RIP, Richard Stern

There’s an obit in the New York Times for author Richard Stern, who passed away last week from cancer at the nicely advanced age of 84. Fans of literature will remember him (as the obit notes) as a somewhat obscure part of a coterie of writers which included Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth, the author of books like Golk, Stitch and Noble Rot, and the recipient of both the O. Henry award for short fiction and the Medal of Merit for the Novel. He also somewhat infamously panned the novel Catch 22 in the New York Times, a review which probably became as well known as his novels.

I remember Stern because when I was a first-year student at the University of Chicago, I somewhat arrogantly marched into his upper-level creative writing class and demanded to be let in; Stern, who I think among other things was amused at my impertinence and ego, allowed me to be in it, warning that he intended to cut me no slack. He lived up to his word on that, since of the several piece I turned in for the class, he liked only one, and that just mildly: A brief character piece about a grandfather who was disappointed in a grandson but was trying to hide it from the younger man, perhaps not successfully.

Remembering the pieces I turned in, Stern was unsurprisingly correct: The pieces were clever but not good, the work of someone who had some facility for dialogue but not much of an idea for how people talked. Inasmuch as this continues to be the direction in which my writing tends to fail, he was on to something. It’s a bit of a shame it took me nearly a decade after I left his class to clue in on this.

I had problems with Stern’s class. My first problem was that on the first day of class, Stern said to us that he wouldn’t be reading any science fiction stories, as he felt, basically, that they were childish and inauthentic. As a longtime reader of science fiction at that point, I bristled at that approximation (and, well, obviously, still do). I also suspect I know what he was trying to get at: he wanted the writers in the class to deal with people and character interactions, and a lot of student-level science fiction is focused on (supposedly) nifty futuristic ideas first, and people second. Fair enough, although I think (and continue to think) he was using science fiction as a stalking horse for the general idea of putting characters first.

My second problem was not about Stern, but about my classmates, whose stories drove me batty. This was late 1987, and Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City were all the rage, so the class was full of students sharing stories of dissolution, drug use and dorm room bisexuality. It wasn’t that I was opposed to any of those things, per se, just that they got awfully tiring to read about over and over (there was one girl who wrote something else; I liked it so much I begged for a copy of the story. I still have it). I remember snapping one class session and chewing out the rest of my classmates about their tiresome written exercises in ennui; they looked at me like I had sprouted a second head. I think I remember Stern grinning as I lost it, however.

(There is some irony in that as far as I know I am the only published author from that particular class. I remember sending Stern a copy of Old Man’s War, since I imagined it might annoy him that it was a science fiction novel. If I had to do it again, I’d send him Redshirts instead. Stern’s first novel, Golk, was about television’s more surreal aspects; I think he might find several points in common between our novels.)

In the end I didn’t get much out of the class, other than a strong belief that creative writing classes and I were destined not to agree with each other. For a fairly long period of time I suspected that Stern had not been a particularly good teacher; these days I suspect more that I was not a particularly good student. As a young writer I was very arrogant — even more so than now, without the attendant track record to back me up. If I could go back now I imagine I’d tell the younger me to relax and stop trying to suggest he was the most awesome writer in the room; I’m equally sure the younger me wouldn’t bother to listen. I was that guy. I know how I was.

Nevertheless, looking back I wish I had been a better student and had listened to what Stern had to say rather than focused on being an arrogant twit. I don’t know that it would have made me a better or worse writer in the grand scheme of things, but it seems a shame I mostly missed out on an opportunity to learn more from a writer held in such esteem by other writers. I hope I’m smarter, or at least less arrogant,  now.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier, the second book in Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops series, is out today. And on this auspicious occasion, Cole wishes to think on subjects like competence, training, preparation and readiness — and what happens when life takes all of those things and just chucks them out the window.


Life’s got a way of throwing us curve balls.

You get 20 years or so to build a career, become a veritable expert in your field, undisputed master of your domain. You’ve got this shit down. Nobody, but nobody has more contacts, a better instinct or more natural talent than you do at . . . assessing properties. Making donuts. Putting out fires. Whatever. You’ve reached the pinnacle of whatever it is.

Which is precisely when your boss runs into your office. You’re desperately needed to handle a critical project. Everyone else has been suddenly carried off by flying saucers mysteriously targeting only your department. You’re the only one left. It’s up to you. And this critical project? It’s in another department, one you’ve never had anything to do with. Suddenly, you’re a novice, in way over your head, with everyone counting on you to get it right.

Dramatic, huh? It happens all the time. It happened to Lieutenant John Chard, an engineering officer sent to fix a bridge near a mission station on the Buffalo River in what was then known as Natal. He was great at his job: you know, bridge fixing. Sure, the British army did other things, like fight wars, but that wasn’t his real job.

It became his job, when he found himself the ranking officer in charge of the garrison at that mission station, some 150 soldiers, most of them convalescing. Surrounding them were 4,000 Zulus, not at all pleased with British colonial ambitions in their lands.

Chard didn’t want the job, wasn’t ready for the job. He’d done everything right, studied hard, been an upstanding citizen and loyal servant of the crown. He didn’t deserve this. It wasn’t fair.

We have a saying in the Coast Guard: “The sea doesn’t care about you.” In Chard’s case, neither did the garrison, who looked to him to lead them. Neither did the Zulu, who were determined to use him as an example of what would happen to those who sought to colonize them. Neither did the wind or the air or the waving grass. Chard could have cursed and spit and cried. He could have beat his breast and shouted to the heavens, called God to account. But none of that would have helped, so he didn’t.

He dug in and fought. He closed his eyes, grit his teeth and put one foot in front of the other.

And when he’d opened them again, he’d won.

Granted, that’s an extremely dramatized/simplified version of events, but drama is what us storytellers are after. The Battle at Rorke’s Drift fascinates me. Not because of the tactics, or the gear, or the fraught questions of European murderous disdain for human life in their frantic grab for Africa. What fascinates me most is the story of a man, in over his head, who digs deep and finds the courage to fight.

In Fortress Frontier, I ask that question. What is the secret ingredient that makes some people shrug their shoulders in a crisis? What allows some of us to simply say, “I’ll figure it out,” when others go to pieces? It’s a question we love to ask, if genre stories are any indicator. Luke Skywalker joins a rag-tag rebel alliance in what seems a hopeless resistance against an all-powerful empire. Frodo lugs the soul-poisoning ring of power into the dark lord’s backyard, with the largest army ever seen standing between him and his goal. Alone. And did I mention he’s like three feet tall? Taran doesn’t even make it to full pig-keeper (he’s still an assistant) before he’s called to battle the greatest evil the land has ever known.

They have their failures, the moments they take a knee, try to set their burden aside. But they always get up again. They always take up the one ring, or their father’s light saber, or the burden of command. They close their eyes like Chard did, putting one foot in front of another. They don’t know how they’ll make it work, recognize the strong chance that they won’t.

But they go forward anyway.

Because. Sometimes, you win.


Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.


The Human Division, Episode Three: We Only Need the Heads is Now Live!

Hey! Weren’t you just saying that you were wishing it were Tuesday, so you could get the next episode of The Human Division? Well, now it’s Tuesday, and now “We Only Need the Heads” is available for your perusal — nay, fervent enjoyment. This one’s about 9.9k words (i.e., close to the average size of an episode). What’s this one all about? I’ll quote from the Episode description:

CDF Lieutenant Harry Wilson has been loaned out to a CDF platoon tasked with secretly removing an unauthorized colony of humans on an alien world. Colonial Ambassador Abumwe has been ordered to participate in final negotiations with an alien race the Union hopes to make allies. Wilson and Abumwe’s missions are fated to cross—and in doing so, place both missions at risk of failure.

Exciting. Also, those of you who were curious about how “Walk the Plank,” last week’s episode, might tie into the story with Wilson, Schmidt and Abumwe, you’ll find some answers here. Some. Heh heh heh heh.

Here’s a fun bit of trivia for you: A portion of this episode (Wilson’s shuttle ride) was the very first bit I wrote in all of The Human Division. Not because it was originally meant to be the start of the book but because I needed to get back into Harry Wilson’s head, and that scene was a nice way of doing it. Once I got that, I was back into the Old Man’s War universe, and then we were off to the races, as it were.

As always, there’s a discussion of the episode over at, so after you’ve read the episode, go on over and learn some more “behind the scenes” details.

Remember also to tune in next week for “A Voice in the Wilderness,” in which we’ll visit a mysterious planet called… Earth. I know! Who even goes there anymore, right?

We Only Need the Heads: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBookstore|Google Play|Kobo| Audible (audio) (all US links)

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