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Piers the handyman 2007
AwGhost 2011
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Jewel-Lye was another busy month. I proofread the second collaborative Dragon's Gold series novel, Serpent's Silver, for electronic publication, and you know after 22 years since publication I had forgotten practically all of it. In my dotage my memory for the story lines of my own novels is less than ideal. I did not reread Dragon's Gold because that's already online, listed under my collaborator, Robert E Margroff. So it was like starting a new series with the second novel, bound to be confusing. And it was, slightly, but in due course I got into it and it has its points. I noticed the magic gauntlets, which are like none I know of elsewhere; when a person puts them on, not only do they fit perfectly, they make him/her competent with weapons and sometimes with words. At one point they were hurrying a person breathlessly along, and then the cave tunnel collapsed just behind: they had known it wasn't safe to dawdle. Wouldn't it be nice to have gauntlets like those!

I also proofread a far more recent novel, The Sopaths, catching typos the copy-editor didn't, as is usually the case. It had been only a year since I wrote this novel, so I remembered most of it. I loved it, ugly as it may be, finding it lucid, innovative, and effective. This is horror, and the horror is mainly in dealing with savage children who have to be killed, not coddled. I expect some outrage by reviewers as they discover that these conscienceless little monsters will not only freely kill, they will actually use s*x to waylay adults. It seems that killing is okay in fiction; child sex is not. So I am bracing myself for the storm. So you are warned: if this is not your kind of story, stay the hell away from it. I believe it will be published by the end of this year.

 

I answer my fan mail to the extent appropriate. That is, I give a detailed answer to a serious question about writing, focusing on what I deem to be helpful, and a canned appreciation to a I Love Your Books note, even though I do like that latter kind. Some folk seem to be dedicated to taking as much of my time as possible, so my answers may become curt. Some well-meaning readers, knowing I am agnostic with no belief in the supernatural, seek to convert me to Jesus. More on Jesus in a moment. I try to be polite, but when they persist I become sharper there too. Here is an excerpt from a recent one:

 

You also inquire about my belief in reincarnation. I have no belief in it, or in the soul, or in life after death, or in Heaven or Hell; I merely use them as fictive devices. You ask whether I have read the Bible myself. Oh yes; not the whole of it, but portions. When I wrote Tarot I had Jesus as a character, and I studied him in the Bible, and was satisfied that He existed and was a good man. Thus in my fashion I believe in Jesus, if not in God.

Your earlier letter inquires what I believe. I believe that life needs no supernatural presence or guidance. I try to do what is right simply because it is right, not because of any hope of reward or fear of punishment in any afterlife. I believe that if Jesus came again to the mortal realm, He would respect that, probably more than He would respect the religiosity of politicians cynically angling for votes from the Religious Right. In fact I doubt He would like the Religious Right at all; they would be Pharisees to him, and money-changers in the temple, stirring His utter disgust. As for making war in His name—He would be revolted and outraged by such blatant hypocrisy, for He truly believed in peace. And of course they would crucify Him again, rather than suffer His justified criticism. No true believer in Jesus could stomach the Religious Right.

 

So, as I told my correspondent, I believe in Jesus, though hardly in the way religious folk do. But increasingly there are indications that Jesus did not exist, at least not as a living person. The August/September 2011 issue of the Humanist magazine FREE INQUIRY has an article discussing that, the essence being that there are no indications of any historical person of that description in the contemporary Roman records. Later records seem to derive from the beliefs of early Christians, hardly the same thing. The New Testament was composed well after that time, based on hearsay. So the historicity of Jesus is doubtful. A newspaper column by Robyn Blumner titled “Goodness without God” has another take: the belief by religious folk that the godless can't be moral, and that irreligious societies are inherently depraved. In fact the evidence, she says, referring to the book Society Without God by Phil Zuckerman, points the other way: the fear of God is not what keeps people on the straight and narrow. Countries like Sweden and Denmark, where only ten percent believe in Hell compared to 75% of Americans, are comparative models of compassion. They have universal health care, practice mercy, charity, and goodwill toward others, foster generosity and honesty, and care of the sick, elderly, poor, and infirm. Contrast that to religious America, where a fifth of children are raised in poverty, tens of millions of people are without health insurance, and the mentally ill are often condemned to homelessness while Greed Triumphant governs the nation. Maybe it's just as well that Americans believe in Hell, because otherwise too many would have nowhere to go when they die. So if Jesus existed, and returned today, where do you think He would prefer to be: in Sweden or America? Try to give an honest answer, because you know God is listening, don't you? Don't you?

 

At the turn of the year I moved from Ubuntu to PC Linux OS, which a found I preferred in many ways. It did know how to close files without crashing, it did have a thesaurus, it had paragraph switching, it did post macros without a fight, it provided relevant details when overwriting backup files, it made new Directories without hassle, and so on. But it had its own torpedoes, such as randomly closing files without necessarily saving, sometimes when I was in the middle of typing in them. The screen saver didn't work; I would set it up and it worked for only that day and then was lost. When it prevented me from backing up my files by covering up the related dialog boxes, which files I had to back up in order to move them elsewhere for printing, I had had enough. Now I was ready to try another distribution. Not to go to Windows; I am wedded to Linux, harsh as she may be as a mistress. So my geek Brian Smith came up and installed Red Hat's Fedora and LibreOffice. OpenOffice is no longer supported and the open source future is with LibreOffice, which is really the same thing under another name. I had not been partial to Red Hat, dating from a decade back for a reason I now don't remember—creeping senescence in my dotage, maybe—but Fedora impresses me very well. It has the features I liked in PC Linux, plus an operative screen saver, and it has not yet trashed a file. Sometimes it refuses to write a specific file to a flash drive, or to read one, but will for other drives so I can get around it. I can't use the thesaurus on its assigned place, Control F7, because the function keys seem to be reserved by Fedora, overriding LibreOffice. So I put it on Control 7. Then we addressed the printing, as my new system would not print unless I moved across to Windows; where the same hardware worked. This turned out to be complicated, and after hours of copying in printing files Brian said that the Hewlett-Packard Linux printing protocols would not work on the new HP printer. It was an HP fault, shame on it, not a Linux fault. But we tried my old HP printer and lo, it worked on the new system. So now I had printing back. I can't go online, as it balks at a modem same as it does the new printer, but I can survive that. This looks to be my permanent setup, but we'll see.

Well, let me amend that. For three days I had printing back. Then one morning I printed out a letter, discovered that it had an error, corrected it, and tried to print it again five minutes later—and the printer refused to respond. No error message, no sign of trouble, just no printing. Just like before. So I switched out the two printers again, and now they work, sometimes a bit oddly. Maybe some time I'll try the old printer on the new system again, just to see if it has changed its mind. But this is not the kind of reliability I crave.

 

J R Rain and I wrote a sequel to Aladdin Relighted, titled Aladdin Sins Bad, featuring Aladdin's adventures with Sinbad the Sailor. It seemed that Sinbad's wife, who he had thought died, had actually survived; it must have been a near-death experience. So Sinbad begs King Aladdin for a ship to garner enough treasure to ransom her from her captor. Aladdin decides to do it, and to go along himself along with his adopted son Duban, who is potentially a powerful wizard and likely heir to the throne, but who really would rather play music. Maybe this will help the boy get his priorities straight. They run afoul of zombies, cloud maidens—that is, maidens made of cloud stuff—sirens, and more dangerous things. So it's another rousing not too serious adventure, and we hope two or three million readers snap it up, in due course.

 

One morning as I went out to fetch in the newspapers I saw the sun just above the horizon. What was odd about this? It was that it was still twenty minutes before dawn. I go out as early as I can see to scoot or run, which is about half an hour before down. Yet there was the golden ball right where it should have been twenty minutes later. How did this happen? Had the sun gotten confused and come early? That seems unlikely. I conclude that it was a mirage, the appearance of the sun reflected around the horizon. I have heard of mirages including buildings, trees, camels and whatnot, which are evidently reflected distant scenes, so why not the sun? Maybe this is a common occurrence. It just surprised me; I never saw it before. A solar mirage.

 

I'm always busy with something else, so don't pay much attention to TV when my wife has it on. They say the true boss of the household is the one who controls the remote control, and that's my wife; I have trouble figuring out how to operate the thing when I need to. But I do pick up peripheral impressions. One show I think would be worth watching if I had the time is “Harry's Law,” where Harry as a middle-aged woman who takes on awkward cases that can have social significance. Another is “So You Think You Can Dance,” wherein amateurs are tested and culled, and soon the survivors become proficient. Granted that modern dance seems to consist largely of well-formed girls seeing how widely they can spread their bare legs toward the audience, as a male who appreciates such views in the name of art I like it.

 

I'm not a phenomenal fan of Terry Pratchett, dating from when I blurbed his clever novel Mort for the American fantasy market, which features Death as the main character somewhat in the manner my earlier novel On A Pale Horse does. Then in a subsequent interview he suggested that my approach just didn't work, in effect panning my novel. That was bad form. Pratchett went on to phenomenal success in England, but two years ago was diagnosed with a form of early-onset Alzheimer's. That's horrible. If I got something similar, knowing that I would slowly lose my mind and could not prevent it, I would seriously consider suicide, to be accomplished before I became too much of a vegetable. Why saddle my daughter with a senile old man who would no longer even recognize her, while my estate, her inheritance, leached away in medical costs? I once worked at a mental hospital and saw mindless states; that is emphatically not for me. So I would find a way to cut it short. I think just about any rational person would. Well, Pratchett faces that choice, and I applaud his take on it. He made a film Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die. “I believe it should be possible for someone stricken with a serious and ultimately fatal illness to choose to die peacefully with medical help, rather than suffer.” He favors the system of voluntary euthanasia in Oregon, Death With Dignity, where a terminal patient can take home lethal medication to use when he's ready. I agree; it should be universally available. How about some of these conservatives who want the government to stay out of personal business standing up and pushing for this? What could be more personal than deciding to end a wretched existence on one's own terms? Is there anything noble about pointless terminal suffering? As it is, we do have a commonly available suicide device with considerable political support: it's called the gun. But there are those of us who would rather not have to spatter blood and brains all over the furniture. I'd like to see a pill you could take, and near the point of no return it delivers a jolt, and at that point you can change your mind and take the antidote, as I think many would. If your decision remains firm, you let it pass, and sink on into painless oblivion.

 

Incidentals: the Zits comic strip for July 4 showed the wife sitting on the couch, presumably watching TV, between two whoopee cushions going Ffraap! Pweet! Blort! Bbblt! Hornk! Blaat! Putt! Putt! Putt! She gets up and says she'll go read in bed. Then we see husband and son where the whoopee cushions were. Hubby says “You're the one who made beanie-weenies for dinner, not us!” Hilarious. Every so often the New York Mint sends me a coin catalog. I'm not into coin collecting in my dotage, but they do have a marvelous variety. Even some paper money, such as some “Godless” dollar bills that lack the “In God We Trust” motto, making them collectors items. I think all coins and bills should be without it, as America is supposed to be a secular nation. A fan once asked me whether America is a Christian nation, and I said no, it's a secular nation where most citizens are Christians. That's a vital distinction most folk don't seem to understand. Then there's the $5 gold eagle piece with the Liberty woman standing with torch and branch. I realize she is wearing a sort of sling pouch to hold cannon balls or something, but because they are flinging around her chest it looks as if she really really needs a competent bra. Ed Pegg has a program that makes anagrams, and sent me some. Such as “Honey in Traps” as an anagram of my name. Well, I guess that's better than “Horny Panties.” I received a mailing from the Saint Matthews Church, praying that I would return their Bible Prayer Rug with a list of my needs, and testimonials how folk have profited as much as $46,000 after doing this, or been miraculously healed. Forget it. If Jesus had wanted people to be able to get rich merely by asking for money, he would have said so. This demeans the very idea of religion. Does it require an agnostic to point that out?

 

There has been a case making the local news. Casey Anthony—no known relation to me—had a cute two year old daughter Caylee who mysteriously died. Her mother did not report the death, and indeed had a fling once free of the responsibility. The indication is that if she did not kill the child deliberately, she did so through gross neglect, then buried the body, saying nothing. Well, the jury did not convict her, and folk are outraged; jury members got death threats. So what's going on here? Well, the jury was disgusted with Ms. Anthony, and thought she was guilty, but the prosecution did not provide sufficient evidence to exclude some reasonable doubt, so they could not convict. That, ugly as it is, is the way it should be. I served on a jury decades ago, and we hashed it out and came to a verdict. When I returned to work a co-worker who had not studied the facts told me we had decided it wrong. Then he remembered that the defendant was black. “Oh, all right then.” Apparently it was racism that governed his opinion, rather than the facts of the case. You find that sort of thing out in the unwashed general public. It's so easy to be sure of yourself when you don't know anything and operate on prejudice. So I don't fault the Anthony jury; they studied the case, held their noses and came up with the decision they had to. I think she was guilty too, but I can't blame the jury for doing what I probably would have had to do if I had been on it.

 

As this column goes to press we are on the verge of a government shutdown. Oh, yes, I have ignorant man on the street opinions, not being part of the jury that will decide that issue. But here's the way I see it. With President Clinton, whatever you may think of his peccadillo foolishness, we had a monetary surplus. Then the Republicans cheated to get in power, by putting a state, Florida, that actually voted for Gore into the Bush camp, and for a dizzy spell Republicans had effective control of all three branches of government. They used that power to drastically cut taxes, mostly for the richest, and generate at least one expensive war of choice. As a result, America is now hurting for cash and is in what feels like a continuing recession. The stock markets are plunging, gold, the haven of uncertainty, is rising to record highs. They know there's mischief. So are they realizing the folly of their choices and reversing them? No, they are absolutely refusing to allow any increase in taxes other than those on the poorest, in the form of cuts in social security, medicare, and medicaid. They are playing “Chicken” with the welfare of the nation. They will shut down the government rather than do the sensible thing. This is Greed Triumphant, government by and for the billionaire people and corporations. They don't care how badly the people or the country suffer as long as they get theirs. I am disgusted not so much at them—as poet Sidney Lanier said, swinehood has no remedy—but at the idiots who voted them into office. Oh, those folk will suffer from their folly in due course; the problem is, so will the rest of us who never supported this nonsense. In sum: they cut taxes on the rich, ran the country into a ditch, and now want to fix it by cutting services to the poor who did not make this mess. Even our endangered gopher tortoises are suffering, because the feds, suffering budget cuts, don't have the money to protect them. We try to protect them on our tree farm, and they graze right around our house, but that's not enough. All in the name of giving yet more money to the billionaires. I suspect it was greedy irresponsibility like this that reduced the Roman Empire to ineffectiveness. Now it's our turn. Others have commented. Susie Lee relayed comments by photojournalist Bob Church, who says that the old adage was that reporters and photographers were liberal and editors were conservative; that reminds me of my impression that writers are imaginative and editors are mentally stifled. Church also says that the ethics of Fox News do not even require retractions for misstatements. “I'm used to politicians having zero ethics. I've met hundreds and the vast majority are deep-fried poop nuggets smothered in caca-sauce who would rigorously impeach another politician for a limited affair while impregnating their own mistress and lying to cover it up. There's not a single one I would trust to not steal my toilet paper if they used my bathroom. But when I see journalists without ethics, I'm honestly enraged.” Yes, he describes New Gingrich well enough, and the man is running for president. Former Texas newspaperman John Young says the Bush tax cuts did not spur investment; job growth in the Bush years was only one seventh that of the Clinton years, and wages also fell. The last time the economy was doing really well was on the heels of Clinton's tax increases. And Paul Krugman says that one party is clearly engaged in blackmail and the other is dithering over the size of the ransom. Some say well, both sides are at fault; he points out that this is not the case. “The problem with American politics right now is Republican extremism.” Indeed. So at the last moment a deal may be in the making to save the country the agony of running out of money and defaulting on its obligations, but it's a shameful business regardless. The Tea Partiers don't seem to care who gets hurt, as long as the billionaires pay no taxes. They are true politicians, in the caca sense. Caca, as I remember from my childhood year in Spain, is shit.

 

A few more odds & ends: Today CEO pay runs 300 times what the average worker makes. I read of a nice solution to this unfairness: have a flat tax on income that is multiplied by the CEO-to-worker pay ratio. So those CEOs would pay 300 times the income tax the worker does. That would likely bring reform in a hurry. And the Internet is a monument to intellectual freedom—that unscrupulous pirates are using to steal authors blind, downloading copyrighted material without paying for it. Don't I know it; all my books are being pirated. So should we encourage Internet freedom, or suppress it? And NEW SCIENTIST had an article on the hardest problem extant: does P = NP? It seems this is highly significant. Maybe some day I'll be able to understand it well enough to form an opinion. As yet I don't even know what the letters stand for. And a water crisis is looming, while we busily flush potable water down the drain at the rate of a hundred gallons a day per person, thanks to flush toilets and such. What do we do with valuable pure water? We shit in it. That is more idiocy that will have to stop.

 

The month of Jewel-Lye was crowded as I worked on the collaboration, proofread books for e-publication, and tried to keep up with the email. My wife suffered a reaction to her Boniva bone-thickening treatment, like mine with Reclast but not as bad; still it gave her a fever for ten days and made her feel bad. She is doing better now, if not great. So some things I simply had to postpone to next month, when I hope to have more time. Meanwhile I am wrestling with publishers over exactly who controls e-rights to my earlier titles; my lawyer is negotiating for me. I hope I don't have to make a global legal precedent to win my case, but will if I have to. A number of titles are in limbo until this is settled, but in due course I hope to have all them published electronically, including especially with Kindle. This is my answer to those who query why they can't find some of their choices on Kindle.  Meanwhile also my agent is negotiating prospective television deals for both Xanth and Letters To Jenny, two rather different projects that also require lawyer involvement. Did I mention that the month was crowded? There will surely be news on several fronts in future months.

PIERS
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