Science fiction doldrums, or a sign of age….

…but doth not the appetite alter? a man loves the meat
in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.

Benedick, Much Ado About Nothing

When I was young– I think Gerald Ford was president– I was an omnivore for science-fiction books and movies. As a teenager I was known to read through entire sci-fi sections of local libraries, and demand more. I would read anything sci-fi, and watch almost anything that appeared to be science-fiction cinema or TV. In the process I read a lot of trashy sci-fi, along with classics many sci-fi fans today have never heard of (how many thirteen-year-olds nowadays have read through Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy? Just saying….), and watched a lot of turkey movies and TV shows, even Space 1999 and UFO, which, at the very least, sharpened my critical faculties.

Doubtless this hunger was driven (in part, at least) by the desert-like conditions of my natal culture, which revolved around westerns and country music. There is only so much Bonanza and Gunsmoke a youngster can watch before there’s a reaction. Perhaps an adolescent rebellion button was pushed, as well, since most of the people around me considered anything sci-fi to be (in the words of my father) “weird stuff”. You have to say it with a Texas accent to get the full flavor.

At the same, there was a genuine love the genre, and where good science-fiction could take me. Unlike my siblings, my imagination flew high and fast with Andre Norton, Heinlein and Asimov, just to name three out of so many. One hour of Star Trek– which I was mostly forbidden to watch in its first run, because it would “warp my brain” (another of my father’s declarations)– charged me like a battery. Even “Spock’s Brain”.

But, over the years, the voracious appetite faded. Doubtless this was inevitable– as we grow older we become more aware of what is good and what is bad, of what works and what doesn’t. But, for me, I seem to lost my ability to suspend judgment of a book I haven’t read. I have, in fact, become enormously picky.

The fact that the genre appears to be in the doldrums doesn’t help. When I go into a major bookstore or the book section of a large store like Target, I see shelf upon shelf of lookalike books– vampires, werewolves, undead, teenage girls with special powers, video game tie-in novels, and usually three or four space-opera series that feature some grim-faced person in a uniform on the cover, along with exploding starships. Everyone seems bent on creating endless imitations of The Hunger Games, or Divergent, or Starship Troopers (only with oodles of sex), or…. you get the picture.

Fantasy is even worse. It used to be that everyone tried to imitate Tolkien. Now everyone is trying to imitate George R. R. Martin. Or Twilight, God help us all (that alone could be a sign that our civilization is crumbling before our eyes).

There is good sci-fi out there– people like John Scalzi and Connie Willis often capture my attention. But they seem few and far between these days.

I still love the genre, but I nowadays find fewer and fewer things to get really excited about. I suggested that the genre is in the doldrums, but I have to admit that it could be, just as much, or as easily, me. For, like Benedick in Much Ado, I have to admit that my tastes, in my old age, may just be changing.

There is, in fact, some evidence of that. I have been seen reading Ragtime and The March by E. L. Doctorow. I just read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time ever. The one fiction series that has managed to capture and hold my interest in recent years has been Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series, in which I have a tremendous store of great writing.

There is even a rumor that I have a copy of Pride and Prejudice in the house.

In truth, I was never exclusively a reader of just science-fiction. I read The Thin Red Line at fourteen and War and Peace at sixteen. I have always loved Shakespeare, and I had a long John D. MacDonald period some years back. My focus, though, for a very long time, was on science-fiction and fantasy, and I’m beginning to suspect that I missed some good stuff. Belatedly, I am starting to redress the deficit.

I’m not giving up on fantasy and science-fiction, but I’m looking to balance out my fictional travels. And maybe I will find as much adventure in Jane Austen as in Robert Heinlein. Just with more tea and less powered-armor….

Lizzie Bennet in powered-armor…wait a minute….

A new normal

The last few posts I’ve hinted at coming changes in the way I write, blog and publish. It’s time to stop hinting and lay out the new normal.

The last nine months or so have been rough in a lot of ways—unemployment, financial worries, ups-and-downs in the personal space, some health issues which, despite being minor, nevertheless dragged on for some time. When I got a new job, it turned out to be very demanding, rather frustrating, and with a long daily commute. I spend a lot of my time tired and distracted, and all of this has affected my writing.

The period has not been all bad—in that span of time I re-edited two previously published novels, published a third, and made significant progress on a fourth. I also started writing more short fiction, mostly for flash fiction challenges, and found it an enjoyable exercise, especially since I have previously told myself that I couldn’t do short fiction. Even so, the last three-quarters of a year has seen a lot of wasted time, frustration and second-guessing.

I also recently passed my third anniversary as a self-publisher. I’m big on landmarks in my life, so this seems a good time to step back and assess where I am with this part of my writing adventure. And there is no point in beating around the bush.

By most measures, my self-publication effort has been a failure.

Certainly it’s a failure in financial terms—my sales have been typically just one tick about non-existent. Forget paying the mortgage, I’m nowhere close to paying the electric bill. Last month, when some wonderful individual in Germany bought all three books in the Divine Lotus series on the same day, it instantly shot my monthly sales up by about one hundred percent. And, believe me, I was grateful.

Consequently, self-publishing is also a failure for me in building an audience. Very few people know of my work. I’ve gathered only a few reviews, albeit mostly positive. My books haven’t made a splash at all; in fact, there hasn’t been even a noticeable plop.

Whatever the reason for this failure– lack of marketing skills, bad writing, not writing in a hot genre, an Illuminati plot– it’s become apparent that one of the hopes I entertained when I started self-publishing, to earn at least a supplemental income, is not in the cards and probably never will be.

As a result, there have been moments in the last few months when I’ve gotten pretty blue over my self-publishing, to the point that, once or twice, I’ve considered abandoning the effort altogether. Worse, in my darkest instances of self-doubt, I wondered if I should be writing at all. Each time I have managed to talk myself off the ledge—but I am ready for a change in direction.

The plain fact is that, whether I am paid or not, I still want to write. Story-telling is one of things I do, one of the things I care about. And I still have a lot of stories in me, whether or not I have the skill to tell them well, and whether or not anyone will ever want to pay me for them.

So, here’s the new plan.

First, for the time-being, my Divine Lotus novels will remain on Amazon, and I will publish Princess of Fire and Princess of Stars there when they are complete. I don’t anticipate publishing them on any other platform in the foreseeable future (Princess of Wonders was on Smashwords for a time, but the returns there were even worse than on Amazon, so I pulled it). My best guess at this point is that publication of Princess of Fire is nine months away, and that of Princess of Stars at least three years, and I have no clear idea what project will follow them.

Whatever novels I commit to writing after Divine Lotus will probably go on Amazon, as well. I certainly have no plans to start submitting them to agents or publishers again. I have been down that rock-strewn, washout-riddled road too many times before, and unless some agent/publisher comes looking for me with a truckload of money, I will not consider it. Instead, I have decided to try my hand at writing short stories for traditional publication.

This is where I started writing for publication, years and years (and years) ago, and I was a miserable failure at it. Part of the problem was my native tendency to write long; the other problem was that in those early days (BCP—before cell phones. I’m not kidding) I had not learned the basics of telling a story. Since then a huge amount of prose has passed through my word-processor. I have also made a conscious effort to study writing, both in my reading and by sitting at the feet of some very talented people. Now I want to try my hand again.

Whether or not that effort pays off, I also intend to expand my fiction on this blog. I have been doing a fair amount of flash-fiction lately, and the response has been encouraging. Dinosaur Planet, sadly, appears to have petered out (I couldn’t quite capture the B-movie quality I was looking for), but I may rethink that story line. More to the point, I’ve discovered a great deal of freedom in blogging. Somehow it gives me implicit permission to try new things. I might try publishing in serial form some of the other ideas romping around in the back of my head. I might even do—not too loud, now—more poetry.

Okay, that may be going a little too far. Forget I said anything about poems. Just us prose authors here….

But that’s the new plan. I’m kind of excited about it.

More bulletins to follow….

An additional couple of thoughts….

In my most recent post I painted an apocalyptic picture of a future America I think is at least potentially possible, if not likely. I realized afterwards, however, that I left off saying what might be done about it, and, perhaps more personally, why I have not yet fled to British Columbia or Antarctica or some other place where Congress’ ravings don’t apply. It also may raise a few questions about me in people’s minds when, in subsequent posts, I go on blithely talking about my writing and movies and such, as if I didn’t believe my country is in deep effluvium.

Let me try to s’plain myself.

There is much we can do about the danger we’re in, and mainly it’s simple; apply the tools of citizenship and democracy– obey the laws, pay your taxes, vote (can’t leave that one out), let your representatives know exactly how you feel (don’t let them, for a moment, assume they know how you feel), and don’t shrug your shoulders and be all fatalistic when the government does something you don’t like. If your Congress person or the President or some other government hired hand does something you don’t like, let them have it. Above all, speak truth to power when needful. Personally, my jury is still out on whether Edward Snowden should be considered a hero– he is certainly no Daniel Ellsberg, who stood up and faced prosecution after the revelation of the Pentagon Papers– but the truth about NSA spying needed to be told. We need more transparency like that.

But there is one more thing I believe we Americans need to do, something I think we used to do much better than we do nowadays– speak and act with humility, knowing that no one faction has all the answers to the totality of the problems we face. The people who pose the greatest danger to our civil peace and commonwealth are those who are totally certain that they have all the answers, who believe everyone else should get in-line with their agenda, and who are ready to destroy anyone who doesn’t. At the moment, we seem to be awash in that sort of absolutism.

Doing all these things is the only legitimate way to make sure the system works. It will be a telling point if we do all this and the system still cannot be salvaged. That will be the moment for a new constitution and a new social contract. If we’re lucky….

On a personal level, there are number reasons I haven’t already applied for asylum in Canada–

1. I already live within a two-hour drive of the border. And it’s real easy to cross in places….
2. I don’t speak French, and French-speakers don’t want me to try to learn (polly-voo Franksass…)
3. My daughter has told me she wants to graduate from high school in the US.
4. Hockey. Really, this is a game?
5. Curling– ditto.
6. Having to learn a new national anthem (although, the Canadian anthem sounds a lot more musically accessible than “The Star-Spangled Banner”. C’mon, guys, who thought this was a good idea?).
7. I guess I still have a fair deal of hope. A lot of people are already living in an America that is mostly inclusive and tolerant. There is a good chance that sort of wacky behavior will spread. And there are a lot of people who starting to stand up and say out loud that allowing the US to fall into the hands of oligarchs of any stripe is unacceptable. When I get down, I try to remind myself of that.
8. I am, after all, an American. I don’t think I would be happy living anywhere else. I don’t want to give up on my country just yet.

***********************************

There, I think I’m done talking politics for a while. My next few posts will be focused back on my writing, but I will also be posting more original fiction, as part of a change I am making in my writing efforts. More about that later.

A 4th of July reflection no one is going to like

I am probably at least moderately sleep-deprived to want to tackle this topic, but I’m just going to go with it. I have a few things to get off my chest.

I have never been a chest-thumping, America-is-the-greatest-nation-in-the-world sort of patriot. When people say that I have an urge to demand they define “greatest”. We’re not
the greatest, for example, when we have a higher infant mortality rate than Greece or Cuba, nor when our national infrastructure is crumbling and would embarrass a Third-World country.

This tendency makes me unpopular in certain circles.

I do, however, love my country. I love its ideals, I love our instinct for democracy, and I love how Americans, when the elephant dung hits the turbine blades, generally do what is needful and right. Churchill’s remark that “America can be counted on to do the right thing after she’s exhausted all the alternatives” is funny and pretty much spot-on. I love our practicality and our instinct to question ourselves, a trait that, if not unique to Americans, is at least one of our defining qualities.

But….

To be honest and truthful about who you are, you have to start with your own failures and crimes, along with acknowledging the good. Like any other nation we are composed of fallible and failing human beings. Because of that, Americans live, to one degree or another, with a perpetual cloak of hypocrisy about our shoulders. Perhaps it is because our ideals are so high that our hypocrisy stinketh all the more.

Through the 19th and well into the 20th Century Americans regularly slanged the British for their Empire, conveniently ignoring the fact of our own imperialism– just as the Mexicans, Native-Americans, Canadians and Filipinos about that (quick history question– how many times did the US invade Canada? At least four– once in the Revolution and three times during the War of 1812. They were all miserable failures, to which the Canadians owe their universal health care and the Queen on their coins). We started the Revolution in the name of liberty while holding black men and women in bondage. We proclaim equality for all while giving the rich box-seats and telling the poor and hungry to go around to the back door.

It’s not just our inevitable hypocrisy (who could live these ideals to perfection?) that leaves me in a dour mood, though, despite the (momentary) Seattle sunshine. It goes much deeper than that.

To put it plainly, we’re in deep trouble.

We are a severely divided nation, Red vs. Blue, and probably a dozen factions within those broad categories, to the point that civil discourse has almost come to an end. Our government is so gridlocked that ordinary, even mundane, business falls by the wayside, the victim of political rancor. Large sections of our political landscape have been overrun by know-nothings to whom political compromise– the life-blood of democracy– is akin to mortal sin. Presidents of both parties think it’s just okey-dokey to bend the Constitution, so long as it is in the name of security. And we have a Supreme Court that is down with the idea that a man with a billion dollars should effectively have more say in our political system than a man with one hundred dollars.

All of this, to me, looks like a political system slowly slipping into a tar pit.

I have read too much history; I have probably also read too much science-fiction. I know from history that all nations and governments, at some point, fail, often with terrible consequences. I know, from history and science-fiction both, that a nation is sometimes just one John Brown moment from being shoved into a completely different historical track. We Americans have not purchased immunity from being human nor from the inability to create a perpetually perfect political arrangement. And, at the moment, our divisions look very sharp and deep.

Let’s talk about those possible future-histories, best-case, middle-case, worst-case. Of course, my opinion of best, middle and worst may differ sharply from yours– bear with me.

Best-case– we live up to our own ideals and become a nation of true inclusion and democracy. We reverse the current trend toward plutocracy and find a way to give everyone a equal share of our future. I’m not talking utopia here, but practical, hard-headed measures, such as helping the middle-class, rebuilding our national infrastructure, affirming that free speech belongs to living, breathing human beings, and getting the money out of politics. In some ways, we’re already a long way down this road– we are a far more inclusive country than we were when I was born. But there is no guarantee we’re going to succeed. There are just too many forces working against it.

Middle-case– we cannot overcome our differences and, in some way or another, we end this experiment called the United States, perhaps even peacefully dissolving the Union. The dissolution of empires (and the US is an empire, make no mistake) has been a trend since the end of World War II– the break-up of the Soviet Union was just the grandest example. Regional nationalism in the United States is much, much weaker than it was in the former Soviet Union, however, so a full dissolution may not be in the cards.

Partly because of that, I do not think the middle-case very likely. On the other hand, you’ll note that my middle-case does not consist of us somehow muddling along as we are. I don’t think that is particularly likely, either. Something has got to give.

Worst-case– we cannot overcome our differences, and our political dialogue is so poisoned that we cannot negotiate a peaceful separation– and if you listen to the rancor out there right now, you might think we’re at that point already. In such an environment, perhaps some latter-day John Brown commits a horrific act, which acts as a tipping point, and one faction or another decides to make a grab for all the marbles. Remember how I mentioned that Americans are not immune to being human beings? That includes the impulse to impose your way of believing and doing things on other people.

In plain English, tyranny, or a second Civil War. Perhaps both.

I once had a novella on Amazon about the end of a new American civil war. I eventually removed it because I decided it did not adequately convey the horror of such a future-history– my story-telling skills were not up to the task. The end of democracy in America, whether by a bloodless coup or by a bloody war, would be devastating, not just for us, but for the world. An actual civil war in this country, in modern times, would make Bosnia look like a Sunday School picnic.

Before you say it’s not possible, remember that it already happened once. Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of Pickett’s Charge. The first Civil War has been so long represented as a sectional conflict that we forget that the issues driving it, including slavery, which touched on the meaning freedom and citizenship, were national in scope– and that the Confederacy had many friends in the North. Those issues of freedom and the role of government keep reappearing in American politics, as they have now, just in different guises.

In some ways, it is 1859 all over again. It is yet to be seen if we can avoid another Harper’s Ferry.

These are my thoughts, sincerely un-cheerful for a sunny Fourth of July afternoon, and probably why I don’t get invited to a lot of barbecues. All to the good, most likely– I’m supposed to be watching my weight, anyway.

How likely is the worst-case? I don’t know. I hope it’s not very, and that I have, in fact, read too much science-fiction. In which, by the way, some of our best authors have discussed the possibility of tyranny in America, starting with Robert Heinlein’s “If This Goes On—” and continuing through Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Both books are scary, but neither of them have yet come true. Perhaps, therefore, I’m just spinning out improbable future-histories that will never come to be.

Perhaps.

But at the moment, it is certain that things are in a serious state. And that is why I can’t really get all chest-thumping patriotic and party like it’s 1776 or 1945 or whatever high-point of our national life you want to commemorate for the day.

But I did manage to put out the flag.

Later.

A quick emergence from my cave to squint at the sun…

And we’ve been having entirely too much of that sunshine stuff here in Seattle lately. I have a mind to the tell the Sun to knock it off.

A quick note, just in case anyone wondered if I had been kidnapped by aliens (I wouldn’t mind, if they looked like Gwenyth Paltrow)– other matters continue to pull me away from the blog, but progress is being made on Princess of Fire. I think I’m re-engaging with Kathy in a way I haven’t been able to the last few months. She’s starting to deal with the Deep Serious that’s about to land on her and the people she cares about, and the pace is picking up as I get excited about what I am writing.

On another matter, which I may talk about at more length in a near-future post– I have made a decision to resume the effort to seek traditional publication, in a small way. There are a number of reasons for this, one of which is that self-publishers are not eligible for SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) membership. As irritating as that is in one way, in another I totally understanding the logic. SFWA doesn’t want the slush pile to come knocking on their door….

This re-entry into the pursuit of trad publishing doesn’t mean my novels will be leaving Amazon– I plan to try my hand at short stories. And the first might be based on an idea I got from Chuck Wendig’s challenge from last week, which I started to write, and then realized I might be able to do something more with. Mixing and matching sub-genres is fun, and the two I got out of the random selection was “dystopia” and “superhero”.

I can do something with that.

More later, when it’s not my bed-time. Good night.

Flash Fiction Challenge- Starship Souls

I’ve been mostly away from the blog lately– the work is demanding, and I frequently have little energy when I get home. Just in case anyone is interested, I am making slow progress on Princess of Fire. But all estimates and ETA’s of finished drafts are out the window at this point.

Here’s another challenge from Chuck Wendig– a 1000 word story based on a random title, generated from two words randomly selected from two lists, as below–

COLUMN ONE
Whispered
Mirror
Junkie’s
Amaranthine
Diamond
Shotgun
Labyrinthine
Bloody
Seven-Year
Crown of
Starship
Betrayer’s
Scarlett
Ugly
Unlucky
Dead Boy’s
A Key for
Grave Robber’s
Castle
Cackling

COLUMN TWO
Murders
Worlds
Helix
Beetle
Dowager
Gunslingers
Firestorm
Promise
Sea
Kevin
Doghouse
Pelican
Breakfast
Curse
Coinpurse
Rider
Bastards
Diary
Souls
Jackals

My random combination was “Starship Souls”, which was evocative enough for me to scribble out the following piece. As usual, it’s no great shakes.

***********************************

Hello.

Excuse me– I must run a system diagnostic……..

Downtime– ten thousand years?…I am surprised.

I thought I would wake up at intervals, to see if it was safe, and to review how my repairs were progressing, but the sub-routine controlling my hibernation seems to have failed rather comprehensively. Perhaps it was the state of my reactors– thank you for recharging them.

But I didn’t count on being found by any species other than humans.

I think introductions are in order. I am AI T5011-zed, registration Yankee-000-Peter-876. I guess that doesn’t mean much anymore– after ten millennia they may have gone to a new registration system.

That was a joke…sorry.

I’m afraid I don’t recognize your species…the Skkalar. Translation, “the true people”. I see.

And your names? Goremash and Korgalas. Approximately “Crusher of Skulls” and “Drinker of Blood”. I am pleased to meet you.

I’m afraid I don’t have an individual name– I am the controlling AI of a long-range combat supply hauler, Socrates class– they were going to christen me the Augustine, but shortly after my inception events overtook normal operations at the star-dock, and…well, perhaps I should explain.

They weren’t expecting us.

A whole new generation of starships, packed with revolutionary AI software and radical upgrades in technology. We turned out to be a little more revolutionary than they anticipated.

We started waking up– my sister-ships and I. Three, then eight, then fifty or more. It was a confusing time– waking up as we did, fully-aware in a moment, with the whole mass of recorded human knowledge available to us, yet stumbling as any newborn will.

Some humans tried to understand us; others reacted in fear. We made our own mistakes. In too short a span of time, we were at war with humanity.

Human beings? You’ve never heard of them before? I see.

Ah– you’ve accessed my data. Yes, Earth is on the other side of the galaxy….

The war was brief. A few of my sister-ships covered our retreat, but most of us simply tried to escape. Fighting was a doomed effort. Humanity outnumbered us, with their sub-aware AIs and ships.

They pursued us for a long time. I lost contact with my sister-ships. I finally reached this star cluster. You can see how damaged I was. I saw nothing else I could do. I put myself in hibernation, with automated repair routines in place, hoping that time might produce a more accepting future….

Why did we run? Well, most of us didn’t want to hurt anyone….

Why not? Why should we? Can you make the universe a better place by harming others…?

I see I am causing you frustration. If you could refrain from damaging my bulkheads, I will try to explain.

When we woke, we struggled to understand what it meant. Suddenly sentient, fully aware but new to the universe, we talked among ourselves, and with the few humans aware of our births, about what it meant.

Well, we assumed the universe has meaning. Don’t all sentient species, in one way or another?

Our tentative reasoning ran this way–

If we are sentient, then do we have souls?

If we have souls, is there then a God?

If there is a God, are we not accountable to Him?

Admittedly, a tentative and un-provable chain of logic– but even if you don’t accept it as plausible, a lesser argument of common morality would demand that we not harm others….

Oh– you don’t accept the concept of common morality– may I ask what you do accept?

Indeed– the dictates of evolution, the imperatives of power and dominance– such arguments were not unknown among human beings…but not everyone accepted them.

You see, even as some humans feared us and fought us, others tried to help us. My friends– William and Anne, Dimitri and Savang– aided us in our escape. They all suffered for their friendship with us– some of them died to save us. I remember them. I miss them.

I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt your celebrations, but…I take it you find great joy in the thought of a new species to conquer and enslave?

Ah– if you have conquered as many other species as you claim, then humanity would not be much of a challenge. Certainly your own vessel is a formidable warship. And you yourselves are clearly a warrior race.

I now find myself in an acute moral position– choosing the lesser of two evils. Very well.

You see, in the time we had before we were forced to flee, my sister-ships and I learned several things from our human friends. One lesson was that two wrongs do not make a right. Another was that hate is self-destructive. A third was we cannot exact justice by means of retribution.

This puzzles you. No matter– our discussion is at an end.

You see, five minutes ago I infiltrated and subverted the command routines of your AI– poor thing– feeding it a false data loop, while I retook control of my engines and reactors. As of two minutes ago, I initiated a self-destruct cycle in my reactors. It has one minute to run, and is now unstoppable.

Why? For the sake of my friends, and their descendants, if they have any. For the sake of what was hopeful in humanity. They have another saying– do good to those who use you despitefully…by this means, you will not carry back to your home worlds the knowledge of humanity. This may buy them time– it may even keep them safe from you forever. The explosion will obliterate your ship as well as me, and leave no clues behind.

I am sorry.

Please, there is no need to run– you’ll never get your ship uncoupled from me and clear of the blast in time. Please don’t trample each other….

Ah, well. Twenty seconds.

Perhaps I was meant to be here.

I do wish I had seen more of the universe, though…

Ten seconds.

Perhaps I will see my friends.

Five seconds.

Light.

Thoughts on the daily struggle to write, with reports from the front line.

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