2007

Journal Entry #1

August 29, 2007

We've been TIVOing shows I never really had time for during their first runs. Forty years late, I've discovered MASH. I recommend it.

 

We're recording four episodes a day. Keeps us on the run. It might be a good idea to require any future president, especially one who has not seen combat, to watch ten or fifteen episodes before being allowed anywhere near the oval office.

 

Also tonight, we watched "Re-Entry," the 7/1 episode of Dead Zone. It's my favorite of the entire series.

I spent last weekend at Con-Version 23, in Calgary, Alberta. I was there six days for a workshop and the con. The workshop was directed by Randy McCharles; the con was in the hands of Kirstin Morrell. Lots of good times for all. Highlight of the weekend: watching an accomplished cast perform "The Phantom of the Space Opera," a ninety-minute musical parody. How good was it? They blew the roof off. Susan Forest directed.

 

Also memorable was the slave auction. I thought about buying a couple, but wasn't sure how I'd get them past Customs.

 

We also visited the Aerospace Museum, which provided inspiration for a story. They had an aircraft on display which was the last surviving plane of its kind. No way I could miss the SF application of that one. The result was "Indomitable," written on a legal pad during the plane ride home.

 

Tossed out the entire second half of The Devil's Eye, an Alex Benedict novel due in November. 250 pages gone. That's painful, but it was headed in the wrong direction.

 

On a happier note, we'll be leaving for Dragoncon Friday.

 

— Jack

 

Journal Entry #2

9/5/07

Maureen and I spent the weekend at Dragoncon. But things got off to a bad start. We had a communication breakdown with the con organizers. The result was that two events were scheduled Friday afternoon of which I was not aware: a reading and a signing. I apologize to anyone who showed up and found an empty room.

 

I've never seen so large a crowd at a con. The Atlanta Constitution estimated 5000. But I heard more than a few complaints from people who said they had to wait in line for hours to get in.

I participated in "Finding Your Place in Today's Tough Market," "Writing 'Real' SF," and "The Future of Fantastic Fiction." Also, I sat in on a group reading from Aberrant Dreams: The Awakening. It's an anthology, due out in a few weeks. I don't have a story in it, but I wrote the intro.

 

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Selling to the market is of course the same as it's always been. Send your work to the top markets first. Keep in mind also that the task of the screeners is to get rid of the slush pile. That means finding a reason to reject a submission. Consequently, writers should put together a first paragraph that grabs the reader by the throat and won't let go.

 

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I've learned something from the fact that, despite being away from Philadelphia — where I was born — for more than 40 years, and despite my awareness that the players on the Phillies would leave in a minute for a bigger contract, and that the owners are in it to make money, I still root heart and soul for the team. Could not switch, say, to the Cubs or the Braves — I've been in Brave country since 1985 — if my life depended on it.

So what have I learned? Tribalism trumps everything. We get indoctrinated at the age of five or six into an ideology — social, political, or religious — and most of us will fight to the death to hang on. No matter what. It explains why it's so hard to develop an open mind.

Let's go, Phillies.

— Jack

 

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Journal Entry #3

September 18, 2007

Maureen and I attended a celebration of the wedding of Steve Berry and Elizabeth Reinhardt in St Marys, GA, September 15. Steve is the author of several excellent novels featuring adventures in archeology. His latest is The Alexandria Link, dealing with the lost library. These aren't SF, but they are compelling.

This evening, I'll be participating in The Big Read, federally-funded program to encourage people to read. Or better yet, to develop a passion for books. We'll be discussing Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 I'll be working with a second group Saturday on St. Simons Island.

 

The eBook version of Breach the Hull has gone on sale. It's a military SF anthology. Release date for the hard cover/ paperback editions is November 10. The publishers are planning a launch at Philcon. Two of my stories are included: "Cryptic," in which SETI finally picks up an artificial signal and then, for mysterious reasons, keeps it quiet. And "Black To Move," which obviously incorporates chess with the action.

 

I've been a dedicated chessplayer all my life. Am a member of USCF, and I used to participate regularly in tournaments. That's years ago, though. Doesn't seem to be time for it anymore. But readers know that Priscilla Hutchins and Alex Benedict are both adept at the game.

 

On the subject of SETI, they and NASA invited me to participate in a midsummer conference at the Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA. Among other invitees were Marvin Minski, Paul Davies, Gregory Benford, Robert Sawyer, Seth Shostak, and Frank Drake. The topic under discussion was The Future of Intelligence in the Universe. That naturally led to the issue of why SETI has never heard anything. During my speaking time, I tried to address this issue. Following is an extract from the NASA/SETI draft report, edited and compiled by Stephanie Langhoff, Carl Pilcher, Greg Laughlin, Jill Tarter, and Seth Shostak, and reproduced by permission:

Jack McDevitt gave the second talk in this session (July 1) on technological evolution entitled "Invent a Printing Press and Hang On." The key thesis to his presentation was that there is a strong possibility that, with the rise of technology, civilization becomes increasingly vulnerable to disruption. It may be that a collapse, within a few centuries, is all but unavoidable. Technology is designed and produced by the brightest among us. But ultimately its more dangerous applications are used by politicians and criminals. There are numerous other possible roads to collapse: greenhouse effects, overpopulation caused by failure to employ birth control devices and/or by continued advances in life extension, nanotech, etc.

These possibilities become more daunting in light of the fact that humans, who might act to stave them off, are so easily programmed to function in opposition to their own best interests. Note the willingness of people under Nazi control during the Holocaust to turn in their neighbors. Most of us have ideologies imposed on us when we are quite young. These ideologies sometimes overwhelm our common sense and our innate compassion. So we are fully capable of strapping on suicide belts to kill strangers, or to impose discrimination on people of a different color, or a different political bent, or to demand that others live by our sexual rules. We can do all this and retain a sense of moral superiority. Thus, when TV commentators maintain that greenhouse warming is really a political ploy about which we need not worry, millions of us buy into it and cannot be dissuaded.

 

An important step forward would be to emphasize critical thinking in high schools. This of course would be difficult to implement because parents in fact are more interested in having their children programmed in acceptable ideologies than in actually creating kids who would value thinking for themselves. Nevertheless it would be helpful if that type of education could be implemented worldwide.

 

— Jack

 

Journal Entry #4

October 4, 2007

Ron Vick called Wednesday with an invitation to attend the tenth Willycon. I was GoH at the first one in 1998. It's conducted on the campus at Wayne State College in Wayne, NE. Willycon X will be held on the weekend of April 4, 2008. Naturally I said sure. Enjoyed myself last time.

 

This past Saturday I participated in the construction of a memorial to the more than one hundred Georgians who have died in Iraq. We hammered stakes into the ground, one for each, and placed helmets on them. I'm convinced that nobody should be allowed near the Oval Office without first bring required to read The Naked and the Dead, or, if we have a nonreader, watching at least a dozen episodes of M*A*S*H.

 

Coincidentally, I've been involved with The Big Read, a government-funded program managed by the Glynn County Fine Arts Council, headed by Heather Heath. I've done a couple of radio programs with Heather and host Scott Ryfun, conducted a pair of discussions, and attended a dramatic adaptation. Bradbury's point, for those who have forgotten or possibly not read the book, is that we may well allow ourselves to get so caught up watching low level TV and other mindless entertainment, that mental development stops. That we get caught up in an endless round of football and reality shows, and lose the point of being alive: interaction with others, starting somewhere maybe with Plato, and continuing the process by having lunch with friends and, occasionally, bringing up a serious topic.

 

One more connected event to do: "The Dangers of the Unexamined Life," at the Brunswick (GA) Library, Sunday, Oct 14, at 3:00 p.m. One consequence that comes immediately to mind, of course: uninformed voters will elect uninformed politicians. H.L. Mencken thought that happens routinely. "A democracy," he once said, "is where the voters get what they vote for. Good and Hard."

 

Tried reading Balzac Wednesday evening. Not much luck. I'll take him with me to Necronomicon this weekend and try again. Will report on results.

 

This Monday and Tuesday, I'll be at the University of Southern Florida, as a guest of Rick Wilber. I get to conduct two classes, one each day.

 

Deadline for The Devil's Eye is just six weeks away. Still working on the second draft. This will be the fourth Alex Benedict novel. Alex gets a warning of impending disaster from the premier horror writer of the age, who has just returned from Salud Afar, easily the most distant world inhabited by humans. So far outside the galaxy that there is only one star in the sky. The writer has everything to live for, yet she subjects herself to a brain wipe before Alex can talk to her. Her warning: "They're all dead." So Chase & Alex are off to Salud Afar, a place of supposedly haunted beaches and strange noises in its forests. But there's no indication anywhere of a problem.

 

— Jack

 

Journal Entry #5

October 21, 2007

I had an opportunity, after Necronomicon had ended, to spend two days with students in the School of Mass Communications at the University of South Florida. The invitation came from Rick Wilber, who doubles as an essayist and novelist, and a journalism professor.

As you'd expect, the students were bright and energetic. A substantial number of them want to be writers, and they all seemed to be interested in the arts. I enjoy visiting colleges and high schools. I almost get the impression sometimes that the smartest people we have are sitting in classrooms around the country. What on earth happens to us after we graduate?

 

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I participated this past weekend in the Gwinnett County Book Festival in Lawrenceville, GA, outside Atlanta. It's a 14-hour ride, round trip, and Maureen and I used it to finish listening to the audio book edition of American Theocracy, by Kevin Philips. We went on to Alan Alda's Things I Overheard while Listening to Myself, written and read by Alda. On an earlier trip we had enjoyed his Never Have your Dog Stuffed. The second book was not a disappointment.

We also had a collection of BBC broadcasts of Sherlock Holmes with Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson. I have a lifelong passion for anything Holmes.

In the last entry I mentioned failing in an effort to read Balzac. I talked with Bruce Boston at Necronomicon. He sent me a copy of "Passion in the Desert." 'Try this.' I did, and it's a powerhouse. Some who read my comments made recommendations also, which I will get to when I can.

 

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Periodical Watch:

The 150th anniversary issue of The Atlantic is out. Cover story: "The Future of the American Idea," with commentaries by Tom Wolfe, John Updike, Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Fallows, Joyce Carol Oates, George F. Will, Sam Harris, P.J. O'Rourke, David Foster Wallace, and a legion of others. Also, the Nov/Dec issue of Mother Jones has a cover story asking how we can get out of Iraq. It consists of "conversations with more than fifty experts, from General Petraeus's inner circle to antiwar activists."

The current (Nov 2007) Scientific American has an article for SF readers who like their science far out. It's titled "When Universes Collide."

 

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I recently picked up a copy of History in Quotations, edited by M.J. Cohen and John Major. It's a doorstop, list price at 30 pounds, but on sale for $10. Paging through it reveals comments like this by Domenico Hierosolimitano (17th cent.):

"The principal thing of beauty in Constantinople is the Arsenal."

Or, from Theodore Roosevelt:

"The men with the muckrakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society, but only if they know when to stop raking the muck...."

 

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I eat lunch regularly with old friends from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. A question came up two weeks ago, and we haven't settled it yet to our satisfaction. When Lincoln reacted to the attack on Fort Sumter, he seems to have had no idea the ensuing struggle would consume anything like four years and 620,000 dead. The question: If you had been in Lincoln's place, and you were reasonably sure what the actual cost of holding the union together would be, would you have reacted with military force?

If you'd like to vote on the question, feel free. A simple yes or no is sufficient. I'll tabulate through midnight, November 6, 2007, and publish the results. If you comment, you thereby grant permission for me to publish the comment if I choose. Please add an identifier, also for publication. It should be either a name, or the place where you live.

— Jack

 

Journal Entry #6

November 7, 2007

Several years ago, Maureen and I discovered "Young Indiana Jones." It's an exceptionally good series, tracking Indy's exploits through the early years of the twentieth century. We watch while Indy travels Africa with TR, runs away from his parents in Russia and falls in with an aging Leo Tolstoy, encounters Nikos Kazantsakis in a Greek monastery with the world's most intriguing elevator. On the way, Winston Churchill warns him that women should not be allowed to vote. He runs into T.E. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, and Albert Schweitzer. Among others. It's been on the history channel recently.

 

While we're on the subject of good movies, we also loved watching "1776," a dazzling musical about, what else, trying to get everyone on board for the Declaration.

 

Spent this past weekend in Coralville, Iowa, at ICON32. Enjoyed myself thoroughly. The people there gave most of the credit for the con's success to Gregg Parmentier, who apparently stepped in to rescue a failing operation. I had an opportunity to meet Rusty Hevelin, who's been around a while and has known a lot of the big names in the field. He was especially helpful in the Heinlein panel. While the rest of us were making generalized comments, Rusty could tell personal and up-close stories about Heinlein.

 

In the previous journal entry, I described a conversation we'd been having locally: If you were in Lincoln's place in 1860, and knew what the cost of the Civil War would be, would you go ahead with military action anyhow? I thought there'd be an avalanche of responses, but there were only six. And they split down the middle.

 

Ed Grabianowski voted no. His comment:

Once the decision has been made that the Union is worth saving, the extent of the cost becomes almost irrelevant. Where would the line be drawn? One year and 100,00 lives is ok, six years and a million lives would be a little too much? That's the essence of the question being asked. How many lives and years is the U.S. worth? My thinking is, if you're in a position to make those decisions, you can't try to balance the scales. It's an all-or-nothing proposition.

 

So why did I say no? Because I don't think it was that important to save the Union. It seems that the vast range of cultural and political ideologies in the U.S. have been a weakness rather than a strength. How much money and time has been spent squabbling over states rights, fighting cases all the way to the Supreme Court, making and unmaking laws as we try to unify the views held by Kentuckians, New Yorkers, Kansans and Californians? Maybe it's a pipe dream that the Confederacy would have become the "Conservative States of America," a theocracy where all those who ascribe to such notions are free to go. Meanwhile the U.S.A. would remain a more liberal nation, with laws and policies more akin to some of the forward-thinking European nations.

 

Randy voted yes. He said:

The question should have been — if the Confederacy knew they were going to lose — would they have separated?

 

I was a guest on Scott Ryfun's radio show here in Georgia's Golden Isles this morning. Mostly we talked about Cauldron, and how the space program had turned out differently than we would ever have believed, looking forward from 1948. And how the world had turned out differently. We knew, in 1948, that we'd pretty much put warmaking to rest. Who would have thought?

 

— Jack

 

Journal Entry #7

December 5, 2007

Finished the novel yesterday and sent it off. I've been working on it since February. Had to extend the deadline by a month, and even then barely made it. Seriously limping at the finish. It has been, over the last few months, the most time-consuming, and exhausting, thing I've done since my years as an English teacher and theater coach.

 

I thought I'd finished it the day before. Sent it to Ace, went to a celebratory dinner, and realized I'd blown the end of the book. Came home, converted the epilogue into the final chapter, and wrote a new epilogue. Still can't believe, after all those months, I never saw what those last moments should have been.

The book's title, by the way, will be The Devil's Eye. I'd also considered an alternate: Thunderbolt. It will be the fourth Alex Benedict novel.

 

Will now settle in, just relax, and do some reading. I have several new — and as yet unpublished — Mike Resnick stories, which I plan to look at today. Also on my schedule: It Seemed Like a Good Idea, edited by Wm R. Forstchen & Bill Fawcett. It's "A compendium of great historical fiascoes." I like fiascoes. I think I'm living through one at the moment. Also: Julie Czerneda's Regeneration. Julie's a close friend, and I've learned to trust her work, which is always a rousing ride.

 

I also have The Complete Boucher, from NESFA Press. Bought it four or five years ago and have never found time to open it. When I was about 15, I submitted my first story to F&SF. I got a written note back from Anthony Boucher, then the editor, telling me why he couldn't buy the story. At the time, I had no idea that a personal response was a major breakthrough. (I think it was. Maybe editors routinely did that in 1950?) Anyhow, I never submitted another story to anybody for thirty years. I think there's a lesson to be learned there somewhere.

 

Also, I'll be dipping into Futures from Nature, which is carrying my own short-short, "The Candidate." And finally, a book I've been planning to read since Navy days, the Modern Library collection of six plays by Kaufman & Hart. It includes one that has one of the all-time memorable titles: George Washington Slept Here.

 

On the recommendation of a friend, we went to see "Lions for Lambs," despite a barrage of negative reviews. My reaction: Maybe the reviewers thought there weren't enough car chases. It's a compelling film.

 

Read The Maltese Falcon in preparation for a group discussion this Saturday at the St Simons Island Library. Couldn't read it without hearing Bogart's voice.

 

I'll be doing a program myself at the Brunswick Library Monday evening on Cauldron. I've never been comfortable with writers who come in and talk exclusively about their latest book, or about themselves. Not sure which direction this one will go, but I'm sure it'll get into the sheer size of things. E.g., 30,000 light-years to the galactic core. That almost sounds like a measurable distance until you start thinking about it. The radio transmission that arrives in the prologue, from "only" 1/3 that distance, comes from people dead long before anybody was building pyramids. If you're traveling out there, take a good book.

 

And, finally, it's time to start thinking about the next novel. I'd like to get away from starships for a bit. Maybe a global warming adventure, set during a 48-hour period in which a sizable chunk of the South Pole threatens to break off into the ocean. Or a different kind of time travel book, in which Uncle Henry wanders through the ages, showing up at auspicious moments to hand an envelope to President Lincoln on the train to Gettysburg, or to save Churchill from getting run down in New York in the 1920's.

 

Meantime, he's got the car keys in his pocket.

 

— Jack

 

Journal Entry #8

December 18, 2007

Joe Haldeman's The Accidental Time Machine is the sort of book that first got me hooked on SF. It's as good as anything I can recall reading in the field. Ever.

 

Two excellent recent stories by John Kessel have appeared: "Pride and Prometheus" in the January F&SF, and "The Last American," in the February Asimov's. I met John originally back in the 1980's, when I was invited to attend the Sycamore Hill Workshop in the Raleigh-Durham area. John was one of the founders. It gave me a chance, early in my career, to work with pros like James Patrick Kelly, Nancy Kress, Karen Joy Fowler, James Morrow, and Harlan Ellison. It was, to say the least, a formative experience.

 

Odyssey made the preliminary Nebula ballot. Also listed was Julie E. Czerneda's Regeneration, a superb novel featuring her continuing character, Mackenzie Connor.

 

Maureen and I celebrated our 40th anniversary Sunday. As anyone else who's had a 40th anniversary of anything will tell you, it's hard to believe so many years could pass so quickly. Mostly what you come to regret is opportunities blown. Things not done. Maybe not even attempted. (Those are the worst of all, I suspect.)

 

A cloud was thrown over the proceedings because we were dealing with a sick cat. We've taken to collecting stray felines since our kids left home a few years ago. One of them, Punkie, had taken ill and was headed for surgery in Jacksonville at 8:00 a.m. Monday. The vet clinic is almost two hours away. Throw in rush hour traffic, and we had to get up at five. Punk was in surgery 3-1/2 hours. We don't really know the results yet, though it looks good so far. I originally brought the cat home from New Jersey four years ago, where it was trying to survive the winter.

 

I've been listening with dismay to the religious argument currently crowding out everything else in the Republican primary season. Religion should not be a test for office. But I've been waiting to hear any journalist ask what seems to me to be the obvious question: Have we learned yet the cost of electing a president who is so incurious about the world around him that he's utterly unaware of the vastness and majesty of the universe, that he could honestly contemplate the notion that it was put together for us? Six thousand years ago? If that idea doesn't raise a few questions, what else is he not paying attention to?

 

— Jack

 

Journal Entry #9

December 30, 2007

Sam Weller was in town recently and left me a copy of his Ray Bradbury biography, The Bradbury Chronicles. I've been a fan since I was about twelve and sat outside my house in South Philadelphia on summer evenings reading the Mars stories. Fell in love with his work and never recovered. The biography felt like a chance to go back and revisit. Recommended.

 

Along with the Weller book, I'm reading Jane Eyre. (Still trying to catch up on my college reading list.) Women had a difficult time in 19th century Britain. As did orphans. It's a powerhouse. I can't help noticing that Charlotte Bronte puts indirect quotations inside quotation marks. I don't recall seeing that in other books of the period. Or maybe I just missed it. Is there anyone out there who knows about such things?

One of the special aspects of this time of year is getting to talk with friends we haven't seen in a while. I had a conversation with Lew Shiner, whom I first met at the Sycamore Hill workshop almost twenty years ago. I was just finishing A Talent for War and I showed him the climax, in which Alex Benedict has encountered an Ashiyyurean warship. They've just tried to kill him, but they are now helpless and in his sights.

 

In my original version, Alex moves in and fires on them. Destroys the ship. Lew sighed and said Don't do it. Why not? Because it's automatic. It's reflexive. It's what everybody does. What does he gain by killing everybody on board? I thought, well, it's what the reader expects. "That's why it doesn't work," he said. "That's why it's flat. You want to make this guy human? Have him give them a break."

 

Thank you, Lew. It was one of the defining moments for Alex.

 

On the subject of series characters, of whom Alex of course is one, I've also learned not to be so quick announcing that this or that is the final book in a series. I've gotten some loud objections about ending the Academy novels with Cauldron. The reason you do a continuing series is so you don't have to start over every time you write a book about, say, a starship. If each narrative occurs in a different universe, you are forever trying to figure out a new name for the star drive, and explaining again the rate of acceleration, and another name for the space station. And so on. And readers come to feel comfortable with characters they know.

 

So, if a story line fits within a given milieu, it make sense to go with the continuing characters. This is not to say there'll be more Academy novels, but simply to admit that, given the right idea, I'd be happy to go back.

Books that arrived for Christmas:

  • Boom!, Tom Brokaw

  • The Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney

  • A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson

  • The Death of the Grown-Up, Diana West

  • The Puzzle Palace, James Bamford

  • The Greatest Story Ever Sold, Frank Rich

— Jack