On Meeting a New SF Writer

Heliopoli_Full_EX63“The delight which SF writers show when encountering one another personally, at conventions or on panels or during lectures, indicates some common element shared by them, novices and old pros alike. There always emerges a psychological rapport, even if the ideas and politics in their respective works clash head-on; it is as if absolutely opposite themes in their published work — which might be expected to create a personal barrier when the writers meet face to face — this barrier is never there, and a feeling when a group of SF writers gather is always one of a family rejoined, lost friends refound or new friends made — friends among whom there is a fundamental basis of outlook or at least of personality structure. …

“On meeting a new SF writer who has just gotten into print, we never feel crowded or insecure; we feel strangely happy, and tell him so and encourage him: We welcome him. And I think this is because we know that the very fact that he has chosen to write SF rather than other types of fiction — or other careers in general — tells us something about him already. …

” ‘I know where your head is,’ is what I think when I meet a man or woman who has just published his first SF piece.”

— Philip K. Dick, from his essay “Who Is an SF Writer?” (1974), as reprinted in the The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings


Heliopoli_Full_EX81Twenty years ago I met a man through my work who said he had decided not to worry about anything anymore. This was a conscious decision on his part. He had decided. It was a decision. Simple as that.

I was young. I found him a bit odd. He carried a large satchel all the time.

“But what about — ?” I asked.

He shrugged. He decided not to worry about anything anymore. Simple. As that.

“But what about — ?” I persisted. “But what about — ?”

Shrugs. I even ran into him at a mall. He still carried that large satchel. No, I’m not going to say he carried his worries in the satchel; it was just part of what made him a little off, a little unbelievable.

I think about him once in a while, even after all these years. I think about the choice he had made and … yeah. Yeah, I see it now.

I still can’t do it myself, and I still think he was a little nuts — but he had made the right decision.


Heliopoli_Full_EX111Whenever someone mentions Twitter or Facebook to the excavators of Heliopoli, they think of two things, mired as they are in decades-old aesthetics. One is the shampoo commercial with the refrain “And they told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on, and so on ….”

The other is the movie Logan’s Run, in which Logan is browsing one evening through images of people in a kind of transporter, looking for companionship. He chooses one woman and she materializes in his room. She’s not interested in what he has in mind, it turns out, and so he asks, “Why did you put yourself in the circuit?”

“I was sad,” she says. “I put myself in the circuit. It was a mistake.”

The chief archivist, for his part, thinks of the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. How long can one resist the siren song when everybody else is doing it? How can you not join the communal mind? It doesn’t hurt. Just lie down next to this pod. It will be over in a minute. The wail of your modem matches the haunting sound coming out of Donald Sutherland’s mouth.

He also seeks to come up with a diagram in his mind of, say, Twitter’s interconnectivity. It is not just lateral, of course, but also vertical … but more than that. Truly the world wide web, but a three-dimensional web … no, four, because it includes time. Is this your tesseract, Ms. L’Engle?

And just when he thought of proposing that Twitter and Facebook would kill blogging, WordPress releases a widget to place one’s Twitter feed in one’s sidebar, proving they’re on top of things. He approves. He just might do it his ownself. It’s cool. (Right on. Far out.) Twitter seems an excellent way to connect to a blog, superior to a feed reader. And yet.

Heliopoli_Full_EX110So where does this leave Heliopoli? The city contains a number of crude videophones with tiny black-and-white screens, but not many of them, owing, it seems, to the expense. Most phones are the regular kind, the old-fashioned kind; and though the devices themselves were designed in the most streamlined way, adopting the wedge shape of a TR7 (hee hee), they are still just phones, just phones.

The connection is one-to-one over a copper wire. It takes place only in the present tense. How droll.

And yet. The overarching question seems not to be “What are you doing?” but rather “Why did you put yourself in the circuit?”, after all.

The Rainbow Tower

Heliopoli_Full_EX48The first day of spring is hardly ever the First Day of Spring. It rarely falls on March 20, or 21, or whatever the official date is. The real first day of spring is the first day of the year when you feel or hear that buzzing in the air. The temperature is different outside, but there’s something that goes along with that, more than just a change in Fahrenheit. The sun is a tad brighter. Perhaps you’ve spotted a single bee, or a fly. There’s “something in the air,” as the saying goes, and it seems to go best with the first day of spring. It’s a feeling, but also a sound, and more than just seeing a flower somewhere.

Which of course brings us to the Rainbow Tower in the city of Heliopoli. There’s something inside that structure that has to do with spring; the excavators have described it. The Rainbow Tower has that feeling, that buzzing, when you walk inside it. There’s “something in the air.” And it’s preserved throughout the year and still there through all these years.  Remarkable, really.

Now, the official season of Heliopoli is autumn — it’s always autumn in Heliopoli — and the chief archivist, for his part, is stupendously unpartial toward spring, to put it mildly; but that one real first day of spring is kinda nice.

And in the Rainbow Tower, the first day of spring occurs 365 days of the year.



Heliopoli_Full_EX49I’m often asked (not really, but let’s pretend), “Doesn’t it rain in Heliopoli? What’s with all the sun stuff?”

Of course it rains in Heliopoli. Buckets of the stuff. Loads of it. Sheets, even.

OK, so you haven’t been there, but look. You can imagine you’re standing in the Central Plaza, which is as flat as can be and goes almost to the horizon. The Sun Disk Monolith looms over your shoulder.  Let’s say it’s late afternoon, but it feels like early evening, the sky is so dark — dark from all the big thunderer clouds, clouds like kettle bottoms, clouds like fists. It rains. And the rain is drenching … and loud. It’s all you can hear. It’s hammering the plaza. You see the ground dancing from it. The air turns cold, and so do you. You’re in the middle of it, you crazy! And the rain smells like metal, like iron. And thunder sweeps across the sky making the city seem bigger than it is — emptier, lonelier.

The rain doesn’t stop suddenly. It goes away gradually. It just showers, eventually, like it didn’t mean to be so harsh before. It eases away. The plaza shines gray and a tiny bit green.

OK, so it’s a little different in Heliopoli, because if it’s raining in the afternoon — well, it stops just before sundown, always. Now, did you expect anything different? You can imagine the colors of the plaza then. And the feeling that you get when you see it — do I have to say more? You’ve seen the sun come out after a torrential rain.

Yeah, it’s like that there. You betcha.


Unfinished Things

I had a teacher in the seventh grade, Miss Allem, who encouraged my creative writing. One day she gave me a book that contained an unfinished science fiction novel by C.S. Lewis called The Dark Tower. She wanted me to finish writing it. She said that when she got to the end and learned that it wasn’t finished, she threw it across the room. That was the level of her encouragement: she wanted me to write the rest of it. It was also the level of her frustration: she didn’t want the book anymore if it wasn’t finished. This was decades ago.

Every once in a while I try to think of an ending for The Dark Tower, just for myself, mind you, or for her, actually — I sure as heck don’t presume to be able to finish writing anything by C.S. Lewis — but it would be nice to do something to acknowledge Miss Allem’s faith in me. A few years after junior high I learned that she had quit teaching. The class after ours was rambunctious, too much to handle. She left to work, I was told, in a chocolate factory.

I still have the book. She had written her name in it, because it belonged to her. It has been through a few rough patches, and nearly expired from being stored in a damp basement; and I think it has those paper mite thingies now, since I come over all itchy when I touch it, so I have it wrapped in plastic and stored in a box.

I dutifully bought a reprint copy a few years ago. I’ve read The Dark Tower a few times and it doesn’t seem possible to write an ending for it, especially with how it kind of shifts focus. And it needs more than an ending; it also needs a middle and the rest of the beginning. It’s hard to guess where it’s going; there must have been reasons Lewis didn’t finish it, after all. (And, frankly, the story creeps me out, but that’s also its appeal.)

I think it would be nice, though, if I could come up with some bit of writing that made allusions to Lewis’ The Dark Tower, with little references, an homage of sorts, a short story, something, the way one does when one tries to be clever and usually fails. His story has stuff to explore, revolving around a screen that sees into another world, another time, and people can watch events there in real time — Lewis’ description of this is fantastic and creepy — and I could call it “The Dark Tower.”

Um, yes, how very clever. But if it saw print I could dedicate it to Miss Allem. That would be nice.

And then I wouldn’t have something unfinished as well.

SF Writers Are Not Loners

Heliopoli_Full_EX54“I have a strong feeling, having met so many of my colleagues over the years, that there is almost universally among them a love of human beings and a concern for them, a desire for closeness that, in itself, might explain why the SF [science fiction] writer chose that field rather than one of the pure sciences. SF writers are not loners ….

“There are few if any cold schizoid SF writers; when you meet a Ray Bradbury or a Ted Sturgeon or a Norman Spinrad or an A.E. van Vogh you find a warm person longing to know you, too; you are part of a family that goes back decades and into which we perpetually welcome others: There are no sterile, aseptic white smocks, no cruel or detached interactions among us. Writing SF requires a humanization of the person, or put another way, I doubt if that person would want to write SF unless he had in him these empathic needs and qualities. Too timid to demonstrate, too warm to retreat to a sterile lab and experiment on objects or animals, too excited and impatient to allow all knowledge to be confined to the limits of absolute certitude — we live in a world of what a radio SF show once called ‘possible maybes,’ and this world attracts persons who are not loners but are lonely; and between those two distinctions there is a crucial difference.”

— Philip K. Dick, from his essay “Who Is an SF Writer?”, 1974, as reprinted in The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings