Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Autumn Splendor


Why do I live in the city?  Because the city has everything you might want.  You want theater?  It's got theater.  You want extreme art?  You got extreme art.  You want autumn splendor at an isolated stream with a small watermill?  It's the city!  You got it.

This is my Philadelphia.

And for a change . . .

I'm not on the road -- my trip got postponed.  I plan to spent the entire day doing nothing but lazing about writing.

Above:  The Morris Arboretum.  Or, rather, a small portion of it.


Monday, November 28, 2011

A Few Heartfelt Words of Praise for the Philadelphia Police


Yesterday Marianne and I went down to City Hall to see if any of our Occupy Philadelphia friends were going to need to be bailed out.  As it turned out, no.  The OP folks were still involved in a complex dance of negotiation with the city, and the Philadelphia police continued to show gentlemanly restraint.  It made me proud to be a Philadelphian.

Which doesn't mean that things won't go Berkley sometime in the future.  But that's just another reason to tell this story while I can.

A couple of years ago there was a big G7 meeting in Philadelphia.  Protesters showed up from all over.  Back in the days when Frank Rizzo was mayor, there would have been some serious police violence.  Luckily, Rizzo was in the distant past and John Timoney was police commissioner.  Timoney was a real hard-nosed type and didn't tolerate unlawful behavior from anybody.  Not even police.

That's the background.  Here's the story.  It's a clip I saw on the news at the time.

The protesters were walking on a sidewalk, obeying the laws and chanting slogans.  At the curb was a police car and, sitting in it, a fat cop looking bored.  Suddenly an -- and I use this term advisedly -- asshole leaned into the car and hit the cop in the face with pepper spray!

In a flash, the cop was out of the car, roaring with anger, and pulling his gun.

And in that same instant, there was a police officer running alongside him, shouting, "Put down the gun!  Put down the gun!"

And, coming to his senses, the cop did. 

 It was the most astonishing proof of the value of good training.  The officer on the street knew exactly what to do . . . and two tragedies were averted.  One being whatever might have happened had the cop fired his gun.  The other being what would have happened to the cop as a result of a moment's perfectly understandable outrage.

Last I heard, Timoney was working in Miami.  I hope they deserve him.  The guy walks on water.

Above:  Big rally at City Hall.   Last night.  No violence.  This is what America looks like.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

Fortean FIsh


We have a small water feature in our backyard, a pot buried almost to its rim.  That's it up above.  It looks a lot better in the summer when the water lettuce are healthy.  There's a small water pump which doesn't show in this shot.

In the pot we keep a few goldfish.  Last winter, which was colder than usual, they all died, so this spring I bought five and put them in the pot.  We fed them and they grew and thrived.

Over the summer, two disappeared, leaving us with a total of three.  I assumed raccoons.

And then one morning I went out to feed the fish and counted five.  They were all the same size and we hadn't seen any minnows, so their appearance was astonishing.  "Did somebody dump their fish in our pot?" I wondered.

Last August, alas, all the fish disappeared.  I kept feeding them for several days anyway.  The food floated on the surface for a long time, uneaten.  I couldn't find any of the fish when I moved the water lettuce around.  And then...  And then...

One morning I came out to find all five fish floating dead atop the water.  I buried them.  I mourned.  I moved on.

And of course, I stopped feeding them.

This morning, Marianne spotted a fish in the pot.  And then a second one.  I looked, and there they were.

Is somebody playing with my head?  Are we getting drizzles of Fortean fish-rain?  Is it possible that God has a weird sense of humor?

This is worse than New Math.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Happy Evacuation Day!


It's November 25.  I trust that all Americans are observing Evacuation Day today, the one time of the year that we celebrate what Linus called, "the weaselly slinking-back of the British sons of bitches to the pathetic scumbag kingdom they called home" at the end of the War of Independence.

Okay, that quote from A Charlie Brown Evacuation Day is the fictitious creation of the Daily Show.  But the holiday itself, celebrating the day when the last of the occupying British troops left New York in 1783, is well worth remembering.  As are the eleven thousand American soldiers who died in the prison ships, when they could have been released if only they'd been willing to renounce their country and pledge allegiance to the crown.

You can find Sarah Vowell's explanation here.  (I believe it's only up for a brief time.)  There's not a lot of laughs, but there is a lot to think about.

It's worth mentioning that, fun though it is to heap vituperation on the British soldiers, they started out the war as good guys -- the troops at Lexington and Concord were under strict orders to put down the rebellion without hurting anyone.  And yet they ended up creating something that Jon Stewart compared to Abu Ghraib.

This is something I wish every leader in every country in the world would think about long and hard.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Your REAL Thanksgiving Feast


What foods are required for a Thanksgiving dinner to be authentic?  I like to ask that question of friends because the answers are surprisingly interesting.  You'd think the lowest number would be one -- turkey.  But I've found any number of people who said ham.  Or Chinese food.  Or "Anything at all."  These last people are probably the holiday's natural citizens . . . folks who are grateful for all the good things they receive and do not dictate what they should be.  I admire such people.  But I'm not one of them.

For the record, then.  Here's what I require for a Thanksgiving feast to be real:

Turkey (of course)
Stuffing (real sausage-and-bread stuffing, not those things involving oysters or cornbread or pecans)
Mashed potatoes
Radishes (cut into radish roses)
Sweet midget pickles
Creamed onions (these last are so important that I cook them myself)
Cranberry sauce (the jellied stuff with the ridges, straight out of the can, and Mama Stamberg's cranberry relish both)

The smallest number of required items was zero.  The largest -- and I apologize for not having counted; I was standing stunned with admiration -- came from my New England friend Gail, who required three separate cranberry dishes (one relish, but not Stamberg) and, among many other dishes, three different pies . . . and the squash pie had to be baked in a square dish.

It was only when she was an adult that she realized that the reason the squash pie was always baked in a square dish was that by the time the women of her family got around to it, every round pie pan had been used.

So how about y'all?  What do you require for a Thanksgiving feast to be real?

Above:  I spray-painted autumn leaves and stamped DEATH on them so I could strew 'em about the parks of Philadelphia.  But it's been raining all week, so I didn't have the opportunity.  Believe it or not, I found them waiting on the table yesterday, making a natural Thanksgiving centerpiece.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Anne McCaffrey, 1926 - 2011

Today is an international day of mourning for science fiction readers.  Anne McCaffrey is dead.

You almost certainly knew this already.  The news spread faster than wildfire.  Most SF writer blogs will devote today to the great lady's passing.  Memories will be shared.  Words will be dropped at her feet.

I met Ms McCaffrey only once, at a Forbidden Planet signing in London in the 1980s.  She had endless lines of fans -- mostly young women wearing natural fabrics in earth tones -- each with the sort of expression a devout Catholic might have in the presence of the Pope.  I had a much shorter line of young men in punk leather who shrank away from me in horror when I said I was working on a fantasy novel.

During the time when my signing was done and McCaffrey's was still going on and on and on, I reflected on the fact that almost every one of her acolytes clutched an enormous stack of her books.  There's my mistake, I thought.  I haven't written a tremendous number of novels that readers love passionately.

There is much that could be said in praise of McCaffrey's work.  But I'll leave that to everybody else.  She wrote a tremendous number of novels that readers love passionately.  That's the epitaph that we're all working toward.

And now she has it.

Rest in peace, Anne.  Thanks for the books.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

In Which I Witness Cultural History . . .


I never watch The Big Bang Theory because my son forbids it.  He tells me that it's an ethnic slur against his kind.  Marianne and I are expected to watch Community instead.  (A friend who works for Community College of Philadelphia tells me that the latter is an ethnic slur against his kind, but that's another story.) 

Which makes it ironic that I was present at a historic cultural nerd-moment last Friday at SFContario.  I was at a room party when Lawrence M. Schoen, challenged to translate on the spot, sang Soft Kitty in Klingon for the first time in human history.

You may marvel at my cultural on-linedness.

And coming soon . . .

I just got a look at the lineup for Jonathan Strahan's forthcoming The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year.  It's not public for a few days yet, but there are some really good names there.  I'd buy it in an instant, if I weren't going to be getting a contributor's copy.

Above:  A fleeting glimpse of the Niagara River from my train window.  It took some seventeen hours to get home yesterday, with no delays.  Still . . . better than flying.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Leaving Ontario


I went through all of SFContario without once running into Karl Schroeder who, being guest of honor, had many duties and obligations to fulfill.  Which I seriously regretted, because he is a brilliant guy and a font of really good science fictional ideas.

But I caught up to Karl at the end of the closing ceremonies and managed to delay him sufficiently to have a long talk with him about his career as an innovationist.  I won't share what he had to say because I didn't ask his permission to post any of it here and, anyway, I might want to steal some of it for my own fiction.  But I will say that it was a pleasure to listen to someone who's actively working to ameliorate the world's ills.  What a positive guy he is!  A genuine force for good.

I only hope that the people who run things listen to what he has to say.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  Specifically, the railroad from Toronto to Philadelphia.  I expect to reach home by midnight, tired but happy and grateful to the good folks of SFContario for a convention I enjoyed immensely.

Immediately above:  The conservatory in Allan Gardens, across from the convention hotel, at night.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Harbinger, Chagall, Toronto, and Me


I'm at SFContario with such luminaries at John Scalzi, Rob Sawyer, and Gardner Dozois, and from the window of my hotel room I can see Harbinger, a skyscraper-top artwork which changes color depending on the wind speed.  If you're here too, I suggest you go out at night and look for it.  Pretty neat.

And I took in some art . . . 

Over at the Art Gallery of Ontario (highly recommended at all times; don't miss the Frank Gehry staircase) there's a show of Marc Chagall's artwork, along with paintings by his contemporaries in the Russian avant-garde.

Looking at Chagall always makes me want to write.  And this time was no exception.  I discovered Clowns in the Night, a dark and beautiful work that surely was about the Holocaust.  I learned more about the art of Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov and Ivan Koudriachov and other artists about whom I know far too little.  And then I looked at the biographical data for the artists and saw how many died in the Holocaust or else shortly after returning to Russia.

The Twentieth Century was an evil one.  Let's pray the Twenty-First is better.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Remember to Die!

It's autumn, and autumn is my season.  Part of my annual duties is to wander about, stamping the word DEATH on fallen leaves.  This year, as an experiment, I spray-painted some of those leaves white.  To make them stand out so they'll be easier to find when I strew them about.

The reason I do this is because autumn is the season that implicitly says MEMENTO MORI.  Which is Latin for Remember to Die.  There's no big hurry on this one.  But it's on your list of things to do.  

Because if you haven't died, you haven't lived a rich, full life yet.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Days of Future Past


Look what I found in the twenty-five cent bin of the comic book store -- my childhood!  Specifically, two General Electric comic books, Science in Your Future and Our Place in Space.  They were benign works of corporate propaganda published in the early 1950s and typical of the goodies which my father, who was an electrical engineer for GE, brought home from work.  They were part of what made me a science-mad and space-mad kid.  And they both, interestingly enough, came out of the Schenectady plant, where Dad was employed.

Read today, they're intelligent, well-made works (the cartoonist and writer -- almost certainly not Kurt Vonnegut who would have left GE's employment by then -- were uncredited), which do display certain cultural biases.  The comic on space, for example, featured not one woman.  Apparently we were going to conquer the universe without their active participation.  The science comic did feature a young lady and included a few lines about "men and women scientists."  But in all the vast lab spaces pictured (and they really were vast!  I saw them on the yearly open house for employees' families), there was only woman.  And she was so fashionably dressed that it was possible she was meant to be a secretary.

But GE's not to blame for that.  It was the times.  Women knew then that, with rare exceptions, if they wanted a career, they could choose between teaching and nursing.  General Electric was actually being surprisingly open-minded in encouraging girls to think about becoming scientists.

Things got better, later.  Not perfect by any means.  But better.

And as always . . .

I'll be on the road tomorrow.  I'm taking the train to Ontario for SFContario.  I was a goh there last year and it was great.  This year Gardner Dozois is the editor guest of honor and SFContario is the Canadian national convention, so it'll be even greater.

If you see me, be sure to say hello.  Or bonjour, as the case may be.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Easy Money

My apologies for a second day without a picture.  I'm prepping for SFContario.

One of the side effects of being a science fiction writer is that you're constantly coming up with items that you think would make a lot of money . . . if you only had the connections to bring them to market.

Here's one.  For all I know, it may already exist.  But if so, I've never seen it:  Frames for calling cards.  Nobody's asking for 'em.  But I can't help but think that if they were available businesspeople would buy them.

Let's say an elaborate silver frame for a single card, and four-, eight-, and sixteen-card frames for greater numbers.  The single frame you'd reserve for Desmond Tutu's business card, or Ursula K. Le Guin's or Gene Wolfe's.  The larger frames you'd use for the cards of all four Rolling Stones, eight Nobel Prize winners, or all the Supreme Court and the seven lawyers who pushed through the decisions of which you most enthusiastically approve.

Let's face it.  Business cards are all about status and prestige.  Surely, showing off that Steve Jobs or Germaine Greer felt obliged to hand you that rectangle of cardboard is worth overspending on a designer frame.

If you have the connections, take this idea and run.  Make a fortune with it.  You have my blessing.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Emergency Monday Post

If you've been reading this blog since forever, as so few have, you know that I do not guarantee to post every day or even every other day but only on two days, Monday and Friday -- if at all possible.

Today, alas, I almost failed you.

This morning I taught a class at the USNA in Annapolis.  Young and earnest midshipmen -- some of whom were women -- who listened to every word because they wanted very much to improve themselves in every way possible.

For people like these -- and I have met them in many countries -- I will do almost anything.

After the class (and a couple of other experiences which go into the lockbox of memory, because they might prove useful in future fiction) was over, the students filed out, pausing to shake my hand and thank me, "sir."  Then Marianne and I hit the back roads of Maryland and Delaware, through Sassafras and Unicorn and other small towns, homeward but in no particular hurry.  Which is why we got home late, and then I had a flurry of business correspondence to deal with, and to kerfluffle went my syntax, and almost, almost, I failed you.

Yet here I am and here we are and I have saved myself from humiliation at the last possible instant.



Friday, November 11, 2011

Quiet Friday


It's been a quiet day.  Lat night I was in Brookyn at Andy Heidel's bar, The Way Station, having a Manhattan (just as Marianne does, they spice their own cherries; making the drink far superior to those with maraschino cherries) and talking with the local SF folk.  Before that, I listened to N. K. Jemisin reading -- and quite well -- from her work and enjoyed a demonstration of stage and movie combat by Mike Yahn.  The moves were terrifyingly brutal, even when you've just been shown that they involve no physical contact.  A great presentation, and I regret only that I didn't write down the name of his friend and fellow stunt man, who sold the demos by convincingly acting as if he'd been punched.  It really is a collaborative art.

Did I mention I had a terrific time?  I had a terrific time.  Why doesn't Philadelphia have a steampunk bar?

And I couldn't help thinking about steampunk because . . .

Wallace and Gromit movies were running continuously on a monitor by the bar, and apparently the Way Station has a weekly W&G-watching event.  So occasionally (not during the readings or demo) I glanced up at the screen and in context was struck by how, well, steampunk that series is.  Clunky Victorian machines that nevertheless work brilliantly, on-the-spot engineering, mad inventions, the lot.

Of course, Wallace and Gromit predate the steampunk phenomenon.  But there was definitely something in the air.  Or water.  Or aether.

Not Above:  I really should mention the Wold Newton Reading Extravaganza, which organized the evening.  Well done, chaps!


Thursday, November 10, 2011

Down at the Tardis Bar


I''m reading tonight as part of the Wold Newton Reading Extravaganza at the Way Station in Brooklyn, along with N. K. Jemisin and a stage combat demonstrator.  I lead a strange life.

The Way Station is a steampunk/Dr. Who themed bar and has its very own tardis (pictured above).  One of the websites I found claims the tardis is also their toilet.

I lead a very strange life.  I keep coming back to that observation.

Anyway, if you're in the area and your evening is free, why not drop by?  I'm very eager to hear Jemison read, and I'm looking forward to the stage combat demo.  Also, I'll be reading something good.  It ought to be a hoot.

Strange, mind you  But a hoot.

And here's their press release . . .

Arriving at an EXCITING NEW LOCATION, The Way Station, Brooklyn's greatest Steampunk and Doctor Who themed bar, will be multiple Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy award winner Michael Swanwick, whose new book _Dancing with Bears_ is about con men in a delirious future Russia.

With him will be recently Hugo nominated and critically acclaimed NK Jemisin, in honor of the release of the final book of her Inheritance Trilogy, _The Kingdom of Gods_, which is about deities as weapons of mass destruction, a city on a spire and one hundred thousand kingdoms.

There will also be an exhilarating stage combat demonstration by stage combat instructor, stunt man and kung fu master Mike Yahn. Books will be sold by the Community Bookstore.

WHEN: Thursday, November 10 @ 7:00 p.m.
WHERE: The Way Station
683 Washington Ave
Prospect Heights
Brooklyn, NY 11238

Part reading series, part carnival, the Wold Newton Reading Extravaganza is a speculative fiction event held at The Way Station bar that promises to change the way you look at readings forever and to call you in the morning. It may actually deliver on one of those promises.


Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Paul McAuley's "Bruce Springsteen"


I used to nominate a lot of stuff for the Nebula, before they changed the rules.  If I admired a story and thought it worth being on the ballot, I nominated it.  Then, at the end of the year, I used that informal list to help me decide what to vote for.  Nowadays, you get only so many nominations (five, I think) per category, and you have only a few months out of the year in which to make them.  Which is to say, you have to keep track of what you read through the year and then, when it's over, go through your notes to determine what you think are the five best works per category before you nominate any.

Alas, I'm just not that organized.  So the nominating process has to go on without me.  However, I do like recommending good stories.  So I thought I might occasionally review one here.

Let's hope the following off-the-cuff review is the first of many.

"Bruce Springsteen" by Paul McAuley
Asimov's Science Fiction, January 2012

"Bruce Springsteen" pretends to be set on another planet but is actually an exploration of the myth of the American West.  The West of the high desert, I mean, not that of cowboys and gunfights and genocide.  The roads out there are empty and go on forever.  You turn the nose of your car into the Great Lonely and pray to an untenanted sky to dissolve your self and make you into something you are not.  I was on Route 50 in Nevada, "the loneliest road in America," recently and I can testify to the pull of that myth.  You want to just go down that road forever.

But there's a dark side to the myth.

The nameless protagonist of this story is a working stiff in a dead-end job at the edge of town who may or may not be aware that he's reached the end of his rope, when a woman crosses his destiny.  "Rachel was definitely my type," he says.  "Older than me by five or ten years, easy with what she was.  Someone who'd lived a little and taken some hard knocks, who knew how to look after herself.  Someone, I thought, who was passing through.  A change from the waitresses and kitchen staff."

The fated pair go the Stardust Hotel and fuck.  Then they hit the road, intending to pull an easy and bloodless heist that will be the key to some vast and unspecified alien treasure.  Two dead guards later, they're in a car and on the run, carrying an ancient soul stone back to the tomb from which it was stolen.  They talk.  They steal another car and accidentally kill another person.  Along the way, McAuley rather cunningly conflates Bruce Springsteen's work (particularly his Nebraska album) with Samuel Beckett's.  One of the two is betrayed.  The other is gunned down by the police.  The survivor winds up in jail and speaks the epitaph for them both:  I thought we'd have a bunch of adventures until the law caught up with us.  I thought we'd be together right until the end . . ."

There is a kind of coda at the end of the story which, with the help of a useful alien, makes it clear that the story is about the uncanny power of stories to ride us and make us do their bidding.  And here I have to hesitate because I'm not entirely sure the story has earned its own ending.

But I'm also not entirely sure that it hasn't.  This is one of those stories you have to think about for a long time.  Someday, years from now, most likely, I'll come to a conclusion and turn thumbs up or thumbs down.  Either I'll conclude that "Bruce Springsteen" managed to not say but imply something deep . . .  or I'll decide that it was a noble attempt.

Good story, either way.

Back when I was in college, I was riding in a pickup truck driven by a young woman who, I realized abruptly after the truck nearly went off the road, was a lot drunker than I had realized.  So drunk that, she being who she was, I knew there was no chance of talking her into slowing down or stopping.  So, realizing there was a good chance I was going to die, I leaned as far out the window as I could and laughed.

This is a story that happens every day in America.  In Zen Buddhism, it's called the koan of the strawberry.

Above:  According to its YouTube caption, this is the only film footage in existence of Mark Twain.  I didn't have anything appropriate to the review, so I threw it in.


Monday, November 7, 2011



I'm a pretty reasonable guy about most things.  But not about voting.  Charlton Heston will voluntarily turn in all his firearms to the Enemy long, long before they're able to pry the vote from my cold, dead fingers.  Patriots died to give me this right.  I'm not going to give it up just because there are some ballots that fill the soul with dismay.

In all the time since I came of age, I've failed to vote in exactly one election -- and that's because my college roommate put the absentee ballot atop the furnace, where he figured it would be safe, and by the time I got home a hole had been burned all the way through the center.  Every single other election, primaries included, I'm there at the front of the line.

The reason I'm so enthusiastic about representational democracy is that where it counts most -- the presidential election -- my candidate usually loses.  And yet, because there's always hope, and because the system confers a strange kind of legitimacy (the kind that has you muttering that people get the kind of government they deserve), I have never once been tempted to pick up a gun and participate in the violent overthrow of a government that sometimes appalls me.

That's worth a lot.

Above:  I picked that image off of the Web.  I sure hope that those tiny little words I can't render decipherable don't say anything hideous.


Friday, November 4, 2011

And Now For a Commercial Break . . .


Mea culpa.  I've missed two days' blogs -- and it's been a long time since I've done that. (I've got a case of the Grunge, and it's sapped my energy entirely.)  So to make it up to you in part, here's a genuinely demented work of advertising art.

See how long it takes you to figure out what they're selling.

And is it just me or . . . ?

Does it seem to anybody else that this is Paprika, played as it if were a good thing?


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Celebrating Murray Leinster


I'm off to the Big Apple for A Tribute to Murray Leinster at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art.  If you're in the area, why not drop by?  It's only seven dollars and these New York Review of Science Fiction reading series events are always lots of fun.

That's 138 Sullivan Street  (between Houston & Prince St.).  The doors open at 6:30 tonight.

And because I'm traveling . . .

This will be a short blog.  But I thought I'd share the above photo with you.  I took it at the Occupy Philadelphia site and it shows some of the protesters' tents with, looming above them from across the street, Jacques Lipchitz's statue Government of the People.

Government of the People is one of Gardner Dozois's favorite statues.  He likes to point out that it's a graphic portrayal of human beings being crushed by an enormous load of shit.  Over the years I've come around to the viewpoint that that may have been the sculptor's intent.