Friday, January 30, 2009

A Postcard From London

Hi, all! I'm in Edinburgh now, that beautiful city, and subsequently too busy hurrying off to museums and pubs and above all the Royal Mile to do a decently long post. So what you get is a postcard from London.

Above: Yours truly (right) together with the indisputably great M. John Harrison. Mike, as his friends and acquaintances call him, is the author of (among a great many other worthy works) the Viriconium books which a quarter-century ago revolutionized fantasy. Not that anybody noticed back then. Except, possibly, me. I remember reading "The Lamia and Lord Cromis" and thinking: This changes eveything.

And so it did. Eventually. Today, Mike Harrison is acknowledged as the originator and ancestral influence of the New Weird. He has followers and acolytes. But if we'd all had any sense, way back when, he'd've been simply the first among equals.

Oh well. A great opportunity almost wasted -- but then, at almost the last moment, recognized and taken. Better this way than not, eh?


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Pleasant News, Terrifying News

Good news first. I've just learned that The Dragons of Babel has received an Alex Award. The Alex Awards are given by the American Library Association for the 10 best adult books that appeal to teen audiences.

The list of recipients is:

City of Thieves (Viking) by David Benioff
The Dragons of Babel (Tor) by Michael Swanwick
Finding Nouf (Houghton) by Zoƫ Ferraris
The Good Thief (Dial) by Hannah Tinti
Just After Sunset: Stories (Scribner) by Stephen King
Mudbound (Algonquin Bks.) by Hillary Jordan
Over and Under (Thomas Dunne Bks.) by Todd Tucker
The Oxford Project (Welcome Bks.) by Stephen G. Bloom, photographed by Peter Feldstein,
Sharp Teeth (Harper) by Toby Barlow
Three Girls and Their Brother (Crown) by Theresa Rebeck

Never heard of the award? Neither had I. But it's one of the many, many ALA Youth Media Awards, and librarians are on the side of the angels. Not the wimpy little angels that Newagers hang around their necks and corporations use to sell you stuff you don't need, but the real angels. The ones with swords of fire that defend us from the likes of John Ashcroft and safeguard not only our liberties but our literature. So I'm particularly pleased to have their approval.

At the very top of the list of awards, incidentally, is the coveted Newbery Medal. This year's winner is is The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman who is, I cannot resist mentioning, a friend. Congratulations, Neil!

So there are many reasons to be happy today. But also, alas ...

Another reason to despair

It's just been reported that Realms of Fantasy is folding. This is terrible news. It was the largest and glossiest fantasy magazine in existence and the only magazine solely devoted to fantasy in the US (I exclude here semiprozines and webzines) and I enjoyed it immensely.

Even worse, all the genre magazines are in trouble. Serious trouble. RoF could very well be only the first to topple.

Ironically enough, there's a healthy audience for all the genre magazines. Their difficulties have been created by a distribution system that simply doesn't put them out in front of people who'd like to buy an occasional copy, and thus they're being supported by a dwindling number of subscribers.

The magazines are the center of the genres of fantasy and science fiction, and the crucible in which literary innovation is forged. So ... as sincerely and gently as I can, let me urge you to do your part to keep them alive. If you already subscribe to one or more, please keep renewing. If you don't, please consider the possibility.

The Big Three surviving magazines in the States are:

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction -- which recently went bi-monthly, a move traditionally held to be a cry for help.

Asimov's Science Fiction


End of editorial. Thanks for listening.


Friday, January 23, 2009

An Extremely Short Post

I'm typing this on my palmtop in the cafe in the British Library. The British Library! So this will be short. There's a lot more London than time in front of me.

Just now strolled through the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, which houses such items as the Magna Carta, a Gutenberg Bible, and the notebooks of such literary luminaries Ted Hughes, Samuel Johnson, and Virginia Woolf -- as well as one single precious volume of the Scribbledehobbledehoydenii.

Which I promptly carried back out with me.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Remembering Mike Ford

I'm packing for London, Edinburgh, and York, so I almost missed blogging today. Luckily, what I have to blog is short and sweet.

It's a memory of the astonishingly and effortlessly witty John M. Ford, known to all his friends as Mike. Years ago, I ran across him at a science fiction event, where they'd given us those little stick-on name tags beginning:


and under it, he'd written:


Which was just so damned typical of him. I really miss the guy.

And if you're going to be in London a week from Wednesday. . .

I'll be appearing at the British Science Fiction Association meeting in the Antelope Tavern in Belgravia. Meeting notice here. Why not drop by and say hi? I'm not like most of the people you meet.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Waking Janet

After the funeral, after the tears, after the wake . . . months after all that, there's a secondary service, a kind of writer's wake that must be performed for those who made their living by the pen.

Last Monday, Gardner Dozois, Susan Casper, and I drove to Lincoln Park, New Jersey, to sort through Janet Kagan's papers and decide which were to be sent to the Jack Williamson Collection at Eastern New Mexico University, and which were to be unceremoniously dumped.

It was a long day of hard work, quiet reminiscence, and small discoveries. Janet liked to present herself as something of a dilettante, somebody who wrote for fun the fun of it (that certainly was true! nobody enjoyed writing as much as Janet did), a writer who simply dashed off her stories and novels. Going through her files, I could see that this last was simply not so. Janet was an organized and disciplined writer. She had endless files of newspaper clippings and magazine articles organized by topic: Mycology, Future Crime, Alternative Marriages, Gold Rushes, Rock & Roll, McCarthy Era, Status Symbols, Rich People, Storytelling, Pluto, Stupid Things People Say, Food Production, Emergent Cultures, Epidemic Diseases . . . "Was there anything Janet wasn't interested in?" I asked.

Smiling and half chuckling, Ricky said, "No."

Her manuscripts were located in four sets of files. One set at her desk were those she was working on at the time she died. Another set were completed. A third were either incomplete or finished but unsatisfactory to her. And there was a set of files labeled Accreting, These were files with a story title at the top, and anywhere from a few to an enormous lot of clippings. Some of these had sheets of notes toward the intended story. Others had only the clippings. All of these stories evanesced into nothing at Janet's death.

What remained? Everything. "Janet never threw away a scrap of paper in her life," Gardner said wearily as the day wore down. And while this was an exaggeration, ENMU certainly has a lot of treasure to shift through:

  • Two unpublished novels, Safety Claws (a YA) and Sable and Glory (aka Blogits).
  • The novel-in-progress Janet was working on when she died, Who Do You Think You Are -- Molly Bly? This looked to me to be mostly finished.
  • The Art Lover, a screenplay which Ricky tells me she probably wrote in college
  • Two porn scripts -- betcha didn't know about these, did you? -- written under the pseudonym (I kid you not) of "Merry Seaman," Up the Greeks, which was filmed as Mount of Venus because Janet was so innocent as not to know her title suggested a gay orientation, and S.N.A.T.C.H (Sexual Needs and Therapeutic Copulation Haven). They were written at a time when porn flicks had plots, you see. Both screenplays had been through a house fire and so were stored in plastic bags, their edges appropriately scorched with hell-fire.
  • Enormous files of correspondence with fans -- Janet was generously open-hearted with her readers -- marked Flounder
  • Unpublished short fiction. Her friends had thought she wasn't writing anymore, but she was. Apparently, though, she'd lost the confidence to send it out.
  • Scraps of paper with flitting thoughts written on them, such as: "Kagan's Rules of Editing 5. Make the author spend at least 3 to 4 weeks writing the prologue -- emphasize that the style shall be literary and arty. Do not print the prologue."
  • Correspondence with other writers and friends.
  • E-mail correspondence with the above.
  • A letter from Samuel R. Delany, accompanying his reconstruction of the original mundane story lurking within Theodore Sturgeon's "Hurricane Trio."
  • 3 x 5 cards stuck in books she was reading, with notes of felicitous turns of phrase or ideas.
  • An e-mail detailing the horror of working for the Star Trek franchisers ("creeps" she called them) with a tid-bit of literary history I hadn't known: "Back in the mid-eighties, my friend Mike Ford wrote a Star Trek musical. Yeah, he's still got the music for it around somewhere. And he had signed a contract to write an ST novel --- so he wrote the first all-singing, all-dancing ST novel --- HOW MUCH FOR JUST THE PLANET? Would they let him do a tape of the songs? They would not. In fact, they very nearly didn't publish the novel because it was too weird for ST but, in the end, to make their publishing schedule (I think) they made him make some truly odd changes & then went with it. I guess, in a way, they were right --- Mike got death threats for that book."
  • A file of correspondence with me, including a photo of me holding my newborn son, Sean. Good God, but I had a lot of hair then! I made Alan Moore look like a lounge lizard.
Keep in mind here that we mostly didn't read the papers. We'd riff through a file, see it was only clippings, and dump it. Grab another folder, see it was correspondence, and shove it in a crate for the Williamson Collection. Every now and then we came across something that would make our eyes bulge. "Send it to New Mexico -- that'll startle 'em!"

So I'm guessing there are a lot of goodies to be found. The folks at ENMU are in for a treat.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Belatedly . . .

I was digging through one of the myriad mounds of paper in my office just now and I came across a scribbled piece of light verse -- all right, all right! doggerel -- which I'd penned in praise of (the quite brilliant) A Child's Garden of Grammar and then . . . well, dropped into the dread Pile.  Abandoned to the fickle currents of fate.  Which have just tossed it up again upon our distant and sterile shore.

I'd have posted this when the Great Man died, had I been able to find it.  Nevertheless, here it is:

en homage

To explicate grammar well
In verse, one must be smart as hell, 
Lucid, slippery as a fish,
More witty than mere words can tell --
In short, one must be Thomas Disch.

Rest in peace, Tom.  I only met you three or four times, and I'm not at all sure you were ever able to distinguish me from Adam.  But I am one of your very many distant and devoted friends.


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Edgar Allan Freaking POE!

January 19 is Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday. Happy Birthday, Eddie! In honor of which the Free Library of Philadelphis is hosting several events, including tomorrow's debate as to whether his grave should be robbed and his remains defiled in order to have his bones raped away from Baltimore, where they're quietly buried, and interred here in Philadelphia, where he briefly lived. A tough call, obviously.

Last week, I went with Kyle Cassidy and Trillian Stars to the Poe special exhibit in the FLoP (unfortunate acronym!) rare books collection. Gregory Frost, who's written Poe-related fiction was unfortunately unable to join us.

But what a great display -- provided only that you're moved by books, pamphlets, and letters. There was a copy of the chapbook Tamerlane and Other Poems by "A Bostonian," not only Poe's first published work but one of the rarest and most collectable pieces of American printing. There was one of only two surviving copies of the April 13, 1844 New York Sun, with Poe's fraudulent account of Monck Mason's astonishing crossing of the Atlantic in an unbelievable 75 hours on the steerable airship Victoria, a hoax which may well be considered ancestral to science fiction. And of course -- as anybody who knows anything about the FLoP's rare book department knows -- there was the stuffed body of Charles Dickens's raven Grip, which directly inspired Poe to write "The Raven."

Kyle blogged about the event (scroll down and you'll find it). And afterwards we three met Tom Purdom for lunch and as pleasant a conversation as one might wish for. It's one of Tom's conceits that civilization exists so that people might live in cities and have intellectual conversations, and doggone if the man isn't (as usual) right.

Above: Me with the statue of Johannes Fust in the rare book department. There's a companion statue there of Gutenberg, who is famed for inventing moveable type. But -- true trivia here -- he never published the Gutenberg Bible. He got the pages printed before going broke, and it was Fust who bound and sold them.

Why did I want this picture badly enough to ask Kyle Cassidy to snap it? Because in Jack Faust the title character implies that Fust was his father. It was only after the book was published that I learned that the historical Fust was confused with the mountebank Faust when the stew of stories and lies arose that eventually became the legend of Faustus.


Friday, January 9, 2009

A Product So Dumb I Had to Buy It

I was going to blog about my visit to the (quite amazing if you're into American literary history) Free Library of Philadelphia's Poe exhibit today.  But unfortunately I can't find the picture that Kyle Cassidy shot of me standing next to the statue of Johannes Fust, so instead you get the hideously amateurish shot of a product so useless that I had to buy it.

And what is it, you ask?  It's a device that will turn your memory card into a thumb drive!  Yes!  If you've forgotten to bring along your thumb drive but you have remembered to bring along the thumb-drive sized device, why then, you're all set.   

No wonder they were selling it off at Micro Center for only 99 cents.

But here's the snapper:  It comes with a short USB cable.  Which means that it's a perfectly functional SD card reader.  So, really, it's a perfectly good product.  Only they packaged it as a dumb one, so somebody surely took a bath on it.

Another chapter in the annals of heroic capitalism.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

While You Sleep, the Cameras Are Being Prepped

I'm old enough that I can remember when privacy was a valued concept in the United States. And I'm old-school enough that I still adhere to the standards of privacy that prevailed in my youth. So I've been watching the swing toward a more -- what's the word? -- complacent attitude toward government surveillance with some alarm. As a result I've been talking about this issue with some extremely intelligent people for some years now.

As a result, I'm aware that I'm in the minority here.

But did you know that the Feds are mandating what seems to be a universal surveillance system? I didn't either, until I read Ingra Saffron's architecture column in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It begins:

The typical traffic light is roughly the size of a large table fan.
The hardware necessary to switch a signal from green to amber to red in a fail-safe way can probably fit into the space of an old desktop computer.

So why does Philadelphia need to install control boxes as big as refrigerators to operate its traffic lights?

Let's start with the Department of Homeland Security.

On orders from the federal government, Philadelphia is replacing all its electromechanical signal boxes with a digital system that will eventually host the guts for a citywide network of surveillance cameras. While the old signal boxes were small enough to be strapped to the poles of traffic lights, the new digital, camera-ready signals require a lot more space - freestanding cabinets 67 inches tall.

The first of these brown behemoths are now going in at every signalized intersection east of Broad Street between South and Market, in some of Philadelphia's oldest, most historic neighborhoods. You can't miss them.

Taller than a standard mailbox, they rear up over pedestrians like angry grizzly bears.

(Online, there's a clarifying statement that it wasn't a DHS mandate but a program "under the auspices of" the Federal Highway Administration. I used to work in the proposals office of the Franklin Institute Research Laboratories, so I suspect this is like the the CIA contracts we used to bid on which were issued by the USDA, but that's irrelevant. It hardly matters whether it's the branch of the American government with the scary name or the one that promotes the well-being of moo-cows. It's what will be done with the surveillance system that matters.)

In the 1950s, the very idea of such a thing would have been denounced in Congress. In the 1960s, there would have been riots. Today, the only reason I've heard that preparations are being made for a system that will permanently change the nature of public space in this country is because an architecture critic thought the casings were ugly.

Well . . . maybe I'm wrong to be upset.

Years ago, Bruce Sterling sneered at me for decrying the proliferation of surveillance cameras. "The real problem isn't being watched," he said, "it's getting anybody's attention."

More recently, Tom Purdom pointed out to me that having cameras in public spaces was no different in kind from having a policeman present -- or anybody else who might see what you're doing. "There's no reason for you to expect privacy in a public space," he said. Nor did he think such a system would be a de facto Big Brother 1.0 precursor to government surveillance of our private lives. "That would upset most people," he said, "and the government can't get away with things that upset the majority of people. They wouldn't put up with it."

Most tellingly, Farah Mendlesohn believes that privacy as we know it is a historical anomaly of the past two or three hundred years, and that improvements in technology are probably bringing that anomaly to an end. If I'm following her line of thought correctly -- and I may be putting my own words into her mouth -- it hardly matters whether or not governments build universal surveillance systems, because the technology's so cheap and widely available that such systems will effectively build themselfs.

These are all thoughtful and even convincing arguments. Mendlesohn's in particular provides a historical perspective that I find very hard to disagree with.

But still. For such a major step as this . . . shouldn't we have been consulted first?


Monday, January 5, 2009

Back When All Our Minds Were Wild . . .

Okay, this post is all about me, and so inherently less interesting than when I'm talking about ideas, things, or other people. You may want to give it a skip.

Anyway, I've been blogged -- or rather, a ten-year-old story I wrote is discussed at length at The Pinocchio Theory by Steven Shaviro, who is DeRoy Professor of English at Wayne State University. Here's what a blurb on his home page (yes! English professors have blurbs too! is this a great age or what?) says about him:

"Shaviro explains to us in his airy way the mistakes of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Saussure, Chomsky, even Lacan (though Foucault is, like Shaviro, pretty much infallible) while citing as authorities various comic books and science fiction authors - as well, of course, as Burroughs and his cinematic interpreter, David Cronenberg."

It really says something about our times that this no longer seems startling. I can remember when academics wouldn't even look at science fiction, never mind comics.

Here's how Prof. Shaviro opens his blog:

Michael Swanwick’s 1998 short story “Wild Minds” (which I found in the collection The Best of Michael Swanwick) offers a different angle on the issues most recently raised by Scott Bakker’s Neuropath. The story is set in a future world in which “the workings of the human brain were finally and completely understood” by science. As a result, traditional “education” is no longer necessary, since everything can be “learned” by direct bioelectrochemical manipulation: “anybody could become a doctor, a lawyer, a physicist, provided they could spare the month it took to absorb the technical skills.” The complete understanding of the brain also renders traditional notions of guilt, crime, and punishment irrelevant. The narrator of the story has committed a murder; but he recalls that “a panel of neuroanalysts had found me innocent by virtue of a faulty transition function and, after minor chemical adjustments and a two-day course on anger control techniques, had released me onto the street without prejudice.”

There follows a thoughtful discussion of the story with references to "flexible accumulation," humanist nostalgia," the "valorization" of capitalism, and "instrumental reason" -- all quotation marks his, I hasten to add; this is an eminently readable essay -- which closely adheres to the intentions of the story as I wrote it.

I'd quibble that Shaviro's essay too readily dismisses religious belief as delusive and compensatory. (The Church would argue that hyperrationality is itself delusory and compensatory.) But he's under no obligation to follow every thought I wrote down to the same conclusion I came to, now is he? What he's doing here is using my story as a platform to examine ideas he finds interesting.

He also finds implicit in the story an observation I agree with but hadn't explicitly thought before: "... the posthumanity that so many of us have imagined over the last several decades is largely a corporate fantasy."

All of which makes me extremely happy. Science fiction writers are pushovers for being taken seriously.


Friday, January 2, 2009

Why Outsiders Think We're MAD (he Fools!)

Elsewhere in the world, January 1 is New Year's Day.  Not in Philadelphia.  Here, it's known as Mummer's Day.  Because that's when the Mummers Parade takes place.  If you haven't seen it, you can't possibly understand it.  And if you've only seen it on TV, you haven't really seen it.  

There's no way I can describe this event.  But I'll try.

The parade starts at 8 a.m.  and continues for hour after hour until well after the sun's gone down.  The Mummers start on Two Street and proceed up Broad Street to City Hall, where the final judging is.  There are three types of Mummers:  the Comics, the Fancies, and the String Bands.  They all march to extremely corny music.  They wear strange costumes, most notably the enormous ostrich-feathered "capes."  There are swarms of men with painted faces wearing a parody of Colonial female clothing, and these are called "wenches."  Each club picks a theme, such as "Down on the Farm" or "A Salute to Jews"  (you think I'm kidding), and they perform elaborate dance numbers with huge and gaudy -- but hand-pulled -- props and sets.  A significant number of them are drunk.

Are you confused yet?  Excellent.  That's a good beginning.

So imagine you've gone to see the parade for the first time.  It's probably cold.  The Mummers keep flowing past you in wave after wave of strangeness.  It goes on and on and on, like a river, elemental,  for hour after hour after hour.  If you're an intellectual, you keep trying to decode it, trying to figure out what it means, but of course you can't, because it's a primal experience, like fire or an avalanche -- simply there.  Eventually, you notice that some of the Mummers who've already finished the parade are strolling down the sidewalk, a can of beer in hand, still in costume and face-paint.  (Though they've taken off the capes.)  Then you realize that some of the people in the crowd are in costumes of their own devising so they can dance in the street in between bands.  Then that a lot of young women are wearing party hats and feather boas -- it's an old tradition in Philadelphia for young women to go cruising for young Mummers on January 1 -- and then that there are quite a lot of other people wearing funny hats or other pieces of other-the-top flash.  Then that even the folk who are normally dressed have flashes of color that may be their ordinary wear or may be there just for the day.

Then comes the sudden realization -- like that moment in Fellini's The Clowns when you twig that everybody in the movie, including Fellini himself, is a clown -- that there is no clear distinction between Mummer and non-Mummer, only degrees of Mummerishness, and that everybody, every human being on Earth is at least potentially a Mummer.

And it is in that instant that you achieve what in Philadelphia is as close to enlightenment as you are ever likely to get.

Above:  Marianne with a Mummer.  May she always be this happy.

And January 2 . . .

. . . is Isaac Asimov's birthday.  In honor of which, the redoubtable Tom Purdom has declared today National Write-a-Novel Day.  

You have twenty-four hours.  Go!