Sunday, December 30, 2007

Book Review: The Dangerous Book for Boys

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

--Robert A. Heinlein

The Dangerous Book for Boys is one of those books that I, a son raised in a home run by a single mother, would have greatly appreciated when I was younger. With my father the better part of 1,000 miles away, I probably could have stood more guidance on the manly arts: building things, digging around the dirt, studying war, and in general getting myself into what used to be considered normal rites of passage, including training a dog, hunting and skinning rabbits, making a bow and arrow, and building a treehouse. In short, the Dangerous Book covers many or most of the activities males for the last century or two would have found familiar in these United States or the U.K. Judging by the reviews on, I would say that the Dangerous Book must fulfill an unspoken need for others as well. It is one of many salvoes being fired in the War Against Boys, which is trying to emasculate, marginalize, or medicate masculine behavior. Not to be outdone, of course, a female author has already written a book entitled The Daring Book for Girls, which was printed by the same publisher.

Interestingly, when I told my mother about this book, she asked if it dealt with fighting at all, which is one of the few things the authors--Conn and Hal Iggulden--do not address. A chapter on boxing alone might have saved me all sorts of headaches between the ages of five and fifteen. In any case, I highly recommend this book because it seeks to instill some of those masculine virtues and skills that only the Scouts are allowed to teach anymore (if at all). It also aims at directing the reader toward a bold and well-rounded personality, including sections on battle history as well as poetry, astronomy, and the Ten Commandments.

The writing style is best described as fatherly: at turns mildly humorous, patiently lecturing, or engagingly encouraging. I believe the best age you might safely give this book to a boy would be 10 to 12, when he's old enough to have some sense of responsibility but hasn't quite got the hang of girls yet (there is a section on girls as well, which is charming and quite harmless). The first section starts off with a list of "essential gear," the first item of which is a Swiss army knife, so you need to be sure your son is responsible and careful enough to handle such things.

I do have some gripes with the book, the primary and most glaring item being the quality of the binding. Many sheets were not cut well or were stitched together at the top, causing the reader to have to gently split them apart without tearing them too badly. The authors confuse "rotation" with "revolution" in describing the movement of planets around the sun, and describe the Space Shuttle as the fastest vehicle human beings have ever designed (that would be the Saturn V or the New Horizons spacecraft); this is particularly surprising, given that the book only came out this year. They also do not include the juvenile works of Robert A. Heinlein in their list of "books every boy should read." And, again, the book has nothing about schoolyard scrapes, which are often the most important formative experiences for boys, leading as they do to understanding self-defense, hierarchy, and even friendship.

The Dangerous Book for Boys is worth having around, especially for single moms who are searching for ways to make their sons have a "normal childhood."

Thursday, December 27, 2007

How Important Was Apollo?

It started with a Jeopardy question this past week. I believe the topic was "Men of Space" or something targeted my direction. The answer was: "He was a World War II veteran and the oldest person to set foot on the Moon." I racked my brain for 20 seconds and came up with the correct answer: "Who was Alan Shepard?"

My stepmother, who is an avid Jeopardy watcher along with my dad, asked, "What mission was that? I thought he was one of the early ones."

I explained that, yes, Shepard was the first American in space (not in orbit), and that he'd landed on Apollo 14. To which my surprised stepmother replied, "You mean we went more than once?"

I said, "Uh, yeah. Six times. Apollos 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17."

"When was the last one?"


I'm not certain who was more astonished: my stepmom or me. And then I had to go back and consider where she was in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She was a housewife, a secretary at Eastern Airlines, and a mother of two. Aside from going to Florida a few times, I doubt she had much connection to the space program. She obviously only remembered the first landing of Apollo 11. And I realized, right there, that this was NASA's and now partially my problem. If people who were alive as adults at the time don't even remember five landings on the Moon, what the hell chance do we have to maintain interest today?

We absolutely need to give people a reason to care about space exploration, give them a stake in the action: alternative energy research, helium-3 prospecting, scouting out a site for the first lunar hotel--something! Astronauts cavorting around doing scientific research and picking up rocks will NOT enthuse the public. Hell, the original astronaut in question, Alan Shepard, was the first person to bring golf to the Moon, and that scarcely warranted more than a bit of humor for the evening news.

NASA people are often so consumed by the coolness of their hardware that they lose sight of why we're going at all. The first time, we had a human reason to go: competition with the Soviets. Beyond that, it was research, and that was cut quickly as "more important things to do on Earth" took over NASA's healthy 4 percent of the budget. Today, we're in competition with Russia, China, Europe, India, Japan, and maybe others.

Will another competition really spur us onward? Some folks think or hope so, but I'm not so sure. Our culture is not the same as it was in 1961. "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" is practically blasphemy in this "gimme gimme gimme" society. "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard" would also be met by blank stares today. Do something hard? Jeez, wouldn't that require work, sacrifice, the potential for failure? Why, we can't have that, someone might get hurt! Left out!

Perhaps this business is also on my mind because I got the DVDs of From the Earth to the Moon for Christmas. I had the set on VHS, but gave up my video tape recorder when I moved to Alabama. The Moon series, produced by Tom Hanks, has even more resonance for me now than it did when I first saw it, because now I'm part of the whole go-to-the-Moon thing. It's thrilling to think that I might have some small part in doing something great like that. And yet there are so many people out there for whom space is, to them, irrelevant. My passion for this business led me (albeit later than it should have) to the work I have now. I cannot imagine a better fit for my interests and talents. And yet I am faced with the same problem as NASA: getting people who are NOT passionate about space to at least pay attention. It is both mind-boggling and frustrating, but what the heck, it keeps me happy and the bills paid.

More work to do tomorrow. I need to find a way to convert my verbal and visceral love for this adventure into something "normal" poeple will accept--hell, at least pay attention to! Tom Hanks did the space program a mighty huge favor making that series. I guess now I'll have to see what I can do.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Gen Y, NASA, and Viral Networking

So I put together the following reading...

...Along with my regular work of doing tech writing for NASA, and I produced the following analysis:

The first link (a 60-slide PPT briefing) points out that Al Qaeda is more of a viral, networked phenomenon rather than a top-down, bureaucratic army; however, that is how our analysts portray it because that’s what our analyzing agencies (CIA, DoD, etc.) are.

In much the same way, I think the command-based thinking of the previous generations is having a hard time coping with the much more networked and informal thinking of Generation Y. Rather than looking for leadership, they might just be looking for a cause, which is a much different issue. The problem, of course, is this: NASA still wants to be the central clearing house (i.e. leader) of all things space-related, and they think they can mold the next generation into that line of thinking rather than allow them to take what they want and go create or run with their own ideas.

No, this does NOT mean that I think space advocates should operate like terrorists. It DOES mean that terrorism has spread virally, much like an internet-based targeted marketing campaign. And if the bad guys can use this process, so can the good guys. At least one would like to hope. Technology can be value-neutral, but its uses are not. Do I think NASA could use a "viral" approach to building a constituency? Quite frankly, I'm doubtful, but stranger things have happened. I'll have to talk to my more net-savvy peers before I share this line of reasoning elsewhere.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Book Review: Clarke County, Space and Lit Review: Isaac Asimov

I was going to review Clarke County, Space by Allen Steele for NSS, but the trick to those reviews is that the books need to be on so NSS can get a piece of the action. Oh, well. I read, I write: that's what I do. One thing worth noting/reading on Steele's website is his congressional testimony regarding "the coming space age." Nice to see fellow advocates publish successfully.

Clarke County, Space is a crisply paced and short space adventure compared to most of the ones I see on the shelves lately (231 pages). Clarke County (CC in this review) is a Bernal Sphere space station orbiting Earth in a wide elliptical orbit. CC is part farm community, part tourist attraction, with the occupants divided between corporate financiers, hippie-type communalists, hospitality industry types, and tourists.

The story begins with a frame story, from which the author flashes back. This seems to be a common technique in SF (see Red Mars, Mars Underground, Moving Mars, as well as my review of Star Trek: Best Destiny among others), as authors feel the need to show events that lead up to some grim or glorious future. As with most of these frame stories, it could probably be eliminated with a minimum of fuss, as it mostly tells us that at least one character or two is going to live or die. And in the case of Clarke County, I did not feel that the frame story "added value," if I may use a marketing phrase, so I will concentrate on the primary narrative.

Trouble comes to the life of John Bigthorn, sheriff of CC, when the former girlfriend of a mafia don sneaks away from said bad guy and hides herself at the colony. Behind her is the Golem, a hit man. CC is also "invaded" by a reconstituted Church of Elvis while one of the leaders of the local leadership council suddenly declares that CC should declare its independence from Earth and its corporate interests. And lurking in the midst of all this is Blind Boy Grunt, an electronic blogger who sees all, knows all within CC. If this sounds like a lot of loose ends to tie up in 230 pages, it is; Steele manages to tie up most of them neatly by the end of the book.

The lead character, Bigthorn, is a Native American (Navajo), who stoically puts up with stereotypical "Injun" humor while making equally stereotypical remarks about "Anglos." We aren't given much of his background--or anyone else's, for that matter--except to know that he's an impressive, muscular guy, a bit of a hardass, a peyote user, and a gentleman with an impressive set of male equipment. Early in the story, the wife of the commune's leader (and the one who declares independence later) tries to seduce Bigthorn in a rather Heinleinian manner, using language that, if a man used it on a woman, would probably get him rightly kicked in the equipment.

Aside from fending off seduction attempts from one of CC's leading citizens, Bigthorn is informed of the arrival of Macy, the mafia don's girlfriend, by Blind Boy Grunt, who seems to know everything about everybody. He is also informed about the arrival of the Golem, who he quickly shakes down and irritates. Much of the story, then, swirls around Bigthorn, Macy, and the Golem. Macy eventually takes refuge with the Church of Elvis, which is run by Elvis Parker, a con man who got plastic surgery done on his face to look exactly like "the King."

The Church of Elvis subplot actually comes closest to having a space component to it, as they manage to obtain access (via Macy) to a space weapon. Despite Steele's occasional descriptions and discussions of the construction or interior of CC, I didn't get that much of a "space" feel to the story. Tweak a few things here and there, and the story coul have taken place at an offshore resort here on Earth.

Surprisingly, the aspect of the story that would normally get the most attention in a space colony story like this--the declaration of independence--is mostly a subplot. The woman who makes the declaration seems to make it out of the ether. The reader is not given a lot of insight into what's motivating her, why she makes the declaration, or why the colonists should even care. It's brought up, and then dropped except for a "town meeting" later in the story.

On the whole, I liked Clarke County, both for its brevity and its fast-moving plot. The characters are not deep, but easily distinguishable. John Bigthorn's quick banter and Steele's mildly cynical narration recall Heinlein's early style and move the story along with a minimum of fuss. Perhaps this short adventure story suffers from too little of the gosh-wow factor that I've picked on other books for having too much of. Clarke County is so familiar in its environment that it is difficult to remember that it takes place in space. That could have been intentional on Steele's part: he's telling a tale which just happens to take place in the future on an orbiting habitat, but that's no big deal. While some SF stories go too far into hardware/environment worship, Steele has gone almost entirely in the other direction. He is more concerned with people and what they're doing, and that is a factor worth considering: just as we take our cell phones, text messaging, and other electronic toys for granted, so people in the future would just consider space colonies part of the landscape. It's just we primitives in the past who would bother with the gee-whiz.


Continuing my review of the SF Giants, I'll next turn my attention to Isaac Asimov, the chemistry professor who might be the most prolific writer of this (or any) age. The official site for this Grand Master, who died in 1992, lists 506 books to his credit, not to mention countless essays, letters, and Deus knows what else. He gives "work ethic" a whole new meaning. Asimov is known as both an important SF writer and science educator, having written books in just about every fiction and nonfiction category in the library.

Born in 1920, Asimov was one of those authors who brought literary and scientific law and order to a science fiction genre that had been dominated by the "pulps" before the arrival of serious technologists like him, Heinlein, and their mentor, John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction. While Heinlein was writing action-oriented adventure stories, Asimov was selling logic puzzles disguised cleverly as stories about robots and of all things, encyclopedia writers.

Asimov's most famous short stories are his robot stories, collected among other places in the book I, Robot, which should not be confused by the Will Smith movie on which it was loosely based. Asimov put a new spin on runaway robot stories, which in the pulp era had often represented Robby the Robot-type monsters terrorizing the populace. Instead, Asimov and Campbell hacked out the "Three Laws of Robotics" as a means of limiting and explaining robotic behavior. They are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human
    being to come to harm.

  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders
    would conflict with the First Law.

  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

A "runaway" robot, then, was an anomaly for Asimov's peaceful, purposely harmless machines. If a failure occurred, it was usually the result of robots acting as best as they could when trying to interpret human beings who had not thoroughly thought through what they were asking. The mystery of the story, then, becomes figuring out what went wrong in what today we would call the "human-machine interface." The lead character for many of these stories is Dr. Susan Calvin, a roboticist with a brilliant mind but utterly cold personality. Her attitude can be neatly summed up by her opinion of robots:

To you, a robot is just a robot. But you haven't worked with them. You don't
know them. They're a cleaner, better breed than we are.

Following the robot stories (and novels), Asimov's most enduring fictional work is a series of short stories and novellas collected into three books as The Foundation Trilogy. Inspired by reading of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, Asimov (again with guidance from John W. Campbell) set about creating a "Foundation" that would work to reduce the damage done by the collapse of a Galactic Empire. The Foundation is actually "Encyclopedia Foundation Number One," established on the remote planet Terminus to preserve the knowledge of the Empire and to keep them away from the capital world of Trantor, where their pronouncements of galactic doom were feared to cause unrest.

The Foundation's founding member is a "psychohistorian" named Hari Seldon. Seldon uses the science of psychohistory to predict the future--at least on a statistical basis for large groups of people. Seldon sees the Empire, currently at its greatest extent and power, nearing collapse, following which will be a 30,000-year dark age. He gets the Foundation established and purposely moved to the outer edges of the galaxy in the hopes of reducing the dark age from 30,000 years to a mere 1,000.

Not being comfortable in the rough-and-tumble violence of ancient Rome, Asimov instead conjures up stories that are again logic puzzles, this time of the sociological sort. The most important lead character of early stories is Salvor Hardin, Mayor of Terminus, whose motto is typical Asimov: "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." As the Empire collapses, local petty chieftains begin to threaten the Foundation. Hardin, a pragmatic politician with no training in psychohistory, has to guess at its workings to find ways to keep the Foundation safe. What we are treated to over the course of the next several stories, then, are a series of "Seldon Crises," which end up in the Foundation gradually converting itself from a community of scholars to a theocracy to a trading federation, guided as always by the invisible hand of Seldon's calculations, who had anticipated all these crises along the path toward creating a Second Galactic Empire.

The relentless progress of the Foundation is interrupted by the interference of the Mule, a mutant of some sort who can control the minds of his followers, as well as the mythic "Second Foundation," which Seldon had arranged to be placed "at Star's End."

It helps to have know something about Gibbon or at least post-Roman European history to get the full flavor of what Asimov is attempting. The original stories only took readers through about 250 years of galactic history. It was only at the insistence of one of his editors that Asimov returned to the Foundation universe, and then he did something even more ambitious: writing a series of books that tied together the Robot stories, his less-well-known "Galactic Empire" stories, and the Foundation stories. The leaps of logic are ingenious and thus typically Asimov, but I sometimes wonder if it was worth all the effort. The books were written during different periods in Asimov's career, and technologies were often incompatible or even out of date in the intervening years. But such was the nature of Asimov's work ethic and dedication to his craft.

Of all the science fiction writers whose works have had their stories turned into movies, Asimov's have received the fairest, best treatment. Bicentennial Man starring Robin Williams is based on an Asimov novella by the same name that follows the travails of Andrew Martin, a robot obsessed with becoming human. I, Robot, mentioned earlier, is a Will Smith crime story borrowing from several Asimov stories and including an appearance by Dr. Susan Calvin. Both stories manage to convey Asimov's inherent decency, as Bicentennial Man manages a PG rating, while I, Robot has a PG-13 rating that could probably have been scaled back were it not for the addition of modern-era profanity. Again, Asimov's stories are cerebral, exercises for the mind, not the body, and it is no surprise to me that Disney made Bicentennial Man. Director Chris Columbus manages to convey the charm and benign nature of an Asimovian future.

Oddly, the best treatment Asimov has received has been in movies and television shows that were NOT direct translations of his work. The character of Lt. Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation is one of the best Asimovian robots/androids ever to grace the big or small screens. Another series that owes a lot to (i.e. stole a lot from) Asimov is George Lucas's Star Wars saga, starting with its Galactic Empire and continuing with its capital world Coruscant, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the world-city of Trantor, a planet completely covered by metal. In fact, Star Wars can be seen as a retelling of Foundation, which is a retelling of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is a work of history about actual events following the fall of Rome. That's one way to get your history lessons, I suppose.

If the reader cannot tell, I am very much a fan of Asimov's; though I am not blinded by some of his literary tics. His stories are very "talky." He is, after all, solving puzzles with words, not battling bad guys or describing a lot of alien landscapes. The Foundation stories are best read on their own, as they appeared in Astounding; otherwise the books suffer from repitition. Despite this dialogue-driven storytelling method, Asimov isn't nearly as pedantic or action-oriented as Heinlein, nor does he aspire to the poetry of Clarke. Instead, he provides the clear, charming prose of an entertaining and erudite professor, which (incredibly) was his day job. Asimov was a political liberal, and had a falling-out with Heinlein after the latter's shift to the right. He stood along with Clarke and Carl Sagan in his opposition to the Strategic Defense Initiative. I cannot, in all honesty, recall any harsh word spoken by or about him. His works will be with us for a long time. If you were somehow able to read one Asimov book a day and started today, you would finish sometime around May 5, 2009. Regardless of what you pick up, you are likely to learn. That is the mark of a truly great writer and teacher.

Marketing the 2009 Space Settlement Calendar

Dear Reader(s):

I have no idea how many people actually read this blog, but I'll take a leap of faith and guess that there are at least two. Given that assumption, as chairman of the National Space Society's 2009 Space Settlement Calendar, I ask for your help in providing art or finding/recruiting space-minded artists who might be able to provide vivid, believable images of human beings living on the Moon, Mars, asteroids, or in free orbit sometime in our future. If you've never done this type of work before, take a look at last year's entries for an example of what we accepted. I'd suggest that you try to buy the 2008 calendar, but we've sold out already, and are unable to procure more from the publisher. I own a couple personally, however, and can vouch personally for the quality of the paper and the printing. In fact, I plan to give several away as Christmas gifts this year.

Art helps make the space future believable, much like great movements need a theme song ("La Marseilleaise" anyone?). The National Space Society is not just about NASA's "Vision for Space Exploration." We want to see average, non-degreed people living, working, and raising families out in other parts of the solar system. We expect that Earth will need the energy and material resources of space in the not-too-distant future, and obtaining those resources will require a fully functioning economy, infrastructure, and society beyond the basics of fuel, air, water, and food. We will take our cultures with us: clothing, music, religion, and art. We will adapt them to conditions "out there" and take new inspiration from what we see, experience, and learn. The function of the art contest, as originally designed, was to give people a sense of that dynamic and adventurous future. I look forward to seeing what the artists come up with: I'm just the writing guy.

Thanks. We now return you to your regularly scheduled foolishness.

P.S. I almost forgot! We're going to be extending the art submission deadline to January 11, 2008, so no one will have to seriously impinge on their vacation time. The scheduled submission date on my advertising image will be updated shortly. Thanks again.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Arthur C. Clarke: Britannia Ruling the Spaceways

I was just starting out with a review of "SF giants," and Sir Arthur C. Clarke had the good taste to celebrate his 90th free trip around the sun:

A few biographical notes, to put Clarke into perspective. Born in 1917 in England, Clarke was educated as an engineer and served as an RAF office in World War II, being one of the first to work with radar. In the mid-1950s, he moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and has lived there ever since. At some point in his career, he formed the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation, which uses modern technologies--especially space technologies--to improve the lives of people in the undeveloped world. Clarke is usually considered one of the "Big Three" in SF, along with Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, whom I'll write about next, and is one of the few SF writers that most non-SF fans can name.

While Heinlein affects a great deal of my personal and political beliefs, Clarke was my first SF writing "father" (influence). I picked up Childhood's End, followed by Rendezvous with Rama and The Fountains of Paradise. Clarke's prose flows forth like water, gracefully wrapping itself around alien landscapes and cosmic mysteries in ways that uplift and sometimes startle the reader.

There are, of course, other books of Clarke's that are better known, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he cowrote as both book and screenplay with director Stanley Kubrick. The shame of 2001 is that it's such a dreadfully dull film, "psychedelic" ending notwithstanding. The book makes a lot more sense, though a smart enough viewer can probably get what the Monolith was doing. 2010: Odyssey Two (made into the Peter Hyams film 2010: The Year We Make Contact) is actually a much better book, from almost every angle. Taking knowledge of the Jovian moons not available in 1968, Clarke builds upon his cosmic evolution themes and presents us with a system of worlds, not just tiny lights in the sky. He also manages his best characterizations among a mixed crew of Soviets and Americans going back to the scene of action to find out what happened in 2001. Subsequent sequels in the "2001 universe" include 2061 (a trip to Halley's Comet) and 3001: The Final Odyssey (a return to Earth filled with wonders and a final confrontation with the Monolith) do not match up to 2010 in thematic depth or plot.

Of course as a Christian I must also discuss his atheism. He isn't nasty or insulting about it, like others (Kim Stanley Robinson comes to mind). Instead, he looks upon religious believers as people to be pitied for their delusions. For Clarke, the Universe (with a capital U) is wonderful enough not to require God, much less a God in need of worship. And after all, it is Clarke who penned his Third Law, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

Childhood's End is a tale about the next steps in humanity's future, with some wry humor thrown in, as Clarke shows us what transcendance might look like from a science fiction perspective.

In The Fountains of Paradise, a robotic alien probe passes through the solar system, engaging in philosophical dialogues with Earth before setting off on its next journey. One of the probe's more discerning statements, courtesy of Clarke, reads as follows:
If you assume that the universe can be quote explained unquote as the creation of an entity known as God, he must obviously be of a higher degree of organization than his product. Thus you have more than doubled the size of the original problem, and have taken the first step on a diverging infinite regress. William of Ockham pointed out as recently as your fourteenth century that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. I
cannot therefore understand why this debate continues.

This wasn't the only book, of course, where Clarke fired broadsides at organized religion. "The Star," perhaps his best-known short story, forces a Jesuit priest to confront the source of the Star of Bethlehem. Another story, "The Nine Billion Names of God," provides a somewhat tongue-in-cheek story about the end of the world.

The Songs of Distant Earth, one of his best space operas, depicts future interstellar colonies as being seeded by robotic ships transplanting only the embryos or DNA of human beings and the plants and animals necessary to survive on those other worlds. Not having any human beings aboard these vehicles to raise the first children, they were raised instead by robots and computers, given the basic laws of human society (a "Jefferson Mark 3" constitution), and some basics of human history--but without any references to religion. When a ship finally embarks from Earth, it visits one of these seeded colonies, Thalassa, on its way to another world. Thalassans are peaceful, well-adjusted, and seemingly without large-scale conflicts.

This is one of those utopian experiments that are not likely to be tried any time in the near future, if only because it's impossible to isolate human beings far enough to avoid contact with religion-inspired cultures. But again, Clarke makes us ask the question: if we did not grow up with religion, would we invent it anew? Clarke seems to think not; I am not so certain.

Rather than end on a critical note, I will finish by focusing on the things I like best about Clarke's works, of which I have read many. That "sense of wonder" thing ("gosh-wow" writing, as I've called it elsewhere) is where Clarke excels, whether he is describing the massive alien artifact Rama, the massive jellyfish-like floating creatures in the atmosphere of Jupiter, or future engineering works of humanity, like the space elevator, Clarke manages to convey beautiful word pictures and convey a sense of seriousness and love for what is being described. He also uses some of his most evocative prose to convey high tragedy or cosmic loss, for instance at the end of Childhood's End or the short story "Transcience" (printed in an anthology, the name of which I cannot now recall), or the end of The Songs of Distant Earth. In all of these examples and many others, Clarke does what he can to make you understand that it's a big, lonely universe out there.

Perhaps most charmingly, Clarke's writing is well-mannered. He believes in a positive, sensible future, assuming people learn to behave rationally. If you begin to read a Clarke story, much like riding an attraction at Walt Disney World, you need not fear serious personal danger, violence, or foul language. Indeed, one has to look to his later works cowritten with other authors before there's much more than a "damn" in anything Clarke writes. For that, he is to be commended, and appreciated for the art he has produced.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Robert A. Heinlein, Rest in Peace if You Can

I'm in the process of reading Clarke County, Space by Allen Steele. Too many other demands on my time to read it quickly. However, I'll probably save that for the NSS Book Review
site, anyway. Steele is a two-time Hugo Award winner and a winner of the Robert Heinlein Award for Best New Writer. This is a nice segue to my next topic for the evening, as a recent article about Heinlein has appeared on the net recently:,0,6886058.story?coll=la-books-headlines

Then John Scalzi, another Robert A. Heinlein (RAH) fan, wrote in response to the L.A. Times on his

And while I won't go into the details of the e-chats, I got emails from a variety of space-minded friends on the mixed legacy of RAH, expressing their opinions pro or con. It seems that anyone who has had a passing interest in space exploration or hippiedom has encountered Heinlein's work. Space fans tend to gravitate toward the short fiction RAH wrote pre-World War II and in the late '40s for the
Saturday Evening Post or his juveniles. The hippie types have glommed onto Stranger in a Strange Land (birthplace of "grok" and inspiration to Charles Manson), which for the space-loving fans just about marks the downturn of RAH's career. After that, his books get more hedonistic, much longer, and nowhere near as coherent.

I am more of a '40s guy now, so The Past Through Tomorrow usually gets a good re-reading every few years. Such was not always the case. Back when I was more socially sensitive (i.e. liberal), I didn't read RAH because I bought the schtick that he was a "fascist" of some sort, as well as a sexist. The fascist accusation derives mostly from his pro-military book Starship Troopers, which was transmogrified into a satirical
movie under the same title. There are several messages to be found in Troopers, among them an excellent lecture on what it means to be a "juvenile delinquent." However, the primary point that I got from the book is, "Join the military and it will make a man out of you." The message of the blatantly fascist Paul Verhoeven movie is, "Join the military, and it will turn you into a macho sh!thead fanatic." As anyone who truly understands masculinity will tell you, there is a major difference between the two, but that appears to have been lost on Hollyweird.

Another important facet of the book, which is mostly lost in the sheer violence of the movie, is that the only way one can gain "the franchise" (aka the right to vote) is to prove your worthiness by serving your country through the military or federal service for three years. The idea being, if you are willing to prove your willingness to put your countrymen's needs ahead of your own, you've earned the right to vote. From such a system comes an emphasis on duty and self-sacrifice that is truly misunderstood in this "shop 'til you drop" society. "Give up my rights for others? How fascist!"

The sexism rap is not as easy to shake. RAH was born in 1909 (died 1988), and attended Annapolis in the late 1920s. That was not necessarily a liberal time, though RAH was politically liberal up through the end of World War II. Nevertheless, RAH's male characters display mostly the daddy's-in-charge attitude, with the women being at best some combination between
Myrna Loy and a female version of MacGyver (his second wife Virginia was an engineer). Other women come across as hanky-wringing, apron-string-tying ninnies determined to keep their men civilized or domesticated. Some of the later female characters have a randy (read: slutty) streak reminsicent of Brittany Spears.

The only fiction book of his post-Stranger career that I've read all the way through is Friday, and that book starts off on the wrong foot--a woman falling in love with her rapist--and swiftly turns downhill from there.

Still, it is important to understand what Heinlein accomplished as a science fiction writer. He almost single-handedly invented the genre. As a military-educated engineer, he brought a technical realism and believability that placed his work far above the "pulps" of the early '30s, when neither was in much abundance. Because his approach was so new, he could--and did--explore the basic SF stories in ways that had never been seen before, though they would be duplicated many times in the years after he started writing.

RAH's range was broad, from power fantasy to military science fiction to cultural/sociological SF to time travel and psychological fiction. And if his characters did not always employ the enlightened sensibilities of today, one might at least thank him for forcing SF writers to know their stuff before jumping in willy-nilly. In a way, he spoiled SF for the pulp and potboiler writers who came before him and the struggling artists who came after him because he instilled the genre with a sense that the author had to know what he was talking about before sitting in front of the typewriter or, now, computer.

For good or ill, I came to RAH's writing after the man had already died, so I blew any chance of meeting him at a science fiction convention. However, if you come across an author whose writing is said to evoke Heinlein, that should not be a sign to toss the book aside as fascist, sexist bilge. Rather, one should expect that whatever you read is likely to be informed, plausible, and a ripping good yarn. There was a time when people read books for entertainment, not just their political "message." It is good to keep that thought in mind when approaching the works of Robert Anson Heinlein, for in the end, that's what he sat before the typewriter to do.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Book Review: Star Trek: Prime Directive

This is one of two hardcover Star Trek books I have kept and reread over the years. Unlike Best Destiny, reviewed below, Prime Directive is more of an alien-encounter story than a character study. As can readily be deduced from the title, this book centers on Starfleet General Order One, the "prime directive" of the series' gunboat diplomacy, which is supposed to keep the technologically advanced United Federation of Planets from interfering with or causing harm to less-advanced societies.

It is, in fact, a directive that Captain Kirk and his illustrious crew managed to violate throughout the voyages depicted in the first three years of the original series; and the Next Generation and Voyager (both "exploration" series) didn't handle it much better.

Kirk, however, was a violator par excellence, as he routinely overturned societies that failed to match 1960s-style American notions of self-determination. A case has been made that Kirk was, in fact, the prototypical Neocon.

Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens, a husband-and-wife pair of authors, decided to raise the stakes on Kirk's usual habit of mucking about in alien politics. In this book, Kirk and his bridge crew are bounced out of Starfleet for apparently causing a nuclear war on a world that was at a technological level approximating that of late 20th century Earth, Talin IV.

We thus begin sometime during the period of the fifth year of the Enterprise's original "five-year mission," with Kirk himself already living in hiding, in disguise and under an assumed name, taking whatever work he can get. When he's discovered, he has to move on, as he has become a pariah, a "world killer."

Kirk's cohorts Sulu, Chekov, McCoy, and Uhura do not appear to be doing much better. Uhura spends 90 days in detention and is then released from the service after refusing to sign a confession regarding her part in the events at Talin IV. McCoy has tried to find a quiet life in a cabin on Earth and started growing a beard, but he meets Uhura to commiserate after her release. Chekov and Sulu have joined an Orion slave ship as crew members to try to get back to Talin to find out what happened. Science Officer Spock takes the most unlikely path, joining up with a group of college radicals to protest the Federation and get a hearing on rescinding the Prime Directive completely. The only one of the officers untainted by the debacle is Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, who stays with the Enterprise to supervise her reconstruction, as the ship itself was damaged during the nuclear war on Talin IV. Scotty does not believe that Enterprise was damaged accidentally, and diligently looks for evidence while reporting to a young and pompous Lt. Styles (the future captain of the Excelsior in Star Trek III).

Kirk finally finds a steady job and a sympathetic ear with Ann Gavreau, a former Starfleet officer who never got command of a Constitution-class starship, and so quit to captain her own freighter. It is during his cruise aboard Gavreau's ship that the authors flash back to the actual events at Talin IV. What makes this part of the book so interesting, aside from the fact that we get to watch Kirk facing the worst of all possible "no-win scenarios," is that we get an inside look at the "First Contact Office (FCO)," which the Federation uses to monitor primitive worlds and decide when "first contact" will be initiated. The authors also provide plausible ways for explaining how futurisitic vehicles like the Enterprise could hide from our world of today.

Eventually, of course, the Enterprise crew all manage to reach Talin IV to put the pieces together, find out what happened, and restore their varied fortunes. (That isn't a true spoiler--one of the writing guidelines for Pocket Books is that a Star Trek book cannot kill off a major character, or do something truly radical to the known continuity of the TV shows and movies, which are the official "canon" of the franchise.)

What I like about the Reeves-Stevenses' book is that they have a firm and integrated sense of Star Trek's history, and integrate bits and pieces from the series, other authors' books (including one of their own, Memory Prime), and the movies to provide an excellent sense of time and place. In this, they are operating somewhat like Babylon 5 or Firefly writers, who managed to give the episodes more of a soap opera feel by growing the characters over time. They also show a bit more of what life is like for civilians in the Trek universe. Rather than treat the people of Trek in an episodic way, the authors give the characters a true feeling of past and future. This is what makes Prime Directive one of the best Star Trek novels out there. The prose is also a little less gushing than Diane Carey's Best Destiny while still providing that sense of wonder that causes fans to read about further adventures of Captain Kirk and his gallant crew.

I highly recommend this book and, once you're finished with it, pick up the masterful audio version narrated by the late James Doohan (Scotty). Doohan does an excellent job with capturing the tone of the various characters' voices, and the sound effects and old series music help put you right back into the action. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise...enjoy.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Book Review: Star Trek: Best Destiny

This seems to have become a book reviewing site. What of it? I obtain my intellectual and (often) spiritual nourishment from books. Here's the latest...

I read Best Destiny when it first came out in the early '90s, back when I was still gung-ho to be a science fiction/Star Trek writer, and decided to lay my hands on nearly any Trek book I could find. In time, I realized that I was ill-equipped to write SF, much less Trek, and moved on to other pursuits. And as I purged my shelves of books that I knew I'd never read again, most of my Trek paperbacks went off to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. However, I kept some of the better ones, and Best Destiny, which I'd splurged on to buy in hardcover.

To begin, Best Destiny by Diane Carey is a sequel to a book she wrote three years previously, Final Frontier (which should not be confused with the truly awful Star Trek V movie with the same title). Final Frontier introduced the first mission of the starship Enterprise under her very first commanding officer, Captain Robert April. Among the crew members of that mission was a hard-nosed and somewhat brash chief of security, George Samuel Kirk, father of the future Captain James T. Kirk. That book finishes with Kirk deciding to settle his family out on one of the outer colonies, Tarsus IV.

Best Destiny takes place some years after that settlement decision. In the intervening years, Tarsus IV suffered a massive food shortage, and its governor massacred thousands (events that would eventually be resolved in the Original Series episode "Conscience of the King"). After that, Kirk resettled his family (wife Winona, and sons Sam and Jimmy) back on Earth, in Riverside, Iowa. Embittered by the Tarsus IV episode, his parents' estrangement, and George's frequent long absences in space, 16-year-old Jimmy has become a bit of a discipline problem. Sulky, adventurous, bossy, occasionally bookish, and more than a little mean, young Jimmy Kirk's story opens with him and a group of young toughs attempting to run away from home to join a freighter crew. They are soon caught, by George himself, and the Starfleet officer realizes he has a serious problem on his hands.

George's old friend Captain April comes up with the idea of taking Jimmy out on a mission with the Enterprise to build the teenager's character and hopefully mend the relationship between father and son. Carey puts us in the young Kirk's mind as he attempts nonchalance in the presence of a space vehicle lovingly described:
Bathed in beaconage, there she was. The gazingstock of Starfleet.
With the diamondlike poise of a resting Lippizaner stallion, a huge milk-white ship beguiled the darkness. Two pencil-shaped warp nacelles pierced back from her lower hull, implying speed. The lower hull, where mankind's genius of engineering found expression, provided the ship's sense of ballast. Robert knew those impressions had been designed into her in defiance of commonplace understanding that a ship in space could be shaped like almost anything. There was no wind resistance to consider here. Here, such a ship was designed for only two things: purpose...and raw inspiration...

"She's a starship, Jimmy...isn't that a masterful word? Starship...her express purpose is to roam free to untouched stars. And she has the power to do it too. She and her kind will hammer through the frontiers of space, approach and contact faraway civilizations, bridge cultures, learn, share, grow...she's a flintbox for the firewalkers among us. The starship Enterprise."

Carey's sometimes-worshipful descriptions of the Star Trek universe's technology and Starfleet people can be cloying at times, just a little too "gosh-wow," but consider how a 16-year-old today would feel if he or she was brought up into orbit and given the opportunity to travel aboard such a vehicle! Hell, a 38-year-old might even manage a gosh-wow. And that was part of Star Trek's appeal, after all. It was positive, even uplifting occasionally.

But we have to start with Jimmy Kirk the rebel, who was there because his father dragged him there. The point of the adventure for him, at least for the first half of the book or so, is to antagonize and wound George Kirk with any barb he can manage. He even manages to irritate some of the Enterprise crew with his first words upon setting foot on the bridge, which was under repairs: "It stinks in here."

Eventually Enterprise gets underway, dispatching Robert April, George Kirk, Jimmy, and half a dozen other crew members to perform a simple visit to an archaeological dig on a world called Faramond. This trip occurs in a low-warp transport, traveling around the Rosette Nebula, while the Enterprise heads off on a diplomatic mission. Jimmy manages to keep up his sulky and hostile front until the transport is attacked by pirates hiding in the nebula. The bulk of the story is taken up by the various technobabble tricks the Starfleet people use to evade and survive their attacker's assaults and the lessons Jimmy learns as he observes and sometimes inadvertently interferes with them. In short, this is the Star Trek version of a Heinlein juvenile: the smart-mouthed tenderfoot in space who learns the ropes the hard way.

Carey also includes a "frame story": the book actually opens soon after the end of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the last mission of the old Enteprise depicted in the movies. The older James T. Kirk, headed for retirement along with his beloved ship, is starting to feel his age when the ship receives a distress call from the new Excelsior-class starship Bill of Rights, which was in orbit around Faramond. The planet means nothing to Kirk's crew, but it causes Kirk some discomfort. The Bill of Rights appears to have exploded, so the Enterprise races off to investigate. This frame story uses some of the insights learned during the longer and more detailed episode 45 years earlier.

So what makes this novel so much better than the many, many others out there? Part of the charm, I suppose, is getting to see what the eminent Captain Kirk might have been like as a bratty teenager (but then I repeat myself). Part of the resonance for me derives from my own bratty teenaged years, when I said more than my own share of nasty, deliberately hurtful things to my father. Perhaps most guys could relate. Most of us grow out of it, eventually. The frame story has its own moments of uplift, as Kirk finds himself confronting some demons from his youth. Carey very neatly (perhaps too neatly?) ties everything together, past and future, young Kirk and old Kirk, and gives the reader a feeling of inspiration, which is of course the point.

Best Destiny couldn't be made into a movie today--too many of the lead characters have died--but it has more of a "movie" feel to it than one of the old episodes, and would've made quite a good cinematic adventure, for all that. If you haven't gotten into the Star Trek universe in awhile, Best Destiny does its level best to remind the reader of a lot of the things that made us enjoy the show in the first place.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Book Review: Lucifer's Hammer

I'm cheating tonight. This review was written last month, but what the heck, now it's posted. Read and enjoy.


Sunday, December 02, 2007

Book Review: I Am Legend

Richard Matheson's I Am Legend has been a classic of the horror genre since its release in 1954. It is about to be released as a new motion picture starring Will Smith. Being a fan of Mr. Smith and having heard good things about Matheson's book, I thought I'd give it a try.

This will actually be the second attempt to bring Legend the big screen. The first was The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston. I will be most interested to see how Hollyweird will change the book. The most obvious changes are a shift in location from Los Angeles to New York and the race of the protagonist.

So, what about the book? Legend is a stark tale about one man's struggle to survive in a world that has been nearly emptied of people; those people who do survive have become vampires. Thus, the early part of the 160-page story starts with the hero, Robert Neville, living a one-man-survivalist existence in a near-gothic world of garlic, wooden stakes, and crosses in order to keep the evil at bay. His home is festooned with garlic, boarded and locked up, and stocked with food, fuel, and a generator to keep life in at least one place safe and sane. He also keeps himself stocked up on garlic thanks to a greenhouse. In many ways, Legend can be seen as an analogy for being a single survivor in a post-nuclear world. Neville himself is a sometimes-flawed protagonist, often temperamental and self-destructively drunk. His morality, such as it is, centers around keeping himself alive and looking for ways to kill the vampires, at which he is sometimes successful. The driving action of the book is Neville's various successful and unsuccessful attempts to learn about and defeat his enemies. There is also some--not much--grim humor in Legend.

What's interesting about Matheson's treatment of vampires is his manner of providing a scientific explanation for their existence. DNA was a recent discovery at the time the book was written, but Matheson is able to use then-current biology and germ theory and chemistry to offer explanations for, and methods for fighting against, a population composed of vampires.

I refuse to play spoiler on the ending, mostly because I am curious about how today's writers will handle it, but Matheson and his protagonist remain scientific to the end. This might be seen as one of the many dark visions offered up by the 1950s, a time when we were all supposed to be so innocent and naive. However, Matheson's writing, while nearly profanity-free by today's standards, leaves little doubt about the brutality that human beings can resort to and the moral codes they will accept in the name of survival. What sort of fate will 2007 Hollywood prescribe for Matheson's deeply flawed, yet engaging vampire killer? I am not a huge fan of horror films, but I found this book absolutely fascinating, and I respect Will Smith enough to give the movie a try. Besides, how bad could it be with a PG-13 rating, anyway?

Matheson's best-known work, besides Legend, might be the Twilight Zone Episode "To Serve Man," where a group of benevolent aliens come to Earth bearing a single, fair-sounding text to bring peace: "To Serve Man." The punchline ending of that episode, of course, is that it's really a cookbook. Matheson's "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" had the distinction of appearing in the Twilight Zone TV series (starring William Shatner) and the Twilight Zone Movie (starring John Lithgow).

Matheson's story The Incredible Shrinking Man became one of the classics of '50s schlock sci-fi moviemaking, but it also served as an analogy for man's increasing loss of power. Another amazing book of his is What Dreams May Come, which also has been made into a visually stunning movie starring Robin Williams. One of the great things about the special effects of the 21st century is that some of the serious classics of science fiction and fantasy can now be portrayed realistically on the big screen. I hope to see some of the other classics in the genre filmed in the future. For better or worse, we are now living in the future that many of the Golden Age SF authors wrote about, once upon a time. Even in this high-tech world of ours, those geniuses of the Industrial Age still have lessons to teach us. Richard Matheson is one of the best teachers.