William Gibson has the perfect response to Neal Stephenon’s demand for more optimistic SF

The question is asked at 10:28 

From this interview, (which you can also watch above):

I don’t know, I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of the novelist as a vehicle for boosterism. Or the novel as a vehicle for boosterism, because my idea of what good novels do is to kinda go out and read the signs, and come back and make something in their image, and the idea is, the signs aren’t always very good, and lately they’re kind of wildly un-good. But we never know. I mean, the nuclear wasteland of my childhood never happened, in spite of it having been this terribly real emotional place.

I love Neal Stephenson more than most people, but Gibson (who just turned 66, believe it or not) is right on the money here. I have the vague recollection of posting this interview before, but hey, it’s my blog. I can do what I want.

Neil Gaiman visits Tulsa, where one of his favorite writers lived

Here’s the article in the Tulsa World. I was there. I would have enjoyed myself a lot more had I not been sick. Allergies, I reckon. I felt like I’d been hit by a steamroller and my mouth developed a dry fuzziness which had me looking longingly at the nearby woman who’d been wise enough to pack a Coke into her purse. The stiff, immovable seats of the Performing Arts Center somehow didn’t help the fact that antihistamines are potent knock-out pills for me.

It was apparent Neil Gaiman was genuinely excited to be in Tulsa. He explained that one of his favorite writers, R.A. Lafferty, lived in Tulsa so he’d been intrigued by my hometown for over thirty years. He said he wrote his first fan letter to Lafferty and the two developed a correspondence which lasted many years. Then he apologized for his “ridiculous accent” before he read Lafferty’s short story Seven Day Terror, which had the audience cracking up although they hadn’t initially warmed to the idea of Gaiman reading someone else’s work. His accent and sense of timing actually served the story about a “disappearing device” made out of a beer can very well. He claimed it was the first time he’d performed a reading of a work that wasn’t his own.

When asked what was the best piece of advice he’d ever gotten, Gaiman told a story about what Stephen King once told him, but then he amended his answer saying Harlan Ellison told him how to shave a coarse beard with conditioner and that that had been the best advice he’d ever gotten. The audience laughed at the way Gaiman answered the question before also dodging it. When asked how we should deal with Terry Pratchett’s troubles with Alzheimer’s, Gaiman said, “We don’t.” He then explained that people’s complacency with the disease is perhaps why it doesn’t get enough attention. His advice was to continue feeling bad about it because it’s a terrible thing.

All said and done, it was a good night, every bit as peculiar and amusing as you could hope for, but like I said I felt like shit. Nonetheless, it was pretty cool to see the writer of American Gods in person. What was even cooler was the fact he obviously enjoyed being here.

That’s what’s funny about Tulsa. It sounds like a shit hole (the way I imagine Oklahoma City) and to be honest downtown used to be kind of shitty when I was younger, but every out-of-towner I’ve met since then loves it. It’s a fun place, guys. Really. Just don’t do the boring tourist thing (at least not all of it) and you’ll be surprised by how much stuff there is to do here. And the eatin’s cheap, so don’t complain.

More on R.A. Lafferty here.

The Best of John W. Campbell 1976

cover art H. R. Van Dongen


Introduction: The Three Careers of John W. Campbell by Lester del Rey
The Last Evolution
The Machine
The Invaders
Out of Night
Cloak of Aesir
Who Goes There?
Space for Industry
Afterward by Mrs. John W. Campbell

Edited by Lester del Rey, this collection contains Twilight, the short story Campbell originally published under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart. As del Rey says in the intro, Campbell wrote pulpy stories, like almost every other SF writer at the time, under his real name. It wasn’t until later he developed the pseudonym Stuart, under which he wrote stories of a more serious vein. The first story in this collection isn’t of much interest (other than historical) as it is one of his earlier, more pulpy efforts, but the rest, starting with Twilight and more or less concluding with Who Goes There? (the inspiration for The Thing From Another Planet, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and the 2011 reboot/prequel), showcase his talents nicely.

As for Twilight, there’s something that must be said about a story that takes you 7 billion years into the future, especially when it was written in 1934 and seems so modern today. Unfortunately for me (but fortunately for everyone else on the planet) someone already wrote about it: Ryan Harvey over at Black Gate, a fantastical fiction blog. Read the article here. Says Harvey:

And yes, as the heading of this post indicates, to me the title “Twilight” always means this story. It had too potent an effect on me to ever allow anything else, no matter how much popular culture it devours, to steal the word “twilight” for other use.

While most fans consider Who Goes There? John W. Campbell’s masterpiece, I think Twilight deserves more recognition for being the first modern science fiction story by a man who’s largely credited for inventing modern science fiction.

In his memoirs I, Asimov, Isaac Asimov talks favorably of Campbell for the most part, later expressing his dismay over the editor’s decision to buy into L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, the foundation of Scientology. Many writers who had been loyal to the man who once injected real science into science fiction began ignoring his publication, Asimov included. In his introduction to this collection, del Rey only briefly mentions Campbell’s disappointing foray into pseudoscience, simply stating, “His eternal quest for undiscovered fields of knowledge led him into what I considered cultist beliefs, and I fought against those both privately and publicly.”

I found the book in a used book store in Sand Springs, OK. I paid a dollar for it.

I Learned Science from Arthur C. Clarke

Two years ago today, the last surviving member of science fiction’s “Big Three” died. It was Arthur C. Clarke, whose prose was never really what anyone else would call great, but it was sufficient. That’s not the point. He was an ideas man.

ACC also had science—real science, when it didn’t get in the way of awesomeness—and he had a huge influence on my imagination today, which is why I believe that science fiction stories and fiction in general are healthy things for children; a lot of Clarke’s works would have been labeled “young adult” if released today. I was always interested in science, but I wasn’t in love with the subject until ACC showed me how weird and bizarre it is.

So maybe I should really say I learned science appreciation from Clarke, instead of using the sensational title above, but having revisited a lot of his stories lately, I was struck by one epiphany after another: it was unreal how often I would stop reading and think, “Oh… so that’s why I started thinking about that at such an early age.” He didn’t just have a big influence on my interest in science, but creatively and politically.

I never realized how much Clarke influenced the adult I would grow up to be until recently. 

Rendezvous with Rama

Consider Rendezvous with Rama, which won both the Hugo and the Nebula, not to mention it’s one of the books that got me reading in the first place. It’s a haunting adventure story told without the prerequisite heroes and damsels in distress, yet it’s every bit as entertaining as Jack Vance’s Planet of Adventure. Clarke’s seminal work begins: “Sooner or later, it was bound to happen.”

The book’s fictional element starts on September 11th, 2077, when a meteorite strikes Earth and kills six hundred thousand people. This is foreshadowed, a paragraph before, by Clarke’s textbook narration of two narrow misses in real life: in June of 1908, “Moscow escaped destruction by three hours and four thousand kilometers—a margin invisibly small by the standards of the universe. On February 12, 1947, another Russian city had a still narrower escape, when the second great meteorite of the twentieth century detonated less than four hundred kilometers from Vladivostok, with an explosion rivaling that of the newly invented uranium bomb.”

Clarke writes on about the killer meteorite of 2077:

Somewhere above Austria it began to disintegrate, producing a series of concussions so violent that more than a million people had their hearing permanently damaged. They were the lucky ones.

The catastrophe spurs humans to implement SPACEGUARD, a program which watches for catastrophic collisions. Fifty years later, SPACEGUARD (which is on the brink of being shut down) discovers what scientists will soon call Rama: a cylindrical spacecraft which has mysteriously entered our solar system and will soon leave. This gives humans a very small window by which to study the alien craft. At which point I was hooked and spent a long night reading the novel beneath my covers with a flashlight.

The year was 1993 and I was ten years old. I’d seen Rama Revealed on a bookshelf and was fascinated by the cover and its synopsis. When I realized it was a sequel, I begged one of my parents to order a copy of the original book for me. Here’s a startling thought: what if they hadn’t? Honestly, the very thing that makes me me is so deeply wrapped up in that story. If they hadn’t indulged my request, the person writing this post wouldn’t exist.

What Rendezvous did for me was introduce my feeble little mind to visual thinking, including in and about conceptual physics. The spacecraft Rama generates artificial “gravity” via centripetal force. Inside, separating the two halves of the cylindrical craft is an ocean in the form of a equatorial band, held in place by said spin. Perhaps I struggled with this imagery at first: a giant band of water that “sticks” to the inside of the cylinder’s continuous wall. And when the characters ride a boat in the middle of this ocean, they can look up and see more of the ocean ahead and above them.

Sure, this type of spacecraft setup has been a staple of science fiction before and since, but it was probably my first brush with the concept. In an interesting subplot somewhere in the middle of the book, the explorers want to get a look at the device at the far end of the craft, which they assume is some sort of a space drive. You see spaceships in movies that don’t have any visible means of propulsion, but in an ACC story, this is troublesome because it violates Netwon’s third law of motion: “For every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction.”

The Sentinel/2001: A Space Odyssey

Some time after inhaling the entire Rama series, I found the book version of 2001, which was more or less written concurrently with the film at Kubrick’s request. If nothing else, it expanded on the Dawn of Man stuff seen in the film, which was probably the first time I considered human evolution and our prehistoric ancestors. It also expands on how Hal 9000 tries to kill the main character, which in some ways is scarier than the movie. I mean, imagine being alone on a spaceship with a brilliant yet murderous computer and, suddenly… well, let’s not spoil that here, but the sequence was probably deemed unfilmable by Kubrick’s budget, which is why we got what we got—which was good, too.

The novel is allegedly based on ACC’s short story The Sentinel, which is probably the first time I considered the fact that the haze of distance is unique to planetary objects with atmospheres:

On the Moon, of course, there is no loss of detail with distance—none of that almost imperceptible haziness which softens and sometimes transfigures all far-off things on Earth.

This may not be pertinent information to most people, but it was exactly the kind of information I needed as a budding science geek. (Though the short story is essentially the beginning of 2001, minus the Dawn of Man stuff, ACC himself has said 2001 really isn’t based on The Sentinel despite common belief.)

The Early Stuff

Some of ACC’s earlier stuff may seem a little lackluster compared to classics like 2001 and Rama, but the science is still pretty hard and the stories are charming, if not disappointingly simplistic in structure. Some of the things he dwells on is common knowledge for most SF fans (particularly the “There’s no up or down in space” stuff), but I think it’s interesting to note how early he was writing it… specifically the fact that he was writing it before humans ever went to space. A lot of what he wrote was not common knowledge when originally published.

And sometimes he demonstrated unexpected humor early on, as is the case with Islands in the Sky, a novel aimed at teenagers in which the narrator wins a trip to space:

There were also, I’d discovered, some interesting tricks and practical jokes that could be played in space. One of the best involved nothing more complicated than an ordinary match.

What happens is the other astronauts play a prank on the boy: they tell him the way you make sure you have a fresh supply of oxygen is the same way miners do it back on Earth: you light a match. (Never mind why astronauts have matches on board. That’s not the point.) If the match goes out, “well, you go out too, as quickly as you can!”

One of the astronauts demonstrates by lighting a match which promptly extinguishes itself, much to the boy’s dismay.

It’s funny how the mind works, for up to that moment I’d been breathing comfortably, yet now I seemed to be suffocating.

The boy worriedly tells him to light another match. And it, too, goes out. Then, after the boy panics, he realizes they were only pulling his chain. ACC then has his characters explain that, in the absence of gravity, smoke has nowhere to go and suffocates the flame. I don’t know why, but that scene always stuck with me. I guess I enjoyed daydreaming about all the pranks you could pull in microgravity.

Childhood’s End

Childhood’s End is probably the most loved of Clarke’s earlier novels. (I confess I didn’t care that much for it the first time I read it, and only begrudgingly enjoy aspects of it now that I’m adult.) At one point in the novel, the characters successfully use a device that’s essentially a spirit board, which is disappointing to those who love ACC’s usually hard science. (Yes, Clarke’s work has always been described as “mystical,” but more in an Indiana Jones way, minus the paranormal crap. Think: the ark of the covenant if it were a natural artifact instead of a paranormal relic.)

Having said that, beyond the explanations of time dilation at relativistic speeds (one of the first times I was introduced to that concept), the only thing about Childhood’s End that really sticks out in my mind today is the introduction included in my edition (1990, Pan Books LTD.). There, Clarke admits that he was impressed by the evidence for the paranormal when he wrote Childhood’s End.

When Childhood’s End first appeared, many readers were baffled by a statement after the title page to the effect that “The opinions expressed in this book are not those of the author.” This was not entirely facetious; I had just published The Exploration of Space, and painted an optimistic picture of our future expansion into the Universe. Now I had written a book which said, “The stars are not for Man,” and I did not want anyone to think I had suddenly recanted.

Today, I would like to change the target of that disclaimer to cover 99 percent of the “paranormal” (it can’t all be nonsense) and 100 percent of UFO “encounters.”

At any rate, I just thought I’d use the anniversary of Clarke’s death to geek out about the things that made me such a geek today.

Science Fiction * Science Fact (YouTube Gem)

Here’s two things most people today don’t give a shit about: PBS and science fiction. Their loss, though, right?

It’s a discussion (or “live initial communications experiment”) hosted by G. Harry Stine, who is known for popularizing model rocketry. Guests include authors John Stith, Charles Sheffield, Ben Bova, and Jesco von Puttkamer, as well as Arthur C. Clarke from his Sri Lanka home, via satellite. Stine boasts that there are also seventy-four people connected to the discussion via a very early incarnation of Internet and, “that number is growing by the minute.” Stine isn’t really cut out to be a host, but he does a pretty good job of it after he works out the initial kinks.

Here’s the first part:

This video is awesome on so many different levels.

In Rod We Trust

I have learned several things from The Twilight Zone. For one, if you wish everyone dead, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll become the last person on the planet.

Two, the secret to eternal youth is that you won’t find it with Mary Kay products, but by kicking a can around your retirement village.

Three, if you flip a coin, there’s pretty much a fifty-fifty chance it’ll turn up heads, a fifty percent chance it’ll turn up tails, but a one-in-a-million chance that it’ll land balanced on its edge. And if you can manage to accomplish this rare feat, then you will be able to read anyone’s mind until the coin falls over. Also, martians sometimes look like us, but they sometimes have two heads and really, really weird names. Oh, and if you ever find yourself on a cruise full of nothing but old people who constantly urge you to jump ship, then you really should jump ship.

Rod Serling’s pitch of The Twilight Zone

What was the secret to The Twilight’s Zone success? The writing. Rod Serling, a writer himself, placed the emphasis on the writer, not the special effects, not the acting — although all that stuff was really rather well done, too. Elsewhere, today and then, you sell a teleplay or a screenplay and they’ll butcher it so bad you won’t recognize anything you actually wrote. Richard Matheson once said that, on The Twilight Zone, the script the writer wrote was what was usually filmed.

The Discarded

I recently saw an episode of Masters of Science Fiction. I never heard of it until a YouTube friend pointed out that one of the episodes was based on Harlan Ellison’s short story, The Discarded. I don’t know if you know this or not, but Ellison is a fucking genius. You probably did know that, though.

Having said that, I hear the show usually sucks. I wouldn’t know. I’ve only seen one episode and I liked it.

The episode I saw was narrated by Stephen Hawking (yes, the famous professor) and directed by Jonathan Frakes, who was in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Although I’m sure he didn’t play a Vulcan, I think he served in some capacity similar to Spock’s. Whoever he is, he’s a hell of a director. I didn’t have much faith in a TV show like this (after all, it aired on ABC and I don’t like TV very much), but its production value was just as good as any Hollywood movie. It starred John Hurt, whose character has two heads, and Brian Dennehy, who has a gigantic, muscular left arm. 
You know what? The acting is top notch. I’m not kidding. A lot of boring people might snicker seeing these actors surrounded by whacky special effects and makeup, but Hurt and Dennehy take their jobs very seriously and I really respect that. A lot of actors would have written this off as nothing more than a paycheck in a silly genre. 
The Discarded refers to a group of mutants who have been quarantined from Earth on a giant spacecraft. Life sucks for them. Some get so stir crazy, they kill themselves and the crew has to dispose of the bodies. One day, a ship from Earth makes an unscheduled rendezvous with the discarded’s spacecraft. A man boards their ship and tells them that after they were discarded, the virus that caused the mutations in the first place evolved and came back with a vengeance. Their only hope for a second cure lies in the enzymes manufactured by those who were originally infected – the discarded.
And that’s all I can tell you. You have to watch this forty minute show. It kind of makes me wish I had a second head. And a giant arm. I don’t know so much about the whole living-on-a-spaceship thing, though.