“The Engine” in “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift

Gullivers_travelsI love reading and writing short stories. A few years ago I came up with the idea of writing a nonfiction article on the five most influential pre-1950 computers in science fiction. In researching that list of potential computers, I read a number of books and short stories. E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” topped off the list. It left me speechless and amazed. I wrote a review about that story last week. You can find it HERE. A second short story on the list was Misfit by Robert A. Heinlein. You can find it HERE.

The third computer I found was “The Engine.” The Engine is a fictional device described in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift in 1726. It is possibly the earliest known reference to a device in any way resembling a modern computer. It is found at the Academy of Projectors in Lagado and is described thus by Swift:

“… Every one knew how laborious the usual method is of attaining to arts and sciences; whereas, by his contrivance, the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, and with a little bodily labour, might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.” He then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.”

It is a device that generates permutations of word sets. Stanisław Lem in SUMMA Technologiae and McCorduck (2004) connect the machine with the Ars Magna of Ramon Llull (1275), a mechanical device for combining ideas to create new ones.

Sources: Gulliver’s Travel by Jonathan Swift and Wikipedia 

Martian Mondays: The Martian Chronicles – Chapter Two: Ylla

First published as “I’ll Not Ask for Wine” in Maclean’s, January 1, 1950.

The following chapter, “Ylla”, moves the story to Mars.

Who is Ylla? She is a Martian woman trapped in an unromantic marriage. She dreams of the coming astronauts through telepathy. Her husband, though he pretends to deny her dreams are real, becomes bitterly jealous, sensing his wife’s inchoate romantic feelings for one of the astronauts.

He kills the two-man expedition, astronauts Nathaniel York and one simply called Bert, as soon as they arrive.

A 1997 edition of the book advances all the dates by 31 years from 1999 to 2030.

Short Story: Misfit by Robert A. Heinlein

Misfit by Robert A. Heinlein
Misfit by Robert A. Heinlein

I love reading and writing short stories. A few years ago I came up with the idea of writing a nonfiction article on the five most influential pre-1950 computers in science fiction. In researching that list of potential computers, I read a number of books and short stories. E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” topped off the list. It left me speechless and amazed. I wrote a review about that story last week. You can find it HERE.

The second short story on the list is “Misfit” by Robert A. Heinlein. In the weeks ahead I will share some of the science fiction gems I unearthed or rediscovered.

“Misfit” is a science fiction short story by Robert A. Heinlein. It was originally titled Cosmic Construction Corps before being renamed by the editor John W. Campbell. The November 1939 issue of “Astounding Science Fiction” first published the story. One of the earliest of his Future History stories, it was later included in the collections Revolt in 2100 and The Past Through Tomorrow.

The story concerns Andrew Jackson Libby (here nicknamed Pinky, for his red hair, but later nicknamed Slipstick), a boy from Earth with extraordinary mathematical ability but meager education. He found few opportunities on Earth. He joins the Cosmic Construction Corps, a future military-led version of the Civilian Conservation Corps (remember it from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal?) employing out-of-work youth to colonize the Solar System. With a group of other inexperienced young men, he is assigned to a ship traveling to the asteroid belt where their task is to move an asteroid into a more convenient orbit between Mars and Earth.

Pinky comes to the Captain’s attention during the process of blasting holes in the asteroid for rocket engines. Pinky realizes that a mistake has been made in calculating the size of the charge, preventing a catastrophic blast.

He is assigned to the ship’s astrogation computer. During the trip back to Earth, the computer malfunctions and Libby take over, performing all the complex calculations in his head. The asteroid is settled successfully into its final orbit.

“Slipstick” Libby became one of Heinlein’s recurring characters, and would later appear in several works associated with Lazarus Long, among them Methuselah’s Children and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.

The short story includes one of the first examples of the phrase “space marine”.

Sources: Misfit by Robert A. Heinlein and the Wikipedia article on “Misfits.”

The Yin and Yang of Writing


Do you ever have a love-hate relationship with writing? Come on, let’s be honest. I’ll go first. Yes, I do. I can almost hear you thinking, I do too.

Here is how the Yin and Yang of Writing impact me.

First, it’s a love hate relationship. Some days I love writing. The troubles of the world vanish when I sit down to my laptop, and the words effortlessly leave my brain, run down my arm, and magically push the correct key on my keyboard. Wonderful prose appears on the screen. I find myself amazed at what the muse provided for me to write. Dreams of traditionally published books with my name on the spine fill my mind as do hopes of seeing my name in the New York Times or USA Today bestseller list.

Other days I hate writing. Yes, I used the H word. Those are the days when it is hard to sit down and write. The Internet’s siren call lures me away from writing. Friends drop by my coffee-house and invade my writing space. The muse misses our appointment. I realize the few words that make it to the page aren’t that good. Sometimes not even rewriting or editing can save them. The only key on the keyboard they will see after being highlighted is the delete key. The rankings I can see for my writing say you rank 4,987,898,000 in sales on Amazon.

Second, I am overwhelmed with ideas. Some days more ideas come to mind than are possible to write in a lifetime. I’m talking about great ideas. You dream of the type of ideas that sometimes overwhelm me. You think of many ideas. You find you never develop the majority of these ideas.

Other days my mind seems vacant. My mind sticks in neutral. Writing prompts don’t help. Ideas come as infrequent as the purchase of a winning lottery ticket.

Third, I face the never-ending challenge of the writer. To be or not to be … err, not that one, rather, do I live to write or write to live? Another way to put it, I work a day job to support my writing habit, but sometimes the day job gets in the way of my writing. I have to work the day job for money, insurance, and where I can pay the bills. I write before work, at lunch and after work. On most days it works.

Other days, the day job leaves so tired I don’t have the energy to write. Family or other responsibilities weigh me down. I ask, “Why can’t I write something that will generate enough money to allow me to write?” Take it from me, I have quit the day job and tried writing full-time. I did that for ten months, sold nineteen pieces and went back to the day job for a steady paycheck with enough money to live.

Fourth, I face the challenge of self-publishing versus traditional publishing. When a book is available at the local bookstore, friends and family understand what you do all day or night at the keyboard. While the payment is small, the understanding and acceptance of what I do is greater.

When a book is only available on e-book or Kindle, the checks are more consistent. The payments are higher, but without the tangible paper of the book in hand many don’t understand what I do. I have sold more books in the United Kingdom than the USA because of the far reach of the e-books. My wife seems to understand when the check arrives in the mail from Amazon.

Lastly, I love being “An Award-Winning” Short Story writer, but often cringe at the reviewers or critique group’s comments.

The Yin and Yang of Writing impact all the areas of my writing. I bet it impacts yours as well.

Martian Mondays: The Martian Chronicles – Chapter One: Rocket Summer

Rocket Summer (January 1999/2030) – First published in Planet Stories, Spring 1947.

Arranged in chronological order, the stories of the book start in January 1999, with the blasting off of the first rocket to the planet Mars.

“Rocket Summer” is a short vignette that describes Ohio’s winter turning briefly into summer due to the extreme heat of the rocket’s take-off. The readers also learn the feelings of the nearby residence’s to the rocket’s launch.

A 1997 edition of the book advances all the dates by 31 years from 1999 to 2030.

Short Story: The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster

The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster
The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster

I love reading and writing short stories. A few years ago I came up with the idea of writing a nonfiction article on the five most influential pre-1950 computers in science fiction. In researching that list of potential computers I read a number of books and short stories. E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” topped off the list. It left me speechless and amazed. I have a link at the bottom of the article to a pdf file of the book which is now in the public domain. In the weeks ahead I will share some of the science fiction gems I unearthed or rediscovered.

The Machine Stops” is a science fiction short story (12,300 words) by E. M. Forster. After first publication in The Oxford and Cambridge Review (November 1909), the story was republished in Forster’s The Eternal Moment and Other Stories in 1928. After being voted one of the best novellas up to 1965, it was included that same year in the populist anthology Modern Short Stories. In 1973 it was also included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two. The story is particularly notable for predicting new technologies such as instant messaging and the Internet.

The story is set in a post apocalyptic world where people are living underground because the surface is uninhabitable, and they rely on a giant machine to provide their needs.

The story describes a world where most of the human population has lost the ability to live on the surface of the Earth. Each person now lives in isolation below ground in a standard ‘cell’, with all bodily and spiritual needs met by the omnipotent, global Machine. Travel is permitted but unpopular and rarely necessary. Communication is made via a kind of instant messaging/video conferencing machine called the speaking apparatus, with which people conduct their only activity, the sharing of ideas and what passes for knowledge.

The two main characters, Vashti and her son Kuno, live on opposite sides of the world. Vashti is content with her life, which, like most inhabitants of the world, she spends producing and endlessly discussing secondhand ‘ideas’. Kuno, however, is a sensualist and a rebel. He persuades a reluctant Vashti to endure the journey (and the resultant unwelcome personal interaction) to his cell. There, he tells her of his disenchantment with the sanitized, mechanical world. He confides to her that he has visited the surface of the Earth without permission and that he saw other humans living outside the world of the Machine. However, the Machine recaptured him, and he has been threatened with ‘Homelessness’, that is, expulsion from the underground environment and presumed death. Vashti, however, dismisses her son’s concerns as dangerous madness and returns to her part of the world.

As time passes, and Vashti continues the routine of her daily life, there are two important developments. First, the life support apparatus required to visit the outer world is abolished. Most welcome this development, as they are skeptical and fearful of first-hand experience and of those who desire it. Secondly, a kind of religion is re-established, in which the Machine is the object of worship. People forget that humans created the Machine, and treat it as a mystical entity whose needs supersede their own. Those who do not accept the deity of the Machine are viewed as ‘unmechanical’ and threatened with Homelessness. The Mending Apparatus – the system charged with repairing defects that appear in the Machine proper – has also failed by this time, but concerns about this are dismissed in the context of the supposed omnipotence of the Machine itself.

During this time, Kuno is transferred to a cell near Vashti’s. He comes to believe that the Machine is breaking down, and tells her cryptically, “The Machine Stops.” Vashti continues with her life, but eventually defects begin to appear in the Machine. At first, humans accept the deteriorations as the whim of the Machine, to which they are now wholly subservient. But the situation continues to deteriorate, as the knowledge of how to repair the Machine has been lost. Finally the Machine apocalyptically collapses, bringing ‘civilization’ down with it. Kuno comes to Vashti’s ruined cell, however, and before they perish they realize that Man and his connection to the natural world are what truly matter, and that it will fall to the surface-dwellers who still exist to rebuild the human race and to prevent the mistake of the Machine from being repeated.

If you have a favorite science fiction book or short story please feel free to share it in the comments. I would love to here about the story or book.

References: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Machine_Stops and the short story “The Machine Stops” at http://www.ele.uri.edu/faculty/vetter/Other-stuff/The-Machine-Stops.pdf

My Favorite Science-Fiction Authors


Frank Herbert, Jr. - Author of Dune
Frank Herbert, Jr. – Author of Dune

I compiled the list. The criteria are authors of science fiction or any sub-genre.

I find that the best science-fiction writers are among some of the most creative writers ever. These authors made my list. I have read the people I have listed. Most will disagree, but these are my favorites.

1. Ray Douglas Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012) was an American fantasy, science fiction, horror and mystery fiction author. Best known for his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and the science fiction and horror stories gathered together as The Martian Chronicles (1950) and The Illustrated Man (1951). Bradbury was one of the most celebrated 20th-century American writers. He wrote and consulted on many screenplays and television scripts. These include Moby Dick, and It Came from Outer Space. Many of his works were made into comic books, television shows, and films.

2. Isaac Asimov (born Isaak Yudovich Ozimov; circa January 2, 1920 – April 6, 1992) was an American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books. Asimov was prolific and wrote or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards. His books have been published in 9 of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification.

Asimov is widely considered a master of hard science fiction and, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke; he was regarded as one of the “Big Three” science fiction writers during his lifetime. Asimov’s most famous work is the Foundation Series; his other major series are the Galactic Empire series and the Robot series. The Galactic Empire novels are explicitly set in earlier history of the same fictional universe as the Foundation Series. Later, beginning with Foundation’s Edge, he linked this distant future to the Robot and Spacer stories, creating a unified “future history” for his stories much like those pioneered by Robert A. Heinlein and before produced by Cordwainer Smith and Poul Anderson. He wrote hundreds of short stories, including the social science fiction “Nightfall”, which in 1964 was voted by the Science Fiction Writers of America the best short science fiction story of all time. Asimov wrote the Lucky Starr series of juvenile science-fiction novels using the pen name Paul French.

Asimov also wrote mysteries and fantasy, as well as much nonfiction. Most of his popular science books explain scientific concepts in a historical way, going as far back as possible to a time when the science in question was at its simplest stage. He often provides nationalities, birth dates, and death dates for the scientists he mentions, as well as etymologies and pronunciation guides for technical terms. Examples include Guide to Science, the three-volume set Understanding Physics, and Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery, as well as works on astronomy, mathematics, history, William Shakespeare’s writing, and chemistry.

3. Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, CBE, FRAS (Sri Lankabhimanya Arthur Charles Clarke) (16 December 1917 – 19 March 2008) was a British science fiction writer, science writer and futurist, inventor, undersea explorer, and television series host.

He is perhaps most famous for being co-writer of the screenplay for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, widely considered to be one of the most influential films of all time. His other science fiction writings earned him a number of Hugo and Nebula awards, along with a broad readership, making him into one of the towering figures of the field. For many years, he, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov were known as the “Big Three” of science fiction.

Clarke was a lifelong proponent of space travel. In 1934, while still a teenager, he joined the British Interplanetary Society. In 1945, he proposed a satellite communication system — an idea that, in 1963, won him the Franklin Institute’s Stuart Ballantine Medal and other honors. Later he was the chairman of the British Interplanetary Society from 1946–47 and again in 1951–53.

Clarke was a science writer, who was both an avid populariser of space travel and a futurist of uncanny ability, and wrote over a dozen books and many essays (which appeared in various popular magazines) on these subjects. In 1961, he was awarded a Kalinga Prize, an award given by UNESCO for popularizing science. These along with his science fiction writings, eventually earned him the moniker “Prophet of the Space Age”.

4. Robert Anson Heinlein (July 7, 1907 – May 8, 1988) was an American science fiction writer. Often called the “dean of science fiction writers,” he was one of the most influential and controversial authors of the genre in his time. He set a standard for scientific and engineering plausibility, and helped to raise the genre’s standards of literary quality.

He was one of the first science fiction writers to break into mainstream magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post in the late 1940s. He was one of the best-selling science fiction novelists for many decades, and he, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke are often considered to be the “Big Three” of science fiction authors.

A notable writer of science fiction short stories, Heinlein was one of a group of writers who came to prominence under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr. in his Astounding Science Fiction magazine—though Heinlein denied that Campbell influenced his writing to any great degree.

Within the framework of his science fiction stories, Heinlein repeatedly addressed certain social themes: the importance of personal liberty and self-reliance, the obligation people owe to their societies, the influence of organized religion on culture and government, and the tendency of society to repress nonconformist thought. He also speculated on the influence of space travel on human cultural practices.

Heinlein was named the first Science Fiction Writers Grand Master in 1974. He won Hugo Awards for four of his novels; in addition, fifty years after publication, three of his works were awarded “Retro Hugos”—awards given retrospectively for works that were published before the Hugo Awards came into existence. In his fiction, Heinlein coined terms that have become part of the English language, including “grok” and “waldo”, and speculative fiction, as well as popularizing the terms like “TANSTAAFL”, “pay it forward”, and space marine. He also described a modern version of a waterbed in his novel The Door Into Summer, though he never patented or built one. Several of Heinlein’s works have been adapted for film and television. In Chapter 3 of the novel “Podkayne of Mars” he anticipated the cell phone, 20 years before the technology was invented by Motorola.

5. Orson Scott Card (born August 24, 1951) is an American novelist, critic, public speaker, essayist and columnist. He writes in several genres but is known best for science fiction. His novel Ender’s Game (1985) and its sequel Speaker for the Dead (1986) both won Hugo and Nebula Awards, making Card the only author to win both science fiction’s top U.S. prizes in consecutive years. A feature film adaptation of Ender’s Game, which Card co-produced, was released in late October 2013 in Europe and on November 1, 2013, in North America.

Card is a professor of English at Southern Virginia University, has written two books on the subject of creative writing, hosts writing bootcamps and workshops, and serves as a judge in the Writers of the Future contest. A great-great-grandson of Brigham Young, Card is a practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). In addition to producing a large body of fiction works, he has also offered political, religious, and social commentary in his columns and other writing.

6. Franklin Patrick Herbert, Jr. (October 8, 1920 – February 11, 1986) was an American science fiction writer best known for the novel Dune and its five sequels. Though he became famous for science fiction, he was also a newspaper journalist, photographer, short story writer, book reviewer, ecological consultant and lecturer.

The Dune saga, set in the distant future and taking place over millennia, deals with complex themes such as human survival and evolution, ecology, and the intersection of religion, politics and power. Dune itself is the “best-selling science fiction novel of all time” and the series is widely considered to be among the classics of the genre.

The photo is Frank Hebert, Jr. I met him at a conference in the late 1970s where he was a speaker.

References: Wikipedia articles on the authors.