WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (PART 3)

A few weeks ago I described the step-by-step process of creating a random SF/fantasy paperback grab-bag. At the end of that process, I chose the first random book and came out with The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. Though the idea behind the whole grab-bag thing was to read more, and read for fun more, my brain just won’t allow me to read a book “just because,” and I ended up making a few notes in the margins and calling out a few examples of some interesting things on the subject of writing science fiction, SF worldbuilding, and so on. Let’s take a look at what SF Grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke can teach us from this very early book in a very long and distinguished career. But if you haven’t read the first week’s post first, go back and catch up!

This week, let’s see what The City and the Stars can teach us about religion and technology.

In The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction I wrote: “Researching religions both contemporary and historical is a worthy pursuit for any author, though if you’re writing the farthest of far-future science fiction you may imagine a post-religious society.” I then went on to use Dune as an example of a far-future SF novel in which religion is a pivotal force. Now here we have The City and the Stars, set some millions of years in the future and it does precisely what I touched on myself: it imagines a post-religious world:

Deluded though these creatures might have been, their long vigil had at last brought its reward. As if by a miracle, they had saved from the past knowledge that else might have been lost forever. Now they could rest at last, and their creed could go the way of a million other faiths that had once thought themselves eternal.

It’s not surprising coming from “hard” science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke that the assumption is that technology will eventually free us from the shackles of superstition. This is actually a fairly common theme in SF, even if only tacitly. I’ve been reading SF all my life and rarely is religion even mentioned at all. Most far-future characters simply don’t talk about it either way.

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction

But at the same time, here’s Clarke describing a post-religious world that is a utopia on the outside but he goes back time and again to remind us that the city of Diaspar is a sort of intellectual prison. These people are living lives of abject luxury but have been suppressed in their growth as a culture, and have lived in this kind of happy status quo for millennia.

Though Clarke doesn’t spend many words bemoaning the loss of a spiritual life, we start to see some hints of weakness around the edges of the techno-utopia in passages like this, which reveals the characters’’ grave mistrust of the natural world:

This planet was nearer the sun, and even from space it I looked hot. It was partly covered with low clouds, indicating that water was plentiful, but there were no signs of any oceans. Nor was there any sign of intelligence; they circled the planet twice without glimpsing a single artifact of any kind. The entire globe, from poles down to the equator, was clothed with a blanket of virulent green.

“I think we should be very careful here,” said Hilvar. “This world is alive—and I don’t like the color of that vegetation. It would be best to stay in the ship, and not to open the air lock at all.”

“Not even to send out the robot?”

“No, not even that. You have forgotten what disease is, and though my people know how to deal with it, we are a long way from home and there may be dangers here which we cannot see. I think this is a world that has run amok. Once it may have been all one great garden or park, but when it was abandoned Nature took over again. It could never have been like this while the system was inhabited.”

Alvin did not doubt that Hilvar was right. There was something evil, something hostile to all the order and regularity on which Lys and Diaspar were based, in the biological anarchy below. Here a ceaseless battle had raged for a billion years; it would be well to be wary of the survivors.

I had to go back and check that I had the word “virulent” correct in the first paragraph and it wasn’t supposed to be “verdant.” The New Oxford American Dictionary (2001) defines virulent as: “(of a disease or poison) extremely severe or harmful in its effects / highly infective / bitterly hostile,” whereas verdant is: “green with grass or other rich vegetation.”

God forbid that a planet be allowed to take care if itself. The assumption on the part of both characters here is that for a world to be at all survivable it must be entirely under human control. Evolution is seen as a force of evil, resulting in dangerous organisms “it would be well to be wary of.”

This starts to show us the philosophy behind The City and the Stars, which from my reading clearly says: Technology will save us from all the bad things including superstition, war, poverty, and unbridled nature, but it’s only worth it if we continue to grow as a technological species.

Finding this exact edition might be tough!

Finding this exact edition might be tough!

The tragedy at the heart of The City and the Stars is that these societies, both Diaspar and Lys, have reached a technological singularity then stopped, progressing no farther, and that only after humanity experienced a draw-back and a sort of Dark Ages.

On to technology, then . . .

Clarke imagines his technological utopia not several decades into humanity’s future but hundreds of millions, even billions of years later. He should have known if only from the exercise of revising his own imagined technology over the decade immediately following World War II that we’d get to a lot of the things his protagonist takes for granted rather a lot sooner than millions of years form now.

Check out this description of a 3D version of Google Maps:

He rose to his feet and walked over to the image of the city which almost filled the chamber. It was hard not to think of it as an actual model, though he knew that in reality it was no more than an optical projection of the pattern in the memory cells he had been exploring. When he altered the monitor control and set his viewpoint moving through Diaspar, a spot of light would travel over the surface of this replica, so that he could see exactly where he was going. It had been a useful guide in the early days, but he soon had grown so skillful at setting the coordinates that he had not needed this aid.

The city lay spread out beneath him; he looked down upon it like a god.

And though I’ve time and again reminded SF authors that it isn’t our job to accurately predict the future, Arthur C. Clarke is one of those authors who’s been cited just as often for being right, as we’ll see in the next excerpt, as he was wrong (famously, 2001: A Space Odyssey).

“Your order involves two problems,” replied the Computer. “One is moral, one technical. This robot was designed to obey the orders of a certain man. What right have I to override them, even if I can?’’

It was a question which Alvin had anticipated and for which he had prepared several answers.

“We do not know what exact form the Master’s prohibition took,” he replied. “If you can talk to the robot, you may be able to persuade it that the circumstances in which the block was imposed have now changed.”

It was, of course, the obvious approach. Alvin had attempted it himself, without success, but he hoped that the Central Computer, with its infinitely greater mental resources, might accomplish what he had failed to do.

“That depends entirely upon the nature of the block,” came the reply. “It is possible to set up a block which, if tampered with, will cause the contents of the memory cells to be erased. However, I think it unlikely that the Master possessed sufficient skill to do that; it requires somewhat specialized techniques. I will ask your machine if an erasing circuit has been set up in its memory units.”

“But suppose,” said Alvin in sudden alarm, “it causes erasure of memory merely to ask if an erasing circuit exists?”

“There is a standard procedure for such cases, which I shall follow. I shall set up secondary instructions, telling the machine to ignore my question if such a situation exists. It is then simple to insure that it will become involved in a logical paradox, so that whether it answers me or whether it says nothing it will be forced to disobey its instructions. In such an event all robots act in the same manner, for their own protection. They clear their input circuits and act as if no question has been asked.”

Alvin felt rather sorry that he had raised the point, and after a moment’s mental struggle decided that he too would adopt the same tactics and pretend that he had never been asked the question. At least he was reassured on one point—the Central Computer was fully prepared to deal with any booby traps that might exist in the robot’s memory units. Alvin had no wish to see the machine reduced to a pile of junk; rather than that, he would willingly return it to Shalmirane with its secrets still intact.

Here’s Clarke describing computer viruses and firewalls, though in antiquated terms (input circuits). And this in the mid 1950s. According to the article “History of Computer Viruses,” mathematician John Neumann described what would later become known as the computer virus as early as 1949. This tells us that Clarke, not surprisingly, was keeping up on the literature back then. Still, computer viruses and data security really didn’t become “a thing” until the mid 1980s, thirty years after The City and the Stars was written. Think about that the next time you read an “unrealistic” SF novel about self-replicating nano-robots.

But what I found really the most interesting thing about The City and the Stars, at least in terms of technology, was that Clarke had really thought through not just the various gadgets and gizmos that might be available to his future characters, but thought through the philosophy of technology that got them there . . .

Here was the end of an evolution almost as long as Man’s. Its beginnings were lost in the mists of the Dawn Ages, when humanity had first learned the use of power and sent its noisy engines clanking about the world. Steam, water, wind—all had been harnessed for a little while and then abandoned. For centuries the energy of matter had run the world until it too had been superseded, and with each change the old machines were forgotten and new ones took their place. Very slowly, over thousands of years, the ideal of the perfect machine was approached—that ideal which had once been a dream, then a distant prospect, and at last reality:

No machine may contain any moving parts.

Here was the ultimate expression of that ideal. Its achievement had taken Man perhaps a hundred million years, and in the moment of his triumph he had turned his back upon the machine forever. It had reached finality, and thenceforth could sustain itself eternally while serving him.

That begs a question to the science fiction authors out there: Do you have a philosophy behind the technology in your SF world? Is that a part of your worldbuilding?

I think it should be.

We’ll leave it at that for The City and the Stars, but there are thousands of great SF and fantasy books still left for me to read, so let’s see what other examples, positive and negative, will come from my accelerated reading program for 2015.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (PART 2)

A few weeks ago I described the step-by-step process of creating a random SF/fantasy paperback grab-bag. At the end of that process, I chose the first random book and came out with The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. Though the idea behind the whole grab-bag thing was to read more, and read for fun more, my brain just won’t allow me to read a book “just because,” and I ended up making a few notes in the margins and calling out a few examples of some interesting things on the subject of writing science fiction, SF worldbuilding, and so on. Let’s take a look at what SF Grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke can teach us from this very early book in a very long and distinguished career. But if you haven’t read last week’s post first, go back and catch up!

This week, let’s see what The City and the Stars can teach us about worldbuilding.

This is a scan of the actual copy of the book I own.

This is a scan of the actual copy of the book I own. 

In Chapter 20 of The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction I touch on the very complex and challenging job of building an imagined culture. “Culture” is a pretty huge umbrella covering a lot of topic, including art.

What sort of art do the people in your world create? How do they create it? Why do they create it? Art reflects the time, place, and condition of the artist. It reflects his desires and fears, and can tell us more about a people than any history book.

In Clarke’s conception of the perfect technological paradise, the “gilded cage” of Diaspar, art played a significant role:

 It was the custom of the city’s artists—and everyone in Diaspar was an artist at some time or another—to display their current productions along the side of the moving ways, so that the passers-by could admire their work. In this manner, it was usually only a few days before the entire population had critically examined any noteworthy creation, and also expressed its views upon it. The resulting verdict, recorded automatically by opinion-sampling devices which no one had ever been able to suborn or deceive—and there had been enough attempts—decided the fate of the masterpiece. If there was a sufficiently affirmative vote, its matrix would go into the memory of the city so that anyone who wished, at any future date, could possess a reproduction utterly indistinguishable from the original.

The less successful pieces went the way of all such works. They were either dissolved back into their original elements or ended in the homes of the artists’ friends.

And this in a novel written in 1955, in which the author seems to have anticipated Napster, Facebook, YouTube, and the internet in general. It does beg the question: Where was all this information technology in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Still, the art that these people create, and the fact that “everyone in Diaspar was an artist at some time or another” speaks volumes about that imagined place and time, including the various indulgences afforded to a population enjoying voluminous free time.

Buy It Now!

Another aspect of worldbuilding that was touched on in Part 3 of The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and later expanded upon in Writing Monsters, is the inclusion of “monsters” both in the traditional and non-traditional sense. In my worldbuilding classes one of the exercises we had some fun with was something I called “Horse+.”

Horse+

Horse+

In a world (or future universe) in which either none of the real world animals exist, or other strange creatures are added to the existing ecosystem, we could imagine, as Edgar Rice Burroughs did in his John Carter series, or George Lucas in Star Wars, some other kind of animal that people might use as a mount or beast of burden.

Here’s Clarke’s Horse+ from The City and the Stars:

 For short distances, people walked, and seemed to enjoy it. If they were in a hurry or had small loads to move, they used animals which had obviously been developed for the purpose. The freight-carrying species was a low, six-legged beast, very docile and strong but of poor intelligence. The racing animals were of a different breed altogether, normally walking on four legs but using only their heavily muscled hind limbs when they really got up to speed. They could cross the entire width of Lys in a few hours, and the passenger rode in a pivoted seat strapped on the creature’s back. Nothing in the world would have induced Alvin to risk such a ride, though it was a very popular sport among the younger men. Their finely bred steeds were the aristocrats of the animal world, and were well aware of it. They had fairly large vocabularies, and Alvin often overheard them talking boastfully among themselves about past and future victories. When he tried to be friendly and attempted to join in the conversation, they pretended that they could not understand him, and if he persisted would go bounding off in outraged dignity.

These two varieties of animal sufficed for all ordinary needs, and gave their owners a great deal of pleasure which no mechanical contrivances could have done.

Part of what these animals do is further differentiate between the pastoral paradise of Lys and the mechanized paradise of Diaspar: two sides of the same coin. Where in Diaspar you get around on moving walkways and goods are transferred hither and yon by largely unseen robots that travel a system of underground byways not unlike the way staff moves under Disney World, in Lys they’ve genetically engineered animals to serve those same functions. This really opens up the concept of what technology is and its myriad forms, in this one story. The same problem, solved in different ways.

Later in the book, after Alvin has discovered his ancient starship and gone out with his friend Hilvar on a mission of interstellar discovery, do we encounter a monster in the classical sense of the term, or as I defined in The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction as: “. . . any creature of a species that is neither a part of the civilization of sentient people or among the ranks of mundane flora and fauna.”

Though this unnamed monster is, technically, “among the ranks of mundane flora and fauna” on the world of its birth, we’ll apply this definition strictly to the point of view of our narrator, who has travelled to an alien world and encountered something wholly outside his frame of reference, and it’s dangerous and scary:

The level plain was level no longer. A great bulge had formed immediately below them—a bulge which was ripped open at the top where the ship had torn free. Huge pseudopods were waving sluggishly across the gap, as if trying to re-capture the prey that had just escaped from their clutches. As he stared in horrified fascination, Alvin caught a glimpse of a pulsating scarlet orifice, fringed with whiplike tentacles which were beating in unison, driving anything that came into their reach down into that gaping maw.

Foiled of its intended victim, the creature sank slowly into the ground—and it was then that Alvin realized that the plain below was merely the thin scum on the surface of a sea.

“What was that—thing?” he gasped.

“I’d have to go down and study it before I could tell you that,” Hilvar replied matter-of-factly. “It may have been some form of primitive animal—perhaps even a relative of our friend in Shalmirane. Certainly it was not intelligent, or it would have known better than to try to eat a spaceship.”

In Writing Monsters I encourage authors to appeal to all five senses when describing monsters, but in this instance, Alvin and Hilvar can only see this creature, through the view screens of their starship, so Clarke was careful to limit their perception of this creature to only the sensory input available to them.

In Writing Monsters I also covered questions like: Where does this monster come from? And that included both Outer Space and Underwater. This alien creature of Arthur C. Clarke’s shows that you can easily and effectively combine those elements, as your story and imagination demands. In terms of what this monster represents, it’s what both of these characters most fear: a primitive world, “red in tooth and claw.” There is no one to talk to here, no civilized humans . . . just animals, some of whom are giant, terrifying predators. Alvin and Hilvar don’t even work up the courage to leave the safety of their ship. The presence of the monster is meant to convey an absence of people.

I’ve also spent some time in both books discussing the often fine line between monsters and people, or monsters and aliens. It’s fair to describe “people” the same way we did monsters, just that “people” have a greater individual agency. They have humanlike brains: creative and emotional intelligence, or what I often illustrate as being the difference between a horde of mindless zombie (really a sort of natural disaster) and Dracula: a vampire (read: monster) but who retains his human intelligence and interacts with humans as a human, with human plans and feelings. So then “people” grows to include (most) vampires, elves, Martians, and . . .

The creature now emerging from the dark water seemed a monstrous parody, in living matter, of the robot that was still subjecting them to its silent scrutiny. That same equilateral arrangement of eyes could be no coincidence; even the pattern of tentacles and little jointed limbs had been roughly reproduced. Beyond that, however, the resemblance ceased. The robot did not possess—it obviously did not require—the fringe of delicate, feathery palps which beat the water with a steady rhythm, the stubby multiple legs on which the beast was humping itself ashore, or the ventilating inlets, if that was what they were, which now wheezed fitfully in the thin air.

Most of the creature’s body remained in the water; only the first ten feet reared itself into what was clearly an alien element. The entire beast was about fifty feet long, and even anyone with no knowledge of biology would have realized that there was something altogether wrong about it. It had an extraordinary air of improvisation and careless design, as if its components had been manufactured without much forethought and thrown roughly together when the need arose.

Despite its size and their initial doubts, neither Alvin nor Hilvar felt the slightest nervousness once they had a clear look at the dweller in the lake. There was an engaging clumsiness about the creature which made it quite impossible to regard it as a serious menace, even if there was any reason to suppose it might be dangerous. The human race had long ago overcome its childhood terror of the merely alien in appearance. That was a fear which could no longer survive after the first contact with friendly extraterrestrial races.

Note that Clarke is describing this creature in a way that’s firmly rooted in the experience of the POV characters. It’s described in terms of its “design”—precisely the sort of thing someone from a completely technological world might fall back on. These characters have also become so separated from the natural order that, like animals found on remote islands that have no fear of humans, they aren’t scared by it, and see it with a detached intellectualism . . . which they lose, by the way, later in the story when they leave Earth and are confronted by things, like the monster in the previous example, that really should scare them.

Next week we’ll dig deeper into the technology and philosophy of The City and the Stars.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

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WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM A RANDOM SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (PART 1)

A few weeks ago I described the step-by-step process of creating a random SF/fantasy paperback grab-bag. At the end of that process, I chose the first random book and came out with The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. Though the idea behind the whole grab-bag thing was to read more, and read for fun more, my brain just won’t allow me to read a book “just because,” and I ended up making a few notes in the margins and calling out a few examples of some interesting things on the subject of writing science fiction, SF worldbuilding, and so on. Let’s take a look at what SF Grandmaster Arthur C. Clarke can teach us from this very early book in a very long and distinguished career.

This is a scan of the actual copy of the book I own.

This is a scan of the actual copy of the book I own.

The Signet mass market edition of the book that I have was probably from the early to mid 1970s, but the copyright shows 1953 and 1956. The author’s preface is dated 1954 and 1955 and reads in part:

Against the Fall of Night was begun in 1937 and, after four or five drafts, was completed in 1946, though for various reasons beyond the author’s control book publication was delayed until some years later. Although this work was well received, it had most of the defects of a first novel, and my initial dissatisfaction with it increased steadily over the years. Moreover, the progress of science during the two decades since the story was first conceived made many of the original ideas naive, and opened up vistas and possibilities quite unimagined when the book was originally planned. In particular, certain developments in information theory suggested revolutions in the human way of life even more profound than those which atomic energy is already introducing, and I wished to incorporate these into the book I had attempted, but so far failed, to write.

And this to begin a novel in which he describes virtual reality role-playing games, computer viruses, and other advances in information technology.

I’ll say again up front that the goal of science fiction really isn’t to attempt any sort of accurate prediction of the future, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t sometimes happen. It has been noted before, too, as in this article at the Smithsonian web site, that science fiction has actually inspired advances in technology, when engineers read about some groovy gadget then set about trying to actually make it happen.

Still, this bit from the preface of The City and the Stars is fascinating to me. Here we see a science fiction author attempting to back-fill a science fiction novel he’d finished a decade before with new advances in technology. For what it’s worth, I think this is a fool’s errand, and as advances in technology continue to accelerate it’s going to mean revising your science fiction novel not once every decade but once every eighteen months or so.

Good luck with that.

Working our way through The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, we’ll start with Storytelling.

Taking it “step by step.”

Taking it “step by step.”

Clarke begins with an idea, or really a question, I think: “What might the world/humanity be like millions of years into the future?”

As for theme, the book left me wondering what Clarke was trying to say. He seems to waffle back and forth between: “technology will cause us to stagnate and grow complacent and ignorant” and “technology will save us from all ills.” I guess we can put it somewhere in the middle: “Technology is great but we should still keep exploring—there’s always something knew to discover.” I can get behind that.

And that’s ultimately what’s most important, not what the now-deceased author was trying to say or meant to say, but how each individual reader interprets the work left behind. This was Arthur C. Clarke’s book at first but once I bought a copy, on at least a philosophical level, it became mine, and the creative act of reading it infused the experience with all my own ideas, baggage, etc.—for good or ill.

From there, a plot emerges . . .

The City and the Stars begins in the city of Diaspar, which is the last and greatest city on Earth, believed to be the final home of the sum total of the human race. At some point in the very distant past, humans had colonized the galaxy, but were driven back to Earth after an unsuccessful war with an alien enemy. The decision was made by those humans to cut themselves off from the galaxy in general and live lives of quiet contentment in a single technological utopia that offered, among other things, immortality.

Its into this techno-paradise that Alvin is born. He’s unusual in that he was naturally born rather than having been resurrected from the city’s DNA records. Normally, people from Diaspar, after reaching the age of some thousands or even millions of years, choose to go back into the gene pool, temporarily “dying” only to be reborn in some distant future to enjoy another immensely long life. But Alvin is here for the first time and as such has some peculiar ideas, not the least peculiar is his curiosity about the world outside the city, which he’s always been told was a lifeless global desert.

He finds his way out of the city and to the neighboring nation of Lys, another pocket of human civilization, this one having gone the psychic route. The people of Lys know about Diaspar but Diaspar doesn’t know about Lys. While in Lys, Alvin discovers a strange alien robot, then the strange alien who controls it, and this sets him off on a quest to discover the truth about why his people were driven back to Earth and their vast space colonies abandoned. He eventually, with the robot’s help, finds an ancient starship, which the robot operates for him, and goes off to explore the cosmos only to find that there was no terrible enemy, that the human race more or less just gave up and went back to Earth to live in this vacant state of self-absorption, tended to by the Central Computer and its robots, in a self-maintaining city that caters to their every need.

The writing itself is fine, but suffers a bit from the author being English (which used when that should have been, weirdly archaic style choices like the initial cap in Man) and this just having been written sixty years ago or so. There’s some muddiness to the POV, some odd word choice, etc., and even some typos that are likely artifacts of Signet’s fast-and-cheap repackaging of the original Harcourt edition.

For all that, let’s go ahead and stipulate that Arthur C. Clarke was a good writer.

As for characters, truth be told there is only a bit of meat on the bones there, but even then, Clarke does a generally good job of conveying “the weird” (which is to say, anything the characters find unexpected—some of the bigger SF concepts) through an emotional connection, through that character’s reactions, like in this example, when Alvin has found his way to the hidden/abandoned subway that connects Diaspar with long-forgotten Lys, and puts himself at its automated mercy:

When the door closed behind him, Alvin slumped into the nearest seat. All strength seemed suddenly to have been drained from his legs: at last he knew, as he had never known before, that fear of the unknown that haunted all his fellow men. He felt himself trembling in every limb, and his sight became misty and uncertain. Could he have escaped from this speeding machine he would willingly have done so, even at the price of abandoning all his dreams.

It was not fear alone that overwhelmed him, but the sense of unutterable loneliness. All that he knew and loved was in Diaspar; even if he was going into no danger, he might never see his world again. He knew, as no man had known for ages, what it meant to leave one’s home forever. In this moment of desolation, it seemed to him of no importance whether the path he was following led to peril or to safety; all that mattered to him now was that it led away from home.

This shortens the emotional distance between Alvin and the reader . . . bravo, Mr. Clarke.

Next week we’ll take a deeper dive into the art, people, and monsters—the worldbuilding—of The City and the Stars.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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BEAR

Should I even write this post?

I don’t want this blog to be a place where people come and feel sad, but let’s take a minute to feel sad, and I promise next week we’ll talk hard science fiction.

On Saturday, after a months-long struggle with a degenerative neurological condition, we were forced to say good-bye to our little pug, Bear, the best dog ever.

I was against getting a dog after the untimely death by accident of our last dog. I didn’t want to go through all that again, but then I was basically talked into it by my wife and kids, and when we drove down to Portland to pick up our new little pug puppy from the breeder, it was love at first sight.

Bear when he first came home with us.

Bear when he first came home with us.

Then came my time to say good-bye to the corporate office lifestyle in the summer of 2010 and embark into the rocky waters of self-employment.

Writers out there, let’s be honest. If all goes right, you’re looking to someday be able to quit your day job and write—or at least, as in my case, write and edit—full time. I have managed to get to that point, after years of struggle, and though I used to sometimes complain about the time he took from my day, now that I’m really all alone all day while my wife is at work and my kids are in school, I miss him.

Bear was the associate in Athans & Associates and though his contribution to the firm mostly consistent of either snoring or barking in the background of online client meetings, recordings, and interviews, now that I’m most of the way through the second work day without him, I realize just how much the two of us interacted over the course of an average day.

Bear.

Bear.

Though no pet can necessarily replace the human camaraderie, the teamwork that can make a huge task seem less daunting, and all those other things you give up when you decide to go it on your own, a dog can act as a sort of psychotherapist. I would bounce ideas off Bear. He would tilt his head at me in more or les the same way every time, but in the process, I was talking through things. And anyway, he was here—usually sleeping under my feet. There was another life moving through this space, and occasionally having to let him out in the backyard for a bathroom break kept me from getting hunched over and desk chair-bound.

I’ve told everybody that I want to wait until later in the spring to get a new dog, so the kids will be on summer vacation, at least, and I’ll have a little help in that work-intensive initial puppy stage, but I might be talked into accelerating that time table.

It’s just too quiet around here.

 

—Philip Athans

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PORTLAND COMIC CON 2015

Okay, you just have to go to conventions. Unless you really live in the remotest of areas there is one nearby at least once a year, and if you’re willing to drive or even fly a few hundred miles there might be a dozen or more. I live in the Seattle area, which is one of America’s great Geek Pockets—more nerds per square mile here than punk rockers and aging hippies, no matter what MTV (in 1992) says. But that doesn’t mean I have to limit myself to Seattle conventions, does it?

Of course not, especially when there are some good ones within driving distance. So after contacting the fine folks at Wizard World and arranging a seminar, I bundled the family into the busted down old minivan and headed south on I5 to Portland, Oregon, where the young go to retire.

Oh, and everything you’ve heard about Portland is true, including every second of the IFC documentary series Portlandia.

So it’s got that going for it.

Especially for the drive down, and scarily well-timed, I bought the new Decemberists CD “What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World” for full Portland immersion. And it’s awesome.

I’m not even going to pause to let you know that comic book (or game or anime, etc.) conventions can be great family trips. Bring the kids . . . there really is something for everybody. Mine have been to cons before and were old hands.

CountryCousin

The drive down was rainy and bleak (it was the last week in January in the Pacific Northwest, after all) but was brightened up by a stop on the way at Country Cousin wherein I ate more meat in one sitting than I’ve eaten in months, and it was ridiculously good. Shout out to my Country Cousins!

After arriving in Portland we headed for the convention center, which as convention centers go is really nice. I remember it from Wordstock 2009. My seminar wasn’t until 5:30 and though the drive down took a little longer than expected (but Country Cousin was worth it!) and the line at registration was long, we had some time to wander the convention floor before the seminar and ran into this guy, in from the Red Planet.

And yes, I am wearing my official "I Died During Character Generation" Trvaller t-shirt!

And yes, I am wearing my official “I Died During Character Generation” Traveller t-shirt!

Costumes have gotten insane since my first convention, in 1981, in which there were no costumes at all.

If you’ve never been, conventions are like giant flea markets but only for geeks. You can buy comic book back issues (my son and I drooled over a copy of Amazing Spiderman #1 but couldn’t pony up the $1950.00 to buy it), games, toys, swords and other weapons (brass knuckles that said MADE IN PAKISTAN really gave me the creeps), costumes and props, t-shirts, original art, and anything else you’ve ever heard of that might have a picture of a superhero on it, or a character from Game of Thrones, or . . .

But with the seminar approaching we decided to save our shopping for Saturday. The seminar, “Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction” went off nicely, though I talked too much and wished I’d left more time for questions. Still, I got some great questions from a smart and attentive crowd and it was especially cool to see a number of kids in the audience, and a couple asked smart questions of their own. These things always renew my faith in humanity. I know that may sound grandiose, but it’s true. There is a whole new generation of smart, creative, passionate people out there and they’re writing fantasy and science fiction.

seminar

Already tired we went back to the hotel for dinner and I passed out early, then got up early, and I mean early. I let everyone sleep a little longer but we were still up and out a good two hours before the convention started. This one started late (ish) and finished early (ish) compared to some of the conventions I’ve been to. But it gave us a chance to get a cup of coffee and check out the schedule.

Like a lot of comic book fans my age I remember the old Incredible Hulk TV series with great fondness. Even while wishing it could be better, have better special effects and so on, I was just so delighted that one of Stan Lee’s great characters was finally on TV, and it was actually pretty good by the standards of late-70s TV. I’ve walked past Lou Ferrigno signing at conventions in the past but this time he was doing a whole talk, and in a room right across the hall from the coffee place, and we were an hour and a half early now, so we claimed the first spots in line. And if there’s one consistent rule across all cons its the bigger the convention the bigger the lines. If you want to get into the prime events, come early.

line

For his part, Lou Ferrigno was fantastic. He really approached the whole thing with a sense of humor that was never condescending and revealed a heart as big as his biceps, and his biceps are still enormous. He probably has fifteen years on me but to look at us together you’d think I was the older of the two—much older.

ferrigno

Is it too late to start bodybuilding?

After that it was back to the convention floor, which by then was getting shoulder-to-shoulder crowded. Pack your patience to these things, people. If you think you’re going to move through there fast, just . . . you’re not going to move through there fast.

Oh, and bring money.

thewordsI didn’t spend that much, myself, as conventions go, but one thing I try to do at every convention is seek out some cool indie thing, preferably from a local creator, and buy it. At this one, my wife started talking to someone at a booth and called me over and I got he passionate pitch from comic book writer Richard Mann, who’s got a great idea and that sparkle in his eye that tells me: “Support this guy,” if for only four bucks. So I walked away, smiling, with a copy of The Words #1, signed by Mann and artist Rick Marks of Floating Dock Comics in Portland.

What I was doing while my wife was meeting Richard Mann was looking through a table full of these amazing little paintings, just a few inches tall, that I couldn’t resist. I ended up buying two of them from artist Rochelle Heagh Phister, who is responsible for “The Siren” . . .

The Siren

The Siren

. . . and the second, “Noe Me” . . .

Noe Me

Noe Me

. . . by her partner Gomez. The two of them make up Dark’s Art Parlor and you can and must buy their art online.

I went in search of a copy of Essential Marvel Horror, Volume 1, but couldn’t find one (it’s still on my Amazon Wish List) but I did run across a booth selling trades for peanuts and scored a copy of DC Showcase: Aquaman Vol. 2 for only $5, which is less than the used price on Amazon, so that’s cool. And if you’re thinking I might be the only Aquaman fan in the world, maybe I am, but I don’t care. Aquaman rules. Respect the Aquaman. And yes, I already had Vol. 1 at home.

aquaman2

And last but not least, when I heard someone call out, “Up to 5XL at no extra cost!” I had to stop, because I’m a big guy and can’t always find t-shirts I like in my size. The kind folks at JBM Press sold me a shirt that reads: tsundoku, which is the Japanese word for: “The act of leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with such other unread books.”

I am one of this country’s topmost tsundoku masters.

With everybody feeling tired and a long drive back home, we bailed out on Portland Comic Con with smiles on our faces. For about thirty hours we took Portland by storm.

We did everything but put a bird on it.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

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SEPARATING THE AUTHOR AND THE WORK, THE ARTIST AND THE ART

Bill Cosby, rapist

Michael Jackson, child molester

H.P. Lovecraft, racist

You know I don’t watch the TV news, so I’m happy to report that I have done no wallowing in the sick spectacle that has become of the once venerated Bill Cosby. I honestly have no idea if he’s guilty of any crime and though there are significant allegations against him, he has to be considered innocent until proven guilty—even if he’s a celebrity. But then there’s the question of “celebrity entitlement” that seems to be that if you’re rich and famous enough in America, you can get away with anything. Is this what happened with Michael Jackson? Did he buy his way out of charges of the sexual abuse of children?

Again, I have no idea.

And honestly, I’m happy to leave Bill Cosby to the relevant district attorneys to sort out, but I’ve also mentioned a few times in the last little bit that I’ve been listening to Marc Maron’s podcast WTF a lot lately. Recently, he spoke with comedian-turned-filmmaker Judd Apatow (who’s movies I love) about the Cosby scandal and Apatow had some very harsh words for apparently now former comedy icon Bill Cosby: “It’s like finding out our comedy dad is a really evil guy.”

What I found most interesting about what Apatow said when asked why he thought some people seem to be having a hard time believing these allegations: “. . . the same reason why people don’t want to believe that Michael Jackson ever did anything with kids. They just love Thriller and they don’t want to give it up.” But at the same time he also said: “Mel Gibson, for just making comments, was tossed from the business for years. They burnt that guy at the stake, for comments, and [the Cosby accusations] is actual violent acts.”

This certainly seems to indicate some kind of double standard in which Mel Gibson can go on a drunken, anti-Semitic rant and at least has to spend time in the penalty box, but someone who may have committed dozens of violent assaults over decades gets a pass. Could it be that it’s just easier to wrap our heads around Mel Gibson putting his foot in his mouth than America’s Favorite Dad of the 80s raping people? Probably.

Still, what does any of this have to do with writing?

This brewing storm with Bill Cosby and Judd Apatow’s comments on WTF acme together with an article I happened across by author Dana Staves on Book Riot in which she discusses her reading of the diaries of Virginia Woolf, who’s final entry, three weeks before her suicide, ended with: “And now with some pleasure I find that it’s seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.”

This inspired Staves to respond: “We build up authors so that they become epic and mythic, each huddled away on their corners of a literary Mount Olympus, scribbling or typing. The place smells of coffee and books and anxiety. But in the end, they’re people, not gods. They’re people who must eat dinner and fear bombs and attempt to get a handle on cooking sausage and haddock. This is a challenge as big as writing The Waves or Mrs. Dalloway.”

All these things conspired to remind me of something I wrote myself, a few years ago, when a similar question, though thankfully sans violence, was being asked in and around the fantasy community. Leaving you to fill in recent events with Bill Cosby, or, for that matter, Gamergate and so on, I’ll present that article in its entirely right here:

H.P. LOVECRAFT: THE WORK VS. THE MAN

I’ve been not just open about the influence H.P. Lovecraft has had on me, and on The Haunting of Dragon’s Cliff in particular—I’ve shouted it from whatever rooftop I could find (including this one). But lately there has been a lot being said about the late Mr. Lovecraft that’s made me, and a lot of other fans of this dark fantasy icon, a little uneasy. And that may be an understatement.

Though I can’t say I didn’t notice an underlying racism in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, and for that matter, his friend Robert E. Howard as well, but even as a teenager (or younger) when I first discovered these authors, I put that down to the day and age in which they lived. These stories were written in the 1920s and 30s—much less enlightened times, some thirty years before the Civil Rights Movement brought about its massive shift in American society. In some ways, it was as though I thought of these men as some kind of primitives, communicating from a simpler, less civilized time.

But H.P. Lovecraft isn’t Homer, or even Shakespeare. Both of these men, Lovecraft and Howard, were Americans, living and working in the 20th century. And yes, Howard lived in Texas, a state not known in that day as a bastion of racial tolerance, but Lovecraft was a Yankee, and of the two, you’d think he would have known better. But he didn’t. He was a racist. I can’t and won’t deny that.

A lot of this started to blow up, by the way, just this past December [2010?], when the brilliant author Nnedi Okorafor wrote about her unease with the bust of Lovecraft that she was given—the World Fantasy Award—and the mixed feelings that that brought up in her.

Can I be a Lovecraft fan, and allow my own writing to be inspired by his, when it’s plain he held some beliefs that I find personally abhorrent?

Then something made me think back to when I first started at TSR and was talking to my then-boss, the late Brian Thomsen, and I mentioned that I was a huge fan of Harlan Ellison. Brian knew everyone, and had at least a passing acquaintance with Harlan Ellison, and let’s just say Brian had a few choice words for my idol. And Brian wasn’t the only one. Even other fans would tell me stuff like: “I like his stories, but I hear he’s a total dick.” My answer was always the same: “I don’t care if he’s a dick, his work is phenomenal. He’s the greatest short story writer in the history of mankind. Let him be a dick if he wants to be.”

But yelling at people (including, years later, me!) over the phone about some little detail of this or that, or loudly voicing his opinion for all to hear, is one thing, and being a full-on racist is another. Harlan Ellison is smart and funny, and he has something to say, and that sometimes comes from a place of anger and frustration, but not hate. Lovecraft seems to have been, by all accounts, a painfully mild-mannered chap, not at all like Harlan Ellison in temperament, and yet there seems to have been this underlying pool of race hatred there.

I can’t pretend to know why he was like that. Racists aren’t born, they’re made—educated in hate, intolerance, and bigotry. Somewhere in his life, H.P. went through that indoctrination, and never seemed able to change his ways. And that is harder to forgive than Harlan Ellison’s colorful but otherwise well-intentioned outbursts.

In a college film history class, we watched the unedited version of the seminal silent movie Birth of a Nation. This is the film that for all intents and purposes set the language for narrative filmmaking that’s still in practice today. But it is a full-on KKK propaganda piece that was so bizarre to watch it seemed as though it had to be satire—but it wasn’t. The film features the heroic KKK riding to the rescue of a nation in the grips of black-faced white actors acting like ape-men. It was bizarre and twisted, and it came out of the same era, a decade here or there, as H.P. Lovecraft. And yet there we were, in a college classroom in 1983 studying what was good about Birth of a Nation while trying not to concentrate on the content.

I want to still like and admire the quality of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, even if I have to do it while trying not to concentrate on the quality of the man.

Reading through that again now, a few years later, I feel exactly the same way about H.P. Lovecraft, who I referenced almost continuously in Writing Monsters, but there’s a big difference between being a white guy in the segregated America of a hundred years ago and a violent, conniving rapist for what may have been the better part of forty years. Maybe in 2115 people will be ready to watch Bill Cosby Himself and just die laughing, ignoring the footnote off to the side of the screen. Who knows, maybe the idea of rape will be as weird to people then as institutionalized racism is to us now.

We can only hope.

—Philip Athans

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BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS

Moving forward from last week’s post in which I sort of de-emphasized the overwhelming importance of books and reading, let’s circle back to books, and in particular, what books I got for Christmas.

For what it’s worth, I’m not a Christian myself, but I’m under a certain amount of pressure from my family to at least go through the motions of Christmas, which means I’m not always so gently forced to give and receive presents. Let’s set aside my own peculiar pathology when it comes to a reluctance to receive gifts (or praise, etc.) and let the rest of this be positive.

Okay.

Deep breath.

Anyone who knows me knows that it’s always a good default to, should the occasion demand, give me books as gifts. Books tend to be the only thing I ask for, and so yeah . . . I get some books for Christmas, birthdays, etc., and because I’m fifty years old and don’t believe in Santa Claus I pretty much end up buying my own Christmas presents anyway, which I think is much less weird than any of you who are reading this who think that’s weird might think.

My daughter tells me she first realized there was no Santa Claus when she recognized my handwriting on a gift tag, and when my kids first realized that I had also written “To Phil from Santa,” it further demystified the holiday for everyone.

Can I go ahead and claim that as a Black Ops mission in the War on Christmas?

Or, it was just kinda . . . laziness.

Anyway, in some combination of buying this for myself and wrapping it up under the guise of a gift from someone else or as the result of an Amazon gift card, here are the books I got for Christmas and a little bit about why . . .

Let’s get this one out of the way first so we can all move on.

The Haunted Vagina by Carlton Mellick III . . . It’s impossible to be near the internet and not to have heard of this book, which as far as I can tell is the Lord of the Rings of the “Bizarro” genre. I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t tell you if I like it, if it’s any good, if it’s as perverted as it’s billed as, and so on, but on first blush (oh, and we all do indeed blush!) this is a comedy horror story. I bought it and will read it out of curiosity around the whole bizarro thing. I’ll neither defend nor condemn it without reading it. That’s what smart people do.

A space for another deep breath.

Japed

Of course I needed to add to my still incomplete collection of Ace Doubles and I’ve been concentrating on the D series, which are the first run of Ace Doubles from the 1950s. This year I spent a little extra on myself and picked up one of the rare Philip K. Dick Ace Doubles. The Man Who Japed is billed as “Complete and Unabridged,” which is nice, and features the weird cover art that made Ace Books in general so awesome. This one is backed with The Space-Born by the great E.C. Tubb. It has found a proud place in my collection.

I also ordered the Ace Double Space Station #1 by Frank Belknap Long and Empire of the Atom by A.E. Van Vogt, but unfortunately the seller sent me the single-edition of just Space Station #1, which is plenty cool for any fan of vintage SF, but I wanted the Ace Double for my Ace Double collection! It was a pretty understandable mistake and the seller has been super cool about it, so we’ll say no harm no foul on that.

TrekFotonovel

A few months ago I happened upon the Star Trek Fotonovels at a used bookstore and immediately bought all they had, but they didn’t have all of them, so now I have to collect all the rest of them. And I mean, I have to, so for this Christmas I got the first of them, which happens to be the Harlan Ellison classic City of the Edge of Forever. If you haven’t seen the old Fotonovels, you need to go find one. They did these for all sorts of movies and TV shows. I bought the Grease and Saturday Night Fever Fotonovels for my wife. What they did was take stills from the movie or TV show and lay them out comic book style with dialog balloons. They’re hilarious, awesome, and just chock full o’ nerdy wonderfulness.

Speaking of Star Trek, I still have my Star Trek James Blish novelization boxed set that has Star Trek 1-8 but somehow, somewhere along the line I lost the other four books that weren’t included in the box so I thought I was filling that in by ordering Star Trek 10, Star Trek 11, and Star Trek 12 but somehow forgetting Star Trek 9. This is not a happy thing for OCD collector nerds like me, but we’ll get that sorted out soon enough. For those not familiar with these, they’re slim little books that present a handful of the original series episodes as short stories written by James Blish. It took them twelve volumes to get through all three seasons, and they’re Star Trek anything, therefore are must-haves.

And one more Star Trek book . . .

AttemptingNormal

Years ago, when we were still dating, I ran across two books in my wife’s family’s house that I had never seen before and they were the most awesome things I’d ever seen. They were collections of old Star Trek comic books reprinted by Golden Books. When they saw how much I was enamored of them they gave me the books and I’ve had them ever since. Turns out there were four of them and they gave me the second and third. I later found the fourth one and this year filled that missing gap in my Star Trek shrine with the first one. Some weird storytelling and goofy art, but just all Star Trek, all the time, so . . . yea!

I’m actually listening to comedian Marc Maron’s podcast WTF while writing this—have been listening to it like mad lately. I like his TV show, too, so why wouldn’t I buy his book, Attempting Normal? It’s near the top of my to-read shelf. If you haven’t been indoctrinated into Marc Maron fandom, what the hell are you waiting for? He’s smart, funny, open . . . and WTF is the best podcast out there, full stop.

AmericanGrotesque

And then last but not least comes the gorgeous American Grotesque: The Life and Art of William Mortensen. This is another internet discovery for me. I’d never heard of this brilliant artist, who was shooting these amazing “special effects” photographs in the 1920s. What I saw online absolutely blew me away and I just had to get this book, and not just for the photographs but for the text that gets into Mortensen’s life and process. You know I’m a sucker for deep looks inside the creative process in any form. And that’s the reason I like Marc Maron so much, too, by the way. His WTF interviews get deeper into the creative process than any interviewer I’ve ever heard. And I know, you’re probably just thinking I’m a big gross creep with The Haunted Vagina, but I want to dip into the bizarro world for the same sort of reason: What is this weird creative thing and what’s it all about?

Okay, so three books we can file under “interest in the creative process,” two books (one and a half really) that fill in the coveted Ace Doubles collection, and five Star Trek books because I’m a frickin’ Trekkie.

Merry Christmas (or whatever) to me!

 

—Philip Athans

 

Posted in Books, comic books, horror novels, how to write fiction, indie publishing, intellectual property development, monsters, Publishing Business, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing horror, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments