Tag Archives: history

541. Who is Balfour?

If there is a single characteristic of Steampunk that stands out as nearly universal, it is the use of changed versions of real persons. For instance, in The Cost of Empire, I made some fundamental changes in the British royal family (Victorian era) to get the Prince of Wales I needed for the story.

In Like Clockwork, there are quite a few alternate real people who pop up at the very end, but the most important is Balfour who is one of the main characters. You met him just before and on Halloween. Today we find him ruminating on what he has learned.

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What do you do the day after your alter ego calls you out? Balfour spent the day in bed.

First he replayed the moment Hyde — he still thought of him as a separate person — had said, “Why now? Why not now?” It was a valid observation, but it missed the point. For endless iterations of the year, Balfour had not remembered.

“Why now?” was a valid question, and Hyde had not answered it. Why not yesterday, or a year ago, or a hundred years ago? How could Balfour change in a changeless land? Or was the land itself finally beginning to change?

Balfour took The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the shelf where it had lain unread and unremembered. He spent some time with it. It now seemed cumbersome and circuitous, but the ghost of Hyde had understood it well. It was a piece of rebellion against his father’s religion and a piece of youthful arrogance, all jumbled together.

Balfour remembered other books he had written, or Stevenson had written, now that the dam against memory had partially broken. He remembered his youthful travelogues, and he remembered Treasure Island, the book that had made him rich. When he wrote Kidnapped he had finally given David Balfour one of his own names, and now he was using it again. He thought fondly of that character, and fondly of his young self, so far in the past that even the memories were ghostly.

He remembered Edinburgh and thought, “London is not my town. Give me Auld Reekie any time, with its narrow twisted streets stretching from Holyrood to the Castle.”

He remembered Fanny, his wife, and how hard it had been to win her. He remembered her children. He had written a book of poems for them, and for all the other children of the world.

He remembered a race of dark skinned people who had found him strange, but had made him one of their own. He also remembered a single poem written on a grave in that hot and humid land.

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

It was a lie. He had not laid himself down with a will. He had laid down in exhaustion after a lifetime of fighting tuberculosis, happy to have the pain stop and happy not to face once more the terror of being unable to breathe; but not happy to let go of the life and the people he had loved.

Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson was born in 1850, and now he was living in an eternal 1850, not as an infant, but as a grown man with the accomplishments of a lifetime behind him.

A whole lifetime. A lifetime that tunneled all the way from that squalling infant in Scotland to a tombstone on a mountaintop in Samoa.

How could that be?

He had some of the memories of Stevenson, but the man himself had lived and died, and surely was no more. Hyde, who lived in his soul, had said to call himself Stevenson, but what was he really? Not the man himself; at best, a shade of the man. A memory, lying in bed, remembering.

He squirmed and groaned, and fought with those memories that were his, and yet were not his.

The first memory he could call his own, separate from Stevenson, was this room. He had no memory of choosing the Clock in the time Before. Whatever had brought him here, it was by a different path than any other citizen of this new London had taken.

Whatever else he was, he was Balfour, and he had been Balfour for endless iterations of the year. He had a face that looked like the face on the cover of Stevenson’s books. He had a lean body that served him well. Stevenson had been sickly, consumptive, and Balfour was not.

The man — or the shade of the man — who had passed from Edinburgh to Samoa, wracked with tuberculosis, fighting weakness all the way, through poverty to riches, from obscurity and parental disapproval to universal fame, was not content to leave things the way they were.

He was not truly Stevenson and this was not truly 1850 by a wide margin. He was Balfour, and he was ready to do battle once again to find out what it all meant.

Curious? Sure you are. Want more? It’s coming.

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540. Where Are the Vets?

Here are some statistics, tailored for those who read this blog. I know most of you are young. I see your pictures on your likes, and I check out your websites.  I’m not young, so I see changes you may not be aware of.

Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and both presidents Bush all served in the military in wartime. Regan and Bush Two served stateside in wartime; the others all saw combat.

Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump did not serve.

In the current House of Representatives only 70 of 435 have served in the military. In the current Senate, only 13 of 100 have served. Those numbers will go up slightly with the incoming congress.

Veterans were not so under represented in previous congresses.

These figures relate the the reduced number of persons in the military. That is not quite the same as a smaller military, since the persons now serving tend to spend more years in service. Draftees from previous eras tended to go home as soon as they were allowed to do so.

I come from a long line of draftees. My father served in Europe in WW II, was wounded, and remained during the occupation of Germany. His younger brother was drafted, trained, and was on a ship “heading for Japan to die” (his words) when the US dropped the A bomb. He ended up in the occupation of Japan. I joined the Navy, Vietnam era, but not by choice. My draft number was 41, which meant my number was up (in both senses of the word) before I finished college. And no, I did not see combat.

I hated the draft and I still do, but it had one positive aspect. It leveled the playing field. More Americans had to step up, whether they wanted to or not, and that led to more protests. Without the draft, we would have been in Vietnam much longer.

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the end of WW I. All those veterans are gone. WW II ended in 1945. Very few of the vets from my father’s generation are still around.

America left Vietnam in 1973. Any vet who saw that day at age 18 would be 63 today. That was also the last  year American’s were drafted.

I’m not suggesting a return to the draft, God forbid. I have no particular agenda at all; I just want to give you this to think about.

A country which everyone has to defend, or at least has to stand in jeopardy of military service, is a very different thing from a country that depends on a volunteer military.

Better? Worse? That will be your decision going forward.

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The numbers in this post come from PBS.

539. Alien Space Bats

If you have never heard the term Alien Space Bats, join the club. I found it while searching for an illustration for this post, originally titled deus ex machina. Alien Space Bats was a better title, so I changed it. ASB refers to impossible points of divergence in alternate history stories, as in, “It would take alien space bats intervening to make this story fly.” In short, it is a funnier way of saying deus ex machina.

Deus ex machina translates roughly as the God in the Machine, referring to an event in a Greek play wherein a God is literally lowered onto the stage to explain why everything happened as it did. It is all about plausibility and timing.

If, as a writer, you drag something into the story at the last minute to explain what has been going on, you are likely to be subject to ridicule, and deus ex machina is the phrase critics will use as a club to beat you with.

I ran into a variation of this back in the Precambrian, when I was in grad school. The class was on Indian history and culture. That is South Asian Indian, not Native American. We read a story in which the hero suffered terrible tribulations and at the very end it was revealed that he had done something bad in a previous life, and that was why all these things had happened to him.

My fellow students cried deus ex machina. I disagreed. If you were a Hindu, practicing or not, this story would have sounded reasonable. The bad things that happen to Hindus in this life are all explicable; they are all because they did something wrong in a past life and there is no point in moaning about it. As in life, so in literature.

It’s actually quite Christian, in a twisted sort of way. Fundamentalists don’t look to something individuals have personally done wrong, but to original sin to tell us why the bad things happen to good people.

Nowadays, New Age thinkers (?) have stood this on its head. You hear it everywhere, “Everything happens for a reason,” by which they mean that good will come from every apparent tragedy. It is undoubtedly the least intellectually valid cliché of the twenty-first century — but that’s a whole different sermon.

Now if you are or want to be a writer — and why would you be this far into this post if that weren’t true — you are the God and your computer is the machine. So ask yourself, why do bad things happen to your characters?

Metaphysically, you may be working out some personal trauma. Practically, you can’t have a plot without tension. But when it comes right down to it, neither of these is of any interest to your reader.

Your reader takes your story and temporarily treats it as real. When he reaches the point that he can’t do that any longer, he closes the book and you’re through.

So the question is, in your story, why do these things happen to your hero? In a thriller, it may be easy. His (or her) wife, husband, daughter, boss, company, governmental agency, or law firm has done something wrong and that is the reason your hero is on the run. Motivation is set from the get-go and the thriller formula becomes a matter of clever events to carry him/her through her/his tribulations.

If your hero has brought the troubles on himself, things get a little more interesting. If he/she has complicating factors and cross-motivations, even better, but you have to dribble all this out as you go along. You can’t do it as an info dump at the beginning and you can’t do it as a cheaters dump at the end. And in our world, a cheaters dump is a more honest word for deus ex machina.

You might get away with it in ancient Greece, but not in America today. Nor — recognizing that half the people reading this post are not from the USA and a fourth of them are from India — in any place where western style literature is the norm.

This is the game we have all agreed to play, so there is no point in whining about the rules.

If you have a reason for the things that happen in your story, but you don’t give hints along the way — if you save it all up for that dramatic reveal and dump it all on your reader at the very end, you’re on your own. I can’t help you.

522. First Black Astronauts

Dr. Ronald McNair, Guion Bulford, Frederick Gregory

I recently saw Leland Melvin’s new book Chasing Space and got a chance to look it over. It’s a good book, although in full disclosure I won’t finish it. I read and write for a living. so my time is limited. Additionally, I have already read more than dozen astronaut bios, so this one lacks newness for me, even though it might be just what you are looking for.

It got me thinking about the first black astronaut, if there were such a thing. We all know who the first woman astronaut was — Sally Ride. That is, if we continue our cold war prejudice against the Russians and ignore Valentina Tereshkova.

It would be neat and tidy if there were a first black astronaut, but it isn’t that simple. If you type the question into Google, it will return Guion Bluford. We’ll talk about him in a second, but there were others that came before him.

Ed Dwight was chosen by John F. Kennedy to join the astronaut corps. He was an Air Force test pilot with a degree in aeronautical engineering. While in training, he was the target of racism. When Kennedy was assassinated, Dwight withdrew from the astronaut program. A few years later, continued harassment led him to retire from the Air Force altogether. He became a noted sculptor in a second career.

Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was the next African-American astronaut. At Edwards Air Force Base, Lawrence investigated unpowered glide return characteristics using an F-104 Starfighter, contributing greatly to knowledge necessary to the Space Shuttle program. He was assigned to the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, but before he flew in space, he was killed in a crash landing while acting as a pilot instructor to a trainee. When the MOL project was abandoned, many of it’s astronauts transferred to NASA, where they became the backbone of the early Space Shuttle missions. Lawrence would almost certainly have been among them.

The “first black astronaut” falls out this way.

Ed Dwight was the first black astronaut trainee.

Robert Lawrence Jr. was the first black working astronaut. Remember that most of any astronaut’s time is spent in training and on-the-ground research. Actual flight in space makes up a tiny fraction of an astronaut’s career. Lawrence was as much a real astronaut as Roger Chaffee who died in the Apollo One fire just before his first flight.

Guion Bluford was the first black astronaut to actually fly in space in 1983 aboard the Challenger. He participated in four shuttle flights.

We also have to add Ronald McNair to the list of firsts. He was the first black astronaut to die on a space mission, when Challenger exploded. It was his second space shuttle mission.

Before 1978, there had been fifty-some American Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts and an additional few dozen assigned to other missions. Of, these only Lawrence had been black and there had been no women.

An up-to-date list of black astronauts can be found here. There are fourteen: Guion Bluford, Ronald McNair, Frederick Gregory, Charles Bolden, Mae Jemison, Bernard Harris Jr., Winston Scott, Robert Curbeam, Michael Anderson, Stephanie Wilson, Joan Higginbotham, Alvin Drew, Leland Melvin (whose book started this post), and Robert Satcher.

There are an additional eight who, for various reasons, never flew is space. Lawrence and Dwight are on that list.

509. Kidnapped and Catriona (2)

Catriona, aka David Balfour, continues the story begun in Kidnapped. I prefer the former title, probably because it was the title of the library copy I first read. I have headed this with a David Balfour cover, because all the Catriona covers I found were artistically inferior. By either name, this is quite a different kind of book. The balance between action and moral dilemma has shifted hard to the right.

Kidnapped had too much meat to be properly called a boy’s book, but it fell into that category among booksellers largely because it didn’t have sex or even romance. In Catriona, there still isn’t any sex — it was published in the Victorian era, after all — but it does have romance. Catriona is David’s love interest from early in the novel, and he wins her at the end. But the path of that romance is so slow, self-consciously moral, and tedious that it wouldn’t work as a modern girl’s book either. (Assuming anyone would dare to use that phrase any more.)

I recommend both novel and sequel to adults who are willing to take a journey, not only to another land, but also to another time. It’s easier to follow the lowland Scots dialect than it is to understand why David is so backward in his pursuit of Catriona. Once you get past that, you will be closer to understanding the era.

The book is in two parts. In the first, David is trying to get his friend Alan to safety overseas, and trying to get a chance to testify that James of the Glen cannot have committed the Appin murder. The latter turns out to be no easy task. The level of bias and corruption is astounding, on both sides of the political spectrum. (Sound familiar?) Shenanigans abound; David is kidnapped, again, this time by his friends and held captive on Bass Rock to keep him from the trial. He manages to get there anyway, after the trial is over, but before the verdict is announced. He falls in with those who are James friends, and finds them as blind to justice and reason as the ones who want James dead. David says:

And it was forced home upon my mind how this, that had the externals of a sober process of law, was in its essence a clan battle between savage clans.

There were no quotations in the last post, but Catriona is a garden of quotations, so brace yourself as David tells you what happened in his own words.

. . . in course of time, on November 8th, and in the midst of a prodigious storm of wind and rain, poor James of the Glens was duly hanged at Lettermore by Balachulish.

So there was the final upshot of my politics! Innocent men have perished before James, and are like to keep on perishing (in spite of all our wisdom) till the end of time. And till the end of time, young folk (who are not yet used with the duplicity of life and men) will struggle as I did, and make heroical resolves, and take long risks; and the course of events will push them upon the one side and go on like a marching army.   . . . (James) had been hanged by fraud and violence, and the world wagged along, and there was not a pennyweight of difference; and the villains of that horrid plot were decent, kind, respectable fathers of families, who went to kirk and took the sacrament!

What follows immediately thereafter is perhaps my favorite quotation from all of literature.

But I had had my view of that detestable business they call politics–I had seen it from behind, when it is all bones and blackness; and I was cured for life of any temptations to take part in it again.

David may have accomplished nothing, but he has given a moving example of decency in his attempt.

The last third of the book is a romance, mixed with more intrigue. Alan appears again, David ends up as the temporary guardian of Catriona, which makes him morally bound to say nothing about his feelings for her, since she is in his power. It is all very touching, frustrating, and Victorian. I would not blame a modern reader for wishing David would just say, “Hey, Babe, we’ve got a problem here, let’s talk about it.” But of course, he can’t. Living through his misery with him is the price we pay for diving deep into a historic culture, told through the words of a man who lived it.

Spoiler alert: all comes well in the end.

In his dedication to David Balfour/Catriona, written in Samoa, RLS revealed his affection for both books and added:

And I have come so far; and the sights and thoughts of my youth pursue me; and I see like a vision the youth of my father, and of his father, and the whole stream of lives flowing down there, far in the north, with the sound of laughter and tears, to cast me out in the end, as by a sudden freshet, on those ultimate islands. And I admire and bow my head before the romance of destiny.

Kidnapped might be mistaken for a boy’s book; RLS suggested it himself. Catriona, or Kidnapped/Catriona seen as a single story, is an adult look at a very different world.

508. Kidnapped and Catriona (1)

This is a double homage to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped and to David Balfour or Catriona, the alternate titles of its sequel. It is a follow-on to 504. Homage to Robert Louis Stevenson.

Kidnapped was published 132 years ago, so there are bound to be some problems with language and culture. If it were being read by adults familiar with how historical novels function, there would be no issue, but Kidnapped is seen as a boy’s book.

It isn’t. Kidnapped is a Bildungsroman, a coming of age novel in which the main character faces moral choices. Kidnapped and Treasue Island are often lumped together, but they are quite separate species. Consequently, Kidnapped does not get the respect it deserves.

David Balfour is off to seek his fortune, shortly after his father’s death. He is going to see a rich Uncle Ebenezer, without knowing that he has a claim on his uncle’s fortune. At his uncle’s connivance, he is kidnapped onto the brig Covenant and shipped off to the America’s as a slave.

Complications ensue. David falls in with Alan Breck, the Covenant is wrecked off the west coast of Scotland, and David and Alan find their way back to Edinburgh. Along the way, they witness the murder of Colin Roy Campbell, a matter of great political importance in the days shortly after the Jacobite uprising.

Alan Breck Stewart, which is the full name of David’s companion, was based on the real historical character who was implicated for the murder (also real), tried in absentia, and sentenced to death. The sentence was never carried out and the real Alan disappeared from history, leaving a trail of local stories about what happened to him.

RLS took the Appin murder, as the incident was called, as the backbone of his story, not only in Kidnapped, but also in its sequel.

There is plenty of adventure, danger, and intrigue to carry the novel to its conclusion, but its quality lies in the view David gets of both sides of the recent war, and the moral decisions he constantly faces. David is a lowlander, a conservative, and a supporter of King George II; his companion Alan is in rebellion, on the run, and collecting rents which will go to support his King, Charles Edward Stuart. Patriotism would have David turn Alan in; their friendship, and the fact that each has saved the other’s life during their journey, will not allow him to do so. David knows that Alan is innocent of the murder, but he can’t testify to this without revealing that Alan is a traitor in the eyes of the British and already condemned, while throwing away his own future for consorting with King George’s enemies.

At the end of Kidnapped, David overcomes his uncle, then shows him mercy, gains his proper inheritance, and is in the process of helping Alan escape to France. As many critics have pointed out, the novel ends short of completion, with Alan still waiting for passage and James of the Glens was still in jail awaiting trial for a murder he did not commit. RLS himself admits this and hoped to make things right if Kidnapped were successful. I would give it to you in his words, but I haven’t been able to find the quotation. It comes of reading too many books in a lifetime, and not being organized enough to write down every quote I like.

Kidnapped was successful, and he did write a sequel, called Catriona in Britain and David Balfour in the US. The sequel never got the acclaim of Kidnapped. I find that unacceptable, so stay tuned for a look at Catriona on Thursday.

Kidnapped is not on the list for The Great American Read, as I discussed a week ago.

The fans of Kidnapping — they are legion — have arranged a walking trail in Scotland that follows David’s path from the shipwreck to Edinburgh. You can find information here. I’ve added it to my bucket list.

504. Homage to Robert Louis Stevenson

I can’t remember the first time I read Kidnapped, but it stayed with me. When I took a class on children’s literature as I was preparing to become a teacher, Kidnapped was the book I chose for a report. I read it again before going to Scotland for the first time, and have read it additional times since.

I have also read a half dozen other works by RLS, but Kidnapped began it and remains my lodestone in things regarding the author.

Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson was born at N. 8 Howard Place, Edinburgh, on the 13th of November, 1850.

That is a quotation from RLS’s cousin and first biographer Graham Balfour. While RLS was still a child, his father changed the spelling of his name to Louis, without adopting the French pronunciation, because he was angry with a contemporary politician named Lewis. RLS himself dropped the Balfour to make his name shorter for his literary works.

Balfour was his mother’s maiden name. Despite dropping it, RLS was fond and proud of his maternal ancestors — so much so that he used the name for the main character David Balfour in Kidnapped.

Two recent things brought my long time fascination with RLS to the surface for these posts. First, a character in my latest novel is his doppelgänger. My character Balfour is — and is not — RLS. He has been “transmigrated”, for want of a better word, into an alternate London. He has minimal memories of RLS’s life and death, and is trying to recover them. Like most of the rest of the characters in Like Clockwork, he spends the novel trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

To tell more would be a spoiler, and besides, Balfour only explains things to me as he learns them, and the two of us haven’t reached the end of his book yet.

The second thing that brought RLS to the fore was The Great American Read on PBS. I watched the premier and looked at the 100 books on offer to be crowned as America’s favorite book. RLS was nowhere to be seen. How could this be? Surely either Kidnapped or Treasure Island should have made the cut. And if not, what about The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde?

I’ll say more about The Great American Read in a later post.

All this sent me in search of a more comprehensive biography of RLS than the one I had picked up in Scotland. I had avoided too much research when I began Like Clockwork, but by the time The Great American Read reignited my curiosity, my Balfour had become an established separate entity in my mind. I no longer had to worry about being sidetracked by an excess of reality.

I went to my favorite underfunded library where they never throw books away — because they can’t afford new ones — and found volume II of the Graham Balfour’s 1901 biography. Volume I was missing, although I eventually got a look at it online. It was a bit dense, as well as being too old fashioned even for me. Also Graham Balfour was a cousin, writing under the eye of a very protective family.

I ended up with the Pope-Hennessy biography, a work that is thinner, more up to date, and not written by a relative. Pope-Hennessy has an honest reputation and gives a balanced view.

RLS’s life was a bit of a soap opera, so I will stick to the highlights. The first key to understanding him is that he was sickly from birth, and his mother was sickly before him. His father was a robust engineer, who carried on the family business of building lighthouses.

RLS’s schooling was late starting and continued irregularly. Bouts of ill health punctuated his whole life. In fact, part of his appeal during the Victorian era was his illness. In that era, it was romantic to be clinging to life, or falling to suicide, and tuberculosis was a particularly romantic way to go.

The elder Stevenson intended him to follow in the family business, but RLS chose from an early age to be a writer. His father, fearing that he would become dissolute, restricted his allowance to such a degree that RLS lived a strange life of poverty throughout his young manhood, alternating with travel and convalescences that would only be available to the wealthy.

Shortly after writing his first book, Inland Journey, in 1878, he met Fanny Osbourne, an American woman who was separated from her unfaithful husband. RLS’s love for her was instant, intense, and permanent. When she returned home, he followed her to America where he almost died in Monterey before moving to San Francisco, all in pursuit of Fanny. She eventually received a divorce and they were married. During this time RLS was constantly writing, receiving positive reviews, but little money.

RLS, Fanny, and her two children returned to England, but could find no place suited to RLS’s ill health. During this period he wrote his best loved works, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but could find no easing of his tuberculosis.

In 1888, RLS, Fanny, and her two children, now financially secure from his novels, left for the South Pacific. They never returned. This was the first place that had allowed RLS to gain the health that had eluded him throughout his lifetime, and he was unwilling to leave it. He settled in Samoa, where he lived his last years, dying at forty-four. By that time he had written many works I have not had space to mention, and left the novels St. Ives and the Weir of Hermiston unfinished.

I future posts, I will talk about some of those works.

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Biographies — Graham Balfour, The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, 2 volumes, 1901.   James Pope-Hennessy, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1974. Forbes Macgregor, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1989. The last is a an excellent summary biography in 29 pages, shown at the head of this post. It is sold in Edinburgh to tourists who probably never read it. Interestingly, the author’s name is buried at the bottom of the last page. Writer’s get no respect, even when they are writing about other writers.