Earth used to be Galaxy Entertainment’s most lucrative show. The inhabitants of the Western Galaxy—the savviest, richest demographic in the Milky Way—just couldn’t get enough of the day-to-day details of the average Earthling’s life.
But now Channel Blue’s ratings are flagging and its producers are planning a spectacular finale. In just three weeks, their TV show will go out with a bang. The trouble is, so will Earth. Only one man can save our planet, and he’s hardly a likely hero.
Available now from Head of Zeus, Jay Martel’s debut novel Channel Blue is a look at the absurdities of modern-day America in the tradition of Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut.
From: Gerald O. Davidoff
To: Interplanetary Board Members
Re: Strategies to Maintain Current Prime-Time Dominance in Western Galaxy
Mankind’s greatest quest is no longer for food, or shelter, or freedom, or even to pass his genetic material onto future generations. Today, mankind’s greatest challenge is to avoid boredom. Without a steady and cathartic flow of quality entertainment, we know all too well that humanity would soon turn violently on itself and, in time, cease to exist.
That is why our work is so incredibly important.
As you are all aware, we have always taken quite seriously the provision of the very best entertainment to our fellow Edenites. In the last few centuries, we have seen exciting growth as our company has moved into new worlds, establishing planetainments throughout the galaxy. Last year, at the Extra-Planetary Entertainment Awards, we took home Orbys in 217 of 573 categories, and this year we’ll do even better. I am presently supervising the construction of CrazyWorld 67 in the Horsehead Nebula, and I can tell you all right now that it’s going to be the craziest world yet. In other encouraging news, SlutPlanet is up and running over in Rigel 4 and completely dominating its time slots.
As most of you know, I started out as a travel agent. The two businesses have a lot more similarities than you’d think. In both, we expose our customers to new experiences, immeasurably enriching their lives. And in both businesses it’s important to know when it’s time to move on. In this case, I’m referring to our planet in the Orion Arm. As you all know, I have a strong attachment to this particular world. It was my very first planet and without it I would never have become part of the Galaxy Entertainment family. But no one can deny that its programming has fallen off quite a bit in the last few seasons, and while I, more than anyone, appreciate the quality shows that have been produced there in the past, I also need to recognise that the storylines have become too bizarre, the cast too unlikable to sustain the ratings we have come to expect. I think we can all agree that this planet ‘jumped the shark’ a long time ago. Plus, the resources spent on this single world could be used to develop several planetainments in less-expensive solar systems.
As a result of these considerations, I regrettably feel that the time has come to cancel Earth.
GROUNDED IN REALITY
Perry Bunt pronounced the word slowly and solemnly, hoping this would help it sink into the skulls of his screenwriting students.
‘Without believability, you have no hope of involving the audience in your story.’
The students in his 10 a.m. class stared back blankly at Perry, their minds occupied, no doubt, with how to argue the believability of a dog with extrasensory powers or a flying baby. On the one hand, Perry couldn’t help but admire the courage of their convictions. Once he too had possessed this kind of confidence.
Not so long ago, Perry Bunt had been known as one of the premiere Idea Men in the entertainment business. It seemed like everything he set his eyes on gave him an idea for a movie. One day he picked up his phone and thought, ‘What if I could call anyone on this—even dead people?’ and in a flash, the entire story unfolded before his eyes (Guy gets mysterious call on his dead wife’s phone telling him who killed her). Later that week, he optioned ‘Dead Call Zone’ to a major studio.
There were days when Perry’s mind was so full of stories that there wasn’t room for anything else. The problems began when he sat down to write them. For while Perry possessed a keen sense of what made a story interesting (‘the hook’ in the parlance of the movie industry), he was mediocre when it came to actually putting words onto a page (‘the writing’ in the parlance of the movie industry). Staring at his computer screen, Perry had a terrible realisation: dreaming up a story had almost nothing to do with writing it. Dreaming was inspiring and fun; writing was gruelling and difficult. While dreaming required little follow-through, writing demanded almost nothing but. Perry, it turned out, had very little follow-through.
The executives he worked for were even worse. Jittery at the thought they’d spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in vain, they’d tell Perry they absolutely loved what he’d written and then proceed to pepper him with haphazard notes—‘Consider changing the boy to a dog’; ‘Let’s talk about changing the dog to a cat’; ‘We all agree that the cat isn’t working and that a boy would raise the emotional stakes’—the movie-industry equivalent of the panicked screaming you might hear in a burning airplane plummeting towards theground. When confronted with these contradictory ideas, Perry would further torture his mauled script and then, eventually, give up and chase the next Big Idea. It wasn’t that he was a bad writer; if he’d been forced to work exclusively on one of his many stories, a good script would have no doubt resulted. But he was always tempted away by the next script, convinced that this would be the one that would prove irresistible to filmmakers and audiences. Ideas, like relationships, are always more exciting when they are new.
‘You get six, sometimes seven scripts before they find you out,’ his first agent had warned him. Sure enough, after Perry sold his seventh script—and that script, like all the others he’d written, was never made into a movie—his career began a long ride downward. It took a while for him to realise what was happening. The true Hollywood ending is no ending at all; there is no fade to black, no elegiac music, no credits. There is only a phone that doesn’t ring. Perry learned that no news wasn’t good news, but was instead bad news taking its time. He had once dreaded the phone calls—the phoney banter, the ubiquitous schmoozing, the mendacious puffery—but now he missed them. He wouldn’t mind if someone called and lied to him, as long as they called.
For a while, Perry still found work in the entertainment business. On Hey, Hey Fiancée, a television show featuring newly engaged couples on a tropical island, he was tasked with devising ways of breaking up the affianced. Sickened by the experience, he quit after two episodes and vowed never to work in the so-called reality TV genre again. Had there ever been a more egregious misnomer than ‘reality TV’? In what kind of reality do people routinely become craven animals on display?
His principles came at a high cost: after Hey, Hey Fiancée, he could find employment only on a children’s show about a talking wombat, which was soon replaced by a cartoon featuring hyper-aggressive koala bears. After scripting an industrial for a juicer, Perry hit the end of the line: teaching.
It was a shock from which he had yet to recover. ‘Bunt’s a Hit’ proclaimed a Variety headline that Perry still carried in his wallet. Yellowed and torn, it was a small signifier of his denial that this same Bunt was now teaching eight classes a week of Beginning Screenwriting at the Encino Community College, where he made it a personal mission to break young writers of the delusions he saw as his undoing.
‘Ideas are a dime a dozen,’ he told his 10 a.m. class. Perry surveyed the students, holding his smallish frame as erect as possible to emphasise his seriousness. Though he had once been considered handsome, with delicate features framed by dark curly hair, that was when a Bush was President, and it wasn’t the one who stayed in Iraq. Now in the last gasp of his thirties, balding and a little thick around the middle, Perry’s features appeared misplaced on a head that seemed too big for them. ‘It’s all about follow-through. It’s all about execution. It’s all about grounding your scripts in reality.’
The impetus for his well-worn lecture on believability was a scene written by a large goateed boy–man named Brent Laskey, one of the students Perry referred to as the Fauxrantinos. Perry’s least favourite filmmaker was Quentin Tarantino, not because of his movies per se, but because every time he made a movie, a thousand Brent Laskeys bought screenwriting software, convinced that writing a film consisted of nothing more complicated than thinking up new ways for people to die.
Brent’s screenplay was about a med-school student who pays his tuition by moonlighting as a hitman for the Mob, then discovers a cure for cancer. It was among the class’s more plausible scripts. In the scene up for discussion, the hitman is attempting to assassinate a Colombian drug kingpin. When his sniper rifle jams, he steals a helicopter, flies it upside down, and improbably decapitates the kingpin and his bodyguards.
‘Without plausibility, you have no credibility,’ Perry said, winding up his all-too-familiar rant. ‘And when you lose credibility, you lose your audience. Any questions?’ The students’ expressions remained resolutely blank, as if their disinterest was all that kept their bodies propped upright. Perry was about to return to the open script on his desk when a hand shot up in the back of the class. Perry was pleased to see that it belonged to an attractive young woman in a blue jacket. This woman’s name was Amanda Mundo.
Perry’s students generally fell into two categories that he labelled ‘the geniuses’ and ‘the nut-jobs’. The geniuses were laconic, arrogant young men and women who dreamed, like Perry, of being successful writers. This class was a tedious necessity for them, a stepping stone to surpassing their poorly dressed, caffeinated instructor and being recognised for the geniuses they were. When Perry praised, they listened attentively; when he criticised, their eyes glazed over as they travelled in their minds to the ceremonies where they would gratefully gather their Oscars, pausing long enough in their acceptance speeches to attempt to remember, without success, the name of that discontented, sloppy little man who was once their teacher.
Perry disliked these students the most because he had been one of them.
Then there were the nut-jobs. These were students like Doreena Stump, a born-again 52-year-old night nurse who was honing her skills to ‘deliver the Good News to Hellywood’. Her 200-page screenplays inevitably involved heroes who were handsome Baptist ministers, villains who were Volvo-driving atheists, and miraculous events: many, many miraculous events. Perry thought about reading them the same way a doctor thought about treating a penicillin-resistant strain of pneumonia.
Finally—or in Perry’s mind, ultimately—there was Amanda Mundo. Amanda transcended categorisation. Seeing her stride unselfconsciously into his morning class—her open smile, her freckles seemingly arranged by a mathematical genius for maximum adorableness, her long blonde hair perfectly swept over one shoulder—had become the highlight of his days. She had the daunting beauty of a Teutonic supermodel, but none of the harshness. Her warm hazel eyes crinkled in the corners whenever she smiled or laughed (which was often), and the irises were universes unto themselves: swirling pools of blue, green and grey, the black pupils haloed by coronas of gold. She spoke in a lilting voice with an accent that Perry couldn’t place. South Africa? New Zealand? It was just exotic enough to make her even more appealing, if that were possible.
Never had someone so charming and normal taken Perry’s class, but this was only the beginning of Amanda Mundo’s uniqueness. In his successful years, Perry had met many beautiful women; he’d even dated movie stars (albeit briefly and without getting past first base). There had been stretches of Perry’s life when he’d gone weeks without seeing a female he didn’t want to have sex with—in Hollywood, unattractive women were encouraged to move or hide themselves in basements. And in Hollywood movies, this erasure of the non-beautiful went a step further. Every heroine’s name that Perry introduced into his screenplays was followed by a two-word character description: ‘Extremely attractive’—unless the heroine was someone you might have a hard time imagining being extremely attractive, such as an ageing field hand or a crippled fishmonger. In this case Perry would describe them as ‘Extremely attractive in a down-to-earth way’. Had the movie executives read anything else, such as ‘Good-looking for her age’ or ‘Pretty despite her disability’, their heads might have exploded. ‘Extremely attractive in a down-to-earth way’ was the minimum.
But for all this, Perry had never met—or dreamt of—anyone like Amanda. If she were to appear in one of his scripts, he wasn’t sure he’d even be able to describe her. ‘Extremely attractive in a natural way’? ‘Stunningly beautiful but not like any woman you’d see in a movie’?It took several classes for Perry to figure out what was different about her, but eventually he did: Amanda, for all her beauty, didn’t seem to know she was beautiful. It was as if she’d been raised on a remote island by the Amish. She never made him feel as if he was lucky to be talking to her, thus removing the self-consciousness that diminished every encounter Perry had experienced with the extremely attractive. He found he could actually talk freely to her and even, shockingly enough, be himself in her presence.
For her part, Amanda seemed genuinely thrilled to be taught by Perry, taking copious notes and laughing whenever he tried to be funny, which was by far the quickest way to his heart. When they began chatting after class, he discovered that she had a skill for revealing little, while simultaneously summoning forth his most personal details. Once he asked her where she was from. She didn’t baulk at this terrible cliché, but instead smiled and said, ‘Where do you think?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I can’t quite identify your accent. I’m usually pretty good at figuring them out, too.’
‘Really?’ Amanda said with interest. ‘How do you do that? Have you travelled a lot?’ And just like that, the focus of the conversation became the summer after Perry’s college graduation, when he’d bought a Eurorail pass and managed to vomit in every European capital.
After another class, he opened up to her about the decline of his fortunes. Just when he thought he’d gone too far, that he’d repelled her with the stench of his failure and the musk of his self-pity, she hit him with the most blinding smile he’d ever seen.
‘This is just a second-act setback,’ she said. ‘You know how it works, Mr Bunt. You have over half the movie to come back.’ As if this weren’t enough, she added, ‘And I for one will be watching’, affectionately tapping him on the shoulder.
As she tapped him, the sleeve of her jacket pulled slightly up her forearm, revealing a small blue tattoo on the inside of her left wrist. Perry couldn’t see what it was exactly, but the mere glimpse of it stirred him in ways about which he felt immediately embarrassed. In his youth, only sailors and hardened criminals acquired tattoos, but now everyone under thirty seemed to have one and, for the first time, Perry understood why. The tap made his whole body feel warm.
‘Please,’ he said. ‘Call me Perry.’
After this, he shared with Amanda his deepest secrets and most fervent hopes. He told her of his undying faith in the life of the mind and the power of creativity, how he knew there was a way to imagine himself out of his current situation.
‘I have no doubt you will,’ she said.
She became the star of Perry’s fantasies. In her smile he saw deliverance from the squalor of his lonely apartment. In her lilting laugh he heard the love that would help him believe again in his writing. In the touch of her hand he felt the confidence that he would one day not have to masturbate quite so often, but also, paradoxically, the need to do so almost immediately.
His fantasies, however, were always tinged with sadness, as he had no doubt that she was out of his league. Though she didn’t wear any rings, Perry was certain that a woman like Amanda had to have a boyfriend, and one who probably owned an unstained pair of pants. She never mentioned anyone, though, and the germ of hope that had infected Perry began to cause sleeplessness. He needed to know the bad news as soon as possible to be able to move on with his life. So in the middle of one of their after-class conversations, Perry blurted out, apropos of nothing, ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’
To his surprise, Amanda didn’t flinch at the Asperger’s-like awkwardness of this question.
‘Yes,’ she said, and Perry’s heart plummeted down an elevator shaft. ‘But—’ His heart shot back up into his chest. ‘He lives very far away. We’re trying to make it work.’
‘Right,’ Perry said, feeling the blood returning to his limbs. ‘Long-distance relationships can be very challenging.’ Just like that, he decided that Amanda’s boyfriend was history. Some day, before the term was over, Perry would ask Amanda if she would like to have a cup of coffee and talk more about her screenplay. She would gladly agree, and that coffee would become a date, which she wouldn’t even realise was a date until they found themselves in each other’s arms. This date would become several dates, a relationship and, eventually, the love that would save Perry from lonely misery.
This, Perry knew, was the Romance Story, one of seven story templates from which all Hollywood movies were constructed. But that didn’t stop him from believing it.
There was only one problem with this plan. While the other students routinely assaulted Perry with long and terrible screenplays that demanded his immediate attention, Amanda hadn’t turned in a single word. As the term went on, this became a source of anxiety. Why is she in my class? he wondered. Was she mocking him? Did she think she could just sit back and watch his degradation without participating in it?
‘Excuse me, Mr Bunt?’ In the back of the classroom, Amanda patiently continued to hold up her hand. It took Perry a moment to remember the current discussion. How long had he been staring at her? ‘I had a question? About Mr Laskey’s script?’
‘I’m sorry, Amanda. What is it?’
‘Was Molina’s head cut off by the main blade or that little whirling thing in the back?’
Before Perry could react, Brent Laskey adjusted his backward baseball cap with the cocky confidence of an auteur. ‘The main rotor. My guy spins the helicopter upside down, flies it six feet off the ground and whack, no more head.’
Amanda smiled and made a note on her pad. Et tu, Amanda? Perry thought. He glowered at the class. ‘The question is really beside the point, since no one in the history of the world has ever used a helicopter to decapitate someone purposely, let alone flown one upside down.’
‘That’s what made it so awesome,’ said Heath Barber, another Fauxrantino. ‘It’s completely new. You literally nailed it, dude.’
As Heath and Brent exchanged a high five, Perry fought back extreme annoyance. In addition to encouraging Brent’s suspension of logic, Heath had flagrantly engaged in Perry’s linguistic pet peeve: the use of ‘literally’ to mean its opposite. Normally, Perry would have corrected this, but the conversation was already running away from him, devolving into a debate on whether you could fly a helicopter upside down. To his further irritation, this was the liveliest discussion of the term.
‘It’s physically impossible!’ Perry interrupted. ‘It breaks every rule of aero-fucking-dynamics, all right? It can’t possibly happen!’ The students stared at him, and he was immediately aware that he was talking too loudly. He cleared his throat and attempted a disarming smile, which came off more like an incongruous grimace. ‘It’s always fun to speculate, of course, but let’s move on.’
Given his certitude on the subject, Perry was more than a little surprised when Brent Laskey strode into the classroom the next day and dropped a newspaper clipping on his desk.
‘I guess that settles it,’ the student said.
Perry picked up the clipping and read this headline:
Colombian Drug lord Slain
Inverted Chopper Decapitates Kingpin
THE STRANGE THING ABOUT PERRY BUNT
At the end of the day, Perry gathered up his things and was almost out the door when he noticed the newspaper article. It was still lying on his desk where Brent Laskey had dropped it, transforming his 10 a.m. class into an ordeal. Perry’s students couldn’t seem to get enough of their teacher eating his words, piling it on to mock his discredited belief in believability. Only Amanda Mundo stood back from the feeding frenzy, looking on with an expression of concern that Perry perceived to be pity, which was somehow worse than if she had joined in his humiliation. Now alone in the classroom, he picked up the offending clipping and, after suppressing the urge to hurl it into the trash, tossed it into his briefcase.
Perry made his way from the college’s main building through the ochre air to the faculty parking lot, where he found his Ford Festiva dusted with a thin layer of ash. It was the penultimate day of August. Perry referred to August as The Apocaugust, the month that saw Los Angeles shrug off its veils of grass lawns, pleasant gardens and swimming pools and reveal its true nature as a searing, Old Testament desert. Blistering dry summer heat gave way to wildfires that filled the San Fernando Valley with acrid smoke, turning sunlight a sickly yellow and giving every resident—man, woman and child—the phlegmy hack of a chain smoker. Accountants received grim portents of their mortality.
Perry started up the Festiva, used his wipers to clear the ash from his windshield, and wedged himself into rush-hour traffic.
He was eager to get home and write.
Teaching isn’t all that bad, he convincingly told himself and the few friends who still returned his calls. Yes, he had lost his girlfriend, his BMW and his home in the Hollywood Hills. Yes, he was more likely to be called by a debt collector than his agent. But Perry Bunt hadn’t given up. In his darkest hours, pausing from reading the terrible screenplays of his students to watch a cockroach scuttle over bits of petrified food on the matted grey carpet, he would tell himself that he would find some way to write his way out of this jam. As he’d told Amanda Mundo in one confessional moment, he continued to believe in the limitless power of his imagination and the transcendent powers of creativity. Despite a run of failure that would’ve made Job switch careers, Perry Bunt was still stalking the Big Idea.
From his first memory, Perry had carried around the feeling that he was destined for greatness, and no amount of failure would disabuse him of this fanciful notion. After reading the news that aerial artist Philippe Petit had walked a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center, six-year-old Perry had tied a rope between the chimney and a tree in the garden and started across. He always felt that it was the sound of his mother shrieking his name that had caused him to fall, but it’s doubtful that he would have made it in any case, even with the fishing rod as a balancing pole. He broke his right leg, and fractured his skull. Lying in traction in the hospital, two metal plates in his head, Perry was mystified that his daring feat hadn’t generated any media attention.
Encouraged by his parents and teachers, Perry gave up the tightrope for the typewriter and became a prodigy of narrative. For his graduate project in college, he’d written an earnest 612-page novel reimagining Don Quixote as a shell-shocked war veteran on a road trip across America, and it had the distinction of being read nearly all the way through by his faculty advisor.
Subsequently, Don Hoder was published by a small college press and nearly read by several critics, who pronounced Perry ‘promising’ and ‘a novelist under the age of thirty to watch’. Since these accolades did little to pay off his student loans, Perry had moved to Hollywood and, by twenty-eight, had become successful enough to acquire debt on a scale that made those loans look like microcredit.
Now he was still in debt but devoid of prospects. Still, Perry Bunt clung even more tenaciously to the belief that he was destined for greatness, unequivocally certain that one day, against all odds, he would regain his confidence and become more successful than ever. This, Perry knew, was the Underdog Story, another of the seven story templates from which all Hollywood movies were constructed. But, again, that didn’t stop him from believing it.
The strange thing about all of this was the fact that Perry Bunt was right: he was destined for greatness. Stranger still was the fact that the Earth’s survival depended on it.
Channel Blue © Jay Martel, 2014