Friday, September 18, 2020

Burning Chrome and How I Almost Made William Gibson Look Bad

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Look what just came in the mail! The new, beautifully-made Subterranean Press edition of William  Gibson's short fiction collection, Burning Chrome.

I am awash in nostalgia.

Back when Bill and I co-wrote "Dogfight," which is the reason I received a copy of this book, we were both scruffy young nobodies. A casual meeting at a convention, a few chance words, and we were collaborating on a story. Gibson had a hot rep back then--but only if you were among the few, the new, and the hooked-in. Bill agreed to the collaboration because he's a genial guy. I went into the project because I wanted to see what kind of chops he had.

Pretty damn good, as it turned out.

We used the Hot Typewriter method for the story. Not the Hot Typewriter method of the Fifties, which involved a cheap hotel room, a rented typewriter, a bottle of hootch, and (sometimes) a hooker, but the Eighties version. Which was: One writer had control of the story for a month, during which he could write as much or as little as he wished. He do anything he wanted with it. Change the plot, change the characters, put things in and take things out. There were a couple of small details that Gibson took out that on the next pass I put back only to have him take them out, back and forth several times until at last Bill won. When you're working with somebody good, this can be a very exciting process.

On one of those passes, I came to a section that could only be written by Gibson. Luckily, from my collaborations with Gardner Dozois, I knew what to do. With Gardner, I had only to write a bad imitation of his style and its wrongness would so annoy him that he'd tear it all up and, with enormous labor, write it the proper way. So I wrote a bad William Gibson pastiche and sent it back to him, confident he would redo it from top to bottom.

One month later, I got the story back, expanded, with not one word changed in the pastiche section. In the accompanying letter, Bill was effusive with praise for that section.

Oh crap. I knew that if I let that section go through unchanged, the deficiencies that Bill was blind to would be as obvious to the critics as they were to me. Only, because it was written in Bill's voice (almost), blame for this would fall not on me but on him. And people would conclude that, whatever Bill had once had, he'd lost it.

So I spent much of that month laboring mightily to bring that section up to his standards. I succeeded, I believe, but oh man that was not fun.

End of anecdote. No, I am not going to tell you what section it was. You can read the story and make your own guesses. But I'll never tell you if you were right.


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Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Morbidity, Mortality, and Gardner Dozois

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The current scandal about the White House demanding the right to alter the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report has put me in a nostalgic mood about, of all people, Gardner Dozois.

To understand this, you first have to know that M&MWR back in the day was simply a list of the number all deaths in the US in the previous week, arranged by cause. So many people died of cancer, so many of head trauma, so many of hantavirus, and so on. They also had a single short, one-page essay on some related interesting matter, such as things surgeons had found in people's rectums. You could get a subscription to it free if you wanted, because almost all the people who knew of its existence had professional reasons to receive it.

You also have to know that Gardner was not an optimist. This led him to be willing to entertain borderline conspiracy theories. These could be reasonable ("There's a new disease...) or not ("AIDS can be spread through drinking water" which, the virus being an anaerobe, is absolutely untrue). I could almost never convince him he was wrong. He would listen to Marianne, because he respected her expertise, but her explanations never seemed to take hold in him permanently.

So one day, as a joke, I submitted Gardner's name and address to M&MWR

Gardner loved it.

Once a week, the pamphlet-sized publication came in the mail. He scanned it, and knew exactly what was killing everybody and knew that there were no surprises lurking out there to ambush him. For years, until the print version was replaced by a virtual one, he was a happy man.

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Monday, September 14, 2020

Me! Me! Virtual Me!

 

 

One unanticipated result of the Covid-19 self-isolation has been the explosion of virtual events, readings, panels, and conventions. All of which I am, as a citizen science fiction writer, expected to share my time with.

Two good examples of this phenomenon are embedded here.

Directly above is my "appearance" at the New York Review of Science Fiction Reading Series. The highlight of which is my reading of the opening of City Under the Stars, which is Gardner Dozois's last novel, co-written with yours truly.It is a dark, dark opening in which you get to see a man's life and soul destroyed right before your eyes.

So why might you want to hear it, and then read the book? Because after hearing it, you'll find it hard to believe that immediately after the section read, Hanson's life gets worse. And that after that, it gets even more worse. Yet it does.

This is a pattern that continues up to almost the end of the book when... unexpectedly, unbelievably... it has a happy ending. A hard-earned and well-deserved happy ending that the book was headed for all along.

 

And meanwhile . . .

Ongoing at this very moment is a totally mad enterprise called Con Tinual, known as "The Convention That Never Ends." Which, I have to say, is something that I've had nightmares about on the last night of more than one convention. But these cheerful, positive folk seem to have no problem with that aspect of it.

I participated in a discussion, one of a series called Hot Off the Press, in which participants talked about their recent books. The other (and very articulate) participants were Tom Doyle, Kyoko M, and Gail Z. Martin. The panel was ably MC'd by Jason Tongier.

 The book I discussed was, of course, City Under the Stars.

 Enjoy.


 

Monday, September 7, 2020

City Under the Stars at the NYRSF Reading Series

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TONIGHT, I'll be doing a virtual reading from City Under the Stars, which is Gardner Dozois' last novel, co-written by Yours Truly. 

The event starts at 7:00 p.m., New York City time and ends at 8:30. There will be a reading, the usual badinage, some questions and answers (probably) and even some sentimental rambling about what a swell guy Gardner was (almost certainly).

Michael Swanwick/(channeling) Gardner Dozois

Tuesday, September 9, 2020

7:00 p.m.

facebook.com/jim.freund

 

Here's what hosts Jim Freund and Barbara Krasnoff have to say about the event: 

 This reading marks the beginning of our 30th Season! Sadly, we cannot all join together for a fete, but over the course of time, we'll figure something out. We wish to experiment with simulcasting the reading on our traditional home here on Facebook.

 On Tor.com, Michael Swanwick wrote: "Almost a quarter century ago, Gardner Dozois and I published “The City of God,” now the first half of this novel. It ended with a slam, seemingly precluding any sequels. But over the decades Gardner and I talked over what might come next. We planned to write two more novellas, “The City of Angels” and “The City of Men,” which would tell one long, complete story. One with a happy ending. 

 Don’t laugh. 

Yes, Gardner could be a bleak writer. Yes, the novella was dark even for him. But he had an uplifting idea for how the book would end. We discussed it often. We were midway through the second novella and aiming at that happy ending when, without warning, Gardner died. 

I knew I would never write that third novella without his input, his genius. Nevertheless I wanted the world to see this genuinely happy ending. So I changed the direction of the work in progress, combined both novellas, divided them into chapters, and made of them a novel I think Gardner would have been pleased with. 

The ending is exactly what Gardner envisioned all those decades ago. A happy one. For everyone. 

When I wrote the last words of it, I cried." --

 

Michael Swanwick has received the Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, World Fantasy and Hugo Awards, and has the pleasant distinction of having been nominated for and lost more of these same awards than any other writer. He has written ten novels, over a hundred and fifty short stories, and countless works of flash fiction. His latest novel The Iron Dragon’s Mother, was recently published by Tor Books. 

 He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Marianne Porter. 

 

 Gardner Dozois was one of the most important editors in the history of science-fiction. His editorial work earned more than 40 Hugo Awards, 40 Nebula Awards, and 30 Locus Awards, and he was awarded the Hugo for Best Professional Editor fifteen times between 1988 and his retirement from Asimov’s in 2004, having edited the magazine for 20 years! He also served as the editor of The Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies and co-editor of the Warrior anthologies, Songs of the Dying Earth, and many others. As a writer, Dozois twice won the Nebula Award for best short story. He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2011 and received the Skylark Award for Lifetime Achievement. *

Friday, September 4, 2020

My Cyberpunk Interview


Back in the days of the Cyberpunk-Humanist Wars, I was pretty clearly identified as a humanist--a class enemy. I wasn't in Chairman Bruce's shortlist of the Movement (the term he preferred) or in his Mirrorshades anthology, which cast a much wider net. So that settled that.

Except that with the passing years, the definitions of cyberpunk have gotten vaguer and, more and more, I find myself listed as having been one.

Most recently, Mark Everglade, author of the novel Hemispheres: A Cyberpunk Dystopian, among other works, interviewed me about my novel Vacuum Flowers and about what the  cyberpunk culture was like back in the day.

 Here's how the interview begins:

 Mark: Cyberpunk had been declared dead by Bruce Sterling in 1986 due to what Bruce Bethke called a lack of continued originality, as publishers and fans forced cyberpunk into repetitive and pedantic tropes (paraphrased). Vacuum Flowers was published in 1987, although you’ve stated you didn’t intend for it to be a full cyberpunk book and really wanted to stress its space opera side. You’ve also stated in the past that cyberpunk fans weren’t particularly warm to the book. What was the overall cyberpunk atmosphere like at that time in the publishing industry and among consumers?

Michael: Let’s start with the observation that it was a phenomenon whose time had come. In retrospect, there were a lot of writers (some unlikely) trying to invent cyberpunk before William Gibson succeeded with stories like “Johnny Mnemonic” and “Burning Chrome” and then codified it with Neuromancer. ..


You can find the intro page about Vacuum Flowers by going to:

 https://www.markeverglade.com/vacuumflowers

(Forgive me for not formatting this as a link; the new Blogger interface is not exactly intuitive.) Those who are already familiar with the novel can scroll down to the bottom of the page to find the button for the interview itself.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2020

City Under the Stars is Born!!!

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Today is the publication date for City Under the Stars, my most recent and Gardner Dozois' last novel.

Everybody knows Gardner's work as an editor. Fewer know what a fine writer he was. If you're among those who know his fiction, you already want this book. If you're not... well, this is a good time to find out.

Here's how it starts:

It was high summer in Orange, in York, in the Human Domain of Earth. There was commerce in the town, crops in the field, beasts in the byre, bandits in the roads, thants and chimeras in the hills, and God in His Heaven—which was fifteen miles away, due east.

From where Hanson worked—on an open platform extending out from the side of the giant State Factory of Orange and nestling right up against the bare, rocky face of Industry Hill—it was possible to look east, out across the teeming squalor of Orange, and see the Wall of the City of God marching north-south across the horizon, making the horizon really: a radiant line drawn across the misty blue of distance, pink as a baby's thigh, pink as dawn. And to know that it stretched, in all its celestial arrogance, over two hundred miles to the north, and more than three hundred miles to the south, unbroken, cutting three-quarters of the Human Domain off from the sea—the City of God, perfect and inviolable, with a completeness that was too much for man. That was what Hanson must face every day when he came to work and stood in the sun and in his human sweat with his little shovel. That terrible, alien beauty, indifferent to mortality, forever at his back, a head's turn away, as he worked, as he grew old. And knowing that God and all the angels were in there, pure and incomprehensible as fire, maybe watching him right now, looking down over the Edge of the Wall and into the finite world: a huge watery eye, tall as the sky.

 But no one ever thought much about God on shift, not for long…

Which is one lovely stick of prose. I can say that because every word of the opening section was written by Gardner. There was nobody who ever wrote quite like him.


And to provide a little context . . .

City Under the Stars took almost fifty years from first inception to publication. I wrote an essay, included with the novel as an afterword, laying out the whole grand saga. Here's a small fraction of it:

At the end of a visit to his new Society Hill apartment—a far cry from the Quince Street digs, with a fireplace and a Jacuzzi tub—Gardner saw me to the front stoop and then said, “Wait a second.” He went inside and returned with a familiar cardboard box.
        
“I’m never going to write the Digger Novel,” he said. “So you might as well take it and see if you can turn it into a novella.”
        
I took the box from him. “I know exactly how to do this,” I lied. “I’m not going to tell you now because I want it to be a surprise!” (Remember, I’d long ago given up on Gardner ever finishing it on his own.) I clutched the box to my chest and began to edge away, afraid that Gardner would come to his senses and snatch it back.
        
“It’s clear to me this isn’t going anywhere,” he said unhappily. “But maybe you can make something of it.”
        
I was down to the sidewalk. “Wait until you see what I have in mind! You’ll love it!”
        
Gardner wasn’t listening. In his heart of hearts, he was mourning the necessity to hand over the child of his imagination to me. “But I’ll tell you what,” he said. “Make the conclusion open-ended. Just in case we decide to make a novel of it.”
 “You must be reading my mind!” I chirped. 
        
Miraculously, in that instant, even as I was saying those words, the solution entered my mind…



And because it can never be said too often . . .

Gardner Dozois could be a very dark writer indeed. People used to marvel at the contrast between the jolly fun-loving man they knew and the stories he wrote. And much of this novel adheres to that pattern. Three-quarters of the way through reading it, Marianne said to me, "This doesn't end well, does it?"

"No, no! It has a happy ending," I told her.

"Oh, sure. One of your happy endings."

"A happy ending! For everybody!" I insisted. "And it was Gardner who came up with it."

Which is true. Gardner had been talking about the ending of the novel for decades. It was one of the reasons I was so anxious to finish the novel after he died. I wanted everybody to know that he had a happy ending in him. I wanted everybody to know that he went out on a positive note.

Read the book. You'll see.


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Monday, August 24, 2020

How To Write A Submission Letter

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Going through a heap of old papers in the printer room, I ran across my submission letter for "A Small Room in Koboldtown," which I sent to Sheila Williams at Asimov's Science Fiction. 

The guidelines for submission letters all agree that they should be short, interesting, and to the point. Mine, I believe is exemplary on all three counts. So I present it to you as a model:

Dear Sheila,

No, don't say a word. You don't need to. Among my many, many other talents, I'm a precognitive telepath. So, to spare you some trouble, I've made a transcript of your future thoughts as you read hte attached story, "A Small Room in Koboldtown." To wit:

Oh Gawd, it's another urban elf story! The readers are going to rise up with pitchforks and torches. I keep telling Michael that we want hard science fiction! With spaceships!! But he... What's this? It'a a locked-room mystery? Has Michael gone completely bonkers? I can't believe that he would do this to... Actually, it's not bad. It's pretty good. In fact, it's terrific. I think I'm going to... going to... buy it. But I refuse to  be gracious about it. I'm going to write him a terse, clipped acceptance letter.

So there you are! Look at all the time I've saved you! Inferior writers wouldn't do that. But I refrain from pointing out how wonderful of me it was. My great modesty will not permit it.

Magnaminously yours,

Michael   
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And that's how it's done by the pros. Go thou, young gonnabe writer, and do thou likewise!


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