Monthly Archives: February 2020

673. Constitution

As I write this, the Senate is about to begin questioning both sides in the impeachment of Donald Trump. Presumably by the time you read this, the issue will have been decided.

Both sides have sworn their allegiance to the Constitution, claim to be dedicated to preserving it, and claim that the other side will destroy it.

It’s actually kind of hard to destroy our Constitution, but it is changeable. Soon after it was passed — and its passage was based on the assumption that this would happen — ten amendments were added which changed the Constitution immensely.

Today, when people avow their loyalty to the Constitution, they are usually referring to those ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, which were not part of the original constitution at all. They also say:

. . . one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

That is from the flag salute, not the Constitution, and during the first decades of the Republic several groups from several different parts of the country, north as well as south, attempted to prove that it was divisible. reversible, or could be ignored.

Eventually the South did secede, and was brought back by armed force, making our country in fact indivisible, whether or not that had been the intent of the founders. It also resulted in the removal of a sizable chunk of the constitution.

What chunk? This one:

Article One Section Three — Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

Article One Section Nine — The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

Article Four Section Three — No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service of Labour, but shall be delivered up

Translating those into ordinary language:

Article One Section Three — There are free people, indentured servants, Indians, and slaves. Free people and indentured servants count as one whole person, Indians don’t count, and slaves count as three-fifths of a person, when determining taxes and representation.

Article One Section Nine — The importation of slaves cannot be stopped until 1808.

Article Four Section Three — Slaves escaping to free states have to be sent back.

It is hard to imagine anyone, even the most rabid white nationalist, wanting those pieces of the Constitution back. However,  it is very easy to forget that they were there in the first place.

Freedom of speech and religion, freedom of the press, freedom for all Americans to vote, even women, protection from unreasonable search and seizure, the right to a trial by jury — none of these were provided by the original Constitution.

The point? There are two, actually, both of which deserve reiteration.

Our Constitution has changed tremendously since it’s ratification. No one alive today would even consider living under the Constitution in its original form. Even the people who ratified it felt that way. They demanded, as the price of ratification, that a Bill of Rights be immediately added.

When people say, “I support the Constitution,” and we think they are lying, they may not be. We carry in their minds many different interpretations of what “Constitution” means. And we will probably keep on arguing about those interpretations for another two hundred years.

672. Strong As a Woman

No one would doubt that Hellen Keller and Anne Sullivan were strong women,
but so are tens of thousands of unknowns. One of these was my friend.

I’ve been writing forever, and I taught middle school for twenty-seven years, which sometimes felt like forever. I came in as an intern, which put me into a veteran teacher’s classroom for a time before moving to my own. The teacher I was under was wonderful, but tough.

Twenty or so years later I spoke at her retirement ceremony. I’ll leave her name out of this, since she deserves her privacy. That’s why there are so many “shes” and no proper nouns in what comes below.

These are the notes for that speech. I found them today and they made me smile.

She took no crap, and I took no crap, so we were something of a matched pair. When I started to read this at the ceremony, she stopped me in mid-sentence and said, “Is this a roast? I don’t want a roast.”

It isn’t a roast, it’s an homage.

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

I think it is fair to say that *** has a forceful personality. I can’t think of a time when I was in a room with her that everyone there was not aware of her presence. She makes an impression.

Over the years there have been a number of people who have changed their attitudes because she brought, shall we say, compelling arguments to the table.

She generally knows what she thinks, knows what she wants, and isn’t shy about saying so.

She doesn’t mind standing up for herself. Everyone who has ever met her knows that. But if you listen during those endless discussions we all get into in the teacher’s lounge, you will notice that she stands up for more than just herself. She respect herself and demands respect from others, but she also demands respect for teachers in general.

I can’t remember how many times I have heard her say to other teachers or aides, “Don’t take that. Don’t put up with that. You deserve to be treated better than that.”

I’ve also heard her say, “You’re really stupid if you do that. That will get you into big trouble, and you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself.”

You always know where you stand with her.

*           *           *

She has been at our school long enough to become an institution —- longer, in fact, than anyone else except for the real old fogies like me. It is easy to forget that she spent most of her career at the elementary school. That is where I met her.

I was an intern, on my first day, when I was placed with her. She is actually a few months younger than I am, but she had been teaching seven years while I was off becoming a starving writer. She was mongo pregnant and I was to replace her while she was on maternity leave.

I had a few precious weeks with her before she went off to have her son, and even after she was gone I had the benefit of working in a classroom environment which she had crafted. In her absence I did things her way, and her way worked.

Most people who think they know her, don’t really. You can’t really know a teacher unless you have been in her classroom and watched her teach.

After she returned from leave, we continued to work together for a few months before I took over a different class part way through my internship. Over the years I have spent a lot of time in her classroom whenever I had the chance. Each of us has come to use the other as a sounding board. Those of you who have never team taught have missed something. You can learn a great deal about your partner, and about teaching, when you team up.

When she is teaching, she is the center of attention, but she is not the center of the lesson. This is a subtle and crucial distinction, and one that a person who has only see her lambasting the latest educational stupidity would miss. When she is teaching, she demands, controls, dramatizes, cajoles, exhorts, and forces student’s attention onto the matter at hand. She is the focus of what is going on, but what is going on is not about her. It is not a way to glorify herself, but a way to force her students to confront the tragedy of Anne Frank, or the importance of knowing their own family heritage, or the despair of the Wreck of the Hesperus.

A few years ago it became politically correct to say, “Be the scribe on the side, not the sage on the stage.” What contemptible crap! If you aren’t the smartest person in the room, why are they paying you? It is our job to be tough, organized, enthused, and relentless in bringing our knowledge to our students. But we must be the lens through which the students see, not the actual thing that they see.

I would have figured this out on my own, but I didn’t have to. It was all laid out for me the first day I walked into her classroom.

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

So I found these notes and wrote them into the computer. As I did, I had to consider the changes that have come about in these last few years.

My friend and I both knew that if I said something loud and contrary about the endless brown rain coming down from the state board of education, I would be seen as forceful. If she said the same thing (and she did), she would be a bitch. She never let that stop her.

If she has seen a glass ceiling, she would have taken an axe to it.

671. Old Lascar

Early in January I was taking a break from writing Dreamsinger to write posts for the blog. At the same time, I decided to re-read Cost of Empire. It has been floating from publisher to publisher for a couple of years now, longer than reason would expect but not longer than reality dictates. I wanted to become reacquainted with it.

As I read, I was reminded again how much India lives in my writing. That led to my February fifth post. I had particularly enjoyed writing David James’s encounter with an old Sikh man in London. Indians in British literature are so often spear carriers, villains, or Gunga Dins that it was a pleasure to present a character who was just a nice old fellow worth knowing.

This takes place just before the launch of the dirigible Henry V and it’s subsequent journey to India.

*                     *                     *

There was an old man who sat in the sun every day in a nook against the south side of a rooming house. David had seen him since he first took a room in the city, as he was on his way to where he slept. There were plenty of street sitters, mostly beggars, so at first David paid him no mind. 

Once he became aware of the man, David realized that he never begged or harangued any passers by, but sat with quiet dignity, enjoying the sun and minding his own business. He seemed as isolated as David felt, so David nodded to him in passing, and the old man smiled.

The old man was never there when David walked to work, but he was always there as he returned. The evening after the nod, David touched his palms together as he passed and said, “Namaskar.” Startled, the old man did not reply.

The next evening, David again saluted the old man with namaskar, and received a head bob, palms together, and a reply of, “Namaste.” And a smile.

The following evening, the old man was not alone. A scrawny, dark skinned youngster sat beside him. This time the old man saluted him first, and the boy said, in passable English, “My grandfather greets you. He asks why you take time to notice an old man?”

David stopped. He didn’t want to stand over the old man, but there was no way he could contort his legs into the position the fellow favored. He compromised by sitting down on the lowest of the steps leading to the boarding house and replied, “Why shouldn’t I notice you? Will you tell me why you said namaste after I had said namaskar?”

The boy translated, then replied, “Grandfather says that only the people of eastern India say namaskar. Grandfather is from Maharashtra where they say namaste. It is the same greeting. He asks how you know to say either?”

“I learned namaskar from a friend in Trinidad. His grandfather came to Trinidad to work, after the African slaves were freed. His grandfather was from Bengal.”

They began an intermittent relationship. Sometimes the boy would be there when David came by, and he and the old man would talk through him. But the child was restless, and most evenings he was absent. Sometimes David would salute with namaste (now that he knew the difference) in passing, and sometimes, especially when he was particularly weary, he would simply sit quietly with the old Sikh and watch the people passing by.

It felt natural. David normally shied away from crowds or strangers; to have to say something when he had nothing to say was hard for him. Sitting with the old man and saying nothing, even when he had much to say, was a quiet comfort.

Piece by piece he learned the old man’s story. He was a lascar, as Indian sailors were called. He had first sailed out of Bombay as a young man, forty years ago. He had reached London, and had been paid off. He had no English to seek work or a berth on a ship, so it took him two years to find his way back home to his wife.

He made more journeys, and spent far too much time starving in port between them. His wife had a son during one absence, and died during another absence. Finally his son, now the age he had been on his first trip, shipped with him.

The docks of London were full of lascars looking for a berth, or just existing; a few worked in Britain, although it was illegal. His son gave up on finding a berth, found work with a ships’ chandler, and eventually saved enough money to buy the boarding house where his father took the sun. He married a half-Indian girl, the daughter of another lascar, and his son was now his grandfather’s translator.

The old man longed for his home. His son worked day to night, and hoarded his pennies like an Englishman. His grandson had never seen India, and lived the life of the despised, in the land which had conquered his homeland.

670. A House Still Divided

A house divided against itself, cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
                          Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1858

In 1858, the house (America) was certainly divided. Three years later it was split asunder. That wound was not healed. The South was dragged back by bitter force, and for another hundred years black people bore the brunt of Southern hostility — and Northern hostility as well.

Ending an armed rebellion does not quell a rebellious spirit.

During WWII America moved with concerted effort to end Fascism. Twenty years later, our house was divided once again, with vast numbers supporting war in Viet Nam and vast numbers opposing it. Very few minds were changed, and the bitterness did not die. Only bitter people died, and not all of them. I should says, not all of us. Fifty years later and I’m still pissed at what we did in Southeast Asia.

We are frequently divided by the wars we have fought, and we are always divided by race — never mind the fact that the whole concept of race is an illusion. For four hundred years, whites and blacks have mixed their DNA, frequently by white force on black women. Light colored “blacks” have passed and become “white”.

Personally, I like the result (though not the means). If you lined up every American by skin tone there would be an unbroken continuum from dark to light, but the end points would still be very different. Would you prefer having everybody a dull beige? How boring would that be?

The “black race” has whitened and the “white race” has darkened. If that second statement seems wrong, it is only because when there is a question of whether an individual is white or black, if he/she isn’t completely white, he/she is “demoted” to black. Witness a certain duchess in Britain who is only slightly south of pale.

If you have any sense of mathematics you can see that this process will eventually make “whites” cease to exist. The “one drop of blood” gang will have won — and disappeared.

There is only one race, but there are still a thousand variations of that race, whatever we call them. There are also a thousand ethnicities, by which I mean groups with a common history and culture. There are ten thousand sects and religions.

Jesus said, “Wherever there are two or three gathered together, there will be a fight and the next day we will have two denominations where yesterday there was one.” Or something like that. Matthew 18:20, snarky translation.

Some things can be compromised. Some can’t. Some things are so basic to personal world views that all we can do is let the majority decide, and let the minority continue to try to change the law.

When Martin Luther King and thousands of others were fighting for civil rights, the house (America) was divided. At first, all we could do was pass legislation. A strong minority, not just in the south, hated the Civil Rights act. It was put in place by force, not agreement.

Things got better. It is sometimes hard to remember that, but they did. Yet we remain a house divided to a greater degree than in any recent decade. Democrats and Republicans alike are forted up, with cannons protruding from the parapets. That isn’t healthy for either side, since nobody is ever completely right.

I have a solution.

(I can hear you saying, “Yeah, right, sure you do!”) Okay, I have a suggestion.

I grew up Republican and rebellious, but when it came time to register to vote, I didn’t register as a Democrat out of spite. I registered Independent.

Or tried to. In California, they make you register “No Preference”, and I hate that. Independent sounds like a true American who makes up his own mind on issues. No Preference sounds like a wimp who doesn’t care.

I care. I look at every issue with both eyes open, and I usually find sense on both sides. I also usually find stupidity on both sides. A little compromise would make both liberal and conservative proposals more sensible, but it happens all too seldom.

Moderates in Washington are disappearing from both parties. That leaves a vacuum.  Perhaps it is time for people to say “a plague o’ both your houses” and register as independents.

I’m not referring to an Independent Party. If the movement became a party, it’s members would no longer be independent.

We could also use more people running as independents. We all know that no independent is ever going to become President. But a member of a local school board already could be. A mayor could be. State legislators could be, at least in some states. The time is right. Social media makes running without party backing a real possibility, especially in local races

Such a movement away from monolithic parties would be healthy for America. At the very least, if might scare both parties back from the brinks of extremism. Think what ten independent Senators would mean in Washington today. They would wield immense power toward moderation.

Ten years ago there were moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans. They are becoming increasingly rare, and moderate voters have no one to represent their interests.

No one is listening to me, of course, and that’s all right. A movement toward independent candidates doesn’t need someone to tell everybody to go out and be independent. That is a decision to be made one citizen at a time.

I won’t be running for office myself. Every time I get in an argument with someone, they end up mad at me and I don’t change their mind at all. Compromise and conciliation are wonderful things, but they are not in my skill set. That’s why I write.

But you . . .? Maybe you could change the world.

669. Lots of Love

Sorry about the title of this post. It is a bad pun I just couldn’t resist.
You’ll get it as we move on.

I was in the library a week ago getting some books, one each on trains, canoes, guns, and tools — kind of a guy’s smorgasbord. While I was there I checked the catalog for books on Moravian Christians. Two of the books on my to-write list have connections with them, first in 1790s Pennsylvania and later in 1830s Georgia. There was only one book in the catalog, titled Love Finds you in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. I thought, “Yeah, right!”, but I went to look anyway.

The book was by Melanie Dobson, a committed Christian and writer of Christian romances. If you have ever read this blog before you know that this is not in my wheelhouse, but it looked competent, and it was set only forty years earlier than the first of my planned novels. When you are looking for information on an obscure subject, you grab anything you can get, so I checked it out.

This is probably the first romance I’ve read, not counting all those westerns where the hero gets the rancher’s daughter after he shoots up the town. I am about fifty pages in, and I’m impressed.

There was a quirk in Moravian marriage customs called the Lot. The book made me aware of it. It’s just the kind of thing you are apt to find right up front in fiction, but only hidden deeply in books on history. That is one reason for reading historical fiction, and make no mistake, quality westerns and quality period romances are historical fiction.

The small amount of research I have done in addition to  Dobson’s book paints this picture. In the early 1700s, a Moravian man who wished to be married would submit a girl’s name to the elders, or accept a name off the list of eligibles. After much prayer by all concerned, he would blindly select a lot from a pile. It would say yes, no, or maybe later. Once he got a yes, the girl would be notified and given the chance to accept or reject him as a husband.

All of which explains the bad pun in the post title, and why this is a near-Valentines Day presentation.

This use of the Lot is not a matter of coercion, but of faith. It is a way to get the wife or husband that God wants you to have.  It couldn’t be further from my way of thinking, but I was once a Christian and matters of faith still fascinate me.

In Dobson’s novel, Susanna, while still in Germany, has accepted a proposal by a man she does not know so that they can go together as missionaries to the New World. They marry in the opening chapter and immediately leave for Nazareth, Pennsylvania. They arrive with the marriage still unconsummated, and she doesn’t understand why.

The mechanics of this are handled believably, and the reader is also puzzled until the viewpoint switches to Christian, her husband, and we learn that he had previously chosen another woman, but the Lot said no, so he took Susanna on faith, married her, and now is deeply troubled about what he has done.

In every novel about love, there has to be conflict and misunderstanding to be resolved. In every novel about faith, there has to be a seed of doubt and rebellion. This novel has them both, and they are handled extremely well.

As I said, this isn’t my kind of novel. I only picked it up for atmosphere and background, and to use Dobson’s research as a jumping off place for my own. I never planned to finish it, but as good as it is, I just might.

In either case, if you find all this even half as interesting as I do, you should check out the back story of Dobson’s research in her blog.

At first the Lot seemed as if it would be just a side issue in my proposed novel, but then I discovered that the custom continued past the date about which I plan to write. Had I not known about the Lot, it would have been a major failure on my part.

Then things got worse when I discovered that sixteenth century married Moravians usually lived separately in men’s and women’s dormitories, and only met for cuddling and sex at times appointed by the elders. Yikes! That won’t work for me. (As an author, and it damned sure wouldn’t work for me as a husband.)

The girl in my novel, as I visualized her, wouldn’t be bound by the Lot one way or the other, and if her husband-to-be hesitated to carry through because of a bad reply on a piece of paper, she would kick him in the slats and reeducate him. She certainly wouldn’t put up with the sixteenth century equivalent of separate bedrooms.

My characters were destined to remain in the faith and become missionaries to the Cherokee in a later novel, but their personalities and Moravian mores no longer seem to fit. More research and much more thought are indicated.

Science fiction is easier. You just make up the culture to satisfy the needs of the story. If things stop working, you can rewrite. But if you are an honest writer, you can’t rewrite history.

668. Century Ships

Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations has been running a series of reviews on century ship stories. He does a good job, even providing links so you can read the story itself before or after reading his review. I’ve read two of them, both story and review, picked out because they were by Brunner and Ballard.

Century ship stories are an extreme version of slow starship stories, that is, stories about exploration in ships which do not travel faster than light. Century ship stories assume that the people who start the journey will not live to complete it. It will be completed by their descendants who, when they arrive, will never have lived anywhere but on the ship.

That sounds like a recipe for disaster, and it typically is. A reversion to barbarism along with a superstitious belief that nothing outside the ship actually exists is a common trope. The original Star Trek used it in For the World is Hollow, and I Have Touched the Sky.

I first encountered century ships before I reached high school in The Forgotten Star, a top notch juvenile which has, ironically, been forgotten. It takes place in our solar system, before star flight; the young heroes discover that Ceres isn’t really an asteroid, but a century ship from elsewhere.

The first time I read a century ship story told from the occupants’ viewpoint was Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky. It was such a dreary presentation of the “we forgot this is a starship” trope that I never returned to it, and it pretty much put me off century ship stories for a long time.

On the other hand, slow — but not that slow — starship stories are my bread and butter. They take relativity more or less seriously, and offer all kinds of complications through the slowing of time at the approach of lightspeed. Heinlein did it well in the juvenile Time for the Stars. Other authors had milked the concept for its considerable potential for weirdness.

At nearly the speed of light a trip to the stars will seem quick, no matter how many years pass back on Earth, but getting up to the speed of light is an issue is two senses.

First, it will require power on the order of what would come from the total annihilation of matter. This generally requires a MUD (magical unexplained dingus). Slipstick Libby invented one, but usually Heinlein got there by torch ship (what a wonderful name!), a MUD he never bothered to explain. When I needed that much power in Cyan, I invoked Lassiter’s Anomaly as an ersatz explanation. This gave my core ships a nice philosophical underpinning, like E. E. Smith’s Bergenholm which cancelled inertia, but core ships are still MUDs.

Given the power, however you get it, relativistic starflight still has the problem of acceleration time. True, time slows down at near lightspeed, but you have to get there first. If you are an honest writer who takes the time to look at Einstein’s simpler equations, you will realize that it takes a long time to approach lightspeed at an acceleration that wouldn’t squash a human flat.

I did the math for Cyan, and it turned out that a one-way trip to Procyon — accelerating at one gee, coasting, then decelerating at one gee — took three years subjective while twelve years passed on Earth and Cyan. That’s a six year round trip for the ten crewmen, which calls for a lot of games of chess and a lot of intimate human interactions. If you’ve read Cyan, you know what I mean.

As a side note for new writers looking for a useful tip, that coasting stage is a near-freebie. A ten light year or a hundred light year trip would take about the same subjective time, but the time differential between the crew and the folks back home would become immense.

Later in the book, sending colonists took a whole different set of calculations. Accelerating to half the speed of light takes a tiny fraction of the fuel needed to accelerate to near lightspeed, so the colony ships were even-slower-starships, though still not nearly as slow as century ships. Call it twenty years, one way.

How do you get tens of thousands of people into a small space and keep them from killing each other over twenty years? Freeze them. Given the technology of 2107, that meant a twenty percent loss of life among those who chose to go.

Cold blooded? (Forgive the pun.) Not when you consider the conditions they were fleeing.

While the colonist were on their way toward Cyan, a group of beltmen (denizens of the asteroid belt) were also planning an escape. They were already used to living in space; many of them were born there. A long slow trip in a small habitat did not deter them, but the eighty year voyage to Sirius had a lot of unintended consequences. Not quite a century ship perhaps, but close enough.

Of course if you have been following this blog during the last six months you realize that I am talking about Dreamsinger, the sequel I am working on now.

Further down the to-write list is a sequel to the sequel to A Fond Farewell to Dying which concerns a hyper-century ship built around memory taping and a few frozen stem cells. That one doesn’t turn out the way its originators planned either.

I guess the trauma of reading Orphans of the Sky at a tender age hasn’t completely put me off century ships after all.

667. My India

I am frequently blown away by what I am doing here. I came to the internet late, and the magic of it has not worn off. I know that most of you reading this don’t remember a world without the World Wide Web. Even the phrase has fallen out of use, if not out of memory, and has become a basically meaningless www at the start of urls.

Not me. I grew up in a house without a telephone, without plumbing, and didn’t have a flush toilet until I was seven. Still, I have had decades to get used to the changes so I am as blasé as anyone about most of them, but one thing still knocks me out.

Here is an example: On January 6th, I had visitors to this site from nine countries; Canada, India, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States. More than half of those visitors were from India.

That isn’t a typical day. There is no such thing as a typical day, actually. However, if I were to tally all my days, the US would come in first in number of readers and India would come in second.

I would never have anticipated that when I began this blog, but there is some logic to it. To start with, India is a big country, second in the world by population, with five times as many people as the US. China is bigger, but I get few hits from China. There is a reason for that too, beyond politics.

Although the official language of India is Hindi, English is widely used. That is a legacy of hundreds of years of British domination. When India achieved independence in 1947, there were dozens of major languages. If any one had achieved dominance, it would have given its speakers a major political advantage, so English became a “subsidiary official language”. There are vast number of English speakers in India, and a lot of them are on the internet. Of those whose sites I’ve seen, many are in one of the Indian languages plus English.

I get a kick out of all the hits I get from distant countries, but India is special. I have had a relationship with India since 1968. When I switched from Biology to Anthropology at the start of my Sophomore year in college I had just taken Introduction to India and had already found my area of specialization. During the last three years at MSU I was a member of the Indian studies group, researched overseas Indian colonization, and took a year of Hindi (of which I remember little, all these years later). I made friends among Indian students studying at MSU and among returned Peace Corps volunteers.

My wife and I signed up for and were accepted to the Peace Corps for assignment in India, but lost out when the deferment was cancelled. Then I spent four years in the Navy, before entering the University of Chicago for a masters degree. Again India was my area specialization, and my thesis was on Indian village economics.

All of that makes me an expert, right? Not on your life it doesn’t. I’ll give you an example. I once took a graduate level class in Indian history. The first day we were asked about our backgrounds. One young Indian woman said that she was only auditing the class. She was in America with her husband who was a student in another department, and she was just coming by to fill in a few details that she might have missed in her high school history class.

I was in my late twenties with a B.S., enrolled in a top graduate school, and right out of high school she knew ten times more about India than I ever would.

It’s enough to keep you humble.

When I started writing, I put that knowledge to use. My second published novel, A Fond Farewell to Dying takes place in a post nuclear war, post flood world where India is the only remaining modern technical civilization. My main character was an American scientist who had moved there because North America was so backward after being heavily nuked. Because of his research, he becomes embroiled in the rising conflict between India and a pan-Muslim neighbor.

A major sub-plot in Cyan concerns parallel colonization efforts by Indian and North American groups.

The Cost of Empire is primarily built around actual Indian history, somewhat modified since it is taking place in an alternate universe. The various durbars in which Britain announced its imperial claims on India are collapsed into one, watched over by a fleet of dirigibles flown there to overawe the Indians who are agitating for independence. David James, the main character, learns from overseas Indians in Trinidad and later in India itself that maybe his country shouldn’t be ruling the whole world after all.

I you are a writer, you use what you know.

666. The Beast Crawls Up

The Number of the Beast is a novel by Robert Heinlein. I have referred to it several times, most recently on the January 13th post when I said that the first hundred pages are “my favorite thing to re-read, but the rest of the book is kinderdrivel”. Yep, that pretty much covers it, but it is a fascinating book to talk about because it generates so much hatred. For example, David Langford said of it:

My (fairly) humble view is that the book says nothing and says it very badly.

I like that — brief and to the point, with nothing held back. I don’t fully agree with it, but I don’t fully disagree with it either. There will be more below, after we put things into some perspective.

There is a long history of science fiction works that treat Christianity as fact, and derive either positive or negative results from that assumption. On the positive side is one of my favorite books from high school, Starship Through Space by Lee Corey (aka G. Harry Stein). Ninety percent of the book details the building of the first starship and its maiden voyage to Alpha Centauri. It was a wonderful book until they arrived to find American Indians reading Genesis waiting to greet them. Dumb! Massively, unforgivably dumb to end a great novel on such a note.

Also from my high school library were the Perelandra books by C. S. Lewis which were a kind of space faring John Bunyan. Not good; I got through them and never looked back. They were allegory and they were tedious, but I could at least respect them.

Most of the SF that sees religion in a negative light concentrates on the practitioners and leaves God himself out of the argument. A Canticle for Leibowitz comes to mind. That’s also what I’ve typically done.

The ones that take on God himself tend to be serious and usually angry. James Blish rewrites the outcome of the Revelation in his After Such Knowledge trilogy. (Doctor Mirabilis, Black Easter and The Day After Judgment.) Arthur C. Clarke’s The Star is disturbing and sad, but his The Nine Billion Names of God simply ends all creation in a mild and matter-of-fact way when Buddhist prophesy comes true.

Heinlein does it all differently. In The Number of the Beast he turns Revelation’s beast into an alien species and turns science fiction into a romp. Or a travesty in the eyes of many reviewers. I’ve read everything RAH wrote, save his first two juveniles, and I can attest that no other work is so completely lacking in seriousness.

For those who see him as a guru or a devil, this must be completely infuriating.

For me, I read the whole thing once and I’m glad I did. I’ve read the first hundred pages several times since, not because it is particularly good, but because it is a silly game, an unexpected vacation with old friends. Who? The Heinlein character, in four variations, making love to its/his/her/their self. If you can read between the lines, I’ll skip the “m” word. Since I’m a classy guy, I’ll just say inner directed and very self-admiring.

I grew up spending endless hours listening to my father and two of his brothers sitting around the kitchen table telling tales out of their childhoods, trying to outdo each other in hyperbole, and having a wonderful time laughing together. Heinlein, to me, is like another uncle. I love to listen to his stories because I love the way he tells them.

What else is there to like? His world building? Yes, if you look at his pre-war short stories, but the world building in his novels typically amounts to one or two pithy sentences per book. His characters? He only has one. His philosophy? Discounting solipsism as his joke on the world, he is a realist totally undercut by his own sentimentality. His political ideas? There are enough so that everyone can find something to hate.

David Langford, quoted above, spent a lot of ink taking The Number of the Beast apart at the seams, which totally missed the point. The Number of the Beast isn’t a novel; it’s post-Heinlein Heinlein. It’s the old man reminiscing about all the books he read as a kid, and all the books he wrote as a man (starring himself) in a relatively clever stroll down memory lane. And we get to go with him, which is why I liked it when I read it. But there is no meat, which is why I haven’t gone back.

If you hate it, you’re right. Heinlein doesn’t care. He’s having a wonderful time.