The Manual Typewriter: 1870-2011?


The end of an era?
When I was a kid, I used to read a lot of Stephen King novels, and one always stood out in my mind.  Misery, the story of Paul Sheldon, held against his will by the crazed Annie Wilkes and forced to resurrect the main character of a series of novels that have, shall we say, “held her attention” for a long time.  During the course of his detention, he taps out Misery’s Return, and (spoiler alert) when he gets the chance, clocks her with the aforementioned typewriter.  Try doing that with a laptop and doing any significant damage.
The point I took away from the story wasn’t so much that typewriters can be used as lethal weapons, but rather that I’d like to be a writer, pecking out the great Canadian novel (alas, the great American novel is beyond me, both by way of birthplace and temperament) on one of those nifty manuals, whipping out sheet after sheet of brilliant prose and leaving them in a pile to be edited later with a nice red pen.  It didn’t seem too unrealistic a dream either. I’m not too young to remember manual typewriters, having been exposed to them in grade school.  No power assisted key-strokes, just good old-fashioned manual labour.  If you’ve ever tried to make your mark with one of these leviathans, you’ll know what I mean.
Eventually, time and progress overtook the manual typewriter.  First it was the electric typewriter, later simple word processors, and finally in recent years, the laptop.  I can even remember when the name “typing class” went out of fashion.  Suddenly, we were taking “keyboarding” lessons, and not only the manuals, but the electrics, were quickly phased out of the local high school.
There is irony in nostalgia, however. 
After all, today’s word processing programs make writing and editing so much easier than back in the day.  No more reams of wasted paper, no more fiddling with either ink or eraser ribbon, not even that one letter that always seemed to rise slightly above the type. The reality is this: today it is a much easier world in which to be a word smith.  Just a tap of a button and your revision is done.  So, it shouldn’t come as a shock to read that the last maker of manual typewriters has finally stopped production. 

     “Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing Co. Ltd. has shuttered its facility in Mumbai, India, where as recently as 2009 the company was making 12,000 mechanical typewriters a year.”

So, is that all she wrote for the typewriter?
Well, not exactly.  The key word here is, “manual.”  The good people at the Chicago Tribune have looked further into the matter and for what it’s worth–the typewriter may be in its death throes, but it’s still got a bit of life left.
So maybe my dream of sitting in front of an old Underwood with a pile of fresh paper on one side and that great novel on the other, celebratory bottle of whiskey off to the side for the moment I declare my work done, isn’t quite a pipe-dream yet.  Perhaps it’s time to browse eBay.

Agent to the Stars: John Scalzi

Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi is the first novel I someday hope to write.  Started as what he calls, “a practice novel” (that novel everyone tries just to see if they can do it) back in 1997 and posted to his website as “shareware” (from the preface),  there it sat, gathering fans until 2005, when he was contacted by a publisher (every writers dream) and an initial run was printed by Subterranean Press.  This time around, Agent to the Stars has been picked up in paperback format by TOR.

Now Scalzi is not new to writing, beginning his career as a film critic and humour columnist, later becoming a freelance writer and author.  Since 2005, when Agent to the Stars became his second published novel ( Old Man’s War beat Agent out of the gate by mere months but it can be accurately claimed to be his second novel), Scalzi has focused on follow-ups to OMW and his personal blog entitled “Whatever“.  So, he’s had some practice.  However, that doesn’t detract from the impressive quality of a novel he wrote on a lark.

As to the story:

Suppose you’re a member of an alien society wanting to make first contact with the silly little creatures that inhabit the third planet around a very average G-type (aka yellow dwarf) star.  Then suppose you’ve tapped into all the random information (specifically television and movies) they’ve been broadcasting into space for the past century or so.  For every E.T.  you watch, there’s a Thing, or more specific to the Yherajk (as you call yourselves), a little movie called, The Blob.  Well, you might have second thoughts about the whole thing, based on the apparent xenophobia exhibited by the local populace.  However, if you’ve spent the time and energy to come half way across the galaxy, you’re not going to let a little paranoia get in the way of first contact.  The question is how to make a good first impression?  The answer…hire a great publicist!

That, in essence, is the premise of Agent to the Stars.

When Tom Stein, an up and coming talent agent is told he has a meeting with the head of the agency, he expects that Carl Lupo (legendary agent and owner of the agency) is going to congratulate him on his latest deal.  Tom certainly doesn’t expect to take a meeting with some gelatinous goo named Joshua, sitting on the table in an aquarium.  Once he gets over the initial shock of first contact with an alien that resembles a bad b-film monster (and incidentally, smells like ass), Carl sets forth a proposition.  Find a way to market the Yherajk to humanity, a way to gently introduce the populace to a genuinely agreeable alien society wrapped in very unpleasant form.  No big deal for one of the hottest talent agents in Hollywood, right?

And with that, Tom takes home Joshua (in a water jug) to brainstorm ideas on how not to spook the entire human race when the time comes to introduce the  new neighbours.  The answer they come up with is a doozy.

If there were any comparison to make to other first contact stories, I would equate Agent to the Stars to E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, only with a really, really uncute alien.  The refreshing thing about this novel is the lack of any sinister motive.  There’s no desire on the part of the Yherajk to ingratiate themselves into earth’s society only to round earthlings up to process into tasty treats.  They don’t want our water, or to subjugate the planet.  I spent most of the novel expecting that overused plot device to crop up, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that the Yherajk have no ulterior motive.  Of course, there is also the comedic element of this entirely benign alien society that resembles something from our worst nightmares. 

The cast of secondary characters are well thought out, from Tom’s feisty assistant Miranda, to Jim Van Doren, the mildly slimy, yet talented journalist who has no idea where his snooping will eventually take him (Let’s just say, it’s not Kansas).  There’s also Michelle Beck, Tom’s biggest client, a beautiful actress long on legs but short on intelligence.  Unfortunately, she wants to stretch those legs, insisting that he get her a casting of substance, regardless of talent.  As if Tom doesn’t have enough on his plate, what with that whole, “introducing an alien species to mankind,” thing…he’s got to keep a spoiled (yet loveable) actress happy.  Which will prove harder?

By the end of the novel, Scalzi’s got the whole situation wrapped up in a satisfying bow (no spoilers here, thank you!).  Agent to the Stars is so much fun that the reader (well, this reader) couldn’t put it down, and deserves a place of note in a genre where (usually) the only good alien is a dead alien.  Very refreshing and well worth the time.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies:The Movie

Elizabeth was not at all happy with her body double.

 Okay, technically this isn’t a “literary” post, but considering that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is soon to be a motion picture, I’m bending the rules a bit.

Moving on.

Entertainment Weekly announced yesterday on their Inside Movies blog (story by Anthony Breznican) that the upcoming zombie flick has a director signed on in the person of Craig Gillespie, formerly director of such films as Lars and the Real Girl and the remake of Fright Night.  Principle filming is planned to begin at the end of summer 2011.  David O. Russell was originally set to direct, but backed out over what was described as a “budget dispute” (his or the film, I do not know), however, according to Gillespie, he will be working from a script penned by the former director.

Some thoughts:

David O. Russell sounded like the perfect director, coming off the Oscar-winning film, The Fighter, but as often happens, things simply didn’t pan out.  Gillespie (to me) is a bit of an unknown element, but Lars and the Real Girl managed an 81% freshness rating on so that can’t be bad.

In the same interview, Gillespie claims that the roles of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy have yet to be cast.  However, back in December of 2009, Natalie Portman’s name was attached as producer and star.  As things stand though, and according to her IMDB listing, there appears to be no connection to the upcoming feature.  I highly doubt there’s a dearth of English actresses capable of taking on the role, so there’s that.  All in all good news for those looking to see Pride and Prejudice and Zombies lurch from page to big screen!

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

“Of all the weapons she had commanded, Elizabeth knew the least of love; and of all the weapons in the world, love was the most dangerous.”

 It’s always a crapshoot to re-envision a classic.  For every Pride and Prejudice starring Keira Knightly, there’s a Starship Troopers starring Casper van Diem.  It’s even more of a crapshoot to take the original author’s vision and totally turn it on its head.  So, it was with much curiosity that I picked up a copy of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Jane Austen and Seth Grahame Smith: copyright 2009, Quirk Books) Seth Grahame-Smith’s take on the seminal tale of the five Bennett sisters and their search for love and security in 18th century England.  It certainly takes a large amount of pride to assume oneself capable of taking a classic romance, mashing in a few zombies and some kick ass eastern fighting styles, and bringing forth what could only be described as a horrifying romance that captures the original author’s intent…but Seth Grahame-Smith was apparently the man for the job.

I imagine that anyone with a passing interest in literature has at least heard of the tale of the Bennett sisters, specifically Elizabeth, and her interactions with the mercurial Mr. Darcy.  One has an overabundance of pride, and the other finds the man’s pride so odious that she develops such a prejudice (yes, I know, hence the title) against him that the reader is left wondering how these two so obviously unsuited lovers can possibly get together. (Full disclosure–Pride and Prejudice  has been on my “to read” list for pretty much ever)  From what I gather on the subject, the original novel is a damning expose of 18th century convention and the wall between social classes, and even within them.  This version has a little fun with it.

So, let’s start with a short synopsis and go from there:

It’s been a few years since the events of Dawn of the Dreadfuls and the Bennett sisters have followed in their father’s footsteps, each of them travelling to the Orient to learn the ways of the Shaolin monks, a decidedly unladylike  action made necessary by the resurrection of the Dreadful menace, which has only gotten worse since the events of the prequel.  England is in a state of perpetual siege at the hands of the undead. London has become a walled fortress and travel around the countryside (unless it’s the dead of Winter–note to reader–the undead freeze) is a perilous affair.  However, life must go on, and the matriarch of the Bennett family is always on the lookout for possible suitors for her daughters.  With the re-habitation of Netherfield Park by the handsome (and very rich) Mr. Bingley, Mrs. Bennett sees a chance to both assure a future of comfort for her eldest daughter Jane, and by extension, the Bennetts.  When Jane endeavours to visit the Bingley’s and falls ill, Elizabeth is sent to watch over her recovery and during the course of the vigil, interacts with Fitzwilliam Darcy, whom she already has developed a grudge against, based on her initial observations at a local ball.

It’s hate at first sight, tempered by a certain appreciation of his martial qualities–ie.  he kills Zombies.  Elizabeth has devoted herself to a life of protecting her family and friends from the undead menace, telling herself that her duty allows no time for love, yet finds herself curiously drawn to Darcy.  However, events, as they often do in romance novels, conspire to keep the lovebirds apart.  The lies of Darcy’s childhood friend George Wickham influence Elizabeth greatly, as does Darcy’s treacherous (or so it seems) behaviour in coming between Jane and Charles Bingley.

All right, I’m already bored.  Suffice it to say that the reimagination of Austen’s work stays true to the original storyline, within limits.  However, Smith manages to seamlessly blend the horrific elements into the storyline, and adds a certain amount of bawdy humour that I doubt was in the original (not that Austen wasn’t a wit, it’s just that his additions are crude enough that I cannot believe Austen would have thought of them).

Examples abound of Smith’s somewhat bawdy additions to the original storyline.  When Elizabeth asks Mr. Darcy his opinion on the subject of balls (the formal dances), he responds with:

“…I may observe that private balls are much pleasanter than public ones.”

Elizabeth’s reply:

“On the contrary, I find that balls are much more enjoyable when they cease to remain private.”

Zoinks!  Double entendre anyone?

Later, when Elizabeth is entertaining Lady Catherine Debourgh and company with a demonstration of her nimbleness, walking about on her hands and finally supporting her weight on one finger, Lady Catherine observes to Darcy:

“Miss Bennet would make a fine showing of Leopard’s Claw if she practiced more, and could have the advantage of a Japanese master.  She has a very good notion of fingering.”

Darcy’s response:

“That she does.”

Ahem…cough, cough…Jane Austen would blush.

Let’s not forget Elizabeth’s younger sisters, the boy crazy Lydia and her easily influenced sister Kitty.  When the local militia regiment decamps from the area, they are disconsolate, Lydia whining that:

Only think what a miserable summer else we shall have!  With hardly any balls to be had in Meryton!”

To which Elizabeth cannot refrain from thinking:

“Yes…a summer with so few balls would be miserable indeed for a girl who thinks of little else.”

Anyway, I think you see where I’m going.  Smith has managed to channel Austen’s wit and brand it with his own (somewhat less delicate) sense of humour.

He also manages to change the essential character of Elizabeth’s relationship with lady Catherine.  In the original, lady Catherine looks down on the Bennetts as lower class and Elizabeth specifically as not worthy of her nephew’s attentions due to her diminished social status.  In this version, that is coupled with her disdain for Elizabeth’s training, shunning her Chinese training in the Shaolin ways as inferior to that of the Japanese, whose ninjitsu arts she is heavily influenced by.  She eventually goes so far as to sick her house ninjas on Elizabeth in a desperate attempt to foil their eventual union.

All in all this revised imagining of a perennial classic works, spicing up the original tale of romance with a healthy dose of both horror and the absurd, and (I would think) attracts a new audience that would likely never be exposed to the original without the addition of those horrific elements.  It’s definitely worth a read, and with the addition of both a prequel and sequel by the equally talented Steve Hockensmith, there’s plenty more for the reader to enjoy.