Category Archives: A Writing Life

357. Mike Mars and Project Quicksilver

If you Google Mike Mars, you’ll get Mick Mars, lead guitarist for Mötley Crüe. In fact, if that is how you got here, sorry about that. The only connection, besides spelling similarity, is that Mick Mars is of the right age to have read Mike Mars when he was a kid.

Our Mike Mars is a fictional astronaut from a fictional project called Quicksilver. The series was written by Donald A. Wollheim.

The eight Mike Mars books were unique in science fiction. They were so tied to the moment that they became outmoded on publication. They were both strikingly accurate and completely false. They were less of an alternative reality than a conspiracy theory version of the early 60s.

Here’s the setup. Project Mercury has selected seven astronauts, who will conquer space for America – ostensibly. They are all military test pilots of great experience. At the same time, a second, secret space program is being formed to duplicate their work, using hot young (read: expendable) pilots just out of fighter training, but no one will know of their flights. And they will do their thing just a hair sooner than the old guys. The project is called Quicksilver.

I look at that paragraph today with awe at how dumb the notion was. When I found Mike Mars, Astronaut on the shelf at the hobby store where I bought my books, I flipped at how cool it all was. It was 1961; I was 13 years old.

Thirteen is the golden age of science fiction. (I didn’t make that up; it’s a well known cliché.) Thirteen is also the age when you like things you wouldn’t even look at a few years later.

Mike Mars is the nickname of Michael Alfred Robert Samson, one of the young pilots chosen to participate in Project Quicksilver. The first novel takes him through selection and early training until he is chosen as one of the young astronauts. It also includes a murderous saboteur and makes the reader aware that one of the seven, Rod Harger, is a traitor. After all, this is a book for boys, designed to sit on the shelf beside the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, Jr.. Just being an astronaut isn’t exciting enough to give a climax every fifth page.

In Mike Mars Flies the X-15, the seven Quicksilver astronauts get glide flights in the X-15, and one of them will get to make a powered flight into space. (Guess who gets the powered flight.) We become more aware that six of the young astronauts are patriotic team players, but Rod Harger is in it for the power and the fame, and his father has thugs at the ready to tip the scales his way. This sets the pattern for the books — about half an accurate portrayal of training and flights and about half Hardy Boys style chasing crooks through empty hangers.

In Mike Mars at Cape Canaveral, Mike rides a Redstone rocket in a sub-orbital flight, after spending half the book fighting off more saboteurs.

In 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man in orbit, followed shortly by John Glenn. The Russian’s had won — except that those of us reading the Mike Mars series knew that Mike beat both of them in Mike Mars in Orbit. But, of course, he could never tell.

(True believers like me knew that Rick Brant had beaten all of them into space, back in 1958 aboard the Pegasus in The Scarlet Lake Mystery, but that was an accident and, of course, he could never tell either.)

In Mike Mars Flies the Dyna-Soar (see 342. Dyna-soar) Wollheim finally ran out of reality. The first four books had involved real hardware, but the real-life Dyna-soar was never finished. Space kids all over America forgave him however, as we flew with Mike to rescue a fellow astronaut in the coolest spacecraft that was never built.

There were three additional books, Mike Mars, South Pole Spaceman, Mike Mars and the Mystery Satellite, and Mike Mars Around the Moon. They never came to my hobby shop bookshelf, so I never saw them. It would be pointless to seek them out now. Within five years, alternative versions of early space travel had gone from unthinkable to not worth thinking about. NASA and the Russians made the conquest of space real, and I had grown beyond kiddy books.

But God the ride was fun while it lasted.

_____________________

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the secret military space drone, X-37b, recently landed at Kennedy Space Center after it’s longest flight to date. We will see how the Air Force is still trying for a Mike Mars reality in tomorrow’s post.

356. Raven and Ian

Raven and Ian are saying goodbye today over in Serial. I’ll miss them. I read A Writing Life and Serial every day, just like some of you. In my case, it is a final check for typos, but I still feel for my characters.

If you write, and you don’t enjoy reading your own work, what is the point?

Will we see them again? Will Raven find what she is looking for? Will they come together again at the end?

Beats me.

I do know that if they find final happiness, it will be an epilog, not a novel. Settled, happy people make for good lives, but not good stories.

As for Ian, he has that Cameron Davis thing hanging over his head. I have some ideas about that.

In his immediate future, there is a meeting with an old friend of his mentor Joe Dias’, who has need of a troubleshooter. It seems that in 1990, most of the world opposes German reunification, including Bush One. A healed Germany might pose a threat, and a broken Germany provides a lot of opportunities for a lot of different groups of people.

Then there is that legendary (or is it) cache of Luger pistols, built in the last days of the Third Reich and hidden away to arm a future Nazi resurgence. Or to arm any one of several other groups who are after them. And there is that girl, whose brother was imprisoned in East Berlin when Ian was stationed there, years earlier. She shows up again. And there is Sergeant Davenport, Ian’s mentor when he was in Berlin, now in federal prison.

Ian has a lot of backstory to present. Will he get the chance?

Beats me.

I’m willing, but Ian in Berlin (it doesn’t have a title yet) is only one of a dozen stories waiting to be written. Which one I will start next depends on a lot of factors. I’ll let you know.

*          *          *

When I began placing Raven’s Run in Serial, I had intended to publish it independently as an eBook. I had hoped and planned to make an announcement of its publication date in this post. Such publication will probably still happen, but marketing Cyan has taken up so much of my time that it has been moved to the indeterminate future.

Most of the things I have presented in Serial have been moved afterward to Backfile and remain there to be read by anyone who checks in. Even To Go Not Gently is there, and Jandrax will be there later, although both were published years ago.  To Go Not Gently is from an issue of Galaxy that is not almost impossible to find, and Jandrax has so much commentary in the posted version that it has become a virtual how-to, and needs to live a separate life from copies still available in used book stores.

Those presentations which I intend to publish independently, such as Raven’s Run, will to be removed from Serial and not placed in Backfile, but this may not happen immediately.

Jandrax is still there because it takes a lot of time to make the transition. Marking out the virtual chapters is a real pain, as is transferring bits that originally appeared in A Writing Life, but eventually it will be placed en bloc so that it is easier to read. For now it remains as 92 individual posts in Serial and a few more in A Writing Life.

Also for now, Raven’s Run will remain as individual posts in Serial for a while. That way you won’t be stranded if you came in late and are still catching up.

Confusing? Welcome to my life.

355. Quotations

As I was listening to Trump’s address to the Coast Guard graduates, and his overnight tweets, I was reminded of another voice from years ago. Let me offer all three, side by side.

No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.
          Trump speaking to Coast Guard graduates.

and also . . .

This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American History.
          Trump tweet.

Setting aside the sound of Andrew Johnson rolling in his grave, let’s hear Robert Heinlein talking about one of his characters:

He had to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.

Yep. That sounds about right.

354. Cattle Junkies

This morning (May 3rd) they moved the cattle toward their high pastures. Where I live, that movement normally happens twice a year.

Here in the foothills of the Sierras, we are coming to the end of the green season, in a year that was unseasonably wet. For five or six months every year the hills are covered with lush grass and cattle. The rest of the year is dry, burned brown, and mostly free of livestock. Most of the cattle that disappear in May migrate directly to your local grocery store meat counter. Some of the mothers and calves which will provide next spring’s herds move up the mountain to summer pasture.

Mostly, this is by trucks hauling specialized trailers. You see them everywhere on the roads and in the fields during this season. But one local rancher still holds a biannual cattle drive. I get the impression that some the herders are paid hands, but most are volunteers. After all, if you were a cowboy, or worked cattle from your pickup truck and wished you were a cowboy, wouldn’t you jump at a chance to join a cattle drive? Even if it only lasted three days?

They pass only a short distance from my house, and my wife and I never miss an opportunity to watch.

I grew up on a dairy farm in Oklahoma. Twice a day from age eleven until I left for college I was in the close company of cows, and I miss them. My wife just loves animals of any kind.

What does this have to do with A Writing Life? If you were Truman Capote, probably nothing. If you were Gore Vidal — well maybe. After all, Vidal worked for a time for his grandfather who was Senator from Oklahoma. But probably nothing; Vidal, like so many writers, was an urban type.

I’m quite the opposite, and the natural world permeates my writing. While I will never write an Andre Norton pastiche about herding frawns across Arzor (a statement Norton aficionados will instantly recognize), watching the cattle go by is likely to inspire me to rush to the keyboard. Like I just did.

I took these pictures, and picked those which would leave place and people unidentifiable. We all like some privacy.

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

“Post”script, May 17: By coincidence, the second herd of the spring drive went by about six hours ago.

353. Two Times Gordon Dickson

I have on the desk in front of me a book, Ace Double D-449, which was previously owned by Mrs. Elffa E. Philbrick (address redacted) of Urbana, Illinois. I don’t know her. I have never met her, and I don’t know if she is still living. At some point, she placed a return address sticker on the first page – an ordinary person’s version of the ex libris stickers used by fancy people. You don’t see ex libris stickers in Ace Doubles.

I presume Mrs. Philbrick was the first owner of the book. It was published in 1960 and the sticker has no zip code (zip codes came out in 1963). The sticker and the book are equally age-yellowed. That’s all the detective work I could accomplish. There is no way to know how many people owned the book after her, but before I bought it at a local used book store.

One of the minor pleasures of buying used books is occasionally seeing the metaphorical fingerprints of previous owners. They always leave me speculating on how they lived their lives. Was Elffa, perhaps, a suburban housewife with six kids, laundry, PTA, and all the rest, who led a secret life of the mind by traveling, via novel, to distant worlds?

She might also have been a pioneer female engineer working in a local defense plant after a childhood of reading Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But in 1960, which was more likely?

Ace doubles are paired short novels, printed back to back. They are important in the history of science fiction, and will get a post of their own later. This one has The Genetic General on the front, with Time to Teleport on the flip side, both by Gordon R. Dickson.

The Genetic General is part of Dickson’s multi-book Child cycle, AKA the Dorsai books. They include some of my favorites novels and a few that were, in a family phrase, half a bubble off of plumb. Someday I will do a full treatment of them, for the sake of any SF fans – if there are any – who have not already become addicted. Today I’m going to concentrate on Time to Teleport, which is quite a lot better than its title and cover suggest.

(Aside: One of the nicest things about Ace Doubles is that they have two covers, which leaves no space for lying back blurbs.)

Brief summary, sans spoilers:   The world has progressed beyond war, by rearranging its allegiances. Territorial states no longer exist. The Groups which replaced nations are global in scope, and defined by function, such as Communications, Transportation, or Underseas. As the story opens, Groups have been in place for eighty years and have served mankind well, but times have changed and a crisis impends.

The story centers on Eli Johnstone, former head of the Underseas Group. Eli has a secret, deeply buried, that holds the key to the future of mankind.

I bought this book because I realized that, although Ace Doubles had been a staple of my reading during the sixties, I didn’t have one in my library. I chose one which had a proven winner on the front. Since I don’t always like Dickson’s non-Dorsai work, I had small expectations for Time to Teleport, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was a refreshing dip into the-way-things-used-to-be.

It was also a preview of things to come in Dickson’s work. Eli has a bad knee (as did Cletus Grahame), used a cane in the beginning (as did Walter Blunt), and teleportation is a key element. By the second chapter I was expecting an early version of a key scene from Necromancer, but that didn’t happen.

What did happen was a story that tasted like vintage Dickson, and a little like Heinlein’s Lost Legacy (see 148. Lost Legacy). Eli, as the genetically superior man who saves mankind, reminded me of every other science fiction story from the sixties and seventies. So did the heavy reliance on psi forces.

Time to Teleport had an almost naive hopefulness about mankind’s future which I haven’t seen in science fiction lately, and which I miss.

352. A Modern Maverick

The old TV show Maverick has been on local channels lately. It was one of my favorite programs when I was twelve years old, but I’ve pretty much outgrown it. I don’t watch the reruns, but they started me thinking about an American archetype — the lovable con man.

There are a lot of them in literature, and a lot more moving among us in our everyday lives. You know him, weird Uncle Bob who always has a beer in his hand but never buys drinks. Or Uncle Jim who thinks it is wonderful that you are planting trees in your mother’s yard, and drives home to get his favorite shovel, but never comes back.

What all these slick dealers have in common is that they are funny, charming, and it is almost impossible to stay mad at them. They’ll steal your beer, or steal your heart, or steal your money, and leave you laughing at how easy you were to take.

In the movie version of Maverick, he says, “There is no more deeply moving religious experience, than cheating on a cheater.” Cute, but in point of fact, Bret and Bart and Beau cheated everybody. It doesn’t matter though, because they were charming.

There were others before Maverick. Starbuck, in The Rain Maker, teaches Lizzie that she is beautiful, but she marries her home town swain. Good thing. If she had run off with Starbuck, it would not have ended well.

Harold Hill, in The Music Man, made a career of separating suckers from their money. He was charming and slick and thinks faster than the locals. When he falls in love with the librarian, it changes his attitude. She reforms him. Okay, fine, but for me that doesn’t saves the movie; the line that saves the movie is when he tells Winthrop, “I always think there’s a band.”

See, he didn’t mean it. He thinks he’s giving something back. He’s a good Joe at heart.

If a con man believes his own lies, does that make us forgive him? In the movies it frequently does. But what if a real Marian the librarian married a real Harold Hill. We would probably find her later with eight kids, hungry and living on skid row, after Harold Hill moved on. I like the movie version better.

Does our charming American con man believe his own lies? Does he even know himself where the truth is? Does it matter to him? Does it matter to us?

If he is slick enough, and fast enough, and plausible enough — if he can tell one lie to cover another until we get lost in the shell game — there is no limit to how far he can go.

He could even become President.

351. Who Is Listening?

When EDGE accepted Cyan for publication, I was less than enthused about publishing in eBook format. I’ve changed my mind.

It wasn’t the notion that science fiction authors should embrace technology that got to me. It was who responded to my website.

Building a website has been a learning experience, and I sometimes feel I’ve only begun. At first, no one was reading, but I expected that. Eventually, views began. Even later, likes began. I kept writing. I knew that gaining readership is a long-haul process.

I found it addictive to view the websites of the people who responded to me. One of the most surprising things I found was the number of respondents who were clearly from somewhere in the world other than America.

I regularly put out eight posts a week, many of which require research, and I have a life to live. That doesn’t leave me a lot of time to spend under the hood of WordPress, but I did find 

           https://wordpress.com/stats/day/(insert your own url here) 

which lets you click see how many views and visitors you had on any given day. More interesting, it shows a map that tells you which countries those views came from.

I was blown away.

To be specific, these are the results from this year, January 1 through April 21.

USA                    45%
Canada              28%
India                   8%
Australia            5%
U K                      4%
Switzerland       3%
South Africa       2%
Hong Kong       about 1%
Morocco           about 1%
Ukraine             about 1%
Romania          about 1%
Singapore        about 1%
Ireland             about 1%
Czech Rep.      less than 1%
Spain               less than 1%
Philippines      less than 1%
Japan               less than 1%
Kenya              less than 1%
Germany         less than 1%
Jordan             less than 1%
Israel               less than 1%

Global, indeed.

So, back to the initial statement — Yes, I would like to have Cyan on every bookstore shelf and in every library, not just available on line. However, no matter what happens from now on, I will insist that whatever I publish in the future will also be released as an eBook.

This goes back the the very beginning, to my childhood. Growing up on a farm, at first I had only G&D books (Tom Swift and the like) purchased from a local hobby store. Then I found the county library. I didn’t see a real bookstore until I was in college.

Those books were my window to the world.

Today, a book hungry young person with access to the internet can find — and afford — eBooks, even if her or she lives in India, South Africa, or Ukraine. I like that, and I’m proud to be part of it.