Monorails to Atomland

Now and again I do still grumble about the future not being what it used to be–about reality not delivering the Pan Am spaceliners, undersea cities, and Repelatron Skyway which I was promised. About looking out the window and not seeing a single personal jetcopter in a driveway anywhere in my neighborhood. I’m not talking your sci-fi fantasies. I’m talking about prognosticators with impeccable credentials, like Boy’s Life (Isaac Bloody Asimov!), the 1964 New York World’s Fair (GM Futurama!), and Popular Mechanics (supersonic trains!). They all let me down.

There is no bleeping spoon, after all.

But–I have managed to live long enough to see every major planetary body in our solar system transformed from fuzzy dots in the night sky into unique, fully realized worlds. From Mercury to Pluto, from the Galilean moons of Jupiter to Charon, from asteroids to comets, in ever-sharpening focus and clarity.

And that ain’t nothin’.

Pluto in false color

Bring It Back

For 47 years, I’ve been unable to hear Johann Strauss’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” without my mind’s eye conjuring up stars, planets, and.a double Catherine wheel gleaming in the unfiltered sunlight of space.

I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey on my birthday in 1968. My family took me to the Cinerama theater in Philadelphia–the only time I can remember going into Philly with them for a movie. (I did see a few other movies across the river with friends: The Godfather, And Now For Something Completely Different, A New Leaf are three that come to mind.)

It was an afternoon showing, and when it ended we stood outside on the sidewalk blinking in the sun for a good twenty minutes while one very excited 14-year-old boy attempted to explain the film to his four very confused family members.

When we got home, I immediately started reading the 2001: A Clarke Novel paperback (with color insert) which my older sister had given me as her present. Later that day, I found myself trying to corner various family members to re-explain the film to them. Since this brought my expertise into question, I went back to see it a couple of weeks later. And then again, flatscreen, on the Jersey side not long after that. (The Cinerama theater, the last in the area, closed that fall.)

All told, I think I saw 2001 projected seven or eight times, on increasingly smaller screens–the last was in a lecture hall at MSU, part of the RHA film series (students $1). I’ve seen it at least that many times since, on increasingly large televisions. But every viewing since the first two — in glorious three camera, 146° ultra-wide screen splendor — has relied on the memory and wonder of those initial experiences for a large measure of the pleasure. It’s not nearly the same film seen any other way.

Don’t you think it’s past time for a restoration and theatrical re-release? I’d stand in line for that.

The Prophecies of Floyd

And these, my children, were the last days of Atomland, though we knew it not. The oracles foresaw many wonders, as though the prophecies of Tom Swift the Younger would be fulfilled within the lifetime of the living. But verily, I tell you, no oracle–not the Popular Mechanics, neither the Life of Boys, nor even the great Britannica Yearbook of Science and the Future–did foresee the Turning Away. Only the heretic Floyd wrote of these portents, of light changing to shadow, of the hearts of stone and the coldness inside. The air is still, and the darkness has been long. Still we wait, for sunrise, and its freshening breeze.

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Here a PC, There a PC

I’m not sure how Lisa and Macintosh brochures survived so long in my office, especially since I never owned an Apple computer–or even seriously considered buying one. But I thought these panels might have sentimental value for those of you who did go down that road, so I scanned them before committing them to the recycling bin.

The first personal/desktop computer I ever laid hands on was the mighty Commodore CBM 8032, with 32K of RAM and the PET line’s first 80-column display. Northridge High School, across the parking lot from the middle school where I taught science, acquired a half-dozen or so of them for the 1980-81 school year. They were installed in a bare, windowless room which had something less than the interior volume of a school bus, and at first no one much knew what to do with them. I went over there after hours and laboriously copied programs in BASIC out of the back of computer magazines–that being the state of the art for freeware distribution at the time.

By then Indiana University at South Bend, where I was working on my master’s degree, had a small lab equipped with Apple ][e computers used in an undergraduate programming course. There were no graduate-level courses in desktop computing–I had to get special permission to take the undergrad class and have it count toward the requirements for my degree.

Those experiences gave me some basis on which to go shopping for my own computer the next year. (First two crossed off the list of candidates: the Apple ][e and the Commodore CBM.) Since this was a purchase which would require a bank loan for a sum greater than the cost of my first two autos, I went everywhere to look at everything available in a rapidly changing marketplace.

I considered an Osborne 1, a Franklin Ace 1000, the TRS-80 (after all, Asimov endorsed it), and various CP/M 86 machines with brand names more familiar from cameras and stereo gear. In December 1982, I pulled the trigger on an IBM PC 5150 with a 64K expansion board, Amdek 300G monitor, and IDS Microprism 480 dot-matrix printer from General Micro for the low, low price of $3626.23.

The IBM’s big selling point: the keyboard, which despite a couple of quirks in the layout put everyone else’s keyboards to shame. That was a keyboard someone could write a million words on, and I almost did – EMPRISE, ENIGMA, EMPERY, THIEVES OF LIGHT, ROBOT CITY, ALTERNITIES, and THE QUIET POOLS. The first two were written with EasyWriter II, the rest with XyWrite III+.

I’ve purchased or built 51 other computers since that IBM PC (many for other family members), and I am obliged to note that the more capable my computers became the less productive I became. A color monitor, speakers, a CompuServe subscription, a GEnie account, an Internet connection, a personal Web page, Facebook, –the mission creep has been unrelenting. You could make a case that every one of those was a bad decision with an opportunity cost in unwritten novels. The ‘smart typewriter’ in the home office turned into the multimedia communications device that’s everywhere and everywhen.

But there’s no going back, is there. Not to a big box on a desk in a special room you visit to “work,” with three programs (spreadsheet, word processor, flatfile database) to choose from and no distractions. So I’ll have to figure out a different way to find the kind of quiet place in which I do my best writing. Because damn it all, I am not finished yet.

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Doctor, Doctor, Give Me the News

I understand that there was a low-bandwidth rumor about me being hospitalized recently. The rumor is true, but I’m home now and feeling much better (albeit not yet well). I was admitted May 12 in order that I could receive treatment for an infection in my left lower jaw which had me looking like a chipmunk with a cheek full of next February’s breakfast. At the worst point, I could only open my mouth about a half-inch, and the inflammation was threatening to cross over to the right. There were Concerns.

My hosts at Sparrow pumped me full of IV antibiotics for three days, then sent me home with two weeks of pills to continue the campaign. The invaders were pushed back but have stubbornly resisted total extermination–the culprit appears to be a molar with a long vertical crack through it, which an oral surgeon will assault tomorrow morning. With luck, by this time next week All Will Be Well Again, My Friends.

Frame of Reference

I continue to hold that nearly all human beings are rational actors within their own frames of reference, and that to understand why we do what we do, want what we want, and believe what we believe requires that we be willing to look at how someone’s frame of reference differs from our own.

I continue to be increasingly vexed by the sheer number of humans whose frame of reference is objectively defective, and who seem to lack the analytical tools needed to recognize the defects.

Yes, I understand that that’s going to sound presumptuous and arrogant to some. Who do I think I am, claiming that my frame of reference is superior to Mike Huckabee’s, or Ken Ham’s, or Jack Woolfson’s, or Roy Moore’s, or Darryl Issa’s, or the next eleven people to post to Facebook outraged over something that isn’t true or couldn’t happen?

Well, who do I have to be?

Someone who believes that there is one objective, knowable reality.

Someone who sees science as a powerful tool for getting closer to the truth of that objective, knowable reality. Yes, it’s messy and often there’s a lot of ‘wasted’ motion, but over time error gets squeezed out.

Someone who understands that at times error needs to be squeezed out of me.

Someone who can accept “We don’t know yet” as a valid answer but not a stopping point.

Someone convinced that the more we know, the better choices we can make, and the more likely we are to succeed in our endeavors.

Someone who’s glad that his children were born into a time and a place where killers such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera, scarlet fever, and smallpox are all but banished as threats–when instead of being fatally ambushed by a blizzard we get to complain afterward that it was ‘disappointing’–when there is (in principle) light and heat and food enough for all–when we can communicate with a friend across the globe or a spacecraft across the Solar System–when we can walk around with 10,000 books in our pocket…I could go on but shouldn’t need to. When technology works, it’s because science got it right.

It’s not a perfect or a perfectable world. This isn’t the STAR TREK future, where all human want and care have been erased by good intentions and limitless energy. But I truly wonder how many antivaxxers, and creationists, and climate deniers would rather be living in 1815, or 1315, or 1015 instead of the 2015 which the pursuit of a materialist reality through science has made possible.

Opinion is not expertise.

Ask the next question.

https://www.minnpost.com/second-opinion/2015/01/survey-reveals-large-gaps-between-scientists-and-general-public-climate-chang

The Heyday of GEnie’s SFRT

I was cleaning out some old paperwork this evening and happened on my original GE Information Services account registration from May, 1989. That is to say, a letter from GE with my temporary password, in a vintage dot-matrix font, and my canary-yellow NCR copy of the signed Access Agreement. That’s right, signing up for an online service required streetmail and carbonless multipart forms. Those were the days–

I was lured to GEnie by a special flat-rate offer for members of SFWA, and as the SF community there grew it gradually supplanted CompuServe’s SF&F Forum as my primary online hangout. I wasn’t the only one, either–for several years GEnie was the gravitational center of fandom online. It also helped breathe life into SFWA, with over a quarter of the membership present and able to interact as they never had before.

GEnie had an interface that was strictly text, with no provision whatsoever for graphics. But it had mail, private messaging, a bulletin board (where most of the activity was found), and multi-user chat rooms. The written word reigned supreme. And while the SFRT was by no means immune to flamewars, the level of conversation was more like an online sercon than an online Comicon.

Eventually Jeffrey Dwight (sff.net) wrote a much slicker user-end interface called Aladdin for GEnie, but the days of the text-only dialup were numbered. Between GEnie’s various Customer Prevention Plans, a couple of changes of ownership and business model, and the attraction of shiny baubles like AOL and the Web, the SFRT died a death of a thousand cuts, the worst of which being the 1996 pricing change.

I wandered away, too, but came back for the wakes held in the chat rooms in the Last Days. The lights went out for good on December 30, 1999. Mind you, Genie continued to bill me (and everyone else still on the books) for four more months–that was what it had become.

But I made many friends there, some professional, some personal, and not a few still enduring. I sharpened my rhetoric in grand debates about Big Ideas, was treated to a surprise RTC birthday party, flirted shamelessly with the Ladies of the SFRT, mourned the deaths of people I had only known in phosphor, witnessed the rise of empires and the fall of villains.

Good times.

I wrote THE QUIET POOLS, EXILE, my STAR WARS trilogy, and part of THE TRIGGER with Sir Arthur during the GEnie years. I probably lost a novel, perhaps two, to late nights pounding the keys online. But writing is a fundamentally solitary (if not lonely) undertaking, and those were years when my only office was in the basement and most of my face-time friends were confolk I only saw when visiting fandom’s Flying Islands. Who’s to say that the SFRT community didn’t help keep me sane and in the game?

That’s how I choose to remember it, anyway.

Narrowing the Field

The shortlists for the Writers Guild of America’s Screenplay Awards were released earlier today. Several that I voted for made it. There are four nominees I still need to see. Time for a movie marathon evening. ☺ (I have screeners for all but GUARDIANS, which I saw in the theater.) Here are the lists:

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Boyhood, Written by Richard Linklater; IFC Films

Foxcatcher, Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman; Sony Pictures Classics

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness; Fox Searchlight

Nightcrawler, Written by Dan Gilroy; Open Road Films

Whiplash, Written by Damien Chazelle; Sony Pictures Classics

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

American Sniper, Written by Jason Hall; Based on the book by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice; Warner Bros.

Gone Girl, Screenplay by Gillian Flynn; Based on her novel; 20th Century Fox

Guardians of the Galaxy, Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman; Based on the Marvel comic by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning; Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The Imitation Game, Written by Graham Moore; Based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges; The Weinstein Company

Wild, Screenplay by Nick Hornby; Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed; Fox Searchlight

Un-Eve-n

Let’s not sugar-coat it: this has been a dismal year in my corner of the cosmos.

It’s seemed as though every day or two Facebook has delivered news of death, disease, distress and despair in the lives of my friends and acquaintances in and out of the industry.

My emotional seismometer has recorded tremors of all flavors and sizes, punctuated by the 8.0 event of my own mother’s death October 1–the aftershocks of which continue to rumble through the landscape here. Just this week, I discovered a new ICD code and a new word: dysthymia.

But I don’t want to end the year on that note. So let me close the book on 2014 by sharing what I’m going to focus on for 2015. This comes from a new bio I wrote for ChamBanaCon earlier this month:

‘K-Mac has resumed work on FRAGMENTS, which will complete the story begun in VECTORS, and on two new projects:  a space-war thriller tentatively titled SLIPDRIVER, and an untitled magical realism time-travel novel. He is also assembling a collection of his best short works for e-publication. Donations of Pepsi Max, thin-sliced white American deli cheese, and beer nuts in support of these endeavors are welcome, as are random hugs and words of encouragement.’

I don’t have a publisher yet for any of those projects, but this is an era rich with possibilities. I can’t tell yet which of them will catch fire and shift from creeping in low gear to speeding in high, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

May each of you find comfort for your travails, company for your travels, and your own reasons to look forward to 2015.

Ad astra!

On the Road Again

I’m delighted to announce the official end of my extended gafiation. Gafiate. Gaffing. Whatever the noun is. Starting again–

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve accepted an invitation to be Guest of Honor at ChamBanaCon 45 next November. Thank you, Brenda Sinclair Sutton & Co., for venturing into the woods to find me.

I’ll post a link here to all the details once they’re online.

This will be my first con appearance of any sort since the Black Book Band played at Duckon in 2005, and my first GOH badge since Conclave in 2003. So be gentle. I hope to see some old friends there, and to meet some new ones