Monday, April 14, 2014

Tempus fugit ...

Tempus fugit. Times flies, indeed. Four-and-a-half years since I last posted here at Kosmosflot. Fact is, I took a break from science fiction for many reasons. Witnessing John Ringo's raging melt down at Windy Con in 2008 was one. Later on, reading John Scalzi's condescending words about straight white males was another. The science fiction section at my library and local bookstore (only one store left!) are filled with fantasy novels or depictions of women looking like Conan the Barbarian or Jean-Claude van Damme. Not my taste, and not my interest. And hardly a spaceship to be found anywhere, alas. I occasionally pick up a Baen book, ahem, from the library. But when the usual Baen-style extreme politics start hitting me over the head, I put it back.

I found myself rereading the works of Roland Green (Starship Shenandoah), Robert Frezza (A Small Colonial War), and revisiting favorites like The Mote in God's Eye. I follow Bill Keith's science fiction, always have, and I was happy to see he will be the guest of honor at Pittsburgh's Confluence 2014 science-fiction convention. Yay, Bill!

So why come back to this orbital zone? Mainly because of a kind fellow in Japan, Joseph Ficor, who's been a fan of my short stories. Joseph was kind enough to create a pdf collection of my works, complete with a cover and artwork. I need to take pen/keyboard in hand and write another Kosmosflot story to show my appreciation to him. And even though cats on the Internet have bigger followings than this little blog, I shouldn't abandon it out of disgust for the low state of science fiction these days.

And what else of science-fiction interest has come my way? Monsters in Motion sent me notice of this new, beautiful plastic model of the Cosmostrator, from First Spaceship on Venus, (German: Der Schweigende Stern - "The Silent Star"), adapted from Stanislaw Lem's story The Astronauts. I may have to volunteer my now 12-year-old son to help me assemble it. We just finished a model of the USS Arizona for his Pearl Harbor history project, so we've had some practice. Did you know that plastic model cement is now scented orange? I miss the heady fumes of the original Testors glue.

In May the new Godzilla film will premiere, and I hope it will be a good one. The new movie will be a horror film, just like the original Gojira, and not some campy hokum. The trailer looks promising. I was disheartened at first when I read an interview with the director, who said he wanted to change Godzilla's origin. Oh no, I thought, that is awful. But after seeing the preview trailer, and the revelation that the American atomic and hydrogen bomb tests in the south Pacific were not really tests, well, I am more confident that the new movie will properly honor Big G's origins.

When I was six years old, my father was serving in the US Navy, and we were living in New Jersey, not far from Lakehurst Naval Air Station, famous for the crash of the Hindenburg airship back in the 1930's. Dad told me I had to get up early Saturday morning, that there was something special on TV that I would enjoy. He helped me wake up, made me a cup of that good Navy cocoa, and for the next 90 minutes I was spellbound. The film was, of course, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the American version of Gojira, dubbed, starring Raymond Burr. Dad knew I loved dinosaurs and had loved seeing Gorgo, the British version of Godzilla, when I was younger. It's one of my fondest memories of my father, and Godzilla became one of my favorite movie monsters. Thanks, Dad.

And I want to recommend Los Últimos Días, a very well done post-apocalyptic tale from Spain. It's refreshing that it's not a zombie story, and no ugly aliens causing the end of the world ... at least none that we see. It's the story of a man in Barcelona when the big crack-up occurs, desperately seeking his pregnant wife after the human race is paralyzed by mass agoraphobia. No one can survive going out of doors, and civilization is soon on the skids. The story kept me captivated, and the final scene is surprisingly touching, one that every parent who loves their child will understand. The film is in Spanish, and I watched it with subtitles. See it if you can.

D’os Vadanya,


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Santa's Rocket Sleigh

I was a kid during America's "Space Age", which I would define as the period between the launch of Sputnik and the end of the Gemini space capsule launches. Anything to do with space, rockets, and astronauts was hot stuff, especially for young boys like myself. Space helmets, futuristic toy rifles and pistols, astronaut costumes, space-related games and model kits, all were popular, especially at Christmas time. Even Santa Claus joined the space age. I know because I took a ride in Santa's Rocket Sleigh.

It was a few days before Christmas in 1964, and my dad announced that Santa's Rocket Sleigh was coming to the new Greenwood shopping center on Indianapolis' south side. My brother and sisters and I put on our winter coats, piled into Dad's big old Buick, and headed out for a rather strange space-age holiday adventure. It was a cold sunny day, but there had been snow earlier so there were big melting "ice bergs" in the corners of the shopping center parking lot, deposited by the snow plows.

Santa's Rocket Sleigh was parked in the northeast corner of the gigantic parking lot. It was actually a customized bus with a white aircraft-like body, red trim, and big rocket tail fins. The front hatch opened like an old-style airplane entrance, hinged at the bottom so that it folded out-and-down to make a small stairstep entry. I think Santa was somewhere behind the rear of the rocket having a cigarette when I boarded the wierd craft. A woman in a very short Santa's helper dress guided us inside. The "cockpit" was pretty much like that of any city bus, and I remember there were porthole-style windows along both rows of seats.

Without fanfare, Santa entered the rocket, waved HI, and proceeded to drive us around the shopping center parking lot, past the grimy ice bergs of melting snow. The rocket's suspension showed its age, because I remember the ride was bumpy and rough, but I enjoyed it all the same.

After some research I discovered that the rocket sleighs were a travelling attraction in many parts of the United States during those years, even in Alaska. But, sadly, I've not been able to find any photos of this space-age holiday oddity like the one I rode in 1964. The Alaskan version has two booster rockets up top, almost like the space shuttle's, but the rocket sleigh in Indiana was much more streamlined. I did find a photo of the remains of another version, rusting in a junkyard, located by another grown-up rocket sleigh rider who remembers it like I do.

My home state of Indiana has another link to Santa's Rocket Sleigh. The late rockabilly singer Bobby Helms, who lived in Martinsville, Indiana, for most of his life, recorded this odd space-age Christmas song: CAPTAIN SANTA CLAUS AND HIS REINDEER SPACE PATROL. It would have been a great soundtrack for a rocket sleigh full of happy children, eagerly looking forward to the magic of Christmas day.

I wish everyone a very Merry Space-Age Christmas, and a prosperous, safe, and Happy New Year!


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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Back from Hiatus: WindyCon, Astro Boy & MSTS

It’s Veterans Day in the USA. It’s the day when we recognize those who have done service in uniform for their country. Unlike other major holidays in America, businesses don’t exploit it, so it’s celebrated with a few small parades here and there, usually in a low-key fashion. If you know any veterans, it would be nice if you would wish them a happy Veterans Day.

Exactly one year has passed since I last posted a Kosmosflot blog. I’ve been on hiatus, and it was intentional. I’ll explain why. Last year I had the pleasure to be invited to Chicago’s great WindyCon science-fiction convention. The theme was military science-fiction, one of my favorite genres, and I was honored to have been invited as a discussion panel participant, a first for me. The subject of the panel was “Building A Military Science-Fiction Library”, and the panelists and I had lots of fun discussing some of the great authors who’ve written about military service of the future.

But at one of the panels, “Who Gets Military Science Fiction Right … Or Wrong”, one of the guest speakers, a well-known author, made an ugly scene when it was mentioned that military ranks have sometimes been filled by people who had gotten into trouble with the law and, well, sometimes were criminals. I already knew this from history and even from personal experience during my days in the Air Force. I didn’t think this was particularly offensive or disrespectful to veterans. Not so with the big-name author. He stomped out of the room, slammed the door behind him, but then returned to launch an ugly tirade at all of us who were in attendance. His rants and raves went on until I was about ready to leave myself, but he finally exited with another loud door slam, not to return. The other panel members had the good graces to (nervously) resume the presentation.

I won’t mention the author’s name. Perhaps he has emotional issues, maybe even related to his own experience in the military. And more than once I’ve read that professional writers can be cranky, moody, and socially challenged. But having to sit through this ugly and disrespectful tantrum really put me off, and though I very much enjoyed the rest of the convention, the untoward experience was in my thoughts during my drive home from Chicago back to Bloomington, Indiana. Finally I decided to take a break, take some time off from science fiction, and pursue other interests for awhile, anyway. And that’s what I did. Though I couldn’t resist buying Bill Keith’s final installment of his 9-volume Heritage/Legacy/Inheritanance military science-fiction epic: Semper Human, written under his penname Ian Douglas. And during the summer I flew out to Pittsburgh to see Bill at the great Confluence convention, a nice break for me while my family was visiting relatives in Armenia.

My son and I went to see the new Astro Boy movie, and we both enjoyed it. I will date myself by saying that I actually watched the original Astro Boy tv series, in glorious black-and-white, when I was a kid back in 1963. Of course, the new film makes changes from the original story line. Astro’s father, Doctor Tenma, redeems himself in the new film, unlike the original series in which he was just simply a creep, a bad father. In the skewed world of corporate culture, bad dads are not politically correct, I guess. Not so in Japan. But what I missed the most in the new film was getting a glimpse of the gleaming, tech-wonderful world of the future where Astro Boy lived. In the original series, Earth was indeed a planet of “graphite and glitter”, filled with flying cars, high-speed monorails, undersea cities, and wacky terra-forming projects like a colossal dam across the Bering Straits! Not so in the new film. Like in Wall-E, the new Astro Boy’s Earth is pretty much a garbage heap, polluted, trashed, and awful. And only the elite rich get to live in comfort and safety. Oh well, our expectations and our culture changes, right?

One new pastime that I discovered during my hiatus was Microsoft’s Train Simulator, the world of V-scale model railroading. The V stands for virtual, and, yes, there is even a science-fiction aspect to this hobby which I will show you in a bit. Released in 2002, MSTS, as the program is known, is a virtual-world computer simulation of locomotives, trains, and railroads. With it you can be a train engineer, and simulate the experience of running trains of various types and sizes through routes, simulated rail lines. MSTS is enough of an open system that third parties can create locomotives, rolling stock, and even entire railroad routes, but doing so requires considerable computer and artistic skills. In fact, to really enjoy MSTS and other V-scale software, you must be computer-savvy. Installing software, upgrades, patches, along with debugging and editing configuration files is mandatory, so one must also have computer skills to master this hobby.

There is an amazing library of free add-ons for the program via The Internet. My own collection of downloads now exceeds 67 gigabytes, more than enough that I will ever use in my lifetime, I’m sure. Railfans all over the world have created their own favorite locomotives and routes for MSTS, and though Microsoft shutdown development of MSTS version 2 due to the economic crunch, support for this 7-year-old software program is just amazing, mostly due to its loyal followers.

You can get a look at what MSTS is about by watching some of the great At The Railyard videos on YouTube.

And the science-fiction angle? Well, the first time I ran a train on the Pennsylvania Railroad route, I saw a trackside factory named "Klingon Lawn Furniture Company". And take a look at this James Bond-inspired chase, a very hacked video that showcases the popular fantasy route called Sea View Island. Weapons, explosions, and flying trains are not a part of MSTS. Those were added to the video for fun, but you will see the amazing Sea View Express turbine-powered trains. They’re great fun to run, some of my favorites.

Well, for better or worse, I’m back. A couple of people noticed my absence and were kind enough to write during my hiatus. To them I say, thanks very much for asking about me. This blog amazes me by the large number of readers that keep coming every week, and by their world-wide locations. My most popular posts are the ones about Ded Moroz, the Russian Santa Claus; the War of the Worlds post; and the Science Fiction For Kids entries. So what the heck, maybe I’ll write some more!

All the Best,


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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Science Fiction for Kids: The Adventures of Thelonious

"In ancient times human beings ruled the Earth -- at least that's what the old legends claim. But is it true?" - Thelonious Chipmunk, from The Travels of Thelonious

It’s a familiar theme for science-fiction fans: all civilization and the entire human race is destroyed by conflict or disaster. Then intelligent animals arise to dominate the world. But soon those new masters of the Earth begin making the same mistakes as their human predecessors. Of course, The Planet of the Apes is probably the most famous example of such stories, the novel and both the original 1968 film starring Charlton Heston (co-authored by Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling) and the crazy-fast-action Tim Burton remake of a few years back. Comic book fans may also recall Jack Kirby’s long-running DC series Kamandi – The Last Boy On Earth, where "Beasts Act Like Men! Men Act Like Beasts!"

Strangely enough, the post-human era is presented once again, this time in a wonderful trilogy of children’s books by Jon Buller and Susan Schade: The Fog Mound adventures. It’s first-class science fiction for children, though I should mention that there are some scenes of cruelty and violence between the animal characters, and, in the third volume, Thelonius and his friends have a frightening encounter with Upsilon the Wolfman, and must listen to the “crunching of small bones” as the scary beast and his companions dine. However, throughout the stories the animal characters display real compassion and loving care towards each other, and they often reminded me of the rabbits in Watership Down, another favorite "furry" book.

But be warned: As I found out, these books are so good that if you read them to children at bedtime, as I did for my son, Ronnie, they will not want to go to sleep. They will beg you to keep reading and reading these fascinating adventures.

In the first volume we meet the story's hero, Thelonious Chipmunk.

Thelonious Chipmunk is a Talker -- an animal who has inherited the gift of language from his ancestors -- and he, for one, believes in humans. Who else could have made the old paper postcard he treasures? Who else could have built the tall building shown on the postcard? His desire to know more about the humans is fulfilled in a surprising and dangerous way when Thelonious is swept down the river into a strange new world -- a world of architectural ruins and puzzling artifacts, where gangs and warlords prowl amongst the crumbling remains of civilization. With three new companions -- a bear, a porcupine, and a small brown lizard -- Thelonious embarks on a search for the far-off Fog Mound. It is a journey that becomes nothing less than a quest to uncover the secrets of Earth's past.

After living on the Fog Mound for quite some time, Thelonious Chipmunk and his friends are ready to continue their travels. There are some old questions to be answered and new places to be explored. So, with the addition of new friends Bill the Human and Cluid Chipmunk, the animals sail off down the river in a specially designed boat. As in The Travels of Thelonious, the intrepid chipmunk pursues his personal quest to uncover the differences between legend and history. And to answer the most troubling question of all — what happened to the humans?

Thelonious Chipmunk and his friends face a whole new series of adventures after they reach the mysterious Mattakeunk Institute and discover . . . a time machine! Will the time machine lead them to the answers they seek? Perhaps some of the answers will come when the animals' traveling companion, Bill the Human, regains his ability to speak. However there is one pressing need above all others -- the need to save their beloved Fog Mound from the Dragon Lady herself, and her evil ratmink assistants.

-quoted from Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

D’os Vadanya,


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Sunday, November 09, 2008

WindyCon, Building a Military SF Library, and Freehold

Next weekend I will be attending the WindyCon 35 science-fiction convention in Chicago. The event’s theme is military science fiction, and Baen Books’ John Ringo is the guest of honor, along with author Eric Flint, Star Trek’s and Babylon 5’s Walter Koenig, and artist David Mattingly.

I’m a Cold War veteran, and I spent most of my hitch in the Strategic Air Command’s 22nd Heavy Bomber Wing. And like most veterans, I learned pretty quickly that the old adage that advises “Don’t volunteer for anything!” is essential unless you want to subject yourself to dreadful humiliation or great risk. So, when I logged on the WindyCon site to make some suggestions for panel discussion topics, I had no idea that I was, in fact, volunteering to be a panel member. But that’s what happened, and I’ll be participating in the panel about Building a Military SF Library - What are the great books of military SF? What does any aspiring military SF writer need to have in a reference collection? Panelists tell you.

The session is scheduled for Saturday at 7 p.m., Nov. 15, in Ballroom C (C6, to be exact). While it’s a totally unexpected privilege for me, and my first time to be on a convention panel, I’m very honored and happy that Roland J. Green, the author of some of my all-time favorite military science-fiction series (Starcruiser Shenandoah, The Peacekeepers) will also be a panel participant.

On Friday evening I don’t want to miss the panel discussion titled Liberal Military SF: Does It Exist? - Can a writer be a liberal and a military SF writer? Is there something in military SF that requires a conservative outlook? Not counting the revolutionaries, are there any good portrayals of liberals in the genre?

Somehow I’m not surprised that Michael “Mad Mike” Z. Williamson will be a panelist on that one. Mad Mike almost got me in trouble in 2005 while I was living in Armenia. I was enjoying myself in an Internet café in the capitol city of Yerevan and, thanks to the Baen Free Library, I came across Williamson’s first novel, Freehold. To be generous I will just say that I didn’t like it much. The libertarian paradise it portrayed was as unbelievable to me as any Soviet propaganda about a future world of “pure communism”. But that’s not what almost got me into an unpleasant situation. The adult content in Freehold did. In fact, I think Williamson went way, way beyond erotica and crossed the line into pornography with his detailed descriptions of lesbian and group sex acts by the novel’s characters.

And, in Armenia, possessing, reading, and downloading pornography can get you into big, big trouble. Trouble like the interior of an old Soviet prison cell. And, quite frankly, I didn’t expect content like that when I started reading the story. Baen’s other online stories contain nothing like what I saw in Williamson’s book.

Lucky for me, the Internet café proprietors and their up-stream service providers didn’t detect the lewd text and, yes, they do monitor and sometimes block adult content in Armenia and in many of the other post-Soviet Republics. No militsia thugs wearing big CCCP service caps appeared to beat me up, extort money, or haul me to KGB headquarters. But it did put me off of reading any more of Williamson’s books. I’ve seen his comments that say “It was my first novel. I’ve learned a lot since then,” but, on his own website, his response to the subject of the controversial sexual content in Freehold is pretty flip.

I got a bad feeling, too, about such sexually explicit content being available on Baen’s online library with no warning, no disclaimer, no parental advisory, and, as a parent, that gives me the creeps.

Earlier this year, at Dayton’s Marcon sf convention, I told Baen publisher Toni Weisskopf about my experience in Armenia and my concerns. She urged me to give Mad Mike another try, to read some of his later work, but first impressions are lasting ones. And I have too many good books from other authors on my to-read list, thank you all the same.

Until next time, D’os Vadanya,


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