This was actually posted by a fellow blogger K.L. Toth on the first of June, but I’d just put up a Hugo review and wanted to let that post run its course. Waited longer than I intended. Life happens, and when it happens fast enough, one thing crowds out another.
But here it is, at last!
Written in the Stars
I was quite pleased with this!
Rod Serling’s original Twilight Zone series has always been a favorite of mine. The stories presented, and their manner of presentation, has always left me in awe. This is real storytelling, all the more amazing for being a television show! One of the outstanding characteristics of the show was the way stories of respectable depth and character development often unfolded in a very small setting, with some of the best never straying beyond a single room. “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” is an especially good example of this, and perhaps for this reason came to mind frequently as I read Fritz Leiber’s novel The Big Time.
This entire novel, with its dozen characters, takes place in a place called, well, The Place. It’s a facility, maintained by near magical technology, in the Void outside normal space and time. In it, soldiers of the Change War are given a chance to recover from the various traumas suffered in the course of their missions. The so-called Spiders and Snakes are locked in a titanic battle for the control of time itself, though none of the soldiers, or the “entertainers” of The Place, really have any idea of why. The Big Time is something of a locked room mystery, in which a dozen characters recruited from many periods in history (two are nonhuman) find themselves questioning everything they think they know about the Change War, as a potentially explosive situation develops. The device that maintains The Place, and would allow them to resolve their predicament, has vanished. No one seems to know how or why, and one or more of the denizens of The Place is playing his or her comrades false. More than one may have a motive to place them all in grave danger. In the course of unraveling the mystery, the arguments of the characters examine such matters as love and loyalty, the nature of time and history, and the price of blind obedience.
This is a short, dense, complicated novel, and an example of storytelling that relies almost entirely on character development to tell its tale. It’s who and what these people are that creates the story, not the physical action or the exotic setting. The setting is described with as light a touch as possible, leaving much to the reader’s imagination, while leaving out nothing vital. This includes the ultimate resolution of the crisis, an answer that was right there in front of them, and the reader, all the while.
I first read this book while in high school, and derived very little from it. The author’s name caught my eye on the library shelf because I’d just read Leiber’s “Ship of Shadows,” in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (A first for me, the copy was found in a local newsstand and purchased with a bit of change I had from running errands or some such. It was the summer before I started high school. “Ship of Shadows” is literally all I remember about it.) This is “grown up” sci-fi, however, and my frame of reference, such as it was back then, didn’t quite extend to the contents and nature of the story. Nothing exploded and there were no brain-sucking aliens, so it left only the vaguest of impressions. Reading it now from a more mature perspective (yes, mature, and let’s just leave it at that), I might as well have read it for the first time. This makes me very glad I took on this project of reading and discussing Hugo winners, as otherwise I’d have missed a very interesting experience.
Although written in the late ‘50s, of the first four Hugo Award novel winners, this one seems the least dated. The nature of the technology used in this vision of time travel is so fanciful that it touches nothing in the real world, then or now. The characters are taken from times past (relative to 1958) or from invented pasts or futures so distant, that they are either living period pieces, or – again – so fanciful as to touch nothing in the real world. The Big Time seems a novel that has, itself, drifted loose from its own place in the time stream, much like the characters it contains.
This is a first-person narrative, told by a female character who tends to stand on the edge of the situation, dodging the action (such as it is) and the arguments, playing witness to it all and hardly participating until the end. Her recounting of the events involving the other characters includes numerous asides and observations on the nature of The Place and the Change War, building in the reader’s mind a good understanding of why this all matters in the first place. The interplay of the characters she describes, and her inside knowledge of several of them, brings the tale to life.
While I enjoyed reading The Big Time, and can understand why it won the award in 1958, there are times when the tendency of certain characters to hold forth at length drags a bit. In each case the motive behind the oratory is an attempt to bring others around to the speaker’s point of view. By its nature, then, this is not a story that moves by changing scenes for the sake of whatever action takes place. These people are in The Place for the duration. Everything must happen in that room; everything must be said in that room. It works, the way those old Twilight Zone episodes worked, but it calls for some patience on the part of the reader. If you stick with it and let the characters have their say, a strange and fascinating tale will emerge.
To say that the internet doesn’t always bring out the best in us would be an understatement. It’s so easy to hide behind a keyboard and tell it like you think it is, or how you want it to be, presenting your opinions and perceptions as “facts” in support of your point. Many people get a tremendous sense of empowerment by doing so as viciously as possible. A great deal of this so-called snark is seen by its creators, and their fans, as devilishly clever and loads of fun. Fan or creator, it’s an exercise in keyboard courage. It’s so easy to boldly overstate a point, and with a venomous flourish, when you don’t have to look the other person in the eye and see the harm you’ve done, or the anger you’ve unleashed. When you do this to deliberately provoke people into a response, it’s called trolling.
I’ve encountered this sort of poisonous nonsense many times, since allowing myself to be swept up in the digital age. I first encountered it on a gardening forum, of all things, where my evident fascination with the science of horticulture and plant biology was met with constant, trollish snipping from anti-science pseudo-intellectuals. I was so put off by this that I was a while giving the internet a second chance. I toughened my skin and learned to sift the valuable stuff from the sewage. My selectivity does not change the fact that keyboard courage remains the rule, though, whether you’re reading a weblog, comments following a news article, or conversations on Facebook. It’s annoying, and it’s kept me from being more addicted to the online experience than might otherwise have been the case.
The independent publishing movement has given rise to plenty of its own snarkiness, and you don’t have to try hard to find it. One theme that comes around all too often is the constant harping on the impending demise of the traditional publishing industry. “Trad” publishing has been having problems for a long time, troubles that predate digital self-publishing. When the flood tide of indie books was first unleashed, matters quickly grew worse, and gleeful predictions of the end of publishing as we know it became as commonplace as they were often ill-informed – the collapse was always seen as right around the corner, but never actually came to pass. Although these predictions seem to have declined in number over time, you still see bloggers recycle the theme on an all-too-regular basis. Curiously, the time when the alleged demise of traditional publishing will be at hand has increased from a couple of years to a decade or more, so even internet trolls can learn a little caution when repeating predictions. Two related motives seem to be behind the persistence of blog and op-ed pieces predicting that the end of the publishing world is at hand: a need to draw attention and simple spite.
As an attention-getting ploy, I can understand writing a weblog piece on the subject – after all, I’m after something of the sort even now, writing this essay. I’ll even read the piece if the author has done some research and provided a sound basis for his or her conclusions. Unfortunately, most of these “Hey! Look at me!” blog pieces do little more than reiterate the common knowledge that the publishing industry has hit the rocks and is in danger of sinking. While it’s true that traditional publishing is in trouble in this digital age, simply restating this current state of affairs doesn’t exactly make your blog stand out. “Hey! Look at me!” becomes “Me, too!” Now your blog is just part of the crowd.
On the trollish side of things are those giving vent to self-righteous anger as they dwell on the demise of the “gatekeeper” mentality of traditional publishing. Most (if not all) writers of such pieces are people who tried to become published by way of traditional means. I’m one of that crowd. I wrote and submitted my first novel to Del Rey Books in the late 1970s. My last attempt was the novel that ultimately became the foundation for The War of the Second Iteration, submitted to and rejected by DAW Books in2001 (to the best of my recollection). In the quarter of a century or so in between I wrote a lot of fiction, none of which saw the light of day. And yet, I take no delight in seeing the gatekeepers who sent me packing having a tough time of it. They did their jobs and gave me honest opinions based on the realities of life in their business. I surely didn’t care for the answers, and was troubled and terribly frustrated by it all. While I was not always graceful about it, somehow I came away disappointed, but not angered by these rejections. I take no satisfaction from the current troubles of traditional publishing.
The recent revolution in self-publishing has changed many things. I’ve taken advantage of this opportunity, and many thousands of would-be authors are doing the same. (Sheer numbers are creating their own challenges to book discovery, and in effect have made the elimination of gatekeepers something of a moot point). There are, in this growing crowd of author wannabes, no small number who took rejection from traditional publishing personally. They see the ability to do an end-run around the gatekeepers as a sort of personal vindication, proof the big publishers were wrong about them. They write of traditional publishing and its troubles as if the problems are well-deserved. Never mind for a moment how many of these people should have been rejected by competent editors. When someone with that attitude writes about the fate of publishing, their righteous indignation and keyboard courage combine to create some truly cringe-worthy material, often full of overstatements and wishful thinking.
Unfortunately, most of them have missed an important point. The freedom to self-publish that we now enjoy is in no way a validation of anyone’s status as an author. The ability to hit the “publish” button for Kindle Direct Press, Nook Publishing, or Kobo’s Writing Life does not mean the professional editors were wrong about you. The editors may well have been correct – about most of us – all along, and so dancing on their professional graves as if they deserve to see their careers come to an end for honestly looking after their company’s best interests, and telling you “No,” amounts to nothing more than trolling. You have accomplished very little, really, hitting that button. You’ve proven nothing. The real work of doing so comes afterward.
Now and then I peek inside a book published by such a blogger, and it’s no surprise I usually just close the sample and move on. Sometimes I do so with a shudder. I can’t help wondering how many of these purveyors of anti-traditional publishing troll pieces will still have books available ten years from now, the currently popular estimate for publishing’s demise as we know it. How many will have succeeded, and how many, in spite of their self-righteous zeal, will have been rejected by that ultimate and unavoidable gatekeeper, the world of book readers?
Until you try it, writing fiction from a first-person point of view seems a simple enough matter. What could be more straightforward than having the main character just tell the readers the story? And yet writing fiction in the first person can be surprisingly difficult. When a first-person narrative is mishandled by an author, it makes for an awkward reading experience.
Robert Heinlein often wrote in the first person and, although he didn’t hit the mark for me one hundred percent of the time when he did so, more often than not he managed to make it work. I found Have Spacesuit Will Travel and Friday to be a bit heavy-handed, but Job: A Comedy of Justice and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress are among my all-time favorite novels by any author. But of all his first-person narratives, Heinlein in my opinion came closest to the bull’s-eye with one of his earliest – Double Star, the winner of the third Hugo Award ever bestowed upon a novel.
Double Star is the story of a down-on-his luck actor offered the job of impersonating a politician, who holds views with which Lorenzo Smythe does not agree. After having his pride tweaked in a way to compel him to take on the role, money or no money, he finds himself swept up in a solar-system-wide political intrigue. The longer he is involved, the more thoroughly ensnared he becomes, all the while finding that some of his most dearly held beliefs do not stand up well to reality. Where he ends up in the end is not something he would have predicted at the outset, and certainly isn’t a place he wanted to be, but by the end of the story Lorenzo isn’t the man he thought himself to be.
Although this novel, like most books written in the 1950s, does date itself (toadstool shaped Martians living along canals, caverns filled with data stored on microfilm, etc.), it remains an entertaining read to this day by virtue of a very believable first person voice. One of the great challenges of using a first-person point of view in telling a tale is showing the growth and development of the main character. The person telling the tale is looking back on his or her life, relating the events from the perspective of someone here and now who has been through these things. Whatever growth or change the narrator experienced in the course of those events is now something of the past and the tale is told by the person who has already changed. You may get a sense for how that change came to be, but it is often merely described, and not experienced by the reader.
Double Star manages to avoid this pitfall. The narrator tells this tale from his here-and-now perspective, but does so with a clear awareness of the man his younger self really was. He remembers it clearly enough to describe the process of change he endured, while providing the frame of reference needed to tell the story. By accomplishing this, Heinlein made it possible to see the personal growth of Smythe though the recollections of the more mature Smythe. When I first read this novel, sometime in the late 1960s, I did not pick up on this aspect of the story, and simply rolled along with the plot. The story just worked. This rereading was by a more “mature” reader, and my own frame of reference now includes a basic understanding of how to handle, or not handle, a first-person narrative. (I make no claims to being especially adept at it, myself.) Knowing this to be no easy trick to pull off adds a level of enjoyment to rereading this book.
Of course, Heinlein’s own personality comes through in the telling of the tale, with his philosophical and political inclinations right there, if you know how to look for them. In this old novel they’re not as blatant as would be the case late in his career, when Heinlein the author literally intruded upon his own stories. Smythe comes across as a bit of a Libertarian, but not especially polarized, and capable of changing his mind when he learns that things are not as they seem. And the degree to which he discovers that this is the case provides much of what moves the development of this character.
If you’ve managed to miss this bit of early Heinlein, give it a try. It surely deserved its award, and though it now does seem a bit dated, the strength of the character, presented in the first person, makes it an engaging read all the same.
I almost literally grew up writing, and that may well be because I was raised in a family that placed a very high value on literacy; as each of the five siblings demonstrated an ability to read, it was cause for celebration. Reading and writing being the flip sides of literacy, it’s a good bet the habit of putting things down in words was encouraged, as well. We wrote thank you notes for gifts and letters to relatives at the urging of the adults around us, and all five of us became a bit better than functionally literate.
For me, for some reason, it went beyond that. Way beyond. My first attempts at writing stories happened in middle school. By the time I was in high school I knew writing would be part of what I did with my life, and by the time I made my first stab at college I’d realized that writing was going to be my life. By the time I met she-who-was-to-become my wife I’d sold some magazine articles and essays, and written (but not sold) dozens of short stories and several novels. I wrote with the conviction that any given project could be that all-important first sale, and I did so for more than fifteen years. The clerks at the post office I used in Phoenix all knew me by name, I was in there so often with brown 9×12-inch envelopes. All the while the publishing industry was tightening up, becoming a moving target I could in no way anticipate, much less hit. I just kept writing and tried to believe.
It eventually wore me out. I cut back on time spent writing and pursued other things. I got married – twenty-six years ago this very day, in fact. I went back to school and this time completed a degree in plant biology. I rediscovered the stars. I was looking for other things to do, other ways to spend my time, rather than writing more stories that would never see the light of day. I didn’t actually stop writing; astronomy saw to that as I began to post observing reports and book reviews on the Cloudy Nights Telescope Reviews website. But writing with the aim of making it a profession, a way of life, faded to the background.
This was not, as it turned out, a good or healthy thing for me, as I’ve said before on this weblog.
In the autumn of 2011 my wife and I had lunch with a couple I’ve known for quite a few years, among the few friends I’ve held onto since the fade-out of the sci-fi fandom days. Frances writes as Frankie Robertson, and some of you saw an interview she did with me and posted to her blog not too long ago (one of a string of such, and all well worth reading). At lunch that day she told a tale of self-publishing, of ebooks and beta readers and other very intriguing things. I’d heard some of this from people enamored of Kindle ereaders, heard that people were turning their backs on traditional publishing and turning toward self-publishing. Going “indie,” in other words. I had doubts, and no few misgivings, but this was a friend I’d always thought of as having both feet firmly planted, so it was hard to just brush it off as some crazy fad, the digital equivalent of the vanity press schtick. So I listened, and I read a couple of books she recommended (David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Digital being the most influential). I Googled things, read more, and came to the conclusion that indie publishing was a thing to be taken seriously. It seemed worth a try.
So I did. I wrote a little book about rediscovering a bit of my younger self (Mr. Olcott’s Skies) and published it on Amazon for Kindle, and on Smashwords for everything else. I did that one year ago today, on a day that I was sure I would not forget when asked “When did you…?” The most important and rewarding episode of my life began twenty-five years before that first book. Somehow it just seemed right that another major development should be marked by that same date. Since then, I’ve seen Mr. Olcott’s Skies reach beyond its target audience in a way that still surprises me, and I’ve experienced the delight of hearing from people who have read my novels and short stories (two of each at this point). The reviews have been good.
In this past year I’ve sold only a small number of copies as such things are measured, less than two hundred all told. Some would be disappointed by such numbers, but I find myself unconcerned. In the scheme of things – and this is true regardless of what sort of career you pursue – a year spent on any endeavor is no time at all. I’ve just now built a foundation for my indie publishing adventure, and learned something of what I need to make this work. When the second novel in the Second Iteration series was released, it prompted sales of the first, proving that the key to all of this is to keep writing and publishing. That’s fine; it’s what I want to do anyway. I’ve only just begun to explore options for self-promotion, beyond simply publishing the next book, and by the way, the third book in the series is developing at a gratifying rate. But most of all I’m having a fine time writing, again. As it was with the Moon and stars, I’ve re-acquired a vital piece of who and what I am. I will not, years from now, be wondering how it might have been, had I gotten a book or two out there before the eyes of the literate public. I’m in the process of finding the answer to that one, right now, and the process is a joyful one.
Reading and writing are flip sides of being literate, and with this first year behind me, I can once again see both sides of that coin. Give it a toss. Heads or tails, I win.
Just a brief update to alert followers of this weblog that I’ve been interviewed by fellow indie author Frankie Robertson here:
This is one of a series of interviews that includes such authors as Jennifer Roberson, Doranna Durgin, and Dennis L. McKiernan – among others. Not a bad company in which to be included, I must admit.
I very much appreciate being included in this project!
It doesn’t take much of an effort to find weblog pieces and online discussions filled with curmudgeonly commentary on the possible elimination of “real” paper books. Books printed on paper, the curmudgeons fear, will soon be rendered extinct, unable to compete with the convenience of eBooks and magazines available on laptops, tablet computers, and dedicated ereaders. This looming apocalypse clearly arouses the disgust of many book lovers, with a few foolishly adopting the “cold dead hands” rhetoric for which NRA activists are known. Most are merely resigned to the changes in progress, shaking their heads (and sometimes fists) and grousing in fine curmudgeonly fashion that the world that follows this apocalypse will be inferior to the world they knew.
For lovers of books and reading, it will surely be a different world. But inferior? I don’t buy that. I’m eager to own my first ereader.
Now, like the curmudgeons bemoaning the sad fate of “real” books, I’m a heavy reader. I understand their love of reading. Books have been a major element of my life for as far back as I can remember. It wasn’t a proper Christmas unless one of the packages contained books, and when asked my preference for a birthday gift I usually had a title or two in mind. (If I didn’t, the adults in my life were very good at picking out volumes that pleased me.) So I can say with complete sincerity that I love books and reading. I love the feel of a book in my hands, the smell of books, and the sound of the pages turning. Most of all, I find the interaction between the words and my mind and imagination enormously gratifying – I always have. And in the joy I so often feel while reading, whether for entertainment or edification (or both at once), I have found an understanding of why my reaction to eBooks is acceptance, not resistance.
I love to read. Reading, not the book itself, is the thing. Flipping the pages, smelling the paper, feeling the weight – all of these things are sensations I associate with reading, but they are not the act of reading. The central matter is my mental and emotional interaction with the words, and through them the ideas and stories presented by the authors who arranged those words in the hope that someone might one day read them. Whether I’m adding to my knowledge of history or science, or escaping reality for a few minutes or hours, it’s the reading that does it for me. That’s the experience that counts. Once I’m into a book, the sounds and smells of bookishness are lost on me. It turns out that this happens as readily for me with an eBook as one made of paper. So whichever way the reading world turns in terms of delivery methods – and it’s pretty obvious where things are headed – my reading habit won’t be affected. In fact, the most likely effect will be an increase in the amount of reading I do. I’m not getting any younger, you see, and I feel an ache in hands and wrists when I hold a substantial volume, and it’s ever more common for me to set a book aside because arthritis is having its way with me, and not because I’ve run out of time to read. But all books weigh the same when in a digital format, and a good ereader weighs next to nothing.
The books I currently own will stay where they are; I won’t be replacing many volumes with digital counterparts. Except for a few frequently used references, I can’t see any point. But many new books, especially works of fiction, will come my way in a digital format. I’ve already used the Kindle and Nook reading apps on my laptop to discover new authors, and this process will only accelerate when I have a dedicated ereader. I see myself, in years to come, buying either paper books or eBooks, whatever suits the needs of the moment, and for as long as both exist.
But if paper ever does go the way of the dodo, I’ll still be reading. I’ll be reading eBooks.
Curmudgeons will no doubt read these words (assuming any of them read weblogs online, which come to think of it is rather unlikely) while frowning and shaking their heads. I’ll leave them to it. There’s no point arguing with those who espouse a lost cause, and eBooks are not going to be a “fad” as so many predicted when the Kindle first hit the market. As evidence of this, consider the UofA student union, in which I am typing this entry. Yesterday I strolled through the union and kept a count of people I noticed reading. Those reading something on a laptop only counted if I saw nothing animated on the screen, a small number. I found 58 people reading, and 33 of them were using ereaders of some sort; you really don’t need to do the math to know what those numbers reveal. Of greater interest to me was the fact that readers of print and eBook alike had the same fixed stares of readers everywhere when lost in a story. There was no visible difference between readers of books and eBooks; the experience seemed the same for them, either way. The current generation of eBooks has succeeded because, for those who desire the experience of reading, they ultimately provide exactly the same thing. Being hung up on the superficial aspects, paper crinkling and the scent of ink, often amounts to little more than grasping after rationalizations to hide a knee-jerk reaction to change.
Study history and you will soon learn that it’s the nature of human civilization to change. And when you understand the pervasive nature of social change you realize there are only two ways to react. You can embrace change, work it and direct it and try to mitigate its less savory aspects. Or you can dig in your heels, hit the brakes, and circle the wagons. But history also teaches us that those who simply try to prevent change are eventually swept away and rendered irrelevant. Those who argue against eBooks and ereaders, especially those who try to prove there’s actually something harmful in such things will, with their objections, soon be forgotten. Their point is already moot, as my informal count in the student union yesterday showed. Books in digital form, or whatever eBooks evolve into, will be the way people read in the near future. And since I plan to read in the future, I will read eBooks.