Category Archives: A Writing Life

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.

========

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.

========

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.

658. Non-Political ?

Like 2020, 2016 was also the year of a Presidential election. I had a new blog designed to bring in readers for my upcoming novel Cyan and I had no intention of writing on politics. I was planning to share some of the things I had learned in decades of writing while drumming up customers. The last thing I wanted to do was make half of my readers mad at me.

Not that I had any readers yet, so early in my blogging career, but I hoped to soon.

Life has a way of changing our plans. My neutrality lasted about a month, from mid-August until mid-September. Then I had to interrupt my sequence of blogs between 10 and 11 to say:

This is not normally a political blog, but as I am a citizen, there are times to speak out. The post originally scheduled to be here will appear tomorrow.

Have you ever asked yourself, “How could Germany have been fooled into following Adolph Hitler?” The answer is on your television this morning, and it is Donald Trump.

I called him out for his fear-mongering, but added that I didn’t see him as evil, just foolish. I subsequently changed my mind about that.

Still I couldn’t see spending much time on someone who had no chance of winning. That was another error in judgment, both about how effective Trump would be and about how much time I would spend yelling at him.

On February 29th I celebrated the end of Black History Month with a bit of whimsy that would grow into a long series of posts about an imaginary Presidential candidate. I’ll remind you about that on Wednesday.

By Election Day things looked pretty well settled on a Hillary win. I had never been impressed by her either, so on September third I wrote a post to be placed election day, making these predictions:

By now you know who won this time around . . . As of today, Hillary’s win seems certain if she doesn’t stumble, but she stumbles a lot. It could still be Donald. You know the outcome. So do I, but I didn’t when I wrote this.

Here is what I do know, now, September third. Whoever was elected yesterday will be a one-term president.

You’ve heard every talking head for the last year say that no two candidates in history have been so hated and feared as Donald and Hillary. Almost everyone dislikes one or the other; a sad majority dislikes them both.

So the question arises:  who will win the Presidency in 2020? You can be sure it won’t be Donald or Hillary, no matter who won yesterday.

If your candidate lost yesterday, take heart. Whoever your party chooses in 2020 will win – barring another match-up of turkeys, and what are the chances of that happening again?

If your candidate won yesterday, tough luck.

Well, that is what it looked like in September of 2016. I’m not so sure that prediction was any better than the others I made during the campaign. I just hope I got that one right.

657. 366 Days

Welcome to 2020. It’s leap year again. That makes it a little more than four years since I started this blog.

Leap year is that calendrical oddity brought about by the fact that the rotation of the Earth on its axis does not neatly coincide with the revolution of the Earth around the Sun, leaving us with a year which is 365 and a fourth (approximately) days long. We compensate for it by adding one day every four years to the shortest month, making it still the shortest, but a little longer. Then we call it Black History Month because we can’t find a shorter month to do the job.

Snarky? Yeah, get used to it.

The last time we had a February 29th — which would be 2016 — I was mentally and morally tired. I had just completed more than a month of writing posts on the morality (actually, the lack thereof) of racism in America, in the world, and in two created worlds. It meant a lot to me, and I was proud of the results, but it wasn’t easy to write and it wasn’t fun.

For a break,  I wrote a comedy piece on February 29th about a kid who was born on leap day and ended up running, against his will, for president. I’ll remind you about the details next Wednesday

I began the Black History Month series on Martin Luther King Day of 2016 with a post called Whiter Than White that stated my position, and continued on to February 25. I was writing four posts a week in A Writing Life at that time, as well as another four in Serial. Don’t ask me how I managed.

The result was twenty-three A Writing Life posts in six weeks, all devoted to Black History. For most of that time, Serial was running in a novel-in-progress called Voices in the Wall, which was about the underground railway. That eventually ran thirty-four posts.

I have spent a lot of time since on issues of race, often Latino and sometimes Japanese, Chinese, or Native American, but those have been mostly connected with the latest stupidities out of Washington, or anniversaries of stupidities past. My position on race — black, white, or purple — was already pretty well laid out by the end of February, four years ago, so I don’t think I’ll have much new to add this year.

If you want to browse those posts, go to any page of A Writing Life, go to the right column and slide down to Archives, January 2016 and then February 2016.

Here is a navigational hint. On days when A Writing Life and Serial both appear, Serial is posted ten minutes earlier. That is part of an organizational scheme that didn’t work, but ended up grandfathered into everything. The result is that the two blogs of this website alternate when you work your way up a month’s archive. Pick AWL or Serial and skip the other, then come back later. Otherwise you’ll get whiplash.

656. Angle of Repose

As a point of accuracy, angle of repose is a civil engineering term referring to how steep a slope is possible without slumping due to gravity. The angle varies according to the material under consideration.

I am completely misusing the term here in reference to axial tilt because it sounds so good. So sue me.

Today is December 30; the year is near it’s end. The solstice was December 22 this year, so the days have been getting longer for eight days now. What we call the first day of winter is actually winter’s mid-point, judged by the inclination of the Earth. The “incorrect” way we measure winter actually works pretty well though, because there is a delay effect between tilt and the weather that depends on it.

“The Earth tilts south in the winter and tilts back north in the summer.” Easy to say and easy to understand, just like saying that the Earth is flat, but of course it’s wrong. I remember teaching the matter to my school kids every year. I would designate a student sitting in the center of the room as the Sun and walk around the classroom with the globe tilted roughly 23 degrees toward the bank of windows to demonstrate that the angle of inclination doesn’t change, only the position of the Earth in relation to the Sun. I’m sure they all forgot it by the next day.

The seasons as we know them are due to the degree of tilt. Tilt further, and the seasons would be more extreme. Tilt less and they would be less extreme. I’ve made a career of writing about that.

My first novel, Jandrax, was set on a world circling a cool sun, with a tilt of something like 32 degrees. That made for seasons like those on Earth, but more extreme. It worked out well for my intentions, stranding a bunch of religious extremists and watching them adapt in two different ways, as a static civilization in changing weather, and as nomads who followed the good season.

The unharmonious planet Harmony was in the middle of an ice age, with the only livable real estate flanking the equator, and of course they had two summers and two winters each year.

No, I know it isn’t obvious, but it is real. I explained the phenomenon in 14. Axial Tilt. Check if you doubt me.

Cyan came later. I set it up as a planet with virtually no tilt, resulting in unlivable cold, miserable cold, too cold for comfort, Goldilocks perfect, too hot for comfort, miserably hot, and too hot to live, all depending on your latitude. That would have made for a perfect climate somewhere (a boring thought for a writer) except that I threw in a 40 hour day so even at the “perfect” latitude you could count on burning your brain and frosting your buns every overlong day of the seemingly endless year.

It also resulted in two virtually independent super-biomes, separated by a dead torrid zone, as Keir lamented when Tasmeen, Beryl, Debra, and Viki . . .; no, sorry, you’ll have to read that yourself.

Okay, what’s opposite of the unchanging, tilt-less Cyan? A planet of Uranian orientation, of course. Stormking becomes the third of the trilogy, lying on its back in orbit, presenting first one pole and then the other to its star. Such a planet would probably not be viable for a human civilization, but as a place for an orbiting civilization to dump its exiles, it’s perfect.

Dome cities could survive on a Uranian planet, but why would they want to? Any people, like our exiles, who actually interact with the environment would have to keep continually on the run. That’s a little like the nomads of Jandrax, but where those were a people whose march kept them on the leading edge of a moving paradise, the exiles of Stormking live in an endless hell-storm. All of the water of that planet spends half of the year locked up in north polar ice caps while the south pole is desert. Then all that water has to move from north pole to south to freeze again while the north pole becomes desert. All this will have to happen twice a year.

You can’t imagine the storms. Actually, you don’t have to. I do, and then I have to write them.

This is going to be fun.