January 15, 2013
Occasionally, we learn something that completely changes our perspective about someone. It turns out that a movie actor whom we’d admired charges a substantial amount of money for an autograph. (Poor thing seriously needs the cash.) Or a football coach beats his wife. Or, in these times, an athlete takes performance-enhancing drugs.
Sometimes it’s different. Sometimes we’ve known all about the individual for years, but never quite put the pieces together. Jack Kennedy cheated on his wife, but you don’t get the impact until a woman is interviewed on TV and details the experience. Mimi Alford was nineteen years old when she arrived at the Kennedy White House as an intern. If we can accept the story –and there seemed no reason not to— any claim she might have had to virginity was gone within four days.
Okay, we’ve always known that Kennedy had a track record. But watching Alford describe what happened was painful. Like almost everyone else who was around during the Camelot years, I had more admiration and affection for this president than for any other public figure in memory. And it’s all still there. I loved the Vaughn Meader impersonations and Robert Frost at the inauguration and the overall sense that we would bear any burden, share any hardship…. He promised to take us to the Moon, and he delivered. Ike had been a good president, but Kennedy was movie star material. I had just returned stateside after an Asian tour and, if my memory is correct, election day coincided with my first full day at home on the road in Arizona. Three years later, we were all scarred by the assassination.
Afterward, gradually, news of the scandals leaked out. As Robert Dyke’s time traveler memorably phrased it in his film Timequest, it was a second assassination.
So okay, this is all old news, even if the appearance of Mimi Alford, more victim than willing collaborator, provided a fresh jolt. But even that became minor league stuff when I came across an Atlantic book review in its current (Jan-Feb) issue. The book is Sheldon Stern’s The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory: Myths versus Reality.
At the time, everybody followed the story. JFK went on TV and showed pictures of the Soviet missiles. It didn’t take a mathematician to see how vulnerable Miami and Atlanta were. He then warned Khrushchev to stay clear. A naval fleet blocked off Cuba. And, for fourteen days, the nation held its breath. It was the most unnerving event I can recall in my life.
Fortunately the USSR backed off. There was pressure on Kennedy to invade Cuba, an action that almost certainly would have ignited World War III. According to Stern, leading the charge for the invasion was Bobby Kennedy. In the end, the Soviets retreated, a grateful nation began to breathe again, and life returned to normal.
We learned later that JFK had cut a deal behind the scenes offering to remove U.S. missiles in Turkey and Italy.
We are now being told that the U.S. missiles in question would have taken an inordinate amount of time to launch, and therefore could only be useful in a first strike. That had alarmed the Soviets, who could not live with that threat hanging over their heads. (We are also being informed now that a first strike by the U.S. was no off the table, as we’d all assumed during those innocent years.) In any case, the Soviets had responded by putting their missiles into Cuba. Those missiles, by the way, according to experts, would have made no significant difference had war erupted. And they have Kennedy on tape admitting as much.
Why then all the fuss? Why were we risking Armageddon? We were unhappy that the Soviets had ignored our demand that they get out of Cuba. And that was the real reason for the stand-off.
The interesting thing about all this, that, e.g., our missiles had been the cause, was generally known, except that nobody put the pieces together. At least I didn’t. And I can’t recall seeing that the media did.
Another case of not looking clearly at events: George H. Nash’s book, Freedom Betrayed, is a collection of Herbert Hoover’s behind the scenes documents on WWII. It was obvious to the world that the Soviets used the war to take over eastern Europe and China. I knew we hadn’t done anything to help. But I bought the general position that we were too busy with the Germans and Japanese, and Stalin took advantage. It’s true as far as it goes.
But Hoover points out that the Soviets couldn’t have simply walked away from a war in which they stood in a central position. It feels more as if the Allies were bullied by Stalin. In any case, we didn’t lift a finger to help the nations that were being absorbed. And the two guys who let Stalin have his way were both, in my view, heroes. For a long time. FDR and Churchill.
January 31, 2013
A story showed up briefly in the media this week, but didn’t get much play. That was probably not surprising in that it dealt with an issue of world-wide significance which is politically explosive and therefore routinely doesn’t get noticed.
The State Department invited Australian Bindi Irwin, the daughter of Steve Irwin, the famed Crocodile Hunter, to write a short essay commenting on what could be done about wildlife preservation for eJournal USA. The December issue, they explained, would be headlined “Go Wild: Coming Together for Conservation,” and would put forward a State Department initiative aimed at protecting wildlife and reducing illegal trafficking.
Bindi is only fourteen. But she’s obviously a lot more than a kid. She’s had her own TV show, has starred in a film, has been a guest on Ellen DeGeneris, Oprah, David Letterman, and Larry King. She feels passionate about the issue, and consequently went directly to the heart of the problem. Unfortunately, the heart is another of those third rails that nobody wants to touch. I’ve never heard it mentioned by a politician. Yet it is critical, and we are in trouble.
Global population recently hit 7 billion. During the late Middle Ages, there were about 350 million people on the planet. There are now almost that many in the United States. World population is now increasing at approximately 80 million per year. By the time President Obama delivers his 2017 farewell address, we will have added the equivalent of another U.S. population onto this already-crowded planet. Not sure where we’re going to put everybody.
This reality places stress on fresh water resources, the environment, food production, and energy. We are also driving other life forms out of existence.
We’re in the middle of a major extinction event. And we are the cause.
Polar bears are near the end. So are several species of whales, gorillas, turtles, parrots, tigers, rhinos, and ferrets. Pandas are in trouble, as are jaguars, bald eagles, leopards, elephants. And the list goes on.
Bindi submitted, as requested, a 1000-word essay to the State Department and described the problem. The Earth's population was expanding, she wrote, and the planet was reaching a point where it could no longer be supported. She used the simple analogy of a child's birthday party in which 15 people are invited, a caterer is brought in, but 70 show up. The editors at State apparently responded by cutting all references to the party, and overpopulation in general, added some comments of their own, and returned the essay for her approval. They apparently assumed that a 14-year-old girl would be delighted at their willingness to accept her work and would go along with it. They might have underestimated Bindi.
She was outraged and declined publication. "I hadn't said anything they had put in,” she said. “My words were twisted and altered and changed. I was a little bit shocked to tell you the truth."
The source of the story was Sydney's Daily Telegraph.
Overpopulation figures to be another of those issues that we won’t talk about until a series of disasters leaves us no choice. Climate change, anybody? Making guns available to lunatics?
Futuredaze, a YA anthology edited by Hannah Strom-Martin and Erin Underwood, has been released. It’s gotten good early reviews. One story, “A Voice in the Night,” features a teenage Alex Benedict, his uncle Gabe, and a pilot named Kolpath. But don’t assume you know her.
February 15, 2013
If all goes according to schedule, Alex will be back in a 2014 novel. I don’t have a title for it yet, but it involves an archeological mystery that brings him and Chase to Earth. That’s become something of a challenge in that I have no clue what the home world will look like in his time, which is 9000 years in the future. Alex visited Earth at the beginning of The Devil’s Eye, but I didn’t have to work out much in the way of details because he and Chase were on their way back to Rimway before the prologue ended. Things will be different this time around.
If you’re wondering about the issues: What will the political realities be? What are the odds there will still be a United States? How much of a population will the planet have? (That is, will it still be crowded, but even more so? And consequently will Earth be one of the more backward worlds in the Confederacy? Or will it be the heart of the system?)
How much will be left of what we can see today? Will there be a New York or a London? Will anything of ours still be standing other than, maybe, the pyramids, Boulder Dam, and the Great Wall of China?
Will there be a single world government? If there is a USA, will Florida still be one of the states?
What kind of shape will the environment be in? What will the people living in that time remember about us? If anything?
What artifacts will survive?
Book clubs can be a lot of fun. Mine met this morning on St Simons Island. We were discussing The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels. The Gnostics seem to have been the religious rebels of the first two centuries of Christianity. They weren’t big on dogma, they didn’t care much for people telling them what was sinful and what was virtuous, and they thought ultimate truth came from examining oneself, and not from religious authorities.
One of points that came up for discussion was the change in religious life that occurred when belief switched over to a monotheistic deity. It reminded me of a story I’d read years ago in The Atlantic, whose title and author I can’t recall. A reporter wonders what really happened at Lourdes, and why the only survivor of the three children seemed to be hidden away in a convent. The solution: It wasn’t Mary who showed up as the apparition; it was Pallas Athena!
There’s good news from the United Kingdom. Headline Publishing will be releasing paperback editions of the Alex & Chase novels, and the Academy novels, two at a time beginning in May, and leading up to Starhawk in November. The first two will be A Talent for War and Polaris.
We’ll be surviving another near miss this evening when an asteroid half the length of a football field passes at a range of about 17,000 miles. Sounds like a lot, but by planetary scales, it’s downright scary. If something like that hits, the damage will not be limited to the local area.
We’ve been here a long time without getting hammered, but these rocks seem to be showing up with increasing frequency. Maybe our telescopes are getting better. In any case, I can’t help wondering if we’re looking at a story line here?
I’ve been trying for about forty years without any success to get to some of Scott Fitzgerald’s novels. A few weeks ago we watched “Midnight in Paris,” with a Woody Allen script in which a screenwriter on vacation with an obnoxious girlfriend climbs into a time-traveling taxi in the French capital, and encounters Hemingway and Fitzgerald, among other celebrities of the 1920’s. It’s a beautiful film. And I’m happy to report that I’ve finally started Tender Is the Night.
March 3, 2013
I’ve always been impressed by people who jump into a book and stay with it until they’ve finished. My own habitual method is to keep a stack on my bedroom side table and the coffee table and more or less rotate them as the mood hits. In case anyone’s interested, here’s a list of current reading and books recently finished:
The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels
The Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters
Before the Big Bang, Brian Clegg
Anomalies, Gregory Benford
Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Twelve Caesars, Michael Grant
The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom
Queen of Iron Years, Lyn McConchie
Futuredaze, edited by Hannah Strom-Martin and Erin Underwood The Whole Shebang, Timothy Ferris
Knocking on Heaven’s Door, Lisa Randall
I should also include the book that is on my stationary bike:
Where God Lives in the Human Brain, Carol Rausch Albright & James B. Ashbrook
Some, like Ferris’s book, I’ve been reading for years, going back to and rereading sections. Others, like Bloom’s exposition on the American perspective, I more or less stayed with until I’d finished. (That one was for my book club.) I’ve also recently launched on Joseph Wallace’s SF novel Invasive Species. That’s for blurb purposes. I’m only about a hundred pages in, but it works fine. Anyone who picks it up should have trouble putting it down.
This might be a place to admit that, after H. G. Wells’s Martians, I more or less lost my taste for scary aliens. But after all these years, Wallace has me locked in again. His aliens, if that’s indeed what they are, are the scariest I can remember. Ever.
We discovered Downton Abbey this year. And got sucked in like apparently everybody else in the country. Great series.
Also, I don’t see many films anymore that strike me as being memorable. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies over the better part of a lifetime. Even when the film is effectivelt done, there’s usually, at least, a repetitiveness, a sense of having seen all this before. Or maybe they’re just too similar in too many ways. But there were two over the last few days that,, I’m sure, will stay with me. “Lost Valentine” with Betty White and Jennifer Love Hewitt, scored with a story line in which a young woman says goodbye on February 14, 1943, in a train station, to her navy pilot husband as he heads off to the Pacific. But he does not return. We see White as the widow sixty years later, not so much still mourning the loss as celebrating the couple of years she had with her husband. The aftermath comes when a cynical young reporter tries to turn it into a TV clip.
The other film was “Big Miracle,” with Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski. Everybody gets together at Point Barrow, Alaska, in an effort to rescue three whales trapped as the ice closes in. This one is based on the 1988 incident.
The film did not do well at the box office. Probably not enough shootings.
We try to post the journal entries at the beginning and middle of each month. This one is a bit late because I became embroiled in my current novel and simply lost track of the calendar. A man with a history of heart problems, who has been a longtime critic of Alex Benedict, is found dead on a mountain slope. It would have been a long climb from ground level. And there’s no apparent reason for him to go. What was he doing up there?
It took the better part of three days trying to figure out a rationale.
There aren’t many things in this world as much fun to play around with as a good mystery.
JOURNAL ENTRY #133
March 15, 2013
These days are completely caught up in the Alex & Chase novel that’s scheduled for a November 2014 release. It doesn’t have a title yet, and at the moment I’m only about a quarter of the way through. Over the last few days I’ve been violating one of the principles I always push in workshops: Complete the first draft before you do anything else. That’s the brute work. Don’t worry about fixing stuff until you can see a complete run-through of the novel.
It sounds good. But rules are designed for exceptions. Like when you’re on the wrong track and will only have to toss everything out anyhow. It happened to me when I was writing A Talent for War, which introduced Chase and Alex. But neither one was in the original plan. The novel was based on “Dutchman,” a short story I’d done for Asimov’s. In the story, a starship blunders onto the aftermath of the 200-year-old war between humans and Mutes, and discovers that the official history was wrong. With Talent, I decided to do the actual blow-by-blow of the war. Neither Alex nor Chase appeared in the first draft, of course, which read like a straight military SF novel, depicting the struggle of an unlikely hero who leads human forces against invading Mutes. But it didn’t feel right. I didn’t know why, so I stayed with my plan.
There was nothing really wrong with the base narrative, but it was just another military SF shoot-out, and I gradually realized that the approach in “Dutchman” had much better possibilities. If long after the war, that starship shows up and uncovers the inconsistencies in the standard account, it would be possible to send an historian out after the truth.
The historian morphed into an antiquarian who becomes accidentally involved, and the antiquarian needs a pilot, so Alex and Chase arrive on the scene.
The painful aspect was that I had to toss the bulk of what I’d written. Somewhere around 70,000 words. About 20,000 words still survives in the novel. (The alert reader would have no trouble spotting it.)
Talent was only my second novel. It was five years before I attempted another one. But I’d learned that sometimes the subconscious takes over. And it’s a good idea to listen when it does.
I had a similar feeling yesterday about a chapter in the new book. I’m about a quarter of the way in. Alex and Chase have arrived at Earth’s space station. They pass through customs and, shortly thereafter, are in a shuttle on the way to the ground. And the alarm went off.
The pacing was wrong. Things were happening too fast.
Chase, the narrator, had been to Earth once before, in the prologue to The Devil’s Eye. But she’d been preoccupied playing escort to a pair of Mutes. So this second flight could be parlayed as the first time she’d really been alone, say, in a restaurant on the space station, looking down on the home world. That meant she should experience the emotional impact of being back where it all began. Of being home. All that’s necessary is to give Alex something else to do for an hour. Maybe sleep.
I wondered how I could have missed it. Anyhow, it’ll happen today. And I’ll confess I’m looking forward to Chase’s reaction. I’m not sure how it will go. That’s up to her. And I know how that sounds. But one of the very odd things about this business is that frequently the characters simply take over the action. Especially someone like Chase.
April 1, 2013
Kay Holt and Athena Andreadis have just launched The Other Side of the Sky, an anthology built around female heroes. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but Athena was enthusiastic about it, so I’d be surprised if it’s not a pretty good ride. It includes my own story, “Cathedral.”
I’ve been writing more short fiction than usual lately. The current issue of Analog has “Glitch.” For those who are graduates of LaSalle University in Philadelphia, the upcoming edition of the school’s magazine LaSalle will have “The Play’s the Thing.” I’ll admit to having been excited when they invited me to contribute a story. Back in 1954, when I was in my first year at LaSalle, they were running an annual freshman short story contest. I submitted “A Pound of Cure,” which won. It was one of the happiest moments of my young life. And there was even more cause for celebration when they published it in LaSalle’s literary magazine, Four Quarters.
There is nothing so encouraging to an aspiring writer as the first time you see your by-line on a piece of fiction. I should mention that I eventually became a sports columnist for the LaSalle newspaper.
One of my earliest ambitions was to become a journalist. During my senior year at LaSalle, I applied to the Philadelphia Inquirer, but they smiled politely at me and suggested I get my military obligation taken care of first. It was the era of the draft.
Eventually, after four and a half years in the Navy, I picked up a job as a reporter for a small South Jersey weekly. It was as close as I ever got to fulfilling that dream.
These are nervous times, which in one way also remind me of my college years. At that time, nuclear war was a distinct possibility. My high school years had included preparation drills in case the Soviets showed up. I don’t know how many of us actually thought we could survive an all-out nuclear attack. And in any case some people didn’t seem to have any idea about the extent of the threat. I recall one adult expressing concern that an atomic bomb might land in a nearby oil refinery. ‘Those oil tanks go up, heaven help us.’
Fortunately, the Russians were not dummies, and they had no more interest in a nuclear exchange than we did. So we got through it. But Kim Jong Un doesn’t seem aware of the realities. If I could locate his email address, I’d take the Dennis Rodman approach and try sending him a note. Let’s get the president to call the guy, say hello, and invite him over to watch a couple of basketball games.
We live in Brunswick, GA. If the name rings a bell, it’s probably because we’ve been in the national news lately. A lady with an infant in a stroller was headed home from the post office a few days ago when she was approached by two teens with a gun. ‘Give us your money or we’ll shoot your baby.” Unfortunately, she had no money.
So Brunswick, which most of us had always thought of as a safe community, turns out to be just as potentially lethal as any other place. Every time I reach a point where I come to oppose the death penalty, another horrific act takes me back. Two juveniles have been charged. As well as the mother of the accused shooter, who, police believe, tossed the murder weapon into a pond.
JOURNAL ENTRY #135
April 15, 2013
We take a lot of things for granted, and tend not to notice them until they go away. I was reminded of that twice this week. Last night the Golden Isles chapter of the Military Officers’ Association of America gave scholarships to seven local high school students. The kids literally glowed as they accepted the awards, said a few words of thanks to the organization, and to the parents and teachers who’d helped them get where they are. And of course, they couldn’t resist a moderate display of pride.
It occurred to me that those of us born into western civilization all collect scholarships. We may not make it through college, but teachers and facilities are provided for twelve years. Reports of school closings for lack of funds in some areas underlined the very generous provision the USA makes for all of us. It doesn’t happen everywhere. Some places are simply too backward. Many don’t have the resources. Others have cultural roadblocks. In some Islamic areas, girls who seek to learn basic math risk their lives. (Although there is progress toward equal rights. A Saudi prince this week got some unwelcome attention from conservatives when he suggested that maybe women should be allowed to drive.)
The second event occurred when the Water Commission informed us that a large tree on the street behind ours had to be taken down, and, as a precaution, they were going to shut the water off for a few hours.
We live with water and electricity in our homes, and never really think about the significance of either. They are a part of life. Like cars. Like dentists. It’s hard to imagine life without them. In the nineteenth century, the guy who cut your hair also probably took care of the dental work.
And doctors. Civil War doctors couldn’t do much except patch wounds and remove limbs. Pain-killers are relatively recent. And medical services have advanced enormously. While many of us don’t think much about, say, ambulances, they’re nice to have around if we fall off the roof.
What else? I came of age in a pre-TV era. I can remember my mom describing life before radio. The Battle of Belleau Wood was raging, and the Russian Revolution erupted, but Americans could only read about it in newspapers. It’s hard to imagine those kinds of events without CBS, or whoever, on the scene sending images back. And assorted experts explaining why it all mattered and what would happen next.
And comic books. Thay became an important part of my life from the very beginning. They got me and a lot of the kids of that era reading two years before we showed up for first grade. I was there within a year after Superman got his start. The radio show had an impact as well. Not on our reading, of course, but on our enthusiasm for the character. We all admired Superman and Batman, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel. They had to warn kids to stop putting on capes and jumping out of second-story windows. I’d be interested in seeing a study of the people who grew up with those characters: Were we less inclined to engage in criminal activity than the kids who never formed an acquaintance with the heroes of that age? I’d be amazed if they didn’t affect our behavior. Not that we didn’t engage in mischievous stuff from time to time, or get in trouble, but I can’t imagine any of the kids I knew then deliberately harming anyone. It wasn’t the way Bruce Wayne behaved.
There were other things also that I took for granted as simply part of the cultural architecture. Baseball. Movies. Science fiction. (I can remember clearly sitting on the porch at my dentist’s office, completely caught up in Robert Heinlein’s “Gentlemen, Be Seated.”)
And most of all, people. My dad, who took me to ball games. My mom, who was an avid reader, although the culture in which she grew up limited her to an eighth grade education. Aunts and uncles. They’re all gone now. And again the rule applies: I’d love to be able to sit and talk with one of them again. To relive a few of those lost hours that I took so much for granted.
When I was teaching, I told my students that the day would come when they’d drive by the school after it had become a parking lot or a shelter for senior citizens. “When it happens,” I said, “you’d give almost anything to be able to come back to that particular school day and live through it again. To spend time with old friends who were young again.”
What I don’t think I realized was that I’d want to be there too when they showed up.
May 2, 2013
Eeriecon was at full throttle this past weekend on Grand Island, NY, midway between Niagara Falls and Buffalo. I should say thanks to Joe Fillinger and his staff for another rousing journey offworld. Joe, incidentally, is retiring after many years as the con’s chief organizer. We’ll be sorry to lose him. Though I suspect he’ll stay within hailing distance.
SF conventions first appeared on my horizon in the fall of 1962. I was just out of the Navy, and driving a taxicab in Philadelphia while I thought about what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I picked up several people at the airport one evening and took them downtown to one of the hotels. On the way, I couldn’t help overhearing them talking about Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. When I asked what was going on they told me about Philcon, and I seem to recall that Isaac was scheduled to be there. I dropped them off at their destination, wondering why I wasn’t attending as well, and drove off into the darkness.
I’ve always loved SF conventions. One aspect of them that’s particularly remarkable is that it seems as if the same people are always in attendance. And I’m not talking about the writers and artists. Whether the con is in Los Angeles or Boston or Grand Forks, I always feel at home. The conversation is inevitably about the future, about what-if scenarios, about serious cultural issues. Nobody ever wants to talk about his favorite restaurant, or the quality of the screens she just bought at Home Depot.
I get occasional invitations to speak at non-SF events, where the atmosphere is different. I remember a staff assistant one time, after I’d arrived, leaning into the next office and telling her boss “the Buck Rogers guy is here.” And then there’s the inevitable 40-year-old man who approaches as the proceedings end and comments that “I don’t read the stuff myself, but my nephew does.” This is usually delivered in a tone that suggests the nephew has other odd qualities as well.
I feel sorry for people who’ve been wandering around for a substantial part of their lives, and have never discovered SF. I used to think that, in their case, it was too late. The train had left the station. But occasionally someone does show up who claims to have become a fan fairly late. So maybe there’s always hope.
I can’t imagine life without SF. It was the old Flash Gordon movie serial that got me looking past the South Philadelphia rooftops. I became interested in astronomy and began wondering about really strange stuff, like why I’d fall into the street if I walked off a rooftop? Why wouldn’t I just keep going? Crazy? Sure. But it was a question I was never able to answer.
One of the panels we did at Eeriecon was called “Books That Moved You.” Moved us so much that we remember the moment. My co-panelists were Lynna Merrill, James Alan Gardner, and Carl Frederick. We noticed that the majority of the memorable moments seemed to have occurred in short fiction rather than novels. We could arrive at no conclusive explanation why that might be.
Some of my own unforgettable moments: The kids in Ray Bradbury’s “The Million-Year Picnic” look into a Martian canal, see only their reflections, and complain to their father that he’d promised to show them Martians. And of course we all know the reply.
And when the Jesuit navigator in Arthur Clarke’s “The Star” discovers the truth about the long-dead supernova they are investigating. Or when Rhysling sings in Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth.”
Among novels, the single moment that I remember most vividly occurs in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein when the creature –who is nothing at all like Boris Karloff—is rejected by his creator, and subsides into reading John Milton….
May 16, 2013
Maureen and I spent the weekend at Leprecon, at the Marriott Mesa Hotel, in Mesa, AZ. The co-chairs, Patti Hultstrand and Don Jacques had concluded that the con needed something more than simply people discussing whether FTL will ever be possible, or how writing and editing have changed in the Internet Age. So, with the help of Mike Willmoth, they added a couple of distinctive elements.
One was the Leprecon 39 Film Festival. These were not films in the standard tradition of Hollywood movies from an earlier era, but were rather indies in a program run by Brick Cave Films and Apocalypse Later. I’d had only one previous exposure to SF independent films, and it had provided a jolt when John Broughton, Dan Scanlan and their crew brought Star Trek back to life with a dazzling level of execution. Script, acting, special effects, everything was there.
So when I showed up at the Leprecon event, I was expecting good stuff. And I got it. Host Hal C. F. Astell provided a series of short films. And these also would have been hard to separate from a professional effort. In “Red Sand,” we’ve discovered an alien research station buried in the Martian soil. A bank robbery goes seriously wrong in “Black Gulch.” A stranger takes over a game of trivia in a bar, raising the stakes and displaying unlimited knowledge in “The Guy Knows Everything.”
Four other short films kept us all in our chairs. Then came a full-length feature, “The Constant Epiphanies of Billy the Blood Donor.” A dark comedy produced by Squishy Studios, it features a newly-graduated college student who is working for a company called American Blood, which, not surprisingly, doesn’t have the best ethics in the world.
The other surprise sprung by the con organizers was the Mystery Dinner Theater. A large group of us gathered in one of the hotel’s Canyon Room, a section which could be kept private. We had a beautiful view of the evening sky. A tall, bearded man introduced himself as the Captain and told us he hoped we were enjoying our flight. If any of us needed anything, he added, we should not hesitate to ask.
We were, we realized, in the depths of the solar system. We enjoyed our meal and talked about how fortunate we were to be living in an era when space travel was available, and how we were looking forward to seeing Saturn later that evening. Eventually, we finished our meals and many of us got up to go say hello to friends at other tables. Then suddenly there was commotion somewhere. Screams and cries for help broke the sedate atmosphere of the dining room.
Crew members charged between the tables as the shrieks continued. They plunged past us and disappeared. Weapons were fired. Someone screamed there was a dragon in the galley. Then the firing stopped and the screams died away. The captain arrived and smiled. “It’s okay,” he said. “Just a misunderstanding. Nothing to be worried about.”
A few minutes later, we heard more shouts. Then pirates appeared, squabbling among themselves. The quarrel exploded into a swordfight. A knight appeared, but somehow he only made matters worse.
The passengers were trying to make sense of the situation. A tall thin man seated beside me asked if I had any idea what was going on? Someone else wondered if we’d passed through a time warp? Dancers in curious costumes appeared and performed. Had we perhaps entered an area where the laws of physics didn’t apply anymore? No one had a reasonable explanation. But while we gabbled on, security forces moved in on us and seized the tall thin guy sitting beside me. It turned out that he had lethal intentions toward the ship and the captain had organized the distractions. “We were doing everything we could to prevent his harming anyone,” he explained.
Fortunately everything ended happily, and we were able to enjoy our dessert, gazing peacefully out at the rings.
Off to the Nebulas this weekend. The event is being held in San Jose. I get to present the award for the winning novel.
Hans Christian von Baeyer, in the June Scientific American, reports that a new version of quantum theory has been under development for more than a decade. The new perspective, called Quantum Bayesianism, or QBism for short, promises to get around the absurdities of the theory, which clearly works but makes no sense. (You can have a particle in two places at once. Or, famously, a cat simultaneously dead and alive. Et cetera.)
I’m reminded of Richard Feynman’s comment that anyone who thinks he understands quantum reality doesn’t have a clue. I’ll try the article tonight, with the hope that von Baeyer really can clarify things.
June 1, 2013
Most of us, when we fly, take along something to read. I took Paul Boller’s Presidential Anecdotes to Leprecon in Phoenix two weeks ago. Published in 1981, it covers everybody up to Reagan. The stories provide insights into the character of the various presidents, and into the world they inhabited, that are quite different from what we pick up in routine history books. Sometimes funny, like John Quincy Adams going down to the Potomac before dawn, taking off his clothes and jumping in. (Can you imagine cable news getting that live?) And sometimes compelling: Lincoln, announcing Lee’s surrender to a large crowd, directs the band to play “Dixie” and then “Yankee Doodle.”
Sometimes it’s the stories told about a president by his contemporaries that open windows. Woodrow Wilson, for example, runs into Moses in heaven. Moses points out that his Fourteen Points are being ignored. Wilson responds by asking Moses whether he’s checked recently to see how the Commandments are making out?
On the way home from Phoenix I picked up a book that’s taken over my life, or at least the half-hour or so that isn’t devoted to writing and hanging out: Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars. It’s an account of how we got into the Middle East turmoil, how we’ve been responding to it, especially, how much stuff has been going on under cover.
I guess the aspect of the last twenty years that is particularly disturbing is how little seems to get picked up by the news outlets. They go on endlessly about a murder trial somewhere, or about a politician who says something silly, while the details and impact of the war on terror are ignored. And I understand that that information is hard to come by. But that’s what journalism is really about, isn’t it? Not simply relaying official congressional and White House handouts to the public. But I guess they’ve been doing at least some of that, or the Department of Justice wouldn’t be seizing their e-mails.
I attended the Nebula Awards banquet in San Jose two weeks ago and was given the privilege of presenting the prize for best novel to Kim Stanley Robinson for 2312, which examines where we might be headed over the next few centuries with planetary exploration, climate change, and prolonged lifespans. Also my editor, Ginjer Buchanan, won the Solstice Award for contributions to the field.
After struggling for months to find a title for the next Alex & Chase novel, it finally showed up. It seems so obvious now that I cannot imagine how I missed it: Coming Home. Alex pursues a mystery that takes him to Earth, and the Capella finally returns.
Oh, and I should mention the book I took along: Mark Twain’s Autobiography. For anyone who thinks that Mark Twain is all about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, do not miss his essays. They are his most entertaining work.
Something else that came out of the Nebulas: The next novel after Coming Home will probably be a time travel sequel. The title should be easy. Something like Time Travelers Never Wait in Line. Or Time Travelers Always Score First. In any case, one of the characters they meet will be Mark Twain. “Listen, Sam, what you need is to write a book about a kid and the river. Maybe call him Buck Something….”
More than a half-century ago, I was a freshman at LaSalle College in Philadelphia. They were kind enough to publish my story, “A Pound of Cure,” in the school’s literary magazine, Four Quarters. It was my first published work, and I wouldn’t see another for more than a quarter of a century. Consequently, when my alma mater invited me in March to contribute a story to the alumni magazine, LaSalle, I was delighted. I’m not sure this wasn’t the incident that prompted the “Coming Home” title. In any case, I delivered “The Play’s the Thing.” The story will also be published in Ben Bova’s upcoming anthology Carbid e-Tipped Pens.
June 16, 2013
We’re just back from the Georgia Writers Association’s 49th annual banquet. They provided recognition in various categories of fiction and nonfiction and presented me with a lifetime achievement award. I’d planned to talk for a couple of minutes on why I have a passion for science fiction, but watching the various writers coming forward to accept their awards sent me off in a different direction.
I wanted to be an SF writer as far back as I can remember. I started a Batman novel at about seven, and a Martian novel a year or so later. But during my college years I decided I lacked the talent to make a career for myself, and made no serious effort to write anything. I finally broke down twenty-five years after my graduation from LaSalle and wrote a story at the urging of my wife Maureen. It got rejected a couple of times, and I said how I told her that would happen. I wanted to give it up. But we called in a friend, who made some suggestions. I did a fix, and it got rejected a third time. That was enough for me. But Maureen brought home a copy of Twilight Zone Magazine. I sighed, told her okay, once more but that would be it, and we shipped it off.
We were on a TDY at the time. When we returned home to North Dakota two weeks later, we found a postcard from T.E.D. Klein, the editor. They were buying the story, we went into orbit, and I never looked back.
This is old stuff, and if you’ve been hanging around these journal entries for a while, you’ve seen it before. But there’s a critical lesson to be learned here.
Over the years, researchers have run an interesting experiment. They’ve gone into schools, picked out four or five students at random, and informed their teachers that they were highly talented kids. Superbly talented. They said nothing to the students, and asked the instructors not to treat them any differently than the other students, and in fact they should say nothing. Invariably, the selected kids proceeded to outperform the group, usually by a substantial margin. Why? Because the teachers could not entirely hide their respect for the capabilities of these kids, who then sensed a positive approach. They acquired confidence from it. If Ms. Jenkins thinks I can do this stuff, I probably can. And they acted on it. They performed. The lesson: We’re all more talented than we realize. We have a tendency to underrate what we are able to do. This is probably a result of authority figures, teachers, parents, bosses, whoever, pointing out our shortcomings. Keep your hands off it, you’ll break it. After a while, we come to believe it.
I eventually figured out when I was an English teacher that I should not spend my time showing students where they made mistakes, say, in writing. Forget that part of the exercise. Instead, I learned to look for solid work. Find the compact sentence, the line or two that might have been written by Hemingway. Show it to them. Circle it, and tell them Yes!, give me more like this.
In later years, I did management training for the Customs Service. We emphasized how important it was for supervisors and bosses of all kinds to encourage their subordinates, to recognize good performance, to make it a point to share credit with the people who were out there doing the work. Don’t just show everybody where they need to improve.
I come into contact with a lot of aspiring writers. The biggest thing holding them back isn’t usually a lack of talent, but a lack of confidence. It’s possible they may be right to doubt themselves. Their capabilities might run more in the direction of pharmaceutical development or engineering or who knows what. But the point is that they don’t know.
At the beginning, no one does. And consequently we hold ourselves back. Once I’d sold that first story, I was on my way. Somehow I became more able to develop ideas, and I was willing to take chances. Everything tends to come together when you learn to believe in yourself.
It’s easy to say, but unfortunately not easy to do. But at least we should all be aware of it. Some of the people gathered at that ceremony last night are already professional writers. I suspect at least three-quarters of the rest want to be. That’s why they were in attendance. And I’d be surprised if very many lack anything other than self-confidence. That’s probably true also of the considerable numbers who show up at cons and sit in on writing seminars. Or who participate in workshops. In most cases, the talent is very likely there. The issue is how one gets it up on the front line and plugs it in.
July 1, 2013
Probably the most intriguing aspect of writing science fiction deals with getting outside the narrative and trying to imagine what the human condition may look like in the future. (Note: What it may look like. The game requires only that we stay within the realm of possibility. It has nothing to do with predictions. Although I’d be happy to take credit for any that I blunder into.) Back in the early 1960’s, when I was thinking how riveting it would be to write sf and thereby live a few hours each day in a world that allowed me to move freely among the stars and take some guesses regarding what might be out there, I remember thinking that if I wrote about a first Moon landing, or Mars mission, I’d make sure it was covered on TV. As far as I know, no one ever made the call on that. It was my chance. Well, it might have been if I could have written some believable dialogue.
I’m currently working on Coming Home, an Alex & Chase novel which is scheduled for a 2014 release. In some ways, it is –for me—the most challenging one in the series. Why? Because it’s the first time in which a sizable part of the narrative is set on Earth. This would be Earth eight thousand years from now. Having them bounce around on made-up worlds in the far future created some issues. What do people eat in the eleventh millennium? (Answer: pizza and scrambled eggs.) Some things simply can’t be improved on.) When they wander into a bistro in downtown Andiquar, do they hear a piano? Is there any possibility at all we’ll still be using pianos that far up the line? I can make up musical instruments, like a kobala, but they don’t work, not least of all because they sound made up.
Years ago, at the Sycamore Hill Workshop, one of the participants criticized a scene in A Talent for War because some of the characters were enjoying the warmth of a fireplace. He was probably right. It’s also likely that nobody will have any bound books. And that we’ll all have a link in our brains tying us directly into a hyper-internet.
But maybe not. Technological progress isn’t always a good thing. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without fireplaces. Or without pizza. So I’ve taken that track in Alex’s era. Somewhere along the line, we got smart about technology, kept the part of it that gave us better lives, and got rid of the rest.
But when he and Chase travel to Earth, as they do in Coming Home, the issue gets more complicated. We will have kept the good stuff, as the rest of the Confederacy has. But will the nations that exist today still be around? Will there be a United States in eight thousand years? People in the Confederacy need not work if they don’t want to, so how do they spend their leisure time? Do we have anything resembling baseball? Is there a world government? What does marriage look like in the far future? Does organized religion still exist? Do the great musical works still exist?
In Alex’s time, they can look back at a Second Dark Age, which occurs about a thousand years in our future. Digital communication systems collapsed, and most of what was online is gone. Most of our literature has been lost. That explains, at least in part, why Chase, in Firebird, wonders about the source of the expression, “So how’d you figure that out, Sherlock?”
Will we still need to be careful about what we eat? And work out regularly? Or can we take a pill to stay in shape? What is the average life span likely to be? Will people get old at all? Some neurologists are claiming already that life extension breakthroughs are close. That we will soon be able to go even further, and reverse the ageing process.
All this brings up other questions. Will women still have to go through pregnancy, or will we have worked out a less stressful reproductive method? Will there still be science fiction writers? If so, what will they write about? In a world of high-tech entertainment, where you can place yourself in the role of Rick in Casablanca, or whatever the classic dramas of that era are, will anyone still be reading books?
If the pressure of day-to-day survival no longer exists, where everyone does okay, will we have devolved into doing nothing other than sitting around in our homes and watching endless comedies?
Fortunately, I can make stuff up as I go along, but I still have to pause when Alex and Chase encounter a young woman who’s a musical composer living on an asteroid (because the vast spaces inspire creation), and wonder whether she couldn’t do better than one of those violins, which have been around for thousands of years?
July 15, 2013
We watched Eve of Destruction this week. It’s a two-part series on Reelz, dealing with the results when an experiment in producing dark energy goes wrong. We both enjoyed it, which is a major admission in this era of monsters and Spock fist fights. I was surprised to see that the film did not get the reviews I’d expected. But maybe I’ve simply gotten out of step. The aspect that I particularly enjoyed was that there was a conflict, but most of the characters on both sides meant well, and it was not immediately clear who had things right.
Drama works best when conflicting sides both have a valid argument. When a narrative can be told from the perspective of either side, and the reader can be coaxed on board. As opposed to simply another chase after a serial killer, or trying to head off Martian invaders. For example, if you need to terraform a world because it’s ideal for a colony, and ideal worlds are almost nonexistent, go ahead and do it, right? If the terraforming takes out the present life forms, well, that’s a price that has to be paid.
I also enjoy SF films that explore. The Day the Earth Stood Still, which I saw as a teenager, left a permanent effect. And JFK: Second Chance, which was originally titled Timequest. You’ve probably never heard of. It’s an independent film which sends a time traveler back to prevent the assassination of Jack Kennedy, and explores the aftermath of what might have happened had Kennedy lived (and straightened out his life).
I once had an opportunity to attend a private dinner with JFK, and I passed on it. And yes, I know how that sounds.
I was a columnist on LaSalle’s newspaper, The Collegian, during my undergraduate days. Each year, The Collegian awarded a prize for best political literary work. In 1957 the two major candidates were the comic strip Pogo, by Walt Kelly, and John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage. I loved Pogo and didn’t hesitate to vote for Kelly. But the Kennedy book won.
At that time I was working 38 hours a week as a cashier at a center city supermarket. The only free time I had was Saturday night. (I usually spent Sundays writing my column and trying to stay up on homework assignments. It was a hectic time.) When they notified us of the voting results, I got annoyed. The presentation banquet would happen on a Saturday evening, and I couldn’t see any point in sacrificing my one free night to listen to a politician I’d barely heard of. So I passed.
I started reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire a few weeks ago. I’d dipped into it in the past and more or less talked myself into believing I’d effectively read the thing. But that just informs me how easily we can fool ourselves. Anyhow, I’m caught up in it now, reading about barbarian invasions and instability at the top resulting in constant assassinations which inevitably produced civil wars. Emperors tended to have people killed with little or no provocation. It’s hard to believe the Empire survived as long as it did.
I can’t understand how they could get people to accept the purple (agree to be emperor). I didn’t really keep count, but there was one streak of twenty-some consecutive emperors who were assassinated, often by their guards, sometimes by their reputed friends. The streak finally came to a halt when Carus was hit by lightning. Maybe. At least that was what his guards reported.
Nothing I’ve seen recently reminds me as much how lucky we are to have been born in this age—And in this country.
August 1, 2013
I had a curious experience last week. I broke a tooth, and my dentist explained that I needed an oral surgeon to extract the roots. He sent me to St Simons Island, where they took a look and brought me back a day later for surgery.
A nurse led me into the operating room. “Sit down, Jack,” she told me. “Lie back, and relax.”
I did. She placed a mask over my face and told me to breathe normally. Then there was a shot in my arm. And I waited, expecting to drift off as we routinely do when receiving a general anesthetic. But I remained wide awake, and began to suspect the nurse had forgotten to turn on the gas.
After a few minutes, the doctor came into the room. “Hi, Jack,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m good,” I said. “How are you, Doc?”
“Fine.” He looked over at the nurse and nodded. She removed my mask and he said, “Okay, you can go now. Be careful when you get up.”
I was not sure what was happening. “You didn’t do the surgery yet.”
“Sure we did. You’re fine. Just be careful going out. I’ll call you tonight to make sure you’re okay.”
They escorted me to the waiting room, set up another appointment a few days later to take a final look, and turned me over to Maureen. She tells me I was still arguing with them as I went out the door.
This is another one of those cases that reminds me of a comment I made in the last journal entry, about things we take for granted. Then I was talking about living in an age when we’re not consistently worried about barbarians arriving outside the walls, or the emperor’s legionaries taking us into custody because the big guy has gotten into a snit about something. This week I’ve been thinking what life must have been like for a Roman in the sixth century who broke a tooth.
Let’s hear it for dentists and oral surgeons.
I’ll be leaving in an hour for Diversicon in St. Paul. They’ve scheduled me for panels on recapturing the sense of wonder, doing the homework connected with writing, who and what has influenced my writing…. Also, there’ll be a conversation with an interviewer, and a presentation on the mistakes aspiring writers most commonly make. (One of them is overwriting; another is forgetting that the objective is not to tell a story but to create an experience. When the protagonist gets his heart broken, the reader should feel the pain.)
There’s a mass autographing at the con Saturday, followed by an auction. And I’ll do a reading Sunday morning. Probably two stories. “The Candidate” and “Henry James, This One’s For You” will be with me. Also I’m bringing ‘Searching for Oz,” from Tom Easton’s anthology, Impossible Futures.
I’ll be at Dream Haven Books for a signing at the store today (Thursday, Aug 1) 6:30-7:45; and at Uncle Hugo’s tomorrow (Aug 2) from noon until 1:00 pm.
August 15, 2013
Unfortunately life is too short to read all the good stuff that’s out there. I’m thinking seriously about taking some time off to catch up. In the meantime, though, I’ve run across some strong books that deserve attention. Robert Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues features New Klondike, a Martian colony that is the ultimate in frontier locations. The inhabitants are there on a long shot, hoping they can find some Martian fossils, which are rare, but can bring riches. The technology includes a capability for moving minds from failing human bodies into mechanical units. This is background for a detective who, at the start, feels like Bogart’s Sam Spade. He is caught in a missing persons case which in the course of time becomes considerably more.
Nancy Kress offers After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall, a Nebula-winning novella. Ecological disasters have all but ruined the Earth. A small group of humans are trapped inside a sterile dome. As usual with Nancy’s work, these are real people, living characters, and the reader will be trapped along with them.
I had the honor of presenting this year’s Nebula award for best novel to Kim Stanley Robinson for 2312. It’s probably not necessary to say any more. But this one’s for those who like a serious scientific approach to their SF. Stan takes a mind-bending look at how travel around the solar system might work out.
David S. Goyer and Michael Cassutt provide an enthralling cosmic mystery in Heaven’s War, which is one of those books you don’t start unless you have some free time available.
Also, anyone who likes solid writing and characterizations and who has some spare time cannot go wrong with Kevin J. Anderson’s epic series Saga of Seven Suns. Kevin does interstellar politics and conflict at the top of the game.
Novels on my must-read shelf include Bowl of Heaven, by Gregory Benford and Larry Niven, which is apparently the first installment of an epic. And David Brin’s Existence. If I’ve read the intro correctly, it features an orbiting garbage collector who gives us first contact.
I’ve always believed that short fiction is the natural format for SF. That tends to keep me looking for anthologies and collections. Current ones of special interest include: Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2013, edited by Gardner Dozois; Year’s Best Science Fiction 18, edited by David Hartwell; Best of Connie Willis: Award Winning Stories; and Nebula Awards Showcase 2013, edited by Catherine Asaro. Another anthology that looks especially enticing is Old Mars, edited by Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin. And also the Mike Bishop collection, The Door Gunner, which contains some of his best work. Also deserving attention: Starship Century, an anthology combining science and fiction, edited by James and Gregory Benford. #
Three other intriguing titles are currently in the book stores (or on their way). Transparency requires that, as a contributor, I own up to a personal interest in these. They are: Futuredaze, a YA anthology edited by Hannah Strom-Martin and Erin Underwood. My story is “A Voice in the Night,” which features Gabriel Benedict, a pilot whose name is Tori Kolpath, and a teenage Alex. It was inspired by my lifelong admiration for Jean Shepherd.
Impossible Futures was edited by Judith K. Dial and Tom Easton. It’s a look back to the early days of the genre, at the future we more or less expected but which never showed up. My own big expectation was the notion that, once we got SETI into operation, we’d hear some signals. Well, I’m happy to report that finally it happens.
The Other Half of the Sky was edited by Athena Andreadis and Kay Holt. This one puts women up on the bridge, behind the controls. They become, as Athena writes in her introduction, “nexuses, pivots, movers, shapers, creators, and destroyers –loved, feared, admired (or all three, I’m not picky)….”
I can’t confess to being objective. I haven’t yet even been able to read Impossible Futures. But the writers include Allen Steele, Paul Di Filippo, Edward Lerner, Mike Resnick, and James Morrow. So there’s probably no reason to worry about that one. I have read the others. They are, at the very least, enjoyable rides. I suspect most readers will find them to be considerably more.
By the way, Diversicon ran a gloriously good convention in St. Paul two weeks ago. Thanks to Eric Heideman, Anton Petersen, Scott Lohman, and the other members of the team. They know how to have a good time.
September 4, 2013
Two stories have just appeared: “The Eagle Project” in the November Analog, and “The Search for Oz” in Impossible Futures, an anthology edited by Judith K. Dial and Thomas Easton.
And I have another book to recommend: Before the Big Bang, by Brian Clegg. This one is an attempt to figure out how the universe (or universes) showed up. I’m only a few chapters in, but so far I’m enjoying it immensely. Also, unlike so many ‘popular’ physics books, this one is actually understandable.
We got in last night from Worldcon, which this year was held in San Antonio. I’ll confess that I’m tired of the airlines, so we decided to drive. It takes longer, but we had an interesting audiobook to listen to, a Seinfeld show, and some Lone Ranger radio programs. I enjoyed the travel part of the weekend, as opposed to arriving at an airport annoyed at being charged for everything except oxygen.
The audiobook was based on Oliver Stones’s Untold History of the United States, which premiered two years ago on Showtime. As we arrived home, some of my assumptions, including my respect for Harry Truman, lay dead in the street.
The GoH at worldcon was James Gunn. He is, of course, the founding director of the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. He is also a grandmaster and one of the most compelling writers we’ve seen. Considering his interest in SF as an educational tool and objective, I was not surprised to learn there would be a workshop on the subject at worldcon. I was planning to attend when they invited me to participate.
It was a five-hour program. Unfortunately, my schedule limited me to the first two hours. But it was enough. The presenters, other than Jim, were Mackenzie VanBeest, a graduate student at UK, who also teaches English; and Meagan Kane, a senior at UK with a passion for SF. Jim opened the program with a compelling argument, and a story, that demonstrated how SF can save the world. (I’ve always suspected that a world without SF would be like a world without music.)
During the second hour, I joined a panel which argued that SF can break down barriers between cultures and create a climate of mutual acceptance among us that will replace the lingering hostility and suspicion that still exists between various races and religions. The other members were Marianne Dyson, Nancy Kress, Val Ontell, and Nathaniel Williams.
We talked about how SF creates a passion among its readers for the wider world, and an awareness of the tribalism that seems to pit us automatically against anyone with different opinions or a different ethnic background or different skin color. Everyone on the panel and in the audience seemed to agree that if we are ever going to meld into a human family, SF will be an integral part of the process.
I couldn’t resist mentioning a tactic derived from SF that had worked for me when I was teaching US History. The idea was to create an interest in history, rather than simply impose a lot of facts on the student. So I went with the Alternate approach. Instead of simply asking test questions that dealt exclusively with facts and dates, I tried questions like this: George Washington was the only British officer who survived the Battle of the Wilderness during the French and Indian War. What do you think would have happened had he died out there in 1755? What would have happened had Churchill been killed in the 1932 automobile accident in New York?
The aspect of the discussion that really struck me was the ability of SF to overcome our assorted prejudices. Everyone had examples. One of my own came from A.E. Van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle. Once you’ve encountered those aliens, nobody walking the streets can be different in any substantive way.
I’m not sure I’ve ever enjoyed a panel more than that one. And that first two hours were among the most intriguing I’ve ever experienced at a con.
October 1, 2013
The Starship Century Symposium was held September 19-22 in Houston. Approximately 160 scientists with varying specialties, and other interested observers, met to discuss the rationale for travel outside the solar system during the course of this century, and the capabilities necessary to make it happen. And if you think that’s nothing more than a happy dream, keep in mind that we’ve already accomplished the feat. Voyager left the home system a week before the meeting convened. And okay, it wasn’t a manned flight, but it’s still a pretty spectacular accomplishment.
The program is funded by the U.S. military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). If it’s feasible, they would like to see the development of a vehicle during this century that would have the capability to reach another star within a reasonable time. I didn’t get the impression that anyone expects a serious attempt at a manned mission. The distances involved are so extreme that it’s hard to see how we could manage it without a major tech breakthrough. Which is to say some sort of warp drive. (This is the SF writer speaking; not the physicists.) But I think at this point, everyone would be happy if we could launch an automated mission that could report back before everyone involved in the operation had passed on, along with their great-grand children.
The major points I took away were that no single country will, for the foreseeable future, be able to manage a serious interstellar flight on its own. The project will require an international effort. And a darker conclusion: The human race probably does not have a long term future if it cannot expand beyond its home world. Good luck to us on that.
SETI’s Jill Tarter was featured, as well as astronaut Mae Jemison, astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi, and an international group of speakers.
Friday evening became SciFi Night, with a panel of writers and special guest LeVar Burton. We talked with a large audience, juggled questions, and generally enjoyed ourselves. SciFi Night wrapped with a showing of the film The Europa Report.
During the course of the weekend, presentations were made and papers submitted on topics such as future propulsion systems, the economic effect of developing interstellar technology, and the ethics and cultural implications of star travel.
I was in Columbus, Ohio, this past weekend for ConText 23. We had a flash fiction contest, a presentation on ancient astronauts by science GoH Bradley Lepper, an update on climate change research by Ohio State physicist Gordon Aubrecht, and panels on, among other topics, plotting, what editors want, the advantages of belonging to a writing group, and how to write comedy.
I survived an interview conducted by Mike Resnick, and spent most of my spare time in the con suite, which was furnished with all kinds of treats.
Usually, at readings, I stay with short stories. Doing a section of a novel usually drops the audience into a situation they’re not prepared for, and ultimately leaves them hanging. But I couldn’t resist giving the prologue from Starhawk a trial run. And I also went with “Searching for Oz,” my contribution to Impossible Futures, from Pink Narcissus Press. This was the third run for ‘Oz.’ It’s been getting some laughs.
Publishers continue to believe that novels sell better than anthologies and collections. And they must know their business better than I do. But usually, when I ask a group at a con to name the most memorable SF they can think of, they settle on short stories. “The Star.” “Mars Is Heaven.” “Nightfall.” My own favorite is “The Green Hills of Earth.”
I’ve been running an experiment recently. Tell people they are about to be stranded on an island for a year. They may take one SF book. Give them a choice between a Nebula-winning novel and a best-of-the-year anthology, and they are going by 80% for the anthology. Maybe I’m missing something.
October 15, 2013
The Scientific American, in its current issue, discusses the possibility of alternate universes. It says: “…The concept of parallel universes is no mere metaphor. Space appears to be infinite in size. If so, then somewhere out there, everything that is possible becomes real, no matter how improbable it is.” So everything that is possible is happening somewhere.
I understand that the same particle can pass through two slits simultaneously. That when I complete a flight to Los Angeles and come out of the jet, a shorter amount of time has passed for me on that day than for the guy running Louie’s malt shop in the main concourse. I know both time and space can be made to curve. (I can almost understand the space part, but how on earth do you curve an hour?) Nevertheless, nothing quite blows my mind like the notion that somewhere in the universe, I’m sitting in an oval office trying to figure out how to manage health care.
Everybody at some point wonders how life might have gone had he attended law school instead of pursuing a Ph.D. in mathematics. Or how things might have turned out had he married Juanita instead of Doris. Figure out a transportation method between universes and maybe we could get the facts.
We’re looking at a story there somewhere, although I suspect someone has already written it. Probably several someones. But imagine what life would be like if we could pick up a phone and call an alternate self for advice. Particularly if there’s a time differential. We’d be able to talk to a version of ourselves living in 2021, or maybe tomorrow after the race results are in. Hey, Jack, I’ve got a story idea and I was wondering how it turned out--
Come to think of it, it would take a lot of the uncertainty out of our duties as citizens. Before voting, we could check out a place where each candidate had won, see how they performed, and maybe finally get things right.
I suspect all of us have looked at the sky and asked whether it ends somewhere. It seems as if it must. But what constitutes the boundary? I can remember wondering when I was a kid whether there was a wall of some sort out there. But then you’re faced with the question of what’s beyond the wall.
In grade school, the nuns used to talk a lot about infinity. I have to suspect they had no clue what that word really entailed.
Readers will be familiar with Lightspeed, the online magazine edited by John Joseph Adams. A couple of years ago it published the short story “The Cassandra Project,” which eventually morphed into the novel of the same name. In its November issue, for anyone who wants to get a jump on things, Lightspeed will run the prologue from Starhawk. Along with its usual package of outstanding science fiction. http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about rising seas and their aftermath. If in fact we allow glaciers and ice caps to melt, how long do we have to live with the consequences? I can’t see that they can be restored very quickly. And please I hope no one with a climatologist background responds to tell me it really wouldn’t take very long. That we would go back to normal within a few years. Or centuries. And I know that sounds extremely selfish, but it would create a major problem for the next Alex Benedict novel. We need to keep things in perspective.
November 1, 2013
The first week of November, over the past twelve years or so, is routinely marked on my calendar. It sees the release of that year’s novel. This time around, it’s the Priscilla Hutchins prequel, Starhawk, which will also be available as an audiobook from Audible. But there’s another reason it has special impact: It’s also my deadline. The 2014 novel will be Coming Home, which will head off to my editor by the middle of the week. And vacation looms. Somehow the vacations never actually happen, though. Life gets busy. But this year will be different.
In the halcyon days of my childhood we used to go to Wildwood to frolic in the incoming surf. Then WWII broke out and we were told to stay home. The shore was going dark because there was some concern that lights might present targets. It had something to do with submarines. And I can still remember my irritation with the Germans that they had gone out of their way to mess up my summers on the beach.
It was an incredible time. I can remember the night the news came in about Pearl Harbor. I’d never heard of the place before. Air raid drills happened consistently, but I was vaguely disappointed that the planes never showed up. (It suggests how seriously dumb you can be at five or six.) Everything was rationed then, and I did my bit –which is how we used to say it—by collecting old newspapers in my wagon and taking them down to some sort of recycling shop where, somehow, they were converted into tanks.
I’m not sure whether this is a false memory, because I was so young that I can’t believe I’d have been aware of it, but I have the impression that people came together in a way I’ve never seen since. Everybody wanted to pitch in, do what they could. The country came first. And the notion that a politician might do something destructive to the nation in order to gain personal benefit was utterly foreign. In those years, when people waved flags they meant it.
They took the grade school kids out twice to see FDR in parades. He waved and the crowds cheered and waved back. People on my street were going off to war. Veterans coming home were treated as the heroes they were. And I can’t recall hearing any criticism of the administration on the radio. Of course, they didn’t have talk shows in those years, at least not that I was aware of.
I had a comic collection which included Batman #1 and the first All-Star comics and some of the others that we still read about in The Wall Street Journal commanding a quarter million or so. They disappeared during the war. It was never clear how or why; they simply went south, vanished out of the wooden trunk in the basement where I’d kept them. More tanks, probably. Everybody who was a kid at that time seems to have a similar story.
I’d gotten a little closer to reality by the time the fighting ended. But probably not much. In 1945, when the ticker tape was raining down on Broadway, I believed that all the excitement was over. There’s been two wars and there would very likely never be another.
It’s what comes from living in an imaginary world.
I started this intending to write about vacations. But the truth is that I don’t have the energy to head out to the Caribbean or to make for Honolulu. Nevertheless, with the exception of writing one short story that I’ve promised, I don’t intend to do anything for the next few weeks except sleep and read. That’s probably the kind of time off I really need. I’m still not much more than halfway through The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but I’m going to put that aside for a while and do some lighter stuff. During these last few years, I’ve read sections of a number of books, but have consistently gotten sidetracked. But this is going to be my time, and I’m going back to them.
They include Mike Bishop’s story collection, The Door Gunner. Transparency requires that I mention Mike is a close friend, but I love his work anyhow.
I also have Robert Silverberg’s Phases of the Moon. I just picked this one up recently. It’s a collection of 23 stories dating back to the 1950’s. I read about half of them as they came out over the years. But I’ll probably do the entire book anyway.
Another that caught my attention is Strange Matters, by Tom Siegfried, a highly readable discussion of off-the-wall physics. And Brian Fagan’s Time Detectives, an account of archeologists on the job and some of the historical mysteries they’ve confronted.
I have several collections of Holmes stories beyond the canon. One in particular that I’ve been trying to get to for several years is The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, edited by Marvin Kaye.
I also plan to finish Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars, a disturbing account of black operations that rarely make the news cycle.
And, finally, Paul Boller’s Not So! It’s a collection of myths in American history, and what the evidence suggests about the truth. Did George Washington really have wooden teeth? What were Lincoln’s actual religious views? Did FDR know in advance about the attack on Pearl Harbor? What’s actually the truth about the Kennedy assassination? And, ironically, what was Watergate really about?
November 16, 2013
We’ve lived almost thirty years now in southeastern Georgia near the coast. That’s hard to believe, by the way. Seems like just last week that we came here. Ronald Reagan was in the White House. We had a computer with a distinctly limited storage capacity. And we were still blown away by our ability to go downtown and rent movies.
A lot was happening during those early years. Shortly after we arrived in our new coastal home, the Challenger exploded and Chernobyl blew up. Iran-Contra dominated the political scene, and the USSR put its Mir station in place. The first criminal convictions were made using DNA. Pan Am Flight 103 went down over Lockerbie. The Navy accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner. And the Berlin Wall went away.
The Exxon Valdez had its oil spill, and protesters went into Tiananmen Square, from which emerged that unforgettable photo of a guy staring down a tank.
On TV, the world was watching MacGyver, Bill Cosby, Airwolf, Highway to Heaven, Quantum Leap, Max Headroom, and The Golden Girls. Buck Rogers had disappeared after a short run, but I can still recall toasting the arrival of Captain Picard. Especially when it turned out to be a solid take-off from the original series. And somewhere during that period we also discovered Max Headroom.
It’s hard to believe that was all so long ago. We’re conscious of the fact that time seems to move more quickly as we age. That must have something to do with the fact that, when you only have a few years of conscious life behind you, the distance between September and the end of the school year seems interminable because you just don’t have much to compare it with. Now, as we approach the turkey festival, I know that after I blink a couple of times, we’ll be taking down the Christmas tree and putting the decorations back in storage and staring at 2014. I remember complaining to my mom on one occasion that I was anxious to roll past Thanksgiving and get to Christmas. She smiled sadly. “You’re wishing your life away.”
The term ‘superstorm’ has become part of the language. And for those of us who live in areas occasionally visited by typhoons and hurricanes, they’ve become something more than simply a threat that causes you to jump into the car, if you can, and clear out of town. The threat has acquired an additional dimension: It’s no longer primarily an issue of heavy rain and winds and hoping a tree doesn’t fall on your house. Now it looks as if we can rely on the storm to flatten everything.
Maureen and I spent last weekend at Atomacon in Charleston, SC. It was the convention’s debut, and they got off to a solid launch, thanks to the efforts of Janet Iannantuono and her staff. I’ve mentioned this before: Traveling around the country makes us conscious of cultural differences. Some places show more than others of an inclination, e.g., toward formality. Some are more likely to say hello to strangers. (This is particularly the case in smaller communities.)
But go to a science fiction convention, and it feels as if the same crowd always shows up. New York, Los Angeles, Jekyll Island. It doesn’t matter. The attendees are invariably curious, open to ideas that might conflict with cherished beliefs, and they’ve a lot of enthusiasm for the field. For which I am grateful.
We drove to the con and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. We didn’t leave until after the wrap on Sunday. We took US17A home, and discovered that it went past the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial. We debated stopping. But we had a long way to go and it was already dark.
So, unlike the Tuskegee guys, we played it safe. But we’ll be going back.
December 5, 2013
This entry is five days late. That may suggest I’ve become something of a dawdler (or lazyboots as people used to say in another age), but the reality is that between holidays and writing assignments and visiting Bainbridge State College, I just flat-out forgot.
We had a good turnout at the college. I was scheduled for a reading, which became “Henry James, This One’s for You.” In part, that probably happened because I’m currently reading James’s Watch and Ward. But mostly we talked about why some of us develop a passion for science fiction, that it takes us to times and places we can’t get to otherwise. And that it gets us thinking about the effects of future technologies before they roll over us. The example of this that inevitably comes to mind for me is Ray Bradbury’s “The Pedestrian,” from 1951.
The radio era was drawing to a close and televisions had begun showing up. I don’t recall there was much on at the time other than sports, Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, “The Lone Ranger,” and a lot of wrestling. But what remains in my memory was that, during the summer, people no longer sat out on their front steps or on their porches. They disappeared into their houses, and the world vanished into the gray glow that emanated from windows all along the street. The culture changed, social interchange slowed, and sometimes I wonder if anyone other than Bradbury and the kids noticed.
Technological changes tend to arrive with a jolt for the culture, even though we can see them coming for decades. Some people at the top of the communications industry argued that personal computers would go nowhere. During the 90’s, we discovered how to clone sheep, and we gasped and wrote editorials and decried the potential for social destruction that might arrive should the capability to clone humans be developed. President Clinton wasted no time expressing his concern by barring any attempts to proceed with research involving humans. The decision seemed to have been taken with no discussion whatever. SF readers had been aware of the possibility of the process since Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, at least. And okay, things didn’t go so well with Huxley, but that’s not the point.
Today, technology is moving quicker than ever. We may be approaching an era of self-aware machines. It’s not hard to imagine how our lives will change if/when the dishwasher develops a personality. Or we get serious life extension. Or we develop the capability to enhance the intelligence of the child that Mom will deliver in the fall. What would you do if you were told that your next child could be given an IQ of 210? Or that it would not age past full development? That is, never grow old? (The price, of course, is that we’d have to arrange things so the child could not reproduce. And the call, as the parent, is yours. I suspect, no matter which way we go on the issue, the kids will make it clear we didn’t get it right.)
Will we ever get anyone out of the house for a party when the technology arrives that allows us to sit at home and substitute ourselves for the actors in a movie? Would we ever tire of watching ourselves play Rick or Ilsa in Casablanca? What would be the social effects if we lose a spouse but can create a hologram version with whom we could visit? And would a capability to spend time with a much younger version of a spouse –in hologram form—lead to problems?
At one time, I believed advancing technology was inevitably good. Maybe there’d be some bumps along the road, but the general direction could only be forward. This from a guy who sat in front of his TV (Sorry, Ray) and watched early tests of nuclear weapons.
I’ve entered a short story, “Thank You, Uncle Louie,” for the flash fiction contest being run by the National University of Singapore, assisted by Tor and the Scientific American. The story, by the way, is accessible at http://shorts.quantumlah.org/entry/thank-you-uncle-louie.
December 15, 2013
It’s hard to believe almost half a century has passed since Kirk, Spock, and the crew first set forth on the Enterprise. I can remember picking up a copy of TV Guide in a supermarket and reading about the new SF show while I waited in line to check out. The story mentioned that Leonard Nimoy would be playing an alien, and they’d doctored his ears. I shook my head and wondered how they could be so dumb. I hadn’t seen a good SF TV series since Twilight Zone, and this one was obviously also going nowhere.
A month later I was addicted, and Spock had somehow become a brilliant creation.
I gradually came to realize that the power of the series didn’t have much to do with Klingons or Romulans or other dangerous aliens. It was simply that the cast and crew were able to create a place where I wanted to hang out. That they provided characters with whom I wanted to spend my time.
Consequently when a group of local enthusiasts decided to recreate that far future culture, I got interested. They assembled sets that rivalled the ones on the TV series. They created new film adventures that I loved watching. The starship Farragut is now based in Kingsland, GA. I stopped by last weekend during a festival, said hello to some of the crew, and visited the bridge. I enjoyed a couple of the films, and stopped by the transport deck just in time to hear someone complain that it looked great but that it wasn’t working. The experience recaptured the feeling of that earlier era. More details: http://jacksonville.com/opinion/blog/400820/dan-scanlan/2013-10-25/navy-and-star-trek-join-hands-across-galaxy-and-georgia.
I should mention that I actually had the opportunity to talk with Nichelle Nichols at Mile-Hi Con about ten years ago. If I’d been captain, she’d have been my first choice as comm officer. Though Jack Tiberius McDevitt seems like a stretch.
My Star Trek experience is similar to the way I’ve reacted to Sherlock Holmes. The cases are interesting, but the aspect of the series that I love is sitting in at 221b Baker Street while Holmes and Watson talk. I suspect that’s generally true of successful literary characters: It’s not so much watching them in action, as just being around them and seeing their human side. You want to watch Holly Golightly on the road, or relax with her at a quiet restaurant?
“Ladies and gentlemen, Lux presents Hollywood.” Throughout the golden era, that was the introduction to the Lux Radio Theater, which brought popular movie adaptations to radio. It was a one-hour show at a time when most programs ran thirty minutes. They usually brought the stars of the film into their studio to repeat their roles.
The Golden Isles Arts and Humanities Association has been recreating the shows as stage performances. Audiences watch the actors perform their lines from a script. We see the commercials, promoting Ned Cash Jewelers in Brunswick, watch the sound effects being delivered, and generally get transported back in time.
They staged It’s a Wonderful Life Friday evening. If you’re wondering about the quality of the show, it still broke me up. They are also performing A Christmas Carol.
I rarely read books with magical themes, but I recently came across Bruce McAllister’s The Village Sang to the Sea. The action is set in the small Italian coastal town of Lerici, where Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned and where, possibly, his wife Mary conceived of the idea for Frankenstein.
Bruce seemed so connected to the town and its culture that it was hard not to wonder whether the adventures of Brad Lattimer, the young teenager living there with his American parents, did not reflect events in his own life. And I know, there are no ghosts or witches, but maybe that’s the point.
It’s an emotional ride.
We watched Loch Ness last night. The film is from 1996, and stars Ted Danson and Joely Richardson. We didn’t expect to last more than fifteen minutes before we switched over to something else. Monster movies are always the same, an overgrown creature charging around gobbling down the extras, while the protagonist looks for a way to take it out. But we like Danson, so we thought we’d give it a chance.
What we got was a film that moved onto my relatively short list of exquisite SF movies.