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

Review: Why can’t climate change be funny and romantic, too?

Love in the Time of Climate Change cover

Love in the Time of Climate Change

One of my pet peeves about environmental activists and climate change activists in particular is their shriveled sense of humor. Not all, mind you, but most beat a constant drum of doom and gloom that makes me want to jump off a cliff. Way to crucify my Jesus, people! That’s why it’s refreshing to read a story that takes a lighter view of a serious subject. Love in the Time of Climate Change, the first novel by Brian Adams, also makes the case that even the end of the world can spark a romance.

Casey is a 32-year-old community college professor who suffers from OCD, obsessive climate disorder. Rising sea and CO2 levels, evil oil companies, the stupidity of deniers, and other bugbears of climate doomsayers are never far from his mind, until the arrival of Samantha, a 29-year-old middle school teacher who needs some professional development credits. Over the course of the novel, Samantha’s hotness competes with Casey’s fears of global warming, until their interest in climate science and each other culminates in an meeting of minds and bodies. Continue reading

What Ebenezer Scrooge teaches America about atonement for the CIA’s sins.

Ebenezer Scrooge film still

Ebenezer Scrooge, played by Alastair Sim in the 1951 film version of A Christmas Carol. Does he realize his need to atone?

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, one of my favorite stories, is playing on every TV channel and in every community theatre across the country. This week, the country learned about terrible sins committed in the name of national security. In my own twisted way, I noticed a connection between the fiction and the reality. Ebenezer Scrooge experienced a transformative moment derived from his accumulated sins. Is our country going through a similar moment, and like Scrooge, will it atone for its behavior?

Although CIA Director John Brennan has offered a litany of excuses out of loyalty to his agency, no one has denied that the CIA applied “enhanced interrogation techniques” to terrorism suspects (though former Vice President Dick Cheney says it wasn’t torture). It’s as close to an admission of torturing people as you’ll hear from an American intelligence agency. Even if you believe the CIA had to go to extremes to defend the United States, the agency still broke national and international law and acted contrary to civilized values. Another value, atonement, comes into play.

Cue Ebenezer Scrooge. Continue reading

Why Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech was misguided and wrong.

Ursula K Le Guin

Ursula K Le Guin was given a lifetime achievement award, and she said some naive things.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s November 19 speech at the National Book Awards in New York struck a nerve. My nerve. In six minutes, after accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the grande dame of American science fiction and fantasy lambasted her own publishers who charge libraries “six or seven times the price for books they charge their customers,” “profiteers” (read: Amazon) who tried to punish a publisher (read: Hachette) for “disobedience,” and fellow writers whom she says have buckled under the imperative for profit. “We need writers who know the difference between the production of a commodity and the practice of an art,” she said.

Bravo.

Le Guin spoke many truths, but her speech left me cold. Was it envy? I wondered how one as intelligent and honest could so easily scold an industry which has brought her fame and riches. I find it hard to accept that a publisher took risks on her early work purely because it wanted to support art and not as an interesting, if head-scratching addition to its catalog that might earn a few dollars over the long term. It is genre fiction, after all.

Perhaps I was skeptical of her rant because it resembles so many other laments for a tight-knit, rapidly disappearing world, that of a select group of “serious” publishers and “serious” editors who work with “serious” writers. These tastemakers have had a stranglehold on literature for three hundred years. Having seen first-hand the disruptive power of digital technology while I was at RealNetworks in the 1990s, I understand how frightening and painful transformation can be. I wonder if the ancient Greek poets of the oral tradition castigated merchants in the agora for selling those awful printed versions of epic poems. People just aren’t hiring singers of oral art anymore! It’s those damned scribblers disrupting the market!

Below Le Guin’s analysis lies a hidden assumption: If a book is published by a major house, it must be good. A cursory examination of recent bestsellers shows this to be false. Critics and discerning readers found Fifty Shades of Grey to be laughably bad. My daughters warned me that the sequels to Twilight and Hunger Games were sub-par. The fifth book of the Game of Thrones series, A Dance With Dragons, was a sorry mess. The tastemakers aren’t always on target. In fact, they publish crap when they know it’s crap. Why? Pandering earns revenue that subsidizes the few brilliant writers, including Le Guin. Gotta love capitalism.

Le Guin calls herself a friend to self-published authors, even as she decries Amazon. This is naive at least, because if it weren’t for Amazon’s scale, which reduces the cost of production and provides access to a large market, self-publishing would’ve remained the realm of rich dilettantes. Let’s be honest: Amazon behaved like a bully in its recent dealings with Hachette. Despite its business practices (or because of them), the company, along with competitors, such as Smashwords and Lulu, is enabling a renaissance of written expression. It’s most recent project, Kindle Scout, is pushing aside the tastemakers by crowdsourcing publishing decisions, democratizing the filter process by offering readers a chance to weigh in on what is worthy of publication. Devolving decision-making to the masses always frightens the entrenched powers.

Amazon is in business to make a profit. Who knew? That’s been the case among booksellers since Gutenberg. If the German printer hadn’t made a profit with his bibles, he would’ve tossed his press onto the dung heap. Singling out Amazon (though I always agree that the powerful be held to account), strikes me as paranoiac. Amazon isn’t a demon; it’s showing signs of creaking under its own weight. In reality, the book universe is moving toward a new mix of traditionally published and independently published content distributed on a variety of platforms. The resurgence of the independent bookstore, once thought dead, is the best proof of this trend.

The printed book still sells strong as a teaching tool, keepsake, gift, or status symbol. The ebook is valued for its convenience and low price. Smart indie writers employ free-lance editors and cover designers. Readers ask for a voice in the publishing process, while trusting that some tastemakers have it right. Le Guin ought to revel in this emerging creative anarchy, instead of wishing all the people who don’t fit her worldview would go away.

Disclosure: My books have been published traditionally, on Amazon KDP, on Smashwords, and by CreateSpace, an Amazon subsidiary.

Has Game of Thrones reached its sell-by date?

George RR Martin meme

George RR Martin finishes the Game of Thrones series. Yeah, in your wildest fantasy.

Ok, so I’m late to the party, but I just spent the last six or eight weeks (I’ve lost count) reading the 1,123-page paperback edition of George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons, book five of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, mostly because my obsessive-compulsive tendencies prevented me from abandoning the door-stopper. I wasted about half that time.

You know there’s a problem when the author has to explain himself on the first page of the book. After the dedication, itself a tome (31 names!), in what he titles a “cavil,” an obscure word meaning “trivial objection,” he nearly apologizes for what he’s about to do: give you virtual whiplash by taking you backward then forward in time and into parallel universes. Off you go, don’t get lost! Continue reading