One of my heroes has died.
Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, an aviation pioneer, a far traveler and fearless explorer of unknown places. Watching Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon is one of my earliest memories. They inspired me to look up, and instead of endless, daunting depths, view space as a domain not entirely empty or hostile to our kind.
After July 20, 1969 we were earthbound no longer.
(for Neil Armstrong)
The First Man must be humble
yet self-possessed in times of crisis
confident, as one who’s been sorely tried.
Drop him, spin him, shake him
race his heart,
see if he dies.
Undaunted by fame,
puzzled by all the fuss,
natural in the glare.
Stick him in a close compartment,
sling it into the girding dark;
crown him with hero’s laurels
should he return.
I saw the man walking on the moon. I watched it on TV. I couldn’t believe someone was really up there. I went to get my mother and ask her. She said she was too busy. She was cleaning up the kitchen or something. I told her about the man on the moon. But she didn’t seem to care. She had other things to think about. She told me to go outside. She told me that was enough TV for today.
What can I tell you? This one’s a stunner. I love it to pieces. A marriage of two great loves, history and sky fy.
10,000 words and guaranteed to be one of the best SF tales you read this year. How do I know that? Well, if you’re like me, you read damn few SF stories so, honestly, I don’t think the competition is all that fierce.
Here’s the pitch:
“Eyes in the Sky” features an intriguing “What if…” scenario, a captivating vision of a possible past:
What if the atom bomb hadn’t worked and the Space Age was a bust?
What if Cold War adversaries employed less traditional tactics in their efforts to keep tabs on their intractable enemies?
What if history’s dark, turbulent course had veered off in a different direction?
“Eyes in the Sky” is accompanied by original cover art by John Enright. John is a talented artist I found through the “Epilogue” site but the link I’ve provided will take you directly to his gallery.
The excerpt (about fifteen pages), will give you an excellent preview of the novelette and if you’d like to read more, it will shortly be posted, in its entirety, on Amazon (along with an Afterword I’ve written on the story’s origins and influences). I’ll add a link as soon as it’s available. Or, if you’re willing to wait awhile, “Eyes in the Sky” will be included in my upcoming short story collection, Exceptions & Deceptions (due out December, 2012).
I’m hoping the folks at Amazon will allow me to list the novelette at 99 cents—a bargain price for a terrific read. Cheaper than a lot of dumb, useless apps.
Meanwhile, click on the link below for the excerpt.
Hope you enjoy this sample from “Eyes in the Sky”.
Received word from Greg Freed, an administrator of the Galaxy Project science fiction writing competition, that my tale “Eyes in the Sky” garnered an honorable mention in this year’s contest.
Placing in the top five with over 100 entries ain’t half bad…but what made my day was when I received an e-mail containing words of encouragement from none other than Barry Malzberg. As I wrote to Greg Freed, having folks like Monsieur Malzberg and Robert Silverberg judging the contest was one of the reasons I decided to submit my tale in the first place. The notion that one of those luminaries might read my work…well, that made it irresistible to me. Those few short sentences from Barry Malzberg meant a lot to this scribbler—a classy act by a classy guy.
Congratulations to co-winners Susan Forest (Canuck gal!) and Robert Walton, as well as my two fellow honorables, D.K. Paterson and John Hemry.
Kudos to Greg Freed and the folks at Rosetta Books for sponsoring the competition and doing such a good job organizing the entire venture, making sure winners were notified promptly, etc. All in all, a pleasant experience though unlikely to get me back on the ol’ submission treadmill again. These were special circumstances and now that the results are in, I’ll be sending “Eyes in the Sky” off to the Amazon Kindle people.
I’m interested in the “Singles” program Amazon offers, short works for budget prices. I’ll charge a buck or two so folks can download “Eyes in the Sky” and hope that readers—sci fi fans or otherwise—will be drawn by the same elements and strengths that attracted the attention of Messrs. Malzberg, Silverberg and Drake.
“Eyes in the Sky” features a classic what if... scenario, an alternative history where the Space Age never happened, the nuclear bomb was a dud and the Russians and Americans are locked in a very different kind of Cold War. Ten thousand words and every damn one of them counts.
Sound intriguing? Keep popping back here for further developments.
Montana fading in the rearview mirror and I’m looking at fairly substantial revisions to my western, The Last Hunt.
My meetings and the research I conducted while in the Livingston and Yellowstone area proved invaluable; I’ve found numerous inaccuracies that have to be addressed, many details that can be woven into the narrative to give the novel far more authenticity and impact. There’s a small box of books to go through, a mountain of notes and photocopies, and I’m about to dive in, head first—
Instead, my Muse decides to bushwhack me and, like the worst blindside hits, I never even sensed this one coming.
I’ve had the notion for a science fiction story for a couple of years. I’m a huge fan of the genre, grew up devouring everything space-related I could lay my hands on. Three early efforts that had a big effect on me were “A Walk in the Dark”, a tale by Arthur C. Clarke, and two short story collections, Ray Bradbury’s The Golden Apples of the Sun and a youth-oriented anthology titled Tales of Time and Space (edited by Ross Robert Olney). The latter included “Birds of a Feather” by Robert Silverberg, which is still a fave. I spotted an edition of Tales of Time and Space at a library book sale a number of years ago. Immediately recognized it (even after an interval of thirty some odd years) and snapped it up. I treasure that book; both my sons have read it as well.
My tale, I’ve known from the start, would have a “retro SF” feel to it: like it could have been written back in the late 50’s or early 60’s by someone like Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, A.E. van Vogt or, yup, Robert Silverberg. Nothing state of the art or high tech. A small story about a lonely, little man. Some alternative history thrown in, a universe with some important differences from our own…
All very nice. But eight days ago I’m cleaning up my desk, sorting through papers and I come across a contest for novelettes and novellas, fiction between 7500-15,000 words, and all at once I’m overcome by this notion that my SF idea would be perfect for that length and I could use the contest, which has a decent payday, as my motivation. Poking a finger at the prize money: that would just about pay off your Montana trip, laddie.
Going after my conscience, my on-going worries over finances here at Casa Burns. My Muse has no sense of propriety or shame.
One things leads to another and, heh heh, eight days later I’m done, presented with a 37-page, 10,000 word tale called “Eyes in the Sky”. It came in a rush and would not be resisted. Any gal who’s given birth knows exactly what I’m talking about. The piece arrived just about fully-formed and its creation was so effortless, it made me suspicious that the bloody thing was no good. But Sherron has reassured me. She read a printed draft last night and gave “Eyes in the Sky” high grades. So I’m relieved.
But still perturbed to get yanked away from my western novel with no warning, no explanation. I guess it’s an object lesson. Something this control freak had better get through his thick head: I am not in charge. I am merely an agent, not the Source. I am servant to a difficult, mercurial taskmaster. I may grumble and groan but am compelled to obey; no rest for the weary and, as I should know by now, there’s always another story, waiting to be told…
I’m relieved to discover that this habit isn’t necessarily a manifestation of mental illness, nor is it unique in the world of the arts. I’ve read enough biographies and articles on authors to know that a good number of them have well-developed fantasy lives and often immerse themselves in their self-created environments, sometimes to the detriment of real world relationships and obligations. I think of writers like Ray Bradbury, P.G Wodehouse and and H.P. Lovecraft. For prolonged periods of time they take up residence in fictional universes, describing their journeys with such detail and depth that they seem almost like parallel existences, places we could visit if we took one wrong turn on a dark street or wandered off the path, into the endless forest.
I’ve devoted nearly four years of my life to conceiving, researching, writing and editing my novel So Dark the Night. Working on it every day, day in and day out, month after month after month. Frequently I’m in my office from 8:00 in the morning ’til 9:00 at night, coming out only to use the bathroom or gobble down a few quick bites of food. So fully inhabiting the city and environs where my two main characters ply their trade that at times it’s hard for me to fully re-emerge and engage with family and friends. Some days it’s absolutely spooky. I open up the door of my office and expect to see…what? The city of Ilium, home of my detective duo, a dilapidated former industrial center, hugging the shores of Lake Erie, long past its prime, presently in the midst of an accelerated decline. The dockland the repository for rusting hulks, bristling with abandoned gantries and infrastructure. The factories that once employed thousands now empty husks, ringed by concertina wire, patrolled by private security goons. The ground laced with heavy metals and toxins, poisoned for ten thousand years.
I see it so clearly in my mind’s eye.
Dunno about the other fellows but I confess to a preference for my imagined worlds, personal playgrounds where my my mind can roam, unfettered by the demands of mundane reality. When I shut the door to my office, everything on the other side ceases to exist. The phone is unplugged, the doorbell is ignored, nothing is allowed to break the spell. Music is the first step–sometimes an hour of howling metal or spacey, ambient stuff or track after track of Dylan. Depends on how I’m feeling.
–and then all at once I find myself sitting at my desk, pen in hand. I don’t remember how I got there or when I started writing. That’s the truth. So when I say “spell”, I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass. I can’t tell you how many thousands of words I’ve put to paper that have no clear origin; I looked down and there they were. And the process is as mysterious now as it was a quarter century ago. That’s the fucked up part. I’m no closer to understanding what it takes to create a successful work of prose or verse, even a single, melodic sentence, than I was when I first dared imagine myself a writer.
That’s why I take such offense at workshops and creative writing classes. You can teach someone basic grammar but you can’t help them create music with a few strokes of a pen. Sorry. Nor can you impart to your students the ability to absorb the pain and prolonged physical, mental and spiritual exertion the writing life demands from its (usually) unhappy acolytes. Basic compositional skills are empirical; a good ear for dialogue isn’t.
Writing is hard work, as hard as digging ditches or mining coal. That is, if you’re doing it right. Putting words down on paper, that’s nothing. Arranging them so that the exact right one is in the exact right place…that is a feat of engineering on par with any building, bridge or monument from the present day to ancient epochs.
When I’m working, my focus is absolute, like a laser beam. Nothing else matters except that page in front of me. I am there and nowhere else. I see my characters’ faces, breathe the same air. A camera swooping and dipping, discreetly recording the scene that’s unfolding. At such moments, it is temporal reality that seems entirely unconvincing and implausible.
Perhaps that’s why writers sometimes behave like such buffoons in the real world. We’ve forgotten social conventions and have no idea what constitutes appropriate behavior and language back on Earth Prime. I think of someone like Wodehouse, who cheerfully admitted to preferring the worlds he created to the real thing. Maybe that’s why he was gulled into those wartime radio broadcasts from occupied Paris for which he was so vilified. To his mind, they were harmless trifles…but to his countrymen across the channel, teetering on the brink of apocalypse, each syllable was treason.
Fantasy can beguile too.
Lovecraft was reclusive, a man who evinced little interest in worldly affairs, steeping himself in history and lore. More comfortable conversing in lengthy correspondences than face to face. His “mythos” an attempt to impose order on a civilization he felt far removed from. His attitudes, frankly, reactionary, which explained his fascination with the past and his fear of the things that might lurk just beyond his safe threshold, the darkness that yawned…
His writing is fevered, a cascade of obscure or archaic words, all in a vain (and overblown) attempt to describe the indescribable, put features and traits to things beyond human ken. The Lovecraftian universe is, even this non-fan must confess, a thrillingly imagined one, seemingly consistent and lavishly illustrated. For a considerable portion of his short life he resided in strange climes and, within the limits of his talent, did his best to describe the bleak and blasted vistas he saw there.
And then we have Bradbury…Raymond, the child-man. For Ray, the view from his window is pristine and richly coloured: small town Illinois, circa 1924. Memories of the cataclysm of war fading, a renewed sense of optimism surging through America, the first forebodings that an isolationist republic might have bigger, more ambitious aspirations on the world scene. An era of silent movies and loud jalopies; traveling circuses and lonely leviathans. White picket fences, dandelion wine and well-attended churches. In a second story bedroom, a child lies beneath clean, flannel blankets, blinking in the early Saturday morning light, listening to birdsong. In thirty years, this same child, grown tall and ramrod straight, will mount a silver rocket and blast off for the red sands of Mars…
Ray is all about nostalgia, a sense of what could/should have been. His ability to re-imagine a past that never was rivals that of Walt Disney–and I think it fair to say both are obsessed with bygone eras and far-flung futures and care not a whit for the present day. You gotta believe Ray has a rich fantasy life and I’d kill to be able to walk into one of his dreams.
Ray Bradbury’s stories are reflections of the man…just as Lovecraft’s tales reveal a twisted, inner psyche and Wodehouse’s lengthy canon a yearning for a well-ordered paradigm where the worst thing that can happen to a person is an accidental betrothal.
And as for me…hmmm. I think there’s a similar desire to impose some kind of cohesion or logic to a world I regard with more than a little cynicism and disapprobation. In the early part of my career, I wrote almost exclusively about characters who were somehow disenfranchised, powerless, marginalized. I approached those tales from the point of view of victims and that says something about my childhood and formative years. The fears that besieged and threatened to overwhelm me.
But in the past five years or so I’ve noticed that my characters have gotten tougher, taking control over their lives, no longer cowering in the face of their oppressors. And I think that change was accompanied by a great deal of healing as well as a better balance in my brain chemistry. At 46, except for the inevitable bad days (no one can avoid them), I’m feeling pretty good. Well enough that I can talk candidly about my secret places in a radio play like “The First Room“. No longer having to avert my eyes, try to think of anything but. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still as neurotic and nutty as ever, it’s just that I’ve come to terms with my inner loon.
I think my continuing survival is actually a very positive life lesson. If someone with my childhood, my psychological problems, my genetic history, can manage to make it this far, there’s hope for anyone. My writing saved and redeemed me and if you’re out there, dangling by a thread, there’s something for you too, something to pull you up from the precipice. Trust me.
And not only have I survived, I’ve thrived. Over the years I’ve taken on the roles of husband and father and that has equipped me with better coping skills and patience to deal with the frictions that are inevitable in any close personal relationship, no matter how loving and supportive. Those childhood fears and insecurities crop up in funny places and so does the anger, the rage of a kid who is powerless; a witness, an accomplice, a victim, a pawn of larger, darker forces.
I mentioned the bad days, those intervals where reason and balance seem to flee from me. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to (thank God) and the bouts of fury and despair are no where near as intense. I find myself raging against the small chores and obligations that are part and parcel of daily life, chafe at an off-the-cuff comment, smolder because some small, petty desire has been denied me. Until the feelings pass, I retreat to my office, read, meditate, listen to extremely loud music, waiting for the worst of it to be over.
These fits usually coincide with some “down time” in my writing, any period when I don’t have a big project in front of me. I simply have to be doing something every single day…or my mind begins to turn on me. Most people around me view me as a terrible workaholic, too driven and consumed by my calling; they don’t understand that it’s the writing that keeps my demons at bay. All those long hours I spend in that other place, the worlds I construct from memories, epiphanies and passing impressions. They sustain me, are a crucial article of my faith. Without that outlet…I shudder to think.
I’m not saying mine is necessarily a healthy lifestyle. I’ve read the reports that warn of the health risks of a sedentary existence; I definitely should get outside more, stretch and exercise. Often, when I’m really locked into a project, I forget to eat, barely aware of the passage of time. That can’t be good.
But I also know that because of the way I live my life–on my terms, with few accommodations to outside influences–I’ve managed to spend the last decade or so (for the most part) in a state approaching happiness. Is it a trade-off? I think so.
Without the ability to shut off the world and use my office as a portal to possibility, amazement, redemption and hope I would never have lasted this long. I truly believe my fantasy life is key to my continuing survival. When the stories run out, I’m finished.
I think the other fellows know what I’m talking about. I ponder the life of Ray Bradbury–I know he’s had some health setbacks and that has affected his legendary productivity. But at 90+ years, he’s still telling tall tales, even if someone else has to take dictation and type them up for him. Each day he commutes to that place where his visions dwell. His fortress of solitude. Sitting in a comfortable chair, barely able to see but hardly sightless. His gaze far, far away. In Green River or navigating the Valles Marineris; lost in a funhouse or at the helm of a gleaming rocketship, bound for the stars.
After all, nothing is impossible if we allow ourselves to think with the mind of a child. Experience has not yet affected one so young and no one can convince them that dreams can’t ever come true.
Here are four short-short stories, my version of “flash fiction”. Ethereal, odd, evocative. Literary and auditory Rorschach tests. Give them a listen…and then tell me what you see.
Submitted for your approval, as my old pal Rod Serling would say:
I know, it seems like I’ve had the moon on my mind since the beginning of the year. The whole 40th anniversary thingee really got to me for some reason. Made me ponder how much time has passed and (perhaps) how little time remains.
A busy, creative, exhausting summer and those 4 linked short stories grow ever nearer to completion. Stay tuned, I think this quartet of tales is going to make a definite impression on you.
But I decided to take this past weekend off, rest up, read a couple of books (both on Orson Welles, as it turned out) and build another plastic model.
And, sticking with the moon theme, the model I chose was the Heller Apollo 11 lunar lander. This is a none-too-detailed, cheapish reproduction of the fragile craft that took Neil and Buzz down to the surface of the moon…and back up again (to rendezvous with Michael Collins). Found it on eBay for a small stipend but it took me forever to set aside some time to put the bloody thing together. And I’ve got eight or ten other model kits in the basement, waiting their turn. Everything from an X-Wing fighter to a German zeppelin. Sheesh…
I set up on a table on our back deck–the weather for the past week has been perfect, clear and hot and not much in terms of a breeze. I got myself settled, arranged my parts and glue and paints and commenced work.
There were a few minor annoyances. First of all, none of the instructions were in English. Second, this model is quite small and that means small parts that resist and defy my clumsy, shaky fingers. I had…difficulties. Mainly with the struts. Oooo, those bleepin’ struts. I still break into a sweat when I think of them.
Sherron found me some terrific copper-tinted paint that went on thick, allowing me to apply a bit of texture, a convincing impression of the gold foil we see in pictures of the lander, a blaze of colour on the otherwise monotonously grey moon.
Finished the model and thought it needed a little diorama so I made one of some papier mache stuff Sherron had lying around. Spray-painted it while it was still wet, hoping to give a better illusion of the fine lunar regolith.
It’s not perfect but it ain’t half bad.
Have a look…and then sit down and tell me story about a model you built as a kid, a memory you treasure (or rue) to this day.
C’mon, don’t be shy…
Finally, I have some new work to share with you. Recently I’ve been moaning about this being a blog that’s supposed to prominently feature my fiction, drama and poetry and, meanwhile, I’ve been debuting very little new material on this site for some time.
But that’s about to change.
Expect a flurry of stuff in the coming days and weeks, the product of many months of labour and struggle on my part. Oh, I could be one of those hapless dolts who loads every snippet of juvenilia, first draft and/or literary belch & fart on their site, seeking as much scant praise they can garner from sympathetic fellow wannabes. But I’m afraid I veer in the opposite direction, sweating out short stories over weeks, months, revising and polishing until the very thought of the tale in question makes me want to upchuck. Which, as you can guess, is an approach to writing that tends to play hell with productivity.
But when I do release something, it’s ready. It’s been through the meat grinder, Sherron has signed off on it, the end result microscopically examined and painstakingly dissected; I know that story or poem or novel like I know the inside of my own skin.
And that’s what you’re getting whenever I offer new work.
“The Innocent Moon” is my best radio play. Bar none. I put all I learned about radio drama into this little beauty. It’s the one I submitted to the BBC competition. Kind of hurt my professional pride when I didn’t make the shortlist but c’est la guerre. It would have been difficult to produce; very complex in terms of mixing as it involves “samples” from dozens of movies and newsclips and songs. You’ll see what I mean.
This sonofabitch took forever to research and pull together (as documented in previous blog entries). The final result pleased me beyond measure. I love the the flow and ebb of voices, the way it fuses together and perfectly illustrates my fascination (obsession?) with all things relating to space.
Click here to download free PDF of “InnocentMoon“
“The Innocent Moon” is dedicated to my chum and fellow writer and moon nut, Ian Sales.
…and to all of us grown up children of the space age.
When the future seemed so bright.
We’re fast approaching the 40th anniversary of the first landing on the moon. My recollections of that day are very clear; it made a deep and long-lasting psychic impression on me. I’ve tried to express something of that magical time in this short film, titled “July 20, 1969”. My wife Sherron helped me put this snippet together (using the wonders of this here new iMac). The pictures are from the public domain, the music plucked from Garageband…the text derived from a short prose work I completed years ago.
This anniversary (Apollo 11) seems to be affecting me more than this sort of thing usually does. I firmly believe watching those fuzzy pictures from 250,000 miles away was an absolutely seminal moment from my childhood, those few days igniting my fascination with science fiction, other worlds, distant spaces, journeys into darkness, etc. I’m pleased to be able to pay tribute to the exploits and achievements of the Apollo program and I hope our little film gives some small hint of the sense of wonder and excitement I felt back then…emotions I retain today when I look at the pictures, see their faces, and have a clearer understanding of the daunting obstacles they faced, the sacrifices they made and the grandness of vision our forays into space represent.
This film is dedicated to the lads of Apollo 11: Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins
And the crew of Apollo 1: Roger Chaffee, Edward White, Virgil I. Grissom
The First Man must be humble yet self-possessed in times of crisis confident, as one who's been sorely tried. Drop him, spin him, shake him race his heart, see if he dies. Undaunted by fame, puzzled by all the fuss, natural in the glare. Stick him in a close compartment, sling it into the girding dark; crown him with hero's laurels should he return. *******************************************************************************************************
As that date draws near, I’m filled with equal parts nostalgia and melancholy. In July, 1969 I was five and 2/3 years old and still believed anything was possible. I recall being absolutely entranced by the thought of a man, a human being just like me, walking around up there on the moon.
Not sure why I’ve been so hung up on the moon this year–there’s the radio play I wrote, “Innocent Moon”, for the BBC contest…and later on in July we’ll be posting a special treat Sherron helped me put together, a short but sweet homage to Neil and the lads, using some of the fancy gear that came with this iMac. I’ll say no more. Watch for it in a couple of weeks.
And I came across this fantastic site real Apollo aficionados will love: you sign in and you can relive every moment of that four-day mission in real time. Take a trip to the moon with Neil, Buzz and Mike Collins. Only recommended for those with strong bladders and 96 hours to kill.
If anyone knows of other interesting sites celebrating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, use the Comments form below and give us a head’s up (be sure to include a link).
Personal reminiscences are also welcome: where we you forty years ago and how did that one small step affect you, your life and your outlook on the universe?