Tag Archives: science fiction

601. Home Court Advantage

Jandrax was the second novel I wrote, and the first that was published, back in the late seventies. You can still find it in used bookstores everywhere. If you were to read it, you would never know that I wrote it twice.

The first time through, I wrote it in first person. It didn’t work for me. I agonized a bit about what was wrong, then bit the bullet and rewrote it from start to finish in third person.

By the way, this was before computers . No cut and paste, no spell check. Just an electric typewriter and gallons of correction fluid — that thin white paint that came in a small bottle with built in brush, and was a lifesaver for poor typists.

Also, I cheated. Two chapters sounded just fine in first person, so I left them that way. One is a main character reminiscing about his childhood, and the other is another main character, alone in a boat, talking to himself as he undergoes experiences that may or may not be real.

I have written fifteen novels, and only that lost iteration of Jandrax was in first person. I could give you good plot-based reasons for that, but the reality is that I like the distance third person put between the author and the work. That may be a mistake.

Recently, I have been analyzing what makes books readable and re-readable, and that has led me to my favorite SF writers, Heinlein and Zelazny. For all their differences, they share a few authorial traits, including the fact that both are masters of first person.

Each author has a stock character that recurs with variations. For Heinlein, it is complicated by the fact that his stock character often comes as a matched pair. There is an older, seasoned man of the world, cynical, with no apparent respect for authority. He will, nevertheless, hurl himself into danger for his own people while pretending that he is doing it for selfish reasons. He reads like your crazy uncle. The matching character is a young smart-ass in training, studying up to become like the oldster. But don’t accuse him of that. He would punch you in the nose if you did. Or at least, threaten to.

Zelazny didn’t limit himself to one stock character, but he did have one that recurred frequently. He was part way between the halves of the paired Heinlein character. He was young, but fully formed. He had the attitude of a smart-ass college student, an upper class-man who had already learned the ropes. The kind who knew which professors had something worth listening to and which ones were dopes. (There are a lot of dopes in academia.) There was a brightness, a newness, about his attitude. He seemed to take nothing seriously on the surface, but underneath he took everything very seriously. And he expected the reader to see this for themselves.

In the Amber series, Merlin was such a character. Corwin was similar, but older and more damaged by time. His responsibilities had risen to the surface, and he got a lot less enjoyment out of life. Consequently the second half of the Amber series is a lot more fun to read (and re-read) than the first half.

Merlin and his clones, and the Heinlein character whatever gender or age he/she happened to be, are what every American youth pretends to be. And what American oldsters claim they once were.

All these characters speak directly to the reader, but not honestly. They hide their nobility under a guise of selfishness, but they expect the reader to know that it is all a sham. They speak in first person. They say “I”, not “he”, and it works.

One suspects that Heinlein and Zelazny — the actual people — said “I” a lot, too. As Harlan Ellison put it, “The thing every writer has to have is arrogance.” And by any definition, Heinlein and Zelazny were writers.

When a writer chooses first person, she/he is giving him/her-self a tremendous home court advantage. If his character if full of sadness and self-pity, there will be readers to say, “That’s just how I feel.” If his character appears to have no fear, there will be readers who share the same pretense.

If the character is a smart-ass, that’s even better. We all have those cutting remarks we don’t make, in order to keep peace with family and friends. We are all smart-asses under the skin.

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600. Christmas in Paradise?

Back in November I finished Like Clockwork and made mention of the next novel in line. I’m still looking for it. I have nearly a dozen in the pipeline; some have fully developed characters, some have well developed worlds, but not one of them has a solid story. Yet.

Story isn’t everything, but if you don’t have one, you can write for a long time without ever getting anywhere.

A few days ago, I took time to reread The Cost of Empire, and now I’ve started rereading Like Clockwork. It is a way of jumpstarting a balky imagination. This morning I ran across a piece of writing from Like Clockwork, chapter 25 — which is actually the sixth chapter in a somewhat twisted book — and decided to show it to you.

And despite the title, this post — like the novel itself — is only a tiny bit about Christmas.

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Across Division Street, in the half of Outer London where the factories are, everyone was hard at work. They always were, but with more energy now than any other time of the year. It was late November and Christmas was only a month away.

Christmas Day is the most important day in Outer London. It’s odd that this should be so, in a place so aggressively secular, but it is true. On that day all the millions of candle sticks, and candles, and candied fruit cakes, and all the perfect white faced dolls in their perfect pinafores with their perfect pink ribbons in their perfect blonde hair, pass from the warehouses where they have been stored to all the Captains of Industry to be given to their perfect children. Their boys get toys, too, and the children of the workers get lesser toys, appropriate to their station.

The toys are played with ecstatically for a month, but by the end of January, most of them have magically and mysteriously disappeared. Those which remain are carefully programmed to degrade. By October, they are tattered. By November they become fodder for the ashcan. Thus want is artificially introduced. There arises a hunger for toys and games to fill the children’s empty hours. From want, comes anticipation, and on Christmas Day, want is relieved.

It is a beautiful system, a kind of circle of life. And by this late in November, want was keenly felt.

The day after Christmas every warehouse stands empty, but then the stream of merchandise begins again. Chairs and beds and blankets, dresses and trousers and coats, toys and games and diversions, fill every space as the year winds on. Everything is planned for. Every need is anticipated. Everything will be ready for that one day when all dreams are fulfilled.

It gives the workers a reason to work. It gives the Captains of Industry a reason to watch. It gives the Masters of Accountancy a reason to record what the Great Babbage calculates.

Just watch the flow of raw materials into the factories, watch the coal move down to the basements where it becomes steam, watch the steam engines turn it into motion, watch the motion flow from shaft to pulley to belt to shaft to belt.

Watch the lathes and spinners and looms and cutters and sewers as they produce the goods. Watch the painters and polishers and packers and finishers as they store it all away for the glorious coming of Christmas.

In every block east of Division Street there is a factory with vast spaces for workers to work, and near every factory there are tenements with small rooms where the workers live. Above every factory are boardrooms where the Captains of Industry oversee it all, and across town the Babbage Bureau of Accountancy keeps track of every tool, product, planner, and worker.

Every morning workers arrive, in their brown trousers and blue shirts, folded back to the forearm, all as alike as the bricks in the walls of the factory. Every morning the planners and counters arrive, as alike as all the zeroes in a million. With frock coats and waistcoats; with white shirts and blue ties and hard, flat-topped hats of silk.

They go in each morning at 7 by the Great Clock and leave in the evening at 6 by the Great Clock. They march in by the thousand every morning and leave again every evening like bats coming out of a cave. No matter how long the line becomes coming and going, they all check in at exactly 7:00:00 AM and out at 6:00:00 PM. A youngster named Albert manages this miracle, utilizing a fine point of difference between the mathematics of Newton and Leibniz.

And somewhere a man named Adam Smith smokes his pipe, rocks his chair, and smiles in contentment. Over his head is a framed sign that says, “Today is the Perfect Day.”

Perfection? From human hands?

Human hands pull the handles of the drill presses, but jigs and fixtures assure that every hole goes where it is needed. A human hand pull the lever that frees the stamp, that the steam drives down onto plaint clay, and every doll’s head comes out wearing the same smile.

Humanity and machinery and a Babbage to oversee it all. Perfection.

that’s all, for now

590. The Road to Corlay

Cold curtains of November rain came drifting slowly up the valley like an endless procession of phantom mourners following an invisible hearse. From beneath an overhang of limestone a boy and an old man squatted side by side and gazed disconsolately out across the river to the dripping forest on the far bank. Suddenly a salmon leaped — a flicker of silver in the gloom and a splash like a falling log. The boy’s eyes gleamed. “Ah,” he breathed. “Did you see him?”

That’s a lot of description for an opening paragraph. Hemingway would have hated it, but it works perfectly to present the quasi-medieval setting and elegiac mood of The Road to Corlay.

The novel came out in paperback from Pocket Books in 1979. I read it some time that year and it made a permanent impression, so much so that I named it as one of my fifteen favorite books earlier this year. The impression, however, was of its quality and was not accompanied by anything like a scene by scene recollection.

I had to read it again, and I am glad that I did.

What appears between the covers of the Pocket Books version is a novella called The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (Hugo and Nebula nominee for 1977) and a short novel called The Road to Corlay. Together they tell one seamless story, but it will be easier here to talk about them separately.

Beware — I normally avoid spoilers but I can’t do it in this case.

The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is allegorical, but don’t let that put you off. Allegory is often just a lazy author’s attempt to achieve false profundity, but Cowper does it right. My personal test for allegory is, “Does the writing stand by itself? Would I like it as well if I didn’t know the story it mimics?” The Piper at the Gates of Dawn passes this test easily.

 It takes place on the eve of the new millennium, 2999 AD, in a post-flood England. The waters began rising in the 1980s due to global warming. (Yes, I said global warming, even though this story was begun in the 1970s.) By the time Piper opens, technological society is a thing of the past and the Church Militant rules the land.

Here is the only real weakness in the underlying story. Why revive Catholicism as villain? In the 70s its power was essentially dead in Britain, and its resurgence is merely assumed, never explained. I can only chalk it up to the extreme Englishness of the novel. Brits have been seeing the Catholic Church as bogeyman since Bloody Mary’s reign of terror in the 1550s. If this novel had been written by an American (like Davy was), we would probably have seen cold, heartless Puritans hanging witches instead.

Logical or not, the Church Militant makes a good foil, and offers a medieval tone without needing a lot of backstory.

The story itself — that is, the plot — can be summarized quickly. Tom, a boy of about thirteen and Old Peter, a storyteller, are walking toward York where Tom is supposed to enter a Church school. Tom has the ability, taught to him by a wizard, to play his pipes so that he can control animals and make people see visions. He also knows a lot more about unfolding events than a boy should know. His playing amplifies Old Peter’s storytelling so that by the time they reach York, they are raking in money and followers.

Tom is a very docile and agreeable lad, but every time he gives in to Peter’s schemes, it moves him closer to his own destiny. Peter seems to have no clue that this is happening. We are not told that Tom is manipulating, but he never seems surprised when things go his way.

The world is in turmoil with prophesies of the coming of the White Bird of Kinship at the turn of the millennium. Once in York, at the end of the year, Tom slips away to play his pipes for the gathered crowd. The White Bird descends upon the land, but just at the climax of the event Tom is killed by the bolt from a crossbow.

Piper is allegorical, certainly, but not a true allegory. It is a retelling of the Christ story, but with more differences than similarities.

We have the self-sacrificed innocent, but he has preached no sermons and promulgated no gospel. We have Gyre, who fires the bolt but has no memory of the deed or the reason for it. There is a touch of Judas here, but only a touch, and that lies primarily in his regret.

We have the White Bird, which even a character within the story recognizes as being like the Holy Spirit, but the death of Tom does not bring about any redemption. It only causes the Bird’s descent to misfire.

We have Old Peter who takes Gyre with him to spread the word of what has happened, like two apostles after the resurrection. But there was no resurrection and the Bird has flown away. Peter and Gyre are not actually spreading the word of what has happened, but of what is still to come, and here we find a trace of John the Baptist.

It isn’t a Christ story, but a slightly Christlike story. And it is not an ending, but a beginning. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is the most emotionally unified and satisfying part of the overall story, but it demands the follow-up provided by The Road to Corlay

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I sometimes hear reviewers say that, while they are ready to meet the characters in the opening chapter of a novel they don’t want to have to do it all over again on page fifty. My novel Jandrax caused great irritation to one reviewer for that very reason, but sometimes a complicated story requires a rotating cast of characters.

The Road to Corlay is that kind of work. It begins eighteen years after the boy Tom’s death. Old Peter and Gyre have been spreading the gospel of the White Bird of Kinship, but they remain mostly off stage. All the characters are new, and many of them won’t live to see the end of the book.

The Church Militant has tried to absorb the new religion into itself, but now its leaders change tactics. An proscription for heresy is released, and all the people we will come to care about become the hunted.

In researching for this post, I ran across a review of another Cowper novel which contained the lines, “This novel has real people in it that you can care about . . . just don’t expect too many laughs.” He could have been talking about The Road to Corlay.

The novel begins with two fishermen dragging in body bound to a spar. It is Thomas of Norwich, the second of three Thomases in the book. That is a little confusing, but a necessary part of the story. He is alive, but he shouldn’t be after all his days in the water. It will take the rest of the novel to answer why this is and what it means. He comes into the hands of Jane, who is gifted with huesh, which is something like ESP crossed with foreseeing. She enters his mind, but finds two men there, one being Thomas himself, the other a stranger she can barely touch.

It is in chapter two that the disaffection starts for most reviewers, including Joachim Boaz and Thomas Anderson, two reviewers I enjoy and respect.

In this new chapter the scene changes to 1986, a decade in the future from Cowper’s perspective. It is a familiar world of cars and hospitals, and of scientists working at the edge of current knowledge. A scientist name Carver is having a chemically induced OBBE (out of body experience) and his colleagues can’t wake him up. No one is worried at first, but then he sinks fast and the chapter ends with him in danger. We know from what Jane said in the last chapter that Carver is the other man in Thomas of Norwich’s head.

And it is raining — has been raining for months. Without ever saying so, Cowper has let us know that the rising of the waters has begun.

Let’s dispose of this 1986 intrusion, if it is an intrusion, before we get back to 3018. Everybody seems to hate it, but I didn’t mind it at all. On a visceral level, it was a relief every three chapters to spend a few pages somewhere that my new friends weren’t being hunted down.

More importantly, 1986 is a counterpoise to the future. It isn’t there to give backstory; that could have been done in a few carefully chosen sentences of authorial omniscience. It shows that the past and the future are the same. The scientists with their machinery basically don’t know what the hell is going on. The people like Jane who use and are used by huesh, don’t know where it comes from or why it works. The central purveyors of the new religion basically don’t know how any of it works, or what is going to happen next. Confusion is the human norm in all eras, which perfectly agrees with my prejudices.

Meanwhile, back in 3018: Thomas of Norwich takes refuge with Jane’s family. Only a small portion of the population has embraced Kinship, but those who have take care of each other. Jane is troubled, not only by the other man inside Thomas, but because she hueshed Thomas washed up on the beach, drowned. In her experience, huesh foreseeings never fail, and she has become fond of Thomas.

(Speaking of things to hate, I hate this kind of foreshadowing, but once again, Cowper made it work.)

Thomas has a mission, to find Gyre, who killed the boy Tom and became his greatest advocate, and to carry the boy’s pipes and written testament to safety in France. Jane takes him part way on that journey by boat, and is later attacked, then rescued. She learns that her family has been killed and she is herself now a refugee. She and Thomas come together again and he comforts her in her grief. In their days together, fondness has already turned to love, and now that leads to a night of lovemaking. Shortly after, they are captured together, and held for those who are hunting them.

Meanwhile, in a separate strand of the story, Brother Francis is sent by Cardinal Constant, head of the English Church Militant and prime mover against the Kinsmen, in search of knowledge about the boy who died. Francis travels from place to place, tracing the boy’s history, and hearing from those he has touched. He is slowly converted to Kinship, so as he nears the end of his journey, he changes sides. When he finds Gyre, he does not turn him over to the Church, but chooses to help him.

Gyre offers to play on the boy’s pipes, so Francis can hear an echo of an echo of the melody that is converting the world.

Raising his head abruptly the dying Kinsman gazed up at the vaulted ceiling and cried with a voice so strong it seemed almost as if it must be coming from some other throat than his: “Boy, show now at the end that I am forgiven! You know that I shot in ignorance of what I did! Speak you now through my darkness that his darkness may become light!”

He drew a deep, panting breath, raised the twin mouthpieces to his lips, and fixing the Advocate Sceptic with an unwavering gaze he began to play.

The Road to Corlay is a long and complicated story, but none of it would mean anything if it weren’t so beautifully written.

Gyre passes the pipes and testament to Francis and dies. Francis goes on, now looking for Thomas of Norwich to deliver them to him, but he finds him captive of the Church. Using his standing as a priest, since no one knows of his apostasy, he effects a rescue, but Thomas is killed.

Jane, with her unborn son, the pipes and the testament, escapes to France where her coming son Tom will fulfill his destiny.

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Tom the boy who died by crossbow, Thomas of Norwich who inherited his pipes and testament, Tom the unborn son in Jane’s womb at book’s end (who I’m told is the primary figure in the two sequels) — clearly we have a reincarnation sub-text going on here unexplained.

We also have a sub-text of repetitions. The birth of Christianity, medieval days, the rise of technological hubris smashed back by a flood (again, just like Noah), the rebirth of a quasi-medieval society and a new Church Militant, followed by the birth of Kinship (the primitive, original Christianity?). From what little I know of the two sequels, Kinship wins out, becomes the great power, and is itself corrupted.

To my eye, this all looks very Hindu, with age after age, and avatar after avatar of basically the same Gods, repeating variations of the same myths. I’ll say more on that in a month or so when I deal with the Earthsea books.

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Now I’m going to take you down the rabbit hole of my Southern Baptist childhood by way of this quotation:

. . . midway out in the Somersea a three masted barque, its white sails drooping like tired petals, floated becalmed above it’s own reflection. High above it a solitary star twinkled, a silver drop suspended from an invisible thread.

There are white boats in the offing in several places in this novel — white like the White Bird. In this case with “white sails drooping like a tired” (bird?). A three masted barque — where else have we seen something that looks like three upright wooden masts crossed by yards? Oh, yes, on the hill at Calvary? And where but above the manger did a solitary star twinkle?

You doubt me? I don’t blame you, but this is the world of types and symbols scattered through a sea of parables that I grew up in. This book speaks to me the same way, with little hints and teases that float untethered through the text. No? Then tell me, if that barque is not symbolic — even if my reading of it was not precise — why was it there? It had no place in the plot.

These are the little touches — images and turns of phrase — scattered throughout The Road to Corlay which make it read like a new scripture to those of us who spent our childhoods reading the original Christian scripture.

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I don’t understand all of The Road to Corlay; I’m not supposed to. If all its meaning could be reduced to reason, Cowper could have nailed it to some college door like the ninety-five theses, and it would have been mummified in a philosophy text.

Instead, he gave us a fable. I understand that impulse. In 1975, fresh out of graduate school, I wrote my first novel, and was seduced. I could say things in fiction that I could never say any other way.

Thomas of Norwich, trying to explain how it felt to play the song of the White Bird, said:

“I knew the supreme joy of possessing something that can only exist in the giving.”

I get it. That’s how it feels every time I write, but it seems too arrogant to admit, so let’s just keep it between ourselves.

588. How Quickly Do You Write?

How long does it take to write a novel, a short story, or a poem?

Those who visit this site and register a like usually have websites of their own which I visit, so I know that many of you write. Many more of you would like to, or are just starting to. “How long does it take?” may not mean much to a poet, but anyone writing a novel has to wonder if she/he has a reasonable prospect of completing it.

I had that question myself when I started. I wondered if I could sit down and write every day until I had produced a novel. It seemed more likely that the well would run dry and I would end up going on to something else, but there was no way to know except by trying.

I began the day after Labor Day, 1975, and wrote five days a week. By Christmas, I had a novel. It was short, simple, and unsalable, but it was finished. I loved the process and I was hooked.

I started my second novel, Jandrax, the first of the next year, and had it finished by summer. That needs a little explanation. It was in the mid-seventies and the typical paperback novel ran about 50,000 words. Today a typical novel is, at minimum, twice that.

Novels in the seventies were often extremely fast paced. These days they are (to my taste) glacial. Comparing Gordon Dickson’s early novel Dorsai! to his late novel The Final Encyclopedia will show you what I mean.

Jandrax could have used more smooth transitions between scenes and less twitching speed. About another seven thousand words and another two or three weeks of attention would have helped. Still, it fit into its era and was published by Del Rey, but I would slow the pace if I were writing it today. A bit. Not much.

During 2017 I wrote a novel of about 90,000 words called The Cost of Empire. The rough draft took about four months and it went out looking for a home at the end of six. That is about twice the pace of my first published novel, which makes sense after all these years of experience.

Next I wrote Like Clockwork, a much more complicated novel. I worked from January to July of 2018; then I broke off and rewrote what I had as a novella for a sales opportunity that had come up. That didn’t pan out, so I went back to the original concept in October. I lost most of December and January to another project, then finished the novel at the end of February. Call it ten months of writing, spread out over fourteen months altogether.

Ten months vs. six seems about right for a complex vs. a straightforward novel at this stage of my life. The longest I ever took from concept to publication was just short of forty years, but that was a special case.

I write, rewrite, and polish — then polish again. Most authors with a long list of novels don’t do that. Louis L’amour clearly did little if any revising. His books are full of inconsistencies that he or an editor should have caught, but that didn’t keep him from being spectacularly successful. He wrote 89 novels in 38 years.

During World War II, Robert Sidney Bowen wrote about twenty air war novels for boys in five years. He said he could complete a novel in ten days and he never revised. No problem — considering their style and quality, revision probably would not have helped.

Lester Dent reportedly once wrote an entire Doc Savage novel over a weekend, although that amounted to taking two shorter works he had already written and blending them together.

I think we all want to write a bestseller in record time in a frenzy of inspiration. That dream probably won’t come true for any of us, but I know of at least once that it happened.

Colonel Robert Scott, WW II war hero, was recalled by the Pentagon for a tour America to stir up feelings of patriotism with his personal story of shooting down flocks of Japanese planes.

Near the end of that tour, Colonel Scott was asked by the Scribner (sic) publishing house to relate his experiences in a book. But he had only three days to do so before he had to report to Luke Field in Arizona as its new commander, so he simply spoke his recollections — 90,000 words — onto wax cylinder recording devices.*

Three days! God Is My Co-pilot became a best seller.

*The quotation is from his obituary in the New York Times.

587. Back to the Garden

Since summer, I have been working on reviewing the fifteen novels I chose as my favorites, and one thing has emerged. They nearly all have a rural or wild setting.

The exceptions are Heinlein and the Lensman series, both of which take place in completely civilized futures, and Dickens’s Christmas Carol, with its pre-modern urban setting.

The other twelve, whether past, contemporary, or future, are rigidly non-urban. Two take place at sea, three take place in variant, rural Englands, three take place in purely fantasy worlds, either wild or bucolic.

Davy Balfour spent his adventure crossing wild Scotland, and Roy Craig fought a wilderness so fierce that it threw off human domination.

Highland Laddie Gone takes place in modern America, but in a rural setting where the protagonists are pretending to recreate ancient Scotland. Part of A Prince of the Captivity takes place in an urban setting, but its soul and much of its action take place on an icecap, in the Alps, in the wasteland of war, and in wild places that exist only in Adam Melfort’s imagination.

If this were just my weird preference in books, it wouldn’t be worth a post, but it is much more than that. It is a reflection of recent history.

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Americans went to war in the forties. Those who came back changed the world. While England languished, half crippled as a result of the war, America exploded into the future. Freeways, cars that looked like jet planes, and housing tracts all emerged. Stamped tin toys were out; plastic was in.

The past (westerns were everywhere) and the present (endless spy stories) fought for dominance as the paperback revolution swept the nation.

While America was rushing forward technologically and outgrowing its landmass, some of the former generation were looking backward. A lot of young writers were looking to the future and seeing a post-nuclear age of Armageddon that was a replay of bad times past.

Some turned to fantasy. Ballantine gave us masses of books dug up from the actual past of literature, portraying pasts that never were, but which we all thought should have been. Tolkien became the king of backward looking nostalgia.

Two-thirds of my fifteen favorites were drawn from this anti-urban movement.

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I grew up on a farm, but most of my generation was urban. And rich, in comparison to any previous generation of youth. And they had the pill — which changed life a lot more than computers ever will. Sex, drugs and rock and roll. I missed all that, back in my Baptist-farmer world.

Then I got to college. I went from being marginal to my home town to being a marginal hippie. I agreed with most of their ideas, but I had no confidence that they would pull them off. And they didn’t. They stopped the war, but it wasn’t a clean victory. Nixon kept Viet Nam on life support long enough to win a second term.

By that time a new craze had hit; everybody wanted to go back to the land. I had waded through too much cow manure to buy into that.

I eventually went back to the land in a different way. I retired from teaching and bought a house on three acres in the Sierra foothills. Here I can see turkeys, deer, coyotes and an occasional bobcat walk past the picture window of the air conditioned shed where I write. I don’t raise crops, just novels.

A decade after the back-to-the-land crew had moved back to the cities, I wrote a novel, Raven’s Run, and put my opinions into the mouth of one of my characters, Rusty Dixon. For the record, he cusses more than I do.

Then along came the sixties. Some of us went off to Viet Nam and landed in pot heaven. Other kids my age went down to the cities and became hippies. When all that peace and love shit started to fall apart, a big bunch of hippies, lots of them from San Francisco and L.A., decided the new big thing was to go ‘back to the land’. ‘Course most of them had never been on the land, so they weren’t really going back to it. If they had, they’d have known better. I mean, I never saw any kid raised on a farm that went in for that shit.

It doesn’t take much insight to realize that the back-to-the-land movement, as well as Tolkien and his imitators, were moved my the same impulse. The modern eco-generation is singing the same tune, whether they understand it or not. It is a universal human hymn. For all of them, the future looks bleak and the past looks better than it really was.

Personally, I still have more faith in the future than in the past, but that twenty year spree of fine anti-urban and fantasy novels that came after World War II is still a pleasure to read.

585. A Life of Reading

Trying to write a post on The Road to Corlay has turned out to be tough. I remember the book clearly, and I didn’t remember it at all. That is, I remember how I felt when I read it. I remember the feel of its countryside, and the slow grace of its human interactions, but I can’t remember one name, and can hardly remember one scene. I would drop the whole thing, but I “made my brag” by posting the list early. I need to read Corlay again, but that poses a problem. I don’t have the time.

It was scheduled for today, but I’m going to have to postpone it for now.

I retired from teaching about seven years ago and went back to writing full time. I had written quite a few books in the seventies and eighties, before hunger sent me to get a day job, and a few more while I was teaching, but that wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy me. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t about mortality. I plan to live to be a hundred because I’m just too damned busy to die.

The fact is, reading a book is ten times better than watching a movie, but writing a book is fifty times better than reading one. And takes fifty times as long.

Besides the hundred thousand words a modern novel demands, there are the other hundreds of thousands of words you have to go through while getting to the right ones. And there are all those books you have to burrow through looking for just the right bit of information or inspiration to help you understand how that next chapter is supposed to come out.

Just reading a book for fun gets lost somewhere. I read the things I need to read, and late in the evening I read comfort books, like the thirtieth Nero Wolfe, which isn’t that different from the other twenty-nine.

It wasn’t always that way.

I was an only child on a farm in the fifties. We had one black and white TV that got two channels, which my parents watched while I read. Of course I became a reader; what else was there to do. From the time I discovered the county library, there was no time I didn’t have a stack of books awaiting my attention.

But I didn’t talk about it. My mother read occasional romance novels but she didn’t talk about it. My dad read the Bible, but he didn’t talk about it. The habit started early.

I read books about hunting and outdoor life. I lived outdoors, but on a tractor. I never hunted, barely fished, and I had never seen a tent. The real outdoors wasn’t for play, it was for work, and that didn’t satisfy me.

Looking back, I know that the place I lived as a boy was rather lovely, in a muted sort of way. It was farm country, lightly populated by humans, but with plenty of birds, and occasional coyotes and possums. Nevertheless, every patch of ground was either under the plow or turned into grazing land. There was nothing truly wild. I wanted forests and streams, fish and game, and snow, along with the freedom to wander through them.

It was all available in books, along with a thousand other adventures all over the globe.

My school mates read because they had to read — but nobody talked about it. Nobody read science fiction. Nobody wanted to know any more about science than they were required to. I was reading and studying continuously, preparing to head for college to be a scientist — but I didn’t talk about it, because no one else really wanted to know.

When I got to college, one of my roommates was a science fiction fan. We talked about it, but only a little. By then, my habit of silence was pretty well set.

A lifetime later I started this blog. It’s the first time I’ver really talked about the books I love and why I love them, right here, talking to you —

Hi. You see, there was this book called The Road to Corlay . . . but I guess we’ll just have to chat about that later.

583. Mutually Assured Destruction

I taught middle school science for twenty-seven years, and every year I taught the manned space program. It was never called for in the required curriculum, but I always managed to shoehorn it in while still teaching everything I was required to. It wasn’t just because I loved the subject, although I did. There were plenty of things in science that I loved but never mentioned.

The plain fact is that seventh graders don’t listen unless you excite them, and the manned space program was exciting.

Here is a schtick I used in my middle-school classroom all through the eighties and nineties. The subject was, “What motivated Americans who didn’t care about space to spend billions to outrun the Russians in the Space Race?”

I would choose two pushy, self-assured young guys and call them to the front of the room. I would put them face to face, about ten feet apart, and say, “Now, imagine each of you has a .45 automatic, and each of you hates the other one. We’ll call one of you America and the other Russia. I don’t want to insult you, so I won’t say which is which.

“Point your guns at each other. (They would gleefully assume the position.) If either one of you fires, the other will have just time enough to pull the trigger, too. You will both go down. If you sneeze, though, you’re a goner. If you blink, you’re a goner. If you look away, same thing.

“Now hold that pose for fifty years.”

Clearly, I couldn’t get away with that today, but this was pre-Columbine. My kids were thinking about cops and robbers, not  a terrorist who was out to kill them.

Do I have to point out that the guns represented the American and Soviet nuclear armed arsenal of missiles? It was a demonstration of Mutually Assured Destruction, also known by its entirely appropriate acronym MAD. If either side had attained an overwhelming superiority in number of missiles, the delicate balance would have been disrupted. Witness the Soviet’s parading their missiles in Moscow, and taking them several times around the block to look like they had more than they did.

The balance could be disrupted by having missiles closer to the enemy than the enemy did to us. Witness secret American missile bases in Turkey, on the Soviet border, which led them to put missiles in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis was not an unprovoked Soviet threat.

The balance would have also been disrupted by an effective missile defense system. There is no such thing as defensive in the MAD scenario.

What does this have to do with space travel? Two things, one positive and one negative. The entire business was a race for the nuclear high ground. If either side had managed to put an orbital missile platform into orbit, it would have been bad news for the other side. That was not possible, so each side tried to maximize their capabilities in space while proving to the hundred plus other nations on the Earth that they were the firstest with the mostest.

I would repeat that in Russian if I could write Cyrillic.

All this turned into the Space Race, culminating in a manned lunar landing, It’s nice that something good came out of all that nonsense.

The other side of the coin was a reinforcement of fear of nukes, whether it was bombs, powerplants, or space drives. In the fiction of the sixties, the solar system was filled with nuclear powered spacecraft. In the real world, fear killed the idea.

Should we have nuclear spacecraft? I think so, but it isn’t for me to say. It isn’t for you to say, either. It isn’t even for the people to say.

Why? Because we’ve shifted our focus from the Russians to the Chinese.

If history is a guide, we will have a nuclear spacecraft — a few years after the Chinese launch their first one. We’ll be running behind and playing catch-up as usual.

Remember Sputnik?