Monday, July 28, 2008

Unique and Unpublishable Stories

If I have one ruling characteristic, it's that I'm gullible.  Years ago, my then-editor Deborah Beale (and a brilliant editor she was) told me I was like the Sampo, the mill at the bottom of the sea that in Finnish mythology grinds out salt, except that what I produced was ideas.  Before she said that, ideas came slowly and grudgingly to me.  Since then, they're the easiest things on Earth.

More recently, people have been calling me "prolific."  Being prolific is the Holy Grail of the working writer, so of course I was skeptical -- particularly since my novels arrive at intervals of several years.  But lately I've shown signs of buying into the common delusion.

Case in point:  My reading last Friday at Robin's Bookstore.  Since it was a promotion for Gardner Dozois's 25th volume of THE YEAR'S BEST SCIENCE FICTION, I was only one of three speakers.  And since "The Skysailor's Tale" would have taken an hour and a half to read, I cut and pasted and revised a fifteen-minute story dealing with one of the characters and called it "Tacey's Tale."

The reading went over well.  There was a good-sized audience and they liked it.  Afterwards, as usual, I signed and dated my typescript and left it for whoever cared to pick it up.  Just now, I went looking for the file I'd created for the story and saw that it had been accidentally overwritten.  So whoever picked up the reading copy has the only copy of it in existence.  It is, in the old, unspoiled sense of the word, unique.

Similarly, over at the Clarion West Forums, I've been working on a round-robin story with Eileen Gunn, L. Timmel Duchamp, Ruth Nestvold, Gord Sellar, and Marilyn Holt, as part of their fund-raising Write-a-Thon.  You can imagine the logistical problems of trying to market such a piece.  (Though I may yet.)  You can find the story by going here and clicking on Trouble Ensues.  The most recent version is down at the bottom.

So that's two stories with little or no chance of ever seeing money from them.  It's a good thing I'm prolific.

And Today Is Your Last Chance . . . 

. . . to buy a raffle ticket for the KGB Fantastic Fiction Reading series.  Fantastic prizes -- and you only buy a ticket for the prize you want.  So if only three people want a story critique by Gardner Dozois (the single best story doctor in the field -- I know this from experience), your chances go way up.  Though I suspect you're going to have competition if what you want is Neil Gaiman's (used and autographed) keyboard.  

If this sounds like your sort of thing, click here.

And of Course . . .

The Poem du Jour has been updated.  I'll also be updating Pastor Marcia's Journal later today.


Friday, July 25, 2008

Son of Lexicon Urthus (plus a reading TONIGHT)

When I am grown so old that I no longer feel the urge to write, I shall sit in an easy chair by the wood stove and annotate my copies of The Book of the New Sun.

So what a delight it was this morning to receive in the mail an advance copy of the second edition of Lexicon Urthus: A Dictionary for the Urth Cycle.  When Gene Wolfe wrote what will probably stand as his single greatest (multi-volume) work, he did something extraordinarily sly:  Where most science fiction writers invent strange-looking words to indicate exotic things, people, creatures, and concepts, he employed what looked like invented words but were actually legitimate terms taken from the dustier reaches of the dictionary.  Heptarchs, margays, naviscaputs, and other heteroclite beings abound.   I am surely not the only person who kept the OED handy for my second reading.  (The first time through, who would want to interrupt the story?)

Thirteen years ago, Michael Andre-Driussi addressed the need for a compact source-book for the names, gods, constellations, and more unusual terms populating the Urth of The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, the Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch, and several related shorter works.  It was a lovely book, and nominated for the World Fantasy Award, but just try to find a copy today.  Now there's a second edition, expanded to include every one of the 28 gods, 215 named characters, and 90 unnamed characters -- the latter ranging from "the algophilist" (a person who takes morbid pleasure in the pain of others or of himself) to "waitress."

Just to be explicit, here's the single entry to which I made a contribution:

fuligin:  a sooty color, powdered black (I, chap. 4, 39).
Commentary:  The descriptions of this color as being "blacker than black" (aside from the powerful sin aspect) indicate to Michael Swanwick that it is actually "selective black," a black that absorbs light beyond the visible spectrum and into the ultraviolet.  Selective coatings are used on solar collectors to maximize absorption of radiation.  It is a notion that engineer Wolfe would definitely be familiar with, and the seeming paradox having a practical explanation would fit his sense of humor.  Presumably a fuligin cloak would be particularly warm.

The book comes out on August 1 from Sirius Fiction.  The hardcover -- for those who are building an enviable library -- costs forty bucks, and the paperback -- for those who, like me, do not so much collect as amass -- is a perfectly reasonable twenty dollars.

If you're the sort of person who needs this book, you've already clicked over to Sirius Fiction to buy a copy.

And TONIGHT . . .

At 7:30 p.m., I'll be doing a reading at Robin's Book Store (108 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia).  Actually, my reading will be short -- an excerpt from "The Skysailor's Tale," most likely, because the event is a celebration of Gardner Dozois's The Year's Best SF: 25th Annual Collection, and I'm only a third of the program.  Gardner will be his usual entertaining self, and the redoubtable Tom Purdom will give a talk on the British Navy's suppression of the slave trade.  

You want to hear this for Tom's talk alone.  (He told me the other day that while the British Navy didn't put an end to slavery, they saved hundreds of human beings from the slaver ships.  "It's like the people who smuggled Jews out of Nazi Germany," he said.  "They didn't prevent the Holocaust, but it was still an immensely good thing to do.")  Tom Purdom is one of the great raconteurs of science fiction.

The evening will be podcast.  Simply go to at 7:30 and click the button that says "Click to Hear Philadelphia Fantastic Authors and Editors Series."

And as always . . .

The Poem du Jour has been updated (twice!) since my last post here.


Monday, July 21, 2008

My Best Advice for Writers

Well, here I am in Mattapoisett, on the shores of beautiful Buzzard's Bay, and though it took me forever to get online, I've made it in time to keep faith with the Monday posting -- just.

Readercon was fun, as always, and many people told me that this or that thing I'd said on a panel was particularly memorable. But (imho) the single best thing I said all weekend was on the Pointless Revisions panel, when Jim Kelly related how he'd gotten a bajillion letters after he'd written a story in which a character flicked off the safety on a revolver. (If you're not shaking your head in scorn and pity right now, consult your nearest gun owner.)

Here's what, keeping in mind that horse owners are at least as offended as gun owners by elementary errors in their field of expertise, I said:

"My best advice to writers is to never write about guns or horses, unless you've actually shot a horse yourself."

As always . . .

The Poem du Jour has been updated. Haven't you always wanted to have your skull made into a drinking cup?


Thursday, July 17, 2008


I'm off to Readercon!

See you there.

And as always . . .

I've updated the Poem du Jour, though (she's busy) not Pastor Marcia's Journal


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Big Change for a Small Blog

Hi, everyone.  I've decided to change the frequency with which my blog appears.  I'll be downsizing from three postings a week to two.

I've been blogging three times a week from August 13 of last year, and since the beginning the purpose of the blog has explicitly been to promote my (wonderful! fabulous! runcible!) fantasy novel The Dragons of Babel.  In all that time, I think I've only outright missed one post.  That's 162 posts, including this one.

Back this spring, I asked my editor, David Hartwell, when the publicity cycle for the hardcover would end.  (For reasons that I'm sure he could explain to me, the paperback reprint doesn't go through its own promotional cycle.)  He told me it would end in early June.

I put off downsizing the blog because new things kept happening.  Until this week.  I got up today and discovered that I had no news to pass along to you.  None whatsoever.  Zip.  So it's time.

I'll be posting twice weekly from now on, until I have a new book to promote, at which point I'll shift the whole thing over to another blog, since "Flogging Babel" doesn't adequately describe the novel in progress.  (Actually, it sounds a lot like a B&D blog -- and don't think I'm not grateful to y'all for refrraining from pointing that out.)

Anyway, starting next week I'll be posting on Mondays and Fridays.  Unless, of course, there's a massive upswelling for different times of the week.

And, um, well, as R. A. Lafferty once said, "That's all I had to say."

And as always . . .

Pastor Marcia's Journal and the Poem du Jour have been updated.  Enjoy!


Monday, July 14, 2008

The Strangest Thing You'll See This Week

You've got to hand it to those Thai ad writers -- they really understand what we want to see in a TV commercial.

Of course, it helps to have read enough Somtow Sucharitkul to know that in Thailand the ghosts get a lot weirder than anything they dare show on television.


Friday, July 11, 2008

The Road to Reality

Clarion West is having its annual Write-a-Thon fund-raiser. Traditionally (and this is a tradition stretching back an entire year) Eileen Gunn and I have a Smack-Down, our own private two-person forum, in which we talk trash and goad each other on to greater and greater works of literature. Last year, in fact, I tricked Eileen into writing a collaborative story with me by the simple expedient of not telling her we were doing it until it was finished. The story, "Shed That Guilt!" is forthcoming in F&SF.

This year, alas, Eileen was hitch-hiking through the Mountains of the Moon, searching for subterranean Aztec pyramids for the first two weeks of the Write-a-Thon. Or something like that. I'll confess I wasn't paying much attention to her distracted attempts at explanation. ("Gotta run! Being attacked by alligators! ARRRRGH!" and the like.) So, Eileen being the tech-savvy half of the conspiracy, the Smack-Down never got started.

I'm easily bored, though, so I've started a round-robin story with the other 'thonners. You can find it by going to the Clarion West forums, clicking on the Write-a-thon link, and then clicking on Write-a-thon in progress and poking around inside.

According to the Clarion West officials, the story is titled "Trouble," but I personally think it's called "Reality Road."


Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Red-Hot KGB Raffle

Pictured above is the eleventh and latest of my bottled stories -- which, as you know, I never sell but only give away.

Several of you guys have expressed a wish to own one of these. Well, now's your chance. And how much do you have to pay to get this extremely fetishistic object?

How about a dollar?

The hosts of the KGB Fantastic Fiction reading series (held in the KGB Bar, New York CIty's single most famous literary Commie drinking establishment; is this a great country or what?) are having a fund-raiser, for which they solicited prizes from a variety of writers and editors. Here's the letter of provenance explaining mine:

Dear Ellen:

This is the letter of provenance for the story in a bottle titled “Moon over Lubyanka,” which I am donating to the KGB Fantastic Fiction fund raiser. The story begins:

We met in a smoky piano bar called Dissidents, high up in a building directly across from Lubyanka Prison. It was a gorgeous night. A full moon hung low over the yellow-walled building that had once housed the Cheka and then, later, the KGB. Moscow never looked better.

“Moon Over Lubyanka” was written on May 28, 2008. I placed it inside an old Perrier Jouet bottle which I titled, signed, and dated with a diamond-tipped pen. I then corked the bottle. Finally, my wife sealed it with sealing wax. After which I destroyed all other copies and files of the story.
The story within the sealed bottle is unique. The bottle can be kept as an artifact, or the story can be read, whichever its owner may choose. It is not possible to do both.

This is the eleventh piece of bottled fiction I have created, all of which (save one, which I kept) have been given away to worthy causes, institutions, or individuals. Ownership of the bottle entails possession of the physical story only. Copyright is specifically withheld.

Michael Swanwick

To which I will add only that the story was inspired by a perfectly lovely evening in spent in Dissidents with representatives of EKSMO, my Russian publishers, and that yes, the moon over Lubyanka was that beautiful and more.

The raffle begins on July 14 (next Monday) and lasts only two weeks. You can get the whole story here.

There are some great prizes. Gardner Dozois, Ellen Datlow, Shawna McCarthy, Richard Bowes, and Nancy Kress are each offering a story critique. Lucius Shepard, Elizabeth Hand, and Jeffrey Ford will Tuckerize (the verb comes from Wilson Tucker, who was famous for putting his friends into his novels) the winner in a story. Gahan Wilson will draw the animal (real or imaginary) of your choice. And there are books and manuscripts and jewelry. . . Plus, Neil Gaiman autographed an old keyboard of his, and you can't tell me there aren't young writers superstitious enough to believe that will help.

I'm tempted to put a dollar on the Lucius Shepard. I can imagine what he'd write:

"Whatcha got there?"
"Some crap by a guy named Swanwick." He tossed the book back in the Dumpster. "I mean, who reads this shit?"
Or maybe he'd just have me gut-shot by Tom Clancy.

Coolest of all, you buy tickets for the prize you want, which means that if yours is a minority taste (for bottled stories, say), your chances go up. The list is here and you can keep up on the new prizes coming in here.

And As Always . . .

There are new postings for Pastor Marcia's Journal ("Mostly a Rant") and the Poem du Jour ("A Poet, a Loon, and a Likable Gent").


Monday, July 7, 2008

God is Dead

Thomas M. Disch died by his own hand in his New York City apartment on July 4.

Artistically, things were going well for him.  He has several books scheduled to be published in the coming year, and Tachyon Publications had just published The Word of God, a strange metafictional screed in which Disch assumed for himself the titular role of a humane and explicitly atheistic supreme deity.

Everything else was a mess.  Disch was in poor health.  He'd been depressed in recent years, particularly after the death of his long-time partner Charles Naylor.  He was broke.  And there were efforts afoot to evict him from his rent-controlled apartment.

So he took what seemed to him appropriate action.

I find myself thinking about his early story "Descending."  In it, a penniless and unemployed young man, lost in thought as he reflexively takes a department store escalator downward for floor after floor, suddenly realizes that the landings no longer have exits and there is no up escalator.  He tries running upward, against the current as it were, but only succeeds in exhausting himself.  Finally he surrenders to the inevitable and continues downward, toward a bottom he will never reach.

Disch, it seems to me, found himself on the down escalator and decided to do something about it.  This is a terrible end for such a brilliant man and such a fine writer.  He had a reputation for being a curmudgeon, but he could be good company when he wished.  I regret his passing -- and in such a manner! -- very greatly.

There is lamentably little we can do for the dead.  But for a writer there is one last service possible.  Go back and re-read some of Tom's work.  (Camp Concentration and 334 are, in very different ways, possibly his best novels, but much as I admire them, I believe his short stories are his very best.  Getting Into Death and Other Stories is just flat-out brilliant.)  Then, if you can, recommend what you've read to somebody who will appreciate it.

End of sermon.

And As Always . . .

The Poem du Jour and Pastor Marcia's Journal have been updated.


Friday, July 4, 2008

A Neat (Bio) Hack

Okay, this is just plain cool.

Biologist Richard Lenski has run an experiment over the last twenty years, starting with a single Escherichia coli bacterium, dividing its descendants into twelve laboratory populations, and then observing them over more than 44,000 generations.

If nothing else, the lab technique required to keep the experiment clean and reliably documented is staggering.

But somewhere around generation 31,500, one colony of bacteria suddenly acquired the ability to metabolize citrate. The mutation, expanding as it did their available food resources, dramatically increased the colony's size.

Since Lenski had saved samples of each population every 500 generations, he was able to "reboot" the experiment from earlier stages. And, as New Scientist reported, "The replays showed that even when he looked at trillions of cells, only the original population re-evolved Cit+ – and only when he started the replay from generation 20,000 or greater. Something, he concluded, must have happened around generation 20,000 that laid the groundwork for Cit+ to later evolve."

You can read the New Scientist report here. Or you can read Pharyngula's report on the drearily predictable response of the Creationists here.

But what a great hack! Simple, clean, clear, convincing. Everything that makes good science admirable.

As Always . . .

A second letter has been posted in Pastor Marcia's Journal. And Thursday's Poem du Jour takes a good long look from the bridge.


Wednesday, July 2, 2008

I Remember When Paintings of Dragons Were All But Extinct

Stephan Martiniere who, as you recall, did the moody, evocative cover for The Dragons of Babel, is quite deservedly up for a Best Artist Hugo this year. As are Bob Eggleton, John Harris, John Picacio, and my favorite cartoonist in the known universe, Phil Foglio.

You can see a representative sampling of all the artists' work here.

And as always . . .

. . . the poem du jour chugs along with most recently -- brace yourself! -- Alexander Pope.