Category Archives: Writing

Good Airplane Movies

If you hang out with pilots for any length of time and the movies come up you’ll very likely hear the more or less unanimous opinion that Hollywood doesn’t make good movies about aviation.

I agree good aviation movies are few and far between, but it should be noted that an aviation movie is about people flying or otherwise involved with airplanes. An “aviation movie” should let the non-flying viewer glimpse what motivates otherwise normal people to learn to fly and deliberately, even eagerly, perform the unnatural act of flying.

Pilots don’t tend to talk about the faults in the story. That’s sort of secondary. They tend to focus on technical inaccuracies about the airplanes or the techniques of flying them. A particularly egregious example is a movie where a Spitfire pilot manages to break the speed of sound by “cross-controlling” – possibly a misunderstanding of the control reversal phenomenon experienced by some airplanes as they near Mach One – an event that, even at the time the film was made, was known to be not merely incorrect but something that would lead to the destruction of the aircraft and probably its pilot. Exceeding Mach One in a propeller-driven aircraft is an aerodynamic impossibility, anyway.

My personal favorite mistakes include identification of one type of airplane as another. The film “Midway” (1976) had aerial shots that identified an airplane with four engines (probably a C-130 Hercules) as a twin-engine PBY Catalina; a long shot of an aerial dogfight where the airplanes involved all appeared to have in-line engines, whereas all the airplanes at Midway had radial engines; or the scene where an American TBF torpedo bomber is identified as a Japanese “Kate” even though the white star of the US national insignia, as opposed to the red rising sun of Japan, is plainly visible.

Directors would probably argue, with some justice, that to most people an airplane is an airplane is an airplane and what the blank, they’ve all got wings, don’t they? So what difference does it make? Besides, it costs a lot of money to shoot those aerial scenes right. Look at Howard Hughes nearly going broke shooting “Hell’s Angels.”

So what’s the big deal?

Well…you don’t become a pilot unless flying means something to you beyond the ordinary, and given the vanishingly small percentage of people who actually become pilots, much less professional pilots, maybe it isn’t surprising that so few people understand why it’s important to pilots to get these “little details” right.

Because, you see, to pilots, especially professional pilots who may have lives riding on their skill and expertise, there’s no such thing as a small or unimportant detail. Little things can kill you.

So I suspect at least two reasons why pilots scowl at aviation movies. First, as noted, if overlooking details can result in damage, death, or disaster, then one can understand why pilots – the ones who tend to live longest, anyway – tend to acquire a thorough and painstaking knowledge of their craft and the airplanes they fly. It should also be understandable why pilots tend to be intolerant of mistakes and ignorance. Those can get you killed.

That seems pretty obvious, but there is a second reason, a little more subtle, and it involves the craft of writing a story. The fiction story usually requires something called “dramatic conflict” – a compelling reason, interesting to the reader, for the character or characters to be confronted with a problem to be solved. The detective story is a perfect example; the actions of the detective in solving the case carry the action of a story in a most satisfying way, if properly written.

If a pilot performs properly, aviation, from outside of the cockpit, appears uneventful, a transit between two points in varying degrees of comfort. Pilots work very hard indeed to achieve that level of apparent lack of drama.

When things go bad and pilots do what they’re supposed to do in an emergency, far more often than not dealing with the emergency, from outside the cockpit, still has that aura of the ordinary and uneventful. It’s not every day that Sully Sullenberger has to put an airliner into the Hudson, less than three minutes after departure, because both engines of his airplane ingest birds and flame out. I got a real kick out of listening to the tape of Sullenberger on the radio with the air traffic controllers. They’d ask him if he could reach this airport, or that airport, and Sully, being perhaps a tad busy, consistently replies with nothing more than “Unable.” That recording is available on YouTube. Listen to Sully’s voice. It’s the voice of a master at work.

Even more, it’s not every day that a flight crew is confronted with engine failure combined with hydraulic failure resulting in inoperative controls, a condition highly likely to lead to a catastrophic departure from controlled flight, as nearly happened to United Flight 232 on July 19, 1989. That crew, aided by a United Airlines training check airman who was aboard, gave new meaning to cliches like “used every trick in the book” and “snatched victory from the jaws of death.” Victory in this case meant most of the passengers survived the crash landing, when casualties could easily have been 100%. They survived because the members of the flight crew were consummate practitioners of their craft.

In aviation, dramatic conflict usually means death or the danger thereof. That’s how most people see it, anyway. Maybe that’s why pilots don’t like aviation movies. No one likes to be reminded of how things can go to pieces and leave you to pick up the mess, if you can. Especially when the blank-blank details are wrong. Some fool kid might think it was right, go try it, and end up in a smoking hole at the scene of the accident.

All of that being said I’m going to recommend the following five movies as good aviation films, maybe not always spot-on with details, but true at least in spirit. These films, to me, show something very close to what it means to be a pilot. Feel free to agree or disagree with my choices, and by all means make other recommendations.

“Spirit of St. Louis” (1957)

“Dawn Patrol” (1938)

“Only Angels Have Wings” (1939)

“The Bridges at Toko-Ri” (1954)

“I Wanted Wings” (1941)


Filed under Aviation, aviation fiction, characterization, Writing

The Struggles

In 2015 I published my first ebook, a collection of short stories titled The Struggles. The market for short stories is pretty slender these days, and at least two of the stories in the collection, “The Visit” and “Purple Heart,” have gone the rounds for decades. I figured that if those stories are to see the light of day, Amazon Kindle is the way to go.

Writing short stories can be fun, even though I’ve always seen myself as a novelist. I think there’s a kind of knack to writing short stories that’s a little different from the one needed to write novels. That knack can be learned, like most things, but for me it’s kind of hit-or-miss. If the story doesn’t have it, I toss it back in the hard drive while the germ germinates a little more in my mind. I doubt some of those seeds will ever come to fruition.

Besides, when I started writing, in 1968 at the ripe old age of 14, I saw myself as a novelist. Writing short stories came along a few years later.

When I published The Struggles it was as much an experiment as anything else. The experimental part was to work with Amazon Kindle and gain some understanding of their publication process. Everything We Had was in process, and before I undertook trying to publish My First Novel, I wanted a better idea of what I needed to do.

So, an experiment…but maybe I’m wrong to write “as anything else.”

Writing a short story really is different from writing a novel. For me that difference touches that ineffable and indefinable term “art.” It’s not that a novel isn’t “art,” but it’s art in a different way. There’s something poignant about a short story, like looking down a street in the city in the rain, wondering what’s in the dark doorways hidden in shadows. A novel takes a walk down that street and looks in each doorway until you get to the end of the street. A short story might take you into one, and it’s what happens when you open it. But the mystery of those other doors, those other paths not taken, that mystery still remains.

Or, a short story is like a brief, intense love affair, while a novel is more like a marriage, or at least a “long-term relationship.” Or something like that.

Anyway this post was inspired by the fact that, yesterday, as I was looking over my sales reports on Amazon, I noticed the sale of an ebook. Oh, I thought, wonder which one that was. Boxcar Red LeaderA Snowball’s ChanceEverything We Had? When it wasn’t any of those, I suddenly remembered The Struggles — and there it was.

Someone bought a copy of The Struggles. I don’t know who you are, friend, but thank you, and I hope you enjoy it. Because those stories in many ways were harder to write and took more from me than the novels.

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Filed under fiction, Uncategorized, Writing

Airplanes in My Novels: the Much-Maligned Bell P-39


Bell P-39 night-firing. Note engine exhausts and air scoop behind the cockpit. Wing guns are .30-cal., the two guns firing through the propeller are .50-cal., and the 37-mm cannon is firing through the prop spinner.

Before I started writing Boxcar Red Leader, I knew there was an airplane called the P-39, that it was built by Bell Aircraft, and was fairly unique among fighter designs of the era in having tricycle landing gear and the engine mounted in the fuselage behind the pilot, to leave room in the nose of the airplane for a 37-mm cannon. The propeller driveshaft passed from the engine behind the cockpit, under the pilot’s seat, and connected to a gearbox that drove the propeller. The P-39 was a contemporary of the far-better-known Curtiss P-40. I also knew the airplane was called the “Iron Dog” and there seemed to be a sizable contingent of former P-39 pilots who actively disliked the airplane. There’s even a verse about it, in the old Air Corps folk song “Give Me Operations:”

Oh, don’t give me a P-39
The engine is mounted behind
She’ll stall and she’ll spin
And she’ll auger you in
Don’t give me a P-39!

Evidently the center of gravity and the center of lift in the P-39 were in a very sensitive relationship, far more so than in other, more conventional airplanes. This resulted in an airplane very sensitive to pitch inputs, such that only very small increments of elevator control were needed to effect pitch change. This goes directly to the “she’ll stall and she’ll spin” verse above. When pulling gee in a tight turn one pulls back on the stick; if not done with skill, the turn will tighten to the point where the g-load exceeds the lift generated by the wings, causing what is known as an “accelerated stall.” Entering a stall from a turn will lead to a spin, and evidently the P-39 had interesting spin characteristics, to the point where many pilots were convinced the airplane would actually tumble end over end.

On the other hand, there were pilots who absolutely loved the Airacobra. Chuck Yeager flew the airplane in training, loved it, and relates in his autobiography a conversation he once had with a Russian pilot who flew the P-39 – successfully! – against the Luftwaffe. Edwards Park flew the P-39 in New Guinea, and his account of that time is written in his book, Nanette: Her Pilot’s Love Story, a narrative I recommend as one of the best books about flying I’ve ever read.

My perception is that much of the dislike directed at the P-39 resulted from the pilots who were thrown into the airplane straight out of flight school and then expected to fly the P-39 against the experienced Zero pilots of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the skies over New Guinea. Most of these pilots had never flown an airplane more powerful or faster than an AT-6 trainer. Later in the war pilots like this would be sent to an OTU, or Operational Training Unit, to encounter the P-39 or P-40 under the relatively benign conditions of a stateside training base. In the Pacific, in 1942, kids fresh out of flying school were put in P-39s and P-40s and sent out against the Japanese. The loss rate, from accidents and combat, was horrendous.

The P-39, like the P-40, was equipped with the Allison V-1710 engine. The V-1710 was a fairly good engine, but in the P-39 and the P-40 it had only a single-stage supercharger, and, as a result, the performance of both airplanes fell off sharply above 17,000 feet. If what you have to defend Port Moresby and Seven-Mile Drome from Jap bombers flying at 23,000 feet is a P-39, you face a difficult tactical problem, one not helped by the fact that the defenders of Seven-Mile rarely had enough warning to climb high enough to intercept Japanese bombers with any hope of success.

Between the high loss rate and the poor performance, compared to the A6M2 Zero fighter the P-39 found itself matched against, it’s no wonder the pilots disliked the airplane.

Still, I kind of like the P-39. I’ll never have a chance to fly one, to see for myself just how sensitive and well-balanced those controls are, or if she really will tumble, but there’s something about the way the airplane looks.

Over and above any of that, the P-39 was one of the two pursuit airplanes the Army Air Forces had at the beginning of World War Two available in significant numbers. It didn’t matter, from that perspective, how the pilots felt about the airplanes. It was what they had.


Filed under Airplanes in my novels, Aviation, technology in fiction, Writing

Other Tom Burkhalter Related Products

In the category of shameless self-promotion I dedicate this blog.

Two days ago I published an anthology of short stories on Amazon, titled The Struggles. Even self-publishing of this sort is an odd experience. In an instant, you go from writing for yourself and perhaps a small group of friends/writers to writing for the entire world. In theory or in potential, at least. That’s the power of the Internet, the ability to deliver content to anyone anywhere anytime, worldwide.

Maybe I’ll get used to it, but for now it still feels strange.

I’m working hard to achieve even greater notoriety, so this post is also an advertisement. (I did use the phrase “shameless self-promotion,” right?) I have a series of novels I’m working on. The first one, Everything We Had, is in final draft form, circulating among my faithful beta readers. I’ve also entered it in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award competition, and we’ll see how that goes.

Everything We Had deals with the experiences of two brothers, Jack and Charlie Davis, who are pilots in the US Army Air Forces. They are sent to the Philippines on the eve of the US entering World War II. Jack, a 2nd Lieutenant not long out of flight school, is a pursuit pilot. But the 24th Pursuit Group, assigned to the air defense of the Philippines, is only combat-ready on paper. Charlie, a captain flying B-17s in the 19th Bomb Group, has to weld together an inexperienced crew during the long solo flight across the Pacific from California to Clark Field on the island of Luzon. North of them, on the Japanese-held island of Formosa, are hundreds of well-trained, battle-tested Japanese pilots who outnumber the Americans pilots by greater than ten-to-one. The war is coming. The only question is when, and what will happen to Charlie, Jack and their fellow pilots when it does.

The second novel in the series is A Snowball’s Chance. The survivors of the Philippine air battles are withdrawn to Australia, then thrown into the fighting to prevent the Japanese from taking Java. A handful of B-17s and a squadron of P-40s are all we have to stop the Japanese.

The third novel is Boxcar Red Leader. On the island of New Guinea on obscure outpost named Port Moresby becomes the strategic key to preventing the Japanese invasion of Australia. On the eve of the Battle of the Coral Sea, Army pilots are sent to reinforce USAAF units already engaged in the fight to defend Port Moresby from Japanese air attacks. Novice pilot Jimmy Ardana must learn to fight and survive in the unloved, obsolescent Bell P-39 Airacobra, against the Japanese Zero and the masterful pilots of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Look for Everything We Had in late spring, unless I win the ABNA, in which case we’ll have to see what Penguin/Amazon has to say about a future publication date. I’m working on the first draft of A Snowball’s Chance now. I intend to have a final draft done no later than the end of summer 2014. Boxcar Red Leader is already in final draft form since I wrote it first. I’ll have to go back and revise it again in light of what happened in the first two novels before I release it, though.

Why did I do it that way? Well, Boxcar was the idea that came to my mind first. Then I realized I could and should write at least two other novels, given the hints in Boxcar. Maybe I could have gone ahead and released Boxcar Red Leader but that gave away a lot of what happened in the first two novels, so it seemed better to hold onto it. I think, ultimately, it will work out for the best, but you’ll have to judge that for yourself.

Watch this spot, I’ll update progress from time to time. Feel free to comment!


Filed under aviation fiction, fiction, Writing

“E vs. P”: the Reason for the Vitriol

Fair Warning: this blog is not for the ADD or those who can’t take the time to read and think about the issues involved.  The word count is 3720, more or less.  Yes, I am indeed asking you to buy a pig in a poke by reading further; yes, I am arrogant enough to think most of you, even if you disagree with me, will continue reading.

Recently I read a post by M.J. Rose regarding the level of emotion involved in the debate between digital and print publishers.  Here’s further evidence of my arrogance: you can read her post at  This is arrogant because I am inviting you to stop reading what I’ve written, read something else by another writer, and return.

Is it actually arrogance, though, to assume the same interest on your part as on mine?  Maybe; you tell me by continuing to read, or not.

Ms. Rose brings up some interesting points, but by and large I’m not sure I agree with her assessment of why there is so much “vitriol” in what she describes as the “e-vs-p” (electronic, i.e., digital, versus print) debate.  In fact, on rereading, it almost seems that she is describing hate directed at digital books replacing our precious printed-paper books.  I don’t know of anyone taking that position, however, and on my initial reading I concluded Ms. Rose was directing her article at calming the waters between authors seeking to publish digitally and those still pursuing the print alternative.

I am, in fact, going to give my take on the nature of the “vitriol” and why there’s so much of it being exchanged between the writers who will take every advantage of a changing business model and the in-place print medium and its business model.  Ms. Rose offers some interesting insight on how the print model developed and if only for that reason her post is well worth reading.

On the other hand I think she misses the gravamen of the “e-vs.-p” conflict, which is really pretty simple.

“Vitriol” is a wonderful word one doesn’t see often anymore – kudos to Ms. Rose for even using it! – and is particularly apt in this situation.  In its literal sense “vitriol” was the medieval term for sulfuric acid, but eventually came to its more poetic usage as “cruel and bitter criticism.”

A lot of people on the print side express surprise at the fact that so many writers are rushing into digital, independent, self-publishing venues.  This includes writers – even published writers – as well as agents, editors and traditional publishers.  As Ms. Rose rightly points out in her post, it’s been done this way for a long time.

Which may be the point.  It has been a long time, maybe too long, long enough for “business model” to acquire the trappings of “tradition” which is only one step removed from “natural law” and/or “the way it’s always been,” i.e., since the burning bush on Mt. Sinai.  There’s a certain implicit sense of entitlement that goes along with that territory.

When the book-printing business got started it was still hard enough to print books (as opposed, say, to hiring a battalion of monks to create an illuminated manuscript, one copy at a time) that only those ideas that seemed highly important at the time stood a chance of being printed.  An interesting footnote to this is that Ben Caxton, the first printer in England, after he printed a copy of the Bible, was approached to print Sir Thomas Malory’s version of the legend of King Arthur.  But other than the Bible, my impression is that most books printed prior to the 19th Century were non-fiction, printed to inform (or sometimes misinform, or even disinform) people about the New World literally unfolding  before their eyes.  To be printed in those days it had to be important, new knowledge, understood as such by people to whom knowledge and new ideas were important and worth preserving.

I mean, come on.  Fiction might be about ideas but when I write a story it isn’t about a new method for the determination of longitude, or my personal observations of the curious habits of the natives of Patagonia.  Fiction is mostly about entertainment.  Entertainment requires two things: the reader has to have the leisure time to read, and the reader has to be able to afford what he or she reads.

The “vitriol” Ms. Rose quite rightly refers to, the “cruel and bitter criticism,” seems a bit excessive for an argument over a business model, doesn’t it?  Business is just business, isn’t that what we’ve always heard?  “It’s just business; nothing personal.”  However, isn’t it odd that for something that’s just “business as usual” we seem to be looking at a phenomenon which, in terms of engaging the passions, seems to rival, oh, I don’t know, politics or religion?  It therefore seems relevant to ask why emotions and tempers seem to be so engaged in this matter.

Is it as simple as conflicting business models?  Established publishing methods versus digital publishing and delivery?  I’ll point out that, historically, all such “old guard vs. new guard” conflicts engender quite a bit of vitriol.  Perhaps, however, in this particular case, there’s something more involved.

That “something more” is a group of persnickety, high-strung, grandiose-depressive creative types otherwise known as “writers.”

Let’s get one fact straight: if there weren’t hordes of people convinced of their talent to the point that they actually sit down and write something, and finish what they write, and then actually have the chutzpah to believe other people might want to pay to read it, the fiction publishing business would not exist.  It’s only with the availability of leisure time in which to read for entertainment as well as being an affordable medium of entertainment that the fiction publishing industry became established as well as profitable.

Remember that phrase “affordable medium of entertainment” – I’ll have occasion to refer to it below.

Now for a little personal history.  Over the last five years I’ve rededicated myself to being a published writer.  I won’t say that I’m doing it for the money, although heck yeah, if I could make a living sitting here pounding the keyboard all day, I’d quit my day job in a heartbeat.  So being the sort of person I am I started researching that traditionally thorny question, How do I break into print?

Have you ever looked at the magazine section at your local book store and counted how many publications there are dedicated to just that question?  When I started all this it never occurred to me to think about one very salient fact literally staring me in the face: for all those magazines to make a profit, or even to simply break even, there had to be an awful lot of writers out there looking for ways to do just exactly what I wanted to do, and a whole industry dedicated to making money off those wanna-be-think-I-can writers.

At first I treated all those magazines as gospel and thought hard about how I’d implement all those strategies put forward for being noticed, “getting out of the slush pile,” or “landing an agent,” etc.  In time here’s what I figured out: there wasn’t a hell of a lot of really specific information in those articles.  Lots of generalities, but nothing specific.  Even writing-related articles on the subject, say, of “make your characters interesting” were sort of vague.  That was a tendency prevalent enough that I could feel that tickle of unease in the back of my mind, but I kept reading.  Surely, I thought, somewhere in all of this is the key, the answer, the one thing I can use to reach my goal.

The straw that broke the camel’s back and brought enlightenment was an article from an agent about query letters.  By that time I was part of a writers group and “query letters” was a hot topic for us.  Let me summarize the discussion, which was fairly heated and lasted for two or three meetings: (a) the agent dealt mostly with romance novelists, and none of us (at the time, we were all males in the group) wrote in the romance genre; (b) the tone of the letters was almost uniformly what we ended up describing as “cutesy” and “flirty”; (c) there was no discussion by the agent writing the article concerning query letters in general, although that subject was implied by the title of the article, almost as if, as far as the agent was concerned, there wasn’t anything in publishing outside of the romance genre (which may have had some truth to it at the time she wrote the article).

I’m not sure I could write a cute, flirty query letter if I tried.  At the time I was heavily engaged in the first draft of a novel about fighter pilots in the New Guinea jungle in 1942.  I couldn’t see much cute and flirty about that.

Two conclusions eventually emerged for me in all of this.  First, most of what I was writing would probably be considered “unpublishable” by the traditional print publishers whatever its literary merits.  Second, the people writing those articles, in general, were pretty well wrapped up in their own little world.  Articles like the one above I came to see were like those scientific papers where the list of authors or contributors is longer than the paper itself; advertising for the agent or editor as much as anything.  Which is fine; we’re talking business, after all, but there’s a subtle point here that’s easy to miss.

If your article in a trade journal is really advertising for the service you provide, and it appears under the guise of “I’m trying to help you,” well, what’s the word for that?  I won’t say it’s outright deception; deception implies intent to deceive, and I can’t honestly say the intent is there.  But it does seem to me that “self-serving” might be an applicable phrase.  Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with that.  The implicit subtext, though, is like this: “I’m trying to help you (so I can make scads of money off you).”

Once I understood that I began to see a lot of things about the publishing industry.  Not all at once, but over time.

One thing that publishers know is this: there’s always going to be a lot of people who believe that they can write fiction and are willing to put up with endless B.S. to have their fiction published.  If you’re a new writer there’s no way to distinguish you from all those faces in that endless sea of unpublished writers.

Here’s something else a perusal of the writing magazines will teach you, and it’s something their publishers (and their advertisers – look how much those Creative Writing MFA programs cost!) would probably prefer you didn’t figure out: there is no one path to success.  Something catches the eye of an editor or an agent, and that something is different for each and every editor or agent, and isn’t always the same for any given editor or agent at any given time.  So the conclusion I draw is simple: you can follow all the advice in all those writer’s magazines and whether you succeed or not is still a matter of luck.  People will tell you hard work and persistence pays off, and they are absolutely right, but the same thing can be said about playing the lottery: sooner or later, if you keep buying tickets, you’ll draw a winner.  It might be a couple of bucks, or it might be the jackpot, but if you don’t keep buying tickets you can’t win either way.  As for the hard work, well, you have to have the dollar to buy the ticket in the first place, right?  You sure aren’t getting it from your writing, however hard you work at that.  As for us writers, our lottery ticket is a finished manuscript, and in terms of time and emotion the investment can’t even be measured in dollars.

So there’s the fan dance done by agents and editors alike: they want you to believe that there is some standard, some set of rules, a sure path through their door that writers can follow.  But why do the fan dance at all?  What’s the point to it?

The point is that agents and editors want you to believe they have standards and rules because they have no other way to establish authority over you, the writer.  Think very carefully about this: I used the word “authority” very deliberately, with purpose and intent.  If they don’t have some standard of behavior that you, the writer, is supposed to conform to in order to succeed – i.e., to be published – then why would you listen to them at all?

Herein lies the first part of why there is so much vitriol and acrimony involved in the “e-vs.-p” debate: Agents and editors want to have authority, a very parental, paternal sort of authority – sort of like the Pope being infallible when he speaks ex cathedra – so that you, the writer, when and if you are admitted through the pearly gates into the hallowed realm of publication (this isn’t merely sarcasm here, that’s my impression of how they think of it), you will never question why they do things.

They don’t want any questions because if you start asking too many questions you’ll realize they have little more clue than you do about what a good story is or why one story sells better than another.  There’s really only one definition of a good story in the marketplace: a good story is what a reader will pay money to read.

Most readers don’t care about grammar or spelling or sentence/paragraph construction beyond a certain point.  The truth is that most people don’t use it while telling stories in their daily lives.  I suspect only English professors are going to make a fuss about it anyway.  I’m not saying you can write at the level of a first-grader and expect to be successful, but in a population whose average reading skills are at the junior-high level, perhaps we could concede that meaning can be conveyed without slavish attention to grammatical niceties.

So if those things aren’t the point, what is?

Story.  It’s that simple.  Tell a good story, and the rest is window dressing.  How much of Mark Twain’s work, for example, is grammatical?  Ah, but I hear you saying, you have to know the rules before you can break them!  Maybe so, but I’m pretty sure Sam Clemens wrote like he heard people talking.  It’s called authenticity.  People like authenticity when you’re telling a story.  Here’s a rule for you rule-driven people: if you sound too much like your high-school English teacher, it’s going to turn a lot of readers off, since most people don’t talk that way, do they?  How many of us liked our high school English teachers?  (I remember two that I liked in high school, and none of my English professors in college.)  I don’t say that’s a rule, it’s just something to think about.

Wait a minute, though…don’t editors and agents fulfill the useful function of helping you polish your story, bring out the best in your characters, transform a soso story into literary genius?  That is the party line they preach, isn’t it?  To do that, though, might it not be relevant to inquire as to the track record of editors and agents in picking out the “good” stories from the “bad” ones?

The track record just doesn’t seem to be there.  Research it for yourself.  Given my definition of a “good” story, however, you’d think that the first editor who had Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone cross his or her desk would have snapped it up at once.  Of course that’s being wise after the fact – but a good story is a good story, isn’t it?  Contrarily, almost everyone knows that J.K. Rowling was turned down by I don’t know how many publishers before landing a deal with Scholastic.  The conclusion to draw here is that editors and agents may or may not know a good story.  Supposedly, however, it’s their job, even their profession, to know; it’s how editors justify their six-figure salaries and how agents justify that 15% of your royalties as a writer, if you get that far, that they require from you for their services.

We might ask, though, if that Emperor is actually wearing any clothes.

Yet, as writers, we are constantly bombarded with what amounts to a party line as thoroughly authoritarian and inviolable as any Stalinist or Nazi party proclamation of the way, the truth and the light: that publishers and editors and agents, most of whom aren’t writers (fiction writers, anyway, but I guess there’s always expense accounts) and haven’t paid their dues as writers (whatever that actually means) but nonetheless profess to know everything there is to know about writing and that we, the writers, should listen to them.

If there are no clear standards of good vs. bad art, other than what the public will buy, which is utterly unpredictable, and if anyone who’s been in publishing for any length of time knows that the reading public will buy a good story, but that that “good story” is an unpredictable quantity, then why are publishers/agents/editors so adamant that they have all the answers?

Again: so we, the writers, will believe they do and not question them when we receive those rejection slips, or the paltry royalties, or the bad marketing, or the condescension, etc.

On that basis something that might be understood a little better in this whole print vs. digital controversy, and why passions and tempers are so high, is that, in my opinion, a lot of it is less about how you want your stories delivered than by the way publishers, editors and agents have treated writers for the last fifty years or so.  (Probably longer – but let’s go with fifty years.)

Anyone who has read Alice Miller’s ground-breaking work The Drama of the Gifted Child will understand the pattern.  The publishers, editors and agents take the role of the abusive, narcissistic parent, while forcing the writers into the role of the abused child.  The gift Dr. Miller refers to is the empathic ability of a very young child to interpret the emotional needs of the parent.   This is a survival skill.  Interpreting the rage of an abusive parent so as to supply that parent what they need emotionally (conforming, submissive behavior by the child — cloaking growing rage) is unfortunately a necessity for many children.  Also, like such parents, the publishers/editors/agents know that writers, like children, have nowhere else to go.  It isn’t about money, or efficient delivery of a business service; it’s about relative power, its use and abuse.

From that it’s easy to see that the driving energy behind the controversy, at least on the writer’s side, is pent-up rage.  Psychologists have known for decades that we learn as children to hide our anger from our parents because we sense it threatens our lives.  But the truth is that writers are angry, and have been for a long time.  We are passionate people, we care about what we do.  We care enough to put up with a lot of bullshit from people who aren’t writers so we can tell our stories.  If we don’t get published, the unspoken party line among publishers is, well, sonny, you just aren’t good enough, are you?  (pat on the head)  But keep trying, keep polishing, and maybe someday, if you try ever so hard, we’ll publish something of yours.  If we feel like it.

I’m not saying that, at least in my own writing, that there’s no room for improvement.  There’s always room for improvement.  But when you see talentless schlock published and pushed when writers with ten times the talent languish on a back shelf, what conclusion is one to reach about the competency level of publishers, agents and editors within the field they profess to be experts in?

Writers – at least, this writer – are sick and tired of being made to feel incompetent and unprofessional by people whose only contribution seems to be to take their money and give nothing in return, while asking you to believe that they stand one step below the throne of the Almighty.  When I say nothing in return, I mean just that.  I hear over and over and ad nauseam over again how much editors give you in terms of polishing your work and making it more literary and readable.  Maybe there’s some truth in that, but when you hear it so often you sooner or later ought to ask yourself if someone keeps saying it so no one will question whether or not it’s true.  It’s a propaganda technique known as the “Big Lie.”

Writers have been made to feel like bastard step-children by the very people who depend upon them for their economic existence, because those same people are dependent upon writers, and they know it.  The publishers are acting like parents surprised by a child’s accusations of abuse:  but we love you!  It was all for your own good anyway!  Come back and behave and everything will be JUST the way it used to be!

Once a child understands that it isn’t love but abuse, one typical reaction is rage and the destruction of trust.  That’s exactly what we see here, in this so-called “e v. p” conflict.  It has a lot less to do with the way stories are delivered than it does the way writers have been treated by publishers.  New York City publishing has sown; now let it reap.

That brings us right back to the phrase I asked you to remember, the “affordable medium of entertainment.”  Hardcover fiction is pushing $30/book nowadays.  That’s pretty close to double the cost of a month’s worth of internet access and about what a month of cable TV would cost.  Even an $8/copy paperback is starting to push that envelope – buy three or four paperbacks at normal retail and there you are.

I submit that on this basis print isn’t affordable as entertainment.

Digital print media, however, is affordable, given prices ranging from $0.99 to $4.99 per download.

On that basis some of the vitriol from the print side (“You’re cheating!”) becomes comprehensible.

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“John Carter of Mars”

Or, A Hero, Literally, of the Past

Disney’s remake of the Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure story A Princess of Mars flopped at the box office, losing about $200 million, reported as perhaps the largest all-time loss on a single movie.  See Michael White’s article at:

The article also cites one analyst who attributes the flop to the film being over-budget and “poorly marketed.”  I’m not sure what “poorly marketed” means, exactly, in this context; maybe it was.  Let’s be sure we understand something: for a film to flop as badly as did “John Carter of Mars,” then there’s probably something more to it than just poor marketing.  So perhaps poor marketing was a factor in the film’s failure, but a contributory rather than a decisive one.

Other than the marketing, then, what other causes might one find for the film to flop?

I’d like to share with you what I saw unfold on the screen, but be aware that I’m not a screenwriter nor in any way connected to Hollywood.  I can only write this as someone who enjoys a movie.

“John Carter of Mars” has a lot of things in its favor.

The cast was excellent – of course, I’m a big fan of Ciaran Hinds and James Purefoy – Lynn Collins, cast as Princess Dejah Thoris, was creditable and delectable – and if I don’t name anyone else it’s just because those three are the standouts.  So I don’t believe that lack of acting talent was at fault.

Whatever else it might be I found the film a stunning visual spectacle, at least as far as the recreation of Barsoom goes.  The six-limbed green Martian fighting men, the Tharks, were superbly conceived and the CGI behind them was awesome.  In short, Tars Tarkas lived and breathed on the silver screen, and so did all his green-skinned brethren.  Likewise, the sets and miniatures were seamlessly believable and beautifully constructed.  I was particularly impressed with the way features like mesas (from the Arizona desert, perhaps?) were skillfully reworked into the ruins of Martian cities.  That was well enough done that it actually made me wonder if some of those mesas were the remnants of long-lost civilizations.

In general, the artistic quality of creatures, sets, models, costumes, weapons, artifacts, were all well-thought-out and first rate, Academy Award quality, in my humble and admittedly flyover-country opinion.  Given the reported production cost of $250 million, however, it shouldn’t be surprising that the film has fantastic production values.  Nonetheless, I think they captured the spirit of Burroughs’ vision quite well.  In fact, I rather think Burroughs would have thought that in some regards, the various artists involved in this film had read his mind.

With that deliberate reference we segue to the remaining element of the film: screenplay, or story.

Before I get to the screenplay maybe we should look at the story in A Princess of Mars, as written by Burroughs.  I’m not going to recap the plot.  If you want to know, read it for yourself.

Consider this: it may not be possible to get away with things as a writer in 2012 that one could take for granted as a writer in 1912.  I’d never read the Mars stories, but I thought I’d read them before watching the movie.  One of the things that struck me the most about Princess was the positive lushness of Burroughs’ description of Mars, its cities, people, creatures and terrain.  In some respects the book is more of a travelogue than a story, more Gulliver’s Travels than Lord of the Rings.  Of course, everyone on Mars goes naked – quite a stimulating thought for readers in 1912, before Hollywood really took off, before television was available, even before commercial radio.  I’m sure imagining the lissome Dejah Thoris, clad only in jewels that glittered in the reflected light of the hurtling moons of Barsoom, was quite a pleasant task for the male readers of 1912!  I didn’t find it unduly burdensome, either, a hundred years later.

Consider also that in 1912 the only mass market entertainment was the pulp fiction serial – the format in which A Princess of Mars was first published.  In fact, that’s how the book reads, like a serial, going from cliffhanger to cliffhanger, and even ending on a cliffhanger – i.e., will John Carter make it back to Barsoom and his beloved Dejah Thoris and their unhatched son?

As for us here on Earth, though, that hundred years between 1912 and the present carries a lot more baggage than the rise of mass media.  Let’s not forget the effect that two horrendous world wars, innumerable “brush wars” and “police actions” and “wars against terror” and “Cold Wars” have had on our psychological and cultural perceptions of the heroic as well, not to mention such non-romantic things as “shell shock,” “combat fatigue” and “PTSD.”

Then too, John Carter survives his adventures because, in essence, he has super powers on Mars, as a result of which he not only whips up on the bad guys but wins the hand of the Princess of Helium.  If all you have to do to solve most of your problems is lay about you with your trusty sword in a fashion that even Conan the Barbarian might envy, then where’s the conflict for the protagonist?

That, however, may be the problem.  I wouldn’t say that the audience of 2012 is necessarily more sophisticated than that of 1912, but the point is that by the present day any one of us over the age of twenty has seen this idea – on the screen, at least – I don’t know how many times, but certainly a lot.

In this respect think of the various incarnations and variations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that have appeared over those same years, both in film and in print.  I’ve often wondered what it might have been like to sit in the audience in a theater in 1931 when the film version with Bela Lugosi first came out, back when the horror film genre hadn’t been done to death – or undeath, all things considered.

A hint of what that might have been like came to me a few years ago while I was watching Toho’s “Godzilla” (1956).  As the monster moves through downtown Tokyo, smashing buildings and setting the city on fire with his gamma-ray breath, it occurred to me to think about the Tokyo audience that would have sat in a theater in 1956 to watch this film.  I mean, it’s fairly obvious that “Godzilla” is just a guy in a rubber suit smashing up model houses and buildings on a stage miniature set.  How is this even remotely scary?  Here’s where understanding historical context comes in handy:  I suddenly realized that not one person in that audience less than twelve or thirteen years old could fail to be aware, from personal experience, that the city of Tokyo, like many Japanese cities, had been leveled in fire-storms (just like the one being produced on screen) caused by American bombing raids, with enormous suffering and loss of life and property.  In fact, more people were killed in the Tokyo raid of March 6, 1945, than were killed by the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  So imagine, if you will, what a Japanese survivor of the Tokyo fire raids in 1945 might have felt, watching the monster Godzilla march across the screen.

But historical context also requires us to ask this question: would an American audience of 1956 feel the same thing that the Japanese audience felt?

For either country, by now, Tokyo has been destroyed by so many monsters on screen over the years that one has to wonder what’s left of that frisson of fear I imagine swept over the Japanese audience of 1956.

Were the screenwriters aware of this problem?  That question, for now, is rhetorical.  It would be interesting to learn what was said in the writer’s conferences as the script took shape, though.  Deducing anything from the script by comparing it to the events of the books is a process unlikely to produce valid results, and runs the risk of being wise after the fact, but let’s look briefly at what was done.

The screenwriters altered the beginning of the story a little, but not materially.  Instead of being a simple prospector with a partner killed by the Apaches, John Carter is wanted by the US government for some unspecified service, evidently because he’s a “Virginia cavalryman.”  Being from the South, knowing a little about the War Between the States, and having lived in Virginia where those cavalry regiments were raised, I understand the reference, but how many people in a modern audience will?  Could we say that this part of the script is intended to promote a certain understanding of John Carter as a war hero who just wants to be left alone to look for his cave of gold?  Then, when John Carter is beaten and thrown in jail by the US Cavalry troopers, perhaps the intention is to cast John Carter as something of an underdog, promoting sympathy for his character?  While he is in jail, the script produces a flashback of a domestic scene which was nowhere part of the original books; John Carter’s only wife was Dejah Thoris.  So, John Carter now has a certain mystery, a past hinted at but no more than that; a past, perhaps, that drives him.  Then the writers threw in an element that Burroughs introduces in the second novel, The Gods of Mars, i.e., the infiltration of Barsoomian society by the evil, secretive Therns – in the movie, the Therns are depicted as near-immortal super-scientists (lacking only the overgrown, bulging foreheads) who reminded me almost irresistibly of an Oriental society preserving ancient secrets, so beloved of pulp fictioneers back in the 1920s and 1930s.  I don’t remember if Sax Rohmer’s character, Fu Manchu, was one, but that character is archetypical of the sort of menace I’m describing.  The point would seem to be to create a menace whose super-powers, so to speak, are sufficient to counter-balance those of John Carter.

So in the screenplay one finds an attempt to create a past for John Carter much different from the one in the book, presumably in an effort to create depth for the character.  In the long run, though, the story isn’t about what happened to John Carter in the past, nor even how that past might affect his actions on Barsoom.  The story is about John Carter saving Helium – this time.

I see the real problem is something a little more fundamental, and I think it is that, in both the screen and print versions of the story, the characters of John Carter and Dejah Thoris come across as two-dimensional.  In a male-dominated society, or an audience dominated by men, a beautiful naked woman to be desired and possessed might not need much depth, at least in 1912.  She is what she is; how much depth does Helen of Troy have, or need, in the Iliad?  But the story in the book, and to a lesser but still significant degree, in the film, is told from the point of view of John Carter.  He has to be more than tall, dark, handsome, and handy with a sword.

Is it fair of me to say this?  That’s it’s as simple as poor characterization?  Maybe not, but that’s my impression; it’s what I got from watching the movie.  Perhaps the question might be this: did anyone else, watching the movie, have that same lack of engagement with the main characters?

If we don’t really care about the two main characters, how can we care about the story?  One can’t help but wonder how a different script might have changed things.  The problem is that I have no idea how I would make a character like John Carter come to life, much less a woman like Dejah Thoris.  I think the screenwriters were largely faithful to Burroughs’ vision, and that may be the problem, since I see that same lack of characterization as a flaw in the original stories.

If you don’t see that, ask yourself this.  If you were going to write your own story involving the characters of King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere, how would you give them life in words?  When so much has been written about them over the years?  To me, the problem is largely the same.

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The Faraway Dreams of God

Luis stood at the bus stop as the bus drove away.  The diesel fumes eddied around him.  He coughed, but the soft salty breeze from the ocean soon blew the fumes away.  He sat down on the bench to wait.

A palm tree’s fronds rustled overhead in the wind.  A Palm Beach County sheriff’s car drove by.  Luis ignored it.  The deputy sheriff driving ignored Luis.  Luis felt his heart beat faster.

Even with the sun setting, it was hot.  Sweat trickled down his back and his armpits.  He wished he could take off the light jacket he wore, but the jacket concealed his pistol and the kilo of cocaine he carried.

To the west, the red, yellow and pink of the sky faded to black as night fell.  Luis looked up.  Against the orange glare of the street lights he could only see a handful of stars.

An elderly black lady sat down at the other end of the bench.  She did not look at Luis.  He looked at her from the corner of one eye, and then ignored her.

A bus came, and the lady got on it.  The driver glanced at Luis, shrugged, and closed the door.  Once again diesel fumes swirled around him.

Traffic passed.  Luis did not look at the cars.  Across the street there was a two-story building made of cinder blocks.  There was an old car in a parking lot next to it.  It was not much of a car, but Luis did not have a car of his own.  It seemed like a fine automobile to him.

Two hundred dollars, he thought to himself.  Swenson promised me two hundred dollars to act as courier.  I will save most of it, and in a few months I will have a car of my own.

Of course there was the matter of the papers and the insurance and the driver’s license, but Swenson, who was from Luis’ country despite his Anglo-sounding name, would know how to get around these details.  Swenson was very smart.  Swenson had survived for seven years in South Florida, even though much product passed through his hands and into the streets and up the noses of the rich gringos.

Luis passed a hand over his mouth.  The hand was wet with sweat.  He felt the tremor of his hand with his lips.  He wished for a cigarette.  He wished for a little, just a little of the product he carried with him.

Such thoughts were not good for a courier.  Swenson had made that clear.  “Your neck and your other bones will bend a little,” Swenson told him.  “But how far will they bend, my friend, until they snap?”

The waiting was bad, because then there was time for thoughts.  There were many thoughts, and many of them were bad.

A gleaming convertible passed by.  The driver was a woman, whose hair was long and blonde and stirred in the wind as she passed.  Luis dreamed of having such a woman, of driving a car such as that with such a woman beside him.  The kilo of cocaine he carried would buy such a car and such a woman, for a time.

“The temptations are many in this trade,” Swenson told him.  “Women, women are terrible temptations.  There are many beautiful women here in south Florida, rich bored beautiful women with old fat husbands, young poor beautiful women looking for excitement.  Many of them enjoy Latin men, and you are handsome, my friend.  Add to that a few lines of cocaine and you have no idea how many legs will open and reveal their secrets to you.  Buy all of this you want with your own product, but do not buy it with the cocaine you carry for me.”

Luis watched the blonde woman in the convertible drive past and thought of what he would do someday, of what Swenson was doing, sending money back to their country in the secret ways, there to have a fine house and horses and cattle.

Two teenagers sat on the bench next to him.  Young Spanish men, not much younger than himself.  They eyed Luis and edged closer on the bench.  Luis allowed his right hand to drop into his lap and shrugged his left shoulder.  There, just visible under the lapel of his jacket, was the butt of his pistol.  Luis did not look at the young men, for that would be a challenge.  The young men looked away from him and stopped moving closer.  They talked for a bit, in English.

Then another bus came.  They got on the bus and left.

Luis waited, as the traffic went by, as the moon rose on his right.  He wished to see the moon rise from the sea some day.  He had not yet had time to see that.  In his country, the moon rose from behind mountains.  That was beautiful, but he wished to see the light of the moon upon the waves of the sea, and perhaps the light of the stars.  His grandmother always said the light of stars were the faraway dreams of God.  With the lights of the city one could see few stars, even in the latest hour of the night, when the sun was far away.

Perhaps God did not dream in this well-lighted city.

Another police car drove by.  Luis’ heart pounded.  He crossed his legs, and wiped his sweating palms upon his pants.

Down the street to his left he saw a car pull up to the curb.  A man got out.  The car drove back into the street.  It passed Luis, but the driver looked straight ahead.  The man who had gotten out of the car sat on the bench.

“Hola, Luis,” he said softly.  “How are you today?”

“Fine, thanks,” Luis replied.

“You are ready for the trade?”

“Yes.  You have the money?”

“Of course.”

A bus came down the street.  Luis and the other man got on it, and rode to the next stop, a park.  They got out and went into the park.  In the shadows of the large palm trees the man handed Luis a thick bundle of bills, and Luis handed the man the kilo of cocaine.

They reached the north end of the park.

Further to the north, an orange light grew and lit half the horizon.  From the orange light came a streak of flame.  The flame was so bright there was a halo of brilliant light around it, brighter than the orange light surrounding it.  The light climbed into the sky.

“Mother of God!” said Luis.  “What is that?”

“Oh, that’s the space shuttle,” said the man.  “They launch about once a month.”

Luis watched the light ascending into the sky upon its trail of fire.

“Adios,” said the man, and walked away.

Luis watched the space shuttle.  The light of its rocket engines were visible until it curved away and vanished over the horizon.

How could that be? Luis thought.  It was climbing, and then it seemed to fall, fall below the horizon.  How could that be?

Luis looked around.  He was alone in the park, but he was carrying much money, and he felt suddenly naked.  Besides, he must catch the bus.

He walked to the bus stop and sat down.  He looked up again.  The light was gone but there, glowing in the moonlight, blown into jagged zigzags by the wind, was the trail of smoke left by the rocket.  Luis watched the smoke trail slowly disperse, thinking of the rocket, beyond and high above the far horizon, lit by the light of the faraway dreams of God.

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Writing “Tech”: Science Fiction

Science fiction is my first love.  The very first book I ever bought for myself was Victor Appleton’s Tom Swift and his Ultrasonic Cycloplane.  The first “serious” hardback I ever bought – in 5th grade – was Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit – Will Travel.  If I needed any other impetus to begin the affair, I don’t remember it.

A few days before writing this I got the notion to reread Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer.  I was sure I had a copy around the house – certain I’d bought one recently at a used book sale – alas, no go.  Ended up borrowing a copy from the local library, and read it overnight.  It’s probably been thirty years, at least, since I read it last.

When I finished, I looked at the original publication date: 1956.

If you’ve never read The Door Into Summer it’s well worth it, even if it’s a little dated in some ways.  The funny thing is that in others, we still haven’t quite got there.  The action of the story takes place in 1970 and 1971 – years I remember all too well – and 2000 and 2001, years also stored in my memory.   The protagonist, Daniel B. Davis, is a mechanical engineer and inventor who decides it’s his mission in life to create true labor-saving gadgets for the automated house.

I’m sure at least some of you have seen the “Roomba,” a robotic vacuum-cleaner.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s the website:

Interesting that they call it “irobot,” eh?  You don’t get the reference, other than the movie with Will Smith?  So google “Isaac Asimov.”

I remember the first time I saw a Roomba the first thing that popped into my mind was “Wow!  Hired Girl!”  That was the name of the floor-cleaning robot that was Dan Davis’ first invention in The Door Into Summer.

Some of you may remember when computers took up whole rooms and were called “mainframes”; you may even remember that a lot of their commands and programming were stored on magnetic tape.  Heinlein, in designing his “future tech” mentions “tapes” and something he calls a “Thorssen memory tube.”  A “tape” in this context refers to what we, today, would call “software” and a “Thorssen memory tube” is pretty obviously a hard drive – or even a thumb drive.  For the rest of Hired Girl, Heinlein uses “off the shelf components”: “…a floor polisher used in army hospitals, a soft-drink dispenser, and those ‘hands’ they use in atomics plants to handle anything ‘hot.’”  Otherwise, “the whole thing could be built with standard parts ordered out of Sweet’s Catalogue…”

I googled “Sweet’s Catalogue.”  There really is such a thing, which began in 1906 with architectural materials and expanded to 38 volumes, including parts for mechanical and electrical engineering.

I mention this simply to show Heinlein’s intriguing attention to detail.  Yet the point is less the detail of existing “engineering art” but how Heinlein artfully weaves together “what is” to show “what may be” in just a few more steps.

There are several other ideas for inventions mentioned in The Door Into Summer that are noteworthy: Drafting Dan; dictation software; and the “hydraulic bed.”

We would call Drafting Dan by the name of AutoCAD and it wouldn’t be a typewriter-like machine as Heinlein describes it, but software you load onto your computer.  Nonetheless, the idea of automated design is the same.  It would be interesting to know if the software engineers who wrote the original code for AutoCAD were inspired by Drafting Dan, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they were not.  Inspiration for that idea would be as simple as noticing that it’s pretty easy to make a straight line, or a series of straight lines, appear on a screen; now, hmm, let’s see, what if you could make a perpendicular to the line, and, ah, yeah, maybe some curves?  That’s really all there is to the basic idea, the 1% inspiration that Thomas Edison spoke about, and all those endless hours of writing and refining code belong to the 99% perspiration part.

Dictation software is alluded to by Heinlein, a “secretary” machine, so to speak.  I’ve used several versions of software of this sort and read or heard reviews by others.  Maybe it’s my Southern accent, y’all, or maybe they’s a few bugs to be worked out.  Nonetheless, the basic idea is there, and is more or less practical, even if to me the execution still leaves something to be worked out.

The idea of the “hydraulic bed” is mentioned briefly in The Door Into Summer and somewhat more extensively in what is arguably Heinlein’s most famous work, Stranger In a Strange Land.  This might be one of those urban legends, but I heard that Heinlein held the patent for a hydraulic bed – we know them as “water beds.”

One point I must make before continuing.  I don’t want to leave the impression that accurate prediction is a requisite of hard science fiction.  What we think of as “hard science” today may or may not still be around in another hundred years – or it may be considered as laughably antiquated as the notion that the world is flat and borne through the Cosmos on the back of a giant turtle.  My favorite hope and cherished dream in this direction is that contemporary science will be proven wrong about the possibility of superluminal travel, despite the almost-universal chorus of “IMPOSSIBLE” from the last three generations of physicists.

Accurate prediction could be considered in a different sense, however.  What if one interprets the phrase as meaning accurate in the sense that it can be used to predict social behavior in some sense or another, in response to some fictional invention or discovery?

In another Heinlein book, Space Cadet, Heinlein goes to considerable lengths to describe Hohmann orbits, their uses in space travel, and some of the various methods to achieve them.  Accurate, yes, but what’s the point?  Isn’t this a little much?

Maybe.  Here’s a question for you: do you know why they’re called “Hohmann” orbits?  As one might guess, a mathematician named Walther Hohmann described them in his book titled The Accessibility of Celestial Bodies – which was written in 1925.  The technical definition of a Hohmann orbit is, according to Wikipedia (see “Hohmann Transfer Orbit”), “an elliptical orbit used to transfer between two circular orbits of different altitudes in the same plane.”  In effect, it’s the most fuel-efficient means for a reaction-driven space vessel to travel from one planet’s orbit to another.  Therefore reaction driven space vessels are likely to use them – have done so, in fact.

Heinlein wrote that, for a passage in Space Cadets, he spent two weeks with his wife Virginia, reputedly a much better mathematician than the Master himself, working calculations and graphs to be sure that the astrogation particulars he described would actually work in real life.  Well, at least, would if such vessels existed.

Now of course we know that such vessels exist; the Apollo Program put astronauts on the Moon and NASA, along with other space agencies, has sent dozens of probes to Mars and the outer planets, using either Hohmann orbits or other astrogational techniques pioneered by Hohmann.

Note again the date of Hohmann’s work: 1925.

It’s worth noting here that the Russian space pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, began his pioneering work in astronautics – including the need for and descriptions of such esoteric as space suits and air locks – prior to 1900.

The important point to grasp is that Heinlein is describing human behavior – i.e., how space ship crews will get from one planet to another – using scientific discoveries that were, at the time he wrote, about thirty years old.  The only “fictional” aspect of his work was the space ship itself.

But maybe the real piece de resistance of accurate technical detail – as accurate as it may be possible to get in fiction — is an obscure story by the great Dr. Werner von Braun, titled Project Mars: A Technical Tale.  This book is half science-fiction story and half technical manual and anyone who knows anything about the early history of the Apollo program and what Dr. von Braun tried to do – establish a permanent manned space station in orbit to serve as a way station not only for the Lunar flight but as a stepping stone to the other planets – will see at once that it was first outlined in this book.  Essentially, the technology of Dr. von Braun’s book, in a form only slightly more developed, took us to the Moon and back.

Here’s the kicker: Project Mars: A Technical Tale was not published when it was originally written, but the Author’s Preface was written sometime in 1950.

I remember people reacting to the entire notion of space flight and astronauts as if it were something new, something part of the post-World-War-II Jet Age – but the basic ideas of space flight were in development a full half-century before the first Moon landing, and science fiction writers like Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were exploring them in fiction and making them real to a generation of new dreamers, who went on to be the engineers and scientists who put men on the moon and built the Space Shuttle and sent Pioneer, Voyager and Viking, among others, on their way.

This leads me to my point: “hard” science fiction in the sense of “technically accurate” is not merely the stuff that dreams are made of, but brings one to the very edge of the reality of dreams.  That question demands a corollary inquiry: if the fiction were not technically accurate, would it be as effective?

Here we may intrude upon matters of taste.  In purely historical fiction my answer to that question would be “No” and I believe I could defend it pretty well.  In fact I’m working on a post to that effect.

But science fiction might, arguably, be different.  The reason for that might be contained in Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that science, sufficiently advanced with respect to the percipient, is indistinguishable from magic.  I would argue that “sufficiently advanced” doesn’t necessarily mean the difference between 1900 and 2000.  In the 1930s my grandfather was an electrician for Georgia Power Company.  He told me that one of his favorite things was to string a power line from the main feeder up some little hollow to a farm house where they still used horses to draw plows.  When he installed electricity and a light fixture the last thing he’d do would be to turn on the light, and leave the farm family staring at the brilliant bulb as darkness fell outside.  Just a simple little thing like that, something we today take as a given of our existence, and yet so short a time ago it was, if not magic, then magical.

But that illustrates the principle upon which Clarke’s maxim works, and some of its subtlety.  If my grandfather, an electrician, appeared at the very least as a sorcerer’s apprentice to these families, then how might a contemporary, say the quantum physicist Neils Bohr – or the mathematician Walter Hohmann – appear to my grandfather?

Ray Bradbury is arguably one of the great science fiction story tellers, and it was enough for him that rockets existed, that you could fly through space in them, and go to strange places like the Mars of his The Martian Chronicles.  He could probably have cared less about the technical details.

It could be, then, that art, sufficiently advanced, like science, can appear magical.  Since there’s evidently a place for each let’s leave it at that.

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