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Remembering Gateway by Frederik Pohl   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1978

I went through a phase as a reader when short fiction – science fiction specifically – was my thing. Publications such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and Galaxy, made up the bulk of my reading. For reasons I’ve now forgotten (this was at least forty years ago), I’d become fascinated by science fiction in its short form. Because of that fixation (one that I’ve never entirely lost) I came to read a serialized novel in Galaxy entitled “Gateway” by Frederik Pohl, one of the masters of the genre. I’m no longer sure what sort of impression the serialized version of what became an award-winning novel left on me, but it was strong enough that I recognized the title on the list of Hugo Award nominations when I started receiving material from the 36th World Science Fiction Convention.

I had such literature showing up in the mail because I’d acquired a membership and intended to attend. How could I not? It was being held in Phoenix, Arizona, the city to which my entire family had relocated two years before. No travel needed; even a hotel room was unnecessary. I’d read so much about WorldCon, as it’s generally known, mostly through the Hugo Award short-story anthologies edited by Isaac Asimov. I wanted to see one for myself. I stumbled over the fact that the WorldCon was happening in Phoenix when I start patronized a bookstore devoted to the genre (that, in itself, being a mind-blowing novelty for a small town guy). Long story short, when the Hugo Award for Best Novel was bestowed, I was there to watch it happen.

Though I read it as a serial, the version of Gateway that I now remember is the book, recently reread for this essay. If there were changes from magazine to book forms, they are lost to me. Picking it up again after so many years, all I could recall was that it had something to do with abandoned alien starships, a guy with serious issues, and a black hole. That proved accurate, as far as it went, though the novel turns out to be considerably more complex than those vague memories gave me to believe.

In a nutshell, Gateway takes place on a near future, somewhat dystopic Earth, that at the time I read it surely seemed a plausible extrapolation of the late 1970s. Human society is even more stratified than we see today, and poverty is an all-too-common way of life. The main character, Robinette Broadhead (who regularly reminds the reader that he is male, name notwithstanding) is a man from such a background who gets lucky in a lottery. He uses the money to buy his way into a place called Gateway, an asteroid full of alien technology left behind by a race humans have decided to call the Heechee. Among the artifacts, and central to the story, are hundreds of preprogrammed starships. People try their luck making voyages on these ships, hoping to return with artifacts or knowledge worth significant sums of money. And a great deal of luck is involved. Very few strike it rich, missions frequently return empty-handed, and death is an all-too-common fate for those who take the risk. In spite of the danger, there’s no shortage of volunteer “prospectors,” and Broadhead decides to be one of them. That is, until he arrives and finds out just how dangerous being a prospector can be.

The structure of the novel alternates chapters of Broadhead’s life after his Gateway experience, during which he is undergoing serious psychotherapy, and the events that took place while he was aboard the asteroid. (Sprinkled through the tale are “sidebars” made up of mission reports and personal ads from Gateway that add significantly to the world building.) It’s obvious from the start that Broadhead is a mess, and as the halves of the story, present and past, alternate, the reader gradually comes to understand the mental health issues he brought with him, to which Gateway added a massive burden of guilt.

Robinette Broadhead comes across, to me at least, as something of an anti-hero in spite of himself. He has the best of intentions, but his courage almost always hangs by a thread, and when the tension causes him to snap, he proves to be a danger to himself and others. He is also a man of considerable compassion, and has a capacity for love that is often at odds with his insecurities. All of this conspires to lead him into some poor decisions, and therein lies the tale. He does eventually take flights aboard three Heechee spacecraft. The first is a bust, he succeeds in spite of himself on another, and on the last – well, that’s where the black hole comes into it. It seems a standard of science fiction that black holes almost never do anyone any favors. And this one, while it leaves Broadhead a wealthy man after all, also bestows that burden of guilt I mentioned earlier. A burden that leads to the therapy that makes up half the story.

The story ends with Broadhead finally accepting an unpleasant truth, even as he manages to hold it all at arm’s length, ambivalent to the end. It feels as if the story dangles somewhat loosely instead of coming to a firm conclusion, but as this turned out to be the first book of a series, that’s understandable. The story doesn’t really end here. I’ve read the others, and if you like this one, they’re definitely worth your time.

The 1978 WorldCon, known also as IguanaCon II (even though there’s only ever been one of them – go figure) remains the only WorldCon I’ve ever attended. It represented a turning point in my life. Through it, I made a connection with the science fiction fan community in the Phoenix and Tucson areas, resulting in friendships that have endured to this day. Many memories from that event are held dear, and among them stands the one and only time I watched a book I’d read and enjoyed win one of these Hugo Awards.

The Successfully Unsuccessful Garden   Leave a comment

Gardening is one of those things in my life that keeps me grounded, no pun intended. The garden is always out there, even when I don’t make complete use of it. There have been years recently during which little was planted, and less harvested, due to unfortunate circumstances, some of them beyond my control. And then there are years like this one, when the motivation was there, the soil was turned, and the seeds were planted. All else being equal, it then comes down to the weather. The weather came down hard in 2020.

Our 2020 garden started well enough. My wife and I replaced yet another raised bed frame, work that brought the entire garden back into production for the first time in far too long. We started three varieties of basil, two of tomatoes, and three types of bell pepper, and an assortment of flowers suitable for warmer weather. We set out these transplants a little later than usual, but not so late that it should have brought a disaster down upon the garden. Unfortunately, the summer of 2020 decided to take over from spring ahead of schedule, and seriously overstayed its welcome. April was as hot as we would have expected from June, and May followed suit. As June melted into July, we waited for the temperature-moderating influence of the summer thunderstorm season, the so-called desert monsoon. It quite literally did not happen, and we endured one of the hottest and driest summers on record. The ridge of high atmospheric pressure responsible for the heat, as well as suppression of storm development even when the moisture was present, persisted. August became September, and we stayed “unseasonably” hot; the previous record for days with triple digit temperatures in a single year was broken on September 30th.

The garden baked. The drip irrigation system kept the plants alive, but the heat stress prevented them from being productive. On hot and breezy days, the plants simply couldn’t take up water fast enough to offset losses through their leaves. It was all they could do merely to survive. Tomato and pepper plants can’t produce viable pollen under such conditions, so no fruit was set. The flowers struggled and either bloomed sporadically, or not at all. Only the heat-loving basil did at all well, becoming the single success in the 2020 garden.

Sounds pretty hopeless, and from a certain perspective, it surely was. And yet the garden succeeded on a level that had nothing to do with our intentions or expectations.

If my wife and I were still part of the workaday world, the full success of this year’s garden would have been missed. But now we’re both done working for a living, and with the Covid-19 pandemic a clear and present danger, we stayed home. One of the things that has helped keep us from going completely crazy during this episode of isolation has been the natural history in our suburban lot. We have several very large mesquite trees on the property, and that well-watered vegetable garden. We put water and seed out for the birds, and hummingbird feeders are maintained that also attract Gila Woodpeckers and fledgling Verdins in addition to the Anna’s and Broad-billed Hummingbirds we had in mind. So, we live in an oasis centered on a garden. Being home all the time, we were given the opportunity to watch how this oasis, while not forthcoming in terms of tomatoes, made this hellish summer a little easier for local birds, reptiles, and insects.

Resident creatures that eat insects found plenty to work with. For them, the garden was amazingly productive. Lucy’s Warblers, Verdins, and Black-tailed Gnatcatchers foraged in the tomatoes, which were lush even if they didn’t set fruit. Abert’s Towhees and Curve-billed Thrashers scratched and shuffled through the mulch, seeking grubs – and finding them. When, during a “cold snap” (quotes denote sarcasm here) the tomatoes set a few fruit, a Phainopepla and a young Northern Cardinal took advantage. The Verdins apparent appreciated those tiny tomatoes as well, especially when damaged fruit attracted insects. The fruit being abnormally small and few in number, we left them for the birds.

When flowers did manage to bloom, they attracted and fed the few butterflies we saw this year. More common visitors were honeybees, solitary bees, and flies. Some of the tiny dipterid insects drawn to the flowers, gnats to you and me, were small enough to be caught and eaten by the Anna’s and Broad-billed Hummingbirds that were drawn to our feeders. Bug snacks for everyone.

No matter what I intend, I rarely harvest basil often enough to prevent flowers from appearing. Common garden knowledge holds that allowing basil to bloom ruins the quality of the herb. I’ve never found that to be particularly true, but usually remove flowers anyway to encourage new leaves. Even with that motive, I don’t always keep up with this chore. I was especially lazy about flower removal this summer. It was so hot all the time that I had little interest in being out in the garden working, even early in the morning. This suited numerous insect species, including honeybees and ants, that found in the basil flowers a source of much-needed nourishment. When I fully realized the resource I was removing, I stopped snipping basil flowers altogether, and let the ants and the bees take full advantage. And when the plants set seed, the Lesser Goldfinches came in to feast. At times, so of these small yellow, green, and black birds were working the basil patch that it would seem a tiny wind storm was taking place in that garden bed.

Birds weren’t the only backyard residents sustained by the insects calling the garden home. The resident lizards (four species) were also in good shape. The dominant species in our yard is the collared lizard, some of which grow to be eight inches or so long, and of respectable girth. These lizards are territorial, and the back yard around the garden was divided into four small kingdoms that I was aware of. The biggest of the bunch lived on the back porch, adjacent to the garden. Most mornings we found this lizard foraging for insects in the loose mulch on the tomato bed. He was an accomplished climber, and many times a rustling heard high in the vegetation would turn out to be George, and not a bird looking for a six-legged snack. George? It just seemed like a good name for him. I may have been suffering from a bit of cabin fever at the time, but the name stuck. He became quite fearless, showing no real concern when I went around in the early morning, watering things that weren’t on the drip system. Unless he thought I was about to douse him. George hated being wet.

All the bird life in and around the garden, along with the birdbath, attracted the attention of the resident Cooper’s Hawks. Of course, the hawks sometimes made kills during their visits, feasting on the other birds in the yard while also raising three hungry offspring. This wasn’t always the most entertaining aspect of our little desert oasis, but that’s nature for you. Always beautiful in its way, but not always pretty.

We spent the summer from hell stuck at home, watching the garden of 2020 fail and succeed, depending on how you decide to look at it. In years past a garden this unsuccessful would have been a source of great disappointment, and nothing more. Wrapped up in day jobs, we would have, at best, glimpsed the full story during an evening, or on a weekend. And to be honest, we were aware that much was going on in the garden that had nothing to do with us picking peppers. Being here full time made it possible to deepen that awareness. The garden failed as far as our direct intentions were concerned but sustained a kaleidoscope of life that enriched our lives and provided distraction when it was sorely needed.

Posted December 9, 2020 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

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Stories Along The Way   Leave a comment

From late summer of 2002 through autumn of 2018 I worked in various capacities for the University of Arizona. Since I lived all of four miles from campus, I avoided the hassles and expense of parking there by making the daily commute via bicycle. It was more than a merely financial decision. The ride each morning worked with the first cup of coffee to put me in a relaxed mood, awake and alert without any edginess. It was a ride through quiet neighborhoods, just long enough to make it feel like I’d gotten some exercise, but not so long that I started the morning tired. I almost always arrived in a calm enough mood to handle those days that make you doubt the wisdom of working for a living. And although the return trip in the afternoon or evening could be on the warm side in the summer, the return trip often – though not always – made it easier to leave the job behind for the night or the weekend.

I followed the same route to work every morning for almost all of those years, minus a nine-month episode that encompassed the last laboratory work I ever did. Even then, I merely turned westward half a mile earlier than usual. It comes as no surprise, then, that I became very well acquainted with the neighborhoods through which I traveled. Streets, houses, and landscapes all became as familiar as the street on which I lived, recognizable aspects of my work week world. Some of what I encountered was ephemeral. A particular vehicle would overtake me at about the same time each morning, and do so for weeks or months. A cyclist, usually a college student headed to campus, would pass me on the way for a semester or two. Then they wouldn’t, and I’d realize one morning that this particular bit of familiarity was gone. Sometimes the absence was temporary, more often it was permanent.

There were people I saw every morning for much longer periods of time, in some cases many years: joggers, dog walkers, and drivers backing out of driveways to start their own commutes. Those with regular morning routines left the clearest impressions on me. Those who walked or rode past me for years at a time waved or said good morning. We didn’t know each other, and yet in a small way we did, being part of each other’s daily routine. The near ritualistic “good morning” and “have a good one” as you pass each other by.

As I write these words it’s been almost two years since I last made that commute, but some of those faces have remained in my memory. A man and a woman and their dogs stand out most clearly, because of the way they inadvertently connected with the storyteller in me.

For several years I found myself headed toward campus in the morning, passing a middle-aged couple and their dogs. There was nothing outstanding about them, just a couple walking happy brown and white dogs that looked so much alike I assumed them to be littermates. Some mornings I exchanged cheery good mornings with the four of them. Now and then it would be either the man or the woman, walking both dogs. The dogs always led the way with that restrained pace dogs have when they wish their humans would walk faster. I rode past this couple and their lookalike dogs on a regular basis for years, long enough to see the dogs slow down and, in one case, develop a limp.

Came the morning there was a couple with one dog. That arrangement persisted for a year or two, then it was just a man with a dog. Neither seemed especially cheery, and the morning greeting was returned with a distracted nod. And then, after seeing none of them for a while, I said good morning to the man, who walked alone. He returned the greeting politely and walked on. That was the last I saw of him.

There is a story implicit in what I saw over the years. A melancholy tale of lives lived and seen by me only in passing. But there they were. The storyteller added it up to something plausible, if sad, and filed it away in memory for safe keeping.

The world is a kaleidoscope of stories, happening all around us. All you need to do is look away from yourself and be properly attentive. Some of these stories will involve you. Others will merely unfold in your sight, and of these there will be many seen in passing. Storytellers can’t help but notice the stories around them. They notice, and they remember.

I commuted to and from campus along that route for sixteen years. I rode through stories, some merely glimpsed in passing, one that quietly haunts me. I can’t help wondering if any of the long-time walkers, joggers, or cyclists ever pause to consider, from time to time, whatever became of me.

Posted October 15, 2020 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

Cooper’s Hawks Come and Go   Leave a comment

Once upon a time, we had a pair of Sharp-shinned Hawks in our neighborhood. My wife and I were sure of this identification because, for a brief time, we also had a pair of Cooper’s Hawks hanging around. It’s much easier to identify very similar species when you see them together, even if you need to look quickly to catch sight of both species during a hot pursuit. And when I said that this overlap was for a brief time, I meant that quite literally. Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks occupy such similar ecological niches that competition between them is pretty fierce. The Cooper’s Hawk is the larger of these dueling species, and so it’s no wonder that the smaller sharpies – as bird watchers often call them – came out on the short end. They were displaced. Or eaten. It could have gone either way.

And so, for several years now, there’s been a pair of Cooper’s Hawks nesting in our neighborhood. They are magnificent birds, but also a mixed blessing. These are one of two species of avian predators in our habitat, the resident Great Horned Owls being the other. (It’s a day shift, night shift sort of thing.) The hawks are strongly attracted to our mesquite-filled suburban yard, and hunt here on a regular basis. Their preferred prey items are other birds, which are also drawn to our yard in respectable numbers for the food, water, and shelter to be found here. Without intending to, really, our place is something of a buffet for hawks. I know they need to eat, but finding scattered feathers, wings, and heads in the yard does get old after a while.

Life is a chancy business in the natural world, even in places where the concept of ‘natural’ can become somewhat strained, as I believe it to be in the suburbs. As proof of this, late one evening in January (2020), just as the sun was setting, we heard the piercing screams of a hawk, sounds that went off the scale and raised gooseflesh as we listened. There was no doubt that we heard an animal in great distress. You didn’t need to anthropomorphize at all to hear pain and fear in those raptor cries. There was no knowing which hawk we’d heard screaming; we could only be sure it was a Cooper’s Hawk. Not long after, as night began to fall, I heard the hooting of a Great Horned Owl, a hunter that is known to sometimes kill and eat other predatory birds.

We feared the worst for the resident hawks, and in fact, after that evening there was no sign of the male half of the pair. Whatever actually happened to the male – distinguished by being smaller that his mate – all we saw for several weeks afterward was the larger female. She continued to hunt in the neighborhood, but was uncharacteristically quiet.

As spring approached, while on one of my morning walks, I saw her in conflict with a smaller Cooper’s hawk. This conflict repeated a few times over the following days, with the smaller bird – presumably a male – really getting the worst of it. At one point, half his tail feathers were missing. But his persistence paid off. One morning I saw both birds gathering sticks for a nest and carrying them up into a large Aleppo pine tree along my walking route. And in the last couple of weeks, a trio of apparently healthy and hungry young hawks fledged. They’ve been ranging around the neighborhood, not yet capable of hunting on their own. They often give high-pitched, plaintive cries to let their parents know where they are, and to remind them of their hunger. The adult birds have been so busy filling this need that, for a while, we thought something had happened to the female, we saw her so seldom. But she was just busy, apparently hunting over a wider territory to fill this sudden need.

One morning, about two weeks after the young hawks fledged, I witnessed hawk behavior of a sort I’ve never seen, or even guessed that I might. I was on yet another morning walk when the three young hawks flashed across the street ahead of me, chasing each other, zooming into and out of trees and sending frantic mourning doves fleeing in all directions. Suddenly, there were five hawks; the parents had launched themselves from a tall tree nearby and scattered the three youngsters, who quickly regrouped and gave chase. There followed a great deal of diving in and out of trees, in what appeared the be an aerial game of “tag,” a game the adults had clearly mastered. At some point the adults headed east and disappeared from view, their offspring trailing along behind, one by one.

I’ve seen young hawks play before. This is normal, expected behavior. Many species of animal use play as a way to work various instincts into skills for daily use. For these hawks this morning, it was all about flying and maneuvering, abilities they will need to refine, and refine quickly, if they are to be successful hunters. And to evade the occasional Great Horned Owl. What surprised me on that morning was the parental involvement. They joined the game, mixed things up, and effectively made the offspring work harder. All of it was surely good experience for the youngsters. It’s a display of behavior I’d never seen before, although in hindsight, it makes perfect sense that the parents would join their offspring in such an important game.

Posted July 29, 2020 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

Honest Sensitivity   1 comment

One aspect of this writing business always seems to take newly published authors by surprise. For some it’s a matter of “I never thought of that” puzzlement; for many others, it’s a serious shock to their creative impulses. What I’m talking about is this: the realization that, once you’ve published something – be it a short essay or a full-length novel – in a certain sense, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. To be very clear, I’m not talking about copyrights. I’m talking about the story and the reader’s experience of it. It’s your story when you write it, but it becomes their story as they read it. You no longer control the development of the story as it comes to life for readers, and how they react to the story as they read, interpret, and internalize the experience is entirely up to them.

Far more often than not, and assuming you’ve told the story at all well, readers will be on the same page with you, page after page. This is especially true of readers who already know your work. But there will be a few – and there will always be a few, for anything you publish – who have responses to the work that will puzzle you, or perhaps even shock you. “What,” you may well wonder, “brought that on?”

It’s a good question.

Reading and writing are flip sides of the literary coin. Heads you write, tails you read – which does rather strain a metaphor, but you get the idea. The coin itself consists of a lifetime of experiences, all the good and the bad; of being there and doing that, and having the essence of who and what you are shaped by these things. Reader or writer, you are that which exceeds the sum of those parts. Heads or tails, you bring all of that with you when you write and when you read. It will inform what you write, or your reactions to what you read. For some of us, meaning writers, it works both ways. Either way, it can’t be helped.

So, consider just the reader, for a moment, as seen by the writer of something that has invoked in that reader something of a negative reaction, be it distress or offense. What, indeed, brought that on? Nothing less than the sum of all those parts; those experiences that shaped the who, what, and why of the reader holding your book – or throwing it at the wall. A reader may like your work, and merely interpret it in an unexpected – or even embarrassing – way. But from time to time a scene or character touches a sore spot and triggers a stronger reaction than you intended, anything from emotional discomfort to actual anger or outrage. As a result, you might find yourself the recipient of a one-star rating and an angry rant for a review. You might even endure a public attack on your personal character. In a worst-case scenario, you might find yourself dealing with a snowball effect in the social media, as people sympathetic to that reader’s sensitivity respond to that person’s outrage by piling on, without bothering to read for themselves whatever it was you published. Suddenly, your work is getting all the wrong sorts of attention. And yes, I know a famous person once declared that there was no such thing as “bad publicity,” but there was no internet back then. Need I say more?

Anything you write and publish runs the risk of such a reaction, and if you want the general public to read what you’ve written, you really have no choice but to accept that risk. This isn’t to say you can’t be somewhat proactive when you write. Being slow to offend and slower still to take offense is always a fine policy. Deliberately writing something with the intent to cause hurt feelings or invoke anger in someone is difficult to excuse, and not a thing I’ve ever done. There’s rarely an excuse for trolling in any venue. But the possibility of giving offense exists nonetheless, regardless of your intentions.

So for my own part, I don’t seek the sort of reactions from readers that amount to being poked in the head with a sharp stick. And yet, for any sort of writing to be worth a damn, the reader absolutely must react to some degree to that arrangement of words. Where’s the point of balance to be found? Aside from not deliberately making that sharp stick and poking people, I’m not sure there really is one. You write with the best of intentions and hope readers see that this is the case. And you accept the possibility that not everyone will do so, as a sort of occupational hazard.

When I write, I’m guided by the belief that the story must be told honestly, and to the best of my current ability. That means that whatever the story requires to succeed, I’ll put into the most readable arrangement of words I can produce. There are lines I will not cross. For example, I won’t set down a graphic account of sexual violence. What if the story requires it? No story I ever write will require anything like that; I just don’t have that sort of imagination. For me to attempt such a scene would violate my principle of writing honestly; I would be faking it, writing something that simply does not come naturally to me. I might place such an event in the background of a character, to explain why that character behaves as he or she does. And I might hint or insinuate that a character is that sort of bastard, capable of such abuse, but you won’t witness any of his or her acts. To those who insist that such grim realities are a part of the real world from which we all must draw our inspiration and material, I like to point out that the same is true of bowel movements. But by all means feel free to define your own storytelling honesty – so long as you’re willing to accept the consequences without complaint.

There are a few other things I won’t include in a story. I won’t use the notorious “N word”, and I do my best to avoid obvious stereotypes regarding gender and race. However, as I write, I don’t work at being endlessly mindful that there are people out there who flinch easily at, for example, the use of profanity, or descriptions of characters enjoying alcoholic beverages. There is no way I could possibly write readable fiction while trying to keep my eyes open for every conceivable offense or objection that could be raised. It wouldn’t help if I did. Remember all those readers with all those wildly varying life experiences? I don’t know any of them personally. How can I possibly know about everything I should avoid for their sakes?

Whatever I write, there is almost certain to be someone who reads it and finds something objectionable. More often than not, I’ll never know about it, but I get just enough feedback of that sort to know it’s happening. So I write as well and honestly as I can, and I work within the assumption that a minority of readers will flinch at something, meaning the smaller number of readers, and not those who happen to belong to a group considered a minority.

You might take exception to something I write. Your life experiences may well leave you sensitive to one thing or another, and I just happened to put something in that story that touched the sore spot. It came too close to home, and something unpleasant was triggered. As you react, be assured it was never my intention to do so. Stories that are true to life will sometimes hold unpleasant things, for someone, whatever limits an author might embrace.

It’s like juggling eggs. No matter how good I manage to become at this writing thing, for some readers, I’m going to drop an egg or two. I didn’t mean to make that mess, but there it is.

On Being Hobbitish   Leave a comment

My wife and I just spent another desert spring morning digging up garden soil, getting seriously dirty and sweaty in the process. Birds were singing as we worked. The local covey of Gambel’s quail lurked in the bushes looking for the bird seed we set out, and really wished we would go back indoors and out of sight. Flowers elsewhere in the garden bloomed bright and fragrant, attracting a variety of butterflies and bees. A gentle, fitful breeze cooled us, and white clouds drifted through a high blue sky. Our project involved restoring a long-neglected garden bed that had lost its raised-bed frame and become seriously weed-infested. Hard work, but gratifying in the end. The soil from it needs to be lifted and sifted to remove Bermuda grass roots – a seriously invasive weed – and piled nearby. In due time a new raised-bed frame will be set in place, the soil returned and properly amended, and tomatoes will grow there. Growing plants being the point of a garden, of course. We can buy tomatoes suitable for our cooking needs, but those we grow always taste better, and in any case, watching plants grow and thrive under your care does wonderful things for stress reduction and the improvement of general morale.

There’s a moment early in the expanded film version of The Fellowship of the Ring that shows the look on the face of a certain hobbit gardener as he works with a flowering potted plant. As the narration extols the hobbitish love of things that grow, you see the face of someone following his bliss. I know that feeling well, and it’s a good one. Gardening really can do that for you, if you let it. And don’t mind sometimes getting seriously dirty and sweaty.

I would have no trouble living a hobbitish lifestyle. Some would say I’m doing so now, and I wouldn’t argue. Gardening and cooking (and eating) are among the things that serve to keep me thoroughly grounded while I spin flights of fancy and set them down in words. That process of writing, by its nature, keeps me pretty close to home, and to be honest I’m perfectly fine with that. Well, within reason. The occasional adventure can be beneficial, especially if one manages to avoid interactions with dragons. But for all that there are some trips I’d like to take – more than a few actually – true wanderlust is a thing I rarely feel, and it’s easily satisfied without any need to travel to the ends of the Earth. A need to see mountains again? I have some practically next door, so no problem there. I just go outside and look either north or east.

I can honestly say that if, as life unfolds, I find myself spending the majority of my time in this house writing, and out in the yard around it working a garden and watching things grow, I’ll be okay. I’m enough like a hobbit that such a fate would feel like the right way to live, and not like a set of constraints. The value of home is a thing you never need to explain to a hobbit, and I can certainly relate.

A few more nights out under dark and star-filled skies would be nice, but such a need for starlight is also quite in keeping with being hobbitish. After all, some well-known members of the halfling race were rather fond of night walks with folk of an elvish nature. I suppose such would be considered adventures of a quiet sort, and certainly free of dragons, unless you count a certain arrangement of stars in the northern sky.

Of course, no matter how I live, I’m a little tall to pass for a hobbit. But then, growing up, I had a fondness for forests and trees. Growing up in Illinois, I spent much of my childhood wandering the nearby woodland. Perhaps an Ent crossed my path one day and shared a bit of Ent draught. My parents did seem, for a time, taken aback by how quickly I grew.

Flights of fancy, indeed. You just never know.

The Box Tipped Over: Writing a Story Called Toby   Leave a comment

The phrase “outside the box” may rate as one of the most over-used (if not actually abused) metaphors of our time. It’s all too often a glib admonition issued by a person passing the proverbial buck and expecting someone else to solve an intractable problem for them. If you’ve ever worked for a living in any capacity at all, you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve heard it and heard the smug sarcasm that goes with it.

Used correctly, when faced with a situation in which others have failed to arrive at a solution to a problem, or when a creative person wants to pursue a new and innovative form of self-expression, the mental habit labeled “think outside the box” can be a powerful tool. It becomes a way to focus skills and imagination in a way that has the potential to create something new. I certainly have no problem hearing the phrase used in this context, being a fan of, and a participant in, the creative world myself. There’s definitely a place in the world for those who think outside the box. Or, more specifically, those who write outside the box.

Although the bulk of my writing has been in the science fiction genre, I haven’t exactly felt constrained by that single genre. Or even to the writing of fiction; my first book was the amateur astronomy-related memoir, Mr. Olcott’s Skies. I’ve also written short fiction of a darkly fantastical nature that might play well on a remake of The Twilight Zone, some of which can be found in 179 Degrees From Now. But I’m not sure any of this could honestly be referred to as writing outside the box. Rather, it’s more an indication that the box I’m sitting in has plenty of room in which to move around. After all, science fiction, fantasy, and astronomy are all, in their own ways, out there.

But I have now, beyond any realistic doubt, written outside that roomy box. Reached so far over the lid the damned thing tipped right over.

My most recent book, Toby, is neither sci-fi nor fantasy, and for sure has nothing to do with amateur astronomy. It’s a tale of a boy and his dog. Okay, so the main character has a few too many years on him to wear the label “boy” easily. And it isn’t his dog. Therein lies the tale. Or the tail, as the case may be. Like all the fiction I write, Toby started out as a handful of unrelated daydreams: images and scenes that just sort of coalesced in my imagination. Happens all the time, these daydreams. I’ve been an unrepentant woolgatherer all my life. Just ask any of my middle school teachers. In this most recent case, however, the usual elements of science fiction never materialized. This time it started with an ordinary guy confronting a large, growling dog, who it turns out isn’t growling at the guy. There’s this bear, you see. From that point, things get complicated.

Anyway, as sometimes happens, the daydream started to roll like a short film in my head, and all that stuff that builds up inside your brain due to life happening started mixing in. The guy was there for a reason, and so was the dog. The reason, once I puzzled it out, became the vague suggestion of a story. Closer examination led to questions about who they were, and why they were in that situation. Ideas rose into view. Some lent themselves well to the trail I needed to blaze, and others were best left to one side and forgotten. The meeting between man and dog turned into a journey, and once they were on the road, I quickly developed a clear sense of direction. To put it another way, the story developed a life of its own, an internal logic that directed its development. In other words, it told itself. I just worked the keyboard.

Okay, that doesn’t really happen, but that’s the way it feels, when it works just so.

All the way through the process of writing this short novel (or novella, depending on which definition based on word counts you prefer) I felt a growing sense of surprise and delight. Where was this all coming from? How was it that I was to be this tale’s author? It was, for me, a very different writing experience; fresh and new and exciting, writing of a sort I’d never even considered in the past. It was also a revelation of sorts, that I could write this way, that I could write outside of my comfortable and familiar box. There was a sense of greater possibilities than I’d considered before. I’ve written in the past of my writing process being something like exploring new lands and cutting trails through them for others to follow. Writing Toby was like traveling to a different continent and starting the process there.

The box is tipped over on its side now, and I’m sitting out on one of the flaps, quite comfortable and very pleased by how this all turned out. I wonder what else is outside the box, waiting for me? Well, while I ponder that one, meet Toby, a very good dog.


Available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple Books, as well as in paperback.

With Neither a Bang nor a Whimper   Leave a comment

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm, winner of the Hugo Award for best Novel, 1977

The subgenre of science fiction that deals with visions of a post-apocalyptic world is certainly nothing new. In this rather drawn-out series of essays on Hugo Winners, I’ve reviewed The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1953) and A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1961), both of which deal in some fashion – one more overt than the other – with a world that has crawled out of the ashes of destruction. An argument could be made that Philip K. Dick’s alternate history novel The Man in The High Castle (1963) is a post-apocalyptic vision of a different sort. In recent years, interest in this subgenre seems to have increased significantly. Considering the state of the world, these days, I suppose that’s not terribly surprising.

It’s not a style of fiction I often get into. Perhaps the unsettled times in which we currently live have made me too sensitive to disturbing visions for such tales to be entertaining or thought-provoking. For my money it’s bad enough the real world is overflowing with tales of a dysfunctional world; I need something different when I read for pleasure. So it’s a rare work of this subgenre that finds its way to my reading list, and when that happens, it’s generally a book that in some way transcends its marketing niche. A case in point would be the subject of this entry, a book that for me counts as one of the most outstanding and unusual examples of post-apocalyptic fiction ever written.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is a different take on this subgenre, something that is illustrated clearly by the way the apocalypse itself is handled. It’s clear at the beginning that terrible things are happening, and that both the natural world and human civilization are collapsing. Multiple symptoms of the slowly unrolling catastrophe are seen, but there’s no specific disaster scene, no single blow up that takes everything down, and no single smoking gun as a culprit. The crash is more of a long slide that takes years and generations to unfold, but is no less devastating for that slow pace. The reader knows what is going wrong with the world at large through discussions of the situation by the viewpoint characters, a group of families living in a valley off the beaten track, as they watch the combined ecological and social collapse close in around them. The world of Humanity seems to simply fall apart and die under its own weight, regrettably taking much of the natural world, or at least the animal kingdom, down with it. A truly massive, if slow, extinction that, for humankind, takes the form of a plague of sterility; extinction through attrition. When the collapse is complete, the extended families of the valley are all that remain, and it is how they survive that drives this story. They keep the human species alive, dealing with the plague of sterility, by cloning themselves. Multiple copies and multiple generations of cloned individuals push back the final extinction of humanity, while changing what humanity means with unforeseen and possibly unhealthy consequences.

More than that glimpse of the plot would give away too much of the story, something I try very hard not to do. Suffice it to say that the grand scheme for survival proves more complicated than anyone imagined, leading to serious problems as flaws in the society of clones come to light. The story is of a world fallen silent, as the title implies, and in that silent and ruined world this pocket of survivors struggles to move forward and to remain human, even as they come to question, and then attempt to redefine, what it means to be human.

To my mind, the point of this story isn’t the apocalypse or its cause; the author certainly doesn’t dwell on the calamity as if writing the script for a disaster flick. For all that there is a clear message here regarding our ghastly track record regarding treatment of this world that sustains us, this is as much (or more) a story about the conflict between the value of the individual and the community, and the double-edged sword of conformity. Not enough conformity, and you can’t hold a society together. Too much, and you have a system incapable of responding to the unavoidable changes brought by the passage of time. It also, in its way, underscores the danger of reduced diversity, of relying too much on too few to bear the weight of all that matters.

Some feel this story ends on a hopeful note, others think it depressing to the end. I must confess that my own opinion is divided between the two extremes. In the end, my recommendation is that you read the book and decide for yourself. In my opinion, it truly deserves its place among the classics of science fiction.

The Book That Changed You   Leave a comment

People often ask me to name the writers who have influenced my own work. It’s a question writers of fiction are asked almost as often as “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s an easier question to answer, believe me. When you’re focused on a given genre, science fiction and fantasy in my case, the question tends to be asked by fans of that genre, and they expect to hear familiar names. More often than not, they do hear them, from me, at least. Committed writers of science fiction and fantasy are readers of the same. To tell such tales well and honestly, you need a lot of experience reading stories written by others. That familiarity with a genre is necessary, if you want to produce anything new in it that fans of science fiction and fantasy will want to read. A long familiarity allows you to do this without producing work likely to be branded as derivative, since you will generally recognize when something sounds just a little too familiar.

So when I’m asked that question, recognizable names come readily to mind. Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. LeGuin, J.R.R. Tolkien, David Brin, Gene Wolfe, Larry Niven, C.J. Cherryh, Anne McCaffrey – I could fill many pages with nameable influences on my development as a story teller, but by now you surely get the point. But whichever recognizable names come quickly to mind in a conversation of this sort, I invariably add other authors names that in most cases do not provoke a nod of recognition. Authors of work lumped under the broad heading of nonfiction have had as much of, and as long-lasting, an influence on me as a writer as most of the fiction I’ve enjoyed over the years. The historian Page Smith, Isaac Asimov (again), naturalist Edwin Way Teale, Annie Dillard, John McPhee, and Stephen Jay Gould, among a great many others, have altered my way of perceiving and thinking about the world time and time again. There’s no way I can talk about the multitude of influences on my own writing, that have come to me through reading, without mentioning authors such as these. It’s all storytelling, after all.

Because I’m a writer, anything that has directly influenced me as a writer assumes great importance in any discussion of my work. But the influence of things read, be they books or shorter works, can and does affect how a person lives in a more general sense. I grew up reading various works of science fiction aimed at younger audiences: the Tom Swift Jr. adventures and certain works by Heinlein come immediately to mind. These set a lifelong habit of reading fantastical things firmly in place, but it wasn’t until the summer of 1973, when I first read Dune by Frank Herbert and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, that I realized that good fiction could do more than provide a few hours of escape from the pressures of so-called real life. It could be said that those books changed me as a reader of fiction, encouraging me to read more and more widely, and in that change opening me up to endless possibilities. You could say those books changed my life.

You could say that, but to be honest, a change in reading habits would be the equivalent, for most people, of a side hustle. Real life – whatever the hell that really means – can go on, with all its cares and concerns largely unaffected by altered tastes in literature. That might well have been the case for me, all other things being equal, but because I cast a wider net at that time, I found myself including short story anthologies in my reading, something I hadn’t done until then. And because of such inclusions, ended up reading a book that literally changed my life.

I may have been given a copy of this book, or may have purchased it myself; I can no longer remember clearly how I came to read it. But I read this collection of short fiction and the autobiographical anecdotes included by the author, and my love of writing changed from a pastime to a career goal. The book – especially the autobiographical material – made me realize that being a writer in the professional sense was an achievable goal, and one well worth pursuing. It might take a long time (Oh, I had no idea!), but it was doable. This anthology provided an example of how it might work, and inspired me to give it a try.

The book in question is The Early Asimov or, Eleven Years of Trying by, of course, Isaac Asimov. These are his first published stories, accompanied by the stories of his life in those time, and how all of that led to the stories being written and published. And I was, indeed, inspired to give writing a try as a profession because of this book. Would I have gone on to be a writer anyway? There’s no way to know, and the question is moot in any case. I did read this book, and it did prompt me to type up my first ever short story and send it off to a magazine. What followed took considerably more than eleven years, along with a technological revolution of truly sci-fi proportions into the bargain, but here I am at last placing my work out there in view of the reading public, and acquiring readers.

One book made me decide to give this a try, and that life-long effort to produce worthwhile stories and find a viable means for their distribution, has shaped or influenced almost every aspect of my life ever since. Everything that has happened to me since then has happened because where I was and what I was doing at that time was influenced, to some degree, by that decision to make writing the focus of my life. Every major decision has been made with writing added to one side or another of the balance. This is no exaggeration. My life decisions have all been made with thought given to how they might influence the writing I did at that time. Even my ill-advised decision to quit writing fits this pattern, since there would be no need to contemplate defeat if I hadn’t been in the fight in the first place. The Early Asimov actually changed the path my life followed. It was the trigger, and provides proof a single book – almost any book – can alter the trajectory of a life with profound consequences.

That’s my book, the one that set it all in motion.

What’s yours?


Musings Prompted by Rereading The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1976
(Mild spoiler warning.)

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman was not a book I picked up in a timely fashion, and it was already considered a classic of modern science fiction when I first read it in the mid-1980s. The 60s and early 70s were still relatively recent history for me, then, and so I had no trouble drawing the connections between this story and the Vietnam War so many, including the author, have pointed out. Having witnessed first-hand the consequences of PTSD in a Vietnam veteran I once knew, these connections resonated more strongly than might otherwise have been the case.

The story is told from the point of view (first person) of a man conscripted to serve in an elite military force meant to defend the human species from a hostile alien life form. Contact with that other species did not go well, although the recruits are a little unclear as to how and why it went wrong. Chosen for their unusually high intelligence, they are put through a basic military training that is as brutal as it is dangerous. Mistakes and mishaps can be immediately lethal, and casualties are all too common. Their first engagement with the enemy turns out to be a battle with a largely defenseless foe, and becomes an uncontrolled massacre. The enemy responds by upping the proverbial ante with lethal consequences for humanity as the war spreads. After surviving the required tour of duty, the narrator returns to an Earth so changed by the passage of time that he and his comrades simply cannot fit in. They are used as propaganda tools and then rejected by the society they fought to protect. Unable to navigate through a strange new world, the narrator and his closest comrade and lover re-enlist. Sent on separate missions, they are lost to each other due to the same temporal displacements that put them so out of touch with the Earth. (These displacements are caused by the style of space travel employed.) The narrator becomes a man out of synch with the times in which he lives, and cannot relate to the people he now commands in any effective way. The conflict in which he and the others are trapped alternately escalates and then stalemates, and even though the plot is complicated by the sci-fi trope of the relativistic consequences of interstellar travel, it all sounds horribly familiar.

As a story in its own right, The Forever War deserves its status as a classic. It’s a powerfully human story, full of the sort of speculations and imaginings that make science fiction what it is, a genre of ideas generated by the iconic question, “What if…?” The big what if question raised by this book, it seems to me, is what if we leave the confines of this world before we learn from the mistakes we’ve made here? What might the consequences be? The potential answer presented in The Forever War is all too easy to believe.

Many of us who grew up when I did, and more to the point, those somewhat older than me who were directly caught up in the Vietnam War, see the parallels here between fiction and reality all too clearly, from the false assumptions that led to the conflict all the way through to the dislocation and rejection of the veterans of that war. The Forever War is a mirror held up to our recent history, one that reflects it all too clearly.

Rereading The Forever War for this essay, I was at first quite surprised by how well it had “aged.” It still seems so relevant, even today. Then I realized I shouldn’t be surprised, not really. We are a society that places little value on history, our own or others, preferring mythologized versions of the events that made us what we are today to the truth, with its blemishes and all too frequent contradictions of dearly held beliefs. Because of this we are, again as a society, very slow to learn the lessons of even the recent past. There’s an old saying, that those who refuse to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat that history. This is all too true, and although the bells and whistles and the power of the bombs may change, the song remains eerily familiar. It’s also said that those who do come to understand the lessons of history are doomed to watch humanity reiterate its mistakes, often feeling powerless to prevent the repeated cycles, even as they listen to the echoes of their own recent past.

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