A flashback chat with George Takei in honor of LGBT history month

Before he became a gay icon and the king of the Internet, the erstwhile Mr. Sulu chatted with PW editor Stephen Segal at a science fiction convention in Japan.

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Photo by Gage Skidmore

"San Francisco—I was born there.” In retrospect, that nonchalant line George Takei delivered in character as Mr. Sulu in Star Trek IV carries a bit more gravitas. This week, Takei—who’s enjoyed a career renaissance as a humorist for the Internet generation in the years since he publicly came out as a gay man in 2005—has been celebrated as an honoree of the international LGBT History Month campaign, which Philadelphia’s Equality Forum orchestrates annually to highlight the lifetime achievements of inspirational LGBT icons and role models. As it happens, I had the chance to sit down with George for a one-on-one interview at a science fiction convention in Yokohama a few years ago, not long after he first began presenting himself as a public champion of gay-rights issues. (He’d appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s show in a comedic public-service announcement to answer homophobic remarks made by basketball player Tim Hardaway). As a Trekkie all through childhood, I have to admit that hanging with Mr. Sulu was kind of more exciting than visiting Japan for the first time. For various reasons, our conversation never ended up in print at the time—so I’m happy to be able to present some choice bits now, in honor of George’s official designation as an icon of cultural history.

On traveling to Yokohama to emcee the first World Science Fiction Convention ever held in Japan: My grandparents came to America from Yokohama. I remember my grandmother saying to me that they rocked back and forth on that boat for six weeks’ journey across the ocean—but within her lifetime, people were able to get into a steel box and fly back across that same Pacific in a matter of hours. That’s science fiction.
     Here’s another science fiction thing: This whole area [the Yokohama convention district]—this was water. They filled it all in. You know, in real estate, people say, “Buy land, because they’re not making any more!” Well, in Yokohama, they are!

On the craziness of the geopolitical landscape: Politics is science fiction, too. Some maniacs commandeer a couple of those steel boxes, use them to kill thousands of people—and what does our president do? Bomb the wrong country. That’s science fiction.

On why he serves on the board of trustees of California’s Japanese American National Museum: Asians were the only immigrants who were denied naturalized American citizenship. The 1913 Alien Land Law said that no immigrant ineligible for citizenship could buy land in California . . . I think it’s more important to know about where our democracy struggled than about all our glorious shining moments.

On his good-natured attitude: I like to think that most people are decent and fair-minded.

On staying fit and healthy into one’s mature years: So many people break the laws of nature. All these reports on diet, fitness, health—but if we don’t pay attention, the machine breaks down early. It used to be that the reports were on things that were supposed to be bad for you—fats, salt—but now? Blueberries are good for you. Green tea is good for you. Red wine is what keeps the French healthy. But: everything in moderation.

Learn more at lgbthistorymonth.com.


And Elsewhere in Geekery...

...world-renowned fantasy artist Charles Vess is a guest of honor at the 77th annual Philadelphia science fiction conference.

Philadelphia’s annual science fiction convention, Philcon, is even more venerable than the Worldcon that George Takei hosted; in fact, with a birthdate of 1936, it’s the longest-running sf con in the world. PW spoke with one of this year’s guests of honor, legendary book and comics artist Charles Vess, about why fantastical stories always seem to stick around.

You’ve done a lot of work with old-time stories, such as your Ballads and Sagas books. Even the modern stories you’ve illustrated, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and Charles de Lint’s The Cats of Tanglewood Forest, are conscious efforts to evoke that old fairy-tale feel. Why are these stories of mysterious forests and fairy mischief so compelling, even in the 21st century? The truth of a myth is the truth at the center of any story, told at any time. Every book you’ll ever read is about someone who strays off the path and goes into the woods and fights the dragons there. He either figures out how to overcome them, or doesn’t. Usually in a fairy tale you do figure out how to overcome them. Stories are full of metaphorical dragons and symbolic witches. All you have to do is read the newspaper—there are a lot of them out there. (Laughs.)
      Early on in my career, I was drawing them and thinking of them mainly as escapist. Just “merely” escapist. The more I’ve studied myths and mythology and fairy tales and folklore, the more I realized they are coded stories: If you pay enough attention to them, they will let you know how to overcome any danger that pops up.
      I grew up in the 1950s, so really the only fairytales I had to look at, pop-culture-wise, were the Disney films. Those are still beautiful for me to look at. But they are so glaringly simplified. And the woman is always waiting for her prince to come and rescue her, and that’s just not the way it happens in a lot of the original stories. I can still enjoy them with a very large grain of salt.

The actual narratives are far more complex and a lot darker than those movies would have you believe. Very much so. It’s a big surprise, if you go back and read some of the older versions of fairy tales. They seem all bright and shiny—and as a young artist, I found bright and shiny very attractive. (Laughs.) But later on, I would dip down below the surface and find all sorts of depth in there.
    I don’t think I’ll ever exhaust them. Every once in a while I go, “Omigosh! Am I going to have to stop drawing fairy tales and draw something else?” But there’s just so much to explore in that world that I’ll just keep on going.

We’re in the Halloween season, which brings in a lot of your favorite tropes of darkened forests, mysterious creatures and fantastical identities. We just can’t seem to let go of those concepts, can we?
We can’t! At heart, I think people do want to be scared. They go to see that ghost movie, or see Freddy Kruger kill another 100 people. Those are popular because we like to be scared through entertainment, because we know its going to be over in a few hours. We like to embody these monsters—in a safe way. / JARED AXELROD

Philcon: Nov. 8–10. Featuring author Allen Steele, artist Charles Vess, fan publisher Robert Madle and musical guests the Heather Dale Band with S.J. Tucker. Crowne Plaza Hotel, Cherry Hill. 2013.philcon.org

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