Friday, December 30, 2011

A Final Quiet Thought for the Year

Tomorrow is New Year's Eve, a day on which we traditionally deal with the fact that we and everything we know are getting older by making resolutions to spend this precious gift, our lives, better.

But mortality doesn't bother me.  I came to grips with it twenty-eight years and seven months ago, when Sean was born.  After Marianne had held him for a while, the midwife picked him up and placed him in my arms.  I looked down at his little lavender goblin face and a tremendous wave of emotion washed through me and I burst into tears.  Someday, my son, I thought, you're going to grow up and turn me into an old man and then I'll die.  But that's okay.  It's a small price to pay for you.  This sounds like the sort of thing a writer would make up after the fact, but it's not.  Those really were my thoughts, word for word, at the time.

Every year on New Year's Eve, I pause to reflect on the ticking of the clock.  And my original judgment holds true: a good life, a small price.

Happy New Year, everybody!  Spend your lives wisely.  But if you can't do that, waste them well.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

'Tis The Season To Be Gemutlich


It's party season!  And dinner season!  And lunch with friends season!  So Marianne and I have been going to events pretty much every day and enjoying them all.  I won't bore you with the details, other than to say that shown above is literary superstar John Kessel, who generously allowed me to wear his fez.  Alcohol may well have been involved.

So happy party days to us all.  Which is all I have to say, except:  Good Lord, look at John and me -- we're neither of us anybody whom anybody would trust with anything.

And, just because this is America . . .

Let us never forget that peculiar American genius not for art or science or literature (since other nations have been known to do these things well too) but for the misappropriation of categories.  As witness the brilliant accomplishment documented in the following  video.  Enjoy!



Wednesday, December 28, 2011

And the Godless Atheist Christmas Card of the Year Is . . .


The year has wound gracefully to an end and so we are come once again to that moment of reflection and summing up when I and my Not At All Nepotistic Jury of Family choose the Godless Atheist Christmas Card of the Year.

And what a competition it's been!  First, perpetual front-runners and frequent winners John and Judith Clute in a stunning turn of events, disqualified themselves by using as artwork for their card a piece by Judith Clute entitled Penates.  Penates were, as you know, the household gods of ancient Rome, which knocked the "godless" requirement right out the window.  Further, the artwork itself, showing two stylized and overlapping faces reminiscent of shamanistic masks, was undeniable spiritual. Thus rendering the card shockingly appropriate to a season when one turns away from the material and reflects upon those things that matter in the face of eternity.

With the field wide open, impressive entries flooded in from a host of friends.  (Allen and Linda Steele, as usual, comported themselves with a -- dare I say it -- steely lack of religiosity.)  But then, right out of left field, Henry Wessells pointed out to Marianne and myself that our own homemade card was a leading candidate for the honor.  (That's it above, with a gold border added so the scanner would recognize it.)

It was a thunderbolt.  "I had no idea it would be received that way," Marianne said.  "I just thought that the punched snowflakes would look lovely against white paper.  And I added a light sprinkling of glitter."  There was no getting around the fact, however, that black snowflakes against a featureless white strongly suggested a bleak and Godless winter.

But then the noble Jason Van Hollander stepped up to the bat . . . and walloped one out of the park.  Not only did his card contain a welter of demonic  -- some would say Satanic -- imagery, but it also bore the legend JASON VAN HOLLANDER ILLUSTRATION & DESIGN on its front.  Suggesting that it was less a holiday card than a piece of self-advertisement.  Nor did the wonders of the card stop there!  For on the inside, Jason had written, "Dear Folks -- How Can A Christmas Card Be More Godless Than This!"

(That's it -- or most of it -- to the right.  Damn that scanner!)

In any other competition such a blatant acknowledgment that he had cold-bloodedly set out to win the competition would have disqualified Jason immediately.  However, in context, this only made his card more Godless and Atheist than ever.

With a sigh of relief (and a feeling of having ducked the bullet) my Blue Ribbon And Not At All Nepotistic Jury of Family declared that this surely must be the winner.  That evening, in fact, I saw Jason, and assured him that, short of a miracle, he would be taking home the honors for the second year in a row.

And then . . .  And then . . .

Oh, dear God.  A dark miracle occurred.  The very next day, on Christmas Eve itself, we received the card below from Rob Price.  Taking no chances, he enclosed it in a second envelope and signed it with a post-it note so we could reuse it ourselves next year.  As if we would!

The horror!  The horror!  It was a Christmas card so Godless and Atheist that his own wife refused to sign it.  So, with all apologies to Jason, we had no choice but to give the honors to Rob.

The card itself is titled Sketch in Men's Room, Hotel Restaurant Gottfried Moos, Constance, Germany.  It's available from Shutterfly.  You can find their website here.

Above at Top:  The scanner didn't do justice to Marianne's card, which was smooth white with a very light sprinkling of glitter and three elegant black snowflakes glued to it.  A lot of work went into that.

Above:  Are those two dogs on the left hitting on each other?  There can be no bottom to the depths of this card.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Unwritten Stories: Antiheroes in Hell


I don't contribute to many theme anthologies simply because it's rare that I can come up with an appropriate story idea on a schedule.  I like to tell editors that I've learned how to ride my imagination, but not how to tell it where to go.

But occasionally I get invited and, if it's an interesting theme, I always look inside myself to see if there's an appropriate idea simmering away.  So, long ago, when I was asked to contribute to the Heroes in Hell series, I gave it some thought.

There were a lot of top-notch writers playing in Janet Morris's sandbox in those days.  Robert Silverberg penned a H-in-H tale wherein  Robert E. Howard met Gilgamesh.  As a result, I'd read many maybe even most, of the stories.  And it seemed to me that a formula had spontaneously developed:  Two famous people meet in Hell.  They have a conversation.  Then they travel hundreds of miles, hiding whenever one of the Armies of Hell go by.  Then they have another conversation.  And so on.  The traveling-and-hiding parts were the least interesting ones.  Wouldn't it be better, I reasoned, if instead they sat in a room and, whenever the Armies of Hell marched by, hid behind the couch?

Of course it would.  So the next question was which two famous people to choose?

The obvious choice, given the mileu, was the author of "No Exit" -- Jean-Paul Sartre.  So I needed somebody -- an intellectual, of course -- who would drive him right up the wall and in return be driven mad by him.  Who?

Again, the question answered itself:  John W. Campbell.

I pictured the two men sitting in overstuffed chairs, sucking on their pipes.  Suddenly Campbell jabs the stem of his pipe at his opposite.  "Sartre!" he says.  "It seems to me that two smart cookies like us ought to be able to put our noggins together and come up with a way out of this Hell place.  I once put a problem very much like this to a couple of my writers and their protagonist managed to cobble together a glider and use the thermals from the infernal fires to fly out!  Now, I'm not saying that's the solution ... but its the kind of thinking we ought to do."

In response to which, Sartre mutters, "Merde alors!" and retires into a sullen funk.

And at this point I realized that I had both summarized and exhausted the fun to be had from this idea.  Yes, I could have written it, and Morris would probably have bought it.  Editors are better sports about writers subverting their instructions than you'd expect.  But the amount of research it would have taken to get both Campbell's voice and Sartre's pitch-perfect was far greater than I was up for.

So the story was never written.

I look back on that unwritten story with a touch of tristesse, sometimes.  But for every work of fiction that gets written, there are a dozen that don't.  There are a million stories in the naked city . . . but most of them never reach print.

And come back tomorrow . . .

I'll be announcing the winner of this year's Godless Atheist Christmas Card competition on Wednesday.  Be there or be square!  As the young people used to say.


Monday, December 26, 2011

Soft! Kitty! Klingon! Yikes!


I've written novels.  I've written stories.  I've posted blogs.  I've done lots and lots of things with words.  But I've never launched a meme that went viral.

Klingon language maven Lawrence M. Schoen, however, has.  Potentially.  His Facebook video of himself singing "Soft Kitty" in Klingon (his own translation!) hasn't yet ripped through the blogosphere (or whatever it is that you young kids call it these days) like a bat'leth through soft butter, even though it's been up for days.

What's wrong with us?

C'mon, guys.  Let's put our shoulders behind this.  Blog, forward, reblog, tweet, and faceboo.  I won't be satisfied until Lawrence has a guest appearance on The Big Bang Theory.

And on Wednesday . . .

We're coming up on the conclusion of this year's Godless Atheist Christmas Card competition.  And, oh dear God, what a roller coaster it's been this year.  Thrills! Tears!  Last minute turnarounds!  It's been such an amazing year that the Blue Ribbon And Not At All Nepotistic Jury of My Immediate Family decided we'd have to wait two days after Christmas to see if something even more Godless and Atheistic than what was already received might yet pop up in our mailbox.

In any other year, that would seem impossible.  Given what today's front leader is.


Friday, December 23, 2011

Unca Mike's Christmas Story 2011: Herald Angels


Time for a new tradition!  Every year, on Christmas Eve, I tell my family a story I've made up for the occasion.  Sometimes it's serious, like "Honkeytonk Angels" or "Christmas in Winooski."  Other times it's very, very silly, like last year's "A Chrismoose Carol."  Some are throwaways and others in retrospect I probably should have written down.  But what the heck.  I can always write more.

Anyway, it occurs to me that all my friends out there in cyberspace deserve a Christmas story too.  So here for your entertainment is . . .

Herald Angels

It’s a job, heralding is, nothing more.  Oh yeah, sometimes you get a prestigious gig announcing the birth of God or the end of the world.  More usually, it’s just a supermarket opening or the invention of a new flavor of toothpaste.  You pop in, announce, “You’ve got lung cancer,” and then pop out again.  Mission accomplished.
A moron could do your job.  Provided that moron had the gifts of precognition, heavenly radiance (so the marks know you’re not a hallucination), uncanny beauty, instantaneous teleportation, and a deep and resonant speaking voice.  It’s the rarity of these qualities being found all together in a single individual that keeps you from farming the work out.
Sometimes you meet a fellow heralder and then the two of you wax nostalgic about the old days when angel heralding meant hanging in the inky vastness of nonexistence, trumpets ready, to announce the sudden and inexplicable emergence of a universe from the invisible confines of a non-dimensional monoblock.  Or the rare and inexplicable beauty of a single hydrogen atom pulling itself up out of the quantum foam into the realm of being.  You remember heralding the creation of concepts that are the building blocks of reality:  Love!  Beauty!  Electroweak Interaction!
But then break time’s over and back to work you go.  You don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.  And do it you will, because an angel is faithful, one hundred percent.  Horton has nothing on you.
“Troy’s decided to invite you to the prom,” you tell a temporarily ecstatic teenage girl.  “Also, your zits are back.”


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Treasure Private Island Lives


It's Christmas time which means, among other things, that it's a good time for light theater.  And this week I did my part.

Last Thursday I went to see the Lantern Theater Company production of Noel Coward's Private Lives.  Imagine my delight on discovering that somehow I'd never seen it before.  Private Lives is lighter than an air souffle.  A divorced man and women meet by accident on the first night of their second marriages.  Almost instantly their passion for each other rekindles and they run off together and resume the bickering that doomed their first go-around.  And, um... well, that's about it, really.  At the time Coward wrote it, there was a certain amount of substance to the contrast between two people who love each other for who they are and the jilted spouses who are in love with the roles they are presumed to fill because of their gender.  But nowadays, one full wave of feminism later, none of this comes as anything new.

What the play is, however, is very very funny.  And the actors were obviously having a great time. Ben Dibble has come in for a great deal of praise for his portrayal of Elyot, and I'll confess to being half in love with Geneviève Perrier's Amanda -- particularly the extraordinary expressiveness of her face, which is in constant motion and a silent comentary on the plot throughout.  But there isn't a flat performance in the show.  It's all fizz and champagne.

And today . . .

Today I went to the panto!

For most of my lives I wondered what the heck was with Christmas pantomimes.  The Brits always included them in reminiscences of the holidays of their childhoods, but never explained what they were.  It was assumed you knew.

Well, last year I finally went to one, at People's Light & Theatre in Malvern, PA, and it was such a hoot that I made it an annual tradition.

The panto is theater without pretensions.  It involves lots of music and puns and jokes, handfuls of candy flung out into the audience, broad acting, a young woman dressed up as a punk parrot, a large man wearing dresses gaudy enough to satisfy an entire company of cross-dressing mummers, star-crossed lovers, scurvy pirates, a happy ending, and what might conceivably pass as a plot if you squint at it just right.

Treasure Island, this year's production, was a hoot and a half. 

I wonder why it took so long for Americans to catch on to this?  I know that when I was a kid I would have loved it.

And did you know . . . ?

Noel Coward, incidentally, was a spy in WWII.  I am not making this up.  He was the Twentieth Century's own Scarlet Pimpernel.  “I was the perfect silly ass,” he said much later. “Nobody ... considered I had a sensible thought in my head, and they would say all kinds of things that I’d pass along.”  Among other things, he kept an eye on the Duke of Windsor whom he privately despised as a Nazi sympathizer.  After the war, it was discovered that he was on the German death-list of people to be immediately killed upon the conquest of Britain.

You can read an article about it here

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Russia Captures the Imagination


There's a new interview of me up at SF Signal.  It was conducted by Bradley P. Beaulieu and I'm pleased with how it came out.  So kudos to Mr. Beaulieu.

You can find it here.

And it turns out that there is hope for me . . .

I'm not old yet, but I'm getting there.  And here's an early sign that old age will work out well for me:  The first trailer has been released for the movie based on The Hobbit, and I find I have problem waiting a year to see it.  I'm just glad that it looks like a decent bit of work.

You've probably seen the trailer already.  So I won't inflict it on you.  Instead, here's Terry Gilliam's video Christmas card.  I like to think of it as being not so much mean-spirited as surreal.



Monday, December 19, 2011

Working Hard Ain't Hardly Working


I'm playing hooky today from all the obligations and chores, answering of emails, posting of packages, scanning of contracts, and suchlike, to just sit and write.  I'll probably work on three or four of the stories that I'm actively engaged in and put in a little more wordage on one of the novels.

In the picture above, you can see some of the post-it notes I use to keep track of what's on the front burner.  The pink slips are novels, but only the top two are being actively written.  The rest are just there to keep them in mind.  The green slips are short fiction, and most of them are more than half written.  Mostly, though, they're alive in my imagination and jostling for attention.

And so I have a question . . .

I'm writing a scene set in a bar just before the Chicxulub Impactor kills everybody and somebody sits down to the piano and begins to play Hey Jude and The Sloop John B, which go over well, and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, which bombs.

Which got me to wondering.  What songs would be good to play if you knew nobody was going to make it to morning.  Closing Time by Leonard Cohen?  Or maybe It's The End Of The World As We Know It?  

Bar music, obviously.  If I were alone, I'd put on Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

Any ideas?

Above:  Yeah, my desk looks like a tip.  Creation is not pretty.  You should have seen God's desk when he was creating the universe.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Women Are Beautiful

Here we are with visual proof that most women are beautiful.  I'm married to a beautiful woman.  If you're an adult female, chances are that you are a beautiful woman.  Here's why that fact isn't as self-evident to you as it is to me.


Friday, December 16, 2011

"Is All This Cheese Real?"


Happy Holidays!  This morning, Marianne and I went to DiBruno Brothers, the world's best and most crowded cheese shop, to buy cheeses and various olives, and pickled octopus, and cured meats.  We dropped a bundle.  A Christmas tradition, you ask?  Oh, no, no, no.  We were must buying the makings of lunch.

We've been going to DiBruno's for over a third of a century.  When Sean was teething, I carried him in my arms and let him gnaw on the top of the loaf of bread (from Sarcone's, which is to bread what DiBruno's is to cheese).  We've seen a generation of cheesemongers grow old and retire and be replaced by younger relatives.

My best memory of DiBruno's is the time an out-of-stater, gawking wonderingly about her at the astonishing variety of cheeses, asked, "Is all this cheese real?"

"What do you mean real?" one of the guys behind the counter asked.

"I mean, is any of it processed cheese food?"

And everybody in the shop -- everybody! -- laughed.

And speaking of yesterday's advice . . .

On Thursday I wrote about the importance of a strong opening and ending to a story you're hoping to sell.  Chad Hull asked, "Do you think it applies to people who are already established and proven; such as yourself?  Or can the already established writer get away with 3, 5, or 8 pages of setting before something happens?"

Good question.  There are exceptions to every rule.  Gardner Dozois, for example, once started a story (the quite wonderful "Executive Clemency") with a very long description of an idiot watching sunlight move across a floor.  But it was a gripping description of an idiot watching sunlight move across a floor, a compelling description of an idiot watching sunlight move across a floor.  Once you read the first sentence, it was impossible not to read on and on.  And, come to think, it wasn't scene-setting at all but an important part of the story's action. 

If you're a name, you get a smidge more attention, if only because the editor wants to make absolutely positively sure that you're completely lost it before spreading the word to every other editor in the industry.  But if the story is so good that it sells anyway, the editor is going to want you to remove those 3, 5, or 8 pages of scene-setting.  Because readers are every bit as fickle as editors -- and they're not being paid for reading.  They flip through the magazine, read the first couple of paragraphs of your story, and if they're not grabbed, they move on.

In all my thirty-plus years as a published writer, I've only broken the unwritten rules for story openings twice, once deliberately and once by accident.  The deliberate one was "Slow Life," which began with a long description of the chemistry of a raindrop falling through the atmosphere of Titan.  For the New Yorker that would have been a deal-breaker.  But I sold it to Analog, where I felt the memory of Larry Niven's early fiction, which often began with a physics lecture, would linger.

The other was "Wild Minds," which began with the sentence, I met her at a businesspersons' orgy in London.  After I'd sold it to Asimov's, editor Sheila Williams said, "You know, we usually don't buy stories that begin with a sex scene.  That's an almost infallible sign of amateurism."

Um . . . well . . . actually I hadn't know that.  But now I do.

And so, too, do you.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

Something Every Gonnabe Writer MUST Know


I've always regretted I didn't have a video camera with me the time I dropped in on Gardner Dozois at the Asimov's Science Fiction offices and, before going out to lunch, he went through a two-foot-high pile of submissions in fifteen to twenty minutes.  While we had a pleasant conversation about other matters.

The video would have shown Gardner pick up the first manuscript, read the first page, turn to the last page, read that, and then put down the story.  Then he did exactly the same thing with the next.  And the next.  All the way down to the bottom.  At the end of which he had two piles -- one for people who might someday write something good, who received a polite rejection slip; and one for those who never would, who received a discouraging rejection slip.  He set aside exactly one story to actually read.

Not buy.  Read.

I've talked with any number of editors about this and they all agree:  That's all the time they need to tell if a story might be publishable.  Fifteen seconds -- maybe thirty, tops.  

Over the years, I've taught at the various Clarion Workshops, and I'm here to tell you that the single most common mistake not-yet-published writers make is to spend several pages setting the scene before anything actually happens.  Reading their typescripts, I'll strike out paragraph after page before finally coming to the point on Page 3 or 5 or 8 where I write:  BEGIN HERE.

Because no matter how brilliant the story is, no editor is going to read it unless something interesting has happened before the second page.

So here's what every writer hoping someday to be published must know:  Your very best prose should come at the beginning and end of the story.  Because that's what's going to catch your editor's attention.

Oh, and the electronic submission revolution?  Last convention I went to, an editor told me that she loved electronic submissions because then she didn't feel obligated to read all the way to the bottom of the first page.

And here's a case in point . . .

I picked up the new Granta yesterday and read "The Infamous Bengal Ming" by Rajesh Parameswaran.  It's about a Bengal tiger with a complicated emotional life.  Here's the first sentence:

The one clear thing I can say about Wednesday, the worst and most amazing day of my life, is this:  it started out beautifully.

And here's the last:

I had never felt so much love in all my life.

The first sentence is an attention-grabber.  You wouldn't want the entire story to be written in such elaborate prose (not this particular story, anyway), but it alerts you to the fact that Parameswaran is one heck of a writer.  The final sentence gains its considerable emotional strength from the cumulative effect of the rest of the story.  But even the most superficial reader can figure out that this writer has stuff

And even the most superficial editor would put it on the To Read pile.

Above:  This card was sent to me by my college chum Mario, who collects pop-up books.  It has absolutely zilch chance of winning this year's Godless Atheist Christmas Card competition.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

An Armful of Toys and a Sad Thought for Christmas


The Christmas tree is up and lit but the ornaments -- millions! galaxies! universes of them! -- await tonight when we'll light a fire in the wood stove and bring out boxes and boxes of decorations from  storage.

This morning Marianne and I spent shopping.  We went to an independent bookstore and bought Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Dangerous Book for Boys.  Then we bought an alien invasion set of Legos, an enormous tub of Duplos and a stuffed toy dog that was as big as a real one.  And then we dropped them off at the Toy Drive bin at our bank.

There was an article in the paper this morning saying that, because of the economy, donations to Toys for Tots are down eighty percent this year.  So we thought we'd take in a little bit of the slack.  As we were carrying the toys back to our car, Marianne said sadly, "Imagine not being able to buy your children Christmas presents."

I can't.

You have no idea how grateful I am to be able to say that.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Watch the Players in White


This turns out to be a surprisingly nifty video.  Watch it and you'll see what I mean.  It demonstrates an important principle too.

Marianne and I were in Center City this morning, because we needed black envelopes, and on impulse had lunch at Parc.  That's why she looks so happy above.  She had a glass of white wine and I had a sazarac.  Then three different types of oysters.  And then lunch.  We sat at a window table overlooking the Curtis Institute.  Which is why I wasn't surprised to see a rather punkish-looking young man roller-skating purposefully down the middle of the street with a French horn case in one hand an a trumpet in the other.

If you know an adolescent mired in the Slough of Despond, tell 'em that I've been there and it gets better.  Lots, lots better.

Above:  I missed the color change AND the gorilla.  I like to think it's because I'm admirably focused.  


Monday, December 12, 2011

The Parable of the Creche Scene


This is the time of year when some folks get upset about other folks saying "Happy Holidays!" rather than "Merry Christmas!"   What makes this particularly ironic is that in my experience the biggest offenders are the church ladies at Roxborough Baptist Church.  I've had them wish me "Happy Holidays!" in church on Christmas Eve.

Why?  Because they're Christians and they don't want to inadvertently hurt anybody's feelings or make them feel excluded.

People are complicated and nobody could with justice claim that we're a logically consistent bunch.  Here's a true story.  I call it . . .

The Parable of the Creche Scene

When I first came to Roxborough, thirty years ago, I was amazed to discover that every year a creche scene was erected in Gorgas Park.  It was privately funded, I believe, but Gorgas Park belongs to the City of Philadelphia, so the creche was an obvious violation of the principle of the separation of church and state.  "Sooner or later," I said at the time, "somebody's going to complain."

And, sure enough, several years later, somebody did.  So the city, knowing which side the courts would take, announced that they would not allow the creche to be placed in the park.

This got almost everybody upset.  The creche was one of those things that had "always" been done and people looked forward to it.  There were angry mutterings and intemperate words. 

In the midst of this storm of bad feelings, Leverington Presbyterian Church, which was located directly across the street from Gorgas Park, stepped in to save the day.  They found out who actually owned the creche, and arranged for it to be displayed throughout the Christmas season on the lawn in front of the church.  Now the creche could be experienced by the community just like before.  The only difference was that it was located a few dozen feet away from its original location.  It was an act of wisdom worthy of Solomon.

But were people happy?

No.  The local weekly paper was flooded with letters complaining that the church had hijacked the creche scene and was trying to use it for their own religious purposes.

And so . . .

Happy Holidays, everybody!  And, since I enjoy saying it, Merry Christmas too!  I don't give a damn who that offends.

Above:  There's the creche scene as it exists today in front of Leverington Presbyterian.  It was good of them to adopt it, and I'm always happy to see it come back.


Friday, December 9, 2011

Holy Guacamole!

Almost . . . almost I didn't blog today.  There were reasons, but never mind them.  I almost didn't blog.  This is a big deal to me because right at the start, some thousand-plus posts ago, I committed to blogging every Monday and Friday.  Wednesdays I aspired to but didn't guarantee.  Tuesdays and Thursdays weren't even mentioned in the implicit contract.

Imagine my surprise to find myself consistently blogging five days a week, almost every week!  Who the hell was this organized man?  Assuredly not me.  I am the least organized of human beings.

So imagine my dismay when, five minutes ago, lying in bed and falling asleep,  I realized that I had let down the side.  Wearily, I got up and went to the 'puter.  Local time:  11;38 p.m.  Not quite midnight.  Which meant I hadn't failed yet.

And I wrote this.

Not up to my usual standards, admittedly.  But here.  Posted. 

Honor is served.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Minion Master Lays Down the Word


Okay, so yesterday I wrote:

One of the Best of the Year editors contacted me yesterday to say that two of my stories were being picked up for this year's volume.
I won't specify which editor or which stories because these guys like to keep their lineups close to the vest until they're ready to issue a press release.

And shortly thereafter, Gardner emailed me:
I don't care if you tell people.
To which I replied:
No, no, no.  You're a proud man and quick to anger.  It would be worth my life to cross you in even the slightest way. 

And Gardner counter-replied:

I would send my dread and fell minions out against you!
The man has minions!  No wonder all of science fiction quakes at his slightest frown.

But, luckily, Gardner posted the following on Facebook today:
For those of you who are interested, here's the Table of Contents for my THE YEAR'S BEST SCIENCE FICTION, Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection:

THE CHOICE, Paul McAuley
SILENTLY AND VERY FAST, Catherynne M. Valente
LAIKA'S GHOST, Karl Schroeder
THE VICAR OF MARS, Gwyneth Jones
DOLLY, Elizabeth Bear
ASCENSION DAY, Alastair Reynolds
WHAT WE FOUND, Gepff Ryman
THE DALA HORSE, Michael Swanwick
THE ICE OWL, Carolyn Ives Gilman
CODY, Pat Cadigan
DIGGING, Ian McDonald
A MILITANT PEACE, David Klecha & Tobias S. Bucknell
THE IRON SHIRTS, Michael Flynn
DYING YOUNG, Peter M. Ball
So it's probably safe to admit that two of my stories were picked up by Gardner Dozois for his best of the year volume.
But just to be safe, I'll be hiding in Undisclosed Subterranean Location with a year's supply of food and a surplus minion costume to help me escape any sudden attacks.  Just in case.
Above: Miss Helen Hope Mirrlees is not in the least impressed by any of this.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Even More Christmasy Than Yesterday.


As always, I'm on the road again.  It's just how I roll these days. In the meantime, I hear you ask:  What could possibly be more Christmasy than yesterday's H.P. Lovecraft Cthulhu Carol?

Hardly anything.  Except Cousin Bobby.  Above.  Enjoy.

And I had pleasant news recently . . .

One of the Best of the Year editors contacted me yesterday to say that two of my stories were being picked up for this year's volume.

I won't specify which editor or which stories because these guys like to keep their lineups close to the vest until they're ready to issue a press release.  But it was very satisfying news for me.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Disturbing Christmas Video du Jour


This one's for all you fans of H.P. Lovecraft out there.  Merry Christmas, guys!

Above:  A musical version of 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth' by H.P Lovecraft.  Set to a song composed by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society.  You can find them here.
  If you're mad enough to want to.


Monday, December 5, 2011

Set Course for Arcturus!


I spent the day working on the novel and got three pages done -- not bad for me.  In fact, since I still have to go to China to research the novel, it's amazing I'm as far into as I am.  So I don't have a lot to report, other than that the mail came today.

But what good mail!  I got my contributor's copy of StarShipSofa Tales Volume 3 -- and a very odd enterprise it is too.  I contributed "Cold Reading" to it, and this is probably going to be its only appearance in physical print.  (It was originally published online.)  Here's the table of contents:

Fiction Writers

“Electric Ladyland” by Matthew Sanborn Smith (Illustrated by Daniel Tozer)
“That Blissful Height” by Gregory Frost (Illustrated by Simon Watkins)
“Feedback” by Joe Haldeman (Illustrated by Jack Calverley)
“In The Harsh Glow of Its Incandescent Beauty” by Mercurio D. Rivera (Illustrated by Timothy Booth)
“Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese” by Nicola Griffith (Illustrated by Jerel Dye)
“Nimbus” by Peter Watts (Illustrated by Evan Forsch)
“Luck” by James Patrick Kelly (Illustrated by Patrick McEvoy)
“Where Virtue Lives” by Saladin Ahmed (Illustrated by Ben Greene)
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time” by Catherynne M. Valente (Illustrated by Mike Dubisch)
“The Occurrence at Slocombe Priory” by Paul Cornell (Illustrated by Thomas Crielly)
“Sunsets and Hamburgers by Gareth L. Powell (Illustrated by Bradley W. Schenck)
“Martyrs of The Upshot Knothole” by James Morrow (Illustrated by Brian Thomas Woods)
“Newts” by Kevin J. Anderson (Illustrated by Richard Case)
“Cold Reading” by Michael Swanwick (Illustrated by Peter Snejbjerg)
“Drink For The Thirst To Come” by Lawrence Santoro (Illustrated by Daniele Serra)
“In Pacmandu” by Lavie Tidhar (Illustrated by Graeme Neil Reid)
“Age of Miracles, Age of Wonders” by Aliette de Bodard (Illustrated by Mark Zug)
“World Without End, Amen” by Allen Steele (Illustrated by Brent Holmes)
“The Happiest Dead Boy In The World” by Tad Williams (Illustrated by Ben Wootten)
“Nothing Ever Happens In Rock City” by Jack McDevitt (Illustrated by Dave Krummenacher)
“Halfway People” by Karen Joy Fowler (Illustrated by Patrick McEvoy)
“Friction” by Will McIntosh (Illustrated by Jouni Koponen)
“Just A Couple of Subversive Alien Warmongers Floating All Alone in the Night” by Adam Troy Castro (Illustrated by Doug Holverson)
“News From 2025″ by David Brin (Illustrated by Bradley W. Schench)

Fact Writers

Joy of The Flicks by Dennis M. Lane
Top Ten “Must Read” Time Travel Works by Amy H. Sturgis
Comics: what have they done for Us lately? by Frederic Himebaugh
Science Fiction Through The Looking Glass: the Ape, the Alien and the Android by Morgan Saletta (Illustrated by Timothy Booth)

The book also has a page for each of the contributors showing ourselves and our offices, along with something odd and extra.  In my case, it's my autobiography, which consists of two words, one repeated many times and the other not.

And in the same mail . . .

I also got a box of trade paperbacks of Dancing With Bears from Night Shade Books.  So It's now in softcover, priced at a quite reasonable $14.99 American.

So I am content, and hope you are too.


Friday, December 2, 2011

Flying Into Philadelphia


Look what I found this morning!  There's a new sculpture in Lenfest Plaza by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts -- Grumman Greenhouse by Jordan Griska.   It was created by taking a Cold War surplus Grumman Tracker II, folding it, and converting parts of its interior into greenhouses.

Either you like this sort of thing or you don't.  Me, I love it.

In the background, you may notice the latest Claes Oldenburg installation in my home city, Paint Torch.  Not only is it great art, but it lights up at night.

Philadelphia just keeps getting better and better.

And as long as I've got your attention . . .

I was researching Dragonstairs Press's Christmas card yesterday, and I ran across the assertion that the "five golden rings" in the Twelve Days of Christmas refers to ring-necked pheasants, thus making the first seven presents all avian.  

I'm not perfectly sold on that (though it does sound convincing that "calling birds" were originally "colly birds" or blackbirds), but I also ran across somebody's speculation that the "drummers drumming" were grouse and "lords a-leaping" were male cock pheasants.  Which brings the total to nine.

So, being so close, I thought I'd create an etymologically-dubious version of the song for ornithologists and birders.  And I could use your suggestions for the piper piping, ladies dancing, and maids a-milking.  Are the pipers sandpipers?  Are the ladies dancing kildeers?  What on earth could the maids possibly be?

All suggestions welcome.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

World Famous Art Dirt Cheap


This is unexpected.  Carhenge is up for sale.

For only three hundred thousand dollars.  Which means you only have to be mildly rich to buy a world-famous work of art.  And a universally-recognized symbol of America.  And the cultural hotpoint where landscape art meets tacky roadside attraction.

You can read the article here.

There's a brief history of Carhenge here.

And the website for Carhenge is here.

And while I'm blogging old-school . . .

Remember when blogs were nothing but lists of interesting links?  Sometime back in the Sixties that was, I think.  Anyway, here's a link to a National Geographic article (with the usual caveat that the Nat is far from infallible when it comes to paleontology) that suggests that Neanderthals were loved to death!

The coarser among us might choose to use a more Anglo-Saxon verb.

Click here.

And also . . .

A time traveler was arrested at the Large Hadron Collider.  He was trying to prevent a hellish future with "limitless energy, the elimination of poverty, and Kit Kats for everybody."  Apparently the folks in the future have forgotten exactly how bad things can get.

CERN physicist Professor Brian Cox had the most insightful comment on the matter.

Click here.

And just one more . . .

I just now saw the trailer for John Carter, which raises so many questions:  Is this really a Disney movie?  Why?  And why did they drop of Mars from the title when even the most cursory glance at its contents will reveal that's it's Way Old TImey Science Fiction?  But what really struck me about it is the fact that its aesthetic is emphatically derived from video games.  This is almost ironic.

It's almost ironic because video games ripped off all the old swords-and-planet SF with both hands and no acknowledgments.  Now, when games are big as big but all the biggest games have already been CGI'd and slapped onto the silver screen, Hollywood reaches into the past for the sources to give us a game-like experience.

This would actually be ironic, if it weren't for the fact that this is the way that all literary art works.

Anyway, here's the trailer.  This movie would have been so unspeakably cool if it had been made thirty-five years ago, before the first Star Wars film.  I would have wept tears of joy.


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Autumn Splendor


Why do I live in the city?  Because the city has everything you might want.  You want theater?  It's got theater.  You want extreme art?  You got extreme art.  You want autumn splendor at an isolated stream with a small watermill?  It's the city!  You got it.

This is my Philadelphia.

And for a change . . .

I'm not on the road -- my trip got postponed.  I plan to spent the entire day doing nothing but lazing about writing.

Above:  The Morris Arboretum.  Or, rather, a small portion of it.


Monday, November 28, 2011

A Few Heartfelt Words of Praise for the Philadelphia Police


Yesterday Marianne and I went down to City Hall to see if any of our Occupy Philadelphia friends were going to need to be bailed out.  As it turned out, no.  The OP folks were still involved in a complex dance of negotiation with the city, and the Philadelphia police continued to show gentlemanly restraint.  It made me proud to be a Philadelphian.

Which doesn't mean that things won't go Berkley sometime in the future.  But that's just another reason to tell this story while I can.

A couple of years ago there was a big G7 meeting in Philadelphia.  Protesters showed up from all over.  Back in the days when Frank Rizzo was mayor, there would have been some serious police violence.  Luckily, Rizzo was in the distant past and John Timoney was police commissioner.  Timoney was a real hard-nosed type and didn't tolerate unlawful behavior from anybody.  Not even police.

That's the background.  Here's the story.  It's a clip I saw on the news at the time.

The protesters were walking on a sidewalk, obeying the laws and chanting slogans.  At the curb was a police car and, sitting in it, a fat cop looking bored.  Suddenly an -- and I use this term advisedly -- asshole leaned into the car and hit the cop in the face with pepper spray!

In a flash, the cop was out of the car, roaring with anger, and pulling his gun.

And in that same instant, there was a police officer running alongside him, shouting, "Put down the gun!  Put down the gun!"

And, coming to his senses, the cop did. 

 It was the most astonishing proof of the value of good training.  The officer on the street knew exactly what to do . . . and two tragedies were averted.  One being whatever might have happened had the cop fired his gun.  The other being what would have happened to the cop as a result of a moment's perfectly understandable outrage.

Last I heard, Timoney was working in Miami.  I hope they deserve him.  The guy walks on water.

Above:  Big rally at City Hall.   Last night.  No violence.  This is what America looks like.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

Fortean FIsh


We have a small water feature in our backyard, a pot buried almost to its rim.  That's it up above.  It looks a lot better in the summer when the water lettuce are healthy.  There's a small water pump which doesn't show in this shot.

In the pot we keep a few goldfish.  Last winter, which was colder than usual, they all died, so this spring I bought five and put them in the pot.  We fed them and they grew and thrived.

Over the summer, two disappeared, leaving us with a total of three.  I assumed raccoons.

And then one morning I went out to feed the fish and counted five.  They were all the same size and we hadn't seen any minnows, so their appearance was astonishing.  "Did somebody dump their fish in our pot?" I wondered.

Last August, alas, all the fish disappeared.  I kept feeding them for several days anyway.  The food floated on the surface for a long time, uneaten.  I couldn't find any of the fish when I moved the water lettuce around.  And then...  And then...

One morning I came out to find all five fish floating dead atop the water.  I buried them.  I mourned.  I moved on.

And of course, I stopped feeding them.

This morning, Marianne spotted a fish in the pot.  And then a second one.  I looked, and there they were.

Is somebody playing with my head?  Are we getting drizzles of Fortean fish-rain?  Is it possible that God has a weird sense of humor?

This is worse than New Math.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Happy Evacuation Day!


It's November 25.  I trust that all Americans are observing Evacuation Day today, the one time of the year that we celebrate what Linus called, "the weaselly slinking-back of the British sons of bitches to the pathetic scumbag kingdom they called home" at the end of the War of Independence.

Okay, that quote from A Charlie Brown Evacuation Day is the fictitious creation of the Daily Show.  But the holiday itself, celebrating the day when the last of the occupying British troops left New York in 1783, is well worth remembering.  As are the eleven thousand American soldiers who died in the prison ships, when they could have been released if only they'd been willing to renounce their country and pledge allegiance to the crown.

You can find Sarah Vowell's explanation here.  (I believe it's only up for a brief time.)  There's not a lot of laughs, but there is a lot to think about.

It's worth mentioning that, fun though it is to heap vituperation on the British soldiers, they started out the war as good guys -- the troops at Lexington and Concord were under strict orders to put down the rebellion without hurting anyone.  And yet they ended up creating something that Jon Stewart compared to Abu Ghraib.

This is something I wish every leader in every country in the world would think about long and hard.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Your REAL Thanksgiving Feast


What foods are required for a Thanksgiving dinner to be authentic?  I like to ask that question of friends because the answers are surprisingly interesting.  You'd think the lowest number would be one -- turkey.  But I've found any number of people who said ham.  Or Chinese food.  Or "Anything at all."  These last people are probably the holiday's natural citizens . . . folks who are grateful for all the good things they receive and do not dictate what they should be.  I admire such people.  But I'm not one of them.

For the record, then.  Here's what I require for a Thanksgiving feast to be real:

Turkey (of course)
Stuffing (real sausage-and-bread stuffing, not those things involving oysters or cornbread or pecans)
Mashed potatoes
Radishes (cut into radish roses)
Sweet midget pickles
Creamed onions (these last are so important that I cook them myself)
Cranberry sauce (the jellied stuff with the ridges, straight out of the can, and Mama Stamberg's cranberry relish both)

The smallest number of required items was zero.  The largest -- and I apologize for not having counted; I was standing stunned with admiration -- came from my New England friend Gail, who required three separate cranberry dishes (one relish, but not Stamberg) and, among many other dishes, three different pies . . . and the squash pie had to be baked in a square dish.

It was only when she was an adult that she realized that the reason the squash pie was always baked in a square dish was that by the time the women of her family got around to it, every round pie pan had been used.

So how about y'all?  What do you require for a Thanksgiving feast to be real?

Above:  I spray-painted autumn leaves and stamped DEATH on them so I could strew 'em about the parks of Philadelphia.  But it's been raining all week, so I didn't have the opportunity.  Believe it or not, I found them waiting on the table yesterday, making a natural Thanksgiving centerpiece.


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Anne McCaffrey, 1926 - 2011

Today is an international day of mourning for science fiction readers.  Anne McCaffrey is dead.

You almost certainly knew this already.  The news spread faster than wildfire.  Most SF writer blogs will devote today to the great lady's passing.  Memories will be shared.  Words will be dropped at her feet.

I met Ms McCaffrey only once, at a Forbidden Planet signing in London in the 1980s.  She had endless lines of fans -- mostly young women wearing natural fabrics in earth tones -- each with the sort of expression a devout Catholic might have in the presence of the Pope.  I had a much shorter line of young men in punk leather who shrank away from me in horror when I said I was working on a fantasy novel.

During the time when my signing was done and McCaffrey's was still going on and on and on, I reflected on the fact that almost every one of her acolytes clutched an enormous stack of her books.  There's my mistake, I thought.  I haven't written a tremendous number of novels that readers love passionately.

There is much that could be said in praise of McCaffrey's work.  But I'll leave that to everybody else.  She wrote a tremendous number of novels that readers love passionately.  That's the epitaph that we're all working toward.

And now she has it.

Rest in peace, Anne.  Thanks for the books.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

In Which I Witness Cultural History . . .


I never watch The Big Bang Theory because my son forbids it.  He tells me that it's an ethnic slur against his kind.  Marianne and I are expected to watch Community instead.  (A friend who works for Community College of Philadelphia tells me that the latter is an ethnic slur against his kind, but that's another story.) 

Which makes it ironic that I was present at a historic cultural nerd-moment last Friday at SFContario.  I was at a room party when Lawrence M. Schoen, challenged to translate on the spot, sang Soft Kitty in Klingon for the first time in human history.

You may marvel at my cultural on-linedness.

And coming soon . . .

I just got a look at the lineup for Jonathan Strahan's forthcoming The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year.  It's not public for a few days yet, but there are some really good names there.  I'd buy it in an instant, if I weren't going to be getting a contributor's copy.

Above:  A fleeting glimpse of the Niagara River from my train window.  It took some seventeen hours to get home yesterday, with no delays.  Still . . . better than flying.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Leaving Ontario


I went through all of SFContario without once running into Karl Schroeder who, being guest of honor, had many duties and obligations to fulfill.  Which I seriously regretted, because he is a brilliant guy and a font of really good science fictional ideas.

But I caught up to Karl at the end of the closing ceremonies and managed to delay him sufficiently to have a long talk with him about his career as an innovationist.  I won't share what he had to say because I didn't ask his permission to post any of it here and, anyway, I might want to steal some of it for my own fiction.  But I will say that it was a pleasure to listen to someone who's actively working to ameliorate the world's ills.  What a positive guy he is!  A genuine force for good.

I only hope that the people who run things listen to what he has to say.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  Specifically, the railroad from Toronto to Philadelphia.  I expect to reach home by midnight, tired but happy and grateful to the good folks of SFContario for a convention I enjoyed immensely.

Immediately above:  The conservatory in Allan Gardens, across from the convention hotel, at night.


Friday, November 18, 2011

Harbinger, Chagall, Toronto, and Me


I'm at SFContario with such luminaries at John Scalzi, Rob Sawyer, and Gardner Dozois, and from the window of my hotel room I can see Harbinger, a skyscraper-top artwork which changes color depending on the wind speed.  If you're here too, I suggest you go out at night and look for it.  Pretty neat.

And I took in some art . . . 

Over at the Art Gallery of Ontario (highly recommended at all times; don't miss the Frank Gehry staircase) there's a show of Marc Chagall's artwork, along with paintings by his contemporaries in the Russian avant-garde.

Looking at Chagall always makes me want to write.  And this time was no exception.  I discovered Clowns in the Night, a dark and beautiful work that surely was about the Holocaust.  I learned more about the art of Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov and Ivan Koudriachov and other artists about whom I know far too little.  And then I looked at the biographical data for the artists and saw how many died in the Holocaust or else shortly after returning to Russia.

The Twentieth Century was an evil one.  Let's pray the Twenty-First is better.


Thursday, November 17, 2011

Remember to Die!

It's autumn, and autumn is my season.  Part of my annual duties is to wander about, stamping the word DEATH on fallen leaves.  This year, as an experiment, I spray-painted some of those leaves white.  To make them stand out so they'll be easier to find when I strew them about.

The reason I do this is because autumn is the season that implicitly says MEMENTO MORI.  Which is Latin for Remember to Die.  There's no big hurry on this one.  But it's on your list of things to do.  

Because if you haven't died, you haven't lived a rich, full life yet.


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Days of Future Past


Look what I found in the twenty-five cent bin of the comic book store -- my childhood!  Specifically, two General Electric comic books, Science in Your Future and Our Place in Space.  They were benign works of corporate propaganda published in the early 1950s and typical of the goodies which my father, who was an electrical engineer for GE, brought home from work.  They were part of what made me a science-mad and space-mad kid.  And they both, interestingly enough, came out of the Schenectady plant, where Dad was employed.

Read today, they're intelligent, well-made works (the cartoonist and writer -- almost certainly not Kurt Vonnegut who would have left GE's employment by then -- were uncredited), which do display certain cultural biases.  The comic on space, for example, featured not one woman.  Apparently we were going to conquer the universe without their active participation.  The science comic did feature a young lady and included a few lines about "men and women scientists."  But in all the vast lab spaces pictured (and they really were vast!  I saw them on the yearly open house for employees' families), there was only woman.  And she was so fashionably dressed that it was possible she was meant to be a secretary.

But GE's not to blame for that.  It was the times.  Women knew then that, with rare exceptions, if they wanted a career, they could choose between teaching and nursing.  General Electric was actually being surprisingly open-minded in encouraging girls to think about becoming scientists.

Things got better, later.  Not perfect by any means.  But better.

And as always . . .

I'll be on the road tomorrow.  I'm taking the train to Ontario for SFContario.  I was a goh there last year and it was great.  This year Gardner Dozois is the editor guest of honor and SFContario is the Canadian national convention, so it'll be even greater.

If you see me, be sure to say hello.  Or bonjour, as the case may be.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Easy Money

My apologies for a second day without a picture.  I'm prepping for SFContario.

One of the side effects of being a science fiction writer is that you're constantly coming up with items that you think would make a lot of money . . . if you only had the connections to bring them to market.

Here's one.  For all I know, it may already exist.  But if so, I've never seen it:  Frames for calling cards.  Nobody's asking for 'em.  But I can't help but think that if they were available businesspeople would buy them.

Let's say an elaborate silver frame for a single card, and four-, eight-, and sixteen-card frames for greater numbers.  The single frame you'd reserve for Desmond Tutu's business card, or Ursula K. Le Guin's or Gene Wolfe's.  The larger frames you'd use for the cards of all four Rolling Stones, eight Nobel Prize winners, or all the Supreme Court and the seven lawyers who pushed through the decisions of which you most enthusiastically approve.

Let's face it.  Business cards are all about status and prestige.  Surely, showing off that Steve Jobs or Germaine Greer felt obliged to hand you that rectangle of cardboard is worth overspending on a designer frame.

If you have the connections, take this idea and run.  Make a fortune with it.  You have my blessing.


Monday, November 14, 2011

Emergency Monday Post

If you've been reading this blog since forever, as so few have, you know that I do not guarantee to post every day or even every other day but only on two days, Monday and Friday -- if at all possible.

Today, alas, I almost failed you.

This morning I taught a class at the USNA in Annapolis.  Young and earnest midshipmen -- some of whom were women -- who listened to every word because they wanted very much to improve themselves in every way possible.

For people like these -- and I have met them in many countries -- I will do almost anything.

After the class (and a couple of other experiences which go into the lockbox of memory, because they might prove useful in future fiction) was over, the students filed out, pausing to shake my hand and thank me, "sir."  Then Marianne and I hit the back roads of Maryland and Delaware, through Sassafras and Unicorn and other small towns, homeward but in no particular hurry.  Which is why we got home late, and then I had a flurry of business correspondence to deal with, and to kerfluffle went my syntax, and almost, almost, I failed you.

Yet here I am and here we are and I have saved myself from humiliation at the last possible instant.