May 20, 2010

DEMON SEED From the Author

I wrote my first story, “The Magic Puppy,” when I was eight years old. It filled eleven pages of tablet paper, which I thought made it an immense tale. Tolstoy and I, writers of epics. The puppy was from another planet, a twist Tolstoy would never have considered–in part because he was psychotically obsessed with time-travel tales. I drew a cover illustration, stapled the pages along the left margin, covered the staples with electrician’s tape, and sold the sole copy to my uncle Ray for two nickels. My maiden genre, therefore, was science fiction.

When I sold my first novel, at 21, it was science-fiction (SF). I wrote in that genre for a few years before I began to feel cramped by it. One day I picked up a thriller by John D. MacDonald–and read thirty-four of his books in thirty days. Exhilarated, I knew I wanted to write suspense novels in which the characters came alive, as they did in MacDonald’s work.

DEMON SEED, one of my last two SF novels, was written in 1972, when I was very young and stunningly, breathtakingly ignorant. My title was HOUSE OF NIGHT, but the original publisher at Bantam Books felt this sounded like a gothic romance, while the editor thought it sounded like a novel about a house of prostitution. The editor, a man named Alan Ravage, had come to Bantam from Playboy, so I figured his surname alone qualified him to decide whether a title suggested a bordello or not. I can no longer remember where the title DEMON SEED came from. I think it sounds as if it’s a novel about a house of prostitution for the living dead.

The other novel I sold to Alan was published prior to DEMON SEED, and was THE FLESH IN THE FURNACE. No one objected to that title. But strangely, in retrospect, this also sounds to me as though it might be a novel about a house of prostitution for the living dead.

The film version–produced on a modest budget–sprouted in theaters in early 1977, when I was still young and marginally less ignorant. Director Donald Cammell and producer Herb Jaffe (a very nice man in the not-nice world of film) made excellent use of what money the studio provided. Julie Christie starred, a first-rate casting choice. The movie wasn’t a triumph of cinematic art, but it was good, solid. Throughout production and editing, studio executives expressed a high degree of enthusiasm even when they were not coked out of their heads. At last, it seemed that I would get a career boost from a smart film adaptation, as had many other novelists.

Wrong again.

In the end, the studio released DEMON SEED with a stealth advertising budget. Before release, it changed the initially classy poster and the stylish newspaper ads into a sleazy minimalist campaign to give the impression that the marvelous Julie Christie was appearing in a film produced by Larry Flynt, written by Harold Robbins while on 24/7 intravenous testosterone, and based on a banned book by the Marquis de Sade from his nasty period (as opposed to the period when he wrote books about cuddly kittens and puffy-tailed bunnies). The studio said they needed to keep the advertising budget low because this was a science-fiction movie, and late in the game they realized science-fiction movies never made money. Consequently, they needed to sell DEMON SEED as a sexapalooza, psycho-satanic, scare-your-pants-off (with an emphasis on pants off), see-Julie-Christie-naked, wow-wow sensation. The movie did mediocre business because the ads turned off anyone who liked science fiction, all who considered themselves thinking people, anyone who had a capacity for embarrassment, and those who were smart enough to know that the promise of Julie Christie naked was a tiresome Hollywood lie. Furthermore, the audience for a wow-wow sensation proved to be considerably smaller than the marketing geniuses anticipated, somewhat larger than the number of people who think earthworm fritters are tasty, smaller than the number of people who collect Captain Kangaroo memorabilia.

Many critics were kind to the film, but some were baffled by it. A recurring theme among those who didn’t get the premise–which was usually the self-appointed “intellectual” critic–was the contention that the story was too ridiculous because it supposed that Julie Christie’s husband, a pioneer in artificial-intelligence research, would have a computer in his home. Yes, of course, he might have one in his laboratory, but no one would ever be able to have a computer in his home, because as everyone knows, computers are gigantic and will always be humongous, and they are fabutastically expensive and always will be. This was only 1977, not a millennium ago, but then as now, the intellectuals didn’t know a damn thing.

So DEMON SEED did mediocre business, and two months later, Star Wars arrived in theaters, proving yet again that science-fiction movies make no money. No, wait. Proving again that I am cursed in my relationships with Hollywood.

Happily, the movie sold a lot of paperbacks, nearly two million copies worldwide in one year, perhaps because people were intrigued by the artificial-intelligence premise or because they thought Julie Christie was going to be naked in the movie. The Japanese translation appeared in hardcover and featured six photographs of naked women, none of them Julie Christie, none of them menaced by a computer, none particularly attractive, and none acceptable as cover art to the author of “The Magic Puppy.” Unhappily, as I’ve acknowledged, I was very young and ignorant when I wrote the book, and not many of those who read it came rushing back for my next opus.

As Berkley Books was preparing to reissue DEMON SEED in 1997, I read the book a quarter of a century after having written it–and I realized it was more a clever idea than it was a novel. Furthermore, the technology, which had been cutting-edge in the first book, was now antique. I rewrote it from first page to last, and I had a good time doing so.

Since the new version has been in print, film producers approach me once a year or so, regarding the movie rights. They are always excited because the premise of the story is more timely now than it was in 1977, and with the advances in special effects, they see a box-office winner. I can only tell them that MGM owns the film rights, and they have to go through that studio to discuss a remake. None has had any luck with MGM–or whoever owns the assets of the entity formerly known as MGM. The studio prefers to earn nothing from these rights than to sell them. Anyway, as we all know, science-fiction movies never make any money.

When I wrote the first version of DEMON SEED, it contained no humor. Over the years, I began to layer considerable humor into my suspense novels, although my publishers long resisted this. By the time I wrote FALSE MEMORY and FROM THE CORNER OF HIS EYE and ONE DOOR AWAY FROM HEAVEN, humor was as important to my books as was suspense or characters of depth, or any other element. Readers and critics responded strongly to the new Laughing Koontz. When I revised DEMON SEED, I kept my tongue so firmly in my cheek that I needed the assistance of a periodontist to return it to the natural position.

The humor here is not as evident as in a book like RELENTLESS; it is decidedly dry, and arises from the fact that the computer is vastly intelligent but in classic ivory-tower way, because it lacks common sense and intuition of things both mundane and transcendent. It is therefore unconsciously comic. Prometheus, the computer, is the ultimate intellectual: obsessed with a single Big Idea, intent upon a utopian future that it must achieve at any cost. Like so many utopian Intellectuals, from Marx to Freud to Lenin to Hitler to Mao, the destruction of traditions, of cultures, and even of countless lives is an acceptable price for change. The 20th century was the first in which the course of the world was largely determined by utopian intellectuals, and it is the bloodiest century in history. So far. Now, as we watch fascism on the rise again–and virtually everywhere–the 21st century may be bloodier than the 20th. And while the darkly funny Prometheus is also fearsome, in truth he couldn’t kill a tiny fraction as many people as a human being who, building a utopian movement, can kill millions with aplomb.

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