January 3, 2017
An informal poll indicates that, for most people, the most moving piece of music associated with the holidays is “Auld Lang Syne.” It’s originally a Scottish poem written by Robert Burns in 1788. The music is from a folk song. And why is it so effective? It sets people reminiscing about relatives and friends from earlier times. Often these are people who have been lost, who have either wandered out of our lives, or who have passed on. This is the time of year, that final evening, when we think back with regret about those who for whatever reason are no longer with us.
My impression about the New Year celebrations is that they are directed toward the future, but we don’t really get emotionally involved in that part of the holiday. Some of us make resolutions. We’ll lose weight, stop drinking so much, stop smoking, launch an exercise program. But that’s rarely anything more than simply signing on to a standard routine that we know is not likely to last more than a week or two. That’s why they call it a launch.
The tendency to cling to the past is understandable, despite the fact that we live in an era that’s moving faster than any other time in the history of the human race. My dad was born in 1899, before the Wright Brothers flew. And he lived to see us land on the moon. I grew up in a world filled with discrimination and a mistrust of anyone who had a different skin color or religious view or whatever else we might not agree with.
I wish I could say we’ve gotten past all that, but I think, at least, we’ve come a long way. And we seem to be headed in the right direction.
Science has changed the world immensely. The average life span in the USA in the middle of the 18th century was thirty-eight. The average American born in 2017 should make it almost to eighty. And scientists are claiming that we are approaching a major breakthrough in halting the ageing process altogether. Possibly, they say, we may even be able to reverse it. Any of you seniors want to go back out and play some basketball? We may be close.
And then there’s nanotechnology. What’s that? The ability to manipulate atoms on the smallest scale. And I know that doesn’t sound as if it would be of much interest, but I’m working on a nanoshed in our backyard. I haven’t installed the device yet, but when I do I’ll be able to take in several shovels of earth, turn it on, and I will have a Lamborghini. And I know that sounds crazy. But, at the beginning of the 19th century, scientists were claiming the era of inventions was over. Close the patent office, science had reached an end.
There’s other stuff coming as well, like smart bathtubs. But I probably shouldn’t get carried away here.
January 15, 2017
Politics has always owned the media, but not to the level we see today. Consequently it’s easy to miss some of the scientific stories that have been developing. Last week researchers announced they have found a way to stop the ageing process. Anyone in good health today has a good chance to make it into the next century. Well, okay. Kidding. Sorry about that.
But there’ve been some astronomical stories that are of interest. We’ve learned, for example, that the Moon is much older than we’d thought. Somewhere between 40 million and 140 million years more than we’d been told. That sounds like a lot, but it is easy to miss when the lunar age had already been set at more than 4 billion years. When you get up into that range, a few million more or less doesn’t sound like a big deal. But it came as a surprise. And if you’re wondering how we found out, we did it by analyzing zircons, which are moonrocks.
Also, we can look forward this year to a total solar eclipse. It will happen August 21, and the USA will be the primary stage. According to Space.com, totality will track southeast from Oregon to South Carolina along a path roughly 70 miles wide. The rest of the country will have a partial view.
If you decide to watch, keep in mind that looking directly at the sun can permanently damage your eyes. And you need something more effective than sunglasses. One source of information: http://www.astronomy.com/observing/get-to-know-the-night-sky/2006/12/observing-the-bright-stuff
The third story leaves zircons and eclipses drifting into the shadows. At the height of the Roman Empire, two stars were circling each other and gradually closing in. Somewhere around 220 A.D. they merged. Or collided. It caused a fairly large explosion which we’ll get to see because the light hasn’t gotten here yet. It’ll be visible to the naked eye in 2022.
Our telescopes are still watching the two stars approach each other. The system designator is KIC9832227.
Harlan Ellison was once asked, “Where do you get those crazy ideas?” He famously replied, “In Sheboygan.” It’s a question SF writers hear all the time. Sheboygan, of course, is a metaphor for the world around us. Story ideas come from all directions. KIC9832227 seems particularly appealing. Just change the situation slightly. An astronomer at the Lowell Observatory discovers that a star is coming in our direction and will either collide with the sun, or do a near miss and scatter the planets. Imagine how the media, and the world, would react to that kind of news.
But no star coming directly at us would avoid being seen at a considerable distance. At worst, from the moment we spotted it, it would require at least 3000 years to get here. More likely 15,000 or 20,000. So how would we react to the news that the solar system was going to be destroyed in, say, the year 12,017 A.D.? Probably much the same we did when we found out the sun will expand in 5 billion years and take out the Earth. It’s somebody else’s problem.
Consequently it’s hard to see how to provide any tension for the story, despite the potential power of the set-up. But I can announce that I have a title: “Kick the Can.”
January 31, 2017
During my high school days, we had an English teacher who spent every afternoon reading to us for fifty minutes. The book was A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t think he managed to finish it. Not sure because I suffered an early turn-off. I can remember sitting at my desk making up sentences and trying to estimate how many letters there were in the sentence before doing a count. I got good at it in time, acquiring one of several skills that provided no advantage whatever beyond the school.
I probably would have kept my distance from Dickens after that experience, except that my folks got me a record of “A Christmas Carol,” and I loved it. So eventually, after I’d had time to calm down, I tried The Pickwick Papers. It was magnificent, and I never lost the passion for him. I have a complete set of his work in my library, and I’ve loved the ones I’ve read, Our Mutual Friend, David Copperfield, Bleak House, and others. But I stayed clear of Two Cities. Now, after all these years, I’m getting ready to go back to high school. I remember two of the great lines from the book, though I doubt that’s from having them read to me: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” and “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done….” Etc. That is the closing line, and I can still remember our teacher going on about what a great piece of writing it is.
He was right on that score, and I guess that means we did get through the entire novel. But the price was high.
Fortunately, I’ve lived long enough to go back to it. And live through it, as I have through the others. And that, of course, is what we do with fiction. It’s not just Mr. Dickens telling us a story. We’re in it, wandering through London streets with Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger. We are with them. It’s why we care so much. When Ebenezer and the Spirit of Christmas Present stand outside Bob Cratchett’s house and watch Tiny Tim and his family, they aren’t really alone. The reader is there as well.
A few other books that have held my interest recently include Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future, Charles Pierce’s Idiot America, and Michael Leja’s Looking Askance. The latter book is art history, and it blew my socks off. I was shocked to discover, among other things, that those lovely, pastoral landscapes that impressed me with the soft beauty of nature often went in a completely different direction. He provides a skeptical perspective that I had never noticed.
I should mention that Michael was one of my students at Mt. St. Charles Academy in Rhode Island more years ago than I want to remember. I do this either to admit that I may not be completely subjective, or to try to grab some of the credit for his work. He has a Ph.D. from Harvard and is currently chair of the art history graduate group at the University of Pennsylvania. Looking Askance won the Modernist Studies Association Book Prize in 2005.
February 15, 2017
The Mystery Book Club meets monthly at the Brunswick Library in South Georgia. The February meeting is set for this evening. I was surprised to receive an invitation to attend. Until I found out they are reading The Engines of God. It’s Priscilla’s first appearance in a narrative I’d never thought of as a mystery. But I’m beginning to realize that almost all my novels are mysteries. Alex and Chase, of course. Some of the Academy books. Even some of the stand-alones that I hadn’t thought of in those terms.
Infinity Beach, e.g., was published in 2000, at a time when I was deliberately staying away from sequels. I had the impression at the time that sequels tended to be weak reruns of the original work. I don’t know why I had that crazy idea, but the result was a novel that would have been a perfect fit for Alex and Chase. An expedition sets out looking for intelligent life in a largely empty universe, and vanishes.
Kim Brandywine sets out to solve the mystery and encounters a few shocks along the way, including the truth about perhaps the strangest starship any of my characters have ever encountered.
Then there was The Cassandra Project, written with Mike Resnick. The early Apollo expeditions apparently found something on the Moon. But it was kept quiet. The discovery led eventually to Watergate. Among the heroes of this one was Dick Nixon, who sacrificed his career for the safety of the human race. (Okay; so it’s got a fantasy element.)
Eternity Road is set a thousand years after the collapse of civilization. People living in that period remember us as the Roadmakers. But they don’t know much about us. There is a place called Haven in the northeast that, according to legend, contains a library with the history and science of the earlier civilization. A mission sets out to find it, but only one member survives, and he eventually walks into a river. The novel, of course, centers on the follow-up mission. And, inevitably, it’s led by another woman, Chaka Milana.
The heart of this came up during an interview with Michael Prelee, who wondered why I was writing strong female characters before they became popular. I was just getting started with novels when the Customs Service –my employer at the time—assigned me to conduct leadership and management seminars. One of the exercises we developed consisted of introducing a virtual problem and assigning five-person teams to confront it. The problem usually required life-and-death decisions. For example, a group traveling across Arizona in a plane crash-lands. Nobody is hurt, but there wasn’t time to get a message out and the radio is dead. The question: How to survive? It’s mid-July, around 10:00 a.m., hot and getting hotter. Do we stay with the plane? Or head out and hope to find a town? There are other issues as they proceed. Basically we were looking for communication skills. Talk it out and get to rational decisions. We had a wide range of similar exercises.
The teams were sometimes composed of inspectors, other times of agents, of administrators, and so on. It didn’t matter. They all lived and died at about the same rate. With one exception: there was only one area where composition of the group seemed to make a difference: gender.
There were three gender groupings, of course: All-male, all-female, and mixed. The group that survived most frequently? It was the ladies. They came through consistently. And who died most often? Not, as you might expect, the men. But the mixed groups. They rarely made it home alive. Why? When men and women were together, and under pressure, they behaved differently. The guys became more aggressive when women were present. They took chances they would probably have avoided had they been alone. Often unnecessary ones. And the females became more submissive, less inclined to argue for their views, more inclined to accept the risks their compatriots were advising.
Women also seemed to be better at listening to one another. The result of all this led me to conclude that, when I fly, I prefer a female pilot if I can find one. And when I write, I feel more comfortable riding with Chase or Priscilla.
March 2, 2017
Saga Press, which is an imprint of Simon and Schuster, doesn’t have a release date yet for the new Academy novel, but it will probably arrive in bookstores late this year.
Priscilla Hutchins lives in an age of interstellars with FTL capabilities. Scientists and the media are becoming increasingly concerned about the dangers of alien encounters. For anyone who hasn’t been paying attention, there’s nothing new about that. Scientists today are warning against the METI Project, Messaging Extra- Terrestrial Intelligence. Voices heard recently pointing out the hazards in attracting attention to ourselves include Stephen Hawking, David Brin, Frank Drake, and Geoff Marcy.
Consequently it’s not too big a leap to suspect that if we reach a point where we can actually move among the stars, concerns will grow. After all, there may be civilizations out there that are millions of years old. Their technology would figure to be somewhat advanced beyond ours. And they might see us the way we perceive chickens.
In Priscilla’s world, people have become seriously nervous about it. Politicians warn that aside from aliens who’d like to go deer-hunting, we might bring back a lethal disease, disrupt religious views, or maybe even acquire some scientific advances that we’re not prepared to live with. Like the capability to reverse the ageing process. Who knows what’s out there? So politicians are shutting down interstellar flight.
This occurs just as visual images of a waterfall from a star thousands of light-years away are picked up. A quick effort is put together to launch a research mission before it can be shut down. They bring in Priscilla as pilot and barely get clear before the stop order arrives. But when the ship reaches its target a month or so later, the star has gone missing.
We’ve jettisoned the working title, which was Dark Star, and replaced it with The Long Sunset.
I’ve gone back and forth on this issue. I like to think that a civilization far enough advanced to be able to travel between stars will have developed a respect for intelligent life. That they will long ago have acquired an ethical code and a decent level of empathy for other creatures that can think. Maybe I’m wrong. If that’s a nearsighted view, the price could be high. But there are other elements in play.
We’re probably protected by the sheer distances between us and any relatively nearby place that might have produced life. Our science fiction has given us a distorted view of the universe. Captain Kirk directs Sulu to go to warp six, and a short time later they arrive in the neighborhood of another star. But distances are extreme. The star closest to the solar system, of course, is Alpha Centauri. If someone living in that neighborhood turned on a giant lamp, four years would pass before we could see it. That’s a long ride. So we’re probably okay regardless of what’s out there.
Still, there’s a lot to be said for playing it safe.
March 15, 2017
The most common question that readers ask is probably ‘Where do you get those crazy ideas?’ Harlan Ellison’s classic response was ‘Sheboygan.’ It’s a legitimate question and Harlan has it right: There is no single tried-and-true method. Ideas come from anywhere. I was seated in a Washington restaurant years ago with a friend I seldom saw when the place got suspiciously quiet and we learned that we were bombing Baghdad. The U.S. was at war with Iraq.
That night, on the way home on the plane, I wrote about two friends on lived on opposite sides of the country. Whenever they got together, a national disaster occurred. The title I settled on wasn’t so good. “Auld Lang Boom.” But the story worked fine. Ideas come from anywhere. A friend recently mentioned a device that would allow us to enter our address in a meteorological control system which would predict specifics of oncoming weather for that address. Interesting notion. And another storyline immediately blossoms: How about if we learn to control the weather that will arrive at our address? The inventors can’t resist making it available. But imagine the results.
I think the most common question that shows up at writers’ workshops is about the writing procedure itself. ‘What’s the best approach to the process? Should I write eight hours a day? Or twelve? How do I do this?’ My experience has been that if I set aside a given number of hours, say eight, I spend most of that time staring out the window and watch birds flutter by.
Much better is to set a specific creative goal. Write the next scene, where Louie discovers that the starship he’s riding has run out of fuel, or that Melinda has told him that their romance is over, or whatever. But write a specific scene or three. Get it done. When you’ve completed the task, take the balance of the day off and enjoy yourself. People are usually surprised, when they move to this method, how much more they get done.
In the end, conflict lies at the heart of fiction. It’s what we care about. If we are living the experience with the protagonist, as we should be, it is the prime force behind the emotions. When I was a kid, watching the Saturday serials with The Shadow and Captain Marvel and Nyoka, there was always a standard thrill when the good guys came out on top. (It was standard because we knew it was coming.) But there’s an aspect to conflict that can provide a deeper reaction. That shows up when the protagonist is not challenging simply another human being who, maybe, wants to take over the world, but rather when he is confronting himself.
For example, our hero is in an interstellar yacht pursuing an asteroid that is minutes away from crashing into a small village inhabited by friendly aliens with lots of children when she receives an alert from her ground team that they’ve been cut off by a monster and need immediate rescue. Which way does she go?
March 31, 2017
It seems as if, in recent years, every generation gets to live through at least one brutal, world-changing event. The outbreak of World War I must have shattered the sense of a quiet, gradually progressive world for people in 1914.
I wasn’t there for the first big war. But I’d arrived by 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. My family had gathered for a party at the home of one of my aunts. It was Sunday, and everybody was laughing and singing and suddenly the room got quiet. When I asked what had happened, one of my uncles pointed at the radio which had been playing the music. It was one of those large consoles. Someone was saying something about Pearl Harbor. I’d never heard it, but I recall thinking that it sounded like a great place to visit. The following summer we canceled our visit to Wildwood, whose beaches I loved. It had something to do with German submarines. At that point I became seriously annoyed about the war.
The second world-changing event for me was the assassination of Jack Kennedy. I got the news at Woodrow Wilson High School, where I was an English teacher. Everybody had liked Kennedy except the nitwit who took to shooting at him. I don’t think we had the details then of how he’d managed to sidestep a nuclear war. I don’t think modern Americans understand yet how much we owe to JFK.
I can recall at the time wishing I could go back a day and warn the Secret Service. Do something. The loss was brutal. And it didn’t help to see his young son saluting at the funeral while Jackie tried to restrain tears.
Robert Dyke went a step further than daydreaming about time travel. He made a movie, TimeQuest, wrote and directed it, put together a cast of Victor Zlesak, Caprice Benedetti, Vince Grant, and Bruce Campbell. The script is brilliant, and I’ve never enjoyed an SF movie so much. A time traveler, living in the 1990’s, is decimated simply from reading about the event. He goes back and prevents it.
The third disaster, of course, is the attack on the Twin Towers. Another case of innocent people killed by malevolent nitwits. As the years go by, I’ve become more struck by how little I understand of how the world works. But one thing I’m certain of: If there really is a judgment, I would not want to go to it and try to explain to my Creator that I helped kill a lot of people to make Him happy.
April 17, 2017
We’ve just come through a weekend ironically mixing threats of a nuclear engagement with Easter, the holy day which, more than any other, celebrates life. It seemed like a good time to back away from the news cycle for a bit and concentrate on spending time with friends and family. We had dinner last night at the home of my younger son and his wife, which two long-time friends from my years with the Customs Service also attended. For a few hours, a troubled world kept its distance.
It was also a good weekend for losing myself in books. I spent time with Gregory Benford’s In the Ocean of Night, a brilliant novel in which a troubled world has to deal with visitors. Fortunately we have a protagonist much like Benford himself out front. (I can think of a few presidents I wouldn’t want to see in charge during such an event.)
I finished The Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination by Pulitzer Prize winner Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onus. It’s a gripping account of Jefferson’s struggles with what he believes in, all men are created equal, free citizens not controlled by autocrats, while embedded in the cultural realities of 18th century Virginia and its slaves. I’ve always had trouble understanding how Jefferson and Washington, probably the two most influential founding fathers, were both slave-owners. When the question comes up, the standard response always seems to be that in the end they were both men of their times. But the way we define greatness is being able to rise above the culture. Neither of these guys managed to do it.
Abigail Adams plays a minor role in the book, which primarily highlights her disapproval of Jefferson, who was a political opponent of her husband. Ultimately, they reach an accommodation. Nowhere, though, is there any indication that Jefferson, or anyone else in that period, saw women as anything more than lovers and housewives. I can’t help wondering how things might have gone had Abigail been considered for the presidency.
I’ve also been rereading Chris Hedges’ The World As It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress. It’s collection of essays which takes on, among other topics, the damage being done to the United States by power-hungry politicians and corporations, Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, the desperate struggles in the Middle East, and the mismanagement of American power. It is as dark as anything I’ve read. Unfortunately I can’t find much that Hedges has to say that I can disagree with.
The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century, by Peter Watson, is another potent book, which I’ve just started. This is a history that concentrates, not on war and politics, but on scientific breakthroughs, on influential writers, and, despite sections on topics like ‘The Closing of the American Mind,’ on generally good news and progress.
Finally, the Library of America took over part of my life again with its James Thurber edition. Thurber is always good for a laugh, and he is the author of my all-time favorite short story, “The Greatest Man in the World.” Nobody should go through this life without reading it.
May 2, 2017
In the late summer of 1962, I came home to Philadelphia from my time in the Navy and, while thinking about what I was going to do with the rest of my life, took to driving a taxi. It was, on the whole, a sedate existence, cruising through those quiet streets. But there was one particularly memorable moment.
On a Saturday morning in November, I picked up three people –I think that’s correct—and took them to the Sheraton Hotel in the downtown area. They were excited about their destination, and I was surprised when I overheard one of them mention Isaac Asimov. When I got a chance, I asked if something was going on at the Sheraton.
“There’s a science fiction convention,” they told me. And they asked “Do you read SF?”
I was an avid reader, especially of the pulps and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But I’d never heard of conventions. A few minutes later I left them off at the hotel and watched them go inside. Other people followed. I don’t recall if any of them were in costumes, but the energy level was substantial. And I sat there wondering what I was doing inside a cab getting ready to drive away, when Isaac Asimov and maybe Robert Heinlein and Nelson Bond and Leigh Brackett were just inside the building. Maybe Ben Bova. Maybe Arthur Clarke or Ursula LeGuin.
Ultimately I shrugged it off and drove away. I would have loved to know then that I would eventually get to talk and spend time with several of them. And that didn’t happen simply because I eventually started writing too. It happened because I took to the cons. I wandered around, saying hello to everyone who looked my way, and discovering people said hello in return. Including writers, physicists, and artists.
It took me fourteen years to get started, though. And if you’re thinking I’m a slow learner, there’s an argument to be made. In 1976, I was a customs officer on a temporary assignment at the Grand Forks Airport in North Dakota. My family was eighty miles away, in Pembina on the Canadian border. This was the place that, in my imagination, would later become Fort Moxie. But on that night, I was seriously alone and looking for something to do when I discovered a science fiction convention was in town.
Now, forty-one years later, I can’t recall who was there. It might be that I’ve attended so many since that they’ve all come together. The important thing was that a substantial number of fans were present. Everybody talked to everybody, and that was the experience that locked me in.
And by the way, the enjoyment of a con was never simply related to meeting writers and artists. My son Chris attended Ravencon in Williamsburg, VA, with me this past weekend. On the way home, he described how enjoyable it was to spend time with people who have a broad interest in the world. That’d exactly what, years earlier, I’d discovered.
May 16, 2017
My son Chris and I got back Sunday from a week-long visit to Philadelphia. We spent time with old friends and also attended a meeting of the Chester County Astronomical Society, which was conducted at West Chester University. The guest speaker was Ed Guinan, a Villanova Ph. D., whose topic was “Proxima Centauri: Is Anybody Home at Our Closest Star?” Actually, Professor Guinan went beyond Proxima Centauri, looking at the odds around the neighborhood. The bottom line: We’ve located some relatively nearby worlds orbiting in the Goldilocks Zone. We have no definitive evidence of life, but there’s a decent chance. I found myself thinking about Stephen Hawking and his comments that we’d be much safer if we were alone. But there’s no fun in that.
The professor gave us an intriguing evening. He described some of the techniques used to measure the possibilities, and it became clear he’d like very much, like probably everybody else in the audience, to get a definitive answer.
My invitation to the event came from Donald Knabb, the society’s treasurer. I’d like to recognize all the people who took time to welcome me, but there were just too many. I have to mention Phil Rossomando, Outreach Coordinator of the Planetary Society, and Roger Taylor, President of CCAS. And I also enjoyed meeting Donald’s wife Barbara, their librarian.
The audience appeared to be made up of professional astronomers and physicists and probably mathematicians and probably half the other instructors on the campus. I’d expected it would be composed primarily of students. A couple of attendees might still have been working on bachelor degrees, but they were in a distinct minority. Several of those in attendance mentioned to me that science fiction had been the spur that got them started on their careers. A few even brought up Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, which had served as launching pads for me. I especially loved Flash’s scientist friend, Dr. Zarkov, who kept a rocketship in his garage. The vehicle, in case anyone didn’t take it seriously, was capable of reaching Mars. Once caught up with Flash and Buck, I never recovered. Like most of the people in the audience, I’d developed an interest in astronomy, and grew up with a conviction that eventually I’d find out whether there was life elsewhere. We expected a landing on Mars by 1970. And while this subject never surfaced, I’d bet the mortgage that most of those in attendance, during their early teen years, would never have believed we’d get almost twenty years into the third millennium without having reached Mars. In fact, that we wouldn’t even have a base on the Moon.
I enjoyed the evening immensely, and spent much of the week thinking about how much moving from Philadelphia had cost me. A lot of friends and relatives were at a substantial distance. And I’d know I’d have been an enthusiastic member of the Chester County Astronomical Society.
Thank you, Barb and Don.
May 16, 2017
My son Chris and I got back Sunday from a week-long visit to Philadelphia. We spent time with old friends and also attended a meeting of the Chester County Astronomical Society, which was conducted at West Chester University. The guest speaker was Ed Guinan, a Villanova Ph. D., whose topic was “Proxima Centauri: Is Anybody Home At Our Closest Star?” Actually, Professor Guinan went beyond Proxima Centauri, looking at the odds around the neighborhood. The bottom line: We’ve located some relatively nearby worlds orbiting in the Goldilocks Zone. We have no definitive evidence of life, but there’s a decent chance. I found myself thinking about Stephen Hawking and his comments that we’d be much safer if we were alone.
In any case, the professor gave us an intriguing evening. He described some of the techniques used to measure the possibilities, and it became clear he’d like very much, like probably everybody else in the audience, to get a definitive answer.
My invitation to the event came from Donald Knabb, the society’s treasurer. I’d like to recognize all the people who took time to welcome me, but there were just too many. But I have to mention Phil Rossomando, Outreach Coordinator of the Planetary Society, and Roger Taylor, President of CCAS. And I also enjoyed meeting Barb Knapp, their librarian.
May 31, 2017
The news is filled these days with accounts of guys shooting up bars, driving trucks into crowded parking areas, taking bombs to marathon races. Even occasional women are getting involved. There was a time when the Manchester bombing would have been the worst attack in years. But in today's world it came as no surprise that a massive attack on an ice cream parlor in Baghdad followed a few hours later. Meantime we're learning that ISIS is developing new kinds of bombs that will slip past airport security systems. It goes on and on.
This is going to sound crazy but when I was growing up, after the Second World War, stuff like this simply did not happen. I understand a lot of it is the result of the occupation by U.S. forces of various locations in the Middle East. And the disturbing argument that the real reason behind that has been to secure oil for U.S. corporations. But something like that would never have been enough to persuade someone living in Pennsylvania or South Jersey in 1948 to strap a bomb on his back and go out and kill a group of strangers at a local pizza place.
I suppose the major factor is that most of us enjoyed being alive. These bomb-carriers don't seem to be living a happy existence. Also, we benefited from a decent education, and most of us were exposed to the Ten Commandments. Or to similar descriptions of living the good life from other faiths.
Something else that no one ever mentions: The kids I grew up with were big fans of The Lone Ranger, Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain Midnight, and the rest. I especially remember Superman, at the end of some episodes of his radio show in 1946, coming out to talk to us, reminding us that skin color is of no consequence, that hatred is not a good idea, that we're all in it together, and that we've an obligation to take care of each other.
I can't help wondering if these fictitious characters to whom we kids were all so closely connected didn't have a lasting effect. Do the right thing. Help others when you can. Be there when you're needed. A lot of that was reflected these past few days during the Memorial Day celebration.
On another topic, Greg Benford has a brilliant novel out from Saga, The Berlin Project. It's an alternate history that takes the reader through the making of the atomic bomb, and how things might have gone differently. Don't start it unless you have the leisure to finish it, because it's impossible to put down.
The media these last few days were filled with coverage of the Jeff Sessions hearings until another lunatic with a gun walked onto a baseball field in Alexandria and started shooting at congressmen. Next week somebody will go after a bar somewhere. And God knows what will follow. Approximately 35,000 people die from gunfire each year. And the number is going up.
I’m aware that we missed long ago whatever opportunity we might have had to get gun violence under control. I understand that some of us have a passion for guns, and that the armaments industry has no interest in surrendering its profits. But I am baffled that we cannot get a system in place that will at least not make weapons available to maniacs. And note I’m not even mentioning the bill that passed a few days ago –if my memory serves correctly—which will allow the general public to buy silencers.
I can understand the enthusiasm some of us have for guns. But I cannot get past the basic notion that the right to bear arms is not worth the life of a single child. Or maybe it is as long as it’s some else’s child.
School rampages are becoming more common. Since 1950, attacks on kids in their classrooms have become increasingly lethal. According to Wikipedia, the gun-related deaths of children and their teachers in schools across the United States look like this:
There is a clear demolition track. Our children are at a constantly increasing risk. I have no idea what’s happening. But if we’re serious about protecting our kids, we need to do something.
I have friends who are quick to cite the Second Amendment. But that’s based on the notion that the Founding Fathers always got things right. These are the same guys who gave us slavery, who denied voting rights to anybody who didn’t own property, and who saw women as second class citizens. They also did not seem to have a problem with standing by while Native Americans were driven off their land. So all right, I know they may have had no choice in some of these matters. Not if they wanted to keep the Union together. But that doesn’t mean we should have to live forever with their ideas.
They were human, and they made mistakes. Even Washington. When you’re trying to make political changes that run against the common culture, you will probably have to compromise, accept some craziness, and move gradually toward what you want.
Human cultures, unfortunately, inevitably contain large numbers of people who have serious stability problems. So maybe giving everyone the right to bear arms isn’t the best idea.
If we could send a time traveler back to Philadelphia when they were putting the USA together, I wonder what sort of changes what might show up?
June 30, 2017
Science fiction possesses several advantages over competing genres. I’m not much interested in crime fiction, though I’ve been a lifetime fan of Sherlock Holmes. But it’s Doyle’s handling of the interaction between the prime characters rather than watching them chase down murderers that has always captured my attention. It’s not the pursuits but rather the conversations between Holmes and Watson at 221b Baker Street that embody the magic.
The supernatural also tends to get old fairly quickly. When the zombies come to town, the only real issue devolves into finding a way to kill them off (again). I can’t think of a single vampire story, e.g., that has ever caught my attention. All you can do with a vampire is figure out how to get rid of it. Bram Stoker became famous with Dracula because, as far as I know, he strolled onto new ground with his creation. That was in 1897. By the time I got around to reading it, a half century later, I’d seen so many Dracula movies, including one with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, that most of the impact had been lost. I could see why it had worked with readers, and to an extent it still does, but for me Bela Lugosi had taken it over, and the only issue had to do with who was going to come up with the stake.
Science fiction, on the other hand, can (as somebody once said) go places where no one has gone before. For example, it can provide a glimpse of the immediate future. Ray Bradbury did that with “The Pedestrian” in a very real way. I grew up in a row home in South Philadelphia, where, on summer evenings, we all sat outside on porches and concrete steps. Everybody did. Bradbury foresaw, with the arrival of TV, that we’d all go inside and close our doors. The streets would become empty. And we would lose touch with our neighbors.
SF also provides a capability to look back from the future at our own time and discover things we might have missed. How many of us recognize Vasili Arkhipov’s name? In Alex Benedict’s universe, a starship has been named for him, and he is remembered as the guy who saved the world.
At the heart of the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. tactic was to embargo a Soviet fleet transporting missiles and other armaments to Cuba. That fleet included three submarines, with four commanders. (I don’t recall why the numbers don’t seem to match up, but that was the reality.) The subs were armed with nuclear weapons. And the decision to use them lay with the commanders, not with the Kremlin. But the call had to be unanimous. When the two forces confronted one another, three of the sub commanders wanted to use the nukes, an action which would almost certainly have provoked an all-out war. Arkhipov was the guy who said no. He is probably the reason I’m able to write this, and you are here to celebrate the Fourth next week.
Incidentally, to avoid anyone’s trying to find a reference to Arkhipov in one of the Benedict novels, it hasn’t appeared yet. But it’s coming.
And then there’s alternate history, which also serves as a way we can reinterpret the past. What would have happened had the Greeks been able to maintain their scientific view of the world from the classical age? Would we have long since left Alpha Centauri behind? What if Caesar had avoided the assassination? If Winston Churchill had died when he was hit by a car in New York in 1931? Gregory Benford has just published The Berlin Project, which looks at how events might have transpired had the atom bomb become available only a year earlier, in 1944.
I should add that, if I were to put together a list of the five most memorable science fiction novels I’ve read, The Berlin Project would have no trouble making the list.
JOURNAL ENTRY #237
July 15, 2017
I remember Pearl Harbor. I was six years old, enjoying a routine Sunday afternoon party at my Aunt Issie’s. The radio was playing. People were dancing and laughing. And suddenly everybody got quiet and gathered around the radio, which was one of those large console types that we all had in those years. The sudden silence was spooky. The only sound in the house was the radio. I asked my Uncle Roy what was happening. He held up a hand, asking me to let him listen to the rest of the report, and when he’d heard enough he told me that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. It was the first time in my life I’d heard of the place. I don’t think I quite got the message, because I still recall my first thought: That Pearl Harbor sounded like a great place to go for a vacation. It sounded as nice as Wildwood.
The overall recollection I have of those war years was a sense of how the country came together. We all did. Every young man I knew seemed headed for the recruiting office. Women were looking for ways to help. And kids, like me, started collecting stacks of newspapers and magazines, which we took to a station several blocks away where, we were told, they would be contributed to the war effort. I wasn’t sure how they could be used to beat back the Japanese, but I did what I could.
I don’t recall any divisions. We were all in it together. I was too out of touch to understand that African-Americans were still being treated like second-class citizens, and Japanese-Americans were sent off to containment camps. It’s interesting that despite all that, my black neighbors still joined the military, and they owned one of the most famous fighter squadrons in the war, the Tuskegee Airmen. As to the Japanese-Americans, there is not one case on record of any of them acting against the best interests of the United States.
A new Priscilla Hutchins novel, The Long Sunset, will be released by Saga in early 2018. Priscilla and her friends are out in a starship tracking down a radio transmission that is thousands of years old. Which is as much as I want to say about the book. Except one other thing that I don’t think I’d realized until I’d almost completed the novel. Its central theme probably comes out of my recollections of World War II, or is possibly a reaction to today’s United States: We’re all in it together.
JOURNAL ENTRY #238
July 31, 2017
John McCain showed remarkable courage during his time as a prisoner in Vietnam. It surfaced again as he came back to Washington after learning he had brain cancer to vote against the GOP health care bill. Another of the two Republican senators who joined him won my respect for doing the same thing: We learned July 30 that Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii was diagnosed with stage four kidney cancer. A lot of people would probably have taken to bed. Hirono flew back to Washington from Hawaii to join McCain and Alaska’s Senator Lisa Murkowski to sink the bill.
Desmond Moss was a conscientious objector during the Second World War. His religion prohibited him from carrying a gun. So he signed on with the army as a field medic but had to live with the mockery of his comrades. He was with his unit when they were attacked and pinned down under heavy Japanese fire on Okinawa. Moss carried more than 50 wounded soldiers to safety during the engagement. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
John Rabe qualifies as the Good Nazi. He was in Nanking in 1937 when the Japanese army began the infamous Rape of Nanking. They were raping and killing on an overwhelming scale. Rabe provided protection to potential victims in properties over which he had control. The Japanese, then taking the Germans on board as allies, conceded the issue. Rabe is credited with saving more than 200,000 people.
Helen Keller led an incredible life as a champion of women’s rights. She also set a remarkable example of what can be accomplished even while deaf and blind.
There’s a long list of historic figures who confronted vicious power and paid a substantial price, sometimes their lives, for not backing down. One thinks immediately Socrates, killed by the Greeks, who rarely executed anybody. He made the mistake of saying there were no gods on Olympus. He could have walked away if he’d just been willing to admit he had it wrong. And of course there’s Jesus, who accepted crucifixion rather than cancel his message. And Giordano Bruno, who made the mistake of arguing that the Earth was not the center of everything. And numerous others who gave their lives rather than compromise themselves.
Other examples of courage closer to our own time include Muhammad Ali, who refused to be drafted into the army during the Vietnam War. (I can remember being disappointed in him at the time.) Oskar Schindler took his chances protecting potential victims from the Nazis. Alice Paul, who thought women should have the same rights as men, including the right to vote, led protesters across the nation, including occasionally the White House. And Mikhail Gorbachev, a liberal voice in the USSR, who made a major contribution to ending the Cold War, for which he was rewarded by losing his influence.
These acts of courage are sometimes performed by a single person, often by a group inspired by a leader. One thinks of Martin Luther King and the Freedom Riders. I was impressed early by the WWII Filipino women who confronted Japanese soldiers to get food and water to US and Filipino soldiers in the Okinawa death march. They were beaten and shot but they kept coming.
When we get discouraged by corruption or cruelty or simply indifference by those around us, we might help ourselves by taking a moment to recall the kind of stuff that the Freedom Riders and the Filipino women and their brothers and sisters were made of. That we are made of.
August 14, 2017
One of the more common questions that arise at writing workshops: What kind of work schedule should we have? Generally, at the start of their careers, we set timelines: Start at nine, break for lunch, write until five, etc. For those with fulltime jobs, which is almost everyone, start time is around 6:30, and work until approximately 11:00.
That was the kind of schedule I had during my early days. What I discovered was that I spent a lot of my time looking out the window at the moon and at owls. When I broke to get a snack or a meal, I tended to eat slowly. Whatever I could find to do other than the actual writing, I did. The result was, as you can imagine, that a lot of time was wasted.
There are two methods that are light-years better: Decide on a scene that we will stay with until it is done, and then quit for the day. Go in and watch some TV, go out for a late snack with a friend or spouse, and relax. Among other benefits, we will probably live longer.
The other method isn’t much different: Set a word limit for the day’s work. If we’re working on a first draft, maybe a thousand words is a good target. And when we’ve reached that goal, we’ll reward ourselves and quit for the day. Unless we really want to stay with it. That rarely, if ever, happens for me. But getting the thousand words done allows me to go to bed with a clear conscience. And usually make my deadlines.
If we’re working on a second or later draft, it’s a good idea to set a longer limit. With a short story of six or seven thousand words, we can probably run through the entire story in a day. Or two evenings.
Several editors have told me that the most common reason for declining submissions is overwriting. Most short fiction publishers pay by the word, which may explain why so many of us, trying to break into the field, tend to load our work with adjectives and adverbs and write long sentences. My own suspicion is that it’s more likely a result of the directions we receive during our school years.
I don’t know if I ever received a writing assignment during those days that didn’t come with a minimum word count. “At least 500 words,” the teacher would say. Even during my college years, as best I can remember, there were always minimum word lengths. (I was an English teacher, and I have to admit that I committed the same offense against my students. Eventually I figured it out.) The best thing a teacher can do to enhance a student’s writing skills is to assign an amount of information to be delivered, and impose a maximum word limit.
Strive for compact writing. Read Hemingway. As he says, let the nouns and verbs carry the freight.
August 30, 2017
Back when I was about fifteen, I traveled to Wildwood, New Jersey, with a few other guys. Mostly the plan was that we’d hang out on the beach and wander the boardwalk at night. I loved Wildwood. My folks had taken me there during my early summers until German submarines showed up and the lights went out.
On that trip in my fifteenth year, I got an unexpected gift. Somebody suggested we should get a boat and go fishing. I’d never been fishing, and sitting in a boat waiting for fish to bite sounded boring, not to say tough on the fish. But I was outvoted. Next day, instead of just sitting around on a beach watching for girls, we’d sit around in a boat, watching for fish.
I thought about going to the beach alone, but that didn’t sound like a good option. A few years later, it would have been the obvious call. That time, though, I agreed to go. But first I stopped in a bookstore and picked up a book or a magazine –I’m not sure which. It would give me something to do out on the water. I don’t recall any details about the thing I bought, except that it had a story by a guy I’d never heard of: H P. Lovecraft. The story was “The Tomb.”
I didn’t sleep well that night. And in the years that followed, I chased down every Lovecraft story I could find. I still recall my level of disappointment when I discovered that he was long dead. More than ten years, which constitutes ‘long’ for a fifteen-year-old.
I eventually moved on to other ghostly writers. I became a rabid fan of Algernon Blackwood. And of course Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe. I read some of Ambrose Bierce. I picked up Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. (We’d had a much shorter and less effective version in our reader back in grade school days.)
Movies about Frankenstein and Dracula had always been pretty scary. I decided to read the books. The Dracula films all seemed pretty faithful to Bram Stoker’s novel. But Frankenstein provided a surprise: The character doing the damage wasn’t the creature, but was instead its creator, who mistreated and ignored it. I was particularly struck when I discovered the monster reading John Milton. And that had another curious effect on me: I went down to the local library, found a copy of Paradise Lost, and got blown away by it. Thank you, Mary Shelley.
Speaking of whom, I can’t resist mentioning Mike Bishop’s brilliant Brittle Innings, which wonders what might have happened had Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment actually occurred, and the creature survived into our era to become a professional baseball player? It’s basically a quest for what it means to be human.
I can’t help wondering what I might have missed had we not gone fishing on that long-ago summer day in 1950?
October 1, 2017
Life here has returned, for most of us, to normal. And of course the vision of what’s been happening in Puerto Rico leaves us with a sense of how fortunate we were. The distressing aspect is what probably lies ahead. The damage we’ve done to the environment is, according to most of the climatologists I’ve heard, is not causing the disruption. There are always hurricanes in the mix in this part of the world. But it is intensifying them.
How have we arrived at a place where people think that they can dismiss the science, that simply believing something can make it true. So we find ourselves with an EPA run by a guy whose primary purpose is to prevent the EPA from having any effect on the country. And a president who wasted no time withdrawing the United States from the Paris Accord. We are living in a science fiction world. But one with a plotline that readers would not accept. The idea that we would ignore scientific data and refuse to moderate behavior despite the damage being done would make a dumb narrative. The real problem is that we have been hearing for the last decade or two that it may be too late to take action.
I would like to think there is nothing here that will surprise science fiction readers. Or even readers in general. But unfortunately that may not be the case. Just because we enjoy stories about Martians doesn’t mean we are prepared to accept ideas that clash with the world we want to believe in. I’ve spent a large portion of my life assuming that progress in both technology and in human behavior is inevitable. I’m not so sure anymore.
How concerned am I? I’m beginning to think about moving back to North Dakota.
October 15, 2017
We’ve entered an era in which the quality of leadership across the country is being publicly called into question. Watching some of the issues that have surfaced recently has reminded me of the analysis of a competent leader that became central to the management training program that the Customs Service put together at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Brunswick, Georgia, back in 1986.
What are the characteristics of a good boss? He, or she, will:
accept willingly the responsibilities of leadership;
lead by encouragement and example;
discharge his duties faithfully, and accept accountability for those actions, and those of subordinates;
create a climate which encourages employees to excel;
induce employees to take pride in their work;
do the right thing, regardless of consequences;
and recognize that managers are only as good as their subordinates.
The boss who functions in a threatening manner is of no value. All that happens is that subordinates will recognize a system in which their primary objective is to stay out of trouble. They will tell the boss what he wants to hear, rather than what he needs to hear. And they will show little or no creative work because their primary objective is to remain invisible.
A smart boss will recognize good performance, preferably in the presence of other employees and, if possible, in that of his own manager. When evaluations are performed, he will look for positive features and not simply use the system as a venue for criticism.
And he does not behave as if everything is about him. He and his team of subordinates are trying to perform at a high level. When that happens, he will keep in mind that credit is not a limited quantity and he will spread it appropriately.
Incidentally, the same approach works for teachers.
November 1, 2017
I’d planned a journal entry today that would deal with an aspect of writing, how to give life to characters, or why it’s not a good idea to go into long explanations, or something. Yesterday whatever it was, it seemed like a good idea. This morning, in the wake of another lunatic running loose in New York City, killing strangers for no reason other than that he thinks it makes God happy, writing considerations seem hopelessly trivial.
The latest news report indicates the idiot, now in a hospital, shows no sign of regret. Normal human beings commit relatively minor infractions, failing to say thanks to a parent before losing contact, disappearing from a relationship without comment, not delivering on a commitment, and we live with it forever, wishing we could go back and make things right. Most of us live our lives hoping we will not harm anyone else. But this individual is different.
Martians have fascinated me since I was four years old. One of the great disappointments of my life came when I discovered there were no canals. I often wondered during those early years what others who grew up in a different star system might be like. My gut feeling, which has shown up in my writing, is that if they are part of a civilization that has prospered, that has survived any length of time, they will probably look different, but in all the ways that matter they will be like us. Love thy neighbor. It will be the basic component of any rational civilization.
When the Twin Towers were brought down, the Onion published a faux news reports that has stayed with me. God has called a press conference. He stands behind a lectern, addressing a roomful of reporters who want Him to explain how these terrible things happen. Especially crimes committed in His name.
“How clear,” He asks, “can I make it? Thou shalt not kill.”
Maybe we should recognize that the root word in civilization is civil.
November 15, 2017
Most of my fiction reading has been divided between science fiction and classics, like War and Peace, David Copperfield, The Brothers Karamazov, A Farewell To Arms (which is my all-time favorite title), “A Christmas Carol,” Moby Dick, Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Dracula, Brave New World, 1984, USA, Lucky Jim, and Catch 22.
I’ll confess I wasn’t won over by Moby Dick, but Catch 22 and Lucky Jim are two of the funniest novels I’ve ever seen. The others have all been unforgettable. USA is a trilogy by John DosPassos, The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money, which provides a riveting portrait of US culture during the first thirty years of the twentieth century. I owe a special note of recognition to DosPassos, whose techniques inspired some of my own efforts. A number of readers have asked about the newspaper headlines, editorials, diary entries, and additional material that frequently show up in the Academy novels, creating (I hope) a living world behind the immediate narrative. Those were his techniques, which I found irresistible.
I’ve never been a reader of mystery stories other than Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown. But recently I decided to try Raymond Chandler, who created Philip Marlowe, the original hardboiled private eye. I started with Farewell, My Lovely, which I didn’t really expect to enjoy. But I recommend it with enthusiasm. Next up will be The Big Sleep.
I’ve heard people say that they started Chandler or Dashiell Hammett (Sam Spade) and found the books impossible to put down. Not sure yet, but I may be on my way.
December 1, 2017
The Scientific American’s cover story for its December issue is “Top Ten Emerging Technologies of 2017.” The article derives from a collaboration between the magazine and the World Economic Forum’s Expert Network.
A third of the global population lives in desert areas with little and sometimes no access to clean water. We are currently developing a system, under Zero Mass Water which, with the aid of one solar panel, will be able to extract water out of the atmosphere, even in dry areas, at relatively little cost. The system has been successfully installed this past year in the southwestern U.S. and in other countries.
The ability of computers to distinguish visual details is providing a giant leap forward, giving us self-driving cars; a capability to analyze crowd behavior, which would allow more safety in places where large numbers of people gather; assisting medical examinations; and whatever else. I couldn’t help thinking that we might find ourselves with AI’s that can advise me when people are lying.
Hydrogen cars may be coming, with zero carbon emissions. Green homes may expand into green communities, cutting emissions and making water more available at reduced cost. And quantum computers are apparently on the horizon.
Nobody enjoys a biopsy. It’s invasive, but it may be needed to track down a cancer threat. However, we may be closing in on the ability to use liquid biopsies, which will be able to make the same determination simply by analyzing a blood sample.
One aspect of medicine that would seriously aid in analysis and treatment would be to have complete knowledge of the patient’s body, every cell, every gene, every detail. The Human Cell Atlas is working on it. And they’ve already had success in some areas.
We may even be on our way to converting carbon dioxide into fuels.
I’ll confess that just reading the article has provided a few story ideas.