Dark Stars and Good Times

Have you ever watched a movie so bad it’s good?

My answer is, “yes,” and I’m not too proud to admit it. And of all the bad movies I’ve seen, one will always have a special place in my heart, John Carpenter’s Dark Star. Yes…that John Carpenter. The guy who gave us Halloween, The Thing, and Escape From New York was once a lowly film student, and back in the ancient days of 1974, he made Dark Star as a student film project.

The story revolves around a half dozen hippie astronauts on a never-ending journey, not to explore space and discover its mysteries. Nope. Their job is to seek out “unstable planets” and blow them the hell up. To do this they have a hyperspace capable ship called the Dark Star with a bomb bay full of self-aware planet-busting bombs.

Fun right?

I first encountered this little gem of a film on late-night TV back in the early 1980s. This was back in the days when local stations would shut down for the day at about 3:00am, play the national anthem, and then go dark until 6:00am. Dark Star, if it showed at all, would always be shown just before the anthem.

Later, I re-discovered it at science fiction conventions in the late 80s and earily90s. In those days, conventions always featured a “movie room” where classic SF films would be shown round the clock. I always found the movie rooms to be a great retreat from the hustle and bustle of the con. Tired of your friend’s drama? Kick back in the movie room for a few hours and eat some popcorn. I often found myself doing just that after midnight, and Dark Star was always shown after midnight.

I suppose lawsuits ended the movie room tradition as I haven’t seen a con feature one in decades. For this reason, I doubt if many young fans have ever heard of Dark Star. Still, it’s a movie that deserves to be remembered.

For a student film it was pretty darn good and for that reason, Carpenter managed to get it distributed professionally. Upon release, it mostly was shown at second run theaters and at drive-ins. Considering its shoestring budget, I’m pretty sure it made a profit after the first hundred or so ticket sales. I highly recommend it for your late night viewing. It’s silly, stupid, irreverent and has one of the best endings I’ve ever seen. No really, when your film’s climax is an astronaut debating phenomenology with an artificially intelligent, planet-destroying bomb you just can’t lose.

Besides, whoever said science fiction was supposed to be serious anyway?

The Matrix Is Twenty Years Older- And I’m Not Feeling That Young Myself

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So, I’ve just discovered that it’s been two decades since Neo first said, “Whoa.” To be sure The Matrix was a big deal at the time and a bit of a game changer for Hollywood. The slow motion, CGI fight choreography were copied in by other movies for years to come and its special effects were revolutionary for the time. However, looking back twenty years, you have to ask does The Matrix stand the test of time?

My answer; well sort of.

Oddly, in a story about what it means to be human in a cybernetic world the character, I found most compelling was the program known as Agent Smith. Hugo Weaving’s performance of a frustrated cybernetic being showed the true frustration of one trapped in an online reality. But perhaps the reason I identify with Agent Smith so much because I too have often felt frustrated with the new online world.

You see, I was born in 1967 when the internet wasn’t even making an appearance in science fiction. In the mid-90s it started to invade our lives but only to a limited extent and it could be safely ignored if one wished. Now, it is impossible to exist in modern life without internet access and even a troglodyte like me finds it impossible to escape. And like The Matrix suggested, people now live double lives through this new tech. Online, we can be these well dressed, cool, and sexy heroes who can do amazing things. Meanwhile, in reality, most of us are living paycheck to paycheck in as bleak an environment as Zion.

I never believed that science fiction is a purely predictive endeavor.  What passes for prophecy in SF is more often a matter of modern people superimposing current trends over the wistful dreams of past writers. That being said, stories like The Matrix can give context for our conversations about the present and the problems we now face. As such, The Matrix, for all its cheesy goodness is a great cultural reference and I applaud the Wachowskis for their achievement.

Clayton J. Callahan

 

H. Beam Piper’s Federation

The short story is perhaps a dying art in science fiction. Once, it was the number one venue for new authors to cut their teeth on. Giants like Heinline, Asimov, and Clark all got their start writing fiction for some of the many short story mags of the mid 20th century. In those earlier times, commuters would hit up the magazine stand at their local bus stop or train station for a copy of Weird Tales, Science Fiction Analog, or Galaxy magazine so they could pass the time with a quick yard during the ride home. It was a lucrative business, and many a novel that would go on to win Hugo Awards had its genesis as a pulp story.

H. Beam Piper was no exception of course. Now, I freely admit that Piper is one of my influences. Despite his occasional militarism and misogyny, I appreciate his craftsmanship and storytelling. He created a fully formed and believable future, warts and all, and I cut my teeth as a reader on his Little Fuzzy books when I was but a lad. Sadly, his career was cut short by his suicide in 1964, bringing his story to a rather abrupt conclusion.

However, he had friends and one of them, a guy named Jerry Pournelle, took the pains to collect his short stories and bind them together into one volume. The title of this posthumous pice is Federation, and I must say it’s one of my absolute favorite books of all time.

The stories all take place in Piper’s future interstellar federation, and it’s the same universe that Pappy Jack and the Space Vikings inhabit. Pournelle has taken pains to organize Piper’s stories chronologically so we can see the future unfolding through snippets and venues. My personal favorite has to be Piper’s Graveyard of Dreams, wherein a young man returns from college to a junkyard planet that was once the hub of an interstellar war. Now, possing advanced scientific knowledge, he hasn’t the heart to tell his father’s friends that their dreams of finding a lost military supercomputer are not going to come true and thus their world will forever be in the economic doldrums of the galaxy…unless he can spin a lie of gossamer that will take them to the stars!

If your a fan of Piper’s and haven’t read this amazing book yet, it is still available on Amazon. If your not a fan of pipers, however, the book is still available on Amazon so what are you waiting for?

Happy reading.

Clayton J. Callahan

What’s New

Well, it’s been a while since I checked in so I figured I’d let everybody know what’s up. Right now I’m about 80% done with a project called Star Runners. It’s an anthology of short stories that spun off of my other science fiction works. Fans of Tales of The Screaming Eagle will get to find out how Ms. Coleen took the barracks that Kilroy and Burt left on Tarkan and turned it into the best damn bar in the galaxy. Also, questions like, “how did the Yang-He become a ghost ship,” and “How did Jack Galloway come to lose the Sundancer to the Public Protectors on Isis” will be answered.

Even if you haven’t read The Adventures of Crazy Liddy or Crazy Lucky a Space Romance, these stories should amaze and entertain. I hope to have this book available on Amazon by the end of February 2019.

Here’s a sample:

To Reach The Unreachable Star

 

Although taken for granted today, it is worth reflecting upon the miraculous speed at which Earth’s various nations recovered from the Doom War. In the space of a single generation, survivors came together and organized themselves into thriving communities and soon reclaimed much of what was lost.

Of particular note is the amazing speed at which North America jumped from a collection of subsistence farming villages to a spacefaring nation-state in a mere hundred years.

Excerpt from Gordon’s History of The Spacelanes

 ***

All the indicator lights read green.

Naomi took in a deep breath and closed her eyes. After fifteen months in the bunker, this was it. Air quality: acceptable, temperature: seventy-eight degrees Fahrenheit, radiation level: safe. She looked down and to her right to see little Benjamin chewing on his finger like he always did when he got fidgety.  Fifteen months is a long time for anybody, but to a six-year-old, it was an eternity, and the bunker’s confinement probably felt as safe as the womb to him.

The stuffy bunker had been home, school, and playground to him. “Mom, do we have to go outside?” He asked.

She nodded, and the child went back to chewing his finger. They had been lucky. The only house she could afford when they moved to the area was an old two story that dated back to the 1950s and included a bomb shelter. When things got bad in the news, Naomi cleared out the raccoon nests and stocked up on canned food and other supplies. It proved to be a good move, but the bunker would not sustain them forever.

And besides, she longed for sunshine.

But Naomi also understood how her son felt; she’d been the same way twenty odd years ago when her family left Uganda for the States. She was only twelve at the time, and everything was new and scary to her then. Now, she’d been an American so long that going back to Uganda was simply unimaginable. Just like she couldn’t imagine what waited for her beyond the sealed airlock door.

Partly to buck up the boy’s courage and partly to buck up her own, she said, “It’s all right, Benjamin. We’re going to do this together, okay?”

The child nodded nervously, and she hit the release lever. With a hiss and a rush of air the door parted and the sun shown down upon her face for the first time since the bombs fell. For a moment, she just stood there, still as a statue, basking in the sunlight. Looking down, she saw Benjamin shielding his eyes from the glare but did not recoil from the light. She always knew her son was brave.

Together, mother and son took their first, hesitant, steps into the new world. It was not, however, an improved world by any stretch. The shattered remains of Atlanta, Georgia stretched out far as the eye could see, and her heart sank. The once gleaming towers of the Buckhead skyline now blackened and bent by atomic fire glowered at them in the distance. Closer to hand; their once pleasant suburban neighborhood now consisted of concrete foundations overgrown with Kudzu. Naomi marveled at how fast that wily weed had recovered from the apocalypse. Twisted pipes reached up for the sky like the arms of penitent men at the foot of some unforgiving deity. And the towers of man’s communications arrays? All were half melted and resembled hunchbacked giants lumbering for the grave. Even if anyone could hear them, calling for help was not an option.

The mother sighed. “Well, it’s more or less what I expected.” She reached for Benjamin’s hand. “Let’s take a walk, sweetie.”

Feet following the path of a broken sidewalk, they took in the fresh, unfiltered air and watched the birds flitter about. Benjamin’s eyes were wide, his face wearing the expression he wore when she took him to the zoo two years ago.

Naomi’s feelings warred within her. She wasn’t sure whether she should be happy or sad. The elation of finally being free of the bunker battled with the depression that arose upon seeing her world ruined by short-sighted and stupid men. Men, whose imaginations looked no farther ahead than the next election cycle, and whose stewardship of the world was eclipsed by the next quarter’s profits. Why people followed such-stuffed shirts always puzzled her. But they did, perhaps because believing the golden promises of blowhards was preferable to them at election time than facing the hard truths of a world in crisis. And now, there were no profits, no elections, and no hopes—just the current crisis of simple human survival as faced by the cavemen of millennia ago.

The world was dead, and she wept for it.

Naturally, she didn’t intend to. After all, Benjamin was watching. “What’s wrong, mom?” the child asked.

“Nothing, I’m fine,” she lied through her tears.

Benjamin squeezed her hand and then moved in front of her to block her stride. “Mom, what’s wrong?”

She could never successfully lie to her son, and she knew it. The kid was unnaturally bright for his age and approached life in a very measured and rational way. He’d spent the last fifteen months taking apart and putting back together every tool and device in the bunker, determined to discover what principals made them work. He read books two and three grade levels above his age group. And he knew how his mom worked, inside and out.

Benjamin was an extremely smart boy.

“This is…was the monorail stop where I used to wait for the number fifty to take me to work at the Hartsfield Space Center. You remember? I used to wear a blue uniform to work every day?”

“Yes, you were a nurse with the flight surgeon’s office. I remember you liked Dr. Bill a lot. He was your boss.”

“That’s right, Sweetie. He came here from Texas after they succeeded from the US. He helped transfer the NASA clinic from Huston to Atlanta when our spaceport was just starting up. Anyway,” she sighed, “it looks like I won’t have to worry about missing the monorail again. Funny, I used to hate getting out of my nice warm bed and rushing off to work. Now, I’m sad I’ll never do that again.”

Benjamin looked at the twisted metal and burned over concrete that had once been a transit stop. “You could go to work again. It will just be different.”

She fought back her anger, the child didn’t mean to be insensitive, and she knew it. But hard reality left her little room for parental finesse. “Honey, look around. There’s not going to be any work at the Space Center ever again.” She shook her head. “I just hope the colony on Mars survived. They may have enough infrastructure up there to carry on without support from Earth. But we’re not going to be sending any more ships into space. And all the sleeper ships are going to be arriving at distant stars soon. But when they wake up from cryo, their transmissions home will fall on deaf ears. There will be nobody to answer the phone if the phones are all dead, right?”

Benjamin sat down on the stairs that lead up to the monorail station. He chewed his finger, and his eyebrows scrunched together. Naomi knew he was concentrating but had no idea about what. This was a problem well beyond any six-year-old child and certainly beyond a grown woman of thirty-five. The stars be dammed, she had more immediate problems to deal with. Back in the bunker they still had enough food and such for a few more months, but by winter she’d need a new source of sustenance for herself and her boy.

She cast her eyes about, hoping to find something that would aid in their survival. In the distance, she saw a dozen or so wooden shacks. Structures like those would never have survived the blast that leveled Atlanta. Therefore, she reasoned, they must be new. Obviously, somebody else had survived the Doom War and that somebody or somebodies could probably use a nurse. It’d be a long walk, but she and Benjamin might make it to the shacks by nightfall. Looking closer, Naomi saw a man step out of one of those shacks. He looked in their direction and waved, and she dared to feel hope in her heart.

“Mom, we can do it. We can go to space and tell them we’re still here and everything’s will be all right.”

“What?” Naomi couldn’t help but laugh. “Child, see those shacks over there?”

“Yes,” Benjamin replied. Then he looked where his mother was pointing and said, “What about them?”

“Those shacks might have people who can help us. See the man waving now? But it’s a long way off. It will take maybe a couple of hours to walk there. Mars and the star colonies are a lot farther off than that, child; millions and millions of miles away. We can’t get there, Benjamin.” She let a smirk cross her lips. “It’s much too far for anybody to walk.”

Then Benjamin smiled. “Then we’ll just have to run.”

 

The End

 

A Pilot’s Guide

In the early days of the science fiction RPG Traveller, the universe was not so fleshed out. All we really had were the three little books GDW put out that contained a lot of information on how to play the game but scant information about the universe the game was played in.

In a way, that was good. Players and referees alike had a lot of latitudes to invent their own worlds and settings. And invent we did. The rules of Traveller were not conducive to simply cut and paste Star Trek or Star Wars motifs so one was forced to get creative. However, as cool as that was it was also a lot of work and sometimes you just want to throw down and roll some dice. Enter: Gamelords LTD’s “A Pilot’s Guide To The Drexilthar Subsector.”

Gamelords LTD  was one of the many small publishing houses that created supplements under license for GDW. A Pilot’s Guide To The Drexilthar Subsector was one such effort. Within this 48 page booklet, were the details of a single subsector just on the edge of Imperium space. Each of the 27 worlds within was detailed with enough information to form an adventure but still left lots for the imaginative Referee to do his/her own thing.

Personally, I found it the ideal setting for numerous Traveller campaigns. In fact, my well-worn copy is still in my possession after 30+ years of gaming. You can still get a copy today at Drive Through RPG at: https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/60313/CTG-A-Pilots-Guide-to-the-Drexilthar-Subsector

Traveller has inspired me for decades and I don’t apologize for the similarities one might find to it in my own science fiction writing. I hope you enjoy.

 

 

Where Does Art Happen?

The image above depicts synapses firing. As all human thought is electrical in nature, tiny sparks between nerve clusters carry our brain’s orders to the rest of our body and communicate within our minds. I know this is simple high school level biology and the textbooks go into a lot more detail, but what does that mean for art?

Have you ever looked at a noted painting, or read a famous book and thought to yourself, “Whoever thought this crap was any good?” Well, folks, so have I. The great film masterpiece Citizen Cain bored the hell out of me, the art of Hieronymous Bosh never impressed me, and don’t get me started on The Good Earth by Peral S. Buck. However, I absolutely love the movie Hale Ceasar, Think Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbs to be a work of genius, and can go on and on about Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. SO what’s going on here?

My theory is that art does not happen in the studio. Whatever the medium, be it writing, painting, or whatever, the studio is simply not where the action is. True, the artist creates in the studio (or at the writer’s desk), but art doesn’t actually happen there. No, it happens when the art meats the audience and that electric connection happens.

Art, therefore, can not exist in a sterile box. The great unpublished novel that the frustrated writer shoves into a box and shows no one will never become art. Only when the spark jumps from the page to the reader is art created. Perhaps there is an audience for every artist, and I certainly would like to think so. But if that is the case, some audiences are definitely smaller than others. Tastes vary widely and that is as it should be. As an audience member, I’ve often struggled to find art that thrilled me. And as an artist, I’ve struggled to find a large audience to appreciate my work.

But I’ve also been told by many that they felt joy at reading my work, even when writing it was a toil to me. If that’s the case, I can smile and rest assured, confident that I have accomplished my mission. I have created art.

By Clayton J. Callahan

RIP Stan Lee

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Stan Lee was once quoted as saying, “the greatest superpower is luck” and he went on to say he considered himself very lucky. I must agree. He was lucky to do what he loved for a living and to go on living for so long. At 95 one can hardly say his life was tragically cut short, however, there’s a lot more to living than a number. Living is friends. Living is family. Living is love. And Stan Lee certainly did a lot of living.

Rest in peace you beautiful nerd.

Another Year Another Orycon

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the 40th annual Orycon convention in Jenson Beach, Oregon.

I got to play some wargames with some great folks, dress up in my steampunk best with my favorite gal, and even met “Captain Kangaroo.” On the whole, a great weekend, as usual.

I’ve lived in Oregon for over ten years now, having come straight from Iraq at the end of my longest deployment. Since then, I’ve only skipped one of these conventions, and that was because the Uncle Sam sent my butt back to “the sandbox” for another fun-filled trip. In all that time, Orecon has changed hotels twice but never failed to keep its charm. It’s a smaller, writer based convention. Not as loud or attention-getting as a Comicon event. This is where you can just hang out in the con-suite and shoot the bull with other writers and fans about science fiction, fantasy, and all that nerdy jazz.

I’m pleased to say, the con is doing quite well for an event of forty years old attendance wise. We had to get a room at the hotel across the street due to lack of room availability and we were certainly not alone. If you’re a fan of any kind of geekery, I suggest you look for one of these smaller, more intimate conventions in your area. Always a good time and thus, always worth it.

By Clayton J. Callahan

Three Little Books: Traveller The Breakthrough RPG

When I was but a lad of thirteen, there was this new game that everyone was talking about…and then there was this other game that fired my imagination.

The year was 1980, and the game everyone was talking about was Dungeons & Dragons. And according to who you asked, it was a harmless and fun imaginative past-time or the first gear shift on the highway to Hell (spoiler, it wasn’t Satanic in the slightest). However, the game that I discovered in D&D‘s shadow was a little gem called Traveller.

Always a greater fan of things science fiction over the sword and sorcery stuff, I picked up my first set of “three little books” Traveller at the Black Forest Hobby Shop in Kettering, Ohio and was off to other stars in light seconds.

Traveller is/was a role-playing game designed by the now-defunct Game Designer’s Workshop back in 1977. Originally designed as a generic set of rules for space-opera type play, it has evolved into an incredibly detailed universe with sophisticated politics and history. But in 1980 much of that complexity had yet to be written, and my friends and I (yes, I had friends) only needed the three little books that came in the original box set to contend with.

My guess is that the folks at GDW didn’t have a lot of money to invest in printing, as the game was laid out in these three staple-bound books with little interior art and not even a cover image–just a black book with a red stripe. The books were 1) Characters and Combat;  which told you how to create a character through a series of tables that somewhat randomly assigned you skills and attributes, 2) Starships; which listed fifteen ready to fly ships and a ton of rules on how you could design your own from scratch, and 3) Worlds and Adventures; which explained how you could create your own universe from worlds to governments.

To be frank, some of the rules were a bit weird or awkward so my friends and I just chose to ignore what was cumbersome and play it for the fun. And it was glorious fun indeed. We traversed lightyears in a week’s time and landed on frontier worlds. We engaged in starport shootouts and outer space dogfights. And we were free to invent and contrive whatever possibilities suited our fancy as movies like Dune, Alien, Empire Strikes Back, and Wrath of Kahn, dazzled our eyes and books like The Stainless Steel Rat, Dorsai, and Foundation filled out heads.

I had never before found a template that so suited my imagination and am still a fan of the game to this day. Traveller has proven the inspiration for much of what I write as a science fiction author today, and I make no apologies for that. But beyond my personal interaction, the game deserves credit for many innovative concepts that dominate gaming today. Ever heard of society described as having Teck Levels? Thank Traveller because that idea was found on page seven, Book 3) Worlds and Adventures.  How about characters having skills? If you didn’t know, in the original D&D characters had no skills, but chose a “class” whereby certain abilities were allowed and others forbidden. However, in Traveller, your character learned and could improve on skills without boundaries.

The game has earned numerous awards over the decades and been re-written dozens of times even before GDW went under. You can now play Mega-Traveller, Traveller New Era, GRUPS Traveller, Mark Miller’s Traveller, Mongoose Publishing Traveller, Far Future Enterprises Traveller, and on, and on. But as for me, I’m a down to basics kind of guy and three little books is enough.

So roll some dice over a table with like-minded friends and keep it flowing simple and free. Let your imaginations go wherever the heck you want them to and if you get the chance to play a good old fashioned game of Traveller, as we said int he 80s, go for it!

I am Don Quixote…No Kidding

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Today, I finally found out who I am. This is who I have always been and will always be until I die. This is not who I wish to be. It’s deeper than wishing. It’s solid fact, unchangeable as the sun at its zenith. I am Don Quixote.
Don’t believe me? You don’t have to.
Now, in my youth, I was part of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval re-enactment club that celebrated chivalry and honor above all else. I was part of that world for a long time and even met my wife in it. In that society, we would say to one another that we were “in service to the dream,” and we meant it. It was to be an apprenticeship of sorts, and although I haven’t been to a tournament in over a decade, the lessons I learned back then still can be read deep within my constitution.
Like me, the fictional Spanish Lord was steeped in the ancient lore of heroes whose courage and tenacity in the face of adversity was charged with pure intent and noble purpose. And like me, Don Quixote was never a proper knight. No king or queen of any kingdom ever touched his shoulders with a sword save the principality that was mapped within his own heart.
Once Don Quixote discovered who he truly was, he embarked on a great quest to right the wrongs of the world and do all the good he could for the very sake of doing good by itself. And in this quest, Don Quixote failed. He encountered no real dragons or giants, but famously attacked windmills in his delusions. He was laughed at and misunderstood by many along his journey, and he did not accomplish much in the way of the world.
And I also have also failed in many of my lifelong quests.
However, Don Quixote also succeeded beyond the limits of even his shining vision. He changed not the outer material world but the inner soul of the world itself. The light of his sincere folly has thus shined since his tale was first published in  1602 as an example and inspiration to us all. He showed us that people can be more than the limits of their worldly power and aspire to a greatness that no one can truly achieve. Not bad for a fictional character, eh?
I am the correctional officer who dreams of being a successful novelist. I am the local political activist with a laptop who toils to shake the foundations of unchecked privilege in a corrupt and jaded nation. I am the father who wades into the sea and orders to waves to stop splashing upon his children. I am the cancer patient who tells the disease it will not have me without a fight. And I am the husband who never has nor ever will give up on his wife.
And still, I have failed many times in this material realm and expect to fail again.
Will I be remembered as Don Q has been? No. Once those who know me are gone I expect no legacy. Which, I suppose, makes my struggles all the nobler and all the less notable simultaneously. Should I care for such enduring recognition from posterity? Not one whit. For I am the man from La Mancha, and I am not the first nor the last of my kind.
The fight is noble as long as the purpose is noble and the warrior never gives up. Failure is often inevitable, but failure is also completely irrelevant to a Quixote! Success is measured not in the winning but in the striving. And the striving serves as a beacon to others to seek what is worthy and good within the human soul.
I am Don Quixote, but I am not the only one. And I salute all my fellow knights who brandish their broadswords, scimitars, katanas, and pocket knives in the cause of right all around this wicked world.
Clayton J. Callahan