January 23, 2021

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (In this Case VIRTUALLY ASSURED IRRITATING ESSAY): Writing With Meaning and Without Meaning in SF/F

 NOT using the Programme Guide of the 2020 World Science Fiction Convention, ConZEALAND (The First Virtual World Science Fiction Convention; to which I be unable to go (until I retire from education)), I WOULD jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. But not today. This explanation is reserved for when I dash “off topic”, sometimes reviewing movies, sometimes reviewing books, and other times taking up the spirit of a blog an old friend of mine used to keep called THE RANTING ROOM…

I just finished a fairly new fantasy called DON’T CALL THE WOLF by newcomer Aleksandra Ross published not-quite-a-year-ago, based on the recommendation of my daughter who has ready all-things fantasy since she started reading on her own and after I read three of the PERN books to her and her brother.

I loved it! From Amazon.com: “A fierce young queen, neither human nor lynx, who fights to protect a forest humans have long abandoned. An exhausted young soldier, last of his name, who searches for the brother who disappeared beneath those trees without a trace. A Golden Dragon, fearsome and vengeful, whose wingbeats haunt their nightmares and their steps. When these three paths cross at the fringes of a war between monsters and men, shapeshifter queen and reluctant hero strike a deal that may finally turn the tide against the rising hordes of darkness. Ren will help Lukasz find his brother…if Lukasz promises to slay the Dragon. But promises are all too easily broken.”

Not only was the characterization particularly good, Ross does her best to not only draw from the little-explored mythology of Poland, but also stands more than one fantasy trope on its ear. Filled with blood, slaughter, creepy swimming, shredded faces, and loves lost, it pulls you swiftly through the world of young queen Ren’ the last-of-his-family, Lucasz/ and their friends, enemies, “not sure if their friend, enemy, or someone I used to know” up into vast mountains, and to the peak of the Glass Mountain itself…all while holding on to the source of the book’s name until half way through!

As with the best fantasy, there are religious overtones to DON’T CALL THE WOLF. Like its famous sisters and brothers, LORD OF THE RINGS, CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, BOOK OF THE NEW SUN, CHRONICLES OF THOMAS UNBELIEVER, THE TIME QUINTET, HARRY POTTER and countless others, there are brilliant moments of faith winning out over evil – sometimes the victory or defeat is overt, sometimes covert. There are both kinds in DON’T CALL THE WOLF. This book – and the others it shares our bookshelves with are books that are both rooted in and carry meaning.

That got me to thinking about the longevity of such meaningful stories story – particular stories. The NARNIA books were published between 1950-1956 (“a classic”); Tolkien’s LOTR between 1937-1949 (“best-selling”); the THOMAS COVENANT books (the first trilogy) between 1977-1979 (“an important contribution”); and the TIME QUINTET between 1969-1982 (“continues to grow in popularity with a new generation of readers”); and HARRY POTTER between 1997-2007 (“BBC…Harry Potter series on its list of the 100 most influential novels), and Gene Wolfe’s BOOK OF THE NEW SUN series between 1981-1983 (“a masterpiece of science fantasy comparable in importance to the major works of Tolkien and Lewis.”)

By contrast other fantasy worlds have flashed into existence and vanished with only a minor whimper – THE TWILIGHT SAGA (2005-2008), after sweeping everything off the shelves in front of it have faded into the deep ocean of YA lit… “Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity...Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend”, replaced by…well a whole new series of books. HIS DARK MATERIALS (1995-2000) on most Top 100 books lists (though not #1), written by Lewis Disliker, Philip Pullman, who considered Lewis’ writing in the Narnia books to be “‘bullying, hectoring and dishonest in all kinds of ways’, and the Narnia books as actually ‘wicked’. He says: ‘I find them very dodgy and unpleasant – dodgy in the dishonest rhetoric way – and unpleasant because they seem to embody a world view that takes for granted things like racism, misogyny and a profound cultural conservatism that is utterly unexamined.’” (Which is spoken by a person born, raised, and bred in the 20th and 21st Centuries, filled chock full of the corrected politics and views of a post-World War, post-wealth, post-just about everything that Lewis grew up with…world. Lewis was an officer in WWI, and “On his 19th birthday he arrived at the front line in the Somme Valley in France, where he experienced trench warfare…” By all accounts, the brutality of Humanity at its starkest.

Pullmin had time to pick up all the “correct” ways of talking, writing, and viewing the world. How incredibly lucky for him. I have no doubt, based on interviews with him, and had he been born in 1898 and dying in 1963, he would believe that it would be likely that he would have developed the sensibilities of the 21st Century all on his own…

Based on what I’ve read of Pullmun, he is a brilliant self-advertising writer, picking a fight with someone who was dead and unable to respond to any accusation the young man threw out. By attacking without consequence or any necessity for justification or by rigorous example, as well as a privileged upbringing as the child of a supposed war hero (which soured immensely when other facts were discovered). His opinion promotes his own work because he’s managed to attach his name to a long-standing popular writer and will now forever be linked to Lewis; NOT because his work is better, more profound, or ground-breaking, but because he’s loudly said nasty things about someone who was dead before the ink of his own computer printout was dry.

Pullmun’s books “take readers to a world where humans have animal familiars and where parallel universes are within reach.” Whew. Deep.

Rowling’s books are “about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity”.

Pulmin’s books are “Very grand indeed.”

L’Engle’s books allow that “Readers will feel a sense of power as they travel with these three children, challenging concepts of time, space, and the power of good over evil.”

Pullman himself is hailed (and self-hailed) as “one of the most acclaimed writers working today.”

Lewis’ books “have transcended the fantasy genre to become part of the canon of classic literature. Each of the seven books is a masterpiece, drawing the reader into a land where magic meets reality, and the result is a fictional world whose scope has fascinated generations.”

Longevity is important. Substance is important. While the others have current religious (I dare not say Christian) underpinnings, sympathetic reviewers note that PP’s work is even an “anti-Narnia” (of course, then that defeats the purpose of creating a world free of standard religious interference by comparing it to the world that the religious interfered with).

Lewis, Tolkien, L’Engle, and Gene Wolfe (of whom Neil Gaiman (with a couple of awards attached to his name, (https://www.neilgaiman.com/About_Neil/Awards_and_Honors) said: “He's the finest living male American writer of SF and F...possibly the finest living American writer” are remembered.

The reviews above say much about the substance of the novels. As for longevity, all of them are “recent history” as in, 20th and 21st Century. The books have been on best seller lists for the number of years since initial publication of the work the author is best known for? They run like this:

Tolkien(LOTR): 83 years
Lewis (CON: 70 years
L’Engle (TQ): 51 years
Donaldson (COTCU): 43 years
Wolfe (BOTNS): 37 years
Pullmen (HDM): 25 years
Rowling (HP): 23 years
Ross (DCTW): 9 months

Perhaps in another 45 years we’ll see how well Pullman’s books have stood the test of time. I suppose it might even be possible that there will be no one around to whom it matters…I won’t be around, either, so I guess I’ll never know. I’m sure Pullman will be around, if for no other reason than to accept another award.

References: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/19/cs-lewis-literary-legacy
Image: https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/proxy/IT-y6OdoQQxOuh8hh0nbG69xL7JQUAZzL3-i5WC_69YgmhU_IuPbQ-OWxgfU3xyQBbHr1MXHEjDzO7JWV-j1rhIn_pO4POpL26FjdRHKVLHfR-L2rsuekJfqiJ96_vi0iVz27Pq0QEYY1do6emuS19kCfMmQwMNmzrWXRwaRBna_NCc1oY3Z, https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRJJYtdqC3QiJHQzqEYzRcedWeR8xiAHL4Mlw&usqp=CAU

January 19, 2021

IDEAS ON TUESDAYS 480

Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc.) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them. Regarding Fantasy, this insight was startling: “I see the fantasy genre as an ever-shifting metaphor for life in this world, an innocuous medium that allows the author to examine difficult, even controversial, subjects with impunity. Honor, religion, politics, nobility, integrity, greed—we’ve an endless list of ideals to be dissected and explored. And maybe learned from.” – Melissa McPhail.


F Trope: Wu' means martial arts, which signifies action, 'Xia' conveys chivalry. Wuxia. Say it gently... 'whooshah'... and it's like a breath of serenity embracing you. Say it with force, 'WuSHA!', and you can feel its power…honourable warriors (侠 xiá) fighting against evil…wuxia stories are set in modern times, or even the future…Jiānghú (江湖 — literally "rivers and lakes")…martial-artists and monks, wandering knights and beautiful princesses, thieves and beggars, priests and healers, merchants and craftsmen…intricate relationships of honour, loyalty, love and hate between individuals and between communities in this milieu.

Current Event: “The Jade Warrior”

Ni Eyamba bit her lower lip as she stared down at the pre-calculus summative exam and sighed. What would the class do if she stood up and announced that she was a fusion of Atai, the mediator wife of Abassi, the creator god; and the Chinese “deity” of clan, nation, societal harmony, anti-individualism, and fulfillment of mandate still defines success. Contemporary Chinese, however, are unable to articulate the country's cultural DNA.

I am the articulation of the Chinese DNA of my mother melded with the gods and goddesses of my father’s home – the Dark Continent. I am...

Behind me, Jackson Jackson, my totally American best friend at Obama High School, poked me in the back with his tablet computer stylus and whispered, “Who do you think you are, Albertina Einsteinina?”

I rolled my eyes and got back to work. When we first talked, he asked me all about my families – not the shy one, I told him as much as he could stand.

Which happened to be an hour and seven minutes of constant talk – all through our relaxed study and into the fourth period of lunch. I’d intended to prove to myself that no one cared about me. Certainly Mom and Dad didn’t – why else would they send me to the US for schooling while they went to live the bright life in Espirito Santo, north of the capital of Brazil?

I was stuck in this...Jackson poked me again and I wrestled down an urge to turn and blast him with lightning. But then my only real friend in America would be a smoking pile of ash.

Of course I’d have to figure out how to immolate him without burning down both the school and turning myself into a pile of crematorium dust as well. Too bad my deityhood didn’t extend to omniscience. If it had, I would be able to ace this exam.

Also, the powers I’d supposedly gotten from the Efik side of my family tended toward creating things rather than destroying things. That’s why it had merged almost seamlessly with my Chinese blood. Most of Reunited China was in the throes of a materialistic orgy that made the 20th and the first half of the 21st Centuries of American excess look like…well…18th and 19th Century European excess…which made 16th and 17th Century Indian excess look like…well, you get the idea. Seems every dominating civilization seeks to outdo the previous dominating civilization...

“You gonna finish the test or just dream about graduating from high school?”

“闭嘴,” I said – Chinese for “shut up”, which is what Americans seem to say to each other a lot. Almost more than, “Wanna be friends?”

Behind me, I feel the rush of air past my ear as he breathes, “Wu xia.” He lifted the second syllable. Blood pounded in my ears. Said in such a way, he was doing no less than challenging me to a duel. I grinned, hunched over my tablet and raced through the rest of the test. I very much wanted to expend some of my angry energy by beating Jackson’s…

Names: ♀ China, Nigeria (Efik tribe); ♂ United States (#1, 2013), United States (#13)
Image: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/98/71/e5/9871e52bbc09c525af21b8f6471eab15.jpg

January 16, 2021

Slice of PIE: Is Fantasy More Popular than SF and If So, WHY?

NOT using the Programme Guide of the 2020 World Science Fiction Convention, ConZEALAND (The First Virtual World Science Fiction Convention; to which I be unable to go (until I retire from education)), I WOULD jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. But not today. This explanation is reserved for when I dash “off topic”, sometimes reviewing movies, sometimes reviewing books, and other times taking up the spirit of a blog an old friend of mine used to keep called THE RANTING ROOM…

The last article referenced below had the most helpful insight in that September of 2020, columnist for LitHub, Lincoln Michel when they compared ALL of fiction to a football field.

If I’m sitting at the fifty-yard line and my home team logo (The Minnesota Vikings in my case) is to my right, and the hated rival (aka Green Bay Packers) is on my left. The Packers endzone represents an (all too often a bitter) reality “as-it-is”; the Vikings endzone represents a fully-imagined reality. Everything to the left of the 50 Yard Line is realism; everything to right is science fiction and fantasy. As the printed/spoke word can never fully imitate reality or be entirely imagined, we’ll reserve the Packer’s 5-yard-line for Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara and Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp; and the Vikings 5-yard-line includes Luke Skywalker and Frodo Baggins.

On that field, you have to place books like Sinclair Lewis’ IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE as well as Stephen King’s UNDER THE DOME. Each one has a single alteration to reality – Lewis allows Berzelius Windrip to win the 1936 American election on a populist, the other puts an entire town literally in a fishbowl. Where do you place them? It may be more difficult than you imagine.

OK – this is all fine and good, but it doesn’t necessarily answer my question and it ends up splitting hairs, besides, James Davis Nicoll at Tor.com offers this sober observation: “…set aside your comforting but empty fantasy novels, which will never provide you with anything of value beyond the occasional insight into human nature, and go pick up a proper science fiction novel.” They are clearly a major fan of science fiction.

http://dankoboldt.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/reader-genre-trends-2010-2019.jpg (out of this blog entry: http://dankoboldt.com/state-of-sff-market-2019/)

According to LOCUS Magazine’s annual survey (800+ respondents) shows that SF has a clear though slight advantage in sales. HOWEVER, it would be interesting to find out what the profile of the respondents are (beyond age, employment, etc). However, if I look at the top sellers in SF/F on Amazon: the top 100 best sellers (inclusive of everything, games, game books, and alternate formats) today, 1/16/2021:

Science Fiction: 16
Fantasy: 40
SF Classics: 10
F Classics: 21 (the vast majority were various versions of different books in the LOTR books)
Neither: 5

What kind of conclusion can I draw from this?

Based on Best-Seller status, fantasy purchases far outweigh SF purchases. Based on what I believe (admittedly a subjective POV), people read more fantasy than science fiction. I BELIEVE that the reason for that is that people not only want to escape, they want to escape ENTIRELY.

Granted that “Warp ten!” and “Jump into hyperdrive!” contradicts classic and Einsteinian physics. Aliens have absolutely no basis in reality except for a profound desire by readers and the scientific community for them “TO BE” – there is no incontrovertible evidence that there are aliens ANYWHERE. Most SF fans invoke Carl Sagan’s ghost (or psychic impression or quantum echo) when they quote the scientist’s aphorism, “The universe is a pretty big place. If it's just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” (Carl Sagan, CONTACT)

So people don’t WANT to think. Recent developments in Washington DC are a case in point (I don’t include only insurrectionists in my DC Crazy count).

Also, the sale of T-shirts that state proudly, “I Believe In Science” drive me absolutely crazy! Science is not for “believing in”. I was a science teacher for 41 years, so I can state with some certainty, that science is about theories, experiments, data gathering, and interpreting data in light of current research. The fact that most people know this but choose to “believe in science”…*shakes head sadly*.

People don’t WANT to do the research, think, and come to their own conclusions based on hard data. They want to “believe in science” whilst checking up on their horoscopes, rubbing their lucky Whatever before picking their Powerball Numbers, and “hoping against hope” that the cancer will go away.

This is why despite the fancy charts, I “believe in” Amazon’s numbers.

You can do the same assessment and will likely to the same count: fantasy is preferable to science fiction because it requires very little of us. (Despite the sarcasm, I have a sneaking suspicion that They would agree with me…)

References: https://ingmaralbizu.com/why-is-fantasy-more-popular-than-science-fiction/, (sarcastic – there’s no difference at all) https://www.tor.com/2019/11/06/science-fiction-vs-fantasy-the-choice-is-clear/comment-page-2/, (a decade-old discussion on GOODREADS) https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/912259-why-is-fantasy-more-popular-than-scifi (MN blogger/professor, over a decade old) https://shaunduke.net/2009/01/five-reasons-fantasy-is-better-than-6/, (doesn’t answer my question, but I loved the “fiction as a football field” analogy) https://lithub.com/lets-stop-with-the-realism-versus-science-fiction-and-fantasy-debate/
Image: https://lithub.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Chart_2.jpeg

January 12, 2021

IDEAS ON TUESDAYS 479

Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc.) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them. Octavia Butler said, “SF doesn’t really mean anything at all, except that if you use science, you should use it correctly, and if you use your imagination to extend it beyond what we already know, you should do that intelligently.”


SF Trope: body transformations/cyber implants/the Borg…
Current Event: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2qPWc32LS8&feature=related, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIqAnrjqb0Y, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWTE97GteZA

[NOTE: STAR TREK’s Borg still creep me out and while they ended up defeated, compromised and hardly implacable by the end of all the series, I wonder if the writers did that to make themselves feel safer. When they first appeared in ST:TNG, they were anything BUT beatable…and they still creep me out…]

Hajnal Nagy stared at her lab partner. “What do you mean, they ‘creep you out’?”

Voytek Jankowski shook his head. “It doesn’t bother you that Ms. Hawkinson’s substitute is more machine than human?”

Hajnal shook her head. “Why should the ratio of Mr. Yakovlev’s flesh to metal and plastic bother you?”

“Didn’t you ever see the old movie, ‘Terminator’?”

“Duh. I like old movies as much as you do, so yeah, I saw it. But what does a time-traveling robot have to do with our substitute? He looks Human.” She glanced at the man where he was working with another student at the front of the chemistry room. While he certainly did look Human, the left side of his face was augmented by non-flesh implants. He’d told them he’d been in a car accident and they’d rebuilt his eye, ear and replaced the left side of his jaw with plastic bone and teeth. His hand was also partially prosthetic and, he’d added, even though they couldn’t see it, he carried a pacemaker to keep his partially damaged heart beating and had an implanted TENS unit to take care of his pain. He’d finally added that TENS was an acronym for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation unit.

He’d written that on the white board, smiling and saying, “Isn’t this one of those ‘teachable moments’?”

“You didn’t think him talking about ‘teachable moments’ was sort of creepy?”

“Why would that be creepy?” Hajnal asked.

“I want to know what he thought he was teaching us.”

Hajnal rolled her eyes and got back to the work on the page of problems. Voytek said, “But...” Hajnal waved him off half a dozen times before he left in a huff. Once he was gone, she found herself looking up at Mr. Yakovlev. He was leaning on one elbow, pointing to a worksheet and trying to explain something to a student.

She muttered, “Stupid Voytek!” and got back to work. But she couldn’t help it. Her eyes were drawn back to his face. The plastic skin was identical in color to his real skin. The eye had a white sclera, but the iris was silver and the pupil wasn’t exactly round but a vertical oval, almost lizard-like. The fake skin on his hand was also a perfect color match and – she noticed with interest from where she sat – there were hairs on both of his arms. “Stupid Voytek!” she muttered. She turned in her stool so her back was to the front of the room.

She was sitting like that, hunched over the worksheet, when a voice said, “Do you understand orbital notation…” the voice paused, rustled paper, then said, “Ms. Nagy?”

Knowing that she was blushing crimson, she didn’t turn or look up, but hunched farther as she said, “Uh, yes, sir. It seems pretty straight-forward.”

He hummed, “Perhaps you’d like to come up to the front of the room and demonstrate your methodology for the rest of the class. Few of them seem to understand why you do not fill in the 5s1 orbital until after you’ve filled in the 3d5 and 4p3 orbitals.”

Someone from the class called out, “Hajnal gets it!”

Someone else started pounding on the table, “Let Hajnal teach us! Let Hajnal teach us!”

She finally turned around. Now that she was thoroughly embarrassed, she looked up at Mr. Yakovlev as he said, “This is a teachable moment, Ms. Nagy.” He smiled and she noticed then that his teeth, instead of being white, were silver. And as she looked, a tiny red light lit up on each one, while at the same moment, the vertical oval glowed blood red…

Names: ♀ ; ♂ Both are from Hungary and Poland
Image: https://mk0spaceflightnoa02a.kinstacdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/49956692363_f73a7a6a69_k.jpg


January 9, 2021

WRITING ADVICE: Short Stories – Advice and Observation #7: “Larry Niven & Me”

 I’ve started looking at “advice” for writing short stories – not from me, but from other short story writers. In speculative fiction, “short” has very carefully delineated categories: “The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America specifies word lengths for each category of its Nebula award categories by word count; Novel 40,000 words or over; Novella 17,500 to 39,999 words; Novelette 7,500 to 17,499 words; Short story under 7,500 words.”

I’m going to use advice from people who, in addition to writing novels, have also spent plenty of time “interning” with short stories. The advice will be in the form of one or several quotes off of which I’ll jump and connect it with my own writing experience. While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do most of the professional writers...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote above will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!


Without further ado, short story observations by Larry Niven – with a few from myself…

Larry Niven is known for a number of stories and novels that created settings and civilizations NO ONE had ever of thought of before. Perhaps his most fascinating creation was Ringworld: “…a gigantic artificial ring, to see if it poses any threat. The Ringworld is about one million miles (1.6 million km) wide and approximately the diameter of Earth's orbit (which makes it about 584.3 million miles or 940.4 million km in circumference), encircling a sunlike star. It rotates to provide artificial gravity 99.2% as strong as Earth's from centrifugal force. The Ringworld has a habitable, flat inner surface (equivalent in area to approximately three million Earths), a breathable atmosphere and a temperature optimal for humans. Night is provided by an inner ring of shadow squares which are connected to each other by thin, ultra-strong wire.”

However, he’s written dozens of short stories and once said, “You learn by writing short stories. Keep writing short stories. The money’s in novels, but writing short stories keeps your writing lean and pointed.”

Well…I’ve been writing short stories pretty much since I started writing a half-century ago. While I’ve absolutely had success (since 1990, I’ve submitted my short works about 1100 times. Of those subs, 109 manuscripts have been published, giving me a pub rate of 9.3%. (HOWEVER: I just realized that that isn’t a realistic reflection of my STORY publication rate. To do that, I’d have to go back and count the STORIES themselves and calculate how many time each STORY was submitted and when it was finally published…*whew*! That could take some work…I’ll let you know when I figure that one out.))

My apprenticeship has been long, though to be perfectly honest, while my early submissions were certainly written by an adult “me”, they were NOT the me who had read countless books and articles on writing, taken a few classes, and PRACTICED for a half century…

As I’ve read my stories before submitting them in recent years, I’ve had to sit back and honestly say, “That was a DANG good story!”

So what else does Niven have to teach me? In the article referenced below, he says, “You want to write a story, and be paid for it, and know that it will be read? You want that now, no waiting? Tell me a story. Tell your brother/wife/cousin/uncle a story: tell anyone you can persuade to listen. Persuading is good practice: you need skill with narrative hooks. Watch for the moments where you lose your listener; watch for where you have to back up and explain a point. Your audience will tell you how to write it. Then you write it.”

That goes counter to what I do, and counter to OTHER advice I’ve heard that says to channel your energy into writing the story, not in endlessly telling others about it. OTOH, that’s what I used to do with my blog – I’d write a story in installments and post it. Though, I confess, up until now I’ve only lifted two stories from my blog and polished them for publication – one was published at one time and I have hopes that it will be again; the other I’m working on right now. I’m about half-way done with MARTIAN HOLIDAY, and HEIRS OF THE SHATTERED SPHERES: EMERALD OF EARTH, is just awaiting the editorial go-ahead and an OK to start a serialization of the first half of the novel.

So, I suppose that counts, as Niven suggested sharing the story at cocktail parties and I’ve never been to a cocktail party in my life…

“If the story you’re telling is a complex one—if the reader must understand the characters or the locale or some technical point to understand what’s going on—then you must use the simplest language. Your reader has his rights. Tell him a story and make him understand it, or you’re fired. This is never more true than in hard science fiction, but it never stops being true.”

Good point. This should NOT be hard for me to do. I was a science teacher for 40 years – middle school, elementary school, and high school – and was required to DAILY explain difficult science concepts to (frankly) many young people who could think of thousands of better things to do with their time. But…over the years, my effort to present and their effort to understand paid off. There a several PhDs, MDs, and research scientists who passed through my classroom over those years – some passed through my counseling office, where they’d come for help with difficult concepts.

Have I applied it to my stories? Hmmm…not necessarily evenly. In a piece of flash fiction I JUST submitted, I had to not only explain “achromatopsia” and the “Borra-Trottier Stars”, I had to take on (extremely briefly) what a radio carrier wave is and what that might have to do with the signals coming from the aforementioned stars…I think I pulled it off, but we’ll see.

Lastly, “Start with a story. Tell yourself a story. Are you in this to show off your stylistic skills? They’ll show best if you use them to shape the story.” I’ve done this many times – and sometimes people look at you weird. I’ve gotten used to it! In fact, my family still rolls their eyes when I say, “Hang on a second, I have to write down this idea!”

I have hundreds of scraps of paper (and now notes I’ve spoken into my cellphone) that are bits and pieces of ideas. For example, while driving with my son back to his Army station out east, we passed a house that had a full-sized fire truck sitting on a side lot rusting, surrounded by knee-high weeds. OK – I wrote that down. But it’s not a story. This past trip, not far from where the fire truck was, we passed a huge, ultramodern installation sitting in the middle of a large field of sorghum. Now suddenly I have the stirring of a story. Not QUITE a whole story, but it feels like there’s something alive there now. It’ll require some work and research still, but for some reason, there’s a heartbeat there…

At any rate, Larry Niven is a fabulous writer. If you haven’t read anything by him, you could start with RINGWORLD. If you want something more digestible, the short story collection TALES FROM THE DRACO TAVERN is entertaining and an easy, bite-sized read.

References: https://www.writersofthefuture.com/tell-me-a-story-by-larry-niven/, https://www.amazon.com/Draco-Tavern-Larry-Niven/dp/0765347717/ref=tmm_mmp_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Niven
Image: https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/9f/22/3b/9f223b1e57a36e14db3eb13715fbe3f9.jpg

January 5, 2021

IDEAS ON TUESDAYS 478

Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc.) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them. Regarding horror, I found this insight in line with WIRED FOR STORY: “ We seek out…stories which give us a place to put our fears…Stories that frighten us or unsettle us - not just horror stories, but ones that make us uncomfortable or that strike a chord somewhere deep inside - give us the means to explore the things that scare us…” – Lou Morgan (The Guardian)


H Trope: Tomes of Eldritch Lore
Current Event: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ptahhotep

“You’ve looked at it a thousand times,” said Mnar Al Massri, leaning over the glass case. “Besides, this is a reproduction.” 

Abbas Farhan shook his head without taking his eyes off the tablet. “My sources say that this one is the real one.”

“Why would they send a zillion year old Egyptian tablet to Moorhead, Minnesota?”

This time he looked up at her, still leaning over the exhibit. “Because they’re hoping someone like me will see it.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re still insisting you’re some sort of reincarnation of Ptah hotep?” She snorted. “Aside from that being violently against everything we believe in, aside from the fact that when you claim that you sound like more of an idiot than you usually do, and if you exclude the fact that statistically speaking, this can’t possibly be the real – you have got to be totally delusional that something of this historical magnitude would happen to someone like you!”

This time he stood up. “Wha’dyou mean, ‘someone like me’?”

She shook her head. “Listen Abbas, we’ve known each other since our freshman year. We’re both in the second year of our masters degrees – that mean we’ve been friends for over six years. We’ve seen each other through who knows how many romances and break ups, an uncounted number of study sessions. We’ve gotten to know each other so well that my parents don’t even count you as a possible husband for me anymore! Dad thinks of you as his foster son.”

He snorted and muttered, “Thanks a lot for that.”

She shook her head, smiled and said, “You are a much, much better friend than a husband.”

Angry, he pulled away from her, eyes flashing and said, “When I have enough wealth to claim your hand, you’ll never say that and your father won’t pretend I’m just a good friend anymore!” He glanced down at the tablet and tapped the glass above a peculiar symbol and said, “This is what will make all of MY dreams come true!” He made a fist and slammed it down on the ultrahard glass case, shattering it in an explosion of shards. His face distorted as the alarm bells went off and security guards came running and he bent over the tablet and began to read in a voice so deep, Mnar couldn’t actually hear it but rather felt the ground around them shudder. But it didn’t matter any longer. When the guards reached the room...

Names: ♀ Palestine, Lebanon; ♂ Somalia, India
Image: https://cdn.britannica.com/40/11740-004-50816EB1/Boris-Karloff-Frankenstein-monster.jpg

December 30, 2020

IDEAS ON TUESDAYS 477

Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc.) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them. Regarding Fantasy, this insight was startling: “I see the fantasy genre as an ever-shifting metaphor for life in this world, an innocuous medium that allows the author to examine difficult, even controversial, subjects with impunity. Honor, religion, politics, nobility, integrity, greed—we’ve an endless list of ideals to be dissected and explored. And maybe learned from.” – Melissa McPhail. 

Fantasy Trope: Chupacabra http://hannahheath-writer.blogspot.com/2017/01/epic-underused-mythical-creatures-for-fantasy-stories.html
Current Event: http://www.foxnews.com/tech/2011/0808/chupacabra-found-in-minnesota.html

Mary Olson-Kensington squatted down beside the spot, examining the gravel and asphalt with a large magnifying glass.

“You look like a fool,” said Abbas Farah, “and a living cliché.”

Mary looked up at him and made a face, “Just because something’s cliché doesn’t mean it’s not legitimate.”

Abbas grunted and squatted beside her. “Fine then, what do you see?”

“Residue.”

Abbas spit into the ditch. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Without moving the glass, she turned to him. “You think this is a Sherlock Holmes toy?” He leaned back, suddenly wary, nodding slowly. “Like with you, I don’t just see that zit to the left side of your nose you’re trying to hide, I see…not what you’re thinking exactly, or even what you’re feeling…I can see something both more and less…”

“You’re talking like you’re crazy! There’s nothing outside of reality! I’m real, and that dead thing in the road was real, too!”

She nodded then swung the lens back around, looking at the road. “I can see strangeness here. Something natural and unnatural as well.” She looked up at him. “You ever hear about a Chupacabra showed up as roadkill in Mankato about twenty years ago?”

“I couldn’t – I was wasn’t born yet. Neither were you!”

“I know, but Dad told me about it when I was doing a science report on cryptids. It was killed near here.”

“That was twenty years ago! There won’t be anything left of it!”

“Not of its body, but DNA traces can remain, and anything supernatural leaves a resonance echo. That’s what the magnifying glass does. I can see resonances.”

Abbas shrugged, “How’s that help?”

“We need a Chupacabra on our side!”

“This one was dead! How’s that…”

“Where’s there one, there will be another. We need a Chupacabra.”

“What’s so important about them? They’re just one more weird animal…”

“Chupacabras have the ability to…sniff out? That’s a good way to describe it…the animals have a gift for sniffing out inter-dimensional portals.”

“And the importance of that to you?”

“I’m going to jump this dimension to do some research in a parallel line.”

“What are you planning…”

“Here it is!”

Names: ♀ Minnesota ; ♂ Somalia

Image: https://i.pinimg.com/originals/98/71/e5/9871e52bbc09c525af21b8f6471eab15.jpg

December 25, 2020

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Christmas Lights, The Star of Bethlehem, and “The Star” – Another Interpretation

I love Christmas lights! If you ask my family, I would leave them up all year and light them as the mood struck me. I did that very thing one particularly busy year.

Why do I like them? Because they bring to mind the glory of the heavens and connect God and the Universe with the science of astronomy and in particular, they remind me of the Star of Bethlehem that led the Wise Men from the East to the nativity of the Savior.

Christmas lights were not the impetus for Sir Arthur C. Clarke to write “The Star” –“...Clarke noted that he wrote the story for a contest in the London Observer on the subject ‘2500 AD.’ ‘I realized that I had a theme already to hand. The story was written in a state of unusually intense emotion; needless to say, it wasn’t even placed among the ‘also rans.’”

However, the glory of the heavens and the connection between God, super novae, and Christmas certainly was. While Clarke was an outsider [someone who does not hold that the tenets of Christianity are factual; Kinnaman, Lyons, UNCHRISTIAN] when it came to Christianity (“I don't believe in God but I'm very interested in her.”; “It may be that our role on this planet is not to worship God - but to create him.”), he was well aware that as he wrote this (@ 1954) the vast majority of Europeans and those of European descent at least gave lip-service to Christianity, so he wasn’t going to be openly antagonistic.

Maybe he wanted to torpedo the faith of people like me. Maybe he wanted to slap God in the face. Maybe he wanted to win a contest and wrote the most notorious thing he could think of – calling into question the existence of a loving God. By his own admission, he wasn’t dispassionate when he wrote it, though he doesn’t give an indication why he was in “a state of unusually intense emotion” – at least not that I can find (if the reason is written elsewhere, LET ME KNOW AND I’LL INCLUDE IT HERE!)

The story has certainly been dissected (see below). It certainly won the Hugo (science fiction’s Emmy award) in 1956 for best short story. I certainly remembered it. But why I remember it and why others remember it may be for markedly different reasons. I’m pretty sure that when I think of it, it’s in a way I’ve not run across elsewhere.

Most people look at it like this: “Before his journey to the Phoenix Nebula, the priest clearly ‘believed that the heavens declared the glory of God's handiwork,’ (303) but now he has learned that the supernova seen as the star of Bethlehem wiped out a whole civilization when it exploded. Before his journey he could visualize the star as ‘a beacon in that oriental dawn,’ (307) that is, as a symbol of hopefulness and of new life. Now that he has learned the scientific truth, he no longer can see the star as a positive symbol and when…’” “I stare at the crucifix that hangs on the cabin wall above the Mark VI Computer...for the first time in my life I wonder if it is no more than an empty symbol.”

And again, in another review: “What the narrator has learned but not yet communicated to the others is that the supernova that destroyed this civilization was the Star of Bethlehem, which burned brightly in the sky to herald the birth of Jesus Christ. His discovery has caused him to reexamine and to question his own faith.”

Maybe the reviewers are people of faith. I don’t know, but it seems to me that they ascribe an unwarranted fragility to Christianity – that once these incontrovertible, scientific facts are discovered, the entire faith will collapse in on itself and be no more.

Another incontrovertible fact is that I look at the story as something that Clarke may not have intended; something that might not even be acceptable. Maybe the Jesuit priest has tunnel vision; maybe he’s simply exhausted from his journey to the farthest reaches of the known universe. I will argue that instead of dashing God against the rocks of scientific reality, “The Star” foreshadowed the sacrifice that the Son of God would make at the end of His earthly life. Given Clarke was an outsider, I doubt that this was his intent. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time words launched in one direction ended up hitting an entirely different target.

I’m for the serendipitous interpretation. Besides, it’s not entirely out of line with Clarke’s view of the universe: “I don't pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.”


December 22, 2020

IDEAS ON TUESDAYS 476

Each Tuesday, rather than a POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAY, I'd like to both challenge you and lend a helping hand. I generate more speculative and teen story ideas than I can ever use. My family rolls its collective eyes when I say, "Hang on a second! I just have to write down this idea..." Here, I'll include the initial inspiration (quote, website, podcast, etc.) and then a thought or two that came to mind. These will simply be seeds -- plant, nurture, fertilize, chemically treat, irradiate, test or stress them as you see fit. I only ask if you let me know if anything comes of them.


Enok Johnsson shook his head and said, “No, I need a new best friend who doesn’t have ridiculous, suicidal ideas.”

“Hey! There’s a launch site in Wisconsin and one in Michigan on the Upper Peninsula. The one in Wisconsin would be ideal, but it’s still used as a science center. But the Keweenaw Rocket Range in the upper peninsula is both hard to get to and it’s mostly abandoned…”

Enok was hunched over his tablet and looked up a moment later. “You do realize that your spaceship launch pad is not far from where the most spectacular shipwreck of the 20th Century took place, right? There’s even a song about it.” He hit play before she could open her mouth. He’d meant for it to be a joke, but after the initial eerie notes of the song, they listened all the way through. They looked up and their eyes locked. Enok said, “Ya know, if I wasn’t gay, I think I’d be in love with you. What’s your plan?”

“You’re willing to go with me?”

“Well, first of all, I don’t see you having a valid drivers license…”

“I do, too! I drive the kids around all the time!”

He snorted, “Yeah, whatever. Like to swimming lessons and Target? That’s maybe thirty meters from your house.” Ilhan glared at him, narrowing her eyes, lips thinning to invisibilty. He held up his hands in defense, laughing as he said, “OK! OK! You’re an experienced long-distance driver!”

She said, “You MIGHT be right, but you don’t have access to the same equipment that I do. If we decide to do this – like really build a spacecraft that could lift off from Earth, go into orbit, and land back on Earth…”

“We’d need like a zillion dollars!”

“If we wanted to do it the old fashioned way like NASA and SpaceX, you’d be right. But there are other ideas out there – and I have a direct line to one of the most…controversial and exciting.”

Enok scowled through blonde bangs, then said in as low of a voice as he could, “So, what’s your oldest brother working on now?”

She leaned closer, “It used to be called ‘antigravity’, but Abbas says that they call it gravity modification today; gMod for short. He’s not working on anything specific, but I got him to talk about it a week ago. They’re just playing with it now, but I got to thinking about applications to space travel…”

“Duh. You could see space travel in a can of pop!”

She looked up, “Now that you mention it…” He held up his hands in his own defense. She laughed, “Don’t worry, I won’t start lecturing for a while yet.” He wiped his forehead. “Don’t relax too much, if you’re going to help me, I’ll need to break you in.”

“Do it gently,” Enok said. “Remember, I’m more of a math-kind-of-guy, not a nuts-and-bolts-kinda-guy. I keep you around because you can get the pickup started even when the garage can’t.”

She looked heartbroken, “You mean…you mean…you don’t love me for my mind?” They laughed hard until she caught her breath and managed, “OK, so, the plan will involve a little simple theft – car part, a welder, and a few other things…”

“Is that all? You’re gonna make a space car? Why didn’t you say so? Let’s throw the stuff in the pickup and get going…”

“I need some time to get stuff together – how does next weekend sound?”

He rolled his eyes, “Sounds like the exact thing I want to do with my weekend – drive a million miles to the wooded point of a deserted rocket launchpad and spend the rest of the time building an insane spaceship!”

Names: ♀ Somalia, US ; ♂ Norway, US
Image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/01/Ariane5_VA221_liftoff2.jpg/220px-Ariane5_VA221_liftoff2.jpg