Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Three Typescript Pages


I was sorting through a pile of partial manuscripts, tossing those which weren't needed anymore into the recycling bin, when I came across a couple of intensely doodled pages and thought I'd share them with you.

Above:  Page 6 of what was in the process of becoming "Slow Life."  You can see my thought processes at work.  Also the fact that I can't remember the elementary school formula for converting Celsius to Fahrenheit.    I thought sure I'd know that by now.

This one's pretty cool, actually.  It was drawn on the back of a typescript page for "Slow Life" and I was trying to work out the chronology of the ballooning section and make sure I included details I hadn't mentioned yet.  Either that or I was avoiding actual work by doodling.  Either one is eminently possible.

If only I could draw, this would be worth saving!

This is the first page of "Tin Marsh."  Here I absolutely, no question about it, was doodling. 

I'm sure this thought occurred to me at the time, but it's a pity I couldn't fit giant alien lizards into the story.  Pretty much any story can be improved by the addition of giant alien lizards.


Monday, January 30, 2012

A Massive Failure of Science Fiction's Imagination


I've been looking for an article or video clip that would, in a sensible and nonpartisan way, examine Newt Gingrich's proposal for a permanent moon base which would evolve into a lunar colony.  The clip above of Neile deGrasse Tyson does a pretty good job.

There's also an interview with Warren Ellis which (no surprise) does get a little hard on Mr. Gingrich.  But I include it because Ellis goes into the nuts-and-bolts about the difficulties, and mentions the Outer Space Treaty, which makes Luna becoming the 51st state unlikely.  You can find it here.

Here's the short take on a moon colony:

Could we do it?  Yes, if we really wanted to.

Is it likely to happen anytime soon?  No, because there's not the enthusiasm for it.

I don't want to bash Mr. Gingrich here, and I don't want to go into the politics of the proposal.  What interests is the fact that I didn't feel even a twinge of enthusiasm for the idea.  That caught me by surprise.  So I examined the idea and realized that it was because the vision being offered up for our consideration was straight out of Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Heinlein's book was published in 1966.  Only four years short of half a century ago.

Now, Heinlein put a great deal of his career into plotting a plausible path for humanity's emergence into outer space.  But he never meant it to be the last word.  And there's been a lot of technological and scientific growth since then.  Yet when a space enthusiast, running for president, reaches for a workable vision to inspire the electorate, he has to go four and a half decades into the past for it.

This is a massive failure of imagination on the part of science fiction.

I understand how this came about.  After Heinlein's book appeared, NASA was roaring into the future by itself and it only made sense to let them do it, while writing fiction set after the deed was already done.  Even Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars books, which demonstrate, step by step how to terraform that planet, assume the hard work of moving large numbers of people into interplanetary space has already been accomplished.

But now that the space program has lagged and only a few diehard holdouts -- most of them specifically fans of Heinlein -- believe in the dream anymore, that gap has become more and more obvious.

Somebody really ought to do something about that.

And since you ask . . .

Why not me?  Because that's not where my talents lie.  But, for what little it's worth, here's my own admittedly sketchy and not at all inspiring synopsis of how it could be done.

1.  Start with John Barnes's idea of sending hundreds of cheap probes everywhere in the Solar System.  "Build a big enough database," he said, "and it will tell you what to do.

2.  Send robots first to construct whatever colonies the database tells you to build.

3.  Learn enough about ecosystems to have self-contained farms producing food and oxygen before the human being arrives.

4.  (And this is implicit in the previous three items.)  Accept that the first permanent Moonbase or Marsbase of Whereverbase is probably not going to happen in our lifetimes.

That last doesn't have to be true.  But it will be unless somebody comes up with a viable and inspiring alternative.

And speaking of limericks . . .

The Blue Ribbon And Not At All Nepotistic Jury of Family will be announcing the winner of the low-rent SF and/or Isaac Asimov limerick contest on Wednesday.  Brilliant writers of light poetics have only today and tomorrow in which to pull off a last minute upset.


Friday, January 27, 2012

Pushkin the American


I have a story coming out soon in the latest Postscript anthology, #26/27 Unfit for Eden. It's the second of two stories that I dreamed up while I was in Yekaterinburg, Russia.  The first one was "Libertarian Russia," and every time I meet a √©migr√© Russian who's read it, he or she inevitably takes me aside to demand I explain what I meant by it.

I'm expecting an intensified version of this reaction for the second story.  It's called "Pushkin the American."

Here's how it begins:

The American, whose name has since been forgotten, came to Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains in the year 1817.  He was a young man and whatever disgrace had driven him so far had been left behind in his native Philadelphia.  Somehow he had found work as the secretary of an American industrialist who, along with his wife, was making a tour of Russia with a particular eye to the natural riches of the Ural Mountains.

You probably know this already, but suggesting that Pushkin was an American is like saying that Shakespeare was French or George Washington was a spy for the British, or possibly some combination of the two.  It's every bit as impossible as a libertarian Russia, while running the risk of being taken as an insult to a national hero.

But of course the story has nothing to do with Pushkin at all.  I conceived of it on my last day in Yekaterinburg.  I'd been pushing myself hard, trying to see as much as I could during my stay and suddenly, less than half a mile from a museum that held some Kandinsky paintings I very much wanted to see, discovered I could go no further.  Totally exhausted, and feeling that strange psychological pressure that comes from being immersed in a language you cannot speak, I asked myself:  What if I couldn't go home?  I'd have to get a menial job in order to support myself and I'd also have to learn Russian.  But if I was ever to become a writer again -- ever to become myself again -- I'd have to know Russian as well as a Russian does.  I tried to imagine what that would be like.

Of course, nobody would want to read a story about Swanwick the Russian.  But the idea had its talons in my imagination.  So I wrote about Pushkin the American instead.

The Russians are one of the most literary peoples on earth.  I hope they understand that this story was written with nothing but admiration for their literature and their culture.

And as long I brought it up . . .

Here's the table of contents for the anthology.  If you can't find something there to like, you're far, far pickier than I am.

# Michael Bishop - Unfit for Eden
# Darrell Schweitzer - True Blue
# Mike Chinn - Saving Prince Romero
# Richard Calder - Madeline Smith
# Quentin S. Crisp - Non-Attachment
# Matthew Hughes - The Scribe of Betelgeuse V
# Eric Brown - The Room Beyond
# Thomas Olde Heuvelt - The Boy Who Cast No Shadow
# Christopher Harman - The Reader
# Robert Reed - Emergence
# Greg Ouiring - The Man Who Hated Shakespeare
# Amber D. Sistla - The Summer of Our Discontent
# Mike Resnick - A Weighty Affair
# George Hulseman - The Sea Witch
# Vaughan Stanger - First and Third
# Lavie Tidhar - Black Gods Kiss
# Robert T. Jeschonek - Warning! Do Not Read This Story!
# Steven Utley - Crime and Punishment
# Simon Unsworth - Borough Station
# Jessica Reisman - The Bottom Garden
# Kit Reed - Tasmin
# Andrew Drummond - Dr. Calvin’s Grand Illuminated Bestial Pleasure Dome
# Michael Swanwick - Pushkin the American
# Michael Kelly - Conversations with the Dead
# Eric Schaller - The Parasite
# Neal Barrett, Jr. - Trash
# Matthew Bialer - Found Fresh Footprints Again

Above:  There's the cover.  


Thursday, January 26, 2012

Space Nazis


I took the day off yesterday but even so I've managed to finish two stories this week, the second one just a few minutes ago.  Now both of them go into the pie closet to cool off.  I'll take a critical look at 'em in a week or three.

Meanwhile, here's a trailer for a movie that, fingers crossed, might turn out to be good trashy fun.  On the basis of this one trailer, it looks like a sure thing.  Unhappily, some of the other trailers I've seen are not so encouraging.  We'll all have to keep our fingers crossed.

Except for those of us who don't like kitschy melodramatic fun.  But for them there's always Merchant Ivory.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Happy Day on Mud Level Road


Marianne woke up this morning with the desire to see a snowy owl.  So we jumped in the car and drove off to Cumberland county, near Carlyle, where one had recently been seen.  We found the intersection of Duncan and Mud Level Roads and . . . nothing.

At this point, I could build up suspense by detailing which roads we went down and where we got lost and . . .  But what the heck.  We finally regained Mud Level Road and found a knot of birders watching what turned out to be a prairie falcon (common enough in the West, but astonishing in Pennsylvania).  Not long thereafter, a man who was what Marianne calls a "Saint Matthew birder" -- a proselytizer, out of love of the Good -- gave us detailed instructions to where a Townsend's warbler had been seen, pointed out that there were horned larks in the stubbled field alongside us, and then drove off.  Only to reappear, driving backwards, less than a minute later, to tell us that the owl had been seen on Duncan Road.

So we drove until we saw a knot of cars pulled off the road and there, visible in the distance a mile away, was . . . a small white dot.  Not a good enough viewing, even through binoculars, to be sure of anything.  Luckily, some Amish birders were there and offered to let us look through their spotting scope.  (Birders are awfully likeable people.)  So we hung about, looking and admiring and talking with other birders, for quite some time.

After which, we followed the directions to the house of a man who took birding very seriously and allowed visitors (for the occasion) to watch his feeders from his porch.  There, we and he and a class from Dickinson College saw:

hairy woodpeckers
downy woodpeckers
tufted titmice
white-breasted nuthatches
blackcapped chickadees
white throated sparrows
a carolina wren
and the Townsend's warbler

Mostly, though, I was impressed by how kind and friendly everybody we met was.  Of course, they were birders and that explains a lot.  The countryside was beautiful too.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Russian Clown Slava Polunin


I spent the day writing, so I have no adventures to relate, other than the adventure of writing hard and well and productively.  Which is half of what I live for, but not much fun for others to watch or to hear about.

So posted above is a clip of the great Russian clown Slava.  He lives in that dark and beautiful space where despair and wonder meet.  And should he ever wander into one of my fantasy novels, he'll find a warm welcome there.

Title Above:  If I ever wrote a story about Slava, that's what I'd call it.  But it would be a sad story, so out of respect to to the man, the story will never exist.  Save possibly in an anthology in the Library of Dreams.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Elephant in the Snow


A gray sky, melting snow, and lots and lots of fog.  It's a formula for beauty.  But I spent most of the day indoors, working on a new story that's just reached that point where everything starts to fall together and you can imagine it being done soon.  Maybe even this week.  Maybe even tomorrow.

But that's not all I did today.   I've just sold three stories to Tor.com!  In one day!  I'm betting that, so far, that's a record. 

And speaking of limericks . . .

The Isaac Asimov/Science Fiction Day Limerick Competition has only eight more days to run.  I gave it all of January because I figured that some people might need the time.  But as it turns out, the kind of people who write limericks are naturally quick-witted because the bulk of the entries were made in the first day or two.

But there's still time for more!  Here are the rules, as I originally states them:

The limerick must be clean, formally correct, and witty.  The judgment of the Blue Ribbon and Not at All Nepotistic Jury of Family will be final.  You can post your entry here or in response to any other blog entry for the rest of the month.  And I'll announce the winner on February 1.

Above:  I spotted this elephant today in Chestnut Hill.  Drugs may well have been involved.  Not on my part, however.


Friday, January 20, 2012

Honoring Gene Wolfe


On March 17, Gene Wolfe will be honored with the first Fuller Award, acknowledging his lifetime achievement to literature, at the Sanfilippo Estate, outside of Chicago, by the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.
Needless to say, I will be there.
Also present to honor Wolfe will be  Neil Gaiman, Peter Straub, Michael Dirda, Luis Urrea, Audrey Niffenegger, Jody Lynn Nye, Patrick O’Leary, and quite probably others.  Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s news quiz show Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” will be the toastmaster and the master of ceremonies  will be Gary K. Wolfe.
Which is to say that I'll be hanging with exactly the sort of people I hoped I'd be associated with when I was a gonnabe writer, many decades ago.
That's not why I'm going, however.  I'm going to pay homage to the man who is the greatest living writer in the English language alive today.  I'd say "in the world," but I can only read the one language.  In that language, however, I am confident.  I have read the works of every writer who might conceivably be a contender and, while I am of course floored by the virtues of their work, Gene is simply the best our culture and civilization (such, as H.L. Mencken would have said, as they are) can boast of.
And he's a science fiction and fantasy writer!  How wonderful!  It's like discovering that the best writer in the world lives next door.  He could have lived anywhere and written anything.  But he chose to hang out with us.  That's just damned cool.
You can read the press release here.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Visiting Winter


I had an eminently satisfying day yesterday.  It began with a visit to the Carle Museum to see the show of Jules Feiffer's children's book illustrations  Then Marianne and I jaunted up to Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, to ogle the glacial potholes.  A few of which are shown below.

Which (along with many other such features) exist directly below the falls:

You've noticed the snow.  I came from Philadelphia which is cold but snow-free, so tromping about a small town where many of the sidewalks are covered with snow that's been trodden down to ice was like making a trip to visit winter.

After a late lunch at the Foxtown Diner, we hit the road again, traveling by small back roads and stopping in the occasional bookstore.  Dinner at  seafood restaurant, where I had Rhode Island clam chowder for the first time, and back to the hotel to veg out with our new used books.

So I did not one virtuous thing all day.  It was great.

Above, top:  "The Red Elephant" by Mo Willems, in front of the Carle.


Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Visiting Emily


I arrived in Amherst today and immediately went to Emily Dickinson's grave.  It's easy to find the graveyard, but nowhere, apparently, are there directions for how to find the grave itself.  So here's the trick:  The Dickinson family is the only one surrounded by a wrought-iron fence.  Once you know that, locating the grave is simplicity itself.

Dickinson -- or, rather, our imagined image of her -- exists right at the nexus of text and biography.  Half of the interest in her derives from her poems, which are intense, compact, and unlike anybody else's.  The other half comes from her having lived an enigmatic life, into which can be read pretty much anything your predispositions dictate.

How you divide up your interest in her (if interest you have) depends entirely on what you value.  Me, I judge writers by what they write.  Which is why I'm here to pay my respects.

God bless ya, Emmy.  Sleep in peace.


Monday, January 16, 2012

The Queen of the Night's Aria Ruined for Your Pleasure.


I'm packing for a trip to Amherst.  So today's blog will be brief.  Here it is:

Rainer Hersch spoils Mozart for you!  Enjoy.


Friday, January 13, 2012

The Colbert Super PAC

I don't sling politics on this blog because (a) I have no particular insight into them and (b) I have no desire to offend people who disagree with me politically, as many of my friends do.  But what Stephen Colbert is doing with his Super PAC has nothing to do with Right and Left partisan politics.  He's addressing a problem that makes people on both sides of the aisle unhappy -- the distorting influence of money on our system.

When I was an undergrad in William and Mary, a Republican member of the House came to speak and was generously honest about what being in public service was like.  One extraordinary thing he said was that he envied Teddy Kennedy because he had "a constituency of voters" -- i.e., he got enough contributions from regular voters that he didn't have to go the special interests, hat in hand.

This guy struck me as a pretty good Joe.  It seemed a pity that he had to go shopping around for sponsors whose causes were close enough to his honest beliefs that he wouldn't feel too unclean at the end of the day.  So I couldn't help thinking of him when Colbert started this campaign.

And you have to admit the Colbert Super PAC is producing some pretty funny commercials.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Colbert Super PAC Ad - Undaunted Non-Coordination
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Write What YOU Know


So yesterday I asked you who first advised gonnabe writers to "Write what you know'?  As expected, nobody guessed.  That's because, though the aphorism is thrust upon us with all the force of Authority, nobody ever actually cites the original authority.

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson.  In his journal, in May of 1849, he wrote:

Immortality. I notice that as soon as writers broach this question they begin to quote. I hate quotation. Tell me what you know.

Which is actually good advice.  If modernized to, say, vampire novels, it would urge you not to write vampires which are imitations of Anne Rice's or Charlaine Harris's or Stephanie Meyers's vampires but to "write what you know" about vampires.

And, incidentally . . .  those teachers who took "write what you know" and used it as a club to drub you about the head and shoulders for writing fantasy or science fiction?  They were completely wrong and deserve no more than a D-minus and possibly quite less.

Above:  There he is, the man himself.  Ironically his remark is usually misquoted as "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know."  This is why the original can be so hard to find.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Write . . . What You KNOW???

Over on Facebook, Jeff Ford posted:

I see a lot of advice on the internet from writers and others based around the question as to whether to "Write what you know" or not. Some people get really adamant about this stuff. LOL! The message should be "Write whatever the fuck you want."

To which Kit Reed amplified:

I add:  I don't know what I know until I start writing it.

Both of which are good and wise observations.  But that original bit of hectoring advice... Everbody knows of it.  But how many of us know who originally said it?

I do.  And I'll tell you tomorrow.  See if you can guess.


Monday, January 9, 2012

Envying George Martin


I am not an envious man.  Still, if you work in this field long enough, a sufficient number of your friends are going to be successful that you'll feel a momentary twinge of envy every now and then.  One of your pals shows you pictures of the castle he just bought, or you open the Sunday New York Times and there's an editorial about what the latest novel by the guy you used to hang with means to the nation.  You feel a twinge, you take a deep breath, and you move on.

I've known George R. R. Martin since -- my God! can this be true? -- at least the first convention where he was guest of honor.  That was some thirty-plus years ago, and I remember this fact only because I was present when he remarked how tired he was and Gardner Dozois replied, "I warned you -- when you're guest of honor, they work you like a horse."

So that means I've seen him win two Hugos at one Worldcon, write blockbuster novels, create a major television series (Beauty), beome a megabestseller, and have a smash hit HBO series based on his work, all without the least twinge of jealousy.  Good to see that, I thought.  George deserves it.  More power to him.  And then... and then... the Onion ran a parody news story on him.  You can read it here.


Okay, cleansing breath.  Square up the shoulders.  Move on.  For a moment there, I was genuinely jealous.  But I'm over it now.

I ran across George at the Worldcon this year.  I was hurrying down a hall headed one way and he was hurrying up it headed the other, both of us rushing to make panels we were on.  I altered course and said, "Hey, George.  I just wanted to say hi before you were too big a success to talk to the likes of me."

"Too late!" he said, smiling, and hurried on.

If you're not from the East Coast, you probably don't get it, but he'd just busted my chops.  It's the way folks hereabouts let you know that we like you.

But that's George, innit?  Unspoiled.

Above:  an image icon I found floating through Facebook.  Didn't make me envious for even a second.  As I said, it takes a lot.


Friday, January 6, 2012

Asimov's Limericks


So what kind of guy was Isaac Asimov to work for?  I asked Gardner Dozois, long-time editor of the man's eponymous magazine, this question during an interview at Capclave once.  Here's what he said:

Isaac was great to work for.  For one thing, he didn’t really meddle with the editorial content of the magazine at all.  Which from my perspective was fine, because most of the stuff I was buying he would not have liked, if he actually read any of it.  He was smart enough to hire people that he trusted, and then not interfere with them.  Which is very, very rare in today’s society. 
He would come into the office once a week to pick up the letters, because he answered the letters for the letter column.  It was always a big event when Isaac showed up at the office.  People from all other departments, crosswords magazines and everything, would get excited because Isaac was coming into the office.  He would arrive and you could hear him whistling and singing down the hallway.  He would do Gilbert and Sullivan songs.  He would do little dances, while he was coming down the corridor.  He would make up limericks on the spot for whoever was in the office.   He would make up often insulting, mildly risque limericks about them, and he would make up little poems which he would recite, and then he would pick up the mail and he would sing off down the corridor.  That would be about it, actually, for our dealing with Isaac.
But he certainly was a good boss to work with.  He left you alone.  He was entertaining when he showed up.  You can’t ask more from a boss than that.

Which is, from everything I've ever heard about the man, absolutely true.   But there's a coda to this.  Sometime later, I was talking with someone who knew Asimov well and who said, "When people learn I knew Asimov, they'll gush about how they met him once and he came up with a limerick for their name on the spot!  Well, of course, what he did was to make up a lot of limericks beforehand for all the common names and then just trot one out when the occasion called for it.  But they were all limericks he'd made up himself, and having them on tap in itself shows just how smart a man he was."

And speaking of limericks. . . .

We've received some beauts already.  But there's still time to enter your own in the contest here.  The rules are that that the limerick must be:

1.  Technically correct
2.  Clean
3.  About Isaac Asimov and/or science fiction
4.  and witty.

Multiple submissions are not only allowed, but encouraged.  The world can use more light-hearted wit.  Particularly during an election year.

Above:  A glimpse of the beauty that is Limerick, Ireland.


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

In Which I Write Your New Year's Resolutions For You (Via My Pal The Dalai Lama)


Okay, yeah, I've never met the Dailai Lama.  But I've got to admit that the guy has stuff.  As witness his list of twenty ways to improve your karma.  I'm awfully skeptical about lists of ways to improve yourself and attempts to reduce spirituality to quotable aphorisms.  And yet . . . And yet . . .  I went over his list with my Sarcaso-Meter wide open and I have to admit that he makes a lot of sense.  That would work.  I agree with every word of it.  More than that, I'm going to put it into action.

You can read the list here.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  This time to celebrate the birthday of Mrs. William C. Porter, who happens to be my mother-in-law and who turns 101 today.  A century and a year and still worth talking with!  And still as sharp as a tack.  May we all live as long as she will and with our faculties intact. 

But don't forget . . .

The Isaac Asimov National Science Fiction Day Limerick Competition continues.  Check out Monday's post responses to see exactly how witty the competition is.

Above:  There he is, the man himself.  The only human being who ever resigned the Dalai Lama title while still alive.  If I were still a Catholic, I'd suggest that the Pope take note.  But I'm not, and so my opinion is irrelevant.  I mean that without any sarcasm at all.  Hard to believe though that may be.


Monday, January 2, 2012

National Science Fiction Day


I have been advised by Tom Purdom that Gardner Dozois has advised him that today is National Science Fiction Day.  January 2 was chosen for this august celebration because it's Isaac Asimov's official birthday.  Asimov was born in Russia in 1920 (his parents brought him to America at age 3) and since there are no official records of his birth, it's not absolutely certain that this was his birthday.  But right or wrong, the honor remains.

In honor of the event, I'm going to give a copy of the brand-new trade paperback of my own Dancing With Bears to whoever can come up with the best limerick honoring either Asimov or Science Fiction Day. 

Here are the rules:  The limerick must be clean, formally correct, and witty.  The judgment of the Blue Ribbon and Not at All Nepotistic Jury of Family will be final.  You can post your entry here or in response to any other blog entry for the rest of the month.  And I'll announce the winner on February 1.

And speaking of the paperback release of my novel . . .

Andrew Wheeler gave Dancing With Bears a splendid review on his blog, The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.  Where he wrote (among other things):

Dancing With Bears is a splendid romp, a tour through a strange future, and an enthralling adventure -- I won't recommend it to any readers looking for morals in their novels, but for all of the rest of us, it's a great way to spend a few hours. (And reading about them is the only way I'd recommend spending time with Darger and Surplus!) 

So that was very pleasant for me.  Those of you who are curious can find the whole thing here