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PaulLevinson

Levinson at Large

I'm a science fiction, mystery, and historical fiction author, with a passion for reading the same. I'm also a nonfiction author - of books about media history, social media, and media evolution.

One progressive (me) vs. three conservatives talk about Donald Trump and the media, with references to my book, Fake News in Real Context.

 

Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee: Transformative Treasure Trove

One of the joys of reading on a Kindle (or, in my case, a Kindle app) is the ease of bookmarking.  As one indication of how important I found Alec Nevala-Lee's Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I bookmarked it ten times more than any other book I've read in the past few years.  (The runners-up are The Perversity of Things: Hugo Gernsback on Media, Tinkering, and Scientifiction by Grant Wythoff and Dreaming the Beatles by Rob Sheffield, though I read those two on paper.)

It's no surprise (at least to me) that Astounding had much more of an impact on me - a transformative impact - than The Perversity of Things.  I knew neither Gernsback or Campbell in person, or by any means other than their published writing.  In contrast, I knew and worked with Isaac Asimov, the high point of which was getting him to write a Preface for my first published book, In Pursuit of Truth: Essays on the Philosophy of Karl Popper in 1982.  It was a collection of essays (I contributed one) of which I was the Editor, and I didn't have to work very hard to get Asimov to write the Preface: we already knew each other (I'd sent him my analysis of the Foundation trilogy published a few years earlier in Media and Methods - here's his postcard response - and he quickly accepted Humanity Press's not overly generous offer of $100 to write the Preface for the Popper volume).  And, as President of the Science Fiction Writers of America from 1998-2001, and as a science fiction writer myself, I also knew or still know many of the secondary players in Astounding, including Harlan Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, Hal Clement, Robert Silverberg, Sam Delany (I first heard about him from his mother Ruth, in the mid-1960s, in the George Bruce Branch Library in Harlem where she worked as a librarian and I as a clerk),  Ray Bradbury, David Kyle, Barry Malzberg, Greg Benford, Joe Haldeman, Janet (Jeppson) Asimov, and many others.  So seeing them in these pages was a tour through many significant conversations and interactions I've had in my own life.

And on being a science fiction writer myself, Nevala-Lee's book also tapped into another profound wellspring of my career:  I've been published in Analog 17 times (15 stories and 2 nonfiction articles - one story acquired by Trevor Quachri, all the rest by Stan Schmidt), and am a card-carrying member (well, pin-affixed) of the Analog Mafia.  Stan's editing philosophy continued the best of Campbell's.  In my case, for example, Stan urged me to not kill off Phil D'Amato (which I had in the first draft of "The Chronology Protection Case"), just as Campbell had urged Frank Herbert not to kill Alia in Dune, one of a plethora of winning details that Nevala-Lee puts in this book.  "The Chronology Protection Case" was made into a short movie, now on Amazon Prime, and Phil D'Amato's appearance in my first novel, The Silk Code, won a Locus Award for Best First Novel of 1999.

Ok, so I love Nevala-Lee's book.  But what about people without my professional history?  I can't say for sure, but I would bet that any science fiction writer, as well as any science fiction fan, would find this book riveting, and a treasure trove of context-setting scenes.   What follows, in rough order of their appearance in the book, are some of the highlights for me:

1. I knew that Paul Krugman was influenced by the Foundation stories, but not Elon Musk.  Given the latter's age, I wonder if he was reading Analog in the mid-late 1990s, when my stories first started appearing in its pages.

2. Campbell, as a kid, kept a garter snake in his pocket.  I wonder if Stan Schmidt, who had pet snakes, knew about this.

3. I was fascinated to learn that Campbell's favorite professor at MIT was Norbert Wiener.  I studied Wiener's Cybernetics when earning my PhD in Media Ecology under Neil Postman at NYU in the late 1970s.  Cyberneticsalso appears later in the book in its extensive discussion of dianetics - the least favorite part, for me, because I never related to Hubbard, dianetics, or Scientology, but it's an important part of the Campbell story.

4. It turns out that Campbell, like Gernsback, was in effect a media ecologist, presaging the kind of thinking that Marshall McLuhan made famous, by observing that unlike radio, television was very possessive, "you have to look at it," and "Man molded the machine, but the machine is going to mold Man". This difference between radio and television played a crucial role in my doctoral dissertation, Human Replay: A Theory of the Evolution of Media, and I often say that radio amply survived the advent of television if for no other reason than you can listen to radio, but can't (safely) watch television, when driving.  I'm grateful to Nevala-Lee for alerting me that Campbell made this point back in the 1930s.

5.  One thing I do have in common with L. Ron Hubbard: he was elected President of the NY chapter of the American Fiction Guild in 1935.  As I already mentioned, I was President of SFWA at the end of the 20th century.   That, and later being Chair of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University in NYC, convinced me that elected office was no pleasure, and indeed took too much time away from writing.

6. A lot of the material about Asimov comes from his two-part autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt, which I devoured as soon as they were published (1979, 1980).  But it was fun to read it all again - ranging from Asimov getting $64 for his first sale, "Marooned Off Vesta," to Amazing Stories not Astounding (my first sale of a science fiction story to a professional publication was also to Amazing Stories - "Albert's Cradle" in 1993 - and the first payment I ever received for any writing was $65 from The Village Voice for "A Vote for McCartney" in 1971) - to Campbell continually coming up with essential ideas for both the Foundation and the robot stories.   (I should also mention that, like Asimov, I have no intention of ever writing under any name other than my own.  Except Asimov eventually did, and I won't.  I want the girl who didn't laugh at my jokes in 5th grade to see the error of her ways when she walks into a bookstore - or, in today's world, when she's browsing on Amazon.)  And it was enlightening to read material about Asimov from other sources that I didn't know.

7.  I also studied General Semantics in the NYU Media Ecology PhD program.  I still give talks at some of their meetings, and therefore enjoyed Nevala-Lee's recounting of Heinlein's interest in the subject and movement.

8.  I do have something else in common with Hubbard:  when a potential recommender invited Hubbard to write the recommendation himself, Hubbard obliged with "This will introduce one of the most brilliant men I have ever known."  A reviewer once asked me to write a review of one of my stories, because he was pressed for time.  I did, and said it was the best example of this kind of story ever written.  I sent it to the reviewer for his approval and he decided to write his own review, after all.

9. It was great reading about Campbell's launching of the Probability Zero section.  That was where I had my first publication in Analog, in February 1995.

10.  Campbell and Nevala-Lee repeatedly refer to Heinlein as Astounding's (and science fiction's) best writer (until Asimov's The God Themselves in 1972, when Nevala-Lee says Asimov "finally pulled ahead" of Heinlein).  I disagree: Asimov was almost always the best science fiction writer, by virtue of his Foundation stories (at least, beginning with "The Mule" in 1945), his robot stories, and The End of Eternity for good measure.  But Heinlein was second, with no one even close behind him, until Philip K. Dick (who I learned in Nevala-Lee's book was published in Astounding/Analog only once).

11. I love this quote from S. I. Hayakawa: "The art [of science fiction] consists in concealing from the reader, for novelistic purposes, the distinctions between established scientific facts, almost-established scientific hypotheses, scientific conjectures, and imaginative extrapolations," from ETC, 1951. I was book editor of that journal in the late 1970s.

12. Nevala-Lee provides many examples of Campbell's astute - and not-so-astute - scientific thinking.  I'd say that his most accurate was his anticipation of the hydrogen bomb.

13. I hadn't known that Claude Shannon - co-creator of the Shannon-Weaver model of communications, fundamental to any study of the subject - was a neighbor of Campbell in New Jersey!

14. Nevala-Lee should have said more about The Puppet Masters (1951) - one of Heinlein's best novels, one of the best science fiction novels, period, and of which a good movie has yet to be made (unlike Starship Troopers).

15. I don't blame Asimov for long resisting acquiring an agent.  I've had mixed results with agents over the years myself.

16. I also loved learning that Campbell sent Heinlein a Tom Lehrer record as a "peace offering" after an argument (they would "never fully reconcile").

17.  I'm with Heinlein not Asimov in Heinlein's bristling at editors' instructions and revisions.

18. Heinlein's The Door Into Summer (1956) indeed ranks among his best work - and I'd say among the all-time best time-travel novels - but it comes in second, again, in my opinion, to Asimov's The End of Eternity, published a year earlier.  (Nevala does say that it's Asimov's "best single novel".  He doesn't say if Heinlein was moved to write his novel after reading Asimov's.)

19.  Campbell's rejection of Asimov's "Ugly Little Boy" was one of his worst mistakes - the story is one of Asimov's very best (and, as Nevala-Lee tells us, one of Asimov's favorites).

20. The material about Charles Manson being inspired by Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land strikes me as the same as Manson being inspired by the Beatles' Helter Skelter:  you can't blame a creator for what a lunatic gets out of the creator's work.

21. Apropos the mention of Marvin Minsky:  I should add that he's also on record as saying his work in AI was triggered by Asimov's robot stories.

22. Campbell's racism in the 1960s was indeed repugnant, as Nevala-Lee says, not to mention his critique of the demonstrators at Kent State in 1970.  Silverberg was right not to want to work him after the racism became apparent.

23.  I was (sadly) reminded that Mitt Romney said Hubbard's Battleship Earth was his "favorite novel".  Back in June 2007, that was one of ten reasons which led me to wonder if Mitt Romney was a cylon.

So there you have it - a sampling of the gems Nevala-Lee's book offers.  If you have any interest in science fiction, let alone knowledge of its history and authors, you'll find this book indispensable.  And, if you've ever written any science fiction, maybe transformative, too.  It had that exhilarating effect on me, because it made clear that what little I've done as a science fiction writer is tied to a genre, a tradition, that propelled us, and lit up our lives, in the 20th century, and still does.

Source: http://paullevinson.blogspot.com/2018/12/astounding-by-alec-nevala-lee.html

I talked about my book, Fake News in Real Context, in March 2018.

 

McLuhan in an Age of Social Media - Paul Levinson

The Omnipotent Ear - applying McLuhan's tetrad to the flip of binge-watching television to binge-listening to the Beatles on Sirius XM radio

Fake News in Real Context - Paul Levinson

I talk about fake news via Skype in Poland, December 2016

Marilyn and Monet - Paul Levinson

reading first third of the novelette at Readercon 2017

Heather, The Totality: The Bombshell

Heather, the Totality - Matthew Weiner

Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner has written a powerhouse of a first novel.Heather, the Totality - Matthew Weiner  

Come Out Tonight by Bonnie Rozanski

A riveting, high-concept medical thriller with an eye and ear for New York ambience that rivals E.L. Doctorow's, except Come Out Tonight is quintessentially 21st century.  Bonnie Rozanski will have you wondering, laughing, cajoling your brain for answers until the final page.

The Mindtraveler by Bonnie Rozanski

Due to be published February 1, 2015 - at this point, just in paperback - The Mindtraveler is the best new time travel novel I've read in years.   I had the pleasure of reading an advance copy for the purpose blurbing more than a year ago.  Here's my brief review:

 

A savvy, sassy, scientifically astute and rewardingly personal time travel story, which captures the intersecting worlds of physics, academe, and harrowing heart-warming romance just perfectly. Bursting with brilliant lines and memorable characters, The Mindtraveller makes a signal contribution to the time-travel romance genre.

 

 

Loose Ends

Loose Ends (Jeff Harris Book 1) - Paul Levinson

Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon nominated 1997 time-travel novella

#Berlin45: The Final Days of Hitler's Third Reich by Philip Gibson: Delightful, Important, Informative

I was happy to learn of Philip Gibson's #Berlin45: The Final Days of Hitler's Third Reich, given that I had rave-blurbed Robert K. Blechman's Executive Severance, a mystery novel written in real-time tweets, back in 2011.   Amazingly and ironically,Executive Severance has not yet been published as a Kindle - it's available only in paperback - but is delightful nonetheless.

#Berlin45 is available as a Kindle ebook, is also written in tweets, and is also delightful - as well as historically informative, making the brutally true story that it covers a pleasure to read.   Unlike Executive Severance, the tweets that comprise #Berlin45were never posted on Twitter, and in fact are in the mouths - or from the fingertips - of leading historical figures who presided over the fall of the Third Reich, ranging from Hitler himself to his top aids and clerical assistants to allied leaders in the United States, England, and the Soviet Union.   As such, #Berlin45 constitutes an alternate history of sorts - what would have been tweeted in 1945 in those finals days of the Third Reich had all the major parties Twitter accounts and used them as you and I - but not yet Presidents and military leaders - use them today.  Thus, we really get a double alternate history in this fast-paced volume - the general alternate history of Twitter in 1945, and the more specific alternate history of leaders often obsessively tweeting.

One opportunity that may have been missed in this book is the major and minor players responding to each other's tweets - or at least RTing and Favoriting tweets.   The narrative instead consists of tweets largely uniformed by the tweets of others in the book, though because the tweeters are often talking about the same events - Hitler and his minions about the Russian approach to Berlin - the tweets are often connected in theme.

The history is well-researched and accurate.   The only slightly misleading phrase I noticed was in this background blurb about Stalin - "After entering into a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, from 1941 to 1945 he oversaw the defense of the Soviet Union" - which would have been clearer as "After entering into a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, dissolved by Hitler in 1941, Stalin from then to 1945 oversaw the defense of the Soviet Union" - but that's a minor quibble.  

The voices of the tweeters - or, better, tweeting styles - all ring true, as do the psychological tensions and chess games that we know from history, such as the mutual exasperation between Hitler and his generals in the last days of the war.   Gibson also works in some good narrative connectors, such as Hitler ordering the flooding of the Berlin subway system to slow the Russian advance, after Joseph Goebbel's wife separately muses about a bathtub in the bunker.

I was bound to really enjoy this book, being a fan of alternate history, having written extensively about Twitter in New New Media, and being a World War II history buff to boot.  But you'll love this book if you're any one of those, and maybe even if you're not at all.  #Berlin45 is part of a growing series of books like this by Gibson ("hashtag histories")  - including a presciently written one about the Cuban Missile Crisis in tweets - and I expect I'll be reading all of them sooner or later.  In even shorter than a tweet, I can say:  Gibson has given us a compelling way to witness history

 

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Perfect Science Fiction Mystery Hybrid

Faster than light travel has been one of the most intriguing and frustrating challenges of science fiction, which generally distinguishes itself from fantasy by writing about technologies and events that are at least scientifically plausible. But according to Einstein's theory of special relativity, movement at faster than light speeds is flatly impossible, and the slightly more lenient theory of general relativity insists that objects attain infinite mass at light speeds. So how, then, is science fiction to write about human relations across star systems and galaxies in human time frames?

One approach might be to contest Einstein's proscriptions on super-luminary travel on scientific or philosophic of science terms. If we agree with the philosopher Karl Popper that even the best corroborated scientific theories are nonetheless highly fallible and destined for falsification -- as Einstein himself did -- then fiction writers should have little trouble amending Einstein much the same as Einstein amended Newton. But not many science fiction writers seem aware of Popper, or indeed sophisticated discussions of philosophy of science, at least insofar as these might pertain to speed of light.

The result has been a science fiction that by and large has repealed Einstein without much of a hearing. Whether the hyperspace drive of Asimov in the 40s or the warp drive of Star Trek and most else in between, travel at faster than light speeds has been more of an assumption than a challenge in a genre which is supposed to engage rather than subsume technological puzzles. (Cryogenic solutions that posit transport of frozen humans to be wakened upon reaching their destination at least have the merit of not ignoring Einstein. Frank Herbert's approach of beings "folding" space in theDune series has an Einsteinian plausibility, but relies a bit too much on the quantum mechanical idea of mind pushing matter to be satisfyingly scientific.)

Even more disappointing than the repeal by fiat of Einstein has been science fiction's treatment of human relations in the faster than light environments. That treatment has usually been a simple transplantation of human dynamics from Earth to far vaster realms, with the assumption that travel from here to Tau Ceti and beyond should in principle be no different in terms of human effects than our capacity to easily travel now from New York to Los Angeles. But history and philosophy of technology have shown over and over again that new modes of transportation profoundly transform their passengers -- the medium is the message, as McLuhan pointed out, whether communication or transportation -- and science fiction that treats a trip across the galaxy as no different in human principle than a trip across the country thus shortchanges its readers.

Which is why John Stith's Redshift Rendezvous is so refreshing. The book is in many respects a standard adventure of murder and hijacking in space. But in one crucial regard this book is extraordinary in science fiction: it deals with the human detail of faster than light travel. Indeed, speed of light and its consequences is the real hero of this book.

The "Redshift" is a ship that travels faster than light, and Stith posits that speed of light inside the ship is therefore reduced to some ten meters per second, or 30 million times slower than its usual speed. This is far from always pleasant, and passengers are advised to keep their lifebelts on at all times (in order for their neural chemistry to operate at normal speeds), and trust their kinesthetic rather than optical perceptions.

Simple dining can be very interesting in this environment -- a morsel of fish turns indigo as it enters its eater's mouth and life field -- but committing and solving murders are even more so (the latter can be done by removing the victim's lifebelt). The chief security officer single-handedly manages to nearly disable an entire terrorist crew by virtue of his superior understanding of human movement and vision aboard his ship, and in the end he calls upon the physics of the ship's corridors to quite literally hoist the villain on her own petard.

If you like your science fiction to treat faster than light travel with a bit more respect than Dorothy clicking her heels together three times to go from Oz to Kansas, you'll enjoy this book. I look forward to return voyages on the Redshift and other Stith vessels that speculate on the stretching of natural laws and its effect on humans.

 

Source: http://paullevinson.blogspot.com/2014/03/book-review-redshift-rendezvous-by-john.html

The Best Novel You Likely Never Heard Of

No, it's not one of my mine.   And I do this every few years - blog about a novel that's not only one of the best you likely never heard of, but, for it's worth, is one of the best I've ever read.  I guess I should also mention that the novel is science fiction - which means, it's not competing with Austen or Dickens or Tolstoy or Hemingway.   But I should also say that I think science fiction always has a leg up - a page up? a screen up? - on all other kinds of literature, because science fiction deals with makes us quintessentially human, which I take to not just accept what the universe deals out, not just cope with it, but strive to change the universe itself.

The novel is by David S. Michaels and Daniel Brenton.

You never heard of them, right?

They published a novel, in the year 2000, entitled Red Moon (not to be confused with Michael Cassutt's novel of same name published around the same time, and the half a dozen other novels by the same name published since then). Cassutt's novel is good. Dave Michael and Daniel Brenton's is among the best three or four novels I've ever read, period - as I already said.

The background of the novel: I've always been fascinated by the collapse of the Soviet space program in the 1960s. The Soviets jump-started the space age with Sputnik in 1957. They got the first animals and then the first people up into space. They sent spacecraft – with no people – to the moon. They were on the verge of getting people there.

They inspired John F. Kennedy – in the senses of both wonder and security – to put the U.S. on a course to send a human to the moon and safely back by the end of the decade. Which we did.

But the Soviets never made it. Their move into space hit a strange stone wall. And the lack of continuing competition between the Soviets and us was likely the most significant factor in the fizzling of our own efforts in space.  Forty-five years later, and we have yet to set foot on the moon again, or anywhere beyond the space station.

What happened to the Soviet space program? The death of its mastermind, Sergei Korolev in 1966, no doubt was a grievous blow.  But… I don't know… there were a lot of other talented people working in the Soviet space program. The death of one man, however important, should not have led to the crash of the entire program.

Red Moon provides some breathtaking science fictional answers.

How I found out about the novel: It was at a reading I was giving at a science fiction convention – Balticon (in Baltimore) in the Spring of 2001. David S. Michaels came up to me after the reading, with a copy of my novel, The Silk Code, for me to autograph. Then he pulled a 600-page book out of his backpack, and asked me to please accept it, as a gift.

I wasn't sure what to say. First, traveling back from Baltimore to New York by train (I love driving, but trains even more) is no fun with a heavy bag of books, which I already had. Second, as a writer, I find I don't read as much fiction as I would like – if I'm writing a novel, which I usually am, reading someone else's can throw me off course. But ... 

There was something about Dave, and I was already keenly interested in the subject, so I thanked him for the present and added it to my bag (it was filled with non-fiction books, by the way, which I do read when I can).

It was well into June before I had a chance to open Red Moon. And when I did – well, I couldn't put it down. It might as well have been a newFoundation novel. The subject, the plot, the characters, the writing was brilliant. I contacted Dave right away, told him how much I enjoyed the novel. It had been published by a very small press. I told him I would try to get it to the attention of a bigger publisher.

Which I did… But all of this was right before September 11, 2001, when lots of things changed in the publishing world (most of which is headquartered in New York City). And in the aftermath, at least the publishers that I had been in contact with were doing other things, and cutting back their acquisition lists.

And so, nothing more happened with Dave Michaels and Daniel Brenton'sRed Moon. I listed it as my #1 favorite first science fiction novel on a list I started on Amazon. (It's a pretty exclusive list. I'd highly recommend Bob Katz's Edward Maret, which is #2 on the list. Wen Spencer's Alien Taste and Larry Ketchersid's Dusk Before Dawn are there, too.) 

Amazon's Kindle revolution now has given Red Moon a new life. (I also have a reader review of the novel there.)  Kindle has been doing this for lots of novels, including many of mine.   (The Red Moon paperback is still available.)

If you're at all interested in the space race, what could have been, why what happened — and didn't happen – happened, the extraordinary human struggle to reach the cosmos, give yourself a treat, and get a copy of this novel. Trust me – you'll be caught up in an adventure, in an intrigue of alternate and real history, that you'll never forget. 

How to Survive the End of the World - on National Geographic

An important heads up if you value the future of this planet and our civilization: "How to Survive the End of the World" debuts on National Geographic television on December 10.   It's a multi-part series, and I'm in most or all of them, including the December 10 "Zombie Earth" aka rabies gone wild episode.

Other scenarios include freeze-out "Frozen Earth," volcanic "Hell on Earth," and you get the picture. It's part science fiction, part serious speculation and analysis, brought to you by the Atlas Media folks who did "Evacuate Earth" last year.

Here's the trailer - I'm 1-min 19-secs in

 

And here's a screenshot from "Frozen Earth" episode

Mechanized Masterpieces: a Steampunk Anthology - A.F. Stewart, Penny  Freeman, Alyson Grauer, Aaron Sikes, Belinda Sikes, Anika Arrington, David W. Wilkin, M.K. Wiseman, Neve Talbot, Scott William Taylor Just my cup of rusty tea - actually, eight cups, all Victorian, but filled with flavors ranging from delicate to industrial, all infused like all fine steampunk with devices from the subsequent centuries. But more than that, you'll find in this anthology not only cyborgs and flying machines and electrical and medical magic, but deft and memorably poetic writing, inscribed in glistening multicolor ink on a sky "the color of the sail". Whether you're a fan of the genre or brand new to it, whether you think you have a hankering or you know you do for reading what Dickens or Poe or Bierce would have written had they seen the 21st century, you'll find in this book a rare and exhilarating treat.
A History of Philosophy - Albert Schwegler, Julius H. Seelye best introduction to philosophy from ancient times through mid-19th century