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Mitch Wagner

Air war in the stone age: Poul Anderson’s The Man Who Counts

After re-reading the first couple of chapters of Poul Anderson’s The Man Who Counts, I grinned at the outrageous adventure story and said, “Man, they don’t write ’em like that anymore.”

Published in 1958, The Man Who Counts is now available as part of The Van Rijn Method: The Technic Civilization Saga #1. It features one of Anderson’s recurring heroes, the interstellar business tycoon Nicholas Van Rijn. Van Rijn is a throwback to the European Age of Exploration. He’s a fat, profane Dutch merchant, whose fine silk clothing is stained with snuff, who wears is his hair in oiled black ringlets, and who pledges in broken English to build a cathedral to his patron St. Dismas if only he can be relieved of having to suffer fools around him.

The novel opens as Van Rijn and his small party of human travelers have crash-landed on the planet Diomedes. Van Rijn and his helpless band find themselves in the midst of war between two stone-age nations, pitting the Drak’ho, a nation of Diomedes that live out their lives on vast, ocean-going rafts, against the Lannachska, who live on the land. Both nations can fly, they are winged aliens, and much of the charm of the novel comes from Anderson working out the details of life and war among people who can take to the air. 

The Drak’ho seem destined to win this war, they’ve outgunned and outmatched the Lannachska in every way. And so of course Van Rijn takes the side of the underdog Lannachska, remaking their society and military to allow them to fight more effectively against the more powerful foe.

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Robert A. Heinlein’s technological prophecies

Robert A. Heinlein’s fiction excelled at predicting the effects of technology, how particular tools would change society and the lives of people who used them daily. He usually didn’t predict the details, but his predictions of what technologies would mean were often uncanny.

The most dramatic example of this kind of prediction is “Solution Unsatisfactory,” a story which Heinlein wrote in 1940, which predicted the Cold War before the U.S. was even in World War II, and before the Manhattan Project. In the story, the U.S. develops a nuclear weapon and, for a brief time, is the only nuclear power in the whole world. America knows that its enemies will get the weapon soon. That much actually happened in real life, five years later.

But the story of “Solution Unsatisfactory” takes a different turn than real-life events turned out. In “Solution Unsatisfactory,” the head of the nuclear weapons project overthrows the government of the U.S. and sets up a global, international dictatorship with monopoly control of the nuclear weapon. And that’s the unsatisfactory solution of the story—the narrator of the story, the head of the nuclear weapons project, and presumably Heinlein himself all hate this option, but see the only other alternative, a global nuclear war, to be worse.

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Series: Robert A. Heinlein: The Blog Symposium

Heinlein Biographer Tells All

Robert A. Heinlein, author of Stranger in a Strange Land and more than 60 other books, was the greatest science fiction writer of the 20th Century, with an influence that went far beyond genre boundaries, according to William H. Patterson Jr., author of the new Heinlein biography.

During my interview with Patterson for my podcast, Copper Robot. I asked why Heinlein was important enough to rate a fat biography, 22 years after his death. “It’s not because he was a science fiction writer,” Patterson said. “He was an influential public figure in a lot of ways that people inside the science fiction community let drift out of consciousness.”

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Series: Robert A. Heinlein: The Blog Symposium

Heinlein’s contradictory views on race

In the comments on my earlier post on Heinlein, race, and diversity, I’m taking heat for my assertion that Heinlein was enlightened by the standards of his day, but often falls short by the standards of ours.

I was speaking specifically of the Heinlein of 1946, who wrote Rocket Ship Galileo (which both Charlie Stross and I apparently misidentified as Space Cadet). But throughout Heinlein’s career he displayed a mix of tolerance and celebrating diversity, alongside some ethnocentrism and sexism.

On the whole, Heinlein was admirably welcoming to different ethnic groups, women, and alternative sexual orientations, especially for a man of his era. But he wasn’t perfect.

Let’s start with the most obvious example first: In 1964, he published Farnham’s Freehold, a novel where the black people rule America, kept white people as slaves, stole white men’s wives to have sex with them, castrated white men, and practiced cannibalism on white people.

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Series: Robert A. Heinlein: The Blog Symposium

Heinlein: Forward-looking diversity advocate or sexist bigot? Yes

Charlie Stross writes:

[W]hile working on the novel that was to become Space Cadet, Heinlein warned his agent that the inclusion of an ethnically diverse cast was not only deliberate—it was non-negotiable, and if an editor requested the removal of the Jewish character, Blassingame (the agent) was to take the book elsewhere.

This is the letter Heinlein wrote to his agent about his wishes (from Learning Curve, the new Heinlein biography):

I have deliberately selected a boy of Scotch-English pioneer ancestry, a boy whose father is a German immigrant, and a boy who is American Jewish. Having selected this diverse background they are then developed as American boys without reference to their backgrounds. You may run into an editor who does not want one of the young heroes to be Jewish. I will not do business with such a firm. The ancestry of the three boys is a “must” and the book is offered under those conditions. My interest was aroused in this book by the opportunity to show to kids what I conceive to be Americanism. The use of a diverse group . . . is part of my intent; it must not be changed. . . . I am as disinterested as a referee but I want to get over an object lesson in practical democracy.

This is all admirable, but let’s keep in mind what’s missing from this cast: Asians; disabled people; non-Americans of any kind; lesbians, gays, and the transgendered; Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or representatives of the other major world religions. Heinlein’s book was enormously ethnically diverse in that it included the full variety of American Judeo-Christian boys.

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Series: Robert A. Heinlein: The Blog Symposium

Robert A. Heinlein: A real-life Forrest Gump

William Patterson’s big Heinlein biography isn’t just the life story of one man. It’s a history of United States in the first half of the 20th century. Not a complete history, but in some ways it’s better than complete, because it’s more intimate. Heinlein was like a real-life Forrest Gump, in the middle of many of the trends that shaped America.

Heinlein was born in Kansas, in 1907, the heart of Middle America.

He was a cadet at Annapolis during the years between the great wars. His classmates believed ruefully that they’d be the first academy class that would never see combat. Of course, World War II belied those beliefs. Heinlein’s military experience put him in the middle of the American rise to world power.

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Series: Robert A. Heinlein: The Blog Symposium

“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” Thinking about Inception

Loved it. Brilliant. I felt like I had to ice down my brain after leaving the theater. Inception inspires thought about the right and wrong ways to end stories, and the power of dreams and storytelling, and more.

I detected echoes of Philip K. Dick, Roger Zelazny, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and of course The Matrix.

But I was never really impressed by the Matrix movies. The premise of characters unaware they live in a simulated universe seemed cliched to me even in 1999 when The Matrix came out. But Inception seemed fresh and unique. (Not everyone loved Inception, however.)

If you don’t want spoilers, put Edith Piaf on your gramophone and ride the kick back to reality. Otherwise, read on for more discussion of Inception.

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“This is America, ain’t it? Ain’t this America?”

Funny Papers is a novel of the fast-changing 90s. Inventors are frenetically creative. New media is upending the old rules of business. Sexual promiscuity runs rampant. Immigration is a hot issue. The novel mixes fictional characters with historically real people of the period, like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.

You are confused now. “Pulitzer?” you say. “Hearst? In the 90s?”

Oh, wait, did you think I meant the nineteen nineties?

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Cory Doctorow on researching For the Win

Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, For the Win, travels from the industrial slums of India and China to posh American offices and into the fantasy world of online games. Writing the novel took Doctorow to new places as well.

Researching For the Win was different from his other books, according to Doctorow. Normally, he develops a passion for a subject and begins researching and blogging it on Boing Boing, a popular blog where he is one of the co-authors. Readers suggest other angles. “After some time, enough of this stuff crystallizes that I realize I’m writing a novel about it, and I end up writing the novel,” he said.

With For the Win, he started down that path, but realized he’d only just begun to research the subjects he needed, so he started a deliberate campaign, reading about 200 books on labor history, contemporary and historical China and India, histories of Mumbai, information about game theory, macroeconomics, neuroeconomics, and related subjects.

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The digital revolution hits the slums of India and China. Cory Doctorow’s For the Win

Like much of the best science fiction, Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, For the Win, is set in the future, but its themes are rooted in the present day.

For the Win has the world as its canvas. Its characters start in the industrial slums of China and India, and the adventures take us from there to the posh corporate offices of America.

But the novel isn’t limited to the real world. Much of the action also takes place in cyberspace—the world of online, multiplayer games.

“It’s a book about gold farmers, who are people who do repetitive video game tasks in order to amass virtual wealth, which they then sell through the game market to players who are either too busy or to lazy to do those tasks themselves,” Cory said in an interview, “It’s about what happens when they form a trade union.”

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A Cro-Magnon living in the future

The Man From Earth is a science fiction blockbuster more vast than Star Wars or Avatar, encompassing the whole of human history and a vast chunk of prehistory too. It has no special effects, and it takes place entirely at a present-day mountain cabin in an American college town. It has a cast of a half-dozen people who do nothing but talk to each other.

It’s one of the most exciting movies I’ve seen.

The Man From Earth takes place during the going-away party for John Oldman, a middle-aged college professor with two mysteries in his life: Why he has chosen to abandon his promising academic career, and why he still looks so young, seemingly unaged in the decade he’s been at the same college. His closest friends at the college, a half dozen fellow professors from all different academic disciplines, have gathered together at his home to see him off.

Professor Oldman challenges them to a little game: What if he were not what he appeared to be? What if he were actually a Cro-Magnon man, who had somehow survived 14,000 years to today? Cro-Magnon was indistinguishable from human, so no one would know. He challenges his friends to pretend they are writing a science fiction story about an ageless cave-man, alive until today. How would that work?

Over time, the friends realize that John Oldman isn’t kidding. He seems to believe what he’s saying. And they start to believe it themselves.

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A talking dog and puckered shoes: Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies

Tom De Haven’s Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies is a beautiful, sad, and comic novel about the time when the people who created newspaper comics were rock stars.

It’s the story of the writer and artist behind Derby Dugan, the fantastically popular newspaper comic strip about a boy in a bright yellow derby who travels around the country getting into adventures, accompanied by his talking dog, Fuzzy, and a magic wallet that always has a ten-dollar bill in it.

Derby Dugan isn’t fantastic literature, but it’s about fantastic literature. The character names sound like characters in comic strips, starting with the first-person narrator, Alfred Bready, the scriptwriter behind Derby Dugan.

Al is a wisecracking street-smart New Yorker in 1936. He works as a scriptwriter for newspaper comics, as well as author of stories for pulp magazines. Read on to hear Al tell how he started his writing career:

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Novelist Jonathan Lethem Goes Virtual

Chronic City is a novel about how the real world is becoming more unreal, like a virtual reality, so it’s appropriate that I interviewed its author, Jonathan Lethem, in the virtual-reality world of Second Life.

Lethem described Chronic City as a “very morbid and paranoiac social satire of contemporary life.” It’s set in a near-future Manhattan. “My characters are pretty silly. They’re bohemains and artists in a Manhattan that’s no longer welcoming to artistic types, and they’re dealing with a world that is kind of crumbling around the edges, suspiciously like a badly maintained virtual reality. They’re constantly wondering if they’re living in a simulation. Not only hasn’t anyone informed them, but no one has updated their software anytime recently.”

I interviewed Lethem on my podcast, Copper Robot, which is recorded with a live audience in Second Life. The picture above is Lethem in real life—whatever that is—and his Second Life avatar. The avatar was created by my friend Kim Smith, a.k.a. “Rissa Maidstone” in Second Life. She’s COO of World2Worlds, a consulting company that helps other companies doing business in virtual worlds.

Lethem’s avatar is based on Perkus Tooth, one of the two main characters of Chronic City.

Listen to the complete interview after the jump (unfortunately, the beginning is a little choppy, but I think it’s listenable, and it clears up later):

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Jonathan Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude & Me

I have a confession to make: I didn’t finish Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem’s big, partly autobiographical novel about a nerdy kid growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s.

I interviewed Lethem a few weeks ago on my Copper Robot podcast, where I talked knowledgeably and affectionately about some of the scenes and backgrounds of Fortress. And that wasn’t a lie, because I kept the discussion to the first 150 pages of the novel. I read that in 2003, when the book came out, and then I stopped. But when I was done with the interview, I picked up the book and started it again, and finished it recently. I’m glad I did. It’s an intense, emotional novel, and well worth reading.

One of the reasons I gave up reading Fortress first time through is that the novel is somewhat disorganized. It slows down and wanders in the middle, seeming to lose its way. But the first and last thirds of the book are gripping. I was also pushed out of the novel by its emotional honesty. It’s sometimes so true it’s painful to read.

Jonathan Lethem is author of Motherless Brooklyn, Chronic City, and Gun With Occasional Music. He is a past winner of the MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called “Genius Grant.”

Fortress of Solitude is the story of the friendship of two boys growing up in Gowanus, Brooklyn, a neighborhood real estate agents would describe as “transitional.” Gowanus is occupied by working-class and poor blacks and Puerto Ricans, within walking distance of some really bad neighborhoods, including a housing project. But landlady Isobel Vendle is trying to convert Gowanus into a gentrified neighborhood, with a new, genteel name: Boerum Hill.

That’s where Dylan Ebdus, the protagonist, comes in. The first wave of gentrification is always the bohemians, who move into a downscale neighborhood and make it a bit cleaner and safer before they’re pushed aside by the next wave of residents, accountants and lawyers and other professional people. Abraham Ebdus, Dylan’s father, is an artist, married to the beautiful, mercurial Rachel. Dylan’s closest friend is Mingus Rude, son of the moderately famous R&B singer Barrett Rude Jr. Moving to Gowanus with his son is the beginning of Barrett’s decline. 

The novel follows Dylan and Mingus and their families and other people around them through the 70s, 80s, 90s, and the cusp of the 21st Century.

It’s a novel with a powerful fantasy element, handled in an unusual manner.  

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Hot Tub Time Machine

I just heard about an upcoming science fiction movie that looks like it could be a lot of fun. It’s the kind of movie you hear about and you have an immediate reaction. You either think, “That sounds awesome!” or “No, it sounds stupid. And only idiots say ‘awesome.'”

The title: Hot Tub Time Machine.

I heard about it from a friend who worked on the movie, and my first thought was, “Wow, that sounds really bad.” My second thought was: “No, actually, it sounds really good.”

The premise: Four buddies fall asleep in a hot tub after a night of partying in 2010 and wake up in 1986. Could be stupid, could be good. I’m leaning toward good, based on the cast: John Cusack; Chevy Chase; Rob Cordrry, who was on The Daily Show; and Craig Robinson, who plays Darryl the warehouse superintendent in The Office. Also: Crispin Glover, who played George McFly, the dad in Back to the Future.

Crispin Glover and Chevy Chase would be what we bigshot Hollywood insiders call “stunt casting,” since they’re two actors best known for their 1980s work. And John Cusack’s first fame was in 80s John Hughes movies, as well as Cameron Crowe’s 1989 Say Anything.

My friend who told me about the movie is Steve Nelson, an Internet marketing consultant. There’s a sequence of the movie set in Second Life, and he and his wife, Troi Nelson, filmed those parts in SL, which is a kind of moviemaking called “machinima.″

Take a look at the trailer on YouTube. More trailers on the Web site,

It’s in theaters March 26.

This says “funny” to me. If it says “stupid” to you, well, you know where the comments are, and how to write a flame, right?

Mitch Wagner is a science fiction fan, technology journalist, and Internet marketing consultant. Follow @MitchWagner on Twitter.

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