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.

Posted in Memoir, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Book Reviews, On Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in On Writing | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Book Review: The Best of Robert Silverberg

This is a 1976 publication I found in a used book store.  I picked it up because I hadn’t read any Silverberg for a long time, and he’s one of the best science fiction short story writers ever. His collection “Phases of the Moon,” published in 2004, which I read several years ago, is much more comprehensive, as it adds many of his wonderful post-1976 stories, but this book gave me a decent Silverberg fix nonetheless.

Silverberg’s progress as a short story writer is clearly seen in this anthology.  The stories are chronologically presented, and they move forward from the first, which is merely so-so, to the next few which are pretty good, to the next few which are very good, to the timeless classic award winners at the end.  He went on afterwards to win many more awards.

The book begins to pick up serious momentum with the novella “Hawksbill Station,” one of the few stories in the collection I hadn’t read before.  It concerns political prisoners, all men, thrown back in time to the bleak, featureless Paleozoic era and their slow degradation and descent into insanity, isolated as they are from the rest of humanity by billions of years.  Unbeknownst to them, the latest prisoner sent back is a spy analyzing their condition with a view to returning them to the future for therapy and rehabilitation.  After that is the dark, nasty award-winning short story “Passengers,” about incorporeal aliens who possess humans and use their bodies for pleasure.

“Nightwings” is a hauntingly beautiful tale of a far future Earth in danger of alien invasion, another award-winner, atmospheric and poetic.  “Good News From the Vatican,” the last story in the book, is a light, funny account of the election of the first robot pope of the Catholic church.

The story before the last, though, “Sundance,” I have always considered one of my all-time favorite stories.  It’s about a man of Native American background on a far planet who appears to be a part of a team exterminating the native life forms to prepare the way for human colonization.  He discovers that the creatures are sentient and begins to identify with them because his Sioux ancestors were also exterminated far back in American history.  But then his colleagues inform him that they were never exterminating the indigenous creatures, that it was all a delusion of his, and that he was undergoing therapy and psychic reconstruction for his anger and resentment about the past.  All this is evocative enough, but in the midst of this gripping story, Silverberg experiments with technique to great effect.  He switches between present and past tense; he shifts from second to third to first person and back again.  In the hands of a lesser writer it all could have been a dazzling distraction, but the amazing thing about this story is that it works flawlessly; it adds depth and nuance and cadence to the prose.

It was great fun revisiting Silverberg.  He started off as a hack writer of mediocre stories to the pulp magazines.  Amazingly prolific, he turned out so many stories so fast that some magazines had multiple efforts of his under various pseudonyms.  Very few of those stories were ever reprinted, however, and as Silverberg’s career progressed, he went through various stages of growth, sometimes backing off from fiction and concentrating on non-fiction, then returning to the field for another prolific surge, each time with deeper and more powerful works.  Finally, by the late sixties and on into the seventies, he became one of the best in the field.

I have read and enjoyed some of his novels, particularly “Dying Inside,” a devastating, tragic, moody, thoughtful story of a telepath slowly losing his powers, but I was always more drawn to his short fiction.  He has a gift of language that lends itself well to the short form.  Anyone interested in the science fiction field would do well to seek out some of his works.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Reflections on Norwescon 38

To fully explain what attending the science fiction and fantasy convention Norwescon 38 meant to me I have to go all the way back almost three years to when I was living in Greece.  In Europe I was isolated from anything like science fiction conventions.  As a writer I was lonely, as there were no writer’s groups I could join, not so much to critique each other’s work, but more to hang out with like-minded people.  Although not even half of what I write is science fiction, I write a fair amount of it, and my roots as a writer are in science fiction and fantasy.  I got my first inspiration to become a writer while reading Harlan Ellison’s nightmarish science fiction story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” and I attended the Clarion West science fiction writing workshop in 1973.

Back to the point:  In Greece I dreamed of attending conventions but thought that it would never happen.  Then when I suddenly found myself in the position of uprooting and moving back to the States, I sought to rectify the situation.  Life is short, after all.  So I attended Condor convention in San Diego.  From San Diego my sons and I moved up to Yakima, Washington, but though I heard about Norwescon 37 in nearby Seattle and longed to attend, the membership fee and journey over the mountains was too expensive.  Norwescon was in spring, and by mid-summer we had managed to make the move to Seattle, and by late fall I had booked memberships and a room at the hotel for one night for Norwescon 38 in the following spring, determined not to miss out on it this time.

For those of you unfamiliar with what goes down at science fiction conventions like Norwescon, there are panels discussing various aspects of the field, some focusing on writing, some on films, some on gaming, and so on.  There is an art show, a dealers room where all sorts of genre trinkets are sold, readings by writers, autographing sessions, film showings, a masquerade, parties, gaming rooms.  A large percentage of the attendees walk around dressed in outlandish costumes, some of them so intricate and professional-looking that they must have been working on them all year.  It’s a crazy atmosphere in which you can let loose your inner geek, nerd, whatever you consider yourself.  Although not all the attendees are geeks, nerds, and so on.  Many, like myself, are professional writers, editors, publishers, and artists getting together to exchange ideas in a congenial environment.

I had two main goals:  to attend as many writer’s panels I was interested in as I could, and to show my thirteen-year-old son a crazy good time.  In both of these I succeeded.

The con started on Thursday, but looking over the schedule, I saw that the events began in the afternoon shortly before I would have had to start heading home, so I decided to wait and go on Friday.  As soon as my son went to school Friday morning, I was off.  I spent the next couple of hours on bus and light rail train until I arrived at the hotel, which was out near SeaTac airport.  Throughout the morning and early afternoon I attended one writer’s panel after another.  They were on subjects such as short story writing, marketing self-published fiction, and diversity in science fiction literature.

I also attended a packed-out question and answer session with George R.R. Martin, a superlative writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories, but most recently famous for “Game of Thrones.”  Every event of which he was a part, including the autograph session I went to the next day with my son, was mobbed, with lines forming at the door and winding through hallways and outside.  I didn’t envy him that sort of fame at all.  I was glad I was incognito, able to roam freely wherever I wanted without everyone I passed getting all bent out of shape.

Because I focused so much on writing on Friday, when I returned with my son for Saturday and Sunday I was able to focus more on events and subjects that interested him.  The exception was early Saturday morning.  We had to get up before daylight to make the long trip to the con so I could make the Science Fiction Writers of America meeting which was scheduled before events began.  It was my first SFWA meeting; I had been looking forward to it and it didn’t disappoint.  What I wanted to do more than anything was to meet other local writers and get to know my peers.  Everyone who attended was very congenial, and they were magnanimous about letting my thirteen-year-old sit in and help himself to the donuts.

After the meeting we strolled around the art show and dealers room, and then we spent over an hour milling about and then waiting in line to get George R.R. Martin’s autograph.  I would have given it a pass, but for my son it was the high point of the con.  They were giving out a limited number of tickets for the autograph session and had all sorts of crazy rules for when we approached the man.  One book each.  No personal notes.  No banter.  I thought it was ridiculous.  It took all the fun out of it and made what should have been a congenial event, a chance for a writer to interact with his fans, into a rigid, formal, stilted ceremony.  Not Martin’s fault, of course.  An unfortunate necessity brought about by circumstance.  Anyway…  Once we got our tickets we were herded through the line and in and out of the signing room within a few minutes.

Afterwards we attended an entertaining panel of horror writers and publishers on horror influences – more specifically, what horror films or books inspired the panelists to focus on horror in their careers.  Then my son and I booked into our hotel room, ate lunch, and got off our feet for a few hours.  We revived in time to attend another panel on horror and then to check out the lazer tag games.  They turned out to be a bit of a dud, as all the safety rules took the guts out of the game, so we soon left to wander around.  Later at night we briefly attended a party hosted by a space exploration society.  And so it goes…

Sunday morning I attended one last panel called “Worth the Dues?” about the value of writers organizations while my son played complementary arcade games in a nearby hallway.  And that was about it.  My son thought it was the best vacation ever, and I had a great time myself.  Life is short.  As far as I can see, I’m going to attend more cons up the road to make up for lost time.

Posted in Memoir | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy by David Halberstam

I’ve been wanting to read this book for years, but I’ve never been able to find it at a price I could afford.  It’s the only Halberstam book I know of that’s out of print.  I’m not really sure why.  It’s a very good book, albeit a short one.  It’s far shorter than any other Halberstam book, most of which are doorstoppers.  I found a used copy on Amazon for a reasonable price and snapped it up.  It turned out to be a small Bantam paperback originally priced at 95 cents, the first paper edition.

Normally Halberstam, in his classic works of modern history, goes to the roots of things by giving complex backgrounds of every major character and situation.  He does not do so in this book.  “The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy” starts in 1967 when Kennedy is contemplating whether or not to run for the presidency in 1968.  He had originally planned to wait until 1972, but circumstances forced his hand.  The book follows his entry into the primary race against Eugene McCarthy and against first Johnson and afterwards then-vice president Hubert Humphrey when Johnson, his political career shattered by the ongoing war in Vietnam, withdrew.

Uncharacteristically, Halberstam minimizes the background in this book.  Instead, he gives just enough explanation to make the situation comprehensible as Kennedy moves from Indiana to Nebraska to Oregon to California on the primary trail.  He does, however, work in Kennedy’s evolution as a politician and a moral man from being campaign manager in the 1960 presidential race and then Attorney General for his brother John, his reaction to John Kennedy’s assassination, his running for and gaining a senate seat in New York, and his decision that due to the quagmire in Vietnam and the deterioration and chaos in American cities he could not put off his presidential run until 1972.  He jumped into the race late but quickly picked up momentum.  He was astonishingly popular among the blacks and the Mexican immigrants but had mixed success among liberals in his own party.  He had a setback in Oregon and a solid victory in California that put him back into a strong position.

On the eve of victory in California, though, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in a hotel kitchen by a Palestinian named Sirhan Sirhan.  Interestingly, although Halberstam alludes to the assassination in his narrative, he stops the book just short of describing it, just as Kennedy was going downstairs to celebrate his victory in the primary.  The book is cut short so abruptly, the reader fully aware of what is about to happen, that it is more shocking than if Halberstam had gone on to describe Kennedy’s death in gory detail.  The impression is that Kennedy was just coming into his own as a moral force, with a very good chance of assuming the presidency and setting the nation in a different direction, and suddenly that time line was snuffed out, forever eliminated by the bullets of a madman.  The ending brings the title into stark relief.  Kennedy’s odyssey was truly unfinished.  One can only wonder what would have happened if he had lived, had been elected president with his strong commitment to the poor of the nation and to ending the war in Vietnam.  As it is, the country got Richard Nixon, law and order, heavy bombing of North Vietnam, and further extension of the war into Cambodia and Laos.

Typically Halberstam remains aloof from his material, but in this book he frequently alludes to himself in the first person, as he accompanied Kennedy as a reporter for much of the campaign.  It renewed my wish, alas to remain forever unrequited, that Halberstam had written an autobiography.  He was one of the most well-traveled, knowledgeable, and erudite reporters in recent American history, and his story would have made fascinating reading.

Reading books such as this helps me see my own place in history more clearly.  I remember hearing about Robert Kennedy’s assassination, although I don’t remember the exact moment the way I remember hearing about when his brother President John F. Kennedy got killed.  I remember sitting in a classroom and the school principal came in and told us that the president had been shot.  It was a shocking revelation even though I was too young to appreciate its real significance.  Anyway, young as I was, naive as I was when Robert Kennedy was killed, I felt the storms of history swirling around me.  I didn’t understand all the forces that were at work, but they shaped me, they shaped my decisions, they inevitably influenced the formation of my thoughts and opinions.  So now, as I seek out and read worthy books like this one on the history of the 1960s and 1970s, the Vietnam War, race relations, riots in the ghettos, the hippy era and the antiwar movement, I assemble pieces of what influenced my growth and the growth of the nation and the world around me.  It’s part of the lifelong voyage of self-discovery.  It’s an illuminative process that is never-ending, that attains nuance and depth as it progresses.

I recommend this book.  It’s a great little classic of modern history and God knows why it has gone out of print.  It’s one of Halberstam’s early works.  Sometimes these things are tied up in ridiculous contract fine print that once signed and agreed to cannot be undone. If you can find a copy at a reasonable price, go ahead and pick it up.  It’s a worthwhile read.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions Edited by Harlan Ellison: A Perspective

Out of the blue, “Dangerous Visions” and “Again Dangerous Visions” returned to me.  I had wanted to get my youngest son out of the house for a while on a Saturday, seeing that I spend so much time working at a keyboard and he spends so much time at a PlayStation, and so I suggested we take a bus to a used book store and peruse the merchandise.  Fine by him, especially because this particular store also has used games and DVDs.  In the science fiction section I found excellent copies of the old Signet $1.95 editions of “Dangerous Visions” and “Again, Dangerous Visions: Part 1″ on sale for half price.  They must have just arrived on the shelf; I knew they wouldn’t remain there for long.  You can’t go wrong for a buck apiece.

I had been thinking about “Dangerous Visions” just recently when I attended the small Clarion West connected science fiction convention known as Potlatch.  Instead of guests of honor, it is a Potlatch tradition to have books of honor, and at the closing meeting the organizers normally ask attendees for suggestions about the next honored book.  I had a few ideas, and one of them I came up with was to reread “Dangerous Visions” and discuss whether it was still dangerous.  Back in 1967 when it was first published it was groundbreaking, but how would it hold up now?  Alas, I was unable to offer my suggestion, as the Potlatch organizers said they were tired of administrating the convention year after year and there might not be a Potlatch the following year.

But “Dangerous Visions” would not remain obscure.  It asserted itself at the used bookstore.  So I took the two books, brought them home, and I have been reading some of the introductions and stories.  Not all of them, for they are large volumes and there is so much to read.  The introductions alone, if you took out the stories, would practically be a book in themselves.  This was Harlan Ellison’s brainchild, and an obvious labor of love.  He invested far more time and money in these anthologies than an editor normally would, because instead of merely bringing another book into the world, he wanted to start a revolution.  Back in the late sixties, the book accomplished its task.  It was radical, cutting edge, controversial.  It won special awards as an anthology and numerous awards for the individual stories inside.

As far as the quality of the stories themselves, I would say they are on par with the selection of any original anthology of the era.  There are good stories, so-so stories, and some stories that do not hold up well at all.  The power of “Dangerous Visions” was not so much in the literary quality of the stories but in their content.  Ellison specifically sought stories with edgy subject matter, stories that for the most part were unpublishable in the science fiction magazines of the era.  As such, most of the stories focus on various aspects of sex, theology, and politically unpopular mores.

Some stories that were radical then are blasé now.  Others continue to hold their sharp, biting flavor no matter how many times they are reread.  Some are and will always be classics, such as “Aye, and Gomorrah…” by Samuel R. Delaney, “Gonna Roll the Bones” by Fritz Leiber, “The Word for World is Forest” by Ursula K. Le Guin, “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ, and “The Milk of Paradise” by James Tiptree, Jr.

The “Dangerous Visions” volumes had added significance for those attending the Clarion and Clarion West science fiction writing workshops in the late sixties and early seventies.  The workshops were six weeks in duration, with different guest writer or editor teachers each week.  The attendees relished their time with all the pros, but when Ellison arrived it was different.  He was at his zenith as an influence in the genre and was winning awards right and left.  He was always entertaining, energetic, vitriolic, and erudite, and he put on the best show at the closing lecture and presentation that each visiting writer gave.  But in addition to all that, Harlan Ellison was actively seeking stories for the next “Dangerous Visions” volume, and everyone wanted to be a part of it.  Personally, I didn’t come even remotely close, but others would save up their best stories for Ellison’s week, hoping that he would look favorably on them.  Never one to mince words, if Ellison thought the story was crap he would trash it soundly, but sometimes, not often, he would express interest, possibly request a rewrite, and then buy it.  That’s what we all longed for.

The “Dangerous Visions” era, also known as the New Wave, is long gone.  Many of the freedoms writers fought for back then are readily available.  Consider, for example, the publication of “Spar” by Kij Johnson in a mainstream online magazine.  That story would have been good “Dangerous Visions” material.  The point is, though, that “Dangerous Visions” did it first.  Although it may not be as radical now as it was then, its value to the field is inestimable.  It accomplished its iconoclastic goal of shattering then-prevalent taboos and opened up the field to diversity of expression.  It was an important, risky, but ultimately worthwhile first step.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Happiest Man Alive: A Biography of Henry Miller by Mary V. Dearborn

Although Henry Miller is notorious for the explicit sex in his novels, I was drawn to his work because of his literary exuberance, the celebration of his life despite his poverty and hard circumstances, and his use of his own life experiences in his writings.  I had started my own literary apprenticeship in science fiction and fantasy, but upon my discovery of Jack Kerouac, Jack London, and Henry Miller I became drawn more towards living raw life as a path to literary art.  I headed out on the road to break the stalemate stifling me as a writer, and as a result found my literary voice somewhere along the way.

My first Miller discovery was “Tropic of Cancer,” although I can’t remember how I came across it.  I remember that the vitality of the writing hit me like a thunderbolt, and over the next several years, I read most of Miller’s other work.  His writings do not bind the story of his life together, though.  They are like isolated snapshots that do not give the overall picture, so I have always been on the lookout for a good Miller biography.  In The Strand bookstore in New York I came across a memoir of Miller by the Hungarian photographer Brassai, who was an acquaintance of Miller’s in Paris in the 1930s, but Brassai’s book is not so much a biography as a series of personal reminiscences.  So when I recently came across “Happiest Man Alive” in a used bookstore in Seattle, I decided to give it a try.

Although this book did manage to give me a coherent picture of the chronological details of Henry Miller’s life, it is not the comprehensive biography I am looking for.

The first problem, before one even opens the book, is the abysmally poor cover.  The title is from the beginning of the book “Tropic of Cancer,” in which Miller exclaims, “I have no money, no resources, no hopes.  I am the happiest man alive.”  It was written in the spirit of literary exaggeration, as Miller was then going through an exceedingly dismal period of his life, but it referred to his awakening as a writer, the finding of his voice, the thrill of creativity.  It’s really a fine title to a book on Miller as a literary artist whose realistic and surrealistic autobiographical works shattered literary conventions of the era.  The drab cover, however, has a black and white picture of an aging Henry Miller in a white tee-shirt, with a slight paunch and a bemused or even sour expression.  It’s a portrait of anything but a happy man.  And the cover copy promises that the book is “studded with juicy tidbits” from Miller’s life.  Not a good sign at all.

I gave it a try anyway, and there are good sections in it, especially near the end, where the author describes Miller’s last years in Big Sur and Pacific Palisades, after he found in old age the recognition he had sought for so long.  Miller’s book on Big Sur does not supply the story of the entire time he was there, and by the time he lived in Pacific Palisades, finally relatively wealthy after the decades-long ban of his most important works in the United States, he had stopped writing significant works.

Before I mention specific problems with this biography, I want to make a general observation.  As I read along, the main problem, as I saw it, was that the writer did not really understand Miller’s writing, what it meant to him and what it did for him.  The writing is what ultimately freed him and gave him resurrection after his “Rosy Crucifixion.”  As for particulars, Miller generally had an unpleasant boyhood in New York, but rather than point out, as Miller himself does in his reminiscences of the era, how his boyhood in the streets shaped his later writings, the author indulges in sexual innuendo and her personal opinion on how his youthful experiences shaped his sexual attitudes.

Another huge gap in the biography is the almost total disregard the author has for the time Miller spent in Greece after he left France and before he returned to the States.  I expected a chapter at least, but the author dispenses with it in two pages.  She states that in her opinion the time in Greece was insignificant, although Miller claimed that it was one of the most important times of his life, that it brought him closure over certain aspects of his past, that it brought him a spiritual awakening and a sense of peace.  The book that came out of his Greek experience, “The Colossus of Maroussi,” is one of Miller’s most important works, and a book that many readers consider their favorite of all Miller’s books.

In the early stages of reading this book I wrote some notes about it.  I almost stopped reading and tossed it in the recycle bag, and in a way the notes kept me going and gave me an excuse and some material to write about later.  Here was a book portraying the so-called happiest man alive, and it was more akin to a dentist’s drill chewing into a raw nerve.  Instead of providing an invigorating experience, which Miller’s work always does, it was like an endless heap of misery.  It misses the point of why someone would want to read a biography of Henry Miller.  There are many memoirs and biographies of those who spent sordid times in this or that desolate city around the world.  The point is that the writing enabled him to rise above that.  A biographer should not just dish out raw facts – and especially not raw facts combined with random personal opinions – but rather seek to give a sense of the soul of the person behind those facts.  A person’s life is not just a string of statistics and occurrences; those are just the shell that masks the spirit, and it is the spirit, the real Henry Miller, the Miller one can discover in the finest passages of his prose – which, by the way, are usually not the overtly sexual ones – that readers of a Miller biography seek.

While reading this biography of Henry Miller I happened to have a chance to see the recent Oscar-winning movie “Birdman,” and the film gave me the perfect metaphor to illustrate what I wanted to say about this book.  In the film, an actor portrayed by Michael Keaton attempts to revive his career and do some serious artistic work by writing, directing, and acting in a Broadway play.  However, he is haunted by the spirit of the Birdman superhero character he portrayed in several films and became famous for.  There are surrealistic sequences in which the Birdman spirit speaks to him, he uses telekinesis to move objects, and he flies like a bird over the streets of New York.  In the end, and I’m sorry for the spoiler for those who haven’t seen the film but it’s imperative to my point, the actor is in a hospital room several floors above the street, he opens a window, the camera moves away to the door as his daughter enters the room.  She looks out the open window and down, as it appears that he has leapt to his death, but then she gazes upward, and smiles.  The implication is that he is really flying.

That’s what the author of this biography of Henry Miller fails to grasp.  Without his writing he was just another street urchin turned vagabond and beggar.  With his writing, he learned to fly.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment