Journal # 32
January 1, 2009
The books have been piling up on my side table: fiction for Nebula consideration, science and political books, and stuff I just flat out feel like reading for one reason or another: Count among these Steve Berry's latest thriller, The Charlemagne Pursuit. For anyone not familiar with Berry's work, his protagonist, Cotton Malone, is a retired federal agent who owns a bookstore in Denmark and solves historical and archeological mysteries. (And, yes, I guess it does sound familiar, but Cotton operates in our present time.) I should mention, to get everything on the table, that Steve's a friend. He's a prime example of a writer who watched novel after novel get rejected before he broke through a few years ago. Now he routinely makes best seller lists.
I still have books my parents got for me in the 50's that I haven't yet finished. Henrik Ibsen, J. M. Barrie, Joseph Conrad's Tales of the East and West, Voltaire, collections of plays. I've been walking around for years with the impression that I read The Decline and Fall when I was in the Navy. Recently, looking at it more closely, I discovered I hadn't read it at all. Probably just wandered through it. Anyhow, there are more titles than I can hope to get to in a lifetime. The earliest volumes I can remember, which I unfortunately no longer have, was a series of Red Ryder books, and Joyce of the Secret Squadron. (I loved Captain Midnight. And there's another false memory: I have the impression I flew a series of missions with him in 1943.)
With that in mind, I asked Maureen to avoid getting me any new books this year. So this became, probably, the first Christmas since the early years of WWII that no books showed up for me under our tree. Maureen did reach back a bit though, and produced two guilty pleasures from that earlier age: A 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, which we started Sunday night, depicting a 19th century railroad station; and a collection of Shadow broadcasts. I have a daily workout routine, and the radio shows are ideal for providing a distraction.
I had told everyone involved that I would absolutely, positively, not write a novel in 2009. There was no way I was going to do it. Now, in the final days of 2008, I came to realize there's something to be said for not closing doors too tightly. The fact is that I've caught my breath, and the thought of sitting on the front deck for a year watching the grass grow has become something less than inviting. So I've committed to do another novel. Not sure yet precisely which way it'll go. One idea would involve Hutch at the very beginning of her career. I even have a prospective title: Maiden Voyage.
Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis and Pete Worden will be at NASA's Ames Research Facility in mid-January to discuss their vision for a Singularity University. I've been invited. Will take my notebook along.
Journal Entry #33
January 16, 2009
I've been struggling over the past few weeks, trying to come up with a concept for the novel that will appear in 2010. For me, it is easily the most difficult part of the process. Give me a reasonable idea for a narrative, and the novel will write itself. What's a reasonable idea? If, say, it's an Alex Benedict novel, then I want a mystery and a reasonable solution. The mystery should not be the sort of thing one finds in many whodunits, i.e., who's the murderer? Rather, it should grow from a seemingly inexplicable event. How do seven people vanish out of a starship in flight? In a place where no planetary surface is available, and no aliens are in the picture. Where the solution is reasonable. Give me that and the rest is, well, I won't say easy, but the brute work is done.
Years ago, I was at a con, and was assigned to a panel on something or other. One of my colleagues was asked about concept. How do you come up with an idea for a story? 'It's easy.' he said. 'I have more ideas than I'll ever be able to use in a lifetime.' And I thought, sure. One idea is that there's a vampire in the penthouse. And another one is that there's a vampire in the laundry room. And another in the boss's dining room.
Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm the slow kid on the block.
Anyhow, that's what I've been wrestling with since mid-December, or maybe a bit earlier. Once I'd decided I didn't really want to spend the year rocking back and forth on the deck, the heavy lifting began. I got so much pleasure out of writing Time Travelers Never Die, that I considered doing a sequel. (Usually, in time travel narratives, major consequences hang over the action. Unless we intervene, Dr. Pashkin will buy artwork from the young Hitler in an attempt to stave off World War II. What will really happen is that a happy Hitler will indeed not bother going into politics. But somebody smarter will take his place, will not invade the USSR, and the world in 1945 will be divided between the voctorious Nazis and Joe Stalin.) I thought something more homey, and less desperate, would constitute a nice change of pace. Maybe the time traveklers are looking for Uncle Henry, who made off with one of the converters, but he has the keys to the car so they have to find him.
Well, maybe not.
The problem with any time travel novel is that if you can move through time, you can do pretty much anything. E.g., we can go back an hour or so and intercept Uncle Henry before he can leave. Do you need a fourth for bridge? You make up your mind that tomorrow morning you'll use your capability to return to that evening to provide the missing partner. Consequently, you show up, and you have your fourth. That means, of course, there will be two of you in the game, but no harm is done.
I also had been thinking about doing a novel in which we watch a 22-year old Priscilla Hutchins make the decisions that will take her away from the Joint Chiefs (for whom she plays the drums) and put her on a path for the stars. Then there were suggestions from some readers that a follow-up novel to Cauldron is called for. And another idea suggested by Alfred University's David DeGraff while replying to a question: The curious business of the near-miss by an asteroid that no one saw coming, followed a few days later by a sizable rock that does fall into the Pacific, followed in the folloeing weeks by still more debris in the sky. What's going on? I like the idea and wouldn't be surprised if it shows up in 2011.
In the meantime, I finally settled on the concept I had originally set for the young Hutch. Can't go into the details, other than that I couldn't make it work. Until I realized that if I divorced the Academy from it, it was the perfect setup for Chase & Alex.
Journal Entry #34
January 31, 2009
I attended an inauguration bash Tuesday evening, January 20. It was held at a comfortable place called the Oyster Shak in Brunswick, GA. A couple of bands showed up, and about forty supporters, campaign workers, volunteers of all sorts, and a few people who just wanted to join the party. Parties don't last long, though. The notion of pulling Republicans and Democrats together seems not to be gaining traction, even though it's clear the voters would like the nonsense to stop. I was surprised that Limbaugh told his radio audience that he hopes the president will fail. I suppose you can take that position when you're making millions and not dependent on your job at the local furniture store. Had someone made that comment about Mr. Bush when he was in office, he would have been branded a traitor.
Recently, two novels have caught my attention: Blasphemy by Douglas Preston, and Mike Resnick's Starship: Rebel, the fourth book featuring the adventures of Wilson Cole, who gets in trouble with the military of his interstellar age by putting integrity before other considerations. (I should, in the interests of disclosure, reveal that I'm a friend of Mike's, and consequently not especially objective. Nevertheless, his work rouses the enthusiasm of a lot of people who don't share a personal connection.) Cole has friends, and ultimately collects ships, and makes his way as best he can, while the Republic puts a price on his head. And sure, we can see where this is going. But it's a magnificent ride. I recommend all four books that have appeared in the series so far. Best is to start with Starship Mutiny.
Like the books of Mike's series, Blasphemy is hard to put down. A group of scientists are trying to get the world's biggest supercollider up and running. It's on Navajo land, and the locals are unhappy. In addition, a rightwing televangelist has gone after them, accusing the government of using tax money to fund an attempt to disprove Genesis. In addition, the scientists are getting disconcerting results from the machine, cozily named Isabella. Something deep and mysterious is going on. Had I discovered the book earlier, I'd have recommended it for the Nebula. It's not marketed as SF, by the way. I came across it in a super market.
Maureen and I will be at a Super Bowl party tomorrow evening, given by local author/agent Holly McClure. Monday morning, I'm going over to the St Simons elementary school to help kick off the I Love to Read Dr. Seuss project. I'll be reading Hooray for Diffendoofer Day to the fifth grade. And please don't ask me. I have no idea either. I bought a copy of the book yesterday. My wife has warned me that Dr. Seuss does interesting things with language, and that if I want to do a creditable job, I'd better invest some time.
I was pleased to see that Cauldron made the preliminary Nebula ballot, along with nine other titles. The complete ballot can be seen at the SFWA website, www.sfwa,org. It's an excuse to go out and celebrate. Maureen and I have gotten into the habit of celebrating on the least excuse. Sometimes the cause is as simple as getting all the yard debris picked up and put out for the collectors, sometimes it's more important, like having the Phillies win the Series. (With regrets to readers in Tampa. But it just doesn't happen for us very often. Twice, as a matter of fact, in more than a century. My father was a faithful fan from the time he was about four, and he never saw them win.) Something else we celebrated recently: For two weeks I'd been working on the 2010 novel, which will feature Alex Benedict. I've always found it hard to work until I have a a title. And I could not come up with one. The working title was The Temple of Light. But that never felt right. (Not to mention that it sounded like something from the Indiana Jones archive.) Best I had for a while was An Asteroid Named Louie. Then the other morning I woke up with it. So of course we went out and celebrated. I recommend frequent celebrations for everybody. They're good for your blood pressure.
Oh. The title? Sanctum.
February 16, 2009
Recently, Marshal Zeringue invited me to describe what I was currently reading for his blog.
For anyone who’s interested, the link: http://americareads.blogspot.com:80/2009/02/what-is-jack-mcdevitt-reading.html.
Readers frequently ask whether I’m pessimistic a
bout the existence of aliens. And that’s often the adjective that’s used: pessimistic. I’ve never quite understood the enthusiasm for finding Martians. (Well, actually I have, but I don’t believe we’ve thought things out very well.) If we find anyone out there, the odds are quite good they will be technologically far superior to us. It’s hard not to conclude that the emptier the cosmos is, the safer it is.
I grew up with Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Startling Stories. Aliens everywhere. Venusians, Martians, Jovians, Neptunians. You couldn’t set down anywhere without finding natives with large snorkels. Then we got a closeup of another planet --I’ll never forget that first glimpse of the Martian landscape during what I’ve begun to think of as the Space Age-- and saw how bleak it was.
So okay. We figured out that you had to be orbiting in the biozone to produce life. The prospect for that other civilization moved to Alpha Centauri. But SETI was becoming a major player. By now we’ve been listening for more than half a century and hearing nothing more than our own heartbeat. I know what the explanations for this might be. But I‘ve always subscribed to Occam‘s idea that the simplest solution is probably the correct one.
It might be that life does not get started as easily as we’ve assumed. (We still don’t know how it happened.) Or it might be that shortly after you get electric lighting, you blow the place up. If it turns out we aren’t going to hear anything but echoes, these are the likeliest explanations.
We don’t like the idea. I’ve watched audiences get upset when I’ve suggested it. Called my imagination into question. Suggested I was a killjoy. But I wonder whether our instincts for romance and adventure don’t sometimes lead us a bit astray. And maybe never more than here.
Journal Entry #36
March 4, 2009
The Wayne County Library, situated in Jesup, GA, invited me to participate in a NASA-sponsored exhibition celebrating the rise of science. I was out there last night. We talked a bit about the early Greeks calculating the size of the Earth by measuring shadows cast by identical sticks at high noon several hundred miles apart. They did a lot more, of course. I wonder where we’d be now had the Hellenic version of civilization survived.
Primarily we talked about the future, especially the effects life extension might have, and genetic manipulation. Generally everyone agrees that preventing birth defects, if we’re able to do that, creates no ethical problem. But what about making people better looking? Or increasing their IQ? What if we find a happiness gene and acquire the capability to create personalities that are always happy? Would you want that for your child?
(Imagine yourself married to someone who is always, relentlessly, happy.)
(A note from the editor: Jack's wife ,of course, is always happy. This has not proven to be a handicap.)
I started Barbara Tuchman’s THE GUNS OF AUGUST this morning. It has become my stationary bike book. I’ve discovered how to read while peddling. And having a good book to look forward to makes doing the routine so much easier.
A reader, Mike Poole, was interested in my comment concerning Douglas Preston’s novel BLASPHEMY. He recommends THE CABINET OF CURIOSITIEs, coauthored by Preston and Lincoln Child.
Like everyone else, I’ve been watching the bailouts with interest. It’s the first time I can recall not having an opinion other than one based on trusting the proponents. (Economics always put me to sleep, so it comes down to a matter of whom I believe.) It’s hard to get away from the sense that the Republicans who are outraged about wasting money never batted an eye when Bush was taking the country into a war that he could not explain, but which cost lives and treasure in immense quantities. I kept thinking about JFK who, when we confronted the Russians over Cuba, went before the nation and showed photos of missiles in place, and talked about the consequences of inaction. GWB, on the other hand, wanted us to trust him. And bin Laden, when Bush started diverting troops, was still in Afghanistan. So, in my mind, the people who supported the administration have no credibility.
Subterranean’s ’best-of’ collection, CRYPTIC, arrived a few days ago. I’m not objective, of course, but it’s a pretty nice package.
We’ve lived in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, on the Canadian border in North Dakota, and in Chicago. (The weather in Chicago, after North Dakota, seemed downright balmy.) Today we are in South Georgia, just north of the Florida line. And for the first time we have a house with a fire place. Our heating system gave out the other day, during what passes locally for a cold snap. So we’ve made good use of it.
As of last week, each of my last five novels had made the final Nebula ballot. Thursday we got word that CAULDRON had become the sixth. Maureen and I went out and celebrated. It’s always a high.
April 1, 2009
Maureen and I visited the Ponte Vedra, FL, Library last evening. I’d been invited to talk about The Devil’s Eye, but we roamed pretty far afield, getting into how gravity works and why science fiction can be such a turn-on and whether you‘d opt to have a child with an IQ half again as high as yours if you had the opportunity. We even talked about Frasier, which is probably my favorite TV show. Vic DiGenti, a writer who heads up the local Friends of the Library, was our host. The library is just outside Jacksonville, on one of the barrier islands, the kind of place where I always thought I’d like to retire.
Norman Spinrad’s book column in the April/May Asimov’s is a particularly poignant one. Ostensibly, it’s a review of Thoman Disch’s new book, The Word of God, (Tachyon). In reality it’s a summation of sorts, an attempt to make sense of the closing years of Disch’s life, and of his suicide on July 4, 2008. That Norman counted him among his friends, and was forced to watch from a distance as Disch went into a death spiral, is particularly painful. In addition, it becomes clear that one cannot hope to understand what happened without also grasping the state of science fiction publishing today.
Newly discovered old movies: Like pretty much everyone else, I’ve probably seen “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande” several times. Somehow, we’d missed “Fort Apache,“ the first film in the John Ford/John Wayne cavalry trilogy. We watched it Sunday. Magnificent.
Several copies of the Easton Press leatherbound edition of The Devil’s Eye arrived a week or so ago. The frontispiece by Carol Heyer captures the overall mood effectively, and presents the first attempt by anyone (I think) to show us what Chase Kolpath looks like.
Have been working on the copy edit of Time Travelers Never Die. The copy editors are Sara and Bob Schwager. Interesting coincidence: At one point, Adrian Shelbrook takes his father Michael, a lifelong Phillies fan, to Ebbets Field on October 3, 1950, to watch Dick Sisler hit his tenth inning three-run homer to give the Whiz Kids the pennant. Bob informs me he was present at the game, rooting for the Dodgers. It was, he adds, a heartbreaker.
Off to ICON on Long Island this weekend. Details for any who are interested at their website.
Journal Entry #39
April 15, 2009
Another birthday yesterday. I remember when Jack Benny turned 39. (That actually happened. They did a show, back in the forties, I believe, when they celebrated the birthday. His age --38-- had by then been a running gag for a long time, and someone asked him how it felt to be 39. ’I’ll get used to it,’ he said, ’after a few years.’)
I’m currently working on the copy-edit for Time Travelers Never Die. The copy edit is what remains after the copy editor’s input. I take a final run through the manuscript. This one has been more difficult to get right than anything else I’ve done, not least because of the sequential stuff. I don’t want to spoil anything for anybody, so I won’t go into it here. But anybody who reads it will see what I mean.
Incidentally, readers have asked questions about the relationship with the 1996 Asimov’s novella of the same name. The novel uses the same setup and the same characters. But the rules are different. The novella postulates a universe in which you can change the past, but you get rifts in space and time if you do. In the novel, the past is immutable. That doesn’t mean you can’t have an impact; but you can’t do anything that changes what we know to be true. Can’t save JFK. Can’t shoot your 8-year-old grandfather. If you try, bad things happen to prevent it. (Think heart attacks, etc.) You can make your presence felt, however, as long as you don’t create a loop or a contradiction. If you go back to watch the signing of the Magna Charta, you were always there. There was never a signing ceremony at which you were not present. (One of the time travelers, e.g., suggests to H.G. Wells that he might write a novel about time machines.)
The critical thing, though, is that the novel heads in a completely different direction. And the outcome is different. I’m not sure that wasn’t cheating. In the past, when I’ve used short fiction as a take-off point to launch a novel, as with, say, “Dutchman,“ (which set up A Talent for War) or “Melville on Iapetus,“ (The Engines of God), I’ve kept it consistent. I started to do that with TTND, but I just couldn’t pass on some of the ideas that showed up. And in the end I decided to go with my instincts. Which, by the way, is what we always tell people in writing workshops when they’re wondering whether they should do this or that. Trust your instincts. I should add that I‘ve never gotten so much pure pleasure out of writing a novel.
One of the effects: Yesterday, one of the sections I looked at dealt with a conversation between Dave and Shel --my time travelers-- and Tom Paine.
Last evening I found myself reading “The Age of Reason.”
I’m headed for Ravencon, in Richmond, the weekend of the 24th. If you plan to be at the con, please stop by and say hello.
JOURNAL ENTRY #40
May 1, 2009
Maureen and I attended Ravencon last weekend. One panel I particularly enjoyed serving on was Ten Books You’d Save for Your Child. This with the intention of providing an introduction to science fiction. The panel was moderated by Valerie Griswold-Ford, and included Maggie Stiefvater, Amy Sturgis, and Larry Hodges.
SF seems to me to work best at short length. I’m not entirely sure why that is. It may be that the scientific aspect, the discovery that someone has a basketball that gains energy with each bounce instead of losing it, or that there’s a hyperdense moon orbiting Mars six feet off the ground --Look out, Louie, here it comes again-- provides an impact that can’t be stretched across 100,000 words. The SF that stays with me most clearly is inevitably the great short stories. Arthur Clarke’s “The Star.” Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth.” Bradbury’s “Mars Is Heaven” and “Kaleidoscope.” Asimov‘s “Nightfall.” A. J. Deutsch’s “A Subway Named Mobius.” Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life” and “The Holes Around Mars.” Theodore Sturgeon’s “To Serve Man.” Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon.” Murray Leinster’s “First Contact.” Walter Tevis’s “The Big Bounce.”
Those are off the top of my head. There are probably several dozen others before I’d get to the first novel.
Anyhow, my list of ten books for the kids, in no particular order:
Famous Science Fiction Stories edited by Raymond J. Healy & J. Francis McComas
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame edited by Robert Silverberg
The Martian Chronicles Ray Bradbury
The Midwich Cuckoos or Day of the Triffids or The Kraken Wakes John Wyndham
October the First Is Too Late or The Black Cloud Fred Hoyle
The Nine Billion Names of God Arthur Clarke
Alas, Babylon Pat Frank
Future History Robert Heinlein
A Princess of Mars Edgar Rice Burroughs
Rendezvous with Rama Arthur Clarke
A Princess of Mars doesn’t hold up as well for later reading, but it was my first SF novel, and opened the door to everything else. The story collections speak for themselves. Wyndham and Hoyle were pure magic. Pat Frank’s book arrived, of course, when we were ducking and covering, and it scared me. Under-the-bed scared.
I’d be inclined to think that Rama demands more maturity than a young teen can manage. Except that I keep getting surprised by young teens. It’s maybe a lesson for all of us who’ve been in the classroom: Kids can handle pretty advanced stuff, if we can convince them to give it an honest try, rather than forcing it on them. But that‘s another issue.
I should add that my all-time favorite SF TV hour is Harlan Ellison’s “City on the Edge of Forever” for Star Trek.
The difficult thing about this exercise is reaching beyond my own childhood to guess
--and it’s no more than that-- what books would appeal to kids growing up in the Third Millennium.
In the 1970’s, I was teaching an honors English class at Mt. St. Charles Academy in Woonsocket, RI. It was filled with sharp kids. I might mention a comment by Plato during a discussion of, say, the political dimension of fiction, and the following day someone would correct the quote, or point out that it had arisen in a different context.
One day I recommended everyone watch “Casablanca,” which would be on over the weekend. It was almost, but not quite, an assignment. I assumed they’d love it, as I always have. And maybe they did. But they informed me that the film was a bit slow. I was besieged for the next week with guys --the Mount was an all-boys’ school at the time--, besieged by guys walking around saying things like, “Sam, I thought I told you never to play that in here--.”
JOURNAL ENTRY #41
May 17, 2009
For me, and probably for most novelists, the most difficult aspect of writing a novel is putting together the first draft and making the pieces fit. I don’t think I’ve ever given my editors a proposal that ultimately looked anything like the final product. During the writing, the narrative comes alive, the characters tend to walk off in unplanned directions, and better ideas show up. If none of this happens, it would probably be best to junk the project and move on. But for reasons I can’t understand, everything becomes easier once you have a title.
I’ve been struggling with a fifth Alex Benedict novel, due for publication in November 2010. In Alex’s time, 10,000 years from now, the Orion Arm seems empty, save for the Ashiyyur and us. But there is always someone out there looking for another civilization, or signs that one existed. Among these true believers was Travis Esterbrook, who devoted his life to the Great Hunt. His friends and colleagues urge him to give it up. He’s only wasting his life. It’s useless. But he hangs in. Though ultimately, as the years pass, he gets discouraged. Eventually he gives up and retires. Ten years later he dies quietly.
Time passes, and he is forgotten. Until, a half-century later, Alex comes across evidence that he in fact DID find something. But what he found, and why he never said anything, remains a mystery. I’d been having problems putting the pieces together, and while I knew why he’d said nothing, I wasn’t sure how the climax should work. Moreover, as changes occurred in the text, the working title, Sanctum, didn’t fit. (I hadn’t liked it anyway.)
Yesterday, Maureen and I went out for dinner with friends, and spent the evening playing pinochle. Somehow, I came home knowing how the climax should read. And with the title in hand. It will be SIGNS OF LIFE.
Kevin Anderson sent me a copy of his new novel, ENEMIES AND ALLIES. It’s the first meeting of Batman and Superman, set back in the fifties. Doing a believable superhero narrative is not easy, but Kevin brings it off with elan. Among the book’s highlights: a party at Wayne Manor featuring lots of the personalities from the period.
I am probably giving my age away when I admit that I recall the first actual meeting between the two. It happened on the Superman radio show, circa 1945. They didn’t do nearly as good a job with it as Kevin does.
I’ve also gotten into David Sanger’s THE INHERITANCE. Sanger writes effectively and passionately about problems and missed opportunities from the Bush era, and where we might be going from here.
June 2, 2009
I’m just home from a tour of the upper Midwest. It included visits with Robert Dyke, whose film TIMEQUEST blew me away several years ago; with a noted neurologist who specializes in life extension; and with a high school history teacher who did more for me than he will ever realize.
I also stopped in Madison and joined an enthusiastic crowd for Wiscon. It’s probably the best-organized convention I’ve ever attended. I’ve been to cons on both coasts, everywhere between, and in Canada. The characteristic they all share: The same kind of people attend no matter where the con is being held. I always feel at home.
I served on four panels: Ask a Pro, How To Ensure Your Manuscript Gets Rejected, Working With Electronic Critics, and Have We Outgrown God?
The ‘Ask a Pro’ panel was all over the map, as you’d expect. We dealt with questions about submissions, and what sort of material publishers are looking for, and what the future looks like, and so on.
If you’re interested in blunders that prevent sales, check out the ‘Twelve Blunders’ comments elsewhere on this website. The critical thing to remember: The writer is NOT telling a story. When someone tells a story, everybody within earshot falls asleep. What the writer is really doing --or should be doing-- is creating an experience. The writer should arrange things so that the reader forgets he is in an armchair, and instead finds himself standing on a beach with the love of his life under a full moon. And when she tells him it’s over, he should feel the pain.
Electronic Critics dealt with a phenomenon I hadn’t even known existed prior to signing on for the con. Basically, it is now possible to join in online workshopping groups. Don’t know why I was surprised. Online operations are obviously the way the culture is going. In any case, we had a couple of writers experienced with the approach, and we discovered that workshopping is much the same whether the participants are spread across the country or seated around a table. The method when criticizing others is to be constructive, to look for what works as well as what doesn’t, and to be honest. It doesn’t do the writer any good if his partners are just jollying him along.
As to receiving criticism, in the end the writer has to decide whether the critic has it right. Keep in mind that it is the work, and not the writer, that is being criticized. Don’t get angry when you don’t hear what you want. If the criticism is valid, proceed accordingly. If you’ve a friend who has taste and will tell you the truth, he is the most valuable asset you can have. Take him to lunch. Better yet, marry him.
And finally, Have We Outgrown God? This panel, and the audience, were sharply divided. At least one panel member asserted he would assault God if he ran into Him on the road somewhere. (Not my view.) My own opinion, if anyone cares: As long as humans face death, they are going to need some assurance, or at least some hope, that it does not mean oblivion. That’s not to say organized religion necessarily will survive, although I suspect it will. But I’ve no doubt that when the crunch comes, people will always bow their heads and pray for help.
I was notified last week that SEEKER is on the short list for the SEIUN Award, which is the Japanese Hugo. The award will be made July 2 in Tokyo.
On the assumption that readers might like to see what covers have been designed for foreign editions, we’ll start posting some of them shortly.
June 16, 2009
I’m just back from the Science Fiction Research Assn conference in Atlanta. During the course of the weekend, I had a chance to hang out with the other writers at the evnt. That seldom happens at cons, where life tends to get busy to permit much leisure. When writers get together they tend to talk about current projects. When I mentioned that I was working on a new Alex Benedict novel to be titled Signs of Life, Kathleen Ann Goonan and Paul Di Filippo both recalled that there had been an earlier SF novel by that title. When I did a search, it turned out there’ve been a dozen or so books of different types, both fiction and nonfiction, with the title over the last twenty years. So that one’s gone.
I thought about using Breakfast with the Martians, in which ’Martians’ would refer to the various intelligent species that had never been found. But put that word on the cover and people will take a literal meaning from it. And of course there are no Martians in the book. So at the moment, the ship once again has no rudder. It’s remarkable how much easier it is to write a novel once the title is in hand.
One panel I’d particularly have liked to attend was What It Means To Be an SF Author in the English Department. It was chaired by Brett Cox, and included Warren Rochelle, Michael Bishop, and Andy Duncan. Unfortunately the schedule prevented me from going.
I had the opportunity to do a reading for WREK, the Georgia Tech radio station. I decided on a section from Time Travelers Never Die, in which Dave and Shel encounter Aldous Huxley while a young Dick Nixon plays the piano in a café in 1937 Durham.
We picked up a collection of ’Lights Out’ radio shows to provide entertainment while we traveled. The show had blown me away when I was seven years old. Some of the episodes still play quite well. I especially liked one from early 1941 in which a group of selfish Hollywood types find themselves in a chartered plane which freezes in midair while they try to take advantage of someone‘s death. Somebody has had enough. Arch Obeler, the director and probably one of the principal writers, was ahead of his time.
Journal Entry #44
July 1, 2009
’Tis the season for beach books. The following titles probably wouldn’t qualify if we apply the standard definition of an entertainment that works for the moment but requires no serious investment by the reader, and is rapidly forgotten.
These are books that, for whatever reason, broke me up. This is by no means a definitive group, but they were the ones that came immediately to mind when I thought about laugh-out-loud humor. They are in no particular order.
1. The Ring Lardner Reader, (Scribner’s, 1963)
Includes selections from You Know Me, Al, and Gullible’s Travels and a generous collection of stories, parodies, and essays. My favorite is “Haircut,” in which the viewpoint character has no idea what’s going on. I eventually adopted the technique for “Nothing Ever Happens in Rock City.”
2. Three-upmanship, Stephen Potter (Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1962)
The essential reference for those who want to stay a steo ahead of the crowd. Includes three books: Gamesmanship, “The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating”; Lifemanship, ”The Art of Getting Away With It Without Being an Absolute Plonk”; and One-gunmanship, which describes, among other topics, Universityship, M.D.manship, Businessmanship, Hands-across-the-seamanship, and the techniques of a Lifeman at a house party. The most memorable line: “If you’re not one up, you’re one down.”
3. Lake Wobegon Days, Garrison Keillor, (Viking, 1983)
Keillor struggles through life with the Sanctified Brethren, joins the Boy Scouts, becomes the kid nobody wants on his baseball team, hangs out at the Chatterbox Café, and shops at Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery.
4. Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays, 1852-1890, (Library of America, 1992)
We always have the kids read Huckleberry Finn, but Mark Twain is at his best when he’s just talking to the reader. (A second volume covers 1891-1910)
5. The Return of Hyman Kaplan, Leo Rosten (Harper, 1959)
Mr. Parkhill tries to make sense at the American Night Preparatory School for Adults, while confronting Mr. Kaplan, a genius at confusing issues; his loyal champion, Mr. Pinsky; Miss Mitnick, the reluctant voice of reason; Mrs. Moskowitz, who reacts to the outrageous with shocked oy’s; Gus Matsoukas, the magnificent Greek; and carmen Caravello, the Latin Valkyrie.
6. Alarms and Diversions, James Thurber, (Harper, 1957)
Short stories and essays by the laid-back humorist. Thurber’s characters and comedy are timeless. Among his “Ten Rules for a Happy Marriage”: “Don’t keep a blonde in the guest room.”
7. Selected Poetry of Ogden Nash (Little, Brown, 1995)
A doorstop collection of 650 hilarious bits of verse.
8. the lives and times of archy and mehitabel, Don Marquis (Doubleday, 1950)
Everything’s in lower case because Archy is a cockroach and can only write his material by jumping up and down on typewriter keys. Consequently he can’t get into upper case. Among other memorable pieces: Archy explains what happens when he and a butterfly are both trapped in an elevator with a half dozen people. OH look out for the poor thing, they cry, staying clear of the butterfly while they go after Archy. And then there’s the time they dropped the body of Freddie the Rat off the fire escape with full military honors. Mehitabel is a cat. “I’ll tell you, Archy, if anything happened to one of my kittens and I found out about it, I’d feel just terrible.”
9. More Guys and Dolls, Damon Runyon (Garden City, 1951)
Chesty Charles, Mike the Mugger, and Mindy’s, “where you can wrap your lip around as nice a piece of gefullte fish as you will find anywhere in town.”
10. Candide and Other Writings, Voltaire (Modern Library, 1956)
Voltaire doesn’t usually qualify as a humorist, but nobody excels his ability to ridicule the ridiculous. From the notion, in Candide, that we live in the best of all possible worlds, to the diabolical visitations reported in “Of Punishments,” he provokes laughter and sadness. Makes me simultaneously glad and embarrassed to be human. Voltaire, by the way, will show up in November in Time Travelers Never Die.
July 16, 2009
I was sorry to hear of the death of Charlie Brown, editor and publisher of Locus, the premier science fiction trade journal. He was a friend, and I’ll miss him. His influence over the field was substantial. Everyone who cares about quality SF has benefited from his presence. He was an enthusiastic fan as well as a talented editor. He participated in some of the Readercon panels this past weekend. It‘s probably the way he would have preferred to spend his last days. Those of us who knew Charlie will never forget him.
For anyone who’s interested in an informal history of science fiction, the inside story, you probably cannot do better than Barry Malzberg’s Breakfast in the Ruins, Baen Books, 2007. I finally caught up with it (after years of intending to read its earlier version, Engines of the Night). It’s an emotional, powerful book. When I was growing up, reading Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder and Galaxy, I wouldn’t have believed the writers weren’t living in luxurious houses on Cape Cod. (I should mention here that I was late discovering Astounding. Not sure why that was. It might be that Steve’s, where I bought my monthly gold, didn’t carry it.) Anyhow, Barry points out that there were a lot of problems, but we nevertheless got some extraordinary science fiction. We may have been lucky.
President Obama spoke with the Pope last week. Both men professed themselves concerned about poverty in the world. There was apparently talk about how to divert resources to those in need. But if they talked in private about the real problem, no public reference to it was made. World population is at six billion and climbing. It’s already well past the numbers this world can support. Nothing we try to do, about climate change, or a decent life style for everybody, or saving endangered species, will have any long-term effect unless we get population growth under control. Unfortunately, it won’t happen as long as major religions continue to argue that there’s something immoral about artificial contraception. It’s not surprising that the subject never even got mentioned in the recent presidential election. Not by either candidate. I guess it’s the new third rail.
Kevin J. Anderson’s fans will be interested to know that Kevin, having completed his Saga of the Seven Suns, has embarked in a new direction: Sea-going fantasy. The Edge of the World is just out from Orbit. It’s billed as Part One of Terra Incognita. It contains a goodly portion of Kevin’s trademark political and military conflict, mixed with sea monsters and unknown country. Another good ride from the master.
Rob Sawyer has been turning out a series of strong titles in recent years. Rollback, Wake, and Hominids, among others, have done extraordinarily well, and earned Rob a reputation as one of the best in the field. Flash Forward asks how we might be affected if we could get a glimpse of where we might be twenty years in the future. It will be arriving as a 13-part series on ABC TV Thursday September 24.
JOURNAL ENTRY #46
July 31, 2009
Hank Klibanoff visited St Simons Island a few days ago. Hank and Gene Roberts collaborated on the 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner, The Race Beat. The subtitle is: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation. He drew a substantial crowd, took us back to the fifties and sixties, described the courage of individual Southern editors like Hodding Carter, Jr. of the Delta Democrat Times, and the inclination of most to support the segregationists or simply stay away from the fire. He left us very quiet at the end.
I knew a young woman, Joyce Barrett of Fellowship Farm in the Philadelphia area, who participated in the marches and demonstrations during the period. I never knew anyone more courageous than she was. I was an English teacher at the time, and she came to talk to, and inspire, my classes.
I can also recall visiting one of the radio stations with her. I sat quietly at her side while she was interviewed by the host. At one point, during a commercial break, she made for a washroom, and the host told me he’d be back in a minute. He got delayed, and I found myself in front of a live mike, alone, with the guy behind the glass telling me to just say something. Keep it going until ‘Hal’ gets back. Right. What‘s my name again?
I’m halfway through The Race Beat. It’s a powerhouse.
There’s finally a title for the 2010 Alex Benedict novel. And maybe a lesson for anyone trying to come up with a title for a piece of fiction using boats, starships, or other vehicles that traditionally get names. The novel deals with an explorer who spent a lifetime looking for signs of another civilization, found nothing, and eventually retired. And died. Thirty years later, there’s evidence that he did indeed find something. But against all common sense, he seems to have kept it quiet. We were talking about the long frustrating pursuit of a title at lunch one day, and a friend suggested the book be named after the explorer’s starship. At that point, it didn’t have a name. Which made it easy. Find a noun with some kick, with a connection, and go with it. At this point in human history, in the twelfth millennium, we’ve only discovered one race of aliens. The explorer believes that finding another will cause a major upset in social perspective, which assumes we and the other race, the Mutes, are effectively alone.
Galileo upset the culture of his time when he looked through a telescope and discovered that Jupiter had four moons. The names of three of the moons don’t have much panache, but one does. So the title becomes Callisto.
I answered some questions for Tim O’Shea earlier this week. The interview has been posted, and a link is available on the Events and Publications page.
We’ll be traveling to South Jersey next month for a wedding. To help pass the time, I bought a few of my favorite old radio shows. The set I was especially happy to get is a Jean Shepherd collection. Unfortunately, today most people only know of Shepherd through his connection with the film A Christmas Story. The reality is that he did a radio show for WOR in New York in the fifties and sixties that was brilliant. And I was not surprised, when we listened to the first disk recently, to discover that he holds up perfectly. He’s everything I remember, and I wish he were still around.
August 15, 2009
A few weeks ago, I was invited to contribute a foreword to Paradise Regained, by Les Johnson, C. Bangs, and Gregory Matloff. The book describes some of the problems currently facing us, climate change, energy depletion, and so on. It proceeds to outline how, instead of cutting back everywhere, we might be able to use advanced technology, some of which is coming, much already available, to arrive at some solutions. The authors make a strong case that we can come out of our current dilemmas in good condition provided we have the will and some imagination. Let’s hope.
I was reminded of all this by Graeme Wood’s article, “Moving Heaven and Earth,” in the July-August Atlantic. The article and the book are both well worth our time, and should be required reading for politicians. Paradise Regained will be released by Springer in the fall. To read more about the book, go to www.lesjohnsonauthor.com/paradise regained.
The Atlantic ran an article on a different subject in its Jan-Feb issue that also caught my attention. In “The Founders’ Great Mistake,“ Garrett Epps points out that the framers of the Constitution were trying to do something no one had ever attempted before: Create a functioning executive without giving away dictatorial powers. Epps argues that they got it wrong. They were too vague about his powers, and consequently we have no real way to rein in a president except by impeachment. Which, if the party controlling Congress is also the president’s party, is less likely to happen. Among the author’s solutions: Delineate what he may and may not do, as, e.g., war making. Get rid of the electoral college, and let the president be elected by a straight vote. (Theoretically, the current system allows for the possibility that a candidate could lose by hundreds of thousands of votes and still win the election.)
Later this afternoon, I’ll be going to St Simons Island for the Scribblers’ Retreat Writers’ Conference. We’ll be talking about how to guarantee that our fiction doesn’t get published.
The first issue in a seminar of this type is: What is a writer trying to do? The answer that comes from the participants inevitably is: Tell a story. The truth, of course, is that if you’re at a party and somebody starts telling a story, you generally try to drift away. The object for a fiction writer is to create an experience. To arrange things so that the reader forgets (s)he is home in a chair, and instead finds himself out on the beach with someone with whom he has fallen in love. And that when that person says goodbye, I’m done, the reader’s heart is broken. (Sorry about that, but that’s the goal.) That when the wind blows in from those April fields, you can smell the honeysuckle.
It’s why you don’t tell the reader what happened. You put the characters on stage and let the action play out.
There’s a nationwide program called The Big Read, which invites communities to read a common book, and then get together to discuss it. We did Fahrenhiet 451 a couple of years ago. I participated as a moderator, although my preference would have been The Martian Chronicles. Anyhow, they invited me back. We’ll be doing a Poe collection. I’ve just finished reading seven or eight of his stories over the last few evenings. I’ll probably have more to say later. But for the moment: He’s not a writer to be taken straight. You have to mix in some Garrison Keillor or Mark Twain or Mike Resnick or something. Otherwise you start hearing strange sounds in the attic.
JOURNAL ENTRY #48
September 1, 2009
We were in South Jersey several days ago for the wedding of a niece. During the course of the weekend, we succeeded in getting lost three times. I guess it’s time to invest in a GPS. I’m beginning to feel like the uncle who once told us, in 1949, that TV was only a fad. ’Stick with that console radio, guys. It’s coming back.’
We drove, and, to pass the time, took along some radio programs. The Lone Ranger. The Green Hornet. Lights Out. (This latter was a series, written and directed by Arch Obeler, that played in the late thirties and early forties. They always warned you that if you get scared easily, you should switch to something else. I was about eight during the latter years of the show, and I remember it fondly. Though I might have been listening from under the bed.)
And, finally, Jean Shepherd. I mentioned him in the July 31 entry. He was, for my money, the best performer ever on radio. Pretty much forgotten now. But he holds up beautifully. One of the most memorable compliments I ever got came during my years as an English teacher, from a librarian at Woodrow Wilson High School, in Levittown, PA. She told me that she’d been outside the door during one of my classes, and that I sounded like Jean Shepherd.
Readers ask regularly whether Cauldron will be the final Academy novel. The answer to that is that I don’t know. And I hope that clears up the issue. I’ve never been good at planning ahead. My horizon always tends to end with the book I’m currently working on. Beyond that, I don’t have a clue. If I ever deliver a trilogy, my advice would be to stay clear of it. I’ll finish the 2010 novel in a few weeks, take some time off, and then begin thinking about whatever follows. At the moment, it could be anything. I might do something that depicts how Hutch became a pilot. (She originally played drums for a band called the Joint Chiefs.) Or maybe there’ll be a follow-up to Time Travelers Never Die, which provided the best time I’ve ever had while writing a novel. Or maybe what happens when we get the longevity breakthrough and someone informs the president that people are going to stop dying. And what was that again about social security?
I’ve been doing a daily workout routine for almost twenty years. Recently, I discovered I can ride the stationary bike and read at the same time. Yesterday, on the bike, I finished Barbara Tuchmann’s 1963 Pulitzer prize winner, The Guns of August. It’s a history of the first month of World War I. The overriding lesson: Hundreds of thousands of people were killed due to sheer stupidity at the top. You can’t even find a reason for the war. At least not one that makes any sense. Anyhow, today I’ll be starting Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars, an account of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden.
It fits nicely with the current news reports that some of our top people in Afghanistan say it’s hopeless, and we should get out. The whole thing is mind-numbing. I was under the impression we went into Afghanistan to get Bin Laden. We had him at one point, and then turned the effort over to local tribesmen, who can be bought. But we needed, for some reason, to invade Iraq. Hard to believe that, after Hitler’s experience in World War II, there were still some national leaders who hadn’t gotten the point about two-front wars.
Mike Resnick invited me to write an introduction for Blasphemy, a collection which will be released in 2010. The date is not yet certain. The book, which obviously has a religious theme, includes two novels, Walpurgis III (in which the action takes place on a world reserved for devil-worshippers), and The Branch. The latter gives us a latter-day messiah who’s closer to what had been anticipated: Someone to lead the chosen people in a war against their enemies. There are also five short stories. The content is typical Resnick, which is to say, engrossing.
One final item, which I’m embarrassed to report. I’ve jettisoned Callisto as the title for the 2010 Alex Benedict novel. The main reason: I can’t remember it. A secondary reason: It has no kick. The real action in the book takes place around a star that has no name, only a catalog number. But the World’s End Touring Company needed something better, so they adopted Harbinger. The title was sitting there all along, staring me in the face.
JOURNAL ENTRY 49
September 17, 2009
As I write this, the news media are caught up with the South Carolina congressman who screamed ‘You Lie’ at the President a few days ago. Athena Andreadis is an author and a teacher. She came to the United States 35 years ago to attend Harvard. And stayed. In her blog at http://www.starshipnivan.com/blog/?p=797 she comments on changes she’s seen during that time.
Her comments got me thinking about our unfortunate tendency to operate out of tribal instincts. And how much sheer stupidity there is out there. The unfortunate truth is that parents --and I’m one, so I plead guilty also-- don’t necessarily want the best for their kids. What we really want is that they should be like us. The same is true of teachers, clergy, and other authority figures. The result: Too many people simply accept what their peer group accepts. Easier that way: You don’t have to think about it. And the result is that you see people every day determined to fight their own best interests.
When we’re six years old, we trust what adults say. We buy in. Moreover, we want to belong. So we go along with the group, and we never stop. It doesn’t matter whether the group is a bunch of Atlanta Falcons fans, the local VFW, the Republicans, or, possibly, a lynch mob. We not only fail to think about what’s happening, but we are inclined by nature to go along. So we support actions the group takes that we would not consider doing ourselves. Should we bomb Baghdad? Okay. One thinks of German citizens turning in their Jewish neighbors to the Nazis.
I’d like very much to see us, as a society, concentrate on teaching kids how important it is for them to think for themselves. To challenge what they hear from the rest of us. I don’t recall who commented that the ’unexamined life is not worth living,’ but watching some of these people scream on my TV suggests a lot of them are sufering from exactly that malady.
On another national subject, our area made the network news last week when eight people were found murdered inside their home at a trailer park a short distance away. I’ve wrestled with capital punishment --am I for it or against it?-- for a long time, and I have to concede that the mere fact that innocent people have been convicted of capital crimes makes clear we should do away with it. But periodically, we see a crime so horrendous that we really want to see the maximum penalty imposed. The trailer murders. The murders of students recently at Yale and Wesleyan. The sniper who was running around the D.C. area a few years ago.
Nonetheless, I’ve generally felt that capital punishment should be reserved, if it’s to be used at all, for those who kill law enforcement officers in the performance of their duty, or who kill kidnap victims.
I mentioned Steve Coll’s The Ghost Wars two weeks ago. I recommend it highly for anyone who’d like a comprehensive look behind the headlines. Am starting Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles S. Pierce, and John Dewey kick around the great ideas.
Maureen and I are off to Huntsville, AL, this weekend for Con*Stellation. If you are in the neighborhood, please come by and say hello.
Journal Entry #50
October 1, 2009
I finally completed, yesterday, what should be a rational draft of Harbinger. Maureen’s reading it now to see whether it makes sense. In case it doesn’t we celebrated last evening down at the pier. Maureen’s reading is always the critical point in a novel.
You can’t trust yourself. I missed opportunities to give the original version of The Hercules Text considerably more juice. (I rewrote it several years later.) I’d written ninety percent of my second novel, A Talent for War, before realizing it didn’t have the emotional kick I’d anticipated. As originally conceived, it was a straightforward recounting of the experience of Christopher Sim during wartime.
It was okay, I suspected, but there was a much more interesting story to tell. Or, to be more exact, there was a much more interesting way to tell the story. What happens if, instead of doing everything through Sim’s eyes, I go forward a couple of centuries and have an historian try to figure out what had really happened? The more I thought about it, the better the idea seemed. And, fortunately, I didn’t have to toss everything. Still, I had to unload about 60,000 words. But, I thought, not a historian. That was too obvious, and maybe too academic. An archeologist, maybe. But no, not with Indiana Jones running loose out there. I needed someone from a quieter profession. Say, an antique dealer. Which is how Alex Benedict arrived on the scene.
Originally, I had no inclination to revisit Alex and Chase. But I kept thinking about futuristic mysteries. Half a dozen people disappear out of a starship. They’ve apparently no place to go. And no visible way it could be accomplished. That became Polaris, and I could see no point in inventing another detective when Alex and Chase were handy. Readers seemed to like the characters, and I’ve always enjoyed a good mystery, so they will appear next year in their sixth incarnation. A lesson here, by the way, for anybody who wants to write novels: The project will probably take about a year to do. You don’t get much time off. So you’ll find it much easier to manage if you enjoy what you’re writing.
Maureen and I had a good time at Con*Stellation in Huntsville last weekend. Guests included GoH David Weber, artist GoH John Picacio, Fan GoH Gary Shelton, Lou Anders, David Drake, Eric Flint, Les Johnson, Travis Taylor, and Toni Weisskopf.
The most interesting panel was a two-hour make-up-your-own topic called “The Pirates Stole My Topic.“ It developed into a discussion on the effects of religion, negative and positive, with a ton of audience participation. I’m not sure we arrived at any conclusions, but SF con panels are the only places I’ve ever been where you can do a free-wheeling religious discussion and keep it civil.
Also present at Con*Stellation was Jeff Ugly Shoes and the Cemetery Surfers. Didn‘t get a chance to listen to them --I‘ve never been busier at a con--, but I understand they put on a sharp performance.
On our way to Huntsville, we’d left a car in Savannah to get serviced. Consequently we had to leave early in order to be able to pick it up on the way home so as not to have to make the 140-mile round trip to the dealer next day. We bailed out of the hotel at 3:30 a.m. local time. The route home took us along I-20 toward Atlanta. We drove through heavy, and occasionally torrential, rainfall. We picked up the car and got home okay. But I-20 flooded shortly after we passed over it.
Got to be a lesson there somewhere.
Journal Entry #51
October 15, 2009
My 2010 Alex Benedict novel is due in November. In looking at the second draft, Maureen and I discovered some areas where the logic gave way. But most painful of all were a series of missed opportunities. In the biggest of these, there’s a breakdown in the relationship between Chase and Alex. And I was literally stunned at how I’d mismanaged it. I spent yesterday and today not simply rewriting the critical sections. That wouldn’t have been enough. I started from scratch.
There are times when you can slide into automatic and not realize it. That’s what happened here. It’s why you need someone to look at an early version of the novel and alert you if things have gone astray. There are other sections of the novel which also needed serious work. Having to fix things isn’t uncommon. But the lack of imagination in some of the key sequences surprised me. Fortunately, we caught it early.
My experience has always been that the first draft is unintelligible. Nobody gets to see it, not even Maureen. The second draft should put all the pieces in place, so my wife’s job is not to look for grammatical breakdowns or bad spelling or any of that. That’s the easy part. She’s charged with determining whether the narrative makes sense, whether the book’s engine has enough drive, whether the characters live.
The third draft is normally the one in which the thing takes on a professional aspect. It’s where sentences get shortened, made more compact. Where more concrete gets added. (Think in terms of making sure the reader knows where he is, that he can feel the heat from the fireplace, hear the rain on the roof, watch a gull sail in over the trees. It doesn’t take much, just enough to provide a sense of place. Put a couple of books on a shelf, and place a certificate of achievement on the wall, add a mahogany desk, and the reader does the rest.)
Usually I need four drafts. But that may not be enough. It won’t be in this case. A number of years ago, when I was working on Omega, I lost count after passing fifteen. And that is not an exaggeration.
Another problem developed when I discovered that four different novels over the past few years, and one game, carried the name Harbinger. That meant, of course, I had to change the title again. The new one, the final one, I sincerely hope, has shown up at last. It will be Echo.
By the way, when I was teaching, students often complained about description in novels. Who cares if it’s snowing? Or if the wallpaper is yellow?
I’ve done a number of fiction workshops, and when I ask what the writer’s objective is, I hear, almost invariably, to tell a story. But the reality is that if you’re at a party and someone starts telling a story, most of us excuse ourselves politely at the first opportunity, and head for another corner of the room.
The writer’s objective is far more than telling a story. The idea is to create an experience, to get the reader out of his armchair, and put him on a cliff overlooking the sea with the lover of a lifetime. Or with someone who wants to take his life. And make him live through it. To forget he (or she) is at home, but instead to send the reader sailing through a set of planetary rings, to race alongside a comet, to know what it feels like to come down on a beach where nothing before has ever walked. Anything the writer does to remind the reader that he’s really at home in that chair, detracts from the experience. Do enough of it, and no one will read what you write. You’ll have to go to parties instead and corner people.
Journal Entry #52
November 3, 2009
For several years now, the National Endowment for the Arts has been sponsoring a program called The Big Read. The plan is to encourage an entire community to read a selected book, and to stage a series of events highlighting the effort. During the last two years, our home town, Brunswick, GA, under the energetic leadership of Heather Heath, has held discussions, watched films, and encouraged art connected with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. This year we focused on Edgar Allan Poe, reading a collection of his short stories and poetry. The program drew a substantial response, but unfortunately did not resonate with younger people. It never does. I’m not sure why, but it reminds me of a trend that‘s all too visible at science fiction conventions.
Heather invited me to participate as a presenter. But what would I like to do? I couldn’t resist --in the spirit of Time Travelers Never Die-- handing my audience a converter and taking them back to 1848 Richmond, where they could talk with Mr. Poe, and ask questions. Such as: ‘What was your contribution to the short story?’ (Ans: I made it internal. The action was no longer limited to the external world.‘) And: ’Mr. Poe, why do so many writers of your era hate you?‘ (Ans: Because I write so much better than they do.‘)
I played Poe after doing a substantial amount of research, and discovering how little I really knew about the guy. When it was over, I regretted not including a sequence in Time Travelers, in which Shel and Dave go back to Poe’s Richmond and show him the two Library of America volumes bearing his name. He could have used the encouragement.
Dan Heisman is a chess master and author. He has won some major awards in the field, he writes Novice Nook at the popular Chess Café website (http://www.chesscafe.com). He’s written several books on the subject, including Elements of Positional Chess Evaluation and Looking for Trouble. I acquired a passion for chess when I was about eight or nine, and I’ve never gotten away from it. Dan’s work is an excellent fit for people like me, who play chess well enough to do okay, but who, left to themselves, will never really win anything. I wish his books, especially Looking for Trouble, had been around when I was playing in tournaments.
By the way, Dan is also a science fiction enthusiast.
In the last journal entry, I mentioned rewriting large sections of Echo, and, specifically, spotting missed opportunities. There were a substantial number of them. And the truth is, it happens all the time. Third and fourth drafts are more than simply a matter of straightening out the writing, and making sure the internal consistency is there. They also provide an opportunity to add some comedy. Or drama.
For example: There’s a moment in which Alex is dumped into a river and is being swept downstream toward a waterfall. In the original version, Chase is able to get airborne and to do a fairly straightforward rescue. But in going over the section, a question occurred to me: What if there‘s another person in the water, in this case an innocent young woman who was simply a bystander swept away in the attempt to kill Alex? And of course there isn‘t time to rescue both--?
Journal Entry #53
November 18, 2009
Echo went out yesterday. I spent the rest of the day, and most of today, sleeping. This was my first actual time off since last February. I’ve been working seven days a week. It hasn’t been quite sunrise to sunset, but it felt like it. I mean, it took six months just to figure out a title. Echo, by the way, should be perfect.
I’ve attended a substantial number of workshops, and I’m always surprised at the number of people who are either turning in a first draft, or who should be concentrating on careers in math. First drafts are always terrible. For Echo the improvement in the second draft was incremental. Then it took off. But even the fourth draft didn‘t have the kind of climax I wanted. Eventually, though, over pizza, enlightenment came. It’s a method I’ll recommend to any one. Get away from it for a while.
I am occasionally asked about books that will capture the imagination of school kids. My favorite, as I’ve said elsewhere, is Ray Bradbuty’s Martian Chronicles. Also very effective, for me, were Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud, and almost anything by John Wyndham. I’d also go with any collection of stories by Clark or Asimov. And if these seem a bit classical, I’ve been away from teaching a long time. But these are the ones that worked for me.
On the subject of teaching, there’s nothing quite like discovering that a former student is doing extraordinarily well. Mike Leja was in my senior honors class at Mt. St. Charles Academy in Woonsocket, RI, in 1970. Mike now has a Ph.D. from Harvard, is teaching art history at Penn, and is the author of Looking Askance: Skepticism and American Art from Eakins to Duchamp. I’m halfway through, and have discovered how little I know about the visual arts. I was under the impression that when Monet created a field of poppies, we had essentially a field of poppies. I should have known better. As astute readers already know, we are really looking at the condition of the universe. It’s very much like the way a writer sets the stage to impose a mood or drive home a point. The book is published by the University of California Press. I’m thinking now that I should have realized much of this all along, but somehow it got past me. Thanks, Mike.
Our company name is Cryptic, Inc. Recently we have been getting phone calls from people trying to get information for “a yellow pages online service that will help you be more productive.“ Or something like that. Even if it’s legitimate, it’s a service for which we have no need. I told them no thanks. On the 4th or 5th call, I said, “Look, how can you help us? I doubt you even know what we do.”
The woman took a moment. I heard whispering in the background. And she obviously looked at the company name. “Funeral supplies,” she said. “You sell funeral supplies.”
Finally, if you’re in the area: I’ll be signing at Books A Million, 9400 Atlantic Blvd., Jacksonville FL, Saturday, Nov 21, at 2:00 p.m. Also, on Friday, Nov 27, at 6:00 p.m. (after the tree-lighting ceremony downtown) at Hattie’s Books, 1531 Newcastle St., Brunswick, GA.
Journal entry #54
December 1, 2009
My novels have routinely been submitted in November. That means, for me, a start date on the next one in February. So I have about twelve weeks to sleep, work on the 3000-piece jigsaw puzzle that’s taken over our dining room table, and read. Since this is the Nebula season, I find myself playing catch-up with the year’s novels, and also with the magazines that have piled up in the bedroom. (I also read material that is not necessarily eligible for the Nebula, but that I missed the first time around.)
Among the stronger efforts I’ve seen so far, are: Wake, by Robert Sawyer (Ace); Plague Zone, by Jeff Carlson (Ace); Mars Life, by Ben Bova (Tor); Overthrowing Heaven, by Mark L. Van Name (Baen); and Julie E. Czerneda’s Rift in the Sky (Daw). I’ve just started (and am already hooked by) Galileo’s Dream, by Kim Stanley Robinson (Spectra).
Anyone with a taste for rousing fantasy will enjoy Kevin Anderson’s The Edge of the World (Little, Brown & Co). And Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time arrived today. It looks intriguing. But that normal with Greg‘s books.
I’ve been going through the year’s magazines in no particular order. Standout stories so far: In Asimov‘s: “Act One,” by Nancy Kress, March 2009; “The Spires of Denon,” Kristine Kathryn Rusch (Apr-May 2009); “This Wind Blowing, and This Tide,” Damien Broderick (Apr-May, 2009), which gets the McDevitt Prize for best title; and “Deadly Sins,” Nancy Kress, (Oct-Nov 2009).
In Analog: “Gunfight on Farside,” Adam-Troy Castro (Apr, 2009); “The Jolly Boy Friend,” Jerry Oltion (Dec 2009); and “A Jug of Wine and Thou,” Oltion again (Apr 2009).
And I’ve just started….
The most difficult part of the creative process, for me, lies just ahead. I’ve promised a story to John Joseph Adams for the premier issue of Lightspeed, which he will be editing. And of course there is a novel that will take up most of my time during 2010. (Why does that year have a resonance?) I have no idea what either of these will look like.
There are several possibilities: Some readers have asked for an account of how Priscilla Hutchins got started. (That’s a wild story.) Others have indicated they’d like to see more of the Time Travelers. And I’ve been tempted for years to write about what happens when the White House is informed there’s been a breakthrough in life extension and people are going to stop ageing.
The 2011 book may be one of these. Or something else entirely. Who knows? This is the reason I’m always impressed with writers who have a single plotline that spreads across a dozen novels.
Journal Entry #55
December 16, 2009
There is no Christmas icon, save probably Bethlehem and its star, more visible than Ebenezer Scrooge. During this season, he‘s on TV in a half dozen different films. He shows up in advertising across the nation. And here in Brunswick, the local amateur theater is staging A Christmas Carol.
There’s a famous scene that depicts one of the most critical elements of good writing, one that aspiring writers often get wrong. Scrooge and the Spirit of Christmas Present are standing outside the Cratchett house, peering through the window while the family gathers around the fire place. Scrooge sees Tim hobbling around, picks up the tone of the conversation. Finally, he turns to his guide. “Spirit,” he says, “will Tiny Tim live?”
Had Dickens been less accomplished, he would have mishandled the scene. He’d have had the Spirit say nope, this time next year Tim will be dead. Sorry.
But writers know that they are doing more than telling a story. They’re creating an experience. And the way to do that is to put everything on stage, and appeal to the senses whenever possible. When the chaplain at Moonbase, facing an extinction event from an incoming asteroid, gets a ticket on the next bus headed away from the disaster, he knows everyone will not get off. He also knows that Jesus would not clear out and leave others to die in his place. So what does he really believe? It’s his obligation to call Operations and tell them to send someone else. But he’s terrified. He’s still young and he does not want to die. But how does the writer communicate this to the reader. More significantly, how does the writer frame things so that fear creeps up on the reader as well as the chaplain?
Common sense tells us that merely informing the reader that the chaplain is scared out of his wits won’t accomplish much. If we’re to have even a chance to make it happen, we have to put the reader in the chaplain’s place. How do we do that? First off, the writer becomes as invisible as possible. The reader sees through the chaplain’s eyes. Part of the method is to go back to that aold high school artifact, the symbol. We find something for our chaplain to lock into, something that will represent his state of mind, something that the reader will also pick up. It might be a photo of his father, a man of impeccable courage, who would be ashamed if he knew how frightened his son was. It might be a basketball, stashed under a desk. Symbolic of his longtime effort to keep looking good, to have a chance with a lost love (described in an earlier chapter) when he gets back home.
The most obvious device, though, is to focus on the phone. All he has to do is pick up the phone and call Ops. Get me off the flight. And he tries. He stares at the instrument, picks it up, puts it down. His heart pounds. And finally he makes his call.
When Scrooge asks whether Tim will live, Dickens himself has to get out of the way of the answer. The way to do that is to put it on stage. To give us an answer we can see and feel. The Spirit’s reply, of course, is: ’I see an empty chair by the fire, and a crutch without an owner….”
Aspiring writers should be reading Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wouk, and the other masters. And watch how they keep out of the way.
Journal Entry #56
December 31, 2009
I’ve spent much of the last few weeks trying to catch up on reading for the Nebula Awards. Novels of particular interest include Rift in the Sky (Julie Czerneda’s latest volume of the Clan Chronicles); Galileo’s Dream (Kim Stanley Robinson’s compelling portrait of the man who discovered Jupiter had moons, and then discovered the moons were inhabited); Starship: Flagship (Mike Resnick concludes Wilson Cole’s revolt against a Republic that has become increasingly authoritarian); and Plague Zone (the final installment in Jeff Carlson’s trilogy of a plague-ridden world).
Shorter fiction I especially enjoyed: “Gunfight on Farside,” (Adam-Troy Castro in the April Analog); “Where the Winds Are All Asleep,“ (Michael Flynn, Analog, October); “Shambling Towards Hiroshima (James Morrow, Tachyon); “Economancer“ (Carolyn Ives Gilman, F&SF, Jun-Jul); “But It Does Move” (Harry Turtledove, Analog, June); “A Jug of Wine and Thou” ( Jerry Oltion, Analog, Apr); and “The Bride of Frankenstein” (Mike Resnick, Asimov’s, Dec).
There were a substantial number of other stories in the mix, tales by Tom Ligon, Mary Rosenblum, Nancy Kress, Don D’Ammassa, Mario Milosevic, Michael Cassutt, James Van Pelt, Marie Desjardin, Eric James Stone, and Henry Garfield.
Christmas always brings new books, although we‘ve long since run out of space for them. This year I received Roger Osborne’s Civilization; Genesis by Robert M. Hazen; Together We Cannot Fail by Terry Golway. The latter one is an account of the FDR presidency, with a disk containing segments of the Fireside chats. I was a bit too young to know what was going on, so I don’t think I ever heard any of them. I should add, though, that I saw Roosevelt twice in person.
I also received an audio book version of David McCullough’s John Adams. Rick Wilber sent me a copy of his novel Rum Point, a mystery wrapped in a baseball story. I’m halfway through it and recommend it with enthusiasm.
And finally, a guilty pleasure: Maureen knows that I grew up as a Captain America fan. Cap and the other superheroes were the way most of the little kids learned to read in the early forties. Usually two years or so before we started school. I mean, how else can you find out what the Red Skull was up to? So she surprised me a Marvel omnibus Captain America. I haven’t been near my old buddy in decades.
I was paging through the book yesterday, and I was struck by how much better the stories and the artwork are than the ones I remember. And the writing….
Mike Bishop recommended a BBC series to me recently: Foyle’s War. A police inspector in Britain solves difficult cases while Nazi bombs drop. The narratives intermesh with the history, producing shows as dramatic as any I can remember.
We’ve been debating whether to see Sherlock Holmes. I read the entire canon during the summer of 1955, and can still remember the regret I felt when there were no more. Basil Rathbone was excellent in the movie role. Jean Shepherd once commented that he didn’t play Sherlock Holmes, he was Sherlock Holmes. Later, Jeremy Brett performed admirably in the BBC series. Others haven’t fared so well. And now comes this movie version which looks more as if they’ve put the deerstalker on James Bond.
Maybe I’ll stay with Cap.
Happy new year.