Science Fiction Grand Master Gene Wolfe, 1931 – 2019

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Science Fiction Grand Master Gene Wolfe, the author of more than two dozen novels, most famously the four-volume Book of the New Sun, has died at age 87.

A former engineer turned prolific short-story writer and novelist, Wolfe has won many science fiction and fantasy literary awards over the course of his career. He is noted for his dense, allusive prose as well as for the strong influence of his Catholic faith on his writing. The Book of the New Sun was but the first part of his Solar Cycle, which also includes the trilogies The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun.

A full obituary will follow. Explore his work here.


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William Goldman Found Heart and Humor in a Fairy Tale

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Novelist, screenwriter, and memoirist William Goldman has died at the age of 87 after a brief illness and a long and truly extraordinary career as a writer.

Much of the mainstream coverage of his passing has focused, rightly so, on his Academy Award-winning screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, just two of the many critically acclaimed films he worked on as either a screenwriter or script doctor. It’s astonishing body of work: Marathon Man (adapted from his own novel), A Bridge Too Far, Magic (another self-adaptation), The Stepford Wives—even lesser-known films like the 1966 hard-boiled crime homage Harper won him awards. So many of these films are immortal, and any one of them would’ve defined a lesser writer’s career. His run of hits made him the rarest of rarities: a celebrity screenwriter in an industry in which writers tend to be at the bottom of the pecking order. There were flops in there too (Dreamcatcher; ouch), but they’re dwarfed by his successes.

But for many of us—those of us who love fantasy, love it enough to be readers of this blog—one particular work that stands above the rest.

The Princess Bride began with bedtime stories Goldman told to his young daughters (famously, when asked, one child requested a story about a princess, the other, a bride). That might go a long way to explaining the silly-but-sweet tone of the ensuing novel, published in 1973.

Presented as an abridgment (“the good parts”) of an earlier work by the fictional S. Morgenstern (a billing that confused the heck out of a young me, who immediately set about to finding the nonexistent unredacted version), it is the story of Buttercup,the most beautiful girl in the world (eventually), her rise to princess-dom, and her bantering romance with long-suffering farm hand Westley. It all takes place a lightly magical Renaissance world of pirates, princes, and Rodents of Unusual Size.

Goldman’s genius is in the blend of puckish humor, sarcasm, and occasional scenes of straight up parody, both of fairy tales and picaresque literature. Though it is shot through with irony, it is never once cynical; this is satire shot through with genuine sweetness. Even as we’re laughing at the ridiculous situations in which the many colorful characters find themselves, we’re cheering along the central romance. Goldman celebrate the same virtues he could just as easily mock; the humor lures you in to a story about true love in an era (one we’ve never quite left) where stories that try to balance the fantastical with scenes of genuine emotion are often seen as passé.

He was clearly having a ton of fun with it, though—and not just in the writing. I’m sure Goldman would have loved the idea of kid-me hunting around for a full-length version of the “original” text (readers were even invited to send in a letter in exchange for a deleted scene that was never delivered—the prize, instead, was an explanation of legal interference from the Morgenstern estate. A more recent edition even directed readers to a website where they could read a snippet of the much-rumored reunion scene. Naturally, the site included only the text of the fictional legal notices.

Goldman did occasionally promise to pen a sequel, perhaps even sincerely (it’s truly hard to tell), but the story we do have is so wonderful, asking for more seems greedy. As a consolation, there is a lesser-known follow-up in a similar vein: The Silent Gondoliers, also a work by “S. Morgenstern,” a silly novella about the once-singing gondoliers of Venice.

The Princess Bride, as a novel, took on a following, and remains a beloved classic. But, of course, the film version became something even bigger. In his 1983 memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman described feeling like a novelist first and a screenwriter second (he completed 16 novels), but in penning the screenplay for the 1986 Rob Reiner adaptation of his novel, he performed a different but no less enduring work of magic: he helped ensure that the movie is completely faithful to the book, and also it’s own thing, and that one of them is not better than the other. There will always be arguments about book vs. film, but this is a rare case where we might have to call it a tie. Is it the best book-to-film adaptation ever? Maybe. Misery is pretty good too. Guess who wrote the screenplay.

“Cynics,” Goldman famously wrote “Are simply thwarted romantics.” With that, one of our eras greatest writers summed up his own influence. We’re all of us cynics in 2018. It’s the default mode. But the continuing influence of Goldman’s work, especially The Princess Bride, reminds us to occasionally wake up and dust off the romantic hiding inside us all, and be alert for the moment when “As you wish” becomes “I love you.” He wrote that life isn’t fair, which is true, and that at least it is fairer than death, which is truer. But he also wrote that true love is the best thing in the world (except for cough drops), and that’s a truth universal. They’re both good lessons, wrapped in great stories.

William Goldman, 1931-2018

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With a Pen, Stan Lee Changed Lives and Created Universes

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Stan Lee, who became a towering figure in pop culture over an extraordinary eight decades in comics, died this week at the age of 95. Though his long life and career saw many phases, it was his work with Marvel comics that made him a legend.

But Stan’s stint with Marvel didn’t begin in the pop art era of the early ’60s for which he’s most famous. Family connections got him a job as an assistant at what was then Timely Comics under Captain America creator Joe Simon in 1939. The 17-year-old filled inkwells and picked up lunches until earning his first byline in Captain America #3, for a piece called “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge.” In that era, “literature” magazines generally got cheaper postal rates than did comics, so publishers made sure there were at least a couple of pages of straight text in every issue—typically forgettable bits of character backstory. This early work by Stan doesn’t stand out, except that it includes the first-ever instance of Captain America throwing his (mighty) shield—and, of course, for the career it presaged.

Stan began writing comics features and back-ups shortly thereafter. Turmoil at the company saw him landing a temporary editor job that never really went away, even during the three years of military service during World War II. Timely Comics became Atlas before evolving into Marvel in 1961. That same year saw Stan and artist Jack Kirby create the pop culture revolution that we still haven’t seen the end of.

Though inexplicably never having achieved quite the superstar status as some of their other creations, the debut of Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four made Marvel, and broadened the potential of the superhero genre immeasurably. The lead characters had no interest in secret identities, but lead their lives as celebrity adventurers while frequently feeling like freaks. They dealt with petty grudges and had problems paying the bills, none of which stopped them from facing down increasingly bizarre science fiction threats, from shape-shifting aliens to a planet-eating god and his surfboard-riding herald. That contrast—between the gritty and the cosmic—makes the long Lee/Kirby run on FF a high-water mark in superhero comics. The alchemy of that unlikely collaboration has never been matched—Kirby’s stunning art and wild ideas paired with Lee’s storytelling sense, and a flawless ability to deflate self-seriousness with a well-timed, if groan-worthy, joke.

Debate has raged for decades now about how much to credit Lee over his collaborators: giants like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and John Romita, all artists with unparalleled creative minds. But I’ve never seen it as a competition, even if these men sometimes did. Marvel’s method at the time—in which Stan might provide a plot outline that Kirby would develop and expand upon before Stan added dialogue and a final polish—meant a top artist might have a profound impact on the story and overall direction of a book. Stan’s fingerprints, nonetheless, were on every issue of every title released during that era.

And the tone—that blend of cool and self-consciously corny that had a grown man ending every piece of writing with “Excelsior!”—was pure Stan. His character was something akin to your coolest uncle. He was dorky and he knew it, and it came across as something like irony, before irony was a given. Stan also engaged with fans and readers as no comic creator had ever even considered—each book started with a splash page listing the names of all of the creators, ended with a letters page, and eventually included a “Bullpen Bulletin” in which readers would get updates on the lives of Marvel staff. There was soon an official fan club offering all sorts of tie-ins, even the tackiest of which worked just fine with the so-uncool-it’s-cool style that defined Stan’s public persona. Perhaps because of the soap opera elements that make the comics so compelling, it’s tempting to set creators against each other or reduce Stan’s role to that of pitchman, but that’s not fair to any of them. There was genius to spare in Marvel’s bullpen.

Lee’s is a remarkably diverse legacy. It’s impossible not to mention Spider-Man, in whom Stan and Steve Ditko (with help from Kirby and, later, John Romita) created a teen hero at a time when the youth culture in America was in the ascendant, but the dominant mode among that other company’s heroes was “Super-Dad.” With The Avengers, Lee and Kirby (and later Don Heck) built a team book that lost some of the cosmic grandeur and weirdness of the FF but amped the soap opera elements to 11. X-Men, even with an all-white cast, made a compelling case for diversity. The Hulk managed to be a hero despite his incredibly poor impulse control.

The list goes on and on, and includes another Lee and Kirby creation: Black Panther, the first major black superhero in mainstream comics. Lead by Stan, the mostly-Jewish lead creators at Marvel didn’t hesitate to sneak messages of religious and racial tolerance into their books, and the character of the heroic African monarch from a scientifically advanced society remains resonant, perhaps more than ever. Just last year, the movie was doing huge business while a 1968 “Stan’s Soapbox” column on hate and prejudice went viral after RZA cited it at a tribute event.

The energy in those ’60s Marvel books is undeniable. It was boundless. Addictive. And you still get the same charge reading those issues today. They’re all exploding with art and ideas, with knowing asides and fourth-wall breaking moments that invite you in, even decades later. The hip tone wouldn’t work without the sense that everyone is having a tremendous amount of fun—even if we can guess that they weren’t always.

Though Stan’s relationship with the company in later years was complicated and sometimes contentious, his remains the human face of Marvel in the hearts and minds of fans—even those who’ve never picked up a comic. His later projects never quite matched the critical and artistic success of his ’60s collaborations, but he retained an enviable amount of energy well into his 90s—doing new work in comics, visiting conventions, creating a charitable foundation, putting out a comic autobiography and, of course, making appearances in pretty much every single Marvel-related movie and TV show. (Of which there are, of course, very, very, very many.) He ranks as Hollywood’s top-grossing executive producer simply for having his name on so many of the biggest movies of all time. Almost 80 years after he first walked in the door of what became Marvel Comics, Stan saw his co-creations conquer the entertainment world. Only in the last year or two, and following the death of Joan, his wife of seven decades, did he really slow down.

Impossibly, these are just bits of Stan’s resume, and pieces of his bio: all very impressive, but only part of the story. Anyone who’s ever even loved superheroes grew up with Stan Lee: his creations are essential to our pop culture landscape, sure, but that face and voice have been in cartoons, movies, and TV shows for as long as any of us can remember. He’s been a smiling ambassador for the good and tolerant bits of comics culture, reminding us that it’s OK at any age to love mutants, Hulks, and Things; teens who dress like spiders and Russian spies (who also dress like spiders). Disabled people, including a wheelchair-bound professor and a blind lawyer, weren’t excluded. His heroes were often reformed villains, eschewing the idea that evil is indelible or that good isn’t subject to temptation.

Beside the weird alliteration, bad puns, and cheesy dad jokes, Stan and company gave us big ideas, and endless inspiration. In 2018, as in 1962, is there any more relevant lesson than Uncle Ben’s exhortation to leaven great power with a great sense of responsibility? With a pen, Stan Lee changed lives and created universes. He’ll be missed, but the work is immortal.

Stan Lee, 1922-2018

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