On The Road Part Two

A quick follow-up to my abbreviated MadCon report just past.  Harlan Ellison arrived at the hotel Thursday evening, around eight o’clock.  Only a few of us were in the lobby.  Allen Steele, Peter David, Donna, and myself.  Peter David’s wife Kathleen and their daughter (who Harlan “terrorized” to our surprise and her later delight).  From that point on it became a really good experience.  All the rumors that had been floating around about Harlan’s imminent demise proved exaggerated.  Though he didn’t look his best—clearly he has been ailing—and he arrived wearing a sweatshirt and pajama bottoms (Pierre Cardin, as he repeatedly joked, since he wore them all weekend), as the weekend progressed he came more and more alive.

I have a couple of photographs of Harlan.  I will not post them.  Harlan has developed a deep antagonism toward the on-line postings that pass for “news” on the internet.  He loathes the practice of recording and uploading on the spot.  Someday, maybe.  The pictures are for Donna and me.

But I do have a shot—a bit blurry, not great—of one of my panels.


From left to right, that is  Gene Wolfe, John Krewson (of the Onion), Allen Steele, and Yours Truly.  I believe this was the panel on how we all got into writing science fiction in the first place.  Or just writing.

Saturday morning Donna and I drove down to the capitol, downtown Madison, for their semi-legendary farmers market.  It was brisk, but a bright, lovely morning, and we walked around among all the vendors.  I have a couple of shots from that, but not yet ready to post.  They will likely end up in my Zenfolio portfolio.

On the way home, however, we stopped a couple times to take shots of the sunrise.  We left the hotel at 4:15 AM and drove south into a wonderful morning.  At one of the first rest stops, I shot this.


Not the greatest work of art ever produced, but there are elements of it I quite like.  I may work on it further.

Anyway, it was a fine trip, in the best company.  Maybe I’ll say more.  Later.

Or maybe not.

Home Again

We are returned from the wilds of Wisconsin.

In the last post I mentioned we were attending MadCon 2010 in Madison, touted as the last convention Harlan Ellison will ever do.  Much speculation runs rampant over the internet about this and his own presentations at the convention will doubtless throw gasoline on the inferno.  Having spent more than a small amount of time in his company this past weekend, I will report only that the rumors are pretty much exactly that.  Those who know him, know what’s more or less going on, and those who don’t, unless they were present at MadCon and heard what he had to say, do not know what is going on, and after a few conversations with the man I will not post about it here.

I will say that he holds the most desolate of opinions about the internet possible without becoming a complete luddite (which he is not).

We sat at the banquet table Saturday night with Gene Wolfe and his wife and a nicer man would be hard to find.  I’ve always liked Gene, have had too few opportunities to talk with him, and this past weekend I got to sit on two panels with him.

Likewise with my good friend Allen Steele.  We have been at several conventions together over the years and always manage to not be on panels together.  Admittedly, some of this has to do with our slightly divergent interests in certain aspects of SF, but not entirely, so this weekend made up for a long-running deficit.

We also met new people—a shout out to Pat Rothfuss, Tim Richmond, Rich Keeny, John Klima (of Electric Velocipede), Maggie Thompson, Nayad Monroe, Mark Rich, and others.  It was a quality weekend.  I have a huge load of work to do this week before Archon this coming weekend, but having had this occasion and first-rate block of time with Donna, I can tackle it all handily.

There will be many reports (and “reports”) about what occurred at MadCon.  All I will say about it here is this:  it was one of those “you had to be there” events.  Otherwise, only your prejudices will be tickled—scatology will reign where truth is absent.  But then, that seems to be the way it always goes when it comes to Harlan.

On The Road

Tomorrow morning, probably before the sun is up, we will be on the road to Madison, Wisconsin.  We’re going to attend a little convention called MadCon 2010.  When you click on the link you will see a note explaining that the guest of honor, Harlan Ellison, will not, due to illness, make it.  Well, that’s changed, apparently.  Harlan says he is feeling up to it and will be getting on a plane tomorrow and will appear.

Last time we saw Harlan was in 1999, at a convention called Readercon (which is a genuinely spiffy excellent convention because it is ALL ABOUT BOOKS—no movies, no anime, no costumes, none of that, just BOOKS) and he was in great form and we had a marvelous time.

By a series of odd coincidences, about two years ago, I became better acquainted with Harlan.  We’ve spoken on the phone and written to each other a few times and while it would be the height of hubris for me to claim that we are friends, we are at least on first name friendly terms.  (It’s funny how, with certain people, sometimes you seem to have to “save up” stuff to talk about before calling them, because what you very much want not to do is bore them.  I’ve never quite known how to recognize the point past which that concern no longer matters.)  I wrote a piece about the documentary, Dreams With Sharp Teeth, both for this blog and cross-posted to Dangerous Intersection.  I was impressed with the film and have always been impressed by its subject, so I took a few minutes to alert others to its existence.

Much to my dismay, Harlan got word to me that he had seen it and wanted to thank me personally.  I called him, we talked, we’ve conversed on occasion since.  I’ve been looking forward to this trip for over a year.

Naturally, when word came down that he might not make it, we were bummed, but still intent on going.  The news today is heartening, to say the least.  I will write about it when I get back.

I’m doing some panels at the convention, a couple of them with a good friend, Allen Steele, with whom I’ve done far too few panels since we met way back in the early 90s.  Others will be there that I look forward to seeing again or meeting for the first time.  (The estimable and excellent Gene Wolfe will be there.)  But even so, I’m going as a fan.  Harlan’s work has meant a very great deal to me.  He is unique.  Worth a read, to be sure.

So till next week sometime…adieu.

Didn’t They Throw The Tea In The Harbor…?

Christine O’Donnell is one of those public figures that emerge from time to time that make any writer of fiction envious of reality.  Only a truly gifted writer could make someone like this up and then sell her as a plausible character.

At the heart of it, she is the problem with the Tea Party.

Here’s the thing I’ve never understood about the far right: fiscal responsibility is well and good and certainly we could do with a lot more—we could have used some for the last thirty years, certainly, a period during which Republicans (and by inference conservatives) have been largely in control of Congress—but how come is it we can’t seem to get candidates who are just about that without dragging all the social issue crap along with them?  I for one am tiring of having my alternatives clipped because some whack-a-do who may well have a sound fiscal policy in mind is also hell bent on “correcting” the lax, immoral, godless state of the country.

Now we get right down to the basic issues with Ms. O’Donnell: jacking off.  It’s destroying the country.  People are going blind from this, divorce rates are record high because selfish people are doing themselves at the expense of the shared relationship god intended they have.  Abstinence means all of it!  Tie those peoples’ hands behind their backs!  Put those genital safety belts on those young fellows who can’t leave johnny alone!  Why, if we root out the evil of self-pleasuring, we’ll be on the road to sound financial policy and security in no time!

Then of course there’s the usual slate of absurdities—she’s a young earth creationist.  (What, may I ask, does this have to do with fiscal conservatism?  Well, in her case, apparently, a difficulty with basic math…)  Naturally she opposes abortion and since she’s so down on pud pounding, we may presume she hasn’t much use for birth control of any kind, sex education, or possible female orgasm.

She is that perfect contradiction of modern far right womanhood—someone who probably thinks women’s place is in the home who is attempting to establish a powerful political career in order to legislate herself back into a state of chattel bondage.

And then there’s the Libertarian wing of the Tea Party that basically believes people ought to be free to choose their own lives without interference from anyone, especially the government, and eventually they will create the fissure in opposition to the Talibaptist contingent who want more than anything to tell people how to live decent lives.

It may do this country good to elect some of these folks into public office so we can see, really see how they perform.  How they make their philosophies mesh with what most Americans really want.

It’s a sad time for American politics.  We’re in a depression (why they insist on continuing to call it a recession is purist political cynicism), Obama has not miraculously fixed that, and people are pissed off.  They are in a “Throw the bastards out” mood, but unfortunately they have little to choose from.  The Republican Party, self-deluded that they may ride this tide back into power for “all the right reasons”, has so bankrupted its credibility right before, during, and since W that even conservatives must hold their noses to vote for them.  The Democrats have failed once again to define an American Ideology behind which the people can get and although right now they are probably on the right track fiscally, it will take time for their actions to result in anything fruitful.  (Didn’t Obama say all along it would take a long time?  Didn’t he say this would not be painless?  Didn’t he say a lot of work would have to be done before things started drifting back to something good?  Didn’t he?  But he’s been in office 19 months!  My god, just how long is a long time?)  They haven’t “fixed things” so people don’t like them either.

So there’s the Tea Party.  This is bottom of the barrel time.  These are the screeling, apocalyptic, neo-revisionist, founding-principled-though-illiterate gang of conspiracy theorist candidates who have gained momentum through sheer quality of nerve, who intend to save the country from our foreign-born Muslim president and the anarcho-socialist intellectual elite.  They are the ones who wish to remove all the interfering laws and restrictions that hamper the marrow-deep entrepreneurial American essence and allow people to make millions on their own or starve in the gutter with their families because while Darwin was wrong about biology he was right about economic policy and the weak ought to perish so the strong can dominate.  These are the folks who would free us to be dominated by Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Banking, and Big Insurance.  These are people who believe corporations are people, too, and back the American dream nurtured in the heart of every kid who wants to grow up to be a corporation.  Or an oligarch.

But first, they have to curtail masturbation.  The country has had enough of people jacking off.  Time to get them back to work.

Robert A. Heinlein: Grand Master

I finished reading William H. Patterson’s large new biography of Robert A. Heinlein yesterday.  I knew I wanted to write something about it, but I gave it a day to simmer.  Frankly, I’m still not sure what to say other than I was positively impressed.

Basically, Patterson achieved the remarkable goal of demythologizing the man without gutting him.

I’ve read any number of biographies of famous (and infamous) personalities which tended either to be hagiographic (and therefore virtually useless as any kind of honest reference) or a brutal airing of personal failings in some sort of attempt to drag the subject down to “our level” and resulting in a catalogue of reasons to think ill of the person under study.  (This is one reason I tend to urge people that if they like an artist’s work, read it all if possible, see it all, listen to it all before finding out about them as human beings.  Too often the person, depending on the book, spoils the work for many.)

Patterson has done something useful for aspiring science fiction writers.  (Hell, for any kind of writer as far as that goes.)  Heinlein’s reputation casts a long, dark shadow across the field.  He is one of the pantheon of timeless Greats and in many ways the most intimidating of the lot.  It is, I think, useful to know that he had just as much trouble getting started—and staying started—as any other decent writer.  (Harlan Ellison has observed that the hard part is not becoming a writer but staying a writer, that anyone basically can get lucky at the beginning, but over time the work simply has to stand up for itself.)

The legend has been repeated ad nauseum, how Heinlein saw an ad for a short story contest, wrote a story, then decided to send it to Astounding instead of the contest because Campbell paid better, and it sold.  That story was Life Line.  From there, up was the only direction Heinlein went.

The reality is much more as one might expect.  True, he sold that first story to Campbell and sold more, but not without rejections getting in there and Campbell making him rewrite some of the pieces and not without a lot of wrestling with reputation and deadlines.  Writing is hard damn work and this book shows what Heinlein had to go through.  Yes, he was better than most, but he wasn’t teflon.  And he had to learn, just like any of us.

Reading about time spent living in a four-by-seven foot trailer on $4.00 a day while he sweated a new story makes him suddenly very human.

But also very admirable.

The other problem with Heinlein is that he did codifying work.  There were time travel stories, generation ship stories, alien invasion stories, and so on and so forth before him, but he wrote a number of stories—all lengths—that more or less set the standard for how those stories should be done.  He wrote “defining” stories, and for a long time people gauged their work and the work of others by that gold standard.

One gets tired of having such a bar hanging over one’s head all the time and naturally a reaction emerged over time that was as nasty as it was inevitable, casting Heinlein as the writer to work in opposition to.

By the time I discovered Heinlein, during my own golden age at 11, 12, and 13, he was already being touted as “the Dean of Space Age fiction.”  In my reading he was up there with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, the other two giants.  It was as if he had come right out of the box that way, never having been anything else, never having had to climb up any ladder of success, never, seemingly, having had to learn anything.  One of those people who simply appeared, complete and omnicompetent, already polished and important.

And for a long time I didn’t like him.

Which was odd, because years later I noticed that I had read more novels by Robert A. Heinlein than any other SF writer.  By choice, obviously, since no one was making me do that.

The reason for the dislike was bound up with the actual process of reading one of his books.  Later, I was happy to recall the story, the characters, the message, but while reading it—and being unable to put it down, whatever it was—I disliked it intensely.  I realized finally it was because, unlike so many others, he made me think.  He had a gift for portraying the process of figuring things out and would take you through it, and make you question assumptions.  It was work to read one his books, but it was also work I couldn’t seem to get out of.

Later in life I was very grateful for that.

Past the legend and the success, though, came the controversy.  He broke ground, tilted at windmills, said things that shook people up.  Sometimes the people he made uncomfortable were those you thought should be uncomfortable, you agreed with him, and it was delight to see them lampooned so effectively.  But other times he made you uncomfortable and that wasn’t so much fun.

Sometimes he fell flat on his face.  (I wonder how many other novels by such popular writers are so universally derided as I Will Fear No Evil.)  But the impact of the fall was proportional to the chance he took with the work.  The trajectory was pretty damn high.  When he missed the impact would leave a big crater.

By the time I was beginning to try my own hand at writing SF Heinlein had become the Great Target.  Just about any group in SF that had a grudge or an axe to grind could take aim at Heinlein and bitch about his politics, his solipsism, his sexism, his pedantry, his arrogance.  And while I could see where many of these arguments were coming from and where they were going, I always thought they missed a big point.  There wouldn’t be many of these arguments if he hadn’t opened the field for the debate.

Maybe that’s crediting him with more influence than he deserves.  It’s still difficult to judge.  But people still get worked up to a froth over Starship Troopers and its presumed fascism or Time Enough For Love and its self-indulgent solipsism or The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and its political demagogy or…

To put it in perspective for myself, Heinlein was the first author I read who made me question gender inequality.  I never read his women as subservient to anyone.  They were all, to my mind, their own people, fully realized, and free.  He was the first author I read that pointed out clearly that political cant is a disease of all political ideologies, left, right, or center, and that they should all be mistrusted.  He was the first author I read to make it clear that ethics and morality, personal loyalty, and conscience are stateless and should transcend parochialism and provincialism.

Later, in discussion with people who took a less generous view of the man and his work, I could see and acknowledge that he had failed to support his own theses quite often and occasionally seemed to work against his stated ideals.  Fine.  He told stories.  Sometimes characters take over (actually quite often) and do things on their own.  Sometimes a conscious set of ideals have to work against in-grown proclivities.  Everybody has to work hard to transcend personal prejudice.  And Heinlein showed that, too.

Was Robert A. Heinlein the greatest SF writer ever?  No, I don’t think so.  But then, there’s no such thing as “The Greatest” anything.  He was one of the very best.  Was he even the most important?  Well, taking the Beatles argument, a case could be made—that argument being that while the Beatles were not in any single way the best band ever, what they did opened the field and sort of gave permission for others, who were often much better, to do what they did.  Heinlein fits that description and fits it handily.  So what if some of his work is dated or quaint or embarrassing archaic?

Reading Patterson’s book restores context and without that it is difficult at best to make an honest judgment of anyone.  Against the times in which Heinlein lived and what happened to him during the course of a life lived according to a different set of cultural expectations than ours, we see just how extraordinary much of Heinlein’s work truly was.  He ceases to be a relic, a holy icon, and becomes a talented, intelligent writer who did some damned good things.  Flawed, occasionally incomprehensible and from time to time a bit intolerant, the man emerges from the shadow of the legacy and the legacy itself becomes more relevant, because it begins to make a larger sense.

This volume only takes us up to 1948.  The year he married his third wife, the one who became almost as legendary as he was, two years before the film he worked on that set a standard for “realistic” science fiction in cinema, before the decade that saw his rise to an enviable prominence within SF and even in the larger reading world.  Patterson has done a remarkable job of telling a coherent story comprised of a dizzying array of facts.  A handful of writers at the time more or less made science fiction—Asimov, Clarke, de Camp, Sturgeon, Van Vogt, and Heinlein.  Heinlein remains the most controversial.  This book goes a long way toward explaining why.

I can’t wait for volume two.

Ideas and Execution

A few weeks ago I read a really terrific story by Adam-Troy Castro, called Arvies.  Check it out, it is, as they say, killer.

Last weekend I went to ConText, as I reported.  Usually when I come home from a convention I’m energized, can’t wait to get to the computer and write something.  Not this time.  I was unusually enervated.  Maybe I have too much on my mind.


Last night, though, a story idea popped into my head from something Donna said and I have written the first few paragraphs.  I look at it and see that it is inspired in part by Adam’s story.  Probably not nearly so good, but there’s a connection.  Not at all the same thing, but a connection.

And I’m balking.  This one is edgy.  Serrated, in fact.  The kind of idea that could draw blood.  I’m balking not because I’m afraid to write it, but because bad execution could turn it into farce or insult or worse.  So I’m being careful.  The trick is to not be so careful I careful the life out of it.

But now that I’ve told you about it, I have to finish it.

Sneaky, eh?

Stay tuned.