PART 1 OF AN EPIC INTERVIEW WITH . . . BERNARD SCHAFFER
Q: From reading your work over the years, and knowing you personally, you have an affinity for Science Fiction. What were your influences as a child?
Bernard: My father was a Star Trek fan and I remember sitting next to him on the couch, watching the show together. My mother was a hairdresser at the Village Mall, this tiny, depressed little shopping venue, and she’d have to take me to work with her sometimes. The mall had a movie theater that showed older movies, and it was an easy way for me to kill time. Empire Strikes Back was about to come out, and they were playing Star Wars in the theater. I probably watched it at least twenty times, by myself. I was maybe five, six years old. The day Empire came out, I’ll never forget this, my dad took me out of school early to go see it. We don’t get along too well anymore, but he did those things for me and I’ll always remember it.
Q: What’s the state of science fiction today, in your opinion?
Bernard: I think science fiction reflects society, our hopes and fears can quite easily be seen in the face of our imaginings. It’s no surprise that zombie apocalypses are dominating the genre, because everywhere you look someone is ringing the Ebola death knell, the killer bee death knell, the conservative or liberal death knell. I often wonder when these doomsday preppers are going to look at their garages full of canned food and stockpiled ammo and think, “Shit, I can’t believe it didn’t happen yet.”
Q: Let’s get it out there: Star Trek or Star Wars? Fans of either or both inevitably get asked that question by someone. Do you have a favourite?
Bernard: tough, tough question. Both represent something completely different to me. I love Star Wars for the magical quality it has. From the first orchestral chords to the scrawl of the opening text it just takes me back to being a kid again. Star Trek, however, is about something much larger. It’s about the future of humanity if we can manage to get there. I love Star Wars but I don’t base my political opinions on it. As crazy as it sounds, Star Trek factors into my personal belief systems, or at least inspired me as a child enough to develop them.
Q: I remember your excitement when Prometheus was about to be released, and your eventual disappointment in the end result. When science fiction movies get it right, watching them can become a life-changing experience in that they can alter our view of the universe or even life itself. Have you had an experience like that watching a science fiction movie?
Bernard: The Matrix would have to be the one movie that makes you step back and reevaluate things. I don’t mean the idea that we’re all plugged into an alternate reality. It’s really about all of us being part of a system, some kind of artificial construct that we mindlessly participate in. What happens if you break away from that? What happens if you look past “The Matrix” of control we’re surrounded by and try to be free? Everyone is a slave to some sort of system. Most never realize it. I’m interested in peeling back the curtain and examining the restraints. Maybe they were put up with good intentions. Maybe they’re just mechanisms to keep us all in our place.
Q: The best and worst science fiction movies of recent years? What were you most impressed by and, similarly, let down by?
Bernard: I think the recent X-Men movies have been surprisingly good. Probably because I keep expecting them not to be. Prometheus collapsed under the weight of its storyline. The Evil Dead remake was great. But my favorite had to be Godzilla. When Godzilla emerged through the dust and smoke, the entire audience cheered. They balanced the character’s mythology, majesty, and look so perfectly. Of course, I skip all the parts with the kid from Kick Ass. I just want to see Gojira.
Q: You infamously worked with Grand Master of Science Fiction Harlan Ellison in publishing Resistance Front (an anthology of work to aid charity, in this case The Center For Missing and Exploited Children), which you edited. I’m not going to go into the behind-the-scenes details of that experience, as that’s been covered in depth before. I wondered if you’ve had any further contact with Unca Harlan.
Bernard: I got a phone call from Harlan right before we did a presentation at the Philadelphia Comic Con in 2013. I’d sent Susan an email asking if she wanted us to promote anything, or hand out flyers, and Harlan called me directly with an offer of goods. It was nice to hear him sounding pleasant. That previous phone call was just an ugly thing, so I’m glad we got to speak once more as friends. I love the guy. Always will. I am just a small, small satellite in the grand solar system of Harlan Ellison’s life and career, but he’s a pretty big planet in mine. I’m certainly not alone in the ranks of people Harlan laid into.
Q: It hit the news recently that he had a stroke and was hospitalized. Then recently he was sent home and appears to be on the mend. I personally don’t think he’s as widely read as he should be. I myself recently ordered his collection ‘Slippage’ to add to my collection. What do you consider Ellison’s eventual legacy will be? This is a man who’s won almost every award under the sun – do you think that one day his work will get the attention it deserves?
Bernard: Harlan’s better work has a growling, snarling edge to it. That being said, he comes from a very floral era in fiction. He overwrites in a vast majority of his work, which looks dated now. Purple is the word that comes to mind. Take the story, “The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World.” It won the Hugo in 1969 and was the title of the collection, but that’s not a title someone would use now. The other problem is, he’s a prolific short story writer. Huge, teeming volumes of short stories that would leave the average reader befuddled where to begin. What Harlan needs is a good editor to come in, repackage his work and update it. The problem is, and I know this from personal experience, he wants it done exactly as it originally appeared. Not one speck or squiggle had better be off. But who am I to argue? He’s Harlan Ellison. He must know more than I do.
Q: I’ve made no secret of the fact that Arthur C. Clarke is my own favourite science fiction author. But that doesn’t get past the fact that a lot of his work is now outdated and behind the times. What do you think the science fiction we’ve grown up reading will mean to readers 50 years from now? Will it still have relevance?
Bernard: I think it depends on our definition of the genre. Are we talking just spaceships and aliens, or all speculative fiction? Tolkien holds up. C.S. Lewis holds up. George R.R. Martin will hold up. Technology is a tricky thing to write about because at some point, everything becomes obsolete. Good fiction, science or otherwise is about the characters and story. That never gets old.
Q: In the grand tradition, let’s make a prediction of our own – what will be the major advances in the next 10 years? Both in sciences, technology, space and politically?
Bernard: I’m pretty sure that no matter how much I speculate as to what they’re inventing next, it won’t even be close. Every week it seems like there’s a new announcement of some planet altering technology. And yet there are still countries without clean water, or basic health care. Even in our own countries we see a resistance to basic scientific understanding, like evolution or vaccination. It seems like the faster we expand at the top, reaching new heights with technology, we’re also expanding at the bottom. I’d like to see us firm up the middle a little better in the next decade. Let’s find ways to bring our discoveries to areas that need them, and focus on educating people instead of scaring them. I can’t see the use of 1 percent of the population having access to recreational space flight and 3-D printed bobble heads while whole countries starve to death.
That’s probably the Star Trek in me coming out.
Confederation Reborn AVAILABLE NOW