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The Golden Age of Science Fiction

Back when I was growing up in rural America, I didn’t realize what a remarkable time period I lived in. My dreams always leapt to the future in far flung galaxies or excavated in the past amid ancient or fantastical civilizations.  I practically lived in the library where I had free access to these worlds through the pages of books.  Yet I always longed for the days when I could afford to buy my own copies, when books would be as free and plentiful and accessible as the air I breathed.

Fast forward to the 21st century when all my dreams seemed to come true: books are plentiful and accessible thanks to e-readers and publishing platforms like Createspace; however, the writers have changed.  Back in the Golden Age of science fiction, writers wrote series of books, not books of series. They created marvelous worlds and characters and spun countless episodes of adventures like an ongoing television series.

Today, however, writers take one story, pump it up with useless backstory, bland dialogue and wasted pages of description in order to stretch the one story over a dozen books. And I am left back in the exact same desert as before—unable to satisfy my thirst for imaginary worlds and larger than life characters.

But back to the Golden Age of Science Fiction.  In the decades leading up to the 1970s, science fiction had a positive outlook—even the most thought-provoking stories left the reader with a gleam of hope at the end, a chance that humanity could learn from their mistakes and move forward into a glorious age of space exploration.  Even the cautionary tales, the woeful predictions of gloom and doom were offset with stories detailing the best humanity had to offer. There was also a slew of juvie lit (not necessarily about high school kids), but written for high schoolers that showed we could overcome our base nature and rise to join the vast and glorious civilizations that spanned the galaxies.  It was a time for encouragement and enthusiasm to explore the cosmos and every kid wanted to be a huge part of it.

At least, those of us who read science fiction.

I miss those stories. Even going to the library today finds precious little on the shelves worth my time and investment. Oh, I know Tom Corbett, Andre Norton, Ray Bradbury, and the Heinlein juvie novels were formulaic – that’s what made them so great! In spite of the peril and danger we knew our heroes would succeed. In a world fraught with real dangers and problems, losing myself in an uplifting story was a sorely needed form of escapism.

I think we’ve lost something vital with today’s version of science fiction. We are breeding a generation that has no imagination, that expects aliens to plot the destruction of humanity (and thus expects humanity to plot its own demise), that hasn’t the gumption to reach outward to the stars because of all the obstacles that must first be overcome. Today’s science fiction does far more to defeat the exploration of space than to entice young people to boldly go where no one has gone before.

With our passion for “realistic” stories we have lost not only a piece of our history, but a piece of ourselves. And a society that lacks imagination, can never prepare for the future.

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Trees from Another Planet

A rose by any other name might still smell as sweet, but a tree by definition finds its uniqueness in leaf and branch. The names of trees help us build a visual picture that adds to reading enjoyment. Pine evokes a sense of mountain grandeur or the spicy tang associated with winter and Christmas. Oak treats us to steadfastness and the hope of growth from small beginnings.

Trees have always fascinated me and the more varied and different, the better I like them. I prefer the purple of the Japanese maple over the dark green of a mulberry. The orchid-like blossoms of the desert willow hold more fascination than the waxy blooms of the magnolia. Mesquite trees with their feathery fronds, yellow fuzzy blossoms and contrasting dark trunks and yellow green foliage seem otherworldly.

But my all time favorite tree for looking like its from another planet is the ceibo tree manabi    ceibo tree of Ecuador. Most folks know the ceibo as the kapok or silk tree due to the frothy silk seedpods. Ceibos are uniquely designed for dry, waterless climates. Deep green trunks and branches provide the necessary photosynthesis for seed production, and the tree’s life cycle creates the seeds before the leaves. Hollow trunks conserve water usage, streamlining the necessary nutrients directly into seed production.

Ceibos have weird, twisted branches, which often end up resembling people—provided you have a bit of imagination. The barren branches have no leaves or relatively few leaves until the end of the cycle. When everything else is putting forth new leaves, the ceibo stands stark and bare.

I did some research on the ceibo trees and discovered something unique to Ecuador. All the pictures of other ceibos showed waxy, red blossoms. Our ceibos never had red leaf-like blooms. Every year I would watch our ceibos transition from barren to small white blooms, to hairy branches with moss-like trailers, then the seedpods. At the end, if we’d had some moisture small leaves would appear, but more often than not, this part of the cycle was skipped. Other ceibos seems to lack the moss—at least I never saw a picture of one outside of Ecuador.

For me, the ceibos were odd—more fitting of plant life on some science fiction world than a native of planet Earth. In the dry and dusty terrain of Manabí province, the ceibos were often the greenest things around. We became accustomed to barren, leafless bushes with vivid purple or red blooms clustered around the knees of the towering ceibos. In an otherwise brown landscape the green trunks of the ceibos stood out, the dandelion silk of the seedpods floating on the wind like snowflakes, the scraggly grey “hair” draped across branches like tattered scarves.

For a science fiction writer like myself, the ceibos became my touchstone between fantasy and reality, a fixed point in time and space where imagination crossed with the real world. I still miss them.

To Play or Not to Play the Numbers Game

When is a story done? At what word count? Is longer better? Can a good story be told in less than 80,000 words or is that a sign of someone who can’t “go the distance?” It’s amazing that during the Golden Age of science fiction, some of my favorite novels wouldn’t even be considered by publishing companies today due to length—or lack there of.

A story is finished when the tale is told. Adding tens of thousands of words just to make up a word count is pointless. In fact, I’m one of those notorious readers with a penchant for skipping over large portions of boring description. If you can’t describe something in a sentence or two, I’m not going to waste my time reading 10 pages describing the sequence for a bomb detonation. I don’t care how famous the writer.

For me the story is all about the action and dialogue. Move it forward or lose me as a reader. My time is valuable and I have so many other things going on that I don’t want to spend seven or eight hours on one book. I’d rather read seven or eight books.

I have an imagination and I know how to use it. Tell me the character is a greasy thug and I can see what he looks like without the specific details—unless the dreadlocks, ACDC T-shirt, and scraggly beard have a purpose to the story….say identifying the perp in a particular crime for a detective novel.

Maybe it’s my journalistic background. I remember in college getting my first C on a paper—with no red marks. When pressed, the professor told me my paragraphs were too short. If I can clearly state my objective in 25 words or less, why would I want to waste my time (and the reader’s) by adding “wordiness?”

Let’s face it: not every story is going to be “literary.” Not every literary story is good, nor is every non-literary story bad.  Andre Norton’s description of scenery and character in The Beast Master still resonates in my memory even though I first read her novel more than 30 years ago. She didn’t waste any words in her 192-page novel and the story is a classic.

I also grew up with the Hardy Boys, Tom Corbett, and Rick Brant, all excellent adventure stories that were less than a two hour read and didn’t waste a lot of time on description. Yet I can see Spindrift Island and I know how to find my way from the flight deck to the power deck on the Polaris.

So don’t expect my novels to have cumbersome word counts or drag out over several books like some Borg collective. If the story can be told in 40,000 words, that’s what I’ll write. If it takes 80,000, be prepared to spend some time in my story world. At the end of the day, my goal is not a specific word count, but did I make you forget your problems for a little while and did I bring a smile to your face?

Learning from the Masters

I grew up on the tail end of science fictions “Golden Age,” a time when writers were more philosophers, scientists, and theorists than people intent on creating entertainment. Most novels focused on scientific principles and how those related to men and conflict.

Even though “soft” sci fi stories were few and far between, there were authors who were consummate masters: Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, H. Beam Piper and Ray Bradbury.

My personal favorites are still: The Beast Master by Andre Norton; Have Space Suit Will Travel by Robert Heinlein; Four Day Planet and Lone Star Planet by H. Beam Piper; and Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed by Ray Bradbury. No matter how many times I re-read these books, they never lose their freshness and appeal.

What have I learned from these great storytellers? First, world building doesn’t have to be included in the story. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit Will Travel gives little information about Earth during the story’s time setting. It simply wasn’t important. Details on even the Mother Thing’s planet are skimpy and irrelevant.

Second, elaborate character background needs to remain in the author’s head, not in the story. The hero of Lone Star Planet is simply explained as part of a government agency relegated to a backwater world as discipline for too much “free thinking.” All the nuances and details of his past life are immaterial. It is how he reacts to situations and responds to the challenge that make the story intriguing.

Finally, the story itself must be entertaining and compelling. Readers seek similarities, points of reference that are at once familiar and different.  What connects readers to the hero in The Beast Master are ties to the past, familiar scenes of farming and ranching. What grounds us in the story are the similarities with a few simple brushstrokes, like Chinese line painting. The white spaces, not the lines, define the subject. The conflict and action which drives the story are powerful and potent when found in the most basic needs: belonging, home, family, what defines us, what really matters. Once a writer has found these things, the story unfolds naturally and all the accouterments such as details, setting, dialogue become embellishments, like jewels on the hilt of a sword or decorations in a home.

Stories of ordinary people facing ordinary life in an extraordinary way, this is the stuff of legends.

 

 

 

 

Indelible Mark

Certain stories have a tendency to stick with me long after I’ve forgotten the name of the book or the author. These may not be the best written stories, may not be literary stories, may not even be stories worth re-reading or have long term merits. But for me, these are stories that changed who I am, how I perceive the world; these are stories that still inspire me today and became the lodestone that keeps me writing.

I grew up during the Stupid 70s and about the only good thing that came out of that era was the short-lived experiment to allow students to custom design their classes. So, I was fortunate enough to take a journalism class for Freshman English, as well as a science fiction short story class. The story in question was in an anthology and I retell it making no apology for the poor storytelling, nor errors in the retelling of details.

He was returning home after being imprisoned in cryosleep for 75 years. His crime? Speaking out against the status quo, having a different opinion, publishing his thoughts in a small book that had the potential to influence society.

He wondered about the girl he loved and left behind, the cruelty of a justice system that had stolen everything from him. As he passed by the landmarks of his home town, he recalled their first meeting, their courtship, the high points of their life together.

Arriving at his home, he was shocked to see it had not changed. The open door, the journal left abandoned on the table, spoke of a hasty departure. Curious, he began to read. And discovered her efforts to wait for him, opportunities and risks she took in order to become part of the scientific advancements in spaceflight, travelling at faster than light speeds in the hopes of slowing time enough to be with him again. She wrote of her love, the burning desire to wait for him, the yearning for his imprisonment not to be in vain.

Frantically, he searches the house for her. Has something happened? Why is she not there to meet him? At last it dawns on him–she is afraid. Afraid time has not been kind, afraid too many years have passed and he will not see the woman he loves in the woman she has become.

With a lighter heart, he walks to the community center; the place where they first met to begin their story. She is there, a rose in her hair, fingers twining and twisting, worry lining the still beautiful face. She is there and she is his and the wait no longer matters.

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