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.

Ann C Crispin, Knight of the Writing Realm

ac-crispinWord sadly came today of the passing of author Ann C. Crispin, science fiction writer and defender of writers everywhere through her collaboration with her friend and fellow writer Victoria Strauss, via the Writer Beware blogs here  and here, and their website.  It was only two short days ago I learned of her battle with cancer. If you’re a writer, or have any aspirations of writing, the best thing you could do for yourself is acquaint yourself with their work. These two have brought to light so many shady publishers, agents, and writing scams, the value to the writing community is incalculable. In so doing, to no one’s surprise I’m sure, they riled the slimeballs who try to prey on the newest, most naive members of the writing community, going so far as to take the battles to court.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden this morning tweeted out an impassioned defense of their work as a tribute to Ms. Crispin, which I have transcribed here, with permission from him and Victoria:

Most reports I’ve seen about the death of Ann Crispin describe Writer Beware (which she co-founded) as a group formed to ‘protect writers’ or something along those lines. Writer Beware is actually more specific than that. It exists to expose the scams on the fringes of publishing. Dodgy pay-for-play self-publishing schemes. Phony agents who actually make their money by funneling authors to vanity presses. A lot of good writers have been swindled by operators like this, wasting not just money, but lifespan. Ann was, and Victoria Strauss is, a hero for taking on the task of keeping track of this sort of crap, and educating a generation of writers in how to spot it.

And a final note. Writer Beware’s enemies periodically accuse it of being opposed to self-publishing. This is BS. What WB is against is fraud.

I can’t even imagine what a debt I owe them. Rest in peace, dear lady.

I just thought you should all know.

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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The Casual Time Traveler

Time travel.

Who hasn’t thought about what they’d do if they had the chance to go back in time and change something? Maybe you’d find a way to prevent an evil dictator from being born (Hitler, Castro, Pol Pot), stop John Wilkes Booth from assassinating Lincoln, save the Romanovs from being murdered.

The problem is you could never understand the full implications of what such a move would be. How would it affect your own family if world events had worked out differently? Maybe your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t have married the man she did, if your would-be great-great-grandfather hadn’t died in a war.

Say that in going back in time and meddling with things, your beloved’s great-great-grandmother’s village was invaded by the armies of Arachnovakia, and your beloved somehow ends up being born to an Arachnovakian couple. Arachnovakia worships spiders, and you hate spiders. Rumor has it they were themselves descended from spiders. Word on the street is they have spiders nesting in their hair. Heck, their hair is made of spider webs. Maybe wheels are considered evil in Arachnovakia just to top it all off (’cause they roll over and crush spiders). Consequently this person never even learned to ride a bike. They don’t have cars or even horse drawn wagons in Arachnovakia. He or she would have had a vastly different experience growing up, and would not be the person you knew. (I really think I’m going to have to write more about Arachnovakia. Why do I keep hearing Groucho Marx in my head?)

It’s that mystical convergence of energy at the right time, the right place, with the right lighting, or topic of conversation. If it’s someone you’ve known for awhile, you may suddenly ‘see them in a new light.’ It also depends on the state of mind of the persons involved at the crucial moment. If your significant other had been blond, or a foot taller or shorter, how might that have affected your perception of him/her? Would you have even approached them for a date, much less married that person? Who we are is a delicate balance of our inner nature and the environment that produced us.

There was an episode of Voyager where an alien race was instantly forgotten after they left the presence of any other (they gave off some sort of pheromone or something that prevented the brains of other species from retaining the memory of them). Chakotay (Robert Beltran) had fallen in love with a woman (played by Virginia Madsen) from this race, but when she was forced to return to her planet he instantly forgot her. When they ‘met’ a second time  as she tried to get Voyager to take her with them,  the sparks didn’t fly for him. She was still in love with him, but that magical moment didn’t come again for Chakotay. Who we’re attracted to has a lot to do with our own mental state when we meet that person. Maybe she caught him on a bad day when he was missing his Maquis buddies. It’s possible that had she been allowed to stay on the ship Chakotay’s feelings towards her would have sparked again in time. This is why fix-ups and blind dates rarely succeed. You can’t engineer this many variables to coincide favorably for two parties at the same time. Either it will work or it won’t, and there really is no way to know.

So back to our time travel and unintended consequences. Your Arachnovakian sweetie is still a lovely person, except they’re also a different sex this time. Whichever gender you identify with and are attracted to, if your love was the wrong sex for you to be attracted to, it would not be the same. Most people are not bisexual. If you are, well, lucky you. This might not be a problem for you. But the essence of the person you love would have been irrevocably altered. And that could be a problem for anyone.

Anyway, the point I am trying very inarticulately to make is that human attraction is a mysterious, unpredictable phenomenon.

Best to stay home, and leave the time travel to the professionals.

faqtimetravel

Ok, maybe not those guys.

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.

Weekly Card – Eight of Engines

I recently got the Steampunk Tarot by John & Caitlin Matthews so naturally had to use it for this week’s card. If you’re not familiar with what steampunk is, in a nutshell it’s a subgenre of sci-fi/fantasy, typically set in the Victorian era, although not necessarily in England (Cherie M. Priest’s “Clockwork Century” series I believe are all set in the U.S., typically the West. I could be wrong, I haven’t read them). It’s essentially alternate history, where things are steam-powered, and clocks and gears are prominent accoutrements. Kyle-cassidy-steampunk

Think dirigible airships and aviator goggles. (photo at right courtesy of Wikipedia) It’s popular cosplay and there’s even an annual convention here in Portland, PDX GEAR Con, which was held this weekend, although I did not attend.  The whole thing has blossomed into a movement and style, much like the Goth aesthetic. The old joke is, “Steampunk is what happens when Goths discover brown.” No doubt the prevalence of brown owes it’s popularity to old photographs, which are famous for the sepia tone. People have decorated their houses in this style (which is not authentic to the era, but makes for some dramatic looks. Lots of brass). It also owes a huge debt to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells who essentially invented it, even if it wasn’t called that back then.

So I pulled a card, then decided I wanted a more dramatic one to showcase the deck a little better. I shuffled, cut to the left 3 times again. :::insert frown::: The first card I pulled was the Nine of Engines (Wands). The second card I pulled was the Eight of Engines. I should mention that the cards were in no discernible order when they arrived in the box, most mixed up deck I’ve seen on receipt. I really should quit fighting it when the deck wants to tell me something, don’t you think?

Eight of EnginesThe Eight of Engines shows a plane being hastily loaded with supplies. The situation has developed into something that’s happening very quickly, almost more quickly than you can keep up with. If an opportunity shows up, move on it. You may not have time to spend days pondering your next move.

The Nine of Engines I’m putting up as well, since it came up first. Nine of EnginesEngines are Wands, and as I’ve probably mentioned Wands are associated with Fire. Lots of creative energy this week. The Nine has us in a somewhat tenuous situation, things are uncertain, and we need to call on all our strength and resources to get through. Like the troops landing in the card, it’s hard to say what’s going to happen so be prepared.

I’d say get plenty of rest tonight because it looks like this week could be a butt-kicker.

If you’d like to see my review of the deck, it’s over on my other blog, Dangling Pentacles Tarot. Click here.

Have a good week, and eat your Wheaties!

Good Saturday

I probably should have been more “responsible” but I needed some downtime so I went out for another bike ride. Did a little better this week than last week, much better than I expected for not having been on the bike in probably 9 months.

Also have several writing projects going, which is interesting to flip back and forth between them all as I go. I decided to see if I could find a photo representation of a story that started out, as usual, with a scene appearing in my head. Then I got a bunch of it last night just before drifting off to sleep and FOR ONCE I WROTE IT ALL DOWN. Massive accomplishment for me.

I hesitate to share the photo, I don’t want to give away too much or have this be considered the definitive photo of the two MCs, but it really doesn’t say much about the story itself so why not. And no, it’s not steampunk.

Elliott and KateNo idea who these people were, I found the photo here. There were no names on it, so there’s no way to know now who this couple was. I’m sorry for their families (if they have any living descendants, who knows?) that this wonderful photo is lost to them. They may not be the ultimate representation of the characters in the story, but for now they are inspiring me. I’ve kind of been on a Civil War kick lately (actually I think it sort of started around Lincoln’s birthday in February) and you guys know how I get when I latch onto something. I can obsess like nobody’s business.

I don’t want to go into space

It has recently come to my attention that I’m not ready to go into space.

Not that there’s even a remote possibility.  But you know how every time there’s news from the space program, like talk starts up about colonizing Mars or someone doing a freefall jump from 24 miles up, and inevitably people pose the question, “Would you go?” Up until now, my response was always an immediate “Hell yeah!” So why the change of heart, you ask?

This is why:

I’m all but hyperventilating just looking at the thing.

I guess I never thought about it before. I don’t know when this started or what the catalyst was, but I am now claustrophobic, to a degree at least. I don’t even like the quarter-zip anorak style shirts/fleece thingies that you have to pull over your head to get in and out of. If it takes me more than a nano-second to get it off I start breaking out in a sweat. They feel like a strait-jacket. Actually any sort of top that makes me struggle at all to take off is on that list.

The thought of being stuck inside a space suit for days, weeks, months on end is nearly making me break out in hives. I think I could stand the suit, but it’s the HELMET that would make me claw holes in my throat.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. How am I going to ride motorcycles with a helmet on then? Interesting question. And yes, they do make me a little panicky. The style known as the 3/4 helmet is what I wore for the class. They look like so:

Your face is free, nothing to block the air. Honestly I barely noticed the thing while I had it on. And you can hear just fine with one on. When I went shopping for a helmet, they immediately steered me (as a brand new rider) to the full-head helmets, these babies:

Can you IMAGINE the sheer terror of having one of these tight-fitting headclamps on a claustrophobic? Because they are SNUG. You don’t want wiggle-room or it would defeat the purpose. When I tried them on in the store I lasted about three seconds before I was begging the salesman to just GET IT OFF ME. My heart is racing even now thinking about it. The reason I went with the one pictured above is because the lower piece that covers the jaw releases and lifts up, thereby easing my freakout a bit. Also, and this is the best part, the jaw piece comes completely off, converting it to a 3/4 helmet. In it’s place you add a small sun visor which covers the exposed innards on the sides where the lower part attaches. The face shield remains, and the sun shield, which are both built into the top part. So lots of options.

 

At least I’m not alone in this fear. I saw this article today on Felix Baumgartner, the man who literally fell to earth from a space capsule from 24 miles up a couple of weeks ago. He had the same fear about the suit and the helmet, and he fought that fear. (and if you were somehow not among the 8 million who watched his jump live on YouTube, you can view it here.) He talks about how he sought out psychiatric help to get past the horror of being in the suit for five hours. I don’t think I need to go that route with the helmet quite yet. One thing the guys at the motorcycle shop suggested was sitting around the house, watching television with it on to get used to it. So I did that, and I found that when I focused on the tv, I forgot about the helmet. This leads me to believe when I’m out there riding and focusing on traffic and watching for hazards I’ll also not be so hyper-aware of the helmet.

But yeah, until spaceships are like the Enterprise, with artificial gravity and no suits required, I don’t think I want to go up. I need to get past my horror of the helmet first. Baby steps. But it’s nice to know I’m not the only one.

A Dismal Night

So I’m too cheesed off about the tree incident to concentrate on writing tonight, even on my post-apocalyptic tale, so I thought we could discuss PA and dystopian tales, and why we like them so much. This was inspired earlier today by a HuffPo article on the same topic (not tree trimming gone wrong – why we love dystopian stories).

The article talks about how dystopian stories are more honest, giving us raw, unvarnished truths about how ruthless we can be, and how damaging these horrific events can be to the people who have to suffer them.

Yes, there is all that. It’s good to see man’s inhumanity to man portrayed in an honest way, and instead of glorifying war. Better to show these atrocities in the way that people truly experience them, instead of making it seem like something desirable.

But for me, I think the biggest draw for dystopian/post-apocalyptic stories is the idea that at some point we’ll get a ‘reset’ button, that we’ll have a ‘do-over’ on the world. ‘Cause frankly, it’s a mess, and short of civilization crashing and having to rebuild from the ground up, nothing is going to change. Now, I have to add that were that situation to occur, I can more readily believe a scenario like David Brin wrote in “The Postman”,
or any of the “Mad Max” movies, “The Book of Eli”, “Waterworld” or something like the new show, “Revolution”

will arise to take our current society’s place. We are a vicious, predator species, and a couple more set-backs isn’t going to change that.

 

Sure, I think some people are kinder than others and anyone with any real smarts will see the value of cooperating with others, banding together to survive. But just as looting becomes the order of the day in any city during a blackout, there will always be those who exist only for themselves and will do anything to anyone to advance themselves, not unlike most politicians.

Even still, part of me would like the chance to reroute humanity’s path, and hope the next time around we’ll get it right. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll make a few better choices.