Our next Science Fiction Trading Card Spotlight features John W. Sorflaten, who is displayed on card number 362, from the Science Fiction Collection. John is a world-traveled author who has many winning proposals, reports, documentary films and blogs to his name. Back in 1982, John was the writer/director of the historic documentary video footage on the Twin Galaxies Video Game Olympics and the famous 1983 Time Life Magazine Photo shoot. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nSGiXO-XRTw). This footage appeared in many documentaries such as Chasing Ghosts and Frag, along with King of Kong. Search Amazon for John’s newly written sci-fi series, “Thrall Conspiracy” which just came out in 2023, published by Optimum Performance Training, LLC.
How early in your life did you know you would be an writer?
Going to college requires some thought about “direction”. So….I picked Physics with the goal of being a Sci-Fi writer. (Well, writers need topic expertise, right?) That was in the fall of 1960 preceding enrollment at the U of Minnesota. It’s interesting that taking Big Steps like starting college force those kinds of decisions, or goals, as the case may be. And then after a couple of years, my buddy Roger Bennington (formerly Igor Babichev) and I published first issues of two tiny mags: “Plainsong” (a poetry rag) and “Botega Review” (and art and poetry rag). They didn’t have second issues, because I moved to Santa Cruz, CA.
How have films today changed from when you were younger? What do you like or dislike about the changes?
Yeah, great question. I’m waiting for someone to write a PhD thesis on those elements like changes in lighting (a result of improved film sensitivity), changes in acting (a result of TV and “close-ups” ending the need to exaggerate emotions), changes in permissible language (oops, did someone just say “f-u”?) due to dropping the film code and adoption of “ratings” (plus the need producers feel to be “relevant”).
Then we have improvements in special effects that permit super-heroes for “real”–just like we had in the bible, with Angels, Kings and Miracles. Blah, blah, blah. Lots of changes arose as films became our modern method of generating a “common culture”. (The old method was sharing knowledge of bible stories and Greek mythology–the “classics”.)
Do I like the changes? In both cases, we have our superheroes. I guess we (or our culture) simply need super-heroes.
On the other hand, changes will continue to evolve our media experiences. I play a game sometimes. Recall those old B/W photos and movies of New York circa 1900 or even just pics of the Civil War? They look so “quaint”, don’t they?
Well, imagine looking at any media from today, but you are in the future 100 years from now. Wow, how quaint are we today, AND WE DON’T EVEN KNOW IT! The laugh is on us!
So, I like most of the changes we have. except showing awful things like shooting drugs and other unfortunate human infelicities. Why do we need “high resolution needle injection” presented to families and their children on TV (and don’t tell me about “parental guidance” ...it doesn’t do the job).
Media should on the whole offer uplifting experiences. History will show that the gun violence we see today derives in large part from our media producers who don’t know how to entertain viewers except with bang-bang events to engage the startle response in viewers. Simple psychology at work…. but to ends that are not constructive in the long game.
Did you ever think when you were younger you would be on a trading card?
Haha. Young(er) people don’t do that (in my experience). They spend time thinking about work, food, play, and continuing the species. Trading cards? Well, I’ve wanted to be an author for a long time. I started college as a Physics student because I wanted to write Sci-Fi. But I didn’t read the physics textbook and quit that. I punked out on Chemistry and Calculus with C grades, and finally bailed out to be a Humanities Major with a Minor in English–later I got a BA in Cinema.
If you did not become a director/writer, what would you be doing?
Well, I went to film school at the University of Southern California in 1966-1968, paid for by the Air Force where I produced and directed documentaries and training films until 1972. I left the AF as a Captain and Unit Commander of a photo unit that served US Strike Command, now called US Centcom which subsequently commanded the Middle East and Afghan conflicts.
When I left the Air Force, I didn’t connect to the right city or people to get a film job. (Best I could do was work for a film processing lab for a year in Minneapolis, Minnesota, my hometown, supervising their complex relocation and remodeling.)
But I also had just received training in Spain as a teacher of Transcendental Meditation which was my side gig in 1973 Minneapolis. So teaching meditation fulfilled my desire to “make a difference” in the world, which replaced the need to be a film director and writer. Sounds strange, but actually, meditation is a far more effective and life-changing experience than watching something even as profound as Star Wars, speaking of which…. (pause)....
By the way, George Lucas was one year ahead of me in film school. He even showed up twice in directing class for which I was a teaching assistant. But George is a ‘nother whole story. He was a genius from the get-go. Here’s the film he did for that class. It’s called “Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town”: https://youtu.be/QR2gs3qASsw.
After planning and completing the relocation of “Galaxy Film Lab”, (Ha, this and “Twin Galaxies” make me “inter-galactic”) I went for a master’s degree at the TM college, Maharishi International University, newly located in Fairfield, Iowa, starting fall of 1974. Lots of students came from all over the US for this new experience. I studied the development of consciousness and the Foundations of Education. From there I was accepted for a fellowship at the University of Iowa in the “Visual Scholars PhD Program” funded by Eastman Kodak. Google my name SORFLATEN and PIAGET to see my dissertation–which shows that brain EEG changes from TM helps develop logical reasoning.
That PhD work put me on the path to becoming a cognitive psychologist and soon a “user experience” interface designer, and an international trainer for a Fairfield, Iowa company, Human Factors International. Google my last name SORFLATEN and HFI to see my list of blogs and other stuff from that time (and even recently). Between 2010 and 2018 I did the same kind of work for the National Security Agency (NSA) in Maryland.
So…. my Sci-Fi writing career became a Science Nonfiction writing and research career (in human factors computer interface design). Now, I’m back to pure Sci-Fi after sitting on the ideas for a decade.
What is your favorite science fiction movie or TV show, and why?
I’d be a real dope to NOT mentioning Star Wars. I knew George Lucas, I was a gung-ho meditation teacher, and a freak-out sci-fi nut. Star Wars is our “modern myth”. I loved Star Wars and still do.
OK OK, I can’t ignore the Matrix franchise either. The Wachowski siblings (bros or sistas, whatever) have a connection to humanity’s myth-building psyche just like Lucas. Go figure.
What are your favorite hobbies today?
My wife would love it if I could dump my library. She would get her house back. I accommodated that impulse when we moved to Maryland in 2010. I gave 1000+ books to the MIU library. But then the urge(s) returned. There’s a word for book collectors: bibliophile. When it gets out of hand, it’s bibliomania. I don’t think I’m the latter.
Lately, I figured out what’s going on–besides my need to “be informed” or “know the latest and greatest”. Actually, I’m happy when I see a good topic covered by an interesting author because it means “I don’t have to write that book”. You get it? Collecting that book reduces the implied demand by humanity that I organize that knowledge and then write that book. Whew. Thank God for all those authors. So, I pick books to remind me that I don’t need to write it.
Should I get a shrink? Maybe so.
How has your involvement in the Twin Galaxies photo shoot been important to you?
I do think about this but in a different context. When Walter contacted me to help Louis Wilson tape the Video Games Olympics, it was a lark gig. “Lark,” AKA, fun thing for a weekend. OK, then I paid to get the videotape interviews transcribed.
Then, using the transcripts, Louis and I laid out a documentary “flow”. Louis did a great editing job…. several edits, at that.
Then (in 1983), Louis called a bunch of people to promote a project “Video Game News Update” with that footage and new stuff. We even used the MIU Video Studio (which I used to manage back in 1976) to create a 90-second clip of Walter Day announcing the day’s scoring wonders! See it at https://youtu.be/qTE5WQaEfwU
You get my drift. This was ALL A LARK…BUY NOW… That footage appears in films like Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade and King of Kong: Fistful of Quarters (both 2007) as well as Frag (2008) and CNN’s documentary “The Eighties”. And Walter became Mr. Liptak in Wreck-It Ralph!
What does it take to be a professional writer today?
I’m in the process of finding out. My wife and I love critiquing NetFlix seasonal dramas. She directed plays in high school. I produced and directed documentary films. So, we talk showbiz when viewing great dramas like StarGate, NCIS, Star Trek (all of them), and Blacklist.
It takes a team, first, to get GREAT drama. Those dramas put the best minds together into a cooking pot and have them simmer for just the right amount of time. I’d love to do a video blog interviewing writers and producers about how they fashion the characters, the world-building, and the rising/continuing drama.
My latest insight is that these shows blend the “procedural drama” (be it police procedural or sci-fi procedural) with the “personal drama” that connects the main characters with each other and their families. In short, the modern writing team blends their genre with “soap opera”. Recall that soap opera is about “feelings” and “relationships” —recall Who Shot J.R (Dallas), and Who Killed Laura Palmer (Twin Peaks) and their endless permutations of investigations, reversals, ups and downs plus new, embarrassing and private revelations amongst the tightly wound familial and professional relationships.
I’m saying it takes a team to be a pro-writer today.
What do you think about electronic books that you can download versus the actual physical hard copy?
Markets drive the world. I get it that 50% of book consumers use eBooks. It’s cheaper, faster, and easier. Personally, my body is still into “paper mode”. I like to underline stuff in the science books I like to read. But that’s me being physical with learning. Others may not need that or care.
Ultimately, eBooks will evolve to be better by capturing more of the readers’ personal reactions (underlines, comments, thoughts, extrapolations, new ideas, etc). In fact, some eBooks will show you highlights of other people. I like used books for that reason. I love to see how people underlined stuff.
But printed books support “archeological discovery” better than eBooks. What do you do when eBook technology changes or is not available? You’re left with zero. Meanwhile, the paper book can just sit on the shelf for a hundred years and it’s still available.
What are your favorite books past and present?
My current fav is “The Romance of Reality” by Bobby Azarion (a science journalist). I have listened to this book twice on Audible, now. Books like this cover human evolution, quantum science, math, physics and things that puzzle humans like quantum entanglement. I like this and similar books because they expose the fractures in current established theories of how things work. Those fractures are the stuff of stories and human advancement.
Interestingly, in “the present” (last 40 years) I find it more fun to read non-fiction books than fiction. Like any fiction writer, I love to get “material” to re-configure in some imaginative way, for consideration by new readers. So reading is a means to an end. Watching TV is a means to an end. Hmm, is that all work and no play. No way. It’s all fun.
Past favs include Dune, Giles Goat-Boy and the Foundation series. From the early days when exploring the world included fiction. These are mythic stories in sci-fi clothing. Mythic stories stir mythic feelings. Why do small when you can go “big” on world-mesmerizing mythos?
Who is your favorite celebrity and what makes that person special?
I’d like to meet and chat with Jim Carey. He seems like a real person who knows how to separate the crazy world of the Cable Guy, Truman and Ace Ventura from real life. He gave a commencement address at Maharishi International University a few years back. He made sense and inspired a new generation of leaders with that presentation. He’s special because he can “let go” and maintain his inner self while doing so. William Butler Yeats had similar hopes when he said the “dancer and the dance” become one.
When did you first meet Walter Day and where was it at?
I met Walter at a Transcendental Meditation course in Amhurst, Massachusetts in 1979. We were both recruited by Ennis Berker, now a neuropsychologist, to sing doo-wop “Duke of Earl” in a group for the 600 attendees. The next thing I knew, Walter recruited Louis Wilson and me to videotape the Video Game Olympics in 1982 plus the Life Magazine photo shoot of those winners for the 1982 Year In Review issue published in January 1983. (See https://www.classicarcadegaming.com/contests/Nov1982/life.htm) That footage ended up in at least 3 feature films plus the CNN documentary “The Eighties”.
If you could describe Walter Day in one word, what would that word be and why?
“Dedication”. I’ve never seen anyone who works so much with a single vision on a given project. I saw him set up his gigantic newspaper history collection, high school yearbook collection, calling card collection, Twin Galaxies, the whole eSports gig that led to his Guinness Book of Video Game scores plus getting immortalized as “Mr. Litwak in Wreck-It Ralph”, then his songwriting and recordings! All done with dedication beyond belief.
Did you play video games growing up and what were some of your favorites?
Pac-Man was about it. Video games seemed “attention intensive” in a way that is interesting and can be creative. When interviewing the players of the Video Game Olympics I was amazed at what strategies the guys had for getting better scores. They were looking for programming glitches and specific weak points that gave them an edge that other players would miss seeing. Whew, that exceeded my personal attention span for pressing buttons. But I was totally impressed.
What authors do you admire today and who did you look up to as a child?
As a kid, it was Isaac Asimov, Herbert, Heinline and Arthur C. Clark. In 1968 I saw, Clark’s “2001” at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, California, with a film-school buddy Michael Warren (who later was assistant producer on Happy Days and then more (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0912968/) .. OK, I’m name-dropping, It was a matinee and few people were there, so when Peter Sellers came in with his group, it was noticeable, to say the least.
Today, aside from George Lucas and the Wachowski’s, as I mentioned above, it is “the team” who is the greater author. Well, I might pick out StarGate writer/producer Brad Wright. He’s never Wrong. Some folks have a real knack for creating drama that attracts human attention.