The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road by Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007. The Road is a novel that will stun your soul. I found this stark metaphor about human nature so beautifully written I would use it as a textbook on writing. Although the term science fiction is seldom used when reviewing this literary work, its theme puts it squarely into that realm of storytelling and the sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction, like the magnificent Earth Abides by George R. Stewart. Predicting the end of civilization and the death of mankind goes back to Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. The list of such tales is rather long, and the approaches to the idea vary widely. Some have hope, some are about rediscovery of ancient knowledge, and some like The Road, are a kind of last judgment of mankind.

For those who only watch their science fiction, think The Road Warrior or The Postman or Waterworld, usually featuring a few good people fighting against the lawless hordes of barbaric humans. However, these stories would be about overpopulation compared to The Road, which is set in a world so bleak the reader is not even sure if plants and bugs still live. Most post-apocalyptic novels are warnings to the present, telling us to get our shit together or we’ll end up like the people in this book. When I was young and read these novels they were exciting and adventurous and I’d fantasize how well I could survive. I’m much different at fifty-six and Cormac McCarthy’s story was like standing in front of a well lit mirror. I saw I don’t have what it takes. I would be one of the millions that died off quickly. And that’s depressing.

The Road is about Mankind and Mother Nature failing to the max. Nothing lives but a few humans in a cold gray landscape. We do not know why things have failed, but by reading the book the reader will realize just how vital civilization is to our psychic well being. For me at least, reading this book made me understand that the value of being human is directly proportional to the success of society. Without our social structure life is no more meaningful than dirt.

With the dark clouds of global warming gathering over our heads I can’t help but read The Road as prophetic. If civilization collapses and economics failed and the western world fell into chaos like Afghanistan or the Sudan, we’d be reduce to the strong preying on the weak, but as The Road shows even this only goes as far as resources allow. If the machinery of society came to an abrupt halt, we’d have seven billion people scavenging for food eating anything they could digest. Humans would be worse than locus.

In The Road what nature or man didn’t destroy the remaining people ate or burned for warmth. The unnamed father and son, who are the main characters of the story, trudge along an unnamed road, constantly on the lookout for any dwelling that might still have something eatable within. The only sources of food appear to be the leftovers of civilization or the flesh of humans. In this story the man and boy avoid all other people thinking of themselves as the last good guys running from all the bad guys.

Bleak huh? While reading The Road you admire the beauty of the writing but are horrified by the vision it creates. This book has the power to turn a liberal into a conservative. This isn’t a book you read for fun or diversion. It’s a parable about human nature that will open up your philosophical veins. We’d like to think that the future is always bright because who remembers the dark ages. I think some people will read this book and want to arm themselves with enough firepower to kill a whole city. But no matter how much food and ammunition you store up you won’t be able to protect yourself and family. Anyone with anything becomes a beacon to the desperate. McCormac aptly illustrates that living like a cockroach is the superior survival strategy, if that’s what you want. You may realize it is this world or nothing.

People like to believe in heaven, and maybe millions would be anxious to leave this planet for the next world if such a collapse occurs, but the real lesson of this story is civilization, law and order, economic stability, cooperation and trust is what we really want out of reality.


I read The Road by listening to the Recorded Books edition read by Tom Stechschulte. This dramatic reading magnified all the best qualities of the novel and made McCarthy’s writing vivid. A MP3 sample can be found here. This sample is not typical of the book because it uses one of the few flowery writing segments referring to a dream. It does give a feel for the setting and the end of the sample shows the more common POV of the father. I wished the sample had included the dialog between the father and son because Mr. Stechschulte’s reading is dead on in characterization.I got my copy at Audible.com, but it’s also available at Amazon and iTunes.

  • Be sure and read Jason Sanford’s essay Dipping Their Toes in the Genre Pool: The U.S. Literary Establishment’s Need-Hate Relationship with Speculative Fiction, which goes much deeper than I do in exploring the debt the literary world owes to science fiction and other genres. I used to be in a MFA program and experienced the strong bias the literary folk have against genre writers.  Sanford documents this in great detail. He also talks about Michael Chabon’s review of The Road and how Chabon tries to bridge the gap between the literary and genre world. Sanford also summarizes many of the literary reviews of The Road and how those reviewers failed to credit earlier post-apocalyptic novels.  – Excellent read.

JWH


Inventions Wanted #5 – Cell Phone Voting

    The news is full of reports on the failures of electronic voting machines. After the 2000 election everyone expected inventors would jump on the problem and produce a full proof voting machine. That hasn’t happened. I’m wondering if there isn’t a simpler solution. Why not use the cell phone for voting.

    Imagine on voting day just picking up your cell phone and dialing the number and voting. Could it get any easier? Nearly everyone has a cell phone. And if it was easier to vote maybe more Americans would participate in democracy.

    One of the major concerns of voting machines is whether or not they can keep accurate tallies. Cell phone companies seem to be quite good at keep call records. Another concern with voting machines is to make them fraud proof. Now here’s the problem with cell phone voting – big brother will know how you voted because accurate registration and verification tied to a system with perfect tracking means they could look up how you voted. However, there are solutions to that too.

    Cell phones have unique numbers. They are registered to you. Your phone could be registered with the voting registration system. It would be possible to invent a voting system that would take only one call from every registered number. It would also be possible to separate identity from voting at some point, maybe with an encrypted key in case of recounts. That means there would be two systems. First would be the voting system via the cell phone and second a database system collecting votes. At some point they could separate identity or make a complicated mathematical system that could reconstruct the voting if necessary.

    One thing I hate about presidential elections is we have to pick one guy who wants to solve all problems in the same way we do. In other words, if there are twenty issues, we want elect the candidate that closely matches the way we think about twenty subjects. I’d much rather that have referendums and just let us vote directly. That would change things so we vote for a manager of problems rather than a decider. In the debates we always hear each candidate talk about their solution to a problem. I’m much rather that politicians research all the good options and then put them through a series of public votes until we come up with a solution that the majority wants.

    Easier voting would allow for more referendums. So why invent a complicate system that is usually set up once a year and few people participate in when an easier system may already exist that would get more people voting?

JWH

The Game of Rat and Dragon

    The job of a science fiction author is mighty tough! To write a great science fiction story requires showing the reader something they’ve never seen before, and that ain’t easy. Age of the genre and reader are big factors here. When science fiction was young, “The Time Machine” by H. G. Wells dazzled the Victorian world with its hallucinatory imagination. On the other hand, you’d need to be Amish to be dazzled by the idea of time travel anytime after turning five-years-old in our SF jaded world. But then I was in my forties and charmed by Terry Bisson’s “Bears Discover Fire,” and I was in my fifties and dazzled by Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson. In other words, even with an old genre and an old reader, it’s still possible to for a science fiction writer to succeed with creating a breathtaking vision.

    Today I decided to try another Wonder Audiobooks title, “The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith from 1955. I’m glad I did. I read this story years ago, but listening to the excellent reading by Matthew Wayne Selznick I was able to “see” it with fresh sense of wonder. Audio productions are like getting a high definition television and wanting to see all your favorite shows again. Like I explained in “How Audible.com Changed My Life,” reading with my ears lets me appreciate fiction so much better than when I read with my eyes, and this old Cordwainer Smith tale was a good example.

    Cordwainer Smith broke on the scene with a distinctive voice, working in a field known for being tone deaf. Now he wasn’t a great writer by literary standards, but the old concept of a one-eyed man living among the blind applies here. “The Game of Rat and Dragon” take cliché space opera and adds new dimensions making the story vivid, thus I think creating something new in the field. This story really does lay the foundation for stylistic explorers like Samuel R. Delany and Roger Zelazny in the 1960s.

    If you ever get a chance read some science fiction from the 1920s, like from early Amazing Stories. Then read Asimov’s Before the Golden Age, for the flavor of 1930s pulp writing. After that read Adventures in Time and Space to get the feeling of how J. W. Campbell shaped the 1940s. Science fiction genre is always evolving. The 1950s brought its own breakthrough in style, and writers like Cordwainer Smith, Jack Vance, and Alfred Bester made their impact.

    Listening to “The Game of Rat and Dragon” let me feel that difference in a magnified way. Cordwainer is at the beginning of his career, but all his elemental seeds of his later story worlds are planted here. This story, which is poorly written by MFA standards, with its heavy handed setup common for stories of the time, still takes off and shines when it comes to creating a vision of something new.

    It evokes awe and emotion in this old jaded reader, although I wonder how it will work with younger readers of today. It is primitive compared to today’s writing, so young readers may feel like they are hearing something from old time radio. If you look at ISBDF, you’ll see its still being anthologized as late as 2006, so I do have hope it’s a story with lasting impact, and I’m very appreciative that Wonder Audiobooks published the audio edition.

    I don’t want to give away any of the ideas and spoil this story, especially since it’s short and somewhat expensive, so I won’t go into what it’s about. Don’t read the links until after you have heard the story. “The Game of Rat and Dragon” is $4.88 for Audible.com members and for anyone it’s $7.95 at iTunes. I wished Wonder Audiobooks had given us two Cordwainer Smith stories for the same price to entice more readers to try Smith because I’m not sure about the market for single short stories. Let’s hope they succeed. WA could have created a nice mini Ace Double type collection with “Scanners Live in Vain.”

    Another odd idea would have been to make a complete audio edition of the October, 1955 Galaxy magazine, in which “The Game of Rat and Dragon” first appeared. I don’t know how involved it would be to get copyright permissions, but that sure would make a fun blast-from-the-past time capsule.

JWH

Have Space Suit-Will Travel

Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein is my all-time favorite book and I’ve read it every few years since I discovered it in 1965. I turned thirteen in late 1964, so discovering Robert A. Heinlein and science fiction during puberty integrated a biological transformation with a sense of wonder. If we could only warn kids that whatever pop culture you take in during that time it will be imprinted into your soul. The thoughts and emotions generated by the book are recorded in my brain alongside intense powerful memories.

But there’s more, like the say in info-commercials, because 1965 was when the 1960s became the Sixties. Discovering science fiction during a social revolution only enhances its call for human transformation. NASA was blasting off with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. The Great Society, Civil Rights and feminism were all demanding major changes. And the pop culture of movies, television and music made it feel like we were transitioning from the black and white Fifties to a new Technicolor world, like when Dorothy walked out her black and white house into Oz.

While the greater world erupted into wars, riots, demonstrations, my personal world blew up too. From 1963-65, I went to five schools because of moves brought on by my restless military employed dad who moved more than even the Air Force ordered. During this period my father had two heart attacks and was forced into “retirement” where he had to work two or three low-level jobs to make family ends meet and pay for his hard drinking. My parent’s already stormy marriage moved into hell-mode, and my mother took up my father’s hobby of boozing, but she was so bad at it she almost got my sister and I killed while driving drunk. I won’t go into all the memoir-gory details, but suffice it to say I had plenty of reasons for embracing the powerful escapist qualities of reading science fiction.

No matter how many times I try to write this I can’t recreate the setting of when I read Have Space Suit-Will Travel for the first time. There was one more powerful force of nature that came into play: music. Imagine Pulp Fiction without the music, and I mention that movie because living my life was like watching that film. While science fiction painted fantastic worlds through my eyes, music filled those worlds through my ears while I read. The music of 1965 provided the soundtrack to this novel and the times, and on that soundtrack are some of the best pop songs ever like “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan, “Downtown” by Petula Clark, “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire and “Stop in the Name of Love” by the Supremes, among countless others.

When I picked up Have Space Suit-Will Travel and opened to the first page all the planets were lining up in a great gravitational surge causing a perfect hurricane of emotions. I could have read anything and it would have become the greatest novel of my life, but Have Space Suit-Will Travel was it. I sure wish it hadn’t had such a dorky title. I could write hundred thousand words about why Have Space Suit-Will Travel affected me, but let’s just say I was at the right place at the right time in a very receptive mood and it did a number on me. Boy did it ever.

Finding My Religion

 

Why is this book so important? It’s just a kid’s book. All I’ve got to say is a lot of other people came under the sway of Heinlein in the 1950s. Over the years I’ve notice countless comments by people in various lines of work about how they were influenced by Heinlein. You can search Google but the results are generally disappointing, and only reflect the negative qualities of using the Internet as a reference tool. Heinlein in Dimension by Alexei Panshin is a good place to start, but the more recent Heinlein’s Children: The Juveniles by Joseph T. Major goes much deeper, and Panshin wrote a great introduction, “Heinlein’s Child” that mirrors many of the stories I read about people discovering Heinlein.

For over forty years I’ve been trying to figure out what this book did to me. It became my Bible and religion, and although I’ve tried to explain that many times before I happened to catch an old movie on TCM, Things to Come, that has a scene that captures the essence of Heinlein’s sermon. I think it’s worthwhile to quote it at length. In the 1936 film about war and progress, a futuristic city has just launched a space capsule to the moon:

An observatory at a high point above Everytown. A telescopic mirror of the night sky showing the cylinder as a very small speck against a starry background. Cabal and Passworthy stand before this mirror.

 

CABAL: “There! There they go! That faint gleam of light.”

 

Pause.

 

PASSWORTHY: “I feel–what we have done is–monstrous.”

 

CABAL: “What they have done is magnificent.”

 

PASSWORTHY: “Will they return?”

 

CABAL: “Yes. And go again. And again–until the landing can be made and the moon is conquered. This is only a beginning.”

 

PASSWORTHY: “And if they don’t return–my son, and your daughter? What of that, Cabal?”

 

CABAL (with a catch in his voice but resolute): “Then presently–others will go.”

 

PASSWORTHY: “My God! Is there never to be an age of happiness? Is there never to be rest?”

 

CABAL: “Rest enough for the individual man. Too much of it and too soon, and we call it death. But for MAN no rest and no ending. He must go on–conquest beyond conquest. This little planet and its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time–still he will be beginning.”

 

PASSWORTHY: “But we are such little creatures. Poor humanity. So fragile–so weak.”

 

CABAL: “Little animals, eh?”

 

PASSWORTHY: “Little animals.”

 

CABAL: “If we are no more than animals–we must snatch at our little scraps of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more–than all the other animals do–or have done.” (He points out at the stars.) “It is that–or this? All the universe–or nothingness…. Which shall it be, Passworthy?”

 

The two men fade out against the starry background until only the stars remain.

 

The musical finale becomes dominant.

 

CABAL’S voice is heard repeating through the music: “Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?”

 

Cabal’s beliefs sum up exactly how I felt after reading Have Space Suit-Will Travel. I had already abandoned the religion my parents tried to force on me in my childhood, and I was looking for something meaningful to replace it. Heinlein’s belief in humans having a manifest destiny to explore the galaxy felt right. If we are no more than animals then we have to snatch at our little scraps of happiness before oblivion overtakes our small fragile minds, and eventually the collective consciousness of the whole human race when it becomes extinct. The question is whether or not we can become more than animals and make our own destiny.

Losing My Religion

 

As serendipity would have it, just after watching Things to Come I found over on Edge.org “What Have You Changed Your Mind About in 2007” survey. This major article features a lot of serious people rethinking a lot of serious ideas, including manned space exploration. In 2008, do I still believe in my religion? That’s hard to say.

If you are someone who writes you will understand it when I tell you that I’ve tried to answer that before. In fact, many times. The last time was, What Happened to My Future? – from January 2007. It’s January 2008, so maybe it’s an annual unfolding of my unconscious at the beginning of the New Year. There are core emotions, or biological programming, memories, or whatever, that just nag the hell out of me, causing me to write about them over and over again. Each time I hope the focus of thoughts will make things clear and exorcise their haunting. I’m like my own psychiatrist trying to get myself to experience a breakthrough so I’ll understand why I am the way I am.

Another way to think of it is I’m a programmer looking at old code, examining loops and functions deep in a billion lines of code wondering what they mean to the current functionality of the program. This time I’m going to look at the subprogram introduced when I read Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein in 1965. If I could time travel back to my 13 year old self and ask him what his life would be like in 2008 it might reveal a lot about why I am the way I am today. However, does understanding the past ever free us from its programming? Can we reprogram ourselves over again?

Robert A. Heinlein seduced his readers into the romance of space exploration. Heinlein preached the gospel of the manifest destiny of human kind belongs exploring the galaxy. Heinlein was selling science fiction as something greater than Buck Rodgers crap, which is hard to believe because Have Space Suit-Will Travel was a parody of kid’s TV shows of the day, so how subversive could it be? America has always sold the future in a big way and Heinlein preached with the fervor of Elmer Gantry.

Evaluating the validity of space exploration is beyond the scope of a blog entry so I want to focus on one tiny view of how Have Space Suit-Will Travel intertwined in my mind, and how so very strangely it leads me from 1965 to 2008 and writing this essay.

Why would a thirteen-year-old kid read a book and decide living in outer space is the ultimate goal of his life? What’s so appealing about the high frontier? I’ve been able to look inside of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space capsules several times in my life and there is nothing glamorous about them, but during the sixties I envied those astronauts more than anyone else on Earth. The mature “me” knows I could never have been an astronaut. Hell, I’m squeamish about public toilets and I’m addicted to creature comforts. But let’s say that volunteering to be a colonist on the Moon or Mars required no discomforts greater than traveling on a jet and living in a hotel, what makes living on those rocky worlds so appealing?

Is life so meaningless on Earth and so meaningful if we can blast off for parts unknown? Is breathing bottled air so much more exciting than breathing fresh air? There is absolutely nothing on the Moon and Mars other than rocks, and I was never interested in geology. Playing Freud I could say having two alcoholics for parents and living in a DMZ between the two of them and their never ending war was enough to make my 13-year-old self want to leave Earth, but I don’t think that’s it either. Although I have to admit that my teenage years of fiction and television addiction and playing around with drugs was obviously my psychological effort to escape.

The ending to Things to Come is the clue. By the way, I had seen this film before, many times, but I had forgotten it, so when its ending stood out like beacon it got me to thinking. Was Heinlein influenced by H. G. Wells? Most modern science fiction disappoints me because it lacks this philosophy. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy was a good adult exploration of these ideas, but it had little impact in the field of SF. From what I can tell most people want entertainment from SF, not a religion promoting the conquest of space. Is it time for me to give up too?

I don’t know if I can give up. It’s like people who lose their faith late in life, they can’t just chuck it all because too many lingering subprograms. I’m like Mother Teresa, with a lot of doubts after seeing years of harsh reality. And there are two subtle things that I have to distinguish between: science fiction and space exploration. Science fiction has as much to do with the realities of space exploration as the Harry Potter books do to the realism of magic.

Let’s face it, fiction, no matter how fancy you make it, is about entertainment and escapism. James Joyce can pretend to show us the world, but what Joyce shows us is no better than what Monet shows in his paintings. In the end, both writers and painters make something artificially beautiful for our minds to contemplate, but their allusions to reality, are just that, illusionary. Have Space Suit-Will travel is gorgeous jewel of a picture for me to contemplate, but it lives on its own with no real connection to the real world.

Now for believing in space exploration. It seems tragic that we live in such a large universe but are confined to such a small portion of it. It may not be possible to move our fragile life very far from Earth. And humanity, and life on Earth, is like the life of one person. We come into being, live for awhile, and die. The desire to explore space is also the desire for the human race to live longer, to seek immortality. But even this universe will die someday. The real reason to colonize space is to provide life insurance for mankind in case something happens to Earth.

When I first read Have Space Suit-Will Travel I couldn’t imagine my own death or the death of the human race, which by the way is the subject of the book. Now that I am older, the knowledge of death creeps into my life like the slow decay of rust. Yeah, Neil, you were right, rust never sleeps. The reality is that most of humanity does not see the value of space exploration. It’s like that old Woody Allen joke where he professes he doesn’t want to find immortality in his work, but he just wants to live forever himself.

I think this same philosophy applies to environmentalism. People do not want to sacrifice for space or the Earth because the benefits are not direct to them. In other words, buying into Heinlein’s religion of manifest destiny of exploring the galaxy just isn’t natural. Like doubting Christians though, I always want to hold out for the possibility that space exploration will happen.

Like the people contemplating changes of mind at Edge.org, my change of mind for 2008 would be about science fiction. I officially declare that I no longer believe that science fiction is about science, or has any relation to it. From now on, whether I call the books I read science fiction or fantasy, all I expect of them is to be entertaining, and any logical analysis will only focus on judging the consistency of the fictional world the author creates. Now, do I really believe that? Yes, for all books of science fiction I read. But if I ever wrote the science fiction books I dream about writing, I’m going to do what Heinlein did, write the best entertainment possible and continue the religion.

JWH

Living in a Science Fiction World #1

    The Internet is truly amazing, but I’m not sure if Millennials who never knew a world without the Internet know that. I thought I’d pass on some old fart stories about how social networking among science fiction fans used to work. They aren’t as bad as the stories my father told me about walking miles to school in the snow in Nebraska, and as some jokester once quipped, uphill both ways. Actually, when I lived in New Jersey in the late 1950s there were times my little sister and I did walk miles to school in the snow. It was a blast. Life then was still very much like that movie A Christmas Story. No computers, cell phones, GPSes, video games, high definition TV, or iPods. Cars didn’t talk to you either.

    When I discovered science fiction in the early sixties I didn’t even know there was a separate genre of books and movies called Science Fiction. Well, it certainly wasn’t something they’d teach in school or your parents would tell you about. Before the Internet information was scarce. Back then the philosophy of adults were kids should be seen and not heard. It’s not like now where parents are your pals and they do everything for and with you. Kids lived in Kidworld and information passed from kid to kid. And if you worry about the accuracy of Wikipedia, kidnet was completely unreliable. Theories about where babies and Santa came from were as varied as the religions of the world. Parents like to pretend their kids knew nothing, and would even smack a kid upside his head for saying something smart, so it was better just to pretend to be stupid. So how did I find out about science fiction?

    I knew I loved monster movies that would come on TV on Saturdays and sometimes they were about trips to Mars and Venus where four earth guys would find a whole civilization of pointy-bra wearing women. What more could a kid ask for in life? How could I find more movies like this? I liked reading, but mostly read non-fiction books about NASA, dinosaurs and war. In the sixth grade a teacher read A Wrinkle in Time to us after lunch and I wanted more books like that. In the seventh grade I stumbled onto When Worlds Collide and After Worlds Collide, and then Jules Verne and H. G. Wells after seeing movies based on their books. It wasn’t until 1964 when my eighth grade teacher produced a list of approved science fiction writers I could read that I learned the magic words were “Science Fiction.” I then got systematic about finding SF books. A major discovery was some libraries even had SF sections, like at the Homestead Air Force Base Library. Now that I had discovered this wonderful genre I wanted to meet other fans.

    My point of that long story is to explain that ideas passed by word of mouth. Networking used to be called friendship. Nobody talked about computers or owned one, they were mysterious giant machines mostly referred to in cartoons, and normal people couldn’t comprehend them except in humor. Not only did kids not have cell phones, but grown-ups frowned on the idea of kids using the family phone. People joke about TV being a vast wasteland with 200 channels and nothing on, but back when I was a kid there were just three channels and the Beverly Hillbillies and Bewitched wasn’t very informative about the real world. Kids today just don’t realize how rich they are in information.

    I got to thinking about this when I was reading my RSS feed for SFSignal and it made me realize just how easy it is to locate people interested in the same subject I am. In 1965 I read science fiction pretty much in isolation. I had no friends that read science fiction and whenever I’d meet someone that did we’d strike up an excited conversation. In other words, meeting people with similar interests was random. The science fiction book section wasn’t at a mega-bookstore but was half a twirling wire rack of paperbacks at the drug store.

    Social networking meant joining a club of likeminded individuals and meeting face-to-face during monthly or weekly meetings. Before I could drive I felt like I belong to a group by joining The Science Fiction Book Club or subscribing to Galaxy and Analog magazines that had fan letter columns.

    Before computers it seemed like science fiction fans were few and far between. Communication with SF fans was through letters in the magazines or fanzines. At first I lurked, like lurkers on a BBS (a bulletin board system, an early attempt a social networking via computers). I just watched and learned. In 1970, just after I moved to Memphis, I noticed a letter in Ted White’s
Amazing from a Memphis guy and I called him up. He told me about the Memphis Science Fiction Association. That’s where I met Dr. Darrell C. Richardson and Claude Saxon, two old time collectors of science fiction and pulps, and Greg Bridges, a guy my age who wanted to produce a club fanzine.

    Before there was email, IM and text messaging, there was something called a letter. Most people wrote letters by hand using a pen and forming their personally invented typeface by scratching ink marks on pieces of paper. Individual fonts were hard to decipher because size and shape varied widely. Fans, as we science fiction fans would call ourselves, used a typewriter to create letters to send to one another. Letters worked like emails in that they went anywhere in the world with the correct email mailing address, but they were slow, usually taking weeks to make a two way exchange.

    Typewriters are like the keyboard of your computer, but they had a mechanism for handling paper – imagine a printer built into your keyboard – with a typeface installed on a piano key type arrangement that struck an inked ribbon above the paper and left a mark. Typewriting was sort of like using Microsoft Word but infinitely aggravating. You couldn’t edit or correct without a lot of trouble, so the easiest thing to do was strike over words with mistakes. Yet it was a giant step in technology over handwritten letters. The technology originated during Mark Twain’s lifetime, so think steampunk. If you wanted to save a copy of your email message, it required inserting two pieces of paper sandwiching a piece of carbon paper into the printing mechanism – very messy. It was more work than walking miles to school in the snow.

    My first proto-computer like high tech gadget was a Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter. After I joined Memphis Science Fiction Association I was brave enough to join an APA – amateur press association. APAs go way back to the 1930s I think, and I joined SAPS (Spectator Amateur Press Association), an informal network of 25-35 people who communicate via publishing zines. Think listserv. You printed 35 copies of your zine, usually mimeographed, and sent them to the central editor, who collated them with the zines of all the other members, and then snail mailed the bundles quarterly back to all the members. Again, picture mailing list, but instead of a computer program doing the work, an actual person had to do all the work. Like letters, this listserv took months for a two way communication.

    Very few people, mainly hard core science fiction fans and other nuts took the trouble to be in an APA. 99.999% of people just communicated by talking. There were probably less than two dozen lists APAs in the world. The hunger to know likeminded people and form worldwide communication was limited to those crazy Buck Rodgers fans and similar sub-cultures. At a higher level fans tried to create their own magazines, also called zines, but genzines, rather than apazines (you see we had our own jargon). These had circulations from 20 to 800. They were like frozen web pages or blogs, made out of thick colored paper, again mimeographed and stapled together.

    The mimeograph machine was a printer, but very primitive. Affordable models were hand cranked. You’d buy stencils, long sheets of waxy paper that you would type on. Striking a typewriter key on a stencil cleared away the wax leaving a thin area ink would ooze through. Fanzine producers would always get the best typists in the club to type up the stencils, because any mistakes made a mess to be corrected with corflu – you figure that one. Stencils were attached to the mimeograph drum that bled ink through the typed letters on the stencil thus printing on the paper rolling under the drum one sheet at a time. Printing with mimeograph machines was as messy as changing oil in a car, but then Gen Y and Millennials wouldn’t know about that either.

    In other words, you had to really want to communicate badly to spend your personal money and time to go through such a dirty process. Producing a zine, like I said, was like creating a web page or blog, but you had to convince someone to read it. There was no Google. Usually you traded your zine for someone else’s zine. Again, another primitive network. Instead of having DNS servers, some people would be zine reviewers, because you could subscribe to their zine and have a Google like listing of current zines to mail your zine to – a type of push technology.

    Think of a zine as a web page that could only be read if you held it in your hands and the URL was identical to the creator’s home mailing address. Some would take weeks to load receive. Getting a zine in the mailbox was major excitement and I got them from as far as Australia and England. It was a world wide web, just made of paper and very slow.

    It used to be so thrilling to get a SAPS mailing. Think of a mailing list that takes months to get a reply. My zine, The Blue Bomber, named after my first car contained blog like natter about what I was reading, and then a long list of comments about the other zines in the previous bundle. For my first issue of The Blue Bomber, I had to drive from Memphis to Tupelo to use my cousin’s husband’s church mimeograph. He was the pastor. So my next high tech gadget lust was for a Gestetner mimeograph which I bought with Greg Bridges and another fan in a cooperative printing venture.

    Fans lived and died by the typer. This was long before word processing. Kids just don’t know how easy life is if you haven’t tried using a typewriter. In 1977 I got a job as an IBM MT/ST machine operator, which was a primitive word processor using two tape drives to edit and save files connected to an electric typewriter. Boy, I thought I was living in the future using that machine. As soon as I heard about personal computers I wanted one, but it was 1978 before I could afford one, then a lowly Atari 400, which wasn’t good enough for the task. I then got a TI 99/4A which also proved useless as a word processor. It was when I got a Commodore 64 that I first had all the components for word processing – CPU, disk drive and printer. By then I discovered bulletin boards and networks like Genie and CompuServe with my 300bps modem.

    This put communication with other science fiction fans in real time and that was a major breakthrough. All of a sudden I found thousands of people who loved to talk about science fiction books. Eventually I created my own 2-line BBS with my second 286 PC clone (our current chips should be a 886 by now). At first monitors were green screen and all text. Then I remember spending a small fortune for a VGA monitor with 256 colors. This was the 1980s.

    Luckily I worked at a university where we had access to BITNET and other networks including the wonderful NNTP (network news) for group communications. By then I was finding science fiction fans from around the world to talk to by quick messaging called emails, but not the flashy emails of today’s Outlook. By then graphical operation systems were showing up and we could send photos, if you know what I mean, and share cool things like Linux.  Finally Mosaic showed up and computer networks blasted into orbit.

    A lot has happened in the last 43 years. If I could take my current computer with its hi-rez 20″ widescreen LCD to the past and show my 1965 self he would have thought it more wonderful than anything science fiction had ever imagined. If I could show him how people shared interests with blogs and social networking software it would have blown his little mind. In 1965 I dreamed that by 2008 I would be living on Mars, but living on Earth in 2008 with the Internet is far more science fictional and far out.

    Hell, science fiction never predicted the iPod, but don’t get me talking about how much trouble collecting music was when it was stored on vinyl discs.

JWH

The Science Fiction Event Horizon

Science fiction has always been about speculation, and some old SF writers even called it speculative fiction. Humans have always speculated about what’s possible, with what if scenarios, so even though the word science had not been invented, I believe there were science fiction “writers” since the dawn of time. We know the ancient Greeks speculated on the existence of other worlds and life on them. Gods, god, immortality, sin, justice, and so on, are all theories invented by speculation. Our brains have had a mechanism for speculation for a very long time.

Regarding science fiction I believe that three things happen to speculative ideas. First, they can come true like submarines imagined by Jules Verne. Second, they will be discounted as impossible, like H. G. Wells idea of time travel or E. E. (Doc) Smith’s theory of faster-than-light travel. Third, believers can be trapped inside of the SF Event Horizon always living with the speculation that their idea is true, like true believers of the first speculative theories, religion.

For science fiction to remain vital it must stay above the event horizon or be pulled down into the gravitation hole of fantasy. Unfortunately, most science fiction ends up being fantasy, and believers end up stuck inside the SF Event Horizon. Take for instance the Star Wars series of movies, much loved by a generation of SF fans, and even non SF fans. Star Wars is essentially recycled SF from the 1930s and 1940s, the space opera of Edmund Hamilton, the aliens and mysticism of the Lensmen series, and the historical politics of the Asimov’s Foundation series. As speculative ideas, these were all born within the event horizon – anyone with a good education could have shot them down back in the 1930s, but few people had that education and they were exciting ideas that made legions of converts. Outside of the SF Event Horizon, writers in the 1950s and 1960s took SF in new directions leaving galactic empires behind, even though the general public didn’t discover galactic empires until the 1970s with Star Wars.

Science fiction of the 19th and early 20th century helped promote the reality planetary exploration, rocketry and manned space travel. Above the SF Event Horizon, we know a lot about space travel, a whole lot. Subscribe to Sky & Telescope for a year and study the articles and you’ll see our knowledge of astronomy is going through a renaissance of epic proportions. What we know about physics and astronomy puts nearly all speculative fiction about space travel inside the SF Event Horizon. If you are a true believer in Star Wars, then you are trapped inside and can’t see out. Is it any wonder that the generation after the Star Wars generation embraced Tolkien mythology and Harry Potter?

Science fiction as true speculative fiction is going through a morbid period right now. Has science thrown most of science fiction or speculative fiction into the gravity well of fantasy? How many stories are written about slower-than-light travel to the stars, and how many people do they inspire? Life extension is still valid speculation. So is artificial intelligence, robots, nanotechnology, the singularity, genetic modifications, and so on. We have lots of room for real speculation, but are we seeing it in science fiction stories? I don’t know, but I’m going to go look for it. I know I don’t see it on television or at the movies. Movies have always lagged far behind the speculative fiction of written science fiction. When will we see media fiction based on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy? Most kids today live in a world of SF video games that are stuck in H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds speculation from the 1890s.

If your idea of hard SF is military FTL epics then you are trapped inside the SF Event Horizon with Edmund Hamilton and Hobbits. Go read Charlie Stross’ The High Frontier, Redux which just scratches the surface of reality. If all you want is entertainment, then live inside of the SF Event Horizon and be happy. No problem, at all. I have no intention of attacking entertainment, but I would prefer to call what most people call science fiction as fantasy.

A long time ago, back in the Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell eras, science fiction was promoted as serious speculation about what we might discover in this universe. Even then it was 99.99% entertainment and .01% speculative fiction, but they sold the science and speculation angle hard. I know what’s called science fiction today is really just entertainment. The Science Fiction section in bookstores should really be called Fantasy Books, because science essentially disappeared from science fiction a long time ago.

That doesn’t mean that speculative fiction is dead, just mostly forgotten. Go watch Wired Science, a science news show on PBS. Its part modern Mr. Wizard show and part on the scene news with cutting edge science dudes doing far out work. Science and scientists have taken speculative fiction and run with it. If you flick around on your digital cable TV you’ll find a lot of science and technology shows. The real world makes Astounding Stories look dull and faded. When are we going to get a science fiction magazine that uses now for its fuel for speculative fiction, rather than living on stories that depend on variations of ideas long trapped in the SF Event Horizon?

When are we going to get a 21st Century Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, E. E. Smith or Robert A. Heinlein? They don’t have to invent speculative ideas that will end up being real and true, just new ones, based on ideas that haven’t already been proven false. It’s better to be a Jules Verne and nail a few with your imagination, but hitting one out of the park by inventing a concept like time travel is worthy too. My worry is most of humanity and its imagination is trapped within the SF Event Horizon. I worry that most people feel if they can’t cruise around the galaxy like Hans Solo or Captain Picard, then they’d rather live on fantasy inside the SF Event Horizon than to explore the dirty grim reality of an airless, lifeless rocky Mars.

Final note. If you want to read a beautiful speculative fiction story that is a metaphor for what I’ve written above, read The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Depending on which ending you believe is true, it will tell you whether or not you are living within the SF Event Horizon.

JWH

SuperBookworms

I feel a certain amount of pride in the number of books I read and take a certain pleasure in thinking of myself as a bookworm, but I’m a total slacker when I compare myself to some people I found on the net while searching for Best Books of 2007. Take a look at Jason Lunberg’s 2007 books read blog entry. He lists 90 books. I have a mere 39 on my log for 2007, down from 53 in 2006. My lame excuse, I got bogged down trying to listen to the Bible and while concurrently studying it at the same time, and I still haven’t finished the Old Testament or any of the supplemental books I bought to help explain it.

This got me to thinking. How many books can a person read in a year? I next found “Anglers Rest” with a partial list that ends at 109. After that I found lots of people listing 40-60 books, like “So Many Books” or “Orpheus Sings the Electric” that I tend to think that around a book a week is the range of the serious bookworm. Looking at the titles, these bookworms also seem to be very diverse readers, reading a mixture of classics, genres, literary and non-fiction, memoirs and biographies. It certainly would be fun to get a party of these people together and get them arguing over best books and writers.

Then I found Eva’s “A Striped Armchair” with 200 titles listed – but only through October 25th and I am in awe! Now she is a SuperBookworm! I’d call anyone reading more than 100 books a year a SuperBookworm. Of course, she is a twenty-one year old nanny taking time off after college before getting real, so that explains some things. When I took “some time off from college” or as my family refers to that time as “Jim’s unpaid vacation as a worthless bum,” I read 478 books in eighteen months. To be honest, I read to avoid growing up and to keep my mind off the question about what to do with my life. I have to wonder if Eva isn’t doing that too.

I kept going through my Google returns but I didn’t find anyone to top Eva. I then found a site that focuses on doing what I was doing with Google. Over at ~Listology~ they take this idea seriously. They generate lists of lists that take the idea to the extreme.

Still, reading over 200 books in one year boggles my mind. Is Eva the top bookworm of the year? I don’t know. If I was a SuperProgrammer, I’d write a program to crawl the net, gather up all the “Books Read 2007” lists from my Google search and compile a database and cross tabulate it to see what were the most read books and who read the most books. If you assume hardcore Bookworms and SuperBookworms have reached the stage of being jaded over bad books and also assume they would naturally seek out the best books, this system might tell me what the best books are to read.

I doubt I’ll ever be able to call myself a SuperBookworm and read one hundred books in a year again. When I was a kid in junior high and high school there were long periods where I could read a book a day, but those were crappy science fiction novels, and SF novels back then were often less than 200 pages long. I don’t want to read worthless crap books any more, and the types of books I like to read now take about a week to finish. I’ll be content with this pace if I read the best of best books and I’ll die knowing I did a good bookwormly job.

The motto I would like to live up to is: Why read any book when you can read a great book!” That’s not an easy motto to follow if you have an undisciplined mind that likes to pursue odd ends and thoughts. I could, but it would probably be silly knowing my true self, to make a resolution for 2008 to only read great books.

I want to read the best books, but I don’t want to stick to just the same old famous classics. That’s why I like to read these Books Read 2007 lists. However, I wish there were other ways to validate good reading ideas.

There are other methods to find lists of great books, such as the one at New York Magazine, “The Best Novels You’ve Never Read,” where they had sixty-one critics recommending their favorite underrated books from the last ten years and producing a year’s worth of reading for the average bookworm. I had read only one of these titles, The Accidental by Ali Smith, and shamefully, I had not even heard of most of the others. New York Magazine even tries to recommend authors who will be taught in school in 50 years in their article, “The Future Canon.” Again, I’m stymied by my lack of knowledge.

Not only am I not a SuperBookworm, but I’m just a normal bookworm with less than good taste. I suppose I need to go get Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and get busy. I’m not a total illiterate, because a quick glance showed I read 4 of the first 20 on this list of his titles at listology. Assuming I followed this list, it would take me twenty years to finish it, and that doesn’t count for any fantastic books written after the list was written, or cover all the Harvard Classics type books that aren’t on this list.

I should join the others and list my Books Read 2007, but glancing down my log I gladly notice a reasonable number of good books, and some even interesting books, but I also embarrassingly note I read a lot of crap, so I think I’ll curl my tail between my legs and walk away cowered by the SuperBookworms.

JWH