Conflict of Interest

I  went to Capclave 2018 instead of Lost Weekend 10 because the two conflicted. And because I can’t hang. At least at Capclave I can go to sleep at a reasonable time and wake at a reasonable time and take breaks and eat and do all the things that a 30-movie 4-day marathon exclude. Yes, getting soft in my old age.

I showed up around 3 on Friday, Sep 28th, about an hour before the first seminars kicked in and threw my stuff in the hotel room. Nice place. Then to it. The first thing I did was jump into a game of Valeria: Card Kingdoms,

which I had never heard of but is now definitely on my list of games to get. It was fun and I think I was on my way to winning but had to move on to the seminars:

  1. The Business of Editing. Panelists: Elektra Hammond, David Stokes, Jack Skillingstead, Alex Shvartsman. This was fairly basic with a lot of time spent discussing the various types of editing, from developmental to copyediting. The editors on the panel tend to work with people they meet at conventions or through recommendations so if you’re looking for a job, start attending. David Brin put Skillingstead through the most extensive editing ever. Brin had put together an anthology with a positive take on the surveilled society and Skillingstead’s submission wasn’t all that upbeat. Sheila at Clarkesworld had him cut 5000 words out of a 15,000 word story and he had to admit, it was better. Stokes said a story can always be shorter. Always. There are “hang out” novels, read for the author’s voice, and no one really cares how long it is or if everything in it applies. John Irving is a good example. Hammond said she often gets manuscripts that are really first drafts; the story actually starts in Chapter 4. Stephen King had written Salem’s Lot chronologically and was told to switch the first and last chapters. Voila, best seller. Skillingstead used to take short stories and type them out so he could see what the author was doing without the distraction of the printed “magic.” When an author signs a contract, it’s an agreement to editorial direction. No one’s words are so precious they can’t be changed, although Skillngstead hates it when editors mess with his sentences. Shvartsman reads a submission to the point he knows whether it’s right for him. Gardner Dozois could tell from the first page. Generally you have about a page to catch the editor’s attention.
  2. Small Press Publishing. Panelists: Danielle Ackley-McPhail, David Stokes, Ian Randal Strock, Sean Wallace. Most of the editors admitted they fell into publishing unintentionally. For Stokes, it started as a joke he made to a friend who was writing a book, “If no one else is interested, I’ll publish it.” What helped push him into publishing was the job market for PhDs in History. The primary contact small publishers have is at conventions like Capclave. The slush pile is murder to the point that Strock finds it’s easier to get pitches from people attending. Advertising works, but none of the publishers could say which piece of it does. Small presses publish the novels from big time authors that their big time publishers reject. Readers love it when an author has a body of work. A publisher doesn’t print books; that’s the printers’ job. A publisher puts a logo on the cover telling the reader this book is worth their time. The big publishers are run by accountants now, not editors, which is why you see a flood of identical books at any given time. When a formula succeeds, such as Harry Potter, they jump on it.
  3. Dark Fantasy vs Horror. Allen L. Wold, Michelle Sonnier, Darrell Schweitzer, Hildy Silverman. Schweitzer stated it baldly: there’s no difference between the two except as a marketing ploy. If a distinction is to be made then horror has less hope while dark fantasy deals with evil. Actually, I think it’s easier than that. Horror deals with the real world (yes, yes, define “real”) while dark fantasy with imaginary ones. If Frankenstein is running around, then it’s horror. If Puck, then it’s fantasy. M. R. James felt that horror should be somewhat remote, set in your grandfather’s time and you’re hearing the story some years later. Dark fantasy is not necessarily trying to scare you, like horror is. And please don’t include slasher movies, which someone on the panel called, “fuck and die” movies. Charles Williams ran with C. S. Lewis and Tolkien and wrote horror stories that only work if you believe in Christianity. A story is an event in someone’s life while a novel is a time period.
  4. Writing Near Future Scifi. T. Eric Bakutis, David Bartell, David Walton, Carolyn Gilman.

This turned out to be the best panel I attended the entire convention because it was free-wheeling and fun and it was more like a big discussion at a party than a lecture panel. Near Future scifi is the term replacing “mundane scifi,” I guess, because it deals with things as they are now, just taken a step further. I always defined mundane as scifi of the here and now, no FTL or galactic populations, and that pretty much is what we talked about. It is more a commentary about the world as it is, not what it can be. I buy that. Besides, writing mundane…er, near future…scifi is a lot easier than world building. Trust me. One of the panelists (regretfully I cannot remember who) said we are not in the Space Age, at least not any longer, because two guys with a canoe doesn’t make you a seafaring nation. So spot on. A guy in the audience said that Orwell did not anticipate we would actually like Big Brother. He wrote 1984 as a warning, not a prescription. The seminar then turned into a wide-ranging discussion about virtual reality, facial recognition technology, ads that social media offers and Amazon choosing your books for you. Very stimulating and lots of fun.

And on that note, I went to bed.

The next morning started out with some forgettable breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant and then on to:

  1. Writing Mixed Genres. Panelists: Jack Campbell/John Hemry, Brenda Clough, Andrew Fox, David Keener. The opening statement: “Amazon has changed our lives.” BFO. Most writers believe they have an insight denied the common man so are given to such profundities. But the point is valid because Amazon means cross-genre books that no self-respecting publisher would touch are now all over the place. You can find My Little Pony post apocalyptic literature, tentacle porn, naked battle elves…any odd combination you can conceive or not has some representation there. Fun to write, as Fox (who has the best novel title in decades, Fat White Vampire Blues) said, but hell to market. Seriously. Where do you list Naked Battle Elves? Under fantasy? Sexual perverted fantasy, at that? Shake my head ruefully. Publishers see everything in black and white, not the subtle shades that indies do, which is why the same authors dominate the shelves in bookstores. Walk into any of them and you’ll find six different editions of Game of Thrones. Heinlein said the publishing game was rigged but the only way to win was to keep playing. About the only place to find indie book titles outside of Amazon are at indie bookstores. No kidding.
  2. The Best of 2018. Panelists: Jim Freund, Jonathan Edelstein, A. C. Wise. Given the avalanche of possible reading material, both publisher and indie (see above), I attended this panel hoping to get some direction. Turns out this was a contest between all of the panelists about which of them was more hip to the Latest Thing. They did confirm a slightly distressing trend: translations are big. Specifically, translations from the Chinese. I’d already noticed that Chinese scifi stories were very much in vogue the last couple of years, especially in Clarkesworld. Last year’s Capclave seemed dedicated to it. Not that I’m opposed to Chinese scifi. Some of it is very good. But vogue tends to push out everything else and I wonder what I’m missing. Worse, it is cementing my suspicion that editors are making choices based on political correctness. As Wise said, it’s all about the color and sex of the writer. Since I’m the whitest straightest old guy in America, I haven’t got a prayer (that, and my crappy writing). Although, I am slightly Choctaw. My paternal grampaw and grandma were half Choctaw each, or some such combination (one of them may have been ¾, not sure) making my Dad a quarter and me an eighth (or does that make him half and me a quarter?). My grandparents are registered with the Choctaw Nation. No, really. I’ve got more Indian blood in my left foot than Elizabeth Warren has in her entire family. So maybe I should change my name to D. FallsDownTheStairs or something and claim a genyouwine Indian awthentical voice. Bet I’d get a publisher then. Anyways, the panelists gave some suggestions that sparked my interest, such as Blackfish City.
  3. Guest of Honor Interview, Nancy Kress. This panel was a delight, made more so because the interviewer, Jack Skillingstead, is Nancy Kress’ husband so there was a lot of fun with questions like “What’s for dinner?” I have read a few things of hers, notably Beggars in Spain, but she never was one of my top gotos. That’s changed after this panel. She’s won six Nebulas, two Hugos, and a smattering of other awards and runs the Clarion Workshop…or has some major doings with it, I’m not sure. She grew up rather isolated in northern New York (having lived there for four years, I can empathize) and thought all writers were dead, like Alcott. She did not see any scifi until she was 14 yo. She had a boyfriend who was a concert pianist and she would hang out adoringly at his piano while he practiced. But she was tone deaf and drifted over to his Dad’s bookshelves, where she found Clarke’s Childhood’s End. She didn’t want to be a writer, wanted to be a teacher and so did, 4th Grade.

During her first marriage, she was out in the country taking care of Irish twins…Irish twins? What’s that? Her husband was gone all day and at school at night so she began writing. Her first story was accepted by Galaxy…right before it went bankrupt. Every other writer in America knew it was going under and had stopped sending them stories, which probably helped her get accepted, but it took her three years to get paid the $105.00. While she was taking night courses, she met Judith Merril. Kress has written 136 stories, many of them novellas. Beggars is her best known and she wrote it out of jealousy of those who don’t need much sleep because she does. Her favorite of her novellas is Fountain of Age, and said she didn’t like all of her stories. I noted a slight tone of regret in her voice when talking about Beggars. I suspect she’s already heard enough about how good that story is and doesn’t want to be a one trick pony. Her first stories were lush fantasies, but she became hard scifi as she went along. Can’t take everything with you on a journey. Her first novel was Prince of Morning Bells, which she described as picaresque. She sent it to Ursula Leguin’s agent and the only reason he bothered was due to her short stories. Theodore Sturgeon gave it a good review. She has had a haphazard career, nothing planned, writing things that lit a spark within her, like a character or an idea. Her favorite author is Jane Austen and she does not understand why people don’t read fiction because the brain is wired to understand the world in stories. Her older son, though, reads only non-fiction: “Why would I read something that didn’t happen?”

The Dispossessed was the first scifi novel she read where the characters were rounded. Scifi up to that point was under the thumb of Clarke and Asimov and others who believed only in ideas, not characters. Asimov actually wrote an essay called The Little Tin God of Characterization.

Kress went to the Sycamore Hill workshop run by Bruce Sterling, who is not a tactful man. He described the novella she brought as “rearranging decorations on a moldy scifi cake.” He called it a series of tropes and said she had not considered economics, what the haves owe the have-nots. So she rewrote it into Beggars of Spain.

She really hates scifi movies because they get everything wrong. Apparently the only things that can escape a black hole are Hawking radiation and Michael McConaughey.

  1.  By contrast, the Guest of Honor interview of Alyssa Wong was not a delight. It was like watching an episode of The View. I guess. I never saw an episode of the View but I imagine it is like this. At one point, I thought Wong and the interviewer would braid each other’s hair. Yes, yes, generation gap, I freely admit. But it was off-putting and not a big motivator for me to read anything Wong has written. Which I have yet to do.
  1. Gravity Waves. Inge Heyer. I love Dr. Heyer’s presentations. Last year, it was the solar eclipse and this year, gravity waves. How cool. Einstein told us 100 years ago that they existed. And it’s simple, really: if matter moves, you’re going to get waves, just like a boat moving through water. Matter tells spacetime how to curve, and objects moving through space follow that curve. Think of a roulette ball. Saturn is the least dense planet in our solar system. It can actually float in water, if you could get a tub big enough. Run-of-the-mill gravity waves are too slight for us to detect. You need something really big, like a collision of two black holes or a neutron star going off, something like that, to produce a gravity wave powerful enough to notice. At least, at a distance. If one went off next door, we’d know it because life would end. Fortunately, there’s nothing powerful enough close enough to us to produce that magnitude of a wave, but it does make detecting one problematic because the likeliest candidates are so far away, outside our galaxy. Hence, the LIGO project, interferometers built far enough apart that a real gravity wave can be verified and not just be a truck driving by. The buildings contain mirrors suspended from pendulums and they’re looking for the “chirp,” that exact moment when two black holes merge, followed by the “ringdown.” There have been two confirmations so far of gravity waves, and we’re working on four more. One of them came from the Magellanic Clouds and looks like a black hole merge. When neutrons collide they create heavy elements like gold and silver. One such collision could create as much gold as 10x the mass of the moon. Yes, this all sounds scattered but that’s because I’m giving you the treatment from my notes, which are kind of random. If you want a better take on this, look at my review of Govert Schilling’s Ripples in Spacetime. Quite a pleasure to find out that Dr. Heyer and Schilling are acquaintances.
  1. How to Remember Everything. Lawrence M. Schoen. I’d tell you more about this seminar, but I forgot. Yuk yuk. Been waiting all day to say that. John Jacob Astor, holding a teddy bear with a golf ball for an eye and wearing a rose with a caterpillar on it and smoking a cigar, is frowning at Crazy Horse killing a buffalo, while a ceiling fan holding mushrooms spins overhead. He’s waiting to escape on a hot air balloon made out of the Declaration of Independence as the iceberg is hit and the sand castle on top falls. So it’s to the moon and its fire hydrant opened with a can opener to wash away a sundae on top of an Aztec calendar into the mouth of a husky. I think I’m missing four or five, but that’s pretty good after a month.
  1. Book Design 101. Danielle Ackley-McPhail.

Danielle and her husband, Michael, are my two favorite people at Capclave although they are far too busy to do much more than exchange greetings and gossip when I pop around. So I jumped at the chance to take a basic book design workshop she put on because she knows what she’s doing. I am trying my own hand at formatting the Frank Vaughn trilogy and could use some tips. She worked publishing for 25 years, the past few with Dark Quest Books, which died at its own hands. I’d love to hear that story. It was a good workshop and I learned that I don’t have a clue what I’m doing so maybe I’m going to hire a pro.

I went to the Awards Ceremony as standard and talked with some people and bought a couple of books, one I didn’t want but I like the author so there’s that.  I got Nancy Kress to sign a couple of her short stories in a couple of anthologies I have, one of which

already has Greg Bear’s signature. Two more to go, that is, two more still living. I went to bed, got up on Sunday and, ya know, I’m done, so I went home.

But not before buying a ticket for next year. They’ve got Robert Sawyer as the Guest of Honor.

Oh boy.

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World Series Update

Figured it was about time I updated things, like several series I finished over the past few months:

  1. Daniel Suarez’ Daemon and Freedom. Daemon left me breathless. My goodness, talk about brutal and ruthless. Freedom, though, threw a great big bucket of ice water on all that when it turned the entire story into typical far left corporations-bad communes-good kerap. But it did underscore the far left’s willingness to slaughter millions simply to install their own narrow version of how the rest of us should live. Under their guidance, of course. Because there’s something about being a talented computer programmer that gives you a greater ability to tell everyone else how to live their lives than they can on their own. Still, it’s a great read. Just know what you’re getting into.
  2. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary series. Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, Ancillary Mercy…wow, wow, WOW! Just love this trilogy and, yes, I understand it’s more than a trilogy but these are the base books and you gotta read them before you read anything else. The story of Breq, the ancillary (read “zombie soldier”) who becomes a starship (yep, a starship) and then a Fleet Captain opposed to the warring aspects of his empress (read “clones of the empress who are fighting each other”) as he cherishes the memory of his beloved captain when he was a starship…c’mon, with a description like that, you know you have to read them. The last book reduces this universe-wide story to a single star system, which makes the whole thing manageable. You can catch your breath.
  3. N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series. The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky…wow, wow, WOW! Nothing more to say. She’s won the Hugo three years running for a reason.
  4. Abaddon’s Gate. The third book of The Expanse series. Let’s just say this completely changes the direction of the story. Completely. I don’t know if that’s good or bad yet. Tell ya after the next one, Cibola Burn.
  5. Second season of Jessica Jones: Hmm. Not…bad, but who’s this whiny, self-pitying dweeb and what have you done with the real Jessica Jones? And Trish as Hellcat? Dunno ‘bout this.
  6. Second season of Luke Cage. That’s MUCH better. They got away from the 70’s-style blaxploitation silliness and made a gripping, gritty, street fighter black superhero show the way it should be. I could have done without the tropes (“Hands up, Don’t Shoot” did not happen) but the show played straight throughout. Shades is now my favorite villain: a murderous cold blooded killer with a conscience. And Misty Knight has come into her own.

7. Second season of Iron Fist. Hmm. I’m only halfway through and have mixed feelings. When I’m done, I’ll give this the full treatment.

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Harsh Mistress

The 49th anniversary of the first moon landing passed a few days ago with no fanfare, no notice, no interest. As has every single moon landing and its anniversary since about the time Alan Shepard whacked a golf ball into orbit there.

I get that. Once something’s been done, subsequent doing of those things stir little interest. Whoever was tenth to reach America didn’t get the press that Columbus did.

But the first moon landing was a big deal to me so on July 20th I did what I did back on July 20th, 1969 and took my telescope out and gave the moon a look-see.  These pictures are courtesy of a Samsung 9 through the eyepiece. It was a cloudy night and things were a bit eerie, but not bad.

Not bad at all.

Look at this place. Harsh mistress, indeed.

We should be there. Maybe not on the moon itself because, harsh, but a space station orbiting it, definitely. Then we can shoot things over to Mars and go monolith hunting around Jupiter and haul back an asteroid or two for fun. All the enviro-istas will scream about exploiting space but, gotta ask, strip mine for minerals here, or pick up a few loose rocks lying around the Kuiper Belt? Your choice, dudes.

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The Dad of Frankenstein

I saw the movie Mary Shelley  a little while back. Pretty good. Enjoyed it. Elle Fanning


was far more ingenue than Mary Shelley ever was but, fine, she has the look. Thought it gave a very accurate portrayal of Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, two of the biggest creeps in history but even better was the treatment of a long-forgotten historical figure: Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin. Played by Stephen Dillane (who most of you will know as Stannis Baratheon),

this is Godwin as aftermath, shell shocked and hammered to his knees, fallen from grace yet still filled with grace, even though a few more hammer blows are coming…at the hands of Mary Shelley. Godwin was one of the greatest persons of those times, greater than Percy and Mary. Funny how things work out.

William Godwin was the first Communist…first published Communist, I should say, pre-empting Karl Marx by about seventy or so years. Indeed, the Marxster took a lot of his ideas from Godwin. Godwin was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution and called for the annihilation of society so we could all live together in a state of free love and free food and free everything. Like I said, communist. He was the toast of the radical sect, the toast of the town, hung out with Thomas Paine and Thomas Holcroft while the cool kids, Coleridge and Wordsworth and Hazlitt, followed him around like a puppy. He went to all the best parties. He was the Bernie Sanders of his time. He was also quite the novelist, having written the first literary thriller, Caleb Williams. Bon vivant.

And then it all went to crap.

Why? Well, the oldest story of all, love.

Godwin fell in love with an unusual, beautiful, wondrous woman named Mary Wollstonecroft.

She was a radical feminist and the two of them not only hit it off, they became pregnant with Mary — without benefit of marriage vows — which was about the lowest thing you could do in 18th Century London, especially since Wollstonecroft already had an illegitimate daughter, Fanny, conceived with an  American (gasp!) when she was living in revolutionary France. Friends and relatives shunned them. When the French Revolution turned ugly and bloody, everyone else shunned them and they were hounded and jeered and sneered at and shaken to their ultra radical cores to the point that they compromised their principles and got married, although they gave a nod to said principles by maintaining separate households (next to each other), communicating by notes most of the day. For a few months, anyway, before Wollstonecroft died from childbirth complications.

It broke him.

More so than the wholesale repudiation he got from kith and kin over his radical philosophies because Godwin loved Wollstonecraft with an intensity, a purity, a completeness that is the stuff of legends. Gone. Just like that.

Reputation gone, too, no friends, no family, everything he believed and taught now ridiculed and proscribed, saddled with a baby girl and a stepdaughter…what to do? The worst thing possible: he married a widow named Mary Jane Clairmont with two children of her own; one of them, Claire, becomes an important figure in the whole Percy Bysse/Mary Shelley saga. Clairmont was a horrible woman, a harridan with a cruel streak directed mostly at Mary but often at Godwin. She was a spendthrift who quickly drove the already indebted Godwin into the slums. But she had an excellent sense of organization and she pulled together a bookstore as she directed Godwin to pen a series of children’s books under a pseudonym. Now known as the Juvenile Library, the books are still in print. No surprise, William was a great writer. Just read his St. Leon.

It’s one of the scariest novels ever written, even more so than Frankenstein.

That’s the William Godwin you see in the movie: wounded, trashed, scorned and spat upon and grieving the one great love of his life. He still keeps Wollstonecroft’s portrait over the fireplace. And then to have his one daughter run off with that cad Percy Shelley and go live the very bohemian lifestyle he and Wollstonecroft encouraged…most of us wouldn’t be in the best of moods.

But yet, he is. Well, not happy-dancing down the street or anything, but Godwin reacts so well, so calmly, In the movie, he’s self-possessed and fair and even, a very accurate portrayal, if contemporary accounts can be credited. What a great soul.

I’ve often wondered why Hollywood has never done a film about Godwin and Wollstonecroft. I mean, radical anarchist with radical feminist defying social mores, what’s not for Commie Hollywood to like? Maybe because it didn’t turn out so well? Pish. It turned out wonderful. The love is still in Godwin’s eyes.

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Nick of Time

I was sitting around doing nothing this past Friday when my son called and said, “Hey, would you like to meet Nick Foles?” Seems the Nickster has written a book and was signing copies at a bookstore in Harrisburg. Harrisburg? That would mean driving in Pennsylvania, something no true son of New Jersey takes lightly. What is the most terrifying sight on the highway? A Volvo with PA plates. Every accident in New Jersey is caused by someone from Pennsylvania so it is with trepidation that one crosses the border. But, what the hey, if we survived, might be a pleasant afternoon’s diversion, so I went.

I figured this would be like one of my book signings: a few people, mostly relatives, would show up to drink coffee and eat canapes I bought and then hit me up for a loan while studiously ignoring the purpose, which was, buy one of my books…although SOMEBODY must be buying my books because I just doubled my Amazon income. Yep. This time last year, I made $4.08. Today, I got $8.16. Thanks, relatives!

There were, though, a few more people than I anticipated:


The line stretched for six blocks. It took us longer to find the back of the line then to drive to Harrisburg. Yes, that’s an exaggeration, but not by much. I was dressed for an inside-the-store tete-a-tete — button down shirt, dress pants, black leather shoes, you know, old guy clothes — not standing on a cement sidewalk for three hours in 92 degree weather, no shade, no water. I went back to my son’s brand spanking new Mazda something-or-other to sit in the air conditioning. Couldn’t start it. Friggin’ thing doesn’t have an ignition key slot even though it’s got a friggin’ ignition key. What the eff? So I called him and called him and called him and he finally deigned to answer after I had lost six pounds in the sauna bath of the front seat and there’s some button and you push on the brakes and, ya know, screw you kids. Get off my lawn.

Anyways, made it back and it was, despite Vietnam jungle conditions in high summer, quite pleasant. We were mixed in with a rather affable group of Eagles fans…yes, they do exist…and had lively conversations of Wentz vs Foles (Foles, hands down), Buddy Ball versus Pederson ball, and who do we hate more, Roger Goodell or Chip Kelly. I remain in firm conviction that Randall Cunningham, Captain Scramble, was the best Eagles quarterback of all time and no one beats Reggie White and DeSean Jackson and yes, yes, I’m stuck in the 80s and 90s, when football was football and not the slightly rougher version of soccer that Goodell and the rest of the jelly spines seem bent on turning it into and, ya know, screw you kids. Get off my lawn.

At some point a Steelers fan came out of her house and waved a Terrible Towel

at us and we laughed because it’s the Steelers, the Eagles’ annoying little brother, and we tolerate them. But then some drunk Dallas Cowboys fan came out of a local bar and, well. Best no more be said. There were Eagles chants and a guy with a guitar singing Eagles songs. Yeah, there are some.

We shuffled along and eventually we were inside and air conditioning, thank you Lord, and the line was shuffling up to some long table where about four or five guys were standing while pulling books out of boxes

and handing them off to the shufflers who then shuffled off to the left. My son got his book and I followed along craning my neck for the next watering station and couldn’t really see anything so I asked, “Where’s Foles?”

My son pointed behind me. “Already met him and got my book signed.”

Wow. I completely missed it. Can that man run an offense, or what? It was so fast I didn’t get a book.

So I walked back there and gave him one of mine.

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Picture Books Writ Larger

A couple of days ago I finished Caliban’s War, the second book of James. S. A. Corey’s The Expanse series, an event  duly noted and then reported by Goodreads. Without my input. Sheesh. If they know when I finish a book, I guess I’d better not rob a bank.

Ordinarily I would not discuss a series unless I was (a) finished with it, like John Sanford’s Prey series, or (b) impressed with it, like Daniel Suarez’ Daemon series.

In the Expanse’s case, it’s (b), but also for another reason I’ve mentioned in other posts: the difference between book and movie…er, TV series. Because you can’t discuss the Expanse without giving tacit nod towards its rather extraordinary dramatization; at least, not with any completeness. So let me get the comparison out of the way: they’re both great. And different from each other. Thank God.

There is a strong school of thought that original material must be adhered to slavishly, or it’s a sellout, abomination, bastardization, travesty, crime against humanity, pick your judgment. I once adhered to the same school, watching series or movies made from my favorite novels/stories/comics whatever with a critical eye for any deviation from text…Aha! Look! Matthias isn’t a vampire!

He’s just a nut! There’s a certain smug satisfaction from noting such deviations because we readers are better people. Sniff. We haven’t needed pretty pictures in our books since kindergarten…except in our comic books, er, graphic novels. Sniff.

Over the years, though, my moral superiority has eroded. It started with Doctor Zhivago,

believe it or not, which I saw when I was about ten or eleven and just loved. Yeah, seriously, I did, although I didn’t understand half of it so, decades later, I tried to read the book.

Tried. Couldna make hide nor hair.

But the stake through my non-revisionist heart was Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings,

which Jackson valiantly tried to take verbatim from the books but couldn’t because, Holy Hannah, each movie would be a week long so he had to deviate. Horrors! But they were very good, so I sniffily re-read the series with an eye towards looking down nose at that reprobate Jackson and, ya know? Tolkien is turgid.

Just is. The movies are actually better.

Yes, you can now revoke my library card.

Conclusion: it’s not a sign of superiority to demand the rigid correlation of book and movie. Why? Because text and film are such radically different mediums, and one does not mesh perfectly with the other. Ten pages of Tolkien can be ten seconds of the movie. Vivid lush description is a delight to read on the page but boring as hell on the screen. How much of a Bergman movie can you actually stomach? So trying to literally reproduce one into the other isn’t always a good idea. Por ejemplo, 2001 Space Odyssey. Great movie, great visuals, still not sure what it’s about. The subsequent novel? Reads like a script of the movie, the only positive is at the end of the book where you get a bit more clarification of Space Baby.

A bit.

Face it, book and movie are two separate but equal entities, but that’s okay because you get two, two, two joys in one.

One plot, that is.

Presented for your re-consideration, then, the Expanse novels and TV series. I can tell you straight up that they are so different from each other that you can enjoy one without spoiling the other. Indeed, I don’t think I would have continued reading the novels if I had not seen the series first because the first book, Leviathan Wakes, has a very murky opening. Yes, so does the series, but not enough to puzzle you completely, like the first one does. Soooo, since I knew from the series what was going on, I could cut through the novel’s murkiness and continue without running into any spoilers because, different from each other. You don’t even meet Secretary Avasarala (played by Shoreh Agdashloo,

to whom I pledge undying love) in the novels until Caliban’s War, but she’s right there from episode one of the series. Thank you, just thank you. And Caliban’s War ends with an event that I have been anticipating  since the end of Season 2. Not a spoiler, an anticipation.

So, yes, I will continue reading the series and begin Season 3 with nary a concern one will cross centerline and smack head-on to the other. And if it does? Eh.

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Escape Velocity 2018 Part 2: Brin and Bear It

Alright, alright, no more puns. Upun my word.

The next event after Greg Bear was David Brin talking about the future. Wow, a double header and I was all a twitter but, I messed up the time because I was hobnobbing with Greg Bear (we hobnob) and thought the Brin show was actually an hour later than it was and holy moly! I’m late! and I burst into the middle of Brin’s…Skype call.  Drat. I thought this was gonna be an in-person performance and that may have been the original intent but circumstances prevailed. I guess. I came in late so I was not entitled to an explanation. So I surreptitiously put away my copy of Murasaki

which Greg Bear had just signed and settled in for the remainder of the show.

Brin is a bit PO’d at Andy Weir because Weir liked the movie version of The Martian while The Postman

had its synapses removed. I haven’t actually read the novel so I cannot make a comparison between book and screen version but the movie…yeech. I wonder how many authors hate their screen versions? That’d make an interesting survey.

Brin thinks going back to the moon is stupid. There’s nothing there. Now, putting a space station around the moon…yeah, do it. The tourism alone would pay the fare, and it would be a good place from which to launch intra-solar missions, like collecting asteroids or looking for the proto-molecule. It would also be an excellent place to keep security assets because they’d be immune to anti-sat weapons. Brin is my kind of militarist. And futurist. He believes there is a never ending human impulse to fall back on feudalism. No kidding. Instead of ever onward and upward to the Bright Shiny Future, we are one temper tantrum away from the Dark Ages. Be on your guard.

I then drifted into another panel I had been looking forward to, Faith and Reason in Science Fiction. I sort of have a stake in the topic

and was interested in the latest takes from the oh-so-smart panelists:


One of the pastors on the panel said she did not believe in the literal Bible and that it was “too serious to take seriously.” This is why I no longer go to church. This is why a lot of us no longer go. The only churches left that still hold to a modicum of Bible-based faith are obsessed with evangelizing their already evangelized congregants or are taking the Bible too literally, like that whole 6000 years-old Earth thing. Or bringing in rock bands for two hour singalongs. No thanks. Soon to be spewed.

I don’t get the whole faith-versus-science trope to begin with. How does one obviate the other? How many of you have taken samples from a neutron star? Yet, you take their existence as a given because it’s based on “science;” no it’s not, it’s based on faith, faith in human thought and logic and the scientific method. God? Tut, how quaint, a sop for the ignorant masses who aren’t as brilliant as we. Word you’re looking for here is “arrogance,” which is the main issue between God and Lucifer, who wants to be like the Most High. It’s the reason we’re all here, to resolve the dispute. You say no, we’re here because there was so much nothing that there was something…which is just as silly as claiming we are riding on the back of the cosmic turtle. But you’ll cling to the “so much nothing” theory because the idea of a Creator interferes with the party. And we do love a good party.

It is not “either-or.” Indeed, each new scientific discovery speaks more and more to a Designer because, Holy Hannah, are we wondrously made. And science tends to refute itself, like that whole steady state universe thing, each refutation underscoring the wondrousness of how we are made and proving that science can’t be the basis for your faith. Find something else. Like that cosmic turtle.

Some of this was offered by the panelists, ironically enough by born-again atheist Robert Aldrich, who said science is not a faith system but an investigative system, which is dead-on right. He pointed out that scifi isn’t very sci because there’s laser swords, which are impossible. Lots of things that defy natural science show up in scifi because it can; it’s fiction and imagination and  a grand playground where every kid gets his own swing set. Guy seems squared away on this whole faith and science non-controversy. At one point, he rolled his eyes when one of the so-called believers on the panel contended that morality was Bible or God based, and I took it from aforementioned eye roll that he believes morality is an evolved trait that allows us all to live together in a civilized society, or something along those lines and I wanted to ask if that was, indeed, his position because I was going to challenge him to drive a school bus for one week and see if that revises his opinion but the Q&A, like all Q&As these days (see previous post) turned into a writing seminar for one guy who was interested in character development.

Other points raised seemed to be apologetics of one kind or another. The Battlestar Galactica reboot was scifi concerned with the questions of existence, yeah, yeah, and the older scifi tradition had room for religion and Star Trek had a chapel on the Enterprise, yeah yeah which doesn’t make any point towards the topic at hand. It seemed like the so-called believers on the panel were intent on looking progressive and open-minded while the non-believers got to be radically dismissive of any religious belief, even ones involving the backs of turtles. A world that does not believe in God will believe in anything, (yes, I know, a paraphrase of an apocryphal G. K. Chesterton quote).

I gotta ask: why are scifi people so reflexively pro-Marxist, anti-conservative, anti-Trump, anti-America? Is it just vogue? Prerequisite for invitations to the best parties? Because it makes me think that scifi people think in bumper stickers. Just a spare survey of history shows what a disaster planned economies are, yet on any given opportunity they gush about them. Don’t actually have to live in Cuba or Venezuela, so can be exuberant. And, boy, don’t mention Trump. Scifiers get downright poetic in their vitriol, I guess because his election has set the Federation back a few decades. You know, the Federation? where everyone will have their own hospital and neurosurgeon for free and we’ll all eat organic protein that’s non-organic and love each other regardless of species and have jetpacks?

This is the 50th Anniversary of 2001: Space Odyssey, the movie, and all stops were pulled out in celebration, as it should be because that movie turned scifi topsy and turvy. Before it, we had Plan 9 From Outer Space and It Came from Outer Space and other cheese and occasional good ‘uns like The War of the Worlds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers but this one, whoa. Never have so many loved a movie in which they walked out going, “Huh?”

EV2018 put on a seminar hosted by people who wrote books about the movie or who knew people who worked on the movie or were the children of people who worked on the movie. Like Fred Ordway, Jr, whose father worked at NASA, was a pal of Werner von Braun and Arthur C. Clarke. Ordway mentioned to Clarke some of the projects he was working on and next thing he knows, Kubrick is calling: say, Fred, Art tells me you’ve got all this neat stuff at NASA, can you box it all up and bring it to London for some movie I’m working on? Guess security was a little looser in those days. John Lang, the son of art director Harry Lang, said a lot of the original drawings for the movie were tossed, but his Dad fished them out of the garbage for later posterity. Oh, Greg Nicotero was on the panel, too. He said he was the model for the apes.

Harry Lang didn’t go to the movies much so he didn’t know who Stanley Kubrick was which, according to everyone, was a good thing. Apparently, Kubrick was rather difficult. Oh, just say it, he was a downright pain-in-the-ass, wanting to know such things as the payload capabilities of the Discovery, which had nothing to do with the movie other than background accuracy. At some point, Kubrick decided to change from Jupiter to Saturn but, when the costs came in, decided to keep Jupiter. Kubrick and Ordway ended up hating each other. Wonder why.

Ordway was an Army Intell officer gathering information on rockets. He was having meetings with Russian colonels in Greenwich Village cafes, and making the rounds of science conferences, where he met Clarke. Clarke was working on a short story, the Sentinel of Eternity and a timeprobe anthology when Kubrick contacted him, elements of both ending up in the 2001 script. This was in 1964 and Kubrick wanted the movie to be as accurate as possible and only NASA knew what the moon and rockets actually looked like hence the call to Ordway and the boxing up of Uber Top Secret plans and photos for later cinematic display. Sheesh. Today, if you Email your yoga schedule, you go to jail.

Ordway went to every aeronautical company in existence and got thirty scientists to show up on set and put in their two cents. Like the design of HAL,

which was first conceived as a walk-in computer. That design ended up as Mother in Alien.

Everyone thought computer memory would be molecular by the far distant year of 2001, so that’s why you’ve got those liquid filled baby monoliths that Dave is fooling with…what are you doing, Dave? The HAL 9000 was actually supposed to be the IBM 9000, but Roger Caras sent them a letter going, “Oh, by the way, your IBM 9000 is going to kill people.” “Really?” IBM responded. “Take our name off, then.” That’s how we ended up with Heuristic ALgorithm 9000. This was one of the first product placement movies, with logos and stuff everywhere. The companies wanted everyone to know they were still going to be in business fifty years from now. You know, Pan Am, Howard Johnson’s, Bell Telephone?

Then we got to watch the movie. In company of these people.

How cool is that?

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Escape Velocity 2018: Bear With US

Harked I to the Gaylord Convention Center this past Saturday for the Museum of Science Fiction’s Escape Velocity, their annual convention of all things science fiction, emphasis on the science.

Nice place.

They were happy to see me.

Security was tight.

Some guy tried to read my mind but it didn’t work.

Escape Velocity is a three day convention, but I only go on one of the days. No real reason, just do, I guess because one day there is like six days at any other convention because, Holy Hannah, they’ve got a lot of stuff going on. So many seminars, so little time, so you gotta be choosy.

I walked into a seminar billed as the Seven Dwarfs or Trappists,

which I thought was some Disney version of severe monastic life but no, silly me, it was real NASA scientists talking about seven exoplanets discovered in the Trappist-1 system, which is a red dwarf star a few miles from here. Sounded like rocket science, so I pulled up a chair.

The Seven Dwarfs are planets very close to their red dwarf star (so is that eight dwarves?), all within the same size orbit of Mercury to our sun, which, you know, is purty durn close. You’d think they’d get burned but the red dwarf is a lot smaller and dimmer than Sol so you can fly ‘purt near to it without getting scorched. Two of the planets are in the “habitable zone;” not too hot, not too cold, which doesn’t mean they’re actually habitable because that red dwarf is a real pistol. It’s throwing out flares of ultraviolet and X-rays willy and nilly and at great intensities and amoebas don’t do well in that. There might be a magnetic field strong enough to protect the atmospheres of the two candidate planets, but who knows if either of them have magnetic fields, let alone atmospheres. That’s why the NASAers are very excited about the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, which will make the Hubble look like a pair of opera glasses. Even more exciting are the upcoming ELT (Extremely Large Telescope) and the OWL (Overwhelmingly Large Telescope) and the 30 Meter Telescope…yep, that’s their names. Gotta hand it to NASA, no ambiguity. The NASAers showed us a very cool little film

taken from an earth-based telescope of four Jupiter-sized planets orbiting another distant star and whoa, imagine when we get the OWL up there? We’ll be able to watch Russian soldiers on guard duty exchange pictures.

The TRAPPIST planets are weird. Their year is a day and one side is always facing the red dwarf. Permanent day, permanent night, depending on where you are. Sounds like an intriguing story idea. If there are plants, then their leaves will be black to absorb as much light as they can. Alien, man.

I then stumbled into the last bit of a seminar with Greg Nicotero, the guy who makes the zombies for the Walking Dead, which I have stopped watching because, geez, get to the point already, will ya? They cleared out for the seminar I was most looking forward to: Greg Bear. Yeah, Greg Bear who, along with Alastair Reynolds and Robert Sawyer, is one of the three best hard core SF writers out there, in no particular order.

Amazing how much Greg Bear and I had in common. He was a Navy brat; I was an Army one. He lived in the Philippines as a child; I lived in the Philippines as an adult acting like a child. He read comic books and Creepy and Analog and got stacks of scifi out of the base library, just like I did. He even remembers the spinner racks filled with paperback copies of Moby Dick and Olaf Stapledon that graced the floor of every single drug store and five-and-dime in America. He, also, sucked at math, killing his astronomy career, as I killed my own. I’m thinking at this point that he may be a long lost brother but no, that’s not it: we geeks of a certain age share a common lifestyle.

He sold his first story while a junior in high school and wanted to write fantasy more than he did scifi but did write both, which can diminish your audience because they generally choose one or the other…which I do not think is true. I love both, as well as horror and magical realism and anything that involves the weird and the future and the scary and the wondrous, no matter what you call it. I think this plethora of genres and their attendant subs diffuses the bigger category of imaginative fiction (I guess they call it speculative fiction now). Interestingly, Bear fingers the New York Times’ reaction to JK Rowling as the reason for this plethora. The Harry Potter series was so blowing away all the other books on the NYT Best Selling List that they created the YA category to give someone else a chance. And from there, what have we gotten? YA Tween Animal Fuzzy LBGQT Urban Myth Superhero. With zombies.

Bear has written a lot. A. Lot. Pro. Lific, he is. I brought along a mere nine of his books, including three anthologies (Drat! Forgot my copy of The Mongoliad), for him to sign, which he was very gracious in doing so. When you’ve been writing quality stuff since the 70s, you’re going to have quite the corpus. And you’re going to be influential. He wrote a book called Psychlone, about a giant ghost attacking the West Coast (poet, don’t know it), an idea he stole from James Blish and which he thinks Ghostbusters stole from him. He was also a columnist, once writing an article about the Nebula Awards that killed his career with Del Rey (apparently, they took exception to his taking exceptions). He also wrote movie reviews, the first one being for the 1977 release of Star Wars, which I guess is akin to starting your quarterback career at the Super Bowl. De Laurentis Productions called him afterwards for suggestion about other scifi books to turn into scripts and he said, “Dune.” David Lynch has hated him ever since. I don’t know why. I thought Lynch’s version was decent. Sting as a Harkonnen, what’s not to like?

His most famous book is Eon, which was inspired by Stapledon, but it got rejected by just about everyone. It finally saw publication in the UK through Blue Jay Books and then Tor picked it up. His second big one was Blood Music, which began as a reaction to an Isaac Asimov article in TV Guide pooh-poohing the idea of shrinking people down to a certain size and still retaining their intelligence (this from the guy who wrote Fantastic Voyage).Small brain cells, doncha know. Bear got around that with the concept of intelligent cells. Take that, Asimov.

He’s acquired a host of new fans through his Halo novels. Halo novels. Okay. He admitted that the SF community takes a dim view of media series and yep, I’m one of those community peoples. It’s why I don’t read Star Trek or Star Wars novels. Seems like cheating. But, the kids love him, so who am I?

He has just finished his War Dogs trilogy, which is a salute to all the gyrenes and swabbies he knew while a Navy brat, to which I say, good on ya, mate. He is going back to fantasy with a novel called The Unfinished Land, a mixture of Lovecraft and Robert Louis Stevenson set in Elizabethan times. Sounds very cool.

Bear said that scifi is generally regarded as predictive, but that’s not true. It’s actually based on a willingness to suspend disbelief. Scifi gets a lot of things wrong (where’s my damn jetpack?). It’s really about principles that have not yet been proved or discovered, such as FTL travel (which I don’t believe will ever be possible, nor will we ever discover intelligent life  in the universe. I mean, look at us).

We then got into Q&A and, I gotta ask, why do people use the Q&A as a means of proving how smart they are? Come on, just ask a simple question instead of prologueing it with a rambling, incomprehensible ten minute meander across the spectrum of scifi topics, all the time expecting the guest – or anyone in the audience, for that matter – to pick a question out of that mess. There was a lot of that from the audience and I gotta credit Mr. Bear with making sense of what was tossed at him. The only true straight up question he got was his source of inspiration and he said it was what Philip Jose Farmer called the Black Gang, the subconscious. Don’t ever criticize it. And then he said something of which I wholeheartedly approve: being a writer means being alone. It means developing your talent alone. And always, always, believe in yourself. If people say your stuff is crap, be polite, tip your hat, and no longer have anything to do with them.

Hear that, MFA Programs?

More on Escape Velocity later.

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Memorial Day, 2018. Mt. Hebron Cemetery, Winchester VA




























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Old Boy’s Life

We of a certain age tend to wax nostalgic about those fabulous 60s. What, you don’t remember those fabulous 60s? Well, that’s because you’re not of a certain age or, as the old joke goes, you did the 60s right. Authors of a certain age write wistfully pleasant stories about growing up back then, such as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Stephen King’s “The Body,” and presented for your consideration, Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life.

Set in a small Alabama town in the late 50’s through early 60s, Boy’s Life is a murder mystery and a horror novel and a YA wizard story and To Kill a Mockingbird and you would think wrapping all that into one novel wouldn’t work but, surprise, it does. That’s because all of those are mere elements of the bigger story, which is coming of age in a time when America went from its best to its worst. Oh yeah, I’m telling you, that time period was the best. I’m sorry most of you didn’t get to experience it; instead, you get this sneering, leering mediocrity we call modern times and think because you’ve got the internet that you’ve got it all. You don’t. You missed it. People of a certain age are writing these golden-hazed  novels in an attempt to explain and describe what you missed. My upcoming Frank Vaughn trilogy (WARNING!!! SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION AHEAD!!!) … Frank Vaughn Killed by his Mom, Southern Gothic, and Looking for Don…is my own poor effort, although you’ll see that my 60s weren’t all that golden-hazed.

Anyways, McCammon’s protagonist is 11-year-old Cory living in the small town of Zephyr, Alabama (a geographically challenged location because it is outside Robbins AFB, which was actually in Georgia).  At about oh-dark-thirty one morning, he’s accompanying his father on a milkman route (yep, it’s early enough in the 60s for there to be milkmen) when a car zooms across the front of them and plunges into a bottomless lake. Cory’s Dad jumps in to save the driver because that’s what the stalwart men of the 60s (and all the men of the 60s were stalwart. Except Maynard)

did and finds a guy handcuffed to the steering wheel with piano wire wrapped around his neck so already dead and it’s a murder and a whodunit…and herein arises the first of several annoying plot points because Cory sees what could be the murderer standing by the side of the road watching the attempted rescue, and later finds an important clue at the same spot and doesn’t bother telling anybody about it. Really? What self-respecting 11-year old wouldn’t be pulling on Dad’s lake-soaked shirt and going, “Uh, Dad…”

Cory enters a short story contest put on by the town library and writes about the murder, including details of what he saw, and reads it aloud to, oh, everybody in town, thereby revealing to the Sheriff and Dad and, heck, the world that he’d withheld important information. That should righteously PO both Sheriff and Dad, but no. I guess Dad is too stalwart a guy to get mad at his son for committing a minor felony like obstruction, and the Sheriff turns out to be crooked anyway so discount him. Everyone else in town? They’re like, “Fancy that, the kid withheld important information. Guess I’ll get some coffee.” Even the murderer, who becomes apparent about halfway through the story despite gigantic red herrings tossed by the bucket load in your face, makes nothing of it. Like I said, annoying plot points.

There is a river monster that everybody believes in until Cory and a witness see it and then no one believes it exists anymore, which is just odd;  a triceratops that no one knew was a triceratops rampaging the countryside; a dog a la Pet Sematary; a rather obvious racist bombing plot; a voodoo priestess, a voodoo priest, and Cory and his pals sprouting wings and flying around. That about covers all the remaining plot points thrown willy and nilly to move things along and, you know, so what? ‘Cause that ain’t what this is about. Plot, I mean.

It’s about what you missed.

Go into this book with that in mind and it becomes something different: a portrait, and a pretty good one. I, too, lived for a time during the 60’s in a small Alabama town and I gotta say, McCammon nails the zeitgeist. Like Zephyr, my town had a local slattern running a house of ill repute, a local group of moonshiners, casual racism, a local rich eccentric, a local monster known as the Cryman soon to be (WARNING!!! SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION AHEAD!!!) novelized by yours truly, and ghost hot rods disappearing in the mists. I rode my bike like Cory did, hither and yon across fields and dusty roads from dawn to well past dusk with nary a parental concern, cruised woods and swamps and rivers in the company of pals, ran from bullies, sang and danced to the ever burgeoning catalogue of new bands like the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, and collected Famous Monsters and it was all safe, all wonderful, all magic. And don’t give me that rich white privilege BS. We weren’t rich, and lots of unwhite boys shared the same experiences. It was the time. You missed it.

I wish you hadn’t.

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