Category Archives: Influences

Things that have influenced my writing, or at least my perspective.

Will The Discworld End? Should It?

  In December 2007, Terry Pratchett, the much honored and award winning author of the Discworld fantasy series as well as other books, publicly announced that he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Many of his fans since then have wondered if Discworld can continue once Sir Terry can no longer write or if it even should.

I came across a discussion on this very subject a couple of days ago on The Morporkian, a Terry Pratchett discussion group on goodreads. The question posed asked how people felt about the Discworld series continuing on without Terry Pratchett. You can see the discussion here if you’d like: A Surrogate Pratchett?

I visit Discworld often and I actually dread not being able to look forward to the next new book but I have sadly concluded that there is only one Terry Pratchett. I have looked long and hard for other writers who can capture a similar tone and mood and I have found none – none at all.
Pratchett is unique and (need I say) my favorite author. I’ve mentioned him several times in my blog as both a writer of wonderful stories and as an inspiration for my own but I’m doubtful anyone I know of can do justice to the series. Pratchett’s ability to create believable and truly likeable characters in an unbelievable world and his ability to create entertaining and humorous stories while providing deep cultural insights is enviable and wonderful.
I won’t say that it is impossible to find someone to carry on. Perhaps there are writers out there who can and if Terry Pratchett names a successor, I will certainly give his or her books a try. Quite honestly, I hope he does. A round world without a Discworld to reflect the truly important bits would be a much sadder place.

A Discworld Update – February-2013

My Self Publishing Adventure – Episode Four – Managing Expectations

   I have to admit to being a bit disappointed with this adventure in self publishing so far and I’m trying not to be disillusioned about it all. This post isn’t to gripe about that though. My intent here is to share my experiences with other new writers so that they might know what to expect and give them an opportunity to assess how they are doing by comparison with how I have done.

I have always wanted to write fiction. I knew I would be something of a niche author because I am a niche reader. I like books that provide social commentary, philosophical insights, and do so without being heavy or taking themselves too seriously. This is hard to pull off although Sir Terry Pratchett normally can do it and others can occasionally as well. These are the kinds of books I like to read so they are the kind I wanted to write.

I found that Young Adult (YA) books are often better at this than those targeted for adult markets because they tend to be more hopeful, more idealistic, and less focused on sex and violence. If I want to see the darker side of humanity, I can watch the TV news. A few hours of that could convince anyone that humanity is doomed, and quite possibly deservedly so.

I want something different for my leisure reading. Something that will allow me to pretend, at least for a moment, that there is a bright future for humanity. For video entertainment, this is what draws me to both Star Trek and Doctor Who. They both show people being able to overcome prejudice and superstition and they portray people, as a whole and individually, as creatures with value and potential. Apparently this is not a popular perspective so I never expected my books to be bestsellers. I never expected them to appeal to a very large audience. I have to admit that I did expect some feedback on them though, some indication that they are at least being read. So far, except for personal friends and family, there has been none.

From what I have heard anecdotally, my expectations, low as they were, may have been too high. I have found no reliable statistics on this but I’ve seen claims that it is not uncommon for a blog to attract only a few select followers its first year. Mine was established the end of May and here are statistics on how it has fared in terms of the gross number of views since then:

May – 26
June – 42
July – 83
August – 96
September – 226
October (so far) – 172

Clearly readership has grown, and hopefully will continue to do so as I write more of these wonderful posts, but so far this has not equated to book sales. This may also be common. Again, my only means of comparison for this are anecdotal comments from other writers from their blogs but I get the distinct impression that most fiction ebooks by unknown authors don’t see any appreciable sales – ever – but those that do don’t until they’ve been available for a couple years. Mine have been out a couple of months.

I began by making an anthology of my first two books available on Smashwords and created a coupon to allow them to be downloaded free. Most of these went to friends and family who did provide feeback on them, all of it positive. But then, what else would you expect from friends and family? (By the way, thanks, Dad.)

A couple of months ago, I published my first two books separately. I made the first free on Smashwords for a month and then raised the price on both Smashwords and Amazon to 99¢. I priced the sequel at 99¢ as well and the anthology at $1.99. The following shows how this pricing strategy has fared.




The summary for this table is that I’ve given away 174 copies of my books (all on Smashwords) and sold two (both on Amazon). I assume the one sale of The Warden War, the sequel to The Warden Threat was to someone who got a free copy of the first one, liked it, and was willing to spend 99¢ for the next one. This may not be the case but it makes me feel better to think so.

So what does this mean to others like me who may just be starting out on their own self publishing adventures? Just this. Keep your expectations low. You may have written the best book ever. It may have the potential to brighten the lives of millions, bring enlightenment to the masses and usher in a new and hopeful era for humanity. And all of these things may be true even though you don’t see many sales and don’t get any feedback from readers right away. The only opinion that really matters is your own. If you believe in your work, continue. Keep writing.

So, what is my next step? I have heard from others that my low prices, which I hoped would attract readers, may be having the opposite effect. Many people mistakenly associate cost with value. The low cost of my books may imply that they have little value. Personally I believe this to be untrue but to charge what I really think they are worth would mean only millionaires could buy them and they really aren’t the market I was trying to reach, not that I would mind them buying them as well.

One other indie writer told me that pricing a book at 99¢ may cause a person to skim over it thinking it is a novella, rather than an 80,000+ word complete novel or one that is poorly written, unedited, and incoherent. Since none of these things are true, he said I should price them at least at $2.99. I hesitate to do this because I want my books to be available to as many people as possible and some simply can’t afford $2.99 for a single book. In principle though, he may be right so in the next month or so, I am going to increase some of the prices. I will keep the first book in the series, The Warden Threat, at 99¢. I will change the price of the second to $1.99 and price the anthology of both books (which includes a special prelude as well) at $2.99. These new prices will become effective early November. I will post periodic updates on how this goes and whether or not it seems to have an impact on sales.

In the meantime, keep reading, keep writing. If you’d like to share your experiences, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear about them.

Related Posts:

Why I Chose To Self Publish
My Self Publishing Adventure – Episode One

My Self Publishing Adventure – Episode Two

My Self Publishing Adventure – Episode Three – Building a Platform

My Self Publishing Adventure – Episode Five – Gaining a Following
Ten Things For Aspiring Fiction Writers To Consider

The 100 Year Starship Symposium (100YSS) – Resurgence of a Dream

For the last three days, I have been attending the 100 Year Starship Symposium sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. (Twitter search: 100YSS) The following statement from their website describes the intent of the symposium.

The 100 Year Starship™ Study is an effort seeded by DARPA to develop a viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad of disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible.

The genesis of this study is to foster a rebirth of a sense of wonder among students, academia, industry, researchers and the general population to consider “why not” and to encourage them to tackle whole new classes of research and development related to all the issues surrounding long duration, long distance spaceflight.

I went to this event with my son, a recently graduated aerospace engineer whose Master’s thesis was on nuclear propulsion for spacecraft. He wanted to go because this is directly related to his field of expertise. I went because I am a speculative fiction writer with a long time interest in the dream of space exploration and because ten renowned science fiction authors were there as panel members to talk about science fiction and its influence on science fact: Stephen Baxter, Geoffrey A. Landis, Allen Steele, Gregory Benford, Robert J. Sawyer, Elizabeth Bear, Joe Haldeman, G. David Nordley, Charles Stross, and Vernor Vinge. I was privileged to speak with Robert J. Sawyer, during one of the breaks. He is an amazing fellow.

The sense of wonder the DARPA statement mentions above struck a chord with me. I feel that sense of wonder. My children seem to as well. I almost cannot conceive why everyone does not share this feeling.

When I was a child all too many years ago, I was inspired by books for young adults with space faring heroes, most notably, or at least memorable, was the Tom Corbett Space Cadet series. I had them all. The science was badly flawed, the characters were shallow, but the books conveyed a dream of space exploration and discovery and I became infected. I read more science fiction, Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, Sagan and others. I was fascinated with movies about human exploration of space, especially 2001 A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, and, years later, Contact. Star Trek created such a hopeful vision for the future that I eagerly embraced it and its cancellation as a television series felt like the end of the world to me, or at least the end of a dream. Later, I felt a resurgence of the dream with the airing of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Of all the science documentaries ever produced, Cosmos, in my mind, is the one that best conveys that sense of wonder the DARPA statement talks about. But again the dream seemed to be shared by only a few.

Humanity must explore and expand to the stars. I believe this as almost a matter of faith. When I was younger, I felt that our exploration of space was inevitable. Now I think it is imperative but that it may not happen — at least, not soon. I feel that somehow we have lost our communal sense of wonder. We have lost the dream. I support the mission of the 100 Year Starship to reinvigorate that dream. I sincerely hope it can. But what can I do, what can we do to help?

Each according to his or her abilities, I suppose. I am a fledgling soft science fiction writer. I saw the genre of speculative fiction, especially books targeted at young adults, trending toward heroes who resolve problems with magic. I have nothing against magic as a plot device and I enjoy fantasy fiction but I felt there was a need for more fictional heroes who expressed skepticism about magical explanations and who searched beyond them to discover how things really were. My first three books carry that as a theme. They begin with items purported to be magical and the characters need to look beyond that simple explanation in order to resolve their problems. Although the setting for these books is a human colony on a distant planet, they are not specifically about space exploration. After my experience at the 100 Year Starship symposium, I am toying with ideas for my fourth novel that will more prominently feature space exploration. This may be the best I can do to encourage this sense of wonder. What can you do?

How to Create Covers for Ebooks

Today’s post is about my own experience but hopefully it will be helpful to some of the people out there in cyberspace looking to publish their own ebooks.

One of the most frustrating things I had to do to self publish was to create ‘covers’ for my books. I am a man of limited artistic talent although I did take an art class once when I was younger to meet girls and no, I’m not saying how long ago that was. I got no dates but I did learn how to draw a banana in charcoal. If I ever write a book on bananas this will certainly come in handy but since I haven’t yet, I was at something of a loss with my book cover.

I did what most of us would do at a time like this. I searched the web and found all sorts of sites offering to sell me their software. I tried some free samples. They worked, more or less, but none was especially easy to use and none came with anything I thought was suitable artwork. I write speculative fiction so a stock photo of a pretty girl picking flowers, or sailboats or a landscape of green hills just won’t work.

It was time to go back to the web. I found sites offering to create a unique cover custom designed for my books for a surprisingly wide range of prices, from less than a hundred to over a thousand dollars. But I’m also a fairly cheap, I mean frugal man and this writing habit was already costing me money. I was reluctant to shell out much cash to support it unless it started paying me back. So what is a frugal writer who is only marginally adept at drawing a banana supposed to do?

I did more research. Research is free. I looked at my bookshelf first; the physical one with the paper books. There were some lovely covers there but most were far too complex for me to have any chance of using as a template — with one notable exception; Thud by Terry Pratchett. A copy is posted above. There are a couple of things about this I like but the first thing that attracted me was how simple it was. And since it was by my favorite author, I knew it had to be good. (That’s a Pratchett plug by the way. Remuneration from his publisher will be gladly accepted — preferably before the next mortgage payment is due.)

I also researched the covers of books on Amazon and one thing became clear right away. Covers that look good in a bookstore do not necessarily look good when they are shrunk down and displayed on a computer monitor. Those that did were much like the cover for Thud. They were simple and had bright colors and large letters. But I still couldn’t do the art. Yes, it was just a cartoon drawing but the best I might manage would still probably look like a banana.

I went back to the web. I searched for free stock photos, clipart and cartoons. There are some but none that really grabbed me. But while searching, I hit on something I wasn’t really looking for. Avatars. Those little images people use for Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Apparently avatars are also used by online gamers and I found a few sites where you can make your own. And best of all, they were free.

So that’s what I did. I went to a few of them. (You can do your own search to find the ones you like best.) Most are pretty limited and you can’t do a lot of tailoring of the images you create. Some were also fairly difficult to use but I managed to make some JPG files that could be used as raw material. The image on the home page of this blog came from one of those.

I took the JPG files and opened them in a program on my computer called Paint. It came with my Microsoft Windows software so I didn’t need to buy anything new. There are also free programs like Gimp that can edit JPG pictures but I used Paint. I won’t say it was easy to tailor the images to what I thought would work for my covers and it wasn’t quick but it was possible. I cropped, touched up, altered, recolored and resized.

So I finally had some JPG art that I thought might work. Now I had to turn them into ebook covers. This is when inspiration hit. I already had a program on my computer that might be able to do this and, best of all, I knew how to use it. I just didn’t know how to use it to make book covers. I had used Microsoft PowerPoint for years to make slides for briefings and reports; not as part of my real job as a writer but as part of my paying job. It took me a while but I think I finally figured it out. It’s really rather simple, especially if you are familiar with PowerPoint.

The first thing you need to do, and the thing that eluded me the longest, is to change the orientation of the slide. On my version of PowerPoint you do this by gong to the “File” tab and selecting “Page Setup” from the dropdown. A window opens up with radio buttons. Change the “Slides” selection from “Landscape” to “Portrait” and this will give you a template ideal for an ebook cover. Delete any text boxes that automatically come up so you have a blank page to work with.

I’m not going to go through how to use PowerPoint. I’m sure Mircosoft has guidance out there on how to do this but I will list what I did. These are in no particular order and you can do them in any sequence you want.

After I finally figured out how to change the orientation of the slide, I selected a background color and pattern. There are a lot of combinations to choose from.

Then I inserted my JPG file images. You can also use the clipart that comes with the program to add things like vines or frames or other doodads. I decided not to after playing with some of them because it detracted from the clean and simple look I wanted that would show up well as a small icon next to the “order now” button.

I positioned the images, set the transparency color (the one you want to be invisible), and brought them forward or back behind others as needed. You just right click the image for this option.

The last thing was the text. Again I wanted it simple; just title and author. I tried a few options for the text but using WordArt provided the best result in my opinion. PowerPoint gives you the same kind of options for WordArt as you have for any other kind of picture you insert.

Once I had a cover I thought looked good, I simply saved it as a JPG file. It is already the correct size for an ebook cover so you don’t have to do anything else unless you want to do some minor tweaks using Paint or a similar program. I had to do this if my transparency color made some things invisible that shouldn’t have been.

That’s it. The covers I came up with are the ones you see on my Warden Novels tab. They have what I was looking for; bright colors, simple design, and large text. If you have a moment, let me know what you think of them. Or if you have a better way of doing this for free please let me know that too.

My (current) Top 10 TV/Movie Sci-Fi/Fantasy Heroes

In the order they came to mind, here are ten of the heroes from TV and Movies I found most intriguing, inspiring, memorable, or simply fun.

1: The Doctor – Because he’s wonderfully eccentric.

2: Captain Jean-Luc Picard – Because he’s so believingly civilized without being a wuss.

3: Susan Sto Helit – Because despite being mostly human, she’s very effective against bogeymen.

4: Spock – This should need no explanation.

5: The Dread Pirate Roberts (Westley) – Because he’s the definition of a hero.

6: Spider-Man – Because he’s basically a geek and a good kid, and what science fiction / fantasy fan can’t identify with that?

7: Moist von Lipwig – Because he’s a con man with a conscious.

8: Elwood P. Dowd – Because of his outlook on life and his ability to see invisible rabbits.

9: Yoda – Because he’s just cool.

10: Babe – Because it’s an inspiring pig.

The Unique Perspective of Doctor Who

 With the next new episode of Doctor Who coming out at the end of this month on BBC America, I figured this was a good time to do a post on why I like Doctor Who because, based on the plot line, I really shouldn’t.

If you are not familiar with Doctor Who, and many Americans are not, I encourage you to check it out. It’s been around since 1963 and is the longest running science fiction T.V. show ever. Prior to the new series, which began in 2005 (and which I personally find absolutely brilliant), the episodes had an almost ‘homemade’ feel and the special effects were pretty basic. These are not the reasons it should not have appealed to me though.

The premise of the series is that the Doctor is the last of the Time Lords from the planet Gallifrey and he travels in his TARDIS, a space-time vehicle with the outward appearance of a 1960s era British police call box (although it is much bigger on the inside). He almost always has human companions who he seems to truly care for (platonically).

I am not normally drawn to time travel based plots because I don’t think time travel is plausible in any practical sense. I also find the paradoxes involved difficult to fit into any coherent philosophical outlook and irreconcilable with my personal understanding of physics. Since I am unable to suspend disbelief in this particular area, I cannot normally get into time travel stories.

But I really like Doctor Who. Why?

It is the character of the Doctor I find compelling. There is his quixotic outlook toward injustice, his almost childlike sense of wonder, his enthusiasm for discovery, and, of course, his unique sense of fashion. The combination makes for a mildly eccentric and totally likeable character. But what I find most appealing about the Doctor is his perception of humanity.

In many, if not most science fiction stories, aliens come in two types insofar as their regard toward humanity goes; hostile and benign indifference. The Doctor is different. He does not see humans as worthy adversaries (e.g. Klingons), best ignored (e.g. Vulcans), or lunch (e.g. Alien). He finds us fascinating and, surprisingly, admirable and inspiring. Yes, we can certainly be barbaric, judgmental, superstitious, and paranoid but he also sees that we recognize these shortcomings and work to overcome them.

The way he looks at humanity as a whole across time and simultaneously as unique individuals provides the basis for his unique perspective. A few episodes, very few, suggest that the Doctor himself is “half human,” but it remains unclear if this is meant to describe his genetics or his attitude. Which of these it actually is hardly matters though with regard to his unique outlook. He sees us from the inside, as individuals inhabiting specific points in space-time, as well as from the outside, as an evolving species across the vast expanse of space-time, and he admires our desire and ability to progress and grow, both as individuals and as a species. Our need to understand the universe and ourselves, our capacity to reflect and question our assumptions, our instinct for compassion–these are the things that have allowed us to go from competing bands of odiferous vermin collectors heaving shards of flint at one another, to large, technologically advanced societies with (relatively) just laws, which strive to coexist. He seems certain that these traits will allow us to continue to learn, understand and evolve. I would like to believe he is right.

Cosmos – By Carl Sagan

Cosmos is the award winning thirteen-part television series written by Carl Sagan and broadcast by the Public Broadcasting Service initially in 1980.  When I first saw this program, I was literally awestruck.  Carl Sagan’s passion for exploring the wonders of our real world and our progress toward understanding it is infectious.  Much has been said about how well Dr. Sagan could explain fundamental scientific issues in terms any intelligent layman could understand.  He certainly could and in this series, he certainly does.  But the two things that struck me most about Cosmos, and have stayed with me, are Dr. Sagan’s conviction that the universe is fundamentally knowable, and in the picture of humankind he presents as a curious and intelligent species, which has the capability and desire to understand it; a species that has already made great strides in furthering its understanding and is on the cusp of learning even more.  This is not inevitable, he cautions.  There are obstacles both physical and ideological that can prevent us from knowing the world around us.  These are not insurmountable, but we must recognize that they exist and work to overcome them.  Sagan believed we could and I would like to believe he was right.

My favorite episode is #7, The Backbone of Night. – If you watch none of the other episodes, watch this one.  It is inspiring.  Look at the expressions on the faces of the kids in the classroom.  How can this not give you hope for the future of humankind?

Book Review – The Wee Free Men

  My Rating: 5 Stars

I have several Young Adult books in my library including those by J.K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, Suzanne Collins, and Philip Pullman, among others.  The Wee Free Men tops them all by an order of magnitude in my opinion.  I’ve read it several times to try to figure out why.  The first thing I’ve noticed is how well the main character, Tiffany Aching, is developed.  Pratchett presents an amazing girl, thoughtful, intelligent, strong-willed, and observant and you feel you know her and can’t help but admire her after the first twenty pages.  All of the supporting characters are also done well, and have distinct and interesting personalities.  I won’t summarize the plot.  Other YA books have interesting and exciting plots as well, but what makes this book stand out from those, I think, is how deeply you understand the motivations of the main character and how much you find yourself wishing the real world had more people like her.  It also presents many interesting ideas about how people and cultures view the world in very humorous ways but does not try to dumb them down for young readers.  It assumes they, like Tiffany, can think and actually want to.  Read this book.  Give it to your children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren.   You’ll be doing yourself and them, and possibly the world, a big favor.

Jim Henson

Muppet creator, Jim Henson, is probably best known as an innovative and highly creative puppeteer.  But he was also the force behind several great works of speculative fiction on film including educational and entertaining shows for children, comic retellings of classic fairytales, fantasy movies and television, and a satirical sitcom.  There are two things that strike me about Jim Henson’s work.  The first is that much of it was truly thought provoking and made insightful observations about humanity.  The second is that Jim Henson’s fictional creatures felt “real.”  Sure, they were fantasy creatures often in a fantasy setting and you could see that they were puppets but they had intellect, emotion, and often a surprising amount of personality, considering the fact that they were, after all, puppets.  The works that I think best exemplify what I mean by this are below.

The Dark Crystal (movie, 1982) – This was the first movie I ever went to the theater to see twice.  The detail of the completely fantasy world being portrayed was incredible.

Fraggle Rock  (television series, 1983-1987) – I loved the music in these as well as the contrast between the fun-loving Fraggles and the hard-working Doozers.  Although the show was targeted for children, it often dealt with important and fundamental issues.

Labyrinth  (movie, 1986) – This is a great happy ending fairytale.  The interaction between the live actors and the wonderful puppet characters is seamless and believable.

The Storyteller  (television series, 1987) – This was another wonderful retelling of fairytales.  The thing that sets The Storyteller apart though was that it took a step back and, through its narrator, emphasized how important, even essential such stories are for people and have, throughout history, helped to define what it is that makes us human.

Dinosaurs  (television series, 1991-1993)  Although this was produced after Jim Henson’s death, it was based on one of his ideas.  The series was hysterically satirical and frequently dealt with serious and timely issues.


Discworld is the remarkable creation of Sir Terry Pratchett.  There are now thirty-eight Discworld novels (counting his Young Adult books) and another adult targeted fantasy focusing on Vimes of the Ankh Morpork City Watch is due out later this year.  The series is immensely popular, spawning Discworld conventions in England and the United States, as well as movies and television series.  My first introduction to the Discworld was through the novel, Hogfather, and I have to admit that at first I didn’t like it.  I couldn’t tell where it was going until I was about a third of the way through it and then I got it and I remember thinking, “Wow!”  This wasn’t your normal fantasy novel.  This one was saying something.  In this case it was about the human need to believe in things that, while not real in a physical sense, were real in an emotional and psychological sense.  I didn’t expect that kind of message in what looked at first glance like a comic fairytale.  After that I was hooked and I had to read everything Terry Pratchett ever wrote.  I had a problem though.  I lived in the U.S. and many of his earlier novels had not been released here.  (This has since been corrected.)  Undeterred, I ordered the first ten books from England or Canada and consumed them voraciously.  In the first two, ‘The Colour of Magic’ and ‘The Light Fantastic’ it seems as if his thoughts about where he wanted to go with this ridiculous but amazing world were still congealing and these are the two weakest books.  All of the others, in my opinion, are five-star fantastic.  When I read a Discworld novel I find myself really liking the characters and concerned about what happens to them.  What makes the Discworld novels unique though is that they combine laugh-out-loud humor with philosophical insights and cultural satire.  They are populated with wonderfully interesting characters with distinct personalities overcoming obstacles that might just remind you a bit of things that happen here on our round world.  I really wish I could write stories like that.  The world needs more of them.

Dungeons and Dragons

I played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons for several years both as a Player Character and as a Dungeon Master.  The influence of AD&D on my writing cannot be overstated.  As a player I learned that the part of the game that was the most fun was actually playing the character, becoming the character, interacting with the fictional world that the Dungeon Master created not as I would as myself but as my character would based on their personality, knowledge, and background.  You could play the game by just knowing the mechanics, like what roll on a twenty sided die you needed to hit armor class two with a long sword, but it was far more fun if you had a history and unique personality for your character and allowed that character to emerge.  As a Dungeon Master AD&D helped me, actually forced me to develop a believable world with which players could interact and an interesting story for them to become a part of.  The first AD&D character I ever rolled up features prominently in my Warden novels (although the spelling of the name has changed) and a few others are there too with or without name changes.  If any of the folks in my old AD&D group (The Mutants of the Round Table) ever read these (assuming they’re ever published) please let me know if you recognize them.  I’d love to hear from you.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

My Rating: 5 Stars

Let me start out by saying that I found this book mind-bendingly hilarious.  There are those who will disagree, some who found it silly, pointless, or even unreadable and all I can think of is that they just didn’t get it.  (Just check out some of the reviews on Amazon.)  Of course as with music, art, and food, not every book will appeal to everyone.  This one appealed to me though and I think it ranks as a notable work of speculative fiction.  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy forces readers to see the world from a different perspective and it drags them to this new vantage point laughing all the way if they allow it to, if they can suspend their disbelief long enough to let it.  It begins with Arthur Dent doing the mundane things all of us do in our mundane world, shaving, brushing his teeth, and then he suddenly realizes that his house is about to be knocked down to build a bypass.  Shift perspective.  His normal routine is disrupted by a new, bigger picture.  He is trying to stop the bulldozers when his friend Ford Prefect shows up.  He has something important to say to him and he wants to say it at the local pub.  The Earth is going to be destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass.  Shift perspective again.  His world has gone from being, well, the whole world to a minor nuisance so much so that the only reference to Earth in the Encyclopedia Galactica is that it is “mostly harmless.”  And then as the book progresses it continues to challenge some very fundamental assumptions.  Is the universe really as orderly and logical as we assume it to be or do the laws of nature we understand amount to just one of an infinite number of possibilities?  What really is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything—and does the question really make any sense?  But whatever infinitely improbable circumstance you may find yourself in, the Hitchhiker’s Guide provides one bit of sagely advice—DON’T PANIC!

Star Trek

Star Trek (the original series) wasn’t the first science fiction T.V. show I ever saw but it was the first that was geared for adults with live actors.  By today’s standards the special effects were hokey and the dialog sometimes seemed a bit contrived but the show had many of the things I think of as components of great speculative fiction.  It was not a simple man versus monster, human versus alien, good guy versus bad guy space swashbuckler (although those can be fun).  No, Star Trek had substance.  It provoked thought.  It explored fundamental aspects of human nature and culture.  But I think what I liked most about Star Trek (in all of its incarnations) was that it provided a hopeful picture of humanity’s future.  It showed a humanity that had overcome prejudice and superstition, had learned to work together, and which strived to understand those who were different, not fear them.  Of course when all else failed they could still fire a full spread of photon torpedoes but that was a last resort, not the preferred option.

Some of the many “big issue” topics that the original series examined were:

Absolute power.  Star Trek: The Original Series – Where No Man Has Gone Before

Being human.  Star Trek: The Original Series – What are Little Girls Made Of

Cultural stagnation.  Star Trek: The Original Series – The Return of the Archons

Freedom and slavery. Star Trek: The Original Series – The Gamesters of Triskelion

Racial prejudice. Star Trek: The Original Series – Let That Be Your Last Battlefield

Here is a link to the Star Trek website where you can watch full length original series episodes.  Fair warning though, there are ads so you will need to disable your ad blocker.

Tom Corbett – Space Cadet

My first introduction to speculative fiction books was through Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.  These books, I discovered later, were based on a 1950s T.V. show.  I was too young to have ever seen the show but the books started me on the road to thinking of other worlds and the way things might be in the future.  The science was badly flawed, the characters were far from complex, and the stories were certainly sexist but at the time I didn’t realize that and probably would not have cared.  When I read a Tom Corbett book I was transported in time and space and I cared about what happened to Tom and his friends.  That’s all that mattered.

I had them all.  I wish I still did.  Somewhere in my family’s various moves they got lost or sold or simply tossed out.  I don’t know.  Probably just as well.  I’m sure I would be disappointed with them now and wonder what I ever saw in them.  But the memory of what they meant to me at the time lingers and it’s a fond memory.

A history and synopses of the books in the series can be found here:

Fireball XL5

Fireball XL5 was a marionette T.V. show in the 1960s.  It centered on a group of heroes from the World Space Patrol protecting the solar system from alien invasion.  It sounds corny now but back then I thought this was really cool and I wanted to join up.

I had a plastic Fireball XL5 toy ship that you could shoot up in the air and, if you folded up the parachute just right, it would float down safely although I had more fun with it acting out adventures in our living room, especially after the parachute became hopelessly tangled.  It was still my favorite toy when I was ten.  I actually found a site that had a picture of it.

The show also had a jazzy theme song that you can listen to here:

Surprisingly a DVD set of this old show can still be purchased.  The link below also has a good summary of the series.

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