A Bouquet of Pheasants

Many years ago, at Christmastime, my mother and I went to an old bookstore called the Bookpost, not too far from the house where I did most of my growing up. It operated in a former post office and it was a delightful place to browse through the shelves. I vividly remember that day, because it was one of the last times I saw my mother looking healthy—before a serious illness claimed her final year and a half. She had given me my marching orders: Find four or five books you’d really like. It was her Christmas present to me in her second-to-last holiday season.

I picked several books that I’ve totally forgotten about. But one was something special, something my mother had heard about, called An Exaltation of Larks, by James Lipton. It was a slender volume devoted almost entirely to the collective nouns that describe groups of people and animals—gaggle, flock, herd, school, host, things like that. Here are some examples.

A murder of crows…A gang of elk…A melody of harpists…A clowder of cats…A scurry of squirrels…A bouquet of pheasants…A bevy of beauties…A skulk of foxes…An odium of politicians…A failing of students…A parliament of owls…A murmuration of starlings

The book is full of hundreds of these delightful collective names. I thought of it recently, when I saw a piece by Jim Gilbert in the Star Tribune newspaper, talking about collective names of birds. He pointed out that the same bird can have several collective names. For example, geese are different depending on where they are. On dry land, they are a flock. On the water they are a gaggle. Up in the air they are a skein.

Inspired, I’ve tried to come up with a few new collective names of my own devising. A scribble of writers. A daub of painters. A shower of meteorologists. A chirp of crickets. A hatchet of butchers. A squint of readers. A trumpet of elephants. A rumble of tympanists. A docket of judges.

An Exaltation of Larks is still in print after nearly fifty years. If you love names and language, you owe it to yourself to get hold of a copy.

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CP30 Interviewed in the Guardian

You’d have to live on Mars (or perhaps the ice planet Hoth) to have missed the rising crescendo of publicity for this holiday season’s biggest flick: Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The toys and collectibles are starting to come out. (That little round rolling robot is seriously cool. He’ll be getting underfoot everywhere this winter.) But details about the film itself remain under wraps, subject to the severe legal sanctions of Disney. We only know that the original crew is back (Ford, Fisher, Hamill) and new hot actors like Oscar Isaac are making their first appearances in George Lucas’s old galaxy.

indexAnother beloved Star Wars actor just gave a fun interview to the Guardian. Anthony Daniels, CP30, shared what little he could, given the legal embargo on any details about the film. He himself was spanked by Disney for mentioning another actor in an innocent Tweet.

He notes that the prequels of 15 years ago were a pretty dismal affair. (I couldn’t agree more.) But his report from the set this time around is encouraging:

“All the signs are that The Force Awakens will be different. ‘It became clear early on that with JJ we were getting back to the old-fashioned kind of film-making. We have walls. Actual sets! All right, so you might not have a view out of the window, but you have a window. Now, what else can I tell you?’ [Daniels] mulls something over, then says: ‘No, I can’t tell you that.'”


You can read Daniels’s interview here.

I was among the first thousands to ever see the original. I was a newspaper editor and got an invite to the screening in Minneapolis. I loved it and knew it was a game changer for the movies and science fiction. But after the first two in the series, the four follow-on films disappointed me a lot. I also feel a little foreboding, because I’m no fan of J. J. Abrams’s two Star Trek movies.

Nonetheless, sometime this holiday season Sue and I will be ponying up our sixteen bucks to once again visit that galaxy far, far away.

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Say “Cheese,” Mr. Churchill!

There’s a scene in the first Johnny Graphic book, Johnny Graphic and the Etheric Bomb, in which Johnny—in his capacity as a newspaper photographer—is shooting the Minister of War as she testifies in a parliamentary committee. She is one of the villains in the book and Johnny, a thorn in her side, waits until she sets eyes on him:

Patterson didn’t budge from her chair, waiting for the questioning to resume. She surveyed the standing photographers with an expression about as friendly as a rattlesnake’s. Her hooded eyes suddenly moved down and locked on Johnny. A look of volcanic hatred erupted across her face as she recognized him. Her blubbery lips formed a distorted scowl. Her eyes widened. Her nostrils flared. Her brow furrowed.

But only for a few seconds.

Long enough.

In a single, smooth motion, Johnny lifted his camera, framed the shot, and pressed the shutter. The flashbulb dazzled the whole room.

Instantly Mabel Patterson’s face shriveled up, like a deflated balloon.

For the next few days Johnny’s picture of the furious ex-minister of war appeared on front pages around the world. No one else had gotten the shot.

I was reminded what inspired this scene when I recently came across the catalog of a long-ago photo show devoted to the work of the portrait photographer Josef Karsh. In our era, Annie Leibowitz is probably the most famous portraitist. Well, in the mid-20th century, if you were anybody important, you were photographed by Karsh.

His most famous picture, the shot that inspired Johnny’s little gambit, is of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill when he was visiting the Canadian Parliament in the midst of World War II.

Churchill was smoking a cigar and refused to relinquish it for Karsh’s shots. The photographer approached Churchill and pretended to take a new light reading. Suddenly, he snatched the cigar from the Prime Minister’s mouth, hopped back to his camera, and snapped the shutter. This is the iconic result.


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The Return of the Flying Boats?

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The 1930s and ’40s were the age of the flying boat, when glorious old aircraft such as the Pan Am Clipper carried glamorous travelers all over the world—using the oceans as their airports. Flying boats are also a big part of the Johnny Graphic Adventures, flying Johnny and his friends across continents and oceans.

Might flying boats be in for a big revival? According to a recent article in the Daily Mail, British engineers and scientists are studying the possibilities for giant flying boats in the future of air travel. Considering the burgeoning demand for air routes around the world, they believe it makes sense to use bodies of water near transport hubs in lieu of new airports, which are fantastically expensive to build.

Unlike the Boeing flying boat seen here, the flying boat design they advocate is a huge mono-hull airframe—a kind of a flying wing with a hull-shaped bottom. (FYI, the Boeing 314 Clipper was the inspiration for the Como Eagle in which Johnny flies in Johnny Graphic and the Etheric Bomb.)

Is it likely to happen? Not any time soon. But if the world’s appetite for air travel keeps growing at the present rate, the flying boat might just be the answer.

To read the Daily Mail article, click here. 

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Tardigrades – Superheroes of Nature

TV is swarming with superheroes these days, from the Flash and Arrow to the Agents of Shield and Daredevil. They’re everywhere, and even more are on the way.

It so happens that your house, your backyard, the little lake down in the park, almost any place, in fact, is also swarming with a very different kind of superhero…who is smaller than a poppy seed and able to perform incredible feats.

It is the nearly indestructible tardigrade, a tiny, cute little guy with eight pudgy little legs and some very sharp teeth. The tardigrade has made it through all the great extinctions of history and will probably outlive humans.


Tardigrades can survive at close to absolute zero. They can survive near volcanic ducts under the sea. They can survive in the vacuum and cosmic rays of outer space. They can spend years in dehydration and come back to life. True, they only live about a year, but when they’re alive, they can’t be licked.

They are truly superheros of nature, the toughest critters on earth.

The BBC recently had a great article about them on its website. Check it out here.

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Great Review for Johnny/Zombies at Reading with Cats

Chris Hooker at the Reading with Cats blog just posted a very nice review of Johnny Graphic and the Attack of the Zombies.

She wrote that I did “an excellent job continuing the adventures of young boy photographer, Johnny Graphic and his friends.” And “The classic style of the writing reminds me of Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mysteries. It is a great throwback with a modern twist.”

You can read the entire review—and check out the rest of Chris’s excellent book review blog—by clicking here.



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Building Worlds with Frank Herbert—The Conception of Dune

FrankHerbert 275copyThe Johnny Graphic series of ghost adventures belongs to a genre of fantasy/science fiction called “Alternative History.” And in order to tell these stories, I needed to create a world of 1935 somewhat like our own world in 1935, but different in important ways—most notably the scientific, factual existence of ghosts and zombies. It isn’t world-building from scratch, but it is world-building nonetheless. It’s this fictional framework that makes the story credible and real-seeming.

Recently, the first Johnny book, Johnny Graphic and the Etheric Bomb, received a very thoughtful and positive review on Amazon—the kind of review that warms the cockles of an author’s heart. But it’s the part of the review that compares my “Eight Laws of Etheristics” to Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” that makes me proudest. You can read the complete review here. 

The review and the notion of world-building got me thinking about the great world-builders of science fiction and fantasy, from Edgar Rice Burroughs and J. R. R. Tolkien to J. K. Rowling and Paolo Bacigalupi and Neal Stephenson. Most especially, it reminded me of the afternoon I spent with one of the greatest world-builders—Frank Herbert, the creator of Dune.

During my interview with him, Herbert told me he had wanted to write a novel on the desire in Western societies for messiahs—someone on a white horse who comes to fix the sorry mess we’re in. He spent two or three years researching the topic.

Then he wrote a magazine story on how the USDA was controlling sand dunes in Oregon. And he had a eureka moment.

He realized that a world of dunes and its harsh environment would be the perfect place for a messiah to rise and surge out among the vast entirety of human civilization. Thus, Herbert’s amazing world-building.

Messiah + dunes = an incredible, alien future for humanity.

Herbert and I had lunch together that day, did the interview in his hotel room, then went for a long walk in the late-winter rain. In addition to being a great world-builder, he was just a really  nice guy. He wasn’t around long enough. But his world of dunes and messiahs and giant sand worms is as close to immortal as any science fiction can be.

You can find my interview with him in my Kindle e-book, Four Science Fiction Masters. For the Epub version, click here. The book also contains my interviews with Fred Pohl, Cliff Simak, and Gordon Dickson.


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