Monthly Archives: January 2020

665. The Devil’s Stars

From an album by the sixties folk band Pentangle.

Fundamentalist Christians are not only uncomfortable in the presence of the number 666, they aren’t fond of a five pointed star inside a circle either. I found this out the hard way.

I was teaching a unit on Drawing Through Mathematics back when I was a middle school teacher. The technique consisted of using two concentric circles, with dots marked off mathematically, and connecting the dots between the circles with straight lines. Then the circles and dots were to be erased.

In this manner you can make stars with any number of points and control whether they are fat or skinny. I’ll show you how at the bottom of this post. In one session of my class we had already made six and seven pointed stars without any problem, but when we did five pointed stars I unintentionally caused an explosion. One student completed his star, then suddenly sat back, face white with fear, and threw it across the table shouting, “I’ve made a Devil’s star!”

I took me completely by surprise. I would never had let the number 666 creep into class. In fact, when I made up my own math worksheets, I always made sure no answer would be 666. It wasn’t fear of the school board. It was just that every kid has a right to his own beliefs, whether they make sense to me or not, and I saw no reason to make them uncomfortable.

I also knew that a five pointed star inside a circle, particularly if inverted, was a devil or witch sign during the middle ages. I just didn’t know that piece of knowledge was current in my community. I should have, since you see it in so many horror movies, but I don’t watch horror movies and I try to ignore their adds on TV. Besides I didn’t think of what we were doing as putting stars into circles, but using circles (and then erasing them) to make stars.

I explained all that to the frightened student, also invoking the fact that the symbol for the Army Air Force in WWII was a circle containing a five pointed star, and that the US government was certainly not an instrument of the devil. It took a long time to calm him down and he was still shaken when he left classroom.

I felt terrible. Probably every student I’ve ever taught felt differently about religion than I do, so I’ve always worked hard not to put any one of them on the defensive, but this incident had caught me by surprise.

It’s hard to anticipate every possibility.

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During the first two or three years of this blog I sometimes offered classroom insights, but I only have a few left that could interest any of my present readers. This might be one. Teach it to your kids, if you have any, and let them impress their teachers. Just stay away from five pointed stars if you are a fundamentalist Christian. Or embrace them if you are a Wiccan.

A three pointed star is rare except for the Mercedes Benz badge. A two pointed star is really just a skinny diamond. A one pointed star can’t exist. Any number of points, other than one, can be drawn by this method with complete control of how skinny or fat the star will be.

Draw a circle the size you want your star to be. Draw a second circle on the same center point inside the first circle. The smaller the inner circle is (compared to the outer), the skinnier the star points will be, and vice versa.

Decide how many points you want on your star. Divide that number into 360. That is the number of degrees each point will take. Divide that number in half. That is the offset.

Example for an eight pointed star —
360 divided by 8 allows 45 degrees for each point, with a 22.5 degree offset.

Draw a line from the center through both circles. Starting on the point where the line crosses the outer circle, draw eight dots 45 degrees apart around the outer circle.

Where the line crosses the inner circle, offset a dot by 22.5 degrees, then draw eight dots 45 degrees apart around the inner circle.

Connect the dots. Voilà. Then erase the construction lines. I still use the method when designing quilt blocks.

664. Whose Number is This Anyway?

Post number 666 is coming soon, and there is no way I can ignore it. It stirs things up, three posts worth in fact, so I have to start talking about it today.

Perhaps I should explain the number 666, because many people who read this blog do not live in overwhelmingly Christian countries.

666 is a number that appears in the Christian Bible, in the Revelation, which is its last book. Revelation purports to be prophesy of the last days and the end of the world. Serious Christians spend a lot of time thinking about that and not so serious Christians are fully aware of it. Smart ass kids joke about it; serious kids get freaked out by it. Writers of fantasy use it for inspiration, atmosphere, and images. If you take the time to read Revelation (get the King James version for the full smell of brimstone) you will find that it makes Stephen King sound like Little Lord Fauntleroy. The heavy metal band Iron Maiden rode to fame on it. Nobody ignores it.

Just to make my own position clear, I used to be a Christian and now I’m not. I have a tenuous relations with Christianity since almost all my friends are Christian, many deeply so, and I would not want to offend them. Still . . .

Here is the quotation in question, from Revelation 13:16-18, King James Version:

[16] And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:

[17] And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

[18] Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.

The beast carried the number 666 in his forehead and all his followers were required to do the same. This quotation is just about the number itself. The rest of the chapter is about the beast, and it is terrifying.

The Revelation’s picture of the last days was deeply disturbing to a twelve year old kid sitting in the back pew of a small Baptist Church, deep in Oklahoma, well into the night service, surrounded by the moist heat of August, with darkness outside and the sweat-soaked preacher thundering from the pulpit as his hour of hellfire preaching reached its crescendo. And it wasn’t an isolated sermon. My church served up hellfire three times a week, and the Revelation was the text for the feast several times a month.

It still gives me a chill, and it makes me understand the almost superstitious revulsion many people have for the number 666.

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Thinking about all this brought up a fairly frivolous question — since phone codes are three digit, is there an area code 666? Apparently not, although my authority is the internet, so let’s treat this as hearsay. Apparently the number 666 is “currently not assigned” which means that it is one of those area code numbers reserved for growth. It also means that it could be assigned at any time. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

My wandering through the internet in search of more bits about 666 revealed a lot of facts which may not be so factual. It is said that area code 666 was once assigned to an area in Louisiana and that local Christians petitioned successfully to have it changed. It sounds like something that could have happened, but stories that good are often invented.

There was one Q&A which I can’t resist repeating.

In what state is area code 666 located? Hellsavania.

That’s enough for one post about the infamous number, but the issues have barely been touched on. There’s more. Stand by.

663. Delayed Youth

Last week I mentioned that I was not allowed to have non-Disney comic books as a child. There were two small exceptions. When we moved onto a new farm when I was seven, someone had left a Blackhawk comic behind. I hid it and read it in secret until the ink wore off (metaphorically).

Every week my Dad and I went in for haircuts — a flattop for me, not by choice. While my Dad had his haircut, I read Spiderman from one of the comic books that was always there hidden under Outdoor Life and the Progressive Farmer. He never caught on.

Here’s a hint. If you want your kid to want something, make sure he can’t have it.

There were a lot of words I couldn’t say growing up. All the usual cuss words, of course, but also Chevy (we were a Ford family), Allis Chalmers (we were a John Deere family), or Democrat (we were a Republican family).

Here’s another hint. If you want your kid to be a rebel, don’t ask him what he thinks, just tell him what to think.

When I finally got away from home, one of my college roommates was a folk singer. He had an extra guitar which I borrowed. While I was learning to play it that first year, I was also accumulating records by people like Baez (Deportees), Paxton (The Ballad of Spiro Agnew), and Ochs (I Ain’t Marching Anymore), and starting to pay attention to that war in Viet Nam that I would be expected wage when I got out of college.

Hint number three, if you want to grow a liberal, force him to be a conservative as he grows up. The threat of the draft doesn’t hurt either as a way of liberalizing a farm boy.

My other roommate gave me a couple of gifts, besides just being nice guy. He introduced me to the Lensman series (Doc Smith, aka E. E. Smith, Ph. D.) and to paperback science fiction in general.

In one sense, my childhood was lucky. I read science fiction from the beginning and my parents never caught on that Stranger in a Strange Land was probably more dangerous to a child’s sexual morality than Spiderman was.

It was the covers. Old books from an old library in the fifties meant that the covers on science fiction novels were plain tan cloth with no pictures. There were no bookstores anywhere near, so my parents never saw those wonderful paperback covers with all those wonderful half-nekked women. If they had, I would have been restricted to Mitchner and Costain.

The other thing my college roommate introduced me to was Marvel comics. Not counting an occasional Spiderman in the barber shop, I had never seen Marvels, and it didn’t take long to get hooked. I had my youthful dalliance with Marvel about ten years later than I should have.

Pretty soon I was reading them all. There were so many crossovers that you couldn’t skip one you didn’t care much for, for fear that it would mess up your enjoyment of one of your favorites. Those Marvel people were marketing geniuses.

I had my Marvel decade during the wrong decade of my life. Eventually, I had to quit cold turkey. By that time I was writing full time, Jandrax was out, A Fond Farewell to Dying was on the way, and I  wasn’t making enough money to support my habit.

So I quit. All at once. Quitting cigarettes would have been less painful.

Does anyone want to buy a collection, much thumbed and totally not mint, of every Marvel comic, one copy of each, from 1967 to 1977? Never mind, I might re-read them someday. After all, I re-read everything else.

662. Slavery

I am not a professional historian, but as a student of history, with an MA in that field, I consider myself bound by some of the same rules of accuracy. What follows is based on long study, but it is also very much an overview. Any expert could shoot a few holes into this, but they would be very small and local holes in a basically correct summary.

Slavery has been around forever and everywhere. The Romans had it. Native American’s had it. The long centuries when Eastern Europe went back and forth between the Christian world and the Muslim world produced slaves in vast numbers. We Americans can’t really understand the institution unless we see more than just the Southern plantation.

The America which gave us today’s race relations was British America. In Spanish America and French America the story took different turns. To understand slavery in what was to become the U.S.A., we need to look first at a couple of examples of what was happening before blacks arrived.

The British Navy was mostly a slave institution, though never called that. The officers chose to be there; the men, especially in wartime, did not. A few volunteered, and mostly regretted it, but the bulk of naval crews were impressed. That means picked up by armed bands and forced into service. Kidnapped, in other words, but legally since the government was doing the kidnapping.

(Not unlike Selective Service, come to think of it.)

Once on board, they were subject to punishment without trial, given inadequate food, and brutally flogged at the whim of their officers. They were taken away from their families for long periods and frequently killed or maimed in combat. If they lived long enough they would be released back into civilian life, so it was not true slavery.

At first this system lacked a racial component, but as time went on British merchant ships came to be manned primarily by sailors from India. If you read Sherlock Holmes you will find Lascars (Indian sailors in the British fleet) everywhere in Victorian England. This allowed conditions on board to remain so vile that only the destitute would sail. The same thing happened in America, where American officers and crews gave way to American officers with foreign sailors, for the same economic reasons.

Back on land, during the early days of the British American colonies, the rich took passage, but the poor had to bind themselves to pay for transportation. They became semi-slaves for a set period of years, but a bound person could look forward to eventual release. The system had a class component, but not a racial one, and was not permanent, so it wasn’t true slavery.

A system existed in south-western India which is worth looking for because of what it lacks. I will be a little vague here since this is from a treatise I read while getting my first MA in the mid-seventies. I’m presenting it from memory. In that area of India, low caste people were bound into a complex relationship with upper castes. The upper caste owned the land; the lower castes worked it. Sometimes when a family fell into debt and was on the verge of starvation, the father would sell himself into slavery to save his family. This was called lifetime indenture, because the man became a slave, but his family did not.

That is a huge difference, and is the reason I offer it in contrast to what happened in America.

When the first Africans arrived as slaves in 1684, forced labor had already existed for a long time in Britain and British America. With the arrival of blacks from Africa, we finally reached the full-fledged American system. It consisted of involuntary servitude for life, followed by the same for a slave’s children, all defined by race, with few (none, in a practical sense) rights to reasonable treatment. A corollary of the system was the treatment of slave women as brooders, and their children as a crop to be sold.

Ugly. All the forms of near slavery were ugly, but this was particularly foul. The full system had all the ills of previous systems with none of the restraint, and it lasted until the Civil War.

And then all the problems were over — we wish.

Lifetime indenture was ended but the ones who had built the country with the sweat of their unpaid faces were not compensated. Racial disdain became worse. The KKK was invented. Jim Crow laws were passed.

One aspect of this which has only recently come to the attention of the general public is re-enslavement through the judicial system.

Immediately after the Civil War, white southerners found a way to get back some of their power and some of their slaves. They simply arrested and imprisoned newly freed blacks, then rented them out. They invented the chain gang. If you are trying to find historical reasons why blacks fill our prisons and why our police are so often corrupt, chances are pretty good your research will lead you to those events.

That is a quote from the post 88. John Henry which examines the claim that the folk-hero was really such a prisoner.

Eventually came the Civil Rights movement which finally brought a legal end to discrimination. That’s why this post is coming on Martin Luther King Day. But the Civil Rights Act, like emancipation, was a start, not a completion.

Are things better than they were? Of course. Are they good enough? Not on your soul, or the nation’s soul. There is still much work to do.

661. J. G. Ballard’s Coral D

J. G. Ballard and The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D

New Age, New Wave, New Deal — the names never seem to hold up more than a few years. When the New Wave in science fiction became an old wave, it kept its name. That’s too bad, really, because it makes a genuine change in science fiction seem a little silly. Art Noveau suffers from the same illogic, but since the phrase is French, no one notices.

I was there when the New Wave happened but I won’t try to define the movement. It can’t really be done, although Wikipedia does as good a job as anyone will. It was an exceedingly amorphous movement, full of wonderful writing and unbearable crap — pretty much like most movements.

For me as a reader, long before I became a writer, the New Wave just meant that there were wonderful stories available from Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, and J. G. Ballard. And in the weird department, Ballard made Ellison and Zelazny look like insurance salesmen.

I’m going to try to untangle Ballard’s The CloudSculptors of Coral D down a few paragraphs, but first let me tell you a couple of things.

I bought Ballard’s complete short stories when it became available, probably ten years ago, but I hadn’t read a single story from it until recently. I remember his work with awe and wonder, but that doesn’t mean memories of joy. His stories crawl around like worms in my subconscious, so I didn’t read them again, even though I normally re-read everything.

I was thinking about those stories one day in 2017, especially the one called Deep End which is steeped in hopelessness about the human condition. A short story popped out of my head and fell onto paper. Since Ballard inspired it, it is grim. If you are interested in a dip into the black pool, click here.

Then, a few weeks ago, I found myself being challenged by Joachim Boaz. He recently reviewed Thirteen to Centaurus by Ballard. It’s one of Ballard’s works that I had not read, so I decided to do so before I read Boaz’s review.

But before starting that, I decided to re-read something I remembered fondly (but faintly) in order to repair some of the trauma induced by Deep End.

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I normally avoid spoilers, but not this time. I could lay out the events of The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D completely, and it would be like a skeleton compared to a man. The plot is nothing. The words are everything.

Here is what happens. Four men come together in a strange landscape, clearly one which remains after a cataclysm. One is a pilot with a broken leg, one is a dwarf, one is an artist, one is a playboy. Together they become purveyors of a transitory performance art. They sculpt statues out of clouds, flying in gliders, and carving with silver iodide.

Every one of these men is a cripple in one sense or another. The pilot with his broken leg, through whose eyes we see events, is the least crippled of them.

Enter Leonora Chanel, heiress, flawed beauty, and murderess. She surrounds herself with portraits of herself, and she is the most crippled of them all. She hires the men to sculpt her face in the sky, but at another location. When they arrive, the main character says to her . . .

Clouds . . . those are tigers, tigers with wings. We are manicurists of the air, not dragon-tamers.

. . . and we immediately know that not all of the sculptors will survive.

I will leave the rest of the how and why unreported in case you read the story. What we have here is a group of damaged men, in a damaged world, under the spell of a powerful la belle dame sans merci. It could be Burma after WWII, or any of a hundred other places, in any of a dozen movies or novels out of the fifties.

What makes it science fiction, and moving, is not the plot but the descriptions. And what makes the descriptions memorable is as much what is left out as what is said.

Vermillion sands. Towers of coral rising up from the shattered bed of a dead sea. Sonic statues which wail eerily at just the right moment. Gliders, “brilliant painted toys, revolving like lazing birds above Coral D”. Leonora’s jeweled eyes, a phrase repeated almost too often before we find out what it actually means. “Memories, caravels without sails, crossing the shadowy deserts of her burnt-out eyes.” The dwarf, “with a child’s overlit eyes”.

It is all clearly an allegory, but Ballard gives us very few clues as to what it is an allegory of. One character says, “We had entered an inflamed landscape,” and that is a good short description of Coral D and of Ballard as a writer.

The people, actions, and motives are as surreal as the landscape. It seems like a cop-out to say this, but Coral D, like most of Ballard, has to be read. It can’t be conveyed. And when you finish reading, you may still feel frustrated and confused.

But you won’t forget it.

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Now, from the sublime to the absurd.

When I was ten years old, while other kids were reading Spiderman, I was reading Scrooge McDuck. My hyper-religious parents would not allow non-Disney comic books in the house.

In one episode, Scrooge had another get-rich(er) scheme. He outfitted biplanes with bulldozer blades, flew around herding clouds into cubical shapes over farmers’ fields, and seeded them with silver iodide — all for profit. I don’t remember too much more detail, and I have been unable to find a copy anywhere, but I do remember one picture of the rain falling to the exact middle of a wooden fence, since Scrooge McDuck would not let one drop of his rain fall on a field which had not been paid for.

You would have a hard time finding two works more superficially similar and essentially different than McDuck and Coral D. It boggles the mind. Did Ballard read McDuck in his youth and get a picture lodged in his subconscious? Or was Carl Barks, who wrote and drew Scrooge McDuck, secretly a fan of weird science fiction?

Either alternative is too strange to contemplate.

660. Methuselah’s Children

I used a quote from Methuselah’s Children about a half a year ago in my diatribe against driverless cars. Taking a glance at Heinlein is always a mistake. I found myself committed to reading the whole novel, even though I’ve read it often enough to nearly memorize the thing.

The problem is, it’s his best work, from the viewpoint of skilled writing and skilled science fiction plotting. That is opposed to boy-meets-girl plotting or western-shoot-em-up plotting, which are completely different skill sets.

Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers are Heinlein’s best known works, but I find them both to be second rate. The first hundred pages of Number of the Beast is my favorite thing to re-read, but the rest of the book is kinderdrivel.

Methuselah’s Children is the best novel he ever wrote, hands down, despite my deep affection for at least a dozen runners-up. An early version came out in Astounding in 1941, and was expanded to the work we now know when it was published in paperback in 1958. Methuselah’s Children is the book Paul Kantner was referencing when Jefferson Starship suggested we all “hijack the starship” in 1970.

Heinlein has his strengths and his weaknesses. I acknowledge the latter, but I won’t catalog them. There are plenty of people who like him less than I do who are more than willing to do that. For my money, Methuselah’s Children is the book in which those weaknesses are least in evidence.

As the book begins, Lazarus Long (his first appearance) and Phyllis Sterling meet, interact, and are sexually aware of each other without letting it get in the way. Long offers advice without trying to run her life. Danger rears its head, and each of them reacts with maturity and grace, respecting each other’s competence. There is very little boy-girl snarkiness.

It’s too bad Heinlein couldn’t pull this off more often.

As everyone knows, Lazarus Long hijacks a starship to save his fellow long-lifers. If you haven’t read Methuselah’s Children or haven’t read it lately, this might seem preposterous, but he manages the task with a lot of help from people in power. The things he actually does are all well within the powers of any competent space pilot. He pulls it off not because he is a superman, but because he is a sneaky bastard.

Once on board, Slipstick Libby invents a space drive which takes them to the stars.

Assembled odd bits of other equipment, looking more like the product of a boy’s workshop than the output of a scientist’s laboratory, the gadget which Libby referred to as a “space drive” underwent Lazarus’s critical examination. Against the polished sophisticated perfection of the control room it looked uncouth, pathetic, ridiculously inadequate.

. . . but it works, and yes, Libby is a superman. Heinlein got away with that by making him a relatively minor character.

On planets they visit along the way they meet the Jockaira and their “Gods”, as well as the “little people”, and find out that humans aren’t the smartest race in our corner of the galaxy. Another writer would have made this a cause for feelings of inferiority, but Lazarus Long is Heinlein in disguise. He doesn’t have a humble bone in his body.

The refugees, armed with all they have learned, return to Earth to fight for their rights. Flags wave, cannons sound, bands march — well, not really, but that is the feeling.

Everything that Heinlein was, is on display here. It’s great fun, but it’s not slapstick. Heinlein keeps a light touch, but his alter ego “takes his soul out and examines it” just often enough to keep matters in perspective.

Heinlein would revisit every idea, many of the characters, and every character-type in subsequent novels. None of them would be so well balanced, nor have so few groaners.

659. Leap Boy’s Last Word

On February 29th, 2016, I wrote Leap Boy For President about a kid, born on Leap Day of 1952 and named Leap Alan Hed. Take a moment to say that with a middle initial. Childhood taunts about his name made him a rebel, some joker put him up as a write-in candidate for President in 2016, and he won.

It was a pretty good joke at a time when there were more Republican candidates for the nomination than there are in that flock of turkeys which shows up in my yard every week or so.

The piece wasn’t anti-Trump. I wasn’t worried about The Donald in the least. No one at the end of February of 2016 had any idea he would make a showing in the race.

At that time I was worried about Hillary, hoping she wouldn’t win the Democratic nomination, and scanning the available Republicans in hopes of finding one I could vote for.

Did I mention that I’m registered as an independent?

By July of 2016, Trump was looking likely and so was Clinton. Reasonable candidates were falling to the wayside in droves and Election Day was looking more and more like a no-win situation. Looking back after all this time with Trump, it is hard to remember how unappealing Hillary was.

So I resurrected Leap Alan Hed, and provided a series of posts through the summer and fall about the poor schmuck who was railroaded into standing as a write-in candidate against his will, hounded by the press, and beloved by those who wouldn’t take his “No!” for an answer. He eventually went underground, hid from the world, and won anyway — then ran for the border to keep from being inaugurated.

On the night before the election, I gave Leap the last word. We found him sitting around a fire with a bunch of homeless guys, wondering about what would happen the next day. He was still in hiding, but his companions had recognized him from seeing his picture in the papers. One of them asked his opinion.

Leap said, “They won’t vote for me. They aren’t that stupid, no matter how frustrated they have become. They will vote for Hillary and God knows what that will mean. Or they will vote for Donald, and everybody knows what that will mean.

“In a few days, or maybe a few weeks, I’ll be able to surface again and get back something like a life of my own. I just hope there’s a country for me to go back to.”

Leap’s companion said, “I don’t have a life to go back to. I can’t vote for you, or anybody else. You have to have an address to vote and I haven’t had an address in years. But I would vote for you if I could.”

“Why, for God’s sake? Why?”

“Because you aren’t him and you aren’t her, and anybody else is better. Somebody has to do the job. At least you don’t want it, and that means something.”

“If nominated, I won’t run. If elected, I won’t serve.”

“I don’t think so. I think you would come out of hiding and do your duty.”

Leap shook his head, and just said, “No.”

“Its going to be Donald or Hillary or you,” the other said.

Leap sighed. He said, “No good can come of this.”

Truer words were never spoken.