by Vanna Bonta
INTERIOR, WRITER'S APARTMENT, DAY The camera pans across an apartment in southern California.
SFX: fast typing
MENDLE J. ORION is sitting at his desk, pounding the keys on a TYPEWRITER. Sheets of PAPER litter the DESK and the floor. A WHISKY BOTTLE sits on desk.
Presenting for your consideration one Mendle J. Orion. Writer, dreamer, drunkard. He has driven away those closest to him. He has isolated himself from the world, while creating new worlds on paper. Right now he's creating the adventures of Aria Flight, a perfect woman, a woman who exists only in his mind.
The camera continues to pan to a bare wall, where the Narrator (ROD SERLING) is standing.
When Mendle calls himself a creator, he speaks more truth than he knows. And his book is destined to become a best-seller -- in the Twilight Zone.
SFX: Twilight Zone Theme
Break for commercial.
Yes, pals, I'm going to talk about Flight, a "Quantum Fiction Novel" by Vanna Bonta. And Flight would make a perfectly decent Twilight Zone episode. If I had to make a guess about its origins, I would say that Flight is the novelization of an unproduced screenplay. All the symptoms are there: the desperate padding as the author tries to make a 400 page novel out of a 90 page script; props that are only mentioned when they're picked up; the bits of business that would work well on screen but fail miserably when they're set in type; locations that are only sketched in so you can all but see INTERIOR, HOTEL ROOM, DAY on the page (after all, making the hotel room look real is the set decorator's problem, not the script writer's).
Even the characters in this work realize they're in a Twilight Zone episode:
"Well, nothing is impossible," Rex quipped and followed with a brief hum of the Twilight Zone theme.
But we aren't looking at a screenplay here, we're looking at a novel, and that's what I'm going to talk about. You'll notice two of the book's major problems in that little quote I just gave you. First, "quipped." The author goes to amazing lengths to avoid using the word "said."
"Brrr, brr," Aira was shivering.
"And I'm hungry," Mendle commiserated.
"Me too," Aira seconded, her teeth chattering.
The second is the failure of observation. Of all the times you or people around you have reacted to an odd event with a rendition of the Twilight Zone theme, when was the last time you heard it hummed? The descriptions keep bringing you up short with the question "How exactly did he go about doing that?" The fact is that Bonta has a gift for using the not-exactly-right word, and only sort-of looking at the world.
The last main problem is what the Turkey City Lexicon calls "countersinking." Unsure of the power of the description or dialog to get the meaning across, the author feels compelled to add modifiers to make plain the obvious. For example:
"I remember," Mendle recalled.
"I'm sorry," the woman apologized.
It might be a good exercise for beginning SF writers to go through this book with a copy of the Turkey City Lexicon and a highlighter, as a way of learning to recognize common prose errors.
It's time for a plot summary, because, all else being equal, here is where the book really falls down. The plot is a mess.
We start with a lengthy sample of the novel that Mendle is writing. You can tell that it's on a computer screen because it has a clever border, the background is half-tone grey, and the typeface is monospaced sans-serif. And you can also tell that this guy makes Kilgore Trout look like Gene Wolfe. The prose is bad, bad, bad. Here we meet M/a/r/y/ S/u/e/ Aria Flight and her pet dragon, Onx. Here too we find that Aria is looking for Jorion. And here we discover that the evil Loptoor is trying to send Aria to the Z Zone.
It isn't really fair to criticize the prose in this bit--it's supposed to be unedited first-draft, and how many of us would like to have our unedited first drafts held up to public scrutiny? Still, reading it is painful.
Loptoor was nervous. The feeling of being caught was too much for him. He finally decided to risk Juristac's disapproval and timidly waved his hand to announce he was about to say something.
"Your Supremeness, Most Brilliant," Loptoor began, "I consider it best not to jeopardize the future, your complete success, by momentary amusement."
"Ah, your reason is impressive, Loptoor!" Juristac bellowed. "Quite a display of ethics!" He was having a grand time behind Section A controls of Z Zone when, without warning, his face turned umbragious and he barked, "But there is no chance of error!"
You gotta love someone whose face turns umbragious. Juristac apparently hadn't read the Rules for Evil Overlords, where you're clearly warned never to say words to the effect of "But there is no chance of error!"
Soon enough, we drop out of the novel in progress, and join our hero, Mendle J. Orion, in his home. It doesn't take a PhD in English Lit to notice that J. Orion and Jorion are really similar names. And here we find also that Mendle is going to be getting the Campbell Award (for best new SF writer, if you aren't aware of what the award is) at the upcoming World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim. From this I can tell that Mendle must be the king of rewrites.
By comparison with the prose in the novel Mendle's writing, the prose in the real-world part of the book isn't too bad. But that's only in comparison. The author should have put in more sections from Mendle's novel to keep the rest of the book looking good.
Mendle has a serious drinking problem. He's driving away everyone close to him (this includes Sandra Wilford, quondam girlfriend). In fact, he's a world-class jerk. He's worried that he's going crazy, and he may be right. And as it happens, everything that he writes comes true.
Mendle goes to a shrink, one Dr. Alfred Kaufkiff, the same one Sandra goes to. Kaufkiff attempts to hypnotize Mendle, but Mendle resists, because going to sleep is the same thing as going to the Z Zone. You'll notice how intensely clever that is.
Pretty soon we're at WorldCon, a WorldCon where, amazingly enough, the elevators are easy to get in.
Anyway, before you can say "Pygmalion," a girl who looks just like Aira Flight appears, naked, in Mendle's hotel bathroom. She's beautiful, she's sweet, she's pure, she's innocent, she's not too bright. She doesn't have a navel, either, but Mendle doesn't notice this until she whips her clothes off again some chapters later. She speaks Truth, and she does it Literally. And Onx, the dragon, is there in the guise of a vegetarian dog.
Before long, Mendle, Sandra, Aira, and a minor character named Rex Benton (who has no real purpose in the book other than to give Sandra someone to talk to when she isn't thinking bitchy things about Aira and/or Mendle), and Onx are on the roof of the hotel. What this makes any normal person ask is "How did they get there?" since the door to a hotel roof is normally locked.
Anyway, they're on the roof, all gravel. And pretty soon, Aira falls off, over a two-foot cement block wall. She goes right on down sixteen stories. And isn't hurt. Much.
Anyone of normal intelligence would start to wonder about this. But not any of our heroes, no sir.
But I was wondering. I knew from reading the bits of Mendle's novel that Aira is a pure Spirit Being. So I can accept that she isn't hurt. And I know that she's taken on a human body. So I could understand if she got killed. But how did she wind up with only a scrape? All the way one way, all the way the other, those I could buy. But why minor injuries? This is what we in the writing trade refer to as 'a plot problem.'
Well, Sandra, she's all kinds of jealous of Aira. She's determined to pull old Aira down, and prove that she's a normal woman, maybe even a fraud. She sneaks into Mendle's house and lifts Aira's fingerprints. A woman of many talents is our Sandra. She sends these out to be analyzed, using contacts that she's developed as a journalist. And whaddaya know! Aira doesn't have normal fingerprints! She has blanks with stars on 'em! Golly. And by George, those are similar to the fingerprints that The Government has from the control panels of Secret Crashed Flying Saucers!
Meanwhile, Aira is coming up with Profound Truths. Like this one:
Aira looked down at Onx. Spontaneously, she interrupted her gait to drop to her knees and embrace the dog. "Oh, Onx!" she exclaimed happily. "I saw some truth! Living is really about love. We have to let the others know!"
This made me flash on a WWII-era Daffy Duck cartoon. Daffy is carrying a secret document through Germany. After a great deal of running around, he's captured. He swallows the secret document. The Nazi commanders put Daffy under a fluoroscope and read the paper: "Hitler is a nut." Goebbels and Goring look at each other in wonder and exclaim together, "Dot's a secret? Ve thought effryone knew dot!"
Well, Sandra's inquiries bring her to Paul Toor, and again it doesn't take an PhD to see the similarities to the name Loptoor from Mendle's novel. (Why Mendle never thinks to write himself a big bank balance and a happy ending I'll never know.) And Paul, Sandra, Mendle, and Aira go out to a concert, for reasons that escape me. There, under the influence of the beautiful music, Aira starts to glow and floats though the air over the stage. No one in the audience appears to find this strange. Our heroes, rocket scientists all, appear to miss the obvious as well.
But Paul Toor, you see, is an Evil Government Guy, in cahoots with Dr. Kaufkiff. Paul knows what's going on. In a plot development straight from Starman, he's going to catch Aira and have her vivisected! (Not that a goodly number of the readers who'd made it this far wouldn't be rooting him on.)
Sandra learns of his dastardly plan--we're back at another science fiction convention now--and she is going to warn the world. But the evil Paul Toor, hiding in a giant model rocket, shoots her before she can spill the beans. Just to show how bad he is, he also shoots Onx. Rather than call for the medics, Mendle and Aira pick up Sandra, throw her in the back of Mendle's car, and drive her to the hospital. Not surprisingly, she dies on the way, since they fail to stabilize her before transport and then handle her roughly. IMHO Paul put her on the floor, but it was Mendle and Aira who killed her.
They drop Sandra off at the Emergency Room, in another of those scenes that would work well on screen but don't make the grade in print.
Then Aira and Mendle go off together on a trip through America, where they eventually meet with a farmer, A.J., whom Aira met some years before while dropping off her spaceship. There, Aira and Mendle make speeches at each other, and discover that they can take over all the radio and TV broadcasts in the world in order to preach world peace.
They arrange for a Harmonic Convergence, Part II.
Paul Toor shows up again, and our heroes deal with him handily. Onx returns, in the guise of a woman named Ona:
"Love is a stronger cohesive than agreement," Mendle narrated to A.J.
And that's pretty much the end of the novel, with the Rex, Kaufkiff, and running-out-on-Sandra threads still hanging.
You're probably wondering what "Quantum Fiction" is. That's sort-of explained:
"Science fiction, poetry, fiction, anything. A friend of mine, Bonta, a writer, actually calls it Quantum Fiction, a new term bringing science up to speed, for when thought meets matter," Mendle found himself babbling on.
Actually, 'quantum' means 'of or pertaining to the very smallest amount that can be measured.' And by this we're supposed to understand that this is fiction by the very smallest amount that can be measured. In other words, this is Pretty Darned True. The truths revealed are obvious--people who are surprised and enlightened have to have somehow missed about two thousand years of Western Civ--and are presented in a way that resembles wading through treacle. Mendle's no longer drinking, but he's still a world-class jerk. Aira is merely annoying.
The big revelation about sex and love is this: You're supposed to love the person, not the body. The other big revelation is that we're immortal. This isn't a surprise to anyone who's familiar with the concept of 'soul,' although it may be a surprise to Mendle, Aira, and all of their friends.
The pseudo-scientific babble that this is all based on is a misunderstanding of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. "Thought changes the material world," is how it's explained here. In fact, the principle really says that the act of observation changes the thing being observed. Thinking isn't required; just observation.
We finish with an end-note from Vanna Bonta herself, in which she threatens another book about Aira and Mendle, Beyond the Speed of Time. I don't think I'll pick it up.
We're supposed to believe, by the way, that it's really possible that everyone on earth might sing at the same moment, and that this will usher in a new world of human development.
It isn't possible, of course, for this reason: Some people won't get the word. Of the people who get the word, some will crankily decide not to do it (me, for one). Some will intend to sing, only their watch will be slow and they'll miss the time. And some will forget, sleep through it, be distracted by a crying baby, or have a mouth full of Coney Island Hotdog. So in order to get everyone in the world to sing at the same time, you'll already have to have had that new development in human consciousness.
Heinlein covered the same ground, a lot better, thirty years ago with Stranger in a Strange Land.