When I attended Boskone several years ago, I had a brief interaction with Walter Jon Williams. He wrote many stories that I loved, but I particularly enjoyed a trilogy he wrote about a character named Drake Maijstral, Gentleman Thief. In these science-fiction stories, humans had been incorporated into a galactic empire and one of the customs was a role for people to be an “Allowed Burglar” provided their thievery was carried off with panache. They were written as a “comedy of manners” and undoubtedly are some of the inspiration for those elements in my own writing.
Anyway, when I thanked him for writing these wonderful stories that I had loved, he replied, “Oh, so you were the one who liked them!” He clarified that they had not been a commercial success so it was unlikely there would be any more. That’s sad, but at least I got to read those three. I should probably buy new copies and read them again — they were wonderful.
Another story you don’t hear people talk about much anymore is Space for Hire. This was a book by William F. Nolan who became famous for his book Logan’s Run. His earlier book was a pastiche of the noir detective novels with the main character, Sam Space, clearly modeled on Sam Spade of the Maltese Falcon. They were silly and lighthearted. And, as a teenager (or perhaps still pre-teen) I loved that book.
As I was going to write this blog post, I couldn’t quite remember the name of the book so had to google it and found this blog post by someone else who also identified it as a “forgotten book.”
Another story I remember from my teenaged years was a Heinlein novel. This story, in some ways, might better remain forgotten — except for the fact that it’s ideas are still jiggeting around inside my head.
One of the challenges about getting older is how much culture changes: all of the messages and ideas you’re exposed to in your youth influence you in complex ways as you grow up and become an adult.
This was brought home to me when I did my graduate study in science education. One of the key things I learned in my course of graduate work was a really simple idea but that had profound repercussions for everything I later did professionally. Many of our traditional educational practices are based on the false premises that students come in without advanced knowledge and that our teaching transmits the necessary knowledge to them. These fundamental ideas appears everywhere in our traditional thinking about instruction — for example, we might ask ourselves after a lesson, “Did they get it?” (Meaning, did I successfully transmit the concept?)
In my graduate work, I came to understand that learning is not the product of teaching: it is the product of the activity of the learner. Students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled up and you can’t transmit knowledge to them. Students already know a lot of stuff and, for students to learn, they need to consider what they already know and then replace and extend it through their own activity.
It’s one thing to know this and it’s quite another to expunge a lifetime of experience and metaphors and everything else. For many years, I would find myself saying something and only while I was saying it, realize that it was yet another transmissionist idea or metaphor that I had uncritically learned, but never seriously considered or questioned — or updated with my new found insights.
The book I’m talking about is The Day After Tomorrow. At least, that’s what it was called when I read it. I was unaware a lot of the history of the story until I looked at the Wikipedia article. The story idea actually came from Joseph Campbell who has been pilloried in the science fiction community over the past 10 years for his openly racist ideas.
In this story, published originally in 1941 (during World War II), the United States has been conquered by a “pan-asiatic” army and a tiny outpost of American military develops a super weapon that can discriminately kill people based on racial heritage. The whole book has a lot of racist thinking in it, of the kind most of us thought had died out, until Donald Trump made white supremacists think it was OK to crawl out of the sewers and cesspools they’d been hiding in for years.
The thing I remember best from the story was the use of infrasonic vibrations. They use low-frequency vibrations to disorient people. Of course sound has now been weaponised by the LRAD.
But who knows what else I remember from the story that is still in there waiting for me to bring it to mind to consider and expunge it? It’s a long-term problem. Fortunately, it’s a problem of fixed term.