Thursday, March 21, 2019

"My God! There's a Lost Civilization in Our Refrigerator"

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It's happened at last. One of my optioned stories has been made into an animated episode of Love Death and Robots, now streaming on Netflix.

The adult science fiction animation series  takes advantage of the nature of its medium. Each story takes exactly as much time to tell as the story requires--anywhere from five to fifteen minutes for the first series. So the plot doesn't have to be cut or padded out to make it fit a Procrustean time-slot. That's brilliant.

And what do I think of what Tim Miller, the director, did with "Ice Age?"

 I think I really lucked out. The combined live-action-and-animation adaptation stayed remarkably true to the original story. And where changes were made, they were all to the better. I laughed out loud when Rob said, "Too soon."

A lot of the success of the piece is due to Topher Grace and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who play Rob and Gail, a newlywed couple moving into a new apartment who discover something unexpected in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator. The original story relied heavily on a kind of deadpan humor in the characters' reaction to this absurd event. It couldn't have been easy to convincingly deliver lines like "My God! There's a lost civilization in our refrigerator. (Try it yourself.) But Grace and Winstead really nailed it.

So I'm delighted. If you watch it, I think you'll be happy too. Probably not as happy as I am. But happy.


And of course . . .

The question has to be asked: What did Gail and Rob, the then-newlywed couple I based the story's characters on, think of the film?


They loved it.


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Monday, March 11, 2019

The Devil's In the Tarot Deck

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Rachel Pollack, who is an authority on the tarot as well as a very fine writer, once told me the reason why stores selling tarot decks usually keep them in locked display cases. There is a belief or tradition, it seems, that for a tarot deck to work it has to be given to its owner. And, human people being the swine that we are, some of us interpret that meaning that a stolen deck will suffice.

So, to make sure that a) it works and b) I don't force my wife into a life of crime, I bought Marianne the Philly Tarot.

There's a nifty story behind it. Artist James Boyle was commissioned to create an illustration for a Philadelphia Magazine article on the rising popularity locally of Tarot cards and the occult. (An article, incidentally, that could have been written any year I've been alive.) His illo (below) was so very cool that both he and the magazine were inundated with requests to know where people could buy the entire deck.


So Boyle opened a Kickstarter account and in one day got orders for three times his target amount. Then he got to work, not just making the drawings but coming up with witty local associations for the cards.

So in thie deck, the Devil is (of course) Gritty. The Emperor is Ben Franklin, the Empress Betsy Ross, and The Lovers are of course Rodin's The Kiss. So far as I can tell, there's not a dud image in the lot.

It's also better made than it had to be. The edges are gilt, the cardboard is of excellent stock, etc., etc.

I would have loved this deck just for Jason Kelce (who, wearing Mummer gear after the Eagles won the Superbowl, famously said "No one likes us and we don't care") as Justice.

Not that the artist needs more business, but if you have a desire to buy the deck, you can do so here.


And as always...

I'm on the road again! Details when I return. In the meantime, the house is protected by My Son the Black Belt and Miss Hope, the noted mad scientist cat. So don't even think about it.



Immediately above: Miss Hope on her Spectromic 20 Photometer doing important science stuff.


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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Josh Hitchens IS Jeffrey Dahmer (Again)

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Those who read my blog on a regular basis know that I think that Josh Hitehens is a cultural treasure. Six years ago, Marianne and I had the privilege of seeing his original one-man performance as a serial killer in a play he wrote himself, The Confession of Jeffrey Dahmer. Last night, we saw it again, in the company of Samuel R. Delany, Dennis Rickett and Bill Wood. 

So, half a decade later and half an hour longer, how does the performance hold up?

It's still terrifying.

The basement space at the Art Church of West Philadelpia wasn't as scary a venue as the near-lightless garage of the original performance. But it's still an intimate experience that puts you very close to a man the likes of which you pray you never run into. (Chairs are set up for seventeen audience members -- one for each of the men and boys Dahmer murdered, though director Ryan Walter says that if anybody is absolutely desperate to see the play, he can slip in a couple of extra chairs.) And Hitchens does a miraculous job of putting the audience in the mind of someone at the extremes of human thought and experience.

This time around, I was struck by how funny the play was. After his performance, Hitchens returned to discuss the play with the audience. Everyone was free to leave if they they wished; nobody did. So I asked about those lines. "About 85% of he play is taken directly from Jeffrey Dahmer's only words," Hitchens said. "All the funny lines were verbatim."

So for ninety minutes or so, we got t live inside the mind of a monster--and a human being. Because the monologue's intent is not to exploit the sensationalistic aspects of what happened--though those were not whitewashed, either--but to give us an idea of what it would be like to be such a man.

There's a line from the original version, since revised, which I like to quote every now and then: "I slept with over a hundred men and boys and I only killed and ate seventeen of them. I think that should count for something." Imagine that said in a flat, affectless voice and now you have some idea of whether you want to see this or not.

But whether it's your sort of thing or not, it's an astonishing performance, a magnificent piece of theater, the sort of accomplishment that justifies is art and its genre.

There are still a few tickets left, I believe, though the run ends on the 17th.  If you wish, you can buy tickets here.


And I Cannot Resist  Including . . .

After the show I took a snap of Chip Delany and Josh Hitchens together. Two very brilliant creators, though in different media.




Note Ryan Walter in the background, aware of the camera and posing for it. That's a true man of the theater. I like his attitude.


Above: Photos by Michael Swanwick and free to use, so long as you include a credit. I should mention that the photo on top is of Josh Hitchens as himself; he looks quite different when he's being Dahmer.


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Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Carol Emshwiller, 1921 - 2019

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Carol Emshwiller has left the planet. She lived for almost a century yet her friends -- pretty much everybody who knew her -- agree that her death came all too soon.

I have no memory of how we first met. One day, on seeing me, her face lit up and she cried, "Michael! It's so good to see you!" and I realized that we were old friends. This was, by the way, her response to all her friends. She was a beacon of life. It shone from her.

I also have no stories about her. Stories are about conflict and it's almost impossible to imagine conflict with Carol. But I do have one small anecdote.

We met by chance one day, as we occasionally did, and I said, "Carol! How are you doing?"

"I'm in mourning," she said. "I've just finished writing Ledoyt and all these characters I've been living with for over a year are gone. It's as if they'd all died. I'm bereft." Then she asked, "Don't you feel the same way when you've finished a novel?"

It's not all that often that writers talk seriously about writing. So I gave Carol's question some thought. Then I said, "No. I see it as a moment of liberation. I've been persecuting all of them for 400 pages and now I've stopped. I imagine them running down the street, waving their hands in the air, shouting, 'I'm free! I'm free! I'm going to buy a hamburger!' and 'I'm going to move to Poughkeepsie and nothing's going to happen to me there!'"

Which is, in part, what I value about Emshwiller's fiction. She wrote stories and novels totally unlike anything I've ever written. She gave me (and all the rest of us) windows into worlds we never could have seen without her.

I have no interest whatsoever in fiction I could have written myself. I found Carol's work intensely interesting.

I'm particularly fond of Carmen Dog.


Above: Photo by Gordon Van Gelder. He'd just given Carol a Nebula Award and thought the moment should be memorialized. Used by permission.

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Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Happy Lunar New Year!

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So it's a brand new year all over again!

The Chinese New Year celebration always reminds me of when I was a young father and my son Sean was still an infant. Marianne and I had business downtown, so we parked in a garage in Chinatown and hit the street.

Which was when we discovered that it was the first day of the Year of the Rat. The streets were filled with celebrants and young men with cigarettes dangling out of the corners of their mouths were setting off string after string of firecrackers. It was gloriously noisy.

I was worried, of course, that the noise would frighten Sean. But instead, his eyes grew wide and he peered about him with wonder. Looking at his face, I could see exactly what he was thinking:  At last! The big people are doing something sensible!

To all my friends in China and everyone else who celebrates this holiday, let me wish you a Happy New Year.

The one day a year on which we big people put aside our ordinary concerns and do something sensible.


Above: Sean, some years later, celebrating the Western New Year at Gardner Dozois' and Susan Casper's apartment in Society Hill.

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Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Godless Atheist Christmas Card of the Year! (Part 3)

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You've seen the runners-up. They were all worthy. In an ordinary year, any one of them could have  won. But this was no ordinary year.

Two works stood head and shoulders above all others for their towering bleakness and uncompromising refusal to even pretend to acknowledge the existence of the spirit of the season. When it came time to choose between them, even the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family could not find a rationale for choosing one above the other.




The adventure began with Sam Jordan's conceptual deconstruction of the traditional Christmas card. That's it immediately above.

Long term readers of this blog may remember Sam as last year's winner of the Godless Atheist Christmas Card of the Year competition. Which victory was achieved by writing a threatening seasonal note on a meat cleaver, burying the cleaver in a bloody turnip and then leaving the whole on the back porch in the dead of night. It was truly a breathtaking piece of work.




Mr. Jordan's submission this year was a genuine work of conceptual performance art. As the accompanying note says, "The Card is INSIDE the Ornaments." The accompanying hammer, complete with festive bow, implied that there was an obvious way to read the card.

One could, of course, employ tweezers. But to do so would be to show the white feather. So...




The hammer was raised.




And lowered.

It must be said that there is something exhilarating about deliberately smashing a Christmas ornament.  It explodes beautifully. It is an act of vandalism akin, one imagines, to flinging a stone through a stained glass window.

This is the first season's greetings I've ever received that made me feel complicit.

Inside the ornament was the message: This "card" represents the last of my creative ability as the depression tightens it's (sic) grip.

The solecism, it must be said, did nothing to lessen Sam's chance of winning.

So... you may well ask... What could possibly offer any competition to so remarkable an effort?

Simply this:



The seasonal card from Judith and John Clute is always an event because Judith Clute is a serious artist (you can find her web page here) and the card is a serious work of art.

Serious, it goes without saying, does not necessarily mean joyful.

The title for the original etching that became the card is 2666, which clearly refers to Roberto BolaƱo's novel of the same name. Which, you will recall, involved an unsolved series of murders of women, the miseries of the Eastern Front in WWII, academia, mental illness, and other such matters.

A familiarity with the book is not necessary to recognize that Ms Clute's work is dark indeed. The woman in the center looks happy and confident -- clearly, she's got it all together. But darkness impinges upon her from either side, with images of death, war, and suffering.

As one member of the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family put it, this is a picture that says: No matter how happy you may be, the common fate of all is death --- death in the past, death in the future, death everywhere.

From a lesser work of art, this would be easily dismissed. But Judith Clute is, as has been said, a real artist.

For a very long time, the debate went back and forth. Could Sam Jordan's conceptual piece be disqualified as an obvious attempt to win the Godless Atheist Christmas Card of the Year  competition? No, it was decided. What could be more godless and atheistic than wanting to win such a competition?

Could, then, Clute's card be downgraded for being aloof from the entire competition? Also, no. Its sincerity had to considered an asset.

For the first time ever, the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family was deadlocked. Nobody could bring him or herself to vote either way.

And then... And then...

And then, a Christmas miracle happened! One of us moodily smashed another of Mr. Jordan's ornaments:



And it contained a message saying: May this ornament find you in good health for years to come!

"Christmas," somebody gaped, "is saved."

With a palpable feeling of relief, the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family declared that this warm message of good will moved Sam's offering one degree off of negative zero. It was declared first through tenth runner-up.

And the title of Godless Atheist Christmas Card of 2018 went to Judith Clute's 2666.

But it was a squeaker.


And for the second time in a row . . .

I have to apologize for being a day late with this post. I had it half-written when a certain family swept me away to see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. By the time we'd watched and discussed it, built a fire in the wood stove, mixed Manhattans, and settled down to dinner, I had forgotten my obligations entirely.

For which I am sincerely sorry. The movie was good, though. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys the superhero genre.

Would it be a spoiler if I told you that Spider-Man dies? Okay, then, forget I said anything.


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Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Godless Atheist Christmas Card of the Year (Part 2)

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The deliberations over this year's Godless Atheist Christmas Card were prolonged and fierce. As mentioned in Part 1, cards consisting of photos of happy family members (mostly children), were, after much esoteric discussion (is a heart truly a religious symbol? does a snowflake reference Christmas or merely the fact that winter is cold?), it was decided to eliminate the category en masse.

The cards were, yes, atheistic, but it seemed cruel to hold that against them when they were all about love of family.

(I should pause here to comment on how hard it was to rule out any of this year’s cards. My sister Mary, for example, sent a card with a painting of a Roanoke roadhouse. One that in my opinion sent the cheerful holiday message, “I believe I’ll have a hamburger.” I was overruled, however, on the grounds that the joint “bespeaks hospitality” and that hospitality fits right into the season. This is how low we had to stoop to eliminate cards from our consideration!) 

Then we came to this card, from a friend in Moscow:



A stunned silence fell over the distinguished Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family. At last somebody said, "Let's just chalk this one up to the eternal mystery of the Russian soul."  Rather than deal with the religious content of a jolly Russian Santa-bear,  all immediately agreed.

Then came the question of corporate Christmas cards. Two of which are shown below:




Obviously, branding is not in the spirit of the religious holiday season. For which reason, the Asimov's/Analog card immediately went to the top of the heap for including two corporate logos into its design.

But what sent the cards as a category right to the top of the heap was the fact that one included a coupon for 5% off of their product. "That's not even generous" crowed the junior member of the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family. "I love it!!!"




Deeper into our Odyssey, we came upon two cards that in very similar way entered into the anti-spirit of the non-holiday. For sheer nihilism, it's hard to beat the top card showing an empty, lifeless wood in deep winter. There is not the least sense of a holy presence of any kind, not any hope that the unending winter will not stretch its way into infinity. This is a celebration of the heat death of the universe, and it simply takes the breath away.

As for the second card... “This sends the message that choosing the right religion isn’t as important as having the love of Man in your heart,” opined one member of the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family. To which, another opined, “Even ‘Happy New Year’ was deemed too controversially religious. Now that’s Godless.”



"Wrong season!" somebody cried, and the rest all nodded. This card immediately went to the finals. The sender is a friend and a very talented artist. We're always glad to hear from him and grateful for the sample of his work, Nevertheless, nothing bespeaks an anxiety to avoid the holiday season as evoking an entirely different time of year.



At fist blush, the  card from our friend Elizabeth eems to live at least next-door to the holiday spirit. There's a snowman smiling at a friendly-looking bird and in the background is what might be a snow-covered Mount Fuji.

Almost, this card was disqualified out of hand. But, just to be thorough, the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family. opened the card and looked within. Where we found the following hand-written explanation:

The more lies the snowman tells, the shorter his note gets. And snowmen tell a lot of lies. Birds know everything -- they told me statues lie too, and that's why they're covered with poop.

It takes the  breath away. The card immediately went to the top of the stack.




 Finally, our friend Charlotte sent this card from New York City.  Sending the message that one of our number neatly encapsulated as: “New York is small and the night is large. The only warmth is here, in the only city that matters. I wish you were here. But you’re not. You’re in the darkness.


Well played, Charlotte! Your card made the finals.


In a lesser year, any of these cards might have won. But (SPOILER ALERT) none of them did. For among their worthy ranks were two giants of Godless Atheism, two cards that truly exemplified the anti-spirit of the nega-season. 

Nor was it easy to choose between them. For the first time ever, the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family was almost stymied. It was truly a battle of Titans.

But, as our television sets have wisely taught us, There Can Only Be One.

Next... that One is chosen.


And I owe apologies . . .

To everyone who checked the blog yesterday, expecting to find this post written and up, mea culpa. I can only plead laziness and irresponsibility.

It was perhaps overly optimistic to expect I'd write two blog posts on consecutive days. So, rather than compound my offense, I'll post the third and final part of this nail-biter of a contest on Friday.

Really.

This time for sure.

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Monday, January 28, 2019

The Godless Atheist Christmas Card of he Year! (Part 1)

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Every January, The Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family (that may or may not be one up above) meets in solemn conclave to determine which seasonal card best exemplifies the nihilistic, religion-shunning spirit of The Godless Atheist Christmas Card of the Year. This year, because of minor illnesses and foreign travel, the event was delayed a few weeks. But at last the distinguished event has occurred and 2018 has been sorted and judged.

And what a year it's been! For the first time ever, only three cards were overtly religious. One was from a woman who founded her own charity to provide housing for homeless men. The second was from a woman who's going through a hard patch of life and needs all the spiritual consolation she can get. And the third card with what at first blush appeared to be a photo of a medieval gold-and-silver soup tureen revealed itself on the inside to be a reliquary in Santa Maria Maggiore holding the sycamore boards that were said to be from the crib of the Nativity of Jesus.  All three were mmediately taken out of the running.

The rest of us? Astonishingly void of spiritual values.

While a certain proud member of the Not At All Nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family stood up for rigorous standards, it must be said that certain others on the panel pushed the definition of religious sentiment. The many cards consisting of a montage of family members, children most predominantly and usually at the beach, were summarily dismissed from consideration with the observation that, "They're atheist but not proudly atheist. I want a card that wholeheartedly denies the beauty, the grace, and the love of God."




Above: Is this the face of the Illuminati? We're not telling.


Other comments included:

"This is tepid. Definitely athe-ish."

And the exchange:

"It's definitely godless."

"No, it's abstract."

"Which is godless."

An Edward Gorey card showing enervated Edwardians decorating a hearth was dealt with curtly: "Hearth rhymes with warmth. Dismissed!"

As you can see, the panel's standards were high. As ran the emotions as well. I don't know what card it was that caused one of the NAANBRPOF  (I am not saying whom) to exclaim in exasperation, "Poisoned with the blood of Christ?!" But it too was deemed religious by my fellow panelists.

But I can see that this post is running long and we still have yet to get to the specific cards. So... tomorrow, the runners-up. With images and comments!




Above: Look at that trustworthy expression! Whoever this is, he's obviously a meliorating influence on the others.


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Sunday, January 20, 2019

A Few Words For New Writers

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You're absolutely right. The story you're working on sucks. It's terrible. It's unreadable. Worse than that, it's unpublishable.

And you know why?

Because you haven't finished it yet. And, unless it's by Franz Kafka or Jane Austen or J. D. Salinger, nobody is going to pay good money to publish an unfinished story.

Moreover, until it's finished, you don't know what changes you're going to have to make in order for it to be the best possible story it can be. So the odds are that your story is a bit of a mess and will remain so until you undo the inconsistencies, rewrite the problem sections, cut the superfluous ones, and do the final polish draft.

Meanwhile, instead of simply putting your head down and plowing ahead, you're staring at what you've written and comparing it to the finished work of writers you admire. Theirs is so marvelous! Yours is so... unfinished. Maybe, you think, the best thing would be to just erase the file and spend the rest of the day playing solitaire online.

But the work of those writers you like so much was nowhere near so admirable while it was being made. Trust me on this one. Sausage ain't even in it!

You may be a very dear friend, someone to whom I owe a lot and for whom I would walk a mile barefoot through the snow if need be, but I am not going to let you read my rough drafts.

The best writing advice I ever got was from Jack Dann. He asked me once what I was working on and I said something like, "Well, I have this story set in space but I'm not crazy about the characterization..."

Jack grabbed my lapels then and shook me. He literally did. Then he said, "Michael! Never criticize yourself! That's what other people are for."

So, when you're writing, your first responsibility to your craft is to learn to turn off that internal critic, that little Stalin of the soul for the duration. You can turn it back on when you're going over the finished story to see what changes need to be made, if you like. But keep its grubby little hands off the actual writing.

End of sermon. Go thou and sin no more.


And those "other people" Jack talked about . . . ?

They've never let me down. 


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Thursday, January 3, 2019

Ginungagap in China

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I'm in print again! "Ginungagap," my second published story (and also, I am vain enough to point out, my second story to be on the Nebula ballot) is in the current issue of  Science Fiction World Translation.

It's always a particular pleasure to appear in China. Partly it's because I have friends in there. Partly it's because I admire Science Fiction World both as a magazine and as a publishing house. But mostly it's because this is a very exciting time for science fiction in China.

The first time I visited China, over a decade ago, I was told that science fiction there was still a Young Adult literature. Its readership peaked in the senior year of high school, dwindled throughout university, and went to zero upon graduation. Last year, I attended a bookstore event in Beijing that was thronged with adults. So the field is growing and evolving just as fast as everything else in China is.

It is in such times that new ideas arise and remarkable works get written. Which is why you should be reading all the Chinese science fiction you can find.

As well as all the other science fiction you can find, of course.


And as always . . .

I'm on the road again! Or will be soon. I'm headed for the north coast of Scotland, where I'll be teaching at a workshop and retreat in Findhorn. Whenever I teach, I give the students all the attention I have. So I may or may not be able to blog then.

I promise I'll try.

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