Saturday, June 30, 2012

Just For Happy


I think this video speaks for itself.  Have a great weekend.


Friday, June 29, 2012

The Other Supreme Court Decision


Brief post today.

While all America parses the Supreme Court's decision on the Affordable Care Act, I find myself moved by their other big decision:  that the Stolen Valor Act is unconstitutional because it's in violation of free speech.

Mind you, I despise the people that the Stolen Valor Act was designed to punish -- those who falsely claim to have won the highest honor awarded to the military, the Congressional Medal of Honor.  They are, let's not mince words, scum.  Often the despicable will benefit from a right which all the rest of us need.

Still, this is important decision.  Lies are now officially a form of free speech, protected by the Constitution.

Which means that my career is street legal!

Above:  An unrelated video.  Because the Supreme Court refuses to post amusing images to go with their decisions.


Thursday, June 28, 2012

An Empty House With Many Doors In Other Worlds Than These


My story, "An Empty House With Many Doors" has been reprinted in John Joseph Adams' new anthology of alternate universe stories, Other Worlds Than These.  To promote his volume, the editor asked contributors for brief interviews about their stories.  So I sent in a four-question interview, explaining that my piece is a love letter to my wife.

There are seventeen interviews and they're all posted here.  You can read my interview here.

And I went to a picnic yesterday . . .

The Bureau of Laboratories for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania held their annual picnic yesterday, and of course I went.  Thirty-five years ago, back when it was located in Landis Hospital in Philadelphia, I was their single most disgruntled clerk-typist.  That's where I met a rising young technocrat named Marianne Porter.  So every year I go back to see old friends.

One of whom asked me a few questions about my writing.  Did I know the author of the Harry Potter books? she asked.  Well, J.K. Rowling doesn't hang out with working writers much, since she became one of the richest women on the planet.  How about Danielle Steele?  Um... no.  "But I do know George Martin.  You know, The Game of Thrones?  On HBO?"

And it struck me then that it's only common sense to stay on good terms with friends who make it big.  Just so you'll have something to say when somebody asks, "Do you know...?


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Evgenie Kasimov Reads "Ghost City"


Last month, while I was in Ekaterinburg, I had the pleasure of meeting the poet Evgenie Kasimov.  Marianne and I spent an afternoon in his flat, talking about life and literature.  He also read one of his poems, titled either "Ghost City" or "Ghost Town," depending on how you translate it.

Above is Evgenie, reading the poem in Russian.  I have no Russian at all, but he is a great reader, one of the best I've heard, and something of the poem comes through.  When I told him how much I admire his reading, he recited from memory one of Mayakovsky's poems.  Mayakovsky was an admirable man and a tragic figure, killed by the very regime he believed in and supported.  Hearing Kasimov recite the poem made me aware of how much I miss out on being monolingual.

The video is made public by Evgenie Kasimov's express permission.  Here's a translation of the poem, courtesy of the multi-brilliant Eileen Gunn:

from the series “Ghost Town”

Silver smog! I sing this soot and emerald smoke!
Pearl-grey mist and the carcasses of trees.
A lonely  skyscraper stands, like the king of clubs,
A dull fish speared on a silver trident.

Madly, bravely, I sing the municipal granite!
And at the same time I sing that clear, affectionate word, “Ovsyen."
George, with a golden spear,  defeats a crooked snake .
Bitter air collects on the mountains, and then vanishes.
And now into the fray rushes Superman in faded tights --
In an invisible flying lounge-chair pestering the sky.
I sing the oily blue waves of the Iset River!
Their heavy, iridescent light quietly gladdens my soul.

A malachite, jasper city in a magical benzene ring!
We are all pale children of the dragon, sleeping in dark sheds.
Through the asphalt and concrete drives a thin falsetto.
Rubies light up the TV tower. And, in the sky, it’s warm.

September 11, 2005
Evgeny Kasimov

Extra points to those who can spot the line that made him think I'd like to hear this poem in particular.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Prince Is Dead


Prince Robin Ian Evelyn Milne Stuart de La Lanne Mirrlees died last Saturday at the age of 87, and while I cannot say the news comes as a surprise -- his health had been failing for some time -- I am tremendously saddened by it.

Robin lived a rich and varied life.  He served in the Royal Artillery in India during World War Two, rising to the rank of captain, and was later the Rouge Dragon Pursuivant at the College of Arms and as such attended the queen at her coronation.  He was a horseman and fox-hunter.  He restored a stone circle and a castle.  He bought a group of islands in the Outer Hebrides, making him the Laird of Bernara.   Ian Fleming had James Bond use Robin's C of A position as a cover in one novel, and the related correspondence between the two men was published in an edition of six copies, making it one of the rarest items of Bondabilia in existence.  He was also, as the Telegraph put it, "a well-known debs' delight."  He fathered a son out of wedlock with Duchess Margarethe of Wurttemberg, and was known for the many glamorous woman he squired about.  In 2003, feuding with Prince Charles, he assumed the title of Prince of Coronata (prior to this he used the title of Count) given to him by the King of Yugoslavia, to prove that there was nothing special about being a prince.  He was a devout Buddhist.

His aunt was the great fantasist Hope Mirrlees.

It was in the last capacity that I made his acquaintance.  When I was working on Hope-in-the-Mist: the Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Career of Hope Mirrlees, I wrote asking for information about his aunt and Robin called me from Great Bernara to talk about her for well over an hour.  Though we never met fact to face, we exchanged dozens of letters.  One of them, committing memories of Hope Mirrlees to paper, I obtained his permission to have published in the New York Review of Science Fiction as "My Aunt, Hope Mirrlees."

Robin was just a bit of a flake.  He urged me to rewrite Lud-in-the-Mist as a musical, a la Cats.  He send me a photograph of his mother, taken by Man Ray, with a note to please return it when I was done looking at it.  He despised Bertrand Russell but emphatically stated that "Tom Eliot was a true gentleman -- in every sense of the word!"  He had tremendous enthusiasm for all things he deemed meritorious.

He accomplished a great deal in his life, and he had a lot of fun as well.

And he's almost certainly the highest-ranking noble ever to be published in NYRSF.

You can read about him here.  Or here.

And I have a family story Robin once told me . . .

Robin Mirrlees' mother, Hope's sister-in-law Frances de La Lanne Mirrlees, was a strikingly beautiful and of course aristocratic woman.  One of her many friends was Ian Fleming.  Who one day told her that he was writing a novel.

"Oh, Ian," she said.  "Don't write a novel.  You haven't the brains for it."


Monday, June 25, 2012

Of a Downpour and a Spectacled Owl


This is how pleasantly odd my life is.

Friday, Marianne and I went into Center City to hear a presentation by our friend, photographer Kyle Cassidy, and just as we stepped out of the parking garage were caught by a sudden torrential downpour.  So we ducked into the nearest doorway, which happened to be that of the Pen & Pencil Club.

Where a batch of our friends happened to be sitting around a table.

So we sat down and ordered drinks.

And it turned out that the club had been taken over for a private party honoring Stu Bykofsky, a Philadelphia Daily News columnist for 35 years and newspaperman there for I think it was five years previously but I could well be wrong. Which means that ordinarily we would have been kicked out, but since we were regulars and well-behaved, Danny the Bartender told us to stay.

So when the testimonials and speechifying began, we were caught in the middle of the bar with no way to slip out without it looking like we were dissing the guest of honor right in the middle of his own self-hosted roast.

Which is how we missed out on the event we'd come downtown to see.  My apologies, Kyle.

But it was extremely cool to be hobnobbing with people who had devoted their lives to reportage.  Foul-mouthed though one or two of them were.

Also, the party had an owl!  From the zoo!  That's it up above, a spectacled owl from the jungles of South America.  Beautiful bird.  It was a pleasure to make his acquaintance.

Above:  I went to Bykofsky's party and took a picture of an owl instead of him.  This says something about my priorities.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

"Talking To Strangers Is Forbidden"


Even the city government of Moscow agrees this is a good hack.

Pictured above is a prank street sign showing profiles of Woland, Koroviev, and Behemoth from Mikhail Bulgakov's masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, and the slogan Talking to Stranger is Forbidden.  This was surreptitiously erected next to Patriarch's Ponds, the park where the novel begins.

Moscow being one of the great literary cities of the world, the sign is being allowed to stay.

You can read about it here.

I feel rather moved by this because when Marianne and I went to Moscow a couple of years ago to research Dancing With Bears, Patriarch's Ponds was the second place (after Red Square) we went to see.  After we found the park bench where the action begins and the corner where the old woman spills the sunflower oil, we walked back to our flat on the Garden Ring by a roundabout way -- and came upon Beria's mansion.

The whole time Bulgakov was writing his novel about the Devil wandering about Moscow, he was living only a few blocks from Beria.

Now they're both dead and only one of them has flowers on his grave.  May all such stories end as well.

Above:  If you haven't read The Master and Margarita yet, allow me to point out that Behemoth is a cat who wears a bow tie and carries a Browning automatic.  'Nuff said.


Friday, June 22, 2012

The Happy Show


I went to the Institute of Contemporary Art here in Philadelphia recently to see what was showing.  And so I caught Stefan Sagmeister's The Happy Show.

I'm hoping to get some work done today, so I won't go into detail.  But the exhibition title tells the truth.  Sagmeister has created a number of contemporary art pieces which are all about happiness -- ways to become happy, and things that will make you happy.  One of which is video'd above:  A stationary bicycle hooked up to an inspirational message.

The messages are pretty much the sort of thing people post on Facebook when they're trying to cheer themselves up.  But the art is genuinely witty.  I had fun with it.

The Happy Show runs through August 12.  You can read about it here.

And speaking of science . . .

Have you heard of Cambridge's E.chromi project?  No?  Probably that's because it involves human feces.  But it's a pretty cool hack.  Bioengineered bacteria in the presence of specific diseases produce bright color dies, so that diagnosis can be performed by a quick visual of the patient's stool

You can read about it (and see their nifth sample case) here.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

In Which I Bask in Unearned Reflected Glory


When I was young and mad for fiction and spent half my free time in libraries, it never occurred to me to remember exactly who had written the books I loved. It was only much later that I realized that (smek!) I could have used this information to find more good books.   Similarly, as an adult it has taken me decades of being published to realize that I really should bother to remember the names of the people who make my work look good.

So I'm taking a big chance here by drawing attention to artists who have illustrated things I've written.  It's quite possible I've overlooked people to whom I owe a lot simply because I never bothered to register their names.  And if so, I apologize.

Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel an undeserved pleasure at the fact that at least four people who have illustrated my work are currently up for Chesley Awards.

They are:

Omar Rayyan, who did the cover for Being Gardner Dozois, and is up for Best Color Work:  Unpublished.

Stephan Martiniere, who did the cover for The Dragons of Babel, and is up for Best Cover Illustration: Hardback.

Lee Moyer, who did the covers for A Geography of Unknown Lands and The Best of Michael Swanwick and is up for Best Cover Illustration: Magazine, Best Cover Illustration: Hardback, and Best Product Illustration.

and Julie Dillon, who is up for for Best Interior Illustration for the above artwork illustrating my own story, "The Dala Horse."  

My congratulations to all the nominees, but particularly those listed above.  I hope you felt my work was worthy of your efforts.  Please don't tell me if you didn't.

You can read the entire slate (and click through to see each category's works) here.

And a bit that may or may not make it into the second Darger & Surplus novel . . .

"Murder is the last act a gentleman should commit," Surplus said.  "But you'll note that it is on the list."

Above;  Dillon's illo for "The Dala Horse."  Those who have been following this blog may remember how happy I was when I first saw it.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Introducing Pavel Amnuel


While I was in Ekaterinburg, I met Pavel Amnuel, a distinguished Russian-language science fiction writer and winner of the 2012 Aelita Award.  Amneuel published his first story in 1959, has written a great many books, and has had almost nothing published in English.  So I asked him to give a short synopsis of his career.

The translator is a young writer named Kiril Azernyi, and a couple of additional questions are asked by Marianne Porter.

While I have to apologize for the quality of sound of this clip, I'm tremendously pleased that Marianne and I did this.  It's embarrassing how little Americans know about Russian SF.  At least we've done our small bit to rectify this situation.

I have two or three more clips of other writers I met at the Aelita Science Fiction Conference, and I'll be running them as a sort of mini-series over the next several Wednesdays.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Curiosity


This is strange and intriguing.  Swedish artist Anders Ramsell has released an animated film in which he renders the first roughly twelve minutes of Blade Runner in 3,285  aquarelles.  (An aquarelle -- I looked it up -- is a transparent watercolor drawing.)  Which is such an extraordinary amount of work that I'm tempted to give him a pass on the whole copyright thing.  This is not the same as downloading a dozen pirated episodes of Speed Racer and then cutting the race scenes to a pirated copy of Highway to the Danger Zone.  This is a genuine, if quixotic, accomplishment.

Mind you, by any rational reading of the copyright laws, Ramsell is screwed.  He's using the movie's soundtrack, its script, and its visual direction.  Plus, he's not paying for the source material, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  All of which are worth serious money, as witness the amount of it that was spent making the movie.

Anders Ramsell plans to render the entire movie in this form, which would be a product valuable enough to make it worth the movie's owner suing the heck out of him

But what a weird and wonderful thing for him to do.  Oh, brave new world that has such lawsuits in it.!


Monday, June 18, 2012

Short Fiction Review: "Weep for Day" by Indrapramit Das


"So it begins," as the narrator says late in this story.  Indrapramit Das is a new writer, with a couple of stories under his belt in relatively minor venues.  "Weep for Day," in the August 2012 Asimov's, is a big step forward in visibility for him.  Here's the first paragraph:

I was eight years old the first time I saw a real, living Nightmare.  My parents took my brother and me on a trip from the City-of-Long-Shadows to the hills at Evening's edge, where one of my father's clients had a manse.  Father was a railroad contractor.  He hired out labor and resources to the privateers extending the frontiers of civilization toward the frozen wilderness of the dark Behind-the-Sun.  Aptly, we took a train up to the foothills of the great Penumbral Mountains.

This is as deft a job of world-creation as I've seen since I don't know when.  A reader moderately familiar with the conventions of science fiction will immediately grasp that this is a tidally-locked world with a permanent dayside and a nightside of eternal darkness -- and see, too, that the times are in rapid technological flux.  A newcomer will have all this spelled out over the course of the story in a way that does not condescend.  Das knows his craft.

The plot is simple and almost beside the point.  In her youth, the narrator travels with her family to see the Nightmare, a member of a species so fearful that bad dreams are named after them.  When young, her father was a knight-errant who had actually slain Nightmares.  The narrator's brother, Velag, yearns to be a knight like him.  But times are changing and by the time he's old enough to do so, the honor is almost always presented posthumously.

The ensuing plot twists will surprise no experienced reader.  But "Weep for Day" is a mood- rather than plot-driven story, so this hardly matters.  Indeed, at one key point Das writes "I was seventeen the last time I saw Velag," in order to drain all melodrama what follows.  The characters we meet over the course of the story are not actually crucial to the changes their world is undergoing.  What matters here is that the world is changing and they are typical of their society in their responses to it.

A word about the actual writing itself.  "Weep for Day" is a young man's story, skipping back and forth in time, taking ideas the author has obvious put a great deal of work into and treating them as casual throwaways, at times skimming over very thin ice indeed but never quite cracking it.  This is, in a young man, good.  The prose reminded me of early Zelazny.  It has touches of Gene Wolfe and Mary Gentle and other writers to it as well.  Mostly, however, it sounds like Indrapramit Das.

This is an excellent beginning and I, for one, will be watching for more stories by this guy. 

I expect good things from him.


Friday, June 15, 2012

My Bad!


Okay, technically I've managed to post today.  But technically is not how I roll.  I got caught up in the novel I was working on today and neglected to make a Friday post and for this I apologize.

But as long as I'm here, I'll pose a question.  I plan to do a series of  original short videos, one a week, each one brief -- maybe one to three minutes.  In my judgment (but yours may differ), they should turn out to be the best item of the week.

So.  What day should they be on -- Monday, Wednesday, or Friday?  Assuming they are, as I hope they will be, something to look forward to, when would you most enjoy seeing them?

 Above:  The Savoy Company, 111 years old this year, performing music from The Mikado in Gorgas Park yesterday.  Gorgas Park is only two blocks from my front door.  The performance was free.  Yet another reason I live in the city.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Little Less Space on the Wall . . .


In interviews sometimes  I'm asked if I have any hobbies.  "Yes, writing," I'll say.  At which point, bang, the interviewer writes me off as a smart-aleck.  But it's true.  I write stories which I intend to sell as my business and for relaxation, stories I have no intention of selling.

Cases in point:  Saturday, I went to an art sale and picked up two pieces:  A postcard-sized watercolor for ten dollars, and the above framed print of an out-of-copyright image printed onto a page harvested from an old  dictionary for twenty.  Over the weekend I wrote a piece of flash fiction, "The North Wind Speaks," to go with the watercolor and then pasted them both into the current instance of the Scribbledehobbledehoydenii, my  notebooks.  Then yesterday I wrote "This Is My Body," and (disassembling the framed print, wrote it on the front pane of glass with a diamond-tipped pen.  Today I rubbed red paint in the glass to make the writing stand out, and reassembled the print.

There it is up above, displayed in my garden.

You'll notice that the writing is extremely difficult to read.  I haven't decided yet whether to (a) get a new pane of glass cut and do the story over again, this time with ink designed to be baked onto the glass in the oven, (b) print out the story in very small lettering and paste it to the back of the print, or (c) leave it as it is.

In the meantime, it goes up on the wall of my office, along with other stories you'll have to drop by someday if you want to read.

And originally...

The first draft was titled "Hic Est Meum Corpus," but I changed it to avoid blasphemy.  Which just goes to show you how age mellows us all.  Forty years ago, I would have altered the story to insert blasphemy.

Above:  I'm sorry I can't show you "The North Wind Speaks," but it's a freshly minted image and thus under the artist's copyright.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Jim Young, R.I.P.


A good friend died yesterday.  I can't say that I knew Jim Young as well as I would have liked.  We ran across each other only once or twice or thrice  a year.  But I enjoyed the hell out our time together when we did.

All careers in science fiction are strange careers.  But Jim's was stranger than most.  He came into SF from the State Department, where he was in the diplomatic corps.  His proudest brag was that, in a classified paper, he had been the only one to call the collapse of the Soviet Union.  His highest post was being responsible for three "sandboxes in North Africa," as he called them.  His remit, he told me, was to keep the sandboxes' inhabitants from killing each other for no reason at all.

When George W. Bush came into office, Jim quit the corps.  "I can't work under Condoleezza Rice," he said, and I doubt that the rest of that administration would have made him happy either.  At that time, he was writing well-received science fiction stories, and two novels, The Face of the Deep, which I never saw (it was published long before I met him)  and Armed Memory

I liked the stories and Armed Memory quite a lot.  It was one of the first post-cyberpunk novels to successfully move beyond cyberpunk.  In it, people could be genetically modified to make themselves half-human and half-shark (or combinations of other animals) in a future so desperate that doing so seems like a good idea.  Here's what Publishers Weekly had to say about it:

Young's writing creates a strong sense of excitement, his future world is familiar enough to be appealing (and distorted enough to be hip) and the mysteries he explores are intense and compelling.

Armed Memory was an extremely promising beginning.  If Jim had stuck with SF and put his all into it, he might well have been as good as any of my peers -- and my peers include James Patrick Kelly, William Gibson, Nancy Kress, Kim Stanley Robinson, and brand-new Grand Master Connie Willis.

He didn't, however.  Just as he was starting to get somewhere as a writer, Jim decided the time had come to follow his dreams... and went off to Hollywood to act.  He didn't give up entirely on his fiction -- I'm told that there are two more novels in the pipeline -- but it was throttled way back.  His best energies were focused on becoming a star.

Spoiler Alert:  Jim didn't become a star.  And now he's dead, struck down by brain cancer.  An ironic end for a man who was so effortlessly smart.

But death comes like the finger of God to draw a line below your life and tot up the sums.  All the zeroes fall off.  And when the end result is looked at, Jim chose wisely.  He could have settled for a good-enough life in the State Department or a distinguished-enough career in science fiction.  Instead, he followed his dreams.  In this, I believe, he was wise.

Vaya con Dios, amigo.  May what you find exceed your dreams.

Above:  Jim's publicity shot.  He was much more handsome in person.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Mordor Recruitment Video


I confess to finding this funny.

More substantive posts soon, I promise.


Monday, June 11, 2012

She's Cute, But . . .


It didn't help that I'd been reading Gore Vidal just before I saw the above video on  But even if I hadn't, I'd have had my doubts.  The piece is too clearly a commercial.  The people who put it together have identified a suite of things we'd like to believe and are busily selling it to us.

The background is simple.  Young Aelita began painting at the age of 9 months and started showing her art at age 2.  She has solo gallery shows.  Her art looks like a prettier version of Jackson Pollock.  It sells for pretty big bucks.  And the phenomenon has invited a raftload of uncritical media coverage.

Why not?  The story has everything:  A Magical Child.  The notion that creativity is not only inherent but fun.  The valorization of the intuitive over the intellectual.  The suggestion that if you or  I could only let go of our stuffy accretion of adultness, we could do this ourselves.

I saw a grumpy aside in an article in an art magazine that on one of the films young Aelita appears in, her father can be heard giving her directions.  Which, supposedly, caused a major reevaluation  of the work downward in the art world.  But this fact, if fact it is, seems not to have changed the coverage.

Me, I think she's a cute kid who's having fun.  I like children's art, though I prefer it representational and, if at all possible, involving monsters or castles or things normally seen only in dreams.  But this is nice too.  I wish I'd thought to buy some cheap canvases and let the kid fling paint on them when he was little.  He would have gotten a kick out of it.

Still . . . serious art?  Not when the suggestion that an adult might be involved invalidates it.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Another Philadelphia Friday

So yesterday Marianne and I went to The Secret Garden to buy some plants for the backyard...

And went downtown to the Kimmel Center, where we had a couple of drinks...

While listening to a free presentation by the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra (shown below, setting up)...

After which, it was off to the Pen & Pencil Club for dinner and chitchat with friends.

This is why I live in the city.


Friday, June 8, 2012

If You Give a Robot a Gun . . .


People who download books illegally hate it when I point out that they're functional Communists -- and lazy, unthinking Communists at that, because the system doesn't work if you don't have a Communist society in place.  Achieving which, history has shown, is a prolonged, messy process involving many, many corpses.  They want to bypass all that and get right to the Getting Stuff For Free part.

The self-righteousness these Commies display, however, does prove one thing:  Given the opportunity to steal with impunity, a great number of people will spontaneously generate justifications for doing so.

So I view the fact that we're getting very close to having  affordable, general-purpose humanoid robots with mixed feelings.  Because they won't just be able to wash dishes, vacuum rugs, and mow the lawn for you.  Give one of them a gun and send it out into the night and it can stick up gas stations and relieve pedestrians of their watches and wallets.

The first time this happens, it's going to be a major news event.  The next few hundred are going to be a crime wave.  By the time it's the standard strategy for every teenager who thinks that he or she deserves a bigger allowance, it's going to be business as usual.  When it's so common that the police stop responding to calls, armed robbery will be legalized.

Because money wants to be free.  It's only fair.  If this were a Libertarian (or Communist or Insert Your Favorite Ideology Here) society, I wouldn't need to do this.  So, really, you brought this on yourself.

 Above:  A Terminator with a gun.  Not that it needs one. 


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Raise a Glass of Dandelion Wine . . .


I was quoted in today's front-page Philadelphia Inquirer article marking the death of Ray Bradbury, and thankfully though my comments did not rise to the soaring heights that the best tributes reached, neither did I say anything stupid.  Nor did anyone else, though the bracketed insertion into one of the observations that Darrell Schweitzer made ("showing by example that it was not merely OK but a superior means of storytelling for the [science-fantasy] writer to get in touch with genuine feelings") showed that the newspaper writer entirely missed what Darrell was saying.

No, not just for the science-fantasy writer.  For any writer.

Bradbury was unique in that his fame transcended genre while he remained adamantly within that genre.  Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke became world-famous -- but as genre writers.  Vonnegut became world-famous -- but only by denying that he was a science fiction writer.  Bradbury was acknowledged to be a major American writer -- no genre qualifiers -- while never denying that what he wrote was (for the most part; and definitely for the better parts) science fantasy and horror.

Good on you, Ray.  Wherever the barque of your fate takes you now, may the wind be at your back and water foaming white to either side.

You can read the Inquirer article here.

And other tributes to Bradbury pretty much everywhere.


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

From Science Fiction & Fantasy to Fiction & Literature


I was in a bookstore today and after checking out the SF&F section to see if there was anything new I needed, cruised the Fiction & Literature section.  Kurt Vonegut's Cat's Cradle caught my eye because it's a science fiction novel that's routinely shelved as literature.  So I did a quick scan of the shelves to see what other undeniably genre books were there.  Not a careful one, mind.  I'm sure I missed a lot.  Here's what I did note, however:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
Dracula by Bram Stoker
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Anthem by Ayn Rand
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon
Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
The Collected Stories of Edgar Allan Poe
and three shelves of Stephen King's works.

To say nothing of books you might well quibble about on various grounds, such as Gulliver's Travels, The Inferno, Alice In Wonderland, and Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club.

The thing is that while all these books are undeniably genre, it does not surprise anybody to see them shelved in Fiction & Literature.  Because they're all three:  Fiction, Literature, and either Science Fiction or Fantasy, depending.

Which led me to muse upon Vonnegut's famous apostasy, when he denied writing science fiction in order to be accepted by what we rather quaintly like to refer to as "the mainstream."  He left a lot of hurt feelings in his wake.  But his work was always headed for a place on the Literature & Fiction shelves, the same way that Philip K. Dick's and H.P. Lovecraft's works are headed there today.  I think he just wanted to see it happen while he was still alive.

Above:  Half a face from a children's ride in the Ekaterinburg city zoo.  Not terribly relevant to the conversation, admittedly.  But I'm feeling whimsical today.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Engels Park


During the Cold War, here in America, everything the Soviets did was inferior and wrong.  When they managed to do something that was undeniably better than what we had -- the Moscow Metro stations, for example -- they did it for the wrong reasons.  As propaganda, usually.

I am not about to deny the horrors of the Soviet Union.  The millions of deaths from forced collectivism, government-caused famine, and the Terror were very real.  Still . . . everything?  Without exception?

One morning in Ekaterinburg, I went for a walk and come upon Engels Park.  It was sad and wonderful, the ruins of a place that had been lovingly created to give children a playground worthy of their imaginations. 

The centerpiece of this was a locomotive.  A real one, not mock, which had been made safe for children and then painted bright colors.  There was also a brick spiral with window-crenelations which could be used as a fort or a house, a ramp which I'm guessing was for winter sledding, some standard playground equipment, a railroad car separate from the locomotive, a cluster of brick castle-towers that looked like chess pieces, and much else as well.

In the wake of Perestroika, everything fell apart, including Engels Park, most of which was defaced by vandalism and graffiti. During Soviet Times, everybody celebrated Lenin's birthday by "voluntarily" beautifying public spaces.  "It was exactly like a day of work," one woman old me, "only without pay."  Now that Russia is capitalist, volunteerism seems to be as much a discredited relic of the past as Communism itself.  Nobody plays Ivanhoe in the towers because they're filled with rubble and liquor bottles.  Half the playground equipment is broken.

But I believe that someday Engels Park will make a comeback.  In my own Philadelphia neighborhood, Gorgas Park was sad and rundown when I moved here, thirty-some years ago and today it's something to be proud of.  Engels Park is a small gem -- it just needs some polishing.  Which, as Ekaterinburg continues to grow more prosperous, it will eventually get.  After all, somebody is keeping that locomotive painted.

And even in Cold War times it was generally acknowledged -- grudgingly, perhaps -- that the Russians were pretty good to their children.

Above:  I could have taken a lot more pictures of broken things, but my heart wasn't in it.


Monday, June 4, 2012

Pity The Poor Robot


It's always sad to encounter a destitute robot.  Here's one I saw begging for rubles on the streets of Ekaterinburg.

And speaking of what I'm writing these days . . .

One of the many ways you can divide stories is into those that require some analytic thought on the part of the readers if they want to fully understand them and those whose intentions should be lucidly spelled out so that nobody could possibly miss them.  A good example of the former would be Gene Wolfe's "Fifth Head of Cerberus," which can be reread many times without exhausting its riches.  For the latter . . .  One of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries, say.  Or pretty much anything by P.G. Wodehouse.

Neither mode is the "right" way to write, of course.  Or the right thing to read.  Sometimes you're in the mood for something difficult and involving.  Other times you want something that goes down easy.  Always, you want the story to be good of its kind.

I've been thinking about this particular dichotomy because I've recently finished one of each type of story and for one of them the editor (after indicating he would buy it) had a couple of questions about the plot.  Had it been the for-lack-of-a-better-word art story, I probably would have gone with what I'd written.  But the story in question being a for-lack-of-a-better-word entertainment, I'm going to have to spend a few hours today revising it to make sure that there's no possible room for misinterpretation.

And I conclude . . .

If there's one thing both types of story have in common -- other than that they should be written as well as possible -- it's this:  When the final draft is finished, it's important to read the whole thing through out loud.  It's astonishing how every mistake and infelicity of language pops out at you when you do.


Saturday, June 2, 2012

Lenin Gambles With History


One of the astonishing things about contemporary Russia is how thoroughly its public spaces have been colonized by advertising.  Which leads to some odd juxtapositions.  Such as the photo above of the statue of Lenin in 1905 Square, Ekaterinburg, taking a chance on our brave new world.


Friday, June 1, 2012

Home Again


If writers have one character flaw (and most people agree that this is understating the case), it is that we have a weakness for the picturesque.  Which, at its worst, can make us unintentionally condescending -- "Look at the quaint Wisconsonite, with his wheel of cheese!"  So I was careful not to snap pix of the street-sweepers in Ekaterinburg, even though some of them had a distinctly raffish air about them.

But I could not resist taking the above shot because it was as good as an essay on how technology gets absorbed into a culture at different rates.  A besom and a cell phone!  Nobody called this one.

And I am back home again . . .

It's a long trek, five-twelfths of the way around the globe.  But Marianne and I made it in twenty-two hours, which is not bad time at all.  It's wearying, though.  So I'm going to spend the day lazing about, going through the mail, paying bills, and the like.  My apologies for blogging so briefly.  I'll be back in form on Monday.