Journal Entry #10
January 26, 2008
Jane Eyre is one of the novels I never got to during my school years. It's been on my reading list for half a century. Recently, I received an invitation to attend a local book club, and Jane Eyre was the book of the month. The novel, of course, deserves its classic status, but I was struck by the stylistic differences between it and a modern novel. Writing today, Charlotte Bronte would have to fix the dialog (Characters sometimes go on for the better part of a page), and cut back on the literary and biblical allusions. People just don't talk that way anymore. If they ever did. Jane, by the way, is the smartest 18-year-old I've ever encountered.
The novel is, of course, a powerhouse. I kept coming away from it outraged at the behavior of Mrs. Reed and her kids, and the idiot who ran the religious school, and St. John, and a few others. I've always felt that one way to gauge the effectiveness of a piece of fiction is how annoyed you get with some of the characters. But occasionally, Bronte plays games. Jane, lost and alone, stumbles around a town that won't take her in, won't provide a meal, won't do anything for her. She's near death when rescue finally arrives. She's 18 at the time. I tried to imagine a teenage girl left in such circumstances. Weren't there even any guys in that town?
Bronte repeatedly refers to Jane's plainness. I couldn't buy that either. She's extremely bright, and obviously animated. Those qualities are going to show up in her eyes. There's no indication that any of her features have gone awry, no big ears and no extra 100 pounds. So you add a smile to what we know, and she has to look good. No 18-year-old female packing what she obviously has is going to look plain.
Incidentally, I was the only male present at the book club meeting. One of the young women commented that they can't find guys who read. My advice to single guys: Hang out at libraries. It reminded me how much I like SF cons, where everybody's a reader. Sometimes you forget that a vanishingly small percentage of the US population actually reads a book during the course of a year. That might explain a few things.
Chicago journalist Sam Weller has given us The Bradbury Chronicles. It's a perceptive and emotional ride through the grandmaster's life. And instructive for anyone who aspires to write. Persistence helps. But I guess ultimately there's no substitute for sheer talent. When you read Bradbury's fiction, it's impossible to imagine he was ever clumsy. Anyhow, if you're a Bradbury fan — who among us isn't? — , this one is well worth picking up.
Spent part of the day yesterday with A. E. Housman. My favorite poet. I've been reading Elaine Pagels' Beyond Belief, which is an account of the struggles among the early Christians to establish a unified dogma. Pagels uses the gospel of Thomas, discovered in Egypt in 1945, to demonstrate some of the divisions. Then I came across Housman's "Easter Hymn." After spending so much time with people convinced they were being guided by a higher power, I came close to understanding how you could come to believe that.
Our computer was in the hospital until yesterday and we were offline for a week. Curiously, on the day we took the computer in, we also lost our landlines, and the cell phone died. This at a time when the cell phone outlet had just moved and we didn't know where. It felt a little as if we were living in the 19th century. With a TV, though.
My last act with the computer before shutting it down was to finish "Molly's Kids," a story for the Lou Anders anthology, Fast Forward II. Actually, I'd finished the story, or so I thought, the day before, and asked Maureen to read it. (That's our standard procedure. Get a second pair of eyes to take a look.) She didn't like the way it ended. I was uncomfortable with it too, but for different reasons than she had.
Eventually, I added four pages for a climax that is directly opposite to the original plan. In case anyone's wondering, the story's about the first launch to Alpha Centauri. The ship is completely automated and will take several thousand years to get to its destination.
When I was in college, back in the fifties, a friend suggested I see a British film, "The Ladykillers." I think I'd heard of Alex Guinness. Certainly had no idea who Peter Sellers was. But I went, and it was another of those life-altering experiences. I fell in love with British comedy, with Alistair Sim and Terry-Thomas and movies like "Lucky Jim" and the St Trinian's films. Unfortunately, in the next decade, they changed and began playing for American audiences and lost much of the tone that had made them priceless.
Last evening our local library sponsored a showing of "The Ladykillers" out on the island. We went, and I was surprised to discover the theater was jammed. The film was every bit as good as I remember it. But Maureen and I were among the youngest people in the building. The local kids don't know about these guys. What a pity.
We're approaching the end of January, which is the time of year I usually start writing a novel. This would be a book that will appear in November 2009. (The Devil's Eye, an Alex Benedict mystery, will be out toward the end of this year.) Usually by now I have a good idea what the project will be. People disappearing out of a starship, or a flight to the galactic core, or whatever. I have to confess that, at the moment, I haven't a clue.
Journal Entry #11
February 12, 2008
We traveled to western Georgia over the weekend, where LaGrange College staged a memorial art exhibit in honor of Jamie Bishop, one of the victims of last April's shooting rampage at Virginia Tech. Jamie, of course, was the son of novelist Michael Bishop. He was also a German teacher at VT, and a talented artist who produced an array of outstanding work, including illustrations to two of his father's books. It was of course an evening that carried some intense emotions.
Why is it so difficult for the Second Amendment crowd to figure out that it's not a good idea to grant lunatics easy access to guns?
Kathryn Lance is a writer with a taste for Richard Wagner. I'm in the same boat. His music is overpowering. Once, years ago, I was driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike when "The Ride of the Valkyries" came on the radio. It came roaring in, and before I realized it, I was up to ninety. Anyhow, Kathryn and I got talking about Wagner and how he'd become an icon for the Nazis, when they incorporated his music into the slaughter at the death camps. We thought it might be interesting to look at how he might have reacted had he known in advance what was coming. One thing seemed obvious: He would go into denial. A travesty of such proportions would not be possible because Germany was too civilized. Story's title: "Welcome to Valhalla."
Bob Uecker, the one-time Phillies catcher, and one of my favorite players, describes one of his more memorable experiences at Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia: A fan got over-excited and fell out of the upper deck. Landed on the field, struggled to his feet, and limped away. Apparently not seriously hurt. The crowd booed. Well, it's a proud tradition. The ship that became part of the Boston Tea Party stopped first at Philadelphia on the way north. A crowd gathered at the pier and booed the Brits. (Okay, it's probably apocryphal.)
I've been reading Robert Kaplan's The Coming Anarchy. It's one of the more pessimistic books I've come across. Kaplan thinks we face an age of utter chaos. There's pretty much nowhere to go but down. He argues that even an era of prolonged peace under the benign supervision of a world organization could very easily be bad news. He expects a future in which nation states break up, borders dissolve, and the world descends into what can only be called large-scale tribal warfare, not unlike what was seen prior to the development of the modern nation-state. His most dismaying argument: That men living in miserable conditions — read, most of the world — enjoy making war and committing atrocities. Takes their minds off hard times at home. Get past the Enlightenment and things get very dark.
Well, as they say at WalMart, have a nice day.
Journal Entry #12
February 29, 2008
Asimov's has picked up "Welcome to Valhalla." Also, Baen's Universe will publish "Indomitable" in its April issue. "Indomitable" is the story mentioned in the first journal entry, inspired by a visit to the Calgary, Alberta, Aerospace Museum. The idea came from seeing a WWII RAF bomber that was described as being the last of its kind. The experience is as good an example as I can think of illustrating how story ideas arrive. If you have a chance to read the story, think of that bomber.
Recommended science fiction book: Sheila Finch's The Guild of Xenolinguists. A treasure trove for those of us who enjoy stories about encounters with aliens.
I've gone back to reading the H.L. Mencken Chrestomathy, which I've been away from for a long time. It is as sharp and witty as ever. Mencken never loses his touch. As I've mentioned elsewhere in these journals, the Gregory MacAllister character from the Priscilla Hutchins novels was inspired by him. He's also remembered for bring in Clarence Darrow to defend John Scopes in the Tennessee Monkey Trial.
(And yes, it's no coincidence that MacAllister got his own version of the Monkey Trial in Odyssey.)
I expect to make up my mind within the next few days which way the next novel will go. I'd been expecting to follow The Devil's Eye with another Alex Benedict mystery. (I've an interesting idea for it, but it will take time to sort itself out.) I'm still thinking about the NASA/SETI conference I attended during the summer, and the issue it addressed: If life really can happen more or less easily, given liquid water and stability and whatnot, why do we hear only a vast silence around us? If the novel goes as expected, the title will be The Armageddon Club.
Finally, Subterranean Press is gearing up to publish Cryptic: The Best of Jack McDevitt. No release date has been set yet. We're putting it together now. It will probably incorporate about forty stories and run to approximately 200,000 words. Rob Sawyer is on board to do the intro.
Journal Entry #13
Marcy 17, 2008
Just back from Stellarcon 32/Deep South Con in High Point, NC. I love trains, and should have checked out the possibility of going by Amtrak. But it seemed so likely that I'd get deposited 60 miles away and have to rent a car, that I just didn't bother to look. Turns out the Amtrak station was across the street from the hotel.
Cons are always a pleasure and this one was no exception. The highlight of the weekend came with the Saturday evening award ceremony. The Phoenix, given to a writer or editor with Southern connections, went posthumously to Jim Baen. John Ringo made the presentation, and Toni Weisskopf accepted for the Baen organization. Baen was enormously popular with those who knew him, and Ringo's voice gave way several times during the event. When he finished, he hurried outside the auditorium while a stunned crowd sat in silence, and then rose for a standing ovation. I had breakfast with Ringo next morning. He credits Baen with being one of the major forces in preserving the kind of science fiction we fell in love with back in the forties and fifties. Somehow, over the years, he said, the awards had always overlooked him.
He's right, of course. And it was nice to see him receive his due.
Interesting panels included "Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?", "How to Annoy Your Publisher" and "The Cabaret at the End of the Universe."
My closing panel was Military SF, chaired by Toni Weisskopf. Other participants were John Ringo and Timothy Zahn (both masters of the art), and artist Doug Chafee. Some of the all-time great novels have been military-oriented. One thinks immediately, of course, of War and Peace. I've been a Herman Wouk reader all my life, and I'm not sure how you'd classify the Flashman novels, but I don't think I've ever enjoyed a series more than those. But it strikes me as being especially difficult to carry off in SF because, if there's a starship available, there are just more interesting things to do with it than shoot at somebody.
Which shows you what I know. Anybody ever hear of Darth Vader?
On the way home, I drove through Branchville, SC. I was surprised to see that the downtown area was demolished. Buildings collapsed, roofs blown off, piles of bricks and concrete everywhere. A tornado had hit the town the day before. Incredible. I've never seen damage on that scale. When you're there, it's different from seeing it on TV.
I read Garrison Keillor's Pontoon and Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold. Keillor's dry wit makes a superb antidote to the endless flow of political name-calling during this relentless election season. Pontoon follows the funeral arrangements for a woman who turns out to have been a great deal more than simply the nice elderly church-going lady she seemed. There's also a wedding gone wrong, some marriages gone wrong, an Elvis fly-by, and a squadron of Lutheran preachers from Sweden (or Denmark, I forget which), who go for an unexpected boatride. Everything comes together in the middle of the funeral for a catastrophic finale. Lovely book.
Rich, a New York Times reporter, does not hold the Bush administration in high regard, but seems to have as little respect for the media which, he argues, stood by for years and bought everything the White House handed out. In the epilogue, he provides the first rational explanation I've heard for the invasion of Iraq: The Afghan War had run out of glitz, Osama had gotten away, and the plan was to re-elect a strong Republican majority running on national security issues. So we needed a war with some sparkle. And it was summer of an election year. That's why, he says, we charged in without allowing the inspectors to complete their job, and before we had the equipment in place. If it's so, it's even more shameful than my earlier sense that we wanted to secure Iraqi oil and simply didn't do our homework.
Interesting cover story in this month's Astronomy Magazine. There are more theories on what the universe (maybe) looks like, and an illustration. I have to confess I can't follow the physics. But the illustration looks nothing like my notion of a more-or-less spherical universe, floating in a sea of universes. Whatever, things are getting pretty big out there.
Have started James Bamford's The Puzzle Palace, a history of the NSA.
I've changed course again on plans for my 2009 novel. I've been wanting for years to explore some of the possibilities left untouched in my 1996 novella, "Time Travelers Never Die." (It was a Nebula and Hugo finalist.) If all this seems as if I can't make up my mind, that's the way it goes sometimes. The reality was that earlier narrative ideas just didn't turn me on. There's no way to spend the better part of a year writing a decent novel unless there's some passion involved. So sometimes you just have to do tryouts.
Journal Entry #14
March 31, 2008
A New York Times story last week reports that a judge is being asked to decide whether a giant particle accelerator constitutes a menace to the world, and possibly to the entire universe. The suit has been filed in Hawaii, and unless he intervenes, the accelerator will begin smashing atoms outside Geneva this summer. Scientists are saying it's unlikely that the research will produce a black hole, which of course could be extraordinarily bad news for the real estate market. I remember when I was in high school and we were conducting H-bomb experiments. At that time, there was a lot of talk about the possibility of a chain reaction destroying the world. Scientists reassured us not to worry, that there wasn't much chance, and went ahead. And of course they were right, so why worry? Readers of Odyssey may get the feeling they've heard all this before.
I've just begun K. C. Cole's The Hole in the Universe. It's been on my shelf for a few years. Negligent on my part. And my guilty pleasure for the month is The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures. It's another one I've been trying to get to. In fact I have several Holmes collections waiting for me.
I've signed a contract with Subterranean for a 'best of' collection to be titled Cryptic. It'll be out next year, probably checking in at 200,000 words.
Audio versions of Seeker and The Devil's Eye are coming. Details will be passed along when they show up.
Time Travelers Never Die is well underway. I'm trying to look at what time travel might really be like if you actually acquired a device, along with a warning to change nothing. And no instructions. How, for example, could you manage to have the thing put you down at the intersection of W 45th Street and Fifth Avenue? (If there is such a place.) How do you buy meals in medieval Italy? How find an address in 16th century London? (Did they even have addresses?)
Headed for Willycon in Nebraska next weekend.
And finally, we learned this week of the death of Arthur C. Clarke. I never had the opportunity to meet him, although I felt I knew him intimately through his books. Exchanged one e-mail with him. (One of the three fan letters I can recall having written.) I wouldn't know how to measure Clarke's contribution to the field. Or to me, personally. I believe his classic story "The Star" hit me as hard as any piece of SF, ever, and maybe as hard as any piece of literature, period. My other favorite moments are the conversation between Adam and God in Paradise Lost when Adam complains about being alone, and God asks, 'Who is more alone than I?' And Hector's farewell to Andromache in The Iliad. And maybe's Ivan's story about the Russian duke and the young mother he wants to bed in The Brothers Karamazov.
If you're interested, the other fan letters went to Dennis Overbye for Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, and to Will Eisner, for The Spirit, which showed me what a short story could be long before anybody got around to it in school. (In fact, I'm not sure anybody ever did get around to it in school.)
In any case, Arthur, we'll miss you. There'll never be another.
Journal Entry #15
April 19, 2008
Finished James Bamford's The Puzzle Palace. Recommended for anyone interested in the behind-the-scenes story of the NSA.
Attended Willycon, at Wayne State College in Nebraska. Other guests included Paul Lawrence, whose long history in Hollywood includes working on Commander-in-Chief with Geena Davis and Donald Sutherland, and for six years he served, often as assistant director, for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Paul brought several of his own short films with him. A couple of them knocked my socks off.
Artist GoH was John E. Kaufmann, who does magnificent starscapes. John and I shared a panel in which we tried to create an interstellar vacation spot to audience specs. We came up with a villa on an airless moon orbiting a pair of gas giants that were orbiting each other. Both giants have rings and moons. We looked at other possibilities as well, including a house on the coast of a lifeless world. (We seemed to have a thing for worlds on which we'd have no company.) But there's a galaxy in the sky.
The fan guests were Trudy Myers and John Shoberg, both of whom were active throughout and participated in the writing workshop.
Jacksonville University is running a series of seminars to help local teachers put together curricula in various subjects. I was invited to participate in one that uses SF to inspire an interest in reading, the sciences, and, obviously, critical thinking. We don't get enough of that. Too much of what our schools do consists of indoctrination, and there's relatively little interest in thinking for oneself. I went to a religious school, and it was, um, frowned on. Anyhow the seminar was intriguing. I'd have been happy to have any of the attendees as a teacher.
After about two weeks, I completed the copy-editing process for The Devil's Eye. Will mail the manuscript back to the editor tomorrow.
My copies of Sideways in Crime arrived. It's an anthology of alternate world detective stories. I read the first two this evening: "Running the Snake," by Kage Baker, in which Will Shakespeare has to make his way through an England where Christianity went awry. And John Meaney's "Via Vortex," with a United States that is wildly different. Both good stories. I have an entry, "The Adventure of the Southsea Trunk," in which Conan Doyle gives up writing Sherlock Holmes very early to do "more serious stuff." And yes, I know I have a Holmes & Watson fixation. The anthology is edited by Lou Anders and should be in bookstores any time.
I survived another birthday this week. Maureen always gives me interesting presents. Among them: copies of Why We're Liberals, by Eric Alterman, and Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku.
Watched the ABC debate the other evening. I wish we could stop talking about Jeremiah Johnson and Hillary trying to get off the plane while under fire. There's a major worldwide population problem. We've tripled in just two centuries, and we're straining resources. It never gets mentioned. Oil is a trifle expensive. The war grinds on. What are the energy plans? Population in the U.S. continues to exacerbate our resources. In my lifetime it's almost tripled.
Also, I'd be interested in hearing what the candidates are reading. And I'd love to hear someone challenge the candidates --all of them-- to take an IQ test. Or possibly whatever passes for the old Federal Service Entrance Exam. And publish the results. And I know that sounds elitist. But do we really want an average person in the Oval Office?
Journal Entry #16
May 2, 2008
I spent last week in Austin at the annual Nebula Awards Banquet. You may already know who the winners are. If not, or you'd like to see more, go to http://www.sfwa.org/ -- Michael Chabon, who won the Nebula in the novel category for The Yiddish Policeman's Union, is also a Pulitzer Prize winner. Two of the other winners, Nancy Kress and Karen Joy Fowler, have been friends for a long time. Both were regulars at the Sycamore Hill Writers' Workshop in the late eighties and early nineties. For those who wonder about the value of attending workshops, I can tell you that Sycamore Hill was one of the highlights of my career. One of the critical things I picked up: You don't go for the clean, obvious ending. I remember talking to Lewis Shiner there about A Talent for War, which was then under construction. The climax put Alex Benedict at the controls of the super warship Corsarius. A Mute destroyer has been trying to take him out. Now Alex has the upper hand. As originally written, Alex pulled the trigger and blew everybody away. Lew shook his head. "Why does he kill them? They can't harm him now." It was a simple enough sequence, but it changed the way I thought about what I was doing.
Anyway, my congratulations to the winners.
Also on the Nebulas: I can't resist noting that eight of my thirteen novels have made the final ballot, including the last five..
I'll be spending next week at Newfound Memorial HS in Bristol, NH, where I used to be English Dept chairman. Thirty-five years ago. Not having had enough, they've invited me back to talk about writing. My experience there in the early seventies left me feeling pretty good about the kids. They were ambitious, and a lot of them had a passion for reading. I cut my teaching career short after ten years because we were about to have our first child. We were also supporting two mothers, and we simply needed more money. I eventually got a job as a customs inspector which, when the overtime was added, doubled my pay.
JH writes: "Noticed you're reading Why We're Liberal. Just wondering if you've ever speculated on why so many creative types, writers and other artists, are predominantly liberal, in the political sense. This is my observation from years of going to SF conventions, and talking with writer friends...."
Since we're in a political season, I thought I'd post my response:
"Not sure I can answer for others on the liberal/conservative issue. I've voted both ways. My inclination usually is to vote against whoever is currently in office, because politicians seem especially prone to corruption. I like Arthur Clarke's comment that anyone who actively seeks the presidency shouldn't be allowed anywhere near the oval office.
"Lately, I've been voting Democratic because the Republican dominance of recent years has brought the country to its knees. The reality, I think, is that we need both conservatives and liberals to make the country work. Liberals to look for, and try, new ideas. Conservatives to hold onto what works until we find something better. I think the vast majority of Americans, given responsible leadership (which is rare), come down more or less in the political center. Nobody wants welfare cheats, but nobody wants the kids of feckless parents to starve. Nobody wants to leave the country defenseless, but nobody wants to get involved in pointless wars. So we look for a middle course.
"The problem develops when politicians try to pad their nests by raising phony issues and setting people against one another. And it's exacerbated today by the number of bloggers and media types who make a career of attacking the opposition. Limbaugh comes immediately to mind."
RW suggests reading The Light's on at Signpost, a collection of reminiscences by George MacDonald Fraser, creator of the Flashman novels. I haven't read it, but I have read the Flashman books, which I've enjoyed as much as anything I've seen. They are not SF, but they are superb. Read one and you won't be able to stop. I guarantee it.
Finally, I keep hearing about values voters. The values usually seem to be the right to bear arms, an antipathy to gays, and anti-abortion. Why, I wonder, does no one ever mention intelligence?
Journal Entry #17
May 14, 2008
I'm just back from serving a week as writer in residence at Newfound Regional High School in Bristol, NH. Thirty-five years ago, I was the English Department chairman at Newfound. Hard to believe so much time has passed. I enjoyed the position immensely, by the way, but had to leave because I was supporting two adults (other than my wife), and could not do it on a teacher's salary.
I enjoyed myself. The students were the way I remember their parents: bright and enthusiastic. We talked about the sense of wonder, and what a writer tries to do (not tell a story, but create an experience). We also talked about why people weigh more in the basement than they do on the roof. On the fact that space is made out of rubber. That you age more quickly waiting for the bus that you do actually riding it. We talked about Hamlet and tribalism and tried to put the responsibility of an American citizen into no more than 57 words.
James Patrick Kelly, who has also served as writer-in-residence at Newfound, came over for an evening. Jim writes compelling fiction, and if you've not read him, you have a treat in store.
Several of us went to see "Iron Man" the other evening. It's not "Hamlet," but it is fun.
Science on the newsstands: Astronomy has a cover story on the approaching end of the Milky Way when it collides with Andromeda (which is fortunately still several billion years off). And The Atlantic has a cover story on the dangers presented by asteroids. Is anybody at the White House listening?
I'll be at the Florida Writers Assn get-together in Ponte Vidra, FL, Saturday, May 17. Will be conducting a workshop on common blunders. (Who better to do that?) And I'll also be the keynote speaker at the luncheon. Information can be had at
A tornado hit our home town of Brunswick, GA, two days ago. Did some damage on the mainland and on St Simons Island. Fortunately, though, no one was hurt.
Finally, I'm reading The Thurber Carnival. My favorite story, one of my favorite stories all-time, is "The Greatest Man in the World."
JOURNAL ENTRY #18
May 31, 2008
The Florida Writers Association had me in as guest Saturday May 17, at Ponte Vedra Beach. This kind of event always makes for a rousing time, because the place is filled with people who are passionate about writing. A few admitted during asides that they had finished projects, but had not submitted them to editors. And were reluctant to do so. There's a tendency among beginning writers to assume they will never see publication, and consequently they don't really make the effort. The reality is that there's only one way to find out: A person who wants to write professionally should, rephrasing Heinlein slightly, finish his work, send it to one of the top publishers, and find out what happens. No one wants to reach a point in his life where he has failed to do something he really wanted to do, because he didn't think he could manage it, and consequently never really tried.
I've said this elsewhere, but for what it's worth: my experience is that most people underrate their own abilities. If you want to write, if you want to win the gorgeous young woman in the accounting department, if you want to be a doctor, whatever, make the effort. Make it happen.
Obama has withdrawn from his church. One deranged pastor too many, I guess. Whatever happened to the line from Article vi: 'No religious test'? Can anyone who has honestly looked at our world not at least wondered at the notion that we have a divine protector? This is after all a world in which hawks routinely gobble down kittens, armies of kids are born with a wide range of deformities, tidal waves and earthquakes kill thousands, planes go down, cranes fall over, and idiots in uniform prevent supplies from getting to people who are dying. But if you ever hope to run for political office, do not admit publicly that you might have a few doubts about sacred assertions.
We saw the "Crystal Skull" the other evening. Indy is always fun to watch, but I'd have preferred to see him taking on HUAC. THAT would have made for a fascinating two hours.
I've been reading John Lewis's =Walking with the Wind=, and the Ellison essay (from =The Essential Ellison=) both on the Selma marches. John Lewis led the first of the three marches, the "Bloody Sunday" event in which Alabama state troopers and the sheriff's deputies launched an unprovoked attack on the demonstrators, a group that included elderly persons, women, and children. They used clubs and tear gas. Harlan also has a blood curdling description of one of the marches. He was a participant, while most of us were off doing something else. (I was vacationing in Mexico.)
I've also been digging into "Cicero" from =Plutarch's Lives=, and Tom Paine's =The Crisis=. If any of this sounds as if I'm working on a time travel project, I'll plead guilty. Other characters will include Winston Churchill, Galileo, Charles Lamb, and Ben Jonson, among others. Readers will have a chance to sit in on the first production of =Hamlet=, and will visit the Alexandria Library in its heyday. With a guy who can read Greek and Latin.
JOURNAL ENTRY #19
June 15, 2008
Brenau University, Valdosta State, and the Coastline Community College have developed a combined venture at Kings Bay Submarine Base in southern Georgia. On June 6, they graduated 134 students with associates', bachelors' and masters' degrees in a range of areas from business administration to electronics technology to criminal justice. They invited me to give the keynote, and though I promised myself I'd refrain from talking about science fiction, I couldn't resist getting into the sciences a bit. Though only to the extent that I suggested the graduates take time to note occasionally the grandeur of the universe they live in. In the end, that's what education is really about, not gaining the capacity to make more money, but acquiring an appreciation of the wonders that surround us. It was, incidentally, my first visit ro a naval base since 1965.
We went to see M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening." There were four of us. Reactions varied, but I was much impressed. It's refreshing to see some science fiction that's more than simply invaders running loose, or a monster chasing people through dark woods. The film is imaginative, thoughtful, and scary. Don't take the kids, though.
Robert Sawyer's Wake arrived the other day. I'll confess here that I've gotten bored with most of what passes for SF these days. Maybe I've simply read too much of it in a lifetime, but I need something more than interstellar wars or people trying to deal with exotic implants. I think I've read everything Sawyer's done, and I'm happy to note that he's never failed me. It'll be a few days before I can start it though. I'm trying to catch up on the last few issues of the major SF magazines, plus a couple of anthologies. For Nebula voting purposes. Trying to stay current takes a fair amount of time.
I mislaid the copy of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, which had been a Christmas present. Came across it several days ago. It's one of the most intriguing science books I've seen. Bryson not only asks the right questions, but he can lay the corresponding theories out in plain English, and with passion. He seems to be a guy who really cares about quantum mechanics, exclusion principles, and how long it would take a brick to hit bottom if you drilled a well all the way to the core.
Have also been reading essays by W.E.B. DuBois. Somebody else whose work is essential for gaining a wider perspective on the black experience. Or maybe on the experience of everyone who, for one reason or another, gets treated as an outsider.
I now have a complete first draft of Time Travelers Never Die. Robert Heinlein famously said you should never do a rewrite except under editorial command. I'm not sure whether he was actually claiming he could get it right the first time. My own first drafts are terrible. I've always refused to show them to anyone.
And I can't help thinking how much better high school kids would do with their essays if they could get away from handing in their first attempts all the time. Especially in an era when fixing the thing is so easy.
I've stayed clear of cons this summer. Last year was too much of a dash to the finish. I was a month late closing out The Devil's Eye, and I don't want to reach a point where a novel suffers because I wasn't able to make adequate time to write the thing. The only commitment I have this side of Labor Day is Friday, August 22, at Stratford Academy in Macon, Georgia.
JOURNAL ENTRY #20
July 1, 2008
Three days ago, in an interview, I was asked about my favorite books. The list, which was not to include SF, would change from day to day, but here are the ones I chose, in no particular order.
1. The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky
I was 23, in the Far East, when I settled down with this one. The most memorable passage: When Ivan explains to Alyosha the reasons for his atheism. He tells of a mother of two children who refuses the advances of a Russian count. The count throws one of the kids to the dogs while the mother watches. Then he looks at the remaining child and asks her again. "What," says Ivan, "could that woman ever receive in eternity that would compensate for the agony of that moment?"
2. The Sherlock Holmes Canon
I discovered Holmes during the summer of 1955, when I was at LaSalle College. Once I'd read A Study in Scarlet, there was no escape.
3. Poems of A.E. Housman
He has only two themes: early death, and unrequited love. I know the official standings among poets, but I've never encountered anyone who can deliver a punch the way Housman does.
4. Any collection of Mark Twain's essays
His funniest and most compelling work is his conversations with the reader. Or, perhaps, Fred Lorch's The Trouble Begins at Eight, an account of his tours with generous excerpts from the lectures.
5. David Copperfield, Dickens
Another one from my college years. I was a freshman. LaSalle was publishing my first short story in its literary magazine, Four Quarters, and I thought I was on my way to becoming the next Robert Heinlein. Then I read Copperfield. At one point, the beloved Barkis lies dying in his bed, and the reader is conscious of the murmur of the nearby sea. And Barkis, informed that the end is near, delivers his tag line:
"Barkis is willin'!"
And, it being low water, he went out with the tide.
I reacted by recognizing that I would never get near that level, and gave up all ambition to write. Not another word for 25 years. Until I figured out you didn't have to be as good as Dickens.
6. Any James Thurber collection
Driest wit this side of the Pecos.
7. War and Peace, Tolstoy
War, what is it good for? Occasionally, you get a novel that's impossible to put down. Tolstoy gives us the central drama of the French invasion of Russia, and adds unforgettable details. Like the method by which Napoleon hands out medals.
8. War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk
Should include the companion volume, The Winds of War. A brilliant portrait of the second war.
9. A Mencken Chrestomathy, H. L. Mencken
Had my folks known what he had to say, they'd never have granted my request and got this book as a Christmas present. I was never the same.
10. Any collection of Irwin Shaw's short stories
Recommended especially for anyone who wants to learn how to write short fiction. Of course, genius helps, too.
A few others that I've a special fondness for:
The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel, Don Marquis
The Star Thrower, Loren Eiseley (And pretty much anything else by Loren Eiseley)
Short fiction by Ring Lardner
The Return of Hyman Kaplan, Leo Rosten
Berlin Diary, William Shirer
And my favorite science fiction anthology: Adventures in Time and Space, edited by Healy & McComas
This evening, I expect to start Kaufman & Hart's George Washington Slept Here.
A week or so ago, a college instructor told me that none of his students read anything except what's assigned or what's in some way connected with the class. When I think of the impact that the books mentioned above, and of course several zillion others, have had on me across a lifetime, of how they've influenced the way I see the world, how much pure pleasure they've provided, and how many laughs, I can feel nothing but sympathy for people who never show up at the station.
There's a sequence in the forthcoming novel version of Time Travelers Never Die in which the protagonists visit the Library of Alexandria, at the height of its glory. Of course, they used scrolls, printed by hand. A book, in the second century B.C. was an expensive item. For people in the 20th century, it's something we simply take for granted. Thank God for paper. What kind of world would we live in did it not exist?
JOURNAL ENTRY #22
August 1, 2008
I just finished my last pass through The Devil's Eye. It's probably the seventh or eighth time I've gone through it, and if you're wondering why I can't get it right the first time, I can only hope you figure it out and let me know. Somebody said once that this sort of thing is the reason they lock the Louvre at night. I have never bought into Heinlein's injunction that you rewrite only at an editor's insistence. Although I suspect he wasn't talking about the number of passes through a manuscript, but about doing a rewrite after the submission.
The Devil's Eye will be the fourth outing for Chase and Alex. The plot line: Alex's home world, Rimway, is near the edge of the galaxy. But there's another human world, Salud Afar, 30,000 light years further out. It's still, of course, part of the Milky Way. But at that range, its skies are dark, except for a couple of planets, a single star that's even more distant, and the haze that is the galactic rim.
Vicki Greene is an eminent writer of horror novels, immensely popular, and a dazzling speaker at conventions and other events. She is based on Rimway. Chase and Alex are just returning from touring Atlantis with friends, when a message comes in from Greene: "Alex," she says, "God help me, they're all dead."
Neither Alex nor Chase has had any previous connection with her. They are several days away, and by the time they return home, they discover that Greene has undergone a mind wipe. Her memory is gone. Doctors have given her a new identity. She was suffering, one of them tells Alex. "We didn't want to do the procedure, but there seemed no alternative."
"She was suffering from what?"
"Emotional distress. >From something she knew. Or had imagined."
She has left an enormous amount of money for Alex, with no explanation and no additional information. Her editor explains that she had been vacationing on Salud Afar. Is there anything special about Salud Afar? "It's an ideal world for a horror writer," says the editor. "Lots of strange places. An unquiet grave. A time lab abandoned centuries before, but that may still be home to time travelers. A phantom aircraft." And a lot more. An ideal spot for her. But a quick investigation indicates that no one knows of any unusual incidents in which she was involved, either on Rimway or Salud Afar. And certainly nobody's dead.
Yet her family, her editor, her doctors, are all mystified. Greene had everything to live for. She was still young. The public loved her. She had never been known to suffer from mental or emotional problems. What then has happened? Ultimately, in their efforts to learn the truth, Chase and Alex will visit Salud Afar, and will also find themselves at ground zero as Confederates and Mutes face off again.
I've started =Bleak House=. It's been a good many years since I've read a Dickens novel, and I'd forgotten how effective he can be. I have the complete Oxford set. I've read some of the essays and short fiction, but am embarrassed to admit that my last novel was =Our Mutual Friend=, back when I was in the Navy. Once again, we're reminded how quickly the years pass.
And a book for leisure moments: =It Seemed Like a Good Idea=, edited by William R. Forstchen and Bill Fawcett. The subtitle is: A Compendium of Great Historical Fiascoes. Next time you feel confident about putting your life or your future in the hands of a general, a president, or whomever, take a look at this one and get your head down. Included are roughly fifty prize cases of military, political, and social blunders, botched jobs, and fumbles.
A good many people have inquired whether =Cauldron= is indeed the last Academy novel. In each case, I provided a firm response. I said I didn't know. (Okay, before anybody points the finger at me, I know the line is lifted from Mark Twain.) I started my career determined to do no sequels. I've no idea why. Eventually, I discovered I missed some of the characters. And that's not an exaggeration. You spend a lot of time inside someone's head, and you can't help feeling an attraction after a while. So I'll confess that, at the moment, anything's possible. I've even thought about doing a couple of prequels. Hutch in her twenties.
On another subject, a number of readers have offered plot ideas. I want to say here that I appreciate the effort. And some of the ideas have been pretty good. Pretty good to the extent that they would be usable. Unfortunately, I can't touch them. For one thing, you have to live with an idea, nurse it along, before you can really write a decent novel about it. (This is even true where a critical aspect comes from, say, a physicist.) More important, when a suggestion comes from someone I don't know, I can't be sure of the source. Is it original? Is it something the individual read long ago and possibly forgot? The truth is that I'm seldom really sure in my own case about the source of ideas. Sometimes you pick up a notion somewhere, and after a while you adopt it as your own. And come to believe it. Consequently any writer is very careful about other people's suggestions. My best reaction: The idea might indeed be a glorious one. Why give it away?
JOURNAL ENTRY #23
August 17, 2008
I met Algis Budrys in Los Angeles more than twenty years ago, when I was at the beginning of my career. He'd reviewed The Hercules Text favorably, and I was ecstatic. I recall trying to look relaxed and casual. He invited me to sit and talk, and we sat down and enjoyed ourselves for an hour or so. He needed only a minute or two to put me at ease.
He was passionate about the field, and about the art of fiction. Actually told me he was glad I'd decided to write SF, and had not gone in another direction. At that point I could have gone back to my apartment without touching the ground. When I asked him which of his novels he was most proud of --an incredibly dumb question--, he did not laugh or roll his eyes. He admitted that his opinion changed from day to day, depending on his mood and other intangibles. But at that moment, he thought maybe Rogue Moon. He probably would have turned the question around except I had only one book. There were no pretensions about Budrys. He was a giant, and I'm sure he knew it. But he played a level table. I was sorry to read of his death earlier this summer. We'll miss him.
By the way, Rogue Moon is a powerhouse.
I was waiting outside the vet's place last week and caught the first two or three minutes of Sean Hannity. He started by pointing out that the swift boating of John Kerry had been done originally on his show. Don't know the details of that, but he seemed to think swiftboating is a cause for pride.
I've been reading Joseph Campbell's Occidental Mythology. Mike Bishop informed me that Paul DiFilippo had written an alternate world story in which Joseph Campbell becomes editor of Astounding in place of that other Campbell. I subsequently picked up a copy of Paul's collection, Lost Pages (Four Walls Eight Windows August 1998), which contains the story "Campbell's World." Along with eight other alternate world stories, featuring alternate outcomes for Anne Frank, Antoine de Sainte Exupery, Franz Kafka, Campbell, and others. I'm only halfway through, but it's a winner.
Incidentally, Occidental Mythology tracks worldwide mythical systems from the Bronze Age. And he does not spare the Bible.
The second draft of Time Travelers Never Die is finished. A major change from the first draft: I threw out the climax and went in a completely different direction.
We watched and enjoyed Young Winston the other evening. It's a 1972 film that I'd missed somehow. Churchill's early years. I have a tendency sometimes to catch TV shows late, also. Usually in syndication. That was how we discovered Third Watch. I saw my first Seinfeld episode the night they showed the final one on the network. The one I saw, earlier in the evening on cable, was the bubble boy. I was hooked from that moment. Anyhow this is by way of saying that we just found Frazier. I guess I'm safe in recommending it.
Kevin Anderson writes interstellar war and politics like nobody else. Orbit Books has just released The Ashes of Worlds, the conclusion to The Saga of Seven Suns. This one is a fitting climax to an unforgettable series.
JOURNAL ENTRY #24
September 1, 2008
Stratford Academy appears to be a dazzling place to go to school. It's ideally located on a lovely campus on the western edge of Macon, GA. The classes are small and the standards are high. I was given the opportunity to speak at the high school, and to attend one of the writing classes. I came away realizing how much I missed being a teacher. Unfortunately, I've reached an age at which the workload would be too much. Although I was almost tempted to ask about faculty openings for next year.
Several of the teachers treated Maureen and me to dinner at an Italian restaurant the previous evening. It made for an entertaining two hours. As we all know, the secret for any good school is a combination of involved parents and teachers who have mastered the art of showbiz. I can't answer for the parents, or the entire faculty, but the ones I met were impressive. And a pleasure to work with.
The drive between our home and Macon is about four hours each way. Much of the trip, coming and going, was complicated by heavy winds and rain from TS Fay. We're still cleaning up at home.
In Journal #19, I recommended Rob Sawyer's Wake. I was happy to see it's being serialized by Analog, starting with the current (November) issue.
Two of my short stories are about to appear: Asimov's will publish "Welcome to Valhalla," written with Kathryn Lance, in its December issue. And Fast Forward 2, edited by Lou Anders, will run "Molly's Kids." We'll be posting the cover of Fast Forward 2 shortly..
SPOILER ALERT for Seeker:
A number of readers have written to say they could see the end coming from a mile away. That's not necessarily a problem, at least as far as I'm concerned. But there's an interesting adjunct to the story. One of the more common questions at workshops is whether I have a complete outline for a book before I start. The answer is no. Usually, I have a set-up and a conclusion. With Alex Benedict, that means a mysterious event, and a reasonable solution that does not rely on super science or the intervention of aliens or some such thing.
With Seeker, two ships and a mission had gone missing during the third millennium. If you've read the book, you know how it ends. You might be interested to know that my original intention was not at all to end it the way I did. Chase & Alex were going to find, not a thriving civilization when they finally tracked down the mission's detination, but instead would encounter only an AI. "Hello," it would say, "how are you?" Everything else was gone, unable to sustan itself during its early years without support from home. In fact, I wrote the first draft that way, and was several pages into the conclusion when I realized it was the wrong climax. I sensed what everybody else did: That the narrative was building to a party. So, remembering Terry Carr's dictum that the reader should not go through 400 pages to be let down at the end, I went back and did it right.
It's the advice I always give at workshops: When your plans comflict with your instincts, follow your instincts.
JOURNAL ENTRY #25
September 16, 2008
Newly acquired books: Breakfast in the Ruins. Barry Malzberg comments on science fiction, where we've been, where we're probably going. (Of course, Barry's been around too long to believe any of us have a clue what's going to happen even as soon as next week.) But if you'd like to get a sense what's been going on in the field over the past four decades or so, this is a brilliant introduction. This is, by the way, a substantially expanded version of the author's Engines in the Night, from 1982.
Also, Brave New Words, by Jeff Prucher, subtitled The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction. Want to nail down what post-cyberpunk really means? Or what you've done when you unsuit? This one is an entertaining reference work, something to dip into when you're waiting for your ride to arrive.
The current issue of Astronomy (Oct, 2008) contains a solar eclipse calendar. There will be two total solar eclipses visible in the United States over the next sixteen years. The first will occur August 21, 2017, and the other on April 8, 2024. The second one is of particular interest to me because it's the eclipse that happens in Moonfall, and alerts the world that it's seven days away from disaster. Readers of the novel will recall that we have a moonbase up and running by that time. I'm sorry to say that I think that notion might have been optimistic.
I reported with great fanfare a few weeks back that I'd completed the second draft of Time Travelers Never Die, which will be out in November, 2009. Unfortunately, it has come to my attention that I blew several opportunities to improve the book. Vastly. The problem, I think, derived from an effort to keep the narrative consistent with the novella of the same name, which was originallly published in Asimov's, in 1996. (And which will, by the way, be reprinted in Cryptic , a best-of collection due in January.
Anyhow, Robert Dyke, who was the director of TimeQuest, made some suggestions. He was right, so I tossed seven or eight chapters, rearranged the action, and provided a stronger drive. Once again, a lesson for us all: There is no more valuable aide to a writer than somebody who has decent taste, and will tell you what he really thinks. If TTND works, Dyke will deserve a substantial chunk of the credit.
I was happy to see that NASA's mission to Pluto is on schedule. I think they're estimating nine years before arrival. Would love to have them go into orbit out there and spot Clifford Simak's construction shack.
October 1, 2008
The other evening we were watching The Fall of the Roman Empire, a 1960's extravaganza with an All-Star cast, including Sophia Loren and James Mason, with Alec Guinness as Marcus Aurelius. That eventually sent me looking for my copy of the Meditations. But I couldn't find it, and it was just one more occasion of hunting all over the house for a book that had walked off. So I settled in to reorganize the library. In doing so, I came across a number of titles that I enjoyed, some recently, some long ago. In no particular order, here are a golden dozen:
The Symbolic Species, Terrence W. Deacon (1997): The evolution of language, symbolic thinking, and the mind as something more than simply a glorified computer. One of those books that changed my perspective forever.
The Game Is Afoot, edited by Marvin Kaye (1995): A thoroughly enjoyable collection of Sherlock Holmes stories by August Derleth, ZaSu Pitts, Poul Anderson, Bret Harte, O. Henry, Basil Rathbone, and lots of others. A gloriously good time.
Across the Wide Missouri, Berbard DeVoto (1947): Next to using a time machine, this might be the best way to get a sense of life in the Rockies during the 1830's, and how it impacted the nation we eventually became.
At Home in the Universe, Stuart Kauffman (1995): The universe organizes itself. Were we inevitable? Kauffman ranges over a wide range of topics, from complexity and the beginning of life to the logic of civilization. Another game-changer.
A History of the Ancient World, Chester G. Starr (1983): A concise, comprehensive examination of the roots and early years of civilization. From paleolithic times through the Near East, to the halcyon years of the Hellenic World and the Glory that was Rome, and ultimately to her collapse.
The Haunted Bookshop, Christopher Morley (1919): A remarkable second-hand bookshop in Brooklyn. One for the ages.
A Devil's Chaplain, Richard Dawkins (2003): A biologist looks at civilization and the world, and asks some hard questions about our willingness to believe what people in authority tell us. No matter how unreasonable the assertions may be.
Mark Twain Speaking, edited by Paul Fatout (1976): Mark Twain's lectures, interviews, and after-dinner speeches, from 1864 to 1909, in chronological order. I've always felt that Mark Twain's shorter work is his most compelling. I'd have liked very much to have been in the audience for one of these. Anyhow, endlessly entertaining.
Not So!, Paul F. Boller, Jr. , (1995): 'Popular Myths About America from Columbus to Clinton.' Did Millard Fillmore really install the first bathtub in the White House? Did the Founding Fathers really believe in democracy? Did FDR know in advance the Pearl Harbor attack was coming? Are Americans more inclined to bash their presidents than in the old days? Get the facts in Boller's exhilarating and enlightening stroll through American history.
Shield of the Republic, Michael T. Isenberg (1993). 'The US Navy in an era of cold war and violent peace, 1945-1962.' This one caught my eye at least partially because it covers my own years in the Navy. New technology, strategy, high drama and political fallout as we go eye-to-eye with the Soviets.
Civilisation, Kenneth Clark (1969): An adaptation of the exquisite PBS TV series. The fragility and beauty of the civilized world, and the barbarians, who are always at the gates.
Three-Upmanship, Stephen Potter (1950): This is actually three books in one: The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship, Some Notes on Lifemanship, and One-Upmanship. To provide a sense of the contents, the subtitle of the first book is 'The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating.' One of the more memorable quotes: 'If you're not one up, you're one down.' Basically, it's a primer on ensuring that your opponent always plays with the sun in his eyes.
Two new stories have just become available: "Molly's Kids" in Fast Forward 2, edited by Lou Anders; and "Welcome to Valhalla," cowritten with Kathryn Lance, in the current (Dec) issue of Asimov's. Two new stories have just become available: "Molly's Kids" in Fast Forward 2, edited by Lou Anders; and "Welcome to Valhalla," cowritten with Kathryn Lance, in the current (Dec) issue of Asimov's. Also, "Tweak" has been reprinted in The Best of Jim Baen's Universe.
October 18, 2008
Ace Books treats me well. They publish my novels in November. That means they arrive precisely as Christmas shoppers begin to fan out. My editor, Ginjer Buchanan, traditionally sends me a copy out of the first batch to arrive from the printer. It came Wednesday.
I have to confess that there is no bigger charge in a writer's professional life than the arrival of a new book. Nothing. Nada. Zero. The Devil's Eye is my sixteenth novel, and with three story collections, my nineteenth book overall. I'm still not used to it. In 1980, I was on a TDY assignment at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in South Georgia, training customs inspectors. Though I enjoyed the work, I had a passion for science fiction, and had always dreamed of doing what I'd so much admired in Bradbury, Clarke, and the rest. But I'd never tried.
The reason I didn't have at it was the sure and certain knowledge that I couldn't do it. I've never been enamored of rejection, and I knew what the chances were, how the magazines get 6 million submissions a month and maybe, in a good year, buy one. I had a pretty good idea also of my writing limitations. Anyhow I came home one evening after a day at the Center, downcast, weary of teaching people how to enforce the tariff laws. The work is okay, but it doesn't rank with riding starships and time machines. My wife Maureen suggested I might want to make good on a longstanding threat to write a story myself. To me, it seemed a pointless exercise. But, to keep her happy, I jumped in.
I needed a few days. The story was about a guy who worked in a post office, who was in love with one of the clerks, but never made a move because he was afraid of rejection. One day an unusual letter arrives. It was from Ralph Waldo Emerson, and had been mailed more than a century earlier. The protagonist can't resist opening the letter. It contains comments made by Emerson in one of his essays. The essence: Believe in yourself and you can achieve almost anything. Do not allow yourself to arrive in the twilight years and discover that there are things you had wanted, but never pursued, because you were afraid of failure. The only real failure is not trying.
At the time I was writing this, I don't think I was conscious of the irony. Anyhow, I titled it "Zip Code" and sent it out. It bounced three times. The third rejection came from F&SF, but it included a letter saying that they'd liked it, but at the time were backlogged. I had no idea how significant that response was. To me, it was just another rejection.
I decided enough was enough, and tossed the manuscript into the bottom drawer of my desk, promising --but not really intending-- to go back to it later. But Maureen persisted, and, after some upgrades, we sent it out a fourth time, to The Twilight Zone Magazine. A few weeks later, my assignment ended, and we packed and returned to Pembina, ND. When we got there, a postcard was waiting. It was from T.E.D. Klein, the editor at TZ. They would buy the story, he said. Although it needed a new title.
It became "The Emerson Effect." Believe in yourself and all doors open. (Well, almost all doors.) I couldn't believe my luck and became convinced something would happen before the magazine could appear. The publishing house would burn down, a global plague would wreak havoc, Wall Street would collapse, nuclear war would break out. Something. But the December 1981 issue showed up on schedule.
In 1965, I was driving through northern Mexico, headed for Vera Cruz, when I picked up a radio broadcast from Texas. They were interviewing Harlan Ellison. Harlan was saying that once he'd sold that first story, he knew he could do this stuff, absolutely knew it, and there'd be no stopping him.
I remembered that broadcast while I removed my copy of The Devil's Eye from its shipping box. And he's right. The experience made me aware also that most people are a lot smarter than they realize. We spend so many years with authority figures, parents, teachers, bosses, showing us our mistakes, giving us advice, pointing out blunders, that after a while we begin to believe that we aren't very bright.
Interesting coincidence: I mentioned that The Devil's Eye came Wednesday. That same morning, I'd finished Time Travelers Never Die, which will be out in 2009. In November, of course.
JOURNAL ENTRY #28
November 1, 2008
As I write this, the election is three days away. There are still a lot of undecided voters out there. Hard to imagine who these people are, but they've clearly spent most of their time these last 18 months reading the sport pages. Anyone who's undecided at this point should stay home.
I've grown weary of labels, of red-states and blue states. The reality is that any functioning society needs both conservatives and liberals, conservatives to hang onto what works, liberals to look for and try new ideas. And for everybody to keep an open mind.
We are more inclined to be conservative because we're wired against change. In the distant past, change was always bad news. It was Attila at the gates, baby, not the USO. Or the river was rising. If you've any managerial experience, you know what it is to try to change the way things are done in your office.
But we have to be careful about clinging mindlessly to the past. It was, after all, people who were trying to preserve the local system who murdered Socrates and Jesus. They ran the Crusades and the Inquisition. They hunted down witches. During the American Revolution, they sided with King George. During the Civil War. they defended slavery. They opposed the vote for women, thought discrimination was a good idea, and fought civil rights throughout the 60's.
At the moment, Kim il-Jong is reported to be seriously ill. Ask yourself how the world would change if he were replaced by a liberal.
Time Travelers Never Die finally went off to the publisher this past week. I've been working on it non-stop since February. My work week , by the way, tends to be seven days, no holidays, usually eight to five. Sometimes I start earlier, and often work later. There are no days off, except when I attend conventions or do speaking engagements. Next week, for instance, I'll be at LaGrange College to talk with students about A Cross of Centuries and whatever else is on their minds. I enjoy these kinds of events, but they're not really time off.
The truth is that I'm a slow worker. I need almost an entire year to write a novel. And I might do two or three stories. And that's it. By November, when the book is due, I'm inevitably wiped out. So you've already guessed where this is headed. I'm taking a year off. Going to read and sleep, watch the world champion Phillies and the Eagles, and try to get out a little bit.
I've been fortunate, far more than I ever had reason to expect. Writing is an especially rewarding way to earn a living. Spending time with Hutch, or Alex Benedict, with Shel and Dave and Galileo and Calamity Jane and Dick Nixon in Time Travelers Never Die is just flat out good times. Hey, Maureen, come on in here and listen to this! But it does wear some rubber off the tires.
I'll take advantage of the moment to say thanks to the readers who make it possible. I expect, by next fall, I'll be back at it.
JOURNAL ENTRY #29
November 19, 2008
Last week, I was given a gift certificate to a chain bookstore, and wandered over to cash in. I came home with a New Yorker desk calendar. (It'll be a relief after the Bushisms calendar I currently have, which stopped being funny somewhere last spring and has since grown progressively more depressing.) There were lots of books on the culture wars, a substantial number describing how the Evangelicals were a threat to the nation, and others warning readers to look out because there's currently a war against Christianity. There are books claiming the Liberals are about to plunge the nation into communism, and books warning against heartless Conservatives. One especuially caught my eye: The Idiot's Guide to the Rapture, I think. Or maybe to The End Times.
I came home with three books: The War Within, by Bob Woodward; Year Million, edited by Damien Broderick; and Neil Tyson's Death by Black Hole. My first thought for the latter was that it would (almost) make an existentisal title for an Alex Benedict novel. Just change it to Murder by Black Hole.
Well, maybe not.
The War Within is a description of the inner workings of the White House 2006-2008. I've only read a couple chapters but so far it is hard to put down.
Year Million is an anthology that asks where we will be, if anywhere, in a million years. The dedication reveals much about Broderick's mindset: 'To the blessed memory of H. G. Wells, and to all human kind through Year Million and Beyond: his children.' The book consists of fourteen essays by a mix that includes an electrical engineer, a physicist, a computer expert, an AI specialist, and a goup of people familiar to the SF community. These areCartherine Asaro, Gregory Benford, Wil McCarthy, Pamela Sargent, Rudy Rucker, and George Zebrowski. Topics include where evolution might take us, redesigning the solar system, universal stasis (always a formula for depressing the spirits), life expansion, whether additional Earths exist, and a wealth of other fascinating stuff. I'm headed for Philcon this weekend, by train, and plan to take this one with me.
The subtuitle of Death by Black Hole is "...And Other Cosmic Quandaries." It's cosmology in language that does not require a degree in physics. Tyson gives us a course in how the universe came to be, and devotes much of the book to the clash between culture and what we know of a cosmos that many people don't want to hear about. I may take this one along too. I'll save the Woodward book until I get home and can mix in some lighter reading.
Wandering through my stacks the other day, I came across two books that I'd put away and forgotten. I went back to them this week. One is Mike Wallace's 50 Years from Today, which I bought in an airport this past summer. It's a complement of sorts to Year Million, again a collection of essays by experts, this time looking ahead a relatively short period. The contributors include Claude Mandil on energy; Victor Sidel on the availability of medical care for everyone, and why it would be a good idea to stop the wars; Marian Wright Edelman on the desperate need for moral leadership; Gerardus 't Hooft on how science may transform society; and fifty-six other essays.
The other book is something lighter: Leonard Ross's The Return of H*Y*M*A*N* K*A*P*L*A*N*, which I bought in 1961, when I was in the Navy. It's a collection of stories about a school for adults that specializes in helping those seeking to acquire enough education to become U.S. citizens. They're uproarious. I enjoyed them at the time, got about halfway through the book, and somehow it got lost. I've started again from the beginning, and I'm happy to report that Mr. K*A*P*L*A*N*, his teacher Mr. Parkhill, and the other denizens of the class haven't lost a step.
JOURNAL ENTRY #30
December 1, 2008
Fantasy Book asked about my favorite books of the year. While I wandered around the house thinking about it, and looking over titles, I began thinking about books that had had a lifelong effect. And I mean beyond simple admiration. But those that had seriously influenced the way I looked at the world.
When I was about nine years old, an aunt gave me a copy of Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels. Halliburton was an adventurer, a real Indiana Jones, who wandered the planet and wrote about the Hanging Gardens and the Alexandrian Lighthouse and the Great Pyramid. The book was enormous, a doorstop, with lots of pictures of ruins and the Parthenon and the author riding a camel and headed for the Ka'bah, in Mecca. (I was amazed to read that the Ka'bah, which the believers connected with Abraham, was probably a meteor remnant. And that Halliburton would be in extreme trouble if he were caught.) I loved that book, but somewhere I lost track of it. It left me with an enduring passion for artifacts. For lost architecture. For an entire world now long gone.
Stephen Potter's Three-upmanship arrived during my British comedy period. It portends to be a manual on how to keep a step ahead of the opposition. "If you're not one up," Mr. Potter tells us, "you're one down." It became a movie, one of that brilliant series of comedies made during the fifties, starring people like Alistair Sim, Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, and Terry-Thomas. If someone asked me to list my ten favorite movie comedies, seven or eight of them would come from this period. These were the days when I discovered that the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Bud & Lou weren't nearly as funny as I thought. And while we're on the subject, I hope Hollywood will not try to remake any more of them. They made a hash of The Ladykillers. As it now looks that they're demolishing The Day the Earth Stood Still. But that's another subject.
The Thurber Carnival is a dazzling collection from, of course, James Thurber. My favorite story is: "The Greatest Man in the World." Smurch is an obnoxious, egotistical American hero, clearly a guy who will be an embarrassment to the nation when the public gets to meet him. He's especially adept at insulting other nationalities. Ultimately, he is invited to meet the President in a skyscraper, where a staff member, signaled by a desperate FDR, pushes him through a window. The government declares an annual day of mourning, but secret service agents have to be sent to keep his mother from smiling during the ceremonies. If there is a single short story anywhere that I'd like to claim as my own, this is it.
Don Marquis's archy and mehitabel is another favorite. Archy is a cockroach who, in an earlier life, was a free-lance poet. Mehitabel is his alleycat pal. Archy comments on the world by jumping up and down on typewriter keys, producing columns published by the New York Sun. Many of the lines have remained in my mind for more than forty years. On one occasion, freddie the rat tangles with a "thousand-legs" who was bullying archie (no capital because archie can't shift into upper case) and his friends. Freddie takes out the thousand-legs, but loses his life in the process. In the morning, says archy, "we dropped freddie off the fire escape with military honors."
Then there's the more serious stuff. The Brothers Karamazov contains a sequence narrated by Ivan, an atheist, to his brother, Alyosha, a strong believer. Ivan describes a Russian duke who decides to seduce one of the women who work for him. The woman is the mother of two young children. She refuses his request, and he responds by throwing one of the children to the dogs, which tear the child apart while she watches. When it is over, he glances at the remaining child, and repeats his question. Ivan asks Alyosha what in eternity can ever compensate the mother for the horror of that event? The author's intention was to raise some of the objections that were commonly raised against religion, and to respond to them. If the response was adequate to the task, I can't say. I don't remember it.
Another moment, from War and Peace, has stayed with me. It is only an instant, and probably easy to miss. Napoleon is giving out medals to his troops during the invasion of Russia. How much does it mean to him? He proceeds, accompanied by two officers. One hands him the medal. Napoleon presses it to the recipient's chest, removes his hand, and moves on. Pressing business elsewhere. Can't waste a lot of time with these ceremonies. It's up to the second officer to prevent the medal from falling to the ground and fasten it to the uniform.
And finally, "A Christmas Carol." If there's a work that might serve as an instruction kit for those who'd like to become good writers, this is it. Example: The most common reason that most written work goes wrong is that the author writes too much. He goes on and on, explaining this and describing that. One way to avoid this, aside from getting rid of adjectives and adverbs and getting to the point, is to get the narrative on stage. Nothing is more boring than the interposition of explanations by the writer. It's useful to watch how Dickens handles things. Take, for example, the scene in which Scrooge and the Spirit arrive outside Bob Cratchett's home. The reader meets the family. We're not told anything about them; they simply show up and perform. One of them, of course, is Tiny Tim, hobbling about on his crutch.
The child looks feeble. "Spirit," Scrooge says, "will Tiny Tim survive?"
Dickens could have had the Spirit shake his head and say, "Nope. He's gone. Out of here. By this time next year, he'll be dead." But he doesn't. We're on stage, so he puts everything up there for us to see: "I see a crutch without an owner," the Spirit says, "and an empty chair by the fire."
Remember those symbols high school teachers used to talk about? That's the writer putting the action on stage. It matters.
Journal Entry 31
December 16, 2008
We spent most of the past week in Kennesaw, GA, where my younger son, Chris, graduated from Kennesaw State University. He was an anthropology major, and plans to be an archeologist. And if you’ve been reading either the Priscilla Hutchins novels or the Alex Benedict series, you’re probably smiling at that bit of news. During the celebration, I finally realized that I’m not entirely comfortable with the notion of taking a year off from writing. I suspect I could still get some short fiction done, read the books I’ve been saving, and still complete a novel. All I have to do is stop playing Free Cell. It’s addictive. I had to go cold turkey on it a couple of years ago in order to meet a deadline, and I should probably do the same again. Get it out of my life.
A curious aspect of this is that I don’t think I’d recognized that writing is also addictive. Writers are always going on about how stressful it is, and how they keep a bottle of scotch in the lower right hand drawer. But that’s all talk, and it’s designed to discourage the competition. To persuade potential rivals that it’s not worth the effort and they should get jobs at Woolworth’s. When I look back over the last twelve months, while I was working on Time Travelers Never Die, some of the year’s most exhilarating moments came out of the writing. Hey, Maureen, look, it’s 1937 and we’re in a restaurant in Durham, North Carolina, planning to meet Aldous Huxley, who’s visiting the area, and will be in at some point this evening with friends. But who’s that college kid who just took over the piano? That’s not really Dick Nixon, is it? Can’t be.
Or when Dave and Kate, the time travelers, stop in Dodge and have a few drinks with Wyatt and Calamity.
The year before, it was The Devil’s Eye, and the same sort of ride. My original intention was to end the novel when Alex discovered why he’d received the call for help from Vicki Greene. I had a big time playing around with the various incarnations of haunted places across Salud Afar, the beach where the ghostly aircraft shows up every year, and the haunted forest, and the decimated time lab. All great fun. But then the day came when I realized the narrative wasn’t done. The solution to the mystery presented an opportunity to take a few more steps, and I couldn’t just walk away. We celebrated that night.
Speaking of celebrations, Maureen and I will do one this evening, as well. It’s our 41st anniversary. Hard to believe. Seems like last week we were singing Just Get Me to the Church on Time.
The January issue of Astronomy has an especially interesting cover story: The year’s top ten astronomical events. Among them: The discovery that a substantial number of galaxies are ‘flowing’ in the same direction, apparently toward a common destination, beyond the edge of the visible universe, which means, of course, an area so far away that light hasn’t had time to reach us. It would have to be a source of considerable gravity, unless something else is going on. (I can’t imagine what.) Also, NASA’s Swift satellite spotted the brightest gamma ray burst ever seen. Gamma ray bursts happen when a massive star collapses into a black hole. There’s a process that would be interesting to watch. But even given FTL technology, how would you arrange it?
Other stories of special interest: Princeton astronomer Alicia Soderberg, using the same Swift satellite, was watching one supernova when she saw another starting. It’s the first time we’ve caught one of these things from its first moments. And of course the Phoenix Lander found water on Mars, and organic molecules in the soil. I’ve thought for a long time that the discovery of extraterrestrial life, if it happened at all, would be made through a spectroscopic analysis of the atmosphere of an extrasolar terrestrial world. It seemed as if it was just a matter of waiting for the technology that would allow us to get a look at these places. At the moment, small worlds are lost in the glare of the home star. But we’re working on a system to block off the light. Last I heard we were getting close. But maybe, in the end, it’ll be Mars after all.
Which raises an intriguing question: Why do we want so desperately to find someone else?