Book Review: The Best of the Nebulas Edited by Ben Bova; Part One: Nostalgia, Excellence, Literature, and Freedom

The Nebulas, of course, are the awards given by the Science Fiction Writers of America for the best science fiction and fantasy stories of the year.  They were initiated in 1966 just after the founding of SFWA with the best stories written in 1965.  I stumbled upon the Nebula volumes around 1971 or 1972, just after I had taken a science fiction literature course at Santa Clara University in California and had come to two conclusions:  first, that I had to become a writer and there was no other calling or occupation on the Earth for me; second, that science fiction truly was a splendid form of literature.

About twenty years after they’d been giving out Nebulas, SFWA members decided it would be a great idea to put out a volume of the best Nebula Award winning stories.  Maybe they needed the money, I don’t know, or maybe they wanted to contribute a singular volume to the literature of the speculative fiction field.  All in all, it did turn out to be a great idea.  After all, how could you go wrong presenting not just the best stories of the year, but the best of those stories for the past few decades?

I read this book long, long ago, and I can’t really remember what brought it to my mind again.  Wait – yes I do.  I had been reading the short story volume of “The Science Fiction Hall of Fame” – another brain child of SFWA – a brilliant collection of the best science fiction short stories (as selected by member vote) from the time before the Nebula Awards began.  So I thought of this other book that I had read so long ago, and I searched for it on Amazon, and at first I could find no mention, no inkling of it.  I had to keep adjusting the search criteria, playing with variations of the name because I couldn’t remember it exactly.  The reason it was so difficult is because the book is long out of print.  Why, I don’t know.  It’s packed with some of the greatest science fiction ever.

The members of SFWA chose the stories by ballot from among the Nebula winners in the short story, novelette, and novella categories.  Unlike the Hall of Fame entries, they went only by story consensus and allowed multiple entries by the same author.  So in “The Best of the Nebulas” there are three stories by Harlan Ellison and two by Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, and James Tiptree, Jr.  There’s a feast of great writing here.  You can’t go wrong with this book if you love the speculative fiction genre.  There’s only one story I’ve read so far (slightly over halfway through the book) that I didn’t much care for the first time I read it and I don’t much care for now.  But out of respect for the author and the Nebulas in general I’m not going to tell you which one it is.

What particularly struck my fancy this time around?  I had just read Roger Zelazny’s powerful novelette “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” in another volume I recently acquired, but I read it again because it is so magnificent, and it didn’t disappoint.  It was great fun reading Harlan Ellison’s “Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman” after so long.  “Aye, and Gomorrah…” by Samuel Delany is a jewel of a story, with so much depth in an amazing economy of words.  “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ seems like such a simple vignette, but it was bold and challenging when it was first written and still packs a powerful impact.  “Dragonrider” by Anne McCaffrey, one of the first of the now-famous dragonriders of Pern tales, starts off slowly and causes a bit of confusion early on with a plethora of quickly-introduced characters, but it builds into a deeply touching tale of high adventure involving a far planet, a lethal enemy, dragonriders, and time travel.

Reading this book took me back to my early enthrallment with science fiction.  I was deep into the genre, both reading it and writing it.  Then I drifted away into more so-called “mainstream” literature such as “On the Road” and “Tropic of Cancer” – radical works, they were, and I needed them to burst out of my rut and get out on the road.

Ultimately, I hate genre labels, and I read (and write) widely across various forms of literature now.  I access various interesting writer’s forums and follow discussions (though I seldom participate) and I am struck sometimes by writers who insist that to make the most money you have to stick to one genre, one rut.  There are two major flaws in this logic.  First of all, that writers write only for the money.  Don’t get me wrong – I acknowledge that of course we need money and I need a hell of a lot more of it – but…  Well, let me give you an example.  I am in the midst of reading Samuel Delaney’s brilliant story “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” and in this story he writes of a group of artists called the singers.  They contemplate existence and then they sing about it.  Their singing is a reaction to how the perceived universe touches their souls.  That’s what writing is and that’s what writers should be doing.  They should be making money, yes, but that’s not the main point.  The other flaw in the logic sited above is the notion that as some sort of rule – as if there should be such rules – writers should stick to one genre, one type of writing.  That is, in a word, ludicrous.  Writers should roam far and wide in their art, and many of the best writers do so, turning out novels, short stories, poems, essays, memoirs and so on.  Maybe that’s why I’m not rich yet.  So be it.  I can live with that.  If I can have only wealth or freedom, I’ll take the freedom.  If I can have both, all the better.

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Book Review: 1776 by David McCullough

Too often we associate history with obligatory lessons at school:  boring, petty, meaningless.  We memorize names and dates without affixing humanity to them, without realizing the inexorable bond that links us to those people and events in the past.  Not only were they human, as we are, and their deeds reflect their humanity, from which we can learn to improve our human attributes, but the decisions they made and the deeds they did affected us and made us what we are now.  Nobody was conceived and raised in a vacuum; we are bound to history just as we are bound to our human physical limitations and the elemental conditions of our environment.  We can no more escape our history than we can escape the Earth’s environment without artificial protection.

This is a hell of a book.  It’s well written and fascinating.  Although I like reading history, my main era of interest is the twentieth century, particularly the Vietnam War and the period of upheaval from the 1950s through the 1970s, which is when I grew up in a strange, schizophrenic, evolving America.  But a couple of circumstances caused me to pick up this book.  First of all, a number of articles I researched and wrote about the colonial era and the Revolutionary War piqued my interest.  Second, I found a pristine, almost-free copy of “1776” at the Seattle Friends of the Library book sale and couldn’t pass it up.

I can’t exactly say that this book reads like a novel, because it is too full of excerpts from journals and letters from people who lived through the action, an approach a novel rarely takes.  But it was as exciting and fascinating as a novel.

Every American knows the basic story, of course, from history lessons in high school and grade school.  We’ve all seen the iconic paintings and heard some of the famous quotes.  But this book goes far, far deeper into the heart of what really happened.  It has a three-act structure, just like a model screenplay – and it would make a hell of an epic movie, by the way.  The first part deals with the siege of Boston, the Colonial Army’s capture of the Dorchester Heights, and the abandonment of the city by the British.  The second part talks of the battle of Long Island and New York, a rousing victory for the British and a stunning defeat for the colonists, forcing the American army to retreat south to New Jersey.  The third part addresses the dejected, tattered state of the army as it flees southward and crosses the Delaware into Pennsylvania, only to return to New Jersey on Christmas Day of 1776 for two stunning victories against the British at Trenton and Princeton.

I never really realized what the colonists were up against in the war against the British, but McCullough makes it clear in gut-wrenching detail.  They were farmers.  Kids as young as fourteen, men with wives and children, old folks left their fields and plows to enlist in the Continental Army.  Some had no firearms, no tents, no boots, no uniforms, no winter clothing.  They slept in the rain and mud; they marched through icy fields with bare feet leaving blood trails behind them.  Sometimes provisions were inadequate; many got fed up, deserted, and went home or over to the enemy.  Disease struck down as many as a quarter of the troops at a time.  The fact that any of them kept going at all, that Americans are now singing “The Star Spangled Banner” instead of “God Save the Queen”, is amazing.

And the most amazing character of all is that of General George Washington, who volunteered to leave his comfortable mansion at Mount Vernon to lead the ragtag mob.  The book delves deep into his character.  He was courageous, persistent, resolute, indefatigable, although he was also sometimes depressed and indecisive.  He was the glue that held the army and the fight for independence together.  Although he despaired in the darkest moments, it never crossed his mind to give up.  He inspired loyalty in such talented and courageous men as Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox, heroic patriots themselves, who followed him the full duration of the Revolutionary War.

Fascinating details abound.  For example, one of the keys to the victory during the siege of Boston was acquiring the heavy artillery from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain.  To get them to Boston, Henry Knox and a team of men had to carry them through rugged wilderness in the depths of winter by boat, sled, and wagon for weeks, a heroic effort that enabled the Americans to surprise the British and cause them to flee.  Another vignette tells of an artillery man shot down and killed in the battle for New York.  His wife stepped up to take his place, one of the few women to see action during the Revolutionary War, and held her ground until she became too wounded to continue.

I recommend this book for both entertainment and edification.  It sheds the light of reality on historical stories that have entered the realm of legend.  When you read what America’s forefathers went through during those dark times, it makes you marvel that they had the grit to endure it and see it through to the end.

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On Rereading “This Immortal” by Roger Zelazny

I first read this book a few years ago when I was still living in Greece.  I had found an old paperback copy in an obscure used book store on one of my infrequent visits to the States.  At that time, I had been unable to find it through regular sales channels.  It had been out of print for a long time.  Now I think a new edition has been released.  I hope so.  Tempus fugit

I returned to the book so soon again because I have recently reread some of Zelazny’s shorter works and got a renewed taste for his style.  This is my favorite of the few novels of his that I have read.  That old copy with yellowed pages found its way back into my hands.

If I seem flippant in this review, it is because I am very ill, and dizzy, and lightheaded.  Though I had the annual flu shot a couple of months ago, it seems a non-vaccinating variety has caught up with me.  I haven’t been sick in years, not even a cold, so this is a singular occurrence.  I suppose, as such, I should make the most of it, and yet it is very uncomfortable.  Still, while reclining in bed unable to work, I polished off this Zelazny classic.  There’s a review of it in my essay collection “Reviews and Reflections on Books, Literature, and Writing” – but a few more things need to be said.  If I repeat myself, forgive me.  I have not refreshed my memory of the first review before writing this.

One thing I note about “This Immortal”, also known as “And Call Me Conrad”, is its brevity.  It is a very short novel, at least by modern standards.  Back then, in the 1960s, many novels were published at this shorter length.  It allowed the writers the opportunity to say so much and no more, to display an economy of expression that lent itself to elegance.  Strangely enough, it tied for the Hugo award with “Dune”, the first great sprawling volume of an endless series of great sprawling volumes of an endless Dune universe.  “This Immortal” stands alone.  It remains singularly unique, even today.  Writers need that freedom, a freedom that has been wrenched from them by traditional publishing, which says that readers demand a bloated, overflowing abundance of words.  A novel of this short length would have a hard time finding a publisher nowadays.  There would be the demand to stuff it full of fluff, to expand it, to make it a series.  Some concepts cannot be made into a series.  Some entities stand alone, and this novel is one of them.

Thank God for self-publishing.  Writers can write at any length they see fit, the right length to tell the story, without fear of approbation or censure.  I have read articles by indie authors proclaiming the need to write at such-and-such a length, or to wind out series, one volume after another, in order to achieve success.  This goes against everything of value in self-publishing.  Not to say that stories cannot carry on into series length if the subject matter demands it, but a self-limiting, self-created mold of a certain length only is ultimately nothing less than a coffin. The great gift indie authors have been given is freedom – freedom to write at short or long length, with the story dictating its pace, its style, its length, and not some suits in fancy offices who make their decisions based upon dictates by the number crunchers.

Anyway, that’s one nice thing about “This Immortal” – it’s just the right length, and Zelazny did not demean it by trying to write an ill-begotten sequel.

Another thing that I enjoyed this time around is that it is largely about Greece, and Greek mythology.  After all, I lived in Greece for over fifteen years, and I miss its blue skies and blue seas, the ancient flavor of its landscapes, and the joyful exuberance of its people.  I would gladly go back for an extended visit someday…

It was great fun rereading “This Immortal”, and if you have never read it, give it a try – you are in for a singular treat.

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Book Review: The Powers That Be by David Halberstam; Part Three: The Watergate Investigation

Young adults today may not even understand Watergate or its significance, but it was an amazing example of the media toppling an errant presidential administration. The arrest of burglars at the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C. in 1972 prompted an investigation that ultimately implicated many members of the White House staff and President Richard Nixon himself.  It was made famous by the book “All the President’s Men” by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and later by the Oscar-nominated movie of the same name starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.  I have not seen the movie or read the book, though I plan to do both after reading this fascinating account of the Watergate drama told through the perspective of the journalists who covered it. The Washington Post team of Woodward and Bernstein were the heroes and stars of Watergate, of course, but other papers such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times also got important scoops, and CBS news with Walter Cronkite brought the Washington Post’s continuing Watergate stories to widespread national exposure.  At first it was very much a singular effort by the Post, but as events unfolded and more and more corruption and cover-up became known, the media from all over the country became involved.  It was valiant media David meeting the goliath Nixon White House in an arena that encompassed the entire country.  What began as a simple burglary, buried under crusts of carefully crafted delusion, was chipped away little by little by media exposure until the entire sickly visage of the beast became apparent.

It would not be like this today, I realized as I read.  The media is much faster; exposés swiftly circumnavigate the globe in the era of the Internet.  What took many months of painstaking research in the face of governmental animosity would have blown up instantly nowadays.  This is the age of the common person as reporter, of quick upload and quick censure.  I have mixed feelings about whether or not such rapid exposure and approbation is a good thing, as sometimes one ugly but sensational detail can obscure balancing information.  But it is what it is, and public figures, reporters, writers, and anyone with a smart phone who uploads data and photos to the Internet have to deal with the present reality.  It often puts responsibility in the hands of those who are not capable of dealing with it, but it also provides freedom to those who need to expose genuine corruption.

Be that as it may, Halberstam, as usual, delves deep into the characters of the players in the Watergate game:  the reporters struggling for credibility while making reputation-shattering accusations against the government, the publishers faced with difficult decisions of on the one hand being accountable to the truth their employees have dug up and on the other hand serious threats of persecution and shutdown by a vengeful administration, the politicians and their staffs threatened with prosecutions and punishments for their criminal activity or complicity.  It went all the way to the president himself, who finally had to resign in disgrace.

This is an amazing story of investigation and eventual denouement as exciting as any contrived fictional thriller.  Halberstam is a master historian and journalist and got most of his information through years of interviews with people intimately involved in the Watergate conspiracy.  It is a fitting close to a superlative book on the rise of modern pre-Internet media.  Although media techniques and technology have changed to embrace personal computers and the Internet, there are many relevant lessons herein on how media evolved and how it continues to be used by those in power.

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What’s Gone Down and What’s Coming Up

I am starting to realize the uniqueness of every writer’s, indeed every person’s, walk in life.  No two literary careers are the same, thank God.  Otherwise you might as well simply be programmed virtually at birth and remain alive artificially while you go through the motions – like watching a film in which you are a participant but have no control over the plot.  Each life is unique, and there are endless choices daily, large and small, that determine our destinies.

This year has been a long, strange trip.  Two years ago I was in San Diego, having made the leap from Greece after spending thirty-five years abroad.  At the beginning of the summer of 2013 we had moved to Yakima, Washington for two primary reasons:  the rent and cost of living was cheaper and we were closer to relatives.  Little did we know that though on a map the distance was short, in reality a mountain range separated us from relatives in Seattle, and we hardly ever saw them.  We were iced and snowed in with bone-chilling winter weather.  But before that, right after we had arrived, I got word that my son living and teaching in New York had had a dreadful accident and torn three ligaments in his knee.  So my younger son and myself got plane tickets and went to him as fast as we could – he was still in the hospital awaiting emergency surgery – and spent most of the summer in his apartment in Brooklyn taking care of him and helping him convalesce.  From thence, it was back to Yakima, school for my youngest, writing work for me, other labors for the other two sons who were living with me.  And that winter – that god-awful cold, cold winter.  The isolation, too.  That was hard to take.  But we made it.  We survived.

Which brings us to 2014.  The year began in the midst of the deep snow of Yakima, icicles hanging from the eaves.  I was never warm there – never, for months on end.  But even worse was the sense of loneliness.  Several weeks ago I saw the movie “Interstellar” and I found myself sympathizing with the astronauts who had gone through a wormhole and were off in a far galaxy, hopelessly distant from loved ones.  There was nothing to do there – no writers’ organizations, no organized science fiction fans.  Don’t get me wrong – the people were friendly, at least in our experience, but there was no support whatsoever for my literary endeavors – no sympathetic souls.  Not that I wander around seeking sympathetic company.  A writer is, through the vicissitudes of his profession, alone most of the time.  But even a writer occasionally needs some sort of reinforcement.  There was nothing to keep us there.  Nothing.

So when I came into a couple of thousand dollars at the start of the year, I determined to hang onto it and make the move to Seattle, one way or the other, even if it was tough, even if rents were higher, which they inevitably were, even if we had to continue to struggle in our present situation.

Compounding the difficulty was the fact that I could not afford to make the trip to Seattle to house-hunt.  I couldn’t afford to stop working long enough, and I couldn’t afford the transportation costs.  So I had to do all the house hunting online and by phone from a distance.  I searched rental sites, e-mailed managers, made phone calls.  Fortunately, as I mentioned earlier, I did have relatives there.  One of my sisters mentioned an apartment complex she had passed that appeared nice.  I looked it up.  It was right in the city, in a nice neighborhood, and the rent was reasonable by Seattle standards.  I e-mailed the manager; she was congenial and explained that she got hundreds of queries a month for apartments in the complex, and that if I wanted one I had to be persistent.  She encouraged me to keep in touch and gave me her private e-mail address.  I wrote her every day – note that: every day – and called her at least once a week.  This went on for months.  Every day she wrote back and apologized that nothing had come up.  And then one day she told me a two-bedroom apartment had become available; it seemed that some of the previous tenants had lit out and the remaining one couldn’t cover the rent.  I accepted it sight unseen, paid a deposit and money for background security checks.

In the middle of summer we made the move from Yakima to Seattle.  We rented a truck and loaded up all the furniture that had been donated to us by relatives and friends of relatives.  One of my brothers came to help us make the move.

It was a shot in the dark, but it turned out that the Seattle apartment, though rudimentary and in an old building, was adequate for our needs.

It was a relief to arrive in Seattle.  Although the rent, utilities, food, and miscellaneous expenses are all higher here, I have more peace that we can get by.  There are relatives around.  There is a literary community.  There are science fiction conventions, something I have never regularly attended but always wanted to and longed for from afar while in Greece.

So we spent the rest of the summer in Seattle and in the fall my twelve-year-old son enrolled in middle school.  And things have generally been going well.  I have been writing Internet articles to pay the bills.  It’s not the freelancing I want to do; I want to support myself and my family with my novels and stories and memoirs.  But it’s freelancing of a sort and that’s better than nothing.

In the midst of all this turmoil I have managed to stay productive.  Recently rather than forsake my own writing completely, in lieu of lying in bed with the insomnia with which I am frequently afflicted, I have stayed up and produced fiction with a minimum nightly word count.  This way in the last few months I have produced a novel, a novella, and a novelette.  My published works for 2014 are as follows:  one short story in an international anthology, four independently published short stories, one collection of dark fantasy short-shorts, two short collections of memoirs and essays, a novel, a full-length short story collection, and a collection of literary essays.  Somehow, in spite of everything, work got done.

And for the coming year of 2015?  I’ll keep working, keep producing.  As far as I know, we will continue to abide in Seattle.  A few interesting science fiction conventions are coming up that I plan to attend.  I am rethinking some of my sales strategies as far as my novels and short stories are concerned.  I am confident it will be a growth year.  As Dean Wesley Smith wisely points out on his blog, it is important to set goals that are within your power, not dependent on the decisions of others.  I can determine to produce work regularly at a certain number of words per day – unless something radically wrong like writer’s block or a family crisis ensues; but I cannot determine to sell a certain number of stories, because that is up to the decisions of others.  So I will persevere.  I will keep working.  I am hoping for a turnaround, a surge of sales that will give me more independence and allow me to focus more on the writing I want and need to do.  I have been too long in the game to expect overnight miracles, but I hope for progress.  At least that.  There’s no discharge in this war, as they say.  There’s only one ultimate culmination to the struggle.  May my hands be near a keyboard when I perish.

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Book Review: The Powers That Be by David Halberstam; Part Two: Journalism During the Vietnam War

A large section of “The Powers That Be” is taken up with describing journalistic coverage of the Vietnam War, and the contrast between how the war was perceived by the correspondents there on the field and how it was presented to the American public by the administration in power.  No one is better able to write on such a topic than Halberstam.  He was one of the first full-time reporters in Saigon, reporting for the New York Times.  He knew the situation firsthand from the early days of American involvement.  He was closer to the action than the generals who were calling the shots.  He was certainly closer to it and knew more about it than the presidents who were authorizing the escalation.

Reading Halberstam’s books on modern history, some of my favorites on the seemingly simple but ultimately confusing and complex era of the 1950s and 1960s, I often wish he had written a personal memoir.  He lapses briefly into first person as he tells of his early days in Saigon, and it immediately evokes intensity and emotional depth in an otherwise objective narrative.  Not that it would always be seen as objective.  Halberstam gives his own take on the subject, and it is the viewpoint of a journalist who had to fight great bureaucratic and political obstinacy in his effort to impart the facts as he saw them, the facts of bloody body counts mounting up and America sinking deeper and deeper into a quagmire that for a long time no official voice would admit existed.

For the fact is that during the Kennedy and most of the Johnson administration, as the war and American involvement in the war intensified, the highest echelons of both print and TV journalism were playing along with the presidential line, regardless of the conflicting reports and footage coming to them from their men in the field.  As Halberstam brings out, Kennedy was a master at manipulating the new medium of television, not only in his political campaign for the presidency but during his term in office when presenting foreign and domestic affairs to the public.  He was always acutely aware of the cameras and communicated with and courted those behind them.  The men who worked for him presented national reporters with what they wanted them to report.  They would assure the American public that the situation in Vietnam was proceeding according to plan and that is what the public would read or see.  The reporters in the field, meanwhile, would grow increasingly frustrated with the difference between the copy they were sending in and what saw print.

When Johnson assumed the presidency after Kennedy’s assassination, the situation worsened.  Pushing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution past Congress,  a move that gave the president vast authority to escalate the war on his own initiative, involved circumventing not only the reports from field journalists but from the military itself.  Johnson assured those who helped him push the measure through that he would not use the added authority to put combat troops on the ground, yet within a year he was landing the first Marines, and not long afterwards there were hundreds of thousands of American troops deployed in an unwinnable war.  For years the administration persuaded a significant portion of the American public to support the war by feeding the press optimistic reports of soon-coming American victory through press offices in Washington, while on the field the situation steadily worsened.

As Halberstam explains, a journalist arriving in Vietnam would go through several stages.  He might arrive in a state of ebullient optimism, shored up by official assurances of America having the situation well in hand, critical of his colleagues in the field who tried to set him right about the true situation.  As the months passed, his doubts and cynicism would grow, and as the inevitable truth dawned on him, a nagging despair would set in.  Some of the best journalists of the era went to Vietnam, because it was the action place to be, but eventually they would become angry and frustrated with their superiors who insisted on towing the official line.  The president himself and his cabinet and most trusted advisors, after all, would assure them that all was well and victory was in sight.  Who were they to believe: their underlings or the highest authorities in the land?

Finally, though, the tables began to turn, and a few media events hastened the change. The Life Magazine issue that featured photos of all the hundreds of Americans killed during a week of fighting was one.  The Fulbright senate hearings on the war was another.  A key event was Walter Cronkite’s visit to Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.  At the time, Cronkite was the most trusted name and face in broadcasting; not only the public but also the president himself trusted him to be fair and impartial and, as far as the president was concerned, to uphold the administration’s stand.  For the first time, however, Cronkite saw the war in all its blood and brutality; moreover, he realized the extent that the administration was trying to cover up what was really happening.  When he had arrived, he had been briefed by General Westmoreland and other top brass that the Tet Offensive was over and the Americans had achieved victory; but when he went out into the field, he saw that the Viet Cong were still in the midst of the offensive, that the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies were hard pressed, and that there was a major cover-up, a diminution and alteration of the facts, going on.  Cronkite began to cover the war more objectively, which inevitably led to his being more pessimistic about its outcome.  One of the factors in Johnson’s decision not to run for another term as president was his certainty that if Cronkite no longer supported him, neither did the American public.

That’s the power of media.  Halberstam writes about print and television journalism, but how much more influential is the instant news, or much more often non-news, of the Internet?

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Book Review: The Powers That Be by David Halberstam; Part One

“The Powers That Be” is the story of how media became an important shaper of events in the mid-twentieth century.  It was first published in 1975, when it was contemporary.  Now, of course, it is history.  It deals with newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.  The Internet was nonexistent at the time.  When I first considered reading it, despite the fact that Halberstam is one of my favorite modern history writers, I wondered if the book would remain relevant, considering the radical changes in modern media.  But then I realized that it would be as relevant as any other history, and perhaps more relevant than most.  We don’t use horses for transport nowadays, but that doesn’t prevent us from studying eras in which they did.  I wish Halberstam had said some words about the Internet era.  He could have, I suppose, as he didn’t die until 2007, and when he did he was working on another book, but the era he focused on was usually the twentieth century.

“The Powers That Be’ is, in fact, relevant to our present predicaments, not so much in the particulars but in the undercurrents.  For instance, Halberstam writes at length of Kennedy as being the first presidential candidate to take full advantage of television.  It was a new medium of expression at the time, and all the other candidates distrusted it and regarded it with suspicion.  Adlai Stevenson would have nothing to do with it.  Nixon hated it, and Halberstam points out that the televised Nixon/Kennedy debates were a key factor in Kennedy’s victory in the presidential election.  The lesson we can take from that is not to shove your head in the sand when new trends in technology are manifest, but rather see how they can be used to greatest advantage.

To tell his story, Halberstam focuses on the stories behind the CBS network, Time Incorporated, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and to a lesser extent, the New York Times.  He switches from highlighting one media empire to the next as his story moves forward through the century.  As usual, he doesn’t only skim the surface but delves deeply into the men and women whose stories he tells, including not only their backgrounds but often also the backgrounds of their parents, grandparents, and so on as long as they are relevant.  This does not detract from the narrative but rather gives it additional insight and depth.  The book begins with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his ability to manipulate radio audiences. It chronicles the stories of Ed Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and other key figures in the genesis and evolution into legitimacy of radio and television news.  It describes the importance of the patronage of the Los Angeles Times in the early stages of Richard Nixon’s career.  It discusses the fall of Joseph McCarthy, the notorious anti-Communist witch hunter that even presidents were afraid to touch, at the hands of Ed Murrow and CBS.  It is history told from the standpoint of media, and an insider’s account of how media shapes history and how those who recognize the importance of the media are able to utilize its tools to great effectiveness.

A few words need to be said about the book’s style, which is disconcerting at first.  To be honest, it could have benefited from some editing, especially in the early sections.  Halberstam uses commas to connect thoughts one after another in long run-on sentences that would have benefited from some corrections in grammar and punctuation.  It is jarring and hard to get used to.  I wouldn’t have stopped reading as a result; the material was too fascinating.  But I would have enjoyed the reading experience more if the text had been better ordered.  It becomes more coherent after the first one hundred pages or so, as if Halberstam blurted the first sections out in a torrent of haste, and then slowed down and used more cadence and nuance for the long haul.  I don’t recall the other books of his I’ve read having this run-on tendency, at least not to this extent.  Regardless of its defects, however, the book is well worth reading, and I look forward to plunging into the second half.

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Book Review: Science Fiction Hall of Fame: Volume I Edited by Robert Silverberg

Once upon a time, back in the last century in 1965, the Science Fiction Writers of America launched the Nebula Awards.  A few years later they thought:  Why not have a vote on the greatest science fiction stories of all time published before the Nebula Awards began, and honor them by compiling them into a book?  This is the result.  Volume I is a collection of short stories, and volumes II and III are collections of novellas.  Fair enough.  I read this book many years ago, in fact, but I found it recently again in a boxed set with volumes II and III at the Seattle Public Library book sale.  Interesting aside:  At the book sale I paid three dollars for the whole boxed set in excellent condition.  I was on Amazon looking for something else today, and I found two copies of this particular boxed set.  They were each selling for $2,000.  Now, Amazon marketplace sellers have the freedom to set their own prices, but even if the set cost a fraction of what they were charging for it, one would say I got a good deal.

Anyway, the earliest stories in this book are from 1934.  That’s eighty years ago as of the writing of this essay, and you expect, of course, that the science and some of the storytelling will be dated.  So it is.  Some stories hold up well, and others not so much.  Some stories are mediocre, to be honest, and have been far eclipsed by more recent efforts on similar themes.  But these stories were chosen for their historical and cultural context within the genre, and not only for their inherent value.

I probably wouldn’t have chosen these same stories, at least not all of them.  But I suppose they are fairly representative of the field as it was back then.  Only a few genuinely dragged, and I will not mention which ones they were because despite their ragged, aged technique they served a purpose in the development of what speculative fiction is today.  Instead, I will mention a few of the stories that struck me as genuine timeless works of literature on this reading of them.  And I am not referring here to the science.  “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny, for example, posits a fantasy world that due to modern scientific discoveries could never be mistaken for Mars, but it is a beautiful, fully-realized story that brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.  Other stories have their characters use old-fashioned phones and televisions and all sorts of odd devices that bring a smile and a shake of the head today, but none of that matters.  As a reader, I am willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of the tale.

Anyway, some of the stories that particularly struck me this time around:  “Microcosmic God” by Theodore Sturgeon, about a scientist on a remote island who creates a race of mini-beings advancing in evolution at a speeded-up rate so he can benefit from the discoveries they come up with.  “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Lewis Padgett, about two young siblings, a brother and a sister, who stumble upon some futuristic toys in a time machine and use them to construct a gateway to an alternate reality.  “Arena” by Fredric Brown, the story that inspired the famous Star Trek episode in which Captain Kirk and the alien face off for the fate of humanity.  Brown’s story, by the way, is much more intense and gutsy.  “Surface Tension” by James Blish, in which microscopic colonists living in a tiny pool on a far planet build a two-inch “space ship” to traverse the void of atmosphere to a new world in another nearby pool.  “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, in which a shuttle captain discovers a teen girl has stowed away aboard his spacecraft, and he must eject her into the void or he will not have enough fuel to deliver needed medication to save many lives.  “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes, the now-famous story that became a film for which Cliff Robertson won an Oscar, about a man with an IQ of 68 who has an operation that makes him a genius, and then realizes the change is temporary and slowly deteriorates back into the person he was.

Yes, there are some good stories in this book, and some of them brought up a lot of memories of past reading of pulp magazines, anthologies and novels.  As I said, there are some glaring omissions.  The editor explained in the introduction that he was limited to one story per author.  I would have chosen, for instance, more stories by Cordwainer Smith, and the one that made it into the book would not have been my choice if I could only choose one.  I would have included “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”, my all-time favorite Cordwainer Smith tale, or perhaps “The Game of Rat and Dragon” or “The Lady Who Sailed the Soul”.  But I didn’t have a vote in the matter.  I was just a kid when this book came out.  I didn’t even know SFWA existed, although I soon found out.

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Today I did a lot of deep thinking about my habit of taking a nap after lunch.  With necessary exceptions, I have done it for decades.  In the last year or two, though, I have had trouble with insomnia, and I have begun to wonder if the nap is at least partly responsible.  For a long time I thought the problem was mainly stress.  After all, ostensibly I have a lot to feel stressed about.  I am poor financially.  I have not attained my life goals as far as my writing is concerned.  I am a single parent.  But I have to face the facts:  Unless it is some deep buried subconscious bullshit, I am not really that stressed.  To be honest, recently I feel pretty good.  I’m making enough money to at least pay the bills and eat decently, and we have gotten out of the isolated small city I really did feel depressed in.  Okay, I am far from my life’s goals, but I am working towards those goals and making progress.  When a physical or psychic glitch comes up I lie awake and think about it, but normally I go to bed with a relative sense of satisfaction that I have done what I could that day.

So is the nap responsible?  A few months ago I figured maybe I simply didn’t need so much sleep, and I started staying up later, working on the novels and stories I didn’t have time to do during the day.  That worked for a while.  I would go to bed at twelve instead of eleven and I’d be tired enough to sleep.  I also had the satisfaction that I was producing the work I loved.  But lately, going to bed at twelve doesn’t do it anymore.  I still lie awake a long while before I drift off.  Perhaps I should keep working until one.

For me, the nap has been a habit since at least the late seventies.  It is rooted in practical considerations.  I lived for ten years in Southeast Asia, in India and Bangladesh, and in that part of the world, the early afternoon is too hot to function in, and everything grinds to a halt.  So what do people do?  They nap.  As did I.  In Greece, where I taught English language at private language schools for fifteen years, I always worked from afternoon until late evening; sometimes I didn’t stop work until eleven.  Additionally, I always got up at least by six in the morning to get the kids up and see them off to school.  I had to take a nap or I wouldn’t be sharp enough to teach my students.

And now, as a freelance writer, the habit continues.  I still have to get up and see a son off to school.  I attack the writing, that is, the Internet articles that pay the bills, by seven in the morning.  After lunch I’m wiped out and sleep for half an hour or so, and then spend a little time reading before I get up and work some more.

So today I was wrestling with the dilemma:  Am I doing it wrong?  Sure, I can make it straight through the day if I have to.  Maybe I should adjust my schedule and power through the day without a nap; thereafter I may be able to go to bed earlier.  I am not a prisoner of habit after all; habit is an expediency that functions as a tool of schedule.  Habits make it possible to bypass some decisions and focus on others.  But if they outlive their usefulness it is necessary to change them.

In the end, the most important consideration is the writing, both the nonfiction articles that bring in money and the more important literature that is my personal justification for existence.  Today I wrestled with the dilemma of whether or not to forsake my daily naps until after lunch when I sat down to try to skip the nap and get some work done.  And I decided to hell with it.  I was too damned tired to focus on putting words together into coherent sentences, paragraphs, and whole entities such as articles and stories.  I had to have that nap if I hoped to get any more work done today.  So I slept.  And then got more work done.

Sometimes the most obvious solutions are also the most practical.  When you’re tired, you rest.  I don’t know what I’ll do about the insomnia.  Maybe I’ll work later; I don’t mind.  Or I’ll use the time to think up new story ideas.  I’d better get a notebook and pen for the bedside table.

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Life and Death

One night my friend Rolf and I, staggeringly drunk, walked out to a freeway entrance leading to I-5 South, having decided to hitchhike somewhere, although we had no particular destination in mind.  We got there and Rolf changed his mind.  He said, “I’ve already been on the road.  Now it’s your turn.”  With that, he stumbled off into the darkness.  I stood at that entrance for a long time before I went home.  I wasn’t ready to leave then, but I did leave eventually, and didn’t return for over thirty-five years, apart from short visits.  I recounted this story in my memoir of the road, “World Without Pain: The Story of a Search“.

But Rolf was right.  He had already been on the road.  He had been to Europe, and I always envied him the experience.  Even then, though I was too timid to do anything about it, the fires of road-longing burned strongly within me.

Rolf and I started hanging out together when were in high school.  We weren’t very similar in personality.  Maybe it was a case of diverse personalities melding, or maybe we just both needed friends.  Concurrently, I started to drink heavily when I was about sixteen years old.  He and I would get drunk together; we’d go out and shoot pool; we’d hang around and watch movies.  At some point drugs were added to the mix and we’d smoke dope when it was available.  After my year of university in California when I experimented with a diversity of psychedelics, we dropped acid once in a while too.  We roomed together twice.  Once we rented a two-bedroom apartment that was the upper floor of a duplex in the Wallingford District of Seattle for $100 a month.  Another time we rented a three-bedroom house in the University District for $200 a month.  You won’t find prices like that nowadays; you’ll pay ten times that or more for comparable accommodation.  But Seattle was a backwater back then and we liked it that way.  We’d hold down jobs, make at least enough money to pay the rent and bills and keep ourselves in food and drink and drugs, and we’d party as much as we could.  We’d have girls over; often we’d date girls who were friends with each other.  Perhaps date is too grandiose a term for what we did though.  The girls usually joined us in our standard nefarious activities, and then we’d pair off and hit the bedrooms when we got home.

I’m skimming over all of this really quickly.  There are hundreds of vignettes scattered through the years.  But all that to say that we were close.  We were buddies.  We confided in each other and knew we could rely on each other.

As I became absorbed in traveling and writing, Rolf found a passion that thoroughly consumed his interest: psychology.  He attacked it with a zeal that surprised me, as I was used to his casual don’t-give-a-damn-about-anything demeanor.  He buckled down and started to study.  He managed to get admitted to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles to study psychology.  Passing through the area during my wanderings, I rented a room on top of a nuthouse near his apartment and hung around a short time.  This, too, is recounted in “World Without Pain”.  But he had changed.  He wasn’t interested in partying anymore.  He was committed to his studies.  While I took off for another foray around the world, he hung on and earned himself a doctorate in psychology and became a university professor.

We wrote a few times to each other while I was living in India, but then we lost touch.  He met a woman, married, and had a son.  I met a woman, married, and had five sons.  We still traveled a lot, my wife and I and our progeny, but then we finally settled near Thessaloniki, Greece.  I did a web search to try to get back in touch with Rolf, wrote to him, and he responded.  We wrote back and forth every few months.

Then he wrote me and said he was attending a psychology conference in Germany and asked if he could come visit us afterwards.  He spent five days or so in the midst of a beautiful warm Greek summer.  We took him swimming at an idyllic Greek beach and showed him around Thessaloniki.  One night during a sudden unexpected rainstorm we sat under a shelter beside the pool at his hotel sipping ouzo, and we caught up in more detail on what had been happening in our lives.  His wife had been from another country.  In the midst of a midlife crisis she decided to leave him and their son and go back to settle alone in her homeland.  His son stayed with him off and on, as I remember, but was pretty much grown and gone.  His finances took a nosedive in the divorce.  He had just got a new job at a university in Alabama that he had high hopes for.

That was it, more or less.  We corresponded once or twice after he left but then lost touch again.  Some time ago I tried to find a new e-mail address and I wrote to him but he didn’t reply.

A few nights ago I was talking with one of my sisters about him and decided to try again to contact him.  One of the first things that came up on a web search was a notice from his university that he had died a year ago, in September of 2013.  I tried to find out more and came across an obituary in the Seattle Times that gave few details.

A kind of slow shock set in.  In the last few days I have been thinking a lot about all the life Rolf and I shared together.  And then he just up and died.  Death is so close, an inevitability to all of us.

The articles I accessed online did not say how he died, only that he died at home.  He may have been alone.  He may have been in pain.  I wish I could have been there to sit with him at the end.

Requiescat in pace, my friend.

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