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.

 

Bad Mimic Blues

Like any job, sometimes you have to go into work whether you want to or not. It feels strange, though, because writing is something you do voluntarily. If you wake up one morning feeling antipathetic toward it, you really can’t blame the boss or the commute or the time it consumes when you could be doing something you give a damn about. It’s perverse in that you can’t find the joy sometimes and you end up resenting…something.

 

A variety of syndromes attach to this problem, one of the most pernicious being something called Impostor Syndrome. This is not relegated only to writing, a lot of people in many different fields suffer this, the feeling that you aren’t really what you’re trying to be. That you maybe got lucky a few times and people think you’re really what you appear, but inside you can’t help but feeling like a fraud. You didn’t do this. You pulled a stunt, worked a trick, you’re one of the monkeys that typed out Hamlet. It’s partly to do with intentionality, sure, but it’s often connected to this periodic sense of inadequacy in the face of a given task. You have a story to write and you got nothin’. Words lie there on the page (the screen, whatever) and taunt you by their insipid mediocrity. Last month you barreled through a story and finished it up and sat back with a feeling of accomplishment, but now you know that was a fluke.

Then, too, there’s the money. As in, not much. The public perception of A Writer is completely at odds with the reality, but you can’t help but compare yourself to those Other Authors who do seem to conform to that perception, and you wonder why you can’t manage that. The low pay, the rate of rejections, the overwhelming lack of impact your work creates, all conspires to undermine your confidence, and even though you do not believe in fate or destiny or any of that kind of superstitious nonsense, the feeling that the universe is trying to tell you something creeps in, gets past your rationality, infects you with a kind of malaise that feeds on the opinion that you just don’t have what it takes.

Well, in that sense, no one does. It’s damn hard work, no doubt. And it is the work that creates the effects, not any cosmic scale or judgment or notion of fairness. The work. 

And work is tiring. A lot of it is boring. Your contentedness depends on averages, good days versus bad days. If you have enough good days, you can ignore the bad ones, but you will have bad days.

But once in a while, all the enthusiasm in the world is insufficient to keep the self-doubt and boredom and weariness at bay and you will succumb to feeling like it all has no point. 

The first several years I worked at being a writer, I lost count of how many times I quit. Nothing but rejections, angry, frustrated periods of depression, just what do these people want? One day I remember receiving four rejections at once. That was a dark night. “I quit! I don’t need this! Fuck ’em!” Like they were waiting for me to produce what they wanted, me, Mark Tiedemann, and my quitting would somehow make them feel bad.

My first short story sale paid  $15.00, but I felt like it was hundreds of dollars. I floated on that high for months. The next sale got me $19.00, the third $30.00. Hey, the pay was going up. 

Then I sold a story for $525.00.

And then the magazine was killed before my story appeared and I felt it all crash down around me, as if the gods were up there laughing at me. I had put a lot on that story—a professional sale for a magazine with a large distribution, I’ll get noticed! Well, no, just kidding, no one will see that story, ha ha.

The emotional reactions to the business end of writing seldom sync proportionally to reality. This is one of the things we have to learn and hang onto. It’s not you. That doesn’t necessarily make it feel better, but it get you through to the next one.

My response to this one was to apply to Clarion, the workshop. And I declared that if they rejected me, I would quit. Because if they thought I could not even be educated, then maybe I was chasing my tail to no purpose.

They didn’t reject me.

Here’s the thing. I was working a full-time job while trying to do this. Writing got maybe two hours a day. Besides the job, there was Life to tend to. Clarion was the first opportunity I had to do nothing but work on fiction all day for several weeks. I learned then that it is the work, working at the work, that matters. 

Things improved after Clarion. To date, I’ve sold 70 short stories and a number of novels.

The money is still not commensurate with the hours.

But 70 stories and a dozen books is a career. 

And I still have these times when I feel like a fraud. Maybe it’s linked to serotonin or something. But it is aggravating to be continually reminded how little actual control I have over all this, even my own emotions. Sure, it’s partly a disconnect between expectations and experience, but you would think I’d know that, in my bones, by now. 

This is life. Eventually, I’ll go from one room to another and the feeling will change and I’ll be back at the work. Engaged. Maybe I should learn to pace myself, but there’s too little time for that, though even that idea is nonsense. 

For you who share these feelings—and I suspect it’s most if not all of us—I wish you to take a smidgin of hope from this. Be cool. We all go through it. It will pass, especially if we keep in mind that the important thing is…the work.

Even if you feel you are not a writer, that what you do is a fluke, the work needs doing. Pretend to do it. Imitate what you feel you are not. Be a mimic, if necessary. It may not be impostor syndrome so much as a mild case of Bad Mimic Blues. But write. Eventually, the work becomes the main thing again and the rest just fades.

Hope this helps.

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.”

Life Of Words

My last post dealt with my principled opinions and feelings about book banning/burning. This one will be personal.

I realize it sounds clichéd when someone says reading saved their lives, but it shouldn’t. Our lives are saved by the people around us, those who are with us, relatives and friends and teachers, in an ever-widening circle of familiarity. That network is the reason we are alive and the people we are. I know it’s fashionable to try to claim island status, that we are ourselves by our own hand, but it’s nonsense, and even those most stridently dedicated to that bit of myth know better, unless they are so utterly isolated as to be clinically dysfunctional. That claim is made for a simple reason—certain people don’t wish to be beholden to those of whom they disapprove. 

As a result, at some boundary away from the center, as that circle of support expands, many reach a point where they stop knowing or caring about or accepting the next ring. The connection is too vague, from a place too unfamiliar, about people too unlike us.

Well, that’s where reading comes in. And it is absurd not to understand that books are part of that inner circle for many of us. They are our friends, with us, teaching. They are a refuge and a source of understanding. The moment we begin to read a book, it comes alive and is there. 

As I have written before, I did not have a particularly great time as a child. Not horrible. But I had trouble fitting in. Many of the daily fascinations of my “friends” baffled me. Once I got into school, these bafflements led to embarrassments which led to further disconnects which opened the door to bullying. 

Movies, tv, and books became my safe place. 

I had a small assortment of Golden Books, a couple of Dr. Seuss books, and a bizarre variety of comics. There were no bookstores near me at that time, so I don’t even know where they came from. We occasionally went to a big Drug Store called Katz (we called almost any store that had a pharmacy department a Drug Store, whether that was its primary business or not) and they had a magazine section where some of my comics came from. I got my first library card when I was six and there was the school library.

Unknowingly, my world was expanding.

I discovered “real” books around the age of 10. Real Books were books with no pictures. I admit the transition was difficult—I am primarily a visual person. What developed was a reading method that reached its peak around age 15 or so and has to some extent stayed with me. I loved movies. Upon starting a new novel, I would cast the characters and in my mind I ran a film of what I read, translating the words into scenes. By the end of high school, I was reading close to a 100 books a year (my senior year I read about 200, cutting class regularly to go to the public library for the day and sit reading). This fell off sharply when I got a job, but I have maintained a reading rate of between 50 and 100 books a year since. Although, as I got older I found myself reading more deeply, therefore slower, and so my average is somewhere between 60 and 80.

There may have been a year or two where my reading fell off close to nothing, but for 60 years I have never not read.

I had no idea reading could cause controversy until I was in seventh grade. The year before I had started bringing books to school, mass market paperbacks, most of which fit easily into a back pocket. I tried to find someplace to read during recess. I had little interest in going out to the playground. Eventually I found an unused room behind the stage in the gym where I could read for half an hour. I was smart enough not to disappear completely during recess, lest they try to come find me. I don’t know if that actually worked or if someone figured out what I was doing and decided to leave me alone. 

I did find my popularity with the girls rising. Many if not most of them were also readers. And they would borrow my books when I finished. In retrospect, I did bring some rather “inappropriate” books to school. Emmaus was a parochial school. Last Summer, The Master of Falconhurst, Flowers In The Attic…probably not what the parents of those girls would have considered suitable. And in hindsight, this was the reason they were borrowing my books and not getting their own. They couldn’t.

It didn’t become an issue until the principal, a dour older man named Adolph Oberman, caught me with a copy of Harold Robbins’  The Carpetbaggers. He took it, glowered, said nothing, and called my parents.

The Carpetbaggers is filled with quite explicit sex. For its day, quite explicit. 

The conference Mr. Oberman had with my mother and me was educational. (Yes, I was present. I think he expected a united front in making me ashamed of myself.) He handed the book to my mother and asked if she was aware that I was reading it.

“No,” she said. “Why?”

He was a bit dismayed. “Do you think this is appropriate for him?”

She shrugged. “If he can’t handle it, he’ll stop reading it. Or he’ll ask me about it. Either way, I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t censor what my son reads.”

Mr. Oberman was shaken. I was surprised, too, not because I had any sense of the book being a problem, but because I had come to expect that anything I did that resulted in this kind of a conference was automatically A Bad Thing. That my mother was putting the ball back in his court was unexpected. 

“I would prefer he not bring such things to school,” was about all he could manage.

On the way home she asked me where I had gotten it, but that was all. No lectures, not demands to see what else I owned, no impression of disapproval.

My mom is a hero to me.

It was around this time that I got my first bike and found the neighborhood bookstore. When my parents realized that I was spending my allowance on books, my allowance increased. They never questioned what I brought home.

Entering high school in the fall of 1968 was to walk into a maw of a cultural beast in full transformation. Till then I was marginally aware of “hippies” and the War and the Counterculture. Over the next few years I found out what it was all about and had a front row seat at the battle to control information. My favorite history teacher was reprimanded for allowing a debate over Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation to take place. I challenged the syllabus for its insipid choices and was finally told flat out that the books selected (for our school, which was traditional blue collar school) were chosen because they were short enough not to challenge our presumed attention spans. I read Fahrenheit 451 and learned about the history of censorship and suppression—

—which baffled me and angered me. These were my friends—the books—how dare anyone burn them?

And this is what nonreaders do not seem to get. Books are alive the moment a reader finds them. They are conversations. They are what remain of lives long gone yet through them still present. They are the Past, they are people, they are the future-maybes, they are the record of civilization, and they are the repository of the whole of human experience. When I could not talk to my peers, when they had nothing they wanted to say to me or know from me, I could open a book and be with people. 

For a long time I didn’t appreciate that aspect, but as I grew older I realized that the relationships on the pages I had attended to were, in their own way, as worthy and rich and supportive as those with flesh and blood on two legs and a whisper in my ear. Sometimes more so, because here these people, many long-dead, were explaining themselves to me, which most of the people around me never did. And because of these silent conversations via the word, eventually I understood the people around me, too.

It did save a lot of time and grief.

Granted, it can put one at odds with the people around you. For a time, as many devoted readers know, you are the odd one, the weirdo, the bookworm, the nerd, the dork. For a people who seem to value Experience, I always found it curious—and unfortunate—that they never realized that reading, close reading, is experience.

But some seem to sense, even understand in a clever and sly way, that it is, and that experience brings change.

I grew up able to read anything I came across. Did I read inappropriate material? First, define that for me. Secondly, I would hope so. You don’t expand your self by playing it safe and staying within arbitrarily defined “appropriate boundaries.” And, really, reading a book is about the most risk-free exposure to inappropriate there is.

Back at Emmaus, another incident occurred which I did not know about at the time, at least not the full story. That stolid, conservative principal, Mr. Oberman, decided, some time between my sixth and seventh grade, to try to bring into the school a sex education program. He found one that had been designed by christians, constructed with a concern about religious sensibilities while still dealing factually and fully with the world of chaos about to fall upon students of our age. There was a presentation at a PTA meeting, which my mother attended. (At the time my dad worked nights, which left mom to deal with this sort of thing.) According to my mother, it was a beautiful course, tasteful, knowledgeable, pitched to just the right level. She thought it would have been terrific. Only one other parent and she voted to approve it. Every other parent there said no. One, according to mom, even said “I never knew any of this stuff, why should our kids need to know it?”

I get the idea—if you don’t tell them, they won’t know to indulge it. It’s a stupid idea, but it’s as common as hydrogen. Because we were being told about it. Only not properly and not factually and not within any kind of framework that would allow us to understand it as it should be understood. We were getting it from older kids, from magazines that “showed up” and were passed around, from the age-old osmotic passage of “forbidden” knowledge that is the font of superstition, trash history, racism, and conspiracy-driven nonsense that somehow Everyone seems to know and no one bothers to verify. We were learning how french kissing could get a girl pregnant, how masturbation will cause cognitive degradation, how sex would cause hair growth, how a thousand other false “everybody knows” bits were true and a science-based course on human sexuality was a sin. All because parents—most of them in that place and time—could not handle the idea of sex education. 

For myself, by then I had acquired the priceless habit of Looking Things Up. I was made to feel stupid a couple of times about sex by my peers. What did I do? I rode my bike to that bookstore and bought a book about it. Love and Sex in Plain Language by Eric Johnson. A slim book, barely 110 pages, with illustrations. That was another book that got passed around to some of the girls. But it was the first time I ever had proof that what my classmates were telling me was empty nonsense.

But the nonsense was being passed around. That sex education course would have been as much damage control as anything else. 

“I never knew any of this stuff, why should our kids need to know it?”

Given that, what might they have felt about other topics? Like slavery or religious bigotry or Manifest Destiny or evolution or—? And we want people like that to determine what everyone else’s children can have access to why? Because believe me, they aren’t trying to keep those books out of their children’s hands for the benefit of the kids.

I imagine it’s possible, even likely, that some people consider me untrustworthy. Unreliable. Corrupt. A Bad Influence. Unpatriotic. I read all those books (somewhere close to 4000 by now) and filled my head with all those things nobody needed to know. 

But having read all those books—and living the kind of life such reading helped give me access to—I also know exactly what such opinions are worth.

2021

I came close to not writing this. I’ve done annual assessments in the past and while they have all been mixed bags of good and bad, I’ve never experienced this level of ambivalence and anxiety, yet at the same time feeling…better.

The big news for 2021 is—I retired.

Most of my life, this was something that never occupied my thoughts in any serious way. I vaguely imagined working till I keeled over dead in the midst of some task. I may yet do that, but not at a dayjob. After about 10 years, I turned in my notice at Left Bank Books, and in October I took my leave of fulltime employment. Believe me, I have very mixed feelings about it, but if I have acquired any skills at self-assessment over the years, it is knowing when I’ve reached a limit. (I will not be entirely absent from there. I’ll be doing some consulting and perhaps hosting certain events, but we shall see how that all shakes out.)

A couple of years back I made the decision to stop writing novels. I’d turned in my last one to my then-agent Jen and looked around and decided to devote my attention to short fiction. Back in the 1990s I had gotten fairly adept at it and then, when the novels took over, I let them lapse. I’d just about forgotten how to write them, So I devoted my attention to recovering that skill and this past year or so it has begun to pay off. I’ve sold five stories to Analog SF, one to a magazine called Fusion Fragment, and I’m developing several more. While from time to time I feel tempted brush off a novel, I’m sticking to this until someone makes me an offer on one already Out There. (I have seven in the queue.) In that regard, 2021 was a Good Year.

On the home front, my father had to enter a care facility last year in December and has been there ever since. Mom is managing. Having more time available means I can be more helpful to her.

Politically? I have never been so discouraged. There are days I just feel like turning my mind off to all the crazy. I won’t. It’s fascinating. Simply put, it has turned out that I did not know the nature of my country the way I thought I did.

I read some great books—not as many as I wanted to, but that should change now.

The pandemic changed a lot. We’re starting to look at new travel plans. We haven’t seen many people. I’ve passed up conventions. It’s a good thing Donna and I like each other as we do.

The net result has been a period of time full of changes without any clear sense of resolution. We’re all of us on hold, really, waiting for the next door to open and not knowing what will be on the other side. That’s always true, but lately that uncertainty is greater than I ever remember. Saying that “at least we have our health” has taken on meaning in a way never before so weighted with conditions and relief.

The coming year is likely going to be an ongoing outreach to friends. No grandiose plans, not epic resolutions, just quiet embraces and communications. I do not lack ambitions, but I’m not sure where to direct them now. I will keep writing. I’m in retrenchment and rebuilding mode. I have no major regrets, but I do have unfinished projects.

I wish for all those I know to be safe, to be as much in the world as good sense allows, and to know that we are here. We may lose people, but we must take care not to lose ourselves. And we need to treasure those we still have and will continue to touch. Be well. And, as the Sojourners say, Travel Far Travel Well.

Peace.

Is Scrooge Merely A misunderstood Businessman?

It was a tradition in our family for many years that at Christmastime we get together, eat, drink, make jokes, and endure the Yule Season with a skeptical resolve to give unto Santa what is Santa’s. We appreciate the spirit but the actual mechanism leaves us a bit chilly. In rejecting the corporate gloss of Xmas, though, we’ve sort of recovered some of what the holiday is supposed to mean, at least according to all the armchair philosophes.

My mother is more enamored of the childlike aspects of Christmas than my father ever was, and he indulged her. She still holds to that in her small way, even as circumstances have changed. We still try to get together around this time, though it has long been a loose calendrical event. 

However, one ritual had worn on me for a long time. I write about it now because the entire country seems in the grip of ethical and moral contests which echo this seemingly minor one and it may be that exploring the small might illuminate the large in some useful way. 

My father, who should be a charter member of the great Curmudgeon’s Club, picks bones as a hobby. He’s good at it. He can find something to carp about with almost any topic. He can be fun to listen to and more often than not we find ourselves nodding with sympathy at some sage formulation from his mouth. 

Except this one. He thinks Ebeneezer Scrooge is a maligned and misunderstood character.

Classic conservative business-speak: “What the hell, he’s employing Cratchit! And Cratchit has a house! A house! How poor can he be if he has a house? As for Tiny Tim, what could Scrooge actually do to save his life? The kid’s a cripple, they didn’t have the medical technology back then. Would just paying Cratchit more help save his life? Everybody beats up on Scrooge and in all honesty, just what can he do?”

It was an aggravating rant because the rest of us knew there’s something he fundamentally missed, yet, like many arguments from specific points, it’s difficult to counter. My mother attempted to explain that the story isn’t about what Scrooge can do for others but what he needs to do for himself. He’s got a lot of money but he’s poor in spirit, and I imagine most people see it that way.

But I grew impatient with it after years and did a little digging.

Dickens wrote four Christmas tales, A Christmas Carol being the most famous. Each was intended to be edifying about some aspect of the Christmas Spirit and they were hugely popular in their day, and A Christmas Carol has remained so, through many reprintings and several dramatic adaptations. If all one is familiar with are the movies and television versions, it might be understood that certain aspects of the story are misapprehended, but I always found this particular view stubbornly obtuse. 

Firstly, you must credit Charles Dickens for his powers of observation. Read any of his other novels and you find a severe critic who was engaged in the close inspection of the world around him. He put down in detail the ills and failures of the society in which he lived and when considering a work such as Oliver Twist or Bleak House one would be hard pressed to complain that he had gotten anything wrong. His chief power as a writer in 19th Century England was as a social critic. So, given that he was not one to complain about something just to complain and was unlikely to abandon truth and fact just to make a point (since his points were all pointedly about truth and fact), why gainsay him in this tale?

Oh, well, we have ghosts and flights of supernatural fancy! Obviously he didn’t mean it to be read at face value in those passages concerning the “real” world. 

Nonsense. Credit him with keen observational skills.

Scrooge paid Cratchit 15 shillings a week. “Fifteen bob” as it says in the book. It’s difficult to be precise, but rough equivalencies can be found. The story takes place in 1841 (or thereabouts). Fifteen shillings then would be the equivalent of approximately 56 lbs today, or about $90.00. 

Now, it is unlikely Cratchit owned that house. He likely rented it. A great deal of housing in London at the time was owned by people who may have kept a townhouse but more than likely lived elsewhere. Rental fees ranged between 2 lbs annually to over 300 lbs. Dickens doesn’t discuss that, but just the cost of food, clothing, and heat—heat especially, which was from coal, and not cheap—would have eaten up most of Cratchit’s weekly salary. Anyway one looks at it, taking care of a family of eight on less than $90.00 a week would be a challenge. 

The goose was likely from a club in which funds would be pooled, paid in advance and over time, so geese could be purchased in bulk (reducing the price somewhat) and then made available to the subscribers at Christmastime. Cratchit was hardly buying such things on a weekly or even monthly basis.

As to what Scrooge might have done for Tiny Tim, well, that is difficult to say. Medicine was not advanced, causes of diseases were only vaguely understood, and many ills befell people simply from living in squalid conditions. The onset of the industrial revolution had drawn people into the cities from the farms by the thousands and they ended up shoved into tenements where the normal barriers that kept disease proliferation in check broke down. Poor hygiene, close quarters, bad water.

Patent medicines were big business. Some of them actually had palliative effects, like Turlington’s Balsam of Life, which sold for between 2 and 5 shillings a bottle (about 12 oz.). That would have been between 8% and 33% of Cratchit’s salary to treat Tiny Tim on a regular basis.

But treat him for what?

There wasn’t much accurate diagnosis of disease in 1841, but Dickens assumes in the story that Tiny Tim’s condition can be alleviated by Scrooge “loosening up” his wallet. Certain diseases Tiny Tim might have had, granted, there would have been no cure. The best that might have been done might have been to make him comfortable. But if we allow for Dickens’ accurate powers of observation, then this wasn’t one of the guaranteed fatal ones.

Tiny Tim might have had rickets. They were rampant in London at that time. The coal used to heat homes, run factories, drive boats up the Thames had filled the air with a dense soot that effectively cut down on sunshine, which would have cut down on vitamin D manufacture, and, subsequently, rickets. A better diet would help—better diet from maybe a raise by Scrooge. But rickets, even untreated, was rarely fatal.

There is a disease that fits the description. Renal Tubular Acidosis. It’s a failure of the kidneys to properly process urine and acid builds up in the blood stream. Enough of it, and it begins to attack the bones. Untreated in children, it is often fatal.

But the treatment was available at the time as a patent medicine, mainly an alkali solution like sodium bicarbonate.

Scrooge’s penny-pinching didn’t just hurt himself and his miserliness could cost Tiny Tim his life.

But it’s also true that Dickens was talking about a wider problem. The tight-fistedness of society was costing England—indeed the world—in spiritual capital. Interestingly, Dickens never, in any of his novels, suggested legislative or government intervention in poverty. He always extolled wealthy individuals to give. He thought the problem could be solved by people being true to a generous nature. It’s interesting in a man so perceptive that he recognized a problem as systemic but then suggested no systemic remedies.

In any event, on the basis of the information at hand and a couple of shrewd guesses, we can see that Dickens was not just telling us a ghost story. The consequences for Scrooge and company were quite real.

There is at the center of the Christmas Spirit, so I have been told and taught from childhood, a benefit to abandoning questions of profit and cost. That generosity should be its own reward. That mutual care is balm to the pains of society as a whole. Scrooge is a Type, one that is with us magnified in ways perhaps Dickens could not have imagined possible, a constricted soul who sees everything in terms of costs, returns on investment, labor, and balance-sheets. Everything. The point of Dickens’ story is that such people not only poison their own spiritual pond but can spread that harm to others simply by never seeing things any other way. The stubborn money-soaked impoverishment in which Scrooge lives does no one any good and the point of Christmas is to at one time a year stopping living that way. 

But Dickens was not all of the spirit. He was a materialist and for him the costs were very real, in terms of hunger and disease and crippling disorder and agonizing despair, and that a man like Scrooge has real, destructive impact on the people around him, whether he knows them or not. The potential for him to Make A Difference was not some sentimental concept bound up in airy essences of fellow-feeling, but in the actual material well-being of people and, by extension, society.

I must here explain that my dad, curmudgeonly as he was in such debates, was in no way a selfish or stingy man. His response to need—need that he saw, that was tangible to him—was axiomatic and without strings. He never was a Scrooge.*

But I think it behooves us to stop paying lip service to the very old and too-oft repeated idea that “there’s nothing to be done.” We may not as individuals be able to fix everything, but we can fix something. We start by fixing ourselves.

The last word here I leave to Tiny Tim

______________

*To be clear, my dad is still alive, but circumstances have changed somewhat, and certain traditions have had to be modified to suit.

Another Note On Whiteness

The last session of the Witnessing Whiteness workshop is coming up. We’ve read the last chapter in the book. While I have been somewhat ambivalent about much of this, I came across points in this final section that resonated strongly.

My ambivalence has to do with the idea of defining White Culture as a starting point for recognizing—and then witnessing—racism. Knowing who “we” are and where we come from sounds reasonable, but when you start trying to put that into concrete terms you realize that “culture” is such a slippery thing that getting a handle on it is tricky and can be exhausting. Like other subjects, we come face to face with the distinctions between tropes and foundations. So much of what we might casually name as aspects of culture are often little more than ephemeral occasions of fashion. What the fashions are built on, that’s another matter, and requires that we look more deeply than perhaps we know how. Or wish to.

Take, for instance, the naming of sports teams. On the surface, this is shallow ground. It’s a sports franchise, a game, an excuse to have a party. Fashion. Who cares what the team is called? (From my perspective, personally, this has always been the case because sports itself has always been, to me, ephemeral and trivial—my hometown baseball teams is the Cardinals. Named for a bird. How is that important to anything other than having a cute handle to identify a local club that plays a game which feeds a desire for public distraction? I am in the minority in this, recognizing that for many people this can be profoundly significant.) The name of a team is a handle. But we discover, sometimes to our surprise, how important such handles are to many people, especially when there is a move to change it. The reasons for the change matter. The backstory of the name, the associations, the pervasive impression made by the name…all these factors spring from underlying structures that usually go unremarked and unrecognized by most people, until challenged.

Knowing those deeper structures—the foundations of Culture—would seem necessary to, at a minimum, prevent difficult and often painful misunderstandings over what seem to be trivial matters. Why would anyone get violently upset over such things? Perhaps having the buried nerves of a less than pleasant past rubbed raw suggests that the upset is less to do with the name than with the historic details of what that name means to people outside the dominant culture—and what those inside that culture wish forgotten.

One argument in defense of offensive emblems—Indigenous mascots, in this instance—holds that these emblems are ideas attached to the subject and in no way are intended to imply anything about actual indigenous people.  They’re caricatures, based on (in this case) archaisms that no longer apply meaningfully to persons currently alive, intended to evoke nostalgia or media representations or isolated virtues associated with. It begins to sound silly. The idea that they are intended to honor the subjects also has sharp limits when you ask What about them is being honored? Basically, when you start questioning the whys of the emblems, you get to a point of diminishing defense and are left with the simple fact of appropriation. That at some point we felt entitled to appropriate those emblems for our own purposes, without meaningful consent, never occurs to the audiences at which they’re directed until the questions are raised.

And then you have what seems like an absurd debate. Absurd partly because the defenders of the emblems refuse to admit that there had never been any reason to do that other than the only thing of value in the emblem to them is that is was safely rendered powerless to be used to mean anything they felt like using it for.

An aspect of White Culture comes into play here:  white people are quite used to relegating to themselves the status of distinct individuals, but even in casual discourse tend to assign all members of any other ethnicity to a blanket definition and stripping the members of that group of their individuality.  Which means that the use of such emblems automatically defines the entire group according to the prejudices of the appropriators. Bluntly, all American Indians are the same and can be signified by a single emblem and no further effort need be taken to understand them as people.

We see this again and again. Pick any minority. All Jews are like this, the Irish are that, Blacks do this, Asians are—you get the idea.

It may be asked, with seeming reasonableness, why would any member of these groups agree to be so defined? They don’t have to participate in such categorization. Again, to put it bluntly, fair enough perhaps until a member of said group walks into a bank to do business the way anyone might expect business to be done, and the question has to be asked—how much of those emblematic definitions are in play on the part of the bank officer who will be determining the value and character of that person, whether or not they will allow business to be done according to the standards and rules that attach to the dealings they would have with a white customer?

Some definitions will not allow people to escape the preconceptions that follow them through the door by virtue of those caricatures so ardently defended by people who never have to worry about such things.

We know that by and large people think with heuristics. Rules of thumb, algorithms encapsulating complex ideas in largely automated responses, semi-conscious conceptual models that allow us to quickly move through life without having to stop and apply critical thinking to every decision. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman has presented findings that not only do people operate largely unselfconsciously, but that we can’t not operate that way. Our brains, evolved in conditions requiring responses to environments that will kill us for a moment’s inattention, are not actually capable of supporting fully conscious thought for more than a handful of minutes at a time. (Recently it has been determined that this period of conscious presence increases dramatically—when we’re in dialogue with someone else. The isolated individual suffers a deficit in this instance, something that will concern us later in this essay.) As we mature, the number of heuristics increases, and we rely on them to make quick judgments, respond to situations in minimal time, and navigate through a world of ritual, routine, and repetition.

But what it also means is that beliefs, points-of-view, prejudices, “received wisdom” and the like tend to operate on us the same way. We go with the “givens” rather than reconsider things with each situation. Such things reside just behind consciousness, often as part of our sense of self, and we tend to be unaware of them until challenged. This makes changing one’s mind difficult at best and changing other people’s minds Sisyphean. What does this mean with regards to racism? It is simply easier to treat members of out groups as all one thing rather than do the work of individuating them. And if that single group definition is negative, well.

(I have listened to racists try to redefine a black individual they happen to like in such a way as to preserve the group definition while recognizing there is something different about “this one.” The definition that always got to me was “He’s a white man in a black man’s body.”)

But wouldn’t white people represent All One Thing in the same way? Yes and no. This is where Witnessing Whiteness enters with an observation that triggered this entire line of thought.

…the individualistic perspective depends upon the conception of the self as autonomous, independent, self-determining, unique, separate, and free. Remember that this orientation matches the modern worldview, which is also associated with being Western and white for many people. 

The shift in self-identity which occurred during the Enlightenment and which enabled people to develop a sense of self-worth apart from institutions, many of which sought to oppress them, is reflected in this passage. The Western ideal of the Individual allows for the concepts of personal autonomy and freedom to acquire real meaning. But in the fraught reality of a frontier world alá the 18th Century North American landscape, it acquired the germ of a pathology which today has flowered into a number of toxic blooms.

Unfortunately, the suggestion that we need to challenge individualism can be easily misunderstood and resisted. This occurs because many confuse individualism with the job of becoming an individual. These are two completely different ways of relating to the world. The modern self who subscribes to rugged individualism risks becoming isolated, disconnected, and competitive. 

This problem—Individualism—is a pervasive issue bound up with our national myths as much as it is with the psychology of self-reliance.  And both those issues are bound up with what I am calling Pathological Ownership. The whole question of Individualism is problematic here, because it is in the end unachievable. No one can do everything in the claimed isolation of a bootstrapping autonomy. We have been having this argument for decades now with regards to big business and taxes and community obligations, but it begins with individuals who wish to see themselves as wholly independent, self-contained, and unalloyed in their will to be. You might ask, where did this idea come from? Among other sources, this flows from the fount of pseudo-wisdom penned by Ayn Rand, who has become a touchstone for the self-described indispensable man. There is no such thing, really, but there seems to be many people who wish to be, or at least be seen that way. The one trait that seems to bind them all together is a desire to be free of any obligation not entirely of their own choosing. To do that, however, one would have to cut oneself off from almost everyone else.

Rand is not really the problem. She wrote stories. The problem would seem to be in the American apprehension of Story.

There was a clue to this in the chapter under discussion, where Tochluk  makes an observation about a movie which I did not expect. Minority Report, the Steven Spielberg film based on a Philip K. Dick story, pops up, and she describes a scene concerned with a possible future in which everyone is watched, identified, and targeted for advertising. She claimed to be “horrified” by the very notion. How this related to her topic struck me as less important than her reaction, which is not new to me. I write science fiction and one of the things that always dismays me with people who are not especially familiar with it as a genre is how they see it as predictive—that the futures described are how the authors either think they are going to happen or, worse yet, what the author wishes to see happen.

Which led me to an observation about how Americans—some Americans—treat (or mistreat) stories. Science fiction quite didactically and all other genres less so presents scenarios of possibilities, for our entertainment certainly, but also, depending on the book, for discussion. The dialogue is what matters, not the prescriptive element, which with few exceptions is nonexistent. But I’m not at all sure Americans take stories this way. Many of us don’t seek the dialogue. We don’t want to learn from stories, we want to be the stories. Or at least the hero.

Now, this is a perfectly normal kind of process—for children. Role-playing, trying on different personas, looking for models. But this is learning. If we look at this in concert with the process of Individualism described above and in the book, this can lead some to very surreal and often destructive places. (I am minded here of conversations I’ve had over a movie like The Searchers. I’ve known people who identified John Wayne’s character, Ethan, as the Hero and even wished to be like him. When I pointed out that Ethan was a seriously flawed, even sociopathic character, they were dismayed, even angry. They did not see his character as instructive in the sense that “this is something you should not become” but as a role model to emulate. Because it was John Wayne. Because he was the Hero.)

We are raised with stories—nothing unique, all cultures have stories—but here the stories are taken as in some way biblical, certainly nationalistic. We can see part of this in the perennial argument over banned books. This is nothing more than an attempt to privilege “sacred” texts over those that may lead to other conclusions.

Look at the current state of politics and you can see how the three things are combining destructively. Individualism, Pathological Ownership, and Story As Law. (We hear analysts talking about seizing the Narrative. We should pay closer attention to that entire process.)

Now consider these things in relation to race.

The Individualist eschews recognition of community as something on which he or she is dependent, because that would obligate the individual; ignoring the internal elements of Being Human, a set of traits taken perhaps from stories is adopted in lieu of an openness of genuine self-knowledge and an embrace of what is common; and an assertion of primacy of possession so that these things are claimed as Owned, because sharing is seen as a zero-sum game. Other Individuals may also own things and be in some sense equal (but what does that actually mean in this formulation? Equal to what. since we are all unique?), but since all Individuals by definition are “like us” then those not like us cannot be Individuals and therefore can claim no privileges.

If we believe that racism is, in Shelly Tochluk’s phrasing, a dis-ease, a pathology, then it is by definition irrational. But the irrational is not causeless. It has components, attributes, defining features. Granted, these are perversions, and the things from which they spring may not be in themselves perverse. If we are going to examine Culture as a source, then we need to look at those aspects of it which have become distorted. I am here offering my conclusions on what the elements of White Culture are that have brought us here.

One more observation. It is not necessary that everyone or even a majority of a group believe a thing in order for that thing to affect the entire population. Beliefs can acquire momentum, and like gravity can bend the whole along an orbit even a majority may not approve. What can make it extremely difficult to correct is when those toxic elements are founded in things we all more or less approve, and which may have no intrinsically toxic effects.

 

1000

I have a few things to talk about here, confluences, if you will. This is an important day in several ways.

This is my 1000th post for this blog. 

One thousand. Averaging, I think, 3 or 4 thousand words each, that’s a lot of wordage. I don’t even want to think about what that might be had I been paid for it.

There are a handful here I thought might be worth marketing, but that’s not why I put the Distal Muse up. I did it this way to avoid being told what not to say (or to say) and because, frankly, this is all personal, which is to say entirely my bullshit.

Oh, not that what I’ve written here is worthless. (I hope.) That’s not what I mean. But a lot of it is simply my viewpoint. My opinion. Take it with a block of salt. I have endeavored to be factual, to base my meanderings on substance, logic, rational apprehensions of what I see. Doubtless some posts suffered from the anger, dismay, or simple lack of comprehension of a given subject at the time. I’ve considered going back and revising where that might make what I said more in tune with my desire for offering a useful view, but two things dissuaded me.

One, I think leaving it as is serves as an interesting look at the evolution of thought and feeling over time (interesting to who I leave to the reader).

Secondly, one thousand posts would be a big undertaking.

I have other things to write.

If there is any common theme running through all this, it may be that the world is always more complex than it seems and that if we let our emotions run riot we simply cannot see that complexity, almost always to our detriment.

How well this might have come across, I don’t know. A lot of these posts are indulgences. Me venting, but just as often trying to work through something I don’t understand. I actually don’t mind terribly much if I got something wrong (well, I do but not excessively) as long as I sparked dialogue. Somewhere. Over something.

If a critic were to select one or two of these to judge me by, they would doubtless paint a vivid, one-dimensional picture of someone utterly dismissible, wrongheaded, and politically biased. Well, I am politically biased—I believe politics should be solely used for the betterment of everyone’s situation, and that if in the pursuit of that, someone decides that some must suffer in order for others to thrive, then they likely have it wrong somewhere. That, or they’re a sociopath. 

(Mind the way I phrased that. If someone must suffer in order for others not to. To my mind, there are those in the world who ought to suffer, just not to serve that particular syllogism.)

I have also talked a great deal about art. Another bias. I believe that without art, we are nothing. Mammals breeding and eating, contributing nothing beyond the recycling of organic resources. Art—music, literature, optical, sculpture, architecture, and all combinations thereof—is our expression of everything worthwhile. Art comes out of love. If there is no love, there is no art, and without art we admit to being blind and deaf to love.

That’s one reason I have no patience with those who discount it, censor it, betray it, even destroy it. Worse still (because they have a notion of it) those who see it as nothing but a commodity. 

1000 posts…

It is also my birthday. I am 67 today. I cannot express how odd that feels to say. I do not feel 67, but then, I’m not sure what 67 is supposed to feel like. I don’t, in this case, feel much different than I did at, say, 47. Well, I sleep a bit more. I predict more naps in my future.

I am also retiring today. The day job, that is. I am officially departing from Left Bank Books, at least on a day-to-day basis. 

About that job.

I cannot begin to convey the roil of emotions leading up to this. Left Bank Books is the Other Great Job I’ve had. I feel my work-life is now conveniently book-ended by two marvelous experiences, different but equally wonderful. I’ve been working there for nearly decade and I cannot find a thing to criticize about them, my experiences there, or the value of those ten years. I wish at times I had been fortunate enough to join them a decade earlier. My coming to work for Kris was unconventional, to say the least, but it worked out well, and I can say without reservation that it has been one of the best experiences of my life. Not being there five days a week, in the thick of it, dealing with something I love (books) and working with some of the brightest, finest people I’ve ever known will take more than a little adjustment.

It was an accidental confluence. Back in the 2000s, as I’ve written about in this blog, I was involved with the Missouri Center for the Book. For a few years, as unlikely as it might seem, I was president. During my tenure we had the opportunity to launch a state poet laureate program. I recruited outside the board to find people I thought capable of doing the selection and preparatory work. That was my introduction to Kris, then co-owner (now sole owner) of Left Bank Books. I invited her to participate. It was one of the better ideas I had then and she did excellent service.

I was soon rotated off the board, but Kris remained for a time. Around then, the dayjob I had then disappeared. I worked at a photolab which was overtaken by the change from analog to digital. The job vanished and I was unemployed. I honestly wasn’t sure what I would do. I continued writing, hoping to land that Big Publishing Contract, but in hindsight it wasn’t likely to happen. 

Then Kris invited me to do contract work for Left Bank Books. They had a second location then, in downtown St. Louis. Sales were flat. She asked me to see what I might be able to do to raise their profile. Thus began a couple of years of going around, talking to people in downtown St. Louis, letting businesses know we were there, and it seemed to have some effect.

At some point, I formally joined the staff and became eventually a full time bookseller. Over the years, I’ve taken on managing the used books department and vetting consignment titles from independently published authors. I’ve worked a lot of events, met an amazing array of people, and have just generally experienced one of the best times in my working life.

Thank you, Kris. I did not expect the confidence you placed in me. And thank you Jay, for almost all that time co-owner. The trust you both placed in me has seen me through what in some respects has been a very difficult ten years.

And thank you, everyone I have worked with this past decade. It has been extraordinary. The conversations alone have been amazing. 

But as I said above, I have things to write, and I am acting on my limits. The last almost two years took a toll. COVID did a number on me, even though I did not get sick with it. 

Going forward, I once more have no idea what may happen. I have some ideas what I would like to see happen, but I’ve learned not to plan, at least not too precisely. 

We’d like to travel more.

I want to make some music.

Photography has never not been something I do.

And this…thing…this blog (unfortunate name for something that has become so important on so many levels for so many people) that I thought might be useful in promoting my work. Whether it has or not, I don’t know. But it has provided a platform for what may often be nothing more than the babble of my backbrain needing a release. It has helped me organize my thoughts, codify my beliefs (or lack thereof), give notice of my sentiments. It serves as a piece of history in a very modest way.

So, the next thing is upon us. I feel grateful. I have been able to do much of what I wanted to do. Not, perhaps, the way I wanted to do it, but still. I intend to continue doing. I’m not finished. And I have ideas…

One Thousand posts. And tomorrow starts a new era.

I hope you’ll stick around to see what happens.

It Was Twenty Years Ago…

…but not today. This year has been hard on keeping track of things, especially dates. Twenty years ago this past June was the release of my first novel, Compass Reach.

 

 

I missed the anniversary. Here it is, almost August (probably will be August by the time I post this) and I forgot to mark the occasion. But, better late than, as they say.

Twenty years.

That novel ran a very twisty path to publication. There was a draft of it complete before I went to Clarion in 1988. The story itself had evolved from a number of sources and ideas over the previous few years until it manifested in the (very rough) first example. So, let’s say I had it in some semblance of novel form in 1987. It was not published till 2001.

Why did it take so long?

Well, a lot has to do with not knowing how the game is played. But. Let me tell you the story of the story.

No surprise to anyone, I grew up loving science fiction, and my favorite part of it was space opera. So when I decided to write the stuff, that’s where I wanted to go. The vistas, the idea of traveling from star to star, the possibilities of all those alien worlds…no matter how practically absurd it might be, I could not get away from it. I loved it. I wanted it. Yes, a starship is a hi-tech Magic Carpet and the captain a repurposed Sinbad. Between 1981 and 1984, I developed the background for what became the Secant. In geometry, a secant is a straight line that cuts a curve in two or more parts. A metaphor, if you will, for space travel. There are other definitions having to do with angles and such and I ended up creating a logo for the series which you can find on the splash page of this website and inside the second two Secantis novels (Metal of Night and Peace and Memory). Yes, I had ambitions. I developed a scheme to write a series of novels set within this universe but few if any would share characters, what has become known as a mosaic universe. (My one exception so far is a kind of loose cannon named Sean Merrick, for reasons which predate even my first attempts at becoming a professional writer.) C.J. Cherryh did this kind of thing and I was a big fan. A great idea, I thought. Especially when you didn’t want to write a straight series with the same main characters.

I created a star map, plotted out distances, made sketches of the various settled worlds, and so forth.  But I needed a story.

The thing that always piqued my curiosity about all these great space epics, even Star Trek, was—how do they pay for all that? I rarely ever found discussion of the economics of interstellar systems. It was just a given that we could build all this stuff. But the economics always felt…incomplete.

So I set myself to study economics (a little) and see if I could answer that question.

It led me to some strange places, one of which resulted in the creation of the Freeriders. Interstellar hobos, to be crude. At some point that became my focus. Then the structure of the polities involved—the Pan Humana and the Commonwealth Republic—evolved from the tension between differing ideas of what inform value and worth. In the former case, the idea of the kind of ownership that results in class systems, in the latter a kind of work-in-progress that is largely if not wholly economically egalitarian, and then all the questions around control, distribution, trade, and the reasons for Doing Things. The basic economics of interstellar civilizations. Rarely has there been a more pointed example of when to leave your research off the page.

I won’t pretend to remember each step, but at some point I started writing, and that is generally how I flesh out ideas. Dive in. I probably had a draft of Compass Reach some time in 1986. I rewrote it a time or two, then did an experiment in revision which entailed a friend who is a first-rate reader and editor spending a long weekend with us and the three of us doing marathon revisions.

That was just before I went to Clarion.

Upon returning, I took a look at the novel and decided, no, this won’t do. Structurally, it was sound, but the writing…no. Just no. But I didn’t tackle it immediately. I wrote short stories. And started selling.

My friend and colleague Nicola Griffith got her first agent somewhere around 1991. I pulled Compass Reach out of the drawer and did another rewrite and, with an introduction, sent it to her agent.  She in turn requested a revision. When I completed it, I sent it back, and our next couple of interactions showed me I could not work with her.

I did one more revision and then went hunting agents. I signed to Writers House around 1995, based mainly on my short fiction. By then I had written Metal of Night and was most of the way through Peace & Memory. The universe was feeling very real by then. I made sketches for a couple more novels and had begun writing short stories set in the Secant.

I thought I had sold the trilogy to White Wolf. Well, I had. I’d even been paid. But they melted down and handed the three books back to me in 1998. In the meantime, Writers House got me the contract to do the three Asimov novels I wrote. It was a rocky deal, but I was desperate at that point to publish a novel, any novel. I felt I was working at a disadvantage because all I’d published to date was short fiction, and I was beginning to realize that publishing had changed and that a track record in short fiction was becoming less and less relevant to then publishing a novel.

A few things happened over the course of a year or so. I nailed down the first robot novel, I lost my agent, started a new job, and then was approached by a small press about the Secantis Sequence. Meisha Merlin finally took the three novels then completed.

Worldcon 2000 was in Chicago. I met the art director for Meisha Merlin, who asked me what I wanted to see on the cover. That night in our hotel room, I sketched a concept. Originally, there were five people in the picture, but I was asked if they could get away with three. (Apparently the price goes up per additional person.) What became the cover for Compass Reach is pretty much what I drew.

I signed with a new agent, Virginia Kidd.

I thought I was on my way.

It’s easy to complain about the disappointments in publishing, but it’s also boring. Except for some colleagues, no one really cares. Meisha Merlin published the three novels and then went out of business. The books were essentially cast adrift. There is a fourth completed novel and we were making plans to publish all the short stories in a single volume. I had—have—plans to write a direct sequel to Peace & Memory. Other books have dragged me from the Secant.

Twenty years ago, though, I saw my first novel out in the wild. It is an impossible feeling to describe. I was graced with a wonderful introduction by Nicola Griffith (Jack McDevitt and James Morrow did intros for the next two respectively) and the damn thing got shortlisted for the Phillip K. Dick Award. It was a high point in my career.

I would love to find a publisher to reissue them and possibly entertain the idea of publishing new ones. It probably wouldn’t be too difficult to get back into it. In fact, I have a novella forthcoming from Analog set in the Secant. It’s a great place to set stories, although I’ve written fewer of them than I thought I would.

Twenty years.

 

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Copies of all three Secantis novels are available from Left Bank Books.  You can, if you request it, get signed copies.