Newsletter #71

NEWSLETTER 71: November 6, 2012

Dear People,

I fully intended when I wrote the immediately previous newsletter (70) to simply relax for a month. Believe me, I needed it.

But my main form of relaxation is to read stuff, and I take notes when I’m reading something which might provide fodder for my own work. One of the books I was reading was part of the history of Diodorus Siculus (a Sicilian–obviously–Greek of the first century BC), the portion leading up to the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. This is largely material which Thucydides covers in much greater detail (and with a far more impressive literary style).

I’d read Thucydides as an undergraduate, but now I was reading with a more mature knowledge of the world and with the eye of an experienced writer for useful details. The day after I’d sent back the handful of editorial correction pages on Monsters of the Earth, I stumbled over a description of the Egyptian revolt from Persia in the fifth century BC, the Persian response, and how the situation affected the tensions among the Greek city-states in the aftermath of the defeat of Persia at Salamis and Platea.

Immediately I realized that the revolt would be a great setup for an RCN space opera. The question was how to structure it: who’s the equivalent of the Egyptians, who provides the Persian analogue, and how do my characters get involved?

By now I have partial answers to all those questions, and I’m having a lot of fun refining, elaborating, and interweaving. I’ve never plotted a novel in quite this fashion before… which was true of the way I plotted Monsters from the Earth also, and for the way I plot pretty much everything. There’s no ‘normal’ process.

What I’m doing this time is genuinely fun, as I said. What I did to get to the same point with Earth was really hard work. I don’t mean to imply anything about what this portends for the finished product: Northworld is one of my best books and also one of my most successful, but plotting it literally came close to crippling me. I prefer to have a gentle, fun time during the plotting, though.

Night & Demons, my horror collection, is out in trade paper from Baen Books. This, rather than the Hammer stories (though they too appeared early in my career), is what I think of as me in the ’70s. When Hammer’s Slammers came out in 1979, it gave me a stature (a short story collection that sold 300,000 copies was about as unusual then as it would be today) but also notoriety.

I was viewed as being pro-war (at a time US culture was vehemently anti-war) because I wrote about soldiers without implying that I thought they were evil (I didn’t think soldiers were evil, though they–though we–certainly did evil things). The fact I was successful made me even more of a target than I would have been if the opinion makers could have dismissed me as a lightweight.

The thirty-odd years since 1979 have taken me in a commercially successful direction which is wholly different from anything had I imagined in my first 10-15 years of serious writing. (The success was as unexpected as the direction it came from.)

That said, the author of Night & Demons is the writer I thought I’d always be, and there’s a lot about that guy and the camaraderie of his world that I miss. I hope that comes out in my notes to each of the stories, a total of 12K words. There’s also a bibliography of all my work published in the US, in which my webmaster, archivist Karen Zimmerman, was able to use her MLS in the fashion her professors expected her to.

Doggone, I’ve written a lot over the years. And I’ve done it pretty much without thinking any farther ahead than the project to follow whatever it is that I’m working on.

Audible, the on-line audiobook service, has been doing my RCN space opera series for quite a while and more recently has added much of the Hammer series of military SF. I’ve just signed contracts for the fantasies of both the Isles series and the Books of the Elements. I’m really pleased at this. Quite apart from the additional money and exposure (which are major good things, sure), Steve Feldberg of Audible is just as pleasant as are the people at Tor and Baen Books with whom I deal.

There have been a couple oddities since Newsletter 70. I was interviewed again, this time by a Libertarian website. If anything, the experience felt stranger than being interviewed by a zombie website had been. Mulling the questions before I answered them convinced me that if I had to have an ideology, it would be not-Libertarian.

Sam Blinn puts an amazing amount of effort (and I suspect money) into Bull-Spec, his magazine tying the Research Triangle Region into the wider world of speculative fiction. He asked me for a short essay discussing the hardest aspect of writing Night & Demons. I immediately did one, a very small repayment for Sam’s own generosity.

The questions asked by other people send my mind to places I wouldn’t go on my own; this was no exception. If nothing else, the question made me think.

I also loaned photographer Britt Taylor Collins the use of my Blackhorse patch so that he could put together a photo montage on the 11th ACR. He doesn’t have the result up on his website yet (that I could find. His website confuses me a bit, which those who know me will realize isn’t a reflection on his web designer), but the version he sent me is very good. I’m looking forward to seeing the hardcopy print.

I’ve done a rough read-through of the next Ovid lyric (it’s amazing how similar arguments against abortion from two millennia ago sound to those of the present day), but I’m not ready to put my translation on the site yet. I may work on Baucis and Philemon next, but I’m not promising that.

There’s a set of seasonal pictures added to the website.

WFC is a business convention for me, but having gone to so many of them (starting with the first in 1975) I also have a lot of friends there. Here’s to friends!

Finally, a few thoughts about people and how we behave toward one another. In part this comes from musing on the Libertarian interview I mentioned above, but it also involves my getting interested in some unusually whimsical books. I’ve been reading The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green by Edward Bradley (as Cuthbert M Bede), sketches of a very rural (though wealthy) youth at Oxford in the 1850s; and also The Football Eleven Series by Ralph Henry Barbour, YA books about the football players at a NY prep school in the WW I period.

The tone is completely different, of course. Bradley was writing satirical sketches for adults, while Barbour was writing to entertain and educate boys who were interested in sports. Barbour wasn’t a very good writer; Bradley, though certainly a Victorian novelist, was quite skillful as well as being a close observer. Relative writing ability doesn’t affect the tone, however.

Barbour’s boys are generally decent kids. There are bullies and sneaks, but they’re the exceptions.

Uniformly, the attitude of Bradley’s Oxford undergraduates toward anyone who doesn’t meet their standards of sophistication–in dress, in speech, in anything–is one of insult and sneering condescension. They’re simply nasty to their inferiors–and inferiority is determined by degree of sophistication, not wealth or rank in society.

Green’s father is a wealthy squire; not titled, but clearly one of the top men in the county. There’s no suggestion that the youths sneering at the Greens are nobles, and the likelihood is that many of them are less well off than their victims. (The Greens, by the way, are so unsophisticated that they only partially realize that they’re being insulted.)

Now, I don’t suppose that all boys at Eastern prep schools in 1914 were as clean-cut as the depictions in the Football Eleven. (I’ve met more recent graduates of Exeter who I suspect would have fit in just fine with their predecessors in Barbour’s generation. They weren’t all princes among men, save perhaps in their own minds.)

Similarly, I realize that Bradley was writing satire and that many Oxford undergraduates must have behaved more like Tom Brown and his friends than like those whom Verdant Green meets. On the other hand, Bradley’s accounts appear to me to have the ring of truth and have been accepted as authoritative in secondary sources.

Which got me to thinking about Oscar Wilde. Wilde was a brilliant scholar who took a Double First at Oxford without, according to his contemporary letters, working very hard at it. He was then as later the leader of the Aesthetic Movement, which involved reclaiming the aesthetic ideals of Greek and Roman classicism.

For a view of how the Aesthetics looked to the wider public, watch (or read) the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience; the character of Reginald Bunthorne is based so closely on Wilde that Wilde supported himself for some time with a lecture tour launched in tandem with the touring company of Patience. The emphasis on flowers, delicate colors (Gilbert’s ‘greenery-yallery’) and so on made the Aesthetes an easy target.

While Wilde was at Oxford, a group of athletes decided to turn him out of his room. Wilde met them in his doorway and hurled the leader down the stairs, ending the trouble. Wilde was certainly gay, but imagining that he was a limp-wristed pansy would be a mistake (as it proved to be for the jocks).

When I first ran into that story (in a memoir by Wilde’s elder son, Vivian Holland), the incident seemed clear enough: a group of jocks picked the wrong queer to bully. After reading Verdant Green, however, I wonder if there might not have been more going on.

Not all members of the Aesthetic Movement were gay. Robert S Hichens, for example, was clearly horrified when he understood (and wrote an apologia in the form of the novella The Green Carnation). I strongly suspect that they were, however, loudly certain of their own superiority to those who hadn’t reached their level of sophistication; just as the undergraduates of Verdant Green were.

Wilde himself demonstrated similarly contemptuous superiority when he sued the Marquis of Queensbury for libel–and thus doomed himself. The crucial factor in Wilde’s decision was not that Queensbury had called him homosexual, but rather that Queensbury was a buffoon who didn’t know how to spell Sodomite. (He wrote “Somdomite.”)

What are the chances that Wilde made loud comments about Gorillas or Pongoes when he and his coterie passed by the rugby field? Pretty good, I suspect.

Does that justify responding by a physical attack? Well, not in my mind, but I’m comfortable replying to verbal insults in kind. That may not be generally true of jocks.

Bullying is a bad thing; and the sort of verbal sneering described in Verdant Green is certainly bullying even if the people doing it wouldn’t describe it in those terms. It makes other people likely to repeat the behavior, and that makes the world a worse place; particularly the bully’s own world, because he’s surrounding himself with a miasma of nastiness.

We’re none of us saints. I’m not going to tell you to go out and be nice to people (though of course that would be great).

I will suggest, however, that you make an effort not to be nasty. Saying nothing is a harmless alternative to volunteering, “Where did you get such a stupid haircut?” or “I’ve never liked anything you’ve written.”

It’s worth a try, anyway.

Dave Drake

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