"Wolf and Iron" and Human Wave

I’m going to toss out an idea here. Gordon R. Dickson’s book “Wolf and Iron” (linked below) is a remarkably dark view of a post apocalyptic world. In that world the apocalypse consisted of a widespread economic collapse leading to a breakdown in various “services”. Communities become more “insular” as larger organizations fail, with individual neighborhoods practically becoming independent city-states. Roving bands of bandits complete the breakdown of rule of law, particularly when combined with any traveler or travelers not strong enough to protect themselves is seen as prey by those in more settled circumstances.

It’s very grim and very bleak, at least in the story’s short term. But it’s also got an upbeat component. Jeebee, the protagonist, is the sole surviving (so far as he knows) repository of a brand new field of “computational” social science, one which actually predicted the collapse although in true clueless intellectual fashion he never personalized the results of his work until it was almost too late. And, so, he works to preserve that knowledge so that when the world recovers from the current collapse it can be extended and, it is to be hoped, used to prevent such collapses in the future. There’s a strong undercurrent of “no matter how bad things seem now, we’ll get through this and we’ll make things better down the road”.

That undercurrent I believe makes this book “Human Wave” and so Wolf and Iron illustrates that “Human Wave” does not have to be all sweetness and light. It can be quite dark and still be Human Wave.

Wolf And Iron

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Saw it today in the Theater.

Not available even for pre-order yet, but you can find a “let you know when it’s available” link here:

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Blu-Ray)

Okay, I can get showing some of the stuff that was alluded to but “off stage” in the original, or alluded to as backstory from the LOTR might be interesting.  I can get that the walking and walking and walking through Mirkwood might not play well on the screen and the reasons for compressing it.  I can even see compressing Bilbo’s three trips down the whole to the Dragon’s lair into one as making a certain cinematic sense.  But where did that romantic subplot come from?

Still and all, I liked this one better than the first.  The two big battles–on the river and under the mountain–weren’t as outrageous as “falling with style” in the first one (if you saw it, you know what I mean), but they were still pretty over the top.  Elves still appear to come from Krypton.  There was a “fuzziness” in the image details of the first one that bothered me and was absent here.

All in all it was a fun way to spend a few hours.

A passion for space

I’m a big proponent of space science, don’t get me wrong, but my major interest in the “space program” when I was younger was the idea that maybe someday I could go, I could walk on the moon or mars or visit, maybe live in, a space colony.  That was what I wanted: “I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom…” and if not Barsoom, then at least the real Mars.

When it became clear that it was never going to happen, a lot of my passion dried up.  Oh, there was still the academic interest in space science, in understanding the sun and the planets, in maybe seeing if there is life on other worlds, in the solar magnetosphere and its motion through interstellar space.

But the passion that used to drive me was gone.

That’s where NASA (and their political masters) dropped the ball, IMO.  While I have nothing against the folk doing Space Science, I really think most of whatever budget they had should have been doing toward “access to space” technology.  Improving rocket reliability.  The strong, yet lightweight structures for flight airframes.  Real hardware rather than whole forests of paper.  Stuff done to bring, and presented as bringing, us closer to the day when you and I can go.  We needed the space equivalent of the NACA cowl and 4 and 5 digit airfoils so that private companies could build private hardware that could carry private, commercial passengers to private space stations.

Instead we got Shuttle, and no new human carrying hardware until, well, nothing yet.  And with Shuttle gone, we’re left with even older technology (Soyuz) to get humans into Space.  I mean that span carried us just about from the Ford Trimotor to the Boeing 707.  Yes, space travel is hard, but more than 30 years after Shuttle’s first flight we don’t have anything better?

That passion got ignited again back on the old electronic service GEnie.  Geoff Landis made the offhand comment that “what we needed was a rocket that individuals could make and that could carry a person up a hundred miles or so.”  I took the idea and ran with it.  Geoff and I did a bunch of back and forth.  Some other people stuck there nickel’s worth in.  And the result was the SpaceCub concept.  We presented it at the NW Space Development conference.  New Scientist included a bit about it.  I was interviewed for an AAAS broadcast (I really wish I could find tape or transcript for that).

For a while there, it looked like I was going to be able to go somewhere with it.  At the college I was attending we had a visiting scientist from Russia.  He put me in contact with his old professor.  The professor put me in contact with someone from Energomach (manufacture of key rocket motors–including the verniers from the RD-107/108 that Geoff and and I were looking at for SpaceCub).  And . . . well, there was no money for any “and” and I had to move on with the task of getting a job and providing for myself.

The real problem, even more than money, was the legal issues.  I looked at the treaties of which the US was a signitory.  I looked at the law, as it existed then.  And, well, it looked pretty bad for anyone wanting to actually try something like SpaceCub.  So, well, my old web page about it is still up, but that’s as afar as it ever went.

But, not long after the X-Prize was announced.  The specs for the prize matched what SpaceCub was intended to do, carry passengers to a height of 100 km (international definition of the beginning of Space) and bring them back to Earth, and do it over and over again with minimal time in between flights.  I spoke to one of the folk there and he swore up and down that they weren’t influenced by SpaceCub but, well, as Geoff said, before we came along nobody was talking about manned suborbital flight.  Then after we started getting some press, suddenly they were.  I don’ t know.  I have my suspicions, but I don’t know.

Apparently the Rutans and Richard Branson think the legal issues can be dealt with since they’re building a business to do what SpaceCub was supposed to do for (admittedly relatively well-heeled) individuals–private, human carrying rocket flights into space.

And so, my hope is back a little bit.  But I’m afraid it’s not hope resided in NASA or the government, but in the Rutans and Bransons of the world.

Where Have All the Heroes Gone?

Some years back, I watched the deCappuccino version of The Man in the Iron Mask.  The movie was okay, but one line caught me.  It’s near the end, the second in command of the palace guard points to a dying d’Artagnon (it’s not a spoiler at this late date, is it?) and says, “All my life, all I wanted to be . . . was him.”

Damn . . . that moment.

You see, I grew up with heroes. I grew up with comics during the late Silver Age, Superman was the Big Blue Boyscout, when Batman wasn’t the cowled psychopath, when Robin was starting solo adventures with Batgirl (and while I knew I could never be Batman, I thought maybe Robin was achievable). I wanted to be the hero, dammit, or if not the hero, at least a competent sidekick.

Then I grew up and got “respectable”. But a part of me never quite grew out of that.

And so I like to write about heroes that are really heroes because I figure that there are other people out there, like me, who want to read about them.

I gave up on comic books, not because I outgrew them but because they “outgrew” (if you can call it that) me. In the interests of being “real” and “relevant” and “real” they wanted their heroes to be “flawed” by which they meant “scarcely better than the villains”.

I saw it in prose fiction as well. Bleah people living bleah lives with not a hero to be found.

When I saw the movie, I wrote out an anguished essay on the usenet group “rec.arts.comics” titled “Where have all the heroes gone.” The one line just struck so deeply to the core of my being.

I will never be that hero. I like to think that the dream, however, might make me a better person than I would have been.

And that’s why I love the idea of Human Wave.

And so I leave you with this musical interlude:
 

Frozen

Watched Frozen today.

Bottom Line impression:  Wow.  That was awesome.

I’ll try to avoid spoilers here.

Okay, first things first.  This is “based on ‘The Snow Queen’ by Hans Christian Andersen.” Now, I haven’t read the source material yet, but if they go true to form what this actually means is that they made a Disney movie which uses some of the trappings of the “source material.” (Update:  I’ve now read the “source material” and, frankly, the only connection is that there’s a queen who has a connection to ice and snow.  Other than that, nothing whatever to do with the Andersen tale.)

I’m OK with that.  I like “Disney movies”.

The story begins when she who would become the Snow Queen and her sister are little girls.  They are playing, SQ to be is using her magic power over ice and snow to well, create ice and snow.  There’s an accident and the younger sister is hurt.  The parents, the King and Queen, take the girl to the “Trolls” (good people who apparently take the form of rocks when resting or to hide) who are able to “cure” her, but there’s a problem.  The older sister’s power is dangerous and the King and Queen decide she needs to “control” it (by which they meant suppress it) and to keep it secret they cut off contact with the world.  In fact, SQ cuts off all contact with her younger sister and, frankly, this was the first of many “feels” in this movie as my heart just broke for that little girl.

Time passes, the King and Queen go on a journey where they are lost at sea.  The new queen is to be crowned and. . . .

There’s adventure, there’s excitement, there’s betrayal, there’s true love (although not what you might think).

It is PG-13 and there are two places where I see possible problems for younger kids. The giant monster snowman might be a bit scary for some (I’d call it a bit less scary than the bear in Brave as a point of reference). The other point is the climax. If someone hasn’t figured out the real “solution” to the problem (again, trying to avoid spoilers here), that bit at the end can be heartbreakingly scary for a bit.

All in all, I will own this one on Blu-Ray.

Popular Fiction II

This comes from a discussion elsewhere, so there’s some recap from my earlier post.

When talking about literature, one has to consider what the purpose of “literature” is and what actually accomplishes that purpose.

I submit that, when it comes to written fiction, the purpose (if one goes beyond “make money for the author”–something which I do not disparage for its own sake, but we’ll come back to that shortly) is to create an emotional resonance within the reader.  The reader reads, and is touched in ways that generate that emotional response.

Now, some folk are given to sneering at “popular fiction”, claiming that it addresses the “least common denominator” and, I’ve heard it put rather crudely “shit floats.”

That, of course, can be trivially dismissed.  If it were that simple, then anyone could to it and sleep on big piles of money from the sale of same.  Excuses abound for why proponents of that theory don’t do it but as we go on and on and so very few do demonstrate that “anyone could do it”, it become eminently clear that the reason they don’t is simply that they can’t.  The “theory” doesn’t hold water.

You see, for fiction to be popular it has to strike a chord within a broad swath of the population.  That’s less a prescription than being very nearly a definition.  If it doesn’t strike that chord then people won’t decide that book is worth more than the six pack of cheap beer they could have otherwise purchased and the book doesn’t get bought, and certainly doesn’t become popular.

So, to be popular, fiction must strike something within people’s hearts and minds.  It must resonate with many people.  It must tap into the heart of what makes us human.  Jung might call that the “collective unconsciousness.” Whatever you call it, it’s something that, without which, fiction cannot be popular.

That something can be base in nature–appeal to sex drive and titillation, for instance–and some areas are certainly easier to get that emotional connection than others.  But that very ease only speaks to how very powerful the emotional drive in humanity is.  Porn, to use the classic example, is an economic powerhouse precisely because the drive is so powerful.  The danger with that one is that it is so powerful that in stories that evoke it everything else gets lost behind the power of the sex impulse.  And the stories become only about sex, with the rest being mere window dressing.

But another drive, one nearly as powerful, is that toward what we can call agency.  Whether a person has control over their own life, or not.  I note that a lot of “literary” fiction is about the lack of agency.  They are overwhelmed by events, swept along by circumstances over which they have no control.  Popular fiction often takes the other side.  People’s fates are to a greater extent their own.  While they may face enormous challenges, their actions matter, if only to them.  Agency is at the core of both events of the story (plot) and character development.

Now, some people might claim that that’s unrealistic.  That people have little control over their own fates that they are swept along by events beyond their control.  Perhaps.  In some places and some circumstances.  But he idea of agency is deeply rooted even in classical literature.  In Shakespeare’s tragedies, for instance, the tragic characters build their horror with every choice they make.  the events are only tragic because of the choices the characters make.  If Hamlet had made choices of the kind Othello would have made, he would have carved Claudius like a suckling pig the very night the ghost told him of his murder.  If Othello had made decisions of the kind Hamlet would have made, he would have delayed and waited, and checked and double checked until Desdemona’s innocence was at last revealed.  In neither case would the story have been a tragedy, not in the classic sense.  They built their prisons, brick by brick.

And so, it would appear, agency is at the heart of much, if not most “popular fiction” (genre or not).  It also appears to be at the heart of that “classical literature” that people actually read and enjoy.  Shakespeare survives not because professors of literature declare his works as “literature” but for the simple reason that through the centuries people watched and read and were swept away in his work.  He was among the popular fiction of his day . . . and to the present time, in fact.

And thus, we see that popular fiction is literature, in the true meaning of the term, in that which touches the heart, the mind, and the soul.  Without that touch, nobody would read it.  Without that touch, nobody would buy it.

Popular Fiction

I have been reading Terry Brooks, particularly the Shannara series recently.  Say what you will, the man is able to write best seller after best seller after best seller.  I’d really like to know how he does it.

There is a tendency among certain segments to dismiss popular fiction, a tendency expressed in the view that if it’s popular it can’t be good.

How do you figure?

Some make the claim that the “secret” to writing for a popular audience is to “dumb down” the story, to write to the “least common denominator”.  As one wag put it rather crudely “shit floats.”  However, if it were that simple a lot more people would be doing it.

Another claim is that it’s all from the “push” the publishers give certain works.  And there is some truth to that.  A publisher, and the book distributors, strongly backing a title, selling it aggressively to bookstores (particularly those bookstores that are counted for best-seller lists), getting end-cap displays (those displays at the ends of rows of bookshelves which feature certain works most prominently) and so forth can drive a lot of sales for a particular title . . . for a while.  But sooner or later, and usually sooner, people start noticing that a book is annoying or offensive or, worst of all, boring, and stop buying it.  Of course, by this time the publishers have found their Next Great Thing and are pushing that.

But popular fiction tends to stay in print.  People keep buying it even after the “push” (if it ever had any) is over.

Some people dismiss popular fiction as lacking meaning.  I happen to think otherwise.  You can’t write popular fiction that sells to large numbers of people, that continues to sell long after any “push” it may have gotten has faded, that continues to sell long after any “derivativeness” that let it ride on “coattails” of something else (Brook’s entree, The Sword of Shannara was actually marketed “for people who’ve read The Lord of the Rings and are looking for something else to read”) has been expended, without touching something in the psyche of the vast body of the human race.  Some psychologists might call that something “the collective unconscious.”  Whatever you call it, it’s something that you have to touch in order to be popular as I have described here, not just short term sales driven by lots of hype but to convince people, lots of people, to shell out money that could buy a meal, a six pack of beer, a couple of steaks to grill, or whatever else they might spend that money on and to keep convincing people to do that, to recommend their friends do that, to show it to their kids and have their kids do that in their turn.

I’ve used Terry Brooks and The Sword of Shannara here.  Another example is Heinlein’s juveniles.  I’ve had some people tell me that they “don’t work” anymore as juveniles because society has changed too much.  Well, that hasn’t been my experience.  Perhaps they weren’t so dated when I first read them back in the mid seventies (or perhaps they were–it was known that Heinlein’s Mars and Venus were no longer possible and Have Space Suit, Will Travel was already Alternate History rather than future fiction).  On the other hand, I read them to my daughter in installments as bedtime reading (got a little distracted before getting to Citizen of the Galaxy, which isn’t one of my favorites anyway, and I’m not happy with the new/original ending to Podkany of Mars so I’m reluctant to include it) and she loves them.  She even, without prompting, echoed my sentiment that Have Space Suit, Will Travel begs for a sequel.  Such a pity that there’s probably no writer alive who could do it justice.

Those books worked because they touch something deep inside people.  And even though “society has changed” (It Says Here) and the stories are “dated” yet they still can touch a nine year old girl so that she wants more.

That is what I want to do with my fiction.  Now if I can just figure out how Heinlein did it and how Brooks does it today.