(Theplease subscribe.)Texas Triffid Ranch Occasional Newsletter and Feedlot Clearance Sale is a regular Email newsletter, with archives available on the main TTR site at least a month after first publication. To receive the latest newsletters,
Originally published on July 19, 2019.
Installment #11: “If You Go To Mos Eisley, You Will Die.”
My wife Caroline, the talent behind Caroline Crawford Originals, has it rough these these days. Well, she has it rough anyway. It’s bad enough when total strangers tell her “You’re an absolute saint for not throwing your husband feet-first into a tree mulcher” or “Does he talk that much ALL of the time?”, but when ex-girlfriends get together with her to commiserate on their temporary and her semi-permanent lapses in taste and sanity, she starts questioning, yet again, whether saying “I do” at the end of 2002 was such a great idea. And then there’s the constant reminders that she could just let me do what I’m planning to do, as she’s going to inherit my literary estate anyway, and what she does with the $1.49 she gets by selling off reprint rights is her business. “Hold my beer and watch THIS” is never uttered in the house or at the gallery because I can’t drink, but the concept can be found in a lot of discussions, usually involving reptile shows and road trips. As witnessed by plenty, it’s not a fancy dinner gathering without her stopping with fork halfway to lips, looking at me, and yelling “What the HELL is WRONG with you?”
Sometimes, though, I scare her. Such an event happened the weekend before last, when we were both having a lazy morning of going through email and catching up with friends online. For the sake of this discussion, picture this as the opening to a new Netflix limited sitcom, in an alternate reality where Mira Furlan would have shared top billing with the late Rik Mayall:
“Oh, THAT’s interesting.”
(Cut to Mira, who raises an eyebrow slightly but says nothing.”
(Rik puts down his phone for a moment.) “Just to let you know in advance, I’m leaving later this year to be with another woman.”
(Mira raises the eyebrow a bit higher, but still says nothing.)
“For the record, she’s married, too.”
(No perceptible movement. She’s heard this routine before.)
“We’re going to be gone for a week.”
“Oh. Thank you for letting me know that, dear.”
“And we’re going to Disneyland.”
(No immediately perceptible movement, but the glass screen of Mira’s phone starts to shimmer and sparkle in demonstration of the piezoelectric effect, as it is compressed, very slowly, into neutronium.)
“Oh, isn’t that nice. Are you going for Halloween?”
“Possibly. And I’m going to be too busy to call or write, too.”
(Mira’s eyebrow is now buried in the ceiling. The FX crew is going to be busy with either prosthetic elbows or CGI, but her elbows start sprouting long sharp bony spurs that drip a noxious gren venom onto the floor, burning holes in the carpet.)
“And WHAT do you have planned out there?”
“We’re going to see the new Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge park.”
(Mira says nothing: she just pulls out the big paracord net she keeps behind the chair, flings it over Rik before he recognize the threat, pulls out an autoinjector, and pumps 150ccs of specially formulated elephant tranquilizers into Rik’s carotid artery before he can escape. She stands over him, contemplating how the next few minutes will go and whether she’ll need an attorney or a wood chipper.)
“I beg your pardon?”
“We’re going to Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge. For WORK.” (This sentence is in subtitles due to the elephant tranquilizers, as not everyone in the audience is fluent in Vowel Movement.)
“And to do WHAT, exactly?”
“To check out plants.” (Rik is now turning bright blue, and he’s drooling much more than normally.)
(Mira goes offstage for a moment, returning with a ball peen hammer and her favorite baseball bat. “I’m only going to ask this once: what have you done with my husband? And PLEASE be difficult: you look so much like him that this is going to be fun. I still haven’t forgiven him for the ‘How Does Brundlefly Eat?” science fair project.”
“No, really. I swear.” (This comes out with a gurgle and belch at the same time.)
“Really. Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge? Do you really think I’m THAT stupid? Why didn’t you just tell me he was going out to get drunk?”
(Rik expires, signified by a four-minute fart that shakes the camera.)
In retrospect, I could understand Caroline’s trepidation. All through my writing days and predating them, ragging on Star Wars and its fanatics was a daily constant up there with cellular respiration and telomere degeneration. After years of arguing that while George Lucas had the better special effects budget, Ed Wood was the superior writer and director, the only reasonable response was the big net. The guy responsible for suggesting the Jar Jar Binks urinal cake saying that he wanted to visit an amusement park space solely dedicated to a cinematic franchise he mocked for decades, and without once asking about a “Cantina Barmaid Bea Arthur” action figure in the gift shop? What kind of madness is this?
(Slight digression for the sake of longtime acquaintances: the second greatest decision I ever made after quitting pro writing in 2002, after taking the job offer in Tallahassee that sent me on this odd path, was getting on the other side of the vendor table at science fiction events. Well, that and the fact that The Last Jedi and Rogue One were a lot better than I was originally willing to give them credit for being. If asked at the Day Job “Star Trek or Star Wars?”, I’m still going to answer “Don’t look at me: I’m a Babylon 5 kind of guy,” but that’s why I’m neck-deep in carnivores instead of roses or orchids,too.)
Well, some of the mystery faded for Caroline when I told her about the person I was leaving her for: Amanda Thomsen, the famed author of Kiss My Aster and for all intents and purposes my little sister, just came back from a tour of the landscaping department at Disneyland, and that started a very serious discussion. Amanda wasn’t just impressed by the efforts spent every day to keep up bedding and highlight plants in an amusement park with literally thousands of people per day tromping, stomping, flopping, and jumping all over the spaces between the “PLEASE KEEP OFF THE FLOWERS” signs. She was even more impressed by how effortless they make it look, too.
Now the reason why your humble narrator’s ears perked? The whole of Disneyland runs with a coordinated and orchestrated landscaping regime that changes for events and through the seasons. (And yes, there actually IS another season in Central Florida other than “Inhaling A Pot of Boiling Corn Syrup.” It just lasts for about maybe four hours in early January, which is why nobody in Orlando sleeps that month for fear of missing it.) That part is well-documented. However, Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge is a completely different challenge, and I wanted to see how the landscaping team worked with the challenge of selecting and arranging plants that didn’t bring visitors out of the illusion.
By way of example, science fiction in all of its forms was never really about predicting the future than it was about interpreting the present using extrapolations of the future as a lens. The problem is with trying to get the audience to accept those extrapolations and not get pulled out of the story. The late Harlan Ellison once related that one of his great epiphanies about futuristic settings was when he read a story as a teenager with the sentence “The door irised open.” Think about that for a second: “The door irised” open not only immediately signifies that this isn’t a typical contemporary setting, but it also leads to the question “So WHY does the door need to iris open?” That leads to all sorts of conjecture as to the whys and wherefores of the world into which the writer just booted us, and the fervent hope is that the writer gives us as good an explanation as what we already had running through our heads with that first sentence. Science fiction is generally described as a literature of “What If,” but the question that always follows “What if?” is “Why?”, and anyone creating any kind of science fiction had better be able to answer that.
Sometimes the process of prognostication goes a little off. Novels and short stories may be able to describe wide vistas never before seen, but the impact is still dependent upon the reader’s imagination. Visual arts can bypass that for a literal cost in actors, sets, costumes, and special effects, with a constant battle between vision and budget. Trying to go for that sense of wonder is compounded in an amusement park: camera angles can keep a movie audience from viewing the cables in an animatronic puppet, and that doesn’t work in the slightest with thousands of people poking, prodding, and peeking around it, seven days a week. Creating displays for public areas is a whole discipline with formal college degrees these days, and the compromise between making something heart-stopping and making something safe is very real.
The final aspect to consider are the aspects, almost always accidental, that pull audiences out of the illusion, and science fiction movies and television have a LOT of those. This isn’t just talking about reworking and repainting toys or appliances to turn them into props: you have the accidental anachronisms such as the assumption in 2001: A Space Odyssey that Pan Am would be still be an active airline, much less running orbital shuttles by the beginning of the new century, or the series Babylon 5 suggesting, even tongue in cheek, that Zima would be the drink of choice in 2258. The further back you go, the more obvious the set and FX redressings and repurposings: the original Star Trek was famed for using outrageously tacky furniture and wall accessories, under the idea that tacky was just the future ahead of its time, and bubble wrap was so new and exotic in England in the 1960s that Doctor Who characters wore quite a bit of it. The same applies with plants, with helleconias, dracaenias, ficuses, and the occasional jade plant filling in for exotic alien flora, or a gigantic collection of exotic orchids really consisting of about twenty Phalaenopsis orchid shot at different angles. If it’s recognizable or ridiculous, it pulls you out right then, and those of us in botany and horticulture are just a little less vocal about this than others.
Now, Disney amusement park design is anything other than haphazard, and one of the more intriguing aspects about Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge involves how hard the Disney crew worked to keep up the illusion that visitors aren’t in a park. For instance, all of the workers (referred to as “cast” in Disney parlance) have unique costumes and backstories, which they’re prepared to recite if questioned by patrons. That’s already applied across Disney parks with the company’s classic characters (think about the Disney princesses, for instance), but just think of the complexity of creating dozens or hundreds of unique personae, with unique clothes and tools and accessories, simulating all of the background characters seen for a moment or two in the Star Wars films, but able to step out and answer questions in character. Disney earned its reputation for that sort of character immersion, but this is pushing those previous efforts to a whole new level.
And that’s why I want to head out there with Amanda and take copious notes. From what pictures have come out from Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, the landscaping design gives a suitably alien aspect to the attractions, but I want to get closer. I want to see what kind of plants and in what combinations and arrangements. I want to see if the trees are real trees or cunningly constructed simulations, and what species and cultivars if the former. I want to know how the arrangements are rotated based on the season and the compromises between “sufficiently alien for Star Wars” and “suited for Orlando’s climate.” Most importantly, I want to have a heads-up, because garden centers and nurseries are going to start getting calls asking “I saw this really cool plant at Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, and can you get one for me?” and I want to answer “Oh, you BETCHA!” And then, after the Disney purchase of the entirety of the Twentieth Century Fox archive, I’ll be rooting for Disneyland to give the same treatment to Alien.
Oh, news is a bit, erm, intense this month. The Triffid Ranch finally got on the Atlas Obscura map this month, and that led to a wonderful conversation with Samantha Lopez at the Houston Chronicle that just came out on both the Chronicle and the MySanAntonio sites. This coincided with deciding to return the favor and sponsoring the Class of ’79 podcast from Fangoria magazine. The last is a particular payback, and not just because so many of the horror film releases of 1979 were so influential to me when I was finally old enough to hit the Dallas midnight movie circuit in the mid-Eighties: Fangoria‘s new owners have done more than enough justice to their promise to revive the magazine, and in my home town, too. This will be the first of many such sponsorships, for as long as I can manage, and they’re welcome to do a podcast hosted at the gallery, too.
Between longer days and lots of projects (including a series of commissions that are another reason why you won’t see another Triffid Ranch open house until the end of August), the To Be Read pile beside the bed has gone from “impressive” to “worrisome” to “a direct threat to the cats if it collapses.” (Not that either would notice: Alexandria would surf the flow, and Simon is now getting so big that the pile has to threaten to block the sun before he becomes concerned.) Among the textbooks on museum display design and airbrush techniques, though, it behooves thee to snag a copy of Jason Heller‘s Strange Stars, a thorough guide to the ongoing cross-pollination between science fiction and rock music through the 1970s, now that it’s out in paperback. (There’s a connection between this and the airbrush guides, too, considering the number of famed album cover artists who crossed back and forth between album covers and science fiction and fantasy novels, sometimes specifically because a musician saw a particular book cover and said “We NEED this look.”)
And speaking of the intersection of science fiction and music, fans of esoteric music might recognize the name “Steven Archer” as part of the cultural colony organism known as Ego Likeness, and a few of you might even recognize him for his sideproject Hopeful Machines. Well, for a few years now, he’s been working as well on new albums for Stoneburner, a project inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. The latest Stoneburner album, Technology Implies Belligerence, just hit the streaming service feeds, and coming from a decade-long Archer fan, it’s his best yet. Go give it a listen, and then understand why it’ll be essential listening in the gallery when working on new enclosures.