Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Mo' Better Dinosaurs!

I’ve just learned that my friends Robert Walters and Tess Kissinger have won the prestigious John J. Lanzendorf PaleoArt Prize for the Morrison Formation mural at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Neither you nor I has seen the mural yet, because it’s a major part of the Carnegie’s revamping of their world-famous Dinosaur Hall, which doesn’t open to the public until November 21. But as the above snippet demonstrates, it looks to be everything you want from a dinosaur mural. It is also the longest and largest such mural in the world – 15 feet high and 180 feet long.

The Morrison formation, found in the western US and Canada, is one of the most productive sources of dinosaur fossils in North America, and a window into the late Jurassic, roughly 150 million years ago. It is intimately connected to the Carnegie’s history as the source of (among many others) their first and possibly most iconic dinosaur fossil, that of Diplodocus carnegii. There’s a statue of “Dippy” outside the museum.

The mural was painted using linked Apple computers and electronic stylus brushes. Bob and Tess tell me that because of its enormous size, constant changes required during the mural’s creation, and detailed scientific accuracy required for every plant and creature shown, the mural has a credit list “as long as a Hollywood movie’s.” I’ll try to get hold of that list so I can post it here when they have some free time. Not anytime before November 21, obviously. They'll be too busy.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The L Word

Marianne and Sean and I went to David Axler's Halloween party this weekend. Axler's party is a tradition here in Philadelphia. Every year the attendees have to come as someone or something beginning with a particular letter. Since the party began 32 years ago, he's run through the entire alphabet once, and is on the second go-through. As it chances, I attended the very first party (did I even know David then? Or did I crash it?) as Lochinvar.

This year, Marianne dyed her hair green and glued ants to her forehead, and went as a Lawn. Sean wore a fez and a pencil-thin moustache and carried a rug and classified documents and went as the Levanter. And I, as you can tell from the photo above . . .

Let's all not raise our hands at once.

. . . went as Lord Weary.

I can only say: Mothers! Warn your children! This is what sex, drugs, and science fiction will do to them.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Science Fiction Writer's Babel

This is going to be the first of an occasional series. The picture to the left is one of many sketches I made of the Tower of Babel in my notebooks as I was working on the novel. The following prose sketch was written after the fact.

The Science Fiction Writer’s Babel

Start with an elevator. A space elevator, of course, anchored to a small asteroid some distance beyond Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO). The stresses will be enormous, but we’ll use carbon-whisker nanotube cables. Total length of the tower: 35,786 kilometers, a little over 22,000 miles.

The structure can be built from the ground up and from the top down simultaneously. The upper levels will have to be pressurized, of course, and because the space elevator (or “skyhook”) will only stop every thousand miles or so, even with six electromagnetic cars per elevator, and many, many conventional elevators between stops, it will still be necessary to have several arrays of (say) five elevators each, with staggered stopping-places to keep the entire building reachable.

Which means we’re talking about a city. That’s good. Cities are energy efficient. Once Babel has reached the mile-high point – a perfectly insignificant fraction of its final height – it can hold every man, woman, and child on Earth. The rest of the planet can be preserved as farmland and wildlife refuges. Further, Babel will suffice to house even a geometrically-increasing population for at least five hundred years. When we run out of farmland, we can harvest the atmosphere of Jupiter and manufacture food – we’ll be much closer to the Sun, remember, a source of nearly infinite energy. Best of all, since everyone will be in the same boat, so to speak, an attack on an enemy’s territory will be an attack on oneself. Wars will cease to be. They just won’t make sense anymore.

Hunger, war, environmental degradation . . . Obviously, by the time Babel reaches GEO, all of humanity’s age-old problems will have been solved.

But why stop there? Once GEO has been reached, continue building westward, along the GEO “sweet spot,” until Babel has entirely circled the world and can be rejoined with itself. Thus creating the first-ever stationary-orbital Ring Tower.

So let’s start building! I’ve done the conceptual work already, and that’s the hard part. The rest is just engineering.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 10)

(I've been posting these every Wednesday for the last couple of months, but yesterday Blogger had trouble uploading the scan for some reason, so I added a different post. Now we're back to normal again.)

Diagram 10. At the top of the diagram are the headings "Ch. 4" and “Across Faerie Minor” –In the novel, Faerie Minor became Fäerie Minor. The umlaut in Fäerie was Susanna Clarke’s invention, used in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, among other works. At this point, I very much wanted to use her device, but very carefully didn't, because I hadn't obtained her permission yet.

From left to right, beneath the two headings:

Could there be so many cars in a [single] train? There could in a dream.

3 Witches

materialized in the last car


Dragon trail (looks away)

Will, dreaming

A hair-like fracture in the sky [arrow] Vision of Babel


Babel End of chapter


Weirdly enough “Crossing Fäerie Minor” (as the chapter ended up being remonickered) was actually chapter 6, not 4. How could I have not known that at such a late date?

“The witches materialized in the last car.” After which they head forward, looking for Will. The plot is pretty much in control at this point. Will is caught in the simplest and straightest maze of them all and has to find a way to evade his pursuers. Since I know how that will be accomplished, the rest of the diagram is simply to assure that I get the central images in the right places.

The “hair-like fracture in the sky” is the only glimpse that Will ever gets of Babel whole. The train is heading toward Babel, so the only time he has a chance of seeing anything is on long curves. The next he’ll see of the city is a wall that fills his vision as the train plunges into the mouth of a tunnel.

Jack-of-Many-Names is of course Nat Whilk. Though he never goes by that name in the novel.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Electric Pickles

The gang at Fast Forward have made the short film of me reading and/or performing "Electric Pickles" (which was element 11, Sodium, in my Periodic Table of Science Fiction, still available from PS Publishing, though they're having a sale, so there can't be many copies left) available online here. If the link doesn't work properly, you can find it by typing my name into Google Video. Though, oddly enough, you won't find it on YouTube.

I was considering uploading links explaining the science and sociology of the electric pickle phenomenon and maybe diagrams showing how to make a pickle electrifier of your own, but finally decided that the film says it all. Enjoy!

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Woman Who Broke Isaac Asimov's Heart

Yesterday, I drove down to New Castle Delaware, to meet with my editor David Hartwell. and got to meet Lena Deemer, the woman who broke Isaac Asimov's heart. She is the proprietor of a b&b there and on Sundays she plays piano at the Arsenal, a colonial restaurant a block and half away.

If you look at Asimov's third autobiography, I. Asimov, you'll find an entire chapter devoted to Ms Deemer. She worked in the Philadelphia Navy yard in WWII as a bench chemist. Robert Heinlein recruited her. And she had stories to tell about what a scamp and prankster Isaac was.

There are depths to Lena Deemer. She plays piano beautifully, she speaks Russian "well enough to be understood," though no longer well enough to read technical papers, she's a bit of a raconteur, and who knows what else there is to her? As she was walking away, I couldn't help wondering how many of the other people we pass by every day have lives as interesting and varied as hers. Yet another of those unanswerable questions.

"Did you know Isaac?" she asked me.

"I met him a few times," I replied. "But I'm afraid he made more of an impression on me than I did on him."

So too, I suspect, here.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Matt Jarpe's Chicken Hunt

A couple of years ago, my big sister Patty chilled my blood by telling me that my middle sister Mary had dimed me out by buying a copy of Meditations on Middle Earth and reading my essay, "A Changeling Returns," to our mother.

Here's the specific passage it alarmed me to have her hear:

You grow older, you grow more wary. As a boy in Vermont, I spent almost every day of one summer fishing in the Winooski River. I didn’t tell my parents that my favorite spot was a backwater just below the hydroelectric dam at the head of a stretch of river bounded by high, steep cliffs to either side, which we all called the Gorge. The river churned wildly as it went through the Gorge, and every few years a teenager died falling from the cliffs. And I certainly didn’t tell my parents that the way to the backwater was through the old power plant, and involved scrambling down the jagged, rusted-out remains of iron stairways and a running leap over a gap that would have, at a minimum, broken bones if I’d slipped. For all that, those long summer days spent with my best friend Steve, fishing and talking and playing cards and reading stacks of comic books from each other’s knapsacks, were one of the best times of my life. I wouldn’t trade the memory of them for anything.

I shudder, though, to imagine my son risking his life the way I did clambering through the power plant. Or racing leapfrog across the wrecked cars in the automobile junkyard at the edge of town. Or breaking into abandoned houses to explore their spooky interiors. Or getting into rock-fights. Or going out onto the reservoir, as I did every year when the ice was beginning to melt and there was open water at its center, and jumping up and down to see how much of the ice could be made to sag under the water without my actually breaking through and drowning. Or... well, things look different when you’re a grown-up.

"I didn't know about any of this!" my mother exclaimed.

"Well, of course not," Patty said to me. "That was the whole point."

What brought this to mind was a conversation that Matt Jarpe and I had at Capclave over the dangerous and wonderful harum-scarum youths that boys used to have and mostly don't anymore. I told Matt the above story and he told me about a chicken hunt he and his brother once had. Or, rather, he almost told me it, because we were interrupted before he could finish the story and didn't get the chance to get back to it all that weekend.

Luckily for me, Matt has just blogged the chicken-hunt story. I recommend it. The man has good chops. He knows how to tell a story. And he can deliver a moral without getting maudlin.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Who Are the Great Readers of Science Fiction?

The above title is not a rhetorical question. At Capclave I attended a reading by Andy Duncan of his wonderfully demented new story, “Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse” (Eclipse 1, Night Shade Books, edited by Jonathan Strahan and due out in earliest November) and it seemed to me that he clearly belonged somewhere on the list of Ten Best Readers-Aloud of Their Own Fiction in the Mingled Genres of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. Only I’m not quite sure who else ought to be on that list.

Howard Waldrop, of course. By universal acclaim, H’ard gets the number one spot on the list. I’m pretty sure I belong somewhere on it – at least when I’m on my game. I did a reading of “Radio Waves” at Temple University for Samuel R. Delany’s students and got a standing ovation at the end, and that wasn’t even my single best rendition of that story. (The one I did in Seattle was.) And then there’s Andy.

Andy has a lovely Southern accent and I realize that to those who know accents that says nothing, but what can I do? I’m a Philadelphian, I don’t know from accents. It’s probably something like Western-Alabaman-Lower-Beluthahatchie-County-South-Slope- of-Possum-Grits-Mountain-Wrong-Side-of-Town but it’s odds-on that I haven't even gotten the state right, so don’t listen to me. The thing is that when he reads a story, particularly one which is derived from Southern culture, the accent grows stronger and adds to the experience enormously. You can provide the voice for his more elaborate sentences on your own, but you’ve got to hear the man in order to appreciate the spin he puts on a simple, “He blinked” or “No way.” Anybody can add an extra syllable or three to a word. But it takes a real story-reader to add a half-syllable. Andy Duncan can do that.

I’m waiting for Andy to get famous as a reader so I can buy a CD of him reading his stories. It’s probably too much to hope for that he’d get so well known as to justify a disc of him reading classic Southern stories by Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Truman Capote . . . Ah, well.

So that’s two for the list and maybe three if you’re willing to take my word on myself, as most wouldn’t and nobody can blame them for that. But who else?

Why not tell me who you’d put on the list? I’d love to know.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Diagraming Babel (Part 9)

Diagram 9. Will has reached Babel and I'm graphing out the Train Hall scene. Left to right, it reads:

Train hall

Room 102





3-card Monte JOY!

Hanging Gardens


Train Hall


What's missing at this point is the entire section of the novel which was later published in altered form (see A Nettlesome Term That Has Long Outlived Its Welcome) as "Lord Weary's Empire." Since "Lord Weary's Empire " -- which will eventually take place between the Bar and the 3-card Monte scenes -- was short-listed on the Hugo ballot as a novella, you can see that there's a lot that has to be established before the novel can get where it's going.

You can also get a rough idea of how much of the novel was made up as I was writing it.

So what does the Train Hall look like? Here's the passage:

The walls and pillars of the great hall at Nineveh Station were of snow-white marble, according to a tourist brochure that had passed through so many hands on the train that it was falling apart by the time Will saw it. “Seven pillars on either side bear up the shadowy vault of the roof; the roof-tree and the beams are of gold, curiously carved, the roof itself of mother-of-pearl,” it said, and also, “The benches that run from end to end of the lofty chamber are of cedar, inlaid with coral and ivory . . . The floor of the chamber is tessellated, of marble and green tourmaline, and on every square of tourmaline is carven the image of a fish: as the dolphin, the conger, the oroborus, the salmon, the ichthyocentaur, the kraken, and other wonders of the deep. Hangings of tapestry are . . . worked with flowers, snake’s-head, snapdragon, dragon-mouth and their kind; and on the dado below the windows are sculptures of birds and beasts and creeping things.”

Can you spot where the quotation came from? Here's a hint: It's a classic work of hard fantasy.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Peter S. Beagle Wins Small Press Award!

The first-ever WSFA Small Press Award winner was announced Saturday at Capclave, in Rockville, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. (The Washington Science Fiction Association runs Capclave, which replaced Disclave, one of the older and better American regional conventions, after an incident in 1997 involving the sprinkler system and a New York City cop who was into bondage. It’s a long story.) The winning story was “El Regalo” by Peter S. Beagle, from his Tachyon collection The Line Between.

Accepting the award for Peter Beagle was . . . me.

You can imagine how delighted I was. Peter S. Beagle is an important figure in modern fantasy and a personal hero of mine. I was a teenager when I discovered The Last Unicorn and A Fine and Private Place, and realized that major fantasy work was being written by somebody who was still alive. (Okay, Tolkien was still alive back then too. But even then we all knew we were going to have to wait until he was dead for his next book.) And of course I thought: If he can do it, then why not me? It was a major goad to my ambitions.

Here’s the speech I was given to read:

My notion of a literary award generally involves first-class flights, lavish financial compensations, incredibly costly dinners, and four-star hotel accommodations complete with hot and cold-running groupies. The way I look at it, if it's good enough for Harlan, it's good enough for me. But I gladly make an exception in this case, because (and I know this is a cliche), far more than the mighty international conglomerate, it is the small press, the minuscule press, that remains, and will surely remain, the life force behind what we here create.

The saying, Freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns one, is perfectly true; there is a reason that - even in the age of the Internet - dictatorships, juntas and fascist mobs still physically destroy every printing facility they can reach. In the end, as I'm happy to say, and as every jefe maximo knows, literature and literacy itself are always the enemy. And yet, somehow - call it samizdat, or anything else you like - the small press survives; the smudgy mimeograph, the battered copier, always rises again from the bloody shambles. Always, at whatever cost. Always.

Therefore I am grateful for this award, and will treasure it for everything it represents. Later for the Pulitzer, or the National Book Award. This will do me fine.

The audience, I should note, laughed at all the right places and none of the wrong ones, and gave the great man a thunderous standing ovation at the end.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Infinitely Collectable Books

They exist!

I've just received my copies of the extremely rare limited edition hardcovers of my latest book, What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage? James Branch Cabell in the Twentieth Century. They look good, don't they?

For those who came in late, the text is my rather long (18,000 words, roughly) essay summing up JBC's life and career and passing judgment on every book (somewhere around fifty) in his literary oeuvre. It took me over thirty years to do it, but I tracked down and read every single one.

Henry Wessells has made of this a slim and elegant book, available in trade paperback in an edition of 200. The hardcover, however, is limited to seventeen copies -- signed by myself, the introducer Barry Humphries (best known as Dame Edna Everage), and James Branch Cabell himself. The full explanation was made in an earlier blog entry here.

So, given that Henry surely kept two copies for himself and gave another two to Barry Humphries (himself an avid rare book collector), that means that there are only eleven copies theoretically available to the public. But of course Henry has other friends, and since he's a rare book dealer, many of those friends are collectors. So I'm guessing they're all spoken for already.

And I've got two of them! Which means that it's a particular pity about the coffee rings. And the fact that I seem to have misplaced one. I think I may have accidentally kicked it under the couch.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Diagramming Babel (Part 8)

Diagram 8. You may have noticed that I've been hesitating at the liminal point where Will enters Babel for the first time, plotting out the section to come in greater and greater detail. That's because the novel wasn't working. It was stalled, and I was trying to find out where the problem was.

From Right to Left:

When the shopkeeper saw what they were doing, he came out and gave them half their money back.


2 dragons

Hanging Gardens -- ill at ease sees Alcyone

3-card Monte

HERE "Everyone knew what to do"



Bulls & Lancers

"a scale for weighing your heart"



Insecurity leading to a brief acceptance of Babel


The shopkeeper incidentwas dropped entirely. It was part of the "2 dragons" scene which by now I had realized was the problem. I needed the dragons. They didn't work. It took me a long time to resolve that one.

Alcyone finally has a name! She's no longer just "woman." Now her rather extraordinary personality can begin to develop.

"Everyone knew what to do" was shorthand for a passage I needed to insert early in Will's career in Babel, establishing how it feels to be new and alone and friendless in a strange city. Everybody else has a place there. They all fit in. Everybody knows what to do except for you. Man, I have been there.

The Bulls and the Lancers are separate though connected incidents. I identify them as an "initiation" not literally but figuratively. By the time Will's escaped them (which comes sometime after he thinks he's escaped them), he's a creature of Babel, a true urbanite.

"a scale for weighing your heart" is a lovely image. That scene never got written, and now I don't know what it would have been.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Irrepressible Jason Van Hollander

Earlier this summer I dropped in on artist extraordinaire Jason Van Hollander. While we were sitting on his porch talking, he snapped a few pictures of me with a printed cloth hanging behind my head. A day or two later, he emailed me the above rendition of myself as a triune deity.

Don't you wish you had friends like Jason?

Friday, October 5, 2007

Scratches in the sand

once a year i go down to the ocean and sit by the sand for a week
when i arrive i am quivering with the need to write
in the sand with a twig or a shard of shell i write

this is the way the world ends
not with a whimper but with the sigh of oxygen pumps

the ocean comes in and erases it

only three of us saw it coming
the fourth died instantly

the ocean comes in and erases it

there are fourteen silent ways to kill robert heinlein
and thirteen of them dont work

the ocean comes in and erases it

and so it goes
every day the urge lessens
by sunday morning last i sit by the ocean
and don't even want to write

this is why this post is so short

well, and hoping you are the same

Wednesday, October 3, 2007


(I'm still on vacation, and since I forgot to bring along the disk I burned of appropriate photos and scans, I won't be posting the latest installment of "Diagramming Babel." Instead, the following:)

At any given time, I have roughly forty pieces of fiction that I'm working on. Some of them, alas, will never be finished. Others will take years or decades to reach completion. The number of stories seems to baffle some of my writer friends, who suspect (I suspect) that I'm plumping them out with fragments and half-formed thoughts. Not so. The truth is that I start a new story at least once a week. Whenever I get a notion, I'll write the first page or so -- like those term papers back in college whose topic you didn't decide until the first five hundred words were written -- just to see if it has some traction. And these I don't count until I'm sure they're alive and I've got some idea of what they're going to be.

Here's one I began yesterday:


THE WORLD-TREE was cut down long ages ago, and so the Wyrld was separated from all her sisters in the sky. Once upon a time you might climb the trunk of Ongysdrail, filling your canteen with the dew that gathered on its leaves in the morning and living off dried strips of the meat of the giant squirrels which a bold and determined hunting party could corner and kill, and reach Mars in a week or Pluto in a month or the planets attached to distant stars within a lifetime.

No more.

What little remains of that legendary tree was neglected and ignored for nobody knows how many ages until an army of dwarves in the employ of one whose name is now forgotten took adze and ax to it and carved the many-turreted and profusely gabled tavern that is sometimes known as the Inn at the End of the Wyrld and other times as the Stump.

I rode my Harley there last Friday and . . .

So there it is. I haven't made my mind up about it yet. There's stuff there. But is there enough stuff to justify the long and arduous process of turning it into a story? Time . . . as our beloved news anchors like to say . . . will tell.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Lazy Days and Concrete Ships

I'm on vacation, staying at a little house in Cape May Point, New Jersey, just a quarter-mile down the beach from the ruins of the "Atlantus" (right).

The Atlantus was a prototype cement-hulled ship, built during WWII when the military was beginning to worry they might not be able to get enough iron to build all the ships they needed. Alas, it never sailed. It was being towed through Delaware Bay when a storm came up and it sank, just off of Sunset Beach.

Nobody knows how effective a cement hulled ship might have proved. The war ended before another could be built, and suddenly the Navy had more ships than they needed.

And the connection to my writing? In Stations of the Tide, the ship that was covered with (if I remember correctly) migrating orchid crabs in the middle of the forest -- an image, incidentally that I lifted from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude -- was named the Atlantus.

So there's the reason for the funny spelling and further proof, if any were needed, that everything a writer does is research and therefore ought to be tax-deductible.

Not that I'm fool enough to try that.