Thursday, December 30, 2010

This Glitterati Life


So who have you been hanging out with lately?  Don't bother telling me, I've got you trumped.  Last night I had dinner in Manayunk (a slice of pizza at Mom's Bake At Home and shepherd's pie at Kildare's) with international glam-setter Lily Womack.

During our repast, I remarked to Lily that her father was famous for his sartorial splendor.  "No," she said.  "He's famous as a writer."

Okay, yes, Jack Womack is indeed celebrated as one of our very best.  And his wife Valeria Susanina is equally fabulous.  But it's Lily who's won my heart.

Above:  Lily and Jack.  Lily has self-created plastic vampire fangs in her mouth.  Nobody's perfect.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

December 29, 1940


A friend who conducts tours around the City of London once told me that she quickly learned to skirt the edges of the damage done by the Blitz because the endless recital of what had been lost seriously depressed her clients.  It's a wise and useful rule of thumb.  Periodically, however, we should make exceptions.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the destruction of Paternoster Row.  During a bombing raid that many consider the worst of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe attacked London's city center with a combination of high explosives and incendiary bombs.  Paternoster Row, the heart of British publishing for centuries, was destroyed, along with surrounding streets and far too much more of London.  The damage included dozens of publishers' offices, printers, warehouses, and bookstores.

Between five and six million books went up in flames in a single night.

It was but one incident in a war that cost millions of lives (even if you consider all those murdered in the Holocaust to be victims of a separate madness).  But one that should be remembered.

Above:  A view of the damage from the roof of St. Paul's Cathedral.  


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

And the Winning Godless Atheist Christmas Card of the Year is . . .

As long-time readers of this blog know, one of the most cherished traditions in my household is choosing the winner of the annual Godless Atheist Christmas Card of the Year competition.  And what a fabulous year it's been for Christmas cards totally devoid of religious content!  So much so that cards that would have been contenders in ordinary years were eliminated early.

Science fiction people made a strong showing this year.   Tom Purdom's photograph of the monument to the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution in Washington Square, Philadelphia, was disqualified because the eternal flame has an inherently religious significance.  Even though within a year of its creation, the flame went out because it was choked by fat from homeless people roasting hot dogs on it.  Alexis and Lee Gilliland's ribald cartoon of Santa Claus with a bluefin tuna bulging from his trousers in an obscene manner was disqualified because even naughty Santas are too strongly associated with Christmas.  Beth Gwinn's retro-fifties pomo-ironic Give Peas A Chance card would have been a strong contender but, alas, it's a card she has sent us in an earlier year while the spirit of Godless Atheism is evergreen, ever new, and always comes as a surprise.

Similarly, a Currier and Ives card which I thought had nothing to do with the season other than snow and oxen was voted down by the Blue Ribbon And Not at All Nepotistic Jury of my immediate family because it was drenched with nostalgia.  A Hokusai owl was voted down for being so beautiful as to be inherently spiritual.  Which I thought a little dodgy, but who am I to argue with Hokusai and my wife?  Relatives Dick and Penny's card with pix of themselves, mountain goats, and Mount Rushmore, was disqualified simply because it had the message "Joy and Love."  It was, as I said, a brutally competitive year.

Finally, the competition came down to three cards.

The first to go down was the card from perennial favorites John and Judith Clute, a reproduction of one of Judith's artworks, this one of a Pacific Northwest-ish raven.  Here, Marianne argued eloquently for the inherent spiritual nature of the work.  "Ravens," she said, "a murder of crows, a congregation.  It's essentially Christian."  Also, "It's beautiful and I like it a lot."

Number two went right to the wire.  Sean voted one way and Marianne the other.  It was left up to me to break the tie and I have to say that Karl and Janet Kofoed's Christmas on Enceladus only lost by a whisker.  The "plumes of ice particles that rise like curtains into the dark airless skies above Saturn's inner moon" were lovely but the bleak, black lunar surface looking like nothing so much as frozen seas of gasoline . . . well, it fit the bill.  Finally, I ruled that cosmic wonder is a nonbeliever's version of religious awe.  So I set it aside in favor of the winner.

Which was the creation of last-year's first-time winner Jason Van Hollander.  His wrap-around card depicted a very JVH-ish fantasy/horror port city on the docks of which stand Fafhrd and a distinctly rat-faced Gray Mouser.  The closest things to religious elements anywhere in the card are what appear to be an imp imprisoned within a milk bottle and what Marianne declared was surely Yog-Sothoth.

Has the long reign of the Clutes come to an end?  It begins to look like what was once unthinkable is now a fait accompli.  Congratulations, Jason!

Not above:  I don't publish artwork without permission, so I can't show you Jason's card.  But you can go to his website here and see lots of his work.  Very cool stuff!


Monday, December 27, 2010

"Andrew of the Ginger Hair" on Writing.


It snowed.  Boy howdy, did it snow!  And as a result I can't leave the house, go to the store, answer my emails, or do any of those work-like things.  I'm snowed in.  I have no choice but to goof off.

One goof-off thing I've been doing over the past couple of days is to explore the possibilities of my brand new Nook.  Why that, instead of some other brand of e-reader?  Because Tom Purdom bought one and believes in it, and if it's good enough for Tom it's good enough for me.  I've been downloading books from Project Gutenberg which posts only books that in the public domain.  Eccentric things, mostly, because I plan to use the device primarily when I'm traveling and that's when I'm in the mood for eccentricity.  So I've downloaded about twenty of Andrew Lang's books.

One of which is a lecture titled How to Fail in Literature, originally published some one hundred twenty years ago.

Here are some of his observations on getting started as a writer:

There is no more frequent cause of failure than doubt and dread; a beginner can scarcely put his heart and strength into a work when he knows how long are the odds against his victory, how difficult it is for a new man to win a hearing, even though all editors and publishers are ever pining for a new man.


One thing, perhaps, most people who succeed in letters so far as to keep themselves alive and clothed by their pens will admit, namely, that their early rejected MSS. deserved to be rejected.


Faint and fleeting praise, a crown with as many prickles as roses, a modest hardly-gained competence, a good deal of envy, a great deal of gossip -- these are the rewards of genius which constitute a modern literary success.

(Though the science fiction and fantasy genre is less rough in terms of envy and gossip than the mainstream is.) 


Editors and publishers, those keepers of the gates of success, are not infallible but their opinion of a beginner's work is far more correct than his own can ever be.

How little has changed in the last six-fifths of a century!

All of the above is from the build-up section of Andy's essay.  I may post some of his actual how-to-fail advice in a day or two.

And speaking of the annual Godless Atheist Christmas Card contest . . .

The competition this year is brutal.  So much so that I disqualified a photo of a friend-and-family posing in front of a dinosaur in a natural history museum simply because the dino was wearing a scarf!  That's how strict a set of standards I had to establish just to keep from being overwhelmed.

The traditional and not at all nepotistic Blue Ribbon Panel of Family will meet soon to make the final decision.

Above:  Remember the last roses of autumn, as depicted here on November 25?  Here's what they look like in winter.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Quiet Christmas Day


Eileen Gunn instructed me to celebrate finishing my novel by taking Christmas off.  And since I am the most obedient of men -- just ask Marianne -- I have.  But I've got to say that opening presents is hard work.

Pictured here is Miss Helen Hope Mrrrlees, absolutely exhausted from opening presents.  Not visible is roughly half of her tail.

Above:  Photo by Marianne Porter.


Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve, 1973


Almost forty years ago, I came to Philadelphia because I had a friend who offered to put me up on his couch for a few weeks.  Times were hard back then and there was no work to be found.  I survived off of temp jobs, and by selling my blood and writing essays for a term paper mill.  Sometimes I went hungry.

Christmas was kind of a low point for me.  I was sleeping in the living room of a trinity house rented by art students, with the understanding that I'd take over the lease of one of them who wanted out, just as soon as I got a real job.  I had a bit of work then, demonstrating toys at a department store, but my employer was slow in paying me.  The students went home for the holidays, all my friends were out of town, and I had the heat cranked down low, out of respect for my almost-housemates who had to pay for utilities.  On Christmas Eve, as a special treat, I had two turkey pot pies instead of my usual one, with a tiny can of cranberry jelly to go with them.

The house was on 15th Street, near South, which at that time was a pretty raffish neighborhood.  Next door was the Sahara Hotel, where rooms rented by the hour.  Across the street was Sister Minnie's Kitchen, which used to be a soul food restaurant, but by then had been converted to a flophouse.

I had just taken the pot pies out of the oven and was about to sit down to eat when there was a knock on the door.  I went to answer it, and there was Leroy.  Leroy was one of the winos who flopped across the street, and one of the neighborhood characters.  With a big grin, he said "Merry Christmas!" and stuck out his hand.

When I told him I didn't have any money, Leroy started cursing me -- vehement, scabrous stuff.  So I closed the door on him and went back to the table.

I sat down and looked at the pot pies.  "Merry Christmas," I said to nobody at all.


Marianne thinks that's a terribly sad story.  But I don't.  I was living on hope back then.  I was going to learn how to write, and someday I'd make a living at it.  That was all I wanted from life, and I was willing to pay the freight.  Poverty, loneliness, and a Christmas spent sans friends sans family sans everything was just part of the price of admission.

Today, I make a living as a writer.  I'm married to a woman I love and have a son I'm proud of.  I have friends who mean a lot to me and a city that feels like home.  I have food and heat and a brand-new cat.  Tonight, Sean will come by and I'll tell this year's Christmas story while we sit by the wood stove with a fire going and hot drinks and a big heap of presents by the tree.

Things turned out better for me than I expected.  I wish the same for you.

Above:  Rather a blurry shot, I'm afraid.  You can pretend that it's a misty holiday memory, if you're feeling particularly charitable.


Thursday, December 23, 2010



Here, as promised, is a second drawing by the very young (but that was long ago) Christopher Casper.  It's titled Live-and-Love.  He did a lot of these kachina-like figures for a time.  Another, I remember, was Life-and-Death.  He was definitely hooked into some kind of cosmic ley-line for a while there.

So now I bet you're thinking, nobody could come up with an appropriate sound-track for a picture like that.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Click on the video below, a cover of King Crimson's immortal 21st Century Schizoid Man by the Japanese quintet Seasons.

I haven't been able to find out much about Seasons -- their website is, understandably enough, in Japanese.  But my goodness!  That's all I can say.  My goodness!

And in yesterday's mail . . .

Shawn asked whether there was an official pub date yet for Dancing With Bears, whether the title was official, and whether it was my own invention or that of one of the contest entrants.  And the answers (please pause here a moment in order to artificially build up suspense) are . . .

1.  Yes, I heard just the other day that Night Shade is moving up the publication date to May 1, 2011.  That's May Day, for all the leftists and Catholics out there.  Beltane, if you're a pagan.

2.  Yes, it's official.

3.  The title was, regrettably, my own invention.  But there's still hope!  The novel may or may not employ a sub-title which was suggested by a contestant.  If it survives the the long publication process, said person will indeed be getting a box of schwag.  Books and such, I mean.  Not marijuana.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

An Officer and a Gentleman and a Former Little Boy


Marianne and I spent the afternoon visiting friends, as is traditional at this time of year.  First we visited dinosaur artists extraordinare Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger.  Then we went to see Gardner Dozois and Susan Casper.  Where, to our delight, we found Susan's son Christopher Casper had come for a visit, alone with his wife Nicole, son Tyler, and daughter Isabella.

It was a roomful of people we like tremendously.  So we were happy and I didn't get anywhere near the Intertubes until just now, and that's why today's post is so late.  I will not apologize for having my values on straight.

Christopher is a captain in the U.S. Army, an officer and a gentleman, and somebody you'd be proud to know.  But I remember him from when he was a little boy.  And when he was a little boy he drew some very strange pictures.  I mentioned to him that I still had a couple of them and he professed no memory of them at all.  So I'm posting one today and I'll probably post the other tomorrow.

Tyler, Isabella:  This is the kind of mind your father had as a child.  Pictured above is Death, Dancing on a Coca-Cola Bottle.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A Slow Day at Last!


The editing of Dancing With Bears is over and done with -- I turned in the final text yesterday.  Now all that remains is for it to be brilliantly published by Night Shade Books and me to wait for the accolades and money to roll in.

So I took the day off.

I drove out to Franklin Maps in King of Prussia to pick up a map of China for a big project I have in mind.  Then off to the Italian Market for brie and gorgonzola and sheep's milk gouda, along with sweet sopressata, fresh pickled tomatoes, and oil-cured olives from DiBruno's,  tortellini and cheese ravioli and mushroom agnolotti and calabrese olives from Talluto's, and a loaf of bread from Sarcone's.  Those, and a bottle of wine will be tonight's supper.   Then to Cafe Huong Lan (1037 S. 8th Street -- and highly recommended!) to pick up three banh mi for lunch.

Sometimes it's good to live in Philadelphia.

Above:  Talluto's.  It looks a little crowded in the picture, but that's misleading.  It's a lot crowded.  With some of the finest food on earth.  

Monday, December 20, 2010

Two Short Fiction Reviews


I'm almost done revising Dancing With Bears -- and a good thing, too, because the deadline is today.  Luckily, the December New York Review of Science Fiction arrived the other day.  Which means that the following review, which was published in the November issue, can now be posted here.


Two Short Fiction Reviews
Michael Swanwick

Here's a blast from the past in more ways than one.  William Gibson stopped writing short fiction seventeen years ago and given how much he clearly loves the novel form, I’d long ago abandoned hope of him ever returning to shorter lengths.  So running across “Dougal Disincarnate” in an anthology titled Darwin’s Bastards (D&M Publishers Inc., edited by Zsuzsi Gartner, $16.95 in trade paperback) was a distinctly pleasant surprise.
If I’d been asked to predict what a Gibson story newly published in 2010 would be like, I’d have ventured that it would be beautifully written, formally innovative, and deliberately anti-narrative a la his “Thirteen Views of a Cardboard City.”  Which is to say that I would have been more wrong than right.
It’s a ghost story.
The tale is set in “Kits,” more formally called Kitsilano, a neighborhood in Vancouver known back in the day for being a hotbed of hippie culture.  Writing in the first person, William Gibson – he makes it explicit that the narrator is himself – reminisces about a friend he’s known over the years, a nineteen-year-old who had an out-of-body experience after dropping a tab of LSD and was unable to return to the flesh.  (His body walked away and eventually became an accountant.)  Bill does what he can to help Dougal, who is unable to leave Kits, and the two bond over rented movies because, as Gibson explains, “the best cinematic SF is always to be found in very bad movies, but only in tiny, brilliant, fractal bursts.”  Dougal describes his existence, the rare time-mirages he’s seen, his occasional ability to connect with the incarnate.  Gibson waxes mildly autobiographical.
When you’ve got a location-bound ghost, it’s not much of a stretch to posit that the story is not about the young veteran of the Acid Wars but about the location itself.  Gibson is closely associated with Vancouver, and he came to the British Columbian city back when the counterculture was in full swing.  So we see Kits as Gibson does, in fleeting snatches of memory touched slightly with sadness for the fleeting moment.  The ghostly but not at all eerie Dougal allows him to add overlays of times and things he himself could not have seen, so that the story serves as something of a valentine for his adopted city.
“Dougal Discarnate” is written in a gentle voice that’s not trying to floor the reader, not trying to pull anything over on anybody – just saying what needs to be said as gracefully as possible.  It’s a lovely piece of work and if it leaves at least one reader feeling a little wistful over bygone days when such stories could reliably be expected to appear one or two or three times a year . . .  well, there are plenty of other good things that the past has wrapped in tissue paper and stowed away someplace safe for us.
As for Dougal, at the end of the story, as a reward for having served his purpose patiently and capably, Gibson gives him everything he wants and more.  Well done, gentlemen, the both of you.

                                     *                                    *                                    *
“Fucking fuck,” begins Douglas Coupland’s “Survivor” (also in Darwin’s Bastards), as the thoroughly dislikeable protagonist rants about the inconveniences of life on board what he invariably calls the Luxurious CBS Yacht.  This sorry excuse for a human being is a cameraman for a near-future season of the television reality perennial Survivor and, it seems, typical of everybody involved in the show from the top executives to the very bottom of the food chain, the contestants themselves, who are valued only for their potential sexual availability.
            Coupland is known for his postmodern structural tricks, and these are present here in the form of:
      • A menu
      • A list of diseases
      • Three URLs for YouTube clips of people making insect smoothies in their blenders
      • Instructions for calculating your total daily calorie needs
      • A definition of “grave wax”
      • A list of eleven surviving contestants by offensive stereotype, from “Blonde slut” to “Noble hunk (FDNY)”
      • Among many, many other such insertions.

All of which works, though it wouldn’t were it not for Coupland’s rock-solid command of the more traditional storytelling skills.  Deftly, he sets up the scenario and then rings in the SF element:  global nuclear warfare.  Radio and television stations abruptly fall silent, airplanes fail to arrive at the airport, and in a genuinely creepy scene, the USS Ronald Reagan drifts by, a ghost ship with one side scorched black from an atomic blast.
Nobody responds well to the crisis.  The network execs abscond with the Luxurious CBS Yacht, abandoning those ashore without a second thought.  The contestants swiftly and efficiently set about murdering one another.  It is left to the protagonist to deliver the epitaph for a civilization that has just destroyed itself.
Coupland, it is worth noting, doesn’t waste a word of this strong, sobering, and utterly convincing story explaining why the world has committed thermonuclear suicide.
He doesn’t have to.

Above:  That’s one ugly cover, innit?  Got to be deliberate.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Leaving Dakota


Last Tuesday I went to the art opening for Kyle Cassidy's Leaving Dakota.  It was a mad thing to do because I was working on the novel revisions and had to buy a Christmas tree that evening and had to postpone supper up to late night to make room for it.  But I went anyway.

It was a very strange exhibition.

For one thing, it was held in Kyle's house.  "I wanted to demonstrate that you can have an art exhibit anywhere," he explained to me.  Which is why the photos were on the wall of his staircase.  For another, the photos were unframed.  And for a last, they were mounted snapshot-sized.

This would have been a weird-but-nifty thing for one of my art friends to do back in the day when we were all young and impoverished.  It is a very cool thing for a professional who's making a living at this stuff to do.

The pictures themselves are episodes in an unstated story, all of them (in the story) taken by a cameraman with very bad lenses.  (Kyle bought an old Leica for the project.)  But what makes the project particularly innovative is that the pics and artist statement can all be fit in a single envelope.  So he's mailing the show across the country and inviting other people to change the order of the pictures and add photos of their own! 

As Harlan would say, that's as strange as finding a neon donut on your breakfast plate.  I'm glad I went.

You can see the photos themselves -- all of them -- here.  And his blog entry where he arranged the project here.

Above:  Kyle himself, the art itself, the stairs themselves.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How to Write a Collaborative Story


I'm in print again!  Well, sort of.  "The Trains That Climb The Winter Tree" is a collaboration with the immortal Eileen Gunn.  So I'm half in print again.

And how did this story come about?  I'm glad you ask, because I have an extremely convoluted answer.

Chapter One:  Humble Beginnings

It all began several years ago when I tricked Eileen into writing a a story through the simple expedient of not telling her  that was what she was doing.  She and I were trading public posts on the Clarion West site during their annual Write-a-Thon, as a promotional thing, when she wrote something about feeling too guilty to write.  Back I wrote, something along the lines of:

Dear Ms Gunn:
Unable to write?  Even worse -- feeling guilty about it?  Fear not.  Guilt Eaters of Philadelphia has a program for that!

I was trying to jolly her into writing a story with me then and there, online.  But Eileen was too savvy for that.  She responded with what became the opening of the story:

Dear Sirs:
Ordinarily, I would not respond to an e-mail such as yours.  I am by nature a skeptic and, as a former advertising writer, consider myself well able to resist the transparent come-on of a carelessly written appeal to my baser nature.  Today, however...
Today I found myself wracked with guilt at how much time I spend goofing around.  Sunday is the end of my work-week and, as usual, all the chickens came home to roost:  I absolutely had to get a story finished and sent off.  And I did.  I didn't do much of anything else: just worry and plot and write, all day long. I didn't even call in a pizza.  Fortunately, I keep on hand an adequate supply of snickerdoodles, a nutritionally perfect source of carbs, fats, and cinnamon that will keep anxiety at bay for up to 24 hours.
But now, sitting here at midnight amid crumpled manuscript pages and snickerdoodle crumbs, I feel there must be a better way.
And your e-mail, which promises I could be lounging about on Sundays, taking the day off, doing the crossword puzzle, and idly staring at things without thinking of them, certainly caught my eye.
Can you really reduce my guilt to nothing, as your e-mail claims?  Is your service worth its unnamed but undoubtedly exorbitant cost?
Eileen Gunn

Back and forth we went, me reassuring Eileen in my best American Huckster voice that all her problems were over, and she inventing new stumbling-blocks on the sly.  At one point I wrote:

Dear Ms. Gunn:
You certainly are a tough nut to crack.  Not that we think you are a nut.  Absolutely not!  Yet crack you we shall.

Eventually, there was a short story's worth of give-and-take so I cleaned it all up and sent it to Eileen, along with an email beginning, "Congratulations.  You have just written a story."  Eileen did a final polish and added a grace note to the ending.  then we sent it out.

"Shed That Guilt! Double Your Productivity Overnight!" was published in the September 2008 issue of F&SF.  As I recall, it took all of a week to sell.  Editors love having the chance to buy an Eileen Gunn story.

Chapter Two:  A Trickster Arrives in Town

Midway through the story, I referred to the blockbuster fantasy dekology that Eileen would soon be able to finish in a matter of months.  She replied:

How did you know about the dekology?  It has such a lovely synopsis: elves, mirrors, electric trains, trees that extend into the stratosphere and rain gold on those below, and Dick Cheney's evil twin.  NYT Bestseller?   Fowler and Lethem can eat their hearts out.  But I do not work on it. 

"Oh, Eileen," I thought.  "You and I are so going to write that story!  Just as soon as I've tricked you into writing the one you don't know you're working on."

Chapter Thee:  The Tables Turned, the Biter Bit

While Eileen was still reeling from the unexpected realization that she'd just finished a story without any conscious effort on her part (save for the improved ending and a few scattered enhancements in the final polish), I made my move.

I wrote the opening paragraphs of a story based on Ms Gunn's pocket synopsis of her fantasy dekology and emailed them to her:

It was the middle of the night when the elves came out of the mirrors.  Everyone in the house was asleep.  Outside, the city slumbered.  Silent as shadows, the warriors went from room to room.  Their knives were so sharp they could slit a throat without awakening their victim.
They killed all the adults.
The children they spared.

I almost certainly chuckled as I sent it.  It may be that I cackled.  By now I was feeling pretty full of myself.  I sat down and wrote the first three pages of the story.

The next morning, I received an email from Eileen and discovered that she'd puckishly rewritten the story opening:

It was the middle of the night when the mirrors came out of the elves.  With a sound like the cushioned patter of an ice storm, the tiny mirrors fell to the ground, leaving a crust of glitter behind the marching elf-army.  They bled, of course, but the elven blood restored the dry land, undoing the effects of the drought, and moss emerged green from the ground in the troops’ wake. 

It is possible my shriek of agony, wrenched from the depths of my soul in the heart of Philadelphia, was heard by Eileen all the way out in Seattle.

Chapter Four:  Needless Complications

Eileen! I wrote back.  You've!!  Changed!!!!  The!!!!!!!  Opening!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It's possible I wasn't quite as temperate as that.

Alas, Eileen had written the fatal paragraph and liked it and wasn't about to discard it.  So there was only one way to resolve the problem.  We agreed to write both stories simultaneously.

While we were each working on our own solo stuff, of course.

Chapter Five:  Twenty Years Later

Eons passed.  The dinosaurs died.  Glaciers covered the Earth.  Atlantis rose and drowned.  A man walked in Galilee.  The automobile was invented.

At last, Eileen and I finished not the first but the second of the twin collaborations, the one beginning with mirrors coming out of elves.  Because it was her opening paragraph, Eileen got top billing.  This time, it took three days to sell.  Eileen Gunn stories being, as I've implied, a prestige item among editors.

"The Armies of Elfland" appeared in the April 2009 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction.  We soldiered on with the story which began with elves coming out of mirrors.

Chapter Six:  An Unexpected Resolution!

The day came at last which no man could have predicted.  Eileen and I finished "The Trains That Climb the Winter Tree."   That was approximately six weeks ago.  It contained almost everything that Eileen's synopsis had promised.  Elves?  Check.  Mirrors?  Ditto.  Electric trains?  You bet.  Extending into the stratosphere?  And then some!  Dick Cheney's evil twin?  You'd have thought that one would be tough but, naw, it was a snap.

The only thing we didn't have was the gold raining down on those below.  I'm a liberal.  I don't believe in the trickle-down theory.

Happily, I wrote an email to Patrick Nielsen Hayden at, beginning:

Hi, Patrick.  Eileen Gunn and I have just finished writing a story . . .
And without bothering to finish reading the email, without even waiting for me to send it, Patrick wrote back:

I'm buying it.

Did I mention how much editors want an Eileen Gunn story?

Afterword:  Please Buy Our Free Product

Yesterday in the email came a note from addressed to all registered users.  (It's free.  Basically, you register and once or twice a month you get an email telling you what new stuff is on their site.  Very convenient.)  It said:

As a holiday treat to our registered users, and to say thanks for being part of our community, is shaking like a bowl full of jelly to offer you our next story a whole week early. "The Trains That Climb the Winter Tree," by Michael Swanwick and Eileen Gunn, is shocking, lyrical, inventive, and, like the holidays, a little mad. It will appear on on Tuesday, December 21, but [registered users] can . . . log in and read the story on the site. We hope you enjoy it!

So there you have it:  Virtue rewarded, a talking dog, Dick Cheney's evil twin chastened, a corporate Santa Claus, a ripping yarn, and a jolly good time to be had by all.  Plus, because I wrote the first paragraph, I got top billing.

Sigh.  I love a happy ending.

Above:  The splendid illustration for our story was created by Gary Kelley.  Kudos!  And Merry Christmas too!


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Wearing Gold Writing Shoes


What kind of shoes does a writer wear?  Well, Victoria Janssen wears shiny gold Doc Martins.  "If you click them together," I asked her, "where do you go?"  She clicked her heels and . . . voila!  She was in a bookstore!  I've gotta get me a pair of those.

I caught up to Vickie in swell bookstore Big Blue Marble, here in Philadelphia, last Saturday.  She was having a book launch party for The Duke and the Pirate Queen, the third book in her as-yet-unnamed "smutty romance" trilogy.   Free food, friendly people, an author who's happy to answer your questions, and a store full of books which you are permitted to buy.  Does life get better than this?  I think not.

If you live in Philadelphia and haven't been to Big Blue Marble yet, you're working too hard and spending too little.  Click here for their website.

Right:  There's the cover.  Yow.  That's all I have to say.  Yow.


Monday, December 13, 2010

The Death of a Thorn Tree


Okay, well, this sucks.

Vandals chopped down the Glastonbury Holy Thorn Tree the other day.  The tree has been revered by Christians in England for centuries.  It is a descendent of one which, so the story goes, was originally planted by St. Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy merchant who gave his tomb to Jesus.  Shortly after he came to England, two thousand years ago, Joseph pushed his staff into the ground, saying it was weary.  The staff sprouted, and the hill where the thorn tree grew became known as Wearyall Hill.

Once a year, there is one of those old ceremonies that England is so good at in which a sprig is plucked from the tree and sent to England's monarch as a decoration for his or her Christmas table.  Queen Elizabeth II had just sent her thanks for this year's sprig.

And now some jerks have made the world a little drearier, a little less interesting.

There can't be many Christians who actually believe that the original tree sprouted from the staff of a saint who almost certainly never came to England.  But our stories are a great deal of what makes us human.  The good people of Glastonbury have nurtured and protected this particular story and this particular tree for centuries.  That deserves our respect.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote that we should be careful not to give up our superstitions, because they can never be replaced.  So, too, with our old folk customs.  I admit that I had never heard of the Glastonbury Holy Thorn Tree before its demise.  But I shall feel its loss for the rest of my life.

There is some small hope that the stump may sprout limbs come spring.  In the meantime, you can read the whole story here.


Friday, December 10, 2010

The Ghosts of Christmases Past


I was in Williamsburg recently, and went for a walk down DOG Street into the historically reconstructed part of town and ran into a fife and drum corps marching up the street .  It struck me then that I'd spent my entire college life sunk in Frederick Jamesonesque hyperreality without realizing it.  Is it any wonder that I became a fantasist?

I'm still sunk dream-deep in the novel's revisions.   And I've got an intro to write for a story in a friend's collection.  So this will be a short post.  Also, I'm working on this year's Christmas story.  Every year I make up a story for the family and tell it on Christmas Eve.  It's a tradition that goes back -- my God! -- over twenty years.  The first one, I remember, was about the ghost of a mouse.  And I've been making 'em up and telling 'em ever since.

In retrospect, I probably should have written them down.  I'd have the makings of a collection by now.

But, oh well, that's not what matters, is it?  Love and family and hot buttered rum by the woodstove.  That's what makes the world go round.

Above:  A ghost fife-and-drum corps.  The makings of a decent Christmas story.  I may tell it some day.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

And those wonderful people out there in the dark . . .

As I warned, you, there's nothing happening here.  But I was sitting, writing, and watching TV tonight (Sunset Boulevard,  to be specific) when it struck me that Joe Gillis never did fall in love with Betty Schaefer.  He just wanted to get back to work again.

There is a poetry to work, and I fear it has not found its Homer.

But, lemme think, Robert Heinlein was good at the joys of work, and so is Gene Wolfe.  Any others that you can name?


Slow Day Origamicat


It's a slow news day because I'm still working on editorial revisions and Marianne was away for the past two days, making arrangements for her mother's 100th birthday party.  Plus, any minute now, the mechanic takes our car away for what he swears will be all but the next to the last time necessary, so it looks to be an uneventful day today as well.

So, while one of my core ambitions as a blogger is to not be one of those guys who's always foisting off cute picture of his cat on you . . .  Look at how cute Miss Helen Hope Mrrlees looks, curled up on Marianne's lap, pretending to sleep.  Awwww.

I'll do my best not to over-share Hopie with you.  But if we ever get a picture of her arching her back, it'll be so here.  She rises up twice as high as you'd think she could.  It looks like a feline lift-bridge.

And on the movie channel . . .

I saw Letters From Iwo Jima the other night.  What a gutsy movie for Eastwood to make!  My father was in the European Theater in WWII on a bomber.  Marianne's father was in the Navy and he resolutely refused to buy a Japanese car.  "I'm not a bigot," he'd say.  "But those people tried to kill me!"  So I'm not your stereotypical Liberal soft-on-America's-enemies kind of guy here.

Still.  To see what may have been the most brutal fighting of the war from the perspective of the Japanese -- who knew that they were hopelessly outnumbered, that they were going to die, and that their superiors had given up on them -- was a revelation.  There's a particularly brilliant scene where an officer reads a letter he finds on a dead American from the G.I.'s mother, not realizing how he's demoralizing his subordinates.  The viewer, however, sees their faces as they realize that the men they're going to die fighting are as human as they are.

Wonderful stuff.  I recommend it.


Monday, December 6, 2010

You Don't Have To Be A Christian to Know This Is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong


Gardner Dozois is still trying to get me onto Facebook.  The first time he tried, I said, "Well, what good is there to being on it?"

"No good at all," he replied cheerily.

"What do people usually post on it?"

"They usually post what they had for breakfast."

"Gee, Gardner," I said.  "You make it sound awfully attractive.  But I think I'll give it a pass."

Yesterday I was at a party hosted by Sally and Daniel Grotta.  Gardner was there, so he had another whack at it.  "If you were on Facebook," he said, "you'd have seen the post of the Twenty Worst Nativity Sets Ever."

"I did see it, Gardner," I replied.  "You sent me the link."

You can see it too by clicking here.  Marianne, who is a sincere Christian, thought at first that it was shameful to make fun of people because their idea of good taste doesn't correspond with one's own.  But then she looked at the above picture and said, "It is, however, abhorrent to manufacture and sell such things."

And in that spirit . . .

Allow me to wish all Christians reading this a Merry Christmas, and all others their own happy holidays.  I realize that I'm rushing the season a little.  But what the heck.  Joy is good.


Friday, December 3, 2010

"Jenkins. I live in the apartment opposite. Want to help me catch a hawk?"

Wednesday, I said goodbye to Dr. David Clay Jenkins at a memorial service in the Great Hall of the Wren Building at the College of William & Mary.  Marianne and I were the only people in the room who referred to him as Dr. Jenkins, rather than David.  In a weird way, I felt that gave me a kind of parallax view that those who only knew him as a friend and colleague didn't have.

I could write a book about all I felt and thought that evening.  But, time being finite, I shan't.

Instead, I will take some of what I heard at the memorial to create a fable or possibly even (if you are, as I know you to be, charitable) a prose poem.

Skellig Michael

Dr. Jenkins had an appointment with a friend in Edinburgh.  But when he got there, the friend's landlord said he'd moved on to Skellig Michael.  Skellig Michael is an island, mountainous and steep, where monks once went for solitude.  A visitor had recently fallen from its cliffs to the ocean and her death only three hours after her arrival.  There Dr. Jenkins went nevertheless, only to find the seas too rough for anyone to risk a boat from the mainland.  For three days he lingered, occasionally speaking to his friend on shortwave radio, his Alabama accent strange on the local ether, before his time grew short and he had to turn back.
Some years later, a colleague took the appointment on as his own, traveled to Ireland, hired a boat, and got within feet of the dock at Skellig Michael.  But the sea was too wild for him to put ashore.  So nothing came of that either.
Late in life, Dr. Jenkins forgot all the particulars and came to believe that he'd once gone to Skellig Michael.  His friends did not disillusion him of this belief.
Later he died.
It is  recorded, though how or by whom is unclear, that after his death Dr. Jenkins came at last to Skellig Michael.  The boat was unsteady, but his foot landed solidly upon the island.  With a song in his heart and a hawk flying far over his shoulder, he began to climb.

And because I'm waxing nostalgic . . .

Here's a story Dr. Jenkins told me:

Rather strange for a professor of English, Dr. Jenkins made a custom of befriending all the writers of any significance in Tidewater Virginia.  Which is how I came to meet Murray Leinster, but that's a different story.  One of those writers was Jack Woodford, who in his time was the king of the soft-porn writers.  In an age when all of the verbs and most of the nouns we use in erotic fiction were strictly tabu, he was the master of implying terrifically smutty scenes using prose fit for a rather naive nun.  In his later life, Woodford stumbled into a remunerative second career as a writer of how-to-write books.  And toward the end his life, because of tragedies that had nothing to do with his career, he was institutionalized in Eastern State Asylum as being mentally ill.

Dr. Jenkins went to visit Woodford regularly.  One day he confided in me that on his most recent visit, as he was leaving, a nurse drew him aside.

"I saw you were visiting Mr. Woodford,"


"The poor dear," she said.  "He thinks he's a writer."

Dr. Jenkins never tried to discourage me from being a writer.  But quietly and without fuss he let me know right at the outset what the price might be.


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Golden College Days . . .


I'm in Williamsburg, Virginia, for a memorial service and, oh, how the memories come flooding back of those golden college days!  Of course, I went to college in the Sixties, so my memories probably aren't much like yours.  Here's one:

My junior year in college, I lived in Old Dominion Dormitory -- known informally as "O. D. Dorm," though nobody ever made the tacky movie the name cries out for -- which, oversimplifying some and doing a great injustice to the serious scholars who lived therein, might be characterized as the Animal House for freaks.  One evening I came back from the shopping center to discover that the entire dorm was surrounded by police cars, lights flashing.  "Excuse me," I said to an officer.  "I live in there.  Could I possibly get past --?"

He turned a face cold with outrage toward me.  "No!"

Oh-kay, I thought.  Giving the peace officers a wide berth (always a good tactic in those days) I circled around the dormitory, trying to figure out what was going on.  And on the side of the building facing Richmond Road, I saw enormous white letters had been freshly painted on the roof, as large as they could possibly be made, reading:

K I L L  C O P S

Obviously this was not a dialogue I wanted to enter into.  So I went to another dorm and found a friend who was willing to put me up for the night.  By morning, the cops were gone and the roof had been mysteriously repainted black.  Later, a friend of mine admitted to painting the roof and told me he was in the dorm attic on his way down when he heard the police noisily approaching.  So he dropped into the roofless sub-attic room of another friend (long story) and gestured for silence.  Eventually, he too made his way safely back to his own room.

Wild horses would not get me to divulge the guilty party's name.  It wasn't me, though.  I was at the shopping center, buying toothpaste.

Above:  The toy store on Duke of Gloucester Street.  Known to the local students as "Dog Street."


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Pickles, Names, and the Road


Marah Searle-Kovacevic has very kindly forwarded some more electric 
pickles pix to me.  Thanks, Marah!  I love the smell of electrified pickles 
in the morning.

I'm on the road again, but I should be able to post something in the morning.  In 
the meantime . . .

And there's been some question lately as to why I pronounce my name wrong, so . . .

Among the reactions to Saturday's introduction to Miss Mrrlees, was Hanah's Dad's peripheral revelation that Robert Silverberg had told him that I pronounce my last name wrong.  To which I have three responses.

First of all, how cool is it that Silverbob knows how I pronounce my name?  That made me happy for the rest of the day.

Secondly, I pronounce the second W in my name as an act of filial piety.  It's the way my father pronounced his name and by the time I learned about the British (or, as they would say in Britain, the "proper") pronunciation of my family name, he was dead and there was nobody I could have asked who might have known how it was changed.  My father was a great guy.  Every time I use the American pronunciation (or, as they would say in Britain, the "wrong" one), it's a small reminder of him.  And it makes me feel happy.

Which said, whenever I'm in England or Scotland, I am careful never to correct people who pronounce my name properly.  Dad wouldn't have either.

And thirdly, it's not at all certain the American pronunciation is the wrong one.  The first time I went to Scotland, I discovered that in the south my name was pronounced "swannick" but that in the north it became "swanwick" again.  So it all depends on where my ancestors came from and how that particular moniker got hung on them.  Alas, like most Americans, I have almost no knowledge about my ancestors at all.  The family Bible was stolen sometime during the Great Depression.  While the family was at my great-grandmother's funeral, I believe.  That sort of thing happened a lot in New York City.

That's the medium-length explanation.  If you want the long one, try buying me a beer and asking me about Orkney.  The short explanation is:  Yes, I pronounce my name wrong, because it's the way I was brought up to pronounce it.  But I don't mean anything bad by it, and I acknowledge that the British pronunciation is almost certainly the correct one.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Long, Lonnnnnnng Titles . . .


Eek!  I just discovered that I never posted yesterday's blog.  I just wrote it out and saved it.  My bad.

And here it is, yesterday's post . . .

I just popped my latest story "For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I'll Not Be Back Again" in the mail today and it got me thinking about titles.  I've been on an desultory long title binge lately -- "From Babel's Fall'n Glory We Fled . . ." leaps to mind -- because I got tired of everything having short, tidy titles to the degree that there are months when the contents page of Asimov's looks like a row of neatly-tied brown shoes.

Seventeen words is nowhere near the record for longest title for a published short story, of course.  But what is?  Does anybody here know?

Above:  It has nothing to do with today's blog, but since I didn't have anything appropriate I thought I'd share this photo of the ghost of a jack-o-lantern.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Introducing Hope


Marianne claimed her Christmas present this morning:  an exquisite gem of a freshly spayed Bengal cat.  There she is, above.  She's been wandering about our house examining everything and taking the occasional break to disappear into a closet and sleep.

She's very small and very beautiful.

It's been a long time since we've had a female cat in this house and that will take some getting used to.  Plus we've never had a small cat in our house and Bengals are only generations divorced from the wild, so the next few months will be a voyage of discovery for us.

You'll  be getting posts whenever I manage to take a good picture of her.  Which is to say, not all that often.

And her name?

Those with weak stomaches may very well want to leave the theater now . . .

 Marianne and I told our son Sean that we needed a name for a beautiful female cat and expressed a preference for something literary.

"That's easy," he said.  "Name her Hope Mirrlees."

Which was almost perfect.  Its only shortcoming was that it wasn't a pun.  So, on reflection, we decided that the newest member of our family would be called:  Miss Helen Hope Mrrlees.  With the accent on the mrr.

Above:  That's Hopie herself.  The picture gives you only the faintest idea of how lovely she is.


Black Friday!

My apologies for not getting yesterday's blog entry up yesterday.  I had to be up at 5 a.m. for the traditional electronics-buying binge at Micro Center, spent the day working on the novel, and then went out to dinner with a friend.

But I'll have a photo of Marianne's Christmas gift posted sometime later this afternoon.

And speaking of the American vernacular . . .

Here's an exchange I witnessed yesterday morning, at the diner we always go to on Black Friday after buying electronics:

Waitress:  What do you want to drink?
Sean:  A cola, please.
Waitress:  A Coke?
Sean:  Sure.
Waitress:  Pepsi okay?


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Reasons To Be Grateful


It's Thanksgiving here in America, a time for gluttony and reflection.  The holiday will be celebrated at my son Sean's apartment, a new but pleasant tradition for us, and there will be all the traditional foods (celery, mashed potatoes, radishes, creamed onions cooked by Dad, jellied cranberry sauce with the can ridges on the sides . . .) that make the meal a true feast.  So it's time to pause and reflect on some small fraction of the things for which I'm grateful:

For family and friends, first and foremost.  For the above-mentioned feast.  For all the joys of culture -- books, movies, plays, the lot.  For having the opportunity to travel to other continents and discover friends in Russia, Sweden, England, Finland, Scotland, Australia, and China.  For still being commercially viable at a time when many worthy writers are losing their publishers.  For living in an age of scientific discovery when every issue of Science News has something worth marveling at.  For living to see Terrestrial life take its first faltering steps beyond the planet.  For living in such a rich world, so filled with pleasures and wonders and experiences that they're available even to me.

And for the fact that when I glanced out the window just now I discovered it was snowing.  Great big clumps of sugar snow sifting slowly down out of the sky.

Happy Thanksgiving Day, everybody.  May you have much to be grateful for, and twice that a year from now.

And on Saturday morning, Marianne receives her big Christmas present early . . .

She couldn't wait.  She's been jonesing for it.  So she's getting it a month early.  There'll be a photo later that day.

Above:  The last roses of autumn.  I'm grateful for them too.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

(Almost) Nothing To Say

I'm working on the novel nonstop right now.  Plus tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day and I plan to spend it doing nothing but eating, loafing, and preparing creamed onions.  In reverse order, of course.

So normally I'd have nothing to say.  But my admirable son Sean dropped by the house a few minutes ago to borrow a few last-minute utensils for the Thanksgiving dinner he'll be making us tomorrow.  And he told us of the following nearly-incredible piece of late-breaking news:

Dick Van Dyke rescued from certain death by friendly dolphins!

Do you doubt me?  Then click here.

And happy Thanksgiving Day to everybody!


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Steampunk Pickles


I'm back from SFContario and working hard on the edited typescript of Dancing With Bears.  So I'm a little short on time for blogging.

But I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the pickle-electrifier that steampunk fashion plate Kevin Groocock demonstrated at the dead dog party.  Tres stylish . . . and it electrifies pickles in a grand manner.  A couple of people at the party took snapshots of the gizmo in action, which they promised to forward to me.  If they do, I'll share 'em with you.

Above:  Kevin Groocock adjusting his magnificent ionization device.


Monday, November 22, 2010

Always Coming Home


I'm on the road again -- only, this time I'm coming home.

SFContario was an enormous success.  I'd thought I would be a great first-con guest because I was aware of how many problems the first iteration of a new convention inevitably has and so wouldn't be offended by them.  But the convention was one of the most smoothly-run I've ever attended.  So they could've had somebody far grumpier for their goh.

Saturday night, at Geri Sullivan's exotic-beer-tasting party (sponsored by every current Worldcon bid and a whole raft of past Worldcons), I sat and talked all evening with Karl Schroeder (pronounced "shrader," incidentally) and Jo Walton.  Which reminded me of an incident thirty-plus years ago, before I had published my first story:

It was at a Disclave and on a Sunday afternoon.  In an hour, we would all be gone, on our way home. There was an airy room, part of the con suite I think, with open windows and big wicker chairs and a gusty wind filling it all.  Gardner Dozois sat on one, Joe Haldeman in another, and George R. R. Martin in a third.  They discussed art and literature and science fiction in an Olympian manner, while we groundlings, gonnabes, and fans crouched at their feet worshipfully, snatching at the crumbs that fell from their mouths.

So finding myself in exactly the same situation with Karl and Jo (who are both smart as a whip!) really brought home to me the circle of life.

And it turns out that I owe Peter Watts an apology . . .

I ran across Peter exactly once during the convention -- and bitterly regret it wasn't a dozen times; he's a very likable and impressive guy -- and apparently he has Google Alerts on his own name because he told me that, contrary to my recent posting that I'd never encountered him, we had met eleven years ago at ConSpec in Edmonton.  Worse, he remembered the conversations we'd had in detail.  Worse, it was clearly a conversation worth treasuring.

I, meanwhile, remember nothing.  Complete strangers come up to me on the street and say, "You don't remember me, do you?" and when I admit this is true, say, "I'm your sister."

What can I say in such a situation?  "Oh."


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fossils Under Ontario


The first SFContario has begun!  So I am busy as busy.

Yesterday afternoon, however, I was in the Royal Ontario Museum enjoying a behind-the-scenes tour of the paleontology department arranged by Rob Sawyer.  Rob, his wife Caroline Clink, Marianne, and I were shown the main collection room, the vertebrate oryctology lab, and of course the museum displays by paleontologist Kevin Seymour.

That's him, above, uncrating the holotype of Parasaurolophus for us to see.  A very cool moment for us all.

At the opening ceremonies for the con, Rob said that we'd gotten the V.I.P. tour -- V.I.P. standing for Very Interested in Paleontology.  I've gotta give him ten points for the witticism.

Above:  There are about a hundred thousand fossils in the main collection room.  You can see a few on the shelves there.


Friday, November 19, 2010

The Stone of Loneliness

Last night I did a reading at the Merril Collection of Speculative Fiction and Fantasy, which is based upon an enormous donation of books by writer and anthologist Judith Merril and was originally named (back in 1970 when it was founded and such a title seemed like a good idea) The Spaced Out Library.  I also got a tour of the stacks, which contain a really astonishing collection of SF and fantasy.

I read my latest completed story, "For I Have Lain Me Down on the Stone of Loneliness and I'll Not Be Back Again" (my latest assault on the current trend toward giving stories damnably short titles) and then went out for Chinese food with the cream of Ontario fandom.

Today, Rob Sawyer is taking me behind the scenes at the Royal Ontario Museum.  And then SFContario begins, and I'll be as busy as busy can be.  I'll let you know how it goes if I can find the free time to post.

And because I've just given myself an excuse to tell my one and only Judy Merrill story . . .

I only met Judith Merril once.  This was at a Readercon, not long before she died.  I was sitting at a table with a batch of writers, talking, when she came up, walking with difficulty, and sat down.

"You're looking good, Judy," somebody said.

She fixed him with a basilisk glare -- the kind of look you give a fool -- and very carefully said, "I am in constant pain."  Then she smiled the very best smile in the world and added, "But what does that matter?"

God bless you, Judy.  You set the standard for us all.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Another Pleasantly Odd Day


It's been another pleasantly odd day in Toronto.  Marianne and I went to Paddington's in the St. Lawrence Market for lunch and had peameal bacon sandwiches -- which for some reason Paddington's calls "the Big Oink."  Delicious, though.  Then we took the ferry to Ward Island and wandered about.

Ward Island is an odd little place -- lots of small houses on small yards off of small roads where motor vehicles are prohibited, and each yard featuring decorations or sculptures or eccentric decorations such as would mark one as the neighborhood oddball if everybody else weren't doing something completely different.

It's a congeries of individuals is I guess what I'm saying.  And their neighborhood association has a permanent croquet lawn.  With astroturf.

Marianne was ready to move there today.  Me, I want to come back in warm weather and spend a full day there.

In the evening we went to see Cinderella at the Four Seasons Center.  It was first-rate, involving, and well worth the money.  But during the intermissions, I counted the people streaming out of their seats and those remaining and discovered that the female to male ratio was roughly eight to one.

Eight to one?  Come on, guys!  Can you really be that afraid of a chick ballet?  Man up!

Above:  A typical Ward Island backyard.  Doesn't it make you want to write a fantasy story and set it there?