Book Review: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

This is a tough book to get through. It’s not entertaining reading. I almost put it down several times. Not that its prose is difficult to fathom; no, that’s not the problem at all. It’s that it is so unbearably bleak; it’s such a downer.

I picked it up because, as a science fiction writer, I am interested in projections about the future. From the beginning, though, the author dismisses the existence of a God or gods in a sentence or two, and soon afterwards he also dismisses the possibility of the existence of the human soul, free will, and individuality, instead positing that we are all nothing more than biochemical algorithms. His reasoning? Scientists cannot find or quantify God, souls, free will, or individuality, and if they haven’t yet been able to find these things, then they must not be there. All of his reasoning stems from these speculations, which are presented as facts. Having experienced spiritual realities myself, I found this hard to swallow. Still I persisted, because I was interested in where this reasoning might lead.

According to Harari, humanism has been the dominant religion on Earth for the last few centuries, and it is threatened by new scientific realities. Humankind has all but conquered the age-old ravages of war, plagues, and famine, and has now set its sights on immortality, bliss, and god-like attributes. However, this will either create a great gap between the elite haves and the masses of have-nots, or an even greater gap between non-human super algorithms and human biological lesser beings that cannot compete with overwhelming AI superiority. Shades of Elysium. Or The Matrix. Sure, we’ve heard it all before. But the most frightening thing is how Harari reduces humans down to algorithmic entities so that somehow what happens to us supposedly doesn’t matter so much anymore. And he backs it all up with a lot of salient facts and very erudite arguments.

He’s a good writer; there’s no doubt about it. The blurbs on the back cover for his previous book, Sapiens, are from such luminaries as Barack Obama and Bill Gates. Heady praise indeed. However, that doesn’t change the fact that this book is almost unbearably bleak. It’s almost like a death knoll or a dirge for the human race. It suggests that we are hell-bent for a horrible dehumanizing future and there’s nothing we can do about it. The only ray of hope, as I said, is for a small group of elite billionaires who can afford to enhance themselves sufficiently to ride out the quiet but deadly wave of destruction. Unless the machines take it all first and exterminate us.

But the main problem here is not even the dark vision of the future. It is the picturing of humanity as gray, flat, two-dimensional beings without spirituality, souls, creativity, individualism, or free will. That gives us nothing to fight with, nothing to use to escape from this future purgatory. Our primary weapons against a dead, angst-ridden future are creativity, spirituality, individuality, love, and free will. Take them away and what do you have left? Not much.

So yes, it’s a dark, negative book that offers little hope for the future. It might be useful for science fiction writing ideas – but then again, the dystopia it posits has been seen again and again in science fiction, as far back as the 1960s and even earlier. Would I recommend it? I don’t know. It’s a difficult read, but it does have a lot of brain fodder in it. Your call.

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Book Review: Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is an international literary superstar. Every book he writes quickly climbs bestseller lists and sells hundreds of thousands if not millions of copies. Since I’m not in the financial position of being able to afford to buy books these days, I had to wait on the local library reserve list for months before it was my turn to get one of the over forty copies of this book in the system. It turns out it’s a small, slim volume and I could read it in a couple of days, even while concurrently working full time researching and writing articles.

As the title suggests, the stories are all about various men and their broken relationships with women. There are seven of them all together. The first several are standard mainstream stories, but told in a peculiar three-act style. The first part consists of a sort of info-dump describing the main character, his personality, and his life. The second part, usually told as a conversation between a narrator and the main character or a secondary character, recounts the dramatic crux of the story in an indirect way, sometimes by simply talking about what happened to the main character in retrospect. The third part consists of the conclusion, which is either another info-dump or conversation, in which the narrator, alone or with the main or a secondary character, wraps things up. The stories have very little action and don’t come to definite resolutions. They are more like slices of life in which the reader glimpses the lives in question and then is left alone to figure out their significance.

For me, the stories get very interesting in the latter part of the book. The best, in my opinion, is called “Kino.” It’s about a man who gets divorced and decides to open a bar on a backstreet in a small town. It’s a quiet place and he’s content there for a time, but then some strange characters start showing up – in particular an enigmatic man who always orders the same drinks and reads books while he sips them. This story takes a decidedly dark turn when this man tells the bartender that something is wrong and he has to leave town and travel. The story ends with the bartender in a faraway city, alone in a hotel room, being stalked by some sort of spirit. Although the ending is inconclusive, there is a noir ambiance to it, a hint of magic realism, and a suggestion that something in the bartender’s psyche rather than real flesh and blood humans are haunting him.

Another well-told tale is a riff on the Franz Kafka classic “The Metamorphosis.” In Kafka’s tale, a man named Gregor Samsa wakes up in his room to discover he has been transformed into a giant insect. In Murakami’s story, “Samsa in Love,” Gregor Samsa wakes up to find out he has been transformed back into a human. He does not remember his life as an insect, but he has an inordinate fear of birds. He is all alone in the house and cannot remember who else lives there or anything else about his past except his name. When a locksmith, a hunchbacked woman, arrives to fix a lock, she explains that some tragedy has hit the town and people are fleeing. As she goes about repairing the door, Samsa falls for her and begs her to return. It’s a sweet, sweet story – a sort of fan fiction. Curiously enough, I have just been researching and writing about the literary phenomenon of fan fiction for a book review that I’ll publish in the future, and the Clarion West Science Fiction Writing Workshop is soon doing a one-day special workshop on the subject. It’s not always an amateur pursuit – some of the best writers have done it, as evidenced by Murakami, and even won awards for it.

One thing I notice when I read Murakami’s recent novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and also this book, is that his characters are very polite – far more polite than characters in American novels. Obviously that’s a cultural thing. I also think that inevitably his works lose some of their nuances in translation. I have mixed feelings about this collection. It starts slowly and only comes alive in the last third of the book. I also can’t help but think that an unknown writer would have a tough time marketing such stories to American magazines and anthologies. That’s not a reflection on their value, but rather on the condition of the U.S. literary scene. Editors and readers are impatient; they don’t want to wait for a story to gradually unfold but expect physical or emotional explosions on the first page. We could learn something from some of the classic short story writers who allowed their tales to unfold at their own natural paces, and from the readers who had the patience to go along on the journey.

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On the Self-Help Book I Couldn’t Bring Myself to Read

My son and I have been making frequent trips to the local library during these final weeks of summer. I browse through the new book shelves and he looks for DVDs and graphic novels. On my last visit I came across a supposedly inspirational book for writers and other artists. I don’t want to mention the name because it is never my intention to denigrate other authors in these essays and reviews. I write reviews to tie in my reading to the larger body of my fiction and memoirs, and I try not to read what I don’t like. If I start a book and it leaves a bad taste in the early stages, I usually put it down and go on to something else without mentioning it, with a few notable exceptions.

Anyway, I started paging through this book. It was a fairly short book and large print besides. I’ve started to read large print books sometimes for two reasons: first, my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be; and second, sometimes popular books that are unavailable in regular editions are often more easily available in large print.

I was feeling discouraged with my own progress as a writer that day, and some of the passages gave me a slight lift. To clarify, though: I am not discouraged with my own work, but only at the slowness of sales and lack of sufficient financial remuneration. I’m very satisfied with the work itself.

So I took the book home and set aside my current reading project and started into it, but it didn’t take me long to realize I’d made a mistake. It was like that large, fancy-looking sweet you see fresh in the bakery window. You feel you’ve just got to have it, but after a few bites you realize there’s nothing to it except sugar and flavor, nothing good for you at all, and you have to set it aside unfinished lest you become sluggish and bloated. I couldn’t read that book; it would have been an unconscionable waste of time. It would possibly be suitable for hobbyists – but not for anyone for whom their writing or other artistic pursuit is a consuming passion.

Why not? To find out, I read more about its author. It turns out she has written a very famous travel book that made her millions of dollars. Well, travel is something I can relate to, having done a considerable amount of it myself. However, to write the book she was given a two hundred thousand dollar advance by a major publisher. In other words, she could travel first class in a manner know to less than one percent of all travelers, cool and easy, with never a care or a danger or any sort of stress. That’s fantasy, not something that has anything to do with the real world. Not that I wouldn’t mind traveling that way myself as a sort of contrast experience. When I set off on the road to find my voice as a writer, I hitchhiked across the United States, bought a round-trip ticket from New York to Luxemburg on Icelandic Airlines for one hundred dollars, and arrived in Europe with less than two hundred dollars to my name. I ended up roaming all over Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Subcontinent for a year. For me that was luxury mode. For my second trip, I bought a one-way ticket. When I crossed the English Channel from Great Britain to France, I had exactly one dollar and one English pound in my pockets. And this time I stayed gone for thirty-five years.

I just couldn’t get behind this advice from someone with such a large silver spoon in her mouth. Hell, I probably haven’t made two hundred thousand dollars in my entire life. Well, yeah, maybe.  I don’t know. The point is, I have been desperate in seeking the things that are important to me – so desperate that I have been willing to give up everything else, including my own security and safety, to achieve them. And I have been frustrated and disappointed and ground down into the dust and have had to pick myself up and try again countless times. It’s just not true that I can think of my writing as a light, fluffy, saccharine pursuit that I can take or leave, as nothing more than a pleasant-looking feather in my cap. That’s not the way it is, at least for me.

I was going to merely let this pass and return the book without a word, but last night I was uploading a couple of my novels to new sales channels. These novels are really good work, and I read a chapter or two from them as I was giving their formatting a final check, and I felt deeply disappointed that they were not selling better. I know that some of my former mentors would say that I should not let it bother me. Sales are not in my hands; they are not my choice; they are the choices of readers. My triumph is the writing itself. Well, sure, but I write to be read, damn it; I write what I feel is unique; I write the type of books that I would like to read but can’t find. I can’t help but be bummed out when they don’t receive the appreciation I feel they deserve. I know I’m not alone. I could give many examples of writers who composed masterpieces that remained unappreciated until long after they were dead.

Sigh. All that from a too-sweet self-help book. The moral of the story, artists, is this: don’t settle for the easy way out, the feel-good attitude that it’s all an effortless walk in the park. Sometimes it isn’t that easy. Sometimes you may have to walk your path alone, without anyone else to protect or encourage you, and with no other inspiration other than that you believe it’s the right thing to do, the thing you were made for, and you’re willing to go it alone straight out into the unknown and drag your insecurities and fears and issues of low self-esteem with you. Once you begin the journey regardless of the obstacles, the problems often slough away, at least temporarily, but they often come back to plague you like the many-headed hydra. That’s just the way it is. You gotta do what you gotta do. And if you really gotta do it, you will do it with or without sugar-sweet self-help books.

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Book Review: Literary Life: A Second Memoir by Larry McMurtry

I found this book during a random search of the biography/autobiography section of my local library. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to admit that as much as I can remember I have never read anything before by McMurtry – not that it matters. There are many writers esteemed to be among the best that I haven’t read. I’d need a hell of a lot more time than the years allotted to me to read them all. McMurtry is renowned as the author of Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show, and other works mainly set in Texas. He also co-wrote the screenplay of the film Brokeback Mountain, for which he received an Academy Award.

Literary Life is part of a trilogy of memoirs by McMurtry about the important professional interests that have defined his career. The first is about his involvement in the buying and selling of books and setting up bookstores. The second is about his life as an author, and the third is about his efforts in Hollywood as a screenwriter.

This memoir is quite short, and is written in a fluid, easy to read style. It’s a relaxing read; there are few conflicts. McMurtry sold his first book, Horseman, Pass By, fairly easily and quickly when he was quite young, and it was soon after optioned and made into the film Hud. Book after book followed, and though none did outstanding financially until Lonesome Dove, they were all accepted and published and several became successful films. In a certain sense, this account of the writer’s life is unintentionally deceptive, as McMurtry makes it look too easy. Maybe he struggled too, but if he did, he doesn’t let on in this memoir.

What comes across, actually, is a style of reportage that makes you feel as if you are sitting in McMurtry’s living room in Texas, your boots up on the coffee table, a glass of whiskey in your hand, and he’s telling you stories from his life in a congenial, friendly, non-confrontational manner. No controversy, no stress. I don’t mean this as a disparagement of the book. I enjoyed it, actually, just as I enjoy hearing a portion of a life story at a gathering of writers. It’s fun to read what he has to say about major literary figures he has met, his relationships with his editors and agents, and his stint as president of the PEN American Center.

It’s not easy for me to identify with McMurtry. As I said, he has led a charmed professional life compared with most writers – at least that’s the feeling he gives as he recounts his experiences in the publishing world. Maybe his stint as a screenwriter was a rougher experience. I will probably check out memoir number three to find out, and to hear more interesting stories of how he managed to navigate his course through the morass that is the film writing world. All in all, I can recommend this as a decent, entertaining, though shallow, literary memoir, but I would not recommend that beginning writers take McMurtry’s experiences as any sort of standard by which to measure their own budding careers.

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Book Review: The New Voices of Fantasy Edited by Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman

As I read this anthology, I thought of the Clarion West students I have been meeting each summer since I moved back to Seattle. Quite a few of the writers in this book recently attended Clarion or Clarion West, and this showcases some of their work. I look back at my own time at Clarion West wistfully, with regret, wishing I had been more mature at the time (I’d barely turned twenty) and had made better use of the privilege. These writers, in contrast, have matured quickly and have turned out some first-class work.

Another thing that struck me as I read the stories herein is an awareness of the many facets of fantasy. Not many deal with themes that would be called traditional. Sure, there’s the odd vampire, but most of the stories are exceedingly inventive. Some are told from a mainstream perspective, with only a slight bit of fantasy at the end. These I found refreshing; the realism only added to the sense of wonder. A few had no fantasy elements at all that I could find, but I don’t mind that either.

As usual, some stories impressed me more than others. The strongest stories are at the very beginning and the very end. I think it was Harlan Ellison (one of my teachers at Clarion West) who I first heard give these tips on anthology editing: you put your best stories at the beginning to draw them in and at the end to leave them with a good taste in their mouth.

The anthology starts off with an excruciatingly dark story called “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” that won both the Nebula Award and the World Fantasy Award. This tale by Alyssa Wong is about a creature in a human woman’s body who’s actually a type of vampire that feeds off emotions. It’s bleak and heartbreaking and very well told. Another story that impressed me is “The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado. This has very little of fantasy in it until the last few paragraphs, but it is nonetheless intense and absorbing, and when the finale comes, it is easy to see the setup. Comedy is hard to do well, especially comedy in the genre of fantasy, but Adam Ehrlich Sachs pulls it off in the trilogy of humorous short-shorts called “The Philosophers.”

The best story in the book, though, is the last novella, which takes up almost a quarter of the anthology’s length. It’s a beautiful tale of a Pakistani grandson searching for the truth about his grandfather’s past called “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn” by Usman T. Malik. It takes place in a juxtaposition of the cultures of the United States and Pakistan, and weaves its fantasy flawlessly into a touching story of family, love, loss, and redemption. When I finished it, I felt that I had been privileged to encounter something truly special in literature, a feeling I have all too rarely nowadays.

The rest of the stories in the anthology are competent, and some are very good. As in most story collections, not all of them appealed to me, but that’s a near-universal situation with anthologies and collections – at least the ones that I have not put together myself. It’s a matter of taste, after all. I might have tweaked it a bit and subtracted or added this or that story. All in all, though, it’s a good collection with some real classics in it, and it’s well worth the read.

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Book Review: Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

This is an excellent memoir. If I have a complaint, it is that it is too short. I would have loved to have heard many more details and to have Martin not stop at the end of his stand-up comic days but continue the story onward into the next stages of his career. I hope he writes a sequel someday.

I appreciate the fact that Steve Martin, unlike many celebrities who choose to write their life stories, does not need a ghost writer. He is a writer, and he got his first big break as a writer for the splendid and infamous Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

As I mentioned, the book does not tell the story of his whole life. He does recount briefly a portion of his childhood, but it mainly starts when he gets his first real job working in the magician’s shop at Disneyland and ends when he decides to give up stand-up comedy altogether.

I took away two main insights as I read this book, and I can recount the main content as I share them.

First of all, this book reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. The main premise in Outliers, and what Gladwell emphasizes through example after example, is that people with true talent who have achieved extraordinary measures of success did it not because they were born with it and it was handed to them on a silver platter but because they worked on it. He illustrates this with high profile examples such as Bill Gates and the Beatles. Before Bill Gates founded Microsoft, he spent untold hours in his high school computer lab working on programs, so that when faced with the opportunity to excel in this new field, he had the background to be able to take advantage of it. The Beatles did not erupt fully developed into stardom. They paid their dues in shoddy nightclubs and other dives, working many hours a day seven days a week in Hamburg, Germany, and in England. By the time they had sufficiently developed their talent to be recognized, they had paid enough dues to be able to survive on their arduous concert tours.

Steve Martin worked incredibly hard for years in humiliating circumstances before reaching any measure of success. He started, as I mentioned, at the magic shop in the original Disneyland in Anaheim, which happened to be just a few miles from his house. His first shows were demonstrating magic tricks for the customers, and with his earnings he would buy some of the tricks for himself and spend countless hours at home practicing with them. At a certain point he decided he needed to move on, so he got a job irregularly performing magic and doing skits at Knott’s Berry Farm. From there he branched out to coffee houses and other places, blending more and more comedy into his magic act. He would take just about any show he could find, no matter how little it paid and sometimes for no pay. Even after getting his first big break writing for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and afterwards for other comedy and variety shows, he continued to take stand-up gigs all over the country. This gave him practice; he was able to hone his act in front of all sorts of live audiences. As a rising young comedian, he began to get interviews on daytime talk shows and eventually on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, but his big break came when he was asked to appear on the new cutting-edge comedy show Saturday Night Live. He became a true celebrity, so that instead of performing for fifty or a hundred people a gig, he was performing for thirty to forty-five thousand. It was, ironically, this incredible success that caused him to decide to stop doing stand-up comedy, as he became isolated and burned out in the midst of the fireball of fame.

The point, though, is that he kept working hard during those lean years when he was living broke and sometimes in debt and rushing from place to place to accept any gig he was offered. Once in a while he’d get a good paycheck, but much of the time he was just barely getting by. And he could never anticipate audience reaction. There were good nights and bad nights.

The second insight I had concerned the work he accepted during these years. He would take almost anything just to stay busy as an entertainer. It reminded me of myself and how I have often been forced to submit my stories to semi-professional markets that pay much less than professional markets just so they can get published somewhere so someone can read them. I could, of course, self-publish them right away after they make the rounds of the professional markets, but instead I am patient and keep sending them out, as I want them in those other venues first before I publish them through my own company. And the truth is, sometimes I desperately need those smaller paychecks when they come in. Martin’s story encouraged me to keep going, keep striving with the understanding that you do what you can, even if it’s not in the ideal situation, instead of sitting back and waiting for success to somehow bump into you by accident.

In conclusion, this is an excellent book, and well worth reading for anyone who is attempting to succeed at any endeavor. It’s a fairly short and easy read, so take the time to absorb it.

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Book Review: The Fifty-Year Mission: The Complete, Uncensored, Unauthorized Oral History of Star Trek: The First 25 Years by Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman

When the original series of Star Trek first appeared on network television in 1966, I was thirteen years old. I had already been exposed to science fiction on television in the form of Lost in Space a year earlier. I loved that show. It fed my burgeoning appetite for fantasy when I was a child, but it had nothing like the effect that Star Trek had during my teen years. In the beginning, I watched Star Trek – and everything else – in black and white. We didn’t have a color TV. My family didn’t get one, in fact, until after I had moved out for good. Be that as it may, I rarely missed an episode of Star Trek, and when it came out in syndication, I watched those episodes over and over and over again. There was something singular, something special about it. When I determined to become a writer and attended Clarion West science fiction writing workshop in 1973, Star Trek loomed even greater in importance. For the first time, in my classmates, I met people who appreciated it as much as I did. Additionally, the man who had written my favorite episode of all time, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” Harlan Ellison, was one of my teachers.

Before someone gave me this new book on the beginnings of Star Trek, I had read a few books about the show. First was The Making of Star Trek, which its creator and producer, Gene Roddenberry, helped to write. Later I read a less complementary biography of Roddenberry.

And now this book.

It’s in an unusual format. It consists of numerous interviews with almost everyone who has ever had anything to do with the show that are edited together to form a coherent story. I can think of all sorts of reasons why this sort of style might not work – and even in this book it causes a lot of repetition – but for the most part it succeeds.

The book starts with the very first genesis of the series in the mind of its creator and follows it through the first three seasons of the original series and the six movies that came after. A sequel, which I haven’t read yet, continues the story from the inception of The Next Generation all the way up to J.J. Abrams’s films. Oddly enough, I was talking with my oldest son on Skype about this book and recommending he read it, and he said he was already reading it. There was a bit of confusion until we both realized that he was reading the sequel and I was reading the first book. Yes, we’re both Star Trek fans.

What can I say about the book? It’s not fair to attempt to summarize it, as the story is too convoluted; it has too many twists and turns and fascinating asides. If you like Star Trek – or if you’re interested in the complications of television production – read the book. Otherwise, you might not find it to your liking. As for myself, I already knew about a lot of the squabbles that accompanied the making of the series, but I had not heard many of the details. I find it an interesting and absorbing book, and I am sure that in time I will seek out and read the sequel. It offers fascinating insight not only into the Star Trek series, but also into how writers and producers and directors and actors work together – or perhaps more often at least attempt to work together. It gives you a crazy close-up look at network decision making, which no doubt continues to this day, even though the means of television production and viewing have changed so radically.

Interestingly enough, I had just finished re-watching the entire three seasons of the original series on Netflix from first show to last shortly before beginning this book. One thing that it helped me see is why there is such a difference in quality between the first season and a half and the rest of its run. It’s a miracle that the show survived as long as it did, and an even greater miracle that it ever became the unprecedented cultural phenomenon that it is now.

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Heroes and Other Illusions: Stories

My new book is now available in print and electronic editions from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo, and other distributors.

Heroes Web

Heroes aren’t always as they seem; often they are ordinary people reacting to circumstances beyond their control or pursuing the only option open to them.  In this eclectic collection, reclusive old folks take on powerful cyborg bodies to combat ferocious invading aliens; a man near death uses cutting-edge psychiatric technology to journey into his memories and come to grips with crucial decisions from his past; a dead woman travels halfway around a bizarrely mutating world to keep a promise to an old friend; a young woman in the frozen northlands rescues a centuries-old creature with an amazing tale of survival.  These and other stories upend traditional concepts of courage, honor, love, death, enchantment, and terror and present mind-boggling alternatives.

Click to buy from these distributors:

Trade Paperback

Amazon Kindle

Barnes and Noble

Kobo

Apple iBooks

 

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Book Review: A Time of Changes by Robert Silverberg

I don’t know how I missed reading this novel back in the early 1970s. I read several of Silverberg’s other novels of that era, the best of which were Dying Inside and The Book of Skulls.  Silverberg was on a roll back then; he was not only amazingly prolific, turning out not only novels but also short stories, novelettes, and novellas, but also practically everything he wrote was of exceptionally high quality. He would often experiment with tense, point of view, and other stylistic flourishes, but he would integrate these innovations so soundly into the text that it seemed there was no other alternative than to write it that way.

A Time of Changes, oddly enough considering its subject matter, is rather conventional in style. A man on a far planet long ago colonized by Earth people reminisces in a journal after undergoing changes in his life brought on by his meeting an Earthman and taking a drug with him that dissolves personality barriers. The catch is that on this world, the sharing of self is despised, so that it is heretical and illegal to commit the sin/crime of self-baring, or exposing your own ego to others. This is manifest even in speech, in which words such as “I” and “me” are among the crassest forms of obscenity.

This is a good book; Silverberg had very clean, meticulous prose in those days – not a word is misplaced. The society and the world in which the narrator lives are presented in precisely the right amount of detail to give the reader a sense of immersion but at the same time keep the story moving forward. And yet… I would not say that this is the best Silverberg novel from that era. For me, that honor still goes to Dying Inside, which profoundly touched and shook me when I first read it.

One difficulty with A Time of Changes is that there is no suspense in it. The narrator makes clear what is ultimately going to happen from the beginning, and in the end, it happens. Okay, fair enough – not all stories need to have heart-pounding suspense. The mood in this one is more thoughtful, and the pacing is slow.

Another difficulty is that in 1971, when it was published, the subject matter of the novel was original, courageous, and cutting-edge, while now it strikes me as somewhat anachronistic. I in no way intend this point as criticism. It’s just that – well, times have changed, and the beginning of the twenty-first century has its own brand of craziness that is not necessarily addressed in this book.

As far as using a hallucinogenic drug for enlightenment or other reasons, it’s a valid theme and one that I have dealt with myself in several stories and novels. It’s hard to tell from Silverberg’s introduction to this new edition whether he actually took psychedelics himself. When I first read the introduction, I thought maybe yes; but then I reread it to double check and now I’m not so sure. The descriptions of experiences with the drug in the novel are nicely written but somewhat generic in the sense that they could apply to several sorts of strange experiences that strain the limits of the psyche.

All of this is neither here nor there as far as appreciation of the novel is concerned.  I don’t think it’s necessary to take psychedelics to write about them any more than I think it’s necessary to visit a country to set it as a background in a story. You just have to do your research. And since Silverberg is dealing with a made-up drug, although modeled on the hallucinogens that were so prevalent when he was writing the book, he can make it do anything he wants.

In conclusion, this is a good novel and well worth reading, although perhaps not the psychic dynamite that it was when it was first published. And even if it’s not Silverberg’s best, it’s better than the best of most other writers.

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Three Out of Five

It took me a while to bring myself to write this one because it’s so personal. It exposes me; it leaves me vulnerable. It concerns motivations that keep me going, but they aren’t really my primary motivations at all. My real motivations erupt out of the core that constitutes my spirit, soul, or whatever you want to call it, and to give a good idea of what those are I have to go into much more detail. If you are interested, I suggest you read my memoir Writing as a Metaphysical Experience and you’ll get at least a rough outline.

When I first decided I had to be a writer, I didn’t really have any specific goals other than to discover my voice, write for the rest of my life, throw my words at the markets, see what stuck, and somehow become wealthy in the process.  I thought, in the passion and strength of my youth, that this general direction would be enough; and it did, in fact, get me out of my rut and traveling around the world, and it helped me find my voice and write down a lot of sincere and well-expressed words that are all, alas, long lost. Then there was a break for a couple of decades during which I got married, had five sons, and struggled to survive in various countries. In the mid-1990s I came back to writing and resolved never to stop until they pried the keyboard out of my cold dead fingers. It’s around that time that I formulated my five goals.

Now, before I tell you of these goals, I have to emphasize that I am well aware that they are not really goals because none of them are within my power alone to achieve. A viable goal for a writer is to, say, write five hundred or a thousand words a day. That’s something a writer can do on his or her own. I can’t really set a personal goal of selling a story, because that’s not in my power. The decision is not mine, but an editor’s. So selling a story is more in the nature of a hope or a desire rather than a goal. The same goes for winning an award. It’s up to the voters, not me. I can resolve to write the best stories of which I am capable, and that’s about all I can do. Are we clear? Nevertheless, I will continue to call these hopes or desires goals because that’s how I thought of them when I first made them.

So: The goals that I formulated shortly after I began writing again a little over three decades ago were these:

First, to sell a story to a magazine or an anthology. Self-publishing was not an option at that time, and to count the story had to be sold and not given away for free.

Second, to get at least one professional sale so I could join Science Fiction Writers of America as an associate member. I understand that some writers value membership in writers’ organizations more than others, but to me this held great significance ever since I attended Clarion West Science Fiction Writing Workshop when I had just turned twenty in 1973.

Third, to get at least three professional sales so I could upgrade my membership in SFWA to active, which is the highest class of membership.

Fourth, to sell enough fiction and other writing professionally so I could make my full time living as a writer.

The fifth goal, I admit, is the most arbitrary and the one I have the least control over. I’m not going to tell you that one right now; it stays under my proverbial hat.

I sold my first story in 1999: “Clear Shining After Rain” to the Australian SF magazine Altair. I don’t count my first publication, which was “The Ghost of Halkidiki Past” to an English-language Greek magazine, because they never paid me for it – I had to wait to get paid for that story until it was reprinted in the US literary magazine Lynx Eye in 2001.

It turns out that my first sale was also my first professional sale, as Altair paid pro rates, but SFWA didn’t list it as a qualifying market for membership until 2007, which is when I joined as an associate member. So that was that.

In the next ten years, I sold quite a few stories and self-published many more, but I didn’t get the credentials to upgrade my SFWA membership to active until recently.

So there it is: three out of five. It’s taken a long time and a lot of work.

As far as goal four, I am in fact a full time writer, but many of the pieces I get paid to write are articles about which I have no personal interest. While I am researching and writing these articles, I often wonder how much more productive my fiction writing would be if I could pour all that energy and effort into that instead of those articles for which I get a one-time payment and then they are afterwards relegated to oblivion. So I won’t feel I have reached goal four until I am supported by my fiction and memoir work, not by that work for hire crap.

As for goal five, that one goes on the back burner. It’s not in my hands. Anyway, it’s not good to reach all your goals, is it? What then would you strive for? Just kidding. As soon as I reach these five, I’m sure I’ll come up with a new set.

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