New Short Story: “He Has Walled Me In”

He Has Walled Me In - Cover ImageTired of waiting for the sequel? Wondering when or if we’ll ever be done with it? (We will, still working on it.) Well, here’s a little something to tide you over: “He Has Walled Me In”

Leon Toa sets out on what for any other Martian settler would be a routine drive to Port Lowell. When unseen forces interrupt his trip, he must uncover the truth about his past before what’s left of his future runs out.

To give a bit more detail, our protagonist’s trip is as much a business necessity as it is a personal one, meant to rebuild his self-confidence after he survives a disabling illness.  A static discharge damages his rover en route, and he is lured into a life-threatening mystery he must think his way out of.

The story takes place in the Ares Project universe at the time of In the Shadow of Ares, and was inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s “Within the Walls of Eryx” (no spoilers – the two are quite different). At 15,000 words it’s a fairly long short story, so you get your money’s worth at $1.50.

 

Through the Looking Glass

The comments here (and on the preceding two threads on the subject) make for some interesting reading: Making Light: The 2015 Hugo finalists. It’s like peering into a madhouse where self-reflection and self-awareness don’t exist. I wonder if these folks recognize that they are using the same arguments to defend their own positions that their ideological opposites use to explain and defend theirs (look for the comment recycling the conservative/libertarian critique of affirmative action, for one obvious example). It could be parody. I don’t think it is.

My take on the matter is increasingly that the Sad Puppies campaign is the wrong approach to the perceived problem – having made a point with the first Sad Puppies effort, the right approach would have been (and still is, now) to establish a new award and let the market sort out over time which one better reflects quality. If leftists have indeed corrupted the Hugos to the point that an award or a nomination informs potential readers that the work is preachy crap selected for political conformity rather than its value as SF/F, better to start fresh and build up a new alternative with no such baggage than to battle said leftists to salvage it.

You can’t un-rot a spoiled apple. Sometimes things that once had value no longer do, however much we sentimentally wish otherwise.

ETA: Larry Correia, alleged to have launched the whole thing in order to win a Hugo for himself…um…declined his nomination.

Breitbart London has a backgrounder on the Hugo Awards foofooraw.

ETA2: I should have included a listing of the awards at the beginning: 2014 Hugo Nominations. Congratulations and good luck to all the nominees. I look forward to reading what I’ve missed this past year in the review packets.

ETA3: Sarah Hoyt discusses the Hugos and touches on the brouhaha: An Update

Commenter Francis W. Porretto makes a similar point to what I wrote above (more succinctly than I did):

This is the most important line in the piece. No award can have stature in and of itself. It borrows stature from those to whom it’s awarded — and if their merit is little, so will be that of the award. All else is self-deception.

I read “those to whom it’s awarded” as the works rather than the authors in the case of Hugo Awards. It can apply to both, but I don’t see the stature of the authors themselves as being a specific issue in the Sad Puppies campaign – it’s that award-winning material has been of declining quality for two decades or longer, the prestige of the award declining along with the merit of that to which it has been given.

I say two decades, but I suspect in my case it’s been longer than that. I don’t even remember when I started regarding any award mentions on book covers as warning signs rather than badges of quality, but I’d guess as early as the late 1980s. If a book has received one or more big-name awards or nominations for same, I regard it with the same suspicion with which I learned (the hard way) to regard books recommended by Oprah, and for much the same reasons.

Contrast this with the Prometheus Awards, which are up-front about their philosophical bent and so offer a more reliable, honest indicator of the content’s quality with regard to that bent.

Nancy Drew and Charles MacKay

Ann Althouse points to an interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, citing a set of favorite books that both amused and impressed me: “When I was 9 or 10, in Kenya, the Nancy Drew books showed me a type of empowered girl that I was not used to at all.”

I’ll just bet that an African Muslim girl was not used to the likes of Nancy Drew. I’ve been reading some of the original Drew books lately for writing research (hey, if you’re going to have someone mock your protagonist as “playing Nancy Drew”, it probably helps to know the source material), and am greatly amused at the writing style and period sensibilities. I need to write a full post on this, but suffice to say that Nancy Drew is not the type of empowered girl modern American girls are used to – indeed, it would be hilarious to rewrite some of the stories set in today’s Tumblr-teen culture to illustrate the point.

As for MacKay, I would have sworn I’d written a review of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds when I read that book a few years ago, but I heartily agree with the recommendation. It puts everything from “satanic child abuse” to the housing and green energy bubbles to “global warming” to “rape culture” into perspective – since the book predates modern social science there isn’t a lot of analysis of the material presented, but after reading umpteen-hundred pages of examples of fads, manias, bubbles, hysterias, etc. it’s not hard to see the common threads among them and draw your own conclusions about human psychology/human nature. Personally, I’m quite impressed that Hirsi Ali likes the book – it’s a little bit obscure, not the kind of thing you’d expect an academic to have read or, if read, to have appreciated at all.

See? We Told You So

Forbes has a short piece on the ethics and practicalities of having babies on Mars: Birthing Babies On Mars Will Be No Small Feat.

They cover the core reasons why having children (at least for the first fifteen or so years of settlement activity) is a taboo in the Ares Project universe: mainly, there’s no telling whether it will be safe to do so, and in small commercial settlements, babies and small children will consume scarce economic resources without near-term economic return. This originated early on in writing In the Shadow of Ares in the need to explain why Amber Jacobsen was still the only child on Mars after almost fourteen years of settlement activity, and the more we thought about the reasoning behind such a taboo the more real-world sense it made (and the more influence it had on her character and the story, especially the coming-of-age subplot).

Of course, in Ghosts of Tharsis and “He Has Walled Me In” we show that this taboo is starting to break down. This happens in large part because several of the settlements are large enough by the time these stories take place to absorb the economic impact.

[via Transterrestrial Musings]

Everything Old is Even Older Again

Contra Naomi Klein… dystopian fiction was popular in the 1970s, too:

…Naomi Klein apparently has no idea whatsoever that the 1970s was probably the Golden Age of Dystopian fiction, Eco-collapse edition.  Including, I might add, a lot of overconfident predictions about global warming that never actually happened.  In fact, pretty much none of the things that were worried about then – overpopulation, choking pollution, the loss of every species less hardy than the cockroach, nuclear war, mass famine, running out of oil, running out of water, running out of air, and of course the obligatory dictatorships made up of the authors’ least favorite American social groups – didn’t actually happen, either.

Funny, I noticed this zeitgeist while re-reading some 1970s Larry Niven recently. Overpopulation in particular seems to have been a major theme of 1970s science fiction, much as mainstream SF today obsesses over “global warming”. The only thing new in what Klein notes as a new thing is that the popular dystopias of today involve young adults.

I disagree with Lane, though, in his assessment of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s not that Atwood’s predictions were spectacularly wrong, it’s that she cast as the implementers of her dystopian future the religion she personally dislikes rather than the religion which actually implements the horrors she predicts in contemporary reality.

Review: Interstellar

Interstellar - GargantuaI’m posting this review of Interstellar, belatedly, because I felt I had to see it again before commenting on its greatness as well as its few shortcomings. There was just too much to absorb and appreciate in one viewing. I’ll be careful with my wording to avoid spoilers.

Knowing the basic premise— explorers are searching for a habitable home for humanity to save them from a dying Earth, helped by unknown, advanced “bulk beings” who have opened a wormhole near Saturn for our use—I had initial trepidation that I was in for a Climate Change lecture. That notion was dispelled on the first viewing. Sure there’s a dust-bowl type blight that is wiping out crops and threatening what’s left of mankind; but this is just the impetus—the McGuffin if you will—to provide the urgency that drives the action. Some elements leading up to the climax were a bit too contrived for my taste, but overall it’s a great story with a strong cast, tension, and visuals that won’t let anyone down.  The script is excellent, with the exception of one criticism I’ll go into below.

Unlike so many recent Sci-Fi films, this one consistently makes a case for space exploration and advancement. A particularly powerful and effective scene involves a parent-teacher conference where Cooper has to process the absurdity his daughter’s suspension. Murphy’s transgression? She got into a fight after bringing a non-sanitized textbook to school; one that hadn’t been “corrected” to show that the Apollo landings were an elaborate hoax.

Cooper: You don’t believe we went to the Moon?

Teacher: I believe it was a brilliant piece of propaganda, that the Soviets bankrupted themselves pouring resources into rockets and other useless machines…

Cooper: Useless machines?

Teacher: And if we don’t want a repeat of the excess and wastefulness of the 20th Century then we need to teach our kids about this planet, not tales of leaving it.

Cooper: You know, one of those useless machines they used to make was called an MRI, and if we had one of those left the doctors would have been able to find the cyst in my wife’s brain, before she died instead of afterwards, and then she would’ve been the one sitting here, listening to this instead of me, which would’ve been a good thing because she was always the…calmer one.

Wow, not the kind of thoughtful dialog you expect in a film like this, but most welcome and expertly delivered.  It’s something we were keen to include in In The Shadow of Ares, and what is so often missing from the anti-human, Luddite drivel we’ve come to expect.  The humor is also excellent, particularly the interaction between the humans and robotic character TARS.

Where I was a little let down by the dialog was during the climax where Cooper solves the mystery of the bulk beings.  Cooper works out the details in a conversation TARS that is perfectly set up to avoid exposition, yet ends up feeling like just that.  Complicated conclusions end up being stated more than worked out. This important scene, and the accompanying dialog, could have been extended slightly and improved greatly.  I have my fingers crossed that this is addressed in the Director’s Cut.

While Interstellar is brilliant on so many levels, it’s the human element that really surprised me.  Ultimately it’s a story about our relationships and obligations to those we love, particularly our children.  Two scenes in particular, between Cooper and Murphy, are perhaps the most powerful I have ever seen.

“Destiny’s Road”

So much potential, and it’s actually pretty decent, but having done some writing of my own since I last read it (July 1997), it suffers in the re-reading.

Don’t get me wrong, the prose is nice, the worldbuilding is interesting (there’s less of the everywhere-is-California feel to this than many of Niven’s other books…I suspect parts of it are even based on Icelandic terrain), and in bits and pieces and then a big data-dump, he gives a bunch of tantalizing detail linking together and fleshing out the Rammer/Heorot/Smoke Ring universe.

It’s just that it had no soul.

I don’t know how else to put it. Jemmy the protagonist goes from place to place, gets up to crazy adventures, but nothing seems to affect him very deeply. For example (spoiler): his wife of twenty seven years dies as a result of a freak accident, and he just shrugs and moves on…as he has with everything else in his life. The character comes across at times as emotionally shallow verging on sociopathic, which is kinda hard to relate to in a protagonist.

And beyond that, from the moment Jemmy makes his escape from the caravan about 40% of the way into the book, the plot goes off the rails. The entire sequence in the Windfarm is baffling, and all through it I was asking myself What is this? Where did this come from? Who gives a crap about this stuff and these people? Am I still reading the same novel? Then they all escape, and Jemmy escapes from the escapees, and then…it’s twenty-seven years later. What? What was the point of that baffling and Brian-in-the-alien-spaceship-like digression? It suffered from the same problem as Prometheus: there was good material, but it seemed like portions of the story necessary for it to make sense had been cut out. Editing may be to blame here – there were a number of glaring editing mistakes (e.g.: stating that Destiny has no polar caps, then a page and a half later referring to Destiny’s polar caps), so perhaps something essential actually did get cut out.

Not Niven’s best work, unfortunately. But I would happily read more stories set in this universe – we’ve already had two novels and a short story concerning the Avalon colony, and the third colony whose information Jemmy is unable to access presumably becomes the Smoke Ring colony, which has figured in two novels. The “hydraulic empire” that has emerged in Earth’s system by the time of Destiny’s Road is seen in “Rammer” (the short story that became A World Out of Time), but is not a positive future. It seems to me that a second Destiny novel would be in order, perhaps one explaining what happened to the Argo and what becomes of the settlements on the Crab after Jemmy does what he does at the end of the first novel. Or possibly a prequel, covering the events of the arrival of the original settlers, the mutiny, the collapse of Base One, etc. Or maybe something far into the future, when Destiny has fully matured, Earth technology has been fully recovered, the Otterfolk are somehow made ‘portable’…or another ship from Earth arrives, bearing a detachment of Checkers…

Stuck On Mars With Nothing But Disco

A good column on Andy Weir and The MartianStuck on Mars with nothing but disco: Ars talks with The Martian’s Andy Weir.

What I found surprising was that he actually never worked for NASA – I apparently misread other accounts of his background. I was also astonished by just how much detailed work he put in to calculating orbits and ECLSS functions and such. Sure, it’s clear in the writing that he worked out the math, but when he explains just what went into it behind the scenes his efforts sound like a real design project, the nature of work we did during the proposal phase(s) and initial post-ATP period on Orion.

Reading this reminded me that I need to re-read the book and write up the amusing coincidental points of similarity with In the Shadow of Ares. The most obvious one: disaster striking the third mission of the Ares Project. I’m guessing Weir also concluded that the “first landing” sub-genre is a bit overdone and decided like we did to join the fictional program in medias res.

Re-Reading “Tunnel in the Sky”

I’ve only read Tunnel in the Sky once before, probably in the late 1980s when I first discovered Heinlein. I remember having liked it then, but with some vague misgivings. Reading it again, I can better put my finger on what I did and did not like about the book.

What I liked:

  • The premise of the story. It’s almost shocking to realize that there was a time when the idea of high-school students being dropped on an unexplored planet to fend for themselves for two to ten days – no rules, no adult supervision, no possibility of intervention, and with death as a very real possibility – as a school sanctioned activity, could be presented as a realistic scenario. While in the 1950s this might have been stretching the Boy Scout ethos a bit (a point Patterson makes in his bio of Heinlein), today this element would belong less to science fiction than outlandish fantasy: long before Rod Walker had a chance to apply his chronic, paralyzing angst to the decision of whether or not to go through with the test, Patrick Henry High School would have been sued into insolvency by the first pair of grieving parents to find a lawyer capable of circumventing any liability waivers they or their mulched-by-alien-pirhana-dogs offspring may have signed. I imagined how right-thinking busybodies and helicopter parents would react if you proposed something analogous to this today, and got a good chuckle out of it.
  • Elements of the plot and world that seemed to prefigure/inspire later SF and other media (something else Patterson touches on, I discovered after I wrote this post). For example the titular tunnel, which is essentially a Stargate without the water ripple or the kawoosh effect (luckily for Rod, since he would have been disintegrated by it at one point in the book), but with what amounts to an iris in one case, and subject to the same sorts of misalignment problems presented in the Stargate movie and the first few episodes of the SG-1 series. Also from the Stargate franchise, you have the similarity of the marooned ‘duplicate’ crew of Destiny having to start over with nothing on an unfamiliar planet after their gate is disrupted by a large stellar event, quickly coming to grips with the situation and starting a new government, building the tools to make the tools to make the tools, etc., recovering the ability to make iron (albeit bog iron in the case of SG:U, which is more believable as it mirrors iron development in a number of real-world cultures) — of course, since SG:U was subject to the influence of John Scalzi, I suspect it was more of a lazy knockoff of Heinlein than inspired by him. For another example, stasis fields of varying time-distortion effects – while Heinlein’s stasis fields never reach complete time stoppage like Larry Niven’s do, his description of how they were invented bears some similarity to Niven’s account of their invention in the Known Space universe. And of course, there’s the presentation of the dishonest and manipulative news media at the end of the story, in which journalists are shown to be more concerned with titillating images and lurid stories than presenting the truth of what they’re covering.

What I didn’t like about the book:

  • Rod Walker. What an insufferably neurotic and insecure character. I kept expecting him to learn from his experiences and develop new confidence and grow into his role as ‘mayor’ of the group of survivors paralleling his growth into adulthood. But he just…didn’t. His dinner scene with his family after his return is little different from the dinner scene before he left – he managed a community of 70-odd individuals for more than a year, yet he still can’t stand up for himself against a self-absorbed father who is completely detached from reality, relying once again on his older sister to intervene. (Of course, one can read the portrayal of his parents and his home life as the genesis of those neuroses and insecurities – Rod is barely recognized as an autonomous individual by his parents, everyone is expected to walk on eggshells around his codependent and psychologically delicate mother, his father uses her fragility as a weapon to control the others, the parents are so self-absorbed that they planned to use all of their financial resources to go into stasis for twenty years to await a cure for a disease they never mentioned the father had and without even telling their minor child who they are leaving behind penniless and parentless, etc.)
  • The other characters. Nobody really had any depth, and few were even likable. Heinlein seemed unable to decide whether Grant should be a villain or not, presenting him at first as a sweet-talking sociopath, morphing into Napoleon from Animal Farm, before abruptly turning him into a well-meaning but incompetent leader who sacrifices himself for the survival of the others to atone for the consequences of his lack of foresight and bad decisions. The same with Roy, who is at first Grant’s henchman in Animal Farm tyranny and dislikes Rod for being Grant’s rival, then abruptly becomes pals with Rod (all through the downriver expedition, I expected the newly-chummy but intermittently-sullen Roy to metaphorically unmask and literally stab Rod in the back). And as noted above, the parents are horrible people, as is their “family friend” who is tacked on at the end.
  • The unresolved romantic issues between Rod and Caroline. Yes, I know the reasons why they didn’t end up together (racial sentiments in 1955 would have made the book unsellable, or at least seem so to his publisher, even though – if you pay close attention – both characters are actually black), but it’s unsatisfying that their relationship simply…ends. And isn’t resolved even in the epilogue.
  • The numerous abandoned plot, character, technology, or world elements. While it didn’t quite reach Star Trek levels, it was frustrating to have some element built up only to see it dropped abruptly without further development or used in an inconsistent manner. The Deacon was missing parts of three fingers, but later on a character informs us that it was better for Grant to have died from his injuries because unlike on Earth, they lacked readily available replacement/donor limbs. In the first few days, before anyone even knows they’re marooned, one of the students is stalking and killing the others, yet this whole matter is dropped abruptly after Jack explains how she acquired Rod’s knife – wouldn’t someone in that situation at least be a bit put off by the thought that a fellow student who (if Johann and his dog count as the first victims) was murdering the others within the first few hours of the test, for no other reason than to take their gear? If the point was to hit the theme about humans being more dangerous than any alien predators they might encounter, the opportunity was wasted by leaving that thread so poorly resolved. Likewise, why spend so much time on the downriver expedition and the discovery of the beach of bones and the abandoned cliff dwellings without then following up on the significance of those things? Yes, I can connect the dots and guess that the dopey joes stampeded the herds to the salt sea and then ate them on the beach while the animals were trapped and weakened from thirst, but the cliff dwellings and the implications of their existence were completely wasted…we’re teased with the idea of sentient aliens, and then that idea is developed no further and their fate is left unresolved. So many Chekhovian guns are hung on the wall and left unfired at the end of the story that I have to wonder if there isn’t a much, much longer original version from which the published version was haphazardly cut.

Overall, not Heinlein’s best work. But not his worst, either, as it’s still a passably entertaining read (if you don’t read it closely enough to frustrate yourself the way I did). According to Patterson Heinlein wrote the book in one month, and I think it shows in lack of attention to detail. From what Patterson relates of Heinlein’s writing practices, Tunnel in the Sky reads as if he had a bunch of well-developed world-building material on hand and a solidly-developed gimmick, and hastily strung a story around it all to meet a deadline.