As someone who likes a good quotation I figured I’d link to this guy’s list of the “100 Best Quotes of All Time.” He’s definitely got some good ones there and even a few I haven’t read before.
Guest Contributor – Ed Brault – 18MAY2023 – A Favorite Kipling Poem
Another Snippet from My Book
I’ve been trying to speed up my writing but there’s always something distracting me. but I thought it would be fun to post a little part of a scene.
“After the meeting, Director Sparks called Chastain and told him to meet him at Sparks’ temporary office in the Pentagon. When Chastain arrived Sparks briefed him. “We can’t play around anymore. I’ve been given unlimited resources to catch this man. I want you to act as the lead. There will be three separate teams. One will investigate the physical evidence at the Hoover building site to figure out what the hell we’re up against. The second team will pursue the cyber trail of whoever released the video. That leak must be plugged. But most important, the third team will find Boghadair. You will have first priority on all the surveillance infrastructure, public and private. You can write a blank check for whatever you need but I want that man in custody within the week. If not, your head is on the block. And that’s not a joke. If Boghadair isn’t in shackles in a week from today you’re done.” Chastain bit back some bitter words and said, “Okay, I’ll need a command center with a room where I can crash; bed, shower, kitchen. Tell me the cost center numbers I can charge to and give me the contact information for my three team leads. I’ll find Boghadair for you or you can have my job. But I wonder what else I’ll find. Apparently, this thing is a lot bigger than one man.”
Sparks handed him a briefcase. “All the documents are on a drive. There’s a folder with all the contact information and the codes you need to access the databases and the systems you’ll need. I also want a list of government officials that Boghadair might target and conjecture on the order of attack. I want that list by tomorrow morning.” Chastain nodded his head. Sparks growled, “That’s all.” And Chastain left the office and walked out of the building. As he was leaving the building he thought, “You’re at the top of that list you fool.”
As Director Sparks left his temporary office that night that very idea occurred to him. He was headed home to a gated community in one of the most expensive suburbs of Washington. And he was scared. He decided to travel back to his home by a different route. Taking this circuitous route and seeing no cars following him he slowly calmed down and by the time he was within a mile of his home he felt foolish about his fears. When he was caught at a red light that usually never changed on him he was a little confused. Then he noticed that the video display on his dashboard shifted from the typical menu view to a video feed. He could see a man in the driver’s seat of a car. After a second or two he realized he was looking at an image of himself. He was for a second stunned and by the time he comprehended his peril the bullet was already entering the side of his head. When his foot slipped off the brake his car rolled into the intersection and was struck by traffic going through the intersection. The local police were on the scene rather quickly and alerted the FBI based on the car’s license plate number. Late that night the report reached George Chastain and his first thought was, “I guess I should let the Attorney General know he’s next on the list.””
Gee, it’s fun killing bad guys. It just feels right. Well, on to the Attorney General.
ChatGTP Wants to Write Our Fiction for Us
Vox Day had a post about Clarkesworld science fiction magazine that had to shut down its submissions due to being overwhelmed by the volume of AI generated novels being submitted. Apparently, they can’t afford the software that could automate the process of identifying and rejecting the AI generated books.
As someone currently writing a science fiction novel this is a remarkable turn of events. Wouldn’t it be something if the artificial authors produce a better product than the organic ones! And I don’t mean more grammatical, but more creative and entertaining. So, if the algorithm blends 60% Heinlein with 20% Dickens and 20% Hemingway would it produce the greatest science fiction story of all time or an abomination not fit for human consumption?
In one sense I’m lucky. I’ve read that ChatGTP is hopelessly woke so my current story about a revolt against an authoritarian Deep State cabal is impossible for ChatGTP to write. If it attempted such a thing it would blow out every circuit in its server farm.
But just thinking about this whole Frankensteinian situation is amusing. I imagine Dr. Morbius from Forbidden Planet describing to a visiting interstellar fiction author the ability of the Krell machine to write sci-fi stories, “You see these row after row of instruments? Each one represents an increase by a factor of ten the number of cybernetic neurons figuring out plot details. It’s the number ten raised literally to the power of infinity of cliffhanger chapter endings and hypercompetent heroes saying something self-serving.”
But then his guest would remind him of monsters from the id, “Yes Morbius, but without the ability reflect reality; without the ability to distinguish male characters from female characters and to allow non-white characters to have normal human flaws it will all quickly devolve into unreadable goo.”
To which Morbius would reply, “Of course, the mindless primitive, why didn’t I see it? Hypersensitive, politically correct story lines are stultifyingly boring. Quick, son, press down this lever and be one hundred million miles away before it blows. I’ve set ChatGTP to overdrive and when that amount of drivel piles up the result will be a literary black hole that will render all of science fiction lifeless within fifty parsecs.”
Well, I wonder how all of this will impact self-publishing at places like Amazon. Will even their servers be able to handle the surge in output from ChatGTP filling up the world’s server farms with romance and porn novels about super-smart super-attractive girl-bosses who save the known universe.
Heaven, help us.
11JAN2023 – OCF Update – All Work and No Play Makes photog a Dull Boy
There’s no rest for the wicked and I’m no exception. Fate has conspired to render this week and next awfully busy for yours truly. I’ll be out pocket most of this afternoon and then there’s more drama tomorrow. I’ll be wearing a suit and tie then and doing my best to seem like that bright young photog of 1980. Well, it’s a really nice tie.
So, I’ll do my best to fill the site with interesting content. I’ve been enjoying the non-political stuff over the last few days. Let’s face it, writing every day about Kevin McCarthy is not exactly an inspiring prospect. In fact, I’d be happiest if the headline for the next two years is, “McCarthy continues to block all new spending coming from White House and Senate.” All of his power is negative. He can’t force Biden to do anything but he can stop him from inflicting any new damage. And if he’s especially clever he might come up with a compromise bill that does more good than harm. Then I would write something nice about him. His epitaph might be, “HERE LIES KEVIN MCCARTHY, HE CAUSED LESS HARM THAN PAUL RYAN!”
I’ve been having fun mining “The Maltese Falcon” for nuggets of gold. No work of fiction, that I know of, is all gold. There’s always dross mixed in. And the Falcon is no exception. But Hammett had his moments and I enjoy picking apart some of his dialog for the sheer joy of its feel. I especially enjoy Gutman’s elaborate banter. But there are bits here and bits there for many of the characters. I may do a little more digging on the Falcon if something strikes me. And then I’ll look around to see what else is out there on the book shelf. I noticed that some of Hammett is already in the public domain. Well, it’s close to a century old but I wasn’t sure how much they extended copyrights the last time Disney bribed Washington. But Hammett may not have kept up with his own intellectual property rights at the end. I don’t think he was doing well toward the end of his life and I don’t think he had any heirs.
I was watching the movie “The Boston Strangler” last night. I’d never seen it before and I guess I didn’t know what to expect. I’ll put up a review soon but it certainly was a strange movie. Maybe the best way to describe it is to say that although the events took place in 1963 the movie was made in 1968 and therefore absorbed a lot of the current day weirdness. There are gay and lesbian characters and a tawdriness and weirdness about many of the minor characters that borders on parody. Seeing Henry Fonda navigating this mess made me think, “How the mighty have fallen.”
Well, anyway, I’ll try to keep my nose to the grindstone in between my errands and responsibilities and we’ll see what I can come up with. Excelsior!
Of Femme Fatales and Food
Brigid O’Shaughnessy is the love interest and principal suspect in Dashiell Hammett’s, “The Maltese Falcon.” Whenever Sam Spade attempts to extract any sliver of truth from Brigid she fills the air with pheromones, lies and histrionics. But perhaps the only slice of normal human interaction between them occurs the night of and the morning after O’Shaughnessy ends up in Spade’s bed. Before and after this offstage sexual encounter we see the two of them sharing meals.
“Post Street was empty when Spade issued into it. He walked east a block, crossed the street, walked west two blocks on the other side, recrossed it, and returned to his building without having seen anyone except two mechanics working on a car in a garage.
When he opened his apartment-door Brigid O’Shaughnessy was standing at the bend in the passageway, holding Cairo’s pistol straight down at her side.
“He’s still there,” Spade said.
She bit the inside of her lip and turned slowly, going back into the living-room. Spade followed her in, put his hat and overcoat on a chair, said, “So we’ll have time to talk,” and went into the kitchen.
He had put the coffee-pot on the stove when she came to the door, and was slicing a slender loaf of French bread. She stood in the doorway and watched him with preoccupied eyes. The fingers of her left hand idly caressed the body and barrel of the pistol her right hand still held.
“The table-cloth’s in there,” he said, pointing the bread-knife at a cupboard that was one breakfast-nook partition.
She set the table while he spread liverwurst on, or put cold corned beef between, the small ovals of bread he had sliced. Then he poured the coffee, added brandy to it from a squat bottle, and they sat at the table. They sat side by side on one of the benches. She put the pistol down on the end of the bench nearer her.
“You can start now, between bites,” he said.
She made a face at him, complained, “You’re the most insistent person,” and bit a sandwich.
“Yes, and wild and unpredictable. What’s this bird, this falcon, that everybody’s all steamed up about?”
She chewed the beef and bread in her mouth, swallowed it, looked attentively at the small crescent its removal had made in the sandwich’s rim, and asked: “Suppose I wouldn’t tell you? Suppose I wouldn’t tell you anything at all about it? What would you do?””
I notice the gun that Brigid is still carrying. Spade notices it too. I think she’s trying to make up her mind whether to hook Spade or kill him. But I also notice the meal. Rich meaty tastes and rich stimulating drink. This is comfort food for the damned. Sensual pleasure for killers. It’s late at night and Spade is still trying to figure out whether O’Shaughnessy killed his partner Miles and whether he wants the Falcon for himself. And he’s most certainly trying to figure out whether Brigid will be in his bed that night. He’s playing a very dangerous game with the most dangerous of the players in it. He can deal with Gutman, Cairo and even Wilmer’s trigger-happy temper. But Brigid is very dangerous because she distracts Spade while she plays her various parts.
“He did not find the black bird. He found nothing that seemed to have any connection with a black bird. The only piece of writing he found was a week-old receipt for the month’s apartment-rent Brigid O’Shaughnessy had paid. The only thing he found that interested him enough to delay his search while he looked at it was a double-handful of rather fine jewelry in a polychrome box in a locked dressing-table-drawer.
When he had finished he made and drank a cup of coffee. Then he unlocked the kitchen-window, scarred the edge of its lock a little with his pocket-knife, opened the window–over a fire-escape–got his hat and overcoat from the settee in the living-room, and left the apartment as he had come.
On his way home he stopped at a store that was being opened by a puffy-eyed shivering plump grocer and bought oranges, eggs, rolls, butter, and cream.
Spade went quietly into his apartment, but before he had shut the corridor-door behind him Brigid O’Shaughnessy cried: “Who is that?”
“Young Spade bearing breakfast.”
“Oh, you frightened me!”
The bedroom-door he had shut was open. The girl sat on the side of the bed, trembling, with her right hand out of sight under a pillow.
Spade put his packages on the kitchen-table and went into the bedroom. He sat on the bed beside the girl, kissed her smooth shoulder, and said: “I wanted to see if that kid was still on the job, and to get stuff for breakfast.”
She sighed and leaned against him. “I awakened and you weren’t here and then I heard someone coming in. I was terrified.”
Spade combed her red hair back from her face with his fingers and said: “I’m sorry, angel. I thought you’d sleep through it. Did you have that gun under your pillow all night?”
“No. You know I didn’t. I jumped up and got it when I was frightened.”
He cooked breakfast–and slipped the flat brass key into her coat-pocket again–while she bathed and dressed.
She came out of the bathroom whistling En Cuba. “Shall I make the bed?” she asked.
“That’d be swell. The eggs need a couple of minutes more.”
Their breakfast was on the table when she returned to the kitchen. They sat where they had sat the night before and ate heartily.
“Now about the bird?” Spade suggested presently as they ate.
She put her fork down and looked at him. She drew her eyebrows together and made her mouth small and tight. “You can’t ask me to talk about that this morning of all mornings,” she protested. “I don’t want to and I won’t.”
“It’s a stubborn damned hussy,” he said sadly and put a piece of roll into his mouth.”
So, after climbing out of bed with Brigid he leaves and breaks into her apartment searching for the Falcon and any clues he can find. Then he heads back to his apartment and cooks breakfast for his lady love. Oranges, eggs, rolls, butter, and cream. It’s domestic bliss. A man and woman in love waking up to a bright morning with a hearty breakfast. But there’s that gun again. Always right at the edge of their love affair is Brigid clutching a pistol and seeming to endlessly oscillate between reflexes for homicide and passion. And as he once said to her out loud, “Now you are dangerous.”
And Spade is a creature of passion and his appetites are for food, drink, smoke, action and women. And Hammett does an admirable job portraying these things within the constraints of his time. But to me I think he succeeded best with food. There’s a zest in the type of food his character likes and I respond to the food and it seems to chime in with the moods he draws in those scenes. I think they add to the story admirably. A nice master class for any writer to consider when his characters have to eat.
Enough of Gloom and Doom for the Last Week of the Year
So that post I had up for yesterday was certainly depressing. Well, I had an antidote for that today. After getting home from an errand this afternoon, I had all four grandsons over for a viewing of the extended version of the “Return of the King.” This includes my personal favorite scene from the motion picture series, “The Ride of the Rohirrim.”
There’s nothing like hanging out with my young descendants to cheer me up. This was the first viewing of this decisive completion to the trilogy for the two younger fellows. And there was much excitement over the visually impressive Battle of Minas Tirth. We cheered on the good guys and laughed when the various orcs and trolls were splatted by projectiles hurled from the battlements.
Camera Girl, always the gracious hostess, provided grilled cheeses sandwiches, mac and cheese and desserts. There were several pies, various flavors of ice cream, cheesecake and cookies available. And this being a vacation week we all ate way too much.
After the movie ended, we debated many important points of Tolkeiniana. I expressed my opinion that regardless of the violence done to the plot Sam should have been allowed to liquidate Gollum. In all honesty, in the movie version, I despise both Gollum and Frodo almost equally. Frodo is such a hopeless basket case that it defies imagination that Sam was able to finally carry him over the finish line to Mount Doom at all. If they had taken along a ten-year-old girl instead it couldn’t have been any more pathetic. I think if Elrond had given the ring to Sam, he would have chucked it in Mount Doom a couple of months early and been back in the Shire in time for potato planting.
My younger relatives seemed to enjoy most the scenes where Gimli and Legolas compete to kill the most orcs. I have to confess the liberties that the movie makers took with the dialog around Gimli borders on the farcical but I will admit that sometimes the lightheartedness is a welcome addition. Although I do draw the line at the dwarf tossing and elf snowboarding scenes in “The Two Towers.”
Eventually some of the discussions spilled over into arguments about the actual text in Tolkien’s books. I had to bring out my copy of the trilogy in order to provide authoritative answers to questions like which were older, the Oathbreakers on the Paths of the Dead or the dead soldiers in the Dead Marshes? As it turned out they were both from the same time period, the Last Alliance of Men and Elves against Sauron at the end of the Second Age.
And so, we ended the get together and I brought them home in time to finish their chores and prepare for the next day of their Christmas vacation. But if life in this confused world still includes time with such admirable characters as my grandsons, then it can’t be all bad. We’ll have many good things to do in the days and weeks ahead. And I’ll get to see them grow up to be fine young men. As for problems, well, helping family with their problems is what family is all about.
17DEC2022 – Marley’s Ghost
The 1984 version of A Christmas Carol has I think the best portrayal of Marley’s Ghost
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing his hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
Mankind is the business of us all. And today the priority is to preserve what makes us human. Protecting the young from the lies and perversions of the nihilists must be our focus.
What Must a Good Science Fiction Story Have?
I’ve returned to the land of the living. My eyes track. I can walk through a doorway without colliding with a doorjamb. I can even keep up a conversation without sliding sideways off my chair onto the floor. Next week I climb the Matterhorn. Bravissimo!
I looked through the news feeds. And, so help me, I even considered watching the Georgia run-off. But there just wasn’t anything the least bit interesting. I even considered pulling a Jussie Smollett. I was going to claim that a Canon camera enthusiast sent me a derogatory e-mail making fun of my many bison photos of the day. But my hard-bitten honesty just wouldn’t let me do it. I love those bison!
I thought, “I’ll just write about something I like.” After all that post about nuclear war had some great comments and that stuff really interests me. Why not do something like that? So that’s why this is coming out of left field. I just didn’t feel like beating a political drum that’s already been beaten to a bloody pulp.
So, for a theme I’ll select the question, “What’s the most important component of a good science fiction story?”
Is it the tech? Is it a good plot? Is it well written characters? Or does it absolutely require some balance between the three?
Let’s explore this a little bit. Start with tech. I suppose that space opera has lost a lot of support among the modern readers of science fiction. Stuff like the Skylark of Space, The Legion of Space or the Lensman books are probably disqualified as too naïve and hopelessly early 20th century for anyone under sixty to consider reading. But is the inexplicable faster than light (ftl) drives of these stories any less plausible than whatever also implausible ftl drives are currently being used by modern science fiction writers? I’ve got to say I don’t think they’re disqualifications. I’d say the rule is it just has to be self-consistent with whatever “rules” you’ve made up for the tech. So, it doesn’t have to be somehow scientifically accurate. It just can’t be bone-headedly stupid. What it does have to be is convenient. The technology has to allow the plot to evolve the way you want. If space travel takes centuries, then don’t kill off too many good characters by leaving them back on Earth. Or if time travel can only go backwards then don’t leave your spare batteries for your ray gun in your other pair of pants when you head back to the neolithic.
And the tech should be a fun toy for the reader if you can manage it. I always loved how Heinlein lovingly designed his “torchships” and made the passenger and service areas of his ships seem well thought out. But I also know of authors whose tech is basically a black box and for all we hear we could be sitting inside the fuselage of a jet plane.
While tech is necessary (after all it is sf) it’s not the deciding factor whether a story works.
Well, how about characters? Yes, they are important, in the sense that they must at least exist. But I’ve read some supposedly classic science fiction where the characters are as flat as pancakes (Asimov and Clarke come to mind). Now this may no longer be the case. I’m not sure. I enjoy a good amount of character development in my fiction and I’ve been able to find it. But I could easily believe there could be a very good story where character was in short supply.
What about plot? Well, I could imagine a story that had a strong tech component and interesting characters but the plot was almost minimal. Maybe like some of Bradbury’s short stories like the one where the Ladies’ Sewing Circle is trying to ignore the impending nuclear holocaust by concentrating on their work. It’s all character. But I guess you still have to say there’s a plot or more like a scenario.
I feel like, for the most part, and except for very odd stories, the sine qua non of a good science fiction story is a good plot. If your tech is passable and your characters are at least bearable but you have a plot that rolls along and interesting stuff happening then you have a chance. But you can have great tech and witty, erudite, droll fellows populating your world and if not much of anything is happening except talk, then your readers will throw the book against the wall (or the digital equivalent) and go look for something better. And that’s that!
Now I know there are many sf fans in the audience. I’d love to hear your comments, especially if you disagree. I’m always interested in the opinions of sf readers. The floor is now yours.
Nuclear Armageddon as a Plot Device
Recently Joe Biden made the news when he reversed a campaign vow and stated that under his administration the United States would maintain the right to nuclear first strike as a military option. Now the idea of Dementia Joe mistaking the nuclear football for his tv remote and ordering up an all-out nuclear blitz on Russia and China while trying to access some kind of hair fetish programming is obviously concerning.
But really this article is more about fiction writing. In a story that I have been working on (forever) I reached a point in the story where I considered that the best way to escape from the corner I’d painted myself into was by having thermonuclear war break out between Russia and the United States.
Admittedly, that seems like a sad statement on my writing abilities but in point of fact it provided a definitive solution to multiple plot problems I was faced with. After all, there aren’t many scenarios that can put the US federal government on its heels. But three 20-megaton thermonuclear ICBMs detonating over Washington is a leading contender. So, I will confess that I considered the scenario very carefully.
One thing I noticed though is that the impact of a nuked United States is extremely disruptive to a storyline. Even the most tyrannical US administration looks quite different after the mushroom cloud sprouts over it. Because now all of a sudden millions of Americans are dead and the ones still living are stunned, scared and desperate for a path forward. At that point they’d follow Satan himself if he knows where to get food and fuel.
So, everything in my story is turned upside down. Instead of the plucky rebels fighting the evil feds in a series of hit and run attacks, suddenly they find themselves wondering how they’ll survive without the now non-existent FEMA agency to save them from starvation and hypothermia. Now what happens to my rebellion story? All of a sudden enemies need each other just to survive. Freedom and independence suddenly don’t mean much when staying alive requires all hands-on deck.
So that’s the change in the atmosphere, the feel of the story. Does it still make sense? Can the story survive the change? Not as originally conceived. I was looking at a series of stories with the rebels taking on the Deep State one step at a time with the rest of the country sizing up the battle and the balance of power gradually tilting toward the rebels. But now the battle is over but without the dramatic tension and the action. Instead, we have a tale of catastrophe and dissolution.
And to make that story work will require a change in emphasis. Now instead of a slowly building wave of battle we have a nuclear wipe out and a tide going out. Instead of a war with winners and losers we have the flotsam and jetsam from a deluge struggling to survive and trying to rebuild some kind of patchwork of settlements. That’s a totally different thing. It becomes a bunch of smaller stories at the village level. Instead of armies we have farmers and mechanics, men and women and their children trying to survive without supermarkets and gas stations, even without electricity. It’s nothing like the story I was envisioning but somehow it makes sense. Because even though we may have forgotten about the atom bomb it hasn’t gone away. It’s still there and it has its own internal logic that makes it the executioner of last resort. If we decide that the arc of history bends in our direction and we can do as we please no matter what, we may find that the arc is just the ballistic track of an ICBM.
So inexorably I think the story is telling me to make a turn. Even as a fictional plot device it does make one pause. Imagine the largest fifty American cities reduced to rubble and charred bodies. Imagine fallout killing off a quarter of the survivors. And food and fuel gone for the rest of the survivors. The grimness of such a tale is hard to overstate. How do you tell such a story so that people will want to read it?
Well, that’s a subject for another day. But this one has helped me get my thoughts in some kind of order. Okay, hit all those buttons!