Monday, June 29, 2009

A Birding Day Made in Heaven


I have been insanely busy these past few weeks. But Friday I played hooky. Marianne spotted an item on one of the birding sites that a roseate spoonbill had been spotted in Delaware. Not only are roseate spoonbills are spectacular (they're bright pink) and distinctive (that bill!) birds, but they're semitropical birds which are almost never seen further north than Florida. When I was a kid, I had a bird book that had a roseate spoonbill on the cover, and it was emblematic for me of the kind of bird I was never ever going to see in Vermont.

So Marianne piled into the car and followed the directions to the Delaware-Maryland border, down a highway and onto a small road behind the Catch 42 Restaurant. We parked the car near three birders clustered about a spotting scope and asked if they'd seen the creature.

"Right there," they said.

After a good long time and some very clear viewing, the spoonbill lofted up and flew along the shoreline and out of sight. So Marianne and I went for lunch at the nearby dockside Tiki Bar. We brought along our binocs, and a good thing too. The spoonbill had relocated to the remains of a dock in the middle of the water before us. So we got even better views than before.

There were also the usual egrets and great blue herons and such, and two ospreys perched on posts nearby. Usually, ospreys are the superstars of the marshlands. But we pretty much ignored them.

Just before the spoonbill lazily flew away again, four pelicans flew by. Delaware is far beyond their normal range, so that was a rare spotting as well.

After lunch, we went back to the spot of our original sighting and, sure enough, the spoonbill was there again. We chatted with some new birders, who were equally elated by the sighting and frustrated that the bird wouldn't fly to the far side of the road, where it would be in Maryland, so they could add it to their Maryland life lists as well.

Birders are (pleasantly) funny people.

On our way home, on their tip, we went to a small lake and exactly where they told us it would be, was a black-bellied whistling duck. Another extraordinary bird, and effortlessly spotted.

Non-birders should ask somebody who goes out regularly how common it is for rare birds to be so cooperative.

Oh, and I hardly need say this, but the mussels I had at the Tiki Bar were delicious. Some days are golden.

Oh, and also . . .

The Locus Awards have been announced. As you may or may not recall, I was short-listed in two categories -- Best Fantasy Novel (for The Dragons of Babel) and Best Collection (for The Best of Michael Swanwick). And I lost. The winners were Ursula K. Le Guin's novel Lavinia and Paolo Bacigalupi's collection Pump Six and Other Stories, Congratulations to them both!

You can find the complete list of winners here.


Friday, June 26, 2009

The Single Best Thing I Was Ever Told About Classical and Early Music

Wednesday, Marianne and I went to hear a performance of Dietrich Buxtehude's sacred cantatas and chamber works by the Buxtehude Consort.

You have to be pretty well-versed musically to know anything at all about Dietrich Buxtehude. But he was one of the great Baroque composers. Bach and Handel revered him.

Me, I went in not knowing what to expect. High-level second-rate music, perhaps -- a musician who was to Bach what Solieri was to Mozart. But I was wrong, wrong, completely wrong. It was beautiful stuff, not quite like anything I'd ever heard before. Imagine hearing Back for the first time. Or Handel. It was like that.

And the performance? I am put in mind of the single most useful thing anybody ever told me about classical and music. It was Tom Purdom, local music critic and a working science fiction writer for over fifty years, who told it to me of course. He observed that there are so many highly skilled, wonderfully trained, inherently good musicians performing such music today, and so few opportunities for them to play in public that you simply never hear a bad performance.

Really cleared up my insecurities about my musical ignorance, I can tell you. Nowadays, I simply listen to the stuff. It sounds good. I enjoy it.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Last Chance for the Well-Heeled Book Collector!

Henry Wessells has just informed me that there are only six copies still available of the subscribers issue of Hope-in-the-Mist. Which the Temporary Culture page describes as:

30 copies, hand bound in chartreuse Asahi book cloth with Ann Muir marbled endsheets, signed by Michael Swanwick and Neil Gaiman, and with the frontispiece signed by Charles Vess.
Five copies lettered A - E, for presentation.
Subscribers issue, 25 numbered copies : $300 in U.S. ; foreign $325 (includes shipping and a copy of the trade issue).

At three hundred bucks a pop, this is obviously for the serious collector only. But I thought I should mention it because it looks like there won't be a single one left on the market at the time of publication this July. So anybody who needs this book (and you know who you are) should move fast. There are some avid Neil Gaiman collectors out there.

You can find ordering information here.

Henry tells me there is good strong interest in the paperback, too. But with a print run of two hundred copies and a kind of specialized topic, it should be obtainable through the summer.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Michael Swanwick Online is UP AGAIN!

After something like two years of neglect, my web page, Michael Swanwick Online, has finally been updated!

I've added two pieces of flash fiction that were earlier posted here, an essay originally published in the New York Review of Science Fiction ("The View from the Wharf Rat," my musings on attending the anime convention Otakon), a new batch of serious answers to serious questions in The Squalid Truth, and two pieces of bad advice to new writers in Unca Mike. Plus a more recent photo, so it doesn't look like I'm in denial about my age.

It's a good site, if I do say so myself. Beautifully created and maintained by Vlatko Juric-Kokik and Peter Tillman. You can check it out here.

Meanwhile, back at the Thon . . .

Chapter One gets off to a rocky start as Eileen Gunn tries to name the protagonist Nokia Fryingpan or somesuch nonsense. I brush aside her transparent attempt to avoid plotting by subjecting the book's premises to the same rigorous moral standards she holds reality to, and introduce a man with a pistol, a crystal Maguffin, living gargoyles, and the world's most unlikely parents.

Will Eileen rise to the challenge? Or will she find complex reasons to decide that the matriarchal structure of the gargoyles is incompatible with their implicit biology? Stay tuned and find out here.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Gunn & Swanwick: Xtreme Collab


A screaming comes across the sky . . . and the Clarion West Write-a-thon 2000 has begun! This is a fund-raising event for the Clarion West Writers Workshop. And every year, as has become traditional, Eileen Gunn and I exchange quips and barbs in our own public smackdown forum. Two years ago, I tricked Eileen into writing a story with me online by the simple expedient of not telling her about it until it was finished! Last year, we led whoever wanted to join in on a round-robin story, which turned out pretty good. And this year . . .

Well, I'll let Eileen's first post tell the tale:

Okay, careening in here, blazers blasting, wild out of the sun, Michael Swanwick and I are going to put our credibility on the line and test the limits of our civility by collaborating once again in the open stadium. No net. No shelter. No escape.

We are allowed to bring only the weap-- I mean tools, only the tools we can carry in our backpacks. I have chosen a computer, and the World Wide Web, and all the sugar-induced panic I can generate from an endless supply of snickerdoodles. Michael brings with him his trusty steam-powered word processor, his legendary self-confidence, and a limitless imagination.

We discussed perhaps writing a novel during WAT this year. But Michael is deep in the middle of a novel right now, and has no particular yearning to be in the middle of two, so we decided we would simply plot a novel. Since I have never novelled, I am expecting to learn something.

This is a standing start. We decided this today. Who knows what will happen? Not us. We will post here, and devil take the hindmost.

So we have six weeks to plot out an entire novel in detail, starting from a dead stop. Can we do it?????

Well, duh.

You can follow the entire saga with (I'm guessing) pretty much daily postings here.

And if you'd like to sponsor a writer for the Thon, you can find out how here.

And pictured above . . .

People who don't know us tend to assume that fantasists live in houses resembling wizards' dens, with skulls and masks and, I don't know, bottled robot guts everywhere. Not so. We're all perfectly ordinary people with perfectly ordinary interests, like housework or gardening.

Pictued above: The dragonwort in bloom.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Awards Watch -- And This Time It's Not All About Me


The final ballot for the Chesley Awards has just been announced, and Stephan Martinière has been nominated under for the cover he did for The Dragons of Babel. Which gives me a great excuse to post his quite wonderful vision of Babel yet again. Congratulations, Stephan!

You can see the entire list of nominees here. Even cooler, you can check out his website here.

The category he's nominated for is Hardcover, but Tor Books had the good sense to retain Martinière's artwork for the paperback as well.

And some sad news . . .

My good friend Ricky Kagan has been admited to Mountainside Hospital in Montclaire, New Jersey. Nobody's sure yet, but it looks to be a kidney problem. A friend who spoke to him yesterday said that he was his usual stoic self. I spoke with him not long before that and -- this is so typical of Ricky -- he sounded amused by it all.

He's an admirable guy, Ricky is.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Secrets of the Schuylkill


I'm a sucker for industrial history, so I jumped at the chance to take the Secrets of the Schuylkill river tour on Saturday. It was an almost two hour trip up to the Fairmount Water Works (above) and then down to Bartram's Garden and back. The tour is arranged by the Schuykill River Development Corporation, which is developing walkways and river bank parks along the Schuylkill, part of a long project for recovering human use of a riverfront that was inaccessible when I first came to this city.

Above is a snap of the Fairmount Water Works, which in the eighteenth century was the second most popular tourist attraction in North America, after Niagara Falls. I kid you not. It was the first system ever built for providing clean water to a major city. Before it was built, you got your drinking water from a well or a stream that had just meandered past the pigsties and outhouses of a colonial city. Afterwards -- no more water-borne disease! Or at least a lot less of it.

The Water Works has a secondary claim to fame as well. In The Medium is the Massage (no, that's not a typo), Marshall McLuhan held it up as a prime example of new innovations invariably taking old forms. The first major water-pumping installation in the world, and they gussied it up to look like a Greek temple.

On the awards watch . . .

"From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled . . ." took second place in the Asimov's Readers' Awards, losing handily to "26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson. Congratulations, Kij!

You can hear the podcast of my story here on Escape Pod. It comes with the niftiest parental warning I've seen in some time:

Rated PG. Contains the destruction of cities, a lack of trust, and sentient suits.

Oh, and I've seen the new Star Trek movie . . .

Wow. All I can say is . . . "What a dog's breakfast!" Would it hurt these guys to buy a decent plot before they start piling up the special effects? Are we supposed to believe that all of Earth is helpless before a mining drill that could be taken out by two guys with space-Uzis? Am I supposed to find it moving that Spock is willing to to risk the destruction of Earth and everybody on it just so that his younger self and Kirk can become friends?

No wonder they write Slash about these guys.


Friday, June 12, 2009

Planet of the Authors


I just heard from my old friend Walt Maguire. Some thirty years ago, I was his dotted-line supervisor at the National Solar Heating and Cooling Information Center (NSHCIC -- motto: "What's a NSHCIC like you doing in a place like this?"), itself a dotted-line agency answerable to both HUD and DOE.

Back then, Walt and I were both unpublished writers, given to staying after work so we could use the Selectrics for our own work. Walt wrote plays and me . . . well, I became a science fiction writer and was never heard from again.

Anyway, Walt's got a book coming out this summer! Monkey See, which he characterizes as light reading (but that may just be him; Walt is a modest and self-deprecating guy; he probably meant to say "hilarious and fast-paced") is forthcoming from ENC Press (pre-order price $11).

You can read an excerpt here. Or you can download a podcast of the excerpt here. Plus, there's a picture of Walt looking authorial as hell here.

But, c'mon . . . talking apes? Where does he come up with these crazy ideas?


Thursday, June 11, 2009

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Global Economic Collapse -- And What's In It For YOU!

Golden Gryphon, which is one of the crown jewels of the science fiction small press, has just announced a two-for-one sale.  When you buy any book from them, you can receive any other book you wish of equal or lesser value.

I find this alarming as a potential sign of just how badly the economy is affecting everything.  But it also means you can score some major short story collections from the likes of Nancy Kress and James Patrick Kelly and load up on books by Jeffrey Ford as well.  So it's a sweet deal for you.

You can check out the details here.  The offer is only good until June 23.


Monday, June 8, 2009

It is now officially summer


Every year in early June for something like the past twenty years, there's a major bicycle race here in Philadelphia. Its name changes with its sponsors, and I've given up tracking what it's called this year. But the highlight of the race is when the bicyclists ascend a street in Manayunk so steep and challenging that it's been dubbed "the Wall."

Manyayunk and Roxborough (where I live) are working class neighborhoods. So there was a certain amount of skepticism about young people in bicycle shorts and plastic helmets passing through the first time the race occurred. But then they hit the Wall.

Difficult, painful, and essentially pointless labor repeated time after time after time is something that working folks can understand. So the race has been adopted by the neighborhoods, and on Bike Race Sunday there are parties, barbecues, and keggers throughout the region.

We've been having ours longer than can be remembered. Up above are some of the guests who showed up yesterday.

It is now officially summer. The party season can commence.

And in today's mail . . .

. . . came my contributor's copies of The Mammorth Book of Mindblowing SF. My contribution was a reprint of "Mother Grasshopper." But among the reprints are original works by Stephen Baxter, Eric Brown, Paul di Filippo, Robert Reed, and Adam Roberts. I'm looking forward to reading them.


Friday, June 5, 2009

Another Delightful Book You Can't Have Yet


Monday I drove to DC for a dinner with Washingtonians and Russians. Wednesday, I went to the Barnes Foundation in the morning and then drove 300 miles to Pittsburgh. Yesterday I came home. So it's been a busy week.

I was going to blog about the Barnes, which is quite a wonderful experience, a truly great museum and one which accepts only a limited number of viewers. Every time I go there, I plan to stay the entire day. But after only a few hours, my eyes are so full I couldn't look at one more Van Gogh or hypersexual Courbet to save my life. It's that rich an experience.

However, in the mail today, came a slim book with an inscription inside from Henry Wessells:

2 June 09

Hope-in-the-Mist: The Extraordinary Career & Mysterious Life of Hope Mirrlees, written by Your Humble Correspondent, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman and a fabulous frontispiece by Charles Vess exists! I am so very, very happy for me.

You, of course, will have to wait for Readercon (July9-12) to own a copy. But authorship hath its perks. The front and back covers are shown above.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Dinner with Russians in D.C.


Monday, Marianne and I drove down to D. C. to have dinner with the Washington fans and our Russian friends Larisa Mihailova and Alexei Bezougly. The photo above is of Larisa (right) and Russian-born writer Eva Gerasimenko. Larisa is, among other things, the editor of the Moscow sf magazine Supernova.

What a warm-hearted and pleasant to be with crowd the WSFA people are, though! I've been particularly fond of them since I was a new writer and they treated me as if I were potentially Somebody. After we ate, John Pomeranz got up and said a few graceful words and presented the guests with copies of the current Dozois Year's Best volume -- which is a great gift on two fronts. First, because it's probably hard to find in Russia and correspondingly more expensive. Second, because on the flight back home both Larisa and Alexei had something engaging to read.

This is grace in everyday life. I had to admire it.


Monday, June 1, 2009

Meeting My Imminent Replacements


Yesterday, I had a pleasant afternoon, talking with a local writers group (shown above). I asked if the group had a name and, after some hesitation, was told, "Universal Dominance Collaborators," and then, in a lower voice, "or more conventionally PhillySpecFic." So I think it's a case of not really having a formal name, but only a common determination to write better. (And, since I just now misplaced my notebook somewhere in the room, I may have gotten the names wrong anyway.)

One thing I found particularly engaging was how extremely interested they all were in methods to avoid imbuing imagined races with old racial stereotypes. To somebody of my age, this is remarkable, because I can remember when the stereotypes weren't relegated to the subtext at all -- they were right on the surface. So the thought of somebody saying, "Yeah, we have Jews and African Americans in our country club. But no orcs!" strikes me as genuine progress.

Musing it over afterwards, I formulated my thoughts into two rules:

1. Writers should be extremely sensitive to avoid stereotypes, not only regarding race, gender, age, and ethnicity, but in every other possible category as well: People from California, white guys who chew gum, bocci players, women electrical engineers, members of their own families . . . Not for reasons of "political correctness" but simply because it's our job to record the world as it is, rather than as we were told it is.

2. Readers should cut us all the slack in the world, and always assume the best of our intentions.

And right now I'm off to D.C.! I'll report back on the experience soon.