The Hazards of Sea Travel

Strip away the veneer of civilized society, and as you near the human heart you find something much darker. William Golding explored that theme most famously in Lord of the Flies, which most of us read in high school. I don’t remember when or where I acquired a copy of Golding’s Rites of Passage, but the fact that “.50” is penciled inside the front cover suggests it was at a used book sale. I don’t think I had ever read it, but this month I’m taking a random walk through my temporarily disorganized book collection. Feeling a bit weary of science fiction, I thought I’d try something more literary.

Golding’s microcosm in Rites of Passage is a sailing ship bound from England for “the Antipodes,” either Australia or New Zealand. The year seems to be about 1820; Golding is coy about the exact date, but we learn in passing that Coleridge is still alive. Conditions on the ship are about what you’d expect — the stench from the bilge, the tyrannical captain, the tiny cabins, seasickness, all juxtaposed against the stiff British etiquette of the upper-class passengers.

The book is in the form of a journal of a young man, a Mr. Talbot, who is one of the passengers. His affection of literary conceits is rather distracting, and the archaic word usage may cause the less literate reader to stumble now and again. Talbot is no more honorable than he needs to be: Before too long he has seduced, or perhaps raped, one of the female passengers. From the description in his journal, we can’t quite tell Read more

No Exit

What if you had no alternative but to live out your life in the very narrow, unsatisfying society you were born into?

Oops, that pretty much describes the human condition, doesn’t it? By that measure, Robert Silverberg’s novel The World Inside is successful. Unfortunately, it’s not successful in a very deep or satisfying way.

First published in 1970, the novel gives us a sociologist’s-eye view of a future world in which tens of billions of humans live in three-kilometer-tall skyscrapers called urbmons. People live out their entire lives in these monstrous structures, and never venture outside. One lives and dies in the building in which one was born.

In an urbmon, the sex is plentiful. Indeed, we learn very little about the inhabitants of Urbmon 116 except who is having sex with whom. Fecundity is worshipped, nudity is normal, and birth control is an obscenity. Antisocial behavior is Read more

Whimsy or Flimsy?

One advantage of having all of my books in boxes for the past two weeks (while moving) was that I kept one book out to read. Ordinarily, I might not have had the patience to slog clear through to the end of Six Moon Dance, a science fiction novel by Sheri Tepper, but I stuck with it.

In the end, I feel rather let down. The crisis that forms the backbone of the plot is an alarming increase in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions on the planet where the story takes place … but the explanation for this phenomenon is entirely unconvincing. The biology of the planet, which consists of one enormous (and intelligent) organism that extrudes seemingly independent animals, is inexplicable and absurd in an evolutionary sense. The legal setup of the human sector of the galaxy, in which one bionic woman acts as judge and jury to shut down entire human colonies for their moral failings without anybody ever raising an army to stop her, is just as absurd. The plot conflict fizzles out at the climax, accompanied by a number of pages of moralizing — quite different in content from the moralizing that weighs down Atlas Shrugged, but nonetheless detectably self-indulgent.

Also this week, I reconnected with Netflix and watched a few episodes of the new Doctor Who. This is a terrific series, and I enjoy the episodes a lot, though perhaps slightly less when watching them for the second time.

Here’s the conundrum, though: The plots of Doctor Who are just as thickly implausible and unconvincing as the plot of Six Moon Dance. If not more so. And I don’t care. I’m enjoying Doctor Who in a much less critical frame of mind.┬áSo what is the relevant difference? Is it just that Read more

Advertising Corrupts

For more than 25 years, I worked as an editor at a monthly magazine. My entire salary was paid, ultimately, by advertisers. It would be churlish of me to bite the hand that fed me. And yet, the destructive effects of advertising are hard to ignore.

The difficulty is, when advertisers are spending thousands of dollars every month (or, if the ads are in a newspaper, every day), they start trying to throw their weight around. The idealistic view of advertising is that the advertiser buys page space in which to display their ad. The reality is that sooner or later most advertisers will start trying to influence the editorial content of the publication.

They may object loudly to a feature that has already been published, and pull their ads (temporarily or forever). More subtly, they may suggest features that they would like to see published, features in which their products are favorably highlighted. It’s also very standard in the music industry for editors to be provided with free software and even hardware, a topic that would take us far enough astray that I may explore it in a separate blog entry. (Full disclosure: I have certainly benefited, and very significantly, from this practice.)

Various publications handle these pressures in various ways. Or rather, various publishers handle them in various ways. Ultimately, it’s up to the person sitting behind the publisher’s desk to Read more

The Storytelling Impulse

Writing stories is fun. I’ve done a fair amount of it over the years, and have enjoyed a very modest bit of success. Nestled among the successes, however, have been … let’s not call them failures. Let’s say, there were some stories that I felt pretty good about, but that I was unable to sell to a publisher. Four or five novels and a somewhat thicker sheaf of short stories, all of them gathering dust.

Not that getting a story published in a magazine is a cure for dust-gathering. A story appears, let’s say, in Asimov’s. A few thousand people can read it if they choose. The following month, another issue arrives in their mailbox, and last month’s issue gets tossed on a shelf. Quite likely it will never be thumbed through again.

Still, getting a story published is better than not getting it published. If an editor is willing to pay money for a story, that’s an acknowledgment that the story has some meaning, some human value.

I’m starting to feel restless. Starting to feel that it would be fun to write another novel. I have a couple of ideas that I’d like to explore. Another option, one upon which I gaze with more trepidation, would be to Read more