Monday, December 30, 2013

A Year of Books

Books have always been a large part of my life. Always had my nose in a book, as my mother used to say, and usually spent my allowances on books. Near sixty years and I still have yet to get my nose out of books. People at school, in the Army, at work, always seeing me with at least one boom at hand (and a few more stuffed into pockets) would usually come around to the same question: how many books do you read in a year? I never really had a good answer, except, maybe, "Lots." In this digital age, when people have all but forgotten how to read an analogue clock, such answers are no longer acceptable. After all, we have websites and software to keep track of things like that. And since I belong to Good Reads, and regularly review books as I finish them, all my stats are regularly toted for me by the Great Machine:

Number of Books read -- 148
Number of Pages Read -- 35,739

Well, it's as impressive as it is appalling, I suppose, but even that does not tell the full story. It does not include all the magazines read, or, for that matter, all the anthology stories read from books piled around me all the time, or the odd book picked up and read simply because it was at hand and I had to have something to read. So, what did I read this year?

1888: London Murders in the Year of the Ripper revealed there was much more going on in London than just the Jack the Ripper murders, and the author drew uneasy parallels between that time and ours.

I enjoyed a score of articles about my beloved movie serials in Blood 'n' Thunder's Cliffhanger Classics, which introduced me to many silent serials of which I knew little.

The diminutive pundit Greg Gutfield skewered the "phony outrage" that is pandemic in our society. 

Arch-conservative and smartest-guy-in-the-room William F. Buckley Jr gave me a moving and insightful testament into the nature of faith in Nearer, My God.

One of the best books I read this year was Paperback Confidential, which studied writers active in the original paperback market in the mid-century.

Another highlight for me was Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, in which a German Shepherd puppy is found in the midst of battle by the right person at the right save them both.

I've always had a love for the Greek legends, so I was glad to accompany Ernle Bradford as he trekked about the Mediterranean in search of crafty Ulysses.

It's back to London's good old bad old days with The Victorian Underworld, and, again, it's disconcerting to see how much like our own world theirs was.

Also disconcerting was Pam Funke's fictional look on the Apocalypse and the Anti-Christ in her series of books, of which The World at War is the second.

The Memory of the Blood was just one of the several Bryant & May books I read this year. The two detectives are even older than me, and always present hidden aspects of London.

Although I enjoy my foreign detectives, nothing beats The American Private Eye, and in this book the author takes a close look at all the major ones, and most of the smaller important ones.

Because I enjoyed the Nero Wolfe books as written by Rex Stout so much, I made a concerted effort to steer clear of the series as carried on by Robert Goldsborough. However, when he wrote Archie Meets Nero Wolfe I just could not help myself...and I was not disappointed.

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady has to be one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, with its lovingly detailed paintings of the flora and fauna or a year in the country.

I can't let a year go by without reading one of Clive Cussler's adventure novels, and 2013 was no different. Of the several I read, Crescent Dawn was one of the most thrilling.

Of all the mystery series set in the UK, one of the most endearing is MC Beaton's tales of Hamish Macbeth, a copper in the Scottish Highlands. In addition to the usual cast of characters, we have in Death of a Kingfisher two lovely children who make the "Bad Seed" look like a girl scout. Creepy.

I really can't let a year go by without finding some sleazy paperback I've never read before. While Fatal in Furs was not the sleaziest paperback of 2013 for me, it was still very satisfying.

The French has their own way of writing crime novels, especially when the Frenchman involved is from Italy. This book had crime, treachery, the Vatican and the Mob...who could ask for more?

This year saw a big return to the pulps for me. Stories which have been lost for decades are now finding new life, most because of the technology of print-on-demand which makes it economical to have a print run of even a single book. Lester Dent's stories involving airships and H. Bedford-Jones' tales of two adventurers in the Orient were just two of my forays into pulp fiction this year.

 And I finally got around to reading Zane Grey's The Rainbow Trail, sequel to his very famous Riders of the Purple Sage. Though out of step with modern styles and sensibilities, I enjoyed this western romance very much, and it was just one of several westerns for me this year.

It seems I cannot go a year without reading something connected to Sherlock Holmes, and of the SH books for 2013, Resurrected Holmes was certainly the most unusual. The idea behind the anthology was that notes for stories never written by Watson were given to other famous writers. The results range from perceptive to comic to bizarre. Most enjoyable!

The only disappointment in this anthology is that there were no noir stories set in my Chula Vista. Other than that, an admirable entry in the long-running series of geographically themed noir.

I only knew Donald Keyhoe through his popular writings about UFO's, so I was very surprised to find out he was a very prolific writer during the pulp era. These books were very enjoyable and revealed very strange aspects to the Great War.

In The Island of Lost Maps, we find a terrible sort of criminal, terrible at least to bibliophiles, for it centers on those who travel from library to library, ripping maps from rare books to sell to collectors.

Certainly not all the books I read in 2013, or even a fair representation, but just a few of the books I enjoyed most. And quite a few of them made their way to me through the Good Reads website in the form of suggestions made because of others books I read. If you don't already belong, you might want to consider it. It has suggestions, forums, giveaways...but more than that, it's fun.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Month of Writing Dangerously (& Fast)

Last year I participated in National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo). The goal is to write a novel of at least 50,000 words beginning November 1, ending no later than November 30. I succeeded in doing so, and the result was Paws & Claws: A Three Dog Mystery, the first of the Paws & Claws series, in which the Three Dog Detective Agency fought the evil Feral Gang, a clowder of lawless cats determined to conquer the neighborhood. It was published just before the end of 2012. As you may imagine, it was rather stressful in that it demanded a daily writing regimen which is not usually followed by a writer of short stories. While the discipline helped me to write three and publish three more books in 2013, I did not think it likely I would once again throw myself into the meat-grinder known as Nanowrimo. As usual, I was wrong.

The morning of November 1st, I started writing K-9 Blues, the third story in the adventures of the Three Dog Detective Agency. Once again, the hardest task was sitting down each day and writing at least 1,700 words, the approximate amount you need to write each day in order to reach the goal by the deadline. I was handicapped by several things -- I am a terribly slow typist, I am easily distracted, I tire easily, and my right hand had recently lost an argument with a mandolin slicer. However, I had the whole plot in mind and I had my list of characters (one of whom had been nominated by a fan of the books), which gave me an advantage over others who either had no plan or did not know their characters.

Several days I managed to write more than 3,000 words, which helped to offset those days when I did not do nearly as well. I know, 3K words is nothing to a professional typist (the Wife could do it in an hour or less) but it's great for someone like me...I once calculated how many wpm I manage when working on a book, but it was so depressing I immediately hit "clear" on the calculator. The best place for me to write was at the Panera's in the Chula Vista Shopping Center. It's much easier to concentrate and stay focused when you think people are looking at you. Who knew paranoia could have an up side? Of course, the endless supply of strong coffee might have had something to do with it as well. Unlike last year, I did not attend any Nanowrimo get-togethers, but I still had writing buddies n the Nanowrimo website who would occasionally drop me a line of encouragement; and seeing their progress also buoyed me up. Now and then we would get a "pep talk" from established writers, but the only ones that really did encourage me were from Col Ralph Peters. The month wore on, and word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph I eventually completed my story, though it might be more accurate to say I was dragged across the finish line by three extraordinary dogs.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

"If you go down Suicide Hill, you'll find Harry Harrison"

Harry Harrison
12 Mar 1925 - 15 Aug 2012
I don't recall now the exact date I met science fiction writer Harry Harrison. I must have been in my first years of high school because one of the things he signed for me was the December 1969 issue of Analog SF magazine, which sported a Kelly Freas cover for In Our Hands the Stars (later published as The Daleth Effect), a serial which continued through the January and February 1970 issues.

Back in those days, most of my fiction reading was SF, followed closely by mysteries. I had a subscription to Analog and always looked forward to that magazine's serial novels. The story follows the development of an inertial-free space drive, one of the standards of SF but rarely the star of the show. I was immediately taken by the cover, one of the few times a submarine has subbed for a spaceship, though I am sure many of us have fond (or not) memories of the Three Stooges saving the Earth from a Martian invasion using a submarine-spaceship-helicopter vehicle in The Three Stooges in Orbit. Ah, once again I find myself in the role of a wandering mathematician -- off on a tangent -- when I really meant to tell you how Harry Harrison found me shivering on his doorstep.

At the time, my parents had a friend who lived in a vague area east of Nestor and west of South San Diego, both of which were rather vague areas themselves. The friend, Rose was her name, lived atop a hill known locally and colloquially as Suicide Hill. Actually, it was just the road leading up from East San Diego that was known by that appellation, as the slope leading down into Nestor was really quite gentle. Two narrow lanes with a slope so steep you could only see sky or ground (depending upon which way you were going) and traffic that never abode by the posted speed limit -- that was Suicide Hill. One evening while my parents were visiting with Rose and I was learning astrology from Rosemary, Rose's wheelchair-bound daughter, I happened to mention to Rosemary that one of my favorite authors was Harry Harrison. She looked at me with an expression of smug surprise and said: "If you go down Suicide Hill, you'll find Harry Harrison."

Several months earlier, she told me, Harry Harrison and his family had taken residence in a house midway down Suicide Hill, at a flattened spot in the road, where, if you hit it just right, you could acquire negative or positive gees (depending on your direction of travel), being momentarily weightless or crushed. I had several of Mr Harrison's books at home, as well as the magazines, and promised myself I would bring them next time the family visited Rose.


The next time we visited, I came prepared for my unannounced (but not unwelcome, I hoped) visit to Harry Harrison. I was trembling before I started out, had to overcome a sense of timidity and shyness that grew with every step, and I constantly had to fight the urge to puke up my guts...I really haven't changed much over the years. Standing upon his shadowed doorstep, I hit the doorbell on my second try, and managed not to flee when the porch light snapped on and the door started to open. I was faced by a kid a few years younger than me, who looked at my pathetically trembling form and appeared ready to slam the door. I stammer-blurted a question as to whether this was Harry Harrison's house, whether he was at home, and whether I could see him. He gave me the stink-eye, nodded, and yelled: "DAD!" A gently smiling man came to the door, waited patiently as I somehow introduced myself, looked at the books in my shaking hands, and invited me cordially into his home.

For the next two hours, he signed my books, showed me all the foreign editions of his books, showed me his awards, and let me read a few pages of a book he was working which was serialized in Analog as A Transatlantic Tunnel -- Hurrah!, but which was later published as Tunnel Through the Deeps. And we talked about science fiction...or, rather, he talked, and I listened. And I also bought three tickets to his son's school's production of The Hobbit, an action for which my father has yet to forgive me -- 3+ hours on hard seats watching junior high schoolers prance about "in diapers and tunics" searching for the treasure of a papier-mache dragon. Sure, it was a high price to pay for Harry Harrison's bonhomie, but a price which I was more than willing for my parents to, I enjoyed it.

For those who want more information about Harry Harrison, the master of action science fiction, his official website is a good place to start.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Agent X and Operative 3 On The Job

The library at J. Calvin Lauderbach Elementary School in Chula Vista did not have, at first glance, much going for it. Contained in a single room, with shelves around the walls and two free-standing shelves in the middle, it was not much bigger than the library at my former school, Highland Elementary in National City, which I considered tiny, shoved, as it was, into a storage room behind the auditorium. But being a bibliophile even at that age, I had to look around, see what I could carry home...after checking it out, of course. I found the usual science books and children's classics, history books and a few art books, but I found something in abundance that had been lacking at Highland. Either Lauderbach's librarian was a kid at heart, was a kid's best friend, or knew the best donor in the world -- I found complete sets of Tom Swift Jr, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Rick Brant, the Power Boys, Ellery Queen Jr...and Brains Benton.

Brains Benton? Who? Well, if you don't know who that is and you grew up in the middle of the last century, I just don't know how to explain it. Barclay "Brains" Benton (X) and Jimmy Carson (Operative 3) were the young teen owners of the Benton & Carson International Detective Agency, headquartered in the seemingly quiet Midwestern town of Crestwood. Lest you think the "International" was just a piece of grandiose flummery by the young sleuths, they did manage to save a foreign kingdom in The Case of the Roving Rolls. In other tales they solve a mysterious message ("The kangaroos have escaped"), stop a gang of rare coin counterfeiters, and recover $5,000 ($85,000 in today's devalued cash) stolen from the town.

Although the series lasted only three years, the brainchild of Charles Spain Verral, the series was very influential, on me at least. It was with Brains and Jimmy in mind that I formed my first detective agency in 1961, and that was when I first discovered a dichotomy between fiction and real life...fiction is much more interesting. That also came to mind almost twenty years later when I did some work for attorneys and some private detectives after college...fiction was still better, and is why I now write mysteries rather than try to unravel real-life ones. The stories are a bit dated, but not as much as others, and there is still some interest in the series, enough to cause fans start writing new cases starting in 2008. If you want to collect them, they are still relatively easy to find and are not exorbitantly expensive. Also, if you limit yourself to the original books published by Golden Press it's not hard to collect the complete set.
  1. The Case of the Missing Message (1959)
  2. The Case of the Counterfeit Coin (1960)
  3. The Case of the Stolen Dummy (1961)
  4. The Case of the Roving Rolls (1961)
  5. The Case of the Waltzing Mouse (1961)
  6. The Case of the Painted Dragon (1961)
A half-century has passed has passed since I first stepped onto the campus of Lauderbach Elementary and made my way to the library. The school has changed profoundly. Places where I played ball and tag have been covered by "temporary" classrooms for decades. English is spoken by a minority of kids. The school is completely surrounded by iron fences and locked gateways that would do a Super-Max proud. Classes no longer start with the Pledge of Allegiance. And, of course, the school library is about five times larger and well stocked with every book adults consider fit reading for children...what a shame.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Keep Calm and Full Steampunk Ahead

Shadows Against the Empire
An Interplanetary Steampunk Adventure

Sometimes things just do not work out according to plan. That's true for everyone, of course, but I think writers run into that maxim head-on every time they try to bring anything from the realm of ideas into material form. A case in point is my newest novel, Shadows Against the Empire. I developed the idea for the story (which was initially Darkness Against the Empire) about five years ago. As with so many of my projects, it started with a theme (steampunk) and a title, then an image -- a Martian slinking through the ruins of Old Cydonia intent upon ousting the British rulers of Mars; from that image, I developed a basic plot heavily influenced by the role-playing game Space 1889, then an outline and a list of characters good and bad with their traits. And I figured it would take me four - five months to write it.

The theme stayed, though as I went along things became more steamy, less punky and more infused with humor. The title was changed. I still have the image of hate-filled Thoza-Joran slinking through the ancient ruins, but now he's in chapter one rather than starting off the story in the prologue, and though he's still up to villainy, he's much less the villain and more a tragic victim of his own hatred. Plot and outline are intertwined for me, so what started as a simple incident-driven plot became more complex and character-driven as I interacted with my characters, and who, to tell you the truth, often refused to follow my orders and speak my dialogue -- characters are as bad as actors sometimes. As for Space 1889, the inspiration is still there, but as the characters found their own voices, so did the story, and many of the aspects of the game that I had thought to bring in no longer seemed to fit. The outline starts off clean, but page after page becomes more and more annotated; same with the character list, as some people changed, others forced their way in, and some even told me they did not like the names I had given them. As for the deadline I took me five years to write the first 20,000 words, then two months to write the next 70,000. Funny that.

One of the major changes was in the nature of the British Empire itself. I had planned for a slightly dystopian setting. The characters would, of course, be courageous and brave, but they would be working for the often-less-than-perfect Empire, something along the lines taken by Joseph Conrad in some of his fiction, as in Heart of Darkness, my favorite story. But as I eavesdropped on my characters and observed their interactions with others, I realized that changing history had changed the Empire. The discovery of space travel had two effects on history -- the Earth was no longer the only target for the colonial powers, and the countries that would have become colonies had access to technology they could develop along their own lines (as opposed to the way we "help" people now) and thus meet would-be colonizers on a better footing. And on the planets and inhabited moons, the colonial powers of Earth met people who had been around a long time, so in most cases (especially with the British) it became less a colonial conquest and more an economic and/or political partnership. Of course, it's not perfect -- what is? -- and if the British Empire is still sowing the seeds of its own destruction, perhaps it's at least doing so more slowly. One can hope.

The Solar System of the novel is much different than our own, but more interesting for it. To create it, I looked at astronomical knowledge of the Nineteenth Century, as well as what was theorized by space scientists (not to mention me and Carlos Carrion in the high school library) through the mid-1960s. I also extensively read early science fiction stories as well as the science fantasy planetary stories so popular in the pulps. I wrote here earlier about what we used to believe about the Solar System, and here's what I came up with for the book.
  • Mercury -- It rotates in such a way to keep one face turned toward the Sun, so we have a Torrid Zone, a Nightside and an inhabited Twilight (or Temperate) Zone.
  • Venus -- Jungles, an extensive riparian network and seas filled with great beasts; it also has two races, the reptilian Nagas who live in jungles, forests and swamps, and a tall pale humanoid race who live in about a dozen very ancient stone cities.
  • Earth -- The main difference is that my Earth has some intelligent life on it.
  • Luna -- The Moon does not really appear in the book, but I think it will be inhabited. I suppose they could live underground, but if they did, how could someone exclaim "Cities on the Moon, Dad!" as I am looking through a telescope one night.
  • Mars -- Ancient and inhabited by at least two races, the yellowish and taller lowlanders, and the shorter and darker highlanders. A world very much haunted by its past.
  • The Outer Planets -- They did not make an appearance this time around, except for some casual references, but the planets and the moons are inhabited, and there is probably trouble brewing out there as well.
The technology of the times is steam based, and as the steam engine has made great strides in efficiency since first being discovered by Hero of Alexandria, it is unlikely the gas engine will ever appear except as an oddity. Atmospheric travel is usually with airships, but in Mars' thinner atmosphere air travel is mostly dominated by steam-fliers, though the canals are extensively used for trade. Space travel is based upon "repulsors," a type of levitation technology inspired by some of the ideas floated by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and upon engines that interact with the aether. The Aether was one of the mainstays of Nineteenth Century science, an undetectable substance that filled space and spaces between matter. It was an outgrowth of Aristotelian physics, the fifth form of matter, in addition to air, fire, water and earth; despite its antiquity and unprovability, it was used by Sir Isaac Newton to formulate the Theory of Gravity as well as Albert Einstein in Special Relativity. Even now, some physicists find it easier to explain aspects of the universe by assuming the existence of the Aether than without it.

So, that's a bit of the story behind the story of Shadows Against the Empire: An Interplanetary Steampunk Adventure. As to the story itself...well, you'll have to read the book for that. Hope you like it.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Rabbity Mr Pinkerton

Before mystery writer Leslie Ford (Zenith Jones Brown [1898 - 1983]) fell from grace for writing a mystery series featuring a wealthy Washington socialite widow, she wrote several books under the pen-name David Frome while living in England, the most endearing of these featuring timid and elderly widower Evan Pinkerton. Dominated for years by a shrewish and parsimonious wife, enslaved as a menial in her boarding house, Mr Pinkerton felt the only relief from his terrible life was his friendship with a Scotland Yard copper named J. Humphrey Bull, who eventually rose in the ranks to Chief Inspector, and stayed his friend even after he moved out.

No doubt Mr Pinkerton, a Welshman who would have become a school master had his wife not told him to marry her, would have remained a penniless drudge under her thumb till the day of his death had his wife not had the good fortune (his, not hers) to die intestate. Although it was her intention to leave her money to anyone but her worthless and rabbity husband, she was too much of a skinflint to pay the tuppence it would have taken to buy and file the will form. So, Mr Pinkerton not only finds himself master of a house that no longer needs to take in borders, but he discovered his wife had much more money than anyone ever thought possible, saved from a lifetime of holding tight to every bloody half-penny, skimping on the gas, and cheating boarders and tradesmen whenever she could. Although 75,000 British pounds may not seem excessive, the buying power at the time would have been in the vicinity of $1.5 million. Despite his sudden wealth, he cannot bring himself to buy new clothes, fearful his dead wife will rise wrathful from her grave, so his only indulgence is going to the cinema thrice weekly, and even that he does with a nervous little glance over his shoulder.

While Mr Pinkerton loves the cinema (he has some very odd notions about America from our gangster and western films) what makes his life worth living is the opportunity to help Inspector Bull in solving crimes, even if he has to dig up the body himself, so to speak, or stumble over it in the fog. Inspector Bull is generally grateful for the help rendered by his little friend, though his gratitude is sometimes after the fact, when he discovers he has been helped, and must save Mr Pinkerton from being murdered himself. When the Inspector knows he is being helped, he will set Mr Pinkerton to some safe, rather innocent task, such as watching a building he has suspicions about, but which is not actually involved in any case. Of course, with Mr Pinkerton's endless curiosity, his love of mysteries, his ability to know what Inspector Bull needs even when the Inspector doesn't, and the heart of a lion that lurks beneath his lamb's clothing, even the most innocuous task soon spirals into a matter of life and death...usually Mr Pinkerton's.

Very cleverly, Ford worked into the narratives of the books references to other cases that were never recorded, such as Watson did in the Sherlock Holmes cases. Rather than being cast-off bits, they work to make Mr Pinkerton seem even larger than life, such as when we have an image of a knife being wrestled from the hand of a madman in the Welsh mountains during a lightning storm before the future Mrs Bull can be done in; or they are infused with humor, such as when we are presented with a remembrance of Inspector Bull transporting Mr Pinkerton down the High Street at great velocity in a wheel-barrow in pursuit of a villain. The entire series is an even mix of humor and adventure, with nearly everything seen from Mr Pinkerton's unique and often skewed point of view. The books are, unfortunately, out of print, but still easily available, and well worth the effort tracking down for the fan of the sort of light-hearted British mysteries popular in the Golden Age.
  1. The Hammersmith Murders (1930)
  2. The By-pass Murder (1931) - Brit title: Two Against Scotland Yard
  3. The Man From Scotland Yard (1932)
  4. The Eel Pie Murders (1933) - Brit title: The Eel Pie Mystery
  5. Mr. Pinkerton Finds a Body (1934) Brit title: The Body in the Turl 
  6. Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard (1934) Brit title: Arsenic in Richmond
  7. Mr. Pinkerton Grows a Beard (1934) Brit title: The Body In Bedford Square
  8. Mr. Pinkerton Has the Clue (1936)
  9. The Black Envelope (1937) Brit title: The Guilt Is Plain
  10. Mr. Pinkerton At the Old Angel (1939) Brit title: Mr. Pinkerton and the Old Angel
  11. Mr. Pinkerton: Passage for One (1945)
  12. Homicide House (1950) Brit title: Murder On the Square

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Other Solar System

I don't know about you, but I'm rather disappointed with the way our Solar System turned out. It's totally changed from the way it was when I was a lad. Not only have the planets gotten extreme makeovers, but we don't even have nine planets anymore, Pluto having been given the boot by some narrow-minded astro-boffins; any day now, I expect poor little Mercury to get a pink slip: "Sorry, Mercury, don't get all hot under the collar, but you're just too small to play with us...go whine to Pluto and all the other asteroids."

As recently as the 1970s (I know, some of you were not even born then, but that's not my fault) our Solar System was a place of mystery and adventure, the planets not very different than they were to the pulp writers of the previous generations, who set stories in the mines of Mercury, the jungles of Venus and the canals of Mars. Modern science has ripped away the mystery of those other worlds, not only taking away the hopes for grand adventures, but making the planets, to me at least, much less interesting. You can still read the old stories by Ray Cummings and Leigh Brackett, Arthur C Clarke and Otis Adelbert Kline, or Jack Williamson and H.P. Lovecraft, but the adventure is always tempered with a measure of wistful sadness, for now they are not science fiction stories of possible (if not probable) futures, but fables or fairy tales, and while we can still derive pleasure from them, it is not an enjoyment seasoned with anticipation. I like the classic view of the planets, so when I sat down to write Shadows Against the Empire, I set the action not in the Solar System as it is, but in the Solar System as it should have been, an alternate universe where old school astronomy still ruled.

The big thing about classic Mercury is that it is (or should be) tidally locked, as is our Moon, one side ever facing the sun. The planet being in such a situation creates stable climates on both sides of the planet, one metal-melting hot, the other cold as absolute zero, both of which can be endured and exploited; more than that, however, tidal-locked Mercury has a kind of temperate band between the two extremes, a "twilight zone" where colonies can be built. Isaac Asimov (writing as Paul French) sent his protagonists onto the hot half of Mercury in Lucky Starr & the Big Sun of Mercury, as did Alan E. Nourse with "Brightside Crossing." Writer Leigh Brackett located her cities in the Twilight Zone, and had two of her main protagonists, Eric John Stark and Jaffa Storm, born there. Two writers who took on non-human inhabitants of Mercury were Arthur C. Clarke, who described a Dark Side creature in Islands in the Sky, and Hal Clement, who wrote about the Bright Side's silicon occupants in Iceworld. During the 19th Century, astronomers observed a planet even closer to the sun than Mercury and called it Vulcan, but no one ever wrote about it...oh, the planet with the pointy-eared chaps? Sorry, not the same one.

Venus was always fun to speculate about, if only because our wild guesses about what lay beneath its thick cloud cover were just as valid as those of the astro-boffins with their big telescopes. Swamps, lizard men, jungles, tempestuous oceans, trackless deserts and soaring mountains, torrential rains that made Seattle look parched, and ancient cities connected by rivers dwarfing the Nile and Amazon. Anything went because no one could penetrate those clouds. And then came that terrible day when all us Venus theorizing space cadets found ourselves in the same position as Professor Harold Hill:
Marcellus Washburn: I heard you was in steam automobiles.
Professor Harold Hill: I was... till someone actually 'invented' one!

Not only did they use radar to tell us what the planet looked like under the thick canopy of roiling clouds but those darned Soviets actually landed a probe on Venus -- it melted. So much for jungles, swamps, oceans and even the poor old lizard-men. It was no tropic paradise as Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft had promised in two of their stories. Nor could we sail our schooners around the seas of Venus to encounter pirates and sea monsters as Edgar Rice Burroughs had assured us in the adventures of wrong-way astronaut Carson Napier in the Amtor (as the natives called Venus) Series, and as ERB wannabe Otis Adelbert Kline wrote in Prince of Peril and Port of Peril. No longer could China colonize Venus for the purpose of cultivating rice, as it did in Jack Williamson's Seetee Ship. Even the dark and dangerous cities visited by Northwest Smith, where segir (Venusian whisky) is cheap and life cheaper, went up in a poof of sulfurous smoke. In an instant, Venus went from Planet Mystery to Planet Hell. Thanks, Russia.

Of all the planets to transition from the "old" Solar System to the "new," Mars was perhaps the hardest hit, if only because everyone expected so much out of it. It wasn't just that we thought it might be the abode of life, we knew it. Even though we had never seen cities there, had never actually seen the blue waters of the canals, and had never received any signals from the Martians, we knew they were waiting for us...or coming to get us, as the case may be. In the Nineteenth Century a cash prize was offered to anyone who could prove life existed on another planet...except Mars. Burroughs populated it with all manner of creatures and ancient races, making it even more interesting than Earth. So did Ray Bradbury, C.L. Moore and Robert Heinlein; theologian and sometimes SF writer C.S. Lewis made Mars the abode of angelic beings in Out of the Silent Planet. As more information was gathered about Mars, the canals, the cities, the thin but breathable atmosphere...all went the way of dreams at the dawning. Some writers struggled on, but most sighed, grabbed the latest copies of Scientific American and Astronomy, and plotted new stories that did not depend upon Martians. A final farewell, a sort of eulogy, was published by F&SF in its November 1963 issue, A Rose for Ecclesiastes by Roger Zelazny.

I don't claim that good adventure stories cannot be written in the Solar System as it now exists, for I have read many over the years, but I do claim that the "new" astronomy put an end to the planetary adventure tale as it existed for more two centuries. Now, anyone who wants to set stories on the inhabited planets of our Solar System must either use human colonists, life-forms with which we can little contact, or establish an alternate universe where things went differently, as many steampunk writers (and me) have done. Otherwise, writers looking for adventures that involve swashbuckling or derring-do must either travel to Earth's past or seek new worlds out amongst the stars.

Of course, that does not mean our neighboring planet is entirely bereft of surprises...

So were Chinese Crested dogs.

Please, no carping about this one

Like this surprises anyone!

Obviously, he took the better offer.