The Sweetest Secretion I Call “The Slant Six”

What inspires an actor to act, a duffer to duff or a musician to muse? What locks a prattling mime into that invisible box, drives a clown off to college and then compels a suffering author to finally… auth? Is it any single obsession or a rainbow of mania? I know exactly what it is. It’s the sweetest secretion of self-love called inspiration. From whence it comes can be something wicked or wonderful…but always shall it be uniquely personal. I’ve heard all kinds of stories from artists about their wellsprings of inspiration. Good drugs-bad drugs, good sex-better sex (I’m silly enough to believe no sex is bad), found love-lost love, a trip to the Maldives-the resulting nasty rash and even a rusty penny. I can only speak personally, of course. I haven’t a drug habit, I can’t afford the Maldives and I steer clear of corroded coppers. In my case, I’d have to say lack of sleep has become my best book of revelations. You see, as long as I take a daily omeprazole for my crippling acid reflux, I sleep well at night. In the morning, I wake refreshed and quite often, appropriately rigid. This makes me happy for a man in his 50’s. But then there are those nights when an ugly little monster slithers from underneath my bed to bite me in the bleary-eyed ass. The name of the foul beast… Insomnia.  How frail is my condition without the ability to wipe away the cranial toxins from a single day on this planet? Seriously frail, people. My mind starts spinning out of control unless I focus on something other than my own petty problems. During one particular attack around 2:00 in the morning, I found solace in late night television. All hail Turner Classic Movies who happened to be showing the film Duel, directed by Steven Spielberg, circa 1971 – a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… the caveman days before computer graphics, cell phones or Ambien. Google it, folks, it happened.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I longed for that kind of inspiration. My preceding novel, A Moon Called Sun, had such a complicated plot with multiple storylines. Because of this, I wanted to give myself a break with my next story. For the sake of a good night’s sleep, I was going to write something more linear and straightforward, dammit, but what? I struggled with this idea. I even recalled it while watching the dogged salesman in his battered Valiant finally square off against the bigger Peterbilt belching gobs of nasty black smoke. Suddenly, as both vehicles plunged over the edge of a cliff, locked in a futile dance of death, the proverbial light bulb popped on in my noggin… or I may have just blown a fuse, who knows for sure. This movie was pure, simple and sinister. I so admired the concept, and being a sci-fi guy, I had the glorious notion of setting it in space. It was a perfect recipe for my genre and furthermore, it sounded like a blast to write! I don’t remember what time I finally fell asleep that night. But the beast, Insomnia, had slinked back to its dark cave once again, pissing itself in fear of my glorious epiphany. I had the idea for my next novel which I titled, tentatively, The Slant Six. The title comes from the Valiant engine by the way. Sounds cool, though, doesn’t it? I kept the title.

 

I felt inspired! Tired and inspired, yes, but inspired nonetheless. Inspiration comes with its fair share of challenges. What doesn’t challenge us is far too easy and unrewarding, and ultimately inspires no one. My challenge was clear to me…fleshing this fucker out. The TV movie was based on a short story by the late Richard Matheson who also wrote the screenplay for Spielberg. To be honest, I based my idea for The Slant Six more on the movie rather than the short story. The real test was not writing a word-for-word, scene-for-scene concept. Yes, I wanted the flavor of Duel, but I also wanted The Slant Six to be a completely original piece, more of a homage than a remake. First stop, logic amongst the illogical. I needed to re-conceptualize the piece. I mean why would this salesman be out the cosmos all by his lonesome. Isn’t space travel normally a team effort? Yes, Ripley may have ended up all alone, but she always started with a crew…poor wankers. Remember…pure, simple and sinister. The basic premise of the film is a traveling salesman alone on the highway. Inspired by that lovely simplicity I thought to use the term salesman more metaphorically, morphing if from salesman beginning with a small “s” to Salesman with a big “S”. Giving it a different context for what the main character, Loman Phin, does for a living –Salesman became a synonym for smuggler.  Now, Loman being a Salesman would make him a loner which made sense to the story. The term “trucker” also became a code word for assassin. It goes on from there with other professions and ranks in their various societies. Even when keeping the plot-line simple as it was in the film, I expanded the story to give it additional characters, a more defined villain (to which there are several), and distinctive world building. In other words, I was inspired to put some meat on them bones!

 

Inspiration also drove me away from the more conventional terms in science fiction, steering clear of terms such as spaceship or rocket ship for example, this isn’t kindergarten for god’s sake. In this universe, people travel by an invisible expressway woven throughout space called “the channel.” Therefore, my spacecraft are called channelships. Nor would I apply the ubiquitous forms of “robot” or “android” to for artificial life. These characters were written as faxes (as in facsimiles) or voids or zombies, all lending itself to a believable universe based in familiar concepts but unique to my world. The story being set 200 years or so in the future, language would have changed just as it does now from one generation to the next, modifying the language from that with recognizable origins to the totally original. From all this grew an alternate universe with a retro feel to the culture, the language and to the technology. Case in point, the channelships are modeled after classic automobiles. From the film Duel, I started with the red Plymouth Valiant as the first design concept for the channelship piloted by Loman. Running with the idea soon there were all kinds of channelships buzzing about the solar system like Comets, Lincoln Townships, Vista Cruisers, Asteroid Martins, Slantbacks, Novas, Futuras, HemiSpheres and more…all built around actual models and engines but with a sci-fi twist. There exists a shitload (technical term…Google it) of incongruity thrown in for good measure too, such as references to the Old West, Medieval times, vampires, and even Dr. Seuss for Pete’s sake! How could you not have fun with that! The book runs the gamut of gritty sci-fi to horror to outright humor. The Slant Six was simply a blast to write, and I hope it’s as much fun to read! Inspiration saved my ass once again. Hopefully, one night I’ll have serious trouble sleeping so I can begin secreting the sequel… I wonder…  how would Jaws fair in outer space? Bwahahaha! (evil laugh).

As the youngest son of 4 boys and my parents having their only daughter right after me, I was the “forgotten child.” I was raised on the boob tube, a tape recorder (Google it), a typewriter (again, Google) and my own feral imagination. Indeed, I remembered this movie from when I was a lad, and that I had enjoyed the premise. I still enjoy it after all these years and yes, so much… mileage. Duel is about a traveling salesman driving his red Plymouth Valiant on the winding highways of the California mountains. This poor guy is returning from a disastrous road trip who just wants to get home to his wife, his pipe and his armchair. Not so different from an affable Hobbit we all know and love. However, the salesman finds himself terrorized by an unseen truck driver, a madman inside a dirty old Peterbilt semi. The genius of Spielberg was never showing the driver of the semi, allowing the audience to conjure up their own demon behind the wheel. The big ugly truck became the villain and not the driver. Inspired!

"Sci-Fi: A Passion For the Fantastic"

What in the Mutara Nebula is Science Fiction anyway? Well, gee whiz Lieutenant Demanding Dan, if you must know then let me take a stab at it. I guess in its most literal sense, breathe, Science Fiction tackles the impact of imaginary innovations in science or technology, swallow, with made-up elements possible within scientifically postulated laws of nature, breathe. Science Fiction may involve technology, spaceships or aliens, swallow, and will often focus on exploration of the unknown. (Arbitrary sniffle…followed by the sound of a single chirping cricket.) Okay yeah, so that went over like a flatulent xenomorph in a decompression chamber. Enough Mr. Spock, the needs of the many outweigh the gas of the few. Let’s drop some syllables here and talk “Sci-fi” instead. Because, quite frankly, Sci-fi should never be described or quantified with the tedious terms associated with Science Fiction.

Sci-fi isn’t so much hardcover thesaurus as it is a soft-shelled, neon-encrusted stegosaurus. It’s more a degree of Zen master than it is a Master’s Degree. It’s a state of mind rather than a mindful state, a suspension of disbelief with a retention of a person’s inner child. Sci-fi is a magic carpet ride, man, it’s a 12-year-old inside a darkened cinema, biting his arm as he leans against the chair in front of him. Next to the boy sits his younger sister clutching a handful of popcorn as light dances in her eyes. In absolute rapture, pupils dilate, and their optical jellies grow as big as the Death Star itself. Two little hearts race as a massive Star Destroyer fills the screen, firing brilliant lines of laser at a tiny spaceship fleeing the angry giant. It’s like nothing these children have ever seen before and becomes a shared memory that they both cherish well into their adult lives.

As the 12-year-old boy in the scenario, my own personal view of the universe was forever altered on that afternoon – a prepubescent altered state so to speak. Not quite the William “murdering monkey boy” Hurt in Altered States, not yet anyway. That movie came later…although it changed me as well. I still pound on the walls in melodramatic fury, bouncing back and forth down the hallway as I imitate the agonizing morphing scene. You know, the one with Willy Hurt fighting against his biological devolution into a bloodthirsty primitive – the homicidal homunculus. I do this every so often, especially when I’m frustrated…or horny. It’s fun and makes a damn fine point. But I really do digress.

Okay, so maybe the first view is a bit Pollyanna but that’s all I needed to fuel my imagination when I was 12. It was more than enough for me. And perhaps the second example is a bit hardcore, but that’s what I crave as an adult. I still find myself wanting more. The beauty of Sci-fi is it that it can be all things to all phases of a person’s evolution. So, suck on that Young Adult Fiction! And yeah, you can suck it too Historical Fiction and, gulp, Self-Help! Put that in your steaming bowl of chicken soup and choke on it! Sci-fi transcends your emotional stages of angst and social acceptance. It blows away your plotlines based on facts, figures and real timelines. It’s a boy saving his father’s soul, it’s a girl in a golden bikini who eventually rules the galaxy or even a stubby little robot, more fire hydrant than humanoid, who’s actually more human than them all. It’s pure stricture to convention and reality. It’s a passion for the fantastic.

That’s not to say the other genres don’t have passion because they do. However, Sci-fi is entirely different. This kind of passion is more of a pre-existing condition – a happy defect in our DNA. Sci-fi is an acceptance that our universe, that our very perception of reality, extends far beyond what common sense tells us is allowable. Yeah, yeah, yeah, some “Know-It-All” Ned Nederlander will make the argument for genres like Comedy or Horror. I truly like them both but in the eternal words of those infamous Knights of Ni, I say “Ni!” And for this insult, I demand a shrubbery. One that looks nice. And not too expensive. Regardless, Horror and Comedy are always rooted in recognized mythos or logic. Even the most twisted or absurd has a germ of practical reality nestled into its core. Friday the 13th was nothing more than an Oedipus Complex with an ax. Monty Python and the Holy Grail, while the most beautifully existential comedic masterpiece ever filmed, came from actual history. Yes okay, Star Wars is based on myth too, sure, if you’re going to be a Nitpicking Nancy Drew about it. But turn that myth on its head and it becomes more than myth. It’s becomes canon. For those of us who chose to believe it, we embrace it as the new reality.

Sci-fi was, and still is, my ultimate escape, my magical realm of Xanth, my Pandora with a shitload of unobtanium to be mined. It’s Captain Kirk tagging some sexy green alien shorty and Quaid jump-starting the reactor on Mars. More than just a MacGuffin, it’s my Fifth Element. It is love. I love watching it. I love reading it. I love writing it. I love losing myself inside of it. I love becoming that 12-year over and over again, feeling my pulse race with that passion for the fantastic. I will continue to do so until the day I die. Of course, being a devotee of Sci-fi, I know death is never the end. It’s simply a journey to a new dimension – an eighth dimension where my best friend Buckaroo Bonzai waits for me. What wonderful adventures we will have! That’s my reality. My Serenity. Perhaps, I don’t make any sense. But then again, I write Sci-fi, therefore, I don’t have to. Case closed.

© 2018 by Christopher F. Cobb