Monthly Archives: June 2017

379. Westercon

You know that I write these posts in advance, and it’s a good thing because today I am leaving for Tempe, Arizona and Westercon 70.

Westercon is a western US regional science fiction and fantasy convention. It has been around since 1948, when the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society organized it for those who could not travel to the east coast where most Worldcons were held at that time.

This will be my third Westercon. I attended Westercon 33 in Los Angeles the year Zelazny was the guest of honor. I stepped out for air during the afternoon and a lovely young woman told me I looked lonely (I wasn’t), told me she was a wannabe actress – actually she said “I’m just an LA nobody” – and told me the story of her life. I know what you’re thinking. There is no romantic ending, no money changed hands, and she didn’t steal my wallet. I think she was just exactly what she said she was.

Later that night I was cornered at a party by a guy who wanted to tell me about his screenplay. He wouldn’t take the hint that I wasn’t interested, or that I was in no position to further his career. The screenplay turned out to be for a space opera about a ray gun shooting femme fatale. He whipped out a copy of Playboy and showed me a beautiful naked black girl on the centerfold. He said she was the one he had in mind to play the part.

I don’t remember his name (a high functioning forgettery is a very useful tool) but he is probably living in a big house in Hollywood today. The plot was just dumb enough to sell.

I don’t think most Westercons are that weird, costumes notwithstanding. I think it was just LA.

The next year Westercon 34 was in Sacramento. It was a bit more sedate and I gave the paper “How to Build a Culture”. There was a good turnout; as best I can remember a couple of hundred attendees in a small auditorium. I had prepared a piece of mat board with a hand-drawn circle, divided into four pie-slices with the words environment, technology, world view, and biological structure hand written in the quadrants. It was makeshift because my first computer was still five years in the future.

When I said, “Which brings me to my visual aid”, I stood it up and, to cover it’s crudity, added “We have spared no expense!”

The joke got the small chuckle it deserved, but the sound died instantly. A young man in the middle of the auditorium was saying, in a conversational voice, “He is showing a chart. It’s circular, divided into quadrants . . .” We all realized that he was describing the chart to a blind companion, and for the length of time it took him to give his description, you could have heard a feather drop in the room. The respectful silence from crowd made me proud to be a part of the moment.

Last year I wanted to go to Westercon 69 in Portland. I hadn’t gone during all the years of my dry spell; it just didn’t seem like it would be fun under the circumstances. Then Cyan’s release was delayed again, so I skipped Portland. Now that Cyan is out, I am off to Tempe.

It will be good to be back.

Spirit Deer 16

Tim peered out of the underbrush at his deadfalls. They were still in place, and the pine nut bait had not been touched, even though the mud at the edge of the water was a mass of tracks. He did not approach them. If he left them alone long enough, he hoped the man-smell might leave them.

Working backwards on hands and knees, he emerged out of sight of the pool. There he recovered his crutch and started upstream in search of another pine he could harvest. As he went, he searched the floor of the dry creek until he found a rock about twice the size of his fist. It glistened black in the dim morning light. It was obsidian, washed down from some volcanic deposit higher in the mountains, and more precious than gold to Tim.

He found a small sugar pine a hundred feet back from the stream growing up beside a broken boulder. Climbing the boulder, he harvested the cones. The were huge, but most of the nuts were gone from them. He piled them by the creek bank and continued his explorations.

Now that he felt stronger, he was hungrier than ever.

At the edge of the bank he found a willow that had died when its roots were exposed. From this he cut a slightly curved branch about six feet long and as thick as his wrist, along with thinner, straight branches of about the same length and a bundle of shorter branches. It took several trips to return all his finds to the campsite.

Tim spent an hour shucking the remaining pine nuts from the sugar pine cones. As he worked, he tried to remember all that his grandfather had taught him. Tim’s grandfather had always taken him along when he had harvested Digger Pine cones in the spring, and again when he harvested acorns in the autumn. Nowadays, Tim’s grandfather ground his acorns in a commercial flour mill and leached them in the kitchen sink, but he still knew the old Miwuk ways and had taught them to Tim.

Unfortunately, the Miwuks had lived at lower elevations. Where Tim was now there were neither Digger pines nor oaks.

Tim fed his fire and set to work. He checked over the curved willow shaft he had chosen for a bow, then cut it back to about five feet. That was the maximum his two boot laces, knotted together, would string. He whittled away the the lower part of the limb until it matched the upper in size and shape. When it was roughly bow shaped, he hung it on a tripod of saplings near the fire to dry further.

The daylight was fading, so Tim laid his work aside and went off to check his deadfalls. Three of them were untouched, but the fourth held the body of a Douglas squirrel.

Back at camp, Tim skinned and gutted it carefully. He saved the intestines for cord, split the carcass, and dropped half of it into one of his bark cooking basket to boil.

Tim took the obsidian he had found and studied it like a diamond cutter. His Miwuk ancestors had traded with other tribes to get their obsidian. They had treated it with respect because it had been so hard to get. Tim was in exactly the same position.

He decided to make his spear points first. He knocked the head off the obsidian with a glancing blow from another stone, then struck off several long flakes from it’s length. These were irregular, but once he had the obsidian trimmed he was able to strike off two decent flakes before the remaining stone snapped in two crossways. more next week

378. Science vs. Magic (3)

This is the last in a set of posts which acts as a backdrop to the Westercon panel Science & Technology versus Magic: what makes this such a compelling trope? I

It’s all about control, and how to achieve it.

I think we all understand pretty well how science and technology work. Even when we postulate something like FTL, which is contrary to our present understanding of the universe, we get to it rationally. We don’t get there by lighting candles around a pentagram.

Magic is another world, an alternate way of achieving control, and I see it falling into three types, with quite a lot of overlap.

First, there are the unconsidered, slobbering monsters of gothic horror and B movies. They just are. If they are the offshoot of a mad scientist or a nuclear explosion, we call them science fiction. If they are the offshoot of an ancient curse, we call them fantasy. Frankenstein and Dracula are examples of alternate strands, but really, they belong together. Their effectiveness is on our fears, not on our need to explain. And, no matter how the monster is overcome in the end — if he is —  the experience is all about not having control.

Second, there are magical systems which are simply science under different laws. Do this and that happens, just because that’s the way things work in one projected universe. Nobody did this better than Randall Garrett in his Darcy stories.

Third, there are supplicatory systems which assume that there are forces in the universe, and some of them are personalities. It is very transactional. Do something for the power, and the power will do something for you. But beware of the fine print in the contract. Every variation of the Faust legend falls into this pattern.

Many stories take on the colors of more than one system. In both Harry Potter and A Wizard of Earthsea there are spell that just work, like E=MC2 works, but there are also callings which evoke powers who are personalities, and usually not very nice ones.

These are logical systems, but nobody cares about them until we embed them in stories.

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On the question of science and technology vs. magic, a scholarly type could easily expend a thousand pages. That might be a little dry, though.

In our everyday lives, we all use science to make our lives easy, but there are some questions that science can’t answer. Which questions? We decide that for ourselves, and the tipping point is different for each person. After all, you can use your new self-driving car to go to the psychic and have your future told, if you are so inclined.

The same balance is found in stories of fantasy and science fiction. It is rare for a science fiction novel to completely lack the unexplained and unexplainable. Luke Skywalker had the Force. Every mutant in the 1950s had psi powers. In Jandrax, I put in a possibly Godly encounter because the book needed it. Most science fiction novels have a touch of magic somewhere.

On the other hand, novels full of magic still have physical laws. The sky is up and the ground is down. If you fall off a high cliff, you die. Of course you might use a levitation spell to save yourself — just like one of those mutants in 50s science fiction would levitate by their psi powers — but you wouldn’t need to if nature wasn’t trying to kill you. The physical reality of heat, cold, hunger, thirst and a fragile body are as much a part of fantasy as they are of science fiction — or romance novels, spy stories, or detective tales. It’s a long way from the Shire to Mount Doom if you have to walk. Frodo could have used a Lear jet.

The places we go in science fiction are great fun and sometimes scary.

In fantasy, we go places that are sometimes great fun, but usually scary.

Which journeys we take are a matter of taste. I would love to sail with Ged by a mage wind, or by the world’s winds, but I wouldn’t read H. P. Lovecraft on a Romnean ten thousand dollar bet.

Spirit Deer 15

In the evening of the fifth day, Tim sat in the mouth of his shelter, grinding more of the pine nuts for another meal. He had set the deadfall, but he didn’t have any real faith in it. He felt stronger now, and his ankle hurt less than it had. He had reworked his crutch, padding the crosspiece with lichen and wrapping it with willow bark.

He was trying to think through his situation. Unless someone found his bicycle at the campground – and he had hidden it with great care so that it would not be stolen – no one would know that he was lost in the forest. There would be no rescue parties.

He could try to walk out, but he did not know which way to go. He did not know where he was because of the time he had wandered after hitting his head in the stream. He did not know east from west. Heavy clouds had covered the sun for days, and it is a myth that moss only grows on the north side of trees.

If he had been uninjured and well fed, he could simply have followed the dry wash to a creek, and that creek to a river, and that river to a road. But he did not know how many twisting miles that might take. He might walk to a road within an hour, or it might take more days than his weakened condition would allow.

He couldn’t take his shelter with him, and another night of exposure in the rain might kill him. It seemed best to stay with his shelter and live on pine nuts until his ankle had another day or two to get better.

It was a sensible plan, but events were taking place in another part of the forest that would change everything.

* * *

Wherever Man moves in, the wild creatures move back. In California, the grizzly bear, the state animal, has been extinct for nearly a century. The foothill towns rarely see even a relatively mild mannered black bear.

Nevertheless, three days after Tim went hunting, a black bear came down from the forest. It was an old male, shaggy with years, and hungry. He wandered around the outskirts of town, remembering vaguely that he had found plentiful food here in his youth. He could not know that that food source had been a garbage dump, nor could he know that garbage was now stored in bear-proof steel containers.

In his wanderings at the edge of the town, the bear found the sweet smell of rotting grain and followed it to a pig pen. Perhaps he would have eaten the mash, or perhaps the pigs. Or both, for he was very hungry. Instead, the farmer heard the squealing of his pigs when the bear attacked and came running out of the house with a shotgun in his hands. He fired at the bear and hit him in the face, then fired the other barrel at the bear as he ran toward the forest and safety.

The buckshot lodged in the black bear’s face and right hind leg. One shot split his muzzle and traveled four inches under the hide to lodge beneath his right eye. The most serious damage was done by a single pellet which ripped away a section of the bear’s fleshy nose, and cost him most of his sense of smell.

Sight is not very important to a black bear; a pellet in the eye would have done less damage. This old male had been finding it increasingly hard to catch his prey. Without his sense of smell, he was truly crippled.

He ran for several miles before going to earth. He growled and rolled and ripped down saplings in his fury, but the pain persisted. more tomorrow

377. Science vs. Magic (2)

This is post two of three in another set which acts as a backdrop to one of the Westercon  panels. In this case the panel is Science & Technology versus Magic: what makes this such a compelling trope? This post continues from last Thursday’.

Religion has a relationship to magic, but it is not straightforward. It is more in the nature of finger pointing, as in, “My religion is the truth that underlies all things, including science and technology, but his religion is just mumbo jumbo.

You could say that religion and magic both are attempts to influence or control supernatural powers, but that doesn’t seem too accurate in our modern world. It might have made some sense when they were still burning witches.

Any Southern Baptist will tell you that no matter how much you pray for rain, if God has other plans, it isn’t going to happen. In fact, there is a Southern Baptist saying, “God always answers prayers, but his answer is often, ‘No.’” That doesn’t stop people from praying.

At least one of the major components of religion is also shared with science.  Recognition that we are so small and the world is so big — also known as humility — is a pan-human trait. Scientific types walk around looking at the sky and wondering when the next asteroid strike will come. Religious types walk around waiting for the Second Coming, or Ragnarok, or whatever terminal event their sect provides. Maybe magicians walk around wondering if their next spell is going to backfire and turn them into a toad; who knows?

All these types recognize that the universe is essentially beyond human control, and then set out to try to control it anyway..

Control over the uncontrollable is a pretty good starting point for the discussion of magic. Here is where religion flies in two directions. Many sects recognize that God cannot be controlled. He sets things in motion then wanders off, or maybe he pays attention to our everyday trials, but has a plan of his own. In any case, he can’t be compelled.

That position is a lot like science.

Other religions believe that God answers prayers, pays attention to burning candles, likes the smell of incense, and generally can be bought off. That type of religion is a lot like the magic we use in our fantasy fiction. If we make an incantation (light fantasy), some Thing will make an event happen. Or (dark fantasy) if we make a sacrifice, some malign Thing will make an event happen.

Actually, this is also a lot like science. Once the observation and experimentation phase is over, the results of science are used with confidence, not skepticism — just like prayer and supplication, are used.

(Is anybody out there chuckling at the similarity between A=9.8 m/sec2 and — as they say in Harry Potter’s world — Descendo?)

Not understanding what-the-hell is going on in the universe is the most basic of human experiences. Understanding brings about control. Believing that we understand brings about a felling of control, even if that feeling is unfounded.

Science seeks to mitigate this unease by reducing our ignorance. At its best, science is humble about this. However, when a physicist declares that we now know, fundamentally, how the universe works — and points to technology that works most of the time to prove it — it’s time for him to take off his lab smock and put on priest’s robes.

It all comes down to control. One of the things that makes Science & Technology vs Magic so interesting to us is that we all use science, everyday experience, and common sense to navigate and make sense of the world. And it works pretty well, most of the time — but not all of the time.

Ultimately tragedy strikes us, our families, our nation, or, potentially, our planet. Mortality walks behind us every day with its breath on our necks. We reach that place where logic and understanding fail, and we need more.

They say that there are no atheists in fox holes, but there are also no persons so sure of their place in heaven that they don’t feel fear when the reaper comes.

We all trust science — to a point — and then we need the hand of God. Or at least a good magic wand.  more tomorrow

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Spirit Deer 14

Once in the crotch of the tree, he rested for a while, then climbed about the lower limbs, pulling off cones and dropping them to the ground. After half an hour he had taken all that he could reach. Then he looped his belt over the lowest limb and swung down to hang at arm’s length. The ground seemed a long way down, but there was no avoiding it. He drew up his injured ankle and let go.

It was surprisingly easy. He managed to roll toward his good side and his ankle was only jarred. Painfully jarred, yes; but not with the searing pain Tim had expected.

Tim made a sack of his shirt and filled it with cones. When he returned to this shelter, he was tempted to shuck them immediately. Instead, he forced himself to make four more trips back to the tree until he had gathered in every cone. He did not want to share a single one with the squirrels.

He used a rock to break up the cones and sifted through the dust and scales to get the nuts. It was mid-afternoon when he finished, and he had only enough to fill one of his bark baskets. He ground a handful of flour, mixed it to a thick gruel in one of the baskets, then heated it by dropping in hot rocks from his fire.

As he ate, Tim remembered all the times he had started projects that had seemed too big for him to finish. His father had always listened to his complaints, and had always given him advice, or shown him a different way of working, or given him some tool he did not know existed. No matter how impossible they had seemed at the time, Tim had always finished those projects somehow.

Looking back, Tim could not remember a single time when his father had actually helped him. But he had always seen to it that Tim got what he needed to finish without help. He had taught Tim that he could do anything he really wanted to.

Halfway up that tree and exhausted, Tim had felt his father at his side, urging him on.

Now, with his first meal in many days calming his growling stomach, Tim felt new strength flowing through his limbs. He returned to making his deadfall trap.

Chapter 5

On October twelfth Tim had set out from home on his bicycle to spend the day with his grandfather. His mother didn’t get home until past midnight. The house was empty, so she assumed that Tim’s grandfather had kept him because she had to work late. She went to bed without calling.

Tim’s grandfather had not known that Tim was coming, so it was late Sunday morning before either of them knew that Tim was gone. They drove over the roads Tim might have taken between their two houses without finding any sign of him. Then they searched around the house, and found his bicycle gone. No one noticed that his rifle was also gone.

When the police were called, they treated it as if Tim were a runaway, or had been kidnapped. The police in three counties looked for him, but no one looked in the great forest that bordered the foothill town where Tim lived, for no one had any reason to think Tim had gone that direction. more tomorrow

376. Live or Die

The core story of Spirit Deer is survival, and the corollary is a complete absence of help.

It doesn’t happen that way much today. If you get lost in the woods, they send helicopters to bring you home. Yachts carry emergency beacons to fetch the Coast Guard. If there is a smashing at your door, call 911. Then hide in a closet. Be very quiet. The police will come soon.

It wasn’t like that when I was Tim’s age. 911 hadn’t been invented anywhere. The police were thirty miles away, and we didn’t have a telephone until I was fifteen. Cell phone? Don’t be silly.

That was the situation I was trying to create in Spirit Deer, both in the original adult version and the stripped down core story that became a juvenile. It wasn’t that I was trying to go back to an earlier era. 1975, or even the late 1980s when adult-Tim became young-Tim, was already closer to the world of my childhood than today. No, I don’t mean arithmetic. I mean that in 2017, it is hard to even imagine being alone.

In a lesser sense, I spent half my childhood alone. I would drive a tractor for hours every morning, eat a brief lunch with my dad, then spent more hours alone until the sun went down. My dad was always there, of course, on his tractor five hundred yards away on the other side of the field. He waved occasionally. That isn’t the same as being absolutely alone, but you are alone-with-your-thoughts, and you don’t have to talk. I liked that.

Being all the way alone, in the woods, hunting, tracking, and surviving, was something every boy of my generation wanted to do. And there were a lot of books to fuel the fantasy.

Most of the early Andre Nortons followed a pattern that looked like this: The young hero is the lowest member of a group that mistreats him. He is separated from them by circumstances no one could have predicted. For a time, he is alone. Then he reintegrates, tentatively, with a new and previously alien group. He does not remain alone, but being alone frees him, and gives him the strength to reenter society.

It is a primeval story. The young hunter sets out on his spirit journey, alone, to fast and endure great hardships, to gain his spirit animal, and return to his people as a man.

Fors, in Star Man’s Son, the first Norton I read, leaves his people because he is cast out for being different, goes on a great quest, finds a prize (knowledge, in this case) despite great hardship, and returns to his people. Only, he gets to take a telepathic puma on the trip with him. That’s even better than being alone.

Proving your manhood, whether you set out to do it, or it simply happens to you, is a big part of these books. A scholar might call them rite-of-passage novels.

I remember one book which I no longer have. A boy was living in a cabin in the woods and he was temporarily alone. I don’t remember where his father had gone. He got up in the morning, fried eggs on the wood stove, slipped an extra two between slices of toast, and put them in his coat pocket, picked up his rifle, and set out into the snowy woods.

I don’t remember the rest of the novel, but he set out. That was enough to make it great. There was a lot of setting-out in those books.

The best of them all was Two Hands and a Knife, the original version. (see post 309) Our hero (aka, the reader in disguise) has to join his parents, who have settled in a hundred miles away across the Canadian wilderness. So naturally, he packs his gear and his dog and sets out by canoe. Alone. (Except for his dog. Every boy needs a dog like that, unless he can find a telepathic puma.) There is a storm; he loses his canoe with all his gear. With the help of his dog, he makes it to shore and all he has is his two hands and his knife. And his dog.

Does it get any better than that?

Lets swing this all back to Tim, hanging in the tree in today’s Serial post, knowing that he has to either summon the strength to make it up to where the pine cones are, or he will die a slow and painful death of starvation. No one will help him. No one even knows where he is.

If this situation scares hell out of you, you are reading the wrong book. Self-sufficiency is useful. Knowing you can be alone, takes the power away from those who would call you different, and demand conformity. It is no small thing.