FF: Long and Short of It

September 30, 2016

I’ve been reading a lot of shorter material, in part as preparation for two forthcoming events.  October 1, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. I’ll be signing and speaking at the new Author Fest to benefit the Albuquerque Museum.  October 3, 9:00 a.m. I’m taking part in “Meet the Authors: Exploring the Creative Process” at UNM.  Details for both are available on my website.

"Wow!  This is a FAT book."

“Wow! This is a FAT book.”

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

As I said, lot of short fiction, including the most recent issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction and some award winners from years past.

In Progress:

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater.  Audiobook.  I read this as a print version a while back, because our library didn’t have the audio then.  It does now.  I love this reader and am seriously considering buying the recorded version rather than or as well as the print.

The Squire, His Knight, and His Lady by Gerald Morris.  Standalone sequel to The Squire’s Tale, which I read a few weeks ago.  So far, great fun.

Also:

Typing and reviewing my own recent additions to a manuscript.  Takes time but very absorbing.

TT: SF Food — Pills and Powders

September 29, 2016

JANE: Last time you mentioned food pills as an old SF trope.  I wonder how long they’ve been around?

Futuristic Meal?

Futuristic Meal?

ALAN: They’ve been around for a very long time – in 1912 William Hope Hodgson published his classic novel The Night Land. The hero sets out to explore the night land equipped only with food tablets and “water powder” which appears to be dehydrated water (in powder form). Brian Aldiss had a little tongue in cheek fun with this last idea in his 1968 novel Cryptozoic! which has references to something called “concentrated water”. It seems there is no idea so silly that it can’t be used in an SF novel…

JANE: I’ve read some of William Hope Hodgson’s work (House on the Borderland springs to mind), but not The Night Land.  Most of what I’ve read is sort of horror, but something with “water powder” sounds like a comedy.  Is it?

ALAN: No, not at all. It’s still very much in Hodgson’s typical horror style.

JANE: Hmm…  That sound bizarre enough that I may need to hunt up a copy of The Night Land.

ALAN: Amusingly, there really is an American company called Bernard Food Industries Inc. which, just for fun, has been selling cans of dehydrated water since 1964. The cans are completely empty, of course. The instructions on the label tell you to empty the contents of the can into a gallon of water, chill and serve. I imagine they must do a roaring trade since they are still selling their dehydrated water today.

JANE: That sounds like a great item to get for a gag gift or fund-raiser.   Any other examples of food pills being used in early SF?

ALAN: Probably the ultimate food pill (before The Jetsons popularised the idea) was in a movie called Just Imagine which was made in 1930. The hero is taken to a café, where he orders a meal of clam chowder, roast beef, beets, asparagus, pie and coffee. Of course, the whole thing is served to him in a single, small pill. He swallows it, and then says that the roast beef was a little bit tough.

JANE: That reminds me of the “eating your words” sequence from The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

ALAN: More seriously, one of Ray Bradbury’s Martian stories (“The Wilderness”) makes a deliberate comparison between the American pioneers heading west across the country in their huge covered wagons full of provisions and a modern explorer on Mars who only needs a “matchbox of food pills”. It’s a very effective image.

JANE: Indeed it is.  However, I think one of the reasons that the food pill fell out of use in SF/F is that there’s something about eating that ties into human psychology.

Jack, of Roger’s Zelazny’s short story “Halfjack,” explains why he has undergone the “lateral hemicorporectomy” surgery that has made him into a half-cyborg, rather than choosing either to have an entirely cyborg body or remain more or less human: “…I need a stomach and balls and lungs, because I have to eat and screw and breathe to feel human.”

ALAN: Very much so – eating in general (and good food in particular) is very important to us. Hence, for example, the perennial complaints about the quality of institutional food. James White actually wrote a whole novel (Galactic Gourmet) about a famous chef who takes up the challenge of designing gourmet food for human and alien patients in the Sector General Hospital.

JANE: That sounds like a fascinating challenge!

In Larry Niven’s novel Protector, the alien Phssthpok the Pak is completely at a loss to understand why the Belter Brennan’s ship allows space not only for a kitchen, but for storing a variety of more or less fresh foods.

Niven says it so well that I’m going to quote: “Weight was important in space.  Surely the natives could have provided a lightweight food, synthetic if necessary, capable of keeping the pilot fed and healthy indefinitely.  The saving in effort and fuel consumption would have been enormous when multiplied by the number of ships he’d seen.  Instead they preferred to carry a variety of prepackaged foods, and a complex machine to select and prepare them.  They had chosen to cool these foods against decomposition rather than reduce them to a powder.  Why?”

ALAN: Ironically, the Pak are, in their own way, completely food-centric as well.  However, in their case, food is necessary not to provide fibre or a means of alleviating boredom or anything like that, but because the root that Niven calls “Tree of Life” is necessary to the final stage of transformation.  Since (in Niven’s universe) humans turn out to be descended from Pak, I wonder if the human psychological obsession with food might be explained as part of the endless search for the alien Tree of Life root.

JANE: I like that.  Even in subsistence-level human cultures – maybe even especially in them – food and the rituals associated with preparing and eating are central.  I will resist the urge to go off into myths and legends associated with food, and simply state they are universal.

ALAN: As witness the appeal of the song “Food! Glorious Food!” in the musical Oliver!

JANE: Of course, there are other, non-psychological reasons, for food pills falling out of use in SF (except in the role of emergency or military rations).  One of these is a greater awareness that our bodies get more from food than merely nutrients.  Fiber, for example, is needed to cleanse various systems, and although fiber can be supplied by pills, my understanding is that it isn’t as effective.

ALAN: And neither is it as much fun. There’s a very important social ritual built around eating. We sit together at the dinner table as a family (or on a date) and we eat and we talk. All that would disappear if we just swallowed a pill and then went on with our day.

JANE: Indeed.  And when you look at this social ritual from an alien’s point of view, it makes no sense.  You’re going to interact with someone (or a group of someones) by means of conversation, then you stuff food into the orifice you need for conversation.  That’s truly, ahem, “unintelligible” behavior.

ALAN: Well, that gives me some food for thought…

Meanwhile, I’ve got a question for you. Perhaps we can talk about it next time over dinner.

Lord of the Emberverse

September 28, 2016

News Flash!: I’m speaking at two events this coming week.  October 1, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. is the new Author Fest to benefit the Albuquerque Museum.  October 3, 9:00 a.m. I’m taking part in “Meet the Authors: Exploring the Creative Process” at UNM.  Details for both are available on my website.

A Few of Stirling's Grand Adventures

A Few of Stirling’s Grand Adventures

And now to the interview I promised you last week…

Steve (S.M.) Stirling and I became instant friends pretty much as soon as he and his wife Jan moved to Santa Fe in 1994.  His latest novel is Prince of Outcasts, the thirteenth offering in his widely popular “Emberverse” series.  He also has just sold a new dieselpunk series which will begin with And Carry a Big Stick.

I’ve lured him out of the spacious book-filled office in which he does his writing to talk about these projects and to answer the perennial question, “Does ‘S.M.’ really stand for ‘Sacher-Masoch?’”

JANE: Well, Steve, I always start interviews with the same question.

In my experience, writers fall into two general categories: those who have been writing stories since before they could actually write and those who came to writing somewhat later.

Which sort are you?

STEVE: The first.  I’ve had long, colorfully detailed daydreams with plots and characters since I can remember.   And I was telling them to my friends when I was six.  Possibly earlier.

JANE: Somehow I’m not surprised.  You still enjoy telling friends your stories – print just makes it possible for you to tell them to more people.

All right, now for the dangerous question.  Why “S.M.”?

STEVE: It was the way I signed checks.  When they asked me what name to put on the first book, I said “Oh, go with the way I signed the contract.”  Interestingly, I got a lot of fan mail assuming I was a woman; apparently female authors use initials more.

JANE: Yeah, because of the perception that women can’t write hard-hitting stories and that men won’t read books written by women.  It’s weird.

You’re Canadian by birth, but as a child you lived in France, Mexico, the U.S., Kenya, and other parts of Africa.  What impact do you think this had on your writing and choice of topics?

STEVE: Mexico was more long vacations than living; the others, yes.  It gave me a broader range of experiences, I think… seeing dead bodies, for instance.

JANE: Interesting that you don’t consider vacations as “living,” but then you do love your work!

You frequently write alternate history.  Even if the stories start out with adventure and exploration, eventually they become tales where vast armies clash.  What draws you to this sort of tale?

STEVE:  I do like vacations!  It was more a matter of what my parents were doing; if it was time off work for them, we were on vacation.

The alternate history is something most people do vis-à-vis their own lives.  E.g., why did your parents meet?  Mine met at a dance in 1942; my mother came with someone else, who had to leave to stand in line for the men’s room – it was very crowded.  My father, who knew the guy she’d come with, walked over to her table and said:  “Sam didn’t feel well and he had to leave, but he wanted me to walk you home.”  They were married a month later…

And his mother landed in Newfoundland and ended up staying at my grandfather’s hotel because she was emigrating from England to Boston and her ship hit an iceberg in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the passengers were rescued and taken to St. John’s, where the Stirlings owned a hotel.

Figure the chances on that one!  Alternate History is just the same thing applied globally.

As to the armies, conflict drives story.

JANE: I can see with a family history like that, you’d be preconditioned to write stories strongly driven by the “what if” element.  I met your dad and I can absolutely see him poaching his buddy’s date.

STEVE:  Old Army saying:  “You can trust your buddies with your life, but not a bottle or a girl.”

JANE:  For a long-time, you were best known for the popular “Draka” novels, but these days the thirteen-volume “Emberverse” series has eclipsed the Drakas in a big way.  What do you think make the Emberverse so appealing?

STEVE: Well, it’s post-apocalyptic and fantasy.  People can say “how would I handle that?” and it makes identifying with the characters easier, I think.  They’re ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

JANE: I agree.  You do a great job in both the Emberverse novels and their counterpart, the three-volume “Nantucket” series (beginning with Island in the Sea of Time), of showing ordinary people winning out against extraordinary challenges.

Can you tell my readers a little about Prince of Outcasts?  Is it a book they can read without having read the prior twelve Emberverse novels?

STEVE: It’s a fairly good introduction, I think, but with a long series reading the earlier ones helps.  However, the characters who are the main focus in Prince of Outcasts are not the major ones from earlier books, and a bunch are new; also, it mainly takes place in a new area of the Changed world, the islands of the Indonesian archipelago and Australia.

JANE: That sounds like quite a change from North America and relatively small portions of England that have been the setting of most of your other Emberverse novels.

Since I regularly e-chat with your wife, Jan, I happen to know you wrote your other new project, the forthcoming And Carry a Big Stick, in a white hot fury of passionate absorption.  Can you tell us a little of what we have coming?

STEVE: That’s an alternate history where President William Taft dies in 1912, and Teddy Roosevelt gets the Republican nomination instead of being forced out of the party to run on the Progressive ticket.  Instead the Progressives take over the GOP, Teddy sweeps back into the White House and radical hijinks occur.  It was a hoot to write – it’s an interesting period and he’s a fascinating guy.  (The only President ever to win a knife-fight with a cougar… no, really.)

 It’s mainly a novel of intrigue and Zeppelins and U-boats and a mutant World War One, with a beautiful spy working for Teddy’s “Black Chamber,” sort of a premature CIA.  I had a lot of fun writing it.

JANE: From other conversations, I know that the “beautiful spy” in question is female.  This leads me to my closing question.  For as long as I’ve been reading your books, you’ve included strong female characters of a wide variety of types – even when the historical setting would have enabled you to leave out female characters entirely.  What has made this appealing to you?

STEVE:  it’s just the way my psyche works, apparently.  I’ve always done it and didn’t think there was anything notable about that until other people asked me.

Besides that, I don’t particularly enjoy writing about people who strongly resemble me or reading about middle-aged bobos living in the Southwest, either.  That’s boring. As I like to say, if I want to be “reflected,” I just walk into the bathroom, face the sink and turn on the light.  Voila!  A perfect reflection!  Going to fiction to find yourself is to the experience of literature (either writing or reading) as masturbation is to real sex, in my opinion.  Plus if you have to go looking, you’ll never find.

JANE: That’s an interesting – indeed, somewhat radical these days – point of view, but it certainly fits perfectly with your work.

Thanks so much for your time…  I’ve very much enjoyed this, and I look forward to reading both Prince of Outcasts and Carry a Big Stick.

FF: Not Much

September 23, 2016

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

Kel with German edition of Treecat Wars

Kel with German edition of Treecat Wars

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Return of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Audiobook.  Two separate tales side by side.  Reads like something written to be serialized, with alternating cliffhangers.  Does anyone know if it was?

In Progress:

The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater.  Audiobook.  I read this as a print version a while back, because our library didn’t have the audio then.  It does now.  I love this reader and am seriously considering buying the recorded version rather than or as well as the print.

Also:

Last night before bed I read the entire section on versions of the Bible in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.  When I got to the “Printer’s Bible,” given what I’d read before, I laughed out loud.

TT: Eating Out in Space

September 22, 2016

JANE: Well, Alan, I always enjoy reading your “wot I red on my hols” column, but I’ll admit, the last one was particularly gripping, especially the part where you talked about water contamination in your town.

Klingon? Human? Vulcan?

Klingon? Human? Vulcan?

ALAN: Yes – it’s been a fraught few weeks. More than a third of the population was infected with campylobacter from our water supply. We still have to boil all our water before we can drink it. If anyone wants to find out more about what happened, you can read my article here.

JANE:  I hope the water system is cleaned up soon.

One of the details that fascinated me was how your personal background had already provided you with skills to deal with the situation.

If I may quote you: “Also I’m a stickler for hand hygiene during food preparation, which also helped. I studied chemistry at university and there’s nothing like a session in a chemistry laboratory to teach you about the importance of clean hands – some of those chemicals are nasty.”

ALAN: Indeed so. As I quipped in the article, chemists wash their hands before they go to the toilet…

JANE: Which reminds me of a bad joke I heard at an SF convention years ago, but I think I will spare you.

ALAN: Please don’t spare me.

JANE:  Okay, but remember, you asked for it.  Here it is:

A Klingon, a Human, and a Vulcan are discussing how civilized they are.

The Klingon says, “We are so civilized that we always wash our hands after using the toilet.”

 The Humans retorts, “Humans are so civilized that they wash their hands before and after using the toilet.”

The Vulcan responds dryly, “Vulcans don’t pee on their hands.”

ALAN: Nice one! Clearly I must have had a lot of Vulcan ancestors.

JANE: But you still wash your hands before…

Your recent adventures combined in my head with a panel I was on a few weeks ago at Bubonicon about food in SF and Fantasy.  Maybe because the panelists included a retired medical doctor (Sage Walker) and an environmental engineer (Laura J. Mixon aka M.J. Locke), the panel took some interesting turns.

I found myself thinking that it’s been a while since you and I delved into one of our favorite topics: Food!  Although I’m sure we’ve mentioned food in SF/F in passing, I’m not sure we’ve ever really focused in on it.  Are you interested?

ALAN: Indeed I am. Probably the most famous food item in science fiction is soylent green. That was actually the title of a movie which was based upon Harry Harrison’s Malthusian novel Make Room! Make Room! Both the film and the book are set in a massively overpopulated world where soylent green is everybody’s main food.

In the movie it is revealed that soylent green is made from dead human bodies – a fairly revolting thought which is done purely for shock value. The idea makes no practical sense and it has absolutely nothing to do with the themes discussed in the novel. As the word “soylent” clearly implies, the foodstuff is actually made from soya beans and lentils. The people of this future world are all largely vegetarian, though not necessarily by choice.

JANE: Ah, yes, “Malthusian” themed novels – that is, those dealing with the fear of overpopulation and consequences – were a big deal at one point in SF.  Make Room!  Make Room! (published in 1966) is strongly representative of the trope.

ALAN: I heard Harry Harrison discuss the movie several times, both in private conversations and in public talks. He was very bitter about the way Hollywood had butchered his book. The novel’s pro-contraception message as a mechanism for avoiding the population crisis was completely missing from the film. Harrison claimed that Hollywood was afraid of offending the film’s Roman Catholic viewers, and he’s probably right.

Both the film and the book do have some very effective images of the horrors that an overpopulated world would bring. But the book is by far the stronger of the two.

JANE: It’s odd but, although the panel I mentioned above was actually titled “Soylent Green: It’s a Cookbook,” I don’t think we ever discussed it.  That’s the way of panels…

ALAN: That title reminds me of a rather famous shaggy dog short story by Damon Knight. It’s called “To Serve Man”. The alien Kanamit race promise to bring peace and plenty to the world. They provide unlimited power and boundless supplies of food. Everybody turns into happy lotus eaters, becoming fat and complacent. However one rather cynical character is sure that the Kanamit must have an ulterior motive. He manages to get his hands on a Kanamit book and a dictionary. The book has the title How To Serve Man. Clearly the Kanamit really are as charitable as they have claimed to be. However once he translates the first page of the book it turns out to be a cookbook. We are being farmed…

In 2001, the story was awarded a Retro Hugo Award as the Best Short Story of 1951.

JANE: And it should!  I actually have a “To Serve Man” cookbook.  It’s very silly.  The type of meat in any recipe is replaced with “Man,” so there’s a certain amount of guessing involved – and unless, of course, the chef really wanted to use human.

ALAN: Knight seemed to like that kind of thing. His short story “Eripmav” (read the title backwards) is about a vegetable vampire who is finally killed with a steak through the heart.

JANE: Ouch!  On that line, you might enjoy the excellent “Bunnicula” books which feature a rabbit who just might be a vegetarian vampire.  They’re for kids, but adults tend to get more of the jokes…

One thing we did discuss on the panel was the fact that food is actually a very important SF element for a wide variety of reasons.  One is that, despite the fact that in most TV shows and movies space adventurers can go to a planet and eat the local plants and animals without any problem, this is highly unlikely.

Poul Andersen built his excellent novel War of the Wingmen around just this premise.  I’m not going any farther because I don’t want to provide a spoiler, but it’s great SF.

ALAN: And that, of course, raises the interesting question of just how would the space adventurers carry their food with them? In real life, we’ve seen the great effort that NASA puts in to keep its astronauts fed – but even dehydrated food, while it minimises storage space, is still rather bulky. Perhaps someone really does need to invent that good old SF standby, the food pill. (See, for example, The Jetsons – one of the best examples of TV science fiction).

JANE: Oh…  Food pills.  We definitely need to discuss those and why they just might not work.  But I need to go cook dinner.  How about next time?

White Hot Ideas

September 21, 2016

This past week we went to the State Fair for the second time.  (The first was on September 10th.)  One thing I really like about the New Mexico State Fair is how varied it is.  Jim and my version doesn’t involve the midway rides or over-priced junk food.  It’s all about animals, art shows, and extremely cool demonstrations – sometimes of how to do things we’ve never heard of before.

Generations

Generations

And Ideas…

Oh, so many, many ideas.  I have been scribbling down things ever since.  Some of these will become projects of their own.  Others will fill in gaps in on-going stories.  Still others will swirl around my imagination like the stars in a spiral galaxy, lighting up the void, taking shape from the pull of unseen forces around them.

On a less mystic note…  The trend this year seemed to be guitars and dragons.  Even the Fine Art building had both.  We didn’t see any dragons playing guitar or any dragon-shaped guitars, but both are sort of cool ideas.  (Scribble, scribble…)

We also saw a demonstration of animal event we didn’t even know existed until we stumbled upon it when we dropped by the equestrian arena.  This was donkey snigging.  Yep.  You read that right.  Donkey snigging turns out to be an event in which a handler guides a donkey (full-sized or miniature) through an obstacle course.  Complexity is added in that the donkey is dragging an eight-foot long wooden pole.  It’s oddly mesmerizing.

At least right now, I’m not putting any of these ideas to immediate use.  But some of them are definitely setting off sparks.  Why am I not encouraging them to light a fire?  Because I’m currently working on something that I’d like to finish first.  As I was saying to another writer when she mentioned how a hot new idea was trying to lure her from the project she wanted to finish, the problem is that the hot new idea is easy to get caught up in until the moment it becomes yet another unfinished project.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to being a writer of completed stories (or novels or plays or whatever) is the hot new idea.  It’s so easy to write those first five or ten or whatever pages.  What’s hard is sticking to it, keeping going, developing, honing, polishing, practicing.  When someone says “I’ve written a hundred pages on my new novel.  It’s the first of a trilogy.  In fact, I have an entire twenty-book series mentally outlined!” I love the enthusiasm.  I honestly do.

But I’m also thinking to myself…  Coming up with all those scattered ideas is the easy part.  Making them play out…  That’s where the work comes in.

I’ve only taken one writing course.  That was my senior year in college when I had an elective available.  I didn’t learn anything from the course about the craft of writing that I hadn’t already figured out by reading lots of excellent stories by other writers.  However, the tremendous service that course did for me was force me to finish stories.

Up to that point, I’d filled notebooks and stacks of paper with stories that I stopped working on when the white hot idea became an ember that needed fanning.  Needing to finish because turning in a complete story was the assignment gave me the push I needed.  And once I learned to finish, I had developed a skill that turned me from a “would be” writer into a writer.

Does this mean that every story idea must be pursued to conclusion?  Not at all.  Some ideas gutter out because once the writer begins to explore them, the writer realizes that what seemed like a great idea is actually a cool descriptive element (say that dragon playing a guitar) and that there isn’t actually a full story there.

But if the only reason the writer stops writing is because yet another hot new idea came burning across the mental sky, then some considering needs to be done as to whether this is a wise use of creative resources.

Next week I’m going to interview an author who had a white hot idea come searing across his creative sky, an idea so hot that he couldn’t let it go and had to start writing – even though he was immersed in another story.  I’ll wait until then to tell you how that worked out.

FF: Writing Like Crazy

September 16, 2016

My reportable reading really dropped this week because I’ve been obsessively writing and, when I’m not, a lot of what I’m reading is shorter stuff for research purposes.

Kwahe'e and Keladry Curl up with a Good Book

Kel & Kwahe’e Curl Up With a Good Book

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Audiobook.  Much enjoyed.

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck.  Eight short stories connect by the “frame” that they are each annual summer visits by Joey and his sister, Mary Alice, to their eccentric (to understate the case) grandmother.  First story is set in 1929, with good historical detailing.  I really liked.

In Progress:

The Return of Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Audiobook.  After a sojourn in what passes for civilization, Tarzan is back in the jungle, but realizing he has changed.

Wolf Captured by Jane Lindskold.  The backwards series reading experience continues, albeit slowly.

Also:

As I said, lot of research reading, but scattered enough it’s impossible to remember all of it!

TT: Escaping To

September 15, 2016

JANE: A while back I listened to an audiobook of A Slip of the Keyboard, a collection of Terry Pratchett’s speeches and articles from over the years.  I was very taken with a theme he kept returning to…  His defense of “escapist” fiction.

Prisoners Need To Escape

Only Prisoners Need To Escape

As I recall, he pointed out that only prisoners need to escape, and that one “escapes to,” as much as escaping “from.”

ALAN: I have a print copy right here.  Let’s see exactly what he said.

In an early essay Pterry remarked:

“But the point about escaping is that you should escape to, as well as from. You should go somewhere worthwhile, and come back the better for the experience.”

Later on, when talking about his own omnivorous reading, he said:

“But you can escape to as well as from. In my case, the escape was a truly Tolkien experience, as recorded in his Tree and Leaf. I started with a book, and that led me to a library, and that led me everywhere.”

JANE: That’s it!  This really stuck with me, especially since I found myself thinking how my so-called “escapist” reading habits gave me a lot to dream about, and those dreams became foundations for the reality in which I now live.

ALAN: I’ve never understood the implied sneer that lies behind the word escapism. The literati use it a lot when talking about SF and Fantasy (and to a lesser extent when talking about other genres). But it’s always seemed to me that the “mainstream” literature that they praise is equally as escapist in its own way.

Realism is time bound. The social mores, the workhouses and the debtors’ prisons that Dickens talks about are just as weird, bizarre and “non-realistic” to the twenty-first century reader as are the social and political institutions in the Martian colonies that Kim Stanley Robinson has written about. And one day (though probably not in my lifetime) these too will seem as oddly quaint to their readers as Dickens seems to us now.

JANE: That’s so very true.  I love Elizabeth Enright’s works.  When she was writing her stories such as The Saturdays (1940) and The Four Story Mistake (1941), things like WWII rationing were current history.  By the time I read her works, probably sometime in the mid-1970’s, this well was outside of my personal experience.  When I gave some of Enright’s works to my niece, when she was about ten (so maybe 2011), the gap was even larger.

“Reality” is a very tenuous concept.

ALAN: The fluidity of that idea puts me very much on Pterry’s side here. The escapism of my favourite reading matter speaks volumes about the reality of my life – not in the sense of accurate prediction (SF has never been in the prediction business, except in the most general way), but more in the sense of a recognition that things change, and that new ideas are important. It is something we really need to learn to embrace.

So because I kept escaping into books, I knew (to give just one example) that computers had the potential to revolutionise the way the world worked long before many of my contemporaries even knew what a computer was!

As usual, Shakespeare got it right:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on

Or, as Thomas M. Disch would have it in the title of a book of critical essays he wrote about SF, science fiction embodies The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of.

If you can’t dream, what’s the point of anything? Without escapism, we’d still be back in the caves hiding from the mammoths.

JANE: While I absolutely agree with your points, I’ll admit, Pratchett’s comment hit me on a different level.  When he said, “But the point about escaping is that you should escape to, as well as from. You should go somewhere worthwhile, and come back the better for the experience.” I found myself remembering how the shy child I was used reading to almost literally escape to other places.

I read widely and variously, so those places might have been being an otter (The Otter Twins by Jane Tompkins) or a deer (Bambi and Bambi’s Children by Felix Salten).  It might have been being a boy in the American West, taming wild horses and living with Indians.  It might have been being Mowgli in the jungles of India.

Or it might have been as ostensibly mundane as being an American child in the 1940’s, as in Elizabeth Enright’s works.

But the thing about all these escapes was that I did come back “better.”  If the otter twins could go down mudslides, then I could go off the high dive.  The woods near where I grew up weren’t scary dark places; they were like where my fictional friends lived and therefore inviting.  Real horses were awfully big, but I knew from books that I should hold my hand flat when I fed one a treat.

 Eh, but I’d better slow down and give you a chance to get a word in.

ALAN: I know just what you mean. I grew up in the industrial north of England. The dark satanic mills that you may have read about were an everyday normality to me. But in my head I would travel to remote Pacific islands with R. M. Ballantyne, to the dead sea bottoms of Mars with Edgar Rice Burroughs, and to the Australian outback with an author whose name escapes me now, but whose books had an Aboriginal narrator who liked to grease his spears with the kidney fat of his dead enemies (a shuddersome image that gave me nightmares, and which has never left me). Many years later, I visited two of those places in real life and they seemed oddly familiar. I’m still hoping to see Barsoom one day…

JANE: That would be very cool…  Maybe you and Robin, Jim and I, could make the trip together.

ALAN: That would be nice.

Pterry records that he was an omnivorous reader: “I started with a book, and that led me to a library, and that led me everywhere.”

This resonated very strongly with me. Once I learned to read, I practically lived in the library. I read without rhyme or reason. I made no distinction between children’s books and books for adults, between fiction and non-fiction. If it had print on its pages, I read it happily. I never felt that I was escaping from (or to) anything. I was just learning about the world. I still have a problem with the idea that diving into a book is somehow less real (and less worthy) than playing a game of soccer or mowing the lawn.

JANE: Yep!  That was me, definitely.  Although my adult self recognizes that there was a degree of escape involved, the child me was gobbling up details of a world (or worlds) more diverse and interesting than that shown in the classroom.

Sometimes, as with my fondness for wolves, kind adults would try to tell me that the stories had it all wrong – that if I ever met a real wolf I wouldn’t like it at all.  Funny thing about that…  When I did finally meet a wolf, I loved it.  And (back to books) modern research about wolves shows that their dynamic is a lot closer to Kipling’s version than to the “monsters” of the European fairy stories that seemed to be the root of most of the fear.

So ostensible fantasy and “escaping” took me to the reality in which I now live.  Pretty fine, if you ask me.

ALAN: That’s escapism for you. You dig a tunnel under the wire and you come up in your living room every time.

JANE: I’d love to hear from our readers where they escaped “to” and if (and how) that escape shaped who they are today.

UFO’s, Invasions, and Fuzzy

September 14, 2016

JANE: Last week I started interviewing author Paul Dellinger, who has two new books out.  However, we never got around to actually discussing the new books!  I’m determined to try this week.  However, first I want Paul to tell you about his real-life experience with UFOs.

Fact or Fiction?

Fact or Fiction?

So, Paul, In addition to copious amounts of newspaper material, you also co-wrote a book on a UFO incident in your area.  How did that come about?

PAUL: Danny Gordon, news director for radio station WYVE, reported a UFO sighting relayed to him by our county’s then-sheriff. After that, lots of people began reporting strange stuff in the sky and Danny kept reporting it. Suddenly our town became UFO central, with people in the national UFO community visiting and descending on Danny as their first source of information. It all got so intense that Danny was hospitalized briefly with chest pains, which luckily turned out to be from anxiety.

JANE: I can understand why he’d be anxious.  How did the book come about?

PAUL: It was Danny’s idea, and he even came up with its title: Don’t Look Up!, based on everything that happened to him when started looking up and saw some of the lights in the sky himself. He had lots of strange visitors. One carried rocks in his pocket that he said came from Jupiter and would grow warm when a UFO was in the vicinity! He didn’t say how he obtained them.

We wrote the book in alternate chapters, with Danny relating his personal experiences in one chapter and me following up with one from an outsider’s point of view. The publisher rushed it into print, since sightings were still happening and being publicized, without giving us a chance to proofread so it has more typos than we’d like.

JANE: Does the book solve the UFO mystery?

PAUL: It doesn’t solve the mystery of what people were seeing – helicopters, balloons or dirigibles with strange lights at night, military test aircraft, you name it – but is more about how people, both locals and outsiders who wanted to put their own spin on the sightings, reacted to a UFO flap. It’s out of print now, typos and all.

JANE: I seem to recall that even if the book didn’t solve the mystery, it did have quite an impact.

PAUL: It did bring still more outsiders, including a TV crew from Unsolved Mysteries who did a segment on the sightings (including some of Danny’s; they had an actor play him for the re-enactments). The show provided some great special effects to show the various whatevers that people described. A writer for The National Enquirer came but didn’t stay long because, he said, people here were too matter-of-fact about their sightings and declined to come up with sensational theories about them. Another tabloid, The Globe, did their own brief version of Danny’s experiences on its front page, along with a photo of Danny and me looking up at our book “floating” in the room over our heads. The headline was UFOS RUINED MY LIFE.

JANE: Moving from fact into fiction, your short novel Secret Invasion had an interesting genesis.  Can you tell my readers about it and how a contest shaped your choice of plot and characters?

PAUL: The contest was to write a 38,000-word story in 48 hours. A list of rules was provided at the start requiring certain things to be in each story in a meaningful way (to make sure nobody wrote theirs in advance).  Also, the story had to be set in Roanoke, Virginia, where the contest originated.

The plot isn’t very original; other stories have had disguised aliens hidden among attendees at a science fiction convention. The main difference in mine was probably tying the events to older SF movies.   (There are the movies again.)

Just to make things more interesting, my laptop decided to die in the midst of all this. Luckily, I’d saved almost everything up to that on a flash drive and so was able to pick up the story again. I’m not sure how many of the twenty-some contestants who started actually managed to finish by the deadline. I know of at least two others.

JANE: Another new release by you is the novel Fuzzy, written in collaboration with bestselling middle grade fiction author Tom Angleberger (Origami Yoda and other works).  From our correspondence, I know that the book was in the works for many years.  I think our audience – especially those with pet projects that are taking longer than they’d ever imagined – might be encouraged in hearing how Fuzzy came to be.

PAUL: Tom worked for a while at the same newspaper that I retired from in 2007. That was when he came up with the concept (a middle school student who was a robot) and suggested we collaborate. We didn’t start immediately and, when we did, it was done by fits and starts.

We met in person only two or three times during the process, with most of the work being done via internet back and forth. We both had other projects or distractions, and many times the book would languish for a while before we’d get back to it.

JANE: How did Fuzzy evolve over the years?

PAUL: When we started writing, we had a whole prelude about the robot scientists observing a failing mission for which they were trying to develop a competent robot. That was when one of them comes up with the idea of teaching the next one survival techniques by throwing “him” into the hell of middle school.

We eventually dumped that entire opening, starting instead with Fuzzy’s first day of school, where he locks up and falls over because he can’t process the hallway hullaballoo between classes – which is where a student called Max comes in, when the scientists recruit her to help. Most of the material from that carefully-crafted prelude, which originally was supposed to set up the entire story, was worked into gradual revelations of Fuzzy’s mission (which even he doesn’t learn about until well into the book).

JANE: As a reader, I applaud the choice.  The evolving mystery of what was intended for poor Fuzzy really added to the tension.

What did you do when you had a complete manuscript?

PAUL: When we had a finished product (or thought we did), Tom’s editor had suggestions for alterations.  We either took turns incorporating those or put up a fight against a particular suggested change. Then the work sat for a while, and we wondered if that was the end of it. And then Tom’s agent (and mine, for this one project) found an interested publisher, and again we went through some changes. It came out in August, nine years to the month from when Tom first proposed it.

JANE: I could ask a lot more questions, but I’ll close with just one lest I provide spoilers for the plot.  The human protagonist in Fuzzy is named Maxine.  I suspect a particular reason…  Would you care to elaborate?

PAUL: Given that I’m married to a Maxine, lots of people who know us suspect a particular reason. Even when I tell them otherwise, there are some who still insist that Maxine was the inspiration for that name. Actually, it was not me but Tom who came up with that name (“Max,” for short; the character does not like the name “Maxine”). I did come up with Fuzzy’s name, tying it in with his development of “fuzzy logic.”

JANE: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions and for sharing your many and varied experiences as a writer with my readers.

PAUL: It was lots of fun. (And you’re a good interviewer!)

FF: Writing Trumps Reading

September 9, 2016

To be productive, I need to both read and write.  Or write and read.  This week, writing has trumped reading.

Persephone Has a Tummy!

Persephone Has a Tummy!

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

The Squire’s Tale by Gerald Morris.  Middle grade Arthurian.  Terence, the squire, is mostly the point of view character with whom we watch other’s adventures, but by the end he’s taking a role himself.  I’ll definitely look for the next one in the series.

In Progress:

Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Audiobook.  Sometimes an audiobook is a great way to re-experience an old favorite because of the re-immersive element.  I’m through Tarzan’s childhood and he’s just kidnapped Jane.

A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck.  Eight short stories connect by the “frame” that they are each annual summer visits by Joey and his sister, Mary Alice, to their eccentric (to understate the case) grandmother.  First story is set in 1929, with good historical detailing.

Wolf Captured by Jane Lindskold.  The backwards series reading experience continues.

Also:

Both The Squire’s Tale and A Long Way from Chicago were recommended to me by Chad Merkley, a regular Commenter on this post and others.  I really enjoy your suggestions, even if I can’t always get to them right away.