Tag Archives: Christmas

651. Beyond the Toyshop Window

It’s classic, the scene of Tiny Tim and his sister looking through the toy shop window while waiting for Bob Cratchit. The world is cold behind them, but inside it a wonderland for children.

You’ll find this in most movie versions of A Christmas Carol. There is even a scene early in Tim Allen’s Santa Clause which is quick homage, with elves hidden among the children. I don’t think that scene ever appeared in the book. I’m not going to swear to it. I’ve read the book many times, and I don’t have time now to prove it to myself, but I’m pretty sure.

The first time I saw that scene in the 1970 movie musical Scrooge, it hit me hard. I wanted to know what else was going on in that toy shop. I wanted to know who ran it, and who made the toys. They couldn’t have been made by the silly proprietor in the movie. Their maker had to have a story to tell — or a story for me to tell.

I was particularly taken by the toy strong man, who eventually appears in critical scenes in Like Clockwork.

So . . . I wanted the builder to be highly intelligent and troubled. I named him Snap early on, with no idea why; then I had to scramble for a reason later in the process. I decided he should be a clock maker; now, why was he making toys instead? He had been cast out, of course, but from where and by whom? I had no idea when I started writing.

I wrote the first chapter and it fell out like water from a tap, including the name of the toy shop, which became the name of the book. Like Clockwork would start out as the story of a toymaker in a clockwork world. It smelled like steampunk, but I found out later that it was a pure time travel story.

At the end of the first chapter Snap turned around and there stood Balfour.

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson is one of my favorite authors, and Kidnapped, the story of David Balfour, ranks right up there with A Wizard of Earthsea and The Old Man and the Sea as one of my three favorite books. As soon as my Balfour appeared unexpectedly on that London street, I knew that he was an avatar of RLS, but I made sure Balfour himself didn’t know it for quite a while.

Do you want to know where Like Clockwork came from? Other than from an image out of the movie Scrooge, and a lifetime of living, imaginatively, in Dickensian London, the answer is — out of left field. It has been a long time since a book has so completely written itself, chapter by chapter, line by line, with little foreknowledge on my part.

There is an exception to that. The ending came early and largely complete, but filling in the parts between was largely sans outline, sans planning, and sans any kind of reason. That may be part of why I like it so well.

Then Chapter 26, titled 62 – 54 = 9, which was the seventh chapter in my screwed up table of contents, fell out onto the screen. The opening sentence read, “Hemmings was a computer.” I didn’t see him coming at all. I just thought I needed a Babbage to balance the Great Clock. I had no idea how much it and Hemmings were going to take over.

It’s been fun. Throughout the novel there are little pieces of cultural reference and homages, sometimes humorous and almost always hidden. Scrooge himself is almost completely absent, except in feel, until near the end of the novel when he appears briefly in a cameo under an assumed name.

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Now that Snap had taken Pakrat with him, and Eve had sent a message that she would be gone today, Pilar was left alone with Lithbeth. She bundled her into a jacket, locked the toy store behind them, and set out to shop. They wandered the streets as if on holiday, talking with the cart vendors, and occasionally buying potatoes or onions. Lithbeth’s eyes were everywhere; she was almost never on the streets in the middle of the day, and things looked different in the strong, filtered light.

Through the grimy windows of an ancient building, Lithbeth saw a small man on a high stool, pen in hand, marking something in a thick ledger. His quick, bright eyes caught her as she passed, and he sent her a smile. She waved back, but then the Ogre came.

He was no larger than the other man, but powerful in his anger. He began to berate the clerk, and Lithbeth turned her face away.

Pilar put a hand on Lithbeth’s shoulder and said, “It’s best not to look into that window. It only makes old Countinghouse treat his clerk even worse than usual.”

“Why does he do that?”

Pilar shook her head. “Some men are like that,” she said. “A master can make his servant’s life a joy or a misery even in small things.”

“Snap would never do that.”

“No, he would not,” Pilar said, and felt a brief moment of peace. Snap would never do that.

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Of course, like Scrooge, Countinghouse has to have his come-to-Jesus moment. It comes on almost the last page of the novel.

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Dickens stopped dead in the street. The old scarecrow Countinghouse stopped likewise, and cringed at the sight of him, feeling a premonition of things to come.

“Who are you?” Dickens asked, in a voice firm with purpose.

“Countinghouse, not that it’s any of your business.”

“It is my business. Mankind is my business, but you in particular are my business. And you only call yourself Countinghouse because you have forgotten your name.”

“If I have forgotten it, let it remain forgotten.”

“There has been enough of forgetting. It is time to remember. You and I have much business together.”

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Poor old codger, people just won’t leave him alone.

650. My Friend Charles

When I was a junior in high school, I was force-fed Great Expectations and it was the most excruciatingly boring experience of my young life. It put me off Dickens for years.

Then I started seeing adaptations of A Christmas Carol on television every Christmas. That led me to read the book itself, and it was even better than the movies. That led me to his other four Christmas books and they were also wonderful.

Maybe this Dickens fellow could write after all.

Somewhere in there, fully a decade before I became a writer, I started to want to write a Christmas book. That’s hard in a world where every other writer has the same idea. You see them on every book rack, paperback equivalents of made-for-TV movies, all asking, “will the girl get the guy by Christmas”? Really, they have nothing to do with Christmas, but that doesn’t keep them from being competition.

No one is every going to match A Christmas Carol, but to sit on the same shelf any book would have to meet a certain level of gravitas. And it can’t be a grumpy old guy who finds redemption; once Dickens got through with his version of that story, every other one would be pastiche.

Ultimately, I found my story, although I have not yet written it. In Philadelphia, in 1790, during the brief period that it was the American capital, Ethan Gunn, a merchant seaman, returns from a year’s long journey to find that his wife has died in his absence. His children were taken in by his brother, living inland, where they died in a house fire. (Or so he is told.)

It is Christmas time and the poor of Philadelphia are in great need. Gunn has money from his voyage, but he counts it as nothing compared to the loss of his family. Through a friend he contributes to those in need, giving us access to a series of brief views of the lives of a series of minor characters.

Gunn himself gains nothing from his charity, because he is not giving of himself. His only ties to humanity are his friend, and a seemingly orphaned girl he has rescued from a shipwreck and taken under his wing. She is of about the same age as his lost children; in trying to ease her grief at losing her parents he comes to love her.

Every scene of a poor family rescued from the brink by Gunn’s aid only drives him closer to despair. The seemingly final blow comes when the parents of the girl he has befriended turn out to have also been saved, and are looking for her. He faces his demons when he considers hiding her away to keep her for himself, then relents, and finally gives away the only thing that has real meaning for him.

Whereupon his own children turn out to have been living with a Moravian family after escaping from the house fire, and are reunited with him.

It’s the unwritten books that will haunt you.

Incidentally, Gunn’s daughter becomes the mother of Titus Young. See 636. Half Breeds, Various.

*            *            *

Like Clockwork, which I finished about nine months ago, also owes a lot to A Christmas Carol. It isn’t a Christmas book, but it is Dickensian, and it owes it’s origin to a scene in Scrooge, the musical adaptation. I’ll tell you more about it on Wednesday.

Like Clockwork isn’t really my Christmas book but it is as close as I have come so far. It’s out looking for a publisher right now. Maybe by next Christmas you can see for yourselves.

644. Annotated Nostalgia

A few mementos from a well
misspent childhood.

Here is your Christmas list for any young people in your life, assuming that you want to help them to move beyond Star Wars. This also assumes that they can get past the anachronisms that are inevitable in books which are about the future, but were written decades ago.

Some of these are great; others are painful to read if you have adult literary sensibilities, but won’t necessarily be painful for kids.

It is nearly certain that some modern kids will find these intolerably restricted to reality. It’s your call. I’m just providing the list I promised in post 642. And since a simple list would be useless, I am adding annotations.

Tom Swift — Various characters named Tom Swift have been around in multiple incarnations, so let’s sort out their checkered history.

From 1910 through 1941, TS the original made inventions and had adventures that are basically unreadable today. If you want to see for yourself, try kindle.

From 1954 through 1971, Tom Swift Jr., the original TS’s son, did the same thing. These are the ones you are most likely to see. They were my bread and butter before I discovered libraries, but now I find them painful to read, although the inventions themselves are still great.

From 1981 onward, there were fourth, fifth and sixth series, about which I know almost nothing.

Tom Corbett — Tom Corbett Space Cadet never came to the hobby shop where I bought my early books, but I got a copy just a few years ago to give it a try. I couldn’t summon the energy to get very far without the added impetus of nostalgia, but it seemed better written than TS, and the protagonists actually got out into space. You see them occasionally in used book stores. There is an additional tidbit below.

Rip Foster — This is a single book with multiple names and is a forgotten gem. None of the other books on this list come close to its quality. See A Forgotten Classic, which also has details on where to get it.

The Heinlein Juveniles — Between 1947 and 1958 Heinlein wrote a dozen novels which were marketed as juveniles. I read the last ten. They are almost universally praised as the best in SF juveniles; I concur in that judgement. See 311. Boys at Work: Starman Jones.

Here is a double tidbit of trivia. The success of Heinlein’s juvenile Space Cadet helped Joseph Greene turn an unpublished radio script into the Tom Corbett Space Cadet series. Greene also later wrote the Dig Allen series, below.

Bullard of the Space Patrol — Copies of this book have been rare. I bought mine during the fifties at a stationary store that also sold a few odd books, but lost it over the years. Once I was an adult, I tried to find a replacement. After ten years I saw one copy in an antique store for a price I couldn’t afford, and ten years after that I found the copy I have now. In terms of quality, BotSP is second only to Rip Foster and ranks above the Heinleins. Although you are unlikely to see a copy in your local used bookstore, you can buy it used or on Kindle at Amazon. Finding lost treasures is much easier in the age of internet.

It isn’t technically a juvenile because of its adult protagonist, but I thought of it as one when I was young. I plan to write a full post on Bullard some time in the future.

Dig Allen — This series of six novels was published between 1959 and 1962. They are well written and well thought out, and I loved them as a kid. However you have to be prepared to accept that the heroes are going to find intelligent life everywhere in our solar system. Check at the very bottom of this post for more information.

Mike Mars — File these under blatant exploitation, but they were still a lot of fun. Published between 1961 and 1964, these books parallel the early manned space program. The premise is that there was a program called Quicksilver, using very young pilots, which did what Mercury did, but sooner and in secret. Anyone who thinks Area 51 houses dead aliens would have to love that.

Veteran SF writer Donald A. Wollheim was hired to knock these out (the first four came out in one year). They have something in common with Tom Swift Jr. in that half of each book is about the mission at hand and half is about chasing saboteurs and other baddies. Book five was my favorite because Mike got to fly the Dyna-Soar just before the real craft was cancelled.

Rocket Man and Starship through Space — If you find either of these, count yourself lucky. I read them in my high school library and have never seen another copy, despite decades of looking. They were written by G. Harry Stein under the pseudonym Lee Correy. They count as two of my all time favorites, despite the brainless ending of STS. See 194. Boys at Work: Lee Correy.

Rick Brant — I lived on Rick Brant when I was young, but it was a series based on then-contemporary cutting edge science, not SF of the future. As a consequence, it is extremely dated. As much as I would love to, I can’t recommend it for most modern kids, and their granddads already know about it. The Rick Brant series and the Rip Foster book were both written by Harold Goodwin under different pseudonyms.

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If you are looking at this post for your own nostalgic reasons, I suggest that you drop in on this Tom Swift info site and wander around. There you will also find a link to a sub-site on Dig Allen. I would go there at once as it may disappear. It doesn’t seem to be current and parts of it are already inaccessible, but it is a treasure trove.

600. Christmas in Paradise?

Back in November I finished Like Clockwork and made mention of the next novel in line. I’m still looking for it. I have nearly a dozen in the pipeline; some have fully developed characters, some have well developed worlds, but not one of them has a solid story. Yet.

Story isn’t everything, but if you don’t have one, you can write for a long time without ever getting anywhere.

A few days ago, I took time to reread The Cost of Empire, and now I’ve started rereading Like Clockwork. It is a way of jumpstarting a balky imagination. This morning I ran across a piece of writing from Like Clockwork, chapter 25 — which is actually the sixth chapter in a somewhat twisted book — and decided to show it to you.

And despite the title, this post — like the novel itself — is only a tiny bit about Christmas.

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Across Division Street, in the half of Outer London where the factories are, everyone was hard at work. They always were, but with more energy now than any other time of the year. It was late November and Christmas was only a month away.

Christmas Day is the most important day in Outer London. It’s odd that this should be so, in a place so aggressively secular, but it is true. On that day all the millions of candle sticks, and candles, and candied fruit cakes, and all the perfect white faced dolls in their perfect pinafores with their perfect pink ribbons in their perfect blonde hair, pass from the warehouses where they have been stored to all the Captains of Industry to be given to their perfect children. Their boys get toys, too, and the children of the workers get lesser toys, appropriate to their station.

The toys are played with ecstatically for a month, but by the end of January, most of them have magically and mysteriously disappeared. Those which remain are carefully programmed to degrade. By October, they are tattered. By November they become fodder for the ashcan. Thus want is artificially introduced. There arises a hunger for toys and games to fill the children’s empty hours. From want, comes anticipation, and on Christmas Day, want is relieved.

It is a beautiful system, a kind of circle of life. And by this late in November, want was keenly felt.

The day after Christmas every warehouse stands empty, but then the stream of merchandise begins again. Chairs and beds and blankets, dresses and trousers and coats, toys and games and diversions, fill every space as the year winds on. Everything is planned for. Every need is anticipated. Everything will be ready for that one day when all dreams are fulfilled.

It gives the workers a reason to work. It gives the Captains of Industry a reason to watch. It gives the Masters of Accountancy a reason to record what the Great Babbage calculates.

Just watch the flow of raw materials into the factories, watch the coal move down to the basements where it becomes steam, watch the steam engines turn it into motion, watch the motion flow from shaft to pulley to belt to shaft to belt.

Watch the lathes and spinners and looms and cutters and sewers as they produce the goods. Watch the painters and polishers and packers and finishers as they store it all away for the glorious coming of Christmas.

In every block east of Division Street there is a factory with vast spaces for workers to work, and near every factory there are tenements with small rooms where the workers live. Above every factory are boardrooms where the Captains of Industry oversee it all, and across town the Babbage Bureau of Accountancy keeps track of every tool, product, planner, and worker.

Every morning workers arrive, in their brown trousers and blue shirts, folded back to the forearm, all as alike as the bricks in the walls of the factory. Every morning the planners and counters arrive, as alike as all the zeroes in a million. With frock coats and waistcoats; with white shirts and blue ties and hard, flat-topped hats of silk.

They go in each morning at 7 by the Great Clock and leave in the evening at 6 by the Great Clock. They march in by the thousand every morning and leave again every evening like bats coming out of a cave. No matter how long the line becomes coming and going, they all check in at exactly 7:00:00 AM and out at 6:00:00 PM. A youngster named Albert manages this miracle, utilizing a fine point of difference between the mathematics of Newton and Leibniz.

And somewhere a man named Adam Smith smokes his pipe, rocks his chair, and smiles in contentment. Over his head is a framed sign that says, “Today is the Perfect Day.”

Perfection? From human hands?

Human hands pull the handles of the drill presses, but jigs and fixtures assure that every hole goes where it is needed. A human hand pull the lever that frees the stamp, that the steam drives down onto plaint clay, and every doll’s head comes out wearing the same smile.

Humanity and machinery and a Babbage to oversee it all. Perfection.

that’s all, for now

553. The Babbage Bureau of Accountancy

Yesterday was Christmas. Today is the 26th of December. Happy Boxing Day.

If Boxing Day is just something British you’ve vaguely heard of, let me explain. It is the holiday on which various workers expect to receive their Christmas-box from those they serve.

I have never written about the commercialism of Christmas. That notion has been done to death, and besides, even Santa’s elves get paid in cookies. Christmas gifts don’t make themselves, you know.

So you can imagine my surprise when, seven chapters into Like Clockwork, the Dickens-inspired steampunk novel that turned out to not be about Christmas, Hemmings appeared without warning and dragged me into exploring the commerce of my pocket London. Take a look.

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Throughout the main building of the Babbage Bureau of Accountancy, ten thousand human computers were required to keep up the constant cross checking of the Great Babbage, as it kept track of every transaction in all the factories and warehouses of London.

It was late November. Christmas was coming, the warehouses were nearly full, and the remaining raw materials had to move through the system to produce the goods, neither running short of materials too soon, nor finishing the last needed item before the final day.

Full employment, full consumption. Everybody has a job. Everybody consumes the goods that everybody else makes. Every tally book balances. The capitalistic ideal.

A single employer. Every job suited to the person who does it. All those tally books replaced by the Great Babbage. The communistic ideal.

Either way, it was no place to be unemployed.

The ten thousand computers counted themselves lucky. They were Time’s Favored Ones. They worked seated, in gentleman’s clothing. They returned home at night unstained. Not for them was the curse of Adam, to work by the sweat of their faces. The middle fingers of their right hands all bore the honorable callus that came from holding a pen. The skin on the rest of their bodies was smooth. Time moved crisply for them, to the smooth rhythm of numerals filling up little blue squares.

In the factories, time moved differently, slowing down and growing more resistant to human movement as the day wore on. That does not seem possible, but young Albert had done work in time dilation according to theories of his own. Time moved smoothly for the computers; time dragged on more slowly as the day progressed for those who bent their backs.

It had always felt that way, throughout the history of mankind, and now it actually was that way.

Morning, morning tea, and luncheon all rolled by with stately grace. It was at 2:18 in the afternoon, November 27, 1850, that Hemmings the computer hit a reef.

His whole job was to check by hand the calculations made by the Great Babbage, looking for errors. On November 27, he found one. Did they thank him? Of course not. The Babbage was incapable of error — even though Hemmings had found one — so they fired him.

Hemmings stood on the street in front of the Babbage Bureau of Accountancy and stared upward, considering the machine which had just become his nemesis. He had never seen the Great Babbage itself, but he imagined it as a massive collection of repeating components, interlaced with walkways where the technicians came and went to clean and oil and inspect. There were a trillion gears, cams, and escapements in his mental image. There were Jacquardian punch cards by the waggon load, as many cards as there were oysters in the ocean.

As many as there had been oysters, when there was an ocean.

Now the picture in his mind had changed. Not much, really, but enough. There was rust on some of the gears now, and some unidentifiable ooze coming out of some of the housings. Hemmings shook his head, trying to clear his mind. He knew the rust was hatred and the ooze was envy, and that they were in him, not the machine.

Still, here he was, with no place in the world, ripped out of the one thing he had been trained to do. With no money to buy his food or pay his rent, no companions, no usefulness to stabilize his identity.

Every stone and brick in London was unchanged, but Hemmings was changed, and suddenly he was as adrift as a chip of wood floating somewhere on the ocean.

When there had been an ocean.

There was no fight in him. He ate his supper where he always did, but this time he sat alone. There were very few coins left in his pocket. Then he walked.

All the streets were well lighted by gaslight. There was no refuse in the gutters. There were few pedestrians, and they all were moving purposefully toward someplace they belonged. He looked at their faces. He had never cared before to look into the faces of the strangers he passed by each day, but now he chose to examine them.

Their faces were calm and peaceful, but there was no joy in them.

He wandered into darkness. By that time, he owned the empty streets. He needed sleep, but it was hard to choose a place to lie down. Every place was identical to every other place. It clearly did not matter where he slept, but that was why he couldn’t choose.

Every clock-face on every building-face in all of London said 3:35 when he could no longer stand. He crawled behind an ash can and let go of everything.

He dreamed of whirling gears, and rust, and ooze.

On the third day, his coins ran out. He did not eat on the fourth day. He had never been hungry before, and the misery of that condition frightened him. He considered stealing. He could go into the place where he had always eaten, scoop up a loaf of bread, and walk away. They probably wouldn’t chase him, at least not far.

Then what? Would the — bobbies, peelers, cops, pigs, police — come to get him? He realized that all the names he had dredged up from deep memory were without weight or taste. He had never seen a policeman, not in a thousand iterations of the year.

What kind of place is so smug, so self-righteous, so self-certain that no one breaks the law? How could there be no rebellion?

He could probably become invisible to the machinery of the state and make his living by simple theft. Could the Great Babbage find him? How? Track him by arithmetic errors, by all the places which reported one less loaf of bread than the Great Babbage had predicted?

Try to find me, you bucket of rusty gears and ooze.

He considered the possibility of living by theft, outside the norms of the rest of mankind, and it tore at his heart. The thought hurt him more than hunger.

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Now, back to our world.

There I was, sitting at my computer, comfortably contemplating my novel of a variant Dickensian London, when suddenly Hemmings appeared. Now my pocket London was split in two. Half would have looked familiar to Scrooge, and the other half was as four-square and linear as an equation. One half was under thrall to the Great Babbage and the other half to the Great Clock that kept turning time back on itself.

Weird. I’ll let you know when you can read it for yourself and see just how weird.

552. Links to Christmas

Tomorrow is the big day, when nobody should be on the internet, so I’ll have my say today. This is the fourth Christmas season since I began this website, and every year I say the same thing. I love Christmas.

I stand with Dickens, who called Christmas “a good time; a kind and forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.”

Over the years, I have posted many Christmas or Midwinter posts. If you are new to this site, here’s your chance to check some of them out.

My first year I posted a list of Christmas books, covering pretty much every aspect of the holiday. That same year, I talked about Dickens’s five Christmas novellas. Everybody knows A Christmas Carol; here is your chance to check out the rest.

When the ghost of Christmas Past appeared, Scrooge asked, “Long past?” and was told that she meant his past. My own early Christmases on the farm wouldn’t make a Christmas card, but I told about them in Twas the Season, posts 1 and also 2. I also talked about the Nostalgia for those days that never were .

Everyone talks about Mary and Jesus, but what about Jesus and Joseph?

Christmas itself has a history beyond the biblical story. It has always fascinated me, and I summarized what I have learned in three posts from 2016, Old European Christmas, Colonial Christmas, and Here Comes Santa Claus.

In 2016 and 2017, Christmas was overshadowed for my Latin friends by a grinch with an orange face and wild yellow hair. I wrote about Christmas for Lupe two years ago and about Jose, Maria, y Jesus in Trumpland last year. I didn’t have the heart to tackle the current occupant one more time this year. Maybe by next year I won’t need to.

Anyway, whether you check out any of these links or not, Merry Christmas.

Hiatus Again

So, once again Serial crawls back into its bed for a long winter nap. I plan to keep the blog alive on life support until I need it again. No, make that in suspended animation; after all this is primarily a science fiction site.

Meanwhile, over in A Writing Life there is a post called Links to Christmas which you can use to see past posts about the season.

Merry Christmas

(Or whatever holiday you celebrate.)