I think for me, the most sure-fire appealing SF is that which deals with questions of identity.
Blade Runner is the most obvious example of this: Androids (Basically) are programmed with false memories of their lives prior to their activation for psychological reasons, but they know they’re androids. A detecive is hired to track them down. Along the way he meets another android who doesn’t know she’s an android because of the fake memories, and handles it not at all well. In the end, after killing off the last of the bad androids, he discovers that he’s an android, too, and runs.
Dark City is another one: a guy wakes up with Amnesia, framed for a murder he may or may not have committed. He’s got an estranged wife that he loves, and is on the run, but he notices that the map of the city redraws itself every night, and he ke keeps seeing the same people in different jobs every night, and begins to suspect that he’s never even met his wife prior to visiting the movie, that those are false memories. As it turns out, a hive-minded alien species is trying to find “The Human Soul,” for lack of a better word, by redefining people’s lives and memories dozens of times, assuming that which doesn’t change is the thing they’re looking for.
The Prisoner TV series spends 17 episodes with a character named “#6” attempting to figure out who the shadowy ruler of The Village, “# 1,” is. Ultimately it turns that #1 is, and has always been, #6 himself. (And in fact, they told us that in the opening titles of every episode: #6 says “Who is number one?” and the #2 of the week says “You are number six.” Which actually is written, “You are, number six.” Hidden in plain sight.)
Much, if not most of Philip K. Dick’s novels and stories touch on this to some extent. The most notable case is in “A Scanner Darkly,” when undercover narc Bob Arctor is accidentally assigned the task of spying on himself by mistake. Rather than blow his cover (Even his bosses don’t know who he is), he goes along with it, and gradually suffers brain damage to the point where he’s Bob half the time, and a druggie the rest of the time. the ultimate attempt to re-fuse his identities devastates him, and turns him in to yet another person, who’s just another burned out wasteoid.
There’s a book – forget the title – where the main character is a spy who’s memory is wiped after every mission. He then has it put back in at the start of his next mission, and he’s always quite shocked to find out all the stuff he’s done.
I like hard SF, but I don’t see this as incompatible with that. I also like questions of the human soul, and this is all about that.
In the end, I suppose, a line from one of Laurie Anderson’s songs has always stuck with me:
We don’t know where we come from
and we don’t know what we are.
SF is uniquely suited to try to define the parameters of that question, even if it is fundamentally unanswerable. I admire anyone who takes a stab at it.
I’m an unabashed fan of the Stargate franchise. If you’ve never seen it, this discussion won’t make any sense to you, so turn back now. If you have, though, I’ll relate the highlights of a discussion my family had about the SGC over dinner tonight:
Me “How many people know about the Stargate program?”
Son “I dunno.”
Me “Well, let’s try to work backwards.”
Son “Ok. There’s 25 teams, so that’s 100 people there.”
Me “Right, plus medical staff. Honey? How many people on the medical staff would you think is appropriate given what we’ve seen?”
Wife “Maybe around 150, including doctors and nurses and corpsmen and so on. They’re kept pretty busy. Plus psych personnel.”
Me “Plus kitchen staff”
Wife “Forty or fifty”
Son: Plus Janitorial staff
Me: “Right. Because even they’d have to have a really high security clearance, and it’s a bit facility in use 24/7/365, so, what, probably another 40 or 50?”
Wife: “What about scientists?”
Me: “Most of the long-term research is done at Area 51.”
Wife: “How many there?”
Me: “Well get back to that. We mostly only ever see Dr. Lee and Sam, but they make it clear there’s others around. Let’s say 20 or 30?”
Son: “Plus at least one space shuttle crew. And the crew of the ISS. And whoever unloads the recovered cargo from a space shuttle.”
Me: “Good point.”
Son: “And let’s not forget the USS Nimitz and that entire carrier group. I mean, yeah, they’re all dead, and the Navy said it was meteors, but a lot of Navy people must have been in on the cover up.”
Me: “Again, good point. Now, area 51: Honey, how long does it take to build an aircraft carrier?”
Wife: “Pretty close to a decade, I think.”
Me: “With tens of thousands of construction workers?”
Wife: “Oh, yeah, totally.”
Son: “I agree the Prometheus and Daedalus class ships were probably about the size of aircraft carriers.”
Me: “They were working on the Prometheus for a while before we saw it, but they can’t have been working on the Daedalus all that long. How many F-304s are there?”
Son: “Daedalus, Odyssey, Apollo, Hammond, Sun Tsu, oh, and the Korolev, which got blown up almost immediately. How many crew for an aircraft carrier?”
Me: “About 5000.”
Son: “They never have anywhere near that number. It’s usually in the hundreds. What’s a skeleton crew for a carrier?”
Me: “If you just want to steer and go forward for a couple days? Maybe a half dozen. If you want to actually DO anything, a couple hundred at least.”
Son: “So they’re probably on skeleton crews.”
Me: “that makes sense.”
Wife: “So we’re guessing about 10,000 people in Cheyenne Mountain, and, what, 30,000 or so in Area 51?”
Son: “At least. Probably more since they’re cranking those ships out one a year.”
Me: “They might be constructing them in other countries.”
Son: “Unlikely. Russia had to beg for one. Probably China, too.”
Me: “Good point. This is increasingly implausible. I could buy it when it was just Cheyenne.”
Son: “Plus the governments of Russia, China, France, England, and Canada.”
Wife: “And all the signatories of the Antarctica treaty. AND what about the contractors and stuff who build all this crap?”
Me: “True. They did say some alien tech was slipping into commercial products by means of corporate espionage by the contractors.”
Son: “Heck, that one guy managed to clone an Asgard.”
Wife: “What about Atlantis? Or Icarus?”
Me: “Let’s ignore them for now. They’re comparatively small operations.”
Wife: “yeah, true. So what do you think?”
Me: “Well, when we started I was going to say maybe 30,000 people, but now that we’re all looking at it reasonably, I’m saying at least 100,000 people, and that’s probably a lowball number.”
So what do you all think?
I realized yesterday that I’m overwhelming. Not in the “Oh, he’s so wonderful,” sense, but more in the “Randy is exhausting, and I just can’t deal with him,” sense.
There’s any number of examples: I’ve been in and out of bands and writing songs and making music since 1988. Why? When I started out, obviously, I hoped I’d get a big break and be a rock star. Everyone does. By 1990 or 91 I’d realized that wasn’t going to happen, but I kept on doing it. Most of my friends had already given up on that sort of thing by then, but I kept going.
My goal? Never clear. Mostly, I think I just wanted to include a song or two on the mix tapes I sent my friends to let ’em know I was still doing this. I never did, of course, because making music and recording it are very different, and recording it in 1991 was way harder than now.
Oh, and let’s take the mix tapes, shall we? I made ’em. I made a lot of them. I was very interested in very many very different kinds of music, so I made mix tapes that I sent my friends. Two or three a year. If you were unlucky enough to be my girlfriend or on the shortlist of best friends, you got more than that. We called it “The Randy Records and Tapes Club.” Eventually I switched to CD. I slowed down a bit, to one or two a year.
I got less and less response every time, and had to keep needling people to find out what they though of “Astronauts,” by “Desk,” featuring backing vocals by Aimee Mann, or a long-lost They Might Be Giants B-Side, or a Cold Water Army song or an unfinished Roy Orbison track or my Ska obsession or what have you. Oh, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins! I don’t think anyone on the planet likes him but me, and BOY was I vocal about it.
Finally, around 2007 I sent out a really good double-disk mix, and I didn’t hear back from anyone. Not a peep. When I pressed, I was angrily told that it was just too much, that we were all 30-ish now, and weren’t interested in hearing new crap, and please knock it off. Depressing.
So I knocked it off. I started actually recording my own music, and eventually started putting it on youtube and nobody cares. If I get 13 views, that’s exceptionally popular for me. Again, if I push people, they get mad. “Nobody wants to listen to your stupid songs about Ocelots, or your weird-ass instrumentals, Randy!” Depressing.
Oh, and I write. A lot. I always have. I was head writer for Republibot for five years, and no one cared. When I quit, it folded, and nobody cared. I have this site you’re reading, and I’d be surprised if 5 people read it a month. I also had a fanzine (“Rampant Boingophrenia”) and eventually another one for heretical religious matters called “Sacrilege, Ho!” (Obviously I put a few of these online eventually) and my endless movie reviews and chat rooms and stuff. Nobody cared about any of this. Actually, I was irritating and/or scaring them. Depressing.
Then I started writing books, and NOBODY wants to have anything to do with you if you’re self-publishing books. Seriously: your friends who’ve talked about that novel for 25 years, but never actually got around to it hate you. People who actually write ignore you because they’re busy writing. People who don’t care about such things find it pretentious. People who do care about such things generally have more interesting stuff to check out than my nonsense.
Yeah, you might get a couple people who will buy the first book out of politeness, and never read it, or skim it and give you a nice “It had a good beat, and you can dance to it” review on Amazon, but after that, you’re done. I’ve got, what, eight books, seven of which are pretty good, and one of which is terrible. (No, seriously: It’s my crappy poetry. Stay away from that one) I’ve got four more in various stages of completion that I hope to have out this year.
That’s a lot of stuff! Nobody cares. Depressing.
Added to which I am reputed to be (As one person put it) a “Vigorous conversationalist.” What that boiled down to is (As another person put it), “Requiring way too much energy to talk to.” I can see that. I probably am a lot of work. I never talk about normal stuff like sports. I’m always on about whether or not Saul of Tarsus was part of the Herodian Royal Family, or my latest project that no one cares about, or what I’d do if I was making Galactica for a third time.
So, bottom line: I’m overwhelming. I produce more stuff than people can keep up with. And people don’t want to keep up with it. They want to read Dan Brown novels and listen to whatever was popular whenever they were in High School, and not have me wildly speculating about theology, or the Apollo program, or why Venus is better than Mars for colonization.
AND I CAN NOT FAULT THEM FOR THAT.
Nor do I. Maybe 1 or 2 percent of people are really interested in the giddy thrill of thinking or experiencing or seeing or hearing new things after their 20s. We’re all pretty set in our ways by the time we hit 50. We’re actually neurologically wired to enjoy learning less by that point: We’re supposed to have learned everything we need to by then. I never felt like I’ve learned anything.
This is not arrogance or elitism on my part. I don’t think I’m any better than anyone else. I’m just a flibbertigibbet. I chase after any new shiny object or idea that catches my eye, and I talk about it. A *LOT* Way too much. It’s my failing, not theirs. I don’t have a lot of impulse control in that regard.
OH, and I forgot to mention my mood swings. My mania and depression, and frequent unpredictable behavior. That’s tiresome as well.
So the bottom line here is that I’m just exhausting.
I get that now. I really do. I’m not depressed about it or anything, I’ve just finally identified the problem, and I’m a little excited about that.
The question, then, is what I do about it.
I got no clue. Please sound off if you’ve got any ideas.
This is an open letter to the people of California, intended to express why secession from the United States (“CalExit”) is a disastrously bad idea for you, and a pretty terrible one for the rest of the world as well. Before we begin, I’m a political radical. My toenail clippings are probably more liberal than Bernie Sander’s entire body. I recognize that these appear to be pretty dark times for the US. However no night is ever so black that foolish actions can’t make them even worse. So, here are a few things for your consideration:
In no particular order:
1) It’s illegal. In the court case “White vs. Texas” (1869) the Supreme court of the United States ruled that unilateral secession is illegal, because, I guess, 750,000 dead people in the Civil War didn’t make that plain enough. If you want your country to respect “Rule of Law,” you’re off to a bad start.
2) It’s Unamerican. You think, “Well, duh,” but let’s take that a little further: In the 49 loyal states, Democrats would be seen as traitors and cowards, much like they were after the Civil War. That war crippled your party for two generations. What that translates out to in modern times is that if you leave, no decent American would every vote Democrat in the other 49 ever again. You’d be handing the country over to the Republicans for generations.
Furthermore, once you talk about leaving you completely invalidate your opinion, and right to talk about problems in the US.
2) It’s Undemocratic. If California decides to leave, it means “I only believe in Democracy when I win,” and “I’m only American when it suits me.” Added to which, California is overwhelmingly Democrat. Pretty much by definition you’d be setting up a one-party democracy, which is pretty much the foundation of an authoritarian regime. More on this later.
3) It’s pretty cowardly. “We could stand and fight and organize and vote and work, but instead, we’d rather just pack up our ball and go home.”
4) You will tank the world economy. This is a big one: Firstly: The US Dollar is the most stable currency in the world. So stable that 8 other countries use it as their legal currency. (really) 29 other countries use it as their unofficial currency because their local stuff is a joke. 27 other countries have their currencies pegged to the US dollar, which means that a Belize dollar is always equal to 50 US cents, regardless of what the US dollar is worth internationally at the time. Now, the overwhelming majority of these countries are very, very poor, as you’d expect. Leaving the US would obviously cause a stock market crash the likes of which the world has never seen, and it would trash the dollar. Wouldn’t destroy it, but it’d trash it. What that means is that in leaving the US you’d destroy the economies of 64 other nations. Poor nations. Nations that are on the edge of starvation now. So your secession ends up with people all over the world dying of starvation, or reduced to homelessness, all to serve your selfish fanaticism.
Very humane of you! If you’re looking for a national motto, may I suggest “Pedicabo ego et Ceteri?”
5) Let’s discuss your own economy, too: You’d need to come up with your own currency, as US currency would be void for obvious reasons. That means you’d have to go with fiat, or take out huge loans (Probably from China), or deal with runaway inflation.
Being as you’re not a member of NAFTA, you’d get no benefits from that, meaning big tariffs. That’s assuming you could get anyone to trade with you. I mean the US certainly would completely boycott you, right? That’s, what, at least a third of your economy? And Canada would be pissed because you trashed their economy, too, and also ‘cuz they don’t want to piss us off. Mexico might want to play with you, but then again you’d have plunged them into even worse poverty.
What about close allies of the US? If they have to choose between a short-lived rebel state like you, and their centuries-long relationships with the US, guess who they’ll choose. Because they know you’ll lose, and don’t want to back a losing horse, particularly because they need the other horse. This might not last forever, but if the US tells Japan “Boycott them,” Japan definitely will. Your primary trading partners will be China and Russia, and do you REALLY wanna climb into bed with them?
6) The US actually feeds about 1/3rd of the world directly or indirectly. Most of that food we give away, or sell below cost, as humanitarian decency. If you tank the world economy, we can’t afford to do that anymore, we’d have to take care of our own selves. That means people in the third world starve. Way to go, California! Your commitment to diversity and equal rights for all races will have caused countless deaths in countries full of non-white people! Well done! (That was sarcasm)
If you think I’m wrong about this, consider the food riots in the Philippines and Asia about a decade ago. During the Ethanol boom, US grain production shrank, as corn was more lucrative. This meant other countries didn’t get enough grain. People starved. People rioted. People died, man. Is your quest for Kalifornia Uber Alles worth the life of a single starving child? If you think it is, you’re just a terrible, terrible person.
7) So how much of California would you actually get to keep? There’s about 100 Indian reservations in California. These are not in any way subject to the Californian government, and in fact by your own state laws and Federal and Tribal laws and even UN agreements, they’re not part of California at all. If they don’t wanna go, then what are you gonna do? Round ’em up? Throw ’em out? Surround them with troops? Go back to playing Cowboys and Indians to the death like your ancestors did?
On that subject, your military bases are US property. You’re not just going to inherit Vandenberg AFB and the San Diego naval base. Those are going to stay loyal to the US, and if you try to take them by force, they will kill you. Probably smiling while they do it. There are 100,000 US troops in your state. Most of them are not from California, and wouldn’t feel any particular loyalty to you you. Even those who are from your state may not feel any particular loyalty for traitors. Many a Southerner went north and signed on with the Union Army, you know.
Then there’s the millions of acres of other federal lands in your state which you have no say over. You just try to nationalize them and more than likely the military will kill you, probably with smiles on their faces.
8) Internal Opposition: 31% of your state voted Trump. That’s 4.5 million people. If you decide to secede, do you think you can stop that many people? Do you think you have the right to force your will on that many people with an illegal law? They’re mostly rural. they control the overwhelming majority of the state. If they don’t want to sell food to you – and they wouldn’t – what do you do? Force them? How democratic. Nationalize their farms? Good choice. Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Castro were big on that.
If you try that, and they fight back, what do you do? You’re looking at a classic Vietnam situation where you control the cities, and they control the countryside. You can’t do anything without them, and you WILL NOT have them.
8) World War III: Let’s talk about US’s military obligations overseas. NATO? Gone. At present we provide about 75% of their operating costs. If you tank the economy, we couldn’t afford to support NATO, and we’d have to divert resources to fight or contain you. Once the Arab world realizes we can’t support Israel, how long do you think it’d take ’em to invade? And how long do you think it’d take to wipe ’em off the map? And how many hundreds and thousands of Jews would die? Maybe millions? Of course Die faschistische Nation von Kalifornien doesn’t care about Jews.
With an aggressive Russia, the adversarial Japanese/Chinese relationship, and the mere existence of North Korea, the world is very reliant on the US as World Cop, even though I don’t like us having that job. It’s not a stretch to imagine your secession resulting in effectively a third world war. And remember: With Russia and China being pretty much your major trading powers, you’re their bitch throughout the war.
I’m not being ludicrous here. There are all very likely outcomes.
9) Finally, there’s the question of whether your nation would last the night. Assume you secede. The process leading up to that vote would take months. Months during which the US would have plenty of time to put together SEAL teams, extraction teams, Marine Force Recon teams, you name it. Once you sign the deal and light your fireworks, they’d come in. I’d guess within 24-72 hours tops, your entire government would be cooling their heels in Guantanamo Bay.
Bottom line, guys: it’s a whiny bitch move. You can’t win, you’ll kill a lot of people, destroy yourselves in the process, AND you’ll end up permanently pushing the country in directions you don’t want it to go.
Just something to think about.
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.
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!
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.
“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.
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?”
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.
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?
Adorable story, though. Probably not true, but still adorable.