Daily Archives: March 3, 2010

Oscar and Me

Because the Oscars are coming up, I dug out of the archives this story I wrote for the Washington Post about ten years ago, about when I borrowed my friend’s Oscar statuette. Enjoy.

Oscar and Me

Some time ago, I needed an Oscar — (Why? Does it matter? If you thought you could legally get hold of an Academy Award, wouldn’t you? Now, then) — and as it happened, I knew where to find one. My friend Pam Wallace had picked one up for writing a little film called “Witness.” I asked if I might borrow it. Sure, she said; she trusts me, and besides, she knows where I live.

Hours later, the Oscar was mine, wrapped in a beach towel and stuffed into the trunk of my car. I’d hit the brakes, there’d be a soft thunk as the Oscar hit its head on the tire jack. It would be the first of many indignities that Oscar would suffer in his three days with me. As you might imagine, having an Oscar, even for just three days, is an educational experience. Here’s what I learned.

1. Oscars Are Heavy. An Oscar weighs about 8 1/2 pounds, about as much as a newborn baby, and people react to both much the same way — they hold them gently with both hands, stare at them lovingly and pray they don’t accidentally drop them. The side effect of this weight is that one gets physically tired of handling an Oscar; hold one too long and your arm cramps. A friend of mine once said to me, “Man, if I had an Oscar, I’d wear it around my neck.” This is inadvisable. In addition to Oscar being the ugliest neckwear since disco medallions, your neck would develop such a crick.

You’d think the heft of the Oscar would underscore the solid Midwestern craftsmanship that goes into making the things (they’re made in Chicago by R.S. Owens & Co.), but the fact of the matter is…

2. Oscars Are Kind of Flimsy. Flick the base with your finger, and it resonates with a static-like buzz reminiscent of an AM transistor radio. This is truly disappointing; you’d think the most coveted trophy in the world would have a sturdier base. In fact, up until 1945, it was made out of Belgian marble. I suppose they thought that after the ravages of war, taking marble from the Belgians would seem kind of mean. De-marbleized, today’s Oscars are notably top-heavy, which I expect leads to a lot of unintentional drops and falls. Pam’s Oscar, in fact, has a chip gouged out of its forehead from such a calamity. You can peer right in and see what passes for Oscar’s brains. Which leads to the next Oscar discovery…

3. Oscars Aren’t Golden All the Way Through. It’s something of a shock to examine Oscar’s insides and find they are made of the same britannia metal (90 percent tin, 10 percent antimony) that goes into making flatware. Your fork is Oscar’s cousin. In a way it’s entirely appropriate to have the symbol of Hollywood be base metal innards covered with a thin golden coating. But, you know, whatever. An Oscar is still an Oscar. In a world where the vast majority of humanity couldn’t tell the difference between a Pulitzer Prize and the Best of Show ribbon given to hogs at a county fair (the difference: Best of Show winners get stud fees), the Oscar is immediately recognized, admired and coveted. How recognized? How coveted? Consider the following…

4. Everyone Has an Oscar Acceptance Speech. Every single person I handed the Oscar to did the same thing: Placed the Oscar at a tilt — one hand mid-statue, the other cradling the bottom of the base — looked to the middle distance (where the television cameras would be) and said, “I’d like to thank the academy for this award…” It’s positively Pavlovian.

This makes sense. The only time most of us actually see an Oscar is when someone’s just won it. There’s no other context. You don’t see them in people’s yards, like lawn gnomes. They aren’t photographed visiting the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. They’re not in a book titled “Where’s Oscar?”

Oscars exist solely to be followed by a speech. Not to make one would be to violate the fundamental laws of the universe. The Academy Award that people see themselves winning is a personality test in itself. The vain “win” Best Actor or Best Actress; the control freaks, Best Director; the frustrated intellectuals, Best Screenplay. Passive-aggressives choose supporting actor categories. No one ever pretends to be the producer; no one knows what producers do. No one ever pretends to win the minor categories either, like sound effects editing or art direction. Everyone knows that after 30 seconds, these people are cut off by the orchestra conductor.

Everyone wants an Oscar, but what do you do when you get one? For everything it represents (fame, fortune, a real chance that you will get to date someone like Gwyneth Paltrow), ultimately the Oscar itself is nothing more than an art deco tchotchke. Perhaps this is the cause of the final Oscar discovery…

5. People Who Have Oscars Are Far Less Impressed With Them Than People Who Don’t. Hollywood is rife with stories of Oscar winners using their statuettes as doorstops, to prop up tables or to smash bugs (or budding screenwriters) crawling around their desks. Jodie Foster was told by her local video store staff that if she won the Oscar for “The Silence of the Lambs” and brought it in for them to look at, she’d get a free rental. She did, and did, and did. Even my friend Pam treats her Oscar with something less than total reverence. When it’s not being borrowed by goofball pals, it’s covered by a gorilla puppet her son made in elementary school.

You could argue this is a sort of protective false humility, since the only thing Hollywood likes less than someone without an Oscar is someone who wins one and gloats (henceforth to be known as “James Cameron Syndrome”). There’s something to this, but there’s also just the fact that even the extraordinary becomes boring after a while. I stand testament to this — the first day I had the Oscar in the house, I stared at it like a graven image. The second day I got used to it. The third day I was using it as a paperweight. Which precipitated the following exchange between me and my wife:

Wife: Where’d you put the phone bill?

Me: I dunno. Did you check under the Oscar?

God, I loved saying that.

Just Arrived, 3/3/10

What’s new today:

* The Fallen, by Mark Terry (Oceanview): Author and friend of Whatever Mark Terry’s latest, a political action thrilller in which a terrorist group has the G8 summit in its sights, and only one man can stop them from wreaking havoc. Because what fun would it be to have two men stop them? None! None at all, I tell you! Out in April.

* Collected Stories, by Lewis Shiner (Subterranean Press): As it says on the tin, the collected stories of Shiner, and quite a few of them at that: 41. Which is a lot of storytelling in one place, let me tell you. Out now.

* Ares Express, by Ian McDonald (Pyr): The sequel to McDonald’s celebrated Desolation Road, previously not published in the US, now offered for your delectation by Pyr Books. But not quite yet, since it hits shelves April 27th. Patience, friends.

* Toads and Diamonds, by Heather Tomlinson (Henry Holt): Two sisters meet a goddess by their village well, like you do, and the goddess gives one a curse and the other a gift. But which sister gets which? See. That’s the question, isn’t it. This YA novel comes out March 30.

* The Complete Drive-In, by Joe R. Lansdale (Underland Press): Lansdale’s three completely unhinged (in a good way) Drive-In novels, which read like drive-in movies played — without the fogged-up windows — all put together in one volume. Coming! To a theater bookstore near you! In May!

The Big Idea: Blake Charlton

Words are funny things, and I mean that in a “funny weird” sort of way, not the “funny ha ha” sort of way (although words can be that way, too. I mean, obviously. Hmm. I’m drifting). But what if words were more than words. What if words were more than their metaphorical content? What if they could literally (heh) leap from the page and do things? What would that world of words be like?

Debut author Blake Charlton has given this very idea a lot of thought, and the result is Spellwright, a fantasy of words and more. And to explain you a little bit about his thinking, Charlton is here, using more words. Words! They’re everywhere, man.

BLAKE CHARLTON:

What if you could peel written words off the page and make them physically real? Could you cut yourself on a sentence fragment? Thrust a sharply worded invective at an enemy’s throat? How would physical language shape culture, technology, history? Tolkien created Middle-earth for his languages, not vice-versa. But could I dream up a world built by–not around–its languages? More importantly, could I intertwine a character’s story into this world?

These questions occurred to me when I was an undergrad studying the near-magical language of Shakespeare–and sundry other dead guys–as well as the two magical languages that exist in this world: nucleotides and polypeptides. I’m being a wee bit metaphorical here, but squint at a genome in the right light and you’ll see that any microscopic text that holds over three billion letters, governs its own expression, and self-propagates is astoundingly magical. (Bio Geeks: go BANANAS creating an analogous statement for a proteome!)

Back then, I was a pre-med trying to double major in English and Chemistry. (But I’m feeling much better now, thanks for asking!) Now a medical student, I’m more balanced but still struggle with anxieties about my dyslexia. You see, I didn’t learn to read fluently until I was thirteen and began sneaking paperbacks by Robert Jordan, Robin Hobb, and Ursula LeGuin (so so much LeGuin) into special ed study hall. Fantasy saved me, transformed me from an angry brat into earnest geek.

That’s why, when I daydreamed about a world with physical language, my mind jumped to the classic fantasy clichés of a Magical University, a Prophesy, and a Chosen One. Yeah, I know: you’re cringing. But, baby, don’t leave me. I love you. Here, take my hand, and let me explain why you should fight the gagging that started when you read “Chosen One.”

Everyone says to “Write about what you know,” or “Write about what you love.” That sounds pleasant, but screw it. Write only about the familiar beloved and you’ll get saccharine mush. Add a third ingredient: “Write about what you fear.” Do that and you’ve got powerful flavor. Do that and you must experience your terror, discover how much you can tolerate. Do that and you’re cooking, not with mush and sweetener, but with honey and habañeros.

Disability is what I fear most. I still dream sometimes that I’m on the special ed short bus. So let’s connect the dots of my fear and love, dyslexia and language. What if you were born into a world of magical language but misspelled any text you touched?

“Okay, bald guy,” you say, “I’m holding back the cliché gag reflex, mostly because I pity your dyslexic yet glossy self. But so what if your protag misspells magical text? Check the magically world-traveling text of my emails. If spellchecking programs could feel pain, I’d give mine a strangulated hernia, and nothing bad happens.”

That’s because you only screw up the English. Your PERL and Ruby on Rails and all your other gemstone-based languages are stuck in your plastic thinking box. You’d be more worried if a misspell could send the C++ flying out to wrap around your neck.

In the world of Spellwright, some magical languages affect matter, others energy. Spells behave like computer programs, executing their commands exactly; and like most biopolymers, folding into a proper shape to gain function. Simple spells might levitate something or allow spellwrights to correspond magically. Adept authors might make textual creatures–writing a body from prose that affects matter and a mind from prose that affects energy. These creatures, called “constructs,” might be laboring gargoyles or ghosts of pure energy. Masterful spellwrights might even write textual extensions of their own minds, making themselves hyper-intelligent.

Into this world drops Nicodemus Weal, who is so prolific in these languages that he was once thought to be the Chosen One fated to prevent Ye Olde Demonic Invasion. Oh, darling, you’re looking dyspeptic again. Take another deep breath. I’m bringing in clichés for a reason. Let’s quote Scott Lynch. You like Scott Lynch, right? Such a nice and creatively obscene man who in Spectra Pulse noted, “In fiction, execution trumps everything. Clichés cannot survive to become (in)famous without continual, skillful, and passionate reinvention.” Yes, I’m serving up a slice of Chosen-One-Vs-Demonic-Invasion Pie, which has been baked so often it’s gotten a bit tough, a bit bland. But what if Nicodemus’s disability disqualified him from becoming the Chosen One, permanently? What if the Demonic Hordes aren’t interested in devouring humans, but in altering human language and how language can exist in the universe? What would it mean to be human without language? What evolutions of language might make us post-human?

“But, Blake,” you say, “kicking the crotch of what-essentially-makes-us-human has been the signature move of the data-dumping steel toes of hard SF. How can you kick said groin with the brightly beaded moccasins of a non-gritty, megawatt magic-system, YA-Okay epic fantasy?” Mostly I can because I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to. But also, I can do it with a softer touch. I’m gushing here about my trilogy’s Big Ideas; trust me not to dump it all on the reader all at once. If I’ve hit my mark, Spellwright is a fast, fun, accessible fantasy that draws you into a world built by its living words.

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Spellwright: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Read or listen to an excerpt here. Visit Charlton’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.