Tag Archives: review

422. Little Bitty White Hunters

When he got back to his apartment, Neil dug around in his still packed boxes to find the few books he had kept as personal treasures from his childhood. The formula books had not worn well; they held little that the adult Neil McCrae could find worthwhile. But there were others that had kept their value, and he spent the next four hours accompanying the young Hunt brothers as they continued the expedition their father had had to abandon, collecting zoo animals while floating downriver on their Amazon Adventure.

That is a quote from Symphony In a Minor Key. It was the opening paragraph of Symphony 13, over in Serial.

Neil McCrae and I have a lot in common — duh — but I also kept him as a separate person. He has more patience than I do, for example. Another thing I did was give him an English class, while I was teaching science. This lets him read to kids and read their papers, and that gives me — through him — the chance to tease out what is going on in their minds.

More than any other subject, literature is about involvement and about demonstrating that involvement by writing. But please! Sixth grade papers are awful. You’ll see when you have to read some of them with Neil. I’ll be over here with my bunsen burner; call me when you are through.

I’ve done my share of teaching reading and literature, which aren’t quite the same thing. Neil encounters a ton of difficulties, and solves them, more or less. I encountered all the same problems in my first fifteen years of teaching, and the same good, bad, and ugly solutions, before science largely pushed reading out of my curriculum.

Teaching reading is tough in a school where the children have widely ranging skill levels. Teaching literature is relatively easy, if you have good literature to teach. Accepted literature is not the same as good literature. I don’t have the guts to teach Where The Red Fern Grows. If you had that piece of pornography of violence foisted on you as a child, you’ll get the pun. On the other hand, I loved teaching Fog Magic.

Truthfully, most of the children’s literature I know, I read as a teacher. There were no bookstores which featured children’s books where I grew up, and besides, most of the children’s books I read when I was a teacher hadn’t been written yet when I was a child.

Like most children who are given the choice, I read books for children, books for young adults, and books for adults, indiscriminately. I still do. Just a couple of years ago I made it half way through my childhood set of Rick Brant books before I ran out of time and steam. Any time I see a Howard Pease juvenile, I snatch it up. His popularity has waned and they are getting scarce.

So Neil looks back at his childhood (which was my childhood — Neil was born full grown on the Ides of March) and remembers the books he read. Willard Price wrote the “___ Adventure” books starting with Amazon Adventure in 1949, and continuing for an additional thirteen books, ending in 1980. I only read the first four; by the time he wrote the rest, I had outgrown them. They all followed the pattern Neil later recounts, someone young went somewhere interesting and did something exciting, without adult supervision. That isn’t much, but that is all it takes.

In some cursory research today, I ran across an interesting phenomenon. I don’t want to make too much stew out of one oyster, but the critics in the day when the “___ Adventure” books were written, said that they were full of cruelty to non-Western people and animals. That is a problem in anything written before books were sanitized in the name of political correctness. If I were a cynic, I could say that this makes the eligible to join the rest of Western literature. Fortunately, I’m not a cynic, but I did note that comments written recently by men who grew up reading the “___ Adventure” books, then became adult writers of today, praised those books. Hmmm.

The truth is, when I wrote Symphony originally, I wasn’t thinking of Amazon Adventure at all. I was thinking of Zane Grey’s Ken Ward in the Jungle, but I didn’t have a copy, and had no way to get one to cross-check my memory. Amazon Adventure was in the local library, so it was the one to be immortalized.

Today things are different. I went to the other Amazon and ordered an eBook containing all three Ken Ward stories. Kindle is my new favorite word beginning with a K. It lets me romp through my out-of-print childhood at a buck a pop, without ever leaving the chair in front of my computer.

The world has changed, and my tastes have changed as well, so I don’t have much hope, but I’m going to give Ken Ward another try.


419. Airship Flamel

As I mentioned previously, I found To Rule the Skies: An Airship Flamel Adventure when its author, Michael Tierney, liked one of my posts and I went to visit his website. I bought it as an eBook, which is an adventure in itself. I read eBooks on my desktop Mac. Things that come through iBooks work fine, but the Kindle download is a piece of crap. As you read, it jumps to a new page every few seconds without any input from the user. The only way to successfully read is with your finger lightly on the mouse, and that only works part of the time. This is particularly irritating since the old Kindle download worked fine.

Let me say at the outset that I loved this book. It was a hoot. However, I’m not sure how many of you will feel the same. It probably depends on your vision of what steampunk should be.

To Rule the Skies reminded me of the books I read when I was a kid back in the fifties. Then books were straightforward, violence was muted, and nobody had any literary pretensions. Irony was unknown.

You couldn’t write a book like that if it were set in today’s world, or in the past as seen from today. You can do it in steampunk. As Perschon said of Oppel’s Airborne, it was a time “before the cynicism and doubt the Great War produced. This is the Gilded Age; this is the time of Victorian Optimism.”

That attitude may not be realistic, but it is a breath of fresh air.

The plot resembled an episode of The Wild Wild West, but the crew of the airship Flamel was pure Victorian British. Stiff, long winded, formal, but that was its charm. The tone was somewhere between innocent naiveté and tongue in cheek.

After all, True Grit isn’t Louis L’Amour, and that is its charm. The same thing works here.

I think its time for an example.

Sparks flew at every connection and disconnection. Montgomery was worried that the chamber was imbalanced and he made ready to pull the switch that would break the connection to the umbilical.  “She canna take it any more!” he cried, and just as he did, the shaking stopped suddenly, and the plasma inside the chamber settled down to a slowly pulsing orange glow.  He spun in his chair and checked the gauges.  “All normal, Mr. MacIver!  The luminous matter reaction has started!”  Montgomery slumped in his chair relieved.

MacIver? Say that one out loud. And engineer Montgomery shouting, “She canna take it any more!” as he performs a miraculous repair on a dying piece of high tech machinery. The pop culture references come thick and fast.

I hope Michael Tierney isn’t insulted if I say it isn’t literature, but, man, is it fun.

417. Sturgeon and Steampunk

If I’ve learned anything in my ongoing study of steampunk, it is that Sturgeon’s Law does not apply. [Sturgeon’s Law: Ninety percent of everything is shit.]

Sturgeon’s rule applies to science fiction, fantasy, literature approved for the college curriculum, and the work of prominent philosophers. It applies to fields where there is some objective means of determining quality.

Steampunk, on the other hand, is so wide ranging that it would be hard to find any two fans who agree on precisely what it is, far less what constitutes good steampunk.

After I read and reviewed Steampunk by the Vandermeers (see 411. Steampunk I II III), I checked out how it fared in Goodreads. The reviews were all over the map. More notably, when reviewers told what stories they liked or hated, no one liked or hated the same stories.

So if Sturgeon is not useful, let’s try this: [Logsdon’s addendum: I don’t like ninety percent of what I try to read.] That is why I’ve read so many first-twenty-pages-of-novels, without finishing them. I’m referring to all novels, not just steampunk.

The Addendum is not just a matter of putting my name beside Sturgeon’s. You could call it Wilkes Addendum, if your name were Wilkes, or Jones Addendum if your name were Jones. I suspect it would still hold. Quality and liking are not the same thing. I frequently read works that are marvelously written, but I simply can’t find any interest in them. That often happens when I dip into the Classics. It happened in some of the stories in the Vandermeer anthology.

On the flip side, some stories are pure fun, even though I can’t claim that they are intrinsically good.

This like/dislike issue comes up all the time when people “like” one of my posts. I always visit their websites. A lot of them are very young or deeply wounded, and are baring their souls. Occasionally I say hello, but mostly I withdraw silently, just happy that the internet is there for them.

Frequently I find a writer who is displaying his work. I always read, but rarely comment, because, “Who am I to judge?” It was under those circumstances that I recently read the first chapter of Echo by Kent Wayne (very much not steampunk). It is a fine piece of fiction, powerfully written, and it will clearly have much to say in coming chapters. It is also quite violent, and the character at the center is not someone I could like — yet, although there are hints of coming change. I short, I rank it high for quality, but I won’t read it further because it takes me places I don’t want to go. My shortest honest response would be, fine work, but not for me.

On the other hand, I also found Michael Tierney through a “like”, bought his purely steampunk ebook To Rule the Skies, and am presently 77% of the way through it. That’s an ebook workaround for the lack of pagination. The novel reads like Tom Swift, the Steampunk Professor and I love it for that very reason. I’ll devote a post to it shortly.

Another thing I have tentatively concluded is that lots of steampunk fans must also love Downton Abbey and Fear of Flying. I’ve lost track of how many heroes and heroines are members of the Victorian upper crust, the heroines also being spunky and liberated.

Oh well, it’s a big tent, with room for everybody. Most of the people inside seem to be wearing top hats with gears on them, but it isn’t required.

411. WordCamp Sacramento

Saturday, September 16th, I attended WordCamp, Sacramento, and it was a disaster. I left when there were still hours remaining in the first day of a two day conference.

Don’t get me wrong. I was impressed; the conference was well organized and the presenters were knowledgable. The problem was in the advertising. There should have been a disclaimer to warn people like me to stay away. I’ll explain further, below.

About three years ago I decided to blog and set about learning how. It took a while and there were lots of wrong turns along the way. I began by studying HTML and CSS. (see 408. Behind the Curtain) I’m glad I did. That study gave me some deep background knowledge, and some specific skills as well.

Do you check out the comments when you read someone’s blog? I always do. There is a lot of back patting but also some interesting insights. J. M. Williams, in a comment on the post above, said that HTML served him better than algebra. That sounds entirely reasonable. I don’t use it often, but I couldn’t do without it when I need it.

Well into learning HTML and CSS, i stumbled on WordPress and found a way of blogging without coding. There are others who provide the same kind of service. Blogster comes to mind. I have seen blogs done on Blogster that looked great. I’ve never used it, so I don’t know how seamless the user experience is. That’s all I can say about Blogster.

On the other hand, I have worked with WordPress for about two and a half years. It comes in two flavors, WordPress.org and WordPress.com. From the user’s viewpoint, they are quite different.

WordPress.org is the master organization, largely staffed by volunteers, which provides the basic code that underpins everything else. They do not provide themes, plugins, hosting service, and so forth, but they are quite willing to help you find those things for yourself. They are the people who put on WordCamp and more power to them, even though it didn’t work for me.

WordPress.com is a one stop shop. The provide WordPress software (via the dot org people), hosting, themes, a plugin master pack, and they will sell you a URL or let you use one of theirs for free.

Big hint: if you plan to blog, buy your URL as soon as possible, before someone else gets it. The name you call your blog is much less important. If you google sydlogsdon.com, you’ll get me every time. If you google A Writing Life, you’ll get me and a hundred other bloggers who call their sites the same thing.

If all you want to do it write a blog, go WordPress.com. If you love the tech stuff, or if you have sophisticated tastes in aesthetics, or if you plan to run a business, dot org gives you much more flexibility. you pay for that by working harder at the tech side of your craft

WordCamp Sacramento was by and for the dot org side of WordPress. Three-quarters of what they presented had no application in my dot com world. The other quarter, I already knew.

Bottom line: If you are a dot organisms there are WordCamps all over and you will probably find them useful. Most of the readers of my blog are dot commies, and don’t need what WordCamp provides. more Wednesday

401. Harold Goodwin

Harold Goodwin was a diver, worked for Civil Defense, NASA, NOAA and other agencies, and said that his books “were often a spinoff from my technical work.” He wrote forty-three books in all. His popular science books were written under his own name, and included Space: Frontier Unlimited and Challenge of the Seven Seas. I have not been able to find a full list, but it hardly matters. They would be hopelessly out of date.

If you plan to look in Goodreads, look up his pseudonyms. The Harold Goodwin they feature isn’t our guy.

Try this: look up The Rocket’s Shadow on Goodreads. You will find three authors on the by-line — John Blaine, Harold Leland Goodwin, Peter J. Harkins. Harkins co-wrote the first three Rick Brants with Goodwin. Clicking on H. L. G will take you nowhere useful, but clicking on John Blaine will take you to his Washington Post obituary. For a man who is hard to track down, this is the most accessible mini-biography. Or just click here.

Goodwin’s twenty-four volume Rick Brant series of science adventures for young people were written under the name John Blaine. His only true science fiction novel, also for the young, was Rip Foster’s story, written under the pseudonym Blake Savage.

Goodwin served as a combat correspondent in the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World Was II. By no coincidence, Scotty, Rick Brant’s companion, was an ex-marine who also served in the Pacific. And Rip Foster’s Planeteers from the Rip Foster book are basically space marines.

Goodwin served as a State Department official in Manila after the war; Rick and Scotty end up in the Pacific and islands of the East Indies in several stories.

Goodwin wrote on the cutting edge of science, but he started writing in the late forties, so most of what he wrote seems dated today. He was generally accurate, with a couple of goofs. In his first Rick Brant The Rocket’s Shadow, he fouled up the calculations and got his rocket to the moon in hours instead of days. He later expressed embarrassment at his error. In the Rip Foster book, he has Rip conversing freely with Earth from a point near the Sun — he forgot that pesky speed-of-light communications delay.

When the Rip Foster book came out, we all expected to see nuclear spacecraft and a rapid expansion of the manned exploration of our solar system. Heinlein made an early career out of the same assumption, but it never happened. in that sense, the sixty-plus year old Rip Foster book is still out ahead of us.

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.