Tag Archives: teaching

583. Mutually Assured Destruction

I taught middle school science for twenty-seven years, and every year I taught the manned space program. It was never called for in the required curriculum, but I always managed to shoehorn it in while still teaching everything I was required to. It wasn’t just because I loved the subject, although I did. There were plenty of things in science that I loved but never mentioned.

The plain fact is that seventh graders don’t listen unless you excite them, and the manned space program was exciting.

Here is a schtick I used in my middle-school classroom all through the eighties and nineties. The subject was, “What motivated Americans who didn’t care about space to spend billions to outrun the Russians in the Space Race?”

I would choose two pushy, self-assured young guys and call them to the front of the room. I would put them face to face, about ten feet apart, and say, “Now, imagine each of you has a .45 automatic, and each of you hates the other one. We’ll call one of you America and the other Russia. I don’t want to insult you, so I won’t say which is which.

“Point your guns at each other. (They would gleefully assume the position.) If either one of you fires, the other will have just time enough to pull the trigger, too. You will both go down. If you sneeze, though, you’re a goner. If you blink, you’re a goner. If you look away, same thing.

“Now hold that pose for fifty years.”

Clearly, I couldn’t get away with that today, but this was pre-Columbine. My kids were thinking about cops and robbers, not  a terrorist who was out to kill them.

Do I have to point out that the guns represented the American and Soviet nuclear armed arsenal of missiles? It was a demonstration of Mutually Assured Destruction, also known by its entirely appropriate acronym MAD. If either side had attained an overwhelming superiority in number of missiles, the delicate balance would have been disrupted. Witness the Soviet’s parading their missiles in Moscow, and taking them several times around the block to look like they had more than they did.

The balance could be disrupted by having missiles closer to the enemy than the enemy did to us. Witness secret American missile bases in Turkey, on the Soviet border, which led them to put missiles in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis was not an unprovoked Soviet threat.

The balance would have also been disrupted by an effective missile defense system. There is no such thing as defensive in the MAD scenario.

What does this have to do with space travel? Two things, one positive and one negative. The entire business was a race for the nuclear high ground. If either side had managed to put an orbital missile platform into orbit, it would have been bad news for the other side. That was not possible, so each side tried to maximize their capabilities in space while proving to the hundred plus other nations on the Earth that they were the firstest with the mostest.

I would repeat that in Russian if I could write Cyrillic.

All this turned into the Space Race, culminating in a manned lunar landing, It’s nice that something good came out of all that nonsense.

The other side of the coin was a reinforcement of fear of nukes, whether it was bombs, powerplants, or space drives. In the fiction of the sixties, the solar system was filled with nuclear powered spacecraft. In the real world, fear killed the idea.

Should we have nuclear spacecraft? I think so, but it isn’t for me to say. It isn’t for you to say, either. It isn’t even for the people to say.

Why? Because we’ve shifted our focus from the Russians to the Chinese.

If history is a guide, we will have a nuclear spacecraft — a few years after the Chinese launch their first one. We’ll be running behind and playing catch-up as usual.

Remember Sputnik?


571. Nothing New Under the Sun

There is nothing new under the sun, but the old things keep coming back to poke you in the eye, and it all seems interconnected.

On MLK day I talked about growing up and shaking off racism. Then I talked about America’s love affair with great men who really aren’t all that great.

That led to a back and forth in the comments in which I talked about trying to teach truth in American schools, by using the space program as an example. Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to remind my younger readers of the incredible reality of what was happening fifty years ago in space exploration.

On President’s Day and we looked at the last half century’s sad and depressing crop of leaders.

Then it all came together in one coincidental discovery. I bought a copy of Apollo in Perspective by Jonathan Allday to fill in some gaps in my knowledge, and found this inserted as an epilog:

Men who have worked together to reach the stars are not likely to descend together into the depths of war and desolation. Lyndon B. Johnson, 1958

I need to insert three paragraphs of blank space here, to express my incredulity.

In 1958, Sputnik had just been launched. America was in a panic. The bureaucrats and the military were fighting (as usual) and the result was that American satellites were not being launched. The space program had begun in fear, riding on rockets which had been designed to carry nuclear warheads, and fueled by the terror those same warheads represented. Men were not working together to reach space; countries were working against each other for the best capacity to wage war.

Not only was every word in the quotation a lie, it was all a set of lies that no one could have believed, even then. Every word was the exact opposite of the truth, even as contemporary Americans understood the truth.

And all this from Lyndon Johnson, who would, a decade later, give us the Viet Nam war.

It seems that the greatest of our achievements and the most poignant of our failures remain inexorably intertwined. I guess that’s the human condition, but it’s hard to take sometimes.

534. A Writer Lives for Libraries (3)

Just before I entered high school, the shrinking population of our county caused two school districts to consolidate. They built a new high school and bussed students in from miles away. One room of that new high school was full of empty shelves with boxes of new books sitting on the floor. Since I already knew the English teacher/librarian, and since I was a hard worker (and he wasn’t) I got to empty those boxes and fill those shelves. There is no better way to learn a library than from the ground up.

There were piles of books on science, and I read most of them. There was a copy of Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land which had just been published. It would have been banned if any of the Baptists had gotten hold of it, but I was probably the only one to read it. That was the book in which Heinlein made sex seem dull. They can’t all be winners.

I graduated from high school, went to college, got married, went into the Navy, and returned to graduate school at the University of Chicago, where I got to use the Regenstein Library. Then I started writing. Wherever we went, my wife got a job at the local library — often in the bookmobile.

I has some success writing but not enough to live on, so I got a credential and made teaching middle school my day job. I kept that day job for twenty-seven years, still writing but with much diminished output. Then I retired and I went back to writing full time.

Once, during that period, the school where I was teaching had a special day in celebration of reading. My teacher friend Crystal invited several of us to talk to her class about our early reading habits.

I went to the local library and found an original copy of Star Man’s Son still on the shelf. It wasn’t the same copy — I was fifteen hundred miles from the library where I started out — but it was the same edition. It probably came off the same press the same week.

Thank God for libraries that never throw anything away. When my turn came, I was able to hold it up and say, “Here is the first book I ever checked out.” Then I could hold up copies of Jandrax and A Fond Farewell to Dying and say, “And here are the books I’ve written, because long ago I learned to love to read.”

Now I live in the foothills of the Sierras and, coincidentally enough, I am once again equidistant from three cities. Each one is a county seat, and each one has a library.

One is the city where I lived for all my teaching years. Its library is in a newer and larger building now, and the books are reasonably up to date. I go there often.

One of the other libraries is old and poor. They have lots of books, but some of them are older than I am. They have a full selection of Buchans, mostly in identical bindings from some original matched set. They have a matched set of Jules Verne, as well, and both sets are battered and worn. As I walk up and down the shelves, I see lots of books that I saw in my first library fifty years ago.

I’m glad to have a library where everything is up to date, but it is also nice to have a place where I can step back into the past, to pick up copies of those books I didn’t have time to read when I first encountered them. Not every good book was written this decade.

Now turn off the computer and go check out a book.

533. A Writer Lives for Libraries (2)

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

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

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

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

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

The same actual books. Match that, ebooks!

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

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

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

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

532. A Writer Lives for Libraries (1)

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

A writer lives for libraries.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

510. Books About Books

The Great American Read sent me scurrying to my personal library to review some books about books. That is an odd sub-genre, but not a small one.

From my library (i.e., room-filling book pile) I pulled out The Novel 100 by Daniel Burt, The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written by Martin Seymour-Smith and Twenty-five Books That Shaped America by Thomas C. Foster. I have certainly read many others over the years, picked up while wandering through libraries. I own these three because they were on remainder lists, which made them cheap enough to buy.

I also have A Great Idea at the Time by Alex Beam, which deserves a whole ‘nother post, later. (See the aside below before you write me about my bad grammar.)

Why do we read these books on books? For the lists and for the opinions. Everyone who writes one of these books is highly opinionated. They have to be, since there are no real criteria for making these choices. It’s all very subjective. One person’s Great is another person’s Crap.

It might be interesting to read a few dozen of these lists and see what books, if any, end up on all of them. Moby Dick, might qualify; everyone admires it from afar, although few read it. Still, I wouldn’t bet money on any title ending up on every list.

The best of these authors admit that their picks are personal, and could have gone a different way on a different day. They defend their choices with humor, which is always welcome. A good book-on-books is fun to read. Even when the prejudice is potentially offensive, we get to laugh at academics looking like red-necks without realizing it. And, no, I’m not going to admit which one of the above I’m talking about.

The criteria for inclusion are also different from book to book. The Novel 100 is based on pure quality, and on continuing to be recognized as fashions change. Daniel Burt begins with 1. Don Quixote and carries though 100. Gone With the Wind. Then he adds an appendix called the second hundred. The reader gets a two-fer.

Seymour-Smith skips great books which were not influential on other writers or the culture in general, and includes books which were influential, even if they were inherently bad. Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is an example of the latter. Seymour-Smith’s list runs from 1 The I Ching through 100 Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Mercifully, he does not provide a second hundred.

Foster writes with a light tone, sometimes slipping too far into flippancy, and only gives us twenty-eight books. His twenty-five include a two-fer of short books of poetry and a trilogy of novels. He also provides a list of fifteen runners-up.

If I wanted to collate the books in these three collections, throwing out the duplicates, the number would probably be close to 300. Am I going to read them all? Not in this lifetime, but I can read these reviews and come away with at least an idea of what I am missing. I can also garner a much smaller list of ones I actually might read some day.


Aside. If you are a writer, you must ponder the weird cock-ups where grammar meets usage. Take the phrase I used humorously, a whole ‘nother post.

Another post makes sense. If you add the modifier whole, the phrase falls apart. In another whole post , whole seems to modify post when it is meant to modify another. That is, it seems to say an additional post instead of a very different post.

It is similar to German, which has two words for another. Noch eine Bier means “Bring me an additional beer”, but ein andera Bier means “Bring me a different beer, I don’t like this one.”

You might try to break another into an other so you can squeeze in the additional modifier closer to its referent. But that doesn’t work either. You end up with—

An whole other post. That puts an instead of a in front of a consonant. So you try—

A whole other post. But that doesn’t work either, because you have lost the “n“, which leaves your reader muttering under his breath, “A other post? That’s not right!”

So you end up splitting another in a different place, ending up with a nother. Put that back into the phrase, and you get a whole ‘nother post which sounds right, even though it’s wrong.

Ain’t English fun?

This brings up Writers Rule # 1, to wit: If that which is grammatically correct looks bad, use a different sentence altogether.

You might also call it the “There are things up with which I will not put!” rule.

Serial Novels

Continued from earlier this week, when I discussed the Serial posts that were also writing how-tos.

I’ve been writing a long time, with some publishing success, and long years of drought. I’m not going to say, “But the things that didn’t get published are still good!” If you have been reading Serial, you already know that.

Here is the full list of my novels, not counting fragments.

Contemporary novels: Spirit Deer, Symphony in a Minor Key, and Raven’s Run.

Science fiction: Jandrax, published 1979,  A Fond Farewell to Dying, published 1981,  (and the novella To Go Not Gently which was extracted from it in 1978) and Cyan which is presently available

Fantasy: Valley of the Menhir, Scourge of Heaven, and Who Once Were Kin.

Steampunk: The Cost of Empire and Like Clockwork.

The Cost of Empire is freshly finished and looking for a publisher. Like Clockwork is in progress as we speak, and a little more than half done. You won’t be seeing either of them in Serial, but I’ll tell you when to start looking at your local book seller.

Valley of the Menhir and Scourge of Heaven are a single story, long enough for two novels, with a natural break in the middle. You won’t be seeing them here, but you will be seeing just the opening section of VOTM, Marquart’s story, starting Monday.