Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Motel 6 and The Very Dog Array


I do a lot of traveling and because I'm there (wherever there may be) to see and learn and do, pretty much all of it is designed so I'll spend as little time as possible in my hotel or motel room.  That's why I like Motel 6.  It's cheap and as a result I can stretch the year's travel budget further and spend more days on the road.

But a spurt of recent traveling involving recurrent stays at one particular Motel 6 has taught me that my business is only incidental to M6.  Their main source of income is blue-collar guys working away from home and looking for cheap digs.  Around 5:30 p.m., the place fills up with men with dirty work boots, blue jeans, and a sense of a day's hard work well done.  They pull up in pickup trucks with compressors and chain saws and big heavy tool chests, ready for tomorrow's challenge.  There may also be a bus or two of singers working the church circuit or actors going from school to school, introducing children to the wonders of Aristophanes and Tennessee Williams for seasoning.  Hard working folks.

These are the guys who make the world work. 

You can recognize their motel rooms by the empty boxes of Bud Lite and the barbecue grills outside them, evidence of human life on Earth and of their determination to make these necessary separations from their families as pleasant as their wives would approve of.

And I'm still writing a story a day . . .

Most recently, the following:

The Very Dog Array
Michael Swanwick

When Boyd Waters started doubling his dog collection, the neighbors didn’t think much about it at first.  Two dogs, four dogs, even eight dogs – that was well within the range of normal for Florida.  Sixteen dogs, however, was pushing the edge.  Thirty-two was definitely eccentric.  When the number passed sixty-four and showed every sign of continuing to increase, it was decided that something had to be done.  A committee was formed and, after deliberation, a retired judge was delegated to investigate.

“See here, Waters,” the judge said, doing his best to ignore the dozens of dogs swarming about his feet.  “Just what do you think you’re doing with all those mutts?”  When he was on the bench, he’d been known for his straight-talk.

“Dogs are very sensitive animals,” Boyd said.  “They can sense things that people can’t.”

“Such as?”

“Well, that’s what I’m trying to find out.”  Waters booted up the tangle of computers and screens he’d kludged together.  “Ever notice how people talk about dogs howling at the moon, but nine times out of ten they’re facing a different direction?  I think it has something to do with that.”

“You think?”

“I caught a bug in New Mexico that’s made a hash of my long-term memory,” Waters said apologetically.  “So I’m afraid I don’t recall my original scheme.  But I’m pretty sure that I’m beginning to get results.”  He tapped the screen.  “See all these individual lines?  Those are live readings from the dogs’ brains.”

“You put probes in their brains?”  The judge was shocked.  He genuinely liked dogs.  Though preferably one at a time.

“No, no, in their collars.  I appear to be measuring a mental phenomenon somewhat analogous to a resonating circuit.  The more dogs there are in close proximity, the stronger the signal.  I think they’re sending a message.”

The judge began to edge his way toward the door.  “Are they?”

“Yes,” Waters said eagerly.  “And if you look at the screen, you’ll see that the lines are starting to converge.  That means –”

As one, every dog in the house and the yard outside lifted its head and began to howl.  They were all facing one spot in the sky.

Too astonished to think, the judge stared upward at the descending spacecraft.

Boyd Waters, however, was glued to the screen.  “They’ve got an answer – look where it’s coming from!”

The judge turned slowly from the window and stared down at the star chart on the screen.  One star blinked rapidly.  In disbelief he said, “You can’t be Sirius.”


Above: Workingmen's jeans, left out overnight to dry.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010



What do you love about America?  The freedom of speech?  The right to bear arms?  For me, it's the Inflatosaurus rex looming up over the new car lot.  Dear God, I am nuts about this country!

And speaking of the Clarion Write-a-Thon tuckerizations . . .

Out of all 42 tuckerizations, only three were commissioned for birthdays – yesterday's and both of today's. What were the odds? One of these stories should be considered to be a weekend story, 
Happy birthday, Jessica! Happy birthday, Jill!

A Woman of Singular Skill
Michael Swanwick
The Singularity, sometimes derisively referred to as “the Rapture of the nerds,” arrived three days ahead of schedule. This was due, perhaps, to unexpected brilliance on the part of an obscure robotics team at Carnegie, the success of a counterintuitive experiment at CERN, and a linguistic breakthrough by an obscure poet in Zagreb. Unfortunately, as a result everybody found themselves living in a post-singularity, post-poverty, post-postmodernity virtual existence in the Matryoshka shells that now enveloped the sun in countless layers of Strossian computronium without having been given enough warning to pack.
A lot of things got left behind.
Thus it was Jessica Taylor Erwin's strange fate to be the only uploaded posthuman still possessed of woodcarving skills. She was living in a Vinge estate with a simple 100-room castle, garden, and lake, surrounded by an infinite forest. One day when a centaur carrying a briefcase trotted out of the infinite surrounding forest and said, “Listen. We really need your skills.”
“Fine,” she said. “Come back next Tuesday with a good set of tools and I'll give you your first lesson.”
“That's not how we do things anymore. Give me permission, and my briefcase will take the information directly from your brain.”
“Forget it,” Jessica said.
“Aw, c'mon!” the briefcase said. “Knowledge wants to be free. Don't be selfish.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Suitcase.” Jessica snapped her fingers and the centaur and his briefcase went away. Then she declared that nobody wanting to harvest information from her brain was allowed on her estate. In Postsingularia, you could do that.
A week later, Jessica was in her garden when a flying carpet descended from the sky. “Hi,” the woman sitting cross-legged on it said, “I heard you give woodcarving lessons.”
“Well, I haven't so far, but . . . How do you propose to pay for them?”
“I'm a quilter. I could teach you.”
Within the month there were a dozen workshops in Jessica's garden, and the virtual renaissance of human crafts had begun.
“You do realize,” Jessica's husband James said one day, “that you're really wreaking havoc with the whole concept of post-Singular economics.”
“Oh, hush. If we don't enjoy making things with our hands, we're not really human, are we?”

Michael Swanwick
Time travel, it turns out, is not all that dissimilar to rock climbing. Whether you’re climbing up or climbing down, moving into the future or into the past, there’s always one moment when the climber-or-traveler gets stuck, when she thinks to herself: I’ve gone too far this time. In that moment of calm terror, it’s possible for the brain to go into overdrive. Which is how Jill Roberts came to invent time travel.
She came back from the mountains full of plans and ambitions. First she went to the bank and extracted her life savings. Then she had it all converted to British hundred-pound notes. (“Nothing later than 1994,” she specified.) Throwing a handful of news and technology magazines into her bag, she set out for the past.
Down the steep timescape of tachyons she made her perilous way back to 1995, emerging at last outside Nicolson's CafĂ© in Edinburgh. Inside, sitting in a dark corner, a welfare mother sat hunched over a writing tablet. Respectfully, Roberts said, “Ms. Rowling? I’m here to make you an offer for your book.”
Any doubts the writer might have had about the offer were swept away by the wad of money that Roberts plunked down on the table before her.
From there it was but a short hop-skip-and-jump through time and space to San Francisco, where a young man named Jacob Weisman had just founded a small press called Tachyon Publications. Contracts in hand, she walked into the newly-opened offices and said, “You don’t know it yet, but I’m your new managing editor.”
Jacob Weisman looked up and scowled. “Who the hell are you?” Then, seeing the magazines she’d spread before him, “What are you?”
“I’m Jill Roberts,” she said, “and I’m the best thing that ever happened to you.”

Monday, June 28, 2010


Two blogs in one day!

I wrote the following story for day 9 of the Clarion West Write-a-Thon early this morning before hopping into the car and driving three hundred miles to Pittsburgh.

Today's story was commissioned for Carlene Chrumka by her husband Bruce.  Happy birthday, Carlene!

Michael Swanwick

If you absolutely had to one of only two survivors of an airplane crash, there are worse people to have for the other survivor than Carlene Chrumka.  When she was done setting the bone and lashing together my broken arm, she said, “The radio’s broken and, not to speak ill of the dead, but the pilot went way off his flight path trying to outrun that storm.  So there’s no point staying with the plane.  We’ll have to hike our way out.”

Swiftly she went through the plane, assembling two bedrolls and some survival materials.  She took every match and lighter she could find, stripped wire from the electrical system “to make snares,” she said, and found some fishing gear in the luggage.  Then we set off.

“We go downhill,” she explained.  “When we come to a stream, we follow it.  It’ll lead us to a river and the river will lead us to the sea.  If we haven’t come on a house by then, we’ll build three bonfires and wait for a ship to go by.  Three pillars of smoke is a universal cry for help.  That’ll bring rescue.”

As we walked, I said, “How do you know all this?”

She shrugged modestly.  “I work at the Enviros Wilderness School Association.  I picked up a few things on the job.”

We walked easily, without pushing ourselves.  When we’d made it down below the tree line, Chrumka occasionally stopped to dig up a tuberous root (“Starch,” she explained) or a handful of small leaves (“Seasoning”).  By sunset, we’d found a stream, made camp, and she’d pulled several trout out of the water.  Then she put together the ingredients she’d been gathering all day and gently grilled the trout on a kind of grid she made out of green twigs.

“This is astonishing!” I said.  “It’s some of the best food I’ve ever had.”

“Well, cooking is kind of a hobby with me,” Chrumka said.  “You pick up a few tricks over the years.”

After dinner, she made showed me how to make a kind of mattress out of pine boughs, and we fell asleep on opposite sides of the campfire.  Luckily, the weather was mild.

In the middle of the night, I woke suddenly to find the camfire had died down to coals and Chrumka’s hand was over my mouth.  There were strange, stealthy noises in the darkness that didn’t sound natural.  “Ninjas!” she whispered.  “Canadian Ninjas.”

I made a face that said, as clear as words:  “What?!”

“It’s a long story.”  Chrumka’s eyes gleamed in the darkness.  Stealthily, she picked up her walking stick and held it in a way that looked convincingly martial.  “Fortunately, I’ve taken anti-ninja training.  So I’ve picked up few tricks that should come in handy.”


Where Technology Goes To Die


I'm on the road again!  But before I go, here's a snap I took at the city recycling center which once in a blue moon has a day when it accepts old televisions and computers.  This year, because of the HD switchover, there were a lot of televisions.

And also the story I wrote yesterday for the Clarion West Write-a-Thon:

Crabapple II (from the Robotopoedia)
Michael Swanwick

Form follows function. If you’re an evil overlord bent on world domination and your weapon of choice is a giant robot, then it naturally follows that its appearance should be terrifying. Alas for the Doom Master, his deathbot came out looking sweet and cuddly. He needed a redesign fast and for that he needed an artist.

It was the strange fate of Kathryn DiLego to be that artist.

Her first sketches were swiftly rejected by the Doom Master as insufficiently grotesque. So she added axes and grinders, clashing metal teeth, flame-throwers for the nostrils. “Not frightening enough!” he cried. “I want something that will freeze their blood.”

That night, DiLego had a dream she hadn’t had since childhood: a nightmare about a glowing skeleton named Crabapple. She awoke screaming. She went straight to the drawing board.

The original deathbot was short and chunky. She stripped it down to its essence, elongated its limbs, and gave it a stylized skull for a head. She covered its surface with LEDs, so it could be seen from the horizon. When the Doom Master saw DiLego’s plans, he wept for joy. Then he released her husband from his cage, and paid over the decidedly paltry fee they had negotiated.

“I’ll send you a ticket to the coronation,” he promised.

DiLego was watching the evening news when Crabapple II waded out of New York Harbor and started toward Times Square. It glowed horrifically. It sent newsreaders into paroxysms of fear. It was genuinely terrifying.

And when a cab driver fainted at the sight of it, leaving his unguided taxi to smash into one of its legs, it folded like a bad poker hand.

DiLego’s phone rang. It was, predictably enough, the Doom Master. In the background, she could hear the sound of police breaking in his doors. “What have you done to me?!” he cried.

“You wanted a scary exterior,” DiLego said. “I had to cut down on Crabapple II’s functionality in order to achieve it. That’s all.”

She hung up and went back to watching the footage that the networks were obsessively rerunning, of her design coming out of the water and New Yorkers running from it, screaming. Americans were all scared of art. Every once in a while it was good to see them forced to admit it.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Yard Sales and Pub Quizes


I went to a yard sale today at the premises of the Walters & Kissinger Studio.  Bob and Tess were clearing out old stuff, and at bargain prices.  I picked up a Miocene whale vertebra for five dollars, and a replica of an oviraptor egg for a buck -- one of a boxload of museum shop replicas that normally go for a bundle.  I know because I already own the Tyrannosaurus claw.

Mostly, though, Marianne and I just spent several hours hanging with our friends.  Everybody was in a good mood.  Especially the people who picked up some fabulous bargains for a pittance.

And of course I wrote a story today . . .

Because I've promised the Clarion West folks I would.  Here it is:

Pub Quizzing With Death
Michael Swanwick

An hour into the quiz, James Crossley  thought I should have gone with chess.  Only that wasn’t true.  He played chess well, but certainly not on a grandmaster level.  And Death had taken many a grandmaster.   So a pub quiz was probably his best shot.  Not that he’d had any choice in the matter.  When Death walks into a bar and challenges you, you have to choice but to play.
So far he’d answered every question.  He’d known the names of every member of the original Olympic Ball Club of Philadelphia in 1833, and which two Town Ball associations had merged to form it.  He named the original Beatles – George, John, Paul, Stuart, and Pete.  He knew what song the mermaids sang when Ulysses was lashed to the mast and what J. Robert Oppenheimer had murmured after the first A-bomb test.
Death, looked  unworried.  He grabbed a handful of goldfish from a basket on the bar and swallowed them.  They rattled through his ribcage and fell to the floor.  “Last round,” he said.  “The topic is:  James Crossley’s Mirror Universe Evil Twin, Yelssorc Semaj.”
“What?” Crossley said. 
“It’s simple enough.  How well do you know yourself?  Your Evil Twin is the exact opposite.  It’s practically a gimme.  Five questions.  Answer them all and you walk free.”
Crossley swallowed.  “Go ahead.”
“What is Yelssorc Semaj’s favorite sport?”
The opposite of baseball could be anything from skittles to tiddly-winks.  Or did Death mean the sport that he hated most?  No, it had to be sport which had displaced his own as America’s favorite.   “Football.”
Death nodded solemnly, as if he’d expected no less.  “What is his favorite color?”
“His favorite food?”
“That’s perilously close to cheating, but I’ll give it to you.  How many children does Yelssorc Semaj have?”
There was a stickler.  He had a young son and an even younger daughter.  What was the opposite of two – one?  Infinity?   Finally, he said.  “He has two – a four-week-old boy and a five-year-old girl.” 
“Five.  This is the one that settles the match.”  Death took a genteel sip of whiskey.  It trickled down the front of his spine.  “Yelssorc Semaj’s wife says she fell for him because he has beautiful hands.  Explain.”
For an instant Crossley couldn’t even breathe, much less think.  That was what his own wife had said.  So how could the opposite be true?  “I . . .  I . . .”
“Come, come, Mr. Crossley,” Death said genially.  “Others are waiting to play.”
Crossley thought furiously.  What was that thing that had been said about the horror writer Robert Bloch – about having the heart of a small boy?
“He keeps them in a box on his desk.”
Nobody in the bar made a sound.  Then Death slowly stood and bowed.   “Congratulations, sir.  It’s been a long time since I was bested in game of skill.”  He turned and walked to the door.
Just before leaving, he paused and said over his shoulder, “Same time next week?”


Above:  A small fraction of the sale, including a six-foot-tall cardboard-mounted dino poster.  I really NEEDED that back when I had wall space.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Queen Maeve's Coursers

For some reason, I'm having extraordinary difficulty posting a decent-looking copy of these stories at the Clarion West site.  But never mind that.  Here's the story I wrote for Susan Gossman.  Enjoy!

Queen Maeve’s Coursers
Michael Swanwick

Three days in a row, Susan Gossman went to her front door to discover a freshly-decapitated rat lying neatly on the front step.  Her cat liked to snack on rodent heads.  On the fourth day, the Queen of the Fairies showed up with her lawyers.
Queen Maeve was an exquisitely lovely thing even if, being a mere three inches tall, she had to stand on the kitchen table in order to be seen and heard.  Her lawyers were something else altogether – eight-foot trolls in business suits, with briefcases and battleaxes.  Susan felt distinctly intimidated by them.
“Those were three of my finest riding rats!” Queen Maeve said angrily.  “They had pedigreed blood lines as long as your arm, and your beast hath them cruelly slain.”
“Silly didn’t mean anything by it.  She’s just a cat.”
The queen turned purple.  “Silly!  You dare kill my favorite mounts with a creature of so frivolous a name.”  She turned to her lawyers.  “Can I have you rip off this worlding’s head three times in recompense?”
“You’d have a good case,” said once.
“There’s legal precedence,” said a second.
“There’s not a court in the world would convict you,” said the third.  “What with them thinking you’re imaginary and all.
This was getting serious.  Gossman thought furiously.  Then she began to talk.  She made a living investing in the stock market.  She was used to finding angles.  This was her home territory.

An hour later, Queen Maeve and her advisors left.  Shortly after that, Gossman’s husband came home.  When he asked her what was new, she said, “Well . . .”

Fifteen minutes later, Bill said, “Let me get this straight.  You’ve agreed to handle the Queen of the Fairies’ stock portfolio for her.”

“She’s got a lot of gold that’s just sitting there, doing nothing.  And she’s offering me good commissions.  I convinced her to let me pay off the rats by shaving ten percent off the commissions, until we’re square.”

“How much is she charging you for her rats?” her husband asked.

She told him, and he whistled.  “At that price, it would take you thousands of years to pay the debt.”

Gossman blushed.  “Yeah, but Maeve, uh . . .  She kind of stopped my aging process for the duration.”

 “Only in Seattle,” Bill said.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Atlantus Is Sinking


People think that nothing ever happens "down the Shore," as we hereabouts call the oceanfront parts of New Jersey.  Not true!  In 1926, the concrete-hulled S. S. Atlantus was being towed past Cape May toward its final resting place -- as part of a rather strange plan for a ferry slip -- when a storm blew up and capsized it.

It's been sinking ever since.

When first I started going to Cape May, some thirty years ago, the Atlantus was quite an imposing wreck.  Now . . . well, as you can see, it's a shadow of its former self.  Pretty soon -- maybe not in my lifetime, but "pretty soon" as events down the Shore are reckoned -- it will sink entirely beneath the sea.

And yesterday's tuckerized story is . . .

Viking Graffiti

Michael Swanwick
Standing on the top of Maes Howe, one of the great passage cairns of the world, one can see the Ring of Bookan, the Ring of Brodgar, the Stones of Stenness, and the Barnhouse Settlement, all of them gems of Neolithic survival.  Neile Graham knew, because she’d stood and seen.  She’d explored the cairn inside and out.
But it was the Viking graffiti that caught her heart.
Some 850 years earlier, a group of would-be Crusaders had taken refuge in the cairn during a prolonged snowstorm.  Bored out of their wits, they cut runes into the stone interior.  Staring at them, Neile felt the urge to recast them as poems.  The entrance to the cairn was low and one could not enter standing, for example, which explained the scratches she made into haiku:

                                    Fair Widow Ingebjorn
                                    Is loveliest when she stoops
                                    To crawl in the cairn

They were male and crude and away from home.  Neile understood these guys perfectly.  They were like little boys.  One of them wrote:

                                    It is sure true what I say
                                    That we hauled treasure away
                                    From this tomb –
                                    It took three days           
While another, riffing on the first, scratched:

                                    North-west of here’s a greater treasure hidden
                                    Deep within its stony midden;
                                    Great will be the pleasure
                                    Of he who finds that treasure.

Neile could hear the smirking laughter and see the shoulder-punches when those lines were unveiled.  There was no treasure, of course, any more than there were trolls and elves.  The grave-builders had buried their dead with clay pots and little else.  Still …
Wouldn’t it be fun to looking for that treasure?  Not expecting to find it, of course.  But open to whatever came?
It would. 
Her knapsack, maps, and hiking gear were in the car.  So Neile was able to start off straight away.  She took a compass bearing and north-west she went, across the low dun lands of Orkney.
Some timeless time later, Neile saw a terrifying sight.
A forest.
Long ago, Orkney had been densely forested.  But climate change and the human need for cooking fuel had undone that.  There were in all the island many isolated trees but no true woods.  Much less an actual forest.
There are those who, confronted with the impossible, back away from it, deny its very existence, and spend the rest of their lives weakly explaining to themselves that it was all for the best, nothing good could have come of it, it probably didn’t happen the way one remembered it at all.  Underdone beef and undigested potato.
Neile wasn’t one of those.  She strode boldly onward.
Elves and trolls closed in about her.  Together, they disappeared into the dark forest.

Above:  Photo of the Atlantus (I have no idea why it was spelled that way) by M.C. Porter.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Nobody of Any Importance


No serious entry today.  Not even a photo.  I'm playing hooky!  Off to the beach I go and I won't write a word until I wend my weary home tonight.

May your day be as pleasant as mine.

And meanwhile . . .

The Clarion West Write-a-Thon continues!  It's beginning to look like there'll be a Tuckerization (that's where the name of a real person is inserted into a work of fiction) for every day of the CW workshop.

Nobody Of Any Importance

Michael Swanwick

Jack Riddle was walking up and down the world.  This was a thing he liked to do.  He came to a garden full of dahlias, tomatoes, and pumpkins, and stopped to admire them.  “Those are very nice pumpkins, and tomatoes too,” he told the gardener. “But I think you waste too much space on flowers.”  Then he asked, “What is your name?”
“I am nobody of any importance,” the gardener said.  Her name was actually Pamela Rentz, but she did not trust this sweet-talking stranger.
“Nobody Of Any Importance!” Jack said in astonishment.  “I just now met a man who had a message for you.  He said to tell you that your goat has fallen sick.  You should hurry home to take care of it.”
“I don’t have a goat,” said the gardener.
“Not a goat.  I meant the other kind of animal.  The one you have as a pet.”
So the woman hurried home to look after her sick pet.  As soon as she was out of sight, Jack Riddle ate all the tomatoes he could, and several pumpkins as well.  He didn’t even chew them up, just swallowed them whole.
Of course when the gardener found out that her pet animal wasn’t sick, she came back to her garden, mad as blazes.  But Jack never looked that far ahead.  So she found him lying on the ground with a bloated stomach, groaning because he ate too much.  Seeing the damage he had done, she seized a rake and began beating him with it.
So, aching and bruised, Jack ran off down the road.
Later in the day, when he came to a town, Jack Riddle was interviewed by the local radio station because of course he was a famous trickster.  “How has everybody here been treating you?” asked the reporter.
“Nobody of Any Importance treated me badly,” Jack replied.  And the interview ended with the interviewer thinking Jack had been treated well and Jack thinking that the gardener would now be shunned by all her neighbors for the injuries she had done him.
But Pamela Rentz, who listened to the show at home, sitting with her pet animal – the one that was not a goat – lying at her feet, cut herself a big slice of apple pie and smiled.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

New Worlds For Everyone!


Living in the future as I do, I'm acutely aware that it tends to get a bad rap.  Yeah, sure, we don't have the rocket backpacks, colonies on the moon, or antigrav devices we were promised.  But when I was a kid, there were only nine known planets, all of them local -- and one of them was, unbeknown to us, actually a dwarf planet rather than a real one.  Today we do get to have all the extrasolar planets we want.

As witness the recent discovery of over 760 candidate planets by the Kepler spacecraft.  The Kepler is our go-to guy for the detection and discovery of Earth-sized extrasolar planets.

Here's the link.

And the Tuckerization du Jour is . ..

The Warp and the Weft
Michael Swanwick
The weaver (sometimes she used threads and other times electrons) was standing in her back yard one day when a raccoon came out of the woods and said, “Are you Sharon Woodbury?”
“Yes,” she said, too astonished to doubt what was happening to her.
“Come with me,” the raccoon said, “you’re urgently needed.”  And it led her into leafy darkness, muttering, “The problem is that She’s been called away on serious business,” as they hurried through the woods.  “But time and tide, you know.  There’s work that absolutely must be done.”
“What are you – ?”   Sharon stepped into an unexpected clearing.  “Oh!”
The thing in the clearing looked a little like a harp.  It looked a little like a threshing machine.  It looked a lot like God’s own loom.
“What is this?” she asked breathlessly.
“Don’t ask questions.  Just weave.”
She did.
Sharon Woodbury wove as she never had before.  She wove beads of dew on spider webs and strings of stars in the sky.  She wove a cascade of sunrises over the Rocky Mountains and one long slow sunset over Lake Champlain.  She wove the triumph of sparrows in dusty streets and the fall of kings in palaces guarded by troops with Uzis.  The birth of colts she wove, and the death of butterflies, summer afternoons and winter blizzards and tangles of autumn smoke in the evening air.  She wove it all.
When she was done, back she was led, all in a daze, to her own back yard.  The raccoon bowed deeply and, handing her an acorn, a dead minnow, and a rusty tin can lid, said, “You’ve earned this.”
Sharon went indoors and into thkitchen.  Her husband was waiting for her there.  “Where’ve you been?” he asked.
But the memories were fading fast and by the time she could answer nothing remained but a sense of something too vast, too intimate to be put into words.  “Oh, Art, she said.  “Life is so . . .  so . . .”  She burst into tears.
Her husband took her into his arms.  “Hush,” he said.  “I’m a jazz musician.  I understand.”


Above:  The limited edition of Stories with marbled cover, a bookplate at the front with autographs by editors Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, inserts with author autographs before each of the stories and for all I know a magic ring which allows you to understand the language of the birds.  I tried one of those things once and, man, you don't want to know what that blue jay is saying about you.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Abandoned Objects

The Clarion West Write-a-Thon continues with another comissioned Tuckerization by your truly, this one commissioned by Eileen Gunn.  Here it is:

Abandoned Objects

Each year 40,000 tons of matter is added to the planet Earth's mass.  It came from intraplanetary space, from the Oort Cloud, from the dark spaces between the stars and the darker spaces between the galaxies.  It was Eileen Gunn's strange fate to know where it all wound up,  in jumble shops and second-hand stores, where it stayed because nobody wanted any of it:  A broken umbrella designed to shed methane rain which melted in the presence of water.  A globe of Venus with Lakshmi Planum inexplicably transportred to Ishtar Terra.  A gribbik, an eleven-fingered glove, and two zorches only one of which could speak.  A Kyrellian space-time pocket device in need of a plonk, two beeblefroxen, and an infinite power source.


Gunn felt sorry for them all, and bought them, and brought them home with her.  Very soon her house was filled to bursting with sneebles and pramps, transdimensional crutches, unmated socks, hyperbarrel organs, and an uluua'i-a-ouia in bad need of temporal rectification.  Her friends and loved ones staged an intervention.

"This is nothing but useless crap," Lucius began.

"Hey!" said a zorch.

"Present company excepted, of course."

"The gronkilizer scares me," John said.  "I think it's plotting something."

"What on earth is this for?" Leslie asked, holding up something purple and glowing.

"That's used on Rigel for coming-of-age rituals," the zorch said.  Its companion nodded.

"You see?" Gunn said.

"It's to ensure that none of the sexual partners get to plant more eggs in the body than -"

"Ew!"  Leslie dropped it.   

"Does any of this stuff even work?" Nisi asked.

"The vrombler does," the zorch said, "and the garbage disposal."

"Garbage disposal?" John asked.  "Will it get rid of all this junk?"

"Oh yes.  Just push that red button."

After brief consultation, and over her fervid protests, Gunn's friends did exactly that.
The black hole that the device generated took care of her trash problem in nanoseconds.

And the rest of the Earth in not much longer.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Queen of the Pirate Galaxy

The Clarion West workshop is on!  As you recall, I've pledged to write one podcast script or piece of flash fiction for every one of the 42 days the students are slogging away.  Plus, for a very modest contribution, I'll Tuckerize either you or your friend of choice into a short-short, which I'll then post for all the world to see and admire.

Here's the first, which Kate Schaefer commissioned for a certain friend of hers:

Queen of the Pirate Galaxy
Michael Swanwick

One day, Pat Cadigan snapped.  She’d seen one too many websites selling pirated downloads of her books and decided that the time had come to take action.  It wasn’t difficult for her to break the pathetic security measures the pirates had taken, identify them, hack into their bank accounts, and one by one pauperize the lot.  But it also wasn’t sufficiently satisfying.  So she bought a few dozen airline tickets and spent an invigorating and blood-soaked month making clandestine visits to hobo camps and homeless shelters around the world.

Thus it was Cadigan’s strange fortune to be in possession of a great deal of money and a very good reason to get off the planet the day that Keely Motors announced the invention of the hypersuperluminal drive.  She bought the first ship that came off the assembly line.  For no better reason than that she liked its looks, she headed for the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1300.

Everybody knows the strange events in prehistory which led to the human colonization of the entire universe.  Since she was the first off Earth in millennia, however, Cadigan was astounded to find her galaxy was full of people.  And then she learned that (for reasons we today understand all too well) her novels had preceded her and were being sold by the billions on every populated planet there was.

With not a penny of the profits going to her.

Cadigan had spent all her money buying a ship faster and hotter than anything in NGC 1300.  She had no choice but to become a freebooter.  Within a year, she was the scourge of the space-lanes.  Within two, she owned a fleet of pirate ships.  Within ten, she owned the galaxy.

Recently, a sycophantic reporter was granted an interview with the great lady on one of her pleasure planets, where she was taking a brief respite from planning the takeover of several neighboring galaxies.

“Most people would find it difficult enough running a single planet, much less a galaxy,” the reporter gushed.  “And yet you obviously intend to conquer the entire universe.  However do you manage?”

“You think this is tough?” Cadigan snarled.  “Try making a living writing!”


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Shadowfax (1992 - 2010)


Our cat Shadowfax died at 7:51 a.m. this morning.  He would have been  eighteen years old in September.

Shadow was an affectionate cat and very tolerant of human folly.  However, in his own world, the savage lands beyond the screen door, he was the fiercest of warriors.  Marianne will never forget the summer morning, some years ago, when she opened the door and discovered a freshly-eviscerated juvenile opossum on the back porch.  Nor the next day, when she found another.  Nor the next three days, one possum after another.

In old age, Shadow slowed down a bit, but he never lost his spirit.  Last winter, seeing him curled up happily before the wood stove and knowing this day would come, I wrote the following lines:


The aged warrior is fast asleep
Coiled by the wood-stove fire.
All  you who mortal glory seek
Stop here and look no higher.

Bold slaughterer of mice and snakes, 
God's punisher of birds,
Nemesis of young opossums -- 
Oblivious to my words.

In his prime, no foreign cat
Dared set foot in his yard.
From battle he returned untouched,
Silken, sure, and hard.

In decline he brought home scars
On his pink nose; an ear was pierced.
But not one scratch upon his butt.
His softest moment still was fierce.

Mere youth today can best his strength
Yet still he pleads each night
For someone to unlock to door
To one more challenge, one last fight.

Sleep well, small warrior.  The mice may be rejoicing now.  But your ghost will feast upon them tonight.

Above:  Kyle Cassidy took this picture on his cell phone at a party in our backyard two weeks ago.  Ordinarily, Shadow was a dignified creature.  But he was a sucker for a beautiful woman's lap.


Friday, June 18, 2010

Your Tuckerization HERE For Only Ten Bucks


Clarion West is having a fund-raising Write-a-Thon.  Which raises money by . . . well, to be perfectly honest, I have no idea how they get money out of it.  If I were the sort of person who understood that sort of thing, I'd probably be far too rich to give them a helping hand.  Writers write and somebody pledges -- maybe the writers themselves, maybe other people.  The details are here.

Anyway, it's traditional that I support the cause with some stunt or other.  Last year I crashed and burned rather spectacularly because I was writing a novel and had no time for and therefore no business in getting involved in the 'Thon at all.  So this year I decided to make up for my self-created fiasco.  Because I have plans that require a great number of podcast scripts and stockpiled flash fiction, I've committed myself to writing a short-short or script for every day Clarion West is in session.  That's six weeks, for a total of 42 stories-or-scripts.

To make things interesting, I'll commit to writing one item per day Monday through Friday.  To keep my weekends free, I reserve the right to create those stories/scripts ahead of time should I so choose.

And just to make sure that at least some money goes to CW as a direct result of my efforts, I'll be selling Tuckerizations for ten bucks a pop.  If you give Clarion West ten dollars, your name, and a few random facts about yourself, I'll write a short-short for you and post it online.

I'll share the details of the mechanics of this just as soon as I learn 'em.  The workshop -- and the challenge -- begins Monday.

Above:  I was at the Pook & Pook auction house yesterday and took a snap of an antique rocking horse's head.  Isn't that a sweet expression?  It looks a lot like the horse in Gahan Wilson's ". . . and then we'll get him!" cartoon.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Your Face in Space


Okay, this is cool.  NASA's new "Face in Space" program (I guess we all know that NASA hasn't got many poets on their payroll) allows you to upload a digital photo of yourself along with your name to their collection site.  Then they'll take the collected photos and names and carry 'em into space on one of the last two Space Shuttle flights.

Those who hate how they look in photos can simply submit their names.

This is really a splendid proof of exactly how primitive a species the human race is because it's a classic example of sympathetic magic.  Your name gets to leave the planet and therefore in some rarefied sense you do too?   Man, you don't get much more gullible than that.

I've already chosen which photo I'm going to send.  It's a shot that the immortal Kyle Cassidy took of Marianne and me with our cat Shadowfax.  Forget Disneyland -- I'm going into Earth orbit!

You can read all about the program in the Christian Science Monitor article

Or just grab a digital photo and go straight to the site itself.


Tuesday, June 15, 2010



Okay, not Garbo.  Just me.  But a podcast interview with me has been posted on The Agony Column.  And it seems like this is an appropriate place to mention it.

"Tolkien rang me like a bell," I say.  And "It was as if God had played a practical joke on me."  And "It's our job to take this inherited wealth [of ideas] and add to it, rather than to sit here clipping idea coupons and living off the interest of our betters."  And "When I came into the field in 1980, almost every important science fiction writer who had ever lived was still alive."  And many other witty and interesting things which, having skimmed through part of the interview to find the above, I don't need to find and copy down.

"What a clever-boots you are," Marianne would remark.  Gently keeping my ego under control being one of her regular kindnesses in our marriage.

You can find the interview here.


Monday, June 14, 2010

In the Midst of Death . . .


I'll return to blogging about Science, Literature, and Me in just a day or two.  But for now I must balance the recent posts of my thoughts attending funerals with one of a perfectly happy event.

Pictured above is Natalia Lucia Ma, held by her father, my nephew, Richard.  Natalia is my great-niece.  On Saturday she was christened in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.

The photo doesn't do Richard justice.  He's an extraordinarily handsome man, just as his wife Lucy is extraordinarily beautiful.  (Am I jealous?  Not at all.  I look at my own marriage and think, "One out of  two ain't bad."  Particularly since I get to look at the beautiful half.)  He'd been posing for photos for rather a long time when I took this snapshot.  But it does begin to touch upon what a lovely young woman Natalia is. And that calm-and-in-control look?  It's only the tip of the iceberg.  Through several noisy hours in a restaurant, a baptism ceremony that an infant could only find baffling, and a farewell sendoff back at the restaurant again, she was as sweet as a saint.

When she's fifteen and she's done something to send her parents into a rage, I'm going to show up on the doorstep and say, "Remember the christening?  You owe her one."

And, remembering a departed friend . . .

Because I was at the christening, I could not attend the memorial service for Marion Roberts in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts. Marion was the mother of my friend Gail and one of those rare people of the generation above oneself whom you could get to know as people and become friends with.  She had that peppery New England sense of humor that could cut down pretension and false sentiment with a single scornful word.  I liked her a lot.

Marion worked as a church secretary and belonged to an informal group of Mattapoisett church secretaries who met once a month for lunch.  Gail knew me when I was the secretary to Tabernacle Church in West Philadelphia, and used to regale her with tales of her friend, the long-haired, male, atheist, science fiction writer church secretary.  For a time Marion was toying with the idea of inviting me to come and speak to her group, but she gave up on the idea because there was no money to pay my travel expenses.

I've always regretted she didn't ask.  I would have driven up and spoken for nothing, just so I could tell a meeting of my peers how privileged I felt to be a part of the sisterhood of church secretaries.

And now she's gone.  The world has one fewer smart, strong, and sassy women.  To which I can only say: Damn.  At least I knew her when she was here.

Goodbye, Marion.  We'll have that meeting of church secretaries yet.  Even if you have you have to have me brought up north for the event.


Friday, June 11, 2010

In the Midst of Life . . .


I took a jacket out of the closet the other day because I needed something dark for a family funeral service.  Folded up in an interior pocket I found a perfectly appropriate tie for the occasion -- dark red with black highlights.  Somber and yet hopeful.  And also a rectangle of paper.  Care to guess what it was?

You got it,  It was a memorial card from an earlier funeral service.

I'm back from this week's funeral and of course it got me to thinking about mortality and youth and age and similar topics.  I'm not quite old (in a few months I turn sixty and then I'll be old), but very briefly I was tempted to blog my very best advice to young people:  Kids!  Go to all the weddings you can now when you're young and being invited -- you'll be glad you did when you're my age and going to funerals.

But then I went to the service.

Marianne's Aunt Helen was one of ten children.  She died at age 91, leaving behind two surviving sisters.  So she'd outlived all of her childhood friends and most of her family.  Attendance at the cemetery was sparse.  But there were three generations present:  Survivors of her cohort, a solid representation of my generation, and one adult from my son's generation.

The reason there was only one person from the third generation was that the majority of them are newly launched upon their lives and scattered across the continent.  They don't have the freedom to blow off work for a few day in order to attend a great-aunt's funeral.

So, late in the day perhaps, I realized that what I and others of my generation are doing is showing up at all these funerals and representing the family, so that the young people who don't have the free time/ family days/time-and-money to come to all the memorial services they would like to, don't have to attend.  We're here for them.

We've got your back.

I mention this not so that you younger people will feel guilty.  Exactly the opposite.  My being there for you makes this a more positive event.  When you find yourself at my age and  going to funeral after funeral, remember this post.

Remember that you're doing this for the young people.  You'll feel better, knowing it.



Monday, June 7, 2010

Bike Race Party


Ah, 1925!  That was the year that Marianne and I held the first Bike Race Party in our home in Roxborough.  If memory serves me correctly, mastodons still roamed the earth and saber-tooth tigers were a big problem in Indiana that year.  We were particularly prescient in naming our party considering that the big bicycle races through Philadelphia and up the Manayunk Wall were over fifty years in our future.

But that's the science fiction business.  Always looking ahead.

We had an extremely pleasant time yesterday with our friends lazing about in the back yard in the shade of the traditional Tokyo men's suits awning, eating barbecue and drinking soda, beer, wine, whatever.  That pleasant lack of ambition that a good summer party engenders lasted through the day and late into the day following.  It was, in fact, only a few minutes ago that I remembered that I still had to blog.

May your summer be equally unambitious!


Friday, June 4, 2010

George Scithers in Arlington.


George Scithers's ashes were buried in Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday, June 2, only two days after Memorial Day.  George was a West Point graduate and served in the Signal Corps for 21 years.  He was in the Korean War, where half the members of his graduating class died.  He served his country honorably and well.

Marianne and I were present, along with Tom Purdom, Darrell Schweitzer, John Betancourt, and many other representatives of the science fiction community, to see George off.  His relatives were a little startled by how many of us there were . . .  Apparently they had no idea how important a figure he was in science fiction.

If there's one thing the military knows how to do, it's honor their dead.  There was a military ceremony with a 21-gun salute and a color guard who formally folded the flag and gave it to George's life companion Larry.  Then the box containing George's ashes was carried to the site of his grave where a chaplain performed the religious ceremony.

All the stones at Arlington are identical.  There's space for the symbol for your religion if you have one, years of birth and death, rank, and the names of any wars served in.  Otherwise, everyone is treated exactly the same.  It seems a strangely fit way to mark this solemn transition.

Now George is a citizen in the democracy of death.

And on the same subject . . .

While we were mingling and talking beforehand,  Sandy Meschkow reminisced about how decades before George had come back from the funeral of John W. Campbell and said that it would almost be worth dying to have Isaac Asimov read the 23rd psalm at your funeral.

Well, that didn't happen, of course.  So I thought I'd place it here as a sort of silent prayer, for all those who would have liked to attend the ceremony but could not.

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name' sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: For thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;
Thou annointest my head with oil; My cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.