Category Archives: A Writing Life

481. Asimov’s Good Life

I couldn’t sleep last night so I lay awake thinking of an article to write and I’d think and think and cry at the sad parts. I had a wonderful night.
                         Asimov, from It’s Been a Good Life, p. 157

When I was new to reading science fiction in the early sixties, Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov were everybody’s big three. Bradbury was in the next rank, but not for me. I found him unreadable. Andre Norton was still out in the cold for most people, but she, Clarke, and Heinlein were my personal big three. Asimov didn’t make the cut. I read a few of his novels, didn’t like them, and moved on.

Recently I ran across his summary autobiography, It’s Been a Good Life, edited by Janet Jeppson Asimov. It reminded me that I knew very little about the man, so I took it home.

Asimov has three full autobiographies, and a list of publications that goes on for eighteen closely packed pages. After his death, Janet Asimov published autobigaphical excerpts under the title It’s Been a Good Life. At 238 sprightly pages, 98 percent by Asimov himself, it was just right for someone who wanted to be fair to an author who is an acknowledged master.

Searching my memory and his bibliography, I found that I had read four of his novels: Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter, The Stars Like Dust, and a couple of his early robot novels, each only a few years after they were published. I thought the first two were just adequate and the robot novels were dull. By the time I got to Foundation, I decided to skip it, along with anything else he might write. My local county library was full of science fiction I enjoyed, so why bother with Asimov.

It occurs to me now that might have been an error.

Asimov says (p. 143) The 1950’s [were] the decade of my greatest science-fiction triumphs, [but as] the 1950’s ended, I [ended] most of my involvement with the field. (see below)

From 1960 onward, Asimov wrote everything on every subject. It seemed to me that he had written every third book in the library. I dived into one or another from time to time doing research for my own writing. They were accurate, easy to read, and cursory, which is exactly what they were supposed to be.

When the novel The Gods Themselves came out in 1972 it was his first SF novel in fourteen years. (Not counting one novelization of a movie.) He had gone from SF novels, to non-fiction, then back to SF novels as a more mature writer. That was a biographical arc I couldn’t appreciate when I was first reading him as a teenager, for the simple reason that it had not happened yet. When it did, I had already lost interest. Not trying his new works, given his reputation, was certainly my mistake

By the eighties he was writing SF novels and winning awards once again. In 1989, he wrote Nemesis. He said this about it, “My protagonist was a teenaged girl and I also had two strong adult women characters. I placed considerably more emotion in the novel than was customary for me.” That sounds more my style, since lack of emotion was my complaint about his early work. I think I’ll check it out.

One last note for writers and would-be writers: This book is a treasure trove. I agree with pretty much everything he says about writing, but go read it from a man with far more credentials than I have.

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The brackets in the quotation are from Janet Asimov. She uses them to give context and continuity to excerpts which would otherwise be unintelligible. It is competently and smoothly done.

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Full disclosure time: After completing this post, I obtained a copy and read the first few pages of Nemesis. Sorry, I still don’t like Asimov’s writing style, but that’s all right. Not everybody likes Shakespeare, either.

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480. Mairi at Culloden

272 years ago today, the last battle took place on British soil. Followers of Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie) met British forces under the Duke of Cumberland on Culloden moor. Like all battles, it was a confusing, bloody mess, but it had the virtue of being decisive. The reprisals which followed brought highland culture largely to an end.

The mists of nostalgia roll over the Battle of Culloden, casting it in a romantic light as the last day of Scottish independence from the English. Sorry, but it was nothing like that. There were Scots on both sides of the fight. The “champion of the Scots” was the grandson of a deposed British king, born in Rome and raised in France, now fighting to regain his grandfather’s throne in London. The highlanders who followed him were despised by the lowland Scots who fought on Cumberland’s side — but the lowlanders’ descendants now claim clan membership and wear kilts — even though kilts hadn’t been invented yet in 1756.

I would have sworn that I would never write about Culloden, until I saw a brief note in an article about the history of oats in Scotland which described the actions of a Scotswoman who sat down beside the road leading from Culloden and cooked oat cakes for the soldiers, knowing they would need food to survive. Her simple and humane reaction to the conflict moved me to write this poem.

Mairi sat down by the side of the road

The night was filled with the sound of men
And the moan of wind in the heather,
As Mairi’s kinsmen went south toward the field,
That Charlie had set for the meeting.

Three sons of Mairi came out of her hut
And kissed her cheek as they left her
With Ross the youngest trailing along
To see what the battle would bring.

Mairi took oats from the pantry shelf,
There was not enough to please her,
So she dragged in a sack from the loft of the ben,
Took peats, and salt, and her griddle.

Then Mairi went down to the side of the road,
Built a peat fire and kneaded the grain,
Heated her griddle and cooked fat cakes,
To stack for the coming of day.

“They will come,” she said, “in the morning,
And all through the rest of the day,
Strutting proud or running scared,
Theyʼll be hungry either way.”

The oat cakes sizzled; the smell was fine;
She flipped them and stacked them and listened
To the musket fire from Cumberlandʼs men
And the deeper roar of his cannons.

The cries that went up as the claymores flashed
Were too distant for Mairi to hear,
But Ross would come back from where he watched
To tell how the Scotsmen had fared.

Then a sudden wind, and the fire flared up,
She shivered as pain rushed through her.
Three quick shocks in her empty womb,
And her heart in her breast went numb.

Her hands dug deeper into the oats,
And flew at the task of the kneading,
The stack of bannocks at her side grew tall
For she knew now that they would be needed.

Then Ross came running from the battlefield
He could only come out with a groan.
But Mairi knew without any words
That his brothers would not return.

******

The first man she saw was limping hard
With his leg bound up in a rag.
A highland face, with matted red hair,
He was lean as an iron bar.

A hungry man with a strangerʼs face;
Mairi gestured to the cakes.
He picked one up, took a bite, and sighed.
“God Bless you,” he said, and moved on.

The second man was a stranger, too,
He said, “Mother, it was awful.”
“Eat,” she said, “and move along,
I’ll pray that you find safety.”

The third was young, more a boy than a man,
With face flat and eyes that were dry.
Half held up by a second youth
Who coughed along along at his side.

“Take cakes and eat,” Mairi started to say.
But the coughing youth shook his head.
“I thank you, Mother, but let them go
To living men instead.

My friendʼs bled dry; thereʼs a ball in my lung;
Weʼre as dead as the ones behind.
Just show us a hidden place to crawl in,
And a quiet place to die.”

Mairi worked on, with a clenched up heart
While Ross fed peats to the fire,
Saving the lives of the fleeing men,
For hungry men soon tire.

All through the morning and the afternoon,
Those who lived to flee streamed by them,
Mairi rolled dough in her aged hands
As she mourned for the dead and the living.

For even these battered and tattered men,
Who would leave the field still living
Had lost more than battle, kinsmen, and sons.
A whole way of life had died with them.

And Mairi knew, with foresight clear,
That the winners would fare no better.
That the losers had lost, and the winners would lose,
All except for the rich and the English.

Then the last cake was gone, and Ross was gone,
Sent on with the last survivor.
Up past the river and into the hills.
To hide for a while in the heather.

Down the road she saw them, a mile away,
The Redcoats at last were coming,
Marching proud with bloody swords.
                Mairi stood up and put out the fire.

479. Snap at his Bench

Here is a peek at Like Clockwork, the steampunk novel I’m working on now.

Snap worked every day in his shop, sometimes on maintenance, sometimes on new toys. Day after day, the children cleaned and polished and wound the mainsprings on the toys that he had already built. It would have been cacophony if all the toys had all run all the time of course. Even a good thing can be overdone. Still, every day at least ten of the clockwork toys whirred, clanked and blatted (if it was a clown) or sang (if it was a doll).

The ships whose sails shifted with the wind were entirely Snap’s. So were the several kinds of self-bouncing balls, and the elfin forest of trees that waved their branches to an unfelt, fairy wind. The toys which had faces were his and hers — the mechanism was by Snap and the wood or porcelain flesh came from Pilar’s hands. The dolls which cooed and snuggled in a child’s arms had hands and faces of of clay that Pilar had moulded, fired, and glazed.

Every iteration of the year, a dozen new creations were added. Hundreds of toys lined the shelves and a few each day clanked, chirped, crawled, waltzed, rolled with laughter, and bounced in acrobatic arabesques. Their motion came from Snap; their expressive faces came from Pilar.

Rarely did anyone buy them. Once a year, perhaps — almost never twice in one twelvemonth — someone from the other London made his way to the street outside, saw the sign that said Like Clockwork, looked through the window at the wonders inside, and entered. Then one of Snap’s and Pillar’s clockwork offspring would reach the outer world, and for a time there would be meat in the pot, and new brass, paint, clay and springs for future creations.

Their daily bread came from Pilar, who worked alone in a back room with a spring pole lathe and carving tools, making nutcrackers, jester’s heads and crudely carved puppets. She had no more than six or seven patterns, and she produced them quickly in the time she could spare from other work. They sold for a shilling, but they sold. There were thousands of children in Luddie London without toys, and a few parents who would set aside a penny here and a penny there until they could buy one of the toys Pilar made.

Eve, Lispbeth, and Pakrat were an integral part of the enterprise. Snap called them his sweepers and dusters and winders. They kept the place spotless. The delicate machinery of the toys demanded it, and Pilar demanded it. The children worked continuously, but joyfully. No one made them come each morning.

Outside the toy shop lay hunger and cold, fog and soot, bullying and torments. In the streets and alleys and tenements life was lived by the law of strength, augmented by the rule of want.

Inside was warmth and kindness. Even Pilar’s stony look seemed a mask over a beating heart — but it was such a good mask that the children were afraid to take chances with her wrath. Snap was a massive presence at the workbench, short and thick with muscle, with fingers that were always bleeding a little from scrapes and punctures given to him by slivers of brass or steel or wood, but ignored in his fierce concentration. From time to time he would look up and smile, at Pilar or one of the children, but his eyes always turned quickly back to his task.

Inside there was food, simple and not plentiful, but always there, always to be counted on.  And work, unending, undemanding, unpaid. In the mind of each child there arose a formula, as sure and unrelenting as algebra — work equals warmth, work equals food, work equals safety from the world outside the shop, work equals acceptance.

Work equals self-worth.

478. Poetic Writing

           People, I think, read too much to themselves; they should read aloud from time to time to hear the language, to feel the sounds.
          Homer told his stories accompanied by the lyre, and it was the best way, I think, to tell such stories. Men needed stories to lead them to create, to build, to conquer, even to survive, and without them the human race would have vanished long ago.
                               Louis L’amour  The Lonesome Gods  pp. 115-116

I am writing this on February 12th, to publish on April 9th. All the slots until then are filled with posts about teaching and space exploration, all tied, more or less, to my teaching novel that is winding down over in Serial.

I have also been reading The Lonesome Gods, for the umpteenth time, where I ran across the quote above. It was timely, since I just stayed up late last night finishing a poem that has been rattling around my computer for about five years, and placed it into a post. It will come out next week, keyed to the anniversary of the event that inspired it.

Old fashioned rhyming poetry can be wonderful, but it often suffers when the poet has to fight to fit content to rhyme. Modern poetry doesn’t seem like poetry at all to me. I often like it for what it has to say, but if you can retype it into your computer minus the return-key strikes, and turn it into a good opening paragraph for a story that never got written, how is that poetry?

Everyone in the world disagrees with me on this, but that’s okay. I’m used to that.

My favorite type of poetry is rhythmic, without slavishly following a pattern. Think Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, or Rabindranath Tagore. I follow their lead, without aspiring to their quality. I am a novelist by moral necessity. Poems just come to me, and not too often.

My favorite type of prose is poetic in its rhythms. L’amour often reaches that peak, but not consistently. The quotation above, about poetic language, doesn’t rise to poetry. The opening paragraphs of Bendigo Shafter do:

          Where the wagons stopped we built our homes, making the cabins tight against the winter’s coming. Here in this place we would build our town, here we would create something new.
          We would space our buildings, lay out our streets and dig wells to provide water for our people. The idea of it filled me with a heartwarming excitement such as I had not known before.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that the content is the American Dream. Also from The Lonesome Gods, this passage strikes me as poetic:

And now I was back to the desert, back to the soaring mountains behind my house, back to the loneliness that was never lonely, back to the stillness that held silent voices that spoke only to me.     p. 202

When I was a new writer, I rested my fevered brain between writing sessions with Louis L’amour, because his westerns were completely different from the fantasy and science fiction I was writing. I learned a lot about poetry from him, along with a lot of cautionary tales about clunkers. I’ll spare you examples of those.

What he says in the top quotation is good advice for writers. Always read your own work aloud.

My writing goes roughly this way. First comes a draft that probably needs a lot of help. The second time through, I translate it into English — that is, I turn beagn into began, and Thmoas into Thomas. Feel free to skip that step if you don’t have dyslexic fingers. Then I run the spell checker. Finally I read it slowly, softly, and always out loud. By this time, my eyes have seen the page several times, but my ears are hearing it for the first time.

The ears will catch what the eyes miss.

477. They Never Flew (2)

 

NASP

Continuing from 472. Teaching Space and 474. They Never Flew (1), this post will discuss three manned space programs that never happened.

Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon were the presidents who took us into space. Whatever you think of any of them, they will always have that marked down on the positive side of their ledger.

Other presidents aspired to join them. How much of their thinking was patriotic for America, patriotic for all of mankind, or pure political calculation, is way outside the realm of my knowledge. I’m going to give them all benefit of the doubt and just talk about the programs themselves. You can spin motives any way that suits you.

Regan proposed NASP, the National AeroSpace Plane, also called the X-30. In his 1986 State of the Union, he said that we should produce a vehicle which would be “a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport and accelerate up to twenty-five times the speed of sound, attaining low earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours.” It was an exciting idea, coming out of DARPA where it had begun as a black project.

NASP was supposed to produce two prototype planes, but neither was ever built. That doesn’t mean that it was a political scam. The technological difficulties of the project were staggering.

In detail, NASP was cutting edge. As an idea, the horizontal launch of a spacecraft was old in science fiction. There it was usually accomplished by electromagnetic technology, with ground based and powered launchers and only maneuvering fuel on the vehicle itself. See many early Heinleins, especially Starman Jones and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

One reason rockets take off vertically is to get mostly out of the atmosphere before achieving speed. That way, massive friction is only a reentry issue, when it can be used to advantage.

NASP was a jet, not a rocket. It had to operate primarily inside the atmosphere. This has the advantage of avoiding carrying oxidizer, but has a series of disadvantages. Friction heating is an obvious one. In addition, its engine would have to operate in three modes — as a relatively conventional jet at takeoff, as a ramjet once sufficient speed had been achieved, then as a scramjet (supersonic ramjet) once it passed the speed of sound.

At that time, no one had successfully built a scramjet, and NASP didn’t make it happen. The first scramjet, the X-43, made a brief flight in 2001, eight years after NASP was cancelled.

No one has successfully built a skin that can withstand reentry level heating on a continuous basis, either. NASP was too far ahead of its time. I spent a few years explaining to my kids how it was supposed to work — before it didn’t work, and silently crept away.

Then came Venturestar, which, if it had been successfully completed, would have done what the Space Shuttle was originally designed to do. It was to be a vertically launched, completely reusable, single stage to orbit vehicle with a wider and more efficient lifting body that would have allowed it to land, in emergencies, on shorter runways than the Space Shuttle.

To do all this, it would require new and untested technologies, including composite material LH tanks, a new tile-free heat resistant skin, and an aerospike engine. The project was divided into two parts. To demonstrate the feasibility of the new technologies, a one-third size, unmanned model of the VentureStar, called the X-33 was to be built and tested, and only then was a full sized VentureStar to be constructed.

Things did not go well. When the X-33 was partially completed a version of its composite LH tank was tested and failed to hold pressure. Alternatives existed, but the decision was made to cancel the project. The funding for the X-33 was a complex mixture of commercial and governmental funds, and continuation depended on all parties agreeing. That didn’t happen. The Air Force was still part of the mix, as with MISS and the Dyna-Soar, as with the black missions by the Space Shuttle, but their request for continued funding was denied. The Air Force eventually got the X-37b instead. The X-33, and with it the VentureStar, disappeared. For a view that the cancellation should not have happened, click this link.

From the perspective of a science teacher, VentureStar had been a godsend, full of all the excitement the Shuttle and NASP had lacked. Once it failed, my kids had no future in space that they could personally dream about.

Then came Project Constellation. By that time, my days as a teacher were coming to a close, so I did not have to face the daunting task of generating enthusiasm for a cobbled up rerun. Ares I, the small booster, was built out of Space Shuttle leftovers and Ares V, the large booster looked suspiciously like a Saturn V reboot. The Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle was an oversized Apollo capsule and the Altair moon lander was a LEM on steroids. Not only was Project Constellation going to do again what had been done forty years earlier, it was going to use essentially the same hardware.

I didn’t buy it. I didn’t try to sell it to my kids. It died four years after it was floated.

The future isn’t dead. The Space Launch System continues where Constellation failed and private enterprise has more strongly entered the mix. Today’s science teachers should be able to say, “You might be the first person on Mars,” with a straight face. I continue to hope.

How to Get Readers for Your Blog

I have discovered the secret to getting readers for my blog, and I hate it.

On November 29th I posted a blog called Machine Porn. It was about an episode of a PBS show that showed lots of old sewing machines, and it used that as a springboard for talking about the clockwork aspect of steampunk.

If you are a guitarist, you know that guitar porn doesn’t mean naked women with guitars, it means cool looking guitars. If you are a motorcyclist, you know that motorcycle porn means pictures of cool looking motorcycles. In either case there may be naked women, but that is incidental. By machine porn, I meant that the PBS show in question had lots of cool looking old machines.

So far no one has “liked” the post. That is appropriate; it was a very minor effort. But hardly a day goes by without someone, somewhere opening that post. It probably has more hits than anything else I have done.

I’m sure they must all be terribly disappointed. I refuse to visualize what they think they are going to find.

476. Sex in School

The real title of this post should be Sex Education in School, but I chose bait-and-switch to get more readers.

I taught sex eduction for about twenty years, starting about 1984. I started the first year I taught, as a favor to a female teacher who wanted a man’s point of view in her sex ed. class. I got roped in pretty much like Neil in today’s Symphony post. The next year, sex ed. became my class since I was the unofficial science specialist. I always had a female co-teacher. I taught sixth graders, then seventh, then eighth as I moved up the grades as a teacher.

Truthfully, I hated it, but it was probably the most important thing I ever taught, and the thing I’m most proud of. I continued as long as I could, but it is a dangerous subject to teach, especially if you are a man. No matter what you say on that subject, some parents won’t like it. Say something inclusive, and conservative parents will hate it. Say something traditional, and liberal parents will hate it.

There came a time after two decades when we got a useless, cowardly, incompetent principal who couldn’t be depended on to back up his teachers, and that was the end of sex ed.

Having sex education in the schools is not enough. It can be hijacked. I knew a woman who worked for the county as a sex ed. teacher, who was there to be borrowed by small schools. We had her in our school twice. The first time she was quite good. The second time, a few years later, she had been refunded by a grant with specific requirements which she could not violate.

As she was teaching, she stated that pre-marital sex was wrong because it could lead to transmission of STDs. This was in an eighth grade class. One of my students raised her hand and said, “If your companion has an STD, what does it matter if you are married or not? You still get an STD.”

This woman was a competent and conscientious teacher. She knew the answer. She could have defended her point by saying something like, “The more partners you have the greater the chances of transmitting an STD.” She didn’t say that, even though she had correctly handled such questions the first time I worked with her. Instead, she simply repeated what she had said before. It was an awkward moment, since every student in the room knew they were being hosed.

It happens sometimes that teachers are required by contract to speak half-truths. A mortgage and a family to feed are powerful incentives to toe the line.

I wasn’t tied to her contract, so I interrupted, told the student that she was exactly right, and praised her for clear thinking.

Starting the middle of next week and continuing through the middle of the week after, Neil is going to teach sex ed. over in Serial. It is an accurate portrayal of a sixth grade class in the late eighties. I apologize for the fact that it’s ugly; I’m just reporting here. There is no mention of any sex but male-female, but that would no longer be true. It had begun to change by the nineties and I can only imagine how wide ranging conversations must be today.

We were not allowed to talk about contraception, so we never mentioned it. No problem. There was always a question and answer session, with written questions to keep down embarrassment, and somebody always asked, “What is a condom and how do you use one?” I always answered, clearly, accurately and without embarrassment. I also took that opportunity to point out that they sometimes fail.

We always talked about sex abuse, telling the students that they had a right to the privacy of their own bodies, and that they should tell someone they trusted if something seemed wrong to them. No child ever confided in me; I wasn’t the motherly type. I am reasonably sure that some of them confided in my female co-teachers, but I never knew for sure.

Sometimes teachers know, without proof, that abuse is occurring. The signs are there, but the victim says nothing, no matter how much you make yourself available. Abusers are very good at training their victims to silence.

Sometimes you know, but you have no proof, and you can do nothing. That is the worst of all.