First, cover art for my next collection of essais, Style is the Rocket:
Featuring the title piece and a Bunch of Other Cool Stuff.
First, cover art for my next collection of essais, Style is the Rocket:
Featuring the title piece and a Bunch of Other Cool Stuff.
H. Smiggy McStudge returns from sabbatical with another load of notorious codswallop. All the usual disclaimers apply, and possibly some unusual ones, too.
Fortunately the chairman squashed him like a beetle, but not as convincingly, perhaps, as I would have done. His objection was that whatever we might do for the grand cause of preventing historical knowledge among the humans, that in no way made us a society. Abhorrent word! It still stinks of its own etymology; for the Latin language, in which (as some of you poppets may have omitted to learn) socius means ally, is not yet as dead as we should like. Allies! Faugh! Society means cooperation; means mutual benefit; means, if anything at all, a voluntary gathering of people in pursuit of some common good. The Historical Branch does not exist for anybody’s good, except in so far as we all benefit from wreaking harm upon the humans. An army in battle is not a society, and nor is a plague of locusts. So spake the chairman; and they were sound enough remarks, but wide of the point.
The point, you see, is that our committee actually is there to prevent historical knowledge; and the worst way to go about it is to say so. Back at home in the Cultural Division, we have worked main hard for many years to infect the humans with a visceral loathing and contempt for the obvious; but even a human can take a hint, sometimes, when it is dropped on his skull in the form of an anvil. In the last century, the Communist Party U.S.A. (which learnt so much from us in methods and philosophy) operated numerous front groups in order to infiltrate and control liberal organizations. These front groups had names like ‘Patriotic Americans for a Brighter Tomorrow’. They were not called ‘Bolshevik Bastards with Bombs’. That much truth in advertising they dared not risk; nor should we.
That issue having been expertly mishandled, we returned to the subject of the meeting: how to destroy the various social sciences by contaminating them with each other’s methods. We have achieved great and lasting success by teaching silly historians to apply the techniques of anthropology to their own field. Anthropology is an inherently bogus field to begin with, for the proper study of mankind is anything but man. Man, if such an insect deserves to be studied at all, is the proper study of us McStudges, who have the proper critical distance to be objective about it. Even a human anthropologist can be right sometimes; or wrong in an interesting direction. But if we can once get a social scientist to work on solid historical evidence in the same vague and woolly way that he works on folkways and tribal tales, we can be sure that the result will be neither good anthropology nor good history. Motor oil is good for lubricating engines, and wine is good for lubricating souls; a mixture of the two is good for nothing. That is the principle that we follow, and it works beautifully as long as the humans never figure out what we are actually making them do.
I have before me a book not intended for scholarly consumption, but written by an ostensible scholar (a worm named Cavendish) to give gullible laymen the idea that they are reading a valuable summary of scientific findings. It is called Legends of the World. So far as this goes, it does us little good. Legends are harmless enough; a human can consume several tons of the things without any apparent ill effect. Where the Historical Branch goes to work is in smudging the border between legend and history: a harmful thing for the humans, and therefore very profitable for us. [Read more...]
Sarah Dimento, our Esteemed Cover Artist, offers some thoughts on her trade:
And in a heroic attempt to rid the world of generic-ass titles in the form ___ of ___:
Generate your own stupid fantasy title! Use at your own risk! Yes, you too can come up with classic titles at the touch of a button. Titles like:
Revenge of the Forbidden
Wizards of Evil
Evil of Wizards
Evil of Evil
and the ever-popular Arthurian saga:
Nightmare of the Round Table
Which ought to be the name of a book about a zombie King Arthur. Alas, there is a book (or at least a comic) that appears to be about a zombie King Arthur, or at any rate a zombie-killing King Arthur. It’s called Dead Future King, which is clearly the Wrong Title, because it has not got an of in it.
I’m just stopping in to let the Loyal 3.6 know that I am still alive and (approximately) functioning, but I have been submerged in a wallow of trashy pop culture whilst waiting for my brain to return from going walkabout.
Thanks to all who spoke up in favour of my M*A*S*H pieces; I shall continue the series, and have the next instalment in drydock, waiting for the hull to be put on. This language may possibly be figurative. At present my shipyard has three or four unfinished essais, also including a new piece by H. Smiggy McStudge, and some all-new content to put in the Style is the Rocket collection, in a mean and scurvy attempt to part you all from three of your hard-earned dollars. My resident mathematical genius informs me that $3 × 3.6 = $10.80 or thereabouts, and I plan to squander this ill-gotten fortune upon riotous living. I may buy a pizza.
However, those pieces remain unfinished at present, because I took them up to the point where I required my brain to put in some work, and it was off doing Crocodile Dundee stuff somewhere in Western Australia. When last heard from, it was lounging about in the Pilbara, contemplating the ancient rock formations. Over three billion years ago, Pilbara was joined up with a chunk of what is now South Africa to form a primaeval continent which the geologists call Vaalbara; the oldest stone yet dated in the Earth’s crust, so I am told, is a chunk of sandstone from Vaalbara nearly four billion years old. Since sandstone is sedimentary, this rock formation was made up of the eroded rubble from still older Vaalbaran rocks – which takes you impressively close to the origins of the Earth itself. It is soothing and reassuring, at my brain’s age, to keep company with things even older than oneself.
Needless to say, I myself have never been to the Pilbara. My brain is ashamed of me and never takes me anywhere.
So I stayed behind, as I have said, wallowing in pop culture. I mentioned a while back that John Williams wrote the incidental music for both Star Wars and Gilligan’s Island; and I have come to the important conclusion that both these works are, in fact, the same story – if you squint at them just right. Five passengers and a crew of two board a rickety old vessel and set sail on what is supposed to be a short and routine voyage, whereupon everything imaginable goes wrong. It is true that the five passengers were never aboard the Millennium Falcon simultaneously; this is one of the ways in which George Lucas filed the serial numbers off of his sources. But once you have made the basic identification (as the folklorists would say), the rest becomes clear. Consider: [Read more...]
I confess that I am unsure whether I should continue my posts on M*A*S*H, or whether I should just keep my notes to myself and take the existing posts private.
On the one hand, I seem to have found the perfect method for making my 3.6 Loyal Readers’ eyes glaze over. I certainly don’t mean to be boring, and it always dismays me when I succeed.
On the other hand, while I don’t know what constitutes a quorum of 3.6 Loyal Readers according to correct parliamentary procedure, I do know that a quorum of one writer is… one writer. So I might just take the attitude of the apazine editor quoted by Frederik Pohl in The Way the Future Was:
‘Wow, gang, you really slammed the last ish, but wotthehell, we’ll keep plugging.’
Your comments are important to me, even if you have nothing more to say than ‘I read this and it was OK’. They help me decide what is worth writing more of and what isn’t, and when they dry up, I find myself rather at sea.
And now, as a service to the writing public, a quick lesson from Scott Meyer:
In the 1970s, American TV networks still jealously guarded their right (honoured by time but by nobody else) to broadcast episodes of shows in whatever order they pleased. Sometimes show-runners used this tradition in their own favour, working with the network to reserve a show already in the can and run it at a more dramatically appropriate time in the season. ‘Henry, Please Come Home’, though the second episode of M*A*S*H to be filmed, was the ninth one broadcast. This gave the characters time to establish themselves with the viewing public, and increased the surprise when Frank Burns was abruptly put in command of the 4077th.
Next, the M*A*S*H crew turned out several run-of-the-mill sitcom episodes. Hawkeye taps Frank for a pint of blood in his sleep; Hawkeye and Trapper trade Henry’s antique desk on the black market for medical supplies; Hawkeye does a hammy turn as a private eye. These stories could just as well have taken place in any of the old-fashioned military comedies that M*A*S*H was supposed to be in such strong reaction against: Sgt. Bilko, Gomer Pyle, Petticoat Junction. Only the recurring O.R. scenes reminded us that the war was going on and people were dying. It is said that Alan Alda’s contract required at least one O.R. scene in every episode. He had been reluctant to sign on (though CBS had made him their first and only choice for the role of Hawkeye), because he feared that the show would inevitably devolve into yet another routine sitcom about hijinks in the service. It nearly happened. A march to the rear was called for: M*A*S*H needed to reconnect with its roots.
Larry Gelbart achieved this in fine style with another script adapted from an incident in the novel (and the film): ‘Chief Surgeon Who?’ The intervening episodes had allowed the actors to settle into their roles; now, for the first time, we see the structure of the cast – the three double acts – in full bloom. This episode marks several important milestones for the series all at once. Hawkeye definitely takes over as the lead character, giving the lie to the original idea that this was to be a show with an ensemble cast. The writers say their final farewell to MASH, the novel: this is the last script drawn from Richard Hooker’s book, except for a single scene five years later. It also marks the first appearance of a breakout character, later to become the first series regular not taken from the book or movie: the unforgettable Maxwell Q. Klinger.
For all these reasons, ‘Chief Surgeon Who?’ is worth studying in detail. [Read more...]
A question to pursue and ponder:
If you wrote the thrilling saga of the Hunting of the Cookie Monster, would the point of view be om-nom-nom-niscient?
‘M*A*S*H: The Pilot’ had a successful screening, and the show was duly picked up by CBS for the 1972–73 season. When the cast and crew reconvened to begin filming the first season proper, they began with an establishing script, ‘Henry, Please Come Home’, written by Laurence Marks. Marks was an old hand at comedy writing: he and Larry Gelbart had worked together on scripts for Jack Paar and Bob Hope in the 1940s. Among many other credits, Marks went on to write no less than 68 episodes of Hogan’s Heroes. He would eventually receive a writing credit on 28 M*A*S*H scripts, second only to Gelbart himself.
‘Henry, Please Come Home’ laid important groundwork for the series. It was the first of several episodes to put Frank Burns in temporary command of the 4077th, fuelling and justifying the long feud between him and the other Swampmen. At ordinary times, Pierce and McIntyre took no notice of Burns’s superior rank, and noticed Burns himself only to insult him, abuse him, heckle him, and (on one memorable occasion) crate him to be shipped out of the country. As cartoonish as Burns was, this was a heavy weight of misbehaviour for the official Good Guys of the series to bear. Gelbart and his writing staff made amply certain that Burns’s actions as temporary C.O. fully justified the Swampmen’s retaliation. He gave as bad as he got. On this particular occasion, one of his first actions is to have an M.P. confiscate Hawkeye and Trapper’s distillery at gunpoint. This drives the other surgeons (still including ‘Spearchucker’ Jones at this point) to the brink of insurrection.
I reconstruct the relevant bits of the script, going by the finished episode. (My apologies for the formatting: HTML was not designed to display screenplays.) This is not only good television writing, and good comedy writing; it is good writing, period, and displays a number of techniques useful even to those of us who write solely for print. I shall go into those a bit later. Meanwhile, the script, from the point at which the surgeons rebel:
Gentlemen, that man has got to go. It’s either him or us. That’s final.
How we gonna do it? Shoot him?
No, no! We gotta think this over. We have to give it careful, considered, intelligent thought.
Then we’ll shoot him, stab him, or poison him!
My own serial in (occasional) progress, which I depreciatingly call ‘the Orchard of Dis-Pear’ and hope to resume work on some time soon, was actually inspired partly by my revisiting of M*A*S*H. It was the idea of the three double acts that sired Where Angels Die upon my imagination; though my serial will have, I imagine, nothing like the felicity and depth of humour that M*A*S*H had. We cannot all be Larry Gelbart, but we can at least be ourselves.
In Where Angels Die, the three double acts are (1) the two paladin/exorcists, Revel and the Badger; (2) Baron Vail and his steward Greyhand; (3) the chief Paladin and Angel at Angel Keep, Master Herison and Lady Swan, whom you have not yet met. They bear some resemblance to the duos of Hawkeye–Trapper, Col. Blake–Radar, and Frank–Hot Lips, but of course their stories, and the kind of stories to be written about them, are quite different.
In other news, when I simply cannot brain at all, I have occasionally been reduced to watching an episode of Gilligan’s Island: after which the grey matter rebels, and insists upon either functioning or going to sleep – either of which is an improvement. Gilligan is every bit as stupid as I recall from my childhood; it is deliberately stupid, but endearingly stupid, an art form that has since been lost and may well remain so. I could say that Gilligan’s Island is the dumb blonde of American sitcoms. However, it has redeeming points – chiefly in the fine comic performances of the actors, above all Bob Denver and Jim Backus – and two areas of genuine excellence. For one, it was a fertile vehicle for parody; in its three-year run, the show did sendups of every genre of film and popular fiction under the sun, from Westerns and monster movies to Hamlet and The Count of Monte Cristo. For another, the incidental music was far superior to the show itself; it was only on this latest revisit that I fully appreciated just how good the score was (excluding the idiotic theme song, which was composed by another hand). From the credits, I discovered that the score was written by an up-and-coming young composer named Johnny Williams.
Yes, that John Williams. This may be old news to everybody else, but my mind was sufficiently boggled; and somehow I find myself fonder of Williams than I was before.