Monthly Archives: April 2017

340. Federated Space Service

Regular readers will note that posts now come later in the day.

A week ago today, Cyan was delivered to those who preordered from Amazon, and went on regular sale. If you’ve read past the opening segment, you know that the explorers who returned to Earth found it greatly changed.

From Cyan: All seemed well, on the surface, but something profound was happening to the people of Earth. They were waking up to reality. When interstellar exploration had begun, few had taken it seriously. Now the process was flushed with success, and that success carried the seeds of its own downfall.

Suddenly, all over Earth, people who had been indifferent to space travel, except to mutter about a waste of resources, became truly aware of what was happening. And they didn’t like it. In the vague common mind of the beast, numbers began to move in slow, painful calculations.

A few thousand colonists; billions of the rest of us.

They — the rich, the powerful, the smart, the educated, the lucky — they will go to the stars and walk the green valleys of paradise. We — the downtrodden, the ordinary, the workers, the plodders, the ones who really make things happen, the ones who always get screwed — in short, you and me. We will stay behind.

In the general elections of 2103, and in a hundred scattered elections and revolutions in 2104, the people of Earth turned on their leaders and said with a loud voice that the spacers who brought in the ore from the belt, and the workers of L-5, and especially those who were finding new worlds, were no longer heroic friends but dangerous enemies. They would no longer be given freedom to do as they pleased, but would be harnessed to the common good.

This was the Earth Darwin returned to in 2105. When Tasmeen signaled Ganymede Station, she received a taped reply.

“Welcome home, Darwin. You will find the language of this year somewhat different from when you left. When the Dog Star returned in 2088, we found that it would be best to train comtechs in the jargon of your departure year, and that is the reason for this tape.

“The biggest change you will have to be ready for is that NASA no longer exists … because after the general elections of 2103 the people of North America decided to combine all space efforts into one military organization. You are all now members of the Federated Space Service.”

Tasmeen said, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

– – – – – – – – – – –

In point of fact, on our world, the war between NASA and the Air Force began on October 1. 1958, the day NASA came into existence and began to encroach on Air Force prerogatives. We’ll look at some of those early battles this week.

Raven’s Run 134

That’s how I came to be sitting on the back bumper of the Pinto wagon with the gate up, in dubious shade. The day was hot, nearly one hundred, with an oceanic heaviness to the air that is unusual for California. Brassy blue sky, cougar colored grass, pale dusty live oaks throwing dark pools shade. I was fifty yards from the nearest tree. Under that tree was a forest green pickup. In the back of the pickup, Ed was waiting with a rifle. Further up the valley, Barton sat on a folding chair outside the panel truck with a rifle across his knees. I had talked Cabral into waiting inside, out of sight.

Davis arrived in a Lincoln Town Car. It pulled up in a swirl of dust and lurched to a stop. A lean young black man got out from behind the wheel. Despite the heat, he was wearing a 49ers windbreaker to cover his gun. He left the motor and air conditioning running and walked over to me. He circled the Pinto, looking in. I let him. Then he said, “Step away from the car.”


I knew why, but it was not the right time to let him think he could give orders.

“You want this meeting or not?”

Not needing to push the point, I walked away with him about twenty feet. 

He looked at me, and looked over my shoulder to where Ed had his rifle half raised. It was a touchy situation, and he was feeling it. He said, “I gotta search you.”

I nodded and he did a quick and efficient frisk. Then he said, “Wait here,” and went back to report that I wasn’t armed or wired.

In this slow, deliberate unfolding of negotiations, there was plenty of time for fear. Here was a man whose son I had killed. No matter how this meeting came out, I had business with him that would not be completed soon or easily.

The young man came back and said, “We are going to drive over by that tree. You walk over, okay?”

“No. You want to chose a spot where we won’t have a microphone planted. That’s all right. I expected that. But not out of rifle range.”

“You scared?”

“Don’t try to talk for yourself. You’re just an errand boy. Go ask your boss.”

“Look man . . .”

I spoke over him. “Don’t waste my time. Just trot on back over there and relay the message.”

He didn’t like it, but he took it, because he was an errand boy. A tough errand boy. He wasn’t scared of me. He might be scared of Davis.

I scrubbed my hands up over my face, pushing the sweat back behind my ears. My clothes were wet through and the sun was relentless. The driver got back in and drove up. The window on the back right went down with a low, electric whine and I got my first look at Cameron Davis. more tomorrow

339. Teaching Space

I taught middle school science for twenty-seven years. It was often fun, but not always. Helping the kids make projects to demonstrate simple machines was a blast, but chemistry was no fun at all. It was a challenge to make astronomy appeal to my kids, but I think I managed.

Teaching space had its ups and downs.

The space race had everything, exploration, political intrigue, danger – both in space and in the Cold War which was the real reason for going to space – technology and a chance to participate. When I taught Gemini IV, I would put two chairs on their backs on a table and have two students lie back in them to represent McDivitt and White. Then I would take “Ed White” for a  space walk.

I was big and they were small. I would pick “Ed” up by the waist and take him spinning and “floating” around the classroom before he returned to the capsule. Great fun for both of us. I always chose the smallest student to play Ed White and, of course, always a boy. Sorry feminists, but if you think about it for a moment, you’ll see why.

I could use the movies Apollo 13 and parts of The Right Stuff, and that was a big help. But the space race was teaching history. What was happening in the world outside the classroom during my teaching career was less fun.

The Space Shuttles were practical. Five craft made 135 trips into space, expanded our knowledge, launched the Hubble, and built the ISS. They called the shuttle NASA’s pick-up truck. It was a good analogy, but what twelve year old wants to go to space in a pick-up truck?

Nothing was really new, just more and better of the same old stuff. Nobody was going beyond low Earth orbit.

(“When are we going to the moon again, Teacher? When are we going to Mars?”
“Damned if I know kid. It’s beginning to look like never.)

There were promising new programs. I watched several of them as they were announced, begun, and then cancelled. I’ll recap them later.

I taught the space shuttle with more enthusiasm than I actually felt. We followed its progress, and there was a lot of it during my teaching career. There was also tragedy.

When the Challenger blew up, my class wasn’t watching. Our school got TV’s for the classrooms a couple of years later, so I didn’t know what had happened until recess when I went to the teacher’s lounge and saw faces suitable for a wake on my fellow teachers. It was a long afternoon, first explaining to the students what had occurred, and then going on with our work as if nothing had happened.

I didn’t face another day like that until 9/11.

I remember sitting with my friends in the teacher’s lounge after Challenger blew up, listening to the radio. When the announcer said that the mission commander had flown fighter jets during Viet Nam, I knew that he had found a more honorable death than that war could have given him.

When Columbia returned from orbit the last time, I was excited to see it. By that time I had moved to the foothills. Columbia’s flight path was to pass north of my new house, and I was up before daylight to watch its fire trail across the sky from my balcony. Instead, I only saw dense fog. I waited around until the projected time and at least heard it’s sonic boom. Five minutes later and a thousand miles to the east, it broke up and fell to earth.

It was Saturday morning. I had two days before it would be time to talk to my students about what had happened.

Raven’s Run 133

Chapter Thirty-five

We sent a list of Cameron Davis’ properties to his house, with no note and no signature. That would get his attention. Another letter would follow, demanding a meeting. I went back to Eureka to wait. Ed got busy making arrangements to pull this stunt off without getting us all killed. Daniel Cabral flew back from France. 

Four days later, I met Ed in Garberville and followed him out of town. He drove toward the Davis mansion, then turned off a mile short and lead me by a narrow dirt road to where a panel truck was parked on a hill overlooking a broad valley. Oaks and a few redwoods were scattered across the landscape.

There was a dish antenna on top of the panel truck. A middle aged man with a rifle was waiting for us, relaxed but ready. He nodded as we approached and said, “I’m Barton.”


“I’m on vacation.”

“Don’t you guys ever work for a living?”

He just grinned and motioned toward the truck. Ed and I went inside. Senator Cabral was waiting; he shook hands and said, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“I’m sure. Are you sure you should be here?”

“No. Politically, this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. But I’m not Richard Nixon. I don’t send people out to do things I wouldn’t do myself.”

I had to admire that. He had a lot more to lose than I did. But maybe he had even more to gain. “You should at least stay in the truck,” I said. “It doesn’t make any sense for you to talk to Davis face to face. We are here to use leverage on him, not give him a lever to use on you.”

“I will let you begin the meeting. If Davis sends a messenger, send him away. If Davis actually shows up, I want to see him.

“Ed,” Cabral added, “please step outside for a moment.”

Wilkes nodded and withdrew. The Senator studied me for a minute, then said, “Ian, why are you doing this?”

I shrugged. It wasn’t something I wanted to talk about. I just said, “For Raven.”

“Even though she ran off on you?”

I nodded.

“Do you love her that much?”

“God damn it, is this the right time for this conversation?”

“I am her father,” he said simply.

There wasn’t much I could say to that, except, “I love her.”

“Enough for this?”

“Enough to protect her.”

“And to live with her?”

“For as long as we could stand each other. I don’t know if that would be a week or a lifetime.”

“She needs you,” he said. “She may run from you, but she needs you. Those pasty boys she finds . . .” He made a gesture of disgust. “They are not enough for her. She needs more. She needs a genuine man; a serious man. A man of honor.” more tomorrow

338. The Benson Murder Case

I just read The Benson Murder Case for the second time. It was an accident. All of the Philo Vance mysteries are titled The (whatever) Murder Case, and they are mostly indistinguishable on the library shelf. I didn’t recognize Benson as one I had already read.

The setting is New York City in the twenties, among the upper class and the demi-monde. Since I’m an ex-Okie farm boy, these people would look down on me as white trash. That places the novel somewhat outside my comfort zone, but it also gives a kind of anthropological interest to the proceedings.

Anyway, there aren’t that many non-bloody and non-cozy mysteries to choose from, and Philo Vance is good fun.

The author is Willard Huntington Wright. The putative author is S. S. Van Dine, who also appears in the novel as the narrator. We are told that Philo Vance, the main character, is a pseudonym for a famous real person who will never be named, so we start out with layers of misdirection. I like that touch. It is as if Conan Doyle had used John Watson, M.D. as a pseudonym. We already know that Holmes was real; just ask any genuine fan.

Vance is an aesthete, immaculate in dress, loquacious, self-centered, quite convinced of his own superiority, and independently wealthy. If an actor were to play him on television today, enunciating all the words that Wright put into his mouth, he would be seen as gay as hell.

I need to explain that. In a sex-ed class I was teaching, during a question and answer period, a student asked me if I had any gay friends. It was a teachable moment. I said, “I don’t know,” then pointed out that a gay person could pass for straight, and a straight person could pass for gay, if either wanted to. We control how we present ourselves. It is a form of communication.

That exchange took place back in the era of Will and Grace, when LGBT portrayals were rare and relatively unsophisticated, but even then the behaviors we associate with gayness were mostly learned from television.

So I repeat, if Vance were portrayed today as he appears in the books, he would not look straight. That’s probably our prejudice. I see no evidence that he was perceived that way in the twenties when the novels were published, except, perhaps, when the villain at the climax calls him “you damned sissy.”

I don’t really care if the author was presenting Vance as gay, or just snooty with a British education, but it does cause a bit of disconnect. Like reading a book in translation, the sub-text can get a bit muddied. This is especially true since this first novel is less about solving a crime than it is about the friendship between Vance, the layabout, and Markham, the hard working District Attorney.

Alvin Benson is shot. Vance tags along with his friend Markham to the scene of the crime, and Van Dine, Vance’s shadow, tags along as well to narrate the story. Vance instantly knows who did the deed, working from his understanding of psychology. Markham is confused by clues. For the next 348 pages, Markham suspects a half dozen people, and Vance follows along showing him the error of his ways, finally leading him to find the murderer.

It sound dumb in précis, but it works. Even the first time I read the story, when I was distracted by Vance’s irritating personality, it worked. The second time through the book, I realized that the real story, hidden behind the unfolding of the mystery, was Vance at work keeping his good friend from making a fool of himself, or worse, enduring the guilt of sending an innocent person to execution.

C. J. Verburg, in a one star Goodreads review, calls Vance a more smug and racist version of Lord Peter Wimsey. She really doesn’t like him, and I can’t say I blame her. She probably speaks for the typical modern reader.

Those who do like him, like him a lot. I’m rather in that camp — I think. Most Goodreads reviews are stellar or stinking, with very few in the middle.

Raven’s Run 132

“And then what?”

“He goes to jail. Susyn and Alan go to jail.”

“When? How soon do they go to jail? How certain are you of a conviction, and how long will it take to complete the trial? What about bail? What about hiring outside help from inside prison? Ed, what are we trying to do here? Make a bust, or make Raven safe?”

“Don’t get mad at me, Gunn. I didn’t cause this situation.”

“Then think, man. What is our objective here? Let’s keep that in clear focus.”

I stopped talking and drummed my fingers on the table. I had gotten loud. The problem was, I was getting mad. Not a quick, adrenaline anger that comes and goes, but the kind of mad that builds up over weeks and months until it gnaws away inside of you and makes you do violent things that are not normally in your nature. I wanted Skinny Alan right here in this room so I could take him apart with my bare hands. And I wanted this Cameron Davis that I had never met, who hid in the shadows and pulled the strings; who hired Chicano punks to wait for me at Jacks’ office and sent a henchman to burn me up in my sleep. And I wanted Susyn for lying to me and causing me to betray Raven. 

And deep down I was mad at Raven for leaving me.

I fought it off. It was not useful to me now. I put that anger away, deep down in the sub-basement of my soul, where so many other angers are already stored. A day will come. But not today. Today I had to find a way to let my enemies live, so that Raven could live. It would not be satisfying, but it was necessary.

But someday, someone was going to pay. Where or when, I didn’t know, but I would not forget.

“What I propose,” I said finally, “is to leave the old man in place. If we attack his position, Raven will still be in danger. She is a witness to two attempted murders. Cameron Davis might be able to avoid prosecution for that, but Susyn and Alan can’t. We’ve got to show the old man what we have, threaten to bust him wide open, and offer to leave him in place if he calls off his dogs.”

“I don’t think he got where he is by being scared of threats.”

“No,” I said, “not a threat. A negotiation. I’ll have to show him his alternatives and convince him that leaving us alone is the only thing that benefits him. The timing is right. Harvest is in three months. If he gets busted now, even if he escapes prosecution it will cost him millions. After harvest, we could not do him nearly so much harm.”

“How do we get to him?”

“The only way – face to face. And not we. Me.”

Ed shrugged. “It might work. Assuming he is rational.”

“Yes. There’s always that.”

“But we have to tell the senator.”


“Yes. There is no other way, if you want my help. And you can’t pull this off by yourself.”

I just looked at him. “Then you’d better convince him,” I said evenly. “I’ve been lied to and betrayed, threatened with gun and knife, beat up, slashed, and firebombed. I’ll let that go, if I have to. But if I can’t protect Raven any other way, I’ll get a rifle and start hunting, and if I do that there are going to be dead Davises all over Humbolt county!” more tomorrow

337. The Year Without a summer

The Little Ice Age (yesterday’s post) was vague and questionable in its outlines and origin. The Year Without a Summer was precisely delineated, and there is no question of how it came about. It was the result of volcanic activity.

There is, however, a smaller mystery. In 1808, a very large eruption took place, but no westerner saw it. It is memorialized in ice samples from Greenland and Antarctica, and scientific detective work places the eruption somewhere between Tonga and Indonesia. It began a period of northern hemispheric cooling.

Then in 1815, the largest and most destructive volcanic eruption in human history took place at Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia. The explosion was heard 1600 miles away. (Krakatoa, a better known eruption in the same region in 1883, was less intense.) Between the mystery eruption of 1808 and the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815, the second decade of the 1800s became the coldest on record. 1816 became known as The Year Without a Summer.

(As always seems the case with science, nothing is simple. 1816 fell within the Little Ice Age and was also associated with a low in the cycle of sunspots. If you really want to understand, I suggest a Ph.D. and a lifetime of study. That will give you some answers and a cartload of more sophisticated questions.)

The Year Without a Summer was disastrous. Crops, which had already been bad, probably because of the 1808 eruption, failed. Famine was everywhere in Europe, followed by typhus. There were massive storms and floods; an estimated 200,000 died in Europe.

In America, the northeast was hit hardest. Frosts continued through the summer. In August ice floated on Pennsylvania rivers. Snow fell in June in Massachusetts. Food was scarce and in 1816 there was no way to move it from less affected regions to those hardest hit. That year and shortly after, masses of northeasterners moved to the midwest, swelling the populations of Indiana and Illinois.

The event left echoes in literature. In 1816 Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, J. W. Polidori and others were storm bound together in a villa overlooking Lake Geneva. A contest of writing ghost stories ensued. Byron wrote a fragment, which Polidori later turned into the first vampire story (The Vampyre), Mary Shelley began what later evolved into Frankenstein, and Byron also wrote Darkness, a long poem inspired by the lightless days.

Here is a bit of that poem, which brings back memories of those old science fiction stories from my youth when the glaciers moved in to destroy humanity.

The crowd was famish’d by degrees; but two
Of an enormous city did survive,
And they were enemies: they met beside
The dying embers of an altar-place
Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things
For an unholy usage; they rak’d up,
And shivering scrap’d with their cold skeleton hands
The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath
Blew for a little life, and made a flame