Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Winter Songs from Dragonstairs Press


Those who follow this blog are aware that I am married to the proprietress of Dragonstairs Press and that once a year, she says, "Swanwick! Write me some Solstice stories." Which she then proceeds to incorporate into small, beautiful, and hand-stitched chapbooks appropriate for winter festivities.

And once  a year, a fraction of those chapbooks become available for sale to collectors and those who love them. 

Here's the letter that Marianne sent out to her regular clients:

Dragonstairs Press is pleased to announce the sale of Winter Songs.

Winter Songs is Michael Swanwick's witty take on some of the most popular music in the western canon.  What was Henry VIII plotting when he wrote Greensleeves?  Will Lord Wren ascend to the Throne of Twigs?  And what was in the holds of those three ships?

Enjoy these six quick tales, hand-stitched and bound in screen printed, hand-made silver paper, 5½ x 4¼, signed and numbered.  Issued in an edition of 120, of which 37 are offered for sale.

Available Saturday, December 2, 2023 at noon EST, Philadelphia time at Dragonstairs.com.

Mark your calendars! These chapbooks always sell out fast.


Monday, November 20, 2023

A Small Memory of Michael Bishop


Rummaging through the dusty ill-lit attic of my brain, I have uncovered a small gem of a memory. I wish I'd remembered it when I noted Michael Bishop's passing a short while ago, but this will have to do.

Back in 1986, the day after I lost my first Hugo  Award, I found myself in the green room, commiserating with Mike, George R. R. Martin, and a fanzine editor whose name I regret having forgotten. We'd all lost an award, so we had something to talk about.

George said that a very good writer whose name I am deliberately suppressing had recently told him: "You guys are always complaining about the awards you lose. But there are some of us who are equally good writers and never even get nominated."

We all nodded out heads lugubriously. Yes, yes, life is unfair.

Then Mike Bishop smiled impishly--a smile completely devoid of malice--and said, "But what do we care about her pain?"

And on the same subject . . .

I'd already lost five or six Nebula Awards by then, so I was used to the inevitable letdown. I had, however, thought that I had a chance because I was up for "Dogfight," co-written with William Gibson who was hot as hot at that time. (This may have been the first award he was up for that he didn't win.)

Later, reflecting back on the experience, I realized that Bishop, Martin, and I has lost the award in the same category. These guys were among my heroes. And I was hanging with them as equals. That meant a lot more to me than the nomination ever had.

Above: I found this photo on ISFDB, which credits it to Open Library.


Friday, November 17, 2023

A. S. Byatt--the Writer We All Hoped We'd Be When We Grew Up


A. S. Byatt (her nom de plum; her mundane name was Dame Antonia Susan Duffy) is dead. Now the scramble for the title of Best Living Writer in the English Language may begin.

I never met the lady and have only read a fraction of her work. But OMG was she a fine writer. Like many latecomers, I discovered her with Possession, a novel about a threadbare academic researcher who chances upon a once-in-a-lifetime discovery--a letter suggesting that two major Victorian poets (fictional ones; but think Christina Rosetti and Alfred, Lord Tennyson and you get the unlikelihood) had an affair. The book was magisterial. Then she wrote The Children's Book, a generational novel set in the Arts and Crafts Movement of nineteenth century England. I started reading it, fell into it, and found myself thinking, "How well she remembers her childhood!" before I slapped myself on the forehead  because it had all happened a century before she was born.

Which novel was better? I think it's blasphemous to ask.

I have a particular fondness for a novella-length book of hers called Ragnarok. In it a "thin child"--apparently Byatt herself in WWII--has a father in the RAF and does not expect him to return home alive. A bookish girl, she knows there are two gods. One is a nice one they talk about in church, and he doesn't seem to have a lot to do with the world as she knows it. The other are the Norse pantheon and they make sense of her situation. Byatt does a wonderful job of sub-creation here. Since there is a world-tree, she reasons, there must also be a world-kelp. Since Loki (who is unlike all other gods in being a shape-shifter) is father to the Midgard Serpent, obviously she must adore her father. I will say no more because why spoil something luminous? Oh, and the ending is great.

Our best and finest is now dead. I shall continue my voyage of discovery through her oeuvre. If you are familiar with Byatt's work, you will mourn with me. If not, I recommend you start with either (the one is short and the other is a world in itself) Ragnarok or Possession. When you've read both, you can move on to The Children's Book.

After which, you can tell me which book is her greatest. I have no idea.


My Philcon Schedule


Once again, it's Philcon (or, as the gamers dubbed it after the event was moved to a hotel in Cherry Hill, NJ: Chillcon) time. I'll be there and here's my schedule: 

Time                  Room Name                               Title

Fri 7:00 PM        Plaza 3                     When is a Story Collection 
                                                                Actually a Novel?  
Sat 12:00 PM      Plaza 2                     Controversy and Science Fiction 
Sat 4:00 PM        Readings                 Twenty Minute Reading    
Sun 11:00 AM     Crystal 3                   Fifty Years After Omelas: 
                                                                  A Look Forward   

Sun 12:00 PM      Autograph Table     with Bjorn Hasseler & Anna Kashina 


If you see me, be sure to say hello!



Monday, November 13, 2023

Michael Bishop



Another of my heroes has left the planet. It's been decades since I've seen Mike in person and, to my surprise, I find that on reflection we never spent enough time together that I could claim he was a friend. He was just a terrific writer whose work I admired. But he was such a warm and positive man that his loss hits hard.

In the wake of his death, I find myself thinking of when I first met him. That was when he was Principal Speaker at Philcon in 1978. He gave a speech then that was easily the most hilarious thing I have ever heard at a convention. It was filled with wisdom and sprinkled with news items from Locos, the version of Locus published in an alternate universe askew to ours. He had the audience in stitches.

Just before he went on, Mike impulsively borrowed the black cowboy hat Gardner Dozois wore back in his pre-Asimov's days. Then he announced that when he was wearing the hat, the words coming from his mouth were telepathically projected from Gardner's brain, and that when he wasn't, the words were his own. He then proceeded to employ every possible comedic variant from the idea. No professional comedian could have done better.

Fancyclopedia, which I checked to make sure I had the date right, called the speech "luminous."

That sounds about right. And so, I fancy, might one characterize his life.

And now he's gone. Have I mentioned that Bishop was a sincere Christian? If he was right in his beliefs, then he's in Heaven right now. That would be fitting. I'd applaud that.

He had the greatest smile ever.


Very Good, Very Challenging, Maybe Not To Your Taste




"The Four Last Things" by Christopher Rowe. Asimov's Science Fiction, November/December 2023


Think of "The Last Four Things" as a postcard from the far side of the Singularity. Here's how it begins:

They came on a mule ship, and they lived on what was left of it after they arrived. The hull, laid down by poet-engineers in the high docks, was laminated from hundreds of thousands of layers of zepto-sec time and planck-length matter, each layer a gossamer capable of withstanding anything they could imagine. The controlling mule itself, like all its siblings, was spun up from archived biological remnants of a lost hybrid equine, integrated with specialized subsystems designed to travel between.

Yeah. It's not easy going, and it doesn't get any easier. But those of us who have been around long enough to acquire a taste for difficult fiction will relish it. As will those readers young enough to be actively seeking out works that will challenge them. And of course those outliers who aren't supposed to get it, but will.

Oversimplifying wildly, here's the plot:

Four individuals--they may be "people" of some sort--have come to the planet Ouestmir on a voyage of discovery. There they find immortal five-meter long worms living in undersea volcanic vents and slamming themselves against the reefs that encase them--drumming, drumming, drumming.  The purpose of this is unclear. But a pattern of flares and radio signals in their star's polar regions are clearly a kind of response.

An attempt to communicate with the worms inexplicably causes the death of every worm on the planet. The drumming stops. The responses from the star cease.

What the drumming meant and why the worms died is a classic science fiction puzzle that will not be solved. Because what "The Last Four Things" is about--as is signaled by a quote from James Joyce that gives the story its title--is the nature and meaning of death.

I fear many science fiction readers will find this story annoying and even incomprehensible. Others, however, will read and reread it with pleasure.

You know who you are.


Thursday, November 9, 2023

The Nace Hopkins Day Parade


Recently, Marianne and I went to the Eastern Shore for a few days of quiet relaxation, and by sheer good luck we discovered the Nace Hopklins Day Parade in Trappe, Maryland.  Pictured above are reenactors representing Nace  and his wife.

Nathaniel "Nace" Hopkins was born into slavery and, while still technically enslaved, enlisted in the Army and fought for the Union in the civil war. Upon his return home, he was instrumental in building the first school for Black children in the area and the incorporation of the Scotts United Methodist Church. He also began, in 1867,  a yearly parade marking the 1864 emancipation of all enslaved people in Maryland. (Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, a year earlier, applied only the seceding states. The 14th Amendment was still a year away.) After his death in 1900, the parade was renamed in his honor.

 As the man deserved. He was one of those people who built this nation.

So what was the parade like? Trappe is a small town, population roughly 1100, and the parade was everything good about small town parades. There were two high school marching bands, at least one children's dance group, about thirty Chevrolet Corvettes in gleaming condition (including one that Batman could only envy). Also various vehicles, including fire trucks. Lots of people threw out candy for the children. 

Afterward, the local church had games, a bouncy castle for the children, prizes also for children, lots of food, and other entertainments. We didn't participate though it all looked like good fun. We'd already had the best of the event--being among the spectators and feeling the good will coming from them and directed toward them. 

There are a couple more pics below. I didn't take many because I was enjoying myself too much.