Monthly Archives: September 2018

527. Jack of Shadows

This is one of the fifteen that hit the sweet spot. Actually, almost anything by Zelazny belongs on somebody’s best-of list.

If you haven’t read Roger Zelazny, it’s time to start. The border between science fiction and fantasy is his domain, and nobody explores in better than he does.

Zelazny’s magnum opus is the Amber series, ten books detailing the story of Prince Corwin and his family and enemies — frequently the same people. You might start with Nine Princes in Amber, but then you will find yourself hooked, with nine more books to read before you can rest.

He also has a number of stand-alone novels, any one of which would be a proper place to begin to experience Zelazny. To name a few, in publication order:

This Immortal
The Dream Master
Isle of the Dead
Jack of Shadows
To Die in Italbar
Doorways in the Sand
Bridge of Ashes
Eye of Cat

There are also a half dozen between Bridge of Ashes and Eye of Cat which, in my opinion, don’t stack up to the rest. I’ve read and reread all of the above and a few more, along with numerous of his short stories. They always seem to be lurking in the Best Of . . . anthologies.

Isle of the Dead is probably my favorite among the stand-alones, followed closely by Eye of Cat, but as a recommendation for a Zelazny newbie I give you Jack of Shadows. It is close on the heels of the previous two in quality, and it is a more typical Zelazny. If you like Jack of Shadows as well as I do, you’re probably ready to take the big leap into the seemingly endless Amber books. Just make sure you don’t start out of order or it will drive you nuts. Check out the bottom of this post for details.

Jack, our (anti) hero begins his tale at his execution.

His planet is tidally locked with it’s sun like scientists used to think Mercury was. One side is constantly in day and the other constantly in night. Ah, you say, science fiction. Don’t jump to any conclusions. The daysiders are quite scientific, but the nightsiders are denizens of magic. Jack derives his power from shadow, so he is a creature of both and of neither, which is a very Zelaznyesque thing to be.

Nightsiders are immortal, but can be killed. Upon death, they are reborn in the Dung Pits of Glyve, which is at the middle of the nightside of the planet. That is where Jack finds himself shortly after the story begins, and the novel is basically the tale if Jack working his way back past innumerable enemies, to freedom, revenge, questionable redemption, and a cliffhanger ending.

Almost every review, and there are many of them, tells the whole story in brief. But why would you want to know if you plan to read it yourself? I won’t be party to cheating you like that.

If you decide to take the big leap into the Amber series, here is a list to keep you in proper order. There are two sets of five novels, the first being the story of Corwin:

Nine Princes in Amber
The Guns of Avalon
Sign of the Unicorn
The Hand of Oberon
The Courts of Chaos

The second set is the story of his son Merlin.

Trumps of Doom
Blood of Amber
Sign of Chaos
Knight of Shadows
Prince of Chaos

Neither set of novels comes to a proper conclusion. Zelazny was still writing them when he passed. We can imagine that he is somewhere in a luxurious room in Castle Amber, close enough to hear Random’s drumming, writing the ninety-second installment for the amusement of the immortals.

Aside for those old enough to have read Amber when it was being written: Did anybody else out there think the title of book one was a mashup of Nine Princes Waiting and Forever Amber and the second book title a spin on The Guns of Navarone, three best sellers of that era? Considering Zelazny’s sense of humor, it could be.

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526. The Read Me Function

Never judge a book by its cover.

Sage advice, but largely meaningless. Covers sell books. A friend of a friend who writes romance eBooks advised me, if I ever published that way, to make sure that the cover looked like all the other covers for the same kind of book. She wasn’t talking about how good the cover looked. She was talking about branding. Did the cover scream at the top of its voice Romance, or Science Fiction, or Zombie Book.

I understood exactly what she meant, from sad experience. The cover for A Fond Farewell to Dying has an angel with a trumpet calling what appear to be dead folks out of some boxes. It fit the story only by a massive stretch of imagination, but it did look like one of those End of the World books that used to be popular. I found it once on a spinner rack of Christian books. Somebody got a surprise when they got home that night.

At least it used to be that you could pick up a paperback and read the blurb, but that is usually wildly inaccurate. The only hope you had, in the days when people went to bookstores and actually handled the books they were about to buy, was to read.

Imagine that.

Usually, the first few pages would tell you if you wanted to continue. That is why every how-to-write book you’ve ever read stresses making the first page great. That also works for selling manuscripts. If the first page is terrible, no reader or editor will ever read page two. Of course, there are fifty other hoops to jump through between a good first page and a sale.

At least a good first page might sell a book once it’s published and on the newsstand. The reader won’t come to hate you until he has slid into bed, with the light burning, and then finds out that everything goes south after page fourteen. All tucked in and nothing to read; and out a few dollars besides. Grrrrr.

So what do you do if you buy on line? You use the Read Me function, of course.

Technology giveth and technology taketh away, and the Read Me function is a pure gift. It’s like thumbing through the first pages of a novel by a new author in the newsstand to see if you like him (or her), but without the clerk giving you the stink eye. And you can do it in the comfort of your own home. It’s heaven.

It’s amazing how many books I haven’t bought, because of the Read Me function.

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.

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.