Well, it’s my turn to write the lead post – and I have an idea that I’d like to develop. But it is the usual struggle to figure out what to exclude to keep to about 600-800 words (could you write an 600 word essay on Art, for instance – might have to narrow that down a little?). In fact, the title of this piece is a bit of a double entendre: how to manage the words in our blog space, as well as discussing living in outer space. Okay, let’s proceed with both goals: I’m going to describe a passion and conclude with a question… after all, this blog is about sharpening different points of view and I’m interested in your thoughts – so read on!
Now you have probably heard that the United States has inaugurated a Space Force (USSF) this past December. The nucleus of the USSF is the Space Operations Command (SPOC) Yes, SPOC! Whoa…! They will be staffed by military types initially, but the plan is to create civilian career paths within the force as well. Pretty soon there will be xenobiologists, astrophysicists, social scientists, geologists, project managers and insurance salespeople joining the center. (Hey, risk insurance is huge).
Sign me up! I have been submersed in space exploration since childhood. The Moody Blues declared in their tribute to Timothy Leary that “Thinking is the best way to travel…” I simply add “space” to the premise. Of course, much of my initial exposure was a passive reception of the subject. Analog Fact and Fiction magazine has had a place in our family home before I could walk, back when it was Astounding Stories. (Note: these stories were not just ‘pretty good’ – they were Astounding!) I joined a book club at nine and read among other titles, the Gray Lensman series by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith. (The lensman were galactic police who were equipped with the Arisian lens, which augmented their powers of mental control in order to protect the universe). Clearly, the Space Force could use these tools! And don’t forget the powers of the telepathic Slans created by A.E. van Vogt… in fact, some sci-fi fans have adopted the rallying cry: “Fans are Slans!”
At ten years old, I still remember the warm summer night when I started to read Ray Bradbury. It was like someone opened a door in my mind. Not only were the stories fresh, but the writing was excellent. And that’s the point: Science Fiction opened up POSSIBILITIES.
My tastes grew into the type of content that focused on living arrangements and day-to-day life in space. The Alliance-Union universe created by C.J. Cherryh described space traders plying their routes between spaceports – each ship a self-contained tribe and business staffed by generations of one family; essentially long haul space peddlers. Daily life on the ship is driven by main-day and alter-day shifts, since day and night have no meaning in space.
These “story universes” portray possibilities in human cultural change as we adapt to new environments. Larry Niven’s (and Jerry Pournelle’s) Ringworld series features a lot of the hard science that would be necessary for a stable life style in long orbit. I’m not sure if Niven invented the term ‘Belters’ – those miners and traders that made their homes in proximity to the asteroid belt in our solar system, but you may have seen the social system they formed in episodes of The Expanse. Niven described how their bodies would have changed during generations in weightless or low gravity conditions in space – growing taller, darker, and more slender – and developing their own patois and libertarian ethos: a loose affiliation of free thinking pioneers. Sure, some of you will say, ‘You haven’t mentioned Heinlein, Asimov, Philip K. Dick, trekkies, wookies, Firefly, or other favorite sci-fi themes – see, even more possibilities!
Many science fiction authors have built themes over a large body of work, perhaps nine or ten books devoted to exploring societal change charged with new environmental challenges and interspecies contact. A favorite is the “Humanx universe” created by Alan Dean Foster. In this reality, humans and the poetic thranx (large mantis type insectoids) partner to explore new worlds, while adapting to each other’s cultural and physical differences. I’ve encountered literally hundreds of different alien species! The Space Force needs this type of expertise – I’m waiting for their call.
Because life is not just about connecting dots – it’s about finding new dots! It’s about opening portals. Now don’t get me wrong, I love reading other material as well. I’ve gravitated (pardon the pun) to alternately reading three books at any one time: equal measures of non-fiction, literature, and escapist fiction like sci-fi. Non-fiction keeps me grounded; literature softens my heart, but sci-fi lets me fly! So tell me: What reading sparks your imagination?
My Life in the Woods
I can always count on Wal to fire up my thinking and to cause me to dig deeper as I respond to his thoughtful and measured queries.
As a child, I was not a reader. While I could read adequately and on grade level, I wasn’t drawn to books as much as I was to experiential activities and television (You know, that large heavy fat box with cathode tubes inside and a black and white screen on the outside that was activated by getting up and turning a knob and that, if you tilted the rabbit ears just so, enable you to view five or maybe 6 channels!)
However, I do remember being enamored with two books that also each became a TV mini series: Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. Both put me in awe of the adventures of woodsmen whose character and body were forged by rugged living in the natural environment. However, having grown up in the Bronx it was unlikely I would be running down White Plains Road wearing a coonskin cap! But when I turned eight years we moved to an acre of property in the Hudson Valley that backed up to over one hundred acres of woods. There I was convinced that emulating this folk hero would mould the man I would one day become. As I often roamed the nearby forest most afternoons and weekends, I would imagine myself as a young Crockett or Boone, moving silently through the brush, leaving no footprints or evidence that neither man nor beast could detect. I dreamed of easily eluding bad guys by escaping into the woods or perching in a tree, silently observing evil deed doers until I would stealthily swoop down to save the day! These readings, further illustrated by Fess Parker, the actor who portrayed these clever, adaptive, adventurous, multi-talented backwoodsmen, tapped into something within that would remain a constant influence in my life.
I still play in the woods and I still try to move silently as I walk daily with Duke. And, occasionally I seek to camouflage myself near a log or behind a large rock to see if I can blend seamlessly enough to disappear from Duke’s senses. What was once a childhood escape into imaginary storybook characters remains yet today, a source of comfort and connection.
Wal wondered about living in space; I dreamed of living in the woods.
Paws and Rails
Growing up in NYC I was usually out in the streets playing with all the kids from my block til the street lights came on. I was and still am a very slow reader so it took me a while to get through a book. But while Wal was lost in space and Hen was following animal tracks in the woods, I was in one of two fictional places. I read every book by a man named Albert Payson Terhune. My favorite was a book called A Dog Named Chips, but I read every one of his dog stories and I was lost in a world of saving helpless animals from horrible situations. I would fantasize about saving a poor neglected dog, whose loyalty to me would wind up saving me at some point in the future. I had quite a collection of pets growing up, cats and dogs but also birds, fish, and turtles. My premier success was a goldfish that lived in a big bowl for over 8 years. During those formative years I really believed I would grow up to be a veterinarian.
When I wasn’t rescuing fictional animals in my imagination I was riding the rails, a hobo in a boxcar traveling across the country, meeting other fictional hoboes and discovering life outside of NYC. This interest came from the only activity my brother, father and I ever did together. My dad bought each of us our own Lionel train set. My brother’s was a prewar metal set and mine was a 1954 plastic steam engine with all the colorful boxcars. Both of which I still have and still work! My dad made a platform that took up half the living room floor and came out every Christmas when we would put up our Christmas village. My imagination would run wild. That got me interested in a series of books called Ralph on the Rails written by a man named Allen Chapman. Ralph’s adventures had me traveling the rails with him. He experienced train wrecks, switch towers, riding with the engineer, riding the midnight express and many other incredible adventures. And as a friend of Ralph I got to experience it too. Perhaps it is funny how these childhood fantasies can carry over into our adult lives but in my case, I have been fortunate enough to have shared my life with all kinds of furry friends who have enriched my life and priceless memories of my brother, father and I creating this miniature and imaginary world. The Ralph books just enhanced my love of trains and allowed my imagination to fly not into outer space but across this land on two rails.