January 16, 2011
Anyone who’s ever been in front of a classroom will tell you that nobody learns as much as the teacher. I spent twelve rousing years as an instructor with the Customs Service, first in Chicago, and later at the Federal law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia. My specialty was the leadership seminar. And my approach was simple enough.
How do you measure leadership ability? Answer: By the way the leader’s people perform. There is no other way. Ask any group about the good bosses they’ve had, and they all describe the same attributes: He knows the job; invites the opinions of his subordinates; recognizes that an idea has merit or not, regardless of its source. He listens; gives credit to his people (rather than trying to grab it for himself); keeps the success of the mission on the front burner; and takes care of his people.
I was invited to do the seminar for the DaVita Company’s local branch of facility administrators (RNs), administrative assistants, social workers and dieticians. Basically a medical group.
It was the first such seminar I’ve done in about thirteen years. I should admit straight off that the ladies (it was an all-female group) knew what they were doing. And I enjoyed myself thoroughly. It reminded me how fortunate I’d been to have had a Customs Service assignment that I’ve come to miss so much.
My appreciation to Barbara Griffin for the opportunity.
About a year ago, Maureen and I attended an author event on St Simons Island. Hank Klibanoff and Gene Roberts had won a Pulitzer Prize for The Race Beat, which covered the role of the press during the civil rights struggle. Hank was the speaker, and afterward we collected his signature in a copy of the book.
I got well into it, but it got lost in a flurry of writing projects. A few days ago, I got back to it. I don’t think I realized precisely how horrific the experience was for those who stood up to the segregationists. Reading it now, reading how Bull Conner promised the local mobs time to assault the incoming Freedom Riders, reading how white thugs went after demonstrators with bats and clubs, how they used dogs, how they howled with outrage that others wanted access to a soda fountain, left me with a sense that I’d been a complete innocent. I guess you had to have been there.
It’s hard to believe anything like that could have happened in the USA.
Readers have generally given me credit for accurate science. (Mostly accurate, probably.) It’s not easy for an English major to get the quantum mechanics right. The truth is that I’ve had a lot of help over the years. No one whom I’ve gone to, whom I’ve asked, e.g., how to blow up a star, has failed to provide a reasoned response.
I should especially thank two physicists who have been providing more help the last few days as I struggle through a short story dealing with a pulsar. They are David DeGraff at Alfred University, and Walt Cuirle, at the U.S. House of Representatives Page School. Thanks, guys.
The project Dave and Walt are currently helping with, by the way, is a short story featuring a 22-year-old Priscilla Hutchins, who is trying to qualify as an Academy pilot. During which experience, she gets involved in a long-shot effort to rescue a cat.
Title of the story: “The Cat’s Pajamas.”
I’ve been a Philadelphia Eagles fan since grade school. During that sixty years, I’ve lived and died with them. (Okay, died. All but once.) The fact that we can get emotionally involved with corporations whose employees will walk off to the next corporation that offers more money continues to amaze me. I won’t try to explain it. I’m as delusional as the next person.
Last Sunday, the Eagles lost a first-round playoff game to the Packers. Usually that would induce several days of despair and loathing. This time, I almost didn’t notice.
I guess it was because of the Tucson event the day before. It more or less put things into perspective.
JOURNAL ENTRY #82
February 1, 2011
A week ago, I was participated in a book club discussion dealing with Thayer Scudder’s Global Threats, Global Futures: Living with Declining Living Standards. While Scudder is at heart optimistic about where we’re headed, he admits that stringent measures will be required to get through the difficult times ahead. He’s especially concerned with poverty and the growing gap between rich and poor in nations around the world. (I’ve always thought of the chasm that we are beginning to see, even in the United States, as the definition of a third-world country.)
Other areas giving off scary signals: fundamentalist tendencies everywhere. Think in terms of putting belief before evidence. We will after all require some flexibility to get through this. And a serious danger is also arising from our failure to take action to preserve the climate.
I have to confess that I did not have time to read the book, but it has gone on my to-do list. I’ve been concerned since the 1950’s that a constantly increasing population will eventually lead to catastrophe. (The population of the U.S. in those happy years was 130 million. And we did not need to import oil.) I can’t remember a time when it was not obvious that nothing we do will bail us out in the end unless we get control of population growth.
One of the participants commented that we are all interested in acquiring power. He’s a psychologist, or a psychiatrist. Don’t recall which. But his opinion consequently carried weight. Nevertheless, I have never had the sense that most of the people I’ve known have been interested in power per se. Those that were tended to be bosses of varying sorts. And since I did management and supervisory training for more than ten years, I’d encountered a lot of bosses. But even there, I did not usually see people whose primary interest was moving up the food chain.
To be clear, I define seeking power, at least among bosses, as a tendency to act according to what is best for one’s own ambitions, as opposed to what the organization needs. Or the people working for us. I’ve seen some, of course. And unfortunately, they do seem to have a knack for getting promoted. I’ve had a sense over the years that people who want to be in charge tend to be fairly limited in their vision, and are also the last people you want making decisions. I suppose it all fits in with Arthur Clarke’s dictum that any one actively seeking the White House shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the oval office.
Mike Resnick and I have started work on The Cassandra Project. Since the original short story was mine, my assignment was to write the first chapter. I completed it the other day and sent it to Mike. This was the first time I’ve allowed anyone to see a first draft. But we don’t want to start reworking anything until we have a complete draft in our hands.
This by the way is an important principle for anyone with ambitions to write a novel: Don’t try fixing stuff until you have a complete book. You don’t want to spend a lot of time tuning up, say, chapter three when you don’t know yet that chapter three will even make the final cut.
Mike took a look at it, pointed out where I’d run off the road, and made some suggestions. He was right. I sent the new version to him an hour ago. And if you’re thinking I don’t take my own advice, this wasn’t simply a matter of polishing the prose. I’d gotten us headed in the wrong direction.
By the way, if you’ve read the original short story and think you know what’s going on, you have a surprise coming. The short version was a cover-up.
The Priscilla Hutchins story is done and has been sent to John Adams. If he likes it, it will appear in his forthcoming anthology Armor. Hutch is 22, trying to qualify for a pilot’s license, when she us assigned to a ship taking supplies to a research vehicle near a pulsar. Just drop the supplies and come home.
But when they arrive, they discover the research vessel has been devastated by orbiting debris. Hutch’s partner, using the only armored pressure suit they have, goes over to look for survivors. There is one: a black cat.
The problem: How to get the cat to the rescue vessel through heavy radiation. Unfortunately it and the pilot won’t fit together in the suit. Question: Is it rational to risk your life to save a cat?
I suspect –though I shouldn’t say so— that “The Cat’s Pajamas” will be a chapter in a new Hutch novel shortly. (That would be 2013, if anyone’s counting.)
February 16, 2011
The Singularity has shown up as the cover story on the current issue of Time. The prediction is that it will happen in 2045. With a little luck, we will achieve superintelligence, get rid of death, and, apparently, find ourselves in a world dominated by software. Lev Grossman, who wrote the story, paints a dazzling picture of what may be coming, but cautions us against certainty.
I agree with him there. My natural skepticism about predictions might be a lingering aftertaste of my failure to get a jet pack. Or the notion that by 2001 we’d have a base on Mars and be sending manned missions to Jupiter and Saturn. If we’ve learned anything over the past century, it is that the world will change, but that it will probably do so in wildly unpredictable ways. We’ll see.
The current issue of The Atlantic also has a cover story of interest to those of us who wonder what’s coming down the road. It’s artificial intelligence this time. The author, Brian Christian, takes the position that AI’s will ultimately help us get a better sense of who we are. Or perhaps, more to the point, who we can be.
I’ve always been struck by the vast range of human behavior. From people with a brilliant sense of humor to those who see only the dark side of everything. From a cop who will jump in front of a train to pull a drunk clear, to those who stand around and watch someone being assaulted without lifting a finger. From Albert Schweitzer to Joe Stalin. How do we account for it? Is it primarily genetic? Or might world history have been different had a few people told Adolf Hitler how good his painting was?
I guess the question I’m really asking is whether there isn’t a superior human being in all of us, funny and smart and compassionate, or whether we are doomed to obey, within narrow parameters, the instructions laid out by our individual genetic codes?
I finished another story yesterday: “Listen Up, Nitwits.” That makes four in the last few weeks. One of them, I suspect, doesn’t work. Maureen’s not impressed with it and she’s a pretty good judge. The others, “Lucy,” “The Cat’s Pajamas,” and “Nitwits” should be okay.
The Dallas/Fort Worth Convention (DFWCon) beckons. My son Chris and I are leaving tomorrow. We’ll be driving. Chris is selecting a couple of audiobooks for the trip, and I’ll contribute a few episodes of Stroke of Fate. It’s a radio show from the 50’s that presented historical turning points which could easily have gone in another direction.
I recall one episode in which Lincoln took a different career path and never became President, and another in which Lee accepted command of the U.S. Army. Julius Caesar marries Cleopatra, France kicks Hitler out of the Rhineland in 1936, and Hamilton wins his duel with Burr. It was my first experience with alternate history, and I began wondering why they didn’t teach history that way in the schools. Instead of worry about the date that something happened –we were always doing dates--, why not have students give their opinion how things might have gone had Alexander not died so young? Had Washington done what every other leader did after a revolution and seized power?
There by the way is the real debt we owe to our first president. He set the template.
I’ll be doing signings at the DFW Con Friday and Sunday. And I also have a Sunday reading. Readings work best if the material is short. And preferably hasn’t been published yet. That sounds like “Listen Up, Nitwits.”
March 1, 2011
My son Chris and I attended ConDFW in Dallas last weekend. This constituted a second effort to get to the con after being snowed out last year. (All this strange weather makes me feel as if I’m living in an SF novel, and that’s not usually a good thing.) We had an opportunity to spend time with Tim Powers, NASA’s Paul Abell, and Bill Fawcett, and a lot of other people.
Panels gave advice to aspiring writers, discussed whether space flight has a future, described how to write action in space without violating the laws of physics, and how to do world building. Lee Martindale, who conducted a telephone interview with me last year when the storm hit and I couldn’t get there, reprised her role. This time we sat in front of an audience and talked about how much fun SF can be, and why so many of us are so passionate about it.
I love cons. I’m repeating myself here, but it’s worth saying again: Science fiction readers seem to be drawn from the same crowd no matter where you encounter them. Alabama to Rockland to San Diego. It always feels like the same people, and it always feels like coming home.
The nation’s problems derive largely from the fact that too many of us do not pay attention to what’s going on around us. That does not seem to be true among SF enthusiasts. And I’m not suggesting we all agree politically. We clearly do not. But most of us seem to have a reasonably clear view of the world, and the same general skepticism about talking points, no matter where they come from. It might be that we share a curiosity about the universe in general, or maybe simply that we like to read.
I’ll be doing a reading at the ICFA in Orlando Saturday, March 19. Then back to Orlando for OASIS at the end of May. I’ll also be at Dragoncon in Atlanta at the beginning of September. Maria Perry, at Flights of Fantasy for Books and Games in Albany, NY, has invited me in for a signing. That’ll happen Thursday evening, May 19 at 7:00 p.m.
Currently reading: Attack on the Liberty, by James Scott. It’s an account of the Israeli assault on the U.S. intelligence-gathering ship during its war with Egypt in 1967. Also: One Christmas in Washington, by David J. Berguson and Holger H. Herwig. Churchill and FDR put together the Grand Alliance after the attack on Pearl.
While traveling to Dallas –we drove— Chris and I listened to a recording of the newscasts coming in on December 7. I got an impression that, although everyone recognized that a war had begun, they seemed not yet to have grasped the full implications of it. There might have been a sense that the Japanese were a small nation, and that they could not long withstand U.S. firepower. And we hadn’t gotten word yet that U.S. battleships had been lined up like ducks in a row. Everyone knew there was a distinct possibility of an attack, but it doesn’t seem we took many precautions. And there was, as yet, no talk of Germany.
The Japanese had apparently intended that the White House would get the declaration of war prior to the actual start of the attack. But if so, the timing wasn’t good. The incoming message was long and required translation. Unfortunately, there’d been a party at the Japanese Embassy the night before, and the translators were not at the top of their game.
I was invited to participate in a Space.com project: If I could ask the President one question, or make one suggestion, regarding the U.S. space program, what would it be? The segment is now posted: http://www.space.com/10985-obama-congress-space-exploration-budget.html--
Good news last weekend: Echo made the final Nebula ballot. The winners will be announced May 21 in Washington. Needless to say, I’ll be there.
March 15, 2011
Readers have been asking about Hutch, whether she’ll be back. I mentioned in one of the earlier journal entries that I’d completed a story featuring her in training to be a pilot. The title is “The Cat’s Pajamas,” and it will appear in Armor, edited by John Joseph Adams, with a 2012 publication date. So yes, she’ll be back.
Writing about her had the effect of renewing my own interest. I’d been thinking about doing a prequel for some time, and “The Cat’s Pajamas” would make a decent chapter. When Mike Resnick and I finish writing The Cassandra Project, toward the end of the year, I expect to start on a Hutch novel. As of now I have no story line, no title, just a cat in an impossible situation. But I suspect the rest will show up, probably during a heavy rainstorm. Unfortunately, even if all goes according to plan, the book would not arrive in the stores until 2013. (Assuming we still have bookstores then.)
Usually, when writers do a reading, they’re more or less expected to read something that hasn’t been published yet. I’m scheduled to do a reading at 2:00 p.m. this Saturday, during the ICFA event in Orlando. I have three stories available, but all are too long. The people running ICFA have prudently limited us to twenty minutes. That’s a good idea, because reading something much longer than that tends to put everybody to sleep.
That leaves me with only one nonpublished alternative. That would be to do a section from Firebird, the Alex Benedict novel that will be out in the fall. But I’d have to pick a cliff-hanger fragment to get it to work. And I don’t much like doing cliff-hangers for an audience that will, at best, have to wait eight months to see how things get resolved. If the book were due out in two weeks, I wouldn’t hesitate.
Best is to go for a story that’s been around. Preferably a comedy. So I think I’ll read “Henry James, This One’s For You.” It was a Nebula nominee a few years ago, I’ve read it before, and it always gets laughs.
The Japanese disaster this week has caused all of us to back off and take a second look at nuclear power. In a world replete with fault lines and religious crazies who have no compunction about blowing themselves up, it’s hard not to conclude that the atom does not constitute a long term solution to the energy problem. Les Johnson, Greg Matloff, and C. Bangs offer a possible solution in Paradise Regained (Praxis, 2010). The authors argue that the technology exists, or is within reach, to put solar collectors into geostationary orbit. They would pick up solar energy, convert it to electromagnetic radiation, and beam it back to ground stations. This technique, they argue, could be made to supply energy needs around the planet. (I should point out here that Les is a friend, and in fact I wrote the intro for the book. So I’m not exactly objective. But it sounds good to me.)
The problem is that a collector project would take a lot of money, a sustained effort, and consequently some serious sacrifice in the short term. I can’t help wondering where we might have been had some of the resources that have been put into the wars of the past half-century been directed instead toward solving the energy problem that we saw coming back in 1950. At least the kids at my high school did. Not sure about the politicians.
The Great Books Foundation has just published Science Fiction Omnibus. The organization describes itself as “an independent non-profit educational organization whose mission is to empower readers of all ages to become more responsible and reflective readers.” The Omnibus includes E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Star” (which gets my vote as the all-time best SF story), Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man,” James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and Connie Willis’s “Even the Queen.” Among others.
I wish, when I’d been an English teacher, I’d had this anthology to work with. And I should confess that seeing my own story, “Promises to Keep,” in the table of contents, has made it hard not to walk around these last few days with a silly grin.
April 1, 2011
In the last entry, I mentioned possibly doing a Priscilla Hutchins prequel after finishing The Cassandra Project. But a different venue might work better. I’d recently completed a Hutch short story, “The Cat’s Pajamas,” for the John Adams anthology, Armor, due out next year. This morning, I finished a second Hutch story, “Maiden Voyage.” And I’ve discovered that she works at least as well in the shorter format as in the novel. I’m going to try to do a few more and see how that plays out. Both stories, by the way, take place during her qualification flight.
Les Johnson and I have finally settled on a title for our 2012 anthology, which will feature both fiction and nonfiction centering on efforts to leave the solar system. It will be Across the Void. At the moment we have stories in from Ben Bova, Charles Gannon, Sarah Hoyt, Louise Marley, and Michael Bishop. Les and I are also making contributions.
Word arrived last week that Chindi has been nominated for the Czech Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Award, in the category of the Best Science Fiction Book of 2010. The other shortlisted books are Pump 6, by Paolo Bacigalupi; The New Space Opera 2, edited by Gardner Dozois and Jonathan Strahan; Brasyl, by Ian McDonald; and The Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi.
The results will be announced as a part of the Book World Fair in Prague May 14th.
Came across some intriguing comments by H. L. Mencken today. Writing about critics, he comments that the majority of them settle for discussing the book or piece of art or musical rendition at hand. It is, he maintains, short-sighted. That nobody really cares what the critic thinks about the work in question. A serious critic, he maintains, takes on the issues dealt with the work. Not the work itself. Or at least not principally the work itself. One does not read a critic to find out whether he should go see the latest film remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” but rather to get a fresh perspective on the question of whether human beings will ever be capable of keeping the peace.
I’m interested in watching the eight-part John Kennedy film originally scheduled to run on the History Channel. But the History Channel backed off. I’m not clear why. Political pressure of some sort, apparently. Instead it will begin April 3 on REELZ.
I’m just old enough to remember how the country reacted to Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945. Broadcasters in tears. My father commenting that it reminded him of his own immortality because FDR was such a gigantic figure. The entire country plunged into mourning.
In 1963, I was just out of the Navy, doing an English class at Woodrow Wilson High School in Levittown, PA, when word came in that JFK had been assassinated. When we’d finished for the day, I went back to my apartment, and then drove to my folks’s place in South Philadelphia. It was a painful ride, and somehow all the images have stayed with me. (I guess we all have a good memory for disasters. I can still remember hearing about the Pearl Harbor attack.)
But it’s interesting: Of all the killing visited on the country by lunatics, Pearl, 9/11, the Lockerbie bombing, a good many others, the death of JFK maintains a particularly personal note. Maybe because we all thought we knew him so well. (We didn’t, but that’s beside the point.)
Maybe because of what followed: It was impossible not to think that Kennedy would have been too smart to make a major commitment in Vietnam. That was undoubtedly something we wanted to believe. I don’t know why. But it was as if the lives of countless numbers of people were cut short by those fatal shots.
It fits with Robert Dyke’s excellent film “TimeQuest” (now upgraded and renamed “JFK: Second Chance), in which a time traveler goes back and warns Kennedy about Dallas. We avoid the war, Martin Luther King eventually ascends to the presidency, and by the 21st century we have Moonbase.
Would that it had been so.
April 14, 2011
James Scott’s Attack on the Liberty is a compelling account of the 1967 assault by Israeli forces, during the Six Day War, on an American spy ship in international waters. The author is the son of one of the junior officers on the Liberty. More than thirty men died, and two-thirds of the crew were injured, many severely. The Johnson White House, engulfed in the Vietnam War, covered it up as best they could. They did not want a loud argument with Israel, which they felt would generate even more heat in a nation already furious with the President. No one on the Israeli side ever accepted responsibility, and no one was ever prosecuted. Johnson and his staff, apparently, did not want to take a chance on alienating Jewish voters who, they felt, would have sided with Israel. That was one of the more frustrating aspects of the event. LBJ and his people forgot that the voters he was worried about are Americans first. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t have supported the President.
Incidentally, no explanation for the attack has ever been made public. It doesn’t appear that Israel could have failed to realize the Liberty was an American ship. What then could possibly have motivated them to risk their alliance with the U.S. by going after it? So we did nothing. There was no admission of wrongdoing. The Israelis paid token amounts to the families of the victims. And we moved on.
Looking the other way inevitably has a price, though. Less than a year later a second intelligence ship, the Pueblo, was seized by the North Koreans. Its crew was captured and tortured.
I’ve been collaborating with Mike Resnick on The Cassandra Project. It’s given me more free time than I’ve ever had working alone. Consequently I’ve been able to write more short fiction in the last three months than in the previous several years. I’m at six stories now, after completing “Waiting at the Altar,” in which Hutch continues her certification flight.
The collaboration, by the way, has been going well. Mike’s been a friend for a long time, but I’d heard a lot of stories about the difficulties involved when writers try to work together. Not that I hadn’t done collaborations before. I’ve written stories with physicist Michael Shara, with Stan Schmidt, and a story for a Batman anthology with Mark Van Name. They all went easily enough, but doing a 5,000-word narrative is not quite the same as putting together a 120,000-word novel. It’s not only the length, but there tends to be more complexity in the longer work. If there isn’t, there should be.
But so far everything’s gone well. And seeing the way someone else approaches a narrative can become a valuable learning experience. Especially someone who operates at Mike’s level.
Over the years, I’ve probably gotten as much enjoyment out of Ben Bova’s Sam Gunn stories as any other series I can think of. Tor books published a complete collection, The Sam Gunn Omnibus, two years ago today. It’s a brilliant collection, sometimes funny, often poignant, invariably imaginative. Sam is my favorite astronaut. If you haven’t met him yet, this would be the way to do it.
Journal Entry #88
May 01, 2011
The copy edits for Firebird are in. Firebird is the next Alex & Chase novel, in which the antiquarian looks into the disappearance forty years earlier of an erratic physicist well known primarily because he vanished. But there’s something else odd about him: Over thousands of years, ships of an unknown nature have shown up occasionally on sensors and scopes, failed to identify themselves, and subsequently went away. Nobody has any idea what they are or where they originated. And there seems to be a connection with the physicist. On two of the three occasions during his adult lifetime that sightings were made, he was present.
The book will be released in November.
Writers and editors usually get the credit, or the blame, for the final product. And that is as it should be. But there’s a major contributor who tends to remain invisible, and that’s the copy editor. His responsibility is to go through the manuscript, fix the grammatical errors, get the spelling right, and suggest smarter ways to say things. That’s the easy part. He is also expected to catch inconsistencies and pick up other blunders. When Harry shows up in chapter 14, it’s up to the copy editor to point out that the author killed him off in chapter six. He will also note that the lander doesn’t refuel, as the narrative says on page 401; rather, it recharges (p. 38). And he has to do all this without alienating the author.
When the math goes wrong, when the author gets the girl friend’s name wrong –It was Jennifer originally--, when some other detail goes astray, we expect the copy editor to point it out so it can be repaired. There are, at a modest estimate, several hundred repair jobs of different kinds that needed to be done on Firebird. And I’m only halfway through. Anyway, this seemed like the right time to raise a glass to my copy editors, Sara and Bob Schwager. (Yes, I need two of them.) Thanks, guys.
Tad Daley has written a book that reminded me of a cause I’d embraced years ago, and managed to forget during the years since the end of the Cold War. It’s Apocalypse Never, and it’s probably the most unsettling book I’ve ever read.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, I can remember being parked outside the Main Library in Philadelphia, the one just off the Parkway in center city. I was listening to radio reports as U.S. destroyers moved to block Soviet ships headed for Cuba carrying missiles and, maybe, nuclear weapons. At that time, I did not believe we would make it to the next weekend. A breakout war with the Soviets seemed inevitable. There’d been showdowns over Berlin, massive weapons tests, Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the table at the U.N. Lots of threats back and forth. When I was in high school, we conducted drills, hiding as best we could. (None of us could fit under the desks.)
We’ve forgotten all that now. And yes, a shootout between Russia and the U.S. is much less likely in 2011 than it was in, say, 1965. But the possibility nevertheless exists. And both powers have thousands of nuclear weapons in their arsenals. And Tad Daley points out that, if such a confrontation seems unlikely, there are plenty of other scenarios that could get us killed by the millions, or, possibly, end our existence altogether. With all these weapons rolling around loose, he says, it’s only a matter of time before somebody accidentally sets one off. Or steals one to blow up some infidels. Or a government with nuclear weapons collapses and suddenly we are looking at some crazies with their hands on a nuclear arsenal. Or-- But you get the point.
His argument is that as long as the bombs exist, they are an ongoing hazard. That it’s just a matter of time before one or more of them goes off. And that the consequences, even after the detonation of a lone bomb, could ultimately be catastrophic around the world.
When I finished the book, I found myself back in my car parked outside the Philadelphia Library again.
A couple of readers have asked about my reaction to the elimination of funding for SETI. Obviously, it costs too much. Maybe not quite as much as a war, but after all we have to keep our priorities straight. After all, why should we be spending money on an issue of no consequence?
We continue to spend more on the military than the rest of the world combined. I haven’t run that through Fact Check, but I’ve seen it in so many places that I suspect that, if not true, it’s probably pretty close. But we need those bases around the world.
When the second war ended, in 1945, I was in the fourth grade. And I can remember thinking how nice it was going to be growing up in a world where the USA would be at peace.
I wonder where the country would be today had we taken advantage of the collapse of the USSR, reduced our military footprint, and put the money into improving our schools, developing energy alternatives, restoring the infrastructure, and maybe installing some high-speed lines? It’s hard to think, historically, of a single major power that didn’t eventually lose ground, or collapse altogether, because it overextended itself.
May 16, 2011
Being an editor isn’t as easy as I’d always believed. I was under the impression that editors simply decided what they would publish from the assorted submissions that came in, and sent out checks.
Les Johnson, an author and physicist who works for NASA, invited me to help assemble an anthology that would feature nonfiction and fiction, with a focus on plausible means to escape the solar system. How it might be done, using reasonably foreseeable technology. (Translation: No FTL.)
It turns out that editing involves a lot of reading, some judgment, working with writers –something you tend not to notice when you’re the writer--, and a fair amount of organizational skills. Fortunately Les has done most of the administrative stuff, and I’m happy to report the project is nearing an end.
We have four essays, “Fusions Starships” and “Antimatter Starships,” both by Greg Matloff; “Solar Sail Ships,” by Les; and “Project Icarus,” by Richard Obousy. Considering the time involved to get to even the nearest of stars, I’m inclined to wait for the Enterprise.
We’ve also acquired stories by Louise Marley, Sarah Hoyt, Charles E. Gannon, Ben Bova, Mike Resnick, and Michael Bishop. Les and I have also contributed. What we do not yet have is a title. We’ve considered Going Interstellar, Across the Abyss, Across the Void, Centauri Express, Road to Centauri, and a few others. I’d have suggested Outbound except that I’d already used it for a collection.
The book, whatever the title turns out to be, will be published by Baen, probably sometime in 2012. It will be intriguing. Stay tuned.
In the previous journal entry I mentioned Tad Daley’s Apocalypse Never, voicing his conviction that we need to get rid of the world’s nuclear stockpiles. The book is so significant that I hope to see it get serious attention. I couldn’t resist writing a review, which appeared last weekend in Jacksonville’s newspaper, the Florida Times-Union. Link:
Busy week coming. I’ll be in Albany, NY, at the Flights of Fancy Books and Games Thursday evening, May 19 at 7:00 p.m. to sign and hang out.
Friday, May 20: Visiting my alma mater Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. At 3:00 p.m., David Miller and I will participate in a seminar, “Heading for the High Country: Change and Science Fiction,” which will try to look at where we’re going and whether we really want to take the plunge. The event is scheduled for the Exley Science Center, room 184 (the Woodhead Lounge). I should add that the title was, early on, one of those considered for the anthology.
David’s special field of interest is planetary robotics. He’s a cofounder of KISS Institute for Practical Robotics, and has been developing tools to promote technology education through robotics at both the University and the K-12 levels.
I’ll be at the Washington Hilton Saturday and Sunday for the Nebulas. SFWA has scheduled me to moderate a Sunday morning panel, “Old Ways, New Ways.” I’m something of a premier expert on the old ways, with fond recollections of carbon paper and electric typewriters, which were pure magic in their time.
The following weekend, May 27-29, Maureen and I will head for OASIS in Orlando. Dragoncon is also on the schedule. This was originally planned as a year off. Not sure what happened.
June 2, 2011
Connecticut is a long way from South Georgia. I drove first to the King of Prussia area west of Philadelphia to spend some time with old college friends. Then on to Albany, New York, for a signing at the Flights of Fancy Books and Games. Maria Perry, the store’s owner, treated me to dinner. We were joined by Jay Finder (known to fandom as The Wombat), Pam Sargent and George Zebrowski. Afterward we returned to the store, did the signing, after which a group of us sat around for another hour or so and solved the world’s problems.
Next day, Friday May 20, it was on to Middletown, CT, for the beginning of the Reunion and Commencement Weekend at Wesleyan University, where I’d received my master’s degree. (In literature, in case anyone’s wondering.) I joined physicist David Miller for a seminar about evolving technology and the way it is affecting us. Dave is a relaxed and entertaining explainer of the mysteries of the universe. People seem increasingly interested in SF. The conversation drew an overflow crowd, which jumped in with enthusiasm. Everybody seemed to enjoy themselves.
It was the first time I’d been back since my graduation, in 1972. That’s the sort of experience that reminds you how much the world has changed. Middletown, a quiet, almost country place with picket fences and patches of woods in those years, has acquired the heavy traffic and crowded streets of a growing thoroughfare.
Another reminder of change: When we’d finished, I took off on I95 headed for South Jersey. It was a route I’d routinely driven when I was stationed at Newport, and later when I was in school. Never a problem getting through New York City as long as I didn’t get off the interstate.
Not this time.
I stayed with friends in Cherry Hill Friday night, and enjoyed a breakfast with them at Ponzio’s, where Phillies’ manager Charlie Manuel conducts his radio show. I’d have enjoyed asking him if the hitting will ever come around, but the timing didn’t work.
Afterward, I headed for D.C. and the Washington Hilton, where, that night, the Nebulas would be awarded. Mike Zipser, of Fast Forward, had arranged for an interview. Mike arrived shortly after I did and took me over to the studio. The interview was conducted by Tom Schaad.
Two hours later I made for the banquet hall and the awards ceremony, which was conducted smoothly by Michael Swanwick. Harlan Ellison’s “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” was among the nominees for best short story. Harlan was unable to attend, and had asked that Shawna McCarthy and I represent him if he won. He did, sharing the award with Kij Johnson, who took the prize for “Ponies.”
I met Harlan twenty years ago at the Sycamore Hill writers’ workshop. The workshop, at that time, was conducted by John Kessel and Mark Van Name. It was one of the more valuable professional experiences I’ve had, not only because it was an opportunity to sit with established writers and talk about what works –and what doesn’t--, but also because it provided an opportunity to actually relax with them and get to know them on a personal level. Something that never really seems to happen at a con, where somehow time is always short.
Among others I first met at Sycamore Hill were Mike Bishop, Nancy Kress, James Patrick Kelly, Jim Morrow, Charles Sheffield, Carol Emshwiller, Gregory Frost, Richard Butner, Maureen McHugh, Bruce Stirling, and Jonathan Lethem. Karen Joy Fowler was also a regular, but I’d been welcomed by her a few years earlier to a Nebula event on the Queen Mary. I miss Sycamore Hill. You want to attend a workshop, that was a pretty decent crew.
Maureen and I spent this following weekend at OASIS 24 in Orlando. I participated in four panels, dealing with topics ranging from the future of atomic energy to how to write salable fiction. The writer GoH was David Drake, who also has a Sycamore Hill connection, although I don’t think he ever actually attended. David showed up a couple of times at the closing parties.
I shared a signing table with him. He had –how should I put it?—a substantial crowd.
Shortly after I came out of college, I picked up the Oxford collection of Montaigne’s essays. It’s a substantial volume. Over the years, I’ve looked into it periodically. Always enjoyed it. Recently it seems to have taken me over completely. Probably won’t be doing much else for the next year or so.
June 15, 2011
We’ll be going out this evening to celebrate: Going Interstellar is finished. My co-editor, Les Johnson, is finishing with the loose ends. The anthology deals with getting out of the solar system with the technology that we already possess, or that we should have within the reasonably foreseeable future. That means no FTL.
We have five essays on the topic, two by Gregory Matloff, and one each by Charles E. Gannon, Richard Obousy, and by Les. Les has my favorite method, the solar sail. There are also eight stories, by Ben Bova, Louise Marley, Michael Bishop, Sarah A. Hoyt, Mike Resnick, and one each by the two editors.
I’ve done a substantial number of writing seminars, and I’m always full of advice, some of it useful, some maybe not, but one piece I’ve neglected. And it’s important: When you finish a project, especially a substantial one, it’s important to celebrate. At the very least take the evening, go out, forget the diet, and raise a toast to the Designer who has allowed you to make a living doing something so enjoyable.
Working on that book has had a curious effect on me. I’ve always had my doubts about whether we’d ever get out of the solar system. When you realize that the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is so far away that Apollo XI would need 50,000 years to get there, you tend to conclude it isn’t going to happen. After reading the essays and stories, I find it hard to imagine it will ever happen.
In the United States, we seem always to be in an election season. It’s happening now, of course. I’m listening to politicians on both sides go on about the deficiencies of their opponents. But nobody ever takes on either of the most significant hazards the world faces: nuclear stockpiles. And overpopulation.
Of course, no politician with any hope of being elected would dare to suggest that we campaign for a deal to get everyone to disarm. That would scare the devil out of some people who believe you could never set up a foolproof system to make sure everybody’s following the rules. (Maybe you can’t, but maybe it’s not really essential.) As to a constantly growing population, no one seems to realize that environmental issues, energy production, food and water resources, and so on, cannot be managed ultimately as long as we face a constantly growing global population. But what American politician could argue that we need to show some restraint and retain any chance of being elected?
I haven’t had much time for reading over the past thirty years. Consequently, my library has been piling up with books I’d really like to get to. These include Civilization, by Roger Osborne; the Modern Library collection of Francis Bacon; A Brief History of the Mind, by William Calvin; approximately twelve Dickens novels; Paideia, by Werner Jaeger; The Modern Mind, by Peter Watson; a couple of Mark Twain collections; Black Holes & Time Warps, by Kip Thorne; Hercule Poirot’s Casebook, by Agatha Christie; and Brian Fagan’s Time Detectives. Also, there is Nancy Kress and Greg Benford and Greg Bear and Karen Joy Fowler and about a dozen more to whose work I’ve become addicted.
I probably spend fifty hours a week writing. Add baseball to all this, a passion for the theater, and a love for old movies (I took time last night to watch Stan and Ollie in The Music Box), and life has a tendency to get crowded. That’s not a complaint, by the way. And Stan and Ollie, despite the fact that I’ve more or less left slapstick behind, are still hilarious.
I lost interest in the American slapstick comedy I’d grown up with when I discovered during my college years that the Brits were far ahead of us. No American could touch Terry-Thomas or Alistair Sim. And I was never the same after watching the machinations of the young ladies at St. Trinian’s.
I received the copy-edits yesterday for a story that will be appearing in Analog at some point over the next few months. The story is “Dig Site,” and, as you can guess, it has to do with an odd archeological discovery on an island in the Aegean. Analog has also picked up “Listen Up, Nitwits.”
I’ve accepted an invitation to attend ConCarolinas next year in Charlotte, June 1-3. Also, I’ll be at Miami ComicCon, December 8-9, 2012. (Note: next year.)
June 30, 2011
One of the characters in The Cassandra Project, which I’m co-writing with Mike Resnick, is George Cunningham, the president of the U.S. The year is 2019, the fiftieth anniversary of the Moon landings, and the beginning of a presidential election season.
Cunningham is caught up in a flood of rumors about the original Apollo missions, but there’s no way to go through a novel featuring someone sitting in the oval office without at least mentioning some of the other problems he’s facing. It’s something I’ve thought a lot about over the past two months. We can assume the usual issues will be front and center. The country will undoubtedly still be broke. The present imbalance of wealth –one of the signs of a third world nation—will probably have gotten worse. I’d be surprised if we’ve done anything positive about the schools. (You’ve seen the statistics now, with American students lagging well behind the kids from almost every other industrialized nation.) The basic problem with American education isn’t the schools per se, it’s the culture which the schools represent. E.g, every plan for improvement produced by politicians tends to overlook the most critical factor in the system: the parents. If kids come from homes where the parents don’t care, or are missing, or can’t set an example, or don’t know what to do to help, they are handicapped from the start. Until we can find a way to involve Mom and (hopefully) Dad, we’re going to continue to stumble along.
But that’s old stuff. I’ve been looking for problems that no one’s paying attention to at the moment. And that, in our traditional way, we won’t bother with until they become a major issue. For example, life extension. We continue to make major strides. But what happens when people routinely live past 100? Do we retool social security some more? Raise the retirement age to 85? If the whole population starts restricting diets, doing exercise, and gives up smoking, we are going to face some serious issues. Maybe there’ll be a nationwide movement for people to demonstrate their patriotism by jumping from a pier.
Aside from extended life spans, we will still be facing a population problem. But how do we even confront it? I can’t imagine an American politician having any chance of getting to the White House while campaigning on a theme of having smaller families.
There’s the loss of value in the currency, which has been going on a long time. How many dollars will you need to buy a Coke?
Then there’s the population imbalance issue, deriving from the increasing popularity among undeveloped nations of China’s one-child-per-family plan. One problem is that poor families want workers and abort girls. There is already a shortage of girls in a number of countries. How annoyed do you suppose millions of young males may become when they can’t find any women?
There are other issues, but that’ll probably do for now.
I’ve mentioned before that no SF film ever has hit me the way Robert Dyke’s TimeQuest did. Maybe it’s because of the sheer power of the film. Maybe it’s because Kennedy’s death had such an impact on my generation. A time traveler goes back to Texas in 1963 and warns Kennedy of the forthcoming assassination. And also of ‘a second assassination.’ ‘Stop cheating on Jackie,’ he says. ‘The world will find out.’
And history takes a different route. JFK becomes the president we’d thought we had. We don’t go into Vietnam. MLK eventually becomes president. We get Moonbase. An upgraded version of the film is now available as JFK:Second Chance. And the ‘second chance’ has a different significance from what you might expect.
For transparency: The writer/director, Robert Dyke, is a friend. But I didn’t know him when I had my initial reaction to the movie.
Free will may be an illusion. The July/August issue of The Atlantic has an intriguing article, “The Brain on Trial.” When people do seriously deranged things, like climbing a tower in Texas and shooting everybody in sight, to what degree, if any, are they responsible? The argument offered here is that we aren’t nearly as much in control of our lives as we think. Free will is, to a remarkable degree, an illusion. Genetics gets involved. Brain damage. Tumors. But if we’re not responsible for our actions, and we aren’t talking here only about murder, but also about things like having an extraordinarily good time, partying through the night, can anyone hold it against us?
The Great Books Foundation has released the Science Fiction Omnibus. The contents include Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” Arthur Clarke’s “The Star,” Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man,” and stories by J. G. Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut, Orson Scott Card, and Connie Willis, among others. They’ve also picked up my own “Promises to Keep.”
“Promises to Keep” was written in the Customs office of the railroad depot at Noyes, MN in 1982. Between trains. I would have loved to know that one day it would be keeping such company.
Also, David Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer have released Year’s Best SF 16. It includes the “The Cassandra Project,” a short story from Lightspeed, which inspired the novel mentioned above. Incidentally, readers need not worry about the story being a spoiler. Can’t happen.
Upcoming: I’ll be at Dragoncon September 1-5, in Atlanta. And at the Northeastern Georgia Writers’ workshop Wednesday, Oct 5, 1-3 p.m. We’ll be on the third floor of the Peach State Bank.
July 15, 2011
I suppose it makes sense that, considering the state of the economy, we should cancel the James Webb Telescope. The Webb has been advertised as being as much an advance on the Hubbell as the Hubbell was over other telescopes that preceded it. One major advantage the Webb will have, if it ever shows up, will be its positioning, 1.5 million miles from Earth. That’s a long way out. We’d hoped to have it in place in about seven years.
The total cost for the Webb is estimated at about $7 billion. Its purpose: An opportunity to look back far enough to see the afterglow of the Big Bang. To study the formation of galaxies and planetary systems. Possibly to settle issues about the likelihood of life elsewhere. And maybe even to determine whether we live in a universe of infinite dimensions.
Okay, maybe that last one is over the top. But this instrument would be nice to have. Seven billion, however, isn’t to be sneezed at. Though it pales somewhat in contrast to the $787 billion we’ve put into the Iraqi War, as I write this. (The cost, by the way, continues to climb at a rate of a thousand dollars every few seconds.) Of course, where would we be today had we not gone into Iraq? And that’s just one example.
Anyway, we are now hearing that Congress is going to cancel the Webb funding to punish NASA for running over the cost estimates. Yes, indeed. Probably inevitable. Makes me wonder, though, why President Eisenhower didn’t warn us against the astronomical complex.
Maureen and I had lunch recently with Glen Finland. Glen’s a freelance journalist and a professor at American University in D.C., where she teaches writing. I wish I’d had a college writing instructor who was as talented as she is.
Glen is the mother of three sons, the youngest of whom, David, is autistic. She’s written a memoir, Next Stop, recounting her experiences steering David through his school years and, later, trying to work out how to let go. To allow him to find a life of his own. The book, due out next year, is illuminating, inspiring, and at times heartbreaking. But it’s about much more than managing a family with a disabled child. Its core vision shines a light on what makes us human. It’s one of those very rare books that will leave its readers changed forever.
I’ve also begun reading Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality. I’ll confess up front that when the conversation turns to superstrings, gluons, negative gravity and inflaton fields (the spelling is correct) , I tend to get lost. When I was a kid, I can remember wondering whether the sky went on forever. If it did, what was at the boundary? A wall? A vast cloud? Maybe a dropoff of some sort?
A few weeks ago I sat with a few people in an Albany, NY, restaurant. Among the diners were Pamela Sargent and George Zebrowski. George was talking about the notion now gaining favor among physicists that we live in a universe so large that all possibilities occur somewhere. That there are countless copies or near-copies of each of us doing all sorts of improbable stuff. Where George is President of the United States and I’m the inventor of the light bulb.
I understand the math behind the assertion. (Greene makes it remarkably clear even for English majors.) But I can’t settle in on what we might consider ‘possible.’ Because there are other aspects to reality than the purely physical. For example, would it be possible to have a technological civilization with no public washrooms? Would a civilization within the first few thousand years of its development, constructed by creatures evolved from a jungle, be able consistently to produce selfless, rational politicians?
Nonetheless there are some interesting story possibilities in the concept. A space traveler lands on an Earthlike world and is greeted by himself. Same face. Same basic personality. Same name. And they speak the same language. How far would you have to travel, how many worlds visit, before that would become, not simply remotely possible, but a likely result?
Greene points out that we live in a universe with some startling possibilities. Indeed, Holmes.
Today, for The Cassandra Project, I have to write some gag-lines for a Jay Leno-type character who will be targeting the President of the United States. The President seems to be woefully misinformed about the early Moon landings. I have new respect for the guys who write the jokes for Leno and David Letterman and Jon Stewart. The old observation about comedy being hard has some validity.
One of the most frequent questions I hear at cons, since the publication of Time Travelers Never Die two years ago, is: If I actually had a time machine available, where would I go with it? What would I use it for? Some people, like Dave and Shel, would go back to meet George Washington or Calamity Jane. Others talk about attending an event. Again, like Shel and Dave, they’d like to show up for the VJ-Day celebration in New York. Or use the opportunity to track down what happened to Amelia Earhart, and maybe bring her back to our time. (That’s actually a pretty good idea.) So what would I do?
The Earhart thing would be tricky since I’d need a plane and a pilot. And I’m not sure what you could manage the rescue once her aircraft went into a tailspin. But getting away from the historical material: I’m old enough now that I’ve learned the value of friends. Too many have died; too many gone missing. One of the problems we all share, I suspect, is a lack of awareness of the value of the present moment. There are a lot of people I’d like to go back and see again. Now, I can recall the time wasted talking with them about trivia. Although maybe that’s what we do with the people who matter in our lives. The conversation is less relevant than the simple presence. I’ve written somewhere that the secret of life is lunch. I wasn’t kidding. Lunch with someone we love, that we care about, that we may not have forever, is priceless.
August 1, 2011
One of Anton Chekhov’s stories rang a bell last week. The story was “Old Age,” and it described the experience of a successful architect returning to his home town in his later years. He discovers he does not recognize it.
This is the town where he was born, grew up, and eventually married. But no one knows him, or remembers him, except the lawyer who represented him during the divorce proceedings. The architect has matured considerably since those early years, and he recalls with angst how he treated his first wife. And on the way he lived. He was able to secure the divorce by bribing the wife to admit fault. But the lawyer confesses –‘no harm now’- that he kept all but a few rubles himself. His wife simply gave him what he wanted.
The architect has come back to restore the church. But that leads him to the cemetery where his ex is buried. He stands a long time by her gravestone.
This is pretty serious stuff, of course. But the reality is that, as we get older we mature. At least most of us do. And that means we acquire more empathy. And become more aware of the casual cruelties we’ve inflicted along the way. Not saying goodbye, e.g., to people who matter when we walked out of their lives. Not acknowledging favors we’ve received. Not helping others when it would have cost us nothing. There are a few teachers I should have said something to. And some other people who got away without ever knowing how they’d impact my life. Usually we don’t mean any harm. We’re just dumb.
That quality goes away with the passing years, and we can see more clearly where we’ve been negligent. Occasionally, we hear someone say that he/she has no regrets. ‘Can’t think of anything I’d do differently.’ Anyone who says that hasn’t been paying attention.
Chekhov makes the point brilliantly in that story. I don’t know how old he was when he wrote it. But he was only 44 when he died.
Mike Resnick and I finished a complete draft of The Cassandra Project this week. So the brute work is done. And that means it’s time to start thinking about what the next solo novel will be. I’ve written several short stories this year featuring Priscilla Hutchins during the period when she was trying to qualify for her license. (One of those stories, “Maiden Voyage” will be in the January Asimov’s.) There still seems to be considerable interest in the character. She’s a pleasure to write about, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a 22-year-old Hutch show up for the next major project.
Incidentally, another story, “Dig Site,” will be in the next issue of Analog.
Most SF readers, I suspect, would enjoy Neil Degrasse Tyson’s Death by Black Hole. Tyson is an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. You’ve probably seen him on the Science Channel and elsewhere. The book is eminently readable, and deals with such subjects as the potential for life elsewhere in the universe, the cultural response to science, the religious interface, some intriguing ways the cosmos might kill us off, and other topics of general interest.
Occasionally, readers ask whether I ever plan to do a horror novel. I’ve never attempted one, and probably won’t. Maybe I’ve lived too long, and seen too many haunted houses, too many mummies who won’t stay dead, too many werewolves. I remember being terrified by the Frankenstein films when I was a kid. Years later, when I read the novel I was shocked to discover that the monster was not the creature, but rather Dr. Frankenstein. While the good doctor ignored his desperate creation, it was reading Milton and trying to connect with the human race.
If I could write like Mary Shelley, I’d have no reluctance about attempting a horror novel. But in my hands the product would probably not get past the good guys being chased around a Gothic landscape by a vampire or some such thing.
I suspect I could give a whole new meaning to the term ‘horror novel.’
August 15, 2011
We attended an all-out birthday bash for a long-time friend Saturday evening at the TPC Sawgrass Clubhouse on Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Friends and family ate and drank the night away while the band played on. It was what birthday parties should be, a celebration of a life rather than simply counting the passage of another twelve months. We hadn’t seen Linda, the target of all the appreciation, for several years, and it got me thinking about the importance of the moment.
Time has a habit, as we grow older, of accelerating until we get the sense we’re riding a bullet train. The world outside becomes a blur. Back in the sixties, when I was an English teacher in eastern Pennsylvania, I can remember suggesting to my students that they look around and enjoy the lives they had and the people they knew. Do it now. Because the day will come, I said in my most stentorian manner, when they won’t be there anymore. They’ll be long gone, and when you come back here, the school will have been converted into a parking lot. When it happens, and it will, you’d give almost anything to be able to live through this day again, and to say hello to old friends.
It came true, of course. Not the parking lot. But the rest of it. What I hadn’t been thinking about, though, was that it also came true for me. I’d love to be able to return to that classroom, just for a single period, and spend time with those kids again. Most of them are now retired.
It’s why Linda’s birthday party meant so much. Her husband Phil arranged things to bring people together again. So we could relive some of what had gone before. The only downside was that you can slow the bullet train, but you can’t stop it altogether. At least not for more than an evening at a time. I realized that while discovering that my moves on the dance floor have gotten a bit clankier.
I finished Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality. I’ll confess that parts of it were a challenge to follow, but my sense of the cosmos has changed. I’d always assumed that if we do in fact live in a multiverse, that the other universes are simply akin to bubbles in a vast sea. Turns out that the possibilities are far wilder than that. For example, there might be multiple copies of me functioning in some realities as a brain surgeon and in others as a street cleaner. Every possibility, it seems, may be realized somewhere. I can’t quite get hold of the implications.
I hereby express my gratitude to the author, not only for some enlightenment as to what might be out there, but also for a story idea. Which I will get to work on as soon as I finish the second draft of The Cassandra Project. I have the title: “Glitch.”
Next up for our book club after The Hidden Reality is Jack Miles’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, God: A Biography.
Readers and friends frequently ask if there’s a secret to writing salable fiction. My initial inclination used to be that no, there is no secret. But I’m not so sure anymore. I’ll be talking to groups of aspiring writers in Macon and Atlanta this fall, and I know that one question everybody always gets wrong is: What is a fiction writer trying to do? The answer that is invariably offered: Tell a story.
That’s off-base. If we show up at, say, an award ceremony and afterward we get caught in a conversation with someone who starts telling a story about how the plumbing broke down, or he tripped over the lawn mower, we tend to start looking for an exit. A writer who aims at telling a story is going to have a serious problem selling his or her work.
I know I’ve written this before here somewhere, but it’s worth repeating: The secret to a successful career in writing is to drag the reader into the action. Break his heart when the love of his life walks off with Harry Brubaker, let him hear the wind in the trees on that lonesome night in the cottage at Herald Point, make sure he feels the exhilaration when his daughter chases down a long line drive to left with the bases loaded.
That’s easy to say, of course. But how does one actually accomplish it? Maybe start with real people, not stalwart heroes and mustache-twirling villains. Use a journalistic writing style. And put the action on stage. Which is to say, the director, the author, should stay out of the way. If we need to explain things to the reader, let the characters do it. Avoid the expository dump, in which the director stops the action and comes out onstage to tell us everything that happened over the last few weeks leading up to the scene now frozen in front of us.
Anything the writer does that reminds the reader that he’s reading, rather than piloting a superluminal somewhere near Sirius, damages the effect.
Hope to see you at Dragoncon.
August 31, 2011
One of the more common issues that readers ask about is whether I think we’ll ever get out of the solar system. The bottom line response to that –or nonresponse—is that nobody has a clue. I can’t imagine anyone on New Year’s Day, 1901, who could have come close to predicting how the new century would go. I’m inclined to think that human travel to the stars is possible, but extremely unlikely. They’re too far. Even if you could accelerate fast enough to make Alpha Centauri in, say, fifty years, the chance is pretty good that somewhere along the way your ship will bump into a small rock and, at those velocities, it would be bye bye baby.
On the other hand, my son Chris and I were discussing the possibility of some technological advance, and he simply couldn’t see it happening. (I think we were talking about tripling life spans, or some such thing.) Anyhow, I asked how he thought Ben Franklin would have reacted in, say, 1780, if we’d tried to tell him that a mere two centuries later the sky would be filled with thousands of heavier-than-air vehicles propelled by jets.
So I don’t know. We get remarkable progress in some areas, but it tends to be areas that we do not predict. Remember the film 2001? And by the way, who saw the internet coming? The basic issue that we need to resolve before we can even guess at interstella travel is whether hi-tech civilization will survive. Back in the 90’s, when the world was relatively at peace, the United States was producing balanced budgets, and academics were talking about the end of history, a glorious ride into the future seemed a given. I wasn’t sure what that entailed, what was really possible, but once the Cold War ended, and the Wall came down, the road ahead looked bright. It was hard to see how we could go wrong.
Now, somehow, the ground underfoot has become slippery.
Am I suggesting western civilization won’t survive? Of course not. I think we’ll make it. I just don’t think it’s a done deal anymore. For one thing, it’s going to require the average U.S. citizen –God bless her—to take the time to keep informed. To vote in every election. To pay attention. One of the major problems with a democratic system is that too many people decide their vote isn’t going to make any difference. And they stay home. Others simply get bored. And they leave the voting booth to the true believers.
Everyone needs to get involved. Maybe then we can stop these endless wars. Whatever that takes. How many innocent people –Iraqis and us-- are dead or seriously injured because of our Iraqi policies? How much have we spent? And when it’s finally over, what will we have bought with all that blood and treasure?
If we’re to have any hope of surviving into that dazzling future, with Moonbase, and extended life spans, and tourist vehicles gliding through the rings of Saturn, we need to get our house in order. We need to watch the politicians. And maybe most of all we need to question our own assumptions, and stop thinking something is true simply because we believe it to be true. Or we want it to be true.
Mike Resnick and I completed the final draft of The Cassandra Project earlier today. I’m going to try to write a few more short stories over the next two months. I’ve done more short fiction than usual in 2011. “Dig Site” is appearing in the current (November) Analog. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/images/B000N8V3EQ/ref=dp_image_z_0?ie=UTF8&n=133140011&s=digital-text --I’ve just sent them “Glitch.”
Asimov’s will be publishing “Maiden Voyage,” a story set during Hutch’s qualifying flight, in its January issue. I’ve submitted a second Hutch story to them, “Waiting at the Altar.”
But do not yet have a reply. A third, “The Cat’s Pajamas,” will show up in John Adams’s anthology, Armored: http://www.johnjosephadams.com/2011/05/cover-art-for-my-anthology-armored-baen-2012 --Armored will be out in 2012 from Baen, but does not yet have a release date.
And finally, “Lucy,” which is not a Hutch story, will show up in Going Interstellar, tentatively scheduled for a May, 2012 release. It will be an original paperback. (This is the anthology Les Johnson and I coedited.)
Currently reading: Not So! by Paul F. Boller, Jr., which concentrates on dispeling popular American myths. E.g, the notion that everybody in Columbus’s time thought the world was flat. Or that Herbert Hoover ignored the Depression. Or that Thomas Jefferson had an affair with Sally Hemings. (According to Boller, there’s no evidence.) There are numerous other widely-held beliefs that the author takes on.
I was, very briefly, a US history teacher. I don’t think I was very good at it. But if I had it to do again, I’d change my techniques. Essays or presentations would not simply ask students to explain why, for example, there was war between North and South. Instead, I’d require students to look at the world through the eyes of historical personages and devise a strategy. If you could go back in time and replace Woodrow Wilson at the end of WWI, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently to head off a second war?
If you’ve looked at the prologue from Firebird, and you’ve read any of the other Alex Benedict novels, you will not be surprised to learn that the incident described took place decades ago. And of course that, during the intervening years, it never showed up.
Off to Dragoncon tomorrow.
October 3, 2011
I spent the weekend at Crossroads, an annual writers’ conference and book festival in Macon, GA. Shane Trayers, an English professor at Macon State invited me to talk with a couple of her classes, and also to participate in a meet-and-greet in a campus coffee shop. The discussion at the coffee shop veered in numerous directions. We tried to define what fiction writers actually try to do, we debated methods for writing narratives that editors cannot resist, we wondered whether we’ve actually progressed in forming a multicultural society and whether racism is in the process of being relegated to an historical trash bin. (The general opinion seemed to be no. And we talked about whether anyone can produce a decent first draft. (The answer: John Updike, maybe.)
I experienced an unsettling moment when we were deep into the issue of where story ideas come from. I described an experience I’d had, in which news that the First Gulf War had broken out inspired a story, “Auld Lang Boom,” and someone commented that she remembered when the conflict had begun. The Freedom Riders came up during the same discussion, and several of those present did not recognize the term. Someone began to explain, commenting that he could not forget those who’d put themselves on the line. Everyone seemed shocked that he was old enough to remember the 1960’s, at which point –not being able to resist-- I mentioned that I remembered Pearl Harbor.
There was an audible gasp in the room. Most of those present stared at me in a state of shock. I was surprised at the reaction, but later I did the math. I was a student at LaSalle in Philadelphia in 1955, and the equivalent would have been a guest speaker who informed us that he remembered when the first electrical trolley wires went up. In fact, give it a few more years, and we might have had someone recalling the completion of the transcontinental railroad.
In response to the issue of what fiction writers actually do, and the most common way to make a mess of it, one need only think about the numerous ways to cause a distraction, thereby reminding the reader that (s)he is in a chair with a book, rather than living through a heartrending experience on a moonlit ocean beach. The person we love has just announced that it’s over, and is walking away while we listen to the rumble of the surf, and we encounter some clunky prose. Or the writer steps in to explain something painfully obvious. Like, e.g., that the protagonist felt just terrible. The illusion vanishes, the beach is gone, and we’re sitting at home with a book in our hands.
Saturday afternoon I shared a panel on “Getting the Writing Done” with Sarah Domet, Tina McElroy Ansa, and Nathan Edmondson. Chip Rogers served as moderator. Nobody was surprised to hear that there are no secrets. You just have to stop talking about it and do it. Don’t wait for inspiration. Don’t try to get it perfect the first time around. And, my own method, don’t set aside a specific amount of time to work. Like, say, three hours. Do that and I may spend most of the three hours listening to the birds sing in the trees while munching chocolate chip cookies. Better: Decide on a scene and write it. When it’s finished, I may take the rest of the day off. Or, if I’m feeling hot, I’ll keep going.
One other thing that didn’t come up: When we’ve completed the story, the novel, or whatever, we send it to an editor. Someone at the top of the field. Go for broke because, even at the beginning of a career, we never know. Then we forget about it and start on something new. If the work gets rejected, we shake it off and send it to someone else.
The writing gets enormously easier after a first sale. Why? Because we’ve broken through a substantial barrier. We now know we can succeed. Make that first sale and, if we’re serious, nobody can stop us.
We all start at a disadvantage: We tend to underestimate our abilities. Probably it’s because we face a lifetime of authority figures, parents, teachers, bosses, showing us where we’ve gone wrong, giving us advice, telling us to keep our hands to ourselves so we don’t break something. Anyone who wants to succeed as a writer (or probably in any other profession) has to get past that. Once we do, once a positive sense of self takes hold, we’ll be able to do pretty much anything we want.
October 15. 2011
Priscilla’s back in several stories. She’ll be in the January Asimov’s, trying to qualify for her pilot’s license in “Maiden Voyage.” And later, the same magazine will run “Waiting at the Altar.”
She’ll attempt an unusual rescue in “The Cat’s Pajamas,” which will appear in the John Joseph Adams anthology, Armored, due to arrive in bookstores near the end of March. And, in “Donut,” which is still under construction, she spends an eventful few hours on the Feynman Platform, well outside the solar system, where a team of physicists are trying to determine the nature of dark matter.
Several readers have asked how it feels to be writing about Priscilla again. I know how this is going to sound, but it’s great to be back. I got more attached to the character than I’d realized. It’s like spending time with an old friend.
Last week, I spent an afternoon with the Northeast Georgia Writers’ Group in Gainesville, GA. The invitation came from Lynda Holmes, who is a retired English teacher. The club has been in existence thirty-eight years, and they meet monthly on the third floor of the Peach State Bank.
It’s easy to forget how valuable a writing group can be. This kind of organization provides not only a place for discussion, but also an incentive to get some writing done, so one has something to show off at each meeting. In addition, there is criticism and encouragement, both of which are vital to a successful career.
I was given a copy of the club’s 2007 anthology, Our Journey. The quality of the work suggests they had some talented people in that room.
My topic was “How To Get Your Work Rejected,” which is a discussion of the most common mistakes made by aspiring writers, like overwriting, starting too slowly, getting in the way of the action, and so on. When I arrived, Lynda greeted me with a copy, wrapped in plastic, of The Gainesville Times for Thursday, September 29. One of the headlines read: WRITERS WELCOME ‘REJECTED’ AUTHOR.
She explained that she was sorry, but I could see the twinkle in her eyes.
We watched Jimmy Stewart a few nights ago in “The Spirit of St. Louis.” It reminded me of “The Greatest Man in the World,” by James Thurber. If someone were to ask which short story I would most like to be able to claim as my own, this one would be in the final five, and maybe would go all the way to the top. The story is set in 1937, when pilots were scrambling to be first to complete a transatlantic flight. I won’t spoil it by revealing what happens, but it remains, after all these years, the funniest story I have ever read.
We’ve started a 3000-piece jigsaw puzzle. I like jigsaw puzzles because, for me, they flush out the mind. Everything goes away except the patterns taking form on the table. So the struggle to come up with a workable narrative for the Hutch novel disappears, along with my annoyance at some of our politicians, and my inclination to chew on Oreos. I don’t know whether this works for everyone, but I can solve more problems related to my writing if I can get away from them for a while. It might be why so many insights arrive while we’re enjoying dinner at a local restaurant, or in the early morning when I’m just waking up, or when my son Chris has set up his telescope out back and is showing me the Galilean moons.
The puzzle is more or less a map of the 16th century world. I suspect it’s going to own the dining room table for a while.
My first copy of Firebird arrived Wednesday. I’ve been writing novels now for twenty-five years. I can still remember my reaction when I first saw The Hercules Text. That burst of exhilaration has never gone away.
I hadn’t planned to write any novels, just as I’d never planned to write any short fiction. My first story, “The Emerson Effect,” happened because Maureen talked me into trying my hand at it. But even with ten or twelve stories behind me, I wasn’t giving any serious thought to doing a novel. They’re too long, too time-consuming. I was then the Regional Customs Training Officer in Chicago, and I was too busy to attempt anything so ambitious.
Then one evening Terry Carr called and invited me to write one of the Ace Specials. No way I could pass on that. “Good,” he said. “How long will you need?”
“Two years would be good.”
He laughed. “You’ve got three months.”
He wasn’t entirely serious, especially when he discovered I had nothing already underway, and not even a clue what I might want to write about. We settled on six months.
Thank you, Terry.
November 1, 2011
This is the official release date for Firebird. Alex and Chase try to figure out what happened to a physicist lost decades earlier, and find that the search will lead to a much deeper, and older, mystery.
I’ve been asked occasionally what other fictional character –if any- might have inspired Alex Benedict. I discovered Sherlock Holmes during the summer of 1955, when I’d just completed my sophomore year at LaSalle College. I started with “A Study in Scarlet,” and read through the entire canon before returning to school. And have been hooked on him ever since. Nevertheless, he wasn’t the guy.
The Doyle stories provided a taste for mysteries. But Sherlock’s influence didn’t go much beyond that. The type of mystery he was involved with tended to be the standard whodunit. His methods for arriving at a solution –‘That’s right, Watson; the dog didn’t bark in the night’—were gripping, rather than the mysteries themselves. And of course his relationship with the good doctor lent the stories an ineffable charm.
A year or two after discovering Holmes, I came across Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s Father Brown. Here, it’s the nature of the mystery itself that catches the attention. The woman who plunges out of a room in which she was alone, but it was not suicide (“The Eye of Apollo”); the apparent presence of a man who could levitate (‘The Dagger with Wings”); a book that, if opened, apparently causes the reader to be carried off by the devil (“The Blast of the Book”); and several dozen other gripping stories in five collections.
It’s been Chesterton’s brand of mystery that I suspect I’ve been trying to emulate. Can’t help it.
I’ve done an interview with the current edition of Writing Raw. http://writingraw.com/files/7%20Question%20Interview%20with%20Jack%20McDevitt.pdf
For those who’ve been urging a return by Priscilla Hutchins, something beyond a few short stories, she’ll be back in a 2013 novel, where she will complete her qualification flight, get her license, and start getting into trouble. Title will be Starhawk.
I struggled more than usual trying to put the plot line together. Doing a prequel is, at least for me, considerably trickier than simply writing a novel that follows the previous one. For one thing, you’re fenced in by everything that happens later. And by details. How many other intelligent creatures are known to exist? The Noks are the only ones we’ve actually seen. Somebody else put monuments all over the place. And that’s it. So there’ll be no radical discoveries in that area.
Robert Dyke came up with an interesting idea: Why not use the novel to look at how we might react when the first ship goes interstellar? What effect would that have on society in general? How would the discovery of that first monument affect religion? Would people get excited about an interstellar capability? If so, would the excitement become permanent, or would it last until the next celebrity scandal? What actually would we want to do if we could go to the stars, and manage the trip in a few days?
The problem was that it’s established in the series that the first interstellar flights had occurred well before Hutch was born. Although there’s an opening: I couldn’t find any statement to the effect that these were manned flights. It might have been that too many flights simply vanished, until a Hazeltine II was developed.
But, in the end, it got too complicated.
I took a day off and worked on my 3000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Read more of David Brooks’s excellent The Social Animal, which comments on studies that indicate that creativity is most likely to happen after your subconscious has had time to organize and apparently consider whatever data or ideas or problems you’ve been dealing with. After that process has taken place, your brain functions at a higher level. In other words, go to bed. Do a puzzle. Or go out to dinner.
It’s a technique that should work regardless of the field you’re in. Take a break once in a while. It’s worked for me time and again. And by the way, under no circumstances should we try to multitask.
The date for this entry is 11/1/11. Not sure about this, but I think we won’t see only one digit giving us the date for roughly another thousand years. Sounds like a good reason to go out and celebrate.
November 14, 2011
There’s a scene near the climax of A Talent for War in which Chase and Alex had taken control of Christopher Sim’s Corsarius. A Mute warship had tried to take them out, and it now lay squarely in their crosshairs. In the original version, Alex pulls the trigger. Lew Shiner, commenting on the manuscript at the Sycamore Hill Workshop, told me he liked the book generally, but thought destroying the Mutes reflected poorly on Alex’s character. ‘What’s the point?’ he asked me. ‘They don’t present a danger any longer.’
He was right, of course. I rewrote the climax. It was an important change because it provided the Alex Benedict who would, to date, show up in five more novels.
Lew is among the best story doctors I know. He’s the ideal person to run a seminar or a workshop. But even he isn’t right all the time. He commented, as an aside, that he didn’t think people living ten thousand years in the future would have fireplaces. Well, I said, I love fireplaces, and I don’t think you can improve the design. (I should add here that we’ve lived in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Chicago, North Dakota, and are currently in South Georgia. This is the first house we’ve ever owned that had a fireplace.)
Readers, and sometimes reviewers, occasionally comment that Alex’s world seems very familiar. It has antigravity, faster-than-light capabilities, artificial intelligences, an extended life span, but day-to-day life doesn’t seem to have changed much. People still watch a TV-equivalent, they enjoy sports, they hang out in bars and restaurants, and they like to ride sailboats. And pizza has survived.
Can’t imagine it, some say. Which is okay. Everybody’s entitled. I have no more idea than anyone else what life will be like in the far future. But I hope we’ll still be getting our education from teachers, and not injected by an electronic device. Alex’s world is the world I’d want to live in if I were transported into deep time. Don’t lose the good stuff.
I doubt human nature changes much over the millennia. If you want a demonstration, read Herodotus or Thucydides, Cicero or Marcus Aurelius. Their sense of morality and compassion is no different from the qualities for which we strive.
George Lichty drew the popular cartoon strip Grin and Bear It a few decades ago. One that still stands out in my mind depicts two Roman soldiers complete with horsehair helmets standing beside a chariot. “Just look at it, Claudius,” one says, “it’s a neat little import job from Thrace.”
The asteroid that passed between us and the Moon last week got some play, but was driven completely out of the news by the accusations made against Herman Cain, or the scandal at Penn State. I wouldn’t suggest by any means that those stories are not consequential, but we failed to draw a necessary lesson from our visitor. It was portrayed in the media as simply a flyby. Sort of like a comet, except that we didn’t get a light show.
A direct hit by something a half-mile in diameter could kill millions. A little bigger and it could take us all out. We have the technology to intervene should one of these things come in on a collision course. But it’s a capability we’re losing. The people at NASA who sent astronauts to the Moon, and who managed a lot of the other accomplishments of the space agency’s golden years, have retired, or are close to doing so. As they leave, our capabilities decrease accordingly.
There is of course a set of directions at the Cape. Here’s how to get people off the ground safely. Here’s how to get them to the Moon. (Or manage a rendezvous with an asteroid.) But the men and women who actually did it are pretty much gone. For their replacements, in the event we ever do plan to go back into space, trying to interpret the directions will be like trying to learn to drive by reading an instruction manual.
Oh well. If we had maintained a serious space program, we might not have had money for our wars.
We celebrated Veterans’ Day this past week. I’m not a war veteran. During my years in the Navy, I never heard a gun fired in anger.
We’re grateful to those who’ve given so much for their country. But that doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook. Only a small percentage of our people are actually called on to go into combat. But all of us have an obligation to keep informed, to vote responsibly, and to keep an eye on those we put in office. I mention this because we’ve begun talking about implementing compulsory voting. Institute a fine for anyone who fails to show up at the polls.
My suggestion: Let them stay away. We need voters who understand what the country’s about, and who are willing to pay attention. The most dangerous threat to the nation is probably internal. Our own indifference. Ben Franklin wondered about the American people: ‘We have given them a Republic. Let’s see if they can keep it.’
December 1, 2011
Nebula voting has started, so I’ve begun to review the year’s SF. It’s an impossible task, of course. I try to read all copies of Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF. John Adams’s on-line Lightspeed also deserves attention. There are invariably a half dozen or more anthologies. Add to that the several hundred novels published each year and you’re looking at an impossible task.
Two novels caught my attention quickly. One is Heaven’s Shadow, by David S. Goyer and Michael Cassutt. An asteroid has entered the solar system, and two vehicles, one from NASA and the other from the Russian-Indian-Brazilian Coalition are dispatched in a competitive race to put astronauts on its surface. But of course things are more complicated than that, and the asteroid turns out to be a great deal more than assumed.
I’ll confess that nothing intrigues me quite as much as a strange-object-from-the-stars narrative. But that is not to suggest this is simply one more tale about invading aliens. Think rather of something in the class of Rendezvous with Rama.
The second novel is Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse. I see ‘apocalypse’ in a title and I’m immediately ready for angry Martians or a nuclear war or an incoming asteroid that freezes the planet. This one moves in a different direction. It depicts life in a part of the United States after a worldwide economic collapse.
I’ll admit that I’ve never been able to get excited about economics, and I started this one with hesitation. But it’s absolutely riveting, and one of the most unnerving SF rides I’ve taken. Why? Because, unlike alien invasions or worldwide plagues, Soft Apocalypse has the feel not simply of something vaguely possible, but of a warning. Here’s where we may be headed.
I’ve mentioned David Brooks’s The Social Animal. A thought-provoking book on how people interact. Brooks goes into considerable detail on the criticality of the subconscious, which allows us to do all sorts of things on automatic. Like walking without falling over, driving a car, punching a keyboard. It’s intriguing stuff, and it includes some surprises. I haven’t found much to quarrel with. But there is one area in which I suspect he runs off the tracks.
Brooks argues that most of us think too highly of our capabilities. That we are simply not as bright or as competent as we believe. That has not been my experience, as a teacher, as a writer, and simply as a taxi driver trying to find my way around Philadelphia at 2:00 a.m. Brooks however cites various studies to support his argument.
I can do that, too. More or less. One study, actually. Unfortunately I can’t recall its name. But I remember the methodology: Researchers would pick five kids at random in a high school class, and would inform the teacher than those five kids had tested especially high in various capabilities. That they should be aware the kids were extremely talented. The teachers however were instructed not to let the kids know they were aware of their abilities, nor that they were to treat those kids any differently from the others in the class. In every case, the performance of those kids far exceeded any reasonable expectation based on their performance in previous years.
Despite all the teachers’ efforts to conceal what they believed, the kids had detected a change, and they’d reacted to it. Test after test revealed the same result. Only one conclusion seems reasonable: When people learn to believe in themselves, they perform more effectively.
As a teacher, I got the distinct impression that students reacted far better to a positive approach than to a lot of criticism and pointing out of errors. The way to go: Pick out a good compact sentence in an essay and ask the student to give you more like that one, instead of constantly circling the weaker stuff.
Years ago I was driving through Mexico when I picked up a radio broadcast from Texas. Harlan Ellison was being interviewed. The interviewer asked him how he’d felt when he sold his first story. His answer has stayed fresh in my mind: ‘I realized I could do this stuff. I knew that, after that, I could do anything.’
In case you never caught up with Lightspeed, Prime Books has just published a complete edition of the first year’s fiction, from the magazine’s launch in June 2010, to May 2011. It’s a big trade paperback, with stories by Stephen King, Ursula Le Guin, George R. R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, James Patrick Kelly, Joe Haldeman, and about forty others. I contributed “The Cassandra Project.”
Readers periodically offer me concepts for a story or novel. I’m grateful, but unfortunately I can’t accept anything because there’s no way to be certain of the source. Not that anybody’s deliberately likely to pass along a lifted plotline, but sometimes we forget where an idea originated.
We’re approaching that happy time when the days begin to lengthen. It’s a season with strong religious significance for most of us, and also a time for family, friends, and an appreciation of what we’ve been given. Two of my former students showed up on my fan page this week, reminding me what our lives are really about: Take time to enjoy the moment.
December 15, 2011
Science fiction, by its nature, is at its best in the short form. Take a scientific concept, or maybe simply a fantastic one, twist it in an unexpected way, and we may get an effective story. Like the irritating captain who gets a micro black hole dropped into his skull and ebbs and flows to death. Or the basketball that gains energy with each bounce instead of losing it. (Last seen headed for the turnpike!) I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the SF narratives that have affected me most strongly over the years are the short ones. The sudden unanticipated punch. I won’t deny that some novels will live with me forever, Fred Hoyle’s The Black Cloud, John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, Arthur Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. I could name several hundred others.
But ask me about unforgettable rides, my all-time favorite narratives, and the titles that immediately surface tend to be short stories. Heinlein, e.g., has provided some unforgettable moments, though I have trouble even recalling the titles of his novels. But if he’d written nothing other than “The Green Hills of Earth,” he’d be –as far as I’m concerned—immortal. But he produced plenty of others, among them “Gentlemen, Be Seated,” “And He Built a Crooked House,” “It’s Great to Be Back,” and “The Roads Must Roll.”
Then there’s Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451 and Dandelion Wine are okay. But I suspect what people seriously remember is “Kaleidoscope” and “Mars Is Heaven” and “The Martians” and “The Golden Apples of the Sun”
Damon Knight wrote more than a dozen novels. But what do we think of when we hear his name? My guess: “To Serve Man.”
Arthur Clarke is best known, probably, for 2001: A Space Odyssey, obviously because of its connection with the Stanley Kubrick film, which was actually suggested by his 1948 short story, “The Sentinel.” Childhood’s End, Rendezvous with Rama, The City and the Stars, The Fountains of Paradise, and The Songs of Distant Earth are all strong novels. But if, a century from now, Clarke is remembered for a single work, my guess is that it will be “The Star.”
Likewise Asimov. People will be reading the Foundation books for a long time to come. And Pebble in the Sky and The Caves of Steel and the others. But pick a single title to survive into the far future, and it’s hard to believe it will be anything other than “Nightfall.”
StarShip Sofa Stories, Volume 3, has just been released. It includes fiction by Adam-Troy Castro, David Brin, Karen Joy Fowler, Kevin J. Anderson, Michael Swanwick, Joe Haldeman, James Morrow, and a host of others. The packaging is clever, providing a 1950’s flavor. I can’t remember the last time I got hooked by ads. The book was edited by Tony C. Smith. And, in the interest of transparency, I should mention that it contains one of my stories, “Nothing Ever Happens in Rock City.”
A second anthology has also shown up: The Science Fiction Omnibus, published by the Great Books Foundation. The Omnibus features stories by Bradbury, Clarke, Ballard, Vonnegut, Dick, Le Guin, Asimov, Tiptree, Card, Butler, Willis, and others. It includes my own “Promises to Keep.”
Years ago, Maureen did some photoshopping and presented me with a picture that has hung in our living room since. It shows me talking with two men in front of a hedge bordering a mansion. One of the men is Albert Einstein; the other, Winston Churchill. The running joke by visitors has always been, “I know Jack, but who are those other two guys?” I felt a bit like that when the Omnibus arrived.
It’s interesting how our perspectives evolve as we grow older. At one time, my Christmas was concentrated on the morning of December 25, where it consisted of a tree, my electric trains, a ton of ornaments, and the cluster of presents delivered during the night by Santa. (There was a religious side to it too, of course, but that aspect tended to get crowded out by the general excitement.) Now the holiday season encompasses several weeks in which we try to touch base with the people who are important to us. And where we tend to get a sense of where we are in our lives.
Somehow, since I’ve gotten into writing for a living, the number of people with whom I’ve become connected has grown considerably. It’s the second time that has happened to me, the other coming during my teaching years. In any case, I’m reminded how fortunate I’ve been in being able to make a living in two professions that have a serious payoff. A lot of people aim for careers with a primary objective of getting rich. That’s okay. Nothing wrong with that. They’re welcome to the money. But I’ll settle for lunch, real or virtual, with friends.
Happy Hannukah, merry Christmas, whatever. Enjoy the holidays—
Maureen & Jack
JOURNAL ENTRY #104
December 31, 2011
In 1996 I received a request to substitute for L. Sprague de Camp at the Asimov Seminar, which would be held at the White Eagle Conference Center in Hamilton, NY. Dr. Asimov, who’d organized and run the program from its inception, had passed on four years earlier. This was no ordinary seminar: It was rather an attempt to bring a science fiction setting to life. The participants, if everything went well, would experience, e.g., what a first landing on another world might be like. Or what would you do if you were President of the United States and word came in that a genuine life extension system had been developed and people were going to stop dying. At the conference center, you would file out onto the new world, or sit with your advisors going over the ramifications.
The 1996 event would feature a discovery on Mars of evidence of what appeared to be a previously unknown civilization. The participants would, during the first day, excavate artifacts, with the assistance of Dr. Bradley Lepper, Archaeological Curator of the Ohio Historical Society. On the following days we would meet to discuss the implications of what we’d found. We’d try to sort out who put them there, and what their significance might be?
Stanley Schmidt, the editor of Analog, would serve as a partner. Our job was to use the artifacts to create a narrative that would hold everyone spellbound. Did I think I could be of assistance? Of course. Okay. Could I make myself available?
It was a unique experience. The program went like clockwork, the archeologists made a remarkable, if unsettling, discovery, which in part required them to solve a code (devised by Stan). And I discovered that archeology, as Indiana Jones says in The Last Crusade, isn’t all lost treasures and exotic artifacts. There’s also a fair amount of digging involved.
All this came to mind this morning because I received an exquisite Christmas gift from physicist Walt Cuirle, whom I met at the Seminar, and who’s helped me get my science right ever since. (In the couple of instances where things went awry, it wasn’t Walt’s doing. Sometimes I think I know how the universe works, which tends to be where the trouble starts.) The gift was a pair of MP3’s, containing a collection of Ray Bradbury stories originally broadcast on Suspense, Dimension X, and other radio shows from the 1940’s. I listened to the first one, “The Rocket,” this morning while I was in the car. Bradbury won me over a long time back, and I still get blown away by his passion.
One other detail that might be of interest: Stan and I collaborated a year or two later on a story that revealed what really happened at that seminar, although we passed it off as science fiction. “Good Intentions” was published in the June 1998 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It eventually showed up as a finalist on the 2000 Nebula ballot.
I’ve started three new books: The Modern Mind: An intellectual history of the 20th century, by Peter Watson, which I’ve been trying to get to for years. Think of a history of the period which deals with science, literature, and culture, rather than dwelling on politics and war. It’s a doorstop, though, running to almost 800 pages. I’ll confess I’d like to take a year off and simply enjoy myself doing jigsaw puzzles and reading. And sleeping.
My book club will be reading Christ: A crisis in the life of God, by Jack Miles. It’s an effort to treat Jesus as a purely literary character. Or perhaps, more accurately, to treat the New Testament strictly as a work of literature. Last year we read his Pulitzer Prize-winning God: A Biography, in which he approached the Old Testament in the same way. I suspect that no work by Christopher Hitchens could ever have the shock value on a person of faith that the latter book would. The God of the Old Testament comes across as a Deity who can’t make up His mind, doesn’t keep His promises, and, to put it mildly, overreacts. (Think of the deaths of several thousand Israelites after the Golden Calf incident.)
And finally John L. Casti’s Paradigms Lost, which Maureen gave me for Christmas in 1989. Subtitle: Images of Man in the Mirror of Science. I picked it up the other evening, looked through it, and couldn’t put it down. There are sections on belief systems and the clash between science and faith; various theories on how life arose (like from an incoming comet, which, as politicians like to say, ‘simply kicks the can down the road’); genes and their impact on how much control we actually have over our actions; the apparently unique capacity we have for language; whether AI’s can ever become conscious; the Fermi Paradox; the claim that nothing exists unless there’s an observer; and whether humans really are something special.
Meantime, I’ll be working on Starhawk today. And the edits have arrived for “The Cat’s Pajamas,” Hutch’s next appearance, which will be in John Adams’s anthology Armored, due for a spring release.
When I was a kid, I once mentioned, shortly after Thanksgiving, that I wanted Christmas to hurry up and get here. My mom warned me I was wishing my life away. I tend to remember that moment every year at this time when we celebrate the passing of another twelve months. It leaves me wondering precisely what we’re celebrating. Maybe that we’ve survived another one?
Well, however that may be, best wishes for 2012. Let’s hope we’re all better off next year when the horns blow.