Friday, October 31, 2008

A Creepy Halloween To All!

I wrote my traditional yearly Halloween story yesterday, and I was going to post it here for all to enjoy.  But when I read it to Marianne and Sean, I did such an over-the-top performance that they began bouncing up and down, and shouting "You have to podcast this!"

The problem here is that, having never posted a podcast myself, it'll take a day or two for me to learn how to do that thing.  And, today being today, and I being scheduled to go downtown and watch the Phillies victory parade (we won!  the pennant!  whoop!), there wasn't the time for that.  And you don't want to podcast a Halloween story after the occasion itself.

"Couldn't I just post the story tomorrow and then podcast it next year?" I asked.

"By then, everybody will have swapped your story around, and it'll look like you're just adapting another piece of copy pasta."


Well . . . next year, you're in for a treat.  Meanwhile, there's the photo of my 108-pound jack-o-lantern above.

How on earth do you move a 108-pound pumpkin, you ask?  Well, it turns out there's appropriate technology for everything.  You simply roll it onto an empty grain sack.  Then two people grab the ends of the sack and lift.  It moves simple as simple.

And as always . . .

The Poem du Jour has been updated.  Enjoy!


Monday, October 27, 2008

Asteroid Deflection Research Symposium 2008

Here's the short version:

About two weeks ago, an observer at the Catalina Sky Survey spotted a small meteor (c. 1 meter in diameter) headed straight toward Earth. The astronomical community was alerted and about 570 observations were made by 27 observers over the next nineteen hours. It exploded about 35 kilometers over northern Sudan with a force of about one kiloton.

2008 TC3 was the first meteoroid ever spotted before it reached Earth's atmosphere. On average, a meteoroid of its size hits our planet once a week. If one were to explode over New York City or Moscow, the military would have sophisticated enough technology to recognize it for a natural event, rather than enemy attack. Not all nations with nuclear weapons could do so.

Apophis is a medium-sized (c. 270 meters in diameter) asteroid which in 2029 will pass between the Earth and the Moon -- and a lot closer to the Earth than to the Moon. It will be closer to us than our geosynchronous satellites. Luckily, its orbit is out of the plane of our satellites so it won't disrupt them. Even more luckily, it won't hit our planet.

If Apophis did hit our planet, it would not cause a worldwide extinction event on the order of that which killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. That would take a rock a kilometer in diameter or larger. It's estimated that we've cataloged roughly 90% of the Near Earth Asteroids of that size and none of them are poise any threat to us anytime in the foreseeable future.

However, a 340-meter asteroid like Apophis could cause enormous regional damage. Nobody really knows how much. Mark Boslough of Sandia Laboratory, however, calculates that the Tunguska Event may have been caused by a meteor as small as forty meters in diameter.

The American Congress recently mandated NASA to survey 90% of all Near Earth Objects of 240 meters in diameter or larger by the year 2020. Since NASA has twenty billion dollars of mandates and a seventeen billion dollar budget, this doesn't look likely to happen. They're working on it, but piggybacking the search on other sky scans.

There are a number of potential ways to deflect an asteroid or comet (you don't want to blow it up, because the chunks would still hit the Earth, with minimally diminished destructive force), some of which use off-the-shelf technology. Given an early enough warning and a few years' lead time, it could certainly be done.

Nobody has the responsibility to do so.

Under current protocols, if a large rock were headed toward the Earth, scientists would quickly identify it and report it. Follow-up analysis would be run to determine if it were an impactor. If it turned out to be one, the scientific community would perform more observations to update the orbit and publish those findings. This would continue in a cycle for as long as the object was on its way.

If the impactor was a serious threat to the planet, it is presumed that somebody would do something. Who that somebody is, though, and which of several options they would take, nobody knows.

All in all, a pretty nifty symposium.

Look! Up in the sky! It's a rocket! It's an award! It's . . .

. . . Willey Ley's Hugo. After the symposium, Marianne and I went to the Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International. The center is an overflow facility for the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, and it's essentially a big hangar with lots of planes and spacecraft: A space shuttle, the Enola Gay, a couple of MiGs, and so.

Plus Willey Ley's Hugo. In a display case with other historically significant tchotchkes. Pretty damn cool.

And as always . . .

Poem du Jour has been updated.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Inside Scoop


Explanation: Last Friday I was off at the 2008 Asteroid Deflection Symposium, and discovered what prices the Hyatt wanted for simple access. So I called my son and asked him to post an explanation for why I wasn't blogging myself. "You can add something snarky of your own afterwards," I said.

Late Saturday, I came wearily home and said, "You posted to the blog, right?"

No. He'd written a post and saved it because he thought it was too negative.

I told him if it's honest, he should post it. Here's what he wrote:

So! Michael Swanwick is off at some convention or other, learning about how asteroids are going to destroy the planet, or the importance of planet destroying asteroids, or how violence between asteroid gangs often leads to asteroid slaughter. Because he's too cheap to shell out for the hotel's Internet access, you get his son, Sean Swanwick, instead.

So, he talks a lot about writing and being a writer, right? Not quite as glamorous as I'm sure he paints it. For one thing, this chair at his desk I'm sitting in right now seems to be a thick plastic bag wrapped around a bunch of metal bars. There are a few knobs that ostensibly adjust the thing, but they don't seem to do anything. The chair seems to drain the energy out of me, filling me with the urge to bunk off and eat a burrito.

Maybe this explains why I come home so often to find him reclined on his much nicer couch, a small towel draped gracefully over his eyes. "Hey, Dad," I'll say, "You asleep?"

"No," comes the muffled reply, "I'm writing." Well, awesome, good luck with that. Of course, this raises the question of why he chooses to discourage me from following his career by waking me up every time I try to 'write' past noon, but that's neither here no there.

And his desk? The keyboard is resting loosely on top of roughly two inches of manuscripts, paperbacks, and bits of wiring that goes to digital cameras. At the very bottom of the pile is a small hotplate, so when he grows tired of his workload he can simply switch it on and wait five minutes for the resulting fire to clear everything away again. Convenient, but when he does the monitor suffers smoke damage

The books, though, the books dominate the house. Every room save the kitchen has at least two bookshelves, and most of the shelves have two layers of books, one concealing the other. While this is an excellent way to hide your illicit gains from a diamond heist, mostly they're just huge piles of aging Science Fiction books. Not too long ago, one of the shelves in his office collapsed completely from the strain, covering the floor ankle deep in old, yellowing paperbacks. My (quite reasonable) suggestion to simply run a wood chipper through the affected area was rebuffed without even a second thought! Sometimes I wonder if he's taking my suggestions seriously at all.

I think the most telling little artifact within spitting distance is this bright pink Post-It note on the monitor. It reads, simply, "NO" in big, black letters. Apparently this is a reminder to my father to stop accepting new assignments--not to agree to write more features for magazines, not to agree to do more interviews, not to write news paper articles for recently deceased authors so they'll be honored a little more than, "Hack Star Trek Novelization Author Dies Embarrassingly." And I agree wholeheartedly, he should be taking on fewer responsibilities. They're cutting into his time writing on the couch.


Monday, October 20, 2008

A Terrifying Conversation

"I won't be writing anything more," my friend said.

"What?!" My friend was a serious writer, a significant writer, a writer with a following. True, there were some hard times commercially. My friend's most recent book was self-published. But -- never? "For real?"

"My last novel took so much out of me. Trying to sell it was an ordeal. There were so many times I thought I'd finally sold it, and then it would be rejected again. I just don't have any more energy. I can't do that to myself again."

"What will you do with yourself, then?"


Meanwhile, in a cheerier part of the world . . .

I've just received another starred review, this one from Library Journal, for The Best of Michael Swanwick, forthcoming from Subterranean Press any week now.

Here's the review:

Swanwick, Michael. The Best of Michael Swanwick. Subterranean. Oct. 2008. c.464p. ISBN 978-1-59606-178-1. $38. FANTASY

In one of Swanwick's earliest published short stories, a junior trade representative from Africa visits the United States, now ravaged by biochemical warfare, and is introduced to a uniquely American quasireligious ritual centering around the life of Janis Joplin ("The Feast of Saint Janis"). His most recent story, "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled," takes place in a posthuman world where alien life celebrates and mourns its own creation myths. Spanning more than a quarter-century, the 21 short stories, including five winners of the coveted Hugo Award, demonstrate the author's breathtaking versatility and excellence of style. This first chronological overview of the short fiction by the author of The Iron Dragon's Daughter and The Dragons of Babel belongs in most libraries.

And as always . . .

Poem du Jour has been updated. This time, it's a gloom-cookie by Housman.


Friday, October 17, 2008


Well, I'm off to Capclave, Washington DC's annual SF convention. The Author Guest of Honor is the legendary James Morrow, renowned among those who know him for also being one heck of a nice guy. The Critic Guest of Honor is the equally legendary Michael Dirda, also renowned among those who know him for being one heck of a nice guy. A bit of a coincidence there, but a pleasant one.

Here's the short appreciation I wrote of Michael for the program book:

Michael Dirda

So I was sitting with three renowned science fiction writers during the down time at a literary event – Books over Brattleboro or the Short Pump Literary Festival, something like that – and I mentioned that I’d just run into Michael Dirda. One of the three, and I probably shouldn’t mention any names, remarked that he hadn’t seem Dirda for some time. “Well, he hasn’t been to a science fiction convention for years,” I replied. “He told me he’d gafiated.”

My three friends almost choked.

Michael Dirda has serious literary credentials, after all. He graduated from Oberlin College with Highest Honors, and the following year taught English in Marseille, France on a Fulbright Fellowship. He has a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell, and he’s received rather a lot of honors and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism. He publishes in places like The New York Review of Books, Smithsonian Magazine, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. His columns for the Washington Post Book World were one of the glories of that august institution. So what the heck was he doing using a piece of faanish slang like “gafiate”?

Quite simply, in the situation, gafiate (which, in case you don’t know, is a shortening of “getting away from it all,” and refers to the act of taking an extended holiday from either SF or fandom) was the mot juste for what Dirda meant. So he used it. The man is without pretension.

It is this quality that makes him such a fine reader.

Oh, Michael Dirda is a fine writer as well, with a lucid and compelling prose line. (And funny; if you doubt it, read his “Bookish Fantasies,” a cascade of thirty-five literary daydreams, including “Hey, Chip, this is Sherry down at the library. We’ve just gotten the new Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM, and we were wondering whether you might like to take the old thirteen-volume set off our hands . . .” and “. . . pay you $10 a word . . .”) But that’s kind of a sine qua non in his line of business. It’s his special talent as a reader that makes his writings particularly valuable. He reads and enjoys books not by category or preconception but for what they actually are.

Consider his list of favorite authors: Stendhal, Chekhov, Jane Austen, Evelyn Waugh, T.S. Eliot, Nabokov, John Dickson Carr, Joseph Mitchell and Jack Vance. Somebody who was trying to impress you might throw in Jack Vance, just to let you know how eclectic his tastes are. But John Dickson Carr? Only honest admiration could have compiled a lineup like that. In one of his books he wrote that it was his intent to encourage readers "to look beyond the boundaries of the fashionable, established, or academic." To read, that is, as he does, with passion and for pleasure.

He is, it almost goes without saying, a book collector, and a serious one. But that, and the fact that he once wrote a slim paperback titled Caring for Your Books, give you exactly the wrong impression of his priorities. I saw him once look up from an examination of the rather worn contents of Gardner Dozois’s bookshelves and exclaim, “Gardner, the books on your shelves all look so delightfully read!” He sees past the superficialities.

You an see for yourself why we dedicated Dirdaphiles have such a high opinion of him by checking out one of his books (Classics for Pleasure, Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life, Bound to Please, An Open Book: Coming of Age in the Heartland, and Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments) or his weekly online column, “Dirda on Books,” at

In a perfect world, the ability to read well would be particularly honored. Having him at Capclave as this year’s Critic Guest of Honor moves the world one tiny inch closer to perfection. Enjoy his presence here. That same clarity of expression found in his essays is also present in person. Michael Dirda is a terrific conversationalist.
He’s particularly good on the subject of books.


And, as always . . .

The Poem du Jour has been updated. Andrew the Marvellous introduces Johnny the Great! Don't miss it.


Monday, October 13, 2008

The Uncanny Power of Words

Too often, we forget the extraordinary power that words have over human beings. They can start wars and revolutions, send young men off to the gold fields, lend courage to the dying, solace a broken heart. And on a lesser level...

Here's a passage from Samuel R. Delany's 1967 short story "Driftglass":

"Driftglass," I said. "You know all the Coca-Cola bottles and cut-crystal punch bowls and industrial silicon slag that goes into the sea?"

"I know the Coca-Cola bottles."

"They break, and the tide pulls the pieces back and forth over the sandy bottom, wearing the edges, changing their shape. Sometimes chemicals in the glass react with chemicals in the ocean to change the color. Sometimes veins work their way through in patterns like snowflakes, regular and geometric; others, irregular and angled like coral. When the pieces dry, they're milky. Put them in water and they become transparent again."
Forty years ago, this passage told me to pick up pieces of driftglass (or, as the stuff is called on the Jersey Shore, beach glass) whenever I was at the beach. I've been doing it -- as has Marianne, starting a year or two later -- ever since. Pictured above are some of the results; jars of driftglass, and other things as well... tiny driftbricks, Cape May diamonds, lost keys, you name it.

Mind you, the story didn't tell me to collect driftglass. In the story, collecting driftglass is a sad, useless thing that a sad, crippled man does. But the passage told me. And I obeyed.

That's the uncanny power words have over us.

And as always . . .

The Poem du Jour has been updated.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

It Lives!

Here it is at last, the distinguished thing.   Two copies of The Best of Michael Swanwick arrived in the mail today, which means, I assume that they're either available now to the general public or will be momentarily.

This will be a short as well as early post, because Marianne and I are driving up to Elk County tomorrow to look at the -- wait for it -- elk.  It should be great.  

Any potential burglars, however, are cautioned not to think they can take advantage of our absence.  The house will be protected by vicious attack gamers.  You've been warned!

And as always . . . 

The Poem du Jour has been updated.  Yesterday's incantatory little ditty was by Octavio Paz.  In the comments for the previous poem (by Horace), Mario and I discuss the perils of translation.  And this coming Saturday's poem will be posted on Sunday.  You can blame the elk for that.


Wednesday, October 8, 2008


If you amble over to The Drabblecast, you'll find brand-new podcasts of two pieces of flash fiction by Yours Truly -- Hush and Hark and Metasciencefiction. (Click here.) I'm really quite impressed by the job Norm Sherman did narrating them both. Which is higher praise than you'd think, because I'm extremely resistant to interpretations of my work that differ in any way from how it sounded in my head. Hush and Hark, in particular, had a very Edgar Alan Poe-esque treatment quite at odds with how I'd originally imagined the story. (I'd thought of it as more Dunsany-ish.) But it works beautifully, and it taught me something about my own creation. So, thanks, Norm.

I've only listened to one other "Drabblecast" -- that of Robert Reed's Floating Over Time, but it was also quite good. So I'll probably make listening to these podcasts a regular thing.

One minor correction, though: In the podcast, it's stated that Jason Van Hollander's Hush and Hark (above) was created as an illustration of my story. Quite the opposite. Jason sent me a copy of the picture, and I wrote the story for it.

And as always . . .

I've updated Poem du Jour. This time with a poem to increase your snobbishness.


Monday, October 6, 2008

Why Not Sponsor the Literature You Love?

I am feeling perilously close to panic. Asimov's and Analog are converting their format to an L trim.

Okay, you say. What the heck is an L trim and why should it matter? Briefly, the magazines are going from 5.25" wide and 8.3125" high, with 144 pages, to a new size: 5.875" wide and 8.625" high, with only 112 pages. By changing the font size, the editors are able to limit the damage to the loss of a single short story per issue.

This is scary because the change of size was done in order to cut expenses. And magazines only make such penny-pinching moves when things are so tight that the very real possibility of going under looms on the horizon.

The reason we all should care is that not only are Asimov's and Analog and the other genre magazines the school in which young and talented writers master their trade, but the crucible in which new modes of fiction are created. (Cyberpunk, to take the easiest example, was created not in Neuromancer but in William Gibson's short fiction, mostly published in the Omni.) The science fiction and fantasy genres would be a lot drabber and less lively without the magazines.

If you'd like to make a positive difference for the literature you love, the single best thing you could do would be to subscribe to one of the magazines. I already subscribe to a couple of them and I'm sending in my check to a third tomorrow. You can subscribe to Asimov's here or to Analog here.

And if the two big guys are wobbly, you can bet the other magazines could use your money too. You can subscribe to Fantasy and Science Fiction here or to Realms of Fantasy here.

Keep in mind that this isn't charity. You'll be getting first look at some of the best short fiction being published today. And you'll have the satisfaction of knowing you're making a difference.

End of lecture. I promise not to do this often.


Friday, October 3, 2008

Neil Breezes Through

[above, l-r: Neil with broken finger, me, Gardner Dozois; photo by Kyle Cassidy]

Neil Gaiman breezed through town last night, bringing autumn in his wake, as by a special arrangement with the Seasonal Powers he does every year. He appeared at the Gershman Y to promote his newest work, The Graveyard Book. I was on my usual rounds, walking up and down the earth, and noticed an hour beforehand a line a block long waiting patiently in the rain. So, yeah, the man is a rock star.

Neil is so popular, in fact, that the crowds showing up for signings have gotten large enough to make such events physically painful for him. (In Brazil, 2000 people showed up for a signing, and he 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. Nobody should have to go through that.)

So on this tour, he's trying something different. Rather than him doing autographs, there's a table of pre-signed books for sale. To make up for that lack of human contact, he first reads an entire chapter of his book, a different chapter at each stop, in order, and each reading recorded on video and then put up on the Web, so that by the end of the tour you can see and hear him read the entire thing, if you wish. (I think a lot of people will.) Then there's an intermission, during which the trailer for the film version of Coraline is shown, and somewhere backstage Neil sorts through questions members of the audience have written on 3 by 5 cards. And finally he comes back and answers as many of those questions as he can in the time allotted him.

How did it work out in practice? Pretty damn brilliantly. It will surprise no one that he's a first-rate reader but -- trust me on this -- it's a lot harder than it looks. And he had the audience. They laughed at all the right places, they were tense at all the scary places. They were rapt. You can find the link for the video at Neil's blog.

As for the question-answering . . . I can't say Neil has the timing of a stand-up comedian, because that's not what he was doing. He was being more of a stand-up witty-and-charming-and-not-at-all-stuck-up-or-pretentious-ian. And, oh man, the audience ate it up. I was there with three young friends and they were perfectly satisfied with the experience.

Afterwards, Neil went out to dinner with a few of his pals, myself included. He said that for him the best part was answering the questions, because he never knew what was going to be asked, which made the experience fresh and interesting for him every time. So if anybody's wondering what he's really like, after the show's over . . . Well, he's pretty much the same as the guy you see on stage. You'd like him.

And as always . . .

I've updated Poem du Jour with another Billy Collins poem and one by Czeslaw Milosz I covered on learning that he had died.