Either you’re a fan of Steely Dan’s arch lyrics, post-jazz styling and endless in-jokes or you’re not. However, even if you aren’t, it shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying Donald Fagen’s writing, which is effortlessly crisp, smart and funny.
In “Donald Remembers Sci-Fi”, Fagen recalls how important science fiction was for him growing up Jewish in the ‘burbs. Along the way he tells some really funny anecdotes about Philip K. Dick, Alfred Bester and Scientology:
I was 12, and the Science Fiction Book Club had just sent me my first monthly selection, Anthony Boucher’s two-volume anthology, A Treasury of Great Science Fiction. There was this one story by Phillip K. Dick called The Father-Thing: An eight year-old boy, Charles, knows that the sullen, soulless thing that looks like his father isn’t really his father. It so happens that the bogus dad, having just emerged from an egg deposited in the garage by a bug-like alien, has eaten out his real father’s insides and taken his place. Charles tries to warn his mother, but of course she doesn’t believe him. With the help of two neighborhood pals, Charles destroys the extra-terrestrial bug, the Father-Thing, and a couple more eggs containing the partially developed simulacrums of Charles and his mother. The kids have saved the world from an alien takeover. A 1956 film based on a Jack Finney novel, Invasion of the Body Snatchers – the one featuring Kevin McCarthy and a town invaded by Pod People – was another take on the same scary idea.
Contrary to all the popular depictions of the fifties as a time when teens danced on the counters of a thousand pastel-dappled soda shops to the sounds of twangy guitars, the decade was, in fact, characterized by a nail-biting paranoia. The Father-Thing and Finney’s Body Snatchers played off the fear of discovering a Commie trained in the art of mind control behind every hedge. In a way, the suspicion that one’s neighbor might be one of those nefarious Reds was even more disturbing than the threat of thermonuclear war.
The Father-Thing, though, affected me on a much more personal level. My father had recently moved us into a brand new housing development down on the Central Jersey flats, far from our home town near Manhattan. Indeed, he’d secured a position as comptroller for the man who’d built the thing. An instant neighborhood with hundreds of more-or-less identical homes on half-acre lots set along the gently winding streets, it wasn’t exactly finished when we moved in. The tracts where the lawns were supposed to go were still square patches of dark mud, and there was a big mound of the stuff on every corner.
Driving to the new house on the day of the move, I had tried (as I’d tried many times before) to dissuade my parents from making this terrible mistake. This time, I played all my cards, reminding them that we were cutting ourselves off from our extended family back in Bergen County, from my uncles, aunts and cousins; that a change of schools would irreversibly disrupt my academic trajectory; and that the place they’d chosen to live, this “Kendall Park”, was an accursed wasteland that would suck the life out of our heretofore vital family and transform it into a cryptful of mindless zombies, etc., etc. Sadly, my appeal fell on deaf ears.
At this point, I should probably disclose that, in truth, both my parents, though not without their eccentricities, were basically a couple of sweethearts. My dad, like a lot of Depression-bred ex-G.I.s, was simply looking to plunk his family down on a clean, safe, green patch that was within his means. Nevertheless, at the time, their rotten little bookworm of a son saw the move as a grand betrayal. In fact, I began to imagine that this was only the latest in a series of metamorphoses that was gradually transforming my parents into…Parent-Things.
You can read the rest here.