Friday, June 22, 2018

Flogging the Time Machine!

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A decent respect for my editors and publishers requires that I mention that I will be making an appearance tonight at 7:00 p.m. at the Rittenhouse Square Barnes & Noble. Along with other comix creators, of course. All in support of the Once Upon a Time Machine: Greek Gods & Legends anthology.

If you're in the area, why not drop by?


And last night in LIttle Narnia . . .





The American Martini Institute is often thought of as being solely about the Martini. It's the name, I suppose. But in fact, that august organization actively researches all manner of cocktails. In fact, the AMI met in solemn convocation last night for a taste-testing of Canadian Club's 100% Rye Whiskey. If one is to appreciate what American rye whiskey was and has become, this is , ironically enough, the place to start.

Why ironically? Because Canadian Rye Whisky and American Rye Whiskey are two different, though related cats -- and not just because the American version has an extra 'e' in its name. American rye, by law, just contain at least 51% rye in its mash, while the Canadian version only has to taste the way Canadians think a proper rye whisky should.

There was a time in the United States when 'whiskey' meant rye whiskey. Remember the Whiskey Rebellion? It was all about the rye. Pennsylvania and Maryland were the primary producers of rye whiskey, leaving bourbon, with its corn mash, for the Southern states -- Kentucky in particular. Allegheny County in Pennsylvania became the center for distilling Monongahela Rye. More on that in a later post.

But a funny thing happened. Rye fell out of flavor. The chief culprit was Prohibition, the mad experiment in social control which sent a generation of Americans to their bathtubs to concoct a witch's brew of alcoholic beverages that no civilized human being should have to imbibe.

During this nightmarish period, the best smuggled alcohol came from Canada -- and Canadians, as a whole, like their whisky smooth. By the time American drinkers emerged from the Age of Savagery, they had no choice but to acknowledge the superior sophistication of our brothers to the north.

Rye whiskey went into eclipse. And what could be bought pretty much uniformly hugged that 51% legal minimum. Even rye drinkers liked the flavor mellowed out with corn and malted barley in the mash.

Old Overholt, one of the most prominent of the Monongahela Ryes, was sold and reformulated. Now it's a high-corn whiskey made the Jim Beam distilleries in Kentucky.

But the winds of fashion are fickle things. Today, rye is back in favor again. Boutique distilleries are popping up everywhere. And Canadian Club, bless 'em, has put out an affordable single-rye whisky.

Now, as to the tasting...

The color is lovely, a rich amber. The nose and flavor both are strongly caramel with strong spice and notes of not English Walnut but, appropriately enough, American Black Walnut. The flavor is emphatic and, it has to be said, to the modern palate might seem just a touch harsh. This is not a sipping whisky. The caramel does tend to dominate.

But the proof of a good rye lies in how well it goes in a Manhattan. So Manhattans were made:

Manhattan
3 parts rye
1 part sweet vermouth
2 dashes cherry bitters
shake over ice
serve in a cocktail glass with spiced cherries

(Marianne spices our cherries in Maraschino liqueur, so as to avoid the horror of candied cherries.)

And the result?

It has to be said, this is a magnificent Manhattan. The rye's flavor is strong and emphatic -- in, I hasten to add, the very best way. The subtleties of the whisky come through. And the vermouth, bitters, and cherry tame the more rambunctious qualities of the naked whisky.

More research will be published here in future postings.


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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Bloomsday on Delancy

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Once a year the Rosenbach Museum and Library celebrates Bloomsday, the commemoration of June 15, 1904 on which all the action of James Joyce's mighty novel Ulysses occurs. Delancey Place is closed to cars and filled with chairs and a rotating schedule of local celebrities read the entire novel over the course of the event.

(That's possible, you know. In fact, the novel is nowhere near as daunting as some people make it out to be. If you've tried and bounced off it, try this trick: read it out loud. Joyce was all about the sound of words.)

So here I am with the cutout of Joyce:





And here's Samuel R. Delany, leaning into the "Wandering Rocks" section:

 


And another shot for good measure:





Also reading was boulevardier and bookman Henry Wessells:




And Fran Wilde read also. From the "Oxen of the Sun" section. Here she is Jimmy and me:





And I would be remiss if I didn't mention . . .




I'll be at the Rittenhouse Square Barnes & Noble this Friday at 7!

Several other comic book creators and I will be there to promote Once Upon A Time Machine: Greek Gods & Legends, an anthology of science-fictionalized Greek myths and legends.

This is my first comic-book story ever and I was extraordinarily pleased with how it came out. So I'd be delighted if somebody showed up for the event. If you happen to be in Philadelphia this Friday and don't have any other obligations, please consider coming.

End of hard sell.


Above: A singer from the Academy of Vocal Arts being looked down on by Bloom himself, while Stephen Dedalus is so wrapped up in his own thoughts he fails to notice her. The program didn't list her name, unfortunately. She was magnificent, though.

Friday, June 8, 2018

A Few Words of Encouragement from Gardner Dozois

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Back in the day, when I was a scrawny gonnabe writer, Gardner Dozois used to offer me encouragement. We'd be sitting around in his apartment and he'd leaf through the new issue of Asimov's, suddenly stop, and say, "You know, Michael, this story is even suckier than yours."

"Gee, thanks, Gardner," I'd reply.

He'd leaf some more. "Here's another story that sucks worse than yours."

"I really appreciate that, Gardner."

Flip, flip, flip. "I don't see why that story of yours shouldn't sell. There are lots of stories here suckier than yours."

"God bless you for saying that, Gardner."

But, as time would prove, he had a point. There were indeed stories even suckier than mine and that meant that sooner or later mine was going to sell. As it did.

New writers should take this to heart. Your stories don't actually have to be good to be published. Just less sucky than the worst of what is already being published. The bar is set a lot lower than you thought.

You can always be good after you've made that first sale.


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Thursday, June 7, 2018

Fantasy Is Not About Magic

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If you talk to new fantasists or read articles aimed at them, they're all obsessed with magical "systems" and sets of rules to make those systems logical. Which is understandable. A lot of fantasy writers come out of gaming and fantasy gaming requires lots and lots of magic to make it work. Magic, furthermore, that is logical enough to be operated by throwing sets of dice. So they think that that's what fantasy is all abou

But let me be straightforward here: Fantasy is Not About Magic. If it were, then Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy would not be considered fantasy. Nor Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint. And I could go on.

So what is the beating heart of fantasy, its sine qua non, its irreducible necessity?

Enchantment.

I realized this when I was preparing a lesson plan for a writers conference recently and thinking about Mendlesohn's First Law: Any sufficiently immersive fantasy is indistinguishable from science fiction. Which means that the more systematized, the more rationalized, the more game-able the fantasy, the less it's going to deliver on the traditional payoffs for fantasy.

"So how do you like my castle?"

"Well, Mr. Disney, the plumbing is just wonderful. And the fireworks are so well timed!"

Which is when I picked up W. H. Auden's A Certain World and found the following passage:

The state of enchantment is one of certainty. When enchanted, we neither believe nor doubt nor deny: we know, even if, as in the case of a false enchantment, our knowledge is self-decption.

Isn't that marvelous? Isn't that a perfect description of what it feels like to read good fantasy? If we accept that fantasy is about enchantment it explains so much: How a novel completely lacking in magic can still be undeniably fantasy. How a novel crammed to the gills with magic can still fail to register as fantastic.

The duty of a fantasist, then, is not to come up with systems of magic. It is to enchant.

Just as simple as that.


Above: The Northern Lights. Image taken from Absolute Iceland. You can find their website with tour info and more photos here.

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Monday, June 4, 2018

An Observation from Alice Hoffman's Youth

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I spent the weekend teaching courses on fantasy and science fiction at the Rutgers University Writing Conference. The other teachers -- or "presenters" as we were called -- were a remarkably pleasant batch. So I had a good time.

Alice Hoffman gave a keynote talk in which she said that when she was a girl it never occurred to her that she might become a writer. Because at that time, it was the commonly held belief that literature concerned itself with war and other masculine pursuits. Also, "Growing up," she said, "the only women I read were either British or dead." Encountering Grace Paley later convinced her that women's experiences could also be the stuff of literature.

I  remember the time of which she spoke and can attest that she does not exaggerate the case. And now...? Well, thanks to Ms Hoffman and many, many other women writers, it would take a pretty inattentive little girl not to realize that it can be done. That literature can be written by a woman. And that that woman might someday be her.

And, as R. A. Lafferty once remarked, that's all I have to say. I just thought I should point out that in the midst of what can some days looks like unrelieved gloom, there are patches of light, signs of progress, reasons to hope.


Above: I swiped Alice Hoffman'a pub photo, figuring that in this case she wouldn't mind. You can find her blog at http://alicehoffman.com/blog/.

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Friday, June 1, 2018

The Second-Best Advice About Awards I Ever Received

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As always, I'm on the road again.

This time I'm off to Rutgers University -- New Brunswick Writers' Conference. I'll be teaching two classes, one on genre fantasy and the other on science fiction world-building. Also, Saturday evening I'm scheduled for a speaking/reading/signing event.

Then on Sunday it will be all over.

This is one of the things that makes the writing life so odd. Events loom up, dominate one's life very intensely for the duration, and then fade away in the rear view mirror. But there's that one instant just before you make any appearance when you feel like a deer in the headlights.

Which reminds me of the second-best advice I ever received about awards...

I was in Moscow for Roscon, the Russian national science fiction convention and was about to receive the Grand Roscon Award, which is a very big deal. To me in particular. I was sitting beforehand with my Italian friend Alberto and told him I was feeling nervous about my speech.

Alberto grinned. "Don't worry about a thing," he said reassuringly. "Tomorrow, nobody will remember a word you said."

Words to live by.


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Monday, May 28, 2018

The Gardner Dozois You Didn't Know You Knew

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I told Gardner he was wrong. Turns out he wasn't.

When he went into Pennsylvania Hospital for congestive heart failure, he told me that meant he was going to die.

"No, you aren't," I said. "Your doctor said he expects to have you in rehab by Monday and home ten days after that."

When SFWA announced they were giving him the Solstice Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction, he said, "They only give you those things when you're about to die."

"You're not about to die," I said. "They're giving a Solstice Award to Sheila Williams, too, and she's not about to die."

"No, Sheila's not going to die," he admitted.

Gardner was right on all three counts. God damn him for the first two.

When Gardner's son, Christopher Casper, accepted the Solstice Award on his behalf, only -- my god! -- eight days ago, he spoke about what a shy and modest man Gardner was. This was news, I'm sure, to a lot of the audience. They all knew Gardner as a larger-than-life Rabelaisian figure, a loud and entertaining man who, in Connie Willis's characterization, was prone to shouting "Penis!" in a crowded restaurant.

But that was all an act. He assumed the role to put people at their ease and to make him approachable. He really was shy. He really was modest.

When Philadelphia Magazine named him one of "Philadelphia's 100 Smartest People," he said, "If that's true, then God help Philadelphia!" When he was placed in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, he returned from Seattle to report that they'd placed his name and image on a brick which went into the Hall of Fame Wall. "So now I'm really just another brick in the wall." And when he couldn't make it to Pittsburgh for the Nebula Awards Weekend, he told Christopher to just say that the award properly belonged to all the writers he'd published.

Chris, of course, ignored this directive and spoke movingly of his father's virtues instead. But here's the thing. Any number of editors were capable of saying that the award really belonged to the writers. But Gardner actually meant it.

Gardner really loved science fiction. One of the greatest joys in his life was discovering a new writer of talent. There are a great many writers who are grateful to him for discovering them, praising them when nobody else did, and promoting their work. He would have told them that they had it backward: that he was grateful to them for writing what they did.

Anybody who was ever praised by Gardner Dozois should know this: He meant it. Not only did he like you personally, but he loved your work.

The second part of that mattered more than the first. I remember once he told me he'd picked up a story by a notoriously unlikeable writer for the Year's Best Science Fiction. "That's interesting," I said.

"Yeah," he replied, grinning. "The little shit wrote a really good story."

Gardner was himself an extremely fine writer. If you haven't read "A Special Kind of Morning," do yourself a favor and look it up. It's the apotheosis of science fiction war stories. He almost entirely gave that up when he became an editor because editing uses the same inner resources that writing requires.

He knew this would happen when he first became editor of Asimov's. But he felt it was a price worth paying because it enabled him to buy stories nobody else would. Some of them most readers now would be astonished to learn were ever deemed unpublishable. There were times when he risked losing his job to publish a story he admired.

He paid the price. He did it for the writers... and for the readers.

And now he's gone. The glory of his 15 Hugo Awards, the Solstice Award, the myriad other honors he received in his lifetime can now be credited to the myriad writers he published, reprinted, and promoted.

It's okay. They were never very important to him anyway.

All that mattered to him was the fiction.


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