Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Modernist's Babel

The Modernist's Babel

God was the first to go, followed closely by Man.  We inherited a corpus of Western art that sprang from Medieval piety, overgrown with Renaissance sincerity, and was quickly overgrown with the Baroque and the Rococo.  All that baggage!  It got in the way of what we wanted to do.

We despised it, we discredited it, we destroyed it.

The pointless surface of a Vermeer, a Rembrandt, even a Dali  -- who could respect it?  Oh, some of our earlier members, our Picassos, our Klees, our Miros, suffered from an excess of technique.  But we were patient and they died and our work could continue its inexorable march toward simplification.  We got rid of that idiot fixation on beauty.  We got rid of the decoration and elaboration.  We reduced art to its quiddity.

Bruegel's Tower of Babel was re-imagined first as a collage, then as a line, and finally as a sheet of untouched white paper.

And on the seventh day we rested.

But then came Postmodernism, with its parody and pastiche and -- worst of all -- its rediscovery of representation.  One by one, all the elements we freed fine art from are returning.  Unmediated imagery.  Craft.  Prettiness.

Imagine our disgust.  Imagine our pain.  So must the ghost of Attila look now upon Europe and what has been done to his legacy:  All his work undone. 

 All that beautiful desolation no more.

4/30/08 12:45-12:55 p.m.



Yes, I know how unfair the above is -- I'm a big fan of the high modernists, though not of what their movement eventually devolved into.  But one of my notebook sketches of Babel was a collage, and this is the story it suggested. 

I didn't have the time to write anything polished (I'm running a little late today), so I just jotted down the above first draft, directly onto the post.  I may revisit and revise it, if I ever find the time.

And the latest poet on Poem du Jour is Shakespeare.  You can read it here.  Tomorrow, Lewis Carroll.  Not one of the the ones you expect.


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Poem du Jour Redux Again

The Poem du Jour is up and running, and I've just posted the Tuesday poem. Those who are interested can check it out here.


Monday, April 28, 2008

Always Cut the Opening Page(s)

I went to Gregory Frost's reading at Philly Fantastic last Friday -- he was promoting Shadowbridge, which is why Thomas Thiemeyer's wonderful cover image is posted above -- and afterwards consulted with him about a story that had been giving me trouble. The story was "Libertarian Russia" (and, yes, I know that's a contradiction in terms -- it's a science fiction story), and the advice he gave me was, essentially, "Cut the first page."

Now, whenever I teach Clarion (West, South, or Classic Coke), I find the commonest error made by new writers is to start writing well before the story begins. Usually I can cut anywhere from one to eight pages right off the top. So it was a surprise to discover that, after more than a quarter-century as a published writer, I'd done it again.

Here's the opening I had to cut:

He left Moscow at dawn, rush hour traffic heavy around him and the sun a golden dazzle in the smog. American jazz saxophone played in his head, smooth and cool. Charlie Parker. He hunched low over his motorcycle and when a traffic cop gestured him to the shoulder with a languid wave of his white baton for a random ID check, Victor popped a wheelie and flipped him the finger. Then he opened up the throttle and slalomed away, back and forth across four lanes of madly honking traffic.

In the rearview mirror, he saw the cop glaring after him, taking a mental snapshot of his license plate. If he ever returned to Moscow, he’d be in a world of trouble. Every cop in the city – and Moscow had more flavors of cops than anywhere – would have his number and a good idea of what he looked like.

Fuck that. Victor was never coming back.

Three years was enough.

Outside the city, the roads got better as they passed through the gated communities where the rich huddled inside well-guarded architectural fantasies and then dwindled to neglect and disrepair before finally turning to dirt. That was when, laughing wildly, he tore off his helmet and flung it away, into the air, into the weeds, into the past . . .

He was home now. He was free.

He was in Libertarian Russia.

A lot of work went into that opening. It began with my last morning in Moscow and the drive to the airport with the sun in my eyes and jazz on the radio, incorporated observations I'd made there, and had a few hidden science fictiony bits that wouldn't become obvious until later in the story. I was very fond of that page.

Nevertheless, it had to go. That's the first lesson you learn as a writer: You have to be ruthless with your own prose.

I include it here because the thirty-fourth or -seventh lesson you learn it: Never waste anything.

Day Three of
Poem du Jour
Held Captive . . .

There's no news yet. I'll let you know when there is.

And for those of you who listen to podcasts . . .

Paul Cole of WRFR radio is podcasting "A Small Room in Koboldtown" in two parts. The first half has been uploaded and can be found here.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

Poem du Jour Redux

TZ writes of my other, newly launched blog Poem Du Jour:

"This blog is under review due to possible Blogger Terms of Service violations and is open to authors only"

That sounds ominous. Will the patient live?

I just got that message myself when I went to make my Saturday posting. It was generated by robots because they'd automatically determined that my blog "has characteristics of a spam blog."

I think that means the poetry.

A lot of spam does of course contain poetry in an attempt to fool spam filters, and I'm guessing that quoting "The Windhover" in full automatically identifies you as spam nowadays. So Gresham's Law apparently applies to language as well as currency!

The automated system assures me that a human being will look at the blog within four business days, at which point I see no reason why anybody could object to what I posted.


Friday, April 25, 2008

Poem du Jour

Okay, I am now completely and officially mad. I have created a second blog -- and it's about poetry!

Here's the story:

Several years ago, my son Sean complained that, despite having graduated from Central High (which periodically swaps the distinction of being the best public high school on the East Coast with Boston Latin), he had no familiarity with poetry whatsoever. So I began to email him a poem a day, along with a few helpful comments about things that might not be obvious to the untutored. The intent was to demonstrate that there's nothing mysterious of intimidating about poetry -- it's just words.

Really, really good words.

After a while, some of Sean's friends asked if they could receive the emails as well, creating a de facto listserv of five to eight recipients. Most of those emails have been long lost, but my friend Benjamin Davis recently uncovered a cache of them, to which I was able to add a few of my own. Marianne and Sean both thought I should turn them into a blog. To be perfectly frank, I thought they were nuts. But, as I frequently tell Marianne, "I am the most obedient of husbands."

I don't know why she snorts so derisively when I say that.

Anyway, I'll be posting one letter every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. These posts are not in any sense systematic. But if you're interested, I've started the blog with the first five surviving letters at

And in perfectly unrelated news . . .

I made it onto the Locus Awards Finalists list twice . . . Once for Short Story ("A Small Room in Koboldtown"), where I'm up against Peter S. Beagle, Stephen Baxter, Elizabeth Bear, and Ken MacLeod, and once for Collection (THE DOG SAID BOW-WOW) where I'm up against Jack Vance, Cory Doctorow, Howard Waldrop, and Connie Willis.

I mention the competition so that, should I lose, you'll understand why. That's a pretty damned distinguished lot! It feels great to belong among them.

You can check it out here.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Secret Rules (number one in an occasional series)

Reading over the comments about my recent appearance at Robin's Book Store, I realized that there's a lot of lore that all us Old Hands know, but which has never been written down.  I like to think of them as the Secret Rules.  So, from time to time, as the thought occurs to me, I'm going to put them into print.  Here's the first, and a useful one it is too:

If the people on a panel outnumber the audience, they are allowed to adjourn the panel, audience and all, to a table in the bar, where the panel will be held as an informal discussion.

There is no hard-and-fast rule on who pays for the drinks.


Monday, April 21, 2008

The Funniest Thing Since Waiting for Godot

Today's post has nothing to do with fantasy, science fiction, or even me.  But my son turned me on to Garfield Minus Garfield, and I had to share.

The site's intro says it all:  "Who would have guessed that when you remove Garfield from the Garfield comic strips, the result is an even better comic about schizophrnia, bipolar disorder, and the empty desperation of modern life?"

And who would have guessed that Garfield could be made funny?


Friday, April 18, 2008

Neil Gaiman's Favorite Story

Springtime in Philadelphia is perfect but extremely short.  Or, to put it another way, it's extremely short but perfect.  So tonight I'm sitting in my backyard, posting this on Naomi's borrowed laptop, and the birds are singing and the sky is soft and subtle and even silvery and the air is as warm and comfortable as the Baltic on Midsummer's Day right after a Finnish sauna and I am so happy that I hope you are twice as happy as me.

One of many, many reasons I am happy is that, driving by Andorra Shopping Center, I saw a sign for one of those temporary remaindered book stores and, swerving through two lanes of oncoming traffic, made straight for it.  And bought, of course many, many books.  One of which was, as a sticker identified it, a "Signed First Edition" of Terry Pratchett's Thief of Time.  For eight dollars.

I've met Terry a couple of times in the past, but never gotten his autograph because... well... so awfully many people ask him for his autograph that I've always figured it would be best karmically to simply let him be.  So I'm particularly glad to have his autograph on a book (one which, by good luck, I haven't read yet) without having made extra work for him.

Which brings me to Neil Gaiman's favorite story.

I know it's his favorite because he told it either two or three times when we both were in Chengdu.  "Autographing is fun for the first two and a half hours," he said.  Then he related how he'd been in a bookstore for a signing in Brazil and two thousand people had showed up.  The bookstore owner went out to tell them that only the first thousand would get autographs.

"The fun-loving Brazilians," Neil said, told the bookstore owner that if they didn't all get autographs, they'd trash his store.

So the owner said, "Oooookay!" and made a fast fade.

Neil signed from four in the afternoon until two in the morning.  His arm swelled up to twice its normal size and had to be iced down afterwards.

Maybe that's not really Neil's favorite story.  If it had happened to ME, it would be mine, and maybe I'm just projecting onto him.  All I know is that at a Boskone several years ago, I had a semi-rarity of his which I thought to get his autograph on because I was going to give it to a very dear friend.  Only when he got to the panel we we were both on (late, because he'd spent an extra hour beyond the scheduled one, autographing), and he quickly chowed down on some Chinese takeout (because he'd missed lunch for the extra hour's autographing in the previous parenthetical asidc), I noticed that his hand was shaking from exhaustion.

Not now, I thought.  I'll ask him some other time.

So that's why I don't have Neil's autograph, but I do have Terry's.  Funny old world, eh?  As they both said in Good Omens.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Dream Diary 2

I'm thinking of starting a dream diary again.  I kept one from December 1993 through January 1996 because I was curious about what sorts of things I was dreaming.  For over two years I kept the record and discovered some interesting things:  That dreams are seasonal, like weather.  That I have my own dream-city, a rambling and shambling thing with good bus service, at least one river, and many bridges.  (It has a water bus service called the Women's Line, which was the invention of Victorian feminists and cannot be used by men, and a used book store so crammed and labyrinthine that it would be closed instantly in the real world as a fire hazard.)  That dreams are often mixed- and multi-media, and not all of those media exist in waking life.  And so on. 

After two years and change, I read the diary for the first time.  Then, my curiosity satisfied, I stopped.

The better bits of the dream diary were published as Lord Vacant on the Boulevard of Naked Angels.  You can find it here.

Anyway, last night I had a dream I found evocative enough to tempt me to begin the project anew.  I present it here:

I dreamed I was in a modern city that sprawled across the side of a mountain.  Somewhere most of the way up the mountain, I climbed up the side and across the top of an enormous white marble building.  It was built in the shape of a naked woman, lying on her back but just beginning to rose up on her elbows, so that she was half-sitting.  Her face was vast and placid and unreadable, as is the case with most neo-classical monumental statuary.

I started climbing at the fluted jamb of the front entrance, and then strolled up the abdomen and belly.  Climbing again, I made my way up the torso to the building's left breast.  There I paused.  I sat down spraddle-legged just above the nipple, and looked out over the city.

The view was magnificent.


Monday, April 14, 2008

My Best Advice for Gonnabe Writers

The promotional season for The Dragons of Babel is mercifully drawing to a close.  Sunday, I appeared with my good pals Judith Moffett (center) and Gregory Frost (right) at Robin's Books, one of the great holy places of Philadelphia.  Greg was promoting Shadowbridge and Judy her forthcoming novel The Bird Shaman (volume 3 of the Holy Ground Trilogy, after The Ragged World and Time, Like an Ever-Rolling Stream).

Sunday afternoon was bright and beautiful, which is a deadly combination for bookstore readings.  Plus, at the same time, the monthly masked anti-Scientologist protest was taking place only a few blocks away, thus drawing away (I believe) many people who are naturals for the sort of weirdness served up the the Three Amigos.  So the crowd was small but select.  

But this gives me the opportunity to repeat . . .

My Best Advice For Gonnabe Writers

While you're working toward getting published, take every opportunity you can to go to readings and public appearances by writers you know are good.   Pay close attention to how they're treated.

That way, when it happens to you, you won't slit your throat.


Friday, April 11, 2008

The Best of Me

Roland has asked for the table of contents for Subterranean Press's forthcoming The Best of Michael Swanwick collection.  And of course I'm only too happy to oblige:

The Best of Michael Swanwick

The Feast of Saint Janis
Trojan Horse
A Midwinter's Tale
The Edge of the World
Griffin's Egg
The Changeling's Tale
North of Diddy-Wah-Diddy
Radio Waves
The Dead
Mother Grasshopper
Radiant Doors
The Very Pulse of the Machine
Wild Minds
Scherzo With Tyrannosaur
The Rabble Taggle Gypsy-O
The Dog Said Bow-Wow
Slow Life
 Legions in Time
 Triceratops Summer
From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled . . . 

Which, all modesty aside, is a pretty good lineup and one that includes almost all my favorite stories.

It looks like Subterranean is going to print the stories in the order I provided them, which is to say in strict chronological order.  I was slightly tempted to reverse the last two stories, making the final one "Triceratops Summer," so that the volume would end on a elegiac note.  But if you start cheating on small things, you'll go on to cheating on your taxes, and from there it's a small hop, skip, and jump to that inevitable moment when you find yourself firing a Glock out a tenement apartment window and shouting, "You'll never take me alive, coppers!"  So I thought I'd best stick with the straight and narrow.

Also, this way the very last word in the book is "Goodbye." 


Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Slow Day, Busy Week

I'm feeling uninspired today, so I'll simply note the whens and wheres of my next three appearances tomorrow, Friday, and Sunday.  All of them in Philadelphia:

Thursday, April 10:

Reading:  Temple Center City Campus, 1515 Market Street, Room 222, 8 p.m.
Free and open to the public.

Friday, April 11:

Guest Speaker:  Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, at the Rotunda, on Walnut Street between 40th and 41st, 9 p.m.  

Sunday, April 13:

Reading/Panel: with Greg Frost and Judith Moffett!  Robin's Book Store, 108 S. 13th Street, 2 p.m.

This one's titled "The Fantastic Three (the other guy's sick)," believe it or not.  Anybody who can't detect Greg's subtle sense of whimsy in that has never met him.  Odd humor notwithstanding, it's a rare opportunity to meet two fascinating and talented writers.  Plus me.  I'm fascinating and talented too, of course, but how rare an opportunity can it be, if it's your third chance this week?


Monday, April 7, 2008

Lee Moyer's Glorious Cover

I spent a day or so last week on the very pleasant chore of looking at Lee Moyer's sketches for possible Best of Me covers for Subterranean Press, and getting to express my opinion as to which should be used.   Bill Schafer (co-founder and head editor of Subterranean) and I both agreed that though all three suggestions were good, one in particular was best.  We told Lee so and one day later he came back with the (beautiful, witty, and as the Subterranean blog put it, glorious) cover shown above.

Don't people with that much talent make you feel inferior?  It hardly seems fair.  He can probably dance like Fred Astaire, too.

And on the self-indulgent, self-promotion front . . .

Two more positive reviews today.  Robert M. Tilendis reviews The Dog Said Bow-Wow in Green Man Review, saying, "The stories in the collection The Dog Said Bow-Wow are, indeed, polished works, marked by inventive settings and a bent toward the weird.  They display a particular richness of invention that seems to be one of the hallmarks -- and blessings -- of post-genre fiction."

Tilendis takes the unusual approach of praising the stories he likes individually, then explaining that there were some he didn't like without examining them individually.  His review concludes, "Overall, though, I found myself enjoying the ollection, in spite of the few bad apples.  Swanwick's multitude of universes are strange, but fascinating."

And Greg Feeley reviews The Dragons of Babel, The Dog Said Bow-Wow, and What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage? in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  He likes all three books quite a lot but, interestingly enough, the review is written in such a way that a blurb cannot be extracted from it.

A reviewer is under no obligation to provide a blurb, of course -- his job is to alert the reader as to whether or not a particular book will be worth reading.  Still, I cannot help speculating that he's trained himself to write all his reviews in exactly this way because he's been burned in the past.  

He told me once that he'd written a review saying something like, "If you like eating bugs, painful and unnecessary root canal surgery, and coming down with cholera, then you'll love this book," and later discovering "You'll love this book! -- Greg Feeley" plastered on the front of the offending volume.  So it's entirely possible.


Friday, April 4, 2008

Charles Dent's Fabulous Horse

Poor Allentown!  Imagine living in a city that's best known for being the subject of a Billy Joel song.  The place just can't catch a break.

Yet it's a quirky and interesting city.  Marianne and I went there last Saturday to see the National Geographic exhibition of illustrative art.  It was a terrific show, and if I ever find the time I may well write a long essay about it.  The museum was, of course, almost empty, despite the fact that the Frank Lloyd Wright library room -- reassembled inside the museum with the original furniture -- is all by itself worth the visit.

What impressed me most, however,  was discovering that in the park across the street from the museum is a twelve-foot-tall miniature of Charles Dent's Horse.  

In 1977, Allentown native Charles Dent read about Leonardo Da Vinci's unfinished statue (begun but melted down for cannons before it could be completed) of a colossal horse and decied that the project needed to be finished.  Seeing a need that nobody else in the world did, Dent raised money, researched the statue, hired sculptor Nina Akuma, and after decades of single-minded obsession, got the statue made, though he did not live to see it completed.

On September 10, 1999, more than five hundred years after Leonardo first proposed it, the twenty-four-foot-high Horse was unveiled in Milan.  A second casting, known as the American Horse is in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and an 8-foot replica was placed in Leonardo's home town of Vinci, Italy.

There's something to be said for a city that breeds eccentrics like that.

And just to be self-serving . . .

Let me point out that John Clute loves The Dragons of Babel.  In his Strange Horizons review, he calls it "pure magic."

And so does Arthur Bangs!  In his SFFWORLD review, he writes that it "plays with the conventions of the tradition to simultaneously satisfy and confound the reader's expectations, making for a delightful read even when one knows how it will end -- or at least when one thinks one knows how it will end."

I realize how full of myself posting these links here makes me seem.  But when you get reviews that good, you really ought to revel in them.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

A Belated April Fool's Day

Did everybody catch yesterday's Virgle hoax?  Quite marvelous stuff.  It got me thinking of the fake review I wrote for Locus, a few years back.  Everything about it was invented except for the author and the title.  Yes, once upon a time before he became famous overnight, William Gibson really was going to write . . .

The Log of the Mustang Sally
William Gibson
(DAW 0-86667-901-4, $6.99, 502pp., pb) July 2001.  Cover by Josh Kirby

Odds are you never even heard of it, but back in the eighties, William Gibson wrote a first novel called Neuromancer, which some of us thought pretty darned highly of.  It was bright, action-filled, and bulging with nifty ideas.  Unfortunately, it was also "literary."  The hero was an affectless junky, his best friend was dead, and the language itself was a pretentious melange of hipster lingo and noir detective-speak.  It sold about fifteen copies, and Gibson disappeared for almost two decades.

But now he's back, and triumphantly so with the first of a new adventure series featuring the captain and crew of the StarSurveyor Mustang Sally.  The clotted prose of his first book has been replaced by short, clean sentences of almost Asimovian clarity.  Gone are such weird and unlikely neologisms as "flatline" and "cyberspace," replaced by infinitely more plausible coinages such as "plasteel" and "lasegun."  Gone, above all, is the negativity.  Commander Bobby Rydell is a hero for our times.  Strong as a lion and yet cunning as well, a "Hannibal of Space," as Gibson puts it, the infinitely competent Rydell faces challenge after challenge with daring and aplomb.

The plot, it has to be admitted, is a little slapdash.  Essentially, the crew of the Mustang Sally travel from planet to planet, encountering alien monsters which, after initial setbacks, they kill.  But so what?  This is space opera in the grand manner, and surely only the first in a very long series.  You can see the groundwork being laid.  Will Nurse Chevette admit her feelings for Commander Rydell?  Will Idoru (the ship's computer) ever get the physical body she yearns for?  What terrible secret is the alien boy Silencio hiding?  There's enough here to keep the pots boiling and the plots churning for decades to come.

I don't think I'm going out on a limb here when I say that William Gibson is the A. E. Van Vogt, the E. E. "Doc" Smith, possibly even the Gene Roddenberry of the new Millennium.  Remember, you heard it here first!

And, back in 2007 again, an afterword . . . 

I think I did a pretty good job here of describing the sort of book that Bill Gibson must wake up screaming from nightmares of having written.  I was particularly pleased with the reference to "plasteel," a word I happen to know he despised.  My only regret is that after stating that Neuromancer sold poorly, I didn't think to add "(In the States, that is.  In France, it did pretty well.)"

Before his novel hit it big, Bill's expectation for his career was that he'd be neglected in North America, but possibly a cult writer in France.  Sort of like Philip K. Dick, only not mad.


Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Dicks

Roland writes:  I really hope you'll find the time to write a few words about the... erm... DIcks...  I've never seen the ceremony myself and I'm curious what it's like.

Well, okay.  It was a simple affair, though most attending were better-dressed than you're used to fans being, and it was held in the ballroom at Westercon on Saturday night.  The room was set up with tables and chairs, banquet-style, and when the doors opened everybody streamed past them to hit up the free dessert buffet.  I noticed more than one fan loading up a plate pretty heavily and then, red-facedly forking most of it back when a glance at the waiting line revealed that it would be a pretty close thing whether there was enough for all or not.  There was also a cash bar, not so heavily attended. 

Leslie Howle, best known for her work as Clarion West administrator, saved me a seat at a table up front, so I don't know how seating was managed.  People seemed pretty clear as to where they should be, though.

There were a few opening remarks, most notably Gordon Van Gelder, snazzily dressed and almost clean-shaven, explaining that they'd resisted coming up with a trophy, figuring that the winner would find cash far more useful.  Then designated readers came up front to read a page or so from each of the final nominees.

A special citation was given to Minister Faust for From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, and then the Philip K. Dick Award itself was given to M. John Harrison for Nova Swing.  Both were extremely popular choices.

The ceremony was, as the old sexist saw had it, like the ideal length for a woman's skirt:  Long enough to cover everything but short enough to keep it interesting.  It was dignified without being stuffy and there were no punch-outs, hysterical scenes, or bitter, drunken rants afterwards.  

Which is something of a pity, really.