Kung Pao Grantland

Bill Simmons

Bill Simmons

GrantlandFor the past few days there’s been an under-the-radar furor over the news that ESPN will shutter (and now has shuttered) Grantland, Bill Simmon’s unorthodox and motley digital magazine he started in 2011. A melange of sports writing and pop culture analysis, Grantland offered daily doses of baseball/football/basketball coverage (“The Triangle”), movie and television reviews, NBA trade predictions, Hollywood power-structure tell-alls, and straight-up unabashed fan writing of all manner of popular entertainment. The moment the Twittersphere kinda-sorta erupted with news of Grantland’s demise I immediately felt sullen. Some grown-up in ESPN’s accounting department had taken my lollipop away.

Excuse me while I make a poor but useful metaphor: Grantland was the digital equivalent of Chinese-American cuisine. Both offer a little of something for everyone, and the elements together on the plate taste like nothing else in the American palate. Starchy staples, tasty fried sports writing, as well as specialty items you can take or leave, the sweet-and-sour film review or the Kung Pao TV retrospective. Founder and editor-in-chief Bill Simmons’ columns? The fortune cookie.

Unsurprisingly, Grantland was heavy on sportswriting. Bill Simmons’ career as a Boston sportswriter and later with ESPN guaranteed any site he started would zero in on the hardcore day-in, day-out sports fan. But Simmons aimed higher than the lad-magazine sports coverage dominating the commercial Web today. He also avoided the purple athlete hagiographies Sports Illustrated‘s writers pen in the hopes of turning a feature article into a book. Instead, Simmons looked for thoughtful, side-angle takes on sports that avoided the breathless “you-are-there” prose and sports-radio head-bashing. Grantland offered college basketball coverage that would make any casual fan a maniac, unapologetic take-downs on the NFL concussion controversy, and a soulful piece on Don King at the end of a remarkable lifetime, a story that should’ve won a Pulitzer.

(Grantland’s sportswriting wasn’t pure platinum. Like the worst of the dailies’ sports columns, Grantland occasionally lapsed into poor satire, such as its fictional oral history of a real-life American League pennant game, or, worse, Roger Federer’s deviled eggs recipe, both of which told me that Grantland’s writers operated under deadlines like their print counterparts.)

If sports don’t float your boat, Grantland’s television and film writing was equally strong. These features weren’t “bolt-ons” designed to drive traffic to a sports-centric site, but an integral part of Grantland’s overall gestalt. (Now you see where I’m going with this Chinese food metaphor.) In fact, that might be the secret of Grantland’s success: it treated TV and film criticism with the same irreverent seriousness as great American sportswriting. Simmons recognized a sports-fan-like obsessiveness in the Mad Men bingeviewers and the art-house film fanatics. They take their pursuits solemnly and dive in deep to their pet loves, but not with the deadly sanctimoniousness of political junkies or finicky tastes of music fans. Grantland targeted today’s connoisseurs of popular narrative entertainment, people who watch the movie then watch it again with the director’s commentary.

Most of all, Grantland recognized it was possible be a fan of all these cultural wellsprings—Major League Baseball, Breaking Bad, Christopher Nolan—and smart enough to want to read deeper and broader into them all. Bill Simmons laid it on the line: great writing will attract eyeballs, and it will keep them coming back for more.

My appreciation for Grantland came last July when I swore Grantland was committing a bizarre form of suicide. The noose they chose to hang themselves with was “Rom Com Week,” five days of retrospective on the best and worst of Hollywood’s romantic comedies. How could a site for sports fans who think the NBA draft is nail-biting drama possibly want to read about movies that made you laugh as you cried?

Well, it worked. It even made me rethink the romantic comedy as a—fine, I’ll say it—art form. I devoured each daily transmission of “Rom Com Week” at my office desk over a brown bag lunch, always eager for the next day’s installment. The cherry to top it off was Bill Simmons’ wrap-up analysis, “Sports Movie or Not a Sports Movie?” He attacked what may be the most pressing question in popular culture that was never asked and never answered: Were movies like Bull Durham, Tin Cup, and The Replacements sports movies or romantic comedies? In an awe-inspiring and sweeping investigation, Grantland uncovered a massive underground river in American culture, the overlap between “guy” sports films and “gal” rom-coms, with Kevin Costner as the center peg holding it all together. If Simmons’ essay doesn’t rearrange your head, you’ve been living under a rock for the past three-plus decades.

That’s the fortune cookie, Bill Simmons sliding in at the last moment with surprising observations and a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the subject at hand. Hell, he almost got me to forgive Saturday Night Live for forty years of repetitive and spineless comedy—almost. That said, Grantland’s SNL retrospective adds up to some of the best writing ever on an American institution that somehow manages to delude itself (and a lot of other people) into thinking it’s still an anti-establishment rabble-rouser, even while wearing a tuxedo and hobnobbing with A-list celebrities.

Romantic comedies, SNL at 40, the real origins of Moneyball, The Terminator reconsidered, the future of James Bond, the Golden State Warriors’ performance shot-by-shot. Maybe someday the hole left by Grantland will be filled, but I doubt it.

Deutschland 83, SDI, and the birth of the modern era

Deutschland 83Tonight a new television series premieres on the Sundance Network, Deutschland 83. My cable package doesn’t include Sundance, so I won’t be able to watch the show in its first run, but so far I like what I’ve read about it. More than that, it’s exciting to read about its premise and development, as much of it reminds me of the impetuses that drove me to write Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People.

The Cold War

Deutschland 83 and Edward Teller Dreams are both Cold War stories featuring individuals caught on the front line of a war that had no front lines. For Deutschland 83, the main character is Martin Rauch, an East German Stasi officer sent to West Germany under cover. For Edward Teller Dreams, teenager Gene Harland is the son of a nuclear physicist tasked to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a pie-in-the-sky system to deter nuclear attack that was immediately dubbed “Star Wars” by its critics.

It can’t be overstated how permanent the Cold War appeared in 1983. The idea that in six short years the Berlin Wall would fall, taking with it the Soviet Union and much of the Eastern Bloc, was so unthinkable it wasn’t even contemplated by science fiction or Hollywood. They preferred to traffic in darker visions of Soviet domination, such as Red Dawn, the Russians’ technological superiority in The Hunt for Red October, and 1983’s scare-TV sensation The Day After. Even MTV got into the act: 1983’s pop hit “99 Luftballons” was about a toy balloons starting World War III. Every Child of the 80s remembers Reagan and Chernenko boxing it out in Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 1983 video for “Two Tribes”.

With each passing year of nuclear stalemate, the saber-rattling rhetoric, the occasional act of aggression that had to be negotiated down, the Cold War increasingly looked like Orwell’s vision of perpetual war. Of course, that comparison asks if the Cold War was ginned up to control populations or was a legitimate stand-in for irreconcilable differences between nations. Personally, I think it was a bit of both.

The birth of the modern era

I was also surprised to read that Deutschland 83 is set in “1983, the birth of the modern era”. Although I chose 1983 for Edward Teller Dreams because it coordinated with the year SDI’s development started, in earlier revisions I dabbled with setting the novel later in time, in 1984 or even 1985. The more I researched 1983, I realized I had to set my novel in that year and none other. (I’ll discuss more about this in a future post.)

Retailing in 1983 for $9,995 ($24,000 in 2015 dollars), the Apple Lisa mysteriously failed to capture the public's imagination.

Retailing in 1983 for $9,995 ($24,000 in 2015 dollars), the Apple Lisa mysteriously failed to capture the public’s imagination.

The developments in 1983 belie the stereotype of the Reagan years as drab, conservative, and conformist. In hindsight, the 1980s were remarkably dynamic, with 1983 perhaps the most so. SDI, Apple’s Lisa (the first personal computer sold with a graphic display and a mouse), the first reports of the AIDS virus and the solidifying of the gay rights movement, even the birth of the Internet on January 1st (the story’s more complicated than that, but roll with it). 1983 was more than an eventful year, it was a prescient year.

(And it was a great time to be alive if you were a reader: The Mists of Avalon, The Robots of Dawn, John Le Carre’s Little Drummer Girl, and Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit were all published in 1983. The Color Purple was published the year before. William Gibson’s Neuromancer would be published in 1984, following six productive years of groundbreaking science fiction short stories.)

Even in the context of the Cold War, 1983 may have been more consequential than 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In March 1983, Reagan declared the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire” and announced SDI, “a shield, not a sword”. In August the Soviet Union shot down civilian jetliner Korean Air Flight 007 and ignited an international uproar. All of this, as well as forty years of East vs. West posturing, culminated in the Soviet Union almost launching all-out nuclear war in November when it misread an American troop exercise as first-strike preparations. This series of “isolated” events—microaggressions on the macro scale— were not easily contained and soothed via formal diplomatic channels, the exact type of unchecked escalation feared the most during the Cold War.

Writing into near-history

When publishing an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or another distributor, the service asks you to list two or three genres to help categorize the work. While every author feels their novel transcends such pedantic pigeonholing—only partial sarcasm there—I’ve usually selected “historical fiction” for Edward Teller Dreams. It’s a problematic label, however, and not because I’m being snooty.

Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People by Jim NelsonThe term “historical fiction” evokes costume drama and so-called simpler times of clear-cut morality and rigid social standings. Most historical fiction book review web sites will only consider work that’s set at least fifty, seventy-five, even a hundred years in the past. Edward Teller Dreams is set thirty-two years ago (and was less than twenty years in the past when I first started writing it). Even with all I’ve described above, it’s hard to say the world has changed that much. I easily admit there’s more similarities between 1983 and 2015 than there are differences.

But even in writing this one novel I uncovered a number of obstacles with setting a story in near-history, and I suspect the writers of Deutschland 83 faced them as well. Show creator Anna Winger says “The great privilege is it’s living history. People are still around and they want to talk about it.” I would say this privilege also nods towards its challenges.

In interviews with authors who pen historical fiction, there’s much discussion about research, authenticity, understanding the period, understanding moires and daily language, and so forth. Some historical fiction authors even go so far to dress in period clothing to better understand their subjects. Me? I threw on a T-shirt and a pair of corduroy jeans and—voila—welcome to exotic California, 1983.

But I’ll go to go out on a limb and say writing near-history is equally challenging to writing “real” historical fiction, and maybe more so. Ask someone what they think of the 1880s and you’ll receive silence, or maybe “I don’t know, why do you ask?” Ask someone what they think of the 1980s and you’ll get an earful. To retell near-history, you’re confronting people’s personal memories as well as the collective memory of our recorded culture.

I don’t think Edward Teller Dreams is a bold stab at righting some historical wrong, or rewriting the past in order to spotlight silenced voices. It doesn’t sound like Deutschland 83 is out to serve historical justice either. I do feel there are many stories of that era—of every era—that, if taken at face-value as told in good faith, will alter our understanding of history as well as our present. To retell stories from the 1880s is fine, but to retell the state of the world of the 1980s is to dispute our perception of the world today.

The Man in the High Castle: Amazon takes on Philip K. Dick’s first masterpiece

Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick

Let me preface this with an admission: I am not a diehard fan of Philip K. Dick. I am not a “dickhead”, in the parlance of his devotees. It’s evident to me that the quality of his output is more varied than his admirers are willing to admit. Their reliance on that timeworn science fiction apologia—PKD was a man of “ideas”—is proof to me that his legacy is not as secure as the other sci-fi greats. Yet I return to PKD’s books once every couple of years like a miner hiking up a mountain once again, optimistic his next claim will hit the mother lode…only to so-often return home with mere nuggets or flakes for the effort.

One chestnut you’ll often hear regarding PKD is that some of the highest regarded science-fiction movies of all time are based on his work: Blade Runner, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report, Paycheck. But walk that list again and you’ll discover a real mixed bag of film-making. Total Recall is fun hyper-violent nonsense. Minority Report is a toothless speculation on the future of civil rights. The hot mess that is Paycheck may be John Woo’s worst film ever.

Blade Runner is obviously a Hollywood classic, but to polish PKD’s legacy on the lapels of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece gets it backwards. As a great fan of the movie, I eagerly picked up the source material expecting something even deeper, more atmospheric, and more profound than the film—and was puzzlingly disappointed. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is neither future noir nor an edgy humanistic soul-searcher. Like so many adaptations of PKD’s work, Blade Runner is best described as based on the book’s premise. The film’s central profundity (could Deckard be a Replicant?) is crumpled-up and tossed aside by the master: in the novel, Deckard administers the Voight-Kampff test on himself and obtains a negative result. Question answered, conundrum resolved, tension dissolved. It’s not a horrible book, just preoccupied with other matters.

A Scanner DarklyUnlike Blade Runner (and every other adaptation of PKD’s work), A Scanner Darkly is striking in its fidelity to the original material. Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped gem holds up thanks to a cast who takes the material seriously but not reverently, as well as Linklater’s own confidence in the script. But is it science fiction? PKD’s semi-autobiographical take on hard drugs, drug abuse, and the surveillance state was intended to be set in then-contemporary Anaheim (circa 1971) until he was persuaded by his publisher to introduce light science-fiction touches to satisfy his readership. The decision shows, as the advanced technology (“scramble suits” that hide the identity of the main character) comes across more like a metaphor of addiction, paranoia, and altered states than the speculative scrying of a future that never arrived.

A Scanner Darkly remains my favorite PKD novel. It’s human and humorous and touching and sorrowful. (Charles Freck’s pathetic botched suicide may be the best three pages PKD ever wrote, and is portrayed almost word-for-word in the movie.) Unlike the Bay Area’s 1960s and 1970s drug novels that preceded Darkly, PKD’s wild-and-wooly scenes of narcotics-fueled escapades are not left to stand on their own, defiant and proud of their craziness. PKD follows through to their grim consequences without blinking, flinching, or apologizing.

For all the emphasis science fiction puts on its authors’ treasured abilities to foresee our future, a survey of pre-1980s science fiction will reveal that those predictions almost entirely involve robotics, automation, and space travel. Very few predicted the scope, magnitude, and intrusiveness of the information technology revolution we are currently enjoying. Do not read science fiction for its predictive powers; you will be burned every time.

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. DickLike that ever-optimistic miner in search of another vein of gold, late last year I picked up The Man in the High Castle thinking that this might be the Philip K. Dick novel that finally convinces me of his preeminence. It’s a big-premise book, to be sure, but rather than a book of “ideas” PKD offers an alternate history where the Nazis and the Japanese have won World War II, smashed down Europe and Asia, and decimated Africa. The two fascist empires spread from the opposite coasts of North America inland, and there the dust of WWII settles. The Japanese and the Germans halt their campaigns hundreds of miles apart, leaving a swath through the midwestern United States free of either’s direct control.

It’s not quite the US of A—this strip of land is not run by the Constitution nor, it seems, any cohesive nation-state at all. It’s more like a No Man’s Land of diners and cineplexes that carved out its existence thanks to the two new superpowers’ reluctance to drive further inland. (I have to wonder if PKD was making some kind of statement about the Second Amendment here.) An action-oriented author would’ve launched a thriller from this starting point, something akin to the jingoistic Reagan-era Red Dawn. Fortunately, PKD’s more cerebral approach takes this supercharged premise and offers a calmer, thoughtful story of individuals caught in the middle of a brewing new war.

Those individuals are what give The Man in the High Castle a richer and more varied texture than the other PKD books I’ve read. The novel is shot through with parallel and crisscrossing story-lines: An antique broker in San Francisco caught selling forgeries; a trade bureaucrat assigned to the Japanese-controlled Pacific States of America; a Jewish jeweler hiding in broad daylight from the Germans; a Colorado waitress and an Italian truck driver who take to the road. A big-premise book with geopolitics on its mind, PKD makes the most of it. He broadens its scope in each chapter without jumping the narration to the upper echelons of power the way a more populist novel might. (How many Civil War alternate histories feature stiff scenes of Lincoln consulting his cabinet, or Jefferson Davis arguing down General Lee? Too many, I’m certain.)

High Castle even features a taste of Kremlinology. With the death of Führer Martin Boorman, the German power structure goes wobbly, leaving the characters (and the reader) to read the tea leaves and guess who will assume the levers of power. (Hitler, having gone insane due to venereal disease, was pushed out of control years before the time of the novel’s events.)

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy

The most fascinating device in the novel is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a book-within-Man in the High Castle that is itself an alternate history. In Grasshopper‘s telling, the Axis loses the war and the victorious United States and Great Britain (maintaining its colonial holdings) enter into a kind of global stalemate, an Anglo-American Cold War. The Soviet Union, decimated by the Nazis, never recovers in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, or for that matter, in The Man in the High Castle.

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen

When I first encountered the device of this alternate history inside an alternate history, it looked as though it was going to be abused. The characters discuss the book at length in some chapters. Unfortunately, they often discuss it less than artfully. But as a device for detailing the historical differences between our world and theirs, it works, albeit in a clunky manner. Other alternative histories will often use boilerplate exposition in prefaces and introductions to explain how the world of the book is different than our own. PKD moved that exposition into the mouths of his characters.

Although Grasshopper is banned in the German Reich, it seems widely available to party members and apparatchiks. It’s fashionable to discuss the book over drinks or while riding a zeppelin. The common dissemination of Grasshopper in High Castle‘s world is a nice touch; PKD understood that there’s a wide gulf between de jure and de facto censorship in totalitarian countries. Eight years before Tom Wolfe and Black Panther cocktail parties, PKD made Grasshopper “alt-history chic” in The Man in the High Castle.

Grasshopper is not the only literature discussed in High Castle. Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” also are referenced, but always in the kind of past tense that suggests the termination of America’s literary tradition. PKD never overlooks a chance to view America through the prism of bygone nostalgia. (Mickey Mouse watches and Civil War firearms are in particular highly prized as vintage artifacts.) It all lends to an atmosphere of a once-ascendent culture cut short by defeat and now cherished by its conquerors. The Japanese are eager to possess American culture, eager to transport it back to the main islands, but not terribly interested in emulating or absorbing it in any way—much like the West pillaged the Orient for its antiquities but not its wisdom.

Likewise, the Americans in High Castle have grown accustomed to their situation. There is little energy to fight the past wars, instead preferring to kowtow to the new regime and make do with the new reality.

Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle

the-man-in-the-high-castleNot long after I finished reading the novel I learned that Amazon had released the pilot of a new TV series adapting The Man in the High Castle to the small screen. (You can watch the first episode here for free.) I don’t know much about Amazon’s foray into producing television content. My business association with the company is little more than filling out a couple of Web forms to sell my books. In return, they send me automated emails and the occasional bank deposit.

That said, I was naturally curious to see how well High Castle could be adapted to the screen, especially once I learned that Blade Runner director Ridley Scott was producing the series. Mostly I asked myself if Hollywood would once again adapt the premise of a Philip K. Dick book rather than adapt the book itself.

Watching only the first episode, I can say Frank Spotnitz’s script has plumbed the novel deeper than its back cover blurb. This is not a TV series “reimagined” from the source material. Characters and situations have been converted one-for-one, albeit with different emphases, but with a fair amount of respect for PKD’s original vision.

The show is handsome, not going overboard with period costumes or locations (although the poorly-rendered CGI backdrops of fascist New York and San Francisco give an unfortunate cartoonish effect to certain scenes). The production elected to go with gray, washed-out film coloration and drab earth tones; it looks as though World War II never really ended. In fact, the palette reminds me of the scheme used in Captain America: The First Avenger. This pilot episode could easily be a sequel to an alternate cut of that movie, one where The Red Skull crushes Captain America, leads the the Nazis across the Atlantic, and steamrolls over the Eastern seaboard with wave after wave of Panzers and A-bombs. Now, today, in this alternate 1962, disenchanted Americans in clapboard shacks watch groomed Aryans on television game shows answer insipid questions while their military service medals glint under studio lights. There’s nothing wrong with this approach per se, but when a standard-issue gunfight broke out in the first ten minutes, complete with the good-guy shooting a bad-guy preparing to shoot the good-guy’s buddy, I wondered if I was going to regret devoting myself to the 1 hour and 1 minute playing time.

Where PKD’s narration jumps about in time and space, Amazon’s production linearizes the story, simplifying motivations and situations. These Americans are not sapped of their will and making small-talk with their Fascist overlords. They’re plotting rebellion, reminiscing about fighting the good fight on the beaches of Normandy and Virginia, and, in general, dreaming of headier days of fireworks and apple pie. PKD never mocks this sort of flag-waving nostalgia, but it’s easy to see he’s not enamored with it either.

PKD’s High Castle recognizes good and evil in the world; the book is not so postmodern that it morally relativizes the Nazis, for Christ’s sake. The good done in PKD’s world springs not from baseball and the Bill of Rights, but from more basic, philosophical sources: Goodman Brown’s epiphany, the suffering in Miss Lonelyhearts, the authenticity of pure thought, the good in acting beyond one’s immediate self-interests. For the television version, goodness comes from not being a Nazi.

In the show, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’s book form is replaced with a banned newsreel depicting stock footage (our stock footage, not the alternate universe’s) of VE- and VJ-Day sailors in dress whites kissing women in Times Square, US marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, Madison Avenue ticker tape parades, and so on. So explosive is this 8mm film, Americans are shot in the streets for possessing it; so moving, it drives a grown woman to tears upon her first viewing. This is the MacGuffin (of sorts) driving the episode and presumably the entire series: get that canister of film to Canon City, Colorado, and into the hands of the presumptive American rebel force. The producers of that failed Red Dawn remake are probably slapping their foreheads right now.

Having seen only one episode, it’s too early to damn the enterprise as a whole. I do wish that Hollywood could, for once, give us our due. There’s plenty in PKD’s High Castle for modern viewers to sink their teeth into. The alternate history PKD offers is surprisingly tasty. I could easily imagine the show recounting it (starting with FDR’s assassination) in the vein of Oliver Stone’s JFK, repeating events from different perspectives to emphasize the malleability of history. I haven’t even touched on the importance of the I Ching to PKD’s book, which is mentioned only briefly in the first episode. Knowing how the novel ends, I have to wonder how the show will weave the I Ching into the series. Or will they simply treat it as Oriental mysticism—a shame, considering how much respect PKD gives it as a source of meditation and reflection. (As well as it’s centrality to the book’s genesis and execution; PKD used the I Ching to generate early drafts.)

PKD’s novel wraps up not with explosions or theatrics—scrappy American rebels rappelling into Nazi High Command—but a lively discussion at a cocktail party. The Man in the High Castle is not a book of tidy endings. In the concluding pages, story lines open up rather than shut down. Philosophical questions lead to more questions. I’m not terribly optimistic that the TV series will see the wisdom in this. Fourteen years after 9/11—a decade and a half of US invasion and occupation, civil rights forfeitures, and the tightening omniscience of our surveillance state—I would hope that the producers of The Man in the High Castle would see the wisdom of not romanticizing the resistance against an occupation of the American homeland. Still, Spielberg and Tarantino both proved that the Nazis are the neatest, tidiest, most easily expedited film villains you can toss onto the screen. No reason to waste all that easy loathing in a story where they don’t get their violent, satisfying comeuppance.