January 15, 2016
If you are the guest speaker at a luncheon, or at a library event, or at a college, or wherever, there is no way more effective to annoy the audience than to tell them that you not only do not believe that UFO’s exist, but that in all probability, we are alone in the universe. It doesn’t matter how many billions of goldilocks worlds are out there, with gleaming oceans and gentle winds and warm sunlight, they are almost all certainly empty. Sure, there’s an outside chance someone else may exist somewhere. But it’s unlikely. And if there really is another planet with intelligent life, we have a better chance of winning the lottery than of ever finding it. Tell that to your audience and they will grow quiet, and a few will shake their heads and roll their eyes, and any enthusiasm that might have existed in the room will drain off.
And I’m not talking about an audience necessarily composed of SF enthusiasts. If that were the case, the reaction would undoubtedly be even more negative. Which I’m sure doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone. I grew up enthusiastic about traveling to Mars and saying hello to those guys who lived by the canals. And I was disappointed when the canals went away. When Bradbury’s brilliant work morphed from science fiction to fantasy. And I’ve never understood why I felt that way. When the UFO’s took over the news stories during the 1950’s, I would have given anything to see one descend onto the vacant lot at the north end of the street I lived on. And sure, I realized they could be dangerous, but that didn’t seem to matter. Maybe I didn’t really accept the possibility of hostile space travelers. If someone was smart enough to come in from Alpha Centauri (which had replaced Mars as the nearby habitat for visitors), surely they weren’t going to be like Nazis. Or even like Damon Knight’s visitors in “To Serve Man.”
But nobody ever came.
Why do we care so much? I’ve been trying for years to figure out a way to do a short story in which we discover that we are indeed alone. That the universe, save for us, is completely empty. I haven’t been able to find a way to do it, so I leave it out there for anyone who wants to try. Manage it legitimately, and I guarantee you will have a story with an impact. Maybe even a classic.
Ten years ago, I was invited to a NASA/SETI event on the west coast, where the prime topic, as best I can remember, was the Fermi Paradox. If there are aliens, where are they? Why the unbroken silence? During the course of that weekend I had the opportunity to meet Paul Davies, a cosmologist currently at Arizona State University. I’d read his book The Mind of God, which was a brilliant discussion of the nature of the universe, theories on how it may have come into existence, and how intelligent life might have arrived. He is also the author of other mind-bending books like The Ghost in the Atom, about quantum physics; How To Build a Time Machine; and Are We Alone?
In 2010 he published Eerie Silence. In this one, he argues that we are all there is. In the entire universe, across trillions of worlds, there is not one single place where two beings are seated in a living room enjoying the local equivalent of a pizza.
Which means we are safe from any outside threat. We have only ourselves to fear. Why is that so depressing?
February 1, 2016
A critical point that I always like to emphasize in discussions about writing is that you don’t try to assemble a complete outline before you start working. It’s a lesson I picked up originally from Ursula LeGuin, at a time when I thought having an outline, in detail, was necessary. And it took me awhile to see that she was dead right.
What is needed in order to start a novel is a sense of where the narrative should begin, and how the climax should play out. Sometimes when the writer arrives at the climax, he’ll want to change it. But that’s fine. Go with whatever feels right. But the author does want to have someplace to land. This is especially true if he’s writing a mystery.
I got off to a late start with the current Hutch novel because I kept waiting for lightning to strike. I’ve had the basic plot idea for several months. But looking for the narrative to arrive is simply a waste of time. I actually tried to start writing the thing out in detail, event by event. Ding dong.
I finally recalled Ursula’s advice –and my own, given on so many occasions—and jumped in three weeks ago. I’m happy to report I am almost a quarter of the way through a first draft, and so far I think Priscilla would be happy with the result. I don’t know why some of us have to keep learning the same lesson over and over.
I’ll be doing a signing Friday evening, Feb 5, in Brunswick, GA, at the Barrister Bookstore, 201 Gloucester Street. It's directly across from the library off US 341. The signing will run from 5:30 p.m. until 8:00.
The Literary Guild of the Golden isles invited me to do a presentation about Mark Twain. It’s part of our Big Read program, and will happen on St Simons Island, at the library, Tuesday morning at 10:30. The Big Read was created by Heather Heath, who is a major local contributor to the arts. It’s an annual appreciation for classical writers. This year it’s Twain’s turn. I’d read his major novels, as most of us have, so I’ve devoted most of my spare time over the last three months to reading his essays, speeches, newspaper stories, and everything else I could get hold of.
He is a good writer. I’ll give him that. He can be funny when he’s in the mood. And it looks as if half the world loved him during his active years. He took a stand for common sense approaches to international issues. He opposed some of the Russian moves in Europe. Thought the UK should stay out of Africa. That would have been the Boer War. And was outraged at the beginning of the 20th century with the U.S. intervention in the Philippines, which he describes as pretending to fight to keep them free from Spain while really taking themover for ourselves. He spoke out against corruption. Took on Congress. Was largely responsible for American copyright law, without which we might not have had the SF era we’ve all enjoyed.
But there’s been a jolt: The Great American Humorist sounds as if, when the doors were closed, he may have suffered from depression.
February 15, 2016
During the late fifties, when the Cold War was at its height, I joined the Navy and got orders for flight training at Pensacola. Then they discovered that I had a color vision issue, not color blindness but a defect nonetheless. It barred me not only from landing on carriers, but even from sitting on carriers.
They allowed me to go to OCS. Then I was sent to Kami Seya, a communication station in Japan, where I met Harvey S. (Scotty) Parrish. He was a WWII vet, a lieutenant commander, and that rarity, a boss for whom his people would have taken a bullet. He was also a talented outfielder. And, until I met him, I thought I was a good chess player.
He led by encouragement and example. He took care of his people, and was responsible for his decisions. I never saw him try to pass blame onto anyone else. He created a climate which encouraged his subordinates to excel, rather than to concentrate on not getting into trouble. He was willing to do the right thing, regardless of consequences. And he operated under the assumption that a commander is only as good as his subordinates.
Twenty years later, when I was doing leadership seminars for the Customs Service, I was still using the principles I’d learned from him. We never lived close to each other after our time in Japan, but we stayed in touch. I’d gone down to the Clearwater area, where he lived as a retired captain, twice in the last few months to see him. We’ll be going that way in two weeks to get together with our older son Scott, and watch some Phillies games. We’d have stopped by Clearwater again except that, ten days ago, we lost him.
Our son Scotty is an avid Phillies fan though he’s never lived in Philadelphia. His name is not a coincidence.
Linda Thomas was part of that Customs leadership team fifteen years ago. Saturday evening, Feb. 13, she put together a reunion for us at Maggiano’s Italian Restaurant in Jacksonville. George Tindle attended with his wife Ashley. George was our director. Also present was Jack Kraus and his wife Sandra. I was there with Maureen. And of course Linda’s husband, Phil. It was a priceless evening . Thanks to all. Photo available: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10153506606633299&set=pcb.10153506611518299&type=3&theater
Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone has become one of my favorite fictional characters. He is a retired intelligence operative who runs a bookstore in Denmark while bailing his former associates out of trouble. And he finds himself drawn into solving historical mysteries. Steve’s books rank as top thrillers. They include The Patriot Threat, The King’s Deception, and The Columbus Affair.
Cotton’s adventures consistently lock me in from the start. E.g., The Lincoln Myth opens with a scene in which former President Buchanan arrives in Lincoln’s office at the height of the Civil War. He carries a document given originally to George Washington, who passed it on to John Adams and began a chain from president to president. Apparently, whatever it contains is not good news. Lincoln looks at it without letting the reader see the contents. “This cannot be,” he says. And we go to chapter one, Cotton and the present day.
I tried to imagine what the document could possibly have said that would have rattled Lincoln in the middle of the Civil War. With no luck.
I think Alex Benedict and Cotton would have gotten on beautifully.
March 3, 2016
Les Johnson is Deputy Manager for NASA’s Advanced Concepts Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL. He’s written several nonfiction books as well as Rescue Mode (with Ben Bova), and Back to the Moon (with Travis Taylor). He and I coedited Going Interstellar, an anthology of short stories and essays dealing more or less with where we are now in our efforts to attain serious space flight.
Les also serves as chairman of the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, which met over the last few days at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. And for those who haven’t visited Tennessee, that’s actually a hotel. Among the guests were a number of physicists and former NASA employees, as well as people with various interests in the development of interstellar space flight. In addition, we welcomed Greg and James Benford, Chuck Gannon, Sarah Hoyt, Geoffrey Landis, Toni Weisskopf, and Rhonda Stevenson, executive director of the Tao Zero Foundation.
The workshop covered a wide range of subjects, concentrating on whether interstellar travel, either robotic or human, will ever be possible and, if so, how it might be achieved. The speakers, without exception, noted that, if we are able to make it happen, it will not be easy. And we can expect that it will be inordinately expensive. But one of the principles maintained by almost everyone was that if humans are going to survive into the distant future, we are going to have to expand beyond the solar system.
Topics included propulsion technologies, advanced ion propulsion systems, America’s future in deep space, in-space manufacturing, solar power technologies, space mining, electric sails, matter-antimatter propulsion, laser-powered interstellar ramjets, health issues, and considerably more.
There was also an off-site panel of writers discussing interstellar travel, and science fiction as an influence on scientific development. The event was introduced by Mayor Andy Berke.
I’ll confess I was in over my head in some areas. But there was no way Les’s team could have delivered the kind of technological analysis they did without leaving the English majors a bit behind. In any case, I came away from it with a deep sense of the hurdles we face, and the necessity of getting past them.
The workshop has become an annual event. Anyone interested in the serious side of interstellar flight will find it compelling, to say the least. Unfortunately there will probably never be an Enterprise, but the various presenters understood that we’re only at the beginning of scientific development, and nobody really knows what might be coming.
March 16, 2016
I suspect most of us are fascinated by time travel. We’d love to be able to go back and talk with Socrates, Plato, Julius Caesar. Imagine spending some time on The Santa Maria. Or stopping by the Globe Theater in London to watch the opening performance of Hamlet. Even if we had the machine, though, there’d be a serious problem with language. Carrying a conversation with Descartes would provide a challenge. We’d better send a language expert along. Or stay within the past few hundred years. I suspect any of us would be delighted to have an opportunity to shake hands with General Washington as the Revolution was getting under way, or attend the first Mark Twain public presentation in San Francisco. Or maybe watch Billy Sunday play center field for the White Stockings long before he became the celebrated evangelist. I’d love to go back and watch Ty Cobb, or maybe attend the 1866 Vassar game between two teams of women in which one of the young ladies twisted a knee while running the bases, which led to a declaration that the game was just too violent for women, and play was halted for two decades.
There are people I’d love to meet. Maybe stop by that patent office in Bern, Switzerland at the beginning of the 20th century, and say hello to the young Albert Einstein. I regret that I never got to meet Robert Heinlein, who has always been one of my favorite writers. And I’d like to spend some time with James Thurber. And see if I could persuade Jean Shepherd, headed at nineteen for his army assignment during World War II, to share a lunch.
And it’s not all historical. I’d give almost anything to be able to go back to Woodrow Wilson High School, where I was an English teacher and theater director back in the 60’s, and do one of those classes again. Spend an hour with some of the students, most of whom are now retired. And there are some who have passed on.
Or watch the South Philadelphia Quakers play one more game. Or stroll along Spruce Street and catch a glimpse of the young lady who would eventually become my wife framed one more time in that apartment window.
But unfortunately, like visiting Alpha Centauri, fiction is the only way we can travel outside the standard parameter of moving through time one day every 24 hours. And exclusively forward.
The tricky part of writing a time travel novel, for me at least, arises from the plot. Give your main character a time machine and it’s just not easy to create a problem that can’t be easily resolved simply by using the device to return and see what really happened that night when Uncle Willie disappeared. If anything goes wrong you can simply go back and fix it. Or at least take a look at what actually happened.
And then there’s the theological dimension. A number of readers got annoyed with me because Dave and Shel, in Time Travelers Never Die, did not go back 2000 years to sit down and talk with Jesus. One issue with such an effort arises from the fact that He would not be easy to find. We’re not sure when the events related in the gospel actually took place, and Judea didn’t have anything like a phone book that would enable us to track people down. But let me not circle around the real issue: If there’s any truth to what so many people believe about the Nazarene, I think most of us would come a bit unglued at the prospect of saying hello.
Despite the difficulties, I’ve never seen a time travel novel I haven’t enjoyed: Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, Joe Haldeman’s The Accidental Time Machine, Connie Willis’s All Clear and To Say Nothing of the Dog, David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Robert Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer, Jack Finney’s Time and Again, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and probably a dozen others.
I guess we should be grateful for the human imagination. It’s the only real device we have for travel outside the limits imposed by physical reality. At least, for the moment.
JOURNAL ENTRY #206
April 1, 2016
Whenever I’m feeling discouraged about the state of the world, watching lunatics kill strangers because they think of it as a divine imperative, listening to politicians talk nonsense –the most recent example being a consideration about making nuclear weapons available to Saudi Arabia--, following arguments of people who think providing a decent education for girls is pointless, during these dark moments I simply need a break.
There are several ways to arrange a temporary escape. I can lose myself in Priscilla’s world, where admittedly there are conflicts, but I think most of the outright silliness of the present day has evaporated. Or, I can spend a few hours in the latest scientific book by Paul Davies. I might take an evening and go down to the Ritz to watch some live theater with Heather Heath or Scott Ryfun performing. Or, as I used to do before life got seriously busy, I might take a weekend and play in a chess tournament.
Another possibility: I can take advantage of one of the several benefits from being a writer and attend an event at a more or less local school. Karen Larrick, the programing director at the Brunswick, GA Library, arranged an invitation for several writers to conduct a panel for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders at the Jane Macon Middle School this past week. The school’s in a pleasant location, on a side road off a major highway surrounded by trees and out of traffic. As far as I could tell, it has a smart and caring staff. Classrooms are spacious with plenty of light. It’s the sort of school I’d have given anything to attend.
Thirty-five students were brought in from the fifth, sixth, and seventh grades to talk with us. They were bright kids, enthusiastic about books and magazines and writing in general, and they were ready with enough questions to keep the program moving for better than an hour. What made us want to be writers? How did we get started? Did we enjoy it? How much work does a writer do in a day? One student wanted to know how well it paid.
The underlying issue, of course, was quality work. How does one produce a piece of writing that will interest readers? How does one measure a good effort?
I’ve never had an objective answer for that one. There’s no formula, as far as I know, that allows you to determine whether the short story you’ve just sent off to Asimov’s will leave the editor gasping or in tears. There is a subjective method that seems to work pretty well: If I enjoy writing a given work, or better yet if I call Maureen into the room and want her to listen to something, that’s a strong indication that it’s gold.
In any case, all of us who participated in the program came away from it grateful that we’d been there. It was an upbeat hour with smart kids and the couple of staff members we’d met. And most notable of all, it was an hour away from the silliness and imbecility of what we call the real world. It reminded me that there’s still a future worth pursuing. And maybe we touched bases with a person who’ll be remembered in the next century as another Mark Twain or Emily Dickinson.
April 16, 2016
During my years as an English teacher, a writing career was nowhere in sight. It was a life that I’d once aspired to. I started my first novel, The Canals of Mars, when I was about six. You probably haven’t heard of it. But I concluded fairly early, when I was still in college, that it would never happen. So during the time I was trading ideas with students about literature and art, I was putting together a reading list, books I would get to eventually, classics to be read in retirement. When that retirement came, I expected to head for Valley Forge. And I did get to some of them. I read several Dickens novels, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, some Henry James and Hemingway, and a few other classics. I had, by the way, an alternate plan, that would (somehow) bring substantial wealth and allow me to retire by forty. None of that ever happened. And ultimately, the discovery that I could write and sell fiction took over my life. Today, at twice forty, I have less time than ever.
I probably never will get to Crime and Punishment and Remembrance of Things Past, but I’m still able to get some reading in. An occasional classic, like The Sun Also Rises. And, of course, Asimov’s, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Analog, and Galaxy’s Edge. A new issue of the latter will be showing up at the beginning of May, with a solid lineup and a reprint of “Henry James, This One’s for You.” (As long as we’re talking about great writers.) https://www.facebook.com/mike.resnick1?fref=nf&pnref=story.unseen-section
Recently I’ve been reading the Library of America editions (which I heartily recommend) of H. L. Mencken and James Thurber. I’ve contributed a story to Derick Belanger’s Beyond Watson, which are Holmes adventures narrated by someone other than Watson. Mine is “The Lost Equation,” with Mencken as the great detective’s fill-in partner. The anthology should be released shortly. And James Thurber, of course, is the guy to go to when you want a few laughs. I got hooked by him after watching, when I was twelve, Danny Kaye in “The Secret Lives of Walter Mitty.”
I’ve also gotten around, finally, to Paul Davies’ The Mind of God, described by the subhead as ‘The Scientific Basis for a Rational World.’ The book is twenty years old, so the science is a bit behind, but Davies is always a pleasure to read. Also, The Next Fifty Years, in which twenty-five leading scientists predict where the world is headed in the first half of the 21st century.
Maureen gave me a copy of Sherlock Holmes FAQ, by Dave Thompson. All That’s Left To Know About the World’s Greatest Private Detective. Started that yesterday. Have also begun Richard Dawkins’s The Devil’s Chaplain, Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love.
A year ago, Time published a special, The Search for Life In the Universe, which is must reading for anyone interested in the topic. It contains a few surprises.
And finally, a book I thought I’d read years ago: Larry Tye’s Superman. The High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero. I grew up in an age when prejudice against people with other religious views, or who were racially different, ruled the game. In the radio program, the narrative during 1946 dealt with a politician and a hate group that spent their time turning people against one another. Superman took a stand, and even showed up often at the end of the program to tell millions of kids across the nation that it was all nonsense. That we were in it together. It was a message that, as best I can recall, never showed up anywhere else.
May 1, 2016
I love a good mystery. Always have. When a characteristic like that becomes part of who we are, we generally have little trouble recalling the source. My passion for science fiction, e.g., showed up as a result of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials that my dad took me to see when I was four years old. (I’ve mentioned that in these pages before.) That led me to a lifelong interest in astronomy. I can track my enthusiasm for politics, baseball, history, and Greek mythology as well.
Where fiction is concerned, nothing hooks me better than a good mystery. I got committed to the Sherlock Holmes films during my very early years. To quote Jean Shepherd, Basil Rathbone didn’t play Sherlock Holmes, he was Sherlock Holmes. The films were supported by a radio series starring the same actors, Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. So yes, I became addicted early. But the addiction was to the characters rather than to the concept of a mystery.
I never really cared all that much who was writing threatening letters to Lord Chesterfield or what new shenanigan Moriarty was up to. In fact, when I got around to reading the stories themselves, I was surprised to discover my favorite moments had little to do with the plotlines, but were rather simply having the opportunity to sit in on the Baker Street conversations between the two iconic characters.
I had a similar experience with Hercule Poirot. And with the film character Charlie Chan. The only literary detective who took on mysteries that caught my attention and took over the narrative was Gilbert Chesterton’s Father Brown. In those classic stories, the issue was less who committed the murder, or whatever, as it was a question of what on earth had happened? In “The Invisible Man,” how can it be that a character who knows he is in danger gains round-the-clock police protection at his home, but is nevertheless found murdered inside? In “The Arrow of Heaven,” a victim found in a locked apartment in a skyscraper with no surrounding buildings has an arrow in his chest? In “The Sign of the Broken Sword,” a heroic British general with a lifelong reputation for caution foolishly orders a charge against fortified position that gets a lot of his men killed. Why? This, for me, is the definition of a mystery.
So who was the detective through whom I originally developed this taste? Actually there were three of them. Their names were Jack Packard, Doc Long, and Reggie York. They originally met in China during World War II, and formed the A1 Detective Agency in Carleton E. Morse’s radio series, I Love a Mystery, beloved by those of us who were around when it originally played. Usually it ran fifteen minutes five nights a week, with a story line running through fifteen or twenty episodes.
Were these simply whodunits? The titles of some will provide a hint: “The Blue Phantom,” “Bury Your Dead, Arizona,” “Temple of Vampires,” “The Monster in the Mansion,” “Stairway to the Sun,” and “The Graves of Whamperjaw, Texas.” Unfortunately, not much survives. And, to be honest, I should mention that supernatural forces were sometimes involved. That of course for an adult would have taken some of the fun out of it.
Nothing draws most of us into a narrative like a good mystery. Even in science fiction. We’ve landed on a beautiful planet with a perfect climate but no real technology to speak of. Think ancient Rome. Buildings and towns are everywhere. But the inhabitants are missing. Where’d they go? Where could they have gone?
And a hint: No evil aliens anywhere in sight.
May 15th, 2016
One of the more common issues that surfaces during writing workshops and seminars has to do with planning and outlines. A lot of people who want to become professional writers talk about being unable to get anything done because they have so much trouble creating an outline to work from. A common assumption is that fiction is telling a good story, but it’s really much more than that. It’s about creating an experience for the reader. A piece of fiction doesn’t simply describe a series of events; it sets up the action in a way that the reader forgets he’s sitting at home in an armchair and virtually lives through it.
That’s probably easier when the narrative deals with everyday experiences, like romantic interludes or confronting an angry neighbor who thinks your German Shepherd killed his cat. It can become a serious challenge when the reader is being put into a starship and sent off into the night.
However that may be, waiting until you have an outline to follow is a mistake. I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating. A long time ago, when I’d just started my writing career, our local library brought Ursula LeGuin and Michael Bishop as guests. The three of us were to conduct a seminar on creating salable fiction.
During the course of the seminar the outline issue came up. Many of the persons attending these events will admit that, while they’ve been trying for years to write fiction at a professional level, they’ve never actually submitted anything to an editor. In fact, they often say, they haven’t even been able to finish the outline.
Of course, if a person never sends anything to a publisher, that individual’s chances of making a sale are fairly low. But that’s an issue for another time. Let’s talk about the outline. Or maybe just listen to Ursula’s evaluation. It was too long ago, so I can’t quote her, but her position was that outlines don’t matter. Know your characters, know the setup, know where the basic problem lies. And let them take over. The writer can introduce issues or details, but the ideas will flow from the situation and the characters, and the only way you can give them a chance to participate is to get to the writing. Later, talking with Mike, I realized he shared her perspective. If you’re trying to write to an outline, you’re probably losing opportunities.
At the time, though, I was surprised. Shocked, almost. Planning, I thought, was everything.
In a way, there’s some truth to that idea. But it’s not everything. It’s not even a substantive part of the process. I couldn’t resist stating my position at the time, that you have to know where you’re headed, that you can’t just make it up as you go.
Of course that’s not really what Ursula was trying to say. We want the reader to be there with our characters as the storyline develops. Which means we have to be there too. I’m working on a Hutch novel, during which she and her team discover a planet that was once a high-tech world that, 20,000 years ago, was ripped away from its sun. The details of how it happened are irrelevant, but it’s been a rogue world, adrift ever since in brutal cold.
Hutch’s team finds it. As written in the first draft, they orbit it a few times, looking down at a dead landscape, with frozen cities crushed by ice. And then they move on. When I looked at it later, I realized what I’d missed.
The reader has to be brought in. Describing wreckage seen from orbit doesn’t do that. You have to go down in the lander and take a look. What do you find? Maybe a bar, with a jacket hung over the back of one of the chairs. Frozen, of course. Maybe a theater where they come across what looks like an oboe, and wonder what kind of music they had. Maybe, finally, a kindergarten classroom whose cabinets are filled with once-cuddly animals and toys long since frozen. I’m not sure what else. Still working on it.
Thanks, Ursula and Mike.
JOURNAL ENTRY #210
June 1, 2016
One of the most compelling ways to draw a reader into a narrative is to set up a mystery. If it’s a novel, do it in the prologue. If it’s short fiction, do it in the opening paragraph.
The Harlan J. Smith Telescope near Fort Davis, Texas, has discovered an exoplanet orbiting a star in the constellation Taurus, which is roughly 450 light-years away. The planet’s designator is CI Tau b. So what’s the mystery? “For decades,” according to Christopher Johns-Krull, the lead author of a study about CI Tau b in The Astrophysical Journal, “conventional wisdom held that large Jupiter-mass planets take a minimum of 10 million years to form.” CI Tau b is at least eight times more massive than Jupiter but the star it orbits is only two million years old.
Details are available from Astronomy Now: https://astronomynow.com/2016/05/27/astronomers-find-giant-planet-around-very-young-star-ci-tauri/
Star Trek Continues is a group of talented enthusiasts operating out of Kingsland, GA, who have been producing Star Trek episodes now for several years. I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to visit the set and watch some of the action. Their newest episode is “Come Not Between the Dragons.”
I saw the finished product a few days ago. It is like a time travel experience back to the sixties and the original show. The filming and the special effects are exquisite. The story line is gripping. And the actors look and sound remarkably like the original cast. Six shows are now available online. http://www.startrekcontinues.com/episodes.html
My son Chris got married a few days ago to the lovely Robbi Jo Jones. They’ve bought a house a few doors down from where we live. Welcome to the neighborhood, guys. Maureen and I are delighted to have them close by.
I got hooked on the Sherlock Holmes movies when I was about five years old. The characters were played by Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. During the summer of 1955, I picked up a copy of the complete canon, four novels and 56 short stories. When I finished “Shoscombe Old Place,” the final Holmes narrative by Arthur Conan Doyle, I was seriously dismayed. It was over, Holmes and Watson were gone never to return, and Doyle had gone off to write “more serious work” of which I’d never before heard. And haven’t really gotten near since.
Why he would walk away from that incredible creation to attempt routine historical novels I have no idea. We know that he thought Holmes was strictly something he did to make money. But that he wanted to produce something of serious quality. It honestly felt like a betrayal. And 1955 was an era in which the copyright was still in effect and, as far as I knew, would remain so forever. I would never again read an original Holmes story.
As best I can recall, they’d stopped making the movies. And there was no TV series. Fortunately, after a long struggle, Sherlock made it into the public domain, a condition I hadn’t heard of before. Suddenly book stores were filled with Holmes and Watson. The Secret Cases of Sherlock Holmes, by Donald Thomas. Sherlock Holmes and the Mysterious Friend of Oscar Wilde, by Russell A. Browne. Sherlock Holmes: Repeat Business by Lyn McConchie. Sherlock Holmes and the American Literati, by Daniel Victor. To name just a few. For me, and for any other fan of the great detective, it meant endless sources and good times. It turns out the world is a kind place after all.
And then something else happened, that I would never have thought possible in 1955: One of the anthologies, Derrick Belanger’s Beyond Watson, has a story by me.
June 15, 2016
We are living once again in the shadow of a mindless nitwit attack. It’s a dark time and I was tempted to record my own reaction to what happened. But it doesn’t matter. My frustration would change nothing. The world is full of imbeciles, and some of them have a tendency toward violence. Usually aimed at people who’ve done them no harm.
Let’s leave it at that. Let’s escape the mood, and spend some time looking over books, some of which I picked up more than a half century ago, that are memorable for the laughs (and sometimes wisdom) they can provide. And which I enthusiastically recommend.
During my Navy days, I came across a poem somewhere by Don Marquis. It was supposedly written by a cockroach named Archy, who typed everything in lower case because he had to jump up and down on typewriter keys and he couldn’t handle the shift. (The material is obviously set before the computer era.) When I found out Marquis had written a book titled The Lives and Times of Archy and Mehitabel, I wasted no time getting it. Mehitabel was a cat; Archy, in a former life, had been a poet. He describes Mehitabel as a typical loving mother who, ‘if anything ever happened to one of her kittens and she found out about it, she’d feel just terrible.’ And there’s the story of Freddy the Rat, who intervened when a tarantula arrived from South America in a bunch of bananas and began bullying the animals. Freddy took it on, killed it, but also died in the battle. The conclusion: ‘we dropped freddy off the fire escape with full military honors.’
Two or three years later I came across Stephen Potter’s Three Upmanship. Basically, it’s a brilliantly comic description of how to be a winner in whatever situation the reader may find himself. For example, when you play tennis, always make sure the sun is at your back. You can establish yourself as a brilliant chess player by taking on a master and resigning after the third move, explaining that you made a mistake and that the outcome was inevitable in sixteen moves ‘unless of course you miss the opportunity to sacrifice your queen at move 11, which of course you won’t. Right?’
“Of course not,” says the master.
The Selected Poetry of Ogden Nash keeps the reader laughing all night. For example, “The Song of the Open Road”:
I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
The Natural Inferiority of Women, compiled by Tama Starr, records interesting male observations. E.g., ‘The Holy Scriptures show that it is clearly the will of God that man should be superior in power and authority to woman….No lesson is more plainly and frequently taught in the Bible, than woman’s subjection….If the position assumed by the (suffragist) women be true, then must the Divine Word from Genesis to Revelation be set aside as untrue. –Rev. Henry Grew, 1854
If some of these crazy people who are dying to kill strangers had been exposed to a few laughs on occasion, maybe the world would be a better place.
June 30, 2016
Our longtime friends Jeri and Mike Bishop came in from western Georgia this week. Mike had arrived to deliver a pair of presentations Tuesday the 28th at the libraries here in Brunswick and on St. Simons Island.
He introduced the audiences to his current YA novel, Joel-Brock the Brave and the Valorous Smalls, and also talked about his recently reprinted 1994 Brittle Innings. He described the sheer pleasures of a professional writing career, and discussed why literature is so important in our lives. Mike is an exquisite speaker. His comments are rife with insights and humor and analyses of why fantasy and SF have been able to capture and hold a wide audience.
Mike’s work has attracted attention since the start of his career. He’s won numerous awards, including two Nebulas, and I’ve never gone near anything of his that I haven’t enjoyed. So when his production slowed over the last few years, I started rooting for him to get back on track. Consequently the arrival of Joel-Brock is encouraging. I came away with a copy yesterday. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet of course. Brittle Innings, which I dove into shortly after its publication, remains one of my all-time favorite novels, and the only one I can think of which can be classified as either SF or baseball. In reality, it’s a great deal more than a genre work. A famous literary character shows up as a first baseman for a minor league team in the South during World War II. Mike declined to identify the character to his audiences, so I won’t pull the curtain aside either. But anyone who hasn’t read Brittle Innings would find it an intriguing ride.
Mike lives in western Georgia and has an almost spiritual connection with the state. It shows up in his books, where Georgia is frequently the setting for the action. It is present in the behavior of his characters. And we see it also in unexpected inserts. Joel-Brock is a Kudzu Planet imprint.
Our time with Jeri and Mike was thoroughly enjoyable. We got out to eat with friends, laughed and talked for hours, and took time to watch the Alec Guinness British comedy, The Ladykillers.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that titles have always given me problems. I’ve tossed Trail of Stars overboard, and if I’d had my wits about me, I’d have gotten Mike to come up with something for the new Priscilla novel. The titles for Mike’s novels and collections have always blown my mind: And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees is one of my top two all-time favorites. (The other is Nancy Kress’s Out of All Them Bright Stars.)
Other Bishop titles: A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire (1975); No Enemy But Time (1982); Blooded on Arachne (1982); Close Encounters with the Deity (1986); Philip K. Dick Is Dead, Alas (1987); Count Geiger’s Blues (1992); Brighten to Incandescence (2003); and The Door Gunner and Other Perilous Flights of Fancy (2011).
I couldn’t resist showing Mike my collection of Jean Shepherd books. Shep is also a master of the off-the-wall title. E.g., In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (1966); and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters (1971).
Maybe Lost in Transcendence would work for Hutch. Or Dark by Night Is the Event Horizon.
Well, maybe not. Not sure why I can’t get away with these things.
July 15, 2016
We’re in the morning after the attacks in Nice. My original intention was to discuss the CRISPR research in genetics, and its potential, but the mass murders in recent weeks and especially last night just seem to overwhelm everything else. One TV commentator this morning suggested we stop referring to the killers not connected with ISIS as ‘lone wolves.’ “Call them lone sheep,” he said. My thought: “Lone idiot.” But maybe I have that wrong.
During my coming-of-age years in the 50’s, the United States had only one mass murder. The earliest one I can remember reading about in the newspapers happened in 1966 at the University of Texas. Charles Whitman, 25 at the time, murdered his mother and his wife, leaving behind a note stressing how much he loved them, but didn’t want to leave them to deal with the fallout from what he was about to do. So he stabbed both. Then he went to the 28th floor observation deck of an on-campus tower and used an arsenal of assorted weapons to kill 14 passers-by and wound 32 more. Mass murders in earlier years had not only been rare, but had usually been limited to family members or people who got in the way during a robbery.
Whitman was apparently the first person on record to engage in a random shooting. Reading about him at the time provided some shocks. He’d been an Eagle scout and a U.S. Marine. He seemed to have been happily married. And according to reports, he had an IQ of about 140. So much for the lone idiot.
One detail that came out later: Whitman had been seriously mistreated by his father, a disciplinarian who had no reluctance about administering beatings.
Whitman was court-martialed by the Marines for gambling and possession of a firearm, but he was eventually honorably discharged. He’d been enrolled at the University of Texas in a Marine-sponsored program, but that had been cut short because his grades didn’t make the minimum requirement. After leaving the Corps, he returned to the university, and enrolled again. He supported himself through a number of jobs, so it’s fairly clear he didn’t have much leisure time. People who knew him thought he wasn’t sure precisely who he was, and that he was afraid of the person he might become. Some reported he’s assaulted his wife a couple of times. Also, he’d formed an amphetamine habit.
Why are these mass shootings happening now on a regular basis? The history of the perpetrators invariably suggests disappointment, lost girlfriends, a sense of failure, rage rising from real or imagined mistreatment. Why does someone seek to inflict damage on strangers? Why else but to spread the pain around?
Another theory: With the arrival of TV and the internet, everybody wants to be noticed.
I doubt there’s a simple explanation for behavior that causes irreparable harm to others, and ends probably in death. Outrage is unquestionably involved. Life seldom turns out the way we want, and some are simply not good at making the adjustment. And of course I can draw attention to myself. Even get on TV. Maybe even get a lot of people to see me as a hero if I attack a segment of society that is under prejudicial scrutiny. And the entire process is made less difficult if I have the right medications.
Are we insane when we take the lives of strangers? I’m not sure. Certainly we are no longer rational by any reasonable standard. And it’s possible we know that what we are doing is wrong. But we may no longer be entirely in control of the forces that drive us.
I have no solution. There’s no way to get rid of the surplus guns, which make everything so easy. And by the way they ramp up the suicide rate as well. (We have more guns that people in the United States.) But I support the second amendment. Except when someone’s pointing a gun at me and pulls the trigger. And yes, it did happen once, by a friend when I was about 15. He thought it was funny and never imagined the weapon might be loaded as I dived under a table. It was part of a collection owned by an older friend who wasn’t good at keeping his weapons safe.
Let’s close with good news. Astronomy Magazine reports that new technology has shown that black holes are merging somewhere every eight hours.
JOURNAL ENTRY #214
August 1, 2016
Over the years, I’ve been gradually acquiring a stack of books that I desperately want to read but haven’t been able to get to. The old joke about trying to catch up on college assignments is applicable. But that old tractor time keeps rolling on. I took last year off, planning, finally, to catch up, or at least make some ground. It didn’t happen. Not sure why….
My high school sophomore year English teacher apparently wasn’t certain what to do with us, so he came in every day and read to us. Most of the year was devoted to A Tale of Two Cities. It left me with a determination never to go near Dickens again. But of course Ebenezer Scrooge was a Dickens character. It was hard for me to understand how the guy who created Scrooge also delivered that endless novel. So eventually I tried David Copperfield and concluded that sometimes the same writer can do brilliant stuff and occasionally produce a bomb. I went on to read several other Dickens novels. But not A Tale of Two Cities. I know I need to give it a second chance, so it’s on my must-read list. It’s been there for about thirty years. Somehow, with my own writing assignments, SF books that I commit to read for blurbs or awards or simply because I’m so easily drawn to the field tend to take my time.
Mortality, though, is what it is. I’m aware that I don’t have forever. Hopefully, after I complete Heart of the Milky Way, and a half-dozen SF reading assignments, I’m going back to the Dickens novel. And maybe a few of his others. .
I’ve been a fan of Colombo since Peter Falk first appeared as the character in 1968. (There were other actors earlier.) Which explains why I’m anxious to get to Crime and Punishment. The Dostoyevsky classic features Porfiry Petrovich, a detective who, according to various sources, inspired the character.
There’s a collection of stories by Irwin Shaw, which I’d love to settle in with. I’ve read only a few since getting the book back in the 60’s. They are brilliant, and provide a good model for anyone interested in writing fiction professionally.
My parents gave me a copy of The Magic of Shirley Jackson as a Christmas present in 1968. They signed the book, which I will finally get to.
The only Hemingway novel I’ve read was The Sun Also Rises. It blew me away and left me ready to read For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell To Arms, and The Old Man and the Sea. They’re all in my library, waiting for me to show up. There’s also the Library of America James Thurber collection. Thurber is hilarious. I think I’ve read seven of his stories.
Back during my Navy years, I discovered the Tales From the Arabian Nights. Actually, it might have happened earlier. There were movies about Aladdin, Ali Baba, Scheherazade, and Sinbad the Sailor. I owned a copy of Richard Burton’s translation, and enjoyed parts of it. But it disappeared somewhere. A year ago I discovered a new edition in a New Jersey bookstore and grabbed it. It too is waiting for me.
A few science books are on the list, but some have become obsolete. A couple that probably haven’t, though I don’t know since I’ve never gotten to them: The 5th Miracle (whose subtitle is ‘The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life), by Paul Davies, 1999. Others include Before the Big Bang, by Brian Clegg, 2011; A Brief History of the Mind, by William H. Calvin, 2004; and Infinitesimal (subtitle: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World), by Amir Alexander, 2014.
And of course, some history: Eisenhower and the American Crusades, by Herbert S. Parmet, which I picked up in the early 70’s, and Civilization (subtitle: A New History of the Western World), by Roger Osborne, 2006.
I bought a two-volume set of The Complete Greek Drama in Tokyo, probably in 1961. It’s edited by Whitney Oates and Eugene O’Neill, Jr., son of the prize-winning playwright. I’ve read a few of the plays, and would like very much to get to the rest.
Well, it will be a challenge, but it’s glorious to look forward to.
August 15, 2016
I’ve been an SF fan since I was four years old, watching the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials. I was surprised to learn that Buck and Flash were also available in the Sunday comic pages. But I’d have to learn to read before I could follow them. They got me interested in astronomy, and I quickly discovered Conan the Barbarian and John Carter and, of course, the pulp SF magazines. I was sorry to have missed Captain Future. (He was before my time.) I can’t imagine my life without starships and time machines and visiting aliens. I’ve always suspected those serials were a turning point for me.
Science fiction conventions didn’t show up in my life until relatively late. When my Navy years came to an end in 1962, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Make a lot of money one way or another, and retire to the Poconos when I hit 35, where I could spend the rest of my years reading. By then my interests had expanded to include Hemingway, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Mark Twain, Greek drama, and American theater. The one detail was that I wasn’t sure how to steer a course that would make me financially independent.
I’d considered pursuing a writing career, but in those years becoming a professional writer seemed helplessly out of reach. (To provide a sense of where my capabilities were: I had given some thought to creating a James Bond-style secret agent. He would be a Native American. His name: John Thundershield. Today, of course, I mourn the loss of the character who never happened. Where would I be now if I’d brought it off? And I can’t help wondering which of Hollywood’s big action stars would have built his career playing the part. Along with a bevy of beautiful actresses who’d be known now as Thundershield girls.)
So there I was in the summer of 1962, headed back to Philadelphia, with no clue what I was going to do with my life. I’d written columns for the newspapers at my high school and at LaSalle College, so I thought I could manage a career as a journalist. Consequently, during those closing days, I applied at The Washington Post, hoping to become a reporter. They offered me a position as a copy boy.
A copy boy? I was outraged. At the time, I had no idea that was the standard way to start. So I passed on it. I went through several jobs in Philadelphia, doing investigations for a private firm that checked out insurance claims. I also worked for a while on a small-town New Jersey newspaper which eventually decided I wasn’t the guy they wanted. And I drove a taxi. Which was where I found out about SF conventions. On Saturday, November 10, I picked up a man and woman and took them to the Sheraton Hotel in center city. They seemed excited, and I heard Isaac Asimov’s name mentioned.
Ordinarily, I didn’t engage in conversations with passengers unless they encouraged it. But I couldn’t resist. I asked about their connection to Asimov. “Are you kidding?” one of them said. It turned out they were headed for Philcon, which was being held that year at the Sheraton hotel. I still remember pulling up at the front door and watching them jump out of the cab and join the crowd headed inside. I drove off, wondering what I was doing in a taxi when Dr. Asimov was behind me, talking about Mars and interstellar travel.
I didn’t give much thought to SF cons for another fifteen years. Life got busy. I became an English teacher and later a customs inspector on the border in North Dakota. At one point, around 1977, I received a temporary assignment at the Grand Forks Airport. And another Saturday night arrived. I discovered there was an SF convention downtown somewhere, so when I wrapped up the last of the flights, I went. It was my first con. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, and have been hooked on them ever since.
As you can probably guess, what brings all this up is that the 74th worldcon will run this week in Kansas City. A lot of us will be there, having another good time.
August 31, 2016
In 1959, two Cornell physicists, Giuseppe Cocconi and Phillip Morrison, published an article in Nature, arguing that we might be able, by turning radio receivers toward the stars, to intercept alien transmissions, and answer one of the most riveting questions about the universe: Are there other civilizations out there?
A year later at Green Bank, West Virginia, Frank Drake launched Project Ozma, designed to pick up artificial transmissions. SETI was on its way. It was an exciting time. The USSR had put Sputnik in orbit a few years earlier; we’d followed quickly with Explorer. NASA appeared in 1958. And we were, finally, talking seriously about going to Mars. I wondered what we’d see by the end of the century.
We lost interest in Mars fairly quickly. At least I did. Vikings I and II put landers down in the mid-70’s. We’d known for a long time by then that there were no canals. But reading that in a book and seeing the cold, dismal reality were two different things. And Venus, which writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs had depicted with blooming forests and wide oceans, all hidden beneath that classic layer of clouds, was confirmed as a blistering desert.
Over its first decade and a half, SETI detected only silence. Which was disappointing, but gradually we got used to it. And eventually something did happen: We received a strong narrowband signal on August 15, 1977. It was picked up by the Big Ear radio telescope at Ohio State University, and it lasted for the entire 72 seconds before the telescope lost its angle. The transmission seemed to have originated in the constellation Sagittarius. Jerry Ehman, who discovered the reception a few days later, wrote Wow! off to one side, thereby christening it as the Wow! Signal. But all efforts to confirm the transmission failed. We never heard it again.
That’s all a long time ago now. And of course we got a report Tuesday of another (possibly) artificial transmission. http://www.cnn.com/2016/08/30/health/seti-signal-hd-164595-alien-civilization/
Maybe it’s valid. The response from the scientific world is about what we’d expect: They’ll believe it when they get confirmation. I guess at this point I’m on that train too. A lifetime of waiting for something to happen eventually leads to a sense that maybe, after all, we are alone. I understand that there are billions of stars in the Milky Way and billions of galaxies. So there have to be others out there somewhere. But there is a sense of solitude that, eventually, takes over.
I do periodic addresses for various groups. And I’ve learned how to provoke questions that will play to everyone’s interests. Especially, whether I believe in UFO’s.
When I respond that I do not, that if anyone wants me to believe we’ve had visitors, he should park the saucer in my front yard, let me kick the tires and tool around town in it. The curious aspect of that is that it upsets everyone. Which, maybe, leads to the real question about all this: Why do we care so much?
September 15, 2016
There’ve been two occasions during the past week in which writers, whose work has been published, have written informing me that they are ready to give up, that they don’t believe they have the talent to put together a writing career. I’ve seen enough of their work to know it’s not true. But I’ve encountered this multiple times.
Usually the people involved have dropped off the charts and gone in other directions. And that’s fine, for anyone who actually prefers to get clear of rewrites, criticism, writer’s block, editorial rejections, and all the other associated negativities of the business. But there are also a few who’ve gone on to sterling careers as SF writers.
If writing, or medicine, or astronomy, or teaching, or car sales, is what we actually want to do, what we care most about, then quitting and walking away is something we should do only when we run out of alternatives. It is not a good thing to advance into our later years and recall how much we wanted to pursue a particular activity and wonder whether we might have made it happen. If we’d only really tried.
And I know how some will respond to this: It’s time to recognize the truth, that I simply do not have the talent. I have no argument with that. Except that we are demonstrably not good at recognizing the level of our own capabilities. And this is not just me talking off the top of my head. There is a vast amount of research that shows we have a tendency to underestimate what we can do.
In 1965 I was driving through Mexico and picked up a radio interview with Harlan Ellison on a Texas station. Harlan made the comment that, once he’d sold his first story, he knew there’d be no stopping him. I’ve told this story before, so bear with me: The comment rang a bell. There was a Ralph Waldo Emerson observation that if you can learn to believe in yourself, you can do almost anything. Harlan made it happen. (I should add, by the way, that he has no recollection of the interview. But I recall it clearly.)
Self-confidence is not an easy perspective to acquire. Most of us grow up with authority figures, parents, teachers, bosses who are forever pointing out our mistakes. They mean well. But, especially in our earlier years, we tend to buy into what we hear from the people we trust. And most of us consequently grow into adulthood underrating our creativity. And our intelligence. The result of that, apparently, is that we concentrate on trying to avoid mistakes rather than trusting our instincts.
That’s a path to nowhere.
October 1, 2016
Michael Fossel is a fictional character in Thunderbird, a biologist who is invited onto a radio talk show because he had traveled through the North Dakota stargate to a world very much like Eden. Well, that’s correct as far as it goes. The reality, though, is that Dr. Fossel is a real person, a neurologist rather than a biologist. He’s a longtime friend who gave me permission to send him wandering around the universe. But, incredible as this may sound, there’s something even more electric in his repertory. If all goes well, he will have a far greater impact on our lives than could result from simply traveling to another planet.
He has devoted his life to research on the ageing process. Why? Because he sees no reason we should allow our bodies to succumb to negative effects imposed on us simply because we’ve survived too many years. The gradual breakdown which we all experience in our later years, he maintains, is not caused by simply having parts wear out. Nor –and this is what matters—is the process inevitable.
Last year, he published The Telomerase Revolution (BenBella Books), a groundbreaking analysis that seeks to establish telomerase as the key to heading off old age. Telomerase is an enzyme that makes cells immortal by resetting the activity level of genes, making them effectively young again. Telomeres are found on the tips of chromosomes. The problem is that, over time, they wear down. They grow shorter. And our physical capabilities shrink with them.
Find a way to restore the activity of telomerase, to keep it functional, and we should be able to expand our life expectancy into centuries. And I can understand that most of us would be skeptical of that kind of claim. We’re accustomed to accepting old age as one of the inevitable realities of being human. But Matt Redley, writing about The Telomerase Revolution in The London Times, comments: “When you think about it, the fertilized egg from which you grew had three billion years of continuous life under its belt when it turned into you, and didn’t look a day over zero.”
It has had strong reviews, and The Wall Street Journal included it among its Best Books for Science Lovers. I should add that the author has written this one for popular consumption.
Dr. Fossel continues his research. He is the founder of Telocyte, Inc., whose prime concern is giving all of us a chance at a much longer and healthier life. I’ll admit that I don’t care much whether he is able to travel to another planet, but I would love to see him succeed with his revolution.
October 13, 2016
I’ll confess up front that I do not enjoy playing tag with hurricanes. We’ve lived in the Brunswick area for thirty years, and the traditional track of a hurricane consists of normally of moving up through the Caribbean, striking various islands, then rolling into Florida and up the coast, usually headed in our direction. But there’s always been a glitch of some sort in the wind systems that, as it gets close, induces a sudden turn and sends the hurricane out into the Atlantic and north to the Carolinas. But the glitch went wrong this time, for only the second time we’re aware of, and we were looking directly into the eye of the storm.
But there was an issue we had to deal with: three cats. There were predictions of high flood levels, surges possibly up to nine feet. Before we left, I was piling books on top of my bookcases to try to get them through the storm if the surges really happened. Fortunately they didn’t.
But traveling with cats can be a challenge. There are two groups of McDevitts on this road. My younger son also has a cat as well as a family. That creates issues since most motels aren’t happy about sheltering pets. So we traveled six and a half hours to a quiet town north of Atlanta and moved in with another son. (Fortunately, he had been smart enough to keep well clear of the ocean.)
It probably wouldn’t have been a big deal since the storm veered north at the last minute and sideswiped us. It made a mess of the town, but there were no serious injuries, as far as we know. St Simons Island took substantial flooding, though we haven’t heard details yet.
We got reports during the next few days that a substantial portion of the population had taken the advice of the experts and fled. There was heavy rain, and lights went out throughout the area. The power came back late Monday. We started for home the next day. And, when we arrived, we were happy to discover that the only related casualties were a pair of trees. Unfortunately one took the cable that connected us with the telephone and the internet. You don’t realize how significant a part of our lives they are until they disappear.
I’ve been reminded of a couple of things in the past week: Families matter. And I can’t imagine how people lived during the Middle Ages with no communications other than the guys you ran into down at the water hole.
October 31, 2016
I guess we’re all stocking candy in for the Trick-or-Treaters tonight. I loved Halloween, as all kids do, and I can recall that one of the darker days of my young life occurred when my parents informed me I was getting too old to go around knocking on doors and asking for goodies. I don’t recall how old I was at the time, but I remember concluding that my best days were behind me.
Halloween has Celtic roots. It apparently dates back somewhere around two thousand years to pagan days. The world got dark and cold at the end of summer, which was recognized by the festival Samhain, celebrated October 31. The Celts believed that the dead came back on that night, that demons and evil spirits ran loose, and I suppose that it was a good time to turn the heat up. The festival marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one.
The Celts wore costumes usually made from animal skins in the belief that they could scare off the demons and ghosts. They also visited wealthier neighbors, performed tricks and songs for them, and hoped for handouts, which they must have received since the tradition seems to have survived.
The Samhain festival spread to the British Isles, influenced the decision of the Catholic Church to celebrate All-Saints Day on November 1, and of course eventually became a popular event for kids across the USA.
I guess we all enjoy getting into costumes. My own favorite came back in 1957, when I attended a party dressed as a Roman centurion. I especially liked the horsehair helmet. But nobody was prepared to take me seriously. Friends spent time throughout the evening cautioning me not to hurt myself with the sword.
One of my favorite pleasures at SF conventions has always been the costume contest. And of course, nobody outdoes Dragoncon in that department. We’ve all watched Superman, Batman, Captain America, Dick Tracy, and the others stroll around showing off their outfits. Several years ago, Dragoncon gave us an Uhura who could have stepped right off the movie screen. And I know I’ve told this story before: I was going out the front door. Immediately behind me was Wonder Woman. The uniform was perfect, and the young woman wearing it took the part so well that I started hoping someone out on the street would jump me. If I was ever going to get in trouble, that would have been the time.
But of course you can never find a thug when you need one.
November 16, 2016
“We live in scary times.” So say the media. The internet is awash with dark predictions. Demonstrations are erupting across the country. And we’ll probably see a few new books shortly over the dangers that we all face. There’s been an informal online survey in which viewers were asked what they thought the world would look like if they could time-travel a hundred years into the future. Almost every response reflected a view that could have emerged from Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, or H. G. Wells.
In fact, our natural inclination is to assume that the future consists of a gathering darkness. Bhartrihari, writing fifteen hundred years ago, commented: “All hail the power of time! The pleasures of the town, the glories of the king with his court of fawners, his ministers who stand respectfully before him, his women with faces as lovely as the shining moon, his crowds of haughty noblemen, his poets and writers—all go down the stream of time to nothingness.”
Plato, who describes democracy as the worst form of government, doesn’t have a high opinion of other forms either: “The people have always some champion whom they set over them and nurse into greatness….This and no other is the root from which a tyrant springs; when he first appears he is a protector….In the early days of his power, he is full of smiles, and he salutes everyone whom he meets.”
Aristophanes, in The Clouds, contemplates the future and wonders “When shall I see those halcyon days?”
We cannot see over the horizon, and we are fully aware that tomorrow holds serious risks. So we are inclined to assume the worst. Maybe that’s because there’s too much science fiction in our lives. Narratives involving a happy, expanding civilization with lots of leisure time and minimum problems can make for boring reading. The reality is of course that we might encounter an economic collapse, or get caught up in another mideastern war. A new disease could break out. Meantime, the tides are rising. And I won’t even mention a nuclear exchange.
But despite all that, it’s a good idea to enjoy the present moment. Life is not perfect, but it’s good. We’ve come a long way. Our homes have electricity. We can pretty much say and think what we like without having to worry about being jailed. Food is available at the local supermarket. Medicine works miracles. (If you’re annoyed that they haven’t come up with a cure for cancer yet, think about the kind of risks Aristotle lived with.) We have cars and highways. And, hopefully, we’re surrounded by friends. Yes, things might go wrong. Maybe even seriously wrong. But for the moment, at least, we live in a good time. Enjoy it.
I hope I’ve got this right.
December 1, 2016
The Air Force Academy conducts its Space Forum annually for cadets with an interest in space flight. It is held currently at the Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies at the Academy in Colorado Springs. This year’s program is scheduled for December 6.
Events include “Watching the Skies: Government and Commercial Space Travel Management,” “Eyes on Earth: Commercial Imagery and Weather Observation,” “Public-Private Cooperation Models in Japan, Europe, China, and Russia,” “Private Spaceflight: From Orbit to the Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Spaceports.” The intent is to present discussions between representatives from government and private industry covering topics from managing traffic in orbit to planetary exploration.
There’ll be a few other events, including a panel of science fiction writers. I’ve been invited to participate, along with Catherine Asaro, Kevin Anderson, and Les Johnson. I attended last year, and was especially impressed with the cadets, who displayed a level of knowledge, intelligence, and enthusiasm which boosted my confidence that, despite the assorted political wars, the USA has a bright future.
The program is managed by Lt. Col. Deron Jackson, the director of the Eisenhower Center.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has sent a petition to Donald Trump and Congress, asking that they “adhere to high standards of scientific integrity and independence in responding to current and emerging public health and environmental health threats.” Twenty-three hundred scientists, including twenty-two Nobel Laureates signed the document.
More than three hundred faculty members at MIT have signed a document noting that “the President-elect has appointed individuals to positions of power who have endorsed racism, misogyny and religious bigotry, and denied the widespread scientific consensus on climate change. Regardless of our political views, these endorsements violate principles at the core of MIT’s mission.”
Science story of the month? Science News (Nov 12) reports that researchers are finding evidence that roller coasters can help dislodge kidney stones. Their advice is that anyone trying it should probably ride in the rear car.
December 15, 2016
Years ago, during my final months in the Navy, I was trying to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. My underlying ambition had always been to become a science fiction writer. I started my first novel, The Canals of Mars, when I was about ten. Mars had taken over my life during those early Bradbury years. But I decided pretty quickly that a writing career was not going to work out. At least not with fiction.
So I started my post-Navy hunt by applying for a position at The Washington Post. They offered a job as a copy boy. Seriously? They wanted me to play Jimmy Olsen? At the time, I didn’t realize that was the way most people with no background in the news business could expect to start. It was a foot in the door, and if I’d taken it I might by now have had a seat on Morning Joe.
During the next two months I drove a cab, worked as a journalist for a small New Jersey weekly, and signed on briefly as an insurance investigator. Nothing was really working.
It was late summer of 1962, and Dr. No had just been released. That was the first Bond film, which I, like everyone else, enjoyed thoroughly. And it struck me that it was the kind of life I’d enjoy. Of course I’d need some serious combat training, and I wasn’t sure I’d be good at jumping onto the wing of a moving aircraft. But life was short, and I suspected I’d regret it if I didn’t at least try. So I applied.
I don’t think they took me seriously during the interview. I remember being tempted to introduce myself as “McDevitt. John McDevitt.” Afterward, while I was waiting to hear from them, I received an offer from Woodrow Wilson High School in Levittown, PA, which needed an English teacher. They were only a week or two from starting so there wasn’t much time to think about it.
Which is how I got into teaching. And in case anyone’s curious, I never heard back from the CIA.
It was a wild period. The Cold War was at its height, and I’d been at my new job about five weeks when the Cuban missile crisis happened. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but it appears that a Soviet naval officer, second-in-command of one of the nuclear subs, vetoed his captain’s intention to launch a nuclear strike against US naval forces. (All three senior officers on the sub had to concur.) The aspect of this that has always blown my mind is that the Soviets didn’t have a requirement that the decision come from the Kremlin. In any case, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov probably saved the world from a nuclear exchange which would likely not have ended there. He should have a statue somewhere.
The one regret I have from this period of my life: If I’d taken The Washington Post job, I might have been up front with Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the Watergate business.