Random thoughts, settings, characters, situations, perhaps leading somewhere

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Snapsongs: “Fly Like an Eagle” by the Steve Miller Band

Thursday 15 May 2014 - Filed under Snapsongs

I have been a science fiction nut probably since I first started to read. It didn’t help that I saw Star Wars at the tender young age of six, and it completely blew my young mind. My Dad actually took off work so we could go see it, and I remember everything about our trip until the opening scene of the movie. The air-conditioned brown-tiled lobby, the big box of popcorn, my Dad’s casual shirt (I mostly saw him in suits during the day, so this was delightfully exotic), the feel of anticipation sitting in the theatre seat, the wave of excitement as the lights dimmed. Then a star destroyer came lumbering across the screen shedding laser bolts in stereo, and my brain overloaded. I remember nothing else but flashes of light and then going home and drawing TIE fighters everywhere I could find a piece of paper. I mistakenly thought of them as “I-wing fighters”, but fortunately a friend of mine corrected me on this faux pas.

Although Star Wars was an influence, it was not the origin. One of the reasons my father took me to see it, besides it being 1977 and everyone and their brother was seeing Star Wars, was probably because I was already well-versed in various forms of astronomical trivia. One of my more vivid early memories was proving my mother wrong when she told me that Mars was bigger than Earth. It was a intellectual victory that had me hungry to amass ever more arsenals of data and facts. The Astronomy Shelf in the Children’s Section at the library was quickly mined out, so I had to beg my mother to help me find books in the Real Part of the library. These facts informed the increasingly complicated adventures that were always befalling my space LEGO dudes and their increasingly elaborate moon bases. As a catalyst, Star Wars neatly dovetailed with these twin obsessions. It was only a matter of time before I took matters into my own hands and decided to write down some of these scenarios.

One of my first coherent writing samples, dating from third grade and which I am still in possession of, was a space opera, hastily scribbled on spiral notebook paper, that contains a random salad of elements from Star Wars, Star Trek, LEGO Space, members of my grade-school posse and some prototypical germs of narrative brilliance. The Big Bad in this particular manuscript were the residents of a planet I named “Exon” with one “x”, no relation to the then-recently-launched rebranding of Standard Oil of New Jersey. It was not a Galactic Empire, per se, just a world of assholes who wanted to blow up everything in the universe except themselves. As a narrative trope, it was pretty successful, and they remained the requisite enemy through at least six revisions of my magnum opus. The second revision even got accepted into the local chapter of the Young Authors Conference, which was very exciting, although I am curious exactly how many Star Wars-inspired entries the judges had to wade through in order to get to my particular take on the theme. Through five grades, four schools and two states a legal pad and pencil were my constant companion, carefully enclosed in a leather-bound folio that my Dad had gotten for me from work. At each of the schools I attended, I managed to rope in some of my friends to help populate this fictional universe, and although I produced probably 90% of the actual writing, the others were useful as soundboards and sources of inspiration. Science fiction was a basic part of my life, either reading it, writing it, or enacting it.

And no one understood this better than my best friend in fourth grade. The worsening economy had landed me in the local elementary school that year, instead of the über-crunchy private open school my parents had sent me to previous two years. To explain: “open schools” were something of a starry-eyed concept promulgated by well-meaning hippies during the early 70s. The basic idea was, take a building, knock down all the internal walls, put a library in the center of it, and group grade levels around the perimeter in clockwise fashion. To divide the space into classrooms, you use movable chalkboards and corkboards to reconfigure everything on-the-fly. Specific classes like gym and art might have actual enclosed rooms, but everywhere else people were free to move as they wish. Maumee Valley Country Day School was just about the perfect example of this concept, and it empowered students from kindergarten through eighth grade in its laid-back, no-hassle educational paradigm. Thinking back, I don’t remember being taught much of anything there, which I suppose is the whole point. I remember basically being a slacker truant with the son of the principal during second grade, and various shenanigans, pratfalls and donnybrooks with my friends during third. All that said, I certainly don’t remember operating at a deficit when I entered Maplewood Elementary in the fall of 1980. I suppose that’s as good enough a justification for the open school concept as any: I evidently was given an education, it was just subliminal.

At any rate, my only difficulty with attending a normal, run-of-the-mill school after that was my disconcerting habit of getting up and going to the bookshelves or the art bin or the bathroom whenever I damn well pleased. It took me a while to realize you had to ask for permission before you did anything that wasn’t in the lesson plan. But that didn’t stop me from integrating myself with the local social scene. Within a few weeks, I had a large group of confreres to hang around with and to plot galactic takeovers. One specific boy, however, knew exactly what I was on about.

Space, space, space, it was all about space. Space was The Future, it was The High Frontier, it was The Destiny of Mankind. The two of us spent countless hours with pens, pencils and paper plotting out diagrams of interstellar spaceships, blueprints of orbital habitats, and elevations of buried moonbases. We were conversant with concepts from hydroponic gardening to Helium-3 mining to mass drivers to deep-space telescope arrays. It’s an odd little filip of the zeitgeist, this obsession with space, but we understood, and we believed. You have to remember, the late 70s kinda sucked. Inflation, oil embargoes, nuclear annihilation, the gutting of American industry, the collapse of starry-eyed hippiedom into louche sleaziness. Popular culture was in a shell-shocked daze. High-rise conflagrations warred with volcanic eruptions warred with airborne hijackings to up the ante on just how many people could be picked off, one by one, before the last man standing recognized the futility of his struggle. Higher-level sci-fi was not feeling any better. Luminaries like Ursula K. LeGuin, Roger Zelazny, Harry Harrison and Harlan Ellison were blighting their fictional landscapes with surreal apocalypses and high-tech dystopias, and the nihilistic endgame of cyberpunk was accreting from the fragments around them. The one place where a paradoxical thread of blue-skied Utopia still remained was in the popular science press, and none more uplifting than Life in Space. Even as gas shot up to $2.50 a gallon and lines formed at the pumps, we were still going to live in sun-drenched O’Neill cylinders, serviced by a regular parade of Pan Am space shuttles. Far from the crumbling cities and polluted landscapes of contemporary America, smiling families watched laughing youths hang-gliding through the zero-gravity point as the vast majesty of their space habitat curved around them. Poring over these rough-sketched pastel-and-watercolor illustrations, I felt like it was only a matter of time before I could step through the page an into a solar-powered Better Tomorrow.

So. Since it was the 70s, neither of our parents had a problem with either of us biking a mile away to visit each other, and back-and-forth sleepovers were common. Of course, I thought his house was awesome, because his parents were evidently not having financial difficulties like mine, and his mother — exotically Belgian! — didn’t have a problem with cable television. I watched quite a few off-limits movies like The Blues Brothers and Airplane! over at his house, but one of our absolute favorites was the completely awful Sonny Chiba vehicle Message from Space. I think we realized exactly how bad it was, but the audacity of the plot — glowing space nuts! blowing up the Moon! laser battles! — won us over. Listed as “Japan’s answer to Star Wars“, it was accepted into the canon as another awesome space movie. The other bonus to going over to my friend’s house was his absolutely astounding collection of space toys. He had a whole shelf just bursting with what I now recognize as early manga figurines, animé characters, obscure sci-fi action figures, and alien creatures. They were myriad, they were legion, they were everywhere. They warped into the LEGO Space universe with hardly a red alert bleep.

This was the milieu that “Fly Like an Eagle” inserted itself into. Steve Miller is not really known as a high-tech visionary of high-orbit settlement, but as someone who once denoted himself as the “Space Cowboy” you could expect there might be some fellow feeling there. This particular song kinda puts the wink and the nod to this hidden technogeekery. It’s usually played with “Space Intro”, the album opener, and contains a mind-warping amount of delayed Moog synthesizer scattered around the basic blues-rock core. At least it was mind-warping to me and my best friend, as we lay on the thick shag carpet in his bedroom, listening to the song on the radio. It’s all full of spacious reverb and open sonic spaces. The funky groove is there to keep the song moving, and at this early age I still recognized the importance of the basic bass thrust. Even the Hammond organ has an otherworldly feel to it, some of the portamento passages eliciting a dark, thick eruption from the soundboard that resembled nothing more than the low barking speech of some large and authoritative alien creature.

It was about that time that one of us would pull out my friend’s copy of our most favorite book in the world. That would be Spacecraft 2000-2100 — more accurately titled Spacecraft, 2000-2100 A.D.: Terran Trade Authority Handbook, but we didn’t bother with the subtitle. This was an odd little sci-fi project that had the author taking his favorite illustrations from the major sci-fi magazines and weaving together some sort of future history out of their implied narratives. Unfortunately for him, we didn’t really bother with the gingerbread. We were more interested in the pictures. Vast warships blazed past each other, umbilicalled astronauts suspended themselves over alien landscapes to conduct repairs, spiky probes encountered shadowy vessels in swirling mists, and a myriad of spacecraft jostled for berths at enormous spaceports. Planets with giant red suns shared the same spread as sentry ships lost in empty, star-speckled gulfs. This was the dream made real, this was The Future taken beyond just tame and domestic Lagrangian toruses and projected into the glow of the galaxy. This was space exploration taken from the hands of futurists and NASA engineers and turned into simply the way things were.

Just like the future history of the book, neither of us noticed or cared much about the more literal message of Steve Miller’s lyrics. Sure, it was an excellent idea to shoe the children and house the people living in the streets, but that was beside the point. The point was that time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, into the future, and we were there. In the ripple of Moog synthesizer sounds simulating the sensor sounds of our personal exploration craft, in the final beep-beep-beep of updated Sputniks circling forever around the world, we understood that it was high time to escape the Real World and the completely real and unavoidable dystopia that it presented. The real revolution, if one chose to look for it, was not here on Earth. It was in space, a territory as limitless as time. Staring at that book and hearing Steve Miller’s final coded message beeping through the speakers, I hoped to see the spacecraft of 2100 arc into orbit myself, when that time came.

2014-05-15  »  Edward Semblance