Tag Archives: review

393. The IDIC Epidemic

I am always amazed when I find yet another novel which should have won awards and a place on every bookshelf, but has instead been forgotten. I don’t know why I should be amazed though, as it happens all too often. The IDIC Epidemic is such a book.

An additional oddity, which is actually a pattern, is that though the book is massively infused with future science, and contains more Star Trek lore and alien species that a Star Trek convention, the story succeeds because it mimics the same underlying moral stance as any human story about very different people thrown together in a crisis, and rising to the occasion.

The IDIC Epidemic is a novel that stands alone, but can equally be seen as the third in a trilogy that began with the original series Star Trek episode Journey to Babel, continued in The Vulcan Academy Murders, and concludes with The IDIC Epidemic. The TV episode was by D. C. Fontana and the two books are by Jean Lorrah. To quote:

the reunion (between Spock and  Sarek) that had begun on the perilous journey to Babel and continued when they had melded on Vulcan to save Amanda’s life only a few weeks ago, was finally complete.

That is a leitmotif floating through the three stories, but needs no spoiler alert since it isn’t the main story. Here is a spoiler free summary of The IDIC Epidemic.

Nisus is a Vulcan science colony dedicated to the idea of IDIC, Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combination. Members of most of the races known to the Federation work there in something like harmony. A plague breaks out which crosses species and brings the Enterprise on scene to help. Infinite Complications ensue. 

I suppose the next statement is a spoiler. Kirk does not single-handedly save the day. To be fair, he only does that about half the time, but this is one of those books where every character –and there are a horde of them — has his time on stage.

There are no space battles, either. Although there is a bit of skullduggery among some relatively minor villains, this is primarily a story of varied intelligent species striving against nature.

A little aside here: I bought Legacies: Captain to Captain a few months ago, but gave up reading it about a third of the way in. I have no criticism of book or author; it was simply that I had been on this roller coaster too many times before, and it couldn’t hold my interest. If you’ve read enough Star Trek novels (I must be well above fifty), the word rehash starts to crop up in your appraisal, and it really isn’t fair. Take any thirty Star Trek novels and read them one after another — the first will be wonderful and the last will be a rehash, no matter in which order you read them.

The IDIC Epidemic isn’t like that. Yes, there is a threat to be overcome, through great courage and high competence, but we also meet a dozen new characters and a couple of dozen who are back from The Vulcan Academy Murders. Their interactions matter as much as the action. We also learn a great deal more about about sex and love among Vulcans and between species. (Tastefully handled. This is Star Trek, not soft porn.) And we see courage exhibited by everybody.

Everyone is a hero, because it is that kind of situation. I was reminded, by contrast, of books by Philip Wylie from my youth, set in times of nuclear war. There were no real heroes in those books. The difference wasn’t in the  competing visions of mankind. It was structural to the kind of novels involved. IDIC is a hopeful book even through massive disasters.  A nuclear strike leaves no hope.

The IDIC Epidemic is one of the best Star Trek novels I have read. I recommend it highly. Both these Jean Lorrah books are available on Kindle. If you get them both, read The Vulcan Academy Murders first, although The IDIC Epidemic is the better book.

391. Pilgrim Son (3)

Continuing Pilgrim Son from yesterday —

Masters says:

I began preparation of the first novel. (ultimately titled The Nightrunners of Bengal)  The subject must be the most powerful to my hand: the Indian Mutiny. I spent two days wondering whether I could afford to start with another, for the Mutiny was so great a subject that I really ought not to tackle it until I was better equipped to do so. But a man being charged by a tiger is wise to use his biggest gun the first time, there may not be a second. So the Mutiny it was.

. . . What was the natural second level (story behind the story) of the Mutiny? That stuck out a mile: the fact that good men on both sides were turned into beasts . . .

The next problem was research: now or later? I knew the principal events of the Mutiny, and more important, I knew roughly why it had come about, and what most British and Indians felt about it at the time. If I did a lot of research, I would dredge up more detailed information. I would find out what young ladies wore at formal balls in 1857, what was the correct way to address a deposed Rajah, the names of Havelock’s aides. But it was not certain that I would want to use any of that information, so the collection of it might be a waste of time. I also knew, from correcting Staff College papers, that once a man has done research, he has a strong tendency to make his reader swallow the fruits of it. I could see the danger. After all, it would seem a criminal waste, once I had with so much effort dug up the fact that Tippoo Sahib used to give his pet pug dog champagne for supper, not to use it. To hell with the architectural line and ornament plan of the book — stick it in.

I decided to leave research to the end. If my broad plan was not right, I had no business writing the novel in the first place. After I had done the first or second draft, I would find out whether the greased cartridges were introduced on April 1 or March 1, and I would make out a calendar for the year 1857 so that my Sundays fell on the right dates . . . important because on Sundays the British troops went to church, leaving their arms behind, until they learned better.

Research costs time, which is money, and sometimes travel, which is also money. I wrote Spirit Deer first because I could dive in with only a minimum of research. I also wrote science fiction and fantasy first, not only because they are my first love, but because I simply could not afford to write anything else. (See 208. The Cost of Research)

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Masters says that critics of a certain type, in the early fifties, believed that writers should take sides in the political problems of the day . . .

I did not. I had come to believe that the writer’s duty, as a writer, is to offer some effectively worded insight into the human condition. If anything else, a particular situation, for example, is at the center of his work — that is, if the situation and not the humans are the essentials of it — it will not last, because all situations change. It is for this reason that Of Mice and Men is a greater work than The Grapes of Wrath. The Depression has long gone; George and Lennie live forever.

I don’t fully agree (not that Masters expects me to). George and Lennie types and Depression type economic disruptions both, sadly, live forever. The Joads were stopped at the California border and undocumenteds are stopped at the Southern U. S. border. There is no essential difference.

It is certainly true that novelists who treat events through the actions of people with whom we can have sympathy, will get their point across better than propagandists. Uncle Tom’s Cabin started the Civil War by making northerners care about particular, fictional slaves. I have always had strong feelings about overpopulation, but I could not write with any effect until I wrapped the problem into the story of the colonization of Cyan, by people we could care about.

If these three posts have seemed a bit disjointed, remember that my intention has been to give bits and pieces of Masters’ advice to an audience that otherwise might never see them. The entire books is worth reading, if you have the time and patience.

390. Pilgrim Son (2)

Continuing Pilgrim Son from yesterday —

Masters dictated an outline of Brutal . . . and sent that with the first two chapters. Dial Press, who had asked for Brutal . . .  in the first place, was impressed, but wanted another reading. Two weeks later, they passed on the book.

Masters was not like you and me; he had friends in high places, so he could find out what went wrong. It turned out that a famous publisher had advised them not to publish anything by an ex-British Indian officer, and they caved to pressure.

Nothing personal, but your book does not meet our current needs. Does that sound familiar?

Masters returned to what he had written, and found it different than any book of its type and better than most. He decided to finish it and send it on its rounds to publishers on spec.

He finished it. He sent it out. It came back. He sent it out again —

As is the manner of things in publishing, rejections began to pile up. A friend of Masters’ gave this advice: (page 127)

A writer’s time is always valuable. If you don’t write anything, I can’t sell anything.  While Brutal is going around the publishers, you should be starting something else. . . .  Why don’t you write a novel? You could, you know.

Master’s says, “The writing of Brutal . . . had given me confidence that the mere mass of works in a full-length book was nothing to be afraid of.”

I offer you that quote here for the express purpose of adding, “AMEN!” Spirit Deer did that for me.

As usual, Masters approached the question with deep thought. Write a novel, or become a novelist? It isn’t exactly the same thing. Masters was looking of interesting work to fill the rest of his life, and provide security for his family. Writing one novel would not further that end. Becoming a novelist — producing novel after novel — would.

He would become a novelist, but what kind. He wrestles with this for many pages, starting on 128, before he decides what we already know. He will write historical novels about India, from the viewpoint of Brits who are half inside and half outside the culture of India. By page 138, he is ready to say:

I listed thirty-five areas of conflict about which I felt I could write novels. They covered the whole period from 1600 to 1947. Taken as a whole, they would present a large canvas of the British period in India. The British would be in the foreground, as they had been in actuality, yet I thought the canvas would show how they were controlled by their environment — India — even while they were ostensibley directing it.

(to provide unity to the project) . . . I thought that the only course left open to me was to put into the foreground of each book some member of a single continuing family.

And that is exactly what he did, through more than twenty novels.

Through all this, and other chapters besides, he interrupts his memoir with short paragraphs like:

John Day rejected Brutal. They said they already had a writer on Oriental subjects. . . .  and  . . . Little, Brown rejected Brutal. It was very well written and eminently readable, they said, but the couldn’t think what category to publish it in, as it contained elements of travel, belles-lettres, adventure, and military history, as well as autobiography.

I also remember those days of frustration. Now rejection slips are kind, vague, and always contain something like, “not for us, but try elsewhere.”  They do not cause hurt feelings, but they also don’t give any useful feedback.

Back in the day, I was once turned down on an outline that my agent was excited about, because the novel, on the subject of Shah Jehan’s reign, was “too Indian”. Imagine that. A novel about historical India that was too Indian. Another novel was highly praised by a publisher, who ended by saying, “But I can’t take it because men’s adventure books are no longer selling.”

Maybe its better when we don’t know why.  Pilgrim Son review continues tomorrow.

389. Pilgrim Son (1)

Pilgrim Son by John Masters is the third in a trio of memoirs. The first two are about his life in the British Indian army, the last is about becoming a writer.

As I said earlier, I first read Pilgrim Son in the late 70s, about the time I was writing Spirit Deer. I was impressed by Masters professionalism. I expected professionalism from the publishing industry —  the phrase publishing industry suggests that it is run in a businesslike manner. Within a few years, I decided that was a myth.

I recently went back to Pilgrim Son and reread it, looking for the point at which he rails against the industry for not recognizing that his first novel would be successful. I spent many hours and did not find the quotation, so I will tell you that he said something like this: If Nightrunners was good enough to be chosen for book clubs, then why did every editor who read it fail to know this? Quote, more or less.

Pilgrim Son is 383 dense pages, much of which is dedicated to Masters observations on becoming an American in the late 40s and early 50s, while living in a colony of bohemian artists and writers. That world no longer exists.

I can’t recommend the book to everyone. Nevertheless, if you are a serious would-be or beginning writer, you could do worse. For you, I will drop approximate page numbers from time to time in order to help you find the parts of the book which will be most useful to you.

The book Masters was writing at the beginning of Pilgrim Son was Bugles and a Tiger; its original title was Brutal and Licentious, part of a then well known quotation. I will call it Bugles  . . . or Brutal . . . as he does, according to which part of Pilgrim Son I am referring to at the moment. Sorry if that confuses you.

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Around the beginning of 1948, John Masters had settled down to write. This included discussing his prospects with several editors of his acquaintance, and receiving their advice.

Beginning writers will now be reaching for their favorite means of suicide or homicide at the notion that Masters got to talk to and receive advice from editors before he had written anything. It does help to have friends in high places — or so I am given to understand. I never had any myself.

Those editors suggested that he begin with a memoir of his life in India, somewhat following the pattern of Lives of a Bengal Lancer. (page 106, but also check out pp. 104-5) Masters disliked that book, but took what he could from it in planning his own. Planning was second nature to him, learned as a British Army officer, so he soon knew what every chapter of Brutal . . . was going to contain. Then it was time to write.

Masters says: I pulled myself together. The first chapter was only going to be twenty-five pages and I could manage that. The the next . . . and the next . . . One chapter at a time, I could do it. The book as a whole and each chapter had been shaped by the master plan. Now I must concentrate on each page, each line.     page 112

Masters finished the first draft and read it through. He didn’t like it. Lots of beginning writers have reached that stage. Masters had learned that an excellent plan does not always result in excellent execution.

It’s what he did next that makes him interesting. In his own words, somewhat shortened:

A more experienced author might have been able to avoid these errors, but for me there was no way but to replan in the light of what was there on paper. …. Find out how it happened, first, and then remedy it.

I divided several sheets of paper into lines and columns and went carefully through the MS, grading each sequence in three ways: by length, by type, and by merit of its type. It soon developed that almost every sequence could be classified as Action, Explanation, Color, Characterization or Thought. When the job was done, and it took several day’s hard work, my new charts revealed a very lumpy texture in the book. Page followed page of action, with no explanation and little color. Color was not used as a background to action or as a perimeter to characterization, but haphazardly, as the pictures had come to me. Although I could grade some sequences A, too many were B’s and C’s: not good enough for a professional.

 . . . Using my charts to correct the early faults, I rewrote the first two chapters.  . . . .  

I’ve never been quite that organized myself, but I have gutted and rebuilt many hundreds  of pages. Pilgrim Son review continues tomorrow.

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.

366. Three comments on Spirit Deer

[1]  When I was a very young writer, I read everything in the library under Dewey Decimal 808. It’s called Rhetoric & collections of literature, but really, it’s where they stick all the how-to-write books. In one book of articles, there was a piece titled Multiply by Two. The author’s thesis was that it is always better when starting a book to have two people in front of the reader, to allow for conversation while setting the scene. That’s probably reasonable advice, but I disregarded it in Spirit Deer. Tim is completely alone by page six, and remains that way until the last page.

At the time I wrote Spirit Deer, it just seemed right for Tim to be alone. I had spent half my childhood alone, walking to round up cattle twice a day or on a tractor, endlessly circling innumerable fields. Nothing could seem more normal for Tim the adult, and that didn’t change when he became Tim the youngster. And it wasn’t just me. In the outdoor adventures I read as a child, boys were always out in the woods, and often alone.

I read those books in the fifties and I wrote Spirit Deer originally in the seventies. In 2017, I wonder if the cell phone generation has ever been alone, or ever will be again.

[2] Speaking of cell phones, the cell phone bit in Spirit Deer Post 2 was introduced because no modern kid would be without one. I didn’t want it in the story, so I used one sentence to both establish Tim as responsible and get rid of the damned thing. This scene also introduces a girl, who has no part in the story, but would be missed if absent in 2017. Her absence would have been taken for granted back in the seventies. Or the fifties. Or the thirties, or the nineteenth century. Actually, I see the automatic inclusion of females as progress, but I still wanted Tim to be alone in this story.

[3] Until Tim fires his rifle in Spirit Deer Post 3, he could always just go back to the campground and bike on the his grandfather’s place. There would have been no story. I wanted Tim to have some responsibility for getting himself into trouble. This book is about choices, so it would have been inappropriate for him to get dumped into the wilderness due to forces beyond his control.

This is very different from the original version of Spirit Deer where the hunt had been the legitimate act of an adult.

I also give Tim an out in Post 4 and he doesn’t take it. He could just walk away from his responsibility. But Tim is a moral being, as all my main characters tend to be. I like a stalwart hero. I don’t like the weaselly, vacillating type who finally talks himself into doing the right thing — in real life, or in the characters I write about.