Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Can a tree feel cheated?

I'm currently writing a contemporary fantasy where dryads (mythical tree spirits) manage Yellowstone National Park and are deeply committed to wildlife conservation. Like any good writer, I want to ground my characters in realism. So I'm also reading books on forestry and wildlife conservation. Right now, I'm reading Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac.

Leopold was a naturalist who studied ecology, forestry, and wildlife management in the first half of the 20th Century. Wikipedia credits him as the founder of wildlife management science. And A Sand County Almanac is a collection of short essays about Leopold's personal relationships with the wildlife on his Wisconsin farm. So it seems like a fitting source of material for my dryad characters' attitudes.

The last collection of essays I read was Harlan Ellison's The Glass Teat, which was so vitriolic that reading it felt like absorbing poison through my eyes. Leopold's essays, however, were both beautifully written and surprisingly inspiring.

In the second essay, "Good Oak," Leopold describes the sad duty of taking down an 80-year-old oak tree that had been struck by lightning. Leopold described putting the saw to the tree and pulling it through each of the tree's rings as if he were cutting through historical records. The first few rings were records of his family's life on the property. The next few rings recorded the previous landowner's abuse of the land, a bootlegger who'd burned the farmhouse and later abandoned the land during the Great Depression.

Over the next eight pages, Leopold describes the history he understood to be recorded in those rings in surprising detail. This was more than a recitation of dates and events. Leopold described how events throughout the region intertwined and affected the ecology of the area. How the oak stood indifferent to the stock market crash of 1929 and the abolition of the Wisconsin state forests in 1915. How it weathered and grew through floods, droughts, epidemics, and all the other things that affect men and trees alike.

I doubt anyone living in 1948 knew how much climate data each tree's ring recorded. Yet Leopold imagined it, and his imagination connected him through the tree to all of the land's history.

I cannot imagine imbuing the trees near my home with anywhere near the meaning that Leopold gave to his dying oak. When the developers built our subdivision, they razed the forest, killing all the plants and displacing the animals that lived here. The developers never gave a single thought to the forest community they destroyed or the history they erased. They quickly and cheaply produced rows of near-identical houses and decorated each yard with a single tree. And that's all the trees were to them, dressing to help sell the property. They never even considered the possibility that anyone would want to connect to the land the way that Leopold did.

A forest is defined as a community of plants and animals living interconnected lives. Trees depend on birds and insects to spread their seeds and pollen. This means all the lives (the birds, animals, and insects) that depend on trees are part of the trees' lives. I made this feeling of interconnectedness important to my dryad. When my werewolf character apologized to the dryad for marking her tree (as all wolves mark their territories), the dryad responded, "No apology is necessary. A wolf's markings are as welcome as the singing birds, the butterfly's cocoon, and the climbing teenager. They're all natural parts of a tree's life."

The lone tree standing in our front yard is now 35 years old, yet it is still too sparse to shelter a bird's nest from the rain and much too weak for a teenager to climb. I've walked, bicycled, or driven past that tree hundreds of times and rarely given it more than a passing thought. I gave my fictional characters more consideration, imbuing my dryads - and by extension, the trees -  with spirit, intelligence, and compassion. But now it's a symbol of all the aspects of life that are denied us living in sterile suburban neighborhoods.

No wolf has ever marked this tree. No bird or squirrel has ever nested in its branches. And I wonder: Can this tree miss the presence of all the birds and animals that enriched its predecessors' lives? Can the absence of these things cause a real tree as much pain as it would cause my fictional ones?

Can the tree feel cheated?

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

A Pale Light in the Black


A Pale Light in the Black is, unfortunately, not science fiction. It's not even a space opera. It's a sports novel in space.

For the past year, their close loss in the annual Boarding Games has haunted Interceptor Team: Zuma’s Ghost. With this year’s competition looming, they’re looking forward to some payback—until an unexpected personnel change leaves them reeling.

 And Someone is targeting members of Zuma’s Ghost, a mysterious opponent willing to kill to safeguard a secret that could shake society to its core . . . a secret that could lead to their deaths and kill thousands more unless Max and her new team stop them. Rescue those in danger, find the bad guys, win the Games. It’s all in a day’s work at the NeoG.

Based on the description, I expected a story balanced  between preparing for the big competition and uncovering the secret conflict, but that wasn't the case. While there were bits of an investigation scattered throughout the book, at least 80% of the story focused on competition and the celebrity it brought the characters. Maybe 10% of the story was about the characters' family issues and mere 10% about investigating the mystery eventually revealed threat  

I've never liked sports and don't enjoy reading about sports celebrities. So I ended up skimming through the last third of the book.

When the final conflict came, it was a bit of a let down. The villain was too easily caught. There was never any real tension or question about who would prevail.

So, only read this book if you're a sports fan.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

New episodes of Futurama start today


This caught me by surprise, but Hulu released a new episode of Futurama today (7/24/2023). 

Futurama was an innovative satirical cartoon that originally aired on Fox from 1999 - 2003. There were also a few movies after the original series was cancelled.

The cartoon is known and loved for it's hilarious send ups of common sci fi tropes as well as its satirical portrayal of politics and mass media.

Depending on which web site you look at, the new episodes may be identified as season 8 or season 11. I think this is due to confusion over whether the movies count as seasons. 

Regardless, I'm looking forward to the new episodes.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Fantastic Voyage

 Fantastic Voyage by Issac Asimov

Four men and one woman reduced to a microscopic fraction of their original size, boarding a miniaturized atomic sub and being injected into a dying man's carotid artery. Passing through the heart, entering the inner ear where even the slightest sound would destroy them, battling relentlessly into the cranium.

Their objective . . . to reach a blood clot and destroy it with the piercing rays of a laser.

Isaac Asimov wrote the novel based on Harry Kliener's screen play. Rumor has it, that when Asimov saw the original screen play, he remarked that it was full of plot holes and scientific inaccuracies, and insisted on correcting them for the novel. 

Unfortunately, he failed to correct the basic structural and character development flaws. So instead of a 'fantastic voyage', we have a seriously flawed novel. 

The first chapter is literally four "As you know, Bob" conversations about the importance of an off-page character. The Turkey City Lexicon lists an "As you know, Bob" as when two characters tell each other what they already know to bring the reader up to speed. It's a common sci fi trope among beginners. Editors hate it, and this book exemplifies one of the reasons for that hatred. 

By having his characters discuss an off-page character, the author is telling the reader that the characters he's introducing us to on the page aren't that important. So the reader is wondering" if these characters aren't that important, why is the writer wasting my time introducing me to them? Let's get to the real story".

Granted this book was written in 1966, is based on a movie, and opening scenes like this were very common in films of the time. But I still expected better writing from a Grand Master of Science Fiction. 

A second major flaw is the dialog. Most of the dialog consists of one character telling another what they should be thinking. Often with hyperbolic emotional exaggeration that might have worked on the screen, but on the page, makes the characters look like caricatures.

It's was difficult to get into the story, and I was so disgusted with the dialog, I quit reading half way through. Can't recommend this book, not even for historical value.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Glass Teat

I'd heard about Harlan Ellison's The Glass Teat for years, but couldn't find a copy until recently. I'd heard it was an insightful commentary on the deleterious effects television had on the human mind and American culture. Nope, it's not. It's a collection of short vitriolic rants about the lack of realism in a  TV shows and a few other things Ellison didn't like.

According to the book's intro, these rants were originally a weekly newspaper column, reproduced here the order they were written. So there's no real structure, nothing to tie them together.  And since I've never seen most of the shows he mentions, it's impossible to determine how accurate his opinions are. 

The out-of-date references and the vitriolic rhetoric make this book a waste of time for most audiences. The only readers I'd recommend this book for is those specifically studying the counter culture of the 1960s and 70s.