Friday, February 29, 2008

Undeserved Credit

Did you know that Jules Verne didn't invent all of the things we credit him for?  A lot of them -- like the modern submarine -- were on the drawing boards of engineers and designers at the time he wrote about them.  He simply took the one step further of pretending that they already existed.

Ever since then, science fiction writers have had the pleasant perk of getting credit for things that other people did before the writers wrote about them.

The most recent beneficiary of this process?  Me.

NASA is currently testing the Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic Antarctic Explorer robot probe.  The ENDURANCE is an underwater vehicle whose descendants may someday explore the deep oceans of Europa (and whose namers are the front-runner for this year's Tortured Rationale for Acronym Silliness Haward).  The news item in Space.Com mentions my own Mitsubishi robot turbot, which was used in "Slow Life" to explore the oceans of Titan.

Very cool.  I like it.  But let's be honest here.  I stole the idea from Mitsubishi.  As per the BBC News item about their most recent, museum-grade robot fish.  

And they're not alone.  China's making great strides on the robofish front.  As is MIT.  I wasn't able to find any web footage of Mitsubishi's cool new fish, but here's the YouTube footage of what the Boys from Cambridge were able to come up with:

Not that I mind getting credit for other people's hard work.  I get a big kick out of it.  Just so long as we're all aware of exactly who's doing the heavy lifting here.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Diagramming Babel (Part 28)

Diagram 28.  We're almost done with these things.  How will I fill my Wednesdays then?

From top to bottom, left to right, in four segments:

a) "Put the ring back"
"Firestone -- 
capable of producing
heat.  One











Why is that drawer closed?
It contains he ring you tried 
to steal last time you were 

How do you know?

E. told me.  We have brunch together.

(Absorbed.  Grinned.  "Why Dame Serena.  I believe
begin to think that you like me."

Horse hooky.


The diagrams came first, of course.  The bits of dialog are scribbled down, inspired by them. You can tell how quickly they were done by the way I never got around to b).

The diagram with W (Will) at the center maps out the relationships between characters.  In this section Will is interacting with DS (Dame Serena), E (not Esme this time, but Eitri), and Fl. (whose name I'll withhold for reasons of plot).    The section was feeling a little unmotivated, so I drew this diagram in order to define the relationships between DS, E, and Fl.  

Dame Serena, I decided was too aristocratic to have any significant relationship with Fl.  But Fl. and Eitri would have to be seriously in cahoots.  And -- here's the big revelation for me -- Dame Serena and Eitri were friends.  Aha!  From this came the bit about brunch.  Which revelation helped to define the formidable Dame Serena.

As for why Will should have three separate plotlines and why his outward arc should also be secret and cryptic . . . we're rushing into the end-game of the novel here.  This is not the moment to reveal that Norman Bates's mother is himself in drag.

Et un bon mouche . . . 

In the April issue of F&SF, which arrived in my mailbox this morning, is a review by James Sallis of my What Can Be Saved from the Wreckage?:  James Branch Cabell in the Twenty-FIrst Century.   Most of the review is a graceful synopsis of the argument (particularly useful since so few people will see the book), peppered with a few bits of information from Sallis's own horde of lore (such as the fact that Heinlein described Stranger in a Strange Land as a Cabellesque satire).  It concludes:

Cabell is a problematic author, and to all appearances was a difficult man, but for those interested in learning more abut Cabell there can hardly be a better or more readable beginning than Swanwick's monograph.

All of which I mention not to promote the book (it hardly needs it), but to marvel at receiving so positive and intelligent a review for something that was published in an edition of 200.  Sometimes the world is full of pleasant surprises.


Monday, February 25, 2008

This Gliterati Life

It's still High Promo Season, and so I'm out flogging The Dragons of Babel every chance I get. Last Friday I did a reading for Philly Fantastic, the local monthly series currently being held in the Center City Barnes and Noble. There was a snowstorm that day and the turnout was light, so instead of adapting a chapter of the novel, I read a shorter piece, "The Scarecrow's Boy," which I'd originally written for Boskone.

Afterwards, as is traditional for Philly Fantastic, everybody went out to dinner together. After various small adventures, we wound up at the Pen and Pencil Club, a private club for journalists and their friends.

Now, when you think of a club -- of a Philadelphia club in particular, because this is an old, old club town -- you probably think brandy snifters, butlers, and leather armchairs. Not so for the Pen and Pencil. It serves a scruffier, more ink-stained ilk. Note the sign above. It reads:


I think I've found my home.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Brezhnev's Cadillac

I googled Brezhnev and Cadillac the other day and discovered, to my dismay, that Friday's entry was the second item to pop up.  Worse, the best part of the story was nowhere to be found.

So, because apparently it appears nowhere else on the Web, here is a very short (but absolutely true!) version, courtesy of Professor Sergei N. Khrushchev and my own less reliable memory:

Brezhnev loved and collected fine automobiles, so when Richard Nixon came to Moscow for a summit in 1972, he requested as a present a black Eldorado Cadillac, which apparently he considered the best car in the world.  When it was presented to him, he happily got in behind the wheel.  Then he said that Nixon should get in beside him.  And when Nixon did, off he drove!

For three hours, while the security people fretted, the head of the Soviet Union drove the head of the Free World through Moscow and into the surrounding countryside.

True story.

Sometime after the summit was over, it was discovered that for proper operation the Caddy required a grade of gasoline not available in the USSR. So Brezhnev's people had to wire the Americans for a barrel.

True coda.


Friday, February 22, 2008

"Khrushchev? Isn't he a Russian novelist?"

I won't embarrass him by telling you which of my twenty-something friends guessed that Nikita Khrushchev was a Russian novelist. I'm just glad that things are so changed that he could make that mistake.

When I was young, Khrushchev was a terrifying figure, the man who thumped the table at the UN with his shoe and cried, "We will bury you!" He meant that economically the USSR would leave the West in the lurch, apparently, but it sure didn't feel like that at the time. So when I heard that his son, Professor Sergei N. Khrushchev, was giving a lecture at Rowan University's Glassboro campus on the Cold War, off I went.

I'm writing a novel set in Russia, after all.

The lecture was a benign history of his father and Detente, with an emphasis on the Cold War as a natural thing, countries competing for influence the way plants compete for sunlight. (One man, of about my age, in the audience, called his take "a fairy tale.") For those who lived through it, there were a number of familiar stories -- Brezhnev's Cadillac, and Kosygin discovering that the hot line was not a telephone but a teletype, for two -- and the sort of overview most of use to students unsure as to whether Kosygin was a novelist or a brand of vodka. But there were a couple of interesting tidbits to be gleaned from it:

Khrushchev (who was at Stalingrad, remember) could not stand to watch war movies. They gave him nightmares. He told his son that the movies lied -- that wars were dirtier, bloodier, more brutal, and more dangerous than that.

A young woman asked Sergei Nikitovich if he'd ever met Stalin, and he said that once when he was university student, he was in Red Square for a ceremony, and Stalin was on the reviewing stand atop Lenin's Tomb. He and his friends jumped up and down, shouting, "Comrade Stalin! Comrade Stalin!" and Stalin looked down and waved, saying, "Hello, there." Then the professor smiled down from the stage and said, "So you met me, I met him."

And I got to ask a question I've been wondering about for most of my life: Whether there was anybody in the upper levels of the Soviet Union lobbying for a preemptive first strike against the US, the way that Curtis LeMay and Edward Teller did here for one against the USSR. No, he said, because the United States had a numerical superiority in nuclear weapons of 9.5 to 1. Against those odds, even the hawks weren't willing to risk it.

Afterwards, I bought one of the professor's books and shook his hand. So I am now only two degrees of Kevin Bacon from Stalin.

And you, if you've met me, are at the very most three.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Diagramming Babel (Part 27)


Diagram 27.  This was going to be diagram 28, but when I looked at the one I had slotted for this week I couldn’t make heads nor tails of it.  Sorry.  With my handwriting, it’s a miracle I can decipher anything from my notebooks.

This diagram appears to map out Chapter 18, “In the Shadow of the Obsidian Throne.”  Have I mentioned already that the Obsidian Throne, which in its earliest references was merely a signifier for the kingship, turned out to be something far nastier?

From bottom to top:




“The Midnight Garden


ACT 2.




False escape


the fetch

ACT 4.

True escape

 the fetch






Yes, if I were mentally structuring this as a play, it should have been five scenes, rather than five acts.  But I was chiefly putting myself in the right mindset here.  Something formal and even stately was what I was looking for.  I would’ve made it a gavotte, but I don’t have the vocabulary of dance at my fingertips.  Note that four of the five sections begin with Will encountering a new character and four of the five end with that character’s departure.

The jumps of Dame Serena’s line over those for the fetch (Ff), and F indicate that she doesn’t directly interact with them.

Since the book is reaching toward its conclusion here, I’ll have to be coy.  W is Will, as always, and X was surely Dame Serena, apparently at that point not yet given a name.  The question mark indicates that I still had no idea of how she and Will were going to interact.  But I knew that, as is so often the case with Will and women, he was going to be seriously out of his depth.

You can tell by how legibly this is written that I was in no hurry to start writing that day.  You can tell by the tightness of the structure that I knew most of what was to be done.  So, pretty obviously, I had written most of the Midnight Garden section and was mapping out the entirety of the chapter to see where my problem was.  And, as it turned out, it was in that circled question mark, where awaited the encounter between Dame Serena and Will. 

This diagram achieved two things:  It identified the problem area of the chapter, and it held out the promise of smooth sailing and fast prose, once I got past it.  Since I’m self-employed, you might think of it as a reprimand from the boss followed by the promise of a raise once the job got done.


Monday, February 18, 2008

How Well Do You Know Greer Gilman?

I'm fresh back (or, rather, not so fresh at all -- distinctly wasted, in fact) from Boskone, where one of the highlights was a panel titled "Moonwise of Babel," and described in the pocket program simply as "Two fantasists discuss matters that are intensely interesting to them."  Those two fantasists were Greer Gilman (author of Moonwise) and me (author, as you may remember, of The Dragons of Babel).  We discussed fantasy, mythology, and each other's work, and in the course of the hour, a sort of mini-autobiography of Greer emerged.

The conversation was recorded by Farah Mendelsohn and will eventually be published in Foundation.  In the meantime, those who think they know Greer Gilman can test themselves against the following brief four-question quiz:

1.  In her senior year of college, Greer changed her major to English, despite getting straight As in her prior studies.  What had she been studying?

2.  At Cambridge, Greer received a starred first for what field of endeavor?

3.  Greer's first post-collegiate job lasted for seven years.  What was she doing?

4.  Why did she lose that job?

Time's up!  Put down your pencils and close your blue notebooks.  Here are the . . .


1.  Biology and genetics.

2.  Practical Criticism.

3.  She was a nanny.

4.  For writing Moonwise.  She lived in her employers' house and the clacking of her mechanical typewriter for hours every night eventually drove them mad.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Best of Me

Hi.  I'm leaving for Boskone in the morning, so if I wait another couple of hours I won't have the time to make my Friday posting.  So I'm doing it now.

And today's announcement is that Subterranean Press is going to publish a BEST OF MICHAEL SWANWICKvolume.  Yes. 

It won't really be the best of me, of course.  It'll be the stories that the readers like best, and those you're most likely to enjoy.  But what the heck.  To know which stories are the exact and absolute best of what I've written would take the personal intervention of God Himself.  And let's be honest, if God were willing to answer one question, is that the one you'd ask?  No.

Personally, I think that if God were willing to answer one single question in person, what I'd ask is "How can I best get on Your side right here and right now?"

But I think we've wandered away from the topic, don't you?


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Diagramming Babel (Part 26)

Diagram 26.  If it's Wednesday, we must be diagramming Babel again.   Today's rather unsightly scribble was obviously done in haste -- and that's a good thing.  It means I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to do and was anxious to get to work.  The clean, elaborate diagrams are the ones where I had lots of bits and pieces I knew had to be fitted in but no idea of where the plot should go or how to make it work.

You can also tell that this is a chaotic time for Will.  People slash across his plotline, there and gone.  They have connections to each other that are not apparent to him.

From top to bottom:





Throughout the coronation, he 
felt her lack.  
[But why?]


W is Will.  E is Esme, probably; I don't think it can possibly be Enoycla.  A is either Alcyone or Ariel, but for the life of me I can't remember which.  And DS has got to be Dame Serena.  But where the hell is Florian?

Well . . . these things are ephemeral, drawn mostly for the purpose of bringing me into the plot.  It doesn't really matter that I have no idea now what was going on, so long as I understood it then.

The dotted line indicates action taking place outside of Will's (or the reader's) awareness.  It was there to make sure I remembered to put in the necessary bits of foreshadowing beforehand and sufficient explanation of what had happened afterwards.

I can tell the book is heading toward the climax, though.  At the end of the diagram, Will goes into the coronation and discovers that the Obsidian Throne is nothing like what he'd imagined it would be.  The cryptic comment at the end reflects the fact that for plot reasons Alcyone could not be present for the coronation.  So I had to come up with a reason why she wouldn't be.

Oh, and that downward slash (\)?  My shorthand for "the."  An upward slash (/) repesents "and."


Monday, February 11, 2008

My Boskone Schedule

Boskone is this coming weekend!  So, for the convenience of anybody who'll be in attendance and wants to look me up (or avoid me, for that matter), here's my final schedule for the weekend:


8 p.m.  The Zombie Panel (me, Bob Eggleton, Seanan McGuire, Sonya Taafe, and moderator Jon Langan)
A panel about zombies.


Noon  Reading.  (0.5 hour)
Assuming I've finished writing it by then, I'll be reading "The Scarecrow's Boy."

1 p.m.  Literary Beer.
I sit down at a table with anybody who wants to be literary and drink beer.  I believe there's soda or water or such for those who don't care to drink that early in the day.   You have to sign up for this, but it's pretty easy to do.

2 p.m.  Autographing.
Serious collectors tell me that autographs should ONLY be dated on the year of publication or on a date when the author does something significant like win a major award or commit suicide.  So if you see me dating my signature for anything but The Dragons of Babel, try to cheer me up, okay?

3. p.m.  Good Things Come in Small Packages:  The Craft of Short Fiction (me, Beth Bernobich,  Kelly Link, and moderator James Patrick Kelly)
This one is of particular use to gonnabe writers.

4 p.m.  Masters of Short Fiction:  A Conversation (me, James Patrick Kelly, Howard Waldrop, and moderator Patrick Nielsen Haden)
How did Kelly Link miss being stuck on this panel?  And has anybody else noticed that they haven't left me any time for lunch?


10 a.m.  Moonwise of Babel:  A Conversation on the Nature and Uses of Deep Fantasy  (me, Greer Gilman)
"Two fantasists talk seriously about matters they find intensely interesting."  This was my idea.  I have no idea what we're going to talk about.  I'm hoping it will be great.

Et un amuse bouche . . .

On Saturday, I picked up a copy of Eclipse 1, the first in a new original fiction anthology series from Nightshade Books, edited by Jonathan Strahan.    And, holy cow, does it have an astonishing lineup of writers:  Lucius Shepard, Peter S. Beagle, Jeffrey Ford, Ellen Klages... and on and on.  It's got a very strange story by Bruce Sterling which I'm only halfway through so I can't begin to tell you what it's about.  It's even got a new story from Eileen Gunn!

But the highlight of the book has got to be Andy Duncan's "Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse."  It's currently on the Nebula preliminary ballot and I think pretty sure to be on the final ballot, despite the fact that it's neither science fiction nor fantasy.  I don't even think it's slipstream.  But that doesn't matter.  It's good enough to make principled men go against their conscience and vote to give a genre award to a mainstream story.  Honest.

Just in case somebody from Nightshade chances across this, here's a blurb you can use however you like, with my blessing:

"You don't have to buy this astonishingly brilliant and entertaining anthology.  But if you don't, I have no respect for you at all.  None whatsoever."
                                   -- Michael Swanwick


Friday, February 8, 2008

Murray Leinster's Submarine

It suddenly occurs to me that the story of Murray Leinster's submarine may well not have been committed to print yet. It's a slight thing, an anecdote. But you might find it interesting.

I met Will Jenkins, the writer who published science fiction under the pseudonym of Murray Leinster, in 1971 or '72. Leinster is best known as the man who invented the parallel worlds or alternate history story with "Sidewise in Time." A professor who knew him took me and a fellow SF fanatic along on a visit to his house, "Ardudwy," on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

Oh, man, was I impressed! Jenkins/Leinster was everything a writer should be. His house was a wizard's den, crammed with books. He had an experiment-in-progress set up on his kitchen table. (He was an inventor as well as a writer.) He told fabulous stories.

This is one:

During WWII, Robert Heinlein, then working at the Philadelphia Naval yard, formed a think tank of SF writers to solve thorny and unusual problems for the military. Asimov and de Camp were part of the group and I believe that L. Ron Hubbard was too. Heinlein wanted Leinster to also be a member, but the navy brass said no, because he didn't have a high school degree. (He'd dropped out of school in the eighth grade and gotten a job in a mill, to help support his family.) Nevertheless, the group slipped him a few problems under the table.

One such problem was that submarines were easily spotted from the air by the vee-shaped wake left by their periscopes. The Navy wanted a fix.

So Leinster built a few wooden models, and experimented with them in his bathtub. Eventually, he determined that attaching long flexible strips of I forget exactly what (maybe aluminum) to the periscope would break up the wake. The info was passed back to Heinlein and so up the line.

Shortly thereafter, Leinster received what he characterized as a very polite letter from an admiral, saying that for technological reasons, the problem was now moot. (I. e., everybody had radar now, and everybody else knew it.) But that there was one thing he was wondering about. He understood that Leinster had come up with his method while playing in the bathtub and he wanted to know (and here Leinster paused, for dramatic purposes) just what he had used for the periscope?


Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Diagramming Babel (Part 25)

Diagram 25: How long, O Lord? How long can these diagrams possibly continue? Well, I have good news. There are only six more to go.

Consider this my belated Groundhog Day present to you.

From the bottom:




1. Salem Toussaint’s Office

2. The Cluricauns

Revisionist History

3. The Acclamation

4. The Burning Man


5. The Aftermath


The various initials stand for Will, Salem Toussaint, Jimi Begood, Ghostface, Vickie and/or Nate, and everybody's favorite fanatic, the Burning Man. You’ll note that this is an awfully quick sketch, basically a map of how much I hoped to accomplish that day if at all possible. Acclamation is misspelled and I drew a character line for the Burning Man next to the incident labeled “The Burning Man,” neither of which I would have done if I’d been paying much attention.

The line for Victoria (never call her Vickie) and/or Nate travels alongside Will's when they're together and darts away when they're apart. Note how suddenly and finally they separate. That's a major plot point right there.

Note also the scribbled-over “The Dragon’s Sermon.” I originally meant to give Will’s inner demon a voice, rather like Faust's sermon in Jack Faust. For artistic reasons, I decided to replace that with a revisionist history. Which may be just as well. It was alarming how many people thought that the caustic cynicism in Faust’s sermon was a naive reflection of my own true opinions. Reading is a dying art.


Monday, February 4, 2008


In a long and thoughtful entry to last Friday's blog entry, Hannah's Dad, among several other things, says:

iii) near the end of the book, after young wotsisname has become king, an Umberto Eco-like list of the many denizens of the city, including Ukranians and... Ruthenians. Who the hell talks about Ruthenians? No one but Avram Davidson surely? Looking in the Avram Davidson treasury I find it mentioned in... the introduction by Michael Swanwick. Who is married to one.

Yes, absolutely right, I am fascinated by the strange plight of Rutheno-Americans, who seem to have almost entirely lost all sense of their ethnicity. Irish-Americans, among whom I count myself, are the exact opposite. We remember more about our history and native land than probably actually existed, and it's a great source of strength for us. Exactly how bad does your history have to be for an entire people to jettison it wholesale?

So there's a hard grain of mystery behind my decision to include Ruthenians among such mythological creatures as vodniks, milchdicks, clabbernappers, and igosha. And it was, of course, a nod to my wife, Marianne Porter (in some circles best known as "the M. C. Porter Endowment for the Arts"), that the very next category in the list was laboratory inspectors -- which was the position she held two promotions ago.

All that explication for one word! You can cram a lot of hidden stuff into a novel when you write as slowly as I do.

I also wrote the following short-short for The Periodic Table of Science Fiction, originally published in the late, lamented Sci Fiction and then in book format by PS Publishing:


Land of Our Fathers

Ah, Ruthenia! Has any land been ever so lost as thee? In America the Irish gather in bars to drink and grow maudlin about a land they've never seen. The Germans wax eloquent about the Rhine and about poets whose work they can only read in translation. African-Americans, whose history has been so thoroughly obliterated that not one out of ten knows from what land or tribe his ancestors came, hold a deep and abiding love for the continent of Africa.

But where are the Ruthenians? What history was theirs?

I met a Ruthenian-American girl in a bar who told me: "In Ruthenia of old, my ancestors greeted the dawn with one long blast from a great bronze horn. They scorned print and saddles as things that made men weak. A sprig of aspen summoned them to war. They rode bareback into battle.

"My Ruthenian ancestors drank fermented mare's milk and a mushroom wine so strong that outlanders could not finish even the first flagon. The men wore gold rings at the tips of their beards and mustaches. The women wore silver rings braided into their hair. In winter, they took baths in the snow. In summer, they fought knife-duels blindfolded and with their left hands bound together. It was considered a great disgrace for both opponents to survive a duel.

"In Ruthenia, the hunters could run fleeter than horses, pass through a bramble thicket without making a noise, and follow the day-old track of a salmon through a lake. The women wove cloth as light as silk and as strong as denim in patterns that dazzled the eye. When a garment was finished, it was held up for admiration, and if the admiration was less than its maker thought it deserved, she flung it in the fire.

"In Ruthenia, all the children were happy.

"It was the custom in Old Ruthenia that when a girl came of age, she would bathe naked in a mountain pool, and offer herself in marriage to the first man who came along. But in practice her father and brothers guarded the way to the pool with swords, and let through only that man who had already won her heart. Our national epic begins with a scoundrel who kills father and brothers and lover in order to marry a woman who is a symbol of our land, and ends with the death of that villain at the hands of his own children."

"Is this really true?" I asked her.

She finished her drink, and said, "Probably not. But it's a nice thing to think, isn't it?"

for Marianne

Friday, February 1, 2008

My Fast Forward Interview

I wouldn't ask anybody to do anything I wouldn't do myself.

An admirable sentiment. But, strictly speaking, not true. There are many, many things I want other people to do that I wouldn't.

Case in point: Fast Forward, the Arlington-based monthly television show focusing on the triune genre of fantasy, SF, and horror, has just released onto the Web its January show featuring an interview with yours truly. And while I'm not going to watch it myself, I certainly hope other people do.

The interview can be seen on Fast Forward's home page here.

Et un amuse bouche . . .

Am I the only person who's noticed that the aliens in my February 2008 Asimov's story, "From Babel's Fall'n Glory They Fled . . ." and the aliens in Nancy Kress's "Sex and Violence," which is not only in the same issue but immediately follows, apparently speak the same language?

Coincidence or conspiracy? You judge.