Revisiting

Nostalgia can be a narcotic. Lately I’ve been going through the accumulated evidence of 50 + years and wondering why I kept it even as each bit triggers memories I’m glad to have. Do I really need this gew-gaw? This piece of paper? This book or album? Part of me can’t bear to part with any  of it, but the practical side of me is starting to sort and allocate in anticipation of the time I just have no more room, no more interest, and no further use. I’m already cutting back on acquiring more. I have enough music on my shelves to last another couple of decades, by which time I could start all over. I don’t need any more. I’m trying to figure out how to arrange my days so I can hear more of it. As for books, well, good lord…

But getting rid of it?

I go through periods of expunging my belongings, making the hard decision that I will probably never read that book (again or even once), that I haven’t listened to that album in 30 years, so why do I still have it. I’m starting to be worried about my photographic archives, which are sizeable and I haven’t made much of a dent in digitizing them (too many other things to do getting in the way, time is finite, and so forth). Recently some opportunities have presented themselves that have taken a little pressure off.

The thing is, I’ve never been able to ignore the practicalities for any length of time and pretend everything will simply go on as it is now. I’ve always known I had to prepare for the time when I won’t be here.

Does that sound depressing? It’s not, I assure you. Better, I think, to know where everything’s going to be and manage to have less of it to deal with than leave a godawful mess behind for somebody else to clean up.

There are two writing projects I have on backburners for which I have a lot of research material to hand. One of them is actually written, but I haven’t found a publisher yet. The other I have to find some time to start. I have very practical reasons therefore for keeping all those books. Believe me, I would like to get them off my shelves, many of them are not the kinds of books I would bother to reread for pleasure.

But I have other sets of books about subjects that I have vague notions about using for future projects, and I’m wondering if I’m ever going to get to them. (As I sit here, I can look up at a row of biographies of American presidents. I had a notion once of reading through them chronologically, but I haven’t read a one of them yet, and I stopped collecting them. It’s not that I don’t know anything about these people, but what I have learned I gleaned from histories of the periods, not specific biographies. Am I ever going to get to them?) Part of my conundrum is that I do not read particularly fast. I have the Oxford Histories of the United States on another shelf, each volume covering a specific period and each one a brick. Reading one can take up to a month of my time. (Fortunately I’m usually able to keep four books going simultaneously, but even so…)

And then of course there’s the music and the movies and tv series…

I have a hunger to absorb as much as I can. I never thought about this for years, because there was always more time, but.

Nostalgia combined with dissatisfaction can be genuinely painful.

There was a time I thought—carelessly—that I could do anything. You can go through life thinking that as long as the things you do do are successful. If you never turn your attention to the rest, you’re never confronted with your actual limitations.

But once you are, you have some choices to make. Howl at the injustice, turn inward, resent the short span of life and the confines of your imagination, or—

Or take inventory, acknowledge reality, and embrace what you can. You might be surprised at just how fortunate you have been to do, be, and experience what you have. And that taking life as it comes without worrying about what won’t come leaves you with an open field for the next wonderful thing.

Clearing one’s inventory can make the coming experiences fresher. That whole Zen notion of letting go (more or less) and letting the past remain the past. There is one central question I’ve found useful to ask and answer, providing we don’t take it as some kind of final judgment.

Have we done what we’ve done as well as we could?

Certainly we’ve all left some things twisting in the wind. All kinds of reasons to walk away or, often, we are prevented from seeing something through to some ideal conclusion. But in the moment, did we do the best we could, honestly, and with care? All those things you wonder if you should keep—none of it has an answer other than to remind us of the question.

I’m not advising complete divestment. I love my books, my music, my home, my things. But certain of them I love more and maybe would appreciate better with less competition around them. Many of us use our possessions as markers, extensions of identity, augments to personality. That’s why getting rid of some things is so hard. But it’s not an accurate way to see things. They do not make us more, we make them important. It behooves us to choose carefully what we invest with that kind of authority.

Anyway, it is not my intention to be maudlin. I’m just ruminating n the midst of the archaeological dig of my life to date, and thought I’d share some observations. I’m going to go work on some fiction now.

Oh, and—yes, I think I’ve done what I’ve done as well as I could. To paraphrase Arthur Miller, I’m going with the idea that the goal is end up with the right regrets, the worthwhile second thoughts. Those would be those that add to the achievements not bury you in pointless nostalgia.

Anyway, be well.

Year One

A year plus since retirement. October, 2021, I left the regular work-world. It was a harder decision than anyone knew, even me. I’d certainly given myself enough advanced notice, letting my employer know eight or so months in advance. Plenty of time to train replacements, let people get used to the idea. Even me.

Now it’s December of ’22 and I wonder at the time.

I’m sure most people have plans. Plans. “I’m going to do—.” Sure. And then reality swallows everything and what happens happens and maybe some of those plans survive. I’m looking around an office I had every intention of thoroughly cleaning, rearranging, and updating. Well, the piles are in slightly different places, and some of them are different piles than before, but in the main it doesn’t look like I’ve done a thing.

The same goes for the rest of the basement. Attempts have been made, but frankly I need a month in which nothing else makes demands on my attention.

I have, however, managed to clear some dust off my career (writing) and make some headway in getting it back on track. After my novel-writing period more or less crashed and burned, I finally decided to turn back to short fiction, and to my pleasant surprise things picked up. I’ve written and sold a score of new stories. And now I have a new novel coming out in the spring. (Not science fiction, which is a bit of a surprise, though very welcome. More about that later.) In recent weeks a few things have occurred to give me hope that matters will turn around even more. Allow me to leave that vague for the time being.

I include as an element of any advice I dispense to want-to-be writers that of paramount importance for a career is Persistence. Just showing up is inestimably vital. You cannot succeed if you quit. Persistence does not guarantee success, but surrender pretty much guarantees no success. I’m now of the opinion that this is a matter of playing in traffic. Put yourself out there, in the flow, and eventually something will hit you. Not the most coherent plan, but with few exceptions the one most of us are able to act on.

The thing I did not count on is the fading of desire. I remember the fire, the urgency, the firestorm of optimism, and the excitement at the creation of new work. The impatience with the molasses progress of execution. Why should it take so long to get these words down in the right order? Why did everything take so long…

And now, forty years after making the decision to pursue this thing, that burning eagerness has lessened. I’ve become a bit jaded and quite tired. Partly this is a kind of maturity that counsels me to use myself more efficiently, that the fire never added much to achievement. It still takes so much time to write something, to edit it, to shepherd it through the stages of getting it out into the world, and that now it seems to take the same amount of time as it did when in the grip of the fever. Calmer impulses marshal resources to better effect. 

But more than that, I simply don’t suffer from disappointment and disillusion as much. Rejections still hurt, but not as much, and there’s a muffling kind of acceptance that seems therapeutic now. If it will happen, fine, I can only work the machine the best I know how and wait.

I wonder if this is not just the result of callouses grown thicker and that I’m missing out on something that I once felt to be so significant, possibly even the point.

Still, I’m working. I believe I’m writing better than ever, the work that goes out is better. My impatience is the only thing that seems lacking.

And then there is the rest of life…

I’ve begun reading philosophy again. Once upon a time, I was a casual admirer of Ludwig Wittgenstein. I appreciated some of his approaches to what was known as Logical Positivism, part of the Analytical School of modern philosophy. Primarily, it was his (quite arrogant) thesis that all of philosophy’s “problems” stemmed from misapprehension and misconstruals of language. That if we just figured out how to be absolutely clear, we would understand. Granted, he realized later how simplistic this claim was and embarked on a deeper analysis of language structures and their application to questions of the real. 

I have believed for some time that science fiction is at base the most philosophical of literary endeavors, that the primary assumptions in most of it have no relevance outside an attempt at understanding the nature of reality in a unique way that emerges in the array of speculative presentations against which human struggle might be understood in evolutionary terms. In a way, the very idea of The Future has no actual meaning outside a philosophical framework. The best we can say is that something will follow the Now in which we exist. We call that the Future, but it has no material reality that we can examine. By the time there is something to examine, it is no longer The Future, and from our position Now we can only make assumptions about the Future because Now is the Future of a Past we can cite.

That is the exact sort of proposition that one would find in a good piece of science fiction. It is also the sort of thing that informs philosophical propositions.

It relates here, now, in this, because the day I retired I had a speculative framework of what my Future would be like. Ambitions, desires, expectations. (If you think about, life is a science fiction story.)

I haven’t attended to philosophy as such for some time now. It would be fun to get together a group (again) for regular discussions. The last several years have in so many ways challenged common agreements on causality, truth, and commonality itself, and it seems the only sane responses are either to yield to the impossibility of ordering the conceptions of the world (insanity) or work at better understanding in order to create conceptions that reduce the chaos. Ultimately we can only control our own reactions. 

Some of this, for me, comes from having reached a strange place in relation to those past ambitions. I am in many ways more comfortable in my own skin than I have ever been, but at the same time I recognize the world around me as a place I do not know how I found. I’m reading older books, my indulgence in history has increased, and yet I still revel in the new voices I encounter, even while the names on the spines fail to spark the kind of thrill I once had regularly seeing a new work by an author with whom I was familiar. I can see clearly how nostalgia can become a trap, one we may not wish to escape. The familiar has such gravity, increasing year by year, distorting our path.

It’s Christmas weekend. The landscape is punctured by rabbit holes. The people you surround yourself with (and who are likewise surrounded by you) are the only guidons to keep you on the solid plane of vital connections. The deep structures of reality (of perceptions) are anchors to a world navigable to the betterment of the soul. The hypotheses of conspiracy wonks are less than the shadows on Socrates’ cave wall. (I will not call them conspiracy theories—that elevates them above their utility and lends credibility where none exists—but at best hypotheses, at worst con games designed to distract from actual living.) I am still with my partner of over 42 years. Snow fell yesterday. The sun is bright today. I’m listening to some very good music (late period Herb Alpert, if you care to know—he seems to have left behind the heavy reliance on “catchy” tunes and clever hooks that made him so popular in the 60s but he is still one of the cleanest horn players around) and I have the capacity to speculate on matters of moment. The trick is to identify what matters.

Wittgenstein, as I noted, asserted that we need find the clearest way to express ourselves in order to “solve” the problems of philosophy. I have no real quarrel with that idea—after all, I’m a writer, story aside my work consists of trying to find clearer ways to say things that might lead to truth—but I would only add that life does not have A Solution. Living is a process, an evolving set of realignments, relocations, and above all recognitions (re-cognitions). There is no single answer, only the ongoing encounter and construction of an imagination that renders chaos meaningful.

Starting on that path can be as simple a thing as cleaning up one’s office. 

Current State

I finished the final edits on a new novel, which is for the moment scheduled for an April 2023 release. It’s a departure for me, in that it is not science fiction. Several years ago, after finishing a novel, I considered the possibility of switching genres, so I wrote two non-SF books, both in some fashion murder mysteries. One of them, because I had done so much research on St. Louis, I decided to do as an historical. I set it in the 1780s, starting just after the Revolutionary War Battle of St. Louis. After that, I decided to try a contemporary mystery. That one is not set in St. Louis, but in a fictional county in Southern Missouri. As of this writing, it did not come out as well. It’s the historical that is set for publication (through Blank Slate Press, an imprint of the Amphorae group).

Having sent it off, I collapsed into a weeklong period of exhaustion. Not that I haven’t experienced something like this before, but usually only for a couple of days. My past aftershock has included a spate of housecleaning and the tucking away of the odds and ends of the writing process. This time it was all I could do to get out of bed. Largely an emotional reaction, it still bothered me a bit, but I’m better now and starting to think about the next project.

I still have several novels on hand that need homes. (Including that less-than-wonderful contemporary mystery, which I fully intend to rewrite now that I know what the problem with it is thanks to a friend’s review.)

But I’ve found myself introspective. I have to face the reality that I am likely never going to be a New York Times Best Selling author. I suspect there is a window for such an achievement and I missed mine. (I doubt I’ll ever win an award, either.) Two thoughts about that: given my career and what I have achieved, I think I’m okay with that. And…it’s better to be reasonable about one’s expectations. I’m not sure I have the energy anymore to engage with all that bestsellerdom might require. And the next novel I write will be a slower, lower-key process. It’s surprising to contemplate how much energy is expended in maintaining high hopes and expectations.

(That said, it could happen, and I will certainly not turn away from it.)

Long ago (and not so far away) I began a set of novels and short stories under the overall title of The Secantis Sequence. The first novel, Compass Reach, was shortlisted for the PKD Award. That’s as close as I’ve ever come to a major award. There were two more novels published and number of short stories. It was built as a mosaic universe, so while certain elements are consistent in the background, they all could deal with different characters, different locations, different time periods. I’m still publishing short fiction set in this universe, the most recent being Exile’s Grace in Analog. I have a handful under development. I have concrete plans for two more novels, one of which is finished (has been for a long time) and the other of which I haven’t even begun. Originally I had vague intentions of just mining this universe for several novels, just to see where it all went, but the vagaries and vicissitudes of publishing kind of derailed that.

Now I’m looking at this new novel and considering the possibility that I may be writing historical fiction for some time to come. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but certainly not bad. I do have rough plans for an ongoing series based on the characters and setting. What gives me pause is the simple fact that I’m soon to be 68 years old. The question of how much time I have to see any of this through is no longer theoretical. Now, there’s nothing wrong, and I am from long-lived stock, so barring unexpected catastrophes I think I have a reliable 10 to 20 years left, but it is now a factor, and will become more so.

Choices now take on sharper meaning. I love science fiction. The fact is, though, I am not as well read in it as I once was. The bulk of my reading these days is nonfiction. What I see coming out lately I am impressed with, but some narrative conventions (and expectations) have changed. This is inevitable. It was going to change. It might have changed in any of several directions, and just now this one seems fertile ground for some seriously good speculative work. But I’m not as conversant with the work or the players as I once was. What this means for my work is simply that I feel free to write what I find most interesting to write, without paying much heed to what may be popular just now. I write with the hope that there will still be room for voices like mine. But I’ve been given an opportunity to go in another direction completely, which may work out better. I don’t know. I can say that whatever I write next will be from the heart. That’s always the best source. This is such a difficult thing to do that you really should love what you create, otherwise it can be a dreary slog.

On that age front, I went to the gym this morning and did a full workout, up to my best level. At this point, I will continue to do this until something breaks. (No going gently into any night for me.) More importantly, I am still interested. I get tired but the next day I’m looking for something to engage with.

I’m about to do a dive into World War II history (I have no idea why just now, though I did have an idea for a horror novel a few years back set during the Berlin Airlift…)

On the homefront, my father is not well and we’re counting time. He’s 92. I will have more to say about that when the time comes. I have been retired now for nearly a year and it has been an education in what I may be like going forward. I discovered back in the 1990s that I had the discipline to work at home and produce. I’m still capable. The thing is, there’s more than just writing I want to accomplish and that will require some adjustment.

Altogether, life is good. I cannot complain, although I do, and I will. Recently my mother pointed out to me that I’ve been very fortunate in that I have pretty much done what I wanted most of my life. It’s curious how when you’re in the midst of that kind of luck, it rarely feels like it, but she’s right. I’ve had only one job that I came to loathe, and my last job was wonderful beyond words. I’ve published books and told stories. I found my life partner 42 + years ago and we have a good home. I’ve done the things I wanted to do (perhaps not quite at the level I wanted to do them, but that’s getting picky) and it appears I’ll be able to continue doing them.

Why am I saying all this? Because the majority of my posts in recent years have been political, bristly, occasionally tortured, and attempts at some kind of wise observational prose about the world and people, and not always very pleasant. Personal views, certainly, but not a lot of just personal, and often not of a positive nature. I’m not a sage, far from it, and I look back occasionally at posts of the past and cringe sometimes at the naïvety or the lack of proper restraint. I think I’m better at fiction. But they stand as a record of what I thought or felt at that time. It’s easy to get into the role of curmudgeon. But once in a while, you need to just let people know how things are and what’s happening.

For those of you who have stuck by all this and will continue to read these meanderings, I very much appreciate you. Thank you for coming along for the ride. I would like there to be many more years and many more miles.

Later, then. Have a good one.

The New Look

This is the new author photo. At least, for now. I want to thank my pal, Tom Ball, for patiently doing a good job. Being the photographer means I’m usually not in the pictures, so it always feels a bit weird to be the subject. But Blank Slate Press requested “recent” photographs, but there really aren’t any, so…

Anyway, the Author as he is.

 

Time For A Photograph, I Think

 

We are returned from a trip to Colorado. Family wedding. In spite of being a stone’s throw (so to speak) from the mountains, we did not get to them. Reserved for a future trip. But I can’t go anywhere special without my camera. I’ve been photographing things since I was 14—53 years. I think I’ve gotten reasonably good at it, but that’s not really for me to say.

In Loveland, we found a marvelous park filled with flora, fauna…and a lot of sculpture. I made this image.

Now, I’ve had a gallery open for some time now. The images there are available for purchase—you can even pick from a variety of frames—as well as for perusal. This one, for instance. Here’s the direct link:

https://Markimages.zenfolio.com/p615992500/e175f6fc3

Not that I’m being pushy or anything, but…I think it would look great on someone’s wall.

Have a good summer.

Trekness

I sometimes marvel at my own inability to apprehend the cluelessness of my fellow beings. Some positions come out of the zeitgeist that leave me gobsmacked at the utter feckless density of people.

And then I recover and reconsider and realize, no, I’ve been hearing this kind of nonsense my entire life. One just never expects it from those one considers allies. It calls into question all assumptions, then, about what one considers an ally, and the realization (which has always been there, really) clarifies that it’s all surface.

There are fans of Star Trek who have apparently only ever cared about the ship, the uniforms, the phasers, and the astronomy (such as it is). When it comes to the message? Not so much. They groove on the coolness of the æsthetics and manage never to quite grasp the underlying themes. Their favorite episodes, no doubt, are those with the maximum number of phaser blasts. Stand-offs between the Federation and the Klingons/Romulans/Cardasians/etc are held up as the whole point of the show. Somehow, they have reduced the entirety of the universe to a military SF genre.*

Fair enough. There has been a great deal of that. It’s exciting, it pulls in eyeballs, it offers a kind of astropolitical board game view of the future interstellar gestalt. But after 50-plus years of an expanding milieu, I can’t say that those have been the episodes or arcs that have stayed with me or had the deepest impact or resonance with me.

I do not see those as the soul of Trek.

They’re aberrations. They are presented as the thing to be solved so they stop happening. And the thing being defended is the vast, peaceful diversity of a polity steeped in nurturing the best of what is possible. The motto that started the whole thing and continues to be the basis for each new series—seek out new life and new civilizations—is the heart and soul of it, but that seeking and finding comes with a commitment to learn, grow, adapt, and remake ourselves in the face of the new.

In other words, it’s not about conquest, it’s about mutuality.

To be perfectly clear, Star Trek has been “woke” since the very beginning, when that multi-ethnic bridge crew appeared in living rooms all across a white-dominated United States. Equality and diversity have been the underlying given throughout the whole franchise. Poorly handled at times, muffled at others, occasionally embarrassingly unaware, but all through it.

Here’s the thing about aliens in science fiction. They have always, for the most part, been stand-ins for humans who are different. They have always been there as something against which to react and learn about differences. They have always been there as challenges to assumptions.

The conflicts? In the best and most memorable examples, breakdowns in communications, understanding, or intolerance unmitigated.

Oh, sure, there has been a great deal of war-fueled SF born out of recasting our own conflicts. More than a few based on WWII, the Cold War, Vietnam. But even among the best of these, there is the message, to be read if willing, that the whole thing is a mindless, stupid mistake that brings all parties down in the end. “Winning” is a lesson in irony.

The lesser material revels in the glory of conflict and the “honor” of coming out on top.

I can see no instance of Star Trek in which this has ever been a laudable scenario. Even Kirk, cowboy that he was, almost always did everything he could to avoid conflict. His worst moments were those in which he gave in to the easy solutions and wore the mantle of revenge.

For the rest of it, everywhere you looked the show extolled the virtues of cooperation, of dignity, of equality, of diversity. It was just there.

So the complainers, those who have somehow been taken by surprise that there is a core of empathy and acceptance and tolerance and an examination of difference and an exaltation of plurality and discussions of what it means to live in a society where everyone by right is accorded the agency of self-worth and the benefits of choice and that, yes, these are the bases of political discourse, have frankly not been paying attention.

Maybe their filters have been set too high and now that we have a few recent examples where the continual, ever-present message has been a bit more foregrounded than in past examples, they are shocked that what they saw as one thing, is actually much, much more. Star Trek has not become Woke (and I find it fascinating that a term intended to signify a state of awareness, of people paying attention, of recognizing what is around you has been repurposed as a pejorative by those who clearly would rather not be challenged by any of that, much the same as all past slurs of the anti-intellectual, the empathetically-stunted, the self-satisfied, the privileged ignorant) it has always been.

Just what do you think all the controversy over Kirk and Uhura kissing was about if not a bunch of unself-conscious racists reacting against an example of what we term miscegenation? Maybe go look up Loving v Virginia for a bit of then-current background. This was Trek saying “this should not be an issue!” But it was and it offended and had the term been current then, people would have been calling the show Woke.

Certain people have a deep investment in not seeing what they find challenging to attitudes with which they are comfortable. In this case, I’m quite pleased they are being unsettled. Squirm.

What I challenge here is the a-historical nonsense being touted that SF has never been political. SF by suggesting the future will be different is fundamentally political. SF by suggesting that change is essential is  fundamentally political. SF by suggesting that we still do not know what Being Human means is fundamentally political.

And SF that actively seeks to deny all this and puts forth a philosophy that such matters are settled and all that remains is for us to assert an end to self-discovery…well, that kind of SF comes in two forms: dystopia and crap. (The dystopic form is aware that this is merely an assertion of power and is basically wrong. The other form is philosophical onanism and is essentially anti-science fiction.)

I find it sad that these things need to be said. I grew up with Star Trek and from the very beginning it was the most positive piece of science fiction on television. It offered a future free of things like poverty, the KKK, anti-intellectualism, tribalism. Those are the aspects of it that sank in, made it a narrative that could not be denied, and has led to what it became today. Not the guns, not the wars—the aspirations of a future worth living in, for everyone.

If that’s being Woke, I’ll take it. Better than staggering through life asleep and destructive.

 

_____________________________________________________

 

*”But I don’t wanna see stuff about LGBTQ+ or compromise or learning about alien life forms so I can live with them or about empathy or how flawed humans are or any of that gooey touchy-feelie let’s-all-love-each-other shit!” Then all I can ask is, “Why in the Verse are you reading or watching science fiction in the first place? Just for the SFX? How sad.”