Tag Archives: science fiction

533. A Writer Lives for Libraries (2)

Readers today are contemptuous of Tom Swift and his kind, and with good reason. I had loved those books up to my first day in the library because they were all I had. They had filled lots of hours with lots of entertainment, and had opened me up to worlds beyond the farm.

Once I had access to libraries, I took home real books, mostly science fiction, and things would never be the same. With my first book, I met a real writer; Andre Norton had something to say, and she said it with grace and style. Ultimately, I would find Heinlein, Zelazny, Dickson, Le Guin, and hundreds of others beyond science fiction. But Norton was the first and she taught me how to write. Almost sixty years later I still hear the echo of her style in my writing.

In full disclosure, the county library I’m talking about was not quite my first library. My class in grade school – all eight of us – were the last to haunt a building that had housed three hundred students before my town shrank. We discovered a disused closet that still held the books that had once been the library, and there I read my first book for adults, Thomas Costain’s The Black Rose.

The county library in Claremore was where my heart and soul lived, but I also had a dalliance with the library in Collinsville. It was an old, small, red brick building donated by Andrew Carnegie. If you have passed through small town America, you’ve probably seen one just like it. Carnegie libraries all look the same.

That was where I discovered one of the great secrets of life: libraries are time machines. I don’t mean that they have books on history. I mean that they never have enough money, so they never throw anything away. In Collinsville in the sixties, the shelves were full of books published during and before World War II. Not only were they about bygone days, the books themselves were actually, physically old. Hundreds of boys, too young to fight, had sat in that library reading the Dave Dawson war books that I now held in my hands twenty years later.

The same actual books. Match that, ebooks!

So I learned to re-read, and to treasure books from eras past. I still read John Buchan regularly, holding my nose at his imperialism and racism.

While digging through the books at home, I found one rare treasure, Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle, published in 1911. Yes, the taser book, although I couldn’t know that because this was long before tasers were invented.

My grandfather, who lived in Florida and whom I saw only once a year, had read this Tom Swift (Sr.) book fifty years earlier, and he was the one who sent me my first Tom Swift Jr. many years later. Wow!

Libraries are great, but everybody needs to have a stack of books of his own. more on Monday

Advertisements

532. A Writer Lives for Libraries (1)

A bit of this was published in very early posts, but it has been completely rewritten.

A writer lives for libraries.

If you want to be a surgeon, there are a hundred textbooks you will have to read. If you want to be a lawyer, the reading list is even longer. If you want to be a novelist, however, you don’t read textbooks, or how-to books. Oh, you can, but beyond the basics, they are worthless.

If you want to be a writer, you have to read whole libraries.

Of course, for a minimal amount of money, you can live on e-books, and know everything about what people think in 2018. If you want a broader education — if you want to know what people were talking about in 1988, or 1908, or 1758, you need libraries.

(The primary exception to this rule is Project Gutenberg, which I recommend without reservations. Check out this, and this, and especially this.)

I didn’t have access to libraries when I grew up. I was born on a faraway planet called Oklahoma in the fifties, on a farm three miles outside the nearest town, and that town was tiny. We had no plumbing at first and the wind blew through the walls in the winter. Don’t get me wrong; I loved life on the farm, and it wasn’t poverty. This was normal life at the edge of the world on the edge of the modern era.

I learned to read from Little Golden Books. They were cheap, available at the local dry goods store (local means twenty miles away), and Dr Seuss wasn’t writing yet. When I was about ten, my grandfather sent me a copy of Tom Swift Jr. and his Outpost in  Space for my birthday. I was instantly hooked.

We lived midway between three towns, which we visited frequently. If you farmed in the fifties, you spent half your time farming and half your time fixing broken machinery. That takes replacement parts, and that means a trip to the John Deere dealer.

Every time we went to town, my great-grandfather would give me a quarter. Tom Swift Jr., the Hardy Boys mysteries, and Rick Brant adventure books all cost a dollar each. I bought a book every fourth trip. Looking back, most of these books were terrible, but a few were gems.

When I was about twelve my mother dropped my father off to buy parts, then drove to the other end of town and took me into the county library. I had never seen a library and was barely aware that they existed. I almost fell out of my work boots. It was a big room with tables down one side, and ten double shelves of books down the other.

“Library, where have you been all my life?”

The nice lady librarian typed up a temporary library card and told me I could only have one book the first time. She would be a big part of my life until I left for college and I still remember her face, but I never knew her name.

My mother was waiting, so I quickly picked up a book. It was Andre Norton’s Star Man’s Son, and my fate was sealed. more on Wednesday

529. Dystopia Lost

A few days ago, as I was working on Like Clockwork, a matter came up that calls for sharing a thought. Many dystopian stories end in a catastrophe. This is particularly true in movies, where special effects are always a temptation. Walls fall, the city burns, people flee or die, and the old order is disrupted or brought down. End of story.

Things haven’t quite worked out that way in Like Clockwork, although some of that is certainly on the horizon in my pocket London. I know this because I have already written the bulk of the first half and the bulk of the second half, and now I’m trying to stitch up the middle.

Hemmings — who used to be called Helmsman, and before that was called Bartleby after the scrivener, and who may still have another new name before I’m finished — has just destroyed the God he worships, metaphorically speaking. No problem, it happens all the time, but now he has destroyer’s remorse.

I didn’t expect that, as I sent him out to (deleted to avoid spoiler). It is a peculiarity of the way I think, that every time one of my characters does something I ask myself, “What would happen now in the real world?” Not what would Heinlein do, or what would Zelazny do, or what would Neal or Neil do, but what would Life do?

I can’t imagine Hemmings doing what he just did and getting away clean. He would certainly have to wring his hands and cry, “What have I done?”

When you burn down the church, metaphorically, there is no way to avoid ending up hip deep in ashes. To quote yesterday’s draft, “God had hurled Lucifer out of heaven; Hemmings had hurled himself out.” Hemmings didn’t expect that, nor the regrets which followed. Neither did I.

Writing is certainly an interesting way to spend your time.

528. Repeat, with Variations

You hear it said — author Joe Doakes has written the same book thirty times. The phrase is sometimes supercilious and often has more than a touch of envy hidden in it. The implication is, “Hell, I could do that.”

True confession: I couldn’t. Sometimes I feel good about that, and sometimes I wish I could do that, because repetition is one of the main paths to $ucce$$. I keep telling myself it is not the only path.

If you are, or want to be, a writer, you should examine this notion from the viewpoint of a reader, standing in front of a shelf of books, with only enough money and time to buy and read one of them.

The one with the naked woman catches your eye (male viewpoint assumed; for alternate gender, insert your own preference) but you’ve been burned by that advertising gimmick before. One looks likely, but you’ve never read anything by that author before, so you hesitate. If you could find a book by a favorite author, you would be reassured. If you could find a book by your favorite author, featuring a favorite character, your satisfaction would be almost certain.

It’s that simple. In addition, the author has the advantage of not having to invent a new main character for each book. It might be that finding something new for an old character to do would become tedious, but I can’t report on that from personal experience. No wonder publishers want books that can become the first of a new series.

We are talking about comfort food books here; true escapist reading for the times when you want to think, but only just a little. Television substitutes. Something for the long-haul trucker to read at night to take his mind off the fact that his wife is two thousand miles away, and what he would really like to be doing is . . .; you get the picture.

For me, during my first twenty years of writing, my go-to escape was Louis L’amour. I was writing science fiction and fantasy; he was writing westerns. He didn’t exactly write the same book fifty times. If he had, I couldn’t tell his good ones from his bad ones, and he had both. (Read Flint or Conagher, but avoid The Haunted Mesa.)

After beating my head against the typewriter (this was pre-computer) for a few hours, I would pick up a Louis L’amour western and ride off across the plains. Thoughts of interstellar travel were banished until the imagination well refilled itself. It was good stuff, but I don’t read him much any more. I have them all memorized.

I also have Heinlein in the photo at the top, which is a little unfair. He was not guilty of writing the same novel over and over (people who have only read from the second half of his career may disagree), but he only had one character. Male, female, both alternating, old, young — it didn’t matter. Every one was the Heinlein character, so if you liked one of his books, you were likely to like the rest. And if not, not.

The Travis McGee books are a clinic in how to do a series character who can continue to repeat with variations. No one ever did branding as well as John D. MacDonald. Every book contained a color in the title. He wrote The Deep Blue Good-by, Nightmare in Pink, A Purple Place for Dying, the Quick Red Fox, and seventeen more shades. You could recognize a McGee book from across the bookstore. MacDonald’s biography was titled The Red Hot Typewriter. In it, he explained that before he committed to the series, he wrote the first two novels to see if he could stand to be married to McGee for decades. For more, see 49. The Green Ripper.

The Spencer novels belong here as well. I read with pleasure through the first ten or so; each one was reasonably unique and expanded his character. The next thirty were increasingly dreary repetitions; they provided a quick escape and as quickly faded from memory. I still occasionally re-read one of the early novels, but the rest were all one-and-done.

Today, when the writing stalls, I rinse my mind out with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I can’t say I really like them, but I always know what to expect.

527. Jack of Shadows

This is one of the fifteen that hit the sweet spot. Actually, almost anything by Zelazny belongs on somebody’s best-of list.

If you haven’t read Roger Zelazny, it’s time to start. The border between science fiction and fantasy is his domain, and nobody explores in better than he does.

Zelazny’s magnum opus is the Amber series, ten books detailing the story of Prince Corwin and his family and enemies — frequently the same people. You might start with Nine Princes in Amber, but then you will find yourself hooked, with nine more books to read before you can rest.

He also has a number of stand-alone novels, any one of which would be a proper place to begin to experience Zelazny. To name a few, in publication order:

This Immortal
The Dream Master
Isle of the Dead
Jack of Shadows
To Die in Italbar
Doorways in the Sand
Bridge of Ashes
Eye of Cat

There are also a half dozen between Bridge of Ashes and Eye of Cat which, in my opinion, don’t stack up to the rest. I’ve read and reread all of the above and a few more, along with numerous of his short stories. They always seem to be lurking in the Best Of . . . anthologies.

Isle of the Dead is probably my favorite among the stand-alones, followed closely by Eye of Cat, but as a recommendation for a Zelazny newbie I give you Jack of Shadows. It is close on the heels of the previous two in quality, and it is a more typical Zelazny. If you like Jack of Shadows as well as I do, you’re probably ready to take the big leap into the seemingly endless Amber books. Just make sure you don’t start out of order or it will drive you nuts. Check out the bottom of this post for details.

Jack, our (anti) hero begins his tale at his execution.

His planet is tidally locked with it’s sun like scientists used to think Mercury was. One side is constantly in day and the other constantly in night. Ah, you say, science fiction. Don’t jump to any conclusions. The daysiders are quite scientific, but the nightsiders are denizens of magic. Jack derives his power from shadow, so he is a creature of both and of neither, which is a very Zelaznyesque thing to be.

Nightsiders are immortal, but can be killed. Upon death, they are reborn in the Dung Pits of Glyve, which is at the middle of the nightside of the planet. That is where Jack finds himself shortly after the story begins, and the novel is basically the tale if Jack working his way back past innumerable enemies, to freedom, revenge, questionable redemption, and a cliffhanger ending.

Almost every review, and there are many of them, tells the whole story in brief. But why would you want to know if you plan to read it yourself? I won’t be party to cheating you like that.

If you decide to take the big leap into the Amber series, here is a list to keep you in proper order. There are two sets of five novels, the first being the story of Corwin:

Nine Princes in Amber
The Guns of Avalon
Sign of the Unicorn
The Hand of Oberon
The Courts of Chaos

The second set is the story of his son Merlin.

Trumps of Doom
Blood of Amber
Sign of Chaos
Knight of Shadows
Prince of Chaos

Neither set of novels comes to a proper conclusion. Zelazny was still writing them when he passed. We can imagine that he is somewhere in a luxurious room in Castle Amber, close enough to hear Random’s drumming, writing the ninety-second installment for the amusement of the immortals.

Aside for those old enough to have read Amber when it was being written: Did anybody else out there think the title of book one was a mashup of Nine Princes Waiting and Forever Amber and the second book title a spin on The Guns of Navarone, three best sellers of that era? Considering Zelazny’s sense of humor, it could be.

526. The Read Me Function

Never judge a book by its cover.

Sage advice, but largely meaningless. Covers sell books. A friend of a friend who writes romance eBooks advised me, if I ever published that way, to make sure that the cover looked like all the other covers for the same kind of book. She wasn’t talking about how good the cover looked. She was talking about branding. Did the cover scream at the top of its voice Romance, or Science Fiction, or Zombie Book.

I understood exactly what she meant, from sad experience. The cover for A Fond Farewell to Dying has an angel with a trumpet calling what appear to be dead folks out of some boxes. It fit the story only by a massive stretch of imagination, but it did look like one of those End of the World books that used to be popular. I found it once on a spinner rack of Christian books. Somebody got a surprise when they got home that night.

At least it used to be that you could pick up a paperback and read the blurb, but that is usually wildly inaccurate. The only hope you had, in the days when people went to bookstores and actually handled the books they were about to buy, was to read.

Imagine that.

Usually, the first few pages would tell you if you wanted to continue. That is why every how-to-write book you’ve ever read stresses making the first page great. That also works for selling manuscripts. If the first page is terrible, no reader or editor will ever read page two. Of course, there are fifty other hoops to jump through between a good first page and a sale.

At least a good first page might sell a book once it’s published and on the newsstand. The reader won’t come to hate you until he has slid into bed, with the light burning, and then finds out that everything goes south after page fourteen. All tucked in and nothing to read; and out a few dollars besides. Grrrrr.

So what do you do if you buy on line? You use the Read Me function, of course.

Technology giveth and technology taketh away, and the Read Me function is a pure gift. It’s like thumbing through the first pages of a novel by a new author in the newsstand to see if you like him (or her), but without the clerk giving you the stink eye. And you can do it in the comfort of your own home. It’s heaven.

It’s amazing how many books I haven’t bought, because of the Read Me function.

525. Highland Laddie Gone

This is one of the fifteen that hit the sweet spot.

Of all the books on my best list, this is the weirdest, hands down. It sings, but its song belongs on a Ray Stevens album. Highland Laddie Gone by Sharyn McCrumb is the funniest book in history, or an incomprehensible mess, depending on how well you understand the backstory.

Which brings me to my backstory. I am not a Scot, but my wife is. Her mother, a Swede, became more Scottish than the Scots in pursuit of her husband’s culture. I learned to love bagpipe music and appreciate tartans from her. I also got into the habit of going to the local Scottish Games every year, where I found this book in a Scottish book stall.

The Scottish Games are an odd mixture of athletic events, genuine Scottish history, and romantic historical claptrap, with the last being the strongest element. I love them, but I am not fooled about how silly the whole concept is. I like the games like some people like Benny Hill.

The Highland Games are about as realistic as a bunch of modern Virginia women shucking their skinny jeans for hoop skirts and sitting around sipping mint juleps while their husbands reenact the Civil War — and that happens in this book, too.

There is also a Scottish marine biologist who has come over for the summer on a grant to study the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay, only to find out that the man paying the bills really wants him to study Chessie. If you don’t know, Chessie is the Chesapeake Bay equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster.

Our heroine, Elizabeth MacPherson is attending the Glencoe Games, one of the bigger venues. She is naive, slightly overweight, and in love with glamor but can’t quite pull it off. She solves mysteries, although the reader is left wondering how, and she has a wicked tongue for countering catty remarks.

The more I describe Highland Laddie Gone, the more I can’t believe it is one of my favorites. But it is jammed full of the humor of juxtaposition, both linguistic and cultural. There are at least five one-liners per page. Example:

When Elizabeth falls for the visiting biologist’s Scottish accent, she tells him, “I love your rrr’s.”

Taken aback, he replies, “Yes, your arse is rather nice, as well.”

Elizabeth knows the fake Scottishness of the games, but little about historical Scotland, and absolutely nothing about modern Scotland. Cameron, the visiting biologist, has never seen a Game and finds them incomprehensible; he has no interest in history, and all he want to talk about are modern Scottish sports teams. He and Elizabeth spend the entire book talking past each other, with hilarious results.

Then Lachlan, the dealer in fake genealogies and associated trinkets, is killed with a skian dubh, a ceremonial dagger. The call goes out, and the local sheriff is just over the hill at a Civil War reenactment. He tells his troops to stop being dead until he gets back, and heads toward the Game at a gallop in the full dress of a Southern cavalry officer. He sees the death weapon and says, “This will be easy. How many of these things can there be?” The attendees have to tell him that every one of the thousand kilted pseudo-Scotsmen has a skian dubh in his sock.

Elizabeth decides to solve the mystery, and all her friends push her this way and that, hoping she will find the clues they are directing her toward. Eventually, she does find the killer, but she never has a clue of what has actually been going on.

The  joy of this book is all in the one-liners. I’ve given you a few; there are hundreds more in HLG, but you might miss many of them if you don’t know the Games or the Reenactments.

If this sounds like fun, but you are only into science fiction, you might try Bimbos of the Death Sun or Zombies of the Gene Pool in which McCrumb takes on science fiction conventions.