Saturday, February 27, 2010

Report from the Last Redoubt

The Endless Snowstorm continues here in Philadelphia . . .

On the third day of snow, we began to run out of supplies.  First we ran out of ammunition.  Then we ran out of food.  Then, and cruelest of all, on a trip to the Roxborough post office, I discovered this sign in the door:


Friday, February 26, 2010

(Yet Another) Snow Day!


It snowed all last night and well into the morning, so rather than be responsible, and write, and blog (which are three separate things, incidentally), I played hooky.  I went to an auction at Freeman's and then wandered about the city taking lots of pictures of the snow.

Pictured above is Walk A Crooked Mile Books, located in an old train station in the Mount Airy section of Philadelphia.  Quite a nice store with a varied selection of used books in a warren of tiny rooms.  An awfully nice way to spend a long autumn day, just moving slowly from room to room, browsing and slowly amassing a short stack of books.  The only complaint I have with it is that they have an awful lot of books.  More books than they really have space for.  The only bookstore I can think of that had a higher density of books was run by somebody who was literally insane and refused to sell any books for cash -- he only accepted other books in trade.  But that's another story.

Somebody ought to help the Crooked Mile folks thin things out by going over there and buying a lot of books.

Above:  I know what you're thinking:  They're selling books on their front porch in a snowstorm?!  No, no, no.  Those are the books they don't think anybody wants to buy, so they've put them out for whoever wants 'em.  That way, you don't have to wait for them to be open to get a free book.  


Thursday, February 25, 2010



Sometimes I'll read one of those finding-a-new-career articles and speculate on what I might wind up doing if this whole writing thing falls apart.  As it could.  Times are harder in publishing than you think.  Problem is, the guys who write those articles all have one strategy and one story to tell:  "At age fifty, Gregor Samsa woke up from a night of uneasy dreams to find himself unemployed.  Worse, nobody was hiring buggy whip designers.  Luckily, under questioning, I discovered that his hobby was designing world-class starship models.  So I called Industrial Light and Magic and . . ."

Won't work for me.  My hobby is writing.

Actually, I have several hobbies and they all consist of writing.  One of them is writing art reviews.  Here's a sample:

TH.2058 by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster
The Tate Modern.  Bankside, London
October 14, 2008 through April 13, 2009
reviewed by Michael Swanwick

The TH in TH.2058 stands for Turbine Hall and 2058 is the year in which the work is set.  Which is to say that this major installation at the Tate Modern is science fiction.   It is not, as the explanatory material is careful to explain, “just” science fiction, but the artist clearly understands what we are up to.  She is not simply slumming in genre.

But, first, a few words about the venue.

To understand this installation, it is necessary to begin with the building in which it is situated. The Bankside Power Station, built in 1947, was conceived by its architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, as a kind of industrial cathedral.   This tremendous structure was rehabbed into the Tate Modern, a collection of international modern art which in 2000 was split off from the Tate Gallery.  The former boiler house now holds three levels of galleries.  The former turbine hall became a dramatic entrance area as well as a deliberately challenging display space for very large sculptural projects.  Its enormous size (it is 35 meters high and 152 meters long) encourages ambition.

Every year, the Tate Modern commissions a new installation for the Turbine Hall.  The current installation is by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.  Here is what she wrote about her imagined future fifty years from now:

It rains incessantly in London – not a day, not an hour without rain, a deluge that has now lasted for years and changed the way people travel, their clothes, leisure activities,  imagination and desires. They dream about infinitely dry deserts.
This continual watering has had a strange effect on urban sculptures. As well as erosion and rust, they have started to grow like giant, thirsty tropical plants, to become even more monumental. In order to hold this organic growth in check, it has been decided to store them in the Turbine Hall, surrounded by hundreds of bunks that shelter – day and night – refugees from the rain.

And also:

 Museums have been closed for years because of water seepages and the high level of humidity. In the huge collective shelter that the Turbine Hall has become, a fantastical and heterogeneous montage develops, including sculpture, literature, music, cinema, sleeping figures and drops of rain.

One enters the Turbine Hall to the amplified sound of water ceaselessly dripping, and encounters a grid of empty metal bunk beds painted in bright blue or yellow IKEA colors.  Scattered among them are 25%-larger-than-original mockups of famous works of sculpture – a Claes Oldenburg apple core, Henry Moore’s Sheep Piece, Bruce Nauman’s Untitled (Three Large Animals), among others  – fabricated, delightfully enough, by Pinewood Studios.  Calder’s Flamingo nestles up to one of Louise Bourgeois’s spiders.  Maurizio Cattelan’s supersized cat skeleton arcs its back and displays nightmare teeth.  On the walls are insect-like devices with blinking lights, meant to suggest that the refugees are being constantly spied upon.  A single radio endlessly plays a dreary 1950s bossa nova.

The evocation of post-apocalyptic fiction is made explicit by two elements.  The first, and more obvious, is a giant screen dominating one wall which runs continual fragments not only from science fiction films such as Solaris, Fahrenheit 451 and La Jetée , but also from such disparate works as Zabriskie Point , Spiral Jetty, and L'Oeil Sauvage.  This montage, titled The Last Film, is dominated by images of water and rain and does a great deal to establish a weary sense of sadness and futility.

Far more surprising is the presence, scattered about the bunks, of science fiction paperbacks.  It’s not a roundup of the usual suspects, either.  There’s J. G. Ballard's The Drowned World, of course, and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, but also Jeff Noon's Vurt, Jorge Luis Borges's Ficciones, and . . .  well, here’s the complete list:

            Dead Cities Mike Davis
            The Drowned World J.G. Ballard
            Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury
            Ficciones Jorge Luis Borges
            Le Goût de l'immortalité Catherine Dufour
            Hiroshima mon amour Marguerite Duras
            Un homme qui dort Georges Perec
            La Jetée. Ciné-roman Chris Marker
            The Lathe of Heaven Ursula Le Guin
            Luftkrieg und Literatur W.G. Sebald
            Make Room! Make Room! Harry Harrison
            El mal de Montano Enrique Vila-Matas
            The Man in the High Castle Philip K Dick
            Pattern Recognition William Gibson
            The Purple Cloud M.P. Shiel
            2666 Roberto Bolaño
            V for Vendetta David Lloyd / Alan Moore
            Vurt Jeff Noon
            The War of the Worlds HG Wells
            We Yevgeny Zamyatin

Which is a surprisingly sophisticated selection, and one that would make an excellent syllabus for a college-level course.  The books are meant, I suspect, to provide an intellectual underpinning to the work as a whole, to provide a running commentary on it and a lively dialogue with each other.  As indeed, with a little reflection, they can.

Those are the pieces.  To judge TH.2058 as a whole, the viewer must wander around it for some time.  There is much to consider.  It is a privilege to see the Calder and Bourgeois works nestled together in a way that would never be allowed with the originals, for they visually chime and echo against each other.   The Calder, which to the eye is made of massive steel, turns out upon being touched to be painted canvas over wood.  “On the beds are books saved from the damp and treated to prevent the pages going mouldy and disintegrating,” Gonzalez-Foerster writes, but there is no sign of weathering, and the pervasive damp which is apparently integral to her vision is simply not there.  There air is comfortably dry.  There are no mattresses on the bunk beds, which look to be completely unused, and this tends to undercut the installation’s narrative.  The cat skeleton would definitely invade the dreams of any children sleeping nearby it.

And in the end?  When all is weighed and considered?

This is, I’m afraid, a rather nostalgic work. The artist has said that she was in part inspired by the Blitz, and that backward-looking focus shows. The Last Movie is heavily evocative of Jean-Luc Godard, the milieu equally so of J. G. Ballard.  Despite the perfectly apt inclusion of more recent books by Gibson, Bolaño, and Noon, TH.2058 cannot escape that gray still moment in the Nineteen-Seventies when briefly it seemed that all art aspired toward the perfect expression of inertia and entropy.

All of which is, of course, a perfectly valid subject for art.  Though Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster used science fiction as a starting-point for TH.2058, there is no requirement that her art be forward-looking.  London flooded, bombed, and invaded, is a powerful image both in reality and fiction.  But the pervasive sense of dread that the installation so obviously desires to instill in the viewer simply never materializes. 

The fault lies squarely in the space itself.

That lofty ceiling undoes any feeling of oppression that the scenario strives for.  The space is too light and airy for the spy devices to render sinister.  The aisles between the bunks are generously wide and nothing seems crowded or cluttered.  The installation as a whole is too clean and bright and filth-free to feel squalid.

This is not to say that TH.2058 is not worth an attentive afternoon.  It contains much to engage the mind and the eye.  But, enjoyable as it unquestionably is, it never quite manages to achieve profundity.  Earlier I said that the Turbine Hall encourages ambition.  It also punishes anything that fails to dominate it.

As I was leaving, I saw a docent kindly but firmly shooing a group of small children off the bunk beds.  They had swarmed up the sides and were bouncing joyously up and down, as if on playground equipment.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

I See Dead Books . . .

 Courtesy of Henry Wessells, international man of mystery and proprietor of The Endless Bookshelf, as well as chief bookbinder for the Temporary Culture publishing empire, comes the following catalog entry.  Which phenomenon, he tells me, is called a "ghost."  Literally.

Database: WorldCat
Query: pn= "Swanwick, Michael."

All Libraries that Own Item: "Stations of the dead."Record for Item | Get This Item )
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Stations of the dead.Michael Swanwick

English  Book [1 v.]
[N.p.] Harper Collins Publishers,
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  • Libraries worldwide that own item: 1

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    Find Items About:Swanwick, Michael. (1)
    Title:Stations of the dead.
    Author(s):Swanwick, Michael. 
    Publication:[N.p.] Harper Collins Publishers,
    Description:[1 v.]
    Standard No:ISBN: 0380817610
    Document Type:Book
    Accession No:OCLC: 52824761

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    Tuesday, February 23, 2010

    A Simple, Reasonable, and Ultimately Workable Proposal for Future Winter Olympics --And Why It Will Never Happen


    What's your favorite Winter Olympics sport?  If you didn't say curling, I feel only compassion for you.  There's no winter sport as pure as curling.  Skill in skiing and skating could save your life someday, when you're being pursued by a pack of starving wolves.  Tobogganing is great fun.  Winning the biathlon might well help your career in the military.  But curling is done only for the love of shoving a big rock with a handle on it across the ice.  Curlers don't care that you've never heard of them.  They don't care that you can't make heads or tails of the rules or that while they're out there sweeping their hearts out, all the world is staring at them in baffled indifference.

    Like I said, pure.

    So the other day I was talking with my son Sean and the Olympics were on in the background and I said something about it being Women's Curling.  "Why women's?" he asked.  "Men don't have any advantage in curling.  Weight, strength, whatever, don't matter.  Shouldn't it just be curling?"

    And for a second, something thrilled inside of me.  Yes!  Mixed-gender teams, coincidentally-single-sex teams, all competing in a feminist ideal of equality.  It would work.  It can work.  There's no reason why it won't work.

    Save one.

    "It'll never happen," I told Sean.  "And I can prove it to you in three words."

    "What are they?"

    "Half the medals."

    "Ah," he said.

    Oh, well.  We can still watch the Winter Olympics and enjoy the thrills and agony that are curling.  Which is undeniably the single best winter sport there is.

    Except for sex.  Which is best practiced in private anyway.

    And relevant to absolutely nothing . . .

    Do you know what the chief vice of writers is?  Aside from the obvious sex-related ones, I mean.  It's going onto Amazon and checking the standings of their books.  Apparently, there are writers out there who check their sales stats as many times a day as you check your emails.

    Well, Homey don't play that.  I've never checked my stats because I know it would only depress me.  Shakespeare STILL outsells me?!  How is that even possible?

    But I do occasionally check the function which shows how many visits this blog has had in the past month from every country in the world.  So I can see that in the past month I've gotten one hit from Ulaanbaator (hi, Molly!) or possibly four from Kolomna (big shout-out, Alexei!).  I can see that my friends in one particular country can only rarely get past the Great Firewall of China, since even though I am very careful never to post anything here that would make their government angry with me, is routinely blocked as a place where dissidents might gather.

    My point being that those of you who check in from the remoter and less-wired corners of this glorious Earth are doing more than just satisfying a momentary itch of curiosity.  You're making me feel connected to places I may never visit but often hope I will.

    For which I most sincerely thank you.


    Monday, February 22, 2010

    A Visit to the Wizard


    I’ve had several exchanges of emails lately with Wenllian “Billee” Stallings, daughter of the late, great Will F. Jenkins who, under the pen name of Murray Leinster, was one of the people who built the genre of science fiction.  As David Hartwell recently observed, “In a parallel world, Murray Leinster is as famous as Robert A. Heinlein."

    Billee and her sister Jo-An Evans are currently at work on a memoir of the creator of the parallel worlds story and author of the first “first contact” story (which was titled, appropriately enough, “First Contact”), and in the hope that I might provide an otherwise undocumented bit of tid (and thus a mention in their book), I started jotting down my memories of my one brief encounter with Mr. Jenkins.

    Here’s what I came up with:

    A Visit to the Wizard

    In 1972, when the Summer of Love was a recent memory and dimetrodons still roamed the Earth, I was an undergrad at the College of William and Mary.  My friend Paul Fuchs and I had the privilege of accompanying my favorite English teacher, Dr. David Clay Jenkins, on a visit to "Ardudwy," his home in Clay Bank, Virginia to see Murray Leinster.  It was like visiting a wizard.  I was overawed by his intelligence, by his kindness, by the enormous piles of books in his living room, by the experimental apparatus he had set up on the dining room table for an invention he was trying to find a practical use for, indeed by pretty much everything about him.  He was quite a raconteur.  Clustered on a corner of his kitchen table were trophies for several science fiction awards, and he had a funny anecdote for each one, save the last.  “And that’s my Hugo,” he said in a way that indicated he would have valued it more if only it had given him a story to tell about it.

    One detail that impressed me greatly was his vast array of shelves of his own books.  If I recall correctly, they covered an entire wall. It seemed impossible that one person could write so many books.  He mentioned that he kept three copies of everything – and was looking for another copy of The Time Tunnel, of which he had only two – so that when he passed on, each of his daughters could have a complete set of his works.  .

    And then there was the Submarine Story

    During World War II, Robert A. Heinlein created a volunteer think tank with fellow science fiction writers Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp, who worked with him at the Philadelphia Naval Yard.  They met formally once a week in the evening to consider problems given to them by Navy officials.  Several other science fiction writers were involved as well, including L. Ron Hubbard.

    Will Jenkins told me that Heinlein had wanted him as a member but had been overruled by the top brass because he had only a grammar school education.  However, Heinlein did arrange to informally pass along problems that he and the other writers were stuck on.  One of these was the problem of the submarine periscope.  When it was up, it left a V-shaped wake in the water, and enemy aircraft pilots used that fact to spot their location.

    So Jenkins build an apparatus in his bathtub to simulate the movement of a periscope through water and after some tinkering came up with a solution.  Long strips of cloth attached to the periscope would break up the wake sufficiently to make it undetectable.  He sent his solution in to the Navy.

    The solution had no practical value, as it turned out, because by then both sides had radar, so the periscope wakes were irrelevant.  But he got a response back from the admiral who evaluated it, with a question written on the cover sheet:  "I understand that the inventor came up with this solution in the bathtub.  My question is -- what was he using for the periscope?"

    He also said (and this is something I don't think I've seen written down anywhere) that for a time after the publication of Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline” (a story published in 1942 which was so conversant with the mechanics of atomic bombs that officials worried that the Trinity Project might have been compromised) the government arranged to read the stories John W. Campbell had bought for Astounding before publication, to make certain further inadvertent leaks didn’t occur.  Something he wrote apparently fell under this category, for one day “a very polite young man from the FBI” appeared at his door to request his file copy, early drafts, and any notes for the story, which he of course handed over. Earlier, Campbell’s copy had been confiscated as well.  A quarter century after the event, he was sure the need for secrecy was long past – but that it would be next to impossible to have the story de-classified.  Which was a pity, he said, for he had completely forgotten what the story was about, and he would like to know!

    On that same visit, I asked Will Jenkins one of those questions that only a naïve young man can ask:  Whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about the future.  With a little smile, a distinct twinkle in his eye, and a whimsical touch of an Irish lilt to his voice, he quoted the Virginian ironic fantasist James Branch Cabell, saying, "I contemplate the spectacle with appropriate emotions.”

    And now, decades later, a writer myself, I still find that the simplest imaginable statement of my duties.

    Friday, February 19, 2010

    Duck Feet and the Lantern Theater Company


    That's not really "Romian Lettuce" above, but a package of duck feet.  I was in a grocery store in Chinatown, stocking up on this and that and discovered that all the meat was wonderfully mislabeled. 

    I was in Chinatown because it was close by St. Stephen's Theater, where the Lantern Theater Company presented The Breath of Life by David Hare.  It was a terrific production, though more for the bravura performances by Ceal Phelan and Cheryl Williams than for the play itself.  Here's the plot:  a dumped wife who's planning to write a memoir spends an evening with her husband's ditched mistress who thinks it's a bad idea.  They're both women of a certain age, as the saying goes, and that's the absolute best thing about the play.  I can spend forever listening to smart, experienced women talk, especially if they're "difficult" women, as Ms Phelan's character was.

    What I liked least?  What they talked about was the husband/boyfriend, and they spoke about him as if he hadn't really done anything wrong.  I realize that he was the excuse for banging these two dissimilar women together, but I really wished the playwright had found a more interesting excuse.  It made me wish that a dramaturge would go through the collected Dykes To Watch Out For and craft a play from it.  Or, better yet, a mini-series.

    The play doesn't really achieve much in the end.  I saw the Wednesday matinee, which meant that the audience was almost entirely made up of pensioners, and at the end they gave it enthusiastic but not rapturous applause.  Given that it addressed summing-up-of-one's-life issues that everybody in the audience was surely going through, I thought that was telling.  But I also think the play is going to be around for a long time.  It has two serious virtues.  First, because it has one set and two actors, it's cheap to put on.  And second, it gives actresses of a certain age the opportunity to strut their stuff.

    For which, in this case, I was grateful.


    Wednesday, February 17, 2010

    A Day in Amherst


    I am returned but newly From some ultimate dim . . .  No, no, that's not right!  I'm home from Amherst.  Being a postmodern literary type, I went there not to view the Emily Dickinson sites, but to visit the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.   Where they had a show titled Golden Legacy:  Original Art From 65 Years of Golden Books.

    Yes, I may not have seen the Dickinson Homestead, but I have seen the original art for the cover of The Color Kittens.  You may now stand in awe of me.  There were some sixty pieces of art from such classics as Tootle and Scuffy the Tugboat (both illo'd by the immortal Tibor Gergely), and you can bet I examined them all closely.  I learned, not at all to my surprise, that those pictures I remembered best were also the most artistically accomplished.  Interesting that at such an early age, children have such a good eye.

    The museum has a splendid library of picture books, which children and even adults can look at.  It's arranged, most sensibly, by artist rather than writer.

    The show lasts until February 28, if you care to make the trip.

    And also . . .

    On the way out of town, I dropped quickly by the graveyard where Emily Dickinson was buried, to pay my respects.  Alas, I could not find her grave quickly and since we were anxious to get home before the snow, there was not the time for an extended search.  But the yard is a quiet place and, though surrounded by buildings, feels isolated.  It seemed, somehow, fitting that this most retiring of poets had evaded my visit.

    Above:  There I am with The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle's single most famous creation.


    Monday, February 15, 2010

    Still on the Road . . .


    Right at this moment, I'm in Amherst, for reasons I'll relate later, and hoping to make it home before the snow hits again.  Boskone was great fun, as usual.  I spent a fair amount of time with Greer Gilman, wonking about fantasy.  I sort-of got to meet Alastair Reynolds, but not to spend any time talking with him, dammit.  And I met Tom Shippey, who wrote the absolutely brilliant J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century.  Easily one of the most interesting talkers and storytellers there -- and I say that as somebody who was effortlessly outclassed by the man on a panel about the LotR movies.

    Easily the strangest panel was the one on weirdboiled (Paul Tremblay's term for it) or noird (this one courtesy of China Mieville) fiction.  Paul was on the panel and related that he'd told China his own term would prevail because "China had named the new weird and you only got to name one movement per lifetime."  I won't try to define weirdboiled (I'm not perfectly sure I could), but everybody agreed there was something there.  You may want to keep an eye on Paul's blog.  Or read his novel The Little Sleep or its sequel No Sleep Till Wonderland. 

    I got to see Vernor Vinge again, if briefly, and the undeniably brilliant Karl Schoeder, and spent some time talking at length with Jane Yolen.   And Melinda Snodgrass stopped by to say hello just as I was leaving.  Better late than never, I suppose, but if would've been much better if we'd had some time to schmooze.  And there were many more folks I got to hang with.  By the time I had to leave, I was feeling quite full of myself for the exalted company I keep.

    Quote of the con, for me, was from my good pal Allen Steele, who, in the middle of one of his many stories, said, "And there's another story there -- but that's another story."  A close second went to David Hartwell, who said, "In a parallel world, Murray Leinster was as famous as Robert A. Heinlein."  Third would be Ellen Asher's observation, reflecting on her World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award, her guest of honor gig at at this year's NASFIC in Reno, and other recent honors that, "Retiring was the best career move I ever made."

    And so, as Samuel Pepys was wont to say, to bed.

    Above:  Allen Steele in full storytelling mode.


    Friday, February 12, 2010



    I'm on the road today, driving up to Boston for Boskone.  I like pretty much everything about Boskone except the weather, which tends to be depressingly wintry.

    But meanwhile . . .

    Remember my photo of the back yard and the immanent sun a few days ago?  Well, here's what they looked like this morning after another two feet of snow.  I spent all day shoveling. Then I put the above photo on my desktop.  Which leads me to . . .

    Today's consumer warning  . . .

    I am so old, children, that I can remember when netbooks were called palmtops.  That was almost two years ago, when mammoths roamed the vast, empty plains of the Intertubes, and we would huddle naked in damp caves, rubbing two sticks together to make thumb drives.  Oh, times were hard then!  Except for the naked part.

    Nowadays, times are much easier but a lot scammier.  Last week I had to buy a new palmbook/laptop.  Which, I discovered on my first and only day of possession, was preloaded with Windows 7 Starter, a not-fully-functional OS.  When I tried to change the image on my desktop, I learned that doing so required that I go online and buy Windows 7 Home Premier.  After getting my refund, I talked to salesfolk at various stores and learned that all the new palmtops have the cut-down version because they don't have memory enough to run W7HP.

    Well, each new version of Windows is written far too memory-hoggish for the current hardware.  So it only makes sense that the new OS would have fewer features.  Still, it was pretty cheeky of them to have it automatically try to sell me an OS that my device couldn't run.

    Apple doesn't play that kind of game, so if I'd been willing to wait for the iPod to come available, I probably would've spent the extra money for it.  But I have work to do, so I scrounged around until I found one of the dwindling number of netbooks still running on XP.

    But if you're thinking of buying one of these devices, my best advice is that you wait a couple of years, until the hardware is capable of running a real and preloaded OS.


    Wednesday, February 10, 2010

    Why Your First Novel Shouldn't Be Volume One of a Trilogy


    It snowed last night, something like eight inches of mingled snow and sleet.  We were dug out from Friday's big snow and now we're halfway dug out of last night's . . . and they've upgraded the weather watch to a blizzard warning!

    Which means I'm not getting around much these days, and have nothing to report other than that I am, as ever, typing away.  ("Always tappety, tappety, tappety!  Eh, Mr. Gibbon?" as the Duke of Gloucester once remarked.)  So I thought I'd offer some good advice for any gonnabe writers out there:

    Why Your First Novel Shouldn't Be Volume One of a Trilogy

    Three reasons, basically.  One is artistic, the second psychological, and the third pragmatic.

    The artistic reason is that at the beginning of your career, you're learning faster and improving more than you ever will again.  That, and the fact that the mere act of publishing a book makes you a better writer, means that the prose styles of your first and second volumes will probably be different.  Most readers won't pick up on this.  But the best ones will.  And your very best reader is yourself.  It's going to bug you to your dying day.

    The psychological reason is that nine chances out of ten, no matter how much you love your first novel when it's fresh out of the oven, several years down the line you're going to end up disliking it.  It may not deserve your dislike.  But this is an observable phenomenon.  Writers wind up being embarrassed by their first.  And if your first is volume one of a trilogy, that's three books you're going to end up unhappy about.

    The first two reasons are trivial, really.  But the pragmatic one is desperately important.  Here it is:

    The timing of publishing is such that the "numbers" for your first book -- the sales figures, basically, the book's profitability -- won't be available by the time you turn in the second volume.  Since your editor liked the first book, the second one is a pretty sure sale.  But by the time you've finished writing the third volume, however, your publishing house will know the numbers.  And if the numbers aren't good, the book will not be bought.

    Which means that book will not be sellable.  No other publisher will want to buy volume three of a trilogy whose first two volumes are owned by another house.  You'll have to wait until your first two books are out of print, revert the rights, and try to sell the trilogy anew.  But that will take years, and your dream-child will at that point be damaged goods.  Unless you've subsequently become extremely popular, it will probably still be unsellable.

    Imagine how it must feel to have two published novels under your belt and then find you can't sell your third.  It must feel exactly like being fired for incompetence.  It is going to discourage the hell out of you.

    I'm sure there are plenty of people who have started out with trilogies and gone on to have perfectly respectable careers.  But my best advice?  If at all possible, don't.

    Oh, and there's a coda . . .

    But if you simply must write a trilogy, then go on ahead with a clean conscience.  All the best books are books that the the author had no choice but to write.  And all writing advice is like pantyhose -- anybody who tells you that "one size fits all" is lying.

    Above:  A cat in a lap, and an example for all who are experiencing a snow day.


    Tuesday, February 9, 2010

    A Product I Would Buy

    No blog today.  Just a note on a product I dream-wrote last night, which I really do wish existed in the real world:

    EGO-SELTZER  -- Reduces Swelling Fast!


    Monday, February 8, 2010

    White Smoke Rises . . . We Have A Winner!


    The Blue Ribbon Panel of Incorruptible if Nepotistic Judges met Sunday to go over what I'm pretty sure were literally hundreds of suggestions.  Some of them were greatly admired as words but, the consensus was, wouldn't work in context.  They were set aside with enormous reluctance.  A couple may surface when Darger and Surplus visit Italy or Spain.  Several looked good on paper but sounded smutty or misleading when said aloud.  And so it went, until we had a final ballot of perhaps twenty words.  All three of us agreed that one worked best.  But to be absolutely certain, I then went down the final list word by word, to make sure we all agreed it was better than each one of its rivals individually.  As it was.  And the winner was . . .

    . . . serviles, which was contributed by Zamzummim.

    The word was chosen because it's instantly recognizable, easy to say, won't cloy with repeated usage, and carries a little edge of cruelty.  Everybody felt that last bit was important.  I am ninety-nine and forty-five hundredths percent sure it will be used in the novel, which is better odds than you'll get that a bar of Ivory Soap will float, and one hundred percent sure that Zamzummin will get the very first autographed copy of the Darger and Surplus novel when it comes out.

    Zamzummim, please send your mailing address to me at miswanwick["at"symbol] so I can mail your prize to you just as soon as it exists.

    Everybody else, thank you!  This was a lot more fun than trying to sweat up the word myself.

    Coincidentally . . .

    "Zamzummim," meaning mumblers or whisperers (it comes from the Bible), was another of Zamzummim's submissions and is an excellent example of a word we all thought was inherently nifty.  But not right in context.

    Above:  The cover of my next-to-most-recent collection.  Because the Darger and Surplus doesn't exist yet.


    Saturday, February 6, 2010

    A Rare Saturday Post


    Snow day!  Marianne snapped the above shot of our small back garden this morning.  I'm posting it here to remind everybody that just as in the midst of life we are in death, so too in the midst of winter are springtime and summer immanent.

    That last word is not a typo, alas.


    Friday, February 5, 2010

    Old Man Winter


    I'll be on the road for most of today, driving back to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh.  What makes it tricky is that Marianne and I can't start home until around about noon, which is when the snow is scheduled to start.  They're expecting a foot of snow in Philadelphia.  So I won't have the time to do any substantial blogging today.

     For which I apologize.  But you know what they say:  If you're going to blog, don't drive.  And vice versa.

     Above:  There he is, Old Man Winter himself, photographed in my back yard.


    Wednesday, February 3, 2010

    A Cat's Breakfast


    Something of a cat's breakfast today.  I'm on the road in the morning and there's a lot of prep to do.  Plus, I'm writing a novel.  I don't know if I've mentioned that recently.

    The Color of Dinosaur Feathers . . . 

    My friend Daniel Dern, who is a fellow dino fancier, sent me the following link.  Unlikely as it seems, a case has been made for the fossil evidence of the color of dinosaur feathers. Yow.  I dunno if I'm convinced, but it's damnably cool in any case.  Click here to read the item.

    My Blue-Ribbon Panel Judge of a Son . . .

    Dropped by last night to tell me that he'd gone over all the contest entries so far and only been impressed by two.  "Was [term withheld] one of them?" I asked.

    "Naw, I didn't think much of that," he said.

    So we're getting closer.  Really.  The Panel will convene again, probably this weekend, after I get back from Pittsburgh.

    And the Goon Fleet Delenda Est . . .

    There don't appear to be any comprehensive articles about this online. But it's inherently interesting, so I'll give you the digest version:

    On the massive online game Eve Online, one of the best (and most unexpected) narratives was the sudden appearance of the Goon Fleet, out of nowhere, to best and humble major virtual-interstellar alliances with, well, goonish stragegies. Enormously game-credit-points-expensive warships were taken out by swarms of trash-talking Kamikazi pilots in fifty-cent spacecraft. Huge swaths of virtual space fell before the Fleet.  They ended up controlling planets and resources that made them virtually indestructable.

    And yet they've been destroyed.

    How? As my son, Sean, explained it to me, the Goon Fleet's strength was always strategy. Their leaders were organizers, not players. So the leaders never actually played the game themselves. And thus none of them ever saw the automatic messages reminding them that if they didn't pay their annual dues, their properties would be cancelled.

    So one day the Goons logged on and found everything they'd worked for, stolen, and conquered was gone.

    Can you wonder that sociologists and epidemiologists are studying these virtual worlds seriously?  I wouldn't be surprised if members of the War College were interested in them as well.

    Above: Our cat's eating station, with water bowl, food dish, and of course his chutneys. It just wouldn't be kibble without chutney.


    Monday, February 1, 2010

    A Glitterary Brunch


    My good friend Sheila Williams, the editor of Asimov's, was in town Friday for a talk at the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, and since she overnighted in Philly, Marianne and I threw a literary brunch for her the next morning, before her train trek back to NYC.

    A gathering of old friends around a tableful of good food for hours upon hours of laughter and conversation -- what could be more gemutlich?  I, for one, enjoyed it immensely.

    Above, l-r:  Tom Purdom, Sheila WIlliams, Susan Casper, Gardner Dozois, Marianne Porter, and Greg Frost.  You'll note that Marianne is the only person present whose hands are unsullied by science fiction.

    And I promised to say a few words about J. D. Salinger . . .

    So I will.  Most of the postmortem analysis made a big deal about Salinger being a "recluse" because he wouldn't talk to the press.  But he traveled frequently to New York City for theatrical events and for many years the wit and comic novelist Peter De Vries made it a habit to come to Salinger's house for Sunday dinner.

    I fail to see how you can be a recluse under those conditions.

    Yeah, Salinger was probably a pretty odd duck.  So are most of us -- and I'm not just talking about writers here.  He didn't much like strangers pressing their noses against his window.  But this is a trait shared by most of humanity.  And he did withdraw from publishing.  For which there are two possible explanations.

    One is that he simply ran out of the ability to write, which happens, and didn't want to admit to it, which is understandable.

    The second is that he kept on writing, but had enough money that he could avoid the critical attention that comes with publishing.  If you want to understand why he would feel this way, you have only to look up a book called Salinger:  A Critical and Personal Portrait.  Editor Henry Anatole Grunwald commissioned more than 20 of the most acclaimed writers and critics of his era to write essays on Salinger, thinking the result would be almost unqualified praise.

    Hoo boy, was he wrong!  With only a few exceptions, the essayists seized the opportunity to take Salinger down.  To point out what a minor writer he was, how deficient in all the literary graces, how overpraised, and how pig-ignorant about what Buddhism was really all about.  "I had no idea that New York intellectuals were so religious," I murmured upon closing this book.  John Updike (this was back in his partisan days; in old age his literary criticism mellowed admirably) turned the man's own words on him by writing "Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them."

    A little literary blood-letting is always invigorating.  I found the bulk of the book so mean-spirited that it depressed the hell out of me.  God only knows what Salinger made of it.

    But we can make a shrewd guess from the fact that he never published anything more in his life.

    I'm not saying it was that book in particular that drove him out of the public arena.  Just that it was symptomatic of the stunning critical hostility that Salinger had to endure.

    His books were successful enough that he could drop out.  So he did.

    In the decades since, there have been persistent rumors that Salinger was writing all the while, and depositing novel upon novel in a huge fire safe to be published after his death.  I'd like that to be true, and I guess that pretty soon we'll know, one way or the other.

    But no, I don't think he was crazy.  Thin-skinned, yes, he was that.

    But then, so are a lot of us.

    And the contest continues . . .

    I actually came up with two entries myself which, fleetingly, seemed good and which I then ditched.  One was inwit, but the Joycian associations were far too strong.  The other was invert.  But there would be people familiar with the old clinical meaning of that, so that would cause confusion and give offense as well.

    What would I have done if I'd won my own contest?  Used the word and then given the autographed book to whoever came up with the next-best suggestion.  Not that that looks likely to happen.