Journal Entry #57
January 15, 2010
Within a few hours after the earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince, Pat Robertson was claiming that it was God’s punishment against the Haitians for kicking Napoleon and the French slave holders out of Haiti two centuries ago. I don’t suppose that even deserves comment. And Limbaugh is urging people not to contribute to the rescue effort, apparently because the money will not get where it’s supposed to. That probably doesn’t need a response either.
I mentioned earlier that my wife had given me a copy of Robert Hazen’s Genesis for Christmas. I’m about halfway through, and am coming to the conclusion that I’ve had it all wrong in the Alex Benedict novels, where the vast majority of biozone worlds are sterile. If Hazen has it right, and if he doesn’t throw a roundhouse curve between now and the last chapter, it looks as if the development of life is almost inevitable wherever we have liquid water, and the environment is reasonably stable. There appears to be at least a decent chance that we’ve had --or may have-- life on Mars, beneath the seas on Europa, and in some other places in the solar system.
John Adams will be introducing a new SF magazine, Lightspeed, in June. I’ve promised a story, “the Cassandra Project,” for the premier issue and am now working on it. Turns out that Apollo 11 wasn’t the first landing on the moon. (Love those conspiracies.)
My convention and event schedule so far: I’ll be at Con DFW in Dallas the weekend of February 12; the Crossroads Festival on the campus of Mercer University in Macon, GA, February 27; I-Con in Stony Brook, NY, the weekend of March 26; and Readercon in Boston from July 8-11. If you get to any of them, please come by and say hello.
I’ve been a subscriber to The Atlantic since about 1972. It’s probably my favorite magazine, despite the fact they’ve never been aware that science fiction exists. Until the current issue. Christopher Hitchens has written a review of The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard, in which he confesses that he had always “disliked and distrusted so-called science fiction.” I doubt he’s actually changed his mind on that score. He seems to think SF is primarily dueling starships and hungry aliens. But he seems to have found much to admire in Ballard’s work.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere Dan Heisman’s Looking for Trouble as a helpful guide for anyone who wants to improve his chess game. Dan’s written a new book: The Improving Chess Thinker. I haven’t seen it, but judging by what I’ve seen of the earlier effort, it should be a valuable addition to the chess player’s library. The author has a talent for getting to the point and delivering clear explanations.
This evening we’re headed for the Island Theater to watch our local thespians perform “Witness for the Prosecution.”
Journal Entry #58
January 31, 2010
Joe Haldeman reports that he’s doing well after an extended illness and a substantial amount of hospital time. His newest, Starbound, has just been released by Ace. A copy is on the table beside me as I write this. I’m looking forward to it. Can’t recall ever being disappointed by a Haldeman novel.
I had not seen Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution before watching the St. Simons Island Players’ performance two weeks ago, so I didn’t know where it was going and nearly fell out of my chair at the conclusion. Never saw it coming.
I have some regret that I didn’t take time somewhere during the past quarter-century to audition for any of the shows. I’d have enjoyed getting on stage to play, say, Simon Capra in Desire Under the Elms, or Julius Caesar in Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. (Not sure I could have managed the Shakespearean version.) I do actually have some experience with dramatic roles. When I was directing high school shows I played a guard in The King and I, carried a spear in South Pacific, and portrayed the corpse in Arsenic and Old Lace. Now, looking back, I’m sorry I didn’t take the plunge. I mean, with that kind of resume, how could they not have taken me seriously?
Avatar is an interesting film. Most critics seem to have concluded the special effects carry the movie, but the story is pedestrian. In fact, the story line carried me along, even though it got lost occasionally in the technology. I thought the problem was that some stuff simply got dragged out, especially the climactic battle. Killing off the Colonel took too long. Still, I liked the thing.
We also saw Extraordinary Measures. Solid cast, excellent film. Be prepared for an emotional ride.
I’ve been reading, and enjoying, Civilization, by Roger Osborne. Also have finally gotten around to Carl Sagan‘s The Varieties of Scientific Experience, a perspective on the meeting ground between science and theology. Both are well worth my time.
February 16, 2010
We live in South Georgia, but over the past two weeks we are having flashbacks to North Dakota. Fortunately, though it’s been cold, we haven’t had the heavy snow and power failures that have afflicted much of the country. But last weekend, when I was supposed to be at ConDFW, all local flights were canceled, from Brunswick and from Atlanta. I thought briefly about trying to drive, but a glance at the Weather Channel suggested that wouldn’t be a good idea.
Dan Robb, who was coordinating things at the con, arranged a telephone Q&A session Saturday, moderated by Lee Martindale. It worked out well. An energetic audience showed up and asked what I was currently working on, and what did my work schedule look like, how did I become interested in archeology, did I outline my novels, and so on. (I do outline, but the end result never looks much like the initial plan.)
The question about my work schedule should have raised a point I failed to make, but which is probably important for anyone planning a writing career. The first draft is the brute work. My goal, when doing that, is to produce a minimum of six pages daily. Every day. No days off, except to go to cons. (If I routinely take off weekends, I inevitably get out of sync.) The six pages will be barely readable, but I can fix that later. What I need is a complete first draft.
I learned early NOT to set aside a given number of hours each day. If I do that and quit, say, at 5:00 p.m., I spend much of my time looking out the window at the blue jays. Much better is to produce the work, the pages, and then reward myself by quitting early.
And I don’t have a passion for archeology, per se. I am drawn by things that get lost. Things that matter. Works of art. Buildings. Acts of heroism or compassion.
Anyhow, I appreciated Dan’s efforts, and the work his staff did setting up the Q&A. And Lee performed with aplomb as the emcee. I’ve promised to attend ConDFW next year. Barring more heavy winter storms.
I also had an opportunity to speak with students at the College of Coastal Georgia last week. We decided that the primary benefits to be had from a bachelor’s degree center around communications (reading, writing, listening, and presentation skills) and forming the habit of thinking for ourselves.
We tend to talk about a B.A. in terms of how much extra money it means over the course of a lifetime. In all probability, it will. But there’s much more to it than that: It allows a wider selection of career choices, making it far more likely that we‘ll enjoy what we do for a living. Aside from which person we pick as a spouse, I don’t know of any single quality that contributes more effectively to a satisfactory life. The B.A., ultimately, is for us, not for the employer.
I’ve joined a book club which meets on St Simons Island. This month’s selection: Islam, by Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill. While reading it, I think I figured out the core reason why the Middle East has so many problems: In any society, women, mothers, tend to be more concerned with the education of the kids than their fathers. But when women are denied access to an education, they are limited in what they can do for the kids. Moreover, by treating women as they seem to, stay in the house and do what you’re told, they lose the contributions of half the population. And, if my experience counts for anything, the smart half.
JOURNAL ENTRY #60
March 1, 2010
Maureen and I spent the weekend at the Crossroads Writers’ Conference in Macon, GA, sponsored by Mercer University and Macon State College. The lesson that inevitably comes out of events like this seems to be the need for any aspiring writer to learn to trust himself. To believe in himself. Until he, or she, can do that, success is difficult to attain. And of course it’s hard to create a pile of self-confidence until you get something past the editor’s desk.
One point about fiction is absolutely critical. Usually, when I ask a group at a workshop or other event what a writer is trying to do, the answer inevitably is that he tells a story. The reality is considerably different: The writer is trying to create an experience. He wants the reader to forget that he’s sitting in a chair with a book in his hand. Rather we want the reader to be transferred to that rocky shore where the tide’s coming in and the young woman we (the viewpoint character and the reader) both love, is walking out. And anything we do to remind him that he’s safely at home in that chair damages the effort. Or destroys it altogether.
How do we do that? Use wooden language. Use words that the reader has to look up in the dictionary. Get the research wrong. There are a thousand ways. One of the more common is breaking in to explain things to the reader. Tell him, for example, that the protagonist’s heart is broken. Or that he’s reluctant to act because he’s afraid he’ll fail. Or that he’s afraid of heights.
Imagine going to a theater to watch, say, The Green Pastures. God is on the bridge of the ark and Gabriel has just arrived. Abruptly the action stops, everyone frozen in place, and the director comes out and begins explaining to the audience that God is having second thoughts. That He wonders whether He might have acted hastily. That’s what a writer does when he breaks into the narrative to describe someone’s mood, or to tell us about the family problems that led up to the current confrontation. Or whatever. The tactic for the writer is to think in theatrical terms. Put the action on stage and stay out of the way. If we do our job properly, the reader will be able to figure out for himself what’s going on.
Last week we went to see Chicago City Limits perform Wikiphobia. It was improv, and I’ll confess I’d always thought improv was a routine managed by one or two standup comedians. This was handled by a group of four actors, who, prompted by the audience, seemed able to make up routines and songs on the run. At the end of the performance, I felt much the same way I had when, as a seven-year-old, my father took me to see Blackstone the Magician, and I came out of the theater convinced that magic actually happened.
Stephen Antczak is preparing a volume of essays on 20th century SF. Working title: Heart and Soul of Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century. I’ve agreed to do comments on three books: The Best of Damon Knight, The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol I, and The Martian Chronicles. I’ve started rereading The Hall of Fame, which is edited by Robert Silverberg, and of course I’m having a good time. So far I’ve read the first four stories, “A Martian Odyssey,” “Twilight,” “Helen O’Loy,” and “The Roads Must Roll.” It reminds me why I fell in love with this stuff in the first place, and never escaped.
Speaking of good stuff, I recently finished a collection by Sheila Finch, The Guild of Xenolinguists, which details the problems we might have communicating if we actually do run into aliens one day. If you haven’t picked up on Sheila’s work, you might try it. I don’t think you can go wrong.
Off to Tuscaloosa this weekend for A Space Oddity at the University of Alabama. If you’re in the area, come by and say hello.
Journal Entry #61
March 16, 2010
I enjoyed myself Saturday March 6 at A Space Oddity, which was conducted at the University of Alabama on its Tuscaloosa campus. It was a one-day event, aimed at science fiction fans, people interested in writing fiction, and anyone else who enjoys a good book.
It provided an opportunity to spend time, both on- and off-stage with Lou Anders. Lou is the editorial director of Pyr Books. He has produced some solid anthologies, including Outside the Box, Fast Forward I and II, Sideways in Crime, and Future Shocks. (Truth in lending: I have stories in two of them.) Lou has also done screen plays, a substantial amount of nonfiction, including The Making of Star Trek: First Contact, and written a few short stories.
I’ve spent a lifetime telling people that my all-time favorite movie is Casablanca. Lou informed me that the film is frequently used in screenwriting classes to demonstrate various aspects of the creation process. One point I’d never really thought about: Audiences spend the film rooting for Rick, the Bogart character, even though he’s trying to wreck the marriage of a World War II hero. I’d known that, of course. But, if this makes any sense, it hadn’t impinged on my giving Bogie all my sympathy.
Tuscaloosa is about a ten-hour drive from my home. I was alone this time, so I took an audio book with me: David McCollough’s John Adams. It’s big, and I only got halfway through it. But it left me wondering how different the United States might have been had it not been for Abigail.
We went to see the opening performance of Come Blow Your Horn Friday night. It’s Neil Simon’s first play, and by no means his best. But the Island Players did a good job with it, even though opening performances tend to be the night on which a cast gets its act together.
Our local book club will meet Friday morning at Sweet Momma’s, on the island. We are reading Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, which is a history of American thought, perception, and philosophy during the years between the Civil War and into the early twentieth century. The book provides exquisite portraits of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Peirce, among a legion of others. We see Jane Addams arguing that war is dumb, Eugene Debs challenging the decision to intervene against Germany, and college presidents arbitrarily discharging teachers with whose politics they disagree. The development of statistics leads to doubts whether free will is an illusion.
I’ve come away from it with the sense that I never had a clue what was going on in the U.S. during the 19th century, other than expansion and the Civil War.
The Metaphysical Club won the Pulitzer in 2002.
I’ll be at the Atlanta Writers’ Club this Saturday, March 20, for a 3:00 p.m. conversation on writing science fiction. The Writers’ Club meets at Georgia Perimeter College, Dunwoody, GA. I’ll be doing a signing afterward. There’s no charge. If you’re able to get there, please stop by and say hello.
I’m happy to report that I’ve finally started writing again. I’ve mentioned that my next novel, to be released in November, is an Alex Benedict mystery, Echo. That one, of course, is finished and in the pipeline. After several false starts, I’ve begun another Benedict adventure, in which he learns about a guy who seemed to know in advance when strange lights would appear in the sky. Until he disappeared. Title will be Phoenix.
Latest word on Joe Haldeman is that he’s doing well. That is very good news.
April 2, 2010
The Atlanta Writers’ Club invited me to participate in their March 20 program. We talked about the special pleasures to be derived from science fiction. I‘ve had a passion for the genre since I was four years old. Aside from being able to provide more exhilaration (in my case, at least) than mainstream work, it provides an opportunity for discovery that is otherwise generally missing. How else can you hope to ride out and take a close look at Saturn from one of its moons? Or get a sense of the possibilities that distant shores hold for us?
Most people have no concept about the size or grandeur of the place in which we live. Hardly anybody is aware, e.g., that traveling to Alpha Centauri at the speed we used to get to the Moon back in the 60’s would require 50,000 years, give or take. That if we posted someone at the center of the galaxy and had him turn on a very big spotlight while we watched with a very large telescope, we wouldn’t see the light come on for 28,000 years. Even more striking, maybe, since those kinds of numbers don’t really register, is the fact that the sun that is so benignly shining overhead as I write this could have blown up five minutes ago and I wouldn’t be aware of it yet.
There are other aspects of the universe that are odd, yet necessary. For example, gravity. Why can’t we walk off a rooftop and keep going? What is it that causes us to fall? Ask that question of a group and they’ll usually respond that it‘s gravity. But ask what gravity is, and we’re all hard pressed to answer. Physicists tell us it‘s because space is made out of rubber. Put a massive body into it, like a planet, and space curves downward. Walk off that roof and we slide down the curve.
Or if you’d like to stay young longer, drive fast. We age at a different rate in a moving car than we do standing around. And I know it’s not a measurable amount, but nonetheless, ramp up the speed a bit and it becomes evident. Or, if we’d like to lose weight, we should go up on the roof, where we DO weight less.
I receive email regularly from engineers, physicists, physicians, researchers of all kinds, who tell me they first got interested in the sciences by reading SF. That’s one major benefit. Another: We live in an era of ongoing change. That requires us to keep pace, especially since major social and political decisions lie ahead. Is cloning, e.g., a good idea, even if its safety can be guaranteed? Most of the population, and at least one president, would say no without even considering potential benefits. But the people who’ve been reading Greg Bear and Catherine Asaro and the rest of that deranged crew might have other ideas. In any case, they have at least had the opportunity to consider it.
Does science fiction improve the way we see the world? I can’t imagine my life without it.
I enjoyed myself last weekend at ICON in Stony Brook. A lot of friends were there, although we were kept too busy to do much socializing. Still, it’s a chance to touch base occasionally.
One of the issues that surfaced during a panel: Should someone who is trying to break into the SF writing field start with short fiction or with novels? Four of the five people on the panel thought it was better to start with a novel, or that it didn’t really make any difference. That you should start with whatever feels right.
I was the lone dissenter. I’m not convinced that anyone who‘s able to write a novel can‘t do an equally good job writing short fiction. Short fiction is easier to submit. (These days, you pretty much need an agent for a novel.) A story takes only a couple of days to write, as opposed to the year-long effort generally required for a novel. First submissions are usually rejected. The loss of three days is a lot easier to take than the loss of a year.
JOURNAL ENTRY #63
April 15, 2010
While at ICON on Long Island, I wandered into the dealer’s room and picked up a copy of Sherlock Holmes: The American Years, edited by Michael Kurland. I‘ve had a lifelong passion for Holmes. Nevertheless I tried to resist buying the book because I didn’t want anything not absolutely necessary to carry onto the plane. (If you’ve traveled by air recently you know what I mean.) But I knew I’d get home and go looking for the book, so I picked it up. It’s a collection of ten stories, positing Holmes as a 22-year-old visitor to the USA in 1875, where he encounters luminaries like William Gillette and Mark Twain. I’ve only read the first three stories, but so far they’re thoroughly enjoyable.
Stephen Antczak is preparing a book to be titled The Heart and Soul of 20th Century Science Fiction, to be published by Rocket Ride Press. (Love the name!) If we were putting together a collection of the twenty books that best illustrate what the field had been about since --I guess-- H. G. Wells strolled onto the scene, here is what we should have. Steve has it down to a hundred titles at the moment. I’m not sure how he’ll decide what the final twenty are, or how the book will be set up. But I’ve agreed to write commentaries on three: The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol 1 (edited by Robert Silverberg), The Best of Damon Knight, and The Martian Chronicles.
I’ve finished the first of the three, and am now well into the Knight collection. It’s been an odd experience: Often, I can still remember quite clearly where I was, and what I was doing when I originally read a given story. I can recall being, for example, in the armchair at home, and having just finished lunch, when I read Anthony in Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life.” I will always associate Bradbury’s “Mars Is Heaven” with the front steps I was sitting on outside our house on Myrtlewood Street during an early summer evening. I was in grade school at the time. Why the nuns didn’t use Bradbury to turn on the kids in our eighth grade I’ll never understand.
I developed a passion for chess while I was in grade school. I wish there’d been a Dan Heisman in my life then. Dan is a chess master, based in Philadelphia. He’s a columnist for the Chess Café, and has also written several books on strategy and tactics. The fourth edition of his first book, Elements of Positional Evaluation, has just become available. I have his Looking for Trouble, and I wish I’d known some of this stuff when I was first starting tournament play. If you‘re interested, pop by the café. http://shop.chesscafe.com/item.asp?cID
For several years we’ve been making autographed copies of books available at the cover price plus $2 P&H. Yesterday, I discovered that ’media rate’ no longer applies to books in general, but only to those that can be described as ’educational.’ I.e., textbooks. It now costs $7.05 to mail one book. Plus the cost of packaging.
Not sure yet how we’re going to respond. There might be other options. But the two buck rate is off the table.
I grew up assuming I’d live to see a manned mission to Mars. They’re talking about it now. The President has said he’d like to see it happen. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, my own enthusiasm has dimmed. Maybe it has to do with a sense that Mars is just a larger version of the moon. The canals have gone away. Maybe it’s that I don’t believe for a minute that the funding will be there.
I’m interested in how you feel. And I suspect other readers are, as well. If you’d like to comment, please do. We’ll print a representative sample. If you want your name withheld, let us know.
JOURNAL ENTRY #64
May 1, 2010
Stephen Hawking created a stir last week when he said, in an interview about the possibility of contacting aliens, that it would be a good idea for humans to keep their heads down. That they might well be dangerous. I found myself thinking of Damon Knight’s famous pale smiling creatures arriving with cookbooks.
He’s right, of course, in that they might be dangerous. I’ve always been inclined to believe that cruelty derives from a lack of empathy, which implies stupidity. Only dummies are vicious. But it’s probably a naïve notion. Even if it’s true, though, it’s not a bad idea to keep in mind that bright people give us technology, but politicians and lunatics get to use it.
The reality regarding Hawking’s proposition is that any aliens, even barbarous types with spaceships, are probably much too far to constitute a threat. I think I’ve mentioned before in these pages that if we attempted a flight to Alpha Centauri at the velocity we achieved going to the Moon, it would take upward of 50,000 years to get there. One way. Hard to imagine keeping an invasion force happy for even a tiny fraction of that.
The media mail problem seems to have gone away. We are going to settle in at $3 P&H for any autographed books ordered through this website. That’s up a buck, but we’ve been losing money on shipping for years. Even padded envelopes have become expensive. One of the things SF writers never touch, and we never talk about at cons, is what happens to the economy if the inflation of the last sixty years continues. I bought my first gasoline at 23c/gal. And complained because 7c of it went for taxes.
Almost everything else has gone up by a factor of ten to fifteen. Postage was 3c for first class. Packaged pies that now cost a buck were 7c. I used to pay 11c to get into the movies. I worked several years at the Penn Fruit, a Philadelphia supermarket, while I was in college, and it was no easy task for a customer to spend $20. When I started teaching in 1963, my first salary was $4500/yr.
If the trend continues, we’ll be pushing money around in wheelbarrows.
I’ve received an unusual honor. Thursday evening I’ll be at Brunswick High School to present awards to a pair of outstanding students from the JROTC program. The awards are given by the Golden Isles contingent of the Military Officers’ Assn of America. They are intended to recognize various leadership achievements.
Two weeks ago, I invited comments on the feelings of readers concerning Mars missions. Should we go? Does it matter? Does anybody really care? Some responses:
I have been giving some deep thoughts to Obama’s announcements concerning NASA. Need more info, but I have also lost that feeling of excitement concerning our efforts in manned flight.
We had an established timetable to revisit the moon, with a possible colony and travel from Earth orbit to Mars down the line. I am 100% in favor of colonizing space and exploring the solar system. Of course funding is a problem and this president has essentially killed NASA and given up American dreams of space exploration. So, what can you do? The dream will have to wait and hopefully one day we’ll be in a position to do something about it. --Kevin Sargeant
As for your comment about Mars, my enthusiasm has dimmed also. Not because of Mars but because every president since Bush 41 has laid out a vision for NASA which is changed by the next president. I have no problem with the new vision set by Obama but I had no problem with the vision that Bush 43 set either. Long term funding is definitely a problem. My heart says we will not see humans on Mars in my lifetime (I am 53) but I am a willful optimist. I think that we will see past our petty concerns and really get that great adventure going. I still have a dream that we will find some form of life on Mars, even if only the fossil remains of life.
I do think Obama is trying to do the right thing, at least what he and his space advisors believe is right. NASA can’t keep doing the same thing forever. Bush’s plan to use Constellation to return to the Moon was a clear grab at nostalgia, which would resonate more strongly with an older, more conservative, segment of voters. Whereas Obama thinks he can appeal to the younger crowd by saying, “The Moon? That‘s your grandpa’s generation. Mars? Deep space? That‘s our generation.
Will it happen? Will the funding be there? I go back to the financial/burden analysis: If by removing NASA involvement in the development and construction of what amounts to a LEO freight and passenger service and farming it out to a private operation that‘s used mostly its own capital to demonstrate ability and safety and thereby save NASA a lot of money and effort, then hopefully NASA can focus on better, longer-range missions, like those he discussed at the Cape a week ago. I think Constellation , like the shuttle, was turning into a project/flight system that tried to do too many things at once. The Russians have a more robust system with rockets and capsules built to do a specific job and nothing more. They have lost far fewer people and have kept their relative costs down and have the ability to get people up and down a lot faster. Granted cramped little capsules are not as sexy as wanna-be starships but it works and that’s what really counts in any sustainable endeavor.
Meanwhile, the years go by, and the stars remain silent. Question: If we actually hear a signal, an undeniable indicator that there’s someone out there, what would be the reaction of the general public? (If you choose to respond, but you wish to remain anonymous, please indicate.)
JOURNAL ENTRY #65
May 17, 2010
Maureen and I are just back from the Cape, where we watched the first space launch that either of us has seen. More or less. We were on I95 when it happened, and I’ve learned that isn’t an ideal location, especially when the launch isn’t directly ahead, as I’d expected, but is in fact at a ninety-degree angle out the driver’s window. In any case, it was a spectacular show. And of course there was an added wistfulness with the sense that the program is winding down.
In (I believe) 1959, when the first call for astronauts went out, I was in the Navy. I’d already applied for flight training and been rejected because my color vision is goofy. I’m not color blind, but I have my own personal spectrum. Nevertheless, I thought about applying for the program just so I could say that I had. It was, I thought, as close as I could ever hope to get to a Moon flight.
I should add, by the way, that Maureen and I were NASA guests a couple of years ago. The flight got postponed several times and we never got to see the liftoff. But I can remember looking up at the Saturn rocket, closer than I’d ever been, and thinking how high it was, how I wouldn’t even want to go up and sit in the shuttle, let alone be on board when they fire the thing off. This from a guy who got upset when he was told he’d never get to land a jet on a carrier deck. Amazing how we change over the years.
Now we wonder where the space program is headed. I’ve no problem with private industry taking it over, except that I can’t see where we save any money. The government is still going to be paying the bill. Who would have believed, when the early missions went to the Moon, that we would be at this point in 2010? What happened to Jupiter?
We’re paying the price for wasting money through corrupt politicians and pointless wars. I can imagine George Washington’s reaction when, on a visit back, he learns that we’ve been bogged down in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for years. In Afghanistan because we screwed up when we had Osama trapped and let him get clear. In Iraq for a reason that I’m still not able to guess. So much for conservative values.
We were in Florida to attend the Nebula weekend, which was taking place in Cocoa Beach. The winners:
Short story: “Spar,” Kij Johnson
Novelette: “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black
Mask, Gentleman, Beast,” Eugie Foster
Novella: “The Women of Nell Gwynne’s,” Kage Baker
Novel: The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi
Joe Haldeman was named a Damon Knight Grand Master.
I’ve known Joe and his lovely wife Gay for more years than I care to count. He is a Vietnam veteran, and was wounded in action. He has a Bachelor‘s degree in astronomy, and a master‘s in creative writing, which he currently teaches at MIT. He’s won five Hugos, five Nebulas, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. And a host of others.
He has a wide range of interests. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he’s also a golf pro and a chess master. Joe is quietly unassuming, but his achievements tend to make the rest of us suspect that we’ve spent too much time hanging out somewhere. I should add that I’ve never known anyone I’d rather have at my back.
He would tell you that much of the credit belongs to Gay. There’s undoubtedly a lot of truth to that. The lesson to be taken from their experience: Marry the right person.
John Adams will be launching Lightspeed, an online magazine, June 1. (www.lightspeed.com) It will carry stories by Vylar Kaftan, David Barr Kirtley, and Carrie Vaughn. Meanwhile, I’ll be revealing the truth behind a massive coverup in “The Cassandra Effect.” The first humans to land on the Moon were not riding on Apollo XI.
One of the advantages of the annual Nebula Awards is that you get a chance to spend time with people you don’t see often. This weekend, they included Stan Schmidt, Bud Sparhawk, Sheila Williams, Susan Allison, Steven Silver, and Jeff Carver. The last flight of the Atlantis hung over the proceedings, and we found ourselves talking about story ideas (as writers inevitably do). The idea that kept surfacing: A story about a person who watches the last shuttle flight.
Another item in the hews lately: Today’s kids will, according to researchers, be the first U.S. generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Are we going backward? What do you think?
If you reply, but do not want your name used, please tell me.
Below are responses to the issue of how we would expect the American public to react if we received a bona fide signal from outer space:
Bearing in mind that some people believe the moon landings to be a fake I suspect that any signal would be greeted with a mix of awe, disbelief or worse total apathy.
After a few weeks in the news it becomes a minor headline behind the latest Brad & Ang report, the next big thing on you tube and another 'is Osama Bin Laden really dead' article.
Speaking of you tube how ironic would it be if hidden amongst all the dross was a genuine signal in video form that was just presumed to be fake.
If we actually hear an undeniably alien signal, I think the general
public will react in a wide variety of ways: from unbridled enthusiasm
to casual interest, disbelief and indifference. Unless the signal is
the first of many, I suspect most people would just absorb the news,
talk about it for a bit, and move on. A lot would depend on how much
information was in the signal and the specific nature of that
information. I think we could expect the news to quickly be absorbed
into popular culture and spit back out at us in everything from novels
to movies, TV shows, comics, and more. I thought it was fascinating
to see the way the alien "grays" gradually moved from the fringes of
UFO research into popular culture until, in the '90s, the iconic gray
head had become the equivalent of the yellow smiley face that was
ubiquitous in the '70s. You could buy gray stickers in gumball
machines (in fact, you still can)! I love the idea that if such beings
exist and actually represent mankind's contact with an alien species,
the defining reaction of humanity is to make them accessible and to
merchandise the heck out of them. That strikes me as a very human
After reading your parting thought about reaction to alien contact my mind ran over all the possible forms that could take. You have covered many in your books and short stories, except for the "alien ships appear in our skies" scenario. I really wonder what the reactions were during that Orson Wells "War of the Worlds" broadcast in the late '30s. The initial reactions to landings, before the fighting erupted. Might be a good clue to how we would react.
I thought of scenes where the lone driver encounters a space ship in the middle of nowhere, astronauts find an obelisk on the Moon, planet discovered with obvious cities, alien space ships invade our skies to the scenario you laid out and it came down to one thing, presentation. How is this information presented to the public, or is it surprised? X-Files, Roswell, and other various conspiracy theories show how information or disinformation can make the public completely unsure of what is real, and influence how we might respond. Look at how information was controlled in communist countries during the last half of the twentieth century. I will give three more examples that show how facts, theories and opinions can collide into a swirl of emotion and hate. Global warming, autism vs. immunizations and the big one, Religion.
Getting a breaking news report that a signal has been detected would be the single most important events in human history, since the invention of writing. The first question I would have is "How Far Away?" Thousands of light years away seems a safe distance and would hopefully provide an opportunity for the various human races, cultures and religions to come together as a real human race instead of the "Us and Them" differentiations which have sprung up and hampered any hope of actual peace on Earth. However, the closer they are to us the more wary I would be of actual "contact". We definitely fear the unknown, and based on our own history, we have good reason to worry. Rape of the New World could have a whole new meaning. This might be different in several hundred years when we don't (hopefully!) have all of our human eggs in one basket (Earth), we are pretty vulnerable on just one planet whose location is known. (This could be an interesting story idea. Ever read Gregory Benford's Galactic Center series?)
But getting a signal and decoding it are two very different things, then there is actual communication. I am a pessimist in the intelligent life debate. I have "Here Be Dragons" by David Koerner and Simon LeVay on my reading list, a book on "the scientific quest for extraterrestrial life".
I am sure there is life out there, somewhere, but making contact with other intelligent life, given the vast galactic distances involved, would seem to be nothing more than a passing wave in the darkness, but it would be thrilling none the less.
Looking at how some people react, even before a signal is actually received, gives a pretty good indication of what will happen, only multiply it by 1000. We already have the National Equirer stories, the questionable talk shows, the cults, the merchandising, the movies, etc. With an real honest-to-goodness signal, well ..... I'll be in the basement, call me when it's safe to come out :) Religious organizations will certainly put in their take on the situation.
As for the general population, it depends on how close the signal is. If it's several light years away, it may give people food for thought, but generally they would go about their daily lives. Bills still have to be paid, the kids driven to soccer practice, etc.
If the signal were really close, I guess there wouldn't be much time too prepare, so I suspect the government would keep things as quiet as possible until they could figure out what was going on.
As an aside, I just watched "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" on the weekend. I first saw it when I was 8 years old or so. The part where the aliens are trying to take little Barry away and the mother is freaking out really scared me back then. Now, some 30-something years later, I still get the heeby-jeebies watching that part. I was burrowed so far under the blankets, just my eyes were peeping out. As much as I'd be excited/thrilled to find out about a signal in a generaly sense, I don't know that I'd like one of them try to find its way down my chimney.
You ask in your journal what the reaction of the General Public would be if we got "an undeniable indicator that there's someone out there." Well assuming the evidence is not a ship of somekind parked in orbit or coming at us, I suspect the general public reaction would be gee whiz, that's great, but how will that impact the Super Bowl?
Perhaps my favorite scifi film of all time is Contact,partly because I think it is a wonderful story, and partly because I had the pleasure of Carl Sagan (and Frank Drake) as a professor at Cornell in the early 80s. I have always thought how well the story reflects how various groups would react: the military would be paranoid, the politicians would be indecisive and the kooks would congregate with tin-foil on their heads. I also think the majority of the general public would be unmoved - certainly less interested than they are with the infidelities of Tiger Woods or the antics of Lindsay Lohan.
Thanks to all who responded.
JOURNAL ENTRY #66
May 31, 2010
We’re just back from OASIS 23 in Orlando. OASIS, under the direction of Juan Sanmiguel, is not a large convention, but the fans are loyal, they are enthusiastic, and they come back year after year. And okay, I know that is generally true of people who attend conventions. But this time around was special: We hadn’t been there the last two years, and a lot of people went out of their way to welcome us back. Two reported having broken through and made professional sales, the artwork was particularly outstanding --we picked up a print by Debbie Hughes which blew me away, two dolphins leaping out of the water under a sky dominated by a magnificent ringed world. And a very nice lady presented us with a jar of strawberry jam which I’ve been wolfing down since we got home.
I was on three panels. One with Ben Bova, Sharon Lee, and Steve Miller. Sharon and Steve were the GoH’s. We were to select favorite characters and books from our own work. I had misread the description and went prepared to name my favorite characters in general, who are probably Holmes and Watson, Flashman --the protagonist in a series of novels by George MacDonald Fraser--, and Ben Bova’s Sam Gunn.
Then, at the table, I found out we were supposed to talk about our own books. I usually try to avoid naming a favorite. But I was cornered, so I picked : Priscilla Hutchins, and the other -who’s not really human, at all-- the Winston Churchill AI from ETERNITY ROAD. Winnie gets turned on when a bolt of lightning hits the equipment in an ancient amusement park. He has a chance to talk with Chaka Milana at the moment when she’s ready to give up her search for a legendary library built and maintained by the civilization that had long since vanished.
For my favorite book, I fell back on the novel I’d most enjoyed writing: TIME TRAVELERS NEVER DIE.
I picked up two books at the con, both by Ben Bova: ABLE ONE, which deals with the attempt to put together a defense system against rogue states with missiles; and THE SAM GUNN OMNIBUS. The latter is a definitive collection of stories detailing the exploits of the cranky, goodhearted, run-for-your-life hero. I haven’t read the novel yet. But it’s by Ben, so I have no qualms about recommending it.
I’ve been catching up on my reading. Other books I’ve enjoyed: THE COMPLETE BOUCHER (NESFA); DEEPTIME (Bard), nonfiction by Gregory Benford; THE VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE (Penguin Press) by Carl Sagan; A NEW DAWN: THE COMPLETE DON A. STUART STORIES (Stuart of course is a pen name for John Campbell); and IDIOT AMERICA (Doubleday), by Charles Pierce.
I’ve almost completed Allen Steele’s COYOTE DESTINY (Ace), which I’ve enjoyed. Waiting on my bedside table are, aside from the new Bova novel, Rob Sawyer’s WATCH (Viking Canada), and Joe Haldeman’s STARBOUND (Ace).
I finished the copy edits for ECHO and sent them back to my publisher on the way out of town Friday. These early versions are barely readable. I feel sorry for the copy editor, who has to plow through the thing. Usually, copy editors content themselves with correcting misspelling, bad usage, and inconsistencies. Occasionally they’ll suggest that things might work better if so-and-so gets pushed out an airlock. But they tend to stay away from style. And that has to be painful, because they can’t miss seeing where vast improvement could be made --indeed, is called for--, but if they try to fix all that, the job would be endless. So they assume the author will figure it out. Anyhow, thanks, Bob.
And scientists have apparently succeeded in creating artificial life in the laboratory. I wonder whether that’s good news or bad news?
And a pair of responses to the study that showed, for the first time, the new generation is looking at a life span shorter than their parents’-- (Which comes as a surprise considering that we’ve been able to get smoking pretty much out of public places.)
The actual issue: not "how long you live" but "how well"? What have you positively accomplished? What have you contributed to society, your family, or to an ecological sustainable better future for all life on Earth?
I was twelve years old when the Eagle landed on the Moon, and I have a box full of newspaper articles that I saved from the Apollo era. As I was rummaging through the box this evening, I found a full-page spread of space related articles published in the Louisville Courier-Journal on July 20, 1969.
According to the articles...
1. "Shelters are being designed that could lead to the establishment of a permanent lunar base by 1985."
2. NASA presented to congress a plan for an automatic "moon jeep" that could be guided from Earth. Following the 10 missions planned for the Apollo program, NASA is developing several 28-day manned missions to orbit and study the Moon.
3. By 1975 we will have a space station that will hold 9 to 12 men for flights up to 6 months. Around 1980 we will have a giant orbiting "space base" that can carry 50 to 100 people for flights of up to year or more. The station will be served by cheap re-usable space shuttles, space jeeps and space tugs.
4. By 1989, NASA will have landed humans on Mars, and taken close-up photographs of every planet in the solar system, including Pluto.
"The first good chance to dispatch a man to Mars comes in 1982, but a more likely landing period is 1986-88."
5. By the end of the 20th century, NASA administrator James Webb predicted that we would land a human on Ganymede or Titan.
Journal Entry #67
June 15, 2010
My Hungarian publishers, the Metropolis Media Group, invited me to join them in Budapest for the annual Hungarian Book Festival. My son Chris went along, and we spent a week in the company of Nemeth Attila, my local editor, and his staff.
It was a remarkable experience. I was at the Budapest festival Saturday, June 5. We had an enthusiastic crowd. MMG, which also publishes the award-winning Galaktika (www.galaktikamagazin.hu), had Hungarian editions of A Talent for War, Polaris, and Seeker available for the event.
During the balance of the week, Attila (in Hungarian usage, the family name is presented first) took us sightseeing. We visited the Parliament House, and had the opportunity to see the Crown Jewels. We also spent a day at the Art Museum, visited St. Stephen’s Basilica, and the Heroes’ Square.
On a mountaintop overlooking the city, we watched a ceremonial changing of the guard outside the President’s house, listened to a concert by a Finnish band, heard a couple of talented guys on stringed instruments playing something that sounded like Rachmaninoff, but which, when I listened closely, turned out to be “The Gang‘s All Here.“ A few minutes later Chris and I hoisted birds on our forearms. Chris had an eagle. (It was the first one I’d seen up close, and I don’t think I realized how big they are.) I settled for a hawk. His name was Chippy, and I’m happy to report he was friendly.
Some buildings erected during Roman times are still standing. There are no plain structures in Budapest, save those constructed during the Soviet era. The styles are classicist, Gothic, Art Noveau, Romanesque, and probably a half-dozen others. Every park is filled with statuary. Every public building is guarded by statues. They are everywhere. It reminded me very much of an observation made by one of the characters in The Martian Chronicles that art in the USA is something we put in museums. But that the Martians made it an intrinsic part of their lives. The same seems to be true of the Hungarians.
They were experiencing flooding while we were there. We wanted to take one of the scenic cruises on the Danube, but the piers were underwater. Planks had been set up, however, and we used those to get to the boat. It was the last day before all boat rides were cancelled.
We’ve posted a few pictures from the trip. Chris is there with his eagle; and you can see me trying to keep a respectful distance from Chippy.
Read John Horgan’s The End of Science on the way over. I’ve been wondering for years how the physicists during the Alex Benedict era would justify their existence. What could possibly be left to discover, save those issues that can never be resolved? Like, maybe, why is there something and not nothing? Horgan argues persuasively that we are living in a Golden Age, and that most of the great discoveries have already been made. Once you’ve observed that evolution happens, and then discovered the process that allows for it (Crick, Watson, and the DNA molecule), what’s left other than filling index cards with details? Save, maybe, figuring out how life originated.
He makes similar arguments for the other sciences.
On the way home, I picked up a copy of Game Change. Not halfway yet, but it provides an interesting perspective on the 2008 presidential race.
And, finally, I just finished, and thoroughly enjoyed, Allen Steele’s latest, Coyote Destiny.
Journal Entry #68
June 30, 2010
Seems like old times: The Ritz will be running Yankee Doodle Dandy, with James Cagney (who is probably my all-time favorite actor), tomorrow evening. We’ve seen it several times, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to sit in a theater with an audience and watch something of this caliber. I can remember almost fifty years ago, when I was stationed in D.C., going to one of the theaters for a Humphrey Bogart festival. We went several nights running for different pairs of films. And that might be the last time going to a movie became more or less like attending a party.
Cagney, of course, plays George M. Cohan.
So it’s got me thinking about favorite movies. Like Casablanca, which is the best I’ve ever seen. And I love good comedies, especially British stuff of the 50’s and 60’s. Maureen got me a few for Father’s Day. Included among them: The Green Man, with Alistair Sim as a guy who’s a clockmaker by day, and the mad bomber by night. Though he only takes out those self-absorbed windbags who need desperately to be taken out. He started in junior high with the headmaster.
Also included is School for Scoundrels, with Sim again and Terry-Thomas. It’s based on One-Upmanship, by Stephen Potter. The ‘school’ refers to a program that teaches you how to stay ahead of the opposition in the game of life, as, for example, making sure your tennis opponent has the side of the court that faces the sun. The motto is: ’If you’re not one up, you’re one down.’
Another of my favorites is The Ladykillers, with Alec Guinness and Peters Sellers, in which an armored car robbery goes horribly awry. While I’m on the subject, I‘ll also recommend The Man in the White Suit (Alec Guinness), which describes what happens when Guinness’ character develops a cloth that stays pressed, repels dirt, and consequently threatens the British economy. And Two-Way Stretch, depicting a group of prisoners who realize they have the perfect alibi for knocking off a convoy carrying an expensive set of jewels.
And, naturally, the St Trinian’s films.
In a more serious vein, we’ve become Foyle‘s War enthusiasts. It’s a British mystery series starring Michael Kitchen and Honeysuckle Weeks, set during and immediately after World War II. The stories are sharp, but it’s their setting in the history of the period that makes the series especially effective.
Ben Bova’s Able One is an absorbing thriller set in our own time. I haven‘t quite finished it yet but it’s been an exhilarating ride down a very steep slope. Hang on, baby.
I’ve also been reading Stephen Ambrose’s history of the building of the transcontinental railroad, Nothing Like It in the World. It’s one of those books that tends to remind me how little I know about the history of my own country. For example, when I’ve thought of Lincoln, he was always either trying to manage the Civil War, or sitting in his box seat at Ford’s Theater while his lone guard took a break.
But he was the heart and soul of the effort to build the railroad to the Pacific. Without it, he realized, the country would be as divided east and west, as it had become north and south.
I expect to finish the first draft of Firebird within the next few days.
JOURNAL ENTRY #69
July 15, 2010
Readercon is one of the more interesting conventions. They dispense with the costumes and the games and whatnot and concentrate instead on the fiction. The dealers’ room has more books and magazines per square foot than any other con I can think of.
The highlight, for me, was Barry Malzberg’s brilliant presentation of the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award, given to a writer who has been more or less forgotten, but “whose work displays unusual originality, embodies the spirit of Cordwainer Smith’s fiction, and deserves renewed attention.” The winner was Mark Clifton, best known for his Hugo-winning novel, They’d Rather Be Right, with Frank Riley as collaborator. It was serialized in Astounding in 1954. Malzberg pointed out that, since the award is designed to recognize those who have been forgotten, it is in fact an award for failure. Certainly not one that would be in a writer’s crosshairs.
I participated in a panel about writing SF mysteries, in which we discovered a wide range of opinions concerning what actually constitutes a mystery. Also shared a presentation with Tom Easton in which we talked about how to ensure one’s fiction doesn’t get past the screener. (Like, writing a goofy cover letter.) Overall, there were a number of intriguing panels and presentations on display. And a round of readings and kaffee klatches. Athena Andreadis had several of us over to her place for dinner and an evening of animated conversation. Athena is the author of The Biology of Star Trek.
Trains have always been pure magic for me, since the Christmas morning when I came downstairs and found a set of electric trains ready to circle a platform that included several houses, a station, and a half dozen trees. I was about four. So I decided to treat myself this year, skip the plane, and ride Amtrak from Southern Georgia to Boston. I took a good book along: Blind Man’s Bluff, a reasonably comprehensive account of submarine espionage during the Cold War, by Sherry Sontag, Christopher Drew, and Annette Lawrence Drew. I expected to spend a lot of time watching the scenery roll by, but I got tangled in the book and missed the landscape.
I finished it by the time I’d hit New York on the way home, so I picked up another one that looked good, Family of Secrets, by Russ Baker. This one purports to be a “hidden history of the last fifty years.” It caught my eye because it says it will explain why we went into Iraq.
There was a time I thought that writers lived an extraordinarily leisurely existence. I’m currently working on the second draft of Firebird, which is due November 1. I’m actually only a few days into the second draft, which will be the first version that’s even remotely comprehensible. Most of my novels go to a fifth or sixth draft. One, Omega, went well into double figures. But no problem. I’d get going on it again when I got back from Boston.
While I was away, Maureen informed me that the final copy of Echo had arrived. It was my last chance to go through it before publication and fix whatever needed fixing. The day that I got home, the mass market copy of Time Travelers Never Die also showed up. My opportunity to take another pass through that. Have to do it; you just never know what might have escaped all the previous readings.
Meantime, on the train coming home, I had an idea for a short-short. The title, assuming it ever gets written, will be “Golden Age.” The idea emerged from John Horgan’s The End of Science. Is there an endless progression of great discoveries to be made? Or are we getting near the end? It’s a question I’ve wondered about whenever I introduce a scientist in the Alex & Chase books. In Firebird, we are probably going to find out that they don’t do blue sky science anymore.
Finally, I want to recommend Starbound, by Joe Haldeman. It’s a sequel to Marsbound. I’ve never read a book by Haldeman that I haven’t enjoyed.
JOURNAL ENTRY #70
August 1, 2010
The final draft of Echo is complete and on its way to the printer, for a November release. I’m always struck by the difference between a first draft, which is barely intelligible, and the version that actually sees print. During my years as an English teacher, I was dismayed by my inability, in many cases, to persuade students of the value of doing a second draft of their essay. It helps immeasurably.
I’m not sure there’s any acquisition during our high school years more valuable than developing communication skills. Learning to write solid sentences and to read with understanding and a critical mind. And of course, one that we seldom if ever hear of, learning to listen. (Okay, maybe getting social skills in line ranks first, but I’m not sure that isn’t largely the same thing.)
The second draft, at least in my case, is always light-years beyond the first. And I have no doubt that will get some people wondering how bad the first one is. The answer to that: It’s bad. It’s incomprehensible. The characters haven’t come to life yet. People are always opening doors they’ve opened just two paragraphs earlier. They repeat themselves. They make no sense. And Alex doesn’t always have a rationale for his conclusions. It inevitably takes several drafts to get to a level at which the book, or story, will read reasonably smoothly.
I’m headed for NASFIC the weekend of the 6th. It’s being held in Raleigh, NC, which is only a few hours’ drive from here. Raleigh was, for many years, the home of the Sycamore Hills Workshop, which I attended regularly during my early years as a writer. The most valuable aspect of the program was that I got to meet and hang out with people like Nancy Kress, Jim Kelly, Lew Shiner, Harlan Ellison, Mike Bishop, Jim Morrow, Karen Joy Fowler, Charles Sheffield, Mark Van Name, John Kessel. It was also where I discovered my allergy to sunflower seeds. But that’s another story.
I’ll be helping with a writing workshop at NASFIC. Which has gotten me thinking about some of the things I learned at Syc Hill. The critical insight was that, while most people think of fiction as storytelling, it is really far more like theater. Most aspiring writers go wrong because they don‘t think in those terms. They don‘t realize they‘re supposed to be creating an experience rather than simply telling a story. Fiction isn’t storytelling; it’s theater.
Imagine watching South Pacific. Late in the second act, Nellie tells Emile that the romance is over. She’s discovered he’d had two children by
a native wife. And the director freezes the action and comes on stage to explain the prejudices that existed against dark-skinned people, underscoring that this is why Nellie is upset. It isn’t because Emile had had an earlier encounter. And of course Emile sings one of the showstoppers: “You have to be taught to hate; you have to be carefully taught.“
A director who reminds the audience that he’s back stage manipulating the action pulls the audience out of that 1945 war zone and reminds them they are sitting seventy years later in downtown New York. Or wherever.
Many aspiring writers do precisely that. They stop the action to explain how the star drive works, or to give details about the protagonist’s family, or to overload us with the description of the forest in which our hero has become lost. Or, for that matter, they put an air base in the wrong state (as I did, in MOONFALL). Or they get the grammar wrong. And if you’re thinking about the copy editor, it may get past him too.
Anything that reminds the reader he’s sitting in a chair at home, reading quietly, rather than lost on that dangerous mountaintop as the snow picks up, kills the illusion. All the negative stuff that workshops discuss, those slow starts, too many characters, characters with impossible names, wooden dialogue, all of it, has to do with shattering the illusion.
Even writing too much, as some people do because short fiction is usually payable by the word, or because they think that longer is better, is self-destructive.
I got a call to jury selection yesterday. Unfortunately, this comes during the busiest part of my year. I’ve been through this several times, and have never actually been chosen to sit on the jury. Once the lawyers find out I’m retired law enforcement, they tend not to want me anywhere near the courtroom.
JOURNAL ENTRY #71
August 15, 2010
ReConstruction, in Raleigh, NC, provided a picturesque stage for NASFiC last weekend. NASFiC, of course, substitutes for Worldcon when it is being held outside the US. There were lots of parties, and the dealers’ room provided a wide selection.
I helped conduct a workshop with Matt Rotundo. Matt is just getting his own career underway. Judging by what I saw, he’ll do fine. The overall organizer was Oz Drummond.
Our section of the workshop included three writers: Kim Zimring, who’d been a 2007 finalist with Writers of the Future; Gwendolyn Williams, who has a story coming up in Asimov‘s; and Dan Campbell, with a background in writing from college. Kim and Gwendolyn provided stories, while Dan had a novel excerpt.
I came away from the experience, as I have with other workshops, wondering whether the primary beneficiary at these things isn’t inevitably the people conducting the program.
Panels on which I served included a discussion of what the relationship between writer and editor should look like. That one’s easy: It should be similar to your relation to your eye doctor. Don’t do anything to upset the person who can cause you some serious damage.
We also talked about how to create believable aliens. I’ll confess I haven’t yet figured that one out. A lifelong experience with SF has taught me that as soon as an alien appears onstage, he becomes somebody in a bad makeup and funny clothes. I know, with modern technology, the movies are changing that. But it’s still difficult --and maybe impossible-- to bring off in a piece of fiction. Maybe it’s because we have no real experience with aliens. Because some of our own kind are so far out there that the twisted logic of an alien culture is no different from what we see daily in news reports.
And finally, there was a panel on the effect that TV and film SF has had on our lives. That one’s easy for me: Some of my earliest memories are of the old Buck Rogers serial. That lit the fire. Radio shows like Lights Out and Dimension X kept it going. And films like Howard Hawks’s The Thing and The Day the Earth Stood Still locked me in. I remember watching Rocketship X-M when I was in high school. That gave me a fascination with countdowns, which I got in the habit of doing during the last ten minutes of my last class each day.
Zero minus nine.
On the subject of Lights Out: I had some of the shows with me. (The ride to Raleigh is about six hours, one way.) Most, despite my early recollections, are not particularly memorable. Though, to be fair, even the Stooges don’t seem that funny anymore. But one of the shows I’d first heard when I was eight, during World War II. There are five or six episodes from various shows during that era which I‘ve never been able to forget. One was the Lone Ranger being ill and handicapped with a choked voice and hauled around in the back of a covered wagon. (That was actually several broadcasts.) Mandrake the Magician trapped in a cell on a sinking ship. James Gunn’s “The Cave of Night” on Dimension X. The Lights Out episode was another.
A young married couple, on vacation, go to the top of the Empire State Building. The listener is reminded that war has once again broken out in Europe. (The broadcast was in 1943.) On the roof, they look out across New York while ominous clouds gather and roll across the sky. When it’s time to leave, they discover that no one is manning the elevators. The offices on the top floors, occupied when they came in, are now empty. When they get downstairs, the lobby is deserted. There is no one on the sidewalks. Cars are left in the streets with their doors open. The radio stations are silent.
What has happened? Maybe, says the woman, God has finally gotten tired of it all.
On a related subject, I’d love to have known when I was listening to “The Cave of Night,“ that the day would come when I’d actually get a chance to sit down with James Gunn, share a pizza, and talk about science fiction.
I had dinner at the con with Joyce and Stan Schmidt and John Hemry. If you’re not familiar with his work, John has written the Lost Fleet novels, among others. He often writes under the pseudonym Jack Campbell, and he’s worth getting to know.
I just finished Rob Sawyer’s Watch. Rob has been doing extraordinary work for a long time now. Even for him, this one is exceptional.
Why are we so dumb? History is littered with wreckage, wars and wrecked civilizations and crazy ideologies. The August 16 Newsweek has a story by Sharon Begley, arguing that people who are persuasive are more likely to survive than those who think clearly. A good way to survive is to get people on board with our ideas. That, if I’m reading the article correctly, means appealing to emotions, being consistent, and overlooking evidence that might count against the position we have taken. Clear thinking is good, but now when it gets in the way of being persuasive.
In the pipeline: two Alex Benedict novels: Echo, scheduled for a November release; and Firebird, which will appear in November 2011. I’m probably getting ahead of myself here, but for 2012, I’ll be collaborating with Mike Resnick to do a novel based on “The Cassandra Project,” which appeared in the June issue of Lightspeed.
AUGUST 31, 2010
Finished a second draft of Firebird yesterday, about a week behind schedule. It ran late because I was slow to realize that the conclusion I’d planned would be too easily foreseen by the reader. Can’t have that. Anyhow, the narrative took off and went in its own direction. That’s an encouraging sign.
I remember arguing once during a panel discussion that it was a good idea to plan the entire novel before you started writing. Now, when I think how dumb that position is, I cringe. A novel takes roughly a year to put together. (At least in my case.) As you work on it, ideas arrive, characters seem to want to go off on their own, and only an idiot sticks to a preconceived plan in the face of insights. So I saw a better climax. It meant rewriting some earlier chapters --all the way back to chapter 1--, but it’s a cheap price to pay.
We celebrated with some chocolate liqueur, and collapsed to watch SUPERNOVA 2012. It’s a disaster film in every sense of the word. Next time we’ll head over to Tyler’s on the Beach.
I’ve finally finished Game Change, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. It took me awhile, simply because of a lack of time. Excellent book, with portraits of the candidates that do not come through so well on cable news, and a back room description of the campaigns. I’m also about halfway through Russ Baker’s Family of Secrets. This one is the ultimate book for conspiracy theorists. But somehow it’s convincing. And scary.
I came across Keith Olbermann Friday evening, seated, relaxed, reading a piece that I immediately recognized. It was James Thurber’s “The Greatest Man in the World.“ I read it in college, loved it, and proceeded to read all the Thurber I could get my hands on. If I were given the gift of being able to claim ownership of one piece of short fiction, “The Greatest Man” would be it.
I’ve agreed to co-edit an as-yet untitled book with Les Johnson, Deputy Manager of the Advanced Concepts Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. The book, to be published by Baen, will consist of seven essays, each describing a technique for mounting a flight to a nearby star, and seven original stories on the same topic.
Les has just finished a collaboration with Travis Taylor for his first novel. It’s Back to the Moon, which will be released in January, also by Baen.
I’ll be giving the keynote address and participating in a panel at the Polish to Publish writers’ retreat Oct 1-3, at Honey Creek in Waverly, GA.
Some real time travel: Forty-five years ago, I was an English teacher and theater director at Woodrow Wilson High School in Levittown, PA. The Class of ’65 is having a reunion and they’ve invited me. Probably to give me some reading assignments. The event will happen the evening of September 25 at the Lambertville Station Inn in Lambertville, NJ. You know you’ve been around a while when you have students who are in their sixties.
It was nice to find out that they haven’t forgotten me.
A new Mike Resnick collection, Blasphemy, has arrived from Golden Gryphon. The stories have, of course, a religious dimension. And they are typical of Mike’s work, which is to say, they are both thought-provoking and entertaining. I should add, as they like to say on Cable News these days, that, in the interests of transparency, I wrote the intro.
And finally, a confession: I’d always hoped to live long enough to find out that there’s something else alive somewhere off world. In the late fifties, when we were beginning to talk about a space program, we’d thought to be on Mars by now, and have a real space station, and probably have sent somebody out into the Jovian system. None of it’s happened, of course. And now the government has announced the inevitable cutbacks on the back-to-the-moon project. It’s what happens when you spend lots of money on wars, I guess.
Well, maybe we can do something else. Maybe a long range analysis of the atmosphere of a world orbiting, say, Sirius, where we’ll find evidence that something is breathing. Meanwhile, good bye, Buck Rogers.
September 16, 2010
I’ve always enjoyed writing SF, and I knew when I was six years old that this was the profession I wanted. (I also had ambitions about playing shortstop for the Phillies, but those fell a bit short.) There are downsides to everything, though. One of the most unnerving happens when a publisher asks if I will look at a book and maybe contribute a blurb, and the book is written by a friend.
Sometimes the book goes nowhere. If that happens, I simply pass. Have to. Sometimes it’s okay. In those instances I’m often reminded of a comment by a lieutenant commander I worked for in my Navy days. His favorite description of an officer for whom nothing really positive could be said: ‘This officer looks good on a horse.’
Two weeks ago, the folks at Ace Books, my publisher, told me they had a book they thought I’d enjoy, and could they send me a copy? It was Heaven’s Shadow, by David S. Goyer and Michael Cassutt. In the interest of transparency, as journalists like to say now, I’ll admit that Michael has been a good friend for more than twenty years. I don’t think I’ve ever met David.
In 1984, one of my stories, “Cryptic,” made the final Nebula ballot. It was my first time, so Maureen and I packed up the family and headed to Los Angeles. (We lived in North Dakota at the time.)
The Nebula banquet was being held on board the Queen Mary. I’ll always remember wandering into the ship’s bar, and finding myself surrounded by people like Greg Benford, David Brin, Gene Wolfe, Connie Willis, Robert Silverberg, and George R.R. Martin. I guess I could say I felt a bit overawed. I kept waiting for the security people to arrive and escort me out.
Anyhow, two people saw me. I was probably standing in a corner looking lost. But they went out of their way to say hello and make me feel welcome. They were Karen Joy Fowler and Michael Cassutt. Karen was just launching her career, and is probably best known now for her New York Times bestselling novel, The Jane Austen Book Club. But she’s done a lot more than that. Michael was already moving nicely along a successful trajectory of writing creating scripts for shows like Max Headroom and The Outer Limits, writing for the SF magazines, and operating as a TV producer. They took turns escorting me around and introducing me to everyone. It became a spectacular evening.
I’m familiar enough with Michael’s work that I knew I’d be safe. I expected a solid novel, compelling narrative, characters with depth, and an intriguing concept. No need to worry here about any ‘looks good on a horse’ approach. What I did not expect was a novel that would take me completely off my feet. Heaven’s Shadow, as the old cliché has it, is impossible to put down. Two teams of astronauts, one from NASA, the other from a coalition that includes India and Russia, attempt to make the first landing on a Near Earth Object. This NEO has come from outside the solar system. And, needless to say, it has a few surprises.
My kind of science fiction.
Heaven’s Shadow will be released by Ace Books in July, 2011.
I’ve gotten weary of airplanes. I traveled to Readercon by Amtrak, which was enjoyable. I’ve always loved trains. But Amtrak lacks flexibility. I’ll be doing a fair amount of driving during the next few months. First up: a trip to Philadelphia for the Class of ‘65 reunion.
Long car trips go much better if you’ve something to listen to. I’ve just finished David McCollough’s audio book John Adams. Waiting in the wings: a complete broadcast from December 7, 1941, the shows, the reporters breaking in with coverage of the attack, the commentary--. I can remember, as a six-year-old, attending a gathering on that day at an aunt’s, and noticing that the mood of the group had changed. ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. They told me the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. I had no idea what that meant or who the Japanese might be, but I recall thinking that Pearl Harbor, with a name like that, must be a beautiful place.
I also have complete runs of You Are There, in which radio reporters cover historical events, like the signing of the Declaration or the assassination of Caesar. ‘Everything is now as it was then, except that You Are There.’
There‘s also CBS World News Today, which features spot broadcasts and coverage of WWII; and Stroke of Fate, dramatizing historical events in which something changes, Hamilton kills Burr, Washington’s application early in his career to become a British officer is accepted, and so on. And they look at the potential results.
And one guilty pleasure: A complete run of Superman.
October 1, 2010
Forty-five years ago I was an English teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School in Levittown, PA. Much has changed since then, of course, including the name of the school, which is now Harry Truman.
I was also the school’s theater director, an assignment that constituted one of the great pleasures of my life. We did two shows annually, including a musical in the spring. The kids worked hard, audiences filled the place for weekend performances, and we could do no wrong. (When you’ve parents sitting out there in droves, you’re locked in, baby.) Moreover the student performers were passionate about the roles, and they were talented. I am convinced that the production of South Pacific that we put on in, I believe, the spring of 1966, was the best ever. By anybody.
In fairness, I should mention that our student musicians were assisted by professionals.
I managed to appear in each show, though always in a nonspeaking role. I was, for example, a spear-carrying native in South Pacific, and I played a corpse in Arsenic and Old Lace.
Several months ago I received an email from Gary Market, who’d been an active participant. Gary is currently a retired army colonel, and a lawyer. The Class of ‘65 did not mess around. Moreover, they were holding a reunion, and would I like to come?
It took place this past weekend. A substantial number of former students showed up, as well as the principal at that time, Frank Furgele. I’m still not quite down from my time machine high, and this event felt very much like moving back through the years.
Two or three people reminded me that I’d told them, as students, that if they ever got bored in the classroom, they might take a moment to recognize that the day would come when they would give almost anything to be able to return to that moment, to be again as they were at that moment, to see friends who by then would be changed or long gone.
I remember predicting that the school eventually would be plowed into a parking lot or an old folks home. I’m happy to report that, so far at least, it hasn’t happened.
I never expected, though, that the moment of reflection would arrive for so many of them on the same evening, and that when it did, I’d be with them.
The event was in South Jersey. I’d decided to drive rather than fly. (I’ve developed a distinct distaste for planes.) Maureen wasn’t going to be able to make it, so I loaded up on old radio shows, You Are There and Stroke of Fate and a full round-the-clock broadcast from December 7, 1941. And some other stuff.
Maureen was interested in the Pearl Harbor broadcasts, so I decided to save that for another time. I started with a guilty pleasure and never managed to turn it off: Superman.
Very little of the stuff I loved as a kid has survived adulthood. Even the Three Stooges and Bud & Lou faded away. I can’t get through most John Wayne westerns. But Superman? I guess some part of me remains eight years old.
I took Mike Resnick’s The Buntline Special along. Tom Edison, Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and other familiar characters in a steampunk Tombstone. Something else that simply took me over. Look for it in December. It’s simultaneously dramatic and hilarious.
Tomorrow (Saturday) I’ll be keynote speaker at Polish to Publish, at the Georgia Episcopal Camp and Conference Center in Waverly, GA. The program is sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America. Also on hand will be Holly McClure, Charlotte Babb, and Maggie Toussaint.
And, finally: I was in the Carolinas when Maureen informed me that my long-time agent Ralph Vicinanza had died. It was totally unexpected.
I was drifting along in the 80‘s, having written two novels and some short stories in ten years, when I met him. He invited me to lunch. We talked about where SF seemed to be headed. We discussed the meal. (I had a turkey sandwich; he had a salad.) And we wondered how computers would change the world. I remember telling him about a story idea I had in which interstellar ruins in different places would reflect a mathematical pattern. He said it sounded interesting. I delivered the book a year later. That was almost twenty years ago. Almost twenty novels ago.
He became a friend. And he was always there when I needed him. Thanks, Ralph. I miss you already.
October 16, 2010
Last spring, I was invited to join the Ivy League Book Club. I never attended an Ivy League school, but that didn’t seem to be a requirement. In fact, the only requirement turned out to be an interest in a wide range of books, and in meeting once a month at Sweet Mama’s on St Simons Island to talk about the current title.
Among the books we’ve read are Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, a history of intellectual progress in 19th century America; a Ralph Waldo Emerson collection; Steven Ambrose’s Nothing Like It in the World, an account of the building of the transcontinental railroad; Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged; Paul Berman’s Flight of the Intellectuals, which accuses intellectuals and journalists of a breakdown in confronting the harsh reality of Islamic terrorism; and Frederick Hayek‘s The Road to Serfdom, in which a Nobel-laureate economist argues that economic planning boards ultimately tend to centralize authority and thereby lead to totalitarianism.
It’s been an interesting ride. We met yesterday, surrounded by donuts and coffee, to talk about the Hayek book. It seems fair to say there were sharp differences of opinion on the positions laid out by the author. It is a product of the forties, written during the second world war, but much of it could have been put together last week. I was particularly struck by Hayek’s concern that the only long term solution for political and economic problems is an informed electorate. He’s concerned that it’s very hard to come by, because we’re all so inclined to get in line with our neighbors and vote with our emotions instead of our brains.
I’ll be at the Georgia Literary Festival in Statesboro this weekend (Oct 22-23). If you can make it, please be sure to say hello.
My copies of Echo arrived earlier this week. Sunset Tuttle is an explorer with a starship. He spent his entire career trying to find another civilization somewhere. His peers felt sorry for him, and told him he was wasting his life. Finally, discouraged, he retires.
Ultimately he dies in a boating accident. Thirty years later, Alex Benedict discovers evidence that the search may have been successful. But if so, why didn’t he tell anyone? And why is his pilot, the only person who knows the truth, so desperate to keep it quiet?
I’ve been fortunate during my years both at Ace and with HarperCollins. Both have consistently provided superb packaging and art. The illustration for Echo was done by John Harris, who also did the covers for Polaris, Seeker, and The Devil’s Eye.
Years ago, a bookstore owner in Atlanta told me that The Engines of God was selling extremely well. Without a hint of irony, he added that “books with covers like that always jump off the shelves.”
The cover for that one was done by Bob Eggleton. The original hangs on the wall in my den.
And finally, I have a series of films --not one, but three-- to add to my list of all-time favorites. They are the three British comedies constructed around the St. Trinian’s Girls’ School. I’d seen two of them when I was in college, and had forgotten how brilliant they are. If you’d like to see the fourth form girls (probably sixth graders) from St Trinian’s rescue a British army unit trapped by Arabs, and storm the fortress in a battered school bus, it’s in The Pure Hell of St. Trinian’s, which is possibly the funniest film I’ve ever seen. It is the concluding movie. The others are The Belles of St. Trinian’s and Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s.
November 2, 2010
I’m about a week from completing Firebird. All the pieces fit (as far as I can tell), so now it’s a case of simply smoothing the rough edges. Which means picking up missing words, bad punctuation, unnatural speech patterns, and whatnot. And also, more to the point, rewriting clunky prose. And occasionally fixing sequences so they make sense. And now and then tossing out redundant scenes.
The draft, which is the fifth, is due next Monday. It now resembles the first draft only incidentally. The general sequence of events in the second half of the book has been switched around, the original climax was moved forward about a hundred pages, and the sequence it replaced is now the climax. And if that sounds like bad planning, I won’t argue the point. But, whatever the reason, it’s not unusual. At least for me.
Putting together a novel requires a substantial effort. Which is why I always recommend that anyone hoping to launch a writing career start with short fiction. Making the sustained effort to write a novel, only to have it rejected, is hard to take. Smarter: Write short stories. If we can sell one, it’s enormously encouraging, and that’s a critical factor. It’s important to get some confidence on board. Also, editors begin to recognize the writer’s name, and that doesn‘t hurt either.
I spent last weekend at the Georgia Literary Festival in Statesboro, home of Georgia Southern. The invitation came from Lynn Lilly, one of the two chairpersons of the Authors Subcommittee. It was an entertaining couple of days, with talk of witches and vampires (appropriate to the season), advice on how to write a salable novel, and discussions about which books everyone is reading. The highlight of the event came, for me, as I was waiting for the keynote address to begin.
The keynote speaker was Max Cleland, a war hero who’d lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam. Several years ago, as a senator up for re-election, he found himself under attack by Republicans. The charge: He didn’t think the Iraq War was a good idea, and he said so. Consequently he was labeled unpatriotic. The voters of Georgia bought it.
Maureen and I were seated about six rows down from the stage in the auditorium while the crowd filed in, and Senator Cleland, at center stage, was holding a whispered conversation with Bede Mitchell, dean of GSU’s Henderson Library. Bede would do the introduction.
I should mention up front that I’ve always had considerable respect for Cleland, who was both rational and honest. He’d made one mistake, though: He’d trusted the White House, and been among the Democratic senators who’d voted to give President Bush free reign to invade Iraq if that seemed necessary, but most of the Democrats had done the same thing. Cleland rapidly realized his mistake. But it was too late.
I suddenly became aware that the senator had me in his sights. And then he was announcing to the still-gathering crowd that I was in the audience, and he asked me to stand. I’ve no doubt the identification came from Bede, but I enjoyed imagining that Max Cleland had read, say, Time Travelers Never Die. That he was a science fiction guy. Maybe he is.
Later, I picked up a copy of his book, Heart of a Patriot. It’s occasionally heartbreaking, ultimately inspirational. When I had a chance to talk to him, later, I told him that if he decided to run again, I’d do whatever I could for him. He said that the only thing he might run for would be the trees.
Everything else aside, there isn’t much that infuriates me more than guys who ducked their service obligation, who never wore a uniform, calling veterans unpatriotic. Especially those who bled in combat.
The new PBS Sherlock Holmes series, judging by the first film, is brilliant. I’ve always been a huge fan of Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett. Benedict Cumberbatch is also unforgettable in the role.
A couple of readers pointed out that there’s a fourth film in the British St. Trinian’s series: The Great St. Trinian’s Train Robbery. I haven’t seen it yet, but we have it on order.
The current (Nov) Scientific American has an interesting cover story: “Hidden Worlds of Dark Matter.” The inside description: “A shadow cosmos in our midst may be as dynamic as the visible one.” How on earth does a simple explosion come to embody such complex laws?
Echo is arriving in the bookstores as I write this. And also the mass market edition of Time Travelers Never Die.
And finally: We’ve just come back from voting. I can’t help thinking how the last half century might have gone had SF readers (who seem to be the brightest people in the country, even when they disagree with each other) been able to make the calls. But I guess all we can do is keep trying.
November 15, 2010
I’m happy to report that Firebird went out on schedule. We went to Sonny’s Barbecue to celebrate. (One of the secrets to a happy life is to celebrate whenever an excuse offers itself. Sometimes the excuse can simply be that it’s a pleasant day.) The harsh reality is that, after working on it nine hours a day for ten months with no days off, no weekends, no holidays, it should be clear why I’m glad to be rid of the thing.
I‘ve said elsewhere how much I enjoy writing. The only professional activity I’ve liked more was teaching and conducting seminars. But both lines of work, as exhilarating as they can be, also wear you out. So I feel as if a substantial weight has been taken off my shoulders.
Of course, there’s still no time off, but at least the assignment has changed. NASA’s Les Johnson and I are co-editing an anthology combining commentaries on the methods of propulsion that might be available in the near future for an interstellar flight with stories on the same theme. I’ll also be contributing a story. More details on the book as the project develops. (We don’t even have a title yet.)
We saw two very good movies this week: Unstoppable, which will probably keep me off trains the rest of my life. (And I’ve loved trains since my early days with a Lionel set.) The other was a TV film on the Lifetime network: Hachi: A Dog’s Story. Bring a hanky for this one.
I’ve been trying to catch up on the year’s short fiction so that I can vote reasonably for the Nebulas. The Oct-Nov issue of Asimov‘s contains a story by Kij Johnson that blew me away. Title is “Names for Water.” It’s only about 1500 words long. I couldn‘t help thinking that the short story seems to be the ideal vehicle for science fiction. Get in, cruise along for a bit, make your point, and get out, hopefully leaving the reader gasping or delighted or whatever. This one does that. In spades.
I’ll be heading to New York December 7 to attend a memorial in honor of Ralph Vicinanza. I never cease to be struck by how hard it is to let go of someone you care about. Even to the extent of accepting the reality that you will not see that person again. Ever.
A copy of The SFWA Handbook: The Business Side of Writing, by Writers, for Writers arrived the other day. It’s edited by Steve Carper. The topics include what editors do, whether new writers need an agent, writing scams to look out for, bookselling in the digital age, the short fiction market, selling your first SF/F novel, media relations, and much more. I haven’t had a chance to do anything more that glance through it so far. But it looks good. It has a number of high-profile contributors, including Ellen Datlow, Jim Frenkel, Mike Resnick, Michael Cassutt, James Patrick Kelly, and Elizabeth Moon.
Judy Kurrasch is the owner of the Read Me Again Bookstore, at 506 Elizabeth Street, in Waycross, GA. Judy invited me in last week for a signing, and I got to meet her and some of the patrons. Nice people. Good bookstore. If you happen to be in the neighborhood, stop by. I should add that we sold a fair number of books, though I suspect at least part of that was due to the chocolate cookies in back.
A major science story broke last week: Massive bubbles of energy erupting from the center of the Milky Way 50,000 light-years in both directions. The images indicate the bubbles emerging at right angles to the galactic disk. That’s probably a good thing. The energy level is strong enough that they’re emitting gamma rays and x-rays. Nobody seems to have any idea what could be causing it.
One astrophysicist --I’ve forgotten whom-- commented that we keep being reminded how little we actually know about the place where we live.
I’ve seen no mention of the story on Cable News, which are apparently too busy talking through the nights about John Boehner, Nancy Pelosi, and tax cuts. (Well, maybe all that does pose a more imminent concern.)
December 1, 2010
Most of us, as kids, must have looked at the sky and wondered where it all ends. If you go out far enough, is there a wall? The notion that the sky goes on forever is as counterintuitive to a growing child as the concept that it has to stop somewhere. Fortunately, I was eventually able to set my mind at rest when it turned out that, according to scientists, there was a limit to the sky, but that was because space curved and beyond the limits there was nothing. Not more space, but simply nothing at all. Nada.
Right. How could I have missed it?
There was a similar problem with time. I remember wondering how it was possible to arrive at my present date if we didn’t start somewhere? But what was ut like before the start? Even religion had no answer to that. In the creation story, we were told, God always existed. So that made it perfectly clear there was a time line even before Genesis. Sure. Okay. How could it be otherwise?
Then I discovered that Georges LeMaitre had talked about a cosmic egg exploding. Fred Hoyle would describe it as a big bang, and everybody bought in. That was the beginning of everything, and you could not speak about what had come before. There was no ‘before’ that seminal event.
Last week we got news that some physicists, Roger Penrose among them, now see evidence of an active universe prior to the Big Bang. Penrose sees no need to postulate a beginning to the universe. It’s cyclic. And it keeps going. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11837869
There’s no solution to any of this that doesn’t make my head hurt. But there‘s one interesting possibility: In a cyclic universe, do we maybe get to do it all again? Maybe we get to do it all again? Get to hang out with old and now departed friends at Louie’s Bar and Grill? If so, I wonder if we might be able to get things right next time around.
And yes, I know the pessimists among us will argue there’s no reason to believe we’ll get back in a later cycle. But at the very worst, it would make a good story. Next time I’m at Louie’s I think I’ll make for the corner table and carve my name out of sight underneath.
I’ve mentioned before that I have a lifelong passion for Sherlock Holmes. Of all the films and TV shows done by people like Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, though, my favorite stars Michael Caine as the great detective, more or less. The film is Without a Clue. Ben Kingsley plays Watson, who, in this version, is the brains of the operation.
I’ve reached a point in our national politics where nothing surprises me any more. Whatever we may think of an Afghan War that threatens to go on forever, or the Bush tax cuts, or environmental problems, the action of the Republicans in blocking the START Treaty is unconscionable. If it does not constitute treason, I wouldn’t know how else to describe it. We live in a time when the real threat from nuclear weapons comes from lunatics trying to get hold of one, who would gladly put it on a freighter and bring it into New York Harbor and detonate the thing, with not so much as a nod toward the concept of mutually assured destruction.
We need to control access. Saying there’s no need to hurry should outrage anybody who’s paying attention.
I’m reading Andy Rooney’s My War. It’s an account of Rooney’s experience during WWII, when he was a reporter for Stars and Stripes. It’s a riveting book. You read some of the stories, and see some of the accounts coming out of Afghanistan, and stop to think about Iraq and Vietnam, and you can’t help but be reminded of the comment attributed (I believe) to a fictional WWII admiral by James Michener, “Where do we get such men?”
I was invited to contribute stories to two anthologies. One would use advanced armor as a theme. The other is interested in stories about early efforts to get beyond the solar system. Neither has a title yet.
The editor sets things in motion but he’ll expect me to avoid the obvious. Let’s not, e.g., just do it about someone walking around in super armor. Or we might even bypass the theme altogether and go to a less direct application. Ditto with the deep space story, which I finished yesterday. The title for that one is “Lucy.”
For anyone ordering signed books, either through Hattie’s or –-for the older titles, directly through us--, please remember to let us know if you want the books personalized, and add any instructions you think we need to get it right.
December 16, 2010
Les Johnson came up with a title for the anthology he and I will be editing: Crossing the Abyss. The theme will center on early attempts to leave the solar system. Stories will use near-future technologies. Translation: No FTL systems.
As well as stories illustrating how things might go, the book will also contain some ideas on various options we may have to manage an initial flight.
Les is a physicist, who serves as Deputy Manager for the Advanced Concepts Office at the NASA George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Crossing the Abyss will be published by Baen Books. Since it’s still very early in the process, we don’t have a publication date yet, though I expect it to be available probably in the summer of 2012.
I was in New York last week for a memorial held in honor of Ralph Vicinanza. Ralph was my agent and a close friend for almost twenty years. Memorials are inevitably painful, but they always help, because you can look around and see that you’re not alone—
Twice during my flight, airport carts operated by attendants offered me a ride. It had never happened to me before. I probably need to ramp up my workouts.
John Joseph Adams invited me recently to submit a story for an anthology that will be titled Armor. I’m not much of a fan of military fiction of any kind. But John told me to use my imagination. I did, and I hope he’s happy with the result. I submitted “Dig Site” to him yesterday. Next up: Mike Resnick and I will start planning for The Cassandra Project, which will be my first novel collaboration.
Good luck to him.
I have a friend, Ed Garrity, whom I know from Boy Scout days. We also played baseball together on the Bluejays, a Philadelpha Sandlot Sports Assn team. Anyhow, he pointed out to me last week that the photo of the kid in the uniform on the home page isn’t me. It’s him.
We’ll be replacing the picture in a few days. Probably with one a bit more current. And hopefully it’ll be one of mine. Sorry, Ed.
Erin Underwood contacted me a few days ago about doing an interview for her blog Underwords. The result can be found at:
Our home town got caught up in one of those annual holiday debates over whether we should be talking about Christmas vacation or winter vacation or whatever--. In fact, we get a lot of religious celebrations at this time of year because, after a long winter, this is when the days begin to lengthen. The Romans called the season Saturnalia. The point was that we should all take a moment to appreciate the good things we have. So we hang decorations and give presents to friends and family, and make an extra effort to help those in need. Whatever our religious take on the season, those ideas remain very close to the heart of the matter.
Why do we become defensive so quickly? Are we really that easily threatened? No wonder politicians like to stoke our fears at election time.
On the other hand, maybe there’s reason for some fear. The difficult times are not over. The tax bill doesn’t help the national debt. The wars look good for a few more years. North Korea and Iran continue to demonstrate the potential consequences of a world with lunatics and nuclear weapons.
Maybe we should concentrate on a bit more tolerance to our American neighbors, especially the ones who have different opinions. We don’t need to create bogus enemies at home.
In any case, however we choose to refer to the season, I hope we all enjoy it, and take a moment to let those who matter in our lives know we appreciate them.
On that subject, I should mention that today is our 43rd anniversary. Hard to believe it’s been that long. Thanks, Maureen--
End of December/Early January 2010
One of the more common questions readers ask concerns the Academy novels: Will Priscilla Hutchins be back? I’d like to say of course she will. But the truth is that I have no idea. I’d like to return to Hutch’s world, which was left trying to deal with funding problems. (More or less like our own.)
Hutch first appeared in 1994 in The Engines of God. I’d decided that I would do no sequels, and I won’t go into the line of reasoning that led me in that direction. Mostly because it was an extraordinarily dumb decision.
At the end of the century, I was working on Deepsix, in which a mission deployed to watch a planetary collision sees ruins on the ground of one of the worlds. With the collision only a couple of weeks away, a mission is sent down to investigate. And we all know how there things are: an earthquake strands them, and the ships in the area have no way to mount a rescue. I was well into it when it occurred to me that it was an ideal situation for Hutch and her Academy colleagues.
I’d grown fond of Hutch, and the prospect of bringing her back appealed to me. (I know how that sounds, but you do tend to become attached to characters. People sometimes ask who is my favorite. Answer at the end.) Setting the sequel in her world provided an additional advantage: I didn’t have to recreate everything. I knew how fast the interstellars traveled. I knew the name of the space station. And so on. And I had a character who seemed a good fit.
I committed a major blunder, though, by allowing too many years to have passed in Hutch’s life. I should have kept her young.
But she returned in four more novels, and her career track took her high in the Academy. She’s probably not finished yet. I’ve thought about doing a couple of novels featuring her early career, and there’s a fair chace that Odyssey will not be the final book in the series.
Infinity Beach (2000) would have been a perfect vehicle for Hutch. Looking back now, I don’t think I ever even considered her.
So who’s my favorite character? That depends on how you define it. If we get away from the issue of which ones I like, and consider only who is most fun to write, I’d vote hands down for Gregory MacAllister, the cynical editor from the Academy novels. MacAllister says what he thinks, and much of it is outrageous.
He’s based on H. L. Mencken, possibly the best journalist and editor of the twentieth century. Mencken’s mot always right, but absolutely nobody is more fun to read. One of my Christmas presents this year was the Library of America two-volume edition of his Prejudices series.
When I first encountered him, in a Life Magazine article describing an illness that had overtaken him, I was in about the sixth grade. But –if memory holds— the article quoted some of his lines, and I was caught. I asked my folks if they’d include him among my Christmas presents, and they did. I’m pretty sure they never knew what they’d put into my hands.
Mencken is intuitively opposed to authority figures, and to those who pretend to have the answers. He attacks college professors, politicians, clergymen, chiropractors, journalists, critics, and pretty much everybody else. And I cannot think of a writer whose prose has more energy.