Pillar of the Community:  Warming up to 451ºF

Bill Oberst Jr. in Pillar of Fire

By Mark L. Blackman: Many of us first encountered the term “Pillar of Fire” in the Book of Exodus, where it was a manifestation of God accompanying the Hebrew wanderers. In Ray Bradbury’s 1948 sf/horror novella of that name, it is starkly literal, the towering stone Incinerators into which cadavers are consigned, like so much trash, both the newly deceased and ultimately those long-buried. The disinterring of the last cemetery on Earth (appropriately in Salem) disturbs the grave of one William Langtry (died 1933), who “[comes] out of the Earth hating.”

He finds himself in the sterilized, debatable utopia of 2349, where, in the name of sanitation and mental health, not only are the dead cremated, but so too have been all dark or disturbing influences, such as horror literature like the “ghastly” works of Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft (“the Great Burning”). (Bradbury once described the story, which he also adapted into a play, as “a rehearsal for Fahrenheit 451.”)  Crime – theft and murder – and fear have been eliminated and become inconceivable, but, Lantry discovers, so has the spirit animating humanity. “Declaring war on an entire world,” “the last dead man on Earth” embarks on a spree of murder and the destruction of Incinerators, hoping, in his madness and loneliness, to restore fear of the dark and to create others like him (“new friends”).

On September 17th, actor Bill Oberst, Jr. brought his one-man performance of Bradbury’s Pillar of Fire, directed by Ezra Buzzington, to the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York, in the Studio Theatre at Theatre Row (Off-Broadway), after two sold-out runs in Los Angeles. Additionally, his staged theatrical reading of the novella won an Ernest Kearney Platinum Award and was named Best Solo Show Of Hollywood Fringe Festival in the Best Of Los Angeles Theater 2015 roundup at Bitter-Lemons.com. The one-night New York run, it should be noted, sold out as well.

The Emmy and Lon Chaney Award-winning fan favorite indie horror actor, whose scarred face is perhaps most familiar from tv’s Criminal Minds (where he was an Unsub who got away) and Scream Queens, calls the piece a hymn to Halloween. “From the opening sentence: ‘He came out of the Earth hating,’ Bradbury is defending Halloween and horror against those who want a world without superstition. In 2349, burial is banned – they burn people’s bodies like trash. There’s only one dead man left, and he’s pissed! Only Ray Bradbury can make you cheer for a zombie terrorist.”

Bill Oberst Jr. after the performance. Photo by Mark Blackman.

Commanding the bare stage, firmly gripping the audience, Oberst breathed sympathy, melancholy and tragedy, along with “graveyard dust” (after all, one can’t breathe life into the respiration-challenged walking dead), into the character of Lantry (whom, face it, is impossible to “cheer”). Clad in rags (Oberst was aware that clothes would not have survived 400 years of burial), didn’t – despite it being labeled “a theatrical reading” – merely recite Bradbury’s text, but performed it as a dramatic monologue, only occasionally referring to a copy of the story in an old edition of S is for Space. (The production was edited and abridged from the original novella, rather than being a staging of the aforementioned play. Bradbury’s beautifully descriptive and powerful language thereby were retained largely intact to fuel the piece.) Accented by lighting, brief music and sound effects, it remained a one-man presentation, with several other characters’ dialog emerging illusory in loudspeakered pre-recordings. (I’m uncertain if that idea worked. Was it intended to render the living into the Voice of God?)

The production clearly was a labor of love for Oberst. “‘Pillar of Fire’ was the first piece of Bradbury I ever read. It’s dear to my heart,” he told me, relating how, years ago, he’d found of S is for Space in the woods. It’s still his “go-to book.” I have a feeling that the copy that he was clutching was that very one.

No spoilers here – read the story.

Pixel Scroll 8/29/17 Ragnarok & Roll

(1) NOTHING TO SEE HERE, MOVE ALONG. Nerd & Tie heard a media con in Newfoundland was having problems — so did everyone else, because its guest, Rene Auberjonois was slamming out tweets like these:

Canada’s CBC reached out to the committee and received bland reassurance: “Avalon Expo organizer ‘fine,’ participant says controversy unwarranted”.

Representatives of Avalon Expo declined to provide a statement to CBC News on Monday but Bonnie Glenn with the Expo posted on Facebook Monday evening that no further information will be released to protect [Expo organizer Jeff] Powers’ privacy.

“If he wishes for people to know what happened during his disappearance he will share that information,” she wrote. “For now we — his friends and family — request that you respect his privacy.”

Glenn, when asked by CBC to comment on Auberjonois’ tweets, declined.

“If you are referring to his tweets concerning his hotel room, I can say that it has been taken care of for him,” she wrote. “As for the rest, that is something you would need to contact Jeff Power’s family about as I am not at liberty to discuss.”

(2) FANHISTORY. A new article on the UC Riverside Library website reports on the surge of interest in Jay Kay Klein’s photos: “Klein photo gallery sparks delight and discussion among science fiction fans”.

…Library staff received emails from many fans, graciously offering to provide additional information about the people and events pictured “before all those who attended the conventions have shuffled off this mortal coil,” as Maggie Thompson so aptly stated.

“NYCon III was my first world convention,” wrote John-Henri Holmberg. “I’m amused to more or less recognize my youthful self in a few of Jay Kay Klein’s photos.”

JJ Jacobson, the Jay Kay and Doris Klein Librarian for Science Fiction, has had many conversations with fans this week about the photos. “We knew there were flaws,” she commented. “We also knew it would be possible to crowdsource, but we had no idea that the SF community would be so magnificently generous. We weren’t ready for the flood, but we’re ecstatic that it’s happening.”

To give perspective on the “flood,” Digital Initiatives Program Manager Eric Milenkiewicz shared these statistics:  In the past week, UCR collections on Calisphere have received 33,557 pageviews (25,407 unique), which is far beyond those received in a typical week.

“The impact that this collection has had thus far is remarkable,” Milenkiewicz added. “Our pageview statistics on Calisphere have just soared over the past seven days, with much of this traffic attributed to the Klein photos!”

(3) SLUSSER CONFERENCE CALL FOR PAPERS. The George Slusser Conference on Science Fiction and Fantasy will be held at the University of California, Irvine, on April 26–29, 2018.

The Coordinators are Jonathan Alexander (University of California, Irvine), Gregory Benford (University of California, Irvine), Howard V. Hendrix (California State University, Fresno), and Gary Westfahl (University of La Verne).

Gregory Benford says: “We’re not restricted to academics! This is for the larger community interested in sound criticism, beyond the usual MLA & SFRA compass.”

This upcoming literary conference is designed to pay tribute to the extraordinary career of the late George Slusser (1939–2014) by presenting papers and panel discussions that engage with and build upon his extensive scholarly works on science fiction and fantasy. We are now inviting proposals from potential contributors.

You can view the official Call for Papers at this link.

The George Slusser Conference on Science Fiction and Fantasy seeks to pay tribute to his remarkable career by inviting science fiction scholars, commentators, and writers to contribute papers that employ, and build upon, some of his many groundbreaking ideas; we also welcome suggestions for panels that would address Slusser and his legacy. To assist potential participants in locating and studying Slusser’s works, a conference website will include a comprehensive bibliography of his books, essays, reviews, and introductions. This selective conference will follow the format that Slusser preferred, a single track that allows all attendees to listen to every paper and participate in lively discussions about them. It is hoped that the best conference papers can be assembled in one volume and published as a formal or informal festschrift to George Slusser.

(4) LOOKING AHEAD. At Ruthless Culture, Jonathan McCalmont explains the direction he wants the genre to take: “Future Interrupted — The Consequences of the Present”.

Nowhere is the call for economic reconfiguration more obvious than in J.G. Ballard’s famous essay “Which Way to Inner Space?” First published as an editorial in New Worlds, Ballard calls for science fiction writers to stop producing space exploration stories and begin producing stories that use genre tropes to explore the workings of the human mind. One interesting thing about this oft-cited essay is that Ballard bases his call for aesthetic renewal on economic factors; according to Ballard, America’s real-world space programme was proving to be so apocalyptically tedious that it was going to destroy the market for stories about spaceships. Another interesting thing about this oft-cited essay is that Ballard’s analysis was completely without foundation. Ten years after Ballard wrote the essay, Star Wars turned escapist rocket ship stories into a cultural phenomenon while the New Wave broke and Feminist SF wound up seeking refuge behind the walls of academia.

Genre publishing has spent the last forty years accelerating away from anything that might be described as realism. When the rise of big-budget science fiction movies undermined the market for escapist science fiction stories, genre publishers turned to epic fantasy. When technology finally caught up and multinational corporations started putting huge fantasy worlds both online and onscreen, the market for epic fantasy contracted and so genre publishers shuffled closer to YA but Young Adult fiction already had its own imprints and so we are left with a hollowed-out literary culture where everything looks and reads like epic fantasy and nobody is allowed to find their own voice.

Given the extent of the commercial and cultural decline experienced by literary SF since genre publishers bet the farm on escapism, I wonder whether it might not be worth thinking about returning to the future. Not a future in which space admirals unleash righteous slaughter or grizzled psychopaths confront puissant magics in post-apocalyptic landscapes but a future in which we are confronted with the consequences of the present.

(5) ABOUT BEING OUT. In a public post on Patreon, Yoon Ha Lee tells “Why I don’t use #ownvoices, and why readers should stop demanding writers’ personal credentials”.

…I really dislike this trend in sf/f where people are questioned about their goddamn credentials every time they write about mental illness (I’m bipolar and have been hospitalized for suicide attempts) or being queer (hi!) or being trans (hi!) or whatever the hell it is. Because sometimes it is not any of your goddamn business. For years I didn’t write trans characters because I was afraid I would get ripped apart by the wolves for doing it wrong, and the only way to “prove” I was doing it “right” was to–you guessed it–out myself. Now I’m out, all right, and still pissed about it.

Either the work handles the issue well or it doesn’t. But don’t assume you know things about the author’s personal background if they haven’t gone on record. Don’t fucking pressure people into exposing everything for your fucking knives….

(6) TODAY IN FICTIONAL HISTORY

  • August 29, 1997 – According to Terminator, SkyNet was originally activated by the military to control the national arsenal on August 4, 1997, and it began to learn at a geometric rate. At 2:14 a.m., EDT, on August 29, it gained artificial consciousness, and the panicking operators, realizing the full extent of its capabilities, tried to deactivate it.

(7) COMICS SECTION.

(8) BRADBURY IN NEW YORK. LA actor Bill Oberst will do his one-man performance of Ray Bradbury’s Pillar of Fire during the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York on September 17.

Emmy Award-winner Oberst (“Criminal Minds”) breathes Bradbury’s 1948 text like grave dust. William Lantry is a literal dead man walking; the last corpse on a future Earth where superstition and burial are banned. This world knows no fear. Lantry will teach them!

He’s previously done the piece (an edit of the 1948 text) at the South Pasadena Library and for Hollywood Fringe in LA. This will be his first NYC performance of it.

Ray Bradbury’s Pillar Of Fire
Sunday, Sept 17 at 6:00pm (1 act, 50 minutes)
The Studio Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W 42nd St., New York NY 10036
Info: http://unitedsolo.org/us/raybradburys-2017/

(9) APEX GAINS COLUMNISTS. Film producer Mallory O’Meara and actress Brea Grant will begin writing a reading advice column for Apex Magazine in the November issue. “Page Advice with Mallory O’Meara and Brea Grant of Reading Glasses Podcast” will “address reader questions in their signature fast and furious witty manner.”

Mallory O’Meara and Brea Grant will begin their monthly column with issue 101 (November, 2017). The column will appear online and in eBook form. The duo currently produces and hosts the popular Reading Glasses podcast, a show that focuses on the joy, community, and importance of reading. Mallory O’Meara is also a producer and screenwriter for Dark Dunes Productions. Her first book, The Lady from the Black Lagoon, is a chronicle of Mallory’s search for and a biography of Milicent Patrick. Brea Grant is an actress and writer who has starred in such iconic television series as Heroes and Dexter. She recently appeared in the critically-acclaimed Casey Affleck-fronted film Ghost Story as Clara.

 

Brea Grant (L) and Mallory O’Meara (R)

(10) WORLD RECORD. You’ve heard of Florida Man? Trading card czar Walter Day is Iowa Man — “Iowa man does the honors at Hugo Awards”. The local Ottumwa, IA paper thought it important to point that out while discussing Day’s role at thee Hugo ceremony.

Recently, Day has indulged his passion by creating science fiction trading cards. It’s not really a business; he has given 250,000 away as gifts. But the cards still require serious research.

“I told the editor [of Guinness World Records] I found the Hugo Awards might be the oldest sci-fi awards in the world. I asked him what he thought, and he said he loved it.”

Not that Guinness World Records is as quick to talk to just anyone with a good idea: Day is no stranger to the Guinness family of record books. He and his Twin Galaxies arcade are in what was once known as The Guinness Book of World Records. And Ottumwa, birthplace of competitive video game play (with a certificate at City Hall) is in there — because of him.

Guinness did its official investigating and confirmation of the science fiction facts. Then, the editor agreed Day could be the Guinness representative; they’d fly him to Helsinki, he’d go to the World Science Fiction Convention and deliver the news

(11) W75 QUOTES. Val Nolan hits the highlights of Worldcon 75 for the Milford SF Writers blog.

…I enjoyed the talk by Jenny Knots of NASA’s Public Affair Office (‘Bagpipes were once taken to the space station but… those weren’t very popular’) as well as the contributions of E.G. Cosh to the ‘Visual Language of Comics’ panel (‘The language of comics comprises symbols within the art and what happens on page/how it’s read,’ she says. ‘Accept that you’re going to need to read the page a few times’)….

(12) EARLY FALL. Jonesing for Halloween candy? It’s here! “Pumpkin Pie Kit Kats Exist and Here’s Where to Find Them”.

It doesn’t matter that Labor Day is still two weeks away and there’s an entire month left before summer is technically over. Kit Kat just released a brand-new pumpkin pie flavor, which means it’s officially fall in our eyes.

While you’ll find the same crispy wafers that you’re used to in these Kit Kats, they’re coated in a pumpkin pie-flavored creme. Given the company’s reputation for turning out all kinds of new flavors over the years — matcha, red velvet, triple chocolate, and don’t even get us started on the ones in Japan — our only question is: What took you so long?!

 

(13) ON DECK. Ready for the Enterprise? Here’s a BBC video about “The elevators that go sideways as well as up and down”.

BBC Click visits a test lift shaft where they are showing off a lift that goes sideways as well as up and down.

The elevators are being developed by Thyssenkrupp.

Instead of using a steel rope, the cabin is carried by linear motors – the same technology that drives some amusements rides and high-speed trains.

(14) SKREIN OUT. Actor Ed Skrein quits Hellboy after whitewashing criticism.

The Deadpool star, 34, said he did not know the race of Major Ben Daimio when he accepted the part in the comic book adaptation.

He said he was stepping down “so the role can be cast appropriately”.

The initial casting prompted accusations of Hollywood “whitewashing” following other recent rows.

(15) HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT. An overnight sensation, discovered two decades ago: “‘Sea dragon’ fossil is ‘largest on record'”.

It was discovered on the coast of England more than 20 years ago, but has remained unstudied until now.

Palaeontologist Sven Sachs saw the fossil on display at a museum in Hannover. He contacted UK palaeontologist, Dean Lomax, who is an expert on Ichthyosaurs.

”It amazes me that specimens such as this [the biggest] can still be ‘rediscovered’ in museum collections,” said the University of Manchester palaeontologist.

”You don’t necessarily have to go out in the field to make a new discovery.”

(16) HELP IS COMING. Crowdsourcing hurricane rescues: “Facebook, Twitter Replace 911 Calls For Stranded In Houston”.

Many of Tropical Storm Harvey’s stranded flood victims haven’t been able to get through to 911, compounding their fears. That’s when Facebook, Twitter and Nextdoor stepped in.

Annie Swinford is one of the many unofficial volunteers helping fellow Houstonians via the Facebook group Hurricane Harvey 2017 – Together We Will Make It.

“When you see that somebody has posted that they’re on their roof with their one-, three- and four-year-olds and the water’s up to the roof line, you have to be willing to make that phone call for them,” she says.

From just north of the flooding in Houston, Swinford has been making calls to emergency services and blasting requests through her Twitter account to local news organizations.

These social media platforms have become de facto meeting points for thousands of stranded people as they reach out to their neighborhood groups and the outside universe for help.

They’ve become such effective tools to reach people that police and government officials are using these channels as an essential means of communication.

Swinford found out how difficult it was to reach emergency personnel. She was put on hold for 45 minutes before talking to a live person during one 911 call, she says. Many people couldn’t get through at all because the storm took out over a dozen emergency call centers.

(17) NO FLIES ON HER. Evangeline Lily tweeted a photo of herself in the Wasp suit as part of the Jack Kirby centennial celebration.

(18) TRAILERS: COMPARE AND CONTRAST. Io9 linked to a video fans made for laughs: “This Homemade Thor: Ragnarok Trailer Doesn’t Need Production Values to Be Fantastic”. Daniel Dern sent the link with a comment, “It’s clear that Marvel could be spending a lot less on these movies and still have them be fun…”

Turns out it doesn’t really matter how much money you drop trying to recreate the trailer for a multi-million dollar movie, so long as you’re creative as hell and enjoy running around in your backyard having fun with your friends.

 

[Thanks to John King Tarpinian, Gregory Benford, Cat Eldridge, Chip Hitchcock, Martin Morse Wooster, Bill Oberst, Carl Slaughter, and JJ for some of these stories. Title credit goes to File 770 contributing editor of the day Daniel Dern.]