Tag Archives: science fiction

514. Space Force

As a die-hard space fan you might think I would like Trump’s Space Force idea, but I’m too much wedded to reality. This is just another publicity stunt, although there is a real history behind it.

The Russians had an independent Space Force from 1992 to 1997, and again from 2001 to 2011. Then they gave it up and made it a sub-set of the Russian air force. That’s not as sexy, but it makes more sense. It is also the way we have things organized here in the United States.

The poor Air Force! They have made a career out of trying to make space their domain, only to be slapped in the face by bureaucracy. Do you remember project MISS? No? Nobody else does either. MISS (Man In Space Soonest) was a plan to put a man in a capsule and shoot him into space on top of a converted ICBM. Now does it sound familiar? It was an Air Force project that was handed over to NASA and became Project Mercury.

The Air Force followed up with project Dyna Soar, which would have put a winged vehicle on top of a rocket. It was cancelled because the money was needed for NASA. At the top of the post that is an artist’s impression of Dyna Soar landing at Edwards AFB after a mission.

Then the Air Force designed the Manned Orbital Laboratory, a black program which would have been America’s first space station. Cancelled; this time not by bureaucracy, but because of unexpected advances in unmanned satellites which made it obsolete before it flew.

The Air Force did provide input into the design of the Space Shuttle, and got to do some black missions. What were they? Beats me; they were secret.

The Air Force had a hand in several post-shuttle projects which never went to completion and finally got their own space ship in the X-37b. Sadly, it was unmanned.

As you can see, I’ve been writing a lot about all this. If you click on these four links, you will have a thumbnail history of NASA vs. the Air Force in a battle for space.

Now Trump wants to take space away from the Air Force altogether, but don’t blame him. He probably knows less about this than I do, and I am just an amateur enthusiast. Maybe he should click four times.

Enough of the latest publicity stunt. In Cyan, my explorers coming back from the Procyon system also faced a conflict that had been going on between NASA and a military space force while they were away. Here’s a quote:

All seemed well, on the surface, but something profound was happening to the people of Earth. They were waking up to reality. When interstellar exploration had begun, few had taken it seriously. Now the process was flushed with success, and that success carried the seeds of its own downfall.

Suddenly, all over Earth, people who had been indifferent to space travel, except to mutter about a waste of resources, became truly aware of what was happening. And they didn’t like it. In the vague common mind of the beast, numbers began to move in slow, painful calculations.

A few thousand colonists; billions of the rest of us.

They — the rich, the powerful, the smart, the educated, the lucky — they will go to the stars and walk the green valleys of paradise. We — the downtrodden, the ordinary, the workers, the plodders, the ones who really make things happen, the ones who always get screwed — in short, you and me. We will stay behind.

In the general elections of 2103, and in a hundred scattered elections and revolutions in 2104, the people of Earth turned on their leaders and said with a loud voice that the spacers who brought in the ore from the belt, and the workers of L-5, and especially those who were finding new worlds, were no longer heroic friends but dangerous enemies. They would no longer be given freedom to do as they pleased, but would be harnessed to the common good.

This was the Earth Darwin returned to in 2105. When Tasmeen signaled Ganymede Station, she received a taped reply.

“Welcome home, Darwin. You will find the language of this year somewhat different from when you left. When the Dog Star returned in 2088, we found that it would be best to train comtechs in the jargon of your departure year, and that is the reason for this tape.

“The biggest change you will have to be ready for is that NASA no longer exists … because after the general elections of 2103 the people of North America decided to combine all space efforts into one military organization. You are all now members of the Federated Space Service.”

Tasmeen said, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Yeah, Tasmeen. Me, too.

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513. Heinlein’s Time for the Stars

Yesterday (June 25) I had a request from a reader for advice on which Heinleins to read after Stranger and Starship Troopers. I replied that my favorites were Door into Summer for the old compact Heinleins, Time Enough for Love for the later, long-winded ones, and Time for the Stars among the juveniles.

The exchange reminded me of a post I had written but not published, because I had an excess of Heinlein related posts going at the time. Here it is, slightly updated and finally published.

===============

Time for the Stars is one of my favorite Heinlein juveniles. I am using it here as a foil to Spirit Deer, in talking about core stories.

Spirit Deer was my first novel, written for adults but very short. I later stripped it of wife and adult friends, and turned into a juvenile. It appeared in Serial between June 5th and August 10th of last year. See 364. The Core Story and 398. Summing up Spirit Deer.

If you strip Time for the Stars and Spirit Deer both down to the core, and they are quest stories. The explorers on the torch ship Lewis and Clark are ostensibly seeking knowledge, but for the young communication techs (i.e. telepaths) that quest in inextricably bound up with a search for maturity. Tim, in Spirit Deer, is seeking survival, and a return to normalcy, but he cannot achieve that without finding maturity.

If you haven’t read Time for the Stars (and why haven’t you?), here is a brief summary.

Tom and Pat Bartlett are twin brothers who are part of an experiment to see if telepathy exists. They go along as a joke, and find that it is not a joke. The “secret language” they have used all their lives turns out to actually be telepathy. What they think other people can’t understand, they in fact cannot hear.

The discovery that makes this more than a parlor trick is that true telepaths can communicate long distances — proven as far as Pluto — and their contact does not show a speed of light time lag. Now relativistic starships can go out from star to star without having to return home to bring back their data.

Tom goes to space and Pat, the dominating twin, stays behind. Tom learns to assert his independence, especially as his stay-behind twin ages much more rapidly. The trip is grueling, the exploration dangerous, and eventually Tom returns home, still young while his twin has grown old.

That is all the summary I can give without spoilers, but how much do you need?

The voyage of the Lewis and Clark is a long trip away and a quick return. Tim, in Spirit Deer, has a quick plunge into the wild and a long return. They differ in detail, but the arc is home — away — home again.

There aren’t more than a billion stories with that arc, significantly including the Heinlein juveniles Starman Jones, Tunnel in the Sky, and Have Spacesuit — Will Travel, all of which are excellent. Upon returning home, these story’s characters characters are changed by their experiences. Jones’ life is most changed, with some losses and great gains. Rod Walker of Tunnel finds a career. Kip Russell of Spacesuit gets on with plans for his life, but his options are immensely augmented.

All four are Heinlein at his best.

512. Time Jacks

Beginning last July I wrote a steampunk novel called Cost of Empire. It is presently seeking a home. I am now working on a second but very different steampunk novel called Like Clockwork. Besides being weird, it also insists on being about 65,000 words long. I really don’t know what I’m going to do about that; that would be a happy length for a 70s or 80s novel, but today’s market demands 100,000 words. Writing is easy compared to meeting the artificial needs of publishing, but short or long, LC is nearing completion.

(Of course, the post last Wednesday makes some of this obsolete. That is the problem with writing ahead.)

It is time to start thinking about a new novel. I have a time travel trilogy I began outlining about two years ago, just before Empire demanded to be written. I’ve been looking over my notes from then, to get my head in order before plunging in. At that time, I wrote a short first chapter, just to test things out.

Would you like to see it? I thought so. The novel will be called Time Jacks.

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In the middle of the continent is a state called Kansas, and in the middle of Kansas is a medium sized town devoted to Time.

Near the middle of the town is a university devoted to the study of time, its mathematical nature, manipulation, inviolability (or lack thereof), and philosophical implications. Bleekman University is the most theoretical of all theoretical institutions, where the finest mathematicians and the finest of philosophers meet and attempt to understand each other, while both are trying to understand Bleekman’s legacy.

On a lintel stone over the entrance to the campus is an engraving of Bleekman’s Theorem. It takes one hundred seventeen symbols, some of which are seen nowhere else in the history of human thought, and some of which are still disputed by those mathematicians and philosophers.

There are three other institutions in Bleekman — surely you guessed that would be the name of the town. Near the university on the north is the Institute of Applications, where the knowledge brought back from alterlines is studied before it is released to the world at large. Scholars at the Institute ask, ”How does it work?” and “What use can we make of it?”

Scholars at Bleekman University do not care for such questions. They spend their time — that statement is almost a pun in itself — poking about on the edges of the Universal Why, knowing that they will never penetrate to its core.

Scholars from the Institute and from the University rarely talk to each other. That may be fortunate for mankind. Opinions differ on this matter.

South of both is “The Academy”. It has a longer name, but no one uses it. Here the brightest and best from all over the Earth come to become Time Agents. Ten thousand are admitted each autumn, having been previously winnowed by harsh competitive examinations. After three years, a few hundred become technicians and a few dozen become agents.

As you might expect, the graduates are a cocky lot.

[I left space here for several paragraphs I wasn’t yet ready to write.]

Oh, you noticed? Not surprising, really. I mentioned the University and three other institutions, then only told you about two.

In the center of Bleekman is a dome, a hundred meters high and a thousand meters across. You can see it from space, but I can’t tell you much more than that. Agents go in through the dome’s only entrance and a year or so later they come out, changed forever. Within the dome are the mechanisms of transference, which anyone is welcome to understand. Just study Bleekman’s Theorem, and good luck to you.

There are many other exits from the dome, but they are all in other timelines; alterlines, most people call them. This Bleekman, this Kansas, this Earth, and this universe constitute the homeline.

Time agents go through the dome to various elsewheres and bring back treasure. They go with the courage of a lion and the stealth of a mouse, changing nothing, and stealing nothing but knowledge.

That is all I can tell you. No one knows more, except for the few who have passed the entrance exams and the three years of winnowing that produces time agents.

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Okay, it’s clearly a rough draft, but I like where it is going. This will be fun.

511. Novel or Novella

If you don’t know about <tor.com>, it is a high quality on-line magazine of science fiction. For years they were one of the few places which would take unagented submissions for short stories, although they have recently changed that policy. They have been mostly closed to novellas as well, but they still have occasional open periods, and one has just begun.

Since most submissions end in, “Try again elsewhere,” I have not previously mentioned any of my own submissions in this blog. However this opening for novellas has brought up some things I want to talk about. Again (see also 146. Novella 1).

Before we begin, here is a piece of information. SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America), the professional organization which awards the Nebulas, breaks stories into these categories:

short story    under 7,500 words
novelette       7,500 – 17,500 words
novella         17,500 – 40,000 words
novel            40,000 words and up

In the last few years, most people would add very short, or flash fiction, to this list.

I have been working since January on a novel called Like Clockwork, but it has been fighting back. It wants to be 65,000 words long. That would be just right for a submission in the 1970s or ’80s, but is too short to sell in today’s market, unless you are self-publishing.

I’m not. I have considered it seriously, but it calls for a skill set that I don’t have, and don’t want. So I continued soldiering on, hoping for inspiration. Then I became aware of the novella opening at Tor (dot) com, which left me with a choice — try to make Like Clockwork longer than it wanted to be, self-publish it at its natural length, or cut it drastically to create a novella.

My own first publication was a novella, To Go Not Gently in Galaxy in 1978. It was roughly the first third of the novel A Fond Farewell to Dying which I was then in the process of writing.

Cutting TGNG out of FFTD was easy. There was a natural break in the action that allowed me to end the story without leaving the reader feeling cheated.

Cutting Like Clockwork down to size would be another matter; I would have to remove about a third of the book. That would be painful, but would not be a new situation. The floor under my computer is already metaphorically knee deep with good writing that didn’t fit into various novels.

First I had to cut out a long section that took place before the main story. That was easy enough, except that it meant dribbling the necessary backstory into the rest of the book a sentence here and a paragraph there. Smoothly, you understand, and without letting the seams show.

There were four main characters and four lesser characters in Like Clockwork, all paired off. One pair had to be dropped. Some of the things that they did for the plot had to be shoehorned into the lives of the remaining pairs. Smoothly; without letting the seams show.

Much was lost. The Great Babbage, companion to the Great Clock, simply went away. It was reduced to a couple of off-hand references, and that really hurt.  Altogether, it took me a month to chew 65,000 words down to 39,000 words. I submitted it earlier this week, retitled The Clock That Ate Time.

Will you be reading it soon? The writer’s psychotic optimism says yes, but I didn’t destroy any of the files that I cut, and everything that was removed can always be restored if necessary.

That’s my recent history, but it is only worth telling because it points out a larger problem.

Only certain lengths of story can find a market in today’s world. There are homes for flash fiction and for short stories, and novellas can occasionally find their place, but the lengths between 40,000 words and about 90,000 words reside in a wasteland. That is really unfortunate, since most of the best novels in the history of science fiction were in that range.

It’s all a matter of fashion. The best of today’s science fiction would have been rejected unread as too long to publish just a few decades ago.

To put it bluntly, then and now both stink if you have a good story that is the wrong length.

All this is somewhat malleable but there are stories that need to be a certain length. If you are a young writer, this profiling by story length is one more reason self publishing may be your future.

506. The Great American Read

The Great American Read or
What is that book doing on the list,
and where is my favorite?

If you want to start a fight, make a list of great books, then step back while every reader on Earth disagrees with you.

When the Great American Read was announced, I couldn’t wait to see the list. I love lists of great books. It turned out, however, that these weren’t great books, but favorite books. That is a major distinction. Great books or influential books would include the Koran, The Wealth of Nations, Das Kapital, and a raft of works everybody has heard of, but few have read. That list would not include Fifty Shades of Grey or The Martian.

It reminded me of a collection called Best Remembered Poems which included a selection of Purple Cow poems but did not contain Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress. Popularity and quality are different categories.

As I worked my way deeper into the GAR, I found that the original list of 100 came from a group of readers carefully selected for diversity. That’s all very twenty-first century, but it is likely to find oddball books as well as good ones.

Not that I am complaining. If I made a list of my 100 favorite books, no one would else like all of them either. That’s just the nature of the game.

The GAR people ask, “Which book is your favorite?” I read the list and didn’t find my favorites. A Wizard of Earthsea wasn’t there, which was criminal, but not surprising. Kidnapped wasn’t there, nor was anything else by Robert Louis Stevenson. That was surprising. What about Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

As a side note, in 2014 The Guardian did a list of the 100 best novels and Kidnapped came in number 24.

So I looked at the list and started to make notes.

There were 8 books I had read and liked — Tom Sawyer, The Call of the Wild, The Count of Monte Cristo, Dune, The Hunt for Red October, The Lord of the Rings, Siddhartha, and The Sun Also Rises. None of these were my favorites, and only Tom Sawyer and Siddhartha would be runners-up for that title.

I won’t identify those I didn’t read or didn’t like, but . . .

There were 4 I read but didn’t like.
There were 4 I read part way through and tossed.
There were 3 I knew enough about to avoid.
There were 2 I read, but found them to be nothing special.
There were 8 I had not read, but I had read other books by the same author. This included authors I had liked and ones I had disliked.
There were 3 which were on my to-read list. I subsequently read one of these and demoted it to nothing special.

There was also one book — Moby Dick — that I read as a child in an abridged version, and plan to read in its entirety when I have a spare decade.

Looking at my tally, you might think I’m picky. That’s probably true, but there are a thousand books in my read-and-liked category that weren’t on this list. I just don’t seem to read what everybody else reads.

How about you? There is a reply button at the top of the post.

———:::———

The original question was, what is your favorite. For me, out of this list, it would be The Adventures of Tom SawyerThe Lord of the Rings beats it for scope, The Sun Also Rises beats it for gravitas, but it seems to me the only way to choose from such a varied list is to judge a book on how well it does what it sets out to do. For that, TS beats them all.

If I didn’t have to choose from their hundred, I think I would choose The Old Man and the Sea.

505. Heinlein and the Hippies

I have come to realize the value of a post title in finding readers, but I try to avoid bait and switch. To provide a balancing bit of honesty, this isn’t about the effect Stranger in a Strange Land had on the Free Love generation, but on the relationship between Heinlein and one particular group of hippies, the Jefferson Airplane, aka the Jefferson Starship.

For the relationship of hippies to Stranger, see 160. Stranger in a Strange Land. That way I don’t have to tell you again that I read it early and found it to be a dud.

As for me, I was a half-way hippie. I opposed the war, grew a beard, let my hair go long, and dressed in rumpled casual. The wild, multi-colored garb of TV hippies was largely a media invention. Real hippies wore Army surplus because it was cheap, which was also one of my sartorial motivations.

However, I didn’t do drugs and I was in the wrong place in the wrong time. My college roommate spent the Summer of Love in California; I spent it looking for archaeological sites in the backwoods of Michigan. He told me all about it when he came back in the fall; I had been out of touch and didn’t even know it had happened.

The only thing I understood as it happened in 1967 was the music, blaring out of the car radio as our survey crew drove around looking for archeology sites. I particularly liked that new group the Jefferson Airplane.

Which brings me to the heart of the post. In 1969, Paul Kantner wrote Heinlein a letter asking permission to quote from his work. I knew this, after a fashion, from contemporary gossip, and it was evident in the lyrics soon after, but I didn’t get confirmation until the second volume of Heinlein’s biography came out (see below). I’ll quote some of Heinlein’s reply:

I am pleased by your courtesy . . . Bits and pieces from my stories have been used by many people . . . and it is rare indeed for anyone to bother to ask my permission.

Heinlein gave permission and went on to ask for some autographed albums in return, since he was a fan of their work. Who knew?

The album Blows Against the Empire came out about a year later, by Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship. Despite the title. it was actually a compendium band filling in the time between the breakup of Jefferson Airplane and its later rebirth as Jefferson Starship.

It would be impossible to overstate how much music from this era was fueled by LSD. If you seek out the full lyrics, you’ll see how many drug references I have left out of what follows:

from the cut Hijack

You know – a starship circling in the sky – it ought to be ready by 1990
They’ll be building it up in the air ever since 1980
People with a clever plan can assume the role of the mighty
And hijack the starship
Carry 7000 people past the sun
And our babes’ll wander naked thru the cities of the universe

7000 Gypsies swirling together
Offering to the sun in the name of the weather
Gonna hijack – hijack the starship

from the cut Starship

Out – the one remaining way to go
Free – the only way to fall
The light in the night is the sun
And it can carry you around the planetary ground
And the planetary whip of the sun

Mankind gone from the cage
All the years gone from your age

If you are at all familiar with Heinlein, you will recognize that this imagery is from the novel Methuselah’s Children, originally serialized in 1941, which was also the first appearance of Lazarus Long. Of course Kantner reworked it. The hijackers are not Howards fleeing for their lives, but drug-fired hippies whose faith in everything turning out well is a bit laughable in hindsight.

Like all the first half dozen Jefferson Airplane or Starship albums, I loved it. If you are younger than old, there is an excellent change that you’ve never heard music that shows the spirit of innovation and experimentation that was the hallmark of the 60’s. The music that appears on TV flashback programming is fine stuff, but it is also the tame stuff. The raw stuff doesn’t get replayed.

If you are curious, give this album an online listen, although you may not care for it.

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Robert A. Heinlein, vol. 2, The Man Who Learned Better by William H. Patterson, Jr, p. 312. FYI, the subtitle does not refer to a change of heart by Heinlein, but is RAH’s idea of one of the three or four basic plots in fiction, and one he often used.

503. Colliding Conventions

On the fourth of July weekend in 1939, the first World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) was held in New York City. 200 people attended. It has met yearly since, except during WWII.

Despite its name, Worldcon didn’t leave the United States until 1948, when it was held in Toronto. It didn’t leave North America until 1957 when it was held in London. It didn’t leave the English speaking world until 1970 when it was held in Heidelberg.

Worldcon is best known for the fact that it gives out the Hugo Awards.

In 1948 the LA Science Fantasy Society started a west coast convention (Westercon) for those who couldn’t afford to go east for Worldcon. This competing event also meets yearly.

In those years when Worldcon meets outside North America, a North American Science Fiction Convention (NASFiC) is held somewhere in the US.

This year’s Worldcon 76 will be held in San Jose, California August 16-20. In 2019, Worldcon will be held in Dublin, Ireland, so a NASFiC should be held. The bid, which will be decided in San Jose, is for Layton, Utah on July fourth weekend.

This year’s Westercon starts tomorrow in Denver. Next year it will be in Utah — Layton, Utah, to be precise.

Yes, you did see them palm that ace.

In 2019, Westercon, which began as an alternative to Worldcon, and NASFiC, which occurs only when Worldcon is somewhere else in the world, will be the same convention. I wonder how that is going to work out?

Just fine, I would imagine.

I attended Westercons 33 and 34 in Los Angeles and Sacramento shortly after my first two novels came out. I attended Westercon 70 in Tempe last year just after Cyan was published.

In preparation for that convention, I made eighteen posts here on a number of subjects that would be covered on panels in Tempe. If you missed them, or if you want to see “How to Build a Culture” which I presented at Westercon 34, click on Westercon in the menu bar at the top of this page.

This year I am skipping Westercon 71, Denver, for my first Worldcon, just down the hill a hundred miles or so in San Jose. This should be fun.