Dream Factories and Radio Pictures, a new e-book published by Electric Story, reprints twelve of Howard Waldrop's stories, each with a new introduction by the author. While it also includes two wonderful new pieces -- a poignant, highly personal essay titled "A Summer Place, On the Beach, Beyond the Sea . . . " about the impact of the great SF film On the Beach, and an inimitable Y2K story, "Major Spacer in the Twenty first Century" -- this collection is especially brilliant because it brings together most of Waldrop's stories about film and television. Few writers of speculative fiction have treated the mass media of the twentieth century as imaginatively and as seriously as Waldrop, so anyone fascinated (or appalled) by film and television would do well to read this collection beginning to end. Anyone who hasn't read Waldrop's work before would also do well to read this collection, because it serves as a great introduction to his writings. Even readers who know his work well may find their appreciation of it deepened by seeing a group of his stories devoted to one subject.
I'm not going to waste many words in this review praising Howard Waldrop. He's one of the most exciting, enjoyable, challenging writers in the field. The accompanying article offers judicious and deserved praise by writers far more eloquent than I. I want to show you how this collection brings out the beauty of Waldrop's work. It does so primarily by debunking two myths that may discourage many readers from giving Waldrop a try. Myth one: Waldrop is difficult. Myth two: Waldrop is so unique that not even two of his own stories are ever much alike.
Let me take the second myth first. Now, it's true that Waldrop's stories are quite different from anyone else's. He finds ideas for stories where no one else would think to look, and he tells them from perspectives no one would expect. One of the best stories in the collection, "Flatfeet!" looks at the years in which Hollywood was rapidly becoming the center of the film industry, but it shows this time of change by focusing on the small-town police department that must face these changes. When Waldrop then models his police on the Keystone Kops, he creates the kind of mix that make his stories both delightful and inimitable. The attitudes of the police, as they deal with the arrival of increasingly odd and numerous outsiders, are both hilarious and disturbing. Waldrop shapes a wholly different mood in "Mr. Goober's Show," an uncanny story about two children in 1953 who discover a pre-1940 television while visiting their aunt. On it, they see a show that (they discover years later) no one else ever saw and that should not have been broadcasting in 1953, a decade after TV technology had been revamped. You may not have known that early television created and sent its signal very differently from the kind that found its way into every American home after World War II. I didn't. But Howard Waldrop did, and he found in that little-known technological shift the germ of a great story.
Despite such wildly different premises, all these stories have more in common than mass media. They are all strikingly personal. Waldrop's introductions help to bring out this aspect of the stories by placing them in his life and, more importantly, in our life -- the life of everyone shaped by those all-pervading purveyors of Americana, TV and The Movies. As Waldrop says in his first introduction:
These things are imprinted on you and me from childhood as surely as if we were baby ducks. The movies are as real (or more real) than the first grade or the SAT or your second car or 'Nam or whatever else we call life. They're part of it; they're escape from it.
These are all visionary stories: his vision of who we are. As such, there's something of the American tall tale in almost all of them. Thomas Pynchon touches this note, characteristic of American yarns, when he has his characters in V chase albino alligators through the sewers of New York City, but Waldrop performs virtuoso riffs on it, story after story. He treats the characters of movies as the property of our collective unconscious, a set of archetypes that he freely and outrageously reimagines, showing us, in ways we could not have predicted, some of the meanings of our shared dreams. He shows the jarring incongruity of simple goodness purveyed through potentially deadly technology in the story "Heirs of the Perisphere." A chance lightning strike causes a factory to produce one final set of three robots, who turn out to be versions of three famous cartoon characters, fifteen hundred years after the total destruction of high technology civilization. Finding no trace of the theme park they were built to work in, or of any people at all, these robots designed to make people happy must try to find a place in an empty world. Their story treats apocalypse in a wistful mood. "French Scenes" takes us to a nearer future where advances in computer graphics have led to a film industry almost entirely devoted to making films populated by star actors of the past. The new directors are haunted by a past that they think they can totally control by electronic manipulation.
Although he creates extravagant speculative fables, Waldrop is not a psychedelic writer. The wildness of the situations he creates is always balanced by extraordinary concreteness of description. "Heirs of the Perisphere" treats its cartoons-cum-robots with unexpected intimacy by means of head-to-toe, inside-and-outside accounts of their appearances and mechanisms. They begin as strange, but they become familiar. The haunting "Mr. Goober's Show" enforces its air of mystery through Waldrop's meticulous description of the pre-1940 television, which is clearly solid and scientific, yet utterly strange. His consistent commitment to concrete detail may seem the more incongruous in stories about movies and TV shows, which don't have any reality at all. Or do they? In "French Scenes," two directors discuss the proper way to make a computer movie on the graphic machine, the GAX:
"They put a lot of stuff in the GAX," she said. "No telling what kind of garbage is floating around in there, unused, that can leak out. If you want to play around, you might as well put in a bunch of fractals and watch the pretty pictures.
"If you want to make a movie, you've got to tell it what to do and sit on its head while it's doing it."
She looked directly at me. "It's just points of light fixed on a plane, Scott."
Like his director protagonist, Scott, Waldrop turns away from the infinite malleability of cyberspace. Instead, he's rummaging around in the unused garbage, looking for something he can touch that will touch us, too.
If this unswerving commitment to the tangibility even of the intangible movies is one source of Waldrop's genius, it may also be a source of his limitations. His powers of imagination and description are apparently inexhaustible, but his range as a writer is not infinite. Some things he doesn't do, at least not in his stories featuring film and television. He's not much interested in character development, or even with characters the reader can "identify with" in the usual sense. His psychological insights are social, not merely personal. In none of these stories are women central characters, nor does romantic love or sex figure particularly in any of them. Waldrop does more things than most writers, so I don't criticize him for not doing these things in his stories. But it would be wrong to make the reader expect everything from him. He has some consistency in what he doesn't do in stories, just as he has some consistency in what he does.
And that brings us back to the first myth about Waldrop: his difficulty. Now it's true that he's not an easy writer, but he's no more difficult than many contemporary writers of SF. He takes the traditional structure of the science fiction adventure short story and bends it into configurations no one else would have thought of. He doesn't replace it with a different kind of story, as other experimental writers of speculative fiction have done. In that respect, he's solidly in the tradition of the golden age science fiction of the 1950's. The consistent subject matter of the stories helps to make clear Waldrop's characteristic reworking of more familiar types of story.
Many of his stories feature a version of the scientist-as-hero: artist-as-scientist-as hero. These artists may be early workers in the media. Waldrop gives us a tremendous group of these in "Fin de Cycle," which features a group of late nineteenth-century French artists who revolutionize film-making as they put together a movie defending Dreyfus at the height of the Dreyfus scandal. Or they may be B-movie makers who rise above their material ("The Passing of the Western"). Or African-American actors who manage to create great comedy in the no-budget "race movies" of the 1920's ("Occam's Ducks"). Or the pioneers of live TV ("Major Spacer in the Twenty-first Century"). Or cinema clowns (four more stories). Again and again, he gives us artists as adventurers, as explorers, as eccentrics. Rather than exploring outer space, they explore the undefined space created by electronic media, but they proceed with the same boldness as astronauts on a mission to Mars.
Waldrop is also true to his golden-age roots in his commitment to exploring the reciprocal relationship between technology and imagination. Creative, adventurous human minds created these new media, but these media have changed and continue to change the content and the form of human imagination. This collection shows how Waldrop has been envisioning this unfolding relationship between mind and media over twenty-five years of dedicated writing. Waldrop, and his readers with him, are by turns (sometimes shockingly rapid turns within a story), exhilarated and horrified by these technologies and their use.
Waldrop also draws on other traditional styles in crafting his stories. One important one is cinema itself. Like a modern film director, Waldrop gives his readers not a straightforward, sustained narrative, but a series of implicitly linked moments of interest. He focuses on the visuals, on the concrete details, by which the story is implied. More important, though, is his devotion to the art of clowning: comic business, comic timing, and the poignance of the sad clown. One of the great pleasures of this collection is its clowning scenes. "Save a Place in the Lifeboat for Me," which features Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and the Marx Brothers, is of course full of them, but they crop up here and there in many of the stories. My personal favorite is the unicyclist circling the bases during the annual policeman -- fireman baseball game in "Flatfeet!" just before the game is rudely interrupted by passing undead. Waldrop is willing to interrupt a story-line to clown a bit; when he does, it is always worth it.
But clowning is more than comic relief in Waldrop. What I keep seeing in the stories is that the heroes turn out to be the clowns. It shapes their attitude to history, which slaps them down; it shapes their attitude to their art, which asks them to be brilliant even when they're working on a shoe-string budget. Clowns are funny because they fail at whatever little task they try to accomplish, but failure never stops a clown from trying again. In their zest in the face of failure, they find their higher success in the laughter of their audience. Waldrop understands this paradox, and if there's anything that makes his stories difficult, it's that he wants us to understand it, too, and see it in our own history and future.
From the way those who know him well write about him, Howard Waldrop seems to have a lot of clown in him. Perhaps that explains his odd position in the speculative fiction field -- highly lauded but still marginal. (Only one other work of his -- the 1997 collection Going Home Again -- is in print.) The late twentieth century has not been a good time for clowns, and people seem to have a hard time figuring them out. Society doesn't accept failure -- we outlaw it or define it out of existence -- and people aren't so good at laughing at themselves. Who are the contemporary successors to Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy? Howard Waldrop has been true to his calling, to his genius, even though clowns are out of fashion, so he hasn't received the attention he deserves. But, inexhaustible, he keeps giving us new stories worth listening to.
He's a bit like the character of the street-preacher Rudy in "Major Spacer" who takes a look at Y2K fears and failures from the point of view of the clown. Standing on a corner in New York City, Rudy explains how it all fell apart:
"So what was left was arbitrary. . . . Why icemaker refrigerators sometimes work and most others don't? You can't get no fancy embroidery on your fishing shirt: It all come out lookin' like Jackson Pollock. No kind of damn broadcast TV for a week, none of that satellite TV shit, for sure. Ain't no computers work but them damn Osbornes they been usin' to build artificial reefs in lakes for twenty years. Cars? You seen anything newer than a 1974 Subaru on the street, movin'? Them '49 Plymouths and '63 Fords still goin,' cause they ain't got nothin' in them that don't move you can't fix with a pair o' Vise Grips. . . .
"Now that they ain't but four million people in this popsicle town, you got room to learn, room to move around some. All them scaredy cats took off for them wild places, like Montana, Utah, New Jersey. Now you got room to breathe, maybe one o' you gonna figure everything out someday, kid. That'll be thanks enough for old Rudy. But this time, don't mess up. Keep us fuckin' human."
Reading Waldrop may sometimes feel a little bit like listening to old Rudy -- that is one of Waldrop's voices. But if you do listen, you'll find he gives you a lot of room to learn and move around, to be reminded of the Osborne computers of our history so you can laugh about them and be free to make some more, maybe without messing up.
Christopher Cobb is Senior Reviews Editor for Strange Horizons. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our archives.