My name is Steven Howell Wilson, and I do a lot of different things…

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I’ve written fan fiction and published fanzines. I’ve assumed the role of custodian for my friends who created a fanzine called Contact. I founded a convention called Farpoint, which has run for over two decades. I’ve been a comic book writer for DC Comics (Star Trek and Warlord) and a comic reviewer. I run Prometheus Radio Theatre, and we put out a (mostly) weekly podcast. I’m publisher for Firebringer Press, and a contributor to Crazy 8 Press. Finally, in the mundane world, I’m a recovering librarian, an IT Director and a consultant. And yes, I do all this because I’m allergic to work. I figure as long as I look busy, I won’t have to perform actual labor. It’s worked for nearly half a century so far…

Review – When a Story Is Not a Story – Daniel F. Galouye’s The Infinite Man

175px-DanielFGalouye-InfiniteManTheThere’s nothing more disheartening for a writer than to read something published by a major house and think, “I can write better than this!” That’s especially true for a writer whose collection of rejection notices exceeds his collection of pay checks for work sold. (Isn’t that most of us, though?)

Oh, yeah, there is something more disheartening… having that work be authored by someone that one of your literary idols thought was a real talent.

I picked up a couple of books by Dan Galouye because he’s mentioned, in Robert A Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, as a writer whose work the Grandmaster really admired.

RAH must have read something by Galouye other than The Infinite Man.

The premise of this short novel is accurately summed up on its jacket:

The God Within
IT lived in Milton Bradford
IT could make planets vanish, alter mathematical constants, erase the laws of chance.
IT had the power to change the entire Universe…
Or destroy it utterly.

SPOILERS BELOW!

IT chooses to destroy the universe utterly. But, by the time IT does, the reader isn’t left to feel that much has been lost.

Here’s the highlights:

A not-so-wide-eyed beatnik named Bradford, who drops a lot of acid, is told that he’s the heir to a billionaire’s fortune. Financially, he’s the most powerful man on Earth. He’s also the primary subject of interest for a group of cynical, interchangeable scientists who call themselves Project Genesis. They know that Bradford is the human host to the Creative Force. They’ve managed to access that force directly a couple of times by plumbing the depths of Bradford’s subconscious, and suggesting that the Force destroy both Pluto and Promixa Centauri. The suggestion is taken. Pluto vanishes immediately, and Proxmia Centauri’s nova flare is seen in the sky four and some years later.

(Are there habitable planets around Proxima Centauri? Are the Project Genesis team, in suggesting its destruction, murdering entire civilizations? They don’t ask. They don’t care. They have no morals and no feelings at Project Genesis, in addition to having no personalities.)

Having blowed stuff up good, the team are satisfied that their pawn, Bradford, is the embodiment of the Creative Force. Better, they know some sort of trigger phrase that, if all goes wrong, will awaken Bradford to the knowledge of his true self and also, apparently, allow them to make him do whatever they want him to with his phenomenal cosmic power.

Meanwhile, Bradford falls under the thrall of a bunch of hippified, acid-dropping cultists, who recognize that he is the Primary One, the Infinite Man, and who cleverly say the names of everyone they speak to backwards. Yeah. Lemme tell you dlo steg reven taht.

Bradford learns that the billionaire who allegedly father him actually lost his testicles during World War II, thirteen years before Bradford was born.

Um, and no one cares, not even Bradford. That piece of information is never used in any way. Also, late in the book, it’s posited that the billionaire isn’t even dead, that he faked his own suicide. Again, that piece of information has no impact on the story. Ultimately, the Primary Creative Force, which is really the Primary Destructive Force, begins to communicate directly with a faceless drone named Powers. Powers plots to steal Bradford’s, um… powers.

But, in the end, Powers just manages to murder all of the principle characters and shoot Bradford in the balls (making him the true heir to his non-father. Isn’t that clever?) Then the PCF/PDF laughs in Powers’s face and admits Powers was only a pawn. Then IT destroys the universe. With a BANG. And then God creates a new universe with square planets. We know they’re square, ’cause they’re… drawn… in spaces in the printed text. Along with some random sketches of cylinders. I think those were supposed to be stars.

Here’s the deal. This is not a story. This is not successful fiction. This is some pseudo-scientiphilosophical rambling about the nature of creation and destruction with some named straw-people stuck in for illustration. The ideas are kinda clever. But (and this is something science fiction writers, and especially science fiction fans just don’t seem to get)… CLEVER DOESN’T MAKE A STORY.

A good story, one that entertains, enlightens, shocks, delights, horrifies, mystifies, and is in other ways enjoyable to read, places interesting characters in challenging situations which they must overcome, thus producing an emotional reaction in the reader. The story may make the reader think, may give him a puzzle to solve, may educate him, may motivate him to action; but, above all, it must entertain him.

Oliver Twist is an entertaining story. It is not clever. Indeed, its use of coincidence and melodramatic plot twist is anything but subtle. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is an entertaining story. Nothing clever about Tom’s antics: flirting with girls, conning his friends, running away from home, witnessing murders or getting his backside tanned. These things happened to most boys of the 19th century, except perhaps the witnessing murders piece.

But Mark Twain’s observations on human nature are clever, and they’re worked all through the narrative. Charles Dickens’s ability to lampoon the stuffed shirts and give an affectionate portrait of ne’er-do-wells is also clever. But, above all, these two authors, and all good storytellers, made the focus of their stories the charm and likeability of their characters. This is what Robert Heinlein did as well, in his science fiction.

The Infinite Man has no charming or likable characters. Indeed, it has no characters. It has some men with different names and a couple of girls who exist to be sex objects and little else. It has ideas, but they’re not stitched into a story. No one in the book has a particular goal, except to not die, or to gain ultimate power. They all fail. And they learn nothing. They don’t grow. They just die.

Galouye is not a bad writer, when he’s not obsessing over spelling things backwards. I will try another of his books. But I cannot recommend this one in any way. Its publication suggests to me that, even in 1973, editors were just being lazy and accepting manuscripts from authors they knew could meet a deadline and whose names might sell books.

Review – Imitation of (a Very Sad) Life – The Imitation Game

THE IMITATION GAMEThis is the saddest film I’ve watched in a long time. Maybe ever. And, right up front, SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS. Yeah, that’s kinda strange to say, given that the movie chronicles real-life events that happened 70 years ago and more, but, if you want to be “surprised” by events you didn’t know about, stop reading now.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, arguably the inventor of the first electronic computer, and leader of the effort to break the Nazis’ top secret “Enigma” code during World War Two. Turing was a misfit from the word go. He was the smartest kid in his class, suffered, suggests the film, from OCD, and was gay at a time when homosexuality was an offense punishable by jail time or forced “chemical castration.”

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2014 – My Literary Year in Review

I wrote not one but two essays for the blog this week. Didn’t like either of them when they were done. That’s the kind of mood I’m in. Perhaps I’ll rework them and share them later. Perhaps I’ll file them away as pieces of journal therapy. At any rate, lacking substantive content, I thought it might be useful to review what I produced, and what I took in, literature wise, during this past year.

In addition to 59 blog posts, I shared the short stories “Call Me Sam” on Phil Giunta’s blog, and “Don’t Go in the Barn, Johnny” in the Firebringer anthology Somewhere in the Middle of Eternity. I did also write one radio play (first draft only), five short stories (one sold, yet to be published, two rejected, one pending, one slated for my podcast), a novella (thrice-rejected), a premise for a (non-SF) novel, a premise for a comic series, and a good deal of copy for work-related websites. Kind of a disappointing showing, all things considered. Let’s hope 2015 is better. I’ve already sold two essays sight-unseen to two books from a pretty prestigious publisher, so that’s good.

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Email is the Root of All Evil

Well, not really. I mean, I don’t believe that. But I hear it all the time:

“Email is the root of all evil.”

“Email is an inefficient method of communication.”

“I hate email! Just call me! Just come see me! It’s easier.”

Email has garnered a great deal of resentment in the workplace these last couple of decades. Someone said to me recently, “Well, when email started, we all thought it was just going to be a way to exchange quick messages. We didn’t expect it to become our principal means of communication.”

Well, you don’t always get what you expect. And while unfulfilled expectations are the root of frustration, unexpected outcomes are not always evil. Our workplace communications problems did not begin with email. We always had them. Even before email, workplaces were littered with misunderstandings, rumors, information leaks, half-stories and half-truths. Poorly written interoffice memos caused as many problems as do poorly written emails. (And has anyone seen an interoffice memo lately?)

And yet a lot of people cling to this belief that email is somehow more flawed than the in-person conversation, the phone call or the (shudder!) staff meeting.

It’s true, email introduced some new problems, and made some existing problems bigger. You can’t retract an email once it’s sent. You can’t. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. You know all those emails you get, saying “So-and-so would like to recall the email ‘The boss is a scum-sucking turd’?” Yeah, not only do those recall emails tell you an awful lot about what the “recalled” email said, they’re also always preceded in your inbox by the email So-and-so (your ex-co-worker) wanted to recall. In these days of email-enabled phones and tablets, even if your mail server will let you pull an email from its data store, someone’s already gotten a copy that’s not going away. But you can go pull a memo off the boss’s desk before he reads it, or rip it off the bulletin board and at least mitigate the damage.

You can’t destroy an email. It’s always going to be somewhere, no matter how faithfully you delete the trash. If you wrote something incriminating in an email, you just contributed evidence that can and will be used. Along the same lines, there’s no such thing as a “confidential” email. Someone apart from the sender and the receiver can always access it.

(I refer here to popular email systems like Exchange / Outlook, gmail, Yahoo, Office365, etc. I’m sure the secure email system does exist somewhere… and it may not have been hacked. Yet.)

But you can trash a memo.

Finally, there’s pretty much no upper limit on how many people can be given a copy of your email within seconds of you sending it. It costs the recipient no more to forward five hundred thousand copies of an email or to put a copy of it up on Facebook than it does the sender to send the original. At least, to circulate your interoffice memo far and wide, someone had to put forth a little effort and contribute to the death of at least one tree.

And, because it’s so immediate, email gets a lot more people in a lot more trouble a lot more often than interoffice memos ever did (though inter-office memos got me in trouble enough, back in the day.) It’s just a little too easy to call the boss a scum-sucking turd and tell everyone when you do it via email.

But, really, these very troublesome aspects of email are not what I hear people referencing when they complain about email. No, in my experience, what most people dislike about email is that it’s hard to understand what the author is saying. Email is considered to be unclear, lacking in subtlety. “You can’t see someone’s face in an email. You can’t hear their tone of voice or see their body language. You don’t know what they’re thinking.”

Okay. That’s true. It was also true of another method of communication which used to be the one we used exclusively over long distances, until the telegraph, the telephone and the SMTP protocol were invented: Letter-writing.

What is email, if it’s not letter-writing? Written correspondence? “Well,” I hear a lot of people say, “Letter-writing was different. People took their time writing letters. People weren’t lazy when they wrote letters. They knew letters were permanent and would be read and saved, so they took pride in their content and their penmanship.”

Um… Hello? You do realize that the average lifespan of binary data in disk-based storage is a helluva a lot longer than the average lifespan of a piece of paper, don’t you? (Actually, you probably don’t. Because data can be “erased” with the stroke of a few keys or the click of a mouse, a lot of people think it’s less permanent than paper. Which is why they print so much paper, “For backup.” Because paper can survive fires and floods so much better than a computer’s hard drive can.)

Email lasts forever. Email is saved. Email is shared. If you’re not taking pride and care in the content of what you put into an email, it’s not email’s fault, it’s yours. And email is not the root of all evil… you are.

Why is email the platform upon which so much poor communication is built? Well, I think it’s because more people use email than ever wrote letters. More people are communicating than ever communicated before. So email is bringing to light a very sad fact of the human condition:

A lot of us don’t know how to think.

We don’t. What goes on in our heads is a chaotic mass of conflicting impulses and half-formed argument. The emails we write, therefore, do not contain organized thought and carefully structured argument.

“Oh, but, when I speak to someone, we can communicate so much better.”

Well, maybe. I suppose, when you have two people somewhat muddled thoughts, and you let them bounce their half-formed thoughts off each other, they stand a better chance of developing one coherent argument which they both understand. You also stand a great chance of having a conversation in which one person dominates, and the other person never gets to advance an argument at all.

If you really think spoken communication is superior to written communication, email or otherwise, I challenge you to listen to people speak. Most people speak in a very disorganized fashion. They don’t get to the point. They don’t put the most important fact, or the central point of their argument, first. They ramble. And they often seem terrified that they will somehow be made to stop speaking, before they’ve had their say, even if they don’t know what that “say” is. And so they’ll reserve the right to keep speaking by not shutting up, in some kind of informal filibuster. They’ll end every sentence with “So…” in order to indicate that they’re not done. Even if they are done. They’ll repeat the same points over and over again.

This is particularly true about speaking in meetings. I’ve noticed that every meeting, except those run by the best of facilitators, reaches a point that I think of as “We know the meeting’s over, but we don’t want to go back to our desks and work.” People are afraid to let a meeting end, because, oh God, what if we forgot to say something we were supposed to say? What if we forgot to ask some question we were supposed to ask? We’ve got to keep talking until we’re sure! We may never see these people again in this life!

Usually, at this point in the meeting, I’m hanging my head and thinking, “We should be so lucky.” Meanwhile, those around me are asking questions no one needs the answer to, today, tomorrow, or ever.

All because we don’t know how to organize our thoughts and communicate efficiently. And here I’m not just talking about email or letters. Organized thought it important in a two-way conversation as well. After all, if, as noted above, you never stop talking, the other person never gets a chance to say anything. Or he has to finally interrupt you, or tell you to shut up. And that might offend you. And then communication becomes even less likely, because you’re pissed.

Chaotic thinking is the root of all this evil, and its effect on communication is only a symptom. Chaotic thinking, or non-thinking, impinges on our ability to solve problems. I help a lot of people solve various kinds of IT issues. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve asked someone, “What have you attempted so far?” They’ll name some step, and I’ll ask “Why did you try that?” They say, “I don’t know.” I ask, “What did you expect that action to accomplish?” But they don’t know. They’re just trying something–anything–to see if the problem will go away.

Nor is this trial and error. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with trial and error. Making mistakes is a fantastic way to learn. But, for trial and error to be useful, you have to know in advance what outcome you’re expecting, you have to know if your trial produced it, and you have to record the success or failure, as well as the conditions of the trial, if you’re going to learn anything from it. Too often then answer I get to “Well did this thing you tried work?” is “I don’t remember! I’ve tried so many things I’ve lost track!”

This is not trial and error. This is one monkey, sitting at a typewriter alongside 99 others, with a random chance of creating a Shakespeare play this century. These proponents of the “just do something!” school are not using their rational minds to project outcomes and observe experimental results of attempted solutions, they’re just, essentially, offering sacrifices to the gods by doing something, and hoping that the gods, not their rational abilities, will solve the problem.

And speaking of gods, modern spirituality is full of examples of religious leaders enabling this kind of anti-rationality. I’ll call out Barbara De Angelis, Ph.D., only because she’s the latest example I’ve come across. Last Sunday, my Sunday School class read her essay “An Invitation to God”, in which she said:

“A lot of us don’t give ourselves a chance to hear what our heart is telling us because we’re trying to hear through our mind. We think, “I sat there waiting for God to give me a message, but all that came was, ‘I have to pick up my dry cleaning,’ and, ‘My back hurts,’ and ‘I should feed the cat.’ ” Maybe you think God is not communicating, but it only seems that way because you’re waiting for God to speak through your mind, and that’s not the abode of God. God will not appear through the mind, because the mind separates us from God.”

 Excerpt From: Richard Carlson & Benjamin Shield. “Handbook for the Spirit.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/JKU_y.l

Dr. De Angelis is only one example. A lot of spiritual leaders and theologians make this argument. I don’t mean to ridicule her. There was a lot to like in her essay. And I agree that it’s important to quiet the mind sometimes of its frantic, compulsive thinking. But the rational mind is not the enemy.

A lot of people count on religion and spirituality to bring them happiness and fulfillment. When spiritual commentators and gurus say that our rational minds stand in the way of happiness and fulfillment, they’re saying something risky. Without rationality, you can’t solve problems, you can’t communicate, you can’t live your life. Whatever your spiritual beliefs are, if you believe in a benevolent deity, especially one who is responsible in some way for the gifts you possess, why would you claim that he or she wants you to reject the greatest of them?

Our rational minds are important. Very important. They’re what set us apart from the rest of the animals. They’re what allow us to solve our problems. We need to know how to use them. And we need to practice. So, when you go to send that email… read it over. Think about it. Be proud of it. It may be with the human race for a long time to come.

And it’s not the root of all evil.

Random Harvest – Sadness as a Story Device

38aI tend to watch Random Harvest every Christmas. Funny, as I don’t think it actually contains any Christmas scenes. It’s a story that’s probably considered trite today, with a plot device that seems contrived: a World War I Captain (Ronald Colman) gets amnesia after suffering a trauma in the trenches at Arras. He establishes a new identity as “John Smith,” falls in love, gets married, becomes a father… then slips in the mud in front of a taxi cab, gets bonked on the head, recovers his original identity… and forgets that he was John Smith, a man with a family. Now aware that he’s Charles Rainier, a wealthy industrialist, he spends years searching for his lost identity. Continue reading

Take. Eat… Wait, WHAT?

So last week I gave a rundown of how four different SF stories used cannibalism in their plots. Most prominent were the first few episodes of this season of The Walking Dead, less obvious was an episode of the almost-forty-year old Space:1999 series called “Mission of the Darians.” Less well-known to those who think science fiction was invented in 1966 by Gene Roddenberry are two of Robert Heinlein’s works, Stranger in a Strange Land and Farnham’s Freehold.

All use cannibalism as a metaphor. In the two TV storylines, it’s a metaphor for denial of the importance of the individual. In Freehold, it’s a metaphor for oppression of one group by another. In Stranger, it’s a metaphor for strangeness, alien-ness, and acceptance of the universe. It’s also used as a gentle poke at Western Christians who consider themselves more civilized than the heathens who go around rubbing blue mud in their bellies.

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Soylent Green is… Not Mentioned in this Article on Cannibalism in SF!

SoylentGreen_156PyxurzAs with most of my blog posts, this one has grown out of many intertwined roots. The first was the featuring of cannibalism as a theme in the opening episodes of The Walking Dead’s fifth season. The second was my reading, at the same time, of Robert Wood’s well-researched volume Destination: Moonbase Alpha, a re-visitation of the making of one of my all-time favorite SF series, Space: 1999. (A show which many in the SF community hold in utter contempt. 1999 fans long ago learned to stop caring in the slightest.) The final contributing factor was my participation at PhilCon, only days ago as I began writing this, in a panel discussion about William H. Patterson’s authorized biography of the Dean of American SF, Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century. This was a well-attended discussion moderated by author Michael Swanwick.

PhilCon was before Thanksgiving, and The Walking Dead has already reached its mid-season finale for this year. As you can tell, this discussion has been brewing for a while.

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Let it Go (Before it Kills Someone)

Okay, I had the blog pretty well ready to go this week. It was all about cannibalism in science fiction. Lovely topic, right? Macabre and fantastic. Beyond the boundaries of most of our personal realities. (I’d like to say all of our personal realities, but, well, y’know…)

But before I talk about the macabre and fantastic, life this past week has been a bit… ugly here in the United States, and even here in my own little corner of the world. And a lot of the ugliness stems from anger.

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Re-Introducing Peace Lord of the Red Planet

0977385124I wrote this novel in 2010. Okay, actually I wrote it probably in 2006. I did the National Novel Writing Month challenge, but I did it in June. 50,000 word in 30 days, and I produced 75% of a usable manuscript. The last four chapters were awful. So I re-wrote them completely in 2009.

I knew it would be controversial, since it deals with religion, war, peace, monogamy, polyamory, polytheism and bisexuality. It also openly mocks a lot of our more prosaic ideas of what a “god” is. I figured the religious right would hate it. Imagine my shock when I discovered that the atheist left hated it more. Apparently, not only is it beyond the comprehension of some readers that a good person can suffer from prejudice and learn better, it’s also unacceptable to a lot of them that a protagonist declare any religious belief.

Who knew?

But people hating my book did not disappoint me. If they’re angry, they’re reading. Trouble was, not enough people were angry. “Peace Lord” just didn’t get the kind of attention that my Arbiter Chronicles stories do. I suppose some would say that means it’s not as good. I can’t comment. You don’t ask a parent to pick a favorite child.

When I discovered the wonderful artist Bob Keck in the Farpoint Art Show this year, I decided to ask him to do a book cover. My son, Ethan, said, “Why don’t you have him update ‘Peace Lord?’ It’s a little dated.” I should point out that Ethan designed the cover of “Peace Lord,” and provided the cover art. I think it’s pretty brave of him to make that assessment.

So, though I’m sentimental about Ethan’s cover art, I decided to take his suggestion. I engaged Bob to bring the characters of Shep Autrey and Xhylanna of Jentana to life, and I think he did a wonderful job. This, then, if the new cover for Peace Lord of the Red Planet. It’s the tale of a Civil War era Quaker physician who, like John Carter of Mars, dies on Earth and is transported to an alien world instead of going to Heaven or Hell. He saves the life of a warrior prince and becomes a hero. Then he commits a breech of etiquette and is sentenced to death. He faces death so bravely that his hosts declare him the bravest warrior alive… all because he refuses to fight. He goes on to unseat the staid traditions of an entire world, including its gods. Along the way he abandons some of his own faith and replaces it with a new understanding of himself and the universe.

If you haven’t read it, its repackaging is a great opportunity to give it a look. If you have read it, now is a good time to recommend it to a friend. Here’s the Amazon link. Don’t worry that it shows the old cover. The new one is now the only one being produced. If by some bizarre chance Amazon dredges up an old copy, let me know, and I’ll trade you a corrected one!