Monthly Archives: June 2018

501. Preface to Robert Louis Stevenson

As anyone who has read even a few posts here knows, I started AWL to find readers for my novels, specifically for Cyan which had just been accepted by EDGE. I had no idea how many interesting people I would meet along the way. Some of them were fellow writers of science fiction, fantasy, and steampunk, some were fellow bloggers who wanted to be writers (this post is for you, as you’ll see at the end), and some of the ones I met indirectly had been dead for many years.

Of course, I had been discoursing with dead people all my life. Imaginary people, as well, starting with Victor Appleton II, “author” of books I was reading before I got my first library card. If you don’t recognize “him”, “he” was a house pseudonym belonging to the Stratemeyer group. “He” wrote the Tom Swift, Junior books which were my idea of science fiction when I was ten.

Come to think of it, many of the people in the Bible that my parents introduced me to were imaginary as well as dead, but a wise man doesn’t talk about to that in public.

One of my favorite friends-I-never-met is Robert Louis Stevenson. He has been a part of my life for decades, and I recently had cause to dig deeper into his personal story while putting together an upcoming series of posts.

Very early in his career (1878), long before anyone had heard of him, Stevenson wrote a travel book about his voyage by canoe on some European rivers, called Inland Voyage. I’m not recommending it to you, but it went into my massive pile of turn of the century — that’s nineteenth century — marine and canoe travel books, after I had skimmed it and found this in his preface:

To say truth, I had no sooner finished reading this little book in proof, than I was seized upon by a distressing apprehension.  It occurred to me that I might not only be the first to read these pages, but the last as well; that I might have pioneered this very smiling tract of country all in vain, and find not a soul to follow in my steps.  The more I thought, the more I disliked the notion; until the distaste grew into a sort of panic terror, and I rushed into this Preface, which is no more than an advertisement for readers.

A preface is only an advertisement for readers? Imagine that! If Stevenson had been writing 140 years later, he would have had a blog, and wouldn’t I love to read that. Also, consider the notion that one of the world’s most successful writers started out thinking that no one would ever read what he was writing.

Of course, there were thousands of other writers in 1878 who thought no one would ever read their writing, and no one ever did. We never knows in advance what will happen. We just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and hope.

500. Heinlein’s Harems

Heinlein did not invent group sex, but he tried to take out a patent on it.

               (Disclaimer: I made that up about the patent. It’s called hyperbole, the use of exaggerations and untrue statements for effect. The difference between hyperbole and lying is that in hyperbole, you don’t expect anyone to believe you.
               If you offer exaggerated or untrue statements with the style, cadence, and straight face of hyperbole, but you expect to be believed, that’s lying disguised as hyperbole. You may have seen this happen recently. At least one of our leaders makes it public policy.)

The world first became aware of Heinlein’s preoccupation with group sex in 1961 with his novel Stranger in a Strange Land. I didn’t buy in; I couldn’t accept the underlying idea. A successful family of multiple males and females didn’t seem likely. Most 1+1 marriages fail, and a lot of the ones which don’t fail, should fail. The idea of a whole passel of people living together in one big happy sexual family without exploding from the stresses generated strained my willing suspension of disbelief.

Hippies tried it a few years later. It was a lot of fun for the alpha personalities, but not so much for the shy ones who just went along with the idea. Communes tended to fall apart quickly.

Kings often have multiple women. In the orient, they called them harems. In the west, they called them mistresses. But any family of the 1+n style can’t be very successful. It will always result in one tired guy and a lot of women feeling blue and lonely.

Heinlein multiplied his multi-person families throughout the rest of his career, and to be fair, he did once portray such a family falling apart in the novel Friday.

Let me paint you a picture.  Start with a bunch of naked people. The men are okay looking and the women are beautiful. No exceptions on that issue. They are all young; that part is easy enough since they are all Howards and therefore semi-immortal. Put them in a luxurious lounge, with self-aware computers attending to their every whim. Now let the sex begin — but it doesn’t. Instead, we get endless, interminable, unquenchable talking about sex.

I read Stranger in high school. Three years later, in college, The Harrad Experiment was all the rage. It was about a school which encouraged its students to experiment with free love (as it was called in that era). My roommate read it and complained, “They don’t do it; they just talk about it.” I can’t verify that statement. It sounded so much like Stranger that I gave it a miss.

               (Disclaimer: Heinlein is one of my favorite authors. I re-read him more often than anyone but Zelazny. On the subject of sex, however, he sees the smiles and ignores the strains. For him, the cup is neither half-full nor half-empty. It is overflowing. It’s a nice idea, but it strains my credulity.)

When I wrote Cyan, two kinds of multi-person families showed up. Saloman Curran was the product of a ring family. That appears first in Chapter Six, Stranded on Earth [3] in the odd way that book is laid out. Ring families were a disaster for adults and children alike, and their structure goes a long way toward explaining why our villain was so villainous.

The ten explorers who set out on their multi-year journey to Procyon were a family of another kind, and one that worked out fairly well. They were young, healthy men and women, cut off from contact with any other humans, and stimulated by the excitement and danger of exploration. Sex was sure to happen anyway, so NASA made sure they were compatible during training. Read between the lines of that statement. I didn’t set the situation up for titillation; I was working out what I thought might actually happen. Once the explorers returned to Earth, the ten-some did not last. It had existed due to a particular situation, which was not likely to be repeated.

               (Disclaimer: Yes, I know this was supposed to be the future, yet the explorers are all apparently hetero. I started Cyan in the early eighties for that audience. If I were writing it today, I would have to change some things, but it’s really too late now.)

Heinlein was trying to shake up a moribund society, and make it look at what might happen. I was trying, a generation later, to figure out what probably would happen.

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Briefly, back to hyperbole as humor. Once in a meeting, I said with a straight face that, “Only stupid people exaggerate. Smart people use hyperbole.” Most of my friends just looked at me (that happened a lot). The one friend who got it, roared.

Yes, I know. It isn’t funny in cold print. It’s all a matter of timing.

499. Triple Tease

Thomas Anderson of Schlock Value has an ongoing love/hate (largely hate) relationship with blurbs. I mostly share his view, but things have changed since the era, mostly the 70s, which he reviews. When Cyan came out, I had the chance to write the blurbs myself. In fact, I was asked to write three blurbs of 10, 25, and 75 words, from which the publisher would choose.

Squeezing a whole novel into twenty-five-words-or-less is an interesting exercise. I decided to try it again on the novel I’m presently writing, Like Clockwork, but with a variation. 10, 25, and 75 is really hard. I’ll wait until the book is finished for that, but I did write short, shorter, and really short candidates.

Here are the results.

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The year is 1850. The year is always 1850. Now it is November and a year’s worth of progress toward understanding is in jeopardy. In a few weeks will come Midwinter Midnight, when the Clock that Ate Time will reset, it will be January first once again, and all that has been gained will be lost from memory.

Snap, who helped to build the Clock and regrets his actions; Balfour who was another man in another life; and Hemmings, formerly a computer, who now figures differently — these three, with Pilar, Eve, Lithbeth, Pakrat, and old man Crump are determined to set Time free again. And if they fail . . .

The year will be 1850. The year will be 1850 forever.

119 words

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The year is 1850 — again. A year’s worth of progress toward understanding is in jeopardy. In a few weeks it will be Midwinter Midnight, when the Clock that Ate Time will reset, it will be January first once again, and all that has been gained will be lost from memory.

50 words

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The year is 1850 in a this alternate London, where time has no hold. There are only a few weeks left to restart the future.

25 words

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How’s that for a tease?

498. Living in the Promiseland

There is a winding road across the shifting sand
And room for everyone living in the promiseland
Willie Nelson

I began this website in the fall of 2015. It was to be about writing, particularly about writing science fiction, and I had no intention of responding to political events.

Fat chance of that happening, given what has happened in America since.

In fact, I had written about twenty numbered posts when events in the world forced me to stick some personal political comments in between posts 10 and 11. It was called Walls Against the World. It wouldn’t be the last time I had to interrupt my regular programming to speak out.

That was the day after Hungary closed it’s borders to Syrian refugees. It reminded me too forcibly of the Russians closing Hungary’s borders in 1956, to keep Hungarian refugees from reaching the west and freedom.

East Germany had built a wall across Berlin in 1961, and then-candidate Trump was running on the promise to build a wall across the border with Mexico. I didn’t buy in. At the time I said, “Hitler would be proud. East Germany would understand. Russia is laughing.”

Was that only thirty-three months ago? Time flies when you are running from a forest fire.

I opened that post with these words:

          Have you ever asked yourself, “How could Germany have been fooled into following Adolph Hitler?” The answer is on your television this morning, and it is Donald Trump.
          I’m not saying that Trump is a Nazi. I don’t see him as evil, merely foolish. But the techniques that have brought him to prominence are the same techniques that Hitler used.

Then Trump won and here we are. I have tried since then to be fair and at least somewhat balanced. After all, he was elected by the American people (aided by Putin and Comey) and the Democrats hadn’t given Americans much of an alternative.

I have resisted calling Trump evil, and I have resisted refusing to see why many Americans chose to vote for him. I understand them; I just don’t understand him. I have not called him by the H****r word, even as Trump has become increasingly dictatorial. I have tried to avoid pointing out that Hitler was initially elected to office, before he took over everything.

All that was before Trump opened concentration camps on the Mexican border in the name of Zero Tolerance. We haven’t seen this in America since 1942.

Maybe I’ll send the White House a copy of Willie Nelson’s Living in the Promiseland. At least I would if I thought it would do any good.

Give us your tired and weak and we will make them strong
Bring us your foreign songs and we will sing along
.               from Living in the Promiseland

497. A Tangled Web

Last July fourth weekend I went to Westercon and received a gift. While observing a panel, I got the inspiration for a novel. I started it as soon as I got home and finished it in October, which is fast for me. It became The Cost of Empire, my first steampunk novel, and you just got a chance to see the opening pages spread out over the last two weeks.

I call it steampunk, and it deserves that description, but it could as well be called alternative history since it does not have the sense of complete weirdness that many steampunk novels possess. Soon afterward, I began another steampunk novel called Like Clockwork. It is completely different in tone. If you want weird, we’ve got weird in this one.

I placed part of a chapter in a post, but that particular excerpt is almost domestic in tone. Not weird at all.

I’ve been working on Like Clockwork since about November and I am only about 40,000 words in. I have no idea how long it is going to be. I know the set-up and development, and I’ve already written the last few chapters. I just don’t know how many more words it will take to get from where I am to where I am going. Or exactly how I’m going to get there.

If I were teaching a class in how to write a novel, this would get me fired. Nothing I ever write takes a straight path, but this is the most tangled web I’ve yet woven.

Cyan has a fairly large cast of characters, but the novel centers around Keir Delacroix. There are sections of the novel where other characters step up and have their moment, but Keir is the sun around which everyone else orbits. That makes things easy for the reader.

Cyan takes a century (global) or about thirty years (subjective) to occur, but everything proceeds in a linear fashion. There are flashbacks, but not too many. Mostly we get to see things as they happen, which minimizes explanations, although there are a couple of dense pages right at the outset.

Events begin on Cyan, move back to Earth, then end on Cyan again, but the reader goes along for the ride, so there is no confusion.

In The Cost of Empire, Daniel/David James (one person, but he changes names part way through the book as part of a masquerade) is even more firmly the center of the story. He is our eyes and ears; there is only one short paragraph where the reader knows something that he doesn’t.

The action begins in England, moves to Trinidad, moves back to England, then crosses Europe and the Middle East and ends up in India. Like Cyan, it takes in a lot of territory, but the reader takes the trip with David, so he/she never gets lost.

My newest novel Like Clockwork has at least six major characters (so far) and a couple more nearly as important, all of whom have about equal time on stage. That stage is restricted to a portion of London in the year — well, I can’t really explain when things happen. Figuring out when is sort of the point of the novel.

At the beginning, the reader doesn’t know where or when she/he is; just that it is London, or sort-of London, and a strange London at that. The characters in the book know more than the reader knows, but they don’t know much either. The reader and the characters have to figure everything out as they go along together, and the storyline shifts from one character to another with every short chapter.

In a way, it is like a mystery novel, with clues in abundance, but without a villain. There is a prime mover, but he is in deep, deep background and — sorry, that would be a spoiler as well.

Like Clockwork is also a book length clinic in how to explain a situation without resorting to a narrative dump.  It’s been a lot of fun so far. Now if I can just figure out what the hell is going on, I’ll get this thing finished.

Thankfully Deleted

Snap shook his head. “Let’s look from here, and think about what we see. The Clock is a machine. It has gears that mesh together. 16,384 gears in the outer layer alone, although you can’t see them now. They are cleverly built, with fine bearings, but the still they generate heat. Look at the snow, falling on the shell of the Clock, but not melting.”

The paragraph above was written for chapter 36 of Like Clockwork, and then deleted. It was too detailed. It told an accurate bit about an important part of the world of Like Clockwork, but it also slowed the story down.

For those who follow this blog looking for hints about writing, here is a koan, or a parable, or a rule of thumb, depending on how fancy you like in your language:

Think up a thousand nifty things for your novel, hold them firmly in your memory, but write down only ten of them. If you use them all, you will never get to the end of your novel, and neither will your reader.

496. Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate

There is something about blogging that I didn’t expect when I started. Since these posts are opinionated, but not totally opinion, I find myself doing research from time to time to keep my facts straight. That means I occasionally learn things I would never otherwise have known.

It’s a major bonus.

I was aware of Bob Dylan’s selection by the Nobel committee, and his reticence regarding the event, but I didn’t know the full outcome. I wanted to make an off-hand comment about it in another post, but didn’t want to make a fool of myself, so I checked out the facts.

The Nobel committee awarded Dylan the prize for literature last October “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Can a song be true literature? I would say yes, although rarely; about as often as a poem is or a novel is. Does Dylan’s work rise to that level of gravitas. Again, my answer is yes; the only other songwriter who comes to mind who worked at that level was Leonard Cohen. Paul Simon just misses the cut.

Dylan took a very long time replying to the committee, fueling speculation that he would refuse the honor, but he finally complied, and eventually provided his Nobel lecture, which is the only requirement attached to the prize.

His lecture was also my prize for checking out the facts. It is superb. I’ve provided a link below.

The lecture, actually more of a biographical essay, is written in the same intelligent but not over-educated voice that we hear in his songs. This is entirely appropriate; it is pure Dylan. He tells of the early impact of Buddy Holly, and then of American folk, then shifts to a personal analysis of three classic books, Moby Dick, All Quiet on the Western Front, and the Odyssey. He presents their complexity, their unflinching view of the rough truths of life, and the manner in which each makes statements which require the readers engagement. Much in these books is not spelled out and nailed down, just as much in his songs is not. These three books are offered for their influence on Dylan’s work.

I found the essay intelligent and moving, and instead of providing a blow by blow, I recommend that you use the link below to read it for yourselves.

I will only quote one short passage, from near the end:

Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard.

I hope you will take the time to read the whole essay. Meanwhile, I think I’ll go dig up some of those old LPs I bought while I was in college during the sixties. He has a rough voice and I don’t like his harmonica playing, but oh, those words!