“Science fiction shows us how we can improve quality of life through technology, but it’s so important that we properly channel the tools and the knowledge that we gain so that we don’t suppress ourselves as individuals of freewill.” — Ron Nirenberg
SAN ANTONIO: Want to see ‘Batman’ become the mayor of your city? Vote for Ron Nirenberg, and you can make that happen.
I first heard of him when he was being dubbed ‘The Batman’, back when he was saving the world’s largest summer home for Mexican free-tailed bats from urban sprawl. Since then, I’ve gotten to know Ron a bit, and found him to not only be a world-class critical thinker who views issues from all sides — but he’s also a profoundly hardcore geek and passionate science fiction / fantasy fan. He puts a deep value on collective vision and looking forward, without forgetting the inhabitants that make a place what it is.
So if you’re like me, and you proudly count yourself amongst the legions of San Antonians who love genre films, collect comics, or play D&D — this guy is one of us, and that’s a beautiful thing. In a time when public officials wrongly view citizens as inferiors and lessers — Ron realizes voters are the Board of Directors, and we need someone who will look out for the inner city, the Southside, the Westside and the Eastside, just as much as the Northside. As our federal and state government officials have become increasingly abusive, we’re going to need strong local government that protects not just citizens’ legal rights, but their human rights as well. I think Ron possesses that social vision, and being that I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life as a Hugo Award-winning cover illustrator in the science fiction / fantasy publishing industry, I wondered if his immersion in sf/f helped shape that.
We sat down in early April for a one-on-one conversation about science fiction, fantasy, San Antonio, and the future present.
John Picacio: Your campaign embraces the slogan ‘The City You Deserve’ which is an interesting phrase because the voters decide what kind of city they deserve, and in San Antonio, that means a leader not only better funnel hopes and dreams into cohesive vision, but also swing the doors of perception *wide* open so voters can actually envision what IS possible. I’ve heard you say that science fiction is the literature of possibility and vision. What was the first sf/f narrative that captured your imagination?
Ron Nirenberg: Oh man. It’s interesting you used the phrase ‘the doors of perception’. That was one of my favorite books I read for pleasure in college. That’s Aldous Huxley. My love of science fiction definitely comes from cinema though, and that happened before I even knew how to read.
I was born in 1977, and we all know what happened that year. So STAR WARS was one of the first eye-opening experiences I can remember, and it also gave me my love for cinema, even beyond genre. The other big cinematic experience I can remember was with my uncle, when we were visiting family in Massuchusetts. We walked into a movie twenty minutes late, and that was E.T.: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL. That was such a captivating story for someone who was around five or six years old. It’s always stuck with me too.
JP: Is there a particular image from that movie that still resonates?
RN: Yeah. I remember it clear as day. It was when that government agency had attached those big tubes to the house, and we see those guys walking through the smoke, and they looked so otherworldly. That was what Elliott’s perception was. That was how the boy perceived these people, and he associated these agency guys as the danger, while relating so much more to this extraterrestrial who needed his help.
JP: We’re experiencing the world through a child’s eyes, where the concept of ‘alien’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘enemy’.
RN: Yeah. His connection with E.T. was familial. It was close. It was compassion, despite the fact that the two were from completely different planets. It was the opposite of how the technocrats saw the alien, with this sort of amoral approach. The alien was more like Elliott than these supposedly more familiar humans that were barging into his house.
JP: You’re a batman of sorts. Thankfully, you’re NOT a billionaire vigilante psychotic who prowls the streets. We already have enough psycho politicians. What makes the Batman character resonate with so many though is he’s a dedicated protector of his city and its inhabitants. You have a legacy as a guy who saved the summer home of the world’s largest bat colony — 10,000,000 Mexican free-tailed bats near Bracken Cave — and somehow you balanced their preservation with the needs of human neighbors that co-habitate amongst them.
RN: <chuckles) Yeah, they still call me ‘Batman’ sometimes.
JP: <laughs> How did the bat issue become a priority for you?
RN: I like difficult challenges. I’m not scared off by what others perceive as lost causes. When I first came onto the campaign trail and into office, I became aware of that situation and was told it couldn’t be saved. My son and I went to the cave, and it could be best described as an otherworldly experience to watch those bats emerge. I got educated about what they meant to the ecosystem, to the protection of our water supply, protection of our crops, etc. And frankly, those bats were here first.
When it comes to people, I take pride in giving voice to the voiceless, but also protecting the habitats that balance our environment. Ya know, even bats play an important role in our world, and I became keenly aware of that when I posted my video of them on my Facebook page. I woke up the next morning and there were hundreds of shares and comments from people all over the world. I couldn’t even read all of the languages in the comments, but it further reinforced that what happens in our small corner of the universe is impactful everywhere else. So we have to act that way — especially elected officials who create policy.
JP: What’s your favorite Batman memory?
RN: In 1989, two things happened. One — my parents separated. And two — I spent that entire summer walking back and forth to the movie theatre. The two films I watched most were the Tim Burton BATMAN film that came out that year, and INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE. Both of those movies — over and over. Also, when I would come home…..I don’t remember what station it was, but it was some kind of classics channel……they showed the re-runs of the old Batman TV show from the sixties. I remember I also borrowed a Sega from a friend, and those games and those particular films……that BATMAN film…….they got me through a tough period.
JP: You once said that THE TERMINATOR changed your life. I NEED to hear more about that.
RN: First of all, it was a forbidden movie. My parents wouldn’t let me watch ‘R’ movies when I was growing up. So as soon as it came out on VHS, we went to our rental store and rented it. I remember my mom let me watch it, but she made me walk out when it got to the love scene. <laughs> At that time, some of my friends were also dubbing videos. So she found a way to get a dubbed version made with that part blanked out. <laughs> I watched the heck out of it. A friend of mine who actually became a filmmaker himself…..he does a lot of work with Richard Linklater now…..we used to make films just for fun, and we watched so many films together. THE TERMINATOR was our favorite and we would watch it over and over again.
I fell in love with the story. I fell in love with how cool Arnold Schwarzenegger was, of course. I picked up a novelization of the film and it made me say ‘wow’. I mean, there’s so much more to this freaky nightmare that James Cameron had. It was such a tightly-conceived storyline, and it just blew my mind. So ever since then, THE TERMINATOR has been my favorite movie — EVER. And it had just the best elements of the best sci-fi movie you could ever think of. It had great actors, great characters, but in terms of cinema, it had this incredible soundtrack. I’m trying to remember……did Danny Elfman do that one?
JP: Elfman did the ’89 BATMAN soundtrack. I’m trying to remember who did the original TERMINATOR music….
RN: Fiedel! It was Brad Fiedel. It was this incredible synthesized soundtrack. Very Eighties. I still listen to it, just on its own. That movie had everything.
JP: The other thing about that film was it was this seemingly impossible low-budget exercise in problem solving. I don’t know what the budget was for that film, but it had to be less than $10 million, which is minuscule for an effects-heavy film. And with such a low budget, the production design, the effects, all of it…..it’s just masterfully composed.
RN: It made James Cameron. I was just enthralled by it. And like a lot of kids my age, I would play with G.I. Joes. So me and my buddy Justin would make stop-animation films…..some really cool ones. We made up our own stories, but we also re-created THE TERMINATOR stop-animation style using G.I. Joe men. <laughs>
JP: Did you guys find any inspiration from Ray Harryhausen and the old SINBAD films?
RN: Not so much SINBAD, but CLASH OF THE TITANS is one of my favorite films — the original one from ’81.
JP: There you go. Yeah, that was the last film Harryhausen worked on.
RN: Yeah, that’s definitely one of my favorite movies ever. And that was one my mom was OK with me watching.
JP: When that movie first released in theaters, my mother stood in line forever with me to see it. I remember her covering my eyes during certain parts of the film, like when the Medusa came out. After a while, she stopped covering mine, and just covered up her own.
RN: <laughs> Yeah, I love that film.
JP: We’re finding more and more of the world’s great leaders and thinkers possess deep roots in geek culture, and they proudly fly the flag. Barack Obama has been an unabashed Spider-Man fan since childhood. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a devout Trekkie. National Book Award Winner and Macarthur Genius Ta-Nehisi Coates is now writing Black Panther for Marvel. These are people who are driving the ideas that shape the way we see the world and universe. Are there any works of science fiction / fantasy that currently inspire you as a leader?
RN: I still like the classics. I’m inspired by stories about people who overcome long odds. We waited until my son was old enough to understand STAR WARS. So we’re bigtime STAR WARS fans in my house, and we experience those together.
JP: How old is he?
RN: He’s eight. He actually started when he was three or four.
JP: Yeah, we’re about to start watching RETURN OF THE JEDI with my daughter. I waited a while before we finally watched EMPIRE together. There are a lot of daddy issues in that film, so I didn’t want to rush into that one. <laughs>
RN: We let him watch the first one when he was three. We made him wait a little bit for RETURN OF THE JEDI. My wife wanted him to watch the prequels in order. So that meant he had to wait quite a while before she was comfortable with us all watching REVENGE OF THE SITH together.
JP: Some heavy moments in that one.
RN: Yeah, there are parts that my wife didn’t want him to watch until we thought he was ready. My house is very STAR WARS-centric though.
RN: Movies aside — my favorite comic book is CONAN THE BARBARIAN. I would also say that the Schwarzenegger CONAN film is a close second in favorite films. I don’t know how I got away with watching that movie. <laughs> But as soon as I saw it, I was in love with the character, and as a kid, I became a voracious Marvel Comics reader, especially their CONAN comics. To this day, I still have a huge collection of those. I started with THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN — the big magazine size. I read them all out of order because they predated me. I still read them even now. I was completely disappointed in the new remake film. But yeah, as far as the comics, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, CONAN THE DESTROYER, RED SONJA…..all of it.
JP: I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never read the Robert E. Howard source material. I really need to do that.
RN: Yeah, when I was a kid in school, I did a poster board presentation of the life and creation of CONAN THE BARBARIAN.
JP: <laughs> That’s cool. Were you ever into Frank Frazetta?
RN: He did a couple of covers for SAVAGE SWORD and I have those. Looking back, those were considered pretty risqué for me. I’d go look for those issues at trade shows, and I almost considered them pornography. <laughs>
I also used to stay up late and watch movies like EXCALIBUR. Every now and then, when I was a kid, for some reason at 11 or 12 o’ clock at night, there was a station that would air EXCALIBUR, and I remember watching it late at night when my parents were asleep. That movie enchanted me as a kid. So yeah, CONAN THE BARBARIAN and EXCALIBUR were the two things that dragged me into a love for fantasy. I’m still a huge film buff, and my wife and I watch movies together all the time.
JP: Is she into sf/f?
RN: Even moreso. Erika loves cinema and theatre so much that she can tell where a movie is going before it gets there. I knew I was marrying the right person the first time we watched STAR WARS together. She’s a huge geek. We both are.
JP: Alright, last question — are there any works of science fiction / fantasy that depict an urban or cultural image that inspires you toward the San Antonio of YOUR best dreams?
RN: Hmmmm. Tough question. I don’t know if there’s a specific film, but there’s a pretty common theme that I’ve detected in sci-fi films — and that’s that people are scared of the future. The cities we see in these stories are so often NOT the kind we want — places where government has overreached and people’s freewill has been suppressed. I think THX-1138 was one of the first films I saw where a society disrespects the individual so much that we end up with Big Brother. I think that science fiction has been a lens for us to look through, showing us what can go wrong if we don’t get things right presently. It’s hard to watch a movie or read a science fiction novel and say, ‘hey, that’s the future I want to live in’ because so often they’re dystopias. They’re warnings to us. I rewatched TOTAL RECALL recently, and sure there are a lot of elements of a city that make me say, ‘hey, that would be awesome.’ I mean, I would love to jump into a Johnny Cab. <laughs> Science fiction shows us how we can improve quality of life through technology, but it’s so important that we properly channel the tools and the knowledge that we gain so that we don’t suppress ourselves as individuals of freewill.
Vote for Ron as San Antonio’s next mayor, beginning Monday, April 24th at your nearest early voting site. Bexar County’s 2017 Mayoral Election Day is Saturday, May 6th. Find your precinct and your voting sites here!
RON NIRENBERG’S ALL-TIME SF/F FAVES:
Favorite comic book character:
Favorite sf/f book:
All-time favorite sf/f films:
CONAN THE BARBARIAN