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January, 2024:

Trunk Archaeology, Part 2

As I mentioned in my entry for January 10th, I recently found a bunch of ancient fiction manuscripts from my high-school days, which (old guy that I am now at 71) were 1966-1971. In the same folders was a list of stories (written pre-Selectric) that appears to be in chronological order, with over forty stories listed. Some few of the later ones have dates on them. Most are undated. I know I wrote my first SF short story in the spring of 1967. Alas, a copy of that story was not present in the folders. Still, a lot of interesting material was there, including a significant number of stories that I had utterly forgotten.

In reading through them here and there over the past couple of weeks I realized that the ones I had forgotten were, for the most part, forgettable. I had no training whatsoever in fiction until I attended the Clarion workshop in the summer of 1973. As with a lot of other things, I learned to write fiction by imitating the stories of others.

This explains a feeling I had reading some of my ancient stuff: It sounds like the pulps of the 40s and 50s. Well, that’s because a great deal of what I was reading in that era were story collections full of stories written in the golden age of the pulps, from 1940 or so to the early-mid ‘60s. My local public library had several of Kingsley Amis’ Spectrum anthology series, and a few of Horace Gold’s Galaxy Reader series, which gathered stories originally published in Galaxy Science Fiction. Once I exhausted what the library had I bought a pile of other anthologies as 75c mass-market paperbacks, most of which have fallen apart and were dumped in the 50-odd years since I was in high school. Groff Conklin edited quite a few, of which I only have two left: Elsewhere and Elsewhen (1968) and Great Science Fiction By Scientists (1962). I miss some of the casualties, like the marvelous Science Fiction Oddities (1966) granting that if I still had them, these old eyes would require a serious magnifying glass to read them.

I never did anything with my high-school stories. The earliest story I have that saw print is “Whale Meat,” (written in February 1971; I was in college by then) which appeared in Starwind Magazine (Published by Ohio State University’s SF club) in the early ‘80s and most recently in my collection Cold Hands and Other Stories.

The first draft of ”Whale Meat” sounded peculiar and somehow oddly modern to me for a significant reason: I wrote it in present tense. Not because present tense was stylish in 1971. In truth, I don’t recall reading any fiction in present tense while I was in high school. Rather, I guessed that immortal witches who had been born in the 1300s would live their lives and think their thoughts in the literal now. “Whale Meat” passed through a couple of later drafts during my college years. At some point I decided, Nahhh, that’s too strange. Nobody’s going to like a story told all in present tense. I then rewrote it in conventional past tense. So much for SF writers predicting the future…of SF, at least.

An incomplete first draft titled “Prayers at the Plaster Virgin” came to hand, undated but as best I recall, 1974. I finished it sometime during the 1980s, and renamed it “Born Again, with Water.” You can find it in my collection Cold Hands and Other Stories. It’s as close as I ever came (or likely will ever come) to writing a horror story.

Everything else I wrote in the late 1960s and early 1970s remains unpublished, mostly for good reasons. The bulk of those reasons hover around my failure to create credible characters in high school. Keep in mind (especially if you’re young and haven’t read any of the pulps) that I was in good company: Most of the pulps were action/adventure or tech/science puzzle stories that didn’t really require fully fleshed-out characters to engage the reader. I was writing what I was reading, pretty much.

Clarion changed all that—which is the reason I sold my first stories into professional markets shortly after the Clarion Workshop.

Here and there I think I succeeded in telling a story…by accident. Among my high school stories is one called “The Strongest Spell,” which I remembered badly. It’s a battle of wills between science and witchcraft. In some peculiar post-apocalyptic future, humanity has divided itself into Scientists and Witches. A young boy scientist and a young witch-girl meet periodically at the border between their respective territories, and get into spell-casting contests. The boy has an invisibility technology skullcap. The girl imposes invisibility on herself with a spell. The boy has an antigravity belt that allows him to fly. The girl has a spell for that too. Year by year they grow up and it’s the same old stuff every year: the boy practicing bravado and the girl a quiet and subtle one-upmanship.

There’s something on the table: There are ancient starships in the Scientists’ camp—but the Scientists can’t make them work. The girl knows why, but she’s not talking.

When they’re sixteen the game changes. This time the girl leads off by casting a complicated and (to the scientist boy) inexplicable spell. She summons a Cthuloid monster, which the boy assumes is a weapon directed at himself. Except—the monster attacks the girl instead.

Brute force doesn’t work. The boy attacks the monster with his gadgets and gets nowhere. The creature has dozens of eyes. The boy gets in the monster’s face and forces it to make eye contact. No technology, no science, no muscle: When the monster meets the boy’s furious eyes, it caves, releases the girl from its tentacles, and vanishes.

The boy doesn’t really understand: He was showing off the power of his technology, but she was testing him. She could match him, gadget for spell. But what she wanted to know was something different: Does he have the courage to face down a monster that cares nothing for his technology? Would he risk his life to rescue someone who had always been his rival?

He does. When he bends down to pick her up, assuming she’s injured and intending to carry her back to her own people, she tells him the Big Secret: That the starships need both science and magic to work. Her final spell wasn’t really about the monster. It was an invitation to work with her to make the starships operate, for Scientists and Witches both. He puts his arms around her, puzzled but pleased. You can almost see her thinking:

It worked.

Her spell was stronger than his: Cooperation beats competition. It wasn’t explicitly a love story, but one gets the impression that the girl added something a little extra to her spell.

None of my other stories in that era ever came close to this in terms of subtlety, and I assume that my success with “The Strongest Spell” was purely accidental. It was full of tropes and typos, and on the surface a little dumb. Hey, I was fourteen. Sometimes you just get lucky.

I still haven’t finished reading that quirky pile of yellowing paper. If other insights occur to me, you’ll see them here.

Trunk Archaeology

Sometime back I was digging around in one box or another in the shed and happened across something remarkable: two fat folders full of typewritten manuscripts I wrote while I was still in high school; that is, 1966-1970. It was a lot of paper: stacked up, the pile was over two inches thick. A handful were things I wrote in college from the very early ‘70s. Nearly all were high school stuff.

That box (and another box of more recent material) are what authors call their “trunk,” a sort of dead letter office for old manuscripts. I thought all that really old stuff was gone forever. I was sharp enough to write dates on the back pages of a few, which helped. Another clue lay in the nature of the typescript. I’ve owned three typewriters in my life:

  1. My grandmother Sade Duntemann’s 1920-vintage Underwood Standard #5, which she gave me in 1962, when I was ten.
  2. My Smith Corona electric, which my godmother Aunt Kathleen gave me for my birthday in mid-1968.
  3. My IBM Selectric, which I bought in 1972 and kept until laser printers made it unnecessary. I sold it in 2003.

The clues lay in the characters impressed by the type bars. The Underwood had seen a lot of use in its life, and its characters were not all crisply aligned. The type bars had clearly been jammed together now and then (I’d seen it happen, heh) and the characters were not in perfect alignment. The lowercase “a” in particular was a smidge higher than all the other letters. The Smith Corona’s type looked a great deal like the Underwood’s, except that I’d received it brand-new and all the type bars were perfectly aligned. The Selectric produced typescript obviously different from that of both earlier typewriters.

Another clue is that I wrote first drafts of all my high school stuff single-spaced.

The biggest clue of all was a stapled set of two sheets containing the titles of 46 short stories and one poem. As best I could tell, the titles were in chronological order. The list itself was typed on the Smith Corona, which dates it somewhere between mid-1968 and early 1972. The first draft of my story “Whale Meat” had the date February 8, 1971 written on the last sheet but was not on the list, so that means the list was drawn up earlier than that date.

Scanning the list of titles was profoundly weird. Although most of the titles were at least vaguely familiar (hey, how could I ever forget a title like “The Man Who Drove a Bulldozer Into Hell”?) about a third had slipped my memory utterly. Of the stories themselves I remembered almost nothing, save for a couple of my favorites. In reading manuscripts from that box, I didn’t even know what would happen next. It was like reading someone else’s stories entirely.

The list was not exhaustive. In digging through the paper-clipped sheet sets, I found two stories that had been written on the Underwood but were not on the list at all.

So here I am, reading through two inches of my fiction juvenalia. If you thought that finding the stories and the list of their titles was peculiar, stay tuned. I learned a lot about my progress as a writer from those stories. I’ll cite a few examples in my next entry here.

Niklaus Wirth 1934-2023

We lose our heroes one by one. By the time you’re in your 70s, like I am, you begin losing them a lot more frequently. We lost Don Lancaster back in July. Don’s books taught me how digital logic worked way back in the last half of the ‘70s. His writing was so good that I imitated it when I began to write computer articles and later books in the 1980s.

Niklaus Wirth died earlier today, in Switzerland, at 89. He was another hero, who taught me how to write computer programs that could be read. Pascal wasn’t the first programming language I ever learned; that honor (or perhaps dishonor) falls to APL and a little later, FORTH. I wrote a text formatter in mainframe APL in 1978. It was 600 lines of squiggly jibberish. By the time I got to the bottom, I had already forgotten how the top worked. FORTH, well, the less said, the better. I think of it as Yoda’s programming language. If you’ve ever messed with FORTH, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

My friend Mike Bentley introduced me to Pascal in 1980 or 1981. I bought a compiler for my CP/M machine soon after. Pascal/MT+ was awesome, so awesome I decided to write a book about it. I was about halfway through the book when Turbo Pascal popped up above the horizon. By the time I finished the book on Pascal/MT+, Turbo Pascal had taken over the Pascal universe, and I rewrote Pascal from Square One for Turbo Pascal. (The publisher retitled the book Complete Turbo Pascal for reasons I have never understood.)

I learned Pascal by cut’n’try. I learned how to write good Pascal by reading Wirth’s wonderful 1976 book Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs. My flameout with APL left me with the indelible conviction that software must be readable by the people who didn’t write it—and not after hundreds of hours of hair-tearing, either. I learned C, billed as a “high-level assembly language,” which is a contradiction in terms. My view: Go as high as you can go, or as low as you can go. To me, that meant Pascal (or BASIC, or COBOL) on the high end, and real assembly language on the low end. C source code is needlessly obscure, and by that I only mean it could be a lot more readable if its creators chose not to be proud of its obscurity. There’s actually a contest for writing the most unreadable C programs possible, which I think tells you a lot about C and its partisans. There was a time when C could do things that Pascal couldn’t. Those days are long, long past, and I will no longer argue the point here.

I learned Wirth’s Modula 2 programming language when products became available in the 1980s. I read up on Modula 3 (1988) and Oberon (1987) but never coded in them. As best I can tell, they expanded Pascal’s power without damaging its comprehensibility. Pascal itself has long been out of Wirth’s control, and today we have tremendously powerful implementations of Pascal like Delphi and Lazarus/FreePascal. But without Wirth, people like me would still be writing in BASIC or COBOL.

I write this eulogy without a heavy heart. Niklaus Wirth made it to 89, and reshaped much of the software development universe in the process. To me, that means he won—and won big.

Godspeed, sir. We will never forget you.

Odd Lots

  • Happy New Year, gang! My prediction: 2024’s gonna to be a wild ride across the board. If popcorn weren’t so fattening I’d buy a pile of it.
  • The Quadrantids meteor shower is tonight. The shower’s characteristic behavior is having a brief peak but an intense one. The predicted time of the peak is 7:53 AM EST, which would be 6:53 CST and 5:53 MST on 1/4/2024. That may sound awfully early to some of my night-owl readers, but Dash typically wakes us up by that time. I intend to be out watching for it, even though we have a first-quarter Moon—and it might rain. Hey, if you don’t play you can’t win.
  • The JWST has begun showing us how many odd chunks of stuff are drifting around the galaxy without actually orbiting stars. Some of these rogue planets are in pairs, orbiting one another. Fascinating long-form piece on the phenom if astrophysics—or writing science fiction—is your thing.
  • Here’s a dazzling video of a volcano erupting in Iceland. It’s unique because it shows the very beginning of the eruption, which almost resembles a sunrise. But then, boom! It gets spectacular!
  • Sports Illustrated was buying articles generated by AI, with authors also invented by AI, right down to the author headshots. Futurism called them on it, and all questionable articles vanished. That doesn’t mean a few weren’t so ridiculous as to stand out and may still be there.
  • Old timers like me will recall text user interfaces (TUIs) which, when we got started in computing, were what was on the menu. (It was a one-line menu.) Here’s a fun Substack piece about TUIs, and how in truth, modern GUI programming editors in IDEs don’t really give us much that we didn’t already have back then. Hell, when I was at Xerox in the early 80s somebody was passing around a Pac-Man game written in text mode for a 24X80 display.
  • Alas, Bill Gladstone, who founded Waterside Productions, passed on to higher realms on 12/27. Waterside is the agency that represents my book-length nonfiction via agent Carole Jelen. We acquired a fair number of books through him during the Coriolis years. He knew what he was doing, and the world could use a few more agents with his savvy.
  • New research suggests that red meat is not fatal. Body weight, not meat consumption, appears to cause the inflammation behind much cardiovascular disease. It’s carbs that put the weight on, as I’ve found over my past 25 years eating low-carb.
  • Back before Christmas I was over at Total Wine buying vino to honor the Bambino, and was standing in the (long) line for the checkout beside a spinrack of hard liquor shooters. Most were things I’d heard of. But there…does that little bottle say it’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich whiskey? Yes, it did—so I bought one. Hey, 99c is cheap thrills. Carol and I tasted it when I got home. I expected to spit it out, but…it wasn’t half bad. From Skatterbrain, though Total Wine tells me it’s no longer available. Maybe the shooters were market research, and it flunked. So it goes. Alcohol is a volatile business…
  • Cheap thrills? There’s a cheap ($10) red blend called Sheep Thrills, which was vinted in Italy but bottled here in the US. I bought some. Like PB&J whiskey, it wasn’t awful, but I still don’t recommend it. Too thin, too dry.
  • I assumed that Skatterbrain’s PB&J whiskey had to be the weirdest whiskey in America. Silly boy. Have a look at this. Sorry, I’ll pass.
  • If you’ve ever wondered what shallots were, well, here’s how to tell a shallot from an onion. I like the notion of shallots as heirloom onions (imaginary band name alert!) and Carol and I are going to try a few recipes that might tempt Tennyson’s Lady of Shallott. Ok, sure, it’s the Lady of Shalott. Maybe that’s the British spelling. Or Tennyson’s spellchecker wasn’t working. Yes, ok, I’ll shut up now.