Monday, May 22, 2017

From the One That Got Away

You may have recently read about the death of John Schultz, the man who developed the Story Workshop approach to the teaching of writing, and started the Fiction Writing department at Columbia College Chicago. He wrote a collection of stories, The Tongues of Men, and two extraordinary books of reportage, No One Was Killed and Motion Will Be Denied. His text, Writing from Start to Finish, was integral to the approach he developed. And for the continued perplexed, or the inner circle, a teachers’ manual accompanied the text.
His approaches were, and remain, controversial among those who can use the term “pedagogy” without blushing. I am certainly not the one to defend those methods here, though I have gained greatly as a writer by them. If anything, I appreciate them more as the years proceed. I utilize a number of his approaches, though I can hardly be called a Story Workshop teacher.
For years, a rumor circulated throughout academia that Schultz and the teachers he trained formed something like a cult. I may even have assisted in promulgating the rumor. John had his circle within the semicircle (that’s a reference to the seating arrangement in his classes; the chairs were always arranged in a semicircle around the teacher, or “director”). From my perspective, that circle was an elite, the “chosen few” who would be anointed to spread the gospel of Story Workshop.
Then as now, I have an acute allergy to elites, no matter how strongly I might even believe in what that special group advocates. But that, as they say in therapy sessions, is more my problem than theirs. Within their circle, the world looks different. Some in that circle saw it as their family. Some saw it as home. The view from within always differs from the view without.
At John’s wake, I heard it described in just such terms by the faithful. Now, in 2017, with so many circles held so tightly – so many elites, so many cadres, so many “in groups” standing against what they perceive as walls of indifference and hostility, I can empathize with so many intelligent, sensitive, discerning artists who are in search of their “tribe,” or any group in which one does not feel like a stranger.
In the mid-1970s, when I first discovered Story Workshop, I was a troubled and insecure kid (as compared to the troubled, insecure old fart I’ve matured into). About the only thing I could say with any certainty was that I wanted to be a writer – I would become a writer, by hook or by crook, whatever that meant, whatever that entailed.
It didn’t matter that what I wrote was horrible – without skill, without vision, without anything that would interest a reader in the slightest way. The only thing I could do at the time was put one word after the other, albeit terribly.
I knew I had to get better, but I didn’t know how.
In those days, a number of colleges began creative writing programs. A handful had reputations. All those colleges with reputations were far away and very expensive. Their efficacy, even those anointed institutions like Brown, Iowa and Arkansas, was held in question. One would read interviews with authors who dismissed all these programs and encouraged apprentice writers to just sit down and write. The only way to learn writing was to write. Learn from your mistakes.
But what if all you learned from your mistakes was to make the same mistakes even better? What if it took you twenty years to learn your craft by trial and error? Was there any way to cut that time in half?
I didn’t know. I knew nothing. Really. You couldn’t find another person more stupid than I: rash and brash and volatile and emotional – but at bottom, stupid. It didn’t matter that I had a high I.Q. and a head full of facts. I was an encyclopedia without an index. Useless.
Add to that: I had no counselors, no mentors, no resources. No one gave a shit. My dad wanted me to be an accountant because he believed accountants always found work. My mother just didn’t want me to be arrested or dead. Neither of them wanted to have to pay any more money than was absolutely necessary. They never tired of reminding me what a burden it was to them to pay for my food and keep.
After high school, I left home in a panic. I didn’t want to be a burden. I just wanted to write.
Young men with high I.Q.s were and remain a dime a dozen. I operated mailing machines and mimeographs for a living. It didn’t take long to discover that the “dignity of labor” was a lie. Horatio Alger was a lie told to suckers. There were no ladders to climb in the world of work. Your job was your definition. Don’t try to step out of your place.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go to college. It was just that I knew that if I did go, it would be to a local school, and it would have to be while I worked fulltime. Even with the scholarships that were available in those days (few and paltry, but more than today), the dream of going to a school away from home, living in a dorm, devoting myself completely to an education, was impossible.
Most of the local universities offered only day classes. A few schools offered evening classes with limited degree opportunities. A fewer number of schools offered “regular” degrees. Columbia College was one of them, though their reputation was mostly for degrees in photography and, in a lesser way, for film.
And yet there was this program in Writing/English. And Story Workshop. Was it worth it?
There were certain things I knew – or thought I knew – about learning to be a writer: 1.) My work was crap; 2.) In order for it to be less crappy, I needed to write more; 3.) I needed to read as widely as possible; I never knew of a successful writer who wasn’t also an incessant reader.
I could just keep writing stories, novels, poems, etc., and continue on with my dead-end job, hoping someday to break through and write something worth publishing. I could major in English at one of the schools with evening programs and satisfy my desire to read widely and learn more about the history of literature. If I couldn’t become an out-of-work literary genius, at least I could become an out-of-work English major.
And then there was Story Workshop.
I hadn’t yet taken a class with John (or Betty Shiflett, or Larry Heinemann), but in the classes I had taken, I picked up two very important points my writing lacked.
First, the necessity for physical detail in order to make my fictional worlds into “real” places in the minds of my readers.
Second, the realization that I was writing to readers, to an audience. Up until then, what I was doing was writing for myself, to myself. A reader’s experience of my writing was of necessity different from mine. I left things out because I knew them – but a reader wouldn’t.
It seems painfully simple, but important, and important no matter what kind of writing you’re interested in doing: literary, popular, personal, fictional, journalistic, humorous – you’re writing to a readership.
I wallowed in my indecision – but briefly. I said to myself, “This guy Schultz and his Story Workshop thing have something to teach me – and it’s something I need. Desperately.”
Columbia didn’t have quadrangles and historic lecture halls. They didn’t even have a campus. At least they didn’t have a campus as repellant and ugly as U. of I. “Circle Campus,” as it was called in those days. I couldn’t afford to go to a cool place like University of Wisconsin – Madison, though I would have loved to. Would have sold my soul to go there, had I a soul to sell.
But Columbia had something that all these other schools lacked. They had John. And Story Workshop.
“This man has something to teach me that I need to know.”
So I chose Columbia over my other available options.
I have lived to regret many things, but I have never regretted that decision, even when I encountered students from other, more prestigious schools, who openly laughed in my face (may I repeat that because it was real, not just an expression: LAUGHED IN MY FACE) for attending Columbia.
Hey, I’m a science fiction writer. You cannot be more ridiculed in your profession than by admitting you write science fiction. But my years of flinching at ridicule are over.
And, as long as I brought up the subject of science fiction, let me assure you that John and his colleagues did their best to beat the science fiction out of me. They cannot be blamed for what I’ve become.
But this meager little fact also explains why I couldn’t remain at Columbia and become part of the inner circle.
Story Workshop was instrumental in shaping me as a writer. I learned much, and much of what I experienced in those classes took years to sink in. I am still learning from my experiences in those workshop sessions, now so many years ago.
It was an incredibly important decision for me to come to Columbia and study writing there.
The decision to move on was almost as important.
I was never one of the shining stars of workshop students. No gold stars after my name. No one ever read my stuff in class as good examples of “model telling” or “good seeing” – or good examples of anything but crap. But some of my crap showed a little flair. Some of the teachers took notice, including John.
Everyone who ever worked with, or for, or under, John has at least one “John Schultz Story.” The “John Schultz Story” folks are most fond of hearing from me has to do with the time he chased me into the men’s room when I registered for a senior semester and didn’t take a workshop. I got a “talking to” about what I needed to do and I told John that I needed to take more classes in more disciplines because … I just needed to know more stuff. John insisted I needed to do both, but I wouldn’t back down.
I remember how flabbergasted Pam looked (she was waiting for me outside) when I came out. “Rich, why did your department chairman chase you into the bathroom?”
“This is college,” I told her. “The really important decisions are always made in bathrooms.”
That is true. Bathrooms and stairwells. True to this very day.
I was never one of the shining stars, and on that day I lost my chance to become one.
When it came to the inner circle of Story Workshop people, I was the one that got away.
It may have been my doing out of pure, blundering ignorance. It may have been because I was attuned to some universal frequency that set me on a personal path of failure, despair, donuts and coffee. But I set out on a path that found me incapable of taking a well-rutted course, with rest stops and mentors and any sense of certainty that I was heading anywhere but to madness and an early grave.
But that’s what I did. And if I didn’t find a home at Columbia, I did no better at Northwestern (between classes I hung out in a bar and restaurant called The Third Rail, where the NU students rarely ventured). I did no better in science fiction fandom (the SMOF fans always sneered at me, like I must have belonged to the wedding reception in the hotel next door). I did no better among science fiction writers (the older writers always gave me the hairy eyeball, like they were afraid I was going to walk out of the SFWA suite with the ashtrays in my pockets). I met great people in all these groups – people who helped me, liked me, and even at times (forgive them, Lord, they knew not what they did) respected me. I loved all these worlds. I love them now. But they aren’t home.
For certain writers, there is no home. I happen to be one of them.
My curriculum vitae is, in some ways, fascinating but worthless. I’ve written a few things. I did some okay scholarship. I’ve worked hard to be a good teacher, and maybe someday I will be. But it has been and will always be from the periphery.
What little I’ve managed to accomplish, though, would have been far less were it not for John Schultz, Story Workshop, and that circle of writers he brought into being. I couldn’t be part of that circle, but the light at the heart of it, that fire, has guided me on my wayward path all these decades, as it has guided so many others.

May it continue to do so forever.



Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Night’s Work

Several friends have been writing about dreams and dreaming recently. So here’s this…

I rarely write about dreams, though dreams are an important part of my life.
Not that I remember them very well. Usually, I wake up knowing I’ve had one, but unless I’m diligent enough to scribble down a few of the details, it’s gone by dawn. All I remember is that I had one, but little else.
Still, dreams are important to me. Some of my earliest memories are dreams – scary, unsettling, mind-bending stuff (yes, my dreams were so weird I never quite understood the allure of hallucinogens). To this day, if I wake up from a dream, even if I remember not one detail, I can still feel the emotional stir the dream generated in my consciousness. It’s like an earthquake I didn’t witness, but all around me are the overturned chairs and tables, I see the cracks in the walls and the paintings slipped from their hooks.
So it surprised me one night a few weeks ago when I awoke from a dream, remembering a number of details, and – not only that, but staying up two and a half hours afterward, running through those few details again and again.
Two and a half hours.
I dreamed I was in a big place, several rooms, each room filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves – hundreds and hundreds of old books in old bindings. I could see the loose threads on the corners of some of the old covers. They were all sorts of books: big, small, oversized, paperbacks, bound magazines and journals, albums, notebooks. It looked like stuff you would find in a library or a second hand bookstore – except it was mine. I knew it was all mine. Most of it was old. I opened a few volumes and flipped through the pages. News magazines. Histories. Fashion magazines with spreads of beautiful women dressed in the top haute couture of fifty years ago.
I was there with a friend – a person I’ve known for over forty years. I haven’t seen him in ages, but we keep in touch. He was going through some of the stuff too, but he seemed more curious, intellectually intrigued, as compared to me, who looked at all these volumes, thinking, “This is mine. All this stuff! How did I manage to acquire all this stuff?”
I awoke. I didn’t sit up, but turned my head and stared at the luminous digital clock next to my bed. Three-fifteen a.m. or thereabouts. I kept thinking about the shelves and shelves of old volumes. At first, I was obsessed with the amount, and that so many of those books were things I hadn’t looked at in years – things I didn’t need in years. It was old stuff. Stuff that should be gotten rid of.
I couldn’t imagine just throwing it all away. I have a deep aversion to throwing away books. You may suffer from the same. I remember, when I was a grade-schooler, the kids next door went to a Catholic school, where they had to buy their textbooks, and at the end of every year they threw their texts into a garbage can and set them on fire. I was young, but I’d already read my World War II history, and the years that led up to it. I had read and seen pictures of the Nazis burning books at the Reichstag. I knew what book burning meant, and it has stayed with me all these days.
So I stared into the dark, thinking of ways that I might ease myself of the burden of all the old stuff I still had – not as much stuff as in the dream, but I have shelves, and boxes – lots and lots of boxes – that I no longer needed, or wanted, and should probably get rid of. Were there stores that still sold old magazines, like the places I went to in my youth? Would they take on more? ABC Magazine Service: “Four floors of magazines!” How about eBay? Could I sell this stuff on my web page? I didn’t have an up-to-date web page. Well, then I’d need to create a new website, with a page devoted to selling old stuff. Call it “The Hobo’s Dungeon” …
Three-thirty a.m.
Three-forty-five a.m.
Four-twenty-five a.m.
Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me: THE DREAM IS NOT ABOUT THE BOOKS!
Not the books themselves, but what the books represent.
What do they represent?
It wasn’t the physical “stuff” I needed to get rid of (though my old stacks of The New Republic and the Saturday Evening Post wouldn’t be missed anytime soon). It was the “stuff” inside me.
What stuff inside me?
Four-thirty a.m.
Before I had gone to bed, I was thinking. I was remembering how much of my early life was spent with books, and comic books, and any sort of reading matter I could find, including the proverbial matchbooks and road maps. You probably did the same thing.
Reading is a means to fill a hunger for learning – an overwhelming desire to know things. To know the world – the whole damn cosmos. But there’s another reason to read. We read to fill a hole. The hole is a great emptiness that threatens to devour our souls. The emptiness is loneliness.
We read because we are lonely.
I thought about the dream, about the rooms loaded with books. That enormous library – tiny in comparison to the ones imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, but big enough for me – was my loneliness. My emptiness – or my effort to fill that emptiness. It occurred to me that I could heave all those books into the abyss of my emptiness and they would disappear into the darkness without making a sound, so far away was the bottom of that pit.
The dream was “about” gauging the size of my loneliness, and my loneliness was too big to measure. That need to “get rid of all this” was, I suppose, my way of saying that the abyss couldn’t be filled, but it might, possibly, maybe, be left behind.
I’ll be sixty-two years old in a few months. I’ve done my share of wandering in the wilderness. I won’t bore you with autobiography. You can probably fill in the blanks with your own tales of solitude and agony.
We’re writers, yes? If you’re reading this you probably are, whether you know it or not, whether you admit it or not. I sure as hell am not smart enough to distinguish between cause and effect or chicken and egg, but loneliness and writers are lifetime companions. We may write for the same reason we read. Maybe we are lonely because we are writers, or we are writers because we are lonely. I don’t know.
Five a.m.
So, why? Why am I dreaming this dream now? Couldn’t I have had this dream on any night in the last sixty-one years?
I don’t know. It may be that I have reached an age where I can leave behind the wormhole of loneliness. It won’t change. It won’t disappear as if by magic. It’s not as if by some psychotherapeutic realization I can walk away from the abyss. You can’t. You can pretend to forget, but pretending just brings you back to that old bottomless pit.
You move on. You take the loneliness with you because it comes with the territory, but you don’t pretend it doesn’t exist, or waste more time throwing more books down into it.
You can’t fill the wormhole, but if you’re lucky, you can grow enough to contain the wormhole within yourself, with a little room to spare to get your work done. Because you’re a writer, and writers always have work to do – even when they’re dreaming.
Five-thirty a.m.
I didn’t mention this before, but there was one more thing.
A song.
All through this time, during the dream and all through the two and a half hours I ruminated over that dream, there was a song in the back of my head. An instrumental. It sounded like a pop song from the sixties as played by a surf band. Or a surf instrumental played by a pop band.
I had never heard the song before. It was just there in my head. Created in the forge of my unconscious.
That’s happened to me before. I have a reasonably good ear for tunes, so I know when my mental jukebox dredges up an old number I forgot about decades ago. I can tell the difference between a song I remember and a song I’m hearing for the first time.
This song I heard for the first time. It was coming out of me. And it wasn’t too bad. Not a chart-busting hit, but not bad.
I suppose I could have run to the living room, taken out my guitar, tuned it up to sketch out the melody and chords (I’m lousy at reading and writing music on paper), but for some reason I let it go. Stupid, maybe. I mean, who doesn’t need a new song every now and then? And when the song comes into being without invitation or coercion or provocation – when it just comes out of your unconscious fully formed, why not take it?
Alas, I did not.
Maybe I had some hope that some time, since it was in my own head, it would come out again, and the next time maybe I would catch it and drag it up into my consciousness.
For the moment, though, the song had performed its function. The song, like the dream, was telling me what I needed to know.
I need a new song.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Sixty Years (and a day) Ago Today…

(Notes toward something bigger – if I get the chance to write it)

Sixty years and one day ago (March 8, 1957), Robert Bloch delivered a paper at the University College of the University of Chicago. He was one of four authors asked to make presentations on the subject of science fiction and social criticism. The other three were Robert A. Heinlein, C. M. Kornbluth and Alfred Bester.
Among such luminaries, you would think, perhaps, Bloch would take a back seat, but it is Bloch’s essay which spoke most clearly to me when I read it again just recently.
The best way to appreciate it, of course, is to find a copy of The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism (1959, Advent:Chicago, Third Edition 1969). You’ll avoid any impressions gathered more from my selections and interpretations.
Every now and then, I stick my nose in a book and find something interesting. There’s no rhyme or reason to it; no plan. I grab a book off the shelf because I hear it calling to me. Many books call to me, and they do it all the time. But some call louder than others.
I’ll look at a book and it looks back at me. You have a few dozen other things to read, but you pull it off the shelf because it looks back at you in that certain way. I’m sure it’s happened to you as well.
With this book – well, the series occurred in the 1950s, when science fiction (at least in the short form), was a bastion of social criticism. Literary trends were moving away from the gritty realism of the pre-war years. And U. of C. was a natural place to have this kind of confab, because the faculty and students (if not the administration) always leaned pretty strongly to the left (except in the Economics department, even pre-Milton Friedman). U. of C. also had one of the first science fiction clubs in the area. The stars were aligned.
Heinlein’s speech reads like a speech from Robert Heinlein. The funny thing about Heinlein is that, whether you find him entertaining or infuriating (or both), he writes like a man who has worked out his story and is damn well going to stick to it. It reads like either an “official statement,” a cover story, or an alibi. You can chain him to a rack, apply red-hot pokers to any part of him, but he won’t break his story, so don’t even try.
Kornbluth starts out stating that there’s no social criticism in science fiction, then he goes into a very effective close reading of 1984. What he accomplishes, mostly, is demonstrating that he maintains high literary standards, knows the territory of any able literary critic of the time, and concludes that most contemporary science fiction, with notable exceptions, doesn’t quite make the grade.
Bester, in his sly way, tries to dissuade his audience from looking to science fiction for social criticism. He values science fiction as a necessary diversion. He’s not writing off science fiction, because that diversion, he believes, is important to intellectual growth. It’s as if he’s trying to say, if you’ll excuse my summarizing, that science fiction works better when it doesn’t deliberately try to address important topics, but rather, unconsciously, touches the sympathetic vibrations of the human experience.
Bloch, however, is forever casting a leering eye at the entire process. He jokes and puns, as if he wishes to impress you that he is the least serious of this volume’s contributors, but almost from the outset he delivers the most serious message of them all.
After making a few initial jokes and puns, he very briefly outlines a number of American novels that may be considered social criticism. He then presents a long list of science fiction novels and places them into three categories: Man Against Nature, Man Against Himself, and Man Against Man.
Throughout his speech he mentions exceptions, but he finds the majority of science fiction novels that engage in what can be considered social criticism somewhat simplistic

 And just how does this wide assortment of writers view the world of the present and the extrapolated society of the future? Ignoring the extra-terrestrial invaders, ignoring the gadgetry, ignoring the universal disaster background, one encounters a fundamental dramatic premise known to all eminent critics who are six years old or older. The world is plainly divided into ‘cops and robbers,’ ‘cowboys and Indians’ or ‘good guys and bad guys.’
There’s a reason, of course. People who have come to revere science almost as a religion place great faith in the ability of technologists to safeguard our future.”

The criticism, as it were, in many “socially critical” science fiction novels, is that the bad guys are not paying enough attention – or too much attention, in the wrong way – to science.
Bloch lists and annotates a number of common elements he finds in these novels. All the words in caps come from Bloch, so excuse me if I don’t put them all in quotes. 1.) There’s a TOTALITARIAN STATE; 2.) there’s an UNDERGROUND bent on toppling said state; 3.) the use by one side or the other of FORCIBLE PSYCHOTHERAPUTIC TECHNIQUES; 4.) the assumption that SCIENCE WILL GO ALONG WITH THE GAG – especially when it involves brainwashing; 5.) ECONOMIC INCENTIVE – the motivation on either side of the battle is to make a buck (Milton Friedman would be proud); 6.) A VARIATION OF PRESENT DAY ‘ANGLO-SAXON’ CULTURE WILL CONTINUE TO RULE THE WORLD; 7.) when it comes to space exploration WE WILL COLONIZE AND RULE THE NATIVES; 8.) THE FUTURE HOLDS LITTLE  BASIC CHANGE in human nature; 9.) INDIVIDUALISM IS DEAD.

The hero rebels, yes – but not superimpose his own notions upon society; merely to restore the ‘normal’ culture and value-standards of the mass-minds of the twentieth century. You won’t find him fighting in defense of incest, homosexuality, free love, nihilism, the Single Tax, abolition of individual property-rights, euthanasia or the castration of the tonsils of Elvis Presley. Stripped right down to the bare essentials, our hero just wants to kick the rascals out and put in a sound business administration …
When we review these premises, we discover that most social criticism in science fiction novels is not directed against present-day society at all … Our authors, by and large, seem to believe wholly in the profit-incentive; in the trend to superimpose obedience and conformity by means of forcible conditioning; in the enduring liaison between the government, the military and scientists and technologists; in Anglo-Saxon cultural supremacy, if not necessarily outright ‘white supremacy’; in the sexual, aesthetic and religious mores of the day. Their criticism of the totalitarian states they envision is merely a matter of degree. They attempt to show the apparent dangers of allowing one group to ‘go a little too far’; actually, reduced to its essence, they merely echo Lord Acton’s dictum that ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’
Hence the necessity of rebellion in the form of some sort of Underground movement. But this is always assumed to be just a temporary measure; ruthless because one must ‘fight fire with fire’ and the ends justify the means. The implication is that once Law and order are restored, everything will settle down to a general approximation of life as it is lived today – if not in actuality, at least in the pages of Better Homes and Gardens.

Science fiction, as it were, rebels against the status quo when it is not the currently-recognized status quo.
When it comes to scientific and technological progress, the science fiction of his day is brilliantly inventive. But whether it occurs fifty, one hundred, or a thousand years in the future, the basic social structure remains the same – or an effort is made to restore it.

But when it comes to a question of personal ethics, when it comes to a question of social justice – again and again we run right smack into our old friend Mike Hammer [Mickey Spillane was referenced earlier] in disguise.
How, in this marvelous world of the future, does one go about settling an argument?
With the same old punch in the jaw … the same old kick in the guts … the same old bullet in the same old belly.

The suggestion throughout his talk is that if the world can change in such striking ways technologically, why would it not change human behavior as well? And why doesn’t the current (for his time) science fiction novel address this possibility?

The science fiction field has often been likened to a literary world in miniature. But one searches in vain through that world for a Jesus Christ … a Sydney carton… or even a George Babbitt or a Leopold Bloom.
The common man is seldom the hero; if so, he doesn’t remain so very long, but becomes a Key Figure …
Isaac Asimov recently pointed out that science fiction heroes are permitted to be intelligent. This is admirable. And yet, emotionally, most of them are primitive and immature.
Where is the science fiction novel with the ordinary family man as hero … or the teacher … or the creative artist … or the philosopher? Where is the science fiction novel that contents itself with showing us the everyday world of the future, devoid of Master Spies and Master Technicians and Master Psychologists and Master Criminals?

He hastens to mention the exceptions. He also hastens to exclude short fiction from his admitted generalizations. And he states a possible reason for the shortcoming of science fiction novels (as opposed to short fiction): publishers won’t allow much more than this sheltering of the status quo in its content; readers won’t buy such highfalutin (and radical) books.
And here I am, in 2017, sixty years into Robert Bloch’s future, fascinated that Bloch is the only author among the four concerned that in the decades proceeding from 1957 a few differences may arise in the social order and that science fiction might address those differences.
Bloch himself, on the subject, seems rather sanguine.

But is science fiction, therefore, failing in its function of social criticism?
Quite the contrary.
When a literature of imaginative speculation steadfastly adheres to the conventional outlook of the community regarding heroes and standards of values, it is indeed offering the most important kind of social criticism – unconscious social criticism.
With its totalitarian societies, its repudiation of individual activity in every role save that of the self-appointed leader and avenger, science fiction dramatizes the dilemma which torments modern man. It provides a very accurate mirror of our own problems, and of our own beliefs which fail to solve these problems.
Gazing into that mirror, we might find it profitable to indulge in a bit of that reflection.

Of course, much in this essay puts me in mind of the recent battles within the science fiction community: the calls by some to return the field to its 1950s “heyday,” or perhaps to “make science fiction great again.” What does that really mean?
I wouldn’t speculate as to whether Bloch would be gratified to see a move to greater representation of diversity in the field, but I wonder if the generalizations he made in 1957 would be true in 2017. Maybe not in the media, which still seems tied to the conventions of the previous century, but at least in its literature. Wouldn’t it?
And what about now? What generalizations could we make about science fiction and social criticism today?
And, presuming that we have made some progress, how does the future look from here? It may still prove profitable to regard that mirror reflection.




Thursday, February 23, 2017

Not Easily Conquered

Last Saturday, I listened to FDR’s Fireside Chat number 20 on Steve Darnall’s Those Were the Days radio program on WDCB, a local college station. It’s an Old Time Radio (OTR) extravaganza, and for thirty-nine years they have declared February “Jack Benny Month.” Jack Benny is too good to miss, so I snuck away from the sf convention I was attending, sat in my car, listening to the radio.
This year, Darnall has also been observing the seventy-fifth anniversary of our entrance into the Second World War, therefore the playing of the Fireside Chat, broadcast February 22 – seventy-five years and a day from today.
 The news wasn’t all that bright. We were having our butts kicked in the Pacific. Rumors abounded about our unpreparedness for this struggle. The isolationists had quieted down, but some of the most adamant were still suggesting some sort of negotiated settlement that didn’t sound much better than capitulation or appeasement.
FDR, interestingly, didn’t sugar-coat the circumstances. The situation was dire, but he tried his best to present the facts and dispel the rumors as “honestly” as could be expected in those days. I put “honestly” in quotes because the U.S., after all, was in a war. Nevertheless, it was intriguing to hear how forthcoming he was. He asked American newspapers to print a map of the world in their Sunday editions so that listeners could follow along as he described the battlegrounds and strategic locations where the U.S. and its allies were engaged.
FDR was not an entirely exemplary figure. He made a number of decisions we have lived to regret, not least of which was the internment of most of our Nisei population. And yet, compare his approach to that of the executive who currently resides (at least weekdays) in the White House.
What most impressed me was the way he ended his chat.
He quoted Thomas Paine’s “These are the times that try men’s souls,” then said, “Never before have we had so little time in which to do so much.”
General George Washington, FDR tells us, had this quote from Paine read to his troops (who had been suffering defeat after defeat): “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered, yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the sacrifice, the more glorious the triumph.”
“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered.”
Plenty of us need to remember that now.
Any struggle against any tyrant at any time is never easy. Any struggle against any injustice is never short. It can, in fact, be the work of a lifetime.
When we forget that, we risk the loss of all we’ve gained so far. We risk it now, as we have so many times in our history.
Tomorrow can be better, but not by trying to bring back yesterday, especially when it’s a yesterday that never was. Tomorrow can be better, but every advance needs to defended.
FDR ended the chat: “So spoke Americans in the year 1776.
“So speak Americans today!”

And maybe, if we're lucky, today as well.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A "Bomp" May be in Your Future

And so, another saur story comes into the world.
I’m very glad and relieved to say that “The Man Who Put the Bomp” will be in the March/April 2017 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
What took me so long?
Well might you ask.
You may recall that “Orfy” came out in 2010. That’s a long span between stories, isn’t it?
Life always gets in the way of a good story, at least for me.
Many people like these stories, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Another group of people are not so fond of them. Well, you can’t please everyone. Those folks usually talk about them being maudlin or sentimental, and I wonder what it is in my work that comes off that way. I’m not particularly maudlin, not very sentimental – not really. If anything, I would think folks would object to my stories because they’re just crazy. Bioengineered dinosaurs! DIY robots! Dinosaurs sending messages to “Space Guys”! Misanthropic stegosaurs! Tyrannosaurs writing novels under pseudonyms! Sauropods in cardboard castles and shoebox labs!
What insanity is this?
Honestly, I don’t know. I paint what I see.
I see creatures trying to recover from a bad experience with humanity. I happen to know a lot of folks who can empathize with that situation. Humanity is an experience from which many of us need to recover. Every time it looks like we’ve found the right path to a sort of Arthur C. Clarke-ian transcendence, we scoot down a blind alley of ignorance and despair. It’s like we can’t help ourselves.
A number of people insist my saur stories aren’t science fiction, but fantasy. Call them what you like, but I write science fiction. It’s just that the science may not be in the places you expect to find it, but it’s there.
A lot of readers who like the stories like Axel. A lot of people who don’t like the stories don’t like them because they don’t like Axel. A lot of readers on both sides mistake me for Axel. Would that I were. Maybe then it wouldn’t take me so long to write a saur story.
When we write, we incorporate many parts of ourselves to fill in the places we need for our characters. At times I can be Axel. At times I am Agnes. I would like to be Doc more often, and would like to be Tibor as little as possible, though too often I find myself humming the Tiborean National Anthem.
I have never been Geraldine – well, maybe once or twice.
Science fiction, like any other literary form, is a way to exercise our need to tell a story. A story can be simple and straightforward. It can even be superficial. But, as E. M. Forster pointed out many years ago, you’ve got to have one. A story is a construction. A story is artifice. A story is a tool. A story is a structure. But it can be more than all these things combined, if you’re lucky, if you’re doing it right, if you’re willing to risk looking like a complete fool when you’re done with the thing. And science fiction, at least for me, is the form that is most flexible – that can take any shape, imitate old shapes or create new ones.
You have to keep looking for the story until the story finds you. Once it has found you, the best thing you can do is follow it, trust it – trust it with all your heart, craft, skill and anything you have that passes for talent. Trust it enough that you’ll abandon all those gifts to keep the story on its trajectory.
Whether I’ve managed to do that with this novella, I can’t imagine. The great Chicago poet Paul Carroll used to say, “Our poems are wiser than we are.” I would respectfully add that our stories are also wiser than we ... even when they’re stupid.


Tuesday, December 27, 2016

And I Thought I Had a Bad Year …

We are sitting here, with the end of 2016 in sight. I haven’t had the best of years, but who am I to complain? The planet has had a really miserable year.
This in itself should be something of a lesson: I am not alone.
And you, I hasten to add, can take comfort from it as well: You are not alone, either.
We have each other.
For better or worse.
If you’re reading this, I presume you are not dead. Not everyone who experienced 2016 can make that claim. Not only did many people of note expire sometime between January 1 and now; many people whose obituary would not make the major news media, but people near and dear, either to myself or to friends and family, haven’t made it to raise a glass as this year passes into the rearview landscape. Many of them died in dreadful, painful, unnecessary ways. We are poorer for their absence.
And many of our fellow humans who occupy this planet apparently have mistaken the rearview for the windshield. Reactionary forces are hard at work across the globe, on a mission to make one part of it or another “great,” and add “again” to that, because the rearview mirror is a rose-colored glass, alas.
Those who oppose the reactionaries are not without fault. Many of them followed the notion that whatever didn’t agree with their consensus was irrelevant. They believed this even with significant evidence to the contrary.
So here we are. What do we do now?
I’m not making a list. What I do suggest is that we don’t screw up as much as we did in 2016.
Did we screw up?
Take a look around.
And make no mistake, it is our screw-up. Collectively. We didn’t all screw up in the same way. Each in our own unique way, we screwed up to the point that it profits us not to look for any particular group (or even groups) upon whom to fix blame.
A bunch of suckers got conned.
A bunch of grifters worked the marks, and worked them good.
A bunch of folks who were smart enough not to get conned looked the other way or pretended that a significant number of their fellow humans would not fall for the con. Or worse: that the suckers didn’t really matter.
A bunch of folks raised on “good guys and bad guys” scenarios, figured out who the villains were and pointed their fingers at them because that’s what you’re supposed to do just before you say “Bang! You’re dead.” Except the villains didn’t always fall down.
There’s enough blame to go around.
When the suckers fall for the con, we all pay the bill. And it looks like we’ll be paying this bill off for some time. Thank goodness for installment plans and credit.
What I’ll be doing, I hope, is to redeem myself a little from my own screw ups. I want to do more of what I have been doing, with maybe a little more success. I work in that field of the arts that prides itself, rightfully or wrongfully, in looking at the world clearly and honestly, reporting back the good news, the bad news and what hasn’t been deemed news yet, if ever. We may take sides, but we do so ready to critique ignorance, hypocrisy, magical thinking and outright delusional beliefs wherever we find them, even among those on our own side.
I want to count myself among the artists with an eye on tomorrow as well as today, and one who is ready whenever the opportunity presents itself to say, “It doesn’t have to be this way! We can do better.”
I live in a nation that has never respected education. Not really. We’ve given it lip service. We confuse it with “training.” We confuse it with measurements.
We also pride ourselves in “independent thinking,” but for many of us, when we think, we’re doing so with anything but independence; and when we’re independent, we’re being so without thinking.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
I have not been a fan of the film Easy Rider. The story always seemed to me, even back in the day, when it was immensely popular, a mere excuse to go out and do some beautiful location cinematography. A product of the intensely wishful thinking of a segment of an oversized generation – an effort at creating a romantic mythology. We like doing that a lot. When reality gets pretty ugly we go looking for myths and pretend they’re realities.
But hey, a number of Roger Corman vets worked on it. It’s not so much the document of an era as a document of a state of mind. It’s not that I think it’s a bad film so much as it is a film that never really spoke to me. I was looking for another myth.
However, this year, this 2016, made me think of the film’s penultimate scene. Billy, the character played by Dennis Hopper, tells Wyatt, the character played by Peter Fonda (also known in the story as Captain America), that they had “made it.”
Wyatt stares away thoughtfully and shakes his head. “We blew it, Billy.” It’s a line I always heard as what Pauline Kael labeled “fashionably bleak.” It was hipster existentialism, a set-up for the romanticized nihilism of the ending – our heroes blown away by rednecks. A phony, forced, convenient, stacked deck of an ending.
I hear the line differently now. I hear it speaking to us in 2016, soon to be 2017. The two protagonists have been pursuing a dream of freedom by separating themselves from the rest of the world. They divorced themselves from society, even while engaging with it. They sought what another cultural antihero of the era (Gnossos, in Richard FariƱa’s novel Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me) called “exemption.”
In our ways, we’ve all been on a similar journey, pursuing dreams, often without regard to the realities that surround them. We’re big on dreams in this culture. We brand them – “The American Dream” – not that we ever agree on what that dream is.
If we then become angry and dissatisfied with our fellow humans for taking their pursuit of dreams past realities, into illusions, and then straight to out-and-out delusions, we have only ourselves to blame.
In pursuit of making a dream into a reality, we sometimes find ourselves “reversing polarities,” as we say in the trade, turning reality into a dream.
Wyatt is right. We blew it. They didn’t blow it. We all put our knives in Caesar’s back.
We all, as the Three Stooges noted, in a somewhat different situation, put the yeast in.
That’s a reality we can face and move on. We blew it. We’ve blown it before. We will surely blow it again along the way. We’re capable of learning from our mistakes, at least in theory. In a reality that is already so filled with deceptions and illusions, we can at least make an effort not to deceive ourselves.

It doesn’t have to be this way.