It Hurts

By now, I’m sure, many people know about the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham.  Bill Nye, he of the bow tie, the science guy, stepped up to the podium to have it out, toe-to-toe, with Ken Ham, erstwhile champion of creationism, founder of the Creation Museum in Kentucky which has been the subject of continual mirthful derision by anyone with even a scintilla of understanding about science.  They were to debate evolution versus creationism, which in my mind is like debating the similarities between Einstein and Sasquatch.  Other than the assertion by certain folks that they are somehow (a) equivalent and (b)…well, really, there is no “b” in this formulation.

Apparently even a poll conducted on Christian Today shows that Bill Nye pretty much mopped the floor with Ken Ham, who answered not one single question put to him by Nye in any useful way. Only 9% of respondents apparently saw Ham as the winner.  Of course that won’t be the end of it.  After the debate, a number of self-styled Christians presented questions for Nye which they, presumably, thought would stump him.  Buzzfeed posted several.  Go take a look, then come on back.  (You can also see the entire debate there.)

What’s that phrase? “The stupid…it hurts.”

Was that unkind?  Sorry.  (Not really.)   But while any single one of these can be dismissed as, oh, lack of attention, missed something in biology class (or astronomy), didn’t see that special on NOVA, collectively this amounts to willful ignorance at best.

“If humans came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”  Seriously?  Do you really not know how dumb that is?  You came from your parents—we all did—so why are there still parents?  Sorry, that was flip, but it does, actually, point up the problem, albeit in a rather crude and simplistic way.

And noetics?  That isn’t part of any segment of this debate, so…?

There was a time I would get mightily energized by this kind of thing.  I admit I had a deep-seated interest in being on the “right” side of this debate.  I still do, but it hardly gets me out the door anymore because I realized somewhere along the way that what we’ve been witnessing in the efforts of people like Ken Ham, as strenuous and perhaps sincere as they are, is the death spasm of a world view that doesn’t work.  It never did, but there was a time that understanding that didn’t make much difference, except to a few intellectual outliers here and there.  The fever pitch of condemnation coming from them is the sound of panic as the world prepares to leave them behind.

No, I’m not talking about the death of religion.  I do not believe that is possible.  I’m only talking about a very public formulation of a view of religion that has as its primary purpose nothing more than the regimentation of the faithful and the casting out of the new.  I’m talking about a narrative that seeks to impose and deny.  Impose its substance and form and deny any countervailing view.  I’m talking, really, about style.

Style is about identity.  When we talk about it that way, as style, it seems insignificant in the larger scheme of things.  Fashion.  And much of it is ephemeral.  But shift it to something else, as in artistic expression, and it takes on a bit more meaning.  The style of a writer is that writer’s voice, personality—identity.  There is something so deeply personal about style in this sense and we all recognize it.  We instantly recognize a musician with whom we are familiar by the style of playing.  Unknown canvases by painters declare identity in the manner of brushstroke or photographs betray their creators by the particular angle, frame, contrast.  Style at this level is inextricably linked to identity and when that style is declared no longer valid, a kind of death attends.

Because this is æsthetics, something utterly vital and intrinsic to our sense of self, yet so rarely discussed when any list of what makes us human gets trotted out for debate.  How we see the world and how we react to what we see, this is æsthetics in action and it defines us.  It defines us culturally, historically, and individually.  You can see it in that list of questions, in many ways so pathetic, when the question is framed in terms of awe and wonder.  A sunset, the amazingness of the world—even that fey reference to noetics—these are questions of reaction and interpretation to sensory experience, filtered through a value system that provides us with a quality of self grounded in our relation to the matrix of reality through which we move:  æsthetics.

Ken Ham’s museum displays exhibits showing humans coexisting with dinosaurs.  At some level, this is a world he wishes to have as real.  What kid doesn’t love dinosaurs at some point?  It’s inexplicable.  I’m continually amazed at what seems to be a persistent fascination across generations.  Part of us really wants there to be dinosaurs.  Not only that, but dinosaurs in our midst, at least at some point.

Dinosaurs aren’t in the Bible.  In fact, I know of no holy book in any culture that mentions them unless you want to see dragons as some neolithic abstraction of dinosaurs.   (They’re not, they emerge out of very different pools of myth, namely serpents, the Worm, but after the discovery and ultimate understanding of fossil dinosaurs dragons became more and more visually conforming to them.)  Yet even the most ardent of creationists are fascinated.  There is no mention of them in Genesis, they would never have fit on the ark, and there’s no mention in that story of any animals left behind (the song about the unicorn notwithstanding).  Had they been, we would have found much, much fresher bones, not buried nearly so deep.

At some point people like Ken Ham came to accept the reality of dinosaurs, not as deceptive deposits from Satan to worry our overly-curious intellects, but as species in their own right.  Intentionally or not, they had to accept science in order to make the effort to write them into their stunted history of the universe, which has opened them to eventual extinction as examples of mainstream thought, much less champions of any kind of reality.

In a way, the debate just passed was totally unfair.  Ken Ham kept pointing to his narrative as its own evidence, offering nothing beyond it to answer the evidence-laden arguments of his opponent.  He wasn’t even in the same debate, really.  He was there to insist that all these things Bill Nye represents should be ignored in favor of a story.  He insists that the story is sufficient and this other thing, this science thing, is nothing but an evil distraction from what he thinks is important.  The sad part is he probably doesn’t even know why that story is important.

It’s important because all wonder-based growth begins as a story.  We’re fascinated, entranced, and there’s magic in the narrative.  So much magic that we want to know more.  And so we go looking and if we look honestly we find so much else that transcends the modest confines of that first story.  We find universes of wonder, which we might never have looked for without first having been delighted by a story.  Ken Ham found a story that amazed him.

But then he stopped.  He stopped looking, because, it seems, he never wanted to leave that first moment of childlike wonder, wanting it to be everything.  It’s sad because while we can revisit it and we can experience the same sensation again and again and again, with new discoveries, if we try to freeze that moment and keep it, unchanging, it either fades…or rots…all on its own.  What some folks do then is build a museum in their hearts to preserve a memory that is no longer there, leaving us with the surrounding edifice and an echo.  Without new sounds, new sights, new growth, the museum calcifies and eventually becomes a fossil, never buried, bleached and empty.

At some point, Ken Ham built that museum out in the open for everyone to visit.

Apparently, fewer and fewer go.  It possesses novelty, but no genuine wonder.  And without wonder, what is there?

 

Giants

Sequoias, I’ve heard, are bigger.

Still.

Redwood Stand, July 2013

They almost dare you to photograph them in some unique way, as if knowing that, at least at first, you can’t help but shoot the standard-issue, clichéd image of immense stands of imposing forest.  Walking among them I didn’t feel small so much as unimportant.

That’s something of a cliché as well, but it fits.

We left the Elk River center, drove up 101 a short way, passing another beach, through mist and gray that separated where we were from anywhere else we might go.Sacramento 2013_0075

We stopped at the shore, walked between burms of sand, spent time in the non-place of fog and suggestion.  Donna took this image of me walking toward a horizon invisible and remade constantly.  Isolated as it was, the world shifted and altered.

Time to go inland, then.  Time to find the next stretch of imagination-rich landscape for our memories to feast on.  Time to move further into segments of separated repositories of quiet beauty.

People drove by as we pulled off the road, racing from nowhere to elsewhere, not stopping (how could they not stop? Look at what’s here!), leaving us—and a few others who knew the moment—to bask in the details left lying around by happenstance and million-year evolutionary exuberance.  Sure, there was a road through it, but that was its own delight.

IMG_1749

We didn’t hurry, but neither did we linger too long.  We had a very specific goal on this trip, something left over from the last visit to these parts.  Circumstances had forced us then to choose between the redwoods and Crater Lake.  In 2001, we chose Crater Lake.  Now we have come back to see the Other.

The Others.

We drove into the preserve on an ascending road that wrapped around the base of a rise.  Here, fog did not intrude.  Late morning, the sun speared through the canopy, picking out details in such fractal abundance the whole was all you could really see clearly.  There was parking lot at the side of a footbridge over the road leading to the trail.

In stillness that seemed only recently broken by music, the echoes of ancient rhythms twined around the enormous fingers stretched toward light and air, we walked and stopped and walked again and pointed things out to each other and walked and gaped.

Gnarls in Redwood,  b&w, July 2013

Redwood Trunk, July 2013

Redwood Bark Detail, July 2013

The trail was about a mile.  There were bugs, of course, little stinging pests, but for the most part it was one of the easiest trails I’ve ever walked.  Every turn brought something extraordinary.

We left this preserve and took a scenic byway through more of the magnificence.IMG_1838

As we drove between curtain walls of the ancient forest, we passed a family stretching out around the base of one of the bigger trees, one of their number stepping back into the road to take the picture.  Donna pulled over, suggesting I ask if they wanted someone else to take it so they could all be in it together.  I sprinted back and just as they were breaking up to return to their cars, I called out and offered.  They regrouped happily, hand in hand, against the tree and I shot pictures with two of their cameras.  (I didn’t know them, I thought it would be impertinent to take a picture for myself.)

One of them hurried to her car, telling me to wait.  She handed me a pile of silver-foiled Hershey kisses.  “That’s where we’re from,” she said, grinning.

“Hershey, Pennsylvania?”

“Yep.  Been a long drive, but boy, was it worth it.”

I couldn’t agree more.  Standing amid these epic trees, you start to feel like a giant yourself, for the simple reason that you can see them for the marvelous things they are.  For a short while they seem to lend you a bit of their grandeur.

…And the Winners Are

I should be writing fiction instead of writing about it, but I must continue my year-end summations.  I’m off tomorrow, so I intend to get down to serious stuff.

Anyway, I read some pretty good novels this past year.  Much as I admire, respect, and feel a duty to read broadly in nonfiction, when it gets down to it, fiction is what I live for.  (Well, Donna comes first, sure, but as we’ve been writing a novel with our lives…ahem)  Fiction takes me away.  It opens things up, offers newness in a way nothing else does.

As I get older I find myself reading more slowly, soaking in the sentences.  This has the consequence of making me impatient with poorly-written material.  Or material that is well enough written but really has little to say.  Not that I’ve always got my nose in weighty tomes or Significant Prose and Important Literature, but there’s gotta be some meat on them bones, know what I mean?

That said, I caught up with what I consider “snack” reading in the form of Margaret Maron’s  “Deborah Knott” series.  A new one just came out, otherwise I could claim to have read all of these.  I don’t know why I’m so taken with these.  They fall into the crime fiction category of “cozies”, a term I learned only in the last couple of years.  It’s about solving the crime and shows little gore.  Not thrillers.  More personal, character-driven excursions.  PG-13 (although Deborah herself…well, you need to read a couple of these).  I like the characters, the setting is a small community in North Carolina, and Maron tilts at obviously long-favored windmills.  She has a separate series set in New York, the Sigrid Harald series, and in the last Knott book—Three Day Town—the two meet.  They are evidently related and from what I’ve seen of the new one, this is a trend that will continue.  The difference in style and approach between the two series is striking.

I also did some “catching up” with older SF that I never read—or, if I had, I’ve forgotten.  In that vein, I read a pair of Doris Piserchia novels—Star Rider and A Billion Days of Earth.  Piserchia could be a good representative of the waning days of New Wave science fiction.  Her skill was in novelty of idea and velocity, whipping you through the story so fast there is no time to notice any flaws.  Both these novels were part of Bantam’s Frederik Pohl Selection series from the early to mid-1970s, a line that included Delany’s Dhalgren and Sterling Lanier’s Hiero’s Journey.  According to Pohl, Dhalgren was the only one of these that actually made money for the publisher, which is unfortunate if true—he published some very good novels.

Also, because I was involved in an event with him at the St. Louis Science Center, I read David Gerrold’s Yesterday’s Children, which is basically a science fiction take on Run Silent, Run Deep, and really demonstrates Gerrold’s skill with psychology.  I also read his Space Skimmer.  Gerrold is most famous for his Star Trek episode, The Trouble With Tribbles—and deservedly so—but he is a really fine novelist and ranges across a  wide spectrum of subject and form.

After that event, I was asked to introduce the screening at the Science Center of the movie Fantastic Voyage, which I hadn’t seen in over 20 years.  To prepare, I read both Asimov’s original novelization and his second version, Fantastic Voyage II, which he published in 1987—because he really wanted to address some of the problems inherent in the original premise.  I was amused at his “solution” to the key problem of miniaturization and mass.  I still possess my original paperback of Fantastic Voyage (a bit worse for wear after 44 years) and enjoyed the return visit.

I also read a couple of Mack Reynolds novels from the Sixties—Commune 2000 A.D. and The Towers of Utopia.  I say “from the Sixties” and my ghod can you tell!  There is a charming-if-maddening naïvete in these novels that make them read like something for children (if not for the almost innocent obsession with sex).  Both are set in the same world, a time when the planet has come under the thrall of a single government.  Everything is fine, needs are met, but of course there are Those Who Don’t Fit In—Libertarians, basically—and revolution is in the offing.  It’s not so much that the premise is bad, but the execution…so Sixties.

Also from that time, though, was The Last Starship From Earth by John Boyd, who had a steady if not stellar career and published some interesting novels.  This one, though—his first—remains the one everyone seems to remember (if they remember him at all).  This is one I think I read when it came out (1968) but I couldn’t remember, so I reread it.  Again, there was that delightful, nostalgic naïvete, the flavor of Something Lost.  But Boyd was not quite so innocent as Reynolds in his understanding of human psychology and the problems of political solidarity (of any kind!) and while the end becomes almost absurdly optimistic and playful, I found the novel to be a fun trip through some really interesting ideas.  It’s an alternate history, but you can’t tell for a good part of the book.  Only toward the end, when time travel becomes a factor in “restoring” history, do the variations make a larger sense.

Some of these novels suffer from compression.  Today, it’s nothing for a science fiction novel to run 300 to 500 pages, which allows for a full examination of premise and ramification, but Back Then there were constraints, and most of these books were usually only 200 pages, sometimes (often) less, and a great deal got crammed in.  The practiced reader could fill in the gaps, so to speak, but this was one reason so many readers coming late to SF found them ridiculous and indecipherable.

That said, many others seemed to have no trouble with the length given.  Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Ursula Le Guin’s early work—none of it felt particular “slight” by virtue of such compression.  The difference between a fine writer and a merely good one?

Roger Zelazny was one who had no difficulty working within the confines of 60 to 80 thousand words.  I’ve been making my way through his oeuvre for some years now, and he is a gem in the tapestry of SF.  This year, I read Creatures of Light and Darkness, Doorways In The Sand, and My Name Is Legion.  The last was a bit of a clunker, but the other two are classic Zelazny.  (I am not much taken with his most famous series, Amber.  Don’t know why—they’re fun reads, but they leave me flat.)

Another “vintage” writer I’ve been catching up on is James Blish.  Most folks remember him for the series of Star Trek collections he wrote based on the original series.  Blish was a prolific writer who did some solid work in the 50s and 60s, including his other “most famous” work, Cities In Flight.  He was also one of the first serious critics in the field, publishing still-relevant essays as by William Atheling.  His novels, though short, are studies in the efficient telling of idea-centered stories. This year’s reads were The Star Dwellers, its sequel Mission To The Heart Stars, and Titan’s Daughter.  The last is particularly interesting, being a eugenics-and-bigotry story, told very much with the 50s civil rights movement in mind.  Blish, unlike Boyd and Reynolds, was not naïve.

Moving briefly away from SF, I read Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing, the first in his epochal series Dance to the Music of Time.  Some have claimed this is a British Proust.  Frankly, I found it dull and uninteresting.  The kind of thing I have no patience for in so-called “mainstream” literature.  Minute studies of people with whom I have no connection nor, through the instrument of the novel, desire any.  Very well-written, but navel-gazing at its refined best.

On the other hand, I read Jean Genet’s A Thief’s Journal, which is also a minute study of character, but one I rank comparable to Gaddis, Pynchon, Bolano.  The difference between this and the Powell is in its innate ability to twist your sensibilities and take you through An Experience.  Powell’s novel hinted at such, but really came down to just a cataloque of what these people ate and where they went.  The Genet puts you Somewhere Else.  (Which is one of the chief pleasures of science fiction, by the way.)

Which brings me to Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, the first of his epic Aubrey/Maturin series.  I’ve tried to read this a few times  before.  This year, sitting at home recovering from appendicitis, nothing else to do but eat soup, sleep, and read, I took another crack at it and got through.  I’m a Hornblower fan from long ago.  This is very different from the Forester.  The detail is fit for a historian and, for my money, drags the story, which by the end of the book had me.  I’m told the subsequent books get better and that, really, it is all one long novel interrupted by covers.  I’m not sure I’ll continue it, but I’m glad I finally read it.

I reread Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and once more felt carried away by the sheer ebullience of his language.

I then read Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow. This is a post-apocalyptic novel, written in the 50s, but with none of the sentimentality of the usual SFnal doomsday fare.  This is a well-reasoned study of a changed society and Brackett never flinched from looking human fear and prejudice squarely in the face.  This one should be talked about on par with A Canticle For Liebowitz, On The Beach, Fail Safe…Brackett, if she is remembered at all anymore, co-wrote the screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back.  She was a first-rate writer and did some great SF, but this one is her masterpiece.

There was a handful of newer works I read that I want to recommend.  Embassytown by China Miéville I have written about already.  I have also written something about Jo Walton’s Among Others.  I may have inadvertently and certainly unintentionally given offense there, but I want to stress just how good a book that is.

But my friend Carolyn Ives Gilman published her epic novel (in two parts) over the last year-and-a-half, the second volume of which is Ison of the Isles.  (The first part is Isles of the Forsaken.)  Go.  Buy.  Read.  Great stuff.

I also read the new Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes novel, Garment of Shadows, by Laurie R. King.  She continues to delight in this ongoing series about (and ostensibly by) Holmes’ wife.

Our reading group completed Dante’s Commedia finally, after seven years of canto-by-canto reading and analysis.  I intend to do a post or two dedicated solely to that, but I’m still mulling it over.

I haven’t mentioned a number of books which I read and enjoyed.  No slight intended to any of them, but this has gone on long enough and I hit all the points I intended to make and recommended what I wanted to recommend.  I may cover a few of them in a separate post (in fact, I’m looking at my list and seeing a couple that deserve longer treatment) but for now I can wrap this up.

Naturally, I think everyone should go out and buy some of my recommendations.  If you do, do so at Left Bank Books.

Good reading to you.

12-12-12

Because I can’t resist the date.

Urban Abstract 2, 2012

Circles and Levels and Clocklike Movement

This particular confluence of numerical coincidence won’t happen again this century.  Proper appreciation must be shown.

Or, as Stephen Jay Gould once said, “I have always and dearly loved calendrical questions because they display all our foibles in revealing miniature.  Where else can we note, so vividly revealed, such an intimate combination of all the tricks that recalcitrant nature plays upon us, linked with all the fallacies of reason, and all the impediments of habit and emotion, that make the fulfillment of our urge to understand even more more difficult…”

It is in our nature to reject coincidence as simply what it is, especially when it comes to cosmic events.  Long ago human beings decided the devices we invented to keep track of time actually meant something to Time itself, as if the universe was somehow required to acknowledge our conceits.

Still, even as a purely invented coincidence, 12-12-12 is kind of cool.  How many babies will be born today and be considered extra special just because?  If someone happens to win a lottery today, the efficacy of numerically based sympathetic magic will be reinforced, even though it will still have exactly the same relationship as the odds of a coin face coming up with each of a hundred tosses as if the collective numbers of heads or tails somehow imposes necessity on each one (namely, zero).

On the other hand, any day you wake up with something to marvel on is a win, so I’ll take my small pleasures where I can.

I’ll be writing up a year-end assessment in a couple of weeks.  Soon it will be 2013—a numerical change about as meaningful as today’s date in the greater scheme of anything.  For instance, it is 2012 in our calendar system (Gregorian—the older Julian is similar, lacking but 13 days, which would make today the last day of November, with today’s numerically alliterative advent still to come) but 5773 in the Hebrew calendar. (A more concurrent calendar is the Holocene, which starts at the beginning of the Holocene Era—ours—by adding ten thousand years.  So it’s 12012 H.E.  I like that.)

It’s 1434 in the Islamic calendar.  Sometimes I ponder the significance of time lapsed in cultural evolution to try to understand where a given institution is along the line.  In this case, I remember where christianity was in 1400 when seeking to comprehend current attitudes and events.  They were on the verge of the Reformation, with seething splinter groups roiling under the surface about to explode into a family feud they’re still trying to settle.  Hm.

One of the youngest calendars is the so-called “Minguo” which is from the Republic of China (Taiwan) and dates from the founding of the Republic in 1912.  Their centenary was just celebrated.  It’s 101 in the ROC Minguo calendar.

We’re fortunate not be stuck using the Unix calendar, which is expressed in seconds.

The true measure of time is change.  Change in the environment, certainly, but for our purposes, changes in ourselves.  There is no calendar for such things.  Some changes are temporary, some seasonal, others permanent.  They may be profound or just occurrences that seem to have little import.  It’s a question of where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Passagway

Passageway

It’s a common fallacy that our lives are telec, that they have a narrative structure, a beginning and an end in terms of purposes and goals.  If they do, it is a fact that we impose such things, but we’re not born with them.  (Born into them, perhaps, in the case of those who arrive swaddled in family expectations actively imposed.)  We have a start and a finish, which is not quite the same thing.  In between, it’s up to us to find meaning and purpose, make it out of whole cloth if we must, but waiting around for cosmic enlightenment to tell us what we’re here for invites a wasted life.  In an attempt to impose structure and suggest meaning, humans have invented numerous things—like calendars, with attendant rituals and anniversaries.  Out of the matrix of such things many of us find relevance among ourselves and that is not a bad thing at all.

In truth, each of us brings to such things what we have and are, whether we accept others’ definitions or not.  I wish people Merry Christmas despite the fact that I impute no validity in the defining mythology, because Christmas is what we make it.  I don’t have a lot of patience for people bent on souring everyone else’s holiday by indulging a political or theological hissy-fit—on either side of the Belief Divide.  I have my own resonances with it and take pleasure from the memory and æstethic significance on which I accrued that meaning.  I watch A Christmas Carol every year, drink egg nog, embrace my friends, and nurture a hearth-glow of fellowship.  I do not have to accept the fables to experience a “holiday spirit” every bit as real as those who do—nor do I appreciate those who insist on dumping cynicism and political scatalogy onto the season in an attempt to ruin it for everyone else in a misguided pursuit of some adherence to reason.  Truth and fact are often only coincidentally related, and the truth of the season is something greater than what is contained in the details of a given story.

The Gift of the Magi is my guiding narrative…for what it may be worth.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Season’s Wishes, etc etc etc.

Whatever calendar you use, have a good day.

Preferred Position

I really like Neil deGrasse Tyson.  He’s my kinda scientist and he speaks well.  Please watch the entire video before continuing with my little bit.

Okay, there’s a lot in that with which I agree.  In fact, he gets to my preferred stance on the whole issue, that I would rather not have to deal with the categories and all the rhetorically inevitable garbage that comes with them.  The problem is that most people actually won’t let you do that.

If I am asked honestly about my thoughts on whether or not there is a god, my answer is usually predetermined, not by me but by the person asking the question.  You can pick this up from context, from body language, from tone of voice, from a hundred small cues that accumulate into the preferred position of the asker.  And while there are many permutations, and shades of gray, it usually—not always, but usually—comes down to two formats.

There are those, few though they may be, who are honestly interested in a philosophical discussion.  This is the “how do you see this god question” conversation, which can lead to very interesting and fruitful dialogues and can be immensely enjoyable and even enriching.  These are people who, while they may have a preferred position, aren’t interested in pushing it on anyone, they really want to explore the topic.  One key feature of such people is that they are not threatened by the unorthodox, the heterodox, the outre, the radical.  They want to have a conversation about this admittedly complex topic.

Then there are those who are looking for a reason to pigeonhole and proselytize.  They don’t want to know your ideas, they want to know if you’re With Them or Against Them.

Atheists and Believers fit into this description and I unhesitatingly claim that there is no functional difference between them if this is all they are interested in.  They don’t want a dialogue, they want a chance to tell you how wrong you are, or hold forth on all the idiots who don’t think like them.

I’ll admit right here that I’ve fallen into that paradigm on many an occasion.  There’s no real defense for it, but there are reasons.  I do get tired of certain positions on certain topics and the shortcut to ending the harangue often seems more desirable than any possible benefit that may come out of trying to address the questioner as if he or she belonged to the first group.

Do I believe there is a god?

Depends on what kind of a god you’re asking me to believe in.  But right there you see the potential for a long explanation.  The concept is not reducible to a simple statement of fact, because all gods have been believed in and it is an insult to suggest that such belief automatically meant one set of acolytes was dumber than another.  When belief faded, the god became an artifact of history.  Do I then belief there never was such a god?  Depends on your requirements for a god.

There are many aspects of the proposition with which I can categorically disagree.  But the thing that makes it impossible to dismiss out of hand is Belief.  To me, asking if I believe there is a god has many of the same characteristics of asking if I believe there’s such a thing as an idea.  You can’t see either one, there’s no physical evidence for them other than how they motivate people, it is easy (and done all the time) to say that ideas aren’t real.

It’s in the realm of human action where the problems with both the discussion and the notion of a god pop up, but to my mind that’s a separate issue.  If someone creates a great good—hospitals, art, music, a new way to see—in the name of a god they believe in, it is easy enough to accept that they drew their inspiration from that god and except for some diehard ideologues no one has an issue with the conflation.  No one goes around beating them up for that belief.  If, on the other hand, some one goes around killing, maiming, stirring social ill-will against groups of people because they claim their god wants them to, everyone gets uncomfortable.  The people who may believe in the same god have a problem, atheists use it as an excuse to deny agency, and the zealot feels justified in his or her isolation and martyrdom.  Nothing is solved.  We seem hard put to separate out the issues because inevitably questions are raised as to the nature of belief and the nature of god.

To me, all gods are real and at the same time they are all irrelevant.  They’re real because people believe in them.  They’re irrelevant because I don’t and do not wish to.  And yet the world functions, regardless which position is true.

You want to know where I think god is?  In the dialogue.  Whatever it may be.  God, however you choose to define it, appears in the midst of honest communication.  When someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson talks to us about the stars, the universe, the cosmos, and we listen—there’s god.

When that doesn’t happen, when people don’t communicate—there is no god.

I invite you all to chew on that idea for a while.

Unless you think ideas aren’t real.

Noir at the Bar

There is, in University City, which is attached to St. Louis with Washington University as a buffer, a cool little coffeehouse/restaurant called Meshuggah’s.  They play host to a literary event called Noir at the Bar, which my friend Scott Phillips and a gentleman named Jedediah Ayres manage.  Primarily it’s all about crime fiction, which apparently includes a vast range of macabre material.

They had me in their line-up on February 28th.  I am the first science fiction writer to perform at this event and I think it went rather well.  It was recorded for podcast by Booked and the link to my reading is now up.  Right here.

I had a good time and the other readers were fine, I recommend them.  An evening of good readings and fine company.

A Moment For A Promotional Message

Tomorrow night, Tuesday, February 28th, I’ll be reading at a venue that is somewhat a departure for me.  It will be at a little ongoing literary rumpus called Noir At the Bar—here’s a blog post to give you a taste—in University City, on Delmar, at a little place called Meshuggah’s.  I’ll be there with three other readers—Kevin Lynn Helmick, Caleb J. Ross, and Gordon Highland—and what makes this unusual for me is that Noir at the Bar is, as the name suggests, for NOIR.

Now, yeah, I write mysteries.  After all, my three Asimov robot novels were “robot mysteries.”  Remains is as much a mystery novel as a near-futre SF novel.  Realtime was a police procedural of sorts.  But I haven’t published any straight mysteries.  And having attended a few of these events before, I can state unequivocally that my work is very different from theirs.

Or maybe not.  We’ll see.  But I am the first science fiction writer invited to attend, so it will be interesting to say the least.

I thought I’d write something new for it, but since I’ve been eyebrow deep in finishing the current novel I haven’t had time, so I’m taking a few possibles along to see what will be the best fit.

If any of you in the St. Louis area want to come by and lend some support, I can promise you something different.  It’s a good crowd and the stories are…unique.

So: Meshuggah Cafe, 6269 Delmar, St. Louis, MO, 63130 tomorrow night, 7:00 PM.

Books, 2011

It seems unlikely I’ll finish another book before this Sunday—if I do it will probably be Stefanie Pintoff‘s second Simon Ziele mystery, A Curtain Falls.  I read the first in the series, In The Shadow of Gotham, not too long ago and enjoyed it.  It’s a period mystery, set in 1905, and features a progressive police detective from New York—Ziele—who teams up with an amateur criminologist, Alistair Sinclair, who is attempting to construct a science of criminal behavior.  Ms. Pintoff avoids many pitfalls by keeping the level of expertise firmly locked in 1905 and Sinclair makes as many if not more wrong conclusions as right, but it was an entertaining piece of work and the evocation of 1905 New York was excellent.  Somewhat more engaging than a similarly period series by Rhys Bowen, the Molly Murphy mysteries, which are also rich in period detail, but a bit more of a stretch about an Irish immigrant who falls into the detective business rather by accident and then tries to make a go of it. These are set during and after the McKinley presidency and one book even deals directly with his assassination.  For a peek into the more bohemian parts of New York, they are wonderful.  Ms Bowen sells the conceit well, but once you put one of them down you have to wonder just how likely it would be.

I found myself reading a lot of mysteries this past year.  As I’ve been moving into that genre—two of the novels in the hands of my new agent are mysteries, one a historical, the other contemporary, and I have every intention of continuing them as series (and even the alternate history is largely a mystery thriller)—I decided I needed to become better acquainted with what’s being done.  I read a couple of the more obvious ones—Laura Lippmann and Tess Gerritsen made the list, as did a couple of Michael Connelly’s and one James Patterson—but I also found some less obvious ones (at least to me).

One series I’ve become quite taken with is Margaret Maron‘s Deborah Knott series, beginning with Bootlegger’s Daughter.  I’ve read eleven of these, all this past year.  They are charming.  Deborah Knott is the only daughter of a man who was once the biggest bootlegger in North Carolina and adjoining states.  He’s out of the business—sort of—and she has become an attorney.  By the end of the first novel she’s decided to run for a local judgeship and through the rest of the series she is a judge.  This is of the “stumble into murders” kind of cozy mystery writing.  It’s as much about the people of the area and the history as it is about solving a murder and the first-person narrative is comfortable and evocative.  I found myself devouring one of these over a weekend like popcorn.

I also continued reading Laurie King’s Mary Russell books, ending this year with The Pirate King, which is a comedy.  Not quite as successful as the rest of the series, but not bad.  I caught up on her Kate Martinelli novels, too.

Among the other mysteries this past year I read another of Cara Black‘s Paris mysteries featuring Aimee LeDuc, private investigator.  This one was set on the Ile St. Louis and I read it as much for that as for the mystery, since I have upcoming scenes in one of my novels set there.  If you like Paris and you like tough female detectives of the Honey West pedigree, these are worth the time.  (I recall the first one of these I read annoyed me because it involved a WWII Occupation mystery.  Some of this is becoming a stretch by now—these people are getting ancient and dying and I have to wonder how credible contemporary plots concerning survivors from 1942 can continue to be, but…)

I mentioned I read a James Patterson.  I’ve been hearing so much about this guy that I decided I had to read one.  I won’t even mention which one, it was terrible from the first chapter.  Cliched writing, facile plotting, and predictable…everything.  I put it down wondering, what is supposed to be so great about this guy?  But he comes out of a marketing background and the sheer volume he produces—much of it now with other writers—must simply overwhelm the public.

However, both Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly did not disappoint, although in Lehane’s case the level of mayhem seemed borderline cartoonish.  Nevertheless, he held my attention, quickened my pulse a couple of times.  Connelly proved solid, at least in the one I read, Blood Work.  In Lehane’s case, I found a curiosity, a historical novel, The Given Day, which is on my list for next year.  So as this is about what I read in 2011, you’ll have to wait.

I also continued my Ross McDonald reading with The Drowning Pool.  I have a bunch more of these to read, but they are so far all gems.  Ross McDonald is I think underappreciated.  He was a master of the noirish and hardboiled style.  Which segues into a classic I read which I’d never read before, James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce.  I don’t know exactly what I expected, based on The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, but it wasn’t this, and it was a surprise.  It’s not a mystery—at least not in the detective sense—and yet you can fully feel the noirish elements come through in this story of a woman during the Depression who boots out her philandering husband and then has to make a go of it on her own.  She subsequently becomes a very successful restaurateur, but her attempts to live up to the standards her daughter—a true enfant terrible—thinks she should embrace end up bringing her down, even as the daughter grows up to get just about everything she wants.  At the end Mildred is back with the husband and you get the sense that she’s going to build it all up again—and this time make it stick, since the daughter has finally been banished.  I put it down with a “Jaysus” reaction.

I can also recommend new writer Rebecca Cantrell‘s series, beginning with A Trace of Smoke about a female reporter in pre-war Berlin.  This would be a decent companion piece to Philip Kerr’s  Bernie Gunther series.

I read my first Val McDermid novel, A Distant Echo, which I highly recommend.  It details the consequences of a false police accusation on four friends over the years.  They find the corpse of a barmaid in a cemetery, but as the police have no leads going anywhere else these four become the prime suspects.  Of course, nothing connects them to her murder, either.  But the press gets ahold of it and their lives all take unexpected turns.  Then, years later, someone starts killing them and two of them work to solve the crime.

Among the non-mysteries I read this past year were also a couple that I ought to have but never got around to.  I read Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations, which is a kind of tour-de-force of kitchen sink writing that ties Bach’s music into the unraveling of the genetic code, all through the lens of a woman trying to solve the puzzle of a scientist who should have been one of the luminaries of the discovery of DNA but instead suffered the end of his career and ignominy.  Tight, colorful writing, bizarre connections.  It reminded me of Thomas Pynchon, only more controlled and with a readily-discernible plot.

I also read Charlotte’s Web for the first time ever.  I am woefully under-read in childrens and YA literature.  During the time of my life I should have been reading this, I was deep into comics and then my mother’s book-of-the-month club books, which were all adult.  At the same time I discovered science fiction and, well, that’s one category of Jeopardy I always fail.  Along with that one I also read—for the first time ever—The Phantom Tollbooth.  I doubt this is going to signal a spree of children-and-YA reading, but both of those books were well worth the read, especially the Juster.

I only read one Dickens this year, The Old Curiosity Shop, which has to be one of the most maudlin of his novels.  I kept thinking about Little Nell “Will you bloody die already!”  But I can see how this would have been a show-stopper when it came out.  It may be one of the best treatments from the period of addictive behavior, especially of gambling addiction.

I finally read Michael Moorcock’s Mother London, which has been on my shelf for a decade at least.  It’s not an easy one to get into, but once you realize what’s going on—a trio of telepaths who don’t quite realize that this is what they are finding solace with each other through the changing landscape of wartime and post-war London—it is marvelous.  Moorcock is deceptive in that he has written some real crap (The Blood Red Game should be avoided).  But he is a truly fine stylist and a first-rate imaginative intellect when he chooses to be and Mother London is a fine novel that should be considered a classic.

And speaking of London during the war, I read Connie Willis’s massive opus, both volumes—Blackout and All Clear—and can recommend it to anyone who is seriously into WWII history.  She has clearly done her homework and her decision to write about the Blitz from the viewpoint of the residents, albeit using her time traveling historians as vehicles, has produced a fascinating take on London at the time.  (I must say, though, that one of Willis’s hallmark plot devices—the continual miscommunication and near misses of people trying to find each other—which has worked effectively in the past, is growing wearisome by now.  We get it, reality does not follow a neat plot logic, people fail, messages don’t get delivered, etc etc—but enough is enough already.)  This may be the end of the Mr. Dunworthy stories, though.  May be.  This is time travel, after all.

I read a couple of newer novels that I want to recommend, both more or less science fiction.  The first is The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer.  This is a steampunk take on The Tempest.  Sort of.  I don’t wish to get into it too deeply, but I was taken with it primarily because it is steampunk without zombies!  I am growing tired of the monster-of-the-week in genre fiction.  Vampires, now zombies.  Dead things that move around do not fascinate me and too often they entail grue for the sake of grue.  Enough already!  (I put aside two steampunk novels that looked otherwise intriguing because, within 10 pages, there are zombies.)  To me, good steampunk is in the vein of The Difference Engine.  And Palmer delivers.  The writing is elegant, the world evocative, the symbolism and metaphors nicely deployed.  Not the best it could be, but high up on my scale.

The other is by a good friend of mine, Carolyn Ives Gilman.  Isles of the Forsaken is a novel with which I’ve been familiar for a long time.  It was the first manuscript Carolyn gave me for a critique.  It has finally come out—though this is but the first half—and it is wonderful.  Set on a world that is like but not like ours, during a period much like the hegemony of Great Britain in the 19th Century, it is about the clash of cultures.  Bear in mind, who is the good guy and who is the bad guy is pretty much dependent on the reader’s expectations.  This is fine stuff.

I didn’t read much science fiction this past year.  Out of the 79 I read cover to cover, only 16 were definitely SF.  I can recommend Leviathan Wakes by James S. Correy—a very good thriller, a shitkicker, well-written and realized.  First one of a series (of course—I miss they dominance of the stand-alone anymore).  I also read Keith Roberts’ Pavane, a classic alternate history, and a fine, fine piece of writing it is.

The other SF novel I’m recommending is Gene Wolfe’s Home Fires.  It’s been a while since Gene has done a straightfoward science fiction novel (if any of his work can ever be called straightforward!) and this one is a subtle study of mismatched personalities and desires that will not be thwarted.  It’s love story with a relativistic time-dilation element complicating it.  Now, I tend to like almost anything Gene does, so take this recommendation in that context, but I think it may be one of his best.  He has pulled back from the epic vistas of some of his earlier SFnal efforts, like The Book of the Long Sun and such and centered this through one viewpoint character and closely-controlled scenario that is almost claustrophobic compared to his other work.  But it works.

I read some flops, but I won’t go into them here—except for the comments on Patterson above—because I’m not sure if the books were really bad or if they just bounced off.  (One of them I thought a derivative bit of schlock, phoned in by an author who has done excellent work in the past, but just took a stroll on this one.)  There was another that was a convoluted bit of experimental strain that couldn’t decide if it was a mystery, Kafkaesque, Pynchonesque, or an exercise in abstruse symbolism.

I will read less next year.  I already know that.  I have several bricks on the pile that will require long hours and extra attention.  At least, it is my plan to get through some of them, but we’ll see how that works out.

Among the others that I enjoyed and can recommend I offer: Counting Heads by David Marusek,  Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss, The Gift by Lewis Hyde, On Mozart by Anthony Burgess, and Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson.  Allen Steele has a new one out, Hex, set in his Coyote universe and well worth the read.  Scott Philips also has a new one out, The Adjustment, which is a fine example of Scott’s idiosyncratic noir style.

Notice that the book links included all go to Left Bank Books.  I’m going to be doing that from now on, at least where I don’t link directly to an author’s page.  Support your local bookstore.  You’ll miss them when they’re gone, so don’t let them be gone.  Believe me, there really isn’t much Amazon can offer you that a good independent bookstore can’t, and that sucking sound of local tax revenue leaving your community and your state is the sound that accompanies our current fiscal woes.

End of sales pitch.  I’ll talk about the other things in 2011 later.

 

The Wrong One

So…I’m again rewriting the historical mystery.  Thought I was done with this draft and had only to await the edits from my most excellent agent, but alas, I have this impish ethical streak that won’t let me just slide…

Basically, I came up with a minor, almost throwaway, solution to a tiny plot problem as part of the whole revamp and happily sent the novel forth.  But then that solution began to grow in my imagination, like a tumor, until I realized that I had a much bigger problem arising from the solution.  Not to worry!  It would form the basis for the next book in the series!

That settled, I went about doing other things.

Only my unconscious kept churning on it and wouldn’t let me drop it like that.  I had created a growing organism within the body of my novel that had to be dealt with.  Argh!

Yes, I said argh!  because I wanted to get on with other things.  But.  Not to be. The coup de gras came last weekend over an excellent dinner with my friend Carolyn Gilman (who has a new novel out and you really ought to go get it and read it ’cause it’s really, you know, good).  Carolyn works for the Missouri History Museum and her current project is the Revolutionary War in the West—exactly the place and period in which my novel is set.  In the course of the conversation we stumbled on some little-known—no, that’s an understatement—some previously unexamined aspects of the Battle of St. Louis and George Rogers Clark and all that which irritated my tumor into full-blown eruption and I realized that I had to do this rewrite now!

This made me a bit nervous, as Stacia, my agent, has had what we thought was the second to last draft for a few months now and I had no idea how deep into it she’d gotten and I had to tell her to hold off—

The revisions will make this a much better book and when I described them to Stacia she was not only supportive but excited and so now I’m a hundred pages into a new draft.  I’ll just give you a little hint as to what was wrong and if anyone remembers this after the book comes out you can ask me about it and I’ll recount the tale.  Basically I had the wrong murderer.

Embarrassing, I know, but hey, not even the historical facts I learned from Carolyn are particularly well known and the interpretation she’s putting on them are unique, so I don’t feel like a total slacker.

Anyway, if I’m not posting here much in the next few weeks, this is why.  So have a happy, healthful Turkey Day, everyone.

Bouchercon 2011

So I have now attended a Bouchercon.

I’ve attended so many SF conventions that they’ve become, if not normal, at least comfortable.   I pretty much know what to expect.  Bouchercon, while in many ways similar to an SF convention, is different enough that I felt like a newbie and a bit like an outsider.  I don’t know the players, I don’t know all the rules, and I didn’t know what to expect.

There were no costumes, no gamers, no room parties (at least not open room parties), no art show, and an absence of what I like to think of secondary and tertiary effluvia in the dealers room—that is, tables of jewelry and fake weapons and action figures and the like.  The dealers room was almost all books.  There were a few DVDs and CDs, but 95% of it was books and magazines.

By Saturday I felt pretty comfortable.  These are people gathered together for the love of a genre and some of the conversation on the panels bridged the gap to SF, confirming that the critical divisions are not between genres but with an Academic snobbery that basically says if it isn’t James Joyce or Hemingway or Pynchon, it’s garbage.  I understood that and subsequently I could talk to these folks without a translator.

I got to chat (briefly but not frivolously) with Val McDermid and Laura Lippman.  I did attend one publisher’s party, but I ended up leaving soon after arriving because I simply couldn’t hear in the crowd.  An age thing, I think, I’m beginning to lose the ability to separate out voices in groups.

Bought too many books.  Again.  But then I brought more than twice as many as I bought home—there is a big publisher presence in the form of free copies.  I have stacks to go through.

As to that, I feel like I’m starting over.  I am profoundly under-read in mystery and thriller.  I recognized many names but then there were so many more I had no clue about.  But that makes it kind of exciting.  I really do have ideas for this kind of fiction.  It will be great to have a chance to write some of it.

As to whether or not I’ll go to another one…that depends on the status of the career.  Next year’s Bouchercon is in Cleveland.  The year after that, Albany, then Long Beach, and then Raleigh.  If I’m doing well enough, quite likely we’ll go to couple of them.  Wish me luck.