Archive for June, 2017

FF: Cooling Down

June 30, 2017

The heat wave broke last weekend, so I’ve been back outside.  This week’s challenge seems to be power outages…

Ziggy in Her Armchair

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:

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie.  Audiobook.  Introducing Hercule Poroit and Captain Hastings.

In Progress:

The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge.  No.  The conspiracy isn’t lost, the Lost are conspiring and being conspired against.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  Audiobook.  Something Wicked This Way Comes meets The Prestige.  Very episodic to this point.

Also:

Egyptian Hieroglyphs for Complete Beginners by Bill Manley.  An interesting approach.  I wish I was better at drawing.

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TT: There’s a Word For That

June 29, 2017

ALAN: When we first started these tangents we spent a lot of time talking about the differences between American English and British English. But languages are interesting in their own right – real languages, artificial languages and even purely imaginary languages.

Conlang, Anyone?

JANE: True!  I’ve often wished I had been introduced to more languages when I was young enough to learn them easily, but I was of a generation where second languages were usually not taught until high school, and so I’ve always struggled.

Still, I have a deeply rooted fascination with linguistics.

ALAN: Me too! Did you know there’s a word for the invention of new languages? A made-up language is a “conlang” (constructed language) and the act of making them up is called “conlanging”.

JANE: I didn’t know, so I went and looked the term up.  I think it’s important to note that “conlanging” involves more than making up a few words to create “local color” for a story or series.  To conlang, one must create not only a vocabulary, but a syntax and grammar.

The seminal example is, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish.  C.S. Lewis, who was Tolkien’s friend and another language specialist, did some interesting work with language in his SF trilogy.  Were there any earlier writers of SF/F who took on this challenge?

ALAN: Yes – Edgar Rice Burroughs did it several times. The great apes who raised Tarzan had a language of their own, and so did the Martians that John Carter went adventuring with. Burroughs gives enough context to get the flavour of these languages and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that other people have expanded on his linguistic hints.

JANE: Eh…  Having read the definition of “conlang” I would argue that what Burroughs did for the Tarzan stories falls more into the “local color” category.  I read many of those novels when I was young enough to think those words might be “really” an animal language.  However, when I tried to build a vocabulary and a sense of a grammar, I realized what was in the books was hardly more than brushstrokes.

ALAN: You’re largely correct, but not completely so. The language does have some structure to it. For example, the great apes refer to themselves as Mangani. The prefix Tar means “white”, hence Tarmangani, the “white apes” that come invading the country. Also Tarzan’s own name, which translates as “white skin”. But I agree that the structure is crude and simple-minded. On the other hand, so are the great apes themselves…

JANE: I see your point, but I don’t think this is in the class of Tolkien’s Elvish.  Did Burroughs do more with the John Carter of Mars books?

ALAN: A little bit. John Carter claims that the Martian language is very simple because all subtleties and nuances are communicated telepathically. Carter himself managed to learn the language in only a week! We can derive quite a lot of word lists from the novels, and there are hints about a grammar. But it does still remain a little elusive.

JANE: I really, really like that Burroughs thought about how telepathy would shape the formation of a language – or in this case lead to it not forming as complexly.  Nice world-building!

Going back… Tolkien was particularly well-trained for making up languages, since one of his specializations was philology.  I’ve encountered many people who think this means he was a linguist but philology is different.

Philology focuses on studying language in written historical material.  It’s commonly used to establish a document’s authenticity.  Philology doesn’t only involve knowing languages, but how they developed and the historical context in which they were used.  This seems like perfect training for someone who wanted to invent his own language.

ALAN: Absolutely it does. I studied French and Latin at school and I picked up a smattering of German as part of my studies for my Chemistry degree, all of which served to convince me that languages are very complicated things. I really wouldn’t have a clue as to how to begin inventing one of my own.

JANE: Ah, we’ll need to come back that later…

What are some other examples of fully realized conlangs?   Do you have a particular favorite?

ALAN: Yes I do – Anthony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange is written completely in a made up language called Nadsat. You could claim it’s a dialect rather than a language, but I think that’s just splitting hairs. I grew up speaking the Yorkshire dialect which, while often recognisably English, definitely had its own vocabulary and grammar. I think the point at which a dialect turns into a language is really very blurred…

JANE: Okay…  I’ll accept Nadsat as a conlang.  I haven’t read the novel, so could you tell me more about Nadsat?

ALAN: When you first start reading the novel, the language feels rather strange and incomprehensible. But Burgess constructed the language very cleverly, and context soon makes everything clear. Indeed, Nadsat  becomes so compelling that I actually found myself using it in real life for a while after I finished reading the book!

JANE: You did?  Did anyone understand you?

ALAN: Mostly no, though I did say something in Nadsat to my then girlfriend and she squealed in delight and said, “That’s almost Russian!” That was when I first realised that Burgess had included a lot of Russian-derived words and flavours into his conlang along with some purely made up out of whole cloth stuff.

Burgess himself was a linguist and polyglot, which just reinforces the point you made about the perfect training for language construction. He was a linguistic advisor on the 1981 movie Quest for Fire which is set in Paleolithic Europe. The movie is about the struggle for the control of fire by early humans. Burgess invented a prehistoric language called Ulam for the characters in the movie.

What about you? Do you have any favourite conlangs?

JANE: Not really.  Many of the recent ones have been developed for television shows, and when I watch a show in a foreign language, it tends to be Japanese…  I have the world’s weirdest Japanese vocabulary…

But, that’s off the point.  Before we wander even further off topic, there’s a created language that predates those we’ve been discussing.   Although it wasn’t written for SF/F, it became an element in many early SF stories.  Can you guess what that would be?

ALAN: Hmm… the only “real” conlang I can think of that has been used in SF stories is Esperanto.  Is that the one you mean?

JANE: You’ve got it.  Maybe we can talk about Esperanto, and the importance of conlangs to SF/F next time.

Tell Me Why…

June 28, 2017

Now that the weather has shifted to warm (sometimes too warm), I’m back to riding my bike on the road instead of spinning inside.  Even though I ride the same route, just about every day I see something that gets me thinking.

Truck With Socks

Can anyone tell me why the truck in the picture has its wheels wrapped?  They’ve been like this for weeks now.  The truck isn’t new, nor is it elaborately customized.  I never see anyone outside at this house, so I haven’t been able to ask.  I keep coming up with possible explanations, and they’re getting more fantastical each day.

At the start, I thought the tires were new and hadn’t been unwrapped.  That didn’t make sense, because they’d need to be unwrapped to be mounted.  Then I thought the truck might have been shipped, and the wheels wrapped to keep it from rolling.  However, if that was the case, wouldn’t the tires need to be unwrapped so it could be unloaded?  Then I began to imagine what the tires might actually be: giant donuts, extra-wide hula hoops, dormant pythons, swimming float rings, metal washers, wedding rings.

Can someone solve this mystery for me?

Another fun thing I’ve been watching as I bike is the creation of a possible puzzle for future archeologists.  Someone dropped a box of paperclips on the asphalt of the road.  These were spread out by passing vehicles.  Then the temperatures began to rise into the high nineties, then the hundreds, then all the way to one hundred and eleven degrees.  The asphalt softened.  The traffic continued to roll over the paperclips.

We now have a neat “fossilized” layer that looks deliberate.  I wonder what future archeologists might make of this.  My favorite is a sacrifice to a deity of office productivity and organization.  The runner-up is a sort of “outsider art” that involves imbedding materials into roadways as a sort of technological roadkill.

Less outré entertainments have been watching the urban wildlife.  My current favorite are the Gambel’s quail.  The chicks are hatched now.  Every so often I come across little flocks scurrying across the road, diving into cover beneath ornamental shrubs.  Last week they were hardly big enough to see.  This week, they’re distinctly striped.

I guess you can tell that my rides aren’t just exercise for the body; they’re exercise for the imagination as well.  I’ve been writing quite a bit, and although trucks with coiled pythons for wheels haven’t yet entered any particular tale, you never know…

FF: Hot Weather Reads

June 23, 2017

This week has been so unbearably hot that lows of over thirty degrees still leave nighttime temperatures above 70.  I feel like an old-fashioned computer, my processing ability slowed by heat.

Cool Cat Ogapoge

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:

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore.  A gloriously footnoted look at the people and events who shaped the development the iconic comic book character

Black Coffee by Agatha Christie, audiobook.  This audio is an adaptation by Charles Osborne of her first stage play.  Mr. Osbourne is so faithful to the text that one can almost hear the stage directions in his descriptions.

In Progress:

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie.  Audiobook.  Introducing Hercule Poroit and Captain Hastings.

The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge.  No.  The conspiracy isn’t lost, the Lost are conspiring.

Also:

I’m setting up a new adventure for my RPG so have been immersed in all sorts of resources on everything from fiber arts to desert denizens: real, exaggerated, and imaginary.

TT: The Debate Heats Up!

June 22, 2017

JANE: So, here we go, tangenting off our Tangent, which was discussing whether or not Robert Heinlein put himself into his books.

Had Spacesuit, Did Travel?

Before we get back to that (because you still haven’t convinced me), I promised you a story about how careful writers – and those of SF and Fantasy in particular – need to be.  Why?  Because we have some of the brightest, most inquisitive readers there are.

ALAN: Indeed we do. Did one of them happen to catch you out in some way?

JANE:  “Catch out” may be too strong a term.  Here’s what happened.

When I wrote The Buried Pyramid, I carefully wrote out the bits in hieroglyphs.  I missed an error –the equivalent of a typo – though…  And, yep, a fan wrote to tell me about it.  Happily, she was a great person and, because of my error, I made friend who now sends me beautiful, handmade cards, but I blushed about that error for weeks.

ALAN: Good for you for admitting the mistake. I don’t think Heinlein would have been able to do that. The Heinlein Individual always knows how and why things work, without the possibility of error. Here Heinlein’s own personality comes out very clearly in the stories. In his autobiography I. Asimov the eponymous Isaac records:

“Heinlein was not the easygoing fellow that other science fiction personalities I knew and loved were. He did not believe in doing his own thing and letting you do your thing. He had a definite feeling that he knew better and to lecture you into agreeing with him. Campbell did this too, but Campbell always remained serenely indifferent if you ended up disagreeing with him, whereas Heinlein would, under those circumstances, grow hostile.”

The parallels with the Heinlein Individual are marked. Both Colonel Dubois in Starship Troopers and Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land (for example) exhibit this trait. They lecture at the drop of a hat (to be fair, it is Colonel Dubois’ job to lecture since he is supposed to be a teacher) and they do not allow disagreement. They are always right by fiat.

JANE: I have been on panels with numerous people who will lecture at the drop of a hat.  And, let me assure you, so many of them are convinced they are absolutely right.  Does that make them Heinlein?

ALAN: It depends on whether or not they are willing to listen to opposing points of view. I lecture at the drop of a hat as well (too many years as a teacher!) but I would never claim that I am always right. I have often been questioned and corrected by my students, and I just take it in my stride. Being a teacher is a wonderful opportunity for learning.

JANE: Indeed it is.  However, we only have Asimov’s word here for how Heinlein reacted and, from what I’ve read, Asimov wasn’t exactly the least opinionated writer out there.  Do we have an unbiased comment, or a clash of strong personalities who had to share the same stage?

ALAN: Oh it’s not just Asimov’s opinion. Heinlein had a very public and very hostile disagreement with Arthur C. Clarke when Clarke criticised some aspects of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Heinlein was strongly in favour of it and refused to allow any dissent at all.

Interestingly, Heinlein’s insistence that his opinions were the only correct ones does not mean that he never changed his mind about how and why the world worked. Asimov also records, somewhat cattily, that:

“Furthermore, although a flaming liberal during the war, Heinlein became a rock-ribbed far-right conservative immediately afterward. This happened at just the time he changed wives from a liberal woman, Leslyn, to a rock-ribbed far-right conservative woman, Virginia.”

I often wonder how such people reconcile their later beliefs with their earlier ones. Both sets of beliefs cannot possibly be correct because they are mutually contradictory and yet they must both be correct because the person holding them is never wrong…

JANE: Uh…  This example just violated your basic premise.  If Heinlein really was supremely confident, if he needed to always be right, there is no way a mere wife could change his mind.  In fact, given how little respect the opinions of women are given in many Heinlein novels, I’d argue that if Heinlein really was the Heinlein Individual, then a wife never could change his mind.

ALAN: Asimov found it puzzling as well:

“…I cannot believe he would follow his wives’ opinions blindly. I used to brood about it in puzzlement (of course, I never would have dreamed of asking Heinlein—I’m sure he would have refused to answer, and would have done so with the utmost hostility)…”

Asimov’s observation about Heinlein’s changing opinions does go a long way towards explaining why the Heinlein Individual in some novels views the rules of the world in a different way to the Heinlein Individual in other novels. Heinlein’s own ideas had changed in the meantime.

JANE: True.  So, is there any better proof that Heinlein “was” his characters than these thin psychological arguments?  Please don’t say that he used his stories to put forward his ideas and beliefs because, to a certain extent, whether deliberately or not, every writer does this.

Here’s an example from my own stuff.

After reading Child of a Rainless Year, my good friend Yvonne called to tell me how much she’d enjoyed it.  But (chuckling even as she spoke) she said, “The ending was so Jane.  You do all these things to the humans involved, but you make sure the reader knows the horse was okay and had a good home.”

ALAN: I can answer this to a certain extent – when Heinlein was at the Annapolis Naval Academy, his sport of choice was fencing and by all accounts he was very good at it. The hero of Glory Road is a fencer and the novel contains much fencing lore.

JANE: Roger Zelazny was a fencer in college, and was very proud of the fact that he’d been on the college team.  Based on that evidence, one could as easily say that Heinlein modeled the character in Glory Road on Roger Zelazny – or any of an infinity of people who have fenced.

ALAN:  Indeed so – I agree that it’s a very weak argument. But it’s about as far as I can go without introducing the kind of speculations that you’ve ruled out of bounds. Certainly there’s nothing quite like that about Colonel Dubois and Jubal Harshaw, the two characters who are most generally assumed to be representations of Heinlein the man.

But let me leave you with this little speculation. In Stranger in a Strange Land, Jubal Harshaw is described as:  “Jubal E. Harshaw, LL.B, M.D., Sc.D., bon vivant, gourmet, sybarite, popular author extraordinary, and neo-pessimist philosopher.”  Heinlein didn’t have the formal paper qualifications that Harshaw boasted of, but he demonstrably had every single characteristic in the list that defines Harshaw’s personality.

JANE: So, we take the parts we want and leave out what we don’t?  I’m not convinced.  If the text had read: Jubal E. Harshaw, graduate of the University of Missouri and the US Naval Academy, student of physics at UCLA, then all the rest… then maybe, just maybe, I’d be convinced.  However, given how general the rest is – most of that would apply nicely to my friend Walter Jon Williams, for example – I’ll take Heinlein’s side and say, no, he never put himself in his books as a character.

ALAN: And there I think we have to leave this fascinating topic. I wonder what opinions our readers have of it?

Default World-Building

June 21, 2017

My brother, Graydon, attended college in Tucson, Arizona.  My dad went to visit him one time, and was fascinated by how lizards were everywhere, much as squirrels were in D.C.  Dad did a great “lizard on a wall” imitation, popping his eyes and rhythmically puffing out his cheeks.  This would make my brother (who had become jaded regarding lizards, orange trees, cacti, and the other exotic elements of his environment) cringe and roll his eyes.

Treasured Visitors

My brother was still living “out west” when I finished graduate school and moved to Lynchburg, a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.  One time, when he was visiting me, our route took us over one of the myriad creeks that sliced through the town’s seven major and many minor hills.

“What’s that called?” Gray asked.

“I don’t think it has a name,” I said, “except that it’s part of the Blackwater Creek system.”

“Where I live,” he said, “that would have a name.  At every bridge, there would be a large sign announcing the name.  And, much of the year, the creek or river or whatever they called it probably wouldn’t have any water in it.”

It’s all in what you’re used to, right?

I was thinking about that this past week as June in Albuquerque, New Mexico, did its usual thing.  Temperatures shot up over 100 degrees every day.  A couple of times we were treated to a 50-degree temperature shift: 50 to 100 on day; 55 to 106 another.  (Yes, I know the latter is actually a 51-degree shift.)  Albuquerque is a mile high, which means we tend toward lower nighttime temperatures.  You bake during the day and pull up the blankets at night.

This morning, as I was walking into my office, I heard quail peeping out front.  A male and female Gambel quail were chatting as they foraged around the seed block we have in the shade of our ash tree.  A lizard raced across the driveway, off to hunt bugs in the sage.

A typical June…

Other things I’ve grown accustomed to in my twenty-some years living in New Mexico: June is not the gentle lead-in into summer.  June is the brutally hot, horribly dry month.  June is the month during which plants are trying to leaf out and flower before they cook.  June isn’t as windy as March or April, but it can be windy: a hot, desiccating wind that sucks the moisture out of anything, including humans.

June.  This is reality.

Except I’ve noticed that most Fantasy (and some SF) world-building defaults to a typical East Coast to Midwest seasonal pattern.  Spring is pale green unfolding to the music of gentle rains.  Summer temperatures gradually grow warmer, building to the “dog days” of August.  Both seasons are wet, humid, clinging.

Where I live, June is almost always the hottest month.  The plants that survive welcome the monsoon rains that – if we’re lucky – start in mid-July and taper off in August, returning in mid-September.  The indigenous peoples learned to plant in zones that would accommodate these cycles.  They crafted pots that were meant to preserve the moisture in the seeds they saved to plant the next year.

June is our Fire Season, when wildfires take out hundreds, often thousands, of acres.  That’s part of “normal,” too.

Normal includes lizards, quail, long-eared jack rabbits, coyotes, hawks, and vultures.  And, of course, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, and black widow spiders.  Native plants have a lot of stickers.  Or they poison the ground around them so that nothing else can steal their water.  Or both.

Here’s the problem with world-building based on my normal, rather than the normal that “everyone” knows.  You need to explain it.  The other is the default template, reinforced by hundreds, if not thousands of stories that use the same template.  The climate had better be crucial to the story (think Dune) or you’re just slowing down the story.

A pity, I think…

FF: Read Me a Story

June 16, 2017

I’m writing more than ever, but now that the garden is in, I’m finding little more time to read, or at least to listen to audiobooks.

Wonder Kel!

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:

Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie.  Audiobook.  Re-read.

The Return of the Twelves by Pauline Clarke.  A middle grade story about some magical wooden soldiers twisted up with the juvenilia of the famous Brontes.

The Big Four by Agatha Christie.  Audiobook.  Re-read.

Fleetwood Mac: The Ultimate Guide to Their Music and Legend.  Rollingstone special issue.  For all their money and fame, I ended up feeling this was a sad story.

In Progress:

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore.  A gloriously footnoted look at the people and events who shaped the development the iconic comic book character.  No.  I haven’t seen the movie yet!  This book was actually a Christmas present I’m finally getting to read.

Black Coffee by Agatha Christie, audiobook.  This audio is an adaptation by Charles Osborne of her first stage play.  Mr. Osbourne is so faithful to the text that one can almost hear the stage directions in his descriptions.

Also:

Finished the current Smithsonian and am now reading the one before.  Interesting article on the placebo effect.

TT: Is He In There?

June 15, 2017

JANE: Okay, Alan.  We’ve expanded our agreeing to disagree about whether readers should “see” a character as “being” the author.  I can’t say I’m persuaded to your point of view, but I will agree that sometimes authors deliberately put themselves in their books.

Did He Sell the Moon?

You said you had a Famous SF Author in mind who regularly put himself into his stories.  Who would that be?

ALAN: That would be Robert Heinlein, without whom there would be no such thing as science fiction as we know it today. He put a lot of his own personality, experience and beliefs into his fiction.  I’m quite sure that time after time you can catch glimpses of Heinlein himself peering out at you from the pages of his stories.

JANE: Ah…  But is this the readers’ opinion or the author’s opinion?

ALAN: It’s certainly not the author’s opinion. Heinlein was a very private individual who refused to engage in that kind of public speculation. I think he preferred to let the story speak for itself – and I certainly can’t criticise him for that. As far as I can tell, the most he ever said about his own work was in an introduction he wrote to Revolt in 2100: “They are just stories, meant to amuse, and written to buy groceries.”

JANE: Well, if he said that, then why do you feel so strongly otherwise?

Are there obvious clues?  A name and description, like Roger Zelazny provided in The Hand of Oberon or an “in-joke” such as Kingsley Amis’s provided with One Fat Englishman?

ALAN: Yes, there are a lot of clues. In 1968 Alexei Panshin published Heinlein in Dimension, a very detailed critical analysis of all Heinlein’s stories. In it he identifies someone he calls “the Heinlein Individual” who he defines as: “…a single personality that appears in three different stages and is repeated in every Heinlein book in one form or another.”

Here is how Panshin describes the Heinlein Individual:

The earliest stage is that of the competent  but naïve youngster. The hero of almost any Heinlein juvenile will serve as an example … The second stage is the competent man in full glory, the man who knows how things work. Examples of this are Zeb Jones of If This Goes On–, the secret agent narrator of The Puppet Masters, and Sergei Greenberg of The Star Beast. The last stage is the wise old man who not only know how things work, but why they work too. Jubal Harshaw of Stranger in a Strange Land is an example, and Baslim of Citizen of the Galaxy and Colonel Dubois of Starship Troopers. However these three stages as I have given them are simply the equivalents of frames cut from a movie film to serve as illustrations – the Heinlein Individual forms a continuum covering all points between youngster and wise old man.

Panshin goes on to defend this thesis in great and convincing detail.

JANE: So?  Actually, these are pretty classic tropes.  Even boring ones, to be honest.  Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys fit the first just as easily as any Heinlein youngster.  Just about every spy thriller, Western – heck, just about any action adventure tale – has the second. And the Wise Old Man has been around since the first myth where the hero seeks guidance.

By the way, before readers think I don’t like Heinlein’s work, I do.  We’ve discussed it in detail here and here.   I’d certainly consider myself a fan, rather than otherwise.

ALAN: Leaving aside, for the moment, the question of whether or not the Heinlein Individual is actually Robert Heinlein himself, we can at least be certain that the characteristics of the Heinlein Individual are very important to Heinlein the writer. Why else would he use the character in story after story after story? It’s also worth saying that the Heinlein Individual is often the only character who is completely defined and well-rounded in the story. Other characters tend to be thinly drawn, barely (if at all) described and sometimes little more than set piece caricatures.

JANE: How his using them because these sort of standard characters do exactly what Heinlein claimed he was doing: Buy the groceries. They don’t challenge expectations.  They provide comfort reads.  Someone is In Charge and will Save the Day, no matter how complicated the problem.

I’m going to need more convincing to see these as Heinlein.  In fact, right now, what I’m seeing are readers who need to identify Heinlein with his characters as a sort of security blanket that carries the fictional “comfort food” into reality.

ALAN: If that’s all there was to it, I’d be inclined to agree with you. But let’s swim out into deeper waters…

The Heinlein Individual is always very competent. Heinlein himself was supremely competent and egotistically convinced of his own competence. When he first sold a story to John Campbell at Astounding he told Campell that he would continue to submit stories to him but that, if Campbell ever rejected one of them, that would be the end of the relationship. Clearly Heinlein was firmly convinced that he was more than capable of writing stories that Campbell would want to publish.

JANE: This sounds cocky, not competent.

ALAN: It worked though…

When Heinlein decided that he wanted a rockery and water feature for his garden, he designed and built it himself with no outside help – and he claimed that carrying rocks around was a great way to lose weight!

JANE: Uh…  I’ve done that, up to and including carrying rocks.  Does that make me Heinlein?

ALAN: No – but it shows that you share some degree of competence with him in at least one area.

In his novel Space Cadet, the hero is given a problem in orbital mechanics to solve. One day, just for fun, I decided to tackle that problem. It turned out to be a lot harder than I’d anticipated (if I’d known how hard it would be, I probably wouldn’t have started it in the first place) but I got there in the end and discovered to my delight that the solution Heinlein presented in the book was correct. Clearly he had done the same calculation himself.

There’s no question about it – Heinlein was very competent in a lot of fields.

JANE: Or he had a friend who was…  You’d be amazed at the number of hard SF writers who use outside resources.  There’s no shame in that.  In fact, it’s good science – and great science fiction.  Honestly, any writer who doesn’t make sure something like that orbital mechanics problem is correct would be an idiot.

ALAN: It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that he might use a friend. Maybe that makes me naïve, but I just assumed that Heinlein did everything himself because his self-reliance seemed such a fundamental part of his personality.

JANE: I actually have personal experience of having an error in one of my published works – but let’s talk about that next time…

The Revenge of Mega Radish!

June 14, 2017

Yep.  That’s a radish.  And the thing Jim put in the photo for scale is about the size of a standard baseball – that is, about nine inches in circumference.  It doesn’t look real, does it?   We should have used a ruler.

Mega Radish!

That’s not the only radish that size we’ve gotten, although it is the most pleasingly symmetrical.  For those of you who take interest in such things, no, these weren’t seeds intended to grow giant radishes.  They were standard Easter Egg radishes.

So, what else (besides giant radishes) is going on here?

There’s the mystery of the missing cucumber and chard seedlings.  (Solution: probably snails.)

Or maybe not…   We haven’t seen any snails lately.  I wonder why?

Join me now and we shall delve more deeply into the mystery.

Darkness has fallen.  One by one, the lights in the surrounding houses go out.  In the tiny ornamental pond, toads gather among the stems of the blue pickerel weed and aquatic plantain, soaking up moisture before going on the prowl.  They are the great night hunters of this urban garden, confident in their supremacy.

But, as the toads are about to heave themselves from their refreshing bath, a peculiar vibration ripples through the sandy soil.  The toads sink below the water so only their tiny eyes protrude above the surface.  Doubtless this saves them.  For, at that moment, from the garden bed west of the pond it comes, moving with astonishing lightness on tiny rootlets, leafy greenery towering above, sensing the least motion in its surroundings: Mega-Radish has arisen…

Forth it stalks, seeking what?  The toads do not know.  They only bubble sighs of relief as the gargantuan vegetable passes by the pond, and vanishes from sight.  But the hawk moths, large as hummingbirds, deep drinkers of the nectar of the sacred datura, are awake, dreaming on the wing, believing at first that what they see is a result of imbibing too much potent pollen.

Moving on many minute rippling rootlets Mega Radish races around the shed, down the path, to a small plot where infant seedlings of Swiss Chard and Armenian cucumbers tremble, rooted in fear, unable to move as the slime trailing terrors, the horrid garden snails, emerge from their daytime sanctuary within the tangle of Virginia Creeper, prepared to engulf the tender leaves of the infant plants.

Night after night this horrid slaughter has been repeated.  Night after night the seedlings have been helpless, but tonight the cry for help has been heard.  Mega Radish, hero of the garden, has ripped itself from its vegetative torpor and come to save the day.

Red and round, it launches!  It rolls!  Beneath its incarnadined rind it smashes the snails.  They are demolished so completely that their shells become naught but flakes of calcium to feed the soil, their slimy bodies return moisture to the ground.  The seedling cucumbers and chard wave their thanks.  The arugula – too spicy for the snails, but nonetheless terrified – joins the chorus.

Mega Radish takes a bow and then, on twinkling rootlets, vanishes into the darkness…

Well, maybe not.  But it’s a fun idea.

Have a lovely day.  May Mega Radish watch over you!

FF: Secret Histories

June 9, 2017

Secrets, especially those long-hidden, are perennially fascinating.  They play a major role in all the books I’m reading this week.

Not So Secret Hideout

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:

Gardens of New Spain: How Mediterranean Plants and Foods Changed America by William W. Dunmire.  This is really excellent because in addition to the subject in the title, it talks about how plants spread, why, and their cultural impact.  Additional bonus: histories – going back to earliest cultivation – of various key plants.  I seriously loved this book.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  Audiobook.  Re-listen.  Enjoyed again.

In Progress:

The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore.  A gloriously footnoted look at the people and events who shaped the development the iconic comic book character.  No.  I haven’t seen the movie yet!  This book was actually a Christmas present I’m finally getting to read.

Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie.  Audiobook.  Re-read.

The Return of the Twelves by Pauline Clarke.  A middle grade story about some magical wooden soldiers twisted up with the juvenilia of the famous Brontes.

Also:

Still working on Smithsonian.  Actually reading the current, hi-tech issue while waiting for Jim to finish the one before.