Monthly Archives: March 2020

678. Taking a Break

I’m going to take a break

Yesterday, here in California, the Governor requested that all people over 65 self-isolate. That makes sense to me, and I passed that milestone seven years ago, so my wife and I are going to hunker down and become temporary hermits. That isn’t too much of a hardship since we live in the country and keep a well stocked larder anyway.

This change shouldn’t bother my blog, but it does. I’m not worried for my wife and myself, but worrying about the rest of the country and the world beyond weighs on me. It has also been getting harder lately to come up with new things to say, especially on subjects that don’t call for hours of research for a post that will be read in three minutes. This is post 678, after all.

So I am going to take a break. I have other things on my mind and I’m sure you do too.

I’ll be back. Whether in two weeks or two months, I can’t say. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep working on my novels, keep my wife company, and keep thinking about all the good people out there beyond my driveway.

Take care, folks. Stay safe.

677. A Perfect Book

This is a photo of my  copy. The front blurb, which is too small to read, says, “He was a rip-roaring rebel . . .  the Army be damned!”  However the narrator was nothing like a rebel and the Army appears nowhere in this book. So much for truth in advertising.

Let me tell you about a perfect book — not some abstract idea of perfection, but a very specific book called Last Scout by Wade Everett, which is the pseudonym used by two western writers, Will Cook and Giles A. Lutz, for the books they wrote together.

What makes Last Scout perfect, for me, is the way in which it weaves together four strands into one seamless cable. It is a mystery, a western, a story of family, and a story of a boy growing into manhood. Each of those strands gets roughly equal treatment.

It was never much of a success (see below) possibly because of this balance. If you love westerns, there is probably too much family stuff interrupting the action. A mystery lover would wonder why Wild Bill Hickok keeps showing up, and a family story reader might wish Page, the young narrator, wouldn’t get into so many fist fights and shoot-outs.

I like it all, but especially the pacing.

Chapter one: Deadwood, during the height of the gold rush. Page, our narrator, meets his grandpa for the first time. He has been languishing in an old folks home. Page meets him at the stage where his gramps greets him by throwing him repeatedly to the ground. He isn’t mad; he’s just an ornery old mountain man testing out the young-un. Page takes him back to his mother who is not happy that the old coot is coming home.

Page leaves to dodge the fireworks between the two and goes to see his dad, who is running one of the mines which have been losing money to stage hold-ups. His dad explains that his mother is half-Indian, born of one of the old man’s many wives. She was raised white in a school for girls until the old man took her back to the blanket where she had to learn to live as an Indian. That is where Page’s dad found her and married her.  She loves the old man, but she has never forgiven him for taking her out of the white world when she was a girl. All this has given her an exaggerated need for respectability.

Page borrows his dad’s shotgun and heads out to shoot some birds for supper, wild game to make his grandpa feel more at home. There he meets Buckley, manager of the stage line which is being overwhelmed by hold-ups. They hunt together, but Buckley is unskilled and Page is a wizard with a shotgun. At the end of the day, Buckley sets up a test. He hangs a batch of sacks of flour in trees a few miles out of town, and challenges Page to hit them from a moving stage. Jim Bell, the marshall, and Hickok hear about it and tag along. It is a wild ride, but Page pots every target, and Buckley offers him a job guarding the stage as Bell and Hickok look on. Of course he says yes. And of course that causes a row when he gets home, but he has given his word, so he keeps the job.

That’s chapter one of fifteen and already everything that will follow is rolling down the track at high speed. Hold onto you cowboy hat.

In a later chapter, Marshall Bell’s mother and Buckley’s sister come into town on one of the stages Page is guarding. Now the dynamics of three three families are play, which becomes more important when Page determines that the head of the robbers is a man from one of the three families. After he decides he can’t trust Bell, and since he it the primary target the robbers are shooting at, Page feels he has to unravel the mystery himself.

Page and his grandfather become uneasy partners, but Page can’t quite trust the old mountain man not to just shoot his suspects.

Eventually the robbers get caught, the family tensions sort themselves out, the mystery man in the background is outed, Page grows up, and there is plenty of manly fist and gun play along the way.

What makes all this perfect is the way things move from scene to scene. In a normal novel of this type, an action scene is often followed by some extraneous business, such as a pony ride from one town to another through memorable scenery. This gives the reader time to catch his breath. In Last Scout, a scene of family life moves to a scene of sharp action and then to a scene where Page learns a lesson in maturity. Nothing is wasted; nothing is extraneous.

If I have any complaint, it is that Page is too competent for his age. He makes too few embarrassing mistakes on his way to manhood.

All this takes place in about 42,000 pretty short words. An author today would need a series of four long books to give us this much story.

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It’s hard to find the publishing history of a minor work, so this is all I know. Last Scout was published in paperback in 1960 by Ballantine. I bought my copy used, probably in the seventies or eighties, and I haven’t seen another copy since. Apparently it was reprinted in 1997 in a Large Print Hardcover edition, credited only to Will Cook. As I write, Amazon has only two copies of the hardback and one of the paperback, all used, and your local used book store is likely to have none..

676. Cat A Strophic Fiction

One of my many friends.

I got a long and thoughtful reply to 668. Century Ships from a person (human name not given) whose website is dedicated to cats. I went there, as I always go at least once to the sites of people who like my posts.

Lots of SF people tend to be cat people. Heinlein famously loved cats and wrote about them. Two internet friends who found me through this blog, one a writer of fantasy and one a reviewer of old SF and other schlock, are both cat people. Me, too.

That is the tenuous connection between science fiction and this trip down memory lane.

In the late seventies, I was writing full time and my wife was working at an art and frame gallery. Leaving work one evening, she saw a cardboard box sitting in front of a pet store two doors down. The store was already closed, and she couldn’t walk away without looking. Inside were two abandoned kittens, only hours old. She knew they wouldn’t last the night.

Half an hour later she came in the front door of our house carrying the box and said, “Guess what I found.”

We raised them, cleaned their eyes, cleaned their other ends, burped them, and fed them multiple times a day. They slept in a box next to our bed so we could hear when they were hungry — frequently, as it turned out.

Big Buddy — the internet name of the SF fan who wrote about century ships — posted a study that “explained” why cats bond with us and see us as parents. As if that needed confirmation. (He didn’t think so either. He was making light of the study.) Cats, dogs, and people are herd animals. They naturally live in family groups, so of course they bond.

Bonding goes both ways, as if you didn’t already know that.

My wife suggested we raise the kittens just until they were old enough to give away. Right! They were with us seventeen years.

One was a gray tabby. I was looking into his kitten-blue eyes early on when Don McLean came on the radio singing about how the swirling clouds reflected in Vincent (van Gogh)’s eyes of china blue. China Blue became his name. His orange sister had a one inch tail, so she became Spike, and later Spikey.

It is a testimony to what cats do to us that we talk to them. China Blue was in my lap once, getting petted while I took a break from writing. Music was always playing in the background any time I was at the typewriter. A girl folk singer’s voice caught China’s ear and he looked around for her. I told him, “Don’t worry, buddy. That’s just the way people purr.”

“Sanity” and “cat” are rarely used in the same sentence.

I put a pillow on my desk and they took turns sleeping there, although China often preferred to drape himself around my shoulders while I wrote.

Good times.

The picture at the top is one of my many subsequent friends, resting in his favorite wheelbarrow. I have plenty of pictures of Spike and China, but they aren’t digital.

675. Extra, Extra

Yesterday this blog reached 10,000 hits.

I’ve never been quite sure what that means, since I have had days that have more likes than hits, and it doesn’t seem to include all of the followers who are supposedly notified of each post. I assume it leaves out all the spam the filter has intercepted. I also don’t know how it counts someone who finds my site, then wanders around from post to post upon arrival.

However it happens, I’m glad to see it. Thanks, everybody.

674. The Voice of a Scholar

This will be short, an excerpt from The Cost of Empire, set in the year 188-, in an alternate universe. It refers in part to what was published in Old Lascar.
Sometimes a writer drops a clue to his personal philosophy into conversations between his characters. Take this as a hint from a guy who could never get enough of learning.

Very little in an ordinary dirigible is asymmetrical, but the King Class had been designed to carry bombs or troops, and only given diplomatic quarters as an afterthought. As a consequence, in making room for the dining hall and the staterooms there had originally been no place for the passengers to gather and watch the view below. A second design had pulled the passageway from the center to the port side, lined the outboard wall with windows, and lined the inboard wall with benches. It had been unpopular while crossing the Arabian Sea, but now interesting scenery was back and so were the lounging passengers.

David had begun to spend his off hours there, answering the passenger’s questions and enjoying the scenery himself.

The fleet of eight had followed the coast down to Mangalore, circled the city without landing, and headed inland following the Netravathi River. Normally, Harry could have jumped the Western Ghats, but with an overload of passengers, cooks, servants, fancy food, and the added mass of the walls and fixtures of the passenger’s quarters, the ship’s altitude capability was considerably reduced.

This morning, Kalinath was seated on one of the benches, with his bodyguard sitting stiffly beside him. There was no place for Singh to stand and it clearly made him nervous. He looked on suspiciously as David approached, put palms together, and said, “Namaskar, Sri Kalinath.”

“Namaskar, Mr. James. Sit.” He gestured to the place beside him, and David took it. “How is it that you know to say namaskar, instead of namaste?”

“You are from Bengal, are you not?”

“I am. Have you been to India before?”

“No. I learned the difference from an old man in London, a displaced lascar.”

“A servant?”

“No, just an old man. He sat every day in the sun on the street near where I was living while they were building the Harry. I talked to him occasionally. He taught me the difference.”

“I don’t know many Englishmen, Mr. James, who talk to old men on the street whom they do not know.”

David shrugged. “I don’t normally, either, but I knew I was going to India and I wanted more than I could read in the newspapers. This old man was clearly a Sikh, and he seemed so calm and — I suppose the word is dignified — that he seemed like someone worth knowing.”

Kalinath only nodded, and chose not to pursue the subject. The river below was brown and slow. The countryside was green and heavy with trees. The air moving through the dirigible was still warm, even at a thousand feet of altitude, and carried a trace of the smell of vegetation. As they talked and the dirigible moved inland, there was a rapid change from coastal plain to foothills and forest gave way to plantation. David asked, and was told that these were crops of tea. Kalinath knew tea, and gave a brief description of its cultivation.

“You see, Mr James, even though I am a son of scholars and a man of the cities, when I knew that I would need to go to England to plead the case for my homeland’s freedom, I had to become an expert on many things. One cannot champion a land he does not know intimately. You understand, I know.”

“Not personally.”

“Come, Mr. James, one scholar knows another when they meet.”

“I’m no scholar, Sri Kalinath.”

“Is there anything about the construction and management of this craft that you do not know?”

“No, but that’s my job.”

“And you asked an old man about India, and the proper form of address.”

David shook his head and said, “I just wanted to know.”

“I just wanted to know,” Kalinath repeated. “That, Sir, is the voice of a scholar.”