Tag Archives: science fiction

563. Another One Bites the Dust

I went to a local used bookstore today to find a copy of Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones. I can’t find a copy in my book room and none of my local libraries have it. That’s understandable; it came out in 1952 as a juvenile and it wasn’t his best work. I just wanted to see if my memory was correct after all these years as to his use of the barbecue roll, with paint. If that makes no sense, stick around. It will be in an upcoming Apollo post, as soon as I find a copy.

I walked into the bookstore. The proprietor said, “How are you?” and I replied, “Sad. You’re closing.” And she was. About a third of the shelves were empty and she was selling books by the bag, one to ten dollars, depending on the size of the bag.

I’ve completely lost count of how many used book stores have come and gone over the decades I have lived in this area. It always hurts to see one go, and every time a new one appears I know another book lover is buying themselves a heartache.

There are many things which are done for love instead of money. Blogging might be the new poster child for this way of life. Used bookstores are near the top, as well. Crafters fill the same niche.

If you go to a local boutique and buy some hand made jewelry, or any of a thousand other kinds of things you couldn’t buy at Wal Mart, you might be tempted to call them over priced. Maybe, from the consumer’s viewpoint, but I doubt if one in fifty crafters is making minimum wage. They always think they’ll make a little money when they start, but really . . .

A used bookstore as an investment? Hummm. I wouldn’t do it, although I’m glad there are people who do. Consider the mark-up (next to nothing) and consider how many customers come in each day. At least you have a lot of time to read.

I should talk. I do something even dumber than that. I write novels.

If you go to a used bookstore — in some town other than the one I’ve avoided mentioning, which no longer has a used bookstore — and look closely at the science fiction shelves you will find hundreds of writers you’ve never heard of. Some of them are pretty good and some aren’t. What they have in common, not counting Heinlein and a few like him, is that they probably never made a living by writing. A few achieved a bit of fame, but most of them didn’t. Many wrote only one or two books and gave up.

If you look at the names of the publishers, you won’t know it unless you’ve been following this for years, but many of them stayed in business by stiffing their authors. Others actually paid, but paid a pittance.

I don’t think there are too many of those completely dishonest publishers around any more. Times have changed. Now you can publish ebooks and stiff yourself.

Oh well, it’s a good life if you don’t weaken. And of course I don’t do it for the money — but I wouldn’t mind some.

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562. Davy

This is one of my best stories series.

I re-read. It is my equivalent of brainless television. There are books that I frequently re-inhabit in order to once again enjoy the people, scenery, and action.

There are also books I read only once, and never need to read again. They become such a part of me that I still remember them decades later.

Edgar Pangborn provided two such books, Davy and The Trial of Calista Blake. I read each of them only once, between 1964 and 1967. I have never forgotten them, nor have I ever wanted to return to them. They were life changing, if read at the right age.

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I grew up in an era of fear. The bomb hung over us all, and fiction followed the trends of the day. Speaking from memory, not scholarship, it seems to me that it was the end of the exclusivity of science fiction. Events that would have once interested only the few and the faithful, were turning up on the best seller list. Books like Fail-Safe and On the Beach were called science fiction, and I suppose technically, they were. But they didn’t taste like science fiction because they were written by mainstream writers with different sensibilities. That may not be a legitimate complaint, but in truth they tasted like steak with no salt.

The flip side of the here-comes-the-bomb novels was an endless cavalcade of post-holocaust dystopias. The first book I read, the first day I discovered libraries, Star Man’s Son by Andre Norton, was one of those. There were dozens to follow; maybe hundreds. They mostly ran together in a mass of future sadness, but a few were memorable.

Davy stood out because it’s horny orphan protagonist got such joy out of life. He found a French horn in the rubble and taught himself to play it, which always made the book seem more like fantasy than science fiction. If you know French horns, you’ll understand.

We spend much of the book watching Davy go from ignorance to knowledge. The cover of the edition I read compares him to Tom Jones (the novel, not the singer) and that seems fair.

Davy’s world is the northeastern United States, a couple of centuries after the nukes fell. The names are scrambled but mostly decipherable. The state religion is the Holy Murican Church and belief is not optional. Davy falls in with anti-religious dissidents, which suits his doubter’s personality.

The novel is carried by Davy as a questioning, ebullient youth, but saved from silliness by a brooding feeling that all will not be roses. The story arc makes everything work. We see young Davy growing up as told by his older self, but we are spared the works of his maturity. There will be striving, battle, despair, and betrayal when the mature Davy attempts to mold the world to his liking, only to have it fall apart in his hands. That is the part of the story another novelist would have concentrated on, but we see it only in brief flashes. Then we are at the final chapter, a kind of coda in which Davy totals up his gains and losses and prepares for a final, hopeless journey.

What we have here is the joy of youth, overlain by the elegiac sadness of hopeless struggle against human inadequacy. Heinlein could have written it, but it would have had little heart because his protagonist would have stood above the fray, superior to the mass of humanity. Davy partook of the same human conditions that he fought against. Just like the rest of us. That made Davy stand out as something better that the rest of the dystopias. It made the novel a work of art to move the soul — at least if you read it at sixteen, while waiting for the bomb to fall.

558. Serial Packaging

Publishing novels serially is a very old idea. Most of Charles Dickens work came out that way.

What I’ve done over the last few years in the blog Serial is a bit different. Dickens novels came out in pieces while he was writing them. Everything in my blog Serial was already finished, then had to be reverse engineered into serial form.

I actually made a brief attempt at writing on the go, although it appeared in A Writing Life while Serial was occupied by another story. It wasn’t for me. If you’re curious how things came out in the experiment, you can go to Mud Prolog, Mud 1, Mud 2,  and Mud 3 to see the results. I have a lot of emotional investment in the novel Mud and some day I will probably return to it, but not as a serial in progress.

When Dickens wrote his serialized novels, the size required for each chunk was known in advance and the chunks were big. David Copperfield, for example, was a novel of 358,551 words. I know this by downloading it from Project Gutenberg, transferring it to my word processor, and using the word count function. You might make note of that; it is a useful technique.

David Copperfield was published in twenty monthly installments. That makes each installment was about 18,000 words. In SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) terms, each installment was of novella length.

My typical serial post has been about 600 to 800 words.

Dickens serialized in order to sell to a market which could not afford books. At the same time, serializing boosted sales of this novels when they came out later in book form. Most successful nineteenth century authors followed the same pattern.

The big names in twentieth century science fiction also wrote serial novels, although they were shorter and presented in fewer but longer installments. In the golden age of SF, serial publication might be the only way to get a novel into print. A few years later, when the paperback revolution came about, those old magazines were mined for their novels.

In my case, nothing but Mud was in progress at the time it was posted. Some of the things presented had been published, some had not, one was presented as a excerpt from a completed novel, and one was a fragment from a novel I’ll probably never finish. Jandrax was annotated to such a degree that it almost forms a writing primer, and How to Build a Culture was entirely a how-to.

Everything I have presented in Serial has been to assure continued readership of the website. It’s a trick. Leave ‘em hanging, and they’ll come back. And the whole website was originally to assure a readership for my then upcoming novel Cyan, and for others that would follow.

That was the plan anyway, but the website quickly became something I valued for itself and man has it been fun.

I’ve enjoyed revisiting old friends. I’ve learned a lot from a close re-reading of old material, especially regarding pacing. Since I posted four days a week, each post had to be relatively short. That kept me from running out of material too soon, and kept each reading experience brief for the sake of the daily reader. I didn’t originally choose the 600 to 800 word length — it just evolved.

The actual process of taking a novel and breaking it into pieces has been a fascinating, frustrating, and rewarding experience. It typically begins with a completed novel, which may be decades old and which will already have been polished to a high shine. Nevertheless, I find a few errors.

The first step is to reduce the novel to individual pages. I use a stationary belt sander to remove the gummed spine. How’s that for getting down to how-to basics? These pages then have to be scanned one at a time with an OCR program (optical character recognition) to make them readable to the word processor. Then I have to find all the thousands of errors that crept in during OCR work. It takes a week, at least.

Now using a word processor version, I have to re-read the novel, looking for natural breaks in the action. I type a non-word at each break. I use breakbreak. Then I can use the find function to jump from break to break.

I then highlight what I have chosen, use the word count function, and type in the number of words. If it seems too short or too long, I adjust.

That takes care of post #1. Now to repeat.

Jandrax required 92 posts. Raven’s Run required 150. Some posts make sense on their own, but some require that I start with a sentence or two from the previous day’s post. I use bold-italic to denote this repeat.

All this takes place on a single word processor file. I then make individual files of each post-to-be. This is a backup to what will actually appear on the website. At this point, I run the spell checker one last time, even though by now I have read each section repeatedly with an eye out for errors.

The last step is copying from word processor file to the website.

Tedious? Yes. Fun? Absolutely. If you don’t enjoy re-reading your own work, why do you write?

If memory is nagging at you, then yes, a very different version of this appeared in a previous post a couple of years ago.

557. The Things We Read Together

When I began this website in 2015, it was to be in two equal but very different formats. The blog called A Writing Life was mostly  to be in the form of mini-essays, and the blog called Serial was to be a place to showcase my writing. Both halves worked out very well until recently when the well ran dry for Serial.

Here is part of what I said in the first Serial post, August 29, 2015.

Introduction to Serial

Starting September first, this space will be home to serial fiction.

Serial fiction has a long history. Going back at least to Dickens, it has been used to serve the needs of the publisher. How long each serial installment was, how many installments there were, and how long a time fell between each installment was calculated to fill issues of periodicals and bring readers back. For science fiction novelists, serialization has always been a way build an audience before a book is published, and earn a few extra dollars at the same time.

So what’s in it for you?

Free reads, for one thing.

When I first began to consider serial publication in this website, I had a particular kind of reader in mind. I envisioned a train or bus commuter, or a bored backseater in a car pool, surrounded by distractions. (Not a driver. If you’re driving right now, turn off your damned smart phone!) I thought that kind of a reader would appreciate a short presentation, half a satisfying read and half a tease for tomorrow’s installment.

As it turned out, I don’t think very many commuters ever read Serial. From feedback, I think it was read mostly by other bloggers.

Running two blogs on one site renders the results of  the stats provided by WordPress pretty questionable, but as nearly as I can judge about the same number of readers have enjoyed Serial as they have A Writing Life.

When I began to sort each story into episodes, it became apparent that each has a natural rhythm which has to be honored. Some stories have larger blocks of text between natural breaks, and this rhythm varies within each story as well. One size episode does not fit all, but there will still be five episodes each week, of somewhat varying length.

The process of serializing is a complex one, which I will talk about next Monday.

Shortly after each story concludes, it will be permanently archived on the Backfile page. If you prefer to read a story all at once, just wait. That is, if you can avert your eyes from the daily presentation.

Once again, according to stats which don’t seem too reliable, the Backfile page remained largely unread. Too bad, there is a treasure trove of stories there.

Over the years, Serial has allowed me to provide a variety of types of fiction and non-fiction, and some that was a little of both. Jandrax was reprinted there, but not simply as a serialized novel. It was annotated, so that you could look over my shoulder as I told about the writing of it, and admitted to the things that now make me cringe. The novel fragment Voices in the Walls told the story of its writing, explained how it came to remain uncompleted, and gave an outline of what might have been.

To Go Not Gently was the cover story of the a 1978 issue of Galaxy. It was also the original novella form of A Fond Farewell to Dying. The Serial blog rescued it from oblivion.

All good things must end, or at least pause. In September of 2018 I put Serial on hiatus because I had run out of suitable materials. I revived it briefly during Christmas, and may do so again in the future. Stay tuned.

556. How it All Began

Let me offer a slightly belated Happy New Year. My first post of the year was tied in to the last/first/only year of the novel Like Clockwork, and my second was an apology for any posts that might be missing this month. I still may miss some, but I am trying to avoid that.

Since we are in the month of beginnings, I thought I would remind my newer followers how this enterprise started. In 2015, EDGE publisher bought my SF novel Cyan, to be released as an e-book in their new EDGE lite (dumb name) line. In honor of that — which is a sneaky way of saying to drum up business for that — I began a blog.

By the way, if you haven’t bought Cyan yet (and why haven’t you?), you can pick it up from Amazon as an ebook or paperback.

Actually, I began a website containing two blogs. The website was to be called A Writing Life and the two blogs were to be called A Writing Life and Serial. It was a glaringly bad decision to call the site and one of the blogs by the same name, but I’m stuck with it now.

Cyan was due out at the beginning of 2016 and actually came out nearly a year and a half late. I had the embarrassing task of explaining every delay in the blog.

Posts were short at first. Here is the first one:

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1. Welcome to my World

Hi, I’m Syd Logsdon. I have been writing novels for four decades, but I’m a new blogger.

When I began, writers wrote, publishers published, and readers bought their books in bookstores – or at least at bookstands which might pop up anywhere. E-books, nooks and kindles, and the internet have changed all that. Now e-books outsell hardbacks and writers have to adapt.

Actually, this is an opportunity for me. Over the years I have accumulated a mass of knowledge, ideas, complaints, irritations, joys, disappointments, and backstage savvy that didn’t fit into any format available to me. Now I have a place to share these things.

What prompted me to start blogging at this time was the release of my e-book Cyan from EDGE, due in January of 2016. If you don’t know them, EDGE is the premier science fiction publisher of Canada.

Cyan is the story of the discovery, exploration, and colonization of a nearby habitable planet, set against the backdrop of cataclysmic overpopulation on Earth, and carried out by a fascinating and varied group of characters.

Old fashioned? No; just temporarily out of fashion.

Recent science fiction has often lost sight of the next century. This is too bad, since we are the last generation which can write what we want about nearby stars before astronomers map the actual planets which exist there.

You can expect daily posts here at A Writing Life. It is set up like a blog, but it isn’t a chronicle of daily activities. Each post is a mini-essay on some subject, current, historical, or timeless.  Most of the time, these posts will come four days a week.

At Serial, in the menu, you will find serialized fiction. Pop over there for details.

Drop in often; you will always find something new.

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A few things changed over the years. It quickly became obvious that running A Writing Life (the blog) four days a week and Serial five days a week was an unnecessary complication. I dropped Serial to four days a week early on.

After nearly four hundred posts of the A Writing Life blog, the four day a week schedule became unsupportable and I dropped to two days a week. Serial changed as well, but I’ll talk about that on Wednesday.

554. Midwinter Midnight

Last night (Dec. 6), I watched a PBS special on the Highwaymen and heard Kris Kristofferson singing Me and Bobby McGee. One familiar line jumped out at me, and I added it to the page of short quotations that opens Like Clockwork.

I’d trade all of my tomorrows
For one single yesterday

That line encapsulates one of the strongest human sentiments, the fear of loss and the nearly insane clinging to that which cannot last.

What would you do if you were given the chance to relive the prime year of your life? Would you take the chance, or would you proceed into the unknown future?

Like Clockwork asks — and answers — that question. It begins and end at midnight on the last/first day of the Only Year.

Here is the Prolog to Like Clockwork. Or is it an epilog? Or something else altogether? You decide.

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“Tonight Snap has gone down to the Clock for Midwinter Midnight. In just a few minutes, the reversion will occur and I will forget writing this note. It will be midnight of January first, 1850. Not next year, nor last year, but the only year there is.

It isn’t a bad year and it isn’t a particularly good year, but if it is to be my only year, I want more.”

Pilar laid down her pen and listened, straining to hear the song they always sang at midnight:

The year that ends, but never ends,
That ‘ere again unfolds,
We live that year forever and
We never shall grow old

It was probably her imagination. Surely voices could not be heard over such a distance. She rose to move closer to a window and as she did, the note she had written ceased to be. All her memories of the past twelve months ceased to be. Her body sloughed off a year of age and it was January first of the last-this-next-only year.

Again.

553. The Babbage Bureau of Accountancy

Yesterday was Christmas. Today is the 26th of December. Happy Boxing Day.

If Boxing Day is just something British you’ve vaguely heard of, let me explain. It is the holiday on which various workers expect to receive their Christmas-box from those they serve.

I have never written about the commercialism of Christmas. That notion has been done to death, and besides, even Santa’s elves get paid in cookies. Christmas gifts don’t make themselves, you know.

So you can imagine my surprise when, seven chapters into Like Clockwork, the Dickens-inspired steampunk novel that turned out to not be about Christmas, Hemmings appeared without warning and dragged me into exploring the commerce of my pocket London. Take a look.

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Throughout the main building of the Babbage Bureau of Accountancy, ten thousand human computers were required to keep up the constant cross checking of the Great Babbage, as it kept track of every transaction in all the factories and warehouses of London.

It was late November. Christmas was coming, the warehouses were nearly full, and the remaining raw materials had to move through the system to produce the goods, neither running short of materials too soon, nor finishing the last needed item before the final day.

Full employment, full consumption. Everybody has a job. Everybody consumes the goods that everybody else makes. Every tally book balances. The capitalistic ideal.

A single employer. Every job suited to the person who does it. All those tally books replaced by the Great Babbage. The communistic ideal.

Either way, it was no place to be unemployed.

The ten thousand computers counted themselves lucky. They were Time’s Favored Ones. They worked seated, in gentleman’s clothing. They returned home at night unstained. Not for them was the curse of Adam, to work by the sweat of their faces. The middle fingers of their right hands all bore the honorable callus that came from holding a pen. The skin on the rest of their bodies was smooth. Time moved crisply for them, to the smooth rhythm of numerals filling up little blue squares.

In the factories, time moved differently, slowing down and growing more resistant to human movement as the day wore on. That does not seem possible, but young Albert had done work in time dilation according to theories of his own. Time moved smoothly for the computers; time dragged on more slowly as the day progressed for those who bent their backs.

It had always felt that way, throughout the history of mankind, and now it actually was that way.

Morning, morning tea, and luncheon all rolled by with stately grace. It was at 2:18 in the afternoon, November 27, 1850, that Hemmings the computer hit a reef.

His whole job was to check by hand the calculations made by the Great Babbage, looking for errors. On November 27, he found one. Did they thank him? Of course not. The Babbage was incapable of error — even though Hemmings had found one — so they fired him.

Hemmings stood on the street in front of the Babbage Bureau of Accountancy and stared upward, considering the machine which had just become his nemesis. He had never seen the Great Babbage itself, but he imagined it as a massive collection of repeating components, interlaced with walkways where the technicians came and went to clean and oil and inspect. There were a trillion gears, cams, and escapements in his mental image. There were Jacquardian punch cards by the waggon load, as many cards as there were oysters in the ocean.

As many as there had been oysters, when there was an ocean.

Now the picture in his mind had changed. Not much, really, but enough. There was rust on some of the gears now, and some unidentifiable ooze coming out of some of the housings. Hemmings shook his head, trying to clear his mind. He knew the rust was hatred and the ooze was envy, and that they were in him, not the machine.

Still, here he was, with no place in the world, ripped out of the one thing he had been trained to do. With no money to buy his food or pay his rent, no companions, no usefulness to stabilize his identity.

Every stone and brick in London was unchanged, but Hemmings was changed, and suddenly he was as adrift as a chip of wood floating somewhere on the ocean.

When there had been an ocean.

There was no fight in him. He ate his supper where he always did, but this time he sat alone. There were very few coins left in his pocket. Then he walked.

All the streets were well lighted by gaslight. There was no refuse in the gutters. There were few pedestrians, and they all were moving purposefully toward someplace they belonged. He looked at their faces. He had never cared before to look into the faces of the strangers he passed by each day, but now he chose to examine them.

Their faces were calm and peaceful, but there was no joy in them.

He wandered into darkness. By that time, he owned the empty streets. He needed sleep, but it was hard to choose a place to lie down. Every place was identical to every other place. It clearly did not matter where he slept, but that was why he couldn’t choose.

Every clock-face on every building-face in all of London said 3:35 when he could no longer stand. He crawled behind an ash can and let go of everything.

He dreamed of whirling gears, and rust, and ooze.

On the third day, his coins ran out. He did not eat on the fourth day. He had never been hungry before, and the misery of that condition frightened him. He considered stealing. He could go into the place where he had always eaten, scoop up a loaf of bread, and walk away. They probably wouldn’t chase him, at least not far.

Then what? Would the — bobbies, peelers, cops, pigs, police — come to get him? He realized that all the names he had dredged up from deep memory were without weight or taste. He had never seen a policeman, not in a thousand iterations of the year.

What kind of place is so smug, so self-righteous, so self-certain that no one breaks the law? How could there be no rebellion?

He could probably become invisible to the machinery of the state and make his living by simple theft. Could the Great Babbage find him? How? Track him by arithmetic errors, by all the places which reported one less loaf of bread than the Great Babbage had predicted?

Try to find me, you bucket of rusty gears and ooze.

He considered the possibility of living by theft, outside the norms of the rest of mankind, and it tore at his heart. The thought hurt him more than hunger.

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Now, back to our world.

There I was, sitting at my computer, comfortably contemplating my novel of a variant Dickensian London, when suddenly Hemmings appeared. Now my pocket London was split in two. Half would have looked familiar to Scrooge, and the other half was as four-square and linear as an equation. One half was under thrall to the Great Babbage and the other half to the Great Clock that kept turning time back on itself.

Weird. I’ll let you know when you can read it for yourself and see just how weird.