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Aw-Ghost 2015

Hamilton had a sale I couldn't resist: the complete inspector Morse British TV detective series on 36 DVDs reduced from about $500 to $60, or 60 hours at a dollar an hour. It is set in Oxford, England, where I was born. I watched the first episode, The Dead of Jericho. I missed a good deal, because my hearing is not what it used to be and I lacked subtitles, but I think I got the general stories. Morse, who doesn't use his first name, middle aged, portly, gray/white haired, likes his ale, crossword puzzles, and the ladies, is interested in a woman who also sings in the chorus, and would like to date her, but she says it's complicated. Then she gets killed, and it turns out she was pregnant. So he has a personal interest in solving the case. I'm not really a detective fan, but I do like seeing scenes of classic Oxford, which I regret I do not remember from my babyhood. Episode #2 The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn sees Quinn, who is deaf, get promptly killed by cyanide poisoning, which brings in Morse. He makes an arrest, surprising everyone else, then lets the suspect go. He arrests another man, then concludes he's the wrong man. Then gets attacked. It seems that more than one person was involved in this intricate plot. Episode #3 Service of All the Dead has a man stabbed to death at the end of a church service. Morse needs to talk to the vicar, but he gets killed before the interview. A third body appears, the organist. And another. The thirteen people at the service are being killed one by one. Morse finally confronts the killer, and almost gets killed himself. Episode #4 The Wolvercote Tongue , the title referring to a rare jewel, sees a society lady dead apparently of natural causes, but Morse doesn't believe it, and of course he's right. Then other bodies appear, some just before Morse gets to question them. Something is going on. Episode #5 Last Seen Wearing, a teacher at a girl's school has disappeared and may be dead. Naturally it's not that simple. Episode #6 The Settling of the Sun, a Japanese visitor is murdered during an awards ceremony. Then another body turns up, with stigmata, as of crucifixion. And another. It turns out that the first victim was a drug dealer. #7 Last Bus to Woodstock, a young woman doesn't wait for the bus, hitchhikes, leaves the car and gets run over. It's actually an accident. But why were there scratches on her face, and why was she carrying a coded note and money? Her death complicates the affairs of several other people. #8 Ghost in the Machine, there's a theft of a valuable painting, followed by bodies turning up. One is a suicide made to look like murder. Or was it? It may be a murder made to look like a suicide made in turn to look like murder. It gets complicated. I admit to being uncertain about the relevance of the title. #9 The Last Enemy, when boaters discover a mutilated body in the canal. Meanwhile a gay professor is missing. Then there are other killings, complicated by jealous women. Overall, I find these first nine episodes intriguing and I rather like the character Morse. The acting strikes me as excellent. The set is worth the price.

I read Dragonholder—The Life and Dreams (so far) of Anne McCaffrey, by her son Todd McCaffrey. This is a collection of incidents from the late Anne's early life up to 1988, the point at which she had finally achieved real writing success with her novel The White Dragon. It covers their pets, neighbors, and Anne's efforts to make it as a writer. I knew Anne; we met at the Milford Conference in 1966, when both of us were scraping along, getting mostly rejections, and we got along well, initially. She moved to to Ireland because artisans were tax free there, but of course that counts for less if you don't have much income. The book is dedicated to Betty and Ian Ballantine, “Whose kindness, faith, and perseverance” enabled Anne to make it. I did business with the same publisher, with a rather different impression. The life of the average writer is a struggle to survive financially, and that was true for her; few make it to real literary or commercial success. Anne was one who did finally make it; I was another. We had a fair amount in common. Now, as commentator Paul Harvey used to say, for the rest of the story. The signals indicate that the Ballantines were systematically cheating most of their authors, and that their generosity to some was at the expense of the others. Anne was one of the favored; I was one of the others. When I protested, and demanded an honest accounting, I got blacklisted and badmouthed for six years, as they tried to wash me out of the business, with the writer's organization SFWA tacitly supporting the publisher instead of its wronged author, and it seems ignoring the cheating of many of its other members. Anne, as secretary treasurer of SFWA, was one of those who badmouthed me. Until it seems the Ballantines cheated one too many and had to flee their own company just ahead of the law suit. Then, given fair treatment and honest accounting by the new proprietors, I made it to the bestseller lists and riches. No thanks at all to the Ballantines or SFWA, who were surely chagrined to have a victim turn victor. So for my experience, this book is a fantasy, praising the wrongdoers. But I assume that Tod did not know that side of it. Ann herself must have, as she told one person she would lie under oath if he tried to tell the truth about SFWA's complicity. So I had little respect for her writing ability and none for her integrity. But apart from that, this book is a nice insight into her private life.

I read Memos From Purgatory by Harlan Ellison, another Open Road reprint. I met Harlan the same time I met Anne McCaffrey, at Milford in 1966, and our history is more complicated. We have a lot in common. We are nominally friends, but I keep him at arm's length for reasons that are beyond the compass of this review. We are the same age—he is three months my senior—and in the same business of writing (both of us capable of infuriating some readers, not always by accident), got married the same year (his marriage lasted about four years, mine 59 years and counting), spent the same two years in the U.S. Army (different assignments), and I believe our liberal political positions overlap about 99%. If you listed the top speculative genre writers for getting in trouble with the system, we well might rank #1 and #2. I believe there is a solid mutual respect. This is the story of how back in 1954 he infiltrated a New York juvenile street gang, and it reads like a compelling novel. He swears it is all true except for one detail. Unfortunately that detail spoils a significant aspect for me. He wanted to know how it really was, so he dropped several years from his age, made up a name, and mixed in. He discovered that this was not a detached observation; it was real, and he was soon in fear for his life. There were not all nice kids; they had their own bigotries and passions, and most seemed to be without any futures. To join the gang he had to run a gantlet, risking disfiguring injury, then “pick a chick” as a girlfriend; the female members were possessions rather than participants, though they certainly had their personalities. For example, one was sitting cross-legged on an Ottoman couch in a short skirt so that he could see that she wore no underwear. Of course she knew what she was showing. Another halfway challenged him, and he told her that he quit picking green apples like her when he was twelve. He probably shouldn't have done that; she was annoyed, and made trouble for him thereafter. He picked Filene, and I have to say that I really like her and believe he did too; in this context of deprived misfits she was a nice girl, and loyal to him throughout. Then came the rumble, a battle between his gang the Barons (the girls were the Debs) and another gang that was so savage it freaked him out and he fled the gang and the area after ten weeks. Why were there juvenile street gangs? Here is where the book really scores, to my mind, pointing out the myriad ways in which the children and youths were neglected and deprived of wholesome support, so that their real families, emotionally, became the gang members. I think of West Side Story, spelling out society's failures, but this is more basic and uglier and I think more authentic. He says the picture has changed so you won't find street gangs quite like this today, but the underlying problems of alienation remain. Seven years later an anonymous charge got him arrested and thrown for a day and night in the prison system, and he says that if the street gang was purgatory, the Tombs (prison) was hell. Ellison has a marvelous facility for feeling description; hell is indeed what it feels like. While there he met the old gang leader, now a felon, and caught up on the fates of stray members. Such as Filene, who eventually got married so may have escaped the sewer at last. But, sigh, this is where the one untruth tears it apart: the former gang leader he met was not the same one he had known, but a similar one. So all the followup detail, including Filene, is fiction, and we don't know how she turned out. Damn! Regardless, I heartily recommend this book. It's an eye-opener with many uncomfortable truths that we of the privileged upper class realm should not be allowed to tune out. Read it and wince.

I watched Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini who was a top racer in the Olympics and World War Two hero. Their plane crashes in the ocean and they struggle to survive a month and a half, catching a gull to eat, and even a shark. They signal a passing plane and it strafes them. Two of them survive—only to be caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a PW camp. The Japanese knew he was an Olympic star and sought to use him for propaganda, but he didn't cooperate and was brutalized at the camp, especially by a corporal, then promoted to sergeant, who ran the camp. But he hangs on. The word is that if Japan loses the war, all prisoners are to be killed. Bit it seems it ends too soon, and they are spared. Their victory was just to survive. Louis makes it home, unbroken, but does suffer years of post traumatic depression, understandably. This is one taut, realistic story.

I watched The Lost Future, a story of what may be the last tribe of humans in a post apocalyptic jungle surrounded by vicious mutant beast-men who were once men before they got infected. Can they find the yellow powder that provides immunity before they are overwhelmed? They search for it. A rebel band has some. Exciting, not deep. Naturally I liked the glimpses of perky girls who never quite showed too much. Ah, well.

I watched Transformers. I saw previews when it came out. This is my kind of junk, a hi-tech sometimes naughty juvenile. . A fancy cube gets lost in the galaxy and shows up on Earth, where it starts messing with the natives. The Autobots can assume the form of a giant robot, or a giant mechanical scorpion, or a car. Sam is a teen who seems to have something the robots want. But what? Optimus Prime explains: his great grandfather's glasses have key information imprinted on them. The Autobots must get those glasses before the enemy Decepticons arrive and destroy Earth. So Sam and his girlfriend Mikaeala must find those glasses, despite the interference of Sam's clueless parents ash the clueless government agents. There is finally a fight between Prime and the enemy leader Megatron. All ends happily, of course. Nonsense, really, but fun.

I read Virtue Inverted, a novella collaboration by Piers Anthony and Kenneth Kelly that should be published in due course. This concerns Benny, a teen boy in a fantasy land who gets into an adventure with two rough men. They slay a giant and clear zombies from a town, and kill a coven of vampires. But there have been disturbing signs that all is not right, and Benny balks at killing the lovely young and nice vampire maiden Virtue, for which balk he gets expelled from the team. He concludes that he wants to marry her, and she surely is worth marrying, for she really is virtuous, but before that he has to oppose his former companions, no easy thing. There are some religious implications, and God may appear in the novel. So this is not quite your usual fantasy adventure.

I watched Nanny McPhee. This is one fun movie. A widower has 7 naughty children who have driven away 17 prior nannies. They are totally wild, dedicated to mischief. He gets the word: he needs Nanny McPhee. She shows up: an ugly woman with warts on her face and a single projecting front tooth. She has magic; when she taps her gnarly cane on the floor her will is obeyed. Whenever the children fall properly into line, one of her ugly markers fades out, until at the end she is at least ordinary. But the situation is desperate; Great Aunt had decreed that he must remarry within a month or she will stop financially supporting the family. That would mean the end of them. But the woman he means to marry is a horror. The children engineer a food fight at the wedding, with the Nanny's tacit acquiescence, and in the end he marries the pretty scullery maid instead, Evangeline, whom the children really respect. And the Nanny departs, no longer needed. Part of her dictum is that she stays only when she isn't wanted, and departs when she is wanted. Nonsense, but wild and fun.

I read Robot Blood by Keith Robinson, a sequel to Sleep Writer that I reviewed last month. This picks up where the other left off, with Liam, Ant, and Maddy still following up her sleep writing leads. What wowed me before was the late revelation that Madeline herself writes those sleep notes, sending them back from her old age to alert her younger self, and that she and Liam will be married for about 60 years until his death. He can't tell the others, lest he change their future, but armed with the knowledge that he will survive, he proceeds with more confidence. This is a keystone of this sequel, because an alien lord searches out a number of folk of different galactic species who have this special survival quality, so as to be sure they will survive the dangerous mission he has for them. And a perilous mission it is! Liam and several aliens get transformed by miniature “nanobots” in their blood into virtual robots with specialized skills. This is one gripping adventure throughout, and the outcome is uncertain despite the supposed reassurance of survival. I would have liked to see more of Ant and Maddy, but maybe that's for the next sequel.

I read Earthquake Storms by John Dvorak. This concerns mostly the San Andreas Fault, but covers fascinating background. This fault in California is where a Pacific tectonic spreading zone has been overridden by the western edge of North America, so there's all kind of activity there as molten rock wells up beneath California. I am struck by how scientists, including seismologists, seem to be no more open minded than religious fanatics. Time and again the truth was ridiculed simply because it did not fit the prior pattern of belief. What the hell happened to scientific objectivity? For example, everybody knew that faults displaced the ground up and down, not sideways, so the fact that distinctive features of the landscape were displaced many miles along the Fault was tuned out. All they had to do was look. Even two prominent figures who never agreed, did agree on this one—and got it wrong. There are interesting spot bios of the various figures in the field, with the challenges they faced to acquire and promote new knowledge. One was a woman who had to go to sea to make observations, but they wouldn't let her on the ship. It concludes with the prediction that the southern end of the Fault will have a major earthquake in the next 30 years. I believe it; the evidence is persuasive.

This is Pluto time. Back in my day, Pluto was Mickey Mouse's dog, but I was also aware of the planet. In fact in sixth or seventh grade I wrote a story about a voyage to Pluto, where they discovered that the surface was colder than dry ice (probably still true) and the planet was hollow (probably not). Aspects of it have appeared in my fiction since, notably when visiting Hades in Xanth. Princess Eve is now the mistress of Hades, and things are improving there. This is a public service announcement for those who will be going there in due course, such as at the end of their misspent lives: it's not as bad as it was. Meanwhile in the dreary mundane realm the spacecraft New Horizons has zipped by snapping pictures, tourist style, and they are eye popping. Pluto is a ragged ball with a heart shaped smudge (Eve left her imprint), and its main moon Charon is a cracked ball with a bear's face peeking out of the lower left quadrant (am I the first to notice? They will surely name him Yogi). There are four more moons: Styx, Nix, Kerberos (that's Cerberus, the three headed dog, not Pluto the Pup), and Hydra. And they have the nerve to say Pluto is not a planet?! What the Hades more do they want?

Which leads halfway naturally to an article by Sarah Kaplan, speculating once more on whether there is life out there in the universe, or are we alone? Calculations suggest that 20 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy have potentially habitable Earth-size planets, and a number of them should be in the Goldilocks zone—that is, not too hot or too cold but just right for life—so where is everybody? That's the Fermi paradox. How come we haven't heard from any? I have discussed it in my Columns before, but it remains of interest. My conclusion is that hi-tech civilizations may be relatively few, and tend to burn themselves out after flaring like novas. So we don't see them because we didn't happen to catch the eye-blink while they existed, just as future ones won't catch ours after it self destructs. Earth has existed four and a half billion years, and sapient mankind has existed under a quarter million years, or about one twenty thousandth of that time, contributing to the brevity. So now they have found Kepler 452b, a “close cousin” to Earth 1,400 light years away, practically in our back yard. Maybe we should give the Keplers a friendly wave in passing, just in case they're there and not preoccupied with destroying themselves.

Assorted notes: Startling question: are blue eyed folk more likely to be drunkards than those with darker eyes? As a blue-eyed (now fading to gray-eyed, just as my brown hair as fading to gray) person this interests me. Statistically it seems to be the case. Another startling question: does sex influence females? It turns out that with some creatures semen gets into the female's system and changes her behavior. Does it work in humans? Maybe. Some women have less depression when exposed to semen. Now there's a treatment option: cure her depression by having sex with her therapist. It does sound like a male inspired fantasy. Do some toys curse? Some toys speak nonsense that some folk can interpret as cussing. The effect is called “pareidolia,” perceiving meaning in random sounds or images. Why do women outlive men? It seems it wasn't always so. Once antibiotics, clean water, and better food were available, women gained more than men. Also, smoking and high fat diets decimated men. So as a nonsmoking vegetarian I'm safe, I think. Goldilocks and marriage: it turns out that divorce risk declines for folk who wait until their late twenties and early 30s to marry, but rises again for those who delay until their late 30s. Hmm. I was 21, my wife 19 when we married 59 years ago. I tease her that she didn't stay 19, but I stuck with it anyway, and there's no divorce in sight. Now there is bacon flavored seaweed, a strain called dulse. Oregon State University has patented it. It looks like translucent red lettuce and has good food value. I'd love to see it replace the real thing. Outrage: a high school teacher discovered that nearly a fifth of her biology students had plagiarized their semester projects from the Internet. She checked with the principal and superintendent and they agreed that the students should get zero for the assignment. The parents complained and the school board intervened. She resigned in protest. Good for her. But what about that school board? They endorse cheating? To my mind that puts them in the same ethical category as the cheating students. But it seems that this kind of thing is happening all over, where people with integrity are not being backed by their organizations and whistle blowers get punished instead of the wrongdoers. Don't I know it; my career was stunted by that some kind of thing. If I were in charge, I'd fire that school board, publish the name of the parents who encouraged cheating, then make those students do their projects over, for real. Education is meaningless in the face of cheating. Alzheimer's: women's memory worsens twice as fast as men's. Also some seniors suffer lasting cognitive problems after having general anesthesia. I face that for major dental surgery next month. That makes me nervous as hades. And a comic strip: The Pajama diaries for 7-9-15 shows her on the first day of meds. She sweats, shakes, feels as if a hammer is driving a nail into her head, and finally her head goes Foosh! in flames. Any side effects? She says “A few,” as she collapsed on the desk in ashes. First, I like the dramatic effects. Second, I remember going through similar a few years back when I took a treatment for bone thinning whose side effects wiped me out for two weeks.

One of the folk I have been in touch with is Tatenda Mbudzi, a rising film maker. He did a script adaptation of my novella To Be a Woman, the one where a conscious female humanoid robot sues for recognition as a person. To me, a lady robot can be every bit as much a person as a lady flesh individual. I was not satisfied with his adaptation and it went nowhere. Now he is making his own movie Zim High, to encourage young people to fight for their dreams despite peer, societal, economic, and parental pressure, no matter where they are from. It is about a black teen age loser who needs to win scholarship money to study Anime in Japan. Then he gets framed in a bullying incident and it gets chancy. This is a crowdfunding effort, which you can support at https://youtu.be/x_PAnzr7P3Q (that looks like a typo with a dot in “tube” but that's the way he has it.)

I read Fields of Color by Rodney Brooks. It promises to explain quantum field theory to a lay audience without equations, and to alleviate the weirdness of quantum mechanics and the paradoxes of relativity. In sum, to make the incomprehensible comprehensible. And—it does. This book has fundamentally changed my outlook on the subject. Covering the whole of it is too much for this paragraph, but some samples will do. Remember the huge battle over whether light consists of particles or waves, with some tests indicating one and some the other? Well, light consists of fields. There are no particles, just quanta, which are small segments of the fields. Remember the uncertainty principle, with things like Shroedinger's alive or dead Cat being paradoxical indecisions? No more. The business of a particular location of a particle not being fixed until an observer looks at it? Forget it; it exists independent of any observations. The reason the particle can't be located is that it's not a particle, it's a field, and only when the field is collapsed can it be nailed to a specific location. More, there are no particles at all; matter itself is a field. Some fields fall off quite sharply, so they seem like objects, but they aren't. Fields can also have mass and spin of their own. This is not an analogy used by the book, but I think of glass: it's a slow moving liquid. So slow that you can cut a pane of it to put in your window, and leave it there for a century, and it certainly seems like a solid, but it's not. Similarly some fields seem very solid, such as the planet Earth, but they actually like glass, being fields. As for field collapse, this reminds me of the question about if one sheep it ten escapes the fold, how many remain? The answer is none, because the others all follow the one out. Collapse one part of a bubble, it all collapses. These analogies are surely pretty crude. But I doubt there's a really accurate way to show it without confusing most folk. I recommend this book to those who want to try yet again to make sense of relativity and quantum fields.

Does misery make a writer? An unhappy childhood? I've been slowly sorting through my publishing/writing folder of collected clippings at the rate of a couple hours a week, and pulled out this one from 1-28-2001 by Margo Hammond. She interviewed three award winning writers at the Suncoast Writers' Conference, and concluded that yes it does. Octavia Butler, a celebrated black speculative fiction writer, was poor and dyslexic; her father died when she was young. “I was” an unpopular little girl,” she said. She lacked social skills, and escaped by reading books. Ha Jin was born in China. He was yanked from his studies when his elementary school was shut down. His mother was thrown into a garbage can and his father's books were burned in the street. By age 14 he was a solder in the army. Frank McCourt was born in New York City and raised in Limerick, Ireland. “When you are down and out...all you want is survival.” But in time they became award winning writers. USF professor and author Rita Ciresi says “...writers as a whole tend to be a morose lot.” So is there any hope for aspiring writers who have had a happy childhood? “No hope whatsoever,” Frank McCourt says. “There's no escaping prosperity.” Cute, but is it true? I certainly can't disprove it from my own experience and observation. My theory is that a person with potential needs to be jolted out of his/her track; only then, if he survives, will he make it as a writer. Once he does make it, then maybe he can continue. I don't claim to be unhappy now; I love writing and remain successful at it, and I still do write constantly. But I believe it was my childhood that set the mold.

The Author's Guild has been issuing a very good series of position papers on writing, condemning piracy and the bullying tactics of traditional publishers. For example, pirate sites offer all manner of copyrighted works cheap or free, screwing the authors out of their livelihood. Publishers demand 75% of the net receipts from electronic editions; actually it took court cases to get them to pay anything at all for them. The Guild believes, and I agree, that 50% is fair. I am still fighting that issue, which is why a number of my novels are not yet available in electronic editions. But most writers can't afford thousands of dollars in legal fees to make that fight, as I am paying. Publishers also want to own the works for the life of the copyrights, which means the authors can't get their rights back until 70 years after they die. I'm fighting that too. So it remains a battlefield out there, and most of the causalities are writers. No wonder self publishing has become so popular! And yes, I was active in promoting that also.

Meanwhile, how are things here in the tree farm? Well, we got 15.6 inches of rain in Jewel-Lye, and that's great for the trees. To most folk, a good day is sunny; to me, it is rainy.

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