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America in
Chains

JUMP OR GET OFF THE CLIFF August 4, 2009

To my utter delight, and enormous gratitude, a new edition of my
second novel, _The Venus Belt_, has just been released by Phoenix
Pick.

I haven’t written very much _about_ this little book, chiefly
because I don’t remember very much about having written it. I would
like very much to thank my friend Shahid Mahmud and his splendid Arc
Manor/Phoenix Pick publishing enterprise for making the attempt
necessary.

http://www.phoenixpick.com/

One thing I do recall vividly, and that’s the fact that I was so
nervous about attempting a sequel to _The Probability Broach_ — which
had been received much more enthusiastically than I’d dared to hope —
that I committed 14 typographical errors on the first page of the
manuscript, which generally has only half as many lines as subsequent
pages.

Page?

Manuscript?

What are those, I pretend to hear you ask.

Well, this was back in the days of stone knives and bearskins, you
understand, centuries before personal computers, word processors and
e-mail. At least it was for me and my budget. I wrote my first six
novels on a perfectly splendid Sperry-Remington SR-101, an officially
authorized copy of IBM’s Selectric II (you all remember that marvelous
chrome-covered dancing golfball, don’t you?) manufactured under
license as part of a settlement of some obscure lawsuit I know nothing
more about than what I’ve just told you. I recall I leased the magical
machine until my first novel was sold and — thus emboldened — bought
it.

But, as always, I’ve digressed.

Another thing I remember — and it’s really what inspired this
piece — is that I worried for months after _The Venus Belt_ was
published that I was going to get sued by “the most trusted newsman in
America”.

The truth is that Walter Cronkite — or “Voltaire Malaise” as I
called him (“malaise” being French for “illness” which, in German, is
“Krankheit”) — was actually the lyingest, most deceitful front-man
and public mouthpiece that any political regime, right, left, or
center (he danced, by, turns, to suit them all), could ever hope for.
All by himself, he was the _Pravda_ of America. I don’t believe the
man ever uttered a truthful word about private gun ownership, and
whenever he appeared to change his mind on some other topic, you could
be sure his masters had changed their minds first, and passed the word
along.

More bits and pieces. At some point, if I recall correctly, I bet
a friend that a 60 gigabyte handhed device (kind of like an i-Phone)
such as Clarissa gives Win as a going-away present would _not_ be
available in our own, more backward society before 1999, the year in
which the book was set. I don’t recall the terms of the bet or whether
I won or lost. I do know that if I lost it, I’d never have been able
to pay the debt. My friend probably thinks I’m some sort of a
deadbeat.

And perhaps I am.

But I’m planning to use another idea of ours, “Backyard SDI”, in
_Ares_ and will mention my friend copiously. Maybe he’d like to be a
colonist.

If there was a Grand Idea behind _The Venus Belt_, it is that we
the people have the power to make — or to remake — any environment
we live in, and that that’s a _good_ thing. This was an elementary
concept taught me by mentors like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and
especially Robert Heinlein (who is rumored to have said, “Well, this
planet’s about used up, time to find another”) with a little help from
Freeman K. Dyson and Gerard K. O’Neill. _The Venus Belt_ was my first
strong ideological statement against what eventually became known as
environmentalism.

And Gaianism.

The humorous thing is that it cost me another friend — a sort of
friend, anyway — who was scandalized and horrified [SPOILER COMING]
that I would end a novel by deliberately blowing up an entire planet.
Never mind that it was an overheated cloud-covered pimple of a planet,
where it rains sulfuric acid and diamonds melt in just a few minutes,
a planet, as it is today, utterly worthless to humanity. It was a
_planet_, a whole frigging _planet_, and somehow, well, I don’t know,
_sacred_.

In fact, of course, it was, and remains today, nothing more than
a big ball of rock, little different from the one we live on, except
that it will be vastly more useful to our species — this is a lesson
the Asteroids have to teach us — smashed up into a million smaller
rocks.

I worry now, as I worried then, that my species is no longer
capable — morally and mentally, rather than physically — of such
titanic projects. If we are, then let’s get on with them, starting
with a colony on Pallas or Ceres. If not, let’s find a nice cliff we
can all march toward like lemmings and get the whole sorry farce over
with.

Oh, that’s right, we _have_ found such a cliff.

It’s called the Obama Administration,

L. Neil Smith
Fort Collins, Colorado
August, 2009

Comments

1. Jim Davidson - August 4, 2009

Gosh, yes, I remember that chrome colored dancing golf ball. And the amazing improvement when we could change out type faces. I learned to type with IBM Selectric II’s – the only Summer school class I ever took, required by my father.

(Why, you might ask, would a father demand all his sons take typing? When he was drafted into WW2 – after being promised that ROTC students wouldn’t be – he was assigned to the signal corps because he could type. He determined that his sons would stay off the front lines if they could type. Little did he know that computers and cell phones would make it impossible for a teenager not to know how to type – with her thumbs even! So, I don’t think knowledge of typing is going to get anyone out of cannon fodder duty. Especially as they begin impressing conscripts out of the death camps – but I wax lyrical.)

Great essay. Really takes me back – to when I found a remaindered copy of Venus Belt at my favorite used bookstore. Great novel, by the way, one of my favorites.

2. Eric Oppen - August 4, 2009

I remember those old Selectrics. My dad always had the latest thing in typewriters, but as a lawyer, he had to. My mom made very sure that I learned to type, and type well. Nowadays, I find I compose better at the keyboard.

3. al perez - August 4, 2009

Remember notebooks and pen? Actually improved my penmanship for a while. Maybe if I can ever find the dang things and rewrite as i type I’ll come up with something salable.

Learned how to semitouchtype one handed on a manual typewriter while drinking coffee and smoking.

Comment about impressing conscripts out of death camps reminds me of Nisei recruits out of relocation camps in WWII and the recruitment of Dineh and others off the Rez. Scary when history tops scifi predictions for unbelievability.

Meanwhile am typing on laptop computer that has thousands of time the power at about one fifth/maybe one sixth the cost of my first 386, and that’s before allowing for inflation.

Obama is a mediocrity. Worry about Pelosi, the Clintons, and some yet to be designated media moron.

4. Ken Holder - August 4, 2009

Heh! My mom made me take a typing class one summer at the “Business College” she worked at. (Mostly a court-reporter/stenograph school.) I’d already learned to type the previous christmas with the little portable muscle-powered typewriter I’d gotten. She said I’d never have to worry about finding a job if I could type.

Uh-HUH!

“Course, when I became a computer programmer, being able to high-speed touch-type did come in handy. I was so fast I could hang-up lots of early personal computers, in fact. However, I was fairly slow punching them IBM cards. But then they took about 20-pounds of force to actuate a key. Ah well.

5. R.D. Bartucci - August 4, 2009

Learned on old steam-powered and repeatedly reconditioned but unkillably durable big black 1930s upright typewriters in high school (one semester, “personal typing,” 60 wpm consistently without benefit of electricity at all), went over to an almost equally unkillable Smith-Corona portable through high school and grad school – cutting Gestetner mimeograph stencils both for note pool work and publishing a perzine – and transitioned to an IBM Selectric II when I got my own office.

Kaypro II (with a daisy wheel printer in the Business Pack) in the ’80s, hacking WordStar 3.3 in hex to make it spool a file to the printer while continuing to edit other document files, transitioned from CP/M to DOS to Windows (and would you believe that my hacked WordStar 3.3 was faster on CP/M for several years than anything that would run on my DOS machine?).

But I still kinda miss the Selectric II. Not any of those stupid Selectric III gadgets, but those Selectric II machines, now…. Those were _real_ typers. Heavy as the proverbial boat anchor and you could POUND on ‘em without them crawling away from you.

Ah, for the days when men were REAL men, and women were REAL women, and the fuzzy little things you found under the ‘fridge were REAL fuzzy little things you found under the ‘fridge….

6. Kent McManigal - August 4, 2009

I took typing in school. I would have failed had the teacher not really liked me. Now I 3-or 4-finger type everything I write. I still suck at it.

I feel our “future”, which is now the present, has shrunk. Instead of flying cars and cities on the moon, we got iPods and “hybrid” (the worst of both worlds?) cars.

7. Ken Valentine - August 5, 2009

I always wondered where you came up with the name Voltaire Malaise.

Of course I know the meaning of Malaise.

But to learn that it was a substitution for the German “Krankheit” pummels my funny bone — and makes a lot of sense . . . Voltaire Krankheit = Walter Cronkite.

Of course, it was years before it dawned on me that Edna Janof was an anagram of Jane Fonda.

(Loved that book too! And along with The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, by Farley Mowat tops my list of funniest books I have ever read.)

8. Victor Milán - August 5, 2009

Wait – you lost a friend because you blew up Venus at the end of a novel? I mean, did this person not understand that’s a work of fiction, and you did not in fact blow anything up? I mean, most evenings you can even go outside and see for yourself that … Venus is still there….

Also, Jeez, in his Lensman books Doc Smith blew up planets the way you or I eat popcorn. Popcorn, I tell you.

9. Bill St. Clair - August 5, 2009

I learned to touch type in my first job out of college, after deciding that three fingers on each hand would never be fast enough. Put my hands in the home position, and vowed to use the finger closest to each key. Was touch-typing in a week.

But I’ve never been very fast. 50 wpm or so. Still, plenty quick for writing code, which takes more time thinking than it does typing.

I read The Venus Belt many years ago. Don’t remember much about it. I’m with Neil, though. The Universe is our plaything. It’s there for us to use.

10. wes carr - August 5, 2009

Has anyone read World In The Clouds by Bob Buckley?
It was in the March 1980 issue of Analog magazine
and was about a floating “skystation” floating above
the surface of Venus. There was some excellent art
of it in The Art Of Vincent DiFate book.
Speaking of Selectrics, the opening credits for Gerry
Anderson’s UFO had a very cool shot of a typewriter
listing all of SHADO’s assets such as the Interceptors,
Skydiver, Moonbase, etc. Made me want to type.

11. Pete Nofel - August 5, 2009

Not only do I remember Selectric typewriters and “The Venus Belt,” but I own both. Call me a kook, but I collect “vintage” typewriters. “Vintage” because most aren’t old enough to be called antiques. I’ve got both a Selectric I and a Selectric II, along with 14 or 15 other vintage models, all but the Selectrics and an electronic are manuals.

The nice thing about collecting typewriters is that they are obsolete, but not yet antique and can be had cheaply, except for some rare ones like a Blickensderfer.

60 Gb by 1999 was a pretty close guess. Who’da thunk Moore’s Law would keep progressing. I just bought an external 1 Tb drive for slightly more than $100. I’ve seen ads for 64 Gb thumb drives.

Now all we need are the smart suits Neil described in “The Venus Belt.”

12. David Anderson - August 5, 2009

I started developing my typing skills in a high-school Business Arts class…one of the few useful decisions I made in my teenage years.

I remember the thrill I got when the Venus Belt came out…at last a sequel to the wonderful Probability Broach! Congrats on its rerelease, Neil…

13. wes carr - August 5, 2009

At http://www.treknology.org/stations1.htm is a fan design
for a Venus terraforming robot called the De Milo
class. It is part of a series of robots that use tractor
beams to slow, then reverse the rotation of the
planet for heat dissipation and magnetic field
generation. That would be just as big an engineering
challenge as blowing the planet up.

14. al perez - August 5, 2009

Remember to order a copy of The Venus Belt . If you have an older copy it is an antique reay to be put in a nitrogen filled baggy. Besides, if enough people order the Venus Belt maybeso Phoenix Picks will print version of Nagasaki Vector and others in NAC series. Maybe the rest of the Ngu Family Saga will thus find a dead tree home in consequence.

15. Wayne Grantham - August 5, 2009

I remember the feeling of utter shock when I first read _Venus Belt_, when Venus was blown up. How could you!?

But, by the end of the book, and a little time to mull it a mite, I thought…..why not?

After having read _TPB_, and chasing down anything else written by L Neil Smith (about whom I knew nothing, at the time), I couldn’t get through these little books fast enough, then I was waiting for the publication of the next.

16. Stephen - August 5, 2009

What good is a planet anyways? If the Earth has any cosmic purpose at all it is to provide a place for the evolution of a species smart enough to not need to live on planets any more.

17. R.D. Bartucci - August 6, 2009

Well, my copy of the new edition of _The Venus Belt_ arrived yesterday, and thanks for the link to Amazon.com, Neil. Haven’t re-read it in a bunch of years (the wife made me take down all my bookshelves in the living room when we had to have our last crop of grandchildren move in with us, so muchly of my not-for-professional-reference books are in storage boxes down in the basement, probably for the rest of my life).

As for Mr. carr – why terraform Venus when blowing it up gets all (and I mean *all*) of its material resources up from the bottom of a gravity well and into an environment where it can be fully exploited? Better to churn a small fraction thereof into O’Neill cylinders and spin ‘em for whatever pseudogravity du jour you desire.

Speaking of which…. Neil, have you in your Settled Worlds series addressed attention to what we know (not speculate, as in “Gravity Shock” but know) about the physiological changes induced in the human body by prolonged habituation to microgravity? I’ve precisely zero familiarity with aerospace medicine, but it seems to me that fluid redistribution within the third space has got to happen in the absence of gravitic “up and down,” and what the body doesn’t use – in terms of gravity-stressed bone mass, for example – gets resorbed.

Gotta wonder if some kind of super-bisphosphonate or something similar wouldn’t be absolutely vital to life in microgravity.

Any educated thoughts from other readers?

18. Administrator - August 6, 2009

I apologize for not having been more active on this blog lately, I hurt my shoulder around the time I was in Las Vegas (no, wise-asses, it had nothing to do with slot machines or craps) and it hurts to type — hurts even more to type accurately. Took me all day to write the essay these comments are about. Gonna call the doctor this morning.

I thank everybody for their ideas and observations, but I wanted to address Richard’s latest in particular. We (and I use the pronoun loosely) know pretty well how the human body works at one full gravity. We also know how it works at what it’s now politically correct to call “micro-gravity” (sounds pretty much like “zero” to me).

What we know nothing about, last time I heard, is how it works under substantial fractions of one gee: 1/20 on Ceres; 1/10 on Pallas; 1/6 on the Moon, 1/3 on Mars. Not to forget the various fractions that could be routinely encountered in constant-boost interplanetary vessels, given good enough sources of energy and reaction mass.

Why do we know nothing? Because, the last time I heard, NASA refuses to conduct experiments in this area, which seems more important to me than almost anything else they could be doing. And why is this so?

I’m forwarding this to one of two friends who told me about this situation at a meeting a few years ago of the Mars Society in Boulder, Colorado. I hope he’ll tell us if it’s still going on and anything else he may know about it.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to assume (for fictional purposes) that most human systems function at 1/20 of a gee pretty much the same as they do at full strength. Surely that’s true at some point between the two values. Maybe Pallatians will have to take metabolic supplements of some kind, as Richard suggests. And there are crucial stresses and compensations that have nothing to do with gravity, as well.

See my little dissertation on Fallopian tubes in _Ceres_.

19. al perez - August 6, 2009

Please remember that Barack Obama saved us from Hillary Clinton by blocking her from getting nomination. Let us pray that he lives long enough to keep Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reed, and Ms. Clinton out of the Oval Office.

Remember Jubal Harshaw’s comment to the effect that the difference between bad and worse is more important than the difference between good and bad.

On a more cheerful note, I like the way you can make any physical environment you wish to live in in The Venus Belt.
This is a better deal than anything Obama and company are offering.

20. Lloyd - August 7, 2009

In the article, Neil wrote: “I worry now, as I worried then, that my species is no longer capable — morally and mentally, rather than physically — of such titanic projects. If we are, then let’s get on with them, starting with a colony on Pallas or Ceres. If not, let’s find a nice cliff we can all march toward like lemmings and get the whole sorry farce over with.”

I suspect that the human race still has the capability, just not the part of it which speaks English or any version thereof. I already speak Thai, some Lao, a bit of Cantonese, Viet, and Korean, so I figure that either Mandarin or Japanese is going to win a ticket into the Big Frontier. But not English, no. Loss of will, loss of nerve, loss of something essential for life to continue in our society.

For my part, I sign up with Sam Adams:
“If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude than the animated contest of freedom — go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen!”

21. R.D. Bartucci - August 7, 2009

Well, I’m 68 pages into my new copy of _The Venus Belt_, and Neil, I have just enjoyed a flashback which recalled the sensation I felt when first I opened a copy of _The Probability Broach_.

It was: “Damn. I *like* this guy!”

Not “I like the stuff he writes,” but “I *like* this guy” himself.

If a reader is persistent and lucky, there are times when he finds a writer who speaks to him directly and unequivocally, whether the writer is himself trying to do so or not.

I’d found it in Heinlein, and occasionally in Spider Robinson, and from the start in L. Neil Smith. Damnable. Psychotic, no doubt. I found myself thinking of this guy almost immediately as the kind of friend I would not only help move, but would help move *bodies*.

Hey, who in my line of work hasn’t hauled a cadaver hither and yon occasionally? No big….

So, thanks again, Neil. When are your publishers going to re-issue _Their Majesties’ Bucketeers_? My copies (two of ‘em) are wearing out, damnit.

22. Ward Griffiths - August 8, 2009

A 60-Gig or so device would have been in no way portable (or remotely affordable to a tradesman such as a detective or a healer) in the slice of the multiverse we live in back in 1999. People have short memories and Moore’s Law was conservative.

The last thing I ever did with a typewriter (aside from helping a friend tip one over the side of a dumpster — Selectrics are heavy) was my first published article for a computer magazine — couldn’t do it on the computer, we hadn’t yet afforded the lower case mod for our TRS-80 Model One.

23. Neale (spelled the right way) Osborn - August 9, 2009

Neil, I remember the day I found a copy of a sequel to a book I fell in love with in a second hand store in Fort Collins. For the first time since RAH, I read the “about the author” and noticed he was the very town I now lived in, and the rest, as they say, is history. I will buy a copy, new for my son (and to convince publishers to re-issue others of yours). I am looking forward to the vampire novel HINT HINT since my wife is a True Blood fanatic, so I will finally get her to FINISH a book of yours. If my wife will show me how, I’ll e-mail you family pics. When I am rich, maybe I’ll buy your contract, put you in a smal room with lots of coffee, blow in some tobacco smoke, and give you a computer, so you will do nothing but write me books. Nah, you’d be a lot of fun to argue with, but you’d make a lousy slave. So, just heal up and write more books, fast. I’m going through withdrawal. By the way, I quit reading “Ceres” until you finish it. I can’t stand the whole asshole in suspense thing I have going. When it’s done, I’ll read it in one or two sittings, but so far, MAGNIFIQUE. Catch ya later.

24. the Hunter - August 18, 2009

Aww, Neil, from what I’m seein’ lately, I don’t think there’s any cliffs in our future. Appears to me that quite a few statists may be politely invited to walk the plank, though… if they survive THAT long.

25. Roberta X - September 5, 2009

I sure hope you’re right, Hunter. ‘cos otherwise they’ll go after my antique typewriters and my “vintage” paperbacks — which includes, of course, an early printing of “The Venus Belt.” About time for a new one, I think.