Glorious Anniversary

by wjw on March 24, 2017

e16-26975 years ago today, Chairman Mao introduced the dinette into China.


Happy Birthday, J.S. Bach!

by wjw on March 21, 2017

I wanted to write an ode in his honor, but I couldn’t find a rhyme for “Lutheranism.”


51J0c85Im7LI’m not sure how many people would actually consider Podkayne of Mars a classic, but it is Heinlein, after all . . . and besides, nobody would read a blog series titled Revisiting the Flops.

I’d read Podkayne when I was a teenager, didn’t care for it, and never picked it up again until the other week, when I stumbled across the audio book in the library.  How bad could it be? I thought innocently.

Well, my friends, I found out.

One of the features of audio books is that you have to listen to every single word.  If you’re reading a text and encounter a boring patch, you can skim or skip ahead, but if it’s an audio book, you’ve pretty well condemned yourself to listening to the whole thing, or maybe blindly skipping ahead and taking the chance of missing something important.

My eyes began to roll up in my head about the middle of the second CD, and by the end I was hanging in there just to see how bad it could be.   Which was very.

It reads very much like later Heinlein, from around the time of Number of the Beast, which is to say it’s very episodic, doesn’t seem to be about anything in particular, and spends a lot of time monologuing about one thing or another.  Quite a few people turn up in the story who seem to exist to take up pages, not to advance the plot.  In fact there is no plot whatever for the first 80% of the narrative— up till then it’s a travelogue, where we find out about a spaceship which then disappears from the narrative and has nothing to do with the resolution of the plot.  Shortly after the spaceship disappears, the plot appears more or less out of nowhere and carries on till the end, except for interruptions in which the narrator’s younger brother explains how stupid she is.  So what we have is a novel-length narrative with a novelette’s worth of story grafted onto the end.

(Actually there’s a plot going on all the time, except the narrator’s unaware of it, and spends the story in blissful ignorance until the story rears up to bite her at the end.)

Podkayne, the narrator, is an early science fiction and YA heroine, being a fifteen-year-old Martian colonist.  Which could be interesting, except that Poddy is:

1.  Completely goopy, and;

2.  Very thick.

She is described as having an IQ of 145, which is not apparent to the reader.  Much of her dialogue consists of her saying “Huh?” and “What?” and having to have her own story explained to her by someone more perceptive, usually her younger brother, a genius but a budding sociopath and, later, a killer.  He’s the actual hero of the story, the one who foils the villains, except he’s fairly evil himself and we are disposed to hate him.

Podkayne wishes to be the captain of a spaceship, a profession dominated entirely by men.  She quite deliberately suppresses any display of her intelligence and cultivates her “puzzled kitten look,” so that the men will let her hang around with them.  (This is probably a viable strategy for a certain type of female interacting with a certain type of man, but I’m guessing it won’t work for the captain of a ship.)

But Podkayne is irresolute when it comes to her ambitions, and becomes a sort of “Math Class is Tough Barbie,” and considers that maybe she’d be just as happy looking after babies.  (Babies, as it turns out, are her downfall.)

These sorts of internal debates are legitimate, I suppose, but it would serve the narrative if they took place in the head of a more interesting character.  But Podkayne simpers and practices her kitten face, and is quite passive in her own story, and never really makes up her mind about anything, one way or another.  Which is not untypical of fifteen-year-olds, but it doesn’t make them heroines either.

Most Heinlein stories have a naive character who exists to be a straw man and to say the stupid, conventional things, so that smarter characters can correct them in a lengthy monologue.  After all, a real Heinlein hero disdains convention, and reasons everything out from first principles without recourse to illogic, sentiment, or emotion.  Podkayne is illogical, sentimental, and emotional (and prone to tears), and other characters, usually her brother, are forever pointing this out.  Podkayne is never actually right about anything.  She always makes the wrong choice.  I think it is safe to say that she is alone in this among all Heinlein heroes.

(Heinlein’s next female narrator, Friday, has a good deal more going for her, but the book is equally a mess.)

Often Heinlein’s younger heroes start out naive, but during the course of the narrative listen to their wise pontificating elders and learn better by the end, by which time they become a proper Heinlein hero, self-reliant and a good citizen.  But Podkayne never manages that leap, remains illogical and sentimental to the end, and ends up being destroyed in an atomic blast (which she knew was going to happen) when she returns to Ground Zero in order to rescue a cute baby alien flying monkey-thing.  (Babies are her downfall.)  She also loses the proto-GPS that will allow her to escape to safety, I guess because she’s illogical and emotional or something.  We’re not given an answer to that one.

Heinlein is on record as saying that the book is about parenting, and that Podkayne dies, and her brother becomes a sociopath, because their parents prioritized their careers over raising children— or maybe not children exactly, but self-reliant Heinlein heroes.  If this is indeed Heinlein’s argument, he fails to make it convincing.  Podkayne’s family seems fairly ordinary save in having produced an evil twelve-year-old genius, and Clark’s sociopathy seems age-appropriate, twelve-year-olds not being renowned for their compassion and generosity.

The society depicted in the novel never ventures far from the 1950s America in which most of it was written, which is true of most of Heinlein’s juveniles— no doubt a modern YA reader would find them pretty quaint.  I don’t know whether this is a result of the conventions of 1950s YA publishing, or a failure of Heinlein’s imagination.  I’m inclined to suspect the latter, since Heinlein was never able to depict a convincing future society radically changed from his own. He idealized America’s past, and perhaps he thought that 1900 was as good as it would ever get.

The social issues confronted in the novel involve racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry– all timely enough in 2017 America as in the 1950s.  Bigots in the novel exist to be mocked and pranked, but not taken very seriously.  Native Martians (bisexual and highly civilized) and “Venerians” (savages prone to drug addiction) are viewed more or less as colonial subjects, and otherwise not given a lot of thought.  Heinlein manages to sneak in a bit of sexual subversion in his references to Martian sexuality and in his Venus settlement, where any form of sex is available (and probably monetarized).  Podkayne is intrigued by the possibilities on offer, but chooses to remain virtuous, there being no choice in the matter for 1950s YA heroines.  (In another scene she yearns for her uncle to spank her, but fortunately we don’t go there.)

The book demonstrates a surprising lack of confidence by its author.  Heinlein touches on issues– bigotry, sexuality, sexism, colonialism, parenting— but then never really comes to grips with any of them.  Podkayne can’t seem to make up her mind about anything, but neither can her creator.  Trying to view the future through the mind of a 15-year-old female pretty well short-circuited all Heinlein’s writerly reflexes.  It’s a swing and a miss, but he should get credit at least for swinging.

It also must be said that if he intended to write a novel about failures in parenting, he should have had parenting center stage, and not spaceship engineering.  But he was good at the one thing, and never tried the other, and perhaps he knew his own limitations.


Victory for the Oxford Comma

by wjw on March 15, 2017

enhanced-buzz-19599-1389811749-10I stand proudly with the Oxford comma, as it stands for reason, clarity, and mitigates against incertitude.  (Try reading that sentence without the Oxford comma and see where it gets you.)

I am pleased to know that the US Court of Appeals agrees with me, insofar as they ruled that a missing Oxford comma was the deciding factor in the case of Kevin O’Connor v. the Oakhurst Dairy.

But without the comma, wrote US appeals judge David J. Barron, the law is ambiguous as to whether distribution is a separate activity, or whether the whole last clause—”packing for shipment or distribution”—is one activity, meaning only the people who pack the dairy products are exempt. The drivers do distribute, but do not pack, the perishable food . . . 

Oakhurst, for its part, had argued that “distribution” was separate in the language of the law, meaning its drivers did not qualify for overtime.

In an impressively geeky retort, the drivers responded that all the other exempted activities were listed as gerunds, words ending with “-ing”: Canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing. The word “distribution,” they argued, was therefore not intended to be one of the items in the list.

Good to know that the truck drivers understand proper grammar and sentence structure.  Would that everyone did.


Enter the Inferno

by wjw on March 9, 2017


The Dopes came. We died. All the while the horror of the rite went on, swirling and reflecting off the gold leafed walls, not a cultist in sight. Peterson’s eyes stayed open and blinking. Steam-links were threaded into his still-quivering muscles, crimped through incisions into his bones; pistons and cylinders shoved up inside the empty cavity of his body, bolted to drillings in his bones. His boiler went in. All the steam plumbing was connected up. A flurry of mechanical arms and hands, like the limbs of a spider all converging on him, and all the while his eyes were open, and his mouth still moving. Muscles in his chest squirmed, still trying to breathe. To scream. To watch, he might have been a man in crisis with a lover, from his expression. Perhaps he’d come to like the pain. Perhaps it wasn’t so different. The rite does things like that.

We fought on. Hudak was dragged away and shrieked, clinging to Johnston and Foster’s ankles until Foster had the sense to shoot him. 

“I’m dry!” Morse yelled. “God damn it, I’m dry!” He wasn’t the only one.

“Draw pistols!” I told the men. I caught Williams’ eye. He knew what I meant. “Save the last round for yourself.”


Man, that’s intense.

Taos Toolbox grad James Strickland has a new book available, Brass and Steel Inferno, and I am very pleased to report that it’s great.

It’s also Steampunk Done Right.  Which is to say, it’s not just Victoriana with the addition of zeppelins and goggles and the occasional madcap heiress, it’s a thoroughly visualized alternate 19th Century American West with a long, interesting (and completely terrifying) backstory.

If a completely original mashup of the Old West, steampunk, and horror tickles your fancy, I recommend you get yourself a copy.



March 5, 2017

I have been hacking my way not through a jungle, but through a half-dozen or more jungles.  Jungles with names like IRS, Conservancy District, Ebooks, Travel, Training, Weed Combustion, Copy-Edits, Tractor Repair, Auto Sale, Deadlines, and others that discretion bids me not mention. And now I seem to be coming down with my third cold […]

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March 2, 2017

Thursday March 2nd, is hosting a REREAD of the Wild Cards series.  If you have a question or a comment, feel free to drop in.  Authors and editors will be there. It’s all about you, my friends.  So the more of you are there, the better this will be.

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Second Line

February 27, 2017

Happy Mardi Gras, y’all!  

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Lovecraft’s Nightmares

February 21, 2017

H.P. Lovecraft was notoriously afraid of fish.  (As well as Jews, Italians, Irish, Negroes, and immigrants generally.) But Lovecraft was afraid of ordinary fish.  Cod, for example, or maybe prawns.  What he didn’t know was that the sea was full of stuff that would have caused him to shriek, gibber, and drop away in a dead […]

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Totally Not a Game

February 17, 2017

An Indonesian woman arrested for suspected involvement in the killing of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s half-brother in Malaysia was duped into thinking she was part of a comedy show prank, Indonesia’s national police chief has said, citing information received from Malaysian authorities. Tito Karnavian told reporters in Indonesia’s Aceh province that Siti Aisyah, 25, […]

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