Book Review: Moving Mars by Greg Bear

This is another classic science fiction novel that I didn’t get around to reading until the pandemic. Spoiler alert: It’s a good one. Often I synopsize the books I am reviewing, but I don’t know if I will be able to do it in this case. Moving Mars is long and complex, and I have to admit that I do not understand all the intricacies of concepts and hardware that Bear postulates. Thankfully, though, it is not necessary to grasp all of the details to be able to greatly enjoy this book.

Moving Mars starts out somewhat deceptively; my first impression was that it might be a young adult space opera. The first person viewpoint character is a woman named Casseia Majumdar. As the story begins, she is a teenager involved in civil resistance when authorities try to shut down her school. That crisis is averted, but Casseia develops the urge to participate in politics and is chosen to join a delegation from Mars to the Earth. Bear goes into fascinating details concerning the months-long flight from Mars to Earth and Casseia’s impressions of Earth, which is intent on subjugating and exploiting Mars.

As Mars begins to form a republic, Casseia becomes vice president. She finds out that an old schoolmate has been experimenting with momentous innovations in physics that would allow humans working with AIs to physically move moons and entire planets. Earth’s aggression increases when it becomes aware of this breakthrough. It attacks Mars and…

You don’t really want to tell you the ending, do you? For me this book started a bit slowly during Casseia’s teen years, but my interest picked up as I realized that Bear, in each section, adds complexity and depth until it becomes epic in its speculations on politics and science. He creates a vast futuristic solar system full of drama and intrigue, focusing mainly on the planet Mars, its inhabitants, its landscape, and its biological and political history.

This is one of the goals of good science fiction: to take readers into new worlds and maintain verisimilitude while doing it. Some science fiction writers are great with ideas and some are great wordsmiths, but Bear is both. His ideas are compelling, absorbing, deep, and meticulously thought out, and his prose is clean, clear, and sometimes poetic. Throughout the narrative, Casseia’s voice is consistent, compelling, and intelligent. The book is presented as the memoir of an elder statesperson written after the amazing events at the story’s climax. An afterward emphasizes the value of her memoir as a history of how Mars comes to be what it is.

All in all, this book is a well-told science fiction novel. It takes you on a journey to an imaginary world and gives you a tour in fascinating detail. It’s one of those books that grips you more and more tightly until by the end you wish it didn’t have to stop. Pick up a copy and find out for yourself.

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Book Review: Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon

This book is considered a classic in travel writing, particularly in the sub-genre of road memoirs. I’m surprised that I never read it before. It takes place in 1978, although it was not published until 1982. After a heartbreaking separation from his wife, the author takes off alone to tour the United States in a small camper van he names Ghost Dancing. The title of the book comes from his intention to avoid the interstates and stick to secondary roads, those that appear in blue on old paper maps.

Heat-Moon starts out from Missouri and heads east to North Carolina. From there he swings southwest through the Deep South to Louisiana. He then heads across Texas and Arizona, turns north through Nevada to Oregon, follows the north side of the Columbia River in Washington, turns north in Idaho and follows the Canadian border closely through Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and so on. From New England he turns west again and goes back to Missouri.

The author writes of life on the road and the unutterable loneliness that would sometimes overtake him. The most fascinating aspects of the book, however, are the long interviews he has with people he meets on the road. In the small towns he passes through, he goes out of his way to find the most idiosyncratic residents. He lets them talk freely and copiously about their lives and philosophies without interruptions or judgments.

Apart from a few days here and there when he stays with friends or people he has met and the occasional hitchhiker he picks up, Heat-Moon remains alone and goes his own way. He confesses he feels lonely sometimes, yes, but at the same time the loneliness is glorious. I know this feeling, having hitchhiked in numerous countries around the world. Almost always I was by myself, and sometimes I left congenial travel companions, including lovely and intelligent women, so that I might continue on my solitary journey. Heat-Moon quotes Walt Whitman extensively throughout the book. Here’s a Whitman quote of my own that illustrates what I am talking about (Part 11 of “Song of the Open Road”:

Listen! I will be honest with you,

I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,

These are the days that must happen to you:

You shall not heap up what is call’d riches

You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,

You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,

You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you,

What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,

You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands towards you.

As usual, I have to stop before I end up reproducing the entire poem.

As I read, I could not help envying the author and the freedom he enjoyed on the open road. I have felt that freedom, and I realize its value. Longing for it has recently caused me to write a novel as a sort of wish-fulfillment called The Senescent Nomad. I figured that if I can’t be on the road right now, I can at least imagine what it would be like. Still, I would love to do it for real.

The world of the late 1970s that Heat-Moon writes about does not exist anymore. I know, because I was on the road during that time too, and I know what it was like. People and experiences would be profoundly different now. Still, the road is the road, and there would be adventure and excitement as well as periods of boredom and loneliness, and it would all be wonderful.

Someday… Someday…

In the meantime, read Blue Highways. It’s a well-written memoir about a singular journey.

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Book Review: More Than Human by Theodore Sturgeon

I find it surprising that I have never read this novel until now. It was first published in 1953, the year I was born, and in the following year it won the International Fantasy Award for best novel. I’ve had it on my shelf for years and… Well, now seemed to be the right time to pick it up and read it.

The story concerns the creation of homo gestalt, or the next evolutionary step in humanity, consisting of a group mind of several disparate characters: a wandering idiot, who functions as the group’s head (when he is killed he is replaced by an orphan boy), a baby with Down’s syndrome who is referred to in the language of the era as mongoloid (the group’s brain), a girl with the power of telekinesis, and twin girls with the power of teleportation. Each has specific functions within the larger gestalt.

The book consists of three novellas, each told in a different style. The first part, “The Fabulous Idiot,” related in third person omniscient, cuts from character to character as it gives the back stories of Lone, the idiot, Jane, the girl with telekinetic abilities, Bonnie and Beanie, the African American girls with the ability to teleport, and Baby, the brilliant calculating mind.

The second part, “Baby Is Three,” is told in first person by Gerard, the orphan boy who takes over as the gestalt head when a tree falls on the idiot. He has gone to a psychiatrist to find out what he has suppressed from his past, and much of the story takes place in the office where he receives therapy. He eventually has a revelation or awakening and uses his powers to make the psychiatrist forget that he ever met him. This novella was originally published in a science fiction magazine as a stand-alone piece, and Sturgeon later wrote the other two to expand the story to novel length.

The third part, “Morality,” tells how Jane helps a man named Hip recover from devastating memory loss brought on by Gerard, who has become selfish and destructive. It deals with Hip’s attempt to introduce morality and ethos into the gestalt.

The three parts are dissimilar in style and in their approaches to the story, but I appreciate how Sturgeon layered the novel in this manner. There is a considerable gap of time between the various sections, and the focus on different viewpoints lends an atmosphere of suspense and mystery as the characters uncover what has gone on before.

This story was written almost seventy years ago, and there is, of course, an absence of modern technology. The novel itself, however, has aged little. It is remarkably relevant and readable. In fact, it is a refreshing change from all the superhero nonsense commonly associated with extraordinary powers. Instead of taking a wild comic book approach to the subject, Sturgeon imbues the tale with subtlety and emotional impact. It’s a short novel, at least in comparison to bloated contemporary novels, but it is of sufficient length to succinctly tell its story and then come to a conclusion. All in all, it is an excellent, well-written novel.

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On Rereading Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

I read this book just over two years ago; you can read the review on this website. What got me thinking about the book again was finding out that it had been made into a film starring Frances McDormand. My initial thought was: how can you make a film out of a book like this? And then I thought: why not? If done properly, it can be a compelling, heart-gripping story of people in distress, and evidently the filmmakers have done it well judging by the awards it has already picked up at film festivals.

As I explain in my previous review, the book touched me profoundly. I had already been wondering about life on the road as opposed to holing up in one place in my old age. I had been daydreaming about, when the kids were grown and gone, getting a van and taking off for who knew where. My musings became so intense and detailed that I have turned them into novels. The first, The Senescent Nomad, which was published in 2019, tells of a writer who, finally on his own, buys and outfits a van, abandons his apartment in Seattle and most of his possessions, and takes off on the road. His initial destination is a science fiction convention in San Diego to which he has been invited as a panelist. On the way he learns what it is like to live on the road full time and meets numerous fascinating characters, including a few lovers. In the second novel, The Senescent Nomad Seeks a Home, he has second thoughts about van life and looks for more stationary accommodations as he travels back up the coast from San Diego to the Puget Sound area. This novel will hopefully be published in late 2020. A third volume is in the planning stages.

Reading Nomadland a second time left me still double-minded about living on the road full time. Of course many of the people that Bruder describes in the book have no choice. They live in vehicles because they have nowhere else to go; they can’t afford to pay rent for an apartment or house. If I had a choice, though, what I would like is the best of both worlds: a humble cottage somewhere outside the city and a camper van in which I could take extended trips around the North American continent. If circumstances forced me into a van, I think I could get by okay; I have done extensive camper travel in the past, although entirely in southern Europe.

Reading this book again was every bit as marvelous as the first read. The only disappointment I felt was coming close to the end of it and the dread anticipation that the wonderful experience would soon be over. However, as I read of the fascinating though difficult lives of these nomadic people in the pre-pandemic days, I wondered how difficult it must be for them now amidst coronavirus lockdowns and restrictions. Where would they go and what would they do? Many of the places where they usually obtain seasonal work would be shuttered. Additionally, they would be joined on the road by countless others who lost their jobs and then their housing. I can’t imagine that it would be a good time to be nomadic.

I browsed some of the websites I had researched while writing The Senescent Nomad to try to find out what’s happening. Some of them seem to be on hiatus or ignoring the pandemic, but on others I found out that full-time nomads are isolating the best they can in solitude or in small enclaves. Some have gone into isolation in the homes of relatives or friends. Bob Wells, a renowned van dweller and longtime road nomad, is heading up a nonprofit called Homes on Wheels Alliance, which tries to help neophyte nomads get set up with tents or vans and acclimatize them to life outside the grid. Still, the situation is grim for the nomadic community.

In closing, I want to emphasize the importance of this book, which documents a large community of travelers, many of them elderly, that lives outside the so-called normal systems of society. More and more of us may be forced into such lifestyles in the coming months and years. My hope is that people in fixed homes become more tolerant and helpful towards these nomads and that some sort of infrastructure builds up to make their lives easier.

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Book Review: The Best of Michael Swanwick

I’m going to begin with a bit of name-dropping here; it’s unintentional but inevitable if I want to explain to you how I came to hear about this book. I was chatting with Michael Swanwick (there it is) at a Clarion West gathering a few years ago, and he mentioned that a best-of collection of his short stories had come out years before. Maybe one reason I hadn’t heard of it was that it appeared in a high-priced limited edition hardcover and never made the transition to paperback. Shortly after that meeting, I managed to find a fairly inexpensive copy of the book online and bought it. I just checked now, and on Amazon, at least, used copies are selling for fifty to one hundred fifty dollars. However, you can get a low-priced Kindle edition.

It may not be name-dropping to all of you, though; Swanwick is mostly known in the science fiction and fantasy field, where he has won numerous awards, including for several of the stories in this book. I started reading his stories when I was still living in Greece in the mid-nineties, when he was winning one award after another. In one year he dominated the short story category for the Hugo Award with three of his stories out of the five nominees. (All of those are in this book.)

It’s an impressive book, strong and heavy, printed on thick paper. But the most important part, of course, is what’s inside. The stories are presented in chronological order with publication dates from 1980 to 2007. This allowed me, as I read, to notice a steady progression in Swanwick’s short story writing expertise.

The early stories are full of interesting ideas, but they are long, and their plots veer all over the place. However, there is a dramatic and noticeable change about halfway through the book, starting with the stories published in 1995. They get shorter, more succinct, and very much more focused. This begins with “North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy,” an amusing tale about a hell-bound train, “Radio Waves,” a frightening story about life after death, and “The Dead,” a chilling tale about commercialized zombies.

In these stories, though, Swanwick is just warming up. He goes on to near-perfect stories such as “Radiant Doors,” “The Very Pulse of the Machine,” “Wild Minds,” and “Scherzo with Tyrannosaur.” These stories are lean, incisive, fascinating, and for the most part dark; they are among the finest science fiction stories ever written.

My favorite story in the book, “Wild Minds,” is also the shortest. It’s a prime example of the principle that verbosity often does not equate with excellence. The plot is simple. A man meets a woman at a businessperson’s orgy. He is a “wild mind,” meaning someone who has chosen not to modify their brain for super intelligence while discarding their emotions in the process. The woman is modified, but she has to go in for some sort of servicing, and in the meantime her emotions are poking through. She is also a salesperson, and she allows the protagonist a brief glimpse of what it means to be enhanced. It is a wonderful sensation, but it makes him more determined than ever not to do it when he realizes how much of his humanity will be compromised. This story perfectly captures one of science fiction’s most important themes: how technology impacts the lives of humans, although it inevitably offers no easy answers.

So this collection has some of the best science fiction stories ever written, but they are all in the second half of the book. I think if I had been the editor, I might have shuffled the contents around a bit differently. Be that as it may, it is what it is, and it is definitely worth persevering to come to the prime works of a master short story writer.

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Book review: Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer by Richard Holmes

I approached this book with high expectations. A writer traveling through fascinating locales in Europe in the footsteps of literary legends: what could go wrong? Well, a number of things, in fact. Ultimately, I found this book difficult to finish. Often I abstain from writing reviews about books that don’t appeal to me; after all, I’m a writer too, and I don’t appreciate the negative comments of reviewers. This book has impressive blurbs, though, on its cover, so those comments can balance out whatever I have to say.

Holmes is a scholarly writer. He doesn’t write prose that is easily accessible. That’s one problem I had with the book. He doesn’t aim at average readers who would be interested in the subject matter; he aims at the academic elite who have a background in esoteric subjects. For instance, in several sections he writes extensive passages in French without bothering to translate, not even in a footnote, assuming, I suppose, that all of his readers are fluent in French. I could probably understand a bit of it if it had been written in Bengali, or Greek, or Italian. But French? Sorry, never studied it, and although I hitchhiked through France, I didn’t stay long enough to pick up the language; and though I had a French girlfriend for a time, we communicated in English. It’s not just the French language, though; in the course of his narrative, Holmes also assumes that his readers have studied obscure literary figures of the Romantic era and know all the streets in Paris as well as locales in other parts of France and Italy. There are a few maps in my edition, yes, but they are sparse line sketches with no details whatsoever.

The book is a memoir of the on-location research that Holmes carried out while investigating the lives of four famous people. The first section is the most interesting, partially because it is the simplest and most accessible, but also because the author Holmes writes about appeals to me. It tells of a hike that Holmes took in 1964, when he was just starting out in his career, to follow the path that Robert Louis Stevenson took through mountains in south-central France as recounted in the book Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. This section most resembles a traditional travel memoir, and even though Holmes sidetracks into the love story of Stevenson with Fanny Osborne, who was married when he met her but later became Stevenson’s wife, it accomplishes this in a straightforward and easily understandable way.

The next section tells of Holmes’s visit to France in 1968 to research the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley, who wrote the novel Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft went to Paris and stayed there, despite significant personal danger, during the dark bloody days of the French Revolution. At the beginning of this section, Holmes indicates that it is his intention to compare the French Revolution with the youth revolutions of the late 1960s, but then he never really goes into it. Instead, he writes an account of traveling here and there within and outside Paris in an attempt to track down the movements of Wollstonecraft and the evolution of her political perceptions. This section gets bogged down in details, which cause the excitement of readers (at least this reader) to wane.

In the third section, Holmes tracks the movements of the poet Percy Shelley, his wife Mary, and their intimate friend Claire Clairmont through Tuscany in Italy. This could have been beautiful if presented straightforwardly, but again Holmes indulges in confusing interludes in which he recounts his research into unnecessary minutia.

The fourth section is the least accessible, however. Holmes attempts to research the descent into madness of a writer of the Romantic era named Gerard de Nerval. I have to admit that sometimes I simply didn’t understand what Holmes was getting at in his explanations of his obsessive search into what drove Nerval to suicide.

In this book, Footsteps, I see the potential for greatness that ultimately falls short in the delivery. It’s like the old saying, “It’s not deep; it’s just not clear.” This could have been a terrific memoir if it had been written in a simpler, more accessible style. As it is, it is readable – but barely.

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Classic Science Fiction Novels to Read During the Pandemic: Nova by Samuel R. Delany

I can’t remember for sure, but I think that I only read Nova once several decades ago before rereading it recently. It attests to the power and vividness of the prose that so many parts were burned into my memory by that first reading so that I could anticipate and picture what was coming as I read. Some of the technological speculation and scenes may seem somewhat familiar to modern readers, but that’s only because Delaney introduced them and they were picked up later by the cyber-punk movement and by contemporary action science fiction films.

The basic story line of Nova is very simple in the same way that the basic plot of, for example, Moby-Dick is simple. In Moby-Dick, a sea captain named Ahab seeks and confronts a white whale. In Nova, a space captain named Lorq Von Ray seeks a rare element called Illyrion, which he hopes to scoop out of the heart of an exploding star. They are both stories of quests, and of course to relegate them to simplistic one-sentence summaries does them an injustice. They are complex novels; nevertheless, at their cores are the single-minded journeys of the main characters.

The key to the complexity of Nova is in the characters, subplots, and intellectual ramblings involved in getting from Von Ray’s desire to its fulfillment. One character, for instance, is a gypsy from Earth who carries with him an instrument called a syrynx, with which he can simulate visual images, smells, and sounds to create holographic projections. Another of Von Ray’s crewmembers is planning to write a novel, an archaic art form that he hopes to revive. Delaney includes several lengthy passages based on his notes for the novel. A third crewmember reads Tarot cards, and it seems to be an accepted mindset in the era to believe in the efficacy of the guidance the cards offer. Delaney also has his characters have lengthy conversations on socket implantations in humans that allow them to plug into any machinery, and how this innovation has universally changed the concept of employment.

All of these side-subjects are dealt with in detail at various points along the path of Von Ray’s quest. He also goes up against Prince and Ruby Red, an incestuous brother and sister team that comprises the main opposition to Von Ray’s mission. In fact, the conflict between Von Ray and the Reds is so crucial that shortly after the novel gets underway, Delaney cuts to an extended flashback about its roots that is a quarter of the length of the book.

I find that for me personally all of these intellectual side-trips that Delaney undertakes in the course of the narrative are the main reason that I find rereading the book so entertaining. The plot may have been innovative in the late 1960s when the book was first published, but with the deluge of space opera since then in print and in film, it is no longer unique. Delaney is a first-rate writer, though, who can get away with discourses on novel writing and Tarot card reading and other subjects while at the same time he propels his heroes relentlessly towards their objective. This is a good book and is well worth picking up for a read or a reread while you isolate safely at home.

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Book Review: Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness by Edward Abbey

As Desert Solitaire opens, Edward Abbey has just arrived at Arches National Monument in Utah for an isolated six month stint as a park ranger. He worked as a seasonal ranger in the 1950s, although the book was not published until 1968.

In the first couple of chapters, Abbey arrives at his outpost, which is at the end of a long drive on a rough dirt road far from any towns or habitations, and sets up camp in a trailer under primitive conditions. It is springtime, and the park has few visitors. For the most part, Abbey completes his few duties easily and has plenty of time to enjoy the primeval landscape, flora, and fauna around him. He is obviously in love with his surroundings and laments the inevitable modernizing and paving of the roads that will bring many more visitors to this lovely land.

These first two chapters are contemplative, and we glimpse a hint of the type of spiritual and philosophical depth found in the nature writings of, say, Henry David Thoreau or Annie Dillard. Unfortunately, however, the promise of such depth is not subsequently realized. Don’t get me wrong: Abbey is a good writer and this is an absorbing book. But it is not a masterpiece in the class of Walden or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Having said that, it’s important for me to emphasize that you have to take this book on its own terms. Unlike other nature writers, Abbey approaches his subject with a cynical, acerbic, and condemnatory tone. He rightly points out that to properly experience the desert, one has to climb out of a vehicle and engage the senses firsthand. However, the impression I get as a reader is that he’s fine with everyone else going to hell as long as he can appreciate the land he loves without distraction.

If you can get past Abbey’s sometimes obnoxious distain for anyone that doesn’t share his specific point of view, he offers absorbing descriptions of his explorations of the primeval desert. He writes of the panorama of the landscape, the value of water, the volatility of the elements, and the fascinating array of plants and animals that manage to survive in this harsh environment. He recounts some of his desert adventures, such as assisting a rancher in rounding up stray cattle, joining a search party attempting to locate a missing tourist, climbing a mountain peak, rafting down the Colorado River in the Glen Canyon area before it became permanently flooded by a dam, and exploring a complex labyrinth of canyons known as “The Maze.” On these various excursions he comes across as very macho, competent, and self-sufficient, either traveling alone or with one other male like-minded companion.

Is Desert Solitaire a classic, as some of the internet hype I read proclaims it? I would say no. Certainly not when weighed against certain other books (as those mentioned above) with which it has been compared. Still, as a memoir of Abbey’s journey in a desert landscape that is no longer as isolated and empty as it once was, it is an interesting, even a fascinating read.

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Classic Science Fiction Novels to Read During the Pandemic: This Immortal by Roger Zelazny

One of the advantages of reading some of my favorite novels is that I already have them here in my home. I don’t go to bookstores and libraries are closed. Yes, I order books online but I try to keep this to a minimum; my budget is not used to buying a lot of books.

I can’t go wrong with This Immortal by Roger Zelazny. It’s my favorite of the late author’s novels, right up there in my esteem with some of his wonderful short stories and novellas such as “The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth,” “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” and “He Who Shapes.”

There are several reasons why you can’t go wrong by picking up a copy of This Immortal in the midst of this damned discouraging pandemic. First of all, there is Zelazny’s uniquely readable style. With Zelazny, not one word is wasted. He doesn’t meander; he propels you rapidly along a plot line. Another writer might have padded this material into a thousand-page doorstop of a book. Zelazny, though, is succinct, poetic, and marvelously lucid and detailed with a minimum of verbiage. This is a fairly short novel, the kind you don’t see much of nowadays in which the author says what he has to say and then stops. And no one can say it like Zelazny.

Zelazny is an expert at characterization. The narrator is the sort of godlike superhero that Zelazny specializes in: centuries old, powerful, courageous, resolute, but at the same time incredibly witty and likeable. The cast of supporting characters is also fleshed-out well, and each is idiosyncratic in their own way.

The main character is Greek, and Greek mythology forms an integral aspect of the story. That’s another thing that I like about the book. I lived in Greece for over fifteen years. I raised my family there. Zelazny manifests a love for Greece, the Greek people, and the language, customs, landscape, and legends of the land.

The plot is fairly simple. A superior alien race has usurped Earth’s prominence. Most Earth people have immigrated to other worlds. Earth itself is a shattered wreck that its surviving inhabitants are attempting to resuscitate. The narrator, a man named Conrad, although he has had numerous other names in the past, takes an important alien on a tour of Haiti, Egypt, and Greece with an entourage of Earthlings, some of whom are attempting to assassinate the alien. On the way they encounter all sorts of perils such as mutated monsters, tribes of half-humans, and creatures out of Greek myths. That’s another great thing about this book: it is full of adventure and excitement. There’s never a dull moment.

The best thing about This Immortal is that it is fun through and through. I couldn’t help but think that Zelazny must have had a great time writing it. Sometimes the joy it conveys is so intense that it almost brings tears to my eyes. It’s not often that you can take a wild ride like this in the company of a master word-craftsman like Zelazny. He was a one-of-a-kind writer who burst onto the field in the sixties as part of the speculative fiction “new wave,” and he was one of its finest and clearest voices. He died too soon, but at least we can celebrate his life by continuing to enjoy his marvelous fiction.

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What a Wonderful World

I woke up this morning with the song “What a Wonderful World” playing in my mind. It was no bland cover version either; the version in my head was the original recording sung by Louis Armstrong and made popular in the United States after Robin Williams’ DJ character played it in the film Good Morning, Vietnam. This is one of my all-time favorite songs, and it was such a relief to wake up to it rather than one of the present-time stark realities of existence staring me in the face.

Life has been a struggle lately for several reasons. We’ll put aside the personal problems concerning careers, health, family, and love life that each one of us deal with, and instead focus only on shared difficulties. There is the global pandemic, of course, which has upended all of our lives, caused many to lose their jobs and their homes, forced people to isolate from others, and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Here in Seattle there is the wildfire smoke that has made our city air the most toxic in the world. I am forced to stay in our apartment with the doors and windows closed and forgo my daily long walks lest I breathe in tiny particulates that would invade my lungs and bloodstream. The air in our apartment has become humid and stale. There was also the recent water crisis in our entire apartment complex of more than a dozen buildings. Without warning the water went off due to a broken pipe, and it stayed off for about twenty hours before they managed to fix it. In the meantime, all the management could suggest was to go to the supermarket and buy water to drink and to flush our toilet with. Of course we couldn’t suspend our bodily functions, but the flushes during those twenty hours were inordinately expensive.

What are we to make of this series of disasters one after the other? How can I possibly wake up in the morning with “What a Wonderful World” running through my head? The answer came to me as I was preparing and drinking my morning coffee. That wonderful world is still there right under the surface. The pandemic will pass; we’ll find a vaccine and conquer it, as we have other decimating diseases in the past. The wildfire smoke will dissipate and go away and we’ll see blue skies and the colors of things again. The water crisis is already resolved, and we can once again flush our toilets properly and take showers. It is a wonderful world, truly. Remember that when you feel oppressed by circumstances. The wonderful world is still here, and if for whatever reason you are unable to enjoy it now, you will be able to enjoy it again soon.

But I have more to say about under-the-surface wonders. Sometimes in recent years I have felt somewhat frustrated and stifled by my limiting circumstances, and it helps me during those times to recall what a long, rich, and exciting life I have had. Last night I watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first of the Star Trek feature films. It’s probably the worst film in the Star Trek franchise, not because the special effects are laughable by today’s standards, but because there’s nothing much to the story. A lot of it consists of crewmembers staring at extended shots of colorful abstractions. There is very little action.

Despite the shortcomings of the movie, I had a great time watching it. Why? Because it reminded me of old friends who shared my enthusiasm for Star Trek and other science fiction when I was much younger. I had just turned twenty when I attended the 1973 Clarion West writing workshop. Besides the professional teachers (Harlan Ellison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Peter Beagle, Terry Carr, and James Sallis), I had the opportunity to meet my fellow students, other fledgling writers with whom I could converse enthusiastically about writing and science fiction and similar subjects.

Two of the students I became closest to were Russell Bates and Paul Bond. Russell was a full-blooded Kiowa Native American. He had already been taken on as an understudy on the Star Trek team, and he would go on to win the Star Trek animated series an Emmy for his script “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth.” He was at Clarion West to hone his short story writing skills. He and I would later collaborate on a script outline for a then-popular TV show, although it never saw production.

Paul Bond was a tall, frail, soft-spoken young man. He had already had major heart surgery and had a huge scar running down the middle of his chest. Like me, he had no writing credits when he attended Clarion West, but soon afterwards he was able to make his first story sale to a new slick magazine called Vertex. When I moved to Los Angeles to try to become a scriptwriter, Paul was my closest friend there.

Russell died a few years ago. He is mainly known for that Star Trek episode, but when I ran a search for his name, I found out that the Miami International Science Fiction Film Festival has created the Russell Bates Indigenous Peoples Screenwriters Award.

Paul died a few decades ago. His health was never very good. When I ran a search for him online, I could find a few references to the story he sold to Vertex (it had been reprinted in a collection edited by Isaac Asimov) but otherwise he had disappeared from the internet.

While I was watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture, I kept thinking of these two friends and the interests and fun we had shared, and I realized that underneath our present experiences there is a vast storehouse of memories, incomparable riches of times gone by that we can call on when we need reassurance or a rekindling of hope.

So keep this in mind as you navigate these difficult times: beyond the circumstances through which you now struggle there are blue skies and beautiful landscapes, and beneath your present situation, trying as it may be, there are memories of good friends and marvelous days gone by. And if you get a chance, watch a video of Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.” That’s sure to pick you up.

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