Monthly Archives: August 2018

Short note, bad joke

I am working on a story which includes a person whose father was protestant and whose mother was catholic. As a result, the character is ambivalent about religion. He says at one point, “I prayed to a Protestant God when my father was listening, and to a Catholic God when my mother was listening. It was all the same to me.”

In another place, this sentence occurs —


His bi-sect-ual childhood had made him immune to religious enthusiasm.

I took the offending adjective out today. It was just too jarring to leave in place in a serious work. But oh how the smart-ass in me hated to see it go — so much that I had to write this mini-post before it faded into the ether.

It won’t be in the final manuscript, but at least you heard it here.

519. The Lensmen (2)

Continued from Monday . . .

If you find the style of Galactic Patrol too old fashioned after two chapters, move on; you were born too late to enjoy it. But if you don’t stay, you will miss a menagerie of strange aliens, both sentient and otherwise.

No one has read all of science fiction, but I’ve read a lot. And in my slice of the SF universe, I have never found a writer who created more or weirder creatures than Doc Smith. I’ll describe just two; first Worsel:

. . . there was hurtling downward toward them a veritable dragon: a nightmare’s horror of hideously reptilian head, of leathern wings, of viciously fanged jaws, of frightfully taloned feet,  of multiple knotty arms, of long, sinuous heavily-scaled serpent’s body.

This is the creature who will become the second most formidable Lensman, and Kennison’s best friend. A third Lensman was Tregonsee:

This . . .apparition was at least erect, which was something. His body was the size and shape of an oil-drum. Beneath this massive cylinder of a body were four short, blocky legs upon which he waddled about with surprising speed. Midway up the body, above each leg, there sprouted out a ten-foot-long, writhing, boneless, tentacular arm, which toward the extremity branched out into dozens of lesser tentacles, ranging in size from hair-like tendrils up to mighty fingers two inches or more in diameter. Tregonsee’s head was merely a neckless, immobile, bulging dome in the center of the flat upper surface of his body — a dome bearing neither eyes nor ears, but only four equally-spaced toothless mouths and four single, flaring nostrils.

These are the minions of civilization; the baddies look worse.

Are these aliens too weird to be believable? Actually, the opposite is true. When we move beyond our solar system, if we don’t find aliens so outré that no science fiction writer could have predicted them, I’ll eat my keyboard.

Part of the power of these descriptions comes from E. E. Smith’s writing style. In flipping through the internet while writing this, I ran across a comment that if the Lensman series were to be offered for publication today, it would not be accepted. That is absolutely true, but it is also true that without the Lensman series, there would be no Star Wars, nor any other space opera. The Lensman series set the pattern that all others would follow, and nothing that came after was as good as the original.

Heinlein was Smith’s friend, and our best picture of him comes from RAH. He said that Smith was the original of the Gray Lensman, and that his wife was the original of Clarissa MacDougal, Kinnison’s sometime companion-in-adventure and wife-to-be.

Much of the charm of the series lies in Kennison’s Boy Scout incorruptibility. Those who say he has no personality are wrong. He simply has a personality that is out of the modern norm. Like Jesus. — which is exactly what he should be, as the end product of thousands of years of Arisan work in perfecting human DNA.

All this works, and the hundreds of weird aliens work, because E. E. Smith’s writing style is essentially naive. His rolling cascades of description could only come from someone who is incapable of embarrassment.

It’s been a long time since that kind of writer has been in vogue, and that day will probably never come again. But if you can achieve the right mind-set, you can still be amazed. The six paperback novels are available in any good used book store. Pass the clerk a ten-spot and the wonders of the universe will be yours.

518. The Lensmen (1)

This is one of the fifteen that hit the sweet spot.

Part of this appeared in Alien Autopsy (2), but this is an expanded version.

E. E. (Edward Elmer) Smith’s prose sings. I said that all my selections sing and I’m going to stick to that statement. I also said that that singing was a function of the story being told. Smith’s prose is like a heavy metal band in front of a driving beat, pumping their fists and screaming out in a harsh falsetto.

Doc Smith is the only writer I know above the age of twelve who uses capital letters for emphasis, as in —

All I can say in that you have the most important assignment in the Universe today, and repeat — that information MUST GET BACK TO BASE.     Galactic Patrol p. 23

Admittedly he only uses this sparingly, but if any modern writer were to use it at all, it would be tongue in cheek. Smith is completely serious. 

So why is he on my best list? Because no one is better than Doc Smith at what he does — pure evil, shining good, huge distances, dizzying speed, massive warfare, whole planets reduced to rubble, and a hero that is so perfect that Superman would retire if he ever met him. All this without a single blush; without even knowing that some of his fans might blush for him. That complete lack of a sense of the ridiculous is why the Lensman series works. Mankind is fighting for its life against an evil and overpowering enemy, every man must do his part, and there is no place for half measures.

Like Star Wars on steroids? No, that defames Smith and his work. Doc Smith invented space opera. Star Wars is the Lensman series diluted by a whole ocean.

[That, by the way, is me being over the top in homage to Smith, who lived over the top.]

Let’s take a moment to name the books in order.

                Triplanetary
                First Lensman
                Galactic Patrol
                Gray Lensman
                Second Stage Lensman
                Children of the Lens

Smith was not available in either of the two libraries that were the centers of my childhood universe, but when I got to college, one of my roommates was a fan. He wisely started me on Galactic Patrol, and I read through to the end of the series, then circled back. Take my word for it — keep the same order. If you start on the putative book one, Triplanetary, you’ll probably never make it past page five.

In fact, books four through six were written from 1937 through 1948, all appearing serialized in Astounding. Smith wrote Triplanetary in 1934, but it was a stand-alone. When he got a chance to get the complete series published in paperback, he rewrote Triplanetary to fit the others, wrote an entire new second book, First Lensman, and tweaked the rest. They fit together, and the first two have moments of excellence, but the last four are the essence of the tale. If you find the style too old fashioned after two chapters of Galactic Patrol, move on; you were born too late to enjoy it.

Continued on Wednesday.

517. The Three Stages of Heinlein

This is one of the fifteen that hit the sweet spot.

As I look back over my five hundred plus posts, I find Heinlein mentioned more than any other writer. I’m not going to repeat all that I have said, but I will provide links for you to see for yourselves.

You might think RAH is my favorite, but he isn’t. That would probably be Zelazny. When I was new to science fiction, in the fifties and sixties, it would have been Andre Norton. However, Heinlein is the one I most enjoy reading. His prose sings, but in an odd kind of way. He is like a weird uncle who sits by the fire telling lies and funny stories, occasionally laughing out loud at his own jokes, and getting serious just often enough to keep from looking like a clown.

But he does it so well.

Heinlein has been through three stages as an author. At first he was the master of compact, carefully plotted works, both short stories and novels. That was what publishers demanded at the time and he produced some masterpieces. I reviewed five of them in one post.

Then came Stranger in a Strange Land, his most popular book, and a dud, for my taste. That was the start of his inflated period, which continued until his death, as his books got longer and more discursive. He gets a lot of criticism for long windedness, and deserves all of it, but some of those works are my favorites.

Alongside his early work, Heinlein produced a number of juveniles (as they were called then) and some of them were of top quality. I reviewed several briefly, just this month. At the end of his list of juveniles is the book that Scribners rejected, Starship Troopers. It is another favorite of many, myself decidedly not included.

Heinlein had a thing for group sex and a short but pleasant relationship with the rock group Jefferson Starship.

Actually, I’ve talked about RAH more than I had realized. Maybe I need to give him a rest for a couple of years.

516. 15 Best Stories

I’ve been reading people’s lists of favorites just about as long as I can remember. It’s a great game — pitting their best list against my best list. They always lose.

So I decided to make my own best 100 list, but it didn’t work. I stalled at sixteen. Then I looked again at some of those favorites that I hadn’t read for a while, and the number dropped to fourteen. Then I remembered another long un-read classic and the number went up to fifteen.

The small number is partly because I am picky, and partly because I can’t remember every book I’ve ever read. Nevertheless, the ones I remember deserve a shout-out, and I guarantee they are an eclectic group. They do have one unifying characteristic — they all sing.

That they sing is the only real criterion for greatness in my universe. This means finding the precise balance between workaday language and the kind of overblown language that is too precious to live. That point of balance depends in part on the story being told. Hemingway, Roberts, and Le Guin, three authors from the list, are quite different from one another but each strikes the precisely right note for the story he or she is telling.

Here is the list. Six of the entries have been covered already in previous posts. I have keyed most of them with a link at the bottom of this post so you can check them out. The remaining nine will show up as individual posts over the next couple of months.

These are a mixture of novels, novellas, compilations of linked short stories, and series of novels. Some are the best or most accessible books that stand for a writers whole body of work. One represents a brilliant writer whose career was cut short before he wrote a single SF or fantasy novel.

Works that hit the sweet spot.

Nine I haven’t yet written about.

The Old Man and the Sea               Ernest Hemingway
Pavane                                               Keith Roberts
A Wizard of Earthsea                       Ursula LeGuin
The Road to Corlay                          Richard Cowper
Lensman Series                                E. E. Smith
Jack of Shadows                               Roger Zelazny
Davy and
The Trial of Calista Blake               Edgar Pangborn
The Traveler in Black                      John Brunner
Highland Laddie Gone                   Sharyn McCrumb

Six I have written about

Hunter, Come Home                     Richard McKenna
Richard McKenna had one novel in his short career, The Sand Pebbles, a best seller but not science fiction. He also wrote a number of short science fiction pieces including this one.

A Prince of the Captivity               John Buchan
John Buchan is most famous for his novel The 39 Steps. My selection is a less well known work.

The Riddle of the Sands               Erskine Childers
Erskine Childers wrote this, the first modern spy novel.

Kidnapped/Catriona                    Robert Louis Stevenson
There are two posts on this, 508 and 509, both just last month.

A Christmas Carol, et al              Charles Dickens
Altogether, Charles Dickens wrote five Christmas novels.

The Three Stages of …                Robert A. Heinlein
No link here. Check Wednesday’s post.

515. Immortal Hunger

Magic requires an agile mind and a good memory.

Immortal Hunger
by Syd Logsdon

Abbit perault desegené . . .

An old man tried to speak the words
That his fading mind could not compel;
Began again, and once again,
Could not complete the vital spell.

Outside his walls a storm was coming
Snow had just begun to fall,
Within his chest there beat the ragged,
Slowing pulse of death’s own song.

Abbit perault divalté  . . . Damn!

The formula locked in his skull,
He could not force them free —
Those words that he had labored long
To etch in stones of memory.

Four thousand years ago he spoke them,
At Marduk’s feet in Babylon.
The old God said that death was conquered,
But warned him, never wait too long.

A hundred years ago he spoke them,
With shortened breath he sang their song,
And rose to live another century —
Remember, never wait too long.

A man grows tired, a brain grows weary
Childhood memories fade away.
Three hundred wives, so many children;
Still clinging at end of day.

Not satisfied, not done with dreaming,
Not ready for his final lay,
Desire unquenched, immortal hunger
Not to simply slip away.

But hunger isn’t all he needs
If memory fades with every breath.
Abbit . . . my God what was that spell?
The one that puts an end to death.

514. Space Force

As a die-hard space fan you might think I would like Trump’s Space Force idea, but I’m too much wedded to reality. This is just another publicity stunt, although there is a real history behind it.

The Russians had an independent Space Force from 1992 to 1997, and again from 2001 to 2011. Then they gave it up and made it a sub-set of the Russian air force. That’s not as sexy, but it makes more sense. It is also the way we have things organized here in the United States.

The poor Air Force! They have made a career out of trying to make space their domain, only to be slapped in the face by bureaucracy. Do you remember project MISS? No? Nobody else does either. MISS (Man In Space Soonest) was a plan to put a man in a capsule and shoot him into space on top of a converted ICBM. Now does it sound familiar? It was an Air Force project that was handed over to NASA and became Project Mercury.

The Air Force followed up with project Dyna Soar, which would have put a winged vehicle on top of a rocket. It was cancelled because the money was needed for NASA. At the top of the post that is an artist’s impression of Dyna Soar landing at Edwards AFB after a mission.

Then the Air Force designed the Manned Orbital Laboratory, a black program which would have been America’s first space station. Cancelled; this time not by bureaucracy, but because of unexpected advances in unmanned satellites which made it obsolete before it flew.

The Air Force did provide input into the design of the Space Shuttle, and got to do some black missions. What were they? Beats me; they were secret.

The Air Force had a hand in several post-shuttle projects which never went to completion and finally got their own space ship in the X-37b. Sadly, it was unmanned.

As you can see, I’ve been writing a lot about all this. If you click on these four links, you will have a thumbnail history of NASA vs. the Air Force in a battle for space.

Now Trump wants to take space away from the Air Force altogether, but don’t blame him. He probably knows less about this than I do, and I am just an amateur enthusiast. Maybe he should click four times.

Enough of the latest publicity stunt. In Cyan, my explorers coming back from the Procyon system also faced a conflict that had been going on between NASA and a military space force while they were away. Here’s a quote:

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.”

Yeah, Tasmeen. Me, too.