Tag Archives: science fiction

Bury my heart at Radio Shack

photo by Windell Oskay

Once widely available, electronic kits and chemistry sets made science fun and approachable

It happens every time.

On our way to the beach, my wife and I pass through Marshville, thirty-five miles outside Charlotte on Highway 74. Not long after I see the sign proclaiming we’re speeding past the birthplace of its most famous son, Randy Travis, we pass a rusted Radio Shack sign.

I can’t help but gaze at it. Like Mr. Bojangles, I still grieve after all these years.

When I was in high school in the early 70s, nothing compared with a trip to Radio Shack. It was a science nerd’s dream. The kits they sold promised high-tech adventure, and making them gave a sense of accomplishment. Build your own AM radio transmitter! How about a treasure finder? Make your own shortwave receiver and listen to the US armed forces, or NASA, or ships at sea. There was nothing quite like soldering that last connection, powering up your project, and hearing it work.

And it wasn’t just Radio Shack. Kits for any skill level, as well as more serious electronic gear, could be found at Heathkit and Lafayette stores. Retail and drug stores offered chemistry sets, lab gear, and a dazzling (and potentially dangerous) variety of chemicals.

From the 1950s up to the early 90s, kids were encouraged to explore the sciences, and not just for entertainment value. After all, we had to compete with the Soviets. It was the age of Sputnik, of Lyndon Johnson growling that he did not want to look up at the moon and see a damn Russian flag. Mastering science and technology wasn’t just for the sheer fun of it; it was a patriotic duty.

My parents did their part. I had a microscope in the third grade, and received chemistry and electronic learning labs as presents for many birthdays and Christmases. One set included a formula for what the manual called “Dehydrated Fire,” a harmless-looking powder that would burst into flames when you sprinkled water on it. Who says science is boring?

In the eighth grade, my parents bought me a reflecting telescope from Sears. The night sky in the backyard of our rural home was unpolluted with city lights, ideal for squinting at distant craters, ice rings, and glowing stellar nurseries.

In the late 70s, the personal computer put even more technology into the hands of ordinary people. Hard-core hobbyists made their own computers from kits, but even off-the-shelf computers gave owners the ability to create and store their own programs. Learning to program no longer required access to a big-ticket, room-sized mainframe. I learned BASIC on the Commodore 64, and thought I was Mr. Spock himself.

From the end of WWII to the early 90s, science and technology were domesticated and made understandable. Little wonder that this period saw such a creative outpouring of intelligent and optimistic science fiction, with visionaries such as Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Card, and Le Guin dazzling and enchanting us with tales of wonder, exploration, and adventure.

And then something happened.

Today’s computers do not come with built-in programming capabilities. You can buy an interpreter or compiler, but why bother? Whatever you want to do, there’s an app for that already. Yes, computers can be customized, but they only allow you to choose features designed by others. The mini-computers in our cell phones are not springboards for creativity, but instruments that transfix and numb their owners.

Technology today is designed for consumers, not collaborators.

I believe the age of hands-on, empowering technology started dying the same year Radio Shack peaked, 1999. The number of stores dwindled until the parent corporation declared bankruptcy in 2015. Since then, electronics morphed from interactive to anesthetizing. With the Cold War won, and no real challenges before us, we lost that sense of purpose that pushed us to learn and explore and dare.

And yes, a few stores do offer science kits today, but these kits are feeble substitutes for the magnificent and daring science adventures we enjoyed. Have you seen the “fossil dig kit” available in craft stores? For $19.99, a kid can brush away dirt from a fake rock and “discover” real shark’s teeth and bones. Yes, it’s boring, but it’s safe. It’s what kids are allowed to do in a timid, complacent, and aimless age.

Quote of the day

“I find the short story much more intriguing because it encompasses, in a moment, everything that went before and supposes everything that will follow. It gives the reader the opportunity to exercise his or her chops in solving the mystery. It freezes up a moment in time, it freezes your imagination of a concept in a moment in time, and the short story has always seemed to be to me far more difficult and adroit and flexible than the novel. There are many great novels, and yet I see people writing trilogies and quatrologies and even five and six and eight volumes in a series, and I think, ‘Are they not re-chewing their cud?’ So I try to hit the gong the first time.” Harlan Ellison

William Gibson, Cyber Rebel

Mention the term Southern fiction, and people typically think of the works of Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Ron Rash, or Charles Frazier. The term evokes scenes of snowy-white cotton fields, simmering tension between characters sipping bourbon, or protagonists haunted by an aching nostalgia for a rural life long gone.

Most folks wouldn’t associate memory uploads, runaway AI systems, or megacorporations as proper subjects for Southern fiction. But maybe my article on cyberpunk author William Gibson might just change your mind. It’s the featured post over at the Abbeville Institute blog. Read it there, and comment on it here. Enjoy!

Unbound – The First Collection

Unbound

I was pleasantly surprised to see my short story “Hunting Ground” included in DAOwens Publications’ Unbound – The First Collection. It’s an exciting blend of fantasy and science fiction stories, featuring the themes of the successful Unbound series, including Lost Friends, Changed Worlds, and Goodbye Earth.

Here’s what one reviewer had to say: “I enjoyed M.C. Tuggle’s “Hunting Ground” for its unusual antagonist. CHANGED WORLDS (Unbound Book 2) is a great read for those wanting to spice up their lives with something new.” Ben A. Sharpton, author of 2nd Sight.

Available at Kobo. Check it out!

Two Funerals (And a Wedding)

Two Funerals

Terror House Magazine is an independent literary journal based in Budapest, Hungary. Its mission is to publish fiction and articles “too edgy, unusual, or honest to be released elsewhere.” The latest issue features my short story “Two Funerals (And a Wedding).”

Carter Black is a young man with a special gift, one he’s inherited from his mother. She assures Carter that he and others like him represent the next step in human evolution, though he often wishes he could be like everyone else. But when his mother dies, Carter is forced to confront the true significance of that gift, and must also decide whether he will finally marry his patient and long-suffering fiancée.

Like Carter Black, this story is not quite what it appears to be. On the surface, it’s an entertaining science fiction tale. But it’s also a funny/sad satire about a world that’s followed its dogmas to the point of self-delusion, if not insanity. You could call it dystopian, but the aim is to provoke debate. After all, literature can startle and heal at the same time. I hope you enjoy it.

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?

Kurt Vonnegut

Most of us know Kurt Vonnegut from his science fiction classics, such as “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Player Piano.” But his fame as a commencement speaker almost overshadowed his fame (notoriety?) as a shrewd and caustic master of fiction. As Maria Popova illustrates in her review of “If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?,” Vonnegut’s collected commencement addresses, the author generously shared not only his hard-won wisdom, but also his stubborn optimism.

At the heart of Vonnegut’s talks, as in his fiction, is the urgent warning that we’re in danger of losing our humanity. We lose it, he says, by isolating and distracting ourselves. As Popova writes:

This, in fact — this passionate advocacy for the value of community, of finding your tribe — is something Vonnegut reiterates across his many commencement speeches. In another address, he, the father of seven children, argues that the modern family is simply too small, leaving too much room for loneliness and boredom, and advises: “I recommend that everybody here join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life. It does not matter much if all the other members are morons. Quantities of relatives of any sort are what we need.”

Vonnegut often preached the gospel of art, including music, theater, and literature as a catalyst for emotional and social well-being. But only human contact can facilitate the growth of human, and humane, souls. As Vonnegut counseled the graduates of Agnes Scott College in 1999:

Only well-informed, warm-hearted people can teach others things they’ll always remember and love. Computers and TV don’t do that.

A computer teaches a child what a computer can become.

An educated human being teaches a child what a child can become. Bad men just want your bodies. TVs and computers want your money, which is even more disgusting. It’s so much more dehumanizing!

It is no coincidence that the same runaway market forces threatening the environment also threaten our humanity. If we are self-serving consumers with no bonds to others, we are left with nothing to strive for other than maximizing our exploitation of nature and other people. Vonnegut advises his audience to nurture ties with the “extended family,” even if it’s an a “synthetic extended family,” such as clubs and sports teams.

Of course, rebelling has its dangers, as Vonnegut warned in such stories as “Harrison Bergeron.” After all, we live in a world where going against the grain will get you branded as a threat, a theme I explored in my dystopian short story “Snake Heart.” Sometimes we lose. But as Kurt Vonnegut reminds us, the risk of mindless conformity to “the cultural current” is even worse.

The Magic of Swamps

My wife and I just got back from Carolina Beach. We spent Tuesday hiking through Carolina Beach State Park, a 761-acre wildlife sanctuary in southeastern North Carolina bordered by the Intracoastal Waterway and the mighty Cape Fear River.
We need more places like this. After driving nearly 200 miles from Charlotte down I-74, much of which is garrisoned by countless installations of Burger This and Taco That, we were ready for something that wasn’t standardized and sterile.

The Swamp Trail was alive with surprises. Here’s the Lily Pond, which was overflowing with dark green lily pads and dotted with white blossoms, all floating in unpolluted water. The air around the Lily Pond smelled deliciously earthy and rich.

Not far away, large swaths of the pine forest still showed signs of this summer’s controlled burn. This process helps clear away old and diseased vegetation, thereby freeing up nutrients for the soil and new life, such as this little guy:

If this newborn pine reminds you of the young Groot, you’re not the only one.

Swamps reaffirm the astonishing resilience and adaptability of life. The Wilmington, North Carolina area is the only place in the world where you can find Venus Flytraps. Both Pitcher Plants and Venus Flytraps evolved in an environment lacking the proteins and nitrogen needed to sustain them, so these plants started feeding on meat. We didn’t come across any Venus Flytraps on our hike, but here are some Pitcher Plants we saw waiting for their usual customers, including flies, small frogs, and even birds:

Carnivorous plants. Pretty wild, huh?

Guess you could say swamps are to our everyday environment what science fiction and fantasy are to our routine reading. In the swamp, you’re face-to-face with nature’s more fantastical creatures, creatures whose vitality and outlandish attributes force you to pay attention to them. Swamps are the incubators of wild imaginings and unexpected beauty. My story “Hunting Ground,” which was included in the Unbound II: Changed Worlds anthology, was not only set in a swamp but inspired by my boyhood ramblings in local marshes. Did carnivorous plants get a starring role? Well, their (could be) cousins did …

Getting outdoors, and hiking in particular, help you sharpen your senses. And don’t forget how experiencing nature lets you encounter beauty and rediscover peace of mind, which can lead you to becoming a more balanced person and a better writer.