Early in November I attended the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio. WFC is a professional writers’ event to a significant degree, but even I, with no fantasy books out as of yet, had several attendees ask me for autographs at the Signature Event (with every writer in one big room signing autographs.)
The convention venue was adjacent to San Antonio’s Riverwalk. It’s one of my favorite places, an oasis in that city—though as cities go, San Antonio, with its ancient Hispanic roots, is its own kind of oasis in Texas.
The Riverwalk meanders for miles through downtown San Antonio, though on the river’s level you’d hardly know it. There are some shops and restaurants reaching all the way down to the water’s edge. There are also whimsical bridges and sculptures, birds, and even water taxis: it’s Venice in Texas!
There’s also the aquatic version of street sweepers.
Below the Southwest School of Art & Craft, people who walk or jog by are watched by miniature folk sketched on a wall of rough timbers. Here’s one of the watchers.
No visit to San Antonio, by someone who writes speculative fiction with spiritual angles, would be complete without paying respects to San Fernando Cathedral, or, to use the full name, the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe. Portions of this cathedral date to 1738. It is a major anchor in the Mexican-American life of San Antonio.
And then there’s this: the towering mosaic on the facade of Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital. The artist is Jesse Trevino, a native son from the West Side of San Antonio, who when he was young saw a tombstone angel with a broken wing that he never forgot.
The image is fantastic – a kind of sacred fantasy that speaks to the hope of healing in the real world.
For Houstonians, this yard art is a very relatable commentary on how the most unpleasant imaginable Halloween trick came early with Storm Harvey.
Harvey was really bad, including where I live. I rode out the storm in comfort on the third floor and never even lost Internet, but with the bayou about two miles wide, my car was a goner. The condos on the first floor got anywhere from a few inches to a few feet of water.
All across town houses got flooded that had NEVER flooded before. In some cases these were 40-year-old homes that had never even come close to flooding. People had to rip out wet carpet, sheet rock and insulation, baseboards, wood flooring that looked dryable but turned out to have puddles all under it, appliances, furniture, and books. The result was streets lined with dismal debris piles.
Houston and other municipalities are scraping these up as fast as possible, but there’s so much it taking a long time. Before the garbage trucks come the scavengers. People in old pickup trucks drive around collecting appliances, furniture, and flooring to clean, rehabilitate and sell to those who lost what they had and lack flood insurance.
Friends in Bellaire, a self-contained little city surrounded by Houston, say it was a great day when the city debris removal trucks finally came to their street. It was like a parade, with elephantine garbage trucks and people standing out in their yards waving and smiling.
“The reappearance of the crescent moon after the new moon; the return of the Sun after a total eclipse, the rising of the Sun in the morning after its troublesome absence at night were noted by people around the world; these phenomena spoke to our ancestors of the possibility of surviving death. Up there in the skies was also a metaphor of immortality.”
― Carl Sagan, Cosmos
My science fiction and fantasy tends to have theological or spiritual angles, and this post is no different.
But first, meet SOFIA:
This is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy—a retired jetliner modified to carry an astronomical telescope. Originally built to service what the airline industry calls “long, thin routes”—ultra-long-range segments that attract relatively few passengers per week, the airplane is a specially shortened version of the ubiquitous Boeing 747. It was built for Pan Am and christened Clipper Lindbergh by none other than Anne Lindbergh on the 50th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s takeoff, destination Paris.
After service with Pan Am and United Airlines, the future airborne observatory was retired to a desert boneyard to await her date with the scrapper’s torch—but fate intervened. In 2008, after restoration, modification, and the installation of a German-designed and -built infrared telescope, the reborn aircraft was again christened Clipper Lindbergh on the 80th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris, this time by Erik Lindbergh.
SOFIA is jointly funded by NASA and DLR, Germany’s national aeronautical and space research agency.
Here you can see SOFIA in flight with the telescope port fully open.
The reason for lofting the telescope to the base of the stratosphere is that water vapor strongly absorbs the infrared frequencies of greatest interest to astronomers, and by flying at 39,000-45,000 feet above sea level the observatory eliminates 99% of the atmospheric water vapor between the telescope and the celestial objects under study.
At the center of most, perhaps all, galaxies there is a supergiant black hole. Some are quiescent and some are quite active, and observations recently made by SOFIA enabled astronomers for the first time to calculate the median size of the dust particles being drawn into the active black holes; it turns out that they’re about the size of sand grains.
But where do these dust particles come from? Most of the universe consists of hydrogen and helium, not the more complex atoms that fill out the periodic table and make life interesting—and possible. It’s now generally known that the complex atoms are thrown, like grains of rice at a celestial wedding, across the galaxies by novas and supernovas.
Here’s SOFIA’s “before and after” portrait of supernova 2014J, the 10th supernova discovered in 2014, nestled in its galaxy.
At one time supernovas were believed to be simply more dramatic novas, but the more recent understanding is that they result from very different processes; in fact, they’re quite distinct.
Their gifts to the universe are, likewise, quite distinct. Supernovas provide us with the heavier elements that are the building blocks of the cores of rocky planets—and a single supernova can produce enough dust to form 7,000 Earths. Novas, by contrast, provide us with the middleweight atoms—the ones that are essential to all life as we know it.
Belief systems the world over are fond of telling us of one deity or another dying that we may live and be redeemed. We now know they’re almost right about this after all: let us reflect that stars died that we might live and that we might have a world on which to live . . . and that, in a very real sense, we and our Earth are, indeed, heavenly.
Lately two female members of Congress have been in the news quite a bit in connection with the health care insurance debate. This takes us right back to where it all started, with Representative Jeanette Rankin of Montana, first woman elected to Congress.
Neonatal and maternal health was one of Jeannette Rankin’s lifelong interests, and both during, between and after her two terms in Congress she campaigned tirelessly for better healthcare for women and children—so it’s particularly fitting that female officeholders have again made their voices heard across the land.
Several western states (and some western Territories, even prior to statehood) very early granted women the right to fully participate in political life, including voting and holding office, so Representative Rankin’s position was anomalous: she was a member of Congress at a time when most US women weren’t even allowed to vote. She first came to prominence as a suffragette, and a powerfully persuasive one: she spearheaded the successful campaigns to allow women to vote in state elections in Washington (1910) and Montana (1914) before finally winning a seat in Montana’s Congressional delegation, where she continued to fight for universal suffrage (culminating in the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920).
Jeannette Rankin is most famous for her resolute pacificism, but she herself disagreed with that popular idea: in her own mind, her pacifism arose from her radical feminist convictions.
In a 1972 interview, Jeannette Rankin had this to say:
“If I am remembered for no other act, I want to be remembered as the only woman who ever voted to give women the right to vote.”
I’m driving around in a new (used) car – a silver cream puff that I bought from CarMax. It’s a Hyundai Elantra. (Hyundai is approximately pronounced with the first syllable rhyming with June and the second syllable like the English word day. The word means “modernity” in Korean.)
It replaced my previous car – a noble Accord coupe stricken when the bayou across the street overflowed its banks during Hurricane Harvey’s visit to Houston.
Harvey’s intensity was in part due to the climate disruption brought about by humankind’s profligate consumption of energy, so say the scientists. One of the most significant sources of the atmospheric carbon dioxide is our collective use of automobiles.
So with cars as it is with people and ideas, my old car played a role, however small, in engendering its own destruction—and rebirth.
In celebration of my birthday, I finally visited Enchanted Rock State Natural Area near Llano, Texas. I went with a photographer friend, and we spent a night in the primitive camping area – which you reach by backpacking your stuff in.
When the stars came out in the cloudless night sky, we saw satellites and the Milky Way. It was cold and a bit windy so my friend put the rain fly on the tent the better to keep us (or to be more accurate, me) warm. In the middle of the night, unzipping the rain fly and looking out, I saw how the constellations had moved around the axis of the Pole Star, and a shooting star.
We did have a bit of trouble with the local raccoons. When two of them started snarling over their right to plunder our backpacks, I levitated about three feet out of a sound sleep. My wilderness-rated friend put our trail food into the tent stuff sack and suspended it from a tree. Problem solved. I will say I can now better empathize with those of my characters who spend a long, cold night in a wild place or in a wilderness of stars.
And I have never seen the stars like I did that night.
At dawn the rising sun brought out all of the colors of the landscape. We broke camp, hiked back to the parking area, then hiked to the top of Enchanted Rock—a vast granite batholith. From the top we could see for miles across the Texas Hill Country. After that we hiked around the Rock.
After leaving the park we spent a night at a lovingly restored old railroad hotel in Llano, the Dabbs. It’s a sweet old place, located on a bluff above the Llano River, with a lot of carefully selected, vintage train decor.
The next morning, by old railroad tracks nearby, we found a man and his friends putting an old railroad motor car, or “speeder,” on the rails. He was going to be checking out the track for the safety of another dozen or more fellow enthusiasts who were planning a speeder group excursion the following day. He was happy to talk about his speeder and offer a photo op to an itinerant science fiction writer.
It was a happy birthday and I hope for many happy returns to the Hill Country!
Finally the stars aligned for me to regain my currency as a sailplane pilot. The weather, the gliderport runway conditions, the two-seat sailplane and the instructor all became suitable or available at the same time!
While flying with an instructor at the start of a new season or after a long layoff isn’t really mandatory, it IS a good practice. In this case, I took advantage of the excellent instruction provided by CFIG Keith Miller and under his watchful eye performed two complete flights and one simulated emergency: a “rope break” at low altitude, necessitating an immediate return to the runway.
It was a good workout and Blanik 5 (a Czech-made Super Blanik L-23 trainer) is a good ship.
A few days after the November 8 election in the US, I found myself at El Pueblo De Los Angeles Historic Monument. This was after taking the Amtrak Sunset Limited train from Houston to L. A. and arriving very early on a cool, clear California morning. So we walked across the street from Union Station to see this park. The colorful vendors mostly weren’t open, but the buildings and works of art were there to tell of the history of Los Angeles.
This spirited artwork caught my attention.
How amazing – this is Northern European and Mesoamerican pre-Christian imagery, wishing well and decorative skulls, intertwined just as these cultures are woven together in the Southwest.
All kinds of public fountains can turn into penny-strewn wishing wells, but that likely dates back to tossing coins into sacred springs as offerings to deities that live there – water being a source of life and a sometimes scarce necessity. The Day of the Dead abounds in sweet sugar skulls and lively skeletons, but that comes from Aztec religion which took death very seriously and graphically – with the skull an image of hope.
This decorated wishing well was an unforgettable reminder that our world has roots that are deep and dark and yet, though not optimistic, profoundly hopeful.
While revising my story for the upcoming anthology Pets in Space, I’m thinking about pets of all kinds.
Pets are everywhere in this country and probably other Western countries too. (From what I’ve read, even in China, where people have long been more likely to eat dogs than befriend them, a culture of dog-owning is showing up in the cities; and some folks in Muslim countries are going against the cultural grain to have pet dogs too.)
Dogs seem to have the most elaborate culture of any. Their care, feeding and other aspects of ownership occupy rather a lot of bandwidth in our society. Cats are probably close behind and horses – a lot fewer of them, but much more infrastructure per animal – a close third and then maybe birds. But there are accommodations for pet rodents, reptiles, fish, crustaceans, arachnids, and insects. (Yes, insects. A young friend of mine had a pet Madagascar Hissing Cockroach – a rather magnificent creature. When I was a kid I had a pet praying mantis named Monty in a terrarium. I fed Monty cabbage butterflies from the back yard: I’d offer Monty dinner by holding the butterfly by the wings. Monty would sway back and forth and then snatch the butterfly with his forelegs. I don’t remember sticking around to watch Monty devour one. The ones who got away fluttered and perched around the terrarium and Monty got to hunt them.
The U.S. post office has just issued Forever stamps celebrating pets, with quite nice renditions of creatures ranging from horses to hermit crabs.
Novels of science fiction with wonder, hope and love