Thursday, September 30, 2010

Autumn! Death! Leaves!


I've been working on a very cool project which, if all goes well, I can tell you about tomorrow.  For the nonce . . .

Last year, as autumn came in, Marianne and I were talking about the season and she said that I should walk through the 'hood writing DEATH on fallen leaves and scattering them behind me.

"No, no, no," I said.  Thinking that would be a good way of starting a local witch-hysteria.  But her idea got me thinking, and that got me started on the project.

Yesterday, ignoring my original reaction, I went into the park with a pair of rubber stamps.  Some of the results are shown above and below.

And I am happy again, because . . .

I'm in print!  "Libertarian Russia" just appeared in the December issue of Asimov's Science Fiction.   The irony of the title might elude you, but it certainly didn't elude my Russian friends.  When I was researching the story and asked some of them how one would say the title in Russian, the answer was always, "No, you see, such a thing is not possible.  One cannot be Russian and a libertarian.  It's a contradiction in terms."

Well, yes, and that was why I was interested in the question.

I finaly got the answer to my question -- which I ended up not using -- by asking what the Russian would be for "Libertarian Detroit."


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Happy Microbiologists Always Make Me Uneasy

Many years ago, I did a little non-taxing volunteer work for the Pennsylvania Department of Health booth at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.  One of the serious people there was my friend Stanley and I was present when a well-dressed African American couple, obviously educated professionals of some stripe, stopped to pick up some pamphlets.  Noticing that Stanley was a brother, the man looked around, lowered his voice, and said, "Tell me ...  is it true that the AIDS virus was created by the CIA?"

This is, apparently, not a rare experience if you're black and a microbiologist.  Of course, Stanley told him that it wasn't -- because back then nobody could possibly have created it.  The technology just wasn't there.

Which is what makes the following abstract so unnerving.  What we have here is either evolution in action -- or else somebody crafted this bastard.  Today it's entirely possible.

The Genome of a Bacillus Isolate Causing Anthrax in Chimpanzees Combines Chromosomal Properties of B. cereus with B. anthracis Virulence Plasmids. 
Silk R Klee et al, PLos one, July 2010/Volume 5/Issue 7/e10986

Anthrax is a fatal disease caused by strains of Bacillus anthracis.
Members of this monophyletic species are nonmotile and are all
characterized by the presence of 4 prophages and a nonsense mutation
in the plc Rregulator gene. Here, we report the complete genome
sequence of a Bacillus strain isolated from a chimpanzee that had
died with clinical symptoms of anthrax.

Unlike classic B. anthracis, this strain was motile and lacked the
4 prohages and the nonsense mutation. Four replicons were identified,
a chromosome and 3 plasmids. Comparative genome analysis revealed
that the chromosome resembles those of non-B. anthracis members of
the Bacillus cereus group, whereas 2 plasmids were identical to the
Anthrax virulence plasmids pXO1 and pXO2. The function of the newly
discovered 3rd plasmid with a length of 14 kbp is unknown. A detailed
comparison of genomic loci encoding key features confirmed a higher
similarity to B. thuringiensis Serovar konkukian strain 97-27 and
B. cereus E33L than to B. anthracis strains.

For the 1st time, we describe the sequence of an anthrax-causing
bacterium possessing both anthrax plasmids that apparently does not
belong to the monophyletic group of all so far known B. anthracis
strains and that differs in important diagnostic features. The data
suggest that this bacterium has evolved from a B. cereus strain
independently from the classic B. anthracis strains and established
a B. anthracis life style. Therefore, we suggest to designate this
isolate as "B. cereus variety (var.) anthracis."

And I should probably explain the title . . .

One thing I've learned being married to a microbiologist is that they're never happier than when a new emerging infectious disease pops up.  Particularly if it's virulent.  If it makes people explode, that's just icing on the cake.

I vividly remember the day Marianne came dancing into the house and said, "They've found a new disease which only affects -- get this -- Haitians and gay men!"


Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mind Candy


A Mandelbox, or so the web tells me, is a box-like fractal object that shares several properties with the well known Mandelbrot set and is a map of continuous, shape-preserving Julia sets.   It also makes for one trippy piece of animation.

I think that if it were located in a temperature-moderate zero-gee environment with breathable air, a Mandelbox would make for one terrific city.  We should start work on one ASAP.

And I am moved to editorialize . . .

You young people and your computers!  Slackers, the lot of you.  Back in my day, if we wanted to see something like this, we had to imagine it ourselves.  Using drugs.


Monday, September 27, 2010

The Green Stick of Yasnaya Polyana


A little while back, James Morrow told me that he'd been invited to a literary conference at Tolstoy's family estate, Yasnaya Polyana,   "Promise me you'll spend at least five minutes looking for the green stick," I told him.

I should stipulate here for those who don't know him that Jim is an intelligent and educated man, a serious literary writer, and -- there's no getting around the word -- an intellectual.

He gawked at me in incomprehension.

So I began telling folks this story, ending by saying, "And he had no idea what I was talking about!"

They all gawked at me in incomprehension.

All educated people should know about the green stick.  Yet apparently most of you don't.  So here's the deal:

When Leo Tolstoy was five, his beloved brother Nikolai, then 12, announced to his family that he had discovered a great secret.  If it were revealed, there would be no more wars or sufferings and no one would ever die.  For reasons that probably made a great deal more sense to a preteen than they do to me, he wrote the secret on a little green stick and buried it on the edge of the ravine on the estate...

As a boy, Tolstoy spent a great deal of time looking for the green stick.  Alas, he never found it.

That's the story and now you know it.  But I do not give you this knowledge for free.  There's a price attached, and here it is:  If you ever find yourself in Yasnaya Polyana, you are morally obliged to look for the green stick, even if only briefly.  The odds you will find it are infinitessimally small.  But the rewards if you do are so very great.

Above:  I stopped by the Mt. Pleasant Glass and Ethnic Festival on my way home Saturday and bought some ethnic American food for lunch.  France may have pâté de foie gras, but we've got chocolate covered cheesecake on a stick!


Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Best Dr. Who Ever

It has often been observed that, as a rule, television viewers imprint on the first Dr. Who they encounter.  Thus, Tom Purdom was a big fan of Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor, and quit watching when some young upstart replaced him.  I, however, greatly admired the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, particularly his lifts from Harpo Marx, and refused to give a fair hearing to whoever his replacement was.  And so on, I presume, unto this very hour.

However, just the other day Gregory Frost sent me the following YouTube clip, and it turns out that the very best Dr. Who ever was . . . was . . .  Rowan Atkinson.  Okay, yes, it was a one-time-only comedy charity episode.  But he's stunningly convincing.



Friday, September 24, 2010

Why I Live in the City


I'm on the road again!  So I'm posting a photo from last Saturday.  It was taken from the bar at Rouge across from Rittenhouse Square, which in the Sixties was famous for inspiring Arlo Guthrie's "Ring Around the Rosy Rag."  The annual Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show was going on and Marianne and I were taking a break from looking at oils and etchings.  My own part of that break taking the form of an ice-cold martini.  For the event, the city closed 18th Street along the park and the restaurants there filled it with tables.  Minutes before this snap was taken, we were out by the tents talking with bon vivant and man-about-town Tom Purdom, whom we encountered by purest chance, on matters cultural and literary.

Not that anybody's ever asked, but this is why I live in a big city.  As opposed to Winooski, Vermont or, God help us, Seven Pines, Virginia.


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Science Fiction Lexicography: Kumquat Haagendasz

I close out my two-part series on the less-documented slang of sf prodom with another neologism from the ever-inventive uberworddorker Gardner Dozois.  Today's entry is near and dear to my heart and to that of everybody who ever held the title:

Kumquat Haagendasz

The term is, as should be obvious to you, derived from Frank Herbert's blockbuster novel, Dune.  In it, the Bene Gesserit witches are working to breed a Kwisatz Haderach, who will be the next major step in human evolution.  The Kwisatz Haderach is a kind of secular messiah whose coming was predicted long beforehand.

The Kumquat Haagendasz, similarly, is a literary messiah, the new kid on the block who's going to save science fiction from boredom, irrelevance, and whatever other sins it's currently suffering from.  The title is necessarily held by a new writer who suddenly bursts out of obscurity with work that dazzles and impresses other writers.  It's an evanescent honor which quickly fades as the writer becomes generally known and turns into a Name.

Once upon a time, children, back in 1980 when my first two published stories placed on the Hugo ballot in the same category, I myself was briefly the Kumquat Haagendasz.  After which, if my leaky memory serves me correctly, the title fell vacant for a couple of years before being assumed by William Gibson.  Other Kumquat Haagendaszen (Haagendaszii?) include Neal Stephenson, Somtow Sucharitkul, Karen Joy Fowler, China Miéville, Kelly Link, and Geoff Ryman -- though this is by no means an inclusive list.  Hannu Rajaniemi shows early signs of being the next in line.

I don't know exactly when Gardner coined the term, but I vividly remember my pleasure when he conferred the title upon me in 1980.  Which means that it predates National Lampoon's Doon, a parody novel written by Ellis Weiner and published in 1984.  Somtow held the august term before I did, but I'm guessing it was his story "Mallworld" that pushed him into full messiah-dom, so he only held hte title for a few months.

Kumquat Haagendasz is a particularly nice term because it supplants "Great White Hope," with its overt racism, and because it's inherently self-mocking.  Which prevents the recipient from taking him- or herself too seriously.

Although, as you can see, the flattery of the term and the fact that it's applied very early in one's career can lead a writer to take it rather more seriously than you would expect.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Great Blog Posts of the Late Ming Dynasty


I'm midway through reading Vignettes from the Late Ming, assembled, translated, and annotated by Yang Ye, and for me it's been an intellectual adventure.  The book is a collection of hsiao-p'in, which are short, graceful essays written in an informal and seemingly spontaneous manner.  Which is to say they'd make terrific blog posts.  These works were wildly popular in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, yet surprisingly accessible today.

Yang Ye has done his anglophone readers a tremendous favor by carefully choosing hsiao-p'in whose cultural context is easily comprehensible to us.  As a result, the writers don't come across as exotic and inscrutable Chinoiserie figurines but as real flesh-and-blood people who seem like they might be pleasant company.

What do they write about?  Small things.  Yuan Hung-tao discusses the antics of three stupid servants, but then concludes that while many clever servants have been dismissed for good reason, these three remain, and asks whether this doesn't prove the efficiency of stupidity.  Hsu Wei records a dream.  Chang Tai describes a crab party -- the size of the crabs, the richness of their meat, the accompanying dishes mouth-wateringly described -- and then concludes happily, "I feel ashamed just to think about it."

These were men who were able to enjoy the transient moment.

If it weren't for copyright, I'd be perfectly happy to simply post a hsiao-p'in a day for the next two weeks.  Consider only this, the opening to "Inscription on a Portrait of Confucius at the Iris Buddhist Shrine" by Li Chih:

Everyone regards Confucius as a great sage, so I, too, regard him as a great sage.  Everyone regards Taoism and Buddhism as heresies, so I, too, regard them as heresies.  It is not that everyone really knows who a great sage is and what a heresy is; it is only because everyone has heard so much of it from the instruction of his father and his teacher.  It is not that his father and his teacher know who a great sage is and what a heresy is; it is only because they have heard so much of it from the teachings of previous Confucians.  It is not that previous Confucians knew who a great sage was and what a heresy was . . .
And already, the essay is halfway done!  I won't spoil the joke by telling you how it ends, but it's a beaut.

There is a great deal of sly humor in these works, and more than a little satire.

This is a thin book, perhaps a hundred pages of hsiao-p'in plus introduction and annotations.  I haven't finished it yet, but already I regret that these good men are dead.  I'd like to be able to tell Chang Tai about the crab party friends of mine threw over a quarter of a century ago, where they bought and steamed bushel after bushel of crabs and served them with beer.  One by one the feasters fell away, sated, until there were only me and one other, a tremendously large man, smashing open the crabs with beer bottles and sucking the meat out of the claws, while everyone else looked on in horrified fascination.

I've never been a gourmand, but that one night I was a genuine trencherman.  For hours after lesser men and women had given up, we two matched each other, crab for crab, grinning in appreciation of a shared and prodigious accomplishment.  I have no idea who won, nor do I think we bothered with it then.  We ate and ate into the early hours of the morning.

I almost wish I could feel ashamed of myself now.

And speaking of Chinese culture . . . 

The Mid-Autumn Festival is today!  Have you bought your moon cakes yet?  I wish you all clear skies and mild weather for your moon-viewing tonight.

Above:  Stone lion seen in Chinatown this morning.  Marianne and I were shopping for moon cakes, but we picked up some duck's feet, several bags of dumplings, and some frozen red bean pops as well.  What a rich world we live in!


Monday, September 20, 2010

Science Fiction Lexicography: Bull Goose Loser


Now that the Oxford English Dictionary has gathered together definitions and citations for a raft of words derived from science fiction (ansible, blaster, alternate universe, etc.) and fandom (trufan, worldcon, filk, u.s.W.), it's time to start laying down the documentation for some far future edition of the OED which will scoop up terms which currently only insiders use.

I have two candidates, both the creations of Master Neologist Gardner Dozois.  Today's entry?

Bull Goose Loser.

 The Bull Goose Loser is the science fiction writer (so far, no fantasists have made the grade) who has been nominated for the most Hugo and Nebula Awards without ever winning one.  I believe it was invented to honor (and to twit) his pal George R. R. Martin, though Gardner can correct me if I'm wrong.  I'm pretty sure that Gardner was the BGL for a time, as was Jack Dann.  I had hopes of nabbing the title for myself at one point, but I fell short.

Gardner derived the title from Ken Kesey's "bull goose loony" (the psych ward's alpha male) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

The title of Bull Goose Loser is a noble one but, unlike most such honors, it does not achieve full luster until it is lost.  Being the BGL is essentially a promise from the universe that someday you will graduate to a higher and more satisfactory status.

Until that actually happens, however, the Bull Goose Loser lives in a state of uncertainty.  Because we all know how good the universe is at keeping its promises.

Above:  An image that John Hemry found on the web.  On the Fox News site, of all places!


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Gorgas Park 4' 33"


Sitting in the backyard last night I thought I heard distant music.  So I went inside and suggested to Marianne that we go see if there was a concert at Gorgas Park.

When first we came to Roxborough, thirty years ago, Gorgas Park was shabby and run-down, the way most neighborhood parks were at the time.  (It would take a social historian to explain why this was so.)  There were swings and a slide, of course, but they were surrounded by broken glass.  There wasn't a great deal of social activity going on there.  Mostly, it was a place where teenagers went to drink after dark.

Today, thanks largely to the Friends of Gorgas Park, the place is transformed.  They cleaned it up, landscaped it, put in playground equipment that you'd be happy to let your children play on, planted flowers, built a gazebo that also serves as a bandstand. They sponsor flea markets, concerts, movie nights, a harvest festival.  Last week, the park's plantings won a prize from the Philadelphia Horticultural Society.  Now, it's the very heart and soul of Roxborough.

You can see what the park looks like here.

Marianne and I went to the park and there was no concert -- the music, which had faded to nothing, probably came from a band playing in one of the neighborhood bars.  So we sat on a park bench in the dark above the empty gazebo and gazed down on it, listening to ghosts playing John Cage's 4' 33".

The whole point of that piece, you'll remember, was that by not playing a single note the pianist forced the audience to listen to the ambient noise of the theater, to hear what normally is censored out by the mind's filtering functions.

So we listened and heard jet planes hurrying to Philadelphia International to disgorge their weary travelers. A dog barking from a yard somewhere down toward the river.  A multitude of cars off to do all those things Americans do.  A little girl in the playground, zealously watched over by her mother, laughing and laughing and laughing in the night.

Above:  The gazebo, taken from the Gorgas Park website.


Friday, September 17, 2010

Portrait of the Master


246093 (JAMES, Henry) Sargent, John Singer.  Portrait of Henry James.  Silver print  after the oil portrait by Sargent.  330 x 265 mm. (13 x 10 1/2 in.), [London:  1913].  One of 300 copies SIGNED by both James and Sargent on the mount.  Mounted and framed. Fine.  $7,500

My friend Henry Wessells sent me the link to the above silver print, knowing I would find it interesting.  As I did, and the whole informative entry explaining it.  But, more than that, I found the entire James Cummins Bookseller blog a wonderful time-sink and source of daydreams, if you happen to be a bookish sort of person.  As well as being a perfectly delightful way of ridding yourself of excess money, should you happen to have that particular problem.

Glancing through the blog, I note such small marvels as:  Carl Von Vechten's portrait of Bryon Gysin.  Robert Van Gulik's self-published Dee Goong An, the translation that led to his later Judge Dee mysteries.  The first appearance of Sweeney Todd in a book.  A nine-page treatment for a movie that later became The Lion King, written by -- wait for it -- Thomas Disch.  I had no idea.

You can find the site here.

Normally, after writing about such literary baubles, I'd make a joke about my birthday coming up soon.  But as I get older and (some of) my friends grow more affluent, I worry that somebody might take me seriously.  I can't be trusted with rare books.  I remember vividly the time I found my copy of The Book of the Bear, autographed by Hope Mirrlees on the floor of the living room.  "Aha!" I cried.  "So that's why the couch wobbles!"

And I heard from Charles Stross . . .

Charlie pointed out that Hannu Rajaniemii's first novel, The Quantum Thief, will be published in late October by Gollancz -- and that the launch party will be held in the Finnish embassy in London.

"To add to the fun," Stross wrote, "what's not immediately obvious is that Hannu's got a PhD in string theory and is playing with hard physics in the key of Greg Egan . . . Art *and* science, in other words."

Which sounds awfully good, dunnit?  I've got my fingers crossed.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why I Am Not On Facebook


For a while there, Gardner Dozois was hot to get me to join Facebook.  "I don't really know much about Facebook," I said.  "What good does posting on it do?"

"No good at all," he replied cheerily.

"Well, what kind of stuff do people post on it?"

"Mostly, what they had for breakfast."

"You make it sound awfully tempting," I told him.  "But I think I'll give it a pass."

Above:  My breakfast.  Slices of heirloom tomato drizzled with olive oil and a touch of balsamic vinegar, then sprinkled with chopped basil and a pinch of salt.  Cream cheese may well have been involved.  Sometimes summer can be very good indeed.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Writer to Watch

Short fiction holds up half the sky, and yet an important and award-winning short story won't get a fraction of the reviews of a mediocre novel.  So I'm hoping to season this blog with the occasional such review, if I can find the time.  Not yet, but soon.

In the meantime, a few words about a new writer about whom Charles Stross was particularly enthusiastic. when I was hanging with him in Scotland.  Hannu Rajaniemi is a Finn who lives in Edinburgh and writes in English.  I'd never heard of the guy.  But I promised I'd keep an eye out for his work.

The very next day, in Transreal Fiction ("Scotland's Premiere Science Fiction and Fantasy Bookstore"), I picked up a copy of Nova Scotia, a 2005 collection of Scottish speculative fiction.  In it was Rajaniemi's "Deus Ex Homina."  It was selected for the Dozois best-of-the-year volume, but somehow I'd managed to miss it.  I took the anthology back to my flat and read the story that night.

Here's how it begins:

As gods go, I wasn't one of the holier-than-thou, dying-for-your-sins variety.  I was a full-blown transhuman deity with a liquid metal body, an external brain, clouds of self-replicating utility fog to do my bidding and a recursively self-improving AI slaved to my volition.  I could do anything I wanted.  I wasn't Jesus, I was Superman: an evil Bizarro Superman.  
I was damn lucky.  I survived.

Which is a fine example of extravagant post-Singular techno-wonk being let off the leash for a brief romp and then called to heel so the story can proceed.  But the chief reason I quote it is that the other day I read a story set in the near future which was chock-a-block with 1960s cultural references, including the brief appearance of someone who died in the previous century.  SF writers can have as hard a time keeping up with the culture as anyone -- and yet here Rajaniemi is writing in full awareness of (among other things) Stross's Accelerando stories.  Which were first collected in book form in 2005, the same year this story was published.

When the story opens, Jukka, the protagonist and narrator, is in the small fishing village of Pittenweem, waiting to meet his old girlfriend, Aileen.  She descends from the sky in an angel (obviously a mecha -- and how many prose sf writers have gotten around to using those?), a soldier in the Deicide Corps.  Swiftly, efficiently, over the course of a family meal, Rajaniemi paints a picture of the Singularity gone wrong, expressing itself in the form of a very bad war between humanity and godplague.

This being, under all the flash and glitter, a classical science fiction story in conception, the plot opens up at the end into a conceptual breakthrough and the possibility of a new synthesis.

There was only one bit of the story which didn't work properly.  That was the name of the AI device which protects the unaltered humans beyond the Wall -- the Fish.  As Jukka explains, "It's a geek joke, a recursive acronym.  Fish Is Super Human.  Lots of capital letters.  It's not that funny, really."  I chewed over that one for a long time before concluding it was a mistake.  But it's exactly the kind of startlingly original mistake which a real science fiction writer, a guy or gal with that spark of divine fire, would make.  It only makes me think the better of him.

I should also mention that Rajaniemi has made a virtue of English being his second language by writing in a crisp, simple, lucid style that gleams like crystal on the page.  A quick search of the web reveals that Rajaniemi's first novel will be published by Tor next May.  It's the first of a trilogy and apparently Tor expects great things from him.

Based on the one story, so do I.  Keep an eye on this guy.


Monday, September 13, 2010

And I Almost Didn't Blog Today . . .


I had a great blog half-written for today, a recommendation of a new and pretty much unknown writer whom you should keep an eye on.  But, unfortunately for blogdom, I picked up a half-written story this morning, started working on it, and as of now I have The Man in Grey all but completed.

But it's still Monday!  And so, technically, I have not let you guys down.

Um . . .  that's all I had to say.

Above:  The awards ceremony for the Philadelphia Horticultural Society city gardens competition, for which Marianne is a judge, was held in the Urban Outfitters building in the Naval Yard this year.  Here I am standing in front of a piece of corporate art titled Icarus.  Behind the fan is a saddle and behind the saddle is a parachute.  Anyone who knows how I can arrange to sit in the saddle and have the fan turned on is urged to contact me!


Friday, September 10, 2010

Yet Another Zombie Mash-Up


Does anybody actually read those classics-trash fiction mash-ups?  I ask because I'm convinced that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was the Pet Rock of its generation -- an idea so delightfully absurd that it made vast numbers of people impulsively buy it to give to somebody else.  I glanced at P&P&Z in a bookstore, read the first couple of pages, thought "Got it," and put it back.  The book, however, was so tremendously profitable that it spawned legions of imitators.  If there are readers for this sort of thing, we've just witnessed the birth of genre.  If not, then the publishing industry has just lost a lot of money.

This happens from time to time.

I've been musing over the phenomenon because I just saw Zombies of Lake Woebegotten in the bookstore, authored by one "Harrison Geillor."  Now, I"m not offended by the idea.  Probably, once he got over the momentary cognitive dissonance, Garrison Keillor felt mildly pleased that his work was deemed sufficiently famous to be parodied.  But whenever I see a book as strange as this one seems to be, I can't help wondering what writing it was like for the author.

The way I see it, there are two possibilities.  One is that the author is a hack writer who saw the opportunity to make a fast buck and pounded out ZoLW in a caffeine-fueled month.  The other is that he or she is a writer of some ambition who for whatever reason thought the mash-up would be a good idea. I can imagine myself thinking this when I was much, much younger.  And then writing the thing, constantly referring back to Keillor's collections and broadcasts for inspiration.  So that with every page I was brought face-to-face with the fact that Garrison Keillor was a writer who has a place in American literature alongside Mark Twain and James Thurber, while I -- the imaginary I who thought the book was a good idea -- was reduced to adulterating his oeuvre with zombies.

That's very close to my idea of Hell.

And it's why, when it comes to the identity of the anonymous author of this particular work, I'm rooting for the hack.

And in the mail today . . .

The City of Philadelphia has, in its wisdom, decided that I may sell tobacco products if I wish!  In fact, they're pretty sure that I already do.  "Philadelphia Department of Revenue records indicate that your business may sell tobacco and/or tobacco-relate products," they write.  And they want their cut.  In fact, if I don't file my Tobacco and Tobacco-Related Products Tax return by January 31, 2011, I'll be fined five thousand dollars.

Fortunately, I can apply for a Tobacco & Tobacco-Related Products Tax Exemption.  Unfortunately, if they don't receive it within three weeks, the Department of Revenue will open a Tobacco and Tobacco-Related Products Tax account for me.

My only question is:  Did Mayor Nutter have to fill out one of these forms?  Because so far as I can tell, there's no less reason to suspect him of selling tobacco and tobacco-related products than to suspect me.


Thursday, September 9, 2010

Satoshi Kon


The great filmmaker Satoshi Kon died of pancreatic cancer on August 24 in Tokyo.  He was only 46.  You can read about it here.

The news comes as a shock. Kon made only four films in his too-brief lifetime -- five if you count the one he was working on when he died.  Of the four that have been released, Perfect Blue, his first effort, was a top-notch work of anime.  The others were classics of their genre.

I liked the dark, murky, trust-no-one paranoia of Perfect Blue a lot.  But it was Kon's second film, Millennium Actress, which made me fall in love with his work.  In it, two film geeks interview an old woman whose film career covered almost the entire history of Japanese cinema.  As she reminisces, the flashbacks to her earlier life mingle with scenes from the movies she made.  And then, at a critical moment, as she's running from a pursuer, they both pass straight in front of the two fanboys interviewing her.  "Hey, wasn't that . . . ?" one of them cries, and they go running after her, into her memories, into her movies.  It is a narrative invention that works so well, I was astonished that nobody had done it before.

Tokyo Godfathers managed to be both heartwarming and tough-minded at the same time.  Based on John Ford's western, Three Godfathers (which I confess I haven't seen), it follows the adventures of three homeless people in Tokyo -- a runaway girl, a transvestite, and a bum -- after they find an abandoned newborn baby and decide first to keep it, and then to find its parents.  Yeah, it's sentimental.  But it's also anti-sentimental at the same time.  Only a true artist can manage that.

Kon's last movie, Paprika, was essentially one of Pat Cadigan's "Deadpan Allie" stories put on screen, with the heroine being not an affectless cop but an affectless therapist.  A new invention, the DC Mini, allows therapists to enter into their patients' dreams and work directly with their subconscious.  In those dreams, Doctor Atsuko Chiba -- unsmiling and humorless -- expresses herself through an avatar named Paprika, who is flirtatious, sexy, mercurial, everything that her real self is not.  But somebody has stolen a DC Mini and dreams are beginning to break through into the physical world.  Which is a very bad thing because when released from the safe confines of sleep, dreams are madness incarnate.

It's worth mentioning that this is a gorgeous movie, shot for shot one of the most beautiful things ever put on film.

Now he's gone, decades too soon.  If you've seen his work, you know why I'm so upset.  If you haven't, my best recommendation would be to start with the last one and work your way backwards.  Apparently Kon left behind an almost-finished movie, The Dream Machine, which he described as "a road movie for robots."  When it's released, it'll be in the movie theaters only briefly because that's what they do with anime in this country.  I recommend you hustle out to see it, because Kon's work looks best on the big screen.

It's always a terrible thing when a great artist dies.  Far worse when he dies young and at the peak of his powers.  We must mourn not only the man, but the movies he'll never get the chance to make.  As one of Kon's many admirers, I can only say that our sadness is immense, but our loss is heartbreaking.


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Proper Subject for Science Fiction


My friend Joshua Lukin is pushing the Moonstone appearance this Friday of Chan Davis at the Moonstone Arts Center, 108 S. 13th Street, here in Philadelphia.  Six p.m.

Chan Davis, you say.  Who he?  And what the heck is this evening going to be about?  Well, I'll let Josh put it in his own words:  "Do you like octogenarian ex-Communists? Do you like middle-aged nervous Jews? Would you like to see an octogenarian ex-Communist in conversation with a middle-aged nervous Jew? THEN THIS IS THE BOOK TOUR FOR YOU!"

The full title for the evening is The Proper Subject for Science Fiction: A Conversation With Chandler Davis and it's in support of his Aqueduct Press book It Walks in Beauty: Selected Prose of Chandler Davis.  Which contains five of his stories, two letters, three essays, a speech, and an interview.

Above and beyond the inherent interest of the evening, I think that anybody who believes I'm a terrible Lefty should be required to attend.  That includes my beloved son, Sean.  "Christ!" I tell him.  "You have no idea.  You've never even met a real leftist."  There used to be thousands of them everywhere.  They darkened the sky with their passage.  And today?  Almost as rare as the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Sad, really.   They were a passionate and idealistic group.  Argumentative, mind you.  They loved to argue.  As Gordon Van Gelder said of Phil Klass, "He was a difficult man to agree with."

Above:  A jpg of the event's flyer.  All the info you need is there.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Verweile Doch! Du Bist So Schoen!"


Most years, Marianne and I go "down the Shore," as we say in Philadelphia, and stay a week in Cape May Point.  Now, you can tell a lot about who somebody is by where he or she stays on the shore.  Young and crazy?  Wildwood.  Parents of a grown son and former owners of a Ford Taurus?  Cape May Point.

Nothing ever happens in CMP and that's its chief attraction.  When I first arrive, I'm jittering with energy.  We go down to the beach to swim and search for drift-glass and lie on a blanket and read.  And as long as I'm there, I'll pick up a fragment of shell and write in the sand.  Sometimes I'll get a story almost finished before the waves come in to erase it.  For six days I'll write.  Then, on the seventh, when I'm finally calm enough that I feel no desire whatsoever to write, I can come home.

This year it wasn't possible to spend a week in Cape May Point, alas.  But I played hooky yesterday and went there for the day.  That's why I don't have anything interesting to say today.

Tomorrow, yes.  But not today.

Above:  Me writing "Canute," the second of two stories erased by the sea.  Before that it was "First Draft."  Of the two stories, all that remain are a few fading memories.  They'll be gone soon.


Monday, September 6, 2010

And the Hugo Goes to . . .


About halfway through breakfast yesterday I realized that I hadn't gotten a drunken phone call in the early hours of the morning.  Which meant that I'd lost another Hugo.  This time to Jack Vance.  Mr. Vance (like most writers outside of his own generation, I've never met the man) won for his autobiography, This is Me, Jack Vance! (Or, More Properly, This is "I"), which was published by Subterranean Press.  There's not a lot of disgrace to losing to Jack Vance, so I am content.  Congratulations, sir!

To be perfectly honest, I'd expected to lose the Best Related Book Hugo to Farah Mendlesohn, who had an astonishing two books up in that category.  In fact, I was rather hoping she'd get it for The Inter-Galactic Playground, because she kept her reference collection of children's and YA science fiction in her guest bedroom, so that if it had I could brag that I'd actually slept within a Hugo-winning room.  Oh, and, yes, because I thought it was a terrific book.

I can be calm about these things because I already have a Hugo and, as Bill Gibson pointed out long ago, once you win something that "award-winner" tag follows you around for the rest of your life like a little puppy.  They can't take it away from you for bad behavior, and winning ten more won't make it any bigger.

The only regret I have about the Hugos and Nebulas is that only after having lost fifteen or so of them, I realized that I should have saved all the acceptance speeches I'd written over the decades.  If I had, at some point I could have put them all together and had one heck of a modest fanzine article.  I could have titled it, "And Then I Lost . . ."

Oh well.  Here's what my old buddy Jack Dann would have read (after a few words from my friend and publisher Henry Wessells) had I won:

The author wishes to acknowledge Henry Wessells for creating a beautiful book.  I owe particular thanks to Count Robin Mirrlees, Valerie Eliot, Margaret Ellis, Lesley Fiedler, Greer Gilman, John Kessel, Juliet O’Keefe,  Charlotte Price, Joanna Russ, John Graham Saunders, and the late Julia Briggs, among many others for their help researching it.  Hope Mirrlees was an extraordinary writer, both as a poet and a fantasist.  It is my sincere hope and belief that she will ultimately be recognized as a significant figure in the literary canon.  If my small book has been of the least help in accomplishing that end, then I am grateful.

Which, whatever its faults, you will have to grant is mercifully short.

And while I was on the road . . .

I saw a sign reading GLADDEN UP CHURCH.  I was passing through Gladden at the time, and I'm pretty sure the UP stood for United Presbyterian.  But still.  I couldn't help thinking, "What a happy congregation they must be!  How like the very early Christians!

Above:  A snapshot I took while wandering through western Pennsylvania.


Friday, September 3, 2010

Hatsune Miku, Virtual Girl Idoru


I'm on the road again.   But above, courtesy of My Son The Otaku, is a video by Hatsune Miku.  Which is of interest primarily because she doesn't exist.  Ms. Miku is one of a suite of voices (admittedly the most popular one) available on the Vocaloid Singing Synthesis Software.   Available from Yamaha.  Like so many other things, it's been a big hit in Japan, less so here.

What I find particularly intriguing about Hatsune Miku is that people are writing many, many songs for her and posting them online, some of them are actually pretty popular.  But nobody knows who owns the copyright for them.

If only William Gibson were alive to see this day!

There's a lot more I could say about the Copyright Wars and Japanese-derived pop culture.  But I've got three hundred miles to go today.  So I shall content myself with merely observing that the above video is not typical of Hatsune Miku's work.

A far more typical video is the one below.


Thursday, September 2, 2010


First there was the New Wave, and I was not part of that because I was still struggling to learn how to write, and hence unpublishable.

Then came Cyberpunk, and I was not part of that because Chairman Bruce said so.

Then came the Humanists, and I was not part of that because I'm the one who defined the movement and I very carefully kept myself out of it.

Then came Slipstream, and I was not part of that because I was too heart-of-genre.

Then came Mannerpunk, and I was not part of that because I was too unmannerly.

Then came the New Space Opera, and I was not part of that because I was not British.

Then came Interstitial Arts and I was not part of that because I was not interstitial enough.

Then came the New Weird and I was not part of that because I wasn't weird enough.

Then came Mundane SF and I was not part of that because I was too unworldly.

And there may have been more.  All this is off the top of my head.  I've been in this field for thirty years and it's been my proud boast that I managed to duck every single movement that came along.

Until now.

Over at SF Signal, there is a recurrent feature called "Mind Meld," in which a variety of luminaries are asked a provocative question.  The current one being: If you could pick the Next Big Trend/Movement in sf or fantasy literature, what would it be and why? 

Gary K. Wolfe -- who stands very high in my esteem because he is that rarest of creatures, a respectable academic who writes about science fiction, fantasy, and horror simply because he believes those genres are of literary interest --  identified what he called a "new trend in gonzo fiction which seems not to fit neatly into any particular subgenre, but to simply borrow anything it damn well pleases from anywhere-near-future SF, alternate history, steampunk, space opera, pulp adventure, hard SF, film, mainstream fiction, surrealism, fantasy, horror, etc."

The leader of this new movement, according to him, is . . . is . . .  Oh, I can't say it.  So I'll let Wolfe do the deed:

At the end of that review of "Zeppelin City" I wrote that Swanwick has "always been one of the ringmasters of the new cacophony," so the New Cacophony is the name I'm choosing for my movement-not fiction in the interstices, not slipstreamy cross-pollinations with the mainstream, not reinventions of old subgenres, but all of the above and more. If I wanted to come up with a more academic sounding name, it might be something like genre dissonance, but New Cacophony is more fun. It's using any toy in the sandbox, plus any more you want to bring up from the basement. The only rule is that they have to somehow work together in the story.
Now, there's still hope.  The New Cacophany may not catch on, in which case my record may well extend itself into future decades.  But if it does catch on, I've got only one thing to say:

Wouldn't it be just my luck that when I'm finally identified with a movement, it would be one that sounds like it contains the word "caca" in it?

You can find Wolfe's essay by clicking here and scrolling down a bit.


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Pebbles in the Sky

Isaac Newton once famously said, "I do not know what I may appear to the world.  But to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."

We still remain mired in ignorance.  But there's no getting around the fact that there have been a lot of very pretty pebbles discovered in the last thirty years.

Check 'em out:

A lot of these discoveries were driven by a NASA-led cooperative international program to discover all potential extinction-event bodies in the Solar System and map their orbits to determine whether we need to be worried.  This is a subject I could go on about at great length.  (Short version:  We appear to be safer than we thought.  And we need to be very very worried.)  But I shan't.


And on the World Fantasy Awards shortlist . . .

My pals and occasional publishers Jacob and Rina Weisman at Tachyon Publications are up for the "Special Awards -- Professional" category.  To which I can only say:  Whoop!  Whoop!  Whoop!

My pal Ellen Datlow is too.  She probably hasn't gotten a lot of congratulations because everybody assumes she's already won ten of everything.  But forget all that "just" to be nominated nonsense.  It's a big deal to get on one of those lists.  Some very good people have long and productive careers without making it there once.  So this shout-out is for Ellen:  Whoop!  Whoop!  Whoop!