Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Heinlein Principle . . .

Before we start, allow me a brief, Science Fiction fan digression.

Many authors create coherent universes in the course of their novels. Stephen King has tied nearly every piece of his fiction into the Dark Tower Mythos, even if it was done as an afterthought through some very creative, retroactive continuity tinkering. Brian Keene has done this as well; his Magnum Opus will be the often-mentioned Labyrinth. Careful readers of both authors (and if you’ve tried one without sampling the other, then shame on you) will recognize characters from previous works in cameo roles, as well as places and events from prior offerings. While these subtle connections reward faithful fans, they’re done in a way that doesn’t send a casual reader into fits of confusion.

And, it’s a cool concept.

I’ve tried to do a similar thing with the Oogie Boogie novels. Lieutenant Ducalion aficionados have noticed an ongoing Whodunit case during the Intermission section of Bounce. This was an intentional inclusion. The scene repeats itself in the as-of-yet unpublished thriller, Legerdemain, a Ducalion solo novel. In fact, I’ve taken the universe-building paradigm one step further: The second half of Bounce takes place entirely during the Intermission section of Legerdemain, and when Ducalion gets back to his own novel, he brings company.

Fans of Keith Pridemore, rejoice.

I realize I’ve segued from a geek moment to a self-referential advertisement, but here’s the meat of this prelude: The collected works of Robert A. Heinlein.

Heinlein didn’t build just one universe; he built a bunch of them. There’s the world of Starship Troopers, where insects threaten humanity’s survival. Then, there’s the universe of Michael Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land, a Christ-like figure with a penchant for cannibalism. There are others as well, but you get the idea.

The crowning achievement, at least to me, was the novel Number of the Beast, which surprisingly had nothing to do with the anti-Christ. The main characters in this book were two married couples (and there were other, familial ties, but I’ll let you discover them on your own) driving a souped-up Ford that allowed them to traverse the parallel dimensions posited by string theory and modern quantum mechanics. Heady stuff, but that’s not the best of it.

Heinlein’s theorem was this: One universe’s fiction was another universe’s reality, which is how the Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman make an appearance in Number of the Beast (God bless Public Domain). There are also extended cameos from other Heinlein characters, most notably Jubal Harshaw from Stranger in a Strange Land, and Lazarus Long from Time Enough for Love.

I’m firmly convinced that the Heinlein Principle is more than a literary conceit.

We all have moments when we’d swear we were on Candid Camera (or Punk’d for you youngsters). When confronted with the asinine and ludicrous, it’s comforting to delude yourself –albeit temporarily- into believing the sources of these inanities do not exist in nature, but are products of the imagination of Alan Funt (or Ashton Kutcher). We look for the camera, and wait for the inevitable Gotcha! when the joke is mercifully exposed.

Most times, I’m still looking and waiting long after the idiots are gone.

Once again, I’m going to take the Principle a step farther. I am hereby declaring, although I have no quantifiable data to support it, that the lives of me and my staff at the bookstore are the basis for the highest rated situation comedy of another universe.

We’ve discussed it at length, and almost all of us agree the hypothesis has merit (as for the few dissenters? Well, every sitcom needs a Frank Burns, doesn’t it?). We’ve considered the cast, debating the order of appearance in the opening credits and fighting over who gets the coveted “With” and “And” credits at the close of the sequence. Like most televised comedies, there are series regulars, recurring characters and a plethora of guest stars and background players, and in keeping with long established storytelling guidelines, each installment has an A and a B story (except for those “very special episodes” that come during sweeps).

And sometimes, if I listen very carefully, I can hear the studio audience laughing.

Some of our recent episodes have been “What Do You Mean Christmas is Next Week?”, “Which Magazine has the Most Nudity”, and “I Want a Refund on Books I Didn’t Get, but I Can’t Remember Which Ones They Were.”

I keep checking the TV Guide, but can’t find our show. That shouldn’t surprise me, given the magazine’s recent decision to eliminate several networks from its programming grid.

The cable company’s electronic listings are no help either. It’s disappointing, but consistent.

Ratings must be good though, considering the constant stream of new performers crossing our stage. When a TV program is constantly over-budget, one of the easiest cost-savings measures is the elimination of guest stars (in case you’re interested, two other budget busters are new sets and location shooting). Advertising revenues aren’t a consideration for our little venture (trust me, our language alone wouldn’t put us anywhere near a broadcast network or basic cable) so we’re totally dependent on subscribers, and when you're talking about multiple universes, that’s a big demographic.

One troubling factor is our lack of payment. I don’t want to go all Truman Show here, but if our number of viewers is anything close to what I’m thinking, then somebody owes us a check. I’d ask my agent, but he must be a denizen of the same reality where we’re such a big hit.

Again, disappointing, but consistent, especially when you figure in syndication, internet downloads and DVD box sets. Where’s the Cosmic Screen Actors’ Guild when you need them?

Oh hell. I’m being called back to the set. Filming waits for no man . . .

. . . I’m back, and –believe it or not- my point is now proven.

While filling out a refund form, a customer paused when she came to the “Reason for Return” line.

“How do you spell ‘Don’t?’” she asked, honestly perplexed. Then: “How do you spell ‘Want?’”

I can’t make this shit up. I’m submitting this one for Emmy consideration.

But Then Again, You’ll Have This . . .