By Steve Herte
Lately I’ve been ranting (oh, so politely) that Hollywood seems unable to come up with fresh, new plots for movies and that so much of what we view is rehashed or revived. Well, I visited a fascinating website entitled “Planetary Stories” (www.planetarystories.com), which just might be a wellspring of ideas for the drought in Tinseltown. Shelby Vick publishes his own original science fiction tales as well as those of other talented writers on the website and, being a fan of science fiction, I wanted to test the waters.
The three short stories I read were as entertaining and as diverse in plot as the genre can get. Shelby not only spins his yarns from the Earthman’s point of view but the alien’s as well. He can also switch convincingly to a woman’s persona and sensitivity in his stories. According to the website, it was back in 2005 that he created “Space Marshall vs King Jorx,” “Moult Revolt,” and “Tolerance Station or True Confessions from Space” and each story is more engaging than the previous one.
In “Space Marshall vs King Jorx,” we meet Slade Marsten, an interplanetary patrol officer whose beat is the many worlds inhabited by emigrants from Earth. In Shelby’s introduction to the story we learn that interplanetary travel and medical nanotechnology may have enabled people to be healthy enough to colonize other planets, but crime lives on. The story reads much like a Flash Gordon episode with its almost tongue-in-cheek bravado and playful interplay of characters. Jill is Slade’s “love interest” (when he’s not super-focused on the task at hand) and Probot ably fills the role of Doctor Zarkoff except that he’s the biological brain of a brilliant professor in a robotic body.
The one remaining member of his crew is an entity named BRITO, half of a traveler from another dimension whose acronymic moniker translates Belt-like Remote Instantaneous Transmission Organism (Marsten chose this name) who appropriately is worn by Slade as a belt. The character reminds me of an intelligent version of the character “Belt” in the movie The Croods, a clinging simian creation. In this episode, King Jorx, a tail-less raptor-like creature reminiscent of the Gorn in the original Star Trek series is mounting an attack on Earth and is planning to use his “planetbuster,” a weapon recently improved and having no counter-weapon. Slade takes advantage of Jorx’s inflated ego to bluff his way onto the battle cruiser and, with BRITO’s assistance, foils the apocalyptic plot.
If there’s anything negative to be said about this story is that it’s too short and over way too quickly. The concept of a Space Marshall has been suggested by the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still but Shelby tempers the extremity of having a heartless robot destroying all violence with a feeling being who enforces the law.
We are taken to the remote world of the “cruike” race in “Moult Revolt” where crickets have evolved to become the sentient and dominant species. They are insectoid in appearance but have nine-fingered “hands” and consequently a system of mathematics based on nine. In fact, the number nine appears often in the story. Symme, the main character is one of nine siblings (or hatch-mates if you will, they hatch from eggs) and he’s a kind of rebel. Almost religiously his species conducts their “moults” together but not Symme. He believes that a moult (shedding one’s exoskeleton) is a personal experience and he goes off to the edge of a canyon to perform his in private. After emerging, he discovers a “new music” when tossing pebbles into the canyon. Crickets are, after all, musical (they “sing” on Earth) and it stands to reason that music would be holy to them. And listening to the “holy music” of the wind increases his excitement when this “beat” is added to it. He decides to bring this new sound to his hatch-mates.
Meanwhile, his birth-mother Eomme has been working closely with “the Director” in trying to solve the problem of where to stack all the surplus unhatched eggs – a form of over-population dilemma – and upon returning home she’s horrified that Symme would commit the double sacrilege of moulting alone and creating new music (reminding me of the first time rock and roll made its appearance).
But Symme is undaunted and the young cruikes love the new music. He creates a new mathematics to accommodate the base four of the music and reconcile it with the base nine of tradition and becomes the unlikely hero of the day. His new math solves the over-population problem as well.
It’s a charming tale written from a completely insectoid point of view, complete with appropriate body language references. The characters are curiously believable and the allegorical issues resonate with current reality. I would really like to see this one on film, possibly an animated one?
The third short story is the longest, but its length does not make it tedious in any way. “Tolerance Station or True Confessions from Space” is the remembrances of a young girl who, though a straight “A” student in school, is completely naïve about the ways of the world (or worlds, in this case). Her dream of running off with a dashing “spacer” ends when she winds up in an abusive relationship with one and he dumps her as soon as she becomes pregnant. In this age, the word intolerance has replaced the word discrimination as a derogatory term for judging someone unfit to associate with and strangely enough, the planet she is stranded on is called “Tolerance Station.”
She’s taken in by a kind (she thinks) older man who takes advantage of her naiveté to essentially sell her body to visiting spacers and then sell the babies she produces (and she gives birth to several) to the local farmers. When she finally figures out what he’s doing, he leaves her and takes all the money he made.
But all is not lost. She becomes a hero to the local farm families when they tell her that something in the planet’s atmosphere has made their women infertile. Out of gratitude they take care of her for life. It is yet another wonderful story worthy of the big screen. Hollywood, are you listening?
It’s not just the novel plot ideas. Shelby’s dialogues between characters are down to Earth, understandable and unhampered by haughty elements that would diminish their credibility. They speak as you would expect them to speak. He keeps description simple and only elaborates when the plot requires it, allowing the reader to build his or her own stage sets. Now you may say, if the first story resembles a Flash Gordon episode that much, then how is it so original? It’s the way the tale is told, the “color” you could call it, of Shelby’s style. It’s how he draws you into the story that makes you want to hear what will happen in the next episode. It’s the questions that arise in the reader’s mind from the way the characters “perform” such as, “Will Jill and Slade ever get romantic?”
As for me, I certainly will return to “Planetary Stories” to see where Shelby’s stories take me next and read some of the other authors’ works. In high school, I was an aspiring science fiction writer but I never received the encouragement to develop a style. It’s obvious to me that Shelby was encouraged.
In keeping with my “Dinner and a Movie” theme I thought it only fitting to “complete” this submission with an article on something gustatory. Since the first item is about stories that I would like to see as movies, the second is spurred by a dinner that I had with Helene at a New York restaurant quite a while ago. It was so surprising that they served a spirit that was banned and vilified as “mind-altering” for so long that I had to discover the story behind that accusation. What I found was fascinating.
Absinthe Made My Heart Grow Fonder
Commonly known as “the green fairy,” absinthe was the most popular drink in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. But a combination of economics and politics conspired not only to diminish the popularity of the liqueur, but also to have it banned outright in many countries across the globe. Now that the green anise-flavored drink has been proven safe to consume, it is making a strong comeback as the after-dinner drink of choice at many restaurants.
When I was dining at David Burke and Donatella (now David Burke’s Townhouse) in 2007, dessert time rolled around as it usually does and I took a double take when I saw absinthe among the after-dinner drinks. Wasn’t this stuff banned because it was dangerous, a drug, or perhaps poisonous? And yet there it was on a menu I trusted. Not being one to back away from a gustatory adventure I ordered it. The server brought out an elegant glass of the clear liqueur, suspended a silver perforated spoon over it with a sugar cube on it and poured ice water over the sugar and into the glass. The absinthe became cloudy white and when the sugar cube was gone, the pouring stopped. Taste and smell were akin to licorice but only with a higher alcoholic content than Anisette. I liked it and from then on made sure to have it again whenever it appeared on a menu.
Why was this delicious drink banned? A little research later and I discovered that it was due to a combination of elementa – all human-created – including misunderstanding, limited science, economics, and scandal. Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor living in Couvet, Switzerland, is credited with the first distilling of the Wormwood plant Artemisia Absinthium (hence the name) in alcohol with anise (hence the licorice flavor), hyssop, lemon balm and local herbs. Ordinaire created it as an all-purpose patent remedy and it was sold as such. The Egyptians and ancient Greeks used wormwood as a medicine for various conditions and it stands to reason that if they saw the healing benefits of the plant, it would probably make a potent tonic (especially at 72% alcohol). The active ingredient, terpene thojone, was thought to be capable of stimulating creativity and clearing one’s thinking, but the limited science of the late 1890s and early 1900s found that lab animals died when injected with large amounts and dubbed it a neurotoxin. A “large amount,” by the way, would equal about 150 glasses of absinthe.
The popularity of the drink soared in the 1840s when absinthe was given to French troops as a malaria preventative. When the troops returned home, they brought absinthe home with them and it caught on rapidly in bars, bistros, cabarets and cafes to the point that the hour of 5 pm was labeled l’heure verte (“the green hour”).
The large number of distilleries producing absinthe during its heyday made it cheaper than wine and the fact that artists and the upper class were fond of it increased its popularity. Also at the time, a breed of louse was decimating the vineyards in France, seriously affecting and limiting wine production. Unfortunately, absinthe’s popularity also bred imitators who got the recipe wrong and created cheaper, adulterated and yes, poisonous versions. This misunderstanding became interwoven in the absinthe mythos.
Then there was the “Absinthe Murder.” In 1905, Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer, murdered his family and attempted to take his own life after drinking the demon absinthe. The fact that Lanfray was an alcoholic who had consumed a considerable quantity of brandy and wine prior to drinking two glasses of absinthe was overlooked during his trial and the blame for the murders – and hence his insanity – was placed on the absinthe. In 1906, both Belgium and Brazil banned the importation and manufacture of absinthe, and in 1910, even Switzerland followed suit. Lastly, an anti-absinthe novel “Wormwood, a Drama of Paris” by Marie Corelli (apparently the most respected writer of her time) raised negative opinion in the United States and absinthe was banned nationwide in 1912. Even though the ban was not universal, sales of absinthe plummeted so low that production ceased in the 1960s.
But rising like the phoenix, absinthe created in the Czech Republic in the 1990s was exported to the United Kingdom and interest was revitalized. Then, in 2002, the original distillery in Pontarlier France was reopened to make the original recipe. Though sales were still banned then, the United Kingdom procured the product and absinthe reappeared as an after-dinner drink.
It’s a fascinating story, one of mystery and full of humanity. I learned that there exist more than one “flavor” of absinthe (depending on the herbal inclusions), but none are mind-altering, poisonous, or will drive you to murder. The drink was called the “Green Fairy” because the original recipe yielded a green liqueur. The first taste I had might have been green, but it was so pale it looked clear. Since then I’ve enjoyed absinthe several times, even once at Sunday brunch at the Caribou Café in Philadelphia. I’ve noticed no change in my behavior, but my understanding and appreciation of absinthe has definitely changed for the better.