Category Archives: editorial

I am officially sick of Ancient Astronaut Conspiracy Nonsense

Had to block a dude this morning because of Ancient Astronauts. A bunch of people were discussing whether or not they believed in life in space. Pretty much everyone but me said “Sure.” I explained that since there is zero proof at present, the reasonable conclusion is either “I dunno” or “No.” I’m not religiously attached to this. If SETI started getting the alien equivalent of Beverly Hillbillies reruns from Zeta 2 Reticuli tomorrow, it wouldn’t upset me at all.

This prompted the standard “Well, there’s got to be life in space, since space is so big.” This, to me, is like saying, “Godzilla must exist because the ocean is so big.” It’s more about what you want to be true, rather than what you have evidence for. I’m religious. I know these things.

Anyway, since I’m no fun, people quickly left me alone, but this one dude kept insisting that aliens had been visiting earth for our entire history. I explained that was easily-debunked nonsense, and he started shoving Zechariah Sitchin and Eric von Danikin at me. He said I should read them, I should look around, I should open my mind, and then I’d believe. He preached the gospel of ancient astronauts to me. I said, “Fine, then you read this,” and linked him to some actual scientific stuff that proves pretty conclusively that aliens have never been there. I said “It’s only fair that if you want me to question my beliefs, you should be open to question yours, too.” He didn’t.

I also tried to explain that the question of whether or not there’s alien life has nothing to do with whether or not aliens have visited earth. The universe might be full of life, but if it’s just algae, it ain’t building flying saucers. And if there’s intelligent life at, say, Zeta 2 Reticuli, there’s about 600 stars within 100 light years of there, of which we’re just one. What’s going to make them pick us out of the crowd? Or what if intelligent alien life exists, but they’re sessile sponge-like organisms on the bottom of an alien ocean who just filter feed and talk about poetry all day? They’re probably not traveling much, either. Or, hey, they’re just like us, but better looking and still stone-aged. The Stone Age lasted a loooooooooong time. A long, long, looooooooong time.

So he couldn’t grasp this. For him, alien life = ancient astronauts. Aliens built the pyramids because everyone just *KNOWS* Africans are too stupid to learn how to pile rocks on top of each other by themselves. They need aliens to help them. Aliens who didn’t teach them how to make the wheel, for some reason.

(In addition to it just being scientifically stupid, I’ve always found the “Ancient Astronauts” thing to be horribly, horribly racist)

Anyway, eventually I just got sick of it and blocked him. That might have been overreacting on my part. I’m sure he’s a fine guy, content to watch a little Mork and Mindy on channel 18 (UHF) and talk to his friends in the trailer park about how the homosexual community is working to build landing strips for gay martians outside of Des Moines, Iowa, or that Burrow Owls live in trees, or whatever irksome things people who get all their scientific knowledge from Star Trek believe this month.

Just the same, I’m sick of it. I’m 49, and as part of my ongoing efforts to FINALLY grow up, I hereby declare myself old enough that I no longer have to take part in these kinds of conversations.

RIP Gene Cernan, RIP Apollo

MY DIARY, Day 2096: It was Thursday, December 7th, 1972. My mom and dad and I, and a million of our closest personal friends, were standing along the banks of the Bananna river. It was long after dark. It was cold, the river stank, as usual, and it was crowded. My dad had long since given up me staying awake and standing, so he just carried me.

It was the night of the launch of Apollo 17, the last of the missions to the moon. Gene Cernan, who died yesterday, was in command of the mission. Back then, he was thirty-eight and I was five. (Going on six) I grew up in Cocoa Beach, and my dad worked for NASA at the Cape, so launches were commonplace in those days. I couldn’t really understand why this one was significant, why I couldn’t just go home and go to bed.

Then, around half past midnight: Ignition. The engines were the brightest thing I’d ever seen, brighter than the noonday sun, brighter than anything but a small atomic bomb. It went from a black Florida night to dazzling and hard to focus in perhaps a second. I remember roosters started to crow. I remember fish started flopping around in the river, thinking it was daytime. I remember a million breaths sucking in all at once in awe, and I remember the sound hitting us an instant later.

The Saturn V was – and remains – the most impressive rocket ever built, and the way things are going, it’ll probably stay that way. Tall as a 36 story building, six million pounds, it lept up quick – don’t be fooled by all that slo-mo footage you see on The History Channel, rockets are fast! – and tore off downrange. The intensity of light quickly faded to day-normal, and then we had an odd kind of second nightfall where it all faded to blackness again, with everyone standing around blinking and cheering with purple spots in our eyes. It had been the only night launch of the program. Decades later, I found out that it had been clearly visible as far away as North Carolina,  as far south as Haiti!

APOLLO 17 LIFTOFF FROM KSC. 12/7/72. REF: 108-KSC-72PC-42

I also remember the drive home. We lived less than ten miles from the Cape, but attendance for the final launch had been larger than any in NASA history, excepting Apollo 11, which sent Armstrong to the moon not quite four years before. So quick an age, so long a drive home. There’s probably a metaphor in that if you want to hunt for one.

It was total gridlock the entire way, with hundreds of thousands of cars on roads never intended to hold tens of thousands. I remember the white leather seats in the back of my dad’s car, trying to curl up and go to sleep, but it was so cold, and we hadn’t thought to bring a blanket. That drive seemed to go on forever, stop, start, stop, start, endlessly being jostled awake, irritated as hell.

Though I’d seen all of the Saturn V launches with my own eyes, I don’t consciously remember any of them, except for the last. Again, there’s probably a metaphor in there if you want to poke around.

Decades later, I developed a fascination for Apollo 17 for the same reasons we’re always fascinated by the last of some animal going extinct. In particular I grew more and more interested in Cernan. It was the end of an age. Though there have been sime impressive things in space since, nothing we’ve done in the years since has matched, or even come close to matching, the Apollo program, and that last launch was the most ambitious of all. When it was done, when they returned home about two weeks later, we went from actual physical explorers to voyeurs, gawkers, people who send robots off to do man’s work. It’s cheaper, safer, but dammit, it isn’t sexy. It’s not strapping a rocket to your ass and riding fire. Sure, hundreds of people have done that to get into space, to endlessly tool around in orbit for whatever reason, but even that isn’t nearly so cool as riding fire to actually get somewhere. 

APOLLO 17 LIFTOFF FROM KSC. 12/7/72. REF: 108-KSC-72PC-42

“Everyone remembers firsts, no one remembers lasts,” I wrote in one of my stories, “Everyone can tell you who the first man on the moon was, but nobody can tell you the last.” Well I can, it was Gene Cernan. It’s been 44 years since he left. I despair of anyone ever going again. The past is a country. The past is a lost continent, drowned by seas of time. The brave new world is past, and this timid age dares little.

Gene Cernan died the other day. He was 84, I was 49. A door slammed shut for me. There are other moonwalkers still alive, that’s not the point. Not to me, anyway. To me, Gene Cernan – moreso than Yuri Gagarin or Neil Armstrong – was the high water mark of the golden age of space exploration. He went to the most remote location of any of the six landings, he stayed the longest, he left last. He was the end. The last man, the last rocket, the last to strive, the last to try, the last, period.

Here’s a story about him I’ve heard, which may be apocryphal: He’d promised his daughter that he’d writer her name in the soil on the moon, where it would stay undisturbed for millions of years. In the massive workload and tight schedule of the mission, however, he forgot. He said that for the next 30 or so years, he couldn’t look at the moon without getting angry at himself for not doing it. I always thought that was cute.

Can I tell you a secret? My fascination with him led to me using a not-very-accurate version of him as a recurring character in some of my stories. If you’ve ever read any of my stuff, and noticed a slightly-manic grey-haired old guy named “Gene” turning up, that’s him. None of my characters ever say his last name, of course, though there’s plenty of clues. If you haven’t read any of my stuff, he figures most prominently in my novella, “Home Again,” and in my unexpectedly controversial short story, “The Cetian Sky.” He turns up here and there elsewhere and gets namechecked a few times, but he’s front and center in those two.

In the real world, Gene Cernan was every inch the hero. In my fictional world, where history followed a somewhat different road, I turned him into a full-on Moses of the Space Age. It just seemed appropriate somehow.

The Unexpectedly Adorable Reason I Like History So Much

When I was very little, our house was in the middle of nowhere and I had no friends. I watched a lot of TV as a result. All my knowledge of the world came through the tube, and while I recognized that not everything on it was real – for instance, I knew I Dream of Jeanie and Star Trek weren’t real, and I knew what a movie was – my grasp of the concept wasn’t much greater than that.

We lived in Cocoa Beach,  my dad worked at Kennedy Space Center, which was on the news every night, and in a lot of TV shows, such as Star Trek, Mission Impossible and the affore-mentioned I Dream of Jeanie. Prior to that we lived out west, in Montana, where there were lots of actual cowboys running around doing cowboy things. And there was no shortage of westerns on TV.

So when I was four or five my dad suggested that we take a vacation to England. I immediately began bawling my eyes out, screaming ‘no’. He asked me why, and I said, “Because Henry the Eighth will cut my head off.”

[Quick, “What have you been telling him” glance at my mom]

My dad explained that the British didn’t do that anymore. Henry had died a long time ago, and he only killed his wives anyway, so in any event, even if they did still do it, I’d be safe. I remember snuffling as my tears receded. “Really?”
“Yeah.”

In the end, we settled for Canada. Again.

The fun part of the story, though, is that while I knew some stuff on TV was fake and some wasn’t, I thought it was all right now. I thought space ships were from my area – which they were – and I thought that Cowboys were still out west – which they were – but I thought the Dust Bowl was still going on, and I thought Henry the 8th was still coming up with alternatives to alimony in London, and that it was perpetually World War II in Europe and perpetually the American Revolution in wherever the American Revolution took place (I was a little vague on that. Remember: I was maybe only barely five). I thought that the Indian Wars continued and  that Chicago was perpetually 1920s mobs fighting the feds, and that the Roman Empire was still around. I thought everything was now.

In short, I thought the world was a much more interesting place than it really was. Discovering that those events took place generations or centuries apart.

Because of my youthful misunderstandings, I think history was “Alive” to me, and as a result I’ve always seen it as fascinating, not just some dry ‘why do I need to know this?’ stuff you only learned for the test. It was real to me. It was now.

[pause]

Ehhhh….maybe not. I’ve been telling myself this story for 30 years, but actually writing it out, the idea that a misunderstanding I had when I was 4 or 5 would somehow shape my entire life is kind of silly. I mean how many things from when you were four still affected you when you were, say, 22?

Oh well.

Adorable story, though. Probably not true, but still adorable.

Why I Don’t Tend To Collaborate More

I have this fictional character that I invented as a minor support character in one of my stories. Later I decided to tell some “Spinoff” stories about just him. At that point I wasn’t in a position where I could write, and a friend (Who’s name I am deliberately not using) wanted to do some collaboration, so I gave him-or-her my one-sentence rough outline for a short story, and he-or-she wrote it, and it wasn’t bad, despite him-or-her flat out not understanding the concept of ‘climax.’ (“And then everything was just better”).
 
I fixed the end, and we published it online. He-or-she did another one, based on another one-sentence outline, which was just horrible. I fixed portions of it, he-or-she un-fixed them, I fixed ’em again, he-or-she unfixed ’em. Finally I said screw it and we put it up on the old website.
 
I gave him-or-her the outline for story #3 and he-or-she just stalled for more than a year and said “Well, I’m not feeling it,” so I wrote the story myself, which incorporated details from his-or-her two stories. I gave him-or-her a 4th to write, based on a one sentence outline, and he-or-she started working on that (Which I assume means spinning paranoid theories about the Catholic church for a couple years and not bothering to look at the story) and I got irritated and wrote it myself.
 
He-or-she didn’t seem to care about that, and flat out refused to write another one-sentence-outline, so I wrote that one myself.
 
He-or-she got pissy and siad that this character should be his (or hers) to do with as he (or she) wished because I (Randy) created the character and the universe and he-or-she (co-writer) had had so little input, despite me trying for about four or five years at this point to get my friend to actually do crap. He-or-she then insisted on changing the direction the character was going in, his whole plot arc, including the concrete point we’d always agreed on for the conclusion of the story in favor of the vague notion of the character becoming “Kind of a planet” which contradicted any number of already-established details in OTHER stories. (I eventually argued him or her to “King of the Asteroids.” Ugh. Stupid.)
 
Anyway, sick of the situation I said, fine, whatever, just get through the story outline I gave you and then he’s yours to do with whatever you want, so long as you don’t break the rules of the universe.
 
Another year goes by, nothing happens. I talk to him-or-her about it, and he-or-she doesn’t have the slightest hook on the story. So we spent two hours on the phone where I help plot the thing out. I don’t tell the story, I just said what needed to happen, and what couldn’t happen, and my friend simply couldn’t get a handle on the technical aspects of it. I worked those out myself and handed ’em over. He or she said “Cool, I’ll get right on this.”
 
Six months later I checked in, and it turned out that not only had he-or-she not written a single letter, he-or-she didn’t even remember our looooooong conversation. I was upset and said “Get your ass writing!” He or she said, “Well, I can’t, because I have to rewrite those two stories you wrote first.”
 
“What?”
 
“Yeah, the long one, and the other one. The other one is a conceptual nightmare.”
 
“You mean the one that got like a hundred online compliments?”
 
“Yeah, that one. It’s terrible. I need to do so much rewriting on that that I don’t even know where to begin.”
 
So here’s where the actual conflict of the story begins: Harlan Ellison has said that you can do whatever you want with a story while you’re writing it, change stuff, add stuff, remove stuff, whatever, but once it’s published it belongs to the reader, not you. You can’t go on editing the story once it’s on the bookstands. You can’t “Greedo Shot First” your story. It’s not fair to the readers, and it’s just a cheat, a sloppy, sloppy cheat.
 
I wholly agree. If something you don’t like makes it into a story, you just work around it in the next one. Star Trek never did the whole “Well, episode 15, where Riker came to grips with his homosexuality, never happened. Instead he’s straight as an arrow with a bad back, same as he’s always been” or whatever. Yes, you can “Bobby in the shower” away an entire season, but it’s a horrible thing to do, and you bleed ratings because of it. You should never never do that.
 
No matter how much we argued – actually argued. We never used to argue – he-or-she insisted that my already-published stuff had to be thrown aside entirely or massively rewritten to basically retcon his-or-her story which, by the way, he-or-she hadn’t written or even plotted out at that point. He or she couldn’t grasp the concept of *not* ripping the rug out from your readers’ feet. He-or-she would much rather gut two stories that were in actual books by that point in favor of the vaguest daydream of a story he/she was never going to write anyway.
 
Unacceptable.
 
Knowing that he/she was never actually going to write anything, I said, “Sure, whatever,” and ignored him/her from that point on. Later on, I came to realize that a lot of this was because he/she honestly believed anything done by anyone else to be just inferior crap, despite the fact that in the course off two decades my friend had only written, I think, three stories, and two of them were me kicking his/her ass to do it. Not a writer. Thinks he/she is a writer. Ugh.
 
This put me in a terrible situation, though: my friend is litigious. I was TRYING to put together a compilation of all the stories involving this character, but now there were two I just couldn’t use. This meant I had to ditch his/her stories, and write new, completely unrelated ones, to fill the gap. Which means that because goofus couldn’t comprehend the ‘don’t edit after you publish’ concept, I now have to do the vastly worse thing before I can put this damn book together.
 
Predictably, the project has now been on hold for 2 years, and I’m pretty depressed and unmotivated to finish it. I even had cover art drawn up for it, but it’ll probably never happen now. Fucker.
 
So that’s why I don’t tend to collaborate much.

What I’m Writing In 2017 (God Willing)

Good morning! Happy New Year.
 
After taking last year off from writing, I am officially working again as up about half an hour ago.
 
Some of you may recall my friend Jim Graham, who was the author of the “Scat” series surrounding the increasingly bizarre adventures of a 23rd century US Marine. If you don’t, the first couple books are currently free, so check ’em out. 
 
Anyway, he was about 80% of the way through the fourth book in the series, “Big Pharma.” Several months ago he told me he was dying of cancer, and asked me if I’d please finish the novel for him. I said, sure, obviously, and that was the last time we spoke before the end came.
 
Anyway, my friend’s book is the priority above any off my projects. I sat down this morning with a copy of the first book, (“Scat”) and started reading it. By the end of chapter 1 I had two full pages of notes.
 
Basically I think I’m going to re-read the entire series before I set pen to paper (“Finger to Keyboard?”) because I want to make sure I don’t introduce any continuity errors. I want it to follow his story, his style, his vision. I want it to be his book, not mine (Though I’ll gladly accept the “With Randall Schanze” co-credit on the cover that he promised me). Also, it’s British. I don’t want the novel to suddenly turn American. I want it to maintain the cadence and feel of something written by a Brit (Even if that does mean the American protagonist regularly says things like “Bugger” and “Sod off.”)
 
It’s a little daunting. Generally I write and that’s it. It pops out of my head. I write involving stuff I know, or stuff I just make up on the spot. Having to do a ton of research isn’t my normal style. I can do it, I will do it, but the length of time between me deciding to write one of my own stories, and actually starting on one of my stories is seldom more than a few hours. Here it’ll likely be a week or two, assuming real life doesn’t get in the way.
 
And I’ve still got no idea what the plot of “Big Pharma” is. I have the manuscript. I started to read it, but decided it needed to re-read everything from the beginning so I could be in proper context and mindset when I started.
 
Let me give you an idea what a great guy Jim was, though: As he was dying, he said that he had a pretty loyal core of fans who read all his books – moreso than me – and that he hoped my name on his project would increase *my* readership. No, really.
 
It’s an honor to be working on this.
 
In the larger scheme of things, I have several projects I’d also like to have finished this year, to make up for taking last year off. After Jim’s novel, I intend to finish my own longsuffering, way-too-ambitious novel, “The Fall of St. Grissom,” which I haven’t touched in more than two years. I’m going to be co-writing a sequel to “After Conquest,” I’ve got my obligatory annual book of short stories, and possibly a novel about my time in the very weird Accelerated Christian Education system in the 1970s.
 
Time permitting, I’d also like to revise my book of lyrics and poetry, “Everything is something’s food,” to be a little less sucky and a good deal longer, and re-issue that as a kind of second edition. I’m toying with the idea of a short book *about* the deservedly-forgotten series, “Man from Atlantis,” and I’ve toyed with the idea of putting out a book of grade-zed movie reviews, a’la “The Golden Turkey Awards,” which I thought might be fun.
 
We shall see.
 
Anyway, “Scat” and Jim come first. Check back here for progress reports. I’d like to thank my readers (I’m hesitant to claim I have fans) for their continued interest and their patience in 2016.

How I wrote a story about the tides and got labeled a Racist

Assuming there are any planets out there that are capable of supporting human life – which there probably aren’t – it’s unlikely they’re going to be like the endless array of Star Trek and Stargate planets, which all look like the west coast of the US and Canada. Or all those Dr. Who planets that look like a strip mine in Wessex.

I mean think of all the variations you can have in planets: heavier gravity, lighter gravity, bigger oceans, smaller oceans, no moons, one moon, two moons, five moons, a different colored sun, the amounts of inert gasses in the air, different lengths of day and night, and a jillion other things that could be different. Ever since I started reading Larry Niven’s “Known Space” stories as a kid, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of worlds that are only marginally habitable, or otherwise bizarre.

One of the questions that’s always interested me about this is what kind of psychological effect it would have on people, both the colonists and their kids. This is a subject that seems largely overlooked in the genre. Given that we evolved for a very specific set of environments, it didn’t seem to me like you could just turn that off and accept a planet that looked like a Yes album cover, no matter how cool it might look.

I invented the planet “Gagarin.” It’s pretty similar to earth, but it’s got two moons. One is about the size of Mars, the other is about the size of our own moon. As a result the tides on Gagarin are insane – a minimum of six hundred feet – twice a day. Think about that: Mountain ranges become island chains, then go back to being mountain ranges twice a day. There’s even a tide in the air, with the pressure gradually going up and down several PSI in time with the tides. And off course there’s the local exotic stuff: plants that have hair instead of leaves, weird animals, that kind of stuff, not to mention a thing in the sky that is way huger than humans are used to expecting in the sky.

Stick with me here…

For colonists on Gagarin, I dropped rural American Southerners. There were also a good number of Russians and Chinese – also rural – but the overwhelming majority were Southerners. Why? Because Southerners were low-caste enough that no one on earth would really miss them or care if they died. Such is the way of colonists through much of history: “Let’s ship off the undesirables.” This was a one-way trip for the 750,000 people I dumped there.

Well, once they got to Gagarin there was an epidemic of suicides. It wasn’t that the place was uninhabitable. As long as you stayed well away from the waterline, it was actually more hospitable than earth. It was just that it was strange. There’s a limit to how much people can adapt to, and how quickly. Food that doesn’t taste right, air that doesn’t smell right, not bad mind you, just different. The sun is a little too small in the sky. The stars are different at night. There’s that bigass moon in the sky, feeling like it’s going to fall on you at any moment. Add to this that they had to leave family and friends and most of their stuff behind, and were living in tents, and, well, it’s a recipe for mass psychosis, right?

Which brings me to the point of the story:

My “Gagariners” were so homesick, so starved for anything from their old lives, that they eventually chose the rebel flag as the symbol for their planetary government.

Well, duh, what else would you really expect a bunch of homesick rednecks to do, right?

This was not an uncontentious choice. Several people expressed extreme displeasure over it, but most people didn’t. In fact, even most of the Black people – who made up like a third of the colony – were on board with it, too.

“Why the hell would you do that?” you ask. Well, it wasn’t to be offensive. The very clear point of the story is to show how people can be sooooooooo far from home, both physically and emotionally, that they’ll cleave to anything familiar. There are hundreds of examples of this: the terrified kid on the first day of preschool who won’t let go of the little scrap of paper his mom gave him, the terrified Jew in a death camp desperately holding on to a star of David, Buzz Aldrin holding a communion service on the moon (really!), you name it. It’s human nature to grab on to what’s familiar and hold on for all it’s worth, until you get used to your new surroundings.

Those embers from the fire are important. They help us hold our heads together. They keep the monsters away. Of course they’re almost always arbitrary, and their intrinsic meaning isn’t the important thing. The important thing is familiarity. The more unfamiliar your situation, the more anything familiar becomes desperately important, be that thing good or ill, well, if it’s a good symbol you chose, so much the better. If it’s a bad one, well, any port in a storm, right?

So that’s why I did it: Not to be offensive, but to show how people react under stress, or at least one way they can.  I was pretty proud of the story. I thought it was well written, and it went in an interesting direction, and dealt with stuff seldom seen in Science Fiction. Not the best thing I ever wrote, but pretty good.

I’ve written a lot of stories, and I’ve deliberately pushed some boundaries with some of them. There are places I will not go, but to me SF is all about asking questions and dealing with the answers whether you like ’em or not. I didn’t consider this story to be controversial all. It’s very clear what’s going on, and why it happens. It’s also made very clear that this is not an objectively desirable choice, but it worked.

Of all the stories I’ve ever written, this is the only one to ever get me hate mail. I mean really vicious stuff. All of it, curiously, from white guys. I’m not saying “Hey, Black people are cool with the rebel flag.” I doubt they would be. I don’t really know or care what the color of my very few readers are. I did find it interesting that only white guys complained, though.

I don’t have a solid hypothesis as to why. I suspect that it’s because an issue can be so contentious that some people can’t look at it objectively. Even if the story clearly, objectively says one thing, they see the forbidden bit, and immediately take it to mean exactly the opposite.

I was pretty shocked by this. I’m not even remotely racist, and the thought of being labeled one really upset me. I thought about changing the story, but anything else I substituted for that damn flag lacked the punch to make it work. I thought about just pulling the story, but it’s a neat idea. Then I thought of what Harlan Ellison said (Paraphrasing) ‘when the story is published, it isn’t yours anymore. It belongs to the audience, and you can’t say ‘oh, I didn’t mean that’ or ‘just let me change this one bit’.’ I agree with that. I did it, it’s out there, and I’ll just take the consequences.  Is that wise? Hell, I don’t know. Obviously I don’t know anything. I was just trying to tell an interesting story. Fortunately, I suppose, no one ever reads my books.

It is odd, however, that a person’s reactions can become so rigidly programmed that they can’t accept contradictory information. I’m not saying I’m better than these people. I’m sure I’ve got some symbol or thought that triggers me the same way. I just find it odd, is all, that out of all the offensive and weird crap I’ve written, this comparatively trivial thing was what set people off.

But anyway, that’s the story of how I tried to write a story about really funky tides and ended up getting labeled a racist.

If you’d like to read the story and decide for yourself, and maybe discuss it with me, the story is called “The Cetian Sky”, and it’s included in this book here https://www.amazon.com/Undead-War-Other-Stories-ebook/dp/B018Y1LRFS/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8 (Which, just to bring things full circle, contains a story that Larry Niven liked. Not this particular one, though)

 

Goodbye, Republibot (2008-2016)

Once upon a time two friends and I started a website called “Republibot.” There is a tendency among people on the far right, be it religious or political or both, to view Science Fiction as liberal, bad, and maybe even sinful. Our mandate was to show them that there was nothing to be afraid of, and that, just like most other good things in art, it’s open to everyone.

I don’t know how well that worked. Most of our readership ended up being Libertarian, with a lot of liberals, too. They liked us, though. A lot of our regular readers seemed to show up intending to make fun of us, then be rather shocked to discover that we weren’t name-calling or picking fights or plugging those dopey “Left Behind” books. Instead we were writing insightful, respectful articles, explaining complex concepts to people who probably hadn’t been exposed to them before, writing serious reviews, publishing original fiction, interviewing interesting people, and stuff like that.

I should mention that I’m not now, nor have I ever been, a Republican. I did pretend to be one on there, though I felt increasingly icky about it over time, and eventually dropped the pretense. The goal was a public service, though, not an agenda. We were just trying to show people “You don’t need to be afraid of this. Some of it might actually be good for you.”

So: Five years as head writer/editor, literally MILLIONS of words written, hours a day on it, and of course we never made a dime. We never got as much readership as then-small sites like Topless Robot and some others, which is weird because we were honestly doing better work. We lacked a budget and the media connections, I guess. I dunno.  Pretty much sums up my whole life right there: I beat my brains out trying to make something good, and end up with nothing to show for it, except maybe carpal tunnel and some depression.

I don’t know if I should go into the things that happened, but about three years ago I quit the site, and it was handed over to a new interim editor. Readership and content plummeted, which isn’t too surprising as the new editor was only keeping it running until a permanent replacement could be found. Time ground on, and not only was a replacement not found, but I don’t think the site owner was even looking. (As was repeatedly pointed out to me, I was only a hired gun. An unpaid hired gun at that). A year after I left I came back as a favor to the beleaguered new editor to contribute one guest column a week. I left at the end of that year.

They decided to ‘put the site in amber,’ so to speak. That is: they kept the content online – oh so much content – but didn’t allow new content, nor comments, nor anything else. I was, of course, disappointed. I’d spent so much of my life on that damn site, you know? I was one of the founders. I quit, but that didn’t mean I wanted it to fail. I wanted it to go on and be successful and have a life of its own, just without me having to do 90% of all the work. So: Disappointing, but at least all that stuff was still available, including the fun comments conversations.

A couple months ago, I noticed that the site was down. The site owner and I haven’t really spoken in two years, so I didn’t contact that person, but going through a third party I was told the owner was looking for a cheaper server and that the site would return.  I doubted it, but it was possible.

Yesterday I noticed that the URL was up for sale.

It’s gone, it’s not coming back, and everything I did was for nothing.

Sigh.

http://www.republibot.com

 

 

Where Karl Marx Blew It

Here’s where I think Karl Marx got it wrong. I’m not an authority or anything, these are just flaws that pop out at me on my reading.

1) It doesn’t allow for change.
Maxism assumes that once they achieve the end of history and the birth of the new man, and everyone lives in utopian socialist splendor, nothing will ever change. There won’t be any innovations that cause his utopia to struggle to adjust, there won’t be any world-shattering disasters, population problems will just kinda go away somehow, it’ll all just stay heavenly forever.

This inflexibility is a real weakness in that his system essentially breaks if there’s any change to the status quo. I can actually forgive him for being this naive. He lived at a time when technological innovation was still rare and novel enough that it wasn’t really seen as a major factor in life, and most people – particularly in the old world – don’t seem to have realized that we’d just keep on cranking out newer and better toys forever. He’s a product of our times. Thing about how Amazon has completely changed the world. Thing about how the internet has completely changed the world. Think of how antibiotics have change the world. Hell, think about how gasoline engines and television changed the world. The world changes a lot, pretty much continually, and we actually look forward to it. Even so, we’re still struggling to figure out how to deal with the changes Amazon has made to large swaths of the economy.

These are things Communism couldn’t deal with at all. I don’t mean specifically retail as that’s a non-issue in a capital-free society. I mean, like, say, antibiotics and fertilizers, which cause population booms, which cause massive strain on resources. We can deal with it. Marx can’t.

2) Marxism is ignorant of Psychology and Anthropology.
Again, this is a rookie mistake. When he wrote, there was no study of psychology, Freud hadn’t done anything, and while Darwin’s Origin of Species had just been published and everyone thought it was interesting, most people didn’t think it had all that much to do with them, personally. (Contrary to popular belief, Darwin only spends about a paragraph at the end of the book speculating about human evolution. Otherwise he leaves that subject alone)

Now, up to Marx’s time, there were a few explanations as to why people behaved the way they did: (1) God and our sinful nature and so on, if you were in the majority, (2) People are superstitious and ignorant, if you were an Enlightenment type (3) Poverty and lack of education. Marx was of the 2nd and 3rd opinions. This was a reasonable assumption in his day.

Why? Because we didn’t know jack about how the human brain works. The stuff we still don’t know outnumbers the things we do, but if you have to choose between Zero (Which his age knew) and “A whole bunch” (Which our age knows), we’re obviously a lot further on. We understand, for instance, that we are not a Tabula Rasa, that much of our behavior is hard-wired into us by millions of years of evolution (Or God. Or Both. Whichever you prefer). Much of the way we behave is because those behaviors are instincts that have survival value.

Are you a little xenophobic? Well, Marx would tell you that’s uncalled for and ignorant. He’s wrong: find an American Indian and ask them how nice it is to meet new people from far away. Hateful xenophobia is bad, but mild xenophobia is the thing that tells you to hang back and see if you can trust ’em before you risk yourself and your family and your tribe. It’s a good thing. There are hundreds, probably thousands of examples. Even religion and pet ownership have been show to have some survival value.

Marx essentially wrote off anything that he saw as illogical as useless, and hence to be discarded. We know, however, that we need some or all of those things to function well, to be healthy. There’s a wide variety in how much of each a particular person needs, and some may need more of one thing and none at all of another. Marx essentially didn’t allow for human nature.

3) Marx paints a very boring Utopia.
This is one that I’ve only ever heard one other person bring up. Alexi Sayle, of all people. Basically Marx could never figure out what to do with his utopia once we’d attained it. Pretty much people just seemed to be wearing togas and playing the flute and dancing around in a sylvan glen without any problems.

I mean, yeah, they gotta work for the common good, but in a static world of plenty, there’s no real meaning to it.

Humanity craves meaning. The utopia that Marx depicts is kind of antithetical to it, in that it’s removed pretty much everything we could use to judge meaning by. The only thing the Marxist utopia gives you is existence, and that’s not nearly enough. I mean, we get that free when we walk in the door anyway, right?

Does existence make us happy? I mean, we’re pretty stressed out and angst ridden, we worry about stuff, we wonder who we are and what we are and what it all means. This isn’t limited to poor people like Karl and me: Rich people – who have every benefit – do the same thing. Educated people. Uneducated people. Sophisticates. Stone aged folk wonder about these things, too. Maybe not all to the same extent, but existential dilemmas are an intrinsic part of identity.

Without them, I suppose, you cease to be fully human. Again, this is Marx not understanding the human brain. We’re the end result off 3 million years of evolution of predatory pack hunters. Wondering who and what we are, and why we’re separate from nature, unlike any other animal, that’s a fundamental part of consciousness. We’re super-neurotic, but that was how God or evolution or both kept us alive. You can’t just handwave all that aside as if it means nothing.

Utopia is something to strive for, not something to attain. Utopia may be a fine place, but there’s no room for people there.

So that’s what I got. Sound off.

Before, During, and After the Trail of Tears

Back in the 19th century, there were what they called “The Five Civilized Tribes.” These were the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Creek, and the Seminole.

They were called that – even by themselves – because they’d recognized the times had changed, and adopted White ways. They’d abandoned most of their traditional ways of living, moved into American-styled towns and houses. Most took up then-modern farming and other jobs. Most of them had learned to speak English at least as a second language. Most of them had converted to Christianity. A great many had adopted White names. As all these tribes were Southern, they’d even adopted slavery. Despite this, Indians weren’t citizens in those days, and most of them lived in Tribal lands defined by treaty (This was before Reservations), in Indian-only communities. (Not counting missionaries, slaves, and the occasional White spouse). It’s important to remember that Indians weren’t citizens in those days.

The Cherokee were far and away the most successful of these tribes, mostly because they’d always been the most liberal. I mean “Liberal” in the sense of being quick to dispense with tradition if something better comes along. Pragmatic, as well. The other four “Civilized Tribes” were a bit slower. Indians as a whole were very reticent to change traditional ways. Who can blame them?

The Cherokee, meanwhile, had their own newspapers in their own language written in their own alphabet, they had a good school system, and they were pretty wealthy, as these things go. Though there were several groups in several different places, the bulk of them lived in a large hunk of land in Georgia, and their capital was a town called “New Echota.”

Eventually Gold was discovered on Cherokee land, and everyone was screwed. White settlers wanted that land, and started taking it, often violently. This led to what eventually became “The Indian Removal Act,” in which Congress decided to gather up all the Indians east of the Mississippi, and dump ’em in “The Indian Territory” (The eastern part of modern Oklahoma). While mostly this was just an attempt to get rid of inconvenient people to facilitate a land grab, there was a degree of mercy to it as well. They were going to grantee the Indians’ safety, move them to new lands where they wouldn’t have conflict with white folk. This was a shitty, racist thing to do, obviously, but in the wonky mindset of the times, Whitey Devil thought he was being nice.

Famously, the Cherokee mounted a serious legal challenge to this. It went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States and…surprise!…The Indians Won! It didn’t matter. Andrew Jackson challenged the Supreme Court to enforce their decision, and nobody knew what to do about it. They attempted (Eventually) to impeach him, but that failed. Now, it’s important to realize that Andrew Jackson didn’t hate Indians. Two of his sons were adopted Indian Orphans, and by all accounts he loved them dearly and didn’t care about their race. He really, really, really wanted the Five Civilized Tribes’ land, however. And he kinda hated the Supreme court.

Ok, so here’s where it gets interesting:

The Cherokee realized they were screwed. They had about two years before they were evicted. The Cherokee were ruled by a council, with two factions in it: The “Pin” Cherokee and the regular old Cherokee. The “Pins” were pureblood, insofar as anyone could be sure, and wore pins – essentially club pins – to make sure everyone knew. These guys had way more voice on the council than anyone else.

The council hatched a plan: Concluding that a little of something is better than all of nothing, why not approach the Federal Government with a counter-offer? Rather than wait for the deadline for removal, they’d offer to leave a year early *IF* the Federal Government would pay them for the land, and arrange transport and provisions. This would get them some money, whereas if they waited the lands would just be taken, *AND* it would allow them to get to Oklahoma a year before the other tribes and gobble up all the best land, giving them an advantage. They figured the federal government would jump at it. It really was a very clever plan.

The Pin Cherokee adamantly opposed it. After a lot of argument, and that deadline ticking closer, the regular Cherokee on the council decided to just go ahead and do it anyway. As predicted, the Feds jumped at it because it allowed them to open up tens of thousands of acres – some with gold – up for settlers much earlier.

This was only questionably legal. The Council went behind it’s own back and ignored the more powerful members, so it was probably an illegal treaty. The Pin Cherokee opposed it ’til their dying days, but the Feds said “No takebacks,” and thus we have the Trail of Tears.

All the bad stuff you know about it is true, but it’s more expansive. The first batch of Cherokee were supposed to be met at various locations along the route by various organizations – mostly church groups – who’d give them supplies, food, shelter, etc. Given this, the Army underestimated the amount of supplies and transport they’d need. For whatever reason, the civilian resupplies didn’t materialize. Mostly it was bad scheduling, people not keeping promises, or the Cherokee making slower progress than expected, meaning they didn’t make connections. It was FUBARED. As a result, the Army (Who weren’t particularly sympathetic, but didn’t hate them) didn’t have nearly enough supplies to make up the difference. Added to which, the weather was just beyond awful for months. The end result was that a whole bunch of people died, but it’s important to note that nobody was *trying* to kill them. I am not justifying this. IThis was a hugely awful racist thing to do, but its disastrousness owed more to typical bureaucratic fuckupery than flat out Nazi-styled evil. In fact, many of the Army complained about how awful the thing was.

So then they got to Oklahoma, and promptly gobbled up all the good land, as planned.

Now, not all of them went willingly. Many refused to accept the treaty, and there were several waves of forced migration. President Van Buren never opposed removal, but he did tell the army to stop the draconian shit (“show every possible kindness to the Cherokee and to arrest any soldier who inflicted a wanton injury or insult on any Cherokee man, woman, or child.” which is 19th-century-ese for “Knock it the fuck off!” He put nicer officers in charge) After that, things got better. Not pleasant, mind you, certainly not *right,* but more on the order of a normal long wagon train and less like the Batan Death March. The subsequent forced removal of the other Indian tribes was far less eventful than the clusterfuck the Cherokee were forced through. I’m not being glib, but volunteering to go first means you’re gonna be going through the system before the bugs get worked out.

So when the other Civilized Tribes got there, they had no choice but to live on crappier land. There were a lot of hard feelings. There were also a lot of hard feelings among the Cherokee themselves, and a bloody civil war broke out within the tribe almost immediately. It lasted for seven years, with the Pin Cherokee and their supporters on one side, and the regular Cherokee and their supporters on the other. The war didn’t really end until everyone of the Regular Cherokee Councilmen who’d signed the treaty were dead.

Except one: Standhope Oowattie, who also went by Standhope Wattie, Stand Wattie, or just Stand. This was a translation of a Cherokee word, but he seldom used it in Cherokee. Being just a hell of a cavalryman, he managed to survive the whole war, and negotiated his safety at the end.

There were understandably some super-de-duper-de pissed-off feelings towards the US after all this, so when the Civil War started, the Cherokee naturally sided with the South. Some Cherokee recognized this as a bad idea, of course, and went Union. This led to yet another civil war within the tribe, though not as bad as the first since the dispute came down to “I hate the United States” vs “I hate the United States too, but there’s no way we can win.” The angrier side made up the majority, again, understandably.

For its part, the Confederacy was surprisingly pro-Indian. They had a very weak Western boarder, and they knew it, and figured Indians were ready-made Horse Cavalry. The Five Civilized Tribes agreed, and were promised some kind of special representation in the CSA congress once they won. It’s unknown what the details of this would have been, and undoubtedly the CSA wouldn’t have kept their word anyway, but the Cherokee and the others fought really well.

Stand Wattie once again proved to be a really good military man, and eventually was promoted to Brigadier General in the Confederate Army. He was the first American Indian flag officer in North America, though of course he was on the wrong side. After Lee’s surrender, the Cherokee held out for more than two months. Wattie (Who was Principal chief of the entire tribe by then) finally negotiated a surrender that included freedom for all his men. Then he beat it off to Texas for a while to reunite with his family and see which way the wind was going to blow. Predictably the Confederate Cherokee were entirely removed from power, and the Union Cherokee were in power, so Stand lived as an exile with the Choctaw for a while.

The man must have been as good with words as Robespierre, though, as he managed to not only talk the Cherokee into taking him back (As a private citizen, no role in government), but also to get sent to Washington as part of a committee to renegotiate the US treaties with the various tribes in the Indian Territory.

So there you go: a broader picture of a disgraceful event in our nations history, in context, and a look at not only how clever the Cherokee of those days were, but also the very many ways in which they got screwed.

Comments? Thoughts? Don’t take my word on any of this. Check it out for yourself. It’s a fascinating period in history. And if I got something wrong, please let me know. I’m working from memory here.