Tag Archives: literature

678. Taking a Break

I’m going to take a break

Yesterday, here in California, the Governor requested that all people over 65 self-isolate. That makes sense to me, and I passed that milestone seven years ago, so my wife and I are going to hunker down and become temporary hermits. That isn’t too much of a hardship since we live in the country and keep a well stocked larder anyway.

This change shouldn’t bother my blog, but it does. I’m not worried for my wife and myself, but worrying about the rest of the country and the world beyond weighs on me. It has also been getting harder lately to come up with new things to say, especially on subjects that don’t call for hours of research for a post that will be read in three minutes. This is post 678, after all.

So I am going to take a break. I have other things on my mind and I’m sure you do too.

I’ll be back. Whether in two weeks or two months, I can’t say. Meanwhile, I’m going to keep working on my novels, keep my wife company, and keep thinking about all the good people out there beyond my driveway.

Take care, folks. Stay safe.

677. A Perfect Book

This is a photo of my  copy. The front blurb, which is too small to read, says, “He was a rip-roaring rebel . . .  the Army be damned!”  However the narrator was nothing like a rebel and the Army appears nowhere in this book. So much for truth in advertising.

Let me tell you about a perfect book — not some abstract idea of perfection, but a very specific book called Last Scout by Wade Everett, which is the pseudonym used by two western writers, Will Cook and Giles A. Lutz, for the books they wrote together.

What makes Last Scout perfect, for me, is the way in which it weaves together four strands into one seamless cable. It is a mystery, a western, a story of family, and a story of a boy growing into manhood. Each of those strands gets roughly equal treatment.

It was never much of a success (see below) possibly because of this balance. If you love westerns, there is probably too much family stuff interrupting the action. A mystery lover would wonder why Wild Bill Hickok keeps showing up, and a family story reader might wish Page, the young narrator, wouldn’t get into so many fist fights and shoot-outs.

I like it all, but especially the pacing.

Chapter one: Deadwood, during the height of the gold rush. Page, our narrator, meets his grandpa for the first time. He has been languishing in an old folks home. Page meets him at the stage where his gramps greets him by throwing him repeatedly to the ground. He isn’t mad; he’s just an ornery old mountain man testing out the young-un. Page takes him back to his mother who is not happy that the old coot is coming home.

Page leaves to dodge the fireworks between the two and goes to see his dad, who is running one of the mines which have been losing money to stage hold-ups. His dad explains that his mother is half-Indian, born of one of the old man’s many wives. She was raised white in a school for girls until the old man took her back to the blanket where she had to learn to live as an Indian. That is where Page’s dad found her and married her.  She loves the old man, but she has never forgiven him for taking her out of the white world when she was a girl. All this has given her an exaggerated need for respectability.

Page borrows his dad’s shotgun and heads out to shoot some birds for supper, wild game to make his grandpa feel more at home. There he meets Buckley, manager of the stage line which is being overwhelmed by hold-ups. They hunt together, but Buckley is unskilled and Page is a wizard with a shotgun. At the end of the day, Buckley sets up a test. He hangs a batch of sacks of flour in trees a few miles out of town, and challenges Page to hit them from a moving stage. Jim Bell, the marshall, and Hickok hear about it and tag along. It is a wild ride, but Page pots every target, and Buckley offers him a job guarding the stage as Bell and Hickok look on. Of course he says yes. And of course that causes a row when he gets home, but he has given his word, so he keeps the job.

That’s chapter one of fifteen and already everything that will follow is rolling down the track at high speed. Hold onto you cowboy hat.

In a later chapter, Marshall Bell’s mother and Buckley’s sister come into town on one of the stages Page is guarding. Now the dynamics of three three families are play, which becomes more important when Page determines that the head of the robbers is a man from one of the three families. After he decides he can’t trust Bell, and since he it the primary target the robbers are shooting at, Page feels he has to unravel the mystery himself.

Page and his grandfather become uneasy partners, but Page can’t quite trust the old mountain man not to just shoot his suspects.

Eventually the robbers get caught, the family tensions sort themselves out, the mystery man in the background is outed, Page grows up, and there is plenty of manly fist and gun play along the way.

What makes all this perfect is the way things move from scene to scene. In a normal novel of this type, an action scene is often followed by some extraneous business, such as a pony ride from one town to another through memorable scenery. This gives the reader time to catch his breath. In Last Scout, a scene of family life moves to a scene of sharp action and then to a scene where Page learns a lesson in maturity. Nothing is wasted; nothing is extraneous.

If I have any complaint, it is that Page is too competent for his age. He makes too few embarrassing mistakes on his way to manhood.

All this takes place in about 42,000 pretty short words. An author today would need a series of four long books to give us this much story.

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

It’s hard to find the publishing history of a minor work, so this is all I know. Last Scout was published in paperback in 1960 by Ballantine. I bought my copy used, probably in the seventies or eighties, and I haven’t seen another copy since. Apparently it was reprinted in 1997 in a Large Print Hardcover edition, credited only to Will Cook. As I write, Amazon has only two copies of the hardback and one of the paperback, all used, and your local used book store is likely to have none..

674. The Voice of a Scholar

This will be short, an excerpt from The Cost of Empire, set in the year 188-, in an alternate universe. It refers in part to what was published in Old Lascar.
Sometimes a writer drops a clue to his personal philosophy into conversations between his characters. Take this as a hint from a guy who could never get enough of learning.

Very little in an ordinary dirigible is asymmetrical, but the King Class had been designed to carry bombs or troops, and only given diplomatic quarters as an afterthought. As a consequence, in making room for the dining hall and the staterooms there had originally been no place for the passengers to gather and watch the view below. A second design had pulled the passageway from the center to the port side, lined the outboard wall with windows, and lined the inboard wall with benches. It had been unpopular while crossing the Arabian Sea, but now interesting scenery was back and so were the lounging passengers.

David had begun to spend his off hours there, answering the passenger’s questions and enjoying the scenery himself.

The fleet of eight had followed the coast down to Mangalore, circled the city without landing, and headed inland following the Netravathi River. Normally, Harry could have jumped the Western Ghats, but with an overload of passengers, cooks, servants, fancy food, and the added mass of the walls and fixtures of the passenger’s quarters, the ship’s altitude capability was considerably reduced.

This morning, Kalinath was seated on one of the benches, with his bodyguard sitting stiffly beside him. There was no place for Singh to stand and it clearly made him nervous. He looked on suspiciously as David approached, put palms together, and said, “Namaskar, Sri Kalinath.”

“Namaskar, Mr. James. Sit.” He gestured to the place beside him, and David took it. “How is it that you know to say namaskar, instead of namaste?”

“You are from Bengal, are you not?”

“I am. Have you been to India before?”

“No. I learned the difference from an old man in London, a displaced lascar.”

“A servant?”

“No, just an old man. He sat every day in the sun on the street near where I was living while they were building the Harry. I talked to him occasionally. He taught me the difference.”

“I don’t know many Englishmen, Mr. James, who talk to old men on the street whom they do not know.”

David shrugged. “I don’t normally, either, but I knew I was going to India and I wanted more than I could read in the newspapers. This old man was clearly a Sikh, and he seemed so calm and — I suppose the word is dignified — that he seemed like someone worth knowing.”

Kalinath only nodded, and chose not to pursue the subject. The river below was brown and slow. The countryside was green and heavy with trees. The air moving through the dirigible was still warm, even at a thousand feet of altitude, and carried a trace of the smell of vegetation. As they talked and the dirigible moved inland, there was a rapid change from coastal plain to foothills and forest gave way to plantation. David asked, and was told that these were crops of tea. Kalinath knew tea, and gave a brief description of its cultivation.

“You see, Mr James, even though I am a son of scholars and a man of the cities, when I knew that I would need to go to England to plead the case for my homeland’s freedom, I had to become an expert on many things. One cannot champion a land he does not know intimately. You understand, I know.”

“Not personally.”

“Come, Mr. James, one scholar knows another when they meet.”

“I’m no scholar, Sri Kalinath.”

“Is there anything about the construction and management of this craft that you do not know?”

“No, but that’s my job.”

“And you asked an old man about India, and the proper form of address.”

David shook his head and said, “I just wanted to know.”

“I just wanted to know,” Kalinath repeated. “That, Sir, is the voice of a scholar.”

671. Old Lascar

Early in January I was taking a break from writing Dreamsinger to write posts for the blog. At the same time, I decided to re-read Cost of Empire. It has been floating from publisher to publisher for a couple of years now, longer than reason would expect but not longer than reality dictates. I wanted to become reacquainted with it.

As I read, I was reminded again how much India lives in my writing. That led to my February fifth post. I had particularly enjoyed writing David James’s encounter with an old Sikh man in London. Indians in British literature are so often spear carriers, villains, or Gunga Dins that it was a pleasure to present a character who was just a nice old fellow worth knowing.

This takes place just before the launch of the dirigible Henry V and it’s subsequent journey to India.

*                     *                     *

There was an old man who sat in the sun every day in a nook against the south side of a rooming house. David had seen him since he first took a room in the city, as he was on his way to where he slept. There were plenty of street sitters, mostly beggars, so at first David paid him no mind. 

Once he became aware of the man, David realized that he never begged or harangued any passers by, but sat with quiet dignity, enjoying the sun and minding his own business. He seemed as isolated as David felt, so David nodded to him in passing, and the old man smiled.

The old man was never there when David walked to work, but he was always there as he returned. The evening after the nod, David touched his palms together as he passed and said, “Namaskar.” Startled, the old man did not reply.

The next evening, David again saluted the old man with namaskar, and received a head bob, palms together, and a reply of, “Namaste.” And a smile.

The following evening, the old man was not alone. A scrawny, dark skinned youngster sat beside him. This time the old man saluted him first, and the boy said, in passable English, “My grandfather greets you. He asks why you take time to notice an old man?”

David stopped. He didn’t want to stand over the old man, but there was no way he could contort his legs into the position the fellow favored. He compromised by sitting down on the lowest of the steps leading to the boarding house and replied, “Why shouldn’t I notice you? Will you tell me why you said namaste after I had said namaskar?”

The boy translated, then replied, “Grandfather says that only the people of eastern India say namaskar. Grandfather is from Maharashtra where they say namaste. It is the same greeting. He asks how you know to say either?”

“I learned namaskar from a friend in Trinidad. His grandfather came to Trinidad to work, after the African slaves were freed. His grandfather was from Bengal.”

They began an intermittent relationship. Sometimes the boy would be there when David came by, and he and the old man would talk through him. But the child was restless, and most evenings he was absent. Sometimes David would salute with namaste (now that he knew the difference) in passing, and sometimes, especially when he was particularly weary, he would simply sit quietly with the old Sikh and watch the people passing by.

It felt natural. David normally shied away from crowds or strangers; to have to say something when he had nothing to say was hard for him. Sitting with the old man and saying nothing, even when he had much to say, was a quiet comfort.

Piece by piece he learned the old man’s story. He was a lascar, as Indian sailors were called. He had first sailed out of Bombay as a young man, forty years ago. He had reached London, and had been paid off. He had no English to seek work or a berth on a ship, so it took him two years to find his way back home to his wife.

He made more journeys, and spent far too much time starving in port between them. His wife had a son during one absence, and died during another absence. Finally his son, now the age he had been on his first trip, shipped with him.

The docks of London were full of lascars looking for a berth, or just existing; a few worked in Britain, although it was illegal. His son gave up on finding a berth, found work with a ships’ chandler, and eventually saved enough money to buy the boarding house where his father took the sun. He married a half-Indian girl, the daughter of another lascar, and his son was now his grandfather’s translator.

The old man longed for his home. His son worked day to night, and hoarded his pennies like an Englishman. His grandson had never seen India, and lived the life of the despised, in the land which had conquered his homeland.

669. Lots of Love

Sorry about the title of this post. It is a bad pun I just couldn’t resist.
You’ll get it as we move on.

I was in the library a week ago getting some books, one each on trains, canoes, guns, and tools — kind of a guy’s smorgasbord. While I was there I checked the catalog for books on Moravian Christians. Two of the books on my to-write list have connections with them, first in 1790s Pennsylvania and later in 1830s Georgia. There was only one book in the catalog, titled Love Finds you in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. I thought, “Yeah, right!”, but I went to look anyway.

The book was by Melanie Dobson, a committed Christian and writer of Christian romances. If you have ever read this blog before you know that this is not in my wheelhouse, but it looked competent, and it was set only forty years earlier than the first of my planned novels. When you are looking for information on an obscure subject, you grab anything you can get, so I checked it out.

This is probably the first romance I’ve read, not counting all those westerns where the hero gets the rancher’s daughter after he shoots up the town. I am about fifty pages in, and I’m impressed.

There was a quirk in Moravian marriage customs called the Lot. The book made me aware of it. It’s just the kind of thing you are apt to find right up front in fiction, but only hidden deeply in books on history. That is one reason for reading historical fiction, and make no mistake, quality westerns and quality period romances are historical fiction.

The small amount of research I have done in addition to  Dobson’s book paints this picture. In the early 1700s, a Moravian man who wished to be married would submit a girl’s name to the elders, or accept a name off the list of eligibles. After much prayer by all concerned, he would blindly select a lot from a pile. It would say yes, no, or maybe later. Once he got a yes, the girl would be notified and given the chance to accept or reject him as a husband.

All of which explains the bad pun in the post title, and why this is a near-Valentines Day presentation.

This use of the Lot is not a matter of coercion, but of faith. It is a way to get the wife or husband that God wants you to have.  It couldn’t be further from my way of thinking, but I was once a Christian and matters of faith still fascinate me.

In Dobson’s novel, Susanna, while still in Germany, has accepted a proposal by a man she does not know so that they can go together as missionaries to the New World. They marry in the opening chapter and immediately leave for Nazareth, Pennsylvania. They arrive with the marriage still unconsummated, and she doesn’t understand why.

The mechanics of this are handled believably, and the reader is also puzzled until the viewpoint switches to Christian, her husband, and we learn that he had previously chosen another woman, but the Lot said no, so he took Susanna on faith, married her, and now is deeply troubled about what he has done.

In every novel about love, there has to be conflict and misunderstanding to be resolved. In every novel about faith, there has to be a seed of doubt and rebellion. This novel has them both, and they are handled extremely well.

As I said, this isn’t my kind of novel. I only picked it up for atmosphere and background, and to use Dobson’s research as a jumping off place for my own. I never planned to finish it, but as good as it is, I just might.

In either case, if you find all this even half as interesting as I do, you should check out the back story of Dobson’s research in her blog.

At first the Lot seemed as if it would be just a side issue in my proposed novel, but then I discovered that the custom continued past the date about which I plan to write. Had I not known about the Lot, it would have been a major failure on my part.

Then things got worse when I discovered that sixteenth century married Moravians usually lived separately in men’s and women’s dormitories, and only met for cuddling and sex at times appointed by the elders. Yikes! That won’t work for me. (As an author, and it damned sure wouldn’t work for me as a husband.)

The girl in my novel, as I visualized her, wouldn’t be bound by the Lot one way or the other, and if her husband-to-be hesitated to carry through because of a bad reply on a piece of paper, she would kick him in the slats and reeducate him. She certainly wouldn’t put up with the sixteenth century equivalent of separate bedrooms.

My characters were destined to remain in the faith and become missionaries to the Cherokee in a later novel, but their personalities and Moravian mores no longer seem to fit. More research and much more thought are indicated.

Science fiction is easier. You just make up the culture to satisfy the needs of the story. If things stop working, you can rewrite. But if you are an honest writer, you can’t rewrite history.

668. Century Ships

Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations has been running a series of reviews on century ship stories. He does a good job, even providing links so you can read the story itself before or after reading his review. I’ve read two of them, both story and review, picked out because they were by Brunner and Ballard.

Century ship stories are an extreme version of slow starship stories, that is, stories about exploration in ships which do not travel faster than light. Century ship stories assume that the people who start the journey will not live to complete it. It will be completed by their descendants who, when they arrive, will never have lived anywhere but on the ship.

That sounds like a recipe for disaster, and it typically is. A reversion to barbarism along with a superstitious belief that nothing outside the ship actually exists is a common trope. The original Star Trek used it in For the World is Hollow, and I Have Touched the Sky.

I first encountered century ships before I reached high school in The Forgotten Star, a top notch juvenile which has, ironically, been forgotten. It takes place in our solar system, before star flight; the young heroes discover that Ceres isn’t really an asteroid, but a century ship from elsewhere.

The first time I read a century ship story told from the occupants’ viewpoint was Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky. It was such a dreary presentation of the “we forgot this is a starship” trope that I never returned to it, and it pretty much put me off century ship stories for a long time.

On the other hand, slow — but not that slow — starship stories are my bread and butter. They take relativity more or less seriously, and offer all kinds of complications through the slowing of time at the approach of lightspeed. Heinlein did it well in the juvenile Time for the Stars. Other authors had milked the concept for its considerable potential for weirdness.

At nearly the speed of light a trip to the stars will seem quick, no matter how many years pass back on Earth, but getting up to the speed of light is an issue is two senses.

First, it will require power on the order of what would come from the total annihilation of matter. This generally requires a MUD (magical unexplained dingus). Slipstick Libby invented one, but usually Heinlein got there by torch ship (what a wonderful name!), a MUD he never bothered to explain. When I needed that much power in Cyan, I invoked Lassiter’s Anomaly as an ersatz explanation. This gave my core ships a nice philosophical underpinning, like E. E. Smith’s Bergenholm which cancelled inertia, but core ships are still MUDs.

Given the power, however you get it, relativistic starflight still has the problem of acceleration time. True, time slows down at near lightspeed, but you have to get there first. If you are an honest writer who takes the time to look at Einstein’s simpler equations, you will realize that it takes a long time to approach lightspeed at an acceleration that wouldn’t squash a human flat.

I did the math for Cyan, and it turned out that a one-way trip to Procyon — accelerating at one gee, coasting, then decelerating at one gee — took three years subjective while twelve years passed on Earth and Cyan. That’s a six year round trip for the ten crewmen, which calls for a lot of games of chess and a lot of intimate human interactions. If you’ve read Cyan, you know what I mean.

As a side note for new writers looking for a useful tip, that coasting stage is a near-freebie. A ten light year or a hundred light year trip would take about the same subjective time, but the time differential between the crew and the folks back home would become immense.

Later in the book, sending colonists took a whole different set of calculations. Accelerating to half the speed of light takes a tiny fraction of the fuel needed to accelerate to near lightspeed, so the colony ships were even-slower-starships, though still not nearly as slow as century ships. Call it twenty years, one way.

How do you get tens of thousands of people into a small space and keep them from killing each other over twenty years? Freeze them. Given the technology of 2107, that meant a twenty percent loss of life among those who chose to go.

Cold blooded? (Forgive the pun.) Not when you consider the conditions they were fleeing.

While the colonist were on their way toward Cyan, a group of beltmen (denizens of the asteroid belt) were also planning an escape. They were already used to living in space; many of them were born there. A long slow trip in a small habitat did not deter them, but the eighty year voyage to Sirius had a lot of unintended consequences. Not quite a century ship perhaps, but close enough.

Of course if you have been following this blog during the last six months you realize that I am talking about Dreamsinger, the sequel I am working on now.

Further down the to-write list is a sequel to the sequel to A Fond Farewell to Dying which concerns a hyper-century ship built around memory taping and a few frozen stem cells. That one doesn’t turn out the way its originators planned either.

I guess the trauma of reading Orphans of the Sky at a tender age hasn’t completely put me off century ships after all.

666. The Beast Crawls Up

The Number of the Beast is a novel by Robert Heinlein. I have referred to it several times, most recently on the January 13th post when I said that the first hundred pages are “my favorite thing to re-read, but the rest of the book is kinderdrivel”. Yep, that pretty much covers it, but it is a fascinating book to talk about because it generates so much hatred. For example, David Langford said of it:

My (fairly) humble view is that the book says nothing and says it very badly.

I like that — brief and to the point, with nothing held back. I don’t fully agree with it, but I don’t fully disagree with it either. There will be more below, after we put things into some perspective.

There is a long history of science fiction works that treat Christianity as fact, and derive either positive or negative results from that assumption. On the positive side is one of my favorite books from high school, Starship Through Space by Lee Corey (aka G. Harry Stein). Ninety percent of the book details the building of the first starship and its maiden voyage to Alpha Centauri. It was a wonderful book until they arrived to find American Indians reading Genesis waiting to greet them. Dumb! Massively, unforgivably dumb to end a great novel on such a note.

Also from my high school library were the Perelandra books by C. S. Lewis which were a kind of space faring John Bunyan. Not good; I got through them and never looked back. They were allegory and they were tedious, but I could at least respect them.

Most of the SF that sees religion in a negative light concentrates on the practitioners and leaves God himself out of the argument. A Canticle for Leibowitz comes to mind. That’s also what I’ve typically done.

The ones that take on God himself tend to be serious and usually angry. James Blish rewrites the outcome of the Revelation in his After Such Knowledge trilogy. (Doctor Mirabilis, Black Easter and The Day After Judgment.) Arthur C. Clarke’s The Star is disturbing and sad, but his The Nine Billion Names of God simply ends all creation in a mild and matter-of-fact way when Buddhist prophesy comes true.

Heinlein does it all differently. In The Number of the Beast he turns Revelation’s beast into an alien species and turns science fiction into a romp. Or a travesty in the eyes of many reviewers. I’ve read everything RAH wrote, save his first two juveniles, and I can attest that no other work is so completely lacking in seriousness.

For those who see him as a guru or a devil, this must be completely infuriating.

For me, I read the whole thing once and I’m glad I did. I’ve read the first hundred pages several times since, not because it is particularly good, but because it is a silly game, an unexpected vacation with old friends. Who? The Heinlein character, in four variations, making love to its/his/her/their self. If you can read between the lines, I’ll skip the “m” word. Since I’m a classy guy, I’ll just say inner directed and very self-admiring.

I grew up spending endless hours listening to my father and two of his brothers sitting around the kitchen table telling tales out of their childhoods, trying to outdo each other in hyperbole, and having a wonderful time laughing together. Heinlein, to me, is like another uncle. I love to listen to his stories because I love the way he tells them.

What else is there to like? His world building? Yes, if you look at his pre-war short stories, but the world building in his novels typically amounts to one or two pithy sentences per book. His characters? He only has one. His philosophy? Discounting solipsism as his joke on the world, he is a realist totally undercut by his own sentimentality. His political ideas? There are enough so that everyone can find something to hate.

David Langford, quoted above, spent a lot of ink taking The Number of the Beast apart at the seams, which totally missed the point. The Number of the Beast isn’t a novel; it’s post-Heinlein Heinlein. It’s the old man reminiscing about all the books he read as a kid, and all the books he wrote as a man (starring himself) in a relatively clever stroll down memory lane. And we get to go with him, which is why I liked it when I read it. But there is no meat, which is why I haven’t gone back.

If you hate it, you’re right. Heinlein doesn’t care. He’s having a wonderful time.