Tag Archives: science fiction

357. Mike Mars and Project Quicksilver

If you Google Mike Mars, you’ll get Mick Mars, lead guitarist for Mötley Crüe. In fact, if that is how you got here, sorry about that. The only connection, besides spelling similarity, is that Mick Mars is of the right age to have read Mike Mars when he was a kid.

Our Mike Mars is a fictional astronaut from a fictional project called Quicksilver. The series was written by Donald A. Wollheim.

The eight Mike Mars books were unique in science fiction. They were so tied to the moment that they became outmoded on publication. They were both strikingly accurate and completely false. They were less of an alternative reality than a conspiracy theory version of the early 60s.

Here’s the setup. Project Mercury has selected seven astronauts, who will conquer space for America – ostensibly. They are all military test pilots of great experience. At the same time, a second, secret space program is being formed to duplicate their work, using hot young (read: expendable) pilots just out of fighter training, but no one will know of their flights. And they will do their thing just a hair sooner than the old guys. The project is called Quicksilver.

I look at that paragraph today with awe at how dumb the notion was. When I found Mike Mars, Astronaut on the shelf at the hobby store where I bought my books, I flipped at how cool it all was. It was 1961; I was 13 years old.

Thirteen is the golden age of science fiction. (I didn’t make that up; it’s a well known cliché.) Thirteen is also the age when you like things you wouldn’t even look at a few years later.

Mike Mars is the nickname of Michael Alfred Robert Samson, one of the young pilots chosen to participate in Project Quicksilver. The first novel takes him through selection and early training until he is chosen as one of the young astronauts. It also includes a murderous saboteur and makes the reader aware that one of the seven, Rod Harger, is a traitor. After all, this is a book for boys, designed to sit on the shelf beside the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, Jr.. Just being an astronaut isn’t exciting enough to give a climax every fifth page.

In Mike Mars Flies the X-15, the seven Quicksilver astronauts get glide flights in the X-15, and one of them will get to make a powered flight into space. (Guess who gets the powered flight.) We become more aware that six of the young astronauts are patriotic team players, but Rod Harger is in it for the power and the fame, and his father has thugs at the ready to tip the scales his way. This sets the pattern for the books — about half an accurate portrayal of training and flights and about half Hardy Boys style chasing crooks through empty hangers.

In Mike Mars at Cape Canaveral, Mike rides a Redstone rocket in a sub-orbital flight, after spending half the book fighting off more saboteurs.

In 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man in orbit, followed shortly by John Glenn. The Russian’s had won — except that those of us reading the Mike Mars series knew that Mike beat both of them in Mike Mars in Orbit. But, of course, he could never tell.

(True believers like me knew that Rick Brant had beaten all of them into space, back in 1958 aboard the Pegasus in The Scarlet Lake Mystery, but that was an accident and, of course, he could never tell either.)

In Mike Mars Flies the Dyna-Soar (see 342. Dyna-soar) Wollheim finally ran out of reality. The first four books had involved real hardware, but the real-life Dyna-soar was never finished. Space kids all over America forgave him however, as we flew with Mike to rescue a fellow astronaut in the coolest spacecraft that was never built.

There were three additional books, Mike Mars, South Pole Spaceman, Mike Mars and the Mystery Satellite, and Mike Mars Around the Moon. They never came to my hobby shop bookshelf, so I never saw them. It would be pointless to seek them out now. Within five years, alternative versions of early space travel had gone from unthinkable to not worth thinking about. NASA and the Russians made the conquest of space real, and I had grown beyond kiddy books.

But God the ride was fun while it lasted.


Meanwhile, back in the real world, the secret military space drone, X-37b, recently landed at Kennedy Space Center after it’s longest flight to date. We will see how the Air Force is still trying for a Mike Mars reality in tomorrow’s post.

Golden Age of Science Fiction (1)

Raven’s Run concluded yesterday. A new novel will begin shortly. Exactly when depends on all the balls I am presently juggling. Meanwhile  .  .  .

I am scheduled to participate in five panels at Westercon this year, July forth weekend in Tempe, Arizona. I intend to research the topics of each panel, and place posts outlining the ideas I will be carrying with me to the convention. Unlike normal posts, I will continue revising these right up to the moment I leave, including after they are published.

This material is for the panel “What Makes the Golden Age Golden?” Material for the other four panels will be published between now and the July 4th weekend, probably some in A Writing Life and some in Serial.

The golden age of science fiction is thirteen. Some say twelve. Yes, that’s an old chestnut, but it’s still around, and people are still repeating it, because it’s true. (The golden age of fantasy would be a whole other panel, which I won’t talk about here.)

You can see it at work in Goodreads, where it can be encapsulated in this theory: The number of stars a novel will get is inversely proportional to the age at which the reviewer first read it.

That doesn’t always work of course, but it goes a long way toward understanding all those low star ratings of Harry Potter by grumpy old people who cut their teeth on Lord of the Rings, and all the five star reviews by people who were young when they first read him.

What makes thirteen a golden age? Duh! Youth, newness, our first realization of our personal uniqueness, and our first real sense of making our own choices. It also makes thirteen the golden age of baseball, science, making money, sexuality, and every other thing that makes life fun..

As for a list of books from my personal version of that golden age — sorry, can’t do it. Most of the science fiction books that gave me joy in the fifties are too dated to be enjoyed by moderns, with the exception of the early Nortons. Since Andre set her stories outdoors and stated her technological wonders without explaining them, they are largely immune to changes in the “real world”. They work when you are thirteen, and still work as long as you can see the words on the page.

We science fiction types always invoke Sturgeon’s Law — 90% of everything is #%*%#.” Turn that on its head, and we can say that every era has produced at least some good science fiction. I other words, there is not one golden age, but several, if you ignore the dreck. Let’s look at some of them

The first golden age of imagination was the ancient world. Thor lived then, and he still does. Gilgamesh lived then, and he lives again today, after a long hiatus. Zelazny’s works keep ancient Egypt alive. An odyssey is an odyssey, whether it is carried out by Odysseus or Dave Bowman.

Half-men half-animals, from Ra to the Centaur, abounded in the ancient world and they never really went away. Witness the were-critters inhabiting today’s bookstores. Demigods were everywhere, and they still are. Hercules is still among us and Tarzan is his modern cousin.

The trouble with starting in the ancient world is that it is ancestral to everything in heroic myth, from James Bond to Wyatt Earp to Luke Skywalker to Spiderman. Science fiction proper is not so old.

The first golden age of science fiction is found in the works of Jules Verne. Verne had the advantage of being so far back in science fiction history that he was respected. His works, in France at least, were viewed as literature, not as novelties. Now some modern science fiction writers are now being taken seriously again, but personally, I think this has more to do with sales figures than genuine acceptance.

Between Verne and today stretches the Valley of Critical Disdain, which takes up 99% of the history of science fiction.

Jules Verne invented science fiction, but he didn’t invent all his inventions. His technique was very much the same as the one science fiction writers use today. He took contemporary events and technology, and extrapolated them. That, not his “inventions”, makes him the father of science fiction.

Verne’s Nautilus was not the first submarine. As early as the 1500s there were diving bells and plans for sealed, submerged rowboats. There were numerous unbuilt plans before Drebbel’s first successful submarine in 1620. Every good American knows about Bushnell’s Turtle of 1776.

Kroehl’s relatively modern submarine made its maiden voyage in 1866. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was serialized in 1869-70. Verne’s Nautilus was not the first submarine but it was infinitely advanced over the real submarines of the day. That is the manner in which science fiction still operates. 

Americans know Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, mostly from movies, comic books and juvenile editions, and some Americans know a half dozen other Verne titles. But Verne published from 60 to 80 novels, depending on which list you read. (The difference lies in whether you count French editions or English editions, and how you count the ones that were published in parts and later placed under one cover.) He was a force in French literature, and for at time was studied in French schools as an exemplar of excellence in the French language.

In the English speaking world, we have fewer titles. They are are often indifferently translated, and frequently abridged for the juvenile trade. One of my fantasies-that-will-never-happen is to learn French in order to read Verne in the original. more tomorrow

355. Quotations

As I was listening to Trump’s address to the Coast Guard graduates, and his overnight tweets, I was reminded of another voice from years ago. Let me offer all three, side by side.

No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.
          Trump speaking to Coast Guard graduates.

and also . . .

This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American History.
          Trump tweet.

Setting aside the sound of Andrew Johnson rolling in his grave, let’s hear Robert Heinlein talking about one of his characters:

He had to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.

Yep. That sounds about right.

353. Two Times Gordon Dickson

I have on the desk in front of me a book, Ace Double D-449, which was previously owned by Mrs. Elffa E. Philbrick (address redacted) of Urbana, Illinois. I don’t know her. I have never met her, and I don’t know if she is still living. At some point, she placed a return address sticker on the first page – an ordinary person’s version of the ex libris stickers used by fancy people. You don’t see ex libris stickers in Ace Doubles.

I presume Mrs. Philbrick was the first owner of the book. It was published in 1960 and the sticker has no zip code (zip codes came out in 1963). The sticker and the book are equally age-yellowed. That’s all the detective work I could accomplish. There is no way to know how many people owned the book after her, but before I bought it at a local used book store.

One of the minor pleasures of buying used books is occasionally seeing the metaphorical fingerprints of previous owners. They always leave me speculating on how they lived their lives. Was Elffa, perhaps, a suburban housewife with six kids, laundry, PTA, and all the rest, who led a secret life of the mind by traveling, via novel, to distant worlds?

She might also have been a pioneer female engineer working in a local defense plant after a childhood of reading Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But in 1960, which was more likely?

Ace doubles are paired short novels, printed back to back. They are important in the history of science fiction, and will get a post of their own later. This one has The Genetic General on the front, with Time to Teleport on the flip side, both by Gordon R. Dickson.

The Genetic General is part of Dickson’s multi-book Child cycle, AKA the Dorsai books. They include some of my favorites novels and a few that were, in a family phrase, half a bubble off of plumb. Someday I will do a full treatment of them, for the sake of any SF fans – if there are any – who have not already become addicted. Today I’m going to concentrate on Time to Teleport, which is quite a lot better than its title and cover suggest.

(Aside: One of the nicest things about Ace Doubles is that they have two covers, which leaves no space for lying back blurbs.)

Brief summary, sans spoilers:   The world has progressed beyond war, by rearranging its allegiances. Territorial states no longer exist. The Groups which replaced nations are global in scope, and defined by function, such as Communications, Transportation, or Underseas. As the story opens, Groups have been in place for eighty years and have served mankind well, but times have changed and a crisis impends.

The story centers on Eli Johnstone, former head of the Underseas Group. Eli has a secret, deeply buried, that holds the key to the future of mankind.

I bought this book because I realized that, although Ace Doubles had been a staple of my reading during the sixties, I didn’t have one in my library. I chose one which had a proven winner on the front. Since I don’t always like Dickson’s non-Dorsai work, I had small expectations for Time to Teleport, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was a refreshing dip into the-way-things-used-to-be.

It was also a preview of things to come in Dickson’s work. Eli has a bad knee (as did Cletus Grahame), used a cane in the beginning (as did Walter Blunt), and teleportation is a key element. By the second chapter I was expecting an early version of a key scene from Necromancer, but that didn’t happen.

What did happen was a story that tasted like vintage Dickson, and a little like Heinlein’s Lost Legacy (see 148. Lost Legacy). Eli, as the genetically superior man who saves mankind, reminded me of every other science fiction story from the sixties and seventies. So did the heavy reliance on psi forces.

Time to Teleport had an almost naive hopefulness about mankind’s future which I haven’t seen in science fiction lately, and which I miss.

351. Who Is Listening?

When EDGE accepted Cyan for publication, I was less than enthused about publishing in eBook format. I’ve changed my mind.

It wasn’t the notion that science fiction authors should embrace technology that got to me. It was who responded to my website.

Building a website has been a learning experience, and I sometimes feel I’ve only begun. At first, no one was reading, but I expected that. Eventually, views began. Even later, likes began. I kept writing. I knew that gaining readership is a long-haul process.

I found it addictive to view the websites of the people who responded to me. One of the most surprising things I found was the number of respondents who were clearly from somewhere in the world other than America.

I regularly put out eight posts a week, many of which require research, and I have a life to live. That doesn’t leave me a lot of time to spend under the hood of WordPress, but I did find 

           https://wordpress.com/stats/day/(insert your own url here) 

which lets you click see how many views and visitors you had on any given day. More interesting, it shows a map that tells you which countries those views came from.

I was blown away.

To be specific, these are the results from this year, January 1 through April 21.

USA                    45%
Canada              28%
India                   8%
Australia            5%
U K                      4%
Switzerland       3%
South Africa       2%
Hong Kong       about 1%
Morocco           about 1%
Ukraine             about 1%
Romania          about 1%
Singapore        about 1%
Ireland             about 1%
Czech Rep.      less than 1%
Spain               less than 1%
Philippines      less than 1%
Japan               less than 1%
Kenya              less than 1%
Germany         less than 1%
Jordan             less than 1%
Israel               less than 1%

Global, indeed.

So, back to the initial statement — Yes, I would like to have Cyan on every bookstore shelf and in every library, not just available on line. However, no matter what happens from now on, I will insist that whatever I publish in the future will also be released as an eBook.

This goes back the the very beginning, to my childhood. Growing up on a farm, at first I had only G&D books (Tom Swift and the like) purchased from a local hobby store. Then I found the county library. I didn’t see a real bookstore until I was in college.

Those books were my window to the world.

Today, a book hungry young person with access to the internet can find — and afford — eBooks, even if her or she lives in India, South Africa, or Ukraine. I like that, and I’m proud to be part of it.

350. Master Basho’s Dojo (2)

Regular readers will notice that these posts are coming later in the day.

Keir, back from Cyan, has found Uke Tomiki after his disappearance. You really should read yesterday’s post first, if you missed it.

They ate supper with the master of the dojo as the evening fog rolled in to mask the hillside and hide the view of the slum. The old man introduced himself as Basho. At Keir’s puzzled expression, he explained, “The name is familiar, perhaps? Basho was a seventeenth century poet, famed for his haiku. I took his name when I opened this dojo. I was born under another name.”

They sat on tatami and ate rice with scraps of vegetables and fish. It was not fancy, but there was plenty of it. Keir suspected Uke’s back salary assured that.

Keir had wanted privacy to talk to Uke, but the master of the dojo was soon engrossed in his meal, and ignored them so completely that it was as if they were alone.

Keir said, “Uke, I need you.”

“For what, Keir?”

“Will you come with us to Cyan?”

“Of course,” Uke smiled. “I was only waiting for you to ask.”

“Why did you wait? You knew that you would be welcome.”

Uke looked serene, but it was apparent that it was a hard won serenity. Much pain lay beneath it. He said, “Keir, my arrogance almost cost you your life. Or made your life a thing not worth living.”

“How so.”

“My testimony.”

“You were in pain, and you only told what you knew.”

Uke shook his head. “No. If I had acknowledged my pain, I would have never put you in danger. I hid my pain, hid my uncertainty, and attacked the court-martial board. Their whole lives were dedicated to the acquisition of power, and I threw in their faces the fact that they had no power over me. If I had gone in meekly, they would have treated me gently, and I would never have been badgered into giving them the testimony they used against you.”

“You can’t blame yourself for what they did. I don’t.”

“Blame is not the issue, Keir. I cannot control what they were and what they did. But I should be able to control what I am and what I do – and I didn’t. I attacked when I should have been silent. I would never jump a kavine with my bare hands, because I recognize its danger. I did not recognize the danger that panel represented. Worse, I did not realize that my attack would put you in danger. And I should have.”

“And so . . .?”

“And so, I compounded my failure. I went from stupidity to stupidity. For a while, after the trial, I spent my time drinking, taking drugs, and walking dark streets alone, as if I were searching for death so that I would not have to face my failure. Eventually, I came to my senses and returned here, to regain my balance.”


Uke nodded. Keir pushed his empty rice bowl aside and said, “When Stephan told me you had come here, we agreed that it was unlike you. You never seemed to have much feeling for your Japanese heritage.”

“That is largely true. My father was a fifth generation citizen of USA. He and his elder brother were most unlike one another. His brother embraced zen, became a black belt in several disciplines and spent much of his adult life in Japan. My father, on the other hand, loved football, beer, and everything American. What he knew about Japan, he learned in college. When he became ambassador, he went to Japan as much a foreigner as if his name had been John Smith. And I am my father’s son.”

“But . . .?”

“But even as a boy, I loved my uncle and, odd as his ways seemed to me, I spent time with him when he returned to San Francisco to found a dojo.”

They were silent for a moment, and the old man raised his chopsticks in a kind of salute. Keir said, “How old are you, Uncle?”

With mock formality, Uke’s uncle replied, “I have had the privilege of seeing the year ’06 once before, although I was too young to remember it.”

“Uke, are you ready to take on the world again?” Keir asked.

Uke looked toward his uncle, who nodded and said, “It is time.”

This is your last freebie. What are you waiting for – go download Cyan.

349. Master Basho’s Dojo (1)

What! You haven’t downloaded Cyan yet? It’s been available for weeks.

OK, I understand. You want one last tease. Since you insist, here is Keir, on Earth, looking for his friend and crew mate Uke Tomiki after he has disappeared.

Keir took the jumper to the San Jose airport, and the Rapitrans to within ten blocks of Uke’s dojo. It was not actually in San Francisco, but south fifty kilometers in the hills overlooking Santa Cruz. Until fifty years ago, the hills had been covered with redwoods, but not even the most stringent conservation measures could stand against the urban guerrillas who slipped in at night to chop away at their half meter thick bark. In twenty years of nightly battering, the trees had died one by one, and as each one fell, shacks took its place. Now the forest of giants had given way to a forest of slum housing, growing like mushrooms on the bones of the ancient trees.

Keir found his way through the roadless maze of polyfoam, packing crates, cardboard, and stucco, with starving children staring like beasts from the darkened holes that passed for doorways.

The dojo was built of grey wood, laboriously split and sawed from the bodies of the downed giants. Three living redwoods remained, towering above the rubble, protecting the dojo from the sun, and in turn being protected by the ones who lived there. The dojo was a low, open building. Some of the inner parts were protected from sight by moveable screens. A stern young woman with a staff stood in the doorway, and made him wait while she sent word of his coming to those inside.

A young boy led him inside. Keir wondered if he was there to seek enlightenment, or food.

He was met by a wizened old man with sparse black hair and a wispy goatee, who was not quite the cliché Keir had expected, but close. They bowed slightly to each other, and Keir said, “I have come to see Uke Tomiki.”

“I have been expecting you.”

Keir raised an eyebrow and the old man’s face broke into a smile. “No,” he said, “it is not mysticism. I had not been expecting you, personally, but it was clear that eventually one of Uke’s friends would come for him. He is not the kind of man the world leaves in peace for long. A dojo such as this could never be his home; only a brief resting place. I will take you to him.”

The little man led Keir beyond the screens. There, a dozen men and women of various ages sat zazen, in two rows, facing an altar covered with flowers. Uke was third from the left in the back row, and he did not notice them when they came in. Keir looked at the old man, but got no help. He was simply waiting to see what Keir would do.

Uke had taught them all the pose of zen meditation, so Keir knelt quietly at the side of the room, mimicking their stance, but he did not attempt to meditate. He simply waited, watching the ones who were meditating. The old man considered him for a moment longer, then left quietly.

An hour passed. These people did not chant, so the only sound was the buzzing of flies and the distant, indecipherable sound of voices in the slum beyond the dojo. At first Keir considered Uke in his new surroundings, then he reviewed the work he had to do for the remainder of the week. It would take months of perseverance to achieve the no-mind state these people were searching for. You couldn’t just step in off the street and meditate successfully, so Keir did not attempt it.

Eventually, the old man came back and struck a gong. The meditators opened their eyes, shook their heads and began to swim back up to the world they had temporarily left. Keir was watching Uke when he stood and became aware of Keir. At first he seemed still off in that dreamy place, but suddenly his eyes cleared and a smile came to his face. He crossed the room, hand outstretched, and at the last moment, changed his mind and embraced Keir, saying, “My God, how I have missed you.”

To be completed in tomorrow’s post.