Article Category Archives: Columns

Notes from The Buffer Zone: The Jetsons And The Alternate Future

In the summer of 1964, my father took a teaching job at the University of California-Santa Barbara. I was four. I have distinct memories of that trip—all age appropriate. I got angry when my mother gave my comic books to another child, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t walk barefoot in the desert when our car broke down in the intense heat, and I got scared of the Wicked Witch at Disneyland, screaming, “Let’s get out of here!” and trying to flee the boat that had trapped us for the duration of the ride.

I also remember the strange sunlight (at least to these Midwestern eyes) and the clean lines of the Southern California architecture—the modern buildings that looked like something from TV.

Those modern buildings came from the mind of Gin D. Wong, an architect who died this fall at the age of 94. Mr. Wong designed the spaceshippy-type building (actually called The Theme Building) at Los Angeles International Airport that you always see in photographs of LAX. He designed a lot of impressive buildings with clean lines, things like the TransAmerica Building in San Francisco and a very famous Union/76 gas station in Beverly Hills.

I didn’t know until I Googled some of Wong’s other projects that his style is considered to be a cross between Mid-Century Modern—a term for buildings that we used to call “new” when I was a kid (sigh)—and Googie, a specifically Southern California style that combined car culture and Jet Age futurism. In Googie, you’ll find a lot of cantilevered roofs, starbursts, and hard angles.

What’s bizarre to me about Googie buildings is that I see them with two kinds of vision: the vision of that four-year-old Midwestern girl on her first trip to the west, and the vision of her older self. That four-year-old sees these buildings as new and fresh and exciting, promising a future that she’s going to live in.

That older self—fifty-three years older—sees those buildings as tired, worn out, and representative of a future that never really arrived. That future, with all its hope and optimism, got derailed by the cataclysms of the late 1960s, the long national nightmare that was the 1970s, the weirdness of the Reagan Era, and the hard lurch in a completely different direction in the 1990s.

According to Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog, Wong is the architect who inspired the look of The Jetsons TV show, particularly that iconic building at LAX, which shows up in almost every scene on that old Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

I didn’t like The Jetsons as a kid, although I watched it avidly. I hated the idea that Jane Jetson was a homemaker and that Judy Jetson (their daughter) was too dumb to live. Their son Elroy was as annoying as the kids in my class. I hated the idea that future lives would be so very much like my present. My mother was a homemaker. My sister had just left her teenage years (although my sister was anything but dumb), and like Judy Jetson, was interested in clothes and boys and the gee-gaws of the era.

I wanted difference. I wanted a future that didn’t look anything like our present. I wanted something so strange that I would struggle to recognize it.

Of course, at four, I couldn’t articulate that. I got closer at 12, when I discovered Star Trek in reruns. In that future, women were in space and were serving alongside their (very sexy) captain. (Yes, I had moved into that teenage phase in which I was interested in clothes and boys and gee-gaws too.) There were possibilities, finally, possibilities that I hoped might come true.

I grew up in the Jet Age, and everyone knew that would become the Space Age. We would live on the Moon and travel to the stars and discover all kinds of cool things including, maybe, aliens. We would leave the shackles of the Earth behind, but not before solving all of her problems. The future was going to be (in the words of Tony The Tiger) “grrrrrrrrrr-ate!”

Bits of that future did arrive. The news mentions the International Space Station almost in passing. Driverless cars are beginning to appear, and I’ve heard talk about the unwieldy nature of flying cars. (People can’t drive on the road! What will they do in the air?) Drones are causing privacy issues. And some of our billionaire businessmen are talking about trips to Mars—and beyond.

But we only have bits, and part of me was a little disappointed. The nuclear family of The Jetsons is no longer the norm—that stay-at-home mom is now a stay-at-home parent, and not the dominant form of living for the American middle class. I’m sure that would have pleased my young ambitious self (I wanna be an astronaut, a baseball player, a scientist, a writer, an actor! I don’t wanna stay home. Home is boooooring).

But my young self would have been confused by the lack of flying cars and the fact that space travel is not ubiquitous. Sometimes my adult self is confused by the same thing.

Gin D. Wong died in September, and I heard about his death—and his architecture—the same week I was putting together a video for a Kickstarter that my husband Dean Wesley Smith and I were doing for the reincarnation of Pulphouse Fiction Magazine.

We had shut down the magazine 21 years ago, due to a variety of circumstances, and we are now reviving it because technology has made it easy to do so. Dean never lost his vision for the magazine, and has threatened to revive it every year for the past twenty-one. I agreed only last year.

And then we made plans.

I wanted that Kickstarter video to reflect the old magazine, but to take it—and us—into the modern era. And as I wrote the script for the video, I realized things had changed dramatically from the early 1990s. The publishing world we find ourselves in is unrecognizable. The world we find ourselves in is unrecognizable.

It’s not the Space Age. It’s not even the Computer Age, not really. It’s something else.

This afternoon, as I went on my daily walk, I passed some teenage girls staring at their phones and holding a running conversation about the apps they were opening at the same time. I only heard them because I was crossing the street and had stopped listening to one of my favorite podcasts on my phone.

I had taken the walk after doing an interview with a woman in London, who will run an online program with Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany. Some of the online material will come from programs at the book fair, but some, like the interview she did with me and Dean, will be prerecorded.

On my computer and hers. Over the internet. Our conversation was free. (Rather than being charged by the minute, the way international calls in the previous century were.) Yes, this is a form of video phone, but most people don’t use their phones for video. The default is still audio.

Or rather, the default is text, because we’re all too busy for long conversations.

We don’t argue any more about little details. We look them up instead—sometimes using our thumbs to tap in the question and sometimes asking Siri or Alexa or any one of a number of other devices to tell us the answer we seek.

I’ve written about these differences before, but until I did that video, I hadn’t realized how very much had changed. How different this future is from the future of The Jetsons, the future we thought would be designed by people like Gin D. Wong.

For example, I wrote, produced, and edited the video myself, with two assists—some special effects, designs, and final tweaking from two of WMG Publishing’s employees. Frankly, though, I could have done all of the work myself. A 90-second video, which went from conception to completion in less than six hours—without a large production team and studio work. That’s a miracle of the modern era all by itself.

By the time you read this, the Kickstarter will have ended. But travel over to our page anyway and look at the video. It expresses exactly what I’m trying to say about the new future we find ourselves in, only much more concisely.

If you had asked me in 1980, 1990, or even in the year 2000 what 2017 would be like, I would never have told you that it would look like this.

What I discovered working on that video, however, is just how much I love this new world—and how reluctant I am to go back to the old imagined future. Yes, I want my space flight and colonization, but I have a hunch that will come. I just don’t want to give up my smartphone to get there.

****

Notes from The Buffer Zone: The Shifting World Order

I can’t get used to it, no matter how much I try. I really can’t. I’m constantly astonished by the fact that the rest of the world has fallen in love with superheroes, magic, and space opera.

I watch late night talk show hosts squee over plot twists in Game of Thrones, and I marvel. I listen to news announcers reference Star Trek in a hard news story about, say, politics, and I can’t believe it. I hear librarians talk about ordering more fantasy novels, and I’m astonished.

Used to be . . . librarians complained about spending hard-earned library dollars on that dreck. Used to be . . . librarians hid the dreck in side rooms and pointed those rooms out only when someone asked.

Used to be . . .

The world wasn’t a better place back then. I’m not one of those people who wants to return to the SF ghetto. I fought for decades to get the wider world to recognize the literary goodness of SF & F. I wanted this world. I wanted everyone to see what I see—just how great our genre really is.

I’m just not used to it.

Used to be . . . I didn’t tell people I wrote SF & F because I didn’t want to hear the snobby, “Oh, I don’t read that crap.” Now, I don’t want to tell them because introvert-me is afraid I’ll launch a three-hour conversation about plot twists and good books and favorite movies.

Used to be . . . no one cared that I wrote Star Trek novels and knew actors/screenwriters/directors from the series.

Used to be. . . no one really cared that I had written a Star Wars novel and knew lots of folks who worked on the original film.

Used to be . . .

Now, I have to be careful admitting who I know. In a discussion about Game of Thrones with a librarian, I mentioned that George R.R. Martin’s friends knew he was working on this long before the first book was out.

“Really?” the librarian asked me. “How do you know that?”

“Because I’ve known George almost as long as I’ve known my husband,” I said—and ooops! Oh, dear.

After the obligatory fannish meltdown, the librarian asked if I could help them snag George for one of their promotions. For free. No expenses paid.

Um, much as I’d love to do something like that for libraries—and occasionally do things like that myself (donating fees and covering the expenses on my own), I’m certainly not going to put one of my friends in the same boat.

After people find out I know George, they quiz me. Do I know J.K. Rowling? Stephen King? Some other really famous writer? What about this actor? What about that director? How come my stuff isn’t on TV yet? And if I’m so rich, why aren’t I donating more to this organization or that organization?

I stop answering the who-I-know questions almost immediately. That way lies madness. And I’ve stopped trying to explain how Hollywood works—that my stuff is continually under option there, but that doesn’t mean much more than money in my pocket. It’s a lottery to get something produced, albeit a better lottery now that there are so many platforms, than it was 20 years ago.

And if I’m so rich, how come I don’t know about it? I mean, I do well, but I’m not J.K. Rowling rich, Stephen King rich, or George R.R. Martin rich. Big writer earnings are news . . . because they’re unusual, not because they’re common. That’s what makes them news.

But . . . it used to be that I could predict when the fannish squee would assault my ears. I could predict when someone would go gaga for a book or a movie. I could tell when someone would turn their nose up at my profession or my favorite writers or feign ignorance, even when I knew they were lying.

They don’t lie any more. Everyone, it seems, loves what we do.

Our genre has become the genre and much as I love it, I find it disconcerting.

The upside is that I don’t have to go to an SF convention to have one of those detailed fannish conversations about some world that I love.

The downside is that I don’t have to go to an SF convention to have one of those detailed fannish conversations about some world I love.

I’m still getting used to it.

Used to be ain’t what is.

And that’s new—and really, really cool.

 

This Issue’s Cover – 72

This Issue’s Cover – 72

 

Ode to the Legal Pad

 

Sometimes it’s the little things.

 

While reading David Carrico’s very amusing ‘Whodunnit?’ I was struck by the following passage, the feelings of a downtimer lawyer toward the new uptime technology he has embraced:

 

“Andy pulled one of his beloved legal pads out of a desk drawer—he could forgive the up-timers for a multitude of sins for bringing the concept of legal pads back with them and showing down-time papermakers how to make them-”

 

That’s a pretty strong statement. Even something as ubiquitous as a legal pad can play an important role in our daily lives, right up there with electricity and the automobile. I know I would be lost without my black ballpoint pens and spiral notebooks, or any number of little things- they add up to a lot!

 
With apologies to Rembrandt, I think of the fellow on the cover as one of Andy’s senior partners. I felt the need to have something written on that pad, so I went with their firm’s motto- Non Illegitimi Carborundum– Don’t let the bastards grind you down! Good advice, indeed!

 

 

 

The Balticon Minicon After-Action Report

This year, the Minicon was bigger and better than ever. This was because the Balticon concom asked Joy Ward, the co-editor of Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press and a Gazette author, to produce four days of panels and activities instead of our normal two. Joy put together a terrific program, which had to be modified very quickly when it became apparent that Eric Flint was not going to be able to attend, at least physically. Rick Boatright, the 1632 Universe’s head geek, set up with the Balticon media people a Skype link so that Eric could attend, albeit virtually, and give his opening speech, his Guest of Honor speech, and attend some panels, via Skype.

 

This year, attendance at the Minicon was estimated at close to 100, with more than 20 authors in the series in attendance. The mass book signing brought fans from as far away as Amsterdam, and a lot of Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press books were sold.

 

Rick Boatright, Kevin Evans, and yours truly, did our normal two hours of Weird Tech, to show how and why technology will differ in the 1632 Universe, whether it wants to or not.

 

Other panels included War in the 1632 Universe, several looks at technology and society, and of course, the famous “Snerking the Plots.”

 

Eric participated in Snerking via Skype, and he explained how . . .

 

Oh dear, I’m afraid that I can’t tell you what he said. In order to know, you have to go to the Minicon and sit in the panel.

 

We aren’t sure where next year’s Minicon will be, but word will be forthcoming shortly.

 

Notes from The Buffer Zone: Wonder Woman

Notes from The Buffer Zone:

Wonder Woman

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

For the first time in my life, I cried through a superhero movie. I should probably say, in fairness to me, that I’m a pretty easy crier, especially when faced with stories or something particularly heartwarming.

When I was a typically moody tween, I even declared to friends that I would consider no movie good unless I cried during it.

I now have different standards. In fact, on the nights when I want to escape reality, I often go for the shoot-em-up, Explosions R Us movies rather than anything that’s heavy, intellectual, or tear-inducing.

Except Star Trek. I’ll be honest: I’m such a big Star Trek fan that when the Chris Pine reboot happened, I was adamantly against it all. (James T. Kirk is perhaps my favorite media hero—in more ways than one. Confession: all of my notification ringtones are from classic Star Trek. All of them.)

I was convinced that no one besides William Shatner could play James T. Kirk, and I figured that no reboot of classic Trek would ever meet my exacting fannish standards. So . . . …the film opens, with Chris Hemsworth’s George Kirk, saving the day in delightfully Kirkian fashion—just as baby James T. was being born—and okay, I cried. Those were happy tears. They came straight from my fannish heart, pleased that there would be more classic Star Trek in my future.

Wonder Woman, on the other hand—I liked her but I had never warmed up to her. I liked her a hell of a lot better than Supergirl who simply pissed me off. Sent to Earth to frickin’ babysit Clark? Seriously? Why didn’t Mom simply get in the pod and hold the baby? Or Dad? Or someone responsible. And why was she Supergirl, not Superwoman?

Wonder Woman was a woman, though, and she was strong and pretty—and her secret guise was Steve Trevor’s secretary. AAAAAARGH! Plus, I never much got the bracelets or why, if the dang island was so perfect, she left, or why no one had discovered it, or how the Greek Gods fit into this whole mess in the first place.

As a teenager, I dutifully watched the Lynda Carter TV show, but I just didn’t fangirl over it. It didn’t speak to me.

So, when it came time for the reboot, I noted how the DC movies had done recently and decided I would withhold judgment on whether or not to see the film until I knew whether or not it would be turgid. (So many of the superhero films had become slow and pretentious.)

Then I saw the trailer and decided, Okay. I’m heading to the film on opening weekend.

Which I did.

And cried.

Not from fangirl joy. But because the movie is damn good. It is a treatise on war and humanity and being strong and fighting for what you believe. There’s lots of love in there, and a big fight scene (I love big fight scenes), and a woman who constantly surprises men because she just doesn’t listen to them.

This Wonder Woman is Steve Trevor’s secretary for one sentence—literally—and then that stupid plotline (sop to fans) is completely forgotten.

The sidekicks are a man suffering from PTSD, a Native American, and a man whose skin, in his words “is the wrong color.” The world of myth is bright and sunlit and beautiful; the world of man (and I do mean man here) is gloomy and dark and rainy.

The film is well done, and its depiction of war and its aftermath so accurate that I couldn’t watch one sequence; I had to keep my eyes covered.

The film also explained the Greek myths in the superhero universe well enough to me to make this entire film work.

So, why did I cry?

Because the film—the story—the characters—moved me to tears. Wonder Woman isn’t just a great superhero movie; it’s a great movie. The events in it captured my heart.

It’s also the kind of movie that can’t be replicated. This particular origin story has closed the door on any sequels set 100 years in the past. The sequels might occur, but the power and the impact of some of the characters (I’m trying to avoid spoilers) won’t be there. Nor will Wonder Woman’s delightful naiveté—which was necessary and natural for this kind of story. She’s still in our world, according to the film, and after 100 years, she clearly understands it better. She will (and does) make different choices now.

Just like all of us make different choices than our younger selves.

My younger self would have loved this movie—and not just because it made me cry. She would have loved it for a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with a strong female lead.

I appreciated a few other things: I appreciated the steady hand of director Patty Jenkins. She avoided a lot of the traps that others make in doing films with female leads. Even the clothing sequences are accurate. You can’t fight in Edwardian clothing. Just not possible. And that was noted, and then used as a plot point, not as a joke. (Well, it was funny, too.)

So yeah. I cried. And I’ll probably cry when I see it again.

Because I will see the film again.

I love great movies. They hold up to repeated viewings, to sharing with friends, to three days of thinking obsessively about it.

This is a great movie. Go see it.

But don’t forget the tissue.

****

This Issue’s Cover – 71

This Issue’s Cover – 71

Joy Ward’s toe-tapping tale of downtime youths forming an uptime style rock band inspires this issue’s cover. As a lifelong fan of rock and roll it’s great to see the music spread through the Europe of the new timeline, as it should! Maybe next time Barbie and the MOB will take requests, so how about playing me some Who? I also love the art of ‘psychedelic’ rock concert posters, so it was really fun to try my hand at one. Rock on!

Notes from The Buffer Zone: The Analog Couch

Notes from The Buffer Zone:

The Analog Couch

By

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

First, before I tell you this story, I must tell you that I’m a member in good standing of the Analog Mafia. When I earned my Analog Mafia button—by selling to Analog magazine—I became one proud, validated science fiction writer. You see, I’d been told at Clarion by other writers that my science was bad, and I would never ever be a science fiction writer.

Mind you, the writers who told me that my science was bad were post-docs in various scientific fields and one was already working at NASA. (My husband later said to me, You were trying to compete scientifically with them? Really? Point taken.) Still, the words stung so badly that no sf sale ever made me feel better. Not until I sold to Analog when it was edited by Dr. Stanley Schmidt, who once rejected a story of mine because “your (made-up) planet’s name does not fit into the nomenclature.”

Okay! Got it!

Shortly after Clarion, I moved to Eugene, Oregon, where I often attended the monthly story critique sessions at the home of Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm. The critiques were unfettered there; if someone had the floor, they could have it as long as they wanted it. (And if you’ve never heard a beginning writer expound about commas for twenty minutes, well, then, you probably have no idea why all of the workshops Dean Wesley Smith and I ran had a time limit on critiques.)

The long critiques led to a lot of note-passing among the bored writers. And a bunch of us noticed that writers tended to congregate in groups. Fantasy writers huddled next to each other for warmth, newbie writers sat as close to Damon or Kate as possible, and hard sf writers sat on the hardest sofa in the world.

Those hard sf writers wouldn’t expound about commas. Instead, they’d go off on what—to my ears—was always some ridiculous tangent. The story might be a slam-bang action adventure space opera, with Our Hero saving the universe, but one of the hard sf writers on the hard couch would say something like, “There’s no way that a spaceship of that size would be able to travel at that speed for that distance without blowing out its engines.”

Never mind that the engines hadn’t been described. Never mind that the fuel had never been named. Never mind that Our Hero would never have wandered into engineering unaccompanied.

Nope. The hard sf writers on the hard couch could not be swayed by such details. To them, it ruined the story.

We note-passing writers sitting on even harder chairs (and having endured the comma critique from hell) needed a shorthand way to complain about the hard sf writers. So we called them “The Analog Couch.”

We did not mean it nicely. We meant that these writers could be distracted by the wrong detail and go off on some scientific tangent that really had nothing to do with the story.

There’s a great example of this from an early episode of The Big Bang Theory, in which Sheldon and Leonard discuss whether or not Superman could catch Lois Lane when she’s falling from space. Wouldn’t the force of her fall break her in half when she hit his arms? And how could the writers make that fall fit into the law of physics?

If you saw that episode and shouted at the television, “Superman can fly! Lois can’t recognize a man without his glasses! You’re asking for real world logic from a comic book!” then you do not belong on the Analog Couch. If you said, “Exactly,” make the hard sf writers scoot over, because your ass belongs on that hard cushion too.

Among our writing friends and in our writing network, the shorthand stuck. Now we use “The Analog Couch” to describe any critique that focuses on a silly scientific detail that makes no sense at all in context of the story.

I thought I was immune from the Analog Couch curse, but I find as I consume more and more science fiction in all its various forms, I sit on the Analog Couch a lot. Heck, I sometimes sleep there. And (blushing) I probably live there.

(Beware! Spoilers Ahead)

For example, the movie Passengers.

A man on essentially a cruise ship heading to a new world wakes out of cold sleep to find himself alone with no help at all. The movie deals with his dilemma, both physical and personal. It also presents some icky awful ethical conundrums in a way that only sf can do.

So what bugged me about the film?

If he was such a great engineer/tinkerer, why didn’t he 1) rig the food system so he could get a higher class of food? 2) build more androids from the specs he found in the back room, androids like the interactive bartender android on the ship? Oh, and 3) why was there only one interactive human-looking android on a ship that large? Why not dozens, or hundreds of them, especially considering the cost of putting the crew in cold sleep?

I could go on and did at length to my husband. He finally asked me to quit.

Or take the now-canceled TV show Time After Time. Critics complained about a lot of things. Viewers never warmed to the show. Me, I wanted to know this: how did Jack The Ripper get into the elaborate time machine in H.G. Wells’ basement in London and end up in 2017 New York? It was a time machine, not a machine that moved through space.

Arrrrgh!

I try not to have these Analog Couch moments. I watch the Marvel-based movies, the DC-based TV shows, any sf that shows up on film, and I grit my teeth past the inconsistencies by reminding myself that it’s a comic book or hey, Kris, you accept time travel, so why can’t you accept that the machine crossed the ocean as well?

The reminder usually works. Okay, it sometimes works. Okay, it works enough that I can usually enjoy whatever I’m doing.

But believe me, I’m aware that I have crawled over to that extra hard couch, and I actually like sitting there much of the time.

Where do I stand on the Lois Lane/Superman physics conundrum? Well, you see, if Lois is dropped from space, and if she didn’t burn up during re-entry, she’d still be dead from lack of oxygen when she hit Superman’s arms, so who cares if she breaks in half?

Besides, the woman is dumb as feathers. Here —watch me take off my glasses to prove it.

Being a member of the Analog Mafia has nothing to do with the Analog Couch. I had joined that couch long before I earned my stripes as an Analog writer. I think nitpicking about the weirdest details is part of being an sf fan.

At least, that’s what I tell myself as I start watching yet another sf TV show, hoping for perfection. As I write yet another sf story, hoping for perfection. Or rather, hoping that I closed the curtains tight enough over the process, that no one on the nearby Analog Couch thinks of peering behind them.

Because you can’t satisfy all of the people all of the time, as some wag once said. And you certainly can’t deal with all those Analog Couch nits, no matter how good your story is.

You just have to hope that you’ve written it well enough that no one has time to think of any objections—until hours after they finished the story.

And maybe, not even then.

****

This Issue’s Cover – 70

GG 70 Cover

This Issue’s Cover – 70

David Carrico’s magazine within a magazine,  Der Schwarze Kater, provides the inspiration this month. If  Der Schwarze Kater ever starts taking submissions, I intend to be first in line!  – Garrett

Here is the original version without the lighting effects:

Der Schwarze Kater 1