Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth


I'm doing my taxes this week, so I won't have a lot of time for posting.  But I'll share with you this film clip I just found.  No wonder geek culture is taking over.  This is just wonderful.


Monday, February 27, 2012

Dead People's Houses


I heard a song once, called "Dead People's Houses," about going to estate sales, which celebrated the combination of looking for bargains and snooping in other people's lives.  It ended with the line, "We'll make some young strangers happy when we die."  Which seemed a positive take on the whole thing.

Marianne and I went to an estate auction this weekend, run by Barry S. Slosberg, Auctioneer, who's something of a fixture in Philadelphia.  About an hour into the event, an unanticipated snow squall blew up and Barry Slosberg (above) ripped through the items displayed outdoors with efficiency and good humor.

Marianne bought a pair of lawn chairs an I bought a master plumber's cabinet, which he banged together to hold screws, plumber's candles and other supplies.  I have plans for that cabinet, which I'll tell you about in one or three years when they come to fruition.

And, oh yeah.  The owner of the house died of old age and, from what we could conclude from our snooping, lead a good life.  Kudos to him.


Friday, February 24, 2012

Why Monopolies Are Bad


A while back, a publishing insider explained to me in detail how the history of Twenty-First Century publishing to date can be read as an epic battle between Google and Amazon over who gets to control everything.  It was terrifying to hear.

Google made its big move by preemptively claiming the right to publish and sell electronic versions literally every book that had ever been or ever will be written without asking permission of the copyright owners.  The courts squashed that one.  Now Amazon is responding by trying to dictate the prices and profit margins of every publisher who sells through them.  The entire story is big, complicated, and ugly. But one aspect of it is simple enough:  Small and medium presses operate on a thin profit line.  Squeeze them hard enough and a lot of them will go under.

Today I received the following letter from Jill Roberts, Managing Editor of Tachyon Publications, a very fine small press that publishes (among many other books) most of my short fiction collections:

Dear Tachyon authors, artists, and friends--

Regrettably, due to a contract dispute, our e-book titles are currently not available at made a unilateral decision to remove over 5000 Kindle e-books from its site this week, including all Tachyon e-books.

The issue is the Kindle contract between our book distributor, IPG, and Amazon.  IPG's Kindle contract came up for renewal. Amazon took the opportunity to ask for yet another larger cut of Kindle book sales.  IPG took a stand and refused.  In response, has pulled all of the e-books by IPG's publishers.

While this means for the time being that you won't be able to buy Tachyon e-books at, there are many other excellent options.  Our books are still available in print and in EPUB and PDF electronic editions from local independent bookstores (find them on, and on web sites such as Barnes & Noble (, the Sony bookstore (, Apple's iTunes, Google Books and elsewhere.  You can also purchase Kindle and other e-book formats from our friends at Weightless Books (  Free software programs such as Calibre ( can be used to convert non-Kindle e-files to Kindle readable formats.  Kindle Fire users can download programs from the Amazon app store to read non-Kindle formats.

Please feel free [to] spread the word about this unfortunate situation and let me know if you have any questions. This fight between Amazon and IPG is another chapter in Amazon's continuing effort to control the marketplace, which is ultimately a bad thing for publishers and authors.  For now there are only two certainties: change in the publishing industry is inevitable, and Tachyon will do its best to continue to publish the most thought-provoking and challenging speculative fiction available.

Jill Roberts
Managing Editor
Tachyon Publications
smart science fiction & fantasy

If you dislike corporate bullying, and would like to register your opinion, I have a simple and easy proposal:  Buy an excluded e-book from one of the venues Jill mentioned.  It doesn't have to be from Tachyon -- some five thousand e-books have been expunged from Amazon.  You've got a lot of choice.

And let's face it:  You don't own enough books.

You can read about the issue here.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Short Fiction Review: "Bonding WIth Morry" by Tom Purdom

It's become something of a ritual.  Whenever a copy of Asimov's Science Fiction arrives with a story by Tom Purdom in it, I read Tom's story first (unless there's one of my own in the same issue, of course, in which case I read Tom's second).  Then, on finishing it, I say aloud, "Why don't more people write science fiction like this?"

In "Bonding With Morry," what I mean by "this"is fiction based on thoughtful, intelligent analysis of technology that doesn't yet exist but probably will soon.  In this case, robots, used (among other purposes) as devices to enable aging and increasingly feeble people to maintain an independent existence on their own.

At the story's opening Morry, who is just beginning to require such a device, is selecting its appearance.  He has to fight to get one with wheels instead of legs, camera-lens eyes, a speaker with a grill for a mouth, and a metal cylindrical body instead of a close approximation of a human being.  His problem is that he wants his robot, Clank, to look like a machine so he'll remember to treat it as one -- and everybody else wants it to look like a companion, someone he can bond with.

Over the course of the story, Morry fights several small battles to keep from being forced to accept a machine as his closest friend.  He suffers small defeats.  He's forced to give the robot a human-ish face and to rename it Clark.  But at the end, as he's dying, he's able to pass along a compliment to the robot's designers and programmers.

The heart of the story lies in an exchange with Morry's daughter Julie, shortly after he's had a stroke:

"Your counselor is just trying to help you.  And that thing is pretty ugly.  I wouldn't want it hanging around my bedroom after dark."
"They're . . . all . . . like that.  Underneath."
"And we're all skeletons and skulls underneath."
"Personalities . . . Julie.  Real . . . feelings."
"But how do you know that, Dad?  How do you know I have feelings?"
Morry's mouth twisted into a caricature of a smile.  "I know . . . how you . . . started.  I was . . . there."

Here is the gist of the story.  Treating devices as devices allows Morry to treat people as people.  A woman who drops Morry as a friend because he refuses to "bond" with Clank is doing just the opposite.

When Morry dies, he does so with a clear-headed understanding of the difference between friends and tools and the value of each.  It's a small but very real triumph of the human spirit.

And, as I said earlier, it's the kind of story that a lot more people ought to write.


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Spring Is Icumin In . . .


I confess. I wrote three or four pages of a Darger and Surplus story today and then played hooky. I went to the Morris Arboretum, fool that I am, looking for spring.

And I found it.  There among the austerely beautiful and leafless trees were drifts of crocuses, demure clusters of snowdrops, dense gatherings of winter aconites, hellebores, and the occasional deludedly optimistic clump of daffodils.  The weather was warm and there were people drifting through the arboretum looking happy and a little stunned.

And it's still the middle of February.

Which means that the next few weeks are going to break my heart.

But what the heck.   It's a small price to pay for an afternoon of faux spring.

Above:  Crocuses.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The End of History As We Know It


What kind of people would make a 112-proof beer -- and then bottle it inside a taxidermy stoat?

Young males, obviously.  It probably helps to be Scottish too.

And meanwhile in Sweden . . .

Two beer reviewers spent a small fortune (probably around a thousand bucks) so they could pass judgment on The End of History.  They give it surprisingly high marks.

Although their conclusion that it's "not a novelty item" is a little hard to believe.


Monday, February 20, 2012

For Those Who Believe in Livres Sans Frontieres . . .


My good pal, superstar editor Ellen Datlow, has taken in a dip in the e-book biz with Wild Justice, an anthology of stories of revenge and vengeance -- which is to say, the core stuff of fiction.  This is a book originally published in the UK as Lethal Kisses and never since published in the US or anywhere else.  

Now, either you know Ellen and are checking your bookshelves right now to see if you have this particular anthology or not, or you do not.  And if you do not, you should look into her work right now.  Because she's published a myriad volumes of fantasy, dark fantasy, and horror and mirabile dictu not a clunker in the batch.

For those in the second group, I can only say:

1) Your local library
2) Interlibrary loan
3) Your local bookstore
4) ABEbooks

Or, what the heck, just buy Wild Justice.  You can find it on Ash Tree here.  Or at Amazon  here.

Full disclosure:  The anthology contains "Ships," which I wrote with Jack Dann, a work so bleak that damned souls in Hell cry out in pain on reading it  Jack kept trying to throw in redemption, grace, the least shred (for God's sake!) of light or hope.  But "Fuck that noise!" I cried, and drove the mighty ship of our narrative straight into the abyss.

All this and many other stories nearly as brilliant for only nine dollars.  I am not making this up.  The cool people haven't read this sentence yet, because they're busily downloading the book.



Friday, February 17, 2012

Steampunk Elephants: Some Early Lessons Learned

Okay, it's still a long way to a true robotic elephant.  But who can doubt that it's on the way?  Human beings want such things.  And we tend to get what we want.

For that matter, who could resist a ride atop the arachnid splendor that is La Machine?  (Below.)  It, and the elephant, are still essentially articulated parade floats.  But a tremendous amount of R&D money is going into robots that can walk, carry guns up mountainsides, and shoot people that we don't like without risking American lives.  The earliest spinoffs are likely to be amusement parks rides that can come to your neighborhood.

Sometimes you have to squint a little to see it, but the future is only minutes away.


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Short Oscar 'Toons


I'm on the road again and away from my notes, so I can't give a detailed review of The Oscar Nominated Short Films 2012.  But the short version is that this year's nominees are 1) well worth seeing, and 2) not as good as last year's.

Of course last year's crop included Shaun Tan's heart-tugging The Lost Thing, which I'm told was a ten-year labor of love, and every minute of it well spent.  But let's not hold that against this year's entries.

Of this year's batch, the most intelligent  was Wild Life, a very odd number about young upper class men in 1909 leaving England to seek adventure in Canada and one in particular finding himself overmatched by the reality.  Purely as animation, I thought that Nullarbor by Patrick Sarell, a tale of road rage on Australia's loneliest road was tops -- but it didn't make the final cut.  Pixel's Luna was once upon a time -- a very long time ago indeed -- based on my favorite story from Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics.  Utterly and completely changed, all it retains of the original is the notion of climbing to the Moon on long ladders from small boats in the ocean.  Pixel's version is charming, but Calvino's was better.

But the odds-on likeliest to win is The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg.  The animation is whimsical, the hero is based on Buster Keaton, and it has flying books.  How can it lose?  It is, alas, allegorical.  But I doubt that will hurt it.

And it's been posted to YouTube.  It's a hard life being an animator.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Love in all its Manifest Forms


Forget Halloween.  Valentine's Day is the scariest holiday of the year. Because it commemorates the moment when you gather up all your courage and admit to somebody that you've fallen in love -- to their face. That's terrifying.

Sometimes the risk pays off.  Sometimes your intended is creeped out by the very thought and you lose a friend. And sometimes it starts out fine and goes terribly, terribly wrong.

For all who have loved and temporarily won and then lost, there's the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, Croatia.  It contains mementoes from loves that failed.  The garden gnome that one woman threw at her former boyfriend's windshield.  The ax another woman used to chop up all of her ex-girlfriend's furniture.  Ahhh, memories!

You can read about it here.  

Incidentally . . .

If you've never been to Croatia, you're missing a wonderful experience.  Sipping coffee or black wine in a sidewalk cafe on the Bloody Bridge in Zagreb, renting a room by the Silver Gate inside Diocletian's Palace in Spit, exploring the walled city of Dubrovnik, exploring the hundreds of waterfalls of Plitvice . . .   Oh, man.  And the food there is terrific.

Come to think of it, if you've got that kind of money, a pair of tickets to Croatia would make a great Valentine's Day present.  Only, for a little later in the year, I think.  Sometime in the spring or summer.

This has been an unsolicited testimonial.  In a better world, the Croatian National Tourist Board would have bribed me to write all that.  With tickets to Croatia.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Fire & Ice


This is what folks do in my 'hood for entertainment.  They build an ice chimney around a stack of palettes down by the canal and set it on fire.

This was the Friday night kickoff for Manayunk's ice-carving festival.  There are still ice sculptures up and down Main Street.

Oh . . . and my apologies for the Johnny Cash song.  Not the best possible choice, I think.  Not that I had any way over it.


Friday, February 10, 2012

When You Have Eliminated the Impossible...


You've probably read about the recent findings about the Type 1a Supernova 2011fe, 21 million light years away, near the Pinwheel Galaxy, which became visible in August.  A team of astronomers from the University of California Berkley has concluded that because the PIRATE telescope in Majorca, Spain, wasn't able to detect the supernova just hours after it exploded (setting a new lower limit on the size of the star which exploded), the star must have been a white dwarf.

But while they were sure that a companion star was feeding into the white dwarf, the composition of that companion star was unknown.

Meanwhile, however, astronomers from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge have been studying SNR0509-67.5 (pictured above in a composite optical and X-ray NASA photograph), the remnant of a Type 1a supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud, the light from which first reached Earth 400 years ago.  They identified the center of that beautifully symmetrical bubble as the likely site of the explosion and, since a large companion star would have survived the explosion and been flung away on a predictable course, searched for that star where it would inevitably be four centuries after the explosion. 
Nowhere in that region, however, did they find any stars.  Leading them to the only possible conclusion, which is that the companion star had also been a white dwarf, subsequently destroyed in the supernova.

A neat bit of scientific fact-crunching and kudos to all involved.

As a science fiction writer, however, it seems obvious to me that this is not the only possible explanation.  My first thought is that an interstellar war went very hot and that the only way to end it was to eliminate the home system of one side.  My second thought is that a religious war on the home planet went auto-genocidal with identical results.

Nobody in the scientific community is going to take either of those speculations seriously, of course.  But I have to wonder: Has anybody ever taken the number of supernovae per trillion stars and factored it into the Drake Equation?  It could be a very tidy solution to the Fermi Paradox.

Above:  Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/J.Hughes et al, Optical: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"The Mask"


It occurs to me that I may not yet have told the story here of how I came to write "The Mask."  So . . .

Some years ago, I was reading the Re/Search book on J. G. Ballard,   It was full of stories about how he had created collages which he ran in art magazines as paid advertisements, and put wrecked cars on display in a Soho  gallery as art, and the like.  Included in the book was a black-and-white photo of three potato-shaped white men seated on folding chairs and a young woman wearing only a bikini bottom and a fish net.  The caption read something like:

Potato-shaped white man #1, J. G. Ballard, potato-shaped white man #3, and Miss Tempest Blaze, who in the late 1960s put on a series of performances in which she read excerpts from Ballard's work and select medical texts while removing her clothing.

I put down the book and said, "Jeeze.  I feel like such a stick-in-the-mud."

So I took some surgical gauze and made a life-mask of Marianne.  When it dried, I painted it with white enamel paint.  Then I wrote a short-short story titled "The Mask," which I printed out and then cut into thin strips of paper.  These strips I pasted across the face of the mask in a kind of demi-mask.  Then I sprayed the whole thing with a clear fixative.   Marianne punched two holes in the side, ran a red silk cord through them, and hung the mask on the wall.

And I felt better.

Later, I expanded the story to something like three times its original length and sold it to Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.  And later still, I took the original, made a few changes in it so that the story on the physical mask would remain unique, and included it in Cigar-Box Faust, my flash fiction collection.  So there are three distinct versions of the story.

But, still, its existence is due entirely to the desire not to be a dullard.  So too, I believe, is most art.

Above:  There she is, clad in the original story and smiling enigmatically.


Monday, February 6, 2012

In Which I Make Jeff Vandermeer's Short List

Over on Locus Online, the energetic Jeff Vandermeer has included my Dancing With Bears on his list of novels he liked last year, "A Dozen of the Best from 2011."

You'll have noticed the implied qualifier that these aren't necessarily the best, but only some of them.  That's because when you find yourself in a position to compile such a list, you become acutely aware of all the books you haven't read and indeed may not even know exist.  I say that as a former member of the Nebula Jury which failed to notice the existence of Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates in time to put it on the ballot.  You simply can't read everything, and other people often aren't as quick to alert you to works of brilliance as they should be.

This grace note of modesty is why I value getting on the list.   It implicitly acknowledges that such lists are simply one reader's preferences.  There is no, nor can there be, objective "best of" list.  But by compiling an approximation of such a list, a reader can create a kind of psychic map of his or her own year's reading.  Which can be valued in proportion to the esteem in which that reader is held.

Here are the other books Vandermeer included on his own psychic map:

The Great Lover by Michael Cisco (Chômu Press)  
The Sacred Band by David Anthony Durham (Doubleday)
God’s War by Kameron Hurley (Night Shade Books)  
Tattoo by Kirsten Imani Kasai (Del Rey)  
A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin (Bantam)  
Embassytown  by China Miéville(Del Rey)  
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead)    
Osama by Lavie Tidhar (PS Publishing)  
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine (Prime Books)  
Among Others by Jo Walton (Tor Books)  
Zone One by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)  

You can read the entire article here.


Friday, February 3, 2012

Dracula in the Living Room


Marianne and Sean and I had a great experience the other night.  We saw actor Josh Hitchens put on a one-man version of Dracula in West Philadelphia.   The script, written by Hitchens himself, was a condensed and streamlined version of Bram Stoker's classic novel -- and it brilliantly conveyed the eerie and terrifying qualities of the original.

As an actor, Hitchens was mesmerizing, playing all the major roles with great verve and conviction, in a variety of convincing voices.

It was the venue that made the evening of theater so powerful, though -- or, rather, the way the venue intensified both the script and the acting.  The play was put on in the living room of Kyle Cassidy and Trillian Stars, with a minimum of props (a chair and a book) and a single small spotlight, in front of an audience of twelve.  The intimacy of the space made the story particularly compelling -- you've probably never seen an audience so rapt and still.
The effect was of being in a psychic space midway between theater and storytelling.  IWhich is to say, terrifying and wonderful.  Very much what it must have felt like on that long ago night outside of Geneva when Dr. Polidori first told the tale which introduced vampires to the Western canon.

It was an evening of dark glamor.  I felt privileged to be there.

My friend Victoria Janssen wrote a more detailed account of the evening on her blog.  You can read it here.  

Kyle's LiveJournal account is here.  

And Trillian's is here.  

Above:  Kyle Cassidy took this picture during the performance.  With his cellphone!  The guy is amazing.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Free eBook With A Refreshingly Honest Title


Happy Groundhog's Day!  Exactly one hundred and thirty years ago today, James Joyce was born.  Which is why every year on this date we bring out our copy of Finnigans Wake to see if it casts a shadow.  And if it does . . .  well, we'll have six more weeks of the agenbite of inwit, I guess.

Meanwhile, has announced an impending and free mini-ebook, Some of the Best From Tor.Com.  And it has one of my stories in it!  So I feel complimented.

Here's their promo pitch:

We have collected a few of our favorite stories from 2011 and put them together in a mini free ebook, free for downloading. Of course, you can always read the stories for free right here, whenever you'd like, but for those that like to move about Some of the Best of 2011 will be available Feb 14th. Kindle readers can pre-order now , it will be available at other retailers on the 14th.

One of the things I like about Tor Books (aside from their astonishing catalogue of authors, I mean) is that their response to a set of circumstances that are extremely perilous to the book industry has been to experiment and innovate.  The site, which is a blend of very good online zine and a very shrewd bit of corporate promotion is an excellent example.  As is the free and mini ebook.  Anybody who thinks that the big publishers all deserve to fold because they're not changing with the times just hasn't been paying attention to the folks at Tor.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

And The Winner IS . . .

If I've learned anything from running the Science Fiction Day and/or Isaac Asimov Limerick Writing Competition (and not everyone agrees that I have), it's  that limerick-writers work fast, so they don't really need a month-long competition.  If I ever do this again, I'll limit the contest to a week. 

But never mind that.  The Blue Ribbon and Not At All Nepotistic Panel of Family has met, deliberated, and pondered, deep into a lunch at Grog, out by the comic book store on Lancaster Avenue, and come up with a decision.  The winner is . . .  Joe Stillman!  For writing:

Some writers who like science fiction
Formed a new and exciting tradition
Doctor Asimov's heirs
And his fans and his peers
Yell hooray and continue his mission

Which, in addition to its obvious virtues, pushed self-referentiality (or perhaps competition-referentiality is the mot juste here) right to the edge, and almost (but not quite) booted it over.  Kudos to Mr. Stillman.

Joe, if you'll send me your street address (email can reach me at miswanwick ["at" sign], an autographed copy of the new trade paperback of Dancing With Bears will wing its away toward you.

And there's more . . .

The Blue Ribbon and Not At All Nepotistic Panel of Family has decided to give a special award to . . .  Richard Mason for:

There once was a robot whose rhyme
Considered this directive prime:
"My verses must scan
If they possibly can
Except where doing so would conflict with either the First or Second lines."

His ingenuity, alas, ran afoul of my stated rule that the limerick must be formally correct.  But the panelists liked this one so much that they demanded I send out a second book.  So, Richard, if you'll give me your address, as above, I shall comply.

And also  . . .

There was a limerick which almost smoked the two winners.  It was written by the pseudonymous oneoftheMichaels and went as follows:

Asimov, Heinlein and Pohl
Bova, Bear, Gibson & Clough
Zelazny and Swanwick
Williams and Phil Dick
Gaiman, LeGuin, Doctorow 

The ingenuity of this (plus  the fact that it included my name) was almost enough give it the laurel wreath.  Unhappily, it relied on Brenda Clough's name rhyming with Doctorow, when it actually rhymes with "rough, tough, and dazzling stuff."

So close!  But a very good try.