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Memory is Such a Fickle Beast

I’ve been delving deep into a memory that I’d kind of forgotten about until a conversation recently with a friend. He asked me what was the weirdest thing I’d ever written.

I have written obituaries, but I didn’t talk about that. What I did talk about was that in university, I wrote a 3-act musical comedy that was performed six times over four days.

By Richard Bain –, Copyrighted free use,

Back in the day, the late 1980s, I was an undergrad at the University of Guelph. For those who have never heard of it, UofG is a Canadian university that offers a world-renowned agricultural program, along with a veterinary school, a hospitality school and the usual mix of arts and sciences. I studied Politics.

There was a troupe, called Curtain Call, that commissioned and performed a play each year. Their approach was to take an existing play or movie as a template, and mock both it and the latest year at the university.

A friend of mine had written it the past three years, using South Pacific, The Fiddler on the Roof, and The Sound of Music as his starting points. He didn’t want to do it a fourth time and recommended me to the group.

After a quick meeting with them, I was on board.

I chose The Rocky Horror Picture Show as my source. Roughly the plot of my Aggie Horror Show was that a Vet student wanted to win his roommate’s girlfriend (they were both Aggies), so he made a sentient bull to impress her. It got weird from there because the bull also fell in love with the girl.

Other plots involved a benefit concert for the ‘displaced guy’ (with everybody staying with their girlfriend/boyfriend in residence dorm rooms, there was always one guy who had nowhere to sleep. Let’s do a benefit for him!). There was the girl who’s secret power was that any elevator she entered would break down (there were so many elevator breakdowns that year, it was topical). And there was a rivalry with another university (The very business-oriented University of Western Ontario. When we beat them at football on national TV that year, they chanted, “It’s alright. It’s Ok. We’re gonna own your farm someday!”)

I didn’t use a lot of songs from Rocky Horror, from what I remember, but I did rewrite Time Warp to be about midterms (“Let’s write midterms again!”*). That was the centerpiece of the play. Also, there was a rewrite of Kate Bush’s Heathcliff about an environmental group’s reusable coffee mugs (this was a controversial topic at the time)… and … and … and … I don’t remember!

There were six or seven songs. I think I rewrote Summer Lovers from Grease to highlight the university rivalry… aaah, memory fails. I no longer have the script, and the only copy of the performance is on a VHS tape stored thousands of miles from me, slowly deteriorating, I’m sure.

Sadly, Curtain Call as a truly amateur production, only existed from 1957 to 1992. The club was taken over in 1993 by drama students who wanted to do professional productions and the group, now (retroactively) named Curtain Call Productions, no longer creates original satirical content for the enjoyment of the community, but stages professional productions for profit.

This may benefit the resumes of the students cast in roles, but it was done at the expense of a unique tradition. They could’ve just started their own drama club and left the amateurs to have our fun, instead of taking over our branding and reputation (satire since 1957!) and squeezing us out.

Of course, we’re talking about university; within every four years there’s a complete change of students. If something stays the same for five years, it’s “always been that way.” And that’s what Curtain Call would be now.

*Lyrics as I think I remember them(?):
Put your name at the top
(Put it on the riiiiiiight)
Keep your eyes to yourself
(and your chair in tiiiiiiiight)
Don’t watch the clo-ock
it’ll drive you insay-ay-ay-ane
Let’s write midterms again!

Thank You Christopher Tolkien

My editions

Right off the bat I want to do exactly what the title says and thank Christopher Tolkien for his decades of diligent management, guidance, and protection of the legacy of his father, J.R.R. Tolkien. As you may have heard, Christopher, now 93, resigned from managing his father’s estate this past August.

Some media companies are apparently rushing to try to acquire new rights or projects from the estate, now that the man seen as ‘the biggest hurdle’ to their progression is gone.

I’d like to think the opposite. He wasn’t a hurdle, he was a guardian. It would have been easy for Christopher Tolkien to exploit his father’s works for as much money as possible. Instead, he has steadfastly protected the integrity of those works, at the expense of multiple opportunities to cash in. This is a man of integrity.

Amazon has apparently already secured the rights to make a new TV series based in Middle Earth. Frankly I don’t need a new Lord of the Rings filtered through a Game of Thrones sensibility.

Christopher Tolkien was always suspicious of those who wished to portray his father’s universe, and given the angrier, grittier times we live in and the reflection of that in our modern fantasy, I suspect he was right to try to keep his father’s works separate from the modern interpretation.

Peter Jackson, for his part, did an admirable job of preserving J.R.R.’s sensibilities, portraying evil without resorting to gore, degradation, or any of the current oeuvres/ ideas on how to present evil. The archetypal evil of Sauron, Saruman, and Mordor is visceral, not physical. Let’s hope that whoever buys and exploits the newly available rights gets that.

– – – –

On a side note, a few years ago, I met Mahatma Gandhi’s son. Just stop for a second and visualize that. What do you think he would look like? For some reason, when I hear ‘son’ of a famous person, I think of, if not a child, then at least someone younger than me. Mr. Gandhi is a wise, gentle man, a peace activist like his father, but not young.

I had the same response when I heard that Tolkien’s son had retired –  he’s a son, he must be younger than me? Yeah, no. Christopher Tolkien is 93.

Livestreaming the world’s wind

I am absolutely addicted to this site, It shows you wind patterns live (maybe a 30 minute delay) for anywhere in the world. Above is peninsular Malaysia, where I live. Also, when you go to the site, note the controls on the lower right side – try clicking a few, like “Waves, Sea”, and see how the map changes. I’m totally hooked on this.

Here’s rhe same map, but now it’s showing waves (approximations of how rough or calm the seas are)! NOTE that you can zoom in or out in either map, or even move around, the same way you would with Google Maps.

Reflections on Living in Namibia

It?s been three years since I left Africa, possibly, but hopefully not, for good (and six years since I lived in Namibia). Time gives distance, perspective, a chance to appreciate the value of what you?ve experienced.

I came to Africa, more specifically Namibia, through a non-profit called WorldTeach. I was assigned to teach English at a rural secondary school in the north of the country. My town, Ohangwena, had a population smaller than the population of the school I was assigned to, a government-run boarding school with its own population of around 900 students. There were textbooks, but nowhere near enough for the 40+ students I had in each class. There was electricity most of the time, but no lightbulbs for the dark classrooms, a photocopier that worked about three hours a week. However, there was a large dose of institutionalized apathy.

I taught English at a rural secondary school in Namibia.

One of the hardest aspects of working there was the fatalism. It?s frustrating to repeatedly be told that something can?t be changed or fixed because ?this is Africa.? But what can be worse is when the locals buy into the naïve optimism of the foreigner. 

Study hard and you?ll get accepted into university, we told them, and they believed us. But with great grades, acceptance to university still wasn?t guaranteed ? political, familial and tribal affiliations could derail any promising, hard working young person. How can you not be a fatalist when your doors are closed as soon as you?re born?

In northern Namibia, a young woman isn?t truly an adult until she?s had a child of her own. This pressure drives even some of the most promising out of education, out of a career path and into a cycle of poverty

It?s too easy to look at the foreigner with their ideas and enthusiasm and dismiss them as not understanding or of imposing western ways. And sometimes they are correct. Why did my school burn all of it?s own garbage instead of composting and using the compost to grow a small vegetable garden? It seemed like an obvious and simple change that would have positive impacts ? less pollution, more food. How does that not work? It doesn?t work because (often venomous) snakes are attracted to the steady heat of the compost pile, and there are enough problems with students getting bitten by non-venomous lizards without inviting killers into the grounds.

As it was, I had an encounter with a black mamba, a very aggressive, very deadly snake, on the school grounds. Foolishly, I took pictures of it before a passing teacher saw the snake and started screaming. I was fortunate to walk away from the encounter. The snake became someone?s dinner.

People live a lot closer to death.

In much of Africa (definitely in what you probably picture of as ?Africa?) people live a lot closer to death. If there?s going to be any kind of meat with dinner ? chicken, goat or, occasionally, cow ­?­ then someone in the family will have looked it in the eye and killed it.

People also seem to die more frequently. A government minister coming to visit our school died when his car hit a kudu (large deer); a co-worker fell sick and died within a week; another co-worker passed out in class, died without ever waking up. Cholera, meningitis, malaria, and tuberculosis were all common and deadly. HIV/AIDS was responsible for one third of all deaths in Namibia in 2010 (and over a quarter still today). In comparison, road accidents, of which there are plenty, only accounted for five percent.

These are a people who generally don?t live long enough to die from cancer. Even prostate cancer, the most fatal cancer in Namibia, only ranks twenty-third as cause of death, and accounts for six tenths of one percent of all deaths annually.

(All stats from here)

But let?s not paint an image of a countryside waylaid by death. It isn?t. Much of the Africa that I saw, mostly in the south and east, is tamed. The roads are paved or at least maintained and everyone?s favourite toy is the cell phone.

There?s innovation going on here ? in cell phone money transfers; in checking the expiration and validity of medications; in microfinance and micro-entrepreneurship.

There’s innovation going on here.

Most Africans I met were quite good at spoken languages, no matter how poor their schooling may have been. Many spoke three or four languages and could understand dialects derived from them. In the south, most people spoke English and Afrikaans as well as their own traditional language. In much of the continent, there are imported languages that transcend national boundaries ? English, French, Arabic, and Portuguese ? as well as few African ones, notably Swahili and Yoruba.

The people I met generally knew what the world thought of them, and mostly it made them angry. They weren?t looking for hand-outs (with a few exceptions). They were looking for a fair shake, and honest chance, or as they got more cynical with life, a dishonest chance, to get ahead.

Living in Namibia taught me, more than anywhere else I?ve been, that people are the same, no matter skin colour, economic condition or education. Everyone wants better for their family. Parents worry about children. Adult children worry about their parents. Some people are nice, some are not, and some would be nice if they could get ahead that way.

Emperor of the Eight Islands, a review

Lian Hern writes a good tale here, but not a great one. She sets it in a fictional medieval Japan, sort of. We?ll come back to that. In spite of the long names, and similarities among the names, the characters are distinct and sometimes compelling. But everything I?m saying has qualifiers on it, because something was just not ? right, and I?m not sure what.

There are good things here – characters to care about, solid descriptions of esoteric rituals, high stakes. Some characters? names change as the story progresses. I was alright with this and thought it was handled well.

Some of the geography was vividly described, but some of it was not. Characters could see events occurring in other places and this wasn?t clear on if it was because geography allowing them or if this was magic.

To give you an idea of how this book misses its target, I got to the end of it but have no idea what the eight islands of the title are. For a story set in Japan, it was too generic, not grounded in the geography and history enough for me as a reader. I kept comparing this book to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a Chinese story, which showed, I think, one of the story?s flaws: It wasn?t Japanese enough.

It was clearly set in the orient, but there was nothing in the story that couldn?t have been just as easily told as Chinese or Korean. I think some of the best parts of this story, like the magical elements, were the ones that seemed the most Chinese to me.

In the end, I think this was a book that needed more time to percolate, formulate, and evolve.

There are three more books in this series. Would I read them? Sure, if I find them on sale and have nothing more pressing to read. Will I remember the story five years from now? I doubt it.

Star Trek at 50 – Beyond the fanbase

It?s the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, and the fans had been hoping for a grand celebration. With no new Star Trek on TV this year, and with much of the original core fanbase not happy with JJ Abram?s 2009 rebooting of the franchise, this might be the most depressing birthday party you ever attend (or more likely, don?t even hear about).

Gene Roddenberry?s estate has been posting new Trek memorabilia on Facebook. But that valiant effort has gone largely unnoticed.

At the time of this writing, it?s almost May, and still there?s no real sign of Star Trek Beyond marketing, not even a poster. The third film in the JJ Trek reboot seems to be hiding behind a cloaking device. Months ago, there was a trailer, but it was widely trashed by the fanbase. After that, marketing went silent, while the director started filming new scenes with new characters ( for reasons unknown.

Paramount, the film?s studio, hasn?t shown any clips of the movie, not even at CinemaCon in Las Vegas in April. CinemaCon is where theatre owners go to learn about upcoming movies and learn how the studios will support the films? releases. Star Trek Beyond wasn?t mentioned, even as the studio was hyping films with much later release dates.

After the questions arose about Star Trek Beyond?s absence from CinemaCon, Paramount announced a ?Special Fan Event? for May 20. This special event is said to include a new trailer and a Q&A with the director and stars. Also, posters bor the movie have appeared at the Cannes film festival. That still seems underwhelming.

There?s just a little whiff of the Titanic sinking to all this. Should I mention that JJ left the franchise, his hand-picked successor quit/was fired, and a new script was rushed through in six months? Oh, and the new, studio-approved director is best known for The Fast and Furious.

Somehow, Star Trek went into it?s 50th with no momentum. Some blame Paramount/CBS for aggressively suing once tolerated fan films. Others blame JJ Abrams for ruining the Star Trek universe with a reboot that has made this distinct entity into yet another action franchise.

I?ve spoken elsewhere about the Paramount/CBS fight, so let?s look at the other part of the equation.

Where did the JJ ?verse go wrong? The point of bifurcation between the original universe and JJ Trek seems blurred, as some changes must have occurred before the inciting events of the 2009 movie could possibly have impacted the timeline.

In the original series we learn that the Enterprise was built in Earth orbit. In JJ Trek, the Enterprise is built in Earth?s full gravity, exposed to the elements as the delicate machinery is assembled. Better still, JJ?s Enterprise can not only enter atmosphere, it can submerge (Yes, both subs and spaceships have to be airtight, but the pressure runs in the opposite direction – in a sub, the pressure is greater outside, in space, the pressure is greater inside. Building a spaceship to withstand being submerged is a hell of a design criteria, structurally, and with added mass and all that implies about fuel consumption and maneouverability. How often would designers have to expect submersion to happen so that it made it through budget proposals?).

The age of the Enterprise has changed. In the original universe, Captain April commanded the Enterprise from new, then Captain Pike commanded her for 10 years. Finally, Kirk became captain for a 5 year mission. The Enterprise is a decade or more old by the time Kirk takes command. In JJ Trek, the Enterprise is a just-commissioned vessel.

In the original universe, cybernetics is occasionally encountered, and often pass for human for a short while at least. It?s not until Commander Data appears in The Next Generation, that Starfleet is shown containing androids. In JJ Trek, there?s an android on the bridge of the Enterprise, decades earlier than it should be. Oddly, it is not a plot point, nor particularly useful.

Exhibit A  

Distances don?t align between the two Trek universes. i?m not sure how that could have changed. Travel time to Vulcan is at least a day and a half from Earth in the orginal series episode Amok Time (In the story, it?s a three day diversion to go to Vulcan en route to Earth. Depending upon alignment, the closest they could be is a day and a half away). In JJ Trek, it takes 7 minutes to get to Vulcan.

In the original series and onwards into the next generation, transporters can be used to send someone down to a planet from orbit, or between ships in close proximity. In JJ Trek, they can be used to send someone from Earth to Qo?nos, the capital of the Klingon Empire. Why even use expensive space ships if you can transport that far?

There are probably other points, but these seem most egregious and aren?t of the ?why was Khan played by a white man?? variety. The question for diehard fans is why is history different, why is the spacing of the cosmos different, if not because of Nero?s appearance? When did it change?

It’s an odd nitpick, perhaps, but i think it’s the root of the problem that old-school Trek fans have had with the JJ verse version of Trek, and this new film, shrouded in secrecy, is just feeding those feelings of abandonment.

The Martian is NOT a true story (but it could have been)

So the buzz this morning is that a number of people are leaving theatres after seeing The Martian, believing that what they?ve just seen was ?based on a true story?. Why are people coming to that conclusion?

For The Martian to have been based a true story, we would have had to have put people on Mars three times (The doomed expedition was the third mission to Mars). We would have to have a cool spaceship like the Hermes to ferry people between planets. None of which is true.

So why do so many people believe that it is a true story?

Probably partially because science fiction stories (and movie special effects) have blurred the line between reality and fantasy, leaving people confused about what humanity actually has accomplished. Also, possibly as wish fulfillment. We should be on Mars, dammit.

My generation grew up with Apollo, with the freaking Moon baby! People (welll, white American men anyway) were walking on the Moon! My generation grew up with 2001: A Space Odyssey and it’s commercialized space flight, and very plausible space station. People lived on the Moon. That was our future. Now let’s look at what we got…

What have we accomplished in space?
Not very much, all things considered, and less and less every decade: In the 1950s-1960s, Earth orbits and first steps to the Moon; Early 1970s, the Moon – living the dream, but the future was already getting cloudy; 1980s the space shuttle and eventually an Earth-orbiting space station for it to visit. The Moon might still have been reachable, but no budget for it; 1990s more the same with less budget – a larger space station, but no more potential for Moon trips; 2000s still more of the same, with a few neat telescopes added in (Hubble et al); 2010s, even the space shuttle is gone. Less of the same.

Have humans been to Mars?
No. We have sent robots to Mars, but no human has come anywhere near close to the planet. We have sent other unmanned probes to the outer planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and poor little Pluto). And one such probe, Voyager 1, is on the verge of leaving our solar system – but it doesn?t have people on it, none of the probes do.

Have humans been to the Moon?
Yes, twelve white American men have stepped foot on the Moon. The last did so in 1972. That’s 43 years ago! No, we haven?t been back since. The Moon, which orbits the Earth, is the furthest that humanity has ever been from Earth. It isn?t far, not really.

I?m sure more people have been to the Moon!
As a teacher of students from many countries, I?ve had this argument repeatedly. Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, and Japanese students have all insisted that their country has sent men to the Moon. A quick search of their own most trusted news engine (because ?Google lies for Americans?) invariably reveals that they?ve been to low Earth orbit – the International Space Station or some such – but no further. N one has been to the Moon since 1972.

But the space shuttle flew to the Moon all the time!
No, it did not. It flew low Earth orbit missions, with the Hubble telescope being the highest altitude that it ever reached (approximately 550 kilometres above the Earth. The Moon is 384,400 km away). In an attempt to clear confusion about this very issue, NASA started calling the shuttle an orbiter because it was designed only to orbit Earth.

But I saw a TV commercial where there was a shuttle on the Moon.
Yes, I saw that ad too. It was fiction. It lied – most advertisements do, so why is this shocking? (I had this conversation with a doctor, by the way.).

What if we had kept building on our successes in the 1970s instead of turning our backs on space exploration? Where would we be today? The only thing stopping us from living on the Moon is the commitment to spend the money. The US alone has spent an estimated between $4-6 trillion dollars on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade. That kind of money can be found, when the political will is there. Somehow it can’t be found to extend Humanity’s living space.

Popular Science has an infographic about living on Mars if we used today’s technologies and had no economies of scale involved (each person travels in their own rocket,  has their own sustainable housing – no sharing of costs or resources). It comes out to $42 billion per person – mostly in travel expenses. THe US military could (but not realistically) afford to set up 15 people a year on Mars. A NASA study, reported in Popular Science, states that a permanent presence on the Moon could be had for a total investment of $10 billion. Now we’re getting down to Elon Musk levels of wealth, Bill Gates levels of wealth, not national commitments that defund other government services. There was a song when I was growing up – The Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades. Where did that future go?

BUT The Martian is a great movie, based on a great (fictional) book. You should either go see it or go read it (or both!).

Music as a weapon – too silly an idea?

I?m at a bit of a crossroads with the novel I?m writing (hereafter referred to as WiP – short for ?Work in Progress?). I had an idea for an alien race that I thought would be different. I built a plot point around that difference. Then I saw something similar in a movie ? and I thought it was stupid.

What to do? What to do? Do I re-write the WiP to eliminate that plot point? Do I remove it entirely? Or is it OK?

Anyone who knows a writer knows that we?re very insecure about our writing, fragile, even. So what do we do when a plot point appears ridiculous? Panic. Stop writing. Have long breaks while we try to understand how we got into this terrible dilemma.

Or maybe we ask for help.

For comparison, let?s look at both what I had envisioned and what I saw that worried me.

In my WiP, there?s an antagonistic species that is very militaristic. Each member of the species has its own theme music indicating family, military rank, and seniority in each. Whenever two or more are together, the more powerful one?s music plays, indicating dominance.

After an initial confrontation that goes fatally wrong for our humans, the second confrontation includes a scene where we are able to play our music over theirs, insulting their commander, and basically declaring war (at least letting them know that we haven?t surrendered to our fate). Note that this closes out the first act (first third) of the novel, it?s not the end.

What I saw that makes me hesitant to use this idea is Star Trek Beyond in which the crew of the Franklin uses a Beastie Boys song to destroy an enemy fleet. I may have even shouted ?what a load of crap!? when I saw that. But later, at night, I couldn?t sleep because I fear that my reaction to that inane plot point would be other?s reaction to my plot point. Its it silly?

I?ve tried a few other scenarios to get the same resulting action, but basically the music is too baked into the story now to easily be removed, and the consequences of the human?s actions drive the second act — removing the use of music is not just a minor edit. I?m slowly coming around to believe that I have to go forward with this, even if it isn?t ideal.

The Fallacy of Comparing Modern Writers to the Golden Age of Sci Fi

There?s a conversation going on in my writer?s group about science fiction that I wanted to pull out and discuss with a larger, different audience.

In a nutshell, there?s a large contingence of up-and-coming or as-yet-unpublished writers who believe that the golden age of science fiction was in the 1980s or beyond, and that modern sci-fi isn?t as good.

It?s a conclusion that is hard to argue with, partially because the goalposts can be moved at any time. Still I feel compelled to make a case against this perspective, and I need more space to do so than would be allowed in that group.

So here we go.

There are a number of arguments raised, each that seem on the surface to be valid, and may in fact have some merit.

First, there?s the argument that it?s all been done before. No, it hasn?t. Read The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, Read Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu.

Then there?s the argument about quality. It goes something like this: Scalzi, they say, is the highest paid sci-fi writer and therefore the best, and yet his work is mediocre, derivative.

So… that was a bundle of assumptions.

Is he the highest paid? I don?t know. I know he signed a very big book deal for ten books a few yesrs ago. So, maybe, and it makes a better claim if he is. Is his work derivative? People point to Red Shirts, which drew heavily on the Star Trek mythos. That?s true, but it offered an interesting take on the mythos without rebooting the franchise into the Kelvin timeline (I’m looking at you J.J.!). Is Scalzi the best scifi writer out there? He?s entertaining, if disposable, much like James Patterson, the undisputed king of paperback novels.

Do people insist that Patterson is the best writer, or just the most successful? THe latter, not the former. So Scalzi?s our Patterson, not our Hemingway. Let?s move on.

Next argument: No one today is as good as (fill in the name you want here – Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert). But we only remember the best that these authors wrote. I am a huge Frank Herbert fan, have read many of his books, not just the mandatory Dune books. Some of his works sucked. Sorry, they did. Some of them were very good, but none of them approached his first novel, Dune (God Emporer of Dune stands on Dune’s shoulders. It wouldn’t be as great in isolation).

Even though it?s his first novel, I would hold Andy Weir?s The Martian up to anything by Clarke*. I think they make good comparisons. And once Weir has written a dozen or so books, then we?ll see if he?s a one-hit wonder or a new legend.

Anne Leckie is an amazing new generation author. She has four books out, a trilogy and a new novel. They may not all be as good as Asimov?s best, or as Bradbury?s best, but then you?re comparing her four book output with the cherry-picked best of the approximately 450 books that Asimov wrote or edited. That?s one hundred choices for every one of Leckie?s. How can she compare? Give her a full career, and then run a bell curve on everyone?s work and see where she averages. I bet it?ll be high.

Also, nostalgia affects our memories.

I?ve been looking for a book for years. I was sure it was written by Heinlein. It was what we?d now call an MG or YA book, but back then was probably considered a ?Boy?s Own Adventure? story. In the story, a teenage boy wins a trip to space station, then he has some adventures. I remembered it quite fondly. Last week, I finally found it. It?s not by Heinlein, it?s by Arthur C. Clarke, and it doesn?t live up to my memory of it at all. It?s boring. It?s simple, it has a naivete that fits the time, but fails in the modern era. It lacks nuance. But if Leckie is going to be compared to Clarke, it won?t be this story that people will drag out. It?ll be Rendezvous with Rama, or 2001: A Space Oddity.

Well, how can anyone compare to those?

Ah, the other side, leaps. That?s our point. Nothing today can compare to those books, because nothing today is that good.

I disagree.

The Wind Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi will stand up against anything from the golden age. He is our John Wyndham equivalent. Vernor Vinge?s works will stand the test of time also. As will Kim Stanley Robinson, Peter Hamilton, and yes, John Scalzi. George R. R. Martin is probably our generation’s Frank Herbert (He?s not our Tolkien, that?s Guy Gavriel Kay, or Stephen R. Donaldson).

Beyond simply finding equivalencies, there are areas where writers today are far superior to those of the golden era. Philip Jose Farmer and Spider Robinson may have been seen as humorists writing scifi and fantasy in their day, but neither of them could hold a candle to Terry Pratchett. Douglas Adams’ works, are, in my opinion, not ageing well. Again, the humour is from a more naive time. it doesn’t fit the modern zeitgiest.

Then again we get back to the question of when to categorize certain authors. The late Terry Pratchett was a contemporary of Farmer, Robinson, and Adams, however he was at the beginning of his career, and published up until 2015. So should he count as the golden age group or modern? Good writers come and go, and they overlap each other. They don?t start and end in batches.

I don?t care what the answer to that question is, I care more about the question, because it highlights a weakness in the argument. There was no fixed ?Golden Age.? In the 1950s, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were the golden age. Now, we have this amorphous term that embraces the 1950s-1980s. That’s four decades’ worth of the best stories, with the crap filtered out. Talk about confirmation bias!

The point is that a good writer has a long career, and it takes even longer for good writing to age (much like wine, and like wine, it can become vinegar if aged too long. See Adams, above). We don?t know that the writing today is worse than some mythical golden age.

We won?t know for decades. And that’s fine.


* And here I go, doing exactly what I warned you not to, comparing current writers to the Golden Age ones. Damn (click to return).

Former Astronauts and the Causes They Champion

After years of training and in some cases as little as days in space, astronauts need to decide what to do next with their lives. Many will get a second chance to go to space, with all the training that that new mission will entail. But eventually, you?ve done your last space flight. Being an astronaut is, still, a very high profile position. Do you use that position as a platform to champion a cause or to move yourself into a longer-term career?

I want to look at some of the astronauts who have decided to champion causes, and what they?ve done.

Buzz Aldrin
One of the most famous astronauts (Aldrin was the second man to walk on the Moon, right behind his commander and shipmate Neil Armstrong), Aldrin has resurfaced in the past few years, working hard to promote one cause, ?Get Your Ass to Mars!?

Buzz Aldrin is a firm believer that humanity needs a second village to live in, and Mars is it. He?s guest editor of a special ?Welcome to Mars? edition of National Geographic Kids. He?s doing a speaking tour around the world (The closest he comes to me is Sydney, Australia in November).

Bernard Harris
The first black man to walk untethered in outer space, Dr. Harris has gone on to create and manage a foundation geared toward promoting STEM career paths to underprivileged students as well as giving them financial literacy. (Disclaimer, I met Dr. Harris while working at African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa. He visited as part of the ?Dream Tour? in 2011 to promote STEM to young African students).

Sally Ride
Sally Ride wasn?t just the first American woman in space, she was, at 32, the youngest astronaut ever and may have been the first LBGT person to travel in space (we don?t know if there were any before her). Sally created a small publishing empire, Sally Ride Science. The books that she created promoted a love for science and all STEM fields, and were mostly geared towards middle-school students, but especially girls, who are under-represented in STEM.

I could actually use your help in filling this out. When I started researching this I was surprised at how few former astronauts I found that had gone directly into philanthropic work instead of industrial/military/space complex work.