Thursday, April 30, 2009

Star Wars Deserves A High Place In Science Fiction

Keith Olexa, whose LinkedIn profile says he’s a Managing Editor and Contributing Writer at Starlog. He started a discussion on the Science Fiction readers, writers, and collectors Group. The below is my long winded answer to what he called “a saucy send up.”

A saucy send up: STAR WARS is the farthest thing from Science Fiction...

... and IMHO, has been the most damaging influence on the genre... agree? disagree? Discuss.

And here is my answer:

Star Wars Deserves A High Place In Science Fiction
by Lon S. Cohen

Seems that the bigger a franchise becomes the harder or less reluctant fans and writers are to bring it into our little ghetto of a genre. We Science Fiction fans are a fickle bunch. We bristle at any perceived criticism of our beloved worlds. We try to make geekism an exclusive club only open to those who truly get it. If there is anything that we fans have in common with religion it’s that we’re fanatical in our beliefs sometimes to the point of extremism. The masses don’t truly understand that Science Fiction is not just about laser swords and ray guns and flying rockets. It’s about possibilities and the human condition. What will or might be.

But you have to admit, it’s really cool if it also has an evil sentient computer thrown into the mix, right?

So where does Star Wars fit in? Both vilified and glorified, this little film that almost didn’t get made starts a lot of fights around fandom. In my opinion, Star Wars is Space Opera. It spans an entire galaxy, bringing us to worlds chock full of furry, scaly creatures with any number of eyes, limbs and skin tints. There’s good versus evil. We have all the elements of the classic tales from Sword and Sorcery to Westerns. The characters are archetypical and the themes are grandiose. It has become a behemoth franchise at the box office. Coming on the heels of Jaws it didn’t invent the summer blockbuster so much as put a definition to it. It has become the model for almost every whiz-bang popcorn flick since the year of our Lord, nineteen hundred seventy-seven. It has invaded the culture, the language and even the politics of everyday life. For this reason people tend to want to tamp down its importance, pushing it out of the Science Fiction realm.

Here’s why: Star Wars is dumb.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a true Star Wars geek. I have all the figures stashed away. I can probably recite every line from both the original trilogy as well as the much-maligned prequels. Like every other fanboy, I expected the second coming when Episode I came out and when I didn’t get it I made up excuses why it was going to one day be justified as a true work of genius. Yes. I know I’m wrong. And I don’t care.

Because the reason we fans love Star Wars is not because it’s smart. Not because it says something about mankind and our place in the universe. It doesn’t even pretend to be speculative. We love Star Wars because it’s cool. The themes are simplistic, easy to grasp and uplifting. The story is trite and pedestrian but it’s wrapped in a really rich universe. The characters are sexy, familiar and dangerous. The designs are complex and exciting yet functional. The sounds are bold, exotic and inspiring. The milieu of Star Wars appeals to a wide swath of the public. But in the end, it is not overtly intelligent.

Have you ever sat down to learn the origin myths of some foreign culture and been utterly floored by their simplicity and seeming lack of originality? The world is held on the back of a turtle and was germinated by a woman who fell from the sky in the religion of natives from the northeastern portion of the Americas. God got mad at people so he instructed Noah to build an ark to save two of every animal. This is not high literature worthy of the Nebula, the Pulitzer or even the Mann Booker. These are not stories that strike us as particularly deep or telling of man’s nature. Yet they endured through the centuries, even the millennia. Why? Because they tell a simple story, one that many people can imagine and take something away from without investing too much mental capacity. They are direct and to the point. Does this make them good? Not necessarily. Are they important? Absolutely. Why? Because the people have held onto these stories for a reason. They are simple and they speak to a simple childlike part of our soul.

This is something of what Joseph Campbell was getting at when he wrote his book on comparative mythology, “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.” A simply told tale that speaks to the deepest part of our psyche will always grab the attention of the masses and has throughout time if you look at the myths developed in cultures around the world. It also explains why Star Wars is an important and worthy contribution to Science Fiction.

That is what storytelling is all about. It occurs in every genre. Star Wars has not damaged Science Fiction. Some will always see Star Wars as a screen that hides the true nature and richness of Science Fiction. Because this is what people who don’t like Science Fiction hold up as an example of the generic Science Fiction story. Star Wars has been accused of perpetrating the stereotype of the outsider’s view of SciFi. It has all the elements after all: Lasers, robots, aliens and space travel. But what some people don’t understand is the inclusiveness of the broader genre.

Some people love classic Science Fiction but hate the hard stuff. Others like a good near future tale while others want a story set as far away from planet earth as the universe will allow. What Star Wars does well is resurrect the classic elements of SciFi from days gone by. It is, dare I say, homage to the golden years when pulps and movie reels featured the space explorer du jour for the young ones. (The oft-told tale is that George Lucas wanted to remake the story of Flash Gordon for the screen but stymied by the copyright sought to make his own version. A few years later we ended up with a version featuring a Queen soundtrack—though that’s a story for another day.) Many of those young ones become inspired by these broadly painted themes. With an education in basic plotting, character development and wonder, they are free to take their own Science Fiction story making to the next level.

So the answer to the question of whether Star Wars has been the most damaging influence on Science Fiction is no, it is not. I make my case that it is more likely the inspiration for a whole generation of Science Fiction stories of high quality. Star Wars is also firmly in the realm of the Science Fiction genre.

And anyone who says different is probably a Trekkie. IMHO. ;)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Heroes of Hopelessness

I remember Hugh Downs as the former anchor of the ABC news program 20/20. In fact as I say his name in my head I can hear his deep voice announcing that he is Hugh Downs and telling me and the rest of America what was coming up on the program that night. The Museum of Broadcast Communications says this about Downs on its website:

Hugh Downs, a venerable and extremely affable television host, is known for telegraphing intelligence, patience, and decency. The Guinness Book of World Records reports that Downs, among the most familiar figures in the history of the medium, has clocked more hours on television (10,347 through May of 1994) than any other person in U.S. TV history.

He had one of those comforting anchorman voices that America relied upon in the early days of broadcasting, the ones that morphed over the years from genuine to the mock tones of Troy McClure from the Simpsons.

So this is why, when the “TV producer” from a show called Heroes of Hope appeared on my voice mail yesterday morning, telling me that he wanted to speak with my organization about people who make a difference for a documentary that has been featured on some major broadcast channels (he says Public Television and CNN) I was a little excited.

I’m a pessimist. At least that’s what my wife tells me. Whenever our 6-year old son starts exhibiting the same traits as dear old Dad, I laugh and she rolls her eyes in recognition of his future self—very similar to the person she married. I pride myself on my pessimist, which I lovingly correct my wife as “cynicism.” It’s similar to pessimism. It’s in the same family, but they’re not exactly the same. Let’s call them cousins.

At a time like this, my cynicism kicks into high gear. First, I’ve never heard of the program, “Heroes of Hope.” So I hit the Google search bar in Firefox. I get a slew of results but none of them look right. Listening to the message again, I jot down the correct url from the voice mail. A Flash based site comes up. It’s a little vague and some of the language on the description makes me even more cynical. The language talks about donors and marketing. Things you don’t expect to see on a documentary series homepage. Then there’s the fact that I see no direct links to any public television stations that have run the documentaries. In fact, I’m curious of the fact that no public television websites came up with urls for this supposedly fabulous series staring the legendary Hugh Downs and his buttery voice.

I check out their press release. In the “About Heroes of Hope” section they describe themselves as such:

Heroes of Hope is a series on the leading edge of documentary television industry distributed to Public Television nation-wide and is hosted by Mr. Hugh Downs. Utilizing global media outlets and distribution, Heroes of Hope reaches around the globe with stories that are documentary styled, and relevant to specific industries and organizations that are looking for educational information.

The website and this press release reads like a jargon laden sales pitch meant to impress but saying very little. They say “Heroes of Hope is a series on the leading edge of documentary television industry distributed to Public Television nation-wide” but no search results brought up any programming on ANY public television whatsoever. Not PBS not NPR not anything. No reviews, no references from outside sources, nothing but a list of press releases and a few blog entries. My BS antennae are way up now.

I decide to try one other route and look up Hugh Downs. I take Wikipedia entries with a huge grain of salt (cynic over here, remember) but in general I find that they’re extremely useful and mostly accurate. I triple verify everything I find on there and find the references and links to outside webpages immensely useful. Hugh Downs’ Wikipedia entry is pretty comprehensive. It also includes this tidbit:

Downs has made a cameo appearance on Family Guy.

Hey, that’s cool. I love Family Guy. But old establishment MSM guys on a hip cartoon series smacks a little of desperation. Perhaps he’s in need of extra cash? He probably spent all his MSM dough on scotch and betting the ponies. Or he was a big Madoff investor? Who knows?

Wikipedia goes on to explain:

Downs can currently be seen in infomercials for and another one for a personal coach. He did an infomercial for Where There's a Will There's an A in 2003. His infomercial work since then has aroused some controversy, with many arguing the products are scams.[1] As of the summer of 2008, Downs can also be seen in regional public service announcements in Arizona, where he currently lives, for that state's motor vehicles division, as well as in many Public TV short form programs as the Host of educational interstitials.[2]

OK. That’s very suspicious. He’s retired but he still wants work. Some guy gets in touch with him after seeing his infomercial work with a get-in-on-the-ground-floor proposition. I can hear the elevator pitch in my head as some guy tries to sell Downs on the idea of using his fame and reputation to sell charities on very highly produced documentaries about their causes. They can then buy time and broadcast the documentaries on major network for one low fee. You can see how charities would love to get this kind of exposure and professional video work done for them, especially with the super famous and sufficiently vanilla Hugh Downs as a backer.

It’s leaning toward a total scam but vague enough that I’m still not sure. Nobody wants to tell his boss not to take a phone call when the potential upside is huge if it’s legit. I go to my secondary source and most reliable resource, Twitter.

@obilon: Anyone ever hear of "Heroes of Hope" hosted by Hugh Downs? What is this about? I can't tell if it's legit or not? Anyone? Thx.

Immediately I got two very good responses:

@bonnerj: I'm not familiar with Heroes of Hope, but it sounds like "pay for play." I'd stay away. More here:

@angelb123: If it's similiar to group that approached me once (program also hosted by Hugh Downs), then not legit. Will ask you for tons of $.

@angelb123: NYT article about the operation here: Be very careful.

The two articles revealed to me without a doubt that this was a scam operation.

Now, selling a charity the ability to produce a documentary about their cause is not in and of itself a scam. There are many, may production companies out there that will do a high quality job of filming a story about your organization for a variety of uses, including for your website, presentations and mailers to potential donors and many other venues. It’s a legitimate business, I’m sure.

But the way “Heroes of Hope” was first presented to my organization and how the production company’s website positions itself as a legitimate media source rather than a pay service is blatant enough that I’m calling BS here. The phone call I received was vague and misleading. I first thought that I was being contacted by a legitimate production company for a news organization.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

It Ain't Easy Being Green, But It's Worth It!

By Lon S. Cohen

This post originally ran in my "Ask Dad" column in Long Island Pulse Magazine's April 2008 issue. It has been edited slightly for a wider audience.

While environmental issues have been talked about ad nauseam since Senator Gaylord Nelson put them squarely onto the nation’s conscious with the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, popular commentary such as Al Gore’s, A Inconvenient Truth, show that we still have a long way to go.

So what’s a parent to do in a world succumbing to the effects of a disastrous global policy toward the earth? Is anything going to work in the face of such a monstrous tidal wave of environmental doom and gloom? Perhaps there are a few strategies we can employ with our kids.

Tu B'Shevat is called the “New Year for trees” in Judaism. It’s frequently used as an opportunity to teach children about the environment by planting a new tree or learning about fruits. Think: Jewish Arbor Day. Religion instills a sense of stewardship over the earth as protectors of God’s creation. If you are raising your child with any religious affinity, try to put environmental lessons in there for good measure.

Expose children to nature, firsthand. Take them out to see what this world has to offer in the way of natural preserves and wilderness; believe it or not, there’s still a lot left around here. Better yet, plan a camping trip with the kids and tech them to live with nature at the basic level. There are plenty of campsites with direct access to woodland trails, waterways, and animals in their natural habitat.

Instruct and inform children on how to be a better environmental citizen. Start by not littering. Even a flick of used chewing gum amounts to wastefulness. Teach that on a personal level it’s a small effort to live by the three R’s of environmentalism and it can go a long way over time.

Lead by example. There are plenty of ways to do this, but here’s one tip: Use eBay. My friend buys lots of good quality toys for her kids from eBay. Not only does it reuse items that might end up in the trash, it reduces the amount of waste because the toy has already gone through the wasteful packaging cycle. And who doesn’t hate opening those little plastic twisty-tie things anyway? Even better, why not consider opening an eBay store yourself to recycle the toys your kids are finished with, instead of throwing them in the trash.

It ain’t easy being Green, but it’s worth it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

My Social Media Grandpa

My grandpa is now on Facebook.

Let me explain who my grandfather is. He’s a World War II veteran. He plays the horses at the track. He used to be a cab driver in Queens. He’s the biggest Yankee fan you’ve ever seen and has been around for almost every championship they ever played. He taught me how to throw a baseball. He is retired and lives with my grandma in Fort Lauderdale.

He’s also 87 years old.

And, he has a Facebook profile.

Which he uses.

Almost every day.

He is not your typical Facebook demographic. Whenever I overhear conversation between people who still think Facebook is for young people who understand all that computer stuff, I laugh, thinking of an octogenarian in South Florida sitting in his little air-conditioned condo at his laptop messing around with his profile picture.

He’s not a pro. He still uses his status updates to talk to specific individuals like my cousin or my mother. (Yes, my mother is also on Facebook, which brings up a whole slew of Jewish cyber-guilt jokes.) He hasn’t figured out quite how to share links or photos. He’s also not joining any groups or causes anytime soon. But he’s staked his ground. He’s a member.

To my delight, my family has been flocking to Facebook as a means of communication that is quickly replacing many other forms of online sharing. I used to upload the kids pictures to Snapfish so everyone can view their birthday parties. Now they go to Facebook. I used to play games with them on Pogo. Now we play Scrabble on Facebook. I used to email them all the time. Now I post messages to their Wall on Facebook. I used to use AIM to chat with my siblings, now… Yep, Facebook. I used to send evites… Facebook Events Calendar. I used to send links to interesting articles and websites. Facebook.

Many of the things I used to do in a multitude of other applications and website have been replaced by Facebook. Why? It’s much easier, simpler and less time consuming. Besides, everyone is on Facebook. Even grandpa.

You can look at it two ways. One, is that Facebook has become uncool. It’s too big. Like Yogi Berra once said, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” Or you can look at it another way. Facebook has replaced my phone book plus email, plus photo sharing, plus chat, etc. It’s a necessary and welcome utility. Imagine, all those years I tried to get people to give up the walled garden of AOL because they were missing out on the bigger world wide web and now all I want to do is corral them all back behind another even more restrictive one.

I for one am glad grandpa is on Facebook. It started out as a bit of a joke. “We have to get grandpa on Facebook,” we’d say. “He’d like it.” But once he was there, it immediately made sense. And despite the fact that he still types in comments in a conversational tone to photos, not knowing millions of people can see it even though he’s asking a particular person who may or may not have a Facebook account a question, he’s doing very well navigating his way around the site.

We think that he may be the oldest active user of Facebook but we’re not sure. All I know is that for me, Facebook has become a better place. With one more person with whom I can share my family pictures and who really, really cares about my status updates like only my grandpa can care.

Image: My grandpa back in the day.