I was born into a not-very-religious Jewish family. I went to Hebrew School and had a Bar Mitzvah, the whole schtick. But I never really thought about it much or paid any attention. God was just something people said, sort of like the adults' Santa Claus. He was something that was there, like air, and you didn't really need to think about it in daily life. Maybe specialists in "air" thought about it, like the Air Quality Management District, but it didn't really affect me.
I can pinpoint the date my deconversion began: Jan. 14, 1962. I was a devout admirer of comedian Ernie Kovacs, one of the great geniuses of the entertainment media. (For anyone who doesn't know about him, check out his lengthy Wikipedia entry.) Although he'd been working in New Jersey radio for some time, one of his first television gigs was a morning show in Philadelphia, where I grew up. I thought he was hysterically funny--and obviously so did many other people, for he quickly moved on to bigger things. But as a little kid I had the wonderful pleasure of my mom taking me downtown to the studio where his show was broadcast and watching him from the audience. (She told me later that she lost an earring there and went back to the studio to look for it after bringing me home; Kovacs's wife, actress Edie Adams, helped her look. My mom never told me whether the search was successful.) Kovacs went on to appear in some movies--arguably the biggest was Bell, Book, and Candle--and did a series of half-hour TV specials for ABC. They were way ahead of their time in both form and content.
In the wee morning hours of Jan 13, 1962, Kovacs was driving home from a party in Los Angeles when his car hit a power pole and he was killed almost instantly. When I heard about it later that day, I was devastated. This man with the brilliantly inventive mind, who could do things with a television camera that no one else ever dreamed of, and was funny to boot, was gone from my life. I was depressed all day, and when I was going to sleep that night I cried and prayed for god to take me instead and bring Kovacs back, or at least transfer his genius into me so that I could somehow continue his work. Neither of those things happened; although I did become a writer, no one, especially me, has ever claimed I approached his level of talent.
I started deciding that if god couldn't perform that one little favor, for which I prayed with such heartfelt conviction, what good was he?
Over the years my atheism became more formal and intellectually based, but that was where it started. The petulant, spiteful actions of a child? Maybe, but it opened my eyes. Santa Claus existed merely to keep little kids in line, but he was useless when you really needed something from him that your parents couldn't deliver. I started paying attention to the man behind the curtain, and realized it was all just doubletalk and hogwash. I decided to believe in people instead. People may sometimes deceive you, people may also let you down on their big promises--but at least you know they're not perfect and can't expect miracles from them.
And Ernie Kovacs's Nairobi Trio still makes me laugh when I see it and cry at the same time for the lost work he might have accomplished.
Monday, July 27, 2015
Tuesday, July 7, 2015
The "Family d'Alembert series" is today considered a "classic" in the field of space opera. Personally I don't feel old enough to be involved with creating a "classic" even though I admittedly started young, but for the moment I'll go along with that description. Let me explain here how I came to create the series, and the differences between the Family d'Alembeert series and the new Agents of ISIS series.
Go here to learn where you can buy them. Pleasant reading.
In the May 1964 issue of If Magazine, E.E. "Doc" Smith published a novella entitled "Imperial Stars." According to a letter he wrote to his friend Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, Smith intended to turn this novella into a series of books. Unfortunately he died before he could get around to it. He left behind no manuscripts, no story arcs, no further plot ideas or concepts of where to go next. He'd created a single novella and the concept for a prospective series, but not a series itself.
A decade later, I was commissioned to expand the novella into a full-sized book and then create nine more books in this universe, thus turning Smith's idea into what became known as the "Family d'Alembert series." I'd read and enjoyed Smith's earlier Skylark and Lensman series, so I was eagerly anticipating this assignment.
Unfortunately, it was not all I'd hoped for. The novella certainly had action aplenty, as befitted a Smith story, but the writing, the universe and the characters were hopelessly old-fashioned even for the 1960s when it was published, let alone the 1970s and later when I'd be writing the follow-ups. The text used bizarre words like "ultratoilsomely." The heroes were two-dimensional and way too goody-goody to be believable. The history and development of the universe were painfully naive, with an anti-communist screed straight out of the 1950s McCarthy era. And while Smith was noted for the excellence of his villains, the ultimate bad guy here never once set foot onstage. Clearly this novella needed a lot of rehabilitation.
Having to stick closely to Smith's creation hampered me considerably, but I did as much as I could to make the characters and universe more believable, and I tried to come up with stories that were exciting enough to please Smith's legion of fans. I got letters of praise that told me I was succeeding, which was most gratifying.
Still, as decades passed, the initially creaky concept grew more and more outdated. Finally, in the mid-2000s, I decided to update the whole series. Since the original novella was the source of most of the problems, I tossed out "Imperial Stars" in its entirety. I created a universe without what I perceived as Smith's flaws, yet which could still accommodate the stories of books 2-10 that I'd created for the old universe. I wrote an entirely new first novel, Tsar Wars, to introduce the re-envisioned universe and slightly more believable characters. I made major modifications to the remaining 9 books to fit the new beginning.
The result is what I now call the Agents of ISIS series, something I feel is more appropriate for the 21st century. I make no pretense that the books are ultra-realistic; they still retain their space opera roots. But I've tried to make the characters a little more interesting. And unlike in the Family d'Alembert series, the heroes no longer have to find a pay-phone to make a call when they're out in the field--they can use their wristcoms.
I understand the attraction people have for a classic that's stood the test of time, so there'll be plenty of readers paying money for the books in the Family d'Alembert series. But as someone who's intimately familiar with both series, I must say that, because I'm a more experienced writer now, the Agents of ISIS books are better written and have more interesting characters. And, in ebook format at least, the Agents of ISIS books are considerably cheaper than the reissued d'Alemberts. I've also recently reformatted the ISIS ebooks, so they should be pretty clean.
The ten books in the new series are:
- Tsar Wars
- Treacherous Moon
- Robot Mountain
- Sanctuary Planet
- Stellar Revolution
- Purgatory Plot
- Traitors' World
- Counterfeit Stars
- Outworld Invaders
- Galactic Collapse
Sunday, July 5, 2015
CAVEAT: The events described in this recollection occurred nearly 30 years ago. To paraphrase a mirror I recall seeing, “Objects in reality may be more distant than they appear.”
In the mid- to late-1980s, I heard from my agent, Joe Elder, that Pocket Books was looking to sign up some more Star Trek novels written for the classic series. Since I’d previously written one for Bantam (Trek to Madworld), he wondered whether I’d be interested in writing another one. Since I was currently working with my wife, Mary Mason, on what became the Jade Darcy books, I talked it over with her and we came up with an outline we liked. The premise was roughly as follows:
The Federation in the classic series was underlain squarely by Gene Roddenberry’s 1960-style liberalism. Fellowship between all the different alien races, that sort of thing. What would happen if the conservatives, building on a base of hate-filled bigots, took over power in the council? Their conservative agenda could wreak real havoc in those long-established liberal principles. (I know this is purest fantasy and could never happen in real life, but hey, it’s only a novel, right?) The conservatives could play off the hatreds of one group for another, starting small brushfires that would escalate and have different groups at each other’s throats. The Enterprise would be ordered to take part in an ugly skirmish that violated all the good things Kirk and the crew stood for, leading them, and a growing number of other ships, to mutiny. Eventually the mutiny would grow so large it undermined the conservatives and the good old liberals would recapture control of the Federation.
One thing Mary is justifiably proud of: In the history of Trek, there has never, to our knowledge, been an economic basis for how the Federation holds together. Mary devised a system based on the availability of dilithium crystals and the supply thereof. The Federation would control the use and distribution of dilithium crystals, much like deBeers does on Earth with diamonds. This would regulate who was able to participate in space flight. It made a lot of sense.
Anyway, we wrote up our outline and sent it in. In due course, we heard back from Joe Elder that the editor at Pocket (whose name I can’t completely remember, I’m afraid; David something, I seem to recall--he was a nice young kid) liked our outline, but there was a weird sort of problem. One of his other Trek writers, Diane Carey, had also submitted an outline about a mutiny in Star Fleet, and he, the editor, also had an idea along similar lines. He wanted to reconcile this so all the books could be published, so he suggested it as a trilogy; Mary and I would write the first book, Diane Carey would continue it in the second, and his own book would conclude it. Pocket Books would pay for all of us to travel to New York for a weekend and hammer out the plots, then we’d all split up and work on our sections separately.
I have to say I had serious doubts about this scheme. I’ve worked on collaborations before; they’re hard enough to do when the various parties live in the same city and can communicate easily. Having three different groups in three different sections of the country (Mary and I lived in Sacramento, CA, Diane Carey was in Flint, MI, and David was in New York) would be an enormous challenge—especially in an age before easy email, when communications had to be either by expensive phone calls or slow physical letters. Still, this is what the editor wanted to do, and I’ve never turned my nose up at a free trip to New York. . In due course, Mary and I were winging our way eastward and ensconced in a New York hotel, compliments of Pocket Books.
I honestly remember very little about the plotting, other than the fact that very little of it was actually accomplished. Mary and I described our premise, Diane said very little about hers, and David virtually nothing about his. The others sort of agreed that Mary and I should write our section the way we wanted and the others would pick up from there. We could have done all that at home and saved Pocket Books a whole lot of money.
One thing, though—the weekend confirmed my opinion that New York editors know how to pick good restaurants. The first night we ate at a fine Chinese restaurant, the second at a good Italian restaurant. Unfortunately, I think the Careys—who considered themselves some of Flint, Michigan’s, intellectuals--were sort of overwhelmed by the food choices. At the Chinese restaurant, Diane told us her husband didn’t eat rice (though he complained he did, but only if potatoes weren’t available). At the Italian restaurant, we had a appetizer of fried calamari rings with a spicy dipping sauce. Diane’s husband actually dared to try one of the calamari rings, and pronounced it was OK, but rather bland. Mary and I pointed out that was what the dipping sauce was for. I don’t recall him bothering to try it. Given the wealth of Italian possibilities on the menu, the Careys ordered steaks.
I have to admit to philosophical differences on top of other problems. I tried reading Diane Carey’s previously published Star Trek novel. In it, she had a human character describe her very objectivist political philosophy. OK, I could stand that. But when Carey had a Vulcan proclaim that was the only logical way to govern, and the Vulcan race had ruled themselves that way for many centuries, I literally threw the book across the room and never bothered to finish it. Diane Carey has the right to hold any foolish political beliefs she wants, but it was Gene Roddenberry who created the Vulcans, and Mary and I both believe he did not intend the entire Vulcan race to be devotees of Ayn Rand. For Diane to claim otherwise was arrogantly presumptive.
We got home and started work on our book, and were immediately floundering. As the set-up for the trilogy, we had to know what we should put into the novel to establish what should come next—and we got little to no advice from either of the other parties. We did, however, get a strange and disturbing notice from the Paramount licensing department.
The dictum came down to us, via David, that Paramount declared there was, and could be, no bigotry or prejudice in the Star Trek universe—people had evolved beyond all that by then. This, of course, struck at the very heart of our premise. I phoned David and pointed out to him how many times we heard McCoy say something like, “Spock, you pointed-eared Vulcan, your goddamn logic will get us all killed.” (I think it occurred at least every other episode.) Now, I told David, try changing a couple of the words: “Spock, you hook-nosed Jew, your goddamn stinginess will get us all killed.” And McCoy was a highly trained, well-educated professional who would never dream of discriminating against Spock in job placement or social interaction. Oh, you can say it was all good-hearted japery or satire, but satire doesn’t exist unless there’s something in reality to satirize. There damn well was prejudice, or at least the remnants of it, in the Federation. David gulped, but had to give in to Paramount licensing.
[Note: This wasn’t the only stupidity I’ve encountered from Paramount licensing. Years later, when I was working for the computer game company Spectrum Holobyte on a Star Trek cartridge game, some of the company’s artists had depicted non-humanoid aliens. Paramount came down with another dictum: There were no inteligent non-humanoid aliens in the Trek universe. Everyone at our company, all being Trek fans, went ballistic. What about Hortas? we asked. The only reason Gene Roddenberry hadn’t included non-humanoids wasn’t because he was prejudiced against them, but because there was a noticeable dearth of non-humanoid actors capable of speaking lines in Hollywood. I don’t remember the ultimate resolution, but I did come away with the strong impession that the drones at licensing never watched the show.]
So Mary and I labored in a vacuum, and in time we produced a very, very, very rough draft. We knew it was rough. We said as much. We also knew it wasn’t very good, and we were disillusioned with the whole project. But we dutifully turned it in, hoping for the sake of our reputations that it wouldn’t see the light of day. Eventually, we got a call from my agent: “I’ve got good news and bad news.”
“What’s the bad news?” I asked, since I always like to get that out of the way first.
“Pocket turned down your book.”
I blinked a couple of times. This was bad news? It was what I’d hoped for. “What’s the good news, then?”
“They’re paying you the on-acceptance money anyway.” This made the novel theirs, and they could do whatever they wanted with it—like sit on it till the end of time. Which is what they’ve done.
On the whole, it was a disappointing experience. Yeah, I got paid for writing the book and I got a free trip to New York. But I also lost many months of writing time, time I could have spent on a better project. And I still think Mary’s and my original idea would have made a fascinatin story.
I'd like to announce I've started work on a new YA novel called Into the Out, about a group of high school kids on a field trip in the California desert. They stumble across a buried starship, and before they realize what's happening it takes off, carrying the group into interstellar space. It's an homage to one of my all-time favorite books, Andre Norton's Galactic Derelict. I hope to have a lot of fun with it. With any luck, it'll be finished next spring. More news to follow as work progresses.