Monday, December 31, 2012

The Joy of Lists (Part 2)


The video above was a commercial for Banco Sabadell and, given that it's been seen over eight and a half million times on Youtube, it's entirely possible that you're already familiar with it.  But what the heck.  Beethoven never grows old.

And . . .

Marianne pointed out that "The Dog Said Hello" made it onto Locus Online's shortlist of the best stories of the Twenty-First Century.  Which, given that the century is only thirteen years old, was easier to make it onto than the Twentieth Century shortlist.  Just check out its first ten stories:

  1. Arthur C. Clarke, “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953)
  2. Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (1973)
  3. Harlan Ellison, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman” (1965)
  4. Harlan Ellison, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967)
  5. Arthur C. Clarke, “The Star” (1955)
  6. Ray Bradbury, “A Sound of Thunder” (1952)
  7. Robert A. Heinlein, “All You Zombies— ”(1959)
  8. William Gibson, “Johnny Mnemonic” (1981)
  9. James, Jr. Tiptree, “The Screwfly Solution” (1977)
  10. Shirley Jackson, “The Lottery” (1948)
That's a terrific lineup.   Personally, I'd substitute "Burning Chrome" for "Johnny Mnemonic," but that might just be because the movie version was so brain-searingly bad that it's left me traumatized. 

Here's the Twenty-First Century shortlist, courtesy of  The original posting had me tied with Ursula K. Le Guin.  Me!  Le Guin!  Dead even!  I bet you can imagine how elated that makes me feel.
  1. Ted Chiang, “Exhalation” (2008)
  2. Margo Lanagan, “Singing My Sister Down” (2004)
  3. Neil Gaiman, “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” (2006)
  4. Peter Watts, “The Things” (2010)
  5. Michael Swanwick, “The Dog Said Bow-Wow” (2001)
  6. Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Bones of the Earth” (2001)
  7. Kij Johnson, “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”
  8. Daniel Abraham, “The Cambist and Lord Iron” (2007)
  9. Kij Johnson, “Spar” (2009)
  10. Alastair Reynolds, “Zima Blue” (2005)

The list can be found here.

The very, very, very long list, for those who really want to wonk out, can be found here.


Friday, December 28, 2012

Ranking the Unrankable


Over at Locus Online, they had a poll to decide the fifty best science fiction novels and fifty best fantasy novels of the Twentieth Century, and I managed to squeak on -- just barely.  The Iron Dragon's Daughter placed 46th on the fantasy list.

Which is very pleasant for me because it gives me the opportunity to explore the inherent flaw in such (admittedly fun to read, argue with, and/or have a book on) lists.

Let's start with my own work.  Is it really better than Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, which ranked 49th?  It's go more words, certainly, and more ideas.  But it's a safe bet that my book has had a lesser effect on world culture.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, is probably longer than my novel, and has become a part of the Canon, insofar as we have one anymore, and it was only 48th.

Up at the top of the list, nobody could argue against The Lord of Rings, which essentially created the fantasy genre, placing first.  And I certainly have no problem with George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones in number two place.  But The Hobbit at number three?  Even Tolkien himself had a few harsh words for its and-what-do-you-think-Bilbo-did-then? style.  (He said his children hated it.)

As for newly-minted Grand Master Gene Wolfe's masterpiece The Book of the New Sun placing eighteenth on the fantasy list . . .  The work is science fiction, as witness its also placing twenty-fourth (still criminally low) on the SF list.

But when you except those few books which belong somewhere near the absolute top of any such list, what you're left with is a terrific demonstration of the impossibility of ranking books as if they were Olympic runners or apple pies in the county fair.  Is Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight (41 and, once again, science fiction) just a smidge better than George Orwell's Animal Farm, ranked 42?  Or are we comparing lemurs and monkey wrenches?  Jack Vance's The Dying Earth (19 and yet another science fiction novel) is of vast importance to both science fiction and fantasy.  But is it really better than the book in twentieth place, Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita?  Having walked in Woland's footprints in Moscow, I'm perhaps too much of a partisan to say.

It's all neon donuts and Western waterways, hawks and heartbreaks, movies and meatballs -- how can you measure such disparate works against each other?

You can't.  But it's a lot of fun to try.

So I applaud Locus Online for this enterprise.  And if you want to have even more fun, try this:  Make up a list of ten excluded books that should have made each list.  You'll find it's harder than it sounds to narrow your list down to such a small number.

You can see the lists (and methodology) here.

Above:  Detail from the brilliant wraparound cover Geoff Taylor did for the Millenium edition of my book.  Not only a great cover but an independent work of fantasy.  If only I could have peered into the future and seen it, I would have incorporated a couple of details into the text.


Monday, December 24, 2012

A West Philadelphia Christmas Carol


Last night I went to a friend's house in West Philadelphia to see Josh Hitchens put on his one-man performance of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol in a Victorian-era living room, before a gas fire in the hearth.

That's luxury.

Hitchens did a bang-up job with a lively and convincing performance.  And of course the source material is bulletproof.  I've seen it performed by any number of actors, animate and inanimate, including the Muppets and Mr. Magoo, and it always (to a greater or lesser degree) works.  That's an amazing accomplishment.

My own traditional Christmas story is far less known.  But it has the advantage of being true.  I call it...

The Parable of the Creche

When first I came to Roxborough, a third of a century ago, the creche was already a tradition of long standing.  Every year it appeared in Gorgas Park during the Christmas season.  It wasn't all that big -- maybe seven feet at its tip -- and it wasn't very fancy.  The figures of Joseph and Mary, the Christ Child, and the animals were a couple of feet high at best, and there were sheets of Plexiglas over the front of the wooden construction to keep people from walking off with them.  But it was loved.

It was a common sight to see people standing in front of the creche, admiring it.  Sometimes they'd brought their small children to see it for the first time.  It provided a welcome touch of seasonality and community to the park.

Alas, Gorgas Park was publicly owned, and it was only a matter of time before somebody complained that the creche violated the principle of the separation of church and state.  When the complaint finally came, the creche was taken out of the park and put into storage.

People were upset of course.  Nobody liked seeing a beloved tradition disappear.  There was a certain amount of grumbling and disgruntlement.

So the kind people of Leverington Presbyterian Church, located just across the street from the park, stepped in.  They adopted the creche and put it up on the yard in front of their church, where it could be seen by all.

But did this make us happy?  It did not.   The creche was just not the same, located in front of a church.  It seemed lessened, in a strange way, made into a prop for the Presbyterians.

I was in a local tappie, shortly after the adoption, and heard one of the barflies holding forth on this very subject:

"The god-damned Christians," he said, "have hijacked Christmas!"

And while I'm on the subject . . .

Merry Christmas to all and on Earth peace to those of good will!  For those who celebrate other holidays (or none at all), my very best wishes.  Happiness for everybody, as the Strugatskys put it, free, and no exceptions!

Above:  This photo is actually of Josh Hitchens performing his one-man version of Dracula. But theater is theater and I'm rapidly becoming a fan of Hitchens.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Social Notes from All Over


It's been a busy weekend.  Saturday morning, Marianne and I went to Chinatown have dim sum with  friends -- father, mother, son, and grandson.  Then it was off to Brooklyn for a Christmas party.  Today, we spent tidying up in preparation for unanticipated Christmas gifts.  Then, in an hour or so, we're off to West Philly for a one-man production of A Christmas Carol, presented in the living room of friends.

Pictured above:  Marianne and superstar editor Ellen Datlow in Brooklyn.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Playing Hookey Again


I should have spent the day writing and I should have posted a blog hours ago and I should have been a good boy . . .  But I wasn't.  I lured Marianne to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (interior of the Great Hall above) where we once again were knocked out by Joseph Cornell's art.  Then we went down to the Oyster House on Sansom  Street for fresh shucked oysters accompanied by a glass of white wine (Marianne) and a martini (me).  Then it was off to the Pen & Pencil club for conversation with Tom Purdom, Jamie O'Boyle and other wits and dignitaries.

So you guys get short shrift today, and I apologize for that.  But, damn!, do I live a great life or what?

And I wish the same for you.

Immediately above:  Marianne and I toast your good health in the Oyster House, while in the background far to the left, all unnoticed, a patron waves frantically for help as he is eaten by lobsters.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

The War on Krampus


Here you go, proof positive that there's a war on Christmas -- and it's being fought by Christians.  How else to explain the shameful sanitizing of the ancient Solstice season by removing pretty much all reference to Santa's dark Other -- Krampus?  Particularly when there appears to be not one but hundreds of him?

Seriously, though, a Krampus parade would be a fine addition to the winter holidays.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

This Glittercomixatti Life . . .


On Sunday, I went to the first Locust Moon Comics Festival at the Rotunda in West Philly.  It was everything such a small, regional indie event should be:  a little seedy, a little needy, a lot aspirational.  I don't have a lot of comix cred to my name but I've hung out some with graphic artists, have the mandatory box or three of undergrounds in the attic crawlspace, and will admit to being influenced by the old B&W monthlies, Eerie and Creepy.  So I like to check in on the scene every now and again, just to see if I can learn something.

Now that I'm beginning to grow Old, I can't help but feel protective toward all these talented (and semi-talented and in some cases hemi-demi-semi-talented) young people.  I wanted to warn them about what a difficult road they were on, and how hard the artistic life can be, even for those who succeed at it.  But then I reflected on how utterly without talent I appeared to be when I was their age, and how a good,  Dutch Uncle-ish lecture could have prevented me from ever becoming a a writer.  So I stayed my tongue.

God bless 'em all. They were to a man and woman (a surprising and heartening percentage of the introverted young artists were female), brave and noble.  I bought a few comics, which I later read with pleasure, and I look forward to dropping by the event again next year.


Tuesday, December 18, 2012



Inexplicably, I spent all day today running around shopping.  I don't how the folks out in the burbs manage it, or why they seem to enjoy it so much.

The Italian Market is always fun, though.

Above:  Marianne in the Market.

Monday, December 17, 2012

My Guardian Tortoise


Look what Marianne bought for me over the weekend!  A Chinese tortoise.  Marianne says it will stay in my office until the next Darger & Surplus novel is done.

The only question I have is:  Exactly what does the tortoise mean

There are a number of readers here who know a lot about China, so I'm asking this publicly:  What the heck?

Knowledgeable responses are welcomed.


Friday, December 14, 2012

A Houseboat on Titan


Pop quiz.  What's the largest sea on Titan?

Why, Kraken Mare, of course.

Now the Cassini probe has discovered the largest river to date on the second-largest moon in the solar system  (Ganymede is largest; our own Moon is number five), and it flows into Kraken Mare.  The surface of Titan is so cold that water-ice is as hard as granite.  So, by the best analyses, the seas and rivers are made up of ethane and methane.

Titan, which you all know is the largest moon of Saturn, presents a particularly difficult problem in mapping because it has a murky atmosphere in which all kinds of interesting chemical reactions are going on, so none of its surface is visible from above.  All the mapping has to be done by radar.

The common reportage is comparing this new discovery to the River Nile, which is silly when you consider that the new river is somewhere between 200 and 250 miles long, while the Nile extend over four thousand miles.  But it's still a terrific discovery, especially when you're as old as I am.

When I was a kid, all the solar moons other than our own were mysterious and blurry spots on photographic plates.  Very little was known about any of them, other than that they were there.  Now, there are maps of many of them.

I'm particularly interested in news from Titan because ten years ago I wrote a story set there which went on to win a Hugo Award.  It was called "Slow Life" and was based on dozens and dozens of NASA technical papers which I downloaded from the Web and read and internalized until they told me a story.  The presence of ethane-methane lakes and seas was purely speculative at the time, and I took a chance on them existing because I could have a better story if they did.  So I really lucked out there.

Looking at that grainy radar photo above, though, I feel my imagination stirring.  Had it existed when I wrote "Slow Life," I would almost certainly have had a scene set on a raft on that river.  I would have drawn a large map and named every tributary, twist, and cove of it.  I would have sent my astronaut on a perilous journey to the north, into Kraken Mare, there to make some strange discovery.  I would have sent my mind to live there for a few months.  And I would have written a very different story than the one I did.

That story is out there to be written.  There's a flood of great new information still pouring in and being made available to all the world for free by NASA, and God bless them for that.  I'm not likely to return to Titan because then I'd be competing with myself.  But if you're a new or gonnabe writer, why not give the possibility some thought?  SF editors love hard SF because it's popular and because they get so little of it.

Feel free to write a better story than mine.  I won't mind.  The next Hugo could be yours.

You can read about the (still unnamed) river here .


Thursday, December 13, 2012

You'll Believe A Dragon Can Fly


Okay, this is, on the face of it, an astonishing hack.  This is not wire work and not CGI.  The dragon is really flying.  But how?  pause for a minute and try to figure it out.  I'll confess I had to look it up, though once the trick is revealed it seems obvious.

Here's a tip:  The flight took place at night.

Gizmodo has the explanation.  Click here to find out.

And long ago and near away . . .

In 1976, four individuals convened for a conversation on ARPANET.  They were, implausibly enough, puppeteer Jim Henson, painter Sidney Nolan, conceptual artist Yoko Ono, and philosopher Ayn Rand.

You can find this unlikely and unintentionally hilarious dialogue here.

UPDATE:  Alerted by one of this blog's readers (see below), I discovered that the above conversation was a hoax -- or, as its creators would have it, an art installation -- by Bassam El Baroni, Jeremy Beaudry and Nav Haq.

I apologize for helping to spread misinformation.  And shame on me for falling for it.


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Wassail! Wassail!


There are roughly . . .  No, wait, let me get the exact number.  Ah!  There are precisely a kajillion recipes for Wassail available on the Internet.  Here's one:

Wassail Punch

3 pints brown ail
half pound white sugar
1 teaspoon mixed spices (cinnamon or allspice, nutmeg, mace)
6 cloves
7 roasted crabapples
1 pint hard cider
3 lemon slices

Roast the apples for 35 minutes at 400 degrees.  Place them at the bottom of the serving bowl and dust with spices.  Then put the beer, cider, sugar, and cloves in a large pan and heat (but do no boil) on the stove, stirring until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is quite hot.  Pour the mixture into the serving bowl, float the lemon rings, and serve.

I got this recipe at the Drinking With Dickens event on Monday.  It's worth mentioning that there are nonalcoholic wassail recipes that are every bit as festive.  And, as you can guess, the recipe can be adapted to taste.

And speaking of hot festive drinks . . .

My own favorite Yuletide drink is mulled wine, not for its flavor (though that is excellent) but because we mull the wine the old-fashioned way:  By placing a poker in the wood stove until its end is red-hot, and then plunging the hot iron into the drink.

What a terrific moment that is!  The wine bubbles and boils and a great hiss of steam shoots out.  If you can't be merry after that, there's no hope for you.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Smoking Bishop for the Workhouse Boy


Last night I went to the Drinking With Dickens event at the Dark Horse Tavern in Society Hill, Philadelphia.  This was the kind of pleasant eccentricity I live in the city for.  There were a few brief readings and several pleasant toasts.  Cups of smoking bishop and wassail were quaffed.  And carolers (shown above in a photo taken by Don Lafferty) sang era-appropriate holiday songs.

Mostly, though, people chatted and enjoyed each other's company.  It was, I trust, the sort of evening that the workhouse boy who made good would have enjoyed.

And because you're curious . . .

 Here's the recipe for smoking bishop:

6 Seville oranges
1/4 pound sugar
1 bottle dry red wine
1 bottle port

Bake the oranges in the oven until pale brown and then place in a warmed earthenware bowl with five cloves pricked into each.  Add sugar.  Pour in the dry red wine, but not the port.  Cover and leave in a warm place for about a day.  Squeeze the oranges into the wine and pour it through a sieve.  Add the port and heat but do not boil.  Serve in warmed goblets.  Drink hot.

Above:  My thanks to Don for letting me post his photo.


Monday, December 10, 2012

Unpublished and Doing Better Than You Think



I got into a brief conversation on Facebook with a young writer who posted that she had finished her first novel and was “saving up to have a professional editor go over it.”  So I suggested she consider submitting the novel to a few New York publishers (one at a time, of course) before going the self-publishing route.  I didn’t claim that was the only way to go.  But there are a lot of advantages to going with a publishing house, including the fact that they provide the editing free.  And, of course, pay you an advance.

The writer replied that  she’d assumed she would have no shot without a well known agent backing her.

This is not true, I told her.  Go to a few science fiction conventions.  Attend the panels.  Politely speak to published writers, tell them you've written a novel, and ask for advice.  Most fantasy and science fiction writers are far friendlier and more approachable than you’d suspect.  I’m guessing that you’re planning to self-publish.  Don’t do so until you’ve talked with some writers who have successfully done so and listened seriously to their advice.

I don’t have the time (I am reminded by various editors who are figuratively frowning over my shoulder and tapping their watches to remind me that I do have deadlines) to correspond with this young writer and give her all the useful advice she requires.  But I will say this to her, and to all of you who find yourself in a position analogous to hers:  You’ve already done the hard part.  The overwhelming majority of those who want to be writers never do finish a book.  So stand up and take a bow.  You’re part of the one percent.

The whole business of learning how to find a publisher looks daunting to you now.  But it’s far less difficult than what you’ve done already.

And up above . . .

 I was at Pook & Pook Auctions the other day and discovered that the National Clock is going up on auction sometime in January.  This astonishing piece of folk art -- something like six feet tall -- has hundreds of little figures, both religious (the Crucifixion) and political (Uncle Sam and his monkey).  Apparently it was one of those strange things that made the rounds in the nineteenth century, supporting its owner on the contributions of awestruck yokels.

Just thought I'd share.



Friday, December 7, 2012

Esprit d'Escalier


Last weekend, I had dinner with a few local SF people and members of a college chemistry class who were working on a paper on changing representations of chemistry in science fiction, and one of the students asked if science fiction stories followed trends in the arts and movies and television.  I ignored the part of the question involving the arts because while there must be others, I'm the only writer I know who follows contemporary art specifically to find new story  ideas.  But I said that for various reasons print SF was far, far ahead of other media.

Without going into details, it was a not a bad rap and perfectly valid to boot.  But afterward, I was hit by what the French call esprit d'escalier, "the spirit of the staircase."  Which is when you realize, while you're on the stairs leaving the party, what you should have said earlier. 

What I should and didn't add was that while SF doesn't follow trends elsewhere in the arts, it for sure follows trends in the sciences.  When Gerard K. O'Neil came up with the idea of L5 colonies, a flock of L5 colony stories -- I wrote one myself -- appeared about a year later.  If you want to have some fun, subscribe to Science News and then watch its reportage turn into fiction twelve months later.

It's an obvious point, I know.  But I've been kicking myself for having missed it.  So you may consider this my venting.

Thanks for listening.


Thursday, December 6, 2012

And At The Very Last Minute . . .

When I began this blog, I promised to post every Monday and Friday, to the best of my ability.  To my astonishment, I only very rarely missed one of those posts.  On the whole, as a general rule, I've managed to post five days a week.  This was a lot more than I thought I could do.

Yesterday, I drove three hundred miles to Pittsburgh, and today I drove three hundred miles back.  Arriving home this evening, I thought there was nothing I could possibly say here.  But then I turned on the TV and found Casablanca

Two things struck me then.  The first was what a good actor Dooley Wilson was.  This was at a time when black actors only rarely appeared in Hollywood movies, and then as menials in roles they worked hard to make positive messages to the white majority.  When Ilse refers to to Sam as "the boy," it comes as a shock.  But it was routine then.

Watch the movie now, however, and Wilson's Sam is the equal of any of the other characters.

The other thing that struck me was how luminous the movie is, shot by shot.  It's as close to perfect as Hollywood ever got.  And yet, as it was being made, the movie was a fiasco.  Nobody knew how it would end.  Nobody knew what was going on.  Nobody knew whether Ilse still loved Rick.  But there was a big commitment of resources, so they simply plowed forward, doing as best they could.

To create a work of art.

This is the life of the artist, of the creator.  You simply go forward, doing as best you can.  The result looks like it sucks but you turn it in.  Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't.  Despair is the common lot.  It's very easy to give in.

If you don't give in, the result may well suck.  But once in a blue moon, it may be Casablanca.

Here endeth the sermon.  Go thou forth and commit literary sins no more.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Jeff Millar in Alternate Reality


Jeff Millar, writer of the Tank McNamara cartoon, died the other day.  I always liked that strip for its gentle humanity, positive spirit, and because occasionally the fact that Tank (and presumably Jeff) was politically conservative would surface.  And whenever it did, it was clear that Tank was a reasonable human being and bore no hatred for those who didn't share his views.  He was, in other words, rather like most of the conservatives I know personally.  As a liberal, I found that a very positive message.

Millar had exactly one science fiction credit, but it was a good one.  His story, "Toto, I Have a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore," appeared in Damon Knight's Orbit 17.  In it, a police detective responding to a reported attack of monsters finds himself acting like the hero of a bad noir movie.  He gets involved in an implausible love relationship with a female scientist, who is similarly appalled by the fact that she's not behaving the way real scientists do but like a science babe on TV.  They are caught in a distortion of reality caused by a teenage geek with godlike mutant powers.

It was hilariously funny.  My favorite moment is when a giant dinosaur, obviously made of papier-mache over chicken wire, appears, hung from strings that disappear into the sky, and the crowd of terrified citizens say, as one, "Oh, come on!"

How good was this story?  So good that a friend -- Jim Kelly, maybe? -- and I enthused to Ellen Datlow about it and urged her to commission more such stories from Millar.  Ellen was the editor of Omni at that time, and was paying the best rates in the field.   She could simply wait for the very best SF available to show up on her doorstep.  But she looked up the story, read it, agreed with us, and got in touch with Millar.

Alas, Millar replied that the comic strip took up too much of his time for him to oblige Ellen.  But in an alternative universe, he rose to the challenge and became one of the most beloved writers in science fiction.

In ours, we can only say it could have been.  Which is far, far superior to it never coulda happened.

Rest in peace, gentle cartoon writer.  We'll read your science fiction in a better world than this.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  Home soon.  Take good care of yourselves while I'm away, hear?


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

City Root Revisited


I drove down to Twelfth and Callowhill the other night to revisit what is probably the most interesting failed sculpture in Philadelphia.

City Root, by Keiko Miramori was originally commissioned for a park but was rejected because it cracked during the curing process.  (Nobody had every done anything quite like it before.) Now it lives in exile in Philadelphia. The new owner has clamped lights to its top which are turned on at night so that it glimmers darkly as you drive by.

The sculpture has become something unintended, a changing reflection on decay and mortality.  The cracks have widened enough that you can darkly glimpse bits of root inside. The solid parts of the cube have fractured and fractured again, so that it has filled up with shimmering planes and surfaces, pretty much hiding the roots and the stones and bricks caught up in it.

It was always a beautiful work.  But now it's become profound.

You can see my previous blog (with daytime pictures) here.


Monday, December 3, 2012

This Glitterati Life . . .


The group of writers which Tom Purdom refers to as the Philadelphia Writers Group and some of us (well, okay, me) call Purdom's Raiders met for brunch on Saturday. 

Sort of  visible above are (from left to right):  Camille Bacon-Smith, Tom Purdom, Marianne Porter, Gardner Dozois, and Susan Casper.  The empty chair is mine.  Not visible are Darrell Schweitzer and Mattie Brahan, who hadn't arrived yet.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Pop-up Chicken


Earlier today I went down to the Bainbridge Club at 1523 Bainbridge Street, here in Philadelphia, for a pop-up art show.  One of the artists was a friend, but I've gotta say I liked a good two-thirds of the art, and maybe more.  Prices ranged from twenty bucks to several thousand, so there was something there for every wallet.

Ordinarily I don't post on weekends, but the pop-up ends tomorrow (or as you're reading this, probably today) on Sunday, December 2.  So I do this as a favor to you.  Provided you live in Philadelphia, have tomorrow free, and like this kind of thing.  As I do.

Above: A light-up chicken in the window being adjusted by young artists.  Young artists are heroes.  We should support them.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Ice! On Mercury!


Yesterday NASA announced that, mirabile dictu, they had found ice on the north pole of Mercury, tucked away in the shadowed interior edges of craters where sunlight never reaches.  Given that the surface temperature of Mercury can be hot enough to melt tin, that comes as a surprise.

They also found organic (not to be confused with biological) materials on Mercury.  These, combined with the water ice, should provide valuable clues to the evolution of the Solar System and possibly even the the origins of life.

But that's not what I and pretty much every other science fiction writer in the world is focusing on.  We're all thinking:  Fuel.  Water ice -- and apparently there's a lot of it -- would make great propulsion mass for a nuclear-powered spaceship.  Which means that such a ship could be sent to Mercury at a fraction of the cost that a ship carrying a round trip's supply would.

Which means that a manned expedition to Mercury just got a lot closer in time than it was a week ago.  How close depends on how much political will various countries have for a vigorous space program, and whether civilization crashes between now and then.  But, with luck, the first men and women to set foot on Mercury may already have been born.

You can read the Guardian article here.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Origin of "Sword and Sorcery"


So much that seems obvious to us today was once quite the opposite.  I was recently reading It's Down the Slippery Cellar Stairs, a 1984 Chris Drumm chapbook of R. A. Lafferty nonfiction, and came across the following passage:

Science Fiction is a collection of guerrilla bands each challenging hte rights of the others to belong to the centrality.  The band most challenged by the others is 'high fantasy', sometimes called 'Sword and Sorcery'.  There is a lot of stylized sneering at 'S and S'.
Which is interesting because today any reasonably read fan of fantasy understands that sword & sorcery is not the same thing as high fantasy.  The usefulness of the term is essentially to sort works like Michael Moorcock's Elric stories and Fritz Leiber's tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser into one camp (sword and sorcery) and J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and George R. R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice into another (high fantasy).  It's a useful distinction because the two groups really are engaged in distinct enterprises.  The one is more playful than the other while the other is more serious than the one.

But back in 1979, when the essay originally appeared, such distinctions were very muddy.  The difference between high fantasy and low fantasy (a term which, like S and S, has fallen out of popular use) seemed pretty clear -- high fantasy occurred in a created world and low fantasy occurred in our own.  But Lafferty, who was nobody's fool, managed to conflate sword and sorcery with high fantasy and identify them both with heroic fantasy.

This was possible because back then there wasn't a whole lot of scholarship in the science fiction genre (and what there was, tended to be resented; "let's keep science fiction in the gutter, where it belongs" being a common rallying cry) and far less in the fantasy genre.  If you wanted to look up a definition of sword and sorcery, you were out of luck.

Unless, that is, you had a copy of the April 6, 1961 issue of Ancalagon.

Ancalagon was what was then known as a "crudzine" -- term pretty much self-defining -- put out by the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society.   In it, there appeared a letter from Fritz Leiber, suggesting "sword-and-sorcery as a good popular catchphrase for the heroic fantasy he and fellow fans loved.

The term might well have been forgotten (Ancalagon had a very small readership, but Philadelphia superfan (and later editor, publisher, agent, and pretty much everything else) George Scithers who got Leiber to expand upon the theme in George's prestigious heroic fantasy zine, Amra:

I feel more certain than ever that this field should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story—and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story too! 
So from the very start, sword and sorcery was defined as being equivalent to heroic fantasy.   Leiber did not specify it had to occur in an invented world, so it was not identical with high fantasy, a term which I suspect was invented rather later in the game.

But why did Leiber choose Ancalagon of all publications to name a sub-genre in?  I suspect he wrote more than one letter to more than one zine.  That's only speculation, of course.  Still . . .  it might be worth your while to go through Great-Great-Granddad's stash of fanzines, just in case.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Miss Helen Hope Mrrrlees


Today is Miss Helen Hope Mrrrlees's rebirthday.  Two years ago to the day, Marianne and I dropped into the Montgomery County ASPCA and fell in love with a tiny little cat we thought was still a kitten.  It turned out that Miss Hope was so slight because she was half starved.  Over the next couple of months, she almost doubled her weight, becoming . . . a slim, svelte cat.

Miss Hope is a Bengal, a breed created by crossing Asian wildcats with tabbies, and so she's separated from the jungle by only a handful of generations.  Bengels have long tails, large eyes, spots, an incredible stretch, and it was only after we got her home that we learned that they're "for experienced cat owners only."  Which is to say, they're very active and need lots of attention.  Miss Hope is a bit of jock, I'm afraid.

Luckily, Marianne and I have owned many cats over the years, so this is not a problem.

Happy Rebirthday, Miss Hope!  I trust you'll consider extending our contract.

Above:  Miss Hope reminds you that it's time to put up your holiday lights.  And then take a nap.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Writing Advice from Somerset Maugham


Here's a quote from W. Somerset Maugham.  It's taken from the introduction to his collection Creatures of Circumstance, published in 194t7.  In the intro, he rails against certain aspects of contemporary short fiction which genre readers and writers are still railing against. 

I read some time ago an article on how to write a short story.  Certain points the author made were useful, but to my mind the central thesis was wrong.  She stated that the "focal point" of a short story should be the building of character and that the incidents should be invented solely to "liven" personality.  Oddly enough she remarked earlier in her article that the parables are the best short stories that have ever been written.  I think it would be difficult to describe the characters of the Prodigal Son and his brother or of the Good Samaritan and the Man who fell among thieves.  They are in fact purely conventional types and we have to guess what sort of people they were, for we are only told about them the essential facts necessary for the pointing of the moral.  And that is about all the short story writer can do.  He has not room to describe and develop a character; he can only give the salient traits that bring the character to life and so make the story he has to tell plausible.  Since the beginning of history men have gathered round the camp fire or in a group in the market place to listen to the telling of stories.  The desire to listen to them appears to be as deeply rooted in the human animal as the sense of property.

Every word of this is true and wise, insofar as it applies to the sort of short story he admired.  And every word of it is false and wrong-headed insofar as it applies to the sort of short story he despised.

How is this possible?  The Master Curmudgeon himself explained it earlier in the essay, when he criticized Chekhov's admonitions on writing:  The simple fact is that Chekhov believed what writers, being human, are very apt to believe, namely that what he was best able to do was the best thing to do.

Gonnabe writers should keep this in mind:  Advice from writers on how to write the sort of thing they themselves write is usually very good.  Their advice on what not to write, however, is always suspect.

Thus endeth today's sermon.


Monday, November 26, 2012

Applegate's Circus of Flying Animals


While I was researching a story set in Philadelphia, I came upon the tale of Applegate's Circus of Flying Animals. James R. Applegate was an entrepreneur who had made a fortune with daguerreotype studios.  In 1890 bought the First Moravian Church in the Tenderloin district and erected an indoor carousel in the churchyard.  A circus of flying animals being simply a poetic  way of saying merry-go-round in the newspaper advertisements.

The attraction quickly became a playground for children during the day and adults at night.  For one half of the wooden structure housed an enormous theme bar, with waiters dressed as clowns, waitresses in tights, and waiters dressed as circus strongmen.  Also prostitutes -- lots and lots of prostitutes.  Which was convenient because there were also rooms on the second floor which could be rented by the hour.

Things got lively, the Moravians (who were allowed to stay in their church while they scouted out a new one) were upset, city reformers and the police got involved . . . and the building burned down.  James Applegate was on trial for running a disorderly house at the time, but the d.a. cut a deal letting him off with a suspended sentence because many of the young girls working for him had returned to their families and the shock of having to testify might force them back on the streets.

Mr. Applegate was known to be very generous to police officers and other members of the legal community.

This charming story can be found in more detail in Wicked Philadelphia: Sin in the City of Brotherly Love by Thomas W. Keels.  A book I am enjoying enormously.

The church and all the neighborhood around it were razed long ago.  All that remains is Franklin Square.  Which today includes a very nice carousel.

And speaking of tokens . . .

The merry-go-round token above, showing two asses and bearing the evocative slogan When Shall We Three Meet Again? is in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.  Not in the National Museum of American History, as you might expect, but in the National Air and Space Museum.

That word "flying" misled them, apparently.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Small Egotistical Pleasures


Here's an application which, except for the price, I want.   At the Omote 3D Shashin Kan portrait studio in Japan, they've combined a 3D printer and a hand-held scanner so that you can have a small plastic figurine of yourself made.   They come in three sizes:  10cm for $264, 15cm for $402, and 20cm for $528.  Ouch.

Still, what they're buying in Japan is novelty and the services of a professional photographer who knows how to pose you so you look good.  In a few years, fingers crossed, we ought to have self-serve kiosks which will give you your figurine for a pair of sawbucks.  Sort of like those those photo booths that used to give you ten tiny photos for a buck.  I'll confess to looking forward to it --  O brave new world, that has such tchotchkes in it!

You can read the Japan Daily Press article here.

And speaking of Lafferty . . .

The consensus here and on Facebook seems to be that liking R. A. Lafferty's work is not a guy thing.  Which, speaking as an admirer of the man, I find a relief.  There's also been a certain amount of grumbling at how hard it can be find Lafferty's work. 

So I'm pleased to be able to hint that there may be some good news in the offing next year.  I'll let you know as soon as I have all the details.  Stay tuned!


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Question About R. A. Lafferty and Women


I spent most of the day writing and almost didn't post a blog because, mirabile dictu, nothing worth writing about happened to me today.

But then, for an essay I'm writing, I went looking for quotes about R. A. Lafferty and noticed something strange.  Almost everything I came up with had been written by men.

So here's my question:  Is Lafferty's work a guy thing?

I'd be  unhappy to discover that it was.  But either way, I need to know.

What's your experience?


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Boris Strugatsky, 1933 - 2012


Science fiction has lost another giant.  Boris Strugatsky died yesterday in St. Petersburg at the age of 79.  In collaboration with his brother Arkady, who died in 1991, he wrote 27 novels and I don't know how many short stories.  Their work was translated and published around the world.  Together, they were the most famous Soviet science fiction writers ever.

The quality of the translations of the Strugatskys' works into English varies.  But fortunately their single most famous novel novel, Roadside Picnic, has just received a new English language edition.

The premise of Roadside Picnic is that in the recent past powerful and incomprehensible aliens visited several sites on Earth, causing panic and evacuation . . . and then, after doing nobody knows what, departed.  Leaving behind a lot of strange artifacts, some of them valuable and most of them extremely dangerous.  These zones are fenced off by the government but, because there's profit to be made, criminals go in anyway.  Red, the protagonist, is one of these desperate men, these "stalkers," and he is one of our genre's great creations.

You can read io9's enthusiastic review of the new translation here.  The book has an introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin and an afterword by Boris Strugatsky in which he details the heartbreaking process by which he and his brother submitted the book to the censor over and over again, removing or rewriting sections of it not for ideological reasons but because the censor thought of science fiction as a children's literature and thought Red should behave in a more uplifting fashion.

The new edition restores the original material, making a great book even greater.  If you haven't read Roadside Picnic, then you really should.  Be sure to pick up the the Chicago Review Press version, with the cover image (right) taken from Stalker, a movie based on the novel. 

I am sure there will be many  memorials posted across the Web and around the world in days to come.  In the meantime, you can read the Locus notice here


Monday, November 19, 2012

"Divine Intervention May Well Be Involved"


I drove out to Maple Tree Farm this morning to pick up our organic, free-range, ecologically virtuous, and quite possibly spiritually-enlightened turkey for Thanksgiving dinner and discovered that we'd just bought a 34-pound bird.  There's going to be leftovers this holiday!

And you know you like a book when . . .

Blurbing a book is kind of a drag.  It takes real work to come up with something good, something that might convince a wavering browser that this book is something he or she will really enjoy.  Mere praise isn't good enough -- it has to be targeted praise, words that will make those readers who will like this particular book realize that this particular book is the sort of thing they'll like.  A blurb that will work for Moby-Dick will fall flat on an Agatha Christie novel.

So writing a blurb takes time.  Worse, periodically I run short on time.  Which is why I have a backlog of eight books I'm pretty sure I would like if I read them which I promised to blurb if I could only find the time, and yet (cough!) have not.

So the way the hierarchy breaks down is:  It's a compliment if I apologize for not having the time to write a blurb.  Because I'm pretty sure I would if I could.  It's a greater compliment if I actually write one.  And it's the biggest compliment of all if I'm thrilled to see it on the back cover of the book.

The other day I received a copy of Michael Andre-Driussi's Gate of Horn, Book of Silk: A Guide to Gene Wolfe's The Book of the Long Sun and The Book of the Short Sun.   There at the top of the back cover were the words:

"Divine intervention may well be involved."
  -- Michael Swanwick, Flogging Babel

Which made me feel doubly happy because not only was my name on the back of a book I particularly admired, but the blurb was taken from my happy gush of words, posted on this blog, on receiving an advance copy of the book.  So I had all the pleasures of blogging with none of the work.

My original post about the book can be found here.  To it I will only add that this is one physically beautiful book.  I'm extraordinarily happy to have it.

Above:  Yes, that's a tree-baling machine.  For Christmas trees.  At the farm market.  The dam that was Thanksgiving has broken and the flood of Xmas marketing is now raging at top speed toward Halloween.  It's possible we may live to see the Christmas sales starting on the fifth of July.  And our great-great-grandchildren...?


Friday, November 16, 2012

Flogging Gardner Dozois


Ordinarily, I only push my own books here.  But I'm going to make an exception this once, because Baen Books is selling a bundle of seven e-books -- five brilliant story collections, one brilliant novel, and one potboiler -- by Gardner Dozois.  This is very close to everything he's ever written, and at twenty-five dollars, it's a bargain. 

Should you buy it?  Well, if you've already some of Gardner's work, you know the answer.  But if you haven't . . . if you're one of those far too many people who are aware that Gardner is a brilliant, award-winning editor but haven't read any of his fiction . . . then yes, absolutely.

Here's what I wrote in the introduction to Strange Days:

Imagine you’re at a party in Gardner’s apartment. It’s not large, but he’s invited swarms of people, so it’s very crowded. Gardner keeps his awards on a little table not far from the door. People who have never been there before, young editors and the like, will eventually drift over to admire the thicket of Hugos for his work as an editor, and while there notice two Nebulas gleaming in their midst. Inevitably, someone will say, “I didn’t know Gardner was a writer.”
“Oh, yes,” one of us Old Hands will reply (we linger near the trophy table for this very purpose), “Gardner’s a much better writer than he is an editor!”

Which was true then, and is true now.  In addition to Strange Days, the bundle includes the collections A Day in the Life, Another World, The Visible Man, Morning Child and Other Stories, the stunning novel Strangers, and Nightmare Blue (the potboiler).  Even Homer wrote the occasional novel about a policeman tracking down a shape-shifting alien drug dealer. 

You can find the bundle of two novels and five short story collections here.

And . . .

Hero small-press publisher Michael Walsh would be very annoyed at me if I didn't mention that he still has copies of Being Gardner Dozois for sale.  This is a book-length interview I conducted with Gardner covering all his short fiction, story by story, in the order published, from "The Empty Man" ("Sucks! is the way we describe it in technical language," Gardner summarized) to "A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows," which he began in 1978 and finished twenty years later.

In the interview I asked Gardner what did and didn't work about each story and he he was astonishingly frank, frequently funny, and always insightful.  I think of the book as a kind of postgraduate course for writers.

Also, it has a great cover by Omar Rayyan.  When Gardner's grandson with a little boy, the first thing he wanted to see whenever he came to visit was "the picture of Pop-Pop with the top of his head off."

Available from the usual sources or direct from Old Earth Books.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Puzzling Plot Twist


I saw Skyfall the other day and found it a pleasant diversion.   It's amazing to contemplate the fact that over the past half-century James Bond has gone from remarking that he would never listen to the Beatles without earmuffs to making a quip suggesting that he thinks being homophobic is uncool.  That's some major consciousness-raising.

But would someone explain to me what's up with Silva arranging to be captured by his enemies so he can be placed in an inescapable glass box within their headquarters and then break out and attack them from within?  (Above.)   Not only this a move that only a moron could come up with,  but it's exactly the same one that Loki pulled in The Avengers.  (Below.)  Are both movies quoting a classic -- and  monumentally stupid -- bad film I haven't heard of or what?

And as always . . .

I'm still on the road.  The Unlikely Adventures of Me will resume on my return.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Moderating Panels?


As always, I'm on the road again.  Since I don't have the time to write anything substantial, I thought that instead I'd ask a question.

Last weekend, I was at a convention and showed up for a panel to discover that, without being told, I'd been made the moderator.  The woman assigned the role told the con committee she wouldn't do it and then printed out the email from them saying they'd shifted off the responsibility to me. 

Without telling me, of course.

Well, that's par for the course.  But when I fired up the discussion, five seconds later, I had a panel consisting of myself, two Big Name People who were self-evidently qualified to discuss the topic, and two new writers who quite understandably were reluctant to inject themselves into the conversation.

Here's the question:  Given two people who were obviously smart but of whose work I knew nothing... what ought I have done to involve them in the panel?  Half the questions I lobbed their way were useless because they presupposed knowledge they didn't have.  I was in their situation back in the day, so I know that they had contributions to make, and when they did speak up what they said was interesting and to the point.  But mostly they were silent.

So what should I have done?  What could I have done?  What might I do when I find myself in this situation in the future?

Your ideas would be welcome.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Red-Shirt Conspiracy Redux


Remember the strange events I reported happening on election day?

If you don't, here's a quick recap:  Republicans made a major push to put minority observers in Philadelphia polling places, which (because of how the laws are phrased) meant they displaced existing poll workers.  Some were challenged and the folks who'd had the positions for years kept them.  The minority observers were all visited by people who told them they had to wear red tee-shirts.  Which, since it's against the law for poll workers to wear anything indicating party affiliation (voters, however, get a free pass and God bless America for that), was borderline illegal.  And, finally, any of the minority observers who were challenged for wearing gang colors or for displacing old cronies, did not stay to argue but immediately left.  Leaving the polling place undermanned.

Weird, huh?

A friend came up with an explanation.  Purely theoretical, I emphasize.  He said that these events were a loaded gun whose trigger was not pulled.  The Republican party, remember, thought this election would be as close as close, possibly a matter of hundreds of votes.  So, just in case Obama won by a hair and Pennsylvania could decide the election, they planted the grounds for a challenge and a recount.

Then, because the election wasn't at all close here, they did nothing.

I report this only because it's interesting and I for one was curious as to what the heck was going on.  But let's not rush to demonize the Republicans here.  This is, after all, Philadelphia, which was once characterized as being "corrupt and content."  Nobody who loves this city would pretend that the Democratic machine was any cleaner.

But maybe four years from now the poll workers should be educated as to what to do if something similar happens again.


Monday, November 12, 2012

This Glitteratti Life Part 6,398


Another year, another Philcon.  Some of the panels went swimmingly while others sank beneath our wisdom like a stone.  But I took photos of many good people, some of which are presented here.

The dapper Tom Purdom

Book dealers, Art and Becky Henderson, Lorna Carlson, and Chris Edwards

Writer Fran Wilde

Gardner Dozois in a subdued mood

Oz Drummond, overcome with joy

Genius comic artist Phil Foglio

And for those who require literary substance . . .

I recently read a very thoughtful essay on creator rights by Scott R. Kurtz, creator of the PVP cartoon.  Oversimplifying wildly, I can sum up what he has to say as:  Evil corporations don't steal creator rights; creators give away those rights and complain about it afterward.  He also explains how you and I can prevent that happening.

You can read the essay here.

And, sadly . . .

T. S. Eliot's widow, Valerie Eliot died the other day.  She had a reputation as a dragon because she was very protective of her late husband's reputation.  But when I asked her permission to quote one of his unpublished letters for my biography of Hope Mirrlees, she very kindly granted it.  I got one heck of a kick out of that.

Top:  Editor, scholar, book dealer and bon vivant David Hartwell.  With, oddly enough, snickerdoodles.


Friday, November 9, 2012

Philcon and the End of the Auction


The auction for the framed, signed typescript of "From Ghoulies and Ghosties, Long-Leggitie Beasties..." ends in only a couple of hours.  There's still time to bid and still time to watch and root.

Remember, all proceeds go to Clarion West Writers Workshop, which is that most honorable of institutions, one that works hard to ensure that we'll have fantasy and science fiction stories in the coming decades.

You can find the auction here.

And this weekend . . .

In a few hours I head out for Philcon, currently held in Cherry Hill, NJ.  (For which reason, my son's waggish friends refer to it as Chillcon.)  It should be fun.

My current schedule is:


7:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Two
 [with Alexis Gilliland (mod), Andrew Breslin, Lee Gilliland, and Sam Lubell]

8:00 PM in Plaza IV  
 [with  Sam Lubell (mod), Theodore Krulik, David Hartwell, and Michael Walsh]

11:00 PM in Crystal Ballroom Three  
 [with Tom Doyle (mod), April Grey, Andrew C. Murphy, and Bernie Mojzes]


12:00 PM in Plaza V  
 [with Susan Casper (mod), Marilyn "Mattie" Brahen, Marvin Kaye, Steve Vertlieb,]

1:00 PM in Autograph Table  
AUTOGRAPH SESSION 1:00 - 2:00 (1276)

2:00 PM in Plaza V
 [with Oz Drummond (mod), Ty Drago, Tim W. Burke, and Mike McPhail]

5:00 PM in Plaza III  
 [with Darrell Schweitzer (mod), Lee Gilliland, Brian Thomas, and Earl Bennett]

7:00 PM in Plaza V
[with Ellen Asher (mod), Daniel Grotta, Allyn Gibson, and Sarah Hunter]

If you're there, be sure to say hi.

Above:  The fabled item itself, posed between my bust of Surplus and a lantern filled with keys.  I'm going to miss that thing.  But it's for a worthy cause.