Tuesday, August 31, 2010

But Is It Art?


I mentioned yesterday that I'd been to Grounds for Sculpture in New Jersey.  Not all of their work is outdoors.  There are small indoor pieces too.

Above is a snapshot I took of something I saw in an exhibition hall.  The question I'd like to pose for you is:  Is it art or not?  And if not, why not?

Answer below.

And if I'm allowed to grouse . . .

Did everybody notice that Shirley Jackson made it into the Library of America,  the closest thing this country has to an official literary canon?  And how about that review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review?

It really ticked me off.

Essentially, the review is a pathology.  It says:  Here's what was wrong with Shirley Jackson, and how it defines everything she wrote.  It ends with a brief discussion of Merrycat, the protagonist of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, who in the concluding judgment:

. . . manages to turn her crumbling family home, where she lives with her sister and her dotty uncle, into a pure expression of her own childish and profoundly unstable personality, a playhouse of disturbed dreams. It’s a place for her to hide, deep in herself, safe from the sinister encroaching of the outside world. In a way, Merricat’s crazy house is where writers go when they write, that quiet spot where nothing is ever as peaceful as it seems. It’s where Shirley Jackson went, anyway, and where she stayed, the scary place that felt like home to her.
Now, I understand that in today's celebrity culture, all artists are judged by gossip.  But this particular riff is even more pernicious than that.  It's a late survival of a sexist explanation of why there are women artists of genius when clearly there shouldn't be.

Here's how it goes:  Genius, whether literary or artistic, is a primal force, extremely powerful and even destructive in nature.  It takes great strength to contain it within a human being.  Men have this strength but women, being the weaker sex physically, morally, and intellectually, do not.  Sometimes one will suffer the misfortune of having genius and it will inevitably warp her into something ugly and unhappy and inhuman.

This is not my theory, remember.  I think it's self-evident horse hockey.

But it's something that was endemic to Academia for a long, long time.  It's the reason why women were discouraged from going into the arts.  To protect the poor little dears.

There was a story I heard several times when in college that upon hearing of Sylvia Plath's suicide, Anne Sexton had in a rage accused Plath of stealing her death.  It was always told approvingly, and never by women.

Yeah, okay, being human we're going to gossip about Jackson, the same way we do about Dylan Thomas or H. P. Lovecraft.  But it's wrong to define the art -- which is the best thing about any of us -- as a subset of the gossip.  Shirley Jackson wrote brilliant and enduring works and the appearance of her Library of America volume should be the occasion for a joyous celebration of them.  With cake and multicolored balloons.

We can always be catty after the party's over.

Above:  It is and isn't art.  The tubs were put out to solicit contributions from the public of found objects that the Grounds for Sculpture's current artist-in-residence can use to create a new piece.  Looks a lot like art already, dunnit?


Monday, August 30, 2010

Grounds for Sculpture


Friday, Marianne and I made a flying visit to take a brief look at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey.  That's just outside of Trenton,   You can find their website here.

G for S is basically an enormous sculpture park featuring work by "well-known and emerging artists."  That means no Brancusi, Bourgeois, Calder, Nevelson, Picasso, Giacometti, or Oldenburg.  But lots and lots of serious art, some of it challenging and all of it in astonishingly beautiful surroundings.  I'm convinced that landscapers must go there to look at the settings and ignore the art.

And of course there is a special pleasure in discovering artists you were not aware of previously.  This October there'll be an exhibition of Deborah Butterfield's cast-bronze driftwood horses.  They're astonishing.

And I'm just saying . . .

I was glancing at an oldish book of criticism the other day and abruptly jotted down the following critical joi d'esprit.


The Shortest (Despite Its Title) Essay You Will Read This Year or Indeed Decade and Possibly Even Century Dealing With the Critic John Clute's Collection of Reviews Scores Which Actually Manages Almost Despite Itself to Say Something Meaningful About the Book as a Whole

The other day, I decided to look at Scores structurally -- how it begins and how it ends.  The book has an introduction, followed by a decade's reviews, followed by an afterword.  The introduction begins "Here is another book."  The text proper begins "Here is a short story about academia."  The reviews end "It is, after all, a story best understood as sf, a story about the best  case in the world."  The afterword ends "We are all going to die if we do not say something good."

So for Clute it all begins and ends with and as story.  But we keep in mind that he believes  -- and in the book frequently states -- that science fiction is effectively over, then it is obvious that, to Clute, what begins with a symbolic birth ("It's a fiction!") necessarily ends in a bitterly regretted death.

Above:  Carmelita by Austin Wright.  Apparently it lights up at night.


Sunday, August 29, 2010

Two Out of Three of Us Have Left the Planet!


My friend Alexei Bezouglyi has sent me copies of the photos of me with Belka and Strelka, the first mammals to orbit the Earth and return safely.  On their deaths they were stuffed and placed on display in Moscow, just so someday an American science fiction writer could get his picture taken with them.

As Marianne likes to say (quoting  the comic book Planetary):  "It's a strange world.  Let's keep it that way."

And if I can be serious for a moment . . .

The history of the space race, as written by Americans goes:  We got to the Moon first.  We won.

But the reason we declared that the first nation to the Moon would win was that the USSR had already put the first satellite in orbit, put the first man in space, and sent up the first vehicle to return photos from the dark side of the Moon.  We desperately needed something we could win.  If the Soviet Union had reached the Moon before us, there would probably be Americans on Mars today.

Not to belittle the American accomplishments in space, which are genuine and well-documented.  Just to give credit where it's due.


Friday, August 27, 2010

Little Arrow and Squirrel


Fifty years and eight days ago, two dogs became the first animals ever to orbit the Earth in a spacecraft and return alive.  The August 18, 1960 flight was a major step in the Soviet space program.

Belka (Squirrel) and Strelka (Little Arrow) were not the first dogs in space.  That honor went to Laika (Barker) who on November 3, 1957 went up on Sputnik 2, only a month after the first artificial satellite was placed in orbit.  But because no provision had been made to return Laika to Earth, he died in space.

There were also two dogs who died when their rocket exploded seconds after takeoff.

The Soviet space program was far in advance of the American program at that time, but it was by today's standards a primitive thing.  Yet eight months later it launched the first human being, Yuri Gagarin, into space.

Belka and Strelka were both small dogs, so chosen because their capsule was not large.  They were also strays, because it was thought they would be tougher and more adaptable than pampered domestic dogs.    Not only did they survive the flight but Strelka later had six puppies.  Nikita Kruschev gave one of them, Pushinka (Fluffy) to John F. Kennedy's daughter Caroline.

I would have posted all this a week ago, but it's taken me this long to admit that I'm not going to be able to find the photograph of me with one of the two canine heroes of the Soviet space program.  Somewhere, however, it exists.  After they died, they were stuffed and placed in the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Creators Across America


That admirable organization, the Copyright Alliance, has posted the latest installment in their Creators Across America series, an interview with . . . well . . . me.

There it is above.

I haven't looked at it yet but Marianne tells me I came across okay.  For which I am duly grateful to the video's creator, Patrick Ross.

Oh, and speaking of teeshirts . . .

. . . as we of course were not, there was an article in the Inquirer today about the guy who came up with the shirt pictured below.  He discovered he needed such a thing only after moving to the West Coast.

Which put me in mind of the time I opened a reading in Seattle by saying, "Your city is so beautiful.  If I'd come here as a teenager I would've stayed forever.  But I've lived in Philadelphia too long.  Now I could never feel comfortable in a city where if you cut across the street people will stop their cars just because you're in their fucking way!"


Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Admit It . . .


You've always wondered where all those royal dicks came from.

Now you know.

Above:  Snapshot taken in Edinburgh.  Feel free to pass it along.


Monday, August 23, 2010

Tea With Jane Yolen


Probably the single best perk about being a writer is getting to hang out with other writers.  When I was in Chengdu, the editors of Science Fiction World showed their foreign guests all the local sights and threw banquets with extraordinary entertainments (including a truly astonishing mask-dancer) . . .  and yet the highlight was the evening we spent in a tea house, talking with our Chinese counterparts.

While I was in Scotland, Marianne and I, along with our friends Gail and Rob, dropped by Jane Yolen's house for tea.  That's Jane up above, sitting before the enormously tall window in the Great Hall.  Her house, you see, was designed by Sir Robert Stodart Lorimer, the second most famous architect of the Arts and Crafts movement.  (The most famous was Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  "They treated him so badly here that he left," Jane said of him.  "Lorimer stayed in Scotland.  That's why he's not as well known.")

I'd have to write a full-length article to do justice to the house.  There's what Lorimer called the Minstrel Gallery overlooking the Great Hall, with hand-carved paneling under the railing, stained-glass windows in the kitchen, Medieval-inspired door latches, some extremely nice plastering, a marvelous tiled fireplace . . .  All of which comes together in a harmonious manner that makes simply being there a pleasure.

It's hard to picture a more appropriate house for a storyteller.

So Jane set out a generous selection of food and a pot of tea )several times replenished) and we talked.  We talked about architecture, and Scottish cheeses, and local restaurants, and life in New England, and the Festival Fringe, and Mary Queen of Scots, and children's literature, and fantasy literature, and publishing, and a hundred things more.  Including the fact -- I've mentioned this before -- that she's just finished her three hundredth book.

Three hundred books!  That's a hell of an accomplishment.  I was happy for Jane that she had such a lovely house.  But that fact made me even happier for her.

And of course the two facts are not entirely unrelated.

Above right:  A door handle.


Sunday, August 22, 2010

There Will Always Be A Scotland


It's Sunday and I don't blog on Sundays.  But I thought you might like seeing the above sign.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Janis Ian's New Blog


My pal Janis Ian has written all her friends and colleagues, asking us to help publicize her new website.  It has tons of content, including articles, free downloads, streaming music, lyrics and chord charts.  Plus things to buy in her store.  Which benefits not Janis but the Pearl Foundation (named in honor of her late mother) which funds college scholarships.  "Hopefully," she writes, employing the new, rather than the traditional meaning of that adverb, "the entire site is geared not just toward showing you how fabulous I am (which we knew already...), but toward providing content for other artists, particularly young ones, who may find it helpful to avoid my many mistakes."

You can find it at www.janisian.com.  Or just click here.

And why am I so cooperatively helping to flog Janis's new site?  First, because she is, as I say, a pal.  Second, because only yesterday I went onto the web to listen to some Antarctic radio and the first song that came up was "At Seventeen," so when her email arrived I was already thinking about her.  And third, because it gives me the chance to re-retell one of my favorite stories:

Some time ago, Janis breezed through Southeastern Pennsylvania on tour and so Gregory Frost and I went out to dinner with her.  Lively conversation ensued.  At one point, something either Greg or I said so astonished Janis that she exclaimed, "Writers have even bigger egos than musicians!"

"Of course," Greg murmured urbanely.

"Musicians," I explained, "have to be able to play well with others.

And I'll be posting more . . .

Soon.  I apologize for not posting yesterday as promised.  I started proofing the Tor reissue of Stations of the Tide and didn't stop until it was done and my work day was over.  So I guess I've got a moral obligation to make my next several posts particularly interesting, huh?



Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Ray Bradbury Song


I'll post something serious tomorrow, I promise.

But in the meantime, allow me to be five millionth science fiction writer to post the following video by comedian Rachel Bloom, who made it with her own money.  That took guts.

  I should warn you that the video makes frequent use of everybody's favorite four-letter Anglo Saxon verb.  So you probably shouldn't play it when your mother's in the room.


Monday, August 16, 2010

Material Culture


Marianne and I flew home Saturday and spent most of Sunday decompressing.  Save for a quick jaunt to Material Culture (above).  Material Culture is an enormous enterprise.  The building is far larger than any barn and chockablock with cultural tchothkes from everywhere offered for sale at a price which is occasionally entirely affordable.  I go there whenever I start to get too unworldly and detached, in order to restore my natural supply of avariciousness and greed.

Currently, almost everything they have is 30% off.

I'm being interviewed today and I have to proofread a reissued novel and there are stories I hope to get to work on if  I have the time.  So today must be considered a goof-off day.  But I'll be posting more about my brief jaunt to Scotland just as soon as I can can organize my thoughts.

And in the mail today . . . 

I received my contributor's copies of The Secret History of Fantasy (Tachyon Publications, edited by Peter S. Beagle.  Of which I shall only say that even if it didn't include my own "The Edge of the World," it's a book that, as a reader, I would avidly desire.  Also the Sept/Oct issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, which contains my newest story, "Steadfast Castle."

So I am content, and hope you are as well.


Friday, August 13, 2010

Bogs of the Great Writers (Part 2)


Some time back I blogged about Rudyard Kipling's throne.  Well, obviously, Rudy was not the only great writer to own such a convenience.  Nor the only writer to own one of such imposing presence.  The writer I visited most recently had a Shanks and Co. Ltd. toilet in her downstairs bathroom.  This was in St. Andrews, Scotland, and I've probably given you enough clues to guess.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you . . . Jane Yolen's toilet.

And speaking of Jane Yolen . . .

The other day Marianne and I and our friends Gail and Rob spent an afternoon with Jane .  She's a lovely person and we spent all that time talking.  Most of what we said I shall not share with you.  But she did drop one bit of information I thought newsworthy.

Jane has published 300 books!  I hope you're impressed because I sure am.  She's either just published her 300th book or is just about to.  I forget which it is because I was so dazzled by the accomplishment, and by the discipline and focused productivity that went into it.  That is a lot of work.  Trust me.

Jane tried to downplay the accomplishment by pointing out that a lot of those books were picture books.  But when I pointed out that a picture book page takes a lot more work than a novel page, she did admit that some of her picture books get rewritten literally dozens of time more often than do her novels.

In the face of which, I have no snappy little witticism with which to tie up this post.  You must instead picture me standing by the side of the road, hat in hand, looking on respectfully as her parade of books passes by.

And on a personal note . . .

I'm writing and posting this late Friday night rather than waiting for morning because I'll be getting up early to make the traditional mad dash for the airport.  Most of Saturday will be spent getting home.  Sunday will be spent prone and exhausted.  So my next blog will be on Monday.  See you then!

Above:  Did I get Jane's permission before posting a picture of her toilet on the Web?  You bet I did!


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Honoring the Fallen


Edinburgh is a great city for literary associations.  Robert Burns trod these stony streets, as did Robert Louis Stevenson.  The monument to Sir Walter Scott here is a tremendous blackened-stone spaceship.  Conan Doyle was born here and Sherlock Holmes was based on a teacher he had in college, Professor of Medicine Joseph Bell.  Daniel Defoe was posted here as an English spy.  So who did I seek out to pay honor to?  Thomas de Quincey.

The unhappy man who wrote Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts, and many works besides is buried in the churchyard of St. Cuthbert's Church, just above Prince Street Gardens.

There were no flowers left anywhere in the churchyard for me to steal, so I plucked a small blossom from the grass and left it at de Quincey's stone.

Poor de Quincey!  His life was hard and plagued with both medical and financial troubles, to say nothing of his addiction.  But he wrote well and tirelessly.  He was one of us, and deserves whatever small honors we can offer him.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

William Shakespeare, Haggis Pizza, and Puppets That Say "Shit"


 I saw two great pieces of theater today and they couldn't have been more different.  The first was Simon Callow's Shakespeare, The Man From Stratford.  It's been getting rave reviews and deserved them.  He received a standing ovation and yeah, that too.  Using the "seven ages of man" monologue as a structuring device, he delivered what is essentially an essay on the life of Shakespeare, flowing from the life to an appropriate "greatest hit" monologue to illustrate the internal life of the Great Man.

Callow had the audience with every word.  Brilliantly done.  But I figure he mostly did it to pad his resume:

--Have you done Hamlet?
--Oh, yes.
--Juliet too. 
--Of course.
--Henry V?
--And VI.
--Both Prospero nd Miranda.
--And Pyramus and Thisbe and the lion!

Then it was off to the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppets.  (You can find them on YouTube, if you have the initiative.  Or so I am told.)  I laughed like a child.

In fact, if you can imagine a really well scripted sock puppet entertainment for children, only with the frequent use of the word "shit" and other expletives, then you've got a good idea of the show.  Even as I was laughing, I was marveling at how nearly identical this reaction was to the laughter I would have experienced as a child.

And for exactly the same reasons.

And so, finally, I made my weary way back to the flat . . .

Where Marianne and Gail and Rob and I had haggis pizza for a late supper.

Do you doubt me?  Do you dare to doubt me?  There it is, the distinguished thing, up above.  With cracked pepper.


Waldrop, Bradbury, and Agatha Christie


Among the many wynds and closes twisting off the Royal Mile is Waldrop's Court.  Bringing inevitably to mind the lines:

For I have been tae Waldrop's Court
And met strange justice there . . .

Somebody really should fly Howard Waldrop out here to write an Edinburgh story.

But never mind that.

But never mind that.  I was hurrying past Waldrop's Court on my way to see the world premiere of Ray Bradbury's 2116 the Musical.  Which was wonderful, magical, an awful mess, and well worth seeing.

All the credit goes to a first-rate cast, terrific costumes, and wonderful makeup.  Where the play falls down is, alas, on the plot level.  Back in the 1950s, it seems, Bradbury started to write a musical for Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester to perform in London.  Enough survived to make half a play and over half a century later a second half was cobbled together from fragments and synopses of Bradbury's other works.

Still.  The music is good and grandly sung.  The actors can act.  (Greatest praise to Steve Josephson as Mr. Marionette/Albert Brock, followed closely by Jonathan Lamer as Mr. Wycherly/Professor Faber and Lisa Morrice as Mrs. Wycherly/Clarisse McClellan,)  The first act is good.  The music is too.  I came out of the theater with that happy, elated feeling you have when the theater has done its job properly.  So I have no complaints.

And a day later it occurs to me to wonder . . .

Is it possible, as Charles Stross asserted the other night, that Agatha Christie started with a murder and wrote her novels without knowing who did it until the detective gathered everybody together, at which point she made up a solution and went back through the novel erasing everything that the ending now made impossible?

It sounded so plausible when Charlie said it.   But then, pretty much everything a writer says sounds plausible, regardless of how true or not it is.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

But I Had a Wonderful Time Anyway


Yesterday I was feeling disorganized.  I dashed off into the Fringe without an umbrella, left behind my ticket to one of the shows in the venue's men's room (luckily, a friend used the john next and returned it to me), lost the shark's tooth out of my earring and left my media chip stuck inside my netbook back at the flat.

Which explains why I don't have a photo of Charles Stross to post today.  Marianne and I and our friends Gail and Rob went out to dinner and then pubbing with Charlie and his wife Feorag last night.  We wound up my favorite pub in Edinburgh, The Halfway House on Fleshmarket Close.  They bill themselves as "Scotland's Smallest and Friendliest Pub" and who am I to argue?  Certainly everybody I've ever seen there, customers included, has been friendly.  As for "smallest," well . . . it has two booths, three tables, and four stools at the bar.  If there's a smaller drinking place anywhere in the country, they've surely got plans to expand as soon as they can.

And I should probably mention a play I've actually seen . . .

Just so you don't think I'm spending all my time here with a glass in my hand.   The Norfolk Youth Music Theatre production of The Secret Garden was exemplary.  There's no getting around the fact that Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel was pretty gooey and no amount of tinkering is going to fix that.  But the children sang beautifully and acted convincingly, and Callum Bicknell as Archie Craven was a standout.  But there wasn't a bad or even a flat performance in the lot.

The adaptation turned the plot into something of a ghost story, where the original was all about Viridiana -- Nature as a healing force.  But each age is entitled to its own superstitions, and if ours are a little shallower than the Victorians', we have no one but ourselves to blame.

Above:  A street busker.  "Isn't that wonderful?  I can flip my hat in the air with no hands and catch it on my foot and hold it there while balancing on a two-meter-high unicycle longer than you can clap."


Monday, August 9, 2010

Things You're Not Supposed to Love


I am, as I may have mentioned, in Scotland -- the home of haggis and bagpipes.  For some inexplicable reason, our culture has got a down on bagpipes and haggis.  We are taught from an early age to dislike and despise the music of the one and the flavor of the other.  And yet . . .

And yet, I love 'em both.  On Saturday, after settling into our flat on Old Tollbooth Wynd, we walked the half-block up to the Royal Mile and discovered that pipe bands were marching down the road, wave after wave of them, hundreds upon hundreds of bagpipes playing.  It was glorious.

 "Ew!" people say when I mention haggis.  "How can you eat that stuff?"  And then, upon questioning, it turns out that they've never tried it themselves and have no idea what it tastes like.

So I tell them that it's just scrapple, only made with oats rather than corn.  At which point they make the same disgusted noises before admitting that they've never tried scrapple either.

Their loss.  Last night at Wedgwood, which is only a block or two from our flat, I had the venison and venison haggis plate.  The joy I felt afterwards still lingers.

And I'm still pigging out on plays...

Four yesterday.  More today.  If I find the time I may blog about them yet.


Sunday, August 8, 2010

Blogging from the Udderground


I'm at the Fringe!  And I found a place to blog -- in the pasture of the Udderbelly. You can expect cow puns any minute now.  Right now I'm off to a production of The Man Who Would be Thursday.  Soon . . . a Ray Bradbury world premiere.

I'm having too much fun and beer  to blog more now.  But soon, dear friends, soon.


Thursday, August 5, 2010

This Glitteratti Life (Part 5,286)


Just a short note today, because I'm not done packing for Scotland yet.

Last night Marianne and I went to Rangoon in Chinatown for a very delicious meal with local SF luminaries and the magnificent Jay Lake.  Jay was passing through Philadelphia en route to a business meeting in New Jersey and put up an invitation on his blog for anybody who cared to do so to drop in -- whether he knew them or not.

This is typically innovative of Jay, and as a result the dinner included not only the usual people but a couple of the unusual ones too.  Who held up their ends of the conversations quite well.  But of course folks with the gumption to answer an open invite like that would.

Pictured above:  The great man himself, a little tired at the end of the evening.


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The End of the World . . . and What Comes After


Yesterday, just after posting the last of the Tuckerizations, I appropriately enough received my contributor's copy of The End of the World:  Stories of the Apocalypse.  Edited by Martin H. Greenberg (may he recover swiftly from his current illness) with an introduction by Robert Silverberg.  It contains what is either my first or second published story, "The Feast of Saint Janis."

And it provides a good jumping-off spot for an announcement.  I'll be on the road for all of next week, off to Edinburgh and the Festival Fringe . . . which I am attending, mirabile dictu, just for the fun of it!  I have no obligations, no duties, no speeches, no appearances to make.  I'll just be reveling in avant- and retro-garde theater.  I may drop in on a friend or two.

So I have no idea how often I'll be blogging.  A lot depends on how much trouble it is to get a connection.  If it's easy, I'll blog often -- the Fringe is one of those great experiences that fills you with the joy of life.  But if not . . .  well, I'm issuing myself an exemption here.  Normally I guarantee a blog on all Mondays and Fridays.  But I may well fall silent next week.  We shall see.

Meanwhile, there's tons of other stuff in the works.  Stay tuned!

Above:  It's the end of the world.  Captured, apparently, on Kodachrome.  Which, again appropriately, is now (save for the rogue roll being kept in a refrigerator somewhere) extinct.


Monday, August 2, 2010

Yes, In The World


This is the  last Tuckerization  -- "In the world?" as my friend Turtle might have said, back in the old Acid Wars days -- that I agreed to do for Clarion West.  It's number 43 in a series of 42 and, appropriately enough Henry Wessells commissioned it to include himself, Eileen Gunn, and "maybe Avram Davidson as well.  So I Tuckerized Henry, Eileen and . . .

Well, see for yourself.

 Fleeting Notations
Michael Swanwick

Henry Wessels, mounted on a Czechoslovak two-stroke motorcycle, was following the trail of Alexander the Great and had almost reached Libya, when he met the American.  It was in a shabby hostel which by North African standards overcharged outrageously.  He’d stowed his meager gear and was glancing through the books in the common room – paperbacks mostly, left by earlier trekkers – when she said, “You look like a bookman.”

“Why, yes,” he said, “Why do you –?”

“Out of all these books –” there couldn’t have been more than thirty, left by earlier trekkers – “which do you think has the greatest wah, the most presence?”

It was an interesting challenge. After thought, Henry chose one with green boards and a gilt title worn illegible by many fingers.  “This.”

The woman snatched the book from his hand and flipped through it until she found a notation at the bottom of one page:  The griffin, it has been postulated, was invented by Scythian nomads to explain Protoceratops skulls discovered in the Altai Mountains.  What monsters will my mummified corpse give birth to, long after humankind is gone?  A kinder man would turn back now.

The American stuck out her hand.  “Eileen Gunn.  I’m on the trail of a magician and I need someone who can find these things.  You’re hired.”

So the adventure began.  They traveled first by camel and then by airship.  They stopped at inns and bazaars and the estates of the wealthy, and everywhere Henry found books with the magician's anonymous annotations.

I have seen computer languages rise and fall like the cities of Lemuria and Mu, so that the 1960 Census, the first to be preserved on magnetic tape, is now as indecipherable as the as yet undiscovered Linear G.  Yet da Vinci's notebooks remain.  There is nothing so enduring as a book.


Edmund Hillary, of Everest fame, commissioned Michael Ayrton to create a golden honeycomb for his estate.  Daedalus, perhaps, created something similar when he invented the lost wax process.  When it was placed on a low pillar as sculpture, “Bees came,” wrote the critic Guy Davenport, “and filled it with honey and their young.”  If only Davenport could have gone back in time to mentor Hillary, Aristotle to his Alexander, the allegory would form a perfect Gordian knot.


Iron filings were mixed into the feed of Weyland Smith's geese so that their droppings (gathered, doubtless, by some poor sonofabitch graduate student) could be smelted down to yield nitrogen-rich metal for a sword blade of superior murderousness.  It makes one wonder what dirty secrets Mother Goose was hiding.

 “We're getting closer,” Gunn said.  “We'll catch up to him soon.”

Yet when they finally reached the oasis of Jupiter Ammon, they found nothing there but a book carelessly dropped on the sand and a most profound absence.  “Avram’s dead,” Gunn said flatly.  “We came all this distance for nothing.”

Wessels picked up the last book and scanned it for notations.  “Look,” he said.  “What does this mean?”

After a very long silence, Gunn reluctantly said.  “I think it means that he wants us to write.  Not sometime.  Not tomorrow.  Today.”

They walked away from the oasis, leaving the book open behind them.  One last notation glowed in the desert sun.

All your life you’re running from something, it read.  Then it finally catches up with you and you discover that it’s nothing.  Nothing at all.  Sheesh.


Above:  A tiger lily.  It won't last long.  But while it does, it rules the Earth.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Vanilla Raspberries with Summer Ice Cream


Carthage delenda est!  Or at least my Quixotic quest to write 42 Tuckerizations in as many days.  In the end, somehow I managed to miss one day -- probably one of the days I was driving to or from Pittsburgh in the last couple of weeks.  So today I post my 42nd story in 43 days.

But wait -- there's more!  One more, to be specific.  The Clarion West folks tend more toward the Asimov's side of the SF spectrum than to the Analog side.  Which is to say, they're a little weak on math.  They multiplied six weeks times seven days and came up with 43.  So there'll be one more and final work of flash fiction tomorrow.  Will I end in grand style?  We'll know as soon as I write it.  Tomorrow.

Stay tuned and fine out.

Meanwhile, here's today's story.  It was commissioned by Gregory Scheckler, who mentioned that he liked to eat summer raspberries with vanilla ice cream.  So I wrote:

Vanilla Raspberries with Summer Ice Cream
Michael Swanwick

Artists are subtle and quick to wrath.  They strike like lightning and they choose their enemies almost at random.  So it’s entirely possible that Gregory Scheckler had never met whoever it was who dosed his coffee with a synesthetic drug.  It could well have been a stranger who envied his work.  It might have been an artist manqué driven mad by aesthetic theory.  It could even have been someone with no motive at all – a student, perhaps.

All Scheckler knew was that shortly after drinking that coffee the blare of car horns in the street outside was a jagged orange and the morning sun slanting through his office window smelled of honey and cinnamon toast.  The coffee dregs, when he sniffed them, felt like flannel.  So did the empty vial he found on the floor by his desk.  When he stepped outside hoping the air would clear his head, a breeze sprang up that tasted like sugared grass clippings.

So far, so odd.  But when he started mixing paints on his palette, preparatory to an oil he’d been planning for some time, the cadmium yellow was as loud as a chromed truck horn and the French ultramarine as cold and salty as the water in the Marianas Trench.  He dropped his brush in astonishment and its clatter on the floor felt like six sharp little raps on his knuckles.

He couldn’t work like that.  Nobody could.  If this continued, it would be the death of his art.

In a panic, Scheckler fumbled out his cell phone (it felt like garlic butter and celery) and tapped out the number for a friend in the Chemistry department.  “Hello?” said a voice as rich and smooth as black granite, and Scheckler’s words tumbled out like so many sulfur-scented canaries.

“Okay, I know that one,” his friend said.  “You’ve got nothing to worry about.  It’ll wear off in a few hours.  Just take it easy and drink plenty of fluids.  Do you want me to come over and stay with you?”

Scheckler took a deep magenta breath.  “No . . .  no need.  I’m going out.”

“Out?”  A distinctly denim texture entered his friend’s voice.  “Where?”

“On a picnic.” 

Scheckler spent the rest of the morning outside, listening to the wind ruffle gold through the aspens.  Eating . . .


Above:  Marianne and I went for a walk at the Morris Arboretum today.  We saw a butterfly.  This caption sounds like one of those essays I had to write in second grade.