Wednesday, November 18, 2009

New at Pulp Engine- the Story Behind the Story

A new story of mine, "Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be," debuts this week at Pulp Engine. More accurately, it's very old story that hasn't seen the light of day in quite a while. Consider this post the "director's commentary."
"Hell" dates way, way back to the mid-1980's. My original idea was to do a story about the fear of driving, which itself sprang out of early experiences in driving through Birmingham, Alabama as a teenager. Compared to the sedate pace of my hometown in south Alabama, the cars and trucks buzzing around I-65 and its multi-laned counterparts were more than a bit unsettling. I often found myself getting a glimpse of a debris-strewn breakdown lane and wondering what it would be like to be stuck there on foot as traffic roared heedlessly by.

By the time I got to college, the bare bones of a story called "Offramp" had percolated to the point of a couple of opening paragraphs and a portentous opening quote from Robert Plant's song "Big Log." The plot involved a single, unpleasant character who would have a nighttime wreck on a filthy patch of crowded interstate, be terrorized afterwards by monstrous cars and chittering roadside animals, and eventually realize that he'd been killed in the wreck, and the awful highways he now found himself on were part of Hell.

Around 1990, in need of a first story for Stephen Gresham's speculative fiction course, I dredged up the bits of "Offramp" and pitched it in his office. Dr. Gresham quite correctly noted that I'd managed to come up with the same hoary plot as a couple of dozen "Twilight Zone" episodes that ended with, "Oh, no--I'm in Hell!" and patiently suggested that I try again.

Not being happy with this criticism of my would-be masterpiece, I sulked for a while. But somewhere along the line the thought popped up, "Hell is probably so crowded these days, the guy would have to wait in line to be tortured." The light came on in my head, and I had my story, which wound up being very, very different from "Offramp"--although the bones of that never-written story peek out a bit on the first page. It practically wrote itself, and it's about the only piece of my juvenalia that I'm still happy with.

"Hell Ain't A Bad Place To Be" (the title cheerfully lifted from the flipside of an AC/DC single I'd run across in my high school record-store clerk days) got an "A," but then languished in an obsolete file format on various floppies, CD-Rs and hard drives for the better part of the next twenty years. A couple of months ago, needing more material for the ravenous maw that is Pulp Engine, I managed to get a Macintosh System 7 emulator running, and finally retrieved "Hell" from its digital purgatory.

A quick (and admittedly perfunctory) polish later, it lives again, now on the web. Hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Live From Space View Park

My wife and I have been telling ourselves that we'd go see a Space Shuttle launch since well before we were married, or even engaged. With only half a dozen Shuttle missions remaining before the orbiters are retired from service, we finally headed south on Sunday, and after an overnight stopover in Lake City, Florida, arrived in Titusville around lunchtime on Monday.

Titusville is very much "old Florida": most of it looks like the Panhandle of my youth, before high-rises and four-lanes. It sits across the Indian River from Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, and years ago the city installed Space View Park, a narrow strip of manicured, terraced public land pointing directly at Pad 39A.

We spread out a beach blanket, and settled in with our dog among hundreds of other shuttle-watchers to wait for the launch. Given the Shuttles' long history of scrubs and delays, we were seriously concerned that the whole trip would be for nothing. If the cloud cover had been too low, or a random sensor in the wrong place had failed and the launch was scrubbed, even for a day, we'd have missed the launch. We couldn't spare another day off.

But instead, the weather was perfect, and STS-129 turned out to have the smallest number of launch faults in the Shuttle program's history. And the launch... well, see for yourself:

I'm still a little surprised at just how exhilarating it was, even though I shouldn't be. I've been a space buff since I was a very small child, and this was the first time I'd ever seen a full-scale rocket of any kind launched. But I figured, hey, I'm over forty, I've flown in a fighter jet and spent years doing live flight tests of missiles. I've seen scores of shuttle launches on TV, I studied that orbiter backwards and forwards in college, and barring a mishap, nothing was going to happen that would be any kind of surprise to me.

And so I was entirely taken aback (although pleasantly) by how great it was. We happened to be next to a local news crew from Orlando, and when the young reporter (who likely wasn't even alive when the Shuttles started flying in 1981) asked me what I thought after the launch, I told him about my grandfather, who'd spent 30 years at NASA in Huntsville, but never got to see a launch in person, and found myself getting choked up. "It's going to be a real shame when that"--I pointed at the lingering pillar of exhaust smoke across the sound--"doesn't happen any more."

There are only five launches remaining, and then for good or for ill, the Shuttle era will be over. If you can make it, go see it while you still can.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Ten Twenty Years After

From my proto-blog "Will's World," on November 9, 1999 (who says I'm not in favor of recycling?):

Ten years ago, this very day, the world changed. Of all the "where were you" moments of my generation, this one deserves the most to be remembered with honor and wonder. This was the day when tens of millions of chains were broken, this was the day when the last heirs of Hitler and Stalin were finally shoved onto history's most famous dustbin. This was the day the Wall fell, November 9, 1989.

"This was the year that communism in Eastern Europe died. 1949-1989, R.I.P. And the epitaph might be: Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it."
--Timothy Garton Ash, We The People (published in the United States as The Magic Lantern).

In early March, 1991, I was alone and exhausted on a train in northern Germany. The previous several days had been a swirl of Oxford exams finished, end-of-term parties attended, a girlfriend said good-bye to, overdue visits with family friends, and trains (barely) caught in the dark of early morning. I probably hadn't slept for more than four hours at a stretch in nearly a week, and after a very long and late celebratory dinner with one of those family friends, my blood alcohol level was still about 80-proof (a German helicopter pilot who'd been befriended by my parents a decade earlier was determined to pay off his accumulated bar tab through me in one night).

The point I'm trying to make here is, I was beat. Even considering that I was a twenty-three year old, in probably the best shape of my life after three months of tooling around Oxford on a three-speed bike, I'd hit my limits, and all I wanted out of a long train ride from Wilhelmshaven to Berlin was sleep, and lots of it. When the sunrise woke me up, I reached for the window shade--then bolted fully alert.

The train had just crossed the old border between West and East Germany, and the change in the scenery was riveting--and horrible. It was like stepping out of a perfectly manicured garden and into a decrepit slum. The very landscape changed, from lush, green hills to haphazardly-tilled fields, unending rows carved into the grayish soil with no regard for the land's contours, spotted here and there with stunted crops. The train passed the ruins of a station, a mess of blasted, crumbling concrete, scarred with ancient black soot. I found out later that the station had been bombed out during World War II, but nobody had bothered to clear the debris over the intervening forty-five years.

A decade earlier, humorist P.J. O'Rourke wrote about the Soviet Union, "In the end, every little detail starts to get to you--the overwhelming oppressiveness of the place, the plain godawfulness of it." Erich Honecker, may he flambeed in Hell forever, did his level best to turn a quarter of Germany into a fawning facsimile of Stalin's U.S.S.R., and even a year and a half after liberation, East Germany was the godawfulest place I'd ever seen. It was like watching a never-ending car wreck, passing before my eyes mile after mile. I couldn't take my eyes off the revolting sights.

"The counter revolution
People smiling through their tears
Who can give them back their lives
And all those wasted years?
All those precious, wasted years--Who will pay?"
--Neil Peart, "Heresy"

The houses were the worst. Imagine the most run-down, decrepit wrong-side-of-the-tracks shacks you've ever seen. Every home in the East German countryside looked like those shacks, only older. And it dawned on me that the whole country was like this. After a while, I grabbed a small notebook and started scribbling with all the melodrama that a sleepy, shocked college kid could muster: "Communism is dead, but the bloated corpse lies across this continent still, and the poisons of its decay will pollute this blasted earth for years to come."

East Berlin, then just starting to come out of its half-century fog, was nearly as bad as the countryside. The buildings and the people were a uniform gray, all seemingly covered with a light sprinkling of grime and concrete dust. The crest of Hitler's bunker still sat in the old No-Man's Land across from Checkpoint Charlie, which itself was in the process of being turned into a museum.

"Never, until the autumn of 1989, was there a period when, day after day, for many months, newspapers carried headlines that would have been unbelievable six months earlier."
--George Will, Suddenly.

It hasn't really been all that long since 1989, and it's astonishing how little attention is being paid to the revolutions that swept across Europe (and very nearly Asia) that year. When I said that "the world changed," for once, I wasn't exaggerating. In January of 1989, nobody, and I mean nobody would have taken you seriously if you predicted that the Warsaw Pact nations would all rise up and throw off the Soviet yoke by Christmas. Then, in June, ten years of sacrifice and terror paid off in Poland when Solidarity won the first free elections in that country since before World War II--and this was in a parliamentary race which was rigged to ensure a Communist win. Hungary quietly followed suit, declaring the birth of the new Hungarian Republic--the "People's" was finally dropped--in October.

The wave swept across Germany next, as ten weeks of street protests in the East finally jolted Honnecher and his miserable party from power. In Czechoslovakia, the revolution took little more than ten amazing days in Wenceslas Square (read Timothy Garton Ash's short memoir, quoted above and published in the U.S. as The Magic Lantern, for a marvelous behind-the-scenes account). On Christmas Day, Nicolae Ceausescu got off easy (death by anonymous firing squad was far too kind), and Romania was free.

What was it like back then, just those few years ago? It was an astonishing time to be alive. After the horror of Tiananmen Square, just another bloody repeat of Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968, the West resigned itself to more and more years of darkness hovering over half of the world. When the Chinese tanks rolled over Chinese children, we doubted whether any of us would ever see a world without Communist dictatorships in every time zone.

And then the Poles said, "There is no liberty without Solidarity!" And the Hungarians cried out, "No more will we be slaves!" And the Germans roared, "Wir sind das Volk!"--"We are the people!" And the Czechs and Slovaks sang, "Now's the time!" And the rest of us watched in wonder as a new world was born.

"One of them even stuck his hand through [a hole in the Berlin Wall] and asked would somebody please give him a piece of the concrete to keep as a souvenir. The hand of that [East German] border guard--that disembodied, palm-up, begging hand... I looked at that and I began to cry. I really didn't understand until just then--we won. The Free World won the Cold War. The fight against the life-hating, soul-denying, slavish communism--which has shaped the world's politics this whole wretched century--was over. The tears of victory ran down my face--and the snot of victory did too, because it was a pretty cold day."
--P.J. O'Rourke, Give War A Chance.

As O'Rourke suggests, it hasn't been all sweetness and light in the intervening decade, but he also reminds us with a laugh just how much fun those magical days really were, when the impossible happened all around us, and half the world woke up and found that it was free. May we see days like those again, sooner rather than later.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Introducing Pulp Engine

I'm very happy and not a little excited today to announce the launch of a brand-new project, the online magazine PULP ENGINE.
Pulp Engine is the brainchild of my old buddy Lein Shory, whom I met in a fiction writing class at Auburn over 20 years ago. Quoting from Lein's introduction at the top of the PE site:

Maybe you've read too much.

Maybe you think you've read it all, seen it all. You've pounded your way through books that you were supposed to read, because they were Important. You majored in English, so you spent years reading Literature, and you got jaded.

But then you think back to that time when you first encountered Robert E. Howard. Or H. P. Lovecraft. Or Edgar Rice Burroughs.

And you think, Man, I loved reading that stuff.

This isn't pulp orthodoxy. It's pulp sensibility. We're not going to live in the early 20th century, though we may visit that era from time to time. It's about forging ahead, using pulp concepts to make stories for Now.

That's what Pulp Engine is about.

Pulp Engine is the result of a large group of very creative people who came together at Lein's invitation, and we have had a blast putting the thing together. I should particularly thank Lamar Henderson, who not only wrote (in my opinion) the best story in the first issue ("Incandescent"), he also did almost all of the grunt work to build the site and its artwork. Lamar, take a well-deserved bow.

I wrote one of the stories in the first issue ("Comandante Eternal"), which I'm a bit embarrassed to say is the first piece of fiction I've actually finished since college. Let me know what you think about it.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

"I Like To Con People, And I Like To Insult People, So..."

From The Australian, this may be the worst advice I've ever read:

[E]ducation consultant Kathy Walker said while reading to babies, singing songs and repeating rhymes was great, they should not learn to read until they were at least five years old.

"They don't need to read and write before school," she said.

Ms Walker said teaching babies to read could actually stress or frustrate the child and/or parent at a time when infants should be having fun and learning through play.

"It distracts us all away from what childhood is about and is another example of a global push to make little or no distinction between childhood and later life," she said.

I can spend the rest of my days being grateful that my folks never encountered an "education consultant" during my youth. I started reading at age two myself, and was completely literate long before I started kindergarten, much less grade school (if memory serves, I tested out at high school level in the first grade).

Having that ability early, learned for pleasure--before it could be made into a chore and ruined by "educators"--was, by far, the single biggest advantage I've had in my life.