Friday, March 27, 2015

Misha Cyberpunk Strikes Again!


I'm in Russian print again!

If you've never been to Russia, you can't imagine how happy this makes me.  Russia is a wonderful-awful place, terrifying and beautiful, and it has owned a piece of my heart ever since the moment I first set foot on it.

Now Eksmo has published Dancing With Bears in Russian translation.  This is the culmination of the first cycle of the travels of Post-Utopian con men Darger and Surplus.  They met in "The Dog Said Bow-Wow," accidentally set fire to London, and then set off for Moscow to run their biggest scam ever.  Being infinitely distractible, however, they bounced around Europe for several years having adventures (only a few of which I've recorded so far), but always headed for Moscow.

And now, at last, they have arrived.

Oh, and that cryptic title above...?

I am not the only one to comment on how to an American my last name translated into Russian looks a lot like Cyberpunk.  Back in the late Eighties or early Nineties, in fact, I invented a character, a precocious teenaged Soviet hacker, who went by the handle Misha Cyberpunk.  Alas, though I could imagine him clearly enough, the story about him never came fully into focus.  The age of the heroic hacker came and went and even if I came up with a satisfying plot now, the story would be a period piece.  So "Red Star" will never be written.

But good old Misha never quite got put back in the box. So every time I'm published in Russia, I think of him.

End of explanation.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Five Reasons Why You Want to Meet Gregory Frost This Saturday


Actually, there are hundreds of reasons why you should admire Gregory Frost and buy and read all his books. But he's going to be appearing at the Rittenhouse Square Barnes & Noble this Saturday, March 28, at 1 p.m. (along with Tom Purdom, Fran Wilde, editor Sheila Williams and -- cough -- me) for an event marking the current "Philadelphia Issue" of Asimov's Science Fiction and a list of five is kind of traditional for this sort of thing, so...

5.  Because he's a tireless promoter and encourager of other people's work

In addition to his work as an educator (he's currently directing a fiction writing workshop at Swarthmore College), Greg has organized numerous symposia and writing events, and is a founding member of The Liars Club, a gathering of professionals whose name pretty much speaks for itself.

Greg knows more about how to teach writing than anyone I know.  On those rare occasions when I teach, I always go to him for advice first.  His advice is always great, and I'm always glad I took it.

4.  Because he gave up the visual arts for writing.

True story.  Greg has serious chops as a visual artist. While in college, he came to a point where he had to choose between the visual and written arts.  While he was contemplating the question, a fire broke out in his apartment destroying everything, including all his artwork -- but left the manuscript for the novel he was working on untouched.  He took that for a sign and has never looked back.
You think a writer's reputation relies entirely on merit?  Nope.  Blind bad luck is involved as well.  Greg's brilliant novel Tain, a retelling of the Irish epic the Tain Bo Cualigne, was so grotesquely mispackaged as to look like a Western -- at a time when Celtic fantasy was hot and Westerns were not.  You should look it up.  And Remscela as well.
God, I love this story.  Even if some of the lines I love most were written not by me but by that bastard Frost.  Consider only the following monologue, delivered by one of the Dustbowl con-men of the title, after the local sheriff threatens to telegraph the state capital to see if there are any warrants out for him or H'ard:
Wow.  How can you not want to meet a man capable of writing that?
And the particulars, again, are...
Gregory Frost, Tom Purdom, Fran Wilde, Michael Swanwick and editor Sheila Williams will talk about and autograph copies of the April/May Philadelphia Issue of Asimov's Science Fiction.  This is our only scheduled appearance together, so if you want to get five autographs for the price ofa single magazine, this is your best chance.
You can read Tom Purdom's write-up of the event at the Broad Street Review here.
And you can peruse Greg's website here.

3.  Because he's the best Celtic fantasist you've never heard of.

2. Because everything he's written is terrific.

But most especially Shadowbridge and Lord Tophat: A Shadowbridge Novel.  Many years ago, Greg described the Shadowbridge world to me: one of shallow oceans with small, scattered islands, connected by bridges on which people lived. Each span of bridge had its own culture, so you could travel from 15th century London to 20th century Tokyo, just by walking far enough. More, randomly placed along the spans were spiral jetties, at the center of which was a platform. Sometimes things would appear on these platforms, imported from our own world. The knowledge of how to use such things only occasionally came with them, however. So you might be able to copy the Pachinko machine and make a fortune selling it.  But the lawnmower would remain a mystery and all you could do was to place it in an art museum.

How much did I love this idea? So much so that I told Greg, "If you don't write this, I'm going to steal it from you."

I have never said such a thing to another human being in my life. But I really, really wanted him to write it.  And he did.  So I stand vindicated.

1. Because he and I co-wrote "Lock Up Your Chickens and Daughters -- H'ard and Andy Are Come to Town!" which appears in the Philadelphia Issue being celebrated on Saturday.

“Well, I don’t mean to be negative, sir, but I’ve got to tell you:  I just simply do not believe in the telegraph, and that’s a fact.  New-fangled nonsense device like that is prone to breaking down exactly when you need it most.  Why, wires get broke and then all the electricity goes astray and flies helter-skelter all over the place, frightening horses and inconveniencing honest citizens.  Fella writes down a two-dollar message and a puff of wind blows the paper right out the window.  In all the confusion nobody even remembers who sent the darn thing or what it said.  No, sir, put not your trust in machines.  One man, one mule, and a leather sack of paper envelopes with a magenta two-cent George Washington stamp and a hand-cancelation on the front does the job best, is what I say.  Takes a little longer but a dozen times more sure.”

Barnes & Noble
Rittenhouse Square

1 p. m.
March 28, 2015


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Farewell, Peggy Rae


In Robert Altman's film of A Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor refuses to make a public announcement of the death of one of the radio show's regulars. "At my age," he says, "if I start acknowledging every death of a friend, the show will contain nothing else." (That's a paraphrase; I don't have it memorized.)

That's kind of how I feel at times nowadays. But I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the passing of Peggy Rae Sapienza last Sunday.  Peggy Rae was a second-generation fan, a con-goer from age 12, and one of those people who do the hard work of running conventions for many decades.

Peggy Rae was always kind to me. From what I could see, she was kind to everyone. Once, when I had a high-speed blowout on the way to Balticon, she and her first husband, Bob Pavlat, got my car towed, found a Jewish auto mechanic who was open on Easter weekend, and got me home Sunday safe and on schedule. That went far beyond anything that could be expected from people who were also involved in running the convention.

Somebody said that she exemplified all that was best in fandom.  I think that's true.

Now she's gone and there's nothing I can do to thank her for all she's done for me.  Except to mention that her father, Jack McKnight, was not only one of the founding fathers of Philadelphia fandom but also the man who machined the very first Hugo trophies in his garage machine shop. She always liked it when somebody reminded the world of how cool her Dad was.

Rest in peace, Peggy Rae. Thanks for helping me get home.


Monday, March 23, 2015

Remembering Roxborough's Pretzel Man


When I first moved to Roxborough over a third of a century ago, the Pretzel Man was a local institution.  He sold soft pretzels from his cart on Ridge Avenue.  Nobody knew his name, but he was commonly called Pretzel Pete or the Mad Russian or simply the Pretzel Man.

There was clearly something off about the Pretzel Man.  Sometimes he shouted angry speeches in a language not spoken locally.  He was pretty clearly a loner.  All anybody knew of him was that he had showed up one day in 1962 and never went away. Also that he was homeless. Sometimes he slept in a tent in somebody's backyard.  Other times in somebody's garage or shed. Long after, the garage owners said they would invite him in on Sundays to watch football.

Late in his life, some kids busted up his pretzel cart just for the hell of it, and he took to selling pretzels out of a shopping cart.  His speeches became more common.  I vividly remember him standing at the corner, pumping his fist as he rhythmically chanted:

            "Catolick!  Catolick!  Catolick!
             Communiss!  Communiss!  Communiss!

But he was always clean, and he was never violent.  And there was a sadness to the man.  You knew that he had suffered in his time.

This last was established as fact when a local Catholic church brought in a priest who could speak Russian to see if there was any way he would allow them to help him.  The conversation did not begin well, for when he heard the Russian language, he became extremely angry.  But eventually, the priest was able to calm him down, and got a rough sketch of his life.

The Pretzel Man's name was Choban Hoxha.  He was an Albanian Moslem who was captured by the Fascists in WWII and placed in a prison camp. At the end of the war, he was captured by the Communists who took him to a labor camp in Russia.  Somehow, he managed to escape, made his way to Istanbul, and from there (again, somehow) found passage to America. In the early 1960s, he came to Roxborough and there he stayed for the rest of his life.

When Hoxha died in 1995, Turner Funeral Home gave him a simple burial, at their own expense, just inside the gates of Leverington Cemetery. Somebody started a fund and collected enough quarters and dollars for a simple stone to place over his grave.  It reads:

              CHOBAN HOXHA
              PRETZEL PETE
              1913 - 1995

Between the two dates is the image of a pretzel.

Nobody knew how to help a man who wanted no help and apparently couldn't even speak English. But what little could be done, the community did.

You can read a Daily News article about him here.

And that's all...

Except for one thing.  When my son Sean was small, we walked by the Pretzel Man's cart frequently, and we were always careful to say hello.  One day, he said hello back to us.  After that, we would often stop and chat for a bit.  So we knew, as apparently no one else did, that he spoke fluent English.

Other than Marianne, Sean and I told no one.  Choban Hoxha was a mysterious man who led a difficult life. The least we could do was respect his desire for privacy.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

[dream diary]

Dreamed I found a half-cover French language paperback collection of stories that were condensed versions of my novels.  I'd had no idea someone had done this.

The collection was named after my first novel which the condenser had for some reason renamed "Bottom-Back," though its original French tltle, "Baiser de Masque" would have been far better.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Lest We Forget...


Sixty-five million years ago today, all the good Christian dinosaurs were suddenly tranported bodily into Heaven.  The evil dinosaurs left beind turned on one another in a genocidal frenzy of violence.  Thus resulting in their extinction.

This event was known as the Velocirapture.

Thank you, ladies and germs, I'll be here all week. Don't forget to tip your server.

Above:  No, this pun was not my creation.  It was floating about the Memeosphere, and I caught it.  The image came from


Thursday, March 19, 2015

[dream diary]

March 19, 2015

I dreamed some friends and I went to the Copyright Office to register some new poems.  Terry Bisson was working there and, when he was done the paperwork, handed us smooth stones with the first lines of our poems carved into them.  Then he explained at which public officials and at which specific protests we could legally throw the stones.

Bisson had recently been knighted by the British Queen and so, throughout all this, we had to address him as "Sir Terry."  Which was amusing to those of us who knew his politics.