General Garcia is dead now, but there are other Garcias

Wednesday, January 17th, 2018

Elbert Hubbard wrote his “literary trifle,” A Message to Garcia, one evening after supper, in a single hour, as an unnamed piece for his magazine, the Philistine:

It was on the Twenty-second of February, Eighteen Hundred Ninety-nine, Washington’s Birthday, and we were just going to press with the March “Philistine.” The thing leaped hot from my heart, written after a trying day, when I had been endeavoring to train some rather delinquent villagers to abjure the comatose state and get radio-active.

The immediate suggestion, though, came from a little argument over the teacups, when my boy Bert suggested that Rowan was the real hero of the Cuban War. Rowan had gone alone and done the thing — carried the message to Garcia.

It came to me like a flash! Yes, the boy is right, the hero is the man who does his work — who carries the message to Garcia. I got up from the table, and wrote “A Message to Garcia.” I thought so little of it that we ran it in the Magazine without a heading. The edition went out, and soon orders began to come for extra copies of the March “Philistine,” a dozen, fifty, a hundred; and when the American News Company ordered a thousand, I asked one of my helpers which article it was that had stirred up the cosmic dust.end-of-paragraph

“It’s the stuff about Garcia,” he said.

I love that 1899 style: get radio-active!

Hubbard goes on to claim that millions of copies have been printed and distributed. The story’s fame has definitely come and gone though:

The phrase “to carry a message to Garcia” was in common use for years to indicate taking initiative when carrying out a difficult assignment. Richard Nixon can be heard using it on the Watergate tapes during conversations with Henry Kissinger and John Ehrlichman. It has also been used as the title of children’s games, dramatized on radio shows, and was tailor-made for the Boy Scouts of America. A passage in the 1917 Boy Scouts Yearbook emphasizes the connection: “If you give [a Boy Scout] a ‘Message to Garcia’ you know that message will be delivered, although the mountains, the wilderness, the desert, the torrents, the broad lagoons or the sea itself, separate him from ‘Garcia.’”

The actual story about Rowan delivering a message to General Garcia is just a short preamble to Hubbard’s diatribe against half-hearted work:

In all this Cuban business there is one man stands out on the horizon of my memory like Mars at perihelion.

When war broke out between Spain and the United States, it was very necessary to communicate quickly with the leader of the Insurgents. Garcia was somewhere in the mountain fastnesses of Cuba — no one knew where. No mail or telegraph message could reach him. The President must secure his co-operation, and quickly. What to do!

Some one said to the President, “There is a fellow by the name of Rowan will find Garcia for you, if anybody can.”

Rowan was sent for and was given a letter to be delivered to Garcia. How “the fellow by the name of Rowan” took the letter, sealed it up in an oilskin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the Island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and delivered his letter to Garcia — are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail. The point that I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, “Where is he at?” By the Eternal! there is a man whose form should be cast in deathless bronze and the statue placed in every college of the land. It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this and that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies: do the thing — “Carry a message to Garcia.”

General Garcia is dead now, but there are other Garcias.

No man who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well-nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man — the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it.

Go ahead and read the whole thing for a dose of old-school American can-do spirit.

Message to Garcia Cover

(Hat tip to our Slovenian guest, who described it as something he expected to find out about on Isegoria.)

The Virginian will live 100 years, if the Bolshevists and the IWW permit civilizations to endure so long as that

Tuesday, January 16th, 2018

Back in 1923 a little newspaper called the Los Angeles Times asked Edgar Rice Burroughs to write a thousand words about his extremely popular but non-literary works:

Mr. Ford suggests that I talk to you about my books — “At the Earth’s Core,” “The Chessmen of Mars” and the “Tarzan” stories. He wants me to talk about them for a thousand words… What I can say of them without outraging modesty can be put in fewer words by far. I think they are bully stories and that they fulfill the purposes for which they were written — to entertain and to sell. They were not written for any other purpose. Sometimes reviewers waste whole columns on them explaining that they are not what I never intended them to be — contributions to classical literature. That is misspent energy. Did a sport writer ever discuss the table manner of Battling Siki as seriously affecting his success in the prize ring? The only standard by which I judge the fiction that I enjoy is whether it has the punch to hold my interest and is able to deliver the k.o. to dull care and worry.

It seems to me that no one who functions properly above the ears can possibly read fiction for purposes of instruction or enlightenment. It is written by men no better, and oftentimes not so well, equipped to think as the reader. Each book contains the personal viewpoint of one man or woman, and even that opinion is usually seriously affected by what he thinks the public will pay $1.50 or $2 for. Occasionally there is a great piece of fiction, once in a hundred years, perhaps, or maybe I had better say a thousand years, that actually molds public opinion; but in the meantime fiction either entertains or it does not entertain, and that is all there is to it. What entertains you may not entertain the other fellow, but God knows there is enough of it written each year so that it is our own fault if we are not all entertained.

The really great purpose of fiction, however, is, as I see it, that it is a stepping stone to other and vastly more entertaining reading. The reading of clean fiction should be encouraged since the reading of anything will form the habit of reading and one day the novitiate, having no fiction on hand, will, perforce, have to read something else, and, lo, a new world will be opened to him — and there are so many wonderful books outside the fiction lists; but gosh! how they do charge for them. My favorites are travel exploration, biography and natural history, but there are others — countless others in which you can find more wonderful things than I or any other writer can invent.
Did you ever read an annual report of the Smithsonian Institute? I recently sat up nearly all night reading one that is ten years old, almost, and when, at dinner the following evening I recounted my adventures of the previous night to my three children they held them spellbound and elicited a thousand questions, 999 of which I could not answer.

And then there are magazines such as the Geographic, Asia and Popular Mechanics. These three constitute an encyclopedia of liberal education for adult or child that arouses a desire for more knowledge and fosters the habit of reading.

I am fond of fiction, too, although I do not read a great deal of it. And I have my favorites — Mary Roberts Reinhart and Booth Tarkington are two of them. When I read one of Mrs. Reinhart’s stories I always wish that I might have been sufficiently gifted to have written it, and then when I read something of Tarkington’s I feel the same way about that. I have read “The Virginian” five or six times, and “The Prince and the Pauper” and “Little Lord Fauntleroy” as many. I believe “The Virginian” to be one of the greatest American novels ever written, and though I have heard that Mr. Wister deplores having written it, I venture that 100 years from now it will constitute his sole link to fame — and I am sure that “The Virginian” will live 100 years, if the Bolshevists and the I.W.W. permit civilizations to endure so long as that.

I’m rather shocked that I’d never even heard of Mary Roberts Reinhart before:

Mary Roberts Rinehart (August 12, 1876 – September 22, 1958) was an American writer, often called the American Agatha Christie, although her first mystery novel was published 14 years before Christie’s first novel in 1922.

Rinehart is considered the source of the phrase “The butler did it” from her novel The Door (1930), although the novel does not use the exact phrase. Rinehart is also considered to have invented the “Had-I-But-Known” school of mystery writing, with the publication of The Circular Staircase (1908).

She also created a costumed super-criminal called “the Bat”, cited by Bob Kane as one of the inspirations for his “Batman”.

Booth Tarkington wrote The Magnificent Ambersons, which I know from the Orson Welles movie.

Having Will Smith as the star is the antidote

Monday, January 15th, 2018

Z Man describes Netflix’s new Will Smith movie Bright as Alien Nation with Orcs and Elves instead of space aliens:

The Elves are the Jews of this imaginary world, as they are smart and run everything.The humans are the whites, keeping society running, while the Orcs are the blacks, occupying the underclass and subjected to discrimination.


The interesting thing about this movie, though, is they don’t present the multicultural future as a paradise of diversity. Instead, it is more like Brazil where the underclass is huge and the middle class is small and fragile. In this context, the Elves live in beautiful gated communities, away from everyone else. The humans and Orcs are mixed up in the squalor, with the humans having a marginally better existence. It is a future where diversity is tolerated out of necessity, but everyone dreams of their own ethnostate.

The other strangely realistic aspect is the gross inequality. The Elves live like royalty, as they are at the top of the social order. They are clean and white and orderly. Everyone else is dirty, dark and disorderly. The implication is that the Elves pit Orcs and humans against one another, in order to exploit them. The result is the world extreme diversity is a world of poverty, for all but the elite. Imagine if the whole country was like New York City, where the elite live in penthouses and everyone else in tiny apartments.

That’s the reality of multiculturalism. The hidden cost of maintaining order inevitably bankrupts the middle-class. The people at the top are always getting their beak wet first and they will do what they must to protect themselves and their position. That means the cost of maintaining order falls on the middle, which quickly disappears. University towns exist in idyllic diversity, because billions are hoovered out of the surrounding economies to support the paradise. The university town scales up to be Brazil.

The movie does not spend much time contemplating the Elf class. All we learn is they live apart, but control society, with the help of human assistants. They do give us a surprisingly frank portrayal of the Orcs. They are physically superior to humans and they have an affinity for hip-hop culture, but most are too dumb to do anything other than menial jobs. The Orcs are so obviously a deliberate analog to modern blacks that I’m shocked they get away with it. I guess having Will Smith as the star is the antidote.

I’m reminded of the original Star Trek and how it could tackle current issues by applying even the slightest patina of sci-fi. For instance, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield features half-black, half-white people who hate the half-white, half-black people who share their planet — so it’s just a silly TV show! Nothing to worry about, sponsors!

Do research before taking vengeance

Sunday, January 14th, 2018

The New York Times interviews Niall Ferguson about books:

Which historians and biographers do you most admire?

Amongst those currently writing, Simon Schama stands out as the Dickens of modern historiography: bewilderingly erudite and prolific, passionate in his enthusiasms and armed with the complete contents of the thesaurus. We agree to disagree about politics. I have also hugely admired Anne Applebaum for her trilogy on the Gulag, the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe (“Iron Curtain”) and, most recently, the Ukrainian famine (“Red Famine”). Walter Isaacson has established himself as the great American biographer of our time. “Leonardo da Vinci” is his best book, I think. Whereas the earlier books were pure journalism, he is now showing academic scholars how to write accessibly about subtle and even recondite subject matter. I read quite a number of biographies while researching “The Square and the Tower.” My favorite was probably Michael Ignatieff’s on Isaiah Berlin, which led me into the vast, delightful rabbit warren of Berlin’s correspondence.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I own books by a number of people who have insulted me in print, but I don’t think it is all that surprising that I do research before taking vengeance.

Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful?

Volume one of “Kissinger” is the best thing I’ve done. Second prize goes to the first volume of “The House of Rothschild.” Both these books were constructed on a foundation of prodigious research. But I am also very fond of “Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power,” because it so infuriated a certain species of second-rate professor of post-colonial studies — though not so much that they actually read the book.

He mentions many more books.

Clean up your room

Sunday, January 7th, 2018

Kermit the Frog — and Jordan Peterson — remind you to clean up your room:

Professional ironists love drug history

Friday, January 5th, 2018

Scott Alexander recently wrote about Adderall, and this got Steve Sailer wondering about the cultural effects of speed-type drugs. He ended up stumbling across the same 15-year-old article that I cited, well, 15 years ago, which reviews Marcus Boon’s The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs:

The hundred and eighty years since De Quincey’s invention [of "the discourse of recreational drug use"] have seen a great expansion in the pharmacopoeia, especially since 1862, when the drug company Merck began to produce cocaine. (One of its great early advocates was an ambitious young Viennese doctor named Sigmund Freud, who claimed, among other things, that “repeated doses of coca produce no compulsive desire to use the stimulant further; on the contrary one feels a certain unmotivated aversion to the substance.” Yeah, right.) Diamorphine, also known as heroin, was first synthesized for commercial use in 1897. The men who discovered it, Felix Hoffman and Arthur Eichengrun, had also, a couple of weeks earlier, invented aspirin; for some years, heroin could be bought over the counter and aspirin required a prescription. Professional ironists love drug history.

To Sailer’s point, Jean-Paul Sartre’s wrote his 1960 “existentialist blockbuster” The Critique of Dialectical Reason on speed:

Sartre is probably a bad advertisement for the effect of amphetamines as an aid to composition, but he is by no means the only example of a writer who used speed to help him work. For sheer quantity, Boon notes, it is hard to beat Philip K. Dick, who from 1963 to 1964, under the influence of the methamphetamine Semoxydrine, wrote “eleven science fiction novels, along with a number of essays, short stories, and plot treatments in an amphetamine-fuelled frenzy that accompanied or precipitated the end of one of his marriages.” (That “accompanied or precipitated” nicely captures how little fun it must have been to be Mrs. Dick.) If Philip K. Dick does not entirely convince on grounds of literary merit—and the books in question aren’t quite his best material—then how about Graham Greene, who was pounding Benzedrine when he wrote his 1939 travel book about Mexico, “The Lawless Roads,” and the novel that came out of his Mexican travels, “The Power and the Glory”? (The paranoid and menacing atmosphere of that superb novel, which describes a whiskey priest being hunted by Communist revolutionaries, surely owes something to Greene’s pill-chugging.)

Perhaps the finest writer ever to use speed systematically, however, was W. H. Auden. He swallowed Benzedrine every morning for twenty years, from 1938 onward, balancing its effect with the barbiturate Seconal when he wanted to sleep. (He also kept a glass of vodka by the bed, to swig if he woke up during the night.) He took a pragmatic attitude toward amphetamines, regarding them as a “labor-saving device” in the “mental kitchen,” with the important proviso that “these mechanisms are very crude, liable to injure the cook, and constantly breaking down.”

Auden seems to have been the only unquestionably major writer to use drugs in quite this way, as a direct source of energy for his work. He represents the apotheosis of a utilitarian approach to drugs; and it is therefore logical, if he was going to take drugs, that he would gravitate toward speed, which is the utilitarian drug par excellence.

Yeah, we’ll throw off the yoke

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018

Tyler Cowen interviews Andy Weir (The Martian, Artemis) on the economics of space travel, and it veers off into some less technical topics:

Cowen; Now let me ask you some questions about governance in space. I’ve read some of your favorite works are by Robert Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; Red Mars of course by Kim Stanley Robinson; Asimov’s Caves of Steel. And it’s a consistent theme in these stories. In fact, the stories you love, they involve an element of rebellion.

Weir; They do.

Cowen; If we had a colony on the Moon, how long do you think it would be before that colony would seek independence from Earth rule?

Weir; Well, first off, it wouldn’t be Earth rule. It would be ruled by some specific country. Right?

Cowen; Sure, or company.

Weir; Or… Country. You can’t really seek independence from a company.

Cowen; Well, it could be like the East India Company, right? The Kenya Space Corporation, they have some features of East India.

Weir; Right. They’re much nicer than the East India Company was.

Weir; Yeah, well, the Kenya Space Corporation in my book is just… They have a very simple business model. They build Artemis and then rent out lots. They don’t try to control its economy or its people or anything. They’re literally just landlords, and absentee landlords at that. But you can’t declare independence from a company because, by definition, the company owns all the assets. If you say, “I’m independent from the company,” what you’re doing is resigning. Right?

Cowen; Well, you’re stealing, in a way. But it happens, right?

Weir; Yeah. But if you’re talking about some sort of revolution or something like that, well I guess the first step is you’d have to be pretty sure that you are self-sufficient and independent. You have to be, like, Earth-independent. Which, in the case of Artemis, it’s not.

Cowen; But you have some allies. So what’s now the United States declares independence from what was then Britain, and the French help us. Other people who are upset at Britain help the American colonies to become independent.

So as long as you have some outside allies, wouldn’t you expect, within say 50 years’ time, a lunar colony, a Mars colony would try to seek independence so those rents could be captured by domestic interests?

Weir; Possibly. Ultimately, I believe that all major events in history are economic. And, I mean, independence was really about who gets to collect taxes, right? So if the people who live in a city are content with the economic status that they have, they’re not going to rebel. People don’t… People, despite what you see, I would challenge you to show me any situation where people revolted over purely ideology without any economic reason.

Cowen; But think about the American colonies. So the British were taxing us maybe 5 percent of GDP —

Weir; And the American colonies preferred that those taxes went to the American colonial governments.

Cowen; Yes, absolutely. But it wasn’t that much money, in a sense. That to me is what’s surprising.

Weir; Well, at that time, taxes globally were not that much money.

Cowen; Yeah.

When you read these books by Heinlein, Asimov, Kim Stanley Robinson . . .

Weir; Yeah, they always end up being political thrillers and that’s not what I’m going for. I’m showing the frontier town and the kind of cooperative aspects of human nature. I’m not…

For some reason, every book about colonizing space ultimately seems to lead to a revolution. Because that’s exciting, right? It’s Star Wars.

You know, you’ve got a rebellion, so “yeah, we’ll throw off the yoke,” and it has historical parallels and it’s all awesome like that. But I don’t necessarily think that’s going to be the case. Partially because as long as we keep following the rules of the Outer Space Treaty, which I believe we will, there’s no such thing as sovereign territory outside of Earth. So Artemis is, functionally speaking, an offshore platform.

Cowen; On Earth, do you think we should experiment more with seasteading? Set up sea colonies?

Weir; Yeah.

Cowen; Underground colonies?

Weir; Absolutely.

Cowen; Have them be politically autonomous, if they want?

Weir; You would have to change maritime law to be able to do that. Right now, under maritime law, you can seastead. I mean, you can do it right now. You can go out into the international waters and build something. You have to flag to some country, though.

Cowen; Right. A cruise ship, yeah.

Weir; Yeah. Well, yeah, you could flag to like Suriname or something like that. You could fly a flag of convenience. But, one way or another, you are subject to the laws of the country that you’re flying the flag of, just as Artemis is subject to the laws of Kenya.

Tomorrow you’re going to be a star

Friday, December 29th, 2017

Variety coined the term “casting couch” back in the 1930s, when Hollywood producer Darryl F. Zanuck had a regular 4 PM meeting for his “trysts” with starlets:

Years later, in 1975, Newsweek would do a story titled “The Casting Couch” in which it quoted the words on a plaque above the couch in the office of a Tinseltown producer in the 1950s: “Don’t forget, darling, tomorrow you’re going to be a star.”

The mag wrote, “Contemporary starlets no longer take sex-on-demand lying down.”

But things didn’t change then, and they haven’t changed now.


Marilyn Monroe once famously wrote in a memoir about the sexual predators in her industry. “I met them all,” she said. “Phoniness and failure were all over them. Some were vicious and crooked. But they were as near to the movies as you could get. So you sat with them, listening to their lies and schemes. And you saw Hollywood with their eyes — an overcrowded brothel, a merry-go-round with beds for horses.”

Movie moguls have preyed on the ambition of young hopefuls seemingly since the beginning of celluloid.

Actress Joan Crawford, who got her start in the 1920s by dancing naked in arcade peep shows, only advanced her career by sleeping “with every male star at MGM — except Lassie,” quipped fierce rival Bette Davis.

According to, “Even at the peak of [Crawford’s] career, rumors continued to surface about how her loathed mother forced Crawford to work as a prostitute, make blue movies and sleep her way to the top.”


Studio head Louis B. Mayer “terrorized Hollywood’s women long before Harvey Weinstein,” according to a recent headline in the UK’s Telegraph.

Mayer would direct a 16-year-old Judy Garland to sit on his lap, whereupon he’d palm her left breast while telling her, “You sing from the heart” — a creepy anecdote Garland recalled in a memoir.

And an 11-year-old Shirley Temple got her first — and, she thought, hilarious — peek at the male anatomy courtesy of MGM producer Arthur Freed, who once dropped his pants during a meeting. Temple burst into laughter at the sight and was promptly ordered out of the room.


Actress Joan Collins, warned by Monroe about the “wolves” in Hollywood, also wrote in her memoir that she missed out on the title role in 1963’s “Cleopatra,” which went to Elizabeth Taylor, because she wouldn’t sleep with Buddy Adler, the head of 20th Century Fox.

“I had tested for ‘Cleopatra’ twice and was the front-runner,” she said. “He took me into his office and said, ‘You really want this part?’ And I said, ‘Yes. I really do.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘then all you have to do is be nice to me.’ It was a wonderful euphemism in the ’60s for you know what.

“But I couldn’t do that. In fact, I was rather wimpish, burst into tears and rushed out of his office.”

Other stories are even darker.

“Rosemary’s Baby” director Roman Polanski initially had sympathy when pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered in 1969.

But then details emerged of how he gave a 13-year-old aspiring actress champagne and Quaaludes before having sex with her during a photo shoot in 1977, and the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office stepped in.


Eighties child stars Corey Feldman and Corey Haim also have said they were given drugs and “passed around” by male higher-ups when younger.

Feldman told The Hollywood Reporter that Haim, who died in 2010 at age 38, “had more direct abuse than I did.

“With me, there were some molestations, and it did come from several hands, so to speak, but with Corey, his was direct rape, whereas mine was not actual rape,” he said. “And his also occurred when he was 11. My son is 11 now, and I can’t even begin to fathom the idea of something like that happening to him.”

Apes and goats and poultry conjoined

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

Rudyard Kipling’s The Eye of Allah features an artist in a monastery who illuminates his copy of Luke with new devils than the usual “apes and goats and poultry conjoined”:

‘No matter! Now for your own tricks, John,’ the tactful Abbot broke in. ‘You shall show the doctors your Magdalene and your Gadarene Swine and the devils.’

‘Devils? Devils? I have produced devils by means of drugs; and have abolished them by the same means. Whether devils be external to mankind or immanent, I have not yet pronounced.’ Roger of Salerno was still angry.

‘Ye dare not,’ snapped the Friar from Oxford. ‘Mother Church makes Her own devils.’

‘Not wholly! Our John has come back from Spain with brand-new ones.’ Abbot Stephen took the vellum handed to him, and laid it tenderly on the table. They gathered to look. The Magdalene was drawn in palest, almost transparent, grisaille, against a raging, swaying background of woman-faced devils, each broke to and by her special sin, and each, one could see, frenziedly straining against the Power that compelled her.

‘I’ve never seen the like of this grey shadowwork,’ said the Abbot. ‘How came you by it?’

Non nobis! It came to me,’ said John, not knowing he was a generation or so ahead of his time in the use of that medium.

‘Why is she so pale?’ the Friar demanded.

‘Evil has all come out of her—she’d take any colour now.’

‘Ay, like light through glass. I see.’

Roger of Salerno was looking in silence—his nose nearer and nearer the page. ‘It is so,’ he pronounced finally. ‘Thus it is in epilepsy—mouth, eyes, and forehead—even to the droop of her wrist there. Every sign of it! She will need restoratives, that woman, and, afterwards, sleep natural. No poppy juice, or she will vomit on her waking. And thereafter—but I am not in my Schools.’ He drew himself up. ‘Sir,’ said he, ‘you should be of Our calling. For, by the Snakes of Aesculapius, you see!’

The two struck hands as equals.

‘And how think you of the Seven Devils?’ the Abbot went on.

These melted into convoluted flower—or flame-like bodies, ranging in colour from phosphorescent green to the black purple of outworn iniquity, whose hearts could be traced beating through their substance. But, for sign of hope and the sane workings of life, to be regained, the deep border was of conventionalised spring flowers and birds, all crowned by a kingfisher in haste, atilt through a clump of yellow iris.

Roger of Salerno identified the herbs and spoke largely of their virtues.

‘And now, the Gadarene Swine,’ said Stephen. John laid the picture on the table.

Here were devils dishoused, in dread of being abolished to the Void, huddling and hurtling together to force lodgment by every opening into the brute bodies offered. Some of the swine fought the invasion, foaming and jerking; some were surrendering to it, sleepily, as to a luxurious back-scratching; others, wholly possessed, whirled off in bucking droves for the lake beneath. In one corner the freed man stretched out his limbs all restored to his control, and Our Lord, seated, looked at him as questioning what he would make of his deliverance.

‘Devils indeed!’ was the Friar’s comment. ‘But wholly a new sort.’

Some devils were mere lumps, with lobes and protuberances—a hint of a fiend’s face peering through jelly-like walls. And there was a family of impatient, globular devillings who had burst open the belly of their smirking parent, and were revolving desperately toward their prey. Others patterned themselves into rods, chains and ladders, single or conjoined, round the throat and jaws of a shrieking sow, from whose ear emerged the lashing, glassy tail of a devil that had made good his refuge. And there were granulated and conglomerate devils, mixed up with the foam and slaver where the attack was fiercest. Thence the eye carried on to the insanely active backs of the downward-racing swine, the swineherd’s aghast face, and his dog’s terror.

Said Roger of Salerno, ‘I pronounce that these were begotten of drugs. They stand outside the rational mind.’

‘Not these,’ said Thomas the Infirmarian, who as a servant of the Monastery should have asked his Abbot’s leave to speak. ‘Not these—look!—in the bordure.’

The border to the picture was a diaper of irregular but balanced compartments or cellules, where sat, swam, or weltered, devils in blank, so to say—things as yet uninspired by Evil—indifferent, but lawlessly outside imagination. Their shapes resembled, again, ladders, chains, scourges, diamonds, aborted buds, or gravid phosphorescent globes-some well-nigh starlike.

Roger of Salerno compared them to the obsessions of a Churchman’s mind.

‘Malignant?’ the Friar from Oxford questioned.

‘“Count everything unknown for horrible,”’ Roger quoted with scorn.

‘Not I. But they are marvellous—marvellous. I think——’

The Friar drew back. Thomas edged in to see better, and half opened his mouth.

‘Speak,’ said Stephen, who had been watching him. ‘We are all in a sort doctors here.’

‘I would say then’—Thomas rushed at it as one putting out his life’s belief at the stake—‘that these lower shapes in the bordure may not be so much hellish and malignant as models and patterns upon which John has tricked out and embellished his proper devils among the swine above there!’

‘And that would signify?’ said Roger of Salerno sharply.

‘In my poor judgment, that he may have seen such shapes—without help of drugs.’

‘Now who—who,’ said John of Burgos, after a round and unregarded oath, ‘has made thee so wise of a sudden, my Doubter?’

‘I wise? God forbid! Only John, remember—one winter six years ago—the snow-flakes melting on your sleeve at the cookhouse-door. You showed me them through a little crystal, that made small things larger.’

‘Yes. The Moors call such a glass the Eye of Allah,’ John confirmed.

‘You showed me them melting—six-sided. You called them, then, your patterns.’

‘True. Snow-flakes melt six-sided. I have used them for diaper-work often.’

‘Melting snow-flakes as seen through a glass? By art optical?’ the Friar asked.

‘Art optical? I have never heard!’ Roger of Salerno cried.

‘John,’ said the Abbot of St. Illod’s commandingly, ‘was it—is it so?’

‘In some sort,’ John replied, ‘Thomas has the right of it. Those shapes in the bordure were my workshop-patterns for the devils above. In my craft, Salerno, we dare not drug. It kills hand and eye. My shapes are to be seen honestly, in nature.’

The Abbot drew a bowl of rose-water towards him. ‘When I was prisoner with—with the Saracens after Mansura,’ he began, turning up the fold of his long sleeve, ‘there were certain magicians—physicians—who could show—’ he dipped his third finger delicately in the water—‘all the firmament of Hell, as it were, in—’ he shook off one drop from his polished nail on to the polished table—‘even such a supernaculum as this.’

‘But it must be foul water—not clean,’ said John.

‘Show us then—all—all,’ said Stephen. ‘I would make sure—once more.’ The Abbot’s voice was official.

John drew from his bosom a stamped leather box, some six or eight inches long, wherein, bedded on faded velvet, lay what looked like silver-bound compasses of old box-wood, with a screw at the head which opened or closed the legs to minute fractions. The legs terminated, not in points, but spoon-shapedly, one spatula pierced with a metal-lined hole less than a quarter of an inch across, the other with a half-inch hole. Into this latter John, after carefully wiping with a silk rag, slipped a metal cylinder that carried glass or crystal, it seemed, at each end.

‘Ah! Art optic!’ said the Friar. ‘But what is that beneath it?’

It was a small swivelling sheet of polished silver no bigger than a florin, which caught the light and concentrated it on the lesser hole. John adjusted it without the Friar’s proffered help.

‘And now to find a drop of water,’ said he, picking up a small brush.

‘Come to my upper cloister. The sun is on the leads still,’ said the Abbot, rising.

They followed him there. Half-way along, a drip from a gutter had made a greenish puddle in a worn stone. Very carefully, John dropped a drop of it into the smaller hole of the compassleg, and, steadying the apparatus on a coping, worked the screw m the compass joint, screwed the cylinder, and swung the swivel of the mirror till he was satisfied.

‘Good!’ He peered through the thing. ‘My Shapes are all here. Now look, Father! If they do not meet your eye at first, turn this nicked edge here, left- or right-handed.’

‘I have not forgotten,’ said the Abbot, taking his place. ‘Yes! They are here—as they were in my time—my time past. There is no end to them, I was told . . . . There is no end!’

The story, from 1926, qualifies as science fiction, or alternative history, and even ends with a rather Twilight Zone twist. Kipling did quite a bit of research for the story.

The world’s work and the men and machines who do it

Friday, December 22nd, 2017

The War Nerd Iliad emphasizes the alienness of the ancient Greeks, which reminded commenter Graham of the classic sci-fi he’d read — which reminded me of an author whose work pervasively influenced science fiction and fantasy:

Poul Anderson, a leading American science fiction writer, has these words to say about one of his predecessors: “He is for everyone who responds to vividness, word magic, sheer storytelling. Most readers go on to discover the subtleties and profundities.” His colleague Gordon R. Dickson calls him “a master of our art.” The man they are praising was born in the 19th century and died in the 20th. He wrote of new inventions and future wars, and warned of the social consequences of technological change. And he exerted an immense influence on modern science fiction.

They are not speaking of Jules Verne (1828-1905) or of H.G. Wells (1866-1946). True, both names come immediately to mind when we seek the roots of science fiction. When Hugo Gernsback founded the first real SF magazine in 1926, he filled out the early issues of Amazing Stories with reprints of their stories. The writers who shaped modern science fiction, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, A.E. Van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, read Verne and Wells as boys. But today their works have achieved the status of classics: much honored but little read. It was their contemporary Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) who has exerted the most lasting influence on modern science fiction. And it was Rudyard Kipling of whom Poul Anderson says, “His influence pervades modern science fiction and fantasy writing”.

Like Verne and Wells, Kipling wrote stories whose subject-matter is explicitly science-fictional. “With the Night Mail: A Story of 2000 A.D.” portrays futuristic aviation in a journalistic present-tense that recalls Kipling’s years as a teenaged subeditor on Anglo-Indian newspapers. “The Eye of Allah” deals with the introduction of advanced technology into a mediaeval society that may not be ready for it.

But it is not this explicit use of science and technology in some of his stories that makes Kipling so important to modern science fiction. Many of Kipling’s contemporaries and predecessors wrote scientific fiction. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, Mark Twain and Conan Doyle are among them. Yet echoes of their work are seldom seen in today’s science fiction. Kipling’s appeal to modern readers lies instead in his approach and his technique.

The real subject-matter of Rudyard Kipling’s writing is the world’s work and the men and women and machines who do it. Whether that work be manual or intellectual, creative or administrative, the performance of his work is the most important thing in a person’s life. As Disko Troop says in Captains Courageous, “the most interesting thing in the world is to find out how the next man gets his vittles”.

This is not a view shared by most of 20th-century literature; nor is Kipling’s special sympathy with the work of Empire. This may explain why Rudyard Kipling has received less attention from the literary establishment than his writings deserve. But he was an enormously popular writer, especially among working people. Even to this day he is widely quoted, often by people who would be shocked to learn the source of the colorful expressions they so often use. Today’s science fiction writers find their audience among the same strata of society that in Victoria’s time read Kipling: adults engaged in the shaping of our world and young people exploring what life has to offer.

Kipling’s writing embodies an attitude toward that work that places its satisfactory completion above convenience, desire, and comfort in the scheme of things. This attitude toward work and duty is also characteristic of modern science fiction. It places men and women in the role of creators and maintainers, rather than victims. It prefers exploring the intricacies of the craftsman’s vision to indulging the subtleties of the narrative voice.

This exaltation of work and duty may be unfashionable in literary circles today, but no technological society can flourish without it. Science fiction may not be essential to the survival of Western civilisation; but some literary tradition that embodies its essential attitudes will always accompany humankind on its road to the stars. The influence of Rudyard Kipling will be writ large upon that literature, whatever form it may take, for many years to come.

Kipling faced the same technical problem that the modern science fiction writer faces: the need to make an alien time and place understandable to his audience. Whether the scene be India under the British Raj or Mars under the Solar Federation, the reader needs to know the essential differences in biology, technology, and sociology that govern the characters and their actions. This information needs to be provided without interfering with the narrative. The reader wants a story, not a lesson.

John W Campbell, the magisterial editor who shaped the Golden Age of science fiction, considered Rudyard Kipling the first modern science fiction writer. Kipling, he explained, was the first to go beyond simply providing the reader with the essential background information needed to read his story. He was thinking here of “With the Night Mail”. When this pseudo-journalistic account of transatlantic dirigible traffic first appeared in 1905, the text was accompanied by weather advisories, classified advertisements, shipping notices, and a wide range of other snippets intended to suggest that the tale was in fact appearing in a magazine published in 2000. All this stage business was extraneous to the story, strictly speaking; but it did help to establish the setting.

Kipling had learned this trick in India. His original Anglo-Indian readership knew the customs and institutions and landscapes of British India at first hand. But when he began writing for a wider British and American audience, he had to provide his new readers with enough information for them to understand what was going on. In his earliest stories and verse he made liberal use of footnotes, but he evolved more subtle methods as his talent matured. A combination of outright exposition, sparingly used, and contextual clues, generously sprinkled through the narrative, offered the needed background. In Kim and other stories of India he uses King James English to indicate that characters are speaking in Hindustani; this is never explained, but it gets the message across subliminally.

Modern science fiction writers and their readers have become so accustomed to this sort of thing and so dependent on it that it has made much of the genre literally unreadable to many who have not learned its reading protocols. Samuel R Delany has observed that a statement that is meaningless in mimetic fiction (such as “The red sun is high, the blue low”) can be a matter of simple description in science fiction, and a statement that could only be metaphorical (“Her world exploded”) might be meant as literal fact in SF. It is this divergence in the way words are used, rather than any particular exoticism of subject-matter or the use of experimental narrative strategies (here SF is usually very conservative), that separates modern science fiction from the literary mainstream. And all this began with Kipling.

It is certainly a matter of fact that Kipling’s works are immensely popular among SF writers. Allusions to Kipling in story titles and quotations from his verse may be found throughout the genre. Autobiographical essays and story introductions widely acknowledge Kipling as a favorite writer and a major inspiration. David Drake and Sandra Miesel have assembled two anthologies of stories written under the influence of Kipling, accompanied by introductions in which the likes of Poul Anderson, L Sprague de Camp, Joe Haldeman, and Gene Wolfe describe the impact that reading Kipling has had on their own writing. (Heads to the Storm, and A Separate Star: A Science Fiction Tribute to Rudyard Kipling were both published by Baen Books in 1989.)

But the best way to understand why Kipling has exerted so great an influence over modern science fiction is to read his own work. Begin with Kim, the most successful evocation of an alien world ever produced in English. Follow the Grand Trunk Road toward the Northwest Frontier, and watch the parade of cultures that young Kimball O’Hara encounters. Place yourself in his position, that of a half-assimilated stranger in a strange land; and observe carefully the uneven effects of an ancient society’s encounter with a technologically advanced culture. SF writers have found Kim so appealing that several have told their own versions of the story: Robert Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy and Poul Anderson’s The Game of Empire are two of the best.

Then look at Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies, two collections of linked stories in which Kipling brings incidents of English history and prehistory to life, both for the children for whom the books were ostensibly written and for their elders. One could classify them as time-travel stories, thus bringing them into the taxonomy of science fiction. But their real relevance lies in the careful evocation of time and place, echoed in so many later stories by other writers who bring a modern observer into direct contact with earlier days.

And by all means read Kipling’s own science fiction stories. Most of these were collected in Kipling’s Science Fiction (New York: Tor Books, 1992), edited by the late John Brunner, a noted British SF writer. But anyone with access to the standard collections of Kipling’s short stories will be able to find them.

I’ve discussed As Easy As A.B.C. before.

Is it possible to do parkour with a Captain America shield?

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017

An Australian parkour athlete tries to perform his usual skills with a “Captain America” shield:

A campfire story, the greatest of all tall tales

Monday, December 18th, 2017

In The War Nerd Iliad, John Dolan presents The Iliad as a campfire story, the greatest of all tall tales:

Homer’s epics were first written down at a curious turning point between two eras, when the Greek Dark Ages gave way to Classical Antiquity. Before the seventh century BCE, there had been no ‘Western literature’, only Western literacy. The earliest Greek writing system — Minoan Linear B — was a bean counter’s tool to make receipts and invoices, not a medium for fiction or poetry. But though most storytellers probably couldn’t read, they weren’t slack in developing their art. The Iliad is long and complex enough to compete with modern novels. Indeed, since it emerged from the mists of oral tradition, it’s inspired a big family of literate authors, from Virgil and Dante to Ezra Pound and Thom Gunn.

Until the twentieth century, we didn’t know much about those mists of oral tradition. Then, in the 1930s, an American linguist named Milman Parry visited rural Yugoslavia, where oral epics were still performed by illiterate singers. Studying their cultures, he hoped to learn how oral poems were composed, how they were taught to the next generation and how much a poem’s text changed between singers and locales. Unfortunately, Parry died from an accidental gunshot wound soon after his return to the US. It took his student Albert Lord many years to continue the research and publish it in a 1960 book, The Singer of Tales.

Parry and Lord made a startling discovery: oral epics weren’t recited from set texts, but rather improvised by the singer during each show. In Lord’s words, ‘An oral poem is not composed for but in performance.’ Traditional bards were therefore much closer to today’s freestyle rappers than to page-poets like Virgil. While they inherited storylines, devices and formulae, each telling of a story was unique and off-the-cuff. The Iliad we have now wasn’t based on a previously used text, but on a specific performance dictated to a scribe.

Even so, it’s a very old story. Since the 1870s, archaeologists have found piling evidence that there was a real Trojan War between Bronze Age Greeks and Hittites. This means that the Iliad had been told and retold for at least five hundred years before a version got written down.

Some parts of Homer only seem like features and not bugs when we consider this oral heritage. Why do the Iliad and the Odyssey both start with the now-hackneyed phrase ‘sing, Muse’? That’s the performer — palms sweaty, vomit on his chiton, mom’s spaghetti — invoking divine aid to bless his improv. After writing had given poets the leisure to save and redraft their work, the ‘sing, Muse’ trope stagnated from a living superstition to an undead cliché.

Such a situation makes special problems for translators. Translation is more than just carrying a text from language to language; it’s also a passage from audience to audience. To its Greek listeners, the Iliad didn’t need footnotes or endnotes. It wasn’t ‘literature’ or a status marker for taste and education. It was popular entertainment, put on at boozy gatherings by MCs whose talent could get them free drinks. That mood is hard to recapture now, even if a translator’s philology is faultless. (Imagine a future where students pore over John Carpenter screenplays in Penguin Classics editions, but no living person has watched The Thing!)

John Dolan’s latest book, The War Nerd Iliad, offers a new approach to this challenge. Dolan is a retired professor and cult author most famous for blogging as ‘the War Nerd’, a curmudgeonly anti-expert who writes war analyses mixed with Swiftian black comedy. Since the early noughties, he’s sparred with right wingers over the legacy of ancient Greek civilisation — rebuffing the suggestion that it had any ‘Western values’ in common with modern America. The early Greeks, he emphasised, lived in a Talibanesque world shaped by endless warring between tribes and clans. Their culture allowed paederasty but frowned on any hetero desire that went beyond reproduction and arranged marriage. ‘Everything about [the Greeks] was alien,’ Dolan wrote in 2005.

The Stormtroopers’ normal human precision only seems inferior by comparison

Saturday, December 16th, 2017

Jonathan Jeckell busts the Stormtrooper marksmanship myth:

Clone Troopers used long rifles in their role as a mass land army during the Clone Wars, fighting engagements with the Droid Army in a variety of terrain that often called for heavy firepower and accurate long-range shots. But most Stormtroopers were issued pistols that fit their new role in short-range engagements, like fighting insurgents in cities or in the corridors onboard ships. Short weapons are handier than rifles for shock troops leading boarding parties fighting in confined spaces and also as lightweight sidearms for constabulary forces dealing with a few unruly civilians (or keeping the governor and other regional elites in line).

E-11 Blaster Rifle

The transition from rifles to pistols has a profound effect on the range and accuracy of engagements. A rifle provides a long foundation to support the weapon to control where it is pointed with many opportunities to brace it to keep it steady. A standing shooter has control of the weapon in at least three points across its length. The non-firing arm holds the end of the barrel, the butt of the weapon is planted firmly in the shooter’s armpit, and the firing hand holds the rifle in the middle. The shooter may also brace against a solid object, which substantially increases stability and the ability to accurately hold the weapon on target long enough to fire.

Pistols in contrast are held by one point (or two in the case of the long pistols used by Stormtroopers). The shooter’s body has many joints between the pistol and the ground, all of which continuously jostle despite efforts to hold them steady. The short barrel means that even the smallest movement results in larger deviations from the target as the shooter struggles with a single bracing point, trying to hold many levers (all the joints in your body) steady without jitter.

To illustrate the difference, the maximum effective range of the U.S. Army’s Beretta M9 9mm pistol is 50 meters, which means that the average person will hit 50% of the time at 50 meters. Meanwhile, the maximum effective range for the M4 Carbine is 500 meters—10 times further.

This becomes even more difficult when the shooter must react quickly and under extreme stress. Many shooters who excel on the range fail to hit what they are shooting at in combat unless they also train in realistic stressful quick-reaction scenarios. Police and the FBI maintain more useful statistics for pistol engagements because they are all studied in-depth afterwards. The FBI has found that pistol accuracy suffers when shooting in a real engagement. FBI data from 1989-1994 shows that the majority of engagements occurred within 6-10 feet (yes, feet). Less than 40% of the engagements were over 21 feet (7 meters). 60% of the engagements were within 0-21 feet, 30% from 21-45 feet, and 10% from 45-75 feet. None occurred beyond 75 feet. The average defender fires three rounds against a single assailant. The bad guys shooting at police hit their target just 14% of the time, and 95% of the police who achieve a 1st shot hit survive. This drops to 48% on the second shot. Law enforcement officers average 75-80% missed shots.

This means that Luke, Leia, and Han make some really unbelievable shots with pistols (and the scope doesn’t help). Chewbacca’s bow is held like a rifle, so his shots don’t stand out as much on the battlefield as being extraordinary. This makes the Stormtroopers’ normal human precision seem inferior in contrast. We know Luke is a Jedi, which can explain his extreme long-range accuracy with a blaster. We also know Leia has latent Force powers, which explains hers as well. Han may not be a Jedi, but he may have latent force-sensitivity despite his skepticism about the Jedi and the Force. Despite laughing off the Jedi, his piloting skill surpassed normal human capabilities like one, even though he always laughed off the Jedi.

I estimate the distance from Luke to these Stormtroopers to be at LEAST 150 meters, yet he shot two in quick succession here, then shot a foot-square door control before egressing from the fight. Leia and Han regularly made many such shots throughout the series.

The standard weapon of the Stormtroopers is the E-11 blaster rifle, which, despite its name, is rarely depicted with a stock. It was based on the British Sterling Mk IV submachine gun.

What’s odd, I pointed out to Jeckell, is that the professional soldiers aren’t decent with their primary arms, but the rebels are skilled with the Stormtroopers’ weapons. It’s clear Luke is an avid shooter (and pilot), as a country boy, but I wouldn’t expect him to be much of a pistol shot. I have no trouble imagining Han and Chewie as avid shooters, with their own weapons. I like the idea of Leia being plucky enough to get her hands dirty, but pistol-shooting is only intuitive out to five yards or so. It takes tremendous practice to master.

An inelegant weapon for a more barbaric age

Friday, December 15th, 2017

A lightsaber would not be an elegant weapon, as any plasma torch able to cut through a blast door like butter would vaporize flesh explosively:

He thanks Matter Beam of Tough SF for running the numbers. His estimate of a light saber’s output was 35 MW, about the same as a nuclear submarine’s reactor.

I found some footage of a modern plasma torch cutting through meat:

Star Trek’s phasers have the same problem as Star Wars’ light sabers, by the way. Vaporizing a human wouldn’t be much more elegant.

Ralph McQuarrie’s original concept art comes to life

Thursday, December 14th, 2017

Visual Effects students at the DAVE school in Florida have brought Ralph McQuarrie’s original concept art to life in a trailer for The Star Wars: