Tag Archives: politics

402. Nuclear Spacecraft

I taught middle school science for twenty-seven years, and always, whether I was supposed to or not, I taught the space program.

I grew up with space travel, first in fiction, then in fact. I loved it, and the kids I taught loved it, too. How much of that rubbed off from me, I’ll never know.

By the time I started teaching, the big show was over. When Gene Cernan stepped back into his LEM in 1972, it was the high water mark of manned space exploration. It’s been downhill since.

In the classic science fiction novel I had planned to serialize, Rip Foster is heading out toward the asteroid belt on the nuclear powered spacecraft Scorpius. That’s how we all thought the future would look. That’s how the future should have looked. Chemically powered rockets are simply not sufficient for exploring the solar system.

We have have nuclear power plants for electricity, nuclear submarines, nuclear aircraft carriers, even a nuclear cargo ship. Why not nuclear spacecraft? Weight? Do you really think we couldn’t have overcome that problem? Maybe it was the danger, but . . .

Here is a quiz for you. How many nuclear submarines are lying on the bottom of the ocean, tombs for sailors and ecological time bombs for the rest of us? Two from America and six from Russia. An additional Russian nuclear sub sank twice, but was raised both times.

How many nuclear and thermonuclear bombs have gone missing? The U.S. admits to eight. How many more are hidden under the umbrella of security? Your guess is as good as mine. How many have the Soviet’s lost? You ask them, I’m keeping my head down.

Did I mention Chernobyl and Fukushima?

Let me put it another way. When the Soviets launched Sputnik and initiated the space race, then followed up with a man in orbit before we could even launch a sub-orbital flight, we did an end-around and went to the moon.

If the Soviets had launched a nuclear powered space craft, we would have launched a nuclear powered space craft. Technology would not have stopped us. Fear of radiation would not have stopped us.

That was then, this is now. The best thing for manned space exploration today – though not for American interests or world peace – would be for the Chinese to launch a nuclear powered space craft. It wouldn’t even have to be a good one. Just the threat would be enough, and in a few decades ships like the Scorpius would be filling the solar system.


387. Buchan the Racist

Getting ready for Westercon, I prepared a set of notes, placed as posts, for the panel What made the golden age golden? I was under the impression that it would be history and homage, and made notes appropriate for that. I was wrong, and it isn’t the first time I have spent time off track by starting before I had full information. When i’m ready to start a project, I’m ready, and sometimes I pay the price.

After I had posted my notes-to-self, but long before Westercon, I received this description of the panel:

Heinlein and Asimov are two pillars of the Golden Age of Sci-Fi. But reading those works with modern eyes can reveal attitudes that would be unacceptable in modern times. What can we learn from the classics when we look past the sexist and racist attitudes that pervaded the works of that time? Can we still appreciate works that present unacceptable ideologies?

Well, that’s a bit of a different story. No problem. I am always ready to fight the forces of political correctness.

I’ve been to this rodeo before. Once, several years ago, I was looking at on-line reviews of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps. I don’t remember why, but I do remember a review that ripped Buchan as a racist for seemingly anti-Semitic statements in that novel. I wrote a counter-review; both have since disappeared.

For those who don’t know him, John Buchan was a popular British novelist of the early twentieth century. He is very much a pro-British patriot, with the prejudices that implies. Think Kipling light. And he was a racist, but not an anti-Semite. I say that not as a scholar, but as a fan, who has read and re-read his works.

If you read him at length, his distaste for African blacks comes through loud and clear. His Jews, on the other hand, show up as both heroes and villains, just like his Germans and his Englishmen. But if you only read a little, you can be fooled.

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To follow through on this, I used one of my favorite techniques. I recommend that you put this into your bag of tricks. I went to Project Gutenberg, downloaded The 39 Steps in Rich Text format, then cut and pasted that into my word processor. Now I had all 41,264 words in a searchable form.

One more hint. RTF will be hard to read because its wide line-length makes it look like bad modern poetry. Just switch your word processor to horizontal format and it will be much easier to work with.

The reviewer who started this controversy had complained about Buchan because of the words of one of his characters, Scudder. If you don’t know the book, Scudder is a kind of amateur spy who finds out that bad people are about to start World War I, and catch England off guard. This is what Hannay, the main character, says, quoting Scudder:

The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern.  If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und Zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English.  But he cuts no ice.  If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog.  He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes.  But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake.  Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.

Wow! That sounds pretty anti-Semitic, and the reviewer who started this conversation took it as proof positive. But let’s wait a minute. Assume that the character Scudder is the worst anti-Semite since Hitler — does it follow that Buchan hated Jews? I wrote a mass murderer into Cyan — does that mean I approve of mass murder?

You can’t read the words of a fictional character as the opinion of the author, especially if you are looking at a minor character of questionable honesty.

Scudder dies in chapter one and his quest is taken over by Richard Hannay, the actual main character in this and several other novels. If you look closely at the character of Hannay and a dozen other lead characters in two dozen other novels, then you will come closer to having a fair and defensible picture of Buchan’s attitude.

In point of fact, not only was Scudder a minor character, he was also a liar. The reviewer who cried bigot never found this out because he quit the novel early. I knew that he was, but I needed a quote as proof. To find this, I searched for the word Scudder in my Find and Replace function. His name appears 65 times in the book because Hannay keeps thinking about him. Click and read. Click and read. Click and read. I found the passage I remembered at the beginning of chapter four.

The little man had told me a pack of lies.  All his yarns about the Balkans and the Jew-Anarchists and the Foreign Office Conference were eyewash . . .

Hannay worries at Scudder’s diary, taken off his body, because it seems odd, almost as if it were a cypher, and Hannay is good at cyphers. Sure enough, the Jew-Anarchist plot is just a cover for a much deeper plot (not by Jews), which Hannay foils by the end of the book.

So, everybody was a nice, unbigoted person and it was all a misunderstanding? If it were only that simple.

Reread the first quote, if you can stomach it. How would that passage play in a book published in 2017? When it was published in 1915, the book was a hit. Nobody minded that passage at all.

After Hitler and the holocaust, anti-Semitism fell out of favor. Before that, it was everywhere, in Europe and America. An actually anti-Semitic book in England in 1915 would have raised no eyebrows.

Was Buchan a bigot? Yes and no. He was not anti-German, he was not anti-Semitic, but he was anti-African. How do I know? I have more than a dozen of his books, some multiple times. You can’t know from assumptions, and you can’t know from reading one book.

Bringing this back to the Golden Age of science fiction, we should be able to read and appreciate authors like Heinlein when he depicts mannerisms that are foreign to us. (Or to be fair, foreign to you; I grew up in the same era and it all seems normal to me, even when I disagree with it.) The fact, for example, that Joan Freeman in Lost Legacy is the object of mild sexist teasing should not mask the fact that she is a full participant in the action.

Nevertheless, understanding is one thing, enjoyment is another. There is a limit, and it varies with each of us. For me, Heinlein sometimes seems silly, but I still read and enjoy everything but Farnham’s Freehold. That one goes on my never-again list, along with John Buchan’s anti-Black tirade Prester John.

POSTSCRIPT: As it turned out, everyone on the panel ignored the description and we just talked about how great the golden age was. The forces of political correctness never raised their heads.

386. Chief Seattle

Beware, I occasionally rant. Like today.

If this post had a descriptive sub-title in the nineteenth century style, the full spread would be:

Chief Seattle: White Man’s Indian
or, how a movie took a fine old man and turned him
into a puppet and a joke

How’s that for laying out a political agenda for all to see?

Yesterday and today I presented an ersatz Miwuk legend. Ersatz is a fancy word for “I just made it up”. I don’t apologize for that. Spirit Deer is a work of fiction, and I used Miwuk Indians as the basis for Tim’s knowledge because they were the resident Native American’s in the places he finds himself. (When I wrote the book in 1975, it wasn’t yet a crime to say Indian instead of Native American.) Later, I will also have a “family story” about his grandfather’s grandfather. That is also made up, to meet the needs of the novel. Again, no apologies. Fiction is fiction. Historical fiction has some responsibility for maintaining accuracy, but Spirit Deer isn’t even subject to that.

I wrote this novel, all of it, including the legends and family stories. It’s fiction, okay. If it were ever to be published, I would make sure that those facts were clearly stated.

Actually, that’s what I’m doing here.

There is a point to all this, beyond simply taking responsibility for what I have written. When I was a teacher, I came across a book called Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message From Chief Seattle and also the supposed text of Chief Seattle’s speech. This took place decades ago, and I can’t remember which I saw first, but my Hemingway style “writer’s shit detector” went off like a siren. I was sure that this was another white guy putting words in an Indian’s (excuse me, Native American’s) mouth, after he was long dead and couldn’t set the record straight.

It turns out, I was right. The version of Chief Seattle’s speech in question, which comes complete with the statement, “I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairies left by the white man who shot them from a passing train,” was written by screenwriter Ted Perry for the 1971 film Home. Those buffaloes were killed and rotted decades after Chief Seattle made his speech, and half a continent away. To be fair to Perry, he tried for years to claim credit for the speech and counter its false historicity, to no avail.

Actually, as fiction, or as a soupy environmental statement, it is a powerful piece of writing. But it has nothing to do with Chief Seattle.

The publication of Brother Eagle, Sister Sky led to a 1992 Newsweek article that named Perry as the author of the speech. In researching for this post, I also found a more complete article from the New York Times. You can check them out for yourself.

All this slapped me in the face four ways.

As a writer, I work hard to keep my fiction from telling lies, either morally or factually. I am a long time student of ecology, and I abhor the way a hard-edged science gets turned into a set of slogans. As an anthropologist (B.S., M.A., and two summers on archaeology digs), I hate the way Native Americans are rarely seen for themselves, but as savages or saints, according to whatever is the current fashion. I am a student of history as well, and . . . you get the picture.

You might have guessed by now that I can be irritated by lies, and seeing a screenwriter’s version of “Chief Seattle’s” speech accepted as history grinds all my gears.

363. Masters: Coming to America

What sort of country would (the United States) have now if the Indians had had an Immigration Service when the Pilgrims set out in 1620?
John Masters

When I first read John Masters, something he said stuck with me. Before going to Westercon this year, I wanted to run down that quotation, and in doing so I found much more worth sharing. What he said about writing will appear here later, but today I want to give his insights on immigration, or, as he called it, his Seven Year’s War with the U. S. Immigration authorities.

For reasons detailed in his book, John Masters decided that, though he was an Englishman, there was no life for him in England, and that America should become his home. He applied for an immigrant visa, knowing that the British yearly quota of 65,000 was never filled. His reactions to the questions asked on the application form were humorous, but too long to place here. Apparently the questions were as inane then as they are now. (see 329. Green Card Blues and 361. Take This Test)

A week or so later, he was told that he would have to wait about four and a half years. He had been placed on the Indian quota. He went back to inquire and was told that American law only recognized the place of his birth, not his actual citizenship. Never mind that he was born in a British military hospital. Never mind that he was born of a British mother and a British father, stationed in the British army in a British controlled area. Never mind that a child born of an American parent (and it only takes one) anywhere in the world is an American citizen. Never mind that he was born in 1914, and India didn’t become a country until 1947. He was born in India, so he was on the India quota.

It was a good thing he hadn’t been born while his father was stationed in Greece. The Greek quota was eighty-one years. (Yes, that is not a misprint. 81 years.)

Masters decided to withdraw his application for an Immigrant visa, get a visitor’s visa, and work things out later. That was not allowed. Since he had applied for an immigrant visa, he was no longer eligible for a visitor’s visa. Too many others when facing impossible waits had made that same move, then disappeared once they were in America.

As you might guess, as a British Army officer with plenty of friends, he was eventually allowed a visitor’s visa, came to America, and managed to stay permanently, although with many additional bureaucratic battles.

Good thing he wasn’t actually Indian.

More to the point in 2017, good thing he wasn’t Mexican, or poor, or not a native English speaker.

Master’s comments on writing will come in later posts.

362. Masters of India

     Wasn’t it barely a week since I had thrilled to learn what was inscribed on the base of the Statue of LIberty:
          Give me you tired, your poor,
          Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .
     What generosity, I had thought, what a marvel of welcome!
                         John Masters

We’ll let that quotation hang there, and return to it later. This post, and several more, are connected to John Masters’ third installment of autobiography, Pilgrim Son.

I read the first installment of his autobiography, Bugles and a Tiger, during the 1970s. Normally a military biography would be the last thing to interest me. Furthermore, I was in the Navy against my will at the time, it that made it even more unlikely. However, Masters was a famous novelist specializing in India, so I read Bugles . . ., and I was impressed.

I had just finished four years studying South Asia and was about to return to another year of the same. My experience had shown me that there is wisdom (and stupidity) in writing on all sides of any issue. Wiser’s The Hindu Jajmani System (anthropologist), Nehru’s The Discovery of India (nationalist agitator, then national leader) and Masters’ various works (officer in the British Army in India) all showed accurate views from different perspectives.

I skipped Masters’ second autobiography, The Road Past Mandalay because I had no interest in sharing the horrors of WW II’s Burmese campaign, but Pilgrim Son was about the start of his life as a writer. I was beginning to write, so I ate it up.

That was nearly four decades ago. One particular story from that book stayed with me, and sent me back to seek it out again. I found that the whole book was a gem, far better than I remembered, and with more than one brief bit worth sharing.

For one thing, Masters had a lot to say about immigrants. That had not stuck in my memory because it was not an issue in the early eighties when I first read Pilgrim Son.

I have to set the stage by reminding American readers, whose world historical knowledge is typically shallow, that India is an ancient culture, but is new as a nation. Until mid-last century, it was controlled by Britain. In 1947, what was then India was partitioned into India and Pakistan, and each part became a self-governing nation. Decades later, Pakistan also split, into Pakistan and Bangladesh. What had once been a more-or-less uniform culture divided into hundreds of petty kingdoms, was first unified under British rule, then split into three modern nations.

After several hundred years, members of the British Army and of the British governing class, many of whom had lived in India for generations, had to take ship for England. John Masters was one of those Englishmen who was born in India, had lived his life there, and now found himself an immigrant to his other homeland. He soon found that there was nothing for him in England, and became an immigrant to America, where he began his writing career. more tomorrow

361. Take This Test

Berlin WallMexican Wall


Have you ever knowingly committed any crime for which you have not been arrested? [Never mind the fifth amendment. It does not apply here.
Have you ever been arrested? [Whether convicted or acquitted.]
Have you ever received public assistance?
Are you likely to receive public assistance in the future? [As if you could know that.]
Have you ever gambled illegally? [Yes, the Super Bowl counts.]
Have you ever encouraged an act of illegal immigration? [Yes, that includes hiring the maid who cleans you toilet, cooks your meals, and babysits your kids.]
Did you smoke pot before it was legal?
Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? [Yes, Joe McCarthy is dead, and yes, the question can still be asked, and no, you can’t refuse to answer.]
Did you, in support of the Nazi party, aide in the persecution of any person because of race, religion, national origin, or political opinion. [If such aid was to the KKK, answer no.]
Have you ever assisted any organization engaged in kidnapping, political assassination, or any other form of terrorist activity. [If that organization was the CIA, answer no.]
Have you ever left the U.S. to avoid the draft?
Have you ever served in the armed forces?
Have you ever been a police officer?
Have you ever been a prison guard?
Have you ever been been a Boy Scout?

If you answered yes to any question above, you may not be eligible to enter the United States.

If you could not read any question above, you may not be eligible to enter the United States.

If you could not afford a lawyer to help you answer any question above, you may not be eligible to enter the United States.

If you were too repulsed to finish the test, you may not be eligible to enter the United States.

Finally: List your present and past membership in or affiliation with every organization, association, fund, foundation, party, club, society, or similar group in the United States or in other places since your 16th birthday. Include any military service in this part. If none, write “None.” Include the name of each organization, location, nature, and dates of membership. If additional space is needed, attach a separate sheet of paper. If you are unable to remember and list these affiliations, you may not be eligible to enter the United States.


All of these questions were drawn, with snide but accurate rewording, from Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence. If you think this is a joke, click here to read the actual form.

Aren’t you glad you are an American citizen? If you weren’t, we probably wouldn’t let you in.

360. Eternal Ballads

Just before noon on May 22, I was writing the posts leading up to the Golden Age panel I will be doing at Westercon. I wanted to know the name of a particular J. G. Ballard short story for the post. I remembered the story, not its name, so I pulled out my compilation of his work. It is massive, and by the time I had found the story in question (Deep End) I was approaching a state of depression. Ballard can do that. I suggest taking him in small doses; one story a week maximum.

That was when this story occurred to me. I wrote it in about an hour. Once it was finished, I realized that it might seem a very strange story — if you don’t know Ballard, and particularly Deep End.


He was an old man already when they caught him. The crime, if it was a crime, and if he had done the deed, occurred so long ago that there were few witnesses left. Three, to be exact. One placed him on the scene. One testified that he had seemed to know too much about the crime, in conversation, a week after it was done. One said he saw it happen, and saw the old man, when he was a young man, and testified that they were the same person. None of the witnesses told exactly the same story two days running, but they were all old, so you could expect that.

The accused was found guilty and sentenced to ten years. It was a lenient sentence for the crime, but no one thought he would live long enough to serve it.

They placed him in a cell of the new type. For decades solitary confinement had been deemed cruel and unusual, so only the most dangerous endured it. The old man was not dangerous. He swayed when he walked and he was always short of breath.

But there were new rules now, designed to protect prisoners from each other. The old man was so clearly frail and helpless, that they applied to him. They put him in a cell, four meters by three, with a toilet and shower in an alcove, an opening that presented food three times a day, and a steel door that was closed once and forever, not to be opened for ten years, or until the old man died. This would keep him safe from the other prisoners who might have tormented him.

There was a camera at the ceiling, through which he could be observed.

Before he was incarcerated, they asked him what book he wanted with him. He would only get one. Most prisoners asked for the Bible. A few asked for the Koran. Buddhists never asked, as they carried their god within themselves.

The old man was not religious, but he loved the sound of human voices. It was the thing he anticipated missing the most, so he said, “Ballads,” thinking he could sing them and ease the eternal silence of the cell.

They gave him his book, pushed him through the doorway, and the last human sound he heard was the clanging of the door, and the oiled sliding of the lock. He sat on the bed. It was made of plastic, semi-soft, vastly durable, designed to outlast him. He was naked because once a prisoner had stuffed his mouth and nostrils with torn clothing, and slipped his hands into pre-tied manacles of denim, and had escaped into death.

After an hour of silence, eyes downcast to avoid the gray walls, the old man took up his book, but they must have misunderstood him. It was the complete short stories of J. G. Ballard. The old man had never heard of Ballard. With a sigh, he opened to the first page and read, “I first met Jane Ciraclides during the recess . . .”

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When the proctors came to let him out at the end of ten years, they went first to the observation station. There were one hundred screens on the wall, ten rows of ten, all tied to the cameras in the cells for which this observer was responsible. The observer quickly darkened all but one screen, as protocol demanded. He had spent thirty hours a week in this room for eighteen years, viewing a hundred prisoners who could not look back. His outlook had become narrow, but his body had grown large.

The proctors were hardened to viewing the results of solitude, but even they were startled by the old man’s appearance. His head was shaggy in parts, bare and raw in other parts where he had torn out his hair by the handful. His body was a skeleton wrapped in wrinkled skin. The walls of his cell were covered with graffiti made with excrement. It must had smelled terrible.

Following protocol, they watched him for two hours, waiting for the moment his sentence would be up. He lay most of the first hour, foetal on the bed. Then he staggered up. There was no sound from the room, except the sliding of bare feet on concrete. The old man had uttered his last curse eight years before, and every day since then had been wordless. But not utterly without sound.

Now he approached the book, and opened it. He let pages flutter past, until he found a starting place, and then he read. After a moment, there was a faint groaning. After five minutes, that gave way to an ululation on two notes that grew in volume as his body began to shake. Eventually he leaped up and hurled himself against a wall, beating it with his fists until blood flowed, and sinking to the ground in whimpers.

The observer remained unmoved, sitting in his place like a fat Buddha who no longer saw the world’s pain. He leaned forward and rotated the camera, and said, “I thought so. Deep End. That always upsets him the most.”

One of the proctors said, “How can he have survived like this.”

The observed replied, “Everybody lives forever in Hell.”