Monthly Archives: November 2018

545. Lottery Day at the Big Casino

Rep. Pirnie draws the first number.

The place was a class at Michigan State University, just about this time fifty years ago. I wasn’t in the room, so I may be wrong on a few details, but the basic story spread quickly all over campus.

The professor was a young radical. There were a lot of those at MSU in the late 60s. Finals were near when he announced that grades would be given out a little differently this year. He opened a notebook and began to call roll. As he did, an assistant drew notes from a bowl. The professor read, “Adams.” The assistant took a folded paper from the bowl, opened it, and said C. The professor read, “Baker,” and the assistant said F.

As you may guess, it left the room in an uproar. I’m sure the actual grades were given in the normal manner, but the young professor had made his point.

About a week later, a similar lottery took place nationwide, televised, and determined life or death for thousands of young Americans. I was listening closely, because I was a contestant. It was the first draft lottery since World War II.

There were three of us paying attention, my two college roommates and I. One of them didn’t have to worry; he had blown his knee out as a high school wrestler and was 4-F. That’s a medical deferment. The other roommate and I were on student deferments, but we were both going to graduate in June. He drew a high number and never served. I wasn’t so lucky.

I have said often that the draft leveled the playing field. It was a favorite saying in that era that Viet Nam was a war where black people were sent to kill yellow people for the sake of white people. Without the draft, that would have been even closer to the truth.

I wasn’t feeling so charitable when that bastard got to my birthday and pulled a 41.

Ain’t it fun to gamble in the big casino?

544. Apollo 7

We are coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of the first moon landing.

Apollo One, the fire on the pad that caused the deaths of Grissom, White and Chaffee, took place February 21, 1967, causing a long delay. About a year and a half later things were just getting back up to speed. Apollo 7, the first successful manned flight took place on October 11, 1968.

The fiftieth anniversary of that flight was about a month ago, and I missed posting about it. That’s hard for me to believe, since I have been following the space program since 1957.

Purchased today, foot to butt kit, for self-application, apply immediately.

Apollo 7 is too important to simply mention, and too controversial for someone out of the loop to cover with authority. Nevertheless, here is a thumbnail.

Mission Commander Wally Schirra’s attitude toward NASA after the Apollo one disaster was — not positive. The space program had grown into a massive source of funds for companies. Engineers and the builders in the trenches were fully committed to excellence, however top brass decisions were sometimes questionable. The choice of North American Aviation to build the Command Module was controversial. McDonnell Aircraft had built the Mercury and Gemini craft, and many pointed out that the shift to North American Aviation wasted the talent and experience that had made the space program a success so far.

To put it bluntly, the Apollo Command Module NAA originally turned out was a lemon, and everybody knew it.

During the year and a half from the disaster to the launch of Apollo 7, Wally Schirra made it his personal mission to see to it that the craft he and his fellow astronauts were to ride in was of top quality. He was abrasive and relentless, and when Apollo 7 flew successfully, it was largely because of his persistence.

The flight, which he considered an engineering test mission, was cluttered up with scientific and PR projects. When they interfered with testing out the craft, he refused to do them. In space, where nobody could override his decisions. His acerbic interchanges with ground control would have banned him from future missions, but he had already announced that he would retire at the end of the flight. What could NASA do?

Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo mission, was an engineering success but a failure in personal politics. Eisele and Cunningham were never allowed to fly again, but the subsequent missions had a CSM that they could trust.

Wally Schirra became the only astronaut to fly on Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.

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I have recently worked out a series of posts covering events in the run-up to the moon landing. As I was doing so, I also became aware of another, less joyful anniversary. Since it took place on December first, which is a Saturday this year, I will skip Wednesday’s post and fill you in this Friday.

543. The Door

 

Photo: Marcin Konsek / Wikimedia Commons

Here is a quote for you, hot off the grill.

There is a door. On one side is written Science Fiction. On the other side is written Fantasy. You can come from either side, and pass through either way, but it will still be the same door.

You can write pure, hard science fiction, and you can write pure fantasy. At least you can try to, but no matter how much you try there will always be a modicum of fantasy in science fiction. And fantasy will always have a hard edge of life and death, or it won’t be worth reading.

Like Clockwork sounds like fantasy until half way through, when all the weird things are shown to have a scientific basis — more or less. And in the middle of the setting of the story, there is an arch between Inner London, which looks like a Dickens movie set, and Outer London, which looks like an equation.

 Snap’s world lay pinned against the Thames, from St. Paul’s to the Clock and on to the Tower, with London Bridge somewhere near the middle. It would be hard to chart the boundaries of Snap’s world, as it was a world of fogs.

Balfour walked with Snap as far as Pickwick’s and took his leave. From there, his path took him along the wider thoroughfares — and the widest were none too wide — past the shell of St. Paul’s. It was familiar territory for Balfour. He was one of the few whose nature allowed him to move freely between Inner and Outer London.

Eventually, he reached The Wall at Newgate Arch. As he faced the opening, it was a weathered arch with carvings mellowed by the corrosive fog until they were quite unreadable.  He passed through and looked back. On this side of the wall, the gate was foursquare and framed in brick. Every brick was identical and a caliper could not have found a variation in the lines of mortar.

The city beyond was foursquare as well, with rectangular buildings on rectilinear streets. A small fragment of humanity lived with Snap in Luddie London; the rest lived here.

Yin and yang. Dark and light. Old and new. The look of fantasy and the look of science fiction. It makes for a nice tension.

542. Characters

Characters in science fiction are . . . different. Let’s look at a few.

I have little interest in sterling characters who fight for the right, without a blemish or a flaw. That’s a good thing actually, since no one else does either. My only exception is Kimball Kinnison (of the Lensman series). That’s him overhead, walking with his buddies Tregonsee and Worsel.

I have no interest in literary characters who live their little lives and make novels out of the trivialities of existence. Here is a test; if a book seems to only have readers because it is required in college literature classes, maybe you should just go read some science fiction.

I like people — and characters — who do their job and a little more; who don’t think that the sun rises and sets in themselves, but who are also not passively afraid to assert themselves.

I don’t like villains who are deeply and intractably evil. I make use of such characters if I need them, but I keep them off stage. They are boring, seen up close.

I like my villains to be like my other people, rational and a little bigger than life, but affected by a flaw of character or aligned to the wrong side. They are usually selfish, but good heroes always have a bit of selfishness as well.

An interesting hero is necessary; an interesting villain is a nice bonus.

I don’t expect other authors to have similar taste, and some of my favorite books have characters I would not have chosen to write. Genly Ai comes to mind. If you don’t recognize him, he is the character through which we experience Ursula le Guin’s the Left Hand of Darkness. It is a fine book, and he does the job her story requires of him, but he is a bit of a cypher. I like Sparrowhawk better, and that is probably a big part of why I like A Wizard of Earthsea better.

And then there’s Alvin (or any other character that Arthur C. Clarke ever wrote). The City and the Stars, in either of its incarnations, (See 332. and 333.) is a mind expanding tour of the universe, but its protagonist is dull, dull, dull.

Zelazny’s characters are universally smart assed, universally delightful, and hard to tell apart.

Heinlein’s characters are all Heinlein.

541. Who is Balfour?

If there is a single characteristic of Steampunk that stands out as nearly universal, it is the use of changed versions of real persons. For instance, in The Cost of Empire, I made some fundamental changes in the British royal family (Victorian era) to get the Prince of Wales I needed for the story.

In Like Clockwork, there are quite a few alternate real people who pop up at the very end, but the most important is Balfour who is one of the main characters. You met him just before and on Halloween. Today we find him ruminating on what he has learned.

#     #     #

What do you do the day after your alter ego calls you out? Balfour spent the day in bed.

First he replayed the moment Hyde — he still thought of him as a separate person — had said, “Why now? Why not now?” It was a valid observation, but it missed the point. For endless iterations of the year, Balfour had not remembered.

“Why now?” was a valid question, and Hyde had not answered it. Why not yesterday, or a year ago, or a hundred years ago? How could Balfour change in a changeless land? Or was the land itself finally beginning to change?

Balfour took The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the shelf where it had lain unread and unremembered. He spent some time with it. It now seemed cumbersome and circuitous, but the ghost of Hyde had understood it well. It was a piece of rebellion against his father’s religion and a piece of youthful arrogance, all jumbled together.

Balfour remembered other books he had written, or Stevenson had written, now that the dam against memory had partially broken. He remembered his youthful travelogues, and he remembered Treasure Island, the book that had made him rich. When he wrote Kidnapped he had finally given David Balfour one of his own names, and now he was using it again. He thought fondly of that character, and fondly of his young self, so far in the past that even the memories were ghostly.

He remembered Edinburgh and thought, “London is not my town. Give me Auld Reekie any time, with its narrow twisted streets stretching from Holyrood to the Castle.”

He remembered Fanny, his wife, and how hard it had been to win her. He remembered her children. He had written a book of poems for them, and for all the other children of the world.

He remembered a race of dark skinned people who had found him strange, but had made him one of their own. He also remembered a single poem written on a grave in that hot and humid land.

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

It was a lie. He had not laid himself down with a will. He had laid down in exhaustion after a lifetime of fighting tuberculosis, happy to have the pain stop and happy not to face once more the terror of being unable to breathe; but not happy to let go of the life and the people he had loved.

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born in 1850, and now he was living in an eternal 1850, not as an infant, but as a grown man with the accomplishments of a lifetime behind him.

A whole lifetime. A lifetime that tunneled all the way from that squalling infant in Scotland to a tombstone on a mountaintop in Samoa.

How could that be?

He had some of the memories of Stevenson, but the man himself had lived and died, and surely was no more. Hyde, who lived in his soul, had said to call himself Stevenson, but what was he really? Not the man himself; at best, a shade of the man. A memory, lying in bed, remembering.

He squirmed and groaned, and fought with those memories that were his, and yet were not his.

The first memory he could call his own, separate from Stevenson, was this room. He had no memory of choosing the Clock in the time Before. Whatever had brought him here, it was by a different path than any other citizen of this new London had taken.

Whatever else he was, he was Balfour, and he had been Balfour for endless iterations of the year. He had a face that looked like the face on the cover of Stevenson’s books. He had a lean body that served him well. Stevenson had been sickly, consumptive, and Balfour was not.

The man — or the shade of the man — who had passed from Edinburgh to Samoa, wracked with tuberculosis, fighting weakness all the way, through poverty to riches, from obscurity and parental disapproval to universal fame, was not content to leave things the way they were.

He was not truly Stevenson and this was not truly 1850 by a wide margin. He was Balfour, and he was ready to do battle once again to find out what it all meant.

Curious? Sure you are. Want more? It’s coming.

540. Where Are the Vets?

Here are some statistics, tailored for those who read this blog. I know most of you are young. I see your pictures on your likes, and I check out your websites.  I’m not young, so I see changes you may not be aware of.

Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and both presidents Bush all served in the military in wartime. Regan and Bush Two served stateside in wartime; the others all saw combat.

Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump did not serve.

In the current House of Representatives only 70 of 435 have served in the military. In the current Senate, only 13 of 100 have served. Those numbers will go up slightly with the incoming congress.

Veterans were not so under represented in previous congresses.

These figures relate the the reduced number of persons in the military. That is not quite the same as a smaller military, since the persons now serving tend to spend more years in service. Draftees from previous eras tended to go home as soon as they were allowed to do so.

I come from a long line of draftees. My father served in Europe in WW II, was wounded, and remained during the occupation of Germany. His younger brother was drafted, trained, and was on a ship “heading for Japan to die” (his words) when the US dropped the A bomb. He ended up in the occupation of Japan. I joined the Navy, Vietnam era, but not by choice. My draft number was 41, which meant my number was up (in both senses of the word) before I finished college. And no, I did not see combat.

I hated the draft and I still do, but it had one positive aspect. It leveled the playing field. More Americans had to step up, whether they wanted to or not, and that led to more protests. Without the draft, we would have been in Vietnam much longer.

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the end of WW I. All those veterans are gone. WW II ended in 1945. Very few of the vets from my father’s generation are still around.

America left Vietnam in 1973. Any vet who saw that day at age 18 would be 63 today. That was also the last  year American’s were drafted.

I’m not suggesting a return to the draft, God forbid. I have no particular agenda at all; I just want to give you this to think about.

A country which everyone has to defend, or at least has to stand in jeopardy of military service, is a very different thing from a country that depends on a volunteer military.

Better? Worse? That will be your decision going forward.

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The numbers in this post come from PBS.

539. Alien Space Bats

If you have never heard the term Alien Space Bats, join the club. I found it while searching for an illustration for this post, originally titled deus ex machina. Alien Space Bats was a better title, so I changed it. ASB refers to impossible points of divergence in alternate history stories, as in, “It would take alien space bats intervening to make this story fly.” In short, it is a funnier way of saying deus ex machina.

Deus ex machina translates roughly as the God in the Machine, referring to an event in a Greek play wherein a God is literally lowered onto the stage to explain why everything happened as it did. It is all about plausibility and timing.

If, as a writer, you drag something into the story at the last minute to explain what has been going on, you are likely to be subject to ridicule, and deus ex machina is the phrase critics will use as a club to beat you with.

I ran into a variation of this back in the Precambrian, when I was in grad school. The class was on Indian history and culture. That is South Asian Indian, not Native American. We read a story in which the hero suffered terrible tribulations and at the very end it was revealed that he had done something bad in a previous life, and that was why all these things had happened to him.

My fellow students cried deus ex machina. I disagreed. If you were a Hindu, practicing or not, this story would have sounded reasonable. The bad things that happen to Hindus in this life are all explicable; they are all because they did something wrong in a past life and there is no point in moaning about it. As in life, so in literature.

It’s actually quite Christian, in a twisted sort of way. Fundamentalists don’t look to something individuals have personally done wrong, but to original sin to tell us why the bad things happen to good people.

Nowadays, New Age thinkers (?) have stood this on its head. You hear it everywhere, “Everything happens for a reason,” by which they mean that good will come from every apparent tragedy. It is undoubtedly the least intellectually valid cliché of the twenty-first century — but that’s a whole different sermon.

Now if you are or want to be a writer — and why would you be this far into this post if that weren’t true — you are the God and your computer is the machine. So ask yourself, why do bad things happen to your characters?

Metaphysically, you may be working out some personal trauma. Practically, you can’t have a plot without tension. But when it comes right down to it, neither of these is of any interest to your reader.

Your reader takes your story and temporarily treats it as real. When he reaches the point that he can’t do that any longer, he closes the book and you’re through.

So the question is, in your story, why do these things happen to your hero? In a thriller, it may be easy. His (or her) wife, husband, daughter, boss, company, governmental agency, or law firm has done something wrong and that is the reason your hero is on the run. Motivation is set from the get-go and the thriller formula becomes a matter of clever events to carry him/her through her/his tribulations.

If your hero has brought the troubles on himself, things get a little more interesting. If he/she has complicating factors and cross-motivations, even better, but you have to dribble all this out as you go along. You can’t do it as an info dump at the beginning and you can’t do it as a cheaters dump at the end. And in our world, a cheaters dump is a more honest word for deus ex machina.

You might get away with it in ancient Greece, but not in America today. Nor — recognizing that half the people reading this post are not from the USA and a fourth of them are from India — in any place where western style literature is the norm.

This is the game we have all agreed to play, so there is no point in whining about the rules.

If you have a reason for the things that happen in your story, but you don’t give hints along the way — if you save it all up for that dramatic reveal and dump it all on your reader at the very end, you’re on your own. I can’t help you.