Brian Aldiss, Author & Gentleman

A few words about Brian Aldiss, who passed away today at the age of 92.

In May, 1982 I attended my first science fiction event of any sort–the Third Conference on the Fantastic, in Boca Raton, Florida. I had to take a couple of days’ unpaid leave from my teaching job in Middlebury, Indiana to do it. I couldn’t quite persuade the superintendent that it should count as a professional conference (I was, after all, teaching science, not science fiction).

But COTF really was more of an academic conference than a con (it was co-located with a little fan event that I think was called Tropicon, but I don’t remember much crossover or seeing many fans). There was a further division within COTF itself, as the academics seemed mostly interested in dead authors, leaving the live authors to our own devices. We went to each others’ readings, and hung out together by the pool.

That’s where I met for the first time (among others) Harlan Ellison, Fred Pohl, Ellen Datlow, Robert Sheckley, Jay Rothbell, David Lunde, Marilyn Masiker, Charles Platt, Tim Sullivan, Terence Green, David Kyle…and Brian Aldiss.

Brian’s reading was one of several that I attended. I don’t remember exactly how it came to pass, but he invited me to have lunch with him. We walked across the parking lot to a deli in an adjacent strip mall, just the two of us–one legend in the field and one nobody (I had only had a handful of short stories published by then). Over sandwiches, we talked a lot about the business, a little about the art and craft. I remember distinctly how gentlemanly he was, how he treated me as though I was an equal. And he insisted on paying for the meal, too. I felt–well, befriended.

That weekend was the only time I ever saw Brian Aldiss. Through 86 cons across 33 years, our paths never crossed again (I never made it back to another COTF, alas). But when my first novel EMPRISE was being readied for publication in 1985, Brian remembered me from that weekend and that lunch and very graciously provided a cover quote.

I read many more of Brian’s works after COTF3 than I had prior to it. My favorites remain the HELLICONIA trilogy, though there’re certainly many others worth any SF fan’s attention. He also made an important contribution to documenting the history of the field, with THE BILLION-YEAR SPREE and its update THE TRILLION-YEAR SPREE.

If you haven’t discovered his work, it isn’t too late.

And, though it is too late, I want to thank him again for his kindness.

Ad astra, Brian. We will remember.

Farewell, George Romero

Filmmaker George Romero died on Sunday at age 77. I never met Mr. Romero, but I did do some work for him in the 1980s–specifically, for his television series Tales From the Darkside.

It happened this way: During its first season, the show bought the rights to my story “Slippage,” which had appeared in Twilight Zone Magazine. (The version which appeared in TZM had a large and confusing paste-up error, which I didn’t catch until after the story was reprinted in Karl Edward Wagner’s The Year’s Best Horror anthology. It’s a miracle that the story got the attention it did.)

When the episode aired, I was at once thrilled and disappointed. Thrilled to see my name on the screen, thrilled to think “Hey–I wrote a TV show!”–and terribly disappointed with the end result.

I knew almost nothing about the business side of television, mind you, and I was too much of a naif to understand the constraints within which the show was created. Darkside was a low-budget production which was sold straight to the syndication market–it had no network home, no regular time slot.

Nevertheless, I had my gripes. And when an opportunity came along for me to share them with the showrunners–I did. In detail. On paper.

The opportunity came when in the form of a call from the story editor, who was then putting together the second season. He was calling to ask, “Are there any more at home like ‘Slippage’?” The thing is, there weren’t. “Slippage” was the only horror story I’d written (and, arguably, still is).

But I had nothing to lose, so I sent him “Lifebomb,” which had just appeared in Analog. It only required a small cast and simple sets, and had a “be careful what you wish for” kind of twist at the end.

And as an oh-by-the-way, I naively appended to my cover letter my multi-paragraph critique of “Slippage.”

It must have read to them as though I was putting them on notice that if they bought “Lifebomb,” they should be more careful with it. By all rights, that ought to have abruptly ended my association with Tales From the Darkside.

But, somehow, it didn’t. They bought “Lifebomb,” and then–to my enduring surprise–they hired me to write the teleplay. Later, I pitched them an original teleplay, “Effect and Cause,” and they bought that, too. Finally, they hired me to adapt a Fred Pohl story into the episode “The Bitterest Pill.” (An impending Writers Guild strike may have played a role in some of that.)

So I ended up with all four possible kinds of screen credits on Darkside: story, story+teleplay, original teleplay, and adapted teleplay.

Some people (among them my mother) thought I did a lot more than that for Darkside–the reason being that horror writer Michael M. McDowell was also working for the show. (In fact, I was told that the producers found him when they were looking for the author of “Slippage”–and he made the most of it, writing many episodes and a third of the Darkside movie.) A lot of confusion ensued. At a Windycon, a fan asked me to autograph a copy of one of MMM’s Blackwater novels. Even the Writers Guild residuals department got us mixed up a couple of times.

If the screen credit just says McDOWELL, it’s him–if it says KUBE-McDOWELL, it’s me.

I extend my condolences to those knew George, especially other Darkside alumni. And I thank George for the opportunity he created for me, however unknowingly. I hope he had a soft landing, with no twist ending.

Happy Anniversary, Harry

I wonder if I’ll ever read the entire Harry Potter series. We didn’t start buying them until 2000 or so. I read the first book and about half of the second, just to keep up, when Gwen was reading them aloud to our children Raven and Gavin. I don’t clearly remember why I stopped.

It’s true enough that I’ve never been a big reader of fantasy, particularly in series. But it’s also true that I’m reaching back for a memory from the period immediately after my father’s death, when depression was starting to settle heavily on me. I expect it was getting harder to find joy in a lot of things.

I seem to remember having issues with the writing on a sentences-and-paragraphs level. As a person with some fondness for various kinds of sportsball, I hatedhatedhated the game design of Quidditch. And I think I have to confess to some petty pangs of professional envy, tied to the beginning of hard times in my own career (a cancelled contract, an editor/publisher ally passing away).

But those are trivial things, especially from this distance. The power of Harry’s story, and the magnitude of J.K. Rowling’s accomplishment, stand undisputed. So as the final reel of DEATHLY HALLOWS rolls on Freeform’s weekend marathon, I raise a cup in salute to her, and in observance of this anniversary with Harry’s countless fans.

Movie Night at Alternity House

Without any prior awareness that today is the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Raven and Gwen and I watched several of the extended cuts of the HP films together through the course of the weekend. It must have been something in the air (or on the Freeform program schedule). We have only 7(b) left to go.

We also watched Singin’ in the Rain on Sunday evening, Dad’s choice for a delayed Father’s Day. It was new to Raven, and it had been a number of years for me and for Gwen. I was delighted to watch Raven enjoying it more than I think she expected to. The “Beautiful Girl” number is pretty cringy when viewed from 2017 (and, really, it’s completely superfluous), but “Make ‘Em Laugh,” “Good Morning,” and “Singing in the Rain” are still timeless.

The Family Plan

The people I’ve felt closest to in my life include both natural and found family. Many (though not all) of them are on Facebook, where they might see these words. But only a rare few live close enough to drop in on for an evening. My heart family is scattered like a handful of diamonds cast across a wall-sized National Geographic map. This state of affairs began with high school graduation, accelerated after college, and became more pronounced as the years rolled on.

A long time ago I used to fantasize that if I were only rich enough, I could somehow draw all of my friends together in a kind of co-housing Shangri-La. But I was never in any danger of being that kind of rich–and, besides, by now my friends’ lives are firmly anchored in at least a score of different cities, most of which are in other states, a few even in other countries.

This was less obviously a problem when I was in my 30s and early 40s. Gwen and I often went out of town to spend a weekend with friends, and almost as often hosted visitors. We made regular pilgrimages to the Flying Island of Fandom, attending as many as ten cons a year. We took longer trips to see family and explore little pieces of the country. And something called a modem appeared on the scene, changing the nature of long-distance relationships and creating the possibility of dear-friends-I’ve-never-met.

Then, unexpectedly, it all got much harder. An hour’s drive was a hurdle, not a trifle. A weekend away became vastly more complicated, especially if it was for a con. Depression hit. Chronic illnesses sapped energy. Parenting had first claim on all resources–emotional, financial, physical, temporal.

I’m waking up to the fact that we’ve allowed time, distance, health, and/or money to separate us from far too many friends for far too long. Maybe we could begin to do something about changing that–preferably before we start to find that it takes someone’s illness or wake to bring us back together.

Taking Stock

Digging into the archives of my office has stirred up more than dust…

If there are any fellow scribes reading this: Do you (by design or inertia) have boxes of copies of your own out-of print works piled in a corner? If you do, do you offer them for sale in any organized way? If so, what venues have been most successful for you?

Looking over the back third of my walk-in office closet, I feel as though I’ve ended up with too much ‘inventory.’ The question is what’s to be done about it at this point.

At various times I’ve been a bookseller on Amazon Marketplace, eBay, and, but never primarily to sell my own books–and all those venues have become tougher for small sellers since then.

Hand-selling? Up until the mid-90s, I was attending 6 to 8 cons a year and giving the occasional school or library presentation, which offered some organic opportunities to sell books. But as my focus changed to raising my two younger children, I cut way back events of that kind. Health issues in the family cemented the change.

Of course, as I detailed here last year, depression triggered by my father’s death has intervened to choke off the creation of new material. That alone has, over time, moved me firmly into the Who? Zone, if not I-Thought-‘e-Was-Dead Territory. I’m out of touch with most of the readership I used to have, and I frankly have no clue how to connect with any prospective new readers in this instant-access ebook/social media era.

So, who knows, maybe the best destiny of most of that inventory is to be doled out in increments to Friends of the Library sales. Maybe their fate is to be unsentimentally recycled by my heirs. Maybe any effort I might put into finding homes for these paper copies would be better spent getting my remaining titles available digitally.

But I’m still curious about what other writers are doing with their own surplus Dead Tree Editions.

Office Cleaning

The township recycling event two Saturdays from now is accepting both electronics and software, so this seems like a good time to ruthlessly scan my office (and office closet) for Things I’ll Never Use Again.

First under the microscope was a box of software originally released on floppy disks–the likes of Civilization II, SimEarth, F-117 Stealth Fighter, Harpoon, M1-A1 Abrams, and the Colorado Backup program that came with my first QIC-80 tape drive. They want MS-DOS, Windows 3.1, or Windows 95, and that’s just not going to happen here.

Of course, those were the days software came in a two-pound box the size of a large hardcover book–slipcover, dividers, installation discs in multiple formats, manuals, registration cards, keyboard templates, maps. So I had to break each one down into components to meet the recycling requirements. Cardboard, Boxboard, Plastic, Misc Paper, Books, Magnetic Media. Chaos precedes order.

I held back MYST and RIVEN, for now.

Coming up next, the fliptop boxes of 5.25″ floppies, the drawers of 3.5″ floppies and QIC-80 drives, the shoeboxes full of data CDs and DVDs, the media rack full of program CDs, the clothes basket full of computer speakers, the fan-fold, pin-feed paper box full of power cords, the plastic totes full of every kind of cable used in PCs over the last 35 years, the box of old phones, the crate of wall-warts and laptop power supplies belonging to devices long gone, the stacks of assorted drives removed from some of my 50+ dead or retired computers, the three dead computers tucked away under the library table…

It’s going to be a busy two weeks, with a lot of trips up and down the basement stairs.

Checking In

March and April were lost time for me. They were dominated by my adventures with kidney stones–5mm, 8mm, and 9mm, all on the left side. It took three outpatient procedures (with full anesthesia, my first since 2nd grade) to resolve them. I only had one truly terrible day of unrelenting brain-melting pain, but there were far too many weeks when I couldn’t risk as much as a walk around the block.

With my activity that sharply curbed, I gained weight, fell behind on basic household maintenance, and completely lost momentum on the Second Layer Problem (discussed here previously). I’m working on getting back on task now, but my energy level is still sub-par.

Act As If

Something extraordinary happened after my GOH speech at ChamBanaCon last Thanksgiving weekend: a standing ovation. And for the rest of the evening, the rest of the con, people kept stopping me to thank me for what I said, and to limn the outlines of their own stories.

I lost count of the people who urged me to consider putting the speech online. Someone used the word “brave,” which threw me–I hadn’t planned on being brave. I had finished writing the speech just an hour or so before the banquet, and I hadn’t even had a chance to time it, let alone think about the consequences.

Once I got home, though, there was plenty of time, and that word “brave” stopped me from posting the speech right away. It’s one thing for someone with an anxiety disorder to take a risk in front of a friendly crowd of 100 or so–it’s another thing altogether to do it in front of the Net.

But in the end, the “thank yous” won out–so here is the speech, complete with the jokes that worked and the ones that didn’t. The serious stuff starts about halfway through. If you know anyone who might get something from hearing me, please do bring them in–we’ll find a seat for them in this friendly room, and we’ll ignore whatever goes on outside the door.


My name is Rip van Michael, and I’ve been away for a long time. A long time.

I stumbled, and fell into a time machine. Not a cool one like Dustin Hoffman’s farm punk STAR WAGON. Not like the Otis elevator in Asimov’s THE END OF ETERNITY. It did have a seat, like George Pal’s Technicolor Everglades boat. But my time machine more closely resembled a steel blue Laz-E-Boy recliner at the bottom of a mind shaft.

Worst design EVER for a time machine. For one thing, it turns out I continued to age at a normal rate—maybe even a bit faster. For another, the chair somehow continued to supply me with the caloric budget of an active human being. And after a few years my flip phone battery died. So I emerged into this time older and wider, but none the wiser.

I was so out of time that I had to hire a lifestyle consultant. Apparently I no longer need an alarm clock, a pocket calculator, a VCR, a CRT, a Walkman, a cassette player, an unabridged dictionary, a radar detector, D batteries, my National Geographic map collection, my Polaroid Spectra, the Britannica, my .6 megapixel Kodak camera, the QIC-80 tape drive, printer ribbons, an answering machine, a faxmodem, that 500 megabyte Creative Zen, a boom box, or the 23-year run of PC Magazine.

And now Montag tells me I need to get rid of my CDs, the metal is needed for the war effort. He says if I want to listen to music I have to either upload everything to a cloud or apply for a hipster exemption that will allow me to possess a record library. I’m suspicious. It sounds like some kind of scam to make me buy ABBEY ROAD and TOMMY again.

I would have held a yard sale, but Montag told me not to bother, there wasn’t any market. But everything still works, I said. Doesn’t matter, he said. Throw it away. Oh well–At least when I’m done purging the 20th Century from my life I might be able to get a car in the garage again.

I have begun studying your historical documents. Through them I’ve learned about the triumphant presidency of Josiah Bartlett. I was relieved to learn that my country elected a serious and principled man to succeed President Clinton. In the summer of 2000 that was by no means an assured thing.

But Mrs. Landingham–that’s just not right. Why aren’t cars safer yet? Why aren’t computers driving them? I saw automated roads in POPULAR MECHANICS when I was in the fourth grade. I saw working prototypes at the New York World’s Fair. That’s 50 years ago, for goodness’ sake. 227 in geek years. What have you all been doing with your time? Playing games and blowing things up?

I can read very fast, but I can only watch TV at the same speed as everyone else. So I still haven’t gotten around to some of the more exciting news, like mermaids and alien autopsies. I did start watching that documentary The Big Bang Theory, but I gave up after a few chapters—it seemed to be all jibber jabber, and they never did get to the PowerPoint presentation.

Now, I confess that I was already becoming disenchanted with the future when I fell into the time machine. But, still, 15 years! We made it to the moon in eight. So where is my personal helicopter? Promises were made, right there in BOYS LIFE and other journals of tomorrow. Repellatron Skyways! Triphibian Atomicars! You could look it up.
– No, Not now, please.

Of course the internet was well established when I went away, and the World Wild Web was taking off. I launched my own Web 1.0 site on July 4, 1995. Even that early, you could see the potential of the internet as an agent for social uplift. You could foresee the flowering of a global civilization based on free exchange of knowledge, an explosion of personal creative expression, and the erasure of artificial barriers based on gender, religion, and national identity.

Today, I’m thrilled to see the progress toward Version 1.0 of the Encyclopedia Galactica foretold by Elder Isaac—free access for all to a curated compendium of all the world’s knowledge. Everywhere I turn I see those helpful pointers to more information, www-this and http-that. It’s heartwarming to see rich and poor alike having equal access to the great minds of humanity present and past.

The Interwebs, 2015. What a magnificent leap forward. Uncorrupted by the pursuit of power and profit, democratic in every sense of the word, perhaps the most egalitarian invention in all history. An error-checking tool of such reach and power that no one need ever fear again passing on misinformation, or making a decision based on dated or inexact ideas. And no matter what your interest, you can find a digital salon or seminar where you can find helpful and supportive fellow enthusiasts eager to share their personal experience.

That isn’t the only overt sign of progress. I’ve never before attended a convention with a computer in my pocket. I’ve never before driven to a convention with a pleasant English woman’s voice helping to guide me through every turn and to every waypoint. I’ve never made a hotel reservation, fueled my vehicle, purchased my travel snacks, and paid for my double cheeseburger plain without speaking to a single other human being.

I take this as evidence that the progressive leaders of this era are well on the way to removing the yoke of repetitious drudgery from the workplace. Sometimes, late last century, I was afraid they’d missed the memo about the full unemployment economy–that we’d never even try to reach a point where the individual gifts of each person weren’t being subsumed in a cruel game of competitive survival.

Since I’m only beginning to become part of the world again, I do still have questions.

There seems to be a lot of fuss over setting the planetary thermostat. Surely it’s obvious that while you can always put on another layer if you’re chilled, there’s a limit to how much you can remove if you’re overheated. Why is this controversial?

I have taken note of how much energy and creativity my tribe has put into inventing sports for us. For instance Halo, and Wii Bowling, and Cards Against Humanity. I haven’t had a chance to try them all, and some of them I don’t understand the rules of, like doxxing, or Tinder. Sexting sounds promising, though. Should I wait to receive an install disk in the mail, or do I need to fill out an application?

What happened to magazines, and what do people read in the bathroom now? And if Playboy can no longer afford to publish photos of naked young women, howsoever are teenaged boys going to learn about sex?

I feel compelled to say a few more words about my time machine, and how I fell into it. Contrary to popular belief, it’s more complicated than fading my voice out, cuing the organist, and inserting three dimes. If only.

What I stumbled on back in 2000 was the death of my father, who broke his neck in a fall. What finally woke Rip Van Michael was the death of his mother last year, a few months after a cancer diagnosis. As I said earlier—worst design for a time machine EVER. It made the sphere in 7 DAYS look like the tea cups at Disneyland.

I’m not going to talk about my parents or those relationships today. But I would like to talk a little about my relationship with two invisible companions I met while sleeping. Their names are clinical depression, and anxiety disorder. I’m sure I’m not the only one here who’s acquainted with them.

I had a hard time getting here this weekend. I’m not talking about car trouble, or getting lost, or Thursday’s rain, or last weekend’s snow. I’m taking about spoons, and pants, and Xanax.

Who here speaks spoon? I knew there’d be some. Spoon theory was invented by blogger Christine Miserandino, who has Lupus. The original blog is readily found. I think of spoons as kind of the vector particle of initiative. Kind of a metaphor for the ignition system in your car. You never know how many spoons you’ll have on a given day—except for some of us, it’s almost certain to not be enough.

Sometimes getting out of bed to feed the animals burns your entire supply. On better days, you still have to allocate them carefully, because when you’re out, you’re done. Oh, you –can- go into negative spoon territory in a crisis, but you’ll pay for it the next day, and usually the next and the next.

In addition to spoons, my household talks about pants days. As in, this was a good week, I had three pants days—two of them consecutive!

There are strict eligibility rules, of course. You not only must wear a garment meant for the eyes of strangers, you must go beyond the property line in daylight to a place where other people might be encountered. Driving your daughter to a sleepover wearing your robe and slippers? Nope, not even if you hit a fast-food drive-thru on the way home. Walking out to the mailbox in your pajamas does not go in the book. Pulling on shorts to sign for a FedEx parcel at the front door, don’t waste my time.

Let me be painfully blunt about this. The five and a half hour drive here Thursday was by itself the longest I’d been out of my house in two months. We’ve been on bonus time ever since.

So here I am, having recklessly committed to five pants days in a row. But Brenda*, if you’d only known what a near thing it was, you’d have been dancing when you got my text that we were on the road. Just three and a half hours behind schedule, too.

I forgot my glucose meter, my bathing suit, and my Ambien, but, still, not bad. It was the triumph of Xanax and something we call “Act as if.” Act as if it’ll be all right. Act as if you’re the person you used to be. Act as if good things might happen. Risk success.

I’m not an eloquent commentator on depression and anxiety. My grip on both is still too tenuous. We are intimately connected, but still only raw acquaintances. But I read, because I learn from people who can articulate their own experience.

If the headline says “13 Things to Remember if You Love A Person With Anxiety,“ I’m clicking. I’ll even go as far as Upworthy, for something like Nick Seluk’s comic inspired by reader Sarah Flanigan:

“Depression and anxiety are teammates, and I’m the opposing team,” Sarah wrote. “Their one and only goal is to drag me down. They make me feel paranoid, they make me feel useless, and they steal all my energy and motivation. However, sometimes they go on vacation. I never know how long the vacation will last, but I Get Stuff Done while they’re away, because I never know when they’ll come back. It may be a few hours or a few days. I never know. “

Yeah, Sarah. I get that.

There are an estimated 75 million Americans with general or social anxiety disorders. Perhaps 40 million of them are clinically depressed as well. The odds are very good that you know some of them, perhaps intimately. Here are a few things i’d like you to know about us.

Number 2 – We get tired easily. Dead tired. Can’t find the floor from the bed tired. Anxiety causes people to live in hypertense states. We’re always on alert, and our mind is rarely settled. It’s hard to just BE for any length of time.

Number 5 – We’re well aware that depression lies and that our anxieties are irrational. Pointing that out isn’t helpful. What is helpful: Compassion. Support. Listening without judgment. Things we can all use, really, if you think about it.

Number 8 – It can be hard to let go of something, even if you know you’d be better for it. Especially if it’s pain. Traumatic memories are stored differently, as a kind of table of risks that the brain is constantly consulting.

Finally, #17 – Even when we seem to be on our game, it’s fragile. One thought that catches you unawares, one comment you never anticipated, the lightest headwind, can drop you right back in the soup.

A couple of months ago I was totally jazzed about a new idea for a new novel. For the first time in a long time I felt a big story taking shape in my mind. For the first time in a long time, I was jotting down plot details and world building notes and fragments of dialog. Just like old times. I thought I was about to take a classic theme and turn it inside out.

But after about two weeks of happy hopeful, I happened to read—probably on File 770—I happened to read a rave about a high-profile novel by a high-profile writer scheduled for publication soon. Yes, just as you’ve guessed, it was my novel idea—or close enough to it for government work. And everything good that had been starting to happen stopped with a screech.

When I fell, I lost my publishers. I lost my connection to all of this, this community. I lost confidence in my voice. And then I lost my voice. I had hoped to come here this weekend having found all of them again. I’m grateful to Bill & Brenda for inviting me and for welcoming me even though I’m not there yet. Life happens, and all those goals are still works in progress. But we’ve been doing some good work right here, this weekend.

If there’s someone in your world who has an invisible illness, whether it’s fibro, Lupus, depression, anxiety, whatever flavor of physical or psychological challenge, be kind to them. Listen to them. Understand that they’re doing the best they can—no one willingly chooses less.

And when I get my backlist in print again, and when my first new novel shows up on Amazon, I hope you’ll be kind to me, too. I’m not finished telling the stories I’ve been called to tell. With a little help from my friends, I’m going to get them told.

Act as if. Bloody well act as if.

Thank you.


Copyright © 2015 by Michael P. Kube-McDowell
Presented 11/29/15 at ChamBanaCon.

*Brenda Sinclair Sutton, co-chair with her husband Bill Sutton of ChamBanaCon.

Regret #27

One of my regrets is that I never had an opportunity to experience a Saturn V launch in person. There were thirteen launches of the full stack from 1967 to 1973, ten with crews aboard. I was in 8th grade when the first Saturn V flew on 9-Nov-1967; I was a freshman in college (without a driver’s license, let alone a car) when Skylab was launched on 14-May-1973.

I did eventually make it to the Cape Kennedy press area for the STS-4 mission in June, 1982. That was when I got a taste of what that experience would have been like. No TV camera comes close to capturing what it’s like when four or five million pounds of machine starts a rocket-fueled journey to Earth orbit.

If the SLS Block 2 ever gets as far as a launch pad, I’m going back to Florida.

This is a NASA photo shared from their Flickr account. The vehicle is carrying Apollo 14; the photo was taken with an automated camera from one of the swampy areas near Pad 39A.

Apollo 14 Launch