Monthly Archives: September 2018

525. Highland Laddie Gone

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

Of all the books on my best list, this is the weirdest, hands down. It sings, but its song belongs on a Ray Stevens album. Highland Laddie Gone by Sharyn McCrumb is the funniest book in history, or an incomprehensible mess, depending on how well you understand the backstory.

Which brings me to my backstory. I am not a Scot, but my wife is. Her mother, a Swede, became more Scottish than the Scots in pursuit of her husband’s culture. I learned to love bagpipe music and appreciate tartans from her. I also got into the habit of going to the local Scottish Games every year, where I found this book in a Scottish book stall.

The Scottish Games are an odd mixture of athletic events, genuine Scottish history, and romantic historical claptrap, with the last being the strongest element. I love them, but I am not fooled about how silly the whole concept is. I like the games like some people like Benny Hill.

The Highland Games are about as realistic as a bunch of modern Virginia women shucking their skinny jeans for hoop skirts and sitting around sipping mint juleps while their husbands reenact the Civil War — and that happens in this book, too.

There is also a Scottish marine biologist who has come over for the summer on a grant to study the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay, only to find out that the man paying the bills really wants him to study Chessie. If you don’t know, Chessie is the Chesapeake Bay equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster.

Our heroine, Elizabeth MacPherson is attending the Glencoe Games, one of the bigger venues. She is naive, slightly overweight, and in love with glamor but can’t quite pull it off. She solves mysteries, although the reader is left wondering how, and she has a wicked tongue for countering catty remarks.

The more I describe Highland Laddie Gone, the more I can’t believe it is one of my favorites. But it is jammed full of the humor of juxtaposition, both linguistic and cultural. There are at least five one-liners per page. Example:

When Elizabeth falls for the visiting biologist’s Scottish accent, she tells him, “I love your rrr’s.”

Taken aback, he replies, “Yes, your arse is rather nice, as well.”

Elizabeth knows the fake Scottishness of the games, but little about historical Scotland, and absolutely nothing about modern Scotland. Cameron, the visiting biologist, has never seen a Game and finds them incomprehensible; he has no interest in history, and all he want to talk about are modern Scottish sports teams. He and Elizabeth spend the entire book talking past each other, with hilarious results.

Then Lachlan, the dealer in fake genealogies and associated trinkets, is killed with a skian dubh, a ceremonial dagger. The call goes out, and the local sheriff is just over the hill at a Civil War reenactment. He tells his troops to stop being dead until he gets back, and heads toward the Game at a gallop in the full dress of a Southern cavalry officer. He sees the death weapon and says, “This will be easy. How many of these things can there be?” The attendees have to tell him that every one of the thousand kilted pseudo-Scotsmen has a skian dubh in his sock.

Elizabeth decides to solve the mystery, and all her friends push her this way and that, hoping she will find the clues they are directing her toward. Eventually, she does find the killer, but she never has a clue of what has actually been going on.

The  joy of this book is all in the one-liners. I’ve given you a few; there are hundreds more in HLG, but you might miss many of them if you don’t know the Games or the Reenactments.

If this sounds like fun, but you are only into science fiction, you might try Bimbos of the Death Sun or Zombies of the Gene Pool in which McCrumb takes on science fiction conventions.

Advertisements

524. The Other Side of Dying

Atheism is not a satisfactory solution to life. It may be the truth — I’ve thought so for fifty-five years — but it isn’t satisfactory on many levels.

Religion, and it doesn’t much matter which one, is quite satisfactory, as long as belief holds out. The problem of death is solved by not dying, not really, just moving on to the next step in an ongoing life. I really miss the comforts of that belief. The question “why are we here?” is not really solved, but it gets kicked upstairs to the fellah at the higher pay grade, so we can stop worrying about it. Good enough; now we can get on with life.

Cyan, which is out now, is one of those novels that never gets into religion. There are thousands of them out there. However I grew up as a fundamentalist Christian, then changed my mind. That means religion plays a big role in my thinking and, therefore, in most of my writing.

My first science fiction book, Jandrax, concerns a group of fundamentalists stranded on an unexplored world. The hero is an ex-fundamentalist. Sound familiar?

My next SF novel, A Fond Farewell to Dying, concerned an ex-fundamentalist who had invented a mechanical form of immortality. Wish fulfillment, maybe? FFTD was designed to present a completely mechanistic world view, but about half way through the writing, unexplained things started happening in the manuscript. Events occurred that the hero’s version of immortality could not explain. Don’t blame me; they weren’t my (conscious) ideas, but clearly something in the back of my head was yelling “this isn’t enough.”

I left all the oddities in place. It is unwise to ignore the gods, or fates, or subconscious, but all my characters ended the book more or less happy with the result of their eternal lives.

My latest novel, Like Clockwork, takes place in a world where everybody lives forever, and nobody is satisfied. These are a group of people who were self-chosen for their disbelief, and given an alternative to death. They accepted, but have ended up with a massive case of buyer’s remorse.

I can’t tell you more, without giving away the plot, but their version of immortality is pretty screwy. I’m consciously bringing things full circle, with a work that is a deliberate flip side to A Fond Farewell to Dying.

There are two — or more — sides to every story. Fortunately, as writers we don’t have to know the philosophical truth of the universe. We just have to tell a plausible tale that resembles reality enough to please our readers. And if we get to exorcise a few personal demons at the same time, it’s a nice bonus.

Trump World

I’ve been working on Like Clockwork, my latest steampunk novel. Today I was rereading a chapter from about the middle of the manuscript when this caught my attention. Let me share a few paragraphs.

“But lately it has all been falling apart.”

“You must expect that. Not everyone believed in the Founder’s ideas completely. One little girl didn’t believe at all. After He left, there was no one to answer prayers, and belief doesn’t last forever.”

“Are you saying that You — He — one or both of You  — answered prayers?”

“Of course not. But We did have the capacity to convince people that their prayers were being answered, even when they got the opposite of what they asked for. Any good religion can do that. You people are very easy to convince.”

Okay, is see the uncomfortable resemblance too, but I wasn’t thinking of Trump when I wrote this. Honest!

Then I read on and found another thought two pages later:

“So how do we get our world back to reality?”

“Reality? Never heard of it. You don’t get back to reality, you create reality. Didn’t you understand a word I said? If you want a different reality, tear this one down, and build a new one.”

Now that I can stand behind.

523. Monkeying Around

This is about accuracy in discourse, and therefore applicable to writers, but it won’t seem so at first. Stick with me a few paragraphs and you’ll see.

The last week of August, there was a primary in Florida. In the aftermath, Ron DeSantis said the voters would “monkey this up” if they voted for his black opponent, and was slammed for making a racist comment.

Really?

I remember the Monkees, back in the Precambrian. Their theme song contained the words

Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees.
People say we monkey around.

I knew they were a fake band, but I never realized they were racists.

Knee-jerk liberals (that’s me, by the way) can look pretty silly when we overreach. Even people I respect were calling the monkey reference a racist dog whistle, and maybe it is. But let’s apply a little logic, in the form of Occam’s Razor.

What is the simplest and most likely explanation for the statement? There is no old saying “monkey this up” but there is an old saying “monkey around” and it is a simple extension to make that “monkey around and screw this up”. Millions of people have said that over the years, with no racial intent. My guess is that DeSantis was thinking “f—- this up”, and cleaned it up for television.

But I could be wrong. I don’t know the man and what I do know doesn’t impress me. “Monkey this up” may in fact be racist code, with built in plausible denial. If so, it worked beautifully. By assuming the worst, the liberal press has given the man massive publicity, and come off looking like fools.

As writers, on the other hand, we are in the business of not being misunderstood. See, I told you I would bring this around to writing.

Recently, I was revising an old novel. A young man and woman were about to move into a physical relationship, which was not not a love match. She was more excited than he was, because she lived in a small village, and he was the first male of her own age she had seen in a long time. He was planning to travel on in the spring, alone. He would tell her that in another line or two. This is what I wrote, years ago:

When he loosened the strings of her robe, she did not protest.

When I wrote that, the image in the mind of a reader would have exactly matched what I meant to say. There would have been no thought that he was forcing himself on her, or that she was reluctant in any way. In point of fact, if you had read a few sentences before and after, she was steaming.

That was then. Now, in the age of #Me Too, the phrase did not protest might be read differently than I intended when I wrote it. So I changed the line to read:

When he began to loosen the strings of her robe, she moved to hurry the process.

That is a pretty subtle change. To my mind, the two lines mean exactly the same thing, but they might not mean the same thing to a modern reader.

Readers read what we say, not what we meant to say. Communication isn’t entirely in our hands — readers do misread from time to time — but we have to do our best not to monkey things up. And no, that was not a racist dog whistle. That’s just me kicking the liberal press one more time for falling into a trap.

(Some) politicians (may) be in the business of doublespeak. They may bask in the comfort of plausible denial. Writers are not in that business. Our job is to say what we really mean, so skillfully that the reader is not confused about our intentions.

That is actually a fairly hard job.

522. First Black Astronauts

Dr. Ronald McNair, Guion Bulford, Frederick Gregory

I recently saw Leland Melvin’s new book Chasing Space and got a chance to look it over. It’s a good book, although in full disclosure I won’t finish it. I read and write for a living. so my time is limited. Additionally, I have already read more than dozen astronaut bios, so this one lacks newness for me, even though it might be just what you are looking for.

It got me thinking about the first black astronaut, if there were such a thing. We all know who the first woman astronaut was — Sally Ride. That is, if we continue our cold war prejudice against the Russians and ignore Valentina Tereshkova.

It would be neat and tidy if there were a first black astronaut, but it isn’t that simple. If you type the question into Google, it will return Guion Bluford. We’ll talk about him in a second, but there were others that came before him.

Ed Dwight was chosen by John F. Kennedy to join the astronaut corps. He was an Air Force test pilot with a degree in aeronautical engineering. While in training, he was the target of racism. When Kennedy was assassinated, Dwight withdrew from the astronaut program. A few years later, continued harassment led him to retire from the Air Force altogether. He became a noted sculptor in a second career.

Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was the next African-American astronaut. At Edwards Air Force Base, Lawrence investigated unpowered glide return characteristics using an F-104 Starfighter, contributing greatly to knowledge necessary to the Space Shuttle program. He was assigned to the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, but before he flew in space, he was killed in a crash landing while acting as a pilot instructor to a trainee. When the MOL project was abandoned, many of it’s astronauts transferred to NASA, where they became the backbone of the early Space Shuttle missions. Lawrence would almost certainly have been among them.

The “first black astronaut” falls out this way.

Ed Dwight was the first black astronaut trainee.

Robert Lawrence Jr. was the first black working astronaut. Remember that most of any astronaut’s time is spent in training and on-the-ground research. Actual flight in space makes up a tiny fraction of an astronaut’s career. Lawrence was as much a real astronaut as Roger Chaffee who died in the Apollo One fire just before his first flight.

Guion Bluford was the first black astronaut to actually fly in space in 1983 aboard the Challenger. He participated in four shuttle flights.

We also have to add Ronald McNair to the list of firsts. He was the first black astronaut to die on a space mission, when Challenger exploded. It was his second space shuttle mission.

Before 1978, there had been fifty-some American Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts and an additional few dozen assigned to other missions. Of, these only Lawrence had been black and there had been no women.

An up-to-date list of black astronauts can be found here. There are fourteen: Guion Bluford, Ronald McNair, Frederick Gregory, Charles Bolden, Mae Jemison, Bernard Harris Jr., Winston Scott, Robert Curbeam, Michael Anderson, Stephanie Wilson, Joan Higginbotham, Alvin Drew, Leland Melvin (whose book started this post), and Robert Satcher.

There are an additional eight who, for various reasons, never flew is space. Lawrence and Dwight are on that list.

521. The Eve of Battle

I was cleaning my computer of half started blog posts when I came across this quotation. It comes from the last pages of Scourge of Heaven, the sequel to Valley of the Menhir. This excerpt comes from a time when most of the action is over, when the godly battles have been won and lost, and the only task left for Tidac is stopping the human armies that have gathered in the Mariatrien Plains to do battle.

By this time Tidac is in full possession of his power. He lets his ai move from mind to mind, considering those who will stand on the verge of death when the morning comes and the armies move against each other.

============

Limiakos was king. He strode where others walked. He kept his head high, while those around him bowed. He looked at the men before him and knew that they would do what he told them to do. He walked with armed men at the left of him and armed men at the right of him, and all men feared him.

Limiakos and his kind are rare among men. If they seem common, it is only because they always make themselves so visible. Tidac had no use for them.

Such men are the leavening; they are not the loaf. Tidac set them aside and touched the others, those common men who make up the bulk of armies, and the bulk of mankind. Men neither overpoweringly good nor overpoweringly evil; men with mild ambitions and small accomplishments. Men herded to battle and taught to hate a faceless enemy. Men who die without any real understanding of the issues they decide.

For such men, the movement of nations has no reality beyond the slogans they are taught. The rise and fall of dynasties has only dim and distant meaning for them. To such men, this is reality — a woman in the night, a meal when they are hungry, a warm fire, a dry place away from the rain and perhaps, if they are among the lucky ones, a child to protect and teach.

To such men, death is the reality. The last reality they ever confront and its lessons live through eternity. If such men knew while still living, that which they learn in the moment of their deaths, there would be no wars.

Hiatus

Back in 2015 I started serializing things I had written. There have been novels, short stories, novellas, fragments, essays, and how-tos. First they came five days a week and later four days a week. All in all, I estimate that there have been between 700 and 800 posts in Serial, but I’m not going to count them. That would be too much trouble.

It has been three years, almost to the day, and I’m out of stuff.

I considered serializing Harold Goodwin’s Rip Foster novel. It is in public domain and I would love to introduce it to a new generation, but I decided against it, at least for now. Serial has been almost entirely mine, and I don’t want to screw that up. I could see serializing a series of public domain classics, but I doubt that I will.

I have two old novels, recently updated, which are out looking for a home. I have a new novel doing the same, and I see the completion of another new novel on the close horizon. None of those will appear in Serial since I am committed to seeing them published in the normal fashion.

There will be others, as well. I plan to keep writing until they nail the lid down.

I am not closing Serial. I can see several possibilities that would place more writing here at some time in the future, but none of them are likely to occur soon. So I am declaring a hiatus, not an end.

I’ll leave you with a picture of Snap working at his bench, in the shop called Like Clockwork. That’s the same as the title of the novel that is nearing completion.

Snap is still working, and so am I.