Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Nope. Still Winter.


It’s been four weeks now since the hospital sent Karen home to die. Three and a half weeks since she passed from this world. Somehow I lived through Christmas without collapsing into a complete blubbering mess—at least, not constantly. I do start every morning off with a cup of coffee and a good cry, though. 

The next test comes in two weeks, on our 30th wedding anniversary. Then, after that, her birthday. Somewhere in there we’ll have her requiem mass, although the plans for that still remain surprisingly up in the air. Helpful consumer hint: never die in December, if you can possibly help it. With everyone else in the throes of Christmas madness, it’s really hard to book a church for a funeral.

I want to give a shout-out to all my friends who have made an heroic effort in these past four weeks to pick up all the jagged broken pieces of me and glue me back together. Chuck, Mike, Sharon, Cindy, Henry, Pete, Lori, Beth, Eric and Jeanne: I can’t thank you enough. Thanks especially to Guy Stewart, who has been trying to keep Stupefying Stories going by mining the site for old columns and bringing them back to the surface as new posts. I’m slightly amazed by some of the things Guy has found and bubbled back to the top; in some cases slightly embarrassed, too. Did I really write that? What was I thinking?

I am nothing like back to “normal” yet. I doubt I ever will be. Despite all the time we had to plan for this, it’s clear now that I will be spending a long time cleaning up all the flotsam and jetsam left behind in the wake of Tropical Storm Karen.* Once in a while I find something that has me scratching my head and wondering, Huh? Why did she do this? Why did she hang onto that? More often though I find something that brings me to tears and has me loving her and missing her all the more.

Nonetheless, we have a publishing company to run, and I’ve been sitting shiva long enough. Beginning Monday, January 2nd, we will be returning to normal operations, as I presume that by then I will have at least a rough sketch for what our new normal will look like. Be advised, though, that as Guy Stewart can attest, Karen was a moderating influence on me, and Bruce Bethke Unfiltered might not be quite the same calm, kindly, patient person you remember. 

Upwards and onwards,
Bruce Bethke

* An apt nickname: she was a force of nature. To give you some idea of what she was really like, her keychain fob good luck charm was Tatsumaki. If you need that explained, Google One Punch Man.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

The Seemingly Obligatory Christmas Column; "Christmas Eve, 2017,” by Bruce Bethke

(This 2017 photograph of Queen Elizabeth II is here because she was amazing, engendered a sense of  good cheer, good sense, and stability...some qualities ~brb shares)

I had a column I used to recycle every Christmas Eve. It was a mopey, sentimental thing about my Dad and the 8mm movie camera he used to take to every family gathering when I was a kid. The technology of the times required that he use a battery of photoflood lights if he wanted to shoot color film indoors, so we have a lot of footage of my relatives raising their hands and cringing before those floodlights, like vampires cowering at the first rays of sunrise.

Sometime in the late 1960s my Dad got the idea to edit all those Christmas clips together into one reel, although for reasons he never explained he decided not to put them in chronological order. The result is a fascinating home movie that skips back and forth in time between the early 1950s and the late 1960s, and shows the members of my extended family going from being young children, to having children of their own, and back and forth again.

Some years back, when DVD was new, I got the idea to transfer that movie to DVD, dub in a soundtrack of period Christmas music, and then make VHS copies of the result and send them to all my living relatives. The tapes were a hit. But... VHS.

A few days ago I was talking by phone with my brother in Texas, and the subject of that tape came up again. Yes, he still had it—somewhere—but couldn’t remember how long ago he’d junked his last VHS deck. Yes, he thought it would be a great idea if I was to redo it, this time on DVD, and for a few minutes, I was excited about the idea. With the software tools I have now, I could do a much better job of transferring the images, cleaning up the frame sync problems, tightening the editing, and layering in a new soundtrack.

But then I realized: the number of people now living who would recognize any of the people in that film has gotten much smaller since I did the VHS version, and it’s getting smaller every year.

Time travel is one of the grand old ideas of science fiction. When we’re young, we love to imagine things like, “What if we could go back in time to December 6th, 1941, and take along the U.S.S. Nimitz?” Or, “What if we could travel into the distant future, and then come back to now with everything we learned there?”

A little later in life, it becomes more personal. We start to imagine, “What if I could go back in time just a few years, and fix just one terrible mistake I made when I was younger?”

When you get to be my age, you start to realize that actually having time travel would be a nightmare, and the worst nightmare of all would be to travel into the future and get stuck there, in that strange world where no one speaks your language. Our world is already full of time travelers who are traveling into the future at 1X speed and getting stuck there. We call them ‘old people,’ and at our best, we tolerate their continued presence.

This year, we are the grandparents our children are taking time from their busy schedules to come visit, and we’re grateful for their company. But every year, the roll call of our fellow time travelers gets shorter, and Thornton Wilder’s Our Town becomes more poignant.

“Thornton Wilder?” the youngest asked. “Our Town? The class play my senior year was that old classic, The Rocky Horror Show.”

The. Rocky. Horror. Show.

Yes. Please. Just one more time.

Let’s do the time warp again.

Friday, December 23, 2022

MINING THE ASTEROIDS #2: Can An Asteroid Be OWNED??? By Whom? How?

Using the Programme Guide of the 2021 World Science Fiction Convention, DisCON which I WOULD have been attending in person if I felt safe enough to do so in person AND it hadn’t been changed to the week before the Christmas Holidays…HOWEVER, as the program firms up, I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. I will be using the events to drive me to distraction or revelation – as the case may be. The link is provided below where this appeared...sometime soon! But I’ll have to stick with the Program Guide for the 2020 FIRST Virtual WSF Convention for inspiration…

Catalyzing Space Entrepreneurial Ecosystems
2 Hour workshop on catalyzing a space ecosystem/industry in your city, region or country.
Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom, SpaceBase

Of course, I wasn’t able to be there, but the blurb started me thinking…

I was crushed a few weeks ago to discover that Planetary Resources, “Following financial troubles caused by ‘delayed investment’…on 31 October 2018…the company's human assets were purchased by the blockchain software technology company ConsenSys, Inc. In May 2020, ConsenSys made all Planetary Resources intellectual property available to the public domain, and in June 2020, all the remaining hardware assets were auctioned off,” which I had wanted to invest in, was no longer a company. That led to a bunch of reading, and eventually to this mind-discussion – as well as the question poised above.

So…what the heck is an “entrepreneurial ecosystem”? Sounds like a greenhouse for business people…Apparently, the term itself comes from biology, but it’s been applied to business now. “In biology, an interspecific competition, in ecology, is a form of competition in which individuals of different species compete for the same resources in an ecosystem…”

It's “sort of right”, then. That being a wild guess, according to a 2014 article in the Harvard Business Review, “…no one owns or represents an entrepreneurship ecosystem, there can be no one objective that motivates all of the actors.”

So, here’s my speculation and musings…Because no one can own an asteroid (yet), Planetary Resources couldn’t really PROVE that they were a business. While they successfully orbited at least two satellites – the little teeny ones – they had several setbacks and a major investor (reading between the lines), withdrew their support.

But the main problem remained: Could Planetary Resources REALLY put a stake down on any asteroid that came by? Would they be allowed to keep it, and even more importantly, would they be allowed to MINE it?

It’s possible the answer to the question lies in a couple directions. First off, the Great Migration, in which Europeans/Americans “staked claims” on land that was either used by various Indigenous tribes or claimed by them, and subsequently ignored, parceled off, and that-was-that…the government created laws (for a brief reading, try this: that essentially declared the lands “empty” and so put them up for EuroAmerican grabs.

Simple mining and homestead laws were pretty simple initially: “The 1862 Homestead Act allowed for settlers to lay claim to 160 acre lots of public land which had been surveyed by the Federal government.”, the Mining Act of 1872 stated, “The Mining Act allowed prospectors to survey and claim public lands in the western states. The stated purpose of this law was to open the mineral claims in the public lands of the United States to exploration and purchase…this law recognized that several people might band together and become co-owners of a mining claim. Should one of the co-owners fail to contribute to annual improvements of the claim upon notice, his stake would revert to the other co-owners.”

21st Century mining claims are covered now by law from this document called, “TITLE 30: Mineral Lands and Mining”. In particular, “CHAPTER 2—MINERAL LANDS AND REGULATIONS IN GENERAL”. This document does NOT include asteroids, not specifically at any rate.

So, even if we could get Humans out to an asteroid, assuming it has been assayed to contain mineable ore, Title 30 doesn’t seem to cover it explicitly, though this seems like it would be stretchable: “The locators of all mining locations made on any mineral vein, lode, or ledge, situated on the public domain…shall have the exclusive right of possession and enjoyment of all the surface included within the lines of their locations, and of all veins, lodes, and ledges throughout their entire depth, the top or apex of which lies inside of such surface lines extended downward vertically, although such veins, lodes, or ledges may so far depart from a perpendicular in their course downward as to extend outside the vertical side lines of such surface locations.”

That seems clear, though whoever wrote it wasn’t thinking about asteroids!

Right now, it doesn’t seem that any company is seriously pursuing asteroid mining, though one might be, The Asteroid Mining Company in the UK. “Asteroid Mining Corporation Ltd. was founded in March 2016 by Mitch Hunter-Scullion because…asteroids are staggeringly valuable resources…asteroid mining is vital…the ultimate goal of AMC: to advance the march of human progress by moving as many polluting industries into space and out of Earth's fragile biosphere as possible so that the Earth can become the garden of the Solar System.”

Hmmm…seems a bit hyperbolic, but, OK. Let’s go with it.

Where does SpaceBase come in? The New Zealand-based company is multi-purposed. Their vision: “We see a world in which all people have opportunity to participate in the space industry on an equal footing, in accordance with their aptitude and ambitions. We plan to contribute to this vision by making education and entrepreneurial support available to those who need it most. In short, we want to democratize space for everyone. We believe that outcome is best achieved when as many people as possible have the education and support required to participate in that effort.”

They’ve done this by forming a space entrepreneurial ecosystem. I’m interested, but not excited yet. They don’t seem to be ones who intend on going into space to drill asteroids. What does “making education and entrepreneurial support available to those who need it most” really mean?

“Entrepreneurial support” doesn’t sound like “we’ll give you the cash you need”….sounds like…“we’ll help you look for the cash you need from someone else”. That’s fine, I imagine. But, if I have a plan to fly to an asteroid, do a survey – most likely take some cores, or blast a bit free and collect the debris – and come back to Earth, they’re not the ones I’d go to.

Maybe they have connections? What about “making education support available”? Not quite sure. I need to find out stuff about sending spaceships up, but does their “education support” provide me contacts with people who can build the necessary rockets? How do I raise the capital when ONE person going into space (for like 5 minutes and not even REALLY in space, at least not in any useful way!) would set me back $250,000?

Harvard Business Review points out another problem here: “There is no one driver of an entrepreneurship ecosystem because by definition an ecosystem is a dynamic, self-regulating network of many different types of actors.…raising capital, finding talent, and overcoming bureaucracy are three of the top challenges entrepreneurs ascribe to their environments. As I have argued, this is such a ubiquitous phenomenon that it probably reflects something fundamental about the generic process of entrepreneurship, rather than a deficiency of the ecosystem.”

OK – this whole thing got me thinking. I’m going to have to several other parts to this as I muddle around the idea of REALLY mining asteroids, I can ponder what it would take, and how I can make a story of my research and thoughts. Maybe “Asteroid Veterinarian”?

(ADDENDUM: OK, this is the most recent article I can find addressing the issue of asteroid ownership:

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

SF/F Writers in the Real World by Bruce Bethke (October 11, 2018)

Eric Dontigney found and posted an interesting article on our facebook page and here’s the link:

The original article is on, and the subject is, “Does your science fiction or fantasy world have to be woke? Experts debate at NYCC.”

It’s an interesting question, and one that deserves further debate, which is why I’ve reposted it here. I don’t think I’m the person to lead this discussion, though. When I look at this, what I see is further proof that we’re locked in a time loop and condemned to recapitulating the past fifty years. Right now we’ve made it up to reliving 1970—seriously, the parallels are alarming—except that last time around, the demand was for “relevance” in SF/F, not being woke. As far as SF/F goes, “relevance” was a political fashion trend that nearly destroyed the genre.

If you don’t remember the bulk of the painfully serious and relevant SF that was being published circa 1970—well, lucky you. If you want a quick refresher, you could track down and watch Silent Running, the movie I lifted the above still from, as a representative example. Or I could spare you the pain of listening to Peter Schickele’s hideous soundtrack music and sum it all up in one phrase:


Yeah, remember how we ran out of oil in the year 1985 and the world reverted to tribal savagery? Remember how we ran out of mineable copper in the early 1990s, which caused the complete collapse of all industrial economies based on electricity and electronics? Remember how in the year 2000 the world population hit 20 billion souls, all fighting tooth and claw for what little food and water remained, and how in the end we solved the problem by resorting to industrial-scale cannibalism?

Yeah. Neither do I.

What I did remember, though, as I was thinking about writing this column, was that the long and gloomy winter of “relevance” eventually gave way to the exuberant spring of Star Wars, and while many serious literary critics at the time condemned Star Wars as being mere escapism, C. S. Lewis had already answered that charge.

“Stories of the sort I am describing are like that visit to the deck. They cool us. They are as refreshing as that passage in E. M. Forster where the man, looking at the monkeys, realizes that most of the inhabitants of India do not care how India is governed. Hence the uneasiness which they arouse in those who, for whatever reason, wish to keep us wholly imprisoned in the immediate conflict. That perhaps is why people are so ready with the charge of ‘escape’. I never fully understood it till my friend Professor Tolkien asked me the very simple question, ‘What class of men would you expect to be most preoccupied with, and most hostile to, the idea of escape?’ and gave the obvious answer: jailers. The charge of Fascism is, to be sure, mere mud-flinging. Fascists, as well as Communists, are jailers; both would assure us that the proper study of prisoners is prison. But there is perhaps this truth behind it: that those who brood much on the remote past or future, or stare long at the night sky, are less likely than others to be ardent or orthodox partisans.”
It was snowing here as I drove in to work this morning, but already, I’m thinking about Spring. What are you thinking about?

Kind regards,

Monday, December 19, 2022

Requiem for Karen


I bought a Christmas tree last night. I wasn’t planning to. But as we were having dinner my son said, “Dad, you have to. A real Christmas tree this year, like Mom would have wanted.”

So after dinner I went out, and to my surprise found one—and not a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, either, but a good-looking, fresh and green Balsam fir, and at 50% off, too. I guess these things don’t see much customer demand after next weekend. Then I bought it, brought it home, we set it up in the living room, and I began to decorate it. I got perhaps a third of the way through the bin of ornaments before the emotional overload got too great and I had to put off finishing decorating it until tonight.

Karen loved Christmas, and she loved real trees. We haven’t had a real tree in a few years, ever since the cancer took away her ability to stand and decorate it. Instead, we’ve had a series of ever smaller and more pathetic artificial trees, each one looking more like a big green bottle brush than the one before. The last one came in a cardboard tube, and when pulled out of the tube sprang into form already lit and decorated. Karen didn’t love it, but at least it was sort of somewhat like a Christmas tree.

Karen had this enormous bin of Christmas ornaments, and she loved sorting through them, gently unwrapping them, and selecting the ones she wanted us to put on the tree this year. Each ornament had a story, and as she unwrapped it she’d tell us the story, even though we’d heard all her stories many times before. This ornament came from her mother. That one came from her grandmother. These were antiques, hand-blown in Poland more than a century ago. This one was made by Dan when he was in Cub Scouts. That one by Sam, when he was in Cub Scouts. Here’s the T-Rex Veronica and Bill gave us the year they decided to give everyone dinosaur cookie cutters repurposed as Christmas ornaments. These are the hand-painted German ones she got a great price on when Gimbels went out of business.

I would have given anything to have heard her tell all those stories one more time last night. 

The past three and a half years were really hard on Karen. In the summer of 2019 she fractured her pelvis. Not fell, or broke, or anything like that: she’d had so many cancerous lesions pop up in her pelvic region and had received so much radiation to her pelvis, femurs, and lower spine that the bones in there just began to crack and fall apart. She went from being someone who had always been a strong, active, outdoors woman to being someone who needed a cane—then two canes—then a walker…

When her wheelchair went from being something she needed to use only when transitioning into and out of the car to being something she was completely dependent on, I think that was when she began to give up hope.

This is the last photo I took of her that she was willing to let me share. It was taken on August 27th. On August 30th she began a new course of chemo, using a new drug that had only come off the experimental list on August 5th, and no one seems to know quite what happened, but something went terribly wrong. It was as if her immune system said, “That’s it, I give up.” Her hemoglobin and platelet levels crashed. The chronic and systemic MSSA infection that we’d been fighting since July of 2021 came roaring back. My calendar for September and early October is just one long list of doctor’s appointments, diagnostic exams, treatments, infusions, transfusions, more radiation treatments, more lesions popping up in her liver, spine, and brain, more talk of possible new treatment strategies…

On October 18th, everything went to Hell in a handcart. We managed to get her bundled into the car and to the ER, where they at first thought she was having a massive cerebral hemorrhage and advised me to call the family (“and your priest, if you have one”), but later determined that she had a subdural hematoma that was putting pressure on her left temporal lobe, and transferred her to another hospital with a reputedly better neurosurgery wing. Once there they decided brain surgery would only make things worse, and while for the next few weeks she appeared to be making slow progress with medication, transfusions, and physical therapy, in early November she crashed again. Just before Thanksgiving she cleared for a few days, long enough to say goodbye, then slipped into a coma.

On Wednesday, November 30th, they sent her home, to begin in-home hospice care. I’d promised her I’d bring her home, if I could. She seemed to realize where she was and gave me a big smile. 

On Saturday, December 3rd, at 5:35 p.m. she was still breathing, but her sister was having trouble with the phone app for the restaurant we were trying to order carry-out from. I turned my back on Karen for a few minutes. I wasn’t more than ten feet away from her.

When I turned back to her at 5:45 p.m., she was gone. 

Photo taken 12/1/22, 7:40 a.m.

This is the journal she gave me for Christmas two years ago. She’d thought it would be something that would help me get back to writing again. Instead, it became our medical journal: the logbook tracking all her appointments, medications, conversations with her doctors, blood pressure, vitals, etc., etc., etc. One of her doctors got into the habit of asking me to recap what had happened in previous appointments, as I kept better and more detailed records than his clinic staff did. But I began to get worried. I was running out of blank pages. Either I was going to have to buy another journal, or…

On the day she died, there were just two blank lines left at the bottom of the last page in this book. 

Karen wouldn’t want me to mope. She wouldn’t want me to be blundering around this house, wondering What do I do now? Last summer she told me she wanted me to start taking applications from women seeking the position of The Next Mrs. Bethke, so that she could interview them and pick the right one for me. I think she was kidding. She did have the gift of always being able to keep me off-balance and guessing, and the habit of saying outrageous things just to see if I was paying attention or to see what kind of reaction she’d provoke. She said I needed a woman to keep me in line. 

She was wrong. I don’t need “a” woman. I need her.

But I don’t have her now, and never will again. 

So tonight, I’ll finish decorating the Christmas tree, and then take some time to be mopey and sentimental. Tomorrow, I’ll start the day as has become my habit lately, with a cup of coffee and a good cry. Then, after that…

Well, I’ll figure out something. What was I doing before everything went to Hell? I’m sure I left myself some notes, somewhere around here.

In the meantime, let me leave you with this photo. In my mind’s eye she will always be that skinny, gawky, kinda nerdy girl I first met on a beach in 1969 and developed such a huge crush on—and the girl in the front seat of the canoe as we went paddling into some ridiculous impassable bog or river—and the gal who took crazy risks while rock-climbing—and the woman who could barely wait for me to get the fish off the hook before she started planning how she was going to cook it—and the three-month’s-pregnant wife helping me gut a deer (Morning sickness? Not for this lady!)—and the doting, loving, grandmother—but most of all, she’ll always be the beautiful, elegant lady that nerdy reckless girl could choose to become, whenever it amused her to do so.

No wonder I was so hopelessly in love with her.


Friday, December 16, 2022

SETI: What Do We Do When We Find Them? Thoughts on a session from the 2018 World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose, California by Guy Stewart

As I've never been to a "real" World Science Fiction Convention, I spend lots of time LOOKING at the Program Guides during and after each convention. I use them to inspire thought and spark ideas. The following is based on a session that occurred at the World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose, California in August 2018. The BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide is what I used to spark the idea, along with providing a list of the participants in the panel discussion.

Scientists at SETI, and METI, and other organizations are actively searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. But what are we going to do when we make that first contact?

Andrew Fraknoi: Director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, author, Asteroid 4859 Asteroid Fraknoi…
Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, SJ: American research astronomer and Director of the Vatican Observatory
SB Divya: author, Nebula Award finalist, co-editor of Escape Pod, degree in Computational Neuroscience and Signal Processing, electrical engineer
Douglas Vakoch: PhD, President Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, editor
Lonny Brooks: PhD, associate professor of communication at California State University


What to do, what to do?

I’m sure the “answer” was easy for this group and the people sitting in the room. I wasn’t there, though I would have slipped unnoticed and unremarked into the “people sitting in the room” demographic. ALL of us would have intelligently discussed the pros and…well, pros.

I’m sure someone would have mentioned Hawking. Probably David Brin as he was listed among the Program Participants, he didn’t attend this particular session because his thoughts on phoning ET are pretty well known (though side-stepped here by quoting the originator of the opinion he echoes at every opportunity): “Jared Diamond offers an essay on the risks of attempting to contact ETIs, based on the history of what happened on Earth whenever more advanced civilizations encountered less advanced ones... or indeed, when the same thing happens during contact between species that evolved in differing ecosystems. The results are often not good: in inter-human relations slavery, colonialism, etc. Among contacting species: extinction.”!

From the grave, Hawking’s opinion would have echoed from the 2016 documentary Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places, “Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they could reach,” he said. ‘Who knows what the limits would be?’ And in the, Hawking reiterated his views: ‘Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well.’”!

These and other ET “deniers” couldn’t have been “shushed” (both of them carry the status of Super Star, David Brin for his amazing body of published work, and who would stand against Hawking -- whose mind is often compared to Einstein's and Newton's?), but I’m sure their imprecations would have fallen on mostly deaf ears. Certainly a reasonable number of SF writers have a somewhat different view of what interactions between Earth and extraterrestrials would be like. Even in Brin’s UPLIFT UNIVERSE, Humans, while underdogs, were hardly slaughtered wholesale and enslaved (though several intelligences, like the Gubru and the Soro, thought Humanity could use a bit of “finishing” followed by a thousand years of indenture).

No, rather than the faithful and the deniers, the Con should have invited the “person on the street”, the ones who number in the BILLIONS (eight billion recently, to be more accurate), and don’t really give much thought to the possibility of First Contact. Yet, they would be the most profoundly affected by such an event. HG Wells held out little hope for a calm response to First Contact: 

With wildly differing opinions among the faithful, what do you expect from commoners for whom the appearance of real-live aliens could range from outright, psychologically TRUE denial, to blithering panic, to catatonia?

While I’m sure the session was great fun, I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t have any idea what a regular person’s real reaction to “when we find them” would be. 
HG Wells, the parent of the English-speaking world's "alien invasion" genre didn't seem to hold much hope for London's common folk:


"So you understand the roaring wave of fear that swept through the greatest city in the world just as Monday was dawning—the stream of flight rising swiftly to a torrent, lashing in a foaming tumult round the railway stations, banked up into a horrible struggle about the shipping in the Thames, and hurrying by every available channel northward and eastward. By ten o’clock the police organisation, and by midday even the railway organisations, were losing coherency, losing shape and efficiency, guttering, softening, running at last in that swift liquefaction of the social body."

As a speculative fiction writer of the Science Fiction variety, I know exactly how I would WANT to react. But as a Human who struggles with change of routine sometimes, I must sheepishly confess that I wouldn't be a likely candidate for a First Contact team. In the 1957 movie made from Well's book, the First Contact team is disintegrated by the Martians, becoming atom-blasted shadows and piles of dust on the ground (the shadows based on the discoveries made in Hiroshima after the US dropped The Bomb on that city and Nagasaki) 

Also, invasion and First Contact are rather different. I doubt that FC would ever come to me. Invasion would just happen. They might invade New York or London, or even Beijing; and the changing of the governance of Earth might have no affect on me at all here in Minnesota (being a fly-over state). Wells' assumption was that the war Humans feared would be exactly like the war an alien would wage -- no different in tactics, just "more horrible weapons", though fundamentally the same as the weapons that existed at the time.

How would the "person-on-the-street" react to either invasion or First Contact?

We had forgotten, in these initial decades of the 21st Century what an event of global impact was like. Of course the COVID-19 pandemic changed all of that. We had a disease that while it wasn't instantly deadly, whittled away at the global population with results ranging from negligible to catastrophic. We discovered a Human reaction that ranged from denial to panic; governments whose response ranged from apathetic to draconian.

It's my personal opinion that were Earth to be "contacted", THIS would have been our response. Invasion of course, is different. We might fight as a united world...or there might be no chance with a rain of asteroids dropped on us -- to get an idea of what THAT even might be like, see if you can find the old made-for-TV movie, "Without Warning" starring (among others), TV broadcast journalist, Sander Vanocur...

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

“2018: Where We Stand: We began with a Kindle..." by Bruce Bethke

That sounds much better than, “We began with a series of expensive blunders, some of which continue to this day.”

A decade ago, when we first incorporated Rampant Loon Media LLC, I really had no interest in becoming an SF/F fiction publisher. At that time I’d already spent about 30 years in the publishing business, on one side of the desk or the other, and in the end, I’d walked away from genre fiction with no regrets.

Or so I thought.

When we launched Rampant Loon Media—and note the name; “Media,” not “Press”—I was most interested in exploring this emerging new world of electronic publishing, and I wanted to do non-fiction: especially cookbooks.

There, that’s a trade secret for you: if you want to tell stories, write fiction. If you want to make money, and write a book that people will treasure for years, return to often, give as gifts to friends, and pass down to their children, write a good cookbook. Say, Gourmet Kosher Vegetarian Stir-Fry on a Budget. Seriously. That and the Hmong Church Ladies’ Potluck Recipe Book were to be our first two titles. Ever seen the movie Gran Torino? The way it portrayed the traditional Hmong ‘Ordeal by Food’ was exactly right. Mm-mmm. Sticky rice, sweet pork, and spring rolls. Wish I could still eat them without blowing my glycemic index to hell and gone.

Excuse me. I really must learn not to write these columns before breakfast.

While digging through our files recently, I stumbled across our original mission statement:

“Rampant Loon Media LLC is a small, privately owned Midwestern company dedicated to the seemingly radical proposition that if we produce high-quality work, conduct our business dealings in an open and ethical manner, and always treat our partners and contributors as we ourselves would wish to be treated, we can successfully bootstrap a New Media company from the ground up without swearing fealty to some political faction, joining a religious order, begging for corporate sponsorship, groveling before foundation grant committees, or publishing work we’d be embarrassed to have our parents or children see.”Hmm. “New Media:” well, that certainly was pretentious enough. But not a word in there about launching a pulp revolution, changing the face of science fiction, making genre fiction great again, or anything that smacks of a manifesto, is there? In fact, from the outset, I was determined to avoid having the company take any sort of public political stance, as I thought it was irrelevant to what we were trying to do, which was to educate and entertain.

Here in 2018, is it even possible to avoid assuming a public political posture anymore? Must one pledge allegiance to the Big Endian faction and denounce those vile Little Endians, or vice versa, and thus immediately write-off half your potential market? I no longer know. I only know that last year felt like 1969 all over again, and that worries me, because I remember 1970 much too well.

One last observation re our original mission statement: bear in mind that it was written as I was ending my ten-year term on the Board of Directors of yet another Section 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation, and after serving on the BoDs of three different 501(c)(3)s I had profound antipathy for the whole idea of non-profit corporations and their effects on the arts. But that critique is best saved for another time, if ever: suffice to say it’s why Rampant Loon Media was born as a for-profit corporation, not a non-profit.

And then, Stupefying Stories
Rampant Loon Media backed into being a genre fiction publishing company with the 2010 launch of Stupefying Stories—which, to be honest, was mostly a lark, expected to be a one-off, and an outgrowth of the original Friday Challenge. We thought it would be fun to see if we could duplicate the look and feel of an old-school SF pulp magazine—and we could, and it was—but it was expensive fun, so we decided not to do that again. However, if you want to see, feel, and smell how the experiment turned out, we still have a few copies left in the warehouse, and they’ve probably aged enough to have that proper musty-but-not-mildewy scent by now.


And this is where the Kindle enters the story. Literally between the time we signed off on the printer’s galleys and the time the bindery delivered the finished books, my wife was diagnosed with advanced lobular invasive breast cancer. After recovering from the surgery she began daily chemotherapy, and being someone with a four-novel-a-week reading habit, she quickly found that schlepping around her usual bag filled with traditional print books and magazines was exhausting. So purely to save weight and wear and tear on her, I bought her her first Kindle: one of the (now) old, E-Ink, grayscale models.

That little gizmo was a revelation. Up to this point I’d been thinking mostly in terms of web and media (e.g., CD, DVD) delivery of content. I’d tried most of the pre-Kindle e-readers, but none of them worked well enough to pursue further. That first Kindle, though, showed me that it might—just might—be possible to publish genre fiction in a way that made some kind of economic sense.

A year later, Stupefying Stories was reborn, this time as a direct-to-ebook title. Rather than natter about the next few years, though, I’ll just point you to our old Publications Catalog, which to my surprise is still online. You might find the author index mildly amusing.

Stupefying Stories was doing reasonably well until issue #11, after which things went off the rails big time. Since then we’ve had a long string of false starts, attempted reboots, discursions into blind alleys and bad ideas (e.g., Theian Journal, Putrefying Stories, Tales from the Wild Weird West, etc., etc.), all of which are now filed under Expensive Blunders.

Why not just call it quits? I’m not entirely certain. Pride? Hubris? Pig-headed stubbornness? Perhaps it’s some warped form of personal integrity. I only know I’ve made a lot of promises to a lot of people, and I’m determined to make good on those promises. I’m not ready to shut it down just yet.

2018: The Road Ahead

As we roll into 2018, though, it’s clear that we must make a lot of changes in the way we do business. What used to work no longer does. In 2011-2012 we were pioneers on the digital frontier, and could pretty much fling anything out there and have it succeed. Now, the landscape has changed. Hell, the devices have changed. My wife’s latest Kindle Fire HD 10 looks and works nothing like her original Kindle (which she’s quite forgotten how to use). There’s a lot more competition out there, a lot more books, a lot more authors—not many more readers, apparently—and a lot more we could be doing with the technology. We now need to think very seriously about look, feel, marketing, positioning, the “reader experience,” and branding. Just what does the Rampant Loon Press brand mean, anyway?

I heard that. Someone in the back of the room said, “The Henry Vogel Publishing Company.” Well, yes, that’s been true, and Henry’s books have kept RLP alive, for which we’re grateful, but we’ve got to expand beyond that, and in 2018, we will.

We also need to figure out what the Stupefying Stories brand means, and that’s where it gets sticky, because up to this point, what it’s mostly meant is, “stories Bruce Bethke likes.”

Oh. I’ve never considered myself as a brand before. And when I do—when I turn it around, and consider what I would think of myself if I was a writer, dealing with myself as an editor—well, I don’t much like what I see, especially on the “always treat our partners and contributors as we ourselves would wish to be treated” front. There’s a lot of room for improvement.

So that will change. Fortunately, I think there’s still time to fix that, and make it stand for something good, and not, “Now what?”

I won’t say all our problems are fixed and we’re back in full production again. I’ve been burned—and have burned other people—too many times by saying that. But with #18 released and selling, #19 releasing next week, #20 copy-edited and in final production, and #21 well in-progress, I’m beginning to feel cautiously optimistic.

No Free e-Book Friday this week. Instead, we’ll be doing a free e-book promo next week, in conjunction with the release of #19. Watch for it.

And in the meantime: PLEASE BUY OUR BOOKS!

first published January 4, 2018

In science fiction circles, Bruce Bethke is best known either for his 1980 short story, “Cyberpunk,” his 1995 Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel, Headcrash, or lately, as the editor and publisher of Stupefying Stories. What very few people in the SF world have known about him until recently is that he actually began his career in the music industry, as a member of the design team that developed the MIDI interface and the Finale music notation engine (among other things), but now works in supercomputer software R&D, doing work that is absolutely fascinating to do but almost impossible to explain to anyone not already fluent in Old High Unix and well-grounded in massively parallel processor architectures, Fourier transformations, and computational fluid dynamics.

In his copious spare time he runs Rampant Loon Press, just for the sheer love of genre fiction and the short story form.

Friday, December 9, 2022

Writing Research and Thoughts: MINING THE ASTEROIDS #1: The Asteroids In Fiction and Fact

Dawn of the Asteroid Belt: Exploring Vesta and Ceres

Asteroids are relics of the ancient Solar System. NASA’s Dawn spacecraft orbited Vesta for a year. Now its ion thrusters have propelled it across the Asteroid Belt to Ceres, the largest asteroid, where Dawn has again entered orbit. Join Bill Higgins to explore Dawn’s findings at Vesta and its plans for doing science at Ceres.

Bill Higgins, Guy Consolmagno

As to expertise: “William S. Higgins is a radiation safety physicist at Fermilab involved with the transport of high-energy particle beams. He frequently writes and speaks about spaceflight, astronomy, and the history of science. A graduate of Notre Dame, he lives in Aurora, Illinois.” and “Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, SJ is an American research astronomer and Director of the Vatican Observatory.”

OK…then. Unassailable credentials!

The Asteroid Belt of the Solar system seems to be the setting for an increasing number of SF stories; most notably, THE EXPANSE series which started off as a simple “book” by SA Corey (which, to add complexity an already complex series, is actually TWO people, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) and became a hit TV series for SyFy.

What I want to comment on however doesn’t really have anything to do with SF – but with science fact.

For some time I’ve been following a company called Planetary Resources, Inc. both on Facebook ( and on Twitter ( The company is not only deadly serious about mining the asteroids, they’re moving ahead.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with an former student/old friend of mine. Military and incredibly intelligent, he’s looking to move into new areas. We started talking about space exploration – and while he wasn’t interested in humans going there, he was intrigued with the idea of mining the asteroids.

Not only was he interested, I’ve had several students who, when I introduced the concept found themselves drawn to it.

I point this out only for this reason: the exploration and exploitation of space and the materials there is an exercise for the young.

Spectacular space operas are wonderful and in my opinion will only help to draw MORE people into the field. The novels (I’ve only read one, accidentally thinking CALIBAN’S WAR was the first, I’ll go back and read them in order one of these days) and the TV show may very well serve as a catalyst the way the original STAR TREK did for technology like cell phones, tablet computers, and a host of other “things” (

We don’t know yet what the impact will be, but this speculative fiction Convention played host here to some people who are members of a wave that might very well become a tsunami in the future. Maybe not in the precise way the authors of THE EXPANSE (and other asteroid SF – I’ve even gotten into the game with my series, HEIRS OF THE SHATTERED SPHERES. The ship is made from the hollowed out asteroid 4179 Toutatis and the material that was mined was used to manufacture the “things” inside.)

At any rate, I have believed and will continue to believe that the Human future is in space. Whether we meet aliens or find evidence of alien civilizations is something I cautiously hope for.

If nothing else, I recommend that you follow Planetary Resources; and if you got the big bucks, think about investing in the company!

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Status Update • 8 December 2022

After a lifetime in the writing racket, these are some of the most difficult words I’ve ever had to write. 

BETHKE (Karwacki), Karen M.

Passed away peacefully at home and surrounded by family on December 3, 2022, after a courageous 12-year battle against metastatic breast cancer. An avid reader, talented cook, and loving mother, stepmother, and grandmother, Karen is preceded in death by parents Carl and Louise and stepdaughter Emily and survived by husband Bruce, sons Daniel and Samuel, stepdaughters Veronica and Frances, and many grandchildren, siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews. Formerly a securities broker, 20 years ago she made the decision to quit her high-pressure corporate job and devote herself to her family, and she never regretted it.

Funeral arrangements pending. The family wishes to thank the staff at Minnesota Oncology for giving her excellent care and buying her more time than anyone thought possible. In lieu of flowers please send donations to the Angel Foundation.


How do you cook half a century together down to 150 words? Karen was my wife, my life partner, my best friend, my arch enemy, the love of my life and the bane of my existence. She was my sounding board, my sparring partner, the wind beneath my wings, my lover, my companion, my lover (it’s worth mentioning twice), the mother of our son, my lover (okay, three times), my inspiration, my exasperation… She was my Lucy, always eager to go charging off on some half-planned and hare-brained new adventure, and I was her Ricky, always trying to get her to calm down, take a deep breath, and think sensibly. She was all the things that make life interesting, challenging, and fun, all rolled up into one person.

And now, suddenly, my life is much too calm, quiet, and sensible.

When she was first diagnosed with cancer in 2010 her oncologist told her she had about two years left and advised her to start doing her estate planning. She said, “That’s not enough time,” and lasted another twelve years—and at the end, still hadn’t finished her estate planning. She was too busy living.

There won’t be a funeral, per se. In accordance with her wishes her body will be cremated and her ashes scattered over Lake Michigan at a later date. We will have a small requiem mass for her at our church, on a date we’re still trying to get settled, and then sometime next Spring or Summer, when things are green and growing again, we’ll throw a big party for her, to celebrate her life. She was very specific about wanting any memorial donations made in her name to go to the Minnesota Angel Foundation, because, as she put it, “They don’t support clinics or doctors or fund research or anything like that. They directly support cancer patients and their families, and help them with rent, utilities, and meals.”

That’s the kind of person she was: someone who believed that helpful actions were always far more important than words.


So what does this mean for the future of Stupefying Stories and Rampant Loon Press? I don’t know yet. Ask me again in a few weeks. The past three years were pretty much devoured by her cancer—slowly and insidiously at first, then accelerating exponentially until the last three months, which were sheer Hell—but now it looks like I’m going to have a lot more time on my hands in 2023. What will I do with it?

I don’t know right now. Ask me next year.

Until then, as a parting gift, here are some links to a few stories on our old SHOWCASE site that Karen plucked out of the slush pile and insisted I simply had to buy and publish. There are lots more stories out there that were published because she championed them, but these four will do for a starter. 


And thank you very much for your support and understanding as we work through these difficult times. 

Kind regards,
Bruce Bethke

P.S. This is us in Iceland in 2018. How many Stage 4 cancer patients decide to celebrate going into remission by tromping around glaciers and lava fields and going whale-watching 40 miles from the Arctic Circle? It was her idea.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

"The Talk" (Part Two) by Bruce Bethke

...continued from Part One...

"Mr. Bethke? How do I become a writer?"The Snark is strong with me. You have no idea how hard it is not to answer, "Well, what exactly is a writer? It's someone who writes, isn't it? Have you ever written anything? You have? Congratulations! You're a writer!

"Next question?"But it's cruel to leave the kid hanging there gaping and floundering like that, so instead I answer: "As a writer, words are the tools of your trade. Learn to use them with precision. Now, is that really the question you meant to ask, or do you actually mean:

"How do I become a successful, commercially published, writer of genre fiction?"Nine times out of ten that restatement of the question meets with agreement, and then we have the basis from which to begin an intelligent conversation. The tenth time the kid actually does want to become some kind of artist or poet or free-form literary genius or something, and then the only possible answer is:

"To become a True Writer, you must find some quiet place where you can work without interruption or distraction, and then you must write, at least ten hours a day, every day, for the next ten years. You must write, write, write, never once listening to all the people who want to tell you that your writing is terrible or that you're wasting your life. You must struggle, and suffer, and learn to live on ramen noodles, and do battle every day with the terrifying emptiness of the blank page, until you at last find your own, unique, expressive voice. Then, and only then, will you be able to enter into communion with, and begin to channel for, your secret inner Muse."This advice is sheer fatuous nonsense, of course, but any with luck it'll keep the kid out of everyone else's hair for the next ten years.

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤
The more I consider the question, the clearer it seems to me that one cannot become a writer. One either is a writer, both blessed and cursed with a need to write that borders on OCD, or else one's time and energy is better spent doing just about anything else. The evidence to support this assertion is conclusive. As millions of teachers and students prove in hundreds of thousands of classrooms every day, if a student lacks the innate desire to write, all that trying to force them to become a writer does is take them from "I don't want to write" to "I can't write," and if the teacher really pushes the issue, the rest of the way into "I'm not gonna write, and you can't make me!"

So in order to have an intelligent conversation on this topic, we must first assume that the innate desire to write, so strong it borders on being a compelling need to write, is there.

While we're on canards, let's dispose of another right away. No one, but no one, can teach you exactly how to become a successful, commercially published, award-winning, or the worst lie of all, best-selling writer, much less how to get every word you write published. Anyone who claims they can do this is trying to sell you something, most likely a workshop, a seminar, or a self-help book.

And I'll have more to say on this in a minute, but first: if you can't learn to become a writer, much less learn the secrets of becoming a successful writer, then why are we having this conversation?

Because if the initial spark is there, you can always learn to become a better writer. And while writing for publication always involves the risk of failure, by becoming a better writer, you can tilt the odds of succeeding in your favor.

Here's how to do it. After thirty-some years in the trade, and after getting to know hundreds of published writers and meeting perhaps thousands of aspiring writers, I have identified these four factors as the key traits that separate the successful writers from the vast herd of wanna-be's, amateurs, has-beens and never-weres. The traits critical to success as a writer are:
good craft skills
good work habits
"Well, duh," you say. "Paging Captain Obvious."

No, in point of fact, it's not obvious at all...

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤
About Talent:
There's no getting around it; it's almost impossible to succeed as a writer without at least some modicum of innate talent. Some of the most pathetic characters you'll ever meet in the writing trade are the people with superb craft skills and great work habits, but absolutely no talent. This ain't prose karaoke, folks. While your friends and writing group might love it, very few people in the publishing industry care how well you can perform a story that's almost exactly the same as one Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein made famous sixty years ago.

The saddest part is, some of these poor benighted souls will soldier on for years, always thinking that one more workshop, one more creative writing class, one more seminar, or one more self-help book is going to make the difference. Not to be unkind, but Writer's Digest makes a fortune off these poor sods. (In fact, it's very important not to be unkind, as every once in a while one of them turns out to have an astonishing amount of raw talent: it's just been buried under years of accumulated course syllabi and witless writing group critiques, and nearly smothered to death.)

Sometimes I think of raw talent as an ember, which needs careful tending in order to become a fire. Other times I think of it as a double bitted axe, with which you're as likely to cut off your own foot as clear the forest. What I have observed consistently is that good craft skills, good work habits, and a little talent beats lousy craft skills, lousy work habits, and great gobs of God-given raw talent every time.

Talent, it seems, is very much like beauty. If you're blessed with an overabundance of it, there's a pronounced tendency to coast and never develop your other abilities. Then one day the talent falters, and your latest book flops so badly it leaves a smoking crater, and you're left wondering, "What the Hell happened?" Some writers never recover from this. Instead, they call it "writer's block"

And then they start buying self-help books about it...

About Good Craft Skills:
There's a tendency to think of this in terms of simple line-level skills, but this goes far mere punctuation, spelling, grammar, and sentence structure. The best writers I've known really think of story-telling as a craft; they think of their stories or novels in the same way that a master cabinetmaker thinks about a piece of furniture he or she is making; and they are always working on refining their skills and improving their tool set. The best writers never trust to talent and luck to carry them through, and they're never afraid to throw out entire sentences, paragraphs, chapters, or even books if they're not working.

(And I have lots more to say about this subject, but that's the next column.)

About Good Work Habits:
Good work habits are just exactly what you know they are; you're just deluding yourself if you think that writing fiction is some kind of ethereal artistic thing that's above all that. A lot of would-be writers seem to think that writing fiction requires spending a lot of time sitting on their duffs, thinking high-flown thoughts, and waiting for one or the other of the Muses to stick her tongue in their ear. The history of literature is strewn with the wreckage left by promising writers who had an abundance of talent and great craft skills, but terrible work habits. There is no more damning epitaph for a writer than, "He did brilliant work -- when he felt like doing it."

Ask yourself, which would you rather leave behind: an awe-inspiring body of finished work, or a pile of fragments and clutter that leaves people thinking, "Wow! What promise! What potential! I wonder what he could have done if he'd ever gotten his @#($* together?"

About Luck:
There's no denying it: Luck is the joker in the deck, the wild card that trumps everything, the -- pardon the expression -- Golden Snitch that wins the game in defiance of all logic, sense, and justice. We all know of some writer who's been lucky enough to become insanely, maddeningly, wildly successful, despite an utter and complete dearth of talent and skill. (Although, let's face it: if asked to name such a writer, each and every one of us would point to a different one. The critical deciding factor here seems to be, "Any writer more successful than me!")

For every undeserving writer the Fates have smiled upon, though, there are probably thousands more no one has ever heard of, because when they took their swing, they had the bad luck to miss the tree and hit their own foot instead. The ways in which a writer's luck can turn bad are beyond counting. Right story, wrong time; right story, right time, wrong editor; right story, right time, right editor, wrong publisher; right story, right time, right editor, right publisher, wrong cover artist... be continued...
First appeared here in 2013

Friday, December 2, 2022

Creating Alien Aliens 20...How Might Aliens Think Differently Than We Do?

It's been a while since I seriously analyzed my writing – though I’ve certainly analyzed individual stories as well as concepts (like “What went RIGHT?” and “Can this story be SAVED?”, creating Alien Aliens, and mining the asteroids, as well as gleaning advice from writers who’ve influenced me (both living and dead)), I’ve never looked at where my ideas come from and how they grow into stories.

Until now. What sparked this line of thought?

On Tuesday, my son and two of my three grandchildren, headed off into the wild-blue-yonder to do some “disperse camping”.

“The HECK?!?!?!” you exclaim. Yeah, me too, initially. But here’s the official definition for you: “Dispersed camping is the term used for camping anywhere in [a] National Forest [In the case of Minnesota, where I live, this also holds for State Forests] OUTSIDE of a designated campground. Dispersed camping means no services; such as trash removal, and little or no facilities; such as tables and fire pits, are provided. Some popular dispersed camping areas may have toilets. [Not the places WE went to!!! It’s dig a hole or go into Town for a gas station break!] There are extra responsibilities and skills that are necessary for dispersed camping. It is your responsibility to know these before you try this new experience. Camping rules and regulations apply to make your experience safe, and to keep the natural resources scenic and unspoiled for other campers.”

We went to Sand Dune State Forest (SDSF) and Sheyenne National Grasslands (SNP) for three days of semi-dispersed camping – “semi” because while Sand Dune was truly dispersed, Sheyenne was at a campground with level sites, a concrete picnic table, a fire ring, and a hand-pumped water source. (See above – this ALSO represents a “fountain of ideas”!)

So, we started at SDSF with a truly dispersed campsite. Clearly occupied by someone else before us, we did a bit of exploring until we figured it was fine for us to use. We found a hooded sweatshirt hanging on a branch on top of a bag of garbage…

To start with, WHY was it hanging there? Had a camper gotten sweaty, taken it off and headed on down the trail…and never returned, perhaps eaten by a wolf or a pack of coyotes? (We heard both later on during the dark of night…) Perhaps abducted by aliens?!? Josh later mentioned he’d inspected it as well, and as a veteran of many Army camping expeditions (though he’s still active duty), he’d noticed it was covered with burrs – not the soft and annoying burdock burr! In Minnesota, our burrs are sharp as needles and not only make you bleed, puncture you with numerous spikes, but also induce intense itching…with the apt name, “Cenchrus longispinus” – grass with a long spike…

The day continued, and as night fell, and we finished our supper of hotdogs, buns, fake-Oreo cookies, unscrewed and a fire-roasted marshmallow added for NOT-S’mores…we reached the night. Poets often wax ecstatic about the silence of the wilderness, but (and we weren’t exactly IN the wilderness), I can attest to the fact that it was NOT silent. Across the marsh, a passel of nasty varmints known as coyote chorused in noisy, garbled yapping, yipping, and barking.

That was until they were silenced by the long, “lone wolf” howl. We learned on a different trip farther into Northern Minnesota, that a single wolf will howl to find out if there’s a pack around. Possibly its own pack, possible a new pack (if it’s young). [This of course, plays into my recent thoughts about how to “think alien”…]

After sliding downhill and pulling myself back up all night (I slid in my sleeping bag to the bottom of my cot…), the sun rose, and after digging cattail roots and boiling them with eggs and kielbasa, we broke camp, loaded up, stopped for a cup of coffee for Grandpa (even my SON calls me “Grandpa” these days), and headed north. One of our initial stops was because we saw a “Brown Traffic Sign [that] indicates nearby recreational and cultural interest sites.”

This led to a small town in North Dakota that held a fort that was “the first permanent military settlement in what became North Dakota, and is thus known as ‘The Gateway to the Dakotas’. It was besieged by the Dakota for more than six weeks during the Dakota War of 1862…the small fort’s defenses were tested. When increasing Indian activity by reconnaissance parties, drove nearby settlers into the fort's stockade. The Dakota alternated between sniping and all-out attacks on all four sides of the fort. The garrison and settlers with rifles, shotguns, and howitzers held the fort. The War was far-ranging and this small fort was spared from major assault, though consistently harassed…Afterward, the town that built up around it served as a transportation hub, guarding the Red River Trails used by the Red River ox cart trains of the late fur trade, military supply wagon trains, stagecoach routes, and steamboat traffic on the Red River.”

The story as laid out by the place was incredibly one-sided. I understand NOW what was happening after reading several accounts of the wars fought over the Great Plains between the Dakota, Ojibway, and several other tribes. I WILL note here that the Dakota and Ojibway had been fighting each other for hundreds of years prior to colonial advancement into their territory. I will also note that several OTHER tribes of indigenous people sided AGAINST the Ojibway and Dakota as well. “Despite the myth that Aboriginals lived in happy harmony before the arrival of Europeans, war was central to the way of life of many First Nation cultures. Indeed, war was a persistent reality in all regions though, as Tom Holm has argued, it waxed in intensity, frequency and decisiveness. The causes were complex and often interrelated, springing from both individual and collective motivations and needs.” The problem here, was that the displays and comments made the white settlers into people who were just minding their business, and the Dakota into unreasonable savages…which begged the question, if we DO meet intelligent life Out There, will we be Dakota or Europeans? The choice might be OURS.

Several hours later saw us on the Sheyenne National Grasslands. A car tour took us to a few moderately interesting places…until it was no long only MODERATELY interesting! It sparked countless thoughts in me regarding my assumptions that aliens would think “just like us” and that Intelligence among other life forms may NOT be immediately recognizable to us.

For example, while monogamy among Human mates is a current hot topic in which several sides scream that polygamy is absolutely natural and only Humans clinging to outmoded, artificial forms of morality reinforced by equally outmoded and artificial religions; are incapable of grasping the true nature of…well Nature – which is, in their eyes, a wild free-for-all dance of doing whatever you want.

And yet…Trumpeter Swans mate for life; as do the far less majestic Canadian Geese. A couple of animal species around whom we’ve built transcendent mystique – Timber wolves and lions do so as well; as do animals who possibly stir even the most jaded of American hearts – bald eagles. We saw or heard all of these (except for the lions…not very common in North Dakota.) But we saw incontrovertible evidence that once eagles mate, they not only STAY together, they build a nest that they return to for as long as they both survive – and the result? A nest that has truly awe-inspiring proportions that you can see above, guarded as it is, by mated pair of near-meter-tall Bald Eagles.

Would eagle-like aliens THINK like Humans do? CLEARLY they would not! What exactly would such beings make of the Human ritual of divorce? How might they judge us?

I’ve got more to share, but I’ll leave you today with the image above that I took a couple of days ago.

Image: From my Personal Collection

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

"The Talk" (Part One) by Bruce Bethke

And once again, Spring returns to the North Country. In the space of two short weeks we've gone from watching the glaciers calve...

To watching the trees bud, the grass turn green, and the crocuses, tulips, and daffodils erupt from the ground in a glorious riot of color, only to get nommed to bits every night by hordes of ravenous bunnies.

Still, the flowers keeping trying. You have to admire that.

Along with the flowers, another sure sign that Spring has returned are the messages like this one, which have begun popping up in my email Inbox lately:

"Dear Mr. Bethke,

"I teach [subject] at [school], and I was wondering if you'd be interested in coming in to talk to my class about..."Actually, yes; schedule permitting, I would be delighted to come in and speak with your class.


My reasons are complex, and not always altogether clear to me. Some part of it is born of a simple and honest sense of altruism. Another part is born of a nagging sense of obligation. When I was a cocky young brat just starting out in this business, a lot of older and more experienced writers and editors were much more patient with me than I really deserved. While it's too late to repay their kindness now, I can pay it forward, so this is something I always try to do.

Then there is another, somewhat more mercenary and perhaps less admirable part.

I wouldn't do anything so precious as to claim that I do this for market research, or to "keep a finger on the pulse of the next generation" or anything like that. But the truth is, these conversations always end up being very educational for me. We who live and work inside the ant farm of SF/F publishing tend to take the long view, and given half a chance will tell you all about some story that Arthur C. Clarke first published in Galaxy in 1952. We tend to forget that out there, in the so-called real world, time continues to slide by -- and it does so in the form of window, about ten years long. For most people out there, five years ago is ancient history, and five years in the future is almost unimaginable.

Couple that with the other ten-year window -- that short span of years between the age when a young person is old enough to begin reading for pleasure and the age at which his or her literary tastes have become ossified for life -- and it's enough to make you feel positively Tralfamadorian.

So from time to time I feel the need to step out into the rushing time-flow, to talk to this year's crop of students, but mostly to listen and learn. And some of the things I learn are astonishing.
Science fiction, fantasy, horror? Those bright lines of demarcation between genres and subgenres that we in the business claim to see so clearly are invisible to younger eyes. Steampunk elves? Sure. Fighting vampires and zombies on spaceships? Why not? As long as the story is exciting and the imagery is engaging, all else can be forgiven.

Print, video, graphic novels, online gaming? It's all one continuous media space now, and the different incarnations of a given property are all just different points on the same continuum. Books, live-action movies, animated movies, graphic novels, and video game cut scenes are all treated as equally valid. "The movie was cool but the game totally sucked" is a trenchant critique.

Star Wars? Bring that up in a classroom today and you're most like to spark an argument over whether Disney's decision to close down LucasArts and turn all game development over to Electronic Arts was a disaster or a catastrophe. "Oh, you mean the movies? I think my Dad still has those on DVD and watches them once in a while."

Star Trek? "Wasn't that movie with Chris Pine and Zach Quinto great? I am so waiting for Into Darkness to open next week!

"What, you mean the old stuff, like with Captain Piccard, or the really old stuff, that my Grandpa still watches?" To this generation, the original Star Trek occupies the same cognitive space that old Flash Gordon serials occupied for mine: some pretty cool ideas, hampered by hammy acting, plodding scripts, and laughably cheap special effects. The idea that Into Darkness is a re-imagining of a thirty-year-old idea bothers them no more than the idea that The Wrath of Khan was an expansion of "Space Seed" bothered their parents.

Harry Potter? "I think my older sister read all those books. I'm more into Twilight. And World War Z. And The Walking Dead. And The Hunger Games."

Doctor Who is a series you watch on Netflix. Any mention of Dr. Who is sure to start a vigorous argument over which one's the best Doctor -- Matt Smith or David Tennant -- with one smug girl in the back insisting they're both wrong, it's Christopher Eccleston. Mention Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker, or how wonderful it was to see Elisabeth Sladen one more time in "The Stolen Earth," and all you'll get is a roomful of blank looks. "Who?"

Radagast the Brown gets a surprising amount of name recognition. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are those films by Peter Jackson. Dwarves are awesome. Elves are probably gay. (This last assertion is always followed by a sudden nervous look around, and then, "Not that there's anything wrong with that.")

A generation of steady indoctrination has failed: most girls still don't want to be kick-ass warrior women. They want to be Disney princesses, or better yet a Disney princess with a longbow and a talking unicorn for a companion.

If dwarves are awesome, tharks are even more awesomer. Disney totally botched the deal with John Carter, because the film really resonates with teenage boys, most of whom have watched it on DVD or Blu-Ray and can't wait for the next one to come out. I haven't yet had the heart to tell any of them that it took 80 years for this one to get made, so they're probably in for a long wait.

Only Goths like Batman. Captain America is awesome (now that was a surprise), and boys don't want to be Batman or Superman, they want to be Tony Stark -- provided they also get Gwyneth Paltrow in the deal.

No teenagers read comic books any more. They can't afford to.
Of course, this is all incidental. The kids aren't there to teach me -- at least, not consciously -- they're there to hear me teach them The Secret. And no matter how I might try to steer and control the conversation, it always ends up with one brave student finally getting up the nerve to ask:

"Mr. Bethke? How do I become a writer?" Oh, boy... be continued...
by Bruce Bethke, May 10, 2013 

Friday, November 25, 2022

Creating Alien Aliens 19 -- How Do the Heptapods in “Arrival” and CS Lewis’ God Perceive Time?

I was having trouble writing this and couldn’t figure out why. After a six hour interval during which I went to a Celebration of Life for a work friend of mine, I sat down again to try and finish this.

The problem was that I hadn’t defined my goal; my question. I got hold of the question as soon as I sat down again: Why is an altered perception of time OK in an alien and ridiculed in God? Both the original story and the movie won glowing reviews:

“The Story of Your Life”: “won the 2000 Nebula Award for Best Novella, the 1999 Theodore Sturgeon Award; nominated for the 1999 Hugo Award for Best Novella; translated into Italian, Japanese, French and German”; James Gleick wrote: ‘[This] poses the questions: would knowing your future be a gift or a curse, and is free will simply an illusion?’, answering himself, ‘For us ordinary mortals, the day-to-day experience of a preordained future is almost unimaginable’, but Chiang does just that in this story, he ‘imagine[s] it’. It was reprinted ten more times before the movie came out. Besides the awards above it was nominated for a HOMer, a Tiptree / Otherwise Gender-bending SF, a Locus, and won a 2002 Seiun (Japan) for the Best Translated Short Story.

The movie “Arrival”: was “nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay; won the 2017 Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation, Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation”. In addition, “It grossed $203 million worldwide and received critical acclaim, with particular praise…for the exploration of communication with extraterrestrial intelligence. Considered one of the best films of 2016, [it] appeared on numerous critics' year-end lists and was selected by the American Film Institute as one of ten ‘Movies of the Year’… ‘Adams received nominations for a BAFTA, SAG, Critics' Choice, and at the 74th Golden Globe Awards, nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress…The score…was nominated for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media at the 60th Grammy Awards.”

The thing is, I agree with all of the above hype. My question however, is WHY did the story and movie generate so much attention; so much praise; such awe? During a summer school class I teach called ALIEN WORLDS, I have my students watch clips from it. IMDb describes it this way, “A linguist works with the military to communicate with alien lifeforms after twelve mysterious spacecraft appear around the world.”

Really??? What it DOESN’T say is absolutely crucial: The aliens don’t experience time as Humans do. The aliens, whom people call Heptapods (from the Greek: seven + feet (as in podiatry, not units of 12 inches)) may possibly have a similar perception of time that CS speculates God does.

In his Section 3 of his book, MERE CHRISTIANITY, in “Time and Beyond Time”: “…in [this] final section of the book…C.S. Lewis addresses the question of how in the world God can hear all of the prayers in the world at once. In 1945, CS Lewis also addressed the same problem that Ted Chiang did. In his essay, he writes, “Everyone who believes in God at all believes that He know what you and I are going to do tomorrow. But if he know I am going to so so-and-so, how can I be free to do otherwise?...the difficulty comes from thinking God is progressing along the timeline like us…But suppose God is outside and above the timeline. In that case, what we call tomorrow, is visible to him just the same way as what we call today. All the days are ‘now’ for Him. He does not foresee you doing things tomorrow; he simply sees you doing them.’”

The Heptapods in “Arrival” make a similar statement. When Louise is behind the transparent shield and (apparently) breathing the same air as the Heptapods, and after she understands their language, she has a conversation.

Louise: Where is Abbott.
Costello: Abbott is death process.
Louise: I don’t understand.
Costello: Louise has weapon. Use weapon. We help Humanity.
Louise: I don’t understand.
Costello: In 3000 years, we need Humanity help.
Louise: [She experiences another out-of-linear-time event where her seven or eight year old daughter shows her different representations in different media of her mother (Louise) and her father (Ian)]
Costello: There is no linear time.

Chiang and Lewis explore a fascinating concept and somehow, they arrive (no pun intended!) with the same answer as they explore how aliens and God might experience time and how nearly-incomprehensible that seems.

My students were both captivated and confused with the Heptapods (of course, I can’t mention CS Lewis and God…though I suppose I could bring up Lewis’ Space Trilogy and the aliens in THAT).


The upshot of this post is to bring to light that the question both Chiang and Lewis sought to explore were the same.

The answer they explored was also the same.