January 2, 2015
It’s not surprising that the end of the year, combined with the fact that this is the season when the days begin to grow longer, is a time during which we celebrate with friends and family, and recognize the priceless gift of their presence. Unless you’re five years old, that aspect far outweighs the new iPad, the jewelry, and the books. Inevitably we recognize that we don’t have each other forever. I remember pointing out to several of my classes at Woodrow Wilson HS in Bucks County, PA, back in the sixties, that I understood schools can be irritating and we tend to be anxious to get out the door and go home. “But the day will come,” I explained, “when you’ll drive by with your family, and the school will have been replaced by a parking lot and a retirement home. Your friends from these years will mostly have disappeared, and you’d give almost anything to be able to come back into this classroom and sit with them again and just be able to feel their presence.”
What I didn’t realize when I was going through that routine was that eventually I’d also drive past that parking lot. And that I’d want just as desperately to be able to relive one of those days and see those kids again, and the people who at that time were an intrinsic part of my life. Most of us don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone. And I think we get a sense of that during this mystical season. On some level, that’s why it can be such an emotional time, giving gifts, going to parties, hanging mistletoe, reminding ourselves what life is really about. It really has nothing to do with Bob Cratchett’s paycheck.
One of the people from that time who got lost was Jack Kennedy. He was charismatic, and many of us thought of him as almost a personal acquaintance. I was in a classroom on November 22, 1963, when we were told he had been killed in Dallas.
The sixties were a scary time. Among problems with assassinations and civil rights and Vietnam, it was also the height of the Cold War. I honestly did not expect that the country would survive into the 21st century.
We may owe that happy outcome largely to JFK. In October, 1962, he showed up on TV to inform the country that the USSR had placed nuclear missiles in Cuba and that we were establishing a naval blockade to prevent any more from arriving. Kennedy had been a lieutenant j.g. during World War II, and he was accustomed to treating the opinions of officers wearing stars with a considerable amount of respect.
The senior chiefs at the Pentagon generally thought that Khrushchev could only be dealt with through confrontation and force. Kennedy did what he had to, but he also stayed with diplomacy. And ultimately it worked. We’re well into the third millennium, and we’re still alive. JFK had his faults, but we’re extraordinarily fortunate he was in the White House at the time.
During those years, I was addicted to James Thurber, who invariably broke me up. I first learned about him while watching Danny Kaye playing Walter Mitty. Shortly afterward, I read “The Greatest Man in the World,” which remains the funniest story I’ve ever come across. I became addicted to the guy. So I was delighted last week when I found a copy of the Library of America Thurber volume under the tree.
But I was surprised to discover how little I knew about his life. The buoyant tone of his fiction had led me to assume he’d cruised through life, laughing all the way. But in fact he had a difficult run. At the age of eight, he was accidentally shot in the eye with an arrow by his older brother William. The eye had to be removed., and he had vision problems the rest of his life. He was ostracized in college. Didn’t do well with grades. His first marriage broke down. He started drinking heavily. Major health problems showed up. He quarreled with editors. His remaining eye deteriorated and, by the time he hit fifty, he was virtually blind. Maybe that makes it understandable why he developed a reputation for erratic and occasionally violent behavior.
But the artist who gave us Walter Mitty, or My World—and Welcome To It clearly got a lot of laughs out of life. I guess ultimately it demonstrates that you can’t always judge the writer by the book.
January 15, 2015
During their classical period, the Greeks rarely imposed a death sentence. Unfortunately, one of the victims was Socrates. The reason for passing him the hemlock was that, when asked about the gods, he insisted that Mount Olympus was unoccupied. This, according to the authorities, posed a deleterious threat to young men and women.
Our book club will be meeting tomorrow morning on St. Simons Island to discuss Stephen Greenblatt’s Pulitzer prize winner Swerve, whose subtitle is How the World Became Modern. It begins with an account of the discovery in 1417 by an unemployed papal secretary of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura in a remote monastery. It’s an epic poem, written approximately 60 BCE, constituting an effort to describe the nature of the universe.
Lucretius maintains that Democritus’ theory that everything, including himself, is made from atoms. He also argues that there was no creation act, that everything evolved over time, that there used to be giant animals running around but that they died out. He doesn’t quite go as far as Socrates in denying the presence of gods. They might live on Olympus, he admits, but they clearly did not come down off the mountain. There were of course occasional earthquakes and violent storms, but these had natural causes and were not connected with angry deities. He suggested that Earth was not the only world, and that consequently human beings were not at the center of things.
Perhaps most significantly, he denied the idea that we were somehow immortal, that after death we would be brought to judgment and might face divine wrath. It was not good, he maintained, to go through life with that idea hanging over our heads. He was a staunch supporter of Epicurean philosophy: Enjoy your life. Make it count for something. And do no harm.
He recognized freedom as the core of human happiness. That was freedom from both dictatorial authority and from one’s own compulsions. Recognize the world for what it is, and live in the moment.
And how was his science? “Many monsters too the earth at that time essayed to produce, things coming up with strange face and limbs, the man-woman, a thing between the two and neither the one sex nor the other, widely differing from both; some things deprived of feet, others again destitute of hands, others too proving dumb without mouth, or blind without eyes…. Every other monster and portent of this kind she would produce, but all in vain, since nature set a ban on their increase and they could not reach the coveted flower of age nor find food nor be united in marriage. For we see that many conditions must meet together in things in order that they may beget and continue their kinds…..” (Translated by H.A.J. Munro.)
Not bad for a guy living 2100 years ago.
These were not propositions that would endear him to the culture in which he lived. And I guess it’s no surprise that De Rerum Natura disappeared shortly after Lucretius did. It’s ironic that it resurfaced in a monastery fourteen centuries later and, according to Greenblatt, went on to play a major role in fueling the Enlightenment.
(Note: This section replaced an earlier segment. I mistakenly used a quote from Epictetus.)
January 31, 2015
The Pew survey released this week gives further evidence that we tend to give more credence to gut feelings than to perspectives provided by scientists or experts. In general, the vast majority of Americans say that they trust scientists, but perhaps not so much when their views clash with something we have bought into. Scientists, for example, maintain there is no question that life forms, including us, are a result of evolution. Nevertheless a third of adults stipulate that life has not changed since the beginning.
Other areas show a similar disparity. Are genetically modified foods safe? Eighty-eight percent of scientists say yes. Only 37% of us are willing to take our chances with it. Vaccines do better. Eighty-six percent of scientists want us to get vaccinated. Only two-thirds of the general population agree. That creates a serious risk for the children they love and care for. Is there a global population problem? Eighty-two percent of scientists show serious concern to 59% of the general public.
Which brings us to climate change. Ice is melting in the Arctic, and rising sea levels are being reported around the globe. In the Pacific, the thirty-two islands comprising Kiribati are sinking. At the present rate, they will be gone in fifty years. Their population is 110,000. The evidence is all there. Nevertheless we are still watching, or participating in, a national debate about whether the seas are actually rising. How is that possible?
We are not stupid. Health care has come a long way in the last century. I sit in front of my computer and wonder how Leo Tolstoy could ever have written War and Peace with a quill. We developed indoor plumbing 2500 years ago. We’ve walked on the Moon. But nevertheless we have a strong inclination to cling to our opinions and to ignore contrary evidence. It’s probably tribal. Stick with the tribe; that’s where safety is.
We approve of people who stand up for what they believe. And we attack anyone who says one thing last week and something else today. People are not supposed to change their minds. We’ve all watched what happens to politicians who make the mistake of learning they had been wrong on some past issue and later try to amend their stand. (Anybody remember the guy windsurfing left and then right?)
There’s a critical skill that we all need, but that we tend not to emphasize in schools. In fact, the emphasis goes in the opposite direction. Faith is the virtue. Skepticism not so much. In fact we need both. Faith in the core values of our lives, in individual freedom, in tolerance, in helping others, and so on. But we’ve been given brains, and we should use them to look at the facts.
If we’d hung onto old ideas, men and women in the land of the free would still be prohibited by law from marrying people of a different color. Women would not be permitted to vote. Neither would people who didn’t own some real estate. And the next round of flu would kill a few million of us. Again.
The bottom line: There’s nothing shameful about being wrong. It’s persistence that causes the trouble.
Mike Flynn, the chairman of the board of advisors for the Robert A. Heinlein Award, notified me a few days ago that I would be the 2015 recipient. I’m honored, of course. Still recovering from the shock, in fact. I’d like to express my appreciation to Mike and to the other board members. I’ve been a lifelong fan of Mr. Heinlein’s work. One of my regrets is that I never got to meet him.
February 16, 2015
The current Time Magazine cover story depicts an infant with the story line that the child may live to be 142 years old. We’re hearing now about experiments that have reversed the ageing process in mice. And considering the advances of the past forty years, if they were to do that for us, it wouldn’t surprise me. Although if we’re going to have a breakthrough like that, I think it might be a good idea if they hustled it up a bit.
I recall commenting a few months ago on the problems that would emerge if we did actually come up with a drug that returned our youth to us. It would result in dark days, I said, spreading gloom across the continent. But I’m looking at another birthday coming up, and I wouldn’t want anyone to think I’ve a closed mind on the subject. I’m glad to hear progress is being made and just wish they’d get serious.
I had dinner Friday evening with two other science fiction enthusiasts. Afterward I faced a three-hour drive home. The conversation had gotten me thinking about how much pleasure I’ve gotten during my lifetime from SF. Periodically, I meet people who make it a point to inform me “I don’t read the stuff myself.” I feel sorry for them. It’s impossible to imagine a life that would be complete without flights to Mars, time travel, AI’s, and attempts to communicate with aliens.
During that long ride back on US 341, I found myself thinking about my favorite experiences as an SF reader. And I discovered something odd. The visions that are most indelibly stuck in my mind come from stories like “Nightfall,” by Isaac Asimov; Robert Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth,” and “Gentlemen, Be Seated; “The Cold Equations,” by Tom Godwin; Ray Bradbury’s “Mars Is Heaven” and “There Will Come Soft Rains”; Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon”; “To Serve Man,” by Damon Knight; Arthur Clarke’s “The Star,” which often shows up at the top of the list of great SF stories; and “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison.
These are listed in no particular order. And if I were to rethink everything tomorrow, there’d be some changes. In fact, I’d have no trouble providing a second group of titles providing a serious impact. But there were two aspects of this that surprised me: First, these are all short stories. The backup group would also be short fiction. To be clear, I’ve read and loved a lot of SF novels over the years, ranging from Hal Clement’s Needle to David Brin’s Existence. But somehow when I’m drifting through days past, remembering the moments that provided most impact, the shocks that sent me staggering back to school the following day wondering why we were reading Victorian novels, came from the shorter stuff. I’ve no explanation for that, except the suspicion that the short story is the natural format for SF. I can’t imagine anything a novelist can do that would carry the same punch as Lester Del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy” or Murray Leinster’s “First Contact.” You just can’t get that kind of effect from twenty or thirty chapters. I was in high school when I read Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life.” I never fully recovered.
The other aspect that struck me: The narratives that hit hardest all arrived when I was in my early years. I’ll leave the explanation for that to someone else.
March 1, 2015
Six people were killed Sunday in Crandon, Wisconsin, by a guy who was upset that his girlfriend had moved on. (Can’t imagine why she would have done that.) The shooter was also killed after opening fire on a police car. Not the brightest guy in the neighborhood.
When I was growing up in Philadelphia in the forties, I can’t recall any hearing about any mass shootings. Now we have kids taking guns into schools and attacking everyone in sight. Lunatics opening up in movie theaters. People with rifles picking off drivers they know nothing about. When I was teaching, during the sixties and seventies, that sort of behavior was unheard of. My first recollection of a mass shooting anywhere in the United States dates from 1966. A nutcase with a deer rifle climbed to the top of a water tower in Austin, Texas, and killed fourteen strangers. We were horrified. It was, to the best of my knowledge, thought of across the country as a unique incident.
I haven’t heard anyone attempt to explain what’s changed in our culture. Are we simply producing more lunatics now because something’s gotten into the drinking water? Is it because guns are relatively easy for anyone to acquire? (That, as far as I’m aware, was also the case in 1946.) Is it because movies have become more violent? Or a lot of kids grow up with violent games and don’t see the difference between taking out a figure on a computer screen and actually putting a bullet into a guy down in the parking lot?
One thing seems certain: The country is angrier now than it used to be. We’re divided by all sorts of cultural issues, political, religious, ethical, whatever. Reporters are asking politicians whether they believe in evolution, cable shows with a need to fill time give us people arguing a wide range of subjects, while rarely calling in experts. We live in an age during which people with scientific training in a given area are treated with contempt and usually brushed aside.
And the internet takes everything a step farther. Terrorist groups are now seeking support for their maniacal operations by encouraging, apparently with some success, people to sign up for the cause, and either head for Syria or attack their local mall. None of this could have been imagined by any science fiction writer seventy years ago in Startling Stories. Flying cars were one thing. But nobody would have believed this other stuff. If nothing else, there’s a serious lesson here regarding how difficult it is to predict the future.
The real lesson, though, might be that technology inevitably has a down side. With people attacking each other nightly on TV over issues like immigration and government assistance for health care, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that eventually we buy into the outrage. The issues being debated –if that is the right word-- can seldom be proved one way or another. Do we accept a person’s right to end his life? Or should he hang on as long as possible? Do we opt for a woman’s right to choose?
We have a tendency to assume whatever conclusion we arrive at is correct, and the other side is simply wrong. And stupid. That was probably just as true in 1946 as it is now, but we tended to keep quiet about it. It wasn’t all over the news. We didn’t discuss it at the dinner table. In fact, aside from the newspapers, which tended to be factual and quiet, there wasn’t much news. Fifteen minutes here and there on radio. We had Eric Sevareid, H. V. Kaltenborn, Edward R. Murrow, and a few others. Walter Winchell provided the latest gossip. But they were only voices. We didn’t see angry people going after one another. And they were attempting to inform us about what was happening. Today, cable news is a 24-hour show and they have to fill the time.
One thinks that, with all that time available, we should be getting better coverage of events. But anyone who pays attention will discover that some very big stories are going unreported. Does the Pentagon really spend all that money on weapons it doesn’t need? Does Gaza have a serious problem with clean drinking water? Is it true that the nuclear industry is not responsible for an accident? We all know there’s a substantial amount of corruption in government, but where are the details? Who’s paying off which politicians? And for what?
It’s hard to see any reason that the atmosphere will calm down in the near future.
March 16, 2015
I’m ready to go shopping for some science books, and several intriguing ones have arrived in the stores. The Copernicus Complex, by Caleb Scharf, discusses whether humans have a special significance in the universe, or are actually of no consequence. Are we alone? Are we hung up on assumptions that make it unnecessarily difficult to figure out whether we matter? How did life begin on Earth?
Scharf examines various forms life might assume, some new techniques for determining its existence, and also takes on an issue that challenges everyone who’s ever thought about it: How is it that the universe seems so perfectly designed for life?
Essential reading for anyone interested in writing about starships.
Another one that catches the eye: Personal Intelligence by John D. Mayer. Subtitle: The Power of Personality and How It Shapes Our Lives. Mayer is a leading psychologist who, according to the reviewers, sees intelligence as a quality well beyond IQ. But nevertheless he argues it is a skill we need to be reasonably successful in life. So what is at the heart of it? An ability to analyze the personalities of those with whom we interact. And in order to do that. We have to get a handle on who we are, which is presumably not as simple as it sounds.
Amir Alexander gives us Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World. The dangerous theory, it turns out, caused philosophical disputes between philosophers and Jesuits. It seems to have been geometry. I’ll concede that ordinarily I’d have proceeded no farther, but the reviews maintain that the disputes evolved into titanic battles because the math called some principles of Aristotelian philosophy into doubt. Good enough for me. The book goes on my birthday list.
There’s a Steven Weinberg comment that sticks with me: “The more comprehensible the universe becomes, the more it seems pointless.” Weinberg is a Nobel-winning physicist who’s written a series of books that, in my experience, are lucid and exotic. Among them: Cosmology, Facing Up, and The First Three Minutes. The latter is an attempt to explain how the universe came into existence.
He has a new one, whose title, To Explain the World, sounds like the same topic. But it isn’t. This one is a history of science, which, according to the author, didn’t show up until the 17th century, when it got people like Galileo into trouble. The reviews are positive, and it looks like a fascinating way to spend some quiet evenings.
David J. Hand’s The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. The reality: Coincidences happen. But more to the point: Events that seem odd simply indicate we don’t manage the math well.
The Washington Post gives it a solid review. If you would like to understand “the apparent hot hand in a basketball game, superstitions in gambling and sports, prophecies, parapsychology and the paranormal, holes in one, multiple lottery winners, and much more, this is a book you will enjoy.”
And I should include a science fiction book, for good luck. I’m looking forward to reading Carbide-Tipped Pens, edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi. An anthology of hard science fiction stories. Transparency requirement: Last year I was invited to write a story for my alma mater’s magazine, LaSalle. I delivered “The Play’s the Thing,” which is included in this volume.
April 1, 2015
I’d like to suggest “The Language of God” by Francis S Collins (an individual that headed the Human Genome project). –Mark Bell
George Wilson: My preference is books dealing into the my avocation, music. Music theory, music psychology and music physiology. The book Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization was a fascinating study of science history. by Stuart Isikoff
Terry: Ada Palmer: Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance - which while qualifying as academic, is written so lively and engagingly, it takes pride of place in my (ever-burgeoning) science library. Both of those links, by the way, take you not to the home page of her sites but to her "About" pages which give you a better idea of this lovely lady and her delightful talents and interests. Oh yeah, you should really listen to her song on that second linked page, "Someone Will." Have a hanky handy. It expresses something I've thought about in a vague way from time to time over the years perfectly.
April 16, 2015
I celebrated my 80th birthday Tuesday. It would be, I expected, a milestone. Birthdays with zeroes on the end are always, in later years, a bit intimidating. So when Maureen suggested a month or two ago that we have a major league party, I backed off. We’d keep it quiet. Low key. Just, you know, relax. We invited a couple of friends over for pizza and pinochle, and that would be it. Not even mention the birthday. But it’s hard to keep a secret these days. They showed up with a gift, a baseball cap that reads ’80 Years and Counting.’
My family presented me with some books that I’d expressed interest in. (The titles have been posted at https://www.facebook.com/jackmcdevittbooks?sk=wall&filter=12 .) Birthday greetings cascaded in on the website. We enjoyed the evening, and moved on. I didn’t feel any older. I wasn’t the same guy who’d run cross-country in high school, but life was good.
Then, about mid-morning Wednesday, my older son appeared. He’d flown in, with no advance notice, from Atlanta. That meant the entire family was here. First time together since Christmas.
Somebody suggested that we take advantage of the opportunity to have dinner out somewhere. Somebody else suggested the Southern Table downtown. I’d not been there, but that was fine by me. My kids left early because they had stuff to do, so we’d agreed to meet at the restaurant at 6:30.
Maureen and I arrived a few minutes late, walked in the door, and I found myself looking into a sea of familiar faces. Somebody was taking pictures, people began applauding, and I froze. There wasn’t a stranger anywhere in the building. Not what you expect when you stroll into a restaurant. I probably would not have been the quickest gun in the west, but I finally figured it out.
The place was filled with friends, some of whom had traveled a substantial distance. Dinner was served, somebody turned the music on and the first piece was “As Time Goes By,” my favorite song from my favorite movie.
I spent the night wandering from table to table, reliving some of the more entertaining moments of my life, both remote and recent. Having all those people, on that single occasion, gathered in one place, gave me a sense of how blessed I’ve been. Life is about family and friends. Some were physically there; others had been sending greetings electronically over the previous 24 hours. Still others existed only in memory.
If we’re lucky enough to live in a country that provides a peaceful environment, maybe it’s the essence of what really matters.
April 30, 2015
Initially, I hadn’t expected to write any novels. During the first few years of my career, in the early 1980’s, I was working in Chicago as the Regional Training Officer for the Customs Service, and I didn’t see where the time would come from. Moreover, I had serious doubts about my ability to hold together a 100,000-word narrative. And to be honest, I’d already achieved more than I’d ever anticipated, so I was happy. I wasn’t inclined to push my luck.
During that era, Terry Carr was editing a year’s best anthology. Periodically, when I arrived home from work, I asked Maureen whether Terry had called yet? Was he going to pick up “Translations from the Colosian” or whatever happened to be my most recently published story? It was a running joke.
Maureen always smiled politely back at me and said he’d probably call next week. Or something similar. Then one afternoon he had called.
“No. About an hour ago.”
“He’s going to buy ‘Promises To Keep’? Beautiful!”
“No,” she said. “I don’t think so. Here’s his number.”
“Jack,” he said, “would you be interested in writing a novel for the Ace Specials?” That was a series featuring new writers for whom Terry had high hopes. It was even better news than making the anthology.
Except: “How long can you give me, Terry?”
“How long do you need?”
I thought about my full-time job, spending two hours daily getting back and forth on the train, attending the baseball, basketball, and soccer games in which my kids were playing. And I had a pretty take on my efficiency. “About two years would be good.”
I don’t think he realized I was serious. “You want to do this, Jack?”
“Okay. You’ve got six months.”
I wrote during lunch breaks. I wrote on the trains. I sat in the stands at the ball games and wondered how we would react as a society to the discovery that there was at least one other civilization out there.
I struggled with the title, finally settled on The Hercules Text, and made my deadline. Barely. Terry seemed satisfied, but my life never went back to the old version. Several weeks after I’d handed it in, the Customs Service decided to concentrate its training programs, which at that time had been located in nine regions, into a single site, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Georgia.
We had to pack and move. Approximately a year after we arrived in the deep South, The Hercules Text appeared in bookstores. It got off to a good start: Sales were encouraging, although that could have been attributed to the reputation of Terry Carr, and the names of those who’d participated earlier. The list included Clifford D. Simak, Roger Zelazny, Ursula Leguin, Philip K. Dick, Bruce McAllister, Stanislaw Lem, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Lucius Shepard. I was in pretty solid company.
The book won the Philip K. Dick Special Award for 1986.
Eventually, I asked Terry if he saw a way it could have been improved.
To my disappointment he said yes.
“What would you have done differently?”
“The conclusion. It didn’t pack enough punch. You don’t ever want to haul a reader through 400 pages, and fail to provide a solid climax.”
At the turn of the century, Meisha Merlin wanted to publish it along with A Talent for War in a single volume. I’d never forgotten Terry’s comment, and I thought I knew exactly what the book needed. It got a complete rewrite. Part of it was an update because the Cold War, which had been a central feature in the novel, had ended. The rest was to provide a completely new climax.
This is the version which, with a few more updates, has just been released in a new edition. It was the only one of my titles which had gone out of print.
May 14, 2015
The question of whether there are civilizations on other worlds is probably the most intriguing scientific issue in the modern world. It continues to show up in various magazines, most recently in the current Popular Science. When it does, it invariably makes the cover. “Should We Contact Aliens?” The article is by Sarah Scoles. Sarah is a one-time associate editor of Astronomy Magazine, and her work has also appeared The Atlantic, Slate, Discover, and Aeon, among others.
May 31, 2015
This is turning into an interesting summer. I’ve been to Ravencon, OASIS, and Balticon. Will be headed later for Libertycon and Necronomicon. We’ll be at the Nebulas this weekend, and I’ll travel to the University of Maryland in July for the Schroedinger Sessions, where a group of physicists will try to show some science fiction writers how the quantum world works. Good luck to us all.
At Balticon last weekend, the Heinlein Society honored me with the Robert A. Heinlein Life Achievement Award "for outstanding published works in science fiction and technical writings to inspire the human exploration of space." It was presented at the opening ceremonies by Michael Flynn. Mike was one of two winners of the award in its initial year, 2003, and now chairs the committee which decides on the presentation. (The other winner that year was Virginia Heinlein.)
I can’t recall a more exhilarating experience in my career than being called onto the stage that night with Mike. I’ve had a passion for science fiction since I was four years old, when my father was taking me to see the third Flash Gordon movie serial. (At the time, I didn’t know there’d been two earlier ones.) I loved Flash’s rocket ship, but I remember being annoyed that he couldn’t seem to do anything more with it than get into fights with Ming the Merciless. (I don’t guess they had much of a sense of irony in those days. Ming the Moderate might have worked better. Or Ming the Magnificent.) Anyhow, if you can go anywhere you want, go someplace interesting!
The serial got me interested in astronomy, but it was Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury who demonstrated what a writer could do with a space ship. I was fortunate to meet the latter two, but I never got the chance to talk with Heinlein. I’d have liked to say thanks.
I’ve never gone to a con without experiencing at least one surprise. Occasionally it’s an old friend who turns up, or someone with a story about how he or she has been affected by something I wrote, or the sheer on-stage skill of some of the participants in the masquerade. I knew the Heinlein Award was coming, so that did not come as a surprise. But I got one while strolling through the dealers’ room, where I discovered a copy of what I believe was the first actual book I read: Joyce of the Secret Squadron. It was published in 1942, when I was in the second grade.
The Secret Squadron was commanded by Captain Midnight, the central figure of an inordinately popular radio show for kids, and apparently a lot of adults, during the 40’s. But some aspects of the book are odd: The author was R. R. Winterbotham, but you have to look inside to find his name. It appears nowhere on the jacket. The cover does portray a picture of the actress who played the character. Unfortunately it identifies her only as Joyce Ryan.
Joyce played a pivotal role in the series. Unlike most of the other female characters in films and on the radio at the time, she wasn’t there to get in trouble and faint at critical moments. She pulled her weight in a lot of episodes and even took on Japanese fighter planes during WWII. It’s made me wonder since whether she was the seed for Priscilla and Chase.
And for the record, yes, I bought it, brought it home, and wrapped the jacket carefully in a plastic cover. It has a special place in my office now.
I got another surprise in Baltimore, this one while looking for a place to have lunch. Coming out of the restaurant was a familiar figure I hadn’t seen or thought of for a half-century: Mary Marvel. The uniform was perfect, the lightning bolt in place, the boots fit perfectly. This was not someone simply dressed like Mary Marvel. This was the real thing. I watched her turn toward the elevators, which couldn’t be right, of course. What use would Mary Marvel have for an elevator? But never mind. I couldn’t help thinking that if I was ever going to get into trouble, that was the moment. I looked around. Where are the lunatics? Someone attack me now.
June 6th, 2015
The science fiction community doesn’t have a monopoly on alternate history. Robert Cowley, the editor of Military History Quarterly, published several counterfactual articles –as they are known to general readers. These “What If?” essays attracted a lot of attention. Cowley went on to assemble twenty essays and assorted comments on the subject in What If?, with the subtitle The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. It was published by Putnam in 1999.
A second collection, What If2 followed shortly thereafter, and, in 2003, he delivered a third volume: What Ifs of American History. The books make compelling reading, and they take an intriguing approach to the topic. The essays are written by eminent historians who not only lay out a rationale revealing how easily major world events might have happened differently, or not at all. But they also take a look at the potential other courses history might have taken. (That’s not easy to do in a work of fiction.)
I was especially struck by an argument presented by Caleb Carr in the American History volume. Carr describes how the American Revolution would probably not have happened had the influential William Pitt the Elder, a British statesman who wanted to see the American colonies treated reasonably and who seemed to foresee quite clearly the consequences of imposing unfair taxes and denying the colonials a voice in governance. Unfortunately Pitt became ill at a critical time, and George III, along with some short-sighted advisors, proceeded with asinine policies, ignoring the long term consequences of their actions on people who’d already shown both an inclination to oppose them, and the means to do so.
So the Revolution happened, on schedule, and the United States was born. Somehow, it seemed inevitable. And it was good news, right?
Professor Carr proceeds to deliver a shock: He describes how and why the world might have been a safer place, had things gone in another direction. Had Pitt succeeded in holding the UK hawks at bay, he says, the thirteen colonies would have remained within the British Empire, which was the closest approach to a working democratic system on the planet. The western world would have avoided the destabilization that came with the weakening of the Empire. He presents a compelling argument that French would have become less of a threat, that the Napoleonic Wars would likely not have happened, nor would the two global conflicts of the twentieth century. As an add-on, we probably could have gotten rid of slavery early in the 19th century, and without the bloodbath of a civil war. If he’s right, the world paid a heavy price for the short term perspective of King George and his advisors, who showed no interest in the long-term impact of going after the colonials.
I can’t help thinking that some of this material should be required reading for any of the people with ambitions to hang out in the White House.
On the subject of counterfactual history, TV’s The Murdoch Mysteries, which are set in Canada in the first decade of the twentieth century, frequently bring in historical characters. In one episode, a young Winston Churchill is falsely accused of murder. Arthur Conan Doyle, Bat Masterson, Thomas Edison, and other major figures are periodically on stage. As well as a few lesser known figures. Agnes MacPhail showed up in last night’s episode as a fifteen-year-old girl, inspired by the efforts of Toronto’s women to acquire voting privileges. Agnes, of course, was the first woman to be elected to the Canadian House of Commons. She was a progressive political force all through her life.
The viewer gets to watch Murdoch pursue intriguing mysteries while living through the changes that were occurring in those times: the arrival of the automobile, the discovery that science could be useful as a tool of law enforcement, the application of electricity, and a host of others.
Maureen and I spent a glorious weekend in Chicago at the Nebulas. Steven Silver and his staff put together a solid show. And it’s always a pleasure to spend time with old friends.
July 1, 2015
Les Johnson is a physicist who serves as deputy manager at NASA’s Advanced Concepts Office at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. He’s been leading the charge for solar sails, which he perceives as a rational way to get interplanetary flight moving seriously ahead.
Les was my co-editor for the 2012 anthology Going Interstellar, which concentrated on stories using methods of travel more or less within reach of what we now know to be possible. In short, no FTL technologies.
He and his wife Carol were at Libertycon this past weekend, and I took advantage of the opportunity to ask him whether he thought that Star Trek-style flight was possible. Might we ever be able to launch starships that could move faster than light?
I could see his eyes cloud. Les would love to come up with a vehicle that could move at a serious velocity among the stars. But, based on what we know now, the physics simply doesn’t allow it. He conceded, however, that it would be foolish to assume we had the final word on such matters.
It’s about as hopeful an answer as one could expect.
Les is the co-author with Giovanni Vulpetti and Gregory Matloff of Solar Sails; and of Harvesting Space for a Greener Earth, with Matloff and C. Bangs. He also writes fiction, collaborating with Ben Bova to produce Rescue Mode, an account of the first human flight to Mars; and with Travis S. Taylor on Back to the Moon, in which a Chinese mission becomes stranded.
The development of solar sails constitutes just one more step forward in a wide range of technological areas. The Telomerase Revolution, by Michael Fossel, stipulates that we are close to a breakthrough that will not only halt the ageing process, but may even be able to reverse it. When does Dr. Fossel think this may happen? A good possibility, he says, we’ll see it within the next ten years.
Scientific American continues to track efforts to determine the nature of dark matter. Astrophysicists are developing methods that will use telescopic analyses of extrasolar planetary atmosphere to determine whether they support life. Electronic corporations are working on technologies that may leave our wide-screen TV’s in the same category as typewriters and telephone dials.
I had a localized example yesterday when I had some cataracts removed. The one part of our anatomy that we instinctively let no one near is our eyes. I wasn’t looking forward to the experience, despite all the assurances I’d gotten from others. We went through a set of preps and eventually they gave me something the doctor referred to as an “I-don’t-care shot.” After that, I waited uncomfortably, watching nurses walking around, tapping keyboards, and smiling at me. I was getting worried because the anesthetic was apparently having no effect on me. None whatever. Please, I thought, take hold before the surgical procedures get started.
Finally, the doctor came back. “How you doing, Jack?” she asked.
“I’m okay,” I said.
“Good. You’re all set to go. See you later.”
July 18, 2015
The big science news this week, of course, was the New Horizons Pluto mission. I’m grateful that I’ve survived long enough to see flights to every planet in the solar system. But the fact that they were all automated, and the other eight worlds and their assorted moons all turned out, as far as we can tell, to be empty of life, would have been severely disappointing had we not seen it coming. Millennials understood the reality from the beginning. But for those of us who grew up in an era when science fiction depicted invading Martians, Venusians living in steaming jungles, and space ships landing on Jupiter. (Check Buck Rogers.) We were still wrestling with the possibility of Martian canals. The USA established NASA, and the Soviets put a satellite in orbit. In the sixties, 2001: A Space Odyssey made encapsulated everything we could expect by the end of the century. At that time, 2001 seemed pretty distant.
In 1969, we landed on the Moon, and the future we’d all believed in seemed to be opening up. Nothing could stop us now, baby.
I’m not sure yet why we care so much about determining whether we’re alone in the universe. When I do speaking engagements with groups that are not formally part of the SF community, college classes and library events and veterans’ organizations and so on, people inevitably ask whether I think there are aliens. I suppose there are some out there somewhere. There are just too many worlds with warm water and stable suns, billions of them, to accept the notion that whatever happened on Earth hasn’t been happening elsewhere. But if I even suggest the possibility that we might be alone, that the odds of a biosystem taking root might be so remote that this world might actually be unique, people get annoyed.
I’d feel the same way if I were sitting in the audience. And I’m not sure why. Stephen Hawking has remarked that we’d be much better off, much safer, if there is no one other than us. And we all recognize the common sense in that proposition. But it doesn’t seem to matter. Somewhere deep in our souls, we do not want to be alone.
I don’t want to downplay the Pluto mission. That has been an incredible accomplishment by NASA, which continues to struggle with curtailed funds. And I don’t know how you persuade a congressman that a mission to a place so far away has any potential benefit. But it leaves me wondering where we’d be if we’d been able to bypass the wars of the last half-century and devote our resources to more positive projects.
We did discover a couple of odd features about Pluto: mountains rising to 11,000 feet; a craterless area of about 23,000 square miles; and troughs filled with dark material. Intriguing. But not nearly as much fun as, say, discovering a much smaller plain with a statue at its center; or a million-year-old space station in orbit. But that’s the stuff of science fiction, I guess. And I suppose it’s just as well.
I was in grade school in 1947 when Kenneth Arnold reported seeing a group of flying saucers while piloting his plane near Mt. Rainer. It was apparently the first time the term was used, and it got all the kids in my neighborhood pretty excited. We had a large vacant lot at the north end of the street, and I can recall hoping that maybe one of the saucers would set down there and say hello.
It was an innocent time. And also, an age when anything seemed possible.
JOURNAL ENTRY #190
February 4, 2015
The Joint Quantum Institute is located on the campus of the University of Maryland. Chad Orzel, of Union College, and Emily Edwards and Steve Rolston of the Institute, assembled a program hoping to instruct a group of science fiction writers on the finer points, or maybe the less entangled ones, of the quantum world. Emily served as the general coordinator, which is always a challenge when a project is running for the first time, as this one was. But I’m happy to say everything went well. And they are talking about doing it again next year. The program was sponsored by a grant from the American Physical Society.
Anyone interested in ongoing developments in the field can stay up with some of the more challenging research by subscribing to ‘A Quantum Bit.’ Just make the request and send an email address to email@example.com.
The program ran from Thursday, July 29 through Saturday, August 1. Presentations were delivered by quantum physicists who were unable to conceal their enthusiasm for the topic. They were mostly from the JQI, and they briefed us on basics, on superposition, and on entanglement. We were introduced to Bell’s Theorem and local variables. The theorem stipulates that the predictions of any local theory regarding hidden variables will not be compatible with the predictions of quantum mechanics. This led to a brief discussion about whether the Moon is only there when we are looking at it.
We visited laboratories which specialized in operating ion traps, which use electric and/or magnetic fields to capture charged particles, usually in a system isolated from an external environment. Ion traps enable scientists to control quantum states, and set up mass spectrometry experiments. Mass spectrometry is a technique that helps identify chemicals in a sample by measuring the mass-to-charge ratio and the quantity of gas-phase ions. These capabilities also can lead to other areas of basic physics research.
There was a light presentation. That is, of photonics, an examination of the essence of light. We talked about photons, their transmission, processing, emission, and so on. We also got into quantum communications and quantum computation. There was a description of the capabilities we could expect from a quantum computer, and its limitations. Everyone was waiting for teleportation to surface. Eventually it did, and we were relieved to hear that experiments had shown it to be possible. (I was relieved to hear that, since a stargate is at the heart of Thunderbird, which will be released in four months.) Unfortunately, however, it was revealed a few minutes later that we would probably never be able to teleport anything much more complicated than an atomic particle. And certainly nothing so complex as Captain Kirk.
We watched a superfluidity demonstration, in which a piece of matter behaved like a fluid while it raced around on a metal circuit that resembled a small roller-coaster track, occasionally defying gravity. Here’s a link to moments in the event, including the roller-coaster, compliments of Doug Farren:
I should add that we got into superconductivity, as well. And on Friday evening, we were treated to dinner at Busboys and Poets, where the principal speaker was Nobel Laureate S. James Gates.
Much of what we talked about was above my pay grade. But the experience left me with considerable respect for quantum physicists, and a bit more humility than I possessed going in. And I don’t think I’ll ever be quite the same.
August 15, 2015
The Saint Simons Island Literary Guild has invited me to participate in a conversation about Mark Twain. He can be a broad topic. Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. His travels through the West. Attitudes about religion and politics. His time travel novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The lecture tours, brilliantly covered by Fred W. Lorch in The Trouble Begins at Eight. If I had a time travel device, I’d head directly for London on October 13, 1871, and make for the Queen’s Concert Hall, where Sam Clemens won over a moderately skeptical audience. As Lorch puts it, “While it was admitted that the humorous outweighed the serious, it was nevertheless clear the American deeply appreciated the pathos of life which lay at the base of all true humor.” In fact, for me it was a lost opportunity. Dave and Shel (in Time Travelers Never Die) could have cornered him after the lecture and given him the idea for Connecticut Yankee.
In any case, we decided to focus the discussion on Mark Twain’s humor. Maybe concentrate on his essays. That seemed like a good idea, and it gives me an excuse to go back and read them again, at least the ones in the Library of America two-volume set. The conversation is scheduled for Tuesday, February 23, 10:30 a.m., at the Saint Simons Island Casino. Room 108. Ten dollars provides entry and a year’s membership.
On a connected topic, David Bellanger is putting together an anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories, to be titled Beyond Watson. The theme, as suggested by the title, is that Watson will not be the narrator. So who takes his place? My first reaction was to think in terms of picking one of the better-known characters from the canon, Irene Adler, maybe. Or Mycroft. But that looks past a golden opportunity. Why not bring in a well-known historical character?
I have a couple of sets of Lone Ranger radio broadcasts that I listen to when I travel long distances alone (along with Jean Shepherd, Lights Out, and Jack Benny). The Lone Ranger episodes that stand out are the ones in which historical characters appear. The Masked Man meets Teddy Roosevelt. Or Billy the Kid. Other visitors include Buffalo Bill, Kit Carson, Annie Oakley, and George Custer. So, maybe Holmes should provide an assist to a young Winston Churchill, who then records the story. Or to Archduke Franz Ferdinand. I was thinking about my choices when the Literary Guild contacted me about Mark Twain.
One of the advantages of writing science fiction is that publishers frequently send ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies) of forthcoming books, for which they would like to see a blurb. The downside is that most of us tend to get more than we can do justice to. To be honest, I rarely buy an SF novel. No need to. Anyhow, a new Mike Resnick book, The Prison in Antares showed up two weeks ago.
It’s sequel to Fortress in Orion, which I’d enjoyed last year. The books feature Nathan Pretorius and a group of characters with mixed capabilities, referred to as the Dead-Enders. Think of an interstellar Impossible Missions force. I didn’t go near it for a while because I’ve been tied up on projects, and the first book was hard to put down. The same is true of Nathan’s second outing.
Maureen and I will be at Dragoncon over the Labor Day weekend. My schedule, with other panelists:
Fri., 11:30 a.m. Science Fiction Rises From the Ashes, Embassy D-F (Hyatt) Stephen Antczak, Timothy Zahn, Jack Campbell, Alexandra Duncan
Fri., 10:00 p.m. Eugie Foster Memorial Nebula Discussion, Embassy A-B (Hyatt) Dr. Charles E. Gannon, Claire M. Eddy
Sat, 4:00 p.m. Magnificent Men of SF/F Fiction, Regency VI-VII (Hyatt) A.J. Hartley, Kevin J. Anderson, Jim Butcher, John D. Ringo, Nancy Knight
Sun, 10:00 a.m. Autograph session, International Hall South (Mariott) David Mack, Jamie Pearce
Sun, 2:30 p.m. Reading Marietta (Hyatt)
September 1, 2015
It’s a mystery to me why anyone would ask, but lately a number of people have been wondering whether I am ready to retire, whether Coming Home was the farewell appearance of Chase and Alex, whether Hutch’s career had ended with her prequel Starhawk. Was I, in fact, preparing to move onto our front porch and settle into a rocker. This perspective might have gained some credibility when it came out that I’d taken this year off, and had not, for the first time since 1996, produced a novel. In addition there’ve been only a couple of short stories. Sounds like a collapse to me. Except that I still feel as if I could play some basketball.
I still have ground to cover. But if anyone is wondering about the nonproductive year, the reality is that there’ve been books I’ve been trying to catch up with since my college days. I’m currently enjoying a dazzling ride aboard the Quaker City with Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad. And I’ve been enjoying his collected essays in the Library of America editions.
I’ve contributed a couple of stories to anthologies, one to Future Visions, and another to David Brin’s Chasing Shadows. And Derrick Belanger asked for a Sherlock Holmes story for his anthology Beyond Watson. It’s to be narrated by someone other than the good doctor. That sounded like fun, so I said sure and decided Mark Twain would pop into nineteenth-century London. But then it occurred to me Holmes and Watson might be even more intrigued by a meeting with H. L. Mencken.
Henry Mencken entered my life in 1947 when I was in grade school. He suffered a stroke, and an article reporting the event appeared in Life Magazine, to which we subscribed. They quoted a few lines of his. Unfortunately, I can’t recall them now, but I remember falling in love with the guy immediately. My parents, who had no clue who he was, saw that I was interested in him. And they wanted to encourage me to read, so they got me a copy of one of his books, probably The Chrestomathy. I was twelve years old at the time, and I was never the same afterward. My mom and dad never realized what they’d done. Mencken was the ultimate skeptic. He didn’t approve of politicians, of literature professors, of clerics, of hardly anyone. For him, the world was full of idiots and hypocrites. Strong stuff for a kid. I’ve read him off and on ever since. And years later, when I needed a journalist for the Priscilla books, he became the inspiration for Gregory MacAllister. I’ll admit that writing has never been more sheer pleasure than when I was trying to replicate his style.
Most people, when they think of Mark Twain, immediately lock onto Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. And maybe A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. But it’s the essays and speeches that seriously rock. Mencken was the only other person who, when it comes to writing essays, plays in the same league. Henry never wrote a piece of fiction, as far as I know. And that, I suspect, is the reason he’s not as well-known as he deserves to be. In any case, he’s the ultimate American skeptic, and was the perfect person to become involved with a Holmes case. I’m looking forward to seeing how he’ll react when the great detective observes that he clearly plans to visit Germany when he leaves the U.K.
Anyone who’d like to catch up with Mencken could not do better than to start with The Chrestomathy. It’s Mencken’s selection of his own best work.
Since I was going to write about him, I had an excuse to do some research on his early years. (He’ll be twenty-eight when, in 1908, he encounters Holmes and Watson.) So I’ve jumped into Carl Bode’s The Young Mencken, and Mencken A Life by Fred Hobson.
I’d assumed that putting together a Holmes-style mystery would be fairly easy. I’d been a fan of the Basil Rathbone movies since I was four, and I loved the radio program. Eventually, during the summer of 1955, I caught up with and read the entire canon. I came away seriously annoyed with Conan Doyle, who’d seen his detective as a cheap sideline to his more serious work, like The Mystery of Cloomber, The White Company, The Parasite, The Tragedy of the Korosko, and The Doings of Raffles Haw.
I’ve never forgiven him.
During the first few days, I was surprised to discover that I couldn’t come up with a plotline. I wanted a murder mystery, but I had nothing that aroused my passions, so it would do nothing for the reader. Eventually I found myself in a phone conversation with David Paquette, formerly one of my students at Mt. St. Charles Academy in Woonsocket, R.I. When he asked how I was doing, I told him.
“You need to get out of the box,” he said. “Why are you trying to write a Holmes mystery? Go with Alex.”
Of course. How could I have been so dumb?
September 15, 2015
In 2008, Michael Wallace edited 50 Years from Today, a collection of predictions from sixty “of the World’s Greatest Minds” of where we are headed, where we can expect to be by mid-century, and what might happen if we don’t step in and take care of the problems. Among the contributors are biologist Richard Dawkins, former South Korean president Kim Dae-Jung, former Bill Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta, counter-terrorist expert Richard Clarke, and Pulitzer Prize winner Ross Gelbspan, an editor and reporter for the Washington Post and Boston Globe.
The world during my lifetime has changed in ways that my parents, in the 1940’s, could not have imagined. The global population, when my dad was born at the end of the nineteenth century, was about one and a half billion. It was a figure we’d needed a hundred million years or so to reach. During the 1900’s, despite two world wars and a horde of local ones, the population multiplied five times. I don’t think anyone saw it coming. Estimates in the Wallace book for mid-21st century put the population at more than eleven billion. This when we can’t feed everyone now.
Then there’s the climate issue. For anyone who still resists the notion that the atmosphere is changing, or thinks that, even if it is, we’ve had nothing to do with it, the book might be unsettling. But then of course I suppose we can just go on believing what’s convenient.
One of the major points in the book is that we have to become not only better equipped to help one another, but that we need to become more willing to help. Last week, the depth of the catastrophe developing as a result of the Syrian civil war was driven home when a video clip went viral of a man recovering the body of a child which had washed ashore after a boatload of refugees capsized. Do we really need that kind of stark reminder before we realize that building walls and sending out police is not a viable solution? A first step is to find a way to introduce a decent liberal education for everyone.
It’s hard to see how that could happen, but we need to try. Which brings up another point: There are a lot of heroes involved in this global struggle: doctors and nurses, people carrying supplies into broken areas, a wide range of volunteers putting their lives at risk to do what they can. A group that rarely gets mention: Teachers in places where there is a considerable amount of animosity about the notion that being able to think freely is a good idea. Or where girls shouldn’t be allowed near a school at all. We think American teachers can get in trouble for recommending the wrong book.
There’s rarely a day anymore without TV reports of desperate refugees being stopped by border guards, civil wars raging in Africa and the Middle East, religious crazies committing murder in God’s name. It reminds me how fortunate I am to have been born in the USA. At Dragoncon I encountered a young writer who argued that there’s reason to believe that reincarnation actually happens. She presented a couple of cases that were hard to explain in any other way. The conversation forced me to ask myself whether I’d rather be reincarnated or drift into oblivion? I realized that the answer depended on where I’d reappear. I wouldn’t want to live in one of those unfortunate places where disease is rampant and simply getting a decent meal for your kids is a challenge. To say nothing neighbors blowing themselves up, or women not being allowed to walk the streets without a male keeper.
But to get back to the book: There’s good news. With a little bit of luck, we are told, we’ll have a station on Mars by midcentury. Medical techniques will be vastly better than they are today because we will be treated based on our individual strengths and weaknesses rather than on a set of generalities. Genetic manipulation will have arrived, so our children can be brighter than we are, and better looking. (Is that really a good idea?)
Predicting the future is not easy. In 1950, I would have believed that I’d see a way station on one of the moons of Saturn before two males would be allowed to marry. Or before discrimination would go away. (Not that we’ve completely gotten rid of it, but it is dissolving, as the bigots die off and get replaced by another generation.)
Before it appeared, I never heard of anything like the internet, and would not have believed it possible if I did. Medical care has come a long way. When my mom had cataract surgery back in the ‘90s, I wondered how she was able to stand it. Nobody, I thought then, would ever be allowed near my eyes. But eventually the time came. Do the surgery or face a dark world. People assured me it would not be a problem. Sure. But when the time came, the doctors used a mask to give me an anesthetic. I lay there sucking it in, waiting for it to take hold, wide awake, wishing it would knock me out. When finally the doctor came back, I was ready to tell her that the anesthetic hadn’t worked. Instead, she smiled. “You’re all set,” she said. “You can go home now.”
I’ve another book that I’m getting ready to start: Year Million, edited by Damien Broderick. Published the same year, 2008. Subtitle: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge. Among the contributors are several friends: Catherine Asaro, Gregory Benford, Wil McCarthy, Pamela Sargent, Rudy Rucker, and George Zebrowski. Well, I hope they got it right.
October 2, 2015
On the morning after another mass shooting at an American college, every other topic seems trivial. How do we concern ourselves at such a time about books or cultural trends or a new hominid found buried somewhere? The reality of periodic massacres in movie theaters and school campuses and other soft targets has become as much a part of our lives as rainstorms and traffic jams. Shocked TV commentators and political figures insist that we have to act to stop these events from recurring, after which nothing ever happens. We talk about keeping guns out of the hands of lunatics, but no one seems able to suggest how that can be accomplished.
This is a bit like the abortion issue. There is no way to devise a system that allows women to maintain control over their bodies while simultaneously avoiding the termination of fetuses. There is likewise no comfortable middle ground that will permit us to disarm unstable people while still respecting the second amendment. Sometimes we simply have to accept a cold reality: If we are to continue as a nation which has more guns than people, we are going to have to accept the periodic sacrifice of our children, and occasionally ourselves.
When I was working on Coming Home, I spent a fair amount of time trying to imagine what Earth might look like nine thousand years from now. I wanted a place from which ongoing stupidity had been eradicated. And I’m happy to say that, in Alex’s time, the most grinding of our problems have been resolved. Crime is almost nonexistent. There are no religious fanatics running around. No lunatics. People who don’t want to work don’t have to. The world is united under a single government which, happily, shows no interest in sending in black helicopters. And, of course, Earth is part of a united group of worlds spread across the Orion Arm, with a government which does little other than provide assistance if needed.
Easy to say, right? So how did I solve all the world’s problems? Well, I had millennia to manage it. Basically, what happened was that parents gradually became more responsible for their kids. And we succeeded in making a liberal education available to children around the globe. That came only after an era during which we had to sacrifice a lot of teachers, doctors, and lots of volunteers. But we succeeded in getting people to think for themselves rather than simply accept a set of dogma handed down from assorted authority figures. We worked hard to establish tolerance as one of the prime virtues. We don’t have to agree on political or religious differences in order to be friends.
Eventually, the wildly unlikely concept of loving one’s neighbor took hold. And most of the tension that exists in human society melted away.
Is it really possible those things could happen? Sure. It’s called evolution. And, given time, it should take place. Given time. The trick is for us to avoid killing one another before we mature. Alex and Chase know how close we came to going the other way. But in their world, we made it. Let’s make it happen in ours.
First step: Parents take hold. Encourage kids to think for themselves. Recognize ideas can be wrong. Pay attention to facts. Parents stay on the job. Let’s not have any more mass killings in which the father turns up halfway across the country saying how he never could have believed his son could do such a thing. And maybe we should give more authority to our women. In case we haven’t noticed, the person behind the gun is almost never a female.
October 15, 2015
We attended Necronomicon this weekend. It’s routinely held in Tampa, which provides beaches, sailboats, exquisite cafes, and oceanic vistas. Guests this year included Eric Flint, Joe Haldeman, and Timothy Zahn. The highlight of the weekend for us happened Saturday evening when Craig Caldwell treated Maureen and me, Ben and Rashida Bova, and Joe and Gay Haldeman to an evening at Armani’s, the lush Italian restaurant with a piano and floor-to-ceiling windows atop the Hyatt. I think we all sat there for an hour or so realizing how fortunate we’ve been.
During the course of the con, I served on five panels, one of which was “Space Opera Then/Military SF Now.” Also on board for that one were Eric Flint, Chris Berman, and Jeff Carroll, while Christopher Helton moderated. I’ve never been happy with the term ‘space opera.’ It’s derived from the old radio shows like “Our Gal Sunday,” “Lorenzo Jones,” “Ma Perkins,” and “Just Plain Bill.” The sense of it was that the shows were designed exclusively for women, who were expected to be at home cleaning house and taking care of the kids while their husbands did the serious lifting. Consequently the sponsors were predominantly soap manufacturers.
The term did not have a positive context. This was an era when women were perceived as not quite able to operate at the same level as men. No male would ever have admitted to being a fan of a soap opera. I was aware of this from about the age of seven. Consequently, when the term was hijacked for use by the general media and applied to science fiction, I got vaguely annoyed. Today, in an age when SF has become a dominant form of entertainment and thoughtful literature, many of the more influential media still do not review its written work. They are happy to treat fiction about serial killers or lascivious college professors as serious material, but a novel that takes the reader to Mars or uses a time machine to visit Nero isn’t likely to get much attention, unless the author has a reputation that does not label him as a regular SF writer.
This recalls the attitudes toward women that were common when I was growing up. The radio shows that ran in the evening, “Campbell Playhouse,” “Sherlock Holmes,” “Radio City Playhouse,” “Dragnet,” were considered adult programs, aimed at a more mature audience. I can’t resist mentioning that I don’t ever recall my mom listening to a soap opera. And I suspect if she’d been known that her kid would produce books with a soapy label, she wouldn’t have been happy.
The quality that has always entranced me about science fiction is that it could take me to places I could only dream about. That it can take the reader to the stars and let him, or her, interact with whatever’s out there. And I don’t mean necessarily to get into a fight with it. That’s an easy way to set up the conflict that is an essential part of any drama. As is creating a villainous character that the good guys can chase around. But I’d much rather see them confront nature. Let’s put a few explorers in orbit on a world that’s about to get sucked into a gas giant. And have them notice there are ruins on that world. Going down to take a closer look involves a risk, because the approaching catastrophe is already causing storms and earthquakes. Do we make the effort?
Or maybe they can confront themselves. Do we colonize a living world even though it will destroy the life forms already present?
The most memorable science fiction I’ve come across has been in the short form. And, curiously, the stories that have stayed with me have often completely lacked conflict. Arthur Clarke’s “The Star” is a prime example. Ray Bradbury’s “The Million-Year Picnic” is another. And Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth.”
There are a lot of very intelligent people out there who, somehow, have never discovered the field. I don’t know how that happened. But they have my sympathy. I can’t imagine my life without Isaac Asimov and his friends.
November 3, 2015
This entry is a bit off schedule. We drove to Philadelphia and New Jersey in late October, spending time with friends and family. There were connections to the South Philadelphia Quakers, my old baseball team; to my grade school years; to Maureen’s high school days; and we spent a couple of days with her brother and his wife. It was a trip through both space and time. The only dark moments arrived when the Eagles took the field. Twice.
During the visit we wandered into a Barnes & Noble and found some remarkable editions carrying a list price of approximately $8.00. The publisher is Fall River, and they are doorstop books, averaging seven to eight hundred pages. One volume contains the complete Sherlock Holmes, four novels and fifty-six short stories. Others have four and five novels by Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and other classic authors. There were also complete Shakespeare collections. And the complete works of Edgar Allen Poe. And on and on.
I picked up a copy of the first five John Carter novels for a longtime friend. (They hooked me during my early years, as they probably did many of us.) For myself, I brought home the first three Tarzan novels; an Oscar Wilde book which includes The Picture of Dorian Gray, three story collections and nine plays; and Tales of the Arabian Nights. The latter volume opens with “The Tale of Scheherazade,” includes also “Sinbad the Sailor,” “Abu Mohammed Hight Lazybones,” “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”
We visited two Barnes and Noble stores. The titles were available in both, so I suspect they are carried by the chain.
This was to have been my year off. For the first time since the start of the century, I’d write no novel, and spend my time doing jigsaw puzzles, finishing my college reading assignments, eating lunch out with friends as often as possible, watching TV, and just generally hanging out. It hasn’t exactly worked out according to plan, although I did manage to limit my writing to a few short stories. I know that sounds like a casual twelve months. Retirement, even. But we did spend some time on the road. We attended Ravencon in Virginia, Dragoncon in Atlanta, OASIS in Orlando, Chattacon in Chattanooga, and Necronomicon in Tampa Bay.
We also showed up at the Nebula Awards in Chicago, the Georgia Writers’ Banquet in Atlanta, and Balticon, where the Baltimore Science Fiction Society ensured I’d be their friend forever.
Late in the year, the Air Force invited me to attend its annual Space Forum at the Air Force Academy’s Eisenhower Center in Colorado Springs. I should mention that I enjoy driving, and lost my enthusiasm for flying a long time ago. The Colorado trip was the only one I made by air.
I was already two days behind schedule for this journal entry when I got up this morning with no idea what I would write about. The world seemed blank. I’ve volunteered to do a presentation with the St. Simons Island Literary Guild about Mark Twain, so I’ve begun trying to put that together. But after breakfast, my standard routine is first to check for incoming mail. I found an invitation to attend the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop in Chattanooga. One of my favorite events.
And, just like that, the topic came to me.
November 15, 2015
We’re just a couple of days away from the attack on Paris, conducted by a swarm of armed idiots. I have nothing to add, really, to the comments that have already overwhelmed the internet and the cable news channels. I understand the dangers that arise from ideologies that are portrayed as directives from God. What I do not understand is how anyone who accepts the idea that there is a Creator can become so indoctrinated with a specific system that he will take the lives of total strangers who have done him no harm, and accept the idea of arriving at a final judgment that will play in his favor.
Two qualities that have gone missing. These killers are equipped with brains, but obviously don’t use them. That’s not a trait that is limited to some branches of Islam. We’ve seen it in western culture, too. Not that it necessarily leads to homicide, but we have substantial numbers of people who have made up their minds about an issue and simply refuse to look at the evidence. Setting religion aside, we have substantial portions of the population who deny climate change, maintain political loyalties under any circumstances, cling to racism, sexism, and are hopelessly locked in on evolution, to name just a few. Each of us has been given a brain. It would be helpful if we got into the habit of using it, even when the conclusions that show up make us uncomfortable. There should be nothing dispiriting about being wrong about something. We’ve all been there. But intelligence incorporates the idea of being able to admit that we’ve made a mistake, and change accordingly. One of the Priscilla Hutchins novels features a world with a civilization that is just getting started. But the bon motif in their schools is ‘Think for yourself.’ Imagine how the world would improve if we could do that. Set aside our personal prejudices and opinions and look at the evidence.
The other quality that seems to evaporate when people get sucked into a radical cause is empathy. Over the course of what has become a long lifetime, I’ve known a lot of people. Virtually all have been concerned about the welfare of others. And we can define ‘others’ as a term extending beyond family and friends. They stop for persons holding signs declaring themselves as homeless. They contribute to good causes. They come to the assistance of an older person who’s fallen in the street. Veterans return from battle zones with PTSD, not necessarily because they were at extreme risk, but because they watched their friends die, or because they’ve had to kill people during combat.
We volunteer to work in animal shelters, we give our time to churches and community efforts, we run scout troops and Little League baseball teams. The Salvation Army and the Red Cross have become icons in our culture. Our lives are devoted to giving. But for some of us, the empathic gene seems to have gone missing. We don’t get a chance to hear the life stories of most who cross over to the dark side, so we don’t know why it happens. It’s impossible not to notice that the vast majority of suicide bombers and lunatic gunmen are young males. Those that we do learn about seem to have had trouble holding onto girlfriends.
I wonder why that would be.
December 1st, 2015
In 1896, Nikola Tesla wondered whether the radio system he was developing might help us contact Mars. Three years later, he thought he’d picked up a signal from Mars. We’ve never stopped looking. When Mars got close to us in August, 1924, the United States set up a National Radio Silence Day that ran 36 hours long, during which all radios went silent for a five minute period at the top of every hour. We sent a receiver up in a dirigible to listen for signals. But of course nothing came of it.
In 1960, Frank Drake aimed a telescope at Tau Ceti and Epsilon Eridani. I recall getting pretty excited at the time. It seemed likely that, even if those two stars produced no results, we would eventually find something somewhere. Of course that was an era during which a lot of us were still holding out hope for Mars. (There’d even been a brief period when Venus had potential. After all, it had clouds, and Edgar Rice Burroughs had produced the Carson Napier novels.)
Drake launched SETI a few years later. And they continued the search. But years passed, and the silence remained adamant. One signal thought to be artificial was picked up in 1977, but was never acquired again. Similar instances occurred in the early years of the 21st century. But no one took any of it seriously. The universe was quiet and that was the way it would remain. Intelligent life was probably an extreme anomaly. I began thinking about a story based on the discovery that we were unique, but I could never put it together. I mean, how can you possibly find out that we are alone in the universe?
There are reports now of new signals detected by Australians, incredibly powerful bursts of energy. Professor Matthew Bailes, an astronomer at Swinburne University, is directing the Australian effort. He concedes the possibility that there is an artificial source, but he maintains they don’t really know what they have: "The difficulty is to know what sort of signal we are looking for," he said. "There is no manual on how to find aliens. We'll have to imagine the sort of transmissions an alien race might send."
He adds a warning: We might be prudent to avoid any efforts to make contact with an advanced civilization. Even if they were to prove friendly, the results could be catastrophic. During our own history, primitive cultures have never done well when they connected with someone wielding serious technology.
I can’t help thinking how we’d react if we discovered that our next door neighbors (say, in the Centauri system) had life spans of several thousand years. Or had average IQ’s of about 170. Or wanted to tell us how we should do everything. And they began to look at us as a tourist center.
Stephen Hawking agrees. As do numerous other scientists. They are saying we should keep our heads down. That tells me we may be getting closer to making contact than we realize. And the odd thing about it: I’ve lost that 1960 enthusiasm about seeing it happen.
The Ebook edition of the Microsoft anthology Future Visions, with stories by Robert Sawyer, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, David Brin, Greg Bear, SeananMcGuire, Elizabeth Bear, and a graphic novelette by Blue Delliquanti and Michele Rosenthal, is now available free of charge: http://microsoft.com/FutureVisions
December 15th , 2015
Saturday evening we all went to the Ritz Theater in downtown Brunswick to watch A Christmas Story, performed live as a radio broadcast by the Golden Isles Arts and Humanities Association. They’ve been running radio-style adaptations of famous films for several years now. I’d assumed that they’ve been using scripts from the 1940’s shows like Lux Radio Theater. But A Christmas Story was written in 1983. So somebody stepped in.
In past years, they’ve done Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, A Christmas Carol, and The Maltese Falcon. The idea has been to recreate a 1940’s broadcast, and give us a sense of sitting in the studio. We watch the production of sound effects, get commercials, respond to electronic signals directing us to applaud and, in one show –if my memory is correct—, we got a break-in report of an attack on Pearl Harbor. The audience receives programs that are designed to capture the earlier era: They list, e.g., the original actors. The actual cast is there also, credited with playing the original actors, rather than the characters in the play.
The force behind these shows, as best an outsider can tell, has been Heather Heath. She is executive director of GIA&H, and has directed the performances. On prominent display throughout the series also has been Scott Ryfun, who, in A Christmas Story, plays the grown-up Ralphie while also functioning as narrator. Scott is host of the local radio show, Straight Talk, and I’d be remiss in failing to mention that he was the inspiration for Brad Hollister, one of the lead characters in Thunderbird.
I’ve had a lifelong passion for live theater. During my high school teaching years, I was assigned the role of theatrical director. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The students had a ton of enthusiasm, and they were remarkably talented. I’ll admit here that I was surprised at how good they were. I hadn’t expected it when we first started. Eventually, I got used to it. And maybe even reached a point where I took it for granted. Even today, fifty years later, some of the people who performed in South Pacific, Oklahoma, Arsenic and Old Lace, and the other shows, are still in touch. Somehow, I still think of them as kids.
A Christmas Story is based on the work of Jean Shepherd. I suspect most of the people reading this will know Shepherd only for this play. He was a radio personality during the 1950’s. And I’ll confess if there’s any single performer –I don’t know how properly to describe him—that I would have liked to meet, that I would bring back if I could, it’s Shep.
He was a humorist, but one who operated on a remarkably high level. He embodied much of what has made Mark Twain and James Thurber immortal. The difference is that they recorded their prime material on paper. Shepherd’s best work is about sixty light-years out, approaching Zeta Leporis. It’s depressing that so few people now know him except as the source for one film. He wrote stories for a number of markets which have been collected in several volumes, primarily In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters. In 2005, Eugene B. Bergmann published an appreciation titled Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd.
Jerry Seinfeld credits Shepherd as the major influence in the evolution of his career. Garrison Keillor has been quoted along similar lines. The most startling compliment I ever received as a teacher came from a librarian who told me that I reminded her of Shepherd.
December 31, 2015
Thunderbird has taken some criticism because not everyone is happy with Chairman Walker’s climactic decision. It might be of interest to those readers to know that the original draft of the novel went in a different direction. In short, Walker chose another route. And before anyone gets annoyed with me, I should point out that the call was the chairman’s, not mine. And I know how that sounds. But the reality is that, while the author is usually in charge of events in a narrative, the characters decide how they will react. And if you think I’m kidding, ask yourself how you would respond if, say, Hutch abandoned someone in trouble, or Alex Benedict declined to follow up on an investigation because he’d be playing polo that weekend.
In The Hercules Text, as originally written in 1985, Harry Carmichael comes into information gleaned from an extraterrestrial intercept. The information can lead to major medical advances, but is also applicable to high-tech weaponry. He responds by burying it in an altar in an abandoned church. It was my first novel, and I recall Harry arguing with me, telling me he would never react in that manner. That it was out of character for him. I explained that I needed him to do it, and that I was running the show. But fifteen years later, when I was prepping the novel for another appearance (along with A Talent for War) in Hello Out There, I realized Harry had been right, and I rewrote much of the second half.
In Deepsix, named after a world that was about to crash into a gas giant, I didn’t want Priscilla going down to the surface because I knew what was going to happen. Earthquake coming, Hutch. It’ll take out the lander and leave you stranded. You’ll still be there when the place goes down in two weeks. But she insisted. “You’ve found ruins from an alien civilization, and you want me to stay up here in orbit? I’m not doing it. I’m headed for the surface. Or get somebody else.”
I threatened to use Chase Kolpath, and she laughed. “Don’t worry, you’ll figure out something.” She went, and left me stranded. I had several ideas for managing a rescue, but they were all dumb and would have ended unhappily. Eventually, Walt Cuirle, a friendly physicist, came up with something. For which I’ve always been grateful. Some people are upset with Chairman Walker. I wonder how things would have gone had Hutch been dropped into that gas giant.
There’ve been other problems. I wanted Chase to forgive the guy she’d met in Coming Home for what she perceived as a betrayal. “Makes for a happier ending,” I told her.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “No way.”
In Starhawk, I went round and round with Jake Loomis. “There’s a better way to do this,” I kept telling him, trying to talk him out of using his ship to collide with an incoming bomb.
“So what is it?”
“I can fix the numbers. Set up a fuel deficiency, maybe.”
“Not much drama there, Jack. Look, let me handle it. I’ll be off the ship in time, and out of the way.”
Well, we know how that turned out.
In the end Chairman Walker also refused to back off. So I hope that anyone who has gotten upset knows who to blame.
I’m just finishing Charles Gannon’s Raising Caine, the third outing for the hands-on diplomat and intelligence agent. Chuck’s novels keep getting better. He’s mastered the military SF genre.
Mike Resnick’s The Prison in Antares provides another solid entry in the field. The Dead Enders are on the job again.
Not a bad way to start the new year.