Entertainment :: Books

James Bond Ultimate Collection Vol. 2 (A View to a Kill / Thunderball / Die Another Day / The Spy Who Loved Me / License to Kill)

by Brian Callaghan
Monday Nov 20, 2006
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Bruce McAllister has what you might call, well, a calling. Since age 16, he’s been a published writer of science fiction--or, as it’s sometimes called now, speculative fiction.

Indeed, the genre name speculative fiction might better describe what McAllister writes, even though a decidedly sci-fi short story if his, Kin, was nominated for this year’s Hugo Awards.

In Kin, a young human boy demonstrates a natural ability that impresses an alien mercenary. The lessons of the story are multiple: McAllister challenges notions of racism (pretty literally, given the different species in the story), and examines the line that bounds honor and separates it from a penchant for senseless violence.

Kin is included in the new collection of McAllister short stories, released this month from Golden Gryphon Press. The Girl Who Loved Animals and Other Stories also includes a haunting tale in which the thoughts of the dead are monitored by the police for clues as to the identity of their killers; a far-future vision of a world hemmed in by concrete and yet vulnerable to the resilience of the human spirit; the short story that spawned the novel Dream Baby (now possibly on its way to becoming a film); stories about how the selfish choices humanity has made will force much more difficult choices about which animal species continue to exist, and which are permitted to go extinct--and the corrosive effect the destruction of the natural world may have on the human soul; works from early in his career, including one in which the human animal is the one that teeters on the brink of oblivion, thanks to a tyrannical alien race; and an array of other stories, wide-ranging in their themes and settings.

The book contains commentary by the author to explain each of the selections, about ten thousands words’ worth. Like the special features on a DVD, these Story Notes can be enjoyed in conjunction with the selections, or they can be skipped over: the stories hold up quite nicely on their own, but McAllister’s ruminations are engaging and fascinating.

Bruce McAllister chatted recently with EDGE by phone, discussing the possibilities of adapting one of his best-loved works for film and describing the dangers of being a sci-fi writer whose ideas might be too far-out for even the sci-fi readership.

EDGE: One of the stories in your new collection might possibly be headed for the movie house. Could you talk about that a little?

Bruce McAllister: The short story version of Dream Baby was published back in 1987, then turned into a novel, so it’s a fairly old novel--especially in Hollywood’s eyes. Since its publication, a former student of mine, close friend, and TV and film writer by the name of Mike has been championing it in Hollywood, and you know the way Hollywood stories go. It can take ten or twenty years to see anything happen.

We’ve done two screenplay versions. One is set in Vietnam, where the short story and the novel are set; the other in a present war, a dreamy, strange, timeless war that has been going on for about thirty years, a jungle war at the other end of the world.

EDGE: How would that work?

Bruce McAllister: The present-war version of the screenplay, just finished, is a kind of dreamy and highly disturbing David Lynch kind of war. Try to imagine Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive meet Platoon and The Matrix, where a war was started decades ago and still hasn’t ended. We’ve tried to forget it, we don’t want to remember it, it’s underfunded, the men and women who serve in it don’t have new equipment, the public is in denial. That version begins in the world of Northern California wealth, fancy cars, GPS and other technology, and then very quickly, when the heroine, Mary Damico, signs up as an Army nurse, we’re in hell--we’re in an old war that just won’t end.

It’s funny, the timing now. Vietnam is back in the news. There was even an Iraq skit on the Daily Show that felt strangely like a parody of the war we’ve imagined for this present-war version of Dream Baby--a Vietnam that never ended, a war we wake up to one day and realize it’s still going on.

EDGE: If you were going to do an updated version, why not set the story in the actual war in Iraq?

Bruce McAllister: Great question, but we’ve been through that and it’s a definite "no way." Mike didn’t even want us to do a present-day war version--he’s got total faith in the Vietnam War version--but I wanted us to have two versions. Hollywood tends to view any Vietnam War movie as a "period" movie--an historical movie--and we need to show them that you can keep the heart and soul, the tragedy and heroism, in both time periods. But a desert war? No way. You really can’t bring the story--its heart, its feeling--to the desert.

EDGE: When would you know which version you might go with... or if you will see the movie made at all?

Bruce McAllister: We’re optimistic that if anything is going to happen, it’ll be this year or next year. Beyond that, I probably shouldn’t say anything about what’s happening at the moment. A couple of things are, but we’ve been there before--and in Hollywood one never knows.

EDGE: How has that process of adaptation been?

It’s been fun and enlightening, under Mike’s tutelage, to adapt it--and what we’re using, really, is the short story, the one in the collection, not the novel, but opening it up to film length and structure and upping the CGI action sequences. I taught screenwriting for 15 years in university and make a living as a book and screenplay coach these days, but that doesn’t mean I really know how to write an adaptation of my own work, so with my co-writer / former student / close friend, I’ve learned a lot about the process, while also learning even more about The Industry. You think you know, but Hollywood is always full of craziness and surprises.

EDGE: In Dream Baby, and in other stories in The Girl Who Loved Animals, you explore the idea of soldiers in extreme danger reacting by experiencing life-saving flashes of ESP. In the Story Notes you supply, you seem to embrace the idea that ESP is a real phenomenon.

Bruce McAllister: I was afraid you were going to ask this--and let me tell you why.

ESP can be used in science fiction. It’s a valid motif, subject matter. As science fiction it can be explained in a story scientifically, the way I do in Dream Baby--as trauma, stress-induced, using secular science and extrapolative rationality. As science fiction it’s "rational"--it’s not actually extrasensory, it’s sensory phenomena we haven’t yet understood.

But you can also view ESP as the occult or supernatural, and that’s the problem. The "irrational." The non-scientific even using extrapolation. Hard-core science fiction readers are rationalists. Science fiction in its purest form is, paradoxically, "rational fantasy." It is fantasy, sure, and yet it’s rational. It’s out to think rationally whatever it’s subject matter, and anything that smacks of the occult or the supernatural or the spiritual is not friendly to the rational mind, or the scientifically trained one. So as soon as a science fiction author says, "Oh, by the way, I not only use ESP in my fiction; I happen to believe in it, too," there’s a double standard: he can suddenly be viewed as a crackpot. You can see why I might freeze a little at the question.

One example. I asked a man--a well-known science fiction writer I’m indebted to in my career--if he would blurb Dream Baby when the novel first appeared, and he said he couldn’t because he doesn’t believe in ESP. That’s fine, and I still love him, but it reveals the bias I’m talking about. I happen to come from a Stanford MD and Ph.D. family on my mother’s side. I come from a family of mechanists, empiricists, ESP doubters. My father was a career Navy man: oceanography, physics. He wasn’t anti-ESP, it just wasn’t a part of his world. My mother was in the behavioral sciences and was a real skeptic. Those were my influences; if I happen to believe in ESP, there must be good reason, right?

EDGE: What would that reason be?

Bruce McAllister: The interviews and correspondence with 200 vets that I interviewed and corresponded with during the 15 years of researching Dream Baby, but also all sorts of events--sober, carefully observed events--that happened to the novel and to me during the writing of it--and also events that have happened since. I’m not going to get into specific incidents, but these days I juggle in my head two models for how and why ESP might work. The odd thing, of course, is that particle physicist friends have no trouble accepting ESP, anymore than they have a hard time accepting certain kinds of spirituality. It’s the applied guys that have the hard time. Even the Navy (think the SEALS’ use of Silva Mind Control back in the day) don’t seem to have a problem with ESP, and that’s of course because they see it all the time, and without needing to understand it, feel they’re using it.

One model is a cross between physics and spirituality, not surprisingly. The deepest part of the psyche probably operates in Einsteinian time and space, and as we know, in an Einsteinian universe there’ s no problem thinking of simultaneity of time and space. ESP is not a problem there. Also, if one is at all spiritual, the oneness of things applies here.

But the model that I used in Dream Baby--the novel, the short story, and the screenplay--is one you run across from Buchanan, the story’s arch-villain, and that’s a secular, "rational," psychological and physiological one. I came up with that model because of the nature of the experiences that were reported to me by those 200 vets of three American wars. They had striking patterns: they all tended to be life-and-death situations, and the guys experiencing the episodes of what they feel was ESP had never experienced anything like it before; and when they returned to peacetime, they never experienced anything like it again.

But episodes like that are called in the psych trade "spontaneous anecdotal data," and they’re not of interest to scientists because they cannot be replicated in a lab. But these episodes are no different from all the mothers in World War II who dreamt the deaths of their sons in detail ten thousand miles away. They’d never dreamt anything like it before; they dreamt the deaths in detail; and that was that. There’s nothing you can do with that as a scientist, really. I can be interested in it as a writer; you can be interested in it is you’re interested in ESP; we can all as readers, thinkers, fiction writers, and human beings be interested in them, because they point what the mind can’t yet understand; but scientists can’t really do anything with that.

What’s fascinating is that there are researchers actually doing interesting work with ESP. They’re the skeptics who are interested. They’re the ones who say, "I don’t want to believe in this, but I’m curious and I’m going to work very hard to look at it." And they do, and wonderful work flows from it.

ESP tends to have a sense of humor, like the human mind. If you try to look at it too carefully--a little bit like particle physics, too, as it should be--it will act the Trickster and knock you to your knees. The sound of one Remote Viewer clapping.

So anyway, yes, I do believe in it--though not with the associations most people have with it, and though it is dangerous thing for a science fiction to admit.

EDGE: Another theme that crops up several times in the stories included in the collection is how the Earth’s biosphere is beginning to collapse, and where that might take us. You were writing these stories decades ago, long before Al Gore’s movie and everybody being worried about penguins and polar bears and talking about their carbon footprint. Did you feel like a voice in the wilderness back then? How do you feel about the sudden surge of alarm that we see coming up only now?

Bruce McAllister: That’s a great question, because it’s got an exciting, if disturbing, answer--for me, anyway.

I was sick and medicated for about ten years in the 1990s, so when I woke to the world in l999, I was like a Rip van Winkle waking. No writing for almost ten years. Not much ability to think about current events. I’d written my "ark" stories--the stories about saving endangered species--in the ’80s for Ellen Datlow at Omni. I hadn’t been a lone voice then, but the public certainly hadn’t been thinking much about what was coming, and we weren’t seeing, at that time, epic, worthy-of-its-own-TV-miniseries weather events. There was nothing happening (or reported) dramatic enough for the media to say, "Oh my god, it’s happening!"

I feel as if I’ve woken up in a science fiction story. If you go back to Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and look at some of those scenarios that at the time sounded like hyperbolic, exaggerated, silly science fiction, they are what we’re taking for granted today. The disappearance of amphibians; algae acid that kills sea mammals. It’s like a science fiction story--and not a good one--coming true. When you’re a science fiction writer, you never imagine you’re actually going to wake up in one of your own stories.

Human beings will prevail one way or another. That’s pretty obvious, though quality of life is another matter. How do I know this? Because of history, but also because I grew up on Navy bases and have fond memories of the tarmac and the oil spills in the bay--iridescent, beautiful. Why fond memories? Because all that we really demand from the world is love; and if we have it, we can remember even the harsher environments fondly.

Global warming is a terrible thing, whatever its cause or causes, and we’re in for a terrible ride, I’m sure (like Cromagnon man); and at the same time, human beings are remarkably adaptable creatures.

I have a well-connected foreign policy friend who says that even if we stopped carbon emissions fully, it would take the biosphere hundreds of years at least to fix itself, so that the focus now should be on human beings pulling together, human beings coping. One thing we need to do is think more of "The Commons," and the lifeboat. One thing we don’t do much anymore, in the United States, is think in terms of the life boat. Those who settled and founded this nation did. We don’t anymore.

My ideal happens to be a commando team--strange thing for a ’60s anti-war guy and current odd-moderate to say. I don’t mean the killing part, but instead the solving-problems part. If you leave the killing out, you have, in the commando team, an archetypal structure of the "therapeutic community" that’s created automatically in disasters, when people rally, defer to leadership, take responsibility, and remember the disaster fondly for the rest of their lives--because they were truly awake and alive during it.

This isn’t just idealistic stuff. Ben Franklin said the same thing about the Constitution when he asked everyone to sign it: "It’s not a perfect document, guys; but we’d all better set aside our differences and vote for it if we want to be better off than we are and for a long time."

EDGE: Let me ask you about the fact that you started publishing so young: you were sixteen when you got your first story published.

Bruce McAllister: My grandmother, my mother’s mother, lived with us when my brother and I were growing up. She was very loving, loved nature, the sea, loved to paint, so the first creative thing I did (because love is so important) was to paint. I was four or five, and I would go to the beach in Florida and I would paint by her side on my own little easel. Writing didn’t hit until probably about third or fourth grade when I feel in love with lizards and snakes.

What makes all artists tick is that they love. They at least love enough to be angry, but mainly they love. They feel a sense of wonder and love for painting, for film, and they want to make it, too. Both of my parents were good writers of the professional kind. My mother loved Asian poetry, too. My dad was a Naval officer, as I said earlier, and they definitely encouraged my writing, though I think creative writing is always a shock to parents who are not already creative writers. You add that to the ’60s, and I’m sure I was a little frightening to them at the time.

Many, many writers have created work that is "better," higher, than they are, and we all admit that as writers--as I’m sure any artist of any medium does. In one sense, that might mean that when we write, we are free of our egos, we are free to go someplace else. There was a great American poet--I won’t mention his name--who wrote the most sincerely compassionate and therefore "spiritually" enlightened poetry imaginable; but in person, in his private and even public life, was a raging racist. How do you reconcile that? That was ego. It means that when he wrote, he went to another place.

EDGE: When you see a collection of stories, like this new one, is it like flipping through a photo album or going to a reunion to see old friends?

Bruce McAllister: What an interesting question. Both, I guess. Very much. And working with Marty Halpern, my excellent editor, was been its own wonderful experience, too. Totally different from the snapshots and reunion experience.

The science fiction field loves story notes. The rest of the world I don’t think loves story notes. I’m living in fear of someone who isn’t a science fiction fan picking the book up and saying, "My god, look at all the story notes! Can’t the guy just write the story and shut up?"

In the story notes, what I try to relate is what, in my own life, those stories meant, and where they came from. Many of the story notes are disguised letters, I suppose, to younger writers, basically to what I once was; a way to speak over the decades to them. Others are thanks--in personal story form--to people I feel very grateful for, the mentors and friends in my life, presented in a way I think is interesting to strangers. It’s a little strange to go back to the first story which I wrote at age 15 or 16, and then the college stories. I just could not write them now. Doesn’t mean they’re bad stories; they’re just a young man’s stories. So, yeah, it’s a little odd, looking back over 40 years, but also wonderful. And without the help of my editor, Marty, I’d of course had no idea how to arrange them into a book. No writer could do that.

MGM Home Entertainment $89.98

Extras include:

Subtitles in English, Spanish, French, Mandarin, Korean and Thai

Audio in English and French

Closed captioning

Commentary tracks featuring Roger Moore and other cast members and film makers

Original movie trailers and TV commercials

Music videos

Interviews with directors and film makers

Behind the scenes and on location featurettes

Interactive guides on each movie called 007 Mission Control

Deleted and alternate scenes


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