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My Best Friend Is a Wookie, by Tony Pacitti, Adams Media, 2010, $19.95.
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu, Pantheon, 2010, $24.
Jar Jar Binks Must Die…and Other Observations about Science Fiction Movies, by Daniel M. Kimmel, Fantastic Books, 2011, $14.99.
IF YOU'RE reading this magazine, you almost certainly have some working knowledge of the geek monomyth: the individual's sense of alienation from the rest of humanity; his/her discovery of a secret world within our mundane one, embodied in a book or movie or comic or game; the discovery of similar individuals, followed by entry into or creation of a community of same, usually involving some sort of ritual initiation through a display of knowledge or mastery of its arcana; the crossing of various thresholds as the seeker penetrates deeper and deeper into the substrata of the shared world, through endless reading/rereading, watching of the same films, continual attempts to achieve the next level in a game, total immersion in thousands of pages of a manga series, etc.; the community's dedication to recreate and expand upon the initial experience of discovery and involvement in the secret world, or to actively create original, even more arcane worlds, which will in turn draw new seekers into the geek Eternal Return. [In lieu of actual archival footage, The Big Bang Theory and Mystery Science Theater 3000 provide dramatizations of certain subcultures of this type.]
I've long been a participant observer of these communities, as well as a (mostly) lone practitioner in my early years. And, like many people, I've been wondering how much longer they'll survive in an age of social networking, loss of realtime personal contact and privacy, post-literate/cinematic culture, continuing degradation of the vampire mythos, etc. Subcultures by definition are somehow differentiated from the culture at large: we live in an age where formerly isolated communities (gamers, fetishists, animation majors) have so successfully infiltrated the larger culture that whatever distinctions of dress, taste, ritual or choice of reading material once defined them have become mundane components of the bricolage that is twenty-first-century monoculture.
It's not that we fail to "grow out" of our youthful obsessions and membership in the tribe (though many do). The human brain is wired for narrative: maybe the process of reading and rereading, playing and replaying, watching and rewatching, etches its own recursive pattern upon our neural pathways at a sensitive moment. We really do become what we read.
Frederik Pohl's 1978 memoir, The Way the Future Was (the best eyewitness account of the genre's Golden Age) details the founding of a twentieth-century fellowship, the Futurians: "…it was not exactly a club, it was a description: The Futurians were us." Besides the eighteen-year-old Pohl, its original members included Isaac Asimov, Cyril Kornbluth, David A. Kyle, Robert Lowndes, and Donald Wollheim; Hannes Bok, Damon Knight, and Judith Merril joined later.
Today they'd each have a thousand Facebook friends (at least); in 1937, they had each other, as well as a small but growing community of editors, writers, and readers.
I doubt that we Futurians, taken collectively, were a very likable group. We were too brash for that. More than brash; we were egregious, egotistic, adolescent, highly competitive, and a touch insecure. We were given to put-down jokes, and the one among us who showed a human weakness was savaged about it endlessly. We were pretty damn smart…and we knew it. We made sure everyone around us knew it, too.Add some fart jokes, recurrent mention of bodily functions, and an obsessive love for the Star Wars franchise, and you've got a pretty good description of Tony Pacitti and his friends, as depicted in Pacitti's charming and hilarious 1990s memoir, My Best Friend Is a Wookie: One Boy's Journey to Find His Place in the Galaxy. This is Freaks & Geeks for those of you who knew, long before Episode II's release, that Owen Lars was Obi-Wan's brother.
Pacitti mines the familiar bedrock experiences of a middle-class American childhood and adolescence. Subsitute Han Solo's BlasTech DL-44 for "a Red Ryder carbine-action, two hundred shot Range Model air rifle with a compass in the stock and a thing which tells time," and you've pretty much got Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story. But Pacitti's riffs are memorable, and his love for the three original Star Wars movies and growing sense of betrayal over the sequels is both very funny and moving. I'd say "strangely moving," except that Pacitti is such a sweetly engaging, intelligent, and amusing narrator that, after a while, it doesn't seem strange at all to share his exhilaration at finding a Son of Skywalker card in the Dagobah pack of the Star Wars Customizable Card Game.
Pacitti is also surprisingly honest, and even Star Wars can't obliterate the horrors of junior high school. He doesn't valorize his own childhood, and he doesn't make himself out to be the pitiable outsider, either. As a kid, he realizes that he's not really a loser: maybe he's just shy. Most of the time, he's funny—the Guy Fleegman of science fiction memoirists.
He gives an excruciating account of a traumatic second-grade classroom incident, but it doesn't scar him for life (glad it didn't happen to me, though). He loves his parents, fellow Star Wars nerds, and with good reason. After seven-year-old Tony, new to the neighborhood, gets ambushed by bullies, his mother (cue Melinda Dillon) asks, "Have you seen Star Wars yet?" rummages in a box of videotapes recorded from HBO, fast-forwards through David Lynch's Dune, and irons as Tony is mesmerized by the opening fanfare of The Empire Strikes Back.
Later, some of the bullies become allies; some of the friends drift away from the orbit of Nintendo and Star Wars card game tournaments and never return. Some do. In high school, Tony becomes part of a gothy clique (hilariously depicted), but at heart he knows that he's simply not that miserable. He gets a cute girlfriend, and guess what? After two years, he dumps her. He becomes a high school hero after being approached by the cool kids, who ask him to write (and then rewrite) a skit for Spirit Week. (In a plot twist right out of Glee, the original skit is pulled after a cross-dressing gay student accuses it of being homophobic, because a scene features a boy cross-dressing as a female cheerleader.)
In college, Pacitti gets a few more girlfriends. He dumps them, too. (He feels bad about it afterward.) Occasionally, his attitude toward women reminds me a bit of Vic, protagonist of Harlan Ellison's classic "A Boy and His Dog," only without the cannibalism, as when, in college, Tony is given a Solomonaic choice between getting laid for the first time and watching an episode of the Venture Bros. cartoon show.
Pacitti knows where his heart lies. Anticipating The Phantom Menace, he writes,"I was beyond hungry for this movie. I lusted for it. If the movie had been a woman, I'd have had a restraining order slapped on me…." His description of the delirious chaos at the film's opening at the Liberty Tree Mall is priceless:
The place was packed wall-to-wall. Everywhere I looked I saw them: Han Solos, Obi-Wans, nonspecific Jedi Knights, stormtroopers, Vaders, Boba Fetts. You name them; there they were, smiling like jack o'lanterns. You could tell they were grinning through their thick plastic helmets, because their elevated cheeks made their Imperial-issued headgear sit a bit funny on their heads.By the time Attack of the Clones is released, Toby-Wan Kenobi is still lusting for the Lucas Universe, but more jaded.
Episode II was so, so beautiful that first and second time I saw it, but as the weeks went on, the whole thing started to feel more like a one-night stand than true love…It was like calling back that hot, easy girl you had nothing in common with.As the years and prequels pass, Pacitti feels increasingly betrayed by George Lucas, and with good reason. But his greatest sense of outrage erupts in the funniest section of the book, when the original movies have their first theatrical release after twenty years.
It was, from what my parents have told me, like 1977 all over again. And I hated it. This exclusive little club, this refuge…had just opened its door to the rest of the world.Still, by the time a reader finishes My Best Friend Is a Wookie, one knows that Pacitti isn't really threatened by the thought of sharing Star Wars with a gazillion other people. He's secure with his place in the Lucas universe. He's even composed his own epitaph, and I doubt anyone is going to argue with it:
Here lies Tony Pacitti. If nothing else, he knew more about Star Wars than some stupid girl who only started liking it way after he did.Charles Yu takes the recursive nature of geek obsessiveness to the next level in his novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. His protagonist, Charles Yu, a thirtyish time-machine repair guy with an M.A. in applied science fiction, gets stuck in a time loop that dooms him to repeat his own life ad infinitum. Yu is a highly lauded fiction writer whose previous story collection, Third-Class Superhero, features, among others, the eponymous Moisture Man. Yu obviously knows his way around the genre ghettos—he's one of the folks responsible for gentrifying them.
When he's not holed up in his time machine office cubicle, snoozing in temporal pockets that enable him to avoid actual human contact, the fictional Yu lives in Mirror Universe 31. Thirty-one is owned by Time Warner Time, a division of Google and part of the military-industrial-narrative-entertainment complex. It's a place where individuals can access endless variations on their own timeline, by renting time machines whose prototype Charles helped his father invent in the family garage. His father disappeared when Charles was a teenager, and his son's journey to find him among the infinite timelines of Charles's own history provide what there is of a plot.
Can we please, please have a moratorium on American novels and movies in which an emotionally wounded son searches for the father who abandoned him? Even if the point is to send up the whole "dark-father-lost-son-galactic monomyth thing"? The scenes of Charles and his father building their time machine are affecting, though I've seen or read something like this so often I felt as though I'd fallen into my own time loop. Far more engaging are the glimpses of myriad pocket universes, like the one where Charles gets a client call that brings him to an ice planet where he meets a kid named Skywalker—not Luke but his son, Linus.
Can't be a day older than nine. I asked him what he was doing when the [time] machine failed, and he mumbles something about how I would never understand….Loop City, Universe 31's megalopolis, resembles a sort of computer-generated space, where residents of the more affluent neighborhoods create simulated "reality" gardens, the more lifelike gardens being evidence of status. Charles's mother "lives" in a sixty-minute time loop her son has purchased for her (he'd like to upgrade her to ninety minutes, but can't afford to). Here she repeats, endlessly, a version of the same idealized dinner hour with her husband and son, a dinner that never actually took place. It's a scenario both nightmarish and heartrending, especially when the real Charles visits, momentarily breaking the temporal flux, then refuses to stay despite his mother's pleas.
There are numerous other good touches, including Charles's dog, Ed, "a weird ontological entity," and several computer-generated avatars—TAMMY, a cute operating system with low self-esteem (shades of Marvin, the Paranoid Android), and Charles's boss, Phil, an antiquated copy of Microsoft Middle Manager 3.0 whose passive-aggressive setting has been reconfigured to low. And I loved the Institute of Conceptual Technology, and the perception engine, which deserves another book all of its own.
Too often Yu blares his novel's theme—that Charles has to stop living in the past, live his own life in the moment, and accept that "self" is not, as he ruminates at one point, "a problem to be solved." As Snoopy would say, Bleah. I wish that Yu had bagged all the father-son hokum and stuck to his riffs on the time travel paradox, which owe much to Chris Marker's 1962 film La Jetée, yet manage to be fresh and exhilirating. Still, at the end of the day I have to admire a guy who can sidestep the TARDIS and suggest a foundational theory of time travel that we can all relate to: "Within a science fictional space, memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements to produce a time machine." It's nice to have Charles Yu remind us that, yes, "living is a form of time travel."
I was only slightly disappointed that Daniel Kimmel's Jar Jar Binks Must Die was not another Star Wars memoir, but a collection of film reviews and essays. Kimmel, a Boston-based critic, has no patience for viewers or reviewers who fail to take science fiction films as seriously as they do Citizen Kane or Psycho. He also has a refreshingly blunt take on Steven Spielberg, predicting that in a generation or two Spielberg will be a cinematic footnote alongside Cecil B. DeMille, another popular filmmaker whose work hasn't held up well over the decades. You might disagree with this and some of Kimmel's other assessments, but you'll definitely be entertained. Kimmel's a terrific guide to classic though underappreciated works such as Things to Come, and is especially sharp on 1950s sf movies, David Cronenberg, and the art (or lack of same) of movie remakes. I don't know if there's an iPhone app for Kimmel's work, but there should be—his brief essays are addictively readable and yes, a lot more fun than watching Revenge of the Sith.
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