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I had not read about her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards in November until I came across it online in a British newspaper yesterday morning. The 85-year-old author of many notable science fiction novels and short stories, Ursula K. Le Guin, used her barely five-minute speech to thank a few people before launching into a withering blast against the literary establishment for its ghettoization of fantasy and science fiction writers, the corporatization of book publishing, the acquiescence of authors in the selling of their works as commodities, along with some fierce jabs at Amazon for its attempt to dominate book publishing and her own publishers for their corporate greed.

Most readers of mainstream fiction will not necessarily know Le Guin, unless they came across her EarthSea trilogy when they were young or encountered her short story “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” in a high school literature anthology. That story alone reserves her a lasting place in the hearts and troubled conscience of past and future generations of intelligent adolescents. The parable tells of a kind and peaceful city whose inhabitants’ happiness is based on the suffering of a single child, locked up in a mop closet, terrified, alone in the dark, and those few, rare children and adults who, ashamed, walk away from the city into the forests and the mountains. Omelas, the students are always intrigued to discover when they turn the letters of its name around, is not a foreign fantasy realm, but our own hometown.

It is the writers of imaginary futures that will help our increasingly fearful and corporately ruled society imagine a way out of our technology dominated present, Le Guin told an audience that probably consisted of none or few of the science fiction and fantasy writers she lauded and many of the publishers and so-called realist writers she disdained. They were fierce words from a frail woman writer of genre fiction, one of the few who had ever set foot outside the literary ghetto.

Science fiction’s origins in the pulp magazines of the thirties and forties, with paper-thin plots and penny a word payments to authors, was like a mark of shame that was carried into the third and fourth generations, long after many brilliant practitioners had raised the standards for imagination and skill to a high level. I came into a great inheritance of books from science fiction’s Golden Age, the period that began roughly post-World War Two and included Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke. In my teens I encountered the New Wave and a group of experimental and literary writers like Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, and Samuel R. Delany. There were the brilliant eccentrics, among them the strange and ceaselessly imaginative R.A. Lafferty, the perfectly beautiful Cordwainer Smith and the endlessly mined- for-movies Philip K. Dick.

Many of these marginalized writers were complete masters of many fields of science or engineering. In their spare time they studied history, philosophy and religion, wrote books on architecture and astronomy, Shakespeare and James Joyce. They were, I would wager, more widely read and broadly educated than their mainstream counterparts. And they brought their interests into their readers’ imaginations and opened them up to a rich cultural experience beyond the small towns where we lay in our silent bedrooms with a stack of magazines and a pile of books, imbibing worlds, yes, and galaxies.

Ursula Le Guin created some of those worlds — complex, grown-up imaginings that tested our small-town mores and conventions and made us more questioning citizens of the society we found ourselves stranded in, the city we could not walk away from.

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Telstar Credit: NASA

I’ve clipped the following paragraph from today’s Writers Almanac, June 10, 2012:
“The world’s first commercial communications satellite was launched 50 years ago today, in 1962. It was called Telstar 1. AT&T owned it, but it was part of a multinational project to experiment with satellite communication across the Atlantic Ocean. The satellite itself was about three feet in diameter, with an array of square solar panels over its surface. NASA launched Telstar from Cape Canaveral, aboard a Delta rocket.”

I don’t remember the launch of Telstar, but before long everyone knew about it. All across America, people stood in their backyards waiting to see the first manmade wandering star cross the sky. I was a young boy just entering junior high school and in love with the idea of space. I dragged my small telescope out to the yard and set it up in the clear south Florida nights. In other yards I could see families standing together with their binoculars or just pointing up toward the sky.

A song called Telstar, an instrumental tune I can still hear in my head, was popular on the AM stations we could get on our transistor radio. Our eyes and ears were turned to outer space, in both wonder and in dread. We all knew that if the Soviets launched their ICBMs, they would make a long arc to the edge of space before falling out of the sky. Yet, we were preparing to launch the first human beings into the edge of the universe.

When I listened to Telstar on my sister’s tinny radio, I felt the ache of longing for the mysterious wonder of the stars and planets, for the Moon and Mars. Like John Carter, I could have willed my body to be transported to the alien Martian landscape. Even then I knew that was a fantasy. Mars is as dead as the Moon, and besides, what better place to be a boy than the island of Key West – 12 months of summer to fish and swim and sail, play ball and bike through the narrow streets, watch movies in the downtown theaters on Saturday afternoons, check out an armful of science fiction books at the library to swallow in huge, heady gulps?

We were straddling an ever widening crevasse, one foot in the time of hand cranked ice cream and fire fly evenings, the other in color television and the first lumbering computers and handheld calculators, courtesy of IBM and Texas Instruments.

Telstar told us the future was coming fast. It was a buzzing in our ears, an artificial light crossing the sky. It was soon the background of our lives, half forgotten, but suddenly there at the corner of our eye. Wow, a manmade star. Who could forget that?

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(Published earlier this month in the Centre Daily Times and in Recipe du Jour e-newsletter)

Some years it is hard to get into the Christmas spirit. The days seem all too frantic, with too many things to do piled into too few evenings and weekends. Sometimes I look around in a daze and it is the 20th of December, and I feel at a loss as to when, if ever, I will feel that sense of wonder that I think of as the Christmas spirit.

That spirit is compounded of all those childhood memories that made us almost sick with anticipation — the glimpse of wrapped packages being carried off to a high closet, the tree suddenly appearing in the living room, sprouting lights, and the artificial memories from movies and holiday television specials that pictured Christmas as deep snow, crackling fires, skating on frozen ponds, and frost on the windowpane.

To most of us, the Christmas spirit is Victorian, full of the old language of hymns and Dickens’ Christmas Carol, which as a child growing up on a citrus grove somewhere south of Miami, who had never seen his own breath on a frosty morning, seemed perfectly natural and as it should be. I might be walking barefoot through green grass in December, but in my mind it was new-fallen snow.

From the first time I saw the town of State College and the campus beyond the Allen Street gates, I thought it was that place I had imagined in my childhood fantasy of Christmas. It was autumn and the trees were all scarlet and golden along the quiet streets and the big Victorian mansions near downtown that later turned out to be fraternity houses seemed like homes Charles Dickens would have admired.

So when I felt that spirit of Christmas falling on me as I walked with my older daughter, home from college for the Thanksgiving break, through the streets of downtown and across the campus, into and out of shops, spending time together after months apart, I felt an unexpected joy.

And when she began to tell me about some ideas she had about this Christmas, based I think, on the books she was reading for her young adult literature classes, I was caught up in her vision.
She was telling me about a genre that was becoming popular in children’s books and books for teens called steampunk, a kind of alternative version of history permeated with a Victorian-era sensibility in which the world is powered by steam engines, electronics were never invented, and machines run on gears and levers rather than transistors. Created in science fiction novels of the nineteen seventies and eighties, the steampunk culture is gaining in popularity today, with steampunk clothing and design, and communities devoted to steampunk lifestyles. The new Sherlock Holmes movies, with their intricate gadgets and anachronistic elements, are high steampunk visions.
She said that it would be fun if we could have a steampunk Christmas this year. By that I think she meant a holiday where we played board games instead of video games, went to shops instead of the box stores, gave handmade gifts instead of shopping online, as though some parts of the last hundred years had never happened. It appealed to my sense of wonder, and though it was a warm day for late November, I could sense the coming of snow as we walked together through the imaginary town.

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Late last week the universe shuddered a bit, but didn’t collapse. Newton rolled over in his grave and Einstein was heard to mutter “Vat is das?”

But most of us ate breakfast, hugged the children, went to work. The sun didn’t quit shining; the bills tumbled through the letter slot.

In a time of deep pain and economic woe, the discovery that an invisible subatomic particle was clocked breaking the speed limit of light is little more than a distraction to most of us. In the physics world, if it is proven to be something other than a measurement error, it is a revolution.

Because nothing is supposed to beat the speed of light, according to the world’s most famous formula, the only one everyone knows, Einstein’s special relativity theory, which says E=MC2. But now if there is a crack in the formula, we may be able to peek through it into an even stranger universe than we already thought we had — one that is strange enough already.

After all, we have quantum entanglement, which Einstein called “spooky action at a distance,” and dark matter that makes up 83 % of the universe, but we don’t know what it is. There appear to be entire galaxies being sucked toward some specific part of the sky like water gushing down a drain. Maybe our universe is emptying into another dimension. It’s a dangerous neighborhood to live in, but what other choices do we have?

The big reason that UFOs always seemed like a silly idea was that our nearest neighbor lived at least four years away from us and there was probably nobody home there anyway. Some scientists calculate that the likelihood of other intelligent life in the universe is 100%, which given the number of new planets astronomers have discovered in orbit around other stars, seems like a safe bet. But if there is a law against faster than light travel, we might as well be on separate islands in the ocean without a canoe. We can hail each other, but it might take a thousand years to get a reply.

If the little muon neutrino really is coasting along faster than light, the game has changed. Now we can imagine FTL communications — neutrino dots and dashes from another island in space. And the dream of my teenage science fiction fantasies — the faster than light drive, galactic empires, alien contact, the whole wonder-inspiring trip I took when I looked up at the night sky — is a little less far-fetched.

That’s a lot of hope to put into a little neutrino that weighs next to nothing and has so little strength that billions have zipped through your body while you were reading this, without your noticing. We’ll have a hard time harnessing neutrinos to a starship and taking off on the greatest adventure of all time. But if it can be done, if things with mass can break the light barrier, then someday, somehow, someone will do it. Then, of course, we will be the aliens.

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