Who are the new heroes of the Space Age?

Mercury astronauts

The Mercury 7 astronauts. Who will replace them in the 21st century? Photo by NASA.

Growing up in the 1960s, it was easy to spot the American heroes of the Space Age. Alan Shepard was the first to strap himself onto a rocket and blast into space. John Glenn followed him around the earth, and the parade continued until sometime in the 1980s, when the only astronauts that entered the public consciousness were the ones who died in the Challenger and Columbia accidents. After Sally Ride, astronauts became a commodity, as ordinary as truck drivers or airline pilots.

America has no one in the astronaut corp that can wear the title of “hero,” at least in the same way Neil Armstrong could. The Space Shuttle stopped flying in 2011, and no, the astronauts on the International Space Station are not heroes. They are courageous people, to be sure, but they travel a well-worn path. The word “hero” is thrown around too easily; I don’t subscribe to the idea of firefighters, police officers or most members of the military as heroes. We pay them to take risks, sometimes with their lives, which they do willingly, and although they often perform amazing deeds and sacrifice much for us, they rarely reach the level of humans walking on the Moon. Continue reading

Review: Clade shows love and hope are timeless in a changing climate

Clade shows that human relationships are timeless, even as the climate changes

James Bradley shows that human relationships are timeless, even as the climate changes

The slow, rolling nature of the unfolding changes to the planet’s climate stump many storytellers, who fall back on the set-pieces–mega-storms, pandemics, floods–rather than focus on the subtler effects on the planet of rising CO2 levels. The long timescales are another problem; some transformations might be noticed in a human lifetime, others may take millennia to play out. These phenomena can overwhelm an attempt to show the influence of global warming on human relationships, which can flare and fade in the space of a few days.

Australian author James Bradley has found a way to balance the bigger picture with the pattern of human life and love, which continues in all its forms despite the imperceptible yet inexorable change happening all around. In Clade (the word’s root means “branch” in Greek, as in a branch of the tree of life), Adam Leith, a scientist, and his wife Ellie, an artist, have a daughter, Summer, but she is a troublesome puzzle to her parents. As the early and sometimes deadly effects of a warming climate take hold, Summer has her own son, Noah, diagnosed as autistic, but high-functioning. He spends much of his time absorbed in “virch,” that is, virtual worlds that are easier to control than the real world. Summer, however, is unable to cope with her “special needs” boy, and abandons him with his grandfather, now separated from Ellie. In a surprising and delightful ending some 70 years after Clade’s opening, Bradley turns the autistic stereotype on its head as Noah achieves an age-old dream. Continue reading

Why science fiction writers should reveal their inmost selves

Still from Beneath the Planet of the Apes

A mutant in Beneath the Planet of the Apes worships. As he reveals, so must a writer.

I’m reading a new mystery novel and there’s a problem. I can’t help but think the author is holding back, like a sprinter on the starting block, but not quite ready to run all out. The novel’s characters are too nice to each other, preferring to forgive than hold a grudge, pulling back from saying what they really think, doing the proper thing instead of breaking the rules. The book reads like journalistic non-fiction, rather than fiction.

I’ve always thought fiction is about what we really want to say, think, and do, not what we ought to say, think, and do. It’s about desire, not propriety; characters may behave as if propriety is important, but in their heart of hearts, they dream of tasting the forbidden fruit. It’s the writer’s job to show the characters doing those things, to lay bare all the emotions–hate, love, fear, jealousy, lust–and demonstrate what these look like in an imagined world. Continue reading

The new emerging hierarchy of publishing legitimacy

Unexpected still

A still from Kris Swanberg’s film Unexpected. Has she reached the top of a legitimacy pyramid?

A new hierarchy of legitimacy is emerging among independent writers and authors. It’s a direct consequence of the self-publishing revolution, and the growing realization that the most they can expect is satisfaction with seeing their dream in print without riches or fame. A similar hierarchy has already emerged among filmmakers, and I’d bet musicians as well. The facts crystallized for me in an interview of independent filmmaker Kris Swanberg, who premiered her film Unexpected at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

I made the movie to be seen in a theater. I would love for that to happen. It’s important to me. And I think it legitimizes the film, and I also think that it — it finds a new — a theater-going audience that doesn’t necessarily buy things on [video-on-demand].

In other words, the hierarchy for Swanberg is theaters in general, perhaps art houses in particular, followed by video-on-demand, e.g, Netflix or Amazon Prime, and then direct to DVD, which still exists. If given a choice between a traditional distribution deal and self-distribution via video-on-demand, Swanberg would pick the former, because it conveys the status and artistic validation that VOD cannot.

I’m hearing more and more writers–and I think I’m in this camp–that view traditional or legacy publishing, especially by the Big Five, as the top of a pyramid of legitimacy. This attitude is in part a function of how difficult it is to get a publishing contract. Agents and editors are pickier than ever as a 300-year-old business model is squeezed harder and the process of finding high-quality books that sell grows more difficult. In contrast, the ease of publishing a book on Amazon or Smashwords carries no long-lasting sense of accomplishment, that is, the feeling that you have arrived somewhere after a painful rite of passage. In traditional publishing, you find a world inhabited by Hemingway or Austen. In independent publishing, you enter a world populated by a million shmoes who’ve strung 90,000 words together into a Word document.

The truth is not quite so black and white. Many indie authors–among them Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe–have achieved artistic immortality, and failed authors published by the trads are legion. Neither am I making a moral or value judgment on either legacy or independent (self) publishing. Writers write for a variety of reasons, and for many, the main reason is public acceptance and recognition of their artistic vision. Traditional publishing offers this, while self-publishing does not, by and large.

In economic terms, the scarcity of traditional publishers and the limited distribution network (bookstores) increases of the social value of what they offer, certainly to writers and possibly to readers. Rational authors would choose self-publishing first because of the far higher royalty rates. Instead, they mail boxes of paper manuscripts to agents and editors on the 1% chance of avoiding the slush pile. As the traditional publishing industry shrinks (the Big Five was the Big Six not long ago), their value as artistic gatekeepers rises. Amazon, Smashwords, and a dozen other platforms are to Simon and Schuster or Penguin Random House as Wal-Mart is to Nieman-Marcus. In the best of all possible worlds, where would you rather your product be sold?

Restoring the environment is a good thing. Or maybe not?

Glines Canyon Dam Removal

The Glines Canyon Dam in Washington State undergoing removal. Image courtesy Real Science.

One of the great things about speculative fiction is the power to challenge strongly held values in the safety of a society that exists only in the writer’s imagination. In the Pacific Northwest, at least on the wet side of the Cascade Mountains, we’re all “green,” that is, we believe in letting trees grow unmolested, planting salmon in urban creeks, and giving orcas lots of space to swim. Environmentalism is a sacred value, and therefore, a target, as far as I’m concerned.

We assume conservation is a good thing, and by the same token, restoration. We are redeemed if we restore a forest, a lake, a mountain, or a stream to the way it was before civilization altered it. For my money, the most dramatic example of this in recent years is the 2012 removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwha River in northwest Washington State. Removal is intended to reestablish one of the most productive salmon runs in the Lower 48, and by early accounts, the project has bright prospects for success. Continue reading

Why is it so hard to save our maritime heritage?

Kalakala

1935 ferry Kalakala in Tacoma. Photo by Joe Follansbee.

The news I dreaded for years arrived this week. The 1935 Kalakala, the only art-deco ferry ever built, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is headed for the breakers. Its death was slow, painful, and probably inevitable. It’s passing should not be a surprise. I listed it as endangered in 2011 and 2012 on my old Fyddeye website. The ferry is one of a handful of decaying large historic vessels, which include USS Olympia and SS United States, both in Philadelphia. Our national patrimony is rusting away.

For a generation in Seattle, Kalakala’s sleek design and quirky behavior stood for a city of chance-takers and idea-evangelists long before the Space Needle was built in 1963. I got to know her after the sculptor Peter Bevis rescued her from oblivion on tide flats in Kodiak, Alaska in 1998. That was the beginning of her end. I was at the auction when the 276-foot “silver slug” was taken away from Bevis in 2003. The new owner, Steve Rodrigues, had big dreams, but no money and even less political savvy. He blames her final disposal on a “conspiracy” among the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, the State of Washington, and the cities of Tacoma, Seattle and Kodiak. The facts are simpler: He neglected to pay her bills, and ownership fell to Karl Anderson, a Tacoma businessman. He’s had enough of her; she’ll be shards of metal by the end of this month. Continue reading

Review: Nature’s Confession is an impressive sci-fi epic

Nature's Confession is a sci-fi epic.

Nature’s Confession is a sci-fi epic.

Nature’s Confession is an impressive sci-fi epic with a multi-versal scope. On the one hand, it’s a young adult romance featuring a mixed-race boy named “Boy” and his infatuation with Valentine, a red-haired beauty with a talent for particle physics. On the other, it’s a speculative story of a family falling on hard emotional times as the father takes up with a female android, which leads the mother to pursue a career in interplanetary politics. Much of the action happens on an earth sickened by pollution and climate change. There’s so much going on that it’ll take two or three reads to take it all in.

The author, J.L. Morin, is fearless. She’s unafraid to cram teen love, the origin of the universe, time travel, and an unrelenting satire of modern life into 277 pages, hanging the text with digressions and neologisms like Christmas tree ornaments. My personal favorite new word is “busywork,” referring to the purposeless drudgery forced upon those of us droning along in cubicles by organizations whose leaders may acknowledge us once a year, if we’re lucky. The tone is a combination of Alice in Wonderland (complete with rabbit hole) and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with a dash of Gulliver’s Travels. Continue reading