Archive for February, 2017

FF: Memory and Dream

February 24, 2017

Yes.  That’s Charles deLint title, but also something much in my thoughts right now…

This Books Is For the Birds!

This Books Is For the Birds!

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 magazines.

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:

Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich.  I enjoyed this even more than his Ravens in Winter, and I loved that.

The Woman Who Can’t Forget: A Memoir by Jill Price with Bart Davis.  Audiobook.  The title rather overstates the case, but still an interesting look Ms. Price’s experience with hyperthymestic  syndrome.   Glad I read it.

The Hundred Days by Patrick O’Brian.  Audiobook.  One of the ones where action is as much on land as on sea.  Stephen does have a propensity for acquiring other people’s children.

In Progress:

Blue at the Mizzen by Patrick O’Brian.  Audiobook.  Last in the series…

Memory and Dream by Charles deLint.  A conversation with a friend about “dream” and the book above about “memory” gave me a great desire to re-read this favorite.  Turns out it’s also a very good book about what artists of any sort choose to bring into the world.  This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

Also:

Trying to figure out what to do with a craft project that’s gone sideways, so looking at art books, too.

TT: Science, Fiction, and Spirituality

February 23, 2017

JANE: Last time you promised to tell me about the most expensive SF/Religious epic ever made…

ALAN: That’s right, I did. It was one of Arthur C. Clarke’s projects.

JANE: Really? I always think of him as a writer of hard science fiction. I didn’t know he was interested in theology enough to have a religious movie made based on one of his works.

Classic Speculation

Classic Speculation

ALAN: Clarke’s novels often have spiritual and religious themes. His most famous work is 2001 – A Space Odyssey, and he is on record as saying, during the shooting of the film, that “MGM is making the first ten-million-dollar religious movie, only they don’t know it yet”.

So there it is – 2001 was the expensive epic that I had in mind.

JANE: You’ve got me there!  I’d never heard that quote.  One of my friends was saying just the other day that she’s tired of the false dichotomy that science and spirituality will always be in opposition.  It sounds as if Clarke would have agreed with her that the two need not be perceived to be at odds.

ALAN: I’m sure he would agree. Clearly Clarke was very well aware of the spirituality that infused so many of his stories and, equally clearly, he was doing it deliberately. It seemed to be very important to him and it was a theme he returned to time and time again. He was so much more than just a hard SF writer.

JANE: I really like the idea that his work shows how Hard SF need not exclude theological speculation – that it, indeed, might encourage it.

ALAN: Another very good example of that idea would be Clarke’s famous short story “The Star”. Scientists investigating the remnants of an advanced civilization that was destroyed when its sun went supernova discover that the supernova was actually the star that heralded the birth of Jesus. The protagonist, a Jesuit, suffers a crisis of conscience. He cannot reconcile his faith with the capriciousness of a god who is willing kill so many in order to make the symbol of their passing shine in the skies above Bethlehem.

JANE: I don’t remember that one well…  I’ll need to go and re-read to see how the Jesuit resolves his crisis.

Now that I think about it, Clarke’s short story “The Nine Billion Names of God” is also theological in nature – if not based in Christian theology.  I won’t say more about it lest I provide a spoiler for a story that rests very firmly on the ending.

So, we’re on a roll now.  What other authors have successfully combined theology and SF?  Oh, of course, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Lebowitz!   Although the grocery list that becomes religious text is what everyone tends to remember, still, I think there’s more to it than some clever gimmicks.

 What do you think of it?

ALAN: It’s a stunningly brilliant post-apocalyptic novel mostly set in a Catholic monastery deep in the desert of the Southwestern United States. The story spans many thousands of years as civilization slowly rebuilds itself. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz (named after the pre-apocalypse engineer who left behind the grocery list that you mentioned) preserve what little remains of humanity’s scientific knowledge until the world is ready for it again.

I first read it in my teens and it made a huge impression on me. The total desolation in the first part of the book felt very real and the occasional unexplained peculiarity was intriguing – at one point, the protagonist might have encountered the Wandering Jew, but we never find out for certain.

Then, gradually, things began to come together. The society that arose from the rubble was sometimes bizarre to my eyes, but it made sense to the characters, which is all that matters, of course.

It’s one of the few books that I’ve returned to again and again over the years, and every time I do I think I get something more out of it. It really is that good…

Miller views religion, particularly Catholicism, as a stabilising and unifying force that helps hold things together during times of crisis, and this is brought out very clearly in the story.

JANE: And Miller is not at all wrong in viewing Catholicism in this light.  Remember, it was Catholic monks who preserved a great deal of literature during the so-called “Dark Ages,” including classics by “pagan” authors.

ALAN: That’s one of the things that makes the book resonate with me – drawing these kinds of parallels gives the story an enormous depth and makes it very convincing.

Since we’ve raised the idea of Catholicism in SF, there are two other books I’d like to discuss. A Case of Conscience (1958 – James Blish) and The Sparrow (1996 – Mary Doria Russel.)

JANE: I don’t think I’ve ever read The Sparrow and I haven’t read A Case of Conscience since college. Can you tell me more about them?

ALAN: A Case of Conscience is the story of a Jesuit who investigates an alien race. The aliens have no religion and yet they have an innate sense of morality. This is in direct conflict with Catholic doctrine. After much soul-seaching, the priest concludes that the alien planet has been constructed by Satan to demonstrate the possibilities inherent in the complete absence of God. He pronounces an exorcism and the planet is destroyed, but it remains ambiguous as to whether God intervened through the exorcism or whether human meddling with fissionable material on the planet was the cause.

The Sparrow has a similar theme. A Jesuit priest’s experiences on an alien planet cause him to question his own belief in God. When he finally manages to return to Earth, all his companions on the planet are dead and he himself is horribly mutilated. The novel is constructed of two intertwined narratives – one that tells what happened on the alien world, and one that tells of the priest’s debriefing by the Jesuits as they struggle to reconcile his faith-destroying experiences with their own beliefs.

JANE: I presume that in each case the relevant Catholic teachings are what gives the novels their depth?

ALAN: Very much so. The debate that highlights exactly how each priest came to their separate conclusions is central to both novels and it contains much food for thought. These are subtle ideas, beautifully presented. Each novel complements the other and both are brilliantly conceived, deep and thoughtful. If there is such a thing as “literature” (as opposed to just stories),then both these novels fall firmly into that category.

JANE: What’s interesting is that most of the stories you’ve mentioned, when religion meets the future, religion is seems to be the loser.  Only the Miller story is an exception.  Maybe next time we can look for stories where religion or at least spirituality have a place in the future.

Unpredictable Future

February 22, 2017

This past week was very stressful, in large part because of a variety of events I couldn’t have predicted but which took up a great deal of time, emotional energy, and even brain space as I tried to arrive at the best solution for various difficulties.

Kwahe'e Considers

Kwahe’e Considers

By interesting coincidence, my reading matter involved both a memoir (Jill Price’s The Woman Who Can’t Forget: A Memoir) and historical fiction (Patrick O’Brian’s The Hundred Days).  As I read these, once again, I found myself thinking about how much of what creates stress (whether in a piece of fiction or in reality) is not knowing the resolution.

I talked about this a little back in early 2014, in my wandering “Light, Not Necessarily Fluffy,” so you may choose to consider what I have to say an expansion.

Jill Price frames her fascinating memoir with an anecdote about the day she contacted the memory specialist who would help her understand that she wasn’t crazy or maladjusted, that there really was something different about the structure of her brain that contributed to how she retained and processed “autobiographical memory.”

The choice to begin with this piece of information provides a sense of structure to the memoir overall, but it also diminishes the sense of stress.  Even when Ms. Price discusses how at various times in her life her memories would overwhelm her to such a great extent that she couldn’t get out of bed or be supportive of people who needed her, this sense of stress is modified by the reader’s awareness that a time will come where she will get help, will find people who will understand her.

Equally, when Ms. Price talks about her husband, Jim Price, several times she makes statements like “in the short time we would have.”  This warns the reader to expect the tragedy to come, modifying the stress involved in her account of her husband’s death.  It even causes the reader to be more alert to certain biographical elements, such as her mention that Jim Price suffered from type one diabetes.

The Hundred Days provides an interesting expansion on how pre-knowledge of outcomes colors one’s reaction to events.  Many, if not all, readers of these books will immediately catch the reference to Napoleon’s escape from Elba and the short-lived resurgence of French military power.  However, Jack Aubrey, Stephen Maturin, and the rest of the characters have no idea that it will all be “over” in a mere hundred days.  They feel intense excitement and varying degrees of anxiety that the reader cannot fully share.

Interestingly, the title of the novel in the series immediately prior to The Hundred Days intensifies rather than diminishes stress.  The Yellow Admiral may not mean much to most readers.  Indeed, since (at least for Americans) “yellow” is slang for “cowardly,” someone who has not yet read the book might believe it is going to be about an admiral who lets cowardice keep him from fulfilling his duties.  However, within the novel, O’Brian relatively quickly lets the reader know that, in this context, “yellow admiral” is a term used for someone who has been (effectively – I’m not going to get into the complexities here) passed over for promotion

The Yellow Admiral is set in the period following Napoleon’s first surrender, when many ship commanders (including Jack Aubery) are “put on shore” – their reactions to the newly declared peace tainted by their awareness that peace also means an end to active duty and coveted promotion.  By titling the book The Yellow Admiral, O’Brian leads the reader to fear that bold Jack will face this dreaded fate.

I won’t tell you what happens!

Another good example of how foreshadowing can lead to an increased sense of tension occurs in the opening of Jo Walton’s The King’s Peace.  The narrator, an old woman of 93, looks back and (among other things) says, “Fifty years and five it is, since Urdo fell…”  So, from the third paragraph we know when the king will die.  From other things she says, we know who his successor will be.  We know that the culture will change radically.

How a reader will react to such foreknowledge is a gamble the writer takes, but one thing is certain.  No one in “real life” knows how their story will end.  Maybe the sense that someone (if only the author) does is one of the appeals of fiction.

FF: History, Memory, and More

February 17, 2017

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 magazines.

Kel Contemplates Cordwainer Smith

Kel Contemplates Cordwainer Smith

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:

And Carry a Big Stick by S.M. Stirling.  Manuscript of the first book in a new series.  I’ll let you all know when it comes out!

The Bees by Laline Paull.  Audiobook.  Fiction.  Although I had my quibbles with some of the author’s language choices, I found this an ambitious and interesting read.

The Yellow Admiral by Patrick O’Brian.  Audiobook.  Jack may be losing both his wife and his command.  Worse – for a career naval officer – the war is winding down.   Will Jack have a chance to be even an admiral of the “yellow”?

Quest of the Three Worlds by Cordwainer Smith.   The only thing that can be “expected” in a Cordwainer Smith novel is the unexpected.  Some very out of date attitudes may jar on modern readers, though.

In Progress:

Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich.  Still reading in small bites so I have a chance to digest the material.  Very interesting.

The Woman Who Can’t Forget: A Memoir by Jill Price with Bart Davis.  Audiobook.  The title rather overstates the case, but still an interesting look Ms. Price’s experience with hyperthymestic  syndrome.  Very anecdotal to this point.

Also:

More archeology.  Particularly taken with an article on how WWI battlefield graves show how archeology is the complement to historical research, and that – even when there is ample written documentation, that documentation does not come close to providing a complete or even accurate depiction.

TT: Truly Speculative SF

February 16, 2017

JANE: Last week you suggested telepathically that we should talk about…

ALAN: …Religion and theology in science fiction.

Stapledon's Star Maker

Stapledon’s Star Maker

JANE: I suppose that, as usual, you are going to point out that H. G. Wells was a pioneer in the use of this particular trope.

ALAN: Actually no. Wells did publish The Wonderful Visit in 1895 – it’s a novel about an angel visiting Earth. But the angel is much more of a fantasy creature than it is a heavenly angel and Wells pays little or no attention to the possible religious implications.

As far as I can tell, science fiction came quite late to the notion of discussing religious ideas, which is odd because it’s been a preoccupation of mainstream literature for as long as there’s been mainstream literature.

JANE: Actually, that’s not precisely accurate.  Religion and science fiction – especially in its “speculative” mode, rather than its harder science mode – have long worked together.  To quote Clute and Nicholls’ Encyclopedia of Science Fiction:

“It was the religious imagination of people such as Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) which first envisioned an infinite Universe filled with habitable worlds, and it was visionaries like Athanasius Kircher and Emanuel Swedenborg who first journeyed in the imagination to the limits of the Solar System and beyond.”

John Mastin’s 1909 Through the Sun in an Airship even had actual physical space travel.

ALAN: I’ve not read any of those, so I really can’t comment.

JANE: Me, either, and even the encyclopedia classifies them more as “scientific romances, rather than true science fiction,” but it does show that science fictional elements and theological speculation have gone hand-in-hand for a long while.

As time went on and scientific works – such as Darwin’s theory of evolution or new discoveries in geology that extended the probable age of the Earth beyond what had been deduced from material in the Bible – put pressure on what had been uncontested theological truths, authors took up pens to explore the conflict.

Some of this, like Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam: A.H.” or Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” was non-fiction, but many other works, if published today, would certainly be termed science fiction, since they dealt with the implications of science and scientific experimentation, as well as the impact of such of religion and faith.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction provides numerous examples going through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Suffice to say that the work that is most often cited as the first “true” science fiction novel dealt as much with religion as with science.

Want to guess what it is?

ALAN: I’ll go with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – on the grounds that Brian Aldiss considered it to be the very first example of “modern” science fiction in his brilliant and scholarly critical examination(s) of the field, Billion/Trillion Year Spree. Am I right?

JANE: Absolutely!  These days, most people – influenced by Hollywood depictions – think of Frankenstein as a “monster movie,” but the actual text deals less with the actions of a monster than with the question of what would happen if a man took upon himself God’s role – that of creating life – and the consequences when that man is able to be a creator, but lacks God’s ability to provide guidance to his creation.

Still, none of these works are “science fiction” as we tend to think of it today.  What would you nominate as the first SF novel to tackle the difficult line where science and religion meet?

ALAN: One of the earliest (and still one of the best) examples of SF coming to grips with religious and theological ideas in any significant way is in Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 novel Star Maker  which culminates in a vision of God as a scientist constantly experimenting with aspects of creation in a multitude of universes.

Stapledon has a small but very devoted following in the UK. His books are seldom out of print. Both the late Arthur C. Clarke and Brian W. Aldiss were huge fans. Unfortunately, however, he seems not to be very well known outside the UK. Have you ever come across his books?

JANE: Uh…  Not me.  I know the name, but I’m not sure I’ve read much of his work.  Sorry.

ALAN: Only a year after Star Maker appeared, C. S. Lewis published Out of the Silent Planet (1938), the first volume of what eventually became his great science fictional / theological trilogy. (The other two volumes are Voyage to Venus (aka Perelandra) (1943) and That Hideous Strength (1945)).

Lewis thought very deeply about the relationships between religion and science and many of his published works, both fiction and non-fiction, concern themselves with the boundary between the two. Along the way, he coined what I think is a very telling phrase to describe the vastness of interstellar distances. He called them “God’s quarantine regulations”. He saw these huge distances as a means of separating us from other beings who, unlike us, could be thought of as being unfallen, and still in a state of grace.

And, quite apart from any religious considerations, that is also a very good answer to the so-called Fermi paradox. If the universe is full of alien life, why have we never seen any evidence of it?

JANE: I agree.  I really liked Out of the Silent Planet.  Most people don’t realize that the “silent planet” of the title is Earth…  I won’t say more, because it’s a major spoiler.

Perelandra was seriously creepy, especially the bit with the frogs.  That still haunts me to this day.

That Hideous Strength is rooted more on Earth.  As such, as a younger reader I liked it a lot less than I did Out of the Silent Planet, with its wonderful aliens and depiction of life on a lower gravity planet.  However, as I grew older and my life crossed with self-styled “intellectuals” very like those featured in the novel, I found a lot worth thinking about.

You might say the science fiction was what drew me into the books, but the theological elements are what make me re-read from time to time.  (Although Perelandra the least frequently.  I can’t get over the creep-out.)

ALAN: I have a question for you – what’s the most expensive SF/Religious epic ever made?

JANE: I have no idea.  I hope you’ll tell me all about it next time!

Expectations and “The Dark Crystal”

February 15, 2017

Prompted by my listening to an audiobook version of Jim Henson: A Biography by Brian Jay Jones, last Saturday Jim and I watched The Dark Crystal.  Although I hadn’t seen the film for decades, I’d seen it many times before.  I think I also read a novelization because, as we watched, my hindbrain filled in details that weren’t on the screen.  Jim, on the other hand, had heard about the movie, but never seen it.

The Dark Crystal

The Dark Crystal

(For clarity’s sake, I’m going to refer to my husband as “Jim” and Jim Henson either by his full name or as “Henson.”)

I was very interested in what Jim’s reaction to The Dark Crystal would be, as well as how his reaction would compare to that of the original audience for the film.  As you may or may not know, The Dark Crystal was not well received.  A great deal of this had to do with the expectations the original audience brought to the theater with them.

At the time when The Dark Crystal was released, Jim Henson was very well known.  However, mostly for his Muppets, which had already broken into the adult viewer market with The Muppet Show, the characters from which had even crossed over to the big screen.

Therefore, the audience attending the film thought they knew what “a Jim Henson production” meant: colorful, wildly over-the-top characters, humor (both broad slapstick and ironic and dry), and bouncy musical numbers.  They definitely did not expect a solemn, even dark, fantasy film.

Although the silly, over-the-top elements were definitely part of Henson (Brian Jay Jones’s biography notes that, early in his career, most of Henson’s Muppet sketches ended either with an explosion or with someone being eaten by someone else), there was a lot about Henson’s work his Muppet fans probably didn’t know.  Henson periodically longed to drop anything to do with puppets and do independent films.  Even when working with puppets, he was most fascinated with how they could be used to push expectations, not with following established trends.

Henson had to persist for years to get The Muppet Show on the air, because American television and movie executives “knew” that puppets were only for kids.  In fact, The Muppet Show’s original backers were British, and the show was filmed in England.

A side note.  Apparently SF/F fans were more receptive to the than were the general public.  My guess is that in addition to not having the same expectations, they were familiar with the tropes being used.  Many may have already been familiar with Brian Froud’s art, since his Faeries had been very well-received.  Jim Henson must have been aware that the SF/F crowd could be a core audience, because he gave a presentation on the film at a Worldcon prior to the film’s release.

So, what did Jim think of The Dark Crystal?  He liked it quite a lot.  However, he also brought very different expectations to the viewing.  In contrast to the original audience for The Dark Crystal, although Jim was definitely familiar with the traditional Muppets, he was also familiar with Henson’s later work, most especially with Labyrinth, a film that is one of my personal favorites.

(Labyrinth did even worse than The Dark Crystal on its original release, but has since found a solid following.)

Labyrinth and the Dark Crystal share several elements: a plot that relies on fantasy tropes, sets and characters indebted to the art of Brian Froud, and the use of sound as a form of language.  Labyrinth has more humor than does The Dark Crystal.  It also includes human characters as well as puppets, a formula Jim Henson had used repeatedly, whereas the closest The Dark Crystal comes to human characters are the two gelflings, Jen and Kira.

Jim also is a long-time reader of Fantasy fiction, as well as an anthropologist – possibly the perfect audience for a film that attempts to create a world and its creatures pretty much from scratch.  When I asked Jim if he had found the plot a bit too trite or formulaic, he grinned and said, “I’ve always had a weakness for that sort of story.”

Expectations again…

So, there you have it.  None of us really see or read anything fresh.  We bring our expectations with us, then let them shape our reactions.  The real question is whether, for you, “That’s not at all what I expected” can be construed as praise or criticism.

Interesting thought indeed.

FF: Reading Aloud and Silently

February 10, 2017

First…  If you’re free, I’m going to be reading an unpublished short story tonight at the monthly meeting of the Albuquerque Science Fiction SocietyThe meeting starts at 7:30.  First time visitors are requested to make a $1.00 donation.  (Others must pay their club dues.)

Persephone and Naruto

Persephone and Naruto

The meeting is held in the Activity Room of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church at the west end of building – please enter through North Door (backside of building).  Contact Jessica C./Craig C. at 266-8905  or  cwcraig@nmia.com with any questions.

So… 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 magazines.

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:

Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones.  Audiobook.  Sometimes when an artist becomes iconic, it’s easy to forget the ups and downs along the way.  If this biography has a sub-text, it’s “If you believe in your work, then persist.”  Bonus.  Reader Kirby Heyborne works very hard to capture the voices of various key people in Henson’s life, including Henson’s own gentle “Kermit-the-Frog” voice.  A performance that adds to the pleasure of the work.

A Choice of Gods by Clifford Simak.  A novel wrapped around a theological/philosophical meditation.

Naruto by Masashi Kihimoto.  Finished my re-read of this long manga series and found it very satisfying.

In Progress:

Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich.  I loved his Ravens in Winter and have meant to read this for a long time.  While Ravens in Winter focused on the question of why ravens would call to share food, this is a more general look at this complex bird.  Oh, this is non-fiction!

And Carry a Big Stick by S.M. Stirling.  Manuscript of the first book in a new series.  Over halfway and the situation is dire.

The Bees by Laline Paull.  Audiobook.  Fiction.  Flora 717 is not a typical bee.  Story is told mostly from her point of view as she moves through many different roles – including, possibly, that of traitor to all she thinks she holds dear.

Also:

Some short stuff, especially catching  up on archeological magazines.

TT: Hidden Enemies

February 9, 2017

JANE: Last time you said something about Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade inspiring other stories…

Puppet Master

Puppet Master

ALAN: Yes, that’s right. In The High Crusade, an alien ship lands in England in 1345. In Michael Flynn’s novel Eifelheim (2006), an alien ship lands in Germany in 1349. However despite this and other similarities to The High Crusade, Flynn’s novel goes in a completely different direction from Anderson’s. The theme of Eifelheim is primarily theological. The German priest Deitrich has to battle with two (perhaps blasphemous) ideas. Can aliens become Christians? And where is God when catastrophes happen?

Michael Flynn is a greatly under-rated author. He really deserves to be much better known than he is.

JANE: Ooh…  That sounds grand.  Where is God when catastrophes happen is, of course, a perennial theological question.

However, the other goes to the heart of the issue of what is a soul and can anyone other than humans possess one?  SF is not the first literary area to attempt to deal with this.  The Hans Christian Andersen tale “The Little Mermaid” (the original, not the Disney version) has this at its heart, as do all those lovely tales where animals kneel down on Christmas and the like…

ALAN: Quite so. C. S. Lewis wrestled with this complex theological issue in his Space Trilogy – Out of the Silent Planet, Voyage to Venus, and That Hideous Strength. And James Blish addresses similar problems in his 1958 novel,  A Case of Conscience.

JANE:  Voyage to Venus is better known in the U.S. as Perelandra.  Good book, although seriously creepy at times.

Another good example of how Alien Invasion stories echo the fears of the time is the manner in which the McCarthyism through Cold War years spawned covert op “puppetmaster” type tales, representing the “alien among us” fears.

ALAN: Yes indeed. Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers was published in 1955 at the height of the communist invasion paranoia. The soulless “pod people” are generally considered to be a commentary about what life would be like under a communist regime. The theme must have struck some sort of chord, because the book has been filmed four times (usually under the title Invasion of the Body Snatchers).

JANE: As I mentioned last time, my novel Smoke and Mirrors also has hidden aliens – and since I grew up during the Cold War, I suspect it owes something to the paranoia about spies that was prevalent during my formative years.

I’ve been frequently asked if I was influenced by either Finney’s work or Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters.  Oddly enough, the answer is “no” to both.  By the time I was reading SF/F, both books were certainly classics in the field, but in my erratic reading – which was mostly informed by what I found at the library that looked appealing or what friends gave me – I didn’t stumble across them.  In fact, I’m ashamed to admit I’ve still not read either of them.  Or seen the movie…

Maybe you could educate me?

ALAN: Goodness me – colour me astonished! The Body Snatchers tells of a mindless “invasion” of interstellar spores. The seeds duplicate human beings, growing them from pods and reducing the original human victims to dust.

Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters is thematically similar. It was actually published four years before Finney’s novel, though it is not as well known. Slug-like creatures arrive in flying saucers and attach themselves to people’s backs, taking control of their victims’ nervous systems, and manipulating those people like puppets on a string.

Both the pod people and the puppets are generally considered to symbolise the way that  people are constrained and controlled by totalitarian regimes. And given that both works date from the 1950s, clearly the references are to Soviet Russia.

JANE:  Hmm…  Despite my past life as a literature professor, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of analyses that draw these kinds of parallels, mostly because as an author I know how often they’re wrong!

ALAN: As it happens, I do have some evidence for my analysis. Heinlein’s original manuscript for The Puppet Masters ran to about 90,000 words. It was severely edited for the magazine serial and the novel – both were about 60,000 words long. In 1990, Heinlein’s original, unedited manuscript was finally published. The Soviet references are much more blatant in the unedited version; so much so that really no doubt remains about what Heinlein was trying to say.

In many ways, the 60,000 word version is a much better book. It’s more subtle, and the prose is much less flabby. Unfortunately it seems to have vanished from the world. All the editions published since 1990 have been of the unedited version.

JANE: I wonder why Heinlein’s novel didn’t have the same impact as Finney’s? It certainly sounds like a compelling tale.  Though slugs…  (Shiver!)

ALAN: I suspect that it’s because Heinlein’s novel was first published in a pulp magazine (Galaxy) whereas Finney’s was published in a slick magazine with a much wider readership (Colliers).

JANE: The alien invasion novel certainly hasn’t died either because we have accepted the role of technology in our lives or because of the diminished fear of the “communist menace.”  However, it does continue to take on new shapes.

The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex is a good example of this.  Although ostensibly a “children’s” book – the protagonist is only eleven – it deals with issues like relocation of indigenous populations, reservations, cultural assumptions and the like.  These elements made it – for me – a very thoughtful tale.

In 2015, it was made into a film that I haven’t seen with the title Home – a title that, to me, undermines the entire point of the novel because, although a “road trip” novel, the real journey is one of intercultural understanding.

ALAN: That sounds like an interesting book. A lot of really good books fly under the radar because they are published as “children’s” books or YA novels. For several years I’ve been a book buyer for my godchildren and I’ve really enjoyed some of the books they’ve asked for. Not that I really need an excuse to read a YA novel, of course. A good book is a good book no matter what label the publisher attaches to it. I’ll add Adam Rex to my list of authors.

JANE: I hope you enjoy The True Meaning of Smekday.

ALAN:  I have a thought as to where we might tangent off to next time…  Let me see if I can send you the idea telepathically.

JANE: Ah-hah!  Got it, excellent idea!  I look forward to chatting about it next week.

Unexpected Impediment

February 8, 2017

This past Thursday, I had an emergency root canal.  This pretty much undermined any plans I had for the week.

Elegant Impediment

Elegant Impediment

Well, not the root canal itself.  That was easily and efficiently handled by an endodontist and his assistant.  In fact, I left the endodontist’s office feeling better than I had since Monday, when what had been an occasional twinge turned into intermittent waves of burning pain that eventually spread from the vicinity of the tooth to flow along my left upper and lower jaw, then to below my ear and up the side of my face.

“Intermittent” is the reason I didn’t call the dentist sooner.  When the pain would quit – often without warning, certainly not in response to anything in particular – I’d think “Oh, it’s over.”

But it wasn’t.  As the week went on, and the surges became more common and the ebbs less so, I accepted that I needed help.

I learned that these waves of pain are not at all uncommon when a tooth nerve is “flaring.”  I also learned that most upper molars have three roots, but I only had two.  This caused both the endodontist and my friend Melissa (who is a dentist) a great deal of delight.  Apparently, two roots is an upper molar is rather rare.  It’s nice to make specialists happy.

What else did I learn from this experience?

Well, I learned that the actual root canal procedure is not much worse than having a difficult cavity filled.  However, I also learned that the aftermath can be – especially in the case of a situation like mine where there was a lot of pain – far worse than any cavity.

Because of the intensity of the pain I’d been in, the endodontist sent me home with prescriptions for both 800 mg of ibuprofen and a narcotic concoction.   While I was grateful to know the pain would be kept at bay, the treatment left me loopy and tired.   I ended up sleeping most of Friday afternoon.  When I was awake, I couldn’t read anything that demanded analytical thinking.  So much for the research I’d planned to immerse myself in.

Or for getting end of the year paperwork together.

Still, even as I was feeling sorry for myself, I was also incredibly grateful.  I found myself thinking how glad I was not to live in the days of yore when not only weren’t there charming dental professionals to remove the source of the pain, there weren’t x-rays to let them see the problem or carefully constructed tools to do the work.

If you were lucky, someone yanked out the tooth and you didn’t get an infection.  They didn’t send you home with the means to control the pain.  You might get a swig of something or you might be told to stop whining and get back to work.

Yeah…  Pain control – especially in historical or fantasy fiction – is something that is given far too little attention.  Characters get wounded, wipe off the blood, then hurry back to the adventure at hand.   There are numerous justifications for this, including “who wants to read about someone actually dealing with pain and suffering,” but still…

Another thing this little diversion got me thinking about was how many writers I know who don’t plan for impediments in their schedule.  They say to themselves: “I can write a book in six months.  I’ll add on two weeks to read through and edit, then move on.”  Then, they get sick – or their kid, spouse, or pet has an emergency or something breaks – and they find themselves running behind.  This, in turn, leads to the stress of having missed a deadline, which can further slow a writer up and…

So here’s a bit of advice.  When setting up a schedule for yourself, factor in a week or two for things to go wrong.  The date you give to your editor or whoever you’re turning the project in to includes this extra time.  Don’t let having allowed for extra time make you lazy.  Work as if you didn’t factor it in.  At the very worst, you’ll finish early.  But, at the best, you have breathing room for those times when a little twinge turns into a big deal.

You’ll thank yourself and so will the people you work with.  Trust me on that!

Now, off to catch up on all the things I didn’t get done.  One of these will be reviewing the short story I’m reading Friday night at the meeting of the Albuquerque Science Fiction Society.  Details are available on my website.

Ravens and Muppets and More

February 3, 2017

I’ve continued reading more non-fiction than fiction.  I’ve also read a great deal of shorter material that’s not listed here.

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 magazines.

Ziggy: Apprentice Muppet

Ziggy: Apprentice Muppet

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:

Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson by Jeff Guin.  Audiobook.  Well done, with a balanced perspective.  However, I’m not a convert to the “narrative non-fiction” approach of reporting what people are thinking at a given moment.  Mr. Guin did not overindulge, so when he included this, it startled me and made me doubt the veracity of other statements.

In Progress:

Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones.  Audiobook.  Sometimes when an artist becomes iconic, it’s easy to forget the ups and downs along the way.  If this biography has a sub-text, it’s “If you believe in your work, then persist.”  Bonus.  Reader Kirby Heyborne works very hard to capture the voices of various key people in Henson’s life, including Henson’s own gentle “Kermit-the-Frog” voice.  A performance that adds to the pleasure of the work.

Mind of the Raven by Bernd Heinrich.  I loved his Ravens in Winter and have meant to read this for a long time.  While Ravens in Winter focused on the question of why ravens would call to share food, this is a more general look at this complex bird.  Oh, non-fiction!

And Carry a Big Stick by S.M. Stirling.  Manuscript of the first book in a new series.

Naruto.  Moving up to the final conflict.  How one chooses to react in the face of loss is showing as a major theme of this story.  Issues 66-69.

Also:

Many, many articles on a wide variety of subjects.  The Muse is hungry and I must feed.