Tag Archives: history

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.

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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.

503. Colliding Conventions

On the fourth of July weekend in 1939, the first World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) was held in New York City. 200 people attended. It has met yearly since, except during WWII.

Despite its name, Worldcon didn’t leave the United States until 1948, when it was held in Toronto. It didn’t leave North America until 1957 when it was held in London. It didn’t leave the English speaking world until 1970 when it was held in Heidelberg.

Worldcon is best known for the fact that it gives out the Hugo Awards.

In 1948 the LA Science Fantasy Society started a west coast convention (Westercon) for those who couldn’t afford to go east for Worldcon. This competing event also meets yearly.

In those years when Worldcon meets outside North America, a North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC) is held somewhere in the US.

This year’s Worldcon 76 will be held in San Jose, California August 16-20. In 2019, Worldcon will be held in Dublin, Ireland, so a NASFiC should be held. The bid, which will be decided in San Jose, is for Layton, Utah on July fourth weekend.

This year’s Westercon starts tomorrow in Denver. Next year it will be in Utah — Layton, Utah, to be precise.

Yes, you did see them palm that ace.

In 2019, Westercon, which began as an alternative to Worldcon, and NASFiC, which occurs only when Worldcon is somewhere else in the world, will be the same convention. I wonder how that is going to work out?

Just fine, I would imagine.

I attended Westercons 33 and 34 in Los Angeles and Sacramento shortly after my first two novels came out. I attended Westercon 70 in Tempe last year just after Cyan was published.

In preparation for that convention, I made eighteen posts here on a number of subjects that would be covered on panels in Tempe. If you missed them, or if you want to see “How to Build a Culture” which I presented at Westercon 34, click on Westercon in the menu bar at the top of this page.

This year I am skipping Westercon 71, Denver, for my first Worldcon, just down the hill a hundred miles or so in San Jose. This should be fun.

498. Living in the Promiseland

There is a winding road across the shifting sand
And room for everyone living in the promiseland
Willie Nelson

I began this website in the fall of 2015. It was to be about writing, particularly about writing science fiction, and I had no intention of responding to political events.

Fat chance of that happening, given what has happened in America since.

In fact, I had written about twenty numbered posts when events in the world forced me to stick some personal political comments in between posts 10 and 11. It was called Walls Against the World. It wouldn’t be the last time I had to interrupt my regular programming to speak out.

That was the day after Hungary closed it’s borders to Syrian refugees. It reminded me too forcibly of the Russians closing Hungary’s borders in 1956, to keep Hungarian refugees from reaching the west and freedom.

East Germany had built a wall across Berlin in 1961, and then-candidate Trump was running on the promise to build a wall across the border with Mexico. I didn’t buy in. At the time I said, “Hitler would be proud. East Germany would understand. Russia is laughing.”

Was that only thirty-three months ago? Time flies when you are running from a forest fire.

I opened that post with these words:

          Have you ever asked yourself, “How could Germany have been fooled into following Adolph Hitler?” The answer is on your television this morning, and it is Donald Trump.
          I’m not saying that Trump is a Nazi. I don’t see him as evil, merely foolish. But the techniques that have brought him to prominence are the same techniques that Hitler used.

Then Trump won and here we are. I have tried since then to be fair and at least somewhat balanced. After all, he was elected by the American people (aided by Putin and Comey) and the Democrats hadn’t given Americans much of an alternative.

I have resisted calling Trump evil, and I have resisted refusing to see why many Americans chose to vote for him. I understand them; I just don’t understand him. I have not called him by the H****r word, even as Trump has become increasingly dictatorial. I have tried to avoid pointing out that Hitler was initially elected to office, before he took over everything.

All that was before Trump opened concentration camps on the Mexican border in the name of Zero Tolerance. We haven’t seen this in America since 1942.

Maybe I’ll send the White House a copy of Willie Nelson’s Living in the Promiseland. At least I would if I thought it would do any good.

Give us your tired and weak and we will make them strong
Bring us your foreign songs and we will sing along
.               from Living in the Promiseland

Serial Education

Continued from last week, when I started to talk about what has already appeared in Serial.

Starting January 20, 2016, I presented a long fragment of the unfinished novel Voices in the Walls. I won’t give details, since you can read for yourself, but it was a teaching event. I interlaced the novel fragment with a chance to look over my shoulder as I worked. That turned it into a how-to for new writers.

#           #           #

Here is a bit of unavoidable nerdishness. I should have transferred Voices to Backfile. I didn’t. Time is short and work is long, and I never found the time to get it done.

You can still read old multiple posts, but it can be a major PITA (pain in  . . . ) because they are presented in archives last-first, and you want to read them first-first. Worse still, archives does not distinguish between AWL posts and Serial posts, so you have to read every alternate one.

It isn’t really hard if you know the secret. Here’s how it is done. At the bottom of each post are right and left arrows to the next/previous post. If you start with the first post of VITW, read it, then click the right arrow, it will take you to the next post. Unfortunately, in my world that will be the same-day post over in AWL. Slide down through that post and click the right arrow to go to the next day’s post of Serial. And so forth.

It goes quickly after a few clicks to get into rhythm. Try it. VITW is worth your time.

#           #           #

The entire novel Jandrax followed. It was and is available in used bookstores both locally and on Amazon, so it was not a lost work, but I included it with annotations. If you just want to read Jandrax, buy a used copy. Clicking through 92 posts isn’t worth 95 cents. But if you want to read the annotations in which I discuss why I did what I did, and confess to my screw-ups, it’s all there for you to enjoy.

more tomorrow