Thursday, March 31, 2011

For Not All Tears Are An Evil

Today there was a retirement party for a librarian who's been with our system since 1977. She had worked beside or supervised everyone in the room. She was responsible for hiring a lot of us. It was an emotional few hours.

In 1977 I was ten years old. Jimmy Carter was president, and I was starting to pay attention to the news. I saw the original Star Wars for the first time. It lit a fire to experience more stories like that, and for the most part the place to find them was books. I was exploring the school library, absorbing books of fantasy, science fiction, space, science, and the weird. The Caldecott Medal winner that year was Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions, with art by the Dillons. I would see a lot more of their art in the future, but that was one I missed.

One of the gifts our colleague got was a copy of Ashanti to Zulu. Another was a beautiful shadow box made up of notes she had written to different librarians over the years, notes of praise or sympathy or encouragement. She always made time for personal touches like that.

The librarians remembered things about her. How she made wonderful felt board stories. How she conveyed her advice on weeding the collection in the form of a recipe card. How she was tough and had the backs of librarians facing criticism for the presence of this book or that, on a shelf or at a storytime.

At one point talk turned to money being tight, and priorities being different. One of the retired librarians present had been the mentor of the librarian retiring now. She said that things always changed -- and that one day they would change for the better again. There was something in her voice that was even better than hope: the clarity of experience.

Another gift was money the group put together to help our colleague and her husband get a good start on traveling. She said she wanted to see the country, since she mostly saw places on library conference trips. She said they might settle in Vermont, a beautiful place, which incidentally has the largest number of public libraries per capita of anywhere in the U.S. (Now I'd like to visit Vermont too.)

She was asked to make remarks. She said it would have been easier to get the words out in email. But she said she'd never have taken back being a children's librarian. And she said that what it came down to was, "What we do matters."

In 1977, sponging up wonderful crazy books, I had no idea I would someday get to use what I was learning that year, to do something that matters.

"Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil."
-- Gandalf, in Return of the King

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Vintage Voyages: The Forever War

A nebula in the constellation Taurus. Image credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble, R. Sahai (JPL)

"Back in the twentieth century, they had established to everybody's satisfaction that 'I was just following orders' was an inadequate excuse for inhuman conduct... but what can you do when the orders come from deep down in that puppet master of the unconscious?"

-- Joe Haldeman, The Forever War

With war at the top of the news, I found myself thinking of Joe Haldeman's Hugo- and Nebula-award winning novel The Forever War. It's sometimes shorthanded as an anti-war novel, but importantly, I never felt the soldier characters were treated as straw men, at least as far as my years-old recollection tells me. Rather, the effects of war are shown in the toll it takes on the warriors, a reality that Haldeman, a Vietnam veteran, experienced firsthand. This immediacy puts The Forever War in the company of such soldier-authored books as The Things They Carried which dramatize the damage war does its veterans in body and mind.

The Forever War tells the story of a centuries-long interstellar struggle between humanity and the mysterious Taurans, all through the eyes of a single soldier, William Mandella. Haldeman uses a clever device to let his viewpoint character see the long span of the war, and the story is built around it.

In the universe of the novel it's discovered that collapsars (another name for black holes, although I'm not 100% clear if Haldeman is referring to the same thing here) can safely be used as gateways between different parts of the galaxy. This allows for a kind of faster-than-light drive, but an entirely natural one, and one which humans can exploit but not reproduce. Where this would have big implications for travelers is twofold, and both related to Einstein's theories of relativity: getting near a black hole puts you in regions of spacetime where your personal time slows relative to Earth's, and just getting to a black hole requires ships moving close to the speed of light, which also slows down the passage of time for the traveler.

Of necessity then, an interstellar soldier is estranged from the home front, because he (or she) is a historical relic after just one mission.

This isn't just interestingly science fictional, it ramps up the real-world disconnect veterans experience on returning from wars. And usefully for storytelling, it lets a single voice cover centuries of conflict. Mandella's personal story is also a history of the Tauran War, from its early stages to its finish. He witnesses constant changes in technology and society, feeling more and more alienated. Only the military and the war offer any kind of stability, but at a dehumanizing cost.

The Forever War is also a love story, as Mandella's only enduring personal connection is to a fellow soldier. My strongest memory of the book is a scene in which Mandella's lover is suffering a slow but deadly injury as a result of a damaged acceleration tank. The tank should be protecting her body from the effects of high-speed maneuvers, but in fact the ship's rapid movement is killing her. I recall reading this scene alone on a night flight. I had a window seat and was pressed against a cold bulkhead, the view outside showing only the airplane's wing and the darkness. I had a vivid sense of humanity -- fleshy, bloody, and vulnerable -- hitched to fantastic and deadly machines. That harsh image of space travel has never left me, for all my romanticized ideas of adventure on other planets.

Though the novel has many dark moments, the book does reach a fairly positive conclusion, both for the couple and for a very changed humanity. But it's a grim ride.

As an aside, Haldeman's model of slower-than-light ships taking advantage of a previously existing faster-than-light network has become popular in science fiction. I can understand why. It allows the human technology to be fairly explicable within science-as-we-know-it, while still making it possible to zip characters off to distant solar systems in a relative hurry. Variations of this concept appear in Joan D. Vinge's Snow Queen cycle, Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, and Vonda N. McIntyre's Starfarers Quartet. It also appears in the roleplaying games Diaspora and Shock: Human Contact.

And speaking of games, The Forever War inspired at least two wargames: a licensed game of ground combat and Warp War, a space combat game.

Update: Added links.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Idea Box: Murder, She Thought

An "Idea Box" is a concept recommended by author Joan D. Vinge -- keep your ideas on 3x5 cards as they occur to you. Later, when you need an idea for a story or want concepts to flesh out a story, consult your Idea Box.

My own Idea Box is a file on my computer, but basically I do what Vinge suggests, and it's been a great resource. I'm up to 915 entries at this point. Most of these are very fragmentary, and maybe only useful to me. Others are close enough to full story outlines I want to keep them private. But I figured I'd share some of the rest here from time to time. Here's one...

Murder, She Thought

A Miss Marple-type character, who is inexplicably involved in murder mysteries several times a year, is unconsciously responsible for them. She has an uncontrollable telepathic gift that encourages those with a strong motive to kill to actually do so, and in convoluted ways that make for interesting puzzle-solving on her part. She would be horrified to learn that she is herself responsible, and will refuse to believe it. If confronted with the truth, she will deny everything... but her power will work overtime to silence the accuser.

(As a twist, maybe it turns out there are lots of people around whose minds can force others into a sort of genre mold -- soap opera, adventure, romance, academic/literary fiction, and so on. Our telepathic "detective" may have to be brought down by another telepath who lives in a world of romantic comedy...)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones, 1934-2011

I was sad to learn that Diana Wynne Jones, author of Howl's Moving Castle, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland and many other books, passed away a couple of days ago.

I wrote a short note about Jones for the Santa Clara County Library blog.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Vintage Voyages: Mercurian Memories

(image source:

NASA's MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging) space probe began orbiting Mercury last week, a first that makes a good inspiration for a first post.

"Goblins in the Library" is a blogging experiment, and a chance to talk about some of my favorite things -- science fiction, fantasy, children's books, libraries, games, and maybe other stuff too. "Vintage Voyages" will be one of the repeating themes, a look at science fiction of earlier decades.

Back in the 1970s, when I first got into reading science fiction, MESSENGER's predecessors were giving us wonderful information about the true nature of the solar system. But the pictures from the Mariners and other probes had the bittersweet effect of drawing the curtain on the pulp era of solar system stories, those days of swamps on Venus, canals on Mars, and a Mercury that was tidally locked and always aiming one face at the sun, and the other at the darkness.

In some ways the tidally locked Mercury was the strangest of those worlds, because many depictions imagined a thin livable zone of twilight between hemispheres of blazing heat and freezing dark. Leigh Brackett's space hero Eric John Stark grew up on this version of Mercury, toughened by the presumed harshness of this barely habitable strip -- as did Captain John MacShard, the hero of Michael Moorcock's more recent wild homage to planetary romance, "The Lost Sorceress of the Silent Citadel" -- "He remained as fierce and free as in the days when, as a boy, he had scrabbled for survival over the unforgiving waste of rocky crags and slag slopes that was Mercury and from the disparate blood of two planets had built a body which could withstand the cruel climate of a third."

I've never read the stories about Stark, or about his peer, C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith, but some of my first science fiction reading was about a spiritual descendent of theirs. The astonishingly prolific Isaac Asimov wrote a series of "juveniles" about Lucky Starr, Space Ranger, set in the usual inhabited solar system, but with somewhat more science than the pulp-style adventures they honored. In Lucky Starr and the Big Sun of Mercury, there's a twilight zone, though it's not habitable, and it's the site of an energy-tapping experiment. Enemies of the Solar System are out to sabotage the project, in an adventure involving an abandoned mine, rock creatures, and a deranged robot. It's got adventure, action, and the Three Laws of Robotics. I don't remember much about the plot now, but I remember enjoying the vision of the blazing dayside and the frozen nightside, and I remember wanting to be as clever a kid as Starr.

By contrast, when Clark Ashton Smith wrote an earlier Mercury story, he made his twilight band more habitable. But in a monster-filled Smithian universe you're probably safer on a lifeless world anyway. In "The Immortals of Mercury" the hero leaves the comparative safety of the twilight band, narrowly escapes burning on the bright side, suffers an underground journey in alien-occupied catacombs, and emerges to freedom -- on the deadly dark side.

As sort of a coda to the idea of a tidally-locked Mercury, Larry Niven set his first published story "The Coldest Place" on the supposed night-side, coyly keeping the actual locale of "the coldest place in the solar system" a secret until the very end. I originally assumed the setting was Pluto, which was then believed to be the outermost world -- as was no doubt the intent.

Niven was almost too late out the door with "The Coldest Place," which according to Wikipedia was published shortly after astronomers concluded Mercury wasn't tidally locked after all. Since then Mercury has been a less romantic place in fiction, though still a possible site for adventures. Stephen Baxter's noted story "Cilia-of-Gold" is set on Mercury. Ben Bova set a recent novel there as well.

But Mercury seems less of interest to science fiction writers than in pulpier days, perhaps because of all the wonders revealed further out in our Solar System -- ice-moons with possible hidden seas, a world of methane lakes, and a Mars that, while barren, looks a smidgen more hospitable now than it did after the first wave of probes.

But I suspect MESSENGER will draw a few more writers back to the first planet. Every time there's a close look at a place in the solar system, new surprises emerge. Mercury has some startling properties -- a strong magnetic field, a long "tail" of particles, and the possible presence of ice in permanently shadowed craters. No doubt there will be many more surprises to draw paper explorers back to the innermost planet.