Tag Archives: science fiction

481. Asimov’s Good Life

I couldn’t sleep last night so I lay awake thinking of an article to write and I’d think and think and cry at the sad parts. I had a wonderful night.
                         Asimov, from It’s Been a Good Life, p. 157

When I was new to reading science fiction in the early sixties, Clarke, Heinlein, and Asimov were everybody’s big three. Bradbury was in the next rank, but not for me. I found him unreadable. Andre Norton was still out in the cold for most people, but she, Clarke, and Heinlein were my personal big three. Asimov didn’t make the cut. I read a few of his novels, didn’t like them, and moved on.

Recently I ran across his summary autobiography, It’s Been a Good Life, edited by Janet Jeppson Asimov. It reminded me that I knew very little about the man, so I took it home.

Asimov has three full autobiographies, and a list of publications that goes on for eighteen closely packed pages. After his death, Janet Asimov published autobigaphical excerpts under the title It’s Been a Good Life. At 238 sprightly pages, 98 percent by Asimov himself, it was just right for someone who wanted to be fair to an author who is an acknowledged master.

Searching my memory and his bibliography, I found that I had read four of his novels: Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter, The Stars Like Dust, and a couple of his early robot novels, each only a few years after they were published. I thought the first two were just adequate and the robot novels were dull. By the time I got to Foundation, I decided to skip it, along with anything else he might write. My local county library was full of science fiction I enjoyed, so why bother with Asimov.

It occurs to me now that might have been an error.

Asimov says (p. 143) The 1950’s [were] the decade of my greatest science-fiction triumphs, [but as] the 1950’s ended, I [ended] most of my involvement with the field. (see below)

From 1960 onward, Asimov wrote everything on every subject. It seemed to me that he had written every third book in the library. I dived into one or another from time to time doing research for my own writing. They were accurate, easy to read, and cursory, which is exactly what they were supposed to be.

When the novel The Gods Themselves came out in 1972 it was his first SF novel in fourteen years. (Not counting one novelization of a movie.) He had gone from SF novels, to non-fiction, then back to SF novels as a more mature writer. That was a biographical arc I couldn’t appreciate when I was first reading him as a teenager, for the simple reason that it had not happened yet. When it did, I had already lost interest. Not trying his new works, given his reputation, was certainly my mistake

By the eighties he was writing SF novels and winning awards once again. In 1989, he wrote Nemesis. He said this about it, “My protagonist was a teenaged girl and I also had two strong adult women characters. I placed considerably more emotion in the novel than was customary for me.” That sounds more my style, since lack of emotion was my complaint about his early work. I think I’ll check it out.

One last note for writers and would-be writers: This book is a treasure trove. I agree with pretty much everything he says about writing, but go read it from a man with far more credentials than I have.


The brackets in the quotation are from Janet Asimov. She uses them to give context and continuity to excerpts which would otherwise be unintelligible. It is competently and smoothly done.


Full disclosure time: After completing this post, I obtained a copy and read the first few pages of Nemesis. Sorry, I still don’t like Asimov’s writing style, but that’s all right. Not everybody likes Shakespeare, either.


478. Poetic Writing

           People, I think, read too much to themselves; they should read aloud from time to time to hear the language, to feel the sounds.
          Homer told his stories accompanied by the lyre, and it was the best way, I think, to tell such stories. Men needed stories to lead them to create, to build, to conquer, even to survive, and without them the human race would have vanished long ago.
                               Louis L’amour  The Lonesome Gods  pp. 115-116

I am writing this on February 12th, to publish on April 9th. All the slots until then are filled with posts about teaching and space exploration, all tied, more or less, to my teaching novel that is winding down over in Serial.

I have also been reading The Lonesome Gods, for the umpteenth time, where I ran across the quote above. It was timely, since I just stayed up late last night finishing a poem that has been rattling around my computer for about five years, and placed it into a post. It will come out next week, keyed to the anniversary of the event that inspired it.

Old fashioned rhyming poetry can be wonderful, but it often suffers when the poet has to fight to fit content to rhyme. Modern poetry doesn’t seem like poetry at all to me. I often like it for what it has to say, but if you can retype it into your computer minus the return-key strikes, and turn it into a good opening paragraph for a story that never got written, how is that poetry?

Everyone in the world disagrees with me on this, but that’s okay. I’m used to that.

My favorite type of poetry is rhythmic, without slavishly following a pattern. Think Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, or Rabindranath Tagore. I follow their lead, without aspiring to their quality. I am a novelist by moral necessity. Poems just come to me, and not too often.

My favorite type of prose is poetic in its rhythms. L’amour often reaches that peak, but not consistently. The quotation above, about poetic language, doesn’t rise to poetry. The opening paragraphs of Bendigo Shafter do:

          Where the wagons stopped we built our homes, making the cabins tight against the winter’s coming. Here in this place we would build our town, here we would create something new.
          We would space our buildings, lay out our streets and dig wells to provide water for our people. The idea of it filled me with a heartwarming excitement such as I had not known before.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that the content is the American Dream. Also from The Lonesome Gods, this passage strikes me as poetic:

And now I was back to the desert, back to the soaring mountains behind my house, back to the loneliness that was never lonely, back to the stillness that held silent voices that spoke only to me.     p. 202

When I was a new writer, I rested my fevered brain between writing sessions with Louis L’amour, because his westerns were completely different from the fantasy and science fiction I was writing. I learned a lot about poetry from him, along with a lot of cautionary tales about clunkers. I’ll spare you examples of those.

What he says in the top quotation is good advice for writers. Always read your own work aloud.

My writing goes roughly this way. First comes a draft that probably needs a lot of help. The second time through, I translate it into English — that is, I turn beagn into began, and Thmoas into Thomas. Feel free to skip that step if you don’t have dyslexic fingers. Then I run the spell checker. Finally I read it slowly, softly, and always out loud. By this time, my eyes have seen the page several times, but my ears are hearing it for the first time.

The ears will catch what the eyes miss.

472. Teaching Space

I am writing this on February 10, three days after the first launch of Falcon Heavy. I’m impressed by the achievement, and amused by a mannequin in a Tesla floating through space. You would never have seen that during the days of Apollo.

For all the shift from government to private space flight, some things remain the same. All rockets have always been made by private companies, and the primary customer has always been the government. The degree of participation by private industry on the consumption side has changed considerably. Still, if it were not for the government contract to supply the International Space Station, it is unlikely that the original Falcon would have lived long enough to beget Falcon Heavy.

Falcon Heavy is a big deal, but not a total revolution. That doesn’t keep me from doing handsprings at its launch.

I know that teachers all over America are going to be using Falcon Heavy as motivation for their students to work hard and get ready to join the movement into space. Students who are in middle school today will be walking on Mars in thirty years. Any kid who isn’t fired up about that, doesn’t deserve to go.

Exciting tomorrow’s astronauts is the job of science fiction writers and science teachers, as well as those who are doing the actual work of exploration. I’ve been involved in two and a half of those enterprises.

For me it started with science fiction, first Tom Swift, Jr. and Rick Brant, then all the glorious writers of the thirties through the fifties when I finally got access to a real library. By the time I reached my teens about 1960, I was hooked.

That was about the time real astronauts first appeared. (And the time the words astronaut and cosmonaut appeared, so that we had to give up that wonderful word spaceman.) I also became aware of the X-planes, which had been making aerospace history since my birth year. It was an exciting time, culminating in a series of moon landings.

High school kids like me didn’t get to work at NASA, but I did research at the level available to me. Since my two science loves were space and ecology (starting before ecology became part of the public consciousness), I developed an “Ecosystem Operable in Weightlessness” as a junior and continued as a senior with “A Study of the Nutrient Uptake of Chlorella Algae”, both as science fair projects. That is the “and a half” from three paragraphs back. Those got me a summer job as a science intern and got me into college with a scholarship. I started in biology, switched to anthropology, got drafted, survived, went back to grad school then ended up being seduced by writing.

I wrote science fiction. I still do, but for twenty-seven years, a $ad lack of fund$ caused me to also teach middle school science.

Teaching math is teaching math, and teaching history is teaching history. Teaching science, however, is more than passing on skills and information; it is also firing up your students to become future scientists, or at least future citizens who understand and appreciate the role of science in our world. You really need to love your subject to do that, and I did.

It is also an easy subject to generate enthusiasm about. While others are teaching adverbs, food groups, the three branches of government, and quadratic equations, science teachers get to teach about explosions, dead animals rotting at the side of the road, poop, and the exploration of space. I pity my colleagues on a warm day in spring when every eye is out the window. I got to take my students out to throw baseballs into the air and analyze how the baseballs’ trajectories were the same ballistic path as a Redstone rocket with Alan Shepard aboard.

Middle school students are just the right age for this, and I loved teaching them. That probably tells you more about how my mind works that I should admit to.

The exploration of space, if you start about the time of Goddard and carry through Von Braun and his V-2s all the way to the moon, is the story of mankind in the twentieth century. You can’t teach it properly without including World War I and the rise of aircraft, the rise of the Soviet Union, World War II, the Cold War, the promise and danger of nuclear power, and the ugly political motivations behind the glorious achievements of Apollo.

History is a good starting point for firing up young scientists, but it has to be followed by a proper answer to the question, “All right, fine, but what will I get to do.” That part was tough. From the mid-eighties to the turn of the millennium was an era in which manned space exploration was undergoing a drought of imagination, will and accomplishment. Project after project failed to deliver, but those failures were not evident at the outset. Year after year I told my students, “This is your future.” And year after year, those futures faltered and died.

Maybe these non-starters don’t deserve to be remembered, but if you don’t know about the drought, you can’t appreciate the rain that follows. On March 26 and April 5 I’ll explore those projects which began with a flurry of excitement, then died quickly and quietly.

471. Sunshine Blogger Award (2)

JM Williams nominated AWL for the Sunshine Blogger Award, which he and I both consider a chance to give a shout out to bloggers we follow. I started on Monday, and ran long, so here is the rest of the story.

There are four rules to the SBA. I took care of two of them on Monday. The remaining are:

Answer the 11 questions sent by the person who nominated you.
Nominate 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.

I only nominated four blogs, and only wrote three questions. Michael, Thomas, Joaquin and James, the questions are at the bottom, should you chose to accept. (There is no penalty if you don’t. This post will not self destruct.)

 JM Williams’ questions to me were:

1. When did you start writing?   In the early seventies I started by writing a few articles for magazines. I started writing fiction in 1975. not counting the answer to question five.

2. Which genre do you prefer to write? To read?  Fantasy for both.

3. Which genre do you actually write most often? It is about equal between fantasy and science fiction, with a few contemporary novels as well, but only SF seems to sell.

4. What is your favorite piece of work and why? By other writers, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin. From my own work, a short story The Prince of Exile. Of everything I’ve written, that was the only story in which I had no idea where it came from, nor where it was going while I was writing it. On the inspiration-perspiration continuum, it was way to the left.

5. Where is the most interesting place you came up with a story idea? This is not so much a where as a how.

A couple of years before I started writing fiction, I was with my wife in the stacks of a library. I had finished for the night and she was still working, so I took down something to read. The only tolerable book in the area was Beowulf. I flipped it open to a random page and read, “All that lonely winter . . .”

A vision exploded in my head, of a young boy, at an open wind hole in a castle, looking out over a snowy scene. He was living with relatives who had taken him in after his father was killed. They expected him to grow up and avenge his father’s death, but he had no interest in revenge. He just wanted to be left alone.

I saw him and his situation with instant and absolute clarity.

The next day I wrote the first chapter of the novel the incident called out, then put it away. Four years later, it became my third novel, but it remained unfinished for decades. Now it has grown into a three book series, and if I ever find a publisher, I’ll announce it here.

6. If you could win any writing award, which would it be? The Nebula, of course. A Hugo wouldn’t be bad either. I can’t hope for a Nobel Prize since I can’t sing, play guitar, and blow harmonica at the same time.

7. Do you associate with other writers? Are they at the same level as you? My level  is totally weird. I have been published since 1978, but I went unpublished (and unknown) for a long time after, and now am published again. I work strictly alone. I loved meeting writers at Westercon this year, and I love meeting them on the internet, but there is a huge generational gap.

8. What’s one of your writing goals for 2018? I have two actually. I want to see my recently finished steampunk novel find a publisher, and finish the second steampunk novel I am working on now.

9. Are you a plodder or a plotter? 100% plod. I outline very little. When I was a teacher, I was always in trouble because I refused to write lesson plans. I carried everything in my head, and that scared the principal half to death.

10. Where do you currently live, where are you originally from, and have you ever lived in a foreign country? I live in the foothills of central California, on three acres with wild turkeys and bobcats. I grew up on a farm in Oklahoma. In between, I lived in cities and hated it. When I became a teacher, and finally had a dollar in my pocket and summers off, my wife and I spent six summers living in a tent and subsisting on bread and apples, four in Europe and two in Australia. You can go far on little, if you want to badly enough.

11. If you could travel anywhere in the Universe, where would it be and why?   If?  What do you mean if?  I travel everywhere in the Universe I want to. Why else would I be a writer?

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Now the questions for my nominees. Three instead of eleven, and loosely organized at that.

1. List your favorite authors. Length of list is your choice. A reason for the choices would be nice as well.
2. List your favorite books (That’s not the same question, since it it quite possible to have a favorite book by someone with only one great book.) Again, reasons would be nice.
3. List your favorite genres (or sub-genres, if you that works better for you) and tell what you look for as a sign of quality in that particular genre.

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I had a great time doing this exercise, but my nominees may not feel the same way. If they don’t respond, no problem. The reviewers in particular have a tightly formatted product that might not work well with the Sunshine Blogger Award.

The main idea is to send them some new customers.

Shut the Door, Martha!

This is unnumbered because it will be short — not so much a post, as a post script. In Serial today, Neil and Carmen finally make love but they do it off stage. I prefer that, most of the time.

Several reviewers of Cyan complained about the amount of sex in the novel. I don’t understand that. It was absolutely necessary to the story, since Cyan was a description of how the exploration of nearby extra-solar planets might actually happen. Given the isolation the explorers would endure, sex was a essential part of the mix.  Even then, most of the sex takes place off stage or nearly off stage.

This subject came up in a panel at Westercon. I was in the audience, not on stage. The question they were considering was, “When your characters have sex, do you shut the door?” Some did; some didn’t. No one asked me, but unless there is an overriding reason otherwise, I usually shut the door.

Even fictional people deserve some privacy.

A Timely Note

I found it amusing to set my clock to Daylight Savings Time on Sunday, then turn on the computer and write a critical chapter in my new novel about a device called The Great Clock. That entity is also known as The Enemy, The Clock That Swallowed Time, The Clock that Put Time in a Cage, and quite a few other names.

I’m about a third of the way through the book, and it finally has its proper name. It’s called Like Clockwork. Of course. I should have known that from the beginning.

My computer must have been amused as well, because as I was typing in the title of this note, I hit a wrong key and it activated Time Machine, which is Apple’s name for the backup program I use.

Although — can there be any irony without surprise, and can there be any surprise in a multiverse where everything that can happen, must happen?

Yeah, it’s that kind of book. I have a short excerpt scheduled for April 11.

470. Sunshine Blogger Award (1)

The logo above is for the Sunshine Blogger Award, for which JM Williams just nominated A Writing Life. It’s not a HUGO, but a way for bloggers to give a shout out to other bloggers. Thanks JM. I appreciate it.

The rules of the contest (if that’s the right word for it) are:

1.) Thank the person who nominated you in a blog post and link back to their blog.
2.) Answer the 11 questions sent by the person who nominated you.
3.) Nominate 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.
4.) List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo in your post and/or on your blog.

Okay, I’ve done 4 and I’ll do 2 and part of 3 on Thursday. Here come 1 and the rest of 3, all mangled together.

JM Williams who nominated AWL, is a writer with a long list of stories, mostly published electronically, and one anthology of flash fiction, The Adventures of Iric. I mentioned Iric recently in a post about author’s names, and reviewed it positively on Amazon. JW Williams has a new website, and an old one that you might still fall into if you are using a search engine, along with an author page on Amazon.

Our connection came when he liked one of my posts, some time ago. I don’t formally follow any blogs, since my time is limited, but every time someone likes one of my posts, I drop in to their site and look them over. I get a lot of newbies, and a lot of people who are working out problems in the semi-public sphere of the internet.  I like that. I hope this doesn’t sound smart-ass, but it seems to me that baring your soul to the universe, without telling anyone your home address, is a safe way to both vent and find support. I also get likes from a lot of new and would-be authors, and every time I post a poem, I snare a lot of poets.

I end up reading a lot of poetry and fiction and occasionally something really grabs my attention. JM Williams and Iric did that. I have also found a lot of useful information on the world of e-publishing on his site. I’ve been in this game a long time, but the “e” side of publishing is something I’m just learning about. So thanks for shared interests and information. I’m glad we’ve met. I liked Iric and I’m anxious to read your novel when it comes out.

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I’m only going to nominate four new blogs, one by an author and three by reviewers.

Michael Tierney was another whom I discovered when he liked one of my posts and I backtracked him. His blog, Airship Flamel, is largely devoted to steampunk and victoriana, and to publicizing his writing. That makes him a man after my own heart. I enjoy his blog, but this is primarily a shout out for his novel. I bought, read, and reviewed To Rule the Skies. I recommend it as a very British romp.

The remaining nominees are reviewers of novels that they consider really old — but which I read when they first came out.

Thomas Anderson is the voice of Schlock Value, which is the only blog I read without fail every week. His subtitle, Reading cheap literature so you don’t have to, is probably all you need to know in order to understand his perspective.

I found him in an odd way. About the time I was starting my blog, I googled myself. Strictly business, you understand, and I found a review of Jandrax, my first novel. It had been out of print for forty years, and here was a review dated 2014. Did I read it? Does Donald comb his hair funny?

Thomas didn’t love Jandrax, but his review was fair. More important, compared to the reviews it got when it came out, he had obviously read it closely.  I went to the contact me section and sent him a letter, saying something like, “Since you review books that came out forty years ago, you probably never expected one of the authors to respond, but here I am.” We’ve been going back and forth ever since.

Thomas likes to review schlocky books, and he has a talent for finding them, skewering them, and still finding something worthwhile in most of them. It’s an odd approach, but I really like it.

I discovered Joachim Boaz (actual name unknown to me) and his site Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations via Schlock Value. He reviews book of the same era, but takes them all on, the good, the bad, and the weird, and with a more serious demeanor. If you check out one of his many indexes you will be amazed at the breadth of his coverage. If you are curious about an old SF book, this should be your go-to site.

James Nicholl  of James Nicholl Reviews also came to my attention when he reviewed one of my old novels. His site covers publications over a wider time scale, and anybody who has review categories like 50 Nortons in 50 Weeks and The Great Heinlein Juveniles (Plus The Other Two) has something worthwhile going on. I have read a dozen or so reviews so far, which means I have just scratched the surface. This is going to be fun.

Okay, I’m up to a thousand words and I haven’t started answering questions yet. It looks like this post is going to roll over into Thursday.