikipedia, we got knowledge more slowly, so I didn’t even know there was a BBC miniseries for years. Maybe Tracey told me. Back then, she was nerdier than me, by which I mean she liked both Star Trek and Star Wars, and I was Trek only. She also had swords. Anyhow, by the time I found out about the miniseries, I was living in my studio apartment down the road from the rooming house, and I had an actual Blockbuster card. Things were pretty sweet by the time I turned 21. One of the coolest things about the miniseries was the cover of the actual Hitchhiker’s Guide, because it had the words “DON’T PANIC!” in large, friendly letters on the cover. I loved the font.

Recurrence: years later, I discovered that my friend Kenny – who is the master of most things uber-geeky – was deep, deep into Hitchhiker’s Guide. He furnished me with a track from the original radio series called “Marvin, I Love You.” It’s one of the best songs sung about or for a gloomy robot. I’m listening to it right now, and it’s just the best. It makes me miss Kenny, and happy that I know him.

The Internet exists now, of course, and of all the lunatic nerd-things that people get into, Hitchhiker’s Guide is one of the most pervasive. Of course, some of my other nerd interests are huge. I’m not sure that the Internet could exist without Star Trek, and Mario games are huge, and my love of MST3K is large enough and the fandom is niche enough for it to actually give me some nerd cred.

But Hitchhiker’s Guide? I mean, it’s geeky, it’s huge but small, and it’s British. I mean, this makes up for me not getting into Doctor Who, right? Maybe?

When I heard Kelly the Wonder Tattooer, a really hoopy frood, was coming back into town, I knew that I needed something nerdy. Not Disney nerdy, though because that’s not Kelly’s bag. He’d loved doing my Tom Servo, and he ... I remember him liking my Trek badge. And oh my God, was he all over my steampunk Dr Pepper. Hitchhiker’s Guide fit neatly into the camp of stuff I thought he’d like doing, but I absolutely did not want that planet with the tongue sticking out that’s on the covers of the books. (ImprovBoston’s old mascot, The Goon, also has a tongue sticking out, because that’s wacky! I got a giant leg piece of two fat, dead comedians just so I wouldn’t have to make The Goon my theater tattoo). Then it occurred to me: DON’T PANIC! Well, there’s a motto to live by. And a hidden “42,” because obviously.

I showed up today at noon and he positioned the stencil halfway between my Drive-By Truckers one (“It’s great to be alive” written beneath my Cooley bird) and my Tom Servo, a bridge between the profound and the highly geeky. I won’t go into the pain because it’s almost always the same: highs and lows and spikes of adrenaline. Shawn showed up right before and took videos and pictures and the whole thing was done in an hour. I have been assured that the letters are orange gradating into yellow, with some green highlights to make them pop. My colorblindness will prevent me from discerning all of that, because citrus colors are my weakness. Basically, I did this for y’all.

And now: maxin and relaxin at home for awhile, because when I exert on days I get tattoos, badness happens and I cry. Of course, I did just write a 1.5K essay about my love of a British novel that’s probably shorter than this, which is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike relaxing. If you’ll excuse me, I need to go shower and wash this thing off. Now, where did I put my towel?