Monday, December 31, 2007

Fast Forward!

Happy New Year! I finished up the year by driving to Washington, D. C., for a Fast Forward interview. Fast Forward: Contemporary Science Fiction is a monthly half-hour television series that's been running since 1989, and this is (I think) my third interview with them.

But the real star of the day was not me or even fellow interviewee Kathleen Ann Goonan, but Kathy's father, Tom Goonan. (Shown above, directly between KAG and me.) He accompanied her to the taping not only because he lives locally but because her new novel, In War Times, was based in part on his experiences in World War II. In fact, as related in Kathy's interview, while he began as a source for information on radar technology, his role in the novel grew as she wrote it, until she wound up actually incorporating entries from his journal in the book. So we were all greatly impressed by him. He's an engaging man, too.

That's all. I draw your attention to the fact that I didn't even mention that my father was a radar operator in WWII. And I didn't say a single world about my own brilliant fantasy novel, The Dragons of Babel. Such modesty should be noted.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Early Notes Toward a Nonexistent Lexicon

So how did you waste your morning? I spent part of mine building the Tower of Babel out of the two boxes of contractual copies of The Dragons of Babel, which arrived in today's mail.

Which put me in a good mood for today's blog . . .

As those who follow my nonfiction (and, counting me, there is at least one) know, I have a thing for lexicons. I've created two so far, "A Lexicon of Lud," annotating Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist, and "A Cloudish Word-Hoard," for Greer Gilman's Moonwise, and I'm at work on yet another, the topic of which I'll announce if and when. Yet there's no way I'll ever annotate one of my own novels. I simply know too much. The lexicon would end up longer than the work itself.

Nevertheless, it's pleasant to fantasize that somebody will someday do the same for me, even if it's not during my lifetime. So, just in case, I'll prime the pump with a few short entries that no conceivable lexicographer for The Dragons of Babel could come up with. Simply because . . . well, you'll see.

Here they are:

Boodles martini, straight up with a twist: Zorya Vechnayaya drinks this simply because it's my favored cocktail.

Ichabod the Fool: Most of Nat Whilk's noms de scène are of famous tricksters, drawn from world mythology. This one comes from a Zippo lighter owned by one of my fellow camp counselors at Mt. Norris Boy Scout Reservation in Vermont in the 1960s. On one side was engraved the word ICHABOD and on the other SHITHEAD. This was universally regarded as the being the very soul of wit, though nobody could explain why.

Nanshe: The somnambulist came from "Hermaphrodite," a 1992 oil painting by the improbably named (and yet brilliant) Odd Nerdrum. He also did a painting of the White Ladies manuring the fields, though not by that name.

The Roxy Movie Theater: An old movie-house that once stood at the corner of Roxborough and Ridge Avenues, a block from where I live. It had beautiful terra-cotta trim, a few small pieces of which were rescued from the rubble when it was torn down and now reside in my garden. The same building featured more prominently in my story, "Radio Waves."

Salem Toussaint: The haint politician was inspired in part by Paul Laurence Dunbar's classic story, "The Scapegoat." But his name is derived from that of Salem Flack, the last of the old-time histrionic lawyers in Washington, PA. My late father-in-law, William C. Porter, vividly remembered Salem Flack getting down on his knees before a jury and praying to an almighty and merciful God to forgive the lying, perjuring eye-witnesses who had testified against his client.

Urdumheim: Derived from urdummheit or "primordial stupidity," a nineteenth-century anthropological term, the subtleties of which I'm not about to winkle out here. I changed the -heit (or -ness) to -heim (or -home) to make it a place, and dropped the second m because it looked, well, dumb.

Le Wine Bar: The Wine Bar, in Center City Philadelphia, was where Marianne and I first discovered the joys of good wine. It was a glass of Burgess Zinfandel that sold us. At the time it was easily affordable. Alas, in matters of taste Marianne and I are early adaptors. All the world came pouring in after us and now we can afford it only on special occasions.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 19)

Diagram 19. Skeptics will doubt me, but things are going pretty well here. I'm midway through Chapter 13, "The Hippogriff Girl," and I've simplified the plot to three sections: Ball, Confrontation, and Escape. This particular diagram would be one that I wrote at the beginning of the morning, to map out what I hoped to write that day:

From left to right, basically:






Threat -- "No, I understood," Will said. He did.

We don't have to like each other -- or approve of each other

(Thinx of Salem)



She must seduce Will out of his clothing

Do you really love me? Then take off your clothes.

"I know what you expected!"

A sense of who Alcyone is . . . a high-born swashbuckler


A is for Alcyone; Z is for Zorya Vechernyaya, my candidate for police officer you'd least enjoy having arrest you; F I've already said I'd like to keep nameless; and S is for Shorty, known by that name only to his employer. To the rest of the world he's Hrothgar Thalwegsson. Just how much money do you have to have to get away with calling a dwarf "Shorty" to his face?

The fact that I deemed the Ball section "OK, essentially," means that it was already pretty much writtten. The Confrontation with F still needed work. There was so many information that had to come out in this section that F was beginning to sound like a Bond villain -- and, honest, I was aiming for something better than that. Eventually I solved the problem by introducing a manticore as a character. There's nothing like a manticore for cutting the grease!

The bits of dialogue are written in a form invented (I believe) by my old college friend Jay Schauer who, when he had dialogue to write and was moving too fast to work it out properly, would jot down a rough approximation of what the characters were supposed to get across to the reader, and then come back and compose their speech later, when he had the time. Like so:

Hamlet: Yorick was a jester. I liked him, he was funny. It bums me out that he's dead.
Horatio: I feel your pain, my lord.

Quite useful.

I note that at this point the notion that Alcyone was going to have sex with Will by the end of the chapter is entirely (and quite rightly; it would have been out of character) gone, replaced by a jape that you'll have to read the novel to learn about. But she's still not the complicated person she was soon to become. A "high-born swashbuckler" indeed! Though that is what she wishes she could be and what Will thinks she is.

The Escape was more or less complete in my head at this point, which was why I was scolding myself to write it out.

Monday, December 24, 2007

In Which I Receive An Early Christmas Present...

Merry Christmas! I'm posting this a little late in the day because, well, Christmas Eve is always busy. I had to pick up the goose from the Chestnut Hill Farmer's Market, engage in a little spontaneous drama with Sean (Me: "The most amazing thing just happened! The butcher delivered this enormous goose and said it was from, of all people, Ebenezer Scrooge!" Sean: "What possible reason could the old skinflint have for such an action?" Me: "Perhaps there's been a Christmas miracle and he's changed his ways." Both: "Hahahahahahahahahaha!"), compose this year's Christmas story, visit friends, and prepare for Christmas Eve services, where Marianne is reading scripture. So this might come out sounding a little rushed.

I received an early Christmas present on Friday, in the form of two fresh-minted copies of The Dragons of Babel, which Stacy Hague-Hill of Tor Books was kind enough to send me. And now, for a brief period I am as happy as any writer of fiction ever manages to be. The book is beautiful, the reversed lettering was printed correctly, the text is beautifully designed, the chapter numbers are in a charmingly bizarre typeface (the craze for the paragraph at the end of the book explicating the typography is over, unfortunately; but I think the font is Hyperserif Scissorshands or the like; you'll see what I mean if you get the book), and I am filled with enormous gratitude to Michael Moorcock, Gene Wolfe, Kage Baker, Jane Yolen, and Vernor Vinge for providing the book with generous blurbs. Those things are a royal and unpaid pain to write, and it means a lot to me that they'd bother.

Also, Gene called me "jolly." So much for the slander that I'm sardonic!

This would be a good place to mention my scheduled appearances over the next couple of months. As follows:

January 8: New York Review of Science Fiction reading at the South Street Seaport Museum, New York City.

January 12: Appearance on Jim Freund's Hour of the Wolf, WBAI radio, New York City. (It's in the early hours of Saturday morning.)

January 25-27: I'll be guest of honor at Chattacon in Chattanooga, Tennesee. It was at a Chattacon, long years ago, that I had the privilege of informing Andy Duncan that he'd just made his first professional sale. So I have a special fondness for this convention.

February 15-17: I'll be one among many panelists at Boskone in Boston, Massachusetts. A lovely con, good people, and they published one of my collections, Moon Dogs, the year I was their goh.

March 19: Reading at the KGB Bar, New York City. If you're in the NYC area but have never been to a KGB reading, you owe it to yourself to go, just for the ambiance. The KGB is a genuine Commie Bar -- there are statuettes of Lenin and posters of Ukrainian Communist leaders all over the place. Even the walls are painted red! Is this a great country or what?

March 21-23: I'll be attending Norwescon in Sea-Tac, convenient to both Seattle and Tacoma. I don't get out to to West Coast very often, so this is a great opportunity for local signed-book collectors. You know who you are.

April 10: A reading at Temple University in Philadelphia. Actually, I believe this is in a Center City building, but don't quote me on it. Mostly this is intended for Samuel R. Delany's students, but universities don't mind when outsiders pop in for this sort of thing. As a general rule, they're open-handed with human culture.

And that's it for now! Though there may be more. The Hermit of Roxborough is actually going to be leaving his house for a change! Drop by and say hello if you have the chance.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Second-Best Blurb I've Ever Gotten

I'm going to have to quote Gary K. Wolfe's review of The Dragons of Babel in the December 2007 Locus at some length in order for you to understand the context of a sentence in the review which I feel is unquestionably the second-best blurb I've ever gotten. But not to fear. It's not your standard plot-summary-and-effusive-praise. That comes later, and I'll (mostly) skip over it in silence. The salient part is the long run-in to the review. As follows:

Time was, everyone knew the rules: fantasies are made worlds, fully realized secondary universes, magisterial acts of subcreation, and the first principle of made worlds is internal consistency -- every elf, tree, and dragon in place, or else a single anomaly might pop the whole bubble. As recently as 1973, Usula K. Le Guin, in a widely cited essay, reminded us that "Elfland is not Poughkeepsie; the voice of the transistor is not heard in that land." But then here comes Michael Swanwick with his afterburner-assisted mechanical dragons, his fantasy Babylon with its Frank Lloyd Wright lounges, palace courtiers checking their Blackberries, saloons with framed pictures of Muhammad Ali, Bowie knives, gas chromatographs, dumpsters, Kawasaki motorcycles, and Mercedes and BMW automobiles, Pepsis, McDonalds, Marlboros, Zippo lighters, Hermes bags (for carrying runes), Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts and Givenchy gowns, animate stone lions who read Faulkner and Tolstoy and wise women who quote Mary McCarthy.

And yes, there's a transistor radio heard in this land: a strange and magical little girl, much older than she at first seems, hauls it out to listen to Duke Ellington's "Take the A Train" while on a train speeding to the legendary city of Babel. Babel itself may be a composite version of the mythic city built by the god-king Marduk and dominated by its famous tower, but on the ground it more often looks like Manhattan, with its sugbways, Grand Central Station, Lower East Side, brownstones, and a public library guarded by a pair of stone lions ()one of whom is that Faulkner reader). This is, in short, a fantasy world that pointedly violates most of the received wisdom regarding fantasy worlds, that is as much about fantasy as it is a demonstration case. Hasn't Swanwick learned anything?

Phew! Isn't that a terrific blurb? I'll pull it out of context now:

"Hasn't Swanwick Learned Anything?"
- Gary K. Wolfe, Locus

Just so it's clear, Wolfe did like the book, which he went on to characterize as "shaggy, crazed, and wonderful" and overlaid with "a kind of celebratory looniness that in the end is nothing less than exhilarating."

Still, what a great blurb! I'm almost certain that Tor won't use it on the paperback, though. Back when I got my best blurb ever, it was nowhere to be found on the Avonova paperback of The Iron Dragon's Daughter, though if it had been up to me, I would have put it on the front cover, smack-dab above the title. Where I am convinced it would have sold many, many additional copies. But even if it hadn't -- who cares?

That blurb, from another Locus review, this one by Faren Miller, immediately followed a thumbnail plot summary and goes:

“Toto, I Don't Think We're On Pern Anymore!”

Okay, so I added the exclamation point. You can see why I would.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 18)

Diagram 18. Will's first date with Alcyone! Sort of. It doesn't end well, of course. But look how clean the diagram is! This section is coming together fast. From bottom to top:

Emphatically Spring

Fata I.


look @ the party in R & J





"You don't want to



He's like Antaeus; in the air,
off of Babel, he shows fear
& nervous reaction

She screws him so there will be no unpaid debts

She tells him she's notfor him

Alcyone ( ) is to be
extraordinary, to be her
own person, to be
a swashbuckler

ALCYONE: Act like somebody real!

Will was trying to listen.


W is again Will, A is Alcyone, and I think I'll hold off on revealing who F is.

It's spring, and Will is crashing a masked ball. After two quick encounters with "Fata I." (the name was later tweaked) and her dwarf, Will has a more prolonged and involved encounter with a poulette. As he much earlier mused, "Witches were the self-appointed legislators of the world. They were forever sticking their long noses into other people’s business, demanding that a rosebush be replanted, or a child renamed, or a petty criminal taken down from the gallows half-choked but still breathing. It was next to impossible to be born, to lose one’s virginity, to plot a murder, to die, or to be reborn, without one or more popping up and uttering gnostic solemnities." I almost threw "fall in love" in there, since the passage was meant to be, if not foreshadowing, at least prescient. But Will had already fallen in love with Alcyone in the Hanging Gardens, and there was no room for a witch in that scene.

I'd guess that R&J refers to Romeo and Juliet. As it happened, I went to War and Peace for inspiration instead.

It's a little hard on Alcyone to write that she "screws" Will, or to imply that in so doing she's simply balancing the books -- though that's what she thinks she's doing, and how it feels to Will. But these diagrams are cartoons, and the most subtle interpersonal relationships are rendered as "He liked her" or "She put a fork through his hand."

"Act like somebody real!" is good advice. Will is still growing, still learning, remember. He's not yet worthy of a woman like Alcyone. Though he's getting close.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Ineluctable Jason Van Hollander

(First of all, my apologies for missing last Friday's blog. I was laid flat by a cold. This is the downside of running a one-man business. The upside? No problems with the union.)

Jason Van Hollander, with his usual modesty, wishes I wouldn't mention him in this blog so often. He's afraid it makes me look like I don't have many other friends. Well, I do my best. But when he pulls something like the above picture on me (detail below), what can I do but brag?

The picture in question appears on the black cover of A Vintage from Atlantis, volume 3 of the collected fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger. Night Shade Books is engaged in the comendable project of assembling the definitive texts of CAS's fantasy, science fiction, and horror in a uniform five-volume set. All of them (or at least the three to date) with covers by Jason Van Hollander. And, as you can see, Jason slipped in a portrait of me.

Not a very flattering portrait of me. But still.

For those unfamiliar with the works of Clark Ashton Smith . . . Imagine lapidarian prose harnessed to an imagination somewhat darker than Ambrose Bierce's. Imagine dark glimmery beauty in the borderlands of fantasy and horror. Imagine a body of work which inspired Jack Vance's The Dying Earth, which in turn inspired Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. It's not to everyone's taste -- the prose style can be as intense as maple sugar, though in no way sticky -- but if you have a liking for this sort of thing, I fail to see where else you're going to find it.

If you're a Clark Ashton Smith fan already, you want these books. If not, why not check him out? Night Shade Books, incidentally, has got a truly astonishing lineup of authors. So they're worth checking out as well.

Finally, in the interests of keeping the man happy by limiting the frequency of posts about him, I'll mention here and now that Jason Van Hollander has a blog. Astonishing but true. It's called The Jolly Corner and subtitled The Illustration Journal of Jason Van Hollander. Mostly, it's about his book covers. (Jason is an extrarodinary designer, in addition to being an World Fantasy Award winning illustrator.) But the very first entry was penned by Yours Truly, last October, when I showed him how to set up the blog. I thought you should know that, lest you think Jason was being surly.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 17)

Diagram 17: Oh, we're cooking now! You can practically smell the brain-grease sizzle. The section that became "A Small Room in Koboldtown" came on hard and fast. On the left-hand page of my notebook are my diagrams. On the right-hand page (not pictured) are plot notes. I'll transcribe them below, after my annotations.

From top to bottom:

Salem Will Ghostface

The suspect is set up because they're easy to frame

like OJ, guilty and framed

Suspect -- Will -- Ghostface

Ghostface -- Salem -- Will

Race -- Money -- Sex

"Koschei" -- girlfriend -- suspect

mention the arched streets, vaulted where the bldgs meet overhead

pixie dust?
K -- Suspect -- Ghostface


Salem Toussaint's name and a great deal of his character came from Salem Flack, the last of the old-time lawyers in Washington County, Pennsylvania. My late father-in-law, William Christian Porter vividly remembered Salem Flack getting down on his knees before a jury, clasping his hands, gazing up toward the ceiling, and praying to an Almighty God to forgive the lying, perjuring witnesses who had testified against his client.

Ghostface's name (and his brother Ice's) were taken from hip-hop culture because although Pan-African folklore is as rich as Pan-European folklore, it's not as widely distributed in our society. And I needed that vague sense of familiarity for the names to work.

OJ was guilty. The cops framed him. Once you assume both premises are true, everything falls into place.

Those of my former students who wonder whether my notion of relationship triangles really is of any potential application should go over this section of the novel when it comes out and look for the triangles -- they're all there. Which is not to say that they'll work for everyone. "There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays -- and every single one of them is right," as Uncle Rudy was fond of saying. Writers are a varied lot.

I'm not sure I ever found the opportunity to mention the buildings arching over the streets. And I have no idea what that rough hourglass of a building is supposed to be about!

The facing page:


Novel -- Ball
-- Locked room
-- arrival:
racial tensions

Will could go to Nat for help. (But would he?)

Cheap midnight diners -- "most magical place in the world," he said.

S. T. encouraged rumors that he had owned yachts, estates, a ruby the size of a simurgh's egg, though there was no honest way he could have amassed such wealth. "Better a crook than a pauper," he'd say with a smile and a wink.

Fennel -- he's the janitor. The doorman takes the fennel down to let him in and out.

-- A Bag of powder -- superhuman strength & immunity f/pain.

"No money." The cops obviously believe they're right -- they're not threatened.


Not a lot needs to be said here. I don't think I used the diner comment but, boy howdy, is it evocative! Nor the riff about Salem Toussaint's (nonexistent -- he is, in his way, perfectly honest) riches. It's like the vaulted roofs -- a lot more ideation goes into creating a fantasy than can be crammed into the novel.

The fennel was borrowed from Hope Mirrlees's masterwork, Lud-in-the-Mist. Some (the estimable Julia Briggs for one) would argue that it was Paris: A Poem which was her chef d'oeuvre. Either way, she has my admiration.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Bit of Self-Indulgence

Did you know that there are many, many South Park character generators out there on the Web? So many of them that I can't find which one I used to to make a SP version of me.

I came across the link at Narbonic (which is the other Female Mad Scientist comic -- the one that's not Girl Genius), and made this little guy to amuse my family. And now you.

More serious stuff soon, I promise.

Friday, December 7, 2007

A Publicity Mailing

I had clever things in mind for today's post. But I got caught up in working on a pamphlet to send out at Christmas and, well . . .

But I promised to post three times weekly, and so here's the publicity mailing that Tor sent out when The Dragons of Babel got a starred review in Publishers Weekly. They take PW starred reviews as serious as serious, out there in publishing land. (Those little paragraph dingbats to either side of "starred review" are supposed to be stars. Ah, the mysteries of Web publishing!)


By Michael Swanwick

A Tor Hardcover

ISBN: 0-765-31950-0

$25 .95 / 320 pages

On-sale date: January 8, 2008

Publicity News Flash

Michael Swanwick's THE DRAGONS OF BABEL
receives a

starred review
Publishers Weekly.


Publishers Weekly calls Dragons of Babel
“modern fantasy at its finest."

"Swanwick introduces us to a wide range of marvelous conceits, fascinating
digressions a
nd sparkling characters ... should hold great appeal for fans of
Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys or C
hina Mieville's novels."

The Dragons of Babel
Swanwick, Michael (Author)

ISBN: 0765319500
Tor Books
Published 2008-01
Hardcover, $25.95 (320p)
Fiction | Fantasy - General

In this triumphant return to the universe of The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1994),
Hugo-winner Swanwick introduces Will le Fey, an orphan of uncertain parentage.

After defeating an evil mechanical war dragon who has enslaved him and his
village, Will finds himself displaced by war, first imprisoned in an internment
camp and then transported to the many-miles-high city of Babel. On the way, he
falls in with Esme, an immortal child with no memory, and Nat Whilk, a donkey-
eared confidence man of superhuman abilities. Fusing high technology
seamlessly with magic, Swanwick introduces us to a wide range of marvelous
conceits, fascinating digressions and sparkling characters. His language
bounces effortlessly back and forth between the high diction of elfland and
thieves' argot to create a heady literary stew. This is modern fantasy at its
finest and should hold great appeal for fans of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys
or China Miéville's novels. (Jan.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 16)

Diagram 16. We have reached the end of Will’s adventures underground. Once again (though, uncharacteristically, Will himself does not recognize the pattern) all others are scattered and he goes on alone.

From top to bottom:

All is panic & rout







Of “All is panic and rout,” I can only say: Truer words were never spoken.

The “10 ”at the top refers to Chapter 10, from which all the people and events in Chapter 11 come pouring out, like a train from a tunnel.

Hjördis is of course Hjördis, and “LE” is almost certainly an earlier iteration of Lord Weary. But I have no idea who E and g are. Perhaps they represent earlier names for the characters who became Tatterwag and Jenny Jumpup. Perhaps not.

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Brief and Self-Indulgent Post

My apologies for not posting this hours earlier. I spent all the day working on the Zeppelin story I'm writing with American literary cult hero, Eileen Gunn. Self-indulgent, I know, but loads of fun.

In the meantime, if you want to know more about me -- and if you know enough to be reading this blog, why should you? -- you can check out Heidi's Pick Six at In the course of which I told, perhaps, more than I should have. Enjoy!

Friday, November 30, 2007

A Typical Thursday

Here's what I did yesterday:

Part of the morning I spent wandering the halls of a closed government building, peering through windows and rattling doors to check the efficacy of their security procedures. (At the administrators' invitation, of course. I don't do this sort of thing freelance.) On the way home I stopped at a library book sale and picked up hardcovers of Prehistoric Animals and Prehistoric Sea Monsters with those classic plates by Zdenek Burian for two bucks a pop. Then (a little last-minute, I admit), I planted tulip bulbs. And I dropped by a bookstore and bought the February issue of Realms of Fantasy.

By good fortune, my new collection was the lead item in the book review column. Here are the highlights of what Paul Witcover had to say:

Nowhere is the health of the speculative genre more evident than in the short story . . . Lovers of fantasy have a lot to be thankful for -- not least being the efforts of Michael Swanwick, who returns with a new collection, The Dog Said Bow-Wow, containing sixteen stories, most of them as good as any he has ever written: indeed, no less than three (the title story, "Slow Life," and "Legins in Time") are Hugo winners.

For our purposes, the stories of note are those set in a grimy, industrial version of Faerie that has been scoured clean of any remotely twee elements: a kind of steampunk fantasy. . . . These bawdy, tightly plotted tales will make you laugh out loud, but they don't shy away from deeper meaning.

This is doubly true of the three stories featuring Darger and Surplus, two charming rogues, the latter of whom is a genetically engineered dog. . . . these lusty stories are really fantasies that allow Swanwick ample room to play with old myths, legends, and fairy tales, as well as to comment upon the politics of the present day, which he does with considerable zest.

But wait -- there's more! In that same column, Jeff Vandermeer reviews Gregory Frost's imminent novel Shadowbridge. And, what the hell, I'll give you the review in its entirety:

In addition to the return of heroic fantasy, stories-within-stories Scheherazade-style are back in vogue, which is good for Gregory Frost and his Shadowbridge, because not only is his protagonist, Leodora, a story collector and teller, but everyone lives on a huge bridge that is for all intents and purposes the world, as there's nothing beneath but endless seas. To call the premise audacious would be an understatement, and yet it's the stories and the characters that reign here, not the concept, for all the glitter. Leodora, fleeing her past, is a very real person, and her adventures and perils are also real. The idea of the naming of things and people being important, the idea of stories being not frivolous but vital, drives the engine of the plot. A cavalcade of other characters, from Leodora's manager to her musical companion, also provide depth. The inclusion of gos and much of wonder in the setting is certainly a bonus, but almost isn't necessary. The only real shame about Shadowbridge, however, is that it's clearly part one of a novel cut into two parts (for marketing reasons?), with the second half to be published in 2008.

To which I shall add two comments:

1) Yes, apparently the original manuscript was deemed too long to be profitably published in one volume. But the second book is being published in early 2008, so there's no reason to put off buying the first one.

2) So convinced am I that Shadowbridge, which I read in an earlier unfinished draft and which I am furiously anxious to finally get to read in its completed form, will turn out to be a classic fantasy novel, that I cannot resist pointing out that I know Gregory Frost personally. Greg and I have been friends for decades. That's the kind of writers I get to hobnob with!

(Oh, and incidentally, Realms of Fantasy is a journal that deserves your patronage and possibly even subscription. Why don't you pick up a copy at your local bookstore, read it, and then make up your own mind about it?)

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 15)

Diagram 15. Lord Weary's Empire at last! I've finally gotten Will into the subway system beneath Babel. There are two lines because one (the diagonal) follows the plot and the other Will's transformations of personality.

From top left to bottom right (with the occasional bit out of order to make it all more sensible):



* He knows about he dragon & just has to admit it.

Lord Soulis Venereal

We are not an ordinary community We are an army


Becomes Jack Riddle


* X is a surprise

Voyage of Discovery

Becomes Will Again

Hanging Gardens


"Upstairs" is what the undergrounders call the upper levels. Will descending into the underground is of course a reenactment of the Eleusinian Mysteries, though he will not see the sun at midnight explicitly.

That Will already knows about the dragon was a discovery I made only as I charted out the diagram. Will is, I discovered, faster on the uptake than the typical fantasy hero, though it was not my original intention to make him so.

Lord Soulis was the original name for Lord Weary. Lord Venereal was the next stab at his name. It took me forever to come up with the right monicker for him.

Tresjoli was quickly renamed Hjördis. "Tresjoli" was just too sex-kittenish a name for the Lady-Thane.

"Cicerone" is of course a function rather than a name. The individual in question became known, after a false start or two, as the Whisperer. He takes Will on a voyage of discovery (which, when I came to it, turned out to be quite different from what I originally planned) at the climax of which the Whisperer's true identity is discovered. This time it is a surprise.

The two X's mark the spots where I removed the Whisperer's true name from the diagram. There's no point in my spoiling my own plot.

The Hanging Gardens, where Will gets his first glimpse of Halcyone is a blend of New York City's Central Park and the Skansen in Stockholm. If you ever get a chance to pass up seeing the Skansen, by all means don't.

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Inedible Jason Van Hollander

A month or so ago I dropped in on Jason Van Hollander. It was somewhere between noon and 1 p.m. "Have you had lunch yet?" he asked.

"Yes, I did."

"I thought maybe you might like some soup."

"Well, I already ate."

"Why don't you look in the cupboard and see if there's anything in there you like?"

So I did. And discovered, as documented in the photo above, cans of Swanwick's All Natural Soups: Dragon Lard Chowder (made with Free-Range Babelberries), Aryan-Style Geshmäcktfresser (made with Potato Peelings), and of course Donkey Fazool (made with Psychoactive Ingredients).

Yes, Jason had made his own soup labels. Including the paragraph of happy sales-talk above the bar code:

What could be yummier than Dragon Lard Chowder . . . start with scrumptious lizard skin boots, then add the best Babelberry Juice you could find (Swanwick's of course -- all unnatural*, raised in free-range conditions), and season it according to a mildew-laden, toxic Mayan recipe. No artificial ingredients. No preservatives. No cache de sexe residue. Just heat, eat, and savor your last gasp.

Distributed by
Bulk Dragon Lard Since 1852

*Artificial Babelberries used.
Minimally processed for Passover.

Nor does it stop there. Under Nutrition Facts are such categories as Velleity, Belatednes, Yawpishness, Murmin, Borborygmic, Asymptote, Vastation, Fustian, and Aporla. (One cannot but suspect that there is a line of Clute Soups somewhere.) Plus, of course, the list of:

Ingredients: Water, Carrots, Farina Husks, Free-range Babelberries, Aporia Broth, GInger, Garlic Powder (Contains Substantial Amounts of Octopus Lard).

But, as the guy in the Ginsu knives ad would put it, wait -- there's more! Jason Van Hollander, iron man of whimsy that he is, had similarly alternate-reality-ish copy on the cans of Donkey Fazool Soup and Geshmäcktfresser as well. Ask me next time you drop by the house and I'll show them to you.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The SFWA Mill and Swill

So I was at the SFWA annual Publishers' Reception (which was, just to confuse matters, originally called the Authors and Editors Reception) in New York City the other day and . . .

But wait a second. Why does such a thing exist in the first place? Well, according to Tom Purdom, who was one of the original organizers, the idea was that throughout the year editors (who have expense accounts) traditionally stand writers (who do not) to drinks and the occasional meal. Then someone -- was it Damon Knight? -- decided that once a year the tables should be turned at an event where the writers paid for the booze. And it was so.

The "Mill and Swill," as it's come to be known, is an evening of intensive business-doing and not as much drunkenness as you would expect. (Though an aging literary lion did pour half his drink over my hand while lurching past and I did have to explain to an up-and-coming young writer that it was simply not done to punch people one has just met and who have done nothing to deserve such treatment.) But the best part of the reception, in recent years, has been the venue.

The event, you see, is held in the third-floor bar of the Society of Illustrators. Their museum, with varying shows featuring contemporary illustration, is open to the public and well worth the visit. But the bar, well, that's another story. Hanging on the walls are works by N. C. Wyeth, Charles Dana Gibson, Hirschfeld, Frederick Remington, Montgomery Flagg, Maxfield Parrish... virtually all the great American commercial artists of the past century. It's breathtaking.

So there I was and I had a great time. Above: Joe and Gay Haldeman. Good friends, good company, good people. And I saw a lot of other friends, and even did a little practical business. But the big thing, really, is how such an event makes you feel like a part of the literati. As of course you are, or why would you be there?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 14)

Diagram 14. Progress at last! Will’s adventures underground have made it into the diagram, though why not until they’re over is far from clear to me. From left to right:





Nat & Esme

Dragon made manifest



Once again, all the past is prologue.

The “tuxedo” marker refers to the following passage (unwritten as yet; I carried it in my head for a long time), which takes place during a masked ball at House L’Inconnu, which Will has crashed:

For a heartbeat that lasted half as long as forever, Will stood paralyzed. Then he shot his cuffs in a kind of prayer to his tuxedo: I paid enough for you; now give me the confidence I need. He went straight to the elf-maiden, said “Dance?” and waltzed her out onto the floor before she could answer.

The unlabeled squared-off line that comes and goes is of course Alcyone. Her movements are becoming clearer in my mind. (Contrary to how it might appear, she's not flitting about Will but leading her own life. The diagram only makes it seem that way because Will's own rather twisty progress is rendered as a straight line.)

Again, Nat and Esme disappear abruptly and without leaving a forwarding address. It was important to get them out of the way so Will could operate on his own, without their rather overwhelming influences.

And I have no idea what the circled A means. None whatsoever.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Necronomicon -- the String Quartet!

I am not, as Dave Barry likes to say, making this up.

Last Thursday, I went to the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center, here in Philadelphia, to hear the Miró Quartet perform a string quartet titled "Necronomicon." The Miró Quartet are four stunningly talented classical musicians and, in what is pretty much standard for such groups, presented two classical war-horses (Mozart's Quartet in D Major, K. 499, Hoffmeister, and Brahms' Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2) along with one contemporary piece, in this case John Zorn's Necronomicon.

The music itself was energetic ("Let's hope we don't break too many strings" one of the quartet said, before beginning), aggressively modern, and well-received by the audience. Tom Purdom, Grand Master of Philadelphia Science Fiction and local music critic, attended the performance with Marianne and me, and pointed out that this is a result of a new trend: Contemporary composers are willing to meet the audience halfway and audiences -- who like the thought that there's something happening in serious music today -- respond enthusiastically. A couple of decades ago, the contemporary composers were all academics writing for their academic peers, and audiences sat through their pieces in stony silence, as the price they had to pay for the good stuff.

I liked the music but I won't write about it, simply because I lack the critical vocabulary to do so intelligibly. But what struck me was how the piece demonstrated exactly how far Lovecraft had and had not penetrated into the culture. Obviously, his work has to have had broad influence, if it's gone so far that there's a string quartet named after one of his inventions. But . . .

There were five movements to the piece, titled Conjurations, the Magus, Thought Forms, Incunabula, and Asmodeus. Which, obviously, have very little to do with Lovecraft's style of horror. And in the introductory remarks, it was clear that the Necronomicon had been assumed to be a book of spells for the conjuring of demons. (The young man also defined Incunabula as "a book of spells," but the blame for that can probably be laid at the doorstep of our current educational system.) So clearly Zorn had not actually read Lovecraft's works, but only heard about them secondhand.

From which I concluded that Lovecraft has risen to the status of cultural celebrity, somebody who people have heard of but not read.

Or maybe not even that far. On the way out, Tom ran into a representative of the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, which sponsors the concerts (possibly the largest such program in the country, and among the cheapest) and asked him if he knew that the piece was based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft.

With a quizzical smile, the man said, "Who?"

Friday, November 16, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 13)

Diagram 13. A simple one this week. This is another charting-out of the entire novel. From bottom to top:

“King Dragon & “Scythe”









“King Dragon” and “The Word That Sings the Scythe,” both already written, have been reduced to prologue. Will has reached Babel and the story can begin.

Alcyone – note that her name appears in a dark cloud; Will could have fallen in love with a much less difficult woman – appears and disappears almost flightily. Small wonder her emblematic beast is the hippogriff.

I know what "1/11" means, but I'm not about to tell. As for "Tuf" . . . no idea. Maybe it's 7up? Nobody envies me my handwriting.

N&E – Nat and Esme– decisively disappear for an extended length of time. (This will become “Lord Weary’s Empire,” which I think of as Will’s Adventures Underground.) And later reappear equally abruptly and emphatically. This is so typical of each of them. "Hi, I'm back! Allow me to dominate your life until I decide to disappear again!" Thank God nobody's like this in real life.

That backwards-L shaped thingie with the squared-off hook at the top of the plot represents the ending. It's pretty much set in stone by now.

And . . .

I'm off to Philcon! Monday's post will be about the Necronomicon string quartet. I'm not kidding you.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"Modern Fantasy At Its Finest!"

I've just learned that I got a starred review from Publisher's Weekly. This is a very big deal among people who matter, like my agent (Martha Millard) and my editor (David Hartwell). How big? Well . . . big enough that I'm putting off the weekly Babel diagram so I can post it in its entirety here:

The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick (Tor): * Starred Review * "In this triumphant return to the universe of The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1994), Hugo-winner Swanwick introduces Will le Fey, an orphan of uncertain parentage. After defeating an evil mechanical war dragon who has enslaved him and his village, Will finds himself displaced by war, first imprisoned in an internment camp and then transported to the many-miles-high city of Babel. On the way, he falls in with Esme, an immortal child with no memory, and Nat Whilk, a donkey-eared confidence man of superhuman abilities. Fusing high technology seamlessly with magic, Swanwick introduces us to a wide range of marvelous conceits, fascinating digressions and sparkling characters. His language bounces effortlessly back and forth between the high diction of elfland and thieves’ argot to create a heady literary stew. This is modern fantasy at its finest and should hold great appeal for fans of Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys or China Miéville’s novels." (Jan.)

So are you happy for me? I'm happy for me. Some of that bastard is definitely going on the book jacket.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A Useful (For the Teacher) Writing Exercise

I was browsing through a Swahili dictionary last night, admiring the usefulness of parakacha (the sound made by dried leaves), the whimsy of pingyinyika (to move the buttocks in a circular motion when walking or dancing), the musical cadence of mchachatochachato (slow and careful walking), and the poetry of gaagaa:

Roll from side to side,
Turn restlessly, as a man in pain
Or in delirium,
Or as an animal wallowing on the ground,
Or a ship in a swell.

All of which inspired me to share with you the only teaching exercise I ever invented.

Way back when, I had time to burn and was occasionally talked into teaching an afternoon workshop for high school age aspirant writers. When first I agreed to this, I asked my more experienced friend Gregory Frost for advice. “They want writing exercises,” he told me. “Because they want the chance to read their own work out loud.”

Fair enough. But when you’ve got three hours to work with and thirty students who want a chance to read, that eats up the free time fast. So I borrowed one exercise from Greg and assigned it to them all to take home with them. And midway through the class I gave them my invention:

First I read some examples from Joanna Russ’s “Useful Phrases for the Tourist,” a story in phrase-book form, containing such sentences as “This is my companion, he is not meant as a tip” and “Is that meant to be erotic?” and “If you do not cease doing that I shall call the police.” Then I instructed them to come up with (and write down) the definitions for three alien words. Not the words themselves, just the definitions. After however many minutes, I called on them one by one to stand up and give their definitions. Which, flush with various degrees of excitement and embarrassment, they did. Then the papers with their names and definitions were passed forward to me.

Here’s the exercise Greg gave me to assign at the end of the class: Go home, I said, and write one page from the viewpoint of something that’s not human. It can be an elf, a robot, an alien, a chair, anything. Without having it say anything about what it is or looks like, convey to the reader through its voice alone, what it is.

This is a far more useful exercise to the beginning writer than mine was. In an hour, it makes one a better writer. But it would have eaten up the entire afternoon and left me not one minute in which to pontificate. So I made it homework.

I too had homework. I carefully selected at least one definition from each of the students organized them into a brief dictionary. I added subheadings – At Work, Dealing With Others, Romance – and arranged it all so that the weak contributions didn’t stand out. Then I added a couple of definitions of my own to give the whole an overall shape and point. The last one, in particular, had provide a joke ending and so give closure to the lot. Then I gave it all a good title. Something better than “A Brief Lexicon of Planet Zorch,” though I forget what.

Penultimately, and most importantly, I wrote beneath the title and before the lexicon, “by . . .” and the names of all the students and myself in alphabetical order. Single spaced, it took up half the page. I’d arranged beforehand with the organizers for them to Xerox copies of the story and mail them to everybody who participated. Which they did.

The final product was of course nowhere near as good as Russ’s story. But it was adequate at least and maybe a little better. Everybody got to contribute to it and everybody got proof that they’d collaborated on a story with a published author.

I mention this so that if you find yourself in a similar situation, you’ll know what to do.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Office Worker's Babel

Yeah, they say it reaches all the way to Heaven. So what? All I ever see of it is my cubby, the coffee room, and a few hundred glass windows on the other side of which are more dispirited office drones like myself. All day long I shuffle papers, write reports, balance long lines of numbers, deal with self-important conference divas. It’s hard work, but nobody admires you for doing it.

At five p.m. I power off my PC and take the elevator down a few hundred floors to my apartment. I turn on the TV as soon as I get home. The blinds are always shut. I never look out. What’s the best I could see? The moon reflected in somebody’s window? Some perv with a telescope hoping somebody’s undressing with the blinds up? Big whoop. I’ll take American Idol, thank you very much. Some nights I nuke a TV dinner. Other nights I send out for Chinese. I’d like to take a vacation in Hawaii or the Yucatan, someplace where women sunbathe topless, but who’s got the money? It all gets eaten away by taxes and rent. Who knows where it goes? It certainly doesn’t go to me.

Sometimes at the office, though, I go to the window and place both hands against the glass. It feels cool on my palms. Then I think how great it would feel if I could just open that window, step out into the air, and fly. Yeah, it would only be for a few minutes and then I’d die. Still. For just that little while, wouldn’t it be glorious? Wouldn’t it be great?

But I guess that’s why the windows are designed so they can’t be opened.


Thursday, November 8, 2007

This Literati Life

This Tuesday, one day after driving up to NYC for the joint Tachyon Publications and Temporary Culture reception at James Cummins, Bookseller, I was back in the Big Apple for A Tribute to Avram Davidson, part of the NYRSF Readings Series at the South Street Seaport Museum. Was it worth the ensuant day's exhaustion? Well, up above is Tom Disch in full raconteur mode at the pub afterwards, with Jim Freund (who runs the series as well as hosting the Hour of Wolf show at WBAI) suitably entranced.

So, yeah, I'd say so.

The evening began with readings from Avram's brilliant short fiction by Wendy Walker, Tom La Farge, and myself. Then there was a panel about Davidson himself, with Disch talking about how he inherited Davidson's rental place in Mexico and one hideous afternoon in Avram Davidson's final decline, pushing the great man about the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a wheelchair with Davidson sternly disapproving of everything he saw. "It's rather like being able to say, Yes I knew King Lear -- in his later years."

But, oh, the happy sound of Tom Disch snorting with laughter at the price of each book, when Wendy Walker read from "And Don't Forget the One Red Rose"! A fine and lovely evening.

Below (rather scattered about, because I still haven't got the hang of the photo posting function): Tom La Farge, Ariel Hameon taking a snap from the audience, Wendy Walker, and primary instigator and founder of the Avram Davidson Society, Henry Wessells.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 12)

Diagram 12. I'm going to have to be coy here, I'm afraid. If I explained everything, it would give away enough of the plot to ruin the novel. NeverthelessI've finally got a clear idea of how the structure of the entire novel runs from beginning to end, and can see it whole. From bottom to top:




[Nat & Esme come & go]



two dragons

(The Stone of Sorrow)






W and D of course stand for Will and the Dragon. The novel is divided into three sections, that taking part in the village, that taking part in the camp, and the rest of it -- in Babel, almost entirely.

Nat and Esme do come and go, I'm afraid. Neither were meant to be as important to the novel as they became. But they did as they wished and sort of took over.

The little sigil bracketing the two (symbol)s that looks like a capital S with quote marks on its upper curve is a bit of shorthand I invented when I was in college. It means either "not to be taken literally" or "not to be taken seriously." If you were plotting out Huckleberry Finn in diagram, for example, the Duke and the Dauphin would be marked with them, to indicate they weren't really royalty. Years later, reading one of Samuel R. Delany's essays, I realized that I'd created the "irony mark" that he wished English punctuation contained.

The "two dragons" scene didn't actually make it into the final draft -- too heavy-handed, I'm afraid. But there at the top, where an arrow pointing outward is scribbled over and an arrow pointing inward is added, you can see me changing the ending right there on the spot. Much for the better, I might add. So all this diagramming proved to be useful after all!

The "Stone of Sorrow" was originally "Season of Sorrow." (If I'd kept with the plot I originally planned, one phrase or the other would have been a chapter title.) The original Stone of Sorrow is a fallen standing stone in a churchyard in the West of Ireland. Sleeping on it overnight was a folk-cure for heartbreak and so in the Nineteenth Century many an emigree spent their last night there before departing for America, never to return. I visited the churchyard and lay down on the stone, and I felt all the sorrow in the world flow into my body. Someday I'm going to write that story.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

This Literati Life

So where was I yesterday (I hear you refrain from asking)? Well, check out the admittedly amateur snapshot above. To the right is Jacob Weisman, publisher of Tachyon Publications which recently, not coincidentally, published my brilliant new collection The Dog Said Bow-Wow." To the left is Thomas M. Disch. The occasion was a reception for my two newest books, the aforementioned collection and What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage?, published by Temporary Culture -- which is to say Henry Wessells.

Did you notice what I slipped into the above paragraph? Tom Disch came to my reception. The real Tom Disch -- the brilliant author of 334 and Camp Concentration and some of the best serious short fiction ever published in genre. I was definitely hanging out with the big kids.

The reception was held at the shop of James Cummins, Bookseller, which is definitely the first place you want to visit after you've pulled off that big heist you've been planning. Need an autographed first edition of Alice in Wonderland? Maybe some of Tolkien's reference books, complete with his annotations? A good place to start looking.

Down below, among the random shots of the reception (I'll attach names to the people as soon as I find time), is a snap of one of the bathroom walls. Note the three original drawings by Ludwig Bemelman, two of them portraits of Madeline. Not shown is Tolstoy's autograph, which was hanging by the sink.

And now I'm off to NYC again, this time for the Avram Davidson tribute at the Seaport Museum. I do not mind telling you that I feel quite full of myself.

Photos: 1: Sheila Williams, Trina King, Ariel Hameon, Henry Wessells; 2: Mary Jo Duffy and Rina Weisman; 3: bathroom gallery; 4: John Parker, with Thomas Disch in background; 5: Henry Wessells and Martha Millard

Friday, November 2, 2007

Thanksgiving Begging

Has anybody here ever heard of Thanksgiving begging?

Years ago, my mother, who grew up in New York City, told me that as a child in the 1920s and 1930s, she never went trick-or-treating. On Halloween there were parties, and the kids tried to scare each other. On May Day, they dressed up in costumes. And on Thanksgiving, they dressed up in rags and went "Thanksgiving begging." People would give the beggars fruit or money.

I googled this up quickly on the Web and it looks to be a New York City and New Jersey thing.

Anybody there know about it?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 11)

Diagram 11. Somehow, I’ve managed to get some of the diagrams out of order. This one predates the sections on the train through Faerie Minor and those in Babel. It’s for the section I excerpted and rewrote as “The Word That Sings the Scythe.” No matter. From left-top to right bottom, it reads:







A: Past
B: Future






For obvious reasons, I think of the time/space this diagram covers as “three sleeps and two pisses.” Normally an author politely averts his eyes when a character takes a leak (with the notable exceptions of Jonathan Swift and James Joyce) but there were plot reasons for each here. Also, I was divvying up the action by physical needs in order to keep it realistic.

Honest Tom was the place-holding name for the lubin who eventually became Saligos de Gralloch. Honest Tom was absolutely wrong for the character – I suspect it’s one of Nat Whilk’s many noms de scenes, actually – but I didn’t want to stop writing until I found the right name. Things were going slowly enough as it was.

This section of the novel was divided into three separate movements: Problem, War, and Army. The “Night Passage” is the section where Will and Esme are traveling across the war zone at night with a small company of lady centaurs. Which is easily my favorite sequence. There’s not a lot of the action of this novel that I’d like to live through. But I’d make an exception for this.