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Friday, August 31, 2012

Harry Harrison’s Final Message

“I have found that an action story with two or three levels of intellectual content below the surface enables me to say what I want to say.  I have also found that humor—and black humor—can carry ideas that can be expressed in no other way.”
--Harry Harrison

In Harry Harrison’s final novel, The Stainless Steel Rat Returns, Slippery Jim DiGriz’s space journey is prompted by his cousin’s arrival on Moolaplenty.  Although the planet’s rich inhabitants could benefit from easier access to food, they would rather import food than share their world with farmers and livestock.  Jim visits the planet Floradora, which initially seems a likely place to resettle his cousin’s community and their porcuswine.  Unfortunately, although the two resident societies trade together, neither will engage in dialogue with the other, nor do they want to share their planet with a third.  So Jim and company spend the second half of the novel on a planet called the United States of England, where radiation leakage on the ship that transported the planet’s original inhabitants has resulted in two races: one with pink (or a tanned, light brown) skin, the other with green.

It’s been a decade since I’ve read Harrison, and the narrative in The Stainless Steel Rat Returns seems looser and less nuanced than earlier efforts.  This novel was published in 2010, and the last novel he published was eight years previously, the same year his wife died.  While he suffered through grief, illness, and normal bodily decline due to age, this gap suggests that writing the book took more effort than usual.  As he was in his eighties at this point, and had nothing more to prove, I can only presume that he battled on with the novel because he felt he had something important and relevant to say to the world. 

Indeed, a quick summary of the plot suggests that Harrison saw much in the world that troubled him.  It seems odd that, living in an enlightened country such as England, where Church and Society preach the virtues of tolerance, that Harrison would skewer contemporary society for class, religious, and racial prejudice.  Yet hatred and prejudice can use tolerance as a shield.  Tolerance can be used to dismiss those whose appearance, beliefs, and practices annoy, irritate, and outrage. Tolerance is not the same thing as acceptance.  It is not equal to embracing and engaging, nor should it be confused with love.  

Perhaps it’s instructive that the larger, more established Christian denominations in America, the ones that are currently preaching the virtue of tolerance, are reeling from ongoing schism.  Nor can anyone in science fiction and fantasy circles ignore the fact that two of our greatest gatherings, Worldcon and Dragoncon, are currently held on the same weekend each year.  Instead of uniting our community, fans are forced to choose one event over the other.  Writers and other professionals must also support one over the other, based upon how they can best serve the majority of their fans.  And of course, while both groups tolerate each other, and even find ways to link the two events, everyone argues over the issues involved in being forced to choose one event over the other, and look for people to blame.

I take no sides on either of the two schisms mentioned.  (Thus it can fairly be said that I am tolerating both, and currently doing nothing to help close either divide).  But I am glad for Harrison’s reminder that, while tolerance makes coexistence possible, it can never unite.  And I smile at Harrison’s explanation of the biological mechanisms that gave the Greenies their skin color, diminished intellect, and violent natures.  I won’t tell you what it is, but I will hint that it mirrors an incident in the past of one beloved character in the Marvel Comics universe.  (And yes, he was in the recent “Avengers” movie).

I don’t know about you, but I think the guy still had it, right up to the end.  Thank you, Harry Harrison, for working so hard to craft your final message to us. 

In gratitude,
Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries

Related Internet Links
Writer George R. R. Martin’s Opinion on Worldcon vs Dragoncon
Artist John Picacio attempts to bridge the gap
Filk Musician Tom Smith makes his choice

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Norman Clegg’s Library

As we paused for a photo, a woman arrived
to set up for a Sunday evening fellowship.
What was she thinking,
ruining my shot like that?

Given my love of books, it’d be natural to assume that I love libraries.  I certainly have fond memories of them from childhood.  I discovered so many great books on their shelves, such as Roald Dahl’s Charlie adventures, Robert Heinlein’s novels, and the early Star Trek books.  But later, when I started getting allowance from my parents, and making money for work, I found I enjoyed visiting bookstores more.  While I had to pay to read their books, I didn’t have to give them back afterward. 

In the pilot episode of “Last of the Summer Wine,” we are introduced to three old men for whom the best in life has, sadly, past them by.  There’s Cyril Blamire, an ex-water board official and military man, who never married and rents a room in another family’s house.  There’s Compo Simmonite, a scruffy little guy who never works, whose wife has left him, and who loses all his money on the horses.  Lastly, there’s Norman Clegg, a former linoleum salesman whose wife has recently died.  As all three are at loose ends, they pass the days in each other’s company, looking for anything that will add a sparkle of interest and levity to their existence.

One of the places they frequent is the town library.  There, out of the elements, and away from prying eyes, they can sit in a modicum of comfort, and chat about the opportunities that have eluded them.  The reading room is their place: a little haven of tranquility, free to enter, and without the incessant arguments that Sid and Ivy shout at each other in the café.  Mr. Wainwright, who oversees the library, dislikes all the time they spend in his reading room, how they rip pages out of the newspapers, and how they disregard the rules.  In the pilot episode, when he walks in to discover Compo eating a sandwich, and Norman smoking, he feels perfectly justified in throwing them out.  “They’re barred!” he declares to his female assistant.

In his opinion, Norman, Compo, and Cyril simply don’t respect the exalted position he believes a library should hold in the community.  Unfortunately for Mr. Wainwright, when the three catch him and his assistant having an affair, he must compromise his rigid principles, or the community (and his assistant’s husband) will learn how he corrupted her with the sensuous works of D. H. Lawrence.  So the three regain their reading room, and there they can learn about the world, and gain greater insight about each other’s life, in this special place of learning. 

We returned the next morning for a better photo.
Now, who could we find who might be interested
in my Top Secret adventures as a Japanese sniper?

On our visit to Holmfirth, we discovered that the library on the TV show is actually a Methodist Church.  It stands across a parking lot from a Co-op Market.  Nearby is the river that flows through town.  One can walk across a bridge, through a public garden, across a busy intersection, and enjoy some tea and refreshment at Sid’s Café.  There you can buy a hearty lunch, or just a light snack.  Just don’t buy food or drink there and expect to enjoy them inside the church (especially on a Sunday).  Whether the “Last of the Summer Wine” library is overseen by a librarian or a priest, you’re certain to suffer somebody’s wrath.  Even if you love reading books like I do, and are as pleasant and agreeable as Norman Clegg.

Remembering our happy visit to Holmfirth,
Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries

Related Internet Links
Watch the pilot episode on Youtube
(It comes in three ten-minute segments, the video quality is poor, and the audio is out of sync.  But until the BBC decides to release it on DVD, this is the only way you can watch it).  

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Dining Like A Swiss Philistine

A decade ago, my wife and I visited Monterey, California.  One afternoon we toured the Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, where Father Junipero Serra was buried.  We had toured several missions on the drive up, but this one was by far the most impressive.  Afterward, we didn’t know what any of the local restaurants were like, but we saw several clustered together, and compared the menus.  We decided to eat at a Swiss restaurant, where we had some wonderful fondue.  I had eaten fondue before, but always with other people.  That night, for the first time, my wife and I sat at our own little table.  Two forks dipped chunks of bread into the simmering pot, instead of four or six (or more).  Afterward, as we were leaving, we noticed several signed photographs of World Champion motorcycle riders such as Mick Doohan and Max Biaggi.  Although they heralded from different countries, it seemed they had heard of the restaurant, and traveled from Leguna Seca on a race weekend to sample its cuisine.

I think, every time we’ve made fondue at home, we’ve attempted to recapture the magic of that night in Carmel.  A month or so ago, we saw Emmental cheese on sale and picked up a pound, along with some French bread and an inexpensive bottle of white wine.  That evening, after we had set the table, and chopped the French bread, the raw Broccoli, and the Zucchini that we would dip in the fondue, we cooked the fondue over the stove.  The white wine we had chosen, a variety called Gewurztraminer, was new to us, even though it’s over a thousand years old.  (I’m talking about the type of wine here, not about our particular bottle, just in case anyone thinks we would buy such an old bottle of wine).  We found its flavor far sweeter than we were accustomed to.  To me, it almost had a citrus like flavor, although I’ve come to understand its taste is more akin to lychees.  (Not that we eat lychees enough to remember what they taste like).  Yet the wine refused to completely mix with the cheese.  My wife tried several times, adding a splash more wine, a sprinkle of this or that, but nothing got the mixture to gel.  It tasted nice, even if it had a somewhat gritty texture, so we finally just set it on the burner on the table and started dipping. 

While we love the taste of fondue, we hate the calories.  We stopped before we felt satisfied, after we had eaten about a third of the fondue.  As we never feel satisfied in the evening without eating dessert, the calories were higher than we normally eat: in the seven hundred range (before our customary ice cream and cookie).  So we set the rest of the fondue in the fridge and waited for a low-calorie day on which to enjoy the leftovers.

For various reasons, the fondue ended up in the freezer.  When we got it out again, and let it thaw for a few days in the fridge, we heated it up on a low-calorie day, and added a little more of the Gewurztraminer to the mixture.  Instead of setting it on a portable burner, we poured half the remaining mixture over our cut-up bread and vegetables.  Somehow the freezing process had allowed the cheese to gel more fully with the wine.  Without having to constantly stir the mixture, we also found the dinner more relaxing.  I know we’re philistines when it comes to things like wine and cuisine, but to us, it tasted just as good as doing it the proper way.

Then the fondue sat in the fridge for another week or two.  We just weren’t getting the low-calorie days we needed.  So this last weekend we finally broke down.  We bought more French bread, and declared we would have the rest of the fondue that evening, regardless of how many calories we had consumed before dinner.  This time, we decided to steam the broccoli and the zucchini, and set our chopped bread and steamed vegetables on our plate.  The fondue heated up nicely on the stove, and on a whim, we decided to halve the remaining mixture.  We found that we enjoyed our dinner just as much with half of the fondue, and that the time spent in the fridge might even have improved the flavor.  Sunday night we had the rest of the fondue, the remaining wine, and another delightful dinner.

We probably won’t buy Gewurztraminer just to drink it, although it has a pleasant taste.  But we might buy it again to use with fondue.  As for the fondue, in the past we’ve rarely made it, perhaps once a year.  The preparation is time intensive.  The dinner is high in calories.  We prefer our vegetables steamed.  Also, we like to relax in the evening on the couch, and watch a TV show or movie while we eat.  I think we’ve discovered something through this process.  Perhaps we’ll try it again our new way, even if it isn’t the proper way, and thus enjoy fondue more often.  We certainly enjoyed those two dinners this weekend.  After days spent cleaning the office, it was nice to treat ourselves with something special for dinner.

Dining like a Swiss philistine,
Dragon Dave  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

I’m Not Superman

As I referred to in “Dreaming of Kevin J. Anderson,” I’ve often sympathized with Freddy Mercury’s lyrics in the Queen song, “I Want It All.”  The fact is, no one can have everything they desire.  Success demands compromise.  As with the Biblical parable of the Pearl of Great Price, the trick is to want something bad enough that you’re willing to sacrifice everything else to get it. 

When my wife and I dedicated ourselves to losing weight, it was a month before we left on vacation.  The entire time I was in Hawaii, I wanted to eat at the old level.  I grew angry, resenting that I had to cut back.  Yet I managed to channel that anger against my former lack of restraint.  A friend told me later that I was foolish to have cut back when I was on vacation.  When I had the opportunity to indulge on all the good food available locally, I should have grabbed it, and resumed my diet when I returned home.  Yet, while I was in Hawaii, I knew that if I did so, it would be just like all the other times I had postponed a new diet.  To be effective, my diet had to remain in place, not just during my vacation, but for every day of the rest of my life. 

In “My Portable Desks,” I spoke of how the various circumstances life had thrown at me in recent years had resulted in an office that I could barely squeeze into, and impossible to work in.  Well, this weekend my wife and I spent Friday and Saturday trying to take back the office.  I don’t think I’ve felt this exhausted since we spent a weekend installing our microwave (or before that, when I did the "Prince Albert’s Message" series in May).  As if this wasn’t enough, I also tried to assemble a plastic model kit Friday evening.  I guess I’ve missed working with my hands lately.  Unfortunately, my garage is in much the shape that my office is at the moment, so even if I could find the time, woodworking is impossible right now.  In any case, after doing the series last year on the Star Trek episode “The Cage,” I bought a model of the Starship Enterprise.  So instead of watching a movie and going to bed at a decent time, I dug it out of the closet.  The next thing I knew, it was nearly midnight.  This meant I was dragging on Saturday, and more like a zombie on Sunday. 

Monday, thought seemed elusive, and writing impossible.  But, since I started my blog early last year, I’ve started a new writing regime, one I’ve (for the most part) stuck with.  I’m proud to declare that even though it took much longer than usual, and even though the scenes I wanted to write were difficult, I finished them.  Just as important for my future, I can look into the office with hope.  I can envision getting back in there eventually, and as a result, being more productive.  I’ve got some old manuscripts that need a thorough going-over, after which I could probably start submitting them again.  By the time I finish this particular draft, hopefully the office will be useable, and I can do just that.  I don’t know what I’ll have to sacrifice in order to keep it that way, but if it’s important enough, I’ll figure out a new system that works for me.

In regards to the title, I’ve realized two things.  Number One: I cannot stay up late any more without ending up with a dull mind and a weak body.  Even if I sleep late the next day, I’m still exhausted!  I don’t know why this should be, but that seems to be the case.  And Number Two: I never had x-ray vision, but I used to have better close-up vision.  Now, even with reading glasses, I had to squint to read the numbers on the plastic parts, as well as when I was trying to assemble them.  So maybe I’ll have to leave the modeling to a younger crowd, and plow my mental focus into developing my new efficiency regime.  I'm no longer in my twenties, so I know I'm not Superman, but why must a little less sleep, and a little extra work, drag me down like chains forged from Kryptonite?  After all, Kevin J. Anderson is older than me, and he climbs mountains while he writes.  Shouldn't I be a little more resilient than this?

No longer changing my clothes in a phone booth,
Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries
My Portable Desks
Prince Albert's Message for Monday