Thursday, May 31, 2012



As always, I am on the road again, this time flying home from Russia.   The trip will take up most of the day and when I get home I will collapse for another day.  So, while I hope to have a blog for you tomorrow, I can make no promises.

One question I was asked often on this trip was what I thought of Ekaterinburg.  Specifically, what I thought of the changes that had taken place since my last visit in 2004.  Well . . .

Eight years ago, Ekaterinburg was just beginning to recover from Perestroika.  There was a stunned feel to the city and too much trash sifting through the park behind the opera house.  There was some new construction, mostly over-glossy luxury highrise hotels for foreign businessmen come to pick over the ruins of the Soviet Union, but what stood out was all the beautiful old buildings falling to ruin.  It was heartbreaking to see.

Today, Ekaterinburg is in the throes of a building boom of near-China proportions.  Cars throng the streets.  The old buildings -- those that haven't been torn down for the twenty-story hotels and office buildings and apartment complexes -- are being rehabbed.  Restaurants have multiplied five-fold.  It is no longer startling to run across  a Gucci store.  Expensive cars are everywhere.

"Ekaterinburg is for the experienced Russia traveler only," my guidebook said eight years ago.  That's changed.  They even have a tourist office!  (An innovation which Moscow really ought to adopt.)  On the airplane in, I chatted with a charity worker headed for Novosibersk, who said that if he could free up a week, he'd like to take a side trip here.

It all comes at a price:  Traffic, loss of much architecture that should have been saved, and a corresponding loss of strangeness.  Siberia comes in two varieties, a fan told me, Civilized Siberia and Wild Siberia.  As Ekaterinburg, always civilized, becomes more so Wild Siberia recedes from it.  On my last visit, an Old Believer gave me Xeroxes of his drawings to take to the West and a shaman, dressed in suit and tie, gave me a devil stone to unlock my potential power.  Nothing like that has happened on this visit.

But I cannot and do not complain.  Ekaterinburg is a beautiful and fascinating city and I'm grateful for both visits.  It's a privilege to get to see it change.  I hope to come here again someday, to take in Chapter Three.

Above:  Sunset from my hotel window.


Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Andrew Matveev in the Ekaterinburg City Zoo


Exactly what is a dissident writer?  The virtuous, if rather stuffy, political conscience of his times, right?  Not necessarily.

Consider my friend Andrew Matveev.  As a young man in the Soviet Union, he discovered the music of the Doors and Janis Joplin and the writings of Hunter S. Thomson.  Immediately, he knew the kind of stuff he wanted to write.  But when he submitted his first novel to a publishing house, the editor summoned him to  his office and, jabbing his forefinger down on the typescript repeatedly, said, "This book will never be published."

Which is how Andrew was sent into internal exile, to Ekaterinburg which was at the time a closed city, and given a job as night watchman in the city zoo.  "Everything was grey," he says today of those times.  And, "The Communists took away a fraction of my youth and a fraction of what I might have been."

I wish I could say that Capitalism made up for all he'd been through.  But we all know the world we live in doesn't operate like that.  Today, Andrew Matveev makes his living through journalism, which eats up most of his writing time.  But he persists.  He endures.  Which, for a writer, is to triumph.

And there are good times.  Like the other day, when he and I sat in Gordon's Doctor Scotch Pub, drinking coffee (me) and tea (him) and talking, talking, talking.  Or today when he took Marianne and me to the zoo and reminisced about the old days when the entrance to the zoo was a small wooden house, ferociously cold in winter, and the great cats at night fixed him with murderous glares and growled to let him know that it was just him and them.

This is what it meant to be a writer in the Twentieth Century, and this is the price that some of us paid.


Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Looking Backward, Looking Forward


Yesterday was Memorial Day back in the States and apparently something analogous here in Russia because when Marianne and I went to see the Black Tulip in Red Army Square, a monument to those who died in the Soviet Afghan War, we saw military people just beginning to gather for what looked to be memorial services.

I did not think Americans would be especially welcome at such an event and I did not stay.  But I could not help wondering what our own Afghan War monument will look like when it's build.  And I could not help hoping that, impossible though I know it is, ours will be the last monument and the last Afghan War.

And, because you wondered . . .

 Why is the monument called the Black Tulip?  Because that was the nickname the Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan gave to the plane that flew the bodies back home.

Here's a Russian song on the subject.  If you go to YouTube, you'll find the lyrics beneath it.

Above:  a closeup of the central element of the Black Tulip.  Not shown are pylons to either side, each holding the names of soldiers who died in one year of the war.


Monday, May 28, 2012

Tea With Eugeni Kasimov


After the usual round of gallivanting about Ekaterinburg yesterday, Marianne and I, in the company of our friend Boris Dolingo, dropped by Eugeni Kasimov's apartment.  Eugeni is the head of the Urals Writers Union, which is why Boris refers to him as "my boss."  He's also a very fine poet, as I can attest to on the basis of four of his poems which I've read in translation.

His apartment is . . . well, a typical writer's apartment.  Writers build nests and then line them books and pictures, almost all of which have deep personal significance.  He has two lovely cats whose names I will render as Moosha and Mooka, though both are almost certainly properly spelled otherwise.  One of the high points of this visit to Russia is hearing Eugeni read (he's one of the best poetry readers I've ever heard; and I've hear a lot) a poem he wrote, inspired by The Iron Dragon's Daughter, while his cats prowled about his feet intently ignoring us.

We enjoyed a long literary afternoon with much talk accompanied by vodka, wine, port -- some had this and others that but nobody, as Boris joked we should, combined all three -- along with first black bread, caviar, Ukrainian spiced fat, and bowls of pelmeny, and then cup after cup of tea.  We met Eugeni's charming daughter Vasilisa, for whom he once wrote a children's book.  We enjoyed ourselves immensely.

And now Marianne and I are relaxing in our room in the Bolshoy Ural Hotel, resting up for more gallivanting tomorrow.  So we are happy and I hope you are too.

Above:  Eugeni Kasimov with a very small fraction of the books thronging his apartment. 


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Nothing To Say


It's Sunday.  No blog today.


Saturday, May 26, 2012

Aelita Complete


Aelita is over.  It wound up today with a picnic.  Which seemed appropriate since I'm currently reading the new translation of the restored text of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic.

First, however, the group went to White River Cemetery to visit the graves of Vitaly Bugrov and Igor Khalymbadga.  both of whom were very important to Urals science fiction.  Bugrov was an important bibliographer who assembled the first comprehensive list of Russian science fiction.  Khalymbadga was the founder of Aelita and the first editor of Urals Pathfinder magazine.  The graveyard, like so many in Russia, was a forest, thronged with trees and grave markers.  The gravestones were cleaned and flowers laid down.  Then, after a respectful visit, we moved on.

Our destination was the monument marking the dividing line between Asia and Europe.  That's it up above.  But first we had to stop at the Memorial Complex for Victims of Political Oppression, honoring those killed in the Terror from the Thirties through the early Fifties.  Nobody really enjoyed this but it being there, we had a moral duty to stop.  The complex, a small portion of which you can see below, is chiefly a memorial list of the names of 18,474 people from Sverdlovsky Oblast and the Urals Region who were killed for political reasons during Stalin's rule.  Some of them were shot at the site of the memorial.

We all returned to the bus in a somber mood.

Finally, the picnic!  Food, good company, and lots of talk.  You've been there yourself, so you know.  The formal highlight of the picnic was the awarding of the Aeliter Award.  Or rather awards.  There was an Aeliter Award for most drunkenness during the convention and an Aeliter Award Second Class (which I persist in thinking of as the Aelhalfliter Award) as well, the first of which was filled with wine which the recipient had to down immediately.

I shall resist documenting the winners' names because they might someday apply for work with an employer who reads English.  Nor will I mention the name of the foreign national who was given an Aeliter Third Class medallion.  I'm sure it was only bestowed out of a misplaced sense of kindness anyway.

Immediately above:  Note the plastic flies on the tip and base of the first-class Aeliter.


Friday, May 25, 2012

Aelita Day Three (With Reward Results)


The Aelita Awards ceremony was held today.  Up above are the big three.  From left to right:  The Ivan Yefremov Memorial Award, the Vitaly Bugrov Memorial Award, and the Aelita itself.

And the winners were . . .

The Aelita Award, for great contribution for the development of Russian science fiction and fantasy went to Russian-born Israeli writer Pavel Amnuel

The Ivan Yefremov Memorial Award, for great contribution to critical studies, went to Andre Sinitsin.

 The Vitaly Bugrov Memorial Award, for great contribution in the creation of story collections and nonfiction, went to Sergey Chekmaev.

The Order of the Knights of Science Fiction and Fantasy, for great contribution to the development of fandom, went to the staff of the website "Russian Fantastika."

Europe-Asia, for writers who reflect Ekaterinburg and the Urals in their work, went to Vladimir Molotilov.

The Order of Kindness and Light, for writers who promote in their work ideas of humaneness, kindness, and a positive attitude toward humanity, went to . . . oh drat, I cannot read my handwriting.  I'll find out in the morning, correct this post, and add the information in tomorrow's post. [It was Ivan Sokolov.]

The winner of the short story contest was Kira Kalilinina.

The winner of the story in 100 minutes contest, a competition that was held yesterday in only an hour and forty minutes, was Julia Furzikova.

And finally, the Master of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Award, given to a foreign writer who, well, you know, went to (cough) me.

And now it's midnight here in Ekaterinburg and I have to get up early tomorrow.  So I'll post more then.  Good night, all.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Aelita Day Two (in Which I Decline to Compete for a Coveted Award)


I'm still being lionized in Russia.  This can't be good for my karma; but I have to admit it feels great to my ego.  I'll probably have to put in several lifetimes as a mule to even the books.

Today there was an interview at the Itar Tass television station, followed by the launch of Aelita 008, the fiction anthology associated with the convention, followed by a session where attendees could ask questions of me and of Pavel Amnuel

Finally, there was a bookstore signing at 100000 Books.  That's the actual name of the bookstore and so far as I can tell it's strictly descriptive.  It brought home to me what a terrible thing it is not to be able to read Russian.  There were so many books I wanted to dip into!  The fans there asked many, many questions of me, Pavel, and Alexei Glushanovsky.  It was a lively, wide-ranging and intelligent conversation.

Earlier, in the television studio, I noticed that there were forty framed photos of celebrities who had been interviewed on camera there, heavy hitters  like Boris Yeltsin and his ilk.  Among which was one single science fiction writer, a former guest of Aelita, who was . . .

No, no, not me.  It was Robert Sheckley.  The man's a literary god in Russia.   They really get him there.  Here's a terribly amateurish snapshot to prove I saw it:

After the events, a batch of us went to a cafe in the park to eat, drink, and talk, talk, talk.  Convention organizer Boris Dolingo told me that among the convention's awards was an informal one dubbed the Aeliter, for the heaviest drinker of the convention.  "No foreigner has ever won it," he told me.  "Perhaps you'd like to try to be the first?"

Me?  Get into a drinking competition with an entire convention's worth of Russians?  "Oh my goodness, look at the time!" I said.  "It's after eight o'clock.  I really should be in bed."

And because you (would have) demanded it (had you known to ask) . . .

Here's a photo of some of the science fiction volumes in 100000 Books:

Top:  At 100000 Books.  Glushanovsky (left) and Amnuel (right).


Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Aelita Begins!


The opening ceremonies for Aelita were held yesterday, with the usual short speeches and introductions and a concert by local band Yantra.  Who were, quiet frankly, terrific.  But then, any music that includes a didgeridoo and a balalaika is going to be inherently interesting.  Then a party at the Museum of Literary Life of the Urals in the Twentieth Century (a fascinating place with a room dedicated to a virtual display about Urals SF writers, some of whom were present) hosted by the American Consulate.  Food and wine, accompanied by very good literary conversation, with me hurriedly jotting down the names of recommended writers.

And there I am above with Pavel Amnuel, Aelita Award laureate and now an Israeli author.  It was a pleasure and an honor to meet him.

And I should mention that . . .

I either owe an apology to Ekaterinburg or to the seductive powers of the Internet for implying that it might be difficult for me to get onto the Web here.  Eight years ago, it was so.  Now, free Wifi is pretty much everywhere.  So the only limit to my posting is going to be how busy I am.

Terribly busy, I hope.  I want to accomplish as much as possible while I'm here.

And tomorrow . . .

I'll let you know about the first full day of the convention.  And also (if I have the time and bandwidth) post a picture or two from this morning's stroll and my discovery of Engels Park.


The Year of the Three Monarchs


I'm in Russia!  The plane touched down in Ekaterinburg just after a rainstorm ended and the sun came out.  There was a rainbow in the sky and my friend Boris Dolingo, who picked us up, said, "You were greeted by rain!  In Russian that's a good meaning."

Now I'm sitting in the Bolshoy Ural Hotel, reading the new translation of Roadside Picnic, and there's music in the park across the street.  Aelita starts tomorrow and I am content.  I'll do my best to find time to blog about it.

Meanwhile, here's my latest publication.  The Sword & Sorcery Anthology, edited by David G. Hartwell and Jacob Weisman, plonked down on my doorstep half an hour before I left Philadelphia, and it contains "The Year of Three Monarchs," three linked short-shorts written by yours truly.

There's an interesting story behind it:  I donated three unwritten short-shorts to a charity auction and Jacob Weisman ended up high bidder.  I'd specified that the winner got both the original typescripts and the right of first publication and control over them for something like three years before the rights reverted to me.  Jacob told me he was embarrassed by how cheaply he'd gotten the rights, but that's okay.  It wasn't his fault that other people weren't feeling generous that day.

Read the book, though.  It looks great!  And when you read my stories, reflect that they could have been yours.


Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Gardening Versus Travel


Two of the great attractors in life are the garden and the horizon.  Unhappily, they are at odds and one must choose which one to neglect.  So for the next ten days I'll be neglecting the garden.  As of your reading this I should be in Ekaterinburg, probably sleeping off a very long flight but possibly awake again already and exploring the city.

When I'm home again on June 1, I'll start work restoring the garden to its proper state.  In the meantime, I've added two more plants to the Shoe Garden in the backyard.  It's still a work in progress but when it's done I expect it will be magnificent.

And as always . . .

I'll try to keep you posted while I'm in Russia.  But that may not be possible.  If it isn't, I promise to give you a tour of some of the highlights on my return.

Above:  Traveling shoes.


Monday, May 21, 2012

In Which I Receive a Brand New Award


I am fresh back from the Nebula Awards weekend, where I had the great pleasure of presenting the Nebula for Best Novel to Jo Walton for Among Others.  Primary among those she thanked was her mother, "for being an evil person" and giving her novel/memoir a powerful villain.  To understand which you'll simply have to read the book.

There were a great many pleasures to the weekend.  Hanging with my best buds Eileen Gunn and Geoff Ryman, for instance.  Or getting to call brand-new Grand Master (and old friend) Connie Willis an underachiever in front of her assembled peers.  Listening to Marianne wonk about anthrax, Bubonic plague, and other favorites on the Epidemic Disease panel.  Schmoozing with dozens of people I like enormously.  Driving home in the company of Gardner Dozois and Susan Casper and talking about Life, Literature, and Everything.

But my personal highlight came when I was chatting with Geoffrey A. Landis and admired the little Space Shuttle pin he had affixed to his name tag.  "You like it?  I'll give it to you," he said.  "I can buy another."

"I was hoping that it meant you'd been nominated for an award I wasn't familiar with.  Like those little rockets they give Hugo nominees."

"I'll tell you what," Geoff said.  "I'll make it an award -- the Geoffrey A. Landis Pretty Good Author Award!  Which I now bestow upon you."

And with a flourish, he gave it to me.

I can't tell you how pleased I am with this award.  I like Landis and I admire his fiction and from what I can tell his work as a NASA scientist is pretty damn cool.  So this is a welcome honor.

There's the award up above, transferred to my own badge for safe keeping.

(Those of you who caught Geoff's reference to the Jerry Oltion Pretty Good Fiction Award may award themselves an extra ten points.)

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again.  If you're reading this anytime after noon today, I'm on my way to Russia.  I'll try to keep you posted, but as history teaches us, there are no guarantees in Russia.


Friday, May 18, 2012

Dead Again


Is there any editor ever whom I've loved so much as Jim Turner?  I can't think of one. Of an afternoon, I'd be minding my own business, working, when the phone would ring.  A brisk, no nonsense voice would say"Listen, Swanwick, I don't have time for any of your nonsense.  I  just want an answer to my question and then I'll hang up."

"Hello, Jim.  It's good to hear from you," I'd say, knowing that if I played my cards right I could keep him on the line for hours.  Mind you, there are vanishingly few people I'd care to talk to on the phone for hours.  Jim was one of them.  "Have you read the new Lucius Shepard story?" I'd ask in faux innocence.

"No!  What?? Is it any good?" Jim would ask in  a fit of paranoid worry that maybe somehow -- and this would the worst possible thing in the world for him because he loved Shepard's fiction above all others  -- Lucius had lost it.

Which of course Lucius most emphatically had not.  But by then I had my hooks in him and bang! there would go the afternoon.

One day Jim called me.  "Listen, Swanwick, I have no time for your nonsense.  I just want to know if --"

"Hello, Jim.  It's good to hear from you.  I just wrote a zombie story."

"Yeahyeahyeah.  What I wanted to ask you was --"

"It's a really good zombie story, Jim."

"Yeahyeahyeah.  I'm sure it is.  Anyway --"

"Aren't you going to ask me what its title is, Jim?"

An exasperated pause  Then, "All right, Swanwick.  What is its title?"

"I called it 'The Dead.'"

There ensued a very, very long pause, more expressive than the ten best pauses you've ever heard in your life.   Then, in a tone that went beyond exasperation, Jim said, "You cannot give the title of the single.most famous story in the English language to a . . . zombie story!"

"Well, it's a really good zombie story," I replied mildly.    

And all of that is prologue to . . .
You can now hear "The Dead" -- my story, not James Joyce's -- at The Drabblecast.   Just click here

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again!  This weekend I'll be at the Nebula Awards.  And on Monday I fly off to Ekaterinburg where I'll be a guest at Aelita, Russia's oldest science fiction convention.  If I'm unable to update this blog as frequently as usual next week . . . well, there's the reason why.

Above:  "His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."


Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Gods of the Valley are not the Gods of the Hills


Did you know that from 1777 to 1791, Vermont was an independent nation?  Did you know that for years before that it was a functioning anarchy?  It's a fascinating story and if you buy me a drink I can tell it to you whole.  Oversimplifying wildly, the land in what is now Vermont was legally owned by New York land barons.  The people who settled there, however, had bought New Hampshire land grants and believed the land was theirs.

Vermont's greatest hero, Ethan Allen is best known for taking Fort Ticonderoga during the American Revolution and for his reply when its general, roused from his sleep and still in his nightgown, demanded to know in whose name he was being called upon to surrender -- "In the name of the Great God Jehovah and the Continental Congress!"  Though, he being an atheist, historians suspect he said something equally colorful but less printable.

Earlier, however, during a legal confrontation with the land barons' lawyers, who were trying to flatter him into cutting a deal, Ethan Allen sternly proclaimed, "The gods of the valleys are not the gods of the hills."  In retrospect, this was the moment when Vermont came into being.

All of which is necessary background so you will understand why, when I was asked to choose a theme for last year's Ragged Warmer, a writing competition for young writers in Russia, I suggested:  The gods of the valleys are not the gods of the hills.

I have just now learned that the winner of Ragged Warmer was Katerina Dovzhuk for her story "The Kachibey Opera House."  Her story was published in the very fine Russian science fiction magazine Esli (its name means "If").

My sincerest congratulations to Ms Dovzhuk -- or, more properly, I should say to Katerina Bochilo, since she married not long after winning the competition.  Since I also had my first story appear the same year as my wedding, I cannot help thinking this is a good omen.  May Ms Bochilo go on to become twice as successful a writer as me.  But may I first become twice as successful as writer as Pushkin.

Above:  The summit of the Ethan Allen monument in Greenmount Cemetery, Burlington, a place I visited many times in my youth.  Allen is buried somewhere in the cemetery but no one knows exactly where.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

J. K. Klein Remembered


Jay Kay Klein died this past Sunday, May 13.  That's him up above, photographing Roger Zelazny at Discon II, the 1974 Worldcon, and it's how those of us who knew him will remember him.   Jay Kay was not a great photographer, but he was an important one.  For something like fifty years, he carried his camera to science fiction conventions and snapped photos of writers and the other denizens of our subculture.  He took thousands of photographs over the course of his life and consequently preserved a slice of our literary heritage.

I vividly remember one conversation with him at the 2000 Worldcon in Philadelphia.  J.K. was feeling nostalgic.  "I was at the first Philadelphia Worldcon in 1953," he told me, "and I know things about it that nobody else remembers."

"Oh, yeah? Like what?" I asked.

"Like the fact that I was  there."

Rest in peace, Jay Kay.   You're not forgotten.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road.  I'll be home tonight and at the Nebula banquet on Saturday.  But on Monday I fly to Ekaterinburg for Aelita, Russia's oldest science fiction convention, and I won't be back until June 1.  I'll do my best to post from Russia while I'm there but the Intertubes haven't reached the degree of saturation in Siberia that they have in the States.  So there may be some lengthy silences ahead.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Johnny Carson's Poets


Last night I watched a documentary about Johnny Carson.  If you weren't there back when there were only three networks and  maybe (if you were lucky) a public television station, you have no idea what a Colossus the guy was.  He bestrode the earth.

My fantasy job is to be an archaeologist for his Tonight Show recordings.  I'd like to delve deep deep deep into the archives and put together compilation disks.  Because back when there were so few media outlets a man with a popular show like that could get anybody he wanted.  Not just entertainers.  Everyone.

Back then, before video recorders, to see one of the shows, you had to stay up late.  Probably you were lying in bed.  Sometimes it was after sex.  So it was an intimate experience.

Vividly, I remember when W. H. Auden appeared on the show.  Carson introduced him and the poet walked on stage to the most intimidated applause the show had ever heard.  "It's good to have you here, Wystan," Carson said.

"It's great to be here, Johnny," Auden replied, beaming.

"Have you brought any poetry with you to read?" Carson asked.

"Why, yes, I have."  Auden pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket.  There was a ghastly silence.  "This is from Academic Graffiti."  Then he read:

John Milton
Never stayed at the Hilton
Which was just as well.

A moment of absolute astonishment.  Then thunderous applause as the audience realized in abject relief that, "OhmygodigotitIgotithesnotgoingtohuimiliate us."

Avuncular, amused, Auden leaned back and was very very happy.

And the night before . . .

Believe it or not, Rod McKuen (back then emblematic of bad Hallmark-style poetry) appeared on the Carson Show one night before Auden did.  He was expansive.  He was happy.  Because Carson never played "gotcha."  But at the end of what must have been an extremely pleasant night for him, Carson posed the final question of the evening:  "W.H. Auden is going to be here tomorrow.  I wonder if you'd tell us what you think of him."

Looking like a deer caught in the headlights, McKuen said, "Ithinkhesaveryverygreatpoet."

So I conclude . . .

It would be great if somebody (not me; I don't need the money) would troll through the entirety of the Tonight Show and collect all the clips of significant poets being interviewed by Johnny.  It would be a fascinating document on the intersection of poetry and commerce.  And I think it would show that injecting money into the poetry biz would not be an entirely bad thing.


Monday, May 14, 2012

THIS is How You Start a Story


On those rare but rewarding occasions when I teach, the most common error I see is beginning a story with three-to-seven pages of exposition of everything the writer thinks the reader needs to know before the story can actually start.  They're invariably shocked when I cross out all of that and somewhere deep within the text write "Begin Here."

This comes to mind because I've been reading an Advance Reader Copy of Patrickia A. McKillip's new collection Wonders of the Invisible World.  (Forthcoming from Tachyon Publications).  The title story of which opens as follows:

I am the angel sent to Cotton Mather.  It took me some time to get his attention.  He lay on the floor with his eyes closed; he prayed fervently, sometimes murmuring, sometimes shouting.  Apparently the household was used to it.  I heard footsteps pass his study door; a woman -- his wife Abigail? -- called to someone:  "If your throat is no better tomorrow, we'll have Phillip pee in a cup for you to gargle."  From the way the house smelled, Phillip didn't bother much with cups.  Cotton Mather smelled of smoke and sweat and wet wool.  Winter had come early.  The sky was black, the ground was white, the wind pinched like a witch and whined like a starving dog.  There was no color in the landscape and no mercy.  Cotton Mather prayed to see the invisible world.
     He wanted an angel.

That is a terrific opening.  It's solid as an oak plank and as simple as a Shaker broom.  You could rap your knuckles on it.  It evokes all the senses.  It has wit and rhythm.  It sets the scene beautifully.  Most importantly, it gets you right into the story.

And McKillip hasn't wasted a word telling you how the protagonist got there in the first place, who the woman is (for she is no angel after all, which is why the language is so unangelic), what  issues she suffers from, how she feels about her employer and he about her, or the history of the technology that makes the situation in the first paragraph possible.  All these things, except for the last, you'll learn over the course of the story.   Which is the right place for them.

And how does one write an opening that good?  By working long and hard to learn one's craft and then writing the very best one can.  It's as simple -- and as hard -- as that.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Marianne's Dilemma


The Ridge Runners sponsored a car show by Gorgas Park this Saturday.  It looked like the parking lot in Heaven.

Marianne was admiring the 1930s roadster above.  I told her that if she got one, she'd be required by law to buy a cape and mask and fight crime.  So now she's considering it.


Friday, May 11, 2012



In yet another example of science imitating fiction, it turns out that something very much like Phil and Kaja Foglio's minuscule mammoths once actually existed.

A paper by Victoria L. Herridge and Adrian M. Lister in the Proceedings of the Royal Society identifies fossils once thought to be those of dwarf elephants as actually belonging to mastodons that stood only a meter high at the shoulder.  Which is to say that, if only they weren't extinct, they'd make great pets.

Mammuthus creticus once roamed Pleistocene Crete and there's even some suggestion (see below) that they might have survived into historical times.

You can read io9's account here.  The abstract of the original paper is here.  And there's a great related blog post about the Rekhmire tomb elephant here.

And there's pleasant news for me . . .

I've just heard that Dancing with Bears is on the final ballot for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.  The other ten nominees are:

Ernest Cline Ready Player One
Kathleen Ann Goonan This Shared Dream
Will McIntosh Soft Apocalypse
China MiƩville Embassytown
Christopher Priest The Islanders
Joan Slonczewski The Highest Frontier
Lavie Tidhar Osama
Daniel H. Wilson Robopocalypse
Gene Wolfe Home Fires
Rob Ziegler Seed

Congratulations to everyone on the list.  Well done, us!


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Thursday's Wretched Refuse


It's Thursday and I'm working furiously on the story I promised I'd have done by the time I left for Aelita, so today's post will be brief.  Just a few scrips and scraps, the wretched refuse of the week.

Paleoartist Robert Walters called me on my word choice in Monday's post on imaginary artist "Celandro Sfatato,"  in which I wrote, "I applaud this work of fraudulent art."  Fraudulent? Bob asked. Really?  He then pointed out that, whether good or bad, art is art.  Even at its worst, it is not fraudulent.

Right he is.  I stand corrected.

And over at SF Signal . . .

Reviewer Jaym Gates gave my latest novel, Dancing with Bears a glowing review.  The blurbable excerpts of which are:

A rollicking, weird ride through a vibrant, post-apocalyptic world. . . .  I’ve always enjoyed Swanwick’s prose, and it is up to its usual standards here. There is a particular cadence to be found in works translated from Russian, and Swanwick somehow manages to capture that lyrical quality here. . . . This is a love-it-or-hate-it book, the literary equivalent of Turkish coffee: intense, rich and complex. My personal response to this book is unmitigated glee, because it is just so fun, and too little SF is fun. Approach with care, and allow plenty of time to read straight through.

You can read the whole thing here.

Above:  There I am, with the original model for the Statue of Liberty, yearning to breathe free.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Sad and Lovely Tale


In this morning's Philaelphia Inquirer, there's an article about Hugh Gilmore, who once ran one of my favorite used book stores ever in Chestnut Hill, and who has self-published his a novel inspired by the death of his son Colin who was killed by a drunk driver at age 18.

No parent ever really recovers from that kind of loss.  Over the years, Gilmore wrote two novels containing a character who has lost a son, and began a memoir, none of them published.  A year and a half ago, he decided to try his hand at a mystery.

In staff writer Melissa Dribben's words:

In 1970, when Colin was an infant, Gilmore bought a bottle of vintage wine, Porto Kopke.  "I put this down to give to him when he turned 21," he says, setting the inky black bottle with the desiccated lip on the table.

The wine served as a symbol for all the sweetness he would never taste watching his son grow into a man.  In the novel, the bottle is stolen and the father sets out after the thieves.

When Malcolm's Wine was finished, Gilmore sent out something like a hundred queries to agents (agents are far harder to acquire than publishers), with no luck.  So at the urging of friends he self-published the book.  In February, a friend who runs a literary arts center held a book launch for him.

So far, the book has sold about fifty copies on Kindle and another fifty print-on-demand paperbacks.  That's probably not enough to cover the costs of self-publishing.  "I sell as many as I push," Gilmore says.

So is this a sad story or a happy one?  I can't decide.  One hundred sales, including friends and people who were curious to see what a launch party was like and may never actually finish the book is a negligible readership.  On the other hand, without the ability to self-publish, the book would have gone into the drawer and probably never come out.

But it's a story that I think all new writers should contemplate long and hard before deciding to self-publish.

You can read the newspaper article here.

Above:  Photo by Darren M. Warren, staff photographer for the Inquirer.  I'm pretty sure this is fair use, but if I'm wrong I'll take it down immediately. 


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Kids! Don't Try This At Home


On those rare occasions when I teach writing, I'm sure to be asked, "What's your technique for writing?"

And my answer is invariably, "Oh, you don't want to do it my way."

I spent yesterday writing and at the end of it printed out what I had so far on a story I was rash enough to promise would be ready by the first of June.  Which means that it has to be ready by the 20th of May, because I leave for Ekaterinburg, Russia on the 21st.  Except that I'm one of the presenters at the Nebula Awards banquet on the 19th, so . . .

So, anyway, after I printed out the story, I went over it adding incidents, dialogue, description, and pertinent notes.  Up above is one page.  I spent all morning incorporating those changes into the text and expanding upon them.

It would have been a lot easier if only I could read my handwriting.

And for those who are curious . . .

The typed (*) means there's a gap in the plot I have to go back and fill in.  The circled numeral one means there's a paragraph on the back of the sheet to add to the story.   The three uncircled asterisks indicate a line break.  The single circled asterisks indicate added text and the place where it goes.  The three circled asterisks are to draw my attention to something important.  I forget what the handwritten (!) means.  Probably that a crucial scene has to be inserted there.

Like I said:  You don't want to do it my way.

The story I'm working on is called "The She-Wolf's Hidden Grin."  To be published maybe late this year, early next?  It'll be interesting to see how much of the typed prose survives to the final version.


Monday, May 7, 2012

Celando Sfatato


Last week after I left for NYC, Eileen Gunn wrote to ask if I'd found any Higgs bosons.  Well, no, I didn't.  But I found something equally odd.

I was in the Museum of Modern Art and in the hallway between the contemporary gallery and the cafe, saw the above piece.  Contemplate it for a moment.  The white-painted wooden man is about two feet high and is the only artwork on a long and otherwise blank well.  The label is placed somewhere beteen waist and chest level.

If you google the artist's name you'll come up with exactly zero hits.

Which means that somebody bought a ticket into MOMA, sat down on the bench and, removing pieces from his pocket, casually assembled the artwork.  Then, surreptitiously, he glued the label to the wall.  You can tell the label is not official because it's just a little crooked and the font doesn't match that on the museum's other labels.

I applaud this work of fraudulent art, minor though it may be.  If it achieves nothing else, it demonstrates that you don't have to be an overachiever to get your work shown in a world-class museum.


Friday, May 4, 2012

Those Pesky Accordions


I'm feeling nostalgic.  So here's a story from long, long ago:

This happened at a Philcon, back in the day.  The hotel had a surprisingly large restaurant and a wandering accordion player who roved from table to table, playing snatches of music while people tried to to avoid eye contact.  This was back when Cyberpunk roamed the earth and science fiction had some claim to being cool, remember.  And no amount of Postmodern irony could make accordions cool.

Weaving his way between tables, as if by Brownian motion, the musician grew closer and closer.  Everybody at my table got tenser and tenser.  At last, he arrived and asked if we had any requests.

"Yes, I do," I said.  I handed the man a twenty dollar bill and pointed to a table at the far end of the room, where Gardner Dozois was hobnobbing with the movers and shakers of the field.  "I want you to go over to my friend at that table and play Lady of Spain."

The rest of my lunch was spent very pleasantly, watching Gardner try to josh, flatter, and cajole the accordionist  into moving on somewhere else while the musician manfully and enthusiastically earned what was surely his best tip of the day.


Thursday, May 3, 2012

This Glitterati Life, Part 4,328


It was a Big Apple day yesterday.  Marianne and I drove to the city for a reception honoring Liz Hand's new book, Radiant Days.  So long as we we were there, we took in the MOMA retrospective of Cindy Sherman's photographs, which have significant relevance to a fantasy novel I'm working on.

Then we took a pedicab (my first such ride of the year and Marianne's second -- her first was in Peiking) uptown for the reception.  I'd list all the major writers who put in an appearance, but there were so many I'd be sure to miss some.  And writers are delicate creatures and easily offended.

Above is a snapshot taken during the reception showing (from left to right) Rick Bowes, Jack Womack, superstar editor Ellen Datlow and, back there in the shadows, me.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Higgs Boson (Sort Of) Explained


When I was young, I followed physics closely.  Even when it got extremely weird, I was there on the sidelines cheering it on.  But then by slow degrees it became unmoored from physical consequence.  Branes, dimensions folded in upon themselves, string theory -- famously derided as being "not even wrong" -- and the like were inherently neither provable nor falsifiable.  By their very nature, we were never going to know for sure.  So I let my level of interest downgrade to "casual."

The CERN Super Hadron Collider, however, is Old School in that it involves actual experimental data.  So I was happy to find a short animation explaining the Higgs boson in words so simple that I can follow them.

Mind you, this is not the Higgs boson as physicists themselves know it.  But it's nice to have a glimmer.

You can view the video here.

And as always . . .

I'm on the road again!  Just a day trip to NYC this time.  I'll let you know all about it tomorrow.


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Just Another . . .


Over on Locus Online, they've announced this year's inductees into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.  The 2012 honorees are Joe Haldeman, James Tiptree, Jr., James Cameron, and Virgil Finlay

When Gardner Dozois was inducted into the SFHofF a year or three ago, he came back to report that those entered into it had their names and images etched into a (ceramic or glass, I forget) brick, which was then literally placed into a wall.  "So, all in all," he said, "I'm just another brick in the wall."

Gardner is one of the wittiest guys in science fiction.  Joe is another.  When I was the emcee for the Nebula Awards last year, he presented the best novel award and murmured something to me on the way to the mic and something else on the way back, and cracked me up each time.  So I'm sorry I won't be present for this particular award ceremony.

Above:  Roses!  We have blossoms on the rosebush out front.  Spring is now in full bloom.