Tag Archives: writing

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

356. Raven and Ian

Raven and Ian are saying goodbye today over in Serial. I’ll miss them. I read A Writing Life and Serial every day, just like some of you. In my case, it is a final check for typos, but I still feel for my characters.

If you write, and you don’t enjoy reading your own work, what is the point?

Will we see them again? Will Raven find what she is looking for? Will they come together again at the end?

Beats me.

I do know that if they find final happiness, it will be an epilog, not a novel. Settled, happy people make for good lives, but not good stories.

As for Ian, he has that Cameron Davis thing hanging over his head. I have some ideas about that.

In his immediate future, there is a meeting with an old friend of his mentor Joe Dias’, who has need of a troubleshooter. It seems that in 1990, most of the world opposes German reunification, including Bush One. A healed Germany might pose a threat, and a broken Germany provides a lot of opportunities for a lot of different groups of people.

Then there is that legendary (or is it) cache of Luger pistols, built in the last days of the Third Reich and hidden away to arm a future Nazi resurgence. Or to arm any one of several other groups who are after them. And there is that girl, whose brother was imprisoned in East Berlin when Ian was stationed there, years earlier. She shows up again. And there is Sergeant Davenport, Ian’s mentor when he was in Berlin, now in federal prison.

Ian has a lot of backstory to present. Will he get the chance?

Beats me.

I’m willing, but Ian in Berlin (it doesn’t have a title yet) is only one of a dozen stories waiting to be written. Which one I will start next depends on a lot of factors. I’ll let you know.

*          *          *

When I began placing Raven’s Run in Serial, I had intended to publish it independently as an eBook. I had hoped and planned to make an announcement of its publication date in this post. Such publication will probably still happen, but marketing Cyan has taken up so much of my time that it has been moved to the indeterminate future.

Most of the things I have presented in Serial have been moved afterward to Backfile and remain there to be read by anyone who checks in. Even To Go Not Gently is there, and Jandrax will be there later, although both were published years ago.  To Go Not Gently is from an issue of Galaxy that is not almost impossible to find, and Jandrax has so much commentary in the posted version that it has become a virtual how-to, and needs to live a separate life from copies still available in used book stores.

Those presentations which I intend to publish independently, such as Raven’s Run, will to be removed from Serial and not placed in Backfile, but this may not happen immediately.

Jandrax is still there because it takes a lot of time to make the transition. Marking out the virtual chapters is a real pain, as is transferring bits that originally appeared in A Writing Life, but eventually it will be placed en bloc so that it is easier to read. For now it remains as 92 individual posts in Serial and a few more in A Writing Life.

Also for now, Raven’s Run will remain as individual posts in Serial for a while. That way you won’t be stranded if you came in late and are still catching up.

Confusing? Welcome to my life.

Raven’s Run 150

“Ian, you see things in people that aren’t there. You look at me and see someone you could live the rest of your life with, but I am not that person.”

She paused, watching me. Then she said, “Would you follow me again, if I left now?”

It had finally come, and all I felt was anger. Grendel was waking, reaching out from his mossy bed, with sleepy eyes, ready to slash, ready to rend. I tried to send him back to his cave, but he wouldn’t go.

Raven sat up straighter and pulled the covers tighter around her.

“No,” I said, “I would not follow you again. Chasing you was humiliating.”

“Ian, I love you.”


“Don’t make this harder than it needs to be.”

“Plenty hard already.” I pulled up a chair and straddled it. Set my chin on my forearms. Waited. A stone would have felt more than I felt, at that moment. Than I dared to feel. To feel was . . . No!

Not now. Not now. Not now. Not now.

Raven waited. She had seen this face before. Finally the red haze receded, breathing slowed, and I said, “Go ahead.”

“What did they do to you?”

“You know part of it. You won’t be here long enough to hear the rest.”

“Ian, I love you.”

“I know. I knew it before you did.”

She smiled. “Yes, I think you did. Ian, I don’t want to leave you. But I have to.”

I nodded. Nothing I could say would change what was going to happen.

“You are a complete person, in ways even I don’t fully understand. You had to become complete, or die. When I see you like you just were, it scares me. You have so much rage. But it is part of what makes you complete; part of what makes you strong.”

Raven tucked her feet under her, pulled the blanket tighter around her neck. She seemed to become smaller.

“I am not complete, Ian,” she said. “And I want to be. More than anything else, I want to be complete.

“Ian, your father was the central fact of your life. The way he raised you, then abandoned you, made you what you are.”

I shook my head. “He started me toward what I became. But this isn’t about me.”

“It is about you. It’s about both of us,” Raven said, “because my father is also the central fact of my life.”

“That’s ridiculous; Daniel Cabral is one of the most complete men I have ever met . . .”

It got very silent in the room while I choked on the obvious. Raven nodded slowly while I absorbed what she had known since Paris. Finally, she said, “I don’t want to marry Daniel Cabral. I want to become Daniel Cabral. And I can only do that by myself.”

*          *          *

An hour later, the rain started. The electric heater groaned and rattled, but it was no match for the cold that seeped in. I sat in a chair, dressed in sweats with a jacket around my shoulders, staring out past the streaked window to the heaving sea beyond. Raven stayed in the bedroom. The apartment was filled with a sad and gentle silence. The anger had washed away with the rain.

Finally Raven came out to stand beside me, and I pulled her into my lap. She nuzzled her head against my neck and said, “The rains have started. It’s time to leave.”


She ran her finger down my cheek. I said, “I still love you.”

“And I still love you.”

“But I won’t wait for you.”

“I know.”

“I have to live. I want to live. But when you are ready . . .”

“You can’t promise that. Neither one of us can.”


A shift in the wind rattled the windows.

“What’s left for us?”

“Now,” Raven said. “Tonight. And who knows, maybe someday – maybe forever?”


So it ends, for now at least. 

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.

Raven’s Run 149

“The central fact of our lives,” I said, “is that I love you and you love me.”

“Yes, Ian, I love you. I ran away from you because I loved you. I came back to you because I loved you, not out of guilt or duty. Eric was just someone to run away with.”

“I knew that in Paris.”

“How? How did you know?”

“Because compared to you he was an empty vessel. He could never be enough for you.”

After a moment, she said, “That’s why I chose him.”

Tears streaked her face. I touched her arm. She shook her head and could not speak. I pulled her out of the chair into my arms. She was trembling. She raised her wet face to mine; thrust her straining body against mine. Her pain and need were strong; it was no time for words. I carried her to the bedroom.

*          *          *

“Why did you follow me all over Europe?”

The afternoon had gone cloudy. A rectangle of cold, lifeless light hugged the far wall of the bedroom, inching its way minute by minute out of the room. In the long, sleepy silence after love making, Raven had wrapped the sheet around her as the room cooled.

“Because I loved you. But that wasn’t all. I wouldn’t have followed you if you hadn’t been in danger. If you had just left because of Eric or because you didn’t want to be with me, I would have let you go. I almost stopped looking, anyway.”



“Where you made love to Susyn?”


Mad violet eyes. Raven felt the tremor that shook me and stroked my arm. 

Susyn had lived four days with spine and skull shattered.

Raven shook my arm and said, “Let go!” 

I tried.

“You don’t wake up screaming her name any more,” Raven said.  “Do you still dream about her?”

“Probably. I still wake up in the night, sweating and exhausted. But now the dreams fade before I can remember them.”

“Because of her, you were ready to give up the search?”

“No. I made love to her when I had already decided to give up the search. There is a difference.”

Raven’s fingers touched the scars on my side. She sighed. She said, “Susyn meant a great deal to you, didn’t she?”

“I cared about the person I thought she was. I cared about an illusion.”

“And you made love to her.”

“Yes. That matters. It isn’t something I do lightly.”

“You loved her – or loved what you thought she was?”


“And you still do – somewhat.”


“Don’t lie to me.”

“Whatever I felt, I felt for a person that never really existed. Whatever I felt, ended when she shot at you. When she shot me.”

Mad violet eyes. The sound of her scream. The spine-shattering, skull-shattering sound of her landing.

“No,” Raven said, drawing closer, “that isn’t so. You don’t fool me. I hope you aren’t trying to fool yourself.”

The light had fled the room. I got up and dressed. Raven reached for the blanket and wrapped it around her. I was aware of waves crashing on the beach below. A storm was brewing somewhere out in the Mediterranean. Soon our retreat would become a cold, gray place.

“She mattered,” I said. “The person I thought she was mattered to me. That’s really all we have anyway – our perceptions. We don’t fall in love with people; we fall in love with what we think they are.”

“Ian, you see things in people that aren’t there. You saw goodness in Susyn. You look at me and see someone you could live the rest of your life with. I am not that person.” final post Monday

354. Cattle Junkies

This morning (May 3rd) they moved the cattle toward their high pastures. Where I live, that movement normally happens twice a year.

Here in the foothills of the Sierras, we are coming to the end of the green season, in a year that was unseasonably wet. For five or six months every year the hills are covered with lush grass and cattle. The rest of the year is dry, burned brown, and mostly free of livestock. Most of the cattle that disappear in May migrate directly to your local grocery store meat counter. Some of the mothers and calves which will provide next spring’s herds move up the mountain to summer pasture.

Mostly, this is by trucks hauling specialized trailers. You see them everywhere on the roads and in the fields during this season. But one local rancher still holds a biannual cattle drive. I get the impression that some the herders are paid hands, but most are volunteers. After all, if you were a cowboy, or worked cattle from your pickup truck and wished you were a cowboy, wouldn’t you jump at a chance to join a cattle drive? Even if it only lasted three days?

They pass only a short distance from my house, and my wife and I never miss an opportunity to watch.

I grew up on a dairy farm in Oklahoma. Twice a day from age eleven until I left for college I was in the close company of cows, and I miss them. My wife just loves animals of any kind.

What does this have to do with A Writing Life? If you were Truman Capote, probably nothing. If you were Gore Vidal — well maybe. After all, Vidal worked for a time for his grandfather who was Senator from Oklahoma. But probably nothing; Vidal, like so many writers, was an urban type.

I’m quite the opposite, and the natural world permeates my writing. While I will never write an Andre Norton pastiche about herding frawns across Arzor (a statement Norton aficionados will instantly recognize), watching the cattle go by is likely to inspire me to rush to the keyboard. Like I just did.

I took these pictures, and picked those which would leave place and people unidentifiable. We all like some privacy.


“Post”script, May 17: By coincidence, the second herd of the spring drive went by about six hours ago.