Monthly Archives: June 2016

176. Fans, Conventions, and Writers

The first books I read were science fiction. Okay, Tom Swift, Jr. is barely science fiction, but it’s what I cut my teeth on. The first book I checked out on my first trip to a library was science fiction. So were the next thousand. But I wasn’t a fan.

I watched Star Trek when it came on TV during the sixties. Some of the stories were really good. Most were dreck, compared to what I had been reading. If I had understood the financial and political constraints Roddenberry was under, I would have been more charitable. Still, I wasn’t a fan.

Actually, I was never a fan of anything – and that requires some explanation. I had enthusiasms, I had things I loved, I had things that fascinated me to the core of my being. But I never talked about them to anybody. When I occasionally mentioned the “Ecosystem Operable in Weightlessness” I was building for the regional science fair, eyes glazed over. So I didn’t mention it much.

Since you are reading this, I assume that your are at least something of a geek. In my tiny school, I was the only geek. That makes all the difference. And that’s why I was never a fan of anything. To be a fan means talking to other fans about your enthusiasms. I never had that opportunity.

I had plenty of friends, I enjoyed their company and they seemed to enjoy mine. We talked about what interested them, and that was fine. I did all the silly things that high school kids do, and had fun doing them. But I never shared the things that moved me, and when I left high school, I didn’t look back.

When I went to college – Michigan State – I went from a town of 121 people to a campus of 48,000. No one in all that whole crowd knew my name. I didn’t mind. I was used to keeping my inner life so quiet that it was almost secret, so anonymity was no problem.

When I became a writer, I had never met a writer. I wrote science fiction because that is what I knew and loved (the science as well as the fiction). When my first book came out, I was invited by my editor to a party at Charlie Brown’s house in the Oakland hills where he produced Locus at that time. In attendance were some editors, a couple of professional SF writers, and about twenty of us newbies. It was an interesting evening. The pros were working the room, chattering, happy as roosters in a field full of bugs. The editors were having quiet conferences here and there. Four of the newbies had staked out the four corners of the room to hide in and the rest were milling around looking for an empty corner. I felt right at home, in that I didn’t feel at home at all.

I went to Westercon 33 in Los Angeles, where Roger Zelazny was guest of honor. He was one of my three all time favorite writers, but I didn’t seek him out. I actually wouldn’t have spoken to him beyond a nod if we had shared an elevator. What could I say? “I love your work.” He must have heard that five hundred times that weekend.

I went to the World Fantasy Convention in Berkeley and to Westercon 34 in Sacramento, where I delivered a paper (How to Build a Culture). Somewhere along the way, I ended up talking to Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Marta Randall. Both were quite pleasant, but a ten minute conversation does not equal a friendship.

Most of the time I just wandered around those conventions, quietly enjoying the ambiance and the occasional sight of someone whose work I knew. In LA, I was cornered by a lovely young woman who chattered away at me for twenty minutes. She was a would-be actress, she said. She called herself “just another LA nobody”. She didn’t know I was a published writer; rather, she had picked me out to talk to because I looked alone and lonely. (Don’t look so surprised. I didn’t look so bad myself, back in 1980.)

Yes, I was alone, but I have never found that lonely.

Tomorrow begins Westercon 69 in Portland. I had planned to go again this year, but Cyan is still hung up in pre-publication, and I have too much pride to tell people, “My book is coming out any day now. They promised.”

Maybe I’ll see you in Tempe in 2017.

Jandrax 60

I staggered and nearly fell, so unaccustomed was I to the firm, unswaying earth.

The grass underfoot was not the ubiquitous gluegrass that the colonists hate. It did not cling to boots and clothing, carrying its mucilaginous spores. This grass was fine and sweet smelling, a pleasure to touch and an invitation to lie upon. I had heard of such grasses from the elders, but had thought them fantasy. The trees seemed even taller from beneath, and the profusion of birdlife and wildflowers was even more breathtaking than the soft grass and immense trees. Standing alone, cut off fully from my fellow man, I broke down into tears at the beauty around me and at the poverty of life as I had previously known it. Beside this, our settlement, our fields, and our silly pretensions to manhood looked pale and drab.

II

I stayed in that clearing for three days, living without shelter under the canopy of trees. On the first day I washed my clothes and built a bonfire to dry them. Then I bathed again and luxuriated in a clean body, cleanly clothed. I cooked the fish I had caught, but I did not see any large herbivores, nor did I wish to try to kill any of the small creatures around me. Never had I seen such a profusion of life except in the migratory herds during the melt, and I did not wish to subtract as much as one creature from it.

Each night I heard the crooning and the incessant “dilwildi, dilwildi.” I saw the large flying creatures several times at a distance during the day and every night close up in the darkness. I was convinced that they were not birds.

There is a creature called a milik which feeds on the dried seedpods of the siskal. There are never very many of these creatures and they are quite small, but they do provide a certain amount of sport and a bit of fresh meat in the off seasons. In order to snare them, boys often row far upstream on the Lydia during low winter. Six years ago, my father got the idea of attaching a sail to our gig and sailing upstream before the wind, then drifting back down. Since then several others have copied his idea.

Papa never had to contend with tacking against the wind, so his gig had neither keel nor centerboard. The sail itself was a large, clumsy square of sewn up herby hides. After ten weeks at sea I was only too familiar with the gig’s shortcomings.

Refashioning my rigging into a lateen pattern and building sideboards took the better part of three days, after which I decided to hunt. Though I had not wanted to set snares for the smaller creatures, I was not reluctant to face a herby and there were herby tracks in abundance along the inlet.

Herbies are burro-bodied, tapir-headed, earless, and tailless herbivores. They are devoid of defense, depending on their speed, agility, and prodigious birthrate to perpetuate their species. I had seen no large herbivore tracks other than these and no large carnivore tracks at all. This was an oddity, for without carnivores to thin their numbers, the herbies would soon have eaten the island into barrenness.

Several times I had heard the herbys come to drink during the night, so after finishing my work in the gig I slept away the afternoon in preparation for a night hunt.

Of course I could not stalk, but I had discovered their favorite watering place and took my place in the lower branches of a tree waiting in ambush. They came after midnight and I had calculated right in getting myself downwind of them. I killed one cleanly as he stooped to drink. more tomorrow

175. 1776, the movie

Ah, June 29th. Its just about time to watch the movie 1776 again. It is a family tradition to watch it every year just before Independence Day.

My wife and I saw it first as a play on July 4, 1976, in an outdoor presentation. We had gone to the big city – locally that means San Francisco – to rub elbows with the crowds on the day of the Bicentennial. That afternoon, we were hooked. When it came out as a movie, we went to see it, then bought the VHS. Yes, this was before DVDs, or downloading, or streaming, or TiVo; actually, I think it was before we had bought a VCR, but we wanted to always have a copy.

1776 is a great patriotic rush of a movie but I wouldn’t recommend that you learn your history by watching it. The Columbia Companion to American History on Film says that “inaccuracies pervade 1776, though few are very troubling.” Maybe, but I’m not so sure. Some of the best parts of the movie just didn’t happen.

In fact, the wiki summary of historical accuracy praises the play while documenting error after error until you get the impression that nothing in it was true to life. See the movie first, then read the quibbles, because 1776 is not a historical movie, but an allegory, or better still, a retelling. It goes to the essence of the hesitation and worry, even fear, that attended the event, all wrapped in a story of arrogance, honest outrage, pride, and sacrifice. The writing is beautiful, the quips are side-splitting. Much of the dialog is taken from the words of people who were there, gleaned from works written by them years later.

In fact, there is no lack of historical material to work from in reconstructing the event, even though it was conducted in secrecy. These were literate men, with a clear picture of their own historical importance. Most of them told their own stories in later years.

Unfortunately, they tend to disagree on what actually happened. Years after I first saw the play, I went back to college for an MA in History, and thereafter set about trying to make my own knowledge of the event more accurate. It is surprisingly hard to do. Even the date July 4 is in partial doubt. The Declaration was approved on July 4. Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin claim that it was signed that day, but only a hand written copy then existed, and not all members were present. Those present may have signed the hand written copy – or not. We just don’t know. Certainly the printed version that we now view in the National Archives was not ready for some weeks. It was signed on August 2, but not by every member, as not all were present. Some signatures were apparently added piecemeal later on.

I care about historical accuracy, but when I am watching 1776, I let that go by and immerse myself in a moving theatrical experience. Now don’t bother me any further. I’ve got the DVD cued up.

Jandrax 59

When dusk came, the crooning resumed, alternating with an airy cry of, “Dilwildi, dilwildi, dilwildi.” I searched the trees for the sources of the noise and saw patches of deeper darkness sitting at intervals along the larger limbs. Occasionally one of these would move, but I could not make them out. Alpha rose, with her tiny red companion Gamma in train. Beta, our third moon, would not be up for hours yet, but these two gave a silvery sheen to the lake, highlighting the darker gouges of the long, sweeping rollers. One of the patches of darkness detached itself from a limb and sailed seaward. I tracked it with my rifle, an instinctive, defensive action, but there was no reason to fire. It flew, but somehow I did not think of it as a bird. I followed it with my eyes until it was lost in the distance.

I slept too soundly that night. I had seen no carnivores, true, but there must be such or life here would quickly overpopulate. In the morning I slipped the oars into their sockets, cast off, and worked my way out of the inlet. I was in a foul mood, for rowing cost me much pain in my leg, yet I dared not set the unpredictable sail.

I rowed out into the lake a half kilometer to better survey the island, then turned west to follow the shore. The wind was against me, making the task harder than it need have been. From this distance I could see how thin the fringe of jungle actually was and how rugged were the hills beyond. Except for the shore, it was a forbidding and utterly inhospitable place.

I rowed for several hours, searching for a proper anchorage. I also filled my waterskins for the first time and set the line out to catch some fish more palatable than rocod. I had given up the idea of finding large game, but if I could get ashore and build a fire, cooked fish would be a delicacy by comparison.

At one point a flat plain no more than five meters above water level extended several kilometers inland. Here the jungle too thrust inland. There was an inlet into which I rowed.

It was not a river, of course, for there was nothing to feed it, yet it no doubt carried snowmelt from the mountains during the melt. Now the inlet was merely a thin arm of the lake, first a halfkilometer wide but soon narrowing to a dozen meters. My passage was silent but for the cutting of my oars, and the birds were in full song. Trees soared overhead, their branches intertwining to make tunnels of the smaller channels off the main stream. Twice I saw the large flying creatures overhead, but they passed quickly from sight.

I paused to check the charges in my rifle, for with a section of jungle this large I would have to revise my earlier assumption that there would be no large animals. It was my seventy-sixth day of raw fish.

The inlet continued for several kilometers, growing gradually narrower until trees began to meet over the main channel. I tied up to a tree and worked my way across the steps that its roots provided onto dry land. I staggered and nearly fell, so unaccustomed was I to the firm, unswaying earth.

*****

As I prepare this for serialization, I am struck by how much 1979 me doesn’t sound like 2016 me. It sounds more like Andre Norton, or H. Ryder Haggard, or Edgar Rice Burroughs. I grew up reading old books which were trapped in the amber of underfunded libraries, and started out writing like their authors.  more tomorrow

174. Painfully United

The UK has a painfully long name – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. How it came to be united is also painful; it is a millennium long story full of warfare, with some significant sore losers.

Since BREXIT, every knowledgable news commentator is predicting at least a partial breakup of Great Britain. A full understanding of why would take a book. I am going to put it into shorthand, with all the inaccuracies that entails. None of what follows is wrong, but it’s a kindergarten primer.

Once upon a time the British Isles (that includes Ireland) were Celtic. During the first millennium AD, Germanic invaders began to raid and colonize. These invaders were speakers of Germanic languages, including the languages ancestral to English. That doesn’t mean they were Germans, as we use the word today. Germany came to nationhood only very recently.

Over centuries, these Germanic speaking invaders came to conquer a good deal of what is now England, and were essentially the native population by 1000 AD. One group, the Angles gave us the name England.

Meanwhile, a  bunch of Vikings (Northmen, Normans) conquered the part of western France which came to be called Normandy. They shed their Scandinavian branch of the Germanic language family and took up French, along with wine, clothing that wasn’t fur, and other aspects of a better life style. in 1066, William the Bastard crossed the channel and conquered England, becoming William the Conqueror. He brought top-down feudalism, displaced the local lords, handed out fiefdoms to his followers, and introduced French as the language of the court. Middle English became the language of the commoners; it would take centuries for English to supplant French as the language of the intelligentsia.

The Robin Hood legends with poor Saxon serfs under the hated Norman lords comes from this period.

Wales fell under English domination through simple conquest in 1284. Full union with England took place in 1536, at which time Welsh law was suppressed.

In what would become Scotland, ancestral languages similar to Middle English had already overtaken the lowlands by the time the followers of William moved in. Beyond the highland line, as in Ireland and Wales, Celtic languages remained. Over the centuries, Scotland became a nation, with its own kings, traditions, and court culture. As it did so, the ancestral languages evolved into Scots. Scots is not English with a bad accent; it is a similar but separate language with its own literature, used in the Scottish court.

Scotland and England fought intermittently throughout the centuries. Since England was larger and more fertile, and could field larger armies for longer times, England won more often than it lost. Scotland became sometimes a vassal state and at other times, nearly so.

When Queen Elizabeth died childless, her cousin James the Sixth of Scotland was given the English throne. His proper title became James the Sixth and First, but the English ignored his Scottish heritage. So did he. He was ill used as a child in Scotland, and he couldn’t get to London fast enough. Although a Scottish King on an English throne, his home country was only a bad memory to him. 1603 was called the Union of the Crowns, but Scotland still had its own parliament.

For four generations spanning most of a century, the Scottish/English kings had their hands full fighting against English protestants who disliked their Catholic leanings. Back in Scotland, rabid Protestants had increased their power. Mid-century brought about the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, sometimes called the English Civil War, although it was also fought well beyond the English border. It was a complex situation, with the English vs. the Scots, Royalists vs. those who opposed the Divine Rights of Kings, and Catholics vs. Protestants. Individuals found themselves torn between conflicting loyalties, and the changing of sides was common. The planting of American colonies was heavily influenced by these events.

1707 saw the Act of Union. The Scottish Parliament was subsumed by the English one, after English manipulations had nearly bankrupted Scotland. The Scots language was suppressed. At one point, maps labeled Scotland as North Britain.

Events in Ireland were even more harsh, with multiple invasions from England, annexation, the plantation of Scottish protestants in Northern Ireland during the War of the Three Kingdoms, the genocidal Irish Famine, rebellion, partition, and the Troubles. Since 1921 Northern Ireland has been part of Great Britain while the bulk of the island became the separate Republic of Ireland. Ironically, this was done by vote, during which Northern Ireland stayed with Great Britain basically because the mass plantation of Scottish (now Scots-Irish) Protestants three hundred years earlier had shifted demographics.

If this sounds like England bashing, I apologize. It’s a complex situation, but winners tend to be hated by losers, and those feelings can last a long time. Just ask anyone who lives on the route of General Sherman’s march to the sea. England, AKA Great Britain, was the most powerful country on Earth for a third of a millennium. Such a country makes enemies. Unfortunately, some of them live in England’s back yard.

Jandrax 58

In a band at the water’s edge were giant trees whose roots must burrow down to water and whose boles thrust skyward, and beneath them layer upon layer of vegetation – saprophytes, mosses, lichens, an abundance of fruits and flowers, vines, and birds of all colors flittering between the layers of green. Yet even from my position at water level I could see the unyielding rock rising up behind the jungle, at places seeming only a hundred meters wide.

Nowhere on the planet have we found anything like this. Perhaps it is the moderating effect of the surrounding lake that allows such to develop. I do not know; such knowledge as I have is sketchy on these things. Perhaps Jandrax would have understood.

I sailed west around the island, looking for a safe anchorage. Were I whole, I could have run ashore anywhere, leaping out and dragging the boat up on some rocky shingle; with my injury I needed a place where I could tie up without beaching my craft. Once I entered the mouth of an inlet, dropping the unpredictable sail and rowing in, but the inlet was surrounded by low and swampy ground that I could not negotiate.

I stayed in that inlet, tied up to the knobby root of a low-growing tree and slept poorly, mindful of the new sounds around me. I did not hear the coughing of longnecks or the squeal of krats – for which I was thankful – but I did hear many sounds that I could not identify, especially a soft, crooning call that echoed throughout the night.

I missed the sunrise the next morning, shaded by trees and tired out by an uneasy night. When I woke, soft light was filtering through the jungle and the birds were about their daily tasks. I saw several species new to me and familiar species that were somehow different, like the leatherbill that landed on my prow, his brilliant red underbelly at odds with his continental cousins.

I caught rocod from the murky waters and ate them raw, but I kept my rifle close at hand, hoping that some herbivore would come down to water. I was thoroughly sick of raw fish. Leatherbills came to watch me eat, so I set my line again and, dividing my new catch, spent an hour feeding them. They were very bold, one even venturing to eat from my finger.

No herbivores came, nor had I really expected them. This fringe of jungle would be the abode of small creatures only. I saw what I took to be huge birds circling the island as I approached it yesterday, but they were not in evidence today.

I realized, with a twinge of guilt, that I had not notched my calendar board yesterday.

I spent the afternoon lounging in the boat. I had not realized the depth of my loneliness at sea; now it fell in on me again. In the afternoon I stripped and went overside for a much needed bath. At sea I had not dared do this for fear of becoming separated from the gig.

I considered sailing out to fill my waterskins rather than drink this muddy shoreline water, but I could not bring myself to leave this haven even for an hour. The next day I would go, however, for I was determined to find a landing where I could actually go ashore. I cursed my leg in bitterness, knowing that I had passed a hundred landings, including this one, where an agile man could have gone ashore.

When dusk came, the crooning resumed, alternating with an airy cry of, “Dilwildi, dilwildi, dilwildi.” more tomorrow

173. BREXIT is Science Fiction

BREXIT is like science fiction at its finest. You take something that could have gone either way, preferably something unexpected, choose an outcome, and then predict what will come of it. You build your story around your prediction.

In real life, if you do something like that before an event, most people will laugh at your prediction. If you do it after the event, most people will say, “Aw heck, I saw that coming.”

As example of fictional “prediction”, here is a quote from Cyan:

The EuroFeds, smelling a chance to regain the hegemony that they had lost three centuries earlier, sent peace keeping forces to India, only to find dissension breaking out in their own countries as the world spanning financial complex, strained past the breaking point, could no longer deliver food to her people.

Hungry people aren’t kind. Starving people aren’t rational. There were attacks and reprisals, and then France nuked Italy, and the house of cards came tumbling down in an ever expanding nuclear nightmare.

Don’t worry, in the novel that doesn’t happen until 2145. Real world predictions, on the other hand, are looking pretty dicey on the heels of BREXIT.

War in Europe has seemed less and less likely since the middle of the last century, as agreements between European nations have proliferated. There has been a slow movement toward what some commentators called a “United States of Europe”. Many Europeans, including about 48 percent of British voters, saw this as the road to peace and prosperity. Others, including about 52 percent of British voters, saw it as a slow erosion of political freedom and the right to control their own culture.

I can see both sides of the argument. If I were a Brit, I’m not sure which way I would have voted. I am sure that there is a rocky road ahead.

In the long run, we may have seen the beginning of a slippery slope that ultimately unleashes the tensions now held in check by the European Union, leading to wars between member states. It’s too soon to tell, but that outcome wouldn’t be surprising.

The short run is easier to predict. Scotland came within a breath of separating from the rest of Great Britain only two years ago. It was the fear of economic disaster that tipped the scales. Now Britain has set in train that same disaster, while the Scottish section of the country voted overwhelmingly to remain a part of the EU. BREXIT has made Scotland’s near future breakaway almost a certainty.

Northern Ireland has its own set of issues, but being tethered to a dissolving British economy while the Republic of Ireland has EU resources to call upon, will certainly be an addition to Pan-Irish nationalism. Irish reunification, held off for a century by British military force, may yet become a reality.

Even Wales has its separatists. The United Kingdom is a mass of centrifugal forces, with a millennium of resentment among repressed peoples (see tomorrow’s post).

Here is a riddle. What is Great Britain if Scotland, and/or Northern Ireland, and/or Wales leave? Answer: England. Not the same country at all as Great Britain.

Here is a more grim riddle. If Great Britain implodes, who will take its place on the UN Security Council, and wield its veto. England? Scotland, perhaps? And what will Russia and China have to say about the matter?

If it seems that such events can’t happen, I would remind you that the newly united American colonies almost fell apart in the decade between the Declaration of Independence and the coming of the Constitution. And then there was that pesky little bloodbath called the Civil War.

The exit contagion seems to be spreading. France is talking exit; so is Spain. Spain, in particular, should be careful what it asks for. There are massively disruptive forces in that country, with Basque separatists in the north west and a long standing call for a separate Catalan speaking country in the south east.

So now is the time for all would-be science fiction writers to set down the timelines for their own alternate futures. There must be at least a thousand possibilities.

Is anyone taking bets?