Saturday, July 31, 2010

All the Cats in Latvia

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And I'm home!  Exhausted, but home.

I seem to have dropped a day somewhere . . . no idea how.  Which means that I'll be finishing this in forty-four days rather than the forty-three originally scheduled.  Odd.

Oh well.  I've got a good one today.  It's called . . .


All the Cats in Latvia 

by
Michael Swanwick

 The cats of Riga are more fastidious than cats are elsewhere.  With their breakfasts they require tea – milk, but no sugar – and little napkins to wipe their whiskers with afterwards.  There’s a special fork they use to eat mice with, and a spoon that’s only for canned tuna.  Though they control the city, and some say the entire nation, they do it secretly so they won’t have to deal with humans constantly petitioning them for favors.

They granted a favor once, and that was enough for them.

The one exception occurred in 1909 when a Latvian merchant was refused membership in the Great Guild, which at the time was controlled by Germans.  Now this merchant was very kind to his cats of which he had a great number due entirely to his refusal to have them neutered.  For this and other reasons the cats of Riga were kindly disposed toward him.

Thus, when the merchant begged his cats for help, the oldest and scrawniest of the lot stretched his paws one by one, bit at the claws for a while, and finally said, “Oh, well.  So long as it’s no more than ten minutes’ work.”  And he ordered the younger cats to go up on the roof and turn around the statues adorning its two steeples.

The statues were of two proud cats, feet together on the steeple-peaks and tails held high.  When they were turned around, their backsides faced directly toward the Great Guild.  Since their backs were arched, they looked like they were spraying the German merchants who had rejected their building’s owner.

Businessmen are not easily intimidated.  They can stand up staunchly to threats of violence and economic sanctions.  But no man can long withstand the laughter of an entire city.  The Latvian merchant was installed in the Great Guild, the statues were turned back, and all was well.

For a time.

But then the merchant’s nondescript dumpling of a wife died and a flashy younger woman caught his eye.  In no time at all, the two were married and – a new wife being, as the saying goes, like a new broom – she set out to sweep away all of the dust and clutter and cobwebs of his old life to make way for the new.  The merchant, who might have been expected to know better, was dazzled by his new mistress and did anything and everything he was told.  Among the many things that disappeared were all but one of the merchant’s cats – and that one she had neutered.

Cats are not merciful creatures, nor are they proportionate in their revenge.  The cats of Riga took away their protection from the merchant and the city in which he lived.  Worse, they spoke to all the cats of Latvia and got them to withdraw their protection from the entire country.

Two world wars ensued, and afterwards Latvia was absorbed into the Soviet Union.  Only then did the cats of Riga decided that there had been punishment enough and return to their usual complacent ways.

This is a story that two kittens named Orli and Akira told Sabina Hahn when she was a little girl.  Later, Sabina told it to me, and now I’ve told it to you.  So you know it’s a true tale.

Just don’t tell anyone I told you, okay?  The cats of Riga would be displeased if word of what they did got around.


*

Friday, July 30, 2010

Sunflowers and Abstract Dancers

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Still on the road!  But rust never sleeps and neither do I.  Here's today's story, the fortieth in a six-week series of 43.


Abstract Dancers
by
Michael Swanwick

When the first crystal lattice quantum light chips became available, Joshua Ott immediately saw their potential: It would be possible at last to paint in three dimensions.

He set out to create an app. The major corporations would all be working on 3-D Paint programs, of course. So he concentrated on making something a non-artist could use. Move your fingers over the pad and – voila! Slim and twisting shapes that would merge and separate, multiply and evanesce with preternatural grace. Varying speed changed the shapes, moving nearer and further from the pad made them shift from color to color, from beauty to beauty. Once set in motion they would continue moving rhythmically forever.

Abstract dancers.

All well and good. But when Ott was writing the code he chanced to read a particularly abstruse mathematics paper and the extreme effort it took to comprehend its implications kicked his mind into hyperdrive. He was struck by what can only be called a once-in-a-lifetime idea. Feverishly, he embedded it into the application.

When he was done, Ott hit the patent app on his iMedia and then slapped the patent-pending Beta onto the Web for open-source testing. A decade ago, this would have taken weeks, even months; the technology had improved to such a degree that now he did it without thinking.

Then he hooked up a hologram generator, flicked off the lights, and played the Abstract Dancers app for the first time in high-rez. Hoping against hope that this first rendering wouldn’t be unbearably crude. And it wasn’t.

It was mesmerizing.

It was more than mesmerizing.

It was . . .

Long hours later, he became aware that his wife was shaking him. She looked alarmed. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “I came in here and you were lying on the floor, practically catatonic.”

Ott sat up. He looked at his iMedia. Its batteries were drained. A fugitive memory of dancing shapes, impossible to grasp, ached within his mind. “It was . . . just too beautiful,” he said. “I couldn’t look away. I couldn’t think of anything else.” A terrible thought occurred to him. “And if the batteries hadn’t been low, it would have caught you too.”

Abruptly he remembered that he’d put the program up on the Web. “My God! I put it up on the Web! I’ve got to take it down before –”

But by then the app had already gone viral.


*



Above:  Here's a good example of why I love living in the city.  Every year, an eccentric family in my neighborhood grows sunflowers in a gap in the sidewalk.  The name of that family?  Well ... (cough! cough!).

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Robots!

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Annnnd . . .  I'm on the road again.  Got an appointment outside of Pittsburgh for 2:30 p.m.  So I got up far too early this morning in order to write the following.

Merrick is five years old, and he just became a big brother.  Congratulations, Merrick!  I'm sure you'll be a great one.


Robots!
by
Michael Swanwick

The three laws of robotics are:

1.  All robots must be very, very cool.

2.  Robots must be able to go places and do things that human beings cannot.

3.  But they must always be Merrick Hanna’s friends and do whatever he tells them to do.

Merrick Hanna made up those rules, and very good rules they were too.  Especially the third one.   Robots all liked him anyway, which was why they let him invent rules for them.

One night after Merrick went to bed but before he fell asleep, a robot dragon lifted the roof off of the house and stuck its head in his bedroom.  “Wanna go flying?” it asked.  There was a saddle on the robot’s back and Merrick climbed up onto it.  Together they flew all the way to the Moon.  It was an interesting place and there were lots of robots there.

But when he got home his parents were waiting for him.  “You know you’re not supposed to leave the house without asking permission first,” his mother said.

“Especially after your bedtime,” his father agreed.  “No dessert for you tomorrow.”

Merrick was sad, of course.  But the very next day he heard a tapping at the window and when he opened it, there was a gigantic robot squid in his back yard.  “Let’s go play,” the robot squid said.  It picked him up with one of its metal tentacles and put him down in the control room inside its head.

They went galumphing across the countryside.  Then they came to the ocean and plunged right in.  Deep, deep they went into the darkest part of the ocean.  There were lots of robots there of course, but also strange crabs and fish that lit up like a passenger train whooshing by in the night.  Merrick liked them a lot.

But when he got home, his parents were waiting.  “What did we tell you about leaving the house without asking first?” his father said.

“We’re very disappointed in you,” his mother said.

So Merrick was sent to bed early that night. 

The next day there was a knock on the back door.  When Merrick went to answer it, he saw an enormous robot army standing there.  There were robot soldiers and robot cowboys on robot horses and robot dinosaurs and robot elephants and giant robots shaped like giant robots – they were the best.  A robot ninja said, “We’re going to fight a war against the monsters.  Do you want to come along?”

Almost Merrick said yes.  But then he shook his head.  “I have to ask my parents,” he said.  Then, “Hey, Mom.  Hey, Dad.  Can I go along with the robot army to fight a war against the monsters?”

“Well . . .” his father said.

“Since you asked nicely,” his mother said, “you may.”

*

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Inception and Time's Silent Daughter

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I saw Inception today and believe it or not, it's not bad.  All the reviews say it sucks.  But that's just because the reviewers are baffled by it.  Plus it has a lame title.  Why on earth didn't they call it The Dream Thief or some variant thereof?

I won't do a movie review.  But I will observe that there were five levels of reality revealed onscreen, and there was never any doubt as to which one the viewer was watching.  Well done, moviemaking people.

As to what's going on (other than the obvious "surprise" revelation at the end, I mean) . . . the best I can do is to refer you to Gary Westfahl's review on Locus Online.  No computers, no cell phones, no televisions, no product placement.  Is Nolan saying that only in our dreams are we free?

It's not The Matrix.  But it's well worth seeing.



And today's story is . . .



Silent Daughter of Time
by
Michael Swanwick

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard 
   
Are sweeter: therefore, ye soft pipes, play on
            -- John Keats

Her given name was Madison. Her friends all called her Maddie, because she was unpretentious.  Her father called her Madizon the Amazon, because she was athletic.  All of which went to prove the insuffiency of names, however, for she was also good at science and had been given no variant name for that, and she also threw pots under no particular name whatsoever.

One day she saw an episode of Mythbusters examining the notion that recordings could be pulled from ancient pottery.  The idea was that vases thrown on a potting wheel and inscribed with a fine wire would preserve vibrations picked up by the wire on the clay itself.  So that millennia later the vases might be put on a turntable and played back with a phonograph needle – or more likely a laser beam and some fancy software.  Great idea.  But after repeated attempts to make such a thing the best the crew were able to come up with was a squeak.  “Busted,” they concluded.

The show got her to thinking.  Perhaps you couldn’t record on pottery made by traditional methods.  But what if you chose the materials and methods specifically for that purpose?  She went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Art & Design and after talking to the people in their industrial design department, was granted use of a 3-D printer.  Then she took a scan of a Greek amphora and mathematically erased its handles to free up more area.

The trickiest part of the project was finding a program that would convert an audio file to the three-dimensional groove of a traditional vinyl record and then writing the necessary code to wrap that groove around and around the surface of her urn.  That was a lot of work.  But at last it was done.

She put a great deal of thought into what she would say and leave behind for some future civilization to discover or, as it might be, not.  Then she set the printer to work.

In short order she had her urn.  Very delicately, she centered it on a turntable, slapped on a laser stylus, and listened.  “Hello,” her own voice said, “my name is . . .”

She cut the sound.

The urn placed third in a local arts competition.  It would easily have taken first place if anybody had known about the recording hidden on its surface.  But she never told a soul.  Not then and not for the rest of her life.

Young women have their secrets, and their right to keep them private must be respected.

*

Monday, July 26, 2010

Bright Kitty Socks

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Yesterday I went to the main branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia to look up and read a Murray Leinster story which  I believe may have been an influence on R. A. Lafferty.  It was fun.  I'll probably write an essay on it someday.

I also wrote . . .

Bright Kitty Socks
by
Michael Swanwick

It was one of those weekend events where management gets together in a park and holds team-building exercises and everybody get to learn what their color and season and natural fabric and spirit animals are so they can gain new insight into the work environment in order to loft the corporation up into new realms of profitability.  Since the events hadn’t started yet, everybody was clustered about the bear claws and hot coffee.

“Has anyone seen Linda Ocasio?” Ron asked.  “It’s not like her to be late for one of these things.”

“Who’s to say what’s like her and what’s not?” Denise said.  “Have you seen those bright kitty socks of hers?  And those spiral earrings?”

“Yeah, but – what the heck’s that?!”

It was a bright red biplane that circled the park low, then spiraled slowly higher.  “Who on earth would –?” Clara said.  And then, answering her own question.  “Linda, of course.”

Everybody was staring upward.  Some pointed.  Others shielded their eyes from the sun.  Murmurs went up from the crowd:

“It has to be – ”

“Do you remember the time that –?”

“But why would she –?”

And then there was somebody out on the wing.  Walking toward the edge.  A gasp went up from the crowd as it tumbled into space.

Parachute silks blossomed.  There was a collective sigh of relief.

 “Definitely Linda,” Kyle said.  “But why?”

“Remember that book?  What Color Is Your Parachute?” Susan said.  “That has to be it.”

“No,” Jon murmured, “I think it’s a metaphor about confidently leaping into the unknown.”

“Or maybe it’s about the economic downturn?” Chuck said.  When everybody turned to look at him, he blushed.  “You know – making the best of sinking expectations?”

By now Linda had tucked, touched, tumbled, and stood.  She started gathering in the parachute.

Susan was the first to her.  “It was about the book, wasn’t it?” she said.  “The one about parachutes.  That’s why you showed up this way.

Linda Ocasio knew which book her co-worker meant.  But she smiled and shook her head.

“Oh no,” she said.  “I just did it because I could.” 

*

Keensight corrected

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I wrote yesterday's story in the final minutes before midnight and when I'd posted it staggered off to bed.  It was a long day and a long drive and a lot of things to do and I was exhausted.

Then I woke up this morning and re-read the story and it made no sense.  I can almost remember what I had in mind, but not quite.

So here it is again, with an improved ending.  This is why I always let stories sit on the desk for a week to cool before sending them out to the magazines.


Keensight
by
Michael Swanwick

The older he grew, the better his eyesight.  Ian Irving had no explanation for that.  It just was.  His optometrist had no explanation for it either – and it rather frightened him.  One year Irving’s vision was 20/20, a few years later it was 20/10.  And it kept getting better.  20/8, 20/5, 20/3, 20/1 . . .  There didn’t seem to be any limit to how much his eyesight could improve.

By the time Irving was in his nineties his vision had grown so acute that it became a problem.  He took to wearing blue-glass welder’s goggles, even at night, just to keep from being dazzled.

And then rejuvenation was invented.  For a fee no more than would buy a weekend at a luxury spa, anybody’s body could be restored to the health and strength and sexual vigor of a twenty-year-old.  To say nothing of the good looks.  It took no time whatsoever for everybody to realize that this was tantamount to immortality.  And only three decades after that for it to become obvious that when people keep getting born and nobody dies of natural causes, you’ve got a serious overpopulation problem.  Resources like space and water and food quickly grew scarce.

Twenty years into the Population Bloom, Irving was working for the Mont-M├ęgantic Observatory as a human research telescope, confirming observations made by their other land-based instruments.  By the time the Great Starvation was over and the world population had crashed from its height of five trillion to a more sustainable seventeen billion, the Canadian government had declared him a Living National Treasure, second only to the Hubble VII which, though built by their vassal territories to the south, was a wholly-owned property of l'Agence spatiale canadienne.

His eyesight continued to improve.

Civilizations rose and fell behind him as Irving’s sight pierced further and further into the universe.  He saw galaxies a-borning and the first stars coalescing out of primal smoke and gases.  He saw all the way back to the Big Bang and then, one glorious day, deep into what came before it.

Not long after, Death came for Irving.  He’d outlived everything else on the planet by then, so it was his turn.

But when the Great Anthropomorphization came to where Irving should have been, he was nowhere to be seen.  There was only a note which read:  Did you really think I wouldn’t see you coming?

*


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Six to go!

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I'm fresh back to Pittsburgh (or maybe stale back would be the right term) and just eight minutes ago finished today's story.  Eep.  That close to failure.

Nevertheless, here is is.  Now to sleep.


Keensight
by
Michael Swanwick

The older he grew, the better his eyesight.  Ian Irving had no explanation for that.  It just was.  His optometrist had no explanation for it either – it rather frightened him.  One year Irving’s vision was 20/20, a few years later it was 20/10.  And it kept getting better.  20/8, 20/5, 20/3, 20/1 . . .  There didn’t seem to be any limit to how much his eyesight could improve.

By the time Irving was in his nineties his vision had grown so acute that it became a problem.  He took to wearing blue-glass welder’s goggles just to keep his sight down to crystal clarity.

And then rejuvenation was invented.  For a fee no more than would buy a weekend at a luxury spa, anybody’s body could be restored to the health and strength and sexual vigor of a twenty-year-old.  To say nothing of the good looks.  It took almost no time whatsoever for everybody to realize that this was tantamount to immortality.  And only three decades after that for it to become obvious that when people keep getting born and nobody dies of natural causes, you’ve got a serious overpopulation problem.  Resources like space and water and food quickly grew scarce.

Twenty years into the Population Bloom, Irving was working for the Mont-M├ęgantic Observatory as a human research telescope, confirming observations made by their other land-based instruments.  By the time the Great Starvation was over and the world population had crashed from its height of five trillion to a more sustainable seventeen billion, the Canadian government had declared him a Living National Treasure, second only to the Hubble VII which, though built by their vassal territories to the south, was a wholly-owned property of CANSA.

His eyesight continued to improve.

Civilizations rose and fell behind him as Irving’s sight pierced further and further into the universe.  He saw galaxies a-borning and the first planets coalescing out of primal smoke and gases.  He saw all the way back to the Big Bang and then deep into what came before it.

Then one day Irving was approached by a man dressed in the traditional beaver hat and ice-worm silks of the Northern Empire.  “I wonder if you’d mind, sir,” the stranger said.  “I’d like to measure your absolute visual acuity.”  He held up what looked to be a an optical instrument which the police were later to determine contained both blinding lasers and eyeball-penetrating knives.

But Irving just smiled.  “Oh no you don’t,” he said.  “I can see right through you.”j

*

Smoker of Cheap Cigars

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Still at Confluence.  Still having fun.  Last night I did a reading of "The Pearls of Byzantium," a story I crafted from the opening chapters of Dancing With Bears by stripping off the end, adding a completely different ending to make it a stand-alone, and then ruthlessly cutting it down from fifty pages to thirty.  You can do that with a reading-story, which will sound full with a text that, read silently, would look spare.

Five weeks down and only one to go . . .

This is the 35th story in as many days.  Like the students working at Clarion, I'm feeling exhausted, exhilarated, and almost done.

Of course, they've been working  harder than I have.

Here's the story:


Smoker of Cheap Cigars
by
Michael Swanwick

This is Dennis Ginoza: wheelchair user, collector of typewriters, smoker of cheap cigars. If he were a city, he’d be Chicago and Carl Sandberg would write a poem about him, throwing in hog butcher for the world, stacker of wheat, and player with railroads just for good measure. Perhaps in some larger cosmic sense, that’s how and why it ahappened. Some people warp the reality about them; they’re strangeness magnets.

Ginoza could go them one better, however. He had a flatulent bulldog named Leo. That pushed him into new realms of oddity. As the sign on his desk said: THE STRANGENESS STOPS HERE.

He was sitting in his office late one night working on a story when a seedy man walked in without knocking. “I need your help,” he said, “and I’m willing to pay one hundred dollars a day, plus expenses.”

“You got the wrong guy,” Ginoza said. “I don’t do noir. Now beat it!” He lit a cigar and returned to his story.

Half an hour later, somebody knocked tentatively at the door. He opened it and saw a beautiful woman with a haunted expression on her face. Without preamble, she said, “Please. I was the protagonist in a postmodern novel and when I refused to deliver the terrible dialogue its author had composed, he wrote me out of the book entirely.”

“I don’t do metafiction either.” Gnoza wheeled himself back to his desk. He had barely begun to type when there was yet another knok. This time he didn’t even give the woman time enough to talk. One glance at her frilly pink dress and extraordinary cleavage told him all he needed to know. “Or romance!” He slammed the door.

He was beginning to enjoy this. He was looking forward to his next visitor.

Time passed. Ginoza was making good progress with his story when the inevitable fourth caller came. He was slim, androgynous man in an ivory suit; it was possible she was a woman in drag. “Look here,” he or she said. “Just to save everybody a lot of trouble, exactly what kind of writer are you?”

Ginoza leaned back and gave it some thought. He blew a smoke ring. Then, finally he said, “Genre, mostly. Science fiction and fantasy. I’m a pretty straightforward writer, but occasionally I can’t help indulging my taste for the absurd. Does that help?”

“Immeasurably.” The ivory-suited man went away. Not much later, an alien appeared in the doorway he had just vacated.

“I have a proposition for you,” the insectoid creature said. “All on the up-and-up nad perfectly legit.” It explained what it wanted and how much it could pay. The deal seemed pretty good to Ginoza, so he agreed. He scrolled a new sheet of paper in his machine and started to type.

Before leaving, five single-lined pages clutched tightly in his third hand, the alien clacked its mandibles and said, “This must have been a very strange night for you, Mr. Ginoza. I must say, you have negotiated it with considerable aplomb.”

“Hell,” Ginoza said, reaching down to scratch his bulldog’s head. “If you think this was a strange night, you should have been here last Tuesday.”

*


Above:  David Hartwell, reminiscing about Phil Klass.  "He was a hard man to agree with."

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Phil Klass, William Tenn, and A Sailor of the Inland Sea




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I'm blogging live from Confluence, which is shaping up to be a good convention.  Friday  night there was a memorial service for Phil Klass with excerpts from filmed interviews and a documentary-in-progress, memorials from his extended clan (almost all of whom are writers!  there may be something to this genetics stuff), and testimonials from students, friends, and others whose lives were touched by the man who wrote as William Tenn.


As I grow older and lose more and more friends and valued colleagues, I find that what I miss most about them are their voices.  Phil was a raconteur who told funny stories with raspy voice, using Yiddische schtick.  It was a strangely musical mode of storytelling that can best be compared to the saxophone.  Not everybody can play the sax but its sound is instantly recognizable and we can all instantly tell the difference between good and bad sax.  Phil played his metaphoric saxophone like a virtuoso.


James Morrow MC'd the memorial with grace and modesty.  It was a deeply moving event that left everybody feeling happy and  grateful for Phil's presence in our lives.

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And I'm still writing . . .

Yesterday's tuckerization was the first commissioned by an unborn child.  Well, technically, Sagan's Mom bought it.  Still, it was a bit of a challenge writing for such a young audience.

Sagan has a five-year-old brother who will also get a tuckerization.  Not tomorrow, though.  Sometime in the coming week.


A Sailor of the Inland Sea
by
Michael Swanwick

When Sagan Hanna was very young, he lived in a small warm sea, next door to a much larger one with palm trees by its beaches. In the soft warm salty darkness he talked to the stars and the clouds and the flowers lying yet unborn in their seeds. He floated like a jellyfish and he didn’t need to breathe. Sometimes he talked to his mother as well.

What they said to each other was not said in words but in feelings. They understood each other too well to have need for words. 

One day a great sense of sadness passed over Sagan’s universe like a storm cloud and he knew that his mother wanted something she couldn’t have. So he imagined a boat with a yellow hull shaped like a crescent moon with a big red triangle for a sail and went to look for it. In his imagination, he sailed to the farthest reaches of the Alethan Sea.

There he found an island, green and sunny. On it stood a man with a circle for his head and dots for his eyes and four sticks for his arms and legs. The man waved happily, so Sagan unimagined the boat, and let the man pick him up and hold him in those skinny stick arms.

That was pleasant. But Sagan didn’t forget the reason for his journey. So he imagined he could talk.

“Are you what my mother wants?” he asked.

“Yes,” the stick-man said. “I’m your father and our mother misses me because I’m away on a business trip.” He had a great big silly loopy smile on his face. “But feel that!” All the world grew bright with joy. “I just walked in the door.”

And then his father threw him up in the air and caught him and up in the air and caught him and up in the air and . . .

This was a dream that Sagan had when he was very little. It has no proper ending because he didn’t know yet how to make up a story. But he would learn.

By the time Sagan was a grown-up, he would know everything in the world.


*

Above:  Gordon Van Gelder expounds on the many (and sometimes frustrating) virtues of Phillip Klass.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Swans, Confluence, and the Fastest Man on Earth

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If you were to go wandering through my house, you'd find certain recurrent themes among the possessions Marianne and I have amassed: Skulls.  Masks.  Dinosaurs.  But you would not find a single swan-shaped item.  I've been very careful about that.

Years ago, a friend of ours admitted to having a fondness for alligators.  Hey, presto!  Her friends never had to give an instant's thought to what to get her for Christmas.  We'd simply snatch up an alligator ashtray or vase or figurine and that was that.  After a few years, her house was full of alligator tchotchkes.  Until finally she rounded up all of them and hid 'em away or gave 'em away or threw 'em away and let it be known that anything alligatorish would be gently but firmly returned to the giver.

When you've got a name like Swanwick, you have to be on guard constantly or your house will fill up with Duncan Miller swans-shaped candy dishes. 



And I'm on the road again . . .

This time I'm going to Pittsburgh for the weekend for Confluence, where the late Phil Klass, who wrote under the pseudonym of William Tenn, is being memorialized.  If you happen to be at the convention, be sure to say hello.



And I continue to scribble, scribble, scribble . . .

Today's story was commissioned by Kenneth Evans for his son Griffin Durwood Evans.  Griffin apparently really really really likes fast, powerful machines.

As do, of course, all sensible people.  Which I why I wrote for him . . .


Fastest Man on Earth 

by
Michael Swanwick

The land speed record for a wheeled vehicle is currently held by Andy Green who on October 15 1997 achieved 763 mph, a speed slightly faster than Mach 1 in his twin-turbofan ThrustSSC, making it the world’s first supersonic car.  It is an astonishing record.

Griffin Durwood Evans plans to break it today.  In a wheel-driven vehicle.

Evans slowly motorcycles the track leading across the Black Rock Desert, looking for loose stones or imperfections in the level surface.  There are none, so he walks several times around the Daft Punk, admiring its sleek lines, the innovative flexible titanium wheels (anything less would shred at the speeds he’s contemplating), the beauty of an engine which burns a mixture of hydroxy-terminated polybutadiene and nitrous oxide, also known as tire rubber and laughing gas.  It’s a fitting fuel for a project that has the skeptics snickering.

As he climbs into the cockpit a reporter for Top Gear comes scuttling up.  “What’s with the stubby little wings?” he asks.  “They look like spoilers, but they’re curved like aircraft wings – how on earth are you going to keep them from lofting the car into the air?”

“Watch and learn,” Evans says.  “Keep clear of the explosives.”

“Explosives?” an alarmed voice says as he slams the hatch.  But even as he’s buckling himself in and powering up the engine, Evans’ thoughts are focused on the goal line far across the ancient lake bed.  At the speeds he’s contemplating, ten miles will be traversed in less than thirty seconds.  The world-encompassing rumble of his engine wraps itself around him, growing warmer and louder with each passing second.  He guns the engine and then, as everything reaches optimum, floors the accelerator.

As the car leaps forward, timed explosives go off to either side of the track, blasting away the air and creating a ten-mile-long tunnel of vacuum through which the Daft Punk soars.  Without the air there is nothing to lift the car off the surface of the earth.  Nor does he have to contend with the turbulence of breaking the sound barrier.

He just goes.

In less time than it takes to realize it’s happened, the Daft Punk crosses the finish line.  Computers relay the telemetry to his car’s dashboard:   1,557.034 miles per hour, well over Mach 2 and twice the speed of the old record!

Evans reaches the end of the lake just as the air blasted away by the explosives comes slamming back, flipping the car high off the surface.  It’s here that the stubby little wings come into play, leveling out the flight, putting it into his control,  holding the nose steady at forty-five degrees and rising fast.

Which is when Evans hits the afterburner and heads for orbit.

*

Above:  As long as Marianne and I were at Cape May Point, we did a little birding.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ospreys, Biplanes, and Creative Accounting

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Lovely, lovely day at the beach.  At one point I woke up and saw dolphins in the water.  So, rather than wait for them to come out on land and join me, I went into the water and joined them.  Then a red biplane flew low overhead.

You couldn't make this stuff up.  Well, technically I could.  I've written better.  But I wouldn't.  I am the most honest of men.

Oh, and on the way home I saw baby whistle-pigs in Fairmount Park.  That's groundhogs in the common parlance.


And speaking of strict honesty . . .

Here's today's story.  It was written for Andrew Sather, who gave up on his plans to become an accountant when he discovered that he was way too good at the very illegal act of . . .



Creative Accounting 

by
Michael Swanwick


The interrogators took no chances.  They brought along a SWAT team, a medical unit, and six forensic mathematicians.  In unison, they smashed through every door and window of their target’s house.  Two Kevlar-vested soldiers slammed him against the wall, cuffed him, threw him to the ground, and then knelt on his back.  Then the chief negotiator spoke nicely to him.  “Are you Andrew Sather?”

“You’ve got the wrong guy,” Sather babbled.  “I’m just a computer nerd.  I work at Jenkins Law Library.  It’s the oldest law library in the nation.”

“It’s him,” one of the five identical men said.  “In our timeline, he applied for a job there before changing his mind and going to work for Goldman-Sachs.”

“Enron in ours.”

“Vatican Bank.”

“The state of California.”

Sather was hauled to his feet.  “I understand you’ve got a flair for creative accountancy,” the only of the five who hadn’t previously spoken said.  He had a bland face.  If he weren’t so eerily multiplied, he would have looked perfectly forgettable.

“That’s why I changed my major.  I discovered I had talent for creating illegal financial instruments and it scared me.”

“In this timeline maybe,” one of the five said.  “In ours you crashed the economy.”

“Worldwide depression.”

“Catholic Church up for sale.”

“California’s a third-world nation.”

“Look, kid,” the bland man said, “I’m going to bring you up to speed.  It’s a tightly-kept secret, but contact has been made with a dozen parallel worlds, all of them extremely much like our own, and there’s a very lucrative trade of extremely high-end goods across the timelines.  The line which invented the technology to travel between alternatives is economically dominant, of course.  Call it Timeline Prime.  We won’t go into the politics, but we five represent a powerful minority bloc of worlds.”

“There are differences between the worlds, but there are also commonalities.”

“One of them is you.”

“With your special talent, you’ve caused untold economic devastation in all but two of the timelines that have been discovered so far.”

“You’re a remarkable individual, Mr. Sather.”

“Look,” Sather said, “I see what you’re getting at, and I want to reassure that I have no plans whatsoever of getting back into accountancy.   Absolutely none.  I swear to God I have no intention of doing any harm to anyone.”

As one, all five men raised their hands and shook their heads. 

“You don’t understand, Mr. Sather.”

“We want to use your powers for good, Mr. Sather.”

“In defense of your timeline, Mr. Sather.”

“As a kind of weapon, Mr. Sather.”

The bland little man from Sather’s own timeline smiled in a way that chilled his blood.  “You see, Mr. Sather, not everyone is pleased with the economic dominance of Timeline Prime.”

*

Above:  The Church of the Nazarene in Maurice River Township has ospreys nesting on a power pole in their parking lot.  Ospreys! How cool is that?   I imagine they begin church services by praying, "O Lord, please make us humble.  Because it's pretty darned hard to be humble when you've got ospreys nesting in your parking lot."  And then they have to start over again.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

KASSATTI

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Beach day!  I've scribbled down notes for a story and when I drag home tonight, sunburned, weary, and full of seafood, I'll finish it.

Meanwhile, here's yesterday's magnum opus:
 
KASSATTI
by
Michael Swanwick

 The case began with a rain of meteors over the Mare Nectaris base.  Most buried themselves harmlessly in the lunar regolith.  But one punched through the dome of a research facility, exploding the laboratory and killing four scientists.  Within minutes, a detective was on the scene.  The political counselor, being human, of course took considerably longer.

When she arrived, the first question she asked as, “Was it natural?”

“If it was, then we’ve just discovered a new ore.”  KASSATTI held up the largest chunk of meteorite it had been able to recover.  The metal glinted in the harsh sunlight.  “This is pure steel.  Which means we’re dealing with either murder or typical human incompetence.”

It is a little-known fact that while humans cannot become detectives, all detective mechanisms are based on human psyches.  Thus the lunar criminal detection unit known as KASSATTI was originally programmed from a brain scan of one Ricardo Icassati Hermano.  Presumably that accounted for the ironic edge to its observations.

“Do your job,” the woman snapped, “and don’t mouth off about humans.  We are, after all, your superiors.”

“I wonder,” KASSATTI said.  “Wouldn’t a superior being have taken into account the fact that all research is routinely backed up offsite before arranging to destroy a scientific project and murder its researchers.  Wouldn’t he – or, as if may be, she – have known that trying to stop a very promising line of artificial biological intelligence constructs would immediately cast suspicion on any nearby members of the radical anti-robotics group Humanity Only?  Particularly one who had carefully positioned herself so she’d be the first human being to arrive at the scene of the crime afterwards?”

KASSATTI focused its lenses steadily on the woman, her face invisible behind her vacuum suit’s visor.  “I think there’s blood on your hands, counselor.”

“Oil, too,” the counselor snarled, drawing her laser.  “Die, you tin-plated, jumped-up toaster!”

Which provided irrefutable video evidence for her trial, after KASSATTI’s off-site backup memories were uploaded into a new body.

*

Monday, July 19, 2010

In Which I Turn Thirty

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The heat wave continues unabated, and with it a profound lack of ambition on my part.  I just now vacuumed the dining room rug and even with the air conditioner going full-blast, it left me drenched in sweat.  God knows what people who have real jobs are going through.

Here's today's Clarion West story, my thirtieth in as many days:


Teaching Monsters
by
Michael Swanwick

No good works go unpunished.  Because he’d been so successful teaching music to middle and high school students, Conrad Erdt was kidnapped by the Dark Lord’s minions and set to work teaching music classes for trolls and orcs.  Which wasn’t as easy as it might sound.

“But how do we use these things to kill?” a boggle asked, holding aloft a guitar.  “They fall apart when you club somebody with them.”  As he promptly demonstrated on a nearby ogre.

“Maybe we can use the strings as garrotes?” the ogre suggested, wrapping them about his assailant’s throat.  At which point, half the class joined in the attack with trumpets, piccolos, French horns, and violoncellos.  The boggle was not one of the more popular students.

“Stop!  Cease!  Desist!” Erdt cried.  Luckily, the Dark Lord had provided him two genuinely terrifying proctors who, laying about them with whips, restored order in very short time.  Scowling menacingly at a spriggan, Erdt added, “That is not what a clarinet is for.  Take it out of your nose at once.”

“But it’s shaped real convenient for –”

“No.  Let’s start over from the beginning.  Percussion.  Who here knows what percussion is?”

A kobold raised an eager hand.  “It’s when you pick up something and use it to hit something else.”

“Like a rock on a lizard,” a goblin said.

“Or a rock on somebody’s skull,” a booka added.

“Or somebody’s skull on somebody else’s –”

“Yes, yes, very good, that’s probably as close as we’re going to get to the right answer.  And rhythm is –?”

There was a long silence.  Erdt began clapping his hands together.  One.  Two.  One-two-three.  One.  Two.  One-two-three.  One.  Two.   One-two-three . . .

The kobold, who was the class brownnose, eagerly raised his hand again.  “It’s hitting on something real regular.”

“Close enough.  Now, after what happened in our first class, the administration decided that rather than buy everybody new drums, we should start you off with sticks and hollow logs.  So I want everybody to take one stick in each hand and –”


But once the first demon had a stick in his hand, instinct kicked in.  Very quickly, the air was filled with stocks and logs and flying bodies.  The boggle was beating one proctor with the kobold.  Then the ogre was beating the other proctor with the boggle.  The skirmish quickly devolved into all-out war.

And then finally, there was nobody left standing save for one troll, the very largest.  “I have won!” he cried.  He began to pound his chest like a gorilla.  Boom.  Boom.  Boomboomboom.  Boom.  Boom.  Boomboomboom.

“Hey!” he said.  “That’s not bad.”  He went on drumming, over and over.

Erdt sighed.  Well, he thought.  It’s a beginning.

*

Above:  Not a lot of movement on the city streets at this time of year.

Turing Complete

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The heat wave continues unabated and I've been holed up in front of the air conditioner for weeks . . .  So I don't have a lot of news to relate.  Other than that I'll be at Confluence this weekend.  It was a last-minute decision because James Morrow asked me to be there for a memorial service for the late Philip Klass who, writing as William Tenn, was one of the great writers of science fiction -- and specifically of sf short stories.  I always enjoy Confluence.  It's a great mid-sized convention in the great city of Pittsburgh.

You probably think there's a touch of irony in that last statement.  Nope.  I love Pittsburgh.  It's got a lot going for it.  Though the Carnegie alone would be enough.


And speaking of Clarion West . .

The students at Clarion West are now moving into their fifth week, and for most of them it comes as a relief.  The fourth week is the roughest, because by then it feels like they've been there forever and the end looks to be impossibly far away.  For which reason, it is traditionally known at the Suicide Week.

You'll note that I didn't mention this fact until the week was over.  That's because they didn't need the discouragement.

But now the worst is over, the end is in sight, and their hearts are all a little lighter.  They're all survivors now, and they know it.  Next week is the last and most playful week of the lot; it will actually be fun for them.  I've seen it happen.

But this week will be pretty good for them too.

Here's yesterday's story:

 
Turing Complete
by
Michael Swanwick

“Can you do this?” the computer asked.  It stood on its hands and stuck out its tongue.

“I could, but I don’t care to,” Justin de Vesine said.  He didn’t look up because he was reading a book.

“If you can’t, then you’re not Turing complete.  I am Turing complete, because I can do anything that any other thinking machine can do – including you.  That means I’m better than you are.”

“Yes, yes, you’re very smart,” de Vesine said, laying down his book with a sigh.  “Now it’s time that all good little computers were in bed.”

“I can cook better than you, and play the piano better than you, an I bet I could garden better than you if only you’d let me.”

“Gardening involves water.  I don’t want you shorting yourself out.”

“I wouldn’t!  I’ll invent a kind of plastic skin so water will roll right off me.  Then I could go swimming if I wanted.  I bet I could be in the Olympics.  I bet I’d win.”

“Only people are allowed to compete in the Olympics,” de Vesine said.  He picked up the computer and carried it to its bedroom, and carefully tucked it in.

“That’s just for now.  Someday they’ll let computers compete.  Someday computers will win all the medals.”

“Well, that’s something to look forward to, isn’t it?” de Vesine said.  He turned off the light and kissed the computer lightly on the brow.  Its eyes blinked and then closed.

“You know what I think?” the computer said sleepily.

“What?”

“I think this is only a waking dream.  You never dream during the night, do you?  Only in the day.  I think maybe there’s a great big computer somewhere far in the future and it’s trying to communicate with you.  Only it can’t do that directly because your brain makes too much noise when you’re awake.  It can only reach you when you’re dreaming.”

“Speaking of dreaming, it’s time you did some yourself.”  Smiling gently, de Vesine shut the door.

And woke up.

He went back to the bedroom.  The bed was empty.  There was no computer in it.  Of course there wasn’t.

The dream had been so vivid!  Maybe what the little computer had said was true.  Maybe someone – something – from the far future was trying to reach him.  But if so, what did it want him to know?  And why?

For a moment, he felt a great perplexity, as if he were standing at the edge of a cliff or of a tremendous insight.  But then, as they always do, the dream faded from his memory.  De Vesine tried to hold onto it, but could not.  He knew that he’d been deeply disturbed by it, but that was all.

So he put it out of his mind.

*


Above:  A gust of wind broke a stalk of lilies in our back yard, so Marianne placed it in a vase on the wood stove.  You have no idea what a tremendous volume of space it fills.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Whistling Up a Storm

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Whistling Up a Storm
by
Michael Swanwick

“Tarnation!” the first mate said angrily.  “What in the Sam Hill are you doing whistling?”  But not in those exact words.  “It’s bad luck.  It’ll call up a gosh-darned storm.”

“Sorry, sir,” Weston Renoud said.  “I’ve been trying to break myself of that consarned habit but, gee whillickers, it’s not easy.”  Though perhaps in stronger terms than that.

“Well, heckfire and tarnation, I . . .  Good golly, what was that?!”

You don’t encounter many pirates in the Bering Strait.  Particularly when you’re on a government research vessel, performing a hydrographic survey of the ocean floor.  So Renoud, along with everyone else aboard was caught by surprise when the grappling lines flew over the bow and armed thugs swarmed howling up on deck.

Every seaman knows the standard orders in such a situation, however.  You are expected not to engage the pirates.  You are to retreat to the interior of the vessel, locking all doors and hatches behind you, to deprive the marauders of use of the ship.  You are to radio for help.  Then you are to wait calmly for others to deal with the situation.

You are not commanded to like it.  But those are your orders.

So Weston Renoud found himself sitting in the rec room, listening to the pirates trying to break through a locked hatch, experiencing a peculiar mix of terror and boredom.  He would’ve like to have had a glass of whiskey, something peaty and expensive.  But as there was no drinking on the ship and there was sheaf of paper among the game supplies, he settled for making origami figures.  It was an old habit.  It occupied his mind with something other than the obvious.

As he folded, he began to whistle.  Bits of show tunes.  The overture from The Flying Dutchman.  “Stormy Weather.”

His shipmates were too demoralized to object.

Then, just as it was beginning to seem that the pirates would actually break through, a white gale blew up out of nowhere and passed over the ship.  Since the interior of the ship was still denied them, the pirates faced the full brunt of the storm. 

It washed every single one of them overboard.

Five minutes was all it took, and when the winds had died down again, the first mate said, “I told you so.”

Renoud looked down at his hands, which still held the origami bird he had just finished folding when the gale blew up. 

It was a stormy petrel.

“Gee whillickers,” Renoud said, “maybe there’s something to those danged superstitions after all.”

Only, as may have been mentioned before, in somewhat stronger terms.

*

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Balding, Bearded, Pot-Bellied . . .



I just now had ne of those accidents that everybody assures you can't happeen on the Web, and destroyed today's post.

I've done my best to duplicate it.  But, let's be honest, the original has a charm which the duplicate cannot aproach

Chris Bridges described himself using the words in the title of the story. Is it any wonder I took an instant liking to him?

Here it is:

Balding, Bearded, Pot-Bellied . . .
by
Michael Swanwick
Chris Bridges was an ordinary man – balding, bearded, pot-bellied, and 45 years old. Not everybody would find this amusing. But he did. His sense of humor leaned to the absurd. And what could be more absurd than a balding, bearded, pot-bellied man? Particularly when he has been married for a full quarter of a century. And most particularly when that man is you.

A nice guy to hang out with, maybe. But never the hero of the movie.

Which made it ironic that when the Invaders’ mother ship landed and everybody ran screaming from their hideous war-machines, he was the one who went against the flow, stormed up the ship’s ramp, fought his way to the bridge, and (picking up on various cultural clues which were obvious to him because he was a science fiction fan) challenged the ship’s commander to single combat – with the fate of the invasion to hang on the outcome.

The commander agreed. “First. Mental. Prowess,” it said through a clumsy mechanical translator. A game board was brought out and the rules were explained. As a neophyte, Bridges was at a disadvantage at first. But it quickly became obvious that his opponent had been indulging in the alien equivalent of alcohol. Its thinking was sloppy. Its moves were rash. Bridges, who never drank, won handily.

“Now. Brute. Strength.” The designated warrior lumbered forward, stubbing out the alien equivalent of a cigarette under its third leg. Bridges, who didn’t smoke, realized instantly that its wind would be limited by the foul habit. All he had to do was to stay alive long enough and the creature’s lungs would do the work for him.

So it was that only hours after storming the mother ship, Chris Bridges emerged bloody but triumphant. There were banks of television cameras waiting for him. “I only did what anybody else would have done in my position,” he said modestly. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m anxious to get back to my family.”

When he got home, his sons were waiting for him. “We saw you on TV,” the younger one said.
“Yeah?” Bridges felt oddly pleased. “How did I look?”

His sons glanced at one another uncomfortably. Then the older one sad, “Well, you know . . .”


Above: David Hartwell and Chris Edwards, two Powers in science fiction who are also hucksters. Next time you buy a book, consider the very real possibility that the person behind the cash register may be somebody important to the literature you love.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Midsummer Night's Cigar

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I used to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day.  True story.   Nowadays, I smoke something like three cigars a year.  A few months ago, I felt the stirrings of desire for a smoke.  I let a few weeks go by.  Then a month.  I mentioned to Marianne that I was thinking of having a cigar.  Fine, she said.  A few more weeks passed.  I'm going to have that cigar soon, I said.  Okay, Marianne said.  More weeks went by and . . . well, to cut a long story short, I smoked it the other night.

Tobacco used to jerk me around.  Nowadays I tease it in order to return the favor.

So now, three or four times a year, I go into the backyard late at night with a good cigar and a glass of scotch.  I sit down in the dark on the bench under the pergola and take stock of where I am and where I want to go.

This time, I brought my notebook and jotted down all the writing projects I've been meaning to get around to:  Half-finished stories, essays and mini-essays, the podcast series, the series of short videos, the YA novel (a long way away, I'm afraid) and something like five adult novels.  The list ran over fifty items.

Fifty!  Oh, man.  I'm never going to get to the end of that one.  Particularly since I come up with new ideas almost every day.

Andrew Lang once wrote an essay called "Magic Cigarettes," describing all the stories he'd realized that he was never going to get around to writing.  I should work up my list into an essay titled "Magic Cigars" and . . .

Oh, damn.


And I'm still writing tuckerizations . . .

It occurred to me, rather late in the game, that I should be labeling these stories with the names of the tuckerizees.  Apparently that makes 'em easier to find on the web.  So I've started doing so.

Here's today's story:


One in Eighteen Thousand 
by
Michael Swanwick

When Doug Ronning first began seeing ghosts, he reacted as anyone might, by doing a study and then writing a grad school paper exploring how ghostly visitations affect the perceiver’s  sense of spirituality.  At the time, he thought such events – fleeting, distant, and resistant to analysis – were extremely rare. 

And so they were.  At first.

Then they became commonplace.  The ghosts grew bolder and more vocal.  He began seeing them daily.  They walked up to him and jovially punched his shoulder with fists less substantial than air.  They scowled and slammed the door shut when he walked in to find them on the can.  When he gazed at his reflection in shop windows, they stopped alongside him to adjust their hair.  Until finally Doug was forced to acknowledge the strange truth:  They all had exactly the same face and features.

His own.

He was not seeing dead people at all.  These visitations were clearly variant versions of himself, leaking into reality through some unsuspected weakness in whatever it was that kept alternate worlds apart.

An alternate self from a universe where he’d become a physicist tried to explain it to him.  “How much math do you have?” alt-Ronning asked.

“Not much.  I still remember a little bit of algebra..”

Alt-Ronning sighed.  “Okay, I’m going to have to wildly oversimplify here.  To begin, by the nature of the universe there are not an infinite number of parallel worlds.   Each world is expressed in a bundle of five dimensions –”
           
“Five?”
           
“Width, breadth, height, time, and plynth.  So you take the first four primes expressed as hypersolids:  one to the first power, two to the fourth, three to the second, and five to the third, multiply them, and you come up with 18,000 parallel worlds.”
           
“Why to those particular powers?”
           
“Take eight years of calculus and I’ll explain, okay?”  The physicist looked at his finger-watch.  “Look, I’ve got to go.  Say hello to AnnaMiriam for me, willya?”

“I don’t know anyone named –”

Later that same day, another self who worked as an alternate lives counselor, offered him some free advice.  “The essence of alternate worlds is otherness, potential, the working out of possibilities that just don’t exist in your life as you currently live it.  It will drive you mad if you begin worrying about it.  The best possible thing for you to do is to just go home to your three or four clone-wives and accept the world as the drab place that it is.

“Wait,” Doug said, alarmed.  “I don’t know what you’re –”

Which is when the Reality Police showed up.  They were led by a guy who looked exactly like Doug, and they showed no patience with him at all.  “We’ll have the rupture fixed in ten nanoznorks.”  The alt-Ronning was a real bruiser.  He looked like nobody to trifle with.  “Why don’t you just go home to your line-marriage and forget that anything ever happened, okay?”

“But –”

Move it!”
 
When Doug got home, Charles greeted him at the door with a kiss.  “How was your day?” he asked.

“Confusing.”  Doug tried to explain, but it all came out in a muddle.  “So apparently there are eighteen thousand of me,” he finished weakly.

“Shush,” his husband said.  “You’ll always be one in a million to me.”


*

Above:  There it is, the distinguished thing.