Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

writing

Pinging Jeff…

Pong, everybody. Relax. I’m still here. And I’m very glad to say that I’m probably 1200 words from the end of my current book project. If it weren’t for some home repairs and carpet cleaning I’d be done by now, and I expect to be done by EOD Friday. The publisher is still reluctant to say much about the book, for reasons I still don’t understand. I’m puzzled, but in publishing as in so many other realms, those who write the checks make the rules.

Much to do after the last word rattles out of the keyboard. Getting rid of XP is high on the list, given our April 8 deadline. This afternoon I ordered a refurbed Win7 laptop, a Dell e6400. How could such an old laptop be useful to me? Easy: I don’t do much on laptops. It’s a travel computer, for Web, email, and some light word processing–like writing Contra entries on the road. It cost me $240 postpaid, as they used to say. I’ve had very good luck with used Dell machines in the last ten years. Every machine in the house but my quadcore is a Dell refurb. I already have two Win7 Dell 780 USFFs for upstairs, and installed Win7 on my lab machine over a year ago. That leaves the laptop and the quad, basically, and if I didn’t need to use the quad to finish this book, the quad would be running Win7 by now as well.

The SX270s are now all bookends. They make very nice bookends.

Oh, and the computer junk pile is getting impressive.

The list of things to do Post Book is long. We need to replace our driveway slab, which is descending into rubble. Ditto the garage slab, the replacement of which will require putting my lathe, big drill press, tooling, and metal stock in storage somewhere. There’s a lesson here: Soil compaction matters. We spent thirty grand mudjacking the lower level, recarpeting, and repainting. Settling soil pulled our gas meter down so far the pipe cracked and damned near blew us over the top of Cheyenne Mountain. I made a number of mistakes having this house built, and I will never make those mistakes again.

Then there’s 3D. I drew 81 figures by hand for this book project, all of them in Visio. (I actually drew 83, but two of them won’t be used.) I’m very good at Visio. However, Visio is inextricably a 2D CAD program, and every time I’ve tried to use it for 3D, it makes me nuts. I took a lot of drafting and engineering graphics when I was in school and know how to do it. (Sure, it was with a T-square. Ya gotta problem widdat?) I need to be able to draw things in 3D. I downloaded the free version of Sketchup after Google bought it in 2006, but was too busy back then to spend much time with it. I see that Google sold it a year or two ago, and the new owners are positioning it as an architectural CAD system. That’s fine, since I know from earlier tests that Sketchup can do telescope parts, and if it can also design me an observatory, I’m good with that. I need somewhere to put an observatory, obviously, but that’s a separate challenge. So learning Sketchup is another priority.

Fiction, too. I’m going to try finishing Old Catholics. If that doesn’t work, I’ll start The Everything Machine, complete with a 3D scale drawing of a thingmaker, courtesy Sketchup. (I tried that in Visio years ago. Uggh.)

I will also be doing some intensive research on Oscar Wilde, for reasons that only a few people in my inner circle understand.

As I always say, Boredom is a choice. I may be tired, but I am not bored. And in a few days, I suspect I will no longer be tired. Bring it on!

Yearwander

Wow. Somehow it got to be a whole new year when I wasn’t quite looking. I’m not unhappy to be shut of 2013, and as usual, I have high hopes for this year to be better. The last of our parents has been released from her suffering, and while I miss them all (especially my father, who died 36 years ago) my idiosyncratic understanding of Catholic theology suggests that they’re all in better shape than I am right now.

Which isn’t to say I’m in bad shape. I had a couple of health problems this year, but nothing horrible. I’ve been able to get my abdominal fat down to almost nothing, and weigh just eight pounds more than I did when I was 24. It still puzzles me just a bit, but I lost that weight by eating more fat. I’ll tell you with confidence that butter makes almost everything taste better except corn flakes.

I scored an interesting if slightly peculiar writing gig this year. It’s been an immense amount of work, not so much in the writing as in the learning. I’ve never done a book–or part of one–with this broad a scope. I’ve touched on a lot of technologies in my career, but touching isn’t understanding, and understanding is the critical path to explaining. I’ve written code in Python and C and ARMv6 assembly. I practically buried myself in ARM doc for most of two months. That felt good in the way you feel good after walking fifteen miles…once you’ve allowed three or four days for the smoke to clear. I now know a great deal more about virtual memory, cache, and memory management units than I might have just touching on things in my usual fashion. Curiosity is an itch. Autodidaction is a systematic itch. And to be systematic, you need deadlines. Trust me on that.

No, I still can’t tell you about the book. It’s going to be late for reasons that aren’t clear even to me. When the embargo breaks, you’ll hear it whereverthehell you are, whether you have an Internet connection or not.

Every year has some bummers. The ACA did us out of a health insurance plan that we liked, but at least in our case it wasn’t cancelled on the spot. We have some time to figure out where we can get a comparable plan, if one exists. (One may not.) It could end up costing us a quarter of our income or more, and we may lose relationships with physicians we’ve known for ten years. I’ll just be called evil for complaining, so I won’t. Anger is the sign of a weak mind, after all. I think one of my correspondents whose insurance was cancelled without warning summed it up in an interesting way: “I’m not going to get angry. I’m going to get even.”

It’s snowing like hell as I write. I would have posted a photo, but as most of you are staring out the window at snow this week (in some places a great deal of it) I doubt it would have been especially interesting. Besides, a couple of hours ago, I could have just said: Imagine yourself inside a ping-pong ball. Open your eyes. In truth, the weather hasn’t been all that bad. The global climate, in fact, has been remarkably benign considering all the dire predictions of the past ten or twelve years, at least once you look at actual stats and not anecdotes or GIGO models. Science works. Back in 2007, Al Gore himself told us that we would have an ice-free arctic by 2013. (Then again, he also said that a couple of kilometers under our feet it was millions of degrees…talk about global warming!) I love the scientific method. You predict, you test, and then you learn something. Sure, I believe in global warming. I’m still unconvinced that it’s entirely a bad thing. (I remember the ’70s. I also remember Arizona.)

I’ve also been doing some experimental research on the psychology of people who jump up and start frothing at the mouth like maniacs the instant they read something somewhere (anywhere!) that conflicts with their tribe’s narrative. That research is ongoing.

I’ve discovered a lot of good things, albeit small ones: Stilton cheese pairs with Middle Sister Rebel Red. Who knew? Python is much better than I remember it, TCL, alas, much worse. And Tkinter, wow. You’re not going to spin a GUI that fast or that easily in C. Green Mountain Coffee Island Coconut beats all, at least all you can get in a K-cup. Carol and I are dunking good bread in good olive oil again, now that Venice Olive Oil Company has a retail shop in Colorado Springs.

Time to go up and start cooking supper. We’re out of egg nog but my Lionel trains are still running. I don’t care if it looks like a ping-pong ball outside. I have my wife, my dogs, my junkbox, and a head that still works more or less as intended. Happy new year to all. Life is good, and getting better. Trust me on that too.

Excerpted From Old Catholics

Cathedral Demonstration Turns to Riot

(AP) Violence erupted at a noon-hour protest in front of Holy Name Cathedral, as demonstrators from the liberal Catholic organization Christ With Us traded taunts with counter-demonstrators from the reactionary conservative group Voluntas Dei. The march, targeting the recent moratorium on marriage annulments announced by Pope Pius XIII on November 27, began peacefully, but descended into fistfights that spilled into the street near Wabash and Superior about 11:45 AM.

Chicago’s Cardinal Peter Luchetti quelled the riot by addressing the crowd through a police megaphone. Police arrested twelve of the demonstrators, who were charged with disorderly conduct and reckless endangerment. Two were later charged with criminal destruction of property. Numerous demonstrators were injured, seven requiring hospitalization.

Cardinal Luchetti later met with representatives from the two protesting organizations in his office at the Diocesan complex. No details of the meeting were released.

Tensions between liberal and conservative factions in the Roman Catholic Church have been running high since the Pope’s unexpected announcement and promise of an encyclical on the indissolubility of Catholic marriage…

Rob again scanned the headline piece from Friday’s Chicago Tribune and tossed the paper back on one of Suzy’s end tables. There would certainly be more in Sunday’s edition, much more, especially now that reporters were doggedly searching for anyone who might have been there and could provide a provocative quote.

Rob had turned his cellphone off and yanked the cord from his answering machine in annoyance after the twentieth call. Merciful God in heaven, what were the chances? To one side of the news item was a photo of Cardinal Peter Paul Luchetti with his hand on the forehead of the young injured woman from Voluntas Dei. To the other side was a photo of Peter speaking into a police megaphone, at his elbow a befuddled-looking middle-aged man in a gray overcoat. The caption was peculiar, not only for what it stated but for what it left out: “Cardinal Peter Luchetti spoke to the crowd through a police megaphone shortly after violence broke out, accompanied by his seminary friend, former priest Robert Prendergast of Chicago.”

He had given his name to no one. And where was Suzy? The photo had been cropped to exclude her completely, even though she had been standing perhaps a foot behind him.

“Rob, stop staring at that paper!” Suzy had an ancient blown-glass ornament in each hand, and the pile of boxes labeled “Shiny Brite” was growing on the carpet by her bare feet. There were cookies in the oven and a new log on the fire, and it smelled very much like Christmas. Rob put down his brandy snifter of eggnog (spiced up and fortified with some very good Scotch whisky) and took the ornament that Suzy held out to him.

“They cut you out of the picture,” Rob said in protest, edging around Suzy’s half-decorated balsam tree to confront a bare spot with the ornament.

“Like I need that kind of attention.”

“But why me and not you?” Rob tucked the ornament onto a vacant branch, touching it with one finger to make sure it could swing freely.

“Resigned priests are hot right now!” Maria said, and laughed. From her place on the stepladder she stretched to reach the 8-foot tree’s tip with the little plastic angel she held. “Get an interview on The Talk and you could land a national book deal. You could be famous. Give me a year or two to get in with a big New York house, and I’ll even publish your book.”

Maria Farella was finishing up her master’s work in journalism at the University of Chicago, intending to build a career in publishing. Like her mother, she was intense, but did not have Suzy’s sense of irony. Rob had never met her before his return from Indianapolis, and still wasn’t sure when to take her seriously.

“I don’t want to be famous. I want to marry your mother, and…” Rob paused, thinking about those still-unmentioned incardination papers.

“…and still be a priest.” Suzy bent down to pick up another ornament. “All we have to do is crack the vows thing.”

Maria backed down off the stepladder. Rob had never met Joe Farella but knew that he must have been tall: His formidable daughter was at least 5’11″ in her Christmas toe socks, and towered over Rob and Suzy both. “Poor angel,” she said, hands on hips, sizing up her work on the decorations so far. “We’ve stuck a tree up her butt every year now for how long, Mama?”

Suzy looked up toward the top of the tree. “Christmas 1979. Find me a treetop ornament in the shape of Pope Pius XIII and I think we’ll let her retire.”

Maria laughed again and bent down to the floor near Rob to pick up another box of ornaments. She put her left hand on his shoulder and shoved down far enough so that she could kiss the top of his head. “Please crack the vows thing, Fr. Rob. Andrew’s finally coming around, and I might find a ring in my stocking this year. I want you to marry us so bad.”

Rob felt himself blushing. As soon as Bishop Hughes received his incardination agreement, he would gain episcopal faculties and lose his last excuse to dodge the question of what he could and could not do as a priest.

Suzy turned back to the tree, glass ornaments in each hand. “Dumpling, he can marry you and Andrew any time you want. What he can’t do is marry me.”

Rob did not want to re-ignite the vows argument in front of a young woman who, in Dr. Pangloss’ best of all possible worlds, might have been his own daughter. “Maria, your mother and I both need annulments, each of a different sort. By our dumb luck, both kinds are hard to come by these days.”

Maria sat down on the stepladder, stretching her very long legs out in front of her. “It all sounds like a paperwork problem to me. Would God really get upset if you two just went off and did it?”

Rob blushed again, unsure what answer he could make to that. “Doing it” had more than one meaning, and both were an issue. He pursed his lips but said nothing.

Maria’s smile faded. “It’s really all about sex, isn’t it?”

Suzy turned back from the tree, and nodded toward Maria. “It is about sex. It’s always about sex. Sex is the only thing the Church cares about anymore. If I could make a case that I’d never had sex with Joe it would be open-and-shut, but there’s this little problem I have, and she’s sitting right over there.”

Rob expected Maria to laugh, or at least work up a little of her mother’s impish grin. Instead, the young woman who was so good at eye contact looked down at her feet and smoothed her plaid wool skirt across her knees. Suzy and Maria had gone this way before, Rob realized, and it clearly hadn’t turned out well. What did Maria think of her father? One might argue about the process-and the paperwork-but under certain circumstances marriage could be reversed. Fatherhood, now…

Rob knelt on one knee by Maria’s feet and placed his hands over one of hers. “It’s not only about sex. Love needs to respect the promises that it makes.”

Maria looked up. Rob expected tears. What he saw was the sort of confusion that was the precursor to anger. “Maybe. But why shouldn’t promises respect the love that created them?”


(c) 2013 by Jeff Duntemann. All Rights Reserved. Do not repost.

Daywander

As the temperature slides back down below zero (F) here, the supper dishes are done, and I lean back to savor the memory of home-made stuffed peppers, and for dessert a good sharp Stilton cheese chased with Middle Sister Rebel Red wine. It was very close to a carb-free meal, consisting of some 85% ground beef with a little rice to thin it out, mixed with salsa and scooped generously into some very Christmas-y red and green pepper halves. Oh, I’ll maybe have a little egg nog later on, the season being what it is.

What the season actually is, is early. I’m not used to below-zero temps two weeks before winter begins. It certainly hasn’t happened in the ten years we’ve lived here. I get screamed at every time I suggest that we may be entering a cooling spell on the Third Rock, but from all I’ve seen in the stats it sure looks that way. At some point my strongly suspected Neanderthal genetics may come in handy.

Carol’s still scooting around the house on her knee walker. She’s improving day by day but there’s still some pain that her surgeon will have to consider when we go back next week. I hung a little canvas pack on the knee walker so she can carry things around. My father brought the pack home from WWII, and it sat in a box in my mother’s attic until we sold her house in 1996. It then sat in a box in my sister’s garage for another ten years, until we unpacked it and I took it home. I have no idea what sort of pack it is, and if you recognize it (see above) give a shout. Now, the other mystery: How could something that old and neglected not smell? It doesn’t. It’s clean and looks almost unused. Whatever my father did with it back in the day, it’s become useful again. He would be pleased if he knew. Someday I hope to tell him.

I turned in a ginormous chaper today for The Book I Still Can’t Tell You About. I’m well over half finished with the gig, and certainly hope the next chapter won’t cast off to 55 book pages all by its lonesome. It’s certainly something to do while waiting for a quick trip outdoors to cease being a near-death experience.

Michael Covington mentioned to me that Lowes is now selling Meccano parts in those marvelous little bins of odd bits in the hardware aisle. I got up there a few days ago to take a look, and it’s true: A company called The Hillman Group provides little bags of zinc-plated steel girders, plates, and brackets, all with the Meccano standard 1/2″ hole spacing, the holes sized to clear an 8-32 bolt. They’re expensive compared to haunting eBay for beat-to-hell and incomplete modern Erector sets, but the parts can be damned handy. Here’s an Arduino-powered cat teaser built from some servos and Hillman parts.

Tomorrow I dive into Chapter 5. Should be easier, as it’s about programming, not hardware. Now, can we ditch this absurd obsession with curly brackets? What part of BEGIN and END don’t you all understand?

Daywander

Buck Walking.jpg

This has been a busy two weeks, hence my silence. Carol had her foot surgery on Halloween, and she still can’t walk unassisted. She’s resting with her leg up on cushions, generously draped with bichons, catching up on her reading. Her mood is good. The leg is improving every day, though she still has two weeks to go before the cast comes off and she can put significant weight on both feet.

I’m working on a book project, for large values of “work.” The work isn’t all in the writing. The worst of it lies in the critical difference between a casual understanding of a topic and a detailed understanding. Ever since I got my first Android device and looked into writing apps for it, I’ve been reading up on Android and the ARM processors that lie beneath probably 98% of all Android instances. I picked up the broad strokes quickly: 32-bit single-issue load/store RISC architecture, 8-stage pipeline (for ARM11, at least), dual cache, lotsa registers, several privileged processor modes, SIMD instructions, and good coprocessor support. A little study revealed an instruction set optimized for staying out of system memory and keeping the pipeline full at all times. I had read about but not meditated on a remarkable ARM feature: Virtually all ARM instructions can be conditionally executed based on flags embedded right in the instruction itself. Do a comparison that sets the zero flag, and then any following instructions compiled/assembled to execute when Z=0 will percolate smoothly through the instruction pipeline but not do anything. In essence, instructions whose condition bits aren’t satisfied become NOPs. It’s like branching past a block of code without actually branching and thus messing up the pipeline. Pure brilliance.

You don’t really grasp how much of a topic you don’t understand until you need to explain it in detail. Most hardware guys know how exceptions work, in broad terms. But…does the CPU disable interrupts automatically upon entering an interrupt handler? Or does the handler have to do it explicitly? Things like that require drinking from the doc firehose in a way I haven’t had to for some time.

The book hasn’t been announced yet, but I think I can reveal that it’s mostly about hardware, and that I’m not the sole author. More later, but (I think) sooner rather than later.

I do that all day. In the evenings Carol and I cuddle on the couch and watch TV. TV is a little outside of type for me, granted. (Cuddling with Carol is a lot of what I live for.) But I was poleaxed at how good the comedy writing is on the nerd series The Big Bang Theory. I hadn’t seen more than a few isolated minutes on TVs at doctors’ waiting rooms, and once for maybe half an episode at my sister’s house. TBS has been running several rerun episodes back-to-back on most nights, and we’ve watched what’s been on for a week or so. That nowhere near exhausts the canon, which is now seven seasons and 145 episodes long. Sure, it’s over the top. But it’s a lot less over the top if you’re a guy like me than some jock who went into insurance sales. I’ve met a fair number of Leonard Hofstadters, and at least one remarkably close instantiation of Amy Farrah Fowler. Even if you don’t like TV much, give it a shot.

I’ve had to wonder if all the equations on the whiteboards are real and not gobbledegook meant to fool the rubes who are not into string theory. Maybe a physicist reader will clue us in.

More animal stories: We’ve had an 11-point buck wandering around the neighborhood recently, close enough to the house that I could stand about twenty feet from him and count his points. (He has a small extra one on his left side.) The deer have been thronging our property because the little stream in the gully has been running continuously now for probably six weeks. Ordinarily it runs for eight or ten hours after a bad rain and then goes dry again. Running for several relatively dry weeks suggests that a new spring has opened up on the mountainside above us. It’s not a lot of water, perhaps half a gallon per second. But it just keeps coming and coming, and I’ve begun to see mosquitoes on my office window, staring longongly at my exposed forearms through the glass. The low spot just before the Villegreen cul-de-sac is now a swamp. The deer love it. We see them in groups of eight or nine standing around the flowing water, drinking. Mr. Big Buck sits or lies there, his grey muzzle confident, daring me to disrupt the party by running out there and yelling dumb things like “Roogie! Roogie! Whoosh!” Probably not.

We’ve noticed something else: For the last six weeks or so, we’ve neither seen a fox, nor smelled a skunk. Ordinarily it’s one or the other down there in our gully. Now, nothing. Dare we hope that it’s because the 24″ corrugated iron pipe under Stanwell is half-full of water all the time? We’ve seen both species coming and going at the pipe entrance when it’s dry, though not at the same time. (They’re ecosystem competitors, and they fight. We had a dead skunk in the gully once for several months. Don’t mess with fox.) Nobody likes to sleep in a pipe that’s got eight or ten inches of water in it. We’re good with that.

If you’ve never seen the film Pirate Radio, rent or stream it. Carol got it for a dollar at the local Blockbuster while they were blowing out their inventory. Rehabbed fishing boats really did park off the coast of England once, broadcasting rock’n’roll and manic DJ chatter while deliberately tweaking the BBC bluenoses who eventually shut them down. A little raunchy but goodhearted, and the 1966 period look was uncanny. (I was 13 in 1966 and remember the era well, largely because I didn’t have a girlfriend to distract me.)

One of the other dollar DVDs she bought astonished me with its awfulness. Yes, I loathed Cowboys and Aliens. Sue me; it sucked bigtime. Every bad Western cliche that’s ever seen print or film was there in seething, wriggling, vomiting color–except when the film retreated into faux moody darkness so deep you had no idea what the hell was going on. The aliens looked and moved like gorillas in alien suits. The HQ spaceship was stolen–most appropriately–from Alien. The formidable Daniel Craig was utterly wasted. The aliens were so stupid they set down a wrist-mounted raygun right next to Craig so he could put it on and start blasting them. The plot made very little sense except when it was utterly predictable. I’m glad we got it for a dollar–which was probably five dollars more than what it was worth.

Dash threw up on our bed late this afternoon. We got it all before it soaked through to the mattress, but we have to wash and dry several more rounds of sheets and blankets before we sleep tonight. We have a perfectly good bedroom downstairs–but Carol only has one good leg for the time being, and there are a lot of stairs. Talk atcha later. I have to go upstairs and throw another round in the dryer.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

Daywander

Feeling better. Some. Not lots.

Of course, “better” (as with other words like “warmer”) are inherently comparative and need reference points, or they’re meaningless. Better/warmer since when? Better since last week? Hell yes. Better since two weeks ago? Maybe a little. (It’s hazy; like the Ball says, “Ask again later.”) Better since three weeks ago? No way. I’ll be back with the docs again tomorrow. We’ll see what they say.

This is the first time I’ve done bedrest with a tablet. Read stuff, played Random Factor Mah Jong, checked in on email and Facebook. I have the Transformer Prime’s matching keyboard dock, which made many things easier. That said, most of Facebook, being as it is a mighty global confluence of Loud And Aggressive Persons, is a vexation to the spirit. By a week or so ago my body had had all the vexation it was willing to put up with, so to avoid its actually becoming a spirit, I pondered pleasanter things, like tweezing my armpits.

I did read one reasonably good book: Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, by Lee Sandlin. Great light reading, and full of interesting things. We’ve been a little too thoroughly romanced by Mark Twain and others: The Mississippi in the 1850s was just freaking nuts. The book is not a systematic history but a collection of vivid vignettes. A lot of it is well-covered elsewhere, like the siege of Vicksburg. Some of it was described with a hair too much vividness, especially the explosion of the Sultana. Much of it was new to me, like the phenomenon of Mississippi River moving panoramas. John Banvard’s signature product was a painted scene twelve feet high and literally half a mile long. (It was by no means the longest moving panorama ever done. It wasn’t even close.) It was displayed to an audience by slowly spooling it between one large roller and another. Banvard toured the country with his and made a great deal of money from an entertainment-starved populace, who had neither TV nor Facebook to kill time on. Sandlin’s description of the pandemonium at riverside camp meetings is wonderful, and aligns with other descriptions I’ve seen of revivals in that era. The revival phenomenon is a scary thing, far scarier than anything you’ll ever see on Facebook, or even TV. (It is also not exclusively religious in nature.) I was at a small one once. It was the best evidence of mental power at a distance I’ve ever experienced. It went well beyond hysteria or even mass hypnosis. It almost completely defies my ability to describe, which is why I probably won’t, at least here. I’ll write it up for my memoirs.

I did watch some TV. In doing so, I learned that “Mermaids” is the most-watched series that Animal Planet has ever run, egad. We were actually watching the “Too Cute” episode that included Bichon Frise puppies, but the channel was pushing its signature achievement with everything it had. Uggh. Can we please go back to Chariots of the Gods now?

Mostly, Carol and I watched episodes from the DVD gatherum of “Anything But Love.” It was a half-hour TV sitcom that ran from 1989-1992. We would watch it now and then while Carol brushed dogs, and it featured a brand of gentle humor that TV simply doesn’t understand anymore. 25 years is a long time, and I had completely forgotten Joseph Maher, who had a long run with the series. He’s one of those guys that you’ve doubtless seen and heard but probably can’t name, and his chemistry with stars Richard Lewis and Jamie Lee Curtis was damned near perfect. The series is about a magazine based in Chicago, so I paid attention to the details. Yes, magazine publishing really did sort of work like that back in the 80s, with a lot fewer people, a lot less screwing around, and a whole lot more work.

My most promising entertainment, however, was lying on my back and vividly imagining the Neanderthals who may star in a possible comic novel called The Gathering Ice. They’re homely but clever guys who have been hiding in plain sight for 20,000 years by pretending to be ugly humans, telling jokes at our expense and harnessing homo sap’s frenetic energy to make their lives easier. They wrote the Voynich Manuscript and gave it to Emperor Rudolf II just to torment him (along with a long line of homo sap cipher hobbyists.) When it looks like a new Ice Age begins setting in during the 2020s, the Plugs (as they call themselves) go looking for long-lost members of their tribe and the occasional throwback. Among other techniques, they break into the TSA’s top-secret Cloud database of traveler X-rays and look for conical ribcages and occipital buns. (I have both, but my Neanderthal blood is far from pure.) They have a plan that might in fact reverse the relentless march of the glaciers and short-circuit the end of the Holocene. Should they do it? (Of course they should. And of course they do. Duhhh.) It’s a sendup of steampunk, dieselpunk, reality TV, the Holy Roman Empire, global warming, Pythagoras, the Paleo Diet, and a great many other things. No dancing zombies. Cavemen throw good polka parties, though. And all those skinny-dipping ladies in Voynich? Neanderthal babes doing hands-on DNA research.

I will probably be a little quiet for a few more days. I’m still here. If I’m envisioning scenes from a novel, I’m probably going to be all right. Patience!

Odd Lots

The Primacy of Ideas

One of my SF teachers, a brilliant man whom I respect very highly, said something once that I still don’t understand: “In the end, what people will remember about your fiction are the characters.” This was in the context of an intense discussion about character creation, but it seems extreme to me. In some sorts of fiction, sure. What I remember about Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March is Augie March.

Or is it?

Sure, I remember Augie. But I, too, am an American, Chicago-born. A great deal of what I remember about The Adventures of Augie March is depression-era Chicago, and how it shaped Augie’s character. Without Chicago, there wouldn’t have been anything particularly memorable about Augie himself. I bring this up because I’m encountering more and more new writers who seem to think that ideas don’t matter in SF and fantasy. Characters are the whole story. Everything else is backdrop. That simply isn’t true, and I think it’s time for a little pushback.

Here’s how I see it: The two essential elements in any story are characters and context. Without characters, context is narration. Without context, characters are soap opera. The magic happens when you rub one against another.

In mainstream fiction and real-world genres like romance and mystery, you don’t create your context so much as select it from a huge menu of known placetimes and cultures, like Chicago in 1933, modern-day Manhattan, or Amish country in the 1950s. There’s some tinkering around the edges, but for the most part you pick a well-documented placetime and turn your characters loose in it. If you’re a good writer, entertaining and insightful things will then happen, and your readers will come back for more.

It gets interesting when you switch from real-world genres to SF and fantasy: You can then create your own contexts. World-building is (as I like to say) a spectrum disorder. You can build a little or a lot, or go nuts and create entire worlds and societies from whole cloth.

To do that, you need ideas.

For good or ill, I’m an ideas guy. It’s just how I think. Furthermore, I have a hunch that ideas are in fact what people actually remember about good SF and fantasy. Really. C’mon, when was the last time you heard somebody ask, “Hey, what was the name of that story in which a callow young man is jolted out of ordinary life and with the help of an ironic sidekick finds unexpected strengths and talents that allow him to defeat evil in ways that change him forever?” No, you hear questions like this: “What was the name of the story that had an FTL communicator in which every message ever sent, past, present, and future, is gathered into a beep at the beginning of every message?” (I know the answer, and if you’re serious about SF you should know it too.)

When I read SF, I want to see cool ideas. When I write SF, I feel a responsibility to deliver them. It’s not just about having rivets. It’s about having rivets that nobody’s ever seen before. Is it silly to love the rivets? Well, I’ve gotten several fan letters about the wires in The Cunning Blood. The novel centers on a prison planet in which microscopic nanomachines seek out and disrupt electrical conductors, supposedly keeping the prisoners from developing electrical technologies. Well, the prisoners make non-disruptable wires by filling hoses with mercury. When your rivets start getting fan mail, I think it’s fair to assume that you’re on to something.

This sort of idea-centric story isn’t for everybody, but there are a lot of people for whom it’s the heart and soul of fantastic literature. The challenge is to use clever ideas to draw out characters that grow, change, and learn. I’ll freely admit that I’m still better at ideas than at characters. However, I’m aware of the issue and I’m throwing a lot of energy into the character side, now that I’m finally out of my teens and into my sixties.

I’ll grant the “cowboys on Mars” objection, in which an ordinary situation is dropped without modification into an exotic locale and called SF. However, it’s just as bogus to say, “Nobody cares about your starships,” when the starships are in fact a key part of the story’s context. Jack Williamson’s definition of stories as “people machines” is correct but incomplete: To have a people machine you need the machinery. Without that machinery, you have “white universe syndrome” and your story collapses into soap opera. You can choose your context from a menu, or you can build it. Either way, you need that context to make characterization meaningful.

I’ll get myself in trouble here for going further and suggesting that a story’s settings and ideas can be entertaining and sometimes dazzling, even when its characters are thinner than we’d like. That’s not an excuse but simply a fact of life. Do we remember Ringworld because of Louis Wu? Or do we remember it because of, well, the Ringworld?

As I prefer to put it: Ideas will get you through SF stories with no characters better than characters will get you through SF stories with no ideas.

That said, have characters. Have context. Rivet them together so well that both your characters and your rivets get fan mail. Then, my friend, you will have arrived.