January 15, 2012
I discovered Simon Schama’s The American Future in my son Chrustopher’s library. Started looking through it, and have gotten hooked. From what I’ve picked up in the first few chapters, it’s not what the title suggests: a wildeyed effort to predict where we’ll be at the end of the century. Rather, it seems to be an evocation of who we are, and how we –the American people—evolved. Consequently, we should be able to draw some conclusions regarding where we’re going. Or maybe, if nothing else, get a perspective on our prospects. I’ll report back on this one.
We are all, of course, watching the GOP race for the nomination, and bracing for another year-long presidential fight. It may be my imagination, but I have the distinct sense that the current campaign is more into personal attacks than any I can recall. The bitterness is extreme. I can’t help suspecting at least part of the problem derives from technology. Back in the days before radio and TV, you could say things in print, but nobody actually saw or heard much of the candidates. When you don’t notice the crooked smile or the pompous delivery, the entire process is less personal.
Also, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling has opened the floodgates for money, and I can’t think of a more effective formula for introducing still more corruption into the process. Everyone now has a Superpac, and we’ll be watching the attacks and counterattacks until November. Then, after the decision is made, people will be going after whoever was unfortunate enough to win. I can’t imagine why anybody would want the job. And I’m reminded of Arthur Clarke’s observation that no one who seeks the oval office should be allowed anywhere near it.
Some changes I’d like to see. (And I hope they become part of the electoral discussion, rather than simply who’s a flip-flopper or a socialist.) Let’s start with term limits on Congress. Campaigns for federal office should be publicly funded, with no outside money allowed. Members of Congress should be subject to the same laws as everyone else. (No insider trading, e.g.) Members of Congress should have to operate under the same health and insurance plans as the rest of us. And some controls need to be established over the redistricting process. I’m not sure how to do that, but the nation is not well served when either party is in a position to lock in an area in future elections.
We love conspiracy. President Bush was behind the 9-11 attacks. President Clinton arranged the death of Vince Foster, Barack Obama was not born in the United States. A UFO crashed at Roswell, and alien bodies are now concealed at Area 51. When I was in the Navy, I heard about the Philadelphia Experiment, which people I trusted were claiming had actually happened. The moon landings were faked. JFK’s death was arranged by the CIA or by the oil interests. (He had promised to rescind the oil depletion allowance.)
Naturally, after Pearl Harbor, we developed a suspicion that Franklin Roosevelt knew in advance that the attack was coming. The rationale is that he wanted desperately to intervene in the European war, but he needed a way to get the nation’s support. At that time, in the summer and fall of 1941, the country wanted no part of another European bloodbath. And of course the fact there were no carriers at Pearl supports the theory that somebody knew the attack was coming.
There was some discussion on cable last week about a new book, edited by George H. Nash, which contains Herbert Hoover’s previously unavailable papers on the era of the Second World War, and on the beginnings of the struggle with the USSR. I have the book, although I haven’t had a chance to look at it yet. Reportedly, it contains information regarding meetings between FDR and his staff, in which his advisors told him that we could take the Japanese out within three months. Also: That the Japanese were trying to reach an accommodation but we were simply not responding.
The book is Freedom Betrayed, with the subtitle: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and its Aftermath.
I should mention that I ordered it from my local independent bookstore, without looking at the price. It is not cheap, but it weighs in at 900 pages.
On the subject of conspiracies, an intriguing story surfaced last week. Two guys claiming to be government agents said they’d gone back in time and taken a 19-year-old Obama, along with some other teens, to Mars. They apparently used a teleportation device. The operation was said to be a brain child of the CIA, which wanted to establish a claim to Martian land, and also to acclimate Martians and their animals to the presence of humans.
Their directive to the teens: Be seen, but don’t get eaten. The White House has denied the story.
Even SF writers couldn’t make this stuff up.
February 1, 2012
I stopped by one of our local bookstores yesterday to pick up a copy of Mark Steyn’s After America: Get ready for Armageddon. While there, I came across Vincent Bugliosi’s Divinity of Doubt: The God Question. The former prosecutor (think Charles Manson) is apparently having a go at one of the more intractable issues of our time. Or anybody’s. Bugliosi has written several best-selling books, including Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy and The Prosecution of President George W. Bush for Murder. I obviously haven’t had a chance to read Divinity of Doubt yet, but his conclusion is that nobody really knows whether God actually exists.
I was struck by the fact that Bugliosi attacks atheists as well as those who argue that the end of days is imminent and there’s no question about it. In fact, religious authorities have always conceded the point that there is no proof. It’s why we use the terms believe and faith. Maybe if there were rock-solid proof before our eyes, one way or the other, there’d be no real credit to be earned. But the reason I bring all this up is that I started the Steyn book when I got home.
Let me admit up front that I was immediately turned off by the fact that there were blurbs on the back cover from Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter, neither of whom qualifies from my perspective as particularly open to new ideas. (I might be flunking the same test by reacting negatively here.) I’m only about two chapters into After America, and it’s already clear who holds all the cards. Liberals want to bring down the country. They enjoy criticizing the USA. And it looks as if we’ll discover that the mess we’re in today is completely and entirely their fault. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope so. Most problems have two sides. It’s why they’re problems. Many of us could argue very emotionally, for example, either for or against offshore drilling. Or whether we should intervene militarily to prevent Iran from getting atomic weapons. Or on abortion, especially where rape is involved. Or on any of a dozen other social issues.
The reality is that many of the probelsm we face do not have easy answers, and we should stop pretending they do. It would be nice if we could teach kids to think critically. That requires an ability to look at the facts objectively, and to allow for the possibility that the opinion I held coming in the front door is in fact dead wrong. That my believing something to be true does not make it so. Maybe, most important, that it’s not a disgrace to recognize error in one’s own position, and to admit it. If we could begin by recognizing our own fallibility, we would take a giant step toward creating a more amicable society.
Imagine what elections would be like if politicians and journalists and the rest of us could discuss issues without getting into who stands to profit, or whether this is consistent with a position we held last year, or whether it must be right because I’ve always known it to be true.
The copy-edits for The Cassandra Project have arrived. I’ve been working on them for four days, and will need about three more. As inevitably happens when I have a chance to look at my work (and, in this case, Mike Resnick’s as well) after being away from it for three months or so, I’m surprised at the degree of fix-up that’s needed. The copy editors, in this case the very competent Sara and Bob Schwager, did their usual professional job, catching some inconsistencies, and making stylistic and content recommendations. Not to mention pointing out that Mike and I have spelling problems. (Actually, mostly me.)
But the real jolt comes from spotting opportunities missed. Lines that would work better if they were properly phrased. Places where characters ask staged questions. Where a different approach would raise the level of dramatic intensity. Fortunately, this part of the operation allows us to make the changes. It’s curious how much easier it is to see clumsiness when you’ve achieved some distance from the work. It’s why another set of eyes before initial submission can be so valuable. And why writers can’t adequately judge their own work. They’re too close to it.
I used to wonder where Keith Olbermann picked up the ‘Lonesome Rhodes’ epithet he inevitably hung on Glenn Beck. Last week we found out, while watching the 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd.” Andy Griffith plays a misbegotten character who’s in jail when we first meet him. The charge, I think, is DUI. He’s interviewed by a TV journalist, and demonstrates nonstop charisma. And a singing voice and serious talent with a guitar.
He gets his own local radio show, moves to TV in Memphis, and eventually onto the national stage. He’s apparently a basically decent guy, at least at the beginning, but he is overwhelmed by the influence that accrues to him. Even the top people in Washington begin calling on him for assistance. And you can imagine where things go from there.
Anyhow, as you’ll have guessed, the character’s name is Lonesome Rhodes.
I’ll be at the Georgia Writers’ Association Workshop at Kennesaw State University on Saturday, February 11. Come by if you’re in the neighborhood. http://georgiawriters.org/index.php/workshops4
February 15, 2012
I was at Kennesaw State University this past weekend to talk with members of the Georgia Writers Association about how to make it easy for a publisher to reject a manuscript. Anyone who’s interested in the essence of the conversation can follow the Twelve Blunders link on the website home page. The critical point is that the writer is not simply delivering a narrative, or telling a story. She is creating an experience. We want the reader to celebrate with the characters when the mission comes back safely, we want him literally to feel the anguish when the girlfriend walks off. Anything the writer does to remind the reader that he is sitting in a chair at home rather than looking out across a windblown sea from a cliff’s edge, with rain beginning to fall, kills the effect. It’s why the writer should not stop to explain how the time travel device works, or to do anything that would compare to a theater director’s stopping the action to point out that Hamlet is really upset here.
As far as I could tell, the program went well. Everybody seemed involved in the discussion. We had a lot of laughs. One of the participants asked what ‘edgy’ means. As many times as I’d heard the term, I had never really gotten a clear grasp. So we talked about it and now I know. In fact, I’d experienced an edgy radio program on the way to Kennesaw.
I listen to a lot of old-time radio when I travel. The program had been on something called Radio Playhouse. (I think that was the show.) A guy walks into a store and openly admires the Cadillac parked out front. “It’s mine,” says the owner.
“It’s beautiful. I wish I had one.”
“Why don’t we make a bet? We can cut cards. If you win, the car’s yours.”
“But I don’t have anything to put up against it. What would you win?”
“How about one of your fingers?”
Anyone interested in joining the organization should contact either Dr. Margaret Walters or Dr. Lisa Russell at the University.
I finished Mark Steyn’s After America last night. I’ll confess that my inclination now is to turn out all the lights and crawl under the bed. Steyn points out the western world’s numerous problems –indebtedness, bureaucratic clumsiness, bloated government, a vast web of entitlement programs, psychotic religious loons around the globe. I may have missed it, but I didn’t see any references to the concentration of so much wealth in the hands of so few (one of the core trademarks of third world nations), or the damage that can occur as a result of unbridled capitalism.
Steyn doesn’t approve of unions. And yes, he’s right that unions can ruin an industry. But everyone knows about the inclination of people in authority when there are no checks on the way they do business. So the solution to the problem lies somewhere between, in responsible management by both sides, not by simply getting rid of the unions. (Or pushing the bosses over the side.)
Entitlement programs are another difficult issue. Steyn states that they have the effect of encouraging recipients to simply sit back, take the checks, and watch TV. In some cases, that’s undoubtedly true. Although I suspect that people exploiting the system are in the minority. I doubt anyone enjoys living on minimal income. In any case, it isn’t simply the recipient who’s involved. I don’t see how we could sit idly by and watch his kids starve.
Yesterday, Maureen and I were out doing some errands. On the edge of one of the malls, we encountered a woman holding up a sign that read Homeless. I suspect the people who oppose welfare programs would argue that it was a scam. Maybe it was. And they might say, further, that anyone who gave her something was simply encouraging the scam. But I’d rather get taken in and give something to someone who doesn’t need it, than pass by someone who does.
Steyn’s solution to everything seems to be to pack up the liberals and move them to Europe. I don’t really want to get into the liberals/conservatives argument, which is a nonstarter. A society needs both to survive. Conservatives to hang onto what works, and liberals to look for better ways to do things. Most of us embody both impulses, so we should be careful about politicians and others, like writers and media types, who can profit from promoting division. It can be to their benefit to set us at each other’s throats. If anything is likely to bring us down, that will be it.
These problems require smart management. Not bulldozer ‘solutions.’
February 29, 2012
We ran a poll this past week to determine whether science fiction readers would still get excited at the prospect of a serious effort to put a few human beings on Mars. I didn’t expect they would for several reasons. No one believes government talk anymore about ambitious missions. And anyhow Mars looks pretty empty.
The results however surprised me. There was a lot of enthusiasm, mixed with skepticism that we’d actually follow through.
I should admit that I’d hoped all my life, since first discovering rocket ships in 1940, that I would be around when that first mission landed. In fact, had anyone told me in, say, 1948, when I was thirteen years old, that I would arrive in the twelfth year of the new millennium, and that the possibility of a Martian mission would be more remote than ever, I would not have believed it.
If one listens to the old radio science fiction shows, or reads Golden Age SF, everyone seemed to assume that we’d be wheeling through the solar system by the 1980’s at the latest. Of course, in that remote time we also assumed we’d find Martians. And I remember dismissing the notion that Venus might be too hot beneath its layer of clouds for anything to be alive. It was going to be steaming jungles and giant lizards and who knew what else? If you doubted that, just consult Edgar Rice Burroughs. In those years, it was a more intriguing solar system than the one we have now. There was life everywhere.
There was still talk of canals on Mars. The idea had been pretty much discredited by the 1950’s, but some of us still hoped the skeptics would be proven wrong. Then 1965 arrived, and Mariner 4. I can still remember watching news the photos of the Martian surface. Barren. Cold. Lifeless. No canals. No water.
I’m not sure why we want so desperately to find some off-world presence, someone we can talk to. We’re undoubtedly safer if there’s nobody else. But there’s probably no darker conclusion we could reach than the conviction we are alone. That nowhere else, as Nancy Kress might say, among ‘all them bright stars’ is there an intelligence, somebody, somewhere. Someone we could talk to. The possibility we’re actually alone is pretty scary. And logic certainly suggests it’s not true. A hundred billion planets, they’re now estimating, in the Milky Way alone. Still, who really knows? What a cruel condition it would be if we were in fact the whole show.
Are science fiction readers the only people who care about this? Strangely enough, the answer seems to be no. I’m invited periodically to talk to various groups, writers, librarians, students, and assorted others. When we go to the Q&A portion of the event, someone always asks, early, whether I believe in UFO’s. My standard response is that if you could bring one around to the house, park it in my driveway, let me kick the tires, and maybe take it for a short spin over to the Ritz, then, yes, I might be willing to concede that they really are there. And the reaction is always the same: How can I be so negative?
So okay. The most exciting reason to go out into the solar system has been taken away. At least for now. But there are other reasons to go. We are within arm’s reach of technology that would allow us to create collectors that would beam power down to ground stations, mitigating the oil problem. Asteroids show up periodically. And though the odds of getting hit by one next week are exceedingly small, an impact could give everybody a severe headache.
There are other reasons. Western civilization may be losing its sense of identity. The bright future we foresaw only a few years ago seems to have gone away. Maybe we’ve fumbled away our sense of purpose. One reader, responding to the poll, stated that a culture on the rise needs a cathedral. Something that would inspire us to get moving again.
Everybody’s aware of the financial condition of the country. Maybe, though, a serious space initiative would act as a spur. It would certainly be better than getting into another war.
When we went to the Moon in the 60’s, we did it for political reasons.
We have a better reason now. A cathedral, if only we choose to build it. If we want to move offworld and establish ourselves in other places, we should maybe realize that whether we stay or go will tell us who we truly are.
But if we’re going to go, we’d be smart to get started. The window may be closing.
I’ll be at Madicon 21 this weekend at the James Madison University Festival Center in Harrisonburg, VA. If you’re in the area, stop by and say hello.
March 15. 2012
Athena Andreadis is editing an anthology of stories about take-charge women. Its projected title is Xena at Tau Ceti. Athena is a molecular biologist, the author of The Biology of Star Trek, and founder of the writers’ group Starship Reckless. When she invited me to contribute, there was no way to decline.
I had to wait, though, until an idea showed up. That took a couple of months, during which I continued working on Starhawk. But the concept arrived finally last week, centered on the inclination by the government to routinely promise space initiatives, only to forget to fund them. The title of the story is “Cathedral.”
The concept, and even the title, grew out of the informal poll we conducted two weeks ago, asking about NASA. Many of the responses –most, in fact—contained comments reflecting a fair amount of frustration over the way things have gone with the space agency. I have no way of knowing, but I suspect that the level of irritation was a direct reflection of age. Those of us who were around at the beginning, who remember watching Sputnik track across American skies, and who remember the charge that came when the formation of the agency was announced, will probably also recall thinking Here we go. For them, it’s been a longer fall.
I was in the Navy at the time President Eisenhower announced the formation of NASA. I’d applied originally for flight training, and even had gotten orders to report to Pensacola. But I was called back when someone noticed that my physical hadn’t been completed. They needed to establish that I had normal color vision. Which I don’t. Back when I used to play infield for the South Philadelphia Quakers, the guys on my team enjoyed themselves asking me to identify the colors of the other team’s uniforms. Everybody always got a big laugh out of the exercise. Nevertheless, I don’t think it ever seriously occurred to me there was a problem.
I would have applied for NASA in a heartbeat had I been successful in becoming a naval aviator. I should confess that I am now shocked to remember those ambitions. I would no more want to try to land a jet on a carrier now than tie a cement block to my ankle and go for a canoe ride. So you can guess how I’d feel about sitting on top of a Saturn rocket during the countdown. Not sure I can remember clearly who that guy was.
In any case, the country watched as the early test rockets went up, threw abrupt u-turns, and came crashing back down. But Kennedy said we’d put a man on the Moon, and we did. The problem is that we did it for the wrong reason. It was an act of incredible courage and ingenuity. But its sole purpose was to beat the Soviets to the Moon. We stamped it Mission Accomplished and walked away.
If you read the SF stories written by Bradbury and Heinlein and the others writing during the ‘40s and ‘50s, you can’t help noticing that Moonbase is up and running during the later decades of the twentieth century. Ditto the flights to Mars and Venus. And the mining operations in the asteroid belt. I don’t think any of us, back in 1969, when we walked on the Moon, thought that we’d seen the high point of the space effort.
If you talk to NASA people now, they worry that the hands-on experience that resulted from our early success is being lost. There’s some stuff you just can’t write down in the record. Moreover, there’s no longer a Soviet threat. There’s nothing to drive us anymore.
If at some future date we are going to try again, we may have to start from scratch. The next time a lunar expedition lands, they may be shocked to find footprints.
April 1, 2012
In 1949, for a kid in grade school, science fiction was largely limited to the pulps. There were a few books down at the Queen Memorial Library. Paperbacks were just beginning to arrive on the scene. My first SF novel was A Princess of Mars, which I loved. Except that I had a problem with his mode of transportation. I went on to read all the John Carter books, and continued with Carson Napier. I never would have believed that the day would come when a John Carter movie would show up and I wouldn’t bother—
My mother confined her reading, as far as I could tell, to historical novels. But she encouraged me to buy books. At that early age, I was bringing home novels about Red Ryder, Captain Midnight, and the Shadow. We were a religious family, and I know that the pulps, with that magnificent artwork depicting robots running off with half-naked women, must have startled her. But she pretended not to notice. God love her.
Years later, when I was home on leave after a tour in Japan, I discovered that one of my uncles had also been an avid reader of the pulps. He’d died, and had passed along his collection of Amazing, Thrilling Wonder, and Startling Stories to an aunt, who was to give them to me. But the aunt was horrified by the artwork, which she dutifully used a pair of scissors to remove.
The paperback arrived about the time I was leaving grade school. I picked up books by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury. And one by a writer whose name did not ring a bell. George Orwell. But the title, 1984, caught my attention.
How could I go wrong? It was SF! I read it with a sense of increasing desperation over the next few days. The hero’s situation grew progressively darker, while I waited for the good guys to show up. They didn’t, of course. And I hope I’m not delivering a spoiler here. That book constituted probably the most depressing literary experience of my life. People worry about kids being harmed by sexual content. Nothing ever came close to doing the damage to me that Orwell delivered.
This all came to mind when I saw a rash of recent articles discussing dystopian novels, along with the crowds lining up to watch “The Hunger Games.” The worldview of SF writers, some commentators are saying, is dark. And it’s doing us no service.
Actually, it’s hard to believe that anyone doesn’t understand how fiction works. It’s all about conflict. And if you’re writing science fiction, the conflict should, in some sense, involve the science. Consequently, in a novel by, say, Nancy Kress, if an experiment is being conducted, an alert reader will be aware that the experiment is very likely to go wrong. Who today would be reading Frankenstein, if the good doctor had been rational enough to treat his creation well, get him some strawberry shortcake, and invite him to the weekly poker game with the guys?
This is not to say I’m a fan of murderous science fiction. I have a hard time getting interested in a narrative in which the issue is how to beat back a group of evil aliens. Or the Thought Police. But I’d never concede that, on occasion, they haven’t rocked my world.
One caution, though, with kids: When you have someone like Orwell or Huxley doing the dystopia, it may be better to stick with the Space Rangers. Or Captain Kirk.
April 16, 2012
This month has somehow turned into a very busy season. I keep reading that the secret to a long life –and, hopefully, staying away from the assorted mental instabilities that can afflict the later years—has something to do with keeping active. Do stuff.
Mt. St. Charles Academy in Rhode Island is operated by the Brothers of the Sacred Heart. I had an extraordinarily good experience as an English teacher and theater director there back in the early seventies. The Brothers were a pleasure to work with, and I loved being in classrooms with those kids.
The Brothers had a retirement farm somewhere in New England. But they resisted going to it, because everybody knew then, as we all know now, when you retire and go out onto that front porch and start relaxing, and your next stop is down among the tulips.
Of course, there can be too much of a good thing. And I’m experiencing it now. I’ve logged slightly more than half of the first draft of Starhawk, and at the moment Priscilla has run into some very strange goings-on at Orfana, a frozen world that was cut loose from its home sun probably millions of years ago and has been adrift ever since. (In fact that there’s anything going on out there is decidedly odd.) I’m pretty sure though that Hutch will solve her problem; I’m more concerned about mine. Which is that I’m looking at a spring and summer with a lot of travel, including an appearance at the Leipzig Book Festival, while a November 1 deadline looms for the novel. In addition, I’m trying to make some improvements in “Cathedral,” which, I hope, will be appearing in an anthology next year edited by Athena Andreadis, the author of The Biology of Star Trek
My schedule on the novel draft requires that I complete 1000 words as a daily minimum when I’m home. I haven’t actually done the math, but I think that gets me through provided I get the narrative right and don’t have to go back and do major repairs and throw stuff out. No guarantees there..
When I was twenty-five, and still in the Navy, my plan was to make enough money to retire by the time I was forty, and just hang out at a mountain cabin near a town with some night life, and spend my days reading. I discovered however that teaching is not exactly a smart way to pile up a lot of cash. It’s also not helpful in launching a writing career. Some people have done it, but I couldn’t, and I suspect I wasn’t the exception. Teaching is show biz. And, for all its rewards, it’s psychologically exhausting. It was easily the most wearing –and simultaneously the most exhilarating—thing I’ve done. Ever. But the average teacher, if there is such a thing, comes home each evening in need of some pizza and a couple of decent TV shows. What he or she actually gets, however, is a stack of essays to be gone through, quizzes to be corrected, and/or the necessity to prep for the next day’s classes.
I’m inclined to explain, when people ask, that the reason I waited twenty-three years after college to attempt my first story had to do with a sense that I just wasn’t capable of writing professionally. That I’d read David Copperfield as a freshman, realized I could never play the game at that level, and found something else to do. But I suspect the truth is that the teaching just took everything I had. Anyone who wants to launch a writing career should, in my opinion, limit the daytime job to something like maybe being a greeter at WalMart. Or running a cash register in a supermarket. Stay away from the stuff that requires you to get seriously involved, mentally and emotionally, in the work.
I’m not sure where I’m going with all this. But I want to make one point. If there’s anything I’ve learned across a lifetime, it’s that people are smarter than they realize. The real problem most of us have is that we don’t trust ourselves. People, parents, teachers, bosses have been showing us where we go wrong, don’t touch this or you’ll break it, and after a while we begin to buy into the notion that others are just smarter. The real key to accomplishment, whether we’re talking about writing or teaching or inspecting luggage at the airport, is getting to a point where we believe in ourselves. Once you do that, you can do almost anything. If you won’t take my word for it, ask Mr. Emerson.
May 1, 2012
We are still in the process of bringing the website into conformity with new rules set out by Godaddy. The earlier journal entries will be restored shortly.
An intriguing book appeared recently: Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath. The volume was edited by historian George H. Nash. It’s published by the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University.
As a former president, Hoover had an inside perspective on events. And he had his own opinions on what sort of action should be taken. He was opposed to FDR’s diplomatic strategy which, in his view, was directed toward involving the United States in still another European War. He was enraged that the president was allowing us to be drawn into the conflict despite his assurances to the contrary. I’m only halfway through this book, but I find myself asking questions I’d never thought about before.
Hoover thought that an intervention by the United States into a death struggle between Hitler and Stalin was pure madness. The UK, in his view, had become safe once the Nazis attacked the USSR. The German military, he argues, had all it could handle on the Soviet front without trying to engage Britain. Therefore the correct strategy was to let the two dictators exhaust each other. Go in on Stalin’s side, he maintained, and we do nothing except guarantee that, once the combat is over, the half-dozen nations swallowed by the Soviets would remain in chains. Furthermore we would be confronted by a newly invigorated and very dangerous enemy, propped up by the sacrifice of our own kids.
I’d always assumed that we wanted to get into it to save the UK, and also because, with the Soviets safely absorbed, the Nazis might have been unstoppable. Hoover quotes statistics to argue that Stalin had more troops than the invaders. He doesn’t say much about the quality of weapons, and the competing air forces, but he argued from the start that the Russian tactics would be the same they’d used against Napoleon. They would fall back and create problems for supply lines; they’d take advantage of Hitler’s late start and fight a delaying action, waiting for winter to set in; they’d use a scorched earth policy; and they’d destroy railroads and roadways.
Another point that surprised me: The Japanese prime minister Konoye, who preceded Tojo, apparently wanted to avoid war with the U.S. Hoover produces substantial documentation to demonstrate that Konoye all the means at his disposal to arrange a conference with FDR. Americans who had a connection with him, like the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, were convinced he was serious. But it appears that all efforts, includes appeals from the ambassador, were ignored. Konoye also reached the British ambassador, but neither he nor the ambassador seemed able to get through to Churchill.
In the end, his pro-American stance cost him his job, and he was replaced by Tojo, who saw no problems with engaging the U.S. head-on.
Why didn’t FDR respond to Konoye? Hoover thinks that the president could not be swayed from his opinion that, if we kept economic pressure on, the Japanese would cave. If true, it turned out to be something of a misjudgment.
Konoye committed suicide in 1945.
SF has a passion for alternate history. How might things have gone if Hoover had won the 1932 election, and still been around when Hitler went into the Soviet Union? Or if FDR had sat down with Konoye and reached a deal with the Japanese?
Had there been no Cold War, would we have reached the Moon?
I should mention that Freedom Betrayed is a doorstop at nine hundred pages. But it’s riveting reading.
On December 7, 1941, I was six years old. My mom and two of her sisters lived within three blocks of each other. So the family had a lot of parties. I remember clearly being at one of them on that fateful day. I remember the news report coming in on the radio. The report itself meant nothing to me, but suddenly everybody got quiet. It was scary. When I asked what was wrong, one of my uncles said that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. It was the first time I’d ever heard of Pearl Harbor. But it sounded like a great place to visit.
May 15, 2012
This month marks my debut as an editor. Last year, Les Johnson and Toni Weisskopf discussed putting together an anthology whose central theme would be how we might get clear of the solar system, using only technology that is now in existence or at least plausibly within reach. The anthology would consist of both stories and essays on various aspects of confronting the problem. Les is the deputy manager for NASA’s Advanced Concepts Office at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center. He has several fiction and nonfiction books to his credit, most recently Paradise Regained, a treatise on maintaining a clean environment and producing virtually unlimited energy through collectors in space. Toni, an accomplished editor and writer, is also the publisher of Baen Books.
They invited me to participate. The theme intrigued me, but I was reluctant about joining because I had no editorial experience. Still, I could think of only one way to get some experience. I wasn’t going to pass on this one, especially since I was pretty sure Les and Toni would keep me out of trouble.
We called the anthology Going Interstellar. It will be in bookstores by the end of the month.
I enjoyed the experience. Ben Bova, Michael Bishop, Louise Marley, Sara Hoyt, and Mike Resnick signed on to contribute stories. Gregory Matloff and Richard Obousy agreed to provide nonfiction pieces, and Charles E. Gannon committed for both a commentary and a story. Les Johnson and I also added some fiction.
The big hurdle for getting clear of the solar system is of course the lack of FTL technology. So the writers looked at the steps that might occur during the process, and ultimately at robotic and multigenerational starships and the potential consequences thereof.
There was a time back in the late fifties when I’d have signed on for astronaut training in a minute. But I had no way to manage it. My initial ambition to be a naval aviator was blocked by my inability to see the spectrum properly. So okay, let someone else be the pilot. I could live with that. So long as, when we go to Mars, they save me a seat.
But there was never a day that I’d have considered volunteering for one of those multigenerational missions. The prospect of climbing into an oversized ship and knowing I wouldn’t live to climb back out did absolutely nothing for me. Still, I suspect that if we get far enough that such an effort becomes feasible, we’ll try it.
During my Boy Scout years, I became a fan of Weird Science, a science fictional comic book. One story that stayed with me: The first mission –sublight-- to Alpha Centauri takes off. When it arrives, years later, people are waiting for it, cheering and welcoming them to the new planetary system. While it was enroute, it turns out, we developed FTL. Apparently there was no way to communicate with the ship, so the next mission simply went on and set up the party. I don’t recall that the story got anywhere close to defining what would really happen if such an event were to take place. When I was twelve, I knew Alpha Centauri was pretty far, but I don’t think I had a handle on how far. In fact I still don’t. Nobody does. We can talk numbers all we want, but we can’t get our minds around the reality.
We have no adjective that adequately describes the distances between stars, at least in this remote region of the Milky Way. We watch Star Trek movies, where the stars drift casually by as the Enterprise moves easily out to Rigel or to Epsilon Eridani. But the facts literally overwhelm us. If someone at the galactic center aimed a spotlight in our direction and turned it on, and we were watching through a very large telescope, we would not see the light until 28,000 years had passed. Send the fastest space ship currently available to Alpha Centauri, and it would need 50,000 years to get there. That comes to 2500 generations.
Take a good book.
I’m not objective, of course, but I’d like to suggest that one intriguing volume to take along would be Going Interstellar.
May 31, 2012
The Nebula winners were announced during the weekend of May 18. My son Chris and I were present for the ceremony, which took place in Crystal City, in the Regency Ballroom of the Hyatt Hotel. Results can be found at: www.sfwa.org/2012/05/2011
Walter Jon Williams served as toastmaster, and E. Michael Fincke, an astronaut, was the special guest. Connie Willis was named a grandmaster. Over the years I’ve been to a substantial number of these events, but I’ve never seen one more entertaining than this. Walter was brilliant; Mike Fincke won over the audience with his account of the value of SF and its relation to real world space efforts, and Connie was her usual charming self. Jim Kelly was one of several others who made substantial contributions.
The weekend included workshops on writing and improving one’s website. Jim Kelly, Jim Morrow, John Scalzi, and Connie Willis conducted a panel on that most difficult of writing skills, comedy. There was also a writing panel on handling aliens, and a science panel on the potential for life beyond Earth. Dr. Alice Armstrong talked about AI’s. A group of scientists described how we’ve been learning about the Earth by making observations from orbit. And there was a tribute to Octavia Butler.
I participated in a panel on the importance of the ‘story bible,’ which is a list of details to ensure that a character’s eye color or history or the name of the principal restaurant on the space station remains consistent throughout a short story or the ten volumes of a series. Good luck with that. I’m probably the prime offender in this matter. I have to confess that stopping to record every detail interrupts the flow. Were I to do it properly, I’d never get anything completed. Yet, because I haven’t done it well, I find myself constantly searching through earlier work trying to lock down, e.g., just how long it takes one of the Academy’s starships to travel, say, to Polaris. Or when Priscilla lost her father.
I attended my first science fiction convention in Grand Forks, ND, in (I believe) 1978. I was on temporary assignment, working customs at the airport, and I had some free time. I don’t recall the guests, but I remember enjoying myself thoroughly sitting at panels and talking to the other true believers. (I was still two or three years away from writing my first science fiction story, “The Emerson Effect.”) At that time I was accustomed to being the only person in every group I belonged to who took SF seriously. Everybody else used to smile politely if I mentioned, say, Ray Bradbury or Arthur Clarke or whether it would ever be worth going to Mars.
The only previous connection I’d had with a science fiction convention came in Philadelphia, in 1962, when I was driving a taxi, and delivered a couple of enthusiasts to Philcon. I remember thinking at the time that I would have liked to park the cab and go inside to join them.
Firebird was on the short list for the novel award. It didn’t win. People frequently ask about the level of disappointment when you come home without an award. (Which is almost every time I’ve been nominated.) Sure, it would be nice to win. But I love these events, as much as I did that first one in Grand Forks. The following weekend I went to OASIS in Orlando. Got chased out early by Tropical Storm Beryl, but it didn’t matter. I spent a couple of days there with the descendants of Bob Heinlein and Arthur Clarke. It’s enough.
I should mention also that there’s a very kind lady at the Orlando con who, every year, presents me with a jar filled with the world’s tastiest preserves. When you can hang out with people like that, who needs plastic?
June 16, 2012
It’s hard to believe we’ve only had books and newspapers for a few centuries. My mother described the advent of radio in her household and how exciting it was. And TV? I was around for that myself.
It’s difficult for any of us living in the internet/ipad/GPS world to imagine what life must have been like in, say, the early days of the Renaissance. War could break out and nobody in the neighborhood would know about it until somebody’s troops showed up. Hopefully ours. On a more subtle level, though, is there any one of us who hasn’t undergone a complete change in perspective caused by a book or a film? The question seems pertinent because I’m experiencing one now. And it’s not the first time.
For my generation, comedy was originally defined by Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Bud and Lou, the Three Stooges, and Groucho. Then one day I walked into the Lane Theater in Philadelphia to watch “The Green Man,” a British film with Alistair Sim playing a serial killer who “took out only those who desperately needed to be taken out.” And he did it in creative ways. A visiting dictator, e.g., charges forward to kick out the first soccer ball of the season. As he approaches the ball, the audience becomes aware of a ticking sound.
He started his career by blowing up his headmaster. The approach that made it all work so well was that everything was done with a straight face. For me, the standard Hollywood approach in which people fell down a lot and delivered seriously dumb lines never worked again.
I read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov a couple of years later. It changed my perspective on religion.
A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Freedom Betrayed: Herbert Hoover’s Secret History of the Second World War and Its Aftermath. The book’s a doorstop. Not only in a physical sense. A point of view I’ve held all my life is undergoing adjustments.
Hoover was obviously enraged by what he perceived as a policy of American and British appeasement of Stalin and the USSR. He argues that even though Stalin could not have backed away from his struggle with Hitler, FDR and Churchill nevertheless were willing to give him everything he wanted to keep him happy. That included allowing him to seize the Baltic states and most of eastern Europe. I haven’t quite finished the book yet. I’m more than 600 pages in, and going downhill in my opinion of American leadership. Hoover is describing the betrayal of Poland, which, even though it contributed troops that fought alongside the Allies, nevertheless was abandoned to the Soviets toward the end of the war.
The charges brought by Hoover against FDR and Churchill are supported by substantial documentation. It’s painful reading. There’s nothing new, really. Anyone who had seen the way events had gone, and what the politicians had said, and the way it had all played out, should have realized what was actually happening behind the scenes. It’s just that I’d never put it together before.
I should also admit here that Winston Churchill has always been one of my heroes, even though I’ve reached an age where heroic politicians are seriously rare. I’ve never been able to get past the reality even of people like Washington and Jefferson, who were both slave owners. Churchill did what he could for Britain. And I’m not going to criticize his actions. It just turns out that he isn’t the guy I thought he was.
I’ll be surprised if I don’t get some responses pointing out what I’ve missed. Maybe even disappointed.
June 30, 2012
This past weekend, I attended Elstercon in Germany. Elstercon is a small, but enthusiastic, science fiction convention held during alternate years in Leipzig. Other guests included George Mann and Peter Hamilton, both from the UK, and Alexander Preuss, a German artist. Thomas Braatz and Dirk Berger were the organizers. The festival –that’s the best way to describe it—was conducted at the Haus des Buchs (House of Books).
The themes were steampunk and military science fiction.
Peter Hamilton is known for several trilogies, of which the most recent is the Void series, The Dreaming Void, The Temporal Void, and The Evolutionary Void. The plots center on the black hole at the center of the galaxy which, it turns out, is stranger than physicists had guessed. Coming up in October is The Great North Road.
George Mann is the creator of Sir Maurice Newbury, who lives in Victorian England and solves mysteries entwined with the supernatural. Sir Maurice is assisted by the indomitable Miss Veronica Hobbes. They are featured in three titles which I now have on my desk: The Immorality Engine, The Osiris Ritual, and The Affinity Bridge.
It was the first convention I’ve attended which was conducted in two languages. I was skeptical going in, but the organizers used translators and were able to pull it off. Not sure yet how they did it. Even the koffee klatsches worked.
On the subject of translators, Frauke Meier, who has done the bulk of my German translations, attended. I’ve always been impressed with Frauke because she has never hesitated to contact me when she is puzzled by some aspect of the narrative. Over time, I acquired an appreciation for the complexity of her job. Translators aren’t tasked with simply producing a word-for-word rendition of the work. They have to figure out what effect the author is trying to achieve, and then match the language to make it work.
This has never been a secret, of course, but I’d never before had the opportunity to sit down and talk at length with someone who does this for a living. I’m not entirely sure my part of the job isn’t easier.
I also came away with a very attractive hard-cover volume published specifically to memorialize the con. The title is Wege Durch Dampf Und Rauch, which seems to translate to Path Through Steam and Smoke. It contains contributions from fourteen guests. My own is “Cryptic,” which was written years ago in the Customs shack at the railroad station in Noyes, Minnesota.
The reader will not believe what follows, but I have an obligation to report anyhow: Elstercon had a supernatural aspect. There’s a well-known restaurant not far from the Haus des Buchs: The Auerbachs Keller. The food is excellent, and there’s an aura about the place that leaves you feeling as if you’ve returned to an earlier century.
Peter, George, and I were taken there Thursday evening by Dirk and his wife Christine, and by Tom Braatz. If the name rings a bell, it’s because this is the place where Goethe wrote sections of Faust. The Auerbachs Keller is also named in the play as the place where Faust encountered Mephistopheles.
On the night we were there, Mephistopheles showed up, with horns and a red cloak and a pointed red beard and a basso profundo voice. He paraded around the dining room alternately boasting about himself and laughing at us. Skeptics will say so what? An actor and nothing more.
I did not believe either until I saw the magic. He chose a blonde waitress, stood thirty paces from her, and pointed at her. She began to speak in that thundering basso profundo while Mephistopheles kept his mouth shut. I was there, baby. It was not a simple piece of ventriloquism. Those lips were sealed.
Okay. I know what you’re thinking. But there was another piece of magic last weekend: It was visible in a bilingual convention that came off so smoothly.
July 15, 2012
July 4, 2012 may become a celebrated date, marking the announcement by physicists at CERN that they’d discovered evidence supporting the existence of the Higgs Boson, the “God particle.” I’ll confess here that I’ve been trying to get my mind around the function of a Higgs, which seems to be that it creates a kind of universal stickiness that imparts mass to everything else. I’m still mired in my relativity days, trying to visualize what it really means to have time run at different rates, why we age more slowly riding a jet than we do waiting in the airport.
Assuming most people were as puzzled about the Higgs as I was, I decided I’d look for a clear explanation, delivered in plain English, and record it here for my own future benefit. I’ve read every “simple” explanation I could find. And I think I understand what they’re trying to say, but I can’t see what actually happens. So I’ll settle for this: I loved seeing the physicists so excited, and I shared their excitement. They’ve made the point that there may be technological applications to come, just as the quantum breakthrough in the 1920’s gave us computers and cell phones and a lot of the other stuff that has changed our lives. But the reality remains: I still can’t figure out how a particle can pass simultaneously through slits in two different pieces od cardboard. But apparently they do. And physicists seem to have a reasonably firm grasp on the process. I’m probably just an example of the validity of the uncertainty principle.
In any case, let’s raise a glass to the people at CERN.
I discovered during my trip to Germany last month that I don’t tolerate long plane rides as well as I used to. The flight across the Atlantic ran to ten hours. I remember riding a propeller-driven aircraft from the west coast to Japan in the 1950’s, with stops at Hawaii and Midway. And it hadn’t struck me as being especially time-consuming. But ten hours now seems endless.
I had a book with me, of course. It was Chris Hedges’s The World As It Is. I was unfamiliar with Hedges, but he is a journalist who has spent considerable time in Africa and the Middle East covering the general chaos. He doesn’t have a lot of confidence in either party to get things right. He sees a world effectively run by corporate power rather than by democratically-elected officials. In his view, for example, the Irad and Afghan wars have been fought primarily because they produced substantial profits for a number of corporations. It’s impossible not to recall Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex.
Hedges makes it clear that he wouldn’t support either candidate in the 2012 presidential race. Whoever occupies the White House in 2013, he would argue, will be controlled by big money behind the scenes. That leaves Jill Stein, the Green Party’s physician candidate.
I just picked up a copy of a new Greg Benford collection, Anomalies. I’ve always enjoyed Benford. I first came into contact with his work back in my customs inspector days. He was one of the few writers who could keep me awake at 3:00 a.m.
Years ago, I paged through The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but never really read it. That’s my next major project.
I’m discovering why the three later Star Wars films didn’t work. I think a lot of us sensed it at the time they were released. But I’ve gotten the point driven home. Prequals are more difficult to put together because you’re locked in. It’s no longer news that I’m currently working on Starhawk, an account of Hutch’s certification as a pilot, and her first few months on the job.
And I have to look everything up. What was the name of the restaurants on the Wheel? (Did they call the orbiting Earth station the Wheel, or was it something else? Why did I leave a six-year gap between the Porlogue and the first chapter?) You also tend to get locked in. E.g., it’s 2196, and there’s a presidential race going on. I’d planned on having it turn out as a victory for the incumbent. But I went looking through The Engines of God to see whether there might be any reference there to a winner. There wasn’t. But one of the headlines stated that “the elective president” had said something or other. That implies the challenger won.
Fortunately it’s not an issue, and so far it’s been clear sailing. But making everything match up can be exceedingly time-consuming. And it might keep you from following your instincts.
I expect to be doing a panel at worldcon with Mike Resnick on the virtues of collaboration. I’d pretty much stayed clear of collaborations. Maybe I was reluctant not to have complete authority over how things played out. I should say, though, that working with Mike on The Cassandra Project turned out to be a pleasure. Moreover, had I been left to my own devices, it’s a book that would never have been written.
August 2, 2012
SF conventions frequently bring in physicists and astronomers to discuss various scientific topics. Sometimes these are serious, as, e.g., an explanation of what the Higgs bosun is all about. Sometimes they take a lighter note, as in how we might move the Enterprise at hyperlight speeds without throwing an unbelted crew around the bridge. OsFest5, in Omaha this past weekend, had all of this. They brought in Professor Dan Claes of the University of Nebraska to discuss such far-out topics as the God Particle, the possibility that life exists on other worlds, and –my favorite—the physics of the superheroes.
Superman has always been described as “able to leap tall buildings.” When I was about twelve, I listened to an episode of the Superman radio show in which Perry White and Lois go down at sea in an airplane. The plane sinks, leaving them to stay afloat as best they can. Fortunately, Superman arrived on the scene, plunged into the water, swam to them, took one in each arm, and leaped into the sky. How could he have managed that? What did he stand on? A couple of years later he dived under a ship and lifted it out of the water.
Professor Claes smiled politely when I mentioned these feats to him. It wasn’t a good idea to take any of this seriously. Still, I’d always wondered where Superman’s ability to accelerate when he was in the air came from? Or how he could make a right turn? Or support a jetliner in midair?
My favorite moment came when he did the math involved in the movements of the Flash, who could apparently travel several thousand miles across the country and return before you noticed he was gone.
Other than a good time, I got something else out of OsFest5: Several weeks ago Erin Underwood invited me to contribute a young Alex Benedict story to a YA anthology she’s putting together. It’s a tight deadline, so I spent a fair amount of time thinking about it while I was on the plane to Omaha. The possibility of radio mining has always appealed to me, and in fact Alex even mentions it in one of the novels. If you have an FTL capability, you are automatically able to track down long-gone radio signals, since you can outrun them. It helps if they are directional, rather than broadcast. And then all we need is a reason to recover an old transmission, and a way to surprise the reader. I had one idea that I thought would work nicely, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was too dark for a YA audience. Alex, by the way, will be about seventeen.
Toward the end of the con, though, I discovered the story would work if I simply changed the climax. Alex will be about seventeen, and it will be our first glimpse of his uncle Gabe.
I’ve also promised a story to Tom Easton for an anthology whose theme will be the science fiction ideas that, at least to date, haven’t happened. Jet packs, flying cars, housekeeping robots, Moonbase. It strikes me that SF, in contemplating the future, always thinks in terms of technology. There have been enormous technological strides during my lifetime. No denying that. But maybe the most critical changes have come in our attitudes. We seem to be growing more tolerant as a society. I suppose it’s easy for a white guy to say how sure, things are a lot better now than they used to be. Especially after a week in which a church refused to allow two of its members to marry because they were black and the church had never performed a wedding for African-Americans.
Maybe things haven’t really changed. Maybe it’s just that I hang out with a different crowd now than most of the people I grew up with. But I just don’t see the same racial and religious intolerance I used to. We have a long way to go. I guess there’s no question about that. But at least we’ve taken a couple of steps.
August 15, 2012
August through October always tends to be my busy season. That’s primarily because my annual novel deadline is November 1. This year I committed to do a half-dozen or so short stories as well, some of which have been submitted, with several still to be written. Worse yet, to be invented. This year also seems to have required a considerable amount of travel. I’ve already been to several cons. Coming up at the end of the month is the SF Worldcon, this year in Chicago. And in October, I’ll be guest of honor at the Baltimore Book Festival. (See the link on the home page.) I’m happy to report, though, that at least at the moment everything is under control.
The nation has been enduring abnormal weather this year. Georgia has been no exception. We’ve not had much rain, but when it comes it has been torrential. Several minutes ago, I had to get to my car on a supermarket parking lot through as heavy a downpour as I’ve ever experienced.
In other places, I’ve listed favorite movies and SF novels. This seems like a good time, while I wait to dry off, to mention some favorite nonfiction. I’ll avoid classics. Voltaire and Herodotus don’t need endorsements from me. Come to think of it, neither does Churchill. But anything published after 1900 is fair game.
I should add that I did make an effort to lock down my all-time favorites in this category, but it was useless. There are simply too many books and my opinions change from day to day. . Moreover, there are more books that I know would make the list if I could just find the time to read them. For example, S. E. Smith’s The United States Navy in World War II and Samuel Eliot Morrison’s History of the American People have both been watching me out of their bookcase for more than forty years. The only way I’m going to get to them is to retire from writing. I’m not excited about doing that.
Anyhow, herewith a list of ten nonfiction books which have given me considerable enjoyment and opened my eyes over the past half-century. They are listed in no particular order:
1. The Guns of August, Barbara Tuchman, Pulitzer Prize
A gripping account of the first month of World War I.
2. The Greek Adventure, Pierre Leveque
The ancient Greeks, culture and history. Includes an account of, to my mind, the most significant Greek contribution to the modern world: comedy. (Science finishes second.)
3. Prejudices, H. L. Mencken, Library of America (3 vols)
Anyone reading these journals who is also familiar with Mencken knows that he is a friend of Priscilla’s.
4. Black Holes and Time Warps, Kip S. Thorne
Subtitle: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy. Extraordinarily readable book on subjects that usually leave me baffled.
5. The Modern Mind, Peter Watson
Subtitle: An Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century. Another one impossible to put down. Take it to the beach, impress the ladies, and enjoy the book all at the same time.
6. The Spirit of Seventy-Six, edited by Henry Steele Commager & Richard B. Morris
Subtitle: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants
7. Three-Upmanship, Stephen Potter
Three outrageously funny books in one: The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship; Some Notes on Lifemanship; One-Upmanship. Potter’s adage for living the good life: “If you’re not one up, you’re one down.”
8. The Shock of Recognition, edited by Edmund Wilson
Subtitle: The Development of Literature in the United States by the Men Who Made It
9. The Masks of God, Joseph Campbell (3 vols)
An examination of the development of mythology around the world. I once had an opportunity, when we were living in Chicago, to hear Campbell speak. As has happened on other occasions, something got in the way. Now, of course, it is too late.
10. The Second World War, Winston Churchill (6 vols)
In Alex Benedict’s time, these volumes have been lost. Chase finds one of them in a private library in The Devil’s Eye.
September 4, 2012
This entry is behind schedule because I spent the weekend in Chicago at the World SF Convention. Cons, large or small, are always a special treat because they present an opportunity to meet with (or see again) readers and colleagues. The level of enthusiasm in these events puts fuel in the tank. These last few years, I’ve been thinking about retiring, moving out onto the porch, and just letting the days go by. But the cons make that impossible. Even when someone expresses annoyance with something I’ve done. That a character shouldn’t have been allowed to die, or that people will not live like us in the twelfth millennium Or whatever. There may be no higher compliment than the angry reader, because she has obviously gotten locked in and cares about what happens to the characters.
The highest compliment I ever heard being paid to a writer did not come in the form of a Nebula or Hugo, or even a Pulitzer or National Book Award. It was the angry mob that showed up outside Conan Doyle’s home when he sent Sherlock over the Reichenbach Falls. They were out there threatening his life, but I can’t help thinking that Doyle was smiling throughout the entire experience.
Worldcon LXX was held at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers. I lived in Chicago back in the early eighties, and I couldn’t help being struck by some of the new buildings, beautiful glass and steel skyscrapers. Structures that could have served as illustrations in the SF pulps of my childhood. We’ve arrived in the future.
A good crowd showed up for my first presentation, Friday evening, on “How To Ensure That Your Manuscript Gets Rejected.” We talked about the importance of getting off to a quick start, avoiding overwriting, and so on. The key issue in much of this is to keep in mind that the writer’s purpose is not to tell a story, but to deliver an experience. Fiction is only working when the reader forgets he’s sitting in a chair with a book, but instead sits in the shelter on distant Orfano with the rest of the research team and feels the presence of a life form that should not exist on that world that doesn’t even have a sun. And yes, this is a moment from Starhawk.
After that, I did an interview with Brent Bowen for Adventures in Scifi Publishing (AISFP) www.adventuresinscifipublishing.com. We talked about science fiction in general, and how most people tend to underrate their own abilities. And how, sometimes, in spite of everything you do wrong, you still get lucky.
Saturday I had lunch with two lovely ladies, Jean Saberhagen and Lynne Thomas. Lynne and her team brought home a Hugo that evening for best fancast.
I was scheduled for a reading afterward. It’s usually best to use something that’s short and that generates some laughs. That brought me to a choice among three: “The Candidate,” “Nothing Ever Happens in Rock City,” and “Henry James, This One’s for You.” I went with Henry James.
Then it was on to: “Series: Why Do We Love/Hate Them?” My fellow panelists were Mike Moscoe, Ferrett Steinmetz, Lyda Morehouse, and Eric Flint. We tried to take it from the reader’s perspective rather than the writer’s. Whether we succeeded, I’ll have to leave to the people who were in the room. But it was a spirited discussion.
I’ll confess that, despite having started my career with a determination to do no sequels, I discovered that I enjoyed going back to characters I’d written about earlier. It was like spending time with an old friend. And I know that will sound goofy to some, but I’m pretty sure not to everybody. My first sequel was Polaris, which revisited Alex and Chase, from A Talent for War. I was literally shocked at how relatively easy that book was to write.
After the panel, Mike and I joined Eric and his family for dinner.
I had the opportunity to participate with Fran Wilde in a writers’ workshop Sunday morning. Three people had submitted stories in advance, and I’ll confess that it will surprise me if Fran and I don’t hear more from them.
Sunday afternoon was devoted to manning the SFWA table, and signing autographs, including a couple of copies of The Twilight Zone Magazine, December 1981. It contains my first story, “The Emerson Effect.”
Then a kaffeeklatsch at which the conversation ranged over how to tell the difference between good and dumb bosses (really), and why comic books and SF are good for kids.
I enjoyed a Fran Wilde reading at the end of the day.
Monday morning put me back at the SFWA table. I was scheduled to participate in an afternoon panel with people who’d collaborated over the years with Mike Resnick, the con guest of honor. It was tight with my plane and, in the end, I had to bypass the panel and make for the airport.
Let me say here what I’d have said at the panel, given the chance: There’s a long-held dogma that collaborations should be avoided. You have to work twice as hard, you lose control of the project, and you have to divide the money.
Even though I’d known Mike Resnick a long time, I wasn’t certain how The Cassandra Project would turn out because of the common wisdom cited above. It was my first collaboration on a major effort. And it turned into a major surprise: I don’t think I ever enjoyed putting together a novel as much as I did last year, working on Cassandra.
September 17, 2012
The lunacy currently on display in the Middle East as a result of a film that almost nobody would ever have heard of were it not for the fiery reaction demonstrates once again the tribal qualities that, in an earlier era, served us well, but which now threaten to tear us apart. Our wiring connects us to groups. Church groups. Veterans groups. Political parties. Nations. Bridge clubs. It is one of the ways in which we understand who we are. And groups seem to function best when there are other groups, or individuals, or ideas, with whom we do not agree. Or which we deem trivial. And it’s not always a bad thing.
We engage in Olympics, we join bowling teams, we compete with other schools to produce better science projects. Half a century after leaving the place where we grew up, we are still rooting for the same baseball team. The problem develops when there’s an ideology involved. When we assume that whatever world view we hold is correct, and anything that clashes with that is necessarily in error.
The world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place because the tribalism is connecting with advancing technology. One obvious problem is that the dingo who once had to rely on nothing more threatening than a knife can now get his hands on an M-16. Or maybe even some bioweapons. Keeping atomic bombs out of the hands of lunatics has become a serious challenge.
But the increasing availability of advanced methods for killing large numbers of people isn’t the only danger. There’s another that, had I been writing this last week, before all the fires, I’d have called more subtle: The ability we all have now to communicate on a planet-wide scale. Nobody has to get past an editor anymore to go global. So we get a deranged guy in California who makes a film and puts it out there for whoever’s loose in the cloud. If a couple of the viewers turn out to be rock-throwing true believers, things can get fairly ugly.
I wish I could say that intolerance was limited to the Middle East. We’re not burning things, or storming government buildings, but we’re still dealing with our own failure to recognize that maybe somebody else has a point, that some of our dearly held beliefs might not be valid. There are still holocaust deniers running loose. And don’t even ask about climate change. It was remarkably easy for George W. Bush to talk the country into invading Iraq. At the time we all laughed at the French, who tried to tell us it was crazy. (Remember Freedom Fries?) It reminds me of the problematical story of the church authorities who would not look through Galileo’s telescope at Jupiter because they were afraid they’d actually see moons. That would have been an assault on the Aristotelian position that the Earth was the center of the universe.
We’re surrounded by efforts to remake our schools. One of the larger problems connected with establishing strong schools is concerns how to ensure strong teachers. Teaching is 85% showbiz, and it does take some talent. (I say this with a painful understanding that I did not always get it right.) Consequently we have to come up with a method to determine the capability of the people at the head of the classroom. I don’t pretend to have one. But the concept that usually surfaces, that showed up in No Child Left Behind, and that is now front and center in Chicago, is to use standardized testing of the kids to determine the capability of their instructors. And to do it on a straight line. The higher the score, the better the teacher.
This is egregiously unfair. Parents play a substantial role in the success of their children. Some kids arrive at school with a considerable advantage. If your pay is going to be determined by their grades, make sure you teach in a school where the parents are involved. That gives you a running start, and then some.
Schools concentrate on language, history, science, and math. That’s good. But maybe not good enough. You won’t usually find critical thinking on the curriculum. If it’s going to happen, it’s inevitably up to the individual teacher to broach the topic, and she does so at considerable risk. Most parents, and most administrators, are not likely to encourage teaching kids to doubt concepts their families hold, but for which there is no proof. Most parents, I suspect, do not really want our kids to arrive at their world view by giving it honest thought. We are more inclined to want them to accept our world view.
But sometimes, maybe, you should look through the telescope.
October 2, 2012
The Baltimore Book Festival provided a glorious weekend. Tents everywhere loaded with books. I wandered from the Black Writers Guild to the Romance Writers to the Radical Writers to the Friends of the H. L. Mencken House and to several dozen more. Some places had all sorts of books on display; others specialized. Sometimes in volumes explaining how to keep healthy, or figure out today’s politics. Sometimes they provided classics or explained the concepts of eastern religions or invited passersby to learn about Islam.
Daedalus Books had a section on titles that have been banned in sections of the USA at one time or another. I got some surprises. Of course I knew about Huckleberry Finn. Tropic of Cancer, Catcher in the Rye, and some others. But I did not expect to find Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. Or The Lord of the Rings, which apparently was considered satanic by some of the citizens of Alamagordo, NM, who burned all copies they could find. Others included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Lord of the Flies, Ulysses, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, Slaughterhouse Five, Brave New World, Animal Farm, Catch-22, For Whom the Bell Tolls, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, and Of Mice and Men.
It’s impossible to miss the SF connection. Several years ago I assisted in a discussion in a book store arranged by a teacher who was prohibited from talking about Harry Potter in the classroom. This happened despite (or maybe because of ) the fact that Harry was extremely popular. The fact that it was an ideal way to get kids passionate about books was secondary to the concern that the book was teaching kids how to perform witchcraft. Or at least that seemed to be the major concern.
I went looking for other SF/ fantasy titles that have been considered sufficiently dangerous that they should be kept out of the hands of children and pretty much everyone else. Among them were The Twilight Series (no surprise there),but why would anyone object to Stranger in a Strange Land? Another was A Wrinkle in Time. And, incredibly, Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. Makes me wonder if I missed the point of those two.
One of the tents belonged to SFWA. We did panels, gave out some free books, delivered readings, and threw in some music. The operation was organized and run by Catherine Asaro. Catherine is a physicist. She’s been a professional dancer. She sang a few songs, demonstrating a magnificent voice. In her spare time she writes gripping SF novels. One, Quantum Rose, won a Nebula. I’ll admit here that watching her in action, as I did this weekend, leaves me with a sense that I’ve spent most of my life doing little more than hanging out.
Her most recent SF novel is The Ruby Dice.
Several people at the fair knew that my 2013 novel will be Starhawk, but they wondered what lay beyond that. A few wanted a sequel to Ancient Shores, others another round with Dave and Shel, the two time travelers. There were other suggestions, but most seem to prefer Chase & Alex. This is normally the time when I am finishing the current year’s assignment and beginning to think about what’s next. I can report at this point that I have no idea as yet. The doors are open.
Jeff Carlson fueled his SF career with the Plague Year trilogy. Now he’s back with The Frozen Sky, based on a novelette of the same title that took first prize in the 2007 Writers of the Future contest.
The cover description: BENEATH THE ICE.
Something is alive inside Jupiter’s ice moon Europa. Robot probes find an ancient tunnel beneath the surface, its walls carved with strange hieroglyphics. Led by elite engineer Alexis Vonderach, a team of scientists descends into the dark… where they confront a savage race older than mankind…
My preference in science fiction doesn’t run to interstellar war or invasions from outer space. I’ve been there too many times. What I do look for is narratives of discovery. What’s out in the dark? I haven’t read The Frozen Sky, but it sounds like my kind of novel.
October 16. 2012
The second draft of Starhawk is, finally, finished. My first drafts are always unreadable. Consequently, nobody ever gets to see it. Not even Maureen. (Maybe especially not Maureen, who’d spend two or three months trying to make it work before probably suggesting that I find an alternate career.)
The critical thing about a first draft doesn’t have much to do with how smooth the prose is. What it does is allow you to find out whether all the pieces fit. Whether the characters work, and the logic makes sense. It doesn’t mean, though. that it represents how the final narrative will look. But it does guarantee, more or less, that there is a coherent story line. Or, at least, it warns you that there isn’t. Then it’s on to the second draft, which usually provides a sense of how the finished novel will actually look.
Years ago, I was working on Deepsix, in which the action centered on several people stranded on a world that was only a couple of weeks away from diving into a gas giant. Conditions on the surface were being disrupted by the gravitational aberrations generated by the approaching event. Two starships were in orbit, but they had no way to reach the team on the ground because both landers had been on the surface when an earthquake hit. Moreover, no outside help could reach them in time.
All I needed was a way, under those conditions, to manage a rescue, and the book would write itself. For me, that has been a reasonably successful approach. Create a problem, or a mystery, figure out a rational solution, and writing the novel becomes easy. Of course, it’s that ‘rational solution’ part that can get you in trouble. With Deepsix, I had devised a plan in which the orbiting starships would put together a single cable, long enough to reach the surface, and throw one end of it over the side. The people on the ground would grab the cable, secure themselves to it, and get lifted to safety. Tricky, I thought, but doable. A nice clean solution.
I could see no problem with it, and I was about 70,000 words into the first draft when I mentioned the plan to a couple of physicists. Both dissolved in laughter. The consensus seemed to be that the cable would kill anyone who touched it.
I was by then too emotionally involved in the narrative to quit on it. So as a reward for pointing out the defects in my reasoning, one of the physicists, Walt Cuirle, received a challenge: Find a solution, Walt. Please. He came up with an idea. Fortunately. And I learned a valuable lesson from the experience: I don’t know physics very well. Check stuff out before plunging ahead.
There’s a better than fair chance that most people reading this are either writers, or have some ambitions in that direction. So I can’t resist pointing out a second, more consequential, lesson to be derived from that kind of experience. Sometimes there are aspects of a project that can’t be checked out in advance. You simply have to sit down, do the writing, and leave yourself open to whatever judgment shows up.
A substantial number of readers have commented on the fact that Alex Benedict narrates A Talent for War, the first book in the series. And that Chase becomes the narrator with Polaris.
I’d produced about 80,000 words of the first draft of Polaris –roughly three-quarters of the book—when I realized I was using the wrong narrator. Alex had figured too much out. But it was information that I couldn’t hand the reader at that point without spoiling things. The problem is that information or ideas that the narrator has cannot be held back from the reader. I won’t try going into an explanation. It just doesn’t work. Moreover, the ideal narrator has to be able to ask the questions that people ordinarily would ask. “So what was it about the dog that set you off on that line of thought, Holmes? I mean, it didn’t bark or anything like that.” “That’s the whole point, Watson. It didn’t bark.”
So I threw out most of the 80,000 words and brought Chase back to narrate the action. And, in the process, decided why Holmes would never have been able to operate without the good doctor.
A connected lesson is that a writer has to get away from the natural inclination to treat his own work as if it’s somehow sacred. A Talent for War was originally written as military SF. Note the title. But I was three-quarters of the way through that one as well when it dawned on me that it would work much better as a mystery. That what it needed was, say, a history professor living a couple of centuries after the war, who would try to uncover the truth about that long-ago struggle. I got rid of most of the text in that one as well, the history professor became an antiquities dealer, and the world moved on.
There is not much in my life experience more painful than spending the better part of a year writing a sizable piece of a first draft and then throwing it out. But I’d have lost a good bit had I not been willing to do it.
Incidentally, I just finished proofing “A Voice in the Night,” a story for Futuredaze, a YA anthology. It’s Alex at 15. The story was inspired by, and is dedicated to, Jean Shepherd. Those of us who’ve achieved the requisite age know who he was. And will probably never forget.
October 31, 2012
Maureen and I hope that those caught in the track of the storm come through in the
best possible condition. It's the stuff of science fiction, but unlike a narrative, reality
Halloween for most people is a happy time, filled with chocolates and kids going door to door and Batman costumes and brooms. I’ve always enjoyed it, especially on the night I showed up at a party dressed as a Roman soldier, but it has, if not a dark side, at least a sober dimension. The point of Halloween, as best I can make out, is to fend off those things we used to fear, skeletons, ghosts, witches, night creatures, by turning them into figures of ridicule. But it’s no coincidence that the event arrives at the end of the farming season, when the crops were in the barn and we were shutting down for the winter. It is our time to laugh at the darkness, especially at that inevitable night that, in the end, takes us all down.
For me, Halloween has always been a season when I become a little more aware of the passage of time, the loss that inevitably comes with it, and consequently of the value of our day-to-day existence. At the turn of the century, I was eating lunch regularly with five guys I worked with at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center. It was always a good time. In 2000, I dedicated Infinity Beach to my partners, with a comment: “They haven’t quite worked out the secret of life, but they know it has something to do with lunch.”
Actually, I think we knew pretty well what it was about.
That group is no longer intact. There’s been retirement, other assignments, moving on. The world has changed. Still, those were good hours. And the six of us might even, at some future date, be able to put another lunch together. But it won’t be the same. We’re older, we don’t work together any more, perspectives are different. Even the restaurant we traditionally used, Spanky’s, is gone.
When I was a teenager, I played third base for the South Philadelphia Quakers in the Sandlot Sports Association. We had a decent team over several years. Usually finished over .500. Then, in 1953, as we got close to the playoffs, the team was ripped apart by a dispute. Three of our key guys walked away. (You do stuff like that when you’re 18.) The rest of us pulled ourselves together as best we could, made the playoffs, but got eliminated early. Ed Garrity was our shortstop. We’ve kept in touch over the years. Recently he and I were talking about how much we’d give to be able to go back for just one afternoon and play another game with that team. The ironic part of this: Neither of us could remember what the argument was about.
At the time it happened, we were enjoying ourselves. But I don’t think any of us had a clue just how priceless those days were. What had been sacrificed to that dispute.
Carpe diem, baby.
When I was teaching high school English a few years ago, I periodically mentioned to my students that the day would come when the school would have been converted into a parking lot or a care facility for seniors. And they, the students, would drive by and see the grounds. And they would wish there were a way to go back for a single morning, sit through another of those boring English classes, anything, just to be again with old friends, to relive good times that got by when nobody was paying attention.
Lunches, ball games, English classes. Who would ever have thought they were priceless?
That’s what Halloween is to me. Recognize what we have. Enjoy the moment. Have a hamburger with friends.
November 18, 2012
The schedule has all but run me down this month. The reason is that the deadline for Starhawk was November 1, and I was underwater at the time. But I’m happy to report it’s gone in. Usually that means I can relax through the Christmas season before starting work on next year’s novel. (I hope that, by the time the holidays have ended, I’ll at least know what next year’s novel will be.)
I’ve committed to do a pair of short stories for anthologies edited by Tom Easton and Ben Bova, so they are up next. Whatever happened to retirement?
We took an evening to go over to St Simons Island to watch the Island Players do Cabaret. The show was brilliant. We’ve attended regularly for over twenty years and I remain impressed at the quality of the performances. Especially when they have a good script to work with.
For those not familiar with Cabaret, the show is set in Germany during 1930-31, and we get to watch a group of entertainers at a German club trying to pretend everything’s just fine, life is good, and there’s no real need to get upset over this guy Hitler. The killer number in the show, for me, occurs at the end of the first act when a boy who’s about ten years old comes onstage and sings “The Future Belongs To Me.” It’s the only time we see the child in the entire performance. But as you can imagine, the moment is a show stopper.
Last weekend, the Georgia Literary Festival took place on Jekyll Island. It provided a chance to talk with Steve Berry, an old friend and a New York Times best-selling writer. Steve’s latest is The Columbus Affair.
Several of his novels feature Cotton Malone, an antiquarian book dealer, who solves historical mysteries. If this reminds you of anything, I should mention that Cotton lives in our era. But anyone who enjoys the Alex Benedict novels might give Cotton a try.
The Columbus Affair, by the way, is not part of the Malone series, but the historical puzzle is there nonetheless.
I was invited, as part of my responsibility to the festival, to talk with Susan McLemore’s writing class at Glynn Academy in Brunswick. The experience made for an enjoyable hour or so, and left me with a sense that, despite all the negativity about the future that surfaced during the presidential campaign, we will be fine. Unlike the unfortunate young man in Cabaret, the future is there for these young women and men to control, and they look perfectly capable.
Incidentally, some pictures from the writing class can be found at: http://www.facebook.com/jackmcdevittbooks?sk=wall&filter=12
November 30, 2012
Those of us with an interest in space exploration experienced a couple of fairly breathless weeks when news leaked out from NASA that a big story involving Mars and the Curiosity Rover was imminent. That they were checking their data before releasing a statement. The story turned out to be that there was still no indication of life on the planet. It reminded me of the 1975 punch line on Saturday Night Live that “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.” I don’t recall whether they led into that with an announcement of breaking news.
Another odd story surfaced within the last few weeks: Italian scientists claim to have spotted neutrinos moving more quickly than light. Scientists around the world are apparently rattled. I have to confess that, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not like climate change. I don’t have a dog in the fight. It’s more of a make-up-your-mind-and-call-me-in-the-morning issue.
We’ve also spotted water and organic molecules on Mercury. Not the best place to be if you’re an organic molecule. Nobody will be surprised to learn that, when I was growing up, I was a very serious Buck Rogers fan. As best I can recall, Buck operated exclusively in the solar system. There were Jovians and Venusians and, I guess Plutonians, and so on. And you had to look out for pirates. But I don’t recall that Buck headed out to the stars. That probably arrived with the TV series. Anyway, in later years, I was disappointed as, one by one, the planets got eliminated as homes for other races. I still recall my reaction when the first pictures of the Mars landscape came in, and when I saw the temperatures on Venus.
An announcement concerning the discovery of a free-floating planet (i.e., not attached to a star) was recently posted by a reader at the facebook website. (http://www.facebook.com/JackMcDevittFiction) I was surprised to hear responses that suggested the existence of such bodies had been doubtful. Now we know, people were saying, that there might be a lot of these things out there. How could it have been otherwise? There are probably billions of planetary systems in the Milky Way, and I doubt you could have a pair of stars pass reasonably close to each other without getting some serious disruption. The stars have been drifting around out there for billions of years. Ergo--?
We’re lucky. We live in the galactic suburbs. The nearest star is extremely far. Nothing big is headed our way, or is even likely to show up in the general neighborhood. That may give us a jaundiced perspective. But if it sounds boring, be patient. Eventually we’ll get Andromeda. #
Scientists have also apparently found the links among Neanderthals, Australopithecus and modern humans. Dating in those years must have been an interesting experience.
On a similar subject: Chris Matthews ran a clip with Pat Robertson admitting that there were once dinosaurs, that they existed before the Bible, and if people insist on denying established science, they will lose their children. I wonder where that came from?
The current Atlantic reports that Ark Encounter, a theme park, is being assembled by Answers in Genesis, a group that supports literal biblical interpretation. This is the same organization that erected the Creation Museum. The ark will be 510 feet long, which, if I’ve read the article correctly, is the length directed by God.
Not big enough, I don’t think, to accommodate a pair of T. Rexes amid a slug of other animals.
Pat Robertson is right. (I never thought I’d hear myself say that.) You can’t take seriously anybody who denies scientific fact. We might question the conclusion, but if there are moons circling Jupiter you can no longer claim the Earth is the center of the universe. Which brings us to climate change.
The icecaps are melting, oceans are rising, Sandy ripped up the northeast, and we just came through an election in which the subject never got mentioned. The New York Times this week published charts showing where we’re headed if the rising oceans continue, which of course they will since we are still clogging the atmosphere with pollutants. I’ve had the opportunity over the years to talk with a number of climatologists. Can’t find one who thinks we don’t have to worry about going underwater. Or that humans don’t at the very least share a chunk of the responsibility. We are going to have to build sea walls. Or close down the big coastal cities. (The majority of us were too short-sighted to head for North Dakota.)
Anyway, where I’m going with all this: I’m open to any good offer for a nice south Georgia house, good view, pleasant climate, within easy reach of the beaches.
December 16, 2012
A local organization of Star Trek fans have put together several films featuring the starship Farragut, which is operating during the era of the original series. One of the people involved, Dan Scanlan, writes for Jacksonville’s newspaper, The Florida Times-Union, and also appears regularly as a TV correspondent. I’ve known Dan for a number of years, and had seen segments of the Farragut productions. So when he invited us to attend a Farragut Fest last weekend, I was pretty sure we’d be in for something unusual.
We were. The Farragut group had assembled a production stage in Kingsland, GA, that rivaled anything I’d seen in the original series. The Fest was advertised as an open house. Come in and visit the production sets. Hang out on the bridge of the Farragut, visit the transporter room, have a look at the shuttle interior, visit the captain’s cabin, and, in general, wander around the ship’s interior and meet some of the crew.
That evening we watched the latest Farragut entry, “The Price of Anything,” which included a rendezvous with the Enterprise, and a cameo appearance by Captain Kirk. For those not up on their Star Trek lore, by the way, Lt. Jim Kirk’s first assignment was to the Farragut.
“The Price of Anything” was, as we expected, a solid piece of work, done at a professional level. It boasts outstanding special effects, a solid script, and a good cast, and should appeal to anyone who has enjoyed the voyages of the Federation starships. (And who among us hasn’t?
The event turned out to be much more than a tour of some sets and a chance to watch a new Star Trek adventure. There was a time travel connection there somewhere. We were back in the 60’s, a series with vast potential was just revving up, and a young Enterprise crew was in the area.
“The Price of Anything” isn’t available yet online. Links to other Farragut shows, as well as “Star Trek Continues” episodes, can be found at the fan page, along with some photos of the visit. http://www.facebook.com/jackmcdevittbooks?sk=wall&filter=12 #
Tom Easton and Judith Klein-Dial have picked up a story for their forthcoming anthology, Impossible Futures. The anthology theme requires that the story deal with scientific projections that writers anticipated but which never happened. Like the jet pack or the atomic-powered car. I’m contributing “Searching for Oz,” in which the science connection is with SETI. In other news, Analog has purchased the rights to “Glitch.”
Speaking of time travel, we have a theatrical group in Brunswick staging radio broadcasts of movies from the 1940’s. There was a popular series during that period, Lux Radio Theater, which adapted popular films for a one-hour radio broadcast. Usually they brought in the movie stars to reprise their roles.
Golden Isles Arts and Humanities is doing the same thing for us. Several months ago, they staged a radio broadcast of The Maltese Falcon. Last night they performed It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Heather Heath. And Casablanca is coming up.
Casablanca is my all-time favorite film. And I have to admire Heather and her crew for taking it on. How can you possibly replace Bogart as Rick? Or Bergman as Ilsa?
Judginmg from what we’ve seen so far, they’ll manage.
Christmas 2012 will forever be associated with the attack on little kids in two Connecticut classrooms. I’ll admit up front I have no immediate solution to the gun problem. But I can’t believe we shouldn’t at least make the effort to prevent criminals and lunatics from getting their hands on automatic weapons. At least….
A decent first step would be to require background checks without exception for anyone trying to buy a gun. People with a history of violence should be denied firearms flat out. Automatic weapons should be banned for everybody. I don’t pretend these measures would solve the problem. But they’d be a start.
A few people will object, but nobody’s right to own guns is worth the lives of a bunch of innocent kids.
December 31, 2012
My apologies to anyone who was inconvenienced by the disappearance of this section of the website a week ago. Somebody wasn’t paying attention to incoming bills –the identity of that individual is of no consequence--, and the entire operation collapsed. We have begun replacing the more recent entries. And I appreciate everyone’s patience.
The reality is that I haven’t kept up with the technological avalanche of the last twenty years. I first became conscious of the wider world during the 1940’s when we lived with a console radio. That world –Jack Benny, Gangbusters, Mr. Keene and I Love a Mystery— vanished with the appearance of TV at the end of the decade. Some in my family thought that buying a television would be an exorbitant act, if not a complete waste. It had no future. Life, they thought, was essentially static.
But everything seemed to be changing. Suddenly there was plastic everywhere. Our Kodak box camera got replaced by a Contax S. And any doubts I might have had about the way things were going were literally blown away one morning in the spring of 1952 when I sat in front of my TV set and watched the detonation of an atomic bomb at Yucca Flats.
It reminded me of an old Buck Rogers story in which someone had lobbed an atom bomb at Buck and Wilma, and they reacted by diving into a ditch. The world was changing, baby.
I have to confess that the past two decades have moved too quickly for me. The prospect of chasing down the latest electronic development at our local Radio Shack every month, and figuring out how to make it work, was daunting. And of course neglecting the latest advances made catching up down the road increasingly difficult. I miss the twentieth century. Now I’ve become the guy warning people not to buy the latest Z-box because they won’t last.
Truth is they probably won’t. But for a different set of reasons.
We watched a couple of movies this week, one my all-time favorite, and the other the only film fantasy that I would love to have written.
Casablanca is incredible. Put together the ten most famous lines from the movies, and five of them, I’d bet, have originated in Rick’s Café Americain. Recently, 1940’s-style radio script versions of great films from that era have surfaced around the country and are being performed by local theatrical groups. This is done as a broadcast, with the actors standing at microphones and the audience able to watch the director and the sound effects people. Of course the commercials are updated for local businesses.
We watched one of our own theater group stage It’s a Wonderful Life two weeks ago. Coming up over the next four months will be Our Town and Casablanca. I’m beginning to suspect I live in the cultural capital of Georgia.
The other film, the fantasy, was Midnight in Paris, written by Woody Allen. An American writer discovers that when you are in Paris, if you pick up the right vehicle at midnight it will carry you to places where you can meet Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and other celebrities who hung out in France during the 1920’s.
I’ve been disappointed in the more recent Allen films. But this one’s a blockbuster. Woody still has it.
My book club is reading Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. I don’t often agree with Bloom, but one comment of his gets right to the heart of a lot of our problems: The fact that we have different, and often opposing, views on politics, religion, and the culture in general, isn’t what causes conflict. The real issue is certainty. Most of us, he maintains, don’t distinguish between a fact and an opinion. We are not prepared to admit we might be wrong about some long-held view. And any piece of evidence constituting a challenge to that notion is consequently dismissed out of hand.
I was discussing the issue with Scott Ryfun at lunch a few days ago. Scott is a local radio talk show host, a supporter for some reason of the Dallas Cowboys, and also a member of the radio theater group. He played the announcer in It’s a Wonderful Life. While putting away a hamburger, he commented that the tendency to cling to an opinion emerges at least partially from our tribalism. “We tend to join opposing groups,” he said. “Look, if a Cowboys fan and an Eagles fan can sit and break bread together, then we should all be able to get along."
This is written as we roll to within a few hours of the fiscal cliff. A little optimism, anyone?
Happy new year to all of us. And good luck.