Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 18, 2004
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Shadow Children, I, Robot, A Cinderella Story, and Tomatoes
For many years, one of the finest writers of science fiction and fantasy
has been William Sleator, author of Interstellar Pig and Singularity.
But he's never received any notice in the science fiction community. No
Hugo or Nebula Awards. No speaking engagements at sci-fi conventions, at
least not that I've heard of.
That's because his novels are published in the Young Adult (YA) category.
And too many adults have the parochial idea that if a book is certified as being
accessible to and valuable for children, it must therefore be beneath their
But children are the most demanding of audiences. They have no
patience with stories that don't make clear to them from the beginning why
they should care about and believe in the characters, events, and problems in
The result is that YA books have no room for writers to show off. Instead
the prose must be clean and clear, and the story must move forward at a pace
that makes "thriller" writers look like caterpillars -- lots of steps, but little
From the beginning of our marriage, my wife and I have read YA
literature, not for our children's sake, but for our own. Long before we had
children who could read, we blew through the works of E.L. Konigsberg and
Louise Fitzhugh, along with the brilliant early YA writings of Patricia McKillip.
Still, we can't read everything, and new writers come along that we
It was our ten-year-old daughter who introduced us to Margaret
Peterson Haddix, through the first two books in her "Shadow Children" series.
Among the Hidden is the story of a young teenage boy, Luke, who has
grown up knowing that no one outside his family can ever be allowed to find
evidence that he exists.
Because they live on a farm, he was able to play outdoors as a child; but
when the stand of woods behind their house is seized by the government and
houses are built there, he is no longer allowed outside at all.
In fact, he has to hide from the windows in his own house -- they dare
not keep the blinds down, or people will get suspicious and report them to the
Population Police. For in this dark vision of the future, famine led to the
installation of a totalitarian government that maintains a monopoly on food --
and a draconian policy of no pets, no junk food, and no more than two children
Luke is a third child. His parents love him, but if he is seen, not only he
but also his parents might well be killed.
If he had remained safely indoors, there would be no story. But he is
enticed out of his house by the sight of another child who is obviously illegal
The second book, Among the Impostors, follows Luke, now equipped
with a false identity, to a boarding school where he is mistreated and isolated
until he finds a way to get outdoors and start to grow a garden. Soon, though,
he finds that nothing at the school is what it seemed.
A former teacher and journalist, Margaret Peterson Haddix is a
compelling and powerful writer. Even if you don't have children of an age to
enjoy these books, buy them for yourself. I promise you, they'll be among the
best books you read this year.
When I first got involved with Hollywood, I was in a meeting where we
were discussing stars who could open a movie. I had proposed the name of a
black actor to play the lead in a screenplay I was trying to set up. The
response was immediate: Black actors can't open movies.
"What about Will Smith?" I said.
"Will Smith always has to be teamed with a white actor," I was told. And
this in the presence of, and with the apparent agreement of, my agent at the
time, who was herself African-American. "It's not our fault," they assured me.
"It's the American audience. They just won't support black actors in leading
roles, not in numbers big enough to pay for expensive thrillers."
This was before the execrable Wild Wild West and the confusing Ali made
it look like Smith couldn't open a movie at all. For a while there it looked like
he was a star who totally depended on a couple of franchises: Bad Boys and
Men in Black.
Guess what. With I, Robot, Will Smith proves that he absolutely can
open a movie, and probably could have all along. What he can't do is open a
He has that mix of toughness, humor, and vulnerability that works for
Bruce Willis and even for Clint Eastwood; we have to see that under the
violence there's a lot of inner pain, and when Smith is given a script that
shapes his character as a human being, he can make the character come to life
I, Robot was a long time coming. Isaac Asimov's career and reputation as
a fiction writer were largely built on two series, the Foundation books and the
robot stories and novels.
Asimov was a writer of surpassing clarity and brilliance, and his robot
stories centered around ethical dilemmas inherent in the three laws of robotics.
The trouble with filming his robot stories has always been the lack of a
compelling human character. The human point of view was largely provided by
the unemotional, seemingly robot-like Susan Calvin.
When I saw the promos for the I, Robot movie, I was filled with dread. Of
course I was going to see the movie -- my wife and I are both Will Smith fans
-- but it looked as though it was going to be one of those formulaic Hollywood
scripts -- an important work of literature force-fit into a standard action movie.
To my astonishment, writers Jeff Vintar and Akiva Goldsman captured
the essence of the robot stories and created a compelling human character and
preserved the Susan Calvin that we readers have long loved despite her
Not only that, but they didn't dumb down the science fiction. From the
trailer, I thought the robots would be dorky -- they looked like they had been
designed by the same guy who created the cheap plastic look of the iMac
Instead, the design was excellent -- they never looked like fake humans
(cf. Spielberg's miserably pretentious melodrama AI), and yet they were capable
of just enough human expression that an actor, Alan Tudyk, is given a full
credit for playing the main robot character.
Remember Tudyk's name -- he's done excellent work in films like A
Knight's Tale and Dodgeball, and even though his face doesn't show up in any
recognizable way in I, Robot, he will someday be as memorable an actor as
Bridget Moynahan is also outstanding as Susan Calvin, the icy robot
psychologist who thinks she knows the rules -- but proves herself adaptable
when she finds out just how wrong she was.
As a science fiction writer, I usually view sci-fi movies with contempt. I
try to give them the benefit of the doubt, but then they beat down all my hopes
with sheer stupidity. Thus after Matrix Reloaded, I argued with my son, who
thought it largely failed; it wasn't until Matrix Revolutions that I had to admit he
was right and the core ideas of the trilogy stood revealed as hokey and lame.
Most sci-fi films treat the audience like a bunch of morons. And because
we go to these movies in large numbers, the studios come to believe that we're
just as dumb as they hoped. Truly smart sci-fi movies like Being John
Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind are rare -- and don't make
anywhere near as much money as the latest entry in the How-Stupid-Can-We-Make-Star-Wars series by George Lucas.
So I want to go on record as pointing out that I, Robot is smart science
fiction that deals with complicated moral issues in a wise and illuminating way.
There is plenty of ambiguity but also a dose of clarity.
But we can't really be surprised, with the Oscar-winning Goldsman
aboard as one of the writers. True, Goldsman is at least partly guilty of a
couple of Batman movies and the ridiculous Lost in Space, but there's also that
Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, the hilarious script of Starsky & Hutch, and the
only excellent film made from a John Grisham book: The Client.
I, Robot is better than the best movie I could have imagined coming out of
Asimov's robot universe. It's a relief to know that, in the right hands, a great
work of science fiction can be made into a film worthy of the original.
Expectations were set low for A Cinderella Story. Designed as a vehicle
for teen star Hillary Duff (Lizzy McGuire, Cheaper by the Dozen, and a budding
singing career), the film was regarded as so unimportant that the studio
allowed it to be shot from first-time screenwriter Leigh Dunlap's script -- and
they didn't even bother to bring in six or seven other writers to "fix" it.
The result is that, seemingly by accident, Warner Bros. has a film with a
coherent point of view and a well-balanced sense of humor.
Sure, the satirical presentation of the stepmother and stepsisters is a bit
over the top, as befits the villains. But the characters who need to be real are
written with a genuineness and wit that gives the actors something to work
Director Mark Rosman did a superb job in his first major film -- i.e., his
first movie that actually got studio promotion. The pacing is good, the story
cleanly told, and while the director never calls attention to himself, there are
many cleverly placed shots and nice touches that bode well for his future
The storyline has been cleverly modernized. Dunlap actually came up
with a scenario that would justify having Cinderella a virtual slave -- by
making her late father the owner of a diner, where now, under her stepmother's
tyrannical rule, she has to work -- on roller skates -- whenever she's not in
And while the school has its share of mean kids, the "prince charming"
character, quarterback Austin, walks that delicate line between being lord of
the high school and still, secretly, being a sensitive guy who doesn't want to
follow his father's script for his life.
In fact, that's what the movie is about. Both Sam (the Cinderella
character played by Duff) and Austin are trapped in their family's expectations,
and while Sam's stepfamily are malicious and exploitative, Austin's father is
merely enthusiastic and unable to conceive of his son wanting a life different
from the one that Dad has dreamed for him.
This is not just a retelling of Cinderella, in other words. The idea of an
email relationship is lifted from You've Got Mail -- but fairly so, since there
really are a lot of secret-identity relationships out there. It's part of the culture,
not a mere literary invention.
Back in the mid-80's, though I was long past my teens, I snuck off to see
The Breakfast Club and other John Hughes films that offered something deeper
than the nerd vs. jock cliches of other teen flicks. (That was before John
Hughes forgot what human beings looked like on the screen.)
Films like that are few and far between. But Dunlap and Rosman (and I
suspect that the producer, former Warner Bros. exec Clifford Werber, has a lot
to do with this as well) have succeeded in creating something that wakened
those same feelings in me -- a real understanding of (and nostalgia for) those
dramatic years of adolescence, and genuine compassion for the teens who
suffer most in the years of self-creation.
Chad Michael Murray as Austin shows a strong ability to be both
sensitive and cold, vulnerable and strong. He's going to be a major star, if he
chooses his roles wisely. And Hillary Duff has the talent and the screen
honesty to rise out of her teen years as a fine actress capable of significant
The real discovery of this movie, though, is Dan Byrd as Carter, Sam's
best friend. Playing the kind of role Jon Cryer played in Pretty in Pink -- the
goofy, nerdy friend with a heart of gold -- he gets his laughs for his character's
eccentricity, but, far more importantly, earns our belief in him as a real person.
I don't know what the future holds for this wonderful actor -- slightly goofy
teenage faces don't always lead to major adult careers (though Cryer is doing
well in the fabulous and filthy tv series Two and a Half Men). So just in case
this is your only chance to see him, don't miss A Cinderella Story.
In fact, there are many reasons not to miss this movie. I know, the
reviews have been pretty negative, but that's because reviewers always seem to
punish sensitivity in teen films, mocking the sentiment. It's as if only brash,
smart, showy teen comedies like Mean Girls and Fast Times at Ridgemont High
deserve to exist.
But the reviewers are wrong. There is real value in teen-centered movies
that have compassion as well as cleverness, nobility as well as comeuppances.
And that value is there for adults as well as teenagers. Maybe even more for
adults, since we all know how such stories come out in the real world.
And how do they come out? For the decent and compassionate kids who
hold onto that ability to love, it turns out pretty well. There can be a lot of
sorrow, but good people manage to make joy out of the sticks and straws of life.
The endings of such movies as this can feel a little cheesy (though this one
succeeds far better than most); in real life, it's not that there are no endings,
it's that there are lots of endings, too many to show in one two-hour flick, but
there's plenty of room in a human life to see them all.
People who see the world that way, however, rarely get gigs as film
reviewers for major entertainment media.
My summer garden success story: Tomatoes!
Every year I've suffered the pain of watching tomato plants grow,
blossom, and start to bear fruit -- and then turn yellow and brown and die
from the inevitable fungus.
This year, I was grimly determined to beat the athlete's-foot-of-the-vegetable-world, and with the help of the fungicide Mancozeb Flowable, the
only one that actually worked, I have kept these suckers alive long enough to
A lot of fruit.
Instead of trying for the big, beefy tomatoes that take forever to get ripe
and don't taste all that great when they finally do, we planted roma tomatoes
that we got at New Garden Nursery (on Lawndale just up from Fresh Market).
Since I was traveling too much to plant anything in early spring, I bought big,
well-established plants; they were bearing fruit within minutes, it seemed.
Now we're spending the summer eating caprese salads and other tomato-laden delicacies, with the bracing flavor of fresh romas in every bite. To my
surprise, fifty tomatoes into the summer I'm not tired of them yet.