Apr 17

Review: Sea Without A Shore

I’m not, in general, a fan of David Drake’s writing; most of his output is grimmer and far more carnographic than I care to deal with. I’ve made an exception for his RCN series because they tickle my fondness for classic Age-of-Sail adventure fiction and its pastiches, exhibiting Drake’s strengths (in particular, his deep knowledge of history) while dialing back on the cruelty and gore.

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Apr 10

Review: 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies

The Ring Of Fire books are a mixed bag. Sharecropped by many authors, ringmastered by Eric Flint, they range from plodding historical soap opera to sharp, clever entertainments full of crunchy geeky goodness for aficionados of military and technological history.

When Flint’s name is on the book you can generally expect the good stuff. So it proves in the latest outing, 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, a fun ride that’s (among other things) an affectionate tribute to C.S. Forester’s Hornblower novels and age-of-sail adventure fiction in general. (Scrupulously I note that I’m personally friendly with Flint, but this is exactly because he’s good at writing books I like.)

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Mar 08

Which way is north on your new planet?

So, here you are in your starship, happily settling into orbit around an Earthlike world you intend to survey for colonization. You start mapping, and are immediately presented with a small but vexing question: which rotational pole should you designate as ‘North’?

There are a surprisingly large number of ways one could answer this question. I shall wander through them in this essay, which is really about the linguistic and emotive significance of compass-direction words as humans use them. Then I shall suggest a pragmatic resolution.

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Mar 29

Remembering the future

I own a rather large library of paperback SF which I have been collecting since the late 1960s; it includes a lot of stuff that is now quite rare and half forgotten. I owe a great deal to SF and consider these books cultural treasures, The last few years I’ve been wondering if there’s any way to ensure that this treasure won’t be lost as conventional printed books get left behind and the remaining copies of the more obscure stuff crumble.

Maybe there is the beginning of an answer. Singularity & Co. – Save the SciFi! is a Kickstarter project aimed specifically at rescuing out-of-print genre SF from oblivion. It is not yet clear whether their methods will scale; scanning is easy but untangling the IP around these old books can be difficult. But the response to the project has been encouraging; they’re already 240% over their initial funding goal.

I have contributed $25, and offered them the use of my library. If it looks like they have developed a sustainable set of methods I will contribute a lot more. I think this is a worthy project and deserving of support from everyone who loves science fiction.

Sep 23

A tribute to Heinlein

A&D regular Ken Burnside has entered the Woot! derby, a contest to have a T-shirt design featured on that site. Ken’s entry is a tribute to Robert Heinlein.

Yes, that’s Robert and Virginia Heinlein on the rocket. Yes, the rocket is based on the illustrations from Putnam and Son’s Heinlein juveniles The skyline in the back is Kansas City, MO, though it’s hard to tell – Heinlein’s home town.

The Heinlein fans among my regulars should consider voting for this entry.

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Jul 18

Brin on Heinlein on guns is dead wrong

Everyone is entitled to their own opinions about Robert Heinlein, but not to their own facts. In a blog post on Heinlein’s novel Beyond This Horizon, David Brin advances a number of claims which are disputable, and one that is utterly bizarre. He alleges that the thought behind Heinlein’s famous quote “An armed society is a polite society” was not Heinlein’s but issued from John W. Campbell, the editor who with Heinlein invented science fiction as we know it.

This claim is not merely wrong, it attempts to traduce a core belief which Heinlein expressed in his fiction and his nonfiction and his personal letters throughout his life. We do not have to speculate about this; as I shall show, it is so amply documented that Brin’s claim passes from being merely tendentious to outright bizarre.

Brin’s error matters to me personally because, as much as I am anything else, I am one of Heinlein’s children. I have closely studied his works and his life, and that study has shaped me. What I have given to the world through my advocacy of open source is directly tied back to what the Old Man taught me about liberty, transparency, and moral courage. And I am never more Heinlein’s child than when I advocate for an armed (and polite) society.

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Apr 21


For any of you who happen to be in Southeast Michigan or its environs, Cathy and I will be attending Penguicon from April 30th to May 2nd.

A&D regular Ken Burnside will be there as well, sharing a room with us and hawking his excellent 3D space games – Attack Vector: Tactical, Squadron Strike and others. He’ll be teaching those games too, possibly with me at the table.

A&D regular Jay Maynard will be attending as well. Probably in full Tron Guy drag, at least part of the time.

Join us for a weekend of “You got your Linux geekery in my science fiction convention! Yeah, well, you got your science fiction stuff in my Linux convention!” Two great tastes that taste great together.

Mar 17

In search of: FTL taxonomy

I’ve been troping again. This time I found and repaired the TV Tropes page on Faster Than Light Travel. It had previously made a distinction between three subtypes of FTL drive: “jump”, “warp”, and “shortcut”. The “shortcut” category was confused and confusing, and I’ve renamed it to “portal” and fixed the definitions of both “portal” and “warp” subtropes.

I’m now looking for earliest occurrences and trope codifiers on these subtypes. I think I have one nailed down, but I can’t push the other two back very far. Instances and cites are solicited.

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May 06

What I have learned from science fiction

I began reading science fiction almost exactly 40 years ago, when my family was passing through Orly airport in Paris while moving from London to Rome. My parents liked to encourage all five of their kids to read; we were told we could have one magazine of our choice from the newsstand. I picked a copy of Analog, a magazine I’d never seen before. It had a gorgeous Kelly Freas cover featuring a man being menaced by a dinosaur-like creature with gorgeous polychrome scales. I have it still.

Science fiction has given me entertainment and escapism, for sure – but it has given me ever so much more than just that. It has given me puzzles to chew on, examples to admire, philosophical questions to mull over. By thinking about fictional worlds, I learned a perhaps surprising amount about the real one – not so much facts as useful habits of thought, perspectives, fruitful ways of asking questions.

Here are some of them…

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Dec 12

Saganami Island Tactical Simulator

I like SF. I like wargames. I like naval adventure fiction.
These tastes put me square in the middle of the target audience for
David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels. And yes, I do
enjoy them; Weber may be a hack, but he’s a very competent hack who
delivers good entertainment value for my money. So I was pleasantly
surprised to learn, this weekend at the annual Philadelphia Science
Fiction Convention (Philcon), that there is now an Honor Harrington
wargame — Saganami Island Tactical Simulator (SITS).

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Dec 02

Rudyard Kipling Invented SF!

Ever had a moment when somebody else drops an insight on you, and you feel
totally stupid because you had all the facts and all the motivation to generate
it yourself, it was about something you’re expert at, but you
just…didn’t…see…it? And you should have, and you’re damn annoyed with
yourself for missing it?

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Dec 26

Hacking My Way To Stardom

This is storyboard art for a movie called Nightmask, with
the interesting property that I will probably get a speaking part in it
if it’s actually produced.

“Whoa!” you may well ask. “How does a middle-aged geek with no
showbiz history beyond a few singer/songwriter coffeehouse gigs in
his college days land a part in, you know, a real movie?”

The answer, it turns out, is by hacking for a movie star. And thereby
hangs a tale.

Back in October I was the top-billed guests of honor at the first
Linucon, a convention for SF fans and Linux hackers in Austin, TX.
First night I was there, at the invitation-only dinner for con guests,
I found that I knew a lot of them. Steve Jackson, Wil Wheaton, Howard
Tayler, Eric Flint…but there was one I didn’t recognize and she was
striking enough to make an impression:

This woman’s charm was somehow only increased by the fact that at
the time she was wearing black nerd-frame glasses; she looked like a
supermodel playing a geekgirl, a guess which I discovered was nearly
correct the next day when I found her sitting in the lobby of the
hotel tapping keys on a PowerBook. I introduced myself, asked her
name, and we were soon deep in conversation about all manner of
interesting techie things. And her name? Tamara Gorski.

Yes, that would be the Tamara
who played Rebecca Lowell in on an episode of
Angel and Morrigan the Goddess of War (looking like Lucy
Lawless’s kid sister) on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.
She’s also had parts in quite a few B movies over the last decade; she
told me later that she thinks she could get A-list parts if she pushed,
but doesn’t really want the pressure or the fishbowl existence that would
bring with it.

I had to admit to never having seen any of her stuff, as I don’t
watch TV at all and hadn’t caught any of her movies. This, however,
did not bother her in the least; in fact she seemed happy to be talking
to someone who was (a) a low risk for going all fanboy on her, and (b)
willing to teach her techie stuff, like how to program an automated
way to mail people electronic thank-you cards. I launched into writing
a Python program on her PowerBook to do exactly that.

That program took me about three hours to write, time scattered
over the next two days, most of it with Tamara looking over my
shoulder and (I kid you not) giggling with delight as I explained how
this or that bit of Python helped get the job done. Tamara, it turns
out, is (a) extremely bright, (b) by her own description, “shy and
geeky”, and (c) intensely curious. And yes, formerly a successful
model. So, not exactly a supermodel playing a geekgirl, more like one
really letting her inner geek out to play for maybe the first time
in her life.

Tamara loved discovering SF fandom; the atmosphere of Linucon
delighted her. “I think I’ve found my people!” she said to me Sunday
night. And I was her guide to the territory. By the time that program
was finished, we were friends.

Tamara had told me early on that she was interested in writing and
direction. She talked offhand at the con about casting me in her next
film, but I didn’t know how seriously to take that until she emailed me
a script and a character list and asked which ones I was interested in.

The plot is a sort of space opera with horror elements about a
multispecies galactic future in which vampirism is a scourge that
affects every species. The part she had in mind was Klaaghu, an
initially sinister-appearing alien who dies heroically bringing

evidence to the anti-vampire resistance. After reading the script, I
agreed that of the available roles, that one seemed like probably the
best fit. It’s a nice juicy bit part; Klaaghu doesn’t get a lot of
screen time, but he does get dialogue and a dramatic scene.

The big variable here is whether Tamara can get backers to produce
the movie. She’s planning the low-budget route, shooting in New
Zealand or Bulgaria. She’s got a natural market, as this is exactly
the kind of thing the Sci-Fi channel buys. Tamara says “If you know
anyone who wants to invest at all…there will be returns, and if it’s
someone who would get their kicks from being in the film and getting
screen credit as producer, that’s all cool and kosher.”

There you have it. Calling all dot.com millionaires: you wanna
be a movie producer? Have a part in an SF flick? Your shot at stardom
is waiting.

Dec 20

The Revenge of the Nerds is Living Well

Grant McCracken has argued in his book Plenitude that one of the defining characteristics of the last fifty years is an explosion of subcultural variety — people creating new lifestyles and new identities around occupations, sexual tastes, hobbies, genres of art and music, religions, and just about any other investment of time human beings have ever dreamed up.

When McCracken proposes that there is now as much divergence among individual subcultures in the life of the modern West as we can find among preindustrial tribes in the annals of anthropology he is probably exaggerating. Nevertheless, it is clear that he is onto something when he observes that the old idea of a ‘mainstream’ culture with subcultures developing in anti-conformist reaction to it is falling apart.

[S]ubcultures now come from the cultural system in place. The culture of
commotion is, as I have labored to demonstrate, dedicated to the production
of new and different subcultures.

SF fans. Skatepunks. Polyamorists. Gangsta rappers. Goths. McCracken certainly has this much right; there are now lots of voluntary subcultures out there that have the kind of adhesiveness once only associated with religious or tribal groupings. Belonging to them is not just a predilection like being a baseball fan or liking Chinese food, but a statement of identity with a whole social network and a set of myths and dreams and heroes attached to it.

Among the five groups I listed more or less at random above the culture of SF fandom is a bearded grandaddy, dating back to the late 1930s and thus predating the beginnings of the modern explosion of plenitude in the 1960s. The others are all much more recent, and illustrate how new tribes can emerge to become apparently permanent features of the landscape in less than a decade.

And this brings us to the geeks. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, there was not yet anything you could call “geek culture”. Sure, there were bright kids fascinated by computers or math or science, kids who were often poorly socialized in the jargon of the day and hung together as a defensive measure; I was one of them. But we didn’t see ourselves as having a social identity or affiliation the way the jocks or surfers or hippies did. We weren’t a subculture, nor even a community; we didn’t even have a label for ourselves.

Slowly, slowly that began to change. One key event was the eruption of science fiction into pop culture that began with the first Star Wars movie in 1977. This was our stuff and we knew it, even though most of us never joined the subculture of SF fandom proper. Personal computers made another big difference after 1980; suddenly, technology was cool and sexy in a way it hadn’t been for decades, and people who were into it started to get respect rather than (or in addition to) faint or not-so-faint scorn.

You could see the trend in movies. War Games in 1983; Revenge of the Nerds in 1984; Real Genius in 1985. To kids today Revenge of the Nerds doesn’t seem remarkable, because geek culture is more secure and confident today than a lot of older tribes like bikers or hippies. But at the time, the idea that you could have an entire fraternity of geeks — an autonomous social group with reason to be proud of itself and a recognized place in the social ecology — was funny; all by itself it was a comedy premise.

The heroes of Revenge of the Nerds were people who created a fraternity of their own, who bootstrapped a niche for themselves in Grant McCracken’s culture of plenitude. The movie was an extended joke, but it described and perhaps helped create a real phenomenon.

The term ‘geek’ didn’t emerge as a common label, displacing the older and much more sporadically-used ‘nerd’, until around the time of the Internet explosion of 1993-1994. I noticed this development because I didn’t like it; I still prefer to tell people I hang out with hackers (all hackers are geeks, but not all geeks are hackers). Another index of the success of the emerging geek culture is that around that time it stopped being an almost exclusively male phenomenon.

Yes, you catch my implication. When I was growing up we didn’t have geekgirls. Even if the label ‘geek’ had been in use at the time, the idea that women could be so into computers or games or math that they would identify with and hang out with geek guys would have struck us as sheerest fantasy. Even the small minority of geek guys who were good with women (and thus had much less reason to consider them an alien species) would have found the implications of the term ‘geekgirl’ unbelievable before 1995 or so.

(There are people who cannot read an account like the above without assuming that the author is simply projecting his own social and sexual isolation onto others. For the benefit of those people, I will report here that I had good relations with women long before this was anything but rare in my peer group. This only made the isolation of my peers easier to notice.)

What changed? Several things. One is that geek guys are, on the whole, better adjusted and healthier and more presentable today than they were when I was a teenager. Kids today have trouble believing the amount of negative social pressure on intelligent people to pass as normal and boring that was typical before 1980, the situation Revenge of the Nerds satirized and inverted. It meant that the nascent geek culture of the time attracted only the most extreme geniuses and misfits — freaks, borderline autists, obsessives, and other people in reaction against the mainstream. Women generally looked at this and went “ugh!”

But over time, geeky interests became more respectable, even high-status (thanks at least in part to the public spectacle of übergeeks making millions). The whole notion of opposition to the mainstream started to seem dated as ‘mainstream’ culture gradually effloresced into dozens of tribes freakier than geeks (two words: “body piercings”). Thus we started to attract people who were more normal, in psychology if not in talent. Women noticed this. I believe it was in 1992, at a transhumanist party in California, that I first heard a woman matter-of-factly describe the Internet hacker culture as “a source of good boyfriends”. A few years after that we started to get a noticeable intake of women who wanted to become geeks themselves, as opposed to just sleeping with or living with geeks.

The loner/obsessive/perfectionist tendencies of your archetypal geek are rare in women, who are culturally encouraged (and perhaps instinct-wired) to value social support and conformity more. Thus, women entering the geek subculture was a strong sign that it had joined the set of social identities that people think of as ‘normal’. This is still a very recent development; I can’t recall the term ‘geekgirl’ being used at all before about 1998, and I don’t think it became commonly self-applied until 2000 or so.

Interestingly, the dot.com bust does not seem to have slowed down or discredited the geek subculture at all. Websites like http://geekculture.com and http://thinkgeek.com do a flourishing business, successfully betting investment capital on the theory that there is in fact a common subculture or community embracing computer hackers, SF fans, strategy gamers, aficionados of logic puzzles, radio hams, and technology hobbyists of all sorts. Just the fact that a website can advertise The World’s Coolest Propeller Beanies! is indication of how far we’ve come.

I’ve previously observed about one large and important geek subtribe, the Internet hackers, that when people join it they tend to retrospectively re-interpret their past and after a while find it difficult to remember that they weren’t always part of this tribe. I think something similar is true of geeks in general; even those of us who lived through the emergence of geek culture have to struggle a bit to remember what it was like back when we were genuinely atomized outcasts in a culture that was dismissive and hostile.

There are even beginning to be geek families with evidence of generational transmission. I know three generations of one, starting when two computer scientists married in the late 1960s, and had four kids in the 1970s; the kids have since produced a first grandchild who at age five shows every sign of becoming just as avid a gamer/hacker/SF-fan as his parents and grandparents.

Little Isaac, bless him, will grow up in a culture that, in its plenitude, offers lots of artifacts and events designed by and for people like him. He will take the World Wide Web and the Sci-Fi Channel and Yugio and the Lord of the Rings movies and personal computers for granted. He’ll probably never be spat on by a jock, and if he can’t find a girlfriend it will be because the geekgirls and geek groupies are dating other guys like him, rather than being nonexistent.

For Isaac, Revenge of the Nerds will be a quaint period piece with very little more relevance to the social circumstances of his life than a Regency romance. And that is how we know that the nerds indeed got their revenge.

Dec 16

The Racist of Earthsea

In Slate magazine, SF author Ursula LeGuin complains that the
producers of the new Earthsea miniseries have butchered her
. One form of butchery that she zeroes in on is by casting
characters who she intended to be red, brown, or black as white

I have mixed feelings. LeGuin has every right to be POed at how
her intentions were ignored, but on the other hand my opinion of her
has not been improved by learning that she intended the books as yet
another wearisomely PC exercise in

I liked those books when I read them as a teenager. I didn’t
notice any character’s skin color. I would really prefer not to have
had my experience of those characters retrospectively messed with by
LeGuin’s insistance that the race thing is important.

Note: I am not claiming that all casting should be colorblind. I
remember once watching an otherwise excellent Kenneth Branagh
production of Much Ado About Nothing that was somewhat marred for
me by Branagh’s insistance on casting an American black man as a
Renaissance Italian lord. This was wrong in exactly the same way that
casting a blue-eyed blond as Chaka Zulu or Genghis Khan would be
— it’s so anti-historical that it interferes with the suspension
of disbelief. Fantasy like LeGuin’s, however, doesn’t have this kind
of constraint. Ged and Tenar don’t become either more or less plausible
if their skin color changes.

But what really annoyed me was LeGuin’s claim that only whites have
the “privilege” of being colorblind. This is wrong and tendentious in
several different ways. Colorblindness is not a privilege of anyone,
it’s a duty of everyone — to judge people not by the color of their
skin but the content of their character, and to make race a non-issue
by whatever act of will it takes. (It doesn’t take any effort at all
for me.)

If I had produced the Earthsea miniseries or been in charge of the
art for her books, I would have both (a) respected LeGuin’s wishes
about the skin color (she is the artist), and (b) regretted that she
was so stuck on the issue.

To paraphrase one of my favorite Zen Comix punchlines “I left that
issue at the riverside. Are you still carrying it?”

Nov 12

Yee-ha! W00t! Excelsior!

I got email from Dr. Stanley Schmidt, the editor of Analog,
about an hour ago. The bad news was, he turned down the short story. The
good news was he accepted the fact article.

I’m going to be published in Analog!

/me does geeky victory dance

OK, so this is one of those things where if you don’t immediately
get why it’s wicked cool, no amount of explanation is likely to
enlighten you. I’ll just say I’ve been a science-fiction fan
for 35 years and Analog has always been the banner-bearer
for my kind of SF, the stuff with the rivets in it. I’ve wanted to
get published there when I grew up ever since I was 11 years old;
this is literally a childhood dream come true.

Oh. And Dr. Schmidt asked me to send him more fiction…

Oct 30

Great War II

Donald Sensing has suggested that it may have been a bad thing that
the Allies won the First World War, and sketched
an alternate history
. Stephen Green has replied.

Donald, I buy your scenario in the West (Germans go home, keeping
Alsace-Lorraine) but I think Steve is right that your take on German
war aims in the East was too benign. What we’d have been looking at here
is a continuation of the Age of Imperialism, which in our history was
finished off by the exhaustion of the victors after WWI and WWII.

Steve writes:

The situation in 1915 Europe would have been 1942 all over again,
but with one important difference: The United States would never have
gotten involved, never mobilized, and never had the opportunity to get
used to the idea of acting like a Great Power.

Right enough. Let’s carry this forward. As Donald has pointed
out, the drive on Paris revealed serious problems in Germany’s C3 and
infrastructure. There would have been a pause of, I think, about six
to eight years while the Germans consolidated their gains and built up
their road and rail net. Their most serious internal problem in the
short term would have been sporadic anti-German revolts in the eastern
client states.

Meanwhile, after the defeat of the Allies, isolationist sentiment
in the U.S. would have become stronger in the U.S. than it was
in our history. The Wilsonian “War Party” and anyone associated with
them would be completely discredited. American ethnic Germans who in our
history were finished off as a coherent political force by WWII, would
have gained more clout. President Lindbergh, maybe?

With the U.S. neutralized, the big fault line in geopolitics would
have been the British Empire versus the German Reich. One important
thing that would probably *not* have changed would have been the
development of Italian Fascism — but it wouldn’t have taken root in
Germany without the post-Versailles disaster.

The Tsarist regime in Russia was on its last legs. But Germany,
as victory, would have been in a position to turn on its agent
Lenin and back the White Russians just enough to keep Kerensky’s
govenment in power (but not enough for them to actually end the
simmering civil war).

About 1922 or so, the line-up might have looked like this: The
British Empire and a weakened, fractious Russia against a more
powerful Imperial Germany allied with Italy, Austria-Hungary, and the
Ottomans. But there’s something wrong with this picture; it ignores
geopolitical rivalries within the Central Powers themselves. So,
remembering the British grand strategy of sea control and alliances of
convenience with land powers, I’m going to suggest that England’s
course would be to snuggle up to the Ottomans and pry them loose from
the Axis. This would have made sense to the Ottomans, too; they
would want to constrain the rising power of Germany and Austria,
and I can imagine the British Foreign Office handing them back
southern Persia as a sweetener.

So the next confrontation would open with an Anglo-Russian-Turkish
alliance against a Germano-Austro-Italian one. France, even more seriously
mired in defeatism than in our history, would hardly be a player. The
U.S. would be neutral, possibly with a slight pro-German tilt.

Before general war broke out there would probably have been a
pattern of escalating friction on the imperial margins. Germany
would probably have flexed its muscles in Africa, first. Another
leading indicator would be the size of the German fleet. With no
Treaty of Washington in 1921, a serious naval arms race among
Germany, England and Japan would have been pretty much inevitable.

Imperial Japan would have been in a much stronger position than
historically, as well. With Russia weaker and the U.S. isolationist,
her main rival for influence in the Pacific would be the British. So
she would likely wind up on the Axis side, expanding onto the Asian
mainland even more agressively than in our timeline.

So the eequivalent of World War Two would have have been a bigger
and bloodier clash of empires.

UPDATE: Somebody commenting on VodkaPundit’s blog said:

Take your scenario a little further. With France as the
crippled defeated party, internal French politics mirror what
historically happened in Germany. I think you get the rise of French
fascists, who in turn blame French Jews for a “stab in the back”
(Dreyfus redux). The Holocaust has a Gallic flavor. Instead of
Teutonic efficiency, you get spontaneous mass killings by “citizen’s
commitees”. Horrendous to ponder, but anti-semitism is not an
exclusively German trait.

Very plausible. I can take this further still: on their way to
power the French Fascists have an ugly, low-level civil war with
conservative royalists that resembles the Spanish Civil War in our
timeline, except in this one Germany backs the royalists. The Spanish
Civil War itself happens more or less on schedule, but plays out
completely differently, too. Kerensky’s Russians would have had
neither the means nor the motivation to intervene that Stalin did, but
the Germans might very well have still backed Franco in restoring the
Spanish monarchy against the anarchists. So the likely outcome there
was Franco taking power sooner, probably as a generalissimo under a
weak Spanish king in Germany’s orbit, glaring across the Pyrenees
at France.

Where this is leading is that in Great War II, the France that
joins the allies is Fascist…

FURTHER UPDATE: With Bolshevism dead in Russia, the beau ideal of
the world’s anti-monarchist left becomes not “scientific socialism”
but anarcho-syndicalism on the Spanish model. At the extreme end this
movement fuses with what’s left of 19th-century romantic nihilism. As
a result, terrorism becomes an important tool of the fringe left
decades before the analogous development in our 1960s.

The British Labor Party turns increasingly syndicalist; in reaction,
British Tories increasingly link arms with French and other fascist
movements, which in this timeline are often genuinely reactionary
rather than being Marxism with a nationalist/racialist paint job.

In the U.S., trade unions also increasingly turn syndicalist and
anti-German. American conservatives tend to line up with the Bund and
the Kaiser; when Great War II breaks out in 1923. American industrialists
sell weapons to the German Empire. After a bitterly-fought election
in 1924 U.S. policy begins to tilt pro-British, but the change is
slow because many Americans are revolted by Fascist France.

Blogspot comments

Oct 17

Planets of Adventure

Bless Jim Baen, who at times seems determined to reprint the entire
Golden Age midlist of SF. for he has given us a good thick anthology of
some of the best stories of Murray Leinster — a writer once counted
among science-fiction’s reliable best, but since unfairly forgotten.

I come away from Planets of Adventure (pb, Baen 2002,
ISBN 0-7434-7162-8) with a renewed appreciation of something I have
long known. When John W. Campbell and Robert Heinlein invented modern
SF after 1938, Campbell perforce had to train a new crop of writers to
produce it. Very few writers with established careers were able to
meet Campbell’s standards.

Murray Leinster (born Wil F. Jenkins) was one of a very few
exceptions — and one of only two (with Jack Williamson) who
actually managed to produce better work after Campbell than before
him, rather than merely imitating previous pulp successes on a grander
scale (as did, for example, the now-unreadable Edmond Hamilton and the
still-enjoyable E.E. “Doc” Smith).

For this alone Leinster deserves more attention from the historians
and critics of SF than he usually gets. I, personally, was ready to
rediscover him because I had fond childhood memories of reading his work
from the 1950s and early 1960s when it was not too difficult to find
in the used bookstores of ten years later.

One of my sentimental favorites was the Med Service
series, tales of a doctor making interstellar house calls to solve
ingeniously constructed medical puzzles. I was delighted when Baen
Books printed a Med Service omnibus a few months ago — but it is
after reading Planets of Adventure that I am truly
impressed with Leinster’s achievement.

The first story, The Forgotten Planet is a fixup
novel assembled from three novellas, published respectively in 1920,
1921, and 1953. The rest of the stories were published in the decade
after 1947, the last quite coincidentally in the year I was born. In these
stories we get a fine view in miniature both of SF’s pre-Campbellian past
and the most fertile period of the Campbellian Golden Age.

The first section of The Forgotten Planet, written
in 1920, is deeply primitive. It’s a dark thalamic adventure of
regressed humans battling lethal fungi and giant insects in a fetid
alien ecology. The only touches we can recognize as SFnal are a
framing story Leinster added after the fact, in the early 1950s, which
make the humands descendents of a crashed starliner — in origin, the story
had been set on a far-future Earth. One feature of the original
repays notice; Leinster referred to climate change via a
carbon-dioxide greenhouse effect caused by burning fossil fuels. In

The end of The Forgotten Planet, as rewritten at
the beginning of the 1950s, reads very differently. The stranded
primitives, having struggled up on their own to barbarian status, are
accidentally rediscovered by interstellar civilization. This is not
merely a different story than Leinster had begun to write thirty
years earlier, it is written in a profoundly different way, suffused
with plucky optimism and cool efficiency. The protagonist, Burl,
began the action as a a Joseph-Campbellian mythic hero; he ends
it as the archetype of the John-Campbellian competent man, bestriding
both his own world and that of his advanced galactic kindred with an
ease that disconcerts the latter.

In the next section, The Planet Explorer, Leinster
demonstrates a flawless command of the Campbellian idiom. These
stories, written in 1955-56, are classic planetary-puzzle pieces of
the sort that filled the pages of Astounding magazine.
The protagonist solves life-threatening problems posed by conditions
on alien worlds. These were intelligent stories when they were
written and they’re still intelligent today. One of them won a Hugo
in 1956. Aside from a slight stiffness in the language, they read
remarkably well.

And we’re in for another surprise. The next story,
Anthropological Note, dates from 1957. In it, Leinster
captures perfectly the tone and style of the first post-Campbellian
wave in SF, the social-science SF of the mid-to-late 1950s and
pre-New-Wave 1960s. Truly this story could have been written by Fred
Pohl or C.M. Kornbluth. The wry tone, the anthropologizing, and the
not-so-subtle satirical edge are all there.

The story following that, Scrimshaw, is a creepy and
dark little mood piece that manages to anticipate the New Wave of the
mid-1960s by ten years. The rest of the anthology (Assignment
on Pasik
, Regulations and The Skit-Tree
) is mostly filler, workmanlike enough stuff from the
late 1940s obviously written to pay bills. These stories are still
readable, but of no special interest other than as a demonstration of
consistent competence.

And there you have it. In these stories Leinster manages, with so
little effort that you won’t be aware of it unless you’re looking, to
span four eras of SF and meet all their demands with unobtrusive
efficiency. I am unable to think of anyone else in the history of the
field who can quite match that.

This observation is more interesting because Leinster was
essentially a hack writer. Besides the SF, he churned out reams of
pulp fiction — formulaic Westerns, hard-boiled detective stories,
jungle adventures — during a career that begain in 1917 and
ended only with his death in 1975. It appears that the last thing he
wrote was a Perry Rhodan novel which I have not read but
which almost certainly stank to high heaven.

His SF, though, was not mere hack-work, or at least not
usually mere hack-work. He was a genuine innovator in the
form who invented the parallel-world story in 1934 and the
first-contact story in 1945. It is impossible to read Leinster
without sensing that to him, constructing Campbellian puzzle stories
was a delight, and probably the closest approach to art for art’s sake
that he ever allowed himself. Certainly in Exploration
, the story that won him the 1956 Hugo, one gets the sense
that Leinster is using the story to think through some issues that are
important to him — and they are not trivial issues, even

But for all that he helped invent some of SF’s central tropes,
Leinster never quite became an SF writer of the first rank. He was a
solid midlist presence — the comparisons that leap to mind are
his rough contemporaries James Schmitz and Ross Rocklynne. His novels
tended to be uninspired; his best work (including the genre-defining
First Contact and the hilarious and rather prescient
A Logic Named Joe) was in short-story form.

What Murray Leinster does show us is that SF was as liberating for him as
for his readers — that even a hack writer could take from SF the
challenge and the invitation to be intelligent, and give back
something a bit better than he might have written otherwise. I never
got to ask him, but I strongly suspect that Wil F. Jenkins would be
prefer to be remembered for the SF more than for anything else he

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