…and new civilizations.

…and new civilizations.

To boldly go. Everyone knows those words. For many of us they introduced the future, and a promising one at that. And yet those three words are not trapped in a little amber bubble that represents some fictional time in the future. I would say those words are highly applicable not so much to the adventurers of novels or movies…whose treks pale in comparison to reality…but to historic travelers and seekers of all kinds who have voyaged outward to find new, fascinating horizons.

That was certainly the case with the mid-19th Century explorers John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. The partners were in the vanguard of exploration of Central America’s Mayan ruins. In the 1840s the lost cities of that region were little more than rumor inextricably tied to the well-worn narratives of Spanish conquistadors. In 1839 the two men came to Central America as seasoned travelers.  They had spent many years independently exploring the ancient monuments of Greece, Italy, and Egypt. Keen observers, they brought this experience as well as fresh viewpoints to an area that had been given only limited scientific investigation. And what they discovered…not without cost…laid the groundwork for understanding not just the original peoples of the New World, but the very human capacity to create greatness even in the most challenging of environments.

The book Jungle of Stone by William Carlsen tells the story of the American writer Stephens and the British architect and artist Catherwood. It is a marvelous biography of two adventurers who through dedication and hardship explored a lost world. Applying solid scientific observation they challenged the notion prevalent at the time that the peoples of the New World were incapable of independently creating a unique civilization. The old cities of Mexico and Central America were known to exist, however the view among academics was that these marvelous civilizations had been created by lost migrants from the Old World. Indeed, the thinking at the time was that after the original migrants had died off the native peoples simply copied or mimicked what had been brought to their shores. Some of these “lost migrants” included Phoenicians, Egyptians, and even a Lost Tribe of Israel.

Stephens and Catherwood came to their groundbreaking conclusion only after long and careful study of the ruins they uncovered with the aid of native guides. Although not the first to suggest this view, the theory that New World natives had independently created a civilization out of the jungles of Central America was somewhat controversial. The fact that the two explorers applied observation, careful measurement, and comparative data of the ruins they came across with those of the Old World is in the best scientific tradition. Indeed, Catherwood made carefully detailed drawings of the sites with an architect’s eye. His drawings of elaborate Mayan stelae and hieroglyphics were the first of their kind.

The two explorers also worked closely with, and were at times very dependent upon, native peoples. This included muleteers, farmers, hunters, fishermen, guides as well as revolutionary leader Rafael Carrera and the dashing yet tragic General Francisco Morazán. This unique combination of scientific rigor and cultural interaction led Stephens and Catherwood to the inescapable conclusion that the proud remnants of the lost Mayan civilization were a product of Central America and its people.

Jungle of Stone is not just a book about history and the beginnings of archeology it is also a book full of adventure. As a writer Stephens often needed “incidents” to write about. Central America was quick to offer these. The land is as much a character in the book as are the many people the two explorers encounter. The place is mysterious, time-wise, mercurial, dramatic, and beautiful. On the first day of their arrival they are treated to a powerful earthquake. This is a harbinger perhaps of the varied challenges that await them in the natural world: steep mountain treks, volcanoes, torrential rain, swollen rivers, thick jungles where one might get lost forever, insects, dangerous animals, and surprisingly: dry spells. There is also political upheaval, banditry, and disease. Yet Central America also offers a willing hand and the two are often aided by people who act out of kindness, pride, and in many cases an interest in the history of their land and their place in it. However, as they are so often warned, the land will not give up its secrets easily. And yet, throughout it all, Catherwood and Stephens are undaunted.

William Carlsen shows a deft hand and the book is at times as much about those who the two explorers encounter as about the explorers themselves. I learned a great deal about Carrera and Morazán, for instance, and a book about these two adversaries certainly awaits. The Caddy and Walker mission is also interesting in that it is a segment about hard travels and an expedition sent forth to “beat” Stephens at his own game. It is an essay in human endurance but also a peek at how so many attempts to literally wrest discovery have gone awry.

The book is also about the Maya themselves, the civilization they created, and how it flourished. Their tale is also one of caution in that the forces to which it eventually succumbed are similar to the forces that have harried all civilizations throughout history. Those forces…overpopulation, war, disease, cultural hubris, environmental degradation…are multi-layered and complex. Places such as Copán, Quirigua, Iximche, Tonina, Pelenque, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and Tulum stand in mute testimony to the strength, vision, beauty, dedication and tradition of one civilization’s powerful saga.

Stephens wrote up his adventures in a book titled Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and YucatánLike so many of his previous works it was a major bestseller. Richly illustrated by Catherwood it inspired others to study Mesoamerica. In the late 1840s a Central American official, Colonel Modesto Méndez ventured deep into the forest and discovered the giant temples of Tikal. Méndez made the first official recordings in his report on Tikal. Later explorers followed decades later and these expeditions utilized photography to capture the wonders of the lost cities.

Stephens and Catherwood made two expeditions to the lands of the Maya. Afterward the necessities of life made them follow more practical paths. Stephens became an advisor and later president of a consortium that built the first railway across the isthmus of Panama. Catherwood continued as an illustrator but with a family to support in London he often reinvented himself as a railway engineer or later, during the California gold rush, as a miner. The two men remained friends and Carlsen’s detective work leads to a poignant epilogue that is as fascinating as the rest of the book.

Jungle of Stone by William Carlsen is an excellent work and one I would highly recommend. It can be found in hard cover from William Morrow/Harper-Collins Publishers. It is 461 pages and includes many fine illustrations by Frederick Catherwood.


(Note on photo: a view of the southern facade of Temple 11 from the East Court of Copan..this is one of the first sites Catherwood and Stephens visited during their 1839 expedition to Guatemala). source: Wikipedia Commons




Hold The Line: A Review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

Hold The Line: A Review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

New York City is history.

Not in the sense that the great metropolis is somehow over, ended, kaput. No, New York City is history. It is a family album of hope, work, dedication, good times and ambition. That album is also interleaved with mysteries, unspoken but well-known secrets, discouragement, and loss.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 captures this sense of past, present, and future. I’ve been a fan of Robinson since reading his Mars Trilogy a number of years ago. As an author, Robinson has big ideas based in hard science and he lays these out not as framed portraitures but as large tapestries. He shows this ability again in New York 2140.

The 600-page novel is set in a New York that has been inundated by a sea-level rise caused by global warming. Manhattan and environs experience a 50-foot increase in water level. New York has become a sort of super-Venice, with familiar streets serving as canals. The population goes about life and we see scenes of surprisingly familiar tasks involving work and daily living. Many of the buildings of the Manhattan we know have been saved using technologies developed as preservatives against the detrimental effects of floodwater. This includes advanced composite sky-bridges, a sort of diamond-based sealant that keeps salt water out of structures, and Syd Mead-like hydrofoils and streamlined, energy efficient watercraft. The city still hums with vibrancy, despite the wrath tossed down upon it due to worst-case climate change.

The novel features almost a dozen main characters. All have very different lives and they all interact via the central locale of the MetLife Tower near Madison Square. As New York is a character in this novel so is the MetLife Tower and it serves as a sort of anchor for characters and events. Here and there, Robinson discusses a sampling of its history, including its intersection with the lives of such New Yorkers as Melville and Teddy Roosevelt, all in the light of the goings-on within the narrative. Like the city, the building has a past that goes down to the bedrock. When we first gather at the entrance of its bacino the old structure has been preserved and reinvented to meet the needs of its residents within the 50-foot intertidal zone of the inundated city. The irony that the survivors of climate change might find a habitat within an old insurance company building is not lost upon us.

Most of the characters work best in pairs. There is the spritely Amelia Black who is a sort of internet star. Literally travelling on the four winds within a high-tech dirigible she provides a narrative for the world outside the city, giving us a big picture view of the forces that have changed the planet. Meanwhile, a more grounded character is Vlade, the superintendent of the MetLife building. Vlade is emblematic of the dyed-in-the-wool pragmatist who sees the bigger picture but is always willing to roll up his sleeves to do the dirty work. Vlade is dedicated, hard-headed, yet never unwilling to help his building or its occupants. This extends to a pair of street (canal?) urchins named Stefan and Roberto who go upriver and even under it in a manner that reminded me a bit of a futuristic Huck and Tom. The two boys are a key to the novel and represented both youth and the city’s future. They pair nicely with Mr. Hexter, an elderly denizen of a dangerously washed-out section of town who can remember the day New York was permanently flooded. Mr. Hexter is also a keeper of maps and old records and instigates a treasure hunt for a ship lost near the Bronx in the 1770s. This leads to a surprising find.

Other paired characters include finance trader Franklin whose specialty is inter-coastal property and Charlotte who is a social worker and activist. These two opposites find some mutual advantage despite their tensions. The reader comes to understand that like all government and free-market forces these polar opposites are, in a sense, symbiotic. This is a key theme in the novel.

Police officer Gen Octaviasdottir comes from a long line of NYPD cops and her personal motto, like her ancestors who kept the city running during its worst years, is Hold The Line. Gen is part of the glue that holds societies together and ultimately her partner is the City itself. And that flooded, urban landscape knows many a secret, including the whereabouts of two programmers with the handles of Mutt and Jeff, who attempted to hack the planet. They released a virus designed to interrupt computerized market trading and thereby disrupt entire economies. This didn’t work out for the pair of quants, and their disappearance is a key driver of the story.

And to me, this is where the story gets interesting. Years ago I read the works of Ayn Rand. Those novels and that philosophy have always left me very uncomfortable. I won’t go so far as to say that Rand’s novels left a stain on my soul, although I did have a friend express it this way to me once. The basic issue I have with the philosophy of the selfish ego is that unlike Rand I am the product of a democratic (little d) society, in which the common man can do great things while also recognizing that we are all in this thing together. Hence the winning of the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention, exploration, scientific advancement, the struggle for social progress, and the ending of slavery and the defeat of fascism in the 1940s are emblematic of what can happen when every-day people work together for a joint purpose. Hell, we even had the audacity to create rock-n-roll and build an amazing interstate highway system that is a veritable touchstone of our culture.

Since the Recession of 2008 there has been a great deal of debate as to whether or not a taxpayer funded bailout of Wall Street was appropriate. I won’t go into that here, but such economic cycles, and even the ability to make a buck during a grievous disaster, are the paired blessing and curse of capitalism. These issues are confronted directly in Robinson’s novel, and his solution was something of an antidote to the things I read in those Rand novels many years ago. A bloodless coup for the common men and women over the powers of Wall Street? Maybe…this is a science fiction novel after all. But I cheered at how Robinson laid it out and I found his everybody-wins (including to a certain extent the financiers) scenario both hopeful and heartening.

Another plus to this novel was the fact that the characters offered virtually no hand-wringing and I-told-you-so’s regarding global warming. Indeed, the politicians and industries that are leading us into the world of New York 2140 are not even mentioned. The reader is left with a sense that the good people of this world are so busy surviving and getting by and at times enjoying their lives that the self-proclaimed masters of our age are not even remembered. Which, in a sense, is very fitting. The heroes of the past are engineers, doctors, police officers, scientists, construction workers, seafarers, and no few men and women of goodwill who manage to rescue both life and society.

I finished the 600 page novel with a sigh and a feeling of hope. It pleased me that Robinson opted to end his novel with several of the characters enjoying a very proverbial night on the town. Things may get bad, but we don’t have to lie down and accept dystopia.

Whatever comes, we’ll Hold The Line.



(New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, h/c 613 pages is available from Orbit Books)




Cosmic Conundrums: Making a List and Checking it Twice, Thrice …

Cosmic Conundrums: Making a List and Checking it Twice, Thrice …

In the fall I was asked by my friend Aaron, the editor of Cosmic Conundrums Magazine, to put together a list of twelve SF/F movies or books that are uplifting in a traditional holiday sort of way. This was late August and I usually don’t start planning for Christmas until around December 21st.Yes, true confessions, I am a last minute gift buyer, with predictable and hilarious results over the years…but that is another essay.

So, I probably spent too much time thinking about this and almost missed the deadline. There are reasons for my hesitation. First, I hate these sorts of lists and wonder about those who compile them. Are they really subject matter experts? Second, my judgment and tastes may not appeal to everyone and I am no expert on movies. I just know what I enjoy. And third, as Conundrums is new in print they would expend precious paper and ink rather than bytes and hypertext in issuing a missal with my name on it. So I wanted it to be good. I thought about emailing in September and declining the assignment. Surely someone could do better? But this crisis of confidence passed. Especially when bearing in mind that there was a paycheck at the end of this (which made me wonder less about those who compile these lists).

I somehow muddled through.

Yet it was more challenging than I expected. When I think of the holidays I don’t just think of Christmas. The entire season is a festival of lights and hope and this, to me, includes Hanukkah and Solstice, and Kwanzaa. I have friends who celebrate those as well.

So, I kept it to things that uplift all of humanity. And in the end I found I could not leave out mention of works which might not be strictly science fiction or fantasy. It’s a little heavy on the movie side, but that is okay as these are all more or less accessible via Netflix or Amazon. Some of the written works may require an interested reader to do a little digging. Keeping it to twelve was also a struggle.

Yet in the end I think all of these have a fairly positive message and could be watched or read by family members of all ages and persuasions. I’ve added a few “traditional” movies that I’ve always enjoyed. These pieces stand on the bridge between “mainstream” and SF/F as they deliver a great holiday message but if you dig a little deeper could actually be considered part of the genre.

So without any further ado here are my top twelve movies & books as presented in Conundrums. These are uplifting but not strictly “cheesy” or merely “feel-good.” Some are presentable almost anytime, if not just the holidays. Books or short stories are in bold and films are in italics:

  1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843) ~Pardon me for placing this at the top but, really, it’s a no brainer. It is a fantasy with ghosts, time travel and alternative worlds based on Scrooge’s personal choices. How much more SF/F does anyone need?
  1. Scrooge (1951) ~If you prefer A Christmas Carol in movie form then the 1951 version with Alastair Sim is the truest film adaptation of the book. Note it may not be for little ones as there are some chills…we’re talking ghosts and the death of Tiny Tim here. If you want the pre-school set to watch, then the Muppet version from 1992 may be your best choice. That version is as light as helium yet sticks to the story and has several wonderful messages.
  1. It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) ~In this classic angels and alternative universes plague George Bailey of Bedford Falls, NY. I’ve sometimes wondered given the noir look of the calamitous Potterville if the film was not an inspiration for the future Twilight Zone? Speaking of which…
  2. Twilight Zone Episodes: Night of the Meek (1960) and The Changing of the Guard (1962) ~This is a cheat but as the combined running time on these two marvelous stories is less than an hour I’m going to squeeze them in.The Changing of the Guard  is one of many Twilight Zone episodes written by the multi-talented and incomparable Rod Serling. In this story a professor facing forced retirement learns through example that he should never underestimate the impact one has on others. This is true in many professions and Serling offers a poignant tale that is very uplifting and may even make us think about our own influences on other lives.Switching back to a story written exclusively as a holiday episode, Night of the Meek features Art Carney as a down on his luck Santa. A tightly written teleplay and great performance by Carney keeps the story from falling into awful televised sentimentality. This was unusual for that time (or any time, really) in television history. A 1960 production that featured an alcoholic Santa took some courage on the part of cast and crew. Like most of the series the script was penned by Rod Serling who incidentally was born on Christmas Day, 1924.
  1. Hogfather by Terry Pratchett (1996) ~A rollicking entry in Pratchett’s Discworld universe and just in time for the holidays! In this novel Death, who looks remarkably like the cinematic version of the Ghost of Christmas Future, has to step in when the Discworld’s version of Santa Claus goes missing. Lots of fun ensues. A scene involving The Little Matchstick Girl is a treasure.
  1. Wolf Christmas by Daniel Pinkwater (2010) A pack of wolves gather on Christmas Eve. Good things follow as only Daniel Pinkwater can imagine.
  1. Santa Claus vs. S.P.I.D.E.R. by Harlan Ellison (1968) ~I can’t apply any more superlatives to Ellison’s career than those that have been stated by better writers and reviewers. All I can say is that you’ve got to love the guy in all his irascible glory. In this story Ellison’s Santa is a product of the psychedelic Sixties and James Bond films. Operating from his secret Arctic base this story features a gadget laden Santa saving the world from an alien invasion. Good, wacky fun.
  1. The Star by Arthur C. Clarke (1955) A Jesuit priest journeys into the cosmos to find the Christmas star and gets more than he bargained for. Clarke may have been an originator of what is now called flash fiction. Many of his short vignettes have images or endings that really stick with you. The same can be said for this tale.
  1. The Season of Forgiveness by Poul Anderson(1973) ~ Anderson was one of those writers back in the day who managed to support a family and modest lifestyle with his craft. Thus he turned up in a variety of markets. Published in the very mainstream Boy’s Life Magazine the story is true to the genre in that it is a classic Anderson tale with a mix of good characterization, hard science and philosophy. The interaction of faiths represented by the trader team reminds us that many celebrate the season in a variety of ways. The ending avoids being preachy while delivering a message that mercy and understanding of other cultures, no matter how alien, are the pathways to a better world.
  1. The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892) ~Given how much today’s Steampunk community has embraced all things Victorian I’m including this on the list. Sir Arthur and his contemporaries Verne and Wells are the undeniable touchstone for the current wealth of Steampunk literature and culture. Carbuncle is a well-paced mystery short that features the Christmas Eve theft of a diamond with a cursed background. Conan Doyle hits all the seasonal tropes while moving the story along crisply.  The 1983 Granada Television adaptation with the brightly intense and marvelously quirky Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes is also quite watchable and very true to the original story.
  1. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) ~Certainly an allegory of the Christ story, this relatively short movie directed by Robert Wise is not strictly speaking a holiday film. However, Wise does a great job bringing out a subtle humanity in Michael Rennie’s Klaatu. The emphasis on choices and how we react as a society to something new or unknown is a continuous thread throughout the film. Wise’s message, like Klaatu’s, is that we should never allow fear to replace reason. The film ends on a note of hope and the promise of a better future.
  1. 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) ~Not a holiday tale but this adaptation of a novel (or novelization…you decide) by Sir Arthur C. Clarke is very much a delivery of the seasonal message embraced in the Gospel of Luke (2:14): “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will to men.” The fact that the story takes place near Jupiter and the intelligence behind the famous Monolith delivers the message of peace is of no consequence. It’s a darned good conclusion to the saga that began with 2001 A Space Odyssey. The message that our shared human future can be one of peace and progress is very uplifting. As a child of the erstwhile Apollo Moon Project days this is my personal feel-good movie.

Note that there are far more SF/F holiday tales than the ones listed here. There is also an increasing body of SF/F holiday anthology series. I think Connie Willis may be one of the most prolific of authors in terms of producing quality tales that keep me turning the pages. She has also written numerous holiday themed SF/F. Some of these short stories can be found in Miracle and Other Christmas Stories (1999). These feature a dozen or so yarns that are amusing, uplifting, and would form a perfect list all on their own.

Now it is time for you, dear reader, to come up with your own list of fun things to read or watch during the holiday. Any genre applies.

When it comes to finding that special thing which delivers hope and love in this season…as with so many things…it’s alright to apply what might best be described as the Gaiman Principle. The inherent joys of this season…like Santa Claus and all creatures of myth…rely on the general level of overall energy that human beings apply to the very existence and maintenance of such legends. Thus Santa is as real as we make him. And so it is with whatever light we choose to bring to this season.

Any scientist can tell you that you’ll never discover a molecule in the earth or a star in the sky called peace or love or good will. Yet those fragile gifts are as real as matter or gravity or light despite the fact that there is no instrument available to weigh or measure such human concepts. And so it is when it comes to Santa, or candles that remain lit through the darkest of nights, or the joy of the season.

Happy Holidays to All!

(note: the artwork featured is from the Jan 1956 Galaxy Magazine. Art by Ed Emshwiller)

Paragon Park

Paragon Park

The above is a photo from a Facebook page called “Dirty Old Boston.”

It is a great writer’s prompt. I’ve written at least a half dozen vignettes around these two kids on the bike. There’s a real sense of Sunday-morning freedom to it: the escape to the outdoors after a rainstorm, the speedy flight and gyroscopic control of the bike’s turning wheels, the laughter and thrill of what may be an innocent trespass onto park property, the unbounded possibilities of the coming day, the slow unwinding of perhaps an event from the night before. And all of it set between the reflection of the puddles and the looming roller coaster. You can smell the rain, the ocean, and bike chain oil. You can hear the soft hiss of the bike’s tires on wet pavement, the steady turn of the peddles, and the click of the derailleur.

Who are they and where are they headed? To the boardwalk for a bite or to a penny arcade or down to the beach to just idly look at waves and seagulls? What music do they listen to and what is on their minds? Is this a first outing of new friends or an interlude before each goes down some individual path? And that roller coaster: their next big adventure or just a metaphor for what life may bring them?

“Dirty Old Boston” is run by Jim Botticelli. I have a love/hate relationship with FB but “DOB” is something I love. Mr. Botticelli does a great job and I love all the photos of pre-90s Boston (and surrounding locales). The above is a wonderful photo submitted by a DOB contributor. I can’t find their name but can only heap praise on their composition.

It is such a striking photo. I had been to Paragon Park at Nantasket Beach so often as a kid living in Boston it brought me right back. Later, in college, I can remember when that roller coaster was disassembled. That was around 1985.

Well, like Baz Luhrman said: nostalgia…is like fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

But it’s nice to see this moment in time.