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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Closing Time

The Ranting Room has come to an end and is now closed. Thank you for all your support, suggestions, kind words, and thoughtful contributions over the past four years.

The Friday Challenge continues at its new home,


"May You Live in Interesting Times"

It was a late night. The Mrs and The Kid both had the flu and so went to bed early, but in proof of the truism that no good deed goes unpunished, a bit of pro bono work I'd done for a non-profit last year had come back to sink its little terrier-like fangs into my buttocks one more time. After that mess was cleared up there were bills and bookkeeping matters requiring attention, and so it was well past midnight when I finally shut off the lights in my office and came upstairs.

He was sitting there in the living room, in the comfortable chair by the reading lamp, with a book in his lap, a glass of brandy in his hand, and a scowl on his face. In all, a most remarkable display of solidity for a ghost, I thought.

"Mr. President," I said.

Nixon looked at that glass in his hand, and then turned his scowl on me. "Christian Brothers, Bruce?"

"Sorry. Times are tight. Hennessy is out of the budget. Did you see our latest heating bill?"

Nixon's scowl faded to a frown. "It's been a cold month in Hell, too." He sighed, and then took a sip of the brandy, and grimaced.

"Besides," I said, "I thought you were a tee-totaler."

"Former tee-totaler. That changed. In time I learned to drink even the vilest Chinese firewater, when the occasion required."

"Ah," I nodded. "That famous photo of you and Mao, toasting each other's good health."

"Good health my ass," he said. "What Mao was actually saying at the moment that shutter snapped was, 'May you live in interesting times.' It's a curse, I'm told."

Nixon tried another sip of the brandy. It seemed to go down better this time. "Of course, when I answered him a moment later it was with, 'And may you choke on this most excellent rat poison, you fat commie sonuvabitch.' Boy, the translators were having some fun that day." Nixon smiled at the memory.

I interrupted his reverie. "So how is Mao doing these days?"

Nixon shrugged. "Beats me. I only went to look him up once, and that was nearly fifteen years ago." He considered the brandy a moment, but this time didn't drink.

"Hell is full of special places; you know that. But there is a really exceptionally special place in Hell for leaders who murder millions of their own people.

"Mao's sepulchre is amazing. Enormous, bright red; you can see it for miles. It's made entirely of wrought- and cast-iron, and decorated with these incredible huge, ornate, carved dragons, and bas-reliefs of heroic workers and all that. Very Chinese; very Communist; very Peking Opera. It's just beautiful.

"Except that when you get closer to it, you realize: that's not red paint. It's red hot. And in the very center of it all, underneath tons of red-hot iron and perched right in the middle of the perpetual flame, there is a small, plain, red-hot iron casket, just slightly larger than the body of a man, inside which Mao screams and sizzles in his own body fat for the rest of eternity.

"It's revolting beyond nauseating. The entire area reeks of rancid pork fried rice. And I thought the disgusting syphilitic old bastard stank when he was alive. He had a strange phobia about bathing, you know." Nixon rolled the thought over in his mind for a few more moments, and then rinsed it away with another sip of brandy. The level in the glass, I noticed, was diminishing with each sip. I wondered if I even could refill his glass, or if doing so would violate some psychic ectoplasmic spiritual something or other.

"I guess both of our wishes were granted," he said softly. "Mao died wretchedly just a few years after that, and my life certainly got a lot more interesting." For a minute or more after that Nixon seemed inclined only to muse, sip, and sigh. I was tired and cranky already. It got on my nerves.

"So," I said at last. "To what do I owe the honor of this visitation?"

Nixon seemed momentarily startled to notice me there, and then recovered quickly and offered up a small smile. "Farewell visit? After all, this is how The Ranting Room began: with you, channeling for me." He smiled again, weakly this time, and shrugged. "Word gets around. So when I heard that you were retiring—"

"I am not retiring," I protested. "I'm just reordering my priorities. There's the new blog—"

"You're retiring," he said. "Or at least retiring as the creator and chief writer of The Ranting Room. You're getting onto that big old helicopter, throwing one last great big 'V' to the crowd, and riding off into the sunset.

"Oh, you're not really retiring," he added. "Your type never does. Tomorrow, or maybe the next day, you'll be starting up something new. You can never just relax; never stop to smell the roses without noticing that they need to be dusted for aphids. Even when you're not working, you're thinking about working. You'll be starting up some new project on the morning of the day you die."

That stopped me cold. "Oh? You peeked?"

Nixon shook his head. "I told you: I can't tell you. It's against the rules. I can only tell you about possible futures. I can't tell you which one is the real one."

This time it was my turn to be silent and thoughtful for a minute or more. A good strong whiff of your own mortality will do that to you, I guess. Nixon took the opportunity to empty his glass. When I noticed it was empty, by reflex, I got up, got the brandy, and poured him another two fingers. Only after I capped the bottle did I register that I had not poured it through the spectral glass and onto the chair. A most remarkable display of solidity, indeed.

It was his turn to break the silence. "So," he said at last. "You're telling everyone you're going off to write a novel. Will this be an entirely new one, or are you finally going to finish Nixon's Inferno?"

I shook my head. "Nah. Not that one, anyway. My agent said it was hopelessly unsellable. The only way to make it work in today's market—"

"Is by depicting me as being even worse than Satan, and Philip Roth flogged that one to death back in '71. Yes, I remember." Nixon frowned, and shook his head. "Still, it seems a shame. I mean, I always thought A Conspiracy of Cats was one of the best extended multi-part posts you ever did for this blog. Except that it kind of crapped-out at the ending."

My turn to scowl at him. "Yeah, well, if you'd given me a good ending to work with in the first place, instead of the one you did give me."

He switched back to his disarming smile. "I told you: it's against the rules. Possible futures only." He took a rather larger slug from his glass this time, and then lifted it in a sort of salute. "You must admit, though, as demented as that ending was, it didn't begin to compare to what really happened. Honestly, would you have believed me if I'd told you back in January of '07 that That Woman would lose the primaries, the nomination, and ultimately the election to Zaphod Beeblebrox?"

"What?" Talk about your neck-snapping sharp turn into Dimension X...

Nixon shook his head. "Oh, Bruce, and here I thought you knew Douglas Adams line and verse. Let us now turn to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, chapter 4:"
'The President in particular is very much a figurehead—he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it.'
Nixon finished his recitation, smiled, and then set down his glass and clasped his hands in his lap. "Hence, President Barack Beeblebrox, and Secretary of State That Woman. You are definitely living in some very interesting times now. It was a good decision on your part to close The Ranting Room. You wouldn't have been able to maintain your No Politics rule much longer, and sooner or later you'd have written something that would have gotten you into real trouble."

I was still shaking my head. "President Bee— No, wait a minute, Secretary of State That Woman? In all these years, you've never told me: what exactly is your problem with Hil—"

"SHH!" Nixon shushed me with a warning finger. "Do not mention that foul name in this fair place!"

I blinked in astonishment. Several times.

"Look, it's very simple," Nixon said. "That Woman was a lawyer working for the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate investigation. According to her former boss, Jerry Zeifman—a lifelong Democrat, by the way, and the career civil-service attorney who was general counsel and chief of staff for the judiciary committee—she was put on the staff as a favor to Teddy Kennedy, and then did her best to sabotage the investigation. She violated confidentiality, confiscated public documents, "lost" files, and wrote fraudulent legal briefs, all in an effort to keep me from having the right to legal counsel and to cross-examine witnesses. In the end she was fired, and Zeifman recommended that she never again be put into a position of public trust!"

By this point Nixon's jowls were quivering with anger—and he abruptly seemed to realize that this was happening, and forced himself to relax and lower his voice. He picked up the glass of brandy again. Slowly, carefully, methodically, he took another sip. He swallowed. He chuckled.

"And now, Secretary of State. Oh yes, interesting times indeed."

I went back to shaking my head. "I don't know. This sounds so... paranoid. Oliver Stone paranoid. Jim Garrison-grade paranoid. Why—"

Nixon set his glass down sharply and snapped forward. "Because they wanted to make sure I didn't put E. Howard Hunt on the witness stand under oath!" He caught himself again; forced himself to relax, again. Sighed.

"Before he came to work for me, Hunt was an old-school spook," he explained. "Wartime OSS, postwar CIA, Bay of Pigs. And then he became Kennedy's chief of domestic covert and black bag CIA ops. Hunt had the dirt on JFK like you wouldn't believe. He knew where all the bodies were buried, because he'd buried them himself. He knew things about JFK and Johnson that made Watergate look like a schoolboy prank.

"And if you were, say, Teddy Kennedy, and you were looking at a run for the Presidency in 1976—well, we wouldn't want anything coming out that might besmirch the memory of the blessed Saint JFK now, would we?"

Nixon looked at his glass again, decided against another sip, and then looked at me with a frustrated smile.

"I was a fool," he said. "I thought the nation couldn't stand the shock of knowing any of that. The country was fractured; reeling. You were there; you remember. There were literally battles in the streets. I thought that if the people ever got a good look at what was really going on inside the machinery of government..."

Nixon's voice tapered off.

"And so, for the good of the nation, I allowed myself be talked into resigning. Just as twelve years earlier, for the good of the nation, I'd agreed not to contest the 1960 election, even though we all knew it was the legendary Voting Dead of Cook County that put JFK into office. And now here we are, forty-eight years later, with a first-class product of the Cook County Democratic Party machine—the most provably corrupt political organization since Tammany Hall—sitting in the Oval Office. And I thought my times were interesting."

This time Nixon lifted the glass and took a long, slow, deliberate drink. When he set the glass down again I noticed it was getting low and uncorked the bottle of brandy again, but he waved me off. "Almost done," he said. He paused.

"Do you know what my greatest mistake was?" Nixon asked.

I couldn't resist. "You got involved in a land war in Southeast Asia?"

Nixon barely mustered the energy to scowl at that. "No, that was Kennedy and Johnson's mistake and you know it. Kissinger and I got us out of that mess, and that's what's shaved a couple eons off my time in Purgatory."

I nodded. "Then it must have been all the Keynesianism and wage and price controls."

Nixon shrugged. "The jury is still out on that." He pursed his lips, and drew a deep breath. "No, my greatest mistake was that I gave them a sword."

"Ah," I said, as a tiny dim bulb of recognition lit up. "The David Frost interviews."

Nixon gagged audibly. "Dear God, I hope people aren't mistaking Frost/Nixon for history. You have Frost's book. Why don't you read it sometime?"

"I tried," I said. "I couldn't stick with it. Frost is such a self-absorbed git. A talking head who imagines he's making news, not reporting it."

Nixon nodded. "Too true. But you did recognize the quote?"

"'I gave them a sword,'" I said , quoting Nixon back at himself from memory. "'And they stuck it in. And they twisted it with relish. And, I guess, if I'd been in their position I'd have done the same thing.'"

"That's right," Nixon said. "I gave my enemies the sword with which they did me in." He nodded again, and then took one last gulp from the glass, finished it off, set it down, and stood to leave. "But do you know what is an even greater mistake, and one I never made?

"It's not giving them a sword!" he said, as he began to fade away. "Whenever you say or do anything, you put weapons in the hands of your enemies and your critics. But whenever you're so afraid of those hypothetical weapons in the hands of hypothetical critics that you say and do nothing, that is a greater folly still. In fact, it goes beyond folly. It's a crime."

Nixon had become just an outline now, a rippling shape of a man between me and the bookcase. "Especially for a writer! If you are not putting your heart and soul out there on the line every time you sit down to write—if you are not every day putting new swords in the hands of your enemies and critics—then you are not doing your job, and you are not a writer: you're merely some sort of craven, timid creature that looks and smells like a writer and mimics the motions."

All that remained of him now was his voice, and it was fading quickly, as if into a vast distance.

"That is your greatest mistake, Bruce. You always try to play it safe and give no offense. But thankfully, you still have time to correct that."

His voice was just a whisper now, or less than that; the ghost of an echo of a whisper.

"I belong to history. These are your interesting times. You have a lot of good books in your collection. Maybe, now that you've retired, you can read some of them. Maybe you'll learn..."

And he was gone.

Leaving behind a filthy old glass that looked like it hadn't been cleaned in fifteen years, a small wet spot of spilled brandy on the seat cushion of the comfortable chair, and a book from my collection that I'd always intended to read but never found the time to, opened to a particular page. I was almost certain of what it would be even before I looked at it, but I picked it up and read the marked passage all the same.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

—Theodore Roosevelt, "The Man in the Arena"

Friday, January 30, 2009

The Friday Challenge Has Moved

Are you looking for The Friday Challenge workshop -slash- writing contest -slash- therapy group? Beginning today, you'll find it at its new permanent home:

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Final Thoughts (Part 3)

Hmm. In cleaning out all the bits and half-baked drafts and ragged ends of ideas I've accumulated during the four years I've been doing this blog, I accidentally turned up this undated note to myself, which to judge by the strata it was found in is from about three years ago.
Lucas's Law

A well-executed creative project is like great sex. Always end with a good climax and leave 'em complaining you finished too soon and begging for more, not complaining that you went on too long and begging you to stop already.

I can't imagine what I was thinking about when I wrote that.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Final Thoughts (Part 2)

KTown kvetches:
The new site looks a lot like the old site. I expected some different furniture and paint on the walls. Does anyone have an opinion on Blogspot vs. Wordpress?
I'm impressed by WordPress. It's a powerful tool that enables you to do some amazing things. There's no question but that WordPress can be used to create a gorgeous blog, as a few minutes spent snuffling around their Showcase proves.

But WordPress also requires that you download the software and install it on your own web host, and there's a learning curve, which I have neither the time or patience for right now. If I had the time, I'd definitely be looking into it further—but then, if I had the time, there are a whole lot of other things I'd also be doing.
CORRECTION: The foregoing paragraph is true for, which I was unfamiliar with, does provide free hosting and does not require installation on your own host. Thanks to Michelle and Randy for the correction.
Blogspot, on the 'tother hand, is completely free and hosted by Google, so basically all you have to do is switch it on. Granted, the standard issue templates are pretty homely, and customizing them ranges from being a bother to a nuisance. But it is the easiest and fastest way to get a site up and running, especially if you're trying to run a blog with multiple contributors.

A third blog engine that's popular with a lot of writers I know is LiveJournal. I actually happen to have a LiveJournal account and associated dormant blog—I had to open one, in order to get permission to post a comment on a friend's site—but I don't much like it. Maybe it's just local Internet weather conditions ("And there's a big packet storm brewing up over the Dakotas, so be sure to pack your umbrella!") but whenever I use it, LiveJournal seems godawful slow, compared to just about everything except some of the more badly Java-infested U.K. tabloid sites.

As for the look and feel of the it's my site, so I picked a design that is comfortable to read with my eyes on my monitors. If you want to use tiny dark purple text on a black background on your site, go right ahead; have fun. Don't expect me to put a lot of effort into trying to read it, though.

There's another factor at work here as well. When you're writing for print, as most of us here seem to be trying to do, I believe you should look at your copy in cold, naked, unadorned text, as an editor would. As anyone who's worked in desktop publishing or marketing communications knows, sometimes a great layout is just compensation for muddled thoughts and having no clear idea of what you're trying to say.

But you know, this whole "form vs. function" argument has been raging for more than a century now and doesn't look like it's going to be resolved any time soon, so maybe it's time for you, KTown, to write a think-piece sharing your thoughts on blogsite aesthetics with the rest of us. Care to give it a try?

Meanwhile, in other news, continues to lurch towards becoming fully operational. I've added The Story Morgue to the left column; anyone feeling brave enough to give it a try? Let me know and we'll work out the details.

The plan at this point is to make the posting schedule a whole lot more structured than was the Ranting Room. I'd like to run a column on Monday, and a book or fiction site review on Wednesday. The centerpiece is the Friday Challenge, of course, which, not surprisingly, posts on Friday. Saturday is open blog day: I was thinking of titling it something like, "What I Did This Week," wherein everyone is invited to share the news of what you've done this week writingwise, and especially to share any success stories or publication news you may have. Sunday, of course, is the WCA meeting, followed by the announcement of the winners of the previous week's challenge, and then, damn, whadayaknow, it's Monday again.

Does this seem like a workable schedule? If you have any thoughts or ideas, or if anybody except KTown has any suggestions for improving the look of the site, let me know.


Monday, January 26, 2009

Final Thoughts (Part 1)

Well, that's bizarre. In answer to DaveD's question, yes, I am planning to harvest the contents of this site (in the same sense that transplant surgeons "harvest" usable organs) and move selected articles into some sort of deep archives, either on the new site or on my long-neglected backup site. Fortunately blogspot now allows you to export the entire contents of your blog as one monolithic XML file, which must be a fairly new feature, as it wasn't there the last time I was looking for similar functionality.

Unfortunately, this export function does not capture any of the HaloScan comments attached to the posts. Since in many cases the comments are more interesting than the original post, I still have a bit more work ahead of me. Bizarrely, though, the export function does capture any blogspot comments attached to the posts—of which there should not be any, because I've always used HaloScan. But sure enough, when I finished downloading the XML file and opened it up to take a look at it, I discovered that over the years, this blog has been repeatedly splattered with spam comments: ads for porn sites, that sort of thing. These spam posts remained invisible to readers, because they were blogspot comments, not HaloScan comments, and the blogspot comment functionality has been disabled on this site since Day One.

But if the blogspot comment functionality was disabled, how did the spam comments get posted in the first place? Seems like there's a security hole somewhere and somebody at Google's got some 'splainin' to do...

Oh yeah, that's right, I forgot. Google never explains anything.

As regards the new site, I have two questions for you. One feature that has been requested repeatedly over the years is for some sort of "story lab," where people could post their stories and get reader feedback. I've always resisted, but perhaps the time has come to institute—no, not a story lab. Call it a story morgue. If you have a story that's so hopeless that you've given it up for dead, but you still can't figure out where it went wrong: do you think you'd be interested in posting it and asking for reader feedback?

I have to warn you, this is not something for the faint-hearted, and it could get pretty ugly. People—and especially anonymous posters, who presumably are people, although that remains to be proven—tend to become remarkably brutal when they're commenting online. Hell, they can be downright vicious.

With that caveat, do you think this is something you'd be interested in trying? Or is this something we should save for later, when we figure out how to wall off a login-required member's-only area?

The second idea I've been toying with is, oh, call it, "The Assignment Desk." I get far more ideas than I'll ever have time to develop, and the non-fiction ones in particular tend to get parked by the wayside. For example, I would love to run a good article on H. Beam Piper, the most influential writer you've probably never heard of. Would it be worthwhile to put a rolling list of ideas out there, free for the taking by whomever might feel like picking one up and running with it?

Meanwhile, the process of flushing out the buffers and cranking up the new site continues. I had about a dozen book reviews in the queue that I meant to run but never found time for. Maybe I'll just use 'em for filler on the new site.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

And the winner is...

Based on both the quantity and quality of ideas submitted, the winner of the 1/16/09 Friday Challenge is WaterBoy. So WaterBoy, come on down and claim your prize—

And then we'll fill you in on the details of you're going to run your first Friday Challenge.

As for everyone else who participated in this challenge, we just want to say Thank You! There were a lot of other great ideas in the entries and we will be contacting most of you about giving you a turn at running the Friday Challenge. But WaterBoy gets first dibs.

Thanks again for participating,

Previews of Coming Attractions

I suppose it's time now to start loosening the drawstrings and showing you that there is indeed a cat within the bag. This, friends, is the final week of The Ranting Room. Come Saturday, January 31, this site will be going dark. The content will remain online for some unspecified time to come, but after four years of doing this blog, it's time for me to hang the 'Closed' sign in the window and move on to other things.

Specifically, we're moving on to the new site, You can pop over there right now to check it out, if you like. I'm afraid there's not much to see at the moment; I meant to spend most of this past weekend enhancing the template and building basic content but instead spent it alternately napping, sipping tea, and sneezing my brains out. Sorry. I'll get the site to where I meant it to be today in another day or three.

Closing down The Ranting Room and launching a new site is not a move I make lightly. After all, I have been doing this blog for four years and there is a considerable amount of inertia behind the idea of just keeping it going.

But in the four years I have been doing The Ranting Room, it has grown to devour an ever-larger portion of my life. When I first started it, for example, I set myself an iron-clad rule that weekends were reserved for my family, and so I would only blog Monday through Friday. I believe that rule lasted nearly three months.

The Ranting Room has also grown to devour my fiction writing time, as well as my business development time. I'm never going to get Rampant Loon airborne if I continue at this rate, and worse, I'll never get that next novel finished if I keep spending my writing time on cranking out one- to two-thousand words of bloggerel daily. I'll admit that blogging is very seductive; I get a real kick from having the ability to publish my every thought instantly and begin receiving reader feedback mere minutes later.

But in the final analysis: what do you call a novelist who hasn't finished a new novel in ten years?

Trick question. You don't call him anything, because you've forgotten who he is.

I want to thank everyone who has contributed to making The Ranting Room the sort of underground cult-classic semi-success it is today; it's you, the community, who really make this thing work. I especially want to thank everyone who has contributed a guest column in the past year. I did give a lot of thought to the idea of changing the rules, opening up the posting permissions, and expanding The Ranting Room to be more like an online magazine. But in the end, I came to the conclusion that this blog is just too personal and idiosyncratic to be opened up in that way, and it would be better to bring it to an end and begin something new.


The first thing you'll notice about the new site, obviously, is the emphasis on the ongoing Friday Challenge series of writing exercises -slash- contests. This, to be honest, has grown to become the most enjoyable part of this blog for me, and I look forward to seeing it continue. However, we are going to be making some changes in the way it works, in order to make it more of an interactive and user-driven operation. The first of these changes you've probably guessed by now; we'll be using a lot more challenges posed by your fellow writers.

The second thing you'll notice about the new site is that I'm going to be using the editorial 'we' (as opposed to the Zamyatin We) a lot more. I've opened up posting permissions, invited in a bunch of people, and you'll be seeing a lot more content from other contributors. What sort of content? What would you like to see? More to the point, what would you like to write? Right now I'm looking for book reviews, short-story reviews, online fiction site reviews, articles on the craft of writing and business, and once in a while, really exceptional movie reviews. Specifically, as zanzibar said in the commentary on Firefly, I want to hear about the new up-and-coming writers you think we should be watching out for. The old-line print magazines are where fiction has gone to die and careers have gone to peter out; new writers are increasingly writing for webzines. I have my habits and fossilized patterns of thought. What are the online fiction sites you think we should be reading?

More than anything else, though, I want your success stories. Is anyone here getting published anywhere? Don't be shy; here's your chance to crow about it!

The third thing you'll notice about the new site is that we'll be experimenting with both the technology and the look and feel in the coming months. For now the site is based on blogspot, but the primary reason for making the site its own domain is to permit us to transcend that, as time and technology permit. One change I'm happy to announce right now is that we'll be using the JS-Kit comment engine, which appears to be a great improvement over HaloScan in terms of both features and reliability. However, that piece isn't plugged into the template just yet.

So, any more questions at this point? If not, then I want to close this up by saying it's been fun, and it's been really great getting to know so many of you over the course of these past four years. But now I'm looking forward to moving on to a new and different kind of fun!

Kindest regards,

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Final Afterthoughts

As the astute reader is no doubt by now asking, what the heck does any of this have to do with science fiction in general or with Firefly in particular? In the previous two posts I was trying to help you to understand the zeitgeist of the 1930s: the milieu, the Weltanschauung, the Weltschmerz, the raging theodicy, the incipient anomie, the je ne sais quoi, the all those words I paid good money to learn in college and have never had an excuse to use since so I'm going to try to use them up now that informed the shared consciousness of that small circle of would-be Weltentwicklers who created and defined this thing we call science fiction, back in the 1930s and 1940s. For in many respects science fiction today is still stuck in a sort of temporal loop, Groundhog Day-style, perpetually cycling back and forth between 1935 and 1955. As Orson Scott Card posits in Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon's Firefly Universe (BenBella Books, 2007, a bargain at only $17.95), while cinematically and visually the Star Wars movies are great, storywise, they're straight outa 1935.

In 1935, everybody—well, everybody in New York whose opinion mattered, anyway—everybody knew that capitalism, individualism, and libertarian democracy had failed, and it was time to try something radically new. Bellamy's steaming heap of a novel experienced a resurgence in popularity (and given that it describes life in the socialist paradise that is America in the year 2000, it is perhaps to be hoped that it won't happen again). God was if not dead then at least unemployed, and probably standing in a soup line somewhere. The Common Man, despite all the paeans and fanfares written to his nominal glory, was considered to be a proven moron, who could no more be entrusted with real freedom than with fully automatic weapons and who needed to be managed by the state cradle-to-grave for his own good. (On the face of it, this argument does make a sort of sense. After all, if you believe in the rigorous scientific accuracy and predictive validity of IQ tests, then 50% of all people are by definition of below-average intelligence.)

Remember, in the 1930s there were John Reed Clubs in cities all over America, and in 1936 and 1937 American and British intellectuals were flocking to Spain to fight on the communist side in the Spanish Civil War.
[Sidebar: By now at least a few of you are wondering what my problem is with socialism and communism. We've been through this before and I really don't have the time or patience to go through it again, so go back and read Scaling Socialism. After you've done so, I still won't feel like talking about it.]
There is a reason why there is only one science fiction publisher today known for releasing libertarian-leaning titles, and why that same publisher is regarded as a pariah whose hard SF offerings are routinely denounced by all properly thinking peoples as "war porn," "gun porn," "crypto-fascist wet dreams," and so on. There is a prevailing orthodoxy in the science fiction publishing world, and it's been firmly in place for the past 75 years.

And then there's Firefly.

Understand, by the late 1950s, Campbellian science fiction had pretty much shot its bolt. Campbell himself had become an authentic nutcase, who apparently actually believed he had psi powers, was up to his elbows in the founding of Cyantolligy and the pseudo-science behind it, and who had taken to telling people he had not flunked out of MIT back in the 1930s but rather had been kicked out, because his ideas were too threatening to scientific orthodoxy. By the late 1950s even Heinlein was on record as saying he would rather not sell at story at all than have to deal with Campbell, and also by the late 1950s, many of the magazine and book markets for original science fiction were dead or dying.

And then came Sputnik. The Space Race. The Mercury program, the Gemini program, and capping it all, Star Trek. Suddenly science fiction was a hot market category again, and the publishers all rushed to cash in, many of them by reissuing old titles they still owned all rights to but some by publishing new and original work. Concurrent with this came the New Wave of science fiction writers, whose central argument was that Campbellian science fiction was too conservative, and SF could only be rescued by tacking even more sharply to the left. Imagining themselves to be pushing the market, they got drawn along in the Space Race's cavitation, and ultimately produced a body of fictional works that were more about their personal emotional, sexual, and pharmaceutical issues than anything else.

Fifteen years later, by the 1970s, the market for print science fiction was coughing blood again. Star Trek had been canceled, although it lived on in UHF reruns. The world was suffering from a massive Vietnam War hangover, and all things even slightly militaristic were regarded with suspicion and contempt. The last few Apollo missions to the Moon were canceled, because of low ratings, lack of interest, and funding cutbacks.

Fantasy was doing well, in large part thanks to the bootleg paperback edition of The Lord of The Rings that Donald Wollheim (remember him?) put out in 1965 that was very successful with the college student hippie set and resulted in the little notice you used to see on the back of the later Ballantine edition:
"This paperback edition, and no other, has been published with my consent and co-operation. Those who approve of courtesy (at least) to living authors will purchase it, and no other."

J. R. R. Tolkien

Catering to the growing fantasy market, the publishers reissued everything they had in back inventory, and Robert E. Howard's old Conan The Barbarian stories, written back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, proved surprisingly popular. For a time it seemed the challenge was to find a new or reissued book in the SF/Fantasy section that did not have cover art featuring a bare-chested guy wearing a fur-lined jockstrap and holding an impossibly large broadsword. If Fabio had been around then he could have made a fortune posing for cover art.

And then came Star Wars. And suddenly it was 1957 all over again, and there was a vast inrush of superheated money into the sci-fi print publishing business, as many attempted to catch a piece of Lucas's coattails. And once again there was a generation of new writers who came along—my generation, this time, and there was a name they called some of us that I will not repeat, but some of our less charitable critics called us the New & Improved Wave—and once again we imagined it was our brilliance and originality that was driving the market, never realizing we were merely being drawn along in the Millennium Falcon's cavitation.

Fifteen years later, by the 1990s, the market for print science fiction was coughing blood again...

I'm sorry; I drift. It must be the cold medication. Or maybe it's just being stuck inside on this high winter afternoon, watching the long winter sunlight slant through the bare trees while the smoke from the neighbor's chimney rises slowly into the still, clear, subzero air. I meant to be making my final points about Firefly in this post. My points are these.

First, that Firefly during its brief run had some of the best and most original stories I have seen in forty-plus years of watching television and movie science fiction. It was truly a unique take on the spacefaring sci-fi future, and I still feel the loss of those stories that could have been told, had the series survived. On the great scale of things it's only a trivial loss—after all, it was just a TV series—but still, it was sad to see such a promising start blighted before it ever really got off the ground.

But secondly, and more seriously, whether by design or accident, the script for Serenity really gets it.

I used to be amused by Utopians. With life experience, I have grown to fear them. The great failing of Utopians is that they can never accept that someone else might not want to be a part of their utopian vision. Like ill-mannered tourists, they assume that if you don't agree with them, it must be because they're not explaining it simply enough, or often enough, or loudly enough, or ultimately, because you're stupid. Utopians always think achieving Utopia is simply a matter of education—and then re-education—and then coercion, legislation, litigation medication conditioning threats book-burnings eugenics surgical modifications hunting down the counter-revolutionaries killing the reactionaries genetic engineering—and ultimately all Utopians, no matter how nobly they begin, always end up at the same conclusion: that the only thing that keeps Man from building a secular heaven here on Earth is the nature of Man, therefore we must build a New and Better Man.

And for most of the history of orthodox, Campbellian and post-Campbellian science fiction, the science fiction community has largely agreed with and embraced this finding.

Utopians always begin with the best of intentions. But they always end by building their Utopia on a firm and level foundation composed of the crushed skulls of those who disagreed. And again, what I like best about the entire Firefly/Serenity creative enterprise is that, whether by accident or design, it really understands this truth and tells it.

Then, sadly, it punks out at the very end, by veering off into sheer fantasy. In the final scenes of Serenity the Operative is forced to watch the video from Miranda, and see the horror that the utopian vision he serves has unleashed. As a result, he has a change of heart, repents, and tries to make amends.

No true Utopian would ever be so weak, of course. In our world the Operative would go to his grave screaming, "We didn't use enough G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate! We didn't use it long enough! We didn't try it in its pure form! WE NEED TO KEEP TRYING UNTIL WE GET IT RIGHT!"

Here endeth the lesson.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Last Friday Challenge

There, bet that got your attention. Yes, it's true; this is the last Friday Challenge here in the Ranting Room. As of January 30, the Friday Challenge is moving to its new home. There are lots more changes in the works, too, and I'll be explaining them as best I can over the next few days.

But for tonight, let's focus on the short term. HaloScan seems to be working again, so I'd like to direct your attention to the 1/16/09 Friday Challenge, which as you may remember was to come up with a Friday Challenge. (Making it a Friday Challenge to come up with a Friday Challenge was Henry's idea, so of course, he can't win, 'cause if he did we believe he would instantly undergo some kind of recursive implosion thing and cease to exist, leaving behind only a tiny pucker in the fabric of periodic space-time to mark the place where he once stood. And we like Henry too much to permit this to happen.)

All the proposed Friday Challenges can be found in the comments attached to the 1/16/09 post, which I, using my amazing Site Owner powers, now cause to appear here. Voila!

As you read through the comments, bear in mind that you are not only selecting the Challenge you would most like to see presented, but also the person to be presenting and judging it! For that is the Special Secret Bonus Prize hinted at in the original post: whoever is selected as the winner will be allowed to post and be the primary judge of the resulting entries!

(Don't worry; we'll help you, if you feel you need help, and the prizes will still be supplied by K&B Booksellers.)

Does this sound like fun, or what? Yes, I know, at first blush, mostly like "or what," but trust me, it'll be fun, once you get into it. So even if you didn't post an entry in this challenge, kindly read, comment on, and vote for your favorites. The lucky sap winner will be announced on Sunday.

Fair Warning: as with making maple syrup, sometimes you need a lot of saps. Heh heh heh....

As for this week's Friday Challenge: one of the questions that has come up repeatedly in the four years I've been running The Ranting Room is this: Hey Bethke, for someone who talks such a good game, why don't you just bite the bullet, write a big fat fantasy brick, and make some real money?

The sad truth is, I can't. I have tried, many times. I understand that pseudo-Medieval fantasy, not science fiction, is where the market is really at these days. I appreciate how loyal the fans of fantasy are. I have seen how writing a really successful and seemingly endless series of big, fat, fantasy novels can put the kids through college and allow you to retire to your own private island. Believe me, I have tried to do it. Repeatedly.

But every time I try, I can never get more than about four pages into the story before my characters start to notice that neither indoor plumbing nor dental hygiene have been invented yet, and then I end up writing something like this:
As Sir Epididymis squirmed on his rude straw bed and sought warmth in the tattered rags of his old saddle-blanket, he caught a glimpse of the rising harvest moon through the stable window, and once again the vision of that jaundiced, pock-marked orb reminded him of his lost love, fair Princess Gwenrowundelwynne, she of the twelve teeth. Oh, happy the legions of lice who dwelt in the forest of those greasy golden tresses!

His view of beautiful Luna was eclipsed by the short and stubby form of the farmer, who like many of the peasants in North Umborgringlugrand had the gift of understanding the language of the animals.

"Sorry, guv," the farmer said, as he leaned in through the window. "I'll 'ave to ask you to move to the sty. The 'orses are complainin' about 'ow you smell."
That's this week's challenge: what happens next? I'll spot you a few more words, if you need them:
The next morning...
Well? What happens next?

As always, we're playing by the slowly sublimating rules of the Friday Challenge, and playing for whatever is behind Door #2. The deadline for entries is midnight Central time, Thursday, January 29. The entries received will be listed on the new Friday Challenge website on Friday, 1/30/09.

So I 'spose I'd better get that site finished up and running before then, eh? 'Scuse me, I gotta go hang some more sheetrock.


More Afterthoughts

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their consciences.


This post is turning out to be more difficult to wrap up than I expected. In part it's because I've come down with a mother of a cold and my brain has been operating at about half-wattage for the past two days, but mostly it's because this post wants to keep branching off in a multitude of scattershot directions. There are so many things you need to know.

If you think I was too harsh on the 19th century utopians, don't take my word for it; go read them yourself. Three of the most influential were Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, News from Nowhere, by William Morris (who also wrote the seminal fantasy novels, The Wood Beyond the World and The Well at the World's End), and A Traveler from Altruria, by William Dean Howells. Of these three I found the Howells novel the most disillusioning, as Howells was a literary giant of his day: a novelist, poet, and playwright; an extremely influential literary columnist and critic who wrote for The Atlantic and Harper's; and a close personal friend of Mark Twain, who routinely gushed over Howells' manifest brilliance in his personal letters and writings about writing. And yet the Altrurian trilogy is such an utter load of rancid socialist tripe.

Guess this just goes to prove that even being a brilliant entertainer, as Twain was, doesn't necessarily mean you know jack squat about politics or economics.

The Utopian formula varied slightly from writer to writer, depending on their personal gripes, but generally amounted to a glowing description of how wonderful life in the future would be, if only Man could rise above his selfishness and petty concerns long enough to get with the agenda: a society sensibly reorganized along "scientific" principles; the abolition of wealth, private property, possessions (up to and including possessions like "husbands," "wives," and "children," depending on the writer), capitalism, hereditary wealth, national borders (sometimes), religion (although some kept the nominal trappings of Christianity but saw it redirected into more secular and socially useful channels, much like contemporary mainstream Protestantism), monogamy (depending on the private kinks of the writer); the embracing of perfect equality and universally uniform government-run childhood education...

Alduous Huxley's Brave New World is in many respects a belated response to the ravings of the late 19th century Utopians. If you've never read it, do so. Now. If I ever teach a course on 20th century literature or science fiction, the two novels that absolutely will be required reading are George Orwell's 1984 and Alduous Huxley's Brave New World. Together, they explain so much about how we got to where we are now.

But at the moment I'm stuck back in the 19th century, trying to fill in the gaps (or perhaps Orwellianly deliberate omissions?) in your universally uniform government-run education. The primary importance of the Utopians is that they had a profound influence on the Fabians, which is another thing you need to know about: The Fabian Society, an organization of late 19th century British intellectuals (including, yes, H. G. Wells) who had come to the conclusion that Karl Marx was right, but if managed properly, the common people could be led to embrace communism gradually and without all that messy violent proletarian revolution business. In the U.K. the Fabian Society directly spawned the Labour Party. In the U.S., it spawned the Progressive movement, which was perhaps best articulated by founding The New Republic magazine editor Herbert David Croly in his book, The Promise of American Life.

You may read Croly's book, if you like. I wouldn't recommend it, as Croly never uses one word when three can be made to fit or expresses in a sentence an idea that could be puffed up into a long and turgid paragraph. The essential idea of the book is that democracy, capitalism, and individualism have failed and the people must be led — gently now, we don't want to alarm them! — into embracing a collectivist "welfare state" in which hereditary wealth is abolished, no man suffers from either the degrading influence of being poor or the corrupting influence of being rich, wealth is redistributed equitably through a system of "income tax" confiscations and "welfare" payments, all industry and art is scientifically managed by the government for the greater good of society, and yet the people retain an acceptable illusion of freedom, until such time as the great work is complete and the Platonic philosopher-kings who run the whole show can at last drop the curtains, to reveal that We The People now live in a perfect socialist world. Cue the applause.

The real importance of The Promise of American Life is not the number of copies it sold, but the people who read it and embraced its thesis, those people being primarily Theodore Roosevelt (after he was out of office, thankfully), Woodrow Wilson, several Supreme Court justices and leading jurists, and later, the primary architects of FDR's "New Deal." So if you're one of those crazy right wingnuts who believes that there has been a century-long conspiracy to turn the American republic into a socialist oligarchy...

Yeah, pretty much.

Still writing, but hitting the Publish Post button now to see what it looks like so far, and then taking a break to sneeze and dose up on more aspirin...

'at's odd. HaloScan's post counter seems to be malfunctioning again.

Okay, THAT is really annoying. HaloScan has taken a dump again. Henry, Passinthrough, Snowdog, Jack, Chris; every comment posted after Rigel's 3:25 a.m. post shows up on my admin screen, but is invisible to everyone else.

I've about had it with HaloScan, as this is a chronic problem. Tech support has been contacted. No signs of life were found. Presumably HaloScan will at some point resume working, and when it does there will be not one word of explanation. I'm ready to switch comment engines.

No, not to CoComment. I've already had quite enough fun watching die Pleite geführt, sagt der bayerische Gewerkschaftschef Werner Neugebauer. "Grob fahrlässig haben die Manager eine ganze Technologie am Standort Deutschland gegen die Wand gefahren, ausbaden müssen es jetzt wieder einmal die Mitarbeiter." Es sei dem Unternehmen nicht gelungen, ein tragfähiges Zukunftskonzept vorzulegen, sagt Jurk. Aus dem Bundeswirtschaftsministerium heißt es am Freitag the random German incursions into Vox's site. I'm looking for a reliable comment engine. Anybody know of one they'd recommend?

If so, uh, wouldja send me the info in an email, bitte?

I stand corrected. JS-Kit technical support got back to me in just over an hour. That's never happened before. Maybe HaloScan's new owners are serious improving quality, support, and customer relations. Stay tuned...

Thursday, January 22, 2009


Sorry for not posting this yesterday as promised. In the morning I got bogged down in a sidebar riff on Doc Savage and didn't get it finished, and in the evening I went to look up something to support a point and instead spent the rest of the evening absorbed in a J. G. Ballard novella.

This happens to me. I collect — no, collect isn't the right word. Collectors buy old, out-of-print books based on their hypothetical value and then put them in plastic bags, never to be cracked open or touched again by human hands until it's time to sell them. I accumulate old anthologies, particularly those edited by Groff Conklin or Damon Knight. And then, when time permits, I read the stories contained therein. Sometimes I even re-read them.

So I happen to know that while it makes a good creation myth, the idea that science fiction was invented by Hugo Gernsback in 1926 and perfected by John W. Campbell Jr. in the late 1930s and 1940s is not entirely true. Stories of fantastic adventures, strange voyages, and marvelous inventions are as old as story-telling itself. People have been telling tales like these ever since our hairy distant ancestors sat huddled together around the neolithic campfire, making noise all night to keep the bears and tigers away and telling the story of Og, who journeyed over the mountains to the next valley, where he met a strange tribe who had amazing flint axes that never needed knapping. Just as the oldest known written joke is a fart joke (I am not making this up), I firmly believe that if the oldest known written story is ever found, it will turn out to be one about a heroic man who flies to the Moon, meets a beautiful maiden there who needs to be rescued in some way, and after he does so, in gratitude she gives him some sort of wondrous prize.

The second oldest story will turn out to be the same thing, but with the wondrous prize turning out to be sex with the beautiful Moon maiden. The third oldest will be the same thing again, but with the sex scene interrupted by a fart joke.

Reviewing the entire history of fantastic literature is not necessary, though: a quick skim over the past two centuries will suffice. As Damon Knight puts it in his introduction to One Hundred Years of Science Fiction (Simon and Schuster, 1968), "there was no major nineteenth-century American writer of fiction, and indeed few in the second rank, who did not write some science fiction, or at least one utopian romance," a point which Knight then goes on to prove by reprinting recognizably science fiction stories written by Rudyard Kipling, Ambrose Bierce, and others. So why the amazing, nay, astounding persistence of the Gernsback/Campbell creation myth?

When I started reading contemporary science fiction in the late 1960s, and later began studying it in college in the early 1970s, the battle cry of the then-contemporary New Wave science fiction writers was that SF needed to "get out of the ghetto" and muscle its way into the literary mainstream. But the more I studied the history of SF, the more I realized that, while yes, SF is a literary ghetto, it's the ghetto Gernsback platted out and Campbell walled in. The reason why so much 19th century SF seems nonexistent now is because it was published in the same mainstream periodicals as all other contemporary fiction of the time, and thus escaped the attention of later SF-oriented anthologists. Beginning in the 1920s, the readers and writers of science fiction consciously chose to wall themselves in and shut out the outside literary world. Your story has rocketships, robots, rayguns, and horrible drooling alien monsters? Cool, you're in. It has character development? We don't need no steenkin' character development!

Aw, they just don't write 'em like The Skylark of Space anymore. (Thank God!)

This attitude persists even into contemporary times. The science fiction ghetto is a place where people unhappy with their actual lives in contemporary reality can hide out and imagine themselves to be someone else, somewhere else, somewhen else, and live for days at a time in a judgment-free, consequence-free alternate reality — as a few days spent at any major science fiction fan convention will prove. The science fiction community squanders an enormous amount of time and energy arguing over what is or is not "real" science fiction; who is or isn't in the club. This is one of the reasons why I dropped out of SFWA. I had the displeasure of being on the Board of Directors and chairing the Membership Committee through two incredibly stupid, bitter, and protracted wrangles, one over exactly which professional publication credits counted as science fiction publication credits for the purposes of determining membership status, and the other over whether to change the organization's name and bylaws to include fantasy writers. (There went two years of my life I'll never get back again.) But just why is the science fiction community so damned and determined to shore up and maintain the walls of its ghetto?

In chasing down this meme, I keep coming back to Gernsback, Campbell, and most of all to the Futurians; a very small group of New York science fiction fans — and later writers, editors, and highly influential literary agents — who idolized Gernsback in the 1920s and went on to write for Campbell in the 1930s and 1940s. The Futurians were largely young, idealistic, atheistic, sexually liberated, socialists when not outright communists, incestuous both literarily and sometimes physically, and ferocious New York chauvinists. For example, Futurian writer James Blish's magnum opus was Cities in Flight, which was based on the idea that someday we would perfect anti-gravity, after which entire domed cities such as, say, Manhattan would take to the stars.

Suburbs in Flight or maybe Gated Communities in White Flight would perhaps be a more likely outcome of such a technological leap, but that idea would never occur to a New Yorker.

To really appreciate the Futurians and their impact, consider the words of the late Donald Wollheim, writer, editor, and founder of DAW Books, who stated that the writers and followers of science fiction "should actively work for the realization of the scientific world-state as the only genuine justification for their activities and existence". In this one statement, Wollheim makes a direct connection from the 19th century "utopian romances" Knight cited earlier to the philosophical and ideological underpinnings of modern science fiction.

I have read more than my fair share of 19th century utopian romances. Most are pure simple-minded dreck.
"As you know, Robert, the cornerstone of our modern world of perfect peace and universal prosperity is the Treaty of London, which was written when all the world's kings and presidents gathered together in the Crystal Palace and passed a law abolishing war forever."
Some transcend mere infantile dreckdom, though, and reach the heights of pernicious, and yet, in their day, highly influential agit-prop.
"Thereafter, with the subsequent outlawing of money, private property, greed, illness, marriage, unlicensed childbirth, and organized religion, Man was at last set on the path to the shining city on the hill; the glorious future we all enjoy today!"

"My word!" Robert ejaculated, "that does sound frightfully exciting! So where is this shining city on the hill? Beyond that foul-smelling clutter of tumble-down pig-pens I espy yonder?"

The Traveler from Utopolis smiled wanly. "Actually, that is the city. We're not quite done with the latest Five Year Plan yet."
Sorry. I couldn't resist.

To be continued...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Cut 'em Off at the Horsehead Nebula! (Part Three)

The ironic part is, for a genre that routinely deals in stories of space exploration and colonization, the history and folklore of the American West offers a vast wealth of fascinating source materials and proven paradigms, just waiting to be rediscovered and used. It was the experience of the American West—or more accurately, the succession of "wests" that began on the Atlantic seaboard in the early seventeenth century and ended somewhere near Yuma in the late nineteenth century—that formed the uniquely American character and made the Americans a different people from their European ancestors. Even those writers who are first and loudest to cry "Bat Durston!" routinely imbue their fictional creations with the character traits that were forged in the crucible of the American West: self-reliance, stoicism, a distrust of distant government, and a certain handiness with firearms. Moreover, it was the frontier experience that produced a uniquely American idea, and one that, however unconsciously, seems to permeate nearly all science fiction written today: that it's possible to go somewhere new, meet new people, discard the unpleasant parts of your own culture, and by blending together create a new and better culture.

The opening of the American West was a unique event in human history. Almost everywhere else in the world, a frontier was merely the heavily fortified border between two competing and roughly equivalent political powers, reinforced by centuries of distrust and cultural differences. For an unhappy Frenchman, for example, it would be madness to pack up the family and move out to the frontier, because all he would do then is end up in Germany. Only on the North American continent did the frontier—the West—come to symbolize freedom and the chance to escape your past and start over. Certainly there were risks involved in going west—if it was easy, everyone would be doing it—but along with the physical mobility came social mobility, and the environment, while often hostile, was not invariably lethal. Only in the American West was it possible to start out with little more than gumption and a few smarts, and by the grace of God and the strength of your own two hands, reinvent yourself in the image of your choice. (And with a little extra luck get rich doing it, too!) Only in the West was what you did of more immediate importance than where you came from. [Irish and Chinese naturally excluded, of course.]

Equally underappreciated, it seems, is the uniqueness in history of the American Civil War. Americans—and American science fiction writers, especially—have a strangely romantic view of rebellion. In most of the rest of human history, revolutions and civil wars are traditionally followed by the wholesale mass-slaughter of the losers, as the winners consolidate their power by the crude expedient of exterminating everyone who might conceivably oppose them in the future. Only in America did the West offer a continent-sized safety valve, where even former Confederates unhappy with the way the War of Northern Aggression turned out could find a chance to begin again.

And it is these overtly Western themes—no matter how vocally we may try to deny their origin—that recur time and again in the literature of science fiction.

I suppose it was inevitable that science fiction should try to cut itself off from its pulp roots. Rejection of that which came before seems programmed into our genes. Sons argue with fathers; daughters clash with mothers; Mark Twain loathed James Fennimore Cooper. After all, science fiction as we know it today is primarily the creation of a group of young men who lived in New York in the 1930s, who called themselves Futurians and thought taking the train down to Philadelphia was a grand adventure, and who honestly believed there was absolutely nothing of interest west of New Jersey—and come to think of it, New Jersey was suspect, too.

But the conceits and prejudices of John W. Campbell have dominated science fiction for nearly seventy years now, so perhaps it's time to start thinking about finally stepping out of his shadow. An important part of the frontier saga has always been the story of the clash between the old order, struggling to maintain control, and the new people, yearning to write their own definition of freedom.

John W. Campbell, Jr., died in 1971. Every year the World Science Fiction Society honors his legacy by giving out the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, in the same ceremony in which they also honor Hugo Gernsback's legacy by giving out a bevy of Hugo Awards for various achievements in science fiction. On a different night in a different city, the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) presents a battery of Nebula Awards, as peer recognition of distinguished writing.

In 2006, Joss Whedon's Serenity won both the Nebula Award for Best Screenplay and the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. [Being a somewhat experienced writer, Whedon was ineligible for the Campbell Award.] As a voting member of SFWA, it grieves me to admit that yes, I did hear some behind-the-curtains grumbling from the old guard about the fact that the Nebula was going to "a damned Bat Durston."

But I say, look. The real American frontier closed in the nineteenth century. It's now the twenty-first century. It is long past time to declare the history and folklore of the American West open for literary exploration and settlement. Bat Durston lies in a lonely unmarked grave somewhere on the windswept prairie of Bbllzznaj, where the six-legged megacoyotes howl at might, and as for me, I would rather ship out on a beat-up old Firefly than wear a red shirt in Starfleet any day of the week and twice on Sunday. It's no accident that the second most successful science fiction franchise of all times begins with these words, even though the stories rarely lived up to the promise: "Space, the final frontier..."

Or as Mal Reynolds might put it, "The pulp wars are long done. We're all just writers, now."

Bruce Bethke was a regular contributor to Amazing Stories in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as to a wide variety of other magazines. A critically acclaimed and award-winning science fiction novelist, he takes strangely perverse pride in knowing that he once managed to convince the editor of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine that his unabashed swashbuckling pirate story was in fact science fiction.

Tomorrow: what didn't make it into this essay...

Cut 'em Off at the Horsehead Nebula! (Part Two)

There is a curious synchronicity at work here. In 1890 the United States Census Bureau declared the American frontier officially closed, to the extent that there was no longer a discernible line of separation between settled and unsettled areas within the continental United States. In 1896 the frontier of the imagination might be considered to have officially opened, with the launch of the first pulp fiction magazine, Argosy. This magazine, and the many imitators that soon followed it, was in a direct line of descent from the dime novels and "penny-dreadfuls" that made legends of Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, and Billy the Kid. Every month it served up generous helpings of pure, unadulterated escapist adventure fantasy to a mostly young, mostly male, and increasingly urbanized audience.

While some of the early pulps such as The Shadow and Doc Savage were simply dime novels issued in serialized format, others gave their readers a glorious hodge-podge of war, sports, jungle, railroad, horror, mystery, crime, pirate, and "scientific romance" stories, intermixed with the occasional factual article—and yes, they also ran plenty of Westerns. Genre lines were crossed and recrossed with gleeful abandon until they were mincemeat for the very simple reason that they didn't exist yet; Edgar Rice Burroughs' martians might be ten feet tall, green, oviparous, and equipped with four arms each, and their horses might have eight legs, but in terms of behavior they were indistinguishable from any band of H. Rider Haggard's nomadic savages. Above all, the early pulps excelled in delivering what a later generation might call "that Indiana Jones stuff": lost cities, uncharted islands, vanished civilizations, and secret cults plotting terrible things from which only broad-chested heroes with flashing swords or blazing guns could rescue the beautiful women.

In 1909, publisher, editor, and sometimes writer Hugo Gernsback launched Modern Electrics magazine, and to fill space he occasionally ran reprints of old Verne, Wells, or Edgar Allan Poe stories. Impressed by the positive response these stories drew from readers, in 1926 Gernsback launched Amazing Stories, the world's first magazine devoted exclusively to science fiction—or as Gernsback dubbed it, "scientifiction." [His original term, oddly enough, did not catch on with the general public, and so he later changed it to "science fiction." That name stuck.]

The success—and bankruptcy, and reborn success—of Amazing Stories quickly led to a host of imitators: Planet Stories, Marvel Tales, Wonder Stories, Weird Tales, Startling Stories, Astounding Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories...

All these magazines tilled the same fields, bought work from the same writers, and played by the same rules as the older pulp fiction titles. While the genre of science fiction quickly became known as "that Buck Rogers stuff," for the very good reason that Captain Anthony "Buck" Rogers made his first appearance anywhere in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, most science fiction stories continued to abound in that Indiana Jones stuff: lost treasures, hidden civilizations, mysterious plateaus where dinosaurs still roamed, and beautiful women who needed to be rescued. Battles between spaceships were still as likely to be settled by boarding the enemy's ship and engaging in a sword-fight as by exchanging salvos of electro-cannon fire; the treacherous leader of the evil aliens might be a blue-skinned four-eyed reptiloid from Saturn but he still had an inexplicable lust for blonde Earth women; and the hero of a Murray Leinster tale might use an "interdimensional catapult" to journey to a new world, but once he got there the rest of the story could very well be a straight-ahead jungle adventure of the sort in which Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan would feel perfectly at home.

And yes, every now and then, some magazines ran science fiction stories that looked an awful lot like Westerns.

All of this changed in 1938, when John W. Campbell, Jr., took over as editor of Astounding Stories. An accomplished and widely published author in his own right, Campbell insisted that science fiction readers were more intelligent than the readers of other forms of pulp fiction, therefore science fiction writers had to be more intelligent than the writers of other forms of fiction, and therefore the old-school pulp writers were no longer welcome at Astounding. Instead, Campbell concentrated his editorial energies on finding and developing new writers, who wrote stories in which the science was both credible and integral to the story, and in so doing he pretty much single-handedly defined what we now think of as modern science fiction.

Campbell reigned as the editor of Astounding (later renamed Analog) from 1938 to 1971, and the roll call of writers he discovered and famous stories he published during those years reads like the combined Who's Who and Hall of Fame of science fiction. Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Lester del Rey, A.E. Van Vogt, L. Ron Hubbard, Theodore Sturgeon—the list goes on and on. And while Campbell was not the first to publish Isaac Asimov—Amazing gets that honor, for a story Campbell rejected—he did buy the majority of Asimov's early work, including the series of short stories that were later collected and reissued as Asimov's legendary novels, Foundation and I, Robot.

Rather less well-remembered now are the names of the 1930s pulp writers whose careers effectively ended because Campbell refused to buy any more fiction from them, as well as the names of the "slick" magazine writers whose stories he rejected on the grounds that only authors who wrote science fiction exclusively were qualified to write science fiction. [Tell that to Michael Crichton or Margaret Atwood.] What we do know is that Campbell was famous for writing excoriating rejection letters, and he saved his worst verbal eviscerations for those writers he thought were trying to pass off conventional pulp stories as science fiction—especially Westerns.

[Strangely enough, while we have plenty of examples of the former, history does not record one single example of Campbell rejecting an Arthur C. Clarke story because it was "just another locked-room mystery set in space" or of his rejecting an Isaac Asimov robot story because it was "just another rewrite of 'The Golem of Prague'."]

While science fiction and mystery magazines prospered in the 1940s, the rest of the pulp adventure field fell on hard times. Not only did wartime paper shortages and economic dislocations put many titles out of business, but by the end of the decade, Terra was running terribly short of incognita. There were no longer any uncharted islands in the Pacific Ocean; farewell, Skull Island and the sons of Kong. The air routes through the Himalayas were thoroughly mapped; goodbye, Shangri-La and Lost Horizon. There were no noble savages or ancient civilizations waiting to be discovered in the jungles of the Congo, no more mysterious cities hidden high in the mountains of South America, and getting to Mars was beginning to look like it would take considerably more effort than cobbling together a spaceship in the backyard from a discarded atomic motor and some government surplus parts. Not only that, but once you got there, the prospects for finding any beautiful half-naked Martian women who needed to be rescued began to seem pretty darn slim.

With terra incognita gone, then, and astra incognita looking increasingly unreachable, many science fiction writers began to turn to psyche incognita. In 1950 Horace (H.L.) Gold launched the last of the Golden Age pulps, Galaxy Science Fiction, with the deliberate intention of de-emphasizing technology and concentrating on serious sociological and psychological stories. Unfortunately Gold also suffered from severe agoraphobia, and many writers quickly realized that they could sell to Galaxy by writing fiction that catered to Gold's illness, hence the large number of "domed city," "underground city," and "the whole world is just one big city" stories that dominated printed science fiction well into the 1970s. For our purposes, though, this vast body of phobic fiction is merely an unfortunate side-effect of Gold's tenure as editor. His real, lasting, and profoundly irritating contribution came in the form of these paragraphs:
Jets blasting, Bat Durston came screeching down through the atmosphere of Bbllzznaj, a tiny planet seven billion light years from Sol. He cut out his super-hyper-drive for the landing... and at that point, a tall, lean spaceman stepped out of the tail assembly, proton gun-blaster in a space-tanned hand.

"Get back from those controls, Bat Durston," the tall stranger lipped thinly. "You don't know it, but this is your last space trip."
That's right. While it was Hugo Gernsback who named it science fiction declared it to be a genre apart, and John W. Campbell who rejected the idea of there being any possible crossover between science fiction and other forms of fiction, it was H. L. Gold who gave that rejection its enduring name. Bat Durston first appeared in the pages of Galaxy—but not in an actual story. "Bat Durston, Space Marshal," was a full-page advertisement, which appeared under the headline, "YOU'LL NEVER FIND IT IN GALAXY!" and ran repeatedly throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The rest of the ad copy went on to ridicule the idea of "a Western transplanted to some alien and impossible planet" and extol the virtues of Galaxy as being a magazine that published only stories "by people who know and love science fiction"—by which Gold meant authors who would never be caught dead crossing genre lines. Ergo, to answer the question we asked at the beginning of this essay: Why?

Because for more than fifty years now, the members of science fiction's critical/literary/academic/pretentious circles have adhered to Campbell's conceit that science fiction is somehow innately superior to all other forms of fiction, by repeatedly and ritualistically beating the stuffings out of H. L. Gold's straw man.

To be concluded...

Monday, January 19, 2009

Cut 'em Off at the Horsehead Nebula! (Part One)

Author's Note: This piece was first published in Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon's Firefly Universe, published in 2007 by BenBella Books.

So we're sitting in the rec room, watching Serenity on the big screen with the surround sound cranked. Only we can never simply watch a movie: there's just one degree of separation between us and the folks who did Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I'm afraid that all too often, it's audible.

For example, right now Larry the Astronomer is in hog heaven, trying to work out the celestial mechanics of the Firefly universe in his head. ("Maybe if we start with a couple of super-Jovian worlds orbiting the blue-white primary in a Sirius-type binary system, and most of these so-called worlds are actually terraformed moons...") But John the Screenwriter is having some trouble understanding why I'm so excited about a movie based on a TV series that was canceled halfway through the first season. I briefly consider dragging out the DVD boxed set and forcing him to watch at least the two-hour series premiere, but there's not enough time for that, so I settle for, "John, think of this as the anti-Trek."

That's a good opening gambit. We've long since agreed that Star Trek's Federation is some kind of intrusive and heavily militarized police state. Now we only argue over whether it's a socialist or fascist utopia.

"Firefly" I continue, "is set some five centuries in the future, and six years after the end of a failed war for independence against the Alliance: the oppressive central government. Now, Mal here—"

John interrupts. "—is Han Solo with an actual backstory. I get that. He's Rick Blaine with a spaceship instead of a nightclub. He's a classic lost paladin; an embittered losing-side war vet with a junk freighter, struggling to eke out a living on the fringes of civilization and the law. But underneath that rough exterior he's still got his honor, his pride, and that sense of justice that forces him to get involved and become a big damn hero, from time to time. I get that about him. I like him. And the blond guy—"


"He's a classic comic-relief sidekick, who gets to have all the emotional reactions that the paladin can never show. Now, this tough chick—"


"She served with Mal in the war, didn't she? Because she's got the whole calls-him-'sir'-even-when-she-doesn't-say-it-out-loud thing going, which is done very nicely. I also think it's really nice to see a woman in the role of the engine room grease-monkey, because she reminds me of my first ex-wife and her intimate relationship with her Jaguar XJ6.

"But the doctor—Simon?—there's obviously some bad blood between him and Mal, so I'd have to guess he has a little black bag full of patent medicines that save the day on a regular basis and make him worth putting up with, while his sister, Buffy—"


"—is obviously the ninety-pound pixie who can toss around men three times her size when she gets mad, and I suspect she's the focus of the entire plot. But the one character here I'm really having trouble getting a fix on is him." John points at the screen.


"Yeah, him. I mean, clearly, he's big and tough, none too bright, obsessed with weapons, and probably worth his weight in gold in a fight. But Jane? What kind of name is that? Is this like, 'A Boy Named Sue'? Is that why he's so surly?"

"No," I say. "J-A-Y-N-"

"Oh," John says, as understanding dawns. "Jayne. As in, John Wayne. Okay, I get it now. So how soon do we meet the PTP and the HHG?"

It's my turn to be confused. "The what and the what?"

"The Preacher with a Troubled Past and the Hooker with a Heart of Gold. They must be in this story. it just wouldn't be the same without them."

I start to tell John about Shepherd Book and Inara, but then decide to keep him in the dark a little longer. "What makes you say that?"

"Because," he says, "you're wrong, Bruce. This is not the anti-Trek.

"This is Stagecoach in Space."

You must understand: in the world of science fiction, there is no deadlier insult than to call something "a Western set in space." As a science fiction writer you're permitted to lift freely from any other period in history and any other body of world folklore except the American Old West. Authors have made entire careers out of recycling Asian, African, and Amerindian folk tales in the guise of science fiction stories, and the entire genre of fantasy can fairly be described as one endless series of Christianity-free repackagings of Celtic, Nordic, and Germanic fairy tales and heroic myths. Even the most successful science fiction franchise of all time, Star Wars, has been described quite accurately as being simply an anthology of Japanese samurai stories (mostly notably The Tale of Heike) gussied up in sci-fi drag and trotted out onstage to near-unanimous critical approval and worldwide commercial success.

But put your hero on horseback without also giving him a sword or a lance—give him a Winchester laser rifle, a Colt proton blaster, or a broad-brimmed Stetson hat to protect his skin from the searing UV radiation of the local main sequence star—write a story that in any way reflects the actual experience and well-documented history of the American Civil War and the subsequent exploration and settling of the lands between the Mississippi River and the Pacific coast—and sooner or later some fool critic will accuse you of "calling the jackrabbit a smeerp" and "writing a Western set in space," and after that there's nothing left to do but build up a thick skin, because the law frowns on calling out fool critics and gunning them down in the street. There is even a special pejorative term reserved for a science fiction story that has been identified ex post facto as being a latent Western: it's called a Bat Durston.


Why, in a genre that routinely pays tribute to space pioneers, is there this special antipathy for the Western? Why, in a form where the space colony revolt is a standard summer-stock set-piece, is the American Civil War and its aftermath strictly off-limits? Why, with all of human history and all of known literature to draw on for source material, is this one particular historical period and one body of folklore so rigorously forbidden?

Why, in science fiction's critical/literary/academic/pretentious circles, is Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels considered an important antecedent to modern speculative fiction, while Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is not?

To understand the answer to this question, we must travel back to the beginning...

No, not back to Verne and Wells. If you were to hop into your Wayback Machine and travel back in time to discuss science fiction with Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, you'd overshoot your temporal destination and they wouldn't know what you were talking about anyway. Jules Verne considered himself simply an adventure story writer, and while he's best remembered today for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, he also wrote mysteries and satires, and it was the stage performance rights for Around the World in 80 Days that made him rich in his lifetime. Similarly, H.G. Wells called his early stories and novels "scientific romances," and while he did enjoy his initial success, he eventually abandoned the field in order to write what he considered more important work, now largely forgotten mainstream novels such as Tono-Bungay and The History of Mr. Polly.

No, the real history of science fiction begins, not in Europe in the late nineteenth century, but in the United States in the early twentieth, and it's mostly the story of three men: Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell, and H.L. Gold.

To be continued...

Sunday, January 18, 2009

And the winner is...

Zoinks. We've had some difficult-to-judge Friday Challenge's in the past, but the 1/9/09 Friday Challenge was exceptional. Reading, discussing, and picking a winner from amongst the many excellent entries received this week took us all of a bottle of Carmenère and the better part of a bottle of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, and we still weren't ready to hit the Publish Post button before midnight. Without further delay or ado, then:

WaterBoy: Your little story about Winnie-the-Pooh, Eco-Terrorist, was just absolutely brilliant. As someone who spends a lot of time getting in touch with his inner Eeyore, I still cackle when I re-read this one. The pacing is perfect; all the clues to the characters' true identities are there and yet you still manage to spring the punchline at the end as a complete surprise. Very nicely done.

Ben-El: I'm not sure what to say about this one. I absolutely loved it and laughed out loud while reading it, but Karen didn't get it until I explained a few bits. Then again, how do you explain this one other than to say it's H.P. Lovecraft meets Monty Python? In the end — particularly when put up against this week's tough competition — the joke ending undercuts what was otherwise a very strong story up to that point, though, so just as Brave Sir Robin almost fought the Giant Chicken of Bristol, you almost made the final cut.

Al: I like the framing device, the structure, the story. I balked at "nozzle" only because I happen to know that it's called a mouthpiece. This is the story that really got me wondering whether I'd underestimated the potential in this source material, and whether you were just scratching the surface of a much larger story. I would be interested to see what you and Lady Quill working as a team could come up with to expand upon this story line.

Snowdog: This one really packs an extraordinary emotional impact into 500 words. You do an excellent job of making a human of the alien; of putting the reader in touch with the feelings of a dying honeybee; of making the death of a honeybee seem tragic. This is another one we kept coming back to as we whittled the field down.

Bandit: Hmm, how to say this politely...

Please don't be offended, but this story has me wondering who you really are, because I felt like I was reading the work of a seasoned pro masquerading as an amateur: say, Darrell Schweitzer, or maybe Esther Friesner. Did you really write this in a week? If so, I'd love to get a guest column on your writing habits and method, because frankly, I don't think I could write something this good that fast. The story just plain works; the character of Emrys is neatly drawn and fleshed-out and wonderfully irritating. I've worked with this guy.

To be honest, if I were you, I wouldn't waste this story on a small-potatoes writing contest. I'd change the title — I don't know to what, but the current title doesn't grab me — and probably rearrange the first five paragraphs. Opening with a quote is confusing; it's not readily apparent that "Emrys" is a proper name and "episkopose" seems like a made-up word, unless you meant "episkopos," in which case you misspelled it and it's still obscure enough to be confusing. I'd keep the information in the first eight sentences, but rearrange the order: most likely starting with the cell phone ringing, Matt grabbing it and seeing from the caller ID that it's Emrys and therefore deciding to take the call (and also thereby establishing that Emrys is a person), and then the three lines of dialog. But from "Twenty minutes later" to the end I wouldn't change a thing, except to make sure that it is formatted to standard specs, and then I would try to sell it, starting with Stan Schmidt at Analog.

Why isn't this one the winner this week? That's difficult to nail down precisely. It's a great story, well-written, with a strong flow from paragraph 6 to the end. It's clever and entertaining, but it just doesn't engage us emotionally. The narrator, Matt, is strangely vacant. At the very least, when he and Emrys form A-1 Radiation Diagnostics and go around bilking people for the fake radiation test, it should occur to him that what they're doing is fraud and could easily get them arrested and jailed.

In any case, while this is a very strong story, in the end, there can be only one, which leaves us with the entries from Torainfor and Vidad.

We split over these two and debated their respective merits and flaws until nearly midnight. Torainfor's story shows an encyclopedic knowledge of all things faerie and is a charming tale all the way through to the end — where I felt it weakened, and Karen thought it was brilliant. To me the ending seemed rushed and the magical creatures' motivations for their final action inadequately explained. If this is all because they're nurturing an embryonic dragon that will in time hatch and shatter the Earth like an egg, you'd think they'd have some misgivings about what they're doing. I felt the ending needed more work; Karen thought it was perfect as-is.

Vidad's story, on the other hand — well, I don't normally go for veiled rewrites of Revelations, but in "The Whore of Beebylon" — er, "The Number of The Beest" — please stop me before I hurt myself — we learn the answer to the question, "What if C.S. Lewis had decided to work with bugs instead of lions?" This story is an entire epic in 15 pages; Vidad creates a complex culture complete with history, myth, prophecy, and heresy, and a compelling villain in Occkzzzilla (okay, maybe the names are a bit awkward), and an ecological catastrophe leading up to a final, spectacular climax and resolution — and does it all in 15 pages. Wow.

I don't think Pixar will go for this one because of the religious subtext and I'm sure Glenn Close will insist that Occkzzzilla be rewritten so that she isn't so clearly an argument for Proposition 8, but I want a piece of the animated film deal. Just a small piece will do.

Ergo, by the barest of margins — the width of a bee's whisker, the weight of a few grains of pixie dust — "Then The End Cometh" beats "Ley Lines" and is this week's winner. Vidad, come on down and claim your prize!

The only other thing I have to say is: Whew! Picking a winner this time was work!

I need a vacation...

The State of the Union

Author's Note: In honor of the coming Obamainaguration, I'm rerunning this piece that I wrote almost exactly four years ago today. This is the first blog post I ever wrote, for The Ranting Room's very short-lived predecessor, The Nixon Channel. Here's hoping you enjoy it.


I won the coin toss and so got the honor of escorting the new guy. He seemed very surprised when I knocked and he opened the door.

"Dick? Dick Nixon?"

"Hi, Ronnie. Welcome to the pantheon."

"But what — why — ?"

"State of the Union address, my friend! Don't you want to see how the kids are running our country? You know, just because we're dead doesn't mean we have to stop caring — well, except for Ike, he's off playing golf somewhere. And Washington, he just sits in Mount Vernon and weeps. But all the rest of us shades of past presidents are getting together to watch the show, and we'd really appreciate it if you'd come join us."

Ronnie's twinkling smile fell. "I don't know. It seems so soon. To return to the capitol now..."

I laughed. "Oh, we don't actually haunt D.C. anymore! No, Jefferson got so furious one year he tried to turn into a poltergeist, so what we do now is rent a ballroom, put the cable feed up on the big screen, and have a nice little buffet! Adams and his kid supply all the beer you can stand. Come on, it'll be fun!" Ronnie still looked unsure of himself, so I went for the closer.

"Abraham will be very disappointed if you don't show up."

He blinked in surprise. "Lincoln? Lincoln was asking for me?"

I nodded. "Seat of honor, my friend, at the table with Abraham and Teddy. Grant, too, if he sobers up. Like I said, we'll all be there — except for Ike and Washington. And Jefferson, you can never tell when or where he'll show up. And LBJ, well, he still has a few more eons to go in Purgatory, so he probably won't be there either. But everyone else will be!"

Ronnie's famous twinkling smile returned. "Including Mallard Fillmore?"

"Millard," I corrected. "He's very touchy about that."

The seating arrangements were oddly familiar. The Democrats sat over on the left side of the ballroom, the Republicans were off to the right, and the Whigs were in the center-back area, closest to the beer. Nice bunch of guys, the Whigs, but hopelessly out of touch. Ronnie and I made the rounds and shook hands. Jack Kennedy was there, to my surprise; they'd let him out of Purgatory on a 24-hour pass but handcuffed him to Bella Abzug to ensure his good behavior, so he wasn't talking much. There was a brief commotion at the door when Gerald Ford tried to enter and the bouncers had to remind him, once again, that he's not dead, just forgotten. We made it back to our table — Lincoln always sits at the far right side of the room, with his back to the wall and a good view of the exits — at just about the same time as the big screen showed the cabinet walking in.

Lincoln was watching the TV and absolutely beaming. "Condi Rice. Well I never — I mean, I knew that Emancipation thing was a good idea, but I never dreamed..." Teddy stood up and pulled out a chair for Ronnie. Grant was there, but passed out face-down in a bowl of either bean soup or vomit, I couldn't tell which. Lincoln broke away from the TV and offered Ronnie a handshake. "Good job, son, we're all proud of you. Wish I'd had eight full years myself."

The Great Communicator took the handshake but was struck nearly speechless. "Sir, I — "

Someone at the front of the room shouted, "No, not George Stephanopolous! Change the channel!" Dan Rather's somnolent voice filled the air. "Again!" Whoever was controlling the TV started flipping around the dial, but then the Republicans took up a chant of "Fox! Fox!" and it was settled.

Ronnie turned to me. "Is it always this rowdy?"

I nodded. "Usually worse. Have a beer. Relax. Get into the — heh, heh — spirit of things. Look, there's Junior now." I pointed to the big screen.

For a few minutes, we all held silent and watched and listened as Junior started into his speech. Then Lincoln let out a heavy sigh.

"He is a Republican, right?"

Teddy shrugged. "At least he knows which end of the horse to talk to."

"But he over-enunciates so badly. And what is he doing with his hands? C'mon, Junior, loosen up, don't fidget. It's pronounced ish-you, not iss-you. And what on earth is 'nukular' power?"

Ronnie began to get the idea. "Hey, somebody nudge McCain, he's dozing off!"

Lincoln went on, frowning. "And what is this 'income tax' he keeps talking about? We managed to run the country for 130 years without any such thing as an 'income' tax — except during the Civil War, and then we repealed it as soon as the war was over."

Teddy shook his head. "I told Taft it was a bad idea."

"Did not!" Taft shouted from the next table over. "It's Wilson's fault!"

On the other side of the room, Wilson jumped up and shook his fists in the air. "Yeah! Taxes! More taxes! Bring it on!"

Teddy could only shake his head again. "Idiot."

"The only two certainties in life," Lincoln observed, "are death and taxes. And the only good thing about death is that Congress never tries to make it more fair." Our glasses were empty, so I went and got another pitcher. When I got back, Junior was talking about Social Security.

"I can't believe it!" FDR shouted from across the room. "You're still trying to maintain that mess? For crying out loud, it was an emergency measure we rammed through in the middle of the Great Depression! It was never supposed to last this long!"

"Y'know," Ronnie said, "much as I hate to admit it, I've always kind of admired FDR."

"Apparently, so does Junior," Lincoln said. "He's quoted him three times so far." Lincoln turned and looked at Teddy. "Are you sure he's a Republican? He's sounding more like Wilson or your little cousin Franklin every minute."

Ronnie, meanwhile, had begun giving Junior's performance a professional's scrutiny. "Look at the camera, kid," he muttered. "Stand up straight. Don't look at the Democrats in the room. Talk over them. Look straight at the camera and talk directly to the American people."

The camera cut to a reaction shot from the Senate, and Teddy asked, "Is it true you can't see Senator Clinton's reflection in a mirror?" We all got a cheap laugh at that one, refilled our glasses, and when we got around to paying attention again Junior was talking about the trade in human embyros and body parts.

"'Make sure human life is never bought or sold as a commodity?'" Lincoln repeated. "What is wrong with you people? Wasn't the 13th Amendment clear enough?"

"Things have gotten a bit complicated since then," Ronnie offered. "Er — "

Teddy interrupted. "You had to create a new government agency for Homeland Security? Why? Don't you still have Winchester and Colt?"

Before Ronnie could answer this as well, Lincoln thumped his fist on the table. "And what is this pledging to end tyranny and install freedom everywhere business? I swear, he sounds more like Wilson with every word."

Across the room, Wilson leaped to his feet again. "Yeah! Intervention! Nation-building! Bomb 'em 'til they love democracy! BRING IT ON!"

"And now he's quoting little Franklin again. 'Each age is a dream that is dying, or one that is coming to birth.' Well, duh!"

On the big screen Junior was saying, "The fall of imperial communism was only a dream — until one day, it was accomplished."

Ronnie finally frowned. "You're welcome. Sure, mention FDR all over the place, but do I get a word of credit?"

"And the speech is over," Teddy observed. "He's off the podium, moving into the crowd, shaking hands, and — My God, did he just kiss Senator Lieberman?"

Ronnie looked at me. "Should we stay for the rebuttal?" I looked across at Abraham.

"We'll need more beer," Lincoln said.

Grant woke up during Reid's rebuttal. "Who is that little pencil-neck?" he slurred. "Orville Redenbacher?" He appeared to listen intently for a few minutes, then stood up and staggered off, to mistake a decorative plant for a chamber pot.

Teddy lasted a little while longer, but when Reid said, "America is still the land of the open road," he leaped to his feet.

"And Democrats will make you drive it in a goddam hybrid!" This brought a few glasses flung in our direction from the left side of the ballroom, so Teddy rolled up his sleeves and stomped off, to do some big stick work on the Democrats. Reid finished, Nancy Pelosi started talking, and Ronnie's jaw dropped.

"Doesn't that woman ever blink?" he asked, not taking his gaze off the screen. "And what's with her eyebrows? Are they like, tattooed on? Oh, my God." He turned to me. "She's got Simpson eyes!" My confusion must have been evident, because he explained. "Her pupils don't converge. They diverge — they point in different directions. That's the way Matt Groening draws the Simpsons, to make them look psychotic." This cleared up exactly nothing, so Ronnie added, "I'm sorry, that came after your time. Never mind." We went back to watching Pelosi after that, but I was completely unable to hear her words because I was too busy concentrating on her eyebrows. Teddy returned, with a bloody nose, bruised knuckles, and a big grin, at just about the time Pelosi was complaining that Iraq had become a magnet for terrorists.

"Of course it has, you dimwit!" he shouted at the screen. "That's how you hunt predators! You put out bait, lure them in, and shoot them dead!" He turned to Lincoln. "I've seen enough. Ready?"

Lincoln drained his glass. "Absolutely." He stood up and shook Ronnie's hand. "Well, son, it's been fun. We'll meet again." He gave me a nod and a smile. "And good to see you again, Dick. Later." He and Teddy made a beeline for the door. I stood up, and Ronnie followed.

"I don't know," Ronnie said, shaking his head sadly. "Maybe it's too soon. Maybe coming here tonight was a bad idea. My poor country. Oh my poor, poor country."

Grant staggered back to us then, and threw a companionable arm around Ronnie's shoulders. "Aw, cheer up, kid," he said. "The nation will be okay. After all, it survived us, didn't it?"