Tag Archives: history

615. Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin

Last night (August 2nd) I watched American Masters: Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin. I was not looking forward to it, since PBS screws up so many of its programs. The advertisements didn’t help. They emphasized that “before Hogwarts there was Earthsea”, as if her work didn’t mean anything until Harry Potter imitated it.

It turned out to be an excellent program, balanced, praising her for her excellence and her importance to other authors like China Miéville and Neil Gaiman, but not suggesting that she single handedly made science fiction and fantasy great again.

I was afraid they would take the path of overreach — PBS tends to do that — but the presentation was closer to flawless as any one of us has a right to expect.

During the first twenty years of Le Guin’s career, I read her novels as they appeared. By the second half of her career, I had moved on to other things. After this presentation, I clearly have some catching up to do.

If Ursula K. Le Guin is someone you have only heard of, or perhaps planned to read someday, you should not miss the opportunity to view this presentation before it disappears back into the PBS vaults.

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611. Living Through History

I never worked for NASA. I have no actual connection with the space program, but I love it. These days, everybody is talking about the moon landing, but I’m not going to post about it directly. There is no need. I’m no expert, but every real expert left alive will be on your TV.

My connection is personal, and I first wrote about it when this website was new, in October of 2015. I don’t normally like to repeat old posts, but I can’t say it any better.

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It was pledge week at PBS. They ran the biography of Neil Armstrong for the upteenth time. My wife and I watched it for about the third time, and when it was over, she said, “That was my childhood.”

I knew exactly what she meant. She and I were soul mates long before we met. Pardon the corn, but it’s true. She grew up in Michigan and I grew up in Oklahoma; we met in college. But when we were children, we were both science nuts long before Sputnik. We both repeatedly checked out Vinson Brown’s How to Make a Home Nature Museum and followed the instructions. We both checked out books on how to grind the lens on your own reflecting telescope, but neither of us made one because we didn’t have the money to buy the glass blanks.

On October 4, 1957, Russia orbited their first satellite. I was in fifth grade when the teacher went up to the front of the room and wrote Sputnik on the board. She said it meant Earth-moon in Russian. It didn’t, but we knew almost nothing about the Russians then. A few days later, she wheeled a cart into the room. It had beakers beneath, a tiny sink, and a hand pump. Oklahoma schools had instituted science as a middle school and elementary subject for the first time.

I kept track of every satellite we launched and every rocket that blew up on the pad. There were a lot of them. When the Russians launched Muttnik (the nickname was American) I was fascinated to see a living creature in space. All my schoolmates said only the stinking Russians would send a dog up there to die.

I watched the Mercury astronauts first press conference and quickly got to know them all. I was thrilled when Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth. Everybody wrung their hands because a Russians got there first, but I didn’t care. We were in space — and we meant people, not Americans.

I watched Shepard’s and Grissom’s launches, and cheered when Grissom didn’t go down with his capsule. In Michigan, my future wife was collecting every magazine that covered the Mercury program.

I was at school while John Glenn was in orbit, so I missed something monumental in our family history. My father, who thought the space program was a waste of money, got off his tractor and came in to watch the televised coverage. He later said, “I just couldn’t work until we got that old boy back safe.”

The rest of Mercury, Gemini, the beginnings of Apollo — I followed every mission.

I had discovered ecology, at a time when nobody knew what the word meant. I spent my junior year building an Ecosystem Operable in Weightlessness for the regional science fair. It was complicated, cutting edge, and more than I could actually complete by fair day. I won’t bore you with the details, but it helped get me a Fleming Fellowship the following summer. That gave me a chance to work with real scientists and to see some of the world beyond my tiny town. Those were the people who suggested I should apply to Michigan State.

At MSU the Biology department cared nothing about ecology. I was a few years too early; if you didn’t need an electron microscope to see something, it wasn’t interesting — to them. The closest thing to behavioral biology was Anthropology, and that is where I ended up. And where I found my wife.

We married in 1969 and took off for a long drive around the US, visiting relatives and national parks. We got back to to East Lansing in mid-July, following Apollo 11 on the car radio. On July 20 went went in to the student lounge of her old dorm and sat with dozens of college students watching a grainy black and white TV as Neil Armstrong set his foot on the moon.

You should have been there.

609. Alternate Universes

During the Golden Age, most of Heinlein’s short stories linked together to make a complete future world. I didn’t know that at the time, since I wasn’t born yet. I discovered his Future History as his short stories began to be reissued in collections, when paperback books were relatively new. In the opening pages of several of them there was a chart of future history, showing times, scientific developments, and social changes, all keyed to the stories built around them.

Future history in science fiction is a first cousin to alternate history, which is sometimes seen as SF and is sometimes shelved with ordinary historical fiction.

Historical fiction isn’t history. Studies of history may be inaccurate, even deliberately so, but they aren’t fiction. Sometimes they may be as far away from truth as deliberate fiction, but that’s a whole ‘nuther can of posts.

Historical fiction may be romance, adventure, war, moral advance or moral decline, or any other type of story, just as contemporary fiction can be. It simply uses history as a place for things to happen, just like a boy meets girl story can take place in Palestine or Paducah.

Alternate history does the same thing, but with an additional twist. The author makes a choice of where and when to make a historical change, and then invents a fictional world based on that change. After that, as with science fiction, the story the author tells may resemble ordinary fiction, or it may depend on events special to the created world.

Almost all science fiction creates some kind of future history. Heinlein gets first mention because he coined the term, but his buddy E. E. Smith’s Lensmen series creates an even bigger, badder, and bolder alternate universe. Gordon Dickson had his Childe Cycle (known to ordinary mortals as the Dorsai books), and there are dozens, probably hundreds, of other examples.

Alternate history does the same thing, but starts earlier in time. Fantasy, from Tolkien to Diskworld, creates entirely non-ordinary worlds. Only contemporary and historical fictions are impoverished by a lack of world building.

Once a writer creates a universe, there is a temptation to return to it. After all, much of his work has already been done. The result may be an enriching of the imaginary world, or a steady decline in quality due to self-repetition. It depends on the skill of the author.

My own writings live in two variant futures, one variant past, and a variant past created by time traveling meddlers from a variant future. And a fantasy world.

The variant past story is The Cost of Empire, which could be shelved with science fiction (at a stretch), steampunk (easily), or alternate history. A dishonest capitalist steals a new type of engine; he also talks the British government into starting a spy organization which he then uses to sabotage other engine types, skewing industrial development. That’s backstory; if you are curious about the actual story, the opening pages were presented in posts 486, 487, 488, and 489.

In one of my variant futures a scientist named Lassiter discovers a glitch in our understanding of physics which allows easy total annihilation of matter. That means a star drive for nearby star systems, with all the complications of near light-speed travel, but no FTL. This led to world building for all the stars within about five light years of Earth, and to the novel Cyan which explores one of them.

Such multiple world building calls for other novels, including the one alluded to in Monday’s post.

Not to belabor a point, but the world building in Cyan and the world building in The Cost of Empire are both based on a technological innovation. The only real difference is that one change took place in the past and one will take place in the future. SF and alternate history are often two faces of the same coin.

Incidentally, the Cyan universe came about after I wrote my first published novel Jandrax. I asked myself, where did this universe come from? How did it start? What were the ancestors of the people in Jandrax doing a few hundred years earlier? Then I filled in the missing pieces, and Cyan emerged.

My other early published novel, A Fond Farewell to Dying, is based on a historical change and a technological development. The world in general comes into being through a confluence of nuclear war and rising oceans, ending with the northern hemisphere devastated, and India as the last best hope of scientific culture. The technological event is the creation of a practical, artificial immortality. That world called for two sequels which have been outlined, but not yet been written. One of them has recently been calling my name, so maybe soon.

In FFTD, the bombs fell in the future, so it is clearly SF. If the bombs had fallen in 1957, it might be categorized as alternate history — but probably wouldn’t be because of the immortality theme.

Writers write. Putting novels into categories is the job of editors, critics, and booksellers. We do make life hard for them sometimes.

My latest novel, Like Clockwork, takes place in a quasi-Victorian pocket London and won’t have any direct sequels. It could be published as steampunk, but it is actually a straight SF time travel story.

However the future world of the time traveler who is Like Clockwork‘s hidden prime mover has infinite possibilities. In that world Einstein got it right, there can be no FTL, and only century ships are a possibility. Adventurous souls need not despair, however, because there is sideways travel in time. For fear of destroying their own existence, time travel in this culture’s own timeline is forbidden, but travel to alternate universes is the order of the day. 

My fantasy novels all take place in one created world, but that’s a whole different set of posts.

606. We Learn

University of Chicago

In the review of Louis L’amour’s memoir, a lot was said about self education, but that should not obscure the usefulness of college.

If you cut classes, sleep through classes, read digested notes instead of the textbook, and write merely adequate papers (or buy them), you can get all the way to graduation without learning anything. It takes some effort, but people do it every day.

On the other hand, if you recognize that your education is your responsibility, college will at least provide you with a reading list. And while you are in the stacks there is no telling what kind of other amazing additional things you will find to read.

Also, a few of the professors, at least, will have something worth listening to. I have had brilliant professors and professors who were dolts. You just have to deal with it.

There are grad students (I’ve met some) who were plowing their way toward a Ph.D. on pure inertia. Something got them started down that path and they didn’t have the imagination or courage to make a change. They can make it all the way to professorship with the help of other misfits from the last generation.

It’s pretty much like the rest of life.

I left a town in Oklahoma, population 121, and arrived at Michigan State University in 1966. That year the campus had about 48,000 students. I loved it. I could walk down the street without everybody knowing me, and reporting back everything I did. (Sigh of relief!)

I started in biology, switched to anthropology, and concentrated on the cultures of South Asia. Just before graduation my draft number came up, so my diploma was immediately followed by four years in the Navy.

A word of advice: if you have a degree in engineering, they make you an officer. If you have a degree in anthropology, they make you an enlisted man. Oh well.

I next attended the University of Chicago, where I got an MA studying the interface between South Asian village economics and native theories of ritual purity. Title: Jajmani, an alternative conceptualization.

Obscure? You’d better believe it. Obscurity does not make a thing useless, but it does make it hard to talk to your friends about it.

Then I got blindsided by novel writing, but I’ve talked about that enough in the past.

The University of Chicago is a premier school. California State College, Stanislaus, which I attended a few years later, was known only to locals. The profs at Chicago were probably better scholars, but not better teachers. I got a good education both places.

CSCS is now CSUS. It was upgraded to a University a few years after I left. While I was there, I studied History, and received a second BA and second MA. Why a second set of degrees is a long story, to be told another time.

My thesis was “The Crisis in American Shipping and Shipbuilding: 1865 to 1918” That was an era of arguments about the role of tariffs and subsidies, with much testimony before Congress in which every competing party misrepresented the facts. Same old, same old. Teflon Don would have felt right at home.

To finish this quasi curriculum vitae, I went back to the University of the Pacific a few years later to get a teaching credential. It only required a few courses with all I already had on board. Everything I had done until then was from love of learning. I went to UOP purely to get a job so I could continue eating.

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Everything I learned, everywhere I went, was useful to me as a teacher and as a writer. Over the next few months, I plan to pass on Reader’s Digest versions of some of it that might help you in your writing.

(Yes, I know most of the people reading this are or want to be writers, and more power to you.)

598. The Education of a Wandering Man

This is a fine book, but it falls into the not-for-everybody category. I stumbled across it years ago, read it, read it again a decade later, and its about time for me to have at it a third time.

The Education of a Wandering Man is an autobiography of Louis L’amour. It doesn’t revolve about where he went or what he did — although plenty of that creeps in — but focuses on what he learned. That includes from the old guys who were there, who told him what the west was like. It also includes from the books he read — a list that would make any book geek’s mouth water.

L’amour left home at 15 to make his way in the world. That would be 1926. One might be forgiven for thinking that the depression drove him to leave but the numbers don’t add up for that interpretation. The biography in his official website attributes it to hard times specific to his North Dakota home area, but the two biographies seem to diverge in details. That appears to be a matter of simplification, rather than concealment. Check Wednesday’s post for LL’s own statement.

The Education of a Wandering Man resonated from the moment I opened the first page. It sounded a bit like my own life. I didn’t leave home early, or leave school early, and I didn’t wander the world. I did start working about age eleven, pretty much full time plus school, but working on a family farm, sleeping in your own bed, and not going hungry does not describe L’amour’s experience.

The real similarity lay in being self-educated. I stayed in school through two masters degrees, but what I learned came mostly from outside the classroom.

Here’s what LL said:

Actually, all education is self-education. A teacher is only a guide, to point out the way, and no school, no matter how excellent, can give you education. What you receive is like the outlines in a child’s coloring book. You must fill in the colors yourself.

Yes, precisely. I went to tiny schools before college. The teachers worked hard, and I thank them, but ninety percent of what I learned came from reading beyond the textbook.

The Education of a Wandering Man is a feast. Here’s a snack to whet your appetite. First on education:

Byron’s Don Juan I read on an Arab dhow sailing north from Aden up the Red Sea . . . Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson I read while broke and on the beach in San Pedro . . . Somewhere along the line I had fallen in love with learning, and it became a lifelong romance. Early on I discovered it was fun to follow along the byways of history to find those treasures that await any searcher . . . One thing has always been true: That book or that person who can give me an idea or a new slant on an old idea is my friend. And there have been many such.

Then on America, as L’amour saw it during his wandering days:

(B)efore the Depression, one must realize there was a great demand for seasonal labor, and much of this was supplied by men called hoboes . . . To begin with, a bum was a local man who did not want to work . . . but a hobo was a wandering worker and essential to the nation’s economy . . . During harvest season, when the demand for farm labor was great, the freight trains permitted the hoboes to ride, as the railroads were to ship the harvested grain and it was in their interest to see that labor was provided. Often this lot of wandering workers was mixed with college boys earning enough money for school or working to get in shape for football . . .
The Depression brought a different kind of drifter to the railroads and highways, and only one who bridged that period can grasp the depth of the change. The Depression hoboes had little of that carefree, cheerful attitude of the earlier hobo. They were serious, often frightened men.

You can read The Education of a Wandering Man several ways. It will tell you about the early life of a beloved author. It will give you a gritty, ground level view of the first half of the twentieth century that you won’t find in history books. It will give you an education in how to get an education. And it will give you enough wanna-reads to last a lifetime.

As L’amour said:

Once you have read a book you care about, some part of it is always with you.

Yep, and thanks for this one, Mr. L’amour.

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Louis L’amour wrote his novels until he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Then he finally took time to write his memoir. He was editing The Education of a Wandering Man the day he died.

596. Memorial Day

My father was the tenth of eleven children. He had brothers and sisters much older than he was, some of whom I never met. The ones I knew were my father, his immediate older and immediate younger brothers. All three were of an age to serve in WW II.

The older brother was a welder. He spent the war working at a bomber plant in Tulsa. I never knew which one. He would have passed through the war on a deferment for someone who was essential to the war effort at home, and so he never entered the military. I didn’t say he never served. Making bombers was service, but he got to sleep in his own bed at night, and nobody was shooting at him.

My father was drafted into the Army, and joined the First Division somewhere in France, not long after D Day. He stepped into the shoes of the ones who had already fallen. He fought across France and into Belgium, where he endured the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded shortly after. When he had recuperated, the war was over and he spent the occupation in Bavaria.

My father’s younger brother was also drafted, probably after VE day. He trained and was put on a troop transport. In his words, “they put me on a ship and sent me over to Japan to die.” While he was crossing the Pacific, America dropped two atomic bombs and the war ended. His service was spent in occupation of Japan.

None of my immediate relatives died in service, but when Memorial Day comes around, I still feel the weight of those who did. I think of Frenchy, a man I never met, who was my father’s friend before I was born, and who died somewhere between France and Germany.

It was a war that had to be fought, and a lot of men never came home.

Two decades later, I was quasi-drafted. That is, my draft lottery number was up, and I joined the Navy to have some kind of say in where I served. Times were different. Viet Nam was a war without justification.

I spent my time working at a Naval Hospital that sits in the middle of Camp Pendleton Marine Base, the place Marines were trained just before deployment to Viet Nam. I was head tech in the oral surgery section, which meant I spent my days chairside assisting our oral surgeons. Over three and a half years, I helped relieve about 5000 marines of their wisdom teeth, helped set about 350 broken jaws, and assisted in about a dozen maxilo-facial reconstructions.

I often wonder how many of the Marines I worked on never made it back.

595. Apollo 10

Apollo 10 CSM, viewed from the LEM in lunar orbit.

Apollo 10 is a mission that, from the outside, looks unnecessary. It was anything but that. To appreciate it, you have to project yourself back into the state of ignorance that represented best knowledge in 1969.

I was also guilty of underrating it when I taught middle school science. I called it the most frustrating flight in the history of space flight, which was half true and half exaggeration. I also called the Command Module Pilots NASA’s soccer moms because they got to go to the game, but never got to play.

You have to know your audience, and middle school kids are looking for excitement, not “slow and steady wins the race”. And certainly not “they also serve who only stand and wait.”

In actual fact, without Apollo 10, the would have been no moon landings. There were two basic reasons for this. The LEM had only been tested in low earth orbit, not falling into a gravity well and then clawing its way out again. And we had an entirely inadequate understanding of the conditions on the ground at the proposed landing site. We especially needed to fine tune our understanding of lunar gravity for navigation purposes.

As the NASA history website puts it, “a test of the landing radar, visual observation of lunar lighting, stereoscopic strip photography, and execution of the phasing maneuver using the descent engine” were all performed on Apollo 10’s pass over the proposed landing site. If you want more data, check also here.

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On May 18, 1969 Apollo 10 lifted off from Cape Canaveral on its way to the moon. Thomas Stafford was Commander, John Young was Command Module Pilot, and Gene Cernan was LEM Pilot. They entered orbit of the moon three days later. Stafford and Cernan undocked the LEM and began their descent fifty years ago today.

John Young was left alone in the Command Module, the first of seven men who would fly around the moon solo while their companions dropped toward the moon’s surface.

Stafford and Cernan fired the descent stage engine to slow the LEM. There followed a long unpowered descent, a rapid flyby of the proposed landing site, and a rise back up to the level of the CSM.

The reports at the time called it a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11, but it wasn’t that simple.

For comparison let’s look at a mission designed to land. At point A on the figure given here, the descent stage engine would fire briefly, changing from the black orbital path to the green one. At point B, a carefully calculated spot nearly half way around the moon, the descent engine would fire again. The descent from 60 miles to about 8 miles would have been in a flat curve, followed now by a very steep curve. The descent engine would continue to fire until the vehicle landed at point C. This is basically the exact reverse of a launch, as shown Monday.

Later, the ascent stage engine would fire, leaving the descent stage on the moon’s surface, and proceed along the second half of the green curve back up to the 60 mile level.

Apollo 10 (red orbit), on the other hand, passed over the prospective landing site and continued on.

This has always been called a dress rehearsal, so one would assume that the ascent stage would separate somewhere near the surface, fire its engines, and continue back up toward rendezvous separately from the descent stage. That’s what I thought for fifty years.

I was wrong. Imagine that. I probably learn more researching these posts than anyone does who reads them.

In fact, on Apollo 10 the descent stage fired again at point D (the red orbit represents Apollo 10), but it was merely a course correction, and the entire LEM continued up to the 60 mile level.

Apollo 11 would leave from the moon’s surface, starting at zero speed. Apollo 10 at its lowest point was at an altitude of 8 miles and a speed of 3554 miles per hour. Dress rehearsal was a considerable exaggeration. It wasn’t that reports were inaccurate; things were just more complicated than the summaries suggested.

It’s a little like science fiction novels. A two line blurb on the back of a 180 page paperback may not actually lie, but it can certainly give a false impression.

At point A on the trip back up for both missions another burn was necessary to get back onto the black curve. However, the CSM had gone its own way; it wasn’t waiting there for the LEM. The final rendezvous for the LEM and the CSM, which were at different places on roughly the same orbit, would be up to the pilot of the ascent stage, and would take an additional three hours.

At this point on all the moon landing missions, the ascent stage would be by itself. For Apollo 10, the ascent stage still needed to separate from the descent stage before performing the orbital insertion burn using its own engine.

That was the plan, but things didn’t entirely go well. Just before the separation, the LEM began acting up, corrected itself, then seconds later started a rapid roll. It was later determined that this was due to erroneous computer input. Stafford and Cernan quickly separated and regained control, but it was another of those close calls which could easily have led to a deadly outcome.

The crew rendezvoused and docked with the CSM, then returned to Earth. The ascent stage engine was fired again and went into solar orbit. The necessary data had been obtained for the moon landing in July.

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At present, I plan for this to be my last full Apollo mission post. Everybody will cover the anniversary of Apollo 11. Everybody has already watched the movie Apollo 13, and I covered the other landings in 187. The Rest of the Landings. Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind.