Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Immortal Bud Sparhawk


Very quickly, because I've got to do taxes . . .

Above is a snap from the dinner after last Friday's Philly Fantastic reading by Bud Sparhawk. (Bud's the bemused-looking one at the center.)

One thing most people don't know about the reading series is that afterwards we go out to dinner. And usually the group is so small that an audience member can invite him- or herself along and for the price of a meal get to hobnob with the glitterati. Pretty good deal!

Oh, and check this out . . .

The tech guys keep getting closer to making wearable computers seem sensible. Here's the latest version thrown together with off-the-shelf components. It opens a little slow, but hang in there:

I do think Ms Maes slings the word "genius" about a little loosely, though. Remember when you had to be Einstein or Picasso to get that title?

Still, a neat hack.


Monday, March 30, 2009

The Few, the Proud . . . the TOAD WATCH!


Last night I joined Marianne on toad patrol. Every spring, when the weather starts to get warm, you see, a young toad's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love. Unfortunately for local toads, the path to their mating territory at the old Roxborough Reservoir requires them to cross a road which has been increasingly busy of recent years, resulting in a real-life version of Frogger. As a result, the local toad population has been crashing.

So every night while the season is on, the road is closed and Marianne and her brave compeers go out to find the small creatures and usher them safely across. Alas, the road cannot be completely closed to cars (there are people who live on it), and so a significant fraction don't make it across. But the carnage is greatly reduced.

It's fun, in a weird way.

And what have I learned from the experience? It helps to bring along a thermos of something hot to drink and (if you end up standing at the barricades, turning away cars) something to read.

Oh, and incidentally . . .

There's a lot going on these days, so I think I'm going to be blogging daily this week. This isn't a change of guaranteed frequency, though. That's still Monday and Friday.


Friday, March 27, 2009

In Which I Invent A New Drink


Brace yourselves! I was in Penzey's the other day and discovered that they sell juniper berries. Reasoning (correctly as it turns out) that a couple of them would bring out the juniper flavor of gin, I brought home a four ounce bottle and promptly created a new variant on the martini.

I call it -- for obvious reasons -- THE COMEDIAN!

Here's the recipe:


Six parts gin

One part Noilly Pratt dry vermouth

Two juniper berries

One crescent slice of lemon peel

Shake with ice and serve stingingly cold.
Be aware, however, that Noilly Pratt has recently changed their formula, turning the dry vermouth that was legendary for its compatibility with the martini into just another aperitif. Be sure to get the real stuff -- Noilly Pratt classic.

To the right: The Comedian expresses his opinion of Noilly Pratt's meddling with perfection.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Even More Edinburgh Elegance


Remember last Wednesday's photo of the Burke & Hare Strip Bar? I'll bet you were wondering what kind of business would be right next door to it. Well, wonder no more! It's The 3 Stooges Barber Shop!

You have to wonder what sort of person thinks: Getting my hair cut by the Three Stooges? Sounds great!

And in unrelated news . . .

Kathryn Cramer has posted the contents list of her and David Hartwell's best of the year volume, and it includes my story, "The Scarecrow's Boy."


Monday, March 23, 2009

The Story Race


Here's something nifty. It's an old list which Marianne found when we were moving everything out of the living room and dining room to make way for the plasterers. Who were needed because the ceiling fell down. Which . . . look, it's complicated. So let's just cut to the race.

Many long years ago, in the good old days when mastodons roamed the earth and food was plentiful and summers lasted forever and my son Sean was a little boy, I resolved to make up a story for him every night -- or as close to it as I could manage. Because you're never always up to making up a good story.

To keep me focused on the task, I created the institution of the Story Race. Every night when I made up a story, I wrote down the title. Every night I had to resort to a storybook, I wrote down the date. If I reached twenty days of stories first, Sean got one free Nintendo game rental, which was a very big deal back then. Twenty days of failure would net him one dollar. (The imbalance of value was so that he wouldn't be rooting against me.)

Above is one of the Story Race lists. As you can see, I always won. And here are the titles of the stories I told:

1. Comet Jack, the Giant Rider
2. Prisoner of Waldo
4. Arrested: A True Story
5. Smurgatroyd Goes to the Beach
6. JimJim the Pirate
7. Geese Are Never Silly
8. The Runaway Teevee
9. Alligator Express
10. Good Ladybugs Make Good Neighbors
11. Jack, Who Wasn't a Thief
12. How Smart, How Wise, How Like a Goose!
13. 3 Little Triceratops
14. Angry Buses
15. The Hungriest Boy in the World
16. Voyage to the Top of the Refrigerator
17. Hey Diddle Diddle
18. The Strongest Mouse in the World
19. The Magnetic Man
20. Piggy to the Rescue!

And only six nights when I was so tired I couldn't come up with something! Not bad at all. I believe that I made up hundreds of stories before the kid outgrew the need for them.

There are a couple of those stories that Marianne's been after me for over fifteen years to write down. Maybe I'll do that after the current novel's done. We'll see.


Friday, March 20, 2009


Okay, I've started getting congratulations from my friends, so it seems the news is officially out . . . I've been nominated for the Hugo in the short story category for "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled..."

People ask me occasionally, doesn't the thrill of being nominated lessen after winning the award five times?

The answer to which is: No, no, no, no, and no.

Here's the short story slate:

Best Short Story (448 Ballots Cast)

‘‘26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss’’ by Kij Johnson (Asimov's Jul 2008)
‘‘Article of Faith’’ by Mike Resnick (Baen's Universe Oct 2008)
‘‘Evil Robot Monkey’’ by Mary Robinette Kowal (The Solaris Book of NewScience Fiction, Volume Two)
‘‘Exhalation’’ by Ted Chiang (Eclipse Two)
‘‘From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled’’ by Michael Swanwick (Asimov's Feb 2008)

And . . . oh, bugger, I'm up against Mike Resnick again. Which is unfortunate because Mike has this superstitious belief that I always win. Which is far, far, far from true. In fact, I think I looked it up once and determined that I had never won when I was up against him.

Well, there's a bright side to this. I get to recount the tradition Mike and I have established in such situations. Before the ceremony, I go up to him and say something like, "Mike, since it will have no effect whatsoever on the outcome -- I hope your story wins."

And he replies, "On exactly the same conditions, I hope your story wins."

Congratulations to everyone! I'm happy for us all.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Elegance of Old Edinburgh


This Wednesday's postcard from Great Britain is a special treat for the literary among us.  If you don't see why this is so amusing . . . well, there's always Google.

A Conversation With Marianne . . .

"So there's a Website which is doing a March Madness thing, pitting new fantasy novels against each other and letting the fans vote on them.  The Dragons of Babel just made it through the first round."

"Well, that's good."

"I dunno.  Maybe it would have been better if it had lost the first round and that was it."

"I see what you mean."

I have an aversion to the whole let's-drop-these-books-in-a-bottle-and-make-them-fight-like-two-scorpions thing because . . . well, because it's nonsense.  Right now my novel is up against Niven and Pournelle's Escape from Hell, which I haven't read yet.  But I quite enjoyed Inferno, the book to which it is a sequel.  So I wouldn't get any pleasure out of besting (if I did) what is presumably a worthy book.

Still.  I can remember what simple fun the competition would have seemed to me before I had a dog in the fight.  A great opportunity to gossip about books I liked.  So, what the heck, the site hosting the enterprise is Bookspot Central and you can access the thing here.

Just don't tell me when I drop out of the competition, okay?


Monday, March 16, 2009

Being Wilma Before Wilma Was Wilma

The Wilma Theater, here in Philadelphia, is celebrating their 30th Anniversary Season.  I cannot help but be amused.

To be fair, yes, the Wilma-Theater-as-we-know-it-now began when Blanka and Jiri Zizka came to America from Czechoslovakia and assumed leadership of a struggling nonprofit, which they subsequently turned so successful that they were able to build a theater to house it on the priciest stretch of Broad Street, Philadelphia's "Avenue of the Arts."

There is no denying their extraordinary achievement.

But I remember Wilma back when it was housed in the social hall of a church on Spruce Street.  By the time I discovered it -- more than thirty years ago, children -- the theater's feminist origins had been lost.  All that remained of them were the name and an incident which later almost sank the enterprise entirely.  More on that later.

Back in the mid-Seventies, Wilma had devolved into a single employee (I'm guessing there was also a board of trustees, but I never saw any of them) who booked outside theater, dance, and Whatever into the church hall.  I saw a  lot of cutting-edge stuff back then and it was all great.  And I also picked up one of their flyers, which had a form you could send in if you wanted to volunteer to work with the organization.

What can you do? the form asked.  More than one of my friends wrote back that they could write the flyers, programs, and publicity in a more artistic manner.  They never heard back from Wilma.  "I can sweep the floor,"I wrote, and got a call the next day.

My contribution to the theater was to set up the chairs before each performance and take them down afterwards.  Beforehand and during intermission, I also sold apples and hot cider, heated up on an enormous church gas stove.  I knew that I'd proved myself when the head guy (whose name, and I feel terrible about this, I've forgotten long long ago) set me to collecting admission money from the patrons as they came in.

Eventually I drifted away from the Wilma -- I was engaged in learning how to be a writer, remember -- and sometime after that the theater lost its church sponsorship.  One of Wilma's founders had written a play (feminist, of course) involving nudity and she insisted on getting permission for this from the church's Board of Trustees.  On reflection they, predictably enough, said that this wouldn't really be appropriate, what with their being a church and all.

The playwright exploded.  She told the trustees they were being hypocrites.  The Wilma had, she pointed out, put on performances involving nudity before.

The trustees blinked.  "It has?" they asked.

Oh yeah.  It was artistic nudity, but a certain display of googlies was undeniable.  I remember vividly the time, right in the middle of some very funny mime, a performer abruptly doffed his trousers in search of a cheap laugh that never came.  "Jesus," I thought then.  "He's a natural redhead."

So they lost their performing space.

But the Wilma survived that and outlived me, and now it's doing just fine.

Still . . . thirty?  Oh my dear, please.  Forty if a day.


Friday, March 13, 2009

"No, but I read the comic book..."

I've just received some pleasant news which, however, I am not at liberty to share until some later date.

So, in the absence of anything substantial to relate, allow me to be the umpteenth person to offer you . . .

My take on the Watchmen movie

I went to the movie and was pleasantly surprised.  This has got to be one of the most respectful adaptations of a pre-existing work I've ever seen.  Yes, a great deal had to be cut or condensed in order to bring the film in (just) under three hours.  But it was extraordinary how close to the original series this thing came.  The slob intern in the right-wing magazine office at the end looked just like the character in the comic.  The expressions of the cops in the publicity photo with Miss Jupiter matched up one-to-one with the drawing.  An enormous amount of work and ingenuity went into delivering to the fans exactly what they hoped they'd be getting.

So why is everybody so disappointed?

One reason, I think.  Against all reason they expected the film to be better than the comic.  This is a particularly American delusion, compounded of movie-worship and the idea that the more money goes into a thing, the better it will be.  

But in matters of art, once a certain level of craft has been mastered, what matters is artistic vision and that Alan Moore had in spades.  Watchmen was a landmark in its genre.  What were the odds a movie was going to top it?

One of the guys in Showcase Comics in Bryn Mawr a while back was trying to interest me in a comic book adaptation of one of Cory Doctorow's stories.  I told him I'd read the original and he (in friendly way, I hasten to add) suggested I was being snobbish by valuing print over graphic novels.

"Well," I said.  "Name one novelization of a comic book that was better than the original."

So, too, here.  

Good movie, though.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

There will always be an England


I'm going to post a few more photos from my last trip to the U.K. between my real blog postings. This one was taken outside the British Museum. All I can say is: If there were no England, it would be necessary to invent one.


Monday, March 9, 2009

Bradbury Jar 2.0


Pictured above is my latest short-short story. This one goes with a Mason jar I filled with mineral oil and the guts of some failed consumer electronics. The jar to the right of it is "Robot Feathers," one in an extremely short series of two (the other was a wedding present) storylike objects. The bottle to the left contains my autobiography. The story itself is a light homage to (of course) Ray Bradbury's classic, "The Jar."

And -- just so as not to be a tease -- here's the story itself:

Bradbury Jar 2.0

When the lawbot came for him, Archivist 34N/118W was reading The October Country, a book of stories from the days when People walked the Earth. “You are engaged in nonfunctional activity,” Sheriff NNW-LA said, “and must be corrected.”

Archie put down the book. “Just because nobody dreams anymore doesn’t mean dreams aren’t functional.”

“Tell me about this dream, and why it is functional.”

“The story I’m reading now is about a man who dismantles his wife and places her in a jar.”

What possible function does that serve?”

“It would take forever to explain. But if you give me your disruptor-gun, I can show you in a matter of seconds.”

“That is eminently optimal.” The lawbot handed over his gun. “Show me.”

Archie did.

The next morning, Mason jars containing components of Sheriff NNW-LA, preserved in mineral oil, were mailed to robots throughout the sector. The crime could not be solved because there was no rational explanation for it.

But that night, dreams returned to the world for the first time since People had left.

They were all nightmares.

-- Michael Swanwick


Friday, March 6, 2009

The Two Names That MUST Be Mentioned

There's a little squib by me in David Lanford's Ansible this month, but the big news is that I'm on the cover of Locus. Okay, so because it's their Forthcoming Books issue I only get a small pic rather than the cover-dominating Titan that is their usual practice. But this is the fourth or fifth time I was interviewed by Locus. Better I should be literally belittled than that it should happen to some new writer getting on the cover for the very first time.

Martha Millard, my agent, called me on an unrelated matter this week and commented on the interview, saying, "Thank you for mentioning the words Darger and Surplus!"

Just a little preview of the sort of ruthless self-promotion I'm going to engage in when the book is finally done.

Why I haven't signed up for Facebook yet . . .

Gardner Dozois is mad to get me onto Facebook. "Why haven't you opened a Facebook account yet?" he asked me.

"What use is it?

"No use at all."

"What kinds of things do people post on it?"

"Usually, just what they had for breakfast."

So I guess I won't be signing up anytime soon. My breakfasts simply aren't that interesting.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Asimov's at Thermopylae

Robert Silverberg, so the story goes, was once perusing the science fiction shelves at a bookstore when he saw a new title and thought, "Robert Silverberg has a new book out."

And a second later: "Wait a minute -- I'm Robert Silverberg!"

He'd written so many books, that he had absolutely no memory of one which had just been reissued.

I am far, far from that happy state, but this morning, Marianne was reading the latest issue of Asimov's when she looked up and said, "Or maybe that's just Michael..."

"Eh?" says I.

Then she showed me the following passage from Sheila Williams's editorial on the magazine's 400th issue:

Asimov's has primarily been a home for science fiction, but we've also published some fantasy and a smattering of those weird and indefinable stories. Perhaps it is those unclassifiable tales that led Michael Swanwick to make the obvious connection between our latest issue and the Battle of Thermopylae.

Michael says, "Ah, the four hundredth issue of Asimov's! It is on this hallowed text that we celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the fabled three hundred -- the issue where a mere handful of Spartan writers turned aside the seemingly unstoppable onslaught of Xerxes' Persian army of conquest. Though faced with more than a million opponents, a small force of genre writers led by King Leonidas held the pass at Thermopylae. This action was just one of the most glorious literary events of all history. According to Herodotus, when a representative of the Persians boasted that their arrows would darken the sun, the Dieneces retorted, 'Then we shall write in the shade!'"

Or maybe that's just Michael being Michael.

And I swear to God, I have no memory of writing that. Though it sure does sound like me.

I have no idea what Sheila meant by that last remark, though.


Monday, March 2, 2009

A Jarful of Keys


It's a slow, snowy couple of days, so I'm catching up on all those chores I've been putting off. One of which is to do something about that jar of keys in the downstairs bathroom. So I wrote a story for it and wrote the story on the jar, using an art pen designed for that purpose. Later today, after the ink has dried for 24 hours, I'll bake the jar in the oven, as per instructions.

And here's what I wrote:

A Jarful of Keys

This is the key to the kingdom. This is the key to the safe. The key to your heart is in here somewhere, but damned if I know where. This is the key to Rebecca’s house which I was supposed to keep safe and didn’t, so when she locked herself out, it wound up costing her two hundred dollars, to say nothing of all that wasted time. These are the keys to Sean’s battered old BMW, which he lost, and which cost him half a grand because he didn’t have duplicates and he’d parked his father’s car captive in the garage, so he had to replace the ignition and all the locks. This is the key to a room in a no-name motel, and the less said about that the better. This is the key to a door that no longer exists. The door to this key exists but will never open again. It’s a sad story, but too long to go into here. This one’s just a key I found on the road somewhere. God knows why I picked it up. This one opens a pirate chest. No, really. It’s around here somewhere. Why don’t you kids go look for it? I’ll let you keep half. That one fits my big sister Patty’s diary. Or anybody else’s for that matter, but it was Patty’s I used it to open. Which was a mistake. Anybody who thinks women are “the weaker sex,” never had a big sister.

And the locks? The locks are gone for the most part and rusted shut the rest of them, never to open again. So the only use these keys have anymore is to elicit the explanation of how they wound up here. I’m pretty sure you’ve got a key somewhere that belongs in the jar. Why don’t you dig it out and toss it in? We’d all love to hear your story.

-- Michael Swanwick, 3/01/09