Book Review: Harry Harrison! Harry Harrison! A Memoir by Harry Harrison

I picked this book up by chance at the library because Harry Harrison was a science fiction writer and I thought there might be some interesting stories within about the world of science fiction writers and fans.  A word about the title, in case you’re not familiar with Harry Harrison and his work.  He wrote the novel “Make Room! Make Room!” upon which the film “Soylent Green” with Charleton Heston and Edward G. Robinson is based, and I assume that the title of this memoir is a play on that title.

I have to admit Harrison almost lost me right there at the beginning, as the first chapter is a detailed look at the background of his ancestors, his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.  It went on a little too long, and I was tempted to put the book down.  That would have been a mistake.  After that first chapter the memoir takes off and never lets up.

The book mainly interests me on two levels.  One, as I already mentioned, is a glimpse into the world of a working writer in the science fiction and fantasy genre.  Harrison was an important presence in the field, especially as a writer for editor John W. Campbell in the heyday of Astounding Science Fiction.  He did not become involved in the new wave experimental writing of the sixties and seventies, which is where I came in, and as a result I have read little of his work, but the stories he tells of starting out as a comics artist, moving on to hack writing confessions and men’s adventures, and finally getting into more serious science fiction, and his encounters and friendships with many luminaries of the field, make for fascinating reading.

No less important, even more so, in fact, are the stories of Harrison’s travels with his family.  Early on he got frustrated and unfulfilled with U.S. culture, initially in New York where he was born and raised, and began a globetrotting odyssey with his wife and children that never ended.  They first moved to Mexico, then to England, to the isle of Capri in Italy, to Denmark, to Ireland.  They remained for years in these foreign lands as the kids picked up the local languages and went to the local schools and Harrison continued to churn out prose to pay the bills.  They had some exceedingly lean times with occasional windfalls.

I could relate to this because for most of my life and the life of my family when my children were young we experienced similar adventures.  My first two sons were born on the Indian Subcontinent, my third in Sicily, my fourth in Athens, Greece, and my fifth in Thessaloniki.  During our wanderings around the world we experienced much beauty and had many memorable experiences, but we also had our share of very, very lean times.  For some reason as I was reading this I recalled one very broke period in Greece when I couldn’t afford a pack of gum.  You see, I was teaching English in private schools at the time, but work was sporadic, and so income was uncertain.  I always wanted to make it as easy on my students as possible, so before I left for class I would shower, brush my teeth, and on the drive or bus ride to work I would chew some mint gum.  Not being able to afford the gum was discouraging.  But it didn’t last long.  Usually we ate well, and took full advantage of the environment in which we found ourselves – for example the unparalleled beauty of the Greek beaches in summer.

As a freelance writer struggling to pay bills and feed my family and at the same time with an unquenchable penchant for traveling, as I was reading this I empathized with Harry Harrison.  I have a lot in common with him, it turns out.  Every time he tried to settle in an American city, it wasn’t long before he’d get an itch to leave.  He felt more at home in Europe than in the United States.  He was more successful in his science fiction writing than I am so far, but I am hoping that will change, that I can eventually make more money off my fiction than I am now so I can toss the writing of the articles I presently churn out to pay the bills.

So once I slogged past the first chapter, this memoir turned out to be one of the most fun and relevant reading experiences I have had in some time.  Whether it would hit others the same way, I don’t know.  I realize that my family and Harry Harrison’s are anomalies in our globetrotting ways.  But really, you don’t have to live through experiences to vicariously enjoy the telling of them.  This memoir is a good read.  Skip the first chapter if you must, but read the rest.

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Book Review: The Samurai by Shusaku Endo

Last night I watched the movie “The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise.  I have seen it several times.  I think it’s a great film and one of Tom Cruise’s best.  But if you are looking for the type of samurai action depicted in that story, you’ve come to the wrong place.  Shusaku Endo’s novel “The Samurai” brings out what a samurai’s place really was – one of submission and obedience.  Although the samurais in this novel wear the traditional long and short swords, they do not draw them once in combat.  The story is not about that at all.  It is more about inner turmoil, the combat within a person’s own psyche and spirit.

Shusaku Endo’s most famous novel is “Silence,” which is Martin Scorsese’s latest film project.  That novel tells of a missionary who goes to Japan during a time of intense persecution and must struggle with his Christian convictions.  I read it, enjoyed it, and reviewed it a few years back.  This novel, “The Samurai,” also has the Christian theme running through it, but it is more epic in scope and story.  I think I like it even more.

“The Samurai” begins by describing a poor samurai’s peasant-like existence.  He is the lord over a few villages in a marshland and is resigned to his simple lifestyle.  His family’s ancestral lands were taken away from his family by his overlord, but he does not complain, although his aging uncle does.  He is appointed to go with some other Japanese envoys on a voyage across the Pacific Ocean to Mexico, called in the novel Nueva Espania, ostensibly to negotiate a trade agreement with the Spanish.  In truth there are underlying motivations within the Japanese government.  He is accompanied by a Spanish priest who is ostensibly a translator, but is actually fanatically devoted to converting Japan to Christianity.

Endo is a master at conveying the emotions of his characters.  The Samurai is a simple man compelled by duty to undertake a voyage that he has no desire for.  The Franciscan priest is so overcome with his own ambition to become the bishop of Japan that he loses all perspective or concern for those in his care.  The other envoys each have their own personalities mirrored in their reaction to circumstances during their epic journey.

The envoys arrive in Acapulco, travel across the barren Mexican desert to Mexico City, learn they cannot present their petitions there, and travel onward to Veracruz to find a boat to take them to Spain.  In Spain authorities are not sympathetic to their mission, so they travel on to Rome, to Vatican City, for an audience with the Pope.  In Spain the envoys, including the samurai, convert to Christianity, without sincerity but with the conviction that it will help them succeed in winning over the foreign authorities.  It is all in vain.  They retrace their steps back through Spain, through Mexico, and across the Pacific to find a vastly changed Japan whose rulers are actively persecuting Christians and have no desire for commerce or communication with other countries.

It is heartbreaking how Endo describes the samurai’s return to his country, a country he had no desire to leave in the first place and did so only out of duty.  He cannot unburden himself, he cannot communicate to others what he has experienced.  Nobody understands or cares.  In fact, he is ostracized and eventually killed for having become a Christian.

I can sympathize with him in a way, having traveled and experienced many strange and wondrous things in far parts of the world.  Even though I came back to a country where I am free to communicate to others, most people who have never left their homeland listen politely for a short time but don’t really understand what I am talking about.  The sense of alienation, of being a stranger in a strange land, is strong.

This novel is based on true events, as an afterword explains.  Even more, Endo emotionally went through some of the same things the samurai did.  He was a Catholic convert in a land made up largely of non-Christians.  As he tells in the afterword, he was the first Japanese to travel and study in Europe after World War II, and became well acquainted with ostracism and alienation.

This is a great novel, deeply emotional and heartfelt.  It also succeeds on the level of an epic adventure story of those in service traveling to a far country to fulfill a mission and meet their destiny.

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On Rereading Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More From 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop by Kate Wilhelm

My rereading this book is a result of my reaching out to the Clarion West community here in Seattle after moving back into the area.  Personnel have changed, of course, since I attended Clarion West over forty years ago in 1973, but the Clarion experience continues for new writers every summer.  For those who are unfamiliar with it, Clarion is a critiquing workshop, meant to fine-tune the work of new writers and encourage budding writing careers.  Every week for six weeks a different professional writer is the guest teacher, and students submit short stories that are evaluated by the pro writer and by each other.

Kate Wilhelm, along with her husband Damon Knight, were among Clarion’s first professional teachers, and in this book, Wilhelm reminisces about the beginnings of the workshop and shares anecdotes from the many years she taught.  She also uses her descriptions of the many mistakes the novice student writers would make to go into several chapters on the craft of short story writing.  There’s good advice therein for seasoned pros as well as those just starting out.

Having been isolated while overseas in Europe and Asia for thirty-five years, I was eager to get back in touch with other writers when I returned to the States.  In San Diego I occasionally met up with a novel critiquing group.  We would meet in a park, having pre-read submitted manuscripts, and discuss them.  The members of the group were of widely disparate ages and backgrounds, and some were much more serious about writing than others.  I explained to them that I was mostly there for the fellowship, and I suggested that whoever was interested could meet some evenings in a less structured setting, share a glass of wine, and talk about writing in general.  We held several of those meetings once a month or so in a group member’s apartment.  As the most experienced and published member of the meet-up, I was able to help some of the more committed members with pressing questions on the business of writing, the current state of publishing, and how to produce consistently without waiting for so-called inspiration to strike.

When my sons and I had to leave San Diego, I had wanted to move to Seattle, but we couldn’t afford the rents, so we settled over the mountains in Yakima.  Try as I might, I could find no writers’ groups there.  It was an isolated, lonely situation for me.  I bided my time until we were able to make the move to Seattle in the summer of 2014.  Unfortunately, I arrived in Seattle right at the end of the summer Clarion West workshop and missed most of the readings and get-togethers that accompany the visits of the guest teachers.

At least I was in Seattle, back in the mainstream, so to speak.  I cast about for some science fiction conventions to attend, and the first one that came up was Potlatch, which as it turned out was closely aligned with the Clarion West community.  That’s how I got back in touch with recent Clarion West graduates and a Clarion West writers’ group.

Although I have attended a few recent critiquing sessions, I realized and confessed I was there more to meet and mingle with other writers than for the critiquing itself.  The critiquing, as Wilhelm describes in the book, consists of reading a story, and going around in a group and offering suggestions of how the story might be improved.  As you can imagine, the methods of presenting the criticism are as varied as the personalities of the attendees, although most attempt to present even major difficulties with the writing in a magnanimous way.  I had done the same thing with my class of attendees over forty years previously and, when the workshop was over, we continued meeting once a month or so on a houseboat on Lake Union until I took off on the first of my globetrotting hitchhiking adventures.

Personally, I was too young when I attended Clarion West back then to benefit much from the specific writing advice.  I had just turned twenty when the workshop began.  I produced no writing of significance while I was there.  What helped me most was to be surrounded by other writers, most of whom were as serious about the wonderful, maddening, all-absorbing, frustrating, fulfilling practice of writing as I was.  Notice I used the word “practice” there.  I couldn’t think of another word that fit better.  Not “profession” or “career” because that implies you’re in it only for the money.  The money is important, sure, mostly because you want to be free to write and not have to worry about food, shelter, and so on, but that’s not the main reason you do it.  There is an inevitability about it all, if you are truly committed.  You can’t imagine not writing.  So I chose the word “practice” in the same sense as it was used in a yoga book I once read.  The writer explained that yoga is always a practice because no one ever attains perfection.  The goal is to continually improve.  That’s how it is with writing too.  You write because you can’t imagine not writing, the thought of not writing is intolerable, and at the same time with everything you produce you try to improve.

The Clarion and Clarion West writing workshops help students fine-tune their work.  They are a shortcut to professional sales for some writers.  At the least, as with me, they provide a community of like-minded people to let writers know that they are not alone in their struggle against seemingly overwhelming odds.

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Book Review: Fault Line by Barry Eisler

Casting about for a good fiction book to take away the bad taste of the business self-help book I’d read that turned out to be like eating too much sour cotton candy at a fair, I perused my to-read stack that sits on the bookshelf near my bed.  I have some big long dense intellectual novels and some short light science fiction novels, but none seemed to fit the bill.  Then I saw this book by Eisler I’d picked up in one of the recent library sales.  Just the thing.

I’d read another book by Eisler not too long ago, “Inside Out,” same main character and everything, and I’d liked it well enough but found it somewhat formulaic.  Not necessarily a bad thing if you’re writing for a specific genre.  And these books were written before Eisler abandoned the traditional publishers for whom he’d been writing and decided to go indie.  There may have been some pressure to conform to certain patterns; I don’t know.  Anyway, I liked it enough to give Eisler another try.

I found this book, “Fault Line,” a far better read than “Inside Out.”  I could still see the standard plot skeleton: a certain number of action scenes, a female sidekick to one of the main characters who doesn’t serve much plot purpose except you have to have a pretty woman in a story like this – still, there was a dynamism in this story that was, if not absent, then at least not so stark in the previous novel.  When I say previous novel, I mean the one I read previously – in the story chronology, “Fault Line” takes place first.

What sets this novel apart from its spy/thriller trappings is the character development.  The plot involves two estranged brothers, one of whom, a lawyer, is in danger after coming across a state of the art encryption program that seems to be a potential cyber-weapon.  When an attempt is made on his life, he contacts his brother, who works clandestinely in black ops, to help him out.  Through flashbacks and brother to brother interaction we get filled in on the back story.  No, it doesn’t read like a bad Van Damme movie.  It’s well told and poignant.  The plot, in fact, is fairly simple, although it has some satisfying twists at the end.  What gives the novel depth is the people.

Another thing that I like about both this book and the previous one is the moral ambiguity of the main character, the black op agent named Ben Treven, and the government organization he works for.  There’s no clear black and white, good guys and bad guys like in a James Bond novel.  Clearly the corruption extends upward to the highest levels, and Treven becomes unsure of and questions that with which he has been indoctrinated.  It’s no secret that Eisler spent several years in the CIA, and in these books he seems to serve the role of a whistleblower, warning the public, albeit entertainingly, that all is not as it seems, that there is nasty business afoot in the hallowed halls of the privileged.

Well, this Eisler novel really hit the spot.  Cleaned out my system.  Cleared the head like a shot of gold tequila, perhaps with a squeeze of lime and a pinch of salt.  It was just what I needed.  I consider myself purged.  Onward to new challenges.  Eisler is a fine writer, and if you’re in the mood for a gripping, hard-to-put-down suspense thriller, try one of his books.

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Book Review: Just Start: Take Action, Embrace Uncertainty, Create the Future by Leonard A. Schlesinger, Charles F. Kiefer, and Paul B Brown

There’s an old antacid commercial I used to come across as a kid sometimes – maybe they still run it but I never watch network TV anymore so I don’t know – where a guy burps, thumps his stomach with a pained expression, and says, “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”  I had planned to start the review like that when I finished this book, but it’s really looking like I might never finish it.  That’s saying a lot, considering my predilection to finish every book I begin.  Especially when the book is as slim as this one.  But we’ll get to that point in a moment.

I usually avoid business self-help books like the plague.  They have a tendency to be a lot of hype and very little substance – although there are sometimes exceptions.  And I thought that this might be one; an exception, that is.  It happened like this.  I was researching an article for the Internet content mill I write for, and I came across a synopsis or review of this book, and the concept intrigued me.  I looked it up on Amazon and the book description piqued my interest.  Of course, the description is written by the authors or their publicists, so it is not always the best way to gauge a book’s worth. But the book was published by the Harvard Business Review Press, which I supposed gave it some sort of credibility.  Shame on you, Harvard Business Review.  What little credibility I supposed you might have had is shattered by your publishing this book.  Anyway, I found a like-new used copy for five bucks so I ordered it.  I can use a little inspiration, a little psychic get-up-and-go sometimes, who can’t?

The book arrived and the first thing I noticed was that it is so thin.  One hundred eighty-five pages of text, eleven of those pages empty or near empty, large print, plenty of blank spaces in the text caused by large gaps between paragraphs, bullet points, and sidebars.  Okay, fair enough.  Plenty of books are short but nevertheless significant.

Alas, not this one.  I am almost three-quarters of the way through it, still waiting for something to happen.  I might or might not skim the rest.  So far, whatever has been discussed has been reiterated over and over so many times that I am bored to tears to have to read it again one more time – and another, and another, and another…  Whatever of substance is covered in the book – and there isn’t much – could have been easily encapsulated in a short essay of two or three pages.  Even so, there’s really nothing new.

The authors’ premise is mainly built on taking action in entrepreneurship, and applying the same concept in other facets of life.  To stress their point they fall into the sophomoric trick of coining a new word to explain the process:  creaction, which is supposed to stand for “creative action.”  I wince as I write the word, and I wince every time I am forced to read it.  It’s so lame.  When I come across it in the book, I can’t bring myself to take it seriously.  I have to translate it to “creative action” as I read or I lose my train of thought.  What the hell?  What with the fancy press putting out the book and the listed credentials of the authors, I really thought they would take themselves and their subject matter more seriously.  Whatever.  I’ve read lame books before and I probably will again.  If you go by Sturgeon’s Law that ninety percent of everything is crap, even if you watch where you’re going you’re bound to get some on your shoe once in a while.

Seriously, I’m not the type of reviewer who likes to badmouth authors, and these guys are no exceptions.  I think they produced an inferior book, though perhaps they tried their best to make something more of it.  It might help someone just starting out in business or in some other endeavor to stop daydreaming and get started.  I hope so.  For me it was just blah.  They say that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference.  I am indifferent towards this book.  I was talking with one of my sons today about hating to get rid of books once we acquire them.  We both have the predilection to hang onto books even if it is inconvenient to do so.  But with this one, I can’t decide whether to put it on my shelf or toss it into the recycle bin.

Update:  I put it on my shelf without finishing it, but instead of recycling it I will probably take it down to the local used book store to get credit on future purchases.

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What Happens When You Come In Off The Road?

I have to start this out with a melancholia disclaimer.  If you’re not in the mood for some serious stuff, exit this and move on to a review of some blockbuster movie or other.

I wondered about the title as I contemplated writing this essay.  Do you ever really come in off the road once you set out on it with all your heart?  Perhaps only intermittently at best.  Nevertheless, the concept will serve for what I have to say.

Casting about to put my thoughts into some sort of frame of reference, I came up with the stories of Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit” and Frodo Baggins in “The Lord of the Rings.”  Both found themselves back home at the end of their stories, but the results of the returns were profoundly different.  Bilbo came back with a chest full of gold and managed to live quite comfortably for many long years – obsessed off and on by the ring perhaps, but able to live a fairly normal life regardless.  Frodo, on the other hand, came back in pain.  Unlike Bilbo, who went there and back again, whose plan was always to return to Bag End, Frodo went on a quest from which he never expected to return.  He died along the way, in a sense, and though he was revived, nursed back to health, honored by those who understood what he had accomplished, when he returned to Bag End something was missing, incomplete.  He was left restless, unfulfilled, bothered by old wounds and nightmares.  Both of them eventually went back out on the road.  It turned out that there was no permanent resting place for either.

I think my situation, being back in the States and, of all locales, in the place where I was born and raised, is more like Frodo’s than Bilbo’s.  I feel a pain and I wonder if it can ever be assuaged.  I long for the road sometimes, to be out and about and able to go whithersoever I want.  I want to return to Europe where the people are more relaxed, where they have had many more centuries to get comfortable with their heritage and culture.

What brought all this on?  I came to the United States about two years ago not for myself but for my sons.  They had no opportunities in Greece and I had to get them out to a place where they could do more than constantly tread water and eventually drown.  It wasn’t easy, for me at least.  My sons were soon thriving, but I foundered, beset with culture shock and the difficulty of making a completely fresh start in what for me was a new land.  The United States I left was little like the one I found myself in when I returned, as I recount at length in “America Redux: Impressions of the United States After Thirty-Five Years Abroad.”  And I’ve tried to step out, seek out writer’s groups and mingle and mix, especially here in Seattle where such gatherings are common.  Sometimes it works out well, and sometimes it seems that no one gets where I am coming from.  When I explain that I recently returned after thirty-five years abroad, people are surprised, yes, but they have no frame of reference to grasp such a concept.  Most of them have grown up here, have established themselves, have their roots in, so to speak, and have a much more stable and secure situation than I do.

Back to “The Lord of the Rings” analogy.  When Frodo returned to Hobbiton, nobody could relate to what he had gone through.  That was true for Samwise and Pippin and Merry too, of course, but they had more resiliency, they had not been wounded so deeply, they recovered and used the skills they had acquired on the road to become great ones in Hobbit society.  Frodo, on the other hand, was ignored, pushed aside, forgotten.  Alone he worked on his book, and the only ones who understood his worth and knew what he had gone through for the sake of all of Middle Earth were the ones who had accompanied him on his quest.

For me, that’s like my sons.  They are the only ones who have any sort of inkling what I have gone through.  If I say, “I set out on the road to find my voice as a writer,” what does that really mean?  For me it means stepping so far outside my comfort zone that there was no zone left, burning all my bridges, continuing onward no matter what obstacles stood in the way, looking at possible scenarios of death many times.  A moment alone on an unmapped path high up in the Himalayas epitomizes what I mean.  There was no farther to go upward unless I wanted to die on the mountain, but when I turned and went down, I did it with the realization that I had gone as far as I could, all alone, no map, no money, no guide, only something inside that led me on.

How do you explain that to someone?  It reminds me of the movie “The Keys of the Kingdom” with Gregory Peck.  I haven’t seen it for decades, but what I remember is the stirring story of a missionary who fought great odds, braved many dangers, and saved many lives in China for many years, and yet when he returned home as an old man he was forgotten.  He was an old country priest in an isolated church with few parishioners, and no one remembered what great deeds he had done.  That’s what I feel like sometimes.

Remember in the movie “The Return of the King” where the four returning Hobbits sit around a table sharing beers and they look at each other and you can see that they share a secret that none of those around can possibly understand.

And this from the book of Ecclesiastes 9:14-16:  “There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it:  Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man.  Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard.”

Well, that’s about all.  I’ve just about got it off my chest.  I’ve told it before but I had to tell it one more time because something happened over the weekend to set it off again, a situation in which the person I was with just didn’t get it, and the exchange ended awkwardly, and I thought much about it afterwards, and this is the result.  C’est la vie.

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Book Review: Quest of the Three Worlds and Stardreamer by Cordwainer Smith

Cordwainer Smith is an anomaly in the science fiction field.  The closest analogy I can think of to his singular work and career is that of James Tiptree, Jr. Both writers came out of the intelligence community, adopted pseudonyms to hide the truth about their day jobs from their science fiction readers, and wrote with such brilliance that they set the field on its proverbial ear.

Nobody writes like Cordwainer Smith.  He comes way out of left field with such wild visions and concepts, a huge, intricately woven tapestry of a galaxy ruled by the bureaucratic Instrumentality and served by robots and surgically enhanced animals in human form called underpeople.  There’s so much to the Cordwainer Smith universe that it is impossible to express it in a few words.

The first Cordwainer Smith science fiction story to appear in print was “Scanners Live in Vain,” which was published in Fantasy Book magazine way back in 1950.  The story was rejected by all the major magazines of the time before this periodical accepted it without payment.  Strange irony.  How could the editors not have recognized its uniqueness, its brilliance?  Much later, the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America voted it a place in its anthology “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” as one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time.  Many top science fiction writers credit Cordwainer Smith’s writing as a major influence on their work.

So who was this enigmatic, elusive artist?  His real name was Paul M.A. Linebarger.  He traveled the world in childhood and adulthood.  He spoke numerous languages.  His godfather was Sun Yat-sen, one of the leaders of the 1911 Chinese revolution.  During World War II while serving in the army he was involved in army intelligence and psychological warfare.  Besides the science fiction for which he was renowned, he wrote spy novels and nonfiction books on psychological warfare, China, and Far Eastern politics.

Why all this whoop-de-doo about Cordwainer Smith?  Well, when I attended Norwescon science fiction convention a month or so ago, one of my fun things to do was browse through the used books in the dealers’ room.  Lo and behold, what did I find one morning but some old Cordwainer Smith paperbacks, cute skinny little relics of the time paperback books fit into your pocket, lovingly wrapped in little plastic preservative baggies.  I immediately grabbed them up, more than astonished at the price – a buck each, can you imagine?  I would have paid ten, probably twenty times that.  Not for many authors, no, but for Cordwainer Smith, absolutely.

One of the books is an Ace paperback copy of “Quest of the Three Worlds,” a slim little volume with a cover price of 40 cents and a cover that has nothing to do with the stories inside.  The rough-hewn painting looks like an alien landscape with some spaceships.  Ah, well.  The book is marketed as a novel but actually is a collection of four novelettes and novellas Smith wrote and published independently from one another in science fiction magazines in the early 1960s.  The text has an abundance of typos, and the exaggerations in the introduction about Smith’s prolificacy are sheer nonsense, but none of that matters.

I had never read these stories, the titles of which are “On the Gem Planet,” “On the Storm Planet,” “On the Sand Planet,” and “Three to a Given Star.”  For some reason, because they were not included in the seminal work “The Rediscovery of Man,” I had an idea that they were minor, lesser stories – but nothing could be further from the truth.  From the first pages I was inexorably drawn in to the weird, wonderful world of Cordwainer Smith.  Bizarre as it is, I felt I was coming home again.  Home, that is, to the unique sense of wonder that Smith ignites.  He has some sort of wild, amazing presence in his prose that grabs you and whisks you off to worlds unknown.  He’s never imitative; he doesn’t write like anyone else I have ever read.  He is utterly in command of his material and of his readers’ imaginations.  He has the courage to venture forth into truly strange places, but he also has the courage to imbue the strangeness with hints of ancient culture such as the old strong religion, the man in pain on two crossed sticks of wood, and the sign of the fish, all forbidden references in the world of the Instrumentality.  He is never petty; he deals in big concepts, outlandish characters, larger-than-life emotions.

The other book I picked up is a short story collection called “Stardreamer.”  It too has a cute cover, this time of some buildings that look like pink and green marshmallow houses with a cartoon-like circular spaceship up above.  I emphasize the covers only because there is such an imbroglio these days by self-publishing writers about cover art.  Bad cover art can conceal beauty within.  Not the ideal situation, but there it is.  Anyway, this book starts off with three stories from the grand interconnected Smith universe and then has a number of Smith’s earlier works, some of which do not fit into the mix.  I picked this up mainly because it has a Cordwainer Smith story in it whose title always intrigued me but that I had never read:  “Think Blue, Count Two.”  Isn’t that a dynamite, compelling title?  I’ve wondered about it for decades, as I have never been able to find a copy of the story, which does not appear in the collection “The Rediscovery of Man” although perhaps it should have.  It’s a great story set in the era of one of my favorite Cordwainer Smith pieces, “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul,” during which interstellar spacecraft with huge sails and bubbles trailing behind with humans in cryogenic sleep ply the darkness between solar systems.  In “Think Blue, Count Two,” three humans awaken in the terrifying loneliness of deep space, and an unusual failsafe device prevents a horrific conclusion.

Marvel universe?  Forget it.  I’ll take Cordwainer Smith any day.  It would be wonderful if someone would make a series of movies based on his works.  I think if I had to compare his stories to any motion picture they would be like the wild sense of wonder of a film like “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Anyway, if you want to take off on a really wild ride, pick up a Cordwainer Smith book.  Any of his science fiction works will do.  Put on your psychic seat belt, hold on tight, and get ready to rock.  Cordwainer Smith delivers the goods.

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Book Review: Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

This book gives us a bird’s eye view of all of human history.  Really.  The writer starts way back at the beginning, hundreds of thousands of years ago, and works his way through hunting and gathering societies, tribes, chiefdoms, and states all in answer to the question of why the world is the way it is and human societies evolved the way they did.  More specifically, he aims to refute once and for all the racist viewpoint that the inherent talents and abilities of peoples caused some to conquer and attain wealth and others to fall by the wayside and be trampled upon.  He instead posits that environment was of paramount importance in the evolution of food production, complex societies, and the guns, germs, and steel that allowed some nations to conquer others.

After an overview of the beginnings of human evolution, Diamond gets down to business.  His initial example is the story of how the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and a tiny band of Spanish soldiers conquered the mighty Inca empire.  Why did it happen like this and not the other way around?  And with that the reader is launched into a breathtaking roller coaster ride through history.  The story begins with food production.  Back in the day, all humans were hunter-gatherers, eating wild plants and hunting wild beasts.  People in some locations on some continents, however, eventually turned to food production, to cultivating and harvesting indigenous crops.  Other people saw what those people were doing and picked up food producing fever themselves.  But why did some do it and not others?  The answer, says Diamond, lies in the available indigenous plants suitable for domesticating, an abundance of which were found in the Fertile Crescent.  Another important factor in the rise of crowded, sedentary societies was the domestication of wild animals, and the majority of easily domesticated animals were indigenous to – you guessed it – the Fertile Crescent.  Thus the rise of early civilizations in what is now Iran, Iraq, and the rest of the Middle East.

But that’s just a start.  Another important environmental factor in the rise of nations in Eurasia as technological superpowers was the east-west axis of Eurasia, making it possible for food production and animal domestication to spread rapidly across the continent through similar climate zones.  Not only were there fewer easily domesticated native plants and animals in Africa and North and South America, but the north-south axis of the continents and continent-spanning natural barriers made it difficult for ideas to spread.

Along with food production comes the rise of complex societies that can support different castes and classes such as administrators, priests, craftspeople, and scholars.  This encourages writing and technological innovation, which in turn spur more complexity, more innovation, more expansion.  One other factor comes into play as well in complex, dense societies – the spread of diseases brought on by the rise of animal domestication.  Eventually people develop immunity from those diseases, but when they carry the germs to new societies that have had no previous exposure, those with no immunity are all but wiped out.  This famously happened during the European conquest of the Americas, during which far more Native Americans died of disease than from warfare or any other oppression.  It also happened during the European conquest of aboriginal Australia.

I can’t possibly summarize all of the author’s arguments in this brief review.  He goes through the histories of Australia, New Guinea, Indonesia, China, Africa, North and South America.  The book is fascinating, erudite, and the author holds together all the disparate material and makes a great case for his argument that human history and the rise of civilization was largely dependent on the environments in which the various aboriginal peoples of the world found themselves.  They adapted as best they could to the materials, flora, and fauna around them and thus became as efficient as they could within the limits of their surroundings.

I doubt there’s a book I’ve ever read that I agree with unequivocally or endorse one hundred percent, and this book is no exception.  It is, however, very well written and provides abundant food for thought.  For the first two-thirds I was drawn in as if I was reading a novel, but the last third lagged a bit.  Perhaps it’s because the author goes over material he’s already covered as he emphasizes the point he is trying to make.  Overall, though, the book is a good read.  In the end, the author presents a case that history should be treated as a science rather than a humanity.  He couldn’t have given a better example to illustrate his point than this book.

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On Rereading The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany

“The Einstein Intersection” is undoubtedly a strange book.  It posits a far future in which humans have been destroyed in some sort of apocalyptic event, and an alien race that has colonized the Earth is attempting to come to grips with the history and mythos of the human race.  Into such a loose thematic structure Delany is able to throw in myths at seeming random:  Orpheus, Billy the Kid, Elvis, the Beatles, Jean Harlow, Jesus, the Devil, and so on.  Delany’s hero, Lobey, an Orpheus-type, embarks on a quest to save his dead loved one from Kid Death, and on the way has all sorts of picaresque adventures, discovering old human computers in the vast catacombs called the Source Caves, battling carnivorous plants, herding the dragons the locals use for food.  Fair enough, and entertaining.  It ultimately doesn’t make much sense, but such a loose plot structure allows a talented writer like Delany to paint evocative word pictures and spin complex thought pastiches, and that’s the point.  It’s like an elaborate Disneyland ride that the author is obviously making up as he goes along.

A few specific comments I want to make in light of modern publishing realities:  This book won the Nebula Award for best novel in 1968.  It’s a very short book; it reads more like a novella.  It must have just barely gone over the 40,000 word limit to qualify for a novel.  The length is perfect for the material and allows Delany to keep his images in sharp focus without watering them down with excess wordage.  The length was not unusual back then in the 1960s.  Many novels were short, lean paperback originals, easy to carry and quick to read.  Mainstream publishers nowadays, though, insist on bulk in novels.  In guidelines for writers, minimum length is often listed at 80,000 or even 100,000 words.  Publishers feel that books must be bulky, telephone book-sized doorstoppers or the reading public won’t be interested.  Bullshit, of course, but that’s the thinking that comes out of New York these days.  The indie trend, though, is towards shorter novels – or rather let’s say that self-publishing has given writers a new-found or newly reclaimed freedom to write at whatever length fits the story.  It’s very possible that nowadays “The Einstein Intersection” would have difficulty being sold and marketed as a full-length novel, at least by the mainstream.

Another point concerns the loose structure of the novel and the fact that the author intermingles accounts of his trip through Europe while he was writing the book with the text of the novel.  It’s obvious from the various diary entries that Delany was making it up as he went along with only the vaguest of ideas of a destination rather than working from a detailed outline.  This brought to mind the book Dean Wesley Smith has recently been posting on his blog chapter by chapter called “Writing Into the Dark.”  Delany’s concept is to intermingle his own contemporary journey with the journey of his mythical hero in the novel, showing how art and life interrelate and there is no separating the two.

He’s right, of course.  There is no real differentiation between the journey of life the writer is engaged in and the words he is creating.  I discovered this as I struggled to express myself as a young writer, finally taking the physical step of actually setting out on the road to symbolize my stepping out as a writer with a distinctive voice.  In the course of writing my last two novels I have been writing into the dark, setting down a minimum number of words daily late at night when my other work is done.  The results, to me at least, have been more than satisfactory.  There is no point at which a writer completely divorces himself from life and works in a cocoon-like, sterile environment completely from memory.  Life goes on around and within the writer, and outside influences inevitably impress themselves into the work.  A writer is the sum of everything he has experienced up to the moment of time words are set down on paper – or computer screen, or whatever.  He puts down a certain number of words, gets up, does things in whatever environment of life he has found himself, goes back to the page, and new circumstances and events have irrevocably changed him so that he is a new person this time, and the next, and the next.  Every individual act of writing involves an evolution of environment, circumstance, and personality, however subtle.  Some writers, admittedly, seek to minimize this by adhering to elaborate, rigidly structured, pre-plotted frameworks.  Others, like Delany, embrace the fluidity and dynamism of existence – ride with the flow, so to speak.  It’s like the difference between a formal piece of studio music that might be over in two or three minutes and an elaborate improvisation at a concert.  The Grateful Dead were master of improvisation back in the day.  They could take a two or three minute song off one of their albums and play it for twenty or thirty minutes or even an hour in concert, creating of it a new thing, a new event.

So that’s what “The Einstein Intersection” is, in a sense: a work of succinct improvisation by a virtuoso wordsmith.  The structure of the story allows the creation of flamboyant, beautifully-written scenes to hang onto the frame in dizzying seeming-complexity.  But it is, in fact, quite a simple allegory beneath the dazzle.

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Creative Hunger and the Magnanimity of Artists

Rereading Bob Dylan’s collection of autobiographical essays “Chronicles” made me reflect on how we as artists react toward other artists.  The book begins in New York where Dylan is a lean, dedicated folk singer sleeping on other people’s couches and playing and singing anywhere he’s allowed to.  It skips a decade or so and presents him still young but jaded after his meteoric success, hounded relentlessly by fans and unable to find peace. It skips another decade or decade and a half and describes the process of cutting one of his records song by song in New Orleans, and then it goes full circle back to New York in the early sixties, and backtracks even further to the time before New York when as a kid he was hungry to learn folk songs in Minnesota, accepting any invitation to listen to records to discover new singers and improve his repertoire.

And somehow from reading about Bob Dylan I started thinking about the modern indie writing scene.  To get this you have to think of Dylan as a nobody, a poverty-stricken unknown even more hungry for musical knowledge and improvement than for recognition.  He lived and breathed music; he thought of little else.  He didn’t care what he ate or where he slept as long as he could play.  Before he learned how to compose songs he played the songs of others and that was all right too.  He was absorbed, enthralled, enchanted by folk music.  He went to hear other musicians play; he listened to records; he practiced alone and with others.  He didn’t know how to relate to those who didn’t think as he did.  Music was his life.

As I read about Dylan’s dedication when he was a nobody, I thought of the stage on which the indie writer plays.  Amazon and other distributors opened up the opportunity to sing for an audience, so to speak, at least a potential audience.  For some of us, a very few who achieve early success, it’s immediately like a stage in a stadium full of fans, but for others it’s like one of those smoky coffeehouses where you play for a few diehard drunks, or perhaps sometimes for no one at all.  But you’re there all the same, plying your trade, putting your stories out there.  It takes guts and dedication and a crazy kind of mindset to step out and place your art before the world to get either kicked or caressed.

I read a lot on blogs in indie forums about the importance of editing and covers and so on, the outer trappings of the essential work, and these things are important, of course, in a peripheral kind of way.  But they should not distract us from appreciating the author’s intent and courage in putting it out there.  Let’s not get elitist on the hungry up and coming performers who might have a lot of talent and integrity.  Let’s not condemn them for less than stellar covers if that’s all they can afford, but rather encourage them for doing the best they can in the face of overwhelming odds.  Talent will eventually make room for itself, but in the meantime let’s be there with our support and encouragement rather than wait by the sidelines holding a hammer and some coffin nails.

A simple true story succinctly illustrates what I mean.  I had made a comment on The Passive Voice, a popular indie writer blog, expressing mystification that my books were not selling, though I was convinced that they were good work.  A professional artist wrote back that she had perused the covers of my books and thought that some could be improved on.  She gave me some general tips on cover art, and then offered to create a cover for one of my books, completely free, to show me what she had in mind.  It blows my mind to think about such generosity even now.  That’s called paying it forward, folks.

I also have a relative who is a professional graphic designer who does most of my other book covers.  You can blame the stark, simple short story covers on me.

The fact is, I am a single parent living on the edge of poverty, and when I read comments by some writers that their covers cost “only” $200 or $500 or $1,000 to me it’s like hearing voices from lah-lah land.  I respect what they are saying and even agree in an abstract sort of way, but harsh realities are harsh realities.  For me, $200 buys a certain number of meals or a certain amount of clothes or shoes for my sons.  That’s how I have to look at it.  But I can’t let that keep me from putting my work before readers in the best way I can given the circumstances.

So whenever I am tempted to condemn a fellow writer for a presentation that’s lacking, all I have to do is think of lean, hungry Bob Dylan carrying his guitar from nightclub to coffeehouse to bar and playing for whoever was willing to listen.  You gotta start somewhere.  Let’s express our magnanimity rather than our censure to our fellow artists.  If they don’t have what it takes, they’ll drift away and be gone sooner or later anyway.  We don’t have to knock them off the tracks.

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