Monday, December 31, 2007

Fast Forward!

Happy New Year! I finished up the year by driving to Washington, D. C., for a Fast Forward interview. Fast Forward: Contemporary Science Fiction is a monthly half-hour television series that's been running since 1989, and this is (I think) my third interview with them.

But the real star of the day was not me or even fellow interviewee Kathleen Ann Goonan, but Kathy's father, Tom Goonan. (Shown above, directly between KAG and me.) He accompanied her to the taping not only because he lives locally but because her new novel, In War Times, was based in part on his experiences in World War II. In fact, as related in Kathy's interview, while he began as a source for information on radar technology, his role in the novel grew as she wrote it, until she wound up actually incorporating entries from his journal in the book. So we were all greatly impressed by him. He's an engaging man, too.

That's all. I draw your attention to the fact that I didn't even mention that my father was a radar operator in WWII. And I didn't say a single world about my own brilliant fantasy novel, The Dragons of Babel. Such modesty should be noted.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Early Notes Toward a Nonexistent Lexicon

So how did you waste your morning? I spent part of mine building the Tower of Babel out of the two boxes of contractual copies of The Dragons of Babel, which arrived in today's mail.

Which put me in a good mood for today's blog . . .

As those who follow my nonfiction (and, counting me, there is at least one) know, I have a thing for lexicons. I've created two so far, "A Lexicon of Lud," annotating Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist, and "A Cloudish Word-Hoard," for Greer Gilman's Moonwise, and I'm at work on yet another, the topic of which I'll announce if and when. Yet there's no way I'll ever annotate one of my own novels. I simply know too much. The lexicon would end up longer than the work itself.

Nevertheless, it's pleasant to fantasize that somebody will someday do the same for me, even if it's not during my lifetime. So, just in case, I'll prime the pump with a few short entries that no conceivable lexicographer for The Dragons of Babel could come up with. Simply because . . . well, you'll see.

Here they are:

Boodles martini, straight up with a twist: Zorya Vechnayaya drinks this simply because it's my favored cocktail.

Ichabod the Fool: Most of Nat Whilk's noms de scène are of famous tricksters, drawn from world mythology. This one comes from a Zippo lighter owned by one of my fellow camp counselors at Mt. Norris Boy Scout Reservation in Vermont in the 1960s. On one side was engraved the word ICHABOD and on the other SHITHEAD. This was universally regarded as the being the very soul of wit, though nobody could explain why.

Nanshe: The somnambulist came from "Hermaphrodite," a 1992 oil painting by the improbably named (and yet brilliant) Odd Nerdrum. He also did a painting of the White Ladies manuring the fields, though not by that name.

The Roxy Movie Theater: An old movie-house that once stood at the corner of Roxborough and Ridge Avenues, a block from where I live. It had beautiful terra-cotta trim, a few small pieces of which were rescued from the rubble when it was torn down and now reside in my garden. The same building featured more prominently in my story, "Radio Waves."

Salem Toussaint: The haint politician was inspired in part by Paul Laurence Dunbar's classic story, "The Scapegoat." But his name is derived from that of Salem Flack, the last of the old-time histrionic lawyers in Washington, PA. My late father-in-law, William C. Porter, vividly remembered Salem Flack getting down on his knees before a jury and praying to an almighty and merciful God to forgive the lying, perjuring eye-witnesses who had testified against his client.

Urdumheim: Derived from urdummheit or "primordial stupidity," a nineteenth-century anthropological term, the subtleties of which I'm not about to winkle out here. I changed the -heit (or -ness) to -heim (or -home) to make it a place, and dropped the second m because it looked, well, dumb.

Le Wine Bar: The Wine Bar, in Center City Philadelphia, was where Marianne and I first discovered the joys of good wine. It was a glass of Burgess Zinfandel that sold us. At the time it was easily affordable. Alas, in matters of taste Marianne and I are early adaptors. All the world came pouring in after us and now we can afford it only on special occasions.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 19)

Diagram 19. Skeptics will doubt me, but things are going pretty well here. I'm midway through Chapter 13, "The Hippogriff Girl," and I've simplified the plot to three sections: Ball, Confrontation, and Escape. This particular diagram would be one that I wrote at the beginning of the morning, to map out what I hoped to write that day:

From left to right, basically:






Threat -- "No, I understood," Will said. He did.

We don't have to like each other -- or approve of each other

(Thinx of Salem)



She must seduce Will out of his clothing

Do you really love me? Then take off your clothes.

"I know what you expected!"

A sense of who Alcyone is . . . a high-born swashbuckler


A is for Alcyone; Z is for Zorya Vechernyaya, my candidate for police officer you'd least enjoy having arrest you; F I've already said I'd like to keep nameless; and S is for Shorty, known by that name only to his employer. To the rest of the world he's Hrothgar Thalwegsson. Just how much money do you have to have to get away with calling a dwarf "Shorty" to his face?

The fact that I deemed the Ball section "OK, essentially," means that it was already pretty much writtten. The Confrontation with F still needed work. There was so many information that had to come out in this section that F was beginning to sound like a Bond villain -- and, honest, I was aiming for something better than that. Eventually I solved the problem by introducing a manticore as a character. There's nothing like a manticore for cutting the grease!

The bits of dialogue are written in a form invented (I believe) by my old college friend Jay Schauer who, when he had dialogue to write and was moving too fast to work it out properly, would jot down a rough approximation of what the characters were supposed to get across to the reader, and then come back and compose their speech later, when he had the time. Like so:

Hamlet: Yorick was a jester. I liked him, he was funny. It bums me out that he's dead.
Horatio: I feel your pain, my lord.

Quite useful.

I note that at this point the notion that Alcyone was going to have sex with Will by the end of the chapter is entirely (and quite rightly; it would have been out of character) gone, replaced by a jape that you'll have to read the novel to learn about. But she's still not the complicated person she was soon to become. A "high-born swashbuckler" indeed! Though that is what she wishes she could be and what Will thinks she is.

The Escape was more or less complete in my head at this point, which was why I was scolding myself to write it out.

Monday, December 24, 2007

In Which I Receive An Early Christmas Present...

Merry Christmas! I'm posting this a little late in the day because, well, Christmas Eve is always busy. I had to pick up the goose from the Chestnut Hill Farmer's Market, engage in a little spontaneous drama with Sean (Me: "The most amazing thing just happened! The butcher delivered this enormous goose and said it was from, of all people, Ebenezer Scrooge!" Sean: "What possible reason could the old skinflint have for such an action?" Me: "Perhaps there's been a Christmas miracle and he's changed his ways." Both: "Hahahahahahahahahaha!"), compose this year's Christmas story, visit friends, and prepare for Christmas Eve services, where Marianne is reading scripture. So this might come out sounding a little rushed.

I received an early Christmas present on Friday, in the form of two fresh-minted copies of The Dragons of Babel, which Stacy Hague-Hill of Tor Books was kind enough to send me. And now, for a brief period I am as happy as any writer of fiction ever manages to be. The book is beautiful, the reversed lettering was printed correctly, the text is beautifully designed, the chapter numbers are in a charmingly bizarre typeface (the craze for the paragraph at the end of the book explicating the typography is over, unfortunately; but I think the font is Hyperserif Scissorshands or the like; you'll see what I mean if you get the book), and I am filled with enormous gratitude to Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, Kage Baker, Jane Yolen, and Vernor Vinge for providing the book with generous blurbs. Those things are a royal and unpaid pain to write, and it means a lot to me that they'd bother.

Also, Gene called me "jolly." So much for the slander that I'm sardonic!

This would be a good place to mention my scheduled appearances over the next couple of months. As follows:

January 8: New York Review of Science Fiction reading at the South Street Seaport Museum, New York City.

January 12: Appearance on Jim Freund's Hour of the Wolf, WBAI radio, New York City. (It's in the early hours of Saturday morning.)

January 25-27: I'll be guest of honor at Chattacon in Chattanooga, Tennesee. It was at a Chattacon, long years ago, that I had the privilege of informing Andy Duncan that he'd just made his first professional sale. So I have a special fondness for this convention.

February 15-17: I'll be one among many panelists at Boskone in Boston, Massachusetts. A lovely con, good people, and they published one of my collections, Moon Dogs, the year I was their goh.

March 19: Reading at the KGB Bar, New York City. If you're in the NYC area but have never been to a KGB reading, you owe it to yourself to go, just for the ambiance. The KGB is a genuine Commie Bar -- there are statuettes of Lenin and posters of Ukrainian Communist leaders all over the place. Even the walls are painted red! Is this a great country or what?

March 21-23: I'll be attending Norwescon in Sea-Tac, convenient to both Seattle and Tacoma. I don't get out to to West Coast very often, so this is a great opportunity for local signed-book collectors. You know who you are.

April 10: A reading at Temple University in Philadelphia. Actually, I believe this is in a Center City building, but don't quote me on it. Mostly this is intended for Samuel R. Delany's students, but universities don't mind when outsiders pop in for this sort of thing. As a general rule, they're open-handed with human culture.

And that's it for now! Though there may be more. The Hermit of Roxborough is actually going to be leaving his house for a change! Drop by and say hello if you have the chance.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Second-Best Blurb I've Ever Gotten

I'm going to have to quote Gary K. Wolfe's review of The Dragons of Babel in the December 2007 Locus at some length in order for you to understand the context of a sentence in the review which I feel is unquestionably the second-best blurb I've ever gotten. But not to fear. It's not your standard plot-summary-and-effusive-praise. That comes later, and I'll (mostly) skip over it in silence. The salient part is the long run-in to the review. As follows:

Time was, everyone knew the rules: fantasies are made worlds, fully realized secondary universes, magisterial acts of subcreation, and the first principle of made worlds is internal consistency -- every elf, tree, and dragon in place, or else a single anomaly might pop the whole bubble. As recently as 1973, Usula K. Le Guin, in a widely cited essay, reminded us that "Elfland is not Poughkeepsie; the voice of the transistor is not heard in that land." But then here comes Michael Swanwick with his afterburner-assisted mechanical dragons, his fantasy Babylon with its Frank Lloyd Wright lounges, palace courtiers checking their Blackberries, saloons with framed pictures of Muhammad Ali, Bowie knives, gas chromatographs, dumpsters, Kawasaki motorcycles, and Mercedes and BMW automobiles, Pepsis, McDonalds, Marlboros, Zippo lighters, Hermes bags (for carrying runes), Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts and Givenchy gowns, animate stone lions who read Faulkner and Tolstoy and wise women who quote Mary McCarthy.

And yes, there's a transistor radio heard in this land: a strange and magical little girl, much older than she at first seems, hauls it out to listen to Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train" while on a train speeding to the legendary city of Babel. Babel itself may be a composite version of the mythic city built by the god-king Marduk and dominated by its famous tower, but on the ground it more often looks like Manhattan, with its sugbways, Grand Central Station, Lower East Side, brownstones, and a public library guarded by a pair of stone lions ()one of whom is that Faulkner reader). This is, in short, a fantasy world that pointedly violates most of the received wisdom regarding fantasy worlds, that is as much about fantasy as it is a demonstration case. Hasn't Swanwick learned anything?

Phew! Isn't that a terrific blurb? I'll pull it out of context now:

"Hasn't Swanwick Learned Anything?"
- Gary K. Wolfe, Locus

Just so it's clear, Wolfe did like the book, which he went on to characterize as "shaggy, crazed, and wonderful" and overlaid with "a kind of celebratory looniness that in the end is nothing less than exhilarating."

Still, what a great blurb! I'm almost certain that Tor won't use it on the paperback, though. Back when I got my best blurb ever, it was nowhere to be found on the Avonova paperback of The Iron Dragon's Daughter, though if it had been up to me, I would have put it on the front cover, smack-dab above the title. Where I am convinced it would have sold many, many additional copies. But even if it hadn't -- who cares?

That blurb, from another Locus review, this one by Faren Miller, immediately followed a thumbnail plot summary and goes:

“Toto, I Don't Think We're On Pern Anymore!”

Okay, so I added the exclamation point. You can see why I would.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 18)

Diagram 18. Will's first date with Alcyone! Sort of. It doesn't end well, of course. But look how clean the diagram is! This section is coming together fast. From bottom to top:

Emphatically Spring

Fata I.


look @ the party in R & J





"You don't want to



He's like Antaeus; in the air,
off of Babel, he shows fear
& nervous reaction

She screws him so there will be no unpaid debts

She tells him she's notfor him

Alcyone ( ) is to be
extraordinary, to be her
own person, to be
a swashbuckler

ALCYONE: Act like somebody real!

Will was trying to listen.


W is again Will, A is Alcyone, and I think I'll hold off on revealing who F is.

It's spring, and Will is crashing a masked ball. After two quick encounters with "Fata I." (the name was later tweaked) and her dwarf, Will has a more prolonged and involved encounter with a poulette. As he much earlier mused, "Witches were the self-appointed legislators of the world. They were forever sticking their long noses into other people’s business, demanding that a rosebush be replanted, or a child renamed, or a petty criminal taken down from the gallows half-choked but still breathing. It was next to impossible to be born, to lose one’s virginity, to plot a murder, to die, or to be reborn, without one or more popping up and uttering gnostic solemnities." I almost threw "fall in love" in there, since the passage was meant to be, if not foreshadowing, at least prescient. But Will had already fallen in love with Alcyone in the Hanging Gardens, and there was no room for a witch in that scene.

I'd guess that R&J refers to Romeo and Juliet. As it happened, I went to War and Peace for inspiration instead.

It's a little hard on Alcyone to write that she "screws" Will, or to imply that in so doing she's simply balancing the books -- though that's what she thinks she's doing, and how it feels to Will. But these diagrams are cartoons, and the most subtle interpersonal relationships are rendered as "He liked her" or "She put a fork through his hand."

"Act like somebody real!" is good advice. Will is still growing, still learning, remember. He's not yet worthy of a woman like Alcyone. Though he's getting close.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Ineluctable Jason Van Hollander

(First of all, my apologies for missing last Friday's blog. I was laid flat by a cold. This is the downside of running a one-man business. The upside? No problems with the union.)

Jason Van Hollander, with his usual modesty, wishes I wouldn't mention him in this blog so often. He's afraid it makes me look like I don't have many other friends. Well, I do my best. But when he pulls something like the above picture on me (detail below), what can I do but brag?

The picture in question appears on the black cover of A Vintage from Atlantis, volume 3 of the collected fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger. Night Shade Books is engaged in the comendable project of assembling the definitive texts of CAS's fantasy, science fiction, and horror in a uniform five-volume set. All of them (or at least the three to date) with covers by Jason Van Hollander. And, as you can see, Jason slipped in a portrait of me.

Not a very flattering portrait of me. But still.

For those unfamiliar with the works of Clark Ashton Smith . . . Imagine lapidarian prose harnessed to an imagination somewhat darker than Ambrose Bierce's. Imagine dark glimmery beauty in the borderlands of fantasy and horror. Imagine a body of work which inspired Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, which in turn inspired Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. It's not to everyone's taste -- the prose style can be as intense as maple sugar, though in no way sticky -- but if you have a liking for this sort of thing, I fail to see where else you're going to find it.

If you're a Clark Ashton Smith fan already, you want these books. If not, why not check him out? Night Shade Books, incidentally, has got a truly astonishing lineup of authors. So they're worth checking out as well.

Finally, in the interests of keeping the man happy by limiting the frequency of posts about him, I'll mention here and now that Jason Van Hollander has a blog. Astonishing but true. It's called The Jolly Corner and subtitled The Illustration Journal of Jason Van Hollander. Mostly, it's about his book covers. (Jason is an extrarodinary designer, in addition to being an World Fantasy Award winning illustrator.) But the very first entry was penned by Yours Truly, last October, when I showed him how to set up the blog. I thought you should know that, lest you think Jason was being surly.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 17)

Diagram 17: Oh, we're cooking now! You can practically smell the brain-grease sizzle. The section that became "A Small Room in Koboldtown" came on hard and fast. On the left-hand page of my notebook are my diagrams. On the right-hand page (not pictured) are plot notes. I'll transcribe them below, after my annotations.

From top to bottom:

Salem Will Ghostface

The suspect is set up because they're easy to frame

like OJ, guilty and framed

Suspect -- Will -- Ghostface

Ghostface -- Salem -- Will

Race -- Money -- Sex

"Koschei" -- girlfriend -- suspect

mention the arched streets, vaulted where the bldgs meet overhead

pixie dust?
K -- Suspect -- Ghostface


Salem Toussaint's name and a great deal of his character came from Salem Flack, the last of the old-time lawyers in Washington County, Pennsylvania. My late father-in-law, William Christian Porter vividly remembered Salem Flack getting down on his knees before a jury, clasping his hands, gazing up toward the ceiling, and praying to an Almighty God to forgive the lying, perjuring witnesses who had testified against his client.

Ghostface's name (and his brother Ice's) were taken from hip-hop culture because although Pan-African folklore is as rich as Pan-European folklore, it's not as widely distributed in our society. And I needed that vague sense of familiarity for the names to work.

OJ was guilty. The cops framed him. Once you assume both premises are true, everything falls into place.

Those of my former students who wonder whether my notion of relationship triangles really is of any potential application should go over this section of the novel when it comes out and look for the triangles -- they're all there. Which is not to say that they'll work for everyone. "There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays -- and every single one of them is right," as Uncle Rudy was fond of saying. Writers are a varied lot.

I'm not sure I ever found the opportunity to mention the buildings arching over the streets. And I have no idea what that rough hourglass of a building is supposed to be about!

The facing page:


Novel -- Ball
-- Locked room
-- arrival:
racial tensions

Will could go to Nat for help. (But would he?)

Cheap midnight diners -- "most magical place in the world," he said.

S. T. encouraged rumors that he had owned yachts, estates, a ruby the size of a simurgh's egg, though there was no honest way he could have amassed such wealth. "Better a crook than a pauper," he'd say with a smile and a wink.

Fennel -- he's the janitor. The doorman takes the fennel down to let him in and out.

-- A Bag of powder -- superhuman strength & immunity f/pain.

"No money." The cops obviously believe they're right -- they're not threatened.


Not a lot needs to be said here. I don't think I used the diner comment but, boy howdy, is it evocative! Nor the riff about Salem Toussaint's (nonexistent -- he is, in his way, perfectly honest) riches. It's like the vaulted roofs -- a lot more ideation goes into creating a fantasy than can be crammed into the novel.

The fennel was borrowed from Hope Mirrlees's masterwork, Lud-in-the-Mist. Some (the estimable Julia Briggs for one) would argue that it was Paris: A Poem which was her chef d'oeuvre. Either way, she has my admiration.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Bit of Self-Indulgence

Did you know that there are many, many South Park character generators out there on the Web? So many of them that I can't find which one I used to to make a SP version of me.

I came across the link at Narbonic (which is the other Female Mad Scientist comic -- the one that's not Girl Genius), and made this little guy to amuse my family. And now you.

More serious stuff soon, I promise.

Friday, December 7, 2007

A Publicity Mailing

I had clever things in mind for today's post. But I got caught up in working on a pamphlet to send out at Christmas and, well . . .

But I promised to post three times weekly, and so here's the publicity mailing that Tor sent out when The Dragons of Babel got a starred review in Publishers Weekly. They take PW starred reviews as serious as serious, out there in publishing land. (Those little paragraph dingbats to either side of "starred review" are supposed to be stars. Ah, the mysteries of Web publishing!)


By Michael Swanwick

A Tor Hardcover

ISBN: 0-765-31950-0

$25 .95 / 320 pages

On-sale date: January 8, 2008

Publicity News Flash

Michael Swanwick's THE DRAGONS OF BABEL
receives a

starred review
Publishers Weekly.


Publishers Weekly calls Dragons of Babel
“modern fantasy at its finest."

"Swanwick introduces us to a wide range of marvelous conceits, fascinating
digressions a
nd sparkling characters ... should hold great appeal for fans of
Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys or C
hina Mieville's novels."

The Dragons of Babel
Swanwick, Michael (Author)

ISBN: 0765319500
Tor Books
Published 2008-01
Hardcover, $25.95 (320p)
Fiction | Fantasy - General

In this triumphant return to the universe of The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1994),
Hugo-winner Swanwick introduces Will le Fey, an orphan of uncertain parentage.

After defeating an evil mechanical war dragon who has enslaved him and his
village, Will finds himself displaced by war, first imprisoned in an internment
camp and then transported to the many-miles-high city of Babel. On the way, he
falls in with Esme, an immortal child with no memory, and Nat Whilk, a donkey-
eared confidence man of superhuman abilities. Fusing high technology
seamlessly with magic, Swanwick introduces us to a wide range of marvelous
conceits, fascinating digressions and sparkling characters. His language
bounces effortlessly back and forth between the high diction of elfland and
thieves' argot to create a heady literary stew. This is modern fantasy at its
finest and should hold great appeal for fans of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys
or China Miéville's novels. (Jan.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 16)

Diagram 16. We have reached the end of Will’s adventures underground. Once again (though, uncharacteristically, Will himself does not recognize the pattern) all others are scattered and he goes on alone.

From top to bottom:

All is panic & rout







Of “All is panic and rout,” I can only say: Truer words were never spoken.

The “10 ”at the top refers to Chapter 10, from which all the people and events in Chapter 11 come pouring out, like a train from a tunnel.

Hjördis is of course Hjördis, and “LE” is almost certainly an earlier iteration of Lord Weary. But I have no idea who E and g are. Perhaps they represent earlier names for the characters who became Tatterwag and Jenny Jumpup. Perhaps not.

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Brief and Self-Indulgent Post

My apologies for not posting this hours earlier. I spent all the day working on the Zeppelin story I'm writing with American literary cult hero, Eileen Gunn. Self-indulgent, I know, but loads of fun.

In the meantime, if you want to know more about me -- and if you know enough to be reading this blog, why should you? -- you can check out Heidi's Pick Six at In the course of which I told, perhaps, more than I should have. Enjoy!