Saturday, December 31, 2005

Yeah, More Resolutions

OK, I'll slip in some resolutions at the end of 2005.

1. More postings. I've been remiss, I know. I've got some topics I want to cover, such as: Words Conservatives Should Never Ever Use Again and Can Intelligent Design Explain My Knees?

2. The return of KoPubCo. Koman Publishing has been acquired by The Triplanetary Corporation, a California company. With that acquisition comes a new direction: KoPubCo will bring back the currently out of print works of yours truly, as well as a new line of historical adventures for children. More on that in 2006...

3. More new writing. Look for a new Captain Anger and an updated Kings of the High Frontier.

4. Less clutter: look for lots of stuff for sale on eBay, dealer name TriplanetaryTrader.

All my best wishes for a Happy New Year!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Tookie's Last Chapter

A lot has been made of quadruple murderer Tookie Williams and the children's books he has written. The implication (without any proof) is that his books may have warned a few kids away from joining gangs (such as the Crips, the gang he founded and recruited thousands of kids to join).

The idea that a few good works late in life can undo the fact of four murders (a fact never successfully challenged in 25 years of appeals) undercuts the powerful lesson sent by carrying out the death penalty: that some crimes are unforgivable. In fact, if Tookie -- who shot four people to death based on their race -- is the writer he claims to be, then he should realize that the best final chapter he could write is the one that ends with him walking to San Quentin's Comfy Chair of Oblivion, whimpering like a coward, begging for mercy.

It's what the priest in old crime movies tells the death-row inmate: his remorseful death will do more to show the kids where a life of crime leads than any number of colorful kid's books.

Asking for clemency is neither dramatic nor artistically satisfying (if your intention is to convince kids not to join gangs -- unless Tookie's insincere about that, too). And being granted clemency (especially while refusing to admit to the crime or showing any remorse -- a requirement for clemency) creates a final chapter that tells kids that mass murder is no big deal -- you can do it, refuse to admit you did it, and walk free with a Nobel Prize nomination under your belt, have an Oscar winner portray you on TV, and be the darling of the intelligentsia forevermore.

Sorry, Tookie. You're a killer four times over. Your children's books are as unconvincing a sign of your rehabilitation as finding Jesus is for other imprisoned fiends. And asking for clemency makes you a lousy writer with an abysmal sense of narrative logic.

Bad writer! Die, die!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Bernie Zuber • 1933-2005

A long-time friend of mine, Bernie Zuber, passed away last Friday, October 14th, at 2:15 P.M. at Arcadia Methodist Hospital. He was the co-author of The Tolkien Quiz Book and one of the premier experts on Tolkien long before the Peter Jackson movies and even before the Hildebrant Brothers Del Rey editions of the 1970s.

He endured bipolar disorder but finally found the right mix of drugs to control it and even wrote about his experiences, becoming a local advocate for the mentally ill.

In the last few years, he started attending raves, becoming a bit of a celebrity: he told me kids would take a photo with him to prove that older people enjoyed their music, too. His gentle good humor and kind-heartedness endeared him to more than one young thing, such as bathtubgirl.

He was married for many years to Teny, and together they entertained a wide variety of Southern California fandom. I always enjoyed being in their presence because they had a sort of Nick and Nora Charles meets the Hobbits quality that I loved about them.

In the early 1980s, Bernie read a draft of my novel Death's Dimensions. Shortly after that, he was in a minor auto collision and for some reason his bipolar condition kicked in. He later told me that the novel had disturbed him at just the wrong point in his life. Happily, he was able to look back on the hell he'd been through with the cest la vie attitude of his French ancestors.

I'll miss him. Seventy-two is too young.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

NASA Goes Back to the Future

So NASA has revealed its plans to return to the Moon. My problem is, why will it take 13+ years? In the 1960s, we went from literally nothing to the Moon in 6 years. No computer-aided design and manufacturing, no previous experience. Why, then, when NASA plans to use mostly Shuttle-derived hardware, should it take more than twice as long to do something we've already done?

Don't get me wrong -- I desperately want America to get back to the Moon, any which way. I want to get there! So why -- after 35 years of wasted opportunity -- do we need to take another decade and a half? Why can't we do it in 3 years? Have we made no progress in rapid design between the Second Millennium and the Third?

I know, I know -- NASA's budget is 1/8th what it was during the Apollo years (.5% of the federal budget instead of 4%), but that's scant excuse -- lean manufacturing concepts weren't well-defined back then, either!

I sincerely hope that when NASA finally returns men to the Moon, they will be greeted by the residents of Luna City and taken via Virgin Moonline to the Heinlein Bar and Grill, where I'll offer them a tall one (six times taller than on Earth) and ask, "What took you so long?"

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Lighting My Memory

Cleaning the garage has always been a traumatic experience for me. Perhaps that's why my garage always looks like the warehouse in Citizen Kane, loaded to the rafters with junk. Actually, even the rafters are filled -- they support boxes of old model kits that I acquired with an eye toward having something to do if I am ever hospitalized. And I may be, if the rafters ever collapse under the weight of the kits.

I can't throw anything out. I read an article about obsessive-compulsive behavior, and the pack-rat syndrome (or PRS) was right up there with thoughts of violent death and persistent hand-washing. I realized that the article was about me! I suffered from PRS and could deny it no longer. Of course I immediately clipped that article out and added it to the stack of newspaper clippings in a box in the garage.

The article suggested that Clomipramine could control the pack-rat compulsion, but as much as I support better living through chemistry, I also believe that will power has become seriously underrated -- if not openly scorned and snidely mocked -- in modern America. If I am a pack rat, I reasoned, it may be due to a chemical imbalance or perhaps I'm just a lazy, sentimental slob with a latent archivist streak. When I was a kid, after all, I wanted to be either an astronaut or an archeologist (my parents would only buy the introductory first volume of encyclopedias, since they were the cheapest. My knowledge, though encyclopedic, runs generally from Aardvark to Byzantium). Actually, I wanted to be an archeologist-astronaut, uncovering ancient extraterrestrial civilizations. If my parents would have sprung for a complete set of Grolier's, I might instead have chosen to be a fireman, psychiatrist, or a xylophonist.

I have an archivist streak. Just ask my friend Sam (well, you can't now -- he's died since I first wrote this), who has published a small magazine since he was in college. I have been searching the planet for the first five issues of his magazine. I have everything I've ever written, including my first work of fiction written from the fifth grade, "Attack of the Atomic Dogs." So when I say the garage is a mess, I mean it!

In an effort to avoid the side effects of Clomipramine (stomach upset, suicide, that sort of thing) I decided to exert my will and Throw Something Out. That ought to show that the Charter Hospital mentality is flawed and that most behavioral defects are simply well-worn habits that can be broken without outside assistance!

I opened the garage door, wondering if anyone in southern California actually used garages to store their cars. Spiders skittered this way and that. Silverfish (surely Satan's spawn incarnate -- they eat books!) slithered away in search of retreating darkness. Cobwebs stretched and snapped as the hinges creaked and squealed. There it stood: the accumulated total of my life. Five sets of shelves hand-hewn of wood pried from an aged cottage in Paradise, California, piled to the rafters with boxes and file trays. Every square foot of floor space stacked high with more boxes. Bicycles hemmed in by lawnmowers and water bottles. My geriatric motorcycle covered with mummy dust and a death shroud.

My PRS panic arose as I withdrew a box marked Vic's Old Toys. This would be the place to start. Possessions from so far in the dim past that their disposal would go unnoticed.

I had lined the box with newspapers when originally packing away the toys and miscellaneous items. Yellowed and brittle, they were still readable. NIXON RESIGNS. Really? I thought she stayed with Sex in the City until the end. Well, history was always my weak suit.

I figured the best method was to dump everything on the floor and only put back in a new box what I really, truly wanted to save. After so many years, there couldn't be much that I'd want to have around. On the driveway it went.

The first thing I saw atop the pile was my old cowboy holster set. Wow! Black cowhide with red plastic rubies! Get ready to slap leather, Paladin! I'll gun ya down! Can't get rid of that (even though -- yuck! -- what is that weird green mold on it?). Just try and find a quality gun-related toy these days. This stuff should be in the Gene Autry Museum, not a trash heap!

All right. Next. Ooh -- Space Orb, a kaleidescope for space age kids. I put my eye against the exhaust nozzle of the yellow rocket (about as educational a toy as the Pez gun that shot candy if you put your mouth on the muzzle and pulled the trigger!). Twirling the nose cone of Space Orb creates an infinite number of bizarre alien creatures. Hey, this can't go. I hear that space-age toys are bringing in a fortune! Also set aside that battery-powered Cragstan astronaut robot with the ray gun.

Dump my Agent Zero-M Radio Rifle? Never!

I grasped at something silvery and was surprised to come up with a Zippo cigarette lighter. Nothing fancy. Plain polished nickel finish.

I don't smoke.

I never have (well, once in back of a pigeon coop -- had an asthma attack of a profound, attitude-imprinting proportion that made me desire never to repeat that experience). I wasn't a pyromaniac except around the fireplace. Why was this here?

I flicked open the lid and realized instantly. It was the sound it made. You can have your butane lighters, your Bics and your Scriptos, and even your James Bond Colibris. You can even have your fluid-powered Ronsinols. There is something quintessentially American about the sound a Zippo lighter makes when you flip that cover off, strike the wheel gamely, and watch a flame burst into life. Then the satisfying snap of the lid closing on the blue-and-yellow fire, extinguishing it and leaving a warm sensation in the metal.

I don't know how I came into possession of this particular lighter as a boy, but I knew instantly how I felt about it. I took the dried-out thing into the house and resuscitated it. I broke open a dead, disposable butane lighter and cannibalized its flint, pleased to discover that the diameters matched perfectly. I found some lighter fluid, which I keep around since toluene is a fine cleaning solvent.

I filled. I flicked. It fired. I watched in joy as something from my youth stirred me to think about the enduring icons of America. The simple, utilitarian, inexpensive Zippo lighter must surely be one of them. Even though I don't smoke, I now carry this bit of my past with me, for the neat sound it makes and because one never knows when one might need light in a dark archeological dig, or fire in the cold wilderness of an alien planet.

In the time since I first wrote this (1991), both my parents have passed away, so I now have my "inheritance" of their stuff (crockery, Reader's Digest 8-track tapes, four prosthetic right legs) as well as some of Sam's stuff, too. Though I've disposed of a lot over the years (including the hand-made wooden shelves), the garage is still stacked high with stuff. On eight huge GR 7201 Gorilla Racks and two palletts! I'll be going back in tomorrow morning to dig out more of my past.

Clomipramine, anyone?

Monday, April 11, 2005

Dead... All Dead!

Well, Terry Schiavo is dead now. And so is the Pope. And so is chicken magnate Frank Perdue. And so is longtime fan and former AnarchoVillager John Strang. Who's next?

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Where is NOW in Schiavo case?

One voice we have not heard in the Terri Schiavo case is the feminists. Why? The case seems perfectly cast for the National Organization for Women: an adulterous husband who seems to care nothing for his wife, putting words in her mouth years after a suspicious "heart problem" places her in a minimally conscious state, working relentlessly to see her dead.

Where is NOW in decrying the sexist, patriarchist notion that a man can determine when a woman lives or dies simply because he is her husband? Where are the feminists lined up to demonize Michael Schiavo, to call for all women to wake up and realize that if he is allowed to starve his wife to death on the basis of his own hearsay, then any husband could do the same to any wife under similar circumstances.

I have my suspicions as to why the National Organization for Women is silent in the face of the imminent death of a sister: in some twisted way, they feel that stopping the death of Terri Schiavo could somehow be used to attack abortion.

Abortion is such an overwhelming holy grail to feminists that they will turn a blind eye to the death of a woman out of fear that any show of support for human life might be used to undermine their arguments for the worthlessness of a fetus's life.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

One Missing Item

I confess to a macabre streak. I collect and read disaster preparedness publications. Out here in Southern California, that usually means earthquake pamphlets and booklets and flyers. I have a fairly thick file of them. I don't think this qualifies as paranoia, though my old nemesis PRS (Pack Rat Syndrome) may explain the phenomenon.

I also like to make survival kits. They make great housewarming and baby shower gifts, though I’ve noticed that a marked gloom descends on the party whenever the hosts open up my gaily wrapped package. People begin to relate their own disaster stories: Midwest tornados, eastern power-grid failures, southern hurricanes, Indonesian tsunamis, and, of course, western quakes.

I love to read these booklets and follow their advice. It must be the latent Boy Scout in me. I never joined, mainly because I was a bit of a loner and hanging around a bunch of other guys didn’t sound like a weekend full of fun. So I would grab my toy bazooka and play Armageddon on the hill behind our house. Even then, a deep concern for survival gripped me.

I’ve made survival kits that fit in a 30 gallon garbage can (important safety note — don't include canned orange juice unless you want to turn everything into a soggy mass when the can rusts through), kits in a backpack (for cars and offices), and even a mini-kit that fits in a 35mm film canister. No food or water in that one, but fish hooks, line, matches, and a piece of cotton for tinder. I consider myself an expert on these matters.

So it was with some dismay last week that I had a friend over and our conversation turned toward earthquakes and disaster survival. He wanted to look at my collection of pamphlets, so I let him. After a few cursory glances at the supply lists, he let out a derisive snort and informed me that each of these kits had one item missing. I could not imagine what it was, since they were all comprehensive and even contained items that I thought were superfluous, such as quarters for pay phones and the number of an out-of-state contact; everyone knows that the phones won’t work after an earthquake and if they did, the same articles tell us not to use the phones so that emergency services can!

“All right, Mr. Disaster Planner,” I said. “What’s missing from my survival kit?”

He looked at me gamely. “A gun, of course! And ammo. These pamphlets keep telling you not to expect any emergency services for days after a disaster. They want you to have fire extinguishers because the fire department will be busy. They want you to have a first-aid kit because paramedics will be busy. Turn off your own gas if there’s a leak because the gas company will be busy. Well, doesn’t it follow that the cops will also be busy and unable to protect every survivor from the sort of scum that prey on misfortune?”

I sort of figured that muggers would be just as busy trying to survive a quake as anyone else, and similarly unable to perform their job, such as it is.

Perhaps true, my friend countered, but did I think that a mugger or thief had enough foresight to prepare for a disaster and have his own survival kit to keep him fed and warm for three days to two weeks? Or would such a person live a very short-sighted life and, after a disaster, decide to make up for his grasshopper's oversight by looting us ants of our carefully hoarded goods? Look at the recent tsunami — some people immediately determined that the disaster served as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to drag survivors off and rape them, when they weren't even sure if another wave might hit and kill them. There's a testament to the power of insane rapacity.

I countered that the National Guard is always sent in to prevent looting.

“How soon? Could they get to your particular house in time? And besides, you are part of the militia, too.”

He continued, telling me that I was the only person with a vested interest in protecting my family and home. In a disaster, every person is thinking of his or her own home and family, not of me and mine. Even firemen and paramedics will check out their own neighborhoods first.

What a cynic!

“If these disaster specialists want you to have the means to survive without medics or firemen,” he concluded, “they ought to be telling you to have the means to survive without cops or National Guard. Purposely and consistently refusing to advise anyone to have a gun in their survival kits reveals how deeply the anti-gun sentiment runs in the Red Cross and government agencies. They'd rather you be open to attack by looters than admit that having a gun in your home or car is a vital part of any survival plan, disaster or no.”

As wild as he sounded, my friend did start me thinking. After all, you can be pretty sure that a policeman’s home survival kit probably has a pistol tucked away amidst the bandages and calorie bars. And it is certainly legal for the rest of us to have guns in our homes and safely packed in our cars for transportation. So why, indeed, do disaster preparedness publications tell us not to expect firemen or paramedics or gas or water or electricity, but neglect to tell us not to expect police assistance? And, worse, why do they not inform us of the danger of looters that might appear before or even after the National Guard arrive (if they show up at all)?

He changed my mind about this. I’ve got my toy bazooka stashed in my home survival kit. It may not do anything, but it sure looks threatening at twenty yards.

But I’ve given up on trying to squeeze a revolver into a 35mm film pot.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

“Bad News” is Good News

I have often wondered why the news is so depressing. Newspapers, magazines, and television are obsessed with “bad news.” Murder, theft, rape, war, hatred — everything evil spatters across headlines and stories, usually accompanied by vivid photographs or video. News commentators occasionally tut-tut about this predilection of the media to cover the worst aspects of humankind but offer little in the way of a solution.

I have come to the conclusion that no solution is necessary. Depressing headlines are the best sign that things are mostly right with the world. Why that is so has a lot to do with what news is. News is something that is out of the ordinary. In fact, it sparks the interest of readers precisely because it is so far removed from their experience that it fascinates with its unreality.

The reason that The News is bad is that bad news is so rare, and disasters are so uncommon, that their very rarity makes them newsworthy. The flip side of this is something that is seldom stated — good news is so common that it is unnecessary to report it!

Consider murder for a moment. The news media have been accused of “glorifying” murderers by giving their crimes front page coverage. But how many people are murdered in an average day? Ten? One hundred? One thousand? On the other hand, how many people are left unmurdered each day? Billions! Which is the more unusual? Which is the more surprising? Which is news?

Think of what sort of world we would be living in where the eyegrabbing headlines would read “MAN WALKS HOME FROM WORK AND LIVES!” or “LOCAL WOMAN GOES UNRAPED FOR FIVE DAYS!” or “CITY MYSTERIOUSLY UNTOUCHED BY WAR.” Only in a world where catastrophe is the standard would such events be considered extraordinary, fascinating, and newsworthy.

The Challenger disaster was Big News because the previous two dozen flights had gone up without a perceptible hitch. Had it been the norm for spacecraft to explode and kill all passengers, then the one that lifts off with no problems would be the one to merit Second Coming headlines. And that held true again for the next 70+ flawless flights: the missions were non-events as far as the press was concerned. Until Columbia.

The truth about Bad News is that it clearly demonstrates how good life is otherwise. Certainly there is room for news about something unbelievably good that happens. That, too, is unusual and therefore News. On the whole, though, Bad News predominates because misfortune, terror, and crime are aberrations. Disaster is not a part of anyone’s everyday life. For the most part, people get along with one another. Generally, they do not rob, rape, or murder their neighbors. It takes a great deal of effort for any government to whip them into conducting war against one another. People, all in all, tend to be kind, non-interfering, productive sorts who conduct themselves peaceably and with a minimum of friction.

We are not curious about the person who can cope with day-to-day stress — nearly all of us do that every moment of our lives. What attracts our attention is the lone soul who goes off his rocker and causes a bloodbath — here is someone most people are not likely to run into every day — or ever. How often is a psychopath described as seeming “normal,” or “just like the guy next door”? Doesn’t that indicate that the “normals” outnumber the psychopaths? If we are all secretly madmen, why bother making the comparison? Rather, so few of us are murderously insane — and so few of us can be pushed in that direction — that the deviant is worthy of notice simply because of his scarcity.

So it goes with the scarcity of tragedy. We are not interested in the person who swallows a headache capsule and safely has his headache relieved — that happens to almost all of us. What is News is the rare individual who swallows a capsule and dies. What better sign do we need that medicine is generally benign?

Certainly, nothing is more abhorrent than murder, calamity, violence, and death. They are a tragic part of human existence. But they are not the primary part of human existence — not by a long shot — and they are treated properly in the news by being given coverage in inverse proportion to their prevalence.

So hail the good news of Bad News! After all, which world would you rather be living in — the world where human suffering is a rare event — News! — or one in which misery and destruction are so common that they merit no mention?

See you in the funny pages.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Mars Attacks!

I admit that I was hooked at an early age. Society is not to blame, nor the dealer. Only I am responsible. I could have stopped at any time, but after I bought the first packet at the tender age of six, I wanted more. And I still can’t stop. I remember the crinkle of the wax-impregnated paper, the white powder clinging to the hard, pink slab. Most important, though, I remember when I first saw the face of a Martian.

It was the early 1960s. My parents could not afford a fallout shelter for our modest Mountain View tract home. My mother, a Russian immigrant, possessed a distinctly Dostoyevskian view of nuclear war. “If they drop the bomb,” she would often remark, “I will run outside, look up at the plane, throw out my arms and shout ‘hit me!’”

Being a native-born American, I demonstrated more of a survivalist streak. I knew, along with Herman Kahn and Edward Teller, that a nuclear war was survivable. I practiced my drop drills and kept my Civil Defense FALLOUT PROTECTION booklet close at hand. (I still have it today. In fact, I have two copies. I must have filched my sister’s in order to maintain a redundant safety mode.)

Nikita Kruschev scared me, if only because he looked like such an unimpressive little man. The awareness that the so-called “leaders” of nations possessing spacecraft and super-weapons looked less like Raymond Massey and more like Guy Kibbee put a dread of politicians into me early on. Nothing, though, prepared me for the face of true terror.

Mountain View was one of those Californian communities without a distinctive small-town feel. I only remember our home, the Monte Vista Drive-In, and a small shopping center a few blocks away. There was no downtown or main street of which I was aware. The market, however, was modern enough to stock a large array of candy goods, including baseball trading cards. In those days, we called them “bubble gum cards” because each packet of cards was wrapped in wax paper and contained a stick of pink bubble gum so hard that compared to it modern bubble gum has all the consistency of bovine cud. You kids today don’t have that anymore in your Mylar-sealed, hologram-stamped, two-dollar-a-packet trading cards.

My generation had it bare bones. The cards were printed on thick grey-brown cardboard coated on only one side. Check out a drink coaster in your local sports bar. That’s what a gum card felt like! As I later came to understand it, the presence of the gum magically transformed the entire a package into a non-taxable food item. The cards were considered a premium similar to the free prize inside a box of Cracker Jacks. This ingenious and venerable form of tax-evasion was lost on me at the age of six, though I have come to appreciate in our current hypertaxed era.

Now I was not a collector of sports cards. Baseball cards, that is; in those halcyon days, there were no other sports considered worthy of notice. No football cards, no basketball cards, and hockey was something the kids farther north did instead of rumbling. In fact, I don’t think I had ever bought or considered buying gum cards until… until I saw The Face.

I was in the market (nothing super about them in those days) with my mother, passing through the checkout line. There, by the boxful, sat bright packets of gum cards. On the wrapper, though, was not a baseball player but a glaring monster of unimaginable horror. The Face was hardly a face at all. Like a grinning death’s head it gazed with lidless eyes incapable of expression. Instead of black pupils, the deathly white eyes possessed fiery crimson spots at their center. Instead of a hard bone skull, the top of the creature’s head mushroomed into a huge exposed brain three times the size of any mere human’s. On either side of its skeleton jaw hung hideous fleshy things that might have been tendrils or just repulsive dewlaps.

It stared right at me from inside an inverted brandy snifter of a space helmet, its frightening, armored claw reaching toward me with unspeakable menace. In bloody red letters against a bilious yellow background dripped the ominous announcement: MARS ATTACKS!

I instantly fell in love.

Yes, love. In love with the sheer magnitude of the terror. I pestered my mother to buy a packet. It was only a nickel. (Take that, you self-righteous collectors who think a hundred bucks for a Nolan Ryan rookie card is some sort of bargain!) My mother acquiesced, perhaps in some moment of distraction, perhaps because I only said, “May I please buy some gum?” (In those days, mothers could not ask the inevitable modern followup: “Is it sugar-free?” It wasn’t. Nothing was.)

I ripped open the package, chipped the gum away from the top card, crumbled the noxious delicacy in my hand, and threw the pink shards into my mouth. There beneath the waxy impression of the gum slab lay a vision of Hell unparalleled in modern times; matched, perhaps, only by the demented paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. I don’t remember now what particular card it was out of the series of 55. It might have been #1, THE INVASION BEGINS, in which a Martian points toward a departing fleet of flying saucers as thousands of identical big-brained troops march to the ladders. Or it might have been #3, ATTACKING AN ARMY BASE, in which the saucers strike without warning, using blue-white death rays to roast soldiers as they try to escape their burning barracks. Men afire, one already the silhouette of a skeleton in the death ray, one still untouched, firing his carbine futilely against the impenetrable Martian spacecraft.

I like to think, though, that the first card I saw was #11, “DESTROY THE CITY.” In hues of garish yellows, reds, and oranges, a city street is aflame. In the background, a warehouse and a courthouse blaze out of control. A shadow of a figure tries to escape from a crushed and burning car. In the foreground lay a stack of smoldering corpses, some reduced to skeletons, some still half-human. Amidst the fiery devastation are four Martians in their green battle armor with red atmosphere tanks on the back (I’d say they were oxygen tanks, but God only knows what those fiends breathed. Probably carbon monoxide.)
One Martian points to his right while surveying the destruction with emotionless calm. The other three rush toward where he (it?) points, presumably to wipe out the last pockets of resistance. This was no attempt to conquer Earth, seize its industry and wealth, and subjugate its people. This was extermination. This was total destruction. This was the end of the human race.

When faced with the possibility of the annihilation of all mankind and all its works, World War III seemed much easier to handle. Other kids must have felt the same, for my friends and I hoarded, traded, and treasured these beauties with an even greater intensity than any baseball card collector could. After all, how could an action shot of Don Drysdale compete with #19, BURNING FLESH, in which a man stares down in screaming horror as a Martian laser rifle sears everything below his shoulders to charred skeleton.

The cards, for me at least, were a bizarre form of comfort. As bad as the Russians were, they were still human. They would attack us in ways that would leave something standing. (As the son of Russians, I always felt that the Russian people would at some point refuse to obey their slavemasters. I knew I would have. And I’m glad that, after more than three decades, my childhood hunch proved correct.)

After all, the feared World War III would have been just the Russians against the Americans. The rest of the world could crawl out of the ruins and rebuild. What a six-year-old saw in those cards, though, was a vision of doom overwhelmingly complete and total. Cards such as #5, WASHINGTON IN FLAMES, #8, TERROR IN TIMES SQUARE, and #26, THE TIDAL WAVE demonstrated the Biblical proportions of the slaughter.

The Martian fiends employed every possible weapon. The heat rays were a favorite, but they also blasted humanity with frost rays and shrinking rays. They turned enlarging rays on insects, releasing giant flies, spiders, and bugs to prey upon defenseless Earthlings. Sure, some humans fought back. A soldier protecting a woman from a giant green potato bug plunged his bayonet into its arm, releasing a goosh of ruby bug-juice, to no avail. Ants devoured commuter trains and a caterpillar twined up the Eiffel Tower, snapping it in half.

The Martians had still more weapons. They unleashed a giant robot operated by an impassive Martian in the cockpit. They even dropped a spiked claw-shovel out of the bottom of one saucer to scoop up fleeing pedestrians and crush them against brick walls. The monsters’ desire for total obliteration was beyond belief. They sank our ships, blasted our aircraft, burned our cattle, and — as a boy close to my age screamed in horror, fists beating uselessly against Martian armor — they even destroyed a dog!

Worst of all, the murderous creatures watched it all on video! Yes, card #13, WATCHING FROM MARS, displayed naked Martians sitting in recliners, hoisting wine glasses, leisurely observing a wall-sized TV screen as cameras mounted in saucers broadcast aerial scenes of the destruction of Washington, DC. Those unspeakable monsters gleefully cheered safely at home while high-tech weapons pounded a primitive people into blood and rubble. I knew right then that these foul invaders were not only inhuman, they were the antithesis of everything American. No human beings, no creatures with any conscience whatsoever could be so bloodthirstily cruel and insensitive.

And they had color TV, the lucky stiffs!

Most ominously, in such cards as #17, BEAST AND THE BEAUTY, and #21, PRIZE CAPTIVE, the Martians abducted Our Women, generally preferring full-figured blondes. Brunettes, on the other hand, composed the majority of female corpses. Ah, but which fate was worse? As a kid, I didn’t care. These were the mushy scenes. The war was much more interesting.

All the American victims were white. Though the saucers did make one cursory pass through China, no other races seemed to fall victim to the slaughter; this was not an equal opportunity massacre.

In the darkest hour of humanity, though, some hope glimmered, much to my youthful dismay. Flame throwers could destroy the insects. Several soldiers discovered that a bayonet could pierce Martian pressure suits. Then, at card #46, came what even this six-year-old could see was the Big Ripoff Climax.

In spite of the massive worldwide destruction, there somehow still existed military rocket bases all over the planet.
Notwithstanding the destruction of troops, ships, and aircraft, military units were still somehow able to move their ordnance onto rocket ships larger than the Empire State Building (knocked over way back in card #10). They blast off for Mars, reach it in just one card, and immediately begin nuclear saturation bombing of the Red Planet!

Even at six I could recognize a deus ex machina ending, even if I had no name for it. What about the Martian occupation force? Didn’t they put a blockade around Earth to shoot down any ascending rockets? And why couldn’t the Martian defense forces see the Earth troops coming? Every kid my age knew that it took at least six months to reach Mars via a Hohmann “S” orbit. (I did so know it. Any kid in the Space Age who didn’t was obviously wasting his time collecting baseball cards!) How could the aliens be caught unaware? Were the Martians as complacent on the home front as we were? Did their adults scoff at the need for bomb shelters? A lesson, then, to be learned by both sides.

Or perhaps something was rotten in Deep Space.

Did I care? Did I truly care at six that I had been strung along for 80% of a story into thinking that the Martians had been more powerful and thorough than they apparently were?

Nah… By then, I was eager for the Payback. And it came fast and furious. Terran forces nuked Mars, then sent in the paratroopers (thank you, strategic planners); they crashed through the domes of the cities with five-turret tanks. (#51, CRUSHING THE MARTIANS, is the most gory retaliation card and, compositionally, my favorite.) On the penultimate card, a Martian city lays in flaming ruin, dome cracked open, monorail hanging from its track, ash-grey roasted Martian head in the foreground. The Face reposes in grim death, no longer grinning its triumphant skull grin. My beloved alien race had been laid waste.

Card #54, MARS EXPLODES, must have influenced George Lucas; on it, spaceships rocket away from the shattering planet like dandelion seeds hit by the shock wave of a summer storm. For many, it was the glorious end to a nightmare. For me, it signalled the end of mankind’s unity against a common foe. I knew that Earthlings would return to their petty squabbles shortly after #55, COMPLETE CHECKLIST, turned over with the finality of a Tarot card.

I suspect that these Topps bubble gum cards (the company issued them under a pseudonym, Bubbles, Inc.) have had an impact more profound than we can imagine. The MARS ATTACKS! series must have even influenced presidential policy. I remember listening with surprise to President Reagan’s suggestion, years later, that the only threat that would truly unite humanity would be an invasion from space. Was this a warning from the highest levels of power? Should we indeed Keep Watching The Skies?

Mars is a lifeless planet. I know that now. The very space program that I supported brought me this most distressing news.
There are no Martians against which humanity will unite.

All I know now is that after a third of a century, whenever global disaster looms — whether it be Vietnam, Watergate, the greenhouse effect, Mideast war, or post-communism instability — I still occasionally turn to my carefully preserved MARS ATTACKS! collection and gaze at their images, thinking one simple, childlike thought:

I’m still missing five cards from the set and I want them!

My thoughts about Tim Burton’s movie version next time...

Monday, February 28, 2005

Hello Universe!

Victor Koman here. I've been writing for a few years, but I've been out of touch for the last 7 while getting my AA, BSIS, and MBA degrees. Now that's all done and I can get back to my first love — writing. Blogs didn't exist in 1998 (at least not in the form they've achieved by 2005), but now I've got my own digital soapbox.

Back in 1996, I thought I'd use e-mail to submit articles to newspapers and magazines. I called it The Virtual Syndicate, but no one bit (or maybe my articles bit). A weblog makes more sense for what I want to do.

What you'll find here will be my thoughts about events of the day (wow, and I'm only the 8,000,000th blogger to do that), some of those very same articles I wrote for The Virtual Syndicate, and news about my upcoming novels.

For instance, did I mention that my novel The Jehovah Contract has been optioned for film by Robert Meyer Burnett, the writer/director of the William Shatner/Eric McCormack/Rafer Weigel comedy Free Enterprise? Of course not! I just started this blog! Watch here for more news about this Prometheus Award-winning novel's translation to film (using my own screenplay, too!).

So welcome to my worlds!