Mi amigo John Shore is hard at work on a new novel, Ashes To Asheville, which, in the time honored tradition of Charles Dickens and Armistead Maupin, is being serialized in a newspaper, in this case the Asheville Citizen-Times.
I’ll let John describe it:
“It’s the story of Tammy, a 45-year-old mother of two grown children whose husband of 22 years … well, let’s just say critically disappoints her.
“For 10 years she taught art and painting at a San Diego junior college. She thought her life was settled. And suddenly she discovers that it’s anything but. This launches her into what is, to say the least, an unsettling time for her.
“In her anguish, Tammy flees her comfortable life in San Diego for the home of her beloved half-brother, Charlie, who lives in Asheville.
“And if you’re going to be thrust into an intensely wrenching, soul-upheaving season of your life, in which so much of what you know, or thought you knew, about yourself is essentially up for grabs, then Asheville is certainly a spectacularly unique place to have that experience. It sure proves to be for her, anyway.”
Check it out. As a former resident of Asheville (and with family members still living there), I can say he’s capturing the flavor and spirit of the town in a really well crafted story.
art by Arthur Sarnoff
Beast by John Byrne [tm] Marvel
The Instagram account will still be the source of most new picture posts of the kind shown here, with Facebook and Twitter getting linked from that.
But I set up the Tumblr account so it will be easier for people to share the stuff I do…and I do want you to share it. Something I do for money, some things I do for fun. The silly captions are fun.
Of the several threads woven into the ancestry of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, one — and I think the most important one — can be traced all the way back to John W. Campbell‘s Astounding Stories by way of Forbidden Planet and Dianetics.
There’s a wide variety of opinion on how to look at Star Trek (and we will confine ourselves to just the original three seasons of the first series, Roddenberry’s core idea in its purest distilled form).
Roddenberry himself referred to it semi-sarcastically as “Wagon Train in space”. Others have called it a planet-of-the-week story. As with many science fiction and fantasy programs, it was at core a series of morality plays.
The common joke is that the basic Star Trek idea is they meet God, and –
- He’s a child.
- Or an idiot.
- Or a machine.
- Or some combination thereof.
Much truth is said in jest, and I think the core of Star Trek, the philosophical heart and soul, as it were, is really a much more profound question:
“How then shall a god behave?”
Yes, I know Roddenberry was an atheist;
they frequently as the best questions.
Here are the episodes that I consider to be in the “How then shall a god behave?” theme:
“Where No Man Has Gone Before”
“The City On The Edge Of Forever”
“The Squire Of Gothos”
“The Return Of The Archons”
“Errand Of Mercy”
“Who Mourns For Adonis?”
Quite a number, and several of them crucial to the series’ impact / success / longevity. I hold that if you remove these episodes, particularly the first five on the list (which include the two pilots), you remove what makes Star Trek “Star Trek”.
The stories cited above involve characters who are either capable of altering the fabric of reality (“The City On The Edge Of Forever”, as opposed to other time travel stories in the series, is about a moral choice that will drastically alter the future instead of merely creating a mild disruption), creating an illusion so universal that it might as well be altered reality (as opposed to fooling just one or two individuals), or overtly demanding to be worshipped as a god.
The difference between these episodes and those where characters possess superhuman abilities (including shapeshifting), are extremely powerful but in a conventional manner, or use illusion to attempt to gain what they want is that the latter still fall inside the range of recognizable human conflicts and behavior while the core stories involve to one degree or another human interaction with a being who, whatever their origin, is now several degrees of magnitude above and beyond humanity.
The quintessential Star Trek story, it appears, is basically a 20th century retelling of the Book of Job. It is humanity staring God in the eye and asking, “What gives?”
Okay, so how did Star Trek arrive at that particular equation?
What led Roddenberry and his staff in that direction?
Roddenberry made no bones about drawing inspiration from the published science fiction of the era. Star Trek is certainly chockablock with pulp sci-fi gadgetry and concepts; it’s not that far removed from Space Patrol or Rocky Jones.
And the episodes themselves certainly drew inspiration from older science fiction stories. “Arena” notoriously ripped off Frederick Brown’s short story of the same title, and purely unintentionally: Line producer Gene L. Coon, needing a script in a hurry, dredged up the idea from his subconscious, having forgotten he’d read it in college. The moment Desilu’s legal department realized the similarity, Coon contacted Brown and purchased the story rights from him.
And where was that story first published?
From the ur-source of 20th century science fiction:
The pages of Astounding Science Fiction and the editorial offices of John W. Campbell.
art by Hubert Rogers
Before we get to Campbell,
we’ll make two brief stops.
First is Forbidden Planet, one of the clearly acknowledged inspirations for Star Trek, and itself derived from Campbell’s pool of creative talent.
Forbidden Planet was the last big budget film of the early 1950s sci-fi craze, arriving just too late to catch the crest of the wave. A B-movie from MGM, an A-list studio, Forbidden Planet stood head and shoulders above most science fiction films of the era.
While it’s origins were decidedly B-movie, Forbidden Planet received two creative streams through screenwriter Cyril Hume.
Hume melded in Shakespeare (by way of The Tempest) and popular sci-fi (by way of whatever was on the stands at the time). He found the sweet spot for the story, the perfect blend of corn and cosmic consciousness.
For those not familiar with Forbidden Planet, it involves a starship arriving at a remote planet where a
mad scientist has been playing with a now extinct advanced race’s brain boosting machinery, giving him the god-like ability to create a super-sapient robot, a menagerie of living animals and, in the film’s great unanswered question, possibly even his own daughter.
The studly young space captain falls for the daughter (of course) and arouses a Freudian fit of incestuous jealousy in the scientist that finds form in the infamous Monster Of The Id, which in the end can scarcely be constrained long enough to allow the daughter to escape with the captain and his crew before the entire planet blows up.
Is that or is that not as perfect a Star Trek episode as one could hope for?
Despite a mediocre performance at the box office,
Forbidden Planet remains a touch stone of literate science fiction.
Hume’s dip into the depths of literary sci-fi doubtlessly occurred at Campbell and Astounding’s end of the pool.
Campbell and Astounding had already provided the foundation for two of the 1950s earliest sci-fi successes:
The Day The Earth Stood Still, based on “Farewell To The Master” by Harry Bates (originally published in the October 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction) and The Thing From Another World, based on “Who Goes There?” by Don A. Stuart (originally published in the August 1938 issue).
“Don A. Stuart” is
the pen name of
John W. Campbell.
Campbell is arguably the single most influential person in the history of American science fiction. A writer of slam bang adventure in the early pulp era, once he ascended to the editor’s desk of Astounding he demanded writers jettison early cardboard characters, formula writing, and dubious science to produce stories that were sound as both science and as fiction.
His high standards almost immediately propelled Astounding to the top of the pulp sci-fi heap; it remains in print to this day as Analog Science Fiction / Science Fact. If he didn’t find the all great writers of the 1940s and 50s, he certainly championed and challenged them, leading to some of their best stories.
But for all his strengths, Campbell also had one weakness, one type of story he was a sucker for.
As a young college student at Duke University, he was aware of the research of J. B. Rhine and his Parapsychology Laboratory.
Rhine was an enthusiastic believer in parapsychology, but he approached the field with a basic set of scientific controls. While Rhine’s results were never duplicated by other researchers, he at least made an effort to weed out frauds and attempt to find genuine examples of parapsychology.
At Astounding, Campbell revived his interest in parapsychology in the form of “psionics”, originally parapsychology through electronic means but eventually any form of the phenomena, including through human evolution.
Campbell was far from the only person interested in the field, but his influence and guidance led to the publication of the Lensman stories by E.E. “Doc” Smith which in turn provided inspiration (i.e., was ripped off by) the 1950’s revival of the Green Lantern, “Slan” and “The World Of Null-A” among others by A. E. van Vogt which in turn provided inspiration for the X-Men and other Marvel mutants, James H. Schmitz’ Telzey series about a teenage girl with psionic abilities, and a little thing by Frank Herbert called “Dune”.
Unfortunately, Campbell also promoted a lot of other iffy ideas, proving yet again that the most hardened cynic is really a dashed idealist. Among other ideas he promoted as rooted in reality were the Dean drive, a reactionless drive that never worked as advertised, the Heironymus Machine, a psionic device so powerful one didn’t need to actually build it but just possess the blueprints, and a new “science of the mind” called Dianetics.
Yes, that Dianetics, by author L. Ron Hubbard, one of Campbell’s regular stable of writers and an eager promoter of his own ideas regarding the outer limits of human abilities and perception.
For all the hard science nuts & bolts stories that Campbell published, he also included a good stiff brace of more fanciful ideas.
So the realm of science fiction, even in the 1940s, was already deeply into the question of superhuman ethics. Ayn Rand’s best selling books (and “Atlas Shrugged” is borderline sci-fi) clearly advocated the right of the strong to tyrannize the weak, while a legion of more altruistic writers saw a possibility of human morality through psychology and not religion.
That was the heady cultural mix that Roddenberry drew from when he first pitched Star Trek in 1964. From that starting point he, as did Rod Serling with The Twilight Zone, used the genre of science fiction to examine certain assumptions about the human condition.
But while Serling clearly believed there was some underlying sense of karma dealing out justice in the universe, Roddenberry clearly believed humans had the right and ability to choose their own fate.
Star Trek certainly celebrated that yin, but it also recognized the yang of the equation, that without some sort of moral and ethical governance, the temptation for absolute power to corrupt absolutely is strong, the serpent, as it were, in a new garden of Eden.
God and Satan frequently get blamed for things they’re not responsible for, with human beings quick to shift their own guilt to other shoulders.
And while Roddenberry and Star Trek celebrated a triumphant humanist culture, they still needed to deal with that dark part of the human soul, and rather than face it directly, used the metaphor of the insane god-child machine.
That’s not a condemnation.
Sometimes it’s hard to face the reality before us, and we find metaphors more acceptable, more comforting.
Star Trek’s metaphor is that those who wish to be gods must also be eternally vigilant against the temptation to not be vigilant, to drop our guard, to let the worst of our natures rise to the surface.
It is not a warning but a caution.
And it’s what gives Star Trek the depth and resonance that previous space opera lacked.
 And, yes, these aren’t the only kind of stories Star Trek could do; there are a lot of really top notch episodes in a variety of sub-genres and themes which are good stories to this very day. Even the most lackluster 3rd season episodes had their brief moments of incandescent wonder. Nonetheless, those stories are not what gives the show its life.
 Episodes like “The Paradise Syndrome”, “And The Children Shall Lead”, and “Spectre Of The Gun” brush up close but don’t cross the line into this particular theme.
 Allen Adler, a blacklisted writer, and Irving Block, who co-owned a special effects company that specialized in low budget films, came up with the idea of a planet of invisible monsters to appeal to low budget film makers. MGM was having none of that and promptly elevated the budget and scope of the film considerable.
 Of all the great names in the golden age of magazine science fiction, only Ray Bradbury traveled outside his orbit.
 He had a PhD in making donuts. Seriously.
 He also wrote “The Voyage Of The Space Beagle” which in turn led to the films Night Of The Blood Beast, It! The Terror From Outer Space, and Alien.
 Somebody is leaving money on the table by not reviving this series today.
 There’s nothing wrong with such flights of fancy when they are clearly just flights of fancy ala They Might Be Giants core conceit. Campbell thought too many of them were bona fide and eventually enough of his writers and readers said, “Really, John…?” and he backed off a bit, though he still published stuff like Herbert’s and Schmitz’ work, among others.
A few years ago PBS’ Nova series aired a fascinating episode called “Why Ships Sink”.
Water gets inside.]
It was called “Why Ships Sink” because the more honest, less generic “Why Cruise Ships Sink So Often” would doubtlessly have had them facing a barrage of legal threats from the cruise industry.
Cruise ships sink so often because the cruise industry staffs them with MBA graduates in hotel management, not real sailors.
One can understand the reasons for this. Real sailors tend to be a colorful but often unappealing lot, foul mouthed and somewhat brusque to landlubbers.
Unlike the various navies and merchant marines of the world, the cruise industry places a priority on making their passengers’ experience as pleasant as possible.
They hire crews — and captains — based on their ability to interact well with paying customers, no salty dogs here! As a result the crew can mix a really mean martini, provide hours of entertainment in the lounge, guide you to the best tourist
traps bargains at the various ports of call, etc., etc., and of course, etc.
Navies and merchant marines hire sailors based on their ability to (a) keep the ship afloat and (b) fulfill the ship’s mission.
And of the two, (b) comes in second to (a) because without (a) there will be no opportunity to do (b).
Ya with me so far?
On January 13, 2012, Captain Francesco Schettino of the Carnival cruise ship Costa Concordia deviated from his assigned course to give his passengers a better view of the lights on shore.
The Costa Concordia hit a submerged rock and lost power. It began listing and sinking. While the engine crew and a few other genuine sailors tried to keep the ship afloat long enough for the passengers to evacuate, while the entertainers and housekeeping staff tried to maintain order long enough for everyone to get safely aboard the lifeboats, Captain Schettino opted to hop off the ship and head for shore.
The Italian Coast Guard, speeding to the Costa Concordia’s rescue, managed to make radio contact with Captain Schettino in one of the lifeboats.
When they learned he had left his crew and passengers behind while he headed to dry land, they remarked in a typically reserved Italian understatement:
“Vada a bordo, cazzo!”
Which in common everyday English can be translated as “Get the fuck back on board!” or “Get back on board, for fuck’s sake!” or “Get on board, damn it!”
Being half Italian,
I lean towards the first
We jest, but the wreck of the Costa Concordia resulted in 32 people dying that night plus one diver later when the ship was being salvaged. The 32 who died on January 13 were passengers who had paid handsomely to be entertained on what was advertised as a perfectly safe cruise, and crew members who despite their inexperience sacrificed their own lives to save passengers entrusted to them.
Unlike Captain Schettino.
Captain Schettino had no business being in charge of a ship carrying over three thousand passengers and a crew one/third as large.
Though a graduate of a naval institute, his previous seagoing experience had been as a crew member on a ferry. Hired by Carnival Cruises in 2002 to be a security officer, Schettino was promoted to executive officer and then captain by 2006. He was then placed in command of the Costa Concordia and sailed her until he ran her aground in 2012.
Compared to a typical naval or merchant marine captain, he had virtually no experience at all, and certainly was not entrusted with key decisions on the navigation and operation of the ship.
It was, as noted above, his decision to deviate from his ordained course in order to show off to passengers that led to the disaster.
Further, cruise ships are by intention the easiest to sail vessels on the open seas. They are floating hotels that quite deliberately steer away from danger; rough seas and stormy weather will cancel a cruise, but merchant ships with cargos to deliver and naval vessels with hostile waters to patrol aren’t afford that luxury.
Those bad boys are trained to go out in
the worst of it and accomplish their mission,
quite literally come hell or high water.
Schettino acted more like a hotel manager than a ship captain, and a very poor hotel manager at that.
If a hotel suffers a fire or earthquake, then 90% of the job is getting people safely out of the building; once they’re on the street they are pretty much safe.
A sinking ship is still a danger to those trying to evacuate it, and lifeboats under the best of conditions are not easy to operate, and wind and water and weather can prove life threatening hazards to shipwrecked passengers.
Yet Schettino’s first instinct was to leave these people behind and see to it that his own skin was saved.
Schettino had no real training in commanding a large ship.
Schettino had no regard for carefully established protocol to guarantee the ship operated safely.
Schettino had no qualms about showing off to impress others.
Schettino had no idea what to do when disaster struck his ship.
Schettino had no sense of duty or responsibility to the four thousand plus passengers and crew entrusted to his care.
Schettino turned a good situation into a bad situation and then made the bad situation even worse.
Schettino lacked the ability, education, experience, integrity, intellect, and temperament to be a ship captain, especially for the Costa Concordia.
the wrong man in
the wrong place at
the wrong time in
the wrong job and for
the wrong reason.
Why am I writing about Captain Francesco Schettino?
Why do you think?
Today’s it’s Hillary’s turn in the bullseye.
Don’t worry, Donald Trump in particular and the GOP in general will be topics of future posts, with the Democrats being mentioned either along with the GOP or in a separate post of their own.
For those not interested in things political,
here’s an amusing gif of a dog taking a bath
with a rubber ducky on his head.
For the rest of you, we start after the jump.
The number of Americans identifying as Christians on their census reports and attending churches has been dropping steadily over the last few decades. Here’s my wholly unscientific / totally anecdotal look at what’s been happening.
Those leaving Christian churches tend to fall into these four broad categories:
Those who were never really in it in the first place – We’re talking about the cultural Christians here, the ones who went because it was socially expected of them by friends or family. In many cases these people never actually participated in any religious functions, they just checked off the “Christian” box whenever asked because once upon a time somebody in their family had gone to church. Others attended only sporadically (typically Easter and Christmas services) but shockingly a few were regular attendees and often even high ranking members of their local churches. Their faith and knowledge was as deep as a Dixie cup and the moment there was no longer a social penalty for not belonging, they walked away.
Those who were hurt by Christians – This includes all those who were raped, beaten, sexually / emotionally / spiritually / financially abused by clergy, lay members, and their own families driven by the dictates of their local congregation. It can be the direct hands on approach of a bestial father who takes “spare the rod” too literally and beats their children and spouse so badly that hospitalization is required, the sexual abuse of a predatory minister who preys on emotionally fragile congregants then gaslights them if they object, a person demonized by their denomination for being outside their comfort zone, or guilted into commitments by the threat of shunning or humiliation if they aren’t compliant. This group often overlaps with…
Those who see only the bullshit – Despite claims to the contrary, most denominations and local churches do indeed say they have the answer to everything: Faith in Jesus, which really means sit down and shut up. When they do give Biblical answers it’s typically a word salad of theological gobbledygook that can and does mean anything anybody wants it to mean to justify their position. This group tends to be people with a genuine longing for some sort of spiritual connectivity, only to find their spiritual nature is routinely brushed aside as they are told to replace their often unanswerable questions with empty words and phrases; as well as those with questions about their pastor’s showy lifestyle or denomination’s stand on social issues. In the end they decide that because their local church or denomination has no answer on some things that Christianity as a whole has no answer on anything, and they leave.
Those who see through the bullshit – This group includes many of the sincerest, most genuinely faithful followers of Christ. They know what is expected of them as true followers of Christ and they don’t see their local church or denomination doing enough to help those on that journey, and so they leave, not out of bitterness, not even disappointment, but in the knowledge that whatever it is they are supposed to be doing, following the agenda of a local church or earthly denomination ain’t it.
In light of the above, perhaps it’s time to reframe the question re why the number of Christians is shrinking.
Maybe it isn’t.
Maybe the real Christians have always been the same small number, not easy to pigeonhole but identifiable through their actions.
Maybe what has been identified as the body of believers is a misnomer, and that instead of obsessing over increasing the number of believers, the Christian church as a whole should concentrate on improving the Christ-like qualities of those who are truly disciples.
Better a single warm heart
than a hundred warm bodies.
Normally I try to avoid direct political commentary on this blog, but this isn’t going to be a normal election year and so I’m going to posting a few observations between now and November.
This one is an air clearer; it’s something I think needs to be openly acknowledged before discussion can shift to a more current topic.
And we need, both as party partisans and American citizens as a whole, to acknowledge what went on here, and why it is important, and what we need to do to improve things in the future.
For those willing to face the ugly truth, proceed apace.
For the rest of you,
here’s a cute gif of a
cat eating spaghetti.