Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Death of a Dream and the Need for Manifest Destiny

I always knew I would see the first man on the moon.  I never dreamed I would see the last.

            Dr. Jerry Pournelle

Tomorrow, as I write these words, and earlier today, as I post them (thank you software glitches for the delay), the last Space Shuttle, Atlantis, will land for the final time.  And then, for all practical purposes, it will be over.  America’s manned space program will be gone.

Yes, I know we’ll still have an astronaut corps.  They will still fly, on other nation’s launch systems, to the International Space Station.  At least until it’s deorbited in a few years.  But we won’t have the capability to send our people into space.  We’ll simply be hitching rides on some else’s rockets.  Like other countries used to do on ours.  We will no longer be the wold’s leader in manned space exploration.

The government, through NASA, originally said that a replacement launch vehicle will be built and are continuing to say that.  Let’s ignore for a moment that retiring your launch vehicles without having a replacement is akin to quitting your job without finding a new one or selling your car when you haven’t bought a replacement and are a few hundred miles from home, shall we?  These are the same people who have been promising for decades to balance the federal budget and reduce the national debt.  Given the negative progress they’ve made, I’m not holding out hope for a replacement vehicle from the government.  Especially since our leerless feeder fearless leader last week said that it was time for private industry “to capture the flag.”

That’s almost certainly the only way we’ll ever get back into space.  Through private industry.  Our government won’t do it.  The Chinese might.  The Russians will probably keep something going not only to service the Station, but as a matter of pride.  “The Americans beat us to the Moon, but we’re still in space while they’ve quit and gone home.”

If our government wants to implement a real stimulus package, perhaps our elected officials might like to consider this little fact:  For every dollar spent on the space program, the government has received approximately $7 back in corporate and personal income tax due to the development of spinoff technology.  For that type of increase in taxes, there would have to be more money circulating in the economy.  There are several websites that list some of the things we enjoy today that came out of research and development in our space program.  For starters try this one, and this one, and this one. 

I know that we’ll send probes on various missions.  At least for a while.  And I know all the arguments for using robots and unmanned probes rather than people.  And to a point, they’re valid.  But there are some things robots can’t do.  Do we quit when we get to the point that we’ve done all we can with robots?  Or do we keep going?

There’s something in the human spirit that needs frontiers.  Well, the healthy human spirit anyway.  That’s why as a species, we’ve always been explorers.  America was settled in part due to a belief in a Manifest Destiny, that it was our God-given duty to tame the wilderness.  Now I realize that attitude is about as politically incorrect as you get these days.  And I’m not issuing a call to return to imperialism or rampant environmental desecration.

Just the opposite in fact.  We have only a limited amount of resources here.  There are plenty of resources out in the inner solar system, in the asteroids and comets.  If we are going to be good stewards of what we have, part of that stewardship could, and should, involve using the resources available off-planet. 

We need to recapture that sense of Manifest Destiny.  Only instead of taming the wilderness, we need to see space as the focus of that Manifest Destiny.  Our future lies not only on Earth but in this solar system, and hopefully others one day.  Cheesy Hollywood movies are probably not the way to instill that dream.  It’s become pretty clear that in the area of space exploration, as in most areas, government isn’t the best choice either.

Private industry on the other hand…private industry can provide the motivation.  I pray that it happens.  There’s money to be made in space, just like in the 1500s and 1600s there was money to be made in the New World.  Yes, it will be expensive.  Yes, the risks are great.  But I’ll take risk over stagnation any day.  If there’s one thing we learn from biological systems, it’s grow or die.  There is no such thing as stasis.  There’s a book I’ve been meaning to read entitled When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433, about how the Chinese turned from being a society of explorers to isolationism.  There’s a lesson here for the Space Age.

I grew up dreaming of one day living in a spacefaring society.  I’m afraid I’ll die doing the same.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.  So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from the safe harbor.  Explore. Dream.  Discover.

                        Mark Twain

Borders Closing for Good

Borders, unable to find a buyer, has announced that it will liquidate and close all remaining stores.  Passive Guy at The Passive Voice has summarized announcements from a variety of sources, each with a slightly different take on the situation.  You can read PG’s post here.  The comment that most disturbs me, after the fact that nearly 11,000 people will lose their jobs, is that some publishers are now planning on smaller print runs since Borders will not longer be available to stock their books.  While this makes sense from a short-term business perspective, long term that could have a detrimental effect on authors.  With smaller print runs, sales will be lower.  Currently, if sales are low, publishers drop authors.  How with the new lower print runs affect the drop numbers?  Will we see more authors being dropped by publishers, resulting in fewer selections on fewer bookstore shelves?  Will those author be able to continue series that have existing audiences by indie publishing, or will the publishers control the rights to those series?  I suspect the answers to those questions with vary among authors and publishers, but I have concerns about some of my favorite midlist authors.

Long Looks at Short Fiction: "What’s It Like Out There?" by Edmond Hamilton

With the final mission of the Shuttle ending next week, I thought this would be an appropriate story to write about. 

“What’s It Like Out There?” is probably Hamilton’s best known story, certainly his most reprinted, and arguably his best.  It concerns an astronaut, Frank Haddon, who has returned from the second Mars expedition and his adjustment back to civilian life on Earth.

A victim of Martian sickness, Haddon had just been released from the hospital in Arizona, where the Mars program is headquartered.  Before he goes home, he has to honor some promises to visit the families of some of the men who didn’t come back.  As he travels, everyone wants to know what it’s like out there.  They usually don’t bother to listen to the reply, or try to tell him how dry/cold/etc. it’s been locally. 

The truth is that the whole experience was a living hell.  Yet he can’t bring himself to hurt the grieving families and finances with the facts, so he makes things up about how they died.  Rather than pain, their passings are peaceful; rather than shot as a muntineer, one’s death is described as an accident. 

Instead of the quiet homecoming he’s looking forward to when he finally makes it back home to Ohio, the whole town is waiting to welcome him and talk about what it’s like out there.  He wants to lambast them.  The Mars expeditions are searching for uranium to power all the luxuries on Earth, and Haddon doesn’t think the cost of cheap energy is worth the lives of good men.  He sees the hopeful faces looking up at him and understands why the men who returned from the first expedition didn’t talk about how hard it was.  His friends and neighbors needed heroes and they needed something to dream about, a glorious undertaking for all of humanity.  So Haddon tells them a whitewashed version of the truth. 

For a story published in 1952, “What’s It Like Out There?” holds up remarkably well.  The first-person narrative moves at a good pace, and Haddon’s voice is real and believable.  The picture of Mars Hamilton paints is one not too far off from the Mars of today.  Rather than the canals of Bradbury and the ancient cities of his wife Leigh Brackett, Hamilton’s Mars is dry and cold, windswept and empty.  It’s a hostile place.  Only the promise of uranium and the plentiful supply of energy is holds entices men to journey there.

Unlike our current space program, the commitment to go to Mars is a real one.  The second expedition consists of 20 rockets and hundreds of men.  At one point the fourth expedition is mentioned, and it consists of one hundred rockets.

The story ends with Haddon feeling a sense of age from his experience and doubting he will ever feel young again.  The story implies he’s in his early 20s.  This was pretty grim stuff in 1952, when space travel was usually depicted as being easy.  Yet Hamilton didn’t shy away from harsh realities, physical or emotional, in this tale.  That’s what gives the story its power.  This is the work of a mature writer.  Hamilton got better the more he wrote, and he was still writing up until near the end of his life. 

As I said earlier, this story holds up better than most from the early 50s.  While there’s probably not much uranium on Mars, the ever-growing need for energy is something a contemporary reader will relate to.  And while the ubiquitous cell phone technology we enjoy is absent, the story still feels real because it’s not about gadgets.  The best science fiction is that which has people at the center.  When a story is focused on a gadget or a piece of technology, it’s almost certain that it won’t age well.  When the human aspect is the focus, then even if the technology or science becomes a little dated, the story will normally last.  If you haven’t read “What’s It Like Out There?”, you should.

Haffner Press is bringing all his short fiction back into print, with the first three volumes available now.  Since Hamilton started writing in the 1920s, it will be a while before the series reaches 1952.  Your best bet of finding a copy of “What’s It Like Out There?” is the reprint of The Best of Edmond Hamilton.

Amazon Overcharging for Ebooks

David Gaughran  has posted a disturbing essay on why ebooks cost more through Amazon than in the US and a select few other countries.  You should read David’s post, especially if you live outside the US, UK, Germany, Canada, Ireland, and a few other countries.  In most of the world, including France, Spain, Israel, South Africa, India, and Brazil just to name a few off the top of my head, there’s a $2 surcharge added in addition to any sales tax or VAT.  This surcharge goes directly to Amazon, not to a government, and certainly not to the author.  While most of my readers are American, I know there are a few in countries in which Amazon slaps this surcharge.  David is encouraging his readers to buy through Smashwords or iTunes, because there surcharge isn’t added there and the author gets more money.

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve recently become an Amazon Associate.  You may be wondering:  Will Amazon be displeased with this post, will they revoke my Associate status, and will I lose a revenue stream in they do?  The answers to those questions are:  Almost certainly, maybe, and not at all.  If Amazon were to even notice this small blog, they would almost certainly be displeased and could very well revoke my Associate status.  But at the present time, I wouldn’t lose a dime.  Because so far I haven’t made any money by being an Associate.  (Considering a recent post which stated that Locus Online, which probably gets more hits in a month than both my blogs combined have ever gotten total, only generated a few hundred dollars a month from links to Amazon, I’m not exactly planning my retire on my earnings.)

I’m less concerned about ad revenue than I am fair trade practices.  What Amazon is doing is hurting authors in the long run, as David so eloquently explained.  Since I hope to begin doing some indie publishing myself within the next year, I’m taking the long term approach rather than the short term by not offending Amazon.  Plus it’s just the right thing to do.

Obituary for Martin H. Greenberg by Fred Pohl

I posted a notice about the passing of Martin H. Greenberg a few weeks ago.  This morning I found this remembrance of him posted by Fred Pohl, telling how they met.  Fred has been updating his memoir, The Way the Future Was, over at his blog, The Way the Future Blogs.  If you’ve not checked out his posts about the people and events from over 70 years of being involved in the field of science fiction, you should.  Fred hasn’t just observed much of the history of the field, he’s made a great deal of it.

Amazon Piracy: A Disturbing Case of a Writer Being Ripped-Off

Passive Guy over at the Passive Voice posted this disturbing news story a little while ago.    It seems author Ruth Ann Nordin is having a problem getting a pirated copy of one of her books removed from Amazon.  They seem to be dragging their feet about removing the stolen book and giving her the runaround.  In an act of solidarity with Ms. Nordin, I’m passing this information along in hopes that enough people will raise enough of a stink that Amazon will respond quickly and do the right thing.  They did for her other two books that were stolen.  Good luck, Ms. Nordin.  As an aspiring author, you have my full support.

Why You Soon Won’t be Able to Find a Good Book in a Store

I was reading one of Kris Rusch’s columns over at The Business Rusch the other day, the topic being shelf space disappearing in book stores.  At that reminded me of an unpleasant experience I had the other day in Wal-Mart, one that is now repeated every time I walk into the store (which isn’t nearly as often as it was a few weeks ago).  If you haven’t read Kris’s column, please go read it now.  I’ll wait.

There, that didn’t take too long, did it?  Ms. Rusch brings up some very disturbing points, and while some of them are negative, others are mixed.  For what it’s worth, here’s my take on things, including why I’m not going to be shopping at Wal-Mart as much in the future.

For starters, I understand the point Kris makes about Barnes and Noble trying to drive customers online.  It helps their bottom line for two reasons.  First, in the short term, it provides an incentive for Nook purchases.  Eventually that market will saturate, either because everyone will have one and the technology will mature to the point that repeatedly releasing an updated version will no longer be cost effective, or more likely that a new technology will come along and make the Nook obsolete.  The second reason, and the one that bothers me, is that it will allow B&N to either close more stores to get out of expensive leases or devote more shelf space to non-book items such as toys, games, stationary, and greeting cards.  Along with more floor space to sell the Nook.

Borders, even before it declared bankruptcy, was undergoing this at a disturbing rate.  When I started graduate school at UT Dallas back in the early 90s, the Borders at the intersection of  Royal and Preston was one of the two go-to bookstores in the Dallas area, the other being the Taylor’s near Prestonwood Mall, although living at what was then the northern edge of the suburban sprawl, i.e, in the other direction, I tended to frequent the Bookstop in Plano near Collin Creek Mall rather than drive an extra hour.  All three had excellent selections of science fiction and fantasy, mystery, and scientific and technical books, and all were willing to order titles not in stock (although Taylor’s charged to do so).

Then Taylor’s closed, Barnes and Noble bought the Bookstop chain and closed the one in Plano to open a B&N on the opposite side of the mall, and suddenly Borders was the only good place to get almost anything in print.

That didn’t last long.  I’ve only been in that Borders a few times in the last five years, and usually it was to find a magazine I couldn’t get at the big B&N on Northwest Highway.  I don’t know if that particular store is still open.  I’ve bought very few books there in the last half decade or so.  Each time I went in, it seemed the fantastic literature had been moved to a different area and had less shelf space.  Along with all the other books.  And there more titles turned face out, which is one of the points Ms. Rusch made in her essay.  Books facing out take up more space, meaning the shelves hold fewer books.  The last time I was there, it wasn’t worth the gas to drive over.

So how does Wal-Mart figure into this?  It’s simple.  They’re committing the same type of stupidity as the major chains, but they don’t have the excuse of an ereader to fall back on.  I live a little over two blocks from K-Mart, four or five blocks from Target, and about a mile and a half from the nearest Wal-Mart (there are four in town).  I’ve been going to this Wal-Mart for one reason.  They have had a section of their book department devoted to science fiction, meaning that the section was labeled as such.  Now the selection was at least 50% fantasy, but I’m not complaining.  I read considerable amounts of both. I’ve seen Wal-Marts that devote some shelf space to a few sf/f titles before, but this is the only one with entire section devoted to the stuff.  A number of them have sections for westerns, which I’m not knocking, except I don’t think westerns sell as well as sf & f.  Maybe Wallyworld is different, because the westerns section in my local Wal-Mart is still intact.  And none of the employees, excuse me, associates, I talked to could tell me who made the decision to remove the fantasy and science fiction.

What did they put in its place?  They moved the romance section over and put “Books” where the romance previously was.  They’re still putting the display together (they’re anything but quick here), but it appears to be mostly children’s books and cook books.   All face out.  I guess they think fewer titles with more visibility will sell more books.

So now I have one less venue I can walk into, pick up any one of several books, and browse through them.  As far as I’m concerned, electronic browsing isn’t worth the time it takes.  I like to flip through the book.  I’ve bought plenty of books at that Wal-Mart, some of which I’ve reviewed at Adventures Fantastic. And I like a good selection, which, given its size, this one had.  But it’s no longer worth the time and gas to drive over and put up with the crowd for the books they have now.

My local B&N has a decent selection, meaning I can find something that interests me.  But I can’t find everything, including much of the stuff I want.  Kris Rusch wrote about not being able to find her latest science fiction novel, City of Ruins, in a B&N but being told it was in the warehouse and she could order it.  The local one here didn’t stock it either.  Nor did they stock Howard Andrew Jones’ The Desert of Souls or Scott Oden’s The Lion of Cairo.  They had a novel by Paul Finch which I wanted to review, only they sold it before I could buy it and didn’t order a replacement copy.  It was a zombie novel; the replacement would have sold.  I’m going to have to order all of these books.  And that’s a hassle.  I ordered the Oden, but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet.  The other three will probably get ordered sometime before the end of the summer.  I want to review and discuss all four of them, but I’ll probably review other things I have at hand first.  It’s easier and faster that way.

I could go on.  There’s a locally based chain with a number of stores in Texas called Hastings I could write an entire post about, but this is negative enough as it is.  The more I write, the grumpier and more depressed I’m getting.  If you’re like me and like to spending time in book stores just browsing to see what treasures you can find, I don’t hold out a lot of hope of being able to do that much longer.

This essay has been cross-posted at Adventures Fantastic.  

Independence Day Greetings

I’m on the road this weekend and will have limited computer access, so I wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to wish everyone a safe and happy Independence Day.  If you are a citizen of a country that doesn’t celebrate American Independence, please accept my wishes for a good weekend.