Saturday, June 28, 2014

Alternate Universes for Writers

Alternate Universes are popular concepts in science fiction. Generally they are used to create settings in which some pivotal historical event turned out differently, such as the US not entering WWII and Hitler winning, or Europe intervening in the Civil War so that it’s still going on in a more modern world.

I was thinking of an alternate world in which fictional novels were never invented. The population would be generally literate but the material available for reading would be nonfiction primarily, with some mythological material. There’d be no tradition of printed fiction. And science would be just starting to get underway.

Say I got transported to that world. I started thinking about what I’d do if I wanted to establish a tradition of fiction writing in this universe.  Most of what I have written is clearly later in our Earth’s tradition. But there are many great earlier stories in our own tradition that I’ve often wondered how I might rewrite them if I’d come up with those ideas first. In this alternate universe none of those ideas would be done, so I’d have my chance. Here’s what I was imagining last night that I’d write in this alternate world. What do you think? Which books would you write?

1. War of the Worlds
2.  Dracula
3.  Frankenstein
4.  Wolfman
5.  The Invisible Man
6.  Journey to the Center of the Earth
7.  Lord of the Flies
8.  The Mummy Returns
9.  The Living Dead
10. From Earth to the Moon


Sunday, June 22, 2014

When the Crik Rises

In my first memory of my dad, he’s a heroic figure. I don’t know how old I was when the memory was formed, but not very. My mom worked outside the home when I was little, and there was no kindergarten in Arkansas at that time. This meant that up until first grade I spent much of my time with Dad. On this one particular morning, we’d driven down into the field to check on the cows after a night of heavy rain.

The cattle were in a field on the other side of our creek, and the place where we normally crossed the stream was running too high to drive the truck through. Dad parked and we walked along the creek to where it widened out and the rushing water slowed. It still looked like a muddy, swollen river to me, but Dad picked me up and put me on his shoulders and waded across.

I remember being a little scared and a little excited both as I sat up there high and looked out over the world. With a daddy like that, what might one accomplish?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Surety Versus Doubt

Every day on Facebook I see something that amazes me. I see people expressing opinions with seemingly total conviction about such things as religion, politics, gun control and so on. I can’t wrap my head around it. These issues are complicated. There are no simple, black and white answers. The only thing that seems clear to me is that we cannot be absolutely sure on any of these topics.

I also know from my studies in psychology that “surety” is based on emotion rather than intellect. Some folks will “feel” the truth in their position and will proceed from there with total confidence in their actions. Honestly, I have always considered such people dangerous. I have also had to check my own responses in such cases because my immediate “feeling” is to reject what these people say with a snort of derision at their naivety.  I tell myself that I have to keep in mind that even a broken clock is right twice a day.

I am convinced that there are certain places where we don’t need to engage our intellect at more than a surface level. For example, I am a fan of the New Orleans Saints. I did not evaluate my fanship rationally; I didn’t even attempt to do so. I’m most prominently a fan because I live near them, and if I lived in Green Bay I’d probably be a fan of the Packers.  When a penalty is called on my beloved Saints, I often scream at the refs and talk about favoritism. And I know I’m being subjective and I don’t care. Because, in the grand scheme of things, no one should really care. Football just isn’t that important. We can afford to be irrational about it.

But politics, religion, science, and many of the other topics I see constantly being discussed on facebook are important. No, they are “critical.” There needs to be less “feeling” of what is true and more “seeking” for it. And that requires thought, not emotion. It requires the withholding of snap judgments. It requires that we question our own beliefs and not just our opponent’s. In fact, questioning our own beliefs is more important, because another thing you learn from psychology is how easy it is to reject evidence that does not already agree with your viewpoint.

 I am constantly questioning my own beliefs. I work through pro and con arguments for just about everything in my head, or often in print. I try to sift through evidence and examples and, usually, I arrive at a compromise position because I’ll see that both sides of the debate have some merit worth considering. It is seldom that the evidence supports an extreme position, although that has happened. Ultimately, I tend to come out the other end of this process with a level of intellectual satisfaction and a level of emotional dissatisfaction. And I think that’s a reflection of the real complexity of the world we live in.

I’ll sum up this rant by saying two things to those who are so “sure” of their rightness. First, if you haven’t actively investigated your position by considering the evidence as objectively as possible, you are being intellectually dishonest with yourself and everyone around you. Second, if you don’t have doubts, then you’re not doing it right.


Friday, June 13, 2014

Top Ten Sword and Planet Books of All Time

David T. Wilbanks asked me the other day to list my top ten Sword and Planet books. Since the genre is ever close to my heart, I always love getting a chance to talk about it. For those who aren’t familiar with Sword and Planet (S & P) fiction, here’s a quick description of the genre.
The basic story is about an Earthman (seemingly never an Earth woman) who is transported to an exotic alien world where he must use his wits, his muscles, and a sword against a host of human and nonhuman foes. Any apparent supernatural force usually turns out to be “super science” instead of truly supernatural. The S & P hero is generally not a barbarian, but is most often quite chivalrous.  Edgar Rice Burroughs is considered the father of this type of fiction, and his John Carter of Mars books established the pattern.

Here’s my list for top ten Sword and Planet books of all time.

1.  A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This one started it all. It’s the first in the John Carter of Mars series. The recent movie, John Carter, is based on this story and used a lot of elements of it, including Carter’s capture by the Green Men, and his relationship with Dejah Thoris. However, the movie introduced the Thern aspects of the plot and the moving city of Zodanga stuff. The book had a lot of high octane action mixed with all kinds of exotic scenery.

2.  The Gods of Mars & The Warlord of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. These are the next two books in the John Carter series, but I’m considering them as one book because they really are one large story cut into two segments. These were even better than “Princess” and mark the height of the John Carter series. I only rank “Princess” higher because it was the first.  ERB wrote eleven books in the series, although the last one was left as a partial when he died.

3.  Almuric, by Robert E. Howard. Howard is known more for Sword & Sorcery than S & P, but he did write this one entry in the genre and it’s a doozy. It shows that even when Howard was being imitative, he couldn’t help but bring his own immense creativity and imagination to bear. It’s certainly a unique entry in the genre in many ways. The only problem with this book is that the ending seems to have a very different tone and there are many who think that Howard did not actually write the last chapter of the book. That last chapter is much more standard S & P than what came before.

4.  Outlaw of Mars, by Leigh Brackett. This is actually a compilation of two Eric John Stark tales, “The Secret of Sinharat,” and “People of the Talisman.” Brackett’s work also blurs the lines of the S & P novel slightly but the Stark stories still fall within the borders of that genre. Stark is a kind of mixture of ERB’s Tarzan and C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith. Brackett was a great stylist as well, at least in my opinion.

5.  A Sword for Kregen, by Dray Prescot, as told to Alan Burt Akers, who was really the British author Kenneth Bulmer. The Dray Prescot series is the longest running S & P series ever. Thirty-seven volumes were published originally in English, and quite a few more in German. The German ones are just now being published in English finally, after a lot of begging from the fans. A Sword for Kregen is number 20 in the series and the first that I read. It’s still my favorite, although a number of others come close, including Renegade of Kregen and Krozair of Kregen. The first in the series is Transit to Scorpio. The main character is Dray Prescot, a sailor from Earth who mixes some of the characteristics of John Carter and Howard’s Conan.

6. In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, by S. M. Stirling. This is a modernized version of the S & P tale and it works beautifully. Stirling captured the excitement of the S & P story but added a level of scientific plausibility that many other entries into the genre have lacked. I would love to see more stories from Stirling in this setting but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

7.  Nomads of Gor, by John Norman. Norman has a bad rep these days and much of it is deserved. In his Gor series, and in other books he’s written as well, he has generally depicted women as natural slaves to men, and he’s gone to great lengths in describing the conditions of that slavery. What isn’t well known is that there was very little of this in the first books in his Gorean series. Yes, there were female slaves, but also free females. And there were male slaves as well. This is not unusual in fantasy fiction. The later books in the Gor series began to emphasize female slavery more and more, and eventually just became unreadable to me. The first six books of the series, however, are quite good S & P tales, and quite traditional in most ways. “Nomads” is my favorite and is #4 in the series. The first is Tarnsman of Gor.

8.  Planet of Peril, by Otis Adelbert Kline. Kline was a contemporary of ERB’s and also wrote series of S & P novels set on both Mars and Venus. Planet of Peril is the first in his Venus series and is pretty good, although it feels much more dated than ERB’s stuff to me. Kline does get credit for being there at the very beginning though. Notably, Kline was also Robert E. Howard’s agent and his encouragement is probably the reason why Howard wrote Almuric in the first place. Some people believe that Kline is the guy who wrote the last chapter of Almuric, although a friend of mine named Morgan Holmes has evidence to suspect Otto Binder as the culprit. Binder worked with Kline and knew much about Howard’s work.

9.  Thief of Llarn, by Gardner F. Fox. This is the second and last in the Llarn series from Fox, the first being Warrior of Llarn. “Thief” is the first one I read. The main character is an Earthman named Alan Morgan, who is very similar in many ways to John Carter. The Llarn stories don’t really break any new ground but I thought this one was a lot of fun.

10. Kaldar – World of Antares, by Edmond Hamilton. This is actually a collection of three short stories about a character named Stuart Merrick, who is transported to the planet of Kaldar in the Antares system. I read the individual stories in other sources long before this volume was published and much enjoyed them. I’ve always thought it interesting that Hamilton’s “Kaldar” preceded Ken Bulmer’s “Kregen,” which was also set in the Antares system. The only real similarities are in the names and settings, and I have no idea if Bulmer knew about the Kaldar stories. He probably did but whether it was a conscious influence or not is unknown.

So there you have it, my top ten S & P works. Of course, many other writers have played in the S & P genre, including Michael Moorcock, Lin Carter, and Jack Vance. This is also the genre my Talera series falls in, and I’ve written other individual S & P stories, including The Machineries of Mars, which I self-published on Amazon. For a longer examination of the genre, see the article by myself and Stephen Servello over at ERBzine


Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Genre Shaming

Feedly has been down today. From what I picked up on their blog, they've been web attacked by some group that wants to extort money from them. Let's hope they get it cleared up soon. Since I no longer even have all of the individual links for folks, I'm not visiting blogs until they get Feedly back up and running. Just means I have time to update my book files on the books I bought today when I visited 2nd and Charles. Not that I needed more books.

Another thing making the rounds on Facebook has been somebody who went on a rant about how grown ups shouldn't be wasting their time on YA fiction. Probably just a pathetic cry for attention. I always have to laugh when people do this sort of thing, try to denigrate the reading choices of other people to make themselves feel better and smarter. I even heard the term 'genre shaming' the other day and got a good cackle out of it.

I've never lived in a place, or even been in a writing group, in which my primary choices for reading and writing weren't frowned upon.  It never had one iota of effect on my reading/writing behavior, although I once left a group because of the constant snide comments comparing my work to comic books, which the person making the comments didn't know anything about anyway.

My advice to those who feel attacked for their choices:  1) Be confident in your own choices. If you're reading, then it means you've got some intelligence and imagination, which already puts you into an elite group of humanity. 2) Know that no matter what you read, you are building a vocabulary and learning to process written information in a faster and more efficient way. 3) Stop giving a shit what people with lesser imaginations criticize about you.

I do firmly believe it's better to read all kinds of things than to limit yourself to just one genre, but there are no genres to be ashamed of. Certainly, there are good and bad examples of writing and storytelling within all genres. But it's all grist for the mill.


Friday, June 06, 2014

The Flying Nun

I've been working this summer on another memoir book, like Days of Beer, but this one focused more generally on growing up in Arkansas, living on the farm, hunting and fishing, and family life. Most of the episodes I've put in so far have been funny ones. Here's a sample. Not laugh out loud funny, but I thought it had a bit of a zinger.  There are some other incidents that are much more hilarious. Anyway, here's a little piece I call "The Flying Nun."

I went to a Catholic grade school where we were taught by nuns during the entire six years. We had some sisters I really liked, and some not quite so much. We never had one that I had more respect for than Sister Annella, though. She would play baseball and even football with us at recess.

One morning after we’d come out of mass and were headed back for school, I was bragging to Sister about how fast I could run. She indicated that she was pretty fast too but I just kind of grinned and told her she wasn’t as fast as me. She said, “let’s just see.”

Taking that as a challenge, I prepared to show Sister my heels. We took off for the school, with her holding the hem of her habit up so she could run better. I had no doubt I could beat her.

I was wrong. 

Monday, June 02, 2014

New Review of Swords of Talera

S E Lindberg has put up a detailed review of Swords of Talera, the first in the Talera series of Sword & Planet novels. I hope you can check it out.

As I mentioned to him in a comment, Swords of Talera was written when I was twenty-four, although it was polished up before it was printed in 2007. There was a pretty long gap between Swords and Wings over Talera, the second book, and another long gap before I wrote the third book, Witch of Talera. Swords is a bit more pure Sword & Planet, and very much an homage to ERB. The second and third books begin to bring in more Sword & Sorcery and horror elements, and the series gets progressively darker across the trilogy.