Friday, January 29, 2010

How To Write (Postgraduate Course 101)


While the contest is simmering away, I thought I'd tell you about a book I bought for a quarter at a library sale the other day.  New and gonnabe writers may find this useful:

The book was a hardcover copy of Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein.  More specifically, it was the first edition of the Original Uncut Version . . .  essentially, the unedited manuscript.  When RAH turned it in, his editor insisted it be cut.  And it was cut, from 220,000 words to 160,000 words.  After Heinlein died, his widow Virginia had his books reissued as they were when he first handed them in to his publisher.

Which gave me the opportunity to re-create that original editing and see what it teaches us.  I got out my paperback of the book as it was first published and reverse-engineered the first page.

Here's the opening to Heinlein's most famous novel as he turned it in:

     Once upon a time when the world was young there was a Martian named Smith.

     Valentine Michael Smith was as real as taxes but he was a race of one.

Now, there's nothing actually bad about that.  But compare it to the opening after it was edited down:

     Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.

Which is one of the most famous opening lines in science fiction, and deserves to be.

I marked up the page to reflect the changes that Heinlein (not his editor -- I'll get back to that in a moment) made.  You can click on the photo to see them.  After the opening flourish, Heinlein cut 82 words from the original 205 and added 5.  Which is to say he cut well over a third of the page.

Years ago -- have I ever told you this story? -- I cut five thousand words from a ten thousand word story.  There was a lot of money involved.  So when I went over Heinlein's text, crossing words out, I was on familiar territory.  First to go are the adverbs.  Then excess description.  Qualifiers.  Explanations of all kinds.  All those embedded essays which don't advance the action.  Everything that isn't absolutely necessary to the story.  And, having been through this myself, I am convinced that the cutting was primarily done by RAH himself.  Because all that was most essential and all that was most idiosyncratic about his prose remained.   No editor willing to require a cut of more than a quarter of the text would have made the effort to preserve those idiosyncrasies.

And the end result?  There was an undeniable flattening of Heinlein's prose here and there.  Cutting it to the bone did make his novel look pulpish where it was not.  And people who have read the whole thing through  testify that there were sexy bits (dipping in at random, I haven't found them) which were cut simply because the times were far more prudish back then.  But for the most part the cuts were salutary.  Removing "slowly"s and "if less important than"s and the like brought up the brilliance of his active creations in the same way that grinding away encrustations reveal the brilliance of fossil bones.

Here's the rest of the page with added words in brackets:

     The first human expedition from Terra to Mars was selected on the theory that the greatest danger to man in space was man himself.  At that time, only eight Terran years after the founding of the first human colony on Luna, any interplanetary trip made by humans necessarily had to be made in weary free-fall orbits, doubly tangent semi-ellipses -- from Terra to Mars, two hundred fifty-eight [Terran] days waiting at Mars while the two planets crawled slowly back into relative positions which would permit shaping the doubly-tangent orbit -- a total of almost three Earth years [for the return orbit].

     Besides its wearing length, the trip was very chancy.   Only by refueling at a space station, then tacking back almost into Earth's atmosphere, could this primitive flying coffin, the Envoy, make the trip at all.  Once at Mars she might be able to return -- if she did not crash in landing, if water could be found on Mars to fill her reaction-mass tanks, if some sort of food could be found on Mars, ifa thousand other things did not go wrong.

     But the physical danger ws judged to be less important than the

One can regret some of the lost technical detail, but there's no denying that the sleeked-down version read a lot cleaner, crisper, and clearer.

And how is this helpful to new writers?

Well, one of the things that all of us have to learn is to cut, cut, cut -- and then cut some more.  It hurts.  Particularly when you have to cut something that's actually good.  Afterward, you look at the manuscript page and it's all corrections and slash-outs and . . .

Your heart sinks.

But look at Heinlein!  Buy one of his novels in edited and unedited forms.  Compare and contrast.  You'll discover that he was never really Robert A. Heinlein, just a guy who could be edited down into Robert A. Heinlein.

So, too, with you.  Yeah, your prose is lamentable.  But maybe you're a lot closer than you think.  Maybe your awful novel can be edited down into something splendid.

Robert Heinlein's was.

And have you heard?

J. D. Salinger is dead.  I love everything he's ever written except for Catcher in the Rye.  Now the vultures are gathering on PBS and NPR and BBC to explain that the only possible explanation for his long silence was that he was crazy.

This is nonsense.

I'll explain why on Monday.

And the contest . . .

. . . is still on.  Getting a neologism right is hard work.  Otherwise, I'd never have asked for your help.  Right now, I'm at the making-lists-and-sorting-through-suggestions stage.  And I've assembled a Blue Ribbon Panel of unpaid family members to help me decide.

More ideas are always welcome.  You can post 'em here or after Thursday's blog.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Scam That Looks Like A Contest/A Contest That Tastes Like A Scam


I've got a contest!  No, actually, I've got a scam.  But as far as you are concerned, it's every bit as good as  a contest.  It costs you no money whatsoever to enter, and if you win you get a prize.

Let me explain:

It's not exactly a secret that I'm in the final throes of writing a novel about the adventures of Postutopian con-men extraordinaire Darger and Surplus.  The world I created for them (highly advanced in the biosciences, sensibly terrified of anything electronic) is entertaining but cruel.  In their first adventure, "The Dog Said Bow-Wow," I established that the rich have servants called autistics, who are obedient and completely without affect and whose cheap virtue is that you can do anything you want in front of them and they don't care and won't react.  Essentially, they have neither personality nor sense of self.

Nobody's ever complained about these characters being called "autistics."  But that's largely because the readership for short fiction is small, sophisticated, and surprisingly tolerant.  If I use the term in a novel, I'm sure to get letters from people who are, for good and possibly even heartbreaking reasons, genuinely offended and/or hurt by the usage.

And, to tell you the truth, I'm not exactly crazy about it myself.

Nevertheless, I want to keep the servants -- they have a small but significant role to play in the novel.  So they need a new name.

Here's my challenge:  Come up with a new name for my novel's "autistics."  Something that suggests their inverted and impersonal nature.  

And here's the prize:  If I use your suggestion, I'll give you an autographed copy of the Darger and Surplus novel when it comes out.  Even better, I'll make it the second copy of it I receive.  (The first copy is for waving around at conventions.)  I'll even guarantee to make it the first autographed copy ever.  Plus I'll put your name in the acknowledgments.  Unless you'd rather remain anonymous, of course.

What makes this a particularly good deal is that you're writing for publication.  The winner can look at the book's price and claim that's how much she or he routinely gets paid per word.

You can post your suggestion(s) here or after any subsequent blog entry.  I'll read 'em all.  As soon as somebody comes up with le neologism juste, I'll proclaim the fact in the next day's blog.

Above:  Today's mail.  An old pal sent me cigars.


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Land of Our Fathers

The good folks at Fast Forward (you can find them here) have posted "Land of Our Fathers" on YouTube.  This is a reading of the story I wrote for Ruthenium, element 44 in The Periodic Table of Science Fiction (which you can find here).

What makes it special is that Marianne shares the reading.  It's always tricky doing a reading with Marianne because she's better at it than I am.  (Nobody who was there will ever forget the legendary reading we did of "Midnight Express" in a bookstore in the Village.)  So I suffer from the comparison.  Also from the fact that I badly needed a haircut.

The was shown as part of Fast Forward: Contemporary Science Fiction Episode #229, which aired in November 2009.  It was originally recorded October 17, 2009 at Capclave 2009.

Anyway, here it is.  Enjoy!


Monday, January 25, 2010

But If You're Opting IN . . .


Friday, Marianne and I went out to dinner with friends at XIX (pictured above) on the 19th floor of the Bellevue Stratford, possibly Philadelphia's single most famous hotel.  A beautiful restaurant in the gracious-and-spacious school of classic luxury, extremely good service, and terrific food. The lobster cappuccino was particularly fine.

Because several of those present were writers, we discussed the Google settlement, and one of those writers allowed as how he was going to opt in.  This is a perfectly respectable decision.  But knowing this particular writer, I asked, "Are you going to opt in actively or are you just going to do nothing and just let it happen automatically?"

"I'm going to just let it happen," he said.

Bad decision.  VERY bad decision.

I tried to explain to him that if he opts in and if any money ever actually comes due to him (I have my doubts about this one, but never mind that), a passive opt-in means he may never actually receive it.  Google will get their money, any publishers who've opted in will get theirs, the book registry the Authors Guild sets up will receive their handling fee, and what remains will be put into escrow.

"But aren't they supposed to make a good-faith effort to find me?" he asked.

"Yes," I said, "just as they were supposed to make a good-faith effort to inform every writer in the country about the Google settlement.  And they did . . . by sending emails to SFWA and all the other writers' organizations.  You can't expect them to look you up and contact you directly.  That would render the entire deal unprofitable for them."

My friend, of course, remained unconvinced.  But that's just him.

So let me say to any writers reading this blog who have decided to opt-in, PLEASE go to the website and opt in actively.  As long as you're giving Google what they want, you might as well get your share of control and (someday, maybe) money.

The deadline for opting out is this Thursday.  It's entirely possible you can actively opt in after that.  But I can't swear to that.  Factual information about the settlement is maddeningly hard to come by.

You can opt in (or out) here.

And in proof that we live in a rich, rich, and sometimes too rich world . . .

Because the dinner reservations had been made months ago, I had to miss Kyle Cassidy's slide show and talk at Moonstone Arts Center (events listed here) that same evening.  You can get some slight idea of what a fabulous evening it must have been by reading his blog entry here.  Or you can just go his blog here and scroll down and down and down.  Kyle's a doer, so he's always got new stuff bubbling away.  And he gives great slide shows and talks.

I'm genuinely sorry to have missed out on that one.


Friday, January 22, 2010

Tom Purdom on the Google Settlement

 Yesterday I gave you my take on the Google settlement, and I did my level best to be calm about it.  I am not calm at all.  I am outraged and extremely upset, particularly at the Authors Guild, which suggested to Google that they assume the right to sell out of print books without the permission of their authors.

But there's more than enough angry rhetoric in this world already.  So I'm controlling myself.

However, because we can use all the calm and reasoned analysis on this matter we can get, I asked Tom Purdom for permission to post a letter he sent around to his writer friends yesterday, and he graciously permitted it.  Tom is not only an intelligent and thoughtful man, but one of the least hysterical people I know.  I always listen carefully to anything he has to say.

Here's what he has to say on this issue:

Tom Purdom on the Google Settlement

This is going to all the writers on my list, along with some others who may be interested.  This afternoon I attended the NY workshop on the Google settlement conducted by the National Writers Union and the American Society of Journalists and Authors.  The main speakers were Lynn Chu, agent and lawyer, who opposes the agreement; Paul Aiken of the Authors Guild, who spoke in support; and a law professor, James Grimmelman who has been offering nonpartisan commentary.  Michael Swanwick attended also and we both took notes.


Michael had already opted out of the agreement and I just did.  It has many virtues but for me the crux of the matter came down to this: the settlement would give Google a dominant, smothering position in electronic publication.

Aiken defended the settlement on the grounds that it would open up a new market for writers, since it would make out of print books available online. But this is already happening, and it's been going on for some time. Fictionwise and Amazon's Kindle are just two examples.  And it's happening in the old fashioned way.  Publishers are starting companies and programs and signing contracts with individual writers. Under the settlement, Google could become the website everybody turns to and we would all be forced to accept the collective terms they can enforce under the settlement.

If you opt in to the settlement, in addition, you are essentially signing a contract without knowing what the terms are.  The settlement may be changed as litigation proceeds.

Even as it stands, it's a complicated agreement most of us can't take the time to study.  In the discussion, Lynn Chu kept focusing on the implications of the agreement and Aiken kept insisting her fears were groundless.  But to me she was simply noting that the language of the agreement may have implications we don't understand.


Aiken outlined the positives of the agreement.

To summarize:  It applies only to out of print books.  Readers may view snippets for free, but never more than twenty percent of content.  Readers must pay for a complete online view and the author sets the price. Libraries will have one machine on which complete texts may be viewed and printed copies, made at that one machine, will be sold on a per page basis. Institutions, such as universities, may purchase subscriptions to the service, one year at a time.  Google will receive thirty-seven percent of all money collected and the rest will be distributed to the authors, through a Book Rights Registry which will administer the system and subtract its administrative expenses from the author's share.

Authors may withdraw their works at any time.  They may withdraw selected works or all their works.

That doesn't look too bad.  But I think it will be hard for writers to opt out if it becomes the single site most readers turn to.  And that limits our ability to negotiate.


The settlement grew out of a suit the Authors Guild brought against Google, as a class action.  The Guild has settled on behalf of all members of the class.  If you want to opt out of the settlement, you must take a positive action.  If you don't do anything at all, you have opted in.

Many people object to the settlement on that ground alone.  Normally, people reprint our works because we have granted permission.  They have to get a positive response.

There seems to be some question about the legality of opt out.  It apparently stretches the concept of the class action suit.


Go to  Click Opt Out.  Fill in the form.

When Michael tried to opt out awhile back, you had to list every individual title, with all sorts of information.  You no longer have to do that.  Don't be fooled by the optional request for titles.  It really is optional.

Lynn Chu recommends that you put the following statement in the box calling for titles:

This opt out request should be considered to apply to all works whatsoever of mine that appear in any and all books either by myself or by others.

The opt out deadline is January 28.


The settlement will be appealed if the court approves it. But writers and organizations can only appeal if they have opted in.  People who've opted out can't appeal because they have no standing.  That appears to be one of the peculiarities of class action law.

Michael Copabianca sat on the panel as immediate past president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.  Some writers and organizations, he said, have deliberately left one or two works in the settlement so they can appeal.

Individual writers can do the same but one of the antis noted that a judge might feel you favored the settlement if you had opted in.  They suggested instead that you send your opinion to the court or sign the petition Ursula K. Le Guin is circulating.


The Authors Guild has defended the settlement on the grounds that the courts might decide in favor of Google if the case went to trial.  That would mean the court would decide that Google was engaging in fair use, and anyone who wanted to could do what Google is doing.

I have assumed the Guild sued Google over Google's right to publish copyrighted material on the Web.  But some remarks made at the workshop indicated the Guild suit deals with Google's SCANNING of the works.  I didn't have a chance to ask anyone about this.  But if it's true, it seems
to me it undercuts one of the Guild's main arguments.

James Grimmelman said he feels the court will probably find that scanning is fair use.  But he also feels Google's publications plans would definitely be seen as a violation of copyright.  And it's publication that most writers are concerned with.


In the early 80s, a magazine publisher added a third page to its contract granting the publisher all electronic rights.  Damon Knight issued a letter urging writers not to sign that page (which could be signed separately) and the publishers soon withdrew it.

As Damon said at the time, no one knew what those rights were worth.  The publisher was obviously hoping writers would sign just to avoid conflict. Why risk losing a sale over a hypothetical possibility?

We didn't sign and the publisher eventually withdrew the third page.  The publisher's act set off alarm bells in the mind of all writers familiar with the history of science fiction.

From 1926 until 1950, science fiction was a pulp magazine genre.  Writers like Clarke, Bradbury, and Asimov assumed their stories would be printed in the magazines and never reprinted.  There were no science fiction book lines and no science fiction anthologies.  Many writers signed away those rights in "all rights" magazine contracts.  Why not?  Nobody was ever going to reprint their stuff.

Then the book publishers discovered there was a market for science fiction and started printing anthologies and novels taken from the pulp period.  And writers had to live with the contracts they had signed in another era.

It seems to me Google is making a Grab, to use one of Damon's terms.

I hope you will find this useful.  I've done my best to make it accurate.


And this is Michael again . . .

I want to remind everybody that you have six days in which to decide whether to opt in or opt out.  If you don't make a decision by January 28, 2010 (that's next Thursday), then you have legally opted in.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Google Settlement Simplified


Wednesday, Marianne and I went to New York City on Megabus for the first time, and` I've got to say it's a great deal -- from Philly to the Big Apple and back for twenty bucks -- less than it costs for parking at one of the cheaper garages in the Village -- and they throw in free wi-fi.  Tom Purdom went up by Bolt Bus, for a comparable amount and was also perfectly satisfied.

We went to NYC for a seminar sponsored by the National Writers Union, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America on the Google Settlement.  There were also four representatives from the Authors Guild, which cut the deal with Google, one of whom sat on the panel but, after ducking four or five questions, had to leave for a piano recital.  As did, apparently, the other three people from the Guild.

Most of what was said was way too complicated for me to attempt to summarize here.  But here is the super-simplified version:

If you're a writer, you have week or less to decide if you want to opt out.

The deadline is January 28, 2010.  That's next Thursday.

Fortunately, Google has a new and simplified opt-out form.  You can find it at  Scroll down the page, click on Opt Out, and follow the step-by-step instructions.  According to Lynn Chu, an agent and lawyer who is opposed to the settlement, you don't need to list all your works in the tiny little box provided, just paste in the words “This opt out request should be considered to apply to all works whatsoever of mine that appear in any and all books either by myself or by others.”

If you don't opt out, you are automatically opted in and legally bound to all the terms of the Google Settlement.

Period.  Everybody agrees on this point.

James Grimmelmann, who is an associate professor at New York Law School and affiliated with the Institute for Information Law and Policy, has put together an extensive Website on the settlement, including an annotated copy of the settlement itself.  You can find it at  Grimmelmann is as close to a non-partisan voice as this controversy has.

I should warn you, however, that even Grimmelmann admits that there's a lot about the legal implications of the settlement that he doesn't understand.

And that's it in a nutshell.  Personally, I opted out, simply because I don't think I should sign on to any agreement that a lawyer tells me he doesn't understand.  I've also sent in an e-mail to add my name to Ursula K. Le Guin's petition.  Which can be found here.

Above:  One of the many NYC parking lots that's more expensive than going up by bus.  My heart still belongs to Amtrak, but my wallet loves Megabus.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Writing In my Sleep Redux

I'm off to the Big Apple today, for a seminar on dealing with the Google (slogan: "Be Evil.  Be Very Evil") rights theft scam.  More on that later.

Meanwhile, the other night I wrote a fragment of prose in my sleep.  Nothing large enough to save for later use.  It goes as follows:

It began with a rumbling in Arthur's desert bowl.  He leaned forward in bemused wonder.  The Jello rippled alarmingly, to the edge of the bowl and back.  Then, abruptly, it bulged upward . . . and a woman's arm erupted up and out!

In the the hand was a sword.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

There'll Always Be A Russia


Okay, I think I've figured it out.  Anybody who's spent any time at all in Russia is obsessed with figuring out the Russians and why they are the way they are.  That includes me.  All told, I've spent less than a month total in Russia, and yet a great deal of the time I was engaged in a futile attempt to understand their different-ness.

Let's be honest, though.  The British are every bit as strange as the Russians are.  I was in London when the news broke that Prince Charles was cheating on Diana.  My landlady was in tears.  "Don't get me wrong, I dearly love the Royal Family," she said to me.  "But they are all dreadfully spoiled."  Which, in terms of comprehensibility to this particular American, might as well have been a message from another planet.  But we take this sort of thing in stride, because . . . well, that's the British for you.

I'm thinking now that there's no underlying explanation for why the Russians act like, well, Russians.  They're just very intensely themselves.  They eat ice cream in the winter.  They buy lots more flowers than we do.  (My Russian friend Alexei told me, "If you want to get rich in Moscow, open a flower shop.")  They don't see anything wrong with drinking a beer on the Metro.  (Well, the men don't, anyway.)  And they like dogs a lot.

Even stray dogs.  Which Moscow has in profusion.  You can read the whole fascinating story, including the explanation of the statue above, here.

And a quick question for any Francophones out there . . .

As was diplomatically pointed out by Pat J recently, my command of the French language is essentially nonexistent.  Nevertheless, and for reasons I cannot explain, I persist in including the occasional French sentence in my novels.  Here's my latest:

Sergeant Wojtek grinned, revealing more teeth than Kyril would have thought could possibly fit in a single mouth.  “Yes.  We tricked you.  Quel dommage, hein, mon petit vaurien?”

Could those of you who know the language tell me if I need to make corrections?


Monday, January 18, 2010

What Does a Non-Writer's Desktop Look Like?


Everybody seems to be curious about where writers work.  Kyle Cassidy is putting together a book called Where I Write of photos of and text about (mostly genre) writers' offices.  But as Theodore Sturgeon used to say, "Ask the next question."  What do non-writers' desks look like?

Above is the very top of Marianne Porter's desk.  It holds, from left to right:

A Japanese figurine representing Aspergillus, a saprophytic mold, given to her by Ben Davis, one of our next-generation friends.

A Galilean thermometer.  Bought by Sean to replace the one I bought Marianne, which he broke.

A very small chair.  In it, an Albert Einstein action figure.  Atop both, a flashlight.

Beneath the chair, a stemwinder.  This one's mine, actually, a gift from Jason Van Hollander.  It's kept on Marianne's desk because, quite frankly, it's safer there than on mine.

A statuette of an antelope given us by Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger.  "Your walls are full," Tess said, "so we're moving you into the third dimension."

Hanging from one horn of the antelope, a 16-gig flash drive in protective case.

An antique pair of welding glasses.

A functioning microlight helicopter.

A stuffed Ignatz Mouse toy.  That was a gift from me.  You can tell I've got it bad for Marianne.

A flash drive whose housing was shattered when Sean closed the car door on it.  It still works.  Marianne hasn't decided what to do with it yet.  Looks rad, though.

A lamp.  The only thing that got broken when the ceiling fell down was its shade.

A world globe.  It lights up.  Elsewhere in the room are globes of Mars, the Moon, and Venus.  They don't.

A wooden pig.  It was standing on top of a set of metal basement doors set into the sidewalk on 21st Street in Center City Philadelphia, so Marianne picked it up and gave it a home.

In the shadow of the globe, a photograph of the tube stop platform of Turnham Green in London.  We stayed in a B&B there when Sean was eight.  As we left forever, he snatched up the camera and took a snap, so he could "remember it forever."

And on the wall behind the desk is a Jean Giraud ("Moebius") serigraph entitled The Star Watcher.

Taken all together, I believe these artifacts shed some small glimmer of insight into the non-writer's mind.  It's an underexplored field, and one that bears further examination.  Let this modest pioneering effort serve as a beginning.

Meanwhile, back in the world of science . . .

Big.  Fierce.  Extinct for millions and millions of years.  What could possibly make dinosaurs even cooler than they are already?

That's right -- poison fangs!  Which Sinornithosaurus allegedly has.  You can read what looks to be a balanced account of it all here.


Friday, January 15, 2010

Just A Passing Thought

I am currently reading A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book and using the envelope from Gene Wolfe's Christmas card for a bookmark.  Meanwhile, I've been married to Marianne Porter for over twenty-nine years.

So how the Hell I can still be an atheist is absolutely beyond my comprehension.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Où Sont Les Chaussures d'Antan?


It looks like another venerable tradition is dying.  I speak, of course, of the tradition of tying sneakers together by their laces and then throwing them over telephone wires.  Back in the day, you'd see great tangles of them -- twenty, forty pairs or more -- looking like the nest of some enormous child-eating bird.  There were some great ones in the Winooski, Vermont, of my childhood.  But the very best I ever saw was here in Roxborough, outside the entrance to the play yard behind Levering Elementary back when Sean went there.  How large was it?  A hundred pairs?  Too large to count, at any rate.

The funny thing was that nobody seemed to know for sure how they got there.  There were two schools of thought on the issue.  One was that when kids got new sneakers, they'd throw their old ones over the telephone wires.  Which is at least partly true . . .  I know I did, once.  The other theory was that bullies ripped the shoes off smaller kids and threw them up where they couldn't be retrieved simply to be cruel.  I never saw that happen, but it seems plausible as well.

Some people reading this are going to suggest a third possibility, that I'm making the whole thing up.  I know this because that's how people react to almost anything I say.  There's something inherently untrustworthy about me, I suppose, or maybe a better word for it would be implausible.  For years, Marianne refused to believe in Hoppity Hooper, simply because I described the show so enthusiastically.  Gregory Feeley refused to believe in Bean Day, Clothesline Night, Gate Night (aka Bicycle Night), Pumpkin Night or Cabbage Night (though I believe he grudgingly admitted to the existence of Halloween) simply because I vouched for them.   And whenever Gardner Dozois and I got to reminiscing about The Banana Man, entire roomfuls of people would start hooting in disbelief.

Nevertheless, I'm telling the truth.  The Levering Elementary tangle was eventually deemed a potential hazard by the school and the telephone people came with a cherry-picker to cut it away.  I kept expecting a new one to grow in its place, but it never did.  The other day I went by there and found a single pair of sneakers twisting slowly in the wind, lonely and forlorn.

As is the pair, above, to be found on Leverington Avenue a couple of houses down from my own.

A quick question . . .

I've experienced enough shocked disbelief in my life to have learned that in most places kids don't throw sneakers over telephone wires and never did.  Still, I've lived in two such locales.  It can't be all that rare.  Does anybody else know of anyplace where this is or was a commonplace?

And because nobody trusts me . . .

Here's proof that Hoppity Hooper, a frog, his uncle Waldo Wigglesworth, a fox, and Filmore, the strongest bear in Captivity, Wisconsin, really did exist.  In the imagination of Jay Ward if nowhere else. This is a segment of one of the very best episodes,  The Traffic Zone.

And also, the immortal Banana Man!  Who, as it turns out, wasn't the real Banana Man at all but, instead, was actually . . . but, heck, why bother to tell you that story when you're not going to believe a word I tell you?


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Things It Ought Not To Be Necessary To Say

I don't keep a dream diary anymore.  I did for a while, and even wrote up a collection of the best entries, titled "Lord Vacant on the Boulevard of Naked Angels," which can be found here.  But though I managed to maintain it for a couple of years, once I read it through my curiosity was satisfied and I moved on.

Still, every now and then, a remembered detail from one of my dreams piques my interest.  Last night, in the middle of a dream in which I was back in college (but not one, for a miracle, involving final exams for a course I haven't attended), I saw the following public service poster:

"But It Smelled Like My Cat!"

Which kinda makes you wonder how that particular fad got started, dunnit?


Monday, January 11, 2010

Hope Mirrlees on the Web


I just ran across Erin Kissane's website Hope Mirrlees on the Web.  A very handsome site and a most welcome one as well.  There was a time not long ago when if you wanted to find out anything about Mirrlees, the only reliable source was . . . well, me, because I'd written a short biography of her.  (It's called Hope-in-the-Mist, and this is not a plug, because Temporary Culture has already sold all the copies printed.)  But as more and more people become interested in Mirrlees, I'm beginning to fade into the background, and that's good news for all fans of the woman who made herself one of the most important fantasists of the Twentieth Century with one single novel, Lud-in-the-Mist.

Ms Kissane does not appear to update the site very often, which is perfectly understandable once one realizes that she is currently a grad student, with all the lack of free time that implies.  But her posts are intelligent and lucid and in one she has even managed to find joy in Mirrlees's first novel, Madeleine: One of Love's Jansenists, something which neither Virginia Woolf nor I were capable of doing.

She has also put the entire text of Madeleine online, which makes an all-but-unfindable book available to scholars and the curious.  I'm not sure that Ms Mirrlees would approve (she quietly dropped the book from her biography and in her will stipulated that it not be reprinted until either twenty or fifty years after her death -- I've misplaced the reference, I'm afraid -- so its extreme obscurity was not unwelcome to her), but it allows those who are passionately interested in her work to make up their own minds about its merits.

You can find the site here.

Above: Arthur David Waley, Lytton Strachey, Hope Mirrlees, and Georges Cattaui.  Photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell.  From the National Portrait Gallery.  The British one, not the American.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Worthy Book I Won't Be Reviewing


Aqueduct Press just sent me a book for possible review which, for all its virtues, I won't be passing judgment on.  The Secret Feminist Cabal, subtitled A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms, by Helen Merrick looks to be a very smart history of feminist thought and activism in science fiction.  But the thought of writing about it makes my heart sink.

The thing is, I vividly remember the feminist upsurge in the 1970s, characterized by some extremely important works of science fiction and a number of passionate essays explaining the thinking behind the fictions.  I also remember the male response to them.  Even at the time, the worst of those responses made me cringe.  Today, looking back, even the best of them makes me . . . is there a comparative verb form of cringe?  Or a superlative?  Cringier?  Cringiest?

Part of the problem, admittedly, was that the sexual revolution was still underway at that time and so to a lot of us it seemed that being outrageously outspoken was virtuous.  (Theodore Sturgeon's "If All Men Were Brothers . . .", a thought experiment defending incest, seemed brilliant then for making its case for the unthinkable, where today it looks wrong-headed and embarrassing.)  Thus, Michael G. Coney's response to Joanna Russ's classic story "When It Changed," was to declare that it showed that the author hated him "because Joanna Russ hasn't got a prick."  SF gadfly Richard Geis titled his review of Russ's The Female Man, "Pardon Me, But Your Vagina Just Bit My Penis."

I'd like to think that even then, when I was young and a fool, I had enough sense not to write crap like that.  But what about the responses to feminism by men like Isaac Asimov or Poul Anderson or Philip K. Dick, who come across today as paternalistic and patronizing?  Back then, I only wished I could write like them.  But Merrick hangs them up to dry simply by quoting them, fairly and in context.

Worst of all (to a potential reviewer) were the men who came out wholeheartedly in favor of the feminists, and proceeded to make total asses of themselves by setting themselves up as spokesmen for the movement and then presenting overstated and condescending rehashes of observations made by women who knew what they were actually talking about.  Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the author of Herland, had a name for these guys  -- she called them "women worshippers," and it was clear that she despised the lot of them.

So, no.  I won't be reviewing The Secret Feminist Cabal.  If you're the sort of person who needs to read this book, however -- and by now you should know whether you are or not -- this is a book you really do need to read.  You can read what the publisher has to say about it here.

But if I were reviewing the book . . .

I'd point out that the index is unforgivably bad.  All the info above about Russ, Asimov, Dick, Coney, Anderson, and Geis, can be found on pages 59 through 68, which include generous quotes from Dick, Coney, and Anderson.  Asimov and Dick are not mentioned in the index at all, and of the others only Coney has a citation which will send you to this section (though not to a page mentioning him).  The entry for Russ reads:  250, 252, 254, 232.   There must surely be a simply explanation for how this foul-up happened, but damned if I can figure out what it is.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Oh, Noble Holstonia!

Yesterday, I got an email from one Jim Glanville, modestly titled "Of Possible Interest."  In its entirety, it reads:

Mr. Swanwick:

A few days ago I posted It notes your recent book.

Jim Glanville 

It turns out that Mr. Glanville is a retired chemist who is writing a dual biography of Paquiquinero, the "first gentleman of Virginia"and an early Native American patriot, and James Branch Cabell, who wrote a historical novel about him.  My contribution (and a very small one it is) was to write What Can be Saved From the Wreckage?, a literary overview of  Cabell which briefly dealt with that book.

Being an inquisitive man, I naturally snooped about the parent website and found that it deals with Holstonia, the biogeological province of southern Virginia and Northern Tennessee created by the headwaters of the Holston River.  A region that he Glanville named and defined.  You can find the maps here.  

This is not only eccentric, but is the sort of eccentricity we need a lot more of.  What microregional area do you inhabit?  How much have you done to promote it?

You can find out more about Glanville here in an article that makes him out to be quite an admirable man.  I particularly like his dogged determination to record the history of the Olin chemical plant, despite the disinterest of all contemporary historical journals.  A century (or two or nine) from now, researchers will bless his name.


Monday, January 4, 2010

A Writer's New Year's Mummer's Day


Above, l-r:  Gardner Dozois, Barbara Purdom, Susan Casper (in red), Marianne Porter (with orange scarf), Michael Swanwick (in red), Tom Purdom (with red cup), Greg Frost (in black), Frank Crean (with blue cup). Photo taken by Christopher Purdom.

Well, that's it in a nutshell.  I wasn't well enough to make the New Year's Eve dinner party with friends or the waiting-for-Dick-Clark-to-fall-over party with other friends.  But on the first I was strong enough to drop by Gardner Dozois's and Susan Casper's open house, where we sat around critiquing the Mummers groups on TV.  (I thought Duffy was looking pretty good this year!)  And talking with old friends, of course.  It felt great to be out of the house.

I am not, as you may have noticed, much of a snapshotist.  So how do I get shots worth keeping?  I pass the camera around at parties and ask everybody to take one shot.  Usually, there's somebody in the group who knows how to frame a photograph.  In this case, Christopher Purdom.

And I cannot help but point out . . .

I have kept my mouth shut about the DHS's shameful failure to protect us in the most recent citizen-thwarted terrorist attempt and the even more shameful aftermath as well because, frankly, the Web has enough angry voices already.  But luckily Christopher Hitchens has already said it for me.  Here.


Friday, January 1, 2010

In Praise of Gruel


The very best thing about last week?  Gruel.

Let me explain.  Friday was Christmas.  On Saturday, after long and careful thought, I said aloud, "I think I'm coming down with something."  Sunday, the illness was a minor irritation until that night when everything fell in on me.  Monday, my biggest accomplishment was eating a piece of toast.

Then on Tuesday, I started getting better.  So much better that I was capable of eating gruel.  Dear God, you have no idea how delicious gruel can be when you've had all of two slices of toast over the past day-and-a-half.  I ate an entire mug of it in one sitting.  Feeling like one of the Saints feasting in Heaven: simple, joyful, grateful.

Wednesday I was able to go around the corner to the post office.  I came home dizzy and triumphant and collapsed on the couch for an hour and slept.  Thursday, I was able to write again -- only a brief book review, but the first thing I'd written since falling ill.  And today, I'm going to visit Gardner Dozois and Susan Casper briefly.

So the entire week has been a process of things just getting better and better.  You can see where it's been a good one for me.

But, oh man, that gruel!  Wonderful stuff.  I'll treasure the memory of that first cup forever.

Above:  A snapshot of me in the tub, taken by Marianne, showing how much better I am now.  I shaved for the occasion.