A Crystal Age

A_Crystal_Age_(1906_Edition_Cover)

Another of my Project Gutenberg finds, “A Crystal Age” by W.H. Hudson is an early science fiction story. Originally published in 1887 anonymously, later editions had the author’s name. One wonders why it was published anonymously to begin with as science fiction was not unheard of at that time. According to Wikipedia, utopia/dystopia literature was quite the rage at the time, not unlike today.

Some of the plot devices it employs are echoed in later books. The narrator is out on a botanical expedition in the hills near his English home when he falls and then awakens much later in strange surroundings with no real explanation of how this occurs. The fact is he has been unconscious apparently for millennia, or somehow fallen through a portal in time (my own guess, it’s never mentioned in the book) and finds himself in the far distant future. This sort of magical transportation is what Edgar Rice Burroughs used in his “John Carter of Mars” series, where Carter is mysteriously whisked to the red planet without explanation, although “A Crystal Age” predates “John Carter” by a good 25 years or so.

The story is an interesting imagining of what the far future might look like, and how people of that time would behave. But our hero baffles me in several ways. A couple of points most difficult to reconcile are that everyone in the future speaks 19th century English, and yet the written language has become incomprehensible. The narrator, Smith, likens the forms of the letters in books to Hebrew characters. Why would the written language alter so completely, but not the spoken? Language changes relatively quickly, and in the span of time that must have elapsed between the England of Smith’s day and the time he wakes to find himself in where no trace remains of any city, language would have altered beyond recognition. Even today, with only a couple thousand years between us, no one knows what ancient Greek sounded like, and there is debate about Latin pronunciations.

Anyway, when he wakes from his fall after an unknown amount of time, he finds himself covered by vining plants from which he must extricate himself. His boots are muddy, dry, cracked, as if they have aged while he has not. He begins to walk in an unfamiliar landscape, passing animals that come to stare at him seemingly in wonder as if they can recognize an unfamiliar human, an outsider. Maybe they can tell a carnivore when they see one.

Then, like H. G. Wells’s “The Time Machine” our narrator right off the bat falls in love with a young girl in a small group of humans he encounters, although the young Yoletta is vastly more intelligent and independent than the Eloi Weena. While Smith struggles to understand the peculiar ways of these people, he readily capitulates to their way of life, and strives to fit in from the outset, and makes no attempt to try to understand where he is or how he got there, or how the world came to be the way it is, or what may lie beyond the small area this family inhabits. His obsession with Yoletta drives his every action, from the minute he lays eyes on her.

He never even wonders about his own family or friends, or whether they might be concerned about him. His infatuation with Yoletta has an almost slavish quality. He indentures himself to the family for a year in return for a suit of clothes such as the group all wear so that he won’t stand out or offend them, and in so doing, please Yoletta. His new benefactors are affronted by Smith’s appearance and clothing, particularly his boots, although why is never made clear. The reader can only assume it’s a quirk of their society, the way removing hats on entering a building is with us.

The people seem to take offense easily, although are equally quick to forgive and move on. They’re so accustomed to their own lifestyle that they find it incomprehensible that Smith could come from a place where things are done differently. They’re a bit like the Eloi in that they seem to spend no time in self-examination, or question their existence or have any desire to travel beyond the confines of their small corner of the world.

Yoletta is an unusual character for the time this was written. She espouses views that are progressive, while Smith’s are utterly conventional, chauvinistic. Smith loves Yoletta because she’s beautiful, even while he knows nothing about her. Despite his attempts to flatter, compliment, and flirt with her, Yoletta treats him as she would a friend, with affection and courtesy, but clearly doesn’t return his ardor. During Smith’s first attempt to tell Yoletta how beautiful he finds her, Yoletta observes:

“There are different kinds of beauty, I allow, and some people seem more beautiful to us than others, but that is only because we love them more. The best loved are always the most beautiful.”

This is in direct contrast to Smith’s idea that the most beautiful are the best loved. Yoletta is wiser than her years suggest. Smith, on the other hand, has some growing up to do.

The writing is rich, as was the custom of the time, with poetic descriptions that would bore most modern readers, but which I still enjoy. I think modern prose can often be too stark, there’s room still for more colorful writing.

“For a long time the sky had been overcast with multitudes and endless hurrying processions of wild-looking clouds – torn, wind-chased fugitives, of every mournful shade of color, from palest gray to slatey-black; and storms of rain had been frequent, impetuous, and suddenly intermitted, or passing away phantom-like towards the misty hills, there to lose themselves among other phantoms, ever wandering sorrowfully in that vast, shadowy borderland where earth and heaven mingled; and gusts of wind which, as they roared by over a thousand straining trees and passed off with hoarse, volleying sounds, seemed to mimic the echoing thunder.”

It’s a short book, more of a novella by our standards (133 pages all told, including all Project Gutenberg’s added notations and licensing and so on), definitely worth a read even after all these years.

UPDATE: 1/20/2014 – Erin Johanson was kind enough to mention it’s available on Amazon for Kindle for free as well here. (Thanks, Erin!) Project Gutenberg has all their offerings in multiple formats, including MOBI, which is what the Kindle uses so lots of ways to find books!

UPDATE 2: Changed to “The Time Machine”. Thanks, Ralfast.

Well, Here We Are.

Half-way through December with the holiday-that-shall-not-be-named right around the corner. No, I’m not ready.

I relieved myself of the pressure of NaNoWriMo about two weeks in when, as I told someone on Twitter, work exploded and I lost the will to live. The job stress led to panic attacks and the last thing I had energy or time for was trying to keep up the word count everyday.

Then, somehow I heard about Pitch Wars, about 24 hours before the deadline to get in on it. So I scrambled and put together a pitch and sent in the first five pages of the WIP, Revenants Abroad. Alack and alas, I was not chosen by any of the mentors I sent it to, but did get some really amazing feedback on it from one. Another was not as helpful and actually suggested I table the whole thing since paranormal/vampire stories are a tough sell right now. Well, maybe they are, but they’re still being published. I mean, really, what ISN’T a tough sell? Agents and publishers are all hoping for the next Harry Potter.

blacksmithBut as I said, I got some really thoughtful, helpful feedback from Julie Sondra Decker. I mean, A LOT of very specific detailed critiquing of those five pages. I was amazed and incredibly grateful. She gave me a lot to think about and  that need reworking right in the beginning but things I need to take another look at throughout. And she was right. I look at those opening pages and think, “Geez, how did I not see that before?” So while I wasn’t chosen as a “mentee” it was still worth sending it in. Not all mentors responded, only two of the four I sent RA to did, so I realize how fortunate I was.

One thing about the mentors involved is a very high percentage of them were only looking for Middle Grade or Young Adult, so clearly they were not going to be interested in my manuscript. Since I found out about the contest so late I had very little time to read through the mentor bios and pick out four who might be a good fit. I may have chosen badly in haste, I’m not sure.

So, back I go for another round of revisions. I’m undecided about participating in PitchMAS now, but may give it a shot anyway.

And if nothing else, I found a number of excellent new people to follow on Twitter.

Now if I can just get the job situation squared away, maybe I can get back to focusing on writing.

What Would Dickens Say?

The season of commercial excess is upon us, unfettered, in all it’s foul glory. Like a juggernaut, the exhortations to ‘Buy! Buy! Buy!’ come fast and furious now, and no matter how much we may bemoan the crass commercialization of this season, most of us will dutifully heed the call, in some measure. Stores opened on Thanksgiving Day this year to begin the buying frenzy, an unprecedented move that horrified and outraged many.

Scrooge would be so proud.

I caught part of “A Christmas Carol” on tv this afternoon and thought how little things have changed since Dickens’ time. Employers demanding people work on Thanksgiving… can working on Christmas Day be far behind? Sure, there have always been those who had to work regardless of holiday – emergency services like police, firemen, nurses, doctors, military. When I was in the Navy I stood watch on Christmas Eve, although I admit I don’t recall if I ever worked Christmas Day itself. If I had to, I did. We were very flexible with our festivities. I remember a large gathering at the house I rented off-base with three others while in Okinawa. Our whole group of friends gathered at our place to exchange gifts and share a meal. It was one of the loveliest Christmases I ever spent. I don’t remember what day it was, likely not Christmas Day itself.

Since that time I’ve never worked on a major holiday, but my current boss would probably like for us all to. The child labor that Dickens campaigned against and the atrocious working conditions of his time may be (mostly) gone in the First World, but they are alive and well and being exploited on a daily basis around the world: Mumbai, Shenzhen, Sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan…

Scrooge learned his lesson on putting money above all else, but that attitude is encouraged and expected at all US businesses. It’s all about the bottom line, profit, keeping the shareholders and Board of Directors happy. My boss allows no mention of “Christmas” or any specifically Christmas-themed decorations (when I left last Tuesday I noticed a large tree in front of one of the buildings on campus strung with holiday lights, and thought “that’s gonna chap her ass…”) so we are having a ‘Winter Celebration’ in lieu of a ‘Christmas’ or even ‘Holiday’ party this week. I wonder how she’d feel if she knew she had a pagan in the office. I want a Yule tree, and a Yule log, and lots of holly and ivy and mistletoe, and lots of wassailing…

I have to think Dickens would be none too pleased. We’ve learned nothing, we haven’t evolved one bit since his book was published in 1843. Cash (or credit) is still king. The rich get richer.

In the meantime, enjoy what I consider the definitive version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, “Scrooge” from 1951, starring Alastair Sim. Just wonderful. And whatever you’re celebrating, have a happy.

 

Wæs Hæl! (Be you healthy!)

Neil Gaiman on Reading

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

This is a snippet of a lecture Neil Gaiman gave to the Reading Agency in London, on Monday, October 14, about the importance of reading, libraries, and librarians. Read the rest here in The Guardian. It is a long-ish read, but worth it. Gaiman makes the case for reading, libraries, books and daydreaming better than anyone I’ve ever seen (or read). Pass it on.

Now if only people would put down their smart phones and tablets and turn off the tv long enough to read a book.

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Meditations on Ray Bradbury

Several weeks ago, I wrote this post about Ray Bradbury for his birthday. In celebration of the anniversary of his birth I treated myself to a stack of his books which I had not read before, chief among them being Something Wicked This Way Comes. I just finished it Saturday night (October 12). Something Wicked

This is an astounding book, the prose is poetry. If you haven’t read it, treat yourself. It’s creepy in the way horror stories should be creepy. The menace to the townsfolk is insidious, without resorting to the slasher/gore that’s so nauseatingly overdone these days. Mr. Dark, the Illustrated Man; Cooger, Mr. Electrico; the Dust Witch with her eyes sewn shut; The Skeleton; the Dwarf; all the freaks in the carnival are macabre and evil. Before people know what they’re doing, they’ve lost their souls to the carnival. One of my favorite lines in it is the last line of Chapter 37 (about halfway through):

Waiting, his flesh took paleness from his bones.

In my other post about Ray I described my dream of him  and how he was laughing and talking excitedly, seemingly full of joy. This is a key plot point in the book for the characters. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, so I won’t go into detail. Somehow it ties back to the dream of Ray and his mirth and joy as he talked to me. If only I could remember what he was saying. I suppose it doesn’t matter, though. The laughter is what’s important. Everything was ok, was all I can really remember, it’s all as it should be, there’s nothing to fear, be joyful. The dream was just a few days before his birthday, which I didn’t know at the time. I looked up his birthday after I had the dream, which was what inspired me to get this book and read it. Despite my professed atheist leanings, things like this happen from time to time, and make me pause and consider.

The thing that stopped me in my tracks, though, was in the ‘Afterword: Carnivals, Near and Far.” He talks about his experiences as a child with carnivals and merry-go-rounds, and the freaks he actually met. When he was twelve-years-old, he met a Mr. Electrico, but he was nothing like the terrifying villain of the book. In fact he seems to have been a dear old soul, and Ray calls him a ‘Christian mystic.’ He had a profound influence on young Ray. Here’s the part of his conversation with him that he recounted in the book:

Mr. Electrico introduced me to all the carnival freaks behind the scenes, including the Hippo Lady, the Human Skeleton, and the Illustrated Man. We sat on the bench and he listened to my grand ideas about my irresistible future.

When I had run out of gas, Mr. Electrico said, “We’ve met before.” “Oh, no, sir,” I said, “this is the first time I’ve ever talked to you.” “No, no,” he said, “you were my best friend at the Battle of the Ardennes Forest outside Paris in October 1918, were wounded, and died in my arms. And there you are with a new name, a new face, but the light coming from your eyes is the soul of my lost friend. Welcome back to the world.”

Why is this making my heart beat faster? Ray’s laughter in my dream, Charles Halloway’s epiphany in the book, the real Mr. Electrico and his reincarnated friend in the form of Ray Bradbury… It’s all looping together in my brain, the connections and intertwinings. I wonder if Mr. Electrico is back in another guise now, out there somewhere looking for his lost friend. I feel like I’m being led to something, being handed a message.  I hesitate to jump to conclusions, especially when it involves this much ‘woo,’ but I think the message is pretty clear. That said, I think I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

Are We Becoming Eloi?

tm_morlocksphinxThe Eloi were, of course, the child-like, cattle-like race of humans in H. G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.” They didn’t do anything except sit around in the sun, eat the food and wear the clothes provided to them by mysterious means without even wondering where they came from. They were used as food by the Morlocks, a debased, deformed branch of humanity who dwelled underground and still ran the machines.

Sometimes it amazes me the things ancient people figured out how to do.

Who figured out that putting the seeds in the ground would result in a plant later on?

Who thought up shoes?

Or how to make glass?

We have it so easy now. Most of the heavy lifting was done for us millennia ago. Sure, researchers are still finding cures for diseases, new medications, but who figured out way back when that willow bark tea was good for headaches, or that putting spiderwebs on a cut could stop bleeding? They didn’t have universities to study at and huge libraries or textbooks at their disposal to look these things up. We’re just building on what those nameless, faceless people of yesteryear were clever enough to discover on their own.

Take for instance these traditional Sami reindeer boots. Ok, by the time these were invented people had probably been wearing something on their feet for awhile. But as Thor points out:

Bellingskaller have soles with two leather pieces where the hairs are facing each other so that one does not slip so easily.

Brilliant. These days, we have heavy-duty winter boots with cleats in them for that purpose, or you can get the kind that attach over any shoes or boots, like tire chains for shoes.

Look at how much time we spend playing games. People devote hours of their daily lives to playing computer games, sports, or any of a thousand other things that have no purpose. Recreation. Leisure. Downtime. Vacation. We’ve evolved to be able to include these things in our lives since most of our basic needs – food, shelter, clothing – are taken care of (at least for most of us). Daily life is not a struggle to track herds of wild aurochs across the open plain to find food for the tribe.

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Don’t get me wrong, I like my comforts as much as anybody. I like being able to flip a switch and have the lights come on, or turn a dial to cook something. I’m no survivalist (most of whom really wouldn’t be able to survive long without a lot of the trappings of civilization like guns or forged steel blades, and I doubt most of them would be able to make their own clothes), but is there a tipping point where we will become so pampered that we will become the cattle? So dependent on some unseen source for food and clothing that we don’t even question it? Or have we already passed that point? I’d say here in America there are those for whom that’s true. While I realize there are other places in the world where basic survival is still the goal, our focus (at least here in the Western hemisphere) is on ‘enjoying life.’

So watch out you Eloi – the Morlocks are getting hungry.

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Happy Birthday, Ray Bradbury

Born this day in 1920, left us (probably for Mars) June 5, 2012.

Ray_Bradbury_(1975)_-cropped- Some of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen my tweet the other day about a lengthy dream I had in which I was talking with a young Ray. I can’t really recall what we discussed, mostly I just remember the feeling that we were great friends and thoroughly enjoying eachother’s company (ok, it was a dream, all right?). We talked and laughed, he was smiling the whole time. He seemed very excited and full of life. In the dream he was blond, I don’t know if he was in real life (his mother was Swedish so maybe).

I’d like to think it was a visit from him. If so, he was in great spirits (pun intended) and very happy where he was. Much joy. All I have to do is recall that dream and I can feel that happiness again.

So in honor of the big guy’s day, I bagged this lot at Powells on Sunday :::toots party horn::: I think “The Martian Chronicles” may have been the first science fiction novel I ever read. Of course I was nine at the time so I don’t really remember it that well (hence the new copy) but I do remember loving it anyway.

Bradbury books

Happy Birthday, Ray. Thanks for all the wonderful stories and the visit. Come back any time.

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Future Sci-Fi

More random bizarro thinking on my part.

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I suddenly started wondering what science fiction of the future will be. Today most science fiction is focused on colonizing other planets, alien encounters, high-tech taking over, dystopias, the fall of civilization, robots, AI, time travel, extending human life. Ok, that’s a whole lotta stuff.

In say, a thousand years, when we’ve conquered space and how to travel millions of light years, encountered alien races and survived the fall of civilization and rebuilt, AI will be pervasive, robots old-hat – what form will science fiction take? What will future sci-fi writers write? Presumably by then the question of “are we alone in the universe” will have been answered. Possibly not, but my gut says another thousand years will see things we haven’t even dreamed yet; finding extraterrestrials will be small potatoes.

There’s been some discussion lately that science fiction no longer deals with the ‘big questions’ of what-ifs, that it’s focused on the immediate future: There’s some truth to this. Most of the sf I see lately is riffing on some current political issue, detours in tech that derail us, terraforming planets.  These topics will seem like baby steps to future generations. :::just gave myself an idea…:::

Mars terraform

I wonder what the ‘big questions’ will be a millennium from now. Or am I being too optimistic? Will we still be consumed by the things that concern us today: overpopulation, diminishing resources, pollution, corruption, greed, religious wars, politics. Will we be Borg? Will cyborgs be passé by then? DING! (another idea) John Steinbeck was right:

Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.

I would imagine all these topics that we spend so much time writing and thinking about today will be as normal to future humans as telephones and electricity are to us. I’ve been spending a lot of time wondering what future science fiction will consist of, and I guess I’m no visionary because at the moment I have no idea what people will be wondering about in a thousand years. If you look back at what people were doing a thousand years ago in 1013… The Norman Invasion hadn’t even happened yet. Brian Boru had not yet fought the Battle of Clontarf (that would be the following year in 1014).  The Black Death, The Crusades, Copernicus, Columbus, Magellan, Galileo, Da Vinci, Gutenberg, the Protestant Reformation, Henry VIII, Mozart, Beethoven, the bicycle, the automobile, Kitty Hawk, Apollo 11… all that and so much more in just the last thousand year.  Imagine even the same rate of advancement  taking place over the next 1000 years. And at the rate technology increases and the fact that so much more is being done in general makes it almost scary to think where we’ll be in a thousand years. Or two thousand.

But wow, would I like to see it.

I’m Not One of You (I Hope)

Who are you people, and how did you get control of this planet?

I suppose I’m depressed.

If you suffer from it, you know that no amount of jokes or friendly ribbing is going to tease you out of it. Oh sure, you can put up the smile the way you put up Christmas lights – all the neighbors can see them even if they leave you cold – but lurking under that is that abiding sense of ennui. As I once heard, “Telling a depressed person to ‘cheer up’ is like telling a blind person to ‘look harder’.” If it was that easy, don’t you think we would have done it?

I’ve reached a point where I truly am beginning to feel like I must be a different species or from another planet. I just don’t get people. All the stuff you run around doing, driving all over the countryside to do this, that, or the other thing, cheering for sports teams, or taking a day cruise, going to movies, out to dinner. I just don’t get it. What’s the point? What does it do for you? How does it change your life? I don’t get the current obsession with BDSM but judging by the news and how many other people do, I really know I’m not one of you. To me it’s such a bizarre concept. But, this is what your lives revolve around, so be it. I don’t understand anything about you.

The tribal predisposition. You find the most trivial ways to separate into new tribes all the time. Hairstyles, clothing colors, personal conveyances, profession, beliefs in supernatural entities (or lack thereof), skin color, eye color, hair color. I’m so tired of trying to sort out who’s in which tribe. I was apparently dumped on this planet, alone. I have no tribe. And sports – Modern wargames where one tribe tries to kill the other tribe, and all the villagers turn out to watch the battles. Some of  the villagers get killed occasionally, but rarely do any of the warriors die. Peculiar way to fight battles.

And the way you love your guns and war… If you didn’t love them so much, they’d be gone. But people love war. They LOVE it. When 3D printers burst onto the scene just a few short months ago, what was the first thing someone made with one? A gun. That’s right. And they’re even easier to make now, completely plastic. Someone (or a lot of someones) find this important. I make jokes on Twitter about being a Viking and swinging my battleaxe, because, again like the Christmas lights, people find it amusing. And for the record, I don’t get Christmas lights either. So, favorite human pastimes include killing people, and cheering up the survivors with Christmas lights? You people are just weird.

The things people find important just baffle me. Like these big ugly houses they like to build

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What the hell were they thinking? Well, they were thinking of themselves. For more on big ugly houses, there’s a whole series of posts about Big Ugly Houses in and around Walnut Creek, CA, an area I know from having lived there for almost ten years. Look for the one the writer dubbed “Xanadu.” It will make you shudder. It looks like a fortress from an alien world. I just hope it’s not from whatever alien world I’m from, because WOW would that would be embarrassing.

Celebrity worship. Why? Why do you fall all over yourselves to place on pedestals people who do and say horrible things? Or just useless stuff? If you’re going to worship other humans, why not scientists, philosophers, educators, crisis aid workers? Allow me to suggest one that I find particularly noteworthy. I’m posting it nearly full-sized to make it easier for you to read, so you don’t have to keep clicking:

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A great man, a great thinker.

But, maybe I’m not entirely alone. I suspect the recent trend and popularity of dystopian, post-apocalyptic literature and movies are indicative of a general dissatisfaction with modern life. For me, it’s a possibility of a ‘reset’ button, to get away from the structure of society around banks and money, or power-mad egomaniacs with bombs, and maybe find a better way to organize society. I don’t know what that better way might be, as I am not the great thinker Dr. Sagan was, but with luck those who are might be able to lead us into a better future, one built on more compassionate foundations, and not about oppressing others to improve one’s own lot in life.

If you’re gonna dream, dream BIG, I always say. Back to writing.