Monday, May 31, 2010

The Coveted "Frog"


How often do you get to impress your own son?  Almost never.  Well, check it, Sean!  Here I am with Pete Abrams, creator of Sluggy Freelance.  Pete was also a guest of honor at ConQuest.  I told him how much I liked his webcomic and he asked me if I would give him an award.  (Who can account for the whims of cartoonists?)  So I origami-folded a paper frog from one of my calling cards and inscribed it with his name and the slogan "For Services to Literature."  Thus creating The Frog, the world's smallest and most exclusive literary award.

Whoops!  My plain is boarding!

And much, much, much later in the day . . .

It's "plane," of course.  I came home on a plane.  Then, on the way, I was diverted for a literary supper with friends. Now, briefly, I can relax.  Tomorrow I hop in the car and drive away, off on a sad chore.  Of which, more on Friday.


Friday, May 28, 2010



This will be brief because I'm on the road again.  Specifically, I'm in Kansas City for ConQuest. And just right now I'm weary as weary, because it's been a long day.

The whole jet-plane-delay-transfer-drag-your-bags-to-the-far-side-of-the-airport-and-wait thing can get pretty old pretty fast.  But still.  Travel . . .

I think of when I was in Yekaterinburg and went to see Russian SF writer Gennady Praskevich off at the train station.  Gennady only has twenty or so words of English, but he can crack me up with only one.  The day before we were sitting with friends in a park and a band was playing.  He turned to me and with a deadpan face said, "Dance?"  A little later he had two young children in stitches by standing at the edge of a goldfish pond and solemnly feeding the fish small coins.  Now he was going all the way across Siberia to his home on the Pacific coast.  He paused as he was climbing onto the train and extended a hand to me.  "Come," he said.

And, oh, how my heart soared!  I didn't speak Russian and I had return tickets to the States, but if it hadn't been for Marianne and Sean waiting for me back home, I swear I would have climbed on board and disappeared into Siberia forever.

Above:  Kansas City at night.  Sleep tight, all.


Wednesday, May 26, 2010


I feel a theory coalescing about "-ers."  Truthers,  birthers, deniers of the Holocaust, of evolution, of global warming, of whatever.  I'm coming around to the conviction that it's all a form of magical thinking.  There's a hard and unpleasant fact they wish weren't so and therefore they try to make it go away by an act of will.  They're voting against it in their minds.  Which is why they're so outraged when you argue the facts -- how can you possibly be in favor of that?

This is how we got to where we are with the Gulf of Mexico today.  When Obama and Bush and I don't know how many presidents before them stood up and talked about how we can have "environmentally safe deep-sea drilling," they weren't lying exactly.  They were voting for a future without oil spills.

They were engaged in acts of magic.

The trouble is that magic doesn't work.   You know what does?  Consulting with grumpy people who know their business.

Which is why the following video about booming in the Gulf is so depressing.  You'd think that recent events would have convinced BP of the merits of listening to their engineers.  No such luck.

As a verbal artifact, though, the engineer's insanely profane rant about "fucking booming" is quite wonderful.  Almost magical, in fact.

And as long as I'm here . . .

Allow me to remind you that I'll be at ConQuesT in Kansas City this weekend.  Among my other activities, I'll be doing a reading of a story which I crafted from the opening chapters of the Darger & Surplus novel.  Plus, I've donated a story in a bottle to their charity auction.  And I'm always happy to chat.

So if you're there, don't feel shy about saying hello.


Monday, May 24, 2010

The Throne of Kipling


Okay, I exaggerated when I said that I sat and wrote at Kipling's desk.  It was a desk in Kipling's study, the room where he did indeed write Captains Courageous and both volumes of The Jungle Book.  But the Lanndmark Trust is in the business of saving endangered buildings and by the time they got hold of Naulakha, most of the furniture was long gone.  

However, one sacred relic remains which has known the flesh of the Great Man . . .  I refer of course to Kipling's crapper.

That's it, in the photo above.  It comes complete with instructions on how to treat it with the utmost care an antiquity of its significance deserves.

And this will be short because . . .

I leave on Thursday for Conquest in Kansas City and I have preparations to make, bags to pack, a speech to put together, and (if I can) the panel topics to think about.  Luckily, they got the program to me on Friday.  Last year, when I complained to the programming person of a convention whose name conveniently escapes my memory that I couldn't do any serious prep on day's notice, he opined that "It would have been nice to be able to give you a week's notice . . . but that's just not the way things are in the real world."

Also, I've got some ideas for my Dala horse story, and my alien worm autopsy story and . . .  Well, we'll see how much I can manage to do.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Do You Kipple?


I've been away from the blog, playing hooky.  Doing what, you ask?  I thought you'd never give me the opening.

Check out the photo above, taken the day before yesterday.  That's me playing billiards in Naulakha's game room.  Naulakha is the house Rudyard Kipling built near Brattleboro, Vermont, and lived in for several years before moving restlessly onward.  A friend rented it from the Landmark Trust for a week and invited Marianne and me to come visit.  So we did. 

Kipling wasn't particularly happy with his American neighbors or, ultimately, with his life in Vermont.  But while he was living in Naulakha, he wrote both Captains Courageous and The Jungle Book

So I got to sit in Rudy's writing room at his desk, writing.  You can imagine how happy I was.

Unfortunately, Neil Gaiman's already written The Graveyard Book, so the obvious opportunity to slingshot off of the man's greatness has been taken.  But I was contented anyway.  And I still am.


Monday, May 17, 2010

Before I Was A Giant


Above is the cover of Before They Were Giants,  which Paizo Publishing, LLC has just shipped.  Editor James L Sutter has compiled an anthology of stories which . . .  Well, why not read the publishing house promo:
See Where it all Began!

Nobody starts at the top. Long before they were household names, all of the superstar science fiction and fantasy authors in this anthology were just fans with stories and dreams. Now, for the first time ever, fifteen of the genre’s most important authors have come together to show off their first published SF stories, many of them rare and never before collected. All fifteen stories come complete with brand-new retrospective critiques and interviews from the authors themselves, discussing the stories’ geneses, humorous anecdotes surrounding the stories’ publication, and what the authors know now about writing that they wish they’d known then. An invaluable look at the origins of speculative fiction’s greatest minds, and bursting with insightful advice for beginning writers, this book is a must for any science fiction or fantasy fan, aspiring author, or teacher.

Ah, yes, I remember those days, exploring alien planets and fighting monsters for minimum wage.  The atmosphere was orange and murky and I lived on Campbell's Soup and frozen chicken pot pies.  There were times when I didn't know where my next tank of oxygen was going to come from.  Pretty scary, I tell you!

Here's the table of contents:
Piers Anthony: "Possible to Rue"
Greg Bear: "Destroyers"
Ben Bova: "A Long Way Back"
David Brin: "Just a Hint"
Cory Doctorow: "Craphound"
William Gibson: "Fragments of a Hologram Rose"
Nicola Griffith: "Mirrors and Burnstone"
Joe Haldeman: "Out of Phase"
China MiƩville: "Highway 61 Revisited"
Larry Niven: "The Coldest Place"
Kim Stanley Robinson: "In Pierson’s Orchestra"
Spider Robinson: "The Guy with the Eyes"
R. A. Salvatore: "A Sparkle for Homer"
Charles Stross: "The Boys"
Michael Swanwick: "Ginungagap"

And I'm on the road again . . .

This time I'm going someplace very, very impressive.  If they have wi-fi there, I'll blog about it on Wednesday.  If not, I should be back by Friday.


Friday, May 14, 2010

Robert A. Heinlein


As a boy, he attended the same grammar school as Sally Rand.  He read under the covers with a candle. When he decided to get into Annapolis, he flooded his congressman with fifty letters of recommendation.  During WWII, he recruited Isaac Asimov to work at the Philadelphia Navy Yard by getting him drunk on a Cuba Libre and showing him slides of Catherine Crook de Camp naked.

I've been reading a biography of the man that Jack McKnight used to call "crazy Bob" -- Robert A. Heinlein.  The authorized biographer, William H. Patterson, Jr. is an unabashed partisan who honestly believes that we all remember where we were when we learned that Heinlein was dead.  His prose, alas, is merely serviceable.  But he had access to every scrap of paper RAH accumulated in his lifetime, and so he was able to compile a more detailed look at the man who reshaped modern science fiction than has ever been available before.

It'll be out sometime this year, I'm guessing, and for those of you who might be interested in a Heinlein biography, I recommend it.  It's a fascinating glimpse into how RAH created himself and his fiction.

This is volume 1 -- there'll be a second volume somewhere down the road -- and I devoutly hope that the published book includes an index.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010



I'm on the road again, so this will be brief.

My friend Haihong Zhao has published an English translation of her story, "Exuviation" in Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet.

This is an extremely interesting time for Chinese science fiction.   For a long time SF was discouraged in China as a frivolous waste of time.  Then the argument was successfully made that it would be useful in encouraging imagination in young people.  This was a shrewd observation.  Its truth is, I think, self-evident, and it comes at a time not long before the emphasis on manufacture shifts to an emphasis on design.

As a result (I'm oversimplifying here, you understand, based on things I've heard and may have imperfectly understood), Chinese SF exists in an analogue of American "Golden Age" science fiction -- strongly emphasizing science, and if possible,adventure as well.

"Exuviation" is something different, an evolutionary step forward, and (this, I think, speaks well for the future of SF in China), the recipient of the Galaxy Award.  It is to American eyes a very strange story indeed, and thus particularly valuable.

But don't take my word for it.  Pick up a copy and decide for yourself.

And speaking of China . . .

It's no secret that the Great Firewall of China blocks sites like  Which was very frustrating when I was blogging about how well my Chinese hosts had treated me and none of my friends there could access this site and see how grateful I was.

Now that I've got an upcoming book to flog, I'm thinking of creating a new blog with a less easily misinterpreted name than Flogging Babel.  Knowing that several of my readers have lived in China and have a deep understanding of its relationship with the web, I thought I'd ask this question publicly:  Are there any blog-creating sites which are readily available to Chinese citizens?  Or should I simply rent some virtual land on the Web and place my blog there?

Any advice you can offer me would be gratefully received.


Monday, May 10, 2010

This Glitteratti Life (Part 5,285)


There I am, holding a glass of champagne again.  The inimitable Henry Wessells and I are toasting Hope Mirrlees at a party at Henry and Mary Jo's house in Montclair, New Jersey.  It was not, however, a party to celebrate the fact that the book I wrote and Henry published, Hope-in-the-Mist is currently on the Hugo ballot for Best Related Book.  Nor was it held to celebrate Ellen Kushner's The Man With the Swords, which Henry published the previous Monday, though both Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman were present as well.

It was Henry's birthday.

Happy birthday, Henry -- many many more!

And, wonking happily away . . .

So does my book have a shot at the Hugo?  Well, let's take a look at the ballot:

  • Canary Fever: Reviews, John Clute
  • Hope-In-The-Mist: The Extraordinary Career and Mysterious Life of Hope Mirrlees, Michael Swanwick
  • The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children’s and Teens’ Science Fiction, Farah Mendlesohn
  • On Joanna Russ, edited by Farah Mendlesohn
  • The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of SF Feminisms, Helen Merrick
  • This is Me, Jack Vance! (Or, More Properly, This is “I”), Jack Vance
Canary Fever is the latest collection of John Clute's reviews, and Clute is indisputably the bull goose critic in the science fiction world, so that's always a strong possibility.  I buy the collections as they come out, so obviously I like 'em.

I also liked Helen Merrick's book, though any book with the word "Feminist" in its title is going to find its first-place votes seriously eroded by a collection of essays about Joanna Russ.  Who is not only one of the smartest writers within genre but (I'd argue) one of the smartest writers in feminist theory as well.

I haven't seen Jack Vance's autobiography but he's one of the last giants standing and one of the pioneers of modern science fiction, so a lot of us are going to feel we owe him one last award.  I'd guess he's the front-runner right now.

At first blush, it looks like Farah Mendlesohn would be cutting her vote in half by having two books on the ballot.  Not so.  The Hugo vote is counted by the Australian ballot system, and my own experience is that having multiple works in a category is an actual advantage there.  So The Inter-Galactic Playground may have a very good shot indeed.  I've got the book on order from Big Blue Marble, but haven't read it yet.  However, I'm anticipating it will be very good indeed.  I've seen the collection she amassed to research it, and it included not only all the major works of YA and children's science fiction, but also all the mediocre works that made a lot of money and were read by millions.  It's an impressive and appalling achievement, which I myself would never attempt.  I can only quote the immortal words of Ruby Kipling:  "You're a gunga man than I am, Betty Din."

And that leaves my own book.  Its chances?  Well, it was published in an edition of two hundred, which works against it.  But the Hugo Award administrators are putting together some kind of virtual package of either all or most of the nominated works, which makes a Hugo not entirely impossible.  Not likely, mind you.  But I'll have to arrange for a designated acceptor, just to be safe.

So what do I think's going to win?  For two reasons, I'm not going to say.  The first is that when the voting actually occurs, everything goes chaotic.  Too many factors come into play for even the most informed person to make a reliable prediction.  And secondly, and more importantly, my predictions are almost invariably wrong.  So I wouldn't want to jinx the person I'm rooting for (after myself, of course) but making my guess public.

But what a strong category!  I'll be happy with the outcome, whoever wins.


Friday, May 7, 2010

Times Square: Some Early Lessons Learned

I'd like to say a few quiet words in praise of a group of people who are very hard to like -- the New York City police force.  I spend a fair amount of time in the Apple and I'm here to tell you that they've got that NYC 'tude: As a rule, they're angry, abrupt, and none too dainty about their language.

But when it matters, they're everything they should be.

Obviously, I was inspired to write this post by the Times Square incident when a street vendor noticed smoke coming from a parked SUV, flagged down a policeman, and the cop knew what to do and did it and another national trauma was averted.  But I wasn't surprised by that one whit.

I already knew that "the city so nice they named it twice" was not only the most appealing target in the USA for terrorists but the best prepared because I was driving there when what looked at the time to be a terrorist incident occurred.  It was actually a steam line explosion that sent a terrifying flume of smoke into the air, but it made me feel a whole lot better about the people paid to protect us.  Or at least those in New York City.

Here's how it happened:

I was in Manhattan and headed out of town when I stopped at a red light.  There was a cop in the intersection directing traffic.  I stopped and, idly staring forward, thought, Gee, this is a hard-charging town; everybody is walking really fast.  Then I thought, and they're all walking in the same direction!

Everybody was hurrying to the right, uptown.  The cop turned left, downtown, in the direction of the explosion, and said, "Shit."

Then he ran straight towards the explosion.

That's the stuff.  A year or two after 9/11, there was a major terrorist exercise in Harrisburg, PA.  Because it was the first such exercise ever attempted, they began simply.  The state police and other first responders were told it was coming, but not when, and the general outlines of the scenario. Then they ran it.

Nobody showed up.  Out here in the hinterlands, nobody takes terrorism seriously.  It can't happen here, they think, and they're probably right.  In NYC they take it very seriously indeed, because they know it can and has and probably will.  And they respond the way you hope to God your protectors would if it were your life on the line.

So, yeah, the NYPD . . . nobody you'd want to tangle with.  But good guys when it counts.


Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (Concluded)


There's a painting I'd love to see but which nobody has done yet, a sort of dinosaurian Ascent of Man.  On one side, an archaeosaur would crawl out of the primordial ooze, done in the style of the earliest paleontology reconstruction art.  Each new dinosaur would be drawn in a progressively later style, lifting their tails from the ground, leaning forward, growing warm-blooded, and finally sprouting feathers and flying out of frame.

The Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins oils would be at the most basal/earliest/most primitive end of the canvas.

There's a lot of insight into the paleontology of 1876 to be derived from studying them.  Hadrosaurus foulkii was brand spanking new then and the fact that they walked on two legs was revolutionary.  So their stance and walk were noticeably human -- humans being the best available model for how bipedal locomotion works.  The Nothosaurus were impossibly sinuous.  And so on.

But the most remarkable feature of these prehistoric creatures is their expressions.  They leer, they sneer, they gloat.  Their faces light up with unholy glee.  The pterosaurs look Satanic.

They are inherent sinful.

If you look through the pictures, the moon is shown in the daytime sky several times, but the sun never.  This was a painterly convention to indicate that the creatures existed in a world that was not properly part of God's Creation, sometime on the Sixth Day, possibly, before the creation of Adam and Eve.

It's not that Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was particularly concerned with the theological implications of the fossils he was bringing to life.  But the cultural context within which he was working was Christian, Biblical, and moral.  It only made sense that ancient life-forms would be primitive not only physically but spiritually.

I point this out not to make mock of BWH -- he accomplished a great deal and advanced his science to a degree that very few scientists do -- but because it demonstrates how our preconceptions shape our science.  When I was a child, the skeletal mounts at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City dragged their tails on the ground.  Looking at the bones, you could see the gaps where the bones had been effectively "broken" to bring them down.  Had they been presented as the fossil evidence left them, the tails would have been held in the air as modern mounts do.  So the evidence was tinkered with.

Why?  Because dinosaurs were presumed to be reptiles, and reptiles dragged their tails on the ground.

Similarly, our readings of fossils today are colored by our preconceptions, our philosophies, our expectations.  I've seen enough revolutions in paleontology over the past two decades (it's been a lively and exciting time) to have few illusions about how perfect our current understanding is.

Still . . .

Look at those wonderful, entrancing, absurd creatures that Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins brought back to life after so many million years.  They are so much better than anything that existed ten years before.  There is so much information encoded in them.  They are such a good start to the long, long road on whose earliest stretches we yet stand.


Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (Continued)


The two things you have to know in order to understand Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins's oils and what happened to them are:  1)  He was a self-taught artist, and technically almost (but not quite) a primitive artist.  And: 2)  He worked in close collaboration with the leading paleontologists of his day.  They're the best representations in existence of how dinosaurs were imagined to really be at the dawn of paleontology.

The second fact explains their importance.  The first fact explains why they almost don't exist today.

Bob Walters told me of a visit he and Tess Kissinger made to a curator at Princeton, where they discovered that the Hawkins oils were leaning against the wall in the hallway.  They both immediately told the curator that these works deserved better treatment.  "You don't understand," she said.  "When I came here, they were lying flat on the floor."

The docent at the Morven Museum told us that, according to institutional folklore, the paintings were at one point thrown into a dumpster as worthless, and only rescued at the last minute by hysterical curators.

Why would they be thrown away?  Well . . . take a look at the detail above.  On strictly artistic grounds, they weren't much.  As the understanding of what dinosaurs actually looked like evolved, BWH's oils became useless as educational aids.  So they were taken down.  And neglected.

Extremely neglected.

Some years ago, the Walters & Kissinger studio curated a show of dinosaur art at the Bruce Museum.  For the show, the Museum funded the restoration of one of the oils, and the Dinosaur Society funded the restoration of another.  That made a total of two oils out of a surviving total of eighteen.

For the current show at the Morven, which ends soon, alas, an additional six oil paintings were restored.  Which involved a great deal of overpainting.  "A new sky was painted," Bob observed of one oil.  He pointed out where a rip in the canvas was repaired.  "Look at the mountains -- the outline would have been crisp.  That blur around them is the original mountains."

But though detail has been lost, and that detail is to be mourned, the new restorations are of tremendous value and Princeton is to lauded for funding them.

And now, for the second day in a row, I discover that I don't have the time to tell all of the story.  So tomorrow I will tackle the extremely interesting challenge of placing the paintings in their moral and cultural context.

Above:  Another detail, this one from Triassic Life of Germany.


Monday, May 3, 2010

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins at the Morven


Thursday, Marianne and I went to the Morven Museum in Princeton for a showing of eight paintings by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins.  The Morven is a lovely place, the home of Richard Stockton, who was the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to be captured and imprisoned by the British.  In the 20th century it served as the home for five governors, until it was deemed insufficiently grandiose for a New Jersey governor.  Now it's one of those small jewels that a culture slowly acquires, preserved as a sign of respect for our history and run by as pleasant a batch of people as you could hope to meet.

It was the Hawkins oils we were there to see, though.  And we were fortunate enough to go in the company of dinosaur reconstruction artists Robert Walters and Tess Kissinger, of the Walters & Kissinger Studio.

Hawkins was in on the ground floor of dinosaur reconstruction art.  He made life-sized sculptures of dinosaurs for the Crystal Palace.  Then he came to Princeton, where dinosaur fossils were being displayed in large trays and created a metal armature for the bones of Hadrosaurus foulkii, so they could be displayed in the kind of life mount that is standard today. 

In 1875 Princeton University commissioned BWH to create a series of paintings of the geological eras of the Earth.  They included the first significant series of dinosaur art ever painted.

And here I must end on a cliff-hanger, for I have obligations to meet today that cannot be put off.  More tomorrow about these same paintings, involving comments on preservation, restoration, the moral evolution of dinosaurs, and the role of the Dumpster in art history.

Above:  Detail from Cretaceous Life of New Jersey, showing a dryptosaur attacking a hadrosaur.  I could talk for hours about this painting.


Saturday, May 1, 2010

Ruins of the Space Age


All Ballard fans will recognize my situation above:  Standing before a cracked and empty kidney-shaped swimming pool at the bottom of which is a drift of dead leaves.

Thursday, Marianne and I went to the Morven Museum in see the Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins exhibit.  I'll be blogging about it on Monday.