Category Archives: A Writing Life

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.

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.

*         *         *

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.

*        *        *

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.