Monday, May 19, 2014

Tailings of the Golden Age #1: Blitz Against Japan

"Blitz Against Japan," by Robert Moore Williams
Appeared in Amazing Stories, September 1942

"Who thought he had developed a secret weapon that was going to end the war," York harshly corrected. "He talks some politician into using pressure in Washington so he could get a trial. He brings his weapon out of Hawaii and installs it on two battleships. He says it will knock planes out of the sky as far as they can be seen, that it will smash the biggest battleship that was ever floated. He takes the battleships out for tests. Blooie! Two battleships gone. Only they were our battleships, the ones on which the weapon had been installed. This might not have been fatal if only the Japs had not chosen the very next day to attack the islands, with every carrier, every cruiser, every destroyer, and every battleship they had, not to mention a couple of hundred transports loaded with troops. We were two battleships short, two ships that might have meant the difference between victory and defeat. That's why we lost the Hawaiian Islands. That's why I'm damning Riemann..."

Here's a fun fact--I bought this issue of Amazing Stories specifically because this was the cover story. I knew it would not be particularly pleasant, and I was not proven wrong.

Picture this: it's Monday, December 8, 1941, smoke is still rising after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and just like that the war that's been raging for two years already has pulled the United States in. It was a conflict that some saw coming--hell, the October 1933 issue of Wonder Stories includes a story that posits the eruption of a war between the US and Japan in 1940--but even if you see the punch coming, that won't make it hurt any less if it hits. That's when you start smarting over it, maybe wondering why it happened at all, but more importantly figuring out how you're going to get back at the guy who swung at you.

That's the atmosphere in which Robert Moore Williams wrote the novelette "Blitz Against Japan," a story you've probably never heard of. Appearing as it does in the September 1942 issue of Raymond Palmer's Amazing Stories, which would itself have hit the stands by August at the latest, fresh wounds ooze through this story. Palmer himself called it "inspired and smashing." With the bright light of morning seventy-two years later falling on it, though, its more problematic aspects are thrown into sharp relief--and damn if there aren't a lot of them.

"Blitz Against Japan" is set in a dark, unpleasant future: specifically, 1943. The Pacific War, at least, is not going well for the United States--Hawaii has been captured, the Pacific Fleet has been sunk, and a gigantic Japanese invasion force is bearing down on the West Coast. We're introduced to our protagonist, Lieutenant Dave York, as he discovers the invasion fleet in a scout plane with a radio shattered in a dogfight with Zero fighters, races to bring the news back to the last American carrier in the Pacific only to find it sinking, runs out of gas within sight of the California coast, and ditches in the water rather than leave his back-seat buddy Red Johnson afloat and alone. They get picked up by a fortuitous seaplane, at least, so it's all good--I mean, except for the whole "the good guys are up against the wall" theme, which is hardly unique to this story. In fact, one of the things that came to mind while reading this story was that this was reminiscent of The Last Starfighter, except with less CGI and a hell of a lot more casual racism. 

Aside from the near-future setting, the story's main science-fictional element comes after York and Johnson return to land, when Johnson lets slip that his uncle, an inventor and scientist named Reimann, is looking for pilots for a secret weapon project that's so secret not even the US government knows about it--shades of the Manhattan Project, certainly. Reimann, we were told earlier to fill space before York and Johnson were picked up by the seaplane, had invented a weapon--the "radium projector"--capable of destroying planes and battleships with equal ease, but the weapon ended up destroying two US battleships instead... and wouldn't you know it, the Japanese attacked literally the next day and conquered Hawaii! The fact that York blames the conquest on Reimann, and not the monumentally massive intelligence failure that allowed the entire Imperial Japanese Navy to attack Hawaii with complete surprise, says a lot about the care with which this story was put together--though it could also be Williams commenting on Pearl Harbor.

So, Riemann has this secret weapon, but he's persona non grata among the military brass because of the battleship incident, and so York and Johnson decide to go AWOL--a capital offense during wartime!--and track down Riemann's secret laboratory, hidden at a horse ranch near San Francisco that Riemann himself owns, because who would ever think to look there? It's there that York discovers the secret weapon: a refined version of the radium projector, a radiation beam which can "accelerate the action of the forces normally present in the metal that cause it to disintegrate." These whiz-bang ray guns come mounted on rocket ships, because in 1942 everyone knew that rocketry was the wave of the future, even if they weren't sure how exactly it would come about. Riemann's rockets, despite having no wings--hell, from the bit visible on the cover, they don't have any control surfaces at all--will be enough to turn the tide of the war.

Then the Nazi saboteurs, fresh from sabotaging the original radium projectors, show up. That's right, what the hell did you expect? This is a war story after all. Here we also see the only female character in the story, York's girlfriend Rita, who exists primarily to sob, be called "kitten," and follow York to the secret laboratory, thereby leading the Nazi saboteurs right there as well. Thankfully, York received literally seconds of training on these experimental aircraft that bear no resemblance to anything he's ever flown before. It's just in time, because the big Japanese invasion of Los Angeles is proving to be only a feint, but before he can launch the Nazis invade the lab and start monologuing! They even let the characters listen to radio reports about how the Japanese are attacking San Francisco with poison gas--specifically, poison gas "released from thousands of hidden generators," only released after all the Japanese residents were evacuated, and the result of a plan that had taken years of preparation. Because, you know, every Japanese person in the United States was a deadly danger and a sleeper agent for Tokyo. The United States would never do anything so heinous as put innocent civilians in internment camps behind barbed-wire fences, so obviously those civilians must not be innocent at all! Everything falls into place, and the American people can believe they're doing the right thing.

That's hardly the way to go, though! The good guys manage to get the upper hand long enough for York to hop into one of these experimental rockets, fire up the engines, induce an oscillation because he's got no idea what he's doing, and slam into the side of a mountain. Wait, no, that's what would really happen.

Video: what really happens when you put an untrained person behind the wheel of a rocket.

Nevertheless, York manages to get the rocket in the air and keep it there. The Japanese fleet has assembled off San Francisco for the invasion, but with almost every plane on the West Coast fighting at Los Angeles, it's up to York to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada. He gets a carrier in his sights, triggers the radium projector--and nothing!

Then there's one of the mid-scene scene breaks that happened all the goddamn time in 1930s and 1940s pulp stories, and we find it in fact did something. Then we encounter the Japanese, who start talking like characters from racist propaganda, or racist shoe advertisements. ("What happened to honorable carrier?" "Regret that this lowly one must report to honorable admiral that one carrier has been sunk.") I know that the Japanese language is really up about honorifics, but seriously, people. We then get reflections on how one 1940s destroyer could have sunk the Spanish Armada, and seeing as how the only danger York is in comes from his own skill at piloting, Williams had to throw in a final enemy worthy of his newfound power: the head Nazi spy, who appears in one of the other rockets. This epic duel of the fates lasts for an astonishing six paragraphs before the Nazi is shot down, and afterward the conclusion is obvious. The Japanese fleet is annihilated, and with its newfound advanced technology America is on the march for Tokyo.

In all, not exactly the sort of story that had a lot of staying power. Like the pulps themselves were seen by many, it's fundamentally disposable: meant to be read and then chucked away, tied absolutely to its time. It's not particularly strong, science-fictionally speaking--aside from the rockets and the radium projector it's just invasion literature, though SF has historically owed a lot to that genre. Kenneth Hite once described Gernsback's Amazing Stories as being filled with "odes to antigravity machines," and that's the sort of viewpoint that's echoed in "Blitz Against Japan." It's an entire story about how no matter how much we may screw up and get things wrong, if we put our faith in Blast Hardcheese--by which I mean technology--we'll make it through in the end.

Beyond that, it's just weird. The key to suspending any disbelief whatsoever for this story is to understanding the viewpoint of early 1942. In the United States, Japan was by and large a mystery--in his editorial, Palmer mentions that not even photos of the Zero fighter were available for artist Robert Fuqua to use as reference, though aside from minor details in the wing shape it's remarkably accurate. People were willing to believe that Japan was a juggernaut that would roll across the Pacific, that fifth columns of spies and saboteurs would hamper the war effort, and that the United States was weak and vulnerable. From a modern, historical perspective, it's flatly impossible. Japan did not have the resources to overwhelm the United States, but worst-case scenarios will always prosper in wartime.

This story did get one thing right, though: Japan's defeat came by way of nuclear weapons. Just not the kind you're thinking of.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Tailings of the Golden Age: Introduction

Recently there's been a lot of talk about the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and how the field has changed since the days of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. That it has changed is something everybody agrees on; it's the nature of that change that feeds modern fires. Beyond that, though, the nature of the Golden Age is harder to pin down than a smeerp in heat. There are plenty of folks who look back to it as a grand, idealized time when arguments like those we deal with didn't happen.

Golden ages aren't just about what we remember, lionize, or pine for, however. What's just as illuminating is what we choose to forget, and god damn have we forgotten a lot about the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Not entirely without reason, in some respects--while editors of the time did print things that are still talked about today, if you open a Golden Age magazine at random you're not likely to find a table of contents filled with familiar names. Fact is, you're going to find things that might challenge your view of what it was like.

Myself, I keep my eyes open for pulp magazines still in readable condition--you'd be surprised how well eighty-year-old pulp paper holds up under the right conditions--so that they can illuminate history. I'll be starting a new series of reviews using them as a source, looking at science fiction published between 1931 and 1964 that catches my attention. Look for it here soon.

history: it's rad

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

I've Got A New Project

I'm not going to tell you what it is yet--it's only just begun to take shape--but you'll start seeing it here once it's ready to be seen.

Here's a hint, though.

I'm excited.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Politics of Science Fiction

It felt like I'd had just enough time to catch my breath before yet another controversy enveloped science fiction. I swear, sometimes it makes me pine for days past, when I was bashing my keyboard just because and I was entirely ignorant of what all those Real Writers were up to in their golden palaces flying through the rarefied heights.

Except there never was a time like that. Nor was there ever a time before politics in science fiction. But that didn't stop Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds from weighing in in USA Today of all places recently, in a column about how, in his mind, there's no place for politics in science fiction.

My brief rebuttal: bullshit.

My longer rebuttal: this is some bullshit, man.

First off, for the record, I speak as a writer who's recently published a blatantly political science fiction story: "Three Years of Ashes and Twenty Years of Dust" in Strange Bedfellows. I tell you, it was hard coming up with a proper mode for that, but only because Hayden Trenholm was looking for stories in which politics and ideology were front-and-center. Politics are never strangers to science fiction, or writing of any kind--most often they're just hanging back in the shadows, lurking at the edge of the page, guiding the author's arm as the story takes shape. Hell, I have personal experience with that as well: my upcoming story, "Each Night I Dream of Liberty," is set on a sea-based libertarian community. I'm no libertarian, and that absolutely colors the work. I'm pretty confident that if the same notion the story runs on was taken up by a libertarian author, it would not particularly resemble what I produced.

Fish don't notice the water, except when they find themselves flopping on the bottom of a boat. People don't notice the air, except when we take a walk through the airlock without a spacesuit. In that vein, readers don't notice politics in science fiction, so long as those politics match their own.

Politics has always been with science fiction. For someone who knows the sordid history of science fiction fandom, the notion of it being otherwise is ridiculous: the very first World Science Fiction Convention, way back in 1939, was characterized by the wholesale ejection of multiple members of the Futurians, one of the New York fan groups active at the time, after the distribution of a pamphlet that railed against how "the event was run by coercion and dictators."

The problem with politics are the assumptions you carry along with them, that are hidden beneath them like contraband under blankets. Take how Reynolds starts off his column, about how in the Good Old Days™ when Men were Men (and when Women often had to write under Male Pseudonyms to be taken seriously), science fiction was open and diverse, headlined by people as varied as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Robert Heinlein.

Because if a bunch of white men doesn't represent diversity, really, what does?

Reynolds mentions Larry Correia, one of this year's Hugo nominees, that he's been getting a lot of blowback. Thinking about it, though, considering that he posted a recommended nomination slate that included Toni Weisskopf, editor at Baen Books and whose post a while back fanned the flames with its talk of cultural divides between "us" and "them," and swine-that-walks-like-a-man Vox Day, aka Theodore Beale, who was kicked out of SFWA last year for using its Twitter feed to disseminate one of his racist screeds... well, what the hell conclusion did he expect me and others to draw? Something other than the winks and nods that say "come on, let's really get those lefties spun up in a tizzy."

Working to nominate people to the Hugo slate who are widely known specifically because of political stances they have taken is not an apolitical act.

there must be a controversy, I'm posting again

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ad Astra 2014 Schedule

As I look outside, winter is very, very, very gradually lifting away from the part of the world I can see--by which I mean most of the snow is gone and the harbor isn't frozen over anymore, even though it remains staggeringly cold--and that means that Convention Season is about to start for another year! First up on my block is Ad Astra, Toronto's local science fiction and fantasy fan convention, even though it's being held up in the remote wilderness of Richmond Hill: close enough to the Arctic Circle as to make no difference at all.

This'll be the first time I've been a participant there, though. They've put me on two panels, and I will be reading from my new story "Three Years of Ashes and Twenty Years of Dust" as part of the official launch of Strange Bedfellows by Bundoran Press. If you're going to be in the neighborhood, perhaps you'll check them out!

Mining in Space - Saturday, April 5, 2:00 PM, Aurora
Bundoran Press Launch Event - Saturday, April 5, 9:00 PM, Book Launch Room
That Drives Me Crazy! - Sunday, April 6, 1:00 PM, Aurora

Thursday, March 6, 2014

My View on the Ross Thing

You may have heard of the latest controversy to engulf the science fiction community--after all, not only is it less than a week old, this one has been picking up some mainstream media coverage, to the extent that six of the first ten hits for his name deal with it. That's because it pivots around how, for eight hours or so last Saturday, former British TV presenter Jonathan Ross was tapped to host the Hugo Awards at this year's Worldcon, Loncon 3. It was only eight hours because that's how long it took for him to back out of it after the news of his being tapped set off a Twitter storm.

If you've never heard of Jonathan Ross, you may be wondering why he was reacted to in such a manner. He has, in fact, run into no shortage of controversies himself, one of them getting him suspended from the BBC for six months. But that is, in itself, a huge factor in what went down. I get the distinct impression that the Loncon 3 chairs didn't fully appreciate that this isn't just another British con, but a Worldcon drawing thousands of people from all over the world--though mostly North America and Western Europe--many of whom would have never heard of this guy who used to be on the telly. Many of whom had only the stories of his controversies to inform them, and given what the sf community has been through in the last few months, a lot of people out there are understandably on hair triggers.

As an experienced presenter, and knowing that he would be representing Loncon 3 in his interactions with the sf community, Ross should have known how to approach the situation professionally and how to introduce himself to people with no prior experience of him. Instead, this is what we got:

My first introduction to and impression of Jonathan Ross, ladeez and germs.

When you're caught in an incipient controversy, there's one simple rule--don't feed it. Resnick and Malzberg turned the SFWA controversy from eye-rolling and grumbles to flame wars by saying that people rolling their eyes and grumbling at them were liberal fascists trying to censor them. Rob Ford made a mockery out of his status as a crack aficionado by constantly denying that he smoked crack until finally telling reporters that they hadn't "asked the right question." Ross didn't appreciate this, and so he got burned.

But it's more than that, I think. In this, it seems like there's also a measure of fame's blinders. I see plenty of people like Neil Gaiman bemoaning the reaction that Ross received, but how much of this came from an unexamined opinion that everyone would know Ross for Ross? I didn't. I only know Ross from his tweets, and I don't care if Neil Gaiman calls him a friend--I think he's a jerk.

When people voice their concerns about you, the proper response is not to insult them or accuse them of slander. It only makes you look out-of-touch and, frankly, a bit sad.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Photo: Snow Memorial

Toronto got a fair dump of snow a couple of weeks ago on Wednesday, the sort of snow I got used to in Central Ontario but which didn't seem to track down south all that often. University Avenue was a white mess, and not even the American Consulate had shovelled (shoveled?) its barrier-protected patch of sidewalk, and it made the entire area take on a winter cast that doesn't come around all that often. Here, the South African War Memorial stands solid against a storm-obscured skyline.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This means that you are free to Share (to copy, distribute and transmit the work) and to Remix (to adapt the work) under the following conditions: Attribution (you must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor, but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work), Noncommercial (you may not use this work for commercial purposes), and Share Alike (if you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one).

Friday, February 14, 2014

Photo: Snow Squirrel

It's been a while since I posted a critter photograph, but the Toronto winter doesn't make the local critters any less busy. I found this squirrel dashing up and across trees at Mel Lastman Square in North York, during the flurries we had a couple of weekends ago. Most of the ones I took got compromised by motion blur, but I think this one works well.

Why am I posting so uncharacteristically late in the day, you might ask? To keep you on your toes, mostly!

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This means that you are free to Share (to copy, distribute and transmit the work) and to Remix (to adapt the work) under the following conditions: Attribution (you must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor, but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work), Noncommercial (you may not use this work for commercial purposes), and Share Alike (if you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one).

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Photo: I Don't Think They're Coming Back

While on walkabout along Yonge Street in North York a couple of weeks past, I couldn't help but notice this bicycle locked up outside one of the entrances to Finch Station--although "locked up" is kind of unnecessary at this point, when you consider how hard-packed that stuff must be. It makes me wonder just who these more-or-less abandoned bicycles you find around the city belong to, and how it happens that they're left where they're left.

It also demonstrates the effect which the removal of Igor Kenk has had on the city's bicycle ecosystem. Time was that a bike like this would've been stolen by one of Igor's flunkies long before it had a chance to get buried.

I, the copyright holder of this work, hereby release it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

This means that you are free to Share (to copy, distribute and transmit the work) and to Remix (to adapt the work) under the following conditions: Attribution (you must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor, but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work), Noncommercial (you may not use this work for commercial purposes), and Share Alike (if you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one).

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Oversight, Looking Under

Here's some free advice for today. Never get too close to people you look up to; they can only disappoint you. I say this because of the latest flap to engulf SFWA, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, which brewed up out of weekend rumors and exploded onto the net yesterday. The context is a bit involved, going back to last year's controversy about cheesecake chain-mail chicks on the cover of a professional industry magazine and certain comments within, so I'd recommend reading this link for the details, and potentially also this takedown before you go any further.

So, yeah. That petition. Full of appeals to the First Amendment, of course--which is irrelevant in this circumstance, because the First Amendment only prevents the government from abridging free speech. SFWA, as a private organization, is not required to let anyone in particular use its bullhorn. Given that the signatories are of an age that predates the present-day educational system, you'd think they'd have learned that in Civics class. What really gets me is that writers, of all people, can work themselves into such a tizzy about the prospect of editorial oversight.

The point of editorial oversight is a simple one: to keep crazy stuff you didn't intend from getting into the pages. This is why newspapers have things called editorial boards. Just because the Bulletin, the magazine at the heart of this, is a publication funded by SFWA, it's not obligated to accept submissions by SFWA members. Under the new rules proposed for the Bulletin, its editor would engage in the "proofing and review process with select volunteer and board members." Because, as we all know, any editorial oversight whatsoever leads inexorably and immediately to politically correct Stalinism, and contributors will no longer be able to talk about how good lady editors looked in bikinis in the pages of an industry journal.

the horror

Especially for writers, this is rich. I'm still just getting started out in this game, but one of the first lessons I learned was this: you are never the best judge of what you write. I send all my stuff to beta readers as much as possible before I try to find it a home, for very important reasons. Part of that is the accessibility factor--when I write I'm carrying the world around in my head, and it's something I understand well enough that important things may not make it on the page because I don't think to put them there. Another, even more critical, part is the matter of perspective; someone looking at your work from a different angle may see something entirely different from what you intended to write.

I have direct experience with this myself, and it wasn't fun. Last year I was working on the draft of a story (which has yet to find a home, alas) where the antagonist relied on illicitly-obtained medication to endure in a specific environment. Now, when I'd been writing, what I was carrying around in my mind was the notion that this medication was a poor solution to a problem that could have easily been corrected by a simple medical treatment, but the antagonist refused to do this out of pride or fear. When I passed the story to a beta reader whose opinion I put great stock in, what I got back was an understandably ruffled comment about how the notion was insulting to people on medication, and how it was essentially saying "not only are drugs bad, but so are the people who use them."

My first, gut reaction was to get my back up and fulminate about how that wasn't what I meant at all. Fortunately that only lasted  a fraction of a second before the cool winds of Not Being a Dick blew in and I rewrote the thing, because fuck, that isn't what I wanted to say at all. I suspect this is the same way the original Bulletin flap started up, except Resnick and Malzberg had the window closed that day. Some people act like they think apologizing means weakness and that you're wrong, and that's something that they could never do. Hell, the entire reaction feels like it could be boiled down to "what's the matter with you, don't you understand we're PAYING YOU A COMPLIMENT, YOU STUPID FUCKING BITCHES?"

Once you get to that point, it's real easy to keep the train going. Braking? Less so.

I even have experience with the whole "need for editorial oversight" thing. Back in university I was editor-in-chief of the Absynthe newspaper for two years, and though we were directly funded by the student body, that didn't mean any frood with a student card could send us whatever they wanted and they had to publish it. In fact, I remember a bit of a flap that emerged as a result of insufficient editorial oversight, and while it eventually blew over it wasn't particularly fun to live through.

What oversight is _not_ is censorship, despite the petition's cover letter suggesting that SFWA is about to experience a "censorship explosion." By that logic, every rejection letter I've ever received is censorship, because the Bulletin is no more obligated to print my stuff than is Clarkesworld. What's more, it's ridiculous coming from science fiction writers, of all people. Not only do we live in the goddamn future, it is a future where it is easier to get one's message out than EVER BEFORE. Setting up a weblog is free and takes two minutes, and all of a sudden you have your place to publish "the article that the Bulletin refused to take!" for all the world to see.

I can't help but feel like this is the sort of thing that happens when authors gain Protection from Editors--they forget that the perspective they're writing from isn't the only valid one.