Clayton J. Callahan- Author

I am Clayton Callahan. I write novels I design games. I hang out. I do nerdy things at science fiction conventions, and I’ve worked in a lot of jobs that required me to wear uniforms and carry guns.

As I am a college educated suburbanite, of course, I have a blog. This is a place to share what I find intriguing, stimulating and cool in the world of science fiction, gaming and things related to that stuff.

I hope you find what thrills you here.

 

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My Love/Hate Relationship: Starship Troopers

So, here’s the thing, Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein was the first science fiction book I ever read and in all honesty, it had a huge influence on me. I was all of fifteen years of age and heavily into a role-playing game called Traveller and was cruising my high school library for a book to give me ideas for gameplay. The title caught my attention as a book likely to inspire space adventure ideas so I checked it out.

Mind meet blown.

Now, keep in mind, I was just fifteen. This was also my first experience with a challenging novel that wasn’t part of an English class assignment. Heinlein was a master of the genre and at the hight of his form when he wrote Starship Troopers, and it is easily one of the top five examples of his work (The Cat Who Walked Through Walls…not so much). Within these pages, I learned that science fiction is more than hardware and alien locals. I learned that science fiction is meant to challenge one’s notions about society and the individual’s place within it. In this task, Heinlein succeeded as I would never again take my societal point of view entirely for granted. But, on other levels, he failed, and any honest critique must reflect on those failures as well.

Before I dive into the book, however, I need to mention the 1997 movie of the same title. The two only bare a passing resemblance to one another…and the movie sucks. Now, back to our regularly scheduled book.

The book chronicles the military career of young Johnny Rico who joins the military after having a falling out with his parents. The military, in this future age, is THE public institution after which all others come in a distant second at best. Only veterans can vote, work as teachers, be policemen or become elected officials. In this society, anybody can join the military as a matter of right, but only the honorably discharged can call themselves “citizens.”

We follow young Johnny through basic training, first combat deployment, second combat deployment, officer training school and then another combat deployment. The book ends (spoiler alert) with Johnny’s chance meeting with his father in a spaceport bar. His dad is now a soldier too, having joined after Johnny’s mother died in an alien attack. As father and son “reconcile” the spaceport’s PA system announces that their separate ships are soon to depart and father and son say goodbye–the end.

As a kid, I loved this book and it would remain on my list of “best books ever” for quite some time. I especially thought that Heinlein’s concept of a “Mobil Infantry” that shot out of starships in capsules to raid alien planets in power armored suits was particularly awesome (and why they left that part out of the movie I will never understand). Then, I re-read it in my 30s as I was attending an advanced US Army school. That’s right, I became a soldier myself. Possibly due to Starship Troopers‘ influence, and possibly for a host of other reasons. I joined the service–two of ’em actually, Navy and Army in that order. However, reading this book as both an adult and as a soldier, I found to be quite a different experience from reading it as just a kid and a gamer.

For one thing, I found the book EXTREMELY one sided. Heinlein gives us one point of view character who is essentially a blank slate. Johnny Rico accepts everything the army tells him and never questions the necessity of military regulations or customs. In fact, except for his parents, all the characters in this book support the military’s influence on society and obediently march along. And as for his parents’ objections to the military, well mom’s death at the hands of aliens and dad’s enlistment seems to indicate the end of that argument without further debate or even nuance.

As a man who has served in the military, I can attest that MANY divergent opinions exist within the ranks of any formation. The military is far from a flawless institution and is full of contradictions. Soldiers understand this and often struggle to do their duty in such a chaotic environment. In retrospect, I think Heinlein did his troopers a grave disservice by painting them with such a monochromatic brush. Thinking about all the brave, flawed, humorous and insightful soldiers I’ve served with, I can imagine how Starship Troopers could have been a much stronger story with a little less military perfection and a bit more diversity jammed in.

But thinking about Robert A. Heinlein’s actual military career, one can see why he stuck to such a ridged point of view. As a young man, Heinlein attended the US Navy Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. He lived that spit and polish life for four years with other young men of his social class during the 1920s. He then served honorably until he was forced to leave due to health reasons prior to World War II. Thus, never having served in wartime, he could only imagine the stresses a guy like young Johnny Rico would have gone through and it shows.

In the end, Starship Troopers is an idealized concept of what the military “should” be like according to a guy who never got shot at. It is also a work of “tour guide” science fiction, by which I mean that the book’s purpose is to show the reader this perfect world–and not to tell the reader a good story. I will grant that many of Heinlein’s ideas are worth discussing; such as the concept of earned citizenship. However, the one-sided arguments he gives makes his point rather dully in the end.

As a work of science fiction anthropology, however, I do recommend Starship Troopers. It is the first work to call itself “military science fiction,” and all such works that follow owe an intellectual debt to this novel (including mine). However, if you’re looking for an entertaining book you will probably be disappointed. And, I’m afraid, you will also be disappointed if you are looking for a book that challenges you with strong arguments and counter-arguments.

I loved this book once, but sadly, it looks like I outgrew it a long time ago.

By Clayton J. Callahan

Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, The Best Earth Bar That Never Was

So, apparently, I’m not the only guy who ever wrote a space bar book.

Okay, I’m of course kidding. I read Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon back in high school (In fact, I’m holding the high school edition). It was extremely popular back in its day and, reportedly, there were several instances of fans driving around New England looking for a bar that didn’t exist. It’s a fun read and every couple of years still I dust it off and read a story or two just for the pleasure of it.

I say “story or two” because the book is not a novel. Rather, it’s a series of science fiction short stories that all take place in a mythical bar in Suffolk County, Long Island (NOT upstate New York!!). called Callahan’s Place (No idea why Robinson chose my family name here). This is owing to the fact that Robinson at first published them one at a time in Science Fiction Analog magazine. The time of these stories is the present, which at time of publication was 1977.  Therefore, the science fiction elements have a sort of “Men In Black” flavor. Aliens live among us, as well as time travelers, vampires, recovering alcoholics, lost drug addicts, and an array of other quirky characters that populate the bar.

And characters are the important thing because this is not a book about universe changing events or galactic empires. No, Robinson instead gives us a series of intimate tales with a focus on human relations over science fiction wizardry. There’s Fast Eddy the piano player with the thick New York accent, Doctor Webster who leads all the pun contests, Ralph Von Wau Wau a mutant talking dog, and a host of others. All are very relatable people and set the sene for the events that follow.

All the stories are all told from the point of view of folk musician Jake Stonebender, who lost his wife and child in a car accident that he blames himself for. He came to Callahan”s Place to forget his troubles, but soon found something more. One of the quips of the book is “Callahan”s Law” which states that “shared pain is diminished while shared joy is increased.” And through the scientific application of this law, most of the plots are resolved.

Frankly, I always wondered why nobody made a TV show out of this book. It all takes place on one set (the bar) and would require little in the way of special effects. However, upon reflection, there is probably a limit to how much milk you can get out of this particular cow. Robinson wrote a host of other Callahan”s books, each or (in my opinion) of diminishing quality so perhaps such a show would only last a season (but what a cool season that would be!).

I must admit that Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon continues to be one of my influences and it is no coincidence that my first book, Tales of The Screaming Eagle, is a science fiction story set in a bar. Did I bring my own perspective into that work? Of course! Spider Robinson never served in the military, while I am a 20-year veteran. Therefore it is no surprise that my book concerns space veterans and their trials and triumphs. I also set my story on a distant colony world hundreds of years in the future because I really enjoy space opera and wanted to dive into that genera head first.

In the end, I departed from Robinson to tell my own story, but I still, owe a debt of inspiration to Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon and highly recommend it as a most enjoyable read.

By Clayton J. Callahan

Happy Star Wars Day, Everybody

I’ve been a fan since I first begged my dad to take me to the movie in 1977 (I was ten). It is no small claim to say that Star Wars was my gateway drug into the worlds of science fiction and  I’ve yet to kick the habit. So thank you to George Lucas and all the thousands of talented people who made Star Wars possible over the decades. And keep it going strong!

By Clayton J. Callahan

Avengers Infinity War…Meh

Image result for avengers infinity war

Just saw it and, sorry Marvel, not every little thing you do is magic.

I have been a fan of the Marvel movies for quite a while now. Most of the films have been well-written stories, elegantly executed. But here’s the thing, you have to start with good writing. The special effects, acting, production design, and music can all be top drawer–but if the writing is lacking, go home.

Now, naturally, I am a writer so perhaps I’m somewhat biased. But isn’t that where it all starts? Can you even tell a fictional story on film without a script? And there’s little excuse for Hollywood when you consider that the writer is usually the guy or gal who gets the smaller paycheck and the least amount of credit. Case in point; who wrote Captain America The Winter Soldier? I don’t know either and would have to google it.

What is specifically wrong with the writing of Avengers Infinity War? Well, I am working hard to refrain from spoilers here so I will speak generally. The story is one long downer, heroes are defeated time and again from the first scene to the last. Now, I am not opposed to tragedy as a thing, and I do understand that this movie is part one of a two-part tale wherein the second act can be the uplifting victory the audience now craves. However, even in tragedy, there MUST be levity! Why? Because the audience can easily become numb to the protagonist’s pain and emotionally check out before the movie is done.

For me, that was Avengers Infinity War. The film opens with such despair that one must steel oneself against further tragedy and by the time the movie reaches its horrific climax, I’d ceased to care. I actually regret the three hours I kept my butt in the chair as I was bored ninety minutes in. Yes, great characters that I have come to love perished. Only the sad thing was I didn’t feel anything when they did, and that is a great waste of fine acting talent if there ever was.

So, get it together Hollywood! Focus more on your story and less on your special effects. Just because you can make a big budget movies doesn’t mean you should unless you have a good tale to tell. And good storytelling always starts with the lowly writer.

By Clayton J. Callahan

How Dubgons & Dragons Turned Me Away From Evangilism

This is a story of fantasy vs. truth, and I’ll leave you to decide which side is which.

Now, to the best of my recollections, the right-wing evangelical movement kicked off in the early 1980’s. I was in my teens back then and I clearly recall picket lines outside 7-11 stores protesting the sale of Playboy magazine. Speakers came to my school’s auditorium, addressing us on the subject of Satanic rock music. To be sure, the religious right was on the rise, and with cable TV came the advent of a new show with a new star, The 700 Club featuring Pat Robertson.

Where was I back then? I was the new kid in a town called Kettering, Ohio. Friendless, I washed uppon the beaches of that Midwestern suburb at the hight of the Dungeons & Dragons craze. Suddenly, I had friends and something to do on the weekends, as I rolled dice and vanquished imaginary monsters with other juvenile acne victims.

One of my friends was the son of an Evangelical minister who had gone so far as to burn the lad’s D&D character sheet. I visited that friend frequently and when his dad learned that I was into that horrible hobby he read me the riot act. The game, he claimed, was satanic! He went on to state that by playing the game I was casting spells on my fellow players, and summoning demons that would whisper suicidal thoughts into our ears. To be honest, I had to suppress my inclination to laugh at this guy as he ranted on.

Further “research” into the subject came from watching The 700 Club itself. There, I got it straight from the horse’s mouth; Pat Robertson declared that D&D was the devil’s way of leading this younger generation astray.

And I can now honestly say that watching The 700 Club changed my life…just not in the way Pat would have hoped.

You see, I was young, very young. As a child, I had trusted adults to tell the truth and look out for my best interests. But now in my early teens, I discovered that adults did, in fact, lie and were not necessarily concerned for in my best interests one whit. You see, I’d played the “devil’s game” and read all the rules for over a year by the time all the hysteria came along.

Being a reasonably intelligent guy, I could easily distinguish reality from imagination. The spells in D&D weren’t real. No demons were summoned and nobody in my gaming group was committing suicide. None of us were Satanists, and for the most part, we obeyed our parents, did our homework and made our beds. Thus, I concluded, the Evangelicals who spouted this “devil’s game” malarkey was either ignorant of the game, lying to me or both.

My friend with the minister dad often invited to come to his pop’s church any time. It seemed his father (after the rant incident) had taken a liking to me and was eager for me to join their family on Sundays. I declined and am still glad I did.

Because once somebody lies to you, trust goes out the window, and without trust you have nothing.

But there is a positive lesson to be gleaned from all this as well. In my life as an adult, I have endeavored to be as truthful in my dealings as possible. If I don’t know much about a subject, I admit it and ask questions. If I am in a position where a lie would yield some temporary advantage, I decline to fabricate.

Once trust is gone, it is gone. If you lie about the small stuff, you will lie about the big and why should I waste my time in such company.

By Clayton Callahan