In case you missed the news, a couple of weeks ago The Experimenter Publishing Company (parent company of Amazing Stories) signed a licensing agreement with NBC/Universal Television for use of the Amazing Stories’ name for a reboot of the 1980s TV show. It is exciting news, but if you are a fan like me, you can’t help but have that contradictory sensation of cringing hope. The awareness that this potential love affair might not end well, but so long as it is in the development stage, there is still hope that this one just might live up to the vast potential of a genre series (and not get cancelled prematurely if it does happen to be good).
If you are a regular reader of Scide Splitters, then you know that my prescription for life’s cruelties is to find solace in comedy. And there is probably no better humor story to read for this particular problem than Ben Bova’s The Starcrossed. Why? Because it is based on Bova’s real experience as technical advisor for The Starlost, a 1973 television show that demonstrated nearly all the pitfalls that can sink promising SF television.
Even if you have never read The Starcrossed, there is a good chance you have heard about The Starlost debacle because Harlan Ellison was the creator of the series, sinking six months of his life into the project before leaving in disgust and denouncing the whole thing. Harlan is not a quiet person when people piss him off. If you want to know the full story of the real events that inspired Bova’s novel, look for one of Ellison’s rants on the subject. He tells it with more colorful venom than I can muster. If you want to laugh at a story that captures the essence of what went on, complete with a thinly veiled Harlan Ellison central character, then read The Starcrossed.
The fictional version takes place a few decades in the future (at least from a 1970s perspective). Bova illustrates his future with some comical hard SF elements. For instance, rather than fix the smog problem in LA, the smog has been colored and perfumed. And I thought that the earthquake-proof skyscrapers were particularly funny.
The story opens with Bernard Finger, the chief executive of Titanic Productions, desperate for a top-10 show after a long string of flops has the company on the edge of bankruptcy. It seems that ridiculously idiotic reality shows are not panning out. So Bill Oxnard (Ben Bova), inventor of the 3D television system, is brought in to demonstrate his latest 3D upgrade that will give Titanic an edge over the competition. But the mafia connected bankers want more than just a crisper picture. They want a hit show that will pay dividends. Anything short of that will spell the end for Titanic.
Finger’s top assistant, Brenda, advises him that they should call Ron Gabriel (Harlan Ellison), a top scriptwriter and ideas man, but Finger thinks that the writer is too volatile. Ron once punched a producer for turning his script of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” into a musical. But Finger’s objections are overturned when Brenda reminds him of his own motto, “Never let that sonofabitch back into this studio… unless we need him.”
Gabriel does not want to work with Finger either, but he needs the money and is coaxed into the project with promises of complete artistic control. He is also assured that the series will have a big name director as well as top acting talent. At Ron’s insistence, Oxnard is hired as technical consultant to ensure that the science is accurate. But almost immediately after the bargain is struck, duplicity, cost cutting measures, and ignorance of both science and science fiction take over with hilarious results.
To some degree, it is difficult for me to assess how entertaining the story will be for casual fans with limited knowledge of science fiction. To be sure, there are many inside jokes that will pass right by them. I loved the Harlan Ellison character, but will he be as entertaining to someone who askes “Harlan Who?” Additionally, I think it helps to be familiar with the frustrations SF fans have had with awful TV shows and Hollywood movies. I suspect that the casual fan will find the story serviceable but not spectacular. On the other hand, if you couldn’t help laughing when George Clooney made his noble, but scientifically ridiculous, self-sacrifice in the movie Gravity, then The Starcrossed is for you.
The Starcrossed can be found in Ben Bova’s omnibus Laugh Lines. It is available from Baen in both mass market and hardcover editions and contains two novels and six short stories, all humorous.